Fiji Jim's Blog - Part 1

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The Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Leaving Los Angeles, Heading for the Fiji Islands
 

Saturday August 19, 2001 
8:30 PM – The airport shuttle arrived in a cloud of dust.  Cagey was talking to the driver in on the telephone while I tried to flag him down as he roared up and down the street.  He stopped; we piled in and were off to Los Angeles International Airport, better known as LAX.
 
8:45 PM – We arrived at the Tom Bradley Terminal at LAX, paid the driver and were sucked into the entrance, expecting to emerge again ten days later, on our way back from Fiji.  They made Cagey take most of the items out of her carry-on to get it down to the weight limit.  Since mine was a soft bag, they did not care how much we put in it.  By the time we were done, Cagey was wearing some of the extra clothes and I had many new cosmetics in my bag.
 
9:15 PM – We arrived at Gate 122, which had the appropriate Air Pacific Air Pacific Airlines Boeing 737-500, with Fiji logo on its tail - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)(the National Airline of the Fiji Islands) signs hanging and the flight was scheduled to leave at 10:30 PM.  There was an unusual cast of international characters, including Koreans, Africans, Brits and many American vacationers with kids it tow.  I remembered that I had forgotten my spare chap stick and wished I could quickly go back home and get it.  Silly me.
 
11:00 PM – We still had not boarded, but we knew that international flights were often delayed.  The Air Pacific Boeing 747 had pulled up to our gate, but no one had anything official to say about the delay.
 
11:30 PM – The gate agent announced that there was a delay caused by the engineering staff.  They were affecting a repair, we were told. 
Sunday August 20, 2001
 
1:00 AM – Officially, Air Pacific cancelled the flight, but offered to put everyone up at a local hotel until the problem could be fixed.  First they marched us all off to McDonalds for $6 each worth of food.  We were so tired by that time that we actually ate chicken sandwiches, soft drinks and cookies!  I guess that demonstrates the power of free food. 
 
2:00 AM – Before we could finish belching after our meal, we heard an announcement that the flight was “back on”.  They had found the hydraulic unit that they had been searching for all over LAX and they were going to install it, or so they told us.  We all camped out again at the gate; the international entourage, the families with the kids in pajamas and us, all sitting there with a combination of hope and resignation.
 
3:40 AM – They cancelled the flight for the final time that night.  We ascertained that the flight would go again that afternoon at 3:30 PM, which would have us arrive in the middle of the night Fiji Time (which is five hours earlier that Pacific Daylight Time, plus one day ahead).  They wanted everyone to go to the same hotel, but we were only fifteen minutes from home, so we took a cab and headed there.
 
Santa Monica Pier overhead sign at dusk - Click for larger image http://jamesmcgillis.com)4:30 AM – We realized that we were still in Santa Monica, rather than half way across the Pacific Ocean.  We struggled to calm down and get to bed, Cagey awakened first, then finally I arose. 
 
11:00 AM – I found my missing chap stick (which probably caused the whole thing).  We showered, dressed and got ready to go again.  We figured that if we could retrace our steps and do everything right this time, the fates would smile on us and allow us to depart for our long-awaited vacation.
 
In 2000, Cagey and I had planned to visit Fiji, but the nasty “coup plotters” tried to overthrow the government, all in the name of “native rights”.  They succeeded in killing three or four people, holding the Parliament Building for three weeks and summarily destroying the economy of Fiji for at least the next two years.  They missed the heyday of the American Dot.com economy and all the travel it implied.  Twin Towers standing in New York City, prior to September 11, 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)
 
2:00 PM – We took a cab to the airport.  It was a typical pre-911 August Sunday afternoon. 
 
3:00 PM – We were well into our check-in at Air Pacific when we learned that the flight had been cancelled again.  Then miraculously Air Pacific figured out that their 767 had arrived that afternoon and after some schedule juggling with Qantas Airlines (then a partial owner of Air Pacific), they were going to forget the 747 and cram as many of us as possible on to the smaller Boeing 767 and fly that night at 10:30 PM.
 
