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The other side of Fiji

Lautoka, Labasa, Savusavu, Taveuni and Levuka
PLUS
notes on the darker side of Fiji


Top hits,   hot tips   &   garbage of all types

A budget-minded tour of Fiji's north-east provides an entirely different tropical experience to the touristy Coral Coast and mini-island resorts. But an eye-opening four-month stay on the main island of
Viti Levu has changed many of my ideas about this supposedly civilized archipelago
(Dave  Robinson,   Brisbane,   September   2005)

TOP CUSTOMER SERVICE

Vallabh & Sons (tailors, drapers, film and radio dealers), Levuka

BEST VALUE BUDGET ACCOMMODATION

Cathay Hotel, Lautoka

INCREDIBLE TRANSPORT

Metropolitan bus services

NOT SO INCREDIBLE TRANSPORT

Long-distance intercity express bus services
Patterson Bros inter-island ferry and bus connections
(NB: Pattersons now have a brand new fleet)

CAREFUL, COURTEOUS, COMMUNICATIVE CABBIES

Parmar Taxi Service, Savusavu
Ashok Kumar Carrier Van Service, Levuka

BEST ASPECTS OF FIJI

Tropical scenery, relaxing resorts, friendliness and generosity

WORST ASPECTS OF FIJI

Politics, religion, militarism, corruption, infrastructure, poverty, health and nutrition, incompetence and garbage

Introduction
Voluntary work in Fiji
Planning a budget tour of the north-east
North-east Viti Levu
Vanua Levu
Taveuni
Ovalau
Koro
The darker side of Fiji
Disclaimer

Taveuni island scene
Sea, sky, palms and lush rainforest dominate the Taveuni landscape

Map of Fiji
Map of Fiji


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  Prices mentioned in the text are in Fijian dollars and are indicative only (as at end of 2005)  


Introduction

In May-September 2005 my wife and I spent four months in Fiji, staying most of the time in Lautoka on the main island, Viti Levu. Towards the end of our stay we took a two-weeks break, during which we investigated the other large island, Vanua Levu, the beautiful island of Taveuni and the island of Ovalau, where Fiji's former capital, Levuka, is situated. We also spent a few days in the touristy airport town of Nadi and a day in Suva.

The main intention of our visit was to do some voluntary work in Lautoka. In this respect my wife was very successful, but I soon tired of it, preferring instead to work with my laptop and wander here and there exploring the city and countryside and gathering information.

This page is a very brief account of our travels on the "other" islands, as I have devoted a full article to the interesting city of LAUTOKA, while Nadi and Suva are covered well enough in travel guides and elsewhere on the internet. However, at the end of the page there's a short section on "the darker side of Fiji", which relates to just a few of Fiji's problems and the downside of life on the main island. You will find more remarks, good and bad, in the Lautoka article.

In my opinion, you haven't seen the best of Fiji if you haven't left the main island. This is not to say you can't have a supremely relaxing, enjoyable holiday on the main island. Of course you can, thousands flock to the coral coast every year and I once had one of the happiest vacations of my life there. But if you want to see Fiji in all its pristine glory, and experience the laid-back friendliness of its people, you should consider visiting some of the other islands. The Yasawas are very beautiful, but you could hardly visit them on a shoestring budget. So why not try the north-east, eastern or southern islands?

The weather is something you'll have to consider. Summer is hot and muggy and you take the risk of continuous cloud cover and frequent rain, even cyclones. The best months are May to September.

Voluntary work in Fiji

On the internet you will find various sites offering openings in all kinds of voluntary work in Fiji, from environmental research to entertaining hospitalised children. Unless you have something very specific in mind, my suggestion is: ignore them. They will only cost you money, lots of unnecessary form-filling and loss of flexibility. I found the correspondence from one such organisation, Involvement Volunteers Association Inc (IVI), to be totally confusing. Once in Fiji you will very easily be able to pick up some voluntary work by visiting any of the numerous organisations listed in the Yellow Pages, such as the hospitals, the Red Cross and the Bayly Trust.

You should also be able to find accommodation quite easily, preferably by speaking to locals (e.g. at the Council HQ) or by reading the ads in the Saturday edition of the Fiji Times. Alternatively you could enquire at some of the real estate agents (this is what we did initially). With agents and landlords you may have to barter, but with locals who don't regularly take in visitors, you will often find them generous in the extreme.

