Fiji (and a little bit of New Zealand)

Bula!  This means Hello in Fijian.

When I was making the decision to take the jump and leave my job to live my dreams, there were few people who consistently told me to do it, to take the jump, to live the life I had been saving for for the past 38 years.  There were few people who told me ‘I would be just fine’ and that ‘I deserved this.’  So it was quite fitting that six months to the day my best friend Nicole met me in Fiji.  She is the person who listened to me – endlessly – repeat myself over and over, expressing so many fears, and patiently letting me get to the right mental place to ‘jump right on in.’  Nicole and I also met 10 years ago this month, so there was more than one reason to spend a week in Fiji together.  When your best friend tells you they want to meet you on the other side of the world while you are working on a world record, you say, ‘when and where?’  And that’s how we found ourselves in Fiji.

We had a bit of a mix up with the AirBNB that we had booked so had to stay in a different place the first night.  The place itself was quite fine – clean, comfortable, spacious.  There were two large spiders about the size of a half dollar, but Nicole tackled them and we survived.  This place, however, was a bit off the beaten path from the rest of Nadi (the major city in Fiji).  We had gotten the phone number from the taxi driver at the airport, knowing we wouldn’t be able to just walk outside and get a taxi here.  I tried, repetitively, to call this driver the next day and my international plan just wasn’t working.  It took several days for us to figure out that we needed to add the + sign in front of the country code when dialing.  You would think by now I would have these little things figured out.  Lessons learned.

Anyway, after multiple phone attempts, Nicole walked to the apartment above us and knocked on the door.  A young child answered the door and I heard Nicole and her conversing.  At one point, Nicole asked if her parents were home.  The only person that was at home was the grandmother, who only spoke Chinese.  So Nicole attempted to use the small child as a translator in an attempt to get a taxi driver, making the driving hand signals all the while.  No luck.

We debated for a while and figured we might as well start walking, hoping someone would come along and help us.  We turned down the main street, which to be clear, had absolutely no traffic on it, and found dozens, maybe even hundreds, of dead frogs dried up and laying all over the street.  I share this for all of you to consider but also because I don’t want to forget this.  It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen in all my travels.  Eventually, a man – Thomas – stopped and asked us if we needed a ride.  And that’s how we hitchhiked all the way to Denarau Island about 30 minutes from where we were staying.

The next day we were going to ‘Pizza Island.’  Now, let me explain exactly what ‘Pizza Island’ is.  In the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Fiji, there is a man-made island that floats around and serves pizza and drinks.  What you don’t know about Nicole is that she loves pizza.  So, when she discovered Cloud 9 – which is what I’m calling Pizza Island – there wasn’t a question that we wouldn’t go.  Plus, there was snorkeling and other water activities that I was super excited about.  I hadn’t spent much time in the Pacific Ocean on this leg of my journey, so it felt like a perfect fit for both of us.

Shortly after we arrived, I put on my mask and snorkel (which I had been carrying around for over three weeks and yet to use), sat on the edge of the island, and jumped right on in.  I was confident.  The water was crystal clear and I was, after all, a diver.  I knew what I was doing, right?

I positioned myself face down, waiting for the fish to come along and embrace me with their company.  I kept an eye on the floating island the entire time, and quickly noticed that I was drifting away from it at a pretty rapid speed.  Ok, no problem, just start swimming back and it will be fine.  I swam so hard and didn’t move an inch forward.  I was moving backwards, away from the boat.  Crap, this isn’t good.  I need help.  A man hollered over the edge, “Are you okay?  Do you need help?”  I shook my head no.  I wasn’t going to tell someone I couldn’t swim!  I paddled harder, breathing deep and strong through my snorkel.  I looked up and saw that the man was no longer at the edge of the island.  I hoped someone could see me, to see that I was drifting away, the current simply too strong for my little arms and legs to fight.  I kept swimming and out of the blue, Scotty from the edge of the island showed up.  He had a floating ring and told me to get inside.  He hollered to the edge of the island and an employee threw over another ring – you know, the orange emergency rings – that was tied to the island itself.  The employee – Cory – also jumped in to my rescue.  The three of us swam – well, at this point, they swam and drug me along – the short distance back to the island, fighting what they told me afterwards were some of the strongest currents they had seen in months.  So for the rest of the afternoon, Cory committed to being my dedicated swimming companion.  And…I had to wear a life jacket in the water too…

The thing about traveling with a good friend – a best friend – is that there is so much laughter, so much joy, so much time just being together.  The late nights, the goofiness, the months of catching up, it’s all something that I can’t put into words.  Nicole and I had a lot of down time in Fiji, taking our mornings to sip coffee and chat, or enjoying the patio at our AirBNB late into the evening, counting the frogs that would come out as the sun set.  There was a perfect amount of culture mixed in with just spending time together.

