Category Archives: Fiji

The Glorious Journey Home – Part 3 (Pacific Harbour)

Like someone who has had too little of something too good, I’m savoring these posts because I don’t want it to ever end. That would mean it exists no more. I believe in savoring these moments because at the end of the day, it is all I have left of the place I call home.

From the Coral Coast, we planned to go to Suva. However, in between the Coral Coast and Suva lays the gorgeous Pacific Harbour. I want to own a little piece of this someday, but maybe I should settle for Natadola Beach Estates. In any case, we could not afford to miss this increasingly developed jewel on Viti Levu. So we decided to book a zip-line adventure though Zip Fiji.

An Indian taxi driver picked us from Tambua Sands Resort to drive us all the way past Navua to the Zip-line. He was chatty, and we talked about Fiji, my life in the U.S. as a lawyer, and politics in Fiji. He was incredibly happy with the military dictatorship, which had ensured that his daughter could compete with Fijians on the same playing field, since the government had done away with hiring preferences. He was going to cast his vote for Frank Bainimarama in the upcoming elections. I suspect the majority of poor Indians in Fiji felt the same way. Note: Frank won the elections by a landslide, no surprise.

It took us more than an hour to get to village. We were the only people who showed up at the hour, so the staff paid extra attention to us. I am really afraid of heights, but after the first few lines, the fear faded away, and we had a genuinely fun time with the genuinely fun, professional staff.

Ziplining in Fiji with Prerna Lal and Lindsay Schubiner from Prerna Lal on Vimeo.

A little known secret: Zip Fiji has great deals for locals, and they have a more gorgeous Zip-line adventure through the Sleeping Giant gardens in Lautoka. Check it out!

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The Glorious Journey Home – Part 2 (Coral Coast)

“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry. ” ― Thomas Fuller

Some days I just want to go somewhere where no one knows me and start over. Start over without the pain, loss, devastation, and grief that marred my journey to the United States. Start over without the trauma. The days turn into weeks, the weeks into months, and the months into years.

Fiji knows me though. I was unsure at first, because so many things seemed so unfamiliar, at least when I landed. In retrospect, I have not spent time in Western since I was 9 years old, so there was never anything to remember.

Fiji SunriseStill, there were things that were vaguely familiar. Friendly people. Coconut trees. The fauna and fauna. Roosters crowing at all hours of the day (and night). Fresh fruits such as pawpaw and passionfruit at the municipal markets. Lamington. Cream buns. Incinerator. Fiji cane sugar. Villagers on the main road selling root crops. Greasy Fijian Chinese food. Real multiculturalism. The reggae and hip-hop music on buses. Golden sandy beaches and emerald green lagoons. The calming sound of the ocean when you close your ears. Things that made me whole again.

The warm rays kissed my skin, returning me back to my real colour. Salty ocean water drank up the equally salty tears and caressed away years of pain. Wading through the soft sandy beaches healed the pain in my feet. Even now, as I hit the 10,000 step mark on my Fitbit, my feet want to walk more. They know the way home, and they aren’t going to stop till they get there.

We left Beachcomber Island on Tuesday morning, well-rested for the next phase in our journey to the Coral Coast. We were waking up early by going to bed early, which meant we had the opportunity to watch the glorious sun-rise in the mornings, and enjoy everything the day had to offer. The Awesome Adventures boat made several stops to pick up passengers from nearby islands, before dropping us off at Port Denarau.

Port Denarau is a relatively new development. Actually, since it is built on native land that the former indigenous-led government usurped, go figure, it is rather controversial. If you know nothing about Fiji, just know this: 87 percent of land is indigenous or i-Taukei owned, and protected by the Constitution. It is the driving force of conflict between indigenous Fijians and Fiji-born Indians who have lived and toiled in Fiji for many generations. Without the ability to own freehold land, many poor Indian farmers in Fiji have been reduced to living in poverty-driven squatter settlements after their land leases expired. Not having the ability to own land outright is a powerful motivating force for establishing your own business and educating your children and sending them abroad to study and settle. The new government has to do more to ensure that Fiji Indians get a fair shot at owning property and making a living in the only country they call home.Prerna Lal - Iguana

I don’t want to make it seem like native Fijians and Indians are at war with each other. Most people want to put the coups behind them and get along quite well. I have never felt actual prejudice directed towards me for my race or ethnicity, while in Fiji–something I cannot say about the U.S. I was too young during the first two coups and too far gone for the one in 2000. Sexual orientation and gender identity is another matter, and my experiences have been mixed in both Fiji and the U.S. It is just now becoming cool to be gay. Heck, there are TV shows about how straight girls are going gay to be cooler. But I digress.

