Travel notes from a Peace Corps Volunteer’s parents’ trip to Fiji
For those reading this blog that we have not met, allow us to introduce ourselves. We are Jay and Deanne Russell, and our daughter is Samantha.
We have just returned home from our trip to the Pacific Islands of Viti Levu and Ovalau, Fiji. Peaceful….relaxing….resort hotels with room service and hot running water….postcard views of the ocean from a hotel balcony? No, not this trip! It was beautiful for sure, however our primary purpose, without being too cliché, was to walk a mile in the shoes of our daughter Samantha who is more than half way through serving a 26 month term as a Peace Corps volunteer in the South Pacific. As many of you know, Samantha lives in a village on the island of Ovalau near the original capital of Levuka.
After nearly 24 hours of travel we landed in Nadi, Fiji at 5:00 am and boarded the first bus heading south to the town of Sigatoka. Little did we know this would be the newest and nicest bus that we would encounter on our trip! A fellow Peace Corps volunteer met us at the bus station (we were easy to spot for sure!) and escorted us to the village of Nakabuta where he had lived. We were welcomed into the village and entertained with music and dance; learned some customs and sampled food, and of course got into the spirit of the islands with the beverage of choice, grog.
Thirty-three hours without sleep had finally caught up to us, so we left Nakabuta village and headed a short distance by bus to the Bedarra Beach Inn located on what is known as the sunset strip of Sigatoka. It was becoming obvious that the bus system could get you just about anywhere in Fiji for just a few dollars. We stayed at Bedarra for three nights…little did we know this would be our last place with a traditional bed, air conditioning and hot running water for many days.
Thursday morning we left Sigatoka in a 15 passenger mini van (all seats were taken) for the 1 ½ hour ride south to Pacific Harbour where we stayed two nights in a 20 bed dormitory at The Uprising. This dorm style living is how we began to prepare ourself for the conditions that we anticipated encountering living with Samantha in her village. This would soon be viewed as “luxury living”.
Saturday morning we left Pacific Harbour and stood out on the Queen’s Highway (this is a two lane, partially paved “road” connecting Nadi to Suva) for approximately 30 minutes until we were able to hail a mini van for the two hour ride south to Suva, the capital of Fiji. Here is where the three of us stayed at a fellow Peace Corps volunteer’s quarters for two nights. The southeast portion of Viti Levu is known as the wet region and it didn’t disappoint. We had rain for the entire stay in Suva. It felt as though we had had more rain in those 48 hours than we had during an entire year in Southern California! Suva is a vibrant city with significant British and Indian influences. The city is truly alive with the sights and smells of open air produce and fish markets and the modern conveniences of department stores, restaurants and a movie theatre. Between the rain and the fact that most businesses are closed on Sundays for religious purposes, we decided to go to the Cinema to see Heroine, a Bollywood movie with English subtitles. It was “accha/Theek-thaak” (good, so-good).
We thoroughly enjoyed this city experience but we did find that the restaurant Samantha wanted to take us to was closed. Jay stepped up to the plate and made a traditional Southern California meal of tacos. Yum, Yum! While in Suva, Samantha introduced us to the Peace Corps staff and we toured their offices. Samantha arranged our transportation to get us from Suva to the island of Ovalau and her village by bus and ferry. This portion of the trip was complex and took 6-8 hours to complete. It became apparent to us how well Samantha has figured out the language, transportation and culture of Fiji. How lucky we were to have had a personal tour guide!
Monday afternoon the three of us caught the Fiji Searoad Service bus in downtown Suva. The bus took us to the ferry landing in Natovi where our bus (and several other buses and vehicles) drove right on to the ferry. We headed east across the Pacific to the island of Ovalau where our bus exited the ferry and drove for approximately 2 hours southeast around the island of Ovalau on an unpaved narrow road towards the original capital Levuka. We arrived at dark to Samantha’s village and were greeted by several villagers welcoming her “home”.
Here is where we put on a pair of “Samantha’s shoes” so to speak. We didn’t realize how challenging the next four days would actually be for us. Samantha’s photographs, emails and blogs could not fully describe every aspect of her life in Fiji, and that is why we wanted to experience it with her. If she can do over 800 days we can certainly do four!
Since it was dark and we had been traveling since 1:00PM, our first question was “what do we eat?” How do you prepare a meal with what appeared to be no food, no gas to cook with and no refrigeration? It was obvious now why Samantha had been methodically purchasing food along the way. Items such as a whole watermelon, bread, cheese, tomatoes, carrots, bok choy and a couple of apples. Samantha prepared us cheese and tomato sandwiches without thinking twice. I wouldn’t say it was delicious but it was satisfying and quieted a growling stomach. After dinner we were summoned to meet the Chief at his home for the Sevusevu ceremony where the village spokesman offered the chief our gift of kava in it’s raw form (stem and roots) on Jay’s behalf. We gifted members of the village with American cigarettes and candy and drank grog as Jay and I were granted acceptance into the village. We asked and responded to many questions ranging from who will be elected US president in 2012 to questions about work and retirement ages in the US versus Fiji. Jay is bummed because if he lived in Fiji he would have retired six years ago! Back from the chief’s home, I cried as I watched geckos walk along the beams of Samantha’s house chirping at us! I think this was the moment where I questioned whether I could actually do this…however I knew I needed (and wanted) to. We then prepared for sleep in our “princess bed” (aka mosquito netting above the bed) and what tomorrow would bring.
