I am about a month behind in my writing, and so this post comes out of order, but I wanted to get it up sooner rather than later. Don’t worry, the other stories will follow soon, and when the time comes I will delete this post and repost it in order. 

Saturday, 20 February, 2016
Rakiraki, Fiji


6:30 AM

The alarm goes off half an hour earlier than yesterday. Yesterday some of us laid in bed until the last possible minute and then realized that four of us are sharing a bathroom. That didn’t work out so well and the dive shop called us to see where we were before we were even late. So this morning we are determined to be early. We are so determined that no one is moving yet. My brain in moving. My body is not responding.

8:15 AM

Fletch, Mikaila, Aaron, and myself are power walking the sandy, scenic path between the mangroves and the gardens that leads to the dive shop. I have one piece of toast in my hand that I was able to prepare with butter and marmalade before running off. The other piece of toast I had to abandon in a hurry. Poor toast would never fulfill its toasty destiny. We walk up to an empty beach and an empty dive shop save for Nick, the owner's brother, who’s running around putting everything away.

“All waters are closed due to the cyclone, guys, and all flights in and out of Nadi are canceled for the next two days.”

Yesterday we had gone into the little town by the resort. Rakiraki, Fiji was all of one little square of shops. We had wandered around the entire square, and found one bank that was closed early due to the cyclone warning. We had all laughed because it was a sunny day, and the cyclone was meant to be heading south.

This is the main island, Viti Levu. We are up at Volivoli, represented my the mosaic fish next to the town of Rakiraki (this map is not entirely accurate, Volivoli is actually at the very tip of that point). Aaron and Mikaila's dive shop is down south by the Beach House. 

This is the original, predicted path of the cyclone. Viti Levu is the big round island on the left with Nadi and Suva marked. North is the safest place to be by this prediction.

“Really milking the cyclone for all it’s worth, aren’t they?” Aaron had said.

Now Volivoli, the resort, was doing the same thing. Maybe we were missing something. Mikaila and Aaron’s boss back on the Coral Coast of Fiji had been supplying us with updates that we were in the safest place away from the cyclone.

Nick continued, "We’ll be moving everyone on the beach up into your block this afternoon.”

We had booked one of the rooms with two queen beds, the only room big enough to sleep two couples. When we arrived we had learned that that meant a room in the block of eight or so rooms next to the parking lot farther up the hill, and not one of the beachside bures. (Bure being the Fijian word for room or bungalow). At least we we wouldn’t have to move.

8:30 AM

We walk back to the dining area and the realization sinks in that with the waters closed on a beach resort, there is really nothing to do. The hammocks have even been brought in. It is going to be a boring day of sitting around. The group of ten Aussies who were supposed to leave today are stranded now too so at least we have company.

9:30 AM

We are all sitting around on our phones. Ever since a year with no internet in Palau I feel like a bit of a drug addict with my phone. My battery that used to last for three or four days on airplane mode now lasts for half a day at best with me checking Facebook every half hour. Now we are looking for information on the cyclone. I find out that its name is Winston and it is headed straight for us. It is a category 5 on the Australian scale, which translates to a category 4 on the Atlantic scale. Part of me is excited by the novelty of experiencing a cyclone. I’ve never been through a tropical storm. Part of me believes the storm will lose steam by the time it crosses the two islands between us and it. Nick had said it would hit us at 6:00 PM. We have nothing to do all day but wait. Trying to leave is a bad idea because the storm has already been changing directions at every turn. Better to be at the resort than in the car.

Cyclone Winston's route

11:30 AM

It occurs to us to drive the rental car back into town before stores start to close. The few houses along the way all have sawed down trees that are now lying across their front yards. Better to bring them down now then to let the cyclone drop them on top of your home. In town half the shops are already closed. The other half are busy boarding up their windows. The wind is starting to pick up and the howling is mixed with the sound of hammers and chainsaws. It is a little eerie.

