A Fijian Tropical Storm

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My head was buried in a book when I received the tap on the shoulder that I’d been dreading. It was bound to happen sooner or later, but I’d hoped to have at least made it to the end of the chapter I was on first. A wry smile had spread across my face upon receiving my boarding pass from the Fiji Airways check-in desk at Auckland airport. Seat 19A. A window seat. Perfect. Peace and quiet for three hours with nothing but the billowing clouds blanketing the Pacific like double-spread duvets for company. Evidently not. Bliss shattered.

“What are you reading?” asked the woman sitting beside me as I turned to face her. The seatbelt signs had only just been switched off, but even before we’d reached cruising altitude she had already been up and down three times. At least I hadn’t been given aisle seat 19C. She was middle-aged, but a youthful hippie aura emanated from her.

“It’s about the evolution of homo sapiens, charting their spread throughout the world whilst analysing how the cultural, political, and religious structures that we’ve developed as a species have come to define us as humans,” I responded, answering her question. “Can I ask why you kept getting up and down at the start of the flight?” I continued, curious. “Are you a nervous flyer?”

“Oh no, not at all. I just decided that it was better to eat my snacks at the back of the plane. I brought a lot of smelly cheese onboard and didn’t want to suffocate the rest of the passengers, so I went to the toilet to spread it on my crackers. It’s also not the nicest thing to have to watch someone eat either,” she joked, reading my bemused expression.

“That’s not what I was expecting,” I chuckled. “I suppose I should thank you for being so courteous, but I’m a bit jealous that I didn’t get to try any of it.”

“Do you want to have a sniff of the bag?” she offered.

“I’ll pass.”

A Kiwi by birth, Steph had been living in Los Angeles for nigh on eleven years. She had been back in New Zealand visiting her sister and was laying over in Fiji before catching a connecting flight to the US. Being served our in-flight meal, we spoke about literature, previous trips we’d taken, life, and love. She was a yoga instructor who definitely had a gypsy heart, and I was awed when she told me that she’d recently slipped on a naughty negligée and gone to a party at the Playboy Mansion. I felt bad that I’d initially tried to subdue the chat. If you’re reading this Steph, then thanks for making my flight pass with such brilliant conversation. Your inner L.A. diva did, however, make an ever so slight appearance when the polite flight attendant came around to collect our food and rubbish.

“You need to stow away your table as we prepare for landing,” reasoned the burly, mild-mannered Fijian. His colourful Hawaiian shirt uniform looked both professional and chill. “Can I please take your food tray?”

“But I’ve not finished it yet,” argued Steph, pointing at the untouched foil over her vegetarian curry.

“Well, you can’t eat it on the plane anymore as the captain has now turned the fasten seatbelt signs back on for our descent.”

“Can I not take it with me then?” she pleaded.

“You’re not allowed to eat it in the terminal building, I’m sorry”

“I’ll eat it before.”

“I quite doubt that,” he said, picking up the tray and continuing along down the aisle. He’d clearly had enough. As the plane touched down, I said my goodbyes to Steph, shuffled along the aisle, and laughed. Travel never stops to amaze me with all the awesome people that it exposes you to.

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Queueing at border control, the passengers were all greeted into Nadi with a reception from a traditional Fijian band. At what stage they start getting fed up of playing the same songs over and over again to new arrivals of gawking faces I do not know, but it certainly wasn’t on this afternoon. Don’t ask me why, but despite being on the opposite side of Fiji’s main island from the nation’s capital and largest city, Suva, Nadi is the principal location of entry for air travellers to Fiji. Shuffling forward, I got my passport stamped with barely a glance, plucked my rucksack from the baggage claim conveyor belt, and exited out into the arrivals hall. There, for the first time ever in my life, stood someone waiting with a sign.

