Elizabeth the Island Enthusiast

a celebration of unconventional adventures

Tag: Tropical Travel (page 1 of 3)

Back.

Well, it’s been a little over 6 months since I last posted, and a little over 4 weeks since I returned to the states after a remarkable year abroad.

I used to think long-term travel was just something I needed to ‘get out of my system,’ or I would somehow feel content with carrying on with normality after finally doing so.

The biggest thing I’ve learned? None of that is the case.

All I’ve been able to think about since returning (with the exception of the solid 2 weeks I spent sleeping off jetlag and fatigue) is when can I do it again


I feel no obligation to offer any sort of explanation as to why I’ve neglected posting for so long, other than this: life happens, and sometimes you just need to live. And nothing else.

There are so many stories I want to tell. I’m in the process of pondering the best possible method to share these stories with the world, and when I do, it’ll be my greatest accomplishment thus far.

Following my dreams is significantly harder than I could have ever imagined, but when I think of the alternative, I’m glad I took a chance to break free a year ago. Things are far from perfect, but at least I feel confident I’m on the right path.

One of the many glorious sunsets I witnessed while in Sydney, Australia

Although I’m not currently traipsing about internationally, much to my chagrin, I’m going to finally start posting about the destinations I visited since Thailand, which include places in every continent except Antarctica and South America.

I can’t wait to share my adventures with you. Get excited.

How to Slow Down Time

Thankfully, I’ve enjoyed the vast majority of my travels so far.

But, sometimes you get a super weird Airbnb rental. Or just make a plain bad decision of where to spend two-and-a-half weeks.

In my case, both.

Understandably, it’s hard to know if you’ll like a place prior to visiting. I had numerous people tell me one week was far too long to spend in Langkawi, Malaysia, and that Penang was a totally appropriate for a more extended stay.

Honestly, I couldn’t disagree more, but that could also just be because Langkawi Island’s just more my ‘style’.

Even though by the end of my terrific week in Langkawi I felt excited to move onto the next destination, I can’t help but miss it. That could also be because the greater part of my time in Penang so far has been just… Weird.

CenangBeachSunset

I’ll start by saying the general ambiance of Penang Island is vastly different than Langkawi, where I found myself quite at home, perhaps because of its relaxed, beachy vibe reminiscent of Fiji.

Penang has struck me as much more ‘urban’ than Langkawi, teeming with high-rise condo buildings and massive hotels lining the beach (not unlike Surfers Paradise, Australia). Uncannily enough, Uber exists here in Penang (I’ve used it twice already – and it was bizarrely convenient).

My first five days were spent in the beachside town of Batu Ferringhi, located on the northeastern side of the island. I refuse to completely label the area as “sketch,” as there are some upscale, nice-looking beachfront resorts in the vicinity, but frankly, I was ready to get the hell out of there.

I stayed in what has to be one of the most horridly awkward Airbnb arrangements out there: a tiny room situated in a high-rise condominium complex overlooking the sea (I’ll admit, the views were outstanding). At first glance upon arrival, the building appeared lovely, until I couldn’t help but notice the inexplicably charred vehicle rusting away in the parking lot, not far from the main entrance. Well that’s odd.

CharredBatuFerringhiCar

Between that and the very creepy, unwarranted compliments from my Airbnb host in regards to my underwear while trying to do laundry that evening, I just wanted to go home.

Ah right, but I don’t technically have a home… This island was supposed to become my ‘home’ for the remainder of the month… Awesome…

Ultimately, that Airbnb experience spooked me enough to shorten my reservation at the Airbnb I’d booked in George Town, which turned out to be a fantastic idea – but also meant I’d have to figure out new plans for the remainder of my trip in Malaysia.

BatuFerringhiView

The nice, sweeping sea views from my first Airbnb arrangement in Penang

The nice, sweeping sea views from my first Airbnb arrangement in Penang

Despite having the new Airbnb unit entirely to myself (and even though it was in an old, historically charming hotel, which I normally love) it ended up not having many of the ‘vital’ amenities advertised… Such as basic wireless internet access… Which makes it exceedingly difficult if you’re trying to be productive or communicate with, well, anyone…

When it’s very very hot, I truly don’t mind a cold shower – in Fiji I actually learned to enjoy cold showers. However, when in a room equipped with a well functioning air conditioning system chronically set to a brisk 16 degrees Celsius, cold showers are not terribly pleasant in any way, shape or form.

The air conditioning in that unit worked so well, I soon realized my drinks became the same temperature kept both in and out of the mini-fridge.

Now that I’ve kissed my Malaysia Airbnb venture goodbye, I find myself in an all-girls hostel dormitory, alternating Coke Zeros and Tiger beers on an empty stomach during daylight in feeble yet questionable efforts to stay cool, frugal, calm, and barely awake.

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The streets of George Town, Penang

In a strange way, as much as I’ve been complaining lately, the last couple weeks have really forced me to slow down a little. I’d forgotten how easy it is to fall into a routine, even if that routine is moving to a new location every few days.

Monotony, in my opinion – especially the monotony of merely living out the hours in an uncomfortable or miserable circumstance – makes life fly by too quickly; monotony allows entire precious days, weeks, months, or years of life to just slip by in the blink of an eye, offering nothing new or enticing to catch or keep the mind’s attention.

I recall months spent in my old apartment depressed, just sitting there, because that was easier than doing anything to feel better.

