July 05, 2008
Fiji Recalls the Strongest of Senses
This past week, I returned to Fiji's magical aura. After soaking up as much humidity and sun my body could take in a cafe at the far end of Savu Savu's dusty town, I followed the main drag by foot in the direction I had come by taxi some six or so hours earlier.
I tried to retrace my steps from six years ago (was it six years, five or was it seven?), the last time I sat foot on this road, then with two kiwi men in their late thirties I met at the local Yacht Club, which I discovered by accident. I learned very early on that it was a hub for visitors from around the world, largely return visitors who were either captaining a boat, sailing their own or here on business from down under.
My two new friends fell into the latter category and were well baked into the local politics. No surprise given that their work was a mishmash of commercial real estate, construction and solar if I recall correctly. We never kept in touch after I left the islands or perhaps we did for a month or two.
It's not as if I spent a chunk of time in this tiny village -- the bulk of my stay was in a very remote house in the middle of dense tropical brush overlooking the ocean (owned by one of the kiwi's pals) and the other half was spent at the Namale resort, some 15 or so minutes by taxi.
Yet, I remembered the Yacht Club so distinctively that I felt I would smell my way back to it despite my lousy sense of direction.
The new cafe I discovered was quiet and rustic and like all tropical cafes like it around the world, they had fruit milk shakes made with fresh coconut, mango, papaya and pineapple. An Aussie couple sat down next to me for drinks and even though it was my side that faced them, my feet were propped up on a chair in the opposite direction and I was clearly engrossed in my Maori-authored novel, they opened up a dialogue.
Whether you're an ex-pat or not, Fiji has that uniquely familiar ex-pat feel to it, at least that's the case on Nadi and Savu Savu. It was the case five or six-ish years ago and appears to be so today.
The most remarkable difference was the number of cell phones and laptops, even though a cafe that advertised wifi in its window didn't necessarily mean that it worked. "Depends on the weather," I'm told, not unlike my Comcast situation at home which seems to flake whenever there's a storm.
The local market remained unchanged as far as I could tell but the main street was much more developed than I had remembered. Foreign investment poured in between then and now, mostly from Aussies and Yanks.
The Aussie couple lived "on-the-road," or should I say "on-the-sea." He was a captain and she went along for the tanning benefits. A few Fijians had apparently painted his aluminum seated benches on the back of the boat that morning, the same day they had planned a day trip. A dozen or so tourists sat on wet paint, some of them stuck so securely that their shorts ripped when they stood up.
He rolls his eyes as he tells me the story and her smile beams in between her sunburned cheeks and nose. "They're demanding 50% discount off the cruise," he says as if hoping I'd offer a suggestion or two. I don't.
I ask, "what color did they paint the benches?" thinking it might clue me in to why they did it in the first place. He doesn't seem to be expecting that. "Gray," he responds. "They painted them gray." I wondered how many women's sundresses were ruined that day and wished I could have witnessed all of it from a land-based dock a dozen or so feet away.
They got up to leave as I took the last bite out of my gingered veggie crepe. "See you at the Yacht Club?" they ask as they walked out. Ah yes, the Yacht Club. I was about to ask "where is it again?" but instinctively decided not to.
Every hour or so, the sky would grow moody and gray and grace us with showers. It remained balmy warm though so I barely noticed. A half an hour later, the sun would break through. This pattern repeated itself through four chapters of my book and two and a half diet cokes. They also sold those peach and mango flavored lipton iced tea drinks that I've only seen in third world countries and foreign tourist destinations.
The prices seem to have gone through the roof. A few regulars told me that tourism was significantly down, so the locals doubled their prices to make up for it. Hmmmm, I thought, remembering the $22 pizza and $5 coffees at the Nadi airport before I boarded the 14 seater puddle jumper.
During a late afternoon sun break, I slowly made my way along the dusty paved central drag in the direction of the Yacht Club, so I sensed. On the way, I scoured through a few of the supermarkets like I always do when I first arrive in a foreign country. I've been doing this for as long as I can remember; my first precious memory was when I discovered a cheap aluminum tennis racket in a Tiajuana supermarket when I was around ten.
