a mad dash through a tropical island paradise
no sightseeing. no tourism. no dip in the ocean, no sand ‘tween the toes. just one night in a fancy hotel, two nights in a shopping center motel, (across the street from a lovely construction site), a cup of tea with the president, a few hours idling at a fancy beach resort, and back home to australia. that’s fiji for ya. all in a 72-hour mini-work/vacation.
day one consisted of a short flight from canberra to sydney, a long hop from sydney to nadi (pronounced: nan-dee) (by the time we got there it was dark), then a short commuter flight from nadi to suva, arriving dog tired just in time to find a welcoming pillow.
the next day it was up, off to the prez’s house, then a hairy-scary breakneck speed police escort back to nadi for a fruitless wait in beach-resort splendor, hoping for an audience with one of the 18 pacific island heads of state who were holding a “retreat” courtesy of their collective taxpayers. no luck. time better spent at home with a good book.
fiji is making a comeback. a country that once relied on tourism for nearly 40% of its economy saw it cut to a tiny fraction during the coronavirus years. now that the virus scare is history, the industry that once employed 150-thousand fijians is back in biz.
meet pernille, the new danish ambassador to fiji. who knows, she may be the first ever representative of copenhagen in this south pacific island hideaway. i had hoped the accreditation ceremony would be hosted by sitiveni rabuka, the fijian leader who was regularly in the headlines during my newsreading days at the good ol’ VOA. but that was not to be. instead we were greeted at the presidential palace by williame katonivere, not a politician but a conservationist who holds the ceremonial presidency. rabuka (pronounced: ram-boo-kah) was off hob-nobbing with the politicians on the other end of the island.
so after our 30-minutes with the president, it was off to the resorts of nadi (pronounced any way you want) to catch up with the leaders of some of the smallest, most remote and widely dispersed nations on the planet. places so small and distant that you’ve probably never heard of some of them.
these accreditation ceremonies are 30-minute affairs, and this one was choreographed right down to the minute. we were greeted at 10 a.m., and escorted out precisely at 10:30a.m., after a ceremony that consisted of playing both countries’ national anthems, reviewing the troops, and speeches, followed by a quick cup of tea. the president did pour himself a cup and made light conversation in between sips, but at the appointed moment, he put the cup down on the table with a note of finality, called for an earthen bowl with which to present the new ambassador, and dispatched us forthwith. so much for that 30 minutes. on to the next appointment. presidents are so busy. even ceremonial ones at out-of-the-way pacific island nations.
afterward, the journey. suva is the sleepy capital. much livelier is nadi, (still pronounced: nan-dee) on the opposite side of fiji’s main island. it just so happens that a regional retreat of pacific island leaders is underway in nadi (still pronounced nan-dee) that day. more than a dozen heads of state are attending. so plans for a quiet second night at the staid grand pacific hotel in suva are scrapped. onward to nadi!
flights between the two cities takes 35 minutes, but flights are few, far between, and full.
we do, however, have a car. not only that, we have a driver, a protocol officer, and now that pernille is ambassador, a red and white danish flag for the car.
it’s normally a three hour drive between the two cities, but as our car leaves suva, a police escort is waiting alongside the road. it zooms out ahead of the flag car, lights flashing and siren blaring.
the next 80 minutes whizzed by, literally. we held tightly to any “sissy straps” we could find as the two-car procession dodged in and out of traffic at breakneck speed along the narrow country coastal road, avoiding potentially life-ending injuries by millimeters. but oh my god, what we witnessed as we whizzed by at 99 or so miles an hour was nothing less than a gigantic slice of real fjii. no presidential palaces, no five star resorts, no meetings with the locals, just a whiz-bang snapshot of life in middle class fiji. simply the unglamorous neighborhoods populated by average fijians who have probably never visited a beach resort. it was a magnificent photo op, if only we could capture it. after watching helplessly as a dozen incredible scenes evaporated in front of our eyes, i reached for my trusty super-dooper, 15x zoom, three-lens killer iphone camera. the results were, shall we say, mixed. i’m not even sure we saw any real people. but here are a few fleeting images. with apologies.
when the police escort pulled up in front of the ratsun hotel in nadi (still pronounced nan-dee) with us in tow, a hearty round of “thank-yous” gushed forth from the back seat. we felt like the winners of “survivor” on TV.
the next day we got a taste of the five-star life. nadi (pronounced: NAN-dee, dammit) boasts some of the finest resort facilities in the south pacific at the denarau marina, and more than a dozen heads of state of pacific island nations (19 we heard) were availing themselves of the fijian hospitality that day at the sheraton denarau beach resort. (a summit? who knew?) the event received scant (read no) international news coverage, possibly because it didn’t make much news. but a lucky few journalists and diplomats (us) took advantage of the occasion to spend the day poolside, enjoying the hospitality.
no news translates to no story. hence this rather spare blog post. except that the leaders did have some important internal and geopolitical issues on their plates. the pacific islands forum does include probably some of the world’s most out of the way leaders. they were, however, “special” for the occasion, and (little known fact) the area over which these island nations are situated encompasses 20% of the earth’s surface. pretty special, when you think about it.
these special guests symbolize fiji’s return as a prime post-covid pacific island tourist destination, a place on the high side. c’mon down, if you can afford it, and you don’t mind the mind-boggling travel arrangements. if possible, we’ll be back for a farewell visit, when we’re not in such a hurry.