BULA!!

BULA

(118 days in)

(M: Before we jump into Pete’s narrative, I just want to mention that I came close to writing this blog post myself as I feel like I could wax lyrical about Fiji for days, despite my lack of literary/creative/descriptive talent.  The genuine warmth and friendliness of the people, the lush rainforest-covered landscape, the picturesque beaches, the wonderfully fresh food, the clarity of the ocean and the reefs that lie beneath it… I was genuinely upset when it was time for us to leave and I can’t wait to go back.

Luckily for you, laziness won out and Pete’s done the honours!)

“BULA!” was shouted at us every time we got off or onto a boat, said in passing every time we walked near a local, and was the first thing we heard from the airline and customs workers. It means ‘welcome’. But also, so much more: it’s used as ‘hello’, ‘love’ and ‘I wish you well’, even though the literal meaning is ‘life’. But mostly it means ‘welcome home’, as was explained to us by one of the first members of resort staff we met, and this goes a hell of a long way to describing what the people and culture of Fiji are like. Another tagline was introduced to us two weeks into our stay – “It’s not perfect, it’s paradise” – and frankly, I couldn’t agree more.

Sun and Sea
It was a long old flight from Los Angeles to Nadi (M: pronounced ‘Nandi’ for you Fijian amateurs) Airport, just over 11 hours in total. But saying that there was nothing else I can complain about –  minimal turbulence, decent enough food and, although not of the highest calibre, films enough to keep me entertained for the duration (I do not sleep on planes… well, apart from maybe a short powernap when my eyes literally wouldn’t stay open). I, again, find myself getting a bit worse with the whole flying malarkey. This isn’t ideal considering how many hours we still have to do in the air, but I can mostly calm down and take my mind off a flaming fireball hurtling into the middle of an ocean provided there isn’t a lot of turbulence. Not sleeping for an entire night was hard on the old circadian rhythm, but the weirdest part is that I think my birthday should now be on the 16th instead of the 17th of July as the International Date Line took a day away from us – we took off on the 16th of October, flew for 11 hours and landed on the morning of the 18th.  It will take me quite some time to figure that one out.

We had fretted quite heavily about Fiji’s strict border control on the way into the country, which is similar to Australia and New Zealand’s in that, if they could, they would stop the very air from entering their delicate ecosystem. This is understandable as so much of their country’s money relies on the farming industry and the tourism that the gorgeous scenery entices. We had recently been through a lot of forestry while camping in the US and had the evidence of this all over our shoes, so we ticked the box marked ‘used sports shoes’, the box marked ‘been in a forest in the last 30 days’ and waited for the intimidatingly named Biosecurity to catch up with us. What this meant in reality was that, once we had collected our baggage (M: whilst being serenaded by a band – I was already grinning so hard my cheeks hurt at this point) and lined up to be let into the country, a gentleman came through the line collecting people’s landing slips, took ours and added them to the pile without a second glance.

(M: By this point we’d also managed to procure a litre bottle of ten year old single malt scotch.  Those of you who know us well will realise that this is odd in two respects: 1) we don’t exactly have the extra cash to be splashing out on anything but the cheapest spirits and 2) neither of us drink whisky.  We had the duty-free-sealed bottle thrust upon us as we stood waiting at passport control by a woman who was transferring flights and had been told by Fijian customs that she wasn’t allowed to take it onwards.  Not one to pass up free drink – particularly when it has a high price tag and could potentially be used to barter a more palatable beverage later – we graciously accepted.)

Next up was the free minibus service that was to take us to the first hostel we had booked. Ourselves and five others were being transported, luggage and all, and we were all thoroughly amused when the driver saw a bit of a traffic jam ahead of us and decided to “take another road” which essentially meant going cross country. I was getting a bit worried that the van would roll as he took on more and more daring piles of rocks and potholes on this alternate route, but we made it eventually.

