Growing up, I saw the images and magazine advertisements that claimed Fiji to be the ultimate vacation destination. Living just three hours from Fiji meant that I could finally experience it myself. What I didn't expect was that despite the idillic white sand beaches and turquoise waters, Fiji could be unsafe. Just like everywhere else on earth.
Before I start, I'm ok. I'm shaken for sure. I can't stop thinking about what happened but I'm physically okay. I'm most mad about how this has changed the way I think of Fiji. It also makes me mad that a little piece of my travel bug has been stolen. What freaks me out the most, is that it started off benignly. As a blond white woman, I’m used to getting unwanted attention especially in lesser developed countries. It might sound arrogant but any woman my age who has travelled in places like Cambodia, Indonesia, or the Philippines will understand what I mean. Even on a work trip many years ago, we laughed at how often I was stopped on the streets of Beijing by strangers wanting a photo "with the white-haired girl". In Turkey, men joked at an official business meeting about trading me for "at least" a few quality goats. Funny then. Looking back on it now, it made this kind of attention the norm.
Anyway, Fiji was the same, maybe worse. And by worse, I mean, more "friendly". Every local you cross paths with in Fiji says "Bula", the standard greeting pronounced boolah, literally meaning "life" but used as "hello". A warm smile or friendly wave often accompanies it. And despite the mass marketing of Fiji for decades now, I noted to a fellow traveller yesterday that I was still only 1 of 3 white people in town - painfully obvious that I was a tourist. After 8 days in the country, I was getting pretty used to strangers saying "Bula" to me . Even this morning I realised it was now rolling off my own lips, unprompted.
So when yet another Fijian guy said "Bula" to me yesterday afternoon, I didn't really think much about it. I was leaving town after having lunch and walking towards the lodge where I stayed the night before. As I was flying in a few hours, I figured I would head back, read my book on the terrace, and get my bag before going to the airport. As I was walking out of town, this guy who appeared to be my age or a bit older fell into step with me offering the usual "Bula" greeting. He asked me where I was going and I thought that perhaps he was a taxi driver looking for a fare. I said "Not far" and kept walking. He asked where I was from. A very common question when you clearly appear not to be local. I said "Canada" but offered up nothing further. I feel defensive even as I write this but he seemed merely curious and it was a Saturday in broad daylight with lots of other people around. Later I would be asked by the Fijian police chief why I didn't report him then. "I can't call the police on every Fijian man who talks to me," I'd answer.
Nevertheless, I wasn't keen on encouraging any conversation so I dropped my speed, falling further and further behind him - closer to two girls who had joined us on that section of sidewalk. Once he was a good amount ahead and clearly "our conversation" was over, I switched to the other side of the road. I typically did this anyway because a construction site coming up and a few "Bula"s always came from the men on site and I preferred to be far enough away from both them and this new fellow.
I was also in no rush. In fact I was actively trying to kill time before my flight and didn't want to impose on the relatively small lodge where I had already technically checked out of. So, I walked along slowly. A few minutes later, Sharon - the owner of the lodge - stopped in her truck as she drove into town with some of her new guests. Given the road up to her lodge is steep beyond your imagination, I thought about getting into her vehicle and backtracking just to score an eventual lift up the hill. But she had some errands to do and wasn't sure she'd be back to the lodge in time to take me to the airport. I decided to walk thinking I could always use the exercise.
A few minutes later, the town was left behind and I was left to the peace of the main road with the ocean views on my right. Soon enough I was at the base of Sharon's driveway - a dirt road up to her lodge - a road for only the bravest 4W drivers. I started to walk up. I got to the top of the first "section" before having to stop and take a breather. As I stopped, I turned around to look out over the beautiful ocean. That's when I spotted the same guy jogging up behind me.
What the hell, I thought. Why is he coming up this way? Nobody willingly walks up the driveway unless they're training for an ironman or staying at the lodge. I took off going up as fast as I could, thinking that maybe he hadn't seen me and I could avoid yet another uncomfortable conversation. But I was winded soon enough and could see that he was now on the same "section" as me and there was no pretending he couldn't see me anymore. I kept walking as fast as I could and he yelled out, "good exercise" as he ran up the hill behind me. I didn't respond and kept walking as fast as I could. He got closer and repeated "good exercise, yes?" I grumbled a "yes", not turning around. It was clear he wasn't being dismayed so I stopped to face him and asked "why are you coming this way?" He mumbled the name of Sharon's lodge and something about playing rugby. Without taking a beat, he then asked if I was married. A weird question in most situations but to anyone who has travelled in South East Asia (asI blogged about here), it's a common question that often comes just after asking your name.
Despite this, it was a red flag to me. I instinctively said no but instantly regretted it. "Fuck, wrong answer", I thought. This was weird. He's not taking any hints. He then asked if he could ask me a question. At this point my frustration with his insistence was bubbling over and I responded crossly "WHAT?!!"
