Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bula! Welcome to Island Paradise

Arriving under the cape of darkness, we had no idea how far away the ocean was or what it looked like. Falling asleep to the waves crashing against the shore was a reminder that something amazing was awaiting us at he first light of day. Waking up I was like a kid on Christmas morning, eager to open my present. As I walked to the window I was speechless, and we all know that doesn’t happen very often. Our hill was covered with lush palm trees as it sloped down to beach as far as the eye could see. Endless, flat, ocean stretched beyond the beach as lush jungle draped the coastline. I took a deep breath in. The air here is thick with freshness and the aroma that I imagine the color green should smell like. It is a mixture of morning dew, fresh cut grass and a newness that comes after the rain. Breathing it in feels like it is going right to your soul. It is healthy and pure; exactly what one needs after hours absorbing recycled plane air.

I headed downstairs, so I could step outside and Sydney the house pet was asleep on the deck. The dogs here are like the pot cakes in the Bahamas. Most do not have homes, roaming the jungle and roads for scraps. Sydney, however, is doing quite well and has a loving family and a steady flow of guests to spoil him. Some of the local expat contingent joke that the Queen must have lost a corgi on her visit to Fiji, as there are a lot of dogs with corgi ears and stature running around the island. No power or water, so I grabbed my book and returned to the porch. What a perfect place to relax. No Internet, no phone, no editing, no cameras, just relaxing.

When Duncan woke up and stumbled to the window with one eye open, I heard him mutter, “ holy shit.” I think the view was better than coffee for him. It is stunning, especially when you have no idea what to expect when the sun rises. Our host came up to check with us at 8 am. He apologized about the power, but assured us that it would be fixed that day. No worries, just like life in the Bahamas. Scott is an Aussie that has traveled the world and done some amazing things. He is big into surfing and bounces from Australia, to Hawaii to Fiji, not too bad. He gave us the run down of the house and where to find things and suggested places to checkout. He again complimented Duncan on his off road driving in our cheap and cheerful economy rental car.

After having fresh papaya for breakfast Parro, one of the staff, came up to see if we wanted coconuts. Yes, please. He took off his boots and shimmied up a massive palm tree. He posed for pictures and smiled the whole time, enjoying his captive audience. Duncan scurried to collect the coconuts as they plunked onto the ground. Like the guys doing conch in the Bahamas, he made it look so easy as he moved from coconut to coconut, cracking them with his machete. In a matter of seconds I was handed a fresh coconut overflowing with water. YUM. It dribbles down your face, but who cares. Standing barefoot on soft ground, overlooking the sea, with coconut water dripping down my chin-life is good. I asked Duncan if he would shimmy up the tree if we needed more coconuts? Will let you know if that happens and yes, there will be photos.

For our first adventure we decided to head into Sigatoka and explore the markets. The drive was exciting, as we were now getting a sense of where we were and all the treasures that had been hidden away in the night. The Fijians are the friendliest people I have ever met. They all greet you with a smile that makes you feel welcome in the country, their homes and their hearts. Children laughed as we shouted Bula in return. It makes your heart feel good and returns your faith in mankind. The faith that withers away after just a short time spent in Miami.

The town of Sigatoka is small, but very busy. The collection of stores includes handicraft shops, clothing stores, grocery stores, home goods & appliances, small cafes & restaurants, the massive fresh fruit & vegetable market and the bootleg music & video shops! We parked where Scott suggested and made our way down the street. It smells of curry, frangipani, fresh bread and laughter. The market is vibrant and stuffed from wall to wall with fresh produce. Bright purple eggplants, green limes and papayas, bowls of red and green chilies, yellow bananas and golden pineapples. Duncan and I paused for a moment to take it all in. There must be at least 100 tables, all with a different mix of edible delights. We wove our way through, toting our canvas shopping bag. We purchased pineapples, papayas, limes, coriander, curry powder, fresh ginger, garlic, onions, bananas, lettuce, eggplants and some type of green bean. We made a quick pop into the supermarket to pick up a few other things before venturing home.

The beach here is covered with crushed and broken pieces of coral. The surf break is approximately half a mile off shore with a shallow lagoon that is completely exposed at low tides. The little pockets of water that remain are teaming with life. Bright blue sea stars and tons of fish are making their homes and surviving in these little sanctuaries from the ebb and flow of the tides. Very little trash had washed up on the beach and the only people were locals out hand lining or collection urchins. Some have a mask, but most just swim around and grab the urchins. They have boats made of large bamboo logs strung together. These are called billibillis and they tow them behind to load fish onto. I have spent several mornings having my coffee as the sun wakes up the world, watching the men pull their boats out to sea. Life is simple here and people are happy. I think we get caught up in the rat race of technology and materialism, forgetting how simple things can make us happy.

