Fiji: round one of three! Bureaucrazy and bula shirts
Day 2,262 since October 10th 2013: 192 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).
A logistical hub in the Pacific Ocean
It is not uncommon for the Saga to return to countries several times. It has to be that way when flight is not an option. The logistics of reaching every Island Nation in the Pacific Without flying is challenging. This became round one in Fiji.
We reached Fiji from Nauru on board the good ship “Capitaine Quiros” which you can read about in last week’s entry. We came along side in Fiji’s capital Suva on Sunday December 15th around 5pm so I opted to stay another night on board. However I needed a simcard so Oliver, our kind agent, took me for a ride in Suva where we got in line at Digicel. Amazingly in Fiji the simcard is free and you get 7gb for just 7 Fijian dollar (USD 3.20). And in that deal you are not spending any data when using facebook, whatsapp, Instagram, linkedin, twitter and more. Compare that to the roughly 3.5gb I got in Nauru for around USD 40 and you might share my excitement. That is Fiji for you. It is a country made up out of 333 tropical islands and roughly 900.000 beating hearts. The diversity within flora and fauna is impressive and laughter comes easy. Oliver brought me back to the ship and I went to work, which I finished around 01:00am and went to bed.
Kava!! It's a drink made from a plant native to these parts. I haven't had any...yet! :)
According to Fijian legend, the great chief Lutunasobasoba led his people across the seas to the new land of Fiji. Most authorities agree that people came into the Pacific from Southeast Asia via the Malay Peninsula. Here the Melanesians and the Polynesians mixed to create a highly developed society long before the arrival of the Europeans. Probably as far back as 3,000 BCE. And they were a nation of highly skilful navigators and built legendary large sailboats (drua) in which they mastered the seas. However Europeans eventually showed up (as we do) and things took a new direction. The European discoveries of the Fiji group were accidental. The first of these discoveries was made in 1643 by the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman and English navigators, including Captain James Cook who sailed through in 1774, and made further explorations in the 18th century. Major credit for the discovery and recording of the islands went to Captain William Bligh who sailed through Fiji after the famous mutiny on the Bounty in 1789. The first Europeans to land and live among the Fijians were shipwrecked sailors and runaway convicts from the Australian penal settlements. Sandalwood traders and missionaries came by the mid 19th century. Cannibalism practiced in Fiji at that time quickly disappeared as missionaries gained influence. When Ratu Seru Cakobau accepted Christianity in 1854, the rest of the country soon followed and tribal warfare came to an end. Ratu Seru Epenisa Cakobau was a Fijian Ratu (chief/king) and warlord who united part of Fiji's warring tribes under his leadership, establishing a united Fijian kingdom.
This drua is 13m (42ft) long and just a third of what the large ones used to be.
Ah yes…Fiji is the kind of place most people dream of visiting. I’m sure a few of you might have images from Fiji as your screensaver. To some it is paradise and to others it is home. To me it initially became a place of rain, nonsense bureaucrazy and logistical planning. As Monday came I said farewell to the brave crew on board the good ship and left her behind with Fiji ahead of me. Oliver first drove the Chief Officer and I to a hospital as the Chief had injured his shoulder which needed medical attention. Having dropped him off, Oliver and I continued to the gates of parliament for my “Fiji is country number 192 without flying welcome photo”.
"Bula" is (among other things) a way of saying hello in Fiji :)
Next stop was at a health centre where I got a free MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, and rubella) and then we headed out to the US Embassy. I can say a lot of good things about the USA. It truly is a remarkable country and according to my friend James Asquith it is the best country in the world as it virtually has everything anyone could ever desire. I may have a different opinion to share when it comes to US bureaucrazy though. Swire Shipping (CNCo) and PIL (Pacific Lines International) have been incredibly helpful in assisting the Saga across the Pacific. We have laid out a plan for how to connect the countries without flying and we have revised it a few times since then. At the time of leaving Nauru the plan was to reach Micronesia from Marshall Islands via Guam. Guam is however US territory so I reached out to the US Embassy in Fiji and explained my situation, while requesting for information in relation to any paperwork involved in reaching Guam on board a containership as a passenger. When I reached Fiji I had received an email which did not at all address anything in my request and basically just referred to that a visa is required for visiting the USA. Furthermore my case was closed. I emailed them again informing that I was still no wiser and explaining my situation. I immediately received an email informing that they would reply within 1-2 business days. Who has time for that? So Oliver and I paid a visit to the embassy where the guards were immediately alert when we pulled up. Oliver had to park somewhere else while I had to hand over my passport before I could ask any questions. In the end I was never let into the embassy but handed a card with an email address and phone number. You know…so that I could email or call the embassy I was standing next to.
