Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Bubbling along in Paradise: My March Trip to Fiji

Bula Lovelies!

Yes, finally, I am writing a nice thing.  Which is to say, I am writing about something which is not filled with overly dramatic things.

But even then, I am pretty sure I will wrench some emotional turmoil from some not very well edited shots of my miraculous and fantabulous trip to Fiji!

I was right above Sigatoka on the Coral Coast
I was invited last year to P&M's wedding and I was ecstatic to hear it was going to be a destination wedding.  I was simply so happy for the lucky couple that I nearly forgot to book my accommodation and flights.  No matter, Jetstar ended up having a sale in January and my IHG membership guaranteed me a slightly cheaper nightly rate at the lovely Intercontinental Spa and Golf Resort in Natadola Bay, Fiji.
This may be a brochure photo, but it didn't need no damn photoshop

Normally, I do try to go for something a bit cheaper, mainly because I would prefer to spend the money on shopping and sightseeing, and not give my wallet a hard time.  But this time, because of my complete and utter lack of any knowledge on Fiji, its geography and what exactly I could go shopping for, I decided to stay at the resort because it was convenient.  Also, I needed a break, and a bit of pampering, wallet be damned for once.  Also, the wedding was to be held there, and the people I would be familiar with would be there as well.

Having said that.  I began my research after booking, which is the derpiest thing to do, but I was happy with my bookings.
My IHG membership in any case, guaranteed me free internet which, as it turns out, is a big freaking deal and then, when I finally arrived at the resort, it pretty much paid off.
But more on that later.

The flight was a blessed four hours long.  That, for my standards is godly.  Having moved back to Australia, where, as my mum says 'god lost his hat' (read: really effing far from everything), flights to places are agonisingly long.  Going to Perth, which is in the same country is a 5 hour flight. And going to back to Europe is a gauntlet.
Real life reaction to long haul flights
There was a time when I used to fly London to Amsterdam every 8 weeks, and I would whinge that the taxi time sometimes took longer than the flight itself.

Then there were my London to Paris trips by either Eurostar train (2 hours under the channel) or my London-Portsmouth-Caen Ferry trips for work in France.

I shan't ever complain again.


Landing in Nadi airport almost felt like a homecoming.  The humid heat and the window views of rolling, green hills and banana and palm trees everywhere felt like landing in a cleaner to breathe Manila.

I had booked a minibus pickup so I expected to be crowded in with other bustled tourists, but as luck would have it, I was the only one to pick up that day.  My driver was called Bobby and I sat in the front seat as we chatted about the wedding and he gave me a cursory local's perspective on the development of Fiji.  They're very proud that they're catering to tourists it seems.

Not only did I learn about the economic potential of Fiji's agricultural sector (sugar cane is on the down turn, but honey is being invested in and oddly enough, they export pine), but was given a slightly politically correct overview of the social makeup of the country, which is fine.  Bobby obviously knows not to get people too riled about any particular issues happening there.
As a poli-sci analyst of course, my brain naturally listened to the words that weren't being said.

But, I was on Fiji time now, time to switch that all off.

As we drove along, Bobby was happy to point out how villages were structured and how they functioned.  The growth in the educational system and, as we turned into Natadola Bay Road, we passed by his house, his primary and high school and we got to wave at his wife as we drove by.

Upon arrival, P was there to say hello.

That was the best welcome ever.  Aside from the little necklace made of shells and the borderline diabetic smiles of the bell boys and concierges, their friendliness was almost shocking.  I mean, I know hotel service, I know that friendliness is the name of the game, but this was not part of the standard script, these folks were genuinely enthusiastic.

Not about me, but in general.  It almost felt as if they actually enjoyed their work.  So, as I moved to the check in, I saw why.

Jeebus on a pogo stick.  This place is utterly amazing.

As I was an IHG member, I got a little extra treat on arrival.  A complimentary bottle of sunscreen (which smells heavenly, like bubblegum), chocolate chip cookies (which I wolfed down), lip balm and some coconut cream macarons.  Oh and daily refills of Fiji Water and complimentary internet and newspaper every day.  My concierge was so kind and so helpful and so welcoming (he also explained my discount perks with my priority privilege card) I wanted to take him back home with me!

