Elizabeth the Island Enthusiast

a celebration of unconventional adventures

Tag: Viti Levu (page 1 of 2)

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…

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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’

FijiFreshFishAndCoconut

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!

In Praise of Grace Road Kitchen

Over the course of the time I’ve been in Fiji (over 8 weeks now!), I’ve noticed these colorful Korean organic eateries popping up here and there, often accompanied by a trendy-looking dessert bar next door. These are the Grace Road Kitchen, a chain of fully air conditioned cafés featuring a vast menu of fresh, all-natural and healthy food, which appear to be expanding all over the Fiji Islands.

I’m not always one to automatically opt for a chain restaurant above local one-off options, but I will say: every experience I’ve had at a Grace Road Kitchen thus far has been more than stellar, if not a total breath of fresh air from whatever hectic hubbub betides directly outdoors!

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I first stumbled upon a Grace Road Kitchen in Nausori, where I had a few hours to kill between flights departing from the nearby Suva (Nausori) airport. The Grace Road Kitchen served as a FABULOUS oasis for me that morning and afternoon, and the sweet ladies there welcomed me to stay as long as I pleased. The “very berry all-natural smoothie,” complete with happy smiling spoon, was a delicious and wonderfully refreshing treat!

Better yet: as I worked away typing on my laptop, and even despite finishing my smoothie long before, the kind baristas brought out sample after sample of delicious food, from homemade taro chips to steaming hot vegetable dumplings. What incredible service!

I had to grab lunch quickly on the way out in order to catch my flight on time, and they happily boxed up my tasty chili chicken so I could enjoy it on the go.

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In Savusavu, located on Fiji’s second-largest island of Vanua Levu, I encountered another Grace Road Kitchen, this time with a “Snowy Dessert” café right next door (which I sadly didn’t get a chance to try).

At the moment I was totally exhausted, drained, and slightly crabby from dealing with silly accommodation issues (that’s another story), but the folks at Savusavu’s Grace Road Kitchen greeted me with a smile, made me feel perfectly at home, and had absolutely no problems letting me hang out and re-charge all my electronic devices for a couple hours. Plus – it was quiet! I’m sure it gets busy occasionally, but WOW did I appreciate the Grace Road Kitchen’s peaceful ambiance that afternoon.

Next time I’m in Fiji, you can bet I’ll be a loyal customer! 🙂

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How To Do Natadola RIGHT

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a fun story about my [accidental] resort-crashing adventure at Fiji’s dazzling Natadola Beach. While that was an exceptionally fun day (you can read about it here!), there were a few key things I would have done differently.

So, I went to Natadola Beach again. And this time it was even more fabulous!

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First, I’ll start by saying Natadola Beach really is not at all close to where I’d been living in Lautoka. Even if I were to travel down to Natadola non-stop by private car, it would still take a couple hours. But it’s sooo worth the journey… I might even dare call Natadola the best beach on the island of Viti Levu, although the Coral Coast as a whole is exceptionally picturesque.

If you find yourself in Fiji and are not staying in a beachfront hotel or otherwise ‘touristy’ location, fear not – it’s still quite simple to access the powdery white sands and sparkling, crystal clear blue waters of Natadola Bay. Just follow these tips, and you can have an idyllic Fijian beach day that’s as cheap or extravagant as you please!

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Choose an express bus there and back (if possible). Coming from Lautoka, I’ve had to switch buses at the Nadi bus terminal on the way to Natadola both times. If available, I’d highly recommend opting for an enclosed express charter bus for the first leg of the trip, not only because they’re nicely air conditioned, but also because they’ll get you there significantly faster!

When returning, I’d hop on any bus that will stop for you at the main road (both times I was lucky to get an express bus all the way back to Lautoka with zero transfers!).

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Instruct the taxi to take you to the beach, NOT the InterContinental Resort. I love the InterContinental Fiji, don’t get me wrong, but they do make you pay FJD $40 for a voucher just to get in the gate. When you go to directly to the beach (it’s an easily missable gravel road near the driveway to the InterContinental), you can wander the beach freely without the obligation of finding a way to spend your InterContinental meal voucher.