Our host told us that all guests to Fiji are welcome at any resort. We decided to check out the Hideaway, which seemed more, our style than the lavish 5 star Outrigger. The Hideaway is nestled on a beautiful stretch of beach and has a very laid-back surfer vibe. There is a channel that leads out to one of the most dangerous surf breaks in Fiji with great snorkeling on either side. They have a coral propagation program, trying to repair the damage that has been done by the harvesting of coral for aquariums. Fiji “ live rock,” is big business and the Coral Coast is seeing its natural wonder readily disappear. On our first snorkel we found Nemo, well not exactly Nemo, but a similar species of anemone fish. I squealed and dragged Duncan over to see. I had no idea this was his first encounter with a Nemo in the wild!!!! They are the cutest fish and I could watch them for hours as they weave in and out of the tentacles. We also saw at least 6 different kinds of butterfly fish, another of my favorites. I think it is sweet that they are always in pairs. There is something reassuring about monogamy in the animal world, maybe because of its rarity.

Upon returning for several more snorkeling adventures we found Gill (another reference to Nemo…I know I am a dork) or should I say Moorish Idols. Yes, another squeal of excitement from this child at heart. They are such an elegant fish to watch; yet I am always reminded of Gill’s wit from the movie. Makes me smile and laugh every time. No less than 30 other species of fish, all within 50 meters of the beach.
Now that Duncan has had a run in with a spider, although less severe than mine, still unnerving, he understands my new distaste for the creatures. After spending a great deal of time in Australia, one expects that most critters that crawl or slithers are out to get you. Luckily in Fiji this is not the case. Duncan beckoned me to the bathroom after he had finished a lengthy excursion and I was boggled by what on earth I was being taken to see. Down in the toilet bowl I could just make out 2 huge furry legs. Uhhh…that’s enough. “It tickled my bum,” was all Duncan said. We later found out that it was a Huntsman and a sign of good luck to have one in your house. We just make sure to thoroughly check the toilet before placing our backsides anywhere near it.

Our next adventure was the nearby waterfalls. Scott gave us directions and we made our way down the winding and steep dirt road. As we arrived in the village we were greeted by a pack of dogs, all scrounging for snacks. A donation was made and our barefoot guide waited as we donned our sneakers for the trek. The path passes through a bit of farmland and crosses the river 9 times before the waterfall comes into view. Our guide explained local plants, tried to catch a fresh water eel with his machete and never flinched as the ground changed from mud to rocks and back. 3 of the dogs made the journey with us, bouncing along and playing in the water.

After a 25-minute hike we crossed a bridge and found this treasure. There were only 4 other people there and we were treated to a private experience. Our guide loved the Go Pro camera and eagerly climbed ahead to film us. He seemed really excited to snap photos and see us laugh and smile. He shredded coconut to feed the fish and little for us. We swam for a while enjoying the cool clear water before he announced we needed to jump off. He scurried up the rock face and turned back to watch us. Balanced precariously he grabbed my arm and hauled me up over the side. We swapped places and handed off the camera. He was going to film us jumping! Dunk and I delicately crept across the rocks to the jumping spot. Dunk, being a gentleman, offered to go first. 1,2,3….splash. My turn. 1, 2, 3…splash. Our guide was laughing and smiling. I assume because we were fairly awkward squirreling into position. This was confirmed when I watched the video. “ Now your turn,” I stated. He laughed. Once more coax and he was shimmying up the rock face to a higher spot than ours, of course. 1,2,3 and 2 thumbs up….splash. We all had a good laugh. I think our guide enjoyed his time with us as much as we enjoyed ours with him!

As we got into our car a woman from the village politely asked if she could hitch a ride to the main road. Hitching is the norm here, as most people, our host included, do not have cars. We happily welcomed her into our luxury mobile and off we went. Idol chitchat turned into an invite to stay in the village next time we are on the island. Our new friend was a volunteer teacher at the school in the village. The children do not go to the larger school down the road until they are older, but the village wants to provide the opportunity to learn. She offered her home to us and we felt again, the warm embrace of this country. We will definitely go stay when we return to Fiji. I think it would be an amazing experience to share the daily life and culture with a family. Our new friend gave us her contact information before thanking us and jumping out at her stop.

After one week in paradise my skin feels softer and definitely darker. The toxins ingested and absorbed in the city and on the plane have long sense evaporated. My belief in the power of living simply is fully intact and I have consumed more fruit than I have in the 8 weeks prior combined. Life is good in Fiji.

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