The odds of my meeting Barack Obama are roughly the same as my chances of getting a meeting with Harvey Weinstein. I've tried and failed. I live in Kansas after all, which means I don't exactly run into a lot of notables.
But in Fiji, a South Pacific island nation with a population of less than a million, I not only met the Head of State, but I was able to congratulate him on his initiative to ban plastic bags on his country's touristed Coral Coast.
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, I wasn't paying attention when Outrigger GM Peter Hopgood first brought Ratu over to our table for introductions. Luckily, I was quick enough on my feet to shake hands and make small talk with the former general, diplomat and Oxford scholar, who now steers 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.
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