Be firm with your cab driver on the pricing. Most of the time, they will always insist FJD $10 or more for transport from the main road. I was actually able to prove my last driver wrong when he tried to convince me the price would be $10 or higher when he ran the meter (it wasn’t). The price should only be $8, even just to the beach. If I’ve only ever paid $8, you should only pay $8. It also doesn’t hurt to come to an agreement on the price before getting into the vehicle!

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If you’re interested in paying for activities (snorkeling, horseback riding, surfing, etc.), take time to shop around for deals. You’ll likely encounter a bevy of locals trying to sell a variety of good and services, from fresh coconuts, an array of beach activities and Fijian massages to hair braiding. After speaking with a number of individuals, you’ll find they’re all competing against one another for business. My friends and I eventually scored a fantastic deal on beachfront massages (only FJD $30 for 1 hour! But it’s a secret, shhhh…).

Stop by Yatule Resort & Spa for lunch, or drinks, or happy hour, or coffee, or whatever. Unless you get looped into buying an InterContinental or plan to bring all of your own sustenance along with you (in which case, props for having the stellar planning and organization skills that I lack), Yatule Resort is a terrific spot to grab a reasonably priced lunch. The menu pricing is about half of what you’d pay for lunch at the InterContinental, and only a few paces away up the beach. Plus, the seating area is much closer to the sand and surf, meaning excellent views of the water any time of day!

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Go with friends! Yes, obviously going to the beach is better with friends, and I was lucky to have two volunteer friends to tag along with on this past jaunt to Natadola. However, I’m not always so fortunate. While technically I am on this extended adventure ‘alone’ and will always be an advocate for solo travel, I’m learning how important it is to continually make new friends while traveling, especially solo. Not only because making new friends is great fun, it’s nice to have someone else on your side when exploring (and/or haggling)!

I’ve met some amazing people from all over the world during my solo travels, a lot of which I still regularly keep in touch with and wholeheartedly anticipate seeing again (a special cheers from the Southern Hemisphere to my Turks and Caicos crew in regards to bonding over that ‘Fish Fry’!).

Travel friends truly are some of the best kinds of friends. Even if it means only getting to hang out for a day, or two, or a couple weeks, it’s always worth it.

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Golden Celebrations at the Vuda Point Marina

After Fiji won the rugby sevens Olympic gold medal on Friday, I met some volunteer friends later that evening over in Viseisei at the Vuda Point Marina, or more simply known as ‘Vuda Marina’. We’d heard they were offering $2 Fiji Gold beers all day long in apt commemoration of Olympic Team Fiji’s historic accomplishment, so obviously we had to celebrate.

Plus, generally speaking, I’ve found Vuda Marina isn’t a bad place to be, regardless of the occasion!

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Vuda Point itself is traditionally considered the initial landing site of Fiji’s Melanesian ancestors in their canoes to the island of Viti Levu, and the entire nation of Fiji. Today, Vuda Point serves a similar purpose, boasting a convenient marina for sailors and yachties arriving at the Fiji Islands from all over the world, settled alongside a classy waterfront restaurant and bar.

Fiji’s Favourite Yacht Haven,” as Vuda Marina’s website puts it.

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To my delight, Vuda Marina is one of the few places in Fiji I’ve visited so far where I feel I can wear my Lilly Pulitzer attire without any strange glances. So, I got all dressed up for the Vuda Marina gold medal celebration, even wearing my favorite 5-inch gold wedge heels (seemed appropriate).

For the record, I bring these gold heels virtually everywhere I travel (I’m capable of running in them, if necessary) – I just love these shoes. Yes, they’re impractical. No, I don’t have opportunities to wear them often. But when I do… Well, let’s just say it’s always a memorable night, one way or another.

I guess I’ve never really regarded myself as an especially practical person, anyway. I DIGRESS.

Not taken at Vuda Marina, but these are the gold shoes I'm talking about!

Not taken at Vuda Marina, but these are the gold shoes I’m talking about!

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Not only does Vuda Marina have delectable food, they have a fairly outstanding cocktail selection. I highly recommend the ‘Polynesian Iced Tea’ (although I’m pretty sure it should be called the ‘Melanesian Iced Tea…’).