Despite only paying $16 per night for a bed, Bamboo Backpackers had offered me an airport pick-up and I was not shy in saying yes. My driver, Neil, was infectiously happy and welcomed me with a huge ‘bula’. As with ‘aloha’ in Hawaii, ‘bula’ literally means ‘hello’ in Fijian, but it has practically been adopted as a catchphrase by the country’s residents, who I would soon find out all had the same upbeat approach to life as Neil. The island-hopping boat ticket you can purchase is called the ‘bula pass’; the locals have a campfire song called ‘the bula song’, and, when sung, this is accompanied by a choreographed ‘bula dance’.

I hopped into the front seat of Neil’s mini-van and we raced through the hedgerows towards a very dark sky, bantering about culture and sport. I asked him what the reaction was like in Fiji when their men’s rugby sevens team won the country’s first-ever Olympic medal in Rio 2016, taking gold. “We partied for a fortnight straight,” he responded with a big grin as we pulled onto the street where the hostel was situated. “It was loco. It was crazy.”

Checking in at reception, I lugged my bag along a corridor and through the door of the four-person dorm that I’d been allocated a bed in. Although it was only 7pm, a girl was in there taking a nap and she stirred from her sleep as I entered. Johanna hailed from Finland and had arrived that morning. We chatted shit for a while as I sorted out my stuff before our rumbling stomachs told us to head out for some traditional Fijian food. Clinking beers, we entered into a lengthy conversation whilst waiting for our dinner to arrive.

Fijians operate around a concept known as ‘Fiji time’, which loosely means: ‘Don’t worry about the time. Things will eventually get done, and if they don’t then it’s not a big deal anyway.’ You’ll be hard-pressed to find a clock anywhere and the locals will rarely wear watches, preferring to operate like it is pre-time immemorial. The hostel reception and kitchen were both open 24/7 and, because there is no time, you can never be late for anything. The public transport network must be loving that timetable: ‘The next bus will arrive on Fiji time. Exactly when it means to.’

That reminds me of a joke I once heard on daytime radio:

Q) Why are London buses always red?

A) Wouldn’t you be if you had to come every ten minutes?

Maybe that’s why Fijians appear to always be so happy, because they are never stressed out about getting something complete or rushing around thinking that they are going to miss an appointment or deadline.

It might also be the reason, however, why every building that I’d passed since leaving the airport seemed to have been abandoned mid-construction.

Eventually, Johanna’s grilled fish and my beef coconut curry arrived, and they were absolutely delicious. We scoffed them down, wiped our plates clean, and, as the heavens began to open, sprinted back to the sanctuary of the dry hostel bar. Dry in the weather sense, that is. It was far from dry when it came to alcohol.

We ordered a couple of pitchers and, sitting down at one of the long wooden tables in the sheltered area by the pool, got chatting to an expat called Andy Fritzel. He told us that the biggest tropical storm in ten years was scheduled to hit the mainland the very next day.

“Excellent,” smiled Johanna.

“Yeah, it’s been a downpour all week,” he sighed, sombrely. “Quite a few of the boats have been cancelled and one even capsized a few days ago.”

“Well, we’ll just have to wait it out,” I reasoned. “What is there to do here whilst sitting under God’s toilet?”

“Drink, of course,” shrugged Andy, like there was only ever going to be one answer to that question. “I’ve got a car by the way,” he added, directing his gaze to Johanna, “so if you want a lift anywhere then just let me know. I said to one of the other girls at the hostel that I would take her to the cape tomorrow night to see the sunset, weather permitting. It can be dangerous out there, but I’ll keep you safe.”

“I bet you will,” I thought to myself, taking a long sip of Fiji Gold beer. “I’m sure all girls are safe when riding in the back of that creep waggon of yours.”

As the rain battered down, I smiled at the absurdity of where I was. Sat at a beachfront bar, palm trees lining the golden sands being lapped by the ocean, traditional music echoing from a group of locals sat cross-legged in the corner, and the weather worse than back home in my native Scotland. I suddenly felt the urge to get very, very drunk.

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