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Cruise Diary: Suva, Fiji

Although HAL blogger Gary Frink is home from his Oosterdam cruise, he still had a few wonderful posts to share. Enjoy!

Suva, Fiji provides exotica in multiple layers: a history of cannibalism through the early 20th Century — “A cannibal fork is the one thing I’ll buy here,” Jeanne announced; military coups; beggars and shoe shine boys in the streets; ethnic Melanesian/Polynesian men wearing Sulus (including police and military,) wrap-around, skirt-like garments bound at the waist (East Indian, roughly half of the population, men wear trousers;) very colorful, attractive postal stamps and currency notes and finally the clock tower, Big Ben of Fiji which, when functioning, strikes on the quarter hour (alas, it was apparently ailing and certainly soundless during our pass-through the campus of government buildings, where it resides.)

The day began with a stroll along the dock, past the police department orchestra, there to serenade us, near the bow of the ship. From the dock, we exchanged “BULAS” (the Fijian shout of welcome) with any and all, as we strolled to our first stop toward realizing our goal of leaving a sprinkling of Yankee Dollars in the City of Suva.

“Go into my shop, have a look around,” said an East Indian merchant, as Jeanne and I entered a long shed, divided into narrow, shallow, shop units. The salesman was leaning against the outside wall facing the one aisle extending through the shed; by loitering outside his limited space, he attempted to chat-up into his space, the foreigners passing down the aisle.

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The “stores” contained much of what one will find in the curio shops of any of the Polynesian islands within the triangle, carved wooden bowls, spears, hatchets and turtles — in Polynesian mythology, turtles carry you in and out of life. And always there is simple jewelery made of shell and bone. Jeanne was fondling a shiny, shell turtle pennant, while keeping her eye on a hook-shaped bone fob. “I tell you, because you are a very good fellow, I will give you a good price, if you buy them both.” Who could resist such an entreaty? We also priced a cannibal fork, a small one used on the defeated warrior’s eyes and brains, but the moment had not yet arrived.

From the shed of shops, near the water’s edge, we wandered aimlessly into the very narrow streets of central Suva in search of a sidewalk cafe for a Coke and a beer; apparently not that kind of town, Suva Town. One man, appearing to be at least a semi-official BULA booster, suggested we might satisfy our search if we walked up the hill on the sidewalk to our left; up the hill we went. Near the top we paused at a main-drag kind of cross street; across it, I saw the second-story wooden sign: Public Bar. Uncertain, we walked into the open door of a shirt shop on the corner.

“No, I wouldn’t take your wife up there,” said the proprietor, a genial, well-past-middle age, East Indian gentleman. “Might be OK for you to go up there for a quick beer, but you wouldn’t want to stay too long.” Convinced, I tried on some tropical shirts instead. After a short conversation about the price, based on conversion rates, Yankee Dollars to Fijian (I only bore Yankee,) I bought a full-bodied maroon-ish one. “The fabric is Japanese cotton, the shirt made here. Fiji doesn’t have any ability to make fabric, but we can sew.” Down the hill we went.

Memory fades. However, someone in the street I asked about a beer and a Coke availability suggested the food court on the second floor of the shopping mall anchored by Proud’s Department Store; excellent tip. As we got off the escalator, Restaurant 88 was a large, inviting joint to the right. Ana, our diminutive Fijian (as opposed to E. Indian) waitress placed us at a large, circular table in the window corner of the room. After three hours walking the crowded and narrow streets of urban Fiji in the tropical heat and humidity, the air conditioned, spaciousness of Restaurant 88 was a great relief.

Fiji Gold Beer is excellent. Next time you are in Suva… A Coke is a Coke. With our thirst partially quenched, we ordered Crispy Squid from the menu. My first bite was a large piece of onion; it was so piquant/hot I went into a coughing jag. The onions must have been marinated for hours in a red pepper concoction. I survived.

During our time at Restaurant 88, Ana hovered near us, sometimes reassuredly touching my shoulder. When time arrived for us to take our leave of Ana et al, I inquired about how to get to Government House, the president’s residence. Ana said: “I will take you to the bus.” Down the escalator, through Proud’s, to the store’s money exchange. “Will you change as little as three dollars,” I asked the young woman at the desk. The answer was affirmative and shortly we had Fijian bus money. Ana stayed with us until we boarded the correct, very old, English-made bus, that was difficult to place in gear.

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There were no windows on the sides of the bus. Rolled up canvas flaps could be lowered in case of a driving rain storm. The streets were vehicle-packed, as was the bus: four persons to metal seats built for three. The bus proceeded slowly. A pretty young girl sat next to me; after a while, I asked her about the stop for Government House. “It is the next one,” she said. I paid the driver for two fares as we exited (I opened my hand of coins and he took what he needed.)

Jeanne and I were not at Government House, but the campus containing government buildings and Big Ben of Fiji. Not interested in bureaucrats or their buildings, we walked to our right, across (Prince) Albert Park, apparently a (closed) football (Rugby/ Soccer) field. We continued on to Thurston Gardens, wherein the Fiji Museum is embedded. Established in 1904, the Fiji Museum is said to be the oldest national history museum in the South Pacific.

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The Fiji museum is small by any standard; it does, however, contain the rudder of HMS Bounty and examples of Fijian sea-going rafts and canoes. The museum also contains Lapita pottery chards, which have allowed scientists to establish that Fiji and other area island groups were populated before the time of Christ.

It was here, at the Fiji Museum, that we were called to possess one of the pronged, hand-carved, mud-soaked, hand-polished Veti wood cannibal forks. Folks, where, I ask you, could the Frinks find a more authentic cannibal fork, ready to gouge out an eye or two, or dig into the gray matter of a fallen foe than at the quaint and campy Fiji Museum Gift Shop? Of course, our cannibal fork was inordinately expensive, but that is what the world-wide phenomenon of museum gift shops is about: to separate traveling fools from their treasure, all in the good name of preserving historical artifacts or pigment applied to canvas.

“Let’s walk back,” Jeanne said. It was hot and humid in the sun or shade; but the bus had been so slow and God only knew when one heading in the direction of the Oosterdam would arrive. We set forth. Our first stop was at a large McDonald’s. We sought gratis wi-fi service, to roam through emails and kill the growing stack of unwanted news dispatches and forwarded nonsense from friends. The Golden Arches were willing, but the signal was weak. We wandered on toward our ship.

Jeanne and I arrived at a commercial internet establishment. One pays by the minute.“Do you take American dollars or credit cards,” I asked with almost a pleading whine in my voice. “I’m sorry, we only take Fijian dollars,” came the reply from the sweet young lady. To an ATM we marched. Twenty Fijian bucks was the lowest amount processable; we grabbed the $F20. For a pittance, we partook the luxury of an hour dealing with incoming junk, sending a few outgoing emails to friends and ascertaining our financial condition.

After arrival at the ship (again passing the Suva Police Department band, preparing for their evening serenade) we were of such a depleted physical condition that we made no attempt to shower, dress-up and crawl to table number 25, Vista Dining Room. We dialed Oosterdam room service. In a short time, a polite and attentive room service steward provided us with delicious salads of our choice, beverages and deserts. Suva, Viti Levu Island, Republic of Fiji had wrung us out.

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