Oh - and I got upgraded to an ocean view room in side a two story Bure (Fijian style house) with my own path to the beach.


I nearly broke down into tears at the sight.  I hadn't seen anything so clean and perfect and blue and beautiful in years since the Philippines and god almighty, the place was pristine.

I know resorts are meant to showcase the best beaches but this was out of this world.

After that, I spent the day with my feet submerged in water.

Oh, and my room had an outdoor bath tub.  *sigh*

That evening was spent getting to know P&M's friends and family.  I was one of three friend on P's side who was invited but I didn't know anyone at all aside from P&M.  Another of P's friends, T apparently remembered me from High School (St. Pat's whoo!). Um, I didn't.

It's not like high school was a traumatic time for me.  Certainly not my time in Aussie high school.  I mean, I got bullied far more in my high school in Milan and yet I seem to remember more from that and none of it, not even the bullying, feel like bad memories for me.
I think perhaps I must have traveled so much in my life and met so many people after that my brain could only hold so many memories of people at once.

Having said that, I mingled as much as possible.

Cocktails are pricey.  I only realized that a few days later when I was checking my tab.  Good grief, they're as bad as Sydney prices.  But then, I should have expected that from an Intercon resort (except I've wined and dined at the Intercon in Manila, and its somewhat cheaper there, but not by much).

Cocktails are also - strong.  Like, mega strong.  Not 'I haven't drunk anything alcoholic since before Christmas' strong, I'm talking 60% proof rum strong.  I eventually had my Mai Tai taken away by P for my own good after he noted that he could smell my drink (and possibly the fumes coming out of my mouth) from meters away.

I wont go into much detail about the wedding as it is not my place to talk about it.  It was lovely, the reception was fun and there were traditional and fire dances (of which none of the photos came out right, damn!).
The only thing I can show - what I more or less wore at the wedding
The next day, a little post-wedding brunch was organised at the golf resort near the 16th hole overlooking the sea.  We were shuttled in and, after a few turns and possibly making several wrong ones, we arrived at our little buffet area with a bbq, a watermelon cutting demonstration (the guy cut out a bouquet of roses) and lots of juice for those with hangovers.

Again, I was gobsmacked by how stunning the views were.  Everyone else was too.

The coral reefs were amazing, if not a little hazardous to navigate.  But as usual, as long as I'm in the water, I'll manage the coral cuts with a happy grin.

There were so many fish in the shallows, including some pretty creepy and hella long sea cucumbers.  It was absolutely amazing and the weather had been fantastic for the whole day.

Upon getting back to resort, I realized I was pretty burned.  I have no idea why I did not gain the Asian predisposition to get tanned, just like I cannot handle rice.  So, I booked myself a spa experience and got a Vivili shell massage.

Now, most of you know I have the weird issue about people touching me, especially if that means touching me in my back, and in places that normally see the back of chairs.
And yes, I was apprehensive, my shoulders are extraordinarily rock hard and tense and other masseurs have had problems with them just not relaxing.

However, for the first time in a long time, I actually could feel my shoulders.  Normally I just feel like my arms move by means of a rope a pulley system from my spine.

The massage comprised of a full spa experience, which was completely new to me.  It started with changing into a robe and settling into their waiting room where I got to enjoy some of the most delicious tea I've ever tasted.

Ok, please take this into account.  I am a tea connoisseur, I drink tea more than I eat food.  I tolerate Twinings at work simply because its is a form of tea and that is more suitable to me than water.  I have tasted all sorts of tea from all sorts of places and have developed a little bit of a palate, mainly in part of the fact that I am starting to design and make my own tea blends.

So, when I say this is some of the best tea I've ever had the privilege to taste, you better believe it.

I also had a granola bar - but back to that tea...

Anyway, the massage began, and despite assurances and breathing exercises taught to me by the masseuse, I was still tense.  However, that all melted away when the heated seashell touched my skin.  The feeling was lovely even though there were times when the massage was so painful, I nearly cried (my calves and shoulders were of course, a problem).  I made no sound and ended up feeling completely and utterly blissed out by the end of it.

