Saturday, 28 January 2012

Long Overdue: An Account of Fiji

Fiji is probably the most ridiculous place I have been in my life. Firstly, it is stunningly beautiful:

Natadola Beach, about 1 hour drive from Nadi
Secondly, the people there are amongst the friendliest I have ever met:

This crazy looking man behind me is Kris. He was responsible for pretty much all of our adventures in Fiji and we met him completely by chance (I like to think, I suspect it had more to do with his enterprising nature) on the not-so-beautiful beach just outside our hostel. He and his friend had a huge fishing net to which Dylan and Adam jumped at the chance of helping with. The sole fish that landed in their net also managed to jump out of it. Although no fish were caught, Kris had probably found himself something more profitable in the seven of us.

We had gone to Fiji with absolutely no plans, simply flights booked and a hostel in Nadi for a couple of nights so meeting Kris was just as much a stroke of luck for us as it probably turned out to be a profitable venture for him. On our first day, he drove us to natural hot pools, including a mud pool. Below is a picture of us 7 with Sussu and Amma who helped us coat ourselves completely in mud. Face, hair, right down to our very toes. After clambering out of the warm and somewhat slimy pool, we were shown stalls of souvenirs while the sun dried the mud to a clay on our skin.

Every time you moved you felt your skin crack.

We rinsed off in a far hotter pool - to the extent I actually thought I might burn my skin. The best way I can think to describe it is as a bath that you've run too hot so you whack the cold tap on. There are no cold taps in natural hot springs, they are just holes dug into the ground.

To continue our theme of relaxation, we each followed up the natural spa treatment with a full body massage under the coconut trees. The ladies whispered and murmured to each other in their sing-song language while kneading us with coconut oil. As I said at the beginning, this is a ridiculous country - idyllic doesn't even seem to cover it.

Kris had not finished our adventure for the day as he invited us back to his own home where he cooked us a traditional Fijian meal. All we had to do was buy the food for the feast (and we bought about twice the amount necessary to feed us - Kris's enterprising nature at play. But when you can get a whole string of fish for 20 FJD, who would really complain about him buying extra with our money for his family). We had our first encounter with kava, the traditional drink of Fiji, that afternoon. After teaching us the simple ceremony that goes with the sharing of kava, we each downed bowls of the stuff in turn. Quite frankly, it looks and tastes like muddy water. As for its effect, on this occasion I discerned nothing more than its numbing qualities, like throat spray. For all that, though, it wasn't actually unpleasant.

Lunch consisted of fish cooked in coconut milk with bok choy and kasava, the Fijian potato. It was delicious and, dare I say it for fear of sounding 'gap yah', I would guess pretty authentic.

After our day of successfully exposing ourselves to a less backpackery side of Fiji, we enjoyed a very typical travellers' evening of hanging out in the hostel pool, drinking cheap beer and finally finding some locals with guitars to head down to the beach. Bizarrely, they opened with Ronan Keating 'When you say nothing at all' - we never stopped hearing that song everywhere we went.

We met Kris again the following day for him to show us a beautiful beach called Natadola. Surprisingly, great beaches are not that common on the main island, Viti Levu, but this one was quite simply stunning. We frolicked in the sea, sunbathed and generally enjoyed paradise with just a few other tourists, despite the nearby resort. We once again got to enjoy Kris's cooking, this time through his ingenuity of constructing a makeshift barbecue on the beach so we could have sausages and steak. Unsurprisingly, we never really got round to making the salad we had planned and instead enjoyed the delicious fruit - mangoes, grapes, passionfruit... In short, this day was less of an adventure but simply one of gorgeousness. We were utterly surrounded by beauty - between impossibly white sand, clear blue warm water and palm trees. You just couldn't help but feel enveloped by a strong sense that everything was right with the world. I don't think I have ever felt further from London, from real life.

Island Life

Amongst all the excitement of our two days with Kris, he had also introduced us to a tour operator who organised our trip off the mainland. Conscious of our budgets, we opted for one of the cheapest islands where we got 3 nights for the price of 4 and some money off our ferry and day trips since there were seven of us. On that third day, we jumped on the Mana Flyer to make our way to another paradise.

