Monday, May 14, 2012


Flooded. That's the one word that comes to mind when I think about Fiji. 

It was to be our last stop before heading back to the United States after nearly four months of traveling abroad. The vision I had of Fiji was that it would be an exotic tropical paradise and the perfect place to recharge after so many weeks of backpacking. We thought it would be a great finale to our trip where we could just lie on the beach and relax before we landed in Hawaii and had to search for a place to live and look for jobs. Like most of the countries we had visited, it was nothing like we'd expected but if every place was just as we'd imagined then there would be no point in traveling. We might as well have stayed home and read a guide book instead.

I concluded my last post (New Zealand-North Island) with Darren's television interview at the Auckland Airport. That was how we found out about the floods in Nadi but we had already booked the outbound ticket and checked in for our flight. We hoped it wasn't as bad as the reporters were making it out to be. 

We were lucky in that our hotel in Nadi was not far from the airport and the surrounding roads were still somewhat drivable. Most people on our flight were left stranded and hotel reservations had to be canceled. All of the roads out of Nadi were flooded and impassable. They scrambled to find hotels nearby that had rooms available. Thousands had lost their homes. Crops were destroyed. The water was contaminated and undrinkable.  Livestock and people had drowned. 

It was raining hard the night we arrived but for the next day or two, the weather was fairly clear. We thought we had caught the last of the monsoon. The roads were still flooded so we were pretty much stuck at the hotel which was in the middle of nowhere. The nearest store was a twenty-five-minute walk and most of the stores had lost power and were closed. It was about a fifteen-minute walk to the beach so we decided to go explore. When we got there, we did not find an exotic tropical paradise. The beach was destroyed. Trees had been uprooted due to the erosion, the water was brown and the sand was covered in debris that had washed ashore. The water level was so high that the locals had to wade into the water up to their necks to cross to the other side. They scavenged for lobsters and crabs to eat for dinner, everyone with a machete in their hand. We even saw a child in diapers scavenging the beach with a machete nearly as big as himself. It's extremely unnerving to be walking down the street and see someone coming your way wielding a sixteen-inch blade and just when you think they're going to hack you into pieces, they shout "Bula!" and give you a big warm grin. The word "Bula" literally means "Life" but it is used as a greeting like "hello" and is also a blessing for happiness and good health. 
We decided to walk into town to get some groceries and hoped the market would be open. While walking along the road, a car stopped and a woman offered us a ride. Her name was Margaret and she told us that the roads would be clear soon and she gave us information on where to get the bus. We were expecting her to ask us for money but it never happened. Typically, our experience while traveling was that if someone approached us offering help, they ultimately asked us for money in return. In Fiji, where they are dirt poor, the people are as genuine and kind as they get. 

The grocery store was the only store that seemed to have electricity but the produce was rotten and the shelves were pretty much empty except for giant sacks of rice. We were shocked at the prices as well. Many of Fiji's products are imported from other countries like New Zealand and India so it costs the average person in Fiji a week's wages to buy a loaf of bread. 

One night we walked to a guest house down the road for some dinner and got to see a show with fire dancing. It was pretty exciting especially since the dancers repeatedly dropped their flaming machetes so the chances of one of the performers or an audience member getting maimed were pretty high. The guest house was offering kava tasting before the show and I think the performers had too many tastes. In Fiji, the roots of the kava plant are used to make a drink that has sedative and anesthetic properties.

That was the one and only activity we were able to do while in Fiji. We were told that the roads were finally clear so I booked a rental car for the next morning so we could get out and see some of the island. When we woke up the next morning the monsoon was back so I had to cancel the car. The same day I booked the rental car, I also booked a room at the Westin. We thought we'd end the trip with a bang and stay in a really nice place. The Westin was located on Denarau Island and when the rain started again we were worried that we wouldn't even be able to get there. 

Darren, who grew up in Ireland which is well known for its rain, said he'd never experienced rain like this in his life. It was violent and relentless, not letting up for a solid week. Our hotel was packed with stranded travelers because their flight back home to Australia was canceled. The roads were closed again and the airport had shut down. 
Darren shot this video. You can hear the rain but it's coming down so hard that you can't even see it. 

For days we were confined to our hotel room. We had a TV that had three channels but only one was in English and it played non-stop reruns of the old Hawaii Five-O but because of the weather it often didn't work at all. Sometimes we went swimming in the pool. It had a huge water slide that was a big hit with a family of young Fijian kids. Their family was staying there to get away from the floods and school was closed. There were seven kids in total-five boys and two girls and they told us their parents were about 30 years old. The boys were sweet and polite and for some reason, they loved to talk to us even though we were adults. One boy named Junior liked to show off for Darren by diving in the pool. He would land on his face every time which would crack us up and then he'd casually look at Darren just to make sure he saw. Another poolside friend we had was a 13-year-old boy named Neil from New Zealand who introduced himself to us one day. We affectionately called him Neily, the Mayor of Nadi because he was our source of all the information around the island. When the electricity went out in the town, it was Neily who reported the news to us. When the roads were opened again the hotel staff were completely unaware and we found out the news from Neily.

