Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Welcome to the friendly island!

Yesterday I arrived with my Yiayia in tow at Princess Juliana Airport on the Dutch side of St. Martin. Saturdays must be one of the busiest days for air travel on the island, because there was a whole lot going on at the airport.
Before getting here I thought I had set up a car rental with a reputable company, but it turns out I did not- we waited over an hour for someone to come and pick us up (who never did), and eventually talked to some locals who arranged a rental car for us with Unity Rentals. I had 2 large duffel bags, 1 large suitcase, and one bicycle box, so we needed something a little larger than a car; we ended up with a Toyota Rav4, which is perfect for our needs, for $280/week.
After getting settled into the rental car, we rode to Porto Cupecoy, the complex my roommate and I chose to live in. She had told me how wonderful it is, and, man, she was not kidding. The complex is situated just on the edge of the Dutch border on the far west end of the island. It is gated as you drive up, has a large grocery store inside its walls, and has numerous additional gates for residents. The style of the buildings is European, and the development is supposed to feel like something out of the French Riviera. There is a large plaza in the middle overlooking the marina and Simpson Bay. My apartment is in the quieter east side of the complex, just overlooking a row of sailboats and the plaza to my left. I couldn't have been more impressed at the quality of everything inside, from the high end furniture, to the construction, to the spaciousness of the condo. There are even Viking appliances in the kitchen. The amenities include a beautiful pool, tennis courts, lush gardens, and a workout space. There are also 4 restaurants within the complex, making it convenient for us to run out and grab a meal without even leaving.
Upon arrival, Yiayia was worn out, so when she laid down to nap I chose to go out and explore a little. It was quite nostalgic for me- the day I arrived in Australia, exhausted from long travel but wide awake because of excitement, I asked directions and walked into Wollongong from my dorm, reveling in my independence and freedom. I still remember the  spring in my step as the sun shined down and I waltzed down the street, enjoying the sights and sounds of a new place and trying to remember all the little details, before I knew there was actually a free bus (that I would end up taking on all trips in the future). In the same way I eagerly anticipated the start of my semester in Australia, I drove yesterday eagerly anticipating the start of my next two years in St. Martin. I thought about how when I saw the barbed wire at the airport it really dawned on me that this place would be called home, and for a minute I felt some trepidation (a feeling I have felt before, specifically in downtown Shanghai, China... solved by a trip to Pizza Hut and some beer). However, as I watched, I found more sights I could call familiar... I noticed Mormon missioners, lost in the crazy traffic , in their white shirts and ties- a sight I guess that is now familiar all over the world. I heard Backstreet Boys blaring as I passed by small corner shops- what I know as 'bodegas' in NYC. I noticed Pizza Huts (they must be everywhere!), and KFCs, and also hole-in-the-wall Chinese places. I smelled salty air and felt an ocean breeze  (which I have to think must be a universally comforting sensation), and let myself enjoy the windows-rolled-down, summer-all-the-time weather that will be mine for this next season of my life. 
My first lesson of this land: late afternoon on a Saturday in St. Martin is not a good time for shopping. Actually, very few stores are open here on Sundays, holidays, or evenings.  This convenience that we exploit over in the US of A is just not relevant here, as everything basically seems to shut down completely during these times.  Some of the shutdowns this weekend have been due to Carnival, a big annual event that happens here on St. Maarten every year at the end of April until early May.  Islanders from Sint Maarten and the surrounding island come and celebrate culture, color, and festivities. There are pageants among the local women, one day of the celebration is a national holiday for the Dutch side, and there is plenty of revelry and fun.  So, all I got accomplished was some basic grocery shopping- eggs, almond milk, bread, toilet paper, and diet coke. The grocery prices actually surprised me as reasonable! The Grande Marche even offered plenty of sale items  to choose from. However, some things are very expensive, like Tide ($30 for a large jug), and cosmetics/ladies products. The stores here use Gilders, but the price tags also list the Euro and USD costs as well. It really helps you get a good feeling for how the prices all relate to one another, and how relative things cost to one another.
Since today was Sunday things were even more shut down than yesterday afternoon, but Yiayia and I did manage to have a fun and productive day.  Midmorning we started our drive over the island exploring  westward towards the French border. There are quite a few secluded beaches spread around this side of the island, and it does feel rather remote. As we continued to navigate around, we ended up going in a French grocery store, which was cleaner and better kept than Grand Marche, but everything was in French and Euros, so it was a little pricier than the Dutch side. Pretty quickly we found ourselves  in Marigot, and then before I knew it Grand Case. The drive really wasn't all that scenic from Cupecoy to Grand Case. From Grand Case we headed back into Philipsburg, where we decided we should look for internet. Unfortunately the place I chose to live did not have internet set up and since the process takes some time, Yiayia and I were really stuck with no connection home. We found ourselves in Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side, and set off to find the McDonalds, a tried and trusty choice for free Wifi. She is pretty quick, though, and before I knew it she had gone into Effy Jewelry store and asked them to use their phone and Wifi. Since she had been a past customer there, they were happy to oblige, so we called and caught up with home on their lines. I had also been looking frantically all day for somewhere I could buy a phone SIM card so that I could use phone internet for our connection needs until my house wifi gets hooked up. They sent me to Music Man, a store on front street, and I got my Verizon iPhone all set up for use in St. Martin with a new St. Martin number. YAY!

Before heading home, we stopped by a store that was (miraculously)open and bought a fan for my condo, a hamper (surprisingly expensive), an air mattress on sale, and some organizers for my things. The home goods are a little more expensive here than home, especially things like rugs, trash cans, and kitchen accessories. I have really enjoyed nesting in my new place, so much that I haven't been to the beach or pool yet! Those things are not on my to-do list until Tuesday...

Sunday, April 6, 2014

20 days 'til Paradise (and studying!)

So, here I am, 22 days out from moving to Sint Maarten to begin medical school. Pretty darn surreal.