Rememember not to accept any reward when working in Fiji - it's illegal. Nor should you take on any kind of employment that might displace a local from the workforce.

Planning a budget tour of the north-east

We planned nothing before leaving home, apart from the first four nights' accommodation at the Capricorn International Hotel, Nadi. We thought this hotel, situated between the airport and the town centre, was good value at $72/night for a double including breakfast. Security was the main problem with its standard rooms. Currently (2010) it costs more in Fijian dollars but considerably less in Australian dollars, due to the marked change in currency parity. You can book it direct on the internet, but in 2005 we went through our local travel agent as the cost was similar and payment easier. After re-visting the hotel three times(!) in short succession in 2010, we found little had changed and were happy to write a full review.

Travelling to the eastern side of Fiji on a budget involves travel by sea rather than air. Unfortunately sea connections are unreliable, so it may be unwise to book hotels ahead, if it involves paying a deposit. On the other hand, if your time is limited and you can afford to fly everywhere, you might save a lot of trouble by booking everything ahead. But which hotels to book? Most of the budget hotels aren't described in any brochure. However, you can find some of their phone numbers on the internet, for example at charternet and at the South Pacific Tourism Organisation, and you could try phoning them direct. Alternatively give the numbers to your travel agent, who might be able to get one of their Fiji associates to do the booking for you.

Once in Fiji you can pick up a paper (obtainable at most hotels) called "Fiji Holidays", where you will find many hotels listed along with phone numbers, but there is no indication of class, price or exact location. There is also usually a separate backpackers section, with listings in a completely random order. Assuming you decide to leave most of your planning until you arrive in Fiji, the first thing you'll need to sort out is how much time you want in each place and how best to achieve your itinerary with the available sea transport. Only after that can you book any accommodation. The relevant shipping companies to approach are:

Patterson Brothers Shipping - from Nadi, Lautoka, Ba, Rakiraki, Suva or Nausori to Vanua Levu, Koro and Ovalau, using bus plus ferry connections. Offices at Suva, Labasa, Lautoka and Levuka.
Adi Savusavu (Beachcomber) - from Suva to Savusavu and Taveuni. Offices at Suva, Lautoka and Savusavu.
Consort Shipping - from Suva to Savusavu, Taveuni and Koro. Offices at Suva and Savusavu.
Suilven Shipping - from Suva to Savusavu and Taveuni. Offices at Suva and Savusavu.
Grace Shipping - from Savusavu to Taveuni. Agent at Savusavu.

At the time of writing, Patterson Bros were running a pretty rough service, both with ferries and with bus connections. However, I've been told (late 2007) that they now have a brand new fleet, destinations and itineraries. I can find no information about these developments, so if you want to use their services you could phone their Suva office: 3315644. More (out of date) information on their itineraries can be found at the Lautoka site. Adi Savusavu, Consort and Suilven used to be more comfortable and provided first and second class seating. All these are large vessels and can carry vehicles. Grace Shipping operates a bus/small ferry link between Savusavu and Taveuni, a rough ride but more interesting than the big boats.

Always enquire about discounts, especially if you intend to use the same company for more than one journey.

Safety, security and handling money are always issues when travelling. Personal safety is only a real problem in Suva, where it is unwise to walk alone in the streets at night. Elsewhere it is mainly a problem when driving on the roads at night, or at any time when travelling in unlicensed "vans". Security of baggage and personal belongings is sometimes a worry. Many hotels in Fiji don't have the security features of hotels in other countries. Door locks are often badly designed - at one resort I was easily able to open the locked door of my cabin with a knife. My solution is to carry a couple of small, cheap but very loud alarms, which can be attached to doors or baggage in such a way that any disturbance will set them off. Baggage can also be secured to immovable objects using bicycle locks.

In most parts of Fiji, a combination of debit cards and credit cards will take care of all money requirements. Credit cards can be used at most major hotels and resorts, but not at many less well known hotels. Don't expect to be able to use credit cards in most shops and stores. Travellers cheques can of course be changed in banks but are not widely accepted elsewhere, so there's no need to bring any except, possibly, as back-up. Cash is the norm, and ATMs are almost everywhere. The safest ATMs to use are inside major banks such as ANZ, Westpac and Colonial. So the simple answer to money in Fiji is: withdraw cash from a secure ATM using a debit card (Visa or Maestro) and pay for everything in cash. Be sure to carry debit cards from at least two banks in case you lose a card (which would involve closing the account), and carry the cards in separate places. Don't use internet cafes to make transactions or even to check your balances. Make sure you've got enough money in all accounts before leaving home.