Flying a U.S. flag upside down: The practice has its origin in a distress signal; displaying a flag in this manner is "a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property"; It can also be viewed as an act of desecration (I'm sure they didn't print it like that on purpose).
Oliver and I left the embassy and headed towards the Colonial Lodge where I had made a reservation. We parked at the blue wooden gate and a couple of dogs immediately began barking which had Oliver promptly warn me about entering. A guest from Germany who was staying at the lodge welcomed us and we entered the gate. The dogs seemed happy and were wagging their tails. But then one dog kept barking quite aggressively at Oliver which naturally made him uneasy. As the barking and rather aggressive behaviour of the dog continued Oliver began to back up but the dog followed him until Oliver had his back up against the gate with nowhere to go!! The German and I were baffled and did not know what to do. We tried to call the dog which was aggressively barking at Oliver however wagging its tail. Oliver put out the bottom of his foot as a buffer between him and the dog and the dog then began snapping at the shoe which had Oliver panic and begin kicking which didn’t calm the dog down. Finally Colin arrived who is the youngest son of the owner of the lodge. Colin put an arm under the dogs belly and literally propelled it through the air, which in turn stopped the incident once the dog landed again. What the heck happened? Oliver made his escape and I felt really bad for him having been so nice to me.
What got into the dog? Well they definitely distinguish between locals and foreigners and only like locals they know. Good security :)
The Colonial Lodge has some history. It was built a long time ago and was constructed in wood imported from Canada as Fiji didn’t have that kind of timber. The owner Suzie, who was out for a few days attending to her island, had left her son Colin and father Emossy in charge. It was super laid back. I got a bed and payment was never mentioned. Not long after that I was on the phone with a robot at the NONIMMIGRANT VISA SECTION. The robot was basically just reading out everything from their website but I had to listen until the end (minutes later) before I could request speaking to a person. Once I got a hold of a person I had to give all my details before we could have a conversation (passport number, full name etc). When I finished explaining that I would be reaching Guam on board a containership as a passenger the connection got lost. After a long time of me saying hello I hung up and tried again. Once the robot was done again I got to speak to a person (kind of) to whom I had to provide all my details again (passport number, full name etc). Then I proceeded to explain that I wanted to confirm that it would be alright with the US immigration in Guam if I arrived as a passenger on board a containership. The woman on the phone did not answer this at all but continued to say that as a non US citizen I needed a visa in order to enter the USA or any territory of blah, blah blah… I tried again. I wanted to know if the means of transportation was accepted but also which visa I should apply for? I could now hear another person coaching the woman I was speaking to. The woman I was speaking to was repeating the coach’s every word and I began wondering why I was on this call at all? It all ended up with them giving me another number which I tried but didn’t work. So I got back on their website.
This is what the plan looked like last week.
As a Danish citizen (Denmark) I would usually be able to apply for entry to the US through the visa waiver program (ESTA). That is a pretty straight forward and easy online process. However I recall not being able to arrive to the US from the Caribbean on board any cargo vessels as they were not authorized carriers for passengers if I was using the ESTA. In other words I had to arrive on a ferry, cruise ship or airplane. Not a fishing boat, private sailboat or cargo vessel. So obviously I had to work out what I needed to do asap. Fiji has a US Embassy and so does Marshall Islands so I had two chances ahead of Guam. Simultaneously I knew that I had been to Iran which is a blacklisted country for the USA. So I began by investigating if there was any chance that I could apply for the ESTA at all given my travel record? I found this: Foreign nationals of Visa Waiver Program countries wishing to travel to the United States are not eligible is they meet any of the following criteria:
- have been arrested,
- have a criminal record,
- have certain communicable diseases,
- have been refused entry into the U.S.,
- have been deported from the U.S.,
- have previously overstayed a visa or visa waiver,
- have been in Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011
- have dual nationality as an VWP country citizen and Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan, or Syria.
Well that answered the ESTA question. I’m guilty on no other account than having been to countries. The Saga has taken us to every one of those eight countries.
There should be a "more than 100 countries" choice.
