Surviving Paradise

Travel Stories: Visiting Fiji in the midst of a coup, Jim Benning stumbles over the line that divides stimulating anxiety from real fear. He has the T-shirt to prove it.

05.10.01 | 1:09 AM ET

The Fijian clerk slowly brought his index finger to his lips. Shhh.

The middle-aged Australian travel agent looked at me as though I had just requested a one-way ticket to Hell.

“You want to go to Fiji?” she sniffed. “Haven’t you read the paper?”

She had reason to wonder. The South Pacific archipelago known for turquoise waters and tantalizing white-sand beaches had leapt from the travel section onto the front page. Armed rebels had just taken the prime minister hostage, and a mob had run through the capital city, Suva, burning and looting businesses.

It wasn’t the best time to visit the islands. I’d always dreamt of going to Fiji, but the way I’d imagined it, my only fear would have been getting a little too crispy while dozing in a beachfront hammock, or dinging myself on sharp coral while surfing off one of Fiji’s famed reefs. Violent mobs and AK-47-toting guerrillas never entered into the equation.

Two weeks into a trip to Australia with my girlfriend, Leslie, I’d received an e-mail from an editor at an online journalism Web site asking that I go to Fiji, all expenses paid, to write an article about an Internet newspaper there covering the rebellion. (“Getting that story would be quite a coup,” he wrote.) I called the U.S. consulate and asked about the hazards. Dozens of journalists were there, I was told, and so far, none had been harmed. “You’ll probably be all right,” a clerk offered. “But things can always change.”

I was sold.

“It sounds like an adventure,” Leslie said. “Go, but you better come back in a couple of days. I didn’t come all the way to Australia with you to travel solo.”

Now all I had to do was convince the travel agent.

“Why don’t you go to New Guinea,” she insisted. “It’s very nice this time of year.”

I politely declined and left her office with a round-trip ticket. On it, in bold type, was a disclaimer: “Traveler has been advised of turmoil in Fiji.” I read the line over and over. Each time, it rattled my nerves. Yet I also felt a surge of adrenaline. I liked it.

Some degree of risk is inherent in all travel. That’s the hook. We gamble that the rewards of each journey will outweigh the dangers. It’s a seductive wager, and I’d felt the addictive high it engenders many times: walking through terrorist-targeted bazaars in Istanbul, touring bombed-out neighborhoods of Belfast. I’d felt a pang of anxiety in each instance, yet had always returned enriched, with a deeper appreciation for the world’s complexities, as well as for the comforts of home.

This time, the risks were greater, yet so were the potential rewards. Fear at reasonable levels heightens my senses. The world becomes sharper. People, places, experiences burn brighter. Yet I’d always known there is a theoretical boundary out there, a point at which fear would work against me. In Fiji, I’d push that boundary, perhaps even cross it, and I’d learn something about myself.

My plan was simple: I’d spend only as much time in Fiji as necessary. I’d fly to Nadi, the low-key tourist hub, the first day; take a short flight to and from Suva, the troubled capital where I’d do my reporting, the next; then return to the safety of Australia the third.

The flight over was surprisingly mundane. Air Pacific, no doubt hoping to encourage what little tourism into Fiji remained, made no mention of the nation’s troubles. As we neared Nadi’s airport, in fact, a welcome video joked, “These days, sumptuous meals greet visitors to Fiji, but in the country’s cannibal past, the sumptuous meals were visitors.” Few of us were laughing.

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