We landed in Nadi (pronounced Nandy) around 5.45am – two major sighs of relief: one when my bag came out on the luggage carousel, another once I saw a man from my hostel holding a sign with “Candice Riarden” on it. It was close enough for me. It’s funny, I’ve been booking hostels online for several months now and it’s never once not worked out, but it always seems a small technological miracle when I can book a hostel for Fiji while in the States and actually have someone waiting for me upon arrival. There were two other girls being picked up by my hostel – Jessica from Italy (a 31-year old stripper, I later found out) and Amparo (Ampi, for short) from Spain, a freelance make-up artist and aspiring photographer. They were both living in London until recently, when they quit their jobs and set out on four months of travel – Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, China, and home again. It worked out well to share a room with them as we have been able to book various tours together and I’ve been able to have a few quasi-travel companions while in Fiji.
On our ride to the hostel – the Bluewater Lodge – Fiji immediately reminded me of Egypt, with one crucial difference: GREEN. Everywhere. A lush, deep green – palm trees, hibiscus plants, grass, sugarcane fields, the mountains in the distance – it’s all got a dreamlike quality about it, straight from a movie or paradise itself. Definitely the most beautiful place I have been thus far. But like Egypt, the economic situation is not the best – straight from the plane you get the impression that they “depend” on you, that they depend on the tourists. Even in the Duty-Free Shop in the airport, ten sales associates stand outside shouting, “Hello! Bula! Bula!” desperate for your attention. Many of the streets are not paved, especially outside the city center. The cars, except for Land and Range Rovers, all seem outdated and the houses are small and patchwork. Our hostel is located on a beach-side street filled with other hostels with names like Smugglers Cove Beach Resort, Tropic of Capricorn Resort, Aquarius Fiji, and Edgewater Accommodation.
But in Egypt, besides their dependency on tourism, you sense a mutual dependency of theirs is on the past. They almost seem to live in long-lost centuries, in the pyramids and pharaohs, in the sarcophaguses and scarab beetles. Here, though, it seems to be all about the present. In the here and now, in the current moment. “No worries,” is what they say. FIJI TIME, the favorite phrase, implying “we’ll get there when we get there” and no one’s any worse off for deviances from any schedule they might have held in the first place. A woman at the tour desk in Smugglers Cove Resort told us not to stress about which trips to go on: “It’s Fiji!” Only two things don’t run on Fiji Time, we were warned: planes and boats. In a brochure for an island day cruise, the trip leaves at 9am “No Fiji Time” but returns at 3pm “Fiji Time.” There are no museums here, no historical sites charging an overpriced entry fee. We were even discouraged from visiting Suva, the Fijian capital, and told their sole museum would take but an hour to browse through. Everything is designed for your utmost relaxation in the moment. This is island life, if i’ve ever experienced it – pools and beaches, waterfalls and village tours…
We (me and my two new friends, Jessica and Ampi) took it easy this morning – a light breakfast at the hostel, a walk along the beach, a seven dollar coconut drink from a little man with every intention of ripping us off. I bought some Internet minutes from Smugglers Cove to go online and checked my email – messages and Facebook comments from family and friends, full of prayers and well wishes…it was the best feeling. It was much of what I had been thinking the whole time I was home – how grateful I was and am for a home like mine to come back to. To know where I am truly from – to know where I belong. I’ve met people along the way who can’t say for sure, having been born in South Africa, raised in New Zealand, currently living in England – for them, “Where are you from?” isn’t an easy question. But for me, I am – without a doubt – from Virginia. Having such solid roots gives me just a bit more courage to branch out and see the world.
In the early afternoon, we were picked up for our tour of the day – the Nalesutale Highlands Tour. Our driver, Mike, is a native Polynesian who moved to Fiji at thirteen and now calls the island his home. It was a rough ride in his Range Rover, bouncing over rocks and ruts and unpaved gravel. He stopped along a stretch of sugarcane and hacked off a section of it for us. What an experience – you bite off a chunk of what honestly feels like a piece of wood kindling, chew until all the sugar juice is gone and spit out the leftover cane! He drove us into a village of about seventy people called Nalesutale, meaning “Welcome back.” We were invited into a home for lunch – the dishes were laid out on a blanket on the floor: bananas, tapioca (tasted starchy like potatoes), sausages and fried fish, a dish of tuna, onions and wild spinach cooked in coconut milk, and lemon juice to drink. The woman who prepared the meal sat on the floor fanning away flies and other little friends, while her children poked their heads in and out of the doors.