The hostel – Bamboo Backpackers – was right on the beachfront and, with a happy hour, pool and daily kava ceremony* it was exactly where we wanted to be.  We arrived at 7am, checked into beds which luckily were ready for us and spent the day trying not to fall asleep so we wouldn’t be jetlagged (Megan does not sleep on planes either). We had a quick breakfast from the 24hr bar and made ourselves acquainted with a local dog that roamed the stretch of golden sand. We were also treated to a fresh coconut by a local man named Johnny who apparently hadn’t left the island in 30 years and made his money by simply saying hello to tourists and offering them the aforementioned coconuts in exchange for whatever money they had. (M: I’ll admit, having not slept for 24+ hours and finally making it to our destination I did feel a twinge of alarm when we were ushered under a circle of palm trees and Johnny revealed his machete, but despite the delirium I was still far too British to do anything about it other than smile politely and sit when told.)

Other than a minor sunscreen incident which left Megan with 1st degree burns over her left shoulder (accounts vary but everyone agrees that the blame lands squarely on my [not yet burnt] shoulders), this was us for the next couple of days. We had four nights booked before we started island hopping and the only thing we wanted to accomplish was to go into town.

A Blessed Journey
Our main reason for wanting to take the bus into Nadi was to check out the local shops and get more of an idea of what Fiji is like. The bus stopped pretty much right outside our accommodation, so it was an easy feat and supposedly cost us less than 5 Fijian dollars (about £1.50). It was a short ride on a windowless vehicle into Nadi itself, which we thought was a bargain – especially as we found out afterwards that the driver hadn’t charged us at all due to a recently implemented Oyster card type system than no one can seem to get to work.

Once we were in town we had no idea what we wanted to do.  Nadi’s a ramshackle town comprising of three main roads with a large market area, supermarket and various pop-up shops, so we decided to have a wander. As we were walking past one of these shops a man came up and introduced himself, asking us if we liked the area and how long we had in Fiji. With the pleasantries out of the way he then said that he was from a village just outside of town that made ‘stuff’ which was then brought into town to be sold on and, without missing a step, we were herded into his shop. Each and every surface was covered in any kind of jewellery, trinket, statue or carving you could think of, all of which was of excellent craftmanship and classic Fijian style. I will admit that this is one of my nightmare scenarios, though. Being somewhat of an introvert and having a strong dislike for people trying to sell me anything, I was stood in the middle of what would be my personal purgatory. We were introduced to an older gentleman who came out of nowhere a side door, explained that he ran the shop and asked whether we’d had a typical ‘Fijian kava welcome’ yet? (M: by this stage I could feel Pete throwing me pleading ‘can we please get out of here?’ looks but hey, we were in Fiji and what harm could drinking a suspicious, mildly narcotic liquid in the back of an empty shop do?)

*Kava is a drink consumed almost exclusively in the Pacific islands. It is made from a powdered pepper root which is then sieved through a cloth bag into a bowl of water. The drink itself is said to be very good for anxiety and stress, and it also makes your tongue and lips numb a minute or two after you drink it, which is normally met with a joke of ‘you’re about to speak Fijian’.  (M: The ceremony around kava drinking can be likened to a traditional tea ritual in Japan and China.  The locals refer to kava as ‘grog’, which I think is brilliant.)

Having said that we hadn’t participated in a kava ceremony yet, we were told to take our shoes off and sit on the floor around the tanoa (bowl).  The leader of the ceremony – in this case, the shop owner – wiped the bowl down with the cloth and the water, then added the powdered root, making the liquid turn a muddy brown. He then said some words in Fijian and everyone clapped three times. The first bilo (cup) was filled with a mouthful of the liquid and handed to the ‘Master of the Ceremony’ (that was me – obviously the addition of a Y chromosome makes one an effective master) (M: hahaha, it seems that Pete has conveniently forgotten all the preceding jokes where the gentlemen attempted to convince me to let him take charge for once… however, he is right in that the order of drinking in a kava ceremony is determined by your status, with the eldest male guest going first), who responded “bula” and necked the solution (M: all those years drinking shots finally paid off, as Pete’s reaction to drinking the kava – which tastes like soil dissolved into water with a sprinkling of pepper, though it’s not entirely unpleasant – was minimal). I handed the bilo back, clapped once, said “bula” again and the leader scooped up another mouthful of the brew. This process was then repeated for each person present at the ceremony, until the solution was depleted. At the end, the leader blessed our relationship and our journey in Fijian, the party clapped a further three times and responded again with “bula”.

