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December 1, 2004
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*Picture by Rosanne Pennella
Bula! From that hello you know I’m back in Fiji. Yeah, baby -- how lucky am I?! This is my second visit this year (see Archive for stories from the last trip), and never in my wildest imagination did I think I’d be back so soon. This time I’m on a press trip with nine other journalists from all over the world. Our organizations range from the BBC to Heartland Healing Magazine. We’re here for a sustainable development tour of several islands, and to be a part of the first South Pacific World Music Festival. I’ll tell you more about that later. For now, just sit back and relax. I’ll take you on a tour of Fiji you don’t want to miss!

What’s crazy is that just a couple of days before departure – when I returned home after my circle tour of North America (Minneapolis, Chicago, Toronto, Atlanta, Florida and Memphis) -- getting back on a plane was the furthest thing from my mind. I just wanted to stay home and sleep in my own bed. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and now that I’m here I don’t want to go home. This place is complete paradise -- and besides, these hotel beds are more comfortable than mine.

I arrived at LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal at 8:45 p.m., and as usual it was a zoo. Luckily for me Air Pacific had a short line, and a really friendly agent who made the checking-in process painless. However, getting my checked bag screened by the TSA was a whole other story. That line was wrapped around the corner, and moved s-l-o-w-l-y. If you’re traveling through the international terminal and checking bags, you better show up at least two and half hours before your flight.

Air Pacific flight 811 was departing at 10:30 p.m., and as usual I was one of the last people on the plane. We flew on my favorite type of aircraft: a 747-400 series, which is one of those double-decker jumbo birds. Our group was spread out, but we were all upstairs. By the time I made it there all of my colleagues were in the aisle chatting together. As I walked to seat 16D (the second row from the cockpit) I met the gang. I knew instantly that the trip was going to be a lot of fun, because almost all of them seemed very cool.

The trip was set up by the Fiji Tourism Board and Lori Hall, the founder of CSM Communications -- a very successful production company. Lori is a real character. She’s been everywhere and knows everyone in the travel and entertainment industry. Our group leader, Bruce Northam from AmericanDetour.com, has written a bunch of books (so have most of the others on this trip). The journalists he put together are an incredible group of travelers. There aren’t too many places in the world at least one of us hasn’t been -- and I’m talking from the North Pole to Antarctica. The other journalists from left to right in this picture are: Brad Olsen, yours truly, Roy Wallack, Carla King, Bruce Northam, Renata Rosso, Tim Neville, Lisa Alpine and Aiden FitzGerald. The official photographer is Rosanne Pennella.

Upstairs on Air Pacific is economy class, with seats configured 3 by 3. What’s nice about upstairs is that there are only 13 rows and 69 seats. That means fewer people, and a good chance for peace and quiet. What was especially pleasant is that the plane was only 60% full and almost all of us scored a whole row each. That makes flying in coach a pleasure!

After takeoff I had dinner, then rounded up a bunch of pillows and blankets and lay down like everyone else. The 10-hour, 5,520 mile flight across the Pacific was smooth and quite enjoyable. I didn’t even need to wear my eye mask, because no one had his overhead light on. Before I closed my eyes I just lay there with my head near the window, and marveled at the tons of shimmering stars in the dark sky. It was surreal. I woke only a couple times to use the restroom, drink some water, walk around (to prevent DVT ) and admire the sky.

Just before landing we were served a hot breakfast. I rapped with Bruce and Rosanne. We talked about our recent trips, and I learned that Rosanne was the photographer for "Peru: The Royal Tour," which just appeared on The Travel Channel. What’s funny is that Peter Greenberg is the host of the show, and just a few hours earlier I had been at Peter’s house for a screening of that very show. Small world, huh?

We landed in Nadi (pronounced Nandi), Fiji at 5 a.m. local time . It was actually two days later, because we crossed the International Date Line. That’s always a trip (no pun intended). The time change is 20 hours ahead of L.A., but I like to think of it as four hours behind plus a day (that makes it easier to calculate, but not write about).

