July 4, 2003
Savusavu, Vanua Levu, Fiji

The Saga of Susie’s Plantation—Taveuni

By Lois Joy              

I awoke this morning chilled from the damp air of Savusavu Bay but no longer having to push aside mosquito netting. I rose up from our firm foam mattress relieved of the backache I’d experienced during the past week. “I miss Bliss,” Gunter had lamented each morning as he climbed out of the lumpy bed in our bure on Taveuni. Well, now we have Bliss back, enveloping us in her caring bosom, a self-contained resort right here. We have coffee from our French Press and solar panels providing us with instant power. As I write at my familiar perch on the helm seat, the air is still and yachts moored all around me are turning every which way on the shiny, aluminum foil Bay. The sun breaks through the damp mist hung over the little island nearby. It is our Independence Day. I’ve hung our American flag and some decorations made for us by our daughter-in-law JoEllen. But my mind is still immersed in our most recent adventure—mulling over the Saga of Susie.

How had we managed to land square in the middle of an island intrigue during our one week’s stay at Susie’s Plantation? The saga had only come together in the end. Barely. Even now, the characters remain mysterious to me: Viola and Roland—the Europeans—had not been overly forthcoming; their talk was understandably focused on their own dilemma. Abie—the other European in the story—was always secretive; he never did level with us. Steve—Susie’s Australian brother-in-law—was immersed in his own problems and saw the week there as an escape. The talkative Aussie grandparents—a feisty couple in their ‘80s and ‘90s—could have told us more if we’d had a few extra days to spend there. (To know them is to love them!) And then, Susie herself was an enigma. She appeared cold and aloof, the princess about whom everything revolves, but who never dirties her hands. Did she deliberately stay behind the scenes, pulling the strings like the master of a puppet show? Or is she just another wooly-headed Fijian—albeit one of chiefly birth, trying to sort out her path through a treacherous world—wealthy in land, yet struggling for survival like all the other Fijians living in Taveuni?

When we disembarked from the ferry, we looked around for the promised ride to Susie’s Plantation. As the passengers all left the wharf, we and a nicely frocked lady were the only ones apparently without a ride. The Fijian lady turned to us, “Where are you headed?”

“Susie’s Plantation. They were supposed to pick us up. That’s what the tour agent said.”

“Well, they may have gone to the ‘regular’ ferry. That’s what they would have expected. But that one doesn’t run on Mondays,” she said. “I know the way, was going out there anyway,” she added. “We’ll share a taxi.”

“I’m Susie’s aunt.” She held out her hand and we introduced ourselves. This was our first surprise. We had been told that Susie’s was run by a Swiss couple.

Well, it was all true, to a point. It turned out that ‘the couple’ was Viola—originally from Frankfurt, Germany—and her partner Roland, who is Swiss. Viola is the resort’s manager; Roland runs his own dive operation on the premises.

We were sitting with them at dinner that evening. I described how we contacted them. “We found you through the June 2000 Edition of the Lonely Planet Fiji,” I began. “It said, ‘The resort was operational, but pretty run down at the time of writing.’”

“That’s correct,” said Viola. Susie owns the Plantation. It has been in her family for generations. I’ve managed it for three years, and put a lot of effort into it.”

“It shows,” I said. “I love the landscaping, all the flowering hibiscus trees—red, orange, and yellow. I can tell that they’ve been pruned and taken care of.” (I didn’t discuss what else I’d noticed, the thatching blown off the roofs, only the tin showing, the generally run-down nature of the bures and the Plantation House. It appeared that effort had been put into the place, but very little money.)

“We tried to buy the resort,” said Viola. “But Susie had unrealistic expectations. She’s Australian. Hardly ever comes here. Roland runs the diving operation. You cannot really run a profitable resort here on Taveuni without diving.”

The couple added that they planned to leave the Plantation to run a diving operation across the Somosomo Strait. The divers would then be taken to most of the familiar sites.

“It’s too bad,” said Roland. “Viola has done a lot, with little money. But so much more needs to be put into it to make it a good operation. It had been a backpackers’ place when she took it over; she’s upgraded it to budget status.”