To be candid, I had hauntingly similar moments sitting alone in my Airbnb room this past week. There were times I felt sadly content sitting on my internet-less laptop while drowning my sorrows in overpriced beer and green tea Kit-Kats from the 7-11 downstairs, somewhat regretting my decision to migrate to a hostel days later. I’d have to pack my stuff up, drag it three whole blocks, and deal with the inconvenience of sharing personal space with people I don’t know.

No, it’s not a perfect situation – the locals residing across the street apparently enjoy setting off a variety of frightful pyrotechnics after dark, and my dorm bed is so stuffy and hot at night I’ve basically been having fever dreams. But, it’s been a much-needed change of pace.

I can’t just sit in bed doing nothing but eating Kit-Kats anymore. Not only am I fairly certain it’s technically against the hostel’s rules, all the chocolate would surely melt, and I would definitely suffocate. The only purpose that bed serves is being unconscious.

BatuFerringhi

I guess my point is… It’s not Penang’s fault I’ve had a less than stellar experience. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I have no idea what to expect moving forward, either, moving onward into further, greater unknowns.

Penang very well could have been somewhere I’d desire creating a routine for myself; I’ve felt that way about several places I’ve visited. It just wasn’t. And that’s okay.

Now I know.

The Most Treacherous Ferry Ride Ever (Not)

I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about inter-island ferry rides.

In particular, the ferry ride between Penang and Langkawi Island, Malaysia.

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After spending a week on Malaysia’s Langkawi Island, I decided I’d travel via ferry over to the island of Penang. I’m completely aware that yes, arguably taking a plane would have been faster and not that much more expensive, but I’ve taken a lot of planes recently, and I was in the mood for a nautical adventure.

When disclosing my sea-travel plans over dinner one night to others at the hostel in Langkawi, however, I received an array of daunting responses – apparently this ferry ride was THE worst transport experience EVER:

People just puking everywhere; well over half the boat was puking, I’d say. It was like a rollercoaster in slow motion. If you do go, make sure you sit in the back of the boat, otherwise you’ll vomit for SURE, even with medication for motion sickness… Really, it’s probably best you just look into taking a flight.

This sounded worse than the treacherous and draining overnight 24-hour ferry trek between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, Fiji, which I’d purposely avoided during my time there.

One girl ranted for a solid five minutes about reportedly getting bedbugs after taking this ferry ride.

“Really?” I asked, “did they get into your luggage, or where?”

“No, I found one in my bra,” she responded, clearly distressed. “But it definitely came from that boat!”

“Lucky bedbug,” sneered one of the girl’s male friends seated at the table with us.

“Ughhhh oh my god, shut uppp!!

*For the record – this was the same girl with the questionable story about a crocodile sighting earlier that same day, so in either case I figured I’d take whatever she said with a grain of salt…

LangkawiIslandMalaysiaSecludedBeachLangkawiIsland

Maybe I just got really lucky. Perhaps they had taken the ferry ride in the midst of a violent storm. Or, maybe the route from Penang to Langkawi endures significantly more turbulence than the route from Langkawi to Penang.

I don’t know.

I went into the journey expecting the absolute worst: sickness and filth everywhere; incessant vomiting; nothing but flea-ridden old mattresses to sit on; the dank essence of human anguish and despair lingering in the musty, unventilated air…

At check-in, I was given a slip of paper with my seat number – #41 – oh they give you an assigned seat? That’s nice. I prayed it was towards the back.

Instead, seat #41 was actually near the very front of the boat. This made me a smidge nervous. At least it was a window seat. It’ll be okay, this is why I didn’t eat much lunch today…

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As soon the boat began to depart from the jetty, I couldn’t help but notice half the passengers begin to switch seats – in particular those situated near the front, migrating way towards the back. The cautious American couple previously seated in front of me, neck pillows in tow, seemed the most urgent.

Uh oh, perhaps they heard the same stories…

Suddenly the boat lurched forward, sending the bow upwards and then down with an adrenaline-surging WOOSH. My heart and stomach leaped into my chest for a millisecond. I held onto my seat for dear life. I would have closed my eyes, if it weren’t for the spectacular views out the window…

LangkawiPenangFerryViewsIslandFerryViews

But then there was nothing. I’d been told this ferry felt like a haphazardous speed boat.

Is this the correct vessel?

I looked outside. Smooth, smooth seas, as far as the eye could see…

Maybe we just haven’t gotten far enough out yet, I thought to myself. The massive, vomit-inducing waves were in more remote areas, surely.

Still nothing.

“The Jungle Book” DVD began to play on a large flat screen TV up front. Some of the passengers lay down on entire rows to themselves and fell asleep.

A faint rumbling sound caught my attention. Oh no…

Alas, nope, no one was retching. Just somebody snoring in back, likely lulled into a deep, deep slumber by the boat’s gentle side-to-side rocking motion, which I’d barely noticed up until that point.

Was this seriously the same boat ride?

SlumberingFerryPassengers

Between the movie and the excellent exterior scenery, my entertainment involved observing the drowsy man in the seat in front of me, who nodded off and on, snapping awake every few minutes after slumping down too far to the side. A reddish-brown insect causally climbed up over his shoulder onto the headrest in front of me.

Oh dear, I thought, is that the bedbug? From what I knew about bedbugs, this creature appeared a bit too big, but I felt disconcerted anyways. Until it flew away.

Bedbugs don’t fly, do they?

