Set off for the airport—heavy traffic—didn’t know if I would make it. A Friday night and the millions of Jakartans heading out of the city, and construction on the toll road out towards the airport did not make for a promising situation. I was glad to be leaving this mess that I call home and I needed a break from this country. I hadn’t seen my family in a long time and what better of a meeting place was dropping into a small dot in the middle of the ocean, somewhere east of northern Australia. A map is testament to the fact that there really seems to be nothing there until you reach South America. Aside from Hawaii, the pacific was a vast blue that I knew nothing about—and only very generally knowing the names Tonga, Tuvalu, Nuie?, the Cook Islands, the Solomons, and Fiji. And my sister had been assigned as a peace corps volunteer on the volcanic islands of the latter. I didn’t know what to expect but here I was taking off for Sydney. Australia, also a place I know very little about.
I picked up the book suggested by many as the definitive work on the history of the Pacific—Blue Latitudes by Jonathan Horwitz—and it was nice to do a little leisure reading finally. It’s not about the pacific, per se, but it is about Captain Cook’s journeys and discoveries of the world over. Cook, on his voyages on the Endeavor and the Resolution, set the modern world in motion. This was the first mission set forth with the main focus for discovery, of new lands and of new cultures, without the overwhelming emphasis on trading. He paved the way for navigation throughout the world and his crew of scientists, recorders, and discovers, paved the way for the first understanding not only of other places, but also of ourselves. There would be no Darwin for example, without a Cook. Not only that, Cook ventured into the most Southern latitudes into arctic conditions that was not done again until modern times and created maps that were still being used by cartographers up until 1996—until the USGS began applying satellite imaging. And he did it all with little more than a sextant.
As I was approaching Sydney, I had just come to the part where Cook and his men landed in Australia, and about Botany Bay. Cook described the Bay as one of the best harbor locations they’d ever found. Apparently he had just arrived during a very wet season and failed to understand the harshness of the area, and, he overlooked the more advantageous Port Jackson, which would become modern day Sydney. It was a clear perfect morning as we descended and encircled the city and this was exactly the reason why I always insisted on window seats on the plane. Sydney was amazing. I was first struck by the zoning and the clean air, which are such a contrast from the mess that is Jakarta, then by the sheer beauty of the surroundings—the upper water catchments, upstream plateaus, the greenery of the blue mountains, and then the cliffsides and coastlines. With a five-hour layover I thought I could at least run into town for a cup of coffee but immigration rejected me without a visa. A drawn out zombie airport moseying ensued. People are really bored in airports and the only interaction I could conjure with anyone was the coffeeshop girls that ripped me off for my American dollars. People say that Australians are laid-back but a few attempts at chatting up some of the service personnel in the airport made me immediately aware of my culture shock that I was no longer in Indonesia.
This trip was a family rendezvous and vacation, to a central location, as well as a chance to explore an entire region that I know almost nothing about. And most importantly, to keep tabs on my sister to see what she has been doing in her peace corps experience.
Finally boarding for Nadi (pronounced Nandi) and this was a crosslisted Qantas flight for Asia Pacific (Fiji) Airways and while apologizing for the flight delay, the flight attendant welcomed us to the concept of “island time”. Well that sounded familiar. The woman seated next to me wore traditional Indian garb and she told me she was Fijian. Funny I thought, the first Fijian I met would be Indian but it turns out that 35% of the population are actually Indo-Fijians, descendants from a major migration of workers sent by the British to tend to the sugar cane plantations. If you like Golf, you might know that Vijay Singh is a Fijian.
30% of the Fijian economy still has something to do with the cane they grow and produce, and the rest I guessed was tourism, which was taking a major hit because of the current political situation and the global financial crisis. Just recently, was the 6th(?) coup in a matter of two decades but it all boils down (or up) to the same thing. The Indians control a significant part of the economy due to their familial control of the merchant and trading activities—from supermarkets to spare parts—and the ethno Fijians control the land. The Indo-Fijians (and foreigners, including the Hilton) jump on any freehold land that consists of 7% of the overall area of Fiji. Everything goes through the chiefs and without their blessing you pretty much can’t do anything. They also control the waters, the reefs, and I guess the sky, and they by no means, it seems, provide any notion of democratic rule to their citizens, much less outsiders. So in my very limited understanding the coup is just political maneuvering by the ehno vs. indo-fijians to figure out how to deal with these rights of land ownership and government. In any case, I saw no signs of any major political upheaval and although these were known to turn violent in the past, people would rather describe the coup as a chance to through a big street party and barbecue. It has really hurt the tourism industry however, and everyone tries to play it down. All the better for us, as this means that everthing was 20 percent cheaper.
