No Shoes, No Money, No Worries

It’s been a long time since I attempted to compose an entire story with something as primitive as pen and paper. Letters, sure, but an entire story? I’m having flashbacks to a little piece of prose I tried to compose in middle school in my very best script handwriting (which was always too sharp and pointy and lacked the right curves in my opinion). It was a “short” story about a girl who played the cello on the Titanic, and went on for page after page because the story just kept coming to me all at once as I wrote. I thought it was a masterpiece. My mother deemed it too long and secretly removed several pages before I submitted it. That is the last time I remember writing anything longer than a page with a pen.

I came to the mainland today, as I do every 12 days, on my day off, with a backpack full of laundry. All of the locals on the island do laundry by hand. When we first moved to Mana Island, Fletch bought us a little camping washer that we would crank by hand. It was a novelty for everyone. For us because we were used to the modern convenience of putting all our dirty, stained, and stinky clothes in a machine, pushing a button, moving on with more important parts of our days, and then magically coming back a while later to clean, but still wet clothes. To think of what an inconvenience it felt like back then to put the clothes from the washing machine into the drying machine and having to push yet another button. Now there was no magic button. The little camping washer depended on our sweat and muscle instead of electricity. And drying was dependent on the weather. Luckily it is always sunny on Mana Island.

Ratu Kitty Cooper likes to supervise. 

The little camping machine was novelty for the locals because having a crank to turn was a very high tech convenience indeed. They had nothing but their bare hands and a communal sink. Or sometimes the clothes were just worn into the ocean and hung on a line and that was that. The camping washer held about three t-shirts and two pairs of shorts at a time, so it was necessary to have it churning during most of our very limited free time. It wasn’t long before we got lazy and found a hotel in Nadi on the mainland that was posh enough (by Fijian standards) to have laundry facilities in the room, and not just a washing machine, but a dryer to boot! Dryers are a very rare thing in this part of the world. If you own a dryer, then you have really made it in life. The hotel, horribly named the Ratsun, was brand new at the time when we first started staying on our days off. Now it is a year old, and it is all too obvious the level of quality that went into building the place. Already paint is chipping, upholstery is tearing, doors aren’t latching… Fletch and I keep an ongoing, nonexistent list of what is wrong with each room. We’ve stayed in most of them. In room 205, for instance, the dryer stops every 5 minutes unless I find a screw to wedge into the appropriate spot, which causes it to keep running when the door is open. No matter, it still feels very luxurious to be able to put my clothes in a dryer, rather then having to compete for space on the clothes line with the Chinese neighbors. They always find a way to hang every last item they packed onto the 6 meters of clothes line we have to share. It used to drive me nuts when I would open the front (and only) door in the morning, to be greeted by some large lady’s granny pantaloons, which would obstruct my entire view of the ruins of the rest of the resort that burned down back in the day. A burned down building where the locals still go to shower years later is much easier on the eyes than some overweight stranger's underpants, but now I just smile and think that in less than two weeks time, I will have access to a dryer.

I get that dryers are as normal as sliced bread back in the gold ol' US of A, but here they are a rare commodity. 

The view from our room.

Preparing for this journey to the mainland can be quite a feat, mentally as much as anything. Island life is vastly different than city life, even when that “city” is only 7.8 square kilometers (3 square miles) with a population of 42,000. That’s 41,000 more people than Mana has. Ok, I don’t know if that is exactly true. Mana has two villages, both with a few hundred inhabitants. Then there are 4 resorts. Tadrai is the place you stay when you lack imagination and have run out of other things to spend your wealth on. For $3,000 per night, there are many places in Fiji that offer a lot more than 5 bungalows on an otherwise deserted beach. Places with unlimited massage packages and rooms with private pools, for example. Mana Island Resort averages around $500 per night and can house 300 people. It feels like a large school campus aimed to cater to quantity over quality, complete with cafeteria style food. People who stay there refer to it as "Paradise Alcatraz." Ratu Kini where we live and work averages around $100 for a dorm with full board, to $300 for a private with full board. Apparently we have a max capacity of 50, but I don’t remember the last time we had more than 30 guests. Then down the beach is the other backpackers’ place, the super budget one, where they drag mattresses into the closet when they overbook, and only run the generator a couple hours a day. Seeing as how they always procure an extra mattress and an extra closet when it gets very busy, I’m not sure what their max capacity is, but you can see that Mana Island is a very small place, the kind of place where you greet everyone by name on your way to work in the morning. The second an unfamiliar face turns up, everyone reminds you to not leave your phone sitting out. Mana Island is also the kind of place that you can leave your phone sitting out all day and it will still be there. I know I’ve written twice now about stolen phones, so you’re probably scratching your head wondering which way it is. Mainland Fiji is a whole different culture where petty theft is not uncommon. On Mana Island, our phones should have been stolen every other day for as much as we leave them lying around. Yet in a year and a half, Fletch’s phone got nicked once, and to this day, everyone warns the guests when the boat arrives that the thief used to work on. The thief was fired of course, but still everyone is wary of the boat.