“Yes, I had to have three basic things in place before I would take the job of managing it: hot showers, internet access, and wine.”

We were curious about how she ended up here, and after a glass of that wine, she seemed eager to tell us the story.

She had moved from Germany to Santa Barbara, California. Her career had progressed to the point of having her own business as a consultant to a World Trade organization.

“In fact, had I continued that career, I might have been located at the Twin Towers by the time 9-ll occurred. But Providence intervened.”

She met Roland on a vacation to Fiji; they had a fling, but neither could let it end there. Back in California, her phone bill ran up to $5000 (no internet at that time) and she decided that it was less expensive to just fly back to sort it out. It worked. Lovestruck, Viola returned to sell her home, dispose of her collection of high heels and business suits, and move to Taveuni.

“Now she has a collection of flip-flops,” Roland interjected. “One of every color.”

First, she moved into Roland’s ‘bachelor bure’. She cleaned and organized it stem to stern. Then she started on the dive shop.

“I think you need something to do,” Roland stopped her. She checked into managing Susie’s.
A few failed managers had preceded her, but she was making the resort work. Until now.

It was obvious to us that Viola had not only fallen in love with Roland; she had fallen in love with the Plantation as well. As we retired that first night, we speculated as to what would happen next.

We walked into our bure equipped with the lantern—charged from the generator—to set on the bedside stand. The bed had been made up when we were at dinner. The setting reminded me of ‘Arabian Nights’ or one of those fantasy theme motels for lovers. Mosquito netting cascaded from a knot at the center and had been carefully tucked under the mattress. I lifted up one of the corners, crawled inside, and beckoned to Gunter…

In the morning we met the waiter, Patrick, at the Plantation Dining Room. He had already plucked a giant red hibiscus bloom and placed it behind his ear. It would be awhile before he would have coffee ready. We took Boxer, his brown and white tail wagging expectantly, down the two-tire entrance road and then to the main road encircling the island. We followed it as it wound around the Plantation property: 300 acres that had been in Susie’s family for generations. Coconut groves gave way to fields, uncultivated now. An undergrowth of vines fought their way to the tops of spreading shade trees. An abundance of wild flowers lined the roadside, with hues ranging from white to yellow to blues and purples. Bright yellow butterflies darted crazily across an abandoned taro field under a wild hibiscus tree with yellow blossoms. Boxer raced in and out of the thick growth, apparently finding animals to chase.

Our ‘island walk’ ended at the local butcher shop, run by an Indian with long white hair and beard, wearing a beatific smile. We had passed a rather dilapidated Hindu Temple along the way. At 0700, Fijian workers were already out and about. We met the men on their way to work in the farms, riding in the back of covered trucks. We met three Fijian women walking along the road as it turned to follow the seawall. They were on their way to visit relatives, they said. The sun rose from behind the mountains of Taveuni, placing the tops of coconuts palms in its glow. It was as if God was setting up a perfect photo op just for me!

Breakfast was basic: coffee and a plate of fruit, followed by bread, butter and jam, served on the patio of the Plantation House. Diving appeared to be the main event; a morning and an afternoon dive were planned. Gunter took a refresher course taught by Roland, who was thorough, skilled and patient. I settled into a lawn chair on a bank overlooking the sea, where I could write to the sounds of the tide lapping against the shore. Whenever I needed a break, I could walk partially down a ladder and see the fish right there, swimming among the coral. It was the perfect creative environment, a welcome change from writing on board Pacific Bliss.

