Fiji had been on my bucket list for as long as I could remember, and, thanks to a university course I’m taking in travel journalism, I had become interested in writing an article about island-hopping in the South Pacific, and so I had even more reason to visit. I’d assumed, though, that it would be difficult to get there and that the flights would be cost-prohibitive. But then I discovered some great deals on direct flights from Singapore, and joyously booked our tickets to Nadi and then a ferry to the tiny Yasawa Islands, which curl like a cat’s tail off of the west coast of Viti Levu.
Our first stop was Nacula Island in the north of Yasawas. We met a great group of people and the lodge was delightful. The cabins had vaulted ceilings decorated with an island motif and long curtains that billowed in the ocean breezes.
Our beach was pleasant, but it had low, flat rocks which made it less than ideal for swimming. Fortunately, it was a short boat ride to nearby Nabula Island – my vision of tropical paradise – where we went snorkeling.
There was, however, an unpleasant surprise lurking just below the surface of those perfect turquoise waters: sea “lice”. They sting but leave no mark. One sting is a nuisance, but a dozen stings all at once is enough to drive one away shouting obscenities from the infected area. Not what I expected. They seemed to be more prevalent around schools of fish, so we learned to stay clear.
Back on Nacula, a staff from the lodge brought us to a nearby village to meet the chief of the island, who was descended from a long line of chiefs. He gave us blessings and then welcomed questions from our group. I was interested to know what the most pressing issue was that he faced as chief. He told us that it was the destruction of the cassava plants, a staple in their diet, which had required food aid from the government in Viti Levu. (I immediately decided I would make extra purchases at the village crafts shop.) I asked him about his ancestry and he said that the people of Fiji originally came from South Africa in large, seafaring canoes, though such canoes are no longer a part of their culture. Having learned about our own ethnicity from DNA tests, I would love to know more about his ethnic mix.
Wifi was non-existent, so we played cards and read books after dinner. A group of Danes laughed and sang around a fire, but their voices eventually faded and we heard only the roar of the surf as we fell asleep.
Two days later, we headed south to Naviti Island. On the ferry, Elise created a new character – a sweet, shy, blue-haired elf named Orchid.
On Nativi, we ran into some of the friends we’d met on Nacula Island.
After taking some photos, I claimed a beachside hammock in the shade of palms and was – at long last – able to truly relax.
Given the daily lodging/food/activities/transportation-related logistics…and homeschooling, my own coursework, photo editing, blogging, etc, that level of relaxation doesn’t happen often, so when it does, I add the experience to a special collection of memories to return to in times of need.
My first such experience was at the Baltic Sea when I was nine years old. It was low tide and I had discovered a little sand bump in the shallow water the size of my body. I lay down and was amazed at how dreamily comfortable it was on the soft sand in the warm water and told myself to always remember it. Another such experience took place in a cool, slate-walled pool in a boutique hotel in Paris where Elise’s Dad gently pulled me through the water as I floated on my back, eyes closed. Sigh.
In the meantime, Elise learned how to extract the goodness from coconuts Fiji-style. On a specially made bench with a built-in metal tool, she scraped the white coconut meat into a bowl. It was much more moist and flavorful than any coconut we’d ever had.
But then…she was shown how to squeeze the coconut milk from the shavings into a cup, and when we took a sip, we were astonished at how delicious it was! We learned that, in the islands, freshly extracted coconut milk is kept for at most one day, and I wondered how we might manage – without adding a bulky coconut bench to our minimalist apartment – to get a steady supply back home.
We did some more snorkeling and saw a giant, electric blue starfish, multicolored Christmas tree fish, and a giant clam. We watched the clam shut in stages: click (one inch), click (another inch), click, click, click until it was completely closed.
At night, the male staff performed a dance in long grass skirts (the female staff were conspicuously absent) and then put on a fire show on the beach. Elise freaked out when a dancer put the burning baton on his tongue, though afterwards she was allowed to touch the flame, and while it was hot, it did not burn.
The next day we walked with one of the two Swiss families we’d met through the rainforest to the other side of the island to reach Honeymoon Beach. Another postcard perfect place…and this time no sea lice. Bliss.
The last island we visited was Waya Lailai, which had a dramatic mountain rising high above the coastline. Our cabin was up a steep walkway lined with blossoms.
The men were busy bludgeoning special tree branches to form them into cord to tie bales of leaves onto the thatched rooftops of the bures, or cabins. They sat around a giant satellite dish as they worked – a fun contrast of modern and ancient. I told them about the Uros people of Bolivia who form floating islands out of reeds on Lake Titicaca (my blog post about our visit there is at this link). They seemed to listen intently, as if they were actively considering whether they could do the same with their materials. (How cool would it be to return to Fiji in 10 years and see the floating islands of Waya Lailai? lol)
The high point of our visit was snorkeling with sharks. Reef sharks are harmless, but we still felt a bit of trepidation at first. Our guide splashed a chunk of fish around in the water to attract the sharks. They showed up quickly.
Although they were shorter in length than Elise (my illogical measure of danger), I held onto her as we snorkeled to keep her ‘safe’. She got tired of my hovering, though, and pushed me away.
Special thanks to Katie Storey for these underwater pix.
At one point, the water suddenly turned dark, and a group of much larger sharks appeared. (Cue the Jaws soundtrack.) These were definitely longer than Elise(!) so I immediately swam over to her and grabbed onto the fabric of her swimsuit.
And then I saw one of the guides wielding a long, metal prong. Had the wrong kind of shark arrived? Was this a weapon to ward them off?! I pulled Elise towards the boat and popped above the water to ask the guide what the prong was for. He told me it was to spear small fish to attract more sharks. Whew! We were not in any danger, but to this day, every time I think of the large sharks circling below in the dark water, I get a chill. Elise, of course, remains unfazed: “Sharks are so cute! They are one of my new favorite animals!”