With this done and us feeling well and truly welcomed to Fiji, it was time to get down to business.  The pair of men began walking us around the store and trying to sell us what felt like each and every item. I understand that this is the way they make money, that a village of people have put time and effort into these goods and that the return is what keeps them going but, when they continued to try and push more and more items on us even after we’d agreed to a ‘local price’ on one wooden carving I had had enough – particularly once they outright asked me for a tip as we left. (M: Pete’s very kindly omitted the fact that, despite being a ‘local price’, we paid FAR too much for this little bit of wood that they probably wouldn’t let us into Australia with because I got the exchange rate wrong.) Eventually we managed to escape, and after a little difficulty due to a lack of signage located our ride back to the hostel.  Following a very enjoyable bus ride back – during which the road ran out and the bus took to the beach – we readied ourselves for island hopping and hit the hay.

Paradise
All in, we stayed in four beach resorts after our first four nights on the main island (Viti Levu). I will attempt to cover the experience we had of each through these next bullet pointed paragraphs (M: for the sake of brevity and so that ‘we sat on the beach and did absolutely nothing for the majority of the day’ doesn’t get repeated too often).

Mantaray Island Beach Resort

  • Location: Nanuya Balavu Island, quite near to the top of the Yasawa island chain, one of the northern-most parts of the Fiji province. It took us about three hours on the Yasawa Flyer ferry but we could sit outside in the sun and watch the other islands speed past, so it wasn’t exactly a hardship.
  • Accommodation: 2 beds (1 bunk bed) within a 32-bed dorm. We were placed by the door which wasn’t helpful for the noise level and the air conditioning wasn’t working the first two nights (M: and it was a constant battle to get them to switch it on during the next two) which lead to a night of howling wind coming through the open windows. (M: The wooden slats under the mattresses were liable to slippage as well, which resulted in Pete nearly flattening me during the first ascension.  Other than that, it was very pleasant – lovely and clean and treehouse-stylee.)
  • Food: Buffet breakfast, à la carte lunch menu and three course dinner. Aside from the flies, gale force winds and the fact that the food bure was the highest point of the resort – which was planted on the side of a hill – this was astounding. Having only had the equivalent of pub food from Bamboo Backpackers, it was a great treat. Also, it was included in the accommodation price so we didn’t have to worry about not ordering the expensive options. (M: A note on this, if I may. Initially I had thought that Fiji was going to be unexpectedly inexpensive, as we had chosen reasonably priced dorm rooms for the majority of our stay – Mantaray, for example, was FJ$45 a night each [about £15].  However, I soon realised that the majority of the islands only have the resort(s) on them – there are no shops, i.e. nowhere else to get food from.  This means the resorts can get away with charging a mandatory ‘meal plan’ fee per day.  While the accommodation on Mantaray was only FJ$45 a day each, the meal plan was FJ$99 a day each, effectively tripling the cost.  It’s a good thing we were under budget in the US! And while I understand the need for this charge, I do think it’s a bit cheeky of them to include it in the small print rather than the quoted cost.)
  • Facilities: As we were part of the dorm and not in a private room, we had use of the shared toilets/showers. Although the toilets were the ‘drop toilets’ we had become accustomed to in the national park of the US (M: I KNEW I hadn’t seen the last of them), they were actually kept phenomenally clean. And the showers were set under the palm trees nearer the beach, so you had some sunshine and Pacific breeze to go along with the hot water and, again, very clean facilities.
  • Staff: All incredibly (M: INCREDIBLY) friendly. We had been told that Fijians are the friendliest people on Earth but these guys were exceptional. Even if they hadn’t met you before it was a strong bet they knew your name and what you liked to drink. We were sung to as our longboat hit the beach and greeted with a loud ‘BULA!’, as well as serenaded with the traditional Fijian farewell song when we left. Most of the time they would stop you to ask if you were having a good day/what you’d done with the day/whether you needed any suggestions of what to do with your day.
  • Notes: As the name would suggest, the resort has a reputation for doing snorkelling trips with manta rays. This made Megan incredibly excited as we were told to listen out for the beach drum each morning to see if anyone had spotted them. Unfortunately, as we were also told when we arrived, it was the end of manta ray season, so we shouldn’t get our hopes up (Megan failed at this). And, sadly, there was no sound of the beach drum for our 4 mornings on the island, no chance to swim with these huge, majestic creatures. But this upset was completely offset by the rest of what I’ve said above. The resort was excellent, well-maintained, clean, set in gorgeous surroundings and with a full itinerary of activities for each day, you were never left twiddling your thumbs.
    It’s worth noting at this point that, apart from renting snorkel gear and doing that almost every day, we did precisely none of these activities. As you may have seen from the pictures, I had found my hammock and was determined to just do nothing in it. But I believe I also started coming out of my shell as, on two occasions, we met another couple from some part of the United Kingdom and I held a conversation with them. Go me.
  • (M: Due to the aforementioned sun cream incident, I spent all of my time on Mantaray in a decent amount of pain – I imagine it looked pretty dodgy to everyone else that I kept having to ask Pete to come into the shower with me as the pussy mass that was my back by that point had inevitably become stuck to the material of my t-shirt, meaning I couldn’t get it off by myself without removing several layers of skin.

