Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Back to the civilisation

or a story about the clash between real and fake Fiji

After two weeks spent in Ovalau and Calaqai the time has come to return to the main island. Two weeks of exploring Fijan villages, listening to the stories of local residents and discovering about the effects of the cyclone let us experience the real taste of the islands.

Far away from noise and typical touristy and commercial areas we found our little oasis among the local people and beautiful nature.

But all good things come to an end and we had to leave Calaqai and Ovalau to appear in Suva again. The first few hours in a city were difficult, noisy, with too many stimuli, too many colours, too many sounds and too many people. So we run away again. This time to the nearby Forest Park to walk through the rainforest which hosts chilly and soothing waterfalls.

Our escape didn't last long and soon we were on the bus to Nadi to be disappointed even more.

What was a peaceful backpackers' hideaway two weeks before became now an overcrowded and loud tourist hub. One night spent here was enough to make us suffer from a withdrawal syndrome. At all costs we wanted to come back to our friendly villages.

Instead, we went to Navala. A very traditional Fijan village hidden in the mountains. There are no bus connections from Nadi to Navala and the only way to get there is by bus to Ba and then by a taxi, which takes ages and is difficult to handle in one day. Luckily, we  found a driver who took us all the way to Navala and back.

The village of Navala was built in the mountains some 60 years ago. The houses are made of bamboo in the plan of cross. There's  no electricity and no running water inside. Water is supplied from the mountains, gathered in a big container that is connected to pipes distributing the water to little taps and shower cubes located on the yards. The village is a home to about 200 residents and hosts one primary school. Other schools, as well as hospitals and shops are in Ba, the nearest town, about 40 minutes drive away from the village.

The area is very picturesque and the houses do look unique. But as a tourist attraction Navala is overrated, because... It has become a tourist attraction.

You need to pay an entry fee (25 dollars) and a guide fee (10 dollars). If you're lucky, you will be assigned a knowledgeable, English speaking guide. Otherwise you'll end up like us, with a boring guide who didn't explain much, was quite distant and talked to us in broken English and only if we asked questions. We got to drink local kava in a newly built house. During our visit there were no other visitors and the residents disappeared inside their bures, hiding away from the heat or strangers.

Only children were playing outside in a big rugby field.

 I'm glad we got to see the authentic Fijan villages before coming here. Villages, where people are nice because they are happy to see you, not because they are paid. Villages, where you don't have to pay any entry fee and you can watch the local life and talk to the residents as much as you want to. A pure Fijan hospitality that shines and glows in spite of the ruined houses, knocked over trees and broken electricity lines.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Peace and serenity

or a story about a tiny little island in the middle of nowhere...

Far away from noisy streets, commercial tourists areas, with limited access to water and electricity, surrounded by lush and wild plants, blue water and soft sandy beaches - this is our wild oasis in the middle of nowhere.

It was love at first sight. So strong that it was difficult to leave it behind. We were already packed and had our boat transfer arranged when we changed our plans this morning and decided to stay here one night more. You can't simply leave such a beautiful and serene place.

Calaqai is a tiny little island, about 40 minutes by boat from Levuka. It takes only 15 minutes to walk around it and it never ceases to amaze us. Our bure overlooks an even smaller Snake Island, which can be reached... on foot in the low tide. Right on the beach with the perfect spot to watch the sunrise - our bamboo bungalow is located in the best part of the island.

And the best thing about it? We are the only tourists here! There are some volunteers living here with the mission to help the local community from the neighbouring islands and village of Moturiki. They also help to preserve the nature and repair the damages caused the cyclone. A few residents of the nearby islands stay and work here from time to time, in the evenings you can hear them laughing and talking in the traditional kava circle.

