Sunday, March 7, 2010

I recently set up a FaceBook page for the resort and there are now SEVEN photo albums! They're sorted by subject and there are lots of photos. The FB link is!/pages/Lomalagi-Resort-Fiji/287406626288

I need to get on with the next "chapter" in the construction saga....:))

In the meantime, here's a gorgeous sunset photo from this weekend!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

So, you want to be a millionaire? Start with $2 million!

My “Escape from Corporate America” stories are about my experiences in the Fiji Islands but they could have happened in ANY “emerging nation”.

Since you’re setting up a business that’s going to cost a lot to build, the locals think you have LOTS of money. Therefore, it’s perfectly okay – expected, in fact -- to cheat you! You won’t notice, right? And, you DON’T notice until you figure things out…. My lawyer here had recommended that we wait for a bit before starting the resort, until we knew the lay of the land. Good advice, which we (sadly) ignored. Why? Because we wanted to start! Typical Yank “let’s do it NOW” mentality!

Lesson #1 (again, this can happen ANYWHERE)….you think you have all the government approvals that you need but, lo and behold, the multiple government ministries that had to initially approve everything for your project act like they’ve never heard of you! Sooo you can find yourself literally starting over with some of the approvals, which can take MONTHS.

Fiji’s bureaucracy was structured by the Brits when Fiji was a colony and we KNOW how efficient THEY are. A huge percentage of working adults here are government employees, a situation that is changing NOW but back in 1997 it was truly unbelievable. When you needed X approved, the ONE person who handled X was on leave or out ill so, while they were gone, it sat on their desk. When they finally returned and passed X on to the NEXT bureaucrat, then THAT guy would go on leave or lose the paperwork. And on and on and ON. You need to have somebody near the center of government who can physically go and PRY the paperwork out of the hands of the bureaucrats!

One of the REAL shockers was having to pay duty on a lot of what we brought from the states in our FIVE containers. The government brochure for investors said that everything we brought for the project would be “duty free”. The Customs and Revenue people didn’t “agree” and guess what? The government agency that distributed the brochure finally admitted it was “wrong”! I fought with Inland Revenue for more than two years and got stuck with over $50K in completely unplanned for duty expense.

You can’t bring left-hand vehicles into right-hand drive countries which meant selling our pickup truck, the big 4-door Chrysler AND my “baby car” – a 280ZX 2+2. One of the first purchases here was a heavy duty 4x4 pick-up truck which the seller SWORE hadn’t been in any accidents (and which we later determined HAD). While “car shopping” on the main island, I spotted a TR7 – I just HAD to have a sports car again, and the roads ministry had told us that the 28km of road from here to the airport was going to be paved “soon”. Ha!! 7km of it STILL isn’t paved! So, I brought back the sports car which went into town exactly THREE times in the one year I had it. It was too low to the ground to even clear a coconut! It sure got a lot of attention those three times I took it into town ~ no one had ever SEEN a sports car in Savusavu back then!

Before we arrived permanently in March 1997, we had made arrangements with the chief of our village for his people to clear the 25 acres. I didn’t find out until after he died that he kept ALL the money we paid for the clearing ~ no one else saw a dime. Sadly, people do whatever their chief tells them and if the chief isn’t a fair one, they get nothing for their work. The position is hereditary (there are women chiefs too) and the person in that position has an immense amount of power. That’s one of the reasons “democracy” doesn’t fit very well here. The chiefs tell their people who to vote for and that’s exactly what happens.

In the next “chapter”, I’ll tell you about some of the “wonderful” experiences we had during construction, like the contractor using MY building materials to build (and get paid for) a house he built for someone else!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

An Expat's View of Fiji Politics - Part 2

After the 2006 coup, I spoke with lots of people here, especially other business owners and resident expats as well as educated Fijians & Indo-Fijians. The common thread was that Bainimarama effected the coup the wrong way for the right reasons. Does that make sense? Nobody wanted to see guns on the street although in many parts of the world, that's the norm - police carry guns in America, but not here. (The guns went "off the streets" here after a very short time.) People living in the capitol city of Suva wanted the guns and soldiers to STAY on the streets - they felt safer! Suva has a history of petty crime although it's much better now...

There was (and continues to be) LOTS of political pressure, especially from the Aussies & Kiwis, to "restore democracy" in Fiji. What continues to amaze me is that they don't understand that we did not HAVE democracy! How can you be "democratic" when people have to register by race AND can only vote for a member of their own race??? Mixed into that is the Fijian chiefly system. The Chiefs tell their people what to do (i.e. who to vote for) and mostly they do what they're told. These positions are hereditary, like royalty, and the blood-lines are tracked religiously. I don't see how you can EVER have "democracy" with these traditions in place. Nor do I want the Fijian culture to change and be "modernized". It's a real Catch-22........

