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20th March 2015

Breakfast this morning is pancakes, Fijian style. They’re delicious, sweet, crunchy on the outside then soft and chewy on the inside, and I eat as many as I can manage.

This morning at work there is a surprise in store for me. The publisher sits down next to me with a smile and tells me that on Monday I am being sent to Vanua Levu on a media tour, all expenses paid. A shocked grin spreads across my face and I don’t know what to say other than exclaim my thanks again and again. I had never expected to see this much of Fiji while I was here, especially not for free, and I cannot wait for Monday to arrive.

Still in shock, I make my way down the now familiar streets to the Fiji Museum. I have to interview an elderly Fijian man who works there, Mata. We go behind the scenes once again and he tells me more about the cannibalism in Fiji’s history, showing me the strange 4 pronged forks which the chiefs would use to eat the human flesh. They’re much larger than the forks we use today to eat our food, and are wooden and ornately carved. The bowls in which the flesh would be placed are also wooden. Mata shows me the many artefacts the museum has made out of human bone – a walking stick made from a leg, and a necklace created out of various bits of skeleton. It is morbidly fascinating.

Tonight it’s party time in Suva, my first night out. We have a beer on the steps of the homestay, and another at a crowded and very noisy bar in the city before the details start to blur. Drink after drink, club after club, and before I know it I’m accidentally ordering two cheeseburgers in McDonald’s and falling asleep on the floor.

First Weekend

Saturday morning is a very slow start, thanks to the night before. I sit around lazily with the other volunteers all afternoon before we head to Tiko’s Steakhouse for dinner. The restaurant is a boat, which seems like a very cool idea but the reality is less so. The weather hasn’t been great and the sea is quite choppy, so the boat sways up and down as we stagger over to our table. Sitting down doesn’t improve the sensation at all – we are all swaying in our seats. Trying not to completely lose my appetite I order the seafood. Being on a boat this seems appropriate. By the time my meal arrives I’m not sure if I can eat it but it looks and smells delicious and I find my appetite returning, despite the sea sickness.

That night is the last night we’ll spend with a couple of the volunteers as they are returning home. We spend the evening drinking beers and playing cards. I’m useless at learning new card games which earns me a few groans from my friends, and even manage to lose the game of Irish snap that I teach them.

Sunday we go out for brunch at a small café in Suva. The air conditioning is almost as lovely as the pancakes I order. We then go down to the Holiday Inn where we can abuse the free Wi-Fi and also use the swimming pool. It’s so relaxing to spend an afternoon by the pool.

That evening I decide to have an early night as I’m getting picked up at 4am for the media tour the next morning. However, I get caught up in watching random TV episodes with the eldest daughter in the family, and only remember I need to go to bed when I realise my ride will be arriving in 6 hours.

Vanua Levu Media Tour

The morning doesn’t get off to a great start as I struggle to wake up, and then receive a call from the driver who’s meant to be picking me up saying he can’t find the house. Unfortunately he has a strong Indian accent and we find it difficult to understand each other, but eventually I see the headlights of the car shining up the driveway and I head out into the pouring rain to start my week long adventure. We speed around the dark streets and pick up two other journalists, a young guy who looks older than me, and a girl around my age. It’s a long car journey to the wharf where our boat is leaving from, and by the time we arrive the sun has come up.

The ferry takes around 3 hours to reach our destination and given the early start I sleep most of the way. Arriving at Vanua Levu we are immediately whisked off in our convoy of pickup trucks to the provincial office where government officials explain the funded development projects we’ll be visiting over the course of the week.

The convoy then begins a long and bumpy journey to the first project of the week, a youth group who make and sell biofuel in a small village. I hastily dig around in my bag to find my sulu as we pull up in the village, as a gesture of respect for their customs. The village is a small cluster of brightly coloured wooden houses, each with washing hung outside on the open verandas. The houses look basic but the people are smiling and welcoming as they invite us into a village hall where we slip off our shoes and sit cross legged on the woven mats which cover the floorboards. We are each given kava and a short speech is given about the project and the government funding behind it. The local ladies then serve us lunch. A long table is piled with plates and plates of food, and it’s heart-warming to see their willingness to give when they obviously have so little. The food is delicious, freshly picked and caught, vegetables and freshwater prawns cooked in coconut milk. We eat with our fingers, the juices running down our fingers, and afterwards wash our hands in the small bowls of water provided.

After visiting several more projects we make our way to our accommodation for the next two nights, the Daku Resort in Savusavu. Savusavu itself is a small town beside the sea, only really consisting of one street of shops and a few houses. The resort is beautiful, villas nestled amongst the trees and the sound of the ocean audible throughout. Inside our villa, pink flowers are positioned artfully in the folds of the fluffy white towels laid out on the beds, and a large veranda with several sun loungers gives us beautiful views of the beach and mountains.

We take a dip in the pool beside the bar and it feels so good to wash off the dirt and sweat of the long day. The pool is illuminated in the dusk by underwater lights which makes the setting even more pretty and peaceful.