We joined the kava session too. A local dive master told us this is the best kava in Fiji. Each of the 14 regions has a different way of preparing this tongue numbing drink, the taste varies as well. You can use the kava root and grind it or choose the easier way and buy kava powder. Then you need a big bowl filled with water. Add some kava powder to a small linen bag, sink it in the bowl and move around. Soon the mixture will be ready. Take a little coconut shell or any other cup made of natural materials, sunk it in the big bowl to fill it with some kava and pass it around. Before drinking you need to clap once and say 'bula' to show respect to the host. You drink the whole cup whether you like it or not, and pass it back to the host. Now - depending on the region - the host, everyone or just the drinker claps three times. Then the next person in the circle gets to drink the muddy liquid. And so it goes, for hours and hours, until everyone is fully relaxed and numb. This local and natural alternative to alcohol brings together people of different ages and backgrounds. Kava sessions are all about socialising and sharing stories rather than drinking.

And the island turns around wildlife, peace and harmony. It is surrounded by a beautiful coral reef with plenty of colourful fish. We watch them everyday while snorkeling and exploring the underwater world.

The island was hit by the cyclone, although not us much as Ovalau. The birds are all gone and many trees landed on the ground. The hills of the neighbouring islands lost their lush green plants and crops.

Soldiers from Australia and New Zealand that came to Fiji to help out after the cyclone described the landscape of many islands, towns and villages as a war zone.

It's a shame that thousands of tourists come to Fiji to stay on privately owned islands paying as much as 7000 USD per night without even experiencing the real Fijan life, without looking at the devastated houses and torn villages plunged into darkness. Luxurious resorts are all worth nothing if they don't serve local communities. Especially in times like this, right after the biggest natural catastrophe this region has ever experienced.

We keep finding out about the effects of the cyclone every day. Someone just told us there are no bananas in Fiji anymore as most of the banana trees were damaged in the hurricane. In some regions it's difficult to get fresh fruit and vegetables, which we have already experienced.

To explore more about the life after this fierce catastrophe we're staying away from commercial and tourist zones, far away from fake resorts and glittering attractions. That's why we extended our stay on Calaqai. Closer to nature, local people and their real stories, we're trying to grasp the secrets of Fijan perseverance and contentment.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Waterfall and joyful kids

or about villages around Levuka...

Life in a Fijan village is simple, yet difficult. To enter or walk through the village you new to ask for permission which is usually granted by a village chief. The best strategy is to bring some kava as well, so that the chief and residents could prepare their traditional tongue numbing beverage.

We walked along villages near Levuka, watching small houses made of wood and metal, looking at children playing by the coast or on a little rugby field, often barefoot or in torn clothes, but always happy and helpful.

Searching for a waterfall, we met a group of curious kids, the youngest aged 6, the oldest about 14. They guided us through their village, into a rainforest, through rocks and lush plants. They were running through the rocky path skilfully, barefoot and confident. We followed them carefully, equipped in hiking shoes and a mosquito repellent.

The real show started once we reached the waterfall. Our kids, 2 boys and 5 girls, run off to jump into a little and quite shallow pool. High from a  rock, just above the waterfall. In their colorfoul clothes and huge smiles, they climbed higher and higher. And encouraged us to do the same.

Finally we followed them too. We weren't brave enough to jump, instead we chose to swim and play with the kids. We tried to teach them how to take pictures, which they fully enjoyed. They told us that it was their last day of holiday and the following day they had to be back at school. Their parents didn't mind them jumping and swimming in the waterfall, they were at work, they wouldn't even know. Only one girl from this group lost her house in the cyclone, the rest still had a safe place to live.

We came back on the following day to visit our little friends. This time it was difficult to find them playing outside. Other kids quickly joined us and showed a house of the youngest girls. Shy and hesitant at first, they finally recognised us and accepted a little sweet surprise we left for them.

                    The village of Rukuruku

Searching for the taste of local villagers' life we also visited Rukuruku. A big yellow pickup took us there from Levuka. The truck quickly filled in with the residents of Rukuruku who come to Levuka once per week for their big grocery.

