The odds of my meeting Barack Obama are roughly the same as my chances of getting a meeting with NBC or Harvey Weinstein. And believe me, I’ve tried. Living in Kansas, I don’t exactly run into a lot of potential buyers for my TV series about a Missouri ecovillage.**
Contests for dinners (which I did enter) with George Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker aside, I probably won’t be dining with our illustrious head of state anytime soon.
But in Fiji, a South Pacific island nation with a population of less than a million, I not only met the Fijian Head of State, but I was able to congratulate him on his initiative to ban plastic bags on Fiji’s tourism-heavy Coral Coast. Me!!?? A travel writer from Kansas!!
Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, who was inaugurated November 2009, three years after yet-another news-making coup, was dining next to my daughter and me at Ivi, a gourmand’s dream restaurant at Outrigger on the Lagoon. I’d already spotted the handsome politician and his security guards when they checked in right after we did at this busy Coral Coast resort. Not that it took much sleuthing. How could you miss three burly guys wearing skirts? Called sulus, these sarong-like garments are popular fashion statements for women and men alike.
Totally wrapped up in Ivi’s over-the-top tableside presentations (who knew you could even put 16 ingredients in a Ceasar salad?), I wasn’t paying attention when Outrigger GM Peter Hopgood first brought the Ratu over to our table for introductions. Luckily, I was quick enough on my feet to make the appropriate hand shakes and small talk to the former general, diplomat and Oxford scholar who now heads the 330 some islands (depends on the tide) that make up the Republic of Fiji.
He was as gracious and as open as all the other Fijians I met on my ten-day trip to this enchanted South Pacific nation. That he was hobnobbing with Coral Coast tourism officials is no big surprise. Tourism makes up more than a third of Fiji’s GDP, mostly Australian and Kiwi sun-seekers, and politicians have little choice but to accommodate the hotel industry that employs a large chunk of the population.
The military coups that seemed to occur like clockwork every three or four years did put a sizeable dent in tourism dollars, but Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who masterminded the last two coups, promises democratic elections in 2014 and tourists seems to be frenetically booking rooms, diving trips and destination weddings.
At Outrigger, while the President was congratulating anti-plastic poster drawing school kids, I do’s were being repeated, hair was being braided, golf was being played, spears were being thrown, tiki torches were being lit and cellulite was being jiggled in pool aerobics as it was at hundreds of other resorts across the Fijian archipelago.
Even the President himself, after an arduous day of official duties, ended up at Outrigger’s Vakavanua Lounge where he drank red wine, sang karaoke and announced to his fellow Money for Nothing-blaring singers that if the elections don’t swing his way in 2014, maybe he’d start a band and take his act on the road.
Good luck, Ratu, and thanks for making a celebrity-starved Midwesterner’s holiday.
**The quirky dramedy, called Occupy, follows six 20-somethings who live at Milagro Springs, a sustainable community/retreat center. I jokingly call it Sex and the Country, if anyone’s interested.