My passport was stamped, picked up my bag, and there was my sister Kiva greeting me wearing a bright green flower dress matched identically with the girl next to her, Kelera—her Fijian friend, co-worker, and boss. It was already dark out so my expectation of what my surroundings looked like would have to wait for tomorrow. We walked out, straight past the taxis and Kiva immediately puts out her hand to hitch a ride North on the only arterial road on the main island of Viti Levu. This was the Queen’s Highway and we bumped along on a stretch of road that was more a bumpy gravel country road rather than a highway. We headed for Lautoka, which Kiva now calls ‘home’. Lautoka is the second largest city in Fiji with about 40,000 people, and since it was Saturday night, it was time to sample the nightlife. We walked down into town and I was struck by the open space, as a contrast to the life in Jakarta, where life gets rebuilt on top of everything and people are clawing to use every last centimeter of land. We quickly found ourselves on the main street and walked into ‘the zone,’ which was the hoppin place in town. For a Saturday night it felt rather empty and quiet, except for the group of dentists, which Kiva says are well known for being the heaviest drinkers around. I didn’t have a possible explanation for that one.
We participated in the local drinking custom, which is to buy 3 bottles of beer and pour it into one pitcher. Then we were given one glass a little larger than a shot glass and we took turns drinking it down. I would soon learn about the semi-narcotic root, Kava, which is the cultural staple of Fijian and other Pacific Island customs, and that explained why we were drinking our beer this way—although it did resemble some type of ritual that the frat kids did in college. After a pitcher and feeling the exhaustion set in, we walked home, through the main street, past the transvestite hangout, up the hill, and onto Kiva’s couch where uncle Bob was deeply snoring away.
The next morning I was awakened by the birds and the first signs of the sunrise. It was beautiful. The Cliffside of a mountain protruded in the distance and plateaud on the horizon as the sunrise slowly peaked and rose above it. There was a small garden of cassava and eggplant below and the house overlooked the city further down, and people were beginning to burn their trash and the town began to stir as people prepared for church and the day of rest, Sunday.
My grandfather, Harold, or Doctor as we respectfully call him, awoke and began another day of his 80+year long deep relationship with the birds as he told us all about the red-vented bulbul and Bob added by describing his brief research on the two types of mynahs that were hopping around. Although Google is amazing, there is nothing better than hanging out with two seasoned veteran field naturalists that are virtually like walking encyclopedias of natural history, ornithology, botany, and just about everything.
Horwitz has a quote about Cook that described and captured my admiration for the Doctor, and Bob.
“Reading Cook’s journals is a constant reminder of how specialized our skills have become in the modern era. On one page, Cook discusses astronomy, geology, meteorology, and animal husbandry. On the next, he offers insight into management, commerce, and diplomacy. Then he veers into lengthy speculation about ocean currents and the formation of islands. Few people today would even dream of dabbling in so many disciplines, much less mastering them.” (Horwitz, 254)
We were not in Lautoka long, and by 11 am we were off to the harbor to take a boat to the diagonally linear island chain called the Yasawa’s that lay north of the main island of Viti Levu, and in particular, to the isolated resort “the Octopus” on the island of Waya. Kiva knew all the spots and all the prices to discover this place. It was magical—from the beauty of the rock cliffs that once upon a time rose into the heavens, signs of a volcano that must have destroyed half the island to the reefs lined in three barrier sets from the beach. The things that we saw snorkeling and diving (soft corals, ghost coral, and the teeming wildlife) were incredible. There were the other characters around—like the editor of the reality TV show, “the Dog Whisperer.” Then there was the relaxing. The volley ball games on the beach, the cocktail hours, the swimming pool, the sunsets, and then unwinding to sit in a circle chewing the staple of the island—Kava. They say the Kava of Fiji is weak compared to other areas of the Pacific, and all I noticed was a little numbing of the tongue, and the taste of the stuff was what you might imagine drinking muddy water might taste like.
On the two dives that we did, Cookie our divemaster had said the visibility wasn’t great, but spectacular nonetheless. There were two 3 meter white-tipped reef sharks just around us, and this woman was excitedly shaking her hand above her head. Too bad for me, I didn’t yet know what that meant, and only back in the boat did I know what an opportunity I had missed. Too bad, but I supposed I was too focused playing around on the reef wall in front of me, and that was exciting enough for this time. Regardless I saw some cool-swimming cuttlefish, eels, all sorts of colorful fish, some spectacular rays, and being introduced to a whole new world of corals.