North-east Viti Levu

For the budget-minded tourist, Lautoka is a convenient place to start a tour of the north-eastern islands. Here you will find not only good budget accommodation, but the offices of Patterson Brothers Shipping, Adi Savusavu (Beachcomber) and some bus companies. If you are not going direct to Vanua Levu or one of the other islands, but want to see more of north-eastern Viti Levu, you can work your way along by bus or hire a car or use a combination of taxis or touring companies. Diversions into the hills are well worth while for the views, but you need to know where you're going and the condition of the roads. (Note: many rental car companies do not allow travel on unsealed roads, nor do they let you take a car to any other island.) Also of interest is the Emperor gold mine at Vatakoula in the Tavua goldfield.

In the north-east corner of Viti Levu is the small town of Rakiraki, quite attractively situated but not much to do there. It boasts the fine Wananavu Beach Resort and the very pleasant Rakiraki Hotel, where we have stayed on a previous occasion. Just off the coast is the attractive island of Nanuka, which also has a resort. Like other travellers, we used Rakiraki (Ellington Wharf) as a departure point for Vanua Levu.

Vanua Levu

Labasa

We met with wet weather in Labasa, the capital of Vanua Levu. However, the long bus ride there from Patterson's terminal at Nabouwalu was dry and very dusty. We stayed there for a few days, partly with friends and relatives, and one night in the Takia Hotel in the main street. This hotel was slightly above Lautoka Cathay standard, but almost twice the price. A stingy breakfast was included.

The town itself is a business centre, unattractive but with a good range of shops and restaurants. The surrounding hill-scenery is great, even in the rain. A point of interest is the nearby Naag Mandir, a Hindu temple containing a large rock which allegedly grew there.

Savusavu

The regular bus ride from Labasa to Savusavu, at $6 per person, must be one of the best value scenic tours in the world. For about three hours it winds its way through hills of spectacular, unspoilt beauty. Incidentally, you can travel direct from Nabouwalu to Savusavu by changing buses at a point known only as "the T-junction". This is where the Nabouwalu-Labasa road meets the road from Savusavu, about 10km south of Seaqaqa. It is the stretch between here and Savusavu that is most scenic.

Savusavu harbour - boats at sunset Savusavu has possibly the most beautiful harbour of its kind I've ever seen. There are many other stunning harbours - Rhodes and Valetta come to mind, but these are entirely different, framed by magnificent historical buildings and fortifications. The setting for Savusavu harbour is a backdrop of layered green mountains and a small town largely unblemished by tourism and modern buildings. Accommodation is limited and varies from the luxury of the Jaques Cousteau Resort (around $600-1200/night) to basic backpacker rooms for around $30. We were travelling on a budget and stayed at the aptly named Budget Lodge on the waterfront (about $55 for a double, including a very basic Indian breakfast). The room was small and spartan, but there was an elevated communal verandah overlooking the harbour. The close view gave a feeling of oneness with the harbour and its sun-gilt sailing boats (see photos), and I thought it better than the more expansive vista provided by the popular Hot Springs Hotel, up a very steep hill a short distance back from the waterfront (but this is a nice hotel with clear harbour views from most rooms - around $100/night.) Another recommended place, a little out of town and also with good views, is the Beachcomber's Driftwood Village, a resort with a wide range of accommodation.

A short taxi ride from the town takes you to a road bordering palm-fringed beaches and reefs, where a few resorts have been built, including the well-known Koro Sun. The town seems to be over-supplied with taxis, which congregate on the waterfront near the bus stop. Attitudes and language abilities of drivers vary: if you want a good one, you could keep a lookout for the Parmar Taxi Service.

Taveuni

The beautiful island of Taveuni can be reached from Savusavu in one of the large ferries run by Adi Savusavu, Consort or Suilvens, but we opted for the more adventurous (and cheaper) route using the daily bus/boat service operated by Grace Shipping from Savusavu to Waiyevo, via the dilapidated Natuvu jetty on the eastern end of Vanua Levu, facing Buca Bay. The one-and-a-half hour bus ride to the jetty is rough and should probably be avoided by people with back problems. While the 2-hour sea voyage in a small boat with a low roof is usually calm, sometimes there's a swell and the crossing may take longer.