I’m still not entirely certain what that thing was, but due to my lack of bites, I’m going to trust it was not in fact a bedbug… Thank freaking goodness.

SmoothSailingMalaysiaIslands

Apparently there was a party in the water at the George Town, Penang jetty... Balloons everywhere!

Apparently there was a party in the water at the George Town, Penang jetty… Balloons everywhere!

So yeah, by the end of three lackadaisical hours and two DVDs, I was ready to be off the boat. But overall? I thought it was a genuinely pleasant journey.

Would it likely have been much worse filled to capacity in hurricane-like conditions? No doubt.

Again, I’m pretty sure I got EXTREMELY lucky. But hey, no complaints here!

LangkawiIslandFlowers

Langkawi Adventures: Attacked at ‘Bunny Zone’

Sometimes, you meet an awesome new friend on an airplane.

I was fortunate enough to meet such a friend on my flight to Langkawi Island, Malaysia: Alberto from Barcelona, who served as an excellent adventure partner for exploring the island and all its wonders (apologies again, Alberto, for the child kicking your seat the entire trip…).

The night before embarking on our first island expedition, some British girls from Alberto’s hostel enlightened us over dinner about an apparent crocodile sighting earlier that day near the Seven Wells waterfalls, exclaiming “its tail was larger than this table, we swear!!

After viewing their photo of said “crocodile,” I can safely conclude it was, in fact, likely a moderately-sized Malaysian monitor lizard.

I’d just been to Australia Zoo and seen Bindi Irwin’s crocodile show less than two weeks before, so I felt fairly skeptical of this story from the start. But, considering this poor girl had rushed herself to a medical clinic earlier that day to get antibiotics for a potentially fatal mosquito bite, I didn’t bother informing her otherwise.

LangkawiIslandPalms

I’ve always been trepidatious about traveling via motorbike, but Alberto seemed seasoned enough as a driver, and I will rarely say no to any offer to thoroughly explore an island. So, I hopped on board, trusting Alberto with my life and sincerely hoping I wouldn’t fall off.

Ultimately, I decided after surviving the third torrential flash rainstorm within thirty minutes, that things would turn out just fine – even despite the hordes of ferocious monkeys and “baby crocodiles” spotted both alive and flattened along the side of the road.

When this monkey yawned, it had enormous fangs...

When this monkey yawned, it had enormous fangs…

One violent mini-rainstorm forced us to take cover under a shed adjacent to what appeared to be an exotic, secluded island community, not even initially realizing this was actually Oriental Village, boasting a variety of famed Langkawi Island tourist attractions such as SkyCab, SkyRex and Imaginarium, a “visual treat from start to finish” as touted by the Panorama Langkawi website.

Not exactly knowing what existed beyond the parking lot, thank heavens Alberto and I decided to wander inside once the rain stopped – as soon as we crossed over the ‘bridge of prosperity’ through what I’m guessing was the ‘river of whimsy,’ we found ourselves in some sort of kitschy amusement park, teeming with ads inviting us to “take a ride inside your mind and travel to the ends of your imagination” with “virtual and augmented reality”!

Oh my.

LangkawiIslandOrientalVillageBridgeOfProsperityLangkawiIslandOrientalVillage

SkyCab, Langkawi’s own mountain gondola, loudly hummed in the background, adding an oddly disorienting ski resort-esque element to the already overstimulating environment as it ascended up the side of the peak into a looming cloud of mist.

If it hadn’t been for the copious flash monsoons that day, taking the SkyCab ride might have been a fun idea, as I’m sure the views from the top are incredible. But, no way were we going to pay 45 RM per person for scenic glimpses of a dark raincloud. Plus, after surveying the ticketing options at the “kiosk of happiness” (as I think it was aptly called), we learned there was no option to buy a ride for the SkyCab alone – no, the least expensive option also included a semi-mandatory stop at the SkyRex simulator, where guests were strongly encouraged to “Experience The Tense And Excitement Of The Real Life Adventure”.

This just did not seem necessary. No, not in the slightest.

OrientalVillageVirtualRealityNotQuiteSkyRex

We wandered around a bit more, debating whether or not to move onto the next point of interest, before noticing an intriguing sign: “BUNNY ZONE”

It was just what the sign described – a sizable fenced-off zone teeming with bunnies, tentatively interacting with visitors chasing them down for a selfie.

Just before walking off laughing, in particular from the creepily illustrated bunny-handling instructions, we noticed a very important phrase: free entrance.

Well then in that case, we obviously had to check this out!

LangkawiBunnyZoneOrientalVillageBunnyZoneBunnyZoneBunnyHandlingInstructions

In short, wandering Bunny Zone felt like entering a bizarre Easter extravaganza, complete with ample lovely pastel-colored flowers everywhere (albeit according to Alberto, the Easter Bunny thing isn’t at all prevalent in Spain, or probably elsewhere but the United States).

Some bunnies were enormous; large enough I’d refer to them as ‘rabbits’ rather than ‘bunnies’. The littlest baby bunnies remained in happily their cages next to their overflowing bowls of kibble. One bunny lay seemingly lifeless in the sun off to the side, flopped over in a disconcerting state of unconsciousness (rest assured – we made sure it was in fact breathing).

I couldn’t help but notice the majority of the bunnies appeared related to one another.