There is so much to do between now and then... Decisions to make about what to pack, how to assemble my immigration packet, details about the [terrifying] loans I am about to commit to, whether my family will accompany me, and my living situation are all on the table, making me feel a little anxious.  As I frantically shuffle around in an attempt to get all these things organized for the big move, I am slowly realizing that I may feel these little tinges of inner chaos for awhile... Probably until I am settled into a routine on the island. Maybe even after that, until I am in my fifth semester on the island, finally comfortable and settled in, and it's time to move back to America. Who knows?
My heart tells me I am meant to be there, studying the human body and learning about how I can contribute to the health of other people. It feels right.
It felt right in November, when I attended the open house to learn about what the school could offer me. It felt right in December, when my family went and toured the AUC campus (including the new building) in Sint Maarten. It feels right now, as I brace myself for moving away from everything and everyone I know and hold so dearly, and embark on a new adventure that will be my med school experience.

There have been more practical matters than I can count to get in order.

Today, I signed up for Google Voice. It allowed me to pick a number based in the US (I couldn't find any 843 numbers, so I got one from Jackson, WY :) ) so that anyone calling from the US will not be charged long distance. You set a 'forwarding' number with Google Voice so that anyone who calls your google number will be forwarded on to your real number (which makes me wonder, do you pay for it through Google Voice AND your forwarded line?). On Wifi, you can call US numbers while you are international for $.01/minute. I will also be able to make local Sint Maarten calls for $.15/minute, much cheaper than the SIM card plans on the island. Google Voice is a cheaper alternative to Vonage. I am still looking into Magic Jack, and today, Facebook just announced that their Messenger app can make VoIP (Voice-over-IP). With all these communication options, including good ol' Skype, I am sure I will be able to easily keep in touch with everyone at home.

The immigration process onto Sint Maarten isn't complicated (not surprising, since they allow thousands of cruise ship tourists and workers to debark every day). I had to submit a letter from my county deeming me non-criminal, send in a copy of my whole passport book, and a notarized copy of my birth certificate. Additionally, you must submit some health records- proof of immunization to Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Varciella, Polio, Diptheria, and also proof that I test negative for TB and HIV.

My packing process has been fairly seamless- as of today, I have already packed several boxes (to be shipped from Jacksonville by Crowley Shipping for under $150), and I have packed one checked bag (I will have 4 bags on the plane total).  The only things I have left to pack are [some] clothes and my makeup.... theoretically.
However, my momma's motto is to be prepared, "Take enough for 20 months, Victoria." So, I am thinking I will end up with a few more boxes.

Wondering what I am taking? Here is a little list:
Bathing suits and coverups!
1 pair of jeans
Lots of maxi dresses (cool, cute, and comfortable; will mean I don't always look like a [college] bum...)
A few 'professional' outfits- one dress, khaki capris and heels, a few nice tank tops
PJ's, 'loungewear' (nice term for my bum attire), and athletic clothes

Personal Items:
Hair products galore (b/c I am determined to contain the humid island frizz hair problem)
Fluffy bedding, with king size fluffy mattress pad and some pillows (I may be picky about bedding...)
PLENTY of SPF- if sunscreen is $10 a bottle here, imagine what it costs there.
Lotions, anti-aging creams (due to all the sun exposure), and face wash
Extra cotton rounds, disposable razors, floss, and the like
Small first aid kit, including nausea, allergy, and cold meds
3 Bath towels
2 king sheet sets with extra pillowcases

Office supplies:
notebooks, pencils, pens, stationary (b/c I 'plan on' embracing the handwritten note), laser printer (heavy & takes some planning- since I am a hardcopy studier I plan on using A LOT of paper notes), stapler, wifi router, book light, bookshelf in a box from Walmart, power strip, dry erase board

Little necessities:
extra batteries, candles, snorkel gear, beach towel, bug spray!!, Tide PODS (I have been spoiled...), mounting tape for photos/posters, pop-up clothes hamper, door hooks, hair cut kit (will save me money in the long-run)

Seasoning packets (Hidden Valley ranch, Taco Bell taco, onion soup, fried rice, beef bouillon, etc)
Ramen noodles/Mac N'Cheese/whole grain pasta
Whey Protein powder
Microwave popcorn
Peanut Butter, Ritz Crackers
Olive oil
Hand blender

Some health food stuff from Momma (since I have read it is a premium price in Sint Maarten):
Shacklee Protein Shakes and Meal Bars (I have thought a lot about eating while in school realized in college I couldn't/didn't ever find a routine for mealtimes, which we all know is a healthier way to dine b/c you can plan meals and avoid unhealthy choices- theoretically.  Shakes might help me find time for certain meals throughout the day b/c of their convenience.)
Vitamins ('Zeal' shakes and ReViva)

I am taking suggestions, too, for other items I may need!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Growing Pains and Gains

