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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Survivor: Fiji

The journey has begun again! On Jan 2, 2010, I departed Orlando en route to FIJI! My job responsibilities were to begin in New Zealand, which gave me 5 days in Fiji to take in the sun, sand, beauty, island culture, and get adjusted to 14 hours of time change!

The flights were long, the layovers were awful, and the lack of sleep was painful. There is just nothing to compare being in an airplane seat for over 18 hours; I liken the back of the plane (non-business class) to being in a cattle car. Pack ‘em in tight! The reward of arriving in Nadi, Fiji quickly sent packing all the tight-quarters woes though, thankfully. I waited for the resort bus from the airport for what seemed like forever, and they arrived later than scheduled. I was definitely starting to feel abandoned. The friendliness of the locals however, was unmatched. After many airport workers and shopkeepers saw me sitting for over 30, then 45, then 60 minutes, they each started coming out one-by-one to tell me “Bula” (hello, how are you!), and see how they could help. Finally my bus arrived, and 5 of us were whisked away to a small marina of about 10 boats.

Slightly rough waters and 2 hours later, the single boat-to-resort delivery per day had the 5 of us drooling at our new island oasis, aka Octopus Resort, on Waya Island in the Yasawa Island group. On the beach 10 or 12 island people were waiting to welcome us with singing, ukulele-playing, and clapping! At this point I was starting to feel like death due to lack of sleep and emotional fatigue, but the music and local happiness ushered in a wave of relief. The awakening continued as we were served a delicious fresh-squeezed juice cocktail on the back deck a few minutes later; alas no sleep would be had the rest of the day. Next stop: Taken to my room by one of the ladies, with one of the men carrying my luggage. Wow, thank you, I am definitely at a resort!

My thatched roof hut
My room was a charming thatched-roof bungalow lined with bamboo, covered in palms and other earthen material, and entirely waterproof. The bungalows house five twin beds comfortably situated in the all-natural hut (sauf tile floors), each outfitted with a personal mosquito net. The resort accommodations range from single shared-room beds from $40 FJD per night to private and luxurious cabins at $499 FJD per night. Obviously I fell into the ‘charming’ $40 realm. Each night during dinner, the mosquito netting is pulled down and tucked under the beds, like a turndown service without the chocolate on the pillow. The candy would have melted anyway; hot as blazes here! A meal plan is mandatory for all resort guests, regardless of room level accommodations, as there are no shops, grocery stores nor restaurants on the island. It’s you, resort guests, and villagers.

After kava...

Some of the Pacific Islanders (Fiji and Samoa, only islands yet-to-be-visited) often welcome visitors with a kava ceremony. Kava is made from the ground root of a pepper plant and mixed with water, strained, and served in a half of a coconut shell. The liquid looks like dirty water and tastes somewhat like dirty licorice, but makes the tongue and cheeks tingle while adding laughter to the lips. As stated in one museum, “kava is mildly stimulating, but non-alcoholic, however overindulgence can affect locomotion temporarily.” The day that I arrived was 1 of 2 prearranged (and preauthorized) weekly visits to the local village by the resort guests (more on the details later). After a stroll through the village, we were given a welcoming song and dance, which ended with a kava ceremony. The kava rumors abounded prolifically from hallucinations to mouth numbness; naturally I had to try it out. The dried and ground root was placed in a cotton satchel, mixed with water in a huge and beautiful tanoa bowl, then served first to the person of highest honor (village chief). The ceremony starts to the chief’s right: Each person, before accepting the elixir-filled coconut half energetically says “Bula!,” claps once, takes the fluid down in one big gulp, hands back the coconut half, then claps three times. If the kava ceremony goes around a second time (or you have already had kava that day), you do not holler Bula! before the big gulp. After round one my lips were tingling, after round two my tongue was gone. My laugh got louder, too. The effects wear off pretty quickly (30-60 min), which explains why the villagers can sit around all night drinking kava for hours and hours.

This village, Nalauwaki, is one of three villages on Waya Island, and most of Octopus Resort staff comes from the population of 267 (as of Jan 2nd). To enter the village, like many other islands targeted by Christian missionaries, women’s shoulders and knees must be covered. Additionally, noone was allowed to sport sunglasses; the village chief, and only the village chief was allowed to wear sunglasses. I cannot answer any associations between spirituality and sunglasses… you are on your own!

The village was hit with a massive cyclone three weeks prior (aka hurricane), trees were uprooted, roofs flew, it was a regular Wizard of Oz. The people had been quite industrious, as stacks of fallen cut tree encircled nearly ever still-standing tree. To keep the details on this visit brief (and let the pictures speak for themselves), these 2.5 hours were eye opening. Visitors saw waste, destitution, dilapidation, and scarcity of resources and technology, but locals saw happiness, vitality, persistence and opportunity. In a word… Relativity. Priorities. Choosing to be happy. Fijians are by far some of the happiest and most generous people I have ever met in the world, and also some of the most impecunious. This village visit has affected me in so many ways.

The next few days involved meeting loads of people from around the world, multiple strolls along the beach, dining like a queen, SCUBA diving night and day dives, and a 1-hour massage! Massages were inconceivably inexpensive, close to $20 USD / hour! Maybe I should have scheduled that every day, hahah. Then again, when I walked out of the massage tent I was so oiled up I felt that I could have slid across the sand and felt no friction! My masseuse gave ‘greasy’ an entirely new meaning.

For five days I had grown accustomed to hearing the blowing of the conch shell for meal times and boat depatures. Hearing the conch shell was a welcomed sound for another delicious meal time announcement, or on my last day, the sounding of boat departure. I went to lunch, energetically chatted with friends as I sorrowfully thought of my parting. After 10-15 minutes after my scheduled departure, I stated getting curious about the lack of conch shell blowing. My bags were waiting; I was waiting… Turns out the boat was unannounced, as everyone was on-board except for me! A small dinghy transported me only to the boat, and I had my own personal send-off from the beach! I had four friends on the beach clapping and smiling, plus 10 Fijians with guitars and song… the lone boat ride was such a memorable send off!!

Finally after 5 days I sorrowfully said goodbye to my island oasis. The Fijian people are some of the friendliest and happy people I have met anywhere in the world, and I look forward to the day that I can return to this paradise. There are 333 islands in Fiji, some inhabited, mostly not. After one night on Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, it was time to head to Auckland, New Zealand to start work by greeting the students and faculty members of the Georgia Tech Pacific Progam 2010!

Pictures: FIJI me!
PS- My camera DIED after 3 days in Fiji! Apparently I got water in it and fried it… but I still managed some great shots!

Ours is a dynamic environment, sandwiched between two oceans and perched on the Pacific Ring of Fire.  When extreme events happen below or above the earth’s surface, unusual scenery is often the result.
THIS is the South Pacific!

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