When my grandfather realized it was less than one U.S. dollar, he threw it into his hand basket with the bottled water and crackers for the car. It still amazes me what they sell in village supermarkets abroad. I love discovering old American products with the same packaging they had in the states in the sixties and seventies.
It brings me back to a long ago time when my memories were largely filled with dance routines wearing my grandad's oversized shirts, wool top hats, twirling around the den using Great Grandma Bert's cane for support......my nose in the air like a female Snoopy character in love with music and bright colors.
Life in Fiji is so simple.....the pace goes along with it, a reminder that some of our deadlines at home are self-imposed and maybe corporate America might be a lot happier if they encouraged their employees to breathe, smile and think like Fijians every now and then.
I find my way to the Yacht Club as instinctively as I thought I would, as if I had lived here for years. It was as if I smelled something familiar and followed my senses to the path that brought me to its entrance. There was no sign and its British pub-like corner setting isn't well marked.
Set in the back of a small plaza they call Croapashend, I walked in like a regular and a familiar face behind the bar asks me what I'd like as I glance at him. A Fijian man in his early sixties wears a silver moustache and a warm smile. His name is Obini and he's been there for eleven years I learn when I ask him. "You bought me a drink five or six years ago," I say. "I believe so," he says back.
Incredulous. It wouldn't be if the rest of my day didn't spook me in the same incredulous remarkable way.
He looks like he's been selling beer and scotch to foreigners for far longer than eleven years. And, he appears to love people as much as toddlers love chocolate ice cream.
Except for a picnic table of Aussies in their early twenties, the place was empty. I found a table outside on the protruding deck, one with a breathtaking view of mountains to the far right and at least a dozen parked yachts between them and me.
It was late afternoon so the light was exactly as I had remembered it. The most memorable night here was after an afternoon of skinny dipping in a remote cove diving for shells and laughing at absolutely nothing at all except for the sheer bliss of being there.
Our skin was nearly the same deep brown as the locals at that point and we were living off freshly caught fish and local Fijian beer. I had a fresh flower cut in my hair that night, wore a brightly colored sarong and the light and smell was exactly as it was the day I returned.
I begin to write at what feels like a hundred words a minute. It all flowed through the end of my blue paper mate pen so quickly that onlookers might have wondered, "if we interrupt her, she might stop breathing." I might have if I were them.
The sun had nearly set by the time I next looked up. I had not even noticed that I was writing in the rain, even though it was only a light dusting. The place had filled up and not only was I surrounded by people on all sides, but a small band had set up behind me and I had not noticed them either.
Obini gives me one of his warm smiles -- all so familiar. I hear a few Yank accents but mostly Aussies and Kiwis and years later, I can still tell the difference.
I'm the only one drinking iced tea and wonder if anyone has noticed my anxious writing, quiet sense of solitude, and deep concentration.
Bottles of local beer, wine and scotch glasses surround me as do cigarette packs stacked in the middle of the wooden carved tables. Nay, it ain't Marin girl.
The music starts. Above them, foreign flags hang from the ceiling. Sweden, England, Australia, France, New Zealand, Holland, Germany and few I don't recognize.
A Fijian in his late twenties sits near me in a dark green soccer shirt, leans his head back and blows smoke into the air. The rain stops altogether but I move my chair in under the blue nautical-like canvas covering nevertheless where I'm closer to "group energy." I'm surprised I do this.
Just like old times, when I backpacked around the globe, I was surrounded by hoards of people -- always in groups even if they be small ones -- and there I'd be in a corner or smack in the middle, taking it all in, listening, writing, shooting, thinking....
Last time at this yacht club was different however -- very different. We finished our pitcher of beer and through my Kiwi pal's connections, we went off to the mayor's house for a barbecue. We were the only three non-Fijians and I remember feeling silly with the flower in my hair although all the women smiled at me when they saw it.
Back to present.