Well, it begins again… Soon, I will headed to study in a new foreign place. Familiar, huh? However, a lot has changed since my fabulous and frivolous semester abroad in Australia (that I wouldn’t change at all!), and I am in a different place in my life, especially with my educational goals.
As a young college student, I originally shuffled into biology because I knew I liked science, and, honestly, I liked the idea of being in the hardest major. I had no idea what I wanted to do with a Biology degree, but at the time adamantly refused to consider medicine. Reasons like the time it takes, the money it takes, and the sheer effort invested into a medical education made me quiver. Until, by chance, I ended up in this interim of medical internships. As a preface, usually interim is a period of the school year where academics and class preparation take a back seat to relaxing, partying, and socializing. It is the one time in the Wofford school year where students can sit back and do very little. Clinical Internships, however, were very different; my days were spent waking early to meet physicians at their practices or hospitals, and going home when they went home (which is usually after 5 or 6pm). Over the period of the month, shadowing 5 days a week, I think the average student amassed over 120 hours in clinical settings. The experience was invaluable, however, and convinced me that a career in medicine would be fulfilling, worthwhile, and suitable for my gifts and strengths.
I’ll never forget on my first day of shadowing: in the Pediatrics ER. The most serious thing I saw all day was a child with a broken arm (most children in the ER were brought in for tummy-aches or runny noses, it seemed), but the doctor I worked with left me with some wise words. He told me that not everyone was capable of being a doctor, and if I was capable, I should consider it more seriously, because the capability to pursue a career in medicine is a blessing.
Over that next month, I got to witness some amazing doctors practicing some amazing medicine. Watching both vaginal deliveries and a caesarean section of TWINS was eye-opening to me of how amazing our bodies are, and how amazing life is. Seeing infectious disease doctors with no fears for their own health, only dedication to their patients’ well-being and healing, showed me that the practice of medicine is truly an art. One of the most serious and life changing moments of my life was when I sat in with the surgeon explaining to a woman, with her family sitting alongside, that she had a enormous and malignant tumor that was seriously threatening her life, and that she would need swift and aggressive treatment if she was to be saved. Personal, powerful, and intelligent actions made by doctors to bring about healing persuaded me that a career in medicine was attainable and worthy of my time and effort.
So, my senior year when I returned from my semester abroad, I finally started the non-biology core courses required for medical school. In the spring of 2012, I embarked upon my hardest semester at Wofford… Organic Chemistry II, at the same time as a legendarily hard Anatomy course. During that same semester, my beloved Granddaddy unexpectedly passed away after being admitted into the ER only 6 hours earlier, after over 45 minutes of failed resuscitation attempts. His death took me by such surprise that I doubted what I wanted to do, where I wanted to be. He was such a grounded figure in my life, always offering me direction and support. Did I really want to practice medicine at all? Did I really want to feel responsible if I ever lost a patient, or, worse, if my humanity ever allowed me to be negligent? I had more than one doubt about why I should keep memorizing anatomy, and reactions, and science…

Graduation that following May was bittersweet- leaving the comfort of college, your best friends (many who are also attempting to enter the medical field), your supportive professors, and relative lack of responsibilities is scary. Especially when you aren’t sure of the next steps you should take in life.

That fall, I was blessed with a position teaching Environmental Education at Barrier Island on Seabrook Island, SC.  A loving Christian community surrounded me in a beautiful, healing, place, and it was there I was able to re-examine my priorities, plans for the future, and even my years in college.  Teaching children came easy for me- I enjoy explaining complex ideas to people, and children require such simplicity that I was able to sharpen my communication skills.
The day after I taught my first class I took my MCAT in Charleston. The results took about a month, and really weren’t what I was hoping for. My strong background in biological sciences and organic prepared me well for the biological section, but on the physical section I struggled. The immense feeling of failure when receiving a score lower than the one you need is just pure frustrating. I will admit, I wasn’t studying those last few weeks during my job training as I should have been, and it was all my fault that I didn’t score higher, but it still felt like a reason to give up on medical school. Not doing well that September meant having to wait a whole extra year to apply, and I was in such an unnecessary hurry, the thought of that just frustrated me even more. So, I stopped thinking about medical school. I threw myself into the job I loved, teaching kids about science and the world around them, and started brewing up other ideas. Nursing school seemed to be the simplest route to get me into the medical field. Or there was always a becoming Physicians Assistant, or Anesthesia Assistant, or Occupational therapist… the options seemed endless, but I have to admit, never truly satisfying.
At the end of the school year, this past May, I moved with my boyfriend to Jackson, Wyoming, for the summer season. We each were placed in seasonal positions, back in dormitory housing. It is obvious to me (writing from my dormitory now) that I have grown a lot in the last year since my college graduation. I am no longer as enthusiastic to party and socialize as I was in college, instead preferring to read or enjoy some quiet time. College was a big distraction for me from my studies, and as a young adult I realize that I needed a little time to grow out of my partying tendencies. I am in a much better place to enter into any academic setting, especially one as rigorous as medical school.

Those reasons culminate to the point of my whole rambling- I will be attending medical school soon, hopefully in Saint Martin at American University of the Caribbean. The purpose of this blog is to not only keep my regular blog readers updated (who am I kidding?... this is only my parents and grandmother), but to also shed light on what this experience looks like from my perspective- young, southern, female, Christian, in-a-relationship, science lover. I will be honest about my experiences, I will try and explain the whole process as I participate in it, and I will share my own struggles along the way.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Day to Dive