I then proceeded to make an online application in another visa category than the ESTA. It took around forever!! Where did you work in the past, address, former employment duties, supervisor’s name, list all social media, parents full name, who where you seated next to in 4th grade and who knows what!! It was exhausting and particular. The kicker was when I had to list every country I had been to in the past five years!!! That truly took a long time as I had to find each country in an index and couldn’t just “free write”. I finally had the application done, paid the USD 199 and pressed send. Then I waited until the next day when I received the following message: Thanks for your order. Unfortunately, due to the number of countries you have visited we are unable to assist in processing your application. Great? However the money was returned and I was given a new link for a new application. Alrighty then!! So I filled in the OTHER visa application which was all the same stuff from the first one but I couldn’t copy all the details over. So I began from the beginning listing the last five times I’ve been to the USA and on which dates, the colour of my sisters cats eyes, how wet is a dog and I confirmed that I have not been trafficking humans, orchestrated a coup or engaged in any terrorist activity. This time it took a solid SIX HOURS to fill the form because the site kept crashing without saving. So I developed a strategy where I would enter max five countries before I would save, log back in and continue. The entire day was sprinkled with actions in which I confirmed that I wasn’t a robot. What a day!! But I got it done and sent the application. Then I received a reply to the email I sent the US embassy in Fiji the day before (the one asking the same question they didn’t reply to the first time). In their second email to me they also did not answer anything in relation to my questions. I honestly do have a big heart for the US and especially the people – but I’m all out of love for dealing with them when it comes to reaching Guam on a ship.
Soooo much rain and grey skies the first few days. You can spot "Capitaine Quiros" on the far right.
That entire process would have been far more painful if it had not been raining nonstop for the first days I spent in Fiji. Grey skies and constant rain. Sometimes really hard rain. Not quite the “screensaver country” I had heard of. What happened next was that PIL offered that I could get on board their good ship “Kota Hening” directly from Marshall Islands to Micronesia (bypassing Guam). Just to avoid any confusion I should say that the Pacific is divided into three groups: Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia. Those are all regions. Within the region of Micronesia you’ll find the sovereign nation called Micronesia. So it is Micronesia in Micronesia. Just as confusing as the country South Africa being in the region of Africa known as South Africa. Anyway…back on track – I could avoid getting to Micronesia (country) without going to Guam. Could I somehow also get away without passing through Guam? And did this mean that I had just wasted two full days on pointless bureaucrazy? At this point I was kind of hoping I would get the visa I had applied for just so it was worth it. However bypassing would be a far better solution. And lo and behold! In collaboration with Swire Shipping (CNCo ) and PIL we found a route which can take the Saga from Micronesia (country) via Busan (South Korea) to Palau. Ah yes…it is a bit of extra distance but it will work. It wasn’t the only solution we were looking at. We also looked into putting me on a ship to Hong Kong from where I could apply for yet another Chinese visa and cross 2,000 km (1.250 mi) of china to reach a port where the Chinese authorities would hopefully support a passenger boarding a containership? Hmm…nope…South Korea is better :)
People are just people.
Fiji is a really good place to get stuff done. It is a very well developed country and a powerhouse of a country among its island neighbours. This is not a new role for Fiji. There is plenty of evidence that Fiji also served as a hub long before the first European ships arrived. In fact inter island trade has been going on for thousands of years. Fiji is pretty much equally distanced to Tuvalu, Samoa, Vanuatu and Tonga and it would have been little different compared to villages surrounding a city apart from that they needed to cross water instead of land. And they were always very good at navigating the ocean. The first inhabitants are known as the “Lapita people” after a distinctive type of fine pottery they produced. From Fiji, these people moved on to settle Rotuma, Tonga, and Samoa, and eventually crossed vast distances to populate Hawaii, Rapanui (Easter Island) and Aotearoa (New Zealand). So it is really all well connected but over thousands of years of culture, kingdoms and trade. But as mentioned earlier us Europeans arrived and things began to change. Whale hunters were active in the region and later on an abundance of sandalwood was discovered which was valuable for trade in Asia. The British Empire needed a force of workers they could control and came up with the “girmit”. The Brits basically recruited Indian’s by putting stars in their eyes and soon enough 60,000 Indians had signed up for five years of labour against a voyage to Fiji. After the five years of labour they would be free and many simply settled in Fiji. Those who wanted to return to India could sign up for another five year labour contract. Most of the migrants were poor and uneducated. In total there were 87 voyages between 1879 and 1916.Today descendants of such Indians comprise 40% of the population. So don’t be surprised if you see a lot of Indians in Fiji – only they are no longer Indians but Indo-Fijians (or Indian-Fijians) which is a completely different “breed”. Much like Indians in South Africa or in Mauritius. Different culture, accent and way of life.
Whale-tooth has special significance in Fiji. This one is carved to resemble the moon (harvest/fertility).
Another thing you will see plenty of here in Fiji is the Toyota Prius!! They are absolutely everywhere and I figure I could easily do another “spot a Prius video” as I did in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Who would have thought Fiji and Mongolia would have anything in common? In Ulaanbaatar I managed to spot 10 hybrid vehicles in 14 seconds. But in all honestly I have had very little time to explore Fiji and I have not left Suva at all. If you come to Fiji as a tourist then you should definitely leave Suva asap as the “real Fiji” is anything but Suva according to everyone I have spoken to. However I rather like Suva and also haven’t had much opportunity between the rain and bureaucrazy. Naturally some of my time also went to pay a visit at Fiji Red Cross Society (FRCS) which was really nice.
