It is often said it is not the destination, but the journey itself, that is important in travel. I have reason to suspect this remark originates from somebody who boarded a Fijian bus with the notion it might actually take them to where they needed to be. Indeed, if you want to find a place in Fiji, take a taxi. If you want to find Fiji in a place, take a bus.
Given Fiji is truly a place worth discovering, this is about as high an accolade as one can summon for a public transport system. Embarking upon any bus, one is greeted with a chorus of Bula’s and Bula Bula’s (Fijian for hello! and hello very much!) from the relentlessly friendly locals, and to sit down next to them and “tell each other stories”, as one man put it, is to realise the natural beauty of these islands pales into insignificance against they who roam it.
Enlisting oneself to such a form of travel, however, does require that one’s arrival time, and potentially also one’s destination, be more a matter of detail than one of life and death. As is often the case with island life, Fijian ways pose many a threat to anything that might vaguely resemble a timetable, and its reputation precedes itself on this front. Indeed, long before we arrived we were familiar with the concept of ‘Fiji Time’.
A wonderful case of it befell me on a ride down from the sleepy highlands of the Fijian mainland, Viti Levu. I had made the error of mistaking a Formula One bus for a regular bus, and shortly thereafter found myself careering across arid hillsides at an alarming rate, with Indian pop music blaring above a wind that howled through the windowless death trap. (Indo-Fijians make up a large minority of the population, a hangover from the British Empire, and so hence the somewhat niche music selection.) About halfway down and quite without warning, the driver screeched the rollercoaster-bus into a deserted lay-by, switched off the engine, and amidst a haze of settling dust made his way to the back.
Whereupon, he sat down, lit a cigarette, and put his feet up.
More than a bit curious, for nobody made to get off the bus and there was surely nobody around to get on, I asked the nice Fijian kid behind me why we’d stopped. He had been taking it upon himself to bellow into my ear above the din to tell me all about the land we were driving through, but to this question he merely shrugged and stated simply that the bus always stopped here. So we all sat there, in comfortable silence, with a balmy breeze coming through the non-windows and a view of the valley sprawled out below, each to their own thoughts. A few minutes later, just as I had convinced myself that the bus surely didn’t stop solely so the driver could get his nicotine fill, the man in question stood up, flicked his fag end out the side, threw on the engine and the accompanying Bollywood tunes, and we were hurtling off again.
The point is not that the bus driver was – for want of a better term – a bit of a shit. Rather it is that the locals didn’t bat an eyelid at this unscheduled-yet-routine stop. After all, what’s the rush to get down into a busy market place when one can sit in peace and enjoy the elevated views of green hills rolling down into cane fields and a blanket of blue ocean? I couldn’t help but imagine the tidal wave of tutting if a London bus paused to take in the magnificence of the Thames. Letters would surely be written. Heads would surely roll.
But in Fiji the women continue fanning themselves patiently, the men keep telling each other jokes, and self-appointed tour guides resume roaring into ones ear once under way again. “LONG TREES, HUH?!” Yes, the trees were rather long, I conceded.
Fijian kids were prone to sit next to me on buses and procure a sort of chaperon’s role. On another occasion, a squat little boy introduced himself as Junior as we travelled along the west coast between towns. I induced an ear-to-ear grin on his face when I told him I was Tomassi (Tom-ah-see), the Fijian name I’d been knighted with on a beach in the outer islands. We endeared ourselves to any local we met when introducing ourselves as such: James had become Jamesa (Cha-meh-sa), and Ally had become Aliki (Al-ee-kee).
I asked Junior why he wasn’t at school, which he ignored and asked me where I was from. He responded as all Fijians do when they learn the answer is Britain: “Woah! The motherland!” He must have picked it up from his dad or something, they really all do say that, and it suggests the Empire is remembered here more fondly than in other areas of the world.