This morning I woke up around 6:45 to the most spectacular sunrise right outside my window. I quickly raced down to the beach to try and get pictures of it, but they just don’t do it justice.  I had heard that the sunrise would be really good, because the stars were so clear last night; I am so glad I got up in time to see it.
            Breakfast started at 7:00am, and I had cereal and milk and toast.  I met a group of English travelers, and made a few new friends.  We planned on going reef snorkeling after breakfast on an activity, but instead I decided to dive.
            The dive shop is down on the beach, and run by a Fijian man and woman. Because I am not certified, the dives require one of the divemasters to supervise me for the whole dive, and I can only dive to a limited depth.  Also, generally these ‘Discover’ scuba dives are more expensive.  We worked out a really good deal that I would pay FJD$100 for the first dive, and then $85 for the second (USD$95 total).
 He took me on my first dive of the day to the Pinnacle, along with another man who comes here to dive every year.  I had a minor personal freak-out when we starting descending, because for some reason being deep underwater feels a bit claustrophobic or something (I am not even claustrophobic…), and its scary to be listening to your breathing, and easy to panic yourself. I was thinking all about how I was stuck underwater, and everything that could go wrong, and overthinking my gear, and just freaking out. Being deep is a bit of an adrenaline rush. I calmed down after a few minutes of steady breathing, and started enjoying myself instantly.  We probably went down 15m, and the sea life was really awesome. The water was deep, but the coral bed was so thick that it really wasn’t far from the surface. You could look down between the corals into spaces between each one. The divemaster stayed with me the whole time while the other diver went down 30m, and let me touch almost everything.  He brought fish bones and fed the little fish and white tip reef sharks. The sharks were between 3 and 5 ft long, and their jaws were super strong looking. They were very curious about us, especially about the fish the divemaster fed them. I was able to touch the sharks, and I can’t believe how sandpaper-y they feel. There were also thousands of fish, of every different kind, everywhere- above me, below me, beside me.  I saw a lot of the famous fish I have seen in aquariums, living in their home environment. There were even big brown/black and white cod, with the big lips and fat bodies.  I played with fringe brittle stars that crawl on your hand; they were absolutely everywhere. My favorite thing was the huge moray eel we found sticking out of the reef.  It was the softest, coolest thing I have ever felt, and it actually wasn’t aggressive (although it looks like it could be, with that creepy opening and closing teeth-lined mouth). My second favorite thing was the responsive sea anemones; little fish, like Nemo, hung out in the sea anemones just like I have seen in pictures.  You could touch the sea anemones and the fish would move to a different part, and sometimes the anemones would stick onto you, and other times they were suck themselves down into the coral.  I could probably spend all day putting my hand in sea anemones, and playing with them, and making them move around, because they are so cool looking and soft and alive.  It makes me wonder how exactly they can sense my intrusion, and how they know to retreat.  They are one of the coolest things EVER. We spent about 38 minutes below.
Before lunch I hung out with one of my new English friends on my front porch, and we just chatted for awhile. She was a marine biology major at uni, and then she worked in research for television, and now she is traveling a little before she goes back to England to start a speech therapy career. We talked a lot about her upcoming trip to the States; I told her she had to get some Mexican food when she went through Texas, and that she could ride a donkey down into the Grand Canyon, and that she needed to have her culinary experience in the Deep South when she passes thru New Orleans and Alabama. It really made me miss home telling her to get some boiled peanuts, gravy and biscuits, and fried chicken. We also talked about some cultural differences between Europeans and Americans; it is very clear that Americans are in much more of a hurry to begin their lives, and start the American dream, than the Europeans. There are so many Europeans that just take years off their young lives to travel around, while Americans feel heavy pressure to go right to college after high school, look for jobs as soon as college graduation happens, and get settled into a routine. I feel the pressure to know what I want to do with my life as soon as I get home from this trip, and I know so many others like me who feel like if they aren’t working they aren’t being productive.  SO MANY Australians I have met have taken a gap year between high school and college, and even more take a break after university ends.  I sort of wish the ‘gap year’ thing was more popular in the states; the only person I know to have ever taken one from home was a girl who was accepted into Harvard for the following academic year. I am not sure what she did, but I bet it wasn’t as dynamic as some of the activities the Australians I have met have done, like volunteering in African schools, or working as camp counselors in the US, or living with families around Eastern Europe. Quite a few travelers I have met have taken years at a time to travel this part of the world; I have talked to more than several people taking 3 and 4 years to travel (my question is who pays?). They figure out how to make it happen, even with limited funds, and often make it a working holiday.  I would love to take a page from the Europeans book and do a couple more months of traveling after I graduate at Wofford, but in a lot of ways feel pressure that in order to compete with the other graduates I will need to be going right out into the workforce, or right into more school… Anyway, lunch was around noon, and we had fish and chips: trevally and REAL potatoes (not cassava!). After lunch I walked down to where the ladies were selling their handicrafts and bought a little Christmas ornament angel to remember this island.
Around 1pm I went out with the female divemaster to Kuata Wall, just on the other side of the neighboring island.  This was an even better dive than in the morning, because the reef was SO SO SO beautiful. The coral was like coral you see in pictures, or in magazines. Every different kind of coral: fan coral, coral that looks like a table, coral that looks like a blanket, and so many others.  It was absolutely unbelievable.  I thought the coral at big aquariums was exaggerated to look beautiful, but this coral was real, and even more beautiful than anything I have ever seen in an aquarium. The colors, along with the thousands of colorful fishing dashing around everywhere, were magnificent.  We went down about 20m on the side of the wall, and looking back up from down there was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.  The reef was HUGE, and looked even more monstrous from below. I was so overwhelmed by it; I have never seen anything like it, and I am still in awe even hours later at the reality of it. While we were down there we saw some huge puffer fish (not puffed), but I enjoyed looking at all the little fishes, of every color, hiding in the coral the most. I also saw another little reef shark down on the bottom, but he stirred away from us. I cannot put into words how much I enjoyed the dive; I have a warm feeling from glimpsing something so beautiful not many people get to see. I wish I had an underwater camera, but even then I feel like I would not be able to capture it. We were underwater for about 35 minutes.
After the dive I did a little laying on the beach and reading, and at 3pm had tea time with my English friends. We chatted for awhile about so many different things, and the conversation was light and easy.  I put in some more beach time, then around 5pm I headed back to my bure for a little evening nap.  I slept so well with the sounds of the swells and rustle of palms, and woke up just in time for dinner at 6:30.  We were served mackerel and some kind of pork, and yummy rolls.  I stayed down near the dinner area and met a girl from Hawaii who is also traveling alone; it was nice to bond with an American, and she and I talked about how we could not be gone from home as long as a lot of the people we have met stay gone.  She and I both agreed that traveling for years would feel completely worthless and unproductive. I really had fun talking to her, because even though we are from really different areas of the US, we had a lot in common. She and I talked a lot, too, about how grateful we were that the Fijians were so welcoming to visitors, and that many visitors to the islands should stop complaining about trivial little things about the islands (‘we had to sit on picnic tables at dinner’, ‘the soup was a little cold’, ‘the power was only on for a couple hours at night’, ‘someone was mowing the lawn during my massage’) because we are guests of people who are doing the best they can with what they have (and doing a damn good job if I may say so myself). In my opinion, being a guest in someone’s village resort is not the same as going to a 5-star hotel, and it is ignorant to bring Western expectations about how things should be. I am really enjoying myself, even if there are mosquitoes and things aren’t completely perfect by Western standards, because I am at a beautiful place with Fijians who are happy to host me, and because I am supporting a village that depends on Wayalailai resort for its livelihood.  I am worn out now, though, and because the power goes off around midnight want to make sure I am actually ready for bed by then tonight J. Until next time…