We found ourselves squeezed between women in colorfoul dresses, with their babies on one lap and bags full of bread and sweets on the other one. Boxes with instant soups and breakfast crackers landed on the floor, along with bottles with fizzy drinks and yellow or white petrol cans. The truck stopped first at the local petrol station to fill in all the cans of passangers and their relatives. A plastic foil wrapped around the bottle neck served as a seal. This protection wasn't strong enough as some liquid spilled on the truck floor. But that was not a problem at all, a piece of cardboard landed on the stain and we could finally move towards Rukuruku, uphill, on a rocky road.

The village of Rukuruku

What seemed to me to be a poor shop supply in Levuka, turns out to be the only and most welcomed variety for the residents of this tiny island. A trip from Rukuruku to Levuka for snacks, bread, some veggies (mainly potatoes), flour and petrol is a big event that takes half a day. The truck goes to Levuka only 3 days per week in the morning and after a few hours comes back again.

There are no shops in the village, only a primary school and a car repair. The houses, partly damaged in the hurricane, stretch along an unpaved road. A couple of blue tents pitched on a hill overlook the village. It's the base of UNICEF which tries to help the local community as much as they can.

Our visit to Rukuruku was very short as we had to catch the last transport back to Levuka. But it's enough to realise that still a lot of work and support is needed here. The government plans to repair broken electricity lines in August. The cyclone devastated the island 3 months ago, in February, and it still looks as if it happened only a week ago.

Monday, May 9, 2016

All the colours of the world

or about our little voyage into the wild...

Levuka, the old Fijan capital, is full of colours and surprises. The town that is inhabited only by about one thousand people hasn't changed much since the 19th century when the European settlers came here for the first time.

Little colourful houses stretch along the main street built by the sea shore.

Colorfoul are also Fijan money with images of birds, flowers and insects.

Colorfoul are traditional and casual outfits worn by the local people. Today in the church we could experience the whole range of colours, sounds and emotions.

What stroke me the most was that the local church goers take out their shoes before entering the building. Finally I could find in a catholic church one of my most favourite rituals that is so characteristic for the mosques and hindu temples around the world.

People here sit down on the floor covered with mats made of dry grass. Everyone wears their best clothes: men put on their traditional black or navy blue skirt with a flowery shirts, women wear tunics and long dresses in bright, happy colours. Mothers bring their little children, cheerful songs and guitar music fill in the colorfoul wooden house and everyone celebrates the mass respectfully.

There's so much one can learn from these simple and loveable people from the other side of the world. Their warm hearts, hospitality and happy souls are the real treasure of the island.

On our way through the town we met local firemen. They invited us to their simple building, showed how they work and live. They told us that most of the crew members were sent here from Suva, not only to deal with fires but also to teach local people how to prevent danger. Their typical shift lasts 24 to 48 hours. They drive around the island, visit people's houses and explain how to stay away from fires. They also had a lot of work in February when the whole island was seriously damaged by the biggest cyclone in Fijan history.

On the way to Levuka after the sunset we saw villages plunged into darkness. The hurricane broke off electricity lines, destroyed houses and knocked over the trees. But the real scale of the catastrophe was to be revealed in the day light.

Many families lost everything. Houses, cars, animals and hope. But they keep singing and praying, waiting for help and better times.

Some families received support from the government: big white tents that serve as a temporary housing. All villages around Levuka look similar: torn houses, white tents in the yard, colourful laundry lines and children playing carelessly outside.

Luckily, the government provides money to the affected families, although in some cases the funds are not spent properly. I've heard that some people from nearby villages buy extra food, toys or gadgets instead of investing in their households.

Another curiosity: there are about 20 shrines in Levuka. Catholic, methodist and pentacostal church, a  hindu temple, synagogue and a mosque...

Every time European sailors arrived to the old harbour in Levuka they brought their churches and religions with them. Many different nations tried to settle here, so all the influences are still clearly visible. A town inhabited by about 1000 people has a huge choice when it comes to the spiritual needs.

But not so when it comes to the nutritional needs. Local shops sell mainly goods that can be stored for a long time: cans, instant soups, nuts, cookies. The island of Ovalau is not well catered for, all healthy products stay on the main island, veggies and fruit are scarce, the crops were destroyed by the cyclone. Some shops sell fresh bread and fish, but only for a limited time. Local kids, including toddlers, consume endless quantities of colourful fizzy drinks and salty snacks. And this is probably why they are always so active and dynamic.

