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.