When we arrived in Nadi, we ate cheap Indian food for lunch, and took the spiffy Coral Sun bus to the Coral Coast–a part of Viti Levu near Sigatoka.

After checking in at the Tambua Sands Resort, we decided to trek back into town for a great massage at a local-owned spa, Sigatoka Spa, at Lal Plaza. At this point, I was still unclear as to the transport system in the Coral Coast, but we managed to catch the correct bus home by asking around. Later, I would realize that I can get a taxi that is returning to its base for the same cost as the bus fare.

We picked up some good Indian food for dinner in Sigatoka before returning to the resort for a fun night of reading and relaxing. The next morning, we climbed the Sigatoka Sand dunes. It was a five kilometre walk, mostly uphill, and the sand kept hitting us everywhere, but the view was completely spectacular. Afterwards, we walked back to the starting point of our route along a lovely sandy beach with roaring waves. And we were the only two people there.

With sand in our hair and clothes, we had some amazing Fijian Chinese for lunch in Sigatoka town, and trekked to the Kula Eco Park, which was slightly underwhelming for the price. I had been there as a child, and thought it was cool but going as an adult just didn’t quite feel like the same adventure, and I don’t like to see animals in captivity.  I got to pet an iguana though, which was both cool and scary.

Prerna Lal at Kula Eco Park

Next up: Pacific Harbour

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The Glorious Journey Home – Part 1 (Beachcomber)

Alright, so many if you want to know how it was to be back in Fiji, what we all did, where we went, and curse us for telling you about the wonderful, life-changing times we had while we were there.

We landed at Nadi International Airport on Sunday morning. The air was fresh and crisp–though it would soon be replaced with the smell of burning things so characteristic of Fiji.

When you land in Fiji, you’ve to buy the duty free alcohol at the airport before you head out to the wonderful tourist islands. The price of alcohol on the Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands is outrageous–though Fiji is still relatively cheap as a vacation spot, when compared to the Caribbean and other islands in the vicinity. Nothing beats Bounty Rum though: It recently won Best Rum in the World. And at $35 FJD for a large bottle, you cannot go wrong.

You should also buy bottled water before heading anywhere off the main land. I am principally against bottled water, and tap water is fine on the main land, but you do not need to get sick while on the offshore islands. Bottled water is also quite cheap in Fiji, and they have local alternatives such as Aqua Pacific to the awful FIJI water.

Despite the relatives belatedly imploring us to stay with them, we had booked a couple days at one of the tiny, off-shore islands that I had visited as a kid: Beachcomber Island. Owned by an Irish businessman, Beachcomber has a reputation for being a party island. The cost for a beachfront bure for a couple days was reasonable, so we settled on it as a way to recover from jetlag. Other reasonable islands in this group include Bounty, and Treasure Island.

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It turned out to be an excellent choice. Getting to Beachcomber was not hard from the mainland. We were greeted with the customary Fijian song and dance, and checked in to our oceanfront bure without any problems. Then, we slept off the jetlag.

The view was gorgeous, especially since it was not even one of the better islands. We could walk around the entire island in 10 minutes. The water was also warm, even though it was technically winter in Fiji. We had access to water sports activities such as snorkeling, jet ski, tubing, and parasailing, at an additional cost. We really wanted to go parasailing, however, it turned out that the boat was in repair.
Lindsay at Beachcomber, Fiji

The highlight of our time at Beachcomber was the wild kayaking to an isolated sand bar a couple kilometres from the shore, in the middle of nowhere, at sunset. Of course, it was my partner who proposed this. Video forthcoming.

Beachcomber was an excellent starter choice to recover from jetlag, as I would find out later, because staying with family on the mainland would have led to certain death by alcohol poisoning.

Next up: Our adventures on the Coral Coast

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Freedom

It’s hard to imagine how a fish can survive without water, how a plant can live without sunlight, how a human can survive without air.

Actually, it is rather impossible. And I can no longer do it.

Prerna Lal - Awesome Adventures

Enroute to Beachcomber, an island in Fiji.