Obini seems to have changed his shirt. Maybe? He starts to make his way through the crowd selling some kind of local raffle tickets for $2 a piece. I later learn its a donation but didn't learn for what.
I see that everyone is suntanned at that moment and then.....the familiar smell and light that set on the bay just outside the yacht club patio. Three deep Fijian breaths, a smile and then back to that great novel I was reading.
The last line was meant to be the last line of this lengthy post, and it would have been had I not jumped into the first taxi that was passing by on my way out of the Surf & Turf restaurant adjacent to the yacht club. I decided to stop in for a quick bite of freshly grilled Walu with coconut sauce before heading back to my hut.
"$2 or $3?" I ask, since I'm told it could be either, so I always play the either or game to see what they'll say. "$3," he says. It's very dark but there's something about his reflection in the mirror that feels oddly familiar. I say, "gorgeous night," and he agrees.
He wonders how long I've been here and where I live. When I say San Francisco, he asks me if I know where San Bruno is and says he has a lot of American friends. A lot of Americans have bought property here in the last five years he says, "driving the prices through the roof?" I add. He nods.
His voice is uncanny. I know it. He keeps talking. That voice. "How long have you been a cabbie here? More than five years?" Yes, he says, eleven years. Isn't that how long Obini has been at the Yacht Club?
Disconnect but then it connects again.
I know that voice.
"I think you drove me to Namale many years ago," thinking what a ridiculous statement that is and how many people in the past six years he has driven to Namale. On an island that has 40-60,000 depending on who you ask and the town itself has 5-7,000 depending on who you ask. Large enough and long enough ago not to remember a generic American accent and face in the dark.
"Was I sick?" I thought and found myself saying it aloud. He glances at me through the rear view mirror and finally smiles. "Ahhhhh yes, I remember you. You were not sick, I was the one who was sick," and then it all came back. That voice, that distinctive voice. "I had to stop to throw up and you brought me back to my family. You were with friends. From near Auckland," he adds.
"Yes, that's right," I say. "Stan something," he says. Incredulous. I had even forgotten his name but it was Stan something alright. He reaches his hand back to shake mine over the seat, "Gopen," he says. My jolly incredulous God. As familiar as if it were yesterday. And I remembered his name - it was short for a much longer name.
The house, he went on. "I drove them around on and off for a few days. Before I dropped you off, he gave me some homemade 'something' and vodka. It was a hot day. No wonder poor Gopen got sick. Gopen, who I later learn also is a manager of the Yacht Club.
That familiar Yacht Club. Obini. Eleven years. Gopen. Eleven years. He, throwing up outside his cab. "The same cab," he says with a smile and that ever so distinctive voice as if it were a long lost cousin not a Fijian cab driver I met twice. (229,000 miles btw - I had to know)
I felt bad I guess. Must have. He drove me to the airport after my retreat at Namale. "Do you remember?" he asks laughing. You left with a plastic bag full of vegetables you carried over your shoulder. We fasted and I was ten pounds thinner by the time I left. In a healthy ten pounds thinner sort of way. My skin had been glowing, my energy level was through the roof and I was in love with those damn vegetables.
"When we got to the airport, we ate them before you got on the plane." Such a memory Gopen. Such a memory. Such a voice Gopen. That voice.
I get out of the cab and leave him a healthy tip. I need to go back near there tomorrow, a new site up on the hill near Namale I tell him.... tomorrow. Forget any other taxi driver I think. Gopen is my man. He hands me his card and I recognize the moustache. Same cab he said.
"You sent me a bag of stuffed animals for the children," he reminds me. I sent three boxes but couldn't remember who the third went to and didn't have it written down anywhere I could easily find.
The senses on this island are too much.
I'll call Gopen tomorrow I think as I make my way back to my room. Joseph and Moses come into my mind as I walk along the pathway to my bungalow, the last on the left. The other two remarkable Fijian men who left an imprint on my mind and the other two who received boxes of stuffed animals for Fijian children.
Tomorrow is another day.
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