While it may be safe to leave a valuable piece of technology that you have your entire life stored on lying around, there is one thing you should never ever leave unattended: flip flops. Especially if you have large, Fijian sized feet. Flip flops will walk away as soon as you leave them on the beach to go for a swim. Now why anyone bothers with shoes to begin with is beyond me. There is no pavement on Mana Island, just sand and dirt. Sand gets inside flip flops so you're walking on it anyway, why not just ditch the shoes? There is one field full of stickers that you should never ever walk through bare footed unless you have the hobbit-tough feet of a Fijian (I found this out the hard way my first night here), but that field is easily avoided, deeming shoes unnecessary. Until it’s time to go to the mainland to do laundry. Then I have to tear the room apart trying to find the last place I tucked my shoes away for safe keeping. Shoes and money. Apparently when you want food on the mainland, they like some money in exchange. I’ve gotten very spoiled for a year living in a way where money just gets shoved in a drawer somewhere because there is literally nothing else to do with it. You see, in exchange for diving and carrying some tanks up and down the beach (gym time), I get a shoebox to stay in, three meals a day, and a crate of beer per week, which I donate to Fletch on account that I don’t like beer and he enjoys a cold drink after laboring in the sun all day. There are no stores of any kind on Mana, save for our one little shop that sells cookies and two or three other processed, packaged food items. Those don’t appeal to me so I really couldn’t spend my money on the island if I tried.

The panorama view makes this photo of our room look much more spacious than it really is. Now it is crammed with a queen bed, dresser, and all of our belongings. This photo was also taken before I scrubbed the mold off the walls. They are a much cleaner shade of mustard now. 

Viti Levu, the big island is another story. Money becomes very important. So do shoes. Fletch and I forgot shoes once and had to wander barefoot to the nearest store in search of flip flops. After wandering through two or three stores that smelled of Indian spices and body odor, we finally found some rubber flip flops for $5. In an effort to prepare ourselves for the inevitable time when we would again forget to bring shoes, Fletch and I carefully hid our new $5 flip flops in the storage shed at the jetty so that they could be there waiting for us. You don’t leave flip flops unattended in Fiji though. Obviously they were never seen again.

Fletch also forgot to bring money with him not too long ago. The money wasn’t as big a deal as you might think. After a year and a half on Mana, and two years in Fiji, Fletch has many friends here whom he has helped on numerous occasions, and so it wasn’t difficult to find someone to borrow $50 from for a day. I sent his wallet over on the next boat and we both had a good laugh that he had forgotten to bring money with him an hour boat journey away.

I remembered to bring money and shoes this time around. What I did not remember to bring was a charger for my iPhone or iPad, and unfortunately, I left with only a 10% charge on the iPad. How on Earth would I entertain myself while pushing the magic button that does all my laundry for me?! Normally I have a book, a real life ink and paper book. I like reading the old-school way, and watching the pages slowly curl in the humidity the deeper in I delve. But last night I finished a particularly funny book, and desperate to keep the laughs coming, downloaded another of the same author’s books onto my iPad. Technology is amazing. I can have any book I want at the snap of my fingers. Not too long ago, being in a non-English speaking country would have meant traveling with a stack of heavy books if you wanted reading material. In 2018, you can be on a spit of sand in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and have instant access to nearly any book ever written. Unfortunately that book only has 10% battery left, and I was silly enough to not bring a charger. Oh the horror. Hence, why I still prefer to tote around physical, tree-killing pages splattered with ink. So to amuse myself on my day off I walked downstairs to the Shop n Save and spent $3.83 Fijian on a notebook, a pen, and a pack of coconut cookies that I usually don't eat, but somehow seemed essential for the coming afternoon of old-fashioned blogging. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lugged my computer around, assuring myself that I would be writing every moment of spare time I had, only for it to sit there and collect dust, and yet here I am rambling on with a pen and notebook, drinking tea, and listening to the pouring rain outside. There’s something very refreshing about it.

Gotham City

My favorite dive site around the Mana Island area of Fiji is a spot called Gotham City. On a tame day, it is teaming with ocean life. On the best of days, it’s a journey into another world, where you would think a rainbow exploded underwater there is so much color. The schools of fish are so thick that at times, you almost wish you could part the curtain to see what’s behind.

Gotham City is comprised of two pinnacles, with a channel between. The site is a 45 minute boat ride away, and out in the middle of nowhere, with no mooring line. We are blessed here with the best boat captain I have ever had the pleasure of working with. The man is a local Fijian, and a human compass and GPS all rolled into one. His eye is beyond human. When I first came to Mana Island, I went out on a dive with Fletch to learn the site, and Fletch asked Simi, our boat captain, to drop him on the southwest corner of the channel halfway around the first pinnacle, or some such obscure direction. I remember rolling my eyes a bit, wondering how anyone driving a little skiff with no navigation system could possibly find such an exact spot on a dive site with no mooring line. Fletch was probably just being funny. One splash later and a look around at my surroundings, and I realized that I was in the exact sort of spot that Fletch has just described. Impressed by his talent, I asked Simi after the dive how often he gets to go diving. He must see the dive sites a lot to know them that well. “Never,” was his response. He is a man of few words. Only later did I learn that due to ear troubles, he’s never been able to dive.

Simi doesn’t just wait until he sees the heads of divers popping up to the surface and then drive the boat over. No, he’s constantly following everyone’s bubbles, even if several different groups are heading off in different directions. I’ll be the first one up from a dive at times and say, “Simi, where’s Fletch?” and he’ll point over to the exact spot where sure enough, once you focus, you can distinguish where a bubble is coming up from a regulator rather than being formed by churning waves. He knows what the bubbles look like when we are 5 meters deep, signaling to him that we are on our safety stop and will be up soon. 