Wearing house colors, a Boeing 767 aircraft in flight - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)3:30 PM – We made sure that we got boarding passes, along with ten or so others who had gotten to the terminal early.  After discovering and correcting the fact that the dates were wrong on our boarding passes, they whisked us off to the “elegant” Gateway Sheraton Hotel to hang out in our own room and have a complimentary dinner before returning to our newly scheduled flight later that evening.
 
4:30 PM – We arrived at the “elegant” Gateway Sheraton, watched some TV, had dinner on Air Pacific’s tab and prepared for what we hoped would be the final push to Fiji.
 
9:30 PM – Our carry-on luggage and we went downstairs to await the shuttle to LAX.  A woman waiting outside was impressed that we apparently traveled so light.  We tried to explain that our real luggage was sitting on a disabled 747 over at the airport, but it was time to go. 
 
10:00 PM – We carefully retraced our steps through security and right back to Gate 122, as we had done several times the night before.  After about fifteen minutes, we discovered that there was only one problem.  They assign gates at the Bradley Terminal on an “as needed” basis and we were needed at the far end of the other concourse, where our 767 was supposedly waiting.  Trying not to look like fools, we got up and made our way to the appropriate gate, only to find that our plane wasn’t there either.  After a minor panic attack, we found our now-familiar international entourage and the families with kids, so despite the lack of an airplane, we knew we were in the right place. 
 
Air Pacific Boeing 747 arriving at Nadi, Fiji in 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)11:30 PM – After an additional delay of an hour, we boarded our 767, took our seats and held our breath until…
 
11:45 PM – The pilot released the brakes and the tug pushed us back from the gate.
 
11:55 PM – We rumbled down the runway and were airborne at last.  This better be worth it, we thought.  Soon, we each were off for eight hours of halcyon dreams.
Tuesday August 21, 2001
 
4:00 AM (Fiji Time) – The cabin crew awakened us for breakfast and landing preparations.  After departure from LAX, we had skipped the meals and movies in favor of some sleep.
 
5:30 AM – We landed at Nadi (pronounced Nandi) International Airport on the main island of Viti Levu, Fiji.  Miraculously, our luggage appeared in the terminal within a few minutes.  It seems that in order to get the now-fixed 747 back into proper flight rotation, they flew it empty of paying customers just ten minutes behind our loaded 767.  It was the most expensive “baggage car” in Air Pacific history.
 
6:15 AM – we made it through Fiji Customs, shifting back and forth, Nadi International Airport sign, Fiji Islands - click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)from one line to another and thus being one of the last groups through.  We watched as the international entourage departed for remote locations all over Fiji, to observe the elections, scheduled to start while we were there.  We watched as the bleary-eyed children started to wake up and run around like their crazy selves again.
 
7:00 AM – The local ukulele and guitar band greeted us with local songs.  I put a dollar in their box, which was only one of two tips I handed out until we arrived back home in L.A.  In Fiji, you do not ordinarily tip for service.  I changed money while Cagey rescheduled our return trip to Los Angeles.  We figured that since our vacation had been shortened by one day on the front end, we had better lengthen it by two days on the back end.  Sound thinking.
 
That is where I will leave you until the next exciting episode of Fiji Jim in Fiji. This is Chapter One of ten. To read Chapter Two, please click HERE.

 


Sunair of Fiji, (now Pacific Sun, Fiji's regional airline) aircraft at Savusavu Airport - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

The Flight from Nadi Airport, Viti Levu to Savusavu Airport on Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands

Tuesday August 21, 2001
 
7:10 AM – While we were waiting for our local flight from Fiji’s Viti Levu Island to the more remote Vanua Levu Island, Cagey noticed that we were missing a baggage claim check for one of our bags.  We were lucky she did, since it was not going to get on the plane. 
 
