My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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being American in Fiji

When i landed in Fiji, i had no hotel reservation but had decided that i would simply go to the travel place and get a dorm somewhere in the islands that promised to have a security safe for my laptop. I figured it was an adventure so whatever happened would be entertaining. Upon exiting customs, i was surrounded by travel agents… i followed a nice woman up to her office where she gave me various brochures. She recommended a place called The Resort on Walu Beach and told me that it was filled with travelers like me. The price was uber cheap and i was promised a single room for cheaper than dorm prices. I figured that it should be entertaining and would let me test the waters with backpacker culture so i said yes.

I arrived on the island and everyone was exceptionally nice but there was a tension in the air that i couldn’t read. There was definitely nothing sacred about the Walu Beach Resort – it was set up for people trying to find themselves while drinking profusely. I put my bags down, took a shower and wandered down to take a walk. My room had another bed in it but there was no one there so i didn’t question the single thing. The staff was super nice and helpful… and then i started talking to the other travelers. There was lots of bitching – the food was atrocious, the water didn’t work, the people were rude, there were no available beds so people were sleeping on mattresses in the common rooms, etc. I found it strange since i had no such problems. But then i started watching – i would go up to the service people and they would be beyond helpful… the Brits and Irish and Aussies would go up and get the cold shoulder. Huh. At one point, a German couple were quite frustrated because of the lack of water and the failure of the dive master to show up to scheduled dives; the manager started yelling at them to leave; they said they’d leave if they could have their money back; he threatened to call the police. I shirked away to my private room.

And then the Americans arrived… It seems as though there’s this program where American college students come to “do conservation work” in Australia (whereby they pay a lot of money to an organization that brings them down under to party and provide a resume stamp). At the end of their trip, they get a week in Fiji full of activities. Walu Beach suddenly became filled with made-up college girls tanning while listening to loud music and gossiping for everyone to hear and college boys strutting their stuff, yelling and drinking profusely. They were the classic selfish American travelers that i’m always embarrassed to see outside of the US. That said, they had money. Lots of it. They were treated like angels. They got special beachside cabins, special food, special activities… they were waited on hand and foot with smiles and laughter. That first night, as the food lines were created (Americans outside, everyone else inside), i was pushed towards the Americans line… and then i got it… the staff thought i was one of them. By the end of the next day, it was clear to the staff that i was not one of this tour group even though i was doing scuba and spending more money on activities than the backpackers (i decided a massage was more interesting than 3 drinks). And then everything changed.

They stopped fixing the water in my room so i had no running water. I got a roommate (who masturbated loudly while i was “sleeping”). And everyone became super rude. It was an amazing shift but i was already very aware of the negative-ness so i just continued being super sweet whenever i faced staff. But i was definitely tired of the general negative atmosphere and it was magnified by the dynamic with the Americans so i decided to go back to the mainland a day early and check into a hotel where i knew i could take a shower and get an edible meal.

I’m quite glad i went to Fiji – beautiful lands, scuba diving with sharks, beach relaxation… It was also really fascinating to see the racial tensions between the native Fijians and the Indian Fijians, to see the way that the culture was still rife with anger from various recent uprisings. It was really eye-opening to see the role of tourists in the economic landscape of that culture and to see how certain places tried to hide the negativity from the tourists (especially at the more upscale hotels). Like i said, i’m really glad i went but i can’t say that i need to return soon… and certainly not as a tourist.

I also realized that i’m not sure that i could do the backpacker thing. After a week of “so, where have you been… where are you going?” i thought i was going to strangle someone in the same way that i hate that all club conversations seem to circle around sex, drugs or the music. I don’t think that i do well being in a place where i have no structure or responsibilities. I prefer going to places because locals have invited me and they want me to do something. I’m going to have to rethink my post-grad school traveling plans as a result of this journey. For this reason, i’m glad that i decided to land in backpacker zone.

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4 comments to being American in Fiji

  • There are ways of surviving the travails of backpacking without it turning into an endless stream of the same trivial questions – starting by avoiding the party trail (which you seem to have stumbled onto). You can meet some amazing people and, of course, see things you’d never see at home. And if lack of structure is a concern, you can either get round that through planning a trip in advance or you can confront that need: travelling is often about confronting things about ourselves.

    I hope you enjoyed your (brief) stay in New Zealand: I saw you on the tele with John Campbell and then heard you on the radio with Kim Hill – I couldn’t imagine two more dissimilar interveiwers!

  • Helen

    I would definitely advise against making a decision not to go backpacking due to the negative experience in Fiji. So much depends on where you go…there are some really extraordinary people wandering the world with packs strapped to their backs at any given time. Like anything, backpacking has it’s ups and downs, positives and negatives, but with your intellect and adventurous spirit, I feel like if you gave it a chance it would be a really constructive and affirming experience. I made friends from Moscow to Manchester, and was only away for about three months. I say Do It, Girl! Even if only just briefly. 🙂

  • Bernie

    Hahaha, he was masturbating while you were ‘sleeping’. That’s too nasty. Fascinating to hear about class divisions, i.e. creating this artificial ‘all is lovely’ reality for those with money. Welcome back?

  • Andy

    While you were in Fiji did you come accross anywhere you could camp as me and my girlfriend are heading ther shortly. Sorry to hear about the masterbating, im sure that got on your nerves after a little while.