The other day I was gearing my students up for a dive when Simi exclaimed, “Look! Skydivers!” We all looked up into the blinding sunlight and could barley make out the shape of a plane. We kept watching the small speck of a plane, and sure enough, just over a minute later, a tiny dot of a brightly colored parachute appeared. How he ever saw anyone jump from that plane is beyond me.

We are very protective of Gotham City because it is so dazzling. There is no mooring there, and Simi is one of the very few people who knows how to find it, 45 minutes away by boat and out in the middle of open blue water. We’ve had boats follow us out there before to try and steal the location. We even cut a mooring off once that someone tried to rig up for spearfishing. Find your dinner somewhere else, not on Gotham City.

When the tide is right, the current can sweep you off that site in a heartbeat. One of our old instructors came up once with the most terrified look in his eyes, and ended up having to have the boat tow him back to the dive site. He never went there again. I’ve had divers with hundreds of dives complain afterwards that fighting the current made them use too much air. The current is what brings the fish though. Without current, that site wouldn’t be half as incredible. Now we’re careful with who we bring there. Gotham City is not for everyone, but it is the one dive that even after a year of working here, I’ll still jump on the boat for if I’m not busy.

Last time Fletch took a day off, I brought his advanced divers out to Gotham City. It was new moon, which was promising. Wonderful things happen beneath the surface of the ocean when the moon hits the right phase. It’s funny how fish follow moon cycles. We dropped into the water and the visibility was shit, pardon my eloquent language. Heavy rain on the mainland causes the rivers to flood, washing all sorts of debris and sediment into the water, plus outgoing tide during the daytime pulls all the sand out to sea from the beaches, plus the water is currently very warm. All these things add up to produce some very poor visibility. That was no matter though. Before we had swum the short length of the channel separating the two pinnacles, we already saw a napoleon wrasse (a very large fish with big, squishy lips that turns from dull brown as a juvenile, to a magnificent turquoise color as an adult), a whitetip reef shark (the house-cat of the shark family; sometimes they like to come in for a cuddle, sometimes they like to hang out with the person who doesn’t like sharks), and a scribbled filefish (shaped sort of like a flat ukulele with a spaghetti strand for a trigger on top of its head). This was going to be good.

We turned left, going counter-clockwise around the pinnacles. I looked up, as that is where the batfish usually hang out, the same batfish that give Gotham City its name. There was one dinner-platter sized fish, and there was a second one. They look like oversized butterflyfish, with very cute faces and curious expressions. The first chased the second away. Usually they hang out in a big school. Not today.

I spotted the head of a moray eel down a little deeper and zagged over to take a closer look. Waving my divers over took too long for the eel, who decided to retreat into his rock. The leopard pattern on his skin could still be seen through several openings in his hiding spot, but his head was buried somewhere. Two white antennas protruded from the rock of a banded boxing shrimp. Obviously the eel was getting a free bath from the little guy. Around the other side of the rock, I spotted the tail end of a stone fish. I tried to point this out while forming my hand into a fist like you would for rock, paper, scissors. My divers just gave me a quizzical look, wondering why I was pointing at a rock. Stonefish do just look like rocks, which makes them a very rewarding find. They are also incredibly venomous, so you don’t want to set your hand down on what you think is a rock and find it by accident.

Everyone was zig zagging around, looking with delight from one alien critter to the next. I turned around to see if I needed to slow down to match everyone’s pace and one of the guys was waving us both back, making a scissoring motion with his fingers, followed by a punching motion with his fists, the sign for mantis shrimp. Our approach scared the little terror back under his rock, but my diver pointed repeatedly to the spot where it was hiding, reassuring us that it was there. Luckily we were all happy to sit around and wait, knowing that doing so would be rewarding. That’s the nice thing about diving with experienced divers. They’re much more patient with seeing cool things. New divers have ADD in the water. If you can’t show them a turtle kissing a dolphin right there and then, they’re already looking elsewhere. I stayed far enough back so that hopefully the mantis shrimp wouldn’t feel too threatened. It took a couple minutes, but eventually the smallest mantis shrimp I’ve ever seen that was that brightly colored appeared. I did see a baby no bigger than my thumbnail once, but that didn’t yet have any coloring. This one had on his full clown suit. It was maybe an inch in length, and its little jeweled eyes whizzed around in all directions, taking us in. Watching the eyes of a mantis shrimp makes you wonder what other dimensions and parallel universes they are slicing through with their gaze.

We continued around to the far side of the pinnacle, where a deep bommie sits out at about 30 meters (or 100 feet). Big schools of bluestripe snappers swarm this rock, making it look like a cloud of bright yellow. The fish were so thick that we couldn’t see anything else. Rivers and rivers of twinstripe fusiliers and flametail snappers were flowing past us, and moving around us, almost as if we were in a pool of fish rather than the ocean. Usually divers will cause big schools to retreat farther away, so that we can only admire from the distance. Today we became engulfed, completely surrounded in all directions by brightly colored scales and gills.

Through the thick soup of snappers I could just barely make out the round, awkward shape of a massive pufferfish swimming away. Probably a star puffer, this guy was every bit as large as his cousin Peter who lives at the wreck, if not bigger. I never knew pufferfish could grow so massive before I met Peter. If he were to inflate (don’t ever force a pufferfish to inflate by the way), I’m sure I would no longer be able to reach my arms around him. I strained my eyes through all the fish to try and make the swimming blob out more clearly, and discovered that there were two of these enormous pufferfish. They are normally solitary creatures, so love must have been in the air. Near the puffers was the biggest grouper I have ever seen in this part of Fiji. There are some giant groupers in Beqa, some bigger than the bull sharks there, but the biggest I’ve seen here is about the size of the biggest pufferfish. This grouper was at least four times the size of the two puffers he was staring at.