Bainimarama formed a group of NGO's, politicians and "regular people" in 2007 to draft a Charter. It's main objectives are pretty simple: (1) One man - one vote instead of race-based voting and (2) get rid of the endemic corruption in government. Supposedly, 64% of Fiji residents support it -- I don't know how the polling was done which is why I say "supposedly" -- but it's truly a GOOD document. Idealistic, but good.

In late 2008, the High Court ruled that the President of Fiji (an appointed position) had been within his prerogative to dissolve the Qarase government and appoint Bainimarama as Prime Minister. Qarase (the deposed PM) took it to the Appeals Court which ruled within a few days that (1) the President was wrong; (2) a caretaker Prime Minister not a party to the lawsuit was to be appointed and (3) elections should be held immediately under the existing Constitution. Bainimarama asked for a stay to appeal to the Supreme Court and the Appeals Court said NO -- which meant that there was no longer a government. As a result, the Constitution was "abrogated" by the President in April 2009.

The President was a firm supporter of the tenets of the Charter. Nobody knows who advised him to abrogate the Constitution -- Bainimarama says he did not advise it be done. Who knows??? The history books of the future perhaps.....
As an interesting side note, the Apeals Court ruling was quite lengthy. For it to have been issued in a few days implies that it was "pre-determined". The Appeals Court judges at the time were all Aussies. Figure it out for yourself.....

So, here we are. Bainimarama's intention is to implement the Charter (which will make an excellent Constitution) and have elections on the basis of one man - one vote no later than 2014. In the meantime, there's continuous negative international press (still mostly in Australia and New Zealand). There's an emergency rule in place under which the government is "censoring" the media. The stated purpose is to avoid causing dissension. I don't like it -- a free press is incredibly important. But the press here HAS stirred the pot in past years and all that's done is to get the politicians making claims and counter claims with lots of finger pointing and nastiness. Frankly, it's kind of nice NOT seeing politicians on TV every night! And I also don't miss the VERY obvious bias shown by some "reporters" and news organizations in the past.

I've met Bainimarama and I like him but his military background creates a "cloud". The Aussie & Kiwi press keep using words like dictator and junta ~ that's silly. Fiji's military is primarily a peace-keeping force. Our military people have been in the Middle East for many years in that role. There are no tanks, bazookas or jets screaming overhead in Fiji!

I wish the governments crying for "democracy" in Fiji understood why it wasn't possible under the 1997 Constitution and that the Charter WILL create real democracy (as much as is possible with the Chiefly system). 2014 seems a long way away for all of this to happen. When you're literally starting from scratch, it DOES take time. Culturally, EVERYTHING is "negotiated" here; aka "Fiji Time" which slows down even the simplest decisions.... I also happen to think that part of the "strategy" of a 2014 deadline was that the politicians who caused so much of the trouble in the first place will be too old to be effective!

As a sidelight, there's a lot of debate in the country about what to call people. The nationalistic Fijians want only indigenous Fijians to be called "Fijians". The hyphenated terms "Indo-Fijian" or "Fiji-Indian" are awkward ~ and what about the "Others"?? (the official designation in voter registration roles!!). Fiji Islanders? Also a mouthful. It's been proposed that every citizen be called a Fijian and the indigenous referred to as i-Taukei. That's the same as New Zealand with everyone being a Newzealander and the indigenous are the Maori. Or Australians and Aboriginals....

Fingers crossed that the current government can go ahead peacefully with the proposed reforms -- this is a wonderful country and the people are fabulous. If we could only get rid of the politicians (everywhere!).......

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

An Expat's View of Fiji Politics

I had planned to tell resort construction "war stories" next but since there's such intense interest in Fiji politics (especially in Australia and New Zealand!) let's go THERE....with some history first and then current events!

I've been here since 1997 so my knowledge of events prior to that time is anecdotal. Fiji was a British colony until 1971. The Brits brought citizens of India to Fiji to work the sugar cane fields in the mid-1800's -- the Fijians wouldn't do it. Neither would the Japanese who were brought in before the Indians! The "deal" for the Indians was a 7 year indenture after which they could stay in Fiji or have a ticket back to India -- many stayed and over the years, many have prospered. Most of the businesses in Fiji are now "Fiji-Indian"-owned.

