South pacific—Fiji had never occurred to me. I guess it conjured up images of coconuts and elaborately patterned shirts, but so did a lot of places. I’d never planned on going there until a couple of days before my flight from New Zealand to LA, the airline rep told me I could stop over for no additional cost.
“In Fiji? ”
“It’s very nice there,” she said.
At this point, though — having just spent over a month in Australia and New Zealand, mostly working — I was looking for a particular kind of nice. I wanted to relax before returning to North America, but also to feel like I was actually on the other side of the world. Oz and New Zealand felt too much like home, only warmer.
By the time I touched down at the international airport in Nadi, I’d learned two things about Fiji: it consists of about 330 islands, and it is hosting an ongoing military coup. But I was tired and had decided, for four nights and five days, to quit being a journalist.
“I’ve only got a short time,” I told the woman at the airport information booth. “I want to go somewhere close yet secluded, beautiful yet inexpensive.” Fortunately, Fijians speak subtle forms of English and don’t mind a challenge. She put me in a taxi that drove half an hour to a dock with a waiting boat. We crossed the water. The sun was setting as a small island came into view.
It was postcard lovely. Beneath a giant palm frond roof, between the buffet table and the bar, a smiling young woman greeted me with a sunset-layered drink. “Hi. My name is Maria,” she said. “Welcome.” I asked about the accommodations. “For $100, you can be in an indigenous beachfront bure. They are very comfortable and private. Or you can stay in the communal bure for only $40.”
That was about $25 Canadian, but I liked the idea of my own place and told her so.
“Yes,” she said. “But, well, you’re the only one here.” And that is how, within an hour of arriving in Fiji, I’d acquired my own private island: a large, air-conditioned beachfront house with six beds, two bathrooms, and hammocks out front; a crystalline swimming pool by the bar; a buffet table filled with food, just for me. And then, once I was fed, the staff of eight boarded a boat back to the mainland — leaving me alone on the island, but for Big Killy.
Essentially, Big Killy was my own private bodyguard. I lay in a hammock under the stars as he kept watch. “The thing about coups,” he said, “is that we really don’t care about them. Life is okay here.”
“It looks, though, like tourism’s suffering,” I said.
“Off-season,” said Killy, as we sipped our drinks, waves lapping against my secluded South Sea shore.
In the morning, I asked Maria (which, according to Killy, is pronounced Mara-iah), “What should I do while I’m here?”
“You could go to McDonald Beach, on the mainland.”
“I’ve got a beach here,” I said. Maria shrugged.
By day three, I had pretty much surveyed my entire domain. I’d walked the island width- and length-wise, through grass, bush, and mangrove, and circled it in a kayak, battling the open ocean. Then, most foolishly, I set out to circumnavigate it on foot. Because of the mangroves, the only plausible route was a good twenty metres offshore, through the ocean, over coral reefs the whole way. After an hour around the far side of the island, my flip-flops had torn, shredded, then floated off. Two hours later, with bloodied feet, clinging to the reefs, I crawled back up the sandy beach to the bar.
“I don’t think anybody’s ever done that,” said Maria. Killy laughed from a nearby hammock. Then — beaten and exhausted, with one of eight Fijians fetching me a drink — I felt close finally, to the other side of the world. And suddenly, I wanted more, as much as I could explore: 330 islands, and only a day and a half left. I said to Maria, “I feel like I should go and see something else — you know, for my last day. Like a day trip.”
That evening, she brought me a pamphlet. “I think this would be perfect. See how nice it looks. They take a whole group with a guide and everything. It’s only $120 each. They said they can pick us up at nine in the morning . . .”
“Um . . .” It sounded like she’d said us. “What?”
“I got the whole day off!”
This wasn’t the kind of miscommunication easily solved. I hadn’t expected an all-day $240 date with the concierge, but I didn’t want to scorn her. “Isn’t there something more, um,
less, guided we can do?”
“Well, there’s McDonald Beach!” she said once again, her eyes lighting up. It seemed an odd name, and I was about to inquire into Fiji’s Scottish history when I remembered I’d quit journalism for the week. “Sounds good,” I said, and ordered another drink.
The next morning, I met Maria in the nearby town on the mainland. She’d procured a van and a driver, and we headed off, past refineries, sugar cane plantations, bush fires, legions of uniformed schoolchildren, and old men drinking kava out of gasoline drums, before heading into the jungle. I learned a bit about my travelling companion: she was twenty-five years old and had gone to school so she could work in the hospitality industry. She liked her job, but it only paid $30 a week — pretty standard for Fiji. She wanted to travel and liked music, but for the moment she was very focused on where we were going. “We should be there by one o’clock,” she said.
“It’s that far? ” I couldn’t figure out why with 330 islands and a thousand sandy beaches we were making such an effort to get to this one, but after half an hour both Maria and our driver, speaking to each other in Fijian, were giggling with excitement. “He’s never been there before,” she said, turning to me.”
Oh . . .” I said, “well, he can join us if he wants.”
“Really?!” Another flurry of excitement. “Myself, I’ve only been there once before,” said Maria, now staring intently through the windshield as we pushed into the mountains, then down into a valley. Red birds shot out of the trees. A boy sparked his machete off a hubcap. Then, eventually, the road widened just slightly. I saw uniformed men with guns — the first we’d come across. Maria let out a gasp. And there, like a guiding light from the edge of the jungle, rose the Golden Arches.
“Can I have a sundae?” asked Maria, as we pulled into the parking lot of McDonald’s. Finally here: on the other side of the world.