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Wayalailai in the Yasawas

Wow- so things just got touristy! I just went through Denauru Marina, and it is nothing like the Fiji I have seen so far.  White tourist families wearing matching Bula shirts and dresses, people with sunhats everywhere, and Australian, German, American and French accents make this place the most touristy I have seen yet in Fiji. Since these few days with Awesome Adventures Fiji will be my first solo trip ever, I am happy to see that it is really touristy, because that usually means there will be a lot of backpackers and travelers for me to meet. I am pretty nervous about traveling alone (who will I sit with at dinner?...lol), but know that I will be fine. I am so happy that I won the trip, and have been studying its details; I spend two nights on one island resort, then transfer to another island resort, with all meals included.  The package that I won is a very popular one that many ‘alternative travelers’ (backpackers) choose, so I am sure that there will be lots of other people with me…
Mr. Ali picked me and two friends up from the Beachouse around 6:15am this morning, and we made the 1.5hr drive back towards Nadi (I gave him USD$25 for the trip, tip and all). The Yasawa Flyer, my boat over to the islands, departed at 8:30, and I disembarked at my destination, WayaLaiLai Ecohaven Resort, around 10:30am. On the boat ride over I got to see lots of different little island resorts, and magnificent views of the Fijian mainland Viti Levu. On board the boat I met a big group of students on a summer trip from University of Georgia; it was so nice to hear the drawl of southern voices and meet people who, like me, are so far from home.
When I arrived on my island there were lots of people out playing volleyball, lying on the beach, snorkeling, and lounging in one of the 15 hammocks scattered about. I was welcomed by at least six Fijians singing down on the beach, introducing themselves and shaking my hand. I learned what times breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner were (all included), how to sign up and pay for activities, and the layout of the resort.  I decided during check-in that the beachfront bures looked so nice, and that because I am traveling alone it might be worth it to have a private room and bathroom (and also because I haven’t spent anything to be on this trip).  I worked with the organized and nice Fijian receptionist and upgraded my stay to right on the beachfront (USD$90 for 2 nights).  I went from a little single bed in a eight-person dorm (up a mountain from the beach) to a beachfront hut with a front porch, private bathroom, and twin and double bed. I am so happy with this decision (right now, I am currently listening to the sound of waves and sway of palms on my porch), and might even look into an upgrade at my next little resort.
As soon as I put my bags down and got my bearings I headed out to snorkel.  I got out to the reef right off the beach, but for some reason was feeling little stings all over my body.  I asked some Fijians, and they said that the coral around this area can sting, along with little things similar to sea fleas, but that they are harmless.  I did some laying out, and before I knew it the Fijians were beating drums to sound the call for lunchtime. Lunch consisted of a buffet of rice, fish, squid, beef and pasta, salad, and juice. I met some girls from Switzerland, and a couple traveling from England, and enjoyed talking to them about the places they have been. I was planning on getting on the internet to call home, but learned that the resort does not keep the power on during the day; the solar powered island only has power from around 6pm until about midnight.  After lunch I joined a big group of village women and visitors on a tarp set up in the shade to learn weaving. With the help of a sweet lady I made a bookmark; she patiently fixed my work when I made an error, and made it pretty for me when I finished. The ladies had handicrafts set up on tables in the shade, too, and I enjoyed looking at their wares, promising to come back and purchase (I found a Christmas ornament!).
After making my bookmark I was dying to get back into the water, so I got a kayak and headed out towards the reef. The kayak was stable enough for me to stand up on, so I made it into my own little paddleboard and observed the reef from the top of the water. The wind stopped blowing for awhile, and I could see down into the reef almost perfectly.  I explored the island in both directions from the resort, and even kayaked down to check out the village. In some places the coast is pretty rocky, but the main beach area is perfect. The coral is really awesome, and there are TONS and TONS of fish. After my kayak I was a little worn out and starting to sunburn, so I decided to sit on my porch and read. The sound of the waves and palms and the sticky humid heat made me drowsy, and I went down for a nap really quickly. Around 5pm I awoke and returned to the porch to my book.  A big group of male villagers showed up at the beach volleyball court; after stretching together and before playing, they gathered into a huddle and sang a song, completely in harmony. The sun had sort of gone behind the clouds, and rain had began, and it was truly beautiful melody; I had one of those moments when I feel like I am experiencing something I might never again, glancing into someone else’s culture and life. I think I may have been one of the few people watching, so I know they weren’t putting on a show, but it was such a natural and special thing to see them outside singing several verses to a song they all knew before playing a sport together.  They even included a traveler in their huddle, and though I doubt he knew the words to their song, I am sure they made him feel welcome.
I showered and headed to dinner around 6:15; we had some more rice, chicken, sweet potatoes and cooked carrots. I sat with a big group of kids studying at the University of NSW in Sydney, so we had a lot to talk about.  There were probably 8 or 10 of them: several from all over Canada, one from Norway, two from Mexico, and another from Denmark. After dinner one Fijian man told us all about tomorrows activities and how to join in, and then lead some entertainment, like a Fijian line dance lesson and some games.  I sat down for another kava ceremony with Fijian elders, and realized that the kava I drank at Beachouse must have been fairly weak, because the kava here was a bit stronger. It still didn’t effect me though, but I enjoyed the socializing with the Fijian men (they had lots of advice, like where to snorkel, and how to avoid stingers) and the other travelers also enjoying the kava ceremony. While there is still tradition here, the ceremony seems to be less defined. The men sit together on a mat, without shoes, and whenever someone comes up to drink kava and join, they must all drink another bowl around the circle.  And then they continue to sit, and talk to each other and the visitors, and enjoy the night.
I can already tell a difference in the culture of the Wayalailai resort and the Beachouse. A white family with Fijian and Australian roots owns the Beachouse, while Wayalailai is owned communally by the village on the island. While Beachouse employs many people from the village, one of the girls told me they don’t pay them much (USD$3/hr).  One day when the owner was gone from the resort, things did not get done as quickly or efficiently, but even when he was there things were a bit unorganized.  The village also seemed like it was more separate from the Beachouse, and the villagers only came to hang around when they were working. As soon as I got to Wayalailai, however, I noticed how neatly the staff were dressed in matching uniforms, and how efficient everything ran. They seem to really have invested themselves in the resort, and strive to make each traveler’s stay enjoyable and easy. The village is very close by, and many villagers come to hang around the area. Around dinner time many of the men came to drink kava on the big dining deck. Young Fijian children  are here at the resort, too, with their mommies (‘nay-nay’ in Fijian). The 40 or 50 travelers, mingle with other travelers and the villagers, and almost everyone wants to introduce themselves and asks about your stay. The genuine friendliness is very obvious, and it’s nice to feel so welcomed. I really enjoyed my stay at the Beachouse, and feel that it was a WONDERFUL paradise, but as far as authentic Fiji goes, it seems that the Yasawas do a better job at giving travelers the real experience, because it is actually owned and run by the local Fijians, communally… However, I have only been here for one day, so my feelings could change. 