BunnyZoneSkyCabInsideBunnyZoneAlbertoAndBunnyMoreBunnyZoneChilledOutBunniesHelloLangkawiBunnies

The bunnies would approach, tentatively, if you knelt down with a hand extended, perhaps sniffing for food, before hopping off to gnaw on a flower stalk, or to sniff other hands. They seemed to take a liking to Alberto much more than me.

This especially proved to be the case when I extended my hand toward what we determined was the cutest, most cuddly bunny in the whole park: a fuzzy white albino snuggled up under a blossoming tree, which didn’t hesitate advancing – but rather than giving me a quick nuzzle as expected, however, the creature BIT my middle finger before prancing off.

OW! What the… What the hell!?? What do I do!? Should I get antibiotics? Do I go get a rabies shot? Does that thing have rabies? How can you tell?? Think I can just get by with a good douse of neosporin? What the damn hell…!?

CuteYetFerociousBunnies

Langkawi is home to deadly crocodiles, monkeys with fangs, mighty eagles, bats, cockroaches, and a host of other welt-inducing creepy-crawlies, but what attacked me?

A darling little bunny.
Figures.

LangowiIslandOrientalVillageRiverFangedLangkawiMonkey

**For the record, my middle finger survived the bunny bite and is doing quite well – I appreciate all the kind words and concerns.

10 ‘Truly Essential’ Travel Essentials

I’ve been adrift almost 3 solid months now (WEIRD!), and at this point I’m starting to realize what ‘travel essentials’ are actually, well, essential.

Not long ago I wrote a somewhat sarcastic post about some of my lesser-practical ‘essential’ items (including but not limited to my large TempurPedic pillow and constantly-exploding oversized jugs of Aveda shampoo) I’m happily dragging along with me.

While yes, that pillow has caused me a few issues in terms of my luggage weight and the shampoo bottles keep exploding in flight, arguably I *could* do without them (granted the one night I decided to try a hotel pillow I awoke the next day with awful neck cramps… I digress).

Here are ten things I’ve personally found truly essential, and probably won’t travel without again:

FLIGHT0014-in-1Adapter

1. FLIGHT 001 4-in-1 Adapter. This little device is fabulous – it’s small, portable, and color-coded to make it simple for easily confused people (like me) to figure out what power adapter is required for what region. So far, this adapter has worked brilliantly with everything I’ve needed to charge – I also have a slightly more cumbersome adapter that doubles as a power converter, but really haven’t needed the conversion function.

ApricotArganOils

2. Apricot and Argan Oils. I know these aren’t at all necessary for everyone, but as someone who often deals with very dry skin and hair, I’m VERY happy to have these with me!

CoconutTonerFaceSpray

3. Coconut Water Face Spray. Works great as a toner; works great if my face feels parched and merely needs a hydrating ‘pick-me-up’. Again, not necessary for everyone, but I certainly appreciate it!

CetaphilGentleSkinCleansingWipes

4. Facial Cleansing Wipes. I enjoy having a clean face (don’t we all), and there are plenty of occasions I don’t have time to properly wash my face (such as when I’m running out the door at 4:00 am to catch an early-morning flight). Cetaphil is the only brand I’ve found that makes facial cleansing wipes that actually make my face feel genuinely clean and refreshed… Still prefer a good wash with my Clarisonic facial brush, but that can be difficult in a hurry!

AustraliaMacadamiaOilCream

5. Macadamia Oil Cream. To be honest, I just found this macadamia cream on sale in the check-out line at a Target store while trying to find some new lotion on my first day back in Australia, but I LOVE IT! Smells awesome, makes my skin incredibly soft, and the tub-like container conveniently doesn’t explode in my checked suitcase…

NewMalaysiaGlasses

6. ALL Doctor Prescription Notes of Every Kind. This one is probably obvious, but I keep the original doctors’ notes and all documentation for every single medical prescription on me at ALL times, including optical prescriptions…

This was particularly handy when I decided to buy a new pair of eyeglasses my first day in Malaysia (to finally replace my old pair that’d been very broken for over a year…). I didn’t even have to bother with an eye exam – I had all the documents they needed regarding my vision on me, so my new glasses were ready within 20 minutes after purchasing the frames (and for the record, the price of my new frames PLUS the lenses cost less in Malaysia than the lousy rebate from my old vision insurance company, not to mention a fraction of the total cost back home… and in my opinion, the product I got here is significantly better quality)!

HeadphonesAndMiniSpeaker

7. Wireless Headphones. Seriously, the wireless part is awesome… Nobody likes getting tangled up in cords and wires, especially when long hair is involved. But, when these headphones do inevitably run out of batteries, they come with a regular connecter cord (or whatever the proper name of that thing is…). Plus, the rose gold hue matches half my stuff!

8. Mini Portable Speaker. Again, the wireless part is awesome, but the sound quality on this one is surprisingly good too… I always love being able to play the music of my choice out loud in my hotel room (or wherever I’m staying), and this little mini blue speaker is small enough I can take it anywhere!

RollsRoyceOfEyeMasks

9. The ‘Rolls Royce’ of Eye Masks. I bought mine a few years ago at the airport right before a long-haul flight to Scandinavia, and it basically feels like a wonderful PILLOW on my face… All I remember is choosing to invest in the slightly nicer eye mask (versus one of those standard, er, flat ones) and I’m so glad I did – it blocks out virtually all light, meaning I can have sleep-worthy darkness no matter the time of day, and create a sense of privacy no matter the sleeping circumstance! To me, that’s priceless.