There are several high-class absolute ocean-front resorts on Taveuni, but we stayed in a hut at the quiet, modest Tovu Tovu Resort, which comprises five quite spacious bungalows and a restaurant, across the road from the beach. Hardly a resort (I don't even recollect a swimming pool), the location isn't great, security is poor (I could easily open the door with a knife) and the beach didn't look too good for swimming. However, it seemed to be a good starting point for diving expeditions, there was a well-stocked shop nearby and, of all the places we stayed in Fiji, we found this to be one of the most pleasant and relaxing. The normal cost of a bungalow is $95, but we got a discounted rate that also included breakfast. Don't book through a travel agent, phone direct on 888 0560 or email tovutovu@connect.com.fj. Other travellers have recommended Karin's Garden, a little more expensive than the Tovu Tovu but closer to the airport and on the beach side of the road.

Taveuni is a good place for doing nothing except wandering around admiring the scenery. It is hardly a place to take children. There are some excellent walks, particularly in the nature reserve on the south-east coast, where there are several waterfalls. See this site for more information. At the park entrance at Lavena there's one of the most idyllic backpackers' lodges I've ever set eyes on, right on the palm-fringed water's edge and seemingly quite comfortable and well equipped.

There's a good bus service which enables you to get to every point on the coast, including the airport at Matei and the Waiyevo jetties (old and new) where the ferries dock. The 180 degree meridian runs close to Waiyevo, and up on the hill there's a timber structure marking its position. Apparently it used to mark the dateline, so you could walk from today into yesterday and back again - or you could even stand in two days at once! But the dateline no longer runs through the island; in fact it has been adjusted several times and I could find no evidence on the internet that it had ever gone through Taveuni!

We spent some time in the village of Somosomo, north-east of Waiyevo, having been initially attracted there by the little bridge across the charming creek. Higher up the road I started to do a walk along a promising-looking path towards a little creek, but was disgusted to find the creek full of household refuse. Surprisingly, it was in Somosomo that my wife found most of her gifts for relatives back home, as well as the lightweight, cool T-shirt that is unquestionably my favourite travelling and hot-weather garment. (You can compress it into a pack the size of a coffee mug and it never needs ironing.)

We returned to Savusavu on Suilven's large ferry, travelling first class. At first it was roomy and comfortable, the evening meal was excellent, but the overnight trip from Savusavu to Suva was congested, as everyone slept on the floor (mattresses provided). The trip from Taveuni to Suva costs about $80 per person.

Ovalau

We had intended crossing from Suva to the small island of Ovalau by sea, but the only boat going on the day we wanted to travel was cancelled at short notice. So we went to Nausori airport and took the 12-minute flight in a small plane. This was fantastic, as the plane flew low over small islands and coral reefs. Baggage handling at both ends was quick and efficient. The narrow, toy-size airstrip and terminal hut on Ovalau are on the western side of the island, while the only town, Fiji's former capital city of Levuka, is on the eastern side, so a minibus takes you for the 2-hour ride along unsealed roads to your drop-off point.

The first thing you become aware of in Levuka is the strong smell of fish. This is because Fiji's largest fish cannery is located there. But after a day or two, believe me, you no longer notice it. Levuka, though small, is probably Fiji's most historical, interesting and enchanting town. Like Savusavu, it's a place where I feel I could quite happily retire. The influence of western missionaries is very prominent here, but fortunately for the tourist external appearances are all that matters. And here we have a quaint, friendly town with a tropical milieu, a main street running along the ocean front and a splendid backdrop of mountains. You can climb to the top of the missionaries' staircase for an impressive harbour and ocean view, or you can walk to the war memorial and look back at those mountains looming above the town.

We booked into the only genuine hotel in town, the historic Royal Hotel. Here you can stay in a hotel room or a spacious garden cabin for a very reasonable cost. It is well situated at one end of the shopping esplanade (the opposite end to the fish cannery), very close to the terminus for coaches connecting with the passenger wharf on the other side of the island. The hotel is splendid, but the staff are gruff, slow and unwelcoming - though quite helpful. Breakfast service was incredibly slow, and the meal was hardly worth the wait. A fellow-traveller whom we had met in Taveuni recommended the Levuka Homestay, a new place up on the hill, where, he said, the view is terrific, the rooms plush, service comes with a smile, the breakfast is stupendous and the tariff very reasonable. This site is probably the best available on Ovalau accommodation, and on other aspects of the island.

