The learning curve

"A journey is like marriage.  The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it."
-- John Steinbeck



In my home state of Ohio, after 8 hours of driving you would wind up in another state, or even another country.  However, in 2.5 hours I made it just 1 town north of Nadi to Lautoka -- 27 kilometers to be exact.  For an island smaller than Connecticut, I thought circumnavigating the main island would be a swift process.  Regardless of what the various names suggested there was nothing fast about public services in Fiji.
In the west's hub, I departed Lautoka (pronounced "L-oww-toe-kuh") on the "Express" bus toward Suva.  It was forced to drive 30 kph a.k.a. 19 mph -- instead of the national speed limit of 80 kph -- behind an oil tanker.  The Kings "Highway" -- again, a misnomer -- was riddled with patches of speed bumps through each village... and I assure you, between every town on the map, there are heaps of villages!
Passing vehicles on the curvy highway in a long, repurposed tour bus proved difficult.  During one particular steep incline the speedometer never crept above 10 kph.  Factor in that the bus also served as a courier.  A woman paid the bus driver to deliver car parts from Lautoka (NW corner) to Nausori (SE corner) because -- I imagine -- it's still faster by public transport than post.  And this goes both ways.  An older, male passenger notified the driver to stop at an unassuming driveway in the highlands.  The passenger jumped off the bus as it was still rolling to a stop, picked up a large sack of flour, stored it in the luggage compartment, then returned casually to his seat like he hadn't just interrupted everyone's trip.  Yet, no one seemed to be irritated by this, it was simply what the nation & locals affably referred to as "Fiji time".

Likewise, the ferry that frequented the two popular island groups off Nadi's coast was equally arduous. The Yasawa Flyer did not "fly" nor zoom anywhere.  Though signs with departure & arrival times were posted on the boat, on the website & on my ticket, I soon learned it was pointless to worry much about them since there was only one boat.   Ironically, the company asks that riders "Please allow 5 minutes for disembarking" the ship.  Whoever wrote the terms of carriage was ridiculously overzealous in his/her estimation, as simply unloading the luggage for 1 resort took 5 minutes alone.  Multiply that by the 3 resorts that were on each island.  Now, multiply that number again because you've got just as many oncoming passengers as outgoing, and you can see that it is logistically impossible to adhere to the Yasawa Flyer's time constraints.

Due to frequent mechanical problems with boats ranging in size from the ferry fleet to the small tinnys a.k.a. water taxis [that doubled as fishing boats when not in use], being a hostage aboard one was a real possibility.  If a boat broke en route, all you could do was float adrift & wait for a replacement. That actually happened, leading to many exhausted and seasick passengers, but there are far worse places you could be stranded!

So, Fiji is definitely not for control freaks, germophobes, nor people with pressing schedules.  Luckily, Mom & I had the time.  We did not care to spend an entire day (seriously, 8 hours) on a cramped, slow, humid bus, but we also wondered, "What else do we have to do tonight, other than eat dinner?" As much as we wanted to spend the $300 FJD a.k.a. $150 USD on the taxi direct to Takalana Bay, we relied on public transportation.

The first conundrum was I never knew when to pay.  On the Kings Road Express route, I learned by trial & error that I was supposed to immediately sit down & an employee would approach me later for payment.  At the frenzied Lautoka depot, I had to pay the Checker before setting foot on the Kings Road Express bus.  On the local Nadi bus, riders paid first.... but how was I supposed to know how much it was from my hotel to the depot?  There was no fare table, but I was repeatedly told $2 FJD.  After 1 week of travel throughout Viti Levu, I synthesized the rule was $1 per person, per segment on local busses, regardless of when you exited.  Once, I reversed the order & paid the local bus driver first.  He looked at me like I was psychotic.
Second, I never knew who to pay.  As mentioned earlier, I discovered the need to pay a Checker at depots.  However, they often blended in with the general public because they wore jeans & a nice polo t-shirt. No name tag; no company logo.  On the Queens Road Express route, the bus stopped at an unmarked location and picked up a local woman with a bushy ponytail.  The lady wearing a maroon polo started down the aisle, verifying everyone's receipt, then hopped off at another unassuming location.  I guess she was a Checker too.

Third, I never knew what type of vehicle to expect.  The return Express bus from Korovou looked promising: high, plush head rests, large windows, and a motor with some horsepower.  The beat up, brown bus from Nadi to the popular Port Denaru had a window that banged so loudly I held it in place with my elbow for my hour-long journey to spare myself the headache.  The Queens Road Express bus's door did not work properly, so an employee jumped out first to pry it open for me.  The return bus from Sigatoka showed a cheesy movie with tons of profanity.  The kicker was a bus that looked like it should be on an African safari, not the highway.  Dusty, canvas curtains were rolled up & my elbows stuck out the hole where a window should go.  I was sweaty from sitting so close to the other riders in the Fijian heat, but I was in good spirits since this was the last leg of the all-day journey from Takalana Bay to Nadi.  I remember actually being excited to get on the clunker, thinking "Ha! We haven't rode this type [of bus] yet!"  Each leg of the trip the vehicles became more and more run down.

A sweet-natured taxi driver warned me to never take a mini-bus -- a converted mini-van like the one my dad drove to Disneyland.  Yet, despite the stress of navigating Fiji via public transportation, I never felt at risk. The locals were avuncular; many chatted with my mom or myself, asking how we liked the country. Mariah from the Yasawa Flyer helped us obtain a taxi from Port Denaru to our hotel* then went above & beyond her job responsibilities by listing appropriate rates. Every time we disembarked at a town's bus depot, a random person approached us and walked us to the correct bay.  In Lautoka, a few men offered to transport our bulky suitcases in a wheelbarrow through the gridlocked busses.  Two young Fijian men used their mobiles as torches a.k.a. flashlights and illuminated the way for my mother & myself as we trekked back to our hotel.

Despite the chaos of being thrown into a bitty country of 882,000 people, public transportation was a copacetic way to truly experience Fiji.  The return bus to Nadi followed a wide river with verdant banks where I saw men fishing from bilibilis a.k.a. local rafts made out of bamboo shoots bound together.  After seeing the northern coast of Viti Levu I realized the east was far more lush & wet than the sun-scorched western part.  I witnessed plenty in regard to village life: every house with a clothes drying outside on a line; ladies sitting at every bus stop with corn, fruit or nuts to sell; school children in crisp uniforms; guys playing volleyball in a green field; and a little Fijian girl standing in her front yard in a bright pink dress, waving goodbye timidly to anyone on the bus that might cast her a second glance.  It broke my heart because I imagined her there every day of her life, watching everyone go off into the world, while she remained in the front yard.  Plus, she probably waved in vain.  How could she see anyone waving back, smiling at her, or blowing her a kiss through the tinted windows as the bus sped off?  Still, I fought back tears & immediately waved back to her. I hope she knows that one person in the world noticed her.

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* Typically, taxis that have Port Denaru displayed on the vehicle or leave the port try to rip tourists off by over-charging & not using the meter.  If you want a great, local driver, I can give you my contact's number.  If you want to take your chances, the standard taxi rate from Port Denaru to Nadi should be around $20 FJD.  Vehicles should have license plates with a yellow background (though I rode quite a few without any signage).

If you see this on the license plate:
LT = licensed taxi
LH = may look like a taxi but is a hotel shuttle
LM = mini-bus 

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