I rose belated and bedraggled from my cabin at some godly hour and headed upstairs to grab some breakiefast. No Full English for me, sir, I’m happy with the Alpen, thanks. Then it struck me: I had agreed to do a talk today about my adventures around the world. Why did I do that? Heaven knows; I guess I’m a rampant self-publicist. Unfortunately, my name was put down as ‘Gareth’ Hughes on the Ship Newsletter. Quite why a guy called Gareth would present a show called ‘Graham’s World’ is a matter for greater minds than mine. I blame Willy, the ship’s Deputy Director of Entertainment; who sounds like a scouser, but do not be misled, he doesn’t come from Liverpool, he comes from Birkenhead. Consequently, like all Birkenheadians, Malaysians and Nigerians he’s a Kopite and maybe the whole ‘Gareth’ thing was sweet revenge for all the ribbing I’ve been giving him all week (what’s the only ship that’s never come to Liverpool etc…).
Winging it (as always) and with no script or powerpoint presentation ready, I headed down to the Connexions Bar at 4pm to natter with the good people on board about my journey to 187 of the world’s countries without flying. I’m led to believe that inspirational speakers get paid a stack of cash for their canny witticisms, but I was happy to do it for shit and giggles. It took me an hour to get through my journey and although I missed a few opportunities for cheap gags along the way, it went down quite well (since when has a lack of preparation slowed me down?) and I capped off the evening’s entertainment by winning the subsequent pub quiz in fine form. Tomorrow we’d hit nation 188, Fiji.
Now let’s talk about the next seven countries. I have a plan, a plan that I’d like to share with you all. Okay, the final six (Micronesia, Palau, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles, South Sudan) are beyond the pale for the moment, but that leaves Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand and Nauru for me to get my teeth into.
I have repeated time and time again how difficult it would be to take cargo ships to these destinations, and I’m not joking. There are literally 3 cargo ships that *might* take me to these places, but if any one of them says no I’m more stuffed than a stuffed toy that’s been overstuffed with Christmas stuffing. The first of the three ships is The Southern Pearl, which runs from Fiji to Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshalls and then back to Fiji. The second is the Southern Lily 2 which runs from Fiji to Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand. The third is the Scarlett Lucy which runs to Nauru from Brisbane, meaning I have to also hitch a ride back to Australia at some point. Make no mistake: NOTHING ELSE goes to Nauru: no cruise ships, no yachts, no desperately misguided whales.
It is therefore with great relief and extra special appreciation that I introduce you to Rowan Moss of Pacific Direct Line: not only has Rowan fixed my passage on board the Southern Pearl, it looks like the Southern Lily 2 is a go AND the Scarlett Lucy will take me when I’m ready. It’s going to be a long hard slog, but the buttock-clenching bit is over, THANK YOU ROWAN! The next 7 countries are laid out before me. If all goes well, I’ll have Nauru knocked off the list before the end of February next year. Dino Deasha, Alex Zelenjak and Lorna Brookes have been instrumental in setting all this up, but it was really Mandy who came through at the end to win the relay on behalf of the Team Odyssey. Like Charlie Sheen when he was mad, we’re WINNING.
This time next year, Rodney… this time next year…
Today was a red-letter day for the Odyssey Expedition. I would step foot on the hallowed turf of the 188th country of The Odyssey Expedition: FIJI. Our port of call was Port Denarau: a rather artificial creation on the west coast of Viti Levu, the biggest island of the 300+ specks of land that make up modern Fiji. The tourist brochure bills it as something of a ‘resort’, the kind of thing that makes me breathe in sharply through my teeth: a golf course, a shopping centre and a Hard Rock Café. Eek.
But I have to say I had an absolutely awesome time. Most due to the fact that on the journey to land I got chatting to a fresh-faced young couple, Molly and Angus, from Adelaide who managed to restore my faith in all things Australia. We went to the local shop, I almost danced a jig when I saw long-necks (pint bottles) on sale for less than £1.50. We found a place on the grass by the marina and whiled away the lunchtime hours drinking grog and having a laugh. I probably talked too much, but then I often do. For the second longneck we headed over to the Hard Rock Café and laughed at the huge and improbable queue to get back on board the ship. Last launch at 4pm? Do me a favour. By 5pm we were still very much on land and the queue was still very much waiting. So we consoled ourselves with alcohol, good company and the fact that the live band playing outside the Hard Rock was nothing short of awesome. Well, they started in that tragic Australian Pubrock vein, but then blossomed into some of the funkiest mofo beats I’ve heard in an age (don’t forget I’ve been stuck in Pubrock Central (Oz) most of this year).
