Saturday, December 31, 2011

Around the World: Fiji New Year

December 31, 1991

After breakfast, compliments of the hotel, on the beach, under the canopy of coconut trees, I accepted an invitation from a few of my hostel mates to explore the market in downtown Sigatoka.

The market is a bustling place full of fresh fruit, fish, touristy souvenirs, clothing and more.  The cost is determined by bartering for the best price.   Fortunately, we were all cautioned about a common market scam and told not to look too interested in anything we weren't prepared to buy.  The vendor will ask for your name, and then carve it into the item you were admiring, at which point you are expected to buy it at an inflated price.  I was curious about a unique type of sword and wanted to take a closer look, but I barely had the chance before it was picked up by the vendor who tried to get me to introduce myself.  I just thanked him and walked away.  After a couple hours of browsing and scam dodging, the group I was with agreed to catch a bus back to the hotel.

Market in downtown Sigatoka
Photo by Brian Gortney

I am adjusting to island time, meaning that everything... in Fiji... happens... eventually.  After lunch, my morning market mates went their separate ways and I met up with Jeanette, who wanted to try snorkeling. Neither one of us had tried it before and it took some getting used to. The hypnotic view under the water distracted us from the fact that we were actually drifting out to sea with the tide. I soon learned that when the fish were larger than the palm of my hand, it was time to lift my head and see where I was. In water that's deep enough to cover my knees, there are plants that wave graciously with the incoming and outgoing waves.  Only a few meters from shore was not unlike being in a pet store fish tank, as I was surrounded by tiny, neon striped gobies.  Just before it was time to check the distance from shore, I caught sight of a beautiful, orange starfish. 

Photo by Jason Blay

At low tide, the water recedes out a couple hundred meters, exposing the ocean floor, to where the lagoon and the deep ocean meet at a coral reef.  You can walk right out to the reef at low tide and only ever be ankle deep in water.

The sun seems to set here for hours.  The group I had gone to the market with this morning invited me to a place where the pizza is really tasty and very cheap.  The alternative is to stay at the hotel and pay $25 for dinner, plus drinks.  The driver of the airport shuttle agreed to drop us off at the pizza restaurant, but told us we'd have to find our own way back.

The restaurant has picnic tables out front where we laughed and talked over continuous slices of pizza (which eventually totaled $3.50) and beer (750ml bottle for 50¢).  Two Aussie guys explained that the stars on the Australian flag are from a constellation and tried to point it out to those of us from the north side of the equator.  I had never seen the Southern Cross, being a circumpolar constellation in the southern hemisphere, and to be honest, I'm still not sure if I have.  It was a peculiar feeling to not recognize the sky above me.

Crux or Southern Cross constellation
Photo by Sid Leach

With almost 10km between us and the hotel, we started the long walk back. We were able to flag down a taxi, but knowing it was ride or walk for us, the driver wouldn't budge on his price.  Once the lights from the taxi disappeared in the distance, we joked about the possibility that we had made a mistake.  After all, walking on a narrow, two lane road, on a tropical island with unknown predators, in pitch darkness was maybe not the safest thing to be doing.  Fortunately, we had the foresight to bring beer with us so the situation wasn't exactly dire.  Yet.

After an hour, maybe a little less, another car appeared, this one a cube van.  When it stopped, Ken, one of the Australian guys, and I peeked into the driver's window, but no one was there. The other Aussie guy and Jeanette looked in a back window and also didn't see anyone.  We were a bit spooked about this haunted van, with no driver, that had come to rescue us from the very, very long walk we faced.  Suddenly, the back doors swung open and a Fijian man welcomed us inside.  He took us back to the hotel for $1 each.

We bought some beer on our way past the bar and were on the way back to the dorm to continue our celebrating when we realized it was low tide.  Changing direction to the pool, each of us picked up a chair and headed out into the temporary absence of ocean.  Soon after we set up our little low tide party, the echoes of counting down and cheering from shore were our cue to clink our giant beer bottles and admire the star covered sky against the Pacific Ocean darkness.

The party around the pool was starting to wind down when our conversation was suddenly interrupted by, "My butt's getting wet," at which point we realized the tide was on its way in.  We picked up our chairs and moved to a piece of ocean floor that hadn't been covered by water yet, and set our little party back up again.  This happened a couple more times until the ocean eventually chased us back onto the beach.  Being so close to the International Date Line, I couldn't pass up the chance to watch the first sunrise of the new year.

Photo by Angela Beza

Happy New Year!

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"We can only appreciate the miracle of a sunrise if we have waited in the darkness."
~Unknown Author