We were greeted by a small band of men armed with guitars to welcome us with song. Helping us with our ridiculous backpacks (since I lived in either a bikini or my hippy trousers the entire holiday it was fairly silly to have all that stuff) they took us along the bay to our hostel, Mana Lagoon. There was more welcome singing before a curious lunch of bread and butter sandwiches, a small slice of pizza and a pineapple chunk. After that, the day was ours to wallow in the warm shallow waters a few steps from the hostel and explore the island. The hostel had everything you could want to lead a fulfilled island life: a bed, a bar (with a floor that was simply as extension of the beach) and hammocks both in sun and shade, depending on your skin and heat tolerance. 

Lizzie and I took out a kayak later that afternoon for a fantastic 10 FJD which at the time we had the nerve to complain about (having since travelled around Cairns and New Zealand I now appreciate how amazingly cheap Fiji is) and more efficiently explored the coast of the island. The concept of Fiji time had fully infected us by this point, though, so there was little paddling and a lot of sunbathing on the boat. We saw the whole of the bay, however, and once we were around the hump at one end, the sun was starting its descent. In the distance, we could see many neighbouring islands but one in particular, made purely of sand, caught our eye as close enough to kayak too. I took some persuading to leave the coast of Mana but since we were floating above reef just a metre or so below us, Lizzie assured me no harm could come to us. I feel like that assurance explains entirely why, when we drifted over the edge of the reef into deep blue impenetrable water, still far away from the sand bank, I screamed and frantically started paddling backwards, shouting that we had left the reef.

Naturally, Lizzie's only response to my irrational hysterical fear was to burst out laughing and compare me to Marlin, Nemo's dad, when he freaks out about leaving the reef for open water. Fortunately, that was such a spot on comparison I could not help but laugh too and tentatively started paddling back out to open water. With the sun starting to set quite rapidly, however, we chose to turn back not long later and enjoyed our kayak back to the bay in dying light.

That evening was spent getting to know the staff instead of other backpackers with a huge bowl of kava, beers and Ronnie with his guitar, trying to play anything we could remember the words to. We danced and laughed a lot, enjoying new friends and this new place, even more idyllic than our previous few days.

The next few days were spent in much the same fashion. The only structure to our day was meal times as breakfast, lunch and dinner were all provided. It was no hardship getting up early since it was simply too hot to stay asleep in a room with three other people. I think that after our kayaking trip, the next day we snorkelled, enjoying the life on the reef and jumping off the jetty. But in all honesty, those days on Mana all sort of meld into a happy haze of sunshine, sea, sand, kava and hammocks in my head - not even reading about Bulgakov's Russian winter or Bukowski's brutal childhood could shake me from this somnambulatory existence. I know from my photos that on our second night we were honoured with a performance by the staff including traditional dancing - Melanie was wearing a genuine straw skirt and coconut shell bikini - sword tricks and fire twirling. Really good for the cultural, political, social awaaaarness, y'know. But genuinely, it was fairly amazing to see the same people we had been drinking and laughing with the night before and that afternoon show off traditional entertainment skills. Mitch was especially impressive in his fire dancing, given how blind drunk we all knew he was.

We never got round to our island hopping day trip as there seemed to be plenty of lazing around to do on Mana to keep us busy but we did make it to Castaway island, so called as that's where Tom Hanks and Wilson were filmed for the movie of the same name. Ronnie went with us to give us the grand tour - "That's where he spears the fish on those rocks" was pretty much the extent of it - before shimmying up a tree to knock down some coconuts. He and Dylan managed to smash a few open with brute force, a tree and a sharp rock so we could slurp on truly fresh coconut flesh and juice. Unlike the brown hairy things you'd normally see in the UK, these were huge and green with a watery juice as opposed to milk and soft slippery white flesh.