10. Multiple Notebooks, Journals, & Planners. Considering I’m a writer, this is hopefully self-explanatory… I take tons of notes on my iPhone too, but honestly it’s so much nicer being able to physically write down my random thoughts and ideas, as opposed to thumbing away on my partially-cracked touch screen while fighting an endless, infuriating silent battle with auto-correct…

Additionally, I’ve gotten in the habit of documenting my travel itinerary plans in numerous locations and forms – let’s just say it pays off to have hand-written hotel addresses and directions when the airport doesn’t have free wifi to access all the necessary info in my gmail account!

LillyPulitzerNotebookAndPlanner

2 Lessons Learned in Australia

The last couple weeks have been weird, to say the least.

A month ago I was in Fiji, semi-freaking out about what exactly I was going to do next.

Seven days ago I was in Australia, just being rescued from the tawdriness that is Surfers Paradise, Queensland, another story I really ought to save for another time (this is why I want to write books – I have all these great stories, but they’re a little long-winded for blog posts!).

And now here I am in Kuala Lumpur, after spending just over 24 hours in Singapore, coming to the realization that I have a long, long journey ahead of me.

But I’m not complaining, really – this is exactly the kind of weirdness I’d like to have in my life.

Whenever I start to panic these days, I just think: okay, would I rather be where I am now, coping with the exhausting overstimulation of constantly adjusting to new places, or bored out of my mind and landlocked?

Right.

BurleighHeadsQueensland

I’m acutely aware I have not posted much recently, in part because that bout of strep throat essentially drained me.

Also, for lack of better words, my trip to Australia was a bit of a hot mess.

To sum it up right now (because I have a great deal of exploring requiring my attention today), here are two very very important lessons I learned while in Australia (apart from being glad I carried along a hearty stash of azithromycin, among other things):

1. Bring my bikini everywhere. There were multiple occasions I wished I had my swimsuit on me but sadly didn’t, such as when I stumbled upon the awesome random man-made beach in South Bank, Brisbane and ended up doing an impromptu beach day in Burleigh Heads, Gold Coast (the latter of which did result in a noticeable sundress tan line).

Fortunately, I found a fantastic beer garden to hang out at (with free popcorn!) right by the beach in South Bank…

StumblingUponSouthBankBeachSouthBankBeachBrisbaneSouthBankBeerGarden

2. PLAN AHEAD, DAMNIT. I went into my almost-three weeks in Australia with virtually no plans, which according to some was a ‘very Australian thing to do’. While I see some value in this (because spontaneity is terrific, and arguably having zero plans is a lot less expensive), I’ve found having at least SOME sort of an idea what the hell I’m going to do with myself helps tremendously… Perhaps this is just a matter of personal preference, but I’m really not a fan of not knowing in advance where I’m going to sleep that night, or when approximately I’m moving from point A to B. I’m all for leaving ample room for flexibility though!

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Trouble in Paradise [Guest Post]

Even though I’ve been enjoying myself in Australia (apart from the strep throat), I haven’t stopped thinking about my incredible nine weeks spent volunteering in Fiji.

To provide some more context, my fellow globe-trotting friend Sarah of Enrichmentality has kindly written a fantastic guest post – I had the pleasure of getting to know Sarah and her husband Simon during our volunteer placement in Fiji, and they were actually there when Cyclone Winston hit the islands this past February.

Read on for Sarah’s harrowing retelling of her first-hand experience (and be sure to check out her website for excellent money-related knowledge!)

TroubleInParadise

There are, apparently, 15 words for ‘heaven’ in the Fijian language – one of which is ‘yasawa’. And the Yasawa Islands, Fiji are certainly the closest thing to paradise I’ve experienced.

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Earlier this year, we were in Fiji with family when Cyclone Winston struck. We were out in the Yasawas, staying at the wonderful Naqalia Lodge and enjoying a Fijian dinner by kerosene lantern light, when the resort manager handed us two weather reports – one out of the country’s capital, Suva, and one out of the nearest city, Nadi.

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Each predicted a different path for the cyclone: one heading to Nadi, one heading to the Yasawas.

We had to make a choice – try to get on the evacuation ferry (which could be full by the time it got to us) and take our chances trying to find appropriate shelter on the mainland in Nadi.

Or, we could stay where we were, in the Yasawas, with the caveat that if Cyclone Winston did indeed hit Fiji and do a lot of damage (as it ultimately did), we could be stranded.

Deciding to take our chances with the boat, after a very rough ride, one injury, and a broken camera, we were back on the mainland, thanks to the extraordinarily skillful work of the various resort workers who managed to transfer terrified passengers from tiny boats onto the ferry in extremely choppy water.

Note the waves coming up over the side of the boat – this is the third floor deck!

Note the waves coming up over the side of the boat – this is the third floor deck!

We managed to find shelter in a dorm room at the hotel we had previously been staying at, and after a terribly windy night, awoke to debris everywhere. Several days later, when we could get our hands on a newspaper, we read a lot of tragic stories of lives and homes and livelihoods lost.

But the pages of the Fiji Times were also filled with messages of support and hope and thanks – for the local and international donations and aid. From our room overlooking the airport, we watched supply-carrying government and military aircraft landing on a runway lit by the headlights of cars, since the power was still out.

We were so grateful for the running water, the food, and the roof over our heads that we enjoyed.

We felt extraordinarily lucky – as we should every day.