"Will you go out with me?" he asked. Are you kidding me?? I was visibly agitated by this point and started listing every possible reason why I couldn't and wouldn't. "No! I'm not interested, I don't live here. I am going home today. I have a boyfriend!" (I don't but I had realised my earlier mistake). He started pouting, pleading and coming towards me. I backed up. That's why he grabbed my arms and said "Well how about you just give me some money then? Ten dollars?" I screamed at the top of my lungs as (I think) he tried to reach over my shoulder to get at my backpack. My penchant for logic never ceases to be a buzz kill though as I remember thinking, "Great scream, Meagan, but nobody will hear it up this barren road". So I pushed him away and screamed at him to get away from me. At this point he was blocking my way down to the main road so I turned and ran up the driveway as fast as I could.
I had to stop to breathe and see if he was following me but he wasn't. He was still standing in the same place but now he was opening his jeans, grabbing his penis and shaking it at me. I could have vomited. I turned and ran. The last section to the lodge for someone on foot was a steep but less muddy set of makeshift cement stairs. By this point my chest was burning, I was wheezing for breath and outside of myself with fear. I didn't look back again to see if he was still following - I think I just assumed that he could be so I had to keep going and get to the lodge. I reached the final set of steps up which led up to the deck and found Sharon's housekeeper there cleaning. I burst into tears and fell into her arms.
I think a lot of things about yesterday. I think that I should have gotten into Sharon's truck when we crossed paths in town. I should have been more observant to see where the guy went (I think he must have hid along the main road somewhere waiting to see what driveway I walked up). I think I should have started back down the hill as soon as I saw him - towards people and down the hill, rather than up. I think I should have paid more attention to what the two girls looked like who I walked with for a short while when slowing down to avoid him. I think I need to get into better shape so I can run faster! I try not to think about what his plans were - whether it were to get some money or something else. I also think - it could have been a lot worse.
Sharon leapt into action, driving back to the lodge as soon as her housekeeper called her. She gathered me up along with my things with a mission to find him before he got away and talk to the police. Through my tears I told Sharon what had happened as we drove slowly back into town looking for him. Eventually we decided to get out of the truck and waved down the policy who had already been called by Sharon's housekeeper. Some of the police were helpful and considerate. Others - especially the one who appeared be the Chief - wavered between being useless and being on a serious power trip. At one point, the Chief told Sharon she couldn't come into the police vehicle with me (as we set out to look for him) because his four! colleagues also had to come. Upon seeing that I was not going anywhere without Sharon, one of the police officers ignored the Chief and got out of the vehicle to make room for Sharon. There's no need to rehash the silly "searching" they proceeded to do - such as driving back up the dead end road to Sharon's lodge where clearly he wouldn't be at this point - but it culminated with taking down my statement at the police station.
The Chief wrote down my statement - in English (his second language) and bizarrely in first-person as though I had written it. When I questioned him about this, he dismissed this saying he was writing down "my statement". He spent the majority of the time asking questions about how long I'd been in Fiji, when I was leaving, where I had been, what I was doing in town that day, what time I had started walking back. To say the least, I was annoyed by the time we got around to the actual event. Instead of asking me to tell him what happened, he recapped just the last moments of it as though we'd casually just happened to walk by one another by coincidence. I said no and started from the beginning whether liked it or not.
Whether he wrote it down as I described, I'll never know. From across the desk, I could make out some of his writing and picked up several errors. He'd written that the guy had grabbed me from behind which he had not. He'd written that the guy had a scar on his face but I'd said clearly several times that it was on the right side of his nose. I never did get to read "my statement" but I also didn't sign it. Not surprisingly, he also didn't ask me to despite that I could see there was a place for it. He made sure to tell me several times that this kind of thing has never happened in Savusavu. Of course not…
And the piece de resistance was at the end when he told me and Sharon that there was nothing they could do because I was leaving the country and without a witness they couldn't do anything. What. The. Fuck. Sharon was not going to let him off with that excuse given she lived and ran a tourism business in the community. As an expat, she told him she expected them to do their best for the safety of the town and of tourists. I told them that they should find him and if they needed me to comeback, I would. To which he made sure to remind me I'd have to pay for that.
I left the police station feeling discouraged and empathetic with any woman who's ever had to deal with this same bullshit or worse - knowing full well that this kind of dismal response is not unique to Fiji or even lesser developed nations.
For over two years I've travelled by myself, relishing in the ability to come and go as I please. I even blogged here about how odd it was that people asked me if I was scared to travel alone. Funny how quickly things can change.
It's my second last night in Fiji and I'm downing alcohol to calm my nerves. I'm writing this blog with the hopes of emptying it all from my mind and allowing me to sleep tonight. While I know it's nothing compared to what so many others have gone through, it's the first time I have ever felt genuinely scared for my wellbeing.
Just now, I was verging on rude when the Fijian bar tender innocently asked my name and where I was from. The fact that one person in a mere 30 minutes could do this to me, makes me really mad. I had already considered returning to Savusavu, staying with Sharon and diving with Cousteau Dive shop but now I'm not so sure. I'm mad that one instance could make me leery of travelling alone. I'm mad that one selfish asshole could ruin my impression of Fiji and remind me that despite it's majestic beaches and spectacular diving, it can be unsafe just like everywhere else on earth.