About halfway through our trip, we had a village tour booked.  We met our two drivers who drove with us for over two hours into the countryside of Fiji, into the Navala Village.  We stopped at a roadside stand and had a few different types of Indian sweets.  There is a large number of Indians in Fiji from the indentured labor years ago, and thus, the influence of Indian culture is prominent and beautiful.  The sweets we had were overwhelming, like pure sugar, and we finished them with dried green peas covered in strong spice.  It sounds odd but it was the perfect combination.

We also stopped at a McDonald’s – yes, a McDonald’s – for coffee and a toilet break.  There are two McDonald’s in Fiji and they are known as the ‘US Embassy’ according to the locals.  Not sure what to take from that but interesting none the less.

Our two guides – one a driver, one a passenger – played a game of finding guava trees along the road on the drive.  They were experts at this and would pull over whenever they found one, pulling fresh guava off the trees.  Now I’ve had guava many times before, but never fresh from the tree.  I took a bite, immediately spitting out the skin which was quite bitter, and attempted to get to the fresh pink part of the fruit.  I’ve never been a big fan of guava, and it turns out it’s no different in Fiji.  It’s just not for me.  But the game itself was entertaining, or it was until our driver was stung by a hornet, at which point it came to an end for the rest of the trip.

Once we reached the village, we were escorted to the Chief’s home.  The people in the villages live in moderately sized huts.  There were grown adults showering right outside.  “There’s no modesty here,” our guide explained as we saw every bit of these grown adults bathing.

Inside the huts was a portioned off section where each family would sleep, most right on the floor that was made of palm tree leaves, and in the far corner opposite of the bedroom was a wood burning stove for food.  We sat right in the middle of the Chief’s hut, which smelled mildly of urine, on the floor, in a circle.  Our guide handed two small bags of kava and 50 Fijian dollars to the Chief who then proceeded to close his eyes and chant over the kava and money.

Kava is the root of a plant that is sun dried and ground to a powder.  Once ground, it’s mixed together with water and drank.  It produces a calming effect and makes the mouth and tongue go numb.  All of this is done at a Kava Ceremony, which is what we were experiencing.  The Chief chanting was his welcome to us, and once he finished, he handed the bags of kava to a woman and two men on the opposite side of the circle.  They started mixing the kava with water and filtering it through what looked like an old t-shirt where the liquid fell into a large circle bowl that sat in the middle of us all.  All the while, there were two men playing guitar and singing.

Once the kava mix was completed, I was asked, “Do you want low-tide (half a bowl) or high-tide (a full bowl)?”  I opted for high-tide – why not jump right on in – and was handed a coconut shell full of brown liquid.  I clapped once, said ‘Bula,’ and attempted to drink the kava.  It tastes exactly like muddy water and I couldn’t get it all down in one big gulp.  Everyone was watching me and waiting their turn.  In a Kava Ceremony, everyone drinks from the same bowl in alternating turns.  I eventually managed, and within seconds, my mouth was numb.  The small coconut shell was filled and passed around several times as each person consumed the kava.  It came around two more times to me, although I opted for low-tide on the future servings.  Once the kava was gone, the villagers sang and played music for us again.  Nicole and I both debated on whether it was the kava that made us so feel so calm or if it was just simply being up in the mountains, away from everything and everyone, listening to music while sitting on the floor that gave us a sense of relaxation.

Once the kava experience ended, all-in-all about a two-hour ordeal, we ventured over to the village school.  By this point, it had been raining pretty heavily and everything was very muddy outside.  Our driver attempted to push me through the hills over to the school, but the mud was so thick and so wet that we couldn’t get far.  He eventually brought the car over to me and I got in with roughly four pounds of thick, smelly mud caked to my wheels.  Honestly, it’s been a week and I’m still finding remnants of the village mud on my chair.

Anyway, we got to the school and the children immediately welcomed us.  The smiles, the energy, the excitement.  The joy that these children protruded was tremendous.  The minute I pulled my phone out for a picture, they were there, gathering together with peace symbols and rock and roll hand signs.  Their smiles were big and the attention that Nicole and I got from them is simply heartwarming.  I will never forget the mere 20 minutes we spent at that school; it was most definitely my favorite part of Fiji.

Our drive back to Nadi (the big city) was long.  By now, we had spent most of the day on dirt roads, bouncing up and down, and were on cultural overload.  Or…perhaps the kava was relaxing us?  Our guides insisted on stopping at a local market for some fresh bananas, mangos, and pineapples.  Like most tropical places I’ve been, the locals always believe that their country has the best fruit.  We were so full at this point but packaged up the fruit for later that week.  And when we got back to our AirBNB, we just sat, taking the time to process the overwhelmingly beautiful day with locals from Fiji.  And for me, to process the smiles those children gave me…every single one of them.

