Whether I'm trying my best to not fall off an Icelandic glacier, or standing in an ice-cold stream in Austria, or watching a lioness snack on a zebra on the African plains, or (more often) just sitting at my desk overhearing 16-year-old girl gossip, every day's a holly-day for me.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Bula, Fiji!

We arrived on Taveuni, an island about an hour’s flight from the mainland.

 I feel like I’ve been awake for three days. And I kinda have…I woke up on Wednesday in Houston and it is now 4:30 pm on Friday. That whole crossing the international date thing is a crazy feeling. Like I’ve skipped time. I did sleep on the plane, but not well, as I was basically trying to sleep with my head on my tray table for 8 hours, and the girl in front of me took fuuuullllll advantage of her reclining seat. Miraculously, I am not that tired, but I know I will sleep well tonight.

After we arrived in Nadi at 6:30 a.m., we met Lisa, one of our Nat Geo leaders and hustled to make our next flight to Taevuni. We had met our other Nat Geo leader, Brett, the night before at LAX. At check in before our flight to Taveuni, they weighed our luggage and US (we literally stepped up on the baggage scale) and then rearranged all our pre-assigned seats to balance out the weight. The plane we were on from LAX to Nadi was the largest plane I’ve ever been on. The plane from Nadi to Taveuni was the smallest. Our co-pilot sat down on the front row, turned around and talked to us about the floatation device under each seat, then stood up and went to the “flight deck” – meaning he took two steps forward and sat down again. I wasn’t nearly as nervous as I probably should’ve been, and the flight over was beautiful. The water is as blue as I imagined it would be.

We piled our luggage and ourselves into the van after we landed, and the driver told me to get in the front seat. I walked around to the “passenger side” and opened the door to see the steering wheel. He laughed at me and asked me if I wanted to drive. Oooops…first obtuse American tourist mistake. 

We arrived at our cottages at Tovu Tovu, got settled in and had breakfast (eggs and toast and awesome coffee). We then walked to a restaurant/hotel area down the road called Coconut Grove. An ex-pat named Ronna owns it, and it is beautiful. She let us spend time on the private beach in front of the resort, which was exactly what we needed. I hope to come back to Coconut Grove someday…sans 14 teenagers. No offense, kids. We then had lunch, also delicious, and headed back for very cold but very welcomed showers. We did some introduction/orientation activities, had a really good dinner and went to bed early.

Saturday morning, we headed to a local rugby tournament. Every kids’ rugby team on the island was involved and there were LOTS of people there. It would basically be like spending a Saturday at a middle school soccer tournament in the US. The one major difference is that the fans were REALLLLY into it. It was awesome to watch them get so excited about the games. And our students got to practice action photography for the first time. It started raining while we were there, but we put on our rain jackets and set out. I almost didn’t pack my rain jacket because my suitcase was so full (shocking), but I did at the last minute. Not packing it would have been a monumental mistake. I am never going to complain about the rain or HUMIDITY in Houston again. Houston is like Phoenix compared to this place.

We stopped in town to buy sulus (sarongs that are required for women in certain situations here) and then headed out to see a waterfall at Bouma. We drove and drove and drove, off pavement onto dirt and then came to a high water crossing that stopped us. Too much water to cross. I was having flashbacks to Memorial Day in Houston and was relieved that our driver decided to turn around. I only have one remaining pair of glasses to lose, so I couldn’t risk that again. We went back to our cottages, changed clothes and headed to dinner.

 We had dinner at a beautiful hotel/bed and breakfast called Nakia. The owner, Julie, is an American who has created a beautiful resort here. She also owns a dive shop on the island called Taveuni Dive. We had our first kava ceremony and a delicious dinner. Kava has a reputation of being this crazy, hallucination inducing muddy water kind of stuff…the muddy water part is accurate, but you’d have to drink a LOT of kava to hallucinate. My lips did get numb for a few minutes, but beyond that, no effects. I will say, however, that I slept really well that night.

Sunday morning meant going to church. Tovu Tovu is a family “compound” on 120 acres owned by Alan Peterson. They have a small Methodist church on their land and about 30 locals were at church that morning. We were “called” to church by their singing, which was amazing. It was a beautiful service and the pastor did a great job on his sermon, including us in his remarks and praying for our safe travels.