On Tuesday morning we woke up and Samantha was quite sick with a fever and a sore throat. She gave us a list, an empty propane tank, her electric card so that we could buy electricity, and directions on how to get to and from Levuka via transport (a stake bed truck with a bench on either side and a canopy top). We still wonder if Samantha was feigning sick to test our survival skills, or whether she was really sick! Just kidding, she was indeed sick. It costs $1 each way to get to/from town, and we spent about 3 hours purchasing everything on the list. Jay and I browsed the four aisles of the market to figure out how to come up with meals for the next three full days with no refrigeration and knowing we didn’t want to eat the tin fish that is abundant for purchase in all the markets of Fiji. Once we started to really think about it and look around it started to come together…we noticed some familiar items and it all seemed to fall into place. We purchased apples, cheese (which we kept from spoiling wrapped tightly and submerged in a bowl of water), potatoes and rice. Along with the items gathered or offered to us in the village such as tomatoes, onions, eggs and fruit, we actually were able to prepare three very different and satisfying meals. Although, we did feel at first that our Fijian experience was a combination of Survivor, The Amazing Race and Fear Factor all rolled into one, Jay and I looked at each other, smiled and said “I think we are now getting the hang of this!”
Our time in the village was spent meeting the residents and watching the children play. We also had plenty of time to explore and participate in some of the day to day tasks of a village such as gathering food, ensuring you have clean water, farming, fishing, doing laundry and housecleaning. It was reassuring for us to see the interaction between Samantha and the residents of her village. They take care of her, look out for her and we feel they truly love her and appreciate what she has brought to their lives and their village.
The rain on Ovalau intensified each night and each subsequent day we noticed a deterioration in the quality and volume of running water available to Samantha’s house. She started prepping by collecting large amounts of rain water each night and storing it for future use. By Wednesday afternoon the entire village had no running water! We left for the mainland on Friday morning at 4:30 am and still the village was without running water! Samantha tells us we were fortunate that we still had electricity as often times she is without both running water and electricity during cyclone season, which is about to begin soon. We were able to get through four days in the village with a greater appreciation for what life is like on a daily basis for Samantha. Words can’t completely describe what it is like living in a remote village in a foreign country…having lived it, even for a short period of time, helped us to better understand and acknowledge what Samantha has experienced.
We left Samantha’s village at dark on Friday morning and headed to the Natalei Eco Lodge on Viti Levu. We took the ferry and two different buses north for a six hour trek reaching the village of Nataleira where Samantha had reserved a traditional Fijian bure for one night overlooking a beautiful black sand beach. She had arranged this stay as she knows several of the locals that both developed and work for the lodge. The Natalei Eco Lodge is a great alternative to traditional hotels as they utilize sustainable resources and provide income to the village. This was a special place for me as I spent my birthday here and Samantha had arranged to have the three of us taxied by private fiberglass boat to a protected/private coral reef inhabited by dolphins. Here we were able to watch up close dolphins resting (swimming playfully and jumping in a group of up to a dozen) in a safe environment after hunting all night. We were also able to spend time snorkeling in a beautiful protected coral reef. I will forever remember this special day!
Leaving Natalei for Rakiraki town, located on the Northeast side of Viti Levu, was an experience I will not soon forget. We were transported via private vehicle to the bus station in Khorovou. This two hour car ride provided its challenges as we were convinced we would need to evacuate (jump out of the car) at some point. The condition of the vehicle (the interior was filling with smoke from the engine, and we were certain we had either a flat tire or a broken shock) and the road (washed out and filled with potholes) had each of us secretly planning our escape in the event of a mishap. From Khorovou, via the King’s Highway, we rode about three hours North to Rakiraki town to stay two nights at Tanoa Rakiraki Hotel. This area is where much of the sugar cane production occurs and most resembles the Hawaiian Islands. Here we found modern beds and air conditioning even though by this point of the trip neither seamed necessary, or even that important. Even though we felt like we were back to a more developed area, so to speak, as soon as I unzipped my bag to get a change of clothes there was a huge frog sitting on the top of my clothes! I couldn’t believe my eyes! I had experienced geckos, flying cockroaches, mosquitos and now a traveling frog! This frog travelled in my bag for almost eight hours just waiting to be released! Why couldn’t it have been Jay’s bag he chose?
Monday morning arrived too quickly as we needed to say goodbye to Samantha as she headed back to her village to fulfill an unplanned Peace Corps commitment. We took a 3 hour bus ride west to Sabeto Junction near Nadi and stayed at Stoney Creek for our last night in Fiji. This is a picturesque location with views of the Sleeping Giant Mountain Range. We climbed to the top of the property where we had a 360 degree view of the lush vegetation covering the steep mountains and valley below and watched a beautiful sun set. This last night stay in Fiji was an opportunity for Jay and I to reflect on our past two weeks and just relax…that is until the gecko fell 25 feet from the ceiling onto my shoulder! Seriously!! Can’t a girl get a break!
After breakfast on Tuesday morning we left Stoney Creek for Port Denarau, the Fiji you see in travel brochures. This was an opportunity for us to walk from resort to resort along the white sandy beaches of the island and spend the day relaxing, shopping and prepping for our long night of travel ahead. This is where I was shocked to see prices of what I would call average purchases in the US (a block of cheese or chocolate for $57 FJD, a case of Heineken beer for $125 FJD or red seedless grapes for $15.99/kg FJD!) We stopped at The Hard Rock Cafe for a $3 Happy Hour beer and found a Honey-Citrus Grilled Chicken Salad on the menu for a mere $49.50 FJD! We had several beers and called it good!
Samantha is well known throughout Viti Levu and Ovalau – we honestly could not go anywhere without her running into someone she knew. She would converse in full Fijian to each person she encountered. Her expertise and knowledge of the islands we visited was extremely helpful to us during our travels. Our trip was far more satisfying and rewarding than we had expected and I would encourage anyone thinking about visiting Samantha to do so. You will not be disappointed!
Vinaka Vaka Levu