Fiji (see map ) is made up of 330 islands (333 at low tide), but only two-thirds are inhabited. Nadi is on the main and largest island, called Viti Levu. Suva, the capital of Fiji, is also on Viti Levu, but on the other side (four hours by car). The population of Fiji is 868,531, of whom 51 percent are indigenous Fijians, 44 percent Indo-Fijians. The Indians first arrived in 1879, as indentured servants. That was five years after Fiji was proclaimed a possession and dependency of the British Crown (in 1970 Fiji became an independent country). Indentured labor ended in 1919, but most of the workers loved the land so much they stayed. I can’t say that I blame them.

The Indo-Fijians live in settlements, while most Fijians live in villages. Almost everyone in the village is related, and the chief is treated like a chief should be (no one ever turns his back to him, his food is brought to him…).

Walking to Customs, we were all greeted by a traditional Fijian string band. That made the extremely long line easier to tolerate. However, it would be nicer if the airport had a few more agents to speed up passport control. Two are not enough, and no one likes to stand in line for 30 minutes after a red-eye.

After grabbing my bag I walked a few feet to the ATM machine to get Fijian dollars. They currently trade at 1 USD = 1.64 FJD. That makes everything in Fiji 40 percent off to Americans—now that’s a bargain!

The next stop before leaving the airport was the Vodaphone store to pick up a rental SIM card for my GSM phone. I got my phone from Cellular Abroad. Now whenever I go to a different country I just call Cellular Abroad and order a local SIM card, which gives me a local number and talk time. What makes GSM phones superior to T-Mobile and Cingular (US cell phone providers with GSM capabilities) is that having a local SIM card makes calling out much cheaper. You get a local number (so locals don’t need to call the States to reach you), and every phone call received is free -- regardless where it comes from. The problem with Fiji is that it is a developing country, and cell service is expensive no matter who your phone provider is. A one-minute call from to the States is $5.64 FJ ($3.44 USD). However, calling from Australia (for example) to the States is only US $.58 a minute, while US providers charge US $1.99 a minute. To get a pre-arranged Fiji rental SIM card (cheaper than buying one), email Vodaphone Fiji (fiji@vodarent.com). The normal rate is 2 FJD a day, but if you tell them "Johnny Jet sent me," you’ll get the VIP rate of $.89 FJD a day.

Fiji is one of the friendliest places on earth. Ask anyone who’s been there what they liked best, and they’ll say the people. Everyone greets each other with a huge smile and a loud "Bula!" (pronounced Booola). The second most popular word in the Fijian vocabulary is "Vinaka." It has many meanings, but most often means "thank you."

Okay -- the beautiful weather, white sandy beaches, some of the best diving and snorkeling in the world, and the safest tropical land on the planet doesn’t hurt either. Most dangerous animals, poisonous snakes, spiders and diseases such as malaria are unknown in Fiji. The only poisonous predators I heard about are lion fish, banded sea snakes and a bull frog. The only one I worried about was the snake. They freak me out, but I was assured the snake’s mouth is too small for it to bite, and that kids even play with them. But you still won’t catch me flinging them around.

We were greeted in the airport by Lori, who escorted us by van to the Tanoa Airport Hotel (five minutes away). We had an hour to freshen up before breakfast and our marathon of a day (most of our group took showers, swam or worked out). The Tanoa is a great layover hotel, but you probably don’t want to stay there for more than one night since there is no beach and it is in Nadi which is not a very nice part of Fiji. In fact, many people just get a day room, because flights back to the U.S. leave late at night, and most visitors to Fiji get off the main island when they arrive. That’s a good idea, because the outer islands have the best beaches, nicest people, and closest feel to the old days of the South Pacific. Tanoa International Hotel, PO Box 9203, Nadi Airport, FIJI. Tel: (679) 672-2313. Rates range from $92-$410.