After church, we headed out for a hike to two waterfalls. The first was to Bouma, the waterfall we missed yesterday. About five minutes into our hike, the entire Fijian sky fell on us and drenched us. Again…thank goodness for the rain jacket. We got to the waterfall, stripped down to our already soaking bathing suits and got in the water. It was COLD, so I only made it to my waist, but most of the kids swam all around and spent time in the water and out, taking pictures. Several kids fell on the hike because of the slippery rocks and the mud, but everyone was a trooper. I heard no complaints.

We loaded back into the vans and went to a village called Lavana for the Lavana Coastal Walk. The walk takes about three hours round trip and ends in another amazing waterfall. Again, about five minutes into the walk, the rain started and this time, it was apocalyptic. We stood on the porch of a random building for 15 minutes waiting it out, but there was really no waiting it out. We decided to keep going until we could sit somewhere for lunch. We sat on the porch of a preschool and ate lunch and then took a vote on who wanted to keep going in the rain for the hike and who wanted to just stay in the village and take pictures there. All the kids except one – and Ashlie and I – voted to walk through the rain. Impressive. I just kept thinking about the part in Forest Gump when he is in Vietnam (and Meghan's excellent impersonation of the scene). He talks about it “raining straight down, raining sideways, raining upside down”…that’s how I felt. I don’t know how those men lived in the jungle for a year with constant rain. I was over it after a few hours! The kids set out for the waterfall and Ashlie, Alex and I went back to the visitor center at the front of the village and dried off. We took pictures of the beach, dogs, kids playing hopscotch, etc. The hopscotch skills in Fiji are indescribable. They take it to a whole other level. I played for a few minutes with some of the girls. First, they were surprised when I told them that I used to play hopscotch in the US. I explained that we used chalk on sidewalks the way they use sticks to draw the grids in the sand. Secondly, they were amused at how bad I was. My hopscotch game is definitely not what it used to be. Balance is not my forte these days.

The rest of the group arrived back to the visitor center by 5:30 and we had dinner at the visitor center. They’d prepared a lovo for us, which is the Fijian version of Texas bbq. The men dig a hole in the sand, light dried banana leaves under lava rocks until they’re fiery hot, then place meat and vegetables in foil on top of the rocks. They cover that with sand, then more rocks and banana leaves on top and let it cook for a few hours. The chicken was great.

 Close to sunset, 10-12 of the village children made their way to the beach and started playing in the water and on a huge log that had washed up. They stood on the log and sang a song over and over as the waves came in. I asked one of the older kids what the song meant and she said, "they're daring the sea to get them." They would wait until the water was almost to them, and then they'd run up the beach to avoid getting soaked. Most of them ended up pretty wet.

We drove home after dark and I sat in the front seat of the van. I started noticing lots of small rocks in the road, reflected in the headlights. Our driver was avoiding the rocks. Then I realized the rocks were moving. Frogs. I’m not exaggerating when I say I saw at least 300 frogs on the road in 20 minutes. It was a real life Frogger game. Our driver did a great job of avoiding most of them, but I’m quite sure he didn’t miss them all. Sorry Fijian frog families.

We got home and I commandeered the shower in one of the girls’ cabin because unlike my cabin, it had hot water. It was my first warm shower since Wednesday, so that was a highlight of the day.

On Monday morning, we had a photo lesson, then ate lunch, then headed to the beach for snorkeling. We had to walk quite a ways through rocks and water to get to the sandy part of the beach and then had to wait for the tide to come in. We ate lunch, the kids played Frisbee and then were finally able to snorkel. I sat on the beach and in the water and contemplated the view.

We got home around 5:00, quickly showered and packed up and set off for a four night stay in the village. Detailing our time there will be the longest blog post of my life, and I’m quite sure nothing I can write will adequately convey the experience. But I’m working on it. More to come…

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

We're Off

The first of many selfies with Meghan, I'm sure. We're on our way to LA. Only 20 hours to go. 

Pack It All In

Well, it's that time again...the night I try to fit my entire closet and bathroom into a duffle bag, while  repeatedly asking myself why I have seven travel size bottles of Herbal Essence Hello Hydration shampoo and 13 packages of wet-wipes. Those numbers are literal. I seriously don't know how I accrue so many travel size items or why they are not getting used. I can confidently say I am going to have some very hydrated, very delicious smelling hair over the next two weeks because I have enough shampoo to wash my hair every day, twice a day for a month.

I am heading to Fiji for two weeks with my co-worker, Ashlie Simon, and 14 students. Ashlie is the photography teacher at MHS, as well as a former student of mine. Yep, you read that right: a former student. (Still not sure how she's old enough to be teaching across the hall from me, but that's a different blog topic...) This will be my fourth summer trip with National Geographic Student Expeditions, and I think I am most excited about this destination over any other. We will be staying in four different locales in Fiji, including five nights in a Fijian village, living in locals' homes. We will update our blogs as much as we can based on electricity and wi-fi availability.