I went home on August 22, 2014, for the first time in 14 years, 9 months and 9 days.

Lets just have that sink in.

I went home after spending 14 years, 9 months, and 9 days in a prison tantamount to hell. I am sure people have been imprisoned for far less and in far more horrible conditions. But that doesn’t begin to change that it was akin to hell. And it was wrong.

People leave their homes for many reasons. Some seek employment opportunities abroad. Some are trying to escape persecution. Some decide that they need to experience another culture. And some are forced to do so, for no conceivable reason, and have no real choice in the matter.

There’s no point in re-hashing why my parents moved to the United States. To be honest, they tried to go to Australia and New Zealand for the longest time, but could not make it those countries. I made the most of what was a horrifying third-choice, and learned one very vital lesson: Don’t move your child to a new country when they are 15, unless they are dying. Because, it is essentially, akin to killing her or him.

But enough about the nightmare that is the United States. What I do want to talk about is the utterly marvelous, thrilling, spectacular, life-changing, journey home.

It has taken me a long time to write this because I’ve been lost for words. That doesn’t bode well for a writer or aspiring novelist. Yet, it is hard to write about magic.

Therefore, I’ll start with the photos. Now, photos cannot quite capture freedom. Nor do words. All I can say about freedom is that it is brief, it is beautiful, and everyone should be able to have a glimpse of it, if not feel it throughout their lifetimes.

Freedom at Beachcomber, Fiji

Freedom at Beachcomber, Fiji. No alterations.

The other thing about freedom–a secret that only a former prisoner can attest to–is that you don’t really feel it until it is gone.

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Relocating to Fiji

Happy New Year’s Eve.

With the green card process winding down, I am actively looking for job opportunities to resettle in the Fiji Islands in the next few years, or work as an expat, temporarily, to restore some ties to the country. 

Ever since my Dad took me on board a Greenpeace ship in Fiji when I was ten years old to protest French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, I have wanted to work in the public sector for the good of the country, be it through fighting climate change, or working on human rights issues in the islands.

 

I have a solid resume with two graduate degrees, one in International Relations, and another in Law. I already had a good phone interview with a major IGO last week, but I am continuing to look for opportunities, in case things do not work out. I preferably want to resettle in Suva, as I am most familiar with the city, but I am willing to relocate anywhere on Viti Levu. 

As family and friends, if you hear of anything with a law firm, government office, NGO or IGO working on such issues, please shoot me an email as I am seriously looking to relocate in a couple years.

Bula vinaka!

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Fijian Elections in 2014 – Overseas Fijian Citizens Can Participate

I’m so immensely excited about having the chance to vote in the first Fijian elections in more than a decade. I’ve never had the chance to vote! And I’m absolutely uninterested in voting for the lesser of two evils in the U.S.

These are the parties seeking registration under the new decree:

There is much controversy about the registration of political parties but hopefully, things will be sorted out. I’m neither a fan nor foe of Commodore Bainimarama’s regime, which is currently in power. I supported overthrowing Laisenia Qarase’s racist regime in 2006, while I also criticized Bainimarama’s deportation of Fijian academics, abolition of the judiciary and censorship of the bar. His stance against guaranteeing sexual orientation rights in the Constitution is also simply homophobic, even though Fiji was the first country in the Pacific to decriminalize homosexuality and only the second country in the world to provide affirmative protections for LGBTQ people in 1997.

Flag of Fiji since 10 October 1990

Flag of Fiji since 10 October 1990 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am hopeful to see Fiji returned to democratic rule, even though I’ve always been suspicious of how well democracy would work in such a racialized electoral system. Bainimarama’s staunch advocacy that all Fiji citizens, regardless of our ethnic groups, should be called Fijians should go some way in bringing about much-needed social change. However, the new Constitution suffers from serious defects, and I’m not too confident that it will prevail in the long run.

We seriously need to return the Fiji Labour Party to multi-ethnic roots, though it makes sense why a labor party in Fiji will be predominantly Fiji-Indian–we make up most of the labor force. My parents were staunch supporters of the FLP, and my Dad participated as an overseer of the electoral count during the 1998 elections. His cousin’s husband, Mr. Chaudhary, was elected as the first Fiji-Indian Prime Minister of Fiji. It all went downhill when in May 2000, George Speight kidnapped thirty-six government officials and held them from May 19, 2000 to July 13, 2000. The rest is the history of a true banana republic.