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We made a few donations and did what we could to help out with the clean up, trying to relive some pressure from the staff who had their own homes and families to worry about. But we wanted to be out helping in the worst affected areas – although we didn’t have any structure to offer a hand through, and we weren’t keen to be wandering around offering help when the country was under a curfew and emergency services were already pushed to their limits.

At that time, we decided that we’d like to go back and help out as soon as we were free of the constraints of our jobs, and so, two days after my final work commitment, we boarded a plane back to Fiji to begin our volunteering experience.

Seven months on, much of Fiji looks restored to its idyllic reputation. Although there remains much work to be done, and your support is still needed, Fiji remains a beautiful place to visit.

Please be sure to visit Sarah’s website at Enrichmentality.com!

Did I Help?

I cannot believe I’ve been away for over nine weeks now.

As my term in Fiji came to a close, I couldn’t help but stop to reflect on a few things…

SavusavuFijiPalmTree

For those who didn’t know, the primary purpose of my trip to Fiji was to assist those affected by Cyclone Winston devastation. I’d known for a while I wanted to return to Fiji after having the opportunity to visit last year, but hearing the news about Cyclone Winston back in February ultimately confirmed my decision.

My secondary reason for coming to Fiji was to escape the toxicity of my old life at home (I really don’t want to into it again, but I wrote a blog post kind of explaining the situation a while ago…).

Generally speaking, I was very unhappy and knew I needed to get away. My heart also ached for the people of Fiji, who had been so wonderful to me throughout my previous stay. I badly wanted to help, and shift my focus towards the needs of others, as my overall perspective on life was in serious need of a reality check – more or less, years upon years of perpetually ruminating on my “first-world problems” had turned me into a person I did not like very much.

Now that my volunteering program has ended, I find myself nine weeks later, with a dizzying array of thoughts running through my head – foremost, did I actually help?

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Sarah, a friend and fellow volunteer I met during my experience in Fiji, recently wrote a fantastic blog post on her website, Enrichmentality (please go check it out!), discussing questions all volunteers really should ask themselves, prior to and during their service.

How can I help? Why I am I doing this? Am I really helping?

How can I help?

In truth, my past two months involved a variety of situations – from enriching, memorable, and deeply moving to just plain unpleasant. I’ll admit, there were moments I weeped for the pleasant chill of an air conditioner, consistent internet access, hot showers, and many other mundane first-world luxuries I’d taken for granted. There were numerous occasions I had to question my own integrity; times I had to let go of all conceit and give selflessly; other times I had to walk away from a despairing circumstance, escorted by the pain realizing there was nothing I could do.

Did I help? Am I at all a better person than I was nine weeks ago?

Did I develop more contempt for the ants scurrying across the table than integrity for others, simply based on my longing for the world I came from?

I like to think my head’s in a significantly healthier place now than it was before traveling here, but this experience wasn’t entirely about me.

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With that said, I’ve learned a lot about myself the last nine weeks. Or rather, confirmed personality traits in myself a lot of folks wouldn’t consider terribly desirable.

After spending approximately an hour curating a stereotypical instagram “layout” photo of assorted stuff, meticulously arranging the items in a way I believed to be most aesthetically pleasing when I should have been packing for my early-morning flight, I can conclude that I’m fairly materialistic, if not vain. I’m also frivolous and an enormous procrastinator, seeing as I found great joy in taking photos of the contents in my suitcase, rather than promptly and responsibly organizing them.

Even in spite of mailing another sizable box of clothes back home, I’m willing to bet my checked luggage is still utterly overweight.

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I like clothes. And shoes. And handbags. And clutches, and jewelry, and perfume, nail polish, fluorescent prints and all things that sparkle.

It occurred to me merely few days into my journey I did not pack nearly enough solid-colored clothing options (apart from jeans and leggings, I’m pretty sure the only solid-colored bottoms I have on me are two pairs of hot pink shorts). Oh well.

Honestly, it’s refreshing to let myself focus on something enjoyable. I want to live a blissful, passionate life in which I can wholeheartedly immerse myself in the raw euphoria of creating.

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I get sad a lot. There are times I’m ridden with crippling anxiety. Hell, I spent most of the past year absolutely paralyzed by my anxiety. Although I’ve miraculously conquered a number of fears in recent weeks, I’m still working to dig myself out of the massive, destructive emotional hole my mind spent years festering in.

Prior to dropping everything to travel, I never realized just how badly I’d prevent myself from having fun with my passions. For some reason the simple thought of enjoying myself made me break down in guilt and shame. I felt guilty about literally everything.

I felt beyond guilty leaving everything in my life behind, even while being fully aware if I didn’t leave, the self-inflicted deteriorating nature of my circumstances would destroy me completely.

I know I’m flawed.

Grossly flawed.

There are flaws I want to change, and others I’m learning to accept. I’ll always find myself drawn to visually pleasing objects, find joy in wearing debatably overpriced attire, and want to help make anything and everything I do as beautiful as possible. I tell people the biggest reason I eventually intend to own a home someday is because I can’t freaking wait to decorate it. I guess my point is I’m learning how to refrain from automatically getting down on myself for feeling unreasonably giddy when I think about Carleton Varney-inspired design concepts, versus how to end world hunger…

Trust me, I’ve pondered that too. I wish I were a better entrepreneur. I wish (desperately, at times) my mind fluently spoke the language of making money, so I could invent a brilliant and wildly prolific foundation to save the world’s children, build new homes and schools for the cyclone-affected people of Fiji, ward off all animal poachers, cure cancer, cease all war, and provide a thorough stellar education for everyone. It makes me happy to make others happy, but I’ve learned my true skills and passions may not necessarily translate into benevolence. That pains me.