12:15 PM

We walk into a little Chinese restaurant for lunch and order three veggie chow miens and a wonton soup. The veggie part of the chow mien is a couple shreds of lettuce and an equal number of carrot shreds. The lady who is working behind the counter is staring out the window looking more and more nervous by the minute. As we eat, we keep checking the progress of Winston on our phones. There is not much information, but from the little bit we are able to gather, Winston isn’t showing any signs of weakening, and he is still headed straight for us. Mikaila is able to pull up a video someone posted from Taveuni two islands over where we just came from. They are getting destroyed.

12:45 PM

Fletch walks over to the other side of the restaurant to call his mom and tell her he loves her. Arron leaves to get a haircut. Mikaila runs after him when he comes back to say there is a horse at the end of the block next to the Bargain Box shop. Fletch walks back over from his phone call and urges me to call my mom too. I’m not quite sure how to do that without worrying her, especially since there is every reason to worry. What are you supposed to say in that sort of situation? Oh hey, Mom, listen, there’s a category 5 cyclone headed straight for us but no need to panic. I wanted to call to tell you I love you. No I’m not calling because I think I might be obliterated by mother nature tonight…
12:50 PM

I end up telling her exactly what I’ve been telling myself all morning. "There’s a cyclone headed this way. It is two islands over though so it will likely lose steam by the time it reaches us." It still could. "It will probably take cell service and internet away for a few days so don't panic when you don't hear from me." Then we talk about the Oscar awards that I will be home it time to watch. That used to be an annual tradition of ours before I started traveling. The thought crosses my mind that I won’t actually be home for them and my stomach drops.

1:00 PM

I put on my sunglasses even though it is grey outside. The wind is whipping dirt around so the eye protection is helpful. Fletch and I walk into one of the Indian knick-knack shops that sells everything. There is a wall of jesus posters next to some figurines of a few of the Hindu gods. All your bases covered. In the other corner a guy is selling bootleg copies of movies. Fletch buys Deadpool.

1:20 PM

We wait for Aaron to finish his haircut on the steps in front of the hardware store. We had tried to sit on the little bench in the barber shop but there was too much hair flying around everywhere. The hardware store worker brings a generator out front and turns it on to check that it works for the man who just bought it. Generators are probably flying off the shelves today.

1:30 PM

When Aaron and Mikaila walk out to meet us, we make one last stop inside the liquor store to buy a case of beer, a bottle of wine, and some rum and coke. Provisions for the cyclone. We are good to go.

3:30 PM

We are watching a funny British show called The Inbetweeners that Aaron introduced us to back in the room. We pause it halfway through, deciding that we’d rather go be social while we still can. We will be holed up in the room soon enough. So we walk down to the dining area. Simon, the guy who runs the Siren liveaboard, is the only one there and is in good spirits. He announces that it will be happy hour all night long, so we order a tower of beer and a pina colada and play a game of cards to pass the time.

5:30 PM

The wind is really howling now so Fletch and I decide to venture down to the beach where the dive shop is to see what’s happening. Apparently wind has to travel at 75 mph to pick a person up. I’m guessing it is just under that, because I am hunched over to keep the wind from pushing me over as we run down the sandy path along the mangroves. All I can think about is falling coconuts. People are terrified of sharks but coconuts are the real concern. Coconuts kill way more people every year than sharks do. I’m holding my arm over my head, thinking that a broken arm would be better than a cracked skull.

5:35 PM

I’m right behind Fletch as he makes it to the beach and huddles under the shelter of the dive shop’s bar. The beach was clear when he ran across. Branches start falling all around me the second before I reach the shelter of the bar. This was a dumb idea. We’re both laughing and smiling though. I’m way too high on adrenaline to care that I just almost got wiped out by a bunch of falling tree branches. Waves are crashing everywhere. The wind is pushing the trees in directions they just should not bend. Fletch goes skipping down to the shoreline. This doesn’t even qualify as a category one yet.

Trees being blown over on the beach.