After several days of being cooped up in our room because of the non-stop pouring rain, Darren decided he was going to run into town to get groceries because we had run out of food. On his way, a taxi driver picked him up and offered him a ride-for FREE. It was his job to drive people places for money but he wouldn't accept money for the ride. The kindness of the people in this country was overwhelming and humbling. Traveling had made us wary and cynical of people. We had learned that when someone offers you tea they want to sell you a rug and when someone gives you directions and they follow you, it's not to make sure you get there safely but because they are waiting for you to give them money. But in Fiji, they help people for purely genuine and unselfish reasons. This is an interesting concept that I think many countries can learn from.

While Darren was grocery shopping I hung out with my buddy Neily in the pool. He was 13 but based on his gangly frame I would have guessed 11. He was of Indian descent and reminded me of the character Mowgli from The Jungle Book. We were unlikely friends but as it turned out I had a lot in common with this 13-year-old Kiwi boy. Despite his young age, he was very smart and had also done a fair amount of traveling. He said Fiji was boring and that there was no sight-seeing. He was homesick and missed his friends in New Zealand. He had visited India and said his shoes were stolen outside the Taj Mahal so he didn't care for India too much. Thinking back on our crazy trip to India, this made me laugh. I told him how much I loved New Zealand and he asked me about New York. For some reason this boy opened up to me, a stranger he'd known for less than a week. He said he really wanted to go to New York someday. It was his cousin's favorite place in the whole world. She was 20 years old and went to New York City to seek treatment at Sloan Kettering Hospital for a brain tumor. He dunked his head under the water. His family would be going to NY in a couple weeks for her funeral because that is where she wished her ashes to be scattered. He wouldn't be going with them because he had school and important exams to take.
"It's important that I remain focused on my studies so that I can get a scholarship for college."
 These sounded more like an adult's words than a 13-year-old boy's. He dunked again. I told him my Aunt had recently died of a brain tumor as well. She passed away while we were in Ireland and we also didn't make it to the funeral.
"It sucks."
" sucks."
And here we were a 33 year old American and a 13-year-old New Zealander in a pool in Fiji. He dunked his head. This time staying under for a while.
"Where's Darren?"
"He ran into town. He should be back any minute."
And just a few seconds later Darren is back. He jumped into the pool and we barely recognized him with his freshly shaved head. He had stopped at the barber on his way back. The boredom had gotten to him. Then the Fijian boys were back and everyone began chasing each other and sliding down the water slide.
When the Fijian family left, things got really quiet. Then it was Neily's last day and we went to say goodbye, meeting his parents for the first time. And then we were alone again. The next day we made it to Denarau Island. On the drive over, we got a tour of the mess the monsoon had created. It was still raining non-stop. The beautiful Westin resort wasn't holding up too well either. We settled into our room and unpacked but then had to pack up and move to another room because it was literally raining in the room. The water was coming in through the ceiling and the light fixtures making it a very dangerous situation. Our next room was slightly better. It had a much better ocean view but the floor was flooded. We accepted this because at least we didn't have to fear electrocution.

