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Brian’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 23 May 2006

Location: Vanua Levu, Fiji

MapBula! Hello!

The trip to Fiji was largely supposed to be a scuba diving trip. Jenn and I had completed 10 dives over 5 days from Monday to Friday when on Saturday we had to hitch a 60km ride back into town to fill out a police report. We werenít leaving till Monday and both of our cameras were broken. Up until this point the trip was absolutely amazing. Jenn was a bit freaked, but I honestly thought coming through the whole experience unscathed was pretty cool. To explain exactly what happened I think I better give you all a lay of the land.

Fiji is a pretty amazing place. It has 330 islands. The main island, Viti Levu, is incredibly different from all of the other islands. Once you are off the main island of Viti Levu pretty much everything changes. All the other islands are largely untouched Ė as in characteristics of a third world country. Fiji has three national languages ĖEnglish, Hindi and Fijian in probably a hundred or more dialects. Jenn greeted me at the airport with a 750 of Johnnie Walker BlueÖ it was going to be a good ten days no matter what happened!

Anyway, Jenn and I only spent one night on the main island before we bounced to Vanua Levu, the second biggest island to the north but in no way comparative by infrastructure. Vanua Levu has a couple of ďbigĒ cities, as in they have paved roads. The airport we flew into in Savusavu was a paved asphalt strip with a shed at the end of it. Not much to it but at least we didnít have to wait for baggage! We stayed at a place called Hannibals 60km from the city of Savusavu, 40k of which was a rocky, dirt road. We rented a 4x4 pickup truck for the first day. On our 60km trip out to Hannibals we drove through torrential downpours on the mud slicked road. Once you got off the paved road it was like going back in time. Very few people had cars, most walked and some rode bare back on horses. Driving on the dirt road was fun for the most part. I felt like that guy from Romancing the Stone driving the little mule truck except I wasnít being shot at and Jenn doesnít write romance novels. Instead of dodging bullets I had to dodge whatever decided to dart into the road. Mostly it was mongooses (or is it mongeese?). No, the mongoose is not native to Fiji, it was another one of those brilliant British attempts to control other animals, like snakes. The problem was no one bothered to check if Fiji actually had snakes, which they donít. There were also wild dogs, cattle, tethered horses Ė which for some reason were given just enough rope to be in the middle of road Ė and of course machete wielding Fijians. The majority of Fijians are subsistence farmers so they needed the machetes for farming, although they do have a long history of cannibalism. I will say this though, I was burdened by having seen Hotel Rwanda so it made me a bit uneasy when about 12 Fijians partially blocked off the road and made me stop. It was just Jenn and I in the car, but I know Fijians, according to the Lonely Planet, are ďthe friendliest people in the world.Ē While they looked scary dripping wet in the rain and waving me down with their machetes all they wanted was a ride. So they piled all their crap into the back of the pickup and off we went. There was too many to fit so only the older women were allowed in the back. The guys had to hoof it.

Hannibals gives new meaning to remote. There were only 5 houses, called bures, to rent. All five had a 180 degree view of the ocean and high tied kissed the bushes beneath our deck. For only FJD$90 (about $55 USD) a night it was pretty sweet indeed. The next day we had to return to Savusavu to return the big 4x4 for a smaller, lighter, cheaper rental car. We would use the Suzuki Jimmy 4x4 for almost the rest of the week. It was okay, but in now way held the road like the pickup truck. On our way back through the small villages we learned that two people were killed from eating puffer fish. Everyone I talked to was pretty confused by it because everyone knows, or should know, you donít eat certain parts of the puffer fish. Later in the week they were going to have a huge funeral.