5:40 PM

Fletch comes skipping back right as Mikaila and Aaron show up behind us. I step forward to experience the feeling of the storm around me once more. The wind must be nearing that 75 mph mark because it pushes me down on the tile floor and just keeps pushing me at an alarming speed along the slippery, wet tiles. I crawl behind the bar as quickly as I can for shelter, laughing all the while. What a ride. That’s when we realize it’s time to head back while we still can. So with my arm over my head as a useless coconut shield once more, we run back along the mangrove path that is now flooding. 

That large boulder wasn't there the day before. Or the day after. Not really sure where it came from or where it went. 

5:45 PM

We emerge back in the dining area completely drenched and buzzing with adrenalin. We pull out the videos we took with our iPhones to show Simon and the group of Australians who have appeared in our absence. Simon orders us another tower of beer. The excitement increases the more we drink and talk with everyone else.

6:00 PM

Simon nonchalantly announces that he is going to institute a lock-in soon and so we should order dinner while we still can. We wait a little too long to actually order and the sandy floor of the restaurant starts to flood at an alarming rate. The storm is worsening faster than any of us can actually comprehend that it is time to leave. I head over to the bar and order a soup and salad. A moment later I realize that was a terrible idea. Even with the cyclone-proof windows all shut, the wind whipping through the open areas of the dining area is tremendous. There is no way that a salad will stay on a plate. The leaves will all fly away before it is even in front of me.

6:10 PM

We move away from the table where we had been sitting a moment before as it is now completely flooded. A deafening boom of something lading on the tin roof makes everyone jump a foot in the air and Mikaila reaches for our tower of beer to protect it. A corner of the roof has torn away. Further inspection of the roof shows the opposite end of it bouncing up and down rather violently. Geraldine, the manager, shouts over the howling wind to come towards the bar, that the beam we are all staring at with horror won’t hold much longer. We huddle there on our toes, ready to sprint at the soonest sign of a lull in the storm.

6:15 PM

Everyone is sprinting up the hill, towards the two concrete buildings where all the guests have been moved. We are the middle room of the top one. I want to wait for Fletch, who is waiting for the food, but he yells over the storm to follow Aaron and Mikaila. I grab one of the two plates that has already come out and is now covered in foil. Plate in one hand and half empty beer mug in the other. Mikaila has the tower. I run after her and Aaron but the visibility is zero and I cannot even see them ahead of me. I keep putting one foot in front of the other as quickly as I can against the crushing wind, and almost fall over into a massive shrub strewn across the path. The wind is fighting me and I stop for a moment to figure out how to crawl over it with my hands occupied. One of the Australian men runs past me yelling “Come on! Keep going!” He stops just long enough to hold the branches of the shrub down for me. I run over it and up the hill. Up and up, one foot at a time, face tucked down because the rain is stinging it like bees. Another tree is strewn across the path so I cut through the garden. Everything that was in the garden is now on the path. One step further up the hill and the wind pushes me over. I can feel branches whipping past me at violent speeds. I can also hear Mikaila just ahead of me, she is also down. I turn my back to the hill and start crawling backwards, yelling “Crawl backwards!” as I go, hoping Mikaila can hear me over the wind. There’s so much debris flying everywhere that there’s no point in trying to stand up again. I can’t see anything, but I can feel it. Finally we reach the shelter of our building’s hallway. It is still open, but blocked by two walls and a roof. I’ve managed to hang onto the plate and the mug. Both are still in tact, but the foil that was covering the plate is ripped to shreds and only a few roasted carrot sticks remain. The beer tower is gone.

6:20 PM

Back in the room I try to text Fletch to get out of the dining area while he can, and not to bother with the food because it won’t make it up the hill anyway. Cell service is already gone though. I put my phone on the sill of the narrow window at the top of the bathroom in hopes that it will catch some faint flicker of any signal that might still be floating around. The building is a long cement building at the top of the hillside with eight or ten identical rooms all next to each other. In each room, a balcony with double glass doors and double screen doors faces downhill. The bathroom is on the uphill side of the room with one narrow window at the top facing the hallway on the opposite side. The hallway has all the doors aligned on one side and a half a cement wall going up the other side. The upper half of the wall is open. We should be safe here. The biggest concern is a mudslide coming down the hill and blocking the doors.