However, I know from too many past experiences wallowing in anguish over being who I am simply does no good. Even despite being unsure about certain qualities in myself, and knowing with certainty individuals exist in this world that likely find my personality quirks totally repugnant, I’m finally starting to accept that’s fine. After all, what anyone else thinks is none of my business.

I’d like to try celebrating my weirdness, earthly flaws, and love of creativity. I want to be genuinely excited about life, and it feels so good to have gotten past the worst part – taking the first step away.

For far too long, excitement would translate directly into fear for me, and I’ve had enough.

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So did I help during my time in Fiji? I earnestly hope so… Fiji certainly helped me, in more ways than I can even fathom. But again, that experience wasn’t entirely about me. If I made a positive difference in anyone’s life while serving there, that’s what matters.

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I hope I helped make someone happier. Not only can I say my volunteering experience profoundly improved my life, I sincerely hope my work was able to enhance the lives of everyone I had the privilege of meeting during my stay. Even if only somewhat, at a very minimum.

Vinaka vakalevu, Fiji. You’ll always have a place in my heart.

Fiji Food Highlights

It’s probably apparent by now that food is not the focus of my blog.

But, while going through the photos from the past two months in Fiji, I did find some pictures of food here and there, mostly taken when I was either REALLY ravenous or particularly amused with its display. Or perhaps to savor the fond memory.

So, without further ado, here are the food highlights (or at least the photographed ones) from my time in Fiji!

Classic Fijian Sunday Brunch in Labasa – Fresh Fish with Coconut ‘Miti’

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Sunday is traditionally a day of rest in Fiji (pretty much all shops and restaurants in town are closed), so many families gather together for a nice big relaxing lunch.

The first Sunday I spent in Labasa, my host family prepared a DELICIOUS classic Fijian meal referred to as ‘miti,’ consisting of fresh fish (likely caught very close by in the plentiful fishing waters off Vanua Levu), taro, potatoes, onions and other veggies, drizzled in hot, freshly-made coconut milk (yes, they made the coconut milk fresh out of raw coconut while the fish cooked!).

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The finished masterpiece

The final masterpiece

Stumbling Upon a Kumquat Tree

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When I was in Taveuni, I noticed kumquat trees EVERYWHERE – they seemed ripe, so one day I picked a few from the tree growing right next to my bure. Wasn’t bad!

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Random Cake

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Evidently it was some kid’s birthday at the resort I stayed at on Taveuni Island, and because it was an ENORMOUS cake the resort had prepared for approximately three people, everyone at the restaurant got some! I think it was orange-flavored, and the frosting tasted amazing…

The Breakfasts

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Anyone who knows me well knows breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. That’s probably why I have so many breakfast and coffee photos (it also doesn’t hurt when the breakfast setting is absolutely GORGEOUS – who wouldn’t want to photograph their coffee and French press with a luscious tropical rainforest in the background?).

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The Smiling Mochas

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I encountered these cheerful beverages in Savusavu, Vanua Levu at the Copra Shed Captain’s Café, where I enjoyed a few meals on the water at the marina (can’t beat the views!!).

Mochas are my typical go-to coffee drink (for some reason they always seem to taste better while traveling), but the grinning foam at Captain’s Café was just a lovely whimsical bonus!

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Even if it didn’t have a smile, I noticed mochas and hot coffee drinks in Fiji frequently come with a complimentary cookie of some sort… Below is the rich chocolatey mocha I savored at Blue Ginger Café in Lautoka, Viti Levu, complete with miniature heart cookie:

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Fiji’s Take on a ‘Hawaiian’ Pizza

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It did have ham and pineapple, but please note the dollops of ketchup (more commonly referred to as simply ‘tomato sauce’ down here) in the center of each pineapple ring, along with the neat tomato-lined crust… I’ll give that presentation an 8 out of 10.

My Bus Lunch En Route to Suva

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There’s really nothing special about this meal. It’s just a cheese-and-Tabasco sandwich I whipped together before stumbling out of the house that morning before catching the 6:40 am express bus from Lautoka to Suva. But, it’s a good example of a lot of food I had during my stay in Fiji (especially the food I had to prepare myself – I am NOT a chef in the slightest).

And honestly, I was just shocked Sigatoka, Viti Levu had a geo-filter on Snapchat (where the bus was currently stopped when I decided to have my lunch)… Had to take a photo of something!

Savusavu: Fiji’s “Hidden Paradise”

Savusavu is an interesting place. An insanely beautiful place, too.

I know I say this about almost everywhere I’ve been in Fiji so far, but I already decided I need to return to Savusavu in order to spend true quality time there. Twenty four hours was not nearly enough in “the hidden paradise of Fiji” to uncover all its hidden gems!

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Let’s start at the beginning of the story: Saturday morning, it took every ounce of energy in me to force my disoriented self out of bed following a week of feverish sickness, before inhaling a bowl of sugar-drenched cornflakes and groggily making my way from the house down the pothole-ridden dirt road to the nearby bus stop, where I then caught a local bus to the main bus terminal in Labasa. The bus to Savusavu was apparently scheduled for 9:30 am, so I, sometimes being the over-planner that I am, boarded the bus the moment the doors opened in earnest attempts to grab a “good seat”.

