“The friendliest country in the world!”, the flimsy in-flight magazine exclaimed, as pretty hula girls beamed at me from its well thumbed pages. I was skeptical as my plane banked towards the impossibly green islands of Fiji. How can any country be consistently happier than another? Likely just tourist-driving propaganda, I shrugged to myself. After skidding to a halt on a jungle bordered runway, I stepped off the plane into the golden haze of a Fijian afternoon. Luggage collection and customs was far from the usual hectic, jaded tumble – a flower shirted band strummed gentle melodies and smiled warm greetings as passengers filed past. A nice touch, I had to admit.
Crossing the arrival gate, I realised I hadn’t arranged any transfers to my intended hostel. Shithouse. Anywhere else, and I might have been safely buggered. Not here, though. Reclined on a nearby beach I spotted a local with his top four buttons undone, holding a sign for Bamboo Beach Backpackers Hostel. Asking him for directions, he laughed and told me to wait. He was waiting for an arranged pick up, but the customer never showed. After double checking, he shrugged and told me to follow.
It’s quite a sad thing to realise how much mistrust plays a part in our daily lives, to the point where a stranger offering to help out rings alarm bells. As I sat next to him in his knackered old car, radio blaring and windows down, winding through the town market, I was quietly resigned to the fact that I was inevitably going to have to pay for this random act of kindness with a swift mugging and/or sodomising down a country lane. Too late to do anything about it now anyway, I told myself. Best to just be polite and hope for the best.
But that’s where Fiji will shock you. As we chatted about my travels and his life in Fiji, he bombed his way down country lanes, past bustling markets and crumbling churches, and eventually, as promised, we arrived at the hostel. He helped with me with my bag, and introduced me to the manager on reception. Badass Fijian handshakes were exchanged all round, and then he made to leave. I jogged after and apologised, explaining I did not yet have any cash on me to pay him. He chuckled, and told me I could pay him any time – just catch him later on. One more impossibly cool handshake (at which I displayed as yet unheard of levels of awkward whiteness) and he was gone. I sauntered over to the beach, just in time to catch the sun set. Within an hour of touching down, Fiji had all but won me over. It was later that week, however that the country really shone.
A friend and I had caught a bus to a hostel in the absolute middle of nowhere. It was the kind of place you’d go on your honeymoon and pay £4,000 for three nights – vibrant gardens, beautifully quaint huts, and a Castaway standard beach cove, surrounded by a gorgeous coral reef. The best part was that it was practically empty. Whether because it was off season or because it was so remote, who knows? Who cares? We were paying about £10 a night for this slice of heaven.
One afternoon, my friend and I wondered off down the beach, filled with a steely determination to prove we could survive on a desert island, by pelting a coconut down from a tree. Halfway through our afternoon expedition, we passed two Fijians crouched near by the tree line, just off the beach. They beckoned us over with a merry “Bula!”, and after a seconds hesitation, we obliged. They told us they were preparing a traditional meal for an Australian birthday girl staying at the hostel, and asked if we wanted to join. Those damned alarm bells started ringing again, and I gave a non committal reply, nervously eyeballing the nearby machete buried deep into a tree branch. The pair were father and son, and were cooking Fijian chicken with local veg I had never seen nor heard of. They asked again if we wanted to join, and we caved. It was too exciting, sod the danger.
We immediately regretted this decision, however, when they explained there wasn’t enough chicken to go around, so we would have to buy another. The nearest town was a mile or so down the beach, apparently, and if we gave one of the guys money, he would go and buy a chicken for us. As I said before, back home this would just be madness. People don’t do this for total strangers. At home, I’m vaguely suspicious when someone gives me an unwarranted compliment (What do they want from me?!), let alone a beach-side banquet. Forcing suspicion from my mind, we paid up. The older Fijian whistled, and a horse, a white bloody horse, came cantering out of the jungle. He leapt up onto its back, no saddle, whirled round and galloped off down the beach. What. On. Earth.
Well, cocks, I thought. There goes our money. At least it went in style. The son remained sat in the sand, unfazed, peeling the weird veg. We sat and helped, half to ensure he too didn’t scarper, and half because there was nothing better to do. We talked about rugby, the horse, and university. After a while his nephew rode over on a bony brown horse, and watched us with silent interest. They showed us how the meal worked. Stones are heated on a huge fire until they literally glow red. Food encased in palm leaves is then placed on top of the stone, and the whole thing is covered in sand, with a little chimney dug out of the top. The end result is a natural oven that steams the food to perfection.
After an hour or so spent half peeling vegetables, half quietly expecting to be suddenly machete’d, guess who came galloping back down the beach, waving a fresh chicken above his head like a poultry mad Braveheart. He swung from his horse, lobbed the chicken in the sea to finish defrosting, and handed us our change. That night, we ate by torchlight on the beach with the locals and the other guests, hidden away from other prying eyes at the hotel. It was our own private party, with wine, music, and our very own earth-steamed chicken. And, as you can imagine, it was absolutely, utterly delicious.
Believe the rumours. Go to Fiji. It just might be the friendliest place in the world.