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Apart from the great drinks, cuisine, nightly specials, and delightful live musicians that have me convinced the best renditions of most overplayed top 40 radio songs are performed with soothing acoustic guitar, Vuda Marina features a whimsical nautical-themed play area and tire swing.

While I’m certain this fantastically realistic faux-vessel, complete with striking indoor plumbing replicas, is intended primarily for the use of children (considering the boat’s facilities are entirely scaled down to pint-size), that did not stop us from thoroughly taking advantage of the site. We at least waited until the end of the night when all kids had retreated elsewhere, of course!

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Olympics in ‘Fiji Time’

For me, one of the strangest things about living in the South Pacific is the utterly confusing time difference.

Coming from North America, I’ve grown accustomed to being an entire day ahead of everyone back home, though being ‘behind’ hour-wise in whatever day I’m in. It’s self-explanatory while looking at a map of time zones, but still makes my head hurt.

This confusion is especially prevalent during this year’s Olympics.

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Lately I’ve been volunteering at a local kindergarten, where, like everywhere else it seems, the hot topic is Fiji’s acclaimed Olympic rugby team.

At one point earlier this week I couldn’t help but notice the head teacher sternly fixated on her phone, fervently reading something clearly quite serious.

“Everything alright…?” I asked cautiously.

“Ah yes,” she responded “All good. Fiji won.”

“What’s this?”

The teacher laughed. “Rugby! They just beat Argentina. New Zealand is already out, which is very good. Fiji plays the U.S. today, so good for you either way!”

Rugby isn’t a particularly common sport where I’m from, and I’d been trying to watch a legitimate rugby match since the day I arrived in Fiji, so this was definitely something I wanted to see.

“What time are they playing?” I asked.

“4:30 tomorrow morning.”

“I thought you said they’re playing today?”

“Yes, they are.”

“Wait…” I thought for a second, and then realized technically it would still be the same date in Brazil as it was currently in Fiji at 4:30 am Fiji time the next morning. Confusing to say the least!

Considering I hadn’t been remotely conscious at 4:30 am anytime in recent memory, not even with my intense jet lag the first few days here, I did not rouse early enough to view that particular game, as much as it would have pleased me to see the Fijians absolutely wallop the American team. To be honest, I was surprised the United States even had an Olympic rugby team.

“Blahhh umm errrr is it over already? They win?” I mumbled half-asleep to my roommate, a far more disciplined slumberer than I, as she quietly snuck back into our room approximately 15 minutes after attempting to stir me awake around 4:25 am for the game.

“Yep, they won,” she said grinning, after reminding me once more the fast nature of how rugby sevens work, as opposed to the ‘rugby union’ and all the other various forms of rugby, which I still have a hard time differentiating. “I think they have a real shot for the gold.”

“Wow. Yeah, that’d be cool,” I replied, not aware at the moment exactly how big a deal that would be.

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The following morning, I woke up to the news Fiji had just beaten Japan, thus ensuring them a place in the Olympic finals and chance to win a gold medal. At the very least they were guaranteed silver, which meant no matter the outcome, it would be the first time Fiji had ever won an Olympic medal in any sport in the nation’s history.

You could just feel the air buzzing with elated trepidation.

I decided that I couldn’t not watch this monumental game. After all, I’d still never seen an actual rugby game in my life, so this felt like an appropriate introduction to the favorite sport of my temporary island home.

Before the final match against Great Britain, which thankfully was broadcast at the much nicer hour of 10:00 am Fiji time, the network played all of the semi-final rounds, first being France vs. Australia in a fight to place 7th and 8th overall, then New Zealand vs. Argentina for 5th and 6th, and then Japan vs. South Africa for 3rd and 4th place, deciding who won the bronze.

It was fascinating.

I’m a huge fan of ice hockey back home (because who doesn’t love watching men crash into men on ice!?), but what I observed in the Olympic rugby sevens took my expectations as a sports spectator to an entirely new level. These good-looking men not only crashed into each other – they tackled; they rolled; they leaped; they lifted each other up in the air; anything to get the oval-shaped ball to their end of the field.