And as I sat in the waiting room afterwards enjoying a glass of strawberry and pineapple juice.  I felt like the first few pieces of my somewhat jumbled up self start to slowly slide back into place.

The few days after became heaven.

Most importantly, I was healing.  The past few months, and maybe even most of last year became so turbulent that I had fragmented myself.  Maybe even pushed aside parts of me that I didn't want to deal with and worse, forgot the better parts of me that made me strong.

Be it because I was finally getting over a broken heart, or getting away from a work situation that disheartened me, or just reconnecting with the one thing that makes me happy, the sea, I suddenly felt whole.

Its as if I had been dismembered for so long and the blue waters of Fiji made me re-member myself.

For one thing, I enjoyed my solitude, something I had missed in a long time.  Having moved out early and having lived overseas on my own for so long.  I missed the feeling of being happy with my own company.  I became friends with me again.

And so, while occasionally chatting to some of the people who remained after the wedding, and spending a bit of time with the happy couple (who then left this paradise for another paradise, Hawaii!), I spent practically every waking hour in water.

If it wasn't by the corals outside my door snorkeling, to scuba diving, to just reading in the infinity pool (three Terry Pratchett books in one week, everyone working near the pool got to know me well because apparently, they could all hear me giggling as I read, ah Terry, I do miss you).  It was water, water, water. Almost 8 hours straight in the water, how wonderful is that?
Adorable trivia:  If you wiggle your fingers at a clownfish, it will approach you because it will think your fingers are anemones. 
And of course, I made friends with the locals!

Aside from the standard 'Bula's you get from the resort staff, Fijians are so friendly and so affable.  They find joy in family and the world around them and it was so pleasant chatting with the cleaning ladies or the security guards.

I got to see their local art work and was really pleased to see Intercontinental's CSR work is genuine and effective.  From the local artists they hire to support the deaf and mute (this one guy does paper quilling and he made me a beautiful custom card), to the fantastic Malo Malo school visit.

The School visits are held every Thursday and is organised by the hotel itself.  We were shuttled across the mountains to a small 4 room school that housed kindergarten to year 8 (or was it 9?).  The children were friendly and excitable (I imagine they look forward to the visits as it means they get a break from class).  Their handwriting for one, is way neater than what I have ever produced and I was impressed with the fact that most of them did pretty advanced mathematics, and enjoyed it.

There was that little cynical part of me though, and I wondered about the function of these school trips. Be it to encourage donations or to present a poor but happy life that is common when showing off to a bunch of well-off curious white folks (I suppose I was one of them I'll admit, I can be pretty 'white' myself).  I wondered how much of that thinking was from me.  My cynicism is built from years of going to the Philippines and seeing both the great progress and the disappointments of development in poor countries and I guess I pass that a bit on to the things I see.

But the truth was that maybe, they just wanted to show us who they were, no veils of pretense, no hidden agendas.  The kids all seemed to study hard (and were predominantly self directed, impressive considering that one classroom would have up to three different years and varying levels going on at the same time), and they enjoyed practicing their English and were happy to approach us to ask questions as much as we could go and talk to them.  I found that they all seemed to enjoy us giving them their attention.  They sang for us and did some dances, and I got to join in with a few fun conga lines and a lot of loud songs.

The resort is also located next to a local Village called Sanasana village.  It also does a few weekly visits but this time, instead of organizing it with the hotel or a tour group, I visited with a local resident called Alfred.  Many of the local men who aren't working in the hotel sometimes walk along the beach of the resort and offer residents more personalized and slightly more 'home-made' touring options.
Sansana Village, perfect location
He took me around and introduced me to his sister at her home.  She sold me a necklace and, after I told her I was going to give it to my mother as a present, she gave me a second necklace for free so that mum and I would match.
Chieftain's Bure made from traditional materials
I also met the local village ladies who sold souvenirs in their village council hall.
Again, they all had a bit of a script when describing the women's work but to be honest, I was happy buying off them than off an actual shop, I knew and could see where my money was going and honestly, I can part with my money for the company and experience as much as for the souvenirs.