It may have been the booze. I’m contractually obliged to miss out a bit of the story at this point, so let’s skip to the bit where I’m back on board the mothership and drunkenly stuffing my clothes into a washing machine. After some tomfoolery at the restaurant (I’m so sorry if I’m the guy who joined you for dinner) I dried my clothes, thought I lost my secret money wallet (which was stacked full of cash) and headed up to the nightclub and oh god the night is a total blur from that point on. I just hope that nobody but myself had a camera. The last thing I recall is playing a game in which you have to suck on a beer mat and pass it onto the next person who has to suck it off your face. Entertainment value of 100%, but seriously, I may well have accidentally kissed a bloke. Please don’t tell my dad.
You know the theme song for the TV series Red Dwarf makes no frikkin’ sense at all? Have you ever stopped to consider why? It’s because the composer, Howard Goodall, originally intended to write different lyrics for each episode, as he did for Blackadder II. A passing remark in the first episode ‘The End’ alludes to Lister’s wish to live in Fiji: hence fun, fun, fun in the sun, sun, sun. Obviously Goodall has spent a week in Suva in cyclone season. Not that Fiji’s capital city isn’t fun, but overcast skies and incessant rain mean the ‘sun’ part probably doesn’t warrant saying three times in a row.
The good ship Pacific Pearl drew into Suva port on Monday morning. The second most expensive ferry ride of The Odyssey Expedition (after the ill-fated trip to Cape Verde) was over. 1,500 miles across the Pacific Ocean and now, thanks to daylight savings, my time zone was GMT+13. Oh my God I can’t believe it, I’ve never been this far away from home…
For the others onboard, the ship would be turning around and heading back towards Australia, but it was time for me to check out. After having a mini-heart attack when presented with my bar bill, I had my passport stamped into Fiji and set off to say goodbye to as many of my new chums as I could find. The good time I had on board was mostly down to the excellent company of George and Donna, Stef and Crystal, Christy, Bryson, Wil from Trinidad and the Ents crew – Willy, Gareth, Rocky who gallantly put up with my antics with aplomb. Around 1pm I disembarked, taking advantage of the free minibus to the city centre. Again, if you’re expecting palm trees and ukuleles, Suva is sure to disappoint: set around a working container port and with a busy, noisy, mostly concrete city centre, Suva isn’t your Pacific picture postcard town. But with over 300 islands to explore in Fiji, there’s usually little reason for a tourist to linger.
One final story that I’d like to tell about the cruise ship is this: one of the crew (and – of course – I’m not going to say who) and I had an interesting conversation about the morgue on board. Yes, cruise ships have a morgue. There are a hell of a lot of old people out to sea, eating too much and drinking too much… if anybody pops their clogs it’s not like you can just throw them overboard (unless you’re really lucky and they happen to be Osama bin Laden). And so, down in the bowels of the ship is a refrigerated room whose sole purpose is to provide accommodation to the occasional cadaver or two. Or three, as it happens. But no more than three. So I ask the question that you’ve all now got in your head. What if more than three people die on a single cruise?
Well, there are other refrigeration units on board. Their primary purpose is for food, but when needs must, they can have the food removed and replaced by a stiff. And has this ever happened? Well, not on the Pacific Pearl, but yes, it has happened.
I know death is no laughing matter, but somewhere in my fetid imagination a new recruit to the kitchens – Bob – has been told by the head chef to go get the ‘longpig’ from freezer F326. Not wanting to appear ignorant of this particular cut of pork strangely missing from his course in catering college, he sets off while the rest of the kitchen staff do their best to contain their giggles. ‘Longpig’ is the Melanesian slang for ‘dead human that we intend to eat’. Bob opens freezer F326 and screams like a little girl. Inside the freezer is old Aunt Margery, rather frosty and incredibly dead, preferably in that ‘leaping tiger’ pose that dead bodies tend to adopt in Indiana Jones films. The rest of the kitchen staff, meanwhile, laugh themselves to tears.
Longpig! They cry. Bob’s a good sport: he takes it on the chin… although the nightmare plague him for the rest of his life.
Talking of edible humans; before the missionaries turned up in the 1800s and spoilt everybody’s fun, Fiji, in keeping with most Melanesian and Polynesian islands, was notorious for its cannibalism. Why the hell not eh? We’re made of meat: why feed the worms when you can feed a family of 4 for a week? Apparently, some took it to rather icky extremes: stories abound of victims being kept alive for days while slowly being relived of their fingers, toes, hands, feet, arms and legs in that order – sometimes being forced to eat parts of themselves, like Ray Liotta in Hannibal. Human skin would be smoked and kept as a light snack when the kids fancied something a bit crunchy but also a little chewy. Eating your enemy was the ultimate insult: it meant you controlled their soul in the afterlife. Strangely enough, this fine young cannibals would also eat their deceased elders, presumably to keep their spirit in the family.