The fast-paced nature of rugby sevens added to the intensity with no tedious breaks or unnecessary time-outs, which is the primary reason why I have extreme difficulty sitting through American NFL games. These guys just kept moving.

After finding myself wildly impressed by the players’ immense athletic skill throughout the first enthralling hour and a half of rugby pre-finals, it dawned on me Fiji had defeated all of these teams. Prior to this, I’d read a number of articles describing the Fijian rugby team’s inspiring journey to the Olympics, lead by a British man named Ben Ryan, who evidently first took the coaching job down in Fiji as a cure for burnout. Now that was something I could really relate to.

Regardless, when it was finally time for the final match of Fiji vs. Great Britain, I had a strong hunch they’d win even before the game commenced – once the Fijians emerged, they ran onto the field with such gusto and pride I could practically sense their overflowing confidence bursting through the television screen all the way from Rio.

Like all the others, this game went quickly, but the poor Brits didn’t even score in the first half, much less succeed in getting the ball over to their side of the field. These Fijian men were literally human blockades. I’d never seen anything like it.

It was immediately obvious Great Britain had no chance.

Cheers could be heard all over the neighborhood throughout the game and afterwards, combined with bounteous firecrackers and the occasional live daytime firework. I found myself almost as emotional as the Fijian rugby players on TV as they accepted their well deserved gold medals.

The celebration continued on for the duration of the afternoon, and as it was conveniently a Friday, intensified throughout the evening and night (rightfully so). It was truly a historic day for Fiji!

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Weird Adventures at the Sugar City Mall

The other day I took a quick jaunt around downtown Lautoka, just for the hell of it.

Although it wasn’t a particularly lengthy expedition, it did involve a some mild exploration and tons of accidental mischief. Without trying, I have the strangest tendency of getting myself in the most entertaining situations…

Okay, some of these situations might not seem that entertaining to a lot of people, but I really enjoy taking otherwise mundane circumstances and transforming them into wildly thrilling adventure stories. I guess that’s partly why I started this site.

Like all things, the term ‘adventure’ is pretty subjective though, right? As is ‘wildly thrilling,’ but I digress…

SugarCityMall

I found myself wandering towards Lautoka’s notorious Sugar City Mall, which is one of the more decrepit shopping centers I’ve visited (if we’re being honest here), featuring a handful of seedy electronics stores, desolate kiosks and knick-knack shops, all blaring festive, upbeat Indian-style music. I will say the shops along the exterior of the mall far exceed the selection inside.

To my disappointment, the Sugar City Mall only had actual retail on its lower level, despite the fairly misleading outward appearance.

Because it seemed like the only logical thing to do, I decided to wander up the mall’s motionless moving walkway, beckoning me with its absence of signs advising the area might be ‘out of bounds.’ What I discovered was… Well, just watch the video, and you’ll see:

Time Flies When You’re Getting Sun…

I’ve been in Fiji exactly three weeks now, which feels incredibly bizarre. It won’t be long until I can say this is the most extensive amount of time I’ve ever spent abroad at once. Woohoo!

Even more bizarre, though, was the moderately-fierce storm that appeared to be brewing outside all day yesterday, at first resulting in nothing more than a sweltering, gusty wind ominously increasing momentum throughout the afternoon, accompanied by a noticeably stark increase in humidity.

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It was muggy. And brutally hot. Hot enough to transform the most minor hangover from the previous night’s casual ‘talanoa’ into a feverish, plague-like condition, reminiscent of last year’s experience at Beachcomber Island, which will forever be remembered as one of the most harrowing nights in my life.

Rest assured, once I get around to writing that story, it’ll be a fine read…

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Not even an absurd amount of time spent hanging out by the open freezer door with a pouch of frozen vegetables over my face could possibly emulate the soothing bliss one’d gain from a nice, chilly blast of air conditioning…

Oh, to feel the cold again…

I knew going into this trip there would be moments I’d miss the luxury of air conditioning, but I never realized just how much I’d learn to appreciate temperate weather.