Before I can get completely focused on the trip and how great it's going to be (and I know it's going to be), I have to figure out how to get this duffle bag zipped. Chris experienced the packing process with me tonight, and I'm pretty sure he is having second thoughts about our relationship after seeing how many shirts I feel I need for a two-week trip. He is an extremely experienced packer/traveler, and as much as he tried to help, he pretty much just stared at the bag and said "there's no way....there's no way" over and over. BUT, I DID get the bag zipped. Minus the toiletries. Oooops. I'm going to sleep on it and feel sure I will wake up to find my bag has grown an extra pocket overnight.

See y'all on the other side of the dateline.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Day 13: Bless, Iceland

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”  Gustave Flaubert

"Bless" means "goodbye" in Icelandic, which I think is really cool. And  appropriate.

We left Akureyri today and are back in Reykjavik. Erika and Peter took us to a really nice farewell dinner at a restaurant on top of the performing arts center...white tablecloth kind of place. Had some great conversation with Erika and the kids at our table. A great way to end the trip. Now I have to figure out how to get 60 pounds of stuff into a bag and convince the airlines that it's actually only 50 pounds.

It's been a GREAT trip! The kids have been the most polite, helpful, kind group of kids I've ever traveled with.  I'm so grateful to everyone involved in this trip, especially Cathy. What an amazing thing she has done by starting this program for SBISD. Cathy is retiring and will be missed more than she will ever know...especially by me. I've learned so much from her about being a great teacher and a great human being.

Top 5 Things I Will Miss About Iceland:

1. Its landscape. I loved riding in the bus because around every bend was something more impressive than the last impressive site.
2. The people...they're beautiful inside and out and seem to be a laid-back, friendly, accepting bunch.
3. Clean air, clean water, the bluest sky I've ever seen.
4. The Blue Lagoon. I'd go there once a week if I lived here.
5. Peter and Erika and Tota (and her dinners!) and Runnar...they made the trip.

Top 5 Things (in no particular order) I've Missed While We Were Gone:

1. Darkness...I'm a night owl by nature. The perpetual daylight has its perks, but it definitely threw me.
2. My bed and sleeping in real sheets, not a sleeping bag.
3. Everyday luxuries that we take for granted...plenty of electrical outlets, Netflix (they don't have Netflix in Europe...well, not legally), grocery stores that have every possible item imaginable all in one place, reasonably priced goods and services (have I mentioned that Iceland is expensive?!)...
4. Ice! The irony!! No place in Europe (or any foreign country that I've visited) uses ice the way we do. And certainly not "Sonic ice!" I realize this seems ridiculous, but for an ice addict like me, it's an issue.
5. Being able to talk to family or friends anytime I want to.

The reason I love to travel so much is because I get to learn so many new things, see things in a new light, hear perspectives different than mine, meet new and interesting people, and be reminded that although we may live our daily lives in very different ways and speak different languages, we are really not that different when it comes down to it. Most importantly, traveling makes me appreciate home and makes me realize how very fortunate I am.

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”  Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Day 10-12: Aka-ray-ray, AKA Akureyri

Peter and the kids pronounced Akureyri "Aka-ray-ray" so many times  that I forgot how to say it correctly. Regardless of the pronunciation, it is the second largest city in Iceland. It is on the northeastern side of the island, on the harbor and is surrounded by beautiful mountains and streams and the bluest sky I’ve ever seen.  The color in the picture above is not altered...that's really how blue it is! I asked Cathy if she thought the sky really is bluer here or if we just notice it more because we’re on vacation and taking photos. She said she thinks it looks bluer because the air is so much cleaner. I concurred.

Saturday morning, we awoke to a cold, drizzly day and set out at 8:30 for whale-watching in Husavik, a really cute harbor town (I’m starting to figure out that ALL the towns in Iceland are “harbor towns”) about an hour and a half from Akyreyri. We boarded the boat around 10:00, put on some very stylish bright orange rain coats and set out for sea. Within 15 minutes, we briefly saw a humpback whale, followed by two more within an hour or so. We were able to get a few decent pictures, although we weren’t super close to them. The highlight of the trip was seeing a blue whale, the largest animal on earth. Alex was disappointed that he didn’t “jump out of the water and do tricks for us,” but I think we all realized how lucky we were to see one of only 10,000 blue whales in existence. Several of the kids were unable to enjoy the whale-watching as much as others because of sea-sickness, but as soon as we got back to land and had some hot soup and bread, everyone was fine.