Right off the resort, according to its brochure, one can find lionfish, moray eels, sea snakes, cleaner shrimp, ‘Christmas Trees’ and sea cucumbers. And occasionally, dolphins, turtles and manta rays come close to shore. Out on the dives, one can see white tip reef sharks, gray reef sharks, schools of barracudas, and batfish. The Vuna Reef dive locations include such imaginative names as Orgasm Reef, Tabua, Pinnacle, Yellow Fin Wall, and Fish Factory. The South Cape sites include a site called Cabbage Patch, named for the coral there. The House Reef includes Octopus Gardens, Mike’s Wall, Steve’s Corner, and Lionfish Wall. Then there are the two big attractions of Somosomo Strait: the famed Rainbow Reef with its white-tipped reef sharks and barracudas, and the Purple Wall, with purple soft corals, whip corals, sea fans, and manta rays. Finally, there’s the Great White Wall, 30 minutes away and 30 meters down, with white tip reef sharks, gray reef sharks, eagle rays, lionfish and squirrel fish. The season varies for all of these, of course. We were not in the manta ray or turtle season, but had seen enough of these in other countries. Gunter saw lots of parrot fish and barracudas during his dives while at the Plantation, but never any sharks, which he didn’t seem to mind! I found a lot of the little fish, watching from shore or snorkeling in the shallow water right near my ‘writing spot.’ It was a nice, relaxing few days for us.

But for the players on stage at Susie’s, the week was far from relaxing. I went to have a massage by Josephine, a Fijian lady who is a “Jill of all trades” at the resort.

“You’re probably the last customer I will have here,” Josephine informed me.

“Why? Are you not busy?” I asked.

“I was earlier this week, four massages,” she answered. That seemed a large number to her. “But Viola is leaving. She gave us all notice to go.” Her voice became sad. “I have been working for this resort for the last ten years, cooking, cleaning, waiting on tables, and now massages,” she continued. “I fill in whenever someone doesn’t show up for the job. I live at the village only ten minutes’ walk from here.”

Josephine told me that she has two girls, one eight and the other only three months. “Still nursing the baby?” I asked.

“Yes, my husband feeds her the bottle when I’m working, though… I might have to move to town to find work if this Plantation doesn’t work out.” She was intent on telling me about her dire situation.

As I left the old backpackers lodge where Josephine had her massage room, I met the husband waiting along the path—a perfectly-toned specimen, extremely good-looking and muscular—gently cradling the baby. I wondered what he was doing to support their family. Later that day, I recognized him drinking kava with the men and some of the guests for hours.

Dinner seemed strangely subdued that evening. I could tell that the servers, including Patrick, did not seem their usual exuberant selves. Viola never did appear. We inquired of Roland: “She’ll be OK tomorrow. Perhaps too much sun or dehydration.” But we suspected that emotions had a part to play. Susie and her in-laws had arrived. The in-laws had moved into one of the guest rooms in the Plantation House and Susie had moved into the Big House edging the Resort, where they were all taking their meals. The drama was unfolding.

On Wednesday morning’s walk, we took a path off the road and down to the sea. Gunter—always one to take the ‘road less traveled’—had spied a clearing there. As we came out of the bush, we encountered a family of five on the shore, cleaning their catch from a night of fishing: a string of barracuda and a nice-sized coral grouper. We talked with them awhile.

We returned to find the Plantation was bustling with activity. The divers had shortened their day to one short run. The workers were scouring the grounds and woods across the road for banana leaves, palm fronds, red ginger and hibiscus. A grand buffet setting was being staged inside the Plantation House. The bar area was being covered with leaves. Two giant pots with banana leaves stood on either side. Outside, a lovo was being prepared. Piles of dalo and kumara had been stacked on the grass; a group of men were lining the oven with stones and kindling. Anticipation was building.

By evening, the inside dining area had been cleared for the meke (dance). The tables for the diners had all been placed outside on the patio. At dinner, Gunter and I were seated next to Susie’s in-laws; her mother-in-law is feisty 85-year-old, making plans for her husband’s 95th birthday. She did most of the talking. The plot thickens:

Susie, she told me, had been born into an aristocratic family. Her father, now deceased, was Ratu (chief) of Taveuni. She was brought up on the 300-acre plantation much like royalty. Everything was done for her. A tutor was brought in from New Zealand to teach her English and other subjects. Huge parties were thrown on the Plantation grounds. The guests who could not be housed on Taveuni Island were put up at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva, the bustling capital of Fiji located on the main island of Viti Levu. It was one of those times Susie was in Suva meeting guests that she met Brian, an Australian from Sydney. He had first seen her on the plane landing at the Nausori Airport near Suva.

