Monday, May 28, 2012

Mirror Mirror

If Australia was a hefty dose of reverse culture shock, then Fiji is an even bigger dose of mirror culture shock. Since Fiji and Samoa are both South Pacific islands, and geographically pretty close, I figured they would be pretty similar, and in many ways, they are. But the devil is in the details, and Fiji and Samoa could be worlds apart.

My first impression of Fiji was “Wow, it’s so big!” I was on the airplane and because I was flying west, we hadn’t hit sunrise yet (for some inexplicable reason, every flight out of Samoa occurs at an ungodly hour. My flight to Aus left at 6 in the morning, but the shuttle to the airport left at 3. About the same for Fiji). I could see the edge of the horizon beginning to shade out of black, but the only other distinguishable feature was the lights of the town. Jeeze, there were so many lights! Samoa is at a disadvantage here because the airport isn’t in town – it’s about 45 minutes outside of town, so you don’t get the same light show when you land at even more ungodly hours (the plane going to Fiji leaves at 5:30 in the morning, so the incoming flight lands at around 4 so they can change out luggage and passengers. Planes don’t hang around in Samoa, they land and leave again).
The impression of “Wow, it’s so big!” was repeated many times. Fiji has real hills that I would dare to call mountains. If 20 feet above sea level in Samoa looks like 20 feet above sea level, 20 feet above sea level in Fiji looks like 5,000 feet in Colorado – if you’re looking away from the ocean, that is. Huge fields! Huge fales! Huge cities – and multiple huge cities at that. Samoa only has Apia, but Fiji has Suva, Nadi, Sagitoka, Lautoka, and over 300 outlying islands. Huge villages! Villages aren’t strips of houses lined up next to the main road, either – they more resemble a neighborhood. It’s unbelievable.

The people in Fiji are about as friendly as people in Samoa, so there’s no real difference in how many kids say “hi” to me. Fijian women tend to have shorter haircuts and people in general wear palagi clothes. The unexpected difficulty was the language. I thought that since both Samoa and Fiji are Polynesian islands, and, again, are geographically close, the languages couldn’t be that different, could they? WRONG. Fijian is so different from Samoan that it was completely unrecognizable to me. Fijian sounds closer to French or Italian than Samoa. I’ll have to look up the colonial history of Fiji at some point. Nothing translates and I felt weird that I could only speak to people in English. Mirror culture shock – everything looks about the same, but nothing is at all familiar.

I love the bus, and it’s a pity public transportation isn’t as widespread and convenient in the States as it is here (interpret those words loosely – public transport is much more of a necessity here than it is in the States for many reasons, including how many people can afford personal cars). The bus in Fiji has many advantages over the bus in Samoa though. It goes between cities on the island instead of only from the district to town and back again. I wasn’t in Fiji long enough to warrant learning the bus schedule, but that was another advantage. No matter how far away you are from the capital, or the nearest big city, buses were frequent enough that you only have to wait out by the road for a while and one will be by sooner or later. The thing I find hilarious about buses in Fiji is the ticket you get. Or receipt, I guess. You get on the bus, and the bus assistant (in Samoan the word is supokako, but they have a slightly different purpose in Fiji) comes to ask you where you’re going. You pay up front (in Samoa, you pay when you get off the bus) get a receipt, and then when you reach your stop, you give your receipt to the driver as you get off. I have no idea why it works that way, but I find it hilarious. I went into a couple stationary stores in Fiji, and about half the stock was invoice books. You get receipts for everything in Fiji, whereas we get receipts for nothing in Samoa. Also, buses in Fiji run just about 20 hours a day, seven days a week.

On top of all that, Fiji also has
• Billboards
• Road signs
• Real roads
• Islamic mosques
• Hindu temples
• Taxis of every shape, size and color
• Indian influence (Chinese are a huge presence in Samoa, Indians are the same for Fiji)
• Swing sets at primary schools
• Pay phones in every village I saw (not sure if they actually work, though)
• Pig pens
• Free wi-fi (!!!!)
• Goats
• Frogs (I went on a very short river hike, and at every river bank, I stopped to stare at the millions – ok, probably tens – of tiny black frogs. Nobody else cared as much as I did)
• Tourists out the wazoo, all the time, not just when the cruise ship comes in

Then come the inevitable questions comparing Fiji to Samoa. Surprisingly, the weather was significantly different – to me at least. The temperature was more moderate, and while I could walk down the street in the middle of the day without sweating to death, I was also convinced I would be the first person to die of hypothermia in the middle of the night in Fiji. Fiji is hands-down more wealthy and developed than Samoa, but that also means it carries the scars of development – like much more obvious differences between the uber-rich and the really poor, and pristine landscape ravaged for natural resources. I really enjoyed taking advantage of the conveniences that I don’t get in Samoa, and I loved that there were so many buses, but I also really love that I am on speaking terms with all 3 of my district bus drivers. I think you can guess which country gets my vote – home is where the heart is.

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