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Neighborhood views… Always something burning nearby

When I visited Fiji about a year ago, I distinctly remember the temperatures being unexpectedly mild. To my surprise, I found myself wishing I’d packed extra long-sleeve shirts, or even a pair of jeans. At the very least, jeans would have been a preferable attire choice during my lengthy Coral Coast horseback riding adventure…

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This time around, I made a point to bring along a variety of clothing options appropriate for cooler-weather, but I’m pretty sure no jeans or coats will be used anytime soon. I’m also almost entirely certain my fuzzy hooded North Face fleece jacket and Patagonia parka (otherwise known as the “Pata-Gucci”) will remain inside my suitcase for the duration of my stay in Fiji.

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To my knowledge, no noteworthy precipitation actually occurred in the vicinity yesterday. While a suffocatingly warm, stickiness continually lingers in the air, I awoke this morning to a glorious sound – rain!

Apparently Lautoka hasn’t received a true rain storm like this in several months, which is highly unusual for the region, especially combined with the incessant heat wave.

LautokaSunsetClouds

Others grumbled slightly about the rain, appearing distraught at the absence of sunshine. I adore the sun – don’t get me wrong – but I honestly love an overcast day every now and then. Overcast weather always seems to make bright colors brighter.

Fingers crossed this storm brings a much-needed cool front over to Viti Levu’s Western Division… It is technically winter here, after all!

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Resort-Crashing at Natadola Beach

This past weekend I was in the mood for a fun-filled, seaside adventure. So, I headed towards Suva to check out the highly-recommended Natadola Beach, located adjacent to the town of Sigatoka on Viti Levu’s stunning Coral Coast. To get down there from Lautoka, I was given a slew of very specific directions:

Hop on a van to the Nadi bus station, then get on a bus to Suva; be sure to tell the driver you’re going to Natadola Beach only, which is the first stop, NOT all the way to Suva; you ought to sit near the front of the bus to make certain you don’t miss it. Then, once you’re there, hail a taxi to drive you the 8 kilometers over to the beach; ENSURE YOU DON’T PAY MORE THAN $8; the cabbies will do their absolute best to rip you off…

Groggy and still recovering from an asperous sinus infection, I made a number of key mistakes.

Luckily, these mistakes, some albeit arguably expensive, turned my otherwise lame morning into a wonderfully delightful afternoon.

First, rather than smartly opting for an express van to Nadi, I took what I’m fairly confident is the slowest bus on the entire island – prior to this, I was under the false presumption that the Fijian open-air ‘party buses’ blasting reggae music drive notably faster, simply because of the thumping bass and lights flashing in rhythm. This ‘party bus’ deceived me, creeping along the road so slow I realized 50 minutes into what should have been a 35-minute drive I probably could have jogged to Nadi faster.

I didn’t arrive at the Nadi bus station until almost noon, which irked me tremendously, considering I’d left the house in Lautoka just before 10:00 am. Well aware the crystal clear azure blue water along the Coral Coast would disappear with the tides in due order, I made a mental note to leave much earlier next time.

The glittering waters of Natadola Bay on Viti Levu's Coral Coast

The glittering waters of Natadola Bay, situated on Viti Levu’s Coral Coast

As I pondered whether it’d be best to just stay in Nadi and lounge in a hammock by the murky waters at Wailoaloa Beach all afternoon while staring blankly at the bus schedules to Suva, a perky Australian woman wearing a fluorescent hot pink button-down and khakis interrupted my thoughts.

“Yeh alright, love? Where yeh headed?”

“Er, Natadola Beach, I’m looking for the bus to Suva…”

“Ah! Natadola’s so lovely, has the best water, that’s for sure. Anyone with you?”

I explained to her it was just me.

“Well no worries, I’ll look after yeh, that’s where I’m headed as well.”

“Oh terrific, are you also out for a beach day?”

The woman laughed, adjusting her blonde hair, piled on top of her head in a large messy bun. “Oh no, love. Today I’m off to a goat farm.”

Before I could ask her why, exactly, she was headed to a goat farm near a bunch of world-class beach resorts for the afternoon, we found ourselves shuffled aboard an overcrowded charter bus marked ‘SUVA,’ which was jammed with three people per row nearly all the way to the back.

I hurriedly found an open space on half a seat next to two elderly Indian ladies, who both raised an eyebrow at the nautical-print romper I’d picked as my swimsuit coverup and prayed aloud as we drove past Nadi’s colossal Sri Siva Subramaniya Hindu temple.

