On the last day of our passage from Tonga to Fiji the butane bottle that we had been using since Tahiti finally gave out. We had been amazed at how long it had lasted – two months, twice as long as bottles normally last. We still had a nearly full bottle in reserve that, at the rate we seemed to be going through the butane, would last us all the way to Australia. “I guess that butane must just last longer than propane,” I said to Alisa.
Well, guess again: if something seems to be to good to be true… When the never-ending bottle finally ran out I went back to the gas locker in the lazarette to switch over to the second bottle and found that both bottles had been open, so we’d been drawing them down simultaneously. It was four in the afternoon, we couldn’t expect to reach Suva until the next morning, and we had no gas for cooking. Oops.
Alisa made Elias a fine repast of crackers, canned olives, canned corn and uncooked tofu. We luckily still had half a mahi mahi in the fridge, and so Alisa and I got the impetus that we have been needing to try sashimi. Luckily we have lots of wasabi and soy sauce and pickled ginger on board. Not bad at all.
We each stayed up half the night as we coasted in towards Suva, keeping our speed as low as possible with heavily reefed sails. We still arrived outside the harbor in the wee hours, and Alisa tacked us back and forth in the company of freighters and fishing boats that were also waiting for dawn to enter the harbor while I enjoyed a coma-like three hours’ sleep.
At dawn I ran the Fijian courtesy flag up to the starboard spreader and ran Pelagic in through the opening of the reef that guards Suva harbor. First light showed a thick layer of smoke hovering low over the waterfront. Suva has enough big buildings at its center to make it look like more of a city than anything we have seen since San Diego. Shipping dominated the waterfront. Modern foreign-flagged freighters unloaded at the king’s wharf downtown and a line of smaller ferries and local trading boats crowded the shipyard docks that stretched north. The hammering of steel hulls undergoing repairs was constant. The harbor water was covered with a rainbow, the thick scum of spilled petrochemicals.
We checked in with port control on the radio and proceeded to the quarantine anchorage. We raised the yellow quarantine flag and waited for our visit from the health inspector. I collapsed into a nap and woke to find the morning mists replaced by a blinding tropical day. Elias was antsy in the way that a two year old who is trapped on a 37 foot boat with two parents who can barely keep their eyes open is antsy. Lunchtime came and Alisa bravely produced another cold meal. Our stores were low, though, since we were planning on a big provisioning in Suva, and we were quickly running out of no-cook options. And we couldn’t make coffee or tea, a real blow to the person (me) who had been in the cockpit approximately twenty of the last twenty four hours, conning Pelagic in to shore, and to the person (Alisa) who had been conning Elias through the reefs and shoals of a two year old’s day during the same hours.
Since we had checked in with port control at seven in the morning we figured it would be no problem for us to clear into the country and still have time to get ashore and refill our butane tanks. But we had been waiting in the quarantine anchorage for five hours without any sign of official notice. I called port control on the radio and got the health inspectors’ phone number and began making a series of expensive sat phone calls, politely asking for clearance. The health and agriculture inspectors finally showed up on their big orange launch seven hours after we had arrived. We promised the agriculture inspector that we would not land our coconuts and limes from Tonga. For the health inspector, I filled out a wonderfully anachronistic form that appeared to be left over from the age of clipper ships. Among the questions I had to answer were: “Has there been on board during the voyage any case or suspected case of plague, cholera, yellow fever, smallpox?” and “Has plague occurred or been suspected among the rats or mice on board or has there been an unusual mortality among them?”. On the back of the form was a Declaration for the “particulars of every case of illness or death occurring on board”, including a space to note the Disposal for each case (“State whether still on board; landed at [give name of port]; buried at sea”).
More to the point, the health inspector, a smiling woman in her thirties, said, “I must tell you that there is an outbreak of dengue fever in Fiji.”
“Oh,” I said. “Where is that happening?”
She gave me a diffident look. “Mostly in the west and central regions.” Suva is in the east. No worries, I thought.
Our health clearance granted, we reanchored outside of the quarantine area and rowed in to the Royal Suva Yacht Club. Even though we reached the shore after four PM, I still managed to hop in a cab and get both butane bottles filled before Fiji Gas closed at four thirty. Any place where cooking gas is so quickly available wins very high marks from the cruising sailor, and this was an early plus for Suva to counter all the negative things we had heard.
