Robert Louis Stevenson, In the South Seas
Traveling Solo in the South Seas
A Guest Post by Emily
I am in the midst of planning a trip to South East Asia, and things have gotten a bit out of hand once I mention to my travel agent that I will not be departing from Germany, but from the USA. She senses that she is on to something, and rather quickly convinces me that I should purchase an around-the-world ticket, “because it’s not that much more expensive” and because I may have mentioned that I have friends in Australia whom I could, theoretically, visit on my way to Asia. This is when she asks, why I don’t also stopover in the South Pacific. “Fiji, for example.”
“Does it really exist?” is what I want to reply.
The South Pacific has in my mind, for as long as I can remember, been more of a dreamlike conception, a feverish hallucination of deserted islands, crystal clear waters and palm trees. A place where shipwrecked strand and where musicals full of Technicolor kitsch find their perfect backdrop. In the musical adequately titled “South Pacific”, one of the characters sings the song “Bali Ha’i” in which a mystical pacific island is conjured that can only be seen as silhouette far in the distance, draped in the clouds and mist of a pink and purple sky – über kitsch, surely, but nevertheless haunting
“Bali Ha’i will whisper / In the wind of the sea / “Here am I, your special island! / Come to me, come to me!”
The South Pacific seemed to move in the realm of Baudrillard’s argument that Disneyland was created in order to convince America that everything outside of its gates is real. The South Pacific as a sort of Disneyland for the entire world. My curiosity was awoken and now I simply had to see with my own eyes.
After some 11 hours on a plane, full of newlyweds and to-be-weds (with actual wedding dresses and suits being stuffed in the overhead bins) and getting slightly nervous that this may not be a top solo backpacker destination, I arrive in Nadi on Fiji’s main island Viti Levu. The airport looks like any other I have been to; the only indication that I have actually landed in the South Pacific is when I stand in the line for immigration. Albeit it being 5 a.m. in the morning, a group of Fijians dressed in sulus (traditional Fijian clothing similar to a sarong, worn by men and women) sing a cheerful welcome song and call out “Bula!” (the Fijian word for almost everything: hello, goodbye, welcome, love, life) to everyone passing.
I am exhausted and not convinced.
Is this not clichéd, Disneylandish, tourist trapping? Is this not meant to deviate from the “real” world? The “real” Fiji? While most fellow travelers whiz off in taxis or package tour buses, I find out that the best place to start as backpacker is at a hostel called “Smuggler’s Cove” (how….clever). Here I quickly realize that there are after all tons of fellow backpackers, and that everyone knows only one destination: the Yasawa Islands, an archipelago in the western part of Fiji, and said to be home to the pristine beaches, crystal-clear water and all other thinkable pacific fantasies. The “Yasawa Flyer”, a bright yellow high-speed catamaran that cruises the islands daily allows for convenient island hopping. My first stop is the very northern Nacula. Every Yasawa island has one resort with beach bungalows – rustic but charming.
A generator allows for electricity from 7-10 p.m., there is no warm water. Although the beach is narrow and the water shallow, it is remote and quiet and lovely. One of the resort’s employees takes some fellow travellers and me out on a boat (that has “water taxi” painted on its side) to the “real” Blue Lagoon, where the infamous movie was shot. I experience my very first snorkelling with tropical fish and am amazed by the colourful magical world within our world. If all this is still a deviation from the real world, I don’t care anymore. A travel-weary Danish girl, who just spent 6 months in Southeast Asia is, however, not impressed: “I’ve seen much better in ____ (insert any exotic country).” Oh well. (Two months later I have made my way to Vietnam and experience phosphorescent plankton and I must say it’s a tie on amazement.)
Next stop is Barefoot Island, adequately named as everything is covered in sand. This island’s best feature is the fact that you can walk from one end to the other in order to catch sunrise and sunset. The first night already has me witness the most picture-perfect sunset of my life—from golden to pink, violet, deep red. Perhaps “South Pacific” was not color enhanced after all?
It goes on in this way and I become a little unsettled. The hammocks, coconuts, sunsets and beaches, snorkelling, and palm trees is exactly what I had in mind. However, where are the Fijians? Where is the real life? Surely not here. These islands cater fully to tourism. Some Fijians live in villages far away from the resorts, but most live on the main islands. The Yasawa Islands are tourist country.
A sort of ridiculously beautiful but natural Disneyland
I make my way back to the main island Viti Levu. I want to see something that seems more “real,” although by now I am quite unsure what I actually mean by that. A trip to a village allows for more insight: After welcoming our group with a traditional Kava ceremony, we are shown around. The school is a simple concrete structure with clearly not enough supplies. The kids walk to school for miles, partly crossing rivers on bamboo rafts and consequently arriving to class drenched. The village huts are basic, the women cook outside on open fires. The political system is highly unstable, with the military governing or influencing politics since the 1980s.
This is real life, surely. But is this the real Fiji? Is there a real Fiji? The natural beauty of the islands juxtaposed to the harsh reality of daily life makes for a complex picture. What is it that the newlyweds feel, locked up in their exquisite resorts, padding from buffet, to beach, to bed and back? What is it that the backpackers feel, island hopping, lounging in hammocks, plotting the next destination (Australia or Southeast Asia for nearly everyone)? What is it that I feel, finally? Coming back to Stevenson, my first South Sea island most definitely is an experience that can never be repeated, a memory apart, a virginity of sense – something very real, for sure.
The author: Emily has lived in quite a few countries and has traveled the world with an around-the-world-ticket after graduating from university with a master’s degree in literary sciences. She thinks that the south of the USA is completely underestimated as a traveler’s destination. New Orleans! The Mississippi Delta! Charleston! Blues! She has also traveled to Fiji all on her own. Emily was born in Northern Germany and is curious about where her next job will take her.