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Finally we arrived at the stop, where a huge ad for the InterContinental and an even bigger sign with an arrow reading something to the effect of “This way to beautiful Natadola Beach! Only 8 km!” pointed towards a winding dirt road.

“Okay love, now this is where you need to find a taxi to drive you the rest of the way,” instructed the Australian woman, who though seated several rows ahead, had kindly turned around to check on me approximately every 5 minutes for the duration of the bus trip. “Oh look, there’s one now, grab it quick!”

I had already flagged it down and darted across the road. If there’s anything I learned from living in New York City for a summer back in college, it was how to hail a cab.

“Be sure you agree on the price first!” I heard the woman yell in the distance as the rusty cab floored it, speeding away down the gravel in a poof of dust.

“So uh… I’m only paying $8,” I told the driver, who promptly demanded $10 in return.

Little did he know, New York also taught me how to be a hard-ass, when necessary.

After a few minutes of squabbling, he ultimately gave in, murmuring “fine, but only because today is a holy day, I’ll agree just because it’s Sunday…”

In an instant, the driver’s embittered discontent transformed into deviously warm regards as he inquired when I aimed to return from Natadola that day, followed by an overtly-friendly questioning in blatant attempts to earn my future commerce.

“Where are you from?” he asked with an enormous smile.

“The United States.”

“Ohhh, ahhh! United States! I love the United States! I have been to San Francisco and Sacramento in the United States. I like San Francisco better than Sacramento. Are you from near Sacramento?”

“No, not really.”

“That is good,” he said, grinning. “Sacramento has much crime. San Francisco is very nice. Are you from near San Francisco?”

“No, where I’m from is pretty far from California,” I replied, glancing at my phone. It was almost 1:00 pm. I desperately hoped the tide hadn’t retreated too far, so I could have a glorious swim in that amazing, clear water…

“You want to go to the InterContinental, correct?”

“Uh sure, whatever’s easiest, I suppose…”

Then I noticed we were parked at the front gate of the resort. At once, a uniformed guard swept down from a tidy brown hut marked ‘InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort & Spa’ and asked if I had arrived for check in.

Trying to seem as legitimate as possible, I informed the guard I was just visiting for the afternoon. Surely that’s fine, I thought to myself.

“So you’re here for lunch?”

“Yes, absolutely,” I responded, doing my best to appear relatively affluent.

“You will need to buy a voucher.”

“Pardon?”

“You need to buy a voucher, then you can redeem at any of the restaurants,” the guard continued. “The minimum spend is $40. No cash.”

I sheepishly handed over my credit card after confirming the cost was in Fijian dollars, and decided that wasn’t so bad; I needed lunch anyways. Plus, $40 FJD was a price I was gladly willing to pay if it meant I could feel blissfully at ease for a couple hours.

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Escape to one of the world’s most luxurious beachfront resorts!” touts the InterContinental Fiji’s website.

Here’s a fun personal detail – a long time ago, I used to live at a 5-star luxury resort. At heart, I am a resort girl through-and-through.

Even despite the mild interrogations from numerous hotel staff members as I found myself dumbfoundedly stumbling my way towards the resort’s adults-only beachfront infinity pool, I immediately felt at home.

According to my voucher, non-overnight guests were strongly encouraged not to utilize the majority of the resort’s facilities, especially during high season.

Use of the resort amenities including (but not limited to) the swimming pools, complimentary poolside service, beach towels, sun loungers and/or beachside cabanas are exclusively reserved for paying overnight guests of the hotel… We sincerely thank you for your cooperation and understanding.

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By the time I reached Toba Bar & Grill, where I planned to redeem my meal voucher, it dawned on me the resort grounds were quite empty. Exceptionally empty. Empty enough that no one would notice nor care if I chose one of the thirty or so vacant poolside chaise lounges to relax for a bit.

I safely determined it was not in fact high season and parked myself on a lounger chair, boasting a fabulous view overlooking the infinity pool with the sparkling Natadola Bay beyond.