6:25 PM

Aaron, Mikaila, and I hurriedly set about putting all the valuables such as electronics in the bathroom. That will be the most secure place. When we have all those moved over we go ahead and move the rest of our belongings, tucking backpacks securely under the bathroom counter. When all our belongings are moved we put four chairs in the bathroom. Then Aaron has the foresight to move four pillows in too, incase we end up sleeping in there. The sound of the wind is already roaring. The only sounds besides that are of all the other guests yelling and running around trying to secure everything the same as us. Mikaila keeps asking where Fletch is, if Fletch is ok. All I can keep saying is yes, he is fine. I know he is more resilient and resourceful than the rest of us. The more she asks though, the more I wonder, and I am really just saying “yes” to convince myself.

6:30 PM

The floor is already wet. Everyone is drenched and dirty and small trickles of blood run down our legs and pool onto the wet floor. Mud and twigs and leaves are finding their way in as well. This isn’t even close to the worst of it and it’s already a mess.

6:40 PM

I am taking advantage of one last opportunity of having the bathroom to myself before we are all holed in here when I hear Fletch’s voice on the other side of the door. Thank goodness. Of course the next words out of his mouth are that the Coloradan mom is missing and he has to go find her. I can’t even finish my business to go protest. I hear the door close and he is gone again. The knot in my stomach clenches itself even tighter.

6:50 PM

When Fletch makes it back his elbow is gashed open deeper than I care to see into his elbow. I help him clean it up in the shower and try my best to scrub it out. I hope there’s nothing in there. If there is I can’t see past all the blood spurting out. It’s only about half an inch long but it’s deep. We find a washcloth to tie around it. The Coloradan daughter runs in and asks if she can sit with us because she is terrified. I say yes but we are naked in the shower at the moment just heads up. I guess being naked is scarier than the storm because she leaves and we don’t see her again.

7:00 PM

I take my turn in the shower, leaving my wet clothes strewn by the drain next to all the mud. There is no other place for them at the moment. I manage to dig out some dry clothes even though I know they won’t be dry for long. Someone else goes for a faucet but the running water has just joined cell service in the land of non-existance. The electricity is soon to follow. We are left all standing in our now empty room, armed with flashlights, and nothing left to do but wait.

7:10 PM

Fletch somehow managed to make it back with a big garbage bag of what had been plates of food covered in foil. Now it is all a jumble of chicken and broken porcelain and fish and veggies and shredded foil. I gingerly pick out the remnants of plate and we huddle around the garbage bag and pick out what we can salvage. If this storm turns out to be as bad as it sounds, who knows when we will have proper food again. We have a supply of packaged snack foods but this could very well be our last prepared meal for a while. There isn’t a lot of room to be picky about using our fingers and eating out of a garbage bag. I dig out a gravy boat and we all roar with laughter. Who in the world packs up a gravy boat for take away dinner in the middle of a cyclone? That should go on the TripAdvisor review. "Volivoli: keeping it classy til the end. End of the world, cyclone dinner came complete with gravy boat.”

