Wednesday, November 2 (Day 63)
Mango Bay, Fiji
This website isn’t achieving what I wanted it to do. Yes, I have good numbers - on average more than 100 unique viewers a day, peaking at 400, and that’s without currently using Facebook, email or link exchanges to drive traffic. In Africa the project was a great success although had Bjorn and his missus not gone all my precious at the end of it in South Africa, it would have and (should have) achieved a lot, lot more. I never really spoke about that at the time. I just didn’t want to rock the boat. The Shirt 2010 was Bjorn’s project, after all, so it didn’t seem right for me to kick up a fuss at the time about some of the bad decisions and personal conflicts that occurred right at the very end of our time in Africa. If I do manage to put a book together about these past 18 months’ adventures, as I hope I will, then I will go into all that then. Furthermore, in Argentina I struggled to find the projects that I’d wanted so much to champion and, when I finally did track two down, it was during my last two days, with an unsuccessful visit to the slums and an eye opening and humbling night on the streets with the homeless in Buenos Aires. More info will follow about the Buenos Aires street project after I get home.
In NZ I didn’t see any projects and I feel bad for that, but the truth is since my personal life took a turn in July I’ve had to concentrate on fixing myself before I can start worrying about others again. I realise today that the healing process is kicking in. I feel happy; very happy in fact. Sorry for not championing the grass roots projects as I’d intended but for the moment at least I feel very good about myself for the first time in four months. If you do get the chance, please take a look at the Projects We Like page, where you can click on the pictures and be redirected to the relevant websites. More projects will be added to this page when I get back to Europe and I am extremely keen that this website develops further to help promote the work of grass roots organisations which do wonderful work helping those less fortunate than ourselves.
Yes, you’ve guessed it. I’m still here. In Mango Bay. It’s like the Hotel California – you can check in but you can never leave. I sort of feel bad that I didn’t leave with Ruby, the British Iranian girl who is off to Caqalai Island to hook up with some National Geographic people who are making a film about venomous sea snakes. I was encouraging her to go on a two day road trip with me to see the snakes and to spend a night at the former colonial capital, Levuka. She was umming and erring - understandably with jet lag and enjoying the Mango Bay vibe - but today she suddenly said let’s go and I just felt too much in bits from last night’s back-of-the-net evening to pack my stuff and leave here in the space of half an hour. I should have gone. Sorry Ruby. Not that my day is bad: Kayaking on the lagoon with my French friend, reading A Clockwork Orange under the shade of a coconut tree, another kava ceremony, sunbathing factor 40 stylee, and falling asleep in a hammock under a palm tree.
It is time to leave this place now. This particular party and my personal Fijian rehab are over. My new year began yesterday. It’s time to get back on the road.
Saturday, October 29 (Day 59)
The crab is slowly waddling its way across the sand. This lad is a fraud. The reason it is taking him so long for him to labour across this stretch of beach is because he disguises himself as a shell. This means he spends all of his life carrying his multi-coloured shell on his back just so he can trick the other creatures who hang out here into thinking he’s something he’s not. Pretending to be something you are not. We’ve all done it at some time or other but there are plenty of punters who spend almost their entire lives living a lie. And then you see this crab and you realise that those people and this tiny crustacean have quite a lot in common when it comes down to it. Strange the things you learn when you are hung over and lying on the beach.
I have this terrible habit of having my heaviest nights when I am leaving a place the next morning. This inevitably leads to a day of travel made fairly intolerable by me having to nurse a shocking hangover. For once though I have the luxury of getting up for breakfast, having a few minutes watching said crab on the beach and going straight back to bed afterwards. I’m not budging from here today.
In the midst of a lie low I spot Sarah Maverick who has booked in at Mango Bay. She’s had it with Fiji apparently. A bed bug feasted on her last night and she also experienced some unwanted attention from a local Fijian bloke the other night which got a little out of hand. Sarah is also booked on to the Fijee Experience rather than travelling independently as I am. They asked us on the bus to tell everybody our age and whether we are single or not. I’ve got no problem telling people I’m 43, but why do I have to announce to everybody whether I’m up for a shag or not?