We were diving with two different dive operations during the week. We had a 30 minute commute on the dirt roads for the first six dives and an hour commute on the same road for the next four. The first six with Dolphin Bay were right on the Somosomo Strait. We saw everything from sharks to morayís and did some really cool current dives. The visibility was good but was only about 40 feet due to some bad weather. Apparently on good days it can get up to 100+. The Somosomo Strait sits right between the island we were staying, Vanua Levu, and Taveuni. The Dolphin Bay diving resort was not accessible by road on Vanua Levu and they had to get all of their supplies from Taveuni by boat. Everyone in Fiji wants to be paid in cash so Jenn and I had to take a 30 minute boat ride across the straight to the nearest bank. The bad weather, which made for some strong current diving, made an exhilarating boat ride. We were plowing through sea spray and rain coming in sideways in 5í swells in only a 25í open bow steel boat in. Thatís 20í to give by my math, right? We looked like one of Mr. Gortonís fisherman with our yellow rain slickers on. I was starting to think dressing up as Gilligan for Halloween might have been bad karma.

During those six dives we saw some very cool live coral and a lot of micro stuff like nudy branches and needle fish. We also got within 10 feet of some reef sharks and did some fast drift dives too, which Iím not sure if I like or not yet. Youíre pretty helpless around the reef on those. The most unique dive we did was the ďcabbage patch.Ē The coral formation looked like a patch of 3í wide cabbages. Very strange, very cool.

After the dives one day we went into town to find some kava, which is the traditional Fijian drink. It looks like muddy water and doesnít taste much different, but it numbs your mouth and tongue and makes you feel groggy. Itís a very social drink among the Fijians and they love to share it with you. But on this day they werenít sharing anything. The next day was the funeral of the two villagers who died from eating the puffer fish and they werenít going to part ways with their precious kava. Since everyone in the village is related in some way or another they were all going to be a part of the funeral. I would have had to go to another village if I wanted some kava on this night. When we pulled up to the corner of the village there was a bunch of little kids crowded around in a circle. As I got closer I realized they were all standing around a slaughtered cow lying right on the side of the road. It was gutted and cut directly in half. This too was for the funeral the next day. Not exactly a cold cuts tray, but the point is the same. We didnít get any kava; however, we were invited back the next day after the funeral to join them in their home.

Thursday and Friday were our last four dives. These four were with a different dive company, whose dive master was like a bulldozer under water. The only person who knocked over more coral than him was his inexperienced tourist dive buddy. At one point I had to stop following him and took Jenn a different way. I couldnít stand watching him break any more coral. But other than that we saw some cool lion fish and a remora that kept trying to attach himself to my tank.

After our last dive our drive home from Savusavu would be our last. It was still light out, but we had an hour drive home from the dive boat. Jenn had the cameras in her lap because we were stopping to snap pictures on our dirt road trip back into the bush. Sunset was about 45 minutes away. I had the Jimmyís lights on but it didnít matter much. My left hand was on the stick (right hand drive remember) to keep it from popping out of gear and my right hand was on the wheel cruising along at about 50km/hr. I had already been up and down this road about a dozen times. We had been driving on the road for about 30km. Hannibalís, the resort we were staying at, was at kilometer marker 57. We just passed the 52 mark. The bumps and ruts in the Fiji roads change with the rain. It rained every day we were there. They are basically a one lane road and when oncoming traffic presents itself you just pull over into the mud or grass and share the middle. Fresh water streams run under the road and sometimes over. If the stream is big enough there might be a culvert or a wooden bridge thrown together. If itís a few feet deep you get upgraded to a one lane only narrow concrete bridge just large enough for one car. If itís a really big water way you get your concrete bridge upgraded with guard rails. Apparently, Tony Robbins (yes gorilla hands) has a motivational resort there and he wanted a humvee, but he couldnít do it because these bridges arenít wide enough for his eccentricity.