Four days on Waya, and we headed back to Lautoka. Without much time as to blink, except to get in a meeting at the Rotary Club, which Kiva had arranged for the ‘real men’ in town. My mother and I decided to skip it, because we weren’t Rotarians, and we decided to sit over a beer and a pizza discussing her favorite topic “the meaning of life” and also the world’s problems. We somehow came up with an easy solution for solving the trash problem of the world, and especially Jakarta. For some reason, I knew that when I got back home, it probably wouldn’t be that easy. But I would start with an editorial, perhaps, to the major newspapers on the use of plastics. Afterwards I felt sick, because we had devoured pizza enough for eight people between the two of us. But it was so nice to have some time with my mother again.
Rotary ended and we were off. Kiva had rented a dilapidated station wagon from Singh’s Car Rental, Pool Hall, Car repair, Car Wash, Photocopy shop, uh, etc.. Well they pretty much did everything and with the overall look of the place, it reminded of the money laundering barbershop that I used to go to in Richmond, Virginia. The back shocks were shot and with us all and our baggage in tow, the rear bumper pretty much dragged for the 200 kilometers across the southern coastal countryside of the main island, Viti Levu. Bula, bula, bula, and booooooolah… was the response of everyone along the Queen’s highway—hands raised like European soccer fanatics. BULA.
We drove through the dusty towns of the outposts of the resorts of what most people think of if they know about Fiji, and I was glad we were getting the local tour by my now “local” sister. Although all her friends praise her for her skills to speak Fijian, for some reason she was too shy to speak with us around. She feels she needs to be perfect before starts conversating—but she’s wrong.
We stopped in South Central Viti Levu for a river rafting trip and Kiva had found us a fantastic beach bungalow setup in a really cool spacious Bure. Bob admired the Crotons that he said had been crossed to even develop different colors on the underside of the leaves, grandpa did a little reading about Captain Cook, and we all got some early rest to prepare for the early morning trip into the hinterlands for a little rafting. A five rafting adventure through some serious rapids—now that is one brave 91-year-old man. We were up early, drove into the hinterlands guided by some seriously ripped rugby playing Fijians. We had to do a bit of a jungle trek to get to the river. Up and down, mudslides, and the like, and the Doctor was a champ!
After an entertaining quick safety tutorial by our guide Musese, or Moses, we were off on the river. On the first rapids and drop off, bang! And Harold’s cheekbone had smashed into my shoulder. As the day progressed, the shiner would spread and look pretty mean as it changed colors. I hear he has been telling all the ladies back in Redlands about the bar-fight he was in and the unruly man he had stood up to, or some other exciting variations of valor. The scenery was a amazing, and another historical geologic record of the islands. The lava flows that must have layered along the slopes, the uplifts and the formations of rock; and here we were, in the heartlands of the freshwater of the region. My mom quickly deciphered the agricultural subsistence of the region, and we took our clues from thing like the sago palm seeds that we found floating in the river. The jokes, laughter, story-telling, and the rain that signifying some unnerving possibilities of flash floods were all a complete joy.
On my last day we went to Suva, the capital of Fiji. Everyone describes the place as a dirty slum, which is characterized by landfills along the road and overall poor backwater town, but we found it to be quite charming. Harold was a bit shocked by the hustle and bustle and said “I would be much more comfortable lost in the woods than lost in a city.” We took our chance to explore the museum of Fijian History, which we had heard good things about. As you go in, there is a really interesting exhibit of the nautical mastery of the old Polynesian and Melanesian explorers complete with all their tools of survival, followed by the settlement of the islands thousands of years ago. Interestingly, much of the discovery of the history had been deciphered through the similarities of pottery between regions. And then, as we all had read, there was the stories about cannibalism that so terrified the early Europeans that traveled through the region. There were some disturbing tools of bludgeoning and the overall methodology for eating human prey. It was lunchtime, and upon analyzing a bit of the botany of the front courtyard of amazing fichus trees that Bob enlightened us all about. Oddly, I realized I had ordered the raw fish.
We stumbled into the crowds of the main streets and it was time to head back to Lautoka. We did not have a chance to watch the recently successful Lautoka rugby team and after being privy to one of the most stunning sunsets I had ever seen, we decided that sci-fi would be my final activity before heading to the airport. And so we went to the movie theater.
The newest release was the Star Trek movie, and although I’d never really enjoyed the show, the reviews had been good. Throughout the movie, I couldn’t help but think about the names James Kirk and the starship Enterprise, and the ubiquitous Star Trek closing, which all seemed too familiar to Cook and his travels to the ends of the Earth and back.
Space... the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.