After a 36 hour and 8,000 mile journey across the world, I’ve officially arrived in Fiji. I’m staying in Suva, the country’s capitol city located on the southwest coast of its largest island, Viti Levu, and will be based here for the next month as I explore invasive species management in Fiji on a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant.
This trip represents a series of firsts for me: first time in the South Pacific, first time traveling alone in a new country, first time in a place where I know absolutely no one. It’s a strange mix of elation, anticipation, and uncontrollable nervousness, and each emotion dominates in turn.
The the last two days, I’ve settled into my Airbnb apartment, started to explore Suva, and finalized my plan of attack for my research. Fiji is certainly unlike any country I’ve ever been to, and each new experience has taught me more about this incredible island. Here are a few of my first impressions:
Fiji is friendly.
After negotiating a price for a cab into town yesterday, my driver started asking me questions (see #3). As soon as he learned this was my first time in Fiji, he made an abrupt U-turn and declared “I will show you Suva. No extra, just come with me”. Over the next forty minutes, he transformed into my own personal tour guide, showing me the stately parliament buildings, the best place to get fish, where the rugby team plays, and the university campus. He also gave me his thoughts on the Prime Minister (he likes him) and invited me over to dinner with his family. What should have been a quick ten minute drop off turned into a grand welcome to Suva, and he sheepishly wouldn’t accept any additional money over the agreed-upon fare of a measly 8FJD. I left the cab feeling warm, welcome, and excited to explore the city.
This scene replayed itself in a variety of ways over the day, from fish sellers giving me descriptions of the best fishing spots, to a shop keeper spending a half hour describing the history of a series of beautifully-carved wooden souvenirs. She covered each one in turn, from the ceremonial “Neck Breaker” (you can deduce what it was for), to the woven cloth used in weddings. You could tell she was thrilled to have an audience with which to share her island’s culture. When I asked what she loved most about the island, she giggled and said “Fiji is the way the rest of the world should be!”
Fiji is loud.
No matter where you are or the time of day, Fiji hums with sound. Palm fronds rustle in the breeze as loud choruses of birds ring from all directions. In my neighborhood, there are large packs of half-domesticated dogs whose situation resembles West Side Story, in that there’s an ongoing turf war and they break into song every ten minutes. Suva’s streets are packed with (somewhat reckless) drivers, calling and honking to each other as they weave through pedestrians and crowded roundabouts. I’m constantly surrounded by a mix of languages I don’t recognize, punctuated by loud calls of “Bula!” as people see friends and neighbors on the street. The constant noise is a reminder of how alive the island is; constantly moving and changing.
Fiji is curious.
Unlike in the United States, Fijians aren’t afraid to ask blunt questions up front. Most people will ask a chorus of similar questions, including: Where are you from? How old are you? Are you traveling alone? Why? Are you married? etc. My apartment is also located on the grounds of a Latter Day Saints school, so a slew of religion questions typically follow: Are you Mormon? Why not? Why are you staying there? and more. They aren’t attempting to pry, it’s just a part of the culture to be outwardly curious of a person’s circumstances, especially when you’re a foreigner. Rather than being offended by these questions (although they do take a little getting used to), I find it’s a way to skip the small talk and get right to the meaty conversations. Some are surprised to see a young girl traveling alone (as one fish seller put it: “But you are only a child!”), but many respond in a protective, supportive way, as if it is their responsibility to take me under their wings.
This, of course, is only the beginning of my experience — I have a month remaining to explore the island and further my research. But if these first few days are any indication of my time here, I can’t wait to see what the rest of the month has in store.