My favourite flower in the whole wide world © Emma Sparks
Now it’s not very often (I promise, Mum) that I wake up to find a strange man in my bedroom. I admit, it has happened on occasion (I know how to pick them), but never quite like this…
My eyes open and I have that weird disoriented feeling that comes with constant hostel-hopping. The usual questions arise and my muddled, sleepy brain processes them as my eyesight slowly adjusts to the darkness;
‘What country am I in?’
‘Awesome. But where?’
‘You got your own private room remember? Since it was free Noah offered it to you’
‘Oh yeah. What time is it?’
(looks at watch) ‘1.30am’
‘Then why are you awake?!’
‘Something didn’t feel right…’
‘And why is there a MAN at the foot of your bed?’
My panic soon turned to bemusement as I realised that the intimidating shadow towering over me was in fact Ronnie, one of the 10 or so Fijian men who worked at Mana Lagoon backpackers. Luckily he explained himself before I could find a heavy blunt object to throw at his head – he needed me to lock my door.
I’d noticed earlier that evening that the lock was beyond repair, but in true laid-back traveller style I decided it wasn’t an issue, since the hostel only had about six other guests and we were in Fiji for God’s sake, where material possessions are shared freely amongst the community and people are generous and exceptionally kind. The facilities on the island consisted of an intermittent supply of cold water dripping out of a pipe and a temperamental electricity generator, so a dodgy lock had seemed trivial to me.
What Ronnie went on to explain was that the villagers may want to ‘share’ my possessions too. Not that they’d have had much luck, unless Fijians have a penchant for Primark flip-flops and filthy laundry. But no, he insisted that my safety was his responsibility, so he had deemed it necessary to come and tinker with my lock in the middle of the night. Ahem.
I tell this anecdote not to warn you about petty thieves on these remote islands – they may well exist but I certainly saw no evidence – but to demonstrate the amusing eccentricites of the Fijian tourist industry. Nevermind that I was a 23-year-old young woman (luckily) wearing (appropriate) pyjamas, who might be alarmed by his presence, not to mention disturbed from my dreams – my safety was paramount therefore Ronnie had to do what he did. This would never in a million years happen in the UK, for which I’m glad, but it endeared me so much to the Fijian people and quite frankly, I had too much to be thankful for to be bothered.
This no-nonsense, practical attitude had helped me just the week before. I’d arrived at Nadi airport with no accommodation, no guidebook or map, no local currency, nada. I was due to be meeting up with friends, but had only a vague notion of where they were and no way of contacting them. After a dramatic episode involving a bankcard, a hungry ATM and a very frazzled Sparky, the lovely Ita took me into her tourism office and sorted me out. And, here’s the thing. She located my friends by asking around. She rang a friend out on a northern island (I knew they were up there somewhere) and gave a description of the girls (two out of the three are ginger, they were never going to be difficult to spot) and a few phone calls later we’d tracked them down and I was on the next boat. Talk about customer confidentiality…
The point I’m trying to make is, when you’re in Fiji, you are family. You’re not just a faceless, nameless customer to these people, but a new member of the community, albeit for a fleeting moment. Which means formalities are thrown out of the window. I was treated with respect as a lodger, but the staff/guest relationship extends far beyond the usual polite exchanges, to beach volleyball games, kava drinking sessions, long discussions about culture and in my case, a ‘friendly’ rivalry when it came to the rugby world cup. This place is special.
I was also introduced to the concept of ‘Fiji time.’ Whether you’re interested in this or not, you’ll certainly experience it because congratulations, it’s dictating your holiday. Give up the day’s itinerary, stop asking what time the bloody snorkel trip is and go sit in a hammock you stress-head (is probably what the staff are thinking). It’ll happen when everyone’s good and ready. Same applies to meal times. Accept the fact that nothing happens to schedule and you and Fiji will get on very well. Time takes on a whole new meaning here. For one thing, you actually have it. Days seem endless, you rise and sleep as the sun suggests and suddenly, life makes sense.
So. If you ever want to get away from it all, and I’m talking white sand, turquoise waters, with nothing but the soothing sound of the sea lapping the shore to hear away from it all, I’m telling you, get your arse to Fiji. My two weeks island hopping on the Yasawa chain of islands just west of the mainland were no doubt the most relaxing weeks of my life, ever. And not just an ‘Ooh this is nice, let’s sunbathe, home seems a million miles away’ kind of relaxing, but a time-freezing, soul-calming stillness that dissolves the stresses you never knew you had and leaves you radiating health and contentment.
No, he’s not Fijian. A friend attempts to catch supper… © Emma Sparks
If you’re the type of person who can’t sit still and needs their body and mind occupied at every waking moment, I pity you. Oh, and if you choose your islands carefully enough, there’s a wealth of activities for you to get your twiddling thumbs stuck into. Scuba diving, snorkelling, parasailing, jewellery-making, swimming, hiking – it’s all there. If, however, you are like me and could quite happily sunbathe and read novels for the rest of eternity, you will be beyond satisfied here. The Yasawas are the ‘touristy’ backpacker-infested part of Fiji. But if six to 15 people per resort is considered touristy, I can live with that. I even heard down the grapevine that one girl was treated to full dinner service and evening’s entertainment as the sole guest on Southsea Island. Not bad for a backpacker on a budget.
I chose a 14-day Bula pass, which is a hop-on hop-off boat servicing the most popular islands. This is a fantastic way to make your trip hassle free, but it’s hard to get your money’s worth. I thoroughly intended to visit five or six islands, but just about managed four. My suggestion would be to book your boats individually as you go, because you are more than likely going to fall in love with one resort (in my case, Mana Lagoon) and consider packing it all in and settling down for a life of freshly-caught fish and coconuts.
And if getting woken up in the middle of the night is the price I pay in return for experiencing the genuine warmth and friendship of the Fijian people, no worries. Hammock nap here I come.