The Beachouse, Coral Coast

I really got used to ‘Fiji time’ (slower, relaxed pace) during my stay at the Beachouse. The resort hosts about 60 people at a time, so I got very comfortable with the rest of the travelers by the end of the trip. Everyday I woke up early, around 8am, to a beautiful tide.  A breakfast of toast and cereal and fresh fruits was served every morning until around 10am, and then activities would begin. Some activities cost money, while others, like kayaking, are free. There is a little surf school at the Beachouse, and many mornings a big group of surfers head out. Also, there is a Jungle Trek option (USD$6, with a Fijian man who tells all about the history of cannibalism, the jungle and the culture), coconut jewelry making & grass weaving (free), paddle-boarding (USD$10/hr), a freshwater pool, horseback riding (USD$20-30), fishing (USD$10-15), and snorkeling (USD $7 for a boat ride out to a better reef and snorkel gear). There are also atleast five hammocks scattered around the beach and pool, and a beach volleyball court (very popular with Fijians!).  At 3:30 is tea; scones (just like southern style biscuits) are served with tea and coffee.
One of my favorite parts of the resort are three dogs, Oscar, Lucy, and Diesel, that wander around living dog dream lives.  I thought our dogs had it good, but these dogs really top them.  They play in the water for hours during low tide, watching fish with their tails wagging, and then wander up to the pool area to receive lots of attention and table food from all of the travelers.  They run around and play with each other and it’s just adorable. I haven’t had any dogs to play with since I have been abroad, so every though they are stinky outside dogs, I love petting them and giving them lots of attention. They really give it a homey- feel.
  On Sunday I took it pretty easy, laying on the beach and in the pool, and kayaking during high tide. I also got an hour massage by a nice Fijian woman (USD$ 13) who was willing to tell me about herself a little. She called herself a ‘Fijian doctor,’ as massage has been a ‘gift’ her family has had for many years. She was pretty young; I was wondering about some Fijian customs, and she was willing to tell me about them.  For example, the 21st birthday is one of the biggest ones because that is also the legal age to smoke, drink alcohol, or drink traditional kava (the kids get to participate in kava ceremonies with juice).  Also, she said that most Fijian girls get married around 18 years old, and that a Fijian bride wears a white dress underneath a traditional brightly colored dress.  I also wondered if Fijian girls were allowed to marry people they love, or if they are chosen to marry certain men, and she really didn’t answer, just telling me she married her boyfriend.  Anyway, after a little nap, for dinner I had a delicious Mahi-Mahi meal (USD$9), and in the evening socialized with everyone out by the pool. 
Around 11am Monday morning I went fishing with a big group of guys. The boat driver took us out to bottom-fish.  It was a little choppy, and got windier and windier, and one person got a little sea-sick. From the sea, though, you realize how many palm trees really are in Fiji (TONS!) and how big the mountains really are.  I was dying to catch something big, and was a little disappointed to only catch a coral trout.  I did, however, catch the first fish of the day.   I got it cooked for lunch (USD$6 with fries). The chef, an Indian man, pan-fried the whole fish (head, tail and all) in a lemon, butter, and soy sauce, and it was tender and delicious! I was a teeny bit sunburned after fishing, so I hung out in the shade of a palm tree after lunch, girl-talking with the other travelers and listening to the sound of the surf.
 I had signed up on the board for horseback riding, but wasn’t really planning on going until the man, Eddie, came to get me for my ride.  I really needed to visit the ATM, so he told me we could go down to it on the horses on the beach. We rode down to the Warwick during sunset along the beach, and it was beautiful. He let me canter and trot and lead the horse on my own, and it was great. The horses were a little smaller than quarter horses, and they didn’t wear horseshoes (which sort of bothers me because the beach is pretty rocky in some spots). When we got to the Warwick he told me not to tell anyone I wasn’t staying there, but to just run up to reception and use the Westpac ATM. The 5-star resort was reallyyyyyy nice; I passed a little spa with a fancy fountain in front and little mini moat fountain, at least 30 fancy cushioned lounge chairs lined along green lawns, and a fancy walkway out to sea set up for dinner for two with candles. No one gave me a hard time about walking in, and there were little shops and ladies with handicrafts.  I walked back out to Eddie, who had put our horses near a little handicraft hut a woman ran on the outskirts. It was already dark, but she let me in, and I got some jewelry.  I really took to a little dog that was running around, and I think Eddie did too, because when she brought me the cash she told us that we could have the dog (an adorable, sweet, sweet little female puppy that looked like a little lab mix). Eddie let me ride the horse back with the puppy in my arms, and he proceeded to call it Vic, because my jewelry shopping had gotten him a puppy.  He told me his children didn’t have their own dog, and that his daughter really wanted one. When we got back he let me take the puppy up to the Beachouse and show it off (everyone really fell in love with her).  I am so happy he took me riding, and now that his family has a new puppy to share.
On Tuesday morning Laura and I got up early to go paddle-boarding. After a little confusion over which one we could use, and the details, we both set off on one.  We figured out a little system (because both of us couldn’t stand up, and one person paddling was really slow)- I laid on the front and paddled like I was on a surfboard, and she stood on the back and paddled correctly. We really got going, and some friends of ours had rented surfboards, so we set off to go out nearer to them, past where the waves were breaking.  We made it really far, and we were really enjoying looking at the reef underneath our boards, when we started hearing people yelling at us and waving their arms.  Laura and I had a conversation like “hm, we must be doing something wrong, but we don’t know what…” and I made a joke about them coming out on a boat to get us, if worst came to worst.  All of a sudden a boat was coming towards us; the owner of the Beachouse came out to get us! He brought us in the boat, gave us a lecture about being in the waves (and how the coral was super sharp and dangerous), and took us and the board back in. He also told us we weren’t to paddle-board again (which I don’t think he was serious about). We felt a little rebellious, and I guess I still don’t understand what the big deal was.  Anyway, in the afternoon I took it easy, laying out on the beach, lounging in the hammock, and floating on a life-jacket for awhile. For dinner I had a little toastie sandwich.  Some of the girls did a horseback ride down to the same little jewelry shop I had been to, but had a bad experience.  One of them got bucked off, and it was dark and scary on their whole walk back.  Also, not all of them had much experience riding horses, so they felt unsafe. They got back sort of later, too.
On Wednesday I was so sad that it was my last day at the Beachouse (I think I could spend weeks here, like a lot of other travelers we met).  I waited around to go fishing until 11am, but we had a great day. Within the first 15 minutes one of the guys leading the trip caught a little Trevally on our way out the spot trolling, and when we anchored I quickly caught 4 little fish (I am not sure what they were). Some other people on the boat also caught all different kinds of little coral trout and stuff, and we really did much better than the last trip (maybe because it was a smaller group?). I split the little fish with the other girl who went fishing for lunch, and then she and I split the trevally for dinner (USD$8 each to get it cooked with fries). The chef prepared the little fish similar to the way that the fish was prepared last time, but the trevally was baked and delicious, with just enough spiciness.
After fishing I went on another horseback ride, this time up a mountain. We literally went straight up a mountain, to a summit that looked down over Navola village’s school and church.  The view was absolutely stunning, and when we got to the top I gave my horse a break and walked around for pictures. Instead of Eddie taking me on this trip, a little boy, maybe 12 or 13, led me through the trail. He was happy to tell me about his school and rugby games.  He was also very good with the horses, and it was clear that he is learning how to take care of them from Eddie. While I was up there I learned that the Japanese have a nice school in the village, and handpick Navola village children to learn their language and trades so that they could be able to go to work in Japan. There was also a big building being built: a second church for the village! The villagers seem to be very religious from everything I have seen, as they take Sundays off and place high importance on the church. I wonder if this could be because it has lots of community purposes, or serves as a neutral community meeting place?...
I was back from the horseback before sunset, and it was beautiful from the beach.  A couple of us went exploring the low tide grassy and rocky areas of the beach, because I had heard that there are lots of beautiful blue sea stars. There were all kinds of interesting creatures in the water, like sea slugs and sea snakes and weird feather stars. There were so many sea stars, too! The water was just deep enough in some areas to cover big pieces of coral, but just shallow enough to let me get right up to it and peer at it closely; it was better than being in an aquarium.  I really wanted to see an octopus (the villagers go out during low tide to collect octopi for eating), but didn’t have a pokey stick to get them out of holes, and didn’t really know where to look. The dusky evening was so relaxing, and I was tired by 9pm. 

