You hate the Bula Bus but you take it anyway. You take the Bula Bus to the Port, where The Hard Rock Cafe has materialised on an island in the South Pacific. It marks the Port’s centre, gimmicky movie-set facades extending from each side of its logo. You and Mum take to the shops only to find they remind you of Cuba Street and smell like chip-packet nitrogen. There’s one shop that’s empty because it’s not air conditioned. The shop assistant laughs, ‘The generator collapsed this morning!’ and beams as she holds up a frangipani-patterned dress to your chest, which you try on to be polite, the whole time imagining you would buy it if it were geometric and navy blue.
You sip an iced coffee at the cafe opposite The Hard Rock Cafe and wish you weren’t you. When you see a waiter at the HRC pierce straw holes in coconuts with a machete, before you know it you’ve pulled five dollars from your pocket for an authentic drink. It tastes all right, more like water than the cream you’d imagined, and would’ve been better chilled. A bus load of visor caps and polo shirts fumble into line along a gang plank, so ostentatious they may as well have TOURIST painted on their backs. You’ve seen the ads for those reef gigs: kaleidoscope corals, Nemo and Dory, blah, blah, blah. At the bottom of your coconut, you and Mum decide to find an agent to negotiate the best snorkel deal.
There’s little left to do at the Port but decide which country you’ll visit for dinner: Italy, Malaysia, India. Tucked into the port’s edge is a rasta-themed restaurant gated by two totems that announce ‘Nadina – Traditional Fijian Food with Fijian Flavours’. An aproned woman appears.
‘Bula, table for two?’
‘We’re planning our dinner, might show up later if that’s okay.’
‘Of course! You are from Australia?’
You soon find out her sister works as a housemaid at your resort. The woman loves to see a mother and daughter on holiday together, thinks all mothers and daughters need to get away from the men of their house for a time. As if that’s what you’re doing. The waitress says, ‘Come to the fire dance with me tonight.’ On a serviette she scrawls her name, Talei, and what could be a phone number, a pick-up spot, and the words, ‘Waloulou Beach’. You feel as though Kiwis and Fijians are practically family, so you are definitely not a tourist. You thank her three times.
Later out on the reef, you look up through fogged snorkel goggles and wave to the bright white yacht bobbing in the distance. You expect to see Mum on a seat at the stern, but she appears in new togs at the boat’s tip, and leaps, a dive she never thought twice about. You didn’t know she wore her togs beneath her clothes. It’s the first time you’ve seen her put her head below water.
From the resort phone, Talei’s number reaches a blank line. You decide to follow the serviette’s instructions anyway and Mum insists on joining you. First, you must take the real bus. Unlike the Bula Bus, it’s not pretending to be anything other than a metal box on wheels. The driver waves you over, you climb aboard with prickling white skin. You observe the system of standing, throwing a silver coin into an open tray and jumping off at faint trails into bush. Talei had promised to meet outside ‘Jack’s’– a shop or man’s house, you couldn’t guess. At the first sight of a town, you and Mum throw gold coins into the tray and jump out of the still rolling bus, shouting ‘Vinaka!’ over your shoulders.
Then it is you and the road and all the men along it. You walk the street’s length twice searching for Jack’s and find Jack’s Handicrafts, a store that sells Fijian products made in China. You wait, feigning nonchalance under that prickling skin. You wait, for Talei to roll up in a Nissan with the windows down. Her friends will lean out the window and shout, ‘Bula!’
The road is grey now and Talei is five minutes late. A bus approaches, and Mum inches forward to the curb. You tell her to chill, Mum, think Fiji time. The bus draws up. This flaking, diesel-chugging tube with torn seats is suddenly the most familiar thing in this country. It stalls for a second long enough for you to give in, and as it rattles back across the bridge that cuts Denarau from the mainland, you blame Mum for ruining a real adventure.
Later that night when you tell a resort maître d’ how you almost saw an authentic fire dance at Waloulou Beach, she tells you there’s no such thing, that it hasn’t happened for years. She says she lives near Waloulou. You can find the beach by taking a right along the highway after McDonald’s.
Holly Hunter lives in Wellington and studies publishing at Whitireia. She writes short fiction, screenplays and approximately two poems a year. She often wonders if heaven is a ball pit filled with macaroni cheese.