The sound of the assembly hall coming alive with the children’s leaving song pricked tears from my eyes as it dawned on me that home was on the horizon. Home, it seemed a hazy memory after experiencing life in the remote south pacific. Home, where people wore shoes and were on time – what was that again? After a seven hour delay, the supposed welcoming sight of three Fijian’s merrily singing with guitars was suffocated by the lack of air conditioning. I was yet to see the postcard perfect paradise that I presumed would embrace me with one arm, passing me a cocktail with the other. I told myself the stress of the flight delay was a mishap- a schoolboy error that Fiji would not dare to repeat. After all, I had backpacked Australasia for two months and this was meant to be a calming end to an adventure. Turns out it was only the beginning.
‘Welcome to Fiji Time’ the customs officer beamed, ignoring the collective sigh of weary Westerners in line. I gritted my teeth.
The next day we left the dusty chaos, cars and rain of the town Nadi for the Yasawas. Soon the sun was shining. The sea opened up its secrets through its clear looking glass, the sun spotlighting areas of colourful coral and exotic fish-including areas of depth where the active ecosystem housed many sharks. Sharks that included bull, tiger and black fin, all of which our snorkelling trip leaders later described as ‘friendly’ before I cut my leg on the rickety boat to swim with them. As you can imagine, as they swam around me I hoped beyond hoped they were even friendlier than the haven’t-heard-of-health-and-safety Fijians.
Islands soon slowly rose to conquer the horizon that had showings of the most breathtaking orange engulfed sunset every night, followed by light shows of shooting stars pushing through the blanket of darkness. Our postcard paradise had been delivered- though I was not yet to know what came with that.
The tourist heavy boat finally cut the tie with the outside world as it spat us onto a boat resembling little more than a ‘Castaway’ style creation- but with bananas, sweet bread and three smiling Fijians that radiated happiness. I gripped on to the boat thwart of life jackets that were only provided in storms (that we later experienced) filled with dread- this was it. My grip only relaxed as the sound of Fijian song danced from the white sands. The ‘one coconut’ resort had gathered to greet us- our luggage disappeared whilst we were greeted with coconut scented embraces and ringing laughter. Previous stress melted away as we were led to the ‘office’; little more than a bench shaded by rippling palm trees.
We all felt humbled. I decided to embrace the unexpected- even if the closest thing to a cocktail was a fresh coconut with a straw.
The Fijian islands were definitely picture perfect, yet the real experience was teaching, and getting to know the people. I spent little time on the beach, more with the local people playing nostalgic childhood games, volley ball, dancing and learning about their way of life, that usually never involves never leaving their island. Days were spent on outings (including the terrifying snorkelling experience) around the islands such as to the ‘Blue Lagoon’ caves and experiencing the touch of quintessentially British afternoon tea, with nights spent drinking Kava (a Fijian alternative to alcohol with interesting effects) around a fire with little more than singing and the lapping waves to fill our calmed minds.
At my teaching project two weeks later on an island further North, I fully embraced the simple, happy Fijian way of life. Even though I was left to teach my class whose third language is English (my teacher returned a poorly student to the mainland as there is no proper medical care on the islands), having to live off basic food rations, cold showers and electricity for only three hours a day, it was probably the most unique, and special part of my travelling experience in Fiji and overall. I will never forget the look on the children’s faces when I brought in musical instruments for a lesson, or their priceless excitement at being given homework! It is definitely a place where the concept of a city or Western culture cannot be understood, yet education is embraced and appreciated- along with life in general. The song came to an end, and I wiped my eyes as my class giggled. Home really was on the horizon. Once again one of us fell into the water triggering our group into hysterics as they attempted to get on the rickety boat with all the construction, and school materials to return to our Island base nearby. Sulus off, waterproofs on; for one last crazy soaking!
Although I could never sum up the beauty of the Fijian people, I can justify that my time in Fiji was well spent, from island hopping to teaching in a school desperate for support. There were rats and an invasion of nipping ants in my backpack. There was basic food, twenty bed dorms and barefooted grinning volunteers all around. Gorgeous scenery, afternoon tea, and lots of head torches that definitely came in handy when navigating into mosquito nets at night. There was the best cake shop on the beach by our base, new friendships, dancing, coconuts, coral, sharks, and the odd sting from a jellyfish. There was sunbathing and happy children. There was even eventually a cocktail when we grubby volunteers took the 20 minute walk to the other side of the island one weekend, to a honeymoon exclusive hotel for a treat (though I wouldn’t replace our basic volunteer base, or any of the islands I stayed on with little more than two other tourists, any day!) Of course laughter featured in all of these situations, being Fiji’s cure for everything.
And yes – there was Fiji time, and lots of it.