Three hours later...
Now we present a traditional Samoan dance. Oh, God. Save me. I know this routine:
Bunch of young muscular black blokes showing off their ripped bodies in the name of culture. I know what’s coming. Yeah, twenty-something girls dragged out of the audience to dance with the lads. A little bit of sexual tension. Sarah and I frown at each other and roar aloud. It’s all gone a bit holiday camp. I feel like I’m on an 18-30 holiday in the Med.
I know what’s coming next Sarah. Yep, love juice.
I bloody knew it. I’ve seen this gig a million times. The muscular cultural dancers and the male staff of the Fijee experience have magically acquired huge jugs of rum&coke, which they are doling out for free to all the young girls. You know the score. They’ll be drunk in no time and peeling a banana on the beach in an hour’s time. If you can’t beat them, join them (I’m referring to the free alcohol not the banana peeling). I’m going to have a cheap night now. A free glass of your finest rum and coke love juice please sir.
Wow. A day of sun, the beer, wine, rum&coke has mixed with the Kava and the Love Juice and I’m away with the fairies. I mean I haven’t been this properly drunk in public for a very long time. The shutters have gone down. I think I have my first real shot on goal of the whole trip with the a Swiss girl. I vaguely remember slurring to her that I’ve really liked her for the two days since I first set eyes on her. FFS, I can’t help myself. I also vaguely recall asking Sarah to find me a hammock to lie in on the beach. I hope I didn’t have a shot at goal on her. She’s my friend for God’s sake. I don’t know. The shutters have gone down. I couldn’t be trusted to tie my own shoe laces to be honest. The shutters have…
Monday, October 24 (Day 54)
Coral View Resort, Tavewa Island
The crowd are going nuts. The melodic tunes fill the air with a sense of euphoria. Each time I drop a tune the atmosphere lifts another notch. This feels unbelievable.
I wake up to see the skinny girl from Bournemouth trying her best to negotiate her way to the floor from her bunk bed above me without waking me. That dream felt so damn real. It’s been like that every night since I came to Fiji. Maybe it’s the Kava. Maybe it’s the climate. God knows, but I’m enjoying the intensity of these nightly visions.
I spend the morning with the lad from London. He is genuinely cool but not up his own arse unlike most girls of his age (26) from London. (No I haven’t become a woman hater. I’m just telling it how I see it.) In fact, we hit it off so well that a Swiss girl, overhearing one of our colourful conversations, enquires as to whether we have been travelling together for a lot of months.
“No, we met yesterday. We are just mavericks.” He replies.
I like that. Mavericks. Definitely my word of the day. Yes, we are both mavericks in some senses. And, strangely enough, there are two more mavericks staying on this island, who we are also knocking about with. Sarah, the lady from Pompey, definitely falls into that category as does Ingrid from Frankfurt, a force of nature, around the same age as Sarah, I guess, who seems to inhabit her own autonomous republic of herself. She still goes to raves, occasionally drops tablets in her mouth that she shouldn’t at parties, and hangs around a lot in Thailand, discovering the kinds of parties the country was once legendary for before Tom, Dick and Hans ruined Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Samui and made them mainstream events. Four mavericks, all with very different tales, coming together on one island in the Pacific. Maverick Island.
The remainder of the day follows a now familiar pattern of sunbathing and eating, which is only interrupted by such troubling questions as Where to next? Rum and coke or beer? Trance or dub step? How many hours till dinner? Black or red t-shirt tonight? Can I be bothered to have a shower? Why do young English girls have such flabby arses? How many slices of pineapple for dessert?
To be fair though, I’ve overdone the sun and underdone the water. In the evening I’m suffering from dehydration and have to pull out one of those emergency rehydration sachets that the army use, to get myself back together.