In good weather it's possible to drive right around the island in a few hours, and it's a trip well worth doing. Wonderful scenery! If it's hot, choose an air-conditioned van. We went with a bloke called Ashok Kumar, whose English was not the best but who drove carefully and charged a fair price (about $70, from memory).

The best restaurant in town is the Whale's Tale - best name too! You can also get a good meal (and a drink) at the Ovalau Holiday Resort, a little way out of town.

We returned to Viti Levu by the Patterson's ferry to Natovi, thence by bus to Suva. This trip involves a 3.30am start from Levuka, a 2-hour bus ride to the wharf at Buresala on the western side of the island, a 45 minute boat ride to Natovi and 2h 30 min bus ride to Suva, arriving before 9.00am.

For an in-depth study of Levuka you could look at this website.

Koro

We by-passed the small island of Koro, but because many travellers have remarked on its beauty and peacefulness, and because there are property developments there with international owners, it cannot escape mention on this page. You can get to Koro from Suva with Consort Shipping ($76), or you can fly with Fiji Air from Nausori.

It's hard to believe this diminutive island is the sixth largest in the Fiji group. Among the developments there, the Matana South Seas Plantation was apparently in existence even in the 18th century. Modern developments include Koro Seaview Estates and Dere Bay Resort. The uniqueness of Koro is said to lie in its combination of "unrivaled natural beauty, sustainable development and low-impact tourism". However, there's apparently not much in the way of accessible sandy beaches - maybe a mile or so. Situated on one of these sandy bays is the moderately priced Koro Beach Resort.

Other islands in the region include Namena, Rabi and Kioa. If you enjoy cruising, I believe most of them are visited by the Tui Tai Adventure Cruise, which departs from Savusavu.

The darker side of Fiji

It's easy to be over-critical of a country other than one's own. Australia has many bad features that are virtually absent from Fiji, such as grafitti, hooning, arson, tasteless fruit and vegies, air pollution, impoverished family life, tax laws to drive you nuts and, perhaps worst of all, a compulsive materialism and obsession with the toys of the information technology revolution. Everything that follows is very much a matter of opinion. I am not a politician, so I will be blunt, putting things as I see them.

Fiji has changed. It used to be a happy-go-lucky, pleasantly eccentric place. Now (2005/06) it’s more of a gloomy-cum-unlucky, disagreeably eccentric place. Not all of Fiji, but everywhere that is strongly influenced by centres of traditional, political and religious power. And where the military has the last word.

One feels that the country would benefit enormously if everyone over the age of 35 was put into cold storage and the educated young were allowed to take control. In Fiji “experience” too often means the same as conservatism, senility, incompetence, intolerance, corruption, archaism, stupidity and lack of imagination. You could call it “the kava cult”.

Fiji has shown barely any progress over the last twenty-five years - economic, cultural or moral. Much of its infrastructure appears to have deteriorated (power, roads, water supply and some regulatory mechanisms), many indigenous Fijians seem to be doing their best to bring their own country to ruin, and many, both indigenous and Indo-Fijian, have absorbed (retained?) the very worst beliefs and values from Western and Asian culture. On the other hand, there has been a marked increase in the number of young indigenous Fijians entering the workforce and demonstrating initiative and enterprise.

Whilst I was there, the big political issue was reconciliation and the Bill of Rights, and the domineering attitude of military commanders towards this issue made news almost every day. Reports of their arrogant, evasive pronouncements, stand-over tactics and interference in political proceedings constantly stained the media. On one occasion members of the military attended a parliamentary discussion of the Bill of Rights. Since then, of course, there has been yet another coup - the fourth in twenty years - and the military chief, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, now illegally holds the position of Prime Minister ("temporarily", so he says). However, it must be said that most Fijians I've spoken to, both Indian and indigenous, have welcomed the latest coup, believing it will bring an end to corruption. I wonder! On the face of it, these coups are instigated mainly by internal racial tensions, but in reality? - Well, Fiji is a strategically placed island, but a speck on the international arena, so one would think the fundamental causes of at least some of the coups lie with the covert policies and actions of world powers. They're playing games with you, Fiji, just like they play with everyone else! (I'm not sure whether this applies after the 2009 crisis, which put Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama in power. Most Fijians, including Fiji-Indians, say the presnt government is a vast improvement on what went before. Apparently it is dealing quite effectively with corruption and unfairness. However, it is also very restrictive, especially on freedom of speech (media), and its actions have increased Fiji's global isolation.)