“Maties, she was the most beautiful girl he had ever laid eyes on,” the mother-in-law continued. “But he never expected to see her again. Imagine his surprise when he met her in the hall of the Grand Pacific! This time, Brian was determined to follow up. Susie was enthralled. And from then on, they were together constantly.”

“Luv, do you know Brian married Susie right next door at the Big House—twenty-seven years ago! There were 70 invited guests. The reception spilled over into the Lodge…that’s demolished now. My mate here helped build this house here for the newlyweds…didn’t you?” She didn’t wait for him to respond. “He pounded these very supports that hold up this patio we’re sitting on.”

During the following years, copra production waned. The prices fell and the natives no longer wanted to work the Plantation’s coconut groves and taro fields for the pittance they would get. Susie tended to the house and her flowers and though she had been brought up a Princess, she discovered that she like to cook.

“She was a mighty good cook, too,” the couple continued on. “In later years, she turned their house into a resort and hired a succession of managers.” They had started with the simple backpackers’ dormitory. Then Susie’s parents passed away; they are buried in plots with huge limestone gravestones near the Big House.

Fast-forward to the Year 2000. Brian became ill with leukemia. He went back to Sydney for treatments. Eventually, he became too sick to return to Taveuni. He died in Sydney with Susie by his side. And she remained with her in-laws.

Steve, Brian’s brother, had also arrived with the family, with his own two pre-school sons in tow. He talked to me during a break in the meke: “We tried for three years since Brian’s death to make her an Australian citizen. We hired attorneys—we must have written about 40 letters in all. If she had applied even one day before Brian died, they tell me it could have worked, but now they have officially deported her.”

“That’s sad,” I interjected.

“Well, not really,” he surprised me by saying. “In the end, it is better. Here she is a princess, and always will be. In Australia, she doesn’t really fit in. Why not be some place where people look up to her?”

So now it was all coming together. Susie had come to live in and fix up the Big House and to run the resort. “She has plenty of relatives here to help her,” her mother-in-law had stated. “It will work out.” I wasn’t so sure, and neither were a few others we met.

The only other one who thought it would work was Abie. He was a German ex-pat who had lived in Viet Nam for awhile, then moved to Fiji. He was hanging around the resort, and had joined our table the second night we were there. He divulged that he is related to Susie, but never explained how. Then on Wednesday afternoon while was working around the lovo, a Fijian lady—young and beautiful with short, straightened hair—arrived on the scene. Abie introduced her as his wife. But she was never with him for dinners, even on Meke Night. How did he fit into the story?

Viola was all dressed up for the occasion. She performed the ‘Master of Ceremony’ role perfectly but her stress showed on her face—especially when the generator conked out yet again and the recorded music for the dancers was halted. I was reminded of her requirements: wine, hot showers and internet access. The generator had been on the fritz for most of two days, and the phone lines down the other two. There had been no hot showers and internet access this week. I felt for her.

Susie was now in the audience, urging on her two daughters. One was blonde and looked European; the other looked Fijian, but with dark, straight hair. As they took center stage, Susie got up from her chair on the sidelines, (she hadn’t participated in the lovo) and pulled down the ponytail of the dark girl, letting her locks drape down to her shoulders. That is the only time I ever saw Susie actually DO anything. The girls did a slow dance resembling a Hawaiian hula. While I watched them, I wondered how two pre-teens would adapt to leaving their Aussie friends and living in Fiji.

“Susie plans to get her children, all her cousins, nephews and nieces here, involved in the Mekes,” my new confidant leaned over and whispered. Other Fijian dancers took the stage in front of our table and then the Meke was over. “Would it be the last one for Viola?” I speculated as we carried our charged lanterns back to our bure.