I was bummed to learn that everyone in our group would share a room (on most nights) with another journalist. Before Bruce and Lori handed out the room assignments I was thinking, "Please give me anyone but Roy" -- he seemed to be uptight. Of course, I got Roy. But having him as a roommate reminded me I should never judge a book by its cover. We got along great. He’s not uptight -- just intense, and in his own world. When it comes to fitness and adventure travel writing Roy is the man. He knows everything, and writes for several publications -- including Men's Journal and Playboy.

After a tasty breakfast we drove to Port Denarau, which is where all cruises and transfers to the Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands leave from. We were headed to the Mamanuca islands, which have the best weather in Fiji (they get the least amount of rain). We hired a water taxi, and cruised 30 minutes to Tavarua Island . The weather was indeed beautiful, and the water was several shades of blue. It looked so inviting, but we didn’t make it to land just yet. A hundred yards from the island of Tavarua we were greeted by a smaller open air boat with a driver, the owner of the resort (John Roseman), and the chief of the Momi Village (named Druko). Druko’s village has the rights to Tavarua, but that’s a long story. Most of the land is owned by Fijians, except on the North island of Vanau Levu (where we visit next week).

Instead of going right to Tavarua for a much-desired swim (the water was so clear it looked like a gigantic aquarium, with the most beautiful fish and coral reefs), we went another 20 minutes in the hot sun to a more remote section of the mainland of Viti Levu. We were off to visit the chief’s village. This was a huge privilege, even though at 10 a.m. and dripping with sweat from the high temperature it didn’t feel like it -- at first.

On our first (of many) village visits we made a few mistakes like having our knees exposed and resting our sunglasses on top of our heads (You can see them for yourselves in these pictures). According to traditional customs for village visits: Guests should be invited and bring a gift of kava to the Chief (more on kava later). Wearing shorts, hats and shoes (inside a room) is a big no-no. Women should also keep their shoulders covered. It is also important to speak softly, show respect, and never touch someone’s head. The most famous failure occurred in 1867, when Reverend Thomas Baker ended up as a meal after a tribal chief borrowed Baker’s comb and Baker snatched it out of the chief’s hair. The villagers were so upset they even tried to eat his shoes. But rubber soles don’t cook well, and they are now on exhibit at the Fiji Museum in Suva.

To get to the village we traveled up a long river lined with mangrove trees and low branches. We had to keep dodging out of the way so we didn’t get knocked in the head. It was an amazing experience to visit Druko’s village of 300 people. Everyone was so nice, and loved to have their pictures taken. John Roseman is a hero to these people. With his deep pockets he helps the Momi villagers keep their native traditions alive, by building new buildings and funding school supplies. They love him so much that there are buildings dedicated to him, songs written about him – he even has a kid named after him.

The highlight of our visit was attending a yaqona (Kava) ceremony where we presented the chief with Waka (dried root of the pepper plant). This can be bought practically anywhere. "Yaqona (kava) [is] a tranquilizing, nonalcoholic drink that numbs the tongue and lips. This ceremonial preparation is the most honored feature of the formal life of Fijians, Tongans, and Samoans. It is performed with the utmost gravity according to a sacramental ritual to mark births, marriages, deaths, official visits, the installation of a new chief, etc." Source: Moon Guide Book

The ceremony is very serious, and lasts a solid hour. It is very rude to talk or move. In the old days, if you talked or moved you would be clubbed to death. (I feel bad for anyone who had to sneeze). When taking Kava it is customary to give a hollow clap once, hold up the bowl, say "bula," and drink it. You then hand the bowl back, and do three more hollow claps. After my* third bowl I was starting to feel a little loopy -- not because it had any real effect, but because it was quite hot, and I was exhausted from sitting with my legs crossed. All I wanted to do was stand up and stretch, but then I saw the dude holding a big ol’ wooden club. I decided I liked sitting with my legs crossed.