 About 15 minutes from the harbor, we stopped at the “fossil cliffs,” an area right on the coast that has a mountain stream running into the Atlantic, surrounded by cliffs that are filled with fossils and rock sediment. The kids ate lunch right on the beach. We could see the layer of rock and fossils throughout the walls of the cliffs, and the kids explored for a while, walking the stream, rolling down a grassy hill and playing with the dogs that belonged to the land owner. An old, abandoned warehouse sits right over the beach, near the stream, and the owner is turning it into a coffee shop and hostel. I definitely want to order a latte there someday.

We left the cliffs after an hour or so and drove for another hour to the largest waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss. It was cold and rainy and a bit of a hike from the parking lot to the falls, but worth it. The falls were ridiculously big and even more ridiculously loud. Erika walked REALLY close to the edge of the falls to get a good shot, and I lost a year or two off my life watching her. I had to look away it made me so nervous.  We didn’t stay long because many of the kids had forgotten raincoats and/or protection for their camera, but I was very happy we’d made the trek to see the falls.

See that tiny dot of a person in the picture above, right on the edge of the rocks? That's Erika!

We made one more stop at a crater/lake area, took a few pictures and headed back to Akureyri. We got warmed up/cleaned up, had dinner and spent more time downloading/editing/blogging before bed.

On Sunday, we drove about 30 minutes outside the city to a beautiful horse farm for a two hour horseback ride. It was, in my opinion, the prettiest landscape we’d seen yet and we had PERFECT weather. It was a bit chilly, but the sky was indescribably blue and the sun was shining. I had a horse named Cokey who was generally an “easy” horse, until we started trotting. He got pretty enthusiastic about trotting, which made me nervous. The ride leader, Miriam, seemed a bit skeptical when I told her I was from Texas but had only ridden horses a handful of times. I explained that not all Texans ride horses and she laughed. Miriam is a college student from Germany and is in Iceland for the summer, working on the horse farm. She and I had some very interesting conversation about our respective homes, school systems, politics, etc. She spoke very good English and explained that she had visited both Kentucky and Maryland as part of a student exchange program. I told her my last name and although she giggled at my pronunciation of it, she explained that it is very common in Germany, although it usually has two n’s on the end. She lives in Minez, which is in the south of Germany and has many “wine yards.” She invited me to come visit, and I told her I would. ‘Hope you were serious, Miriam, because I’ll be showing up on your doorstep someday! Of course, we told her she needed to come visit Texas, as well.

When we got back to the stables, they offered us hot chocolate and pastries and let us take pictures on the property for a while. The kids immediately started a photo shoot with the lambs on the property, as well as the dogs and horses. We didn’t want to leave, but had to get back for lunch and exploring Akyreyri.

Our driver, Runnar...he's a boat captain, an excellent bus driver and apparently,
 a horse whisperer, as well. 

 After lunch at the hostel, we set out to explore the city for a little while. The kids broke into groups of four again and were given a photo assignment/scavenger hunt again, as well as time to shop for souvenirs. Cathy and I went with Peter and a group of kids to 66 North, the Icelandic version of REI, but just clothing. Peter arranged a 30% discount for us, which was much needed. The clothes are awesome, but not at all cheap. I got a $30 t-shirt, which was a bargain. It’s one of the only things I’ve bought the entire trip because everything (clothes, food, cosmetics…) is VERY expensive. A pair of wool socks is usually between $18 and $25. The jacket that I REALLY wanted at 66 North (which was essentially a zip up hoodie) was $160, after our discount. Thus, my t-shirt purchase. We asked Tota if the salaries were commiserate with the price of goods in Iceland, and she emphatically said no. She also reminded us that citizens pay a flat tax of approximately 37%.

We went in several other touristy shops, had coffee in a local coffee shop/hostel and walked back to the hostel in time for dinner and more uploading, caption writing, blogging, etc.. So hard to believe the trip is almost over. It seems like it’s been two months since I’ve been in Houston, but it’s also flown by. We’ve packed in a LOT into 12 days.

On Monday morning, we ate breakfast and then listened to the students present their final assignment for Nat Geo. Each student had to pick one photo and write a complete caption for it. I enjoyed seeing their chosen photos and hearing their captions. They’ve all done great work. We loaded up the buses and left 20 minutes EARLY, headed back to Reykjavik.