7:30 PM

We finish dinner and put the bag of leftovers in the shower next to the wet clothes. We stand in the empty room for a moment, wondering what next, when the bolts on the double doors give out. The moment both sets fly open the four of us run for the bathroom and shut the door. Fletch suggests it’ll be better to leave the little window at the top open to let the wind flow through. The sound is deafening. All we hear is the wind screaming and howling in high pitches and low pitches and the bathroom door rattling continuously on its hinges like someone is trying to get in. At this point it is still a novelty. We are all high on the excitement and adrenalin. Fletch warns us that the next step is the pressure drop but I don’t completely comprehend what that means until it happens. Suddenly my entire body is being squeezed like when they switch the cabin pressure in an airplane, except it is much more drastic, and it’s not just a quick and fleeting feeling. I can feel the cyclone reverberating through every inch of my body, down into my bones. I simultaneously feel tremendously heavy, and nonexistent, as if everything is going right through me whether I’m there or not. I had been warned about the noise. Years ago I saw an interview on tv with someone who lived through Hurricane Katrina, and he said it had sounded as though demons were howling on his doorstep all night long. So the sound of demons howling isn’t a surprise. No one warned me about this feeling though, this pressure, this stretching back and forth in my eardrums as if I was diving up and down and up and down as quickly as I could. This feeling as though the storm is passing directly through me.

8:00 PM

The noises only get louder. The door only rattles in the doorframe faster. The pressure I can’t even describe. Fletch manages to stay jovial and keeps our spirits up for quite some time. All we can do is sit and wait and try not to imagine how much worse it is going to get. I haven’t even settled in yet, but am still standing, leaning against the shower wall, shell-shocked, while Fletch’s computer bag sits on my chair.

8:30 PM

An hour has passed of us huddling in the bathroom like a bunch of cowards. Suddenly everything goes still. The lack of noise is almost as deafening as the wind was. We sit for a moment, wondering if it is just a brief lull, and then venture out of the room to make sure everyone else is alright. Everyone else is poking their heads out as well. The hallway floor and the rooms are covered in a couple of inches of flood water at least. We slosh our way out through the water and tree branches to survey the damage. We see all the Fijian staff and I am happy that they made it up too. I was worried about them after I saw the gravy boat in the dinner bag. We walk over to the parking lot. At first glance our car looks alright but I guess no one looked at the front end, because five minutes later when we are back in the hallway someone asks who’s car that is. Apparently the front end is smashed. We go back to look again and sure enough, it is.

8:45 PM

Fletch asks, “Who wants a beer?” and I go back to the room and gather up some bottles in my sarong and start passing them out to everyone.

9:10 PM

The wind kicks up again and everyone runs. We’re back in our bathrooms faster than lightning.

9:12 PM

The tail-end of a hurricane is always worse than the front part. According to Fletch anyway. He has been through hurricanes before. I’ve never experienced anything worse than a few feet of snow on the ground, which is really a peaceful affair. Sure enough the storm builds way fast than it did the first time around, and in no time at all that pressure is back. That feeling like mother nature decided to turn me into an octopus and squeeze me into a mason jar. I wonder for a brief moment if cyclones can give you decompression sickness.

9:20 PM

Everyone is a lot quieter this time around. The novelty of being in a storm has worn off, and the the realization that this could be it sets in. There’s so much noise I can’t even tell what’s wind and what’s debris landing just over our heads. The door is rattling so loudly on its hinges that I try to lean against it to quiet it. My weight against it does absolutely nothing. Zilch. Now I just feel the vibrations rattling every bone in my body. The power is more than I can wrap my head around. I stay there for a few moments in awe, but it isn’t long before I feel queasy and leave the door to rattle on its own.

9:30 PM

The rattling gets to Fletch soon enough too, only he has the brilliant idea to close a washcloth in the door. The idea is simple and genius. The execution not so much. Once the door is open, it takes all of Fletch’s and Aaron’s joint strength to close the door against the wind again. They barely manage but the rattling has stopped. Now we are left with the howling and screaming of the wind.

9:40 PM

The pressure, the sound, the wind, all of it is relentless. It just keeps going and going. The more it goes, the louder it gets, the more my brain runs wild. As far as I know, Fiji is an underdeveloped country, and in underdeveloped countries, buildings are never built as securely as they should be. Shortcuts are taken. Cheaper materials are used. I have no idea how secure we actually are. Our roof could fly off at any moment, and once the roof is gone, how long will we last? Suppose a mud slide came down our hill and buried us all. Suppose the land slide included our building and we were swept away. Of course at that moment, when my head is spinning in all directions, Fletch leans over to hug me. That’s when I lose it. In that single, comforting moment, with his warm, soft cheek against mine, my arms around the man I love, I’m sure we’re done for, and I just want to cry like a little girl. I do. For one whole teardrops worth. And then I pull myself together.