However, the popular image of missionaries being thrown in a big cooking pot is, sadly, not accurate. The indigenous people of Melanesia and Polynesia didn’t have the metallurgy skills required to make a massive cast-iron cauldron – the best you could hope for would be to be chopped up and cooked in several clay cooking jars. Although I am assured that the tribal chief would most definitely steal the missionary’s top hat.
There is a train of thought that the reason that pig is off the menu in Judaism (and some of its derivatives) is not owing to lack of Bronze-aged refrigeration techniques (pork rots at pretty much the same rate as other meats), but because (as the name ‘longpig’ suggests) human flesh and pork taste pretty damn similar. Maybe it was the one good thing to come out of the desert djinns dreamt up by the illiterate tribes of the Middle East – a distaste for cannibalism. I don’t know, being an immensely religious person, I have never eaten pork, but the grilled cheese and human sandwich I ate in Vanuatu didn’t half smell like bacon to me.
The next stage in my plan for world domination is to get to Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands. With the shipping companies Pacific Direct and Neptune agreeing to let me on board the MV Southern Pearl (not be confused with the Pacific Pearl – that was the cruise ship) next Saturday, I had just under a week to explore the island of Viti Levu. If only it would stop raining…! The weather forecast did not bode well for ferry travel to the other islands, and after burning so much cash on the cruise, I was in the mood for laying low and keeping my meagre coffers in the black.
I arranged to meet Sandy, my CouchSurf host, after work. Sandy’s CouchSurf profile is pretty impeccable: a local Fijian with over 100 friends and about 18 people prepared to vouch for her (I’ve been vouched for 8 times), there was little question as to who I would prefer to stay with. Sandy, like me, is 32, a graduate of History and Politics, an avid globetrotter and really really loves a nice hot cup of tea. She runs Dialogue Fiji, an organisation bravely trying to get the various political parties, charities, aid groups, military bigwigs, tribal chiefs, community heads and religious leaders together and talking. Talking about what does not matter, so long as they are sitting down in a room together and acknowledging each other. The political history of independent Fiji has been fraught with factionalism, in-fighting and coups d’etat, so any dialogue is better than none.
Sandy will be moving to the UK next year to do an MA in Peace Studies, so this could be the beginning of what Humphrey Bogart would call a beautiful friendship. Knackered from the cruise (yes, I know), I opted for a night in. After Sandy and I put the world to rights over a cup of tea, I settled down to see what my GPS had picked up on the ship over her. I was more than happy with the result.
But it got me thinking: is there a way to put all my GPS logs from the last 3 years into one big fancy map? After some DIY HTML and two days of copying and pasting, I came up with this, which is now on the front page of the website. If you click on the map it’ll open a new tab which is fully zoomable.
But you know the best bit? Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but there can be little doubt that my journey around the Gulf of Mexico makes a great ‘O’, there’s definitely a ‘D’ to be found in somewhere Europe if you squint. The Red Sea provides the first ‘Y’. There’s an ‘S’ in India and another in South East Asia. You can’t look at Indonesia and tell me that my trips to The Philippines, East Timor and West Papua don’t make an ‘E’. And the final, flamboyant ‘Y’ made by my voyage to Melbourne, the bus ride to Sydney and the Pacific Pearl towards Fiji is beyond all doubt…
Yes, ladies and gentleman, not only have I travelled to 188 countries without flying, I’ve also inadvertently managed to write the word ODYSSEY across the surface of the Earth. In case you weren’t already aware of this fact, I F—ING ROCK!!!
Kava is the tipple around these parts. Like beer and wine in Europe, it’s the one strand of commonality that runs through this disparate set of islands. Brewed (that’s probably not the right word) from the mulched up root of a tree, it looks a lot like muddy water and tastes like cold nettle soup, with some mud thrown in for good measure. I had a blast of it in Vanuatu and found it somewhat lacking in the taste department, although it did make my mouth go numb, which I suppose is a blessing if you’re intent on having a second helping. It’s served in a half coconut shell (or the skull of your enemy in less prissy times) and passed around from person to person with a CLAP before you drink and a CLAP CLAP afterwards. For years Kava was tapu (taboo) for woman to drink, although they used to have the job of chewing up the root before spitting it into the water bowl for the menfolk to then enjoy. Feminism, germ theory and the missionaries put a end to that noble tradition.
What effects, narcotic or otherwise, that Fijian Kava (other islands make stronger brews) has on your body and soul is much open to debate. From my experience, it makes you a little drowsy but that might also be the natural effect of it being late at night.
After a few stuff of the brown stuff, the taste becomes less obnoxious and it’s perfectly possible to drink the night away with good company. Sandy’s friends Peter and Ann provided that good company around at their place on Friday night. Peter is a Fijian and Ann is originally from Illinois, but has been here long enough to drink Kava like a local. After a few shells (for me – Sandy doesn’t drink), Sandy and I headed out into Suva to meet with CouchSurfing friends of hers in the Bad Dog Café, the epicentre of Suvan nightlife.