As we rounded the opposite side of the pinnacles from where we had begun, I saw another napoleon wrasse. I swam in a trance for a while, only slightly distracted by the fact that my overly conservative computer’s bottom time was running low, forcing me to slowly lead the divers up to a shallower depth without missing anything cool. We reached an appropriate depth, and for a whole five minutes the dive became perfectly ordinary with only a few dozen fish swimming around, and some nice coral to look at. Coming out of the magnificent experience of being swarmed within schools of thousands of fish felt like coming down from any good trip and back into the realm of the ordinary. I just wasn’t ready for it to end yet. There had to be more.

About three quarters of the way around from where we had started, we cut through a little mini channel that sits at 12 meters. Where the channel spat us out, there was some decent current, so I toyed with the idea of pulling out the reef hooks and just floating there suspended until we were low on air. One of my divers beat me to the punch though, and pounded his chest, signaling that he had 70 bar left in his tank. So I brought everyone up to 5 meters and we started our safety stop at the top of the pinnacle. Just a moment later I spotted a cuttlefish and kicked over to investigate.

Cuttlefish are not terribly common here. I saw my first one ever just in the lagoon in front of the dive shop, and a second one at Sandbank, so this was my third one ever. Make that my third and fourth cuttlefishes, because there were two. They were much smaller than the first two I had seen, probably a different species (there are 120 known species of cuttlefish). Their appearance was very translucent, making them look almost like squid, except that they had the telltale “w” shaped pupil. We hovered and watched them for our entire safety stop and I began to realize that they were doing a mating dance of sorts. The larger of the two would zoom under a rock, turning this iridescent lilac color with green pinspots as he went, and then would start to back out and return to the smaller of the two again, turning dark, almost completely black for a moment before returning to a more translucent color and beginning the dance all over again. I had my suspicions they were mating, and those suspicions were confirmed when for a brief moment, their tentacle-y faces met. I cheered them on before they broke apart a second later and returned to their dance; apparently they weren’t ready yet. After a good 10 minutes of all three of us staring, transfixed, I asked my diver again what his air was. He replied 20 bar. Normally I would never let anyone go that low, but we were sitting at 5 meters watching cuttlefish getting it on. I offered him my alternate to see if he wanted to stay down and watch a little bit longer, but he shook his head and signaled “up”, so I pulled the rest of the group up, and up we went. We all emerged at the surface giddy with excitement, and smiling so hard it hurt. Gotham City is my favorite spot here, and that dive was the best of the best of what Gotham had to offer.

P.S. I flooded my underwater camera, right after I finally had it rigged up the way I wanted it with a red light. So I do apologize for the lack of photographic evidence. Here's an older photo of the rock where all the bluestipe snappers hang out, taken on a slower day. 


Another Year, Another Stolen iPhone

2017 turned out to be the year of repeats. Our second year in Fiji, our second year going to Tokoriki for our anniversary, our second year going to Beachcomber for New Years, and our second year getting an iPhone stolen. We looked into doing something different for New Year’s Eve, but if you want to party in this corner of the world, then Beachcomber Island is the closest thing to it. There is a new day club not too far away, and we looked into that, but it is only a day club, and does not offer overnight accommodation. Beachcomber was a blast last year though, so why not end the year the same way we started it?

We drove over in our boat named Flexi, across the turquoise sea to the little blob of sand where someone decided to set up a backpacker’s hostel. This year we splurged and booked a private room instead of the dorm.

Aerial view of Beachcomber Island (Image source: Google)

I unloaded our bags onto the beach while Fletch manned the boat. In the process of unloading, Fletch realized he didn’t have his phone on him. It must have gotten packed away into a bag somewhere. I left to find someone to show us where we could moor up the boat, while Fletch searched for his phone. After getting the boat situated, we pulled up the Find iPhone app on my phone, and saw it sitting on the beach back on Mana Island in front of Danny’s place. Figuring it must have fallen out of his pocket while we were loading everything up, Fletch messaged our coworker Shane to ask him to go grab it. As Shane was walking down towards the beach, the dot on the screen representing Fletch’s iPhone began moving out towards the boat channel. Maybe Danny had found it and sent it along with someone who was heading our way. Fiji is a small place like that. 


We asked Shane what boat was leaving Mana island right then, and he replied that it was the Mana Flyer, full of fat, white tourists. He thought that it was heading towards Beachcomber next, and so amazed by our luck, Fletch went down to the beach to wait for the boat’s arrival, while I went to secure us two plates of what was left of the greasy lunch buffet.

When I saw Fletch again, he was not happy. The Mana Flyer had not stopped at Beachcomber, it had just kept going, and Fletch had watched in dismay as the little dot of his phone zoomed past us on the GPS tracker. Fletch was kicking himself for not just jumping on our boat and being ready to meet them at sea.

We’d already sent a message to the phone to please call my number if the phone was found. Fletch changed it now to offer a nice reward if whoever had it would turn it in. Apple has this wonderful feature where you can lock your phone remotely, rendering it useless to anyone who doesn't have the passcode. All they can see is whatever message you send to the main screen.

Fletch managed to track down the phone number for the captain of the Mana Flyer. Fiji is small enough so that anyone you know is bound to know a person who knows the person you’re looking for. He told the boat captain that someone on that boat had his phone. The captain said he would ask around, and Fletch threatened to have the cops waiting at the boat’s landing if no one turned it in.