9:50 PM

It’s a stange sensation, having the world torn to shreds and shaken up like a snow globe all around you, and not being able to do anything but hide and hope your hiding spot can withstand the punch. There’s no running. There’s no fighting. There’s just hiding all cowardly in a corner. Either you survive or you don’t. There’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Those sort of movies always scared me the most, the natural-disaster / end-of-the-world type ones for precisely that reason: all you can do is hide. That thought was always more terrifying to me than the gore they cooked up in horror movies. Of course those end-of-the-world type movies also led me to believe that there would be a lot more screaming and a lot more running away from the giant crevice opening up in the ground. That’s just hollywood though. All there is is hiding and letting things a million times worse than that play out in your head.

10:00 PM

The tremendous pressure is giving me a headache. The constant wondering if we’ll live to see another day is making me queasy. At least the queasiness takes my head away from worrying about our fate and instead has me worrying about what to do if I do feel the urge to hurl. Who knows how long we will all be locked in the bathroom together so I don’t want to use the toilet we can no longer flush. It would probably be safe in the main room for a few minutes, but in the event we ever do make it out of the bathroom and have to live in there again, well gross. I wonder if the hallway is sheltered enough to not get blown away. Not by the sounds of it. No puking for the time being.

10:10 PM

It’s not just the sitting in a corner and cowering that wares on you after a while. That I suppose you could eventually sleep through. It’s the physical exhaustion of the relentless pressure. That is so uncomfortable by now. It’s not painful or anything, just uncomfortable in the same way my damp clothes are. The damp clothes I could even sleep with. This pressure is like a mosquito that won’t quit whining in my ear though. At least a mosquito I could swat at and feel like I was trying to do something about it. There’s nothing I can do about the pressure but wait it out.

10:20 PM

The floor is wet. Our clothes are damp. We’re nearly deaf from the screaming and howling and banging. Yet the storm keeps shaking up the world and all we can do is wait.

10:30 PM

And wait some more.

10:40 PM

The wind is still deafening but at least the pressure is beginning to subside, a sign that it might be ok to venture out. Maybe not, but we’re done sitting in the bathroom. The wind in the hallway is still fierce enough that I have to watch my step, but it’s sheltered enough. Fletch starts yelling outside windows that it’s ok to come out of the bathrooms. The rooms are safe enough. The only person who comes out of their room is Nick, who asks us to please stay inside. 

Our hiding place for three hours.

10:50 PM

We survey the damage in the room. A few inches of water covers the floor. Both sets of doors swing wildly on their hinges. One of the beds is soaked through. The bed farther away from the open doors is only soaked on top, and around the edges, so we flip the mattress over for a halfway dry place to lie down. I know I won’t sleep but I’m so exhausted that all I want to do is lie down. The wet mattress we prop up against the inner set of doors to keep them closed. The outer doors continue to bang open and closed.

11:00 PM

The sound of the wind has died down just enough to be able to hear Aaron’s speaker over the howling, so we put on Pitch Perfect and lie on the bare mattress like sardines.

11:15 PM

Nick knocks on the door and walks into the room. Apparently our banging doors are keeping him up after everything we’ve just been through. He takes a look at them and realizes there’s no way to keep them shut. The bolts haven’t come off the screws, they’ve just snapped completely in half. As soon as he leaves again we come up with the brilliant idea to shove one of the already soaked pillows between the two sets of doors. That at least muffles the banging. 

Door bolt snapped in half. All of them are like this. 

11:30 PM

I have to close my eyes. It’s a long time before I fall asleep but I have to close my eyes.

To be continued…