More stories about joyful kids from the nearby villages in the next post.

Saturday, May 7, 2016


Or about a big little island on the other end of the world...

(Polska wersja tutaj)

Bula here, bula there, bula everywhere!
Bula is a Fijan hello/welcome/good morning and so much more! It's the essence of local hospitality, it's a warm smile shared with strangers and tourists, it's the easiest way to strike up a conversation.

Although I arrived to Fiji only 3 days ago, I could already experience how helpful and kind the local residents are. When we get lost or are unsure about the direction,  there's always someone to show us the way. We don't even have to ask for help. They look into our tired eyes and confused mind and immediately ask where are we heading and try to help. Very often random strangers walk with us for a few hundred metres to make sure we arrive safely at the destination. And they don't do it for money or for the sake of showing some great local products or rooms for rent, which was usually the case in Morocco or India. They just do if out of the urgent need to help. To me Fiji is an updated version of India and a smother edition of Morocco.

After arriving to Nadi and meeting Magda who's on the trip around the world, we headed towards Suva to find our way to another island. Nadi doesn't have much to offer, apart from a colorfoul Hindu temple and a few resorts. We stayed in a Bamboo Hostel, a great place for backpackers, right on the beach. The journey by bus to Suva took about 4 hours. There were no more ferries that day to Ovalau, so we were forced to stay in the capital overnight.

And we didn't like it at all.

Busy, dark and empty after sunset. Noisy like an Indian city, with honking cars and loud music.

I felt relieved once we finally got on the bus towards Levuka. We were the only tourists there, squeezed among many happy Fijan faces. The journey that was supposed to take 1,5 hours took on a Fijan dimension and lasted 3 hours. And then the long wait for a ferry, which was supposed to leave within 15 minutes and left after over 1 hour. The Fijan time has its own rules.

On a ferry we met Abbi, a Fijan soldier working for the UN. He just got back from Syria and was selling Iraqi perfumes on the board. He comes from a little village next to the Ovalau island. His family house was destroyed in the cyclone last February when he was serving his duty abroad. Abbi managed to rebuild it and can now spend a peaceful time on Fiji before leaving to the army again.

I also met a woman who emigrated from Suva to Sydney. She claims that the government doesn't support the residents in need: there are no social benefits, and no many days off except of the national holidays. About 25% of population lives below the poverty level and the prices in shops are comparable to those in Western Europe.

European are also influences and history on the little island of Ovalau, where we arrived a few hours ago. You can read more about this unique place in the next post.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

How to survive without work?

There we go! The journey has just started. It's the first time since 5 years when I'm travelling without work. No laptop, no work to do while waiting at the airports or on the plane. It feels a bit strange. Suddenly there's so much time on my hands...

I guess this trip will go to the category "workaholic rehab".

I'm on the airport in Amsterdam, waiting for my first flight to Abu Dhabi. I found myself surrended by Chinese and Malaysian passengers consuming their instant soups and other little dishes, highly flavoured and induced with chemicals. Well, I will stick to my apple, I guess.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Really, 4 years without a post?
(polska wersja: tutaj)

Four years in the cyber world seems like eternity. Well, let it be then. I haven’t posted anything for eternity. Not because I didn’t travel in that time. Quite the contrary.

Somehow my life took on another dimension and the student-hippie-happie-go-lucky travels transformed into business-and-family-must-see-and-must-do travels. Don’t get me wrong. I did enjoy my multiple trips to Poland, Morocco, UK, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, USA, Czech Republic, Greece, Belgium, Luxembourg, France or Ireland, but there was no time and no inspiration to write about it. My writing muse changed its course and moved to business related blogs and articles, pushing the travel adventures to the background.

But now the time has come to revive the initial enthusiasm and put new life into the blog! So, there we go! The final countdown has just begun. The next big journey starts in… 2 days!

Stay tuned for more details!