Another thing I’d like to mention about Mantaray – I’ll talk about the fantastic snorkelling a bit later – was the incredibly clear view of the stars.  Granted we had to walk a little way down the beach to escape the lights, but once we had we were treated to one of the clearest views of the Milky Way I’ve ever seen.)

Blue Lagoon Beach Resort

  • Location: Nacula Island, the most northern stop on the Yasawa Flyer ferry. This wasn’t far from Mantaray but did mean that we had a very pleasant four-hour boat ride going onto our next destination. This island has some of the softest and whitest sand I’ve seen as well as a forest that had recently been the victim of a fire behind the resort itself. Slightly worrying.
  • Accommodation: 2 beds (single beds) in an 8-person dorm. With less people came less noise, which was a welcome relief from Mantaray. Also, the room was on the same level as the rest of the resort, so we didn’t have to hike uphill to get to bed. It was a well-maintained room with housekeeping coming in once a day (M: and an air-conditioning unit set to a balmy 23 degrees), and aside from having to herd a kitten out of it at one point, I cannot find fault.
  • Food: Amazing. They had a set lunch menu every day, buffet breakfast every morning and then a different style of food each evening. This was a 3 course à la carte meal for two of the three nights we were there with the third being a buffet BBQ night. I was more than happy. (M: I’d hope so – Blue Lagoon was the poshest place we stayed, and had a meal plan price of FJ$109 [£40] per person per day to match. Totally worth it though.)
  • Facilities: We were back to flushing toilets again but still in the shared conveniences of dorm life. We were quite used to this at this stage so with the daily cleaning and good water pressure, these were just what we needed. There were fewer stalls shared between roughly the same amount of people as Mantaray, but we never once found it full or in any way unusable.
  • Staff: We were again sung to as we landed on the beach, again handed a glass of fresh juice and again sat down and introduced to the manager (M: whom I was hoping to palm our bottle of scotch off to in return for other spirits) and the front of house staff as they went through the house rules and basic info. The staff at each meal time were friendly, helpful and efficient, making sure we were topped up with water at any point. (M: before going out to the islands we’d been repeatedly warned by other travellers and locals alike to buy water in Nadi and take it with us, as it’s expensive on the islands. Given that we were already weighed down by all our belongings and would never be able to take enough water for the ten days we’d be out there, we decided to ignore this advice and deal with the consequences.  I’m glad we did – turns out that the tap water was perfectly drinkable.  I’m still not sure what the fuss was all about, but was highly amused by the other passengers on the ferry who were struggling to haul twelve litres of water onboard.) Also, on our last evening the whole staff performed Fijian songs and dances in traditional costume, ending in ‘Isa Lei’, a traditional goodbye song which were to hear a few more times on this holiday.
  • Notes: I had once thought paddle boarding looked really cool, so carefree and calming. Since visiting Blue Lagoon and making use of their free-to-rent paddle boards, I think it is a stupid mode of transport. It’s not big and it’s not clever – you might as well be kayaking which, by the way, you can do in a lot more inclement weather. Three failed attempts at standing and we had accidentally drifted out so far that the last 30 minutes of the rental was spent just paddling back to land whilst sitting on the stupid thing. (M: At one point I’d just watched Pete fall in – again –, wiped the tears of laughter from my eyes and looked up to see the daily seaplane come into land right where we were both floundering. Suffice to say the panicked “OH S**T!” this elicited from Pete did very little to assuage my mirth.)
    Another thing to mention was that the manager, a tall Australian chap, was always around. He obviously had his favourites among the guests but he was never further than a stone’s throw if we had needed anything (not that I would have had the courage to say anything to him) (M: yeah, we entirely wimped out of asking him if he wanted the whisky we were still carting round with us).
  • (M: Right, so it seems that Pete has almost entirely skipped over the best bit of Fiji, which was without doubt the superb snorkelling at Mantaray and Blue Lagoon [despite the lack of manta rays]. At both resorts the coral reef, which is a marine conservation area, is right off the beach – so close that it’s actually dangerous to go out at low tide as you risk cutting yourself to ribbons on the sharp edges.  As soon as you dunk your face in the water [which is perfectly warm and crystal clear] you immediately feel like you’re floating in a high-end aquarium, the fauna is that varied and the coral that colourful.  To give you an idea of some of the creatures we spotted [if you’re at all interested] here’s like, 10% of them:
    • Napoleon wrasse – the bruiser of the reef
    • Clark anemonefish – a wannabe Nemo
    • Blue sea star – a royal blue starfish-looking thing
    • Sea horse – not sure what species as Pete spotted this one
    • Varying butterflyfish, all bright yellow with differing black and white markings
    • Bullethead parrotfish – a personal favourite due to its bright blues and oranges
    • Picasso triggerfish – this guy was NOT a fan of the camera, kept playing chicken with it
    • Oceania fantail ray – a small stingray with bright blue spots on its back
    • Giant clam – these close slightly when you get close – how do they know??