Mike sat with us as we ate and told us about the village way of life. What was once a cannibalistic culture 200 years ago has now been Christianized – we were grateful on our parts. “It’s a simple life,” he explained, “But they’re happy. The more you get, the unhappier you are.” The villages are based on subsistent farming, growing just enough for their families. Any surplus is then sold at the markets in town. They get fish from the rivers for protein and gather wild spinach and yams in the jungle. They are all in all self-sufficient and have no need for money – there are no supermarkets because everything is fresh. Tourism is helpful as well and many activities are organized in the villages for visitors. There’s even a village chief who controls the 2,000 acres available and decides who can or cannot move into the village or use the land. I was fascinated by this way of life, by this basic system that seems not only to work but to fulfill the villagers as well. Mike said it’s important for visitors to get out of the resorts and to see the real Fiji – that you can miss this by staying only on the islands.
But the highlight of this visit to the Highlands was yet to come. After lunch the chief’s son, Aaron, met us to lead us to the waterfall. The girls and I got back in Mike’s car, thinking we would be driving some more up the mountain. Shame-faced and feeling slightly foolish, we climbed back out when we realized Aaron had already started walking. We passed several more thatched-roof huts (called bures) and houses and exchanged “Bula!”s with other villagers before we entered the rainforest. “Watch out for shiny rocks,” Aaron cautioned, pointing to piles of horse-crap.
It wasn’t long into our hike that we realized our rubber flip-flops might be inadequate for the conditions. We’d come to Fiji during the rainy season and many of the paths were more mud than dirt. Our sandals often sunk in and made a squelching sound as we fought the suction to pull them out. We crossed several sections of the river, stepping carefully from stone to stone and Aaron helping us one-by-one through deeper crossings. It was all overwhelmingly beautiful. The thick, lush vegetation, bananas hanging upside down in groups, red pineapples growing from the ground. And even though it was an organized tour, I was grateful it never felt like it – we were the only three there and we never came across anyone else on the hike. Aaron even broke or bent leaves and branches along the way to mark our path as if we were covering uncharted territory, although he later shared he leads this tour twice a day.
Halfway to the waterfall, Aaron began to apologize: “I’m sorry about this, but it’s about to rain.” And by rain, he meant to say an absolute raining-cats-and-dogs downpour – not terribly strong at times, but completely drenching altogether. But it only added to the surrealistic quality of the hike. Gratefully I hadn’t worn a stitch of makeup and my hair was up and back, with a headband keeping any stray hairs in place. It was incredibly freeing, my only concern being that my $400 camera would be soaked beyond repair in my bag. There were moments while I waited on one side of the river for Aaron to help the other girls across, when I would look up into the trees and say to myself, “Where AM I??” I woke up yesterday in Suffolk, Virginia, and am now hiking through a Fijian rainforest. Ridiculous. And it’s amazing how painful it was to leave, holding back (or not holding back) tears at the airport, but it shows you how strong fear is – how such a fear of the unknown can hold you back from seeing all this. Even when I was saying goodbye to my family, I know I would be fine once I got to Fiji. It’s just that initial separation that threatens to overwhelm. But now that I’m here – wow…
We finally reached the waterfall, one flip-flopping, mud-covering, rain-soaking hour later. And there were three of the waterfalls, it turned out – Honeymoon, Massage and Swimming Falls. I soaked it all in, no pun intended. The falls weren’t huge by any means, but they had a simple beauty about them, which – now knowing more about the Fijian culture – seems to make sense. I felt so connected to the earth, standing among the rocks with the river rushing around my legs, thunder and lightning booming and striking overhead.
The hike back was intense, harder than the way there, and it grew harder by the minute. The storm was going at full force and where there were paths before, now small creeks or runlets streamed past us. Our main concern was the cameras – Ampi put a raincover on her camera bag and Aaron offered to carry it for her. Parts of the river we’d crossed before were now more treacherous, even waist-high at times. You know it’s bad when you come to the river and your guide mutters, “Damn it.” I asked Aaron if we would make it. “We’re going to try,” he said somewhat dubiously. On a particularly steep slope down, I slipped and covered my whole backside in a red-clayish mud. But our next three crossings through the swollen river soon took care of any remaining traces of that.
But that’s the rainy season for you – a couple hours of full-on rain each afternoon followed by a pleasant evening sun. The villagers just dealt with it – as we passed them on the last leg of our hike, they were sitting under awnings, drinking kava and sharing stories. Children on their way home from school ran by with brightly covered umbrellas, shouting cheerfully, “Bula! Bula! As we stepped timidly from stone to stone in the river, the children stormed past brazenly, putting us to shame. Our last feat was crossing a bridge we had before driven over. Aaron held my hand for precaution – “Just in case,” he said – and I gladly held it back, looking down at the water below, churning angrily in the current. We were greeted by the chief himself on our return, who picked us up in his SUV and drove us back to our hostel. Once back, we showered (in the dark, due to a power outage), ate dinner (a delicious lemon chicken and mash) and I was in bed by 7.30pm. As Ampi said, “we went freaking hardcare for our first day!”