Unlike the assorted bus options I’ve written about on Viti Levu, there’s really only one type of bus available on Vanua Levu: and you can bet it’s open air, musty, and un-air conditioned.

I enjoyed a row to myself on the sticky schoolbus-esque seats for approximately a third of the way to Savusavu, but for the majority of the two and a half-hour trip, the bus was overloaded probably three times its recommended capacity. That made it quite difficult to simply relax and admire the picturesque, oddly alpine-like scenery along the route, which twisted and turned, ascended and descended over Vanua Levu’s jagged mountain peaks, for the most part cutting straight through the middle of the island as opposed to its parameter.

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Albeit a gorgeous journey, I arrived in Savusavu sweaty, dehydrated, starving and slightly on-edge, not to mention completely dizzied by overstimulating panoramic views of the marina and bay, teeming with yachts and sailboats gliding across the smooth, shimmering water. It was overcast, but the sun still beat down heavily. I sincerely hoped I’d remembered to douse myself with sunscreen earlier that day.

I quickly realized I had no idea where I was going or what I was doing.

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One major thing I wish I’d done differently on this excursion (and this is always tricky): I wish I hadn’t sought accommodations for the night in advance.

I’d made a dodgy room arrangement at a place called the “Gecko Lodge,” a seedy motel more than 3 kilometers from town, which I mistakenly reserved online via Booking.com the night beforehand (since one of my biggest fears while traveling is not having a place to sleep when I get to my destination). In this case, and especially because it was just one night, I absolutely should have taken my chances finding good accommodations upon my arrival. I digress…

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Gecko Lodge did have very nice landscaping, and I do appreciate nice landscaping. I also appreciate a bed larger than twin-sized and a good air conditioning system. However, what I don’t appreciate is a cash-only payment system, particularly when all ATM machines in town aren’t functioning (typically indicating they’re out of cash; not an uncommon occurrence in the Fiji Islands).

On top of that, the Gecko Lodge manager for some reason thought it necessary to make special note of the laundry list of “resort rules” outlined on a faded laminated sheet taped to the wall, promptly inducing dreadful flashbacks to my micro-managed teenage boarding school years.

To say the least, it was uncomfortable.

When the manager’s dining recommendations consisted of every sketch, dilapidated Chinese seafood den I passed during the walk there, I knew with certainty Gecko Lodge was not where I should be.

So, I hoisted my overstuffed Northface backpack, 2 unopened liters of bottled Fiji Water in tow, and trudged (or “backpacked,” I suppose) towards town once again, stopping at a Grace Road Kitchen café for a much-needed very berry smoothie and recharge (read my raving review of the Grace Road Kitchen here!).

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I ultimately spent the night at the Savusavu Hot Springs Hotel, a place I’d recommend to anyone and everyone traveling to Savusavu – not only does every room boast a private balcony with glittering ocean view, it’s within easy walking distance of town, has a nice swimming pool deck, and really isn’t that much more expensive per night than Gecko Lodge. And they accept credit card payments!

Because I have to get those airline mileage points, duh…

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As its name suggests, the Savusavu Hot Springs Hotel sits directly adjacent to the actual Savusavu hot springs, which to my surprise are not the type of hot springs I’m accustomed to (I pictured something similar to the giant hot springs swimming pool like they have in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, although they did have a medical hot springs spa close by).

You could literally boil something, cook your dinner, or cause some serious bodily harm in these hot springs (which are totally open to the public, by the way). Just take a look at the warning sign:

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I’ll admit, overall, this trip was poorly planned and I barely researched the region enough ahead of time (was kind of a sporadic adventure). I later found out Savusavu offers a fantastic beach area (home to its renowned diving and snorkeling opportunities, I’m sure), which is evidently located on the exact opposite end of town I spent my day exploring.

Oh well. Next time.

Instead, I primarily hung out around the Copra Shed Marina, in part for the excellent pizza and utterly mesmerizing sunset, but also for an enjoyable break from the Savusavu’s semi-touristy riffraff (I love chatting with the locals – don’t get me wrong – but after a while it gets really boring explaining time after time no, I’m not with the Peace Corps; no, I don’t have children…).

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As it turns out, Savusavu is a fairly popular spot for American ex-pats (among numerous Kiwis and Australians), attracted to the tiny seaside yachting town for its bounty of freehold land and reasonable prices, at least according to one resident American, whom I conversed with for five minutes by the washroom mirror; a woman presumably in her late forties or so.

“My husband and I bought a place in Savusavu for very cheap, in American standards,” she raved, “and the property value keeps going up and up and up!”

I asked if she found maintaining a life abroad in Fiji expensive. The woman laughed.

“Oh no, the American dollar goes so far here, which is great, you know, like being from California, we’re super materialistic.”

To that, I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at her rather withered khaki ensemble, but knew by that point in the evening my appearance, too, was likely a bit haphazard. Extensive island travel involving lots of wind does that, I guess.

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The night consisted of a variety of fascinating discussions with travelers from all over the globe, many of which had arrived in Savusavu by boat. Hearing their incredible stories and diverse voyage plans reminded me I’m not at all alone in wanting to see the world. If anything, I’m terribly behind on adventures.

Honestly, it seems I have a tremendous obligation to take back entire years of my life.

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