In front of HQ with the wonderful Fiji Red Cross :)
The FRCS had arranged to collect me from the lodge and bring me to their HQ where I sat down with the newly appointed Director General Ilisapeci (Elisabeth) Rokotunidau in her office. Bridget Middenway – Blümel (marketing and events manager) had arranged it all and she was also present. From heron out I met a stream of very kind and highly dedicated people and far too many to mention. But it was a really nice day in which I was asked to address the assembly and tell them something about who I am and what I do. What the FRCS does is however really more important in this contexts and they are active. There are the usual suspects such as first aid training, Red Cross Youth, health care programs, disaster management etc. It was the Building Resilient Communities in Fiji (BRCF) project which caught my ear this time. While Fiji surely has what it takes to classify as a paradise it also has it fair share of typhoons every year. On average the South Pacific generates thirty typhoons and Fiji is often a target. Villages are flattened and roads are ripped up - sometimes even lives go lost. This is such an important part of the movements work. Not just showing up after a disaster (disaster response) but certainly also taking action before (disaster preparedness). The FRCS is on top of it as they engage local communities, set up warning systems, create evacuation plans, complete first aid trainings, set up emergency shelters and stock relief items. There is much one could do in order to prepare a home in advance which people do not necessarily think of: trees and shrubs around a home should be well-trimmed so they are more wind resistant, loose and clogged rain gutters and downspouts should be cleared and you should reinforce your garage doors because if wind enters a garage it can cause dangerous and expensive structural damage. It is stuff like that and much more which has ensured that half as many people today lose their life in natural disasters compared to twenty years ago. And that is in spite of the world population and severity of storms having gone up. Anyway…Fiji and the region around it is entering Typhoon season now.
Heading to the Christmas Party in my bula shirt and shell necklace :)
Well, being a part of the world’s largest humanitarian organisation is not only about improving humanity and saving lives. It is also about good times! And who better to arrange for good times than the Fijians! They are such kind, smiling and fun loving people and often carry a contagious laughter with them. I was invited to join their Christmas Party that night which I naturally accepted. And it was an evening of food (we are in the Pacific you know), music, games and laughter. The laughter has really struck me here in Fiji. I think they may laugh a little more than other people – and who doesn’t love that. I have never been to Hawaii but I have seen movies and documentaries and have some idea what it may be like. Ever since I reached Fiji I couldn’t help myself from feeling something “Hawaii‘an” about Fiji which makes sense I guess since it was people from here who originally colonized Hawaii. I was given a bula shirt and a necklace made of seashells. The last time someone gave me such a necklace was by the way in Sudan at Abdallah and Elaaf’s wedding. So now Fiji has something in common with both Mongolia and Sudan. You would never have guessed that ;)
Taro and tuna. Taro comes in various colors and is a stable food in Fiji.
I turned 41 years old yesterday. I really don’t care about that and wouldn’t normally mention it except it goes to say how long the Saga has been going for now. I was 34 when I left Denmark in 2013 and we still have some way to go. It is such a huge investment on my part and I truly hope it comes back. Lately some family members have been hinting that I have been away long enough. I would not disagree. I did however grow up in a family where I often heard the words “if you have said A then you must also say B” meaning that you should finish what you start. Also I am not just doing this for me. I would argue that I’m hardly doing this for me although the aftermath of a completion could in large benefit me. I know for a fact that many people have had a benefit from Once Upon A Saga. That be inspiration, motivation, insight and general knowledge. And the Red Cross has received donations, volunteers and visibility. So it has all been for something. And I will keep on keeping on.
STARWARS!!! May the force be with you :)
My birthday was December 19th 1978. It was a harsh winter and the sun had set when I first arrived. Since then I have travelled 41 times around the sun at 110,000 kph (67,000 mph). Because that is what a year is. It is the time it takes our spinning blue dot to circumnavigate the sun a single time. Is that really cause for celebration? I am much fonder of celebrating accomplishments. Last year I was in Pakistan during my birthday, the year before that I was in Lebanon and the year before that I was crossing the border from Kenya to Ethiopia. This year I did a lot of online research, replied to some emails, went for a walk, visited the local market, paid a visit to the national museum and found my way to the movie theatre during the evening to see the last Starwars movie: The rise of Skywalker!! I grew up on the original movies which have a place deep within my heart. Seeing this one felt somewhat repetitive at times however the final scene had me tearing up. I definitely still want to be a Jedi.
Fresh haircut, trimmed beard and my Fiji jersey compliments of the Fiji Red Cross :)
The ship leaves on Sunday if all goes well. Fiji…you are wonderful and I will be back in 2020!
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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - 41 times around the sun - not once around the globe.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga