Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Tripped Out from Labasa

A quick reminder: a few clicks on the above Google links won't hurt and might even help our cause. Thanks y'all! :)

Healed from our sunburns, brown and thoroughly peeled, we are happy to report that we survived our latest side adventure: a trip to the northern-shore town of Labasa [Lambasa].

Labasa, with its 25,000 inhabitants, is the largest town on Vanua Levu and the 4th largest in Fiji. It is almost famously unremarkable and known only for its sugar mill and a complete lack of tourist appeal. That's why tourists almost never go there - except, of course, for the ones who like to venture out "off the beaten path" and endure probably the most arduous bus ride in the South Pacific. The only reason to visit Labasa is not the town, but the trip itself, since the two bus routes that take you there are famously picturesque and worth seeing. There is the "short" and paved route through the central part of the island, which is relatively comfortable and harmless, and then there's the "long" route that takes you along almost the whole eastern half of the island and upon completion of which you deserve a medal for bravery and patience, especially if you ventured to take this route for pleasure and not out of sheer necessity. But I'll get to that in a sec.

So, we took the short bus route to Labasa first. It took us along the Savusavu Bay and into the mountains of the interior where the bus would creep laboriously up the steep inclines and then roar down them dangerously. Sometimes, the surrounding hills were so steep that we saw waterfalls falling vertically off their sides without trees even obstructing the view.

As soon as we got through the mountains, a green plane opened up in front of us - the first flat land bigger than a football field we've seen in almost 3 months! The vegetation in the north of the island looked familiar, but strangely out of place in Fiji: we saw patches of pine forest, green meadows and fields of sugar cane. Completing the botanical confusion were the occasional massive bamboo bushes and coconut palm groves. Seeing the conifers reminded both of us of the northern climates we come from and, I must admit, made me personally long for a whiff of cold winter mountain air.

Labasa wasn't entirely bad - it was just another busy, loud and oven-hot Indian market town. The mid-day heat was lethal and air-conditioning scarce, so we sort of hopped around different shops looking for a hard-to-find item for Hans (a rotating can opener, more specifically) and then we went to check out the nearby sugar mill, which was closed for the season, unfortunately. In the evening, we went to see the only movie playing in the only theater in town. Alas, it was a Hindi movie, and though we swore before that we'll never see another Bollywood production again, our movie theater withdrawal was too strong and we couldn't resist.

The movie Baabul was, like probably all Bollywood movies, a simple and overly sappy love story that dragged on so slowly that it seemed to unfold in real time. (And the movie covered a few years!) Ryan was writhing in mental agony next to me, while I was getting a kick out of the cheerful dance sequences and the male protagonist's stylishly trimmed beard. There was a bit of a drama and social commentary in the last ten minutes, but by that point we were ready to escape into the streets!

Thus we exhausted pretty much all that Labasa offers in terms of activities, spent a night in the Riverview Hotel, from which we had no river view, and the next morning we were back on a bus to Savusavu - this time the one with the "long" route.

The first part of the trip lead through more sugar cane fields and was mercifully paved. Within 2 hours, though, the tar gave way to a bumpy and dusty back road and we started climbing ominously higher and higher into the thick bush again, getting swallowed by the overgrown jungle, from which we would emerge only on precariously steep climbs with sweeping views. On some of these inclines, it seemed that the bus was on its last legs - spewing clouds of black smoke and creeping up the hill so slowly that it seemed it would roll back any moment and hurl us down the mountain. But, miraculously, the extremely rugged Fijian bus never failed to get up on those hills or brake on the way down and we didn't get stuck by the road side 4 hours away from the nearest phone. (Only once did we have to coast down the hill in reverse to get a better running start up the hill.) And since the bus, like most Fijian buses, didn't have any glass in its windows, it was a breezy, safari-like ride, with clouds of dust and an occasional branch penetrating inside.

All along the way, we rode through villages so remote that the daily passing of the bus looked like an event in itself. Groups of locals were gathered at each bus stop, either sending off or welcoming people, or just sitting around, waiving at the passing travelers. And everywhere we stopped people would load countless pieces of luggage, rice bags filled with taro* and other crops through the windows and stuff them wherever they would fit them - on, under or between the seats. (Grabbing and loading other people's stuff is a part of the unwritten Fijian bus-travel etiquette and we were involved in the ritual a few times, as well. Just grab the stuff people hand to you through the window and give it to someone behind you who will stow it away.) Since Ryan and I sat in the back of the bus, we were eventually completely boxed in into our seats by loads of bags, rolled up mattresses and bunches of kava root.

*note: Taro and other crops are the only things freely available everywhere in Fiji, yet the locals always have a need to bring their own supply wherever they go, perhaps just in case the other town/village ran out...?

We rode forever - until the shadows grew longer, our spines felt impacted and every single pore on our bodies was covered with road dust. The views from the bus were sometimes quite beautiful, but overall, the ride was fun because it was so unbelievably out of the ordinary - and so Fijian.

And since Ryan and I were the only 2 people who stayed on the bus for the entire 8-hour trip, I really believe that we deserved some sort of a "Completed-the-most-arduous-bus-ride-in-the Pacific" medal.

We haven't done much after recovering from the trip. The sun and heat are back on and they don't allow doing much during the day. The sunset is too short to do much except for snorkeling to the one good coral reef nearby that we've already seen dozens of times. We've met some weather-beaten yachties at the yacht club and seen many movies on our DVD. After 3 months in Fiji, we're definitely missing the cold and can't wait to get to New Zealand.

I'll end with that. Be back soon with some delicious local recipes.

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