The Brits helped set up a Parliament and a Senate (like the House of Lords -- the members are appointed), and also the "Great Council of Chiefs" to protect the interests of the indigenous Fijians. They also set up British bureaucracy -- never ending red tape -- much of which is still in place today! Fijians own 87% of all land in Fiji (either communally or in trust with the government, like Crown Land).

Political parties were formed (mostly race-based). The Prime Minister in the 1986-87 time frame was pro-Indian which resulted in the two 1987 "coups" held within a couple of months of each other) -- the Fijians were afraid the Indians would take over the country. The 1987 coups were military -- led by Colonel Rabuka -- and there was some bloodshed. When I arrived in Fiji 10 years later, Rabuka was Prime Minister, having been "elected" to the position by virtue of his political party winning. (Here, like other parliamentary systems, you don't vote directly for the Prime Minister.) For the 1999 election Rabuka formed a coalition with the business-focused Indian political party, with the purpose of sharing power between the races. That caused the nationalistic Fijians to split off, diluting the Fijian vote, resulting in Chaudry (a Fiji-Indian from the Fiji Labour Party) becoming Prime Minister.

The two major races here get along just fine - unless they're politicians.

Chaudry pissed off the Fijians in a lot of ways ~ the trigger was over the sale of mahogany. Fiji has the largest mahogany reserve in the world and there was a sales contract already in place. Chaudry decided to sell the mahogany to another company for less money (the timber is on Fijian-owned land). Parliament was in an uproar -- the word on the street was that a "no confidence vote" was going to be held and Chaudry would be out. The Friday before that vote (this is in May 2000), the nationalistic Fijians marched on Parliament (and trashed stores in Suva on the way) and took it over -- if only they'd waited out the weekend..... They held the Parliamentarians hostage for almost 2 months. That "coup" was supported by the Methodist Church, the largest Fijian Christian denomination. There was also an Army "mutiny" attempt and bloodshed.

After the 2000 coup situation calmed down, Qarase was "appointed" as the new Prime Minister. He ran for election in 2005 and his party won but without a sufficient majority so he was required to "share" the government with the Fiji Labour Party (Chaudry) -- what a mess (one of the weird provisions of the now-defunct Constitution). There were over 30 Cabinet Ministers (this is a country of 850,000 people!!) and lots of fighting about who got which portfolio. As a result, nothing got done. There was a lawsuit before 2005 with the High Court ruling that the Chaudry government had to be restored -- Qarase ignored it. Ironically, the Aussies and Kiwis didn't raise a fuss about that AT ALL! Qarase made lots of promises to the nationalistic Fijians (who do not want ANY Indians here). His government also handed out millions of dollars worth of equipment (tools, boats, motors) to the indigenous Fijians in the months before the 2005 election.

Pro-indigenous legislation that was in the mill caused the 2006 "coup" by Commodore Bainimarama. The legislation included a tribunal to determine "monetary recompense" to Fijians whose ancestors had sold their land years and years ago (who determines the value and pays for that???); a "get out of jail free" card for the 2000 coup perpetrators; and the ceding of "ownership" of ALL Fiji waters to the indigenous Fijians. Beaches, water, reefs, sand -- everything -- with non-owners having to pay for access. There was a similar attempt by the Maori in New Zealand which failed there -- "the sea belongs to everyone and cannot be owned". Bainimarama announced in November 2006 that he was taking over the government but instead of it happening the Friday he'd planned, it was delayed until the following Monday so everyone could enjoy a previously scheduled rugby game! No shots were fired. The Aussies & Kiwis threw a fit -- travel advisories; warnings that Fiji wasn't safe.

I maintained then and I still do that it's a lot safer HERE than on the streets of Sydney or Auckland! Or LA or London.......

The constitution that's been abrogated had a number of worrisome provisions in it. The one that's most egregious requires that people have to register by RACE and can only vote for a member of their OWN RACE. Democracy? Hardly!! Voter registration had to be redone for EVERY election -- a big mess with lots of "issues" in previous registration drives & people disappearing from the register.

That's enough for starters!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

How did you end up in Fiji??? - Part 2!

When we arrived on the island of Vanua Levu (Fiji's second largest island) that day in May 1996, the rental car guy said we'd need a 4x4 when he found out where we were staying -- there was just a "track" going into the property! It took ALL DAY to get the 4x4 from the other side of the island. The chief from the closest village was with us -- and by the time we got to the property it was dark (and raining). We couldn't see ANYTHING and were exhausted. Cincinnati ~ LAX ~ Nadi ~ Savusavu ~ plus wait all day for a 4x4! The next morning we woke up to THE MOST incredible view I'd ever seen. A 600 square mile bay (the largest deep water bay in the South Pacific) with mountain ranges on both sides. NO boat traffic - unbelievable! Love at first sight. It reminded me of where I grew up - on a hillside above Puget Sound in Seattle.

