Sunday, November 15, 2009

FIJI... hopping the Yasawas and a touch of politics

A blissful week which will sit freeze-framed in my memory bank.To the north-west of Viti Levu, the Yasawa islands stretch in a curve out into the Pacific. A week “Bula Pass” on the daily yellow catamaran gave us freedom to do and stay wherever we wanted – and we did just that!

THE JOURNEY...

Setting out early doors from the mainland we were greeted with a quite startlingly beautiful journey. The harbour opened out into mangrove forests before the open ocean. Within 30 minutes of setting sail the tropical islands were popping out of the water on all sides. First a series of picture perfect cays, some nothing more than a patch of sand and a couple of coconut palms. Then some small rock islands jutting out of the depths from volcanic origins. Then our first destination, Waya.

WAYA


A reasonable sized, multi-peaked volcanic mountain dominating the sea around it. From the black heights, green-clad slopes fall sharply to bays of turquoise water and golden sand. One such bay housed Octopus, our home for a few days.
Yup, sand, sunshine, topical waters, a good book and a couple of Fiji Bitters is a recipe for relaxation, but this place is so much more. As with most places, it is fundamentally made by the people and the Fijians here are some of the friendliest and most welcoming that I have come across anywhere. A smile goes along way to happiness and here they come in abundance with a laid back contented air.

Perhaps the highlight of our stay was a tour to the local village just across the ridge at the back of Octopus. This place has a symbiotic relationship with the resort. If one does well so does the other. All but two of the staff work here. Octopus provides jobs and funds education, while the village provides the ever-friendly work force and culture. The elders are clearly aware of this and keep the whole thing working with positive reciprocation. In so many places greed on one side or the other would ruin the place, but not, for the moment, in this little corner of Waya.

It was great to take part in a cava ceremony (the local social lubricant, drunk ceremoniously between chiefs and underlings) and see people how the people lived, but even better to feel welcome. Grins and laughter all round. A right privilege. A bit of diving and my first semi-successful experience of deep-sea fishing (we caught 11 OK sized bonitos, but the big'un got away!!) added a bit of affinity with the ocean and long hours of volleyball knocked out a bit of the rust from too long at a desk. On the latter point, I wish to bow down to the prowess of the the local dudes....I am not worthy... All in, Uwe, Elaine, Sylvaine, Jimbo and various others provided top notch company and we had to drag ourselves away to island hope along.

NACULA

A couple of hours sailing north past one beautiful island after another and through the “Blue Lagoon” of Brooke Shields fame to Nacula.

Not quite as towering and spectacular as Waya, Nacula makes up for it with Long Beach. A talcum-powder'esque white sand beach lapped by coral framed shallow swimming waters and backed by palm and bush. Right in the middle of this beach is Oarsman's Bay and that is where we stayed.A Fijian owned and run place that is a couple of steps more relaxed than Octopus, it had a totally different feel. A place to do nothing except bake on the beach and cool off in the waters in the midst of flourishing tropical fish. At night, meals under the stars with good company, some Fijian style comedy entertainment and the odd bit of snail racing (a real local feature it seems – learn from my mistakes, pick the small frisky ones).

In amongst all the doing nothing we just about managed to take a trip up to some limestone caves for a bit of swimming into the dark while trying not to think of the eels below and all they might bight...

A really good few days. We had successfully slipped down a few more gears and were cruising into neutral.

BOUNTY ISLAND

For a final hurrah, we thought we'd spent our last night out on one of those tropical cays. Never done it, always wanted to and here was the time. We sailed back towards the mainland and jumped off at Bounty island. Whilst I would more quickly put Waya in my “places to go before you fall off your perch” list, there is something about being able to walk around your tropical island in a matter of minutes with your lovely lady, a beer in the hand and the sun falling into the Pacific Ocean.

To try and top that we then rounded it in a two-person kayak (using highly erratic navigational skills to avoid wrecking on the reef) and criss-crossed the island on small inner paths enveloped by chirpy bird, flighty lizard jungle.

A great sign-off from the islands. The only negative was seeing the wreckage of some “Celebrity Love Island” crap celebrity show that has never been properly cleaned up and the cringe-worthy behaviour of a couple of rather easy-acting English lasses.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE – POLITICS...

It would be wrong of me to wax lyrical about how great Fiji is without a mentioning the current political situation. Just under 3 years ago, the army led by Bainimarama undertook a coup, promising to improve the constitution and remove corruption for the good of all. Fiji has a delicate balance of indigenous islanders and Indo-Fijians whose descendants came over to work for the colonial government. Very very roughly, the Indo-Fijians have a dominant position in business, while the islanders own most of the land and have a stronger political position. As in many parts of the world (Malaysia comes to mind), such a split of power and need between groups leads to some tension. Theoretically at least the illegitimate current holders of power are looking to improve this situation.

Democracy was put on “hold” with the coup. The “interim” government seemed to expect less negative international reception with their pledge to hold elections. The promised deadline for such a vote has passed and with it any seeming scraps of possibility that those at the pinnacle of control wish to do more than consolidate power (and line their pockets). Elections are now “due” to take place in 4 or so years time.

Should this put you off coming to Fiji? An interesting question. The thing is I only really managed to speak properly to one local about the political situation and therefore I am not a good judge. His opinion was that while a small majority probably support the current government, he did not. His main grievance was the price of food, which has evidently risen for reasons which include additional taxes. He took grievance at the death of democracy and was clear that he thought the only reason for delay in elections and constitutional change was for the banks accounts of the power mongers.

He did not though think things were all together bad and this is the impression I received from most people I met. Yup, the downturn in the world economy is damaging their tourism trade, as are a few people boycotting for political reasons. Yup, the government is not doing what it promised and people can not have their say on the national stage. But, people carry on with life as normal. Most decisions that affect people's lives seem to be made at village level and while the government has a nasty streak, they are not yet as oppressive as what half of Africa is used to in their ever-churning roll of tin-pot dictators.

How to conclude? I need to know more. As we left diplomats from Australia and New Zealand were being chucked out in a sign of change for the worse. It is so sad that such wonderful people are restricted in their political rights and freedom. My fingers are firmly crossed that those in power will fulfill their promises rather than choose a route which will benefit nobody but themselves.

OVER AND OUT

For me it was a privilege to visit. I leave feeling such warmth for the people of Fiji and the beautiful land they live in. I shall do my upmost to come back and just hope that long before then the people have a government worthy of their humbling nature.

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