7:30 AM – We changed more money to the local Fiji dollar.  At the time, the exchange rate was approximately at one Fiji dollar equaled 45 cents U.S., which meant our dollar went a long way down there.  On a last minute whim, we raced over to Air Pacific and extended our return two extra days, to make up for the time we had lost at LAX
 
The Bligh Water Reefs, named after British Captain William Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, as seen from the air, Fiji Islands - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)8:30 AM – We boarded our Sunair, local flight to Savusavu, a town on Vanua Levu.  While we were waiting, we had spoken to an Air Pacific employee from New Zealand.  He indicated that as each Sunair plane came up for major overhaul, if the repair price was too high, the company simply mothballed it. As we set out across the “Bligh Water” to the other island, that knowledge gave us a tremendous feeling of confidence.
 
8:45 AM – We took to the air and got a great view of the coast and the various small islands, each with its own resort.  In fact, one or two of them were nothing but a resort and a beach.  Looking down, the extent of the deforestation through burning of grasslands and logging of hardwoods on a commercial scale was disappointing to see.  Agriculture, mostly sugar cane, covered almost all practicable areas and the burning of the bush is deeply rooted in the Fijian tradition, practiced throughout the islands in seemingly random ways.
 
Traditional Fijian Warship, known as a Takia (http://jamesmcgillis.com)9:15 AM – As we climbed, both of our Indian pilots held the overhead throttles full open in what looked like some kind of Los Angeles Gang handshake.  It made me wonder if it was some form of bonding or if they had experienced the throttles snapping back to their “idle” position at some time in their careers.  After that, the pilot in the left seat never seemed to do anything more than to chat with his right-side compatriot.  I always thought the guy on the left side was supposed to do the flying.  I guess if they can drive on the “wrong” side of the roads (in the British tradition), they can fly from the “wrong” side of the plane.
 
9:20 AM - As we skirted the coast of the main island, we climbed steadily and soon were at 4000 – 6000 feet.  From there, we headed offshore towards the unseen Vanua Levu, up ahead.  We crossed the Bligh Water, where in 1789 cannibals chased Captain William Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame.  He and the remnants of his loyal crew and almost lost their lives in that chase. 
 
Twin-overhead turboprop commercial plane landing at Savusavu Airport, Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands in 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The Fijians were the original human settlers of these Pacific Islands.  At their peak, prior to the European conquest of the islands, the Fijians had developed incredible seventy-foot long "warships”, with up to 250 warriors aboard a craft that could travel at speeds up to twelve knots.  Perhaps this that type of craft chased and almost caught the Englishmen during the first European encounter with the “friendly” natives of Fiji.  The legend of Fiji as the “Cannibal Islands” persisted for centuries and somehow got mixed up in our American culture with natives boiling Europeans in big pots (probably thanks to a recurrent theme in New Yorker Magazine cartoons). 
 
The reality is that cannibalism was practiced as part of their warfare, politics and as a crude form of humor.  It was relatively common for the victor to lop off some fingers or a hand of a vanquished enemy.  The appendages would be cooked and then eaten in front of their former owner.  The epicurean would comment on the tenderness and flavor of the flesh and might even ask if the former owner might enjoy having some himself. 
 
Savusavu Airport Terminal, Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Fiji has more Christian missionaries per square kilometer than any other place I have ever seen.  Although they claim to have put an end to cannibalism during the 1800’s, we have it on good authority that ritual killing and possible cannibalism was still practiced as late as sixty years ago in some of the more remote parts of the islands.
 
9:30 AM – Well out over the Bligh Water we began to see a profusion of reef structures seeming to block any logical navigation of the shallow sea below us.  Waves crashed over the reefs, and narrow bights were the only passages we could see between them.  One of our pictures, taken through the Plexiglas of the airplane window gives you an idea of their scope and beauty.  Only the live-aboard scuba dive-boats spend any time out here in a wilderness of reefs and fishes.
 
9:45 AM – As Arlo Guthrie said in verbal introduction to the song “Coming into Los Angeles”, “We were coming down mighty fast”.  I think that the idea was to get our airplane as high as we could in case we had to try to glide in “engineless”.  If the engines had failed over mid channel, we would not have had a chance to get to dry land in either direction.  Still, it is the thought that counts.  As we approached Savusavu Airport, there was no sign of civilization, then suddenly we could see a narrow strip of tarmac that extended from the beach directly inland for about a half mile.  The pavement appeared to be a few feet wider than the width of the landing gear, as we roared in at what seemed to be very close to our cruising speed.  Somehow touched down and braked to a stop in front of the terminal, which is typical in its tropical-minimalist approach to facilities.  It had an office, open air bench seating and restrooms out back.  That was all.
 