It continued to pour. We listened to the radio. The winds were picking up threatening a cyclone. The second night the gale-force winds knocked out the power. We woke up to suffocating heat in the middle of the night. The generator restored the lights but not the air conditioning. We checked out the next morning but had to waste time all day hanging around the hotel lobby because our flight wasn't until 8:30 that night. We were tired and both of us had pounding headaches from the heat and lack of sleep. We watched the Rugby Sevens with the hotel staff and walked around in the rain. There wasn't much else to do but reflect upon the amazing journey we'd just had and hopefully would continue to have. We thought about all of the incredible things we'd done over the past few months. We had visited museums, zoos, aquariums, farms, mosques, temples, churches, palaces, shrines, and caves. We'd traveled by plane, train, bus, car, tuk-tuk, rickshaw, boats, motorcycle, bicycle, and an elephant. We'd survived several earthquakes, a cyclone, and a monsoon. We climbed mountains and a glacier. We'd trekked through the Himalayas, hiked up volcanoes, kayaked, surfed, and swam in the South Pacific Ocean and the Arabian, South China, Coral, Tasman, and the Andaman Sea. We had slept in hostels, backpackers, tea houses, hotels, motels, trains, planes, buses, airports, a car, a van and sometimes we didn't sleep at all. I had vomited more times over the past few months than I had in my whole life combined. At any point in time, one or both of us were tired and/or hungry but we would both do it all over again. Having given up the comforts of home to spend a lot of time dirty and uncomfortable, we did things we never thought we could do and met so many amazing people along the way. We wondered how they are all doing now. We thought about Mel and Louise from our train ride in India, and Alex from our trip to Turkey. There was a Welsh couple we kept running into in South Africa and a German couple we met in Nepal who invited us to stay with them in their home in Malaysia. I still email with Bishnu from Nature Trail in Nepal and he tells me that our friend Dharma is doing well and has just returned from another Poon Hill trek. They are busy now but soon the monsoons will be coming and there will be no work for several months. I wondered if Steve is making any progress in his fight for freedom camping in New Zealand. We think about Tuan, a 30-year-old hotel manager in Vietnam. He was unhappy because he was being forced by his family into an arranged marriage. He told us he did not love this girl but he was expected to get married and produce a son. We wonder if he went through with it. I thought about the little boy we saw running barefoot and half-naked in the middle of the night in Agra, India. I saw him for only a brief moment but he has stayed with me ever since. Is he still alive?  When I was sick in Thailand, I had a nightmare about that little boy. Darren woke me up in the middle of the night because I was choking. I was burning up with a fever and thought we were still in India. In this dream, I saw my Aunt and she said to me, "Don't worry. The boy is with me now."
And then I think and I hope that wherever they are Neily's cousin is with them too.

We tried to use our time in Fiji wisely. We spent a lot of time stuck inside our room so we took the opportunity to start planning for Hawaii. We had given up our jobs and home in New York and decided we'd try to live in Hawaii for a while. Neither of us had ever been there before nor did we know anyone who lived there so many people thought we were crazy. We had absolutely no plan for where we'd work or live. Every once in awhile we'd freak out about being homeless but I saw no point in going on a journey like this only to go back to exactly the life we had before it started. We had been living so much in the moment that we hadn't had time to worry about where we'd wind up when the trip was over. When we were in South Africa, our trip to Turkey just the week before seemed like it happened a lifetime ago. We were living day by day. Not focused on the future and what was going to happen the following weeks in Nepal or India or Vietnam. Each day we had to find a place to sleep for the night so I wasn't worried about where I would be sleeping three months in the future. So now we were less than 24 hours away from entering back into the United States after three and a half months and eleven countries. We were starting over with practically nothing but just one backpack each but whenever I'd start to panic about the future I'd think of Dharma in Nepal holding my hand so I wouldn't fall. "Ali, Ali Kim (Slowly, slowly) One step at a time."

As we were packing to leave Fiji, Darren showed me something he wrote in his notebook at the very beginning of our trip which feels more like 4 years ago than 4 months ago. He had been reading a book called, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, by Dean Karnazes and he wrote down this passage:

["Running has taught me that the pursuit of a passion matters more than the passion itself.
Immerse yourself in something deeply and with heartfelt intensity, continually improve, never give up-this is fulfillment, this is success.

Fulfillment: Most people never get there. They're afraid or unwilling to demand enough of themselves and take the easy road, the path of least resistance. But struggling and suffering, as I now saw it, were the essence of a life worth living. If you're not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you're not constantly demanding more from yourself-expanding and learning as you go-you're choosing a numb existence. You're denying yourself an extraordinary trip. 

As a running buddy once said to me: Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, "Wow!! What a Ride!"]

 At the airport, we were just a half-hour away from boarding our flight. Darren commented to me on how lucky we were that we had flown on over twenty flights without a single incident. Our longest flight delay was 5 hours for our shortest trip from Kathmandu to Pokhara Nepal, a 30-minute flight.

A few minutes later they announced that our flight was canceled and rescheduled for 5 am the following morning. We all had to reclaim our checked luggage and they would put all the passengers up in a hotel for the night. It took two hours to organize this. When we finally found our bags, we had to wait in line for the shuttle to the hotel. It held about fifteen people so it had to keep dropping groups off and coming back for the next fifteen people and all the while the rain was still pouring down. We had already exchanged our money for US dollars in the airport so it was good news when we learned they were also giving us a free buffet dinner. We were hungry and exhausted from not sleeping the night before so this really lifted Darren's mood. While we ate, he wistfully reminisced about the amazing buffet dinner we had in India as if it was the most memorable experience of our whole trip.

We got four hours of sleep and then had to wake up to catch a 3 am shuttle back to the airport, check our bags again and go through customs and immigration again. It was now February 4th. We had a layover in Samoa to pick up more passengers who also had to be put up in a hotel for the night and then we finally landed in Hawaii. We traveled over the International Date Line and so it was February 3rd again. Would this day ever end?!

Come back soon to read about how things turned out for us in Hawaii.