Dylan and I headed out to snorkel again amongst the waves after that sustenance. We made it to the rock outcrop just off the island before heading to the much smaller island a short swim beyond the rocks. There were a whole heap of crabs there on these quite stunning red rocks that we attempted to climb. There's no other feeling like you are discovering a brand new island, even if it is one where you know a Hollywood blockbuster was filmed.

Our final full day on Mana was possibly my favourite. Having finally made friends with the backpackers as well as the staff, a group of us sat down to a day of arts and crafts. I made myself a flowery crown, a grass one for Adam and a rather regal combination of those two for Canadian Chris, a huge man who went out fishing with Bosko every morning to catch what usually became lunch or dinner. He made me a necklace out of the bead curtain that had been in his room as it was 10th December, the day of my birthday party. Koto and the other guys, in between bouts in the makeshift tattoo parlour where Dylan was getting his life story inked into his back, were decorating the hostel by wrapping palm leaves around pillars and making baskets with the same leaves too. Koto taught Adam to weave too so that he gave me a basket as a birthday present.

Growing tired of crafts, me, Katie, Izi and Lizzie headed over to the other side of the island to snorkel and try and see some of the baby sharks supposedly in abundance. In the end, I was the only one to see one and too spazzy to get a photo in time. Lizzie, meanwhile, smashed her ankle on some coral leaving her with a deep cut that wouldn't stop bleeding. The girls managed to make a makeshift bandage for our walk back but that was the last time Lizzie swam in Fiji. Little did I know, it would also be the last time I swam too.

We arrived back to a beautiful and festive hostel ready for the party, my birthday party. There was a throne for me (a fold up Strongbow camping chair) sat in the middle of a palm leaf archway dotted with the same lovely red flowers I had used in my flower crown. It wasn't quite time for me to play princess though - before that I had to get through opening each individually wrapped twenty one (possibly more, I think Izi and Lizzie got carried away) birthday presents filling a shoe box Lizzie had been carrying around in her backpack. I got everything a twenty one year old could want: from a duck shower cap to neon glasses, to earrings and an anklet, a shot glass (that began my collection), bubbles and silly putty, 4 miniature koalas, more neon jewellery... the list goes on. Sufficed to say, I wore all that I could before heading to my throne for birthday cake and the entire hostel singing me a Fijian happy birthday:

There was more dancing, more fire twirling, more Bula shouting and a Fijian macarena. A bonfire was built on the beach. I hunted for appropriate marshmallow sticks. The marshmallows melted too quickly and fell to become fiery sacrifices celebrating my entrance to traditional adulthood. There was a lot of rum. There was running, excitement, jumping and then a nail sideways through my foot from a piece of discarded kindling on the beach. There were no tears at that point, just calm amusement before I pulled my own foot off the protruding nail and a new friend carried me through to the bedroom for Doctor Friend to clean the sand off and dress the wound. For any of you who have seen some incriminating photos of me on facebook looking passed out with a bottle of rum next to my head, this is what was really happening. I was talking too much for Izi's liking so I was repeatedly told to lie down, even though I was laughing through the pain of the antiseptic wipes. It was only after my foot had been bundled up in a sock and I headed back outside to the party that the shock wore off and the pain hit me, even through the rum. Even more distressing than my foot was people's reaction to give me more to drink to dull the pain. Feeling harassed, in pain and drunk, I burst into tears before finding a nice piece of decking close to the bonfire to curl up on and take a nap. I was watched over by Adam who talked incessantly too me despite my sleeping state before Dylan joined us and eventually made the decision to put me to bed. I remember waking up in Dylan's arms, telling him and Adam to wake me up in a bit so I could go on with the party, then getting to bed and then nothing. Morning came and I was 21.

Lizzie and I were renamed 'hopalong' and we shared one pair of Lizzie's thick bright pink socks to protect our respective ridiculous wounds. That morning we headed back to the mainland to enjoy a day of nothingness before our early morning flight the next day.

And that was Fiji. If I couldn't be at home, I don't think there could have been a better way to spend my 21st than a pacific island surrounded by old and new friends and a healthy supply of rum.

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