I was already in the United States when Speight abolished the Constitution and instituted military rule in Fiji and never witnessed any of the coups. But the 2000 coup brought about the exodus of thousands of Indians from the country, who are now settled in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S.

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Fijian nationals living in the U.S. can subscribe to a newsletter issued by the Fiji Embassy for updates. Contact info for the embassy:

EMBASSY OF THE REPUBLIC OF FIJI
2000 M Street, NW, Suite 710 | Washington D.C. 20036 | Tel: (202) 466-8320 | Fax: (202) 466-8325 | Email: info@fijiembassydc.com

More details will be posted here once registration of overseas Fijians begins.

 

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Pani (Water), Memory and Post-Colonial Identity

Miles from a place fondly called home,
a small plastic bottle of FIJI Water peers at me
through the doors of a convenience store,
teasing and tormenting, begging me to take it back.

I reach out fondly,
only to jerk my hand away.

They say it’s untouched by civilization,
They say it provides jobs,
They swear to carbon-free emissions,
Then why does my body break down in sobs?

Water that leaves my people dehydrated and dead,
Water that kills,
Water that props up an illegal military regime,
Who knew it could have so much power?

Your colonial thirst for a taste of my paradise,
Highly dense and hyper-sexualized,
Life reduced to an exotic merchandise,
The blood of my people actualized.

This plastic bottle is all I have left of a place I’ll never see
With some half-forgotten memories of a country that doesn’t remember me

A Winter Vacation in Chicago

Far away from any colonized setting, glittering and shimmering, sitting on a river of lights next to Lake Michigan, with brand name outlets, world-renowned tourist spots, historical architectural designs, the buzzing energy of a lively place that never rests, this is Chicago, as urbane and metropolitan as it gets in the United States. At first glance, the city does not resonate with any pain, tragedy, or buried untold stories; it seems like a great vacation spot and escape from my own traumatic life. The city, half-imagined, returns to me each night.

Caught in a snow blizzard, I hurry past someone carrying a sign that read “I am just homeless and hungry. God gives to those that give to others.” Almost instantly, blurred images of a distant past flash through my mind. Homelessness is a part and parcel of every city and suddenly, I am not away from home, on any sort of vacation. I freeze, unable to escape my reality. This is not history yet, it is memory—intimate, painful, joyful, personal and nostalgic. Jolted out of my consumerist shopping spree, I realize with strange awe that tragedy, violence, a sense of belonging are not stuck in geographical space; they come with us in our memories, our intimate personalization and self-definitions.

Shaking off the feeling almost instantly, I walk into a convenience store to get some water for my sore throat. Staring at me through the sliding glass doors is a bottle of water from the Fiji Islands. Face to face with my reality, I stand there gazing at the tiny bottle as my mind once again loads and runs a cinematic reel. Half-remembered and half-forgotten memories from another place and time, now encompassed by this beautiful luminescent blue bottle, conjures up an entire history.

It’s problematic to hold a bottle of FIJI water with such nostalgic tenderness and pride, especially since it is owned by an US company, and yet we do it. When I discussed this with a friend from Canada, she admitted that she went into a gas station on her way to Los Angeles and bought a bottle of FIJI Water, because it is a Kai-India (Fiji Indian) thing to do. I pay for the FIJI water bottle and hold it as if I am holding Fiji and the history of my people in my hands, and coincidentally, realize that even the rights to FIJI water is owned by an ‘Other’; I am holding colonialism in my hand.

Indentured laborers from India crossed the Kala Pani (Pacific Ocean) in the late 1800s to come to Fiji. They called themselves girmitiyas, derived from the English word ‘agreement,’ which referred to the labor contract, while the British called them ‘coolies.’ The girmitiyas were supposed to simply serve as a working population, but by 1970, not only was Fiji independent of British rule, but the now free descendants of the girmitiyas were a majority population. However, as the 1900s came to a close, many more Indians (more properly referred to as Indo-Fijians) once again crossed the Kala Pani to seek refuge due to ethnic tensions at home.

I drink every drop of the water in the tiny bottle. My thirst quenched, my throat feels better. But my eyes water up.

Real tears aren’t the ones that flow easily. They are the unshed ones hiding behind hooded eyelids, stinging with permanence. And my heart cries.

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