Thursday, May 10, 2012

Fiji Samoa

I guess one shouldn't complain when one has the opportunity to cross an entire wide ocean for such a reasonable price. But most everyone I talked to claimed to have got their ticket for less than I paid, so I suppose that that's a start.

Then there's the food. As opposed to our last cruise, this time there is often virtually nothing vegetarian to eat. Even the peas and carrots will have ham thrown in. Or you'll be eating the 'Cauliflower Curry' soup and all of a sudden bite into a scallop. Sure, Peter the cook will whip something up for you, but one can only eat deep fried tofu and potatoes so many days in a row.

And the entertainment. Featured singers hitting big notes that are also flat. Absolutely no one performing with any personality. The only half decent movies being shown at inopportune times. Even the karaoke list is dreadful.

Ah, but we came here for the ocean. Which was still going on all around us. And no matter how much time I try to take just looking at it, it's never enough. Especially now that we had headed north and in two days had gone from 60 degrees to 85.

And Wednesday morning we arrived at Suva, the capital of Fiji, our first exotic port of call. From my research I already knew that the main island, at 4000 square miles the same size as the big island of Hawaii, was not the one that tourists went to for white sand beaches and laid back ambiance Those were some of the 330 other islands in the group. In fact, from my research I kind of expected Suva to be rundown and maybe even scary.

Wrong on both counts. A friendly band greeted us on our way down the gangplank. When we became lost due to the rental agency listing the wrong address on the internet, a friendly Fijian policewoman told us where the Budget office really was. Then a friendly Indian cab driver didn't overcharge us in driving us there. Then a friendly Indian woman processed our rental paper work and we were on our friendly way.

About half of the population of Fiji is East Indian, descendants of people brought there 120 years ago to work the sugar plantations. They're still the ones doing all the work and owning all the businesses. The other half, of Polynesian stock, own all of the land, but still don't like work jobs all that much. Thus there is great political tension. This, however, does not translate to any weirdness or animosity in everyday life.

The initial impression was that Suva and Fiji were neither particularly rich nor poor. Kind of like at the level of the Dominican Republic that we had just visited, only English speaking and a lot more rural. As we headed west along the main route on the southern coast, road quality was way poorer than NZ, but certainly drivable.

The palm trees, rugged hills in the near distance, alternating agricultural fields and wilder land, all was pleasing on the eyes. Traffic was relatively civilized and light. A beautiful day, which was another stroke of luck, since apparently the last two days had been dreadful. Indeed, a couple of weeks earlier severe floods had pretty much destroyed the infrastructure of the western part of the island.

But we weren't going that far. Just to where we had to turn around to be able to get back in time. After 45 minutes I stopped for a Coke Zero. The cute little store in the middle of nowhere had thick wire mesh between the customer and the clerk with the merchandise and the money. Maybe things weren't as peaceful as I had been imagining.

But it still felt that way as we continued on down the road, past the hills and fields and palms. After another half hour or so, though, we started to realize that this wasn't exactly, er, spectacular. Never to mind. The guidebooks had said to expect that, but they also said to just wait until you hit the Coral Coast, because that's where the scenic grandeur really takes over.

Except that at some point I looked on the map and realized that we were well over halfway along said Coral Coast. And all that was on our left was about ten feet of muddy beach. And on our right was the same sort of nondescript tropical foliage and background hills. No drama or particular beauty whatsoever. The Coral Coast was yet another figment of someone's imagination.

Although why wreck a beautiful day with regret? We stopped for about twenty minutes at the best beach/viewpoint we could find. Then it was time to go back the way we had come. We had enough minutes left over to cruise Nagua, the only (small) town on the way, which was poor and ramshackle but friendly. We particularly liked the 24 hour kava (a semi-addictive depressant) shops.

When we got back we still had time to be dropped off downtown to cruise the semi-modern shopping mall that had been built next to the cruise ship pier area. Some great samosas, a couple of scoops of NZ ice cream, then it was time to return to the ship.

Except that I still had ten Fiji dollars to spend. And all the trinket sellers had already packed up and gone for the day. After a few desperate minutes of running around, I finally had the brilliant idea of buying three bottles of Fiji water. Direct from the source!

We were the last people back on the ship.

Since we crossed the International Date Line the next morning I got to relive Wednesday. The third time I've done that. And I wish that I had done something memorable on that extra day of life. But I didn't.

I was fully expecting American Samoa to be the low point throwaway part of the trip. From what I'd read over the years, it was a culture destroyed by the glop of America, filled with drunk unemployed men living off of their welfare checks and beating up their wives and children. And old junked cars and refrigerators in the yards of their rundown shacks.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

First off, the harbor area of Pago Pago is indeed one of the most beautiful inlets imaginable. Lush, jungly, strangely shaped jagged peaks frame it, and they continue up and down the island's thin, fifteen mile long length. It would be exceedingly difficult for even the worst of governments to muck this up.

And it turns out that our social safety net, which is quite meager by First World standards, is pretty nifty if your alternative is Third World squalor. Sure, the Sunkist tuna plant pays less than minimum wage, but then things don't cost that much, either. Certainly in comparison to AUS & NZ.

Moreover, as I'd already observed in Fiji, the Polynesian culture of laid back friendliness seems to trump whatever country that has colonized them. On the whole, the Samoans were simple, warm and gracious. (Not to mention extremely patriotic Americans.) And while certainly no longer a South Sea paradise, in this day and age I thought that they were doing pretty well.

Transportation here consists of open air truck-buses, and the maximum fare anywhere is about $2. First we took one to the eastern end of the island. It was refreshingly unpopulated and peaceful, and I spent 20 minutes walking down the road thinking about how this might me one of the quietest, lushest places in America.

But I also knew that there were 66,000 Samoans for 66 square miles, and that at least 90% of those square miles were impenetrable jungle mountains. We found many of these people on our trip to the western half. Although nothing ever felt remotely claustrophobically crowded. And a McDonald's and a Carl's Jr. were the only fast food pollutants that I encountered. And even the most crowded that it got didn't interfere with the sheer tropical beauty of the place.

We made it back to Pago Pago with several hours to spare. Freshen up and eat on the ship. Then a return to land to wander around, waste time, and do a little shopping with the friendly lady merchants. Not that it is generally my style, but I even bought a Hawaiian, er, American Samoan shirt.


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