Not that the politicians were any better - they simply lacked the weapons. Neither their talk nor their actions had any substance. Media interviews with politicians were generally like chatting with a stuffed bear. Their paucity of knowledge, buck-passing and apparent lack of plans for the future were all too evident. However, to understand the dismal state of politics in Fiji I think you'd have to be an Indian and a humanist, as well as a political critic. (One such person is Rajendra Prasad, author of the remarkable book "Tears in Paradise" and now living in New Zealand.)

Religious leaders fared even worse, and the intrusions of archaic, racist and sometimes violent Christian propaganda into politics was frightening. The negative - indeed immoral - statements of leaders of the Methodist Church and certain other Bible-bashing evangelical cliques in particular were sickening. (For example, the Assistant General Secretary of the Methodist Church in Fiji connected homosexuality with the slide of Fiji into poverty! This person’s frequent remarks were utterly naive, archaic and irresponsible.) Still more sickening was the deeply ingrained, slushy, presumptuous, crippling pseudo-religiosity of the great majority of Fijians. No wonder so little gets done if everything is left to God - that is, to one or other of the countless gods that have invaded the country, mainly from the west. There are now well over a hundred religious denominations and sects in the country.

Of course Fiji is not alone in this upsurge in aggressive sanctimony. And it is not Islam but Christianity that is the growing rogue religion in the Americas, much of Africa and the Pacific island nations. The most troublesome denominations are the Pentacostal churches, Roman Catholicism and fundamentalist Methodism. If the brands of Islam and Hinduism commonly practised in Fiji were the world norm, the world would be a better and safer place.

The other "religion" in Fiji is rugby. Perhaps their recent lack of success in this sport will dim their fervour - which won't be good, because the disillusioned fans will go looking for less agreeable entertainment.

But enough of generalisations of this kind! Let me recount some of my experiences while staying in this so-called paradise (mainly in Lautoka). Some of these might seem trivial, but put them all together and a disturbing picture begins to emerge. My remarks are in a random order - which seems appropriate for the Fijian style.

Rental car: The car we rented from a local but quite well-known company in Nadi had a number of faults. The battery went flat after one day and it took the company half a day to fix it. The brakes were soft and the driver's window wouldn't wind up. We were stopped by transport police on one occasion, but their main concern was that the car wasn't carrying a first-aid kit. (After some argument, the company did reduce the rental cost by $30.)

Doctors: My wife went to see a recommended doctor in Lautoka. After 3 hours of waiting (outside on the footpath, not in the waiting room) the doctor had not turned up and patients were told to go home and come back tomorrow. Next day they were again kept waiting for 2 hours. He did eventually arrive, and gave my wife a prescription for her sore knee. Subsequently another doctor was horrified to learn what had been prescribed. We later learnt that the doctor had a drinking problem.

Water supply: Despite abundant rainfall (Suva is one of the wettest capitals in the world), the water supply to many Fijian homes is abysmal, with low water pressure and/or supply restricted to 4-5 hours daily. (The owner of one of the houses we rented had had the sense to instal water tanks with an automatic tank/mains control valve.)

Accommodation: We rented accommodation varying from dolled-up tin shack to quite high standard, secure concrete house, at reasonable rates. But each time we moved we had to spend a day cleaning up. Toilets, heat, vermin and noise were primary issues. (See "Accommodation" in the Lautoka site.)

Van drivers: If drivers are booked by phone, they cannot be relied upon to come on time. Occasionally they don't come at all. Compared to most taxi drivers, their driving is often reckless. (They sustain their illegal trade by getting there faster and cheaper.)

Beggars and pickpockets: There are still a few beggars in the streets and, worse, people using various devious means to extract money from you (mainly indigenous Fijians). A teenager in school uniform once had a go at my back pocket whilst in a bus queue. However, we have never had anything stolen from a hotel room, despite often poor security and obvious signs of previous break-ins.

Garbage: Although garbage is collected twice a week in the cities, there appears to be no collection service outside the metropolitan zone, and garbage dumping is a real problem. Rivers and creeks in particular are spoilt because people chuck their household rubbish in there. Sometimes it's obvious who the culprits are, but they obviously don't get fined.

Litter and spitting: Many people leave litter lying around in parks and picnic areas or throw cans and bottles out of car windows. Others spit in the streets.