Best of all, if you do it right you can snorkel ‘Fiji style’, i.e. get in at one end of the beach and let the current pull you to the other end.  Great Barrier Reef eat your heart out.

Bounty Island Beach Resort

  • Location: Bounty Island, within the Mamanuca islands that find themselves a lot closer to Fiji’s mainland.
  • Accommodation: Beach front private bure (hut). We finally only had to deal with each other’s noises and intrusions. The hut itself was small and quite shabbily put together. I enjoyed having the ocean as a view right from the front door but it was spoiled somewhat when we were awoken at 2am the first night by the air conditioning unit spraying me and the bed with water. Not a great start. (M: Well, it was quite cheap. And the ocean is LITERALLY on your doorstep [at high tide at least]).
  • Food: Bounty Island is seen as the budget resort and unfortunately you can tell. The food was certainly edible, nourishing and there was a lot of it, but nothing to write home about (which is hard to achieve in this format). Perhaps we were spoiled by the other islands but with the meal plan being only £3.50 cheaper a day than Mantaray and £7 a day cheaper than Blue Lagoon, I was expecting more.
  • Facilities: We had our own private toilet and shower. Hooray! They worked perfectly well and did what we needed them to do. The resort also had a pool up by the bar area, right in front of the beach, which I made tremendous use of on the last day (to the point of pink shoulders). And the bar itself had three separate happy hours which we also made a point of being at. This did somewhat make up for the rest of what the resort was lacking.
  • Staff: There were a lot less people working on this resort than the others. We were greeted by a single man, Berry, singing to us as we landed (M: Berry also sang to us during mealtimes, which I quite enjoyed up until Pete pointed out that he couldn’t sing). The reception staff were exclusively running on ‘Fiji time’ so checking in was a bit slow but again, there was at least a daily check with us for if we had everything we needed or if we needed anything more (M: yeah, like an air conditioning unit that didn’t dribble on you all night).
  • Notes: Turtles (M: TURTLES!). Bounty Island Beach Resort has a small turtle conservation area at the back of the main building. Two pools filled with turtles of varying ages get cleaned and fed until they are released, once a year, into the ocean. As many of you have guessed, this made Megan a very happy person. She spent 2 solid hours one morning scrubbing away at each of them with a toothbrush and then checking on them whenever we found ourselves with a free minute.

