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.

Finally, a clerk opened the door. He was surprised to find me with a ticket for today’s flight. It had been cancelled days ago.

“You mean I was sold a ticket for a flight that had already been cancelled?” I said, my voice rising to a shout. He nodded.

“Unbelievable,” I yelled.

Not to worry, he replied. He explained that a flight would be leaving for Sydney the following morning. He offered to put me up in a hotel for the night and to get me on the flight.

“I don’t want to stay another night,” I protested.

“No flights,” he insisted.

He called the hotel, asking them to send a car.

My pulse raced. Leslie was on a bus to Brisbane, en route to meet me. I’d have no way to reach her.

“Any chance tomorrow’s flight could be cancelled?” I asked.

“Could happen.”

I was dropped at another resort a mile down the road. A few Asian tourists sipped tropical drinks by the pool. I went to the resort’s office and sent Leslie an e-mail, explaining the situation, trying to put the best face on things. Then I walked out to the pool and flopped down in a plastic lounge chair. It was late morning. The sky was a clear, aquamarine blue. The rising sun beat down on my chest. A gentle breeze rustled the palms. I was in paradise, and I was miserable.

As night fell, I struggled to sleep.

I awoke at dawn and arrived at the airport early. The lights were up. Passengers sat with bulging luggage, chatting. I checked in for my flight and was promptly handed a boarding card. I smiled for the first time in days.

Finally, I thought, back to stable soil. I headed for a small souvenir shop loaded with “Fiji paradise” beach towels, postcards and baseball caps. Trying to decide between a tropical fish refrigerator magnet and a “Fiji” ball point pen to mark my trip, I overheard a man with an Australian accent ask the clerk matter-of-factly, “Have any coup T-shirts?”

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

He disappeared into a back room, then returned a moment later with a small stack of cotton Ts. I hurried over to see.

“I’m not supposed to have these,” the clerk whispered. He unfolded a shirt, carefully ensuring that the design faced away from the door. The front featured a masked gunman pointing an AK-47 skyward. It stated, “I SURVIVED REBEL COUP IN FIJI, MAY 19, 2000.”

I was struck by the unabashed entrepreneurial spirit that would dream up such shirts. Instead of dismissing them altogether, though, I thought about that word, “survived.” I may not have suffered an attack by a torch-wielding mob or a masked gunman, but I had survived a rough time. I’d seen fear in the eyes of many of the Fijians I’d met. And I’d felt real fear in my own. Coming to Fiji, I knew I might cross the boundary that divides invigorating fear from something darker. This time, being unable to leave the country under such chaotic conditions, I crossed that line. I felt something I never had in my travels to Cuba or Istanbul or even Belfast. I felt utterly vulnerable.

I pointed to the T-shirts.

“I’ll take two,” I said.

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