With Maverick departed for Nanuya Lailai, I spend the evening with Sarah, 43, who was married for 15 years and is now largeing it around the world. We are both damaged goods and consequently spend the whole night picking through each other’s failed relationships. Why did it go wrong? Where did it go wrong? How did we meet that person? What were the best things about them? How long did it take to get over them? In the interim, Sarah Maverick has been with men much younger and much older than her and now she’s concluded in the future it will ideally have to be plus or minus five years. She still wants a kid. She’s definitely leaving it a bit late in the day. She tells me a few home truths about dating women who are approaching thirty and the crazy decisions they end up making in their late twenties. Half a bottle of Jack Daniels can ruin your life if it is in the hands of the wrong woman.
Saturday, October 22 (Day 52)
Drawaqa & Naviti islands
A juvenile hammer head shark flaps around, blood oozing from its mouth, as it tries to get free from the fishing line. It’s a truly beautiful creature. With each second that passes, its chances of survival are diminishing as the blood continues to flow and it is starved of oxygen.
“Let it go back in the sea. You can’t kill it” is the collective response from half a dozen or so of the Castaways on board the Spirit of the Pacific. With the hook safely removed from its mouth, the hammerhead is released back into the ocean where, after splashing around for a second or two, it confidently swims off into the distance. It’s funny really. I received a couple of well-meaning frowns when I said I wouldn’t join in the fishing because I’m vegetarian. But they’re just fish. Yeah, wait until you pull out some beast of a creature and see how you feel about killing it, I told them. And, sure enough, somebody catches a shark and a couple of the girls are virtually in tears at the cruelty of the spectacle.
As well as fishing and sunbathing on the open seas, we snorkel off a coral reef and visit another village (where the islanders put on a song and dance show for us), before returning to our island for our final evening together as Castaways. And it really does feel like that; particularly when a drum is banged to tell us when dinner and breakfast are ready.
After participating in an ‘international show’ in the main bure we stroll out across the sand in the pitch dark towards the sea. On Sunset Beach a bonfire is lit, the crew sing songs for us to the accompaniment of guitars, and copious amounts of Kava are downed as large spiders abseil down from the coconut trees above, their torsos occasionally lit up by the flames of the fire.
It’s my mum’s birthday today but I didn’t manage to get a Fijian Sim before I headed out to the Yasawas. Thankfully, Annika has come to the rescue and although I can’t get any mobile coverage from this isolated corner of the world, I do at least manage to successfully send her a text to tell her I am thinking of her. Like a postcard you are never really sure when it will be delivered, but hopefully she will get it some time today.
Happy birthday mum x
Friday, October 21 (Day 51)
Barefoot Lodge, Drawaqa Island
I look up at the night sky and a flaming fireball breaks up in the atmosphere, sending half a dozen individual pieces of the meteor hurtling towards the ocean in as many different directions. It is terrifying but at the same time a truly mind blowing sight. I don’t know whether I should run for the interior of the island in case this fallen space debris causes a tsunami to rush in from the south and drive a huge wall of water across this island.
Suddenly, I can hear noise coming from the right of me and, just like that, a pack of six snarling dogs are attacking me, biting at my wrists. They are driving me back into the water. Maybe I should try to swim away from shore. Shit, this is mental.
Uuuuuuuhhhhhh. I wake up and find myself sat bolt upright in my beachside bure with the pre-dawn horizon painted with a Walt Disney cartoon blood red and orange glow, straight in front of my open window. My God, that was some dream, and this view from my bed is off the scale.
I get up to snap a quick image and trip over the bottle of urine I carelessly left by the door last night. It took me hours to get to sleep with the whirring noise of my fan, the crashing waves, rustling palm trees, incessant gecko noises and a tree branch banging against my bure. (I’m certainly not complaining by the way). Next thing, I badly needed the toilet but with no electricity and no mobile or torch to guide me I wasn’t going to try and find my way through the jungle undergrowth to the communal toilet (where I was sure a spider the size of a plate was bound to be waiting for me anyhow). And I wasn’t about to take a leak outside in the bushes either, in case one of the villagers came by and I inadvertently insulted them by urinating on their land. So, the only other option was to gulp down the remainder of my water bottle and to pee into that. Well, it is never easy at the best of times to pee into a bottle. I’m not saying I do this often but I could well be into double figures over the course of the past 15 years. The added problem in this particular Pacific island paradise is no light to see what you are doing during the hours of darkness and large open windows through which anybody can see in. So I stood naked in my bure peeing into this bottle, trying my utmost not to let any urine spill onto the floor, and suddenly two of the ship’s crew come past shining torches that light up the huts and cast shadows over anything in their path. Clown that I am, naked, I hid behind the frame of my front door, trying for the life of me not to pee on the floor.