It was Thursday morning and our last breakfast at the Plantation. Our driver would be here mid-morning to bring us to the ferry. We said our good-byes to Roland and Viola. We discovered that they are leaving themselves sooner rather than later. “Susie said that we could stay until the end of the year,” said Roland. “But January—that’s into the cyclone season already, past the holidays, and last year here, we didn’t have a guest for four months from January through April. But yet, the monthly pay-off to the local chief here and the rent still continued. We’ve already begun advertising our new eco-dive operation and have bookings; we’ve ordered the safari tents; we’ll be pulling out of here within two weeks.” The staff was friendly to us, despite working late the evening before. One of the women hung flower wreaths— made especially for us—around our necks while the others gathered around our table. My eyes began to tear. Good-byes are always hard.

We had been invited over to the Big House and only had an hour to spare. After packing, we rushed over there. My eager octogenarian confidant invited us in. She led us through the massive dining room with its huge wooden table and hutch, ending up in a screened porch, that she called ‘the parlor’, where everyone sat. She introduced us to Susie, who briefly said Hello, and that was that. Was she cold or just merely shy? I couldn’t figure it out, but then her mother-in-law was the one who had invited us there. Abie was also sitting there and greeted us perfunctorily.

We followed our leader through the porch and outside. Her husband joined us for a walk through the un-kept garden. “It needs a lot of fixing up, but Susie will get it done,” she continued. “That parlor is just where Susie’s father used to sit when he ran the plantation. He would ring the bell and then all the plantation hands would scurry to meet him there to get their orders. This was the only plantation of its kind in all of Taveuni. He was a big man here. Would you like to go to see his grave?”

“No, we don’t have much time,” Gunter answered her. We could see the towering limestone gravestones from where we were, plus a lot of wild undergrowth to get there.

“Here was the big kitchen,” she pointed to a typical Fijian outside cooking area constructed as a lean-to onto the back of the House. This plantation was built in the 1800’s. It was the only one on all of Taveuni. It was a hoppin’ place in its time.”

“This was the orchid garden,” she pointed as we followed her around again to the front of the House. Most of them will bloom in December. They climb up these tree stumps.”

“It’s a lot of work to fix this up, but Susie will do it. She’s upper crust, but she doesn’t act like it. Her brother does. They live in Suva, acting high and mighty. But not our Susie.”

“Of course, Susie also will have to manage the resort next door, but she has relatives to help her here…and Abie, he’ll run the dive shop for her.” Now, the pieces of the puzzle were coming together! That explained why Abie had been hanging around Susie’s’ Plantation—to learn the operation. But I wondered about her relatives. They had been gathering around the big kava bowl since Susie came back, but I didn’t see them doing much of anything. Could they take the place of that loyal Plantation staff?

I would have loved to talk with this spunky couple some more, but as they began to tell us of their travels—still continuing at their ages—we had to excuse ourselves and take leave.

“I give Susie three months.” Our driver shed more light on the Saga. “She’s a Fijian (so was he, I noted) and they don’t have a head for numbers like the whites. Her relatives won’t help her. They will hang around, but they are not used to working. Abie ran the resort for awhile before. He plans to run the dive shop this time while Susie runs the resort. It won’t work.”

Now I understand Viola’s mixed emotions. She had been mistress, so to speak, of a Plantation that would go again downhill. She had seen her own dreams thwarted. I too felt a sense of sadness at the Plantation’s obvious fate. It would be so nice to have that slice of history preserved. But even the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva had not been that fortunate. Once a grand symbol of the South Pacific extolled in Michener’s novels, it sits there on prime ocean-front property, its history decaying along with its balconies and balustrades. Only the advent of the South Pacific Games this year caused a commercial benefactor—Colonial Paints— to provide a new exterior paint job. The inside, I understand, still smells of urine and rotting wood.

On the way to the ferry, our driver stopped to let us set foot on the International 180° Meridian. We walked across a field to the sign positioned there. We found a hefty white-robed Fijian with a long black beard to take a photo of us pointing to TODAY and YESTERDAY. He turned out to be the pastor of the to-be-built Meridian Church, the only church in the world to be positioned across a dateline. “You could use the phrase, “God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow,” I said. May he have better success than most endeavors encounter here in Fiji.

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