After Bad Dog, we headed over to I-Crave, a swanky little nightspot not far from the British High Commission (Fiji is currently suspended from the Commonwealth, but it still ain’t no embassy baby). Sandy left me in the capable hands of her mates and I set out to get rather squiffy with Cassie, Losana, Jakara, Cat and Kat. We ended up in a nightclub whose name has been lost to the vagaries of the beer vortex. I can’t quite remember how I got home to Sandy’s, but I’m jolly glad I just about managed it.
I was rather expecting the old Southern Pearl to be leaving today, but its ETA in Suva has been pushed back by a day so it wouldn’t be leaving until Monday… at the earliest. Ah well, thinks I, so long as Sandy doesn’t object to the strange hairy man from the other side of the world staying a couple more nights… On Saturday night, Sandy and I headed back over to Peter and Ann’s for round two of my Kava Initiation ceremony. Losana from last night was there (laughing at my drunk n’ disorderly behaviour the night before) along with a few others who had popped around for Kava and the Super Sevens Rugby, in which Fiji was doing remarkably well. So remarkably well that they went on to beat New Zealand and take the first round of the international tournament: and deservedly so – where else do you see grown rugby men cry during the National Anthem? Christ, if only English footballers could muster that amount of passion, we might actually win something.
The next day, it being Sunday, Sandy invited me around to her mum’s house to hang out with her family. Nephews and nieces running about getting up to no good and enough food to feed a passing army. We talked shop, ate birthday cake (happy birthday Wah!) played cards, played chess and watched a wonderfully godawful film on TV (The Next Best Thing: AVOID). All in all, a perfect Sunday afternoon. All that was left at the end of the day was to thank everybody for such a good time and head back to Sandy’s place for one of her massive cups of tea and one final push to get my blogs up to date before I left at 7am tomorrow.
7am on Monday morning, I was just about mustering up the energy to drag myself out of the bed when my mobile rang. It was Lopeti, the port agent from Neptune Shipping. The ship was delayed so I didn’t need to come down the docks until 2pm. After staying up until half three last night getting my blogs uploaded, I was so relieved for the extra lie-in I would have happily danced a jig, if it didn’t mean getting out of bed. So I turned over and went back to sleep. I eventually got up around 10am. Sandy had left for work hours ago. I made myself a massive cup of tea and started getting my things together. At noon came a second phone call from Lopeti: the ship wouldn’t be leaving until tomorrow.
Leaving that afternoon is one thing, having to ask the lovely Sandy for yet another night’s free room and board is a little too cheeky, even for my liking. So I called Sandy, explained the situation, offered to take her out for dinner and swore that no matter what I would be out of her hair tomorrow morning at seven.
Sandy, bless her, took it all in her stride and said I was welcome for one more night. I made good on my promise of dinner and we dined on some yummy chow at the new Chinese restaurant next to McDonald’s. I set my alarm for 6.45. My bags were packed and I was all ready to rock n’ roll.
By 8am the next morning I was at the Neptune Shipping office on George Street, where I was told that the ship wouldn’t be leaving until tonight. No worries: I’ll ‘check in’ now and hang about until we’re ready to go. Lopeti took me in the Neptune minibus over to the ship yard and I finally got to clamber on board the Southern Pearl. I met with Captain Don (originally from Scotland, now a Kiwi), Chief Engineer Max and various other officers and crew. After lunch, the captain suggested that I go ashore for a bit, as we probably wouldn’t be leaving until midnight. So I went and got a haircut.
In Fiji it is taboo to touch the chief’s hair. Before the missionaries turned up and made everything all boring and civilised, it was customary for the chief to have the biggest hairdo in the tribe. There are stories of men with hair that spanned five metres. Nobody was allowed to have a bigger ’do than the chief, under pain of death. Back in the 1800s a rather silly missionary touched a chief’s head and was summarily eaten. The message is simple: hands off the ’fro, Delilah.
Funnily enough, my hair was becoming increasingly chief-like, in that it probably needed a trim. It’s not that I’m morally adverse to having my hair cut, I just worry that the barber might go temporarily insane and cut off way too much hair, thus diminishing both my superpowers and my trademark tramp-like appearance.
Which is exactly what happened.
After put my glasses back on and I saw the carnage wrought on my noggin’ by the barbarian with the snip-snips, I can see why even today, hairdressers in Fiji are not allowed to touch the chief’s hairdo. It seems the word ‘trim’ has no Fijian equivalent. Either that or it means ‘destroy’. And now instead of a valiant adventurer I look like a rather distressed coconut.