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Not wanting to get in heaps of trouble for taking advantage of the discreet “CALL FOR SERVICE” flag cleverly attached to the side of my lounger, I sauntered over to the bar area with every intention to enjoy my lunch there, but was straightaway advised to go take a seat by the pool and order via poolside service.

Okay, if you insist…

I treated myself to a frozen strawberry daiquiri and possibly the best hamburger I’ve ever had in my life, followed by a few invigorating swims in the infinity pool to cool off from the blazing South Pacific sun. At one point a server even came by offering delectable, bite-sized skewers of watermelon – a refreshing touch to say the least!

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Once I concluded I’d roasted enough for the day, I meandered back towards the resort entrance, pausing for a just moment longer to indulge in a cup of outstanding macadamia-flavored New Zealand ice cream.

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Without question, the front desk of the hotel gladly called me a taxi for transport to the main road bus stop, thanking me for my stay as I departed.

Vinaka,” I replied, using the Fijian term for ‘thank you,’ still glowing from the generous dose of vitamin D.

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Fully expecting another tedious journey home involving multiple bus transfers and a moderately unpleasant layover in Nadi, it was by some serendipitous chance an express bus to Lautoka happened to pass by, uncrowded and air conditioned to my liking.

Thankfully, the return trip from Natadola took significantly less time than the laborious trek there, complete with entertainment the whole way consisting of an Eddie Murphy movie marathon playing on a gigantic mounted flat screen TV up front.

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There’s no doubt in my my mind I’ll be returning to Natadola Beach – I look forward to giving the InterContinental Fiji a thorough inside-and-out evaluation in the future!

******

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Surveying Cyclone Aftermath at Teidamu Primary School

It’s a funny feeling to know you’re in a situation that will change your life forever.

Today I found myself in such a situation, when another volunteer and I went to a different primary school not far from the one we’d been assisting at for the last 2 weeks. I’d thought the previous school had extensive damage from Cyclone Winston, but that was nothing in comparison to the site we visited at Teidamu Primary School.

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Like the other school, Teidamu Primary School sits on top of a hill in one of the most wildly scenic educational settings I’ve ever seen, surrounded by panoramic views of sugar cane fields and the Pacific Ocean, with the city of Lautoka visible in the distance.

Over half the school’s main buildings and classrooms were completely destroyed, with roofs blown off and heaps of rubble sitting among the ruins. Two large white tents from UNICEF, a children’s rights and emergency relief organization, currently serve as makeshift classrooms.

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As we arrived, children peeked out from zipper-enclosed “windows,” giggling before quickly zipping themselves in after noticing they’d caught our attention.

“At least there is a breeze today,” one teacher commented, “the tents can get very hot”.

I could see why; with the exception of the entranceways and a few open side-slits, the tarps barely had any ventilation.

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Even though this school experienced significantly more devastation and wreckage, the children had an essence of joy about them – I spent some time conversing with the 7th and 8th graders, who at just 12 or 13 years old, exuded a loveliness and intelligence far exceeding their age.

After asking how the cyclone had affected them, one girl admitted her mother had died during the storm.

“She’s embarrassed to talk about her mum,” a boy said as the girl immediately repositioned herself to the back of the group, looking down.

This nearly drove me to tears on the spot. I know the pain of losing one’s mother all too well, but learning this mother was a victim of Cyclone Winston was almost too much for me to handle. Even more striking was this 13-year-old girl’s immense strength, despite the fact her mother passed – on her birthday.

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“It is a part of life,” the girl sighed, when I had a chance to chat with her later in private. Apparently her mom had been the manager of the school, and she died while trying to recover belongings during the cyclone from their house not far away.

She asked to see pictures of my home. Unfortunately I’d cleared off most of the photos on my iPhone, so all I had were a few airplane shots flying over the Rocky Mountains, taken on the flight to Los Angeles from Denver.

“Wow,” she exclaimed when I showed her the photos I’d snapped out the window, as well as a few pics of the food and entertainment on my overnight Fiji Airways flight to Nadi. “Is it scary to fly?”

“No,” I laughed. “It can certainly seem scary, sure, but once you’re up in the sky everything feels normal.”

“So it’s like a home?” she asked.

“Yeah. Just like a home.”

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