'A world away': Stepping onto Suva soil

It only takes three hours to fly from Auckland to Fiji, but that can feel like 'a world away', writes PMN Political Reporter Elijah Fa'afiu.

18th July, 2022

Elijah Fa'afiu, Political Reporter

'A world away': Stepping onto Suva soil

A view from the Grand Pacific Hotel, 'a world away' from what Fijian are experiencing five minutes down the road. Photo/Elijah Fa'afiu​​

​My lengthy two-and-a-half-year career in journalism has always been bounded by the shackles of Covid-19 restrictions.

A month into my career, the nation went into its first lockdown, and all I've ever known as a reporter is conducting interviews over Zoom, from a distance, while wearing a mask - it's been my normal for much of the last couple of years.

The one aspect of journalism that had always intrigued me was travelling around the country and overseas to meet different people and hear their stories, but the pandemic limited that.

I have travelled some of New Zealand for work - Waitangi, Dunedin, Hawke's Bay and Wellington, where I'm now based.

But last week's visit to Fiji for the 51st Pacific Islands Forum would have been a long shot two years ago.

My last international plane ride was six years ago to Samoa.

My passport had long expired with its photo taken while I was at intermediate school.

Nonetheless, after some last minute scrambling to get my house in order, I found myself on a RNZAF 757 plane alongside 20 other media personnel from New Zealand, flying to Suva for the most important Forum yet.

Suva's hot and humid air welcomed us upon arrival, and we were escorted to our accommodation by our friendly bus driver Zac, with police whistling us through rush-hour traffic - running past red lights and forcing cars to stop in their tracks.

'A world away': Stepping onto Suva soil

New Zealand media awaiting Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Nausori International Airport. Photo/Elijah Fa'afiu​

​Once settled in our hotel rooms, some of the media delegation visited a nearby restaurant for a late dinner - an opportunity to catch-up or meet new media colleagues for the first time.

That's one thing I'll appreciate about this trip - the camaraderie of the media. 

It's daunting when you realise that despite being one of the largest New Zealand media delegations ever, we were just part of the 180 international media who were present in Suva, from the Pacific, Australia and even the United States.

A clear sign of the magnitude of last week's Forum.

But it was a team effort throughout the week, from the experience of a Barbara Dreaver (1News Pacific Correspondent) to the refreshing takes of younger Press Gallery reporters - a few of whom were also on their first overseas trip for work.

It was our own Commonwealth Games team of New Zealand reporters and camera operators - everyone was made to feel welcome, regardless of who they represented and ensured everyone got what they needed for their respective stories.

There will be a lot I'll cherish when it comes to this trip to Suva.

A few highlights - the hospitable nature of every Fijian who made our stay pleasant, from being greeted with "Bula" from all we passed down the street, to the warm smiles of all the workers who served our food.

Speaking of food, Fiji didn't disappoint. Their portion sizes made our small sizes in New Zealand look like airplane snacks - a craving of kokoda, eggplant and ota, dalo and cassava fries meant we didn't leave our work stations on an empty stomach.

Waiting outside in the scorching sun for the Prime Minister's media stand-up and being offered coconuts to sip on by the locals while we were biding time also stands out.

Fiji's love of rugby was also on show, something I valued as a fellow sports nut. 

Kids playing touch across the road from where Jacinda Ardern was making a funding announcement at a seed and geneback facility, Fijians gathering in the Holiday Inn hotel for the State of Origin rugby league decider until midnight, and their seven-dollar note, which was dedicated to the Olympic gold medal-winning Sevens team.

But not every Fijian will get a chance to see this special seven-dollar note.

'A world away': Stepping onto Suva soil

The Fijian seven-dollar note, dedicated to the triumphant Fiji Rugby Sevens team who won gold at the 2020 Olympics. Photo/Elijah Fa'afiu​

You will have noticed at this point I haven't actually talked about the Pacific Islands Forum with its bilateral meetings, 2050 strategies and virtual appearances by Vice Presidents.

Yes, they were important, but it's when you stroll from the top-rated Grand Pacific Hotel to downtown Suva where you find the reality of what our Pacific people overseas are facing.

Fijians shining shoes with a smattering of coins by their side, little kids selling items from their buckets for food or money, families opening up markets because they're barely surviving a worldwide pandemic.

Five minutes down the road has now become a world away.

It's pointless talking about my highs in Suva, while Fijians are experiencing lows on a daily basis.

But even in their struggle, the people of Suva maintain a smile on their face. The same smile shared by the workers at the five-star hotels up the road.

A glimmer of hope still remains.

A new Blue Pacific strategy from the Forum offers optimism for the wellbeing of Pacific people, but some issues can't wait until 2050.

The Covid-19 recovery will be a major talking point for the foreseeable future, not only for the Pacific region, but for Fiji, as it prepares for an election at the back-end of the year.

Thank you to the locals who shared their personal stories of what they're really grappling with.

I hope our Pacific leaders can fight as hard you're having to fight every day.

Until transformational help is given to those fighting the rising cost of living, both in New Zealand and the wider Pacific region, everything will continue to feel like a world away from each other, even it only takes five minutes to get there.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air