I took to the Bad Dog Café to drown my sorrows. Unfortunately, happy hour didn’t end (for me) at 6pm and after a call from Peter, the watchman on board the ship telling me that the ship would now not be leaving until tomorrow (or even – those dreaded words – “tomorrow after tomorrow”) the demon drink held sway over my actions and I’m not proud to say that for a second night this week I have no idea how I got home: this time to my cabin onboard the Southern Pearl.
Although it is a rather marvellous feeling that it must take a phenomenal amount of alcohol to knock out my internal homing beacon.
Wednesday morning I woke up feeling muchly worse for wear. I looked at the stupid coconut in the mirror and decided if he went to my school I’d probably pick on him too. Somewhat relieved that the ship still hadn’t left, (my sea legs had been replaced by wibbly-wobbly jelly legs) I was more than happy to lay in my bunk and watch episodes of The Pacific, which is like Band of Brothers only (sadly) nowhere near as good. I’d like to spend sometime figuring out exactly why it wasn’t as good, but I have the feeling it’s because the main characters were about as loveable as pubic lice. A bit like Star Wars Episode I.
Talking of pubic lice, I’ve also been indulging in The West Wing, which I never watched on its original run, and about a series and a half into it I now know why. I would honestly prefer a night on the tiles with George W. Bush’s staff than President Bartlett’s. Sam, CJ, Josh and that cretin Toby: they’re all so wholesome, mealy-mouthed, lovey-dovey, oh-so-earnest and painfully smug they make me wish Jack Bauer would pay them a visit. And kill them all.
Every time I see that pathetic excuse of a man Toby make his stupid mopey puppy-dog face and those stupid mumbly puppy-dog noises, all sorts of violent ways and means of despatching him off to Tartarus spring to mind. The only character I like is Bartlett himself, but the poor guy is surrounded by the worst kind of dicks. No wonder the Democrats never won an election in real-life when this saccharine-sweet mulch was being shown on TV. Hey America! Look what total dicks these Democrats are! Do you want your country run by men who can make a decision or mumbly puppy-dog eyed morons who look like they’re about to bust into tears at any given moment?
I am fairly convinced that Aaron Sorkin is on the Republican payroll. I shudder to think what Toby’s reaction to September 11th is going to be: unless they replace his character with Droopy Dog for the rest of the series I don’t see how it’s possible for him to get even more mopey.
And the godawful music at the end? What the hell is that? Murder She Wrote? In short, The West Wing: it’s like Friends except not funny and every character is Ross.
And now back to The Odyssey…
The subsequent ship I intend to take – The Southern Lily 2 (in order to progress to Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand) – departs after Christmas, so I’m not really pressed for time when it comes to the departure of The Southern Pearl: so long as it returns to Suva before December 25th, I should (hopefully) be laughing. Peter’s estimation of ‘tomorrow after tomorrow’ was actually quite accurate: we left Suva around midday on Thursday 1st December. If I had known we were going to hang around for so long I would have taken in more of the island of Viti Levu, but no worries: I’ll do it when I get back.
The route we’re taking goes to Wallis and Futuna (both French territories) then Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu, then Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, then Majuro, the capital of The Marshall Islands, and then back to Fiji. In other words: three birds, one stone, The Southern Pearl YOU ROCK MY WORLD!
But the ship is a little heavy at the moment, so we’re actually going to Funafuti first, to drop off some containers and reduce the draught, whatever that means. Only then will we double back to Wallis and Futuna, both of which have shallow ports. We don’t want to be scraping along the bottom of the ocean now do we? Then we’ll head back to Funafuti to retrieve the containers and go about our way. Doing this will add another day or so onto the trip, but like I say, so long as we are back for Christmas, I couldn’t care less. I’ve got food, drink, Kava, good company and over 1000 miles of open ocean ahead of me. When this voyage is over I’ll have just 10 countries left to visit. I really can’t thank Pacific Direct and Neptune enough. We’re getting there, my loyal Odysseans, we’re getting there!!
The good ship Southern Pearl arrived in Suva on last night. However, since we had been to Wallis and there’s a particular breed of snail that exists on Wallis that the Fijians definitely do not want on their island, we weren’t allowed to enter the port until morning, lest one of them naughty snails was hiding on the bottom of an improperly cleaned container and was eluding the snail-hunter-in-chief by hiding in the dark like some crafty badger.
So we drifted out in the ocean for the night. You’ve got to be careful when drifting: you can move massive distances, even with the engine off. Hit a reef and it’s game over for your career at sea – you’ll be lucky to escape jail. Do you know how long it takes for a cargo container such as the Pearl (top speed 15 nautical miles per hour) to come to a stop after you turns its engines off? Two miles. Seriously.