Looking around, it was hard to say why. At that moment we drove passed a man in the middle of the road, armed with a very long wooden pole that he was using to lift a thick, fallen power cable over the oncoming traffic. He was of no official standing and presumably only obliged to the job as he had the misfortune to live closest, or perhaps because he was known to have the longest pole in town, which isn’t necessarily the worst rumour to have going around about you, until a power cable falls down. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose. Either way, from everyone’s reaction – or lack thereof – I gathered this wasn’t the first time a Fijian citizen had been called upon to keep the roads clear.
Junior got off the bus with me at my stop. I don’t think he had a lot to do that day, what with not being at school and all, and in any case it was evident being my guide was important. He showed me where the toilets were, where I could get my next bus (leaving at five minutes past Fiji Time), and where I could get some lunch. I bought a questionable deep-fried potato sandwich – vegetarianism and travel frequently culminate in these disasters – and I bought him some food too for his troubles. We sat down to eat together and chatted some more, mainly about how his dad worked in the gold mines. Admittedly I knew relatively little about Fiji, and even less about the prospective employment market unsurprisingly, but it was hard to see what sort of a future Junior might find for himself there. Particularly given the crowds of – presumably unemployed – people shuffling about the market in the middle of the working week.
Before I left I slid a few coins across the table and told him to go to school the next day. He said he would, and I left feeling like, if not quite Christ himself, then at least a very important saint.
Such is the privilege of the white man: to travel the areas of the world his ancestors have exploited, and to make himself feel like he’s not part of the problem with the occasional bit of charity. Indeed, sitting on the next bus I reflected that, one, this driver was another Lewis-Hamilton-wannabe that might well kill us all, and two, the entire transaction with Junior was a microcosm for how the Western world has dealt with islanders. Information and assistance traded for things that meant nothing until we came along in our boats. Be it money or fast food, alcohol or tobacco, prostitution or drugs. We’ve really fucked it up, I pondered.
Most of the buses we jumped on were for short trips here and there, and we could overcome the recently installed electronic ticket system with a smile and a dollar slipped to the bus drivers. But a four-hour trip to the capital, Suva, took some more forethought and also some genuine tickets. Accordingly, we three woke up that morning late, without tickets, and spread across the town: myself on the anchored Blue Eye, James asleep in the dinghy on the beach, and Ally in a hostel somewhere with a new acquaintance, as well as the key for the dinghy.
It took a great deal of hungover hustle to get to where we needed to be, all of us together and on time. We were trekking to Suva to watch a rugby match at the stadium – something of a must-do in a country that is so fanatic about the game that the government issued a seven-dollar note in recognition of the national sevens side winning gold at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
This, however, required the services of a private coach company that charged extortionate rates for one to squeeze into a bus that was about as spacious as a cupboard in Blue Eye. The aisle was essentially non-existent, and the air-conditioning system routinely drenched certain seats, deeming them unusable and therefore the rest of the bus even more squashed. The only thing that could have made it worse was for the coach to break down, the air-conditioning to cut out, and for the automatic doors to stop working and lock us all in.
Which is of course precisely what happened, and how we all – by means of the emergency escape hatch – came to be sat on a coach roof top in yet another lay-by, chatting with the locals about the current predicament, and the game that we were all at risk of missing that evening. The Fijian attitude to this was generally that it was out of their hands and the only thing to be done was to wait for the gods to send something. As such, they all lolled in the shade by the road, told each other stories and passed around food, drink and cigarettes. A Fijian only has as much as his poorest companion.
The gods did eventually send something, though they can’t have been feeling overly benevolent that day, because it came in the form of another equally crowded coach, which of course became crowded beyond belief by the time all of us stranded had filed on.
We made it to the stadium for a memorable evening. But almost without fail in Fiji, it was the simple – or not so simple as the case may be – pleasure of getting to the destination in the first place that were the highlights. Perhaps that is because it’s what most time on Fiji Time is spent doing. but it is time well spent nonetheless.