If you’re wondering what the afterlife smells like then come to Fiji and watch the sun set over the ocean.
There is something in the mix of warmth, salt and sugarcane burnoff that, for me, feels like those last few moments of Gladiator where Russell Crowe is slipping between the arena and Elysium.
But then, over the last twenty five years, Fiji has made some moderately serious attempts to kill me and my family.
My little brother was almost dashed to pieces on a reef when the dive boat abandoned him (by request) so he could do a spot of open-ocean surfing.
I was once buzzed by either a large bull shark or a fat bronze whaler when I was left alone in murky water at the mouth of a river at the end of a shark dive to do my five metre decompression stop because my faulty equipment was leaking air.
If you are interested in experiencing what it feels like to have your spider sense dialled up to ‘air raid alarm’ then I’d recommend it. Otherwise I wouldn’t.
The same little brother almost impaled himself right through the head when a large wave knocked him flying from the front of the dinghy back into the boat. He landed flat on his back with his skull inches from the improperly stowed anchor pointing murderously at the sky. (I wince when I think about how close that was even now.)
We’ve all been hospitalised at least once due to some potent tropical diseases that always seems to afflict us honkies whenever we stray too far from a Starbucks. Fiji, in fact, is the location of some of my better-recalled childhood OBEs.
On one occasion in the large open coconut-palm-strewn lawn you can see in this photo I could see a guy get hit by a coconut and die… over and over again on a loop. I was reading Henry Sugar at the time and I’m pretty sure that happened in the book but I asked our child minder if it had ever happened “over there” and she said yes.
(When I get sick in the tropcis I wander in and out of books. Once in the Solomons I was reading Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave trilogy at the same time as Congo and I would alternate between sitting, shivering, on the verandah of our jungle hut where I would watch warily for any silverbacked gorillas or sitting, sweating, inside the hut where a floating pink blob was singing to me about Caliburn. Combo this with some WWII wreck diving and some visits to cannibal victims’ gravesites and you have a very haunted holiday.)
On another occasion I was ill enough to visually hallucinated some cartoon demon coconuts (you heard me) dancing ring-a-rosie in our room while everyone else slept. They were more menacing than they sound. No one likes seeing a victory dance when they’re sick.
But the best one of the lot happened about twelve years ago… the last time we visited Fiji.
The second-worst Good Friday in history
It was the morning of our second day, Good Friday, and we were all preparing to head to breakfast when my mother the psychonaut emitted a weird shriek, bit through her tongue, and for the first time in her life, had a grand mal seizure.
Do you know what an ambulance is when you are in an isolated corner of a Fijian island? It’s a mini-van used to take people on shopping tours. I ran till my feet bled to get it.
As she was being bundled into the ‘ambulance’, I lent in and plucked a few hairs from her head. My father climbed in and they both sped off to the only building on the island capable of providing a CAT scan. (The machine had no film so my father and the doctor had to stare up at the underside of the screen to get a view of what was happening.)
For me, it was off to the gift shop for what was the weirdest attempt at collecting magical ingredients ever. Coconut anointing oil, a frangipani flower as a pentacle, a little carved owl to represent my mother, a nondescript, wooden Polynesian man to represent Asclepius and a bottle of Fiji water. On the plus side, the shop was run by Fiji Indians so at least they had incense.
Kit assembled, I banished my little brothers to the bar, told them not to disturb me and locked myself in the hotel room stained with my mother’s blood.
As you might expect, the rite was intense. One of the few instances where the words and current flow perfectly and you pull in stars like you’re plucking apples from a tree.
Once completed I dismantled the kit, picked up the frangipantacle, clambered over some banded sea snake-infested rocks to the top of a small cliff that faced out into the Pacific.
With one final petition for aid, the flower was flung into the ocean… and floated out to sea against the current. Things were probably going to be okay.
And they were.
My mother the psychonaut was released from hospital on Easter Sunday (but of course) and has absolutely no memory of Easter Saturday. It is now known as “that one time when mum pulled a Jesus”. She has never had another incident.
Even to the untrained eye it’s obvious that Fiji is in some sense Significant for us. For some reason beyond the normal statistical increase in the chance of doing yourself harm on vacation (because you’re outside your usual routine), this is a place of lessons.
As the plane took off at the end of our last vacation it was clear to me that our story with Fiji hadn’t ended yet. Not that I thought for a second the next chapter would be for it to host my little brother’s wedding.
But here we are. Thanks to a weird mix of my increased astral sensitivity and a truly shocking case of jet lag, I feel I have some of those overly-complex, poorly-translated, Blavatskian energy bodies and that they’re going haywire… swirling in the opposite direction like the water down this hemisphere’s drains. School is definitely in.
And the bride and groom are due to arrive within the hour. Probably time to burn off some more karma.
Smells a bit like sugarcane at sunset.