The next day, it was goodbye from me and goodbye from him as I disembarked the Pearl for the last time. My three week odyssey which took me to three of my remaining countries — some of the most remote countries in the world — was over. I can’t thank Rowan Moss, Captain Jim Hebden, Pacific Forum Line, Neptune Shipping, Captain Don and the crew of the Southern Pearl enough.
With a song in my heart and a spring in my step I hit the streets of Suva. I met up with Sandy Fong, my CouchSurf host from when I was here last, for a spot of lunch. Suva town was hopping with people cramming for Christmas. Sandy was having friends over tonight, so we arranged for me to stay at the South Seas backpackers and meet with her tomorrow for a Christmas Eve barbecue at her brother’s place.
South Seas was pretty quiet. I threw my bags down in the empty dorm and waddled over to the window to do a piece to camera. As I was nattering away to my own fist, my roommate entered the dorm. I’m used to people staring at me as I walk down the street talking to my camera, but even so, it was a pretty dickish first impression.
I decided to make amends by introducing myself to Renato and guessing that he came from Peru. I knew he came from Peru, reception had told me. We headed down to the TV lounge and I showed him a couple of my videos that I shot in Peru a few years ago, including this one of the Inca Trail, which is as funny as it is informative(!):
Outside, as always in Suva, it was pissing down with rain. I was keen to start drinking, but Renato and I decided to wait until the rain held off for a minute. We arrived at Bad Dog at 5pm, just in time for happy hour (beers F$2.50 a glass: NICE!) and the night of the Eve of Christmas Eve began.
After Renato and I (mostly I) put the world to rights, the night descended into a series of random meetings with some of the goodies and baddies that I had made friends with last time I was here. At 11pm we were shunted next door to O’Reilly’s Irish Bar: the drunken heart of Suva on a Friday night.
More comings and goings of infrequent hilarity ensued, the memories (as so often occurs when I have nowhere to really be in the morning) get a little fuzzy after midnight, but the next morning I woke up in the correct bed in the correct dorm in the correct hotel, happy that my autopilot mode is still functioning above and beyond the call of duty.
Wiping the hangover from my forehead, I exited my bed in a manner reminiscent of a slinky going down the stairs. It was 11.15am. Check out was 10am. Oops. A quick shower and some heartfelt apologies later, and I fell asleep in the TV lounge waiting for the rain to stop.
The afternoon of Christmas Eve I darted into Suva Town for a little bit of (traditional) last minute shopping. I needed to get a little gift for today’s Secret Santa. I then headed over to Sandy’s brother’s place and met up with Sandy, Peter and Ann, as well as a bunch of Sandy’s mates a good old fashioned Christmas barbeque. As with barbeques in the UK, it was raining, but since when has that stopped anyone?
Peter has just got back from Durban where he was one of the Fijian delegates. Just want to say a big THANK YOU to all our American, Canadian and Australian cousins for blocking the EU’s attempt to get a meaningful emissions scheme set up before the year 3000.
By ‘a big THANK YOU’, of course what I really mean is ‘DAMN YOU, you stupid, cowardly, greedy bastards; damn you all to hell’, much in the manner of Charlton Heston pounding the sand with his fists. Hey, don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just telling you what the civilised world is thinking.
The BBQ was followed by a round of karaoke, and I’m proud to say I’m as bad as ever. It really does boggle the mind that people who can’t sing still try their luck on X-Factor. Have they never recorded themselves and played it back? Eek. Make the bad man go away…
I stayed the night and on Christmas morning Sandy and I headed over to her mum’s place for some fantastic Fijian festive fun. With at least 20 mouths to feed (and this was a ‘quiet’ Christmas for the Fong household!) work on Christmas lunch began in the wee small hours of the morning by setting light to the Lovo.
The Lovo is a type of earth oven that has been used by Fijian people for centuries (and boy is it looking old). Imagine Ray Mears had 20 hungry mouths to feed and you’ll have some idea of what we’re doing here. First up, you make a nice big bonfire and once it’s going you chuck in some big stones. The type of stones you use must be of a particular type: ones that don’t crack when they get hot. They usually come from the river.
While the stones heat up you start work on scraping the hard white stuff out of a heap of coconuts. Once you get a pile of white coconut mulch you squeeze out the juice into a large metal bowl. This milky juice is then sieved into a bucket. Glug down that bucket and you would suffer the worst dose of the squits since you last had anaemic dysentery. To counter the explosive diuretic effects of coconut milk, you have to add salt and use it sparingly. The milk is added to fresh onions and then the coconut/onion mixture is wrapped up in several taro leaves, ready to go in the Lovo.
Next up you need to prepare the meat. After leaving in a tasty marinade over night (or filling with stuffing, whatever takes your fancy), the meat is then expertly weaved into a palm leaf, creating what looks like a funky green basket of meat.