The Mana Flyer parks next to our own transfer boat at Fantasy Island in Nadi, and so we knew where it was heading. When we saw the dot on the GPS start heading north for Lautoka instead, we were surprised. I looked up at the horizon, towards Lautoka off in the distance, and saw a large cruise ship sitting there. That added up with the fat white tourists that Shane said had been on board. (No offense to any of you cruise goers out there). Fletch was still making phone calls on my phone and had managed to get in touch with the owner of the Mana Flyer, who confirmed that the boat was dropping people off on the cruise ship.

Fletch hung up looking defeated. If the phone was on the cruise ship, then it was gone. We picked at the greasy assortment of food in front of us. Beachcomber is a fun place to go, but the food really sucks. I had thought it was alright the year previous. I don’t know what I was on though, because it didn’t even come close to being alright. Everything that wasn’t meat was fried to the point that it was more oil than food. The disappointment from the day’s mishap, coupled with the unappetizing food meant neither one of us ate much.

Fletch tried to cheer himself up by saying that it was just a phone. He had backed it up recently so nothing was lost. He could erase the phone remotely so no important information was stolen. Both of us were still safe and healthy. Phones can be replaced. Material possessions aren’t of much concern to either one of us, but the loss of faith in humanity for just taking something that isn't yours, that’ll leave you upset for a while.

Fletch hit the erase button in the Find iPhone app, and we headed to the bar to try and cheer ourselves up.

We went back to the room for something after a few rounds, I can’t remember what, but while we were there I looked at the Find iPhone app again just out of curiosity. The phone was back online, and the location had just been updated to a big building in the port of Lautoka. It hadn’t gotten on the cruise ship, which meant one of the Mana Flyer crew had it. I showed Fletch and just like that the search was back on. Fletch called the Mana Flyer captain, he called the owner, he called our boss who owns the jetty where the Mana Flyer parks, and finally someone got in touch with the cops.

Everything slowly started falling into place. We tracked the phone as it left Lautoka and started heading down into Nadi again, towards Fantasy Island. The Mana Flyer owner confirmed that the boat was going back to pick up snorkel gear, which the owner himself was driving his car down from Lautoka to deliver. He arranged for the cop to meet him at the gate. Everyone was taking turns calling each other. The cop made it to the gate first and somehow Fletch, over on Beachcomber, had to be the middleman and tell him to please wait there for the owner to show up. The owner meanwhile was caught in a traffic jam in his car.

We made our way back down to the bar, needing to keep ourselves occupied with something. Whoever had the phone was sitting under the trees that line the road near the jetty. They probably stepped away to have a look at it, and were trying to figure out how to unlock it. Not many people in Fiji use iPhones, so I guess it is not common knowledge that they are impossible to unlock. This guy also didn’t realize that we could see the exact location of the phone. Any intelligent thief would have turned it off a long time ago.

The cop called back to say that he was at the jetty. He had gotten tired of waiting for the owner at the gate. Fletch asked him who was standing on the road by the jetty at that moment, and the cop said the captain and one of the crew were there. Fletch said one of them had his iPhone. Apparently they had gotten spooked and buried the phone, because when they moved, the phone’s location didn’t. We started playing the alarm sound on the phone while the cop went to have a look around. He heard it and dug it up. Another iPhone recovered.

The owner finally showed up and wouldn’t tell us who had stolen the phone, but that they had caught the guy and the situation was taken care of.

The gloomy little raincloud that had descended over our New Year celebrations lifted and we had all the more reason to celebrate. Sometimes I think that technology is getting too invasive and creepy. But sometimes that works out to a great advantage. I said this last time, and I’ll say it again, thank you Apple for a product that’s getting harder and harder to steal.



Read about the last two times we lost our iPhones: Dead Dog Day

Read about our previous New Year’s Eve on Beachcomber: Beachcomber Island - Happy New Year

Postcards from 2017 - Part IV

November

The time really does fly here. Before I knew it, Fiji was kicking me out of the country again. I’d known for the past year that my oldest and closest cousin was getting married at the end of November. Unfortunately my visa was up at the beginning of the month, and there’s no way for the dive shop to operate with only two people for an entire month, so I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to make the wedding. Fletch worked his magic though, and arranged for a previous instructor who used to work here to come in and take my place, and flew me 6,285 miles around the world to Colorado.  I don’t know how I got so lucky in finding a man that never stops giving.

The wedding was such a special occasion to be able to see most of my family in one place. I’ve always had family all over the place, but after I started traveling, they really scattered. I remember when I returned to Colorado from Thailand it was to find that my aunt had moved to Dallas, and my cousin had moved to Louisiana. This was all a shock to me as everyone had forgotten to tell the girl living overseas. To be fair, long-distance communication has gotten a lot easier since then. My visits to the US are usually just to Colorado, so there was a lot of family I hadn’t seen in quite some time.

The wedding itself was breathtaking. My aunt put together a gorgeous event up in the little mountain town of Estes Park. Everything she touches turns out visually stunning.


I got to get all dolled up which I do occasionally miss. I wouldn’t trade my life of no shoes for anything, but occasionally even an island bum likes to look pretty. And looking pretty doesn’t necessarily have to mean shoes; I think the gold heels my sister loaned me lasted for five minutes before they found their way into a corner somewhere. 

The Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado

My sister and I all dressed up. (Photo credit: Nick)

We’ve all grown up. My oldest cousin was getting married on the same day that my youngest cousin was turning 21. We were always the kids at family functions. Now suddenly there we all were, adults. Time flies. 

All of my first cousins (Photo Credit: Brian Paul Mallik)

My beautiful family (Photo Credit: Brian Paul Mallik) 

The evening was stunning from beginning to end. The ceremony was short and sweet; we laughed, we cried, and then we partied. The bride was beautiful, and my cousin looked so happy. He pulled a prank where all of his groomsmen were pulling empty ring boxes out of their suit pockets, trying to find the one with the ring in it. Dinner was divine. I am still drooling over the truffle soup that was an appetizer. And then we danced the night away. The only thing that would have made the night more perfect would have been having my man at my side.


December

I missed our anniversary, so Fletch and I celebrated it when I returned to Fiji. We played with the idea of going somewhere new, but there just wasn’t enough time to travel too far with the three days we would be able to take off together. So he treated me to another luxurious weekend at Tokoriki Island Resort, a sumptuous, couples-only resort on an island about a 45 minute boat ride away. Ahh there’s nothing more relaxing than the sounds of no kids for three days. Our backpackers' resort where we work has a restaurant with amazing food and much cheaper prices than the big resort next door. So even though we don’t get many kids staying here, we do get a lot of families coming over for meals with their half a dozen screaming children. There are a lot of local kids running around too, but most of them are more capable adults than the adults who travel here. Anyway, we got to escape all that for three days of complete bliss.

Fletch and I have been together for four years. Four years of galavanting around the world. Four years with a man who still treats me like I’m the only woman in the world. I don’t know how I got so lucky. He really does spoil me. More importantly, he brings a smile to my face every day. 

My handsome man driving us to our island getaway.

We drove our own little skiff over this time around. There was something very freeing about just jumping on our own boat and escaping to another island for a few days. We spent a glorious three days in our own villa with a private pool looking out over the beach, enjoying unlimited massages, and eating to our hearts’ content. You can check out my story from last year for more details about the resort. 

One evening was spent at the resort’s teppanyaki grill, which was a cozy, single teppanyaki table under a grass roof that we shared with thee other couples and our chef. The food was a welcome change. The company, not so much. One of the couples was rather loud and obnoxious, and kept asking the couple at the other end of the table if they were Japanese, which they weren’t, they were Chinese. No matter, they still kept trying to ask them questions about Japanese food. When he asked if teppanyaki originated in Japan, I finally interrupted that yes, it did, thinking that they were still confused on the Asian couple’s ethnicity, and besides, the poor couple didn’t speak any English. It turned out he was trying to ask the table a trick question, and prompted by my answer, was all too delighted to inform us all that teppanyaki originated in the US. I don’t talk a lot, and so when I do, I have to be fairly certain of what I’m saying. The loud guy trying to say that teppanyaki was an American thing struck a nerve, but when people correct me I have this instant reflex to second guess myself. I looked it up later on though and I was right. Teppanyaki is Japanese and did originate in Japan. Careful about getting your facts from The Wolf of Wallstreet. Fletch had some fun too, telling him off on another matter.

We had a beautiful, romantic, tiki-torch lit dinner on the ocean the next night. Course after course was served of one exquisite dish after another. Rain clouds were rolling in and out, causing everyone to run for shelter indoors. It did rain hard enough for about ten minutes to cause us to seek shelter as well, but as soon as it lightened up, we returned to our beach-side table with an umbrella. We were the only ones unbothered by the slight drizzle, and as such, the only ones enjoying the fresh air outside. We had the resort to ourselves for at least one delectable course. Then it started pouring hard enough to run inside again with everyone else. 

Anniversary champagne with a view

It was so nice to spend those three days with my other half and no work to be bothered with. I know our work isn’t really work, but we’ve been in Fiji for two years now, and for the last year and a half of that, 99% of our vacation time has been separate. We spend all of our time together, sure, but we almost never get to take a break together. We never get to sleep-in together. At least one of us is always heading out for a morning dive.

We spent a day deserted on the uninhabited island, Monu, only this time on a beach on the opposite side of the island. The beach took a little more prep work to make a level spot for our picnic, but the coral on that side was much better. We continued our annual tradition of freediving until our bums were good and burnt. 

Snowflake moray eel

On our final day we checked out only to realize that we were in no hurry to leave. We only had to vacate the room, but were still welcome to use the resort’s facilities for the rest of the day, and since we had our own boat, there was no rush. So we kicked off our shoes and ordered drinks by the pool. We actually brought shoes this year because after leaving them behind last year, we found out there was a dress code we were breaking. Bringing them along this year turned out to be a mistake though. I’m so used to not wearing them, that after a few too many long island iced teas, I must have left them on the island without realizing it. Those were my favorite shoes (out of three pairs that I own). But then again I never wear them. C’est la vie.

Edit: My favorite Olukai flip flops have been found! I didn't forget them on the island, I just forgot where I put them so that I wouldn't leave them behind. They were inside my freediving bag. 


Late December

Seeing a hammerhead shark has been at the top of my bucket list of things to see in the ocean for quite some time now. There are areas that are known for getting schools of them: the Galapagos, Cocos Island. I always figured I’d end up in such a place one day to see them. We do get them in Fiji, but not on this side of the country. And even in the area that is known for them, Savusavu, it is still fairly rare to see one. We used to have a French instructor working here with us, and he would jump on every Supermarket dive we did in hopes of seeing a hammerhead. We all thought he was dreaming.

