My trip to Fiji was neither the most enjoyable nor the most exciting part of my adventure in the southern hemisphere. It was frustrating, it was a little slow-paced, and, frankly, it occurred right in the thick of some extreme emotional upheaval. Those who are closest to me know what I’m talking about, but for those who don’t: Suffice it to say, I had a lot of thinking to do.
(I’m just going to pepper in some of the pretty scenes I saw throughout my travels in Fiji.)
When I’m traveling, I often turn my phone off as much as possible (this landed me in some hot water in Sydney when I was relying on Google Maps to navigate the city). There’s something refreshing about disconnecting from all the media, people, and other distractions that get in the way of experiencing my surroundings. For me, it’s almost a spiritual thing. I feel closer to God – or the universe, or whatever you want to call it – when I’m able to truly be alone with myself in a new place. Disconnecting also helps me embrace a sense of awe at every new sight, however small. This is a feeling that helps me put my own struggles and anxieties into perspective.
Though I was in Fiji for almost two weeks, I was working remotely during much of that time. I was only able to disconnect from December 24-January 31st, the days when I wasn’t working. Of course, that time frame also happens to include Christmas – my first Christmas not only away from my family, but from the northern hemisphere and everything I’ve come to associate with the holiday season. Christmas 2014 wasn’t characterized by family traditions, snow, church, or Christmas dinner … instead, I had a chance to connect with my spirituality all on my own. Even by New Year’s Eve, when I’d returned to the world of Wi-Fi (Nadi, the largest city in Fiji) and reconnected to my loved ones via technology, I felt a sense of solitude. I rang in 2015 – sure to be yet another year of major change – with a bunch of strangers at a hostel in the South Pacific. My holiday in Fiji was a strange one, indeed, but I think I’ll always look back on it as one of the most perspective-shaping experiences of my life.
It’s been almost six months since my trip now, so there are a lot of details I’m already forgetting. I believe I left for Fiji on December 16h, but short of looking up my Travelocity itinerary (which I’m too lazy to do), I can’t be sure. Regardless, I spent the first few days working remotely from a hostel called Smuggler’s Cove, located about 20 minutes outside of Nadi.
I do not – I DO NOT – recommend this hostel to anyone. Fijians are very nice people, but they are also definitely creatures of island time. This is all fine with me, provided they’re kind and genial about things. Unfortunately, the staff at Smuggler’s Cove was really unhelpful and often rude. I spoke with a number of fellow travelers whose reservations had gotten lost or whose room requests had been ignored, but I wouldn’t experience that particular issue until I returned to the hostel the following week. Rudeness aside, the food was terrible and overpriced, and the beach was full of litter. My initial perception of Fiji was that it was far from the beautiful place I’d heard about and imagined.
Still, the hostel was clean and affordable, and had Wi-Fi. So I set up shop and finished out the working year from the restaurant’s bar overlooking the ocean.
On another note, I read two books while I was in Fiji, the first of which was “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed (the other was “A Clash of Kings” from the A Song of Ice and Fire series, as pictured above). “Wild” is a memoir about Strayed’s experiences at age 26 (about my age). In the aftermath of her mother’s passing and a divorce, Strayed sets out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a huge undertaking. The PCT spans three states, beginning at the Mexican border and running all the way up to the Canadian border. This empowering female narrative was extremely important to me at the time, and I highly recommend the book (if not the movie).
Bay of Plenty
On December 24th, I set out from Nadi aboard the Awesome Adventures Fiji ferry, headed toward Bay of Plenty. My destination was the last stop on the ferry’s path, making it the farthest-flung island on the Yasawa chain. The ride from Nadi to Bay of Plenty took more than six hours, so I got a chance to see quite a lot of the various islands, coves and bays that dot the Mamanuncas and the Yasawas (the two major island chains in Fiji). I read my book, looked around at the scenery and did some people watching.
When it was finally time to disembark, only two travelers boarded the tiny vessel that would take us from the ferry to the shore – me and a middle-aged divorcee named Stew. Stew was immediately friendly, so I made small talk with him, trying to suppress my tendency to travel alone and in silence.