Most east-bound yachts clear into Fiji in Savusavu, but we had to stop in Suva to collect some engine parts that had been shipped via DHL. It seems like everyone we met in our last weeks in Tonga was ready to tell us what a festering hole Suva was. Our cruising guides noted that thefts from anchored yachts were a real problem, and that the number of yachts visiting Suva was down markedly following the violence that attended coups in 2000 and 2006. And an online search for more information on dengue in Fiji revealed that the outbreak included Suva (something that will concern any parent traveling with a two year old) and that the Australian embassy had evacuated dependent personnel because of the continuing potential for political violence and a decline in law and order that had seen a rise in violent crime aimed at foreigners. Our Lonely Guide noted that for fear of crime locals always take cabs after dark, even for trips of 300 meters. Ugh.
But we ended up having a fine time. First of all, the taxis were plentiful and cheap. While this was a problem for the cabbies, who drove for thirteen or fourteen hours a day to make a go of it on a series of two and three dollar fares, it made Suva a logistical breeze for us. Usually we spend a lot of time getting to know our way around new towns, but in Suva we just jumped in and said, “King’s wharf, please!”, or “Fijian Affairs Board, please!”, or even, “Can you take us to a good curry restaurant?” From the perspective of the cabs we watched the pageant of the city reel by. We drove past the Suva market where shoeshines and cobblers and peddlers of pirated DVDs jostled for trade. We drove past the bus station, where threadbare porters sprinted with their wheelbarrows to claim a place by one of the baggage compartments of each arriving bus. Pedestrians waded out into the traffic, alternately stepping into the way and holding back, scowling, in obeisance to a complex of implicit rules of the road that I did not understand. And it all happened with the disorientation that came from sitting on the left-hand side, where the driver should have been, and observing the continuing string of surprises and violations of good sense that is city traffic in a drive-on-the-left country. I became concerned for our chances when we begin driving in Australia.
I had great chats with cabbies. My enthusiasm for a new place was obvious, and a series of drivers roused from the waking dream of their endless days behind the wheel as I asked questions about Suva and answered their own about Alaska. A Melanesian driver in sunglasses bemoaned the loss of ethnic Indians from Fiji. “If it goes like this for three years or five years my friend, there will be no Indians left in Fiji. This is a very big problem.” The Indians in Fiji are the descendants of laborers imported in the early days of the twentieth century who, generations later, have generally made a success of themselves in their new country, but are still called “Indians” instead of “Fijians”, are prohibited from owning land, and have been the victims of political persecution following the coups. An Indo-Fijian driver with eyes red-rimmed for want of sleep told me, “All you can do is go with the flow. If they want to charge you two more cents, you cannot fight over this two cents or you will go crazy. Go with the flow, that is all you can do. If you eat two meals a day instead of three, go with the flow.”
The Melanesian and Indian populations give Suva a feel of the east, a feel of Africa and Asia. The view of the other side of the harbor from the Suva waterfront is incredibly beautiful, high silhouetted mountains disappearing one after the other into the mists of distance. The constant traffic on the harbor is mirrored by the struggle and fury of the crowds on shore. And over it all hangs the stench of unstable politics and possible violence.
I made the rounds of officialdom, visiting immigration twice, customs three times, the Fijian Affairs Board and the Health Department once each. A sign positioned directly across the street from the Health Department, so that it was the first thing you saw upon walking out the door, advertised “Federated Funeral Directors. All sizes coffins. Hearses for hire.” At the waterfront I watched the container ships being unloaded, and the fleet of rusty, once-were-white Chinese fishing boats that were locally flagged – “Winning no. 6”, home port Suva; “Jui Der no. 36”, Vanuatu flag.
Alisa and Elias and I made the rounds of the local markets, provisioning the barky. The Royal Suva Yacht Club was our refuge and our home base, a faded relic of British Colonial days, now making a living on its bar and its facilities for various functions and events, the grounds gone tatty and the gleaming yachts maintained by cheap Native labor gone forever. We met a great South African family, mom and dad and sons four and six, circumnavigating from their adopted home on the U.S. East Coast, instant good friends who we enjoyed a fine meal with aboard Pelagic and then waved goodbye to forever the next day as they set off for Vanuatu. And Elias got mosquito-bitten, stunning Alisa and me with our failure to keep him safe from the threat of dengue. And then, after a failed bid to see the southern island of Kandavu that saw us weather-bound in the middle of nowhere for a few days, we decided that it was time to leave, and we returned to Suva for a last go at the markets and a last go at Singh’s Curry House and we cleared ourselves out of Fiji and sailed west.
The Suva waterfront.