I felt like I was in a dream, and of course my imagination started rolling. Watching these guys across from us with real serious faces while we were sitting almost in a circle brought me back to my childhood days of Duck Duck Goose. I wondered what who I would pick as goose, and whether if I did get up and run around the circle touching these not-so-friendly-looking dudes’ heads saying "duck, duck, duck…" I could make it back to my seat alive. I realized I was grinning from ear to ear, so I tried to hide my smile by looking down. I knew if I didn’t hold in my laughter I would be in big trouble, and I was almost at the point of no return. Luckily for me someone turned on a fan. The cool breeze knocked some sense into me before one of the chief’s guards did.

After the ceremony we walked to the school house for a Meke (pronounced meck'ay), a traditional Fijian dance. The women served us incredible snacks, the children sang us songs and danced, while the men sat around making us another gallon of kava. When I saw that I thought there was no way I could drink any more Kava. My tongue was so numb from earlier that I began slurring my words (and thoughts). So I got up with Rosanne, and pretended to help her take pictures.

BTW: It seems mostly men drink kava, although I did see a few women (and even a few tourist children). However, the men -- especially those in the string bands -- seem to do nothing but play music and drink kava all night long. No one knew how many bowls they drank each night, but they guessed between 50 and 100. Speaking of musicians, I have never visited a country where so many people are so musically talented. It seems everyone knows how to play the guitar and sing so beautifully -- men, women and children.

We went back to the boat, and were so happy to set foot on Tavarua Island. We were even happier to go for a swim in the ocean that felt like a pool. Tavarua is a private island. It reminded me of Gilligan’s, because it’s so small and private. It’s 29 acres in area, and surrounded by an elaborate coral reef. There is only one resort. Most visitors are surfers since only guests are able to access their reef which happens to be one of the world’s most famous breaks: Cloud Break. Cloud Break makes Tavarua a surfers’ heaven. Even though it is primarily surfers who rent this paradise, it would be a perfect getaway for a family reunion or party. Guests can’t book a room for just one night; they have to rent the entire island for a week. It’s actually a pretty good deal, though, if you can get 33 people to go. The price of $2,700 USD per person includes air, hotel and food. The organizer gets a perk: The 34th person goes free. Eighty percent of the island’s visitors are from the U.S., and prices in the gift shop are marked in American dollars (though they accept any currency). Tavarua Island: PO Box 60159, Santa Barbara, CA 93160; tel.: (805) 686-4551; e-mail/reservations: rokotui@aol.com .

Unfortunately we were only on Tavarua for lunch and a tour, because a group of surfers was coming soon. So we jumped on another boat and headed 30 minutes to another island: Tokoriki. In Fijian Tokoriki means "Stay here" and that's what we did for one night. This island has one small boutique hotel with 34 newly refurbished bures facing west (for sunset views). A bure (pronounced boo-ray) is a thatched-roof resort villa, reflecting traditional Fijian village accommodations. The island is beautiful, with 1000 yards of sandy beach, breathtaking coral gardens, a friendly* staff and* strong masseuses. I really liked the rooms, especially because they all have outdoor showers, air conditioning, ceiling fans, private verandas, hammocks and easy access to the water. However, although the setting was ideal for honeymooners (kids under 12 are not allowed) and outdoor dining, the food was just okay. Also there were lots of gnats, which made eating* outside a bugger. The resort attracts primarily Australians and New Zealanders – but you should go too. Tokoriki Island Resort, PO Box 10547, Nadi Aiport, Fiji Islands. Tel: (679) 672-5474. Rates range from $420 to $560 USD (includes meals).

Can you believe that was just one day? Imagine that! Next week we’re off to check out other nearby islands, including the place they filmed the movie "Cast Away" and a trip to Tavenuni Island, a couple of plane rides away. Vinaka!

Happy Travels,

Johnny Jet
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