One of my many highlights (actually, it was all a highlight) was horse riding cross-country through the bay.  Another villager called Joseph introduced me to his three horses; Jimmy Carter, Lady Diana and Billy, their foal.  It was wonderful, we rode over the hills, through mangroves, past some guava trees for breakfast and finally across the beautiful beach.  It was a serene day trotting along with Joseph and his little horse family.

Finally, I got to clock up my newbie hours scuba diving.  And to be honest, going under there every day has to be some of the best experiences in my entire life.

Its a whole new world under there, and there's no other place I would rather be.

I got to see some of the most beautiful things in the world and frankly, these types of things change me quite dramatically.

Imagine rolling hills and cliffs covered in coral and populated with schools of bustling fish of every color you can conceive.  Imagine they're living and breathing and just getting along with their own little lives as they surround your head like a swarm, and you're being given the honest to god privilege to see them just do what they do best.

Imagine cartoony, slow, cute turtles.... now, Imagine them glide along, 30 metres deep in the water, flying with ease as if through space... with four elephants on their back, balancing on top a giant disc...
Ok, no.  They're not the Discworld's A'Tuin, but they are really so lovely and graceful in the water and quite gracious since they are sometimes benevolent enough to let you pet them.

Imagine sharks.  Long and graceful and not at all frightening because they're more terrified of you anyway.
Sea snakes near the shallows (turns out they're the most poisonous snakes on earth, whuuut! this thing was terrified of me!)
Sadly, my crappy underwater camera can only take photos down to 10m, so before all the buttons compressed from the pressure, my camera managed to take one little picture before recording everything else.  It comprises of 40 minutes of sand, water, my legs, my vest pocket and some fish.  And then, some severe artefacting from the pressure.
My only deep diving photo before the camera clunked out
However, even without my camera there is one image permanently burned into my mind.
On my last dive, I was taken down to something that pretty much resembles and underwater forest and entered a cave with my guide.
As I entered into that black mouth the light finally filtered out to reveal we were in a cave with a hole at the top, where sunlight filtered through.
The cave lit up with the silhouettes of fish and coral and bright splashes of colour where the sunlight touched.
And slowly winding its way up to the top of a cave was a black tip reef shark, curling in and out of the shadows as it made its way up.

Sometimes when you see things like that.  The world becomes a little different and things inside of you shift.
So many starfish around here!
Among these memories, I am also grateful for the friends I made.  Aside from the lovely people I met at the wedding, I really enjoyed hanging around with the locals themselves.  I loved listening to the stories of their life, hearing about the things they loved, the pride in their work, and just being able to chat with another kind and wonderful human being.

I made wonderful friends with the people who operate the resorts Dive Hut and thanks to Joan, Masi, Johnny and Capt. Ken (and the wonderful chat with Alex), I feel refreshed and re-made.

The sea will always make you whole.  (And the fish wont judge you hahaha).

Well, this shy little clownfish wont judge you...
I left Fiji and cried a little on my flight back.  I miss the place terribly and will do everything I can to get back there and see everything and my new friends again for sure.
Best breakfast ever
For now, I have amazing memories, a new outlook.... and a CRAP TON of complimentary toiletries that I took home from my room.
Guys, Pure Fiji has some of the best body products I have ever had the privilege to use.  (Philippines, I need you to take up this challenge, because all I got from you guys is Tawas and Gugo).

So, as my tan slowly fades from Asian brown to Asian white, I will hang on to these images and engrave them onto my heart, and use as a sanity maker for those days when I want to tear my hair out.
Stay sane...
Where am I going to go next? who knows...

I know I will keep diving.  I know I will keep travelling and I know I will keep on chugging.

Maybe for my next trip, the Gold Coast... or Cambodia!

P.S - Philippines, I am visiting you end of year, start making body scrubs for me to drool over!!!!!
I can't wait to go diving there.

So, until next month, vinaka for reading and ni sa moce!