After spending an afternoon exploring downtown Labasa on Fiji’s Vanua Levu island earlier this week, I can determine one thing for certain: Labasa is not accustomed to visitors.
It took me approximately 15 minutes to stroll the entirety of Labasa’s main street down and back, encountering more kava shops than sit-down eateries along the way.
This includes the time spent picking up some Powerade and tropical-strength bug spray at one of the local chemists, as well as getting the sandal I broke in Taveuni repaired at a tiny roadside kiosk (the guy sewed it back together in about three minutes and only charged FJD $1.50 – impressive, considering that’s a fraction of what I paid for those Jack Rogers!!).
Fairly positive I was one of three caucasians in all of Labasa that day, apart from two very confused-looking backpackers I spotted waiting in line at the ATM.
I’d been warned beforehand I might ‘stick out’ among the crowd in Labasa, so I expected strange looks. I was even prepared to tell each and every strange man who approached me yes, I am in fact married (*wink*), to none other than a very sturdy Scandinavian rugby player who is waiting patiently back at the house, war club in hand, ready to beat the living daylight out of any intruders or otherwise sketchy individuals possessing the slightest intent to harass me…
Luckily, everyone seemed to mind their own business for the most part, with the exception of some enthusiastic kids waving and cheering from school buses passing by.
That, and one odd encounter with a man who took the liberty to stop his truck right next to where I was walking along the side of the road, where he proceeded to ask if he could take a picture with me.
My response? “No, I don’t do that.”
Had it been a situation where we’d had a nice conversation and then he wanted a photo taken, sure, okay. Or, let’s say if I were somehow famous enough for him to have read my work and want a picture with me simply out of starstruck awe, then that’s cool, I guess. Or even if he’d just snapped a candid picture of me walking by, that’s fine. Whatever. But no, I’m not going to pose for a random photo solely because I look different. I’m not an animal at the zoo. I’m not going to pretend to be anyone’s phony blonde girlfriend.
Although I sensed no hard feelings as I traipsed forward, I couldn’t help but feel weird about the whole situation. Did I really appear that out of place?
The biggest challenge in Labasa was finding a place to just sit and relax with a drink for a few minutes – I really wasn’t in the mood for a billiards club in the middle of a Monday afternoon, nor a dimly-lit Chinese buffet with darkened windows covered in rusted padlocks. Finally, I saw a sign for an establishment called the ‘Anchor Bar,’ optimistically pointing down an alleyway off the main road behind the Royale Wine Shop.
“Its nize… en a gud plaze 2 relax” touts Anchor Bar’s top review on Facebook, which was all I needed to know before giddily prancing into the back alley, not realizing that review was actually from 2014.
I circled the building and surveyed the dusty alleyway four or five times (with many strange looks) until I concluded, much to my chagrin, Anchor Bar was completely boarded up and not at all in operation.
By this point I was starving, so I opted for the next most appealing-looking restaurant, the Banana Leaf Café, located up a desolate tiled stairway on the second floor of one of Labasa’s main street buildings. Apparently everything in Labasa closes at 4:00 pm sharp, so I only had about 40 minutes to enjoy my piece of fried chicken with chips and Fiji Bitter stubby before the owners kicked me out.
Afterwards, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself… All the shops were now closed; I’d already perused the major MH grocery store twice, visited all the town pharmacies, and browsed the big Labasa market adjacent to the bus station (origin of the Indian sweets I’m pretty sure gave me food poisoning later that night…).
I decided to wander behind the marketplace over to the scenic Labasa River, where I noticed several large, colorful hibiscus plants blooming down by the banks. The flowers’ bright reflection in the smooth water was absolutely fixating.
It suddenly didn’t matter the rest of my day in Labasa had been so bizarre and imperfect; this little bit of serenity was all I needed.