The lodging was more like a homestay than a hostel. I got my own little hut, which was absolutely brimming with geckos, and the family that ran the establishment served us three homemade meals each day. We were treated to ripe, juicy mango, freshly caught local fish, coconut milk-steeped wild rice, and sweet, buttery homemade bread.
There was one small moment of panic, however. Stew and I went for a hike to the top of a nearby mountain. The trip to the top was uneventful, but we got lost on the way down. In full honesty, this was actually the only time at any point during the six months I was abroad that I was a little concerned for my safety. It started to rain as we were beating our way through the heavy brush, having completely lost the path. I was worried we wouldn’t make our way back to the hostel before dusk, and frankly, when we walked past a giant wasp nest (or something that looked uncannily like one) I started to get a little freaked.
Luckily, we eventually found our way back (in my case, with some gigantic battle scars all over my legs). I might’ve been even more worried had we not had Kali, the sweet and super smart dog that lived with the family running the hostel, along for the hike. This dog and I had a serious connection. He followed me around any time I went off exploring, and slept outside the door of my hut each night of my stay.
The next morning (Christmas Day), Stew headed on to a different island, leaving me as the sole guest at the hostel. It was just me, Kali and my hosts, who offered to let me come into the village to celebrate the holiday. It was by far the most interesting Christmas I’ve ever had. I spent it with all the residents of the Bay of Plenty village, sitting under a palm-frond structure they’d constructed in the center of the village.
We drank kava, an intoxicating substance made from the root of the kava tree, pretty much all day long. Kava tastes extremely tannic, like the blackest of black tea, and is very bitter and grainy. I didn’t mind the taste too much, but I was a little surprised by its effects. Rather than making you feel drunk, it gives a very mellow, tired feeling, without any of the headiness often associated with other herbal highs (if ya know what I’m sayin’).
It was a great time. The village served delicious, fresh meats and seafoods, and all generations were present as the community prayed, sang songs, drank kava and talked. I was the only non-Fijian there, which was pretty cool. I did, however, embarrass myself when I leaned over to ask someone a question during what I later learned was a blessing being said by the community’s patriarch. Oops.
As nighttime set in, I felt that I should leave the family to do their celebrating without having to worry about entertaining me. My hosts asked if I was ready to be taken back, and I told them that I was ready to leave whenever they were. We returned to the their home as we’d come to the village: via boat. Apparently, though, the motor boat we’d initially taken was out of gas, so we had to row. It took about an hour to row from the village to the family’s little home on the other side of the island. The moon shone brightly over the ocean water, and the stars of the Southern sky were brighter than I’d ever seen. It was an incredibly beautiful and peaceful way to end Christmas Day.
My final stop before returning to the main island was Mantaray. Known for the populations of mantarays that pass by the island during the winter months (remember, December is early summer in the Southern hemisphere!), the island is absolutely gorgeous at any time of year. My hostel had a definite party vibe, and I met a lot of cool young travelers from all over the world: The UK, Spain, Australia, Switzerland, and France, for starters.
There isn’t a lot to say about Mantaray. Though I was there for three days, they mostly consisted of lying on the beach (which was absolutely gorgeous, if a little boring after a while) and partying with my new friends.
Oh, and climbing trees.
Smuggler’s Cove: Part II
After my week-long trek around the islands, I returned to Smuggler’s Cove before flying back to New Zealand the following day. I checked back into the hostel on New Year’s Eve, and was honestly in pretty low spirits at that point. In addition to the personal life changes I was undergoing, I was kind of tired of traveling around. Yes, me: the girl who lives to move and moves to live. I was tired of backpacking around, of not having a home, of not being able to shower or wear makeup. I learned that although I love traveling and moving in the right amounts, constant solo trekking can take its toll. I was exhausted.
That New Year’s Eve was a strange one. The hostel threw a pretty great party, and I enjoyed fireworks at midnight (under the influence of some kava I’d shared with the hostel employees) on the beach. I remember wondering, at midnight, what 2015 had in store for me. 2014 was a year of extreme risk-taking, travel, fun, passion, and exploration. I wondered if 2015 would be just as eventful.
Six months later, I have my answer: Yup. Just as eventful.