The thing about a really good friend is that they will know when you don’t want to do something, even if you are trying your best to hide it.  So when we got to the Sobeto Mud Baths the next day and the staff wanted me to sit on a folding chair, cover myself in mud, and let three random men carry me, half naked and vulnerably covered in mud, to the thermal springs, Nicole firmly said, “Don’t.  You don’t have to do that.”  And I didn’t.  I didn’t let three strange men put their hands all over me, and I didn’t sit on the chair that they insisted I sit on.  I did it my way.  A way that I felt comfortable, in my own wheelchair, without strange men touching me.

We covered ourselves in black smelly mud, waited about 20 minutes for it to dry, and then proceeded to the various thermal springs to rinse off and get our skin ready for our hour-long massages.  Locals from a nearby village ran the mud baths, and the massages they did were some of the absolute best ever.  I’m not sure where they got their training, if at all, but they knew what they were doing, and the oil they used was smooth and perfect, although not the best smelling.  The entire ordeal – mud baths and massages – was about $45 US dollars, and an experience that I truly have never had elsewhere.

That evening, we did a sunset cruise over the Pacific, and by the time we finished, I had convinced Nicole that we needed to check out the karaoke bar near our AirBNB.  We had driven by the karaoke bar dozens of times and I kept joking that we were going to go.  I don’t think Nicole thought I would actually tell the taxi driver to bring us there, but a few minutes later our driver was telling Kenny to ‘keep an eye’ on us and make sure we made it home.  The karaoke bar itself was not a place frequented by tourists.  We were the only non-Fijians in the bar and Kenny obviously knew something we didn’t.  He stood by our side the entire time we were there, which ended up going into the wee hours of the morning.  He was well over six feet tall and at least 250 pounds.  Seriously, though, who goes to a karaoke bar turned nightclub and immediately gets their own private security?

After a few songs where I serenaded Nicole and the other locals, and many hours of dancing with the locals, we made our way home.  Kenny found us a taxi and we finally got into bed around 2 am.  For reference, I rarely do this, but when in the South Pacific…

We had a boat trip over to a small island the next day where we would lay by the white sand and clear waters.  It was everything we needed after our overindulgent night before.  And on our last night in Fiji, we had dinner at one of the restaurants we had visited half a dozen times before.  The staff knew us by now, and we felt like family.  The ‘Bulas’ were flying around and they knew what we would order.  We sat by the water, small bits of rain coming and going, and just chatted about life.  We talked about relationships in our lives – the tough ones, the painful ones, the people that have hurt us.  We listened to each other and understood each other.  Like any good conversation, it went on for hours, and we again found ourselves in the wee hours of the morning, soaking up the last minutes we had, so grateful that we had this week to spend together, supporting each other, and having too much fun together.

We had a 24-hour stopover in Auckland, New Zealand before we would finally head back to America.  As soon as we landed, the island vibe was gone.  We were in a big city, a developed country, where we wore jeans and jackets.  There were no more Bulas or coconuts or Fijian smiles.  Our time in Fiji had come to an end.

We explored Auckland, finding little cafes on the side streets, drinking long black coffees out of mugs, something that we didn’t do much of in Fiji.  We had fresh vegetables – oh so good – since the water was safe to drink again.  We had a few beers at the oldest pub in Auckland.  And we ended our trip on a perfect note, not hating each other but ready to go home.

Nicole and I are drastically different, and most people would ask how we are even friends.  But we have a mutual respect for each other.  We trust each other and are there for each other.  It’s been six months since I started my sabbatical, and she has consistently told me to just enjoy this, to stop worrying about what I will do when I’m done.  I needed this positive reinforcement.  We all do.  We all need that person in our lives who is in our corner, trusting us and encouraging us to ‘just live.’  We all need that person who will go to a nightclub in the middle of Fiji, the only white people there, just having a fantastic time, singing and dancing along.  We all need that person who we can share our lives with, however hectic, crazy, scary, and fun it might be.

I have officially passed the 6-month mark of my sabbatical beginning.  It hit me one morning in Fiji.  I hadn’t thought about my job or working or what my future holds in a few days.  I cannot for the life of me believe that it took me this long to let go of that part of my life, something that was all consuming for me for so many years.  Six months and I finally don’t feel connected to that part of my life anymore.  All of that has brought a peace to me, and something inside of me is giving me a sense that big things are on the horizon.  I’m not pushing the feeling or trying to force it, but I suddenly feel like everything is going to work out in my next career…whatever it might be.  Perhaps it just took that much time, or perhaps I needed this month in the South Pacific.  It’s always the unexpected that gets me.  I’m coming back from a month where I truly thought I was just counting countries but it unexpectedly changed me.  I’m at a place that is so much more peaceful.  I’m happier.  I’m content.

So Vi’naka.  This means Thank You in Fiji.  Vi’naka to my South Pacific Islands.  You are everything I needed and in the most unexpected ways, so much more.

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