Hygiene: Lack of cleanliness and hygiene are a bit of a worry. For example, while I realise that nearly all Indians in Fiji eat with their hands (some of my family members unfortunately do the same), sometimes this habit is taken too far. One guest at our house shuffled through the bowl of bhuja mix with her fingers because she only wanted the noodles. Another guest wiped the rim of the mayonnaise jar with her finger and then scraped her finger across the rim so that the wipings dropped back into the jar. (The motivation was good - don't waste a precious drop, but ... obviously nobody ever told them that many dangerous bugs are transmitted mainly by fingers). Some Indian sweets are hand-made and not cooked - you might not worry until you've seen the condition of their toilets (usually filthier than Australian toilets but much cleaner than your typical sludge hole in India!)

Noise: In the cities and metropolitan areas the level of noise from traffic, children, dogs, music, talking, clanking gate chains, outdoor cooking etc is often phenomenal. In an office where I was working for awhile, it was virtually impossible to use the phone because of traffic noise. (Also see "Accommodation" in the Lautoka site.)

Red tape - and lack of it!: Administrative bodies and committees tend to be ineffective because they are swamped with red tape. Government red tape of course filters down to every level of service. Methods of dealing are slow, with several people often being needed to handle transactions, and forms are often unclear. To take a trivial example: I went to the Lautoka Council to buy a map, but was told it would be cheaper to get it from the Government Lands Department. So I walked there and after a lot of asking around, eventually found where I had to go. The very polite Indian girl at the desk went into a back room and after 5 minutes returned with the map, looked up the price, recorded something in a book and wrapped the map in brown paper. I fished out my money, but she said "Wait. Come with me", and led me to the next floor down. She handed the map through a window to a clerk, who then dealt with some paperwork and passed it to another clerk. I then went to the next window, where I paid and was duly given a receipt. The girl was still there waiting with me, she took the map from the clerk and handed it to me and I said "Shukria" and walked out - about 20 minutes after walking in. On the other hand, formality is often missing where it's most needed, such as in real estate and rental contracts, which are either non-existent or vague and ambiguous. At the time we were renting, there appeared to be no real estate trust funds and indeed no rules of any kind.

Internet : Most internet cafes use dial-up and are incredibly slow and unreliable. The fastest service in Lautoka (late 2005) is 56kb/s and has a cable connection.

Road conditions: Apart from the construction of one or two new roads and bridges, I have noticed no improvement in road conditions over the last 25 years. Most major roads are still extremely hazardous and country roads remain unsealed - except where they pass through Fijian villages. The road toll apparently amounts to about 75 fatalities per year - high for a population of only 700,000. (Per 100,000 of population this is about 12 times the rate for the Phillipines, 6 times that of Bangladesh and 40% higher than Australia, but much lower than the rates for Malaysia and Thailand).

Tourist areas and off-limits: Although the Fijian economy depends on tourism, some areas frequented by tourists are in poor condition. Examples are the Lautoka jetty for departing to Bekana Island, the Natuvu jetty on Vanua Levu for departing to Waiyevo, Taveuni and the whole stretch of waterfront running parallel to the main runway of Nadi Airport (Wailoaloa and Newtown, especially at the end of Sawasawa Road – plenty of accommodation around here but it's a dumpish corner with a muddy beach - I couldn't recommend it for tourists). On the other hand, there's some beautiful country which tourists can't easily get to, either because Fijian chiefs won't allow you there or because the roads are impassible. And of course there are no good maps to help you.

Travel agencies: Also surprising from the tourism angle is the incompetence of travel agents and their inability to provide relevant information and brochures. Many agents were simply useless, and at least one I dealt with was dishonest (see the Lautoka site).

Fijian villages and land: Fiji retains much of its primitive tribal structure, with numerous Chiefs and entire villages reserved for indigenous Fijians.  83% of the total land area of Fiji is classified as Native land, while only 8% is freehold. The effects of this antiquated set-up on the economy and race relations have been devastating.

Buses: The bus transport sytem is competitive and surprisingly efficient, but there are no printed timetables for local bus services.

Imported products: Imported goods, especially foodstuffs, sold in the shops are often expensive and/or of inferior quality. For example, there's tinned fish with sharp bones in it, UHF milk that settles out, poor tasting stuff like margarine, honey and even band-name goods like Nescafe Classic Roast (produced in the Phillipines). Pharmaceuticals, however, are generally low-priced.

