The humid, sugar cane sweetened air hit me with force as I moved from the airplane and into the small airport in Nadi. It made me smile with anticipation. This was my third trip to Fiji and I was determined not to let the almost suffocating weather be an obstacle this time. My previous visits had taught me to forget wearing make-up or styling my hair. Neither would last more than 20 minutes in the wet, high humidity air. In my travel journal I describe the hot, heavy air as a personality in itself, a piece of the beautiful Fijian Islands that must be accepted and embraced if possible.
My husband and I were part of a small group invited by a local Suva Church on the Fiji Island of Viti Levu to work alongside them as they ministered to the more isolated people on the outer rim of small islands called the Yasawa Group Islands. After two days in Lautoka we gathered our group onto a boat that would take us 5 hours farther out in the Pacific Ocean to Matacawalevu Island, situated near the Blue lagoon of movie fame that would be our base camp for the next 12 days.
The base camp at Bay of Plenty Lodge had future dreams of becoming a beautiful backpacker resort destination (which it is now), but at this time the beach was thick with vegetation and the water muddy and full of branches. Our first clue that this would be a challenging trip physically was disembarking from the large transporting boat onto smaller taxi boats in order to get us close enough to wade through several yards of knee high muddy water to the island. The water was too shallow and full of branches for the large boat to get close to the base island that we would be returning to each night after traveling out to even smaller islands every day.
The island that held the Bay of Plenty Lodge was gorgeous and very rustic at the time. After slogging through the water we reached a small sandy area and were graciously invited to gather under a newly built canopy with cement flooring and large picnic tables. Before stepping into this eating area we took turns washing the sand and gunk off our feet in a large water basin and placed out sandals in a row to retrieve later.
Our assigned sleeping cabins were modern and comfortable once I got over seeing lizards on the walls and skittering through the room every once in a while. Early the next morning I was awakened by loud talking just outside my window, I could not understand the language but it sounded intense, almost as if an argument was taking place right outside my cabin. This happened three mornings in a row and the mystery was solved later one afternoon when I saw a Fijian standing next to my window speaking loudly into a cell phone. Apparently this particular spot on the island, high atop a hill, was the only place that reception for cell phones would work!
Each morning our group would meet in the canopied dining area for an amazing fruit-filled breakfast. Many items were unknown to me but I did not care, it all tasted wonderful. After breakfast we waded back out into the water and climbed into the small water taxis that would take us to even more remote and isolated islands for the day. We would not be returning until after dark so our hands and bags were full of supplies for the whole day. This included a flashlight, water bottles, sunscreen, snacks, gifts for the people and our passports.
The simple act of climbing into a small taxi boat was complicated by the clothing we were required to wear for this trip to the outer reaches of the Fijian islands. The group we were working with was a very conservative church that honored their own tradition of complete coverage for women. We had to wear ankle length skirts and long sleeves even in the humid, hot weather. The men had to wear sulus also. Sulus are skirts for men made out of material similar to men’s dress suits in the United States.
This became an interesting and extremely comical task as we waded through the knee-deep water with our heavy bags and our skirts held high to get to the water taxi. Climbing into the small boat as it bobbed on the waves was a slapstick comedy and a sight to behold I am sure! The taxi drivers always watched this silly production with a big smile and some choice words to one another across the water. I don’t think I want to hear the translation!
The small boats would be filled with 8 to 10 people and the rides were better than any amusement park in the world could offer. Without navigation tools of any kind, these water taxi drivers sped off over the turquoise blue waters with a practiced hand on the small outboard motor and a big smile. We would call out to the other boats and it would become a race to see who would reach the smaller islands first.
The taxi boats left us on the smaller islands each day, where we spent hours walking to the isolated villages of the interior. The villagers always greeted us graciously as we waited for our hosts to meet with the village chief and gain permission to visit with the people. Our instructions were to never look a man in the eye, to always bow low and remove our shoes if invited into a hut and we must put down our bags or backpacks as a symbol of politeness.
I have never met more gracious and hospitable people. The Fijian families were shy but warmly inviting to us everywhere we ventured. The children followed us from hut to hut and would break out in giggles whenever we smiled at them; as if we were the goofiest things they had ever seen. Which may be very true!
After dark our group met on the beach at an appointed time and watched for the water taxis that would transport us back to our base camp. Standing on a sandy beach in the pitch dark, shining flashlights in one another’s faces to see if we had all arrived safely back at the checkpoint was a bit frightening and challenging. But we left no one behind and it is probably a rare person who can say they got to bounce across the Pacific Ocean in a water taxi with no electronic guidance devices at all.
By the end of our trip my toenail polish was gummy from the high humidity and bug spray, my hair was straggly and my face was sunburned, but my heart was full. The islands of Fiji are rich in lush tropical vegetation, deep blue waters and big-hearted people who love life and offer smiles to everyone they meet. I was able to return four times and I never got tired of exploring the islands of Fiji. Ni Sa Bula!