After snoozing again and falling into a deep sleep I wake for a second time with a start. Damn, I’ve probably overslept, missed breakfast and the trip to the local Fiji island community. I throw on last night’s clothes and leg it to the communal bure. Steph and Jamie are sat there alone.
“What time is it?”
“Quarter past six.”
“You look all over the shop!”
“Yeah, I’m a bit disoriented. Did you get caught short in the night?”
“Oh yeah, I weren’t about to try’n find the bogs so I pissed behind the hut.”
Last night, chief guide Lee told me the chief of this community wanted to have a chat with me this morning. God, how I hate authority. My mind has been ticking over since last night as to what I might have done wrong. I reckon I am probably the most culturally sensitive person out of our whole group. I even offered to wear a Sulu (surrong) instead of my jeans last night in consideration of local customs.
Jay slowly strolls over with a coffee and cigarette and sits down on what seems to be a special chatting bench, looking quite stern.
“Morning, Justin. Did you sleep well?”
Oh, shite, they saw me peeing in the bottle last night.
“The thing is that the others have paid full price to come on this trip and you are doing the special with the free ride here. They should have told you when you booked that you need to pay 50 dollars extra for today’s trip.”
Money. Why was I getting all worked up, wondering what I might have done to insult the locals when, as usual, it’s just about money?
I like the fact though that Jay won’t be bribed off by me or knocked down on his asking price. He knows that if the other Fijians find out he will lose respect, and that’s not something he’s willing to risk. And that’s a good principle in my view. What the hell. I know I’ve got a very good deal with this trip. I agree to pay the fifty (18 quid), especially as Annika is complaining that she’s lost her dance partner when I tell her I’m not coming on the trip.
We get the support boat out to the Pride of the Pacific and set sail for the small island community.
There’s no goat or three-legged dog to greet us here. We enjoy a quick walk around the village (population 300), and visit the Pentecostal church which looks exactly how a decaying missionary church on a far flung Pacific or Caribbean island should look. Then it’s the kava ceremony with the village chief, his ‘spokesman’ and ‘bodyguard’. They are covered in what look like dried grass and palms. And this doesn’t feel like a tourist show. Part of me wants to burst out laughing at the intense feeling of the surreal; part of me is in awe of this ritual and the genuine importance with which it is held by the locals. It is something from the long distant past so untypical of our world today. Pagan, if I might use that word.
Our American chief has taken to his high ranking post like a duck to water. It seems to have mellowed him and made him cut out his ex-military sternness. I am wearing my Fidel Castro Cuba t-shirt today just to test his military discipline and he’s been fine with me. Him and I knock back 3 bowls and, let me tell you, this stuff is about twice as pungent as what I had last night. Even my bottom lip gives off a small 3.4 tremor.
The entertainment has been cancelled as the villagers have some important social function today. I bling up with South Pacific props such as a shark’s tooth necklace, buy some Christmas presents for my family, take a few photos, including one of a beautiful kid and a particularly photogenic washing line, and we jump in our speed boat back to the tall ship. Bloody hell, the sea is rough today. The boat rides a couple of big waves and tumbles down the other side, sending sea water over all of us. I nearly throw up on the way back. Five cups of coffee, three bowls of kava and a rough sea really don’t mix.
Back at my bure I rest on my bed admiring the view out my windows. Even here, where time has little consequence – Fiji time, as they call it – the hours are flying by. I want the hands of the clock to slow down. More teeeeeek toooooook than tick tock, if you like. May I never return to the world of 20 days annual leave ever again.