[Journal entry from April 14, 2012. I'll be back-posting these travel posts as I write new entries.]
After spending time in both Australia and New Zealand, I think I’m genuinely reaching a point where I actually look forward to meeting locals. This is a pretty radical thing for me since I’ve been a stereotypically shy geek for most of my life. I don’t know if it’s entirely as a result of my travels, or simply because I’m getting older and am giving less of a damn what people think of me than I did when I was, say, 22.
So imagine how elated I was this morning when I boarded my plane in Auckland for Nadi, Fiji, and discovered my assigned seat-mate would be a bona fide Fijian. Given the renowned reputation of Fijians for being incredibly friendly, I figured that a chat with my seat-mate would be fun and informative. I’d get a bit of an “insiders view” the country I was about to spend the next two weeks in, and was excited by the prospect. That’s not to diminish from the time I’ve spent over the past couple of months immersed in Aussie and Kiwi culture, which are distinctive, but they’re still 1st world, English speaking ex-British colonies that watch most of the same TV shows and eat most of the same foods I’m used to back home. Fiji is my first truly foreign destination, and I was lucky enough to not be seated next to one of the many tropical-resort-beach-seeking tourists.
Or so I thought. My feelings of elation and luck would dissipate pretty rapidly, as it turned out. In fact, not long after we passed 10,000 feet and my seat-mate ordered his first Fiji Gold.
* * *
Travel days generally aren’t fun. Usually you’re up early, at the airport bleary-eyed, and run through the rigamarole of checking luggage, getting boarding passes and, of course, security. Last night I reserved a room to myself at the YHA Auckland International Hostel, on the theory that having my own space without the snores of others would allow me a good night’s rest before a day full of movement. Given the thinness of the hostel walls, and the room’s location right next to the bathroom, I suspect I would have been better off saving my money and simply gotten a bunk in the 4-bed dorm.
At least getting to the airport was easy. Just a quick trip on the Airbus Express, which picked me up from a stop near the hostel on Queen Street and deposited me neatly at the International Terminal.
Today’s flight on Air Pacific had all the charm you might expect of traveling to a exotic tropical isle, if you happened to choose to do so on the airborne equivalent of a 40-year-old third-world bus with wings. While I was sure the 747 I was on was perfectly airworthy (I’ve read enough of Ask The Pilot by now to know that… with the rational side of my brain, at least), it was definitely the first time in my travels that a bit of doubt managed to crawl its way into the back of my head and lodge itself there for the duration of the flight. This plane was old. It creaked like a haunted house in flight, the carpet had all the cleanliness one might expect from a hotel that rents rooms by the hour, and the plastic paneling on the cabin walls was yellowed from age. Age, and probably a long history of cigarette smoke: the flip-covers on the armrest ashtrays still functioned.
It had other things you’d expect from that third-world bus ride a well: stifling air, people talking far too loudly in an enclosed space, crying babies, the works. Though the a/c was running, I was sitting on the sunny side of the plane and sweating buckets. Desperately cranking open the valve above my seat, I was rewarded with a blast of warmish air that had all the force of an exhaling mouse. The air in the cabin had an actual haze to it. And a smell. Possibly even a taste. (Okay, maybe I exaggerate… slightly.)
My seat-mate proved to be friendly enough indeed, a friendliness exacerbated by the beers he would continue to pound back throughout the flight. I haven’t yet tried a Fiji Gold (though at least one Aussie is not impressed), but I’m guessing that they’re pretty light on the alcohol content: while the beer served to unleash an endless torrent of conversational topics from him, mostly telling me all about his business and what a keenly smart capitalist he was, but precious little about Fiji itself or what I might expect there. It wasn’t until an hour before landing that the beer had the effect I was hoping for and caused him to finally doze off.
It was night when I landed at Nadi International Airport, and just as hot, sticky, and humid as one might expect. The mass of people poured off the 747 and headed through to Immigration. Somewhere live musicians were playing, but by that point in the day their melodic welcoming to the islands was lost on me. It got worse at Immigration, as the agents there were none too happy with me for not having a clue what hotel I’d be staying at for the duration. The project leader hadn’t emailed me that info; it was still being worked out when she left the U.S. I handed over her phone number and, though less than satisfied, they apparently decided I wasn’t too much of a threat to Fiji national security and finally passed me through.
Exhausted and dragging from the sweltering air, I headed to the next line: Customs. Waiting to have my bag of leftover groceries from New Zealand inspected for dangerous goods, my talkative seat-mate suddenly appeared at my side. Having already gone through the separate immigration queue for citizens, he should have been out of the airport already. And why, you might ask, would my Fijian friend be suddenly standing next to me? Why, to ask be to buy some things for him at the duty free shops! Which, of course, he promised he would promptly reimburse me for on the other side.
Run down as I was, I think I still managed to cast a passable withering eye on him and, going with an oddly confident gut feeling about the situation, I turned him down. A bit begrudged, he vanished back into the crowds and all I could think was “I’ve barely touched down in this country, and already I have to deal with this scam-artist shit?” Cue mental eye-roll.
I emerged to see the friendly face of Pastor Joan, the project leader, and the local coordinator, a huge guy with a friendly smile. We piled into his battered old pickup truck and steered out of the airport into the cool(ish) tropical island air, racing north from Nadi to Lautoka along the two lane highway, occasionally slowing to crawl over roads damaged by the recent storms.
* * *
Today finished off with dinner, where I got to meet all the other volunteers for the project. I felt a bit like an outsider, as everyone in the group traveled from Los Angeles on the same flight to Fiji and had become acquainted with each other on board. Hopefully that feeling will go away when we start pounding nails together (or whatever we’re asked to do on this Habitat project) in a couple of days.
A couple of definite positives, though. One, the hotel room has air conditioning. Two, exhausted as I may be from the day, I have it somewhat better off than my fellow volunteers: New Zealand is only one hour’s difference from Fiji, so I won’t be suffering the same jet lag as the others over the next few days. Bonus.
Tomorrow, the work begins…