Shop and service personnel: There's a strong tendency towards incompetence and almost deliberate poor communication. For example, I asked for some passport photos to be printed and they did them on ordinary typing paper (without being told this was going to happen – one small photo per sheet, charged at 70 cents per sheet!). In the passport office (Lautoka branch) I found front desk personnel were extremely reluctant to communicate; they never offered any information and I had to ask them every pertinent question, to avoid the possibility of getting into difficulties later. Anyway, they had run out of the correct forms (to renew a Fiji passport). See the Lautoka site for remarks on supermarket staff.

Credit cards: Not much use in most shops, cafes and supermarkets, but accepted by most hotels, tour providers and some jewellers and specialist tourist shops.

Non-events: After waiting patiently for two hours for a Farmers' Fest float parade, nothing happened. Nobody seemed to know the route, but everyone seemed certain it would appear sooner or later. What went wrong, why was everyone left in the dark?

Education: Literacy standards are quite high, considering the dearth of books in shops and the complete absence of books (other than religious scriptures) from most homes. Knowledge levels, especially amongst women, are very poor. Many have never heard of any of the world’s greatest people and treasures (e.g. Aristotle, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Darwin, Beethoven, Newton, Einstein, the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, the Parthenon). Some of those now living in Australia (even after attending a Fijian high school) don’t know why the sun rises over the sea in Queensland and over the land in Western Australia, or why it's hotter in Singapore than in Christchurch. They seem to have have no interest at all in learning.

Tourism: Fiji no longer offers tourists top value for money. Unless you go there deliberately avoiding prominent tourist destinations, you can get better value, and often better weather, in Australia. Fiji is definitely not a place for duty free shopping. (Beware buying goods made with raw materials, unless they have a treatment certificate. Chances are they won’t be allowed into Australia.) Locals don’t understand the needs and values of tourists - the right language to use, the need to avoid hassles and to keep the place clean.

Mail: There's no proper postal service in Fiji. Mail is not delivered to homes, but must be collected from a post office box which you have to hire.

Corruption: Under-the-counter handouts to government officials at all levels appear to be a normal requirement to get jobs done and red tape processed efficiently. Some officials don't even ask - they just skim off. Commercial enterprises don't escape this graft either. Beware of bank clerks, or anyone handling monetary transactions, fiddling the figures and palming off a good percentage of what is rightfully yours.

Humanity: I was especially upset by a neighbour's child screaming day and night - a really wretched kind of scream such as I have never heard before. When I asked another neighbour what was wrong, she seemed quite unconcerned and simply said "maybe it's too hot". An Indian real estate agent, recently returned from Canada, warned me that you "cannot trust anyone here" - self preservation and convenience take precedence over truth and honesty. At a home for aged persons which I visited, I was upset to learn that residents there were given no excercise but were left lying on their beds in dormitories for most of the day, their finger and toe nails were uncut, they had no spoons to eat sloppy food like custard, and none of the staff helped to feed a cripple, who had to eat by lapping his food from a bowl like a dog. (I believe these deficiencies have since been rectified.) Attitudes towards animals are also in general attrocious. Guard dogs are often kept on short chains or in cages. The plight of a puppy kept at a house where we stayed was really distressing (see story in box below this picture). Some of these values are cultural or religious, some may reflect the indecencies of the British and Australian slave-drivers (nothing less) during the time of the indenture system, but whatever their origin there's little excuse for their continued existence today.

Hospitals: I heard some shocking stories about hospitals and hospital nursing staff, particularly at the Suva Public Hospital and (in more general terms) the Ba Mission Hospital. The overall picture is that maintenance and hygiene are poor, and waiting times in Outpatients and elsewhere can be extremely long. Although most of the doctors are good, offering the best help they can in the circumstances, some apparently don't do their job properly, handing out prescriptions without even glancing at the patient, let alone carrying out any kind of examination. In-house patients often need care from relatives, as nursing care and equipment (even down to the provision of bed-sheets!) is inadequate. Many of the nurses (particularly in Outpatients) are said to be unpleasant, uncaring, unmotivated and indolent.

Building standards: The quality of existing homes is generally poor, even in many "proper" concrete houses, but new houses seem to be constructed to a higher standard. Electric wiring, plumbing and insulation are items that need obvious attention.

Disclaimer

All opinions expressed are the author's alone. Some of the information appearing on this webpage has been acquired indirectly, therefore the author cannot accept responsibility for inaccuracies. Would-be travellers should make their own enquiries.

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