We were there for a week - got with a lawyer and accountant and agreed to buy the property subject to a zoning change approval and government approval for the resort development. Both of those took six months. We returned in November for 2 weeks -- the bank having NO IDEA I was going to "retire early" -- and started making arrangements. The 25 acres were covered in bush - the village would clear it. We needed to hire a contractor - determine what to bring from the US vs what to get in Fiji. A BIG planning project. Fortunately, some time I spent working with a building contractor right out of college paid off -- I knew enough about building to be "dangerous" so I did all of the building designs. My ex did all of the landscaping design.

We moved here permanently in March 1997 after my "retirement". I had to take a world globe in to work so my staff could see where Fiji was - they had NO idea!! We sent 5 containers which arrived two months later - the project took about 18 months to build. We had to put in 3km of road because the government didn't have any $$$....... My ex sat on his butt exercising and spending money while the contractor went wild, stealing materials, sabotaging stuff so it would have to be redone, etc. You name it, he did it because there was NO oversight. I fired the contractor in January 1998 and my ex and I "went our separate ways" - I stayed, he went! I got a friend in the states to help me buy him out and finished the project by myself!!! I kept a journal during all of the project which I mailed - and later was able to email - to about 30 friends. Maybe I'll turn it into a book someday! I will definitely include some of the funnier bits in this blog!!

There's a saying here (anywhere overseas, really): "If you want to be a millionaire, bring two million!" I did NOT do this to make $$$ -- the whole idea was that as long as it paid for itself, that's all I cared about. This life change was for LIFESTYLE, not $$$. It's been 12+ years and 2 "coups", plus 9/11 and now, the global recession. Challenging, to say the least.....

What I love most is meeting people from all over the world and making SURE that they have the best possible experience here in "Heaven". We have a world map on a wall in the dining room and guests place a pin on the map, designating where they're from. It's such fun to look at that map!!
Oh, and my good friend from California back in 1989? She's now living permanently in New Zealand and has been here to visit!!

Monday, November 2, 2009

How did you end up in FIJI???

This is THE most asked question by friends and resort guests!

How did I get to Fiji???? In the late 80's, sitting one evening with a good friend & my now ex on our patio in Walnut Creek CA (with 3 bottles of wine!!), she & I started talking about getting out of the corporate rat race before the "gold watch at 65". What if we built a small resort / retreat for artists & writers? My husband was a "house-husband". It worked for us/me because I traveled a lot & he could pick up & go too if we wanted. She suggested New Zealand -- both of her kids were married to Kiwis. I looked into it but at that time, NZ didn't allow ANY immigrants over the age of 40 - they expected everyone to end up on the dole.
My husband & I were intrigued with the idea. Being on the West Coast at the time, we spent a lot of time in Baja and on the West Coast of Mexico & started looking around there. Then came a move to Cincinnati which put the Caribbean close. In our 8 years in Cincy, we made AT LEAST a dozen trips to that area, from the Bahamas to Bonaire. Either flying to a specific island to check out properties or on a small cruise ship that went into the off-the-beaten-track places. We came THAT CLOSE to buying a small privately owned island in the Bahamas except, on the 3rd trip, the mosquitoes were so bad that I had to have a doctor brought to the resort! We only looked at islands owned by "civilized" countries - UK, France, Holland. Most everywhere the locals were okay around tourists but VERY "chip on the shoulder" to owners & other expats. Descended from slaves, they had a "you owe us a living" mentality. AND, on a lot of the islands, there were ARMED guards in the stores!! Hmmmmm.....
In early 1996, I spotted an ad in a Villa Rentals newsletter for 25 acres for sale in Fiji. It was freehold (only 8% of the land here can be BOUGHT) and had an old house on it (used as a weekly rental). We were already committed to a trip to Bonaire at the time so I asked for photos (this is WAY before email!!) and more info. It was for sale because her husband had died (they had planned to develop it into a small resort) and she remarried -- and the new family had 4 kids under the age of six! We flew to Fiji in May 1996, after checking it out with friends in international banking. Once a British colony, the Fijians had never been "slaves". Hurricanes (called cyclones in this part of the world) do happen but, unlike the Caribbean, very infrequently (I've been through only one).

To be continued......:)