Suzuki Jimny Budget Monster Truck on the unpaved coastal highway, Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands in 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)9:50 AM – Since the aborted Fijian coup of 2000, times have been tough for business in Fiji and all the rental car companies have pulled back their operations.  Through a series of telephone conversations with our resort owner and her ability to help reschedule our rental car rendezvous, our vehicle was waiting there, as we had hoped.  To us it seemed like a miracle, since the Budget Car Rental agent had to drive it over to us from Labasa, on the far side of the island.  That required a 90-minute trip by car, over a mountain pass.  Cagey had booked the car on the Internet.  They had given us a rate that would have been good in the U.S. let alone out in the middle of nowhere (which is where I was sure we were).  I asked the agent how he would get back to his office, thinking at that time that it was just over the hill in Savusavu.  He indicated that he would take a taxi back to the office.  It was only when we drove half way to Labasa, several days later, that I realized where he had gone in the cab.  So there we were in our little Suzuki Jimny (yes, it is spelled correctly) four-wheel drive, ready to hit the trail to Lomalagi Resort (which, by now you have figured out is pronounced “Lomalonghi”).
 
Well, we did not travel very far today, but you have to admit that we are getting closer to our ultimate destination…
 
This is Chapter Two of ten chapters. To view the previous article in this series, click HERE.  To view the following article in this series, click HERE.

 


Sunair of Fiji, (now Pacific Sun, Fiji's regional airline) aircraft at Savusavu Airport - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

The Flight from Nadi Airport, Viti Levu to Savusavu Airport on Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands

Tuesday August 21, 2001
 
7:10 AM – While we were waiting for our local flight from Fiji’s Viti Levu Island to the more remote Vanua Levu Island, Cagey noticed that we were missing a baggage claim check for one of our bags.  We were lucky she did, since it was not going to get on the plane. 
 
7:30 AM – We changed more money to the local Fiji dollar.  At the time, the exchange rate was approximately at one Fiji dollar equaled 45 cents U.S., which meant our dollar went a long way down there.  On a last minute whim, we raced over to Air Pacific and extended our return two extra days, to make up for the time we had lost at LAX
 
The Bligh Water Reefs, named after British Captain William Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, as seen from the air, Fiji Islands - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)8:30 AM – We boarded our Sunair, local flight to Savusavu, a town on Vanua Levu.  While we were waiting, we had spoken to an Air Pacific employee from New Zealand.  He indicated that as each Sunair plane came up for major overhaul, if the repair price was too high, the company simply mothballed it. As we set out across the “Bligh Water” to the other island, that knowledge gave us a tremendous feeling of confidence.
 
8:45 AM – We took to the air and got a great view of the coast and the various small islands, each with its own resort.  In fact, one or two of them were nothing but a resort and a beach.  Looking down, the extent of the deforestation through burning of grasslands and logging of hardwoods on a commercial scale was disappointing to see.  Agriculture, mostly sugar cane, covered almost all practicable areas and the burning of the bush is deeply rooted in the Fijian tradition, practiced throughout the islands in seemingly random ways.
 
Traditional Fijian Warship, known as a Takia (http://jamesmcgillis.com)9:15 AM – As we climbed, both of our Indian pilots held the overhead throttles full open in what looked like some kind of Los Angeles Gang handshake.  It made me wonder if it was some form of bonding or if they had experienced the throttles snapping back to their “idle” position at some time in their careers.  After that, the pilot in the left seat never seemed to do anything more than to chat with his right-side compatriot.  I always thought the guy on the left side was supposed to do the flying.  I guess if they can drive on the “wrong” side of the roads (in the British tradition), they can fly from the “wrong” side of the plane.
 