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Paradise Found

…So last night I landed around 7pm (2 hours ahead of Australia, 16 hours ahead of home) and was ushered through customs. On the way to customs a band was playing ukuleles in their Bula shirts (brightly printed floral patterned) to welcome guests. There was a health and bio-security portion, a revenue portion, and a general immigration portion.  It was actually pretty thorough! As soon as I retrieved my bags and exited the gates I was surrounded by many different drivers who all asked if I needed a taxi.  I found a help desk to locate my shuttle to Smugglers Cove for me, and patiently waited for the rest of the group.  It actually feels very exotic here, and it was a little stressful alone.  The people are very nice, but I can imagine (since they deal with tourists all the time) not all of them are nice. On the drive over to our hostel (located on the beach at Nadi Bay) it was already dark, so I really couldn’t see a lot of scenery.
I was so happy to see a friendly face, and I think Laura was really happy for me to finally get there.  We split a vegetable pasta dinner (that was delicious) and then sat down at the bar all night.  We did some meeting and greeted- we talked to a big group of golfers staying at Smuggler’s Cove to do 16 days of golfing! We also got friendlier with the staff, and were really taken care of.  We had a private room at Smugglers, with two twin beds, a flatscreen television, a mini-fridge, and a private bathroom (booked on expedia for USD$92/night).  I slept pretty well there.  Continental breakfast was included in the stay, and consisted of rice crispy cereal and toast.
We checked out around 10am and they called us a taxi, and a black Mercedes picked us up and took us into town. Our driver, Mr. Ali, a cute little older Muslim man, was very nice, and apparently was the boss of the company.  He took us to a really nice souvenir store in the city called Jacks (I bought a Fiji t-shirt and a Fiji oven mitt, and this little granite dolphin that I broke-oops). We walked around a little though (against his advice), and really stood out like sore thumbs.  I thought we would see a lot of tourists shopping in the city, or at least getting out to look, but we were the only ‘white’ people that I saw.  I noticed quickly that the Indian population is pretty dominant; all the clothing stores sold the traditional Indian outfits (shirt and pants set lavishly decorated with rhinestones and glitter) right next to the Fijian tropical patterned shirts. There were lots of people on the street, and for the first time since I have left to study abroad, I actually felt a bit of culture shock.  It feels very exotic…
Mr. Ali was so great- I told him I wanted to get a couple of cucumbers to take to the resort to snack on.  He immediately took us to a Fijian food market.  He told us to sit in the car while he ran in to get the produce (painfully ironic, that the two little Americans sat in a black Mercedes while their driver ran into the market, in the middle of a poor and dilapidated city).Women sat under tarps selling their few organic fruits and vegetables.  There was no ‘big’ company around; it seemed like the ladies selling the fruit also probably grew the fruit in their own yards. He brought us back two of the biggest/thickest perfect cucumbers I have EVER seen. He also got us some fresh cut pineapple, skillfully carved with the stem intact so that it can be eaten kind of like a lollipop. On our way back to Smugglers Cove he pulled us into a market so we could grab some peanut butter and crackers.  He probably drove us around for two hours, so when we got back to the hotel we were prepared to pay for it, but he only charged us USD $12 (FJD $18). It really reminded me of how cheap the labor is in this country, and how little the pay must be.
 Before Mr. Ali left we arranged for him to take us to the bus station, so right around 1:00 he came back to get us.  The bus station was back through town, and was really typical of what you would imagine a bus station in a third world country to look like.  At this point, the heat was starting to get to me (and the insane humidity), so I got myself a popsicle for USD$.60 and a Fiji water while we waited for the bus.  That was one of the biggest surprises for me when I arrived in Fiji- the Fiji water sold in grocery stores at home actually comes from Fiji, and is actually the most popular bottled water here (it really does taste better).  I had always imagined it owned by Coca-Cola or something, because of the nice looking bottle and high price.  It is cool to think that even when I am home and far away from Fiji, I will be able to run to Kroger and grab a bottle of Fiji water for a little reminder of the country.
