by Jeff Fleischer(National Geographic Traveler, October 27, 2010)
To those who don’t follow current affairs in Oceania, the idea of Fiji usually evokes images of idyllic beaches full of frolicking tourists, jungles rich in volcanic soil, and a laid-back lifestyle perfect for holiday. Unfortunately, for those who do pay attention to that part of the world, the overriding view of Fiji is that of an island of despotism within a generally pacific Pacific.
Run by a military regime that seized power in a December 2006 coup and which has become increasingly oppressive as its power has become entrenched, Fiji now makes headlines for imprisoning editors, expelling diplomats, putting elected leaders under house arrest, and intimidating those who speak out with mandatory visits to a compound ominously known as “The Barracks.” Those headlines, however, rarely show up in publications in the West.
What I found during my brief time there in 2008 was that both images of Fiji are completely true, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the country’s two main destinations, Nadi and Suva.
Most international flights to Fiji land in Nadi, with good reason. The coup leadership realized from the start that Nadi’s long role as a tourism hub made it valuable the way it was, and (at least at the time of my visit) the government’s influence there was hard to see. The beaches and weather were as perfect as advertised. The city’s downtown area was filled with shopping, street musicians, and pushy store owners–all the general trappings of a tourist trap. There was plenty worth seeing and experiencing nearby–the gorgeous rainbow-hued Hindu temple, actor Raymond Burr’s massive private gardens, remote villages, and hiking trails. The biggest dangers in and around Nadi consisted of opportunistic price gouging and reckless driving by distracted cabbies.
Suva, the capital and biggest city in the country, was an entirely different matter. Less than 70 miles east of Nadi, it felt like part of a completely different nation. A lot of the area near Suva could best be described as “ramshackle,” including prominent empty shells of structures where the government had evicted everyone and destroyed the buildings. Suva was clearly overpopulated, with dirty streets and thick, grimy air. Many of Suva’s downtown buildings looked dilapidated and in need of upkeep, where Nadi’s were simple but pleasant. People went about their business, picking up groceries or heading to work, but most of them did so while looking down and walking quietly. Suva was the only place I’d ever been in Oceania that seemed cold–and the sight of well-armed soldiers standing around in busy streets was one obvious reason. The home where I stayed had barred windows and several locks on each door, and the owner strongly warned me against going into the city at night. Nadi after dark had meant nightlife and dancing on the beach; Suva after dark meant scattered gunshots in the distance while sipping coffee in a lightly fortified home.
Before going to Fiji, I felt guilty that I would have to stop there, as passing through Nadi and then Suva was the only way to get from New Zealand to a smaller country I needed to visit. A few days in Nadi proved misleadingly pleasant, and even in Suva the signs of oppression seemed more subtle than openly hostile. Things were bad, but the coup leadership was clever enough to keep that well hidden.
I now know I was fortunate enough to go when the military was still less than two years into its reign – before arrests for printing “subversive” material became commonplace, before the coup kicked out high commissioners from Australia and New Zealand as retaliation for those nations’ support of democracy, before it became obvious to all that the repeated pushing back of promised elections meant this leadership would never hold one. In terms of its people and its attractions, there are still a lot of reasons to go to Fiji; it’s really unfortunate that there’s a bigger reason not to go.