We snorkelled once whilst at Bounty Island, which due to poor visibility took us about 15 minutes and aside from one stingray, we didn’t see much.

Uprising Beach Resort

  • Location: Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu. But further around toward the capital of Suva from where we spent our first four nights in the county. The ferry dropped us off late in the afternoon (M: though luckily half an hour earlier than advertised) and on the wrong side of the island, which meant we were in store for a harrowing two hour coach ride to our destination. And by harrowing, I mean I was more scared in that vehicle than I was in the one 30,000 feet above the ocean. Remember the part where the plane takes off and they have to reach speed so everything’s rattling and the slightest movement of the plane feels like you going to careen off the runway into a fiery ball of death? Well take that but apply it to a mode of transport that is a lot less regulated and throw in some mountainous roads for good measure. I was glad to be done by the end of it. (M: I had a whale of a time, much better than Thorpe Park.)
  • Accommodation: UPGRADE. We had booked a small private bure again, but this time it wouldn’t have air con. As we arrived we were told that they had given us ‘Villa 5’ and we thought nothing of it until John, the handyman, helpfully showed us in and ran through the list of amenities it had to offer. The building we were in had air conditioning, as well as a kitchenette, a swivelling TV between the bedroom and the living room, a LIVING ROOM, a whole outside seating area and, best of all, an outside shower underneath a palm tree. The resort itself was a combination of tiki torches and wooden boarding. It was bliss.
  • Food: As we were back on the main island we were no longer restricted to a prepaid meal plan, though breakfast was included and with hash browns, eggs and beans I was not complaining. Lunch and dinner comprised the same menu and it was similar to one you’d find in a pub but with way more effort put into the food itself. We also sampled a small restaurant just outside the main gate by the name of ‘Beach Bum Burgers’. We were the only customers in there and we only saw the one lady who lived and worked out of the building. She had been a resident of California for 45 years and decided to move and live closer to paradise. She served us the best burgers we had in as long as we could remember, and this was after spending three months in the USA. (M: We did get slightly uncomfortable at one point as she started talking about being a believer and seeing crucifixes everywhere, but she then went onto clarify that this was mainly after her morning spliff back in the US.)
  • Facilities: Previously mentioned outside shower, full modern tiled bathroom with flushing toilet but without a locking door (which resulted in the first of mine and Megan’s ‘how close is too close’ incidents) (M: I think we know the answer now). The resort had a large restaurant area with (just the one) happy hour each day. It also had a pool surrounded with large comfy bowl chairs that I did not make use of any of the four days we were there. Nor did we do any snorkelling even though we were still right on the beachfront (M: one look at the beach was enough to tell that the visibility was not great, plus it rained pretty much constantly).
  • Staff: As we had come to expect from any Fijian, everyone was friendly, welcoming and lovely. Our baggage was transported from reception to our villa by John. When the room key didn’t work, and I had to walk back to reception three times in the rain they were all more than apologetic and came out into the rain with us to get us back into the villa. I can’t even complain about them not seeming to know what ‘Do Not Disturb’ means seeing as they were only knocking on the door as we hadn’t housekeeping come inside the building in three days.
  • Notes: Definitely the best end to the best three weeks in my life. An outside eye would have looked at us and thought that we were squandering our time in the paradise isles. But as we were about to be back on the road almost everyday through Australia, I was more than happy to sit back and do the most nothing I’ve done in 25 years.

After Uprising our time in Fiji had come to a close (M: much to my devastation). We unfortunately had to get an early bus back to the airport (M: in the POURING rain, which made the journey back to Nadi even more exciting) so didn’t spend much time hanging around the resort on the last day. But the bus got us to the airport nice and early so I had the pleasure of perusing the shops and typing up all I could about the last of our time in the US (I’m slowly gaining a hold on this blogging malarkey) (M: and I immediately ruined it by spending ages to proofread, oops).

We are currently in Brisbane, Australia and if I was feeling homesick before (which I was by the way, this intrepid hero misses a good duvet day in the British rain) I’m not now. Australia is basically England but with an accent and more puns everywhere.

Until next time!

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