Anyway, the bus station was full of people on benches; women, men and children patiently waited for their buses. Some of the buses were open air buses, and all were pretty old. We took a Sunbeam public bus, and sat near the windows so that we could feel the air coming in.  There was a television in the front of the bus, and random movies like one about a wonder-dog came on.  The movie that played after we passed thru Sigatoka was an obviously Fiji-made film about an Indian women who gets mistreated by her high roller Indian boyfriend, and falls in love with a Fijian man who goes to church, helps old people, and is just an all around good citizen.  It says a lot about the culture here, that what is important to a lot of people are someone’s values. The bus ride was a teeny-bit miserable, but we survived and finally got to the Beachouse!
Upon arrival we met up with a few other Americans who had already gotten here, and quickly settled into our dorm.  The dorm is really nice; it is right near the bathrooms, has clean-feeling tile floors and good fans, and only holds 6 people (all girls in ours). The way the resort is set up also feels very Fijian. We walk down a little dirt path thru beautiful green gardens past blooming tropical flowers to reach the bar area and pool, and then the beach is just a green lawn away.  It truly is PARADISE.
Before dinner we participated in a welcome Kava ceremony with a man from the local village, Navula.  The kava was made in a big bowl that was carved out of solid mahogany.  The kava is made from the powder of the stem of a special plant; it is put into cloth and strained into pure water, so the water looks sort of muddy. Each person then downs a bowlful after clapping once, and everyone else claps three times. It is a very interactive tradition, as everyone watches everyone else and claps for everyone. The kava is a mild narcotic, but only if you try to drink more than 5 bowls. It makes your mouth numb for a few minutes after one, though.  Then, dinner is served around 7pm, but is ordered off a list of 3 specials around 4pm.  I dined on stir-fried veggies with potato, or ‘cassava,’ chips. The rest of the group arrived about 3 hours after we did, and everyone had a delicious dinner. One thing that is really conveinient about The Beachouse is the way you can put almost everything you do at the resort on your tab, just by using your name and room number (could be dangerous though, haha).
With nightfall, the stars were absolutely unbelievable- I felt like I was looking out into the solar system. I can even see the REAL milky way! In the southern hemisphere you can’t see the Big Dipper or North Star, but you can see the Southern Cross. I have never really been good at picking at constellations, but the Southern Cross is really prominent and easy to find. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

Bula Vanaka from Fiji!

So, I am on my Air Pacific Flight to Nadi, Fiji from Sydney, and I am reading lots of interesting facts about Fiji that I would love to share on my blog!
Fiji consists of 330 islands scattered across 20,000 sq. miles. They lie on the 180 Meridian, so they are the place where the first new day occurs! The biggest island is Viti Levu , where I will be arriving and spending most of my time. Nadi is considered the tourism hub of the country, and offers all types of shopping and accommodation. The average temperature around this time of year (their ‘winter’) is 84 degrees. English is the official language, but natives also speak Fijian and the large Indian immigrant population of Fiji speaks Hindustani.
Some Fijian words:
Bula- hello
Bula Vinaka- a warm hello
Ni sa moce- goodbye
Vinaka- Thank you
Kerekere- please
Mai kana- let’s eat
Walu- king mackrel

The Fiji tourism bureau claims that you cannot go to Fiji without getting sung to, and you cannot go to Fiji without being welcomed.  The Fijians are known as extremely welcoming and nice, and have a world-renowned reputation for opening their arms to visitors.  There are many traditional villages left in Fiji, and they frequently welcome tourists to stay overnight (home stay) or to visit their schools and churches. Kava (or ‘yaqona’ in Fijian) bowls are one cultural oddity of Fiji that deserves mention; the kava, made from a slightly narcotic plant, is served in a traditional coconut bowl, in a special ceremony. Some of the most popular souvenirs to bring back from Fiji are things like ‘Bula’ shirts, carved tanoa bowls, traditional woven baskets, Fijian replica war clubs, ‘cannibal forks,’ and Fijian combs. The most popular souvenir, however, would definitely be the ‘sulu,’ or sarong.  I was told before I came to get a sarong as soon as I get here, because that is the fashionable outfit around Fiji, especially in the evenings. Because it is a all-purpose, one size fits all garment that can keep you cool in the smoldering heat, the sulu is worn by both men and women.
One thing that surprised me is the popularity of Fiji for many activities.  Fiji has world-class scuba diving, surfing, and fishing.  For diving, Fiji is considered the ‘soft-coral’ capital of the whole world.  There are many different wreck dives you can choose to go on, and there are even shark dives (with HUGE bull sharks!).  The surfing is also well-known, and places like Cloudbreak and Frigates Pass have been featured on many different surfing documentaries. As far as fishing goes, charters pull in everything from mahi-mahi to sailfish and (black and blue) marlin.
After reading all of this, I just can’t wait to land- I will update the blog with more very soon!