On Tuesday we rise early for our day trip to Rabi, a small island off the coast of Vanua Levu. As it isn’t really a tourist destination there’s no official boat to ferry us across, so the local villagers have lent us 3 small fiberglass boats with wooden planks for seats to make the 30 minute journey. I am slightly apprehensive as I take off my flip flops and balance on the rocks, and even more so as the small boat rocks as I clamber into it none too gracefully. However, I begin to enjoy myself as the boats set off in convoy, skimming across the unbelievably bright blue waves towards the hulking shape that is Rabi Island. It feels almost as though I’m in a movie.

There are no rocks to climb onto as we reach the shoreline so I hitch up my sulu and wade up onto the beach. We are told that the island has about 4 villages and a total population of around 3600. The drinking water is not very safe to drink so we are given whole coconuts with holes carved into the top so that we can drink the milk inside. This is a new experience for me and I cautiously brush the coconut hair from around the drinking hole, feeling more and more like a tourist as the Fijians around me begin eagerly swigging from the fruit with no hesitation. The lady next to me smiles and tells me that coconut milk is great for giving energy and also good for the kidneys, so I forget my trepidation and take a sip. The taste is strangely tangy and like nothing I’ve ever tried before but it’s nice and I soon finish the whole thing. There is something about drinking coconut milk straight from the coconut on a Pacific island that feels strangely magical.

The rest of the day is spent touring around the island, with more coconuts handed to us at every place we visit, and all too soon we are back on the boats. The is a cruise ship moored close to the island which looks like an old fashioned galley, and as our convoy of boats pass it in a shower of white sea spray I feel once again like I’m in a scene from a film.

It’s still light when we reach the resort today, so I decide to explore the town. The shops are unremarkable and unfortunately the market is already closed, but the hearing about the hot springs has intrigued me so I wander down the streets trying to find them. A short way off of the main street there they are, smaller than I’d imagined but no less interesting, paths winding their way amongst the small ponds which have steam billowing from them. When I’d first been told about the hot springs I had imagined warm pools in which you could bathe, but I learn that the water is scalding rather than warm, and the locals cook their dinner in them rather than take a dip. Feeling the heat on my face and legs it is hard to believe that this is a natural phenomenon.

Wednesday is filled with more visits to projects, after which we arrive in Labasa. Although it is bigger than Savusavu it is nowhere near as pretty and decidedly busier. The hotel for the final 3 nights is the Grand Eastern. It doesn’t have the relaxed, idyllic feel of Daku but the pool area is very atmospheric, lit by gas fires atop large wooden poles which cast shimmering lights over the poolside tables. The rooms are simply furnished, with small ensuite bathrooms and basic facilities like a fridge and kettle. We splash around in the pool before bed. Something which I am still getting used to is the way the Fijians wear all their clothes in the pool as tradition means they are much more modest than someone from my culture. Standing next to them in my bikini I feel very exposed.

Thursday passes quickly and all too soon Friday has come, our penultimate day on the island. It is the longest day yet, travelling for hours along bumpy dirt roads to visit secluded villages and farms. We are given lunch at one of the villages, a plateful consisting of a fish head and some spinach. The fish and I stare at each other eye to eye and I am unsure where to start, having never eaten a fish head before. I poke it a bit with my fingers and discover that there is actually heaps and heaps of flaky white meat inside, so I dig in, trying not to look at the eyes anymore. It makes me realise how fussy we are back home with our food, as we fillet the ‘best’ parts from the fish and throw away the rest, wasting so much.

When we get back to the hotel it’s late and we have to quickly clean up and get ready for dinner at the provincial office, which means wearing a sulu or a long skirt. Although I am getting used to dressing like this I still don’t particularly like it and would be much comfier in my shorts, but they would be considered very indecent in the more traditional Fijian places!

After dinner we sit drinking beer by the hotel pool before venturing out for a night in Labasa. The style of drinking in Fiji is very different to what I’m used to – rather than lots of shots of spirits they buy big jugs of lethally strong rum and coke to share in a group and drink glass after glass after glass, often punctuated by a jug of beer or Tribe, an alcopop.

Suddenly at 1am the lights in the club all come on and we’re told it’s home time, which seems a ridiculously early closing time. I’m not ready for the night to end yet so I refuse the offer of a taxi and skip back to the hotel where I see one of the pickup trucks from our convoy pulling into the car park. I jump into the back for a ride whilst the others laugh and shout at me to get down. When the truck has parked I head into the hotel and jump into the pool fully clothed before a member of staff appears and tells me they’ve just added chlorine so I shouldn’t be in there, which I find hilarious. I’m not sure what time I get to bed but waking up only a few hours later to pack my bags for the long trip home I’m slightly regretting my over enthusiasm for the night before.

The car ride to the ferry port is down yet another incredibly bumpy gravel track so although I try to sleep I am constantly awoken by my head hitting against the window, which is why on the ferry I forget all my inhibitions and lie right down on the seats for a good nap. The ride passes before I know it and then the car is dropping me back home with some emotional goodbyes to the other journalists along the way.

Seeing how happy the family seem to be to have me back puts a massive smile on my face, and although I’m miles away from my house in England I feel like I’m home.

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