I was teaching a deep dive with two students at this beautiful spot called Yadua Pinnacles. It is perfect for deep dives because there are lots of sandy spots that sit at exactly 30 meters. I was watching them do their skills when suddenly the girl started pointing excitedly behind me. I turned around to look, expecting to see a pretty angelfish. The things students get excited over are usually the more common things you see. I turned and looked over my shoulder and it all happened in slow motion. I saw a massive tail swimming away, maybe five or six meters from me. My eyes gravitated from the tail to the body which was large and bulky, bulkier than any reef shark we see here. My heart started racing in excitement, because seeing anything that big and majestic that’s out of the ordinary is reason enough to give me chills. Finally, my eyes moved up from the body to the head, where I could just make out the elongated shape of a hammerhead, before it was too far away to see clearly anymore. I turned back to my students, my eyes wide like saucers, and smiling like a maniac which caused my mask to start filling up with water. I made my hands into fists and held them on either side of my head, the sign for hammerhead, and held my eyes in a question, Was that a freaking hammerhead?! They made the sign back to me, like a couple of little kids playing simon says. I couldn’t stop shaking the rest of the dive I was so excited. This was the number one thing I’ve wanted to see in the ocean for as long as I can remember, and there it was just cruising by, completely out of place.

I didn’t have my camera of course. There’s a rule that when you have a camera, you don’t see any of the cool stuff. As soon as you leave it behind though, mermaids come out of hiding. And as much as I love mermaids, hammerheads are way cooler.

Postcards from 2017 - Part III

September 

I was teaching an open water course, the entry level certification that will allow you to dive to 18 meters anywhere in the world. I misjudged the amount of air it would take to return to the mooring line at West Wing with my one student, and so we reached our ascent point with way more air to spare than was necessary. Luckily, a flash of color caught my eye at a nearby bommie, so I led the new diver over to investigate. Our approach scared an octopus down into his hiding spot in the coral. I already knew he was there though, and so instructed my student to just kneel on the sand a little ways away. We would wait as still as possible to see if the cephalopod would reemerge.

I love watching octopuses. Their personalities are so curious, and then of course there’s the fact that they can change their shape and color at will. We don’t see a lot of octopuses here, mainly because they hide from us. The locals here catch them and eat them. I had the misfortune of watching one head towards the dinner table firsthand. I was out in the lagoon, doing some paddle board yoga, completely at peace in my little slice of paradise. Some of the local ladies who were out fishing started gravitating towards my board, and so a little self-conscious, I stopped stretching and just sat and watched what they were doing. They had a metal rod that they were jabbing into the coral. Apparently that is the way to find octopus, just keep on jabbing until you see a defensive squirt of ink emerge. Well, the poor octopus had been hiding under the paddle board because suddenly the ladies began holding their breath and ducking down into the shallow water until they were able to wrestle eight protesting tentacles up to the surface. Then they began to beat the creature with the metal rod, while all eight arms suckered onto the woman’s arm, trying to climb somewhere out of harms way. Each whack, whack, whack, was intermittently followed by the sound of bubble wrap as she tried to pull the suckered arms off of her skin. Whack, whack whack...

It’s a strange world we live in. I admire the ability to live off the land. I admire the ability to kill your own food, rather than just buying a nice piece of packaged meat at the supermarket that no longer resembles anything with a face. But pulling something that beautiful from the sea and just beating it to death like it was never anything but dinner to begin with, that’s a skill I will never have. Who am I to judge though, I still eat seafood, even though doing so is increasingly getting harder and harder the more time I spend in the ocean.

So there I was, hovering a little ways away from a bommie, waiting for an octopus to reemerge so that it could awe and delight my student. At the opposite end of the bommie, a completely different octopus started to peer inquisitively out of his hole. We held very still, and two eyes poking out slowly turned into a whole head and then eight arms spilling out like liquid. Maybe they sent some signal to each other, I really don’t know how octopuses communicate, or maybe the first one merely was able to see, from his hidden vantage point, that his friend was emerging. Whatever the case, the appearance of the second octopus prompted the original one to slowly appear in the same manner. Two eyes slowly stretched up out of the hole, which slowly turned into a head, and finally eight tentacles flaring out, trying to cover as much surface area as possible. We watched with wonder as they began flashing colors at one another, going from a smooth white pattern, to a jagged red pattern, to blending in with the neutral rock around them. We were so enthralled that I almost missed the third octopus poking his head out from behind the bommie. Three octopuses within a square meter area! This third one looked like he was trying to sneak out the back window before the other two noticed his presence. We sat there mesmerized for ages, watching the three cephalopods interact, and still it was too soon when my student pounded her chest, signaling that she was low on air and it was time to begin our ascent.



Late September

Another rite of passage in the diving world is diving naked for your 100th dive. My 100th dive happened in Roatan. Some drama was going on that week in the dive shop, and for some reason I can’t recall, no one was up for a naked dive. So my 100th dive came and went without any hoopla. Well, I just reached my 1000th dive and that was cause for celebration. It timed perfectly with a morning where no one was scheduled to dive. So Fletch and I hopped on a boat (something we never do without guests) and went to the lobster cave. Simi, our boat captain, must have wondered why we weren’t wearing wetsuits. Not much escapes his notice. Once underwater and away from the view of the world, it was all too easy to untie the swimsuits and go visit the lobsters in our birthday suits. What? The lobsters didn’t have any bikinis on either so I doubt they cared.