At kilometer marker 52 there was a pretty good dip in the road. Being dusk I didnít see it right away and like I said the lights were like teets on a bull. The Jimmy let me know just how deep the dip was but coming up completely sideways. My side window was now the front window. Luckily, the car was sliding straight down the road. Unluckily, there was one of those concrete bridges with no guard rails approaching very rapidly. On a rock filled, bumpy road wheels probably wonít slide very long before they catch a divot or the lip of that bridge and start toppling end over end. I didn't want to wait for fate to decide for me so, I cut the wheel hard to the right to avoid rolling the Jimmy. I needed the car to come back to the right 90 degrees. In only came back about 60. Just as the Jimmy was coming straight on the road the wheels sliding on the dirt found traction on the concrete bridge. I wasnít straight yet on the guardrail-less bridge that sat ten feet above water. Slow motion timeÖsilence. I donít really remember hearing anything as the front left wheel jumped the 3-inch curb lead the Jimmy in its short but terrifying flight of about 15 feet. If you want to picture this in your head, think of any Dukes of Hazard episode where the General Lee jumps some construction site and then pauses dramatically for commercial as the narratorís voice chimes in ďNow what Brian and Jenn donít know is that the water they are about to crash into is dang cold!Ē Then there would be some banjo riff.

The Jimmy, while light enough to be bounced right off the road, was a bit too heavy for flight status. Iím not sure, but I think I had enough momentum to reach the opposite bank. But that really didnít matter because there was a sizeable tree in my flight path that was getting closer and closer with each adrenaline powered heartbeat. We hit the tree about 8 feet above the water, almost dead on, which was good. Jennís side bore the brunt of it, but we hit squarely enough not to pitch or roll. Then we dropped eight feet, straight down, into the water. The way the bank caught what was left of the bumper it tilted the Jimmy just enough to start pouring water into Jennís window. We were sinking.

Jenn unhooked her seat belt and did a header out the window. She was okay. My camera bag was floating just outside the window. Jenn grabbed it. As the car started filling with water Jennís swan dive looked like a pretty good idea. However, my side was blocked by the bridge abutment so I had to climb over the stick shift. I went head first into the stream of water and let me tell you, if a death defying car crash off a bridge doesnít invigorate you then head first into very cold water will.

Jenn and I looked each other over, exchanged profanities and took stock. We had my camera bag, but in the impact the camera must have flown out. It was nowhere to be found and the Jimmy was now full of water up to the headrests. It was going to be dark soon so we pulled our stuff to the road. I still had my mask from scuba diving. It was time for a self study in salvage diving. Because of the impact the visibility was about one foot. I searched with my hands 4 feet underwater and about half under a listing Jimmy. I had fears of it coming further down on me but I figured Iíd see it start to move before it trapped me in Davey Jones Locker. Iíve done smarter things, but there was $2,000 worth of camera on the line, even it was already dead. I found it under the front left quarter panel. It was dead, but I had to get it. I think PADI should upgrade my dive certification to salvage diver. All we ended up losing was one brown sandal. Not too bad! Neither one of us had so much as a bruise or a scratch. Some things in this world simply donít make sense. Like how you can get a herniated disc from picking up a briefcase but swim away from a horrific crash with nothing but wet clothes.

About 15 minutes had passed since the crash. It was getting dark. When night falls in the bush the only light you have is the moon and the stars. Luckily there was a full moon, but there was a cloud cover thick enough to block out the sun. You wouldnít be able to see your hand in front of your face at nightfall. I knew we were about 3km from Bangusau, the closest village to Hannibals where the cow was. Just as we were about to set out on our hike we were hoping for just one more miracle. It came in the form of a Subaru hatch backÖA taxi! I canít even begin to explain to you the rarity of seeing a taxi in the middle of the bush. Villagers canít even afford them so they really donít have any business out there and this guy didnít have a fare either! We flagged him down and showed him the car. He was in disbelief that we were able to stand there and talk to him. He gladly took us to our resort. I paid him in wet Fijian twenties. He was well tipped.

The aftermath of this story has just a good an ending as our safety did. So far it seems like the Platinum Plus Mastercard is the God of credit cards. They are paying for car and my camera. My camera came with a 90 day warranty. I purchased it 87 days ago. Sometimes everything just works out.

If Ernst & Young taught me anything, itís that Nothing Partyís Like A Rental.