While your meat weaver is expertly doing his stuff, the others will be fending off the heat of the bonfire and picking out the burning wood.
Eventually (after a singed eyebrow or two), the wood has been removed and all that is left of the fire are a bunch of white-hot stones. Onto those stones are laid a grid of reeds (that somehow don’t burn) and then the food you want to cooked is stacked aboard, starting with your taro, then your meat and then your taro-leaf coconut milk stuff.
Then the entire shebang is covered in these big-assed leaves (I think they were banana leaves) which, after they get hot, create a steam-proof seal around your food – the final product looks a lot like an improbably large Brussels sprout.
The bottom edges are covered in soil to stop any steam escaping from underneath and hey presto: an earth oven!
Leave your din dins in there for a couple of hours and when it comes out it’ll be tastier than a missionary kebab.
After din-dins, we spent the afternoon in the most traditional way possible: we played Monopoly and watched Spy Kids 4 with Sandy’s many nephews and nieces. I like the idea that there’s a good possibly that at least one household in each of the 191 countries I’ve visited so far on The Odyssey Expedition which spent their Christmas afternoon doing exactly the same thing.
Boxing Day was a long, lazy day, but one in which I learnt an important life lesson: if you’re in a small swimming pool and you get everybody in it to run in a circle, you can create a whirlpool. True story.
My ticket out of here, the Southern Lily 2, doesn’t leave until after New Year, so I’ve got a week or so to spend mooching about, causing trouble and generally being a crimson-headed nuisance.
The day after Boxing Day, a new chief would be installed as head of Sandy’s mum’s clan. I was invited along to the ceremony which would be held in the small village of Buca Levu, a couple of hours drive out of Suva on the eastern side of the main Fijian island of Viti Levu. I’d be a fool to turn an opportunity like this down, and as I keep telling the taxi drivers of the world, my mama ain’t never raised no fool.
So on Boxing Day night I stayed over at Sandy’s mum’s house in Delainavsei on the outskirts of Suva, ready to head out to the village at early o’clock in the morning. As there was so much stuff to take to the village (gift giving is incredibly important in Fijian culture) we wound up missing the bus, but Sandy’s brother, Kee, gave us a lift in his car.
The village was lovely – just off the main road and all built with local materials. Before I entered the house where I would be staying, I had been fully briefed by Sandy with regards protocol when in a Fijian village. First up, if everybody else is sitting, you must not stand. You must not walk in front of anybody, only behind them. When you walk behind somebody you must say “chillo” which is the Fijian for “excuse me”. The patriarch of the household is called “Tata Levu”, meaning “Big Father”. The matriarch is called “Nana Levu”.
When you enter a Fijian home it is traditional to give a small gift to Tata Levu, usually powered Kava. I had bought a couple of packs the day before at Sandy’s behest. As a guest, you must enter the house through the back door, never the front door. You must take your shoes off before entering and it’s respectful (but not essential) to wear a ‘sulu’ – the cotton sarong that you often see Fijian men wearing. Sandy had lent me a sulu of her brother’s.
When sitting on the floor to eat, your place at the table is important, so don’t just sit anywhere – wait until somebody shows you where to sit. And finally, most importantly, don’t touch anybody on the head: it is the height of bad manners. Missionaries were eaten for touching the chief’s head. Oh, and I wasn’t allowed to wear my hat.
After presenting my gift of kava to Tata Levu, we sat down to eat breakfast together. After that, Kee set off back to Suva and Sandy’s mum and I squelched our way across the muddy village (it’s the rainy season alright!) to an open sided structure with wooden pillars and a tin roof in the middle of the village green. The ceremony of chiefly matters was soon to begin.
As the final preparations were made I sat and chatted with Aisea Naigulevu, the softly spoken white-haired man who was about to become this clan’s first chief. Each village is made up of several clans – extended families – and to have a voice in the village council (and to stand a chance of becoming village chief yourself one day) your clan needs a chief. To be made chief is a great honour and a position that Aisea (pronounced Isaiah) will keep until the day he dies: there might not be an investiture of a new chief for another 20 years.
While Aisea went off to get ready for the ceremony, Sandy’s mum gave me a tour of the food preparations for the feast that would follow. Like at Christmas, cooking was done in a lovo – in this case, many lovos. Many really BIG lovos. At least two cows, five pigs and god knows how many chickens were being cooked. The taro was being delivered in wheelbarrows. Fish, lamb, vegetables of all shapes and sizes: everything was being put together by a team of villagers that put the caterers that did the royal wedding to shame.
Then it was back to the shelter on the green for the ceremony. Aisea sat at the front facing us all and some 200 villagers filed in: some of whom had come from Nadi on the other side of the island, some had even flown back from New Zealand and Australia. We all sat on the floor and when everyone was settled, the proceedings began.