I chose the lobster cave because I wanted a deep dive and that is the coolest deep site we have. The reason I wanted a deep dive is because I am constantly cold, even in this warm, tropical water, but down deep the “martini effect” kicks in and I don’t notice being cold, which is very important when diving with zero exposure protection. Plus it ends up being a shorter dive due to limited bottom time.

It was nice to have a fun dive just me and Fletch, without any guests to take care of and entertain. You would think we get to do that a lot working in a dive shop, but in reality we never take the boat out unless there are paying guests on board. At least one of us is always working. Out of my 1000 dives, that is probably only the second or third one we’ve ever done just the two of us. It was a special treat.

Celebrating my 1000th dive 


October 

There’s a dive site here called Plantation Pinnacle that we don’t go to very often. It is over on the other side of Malolo, about an hour boat ride away, and so we have to charge a fuel surcharge to get there. As our guests are mostly backpackers on a budget, and we have so many good sites in the near vicinity without having to go that far away, we rarely get requests to go there. It is a fantastic dive site though for anyone who wants to see the best of what we have to offer, regardless of the price.

Plantation Pinnacle is a single pillar underwater. The base of it is 26 meters (85 feet) deep, with a swim through at the bottom. You can swim the entire circumference of the pinnacle in under a minute, but there is so much to see at each depth that you can just slowly spiral the whole thing, and still only make it halfway up after an hour. At the base there is a rock where a mantis shrimp lives. I’ve written about mantis shrimps many times before, and will try to refrain from doing so again, but they really are some of the most fascinating creatures in the sea. There are also little garden eels poking their heads out of the sand. As you spiral up you can focus in on the coral and look for multiple different varieties of nudibranchs, or you can look out into the blue water and see schools of thousands of fusiliers, snappers, and trevallies. On this day in particular, looking out into the blue was not so much blue, as it was every color of the rainbow, splattered across in the form of different shapes and sizes of fish all schooling around. At that particular spot there was a nook in the pillar, so I pulled out my reef hook and just hovered there suspended, watching in awe as thousands of fish gradually forgot that I was there and eventually allowed me to become part of their surroundings, swarming around me like bees around a beehive. The rest of the divers were continuing their spiraling ascent, once around, twice, three times, until I finally decided it was time to level up. 

Fish schooling around Plantation Pinnacle 

This photo doesn't even come close to doing this dive justice. 

I skipped the upper portion of the pinnacle as I always run out of time there and miss the top, and instead jumped directly to the roof of the pinnacle which sits at about 10 meters (33 feet). This is where all the little anemone fish and damsel fishes hang out. 

The top of Plantation Pinnacle

Pink anemonefish on Plantation Pinnacle

Then I found something really cool. A hopping motion caught my eye, like one of those wind up toys that hops across the floor. I wondered what creature was causing this rock to move and then realized that the rock was the creature! I’d found a stonefish. And not just one, but two upon closer examination, and they were massive! 

Do you see them? 

Stonefish are really difficult to find as they look exactly like stones, as their names suggest. They are also thought to be the most venomous fish in the world. The sharp spines along their dorsal fin are pressure sensitive, and when stepped on, inject a venom that is excruciatingly painful, and often even lethal. Don’t worry, they’re not going to actively try to stab you with their spines or anything, but do be mindful on beaches that are known to have them, because it is all too easy to not recognize them and accidentally step on them.


Halloween 

Dressing up for Halloween is not a big thing in many of the countries I’ve been to, and I don’t understand why. Who doesn’t love an excuse to wear costumes? The tradition of eating lots of candy has spread to other countries, and little kids will dress up and go trick-or-treating in a lot of places, but adults dressing up just doesn’t seem to happen outside the US and it is a shame. Fletch and I decided to have some fun on our own though, and so Fletch bought us a pair of skeleton Morphsuits when he was back in the US during his leave. We figured Morphsuits would be easy enough to wear over wetsuits. Plus they glowed in the dark, so we planned a special night dive for the occasion.

The Morphsuits ended up being way more fun than either of us had anticipated. Our backpackers’ resort is intermingled with the local village, and so there are always local kids running around. They were screaming with delight all day long, every time they saw the two skeletons approaching. There’s a little strip of beach that we walk back and forth, carrying tanks all day long. Some of the local village ladies use that same stretch of beach to set up their tables full of souvenirs and handicrafts to sell. When they saw us, they immediately all started saying that we had to go to the school. Now Fletch and I aren’t the kind of people to just go disrupt school, but one of the ladies led us over there so we grabbed a basket of candy and followed along.

The school is set up as a little square with a grassy field in the middle. When we started making our way across the field, we were welcomed by the sound of screaming and the shuffling of little feet hurrying to the open windows. Yes, Fletch and I disrupted an entire school, kids from every class were now gathered around the windows, staring at us and screaming with delight.

The headmaster approached us with a scowl and said he wished we would have made an appointment. We gushed our apologies and offered to leave, but the Fijian culture seems to be unable to turn people away or turn down anyone’s request. They can't not be accommodating. Fletch finally explained that we were the dive instructors, and the headmaster’s demeanor instantly switched from annoyed to welcoming. “Oh Fletch!” he exclaimed. “Yes, please come with me! We will start with the youngest classes and progress to the older students.” And that’s how Fletch and I randomly ended up in a local school on Halloween, passing out candy in skeleton suits. 

Trying to leave for a dive and still being swarmed by kids.