9:20 AM - As we skirted the coast of the main island, we climbed steadily and soon were at 4000 – 6000 feet.  From there, we headed offshore towards the unseen Vanua Levu, up ahead.  We crossed the Bligh Water, where in 1789 cannibals chased Captain William Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame.  He and the remnants of his loyal crew and almost lost their lives in that chase. 
 
Twin-overhead turboprop commercial plane landing at Savusavu Airport, Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands in 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The Fijians were the original human settlers of these Pacific Islands.  At their peak, prior to the European conquest of the islands, the Fijians had developed incredible seventy-foot long "warships”, with up to 250 warriors aboard a craft that could travel at speeds up to twelve knots.  Perhaps this that type of craft chased and almost caught the Englishmen during the first European encounter with the “friendly” natives of Fiji.  The legend of Fiji as the “Cannibal Islands” persisted for centuries and somehow got mixed up in our American culture with natives boiling Europeans in big pots (probably thanks to a recurrent theme in New Yorker Magazine cartoons). 
 
The reality is that cannibalism was practiced as part of their warfare, politics and as a crude form of humor.  It was relatively common for the victor to lop off some fingers or a hand of a vanquished enemy.  The appendages would be cooked and then eaten in front of their former owner.  The epicurean would comment on the tenderness and flavor of the flesh and might even ask if the former owner might enjoy having some himself. 
 
Savusavu Airport Terminal, Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Fiji has more Christian missionaries per square kilometer than any other place I have ever seen.  Although they claim to have put an end to cannibalism during the 1800’s, we have it on good authority that ritual killing and possible cannibalism was still practiced as late as sixty years ago in some of the more remote parts of the islands.
 
9:30 AM – Well out over the Bligh Water we began to see a profusion of reef structures seeming to block any logical navigation of the shallow sea below us.  Waves crashed over the reefs, and narrow bights were the only passages we could see between them.  One of our pictures, taken through the Plexiglas of the airplane window gives you an idea of their scope and beauty.  Only the live-aboard scuba dive-boats spend any time out here in a wilderness of reefs and fishes.
 
9:45 AM – As Arlo Guthrie said in verbal introduction to the song “Coming into Los Angeles”, “We were coming down mighty fast”.  I think that the idea was to get our airplane as high as we could in case we had to try to glide in “engineless”.  If the engines had failed over mid channel, we would not have had a chance to get to dry land in either direction.  Still, it is the thought that counts.  As we approached Savusavu Airport, there was no sign of civilization, then suddenly we could see a narrow strip of tarmac that extended from the beach directly inland for about a half mile.  The pavement appeared to be a few feet wider than the width of the landing gear, as we roared in at what seemed to be very close to our cruising speed.  Somehow touched down and braked to a stop in front of the terminal, which is typical in its tropical-minimalist approach to facilities.  It had an office, open air bench seating and restrooms out back.  That was all.
 
Suzuki Jimny Budget Monster Truck on the unpaved coastal highway, Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands in 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)9:50 AM – Since the aborted Fijian coup of 2000, times have been tough for business in Fiji and all the rental car companies have pulled back their operations.  Through a series of telephone conversations with our resort owner and her ability to help reschedule our rental car rendezvous, our vehicle was waiting there, as we had hoped.  To us it seemed like a miracle, since the Budget Car Rental agent had to drive it over to us from Labasa, on the far side of the island.  That required a 90-minute trip by car, over a mountain pass.  Cagey had booked the car on the Internet.  They had given us a rate that would have been good in the U.S. let alone out in the middle of nowhere (which is where I was sure we were).  I asked the agent how he would get back to his office, thinking at that time that it was just over the hill in Savusavu.  He indicated that he would take a taxi back to the office.  It was only when we drove half way to Labasa, several days later, that I realized where he had gone in the cab.  So there we were in our little Suzuki Jimny (yes, it is spelled correctly) four-wheel drive, ready to hit the trail to Lomalagi Resort (which, by now you have figured out is pronounced “Lomalonghi”).
 
Well, we did not travel very far today, but you have to admit that we are getting closer to our ultimate destination…
 
This is Chapter Two of ten chapters. To view the previous article in this series, click HERE.  To view the following article in this series, click HERE.