First of all we had a church service, Fijians incorporate their new religion with the old pre-Christian rites. The minister spoke in Fijian so I kinda got a flavour of what it must have been like being a Catholic in the days before they started doing the mass in English.
After some very nicely sung hymns, the minister stood next to Aisea and spoke (I assume) about the new chiefs rights and responsibilities. He then anointed Aisea’s head with a drop of oil from a glass vial and Aisea stood up, now chief of the clan. Everybody queued up to shake his hand and get a photo standing next to Aisea.
And then the feasting began! There was so, so much food it was insane. The beautiful blue skies we had enjoyed in the morning had (predictably for Fiji at this time of year) given way to dark storm clouds in the afternoon. I don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful to have a tin roof over my head. I sat with my very full plate of food chatting with members of Sandy’s mum’s clan and revelling in the honour I had been shown to be invited to a private event such as this.
Once the food had all been demolished, people started heading back to their homes for an afternoon siesta. When in Rome…
That evening I sat playing cards with the kids by the light of a kerosene lamp. I introduced them to the wonderful world of the card game ‘speed’ (which is the fastest way to wreck your nice clean Bicycle deck) as well as showing them a card trick or two. They in turn went through every animal in the zoo and tried to teach me what the Fijian word for it was. Around 9pm I was invited to come and drink kava in another house, which of course I accepted.
The kava session was great. It’s funny that in almost all human cultures, conversation is always best over a drink: whether it’s a coffee, a bottle of San Miguel or a bowl of brown root water. We were drinking out of a traditional wooden kava bowl, which I have to recommend over the usual plastic washing-up bowl. It’s like the difference between drinking Coca-Cola out of a glass bottle and drinking it out of a plastic bottle. After spinning some tales from the road and putting the world to rights it was almost morning. I returned to Tata Levu’s house, took my space on the floor and fell fast asleep. What a great day.
It was just after 9am when I said my fond farewells to Sandy’s mum and the village of Buda Levu.
I jumped the bus north towards the town of Rakiraki, wanting to explore the island of Viti Levu a little more. In case you were wondering, ‘Levu’ means ‘Big’, so ‘Viti Levu’ means ‘Big Viti’. Well, actually, it means ‘Big Fiji’, as ‘Viti’ is the Fijian name for their own country: the version we know, ‘Fiji’, is actually a Tongan word. Strange but true!
This time of year the days start with a burst of blisteringly hot tropical sunshine, cooking the wet ground and creating a steamy atmosphere: yes you’ll sweat so you might as well get used to it. Around noon the clouds (typically) roll in, but then that’s what makes Viti Levu so marvellously green. The afternoon is given over to the rain gods and it’s remarkable that I made it this far without an umbrella.
The town of Rakiraki was small and unassuming. I stopped for lunch at the Wananavu Beach Resort at the most northerly point of the mainland. Then I went to look for the nearby tomb of Udre Udre (pronounced Undre Undre) – a notorious cannibal who, in his lifetime, ate 872 people. Seriously. This guy went through cadavers like they were potato chips. I mean, you’d think if you were going to dine on the bones of the dead, it would be a kinda once-a-year sorta deal. Not for Udre Udre. To munch your way through 872 (literally) mansized feasts for one, you’d have to chow down on a fellow homo sapien once a month, every month for over 72 years. That’s a lotta fish and people pie.
I then headed along the magnificent north coast road to the city of Lautoka, a place I found neither pretty nor interesting. I was sorely tempted to press on to Nadi, but I thought I’d give Lautoka the benefit of the doubt. Silly me. I checked into the Lautoka Guesthouse and headed downstairs to the ‘pizza bar’. Now it’s been a couple of months since I last ate pizza, so I thought what the hell, lets go for it, and the Chicken Tikka pizza on offer did at least sound groovy.
Unfortunately, the pizza I got was the Bolognese one. Which would have been acceptable had the mincemeat not smelt of rotten mincemeat. I managed a couple of bites, but for the sake of my health (and sanity) I left it at that. In the three years I’ve been doing the Odyssey, in over 190 countries and territories, I haven’t had to see a doctor for anything other than preventative medicine, and I don’t intend to blemish my good attendance record any time soon.
I wandered the empty streets and after finding nothing going on, save some dogs making more dogs, I returned to my empty dorm. Wishing I had stayed in the village, I was then accompanied by two rather pleasant Americans from Arizona. A brother and sister, I was so relieved to have company I demanded they accompany me for beer. We went to a bar a little down the way, which was (predictably) emptier than Paris Hilton’s noggin. But we had a good old natter about the state of union, Obama’s chances in the upcoming elections and whether the constitution needs a reboot.