As soon as you get off the plane it hits you: it’s like walking into a sauna. No, it is walking into a sauna, in just about every sense. Sweat begins to muster on your brow as you succumb to the humidity; the air is dense with it. Breathing is just that little bit more difficult and movement is slower too.
“Aaah,” I exclaim, soaking in the atmosphere, more literally than normal.
The air’s texture is different here, an almost African quality in all ways apart from… flavour? A door opens and you’re plunged into frigid air conditioning. My immediate reaction is one of disappointment. I came to Fiji to experience Fiji, with all the uncomfortable humidity the little group of islands could throw at me, not convenient air conditioning. The diminutive airport’s arrivals area is dominated by mobile phone advertising and official looking bins encouraging me to throw away any food I may have with me.
Once again outside, the ambient heat radiates at you from every side, even this late in the afternoon. As soon as you step into the bus you realize why the engine is running: cold air pumps in at you from the roof, even with the door open it produces a refrigerated cocoon. Perhaps we are being preserved on ice for the great feast tonight. No one else seems to share my concern though, the other holidaymakers sigh with relief when they reach the oasis of cool.
As soon as the bus starts moving, I open the window just a crack, glancing guiltily at the other passengers. It’s a relatively cool night in Fiji, though hot by New Zealand standards. I stick my nose out of the window and try to place that flavour. It’sâ€¦ starchy. Not sweet & fruity like the similarly humid markets in Singapore, and not earthy & spicy like Africa, it’s like a pot of potatoes and rice, heated up till they turn to powder, and then vaporised. I like it.
I pull the window wide enough to stick out some of my head, my arms and camera. I see an electronic store. A KFC, a few stores I can’t place, a marketplace and a structure made of corrugated iron advertising Kava. I turn to Sarah and say “I wanna go see the market… and have some Kava”. I imagine she rolled her eyes. I am just the sort of person to spend thousands of dollars booking into a fancy resort and then spend a day at the local markets experiencing “culture”. It’s this “authenticity of experience” I look for, even though, as an existentialist, I don’t make a great distinction between different kinds of experience.
The landscape changes, we’re out of the main town and heading for our destination. Images flash past me: boys playing soccer in the relative cool of the evening, well lived-in houses, houses for sale, large plots of land for sale under colourful property management signs. The scenery changes again as we approach the gate to Denarau Island. Island. It’s is a misnomer. They dug a moat around some land and declared an island. The real Denarau Island is, as far as I can make out, uninhabited. We pass by just about every other resort before arriving at ours: Hilton, Sheraton, Sofatiel, Westin and finally Radisson. Drums beat vigorously, punctuated by the enthusiastic cry “Bula” to herald our arrival.
Bula, now that’s quite a branding coup (pardon the pun). It means “life” but it has been cleverly crafted into a catch-all word. They teach it to holidaymakers, children and adults alike, it’s used as a greeting, as a war cry and a collective response in almost every tourist-facing ritual. It’s not just a hospitality thing. Everywhere you go, a friendly smiling face will exclaim “Bula” with earnest enthusiasm. It’s the equivalent of every New Zealander yelling “Kia Ora” at passing tousists as they meet them in the street, as well as to encourage their local rugby team. I like it, but it doesn’t ring true. It feels as though the culture has been commercialised for my benefit or perhaps (more unsettlingly) the culture has changed to appeal to my need for a quick, efficient, package-deal cultural exchange. An island, a culture, an entire race of people reduced to a single word that visitors can take away with them on t-shirts.