A travel series about my recent trip to Fiji and New Zealand.
Chapter 2 : Cast Away
I would like to say that I woke up to the sounds of the waves lapping on the shore. But that would be a lie. What I actually woke up to was my friend snoring in the bunk bed beneath me. I got up and walked outside to the beach. The sun was high up in the air. But it was only 7 in the morning. The beach was deserted except for that Fijian Indian guy who continued to ply his trade of duping the next dumb tourist with his coconut Ponzi scheme. The boat to the Mamanucas group of Islands didn’t leave until 10. So I settled down on a hammock and watched the palm fronds sway gently in the breeze. I’m not a morning person, but for some reason, I felt so fresh and energized. Perhaps it was the comforting coastal air. Or maybe it was the jet lag. I was still in Pacific Time — 3 hours ahead. Rather, 21 hours behind. Time is such a weird concept.
“We have 5 days to spend in Fiji. What should we do?” we had asked the Travel Desk at the Bamboo hostel, the slightly more upscale backpacker lodge that was across the road. Bamboo and Tropic of Capricorn (the hostel we stayed at) were owned by the same person. I understood that Bamboo is where everyone who had the presence of mind to reserve early stayed. The overflow crowd that came in without a plan went to Tropic of Capricorn.
The Travel Desk was basically a matronly-looking native Fijian lady sitting behind a table that was littered with brochures. Brochures that were screaming — “Swim with the Manta Rays!”, “Amazing Polynesian culture show!”, “Voted best honeymoon resort!”
“Yah, you don’t want to do all that,” the lady remarked, reading our minds. “What you boys should do is to go to Mana Island.”
“What’s so special about Mana?” I asked.
“You will experience authentic culture there. None of this touristy stuff,” she waved at the brochures.
“Do you have a brochure for Mana Island?” I asked. The lady gave me a ‘you gotta be kidding me’ look.
Knowing practically nothing about the place we were going to, we hopped on to a small motorboat. There was no pier so we waded through the water and jumped in. In our 2 minute walk from the beach to the boat, exactly 5 people asked us where we were from. Not tourists, but the locals. These guys look like Fijian Indians, but they also look like tourists. What’s the deal? I could see them thinking these thoughts. To be fair, in my entire time in Fiji, I did not come across a single Indian tourist.
There were 20 of us on the boat. But the cabin could only seat about 15. So the 5 most attractive ones got to sit on the deck, based on the driver’s choosing. More than the people and their luggage, the boat was filled to the brim with supplies — kerosene, water, beer, canned meat, and sacks of what seemed like vegetables.
“Where are we going!” I wondered. I turned to the heavily tanned college kid sitting next to me and asked him the same rhetorical question. “I heard the island is beautiful. Nothing much in there, but just very pretty. I mean, this was the cheapest Island we could find anywhere in Fiji,” he shrugged.
He was traveling in a group with 14 others, all of them exchange students from the UK, presently studying at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. “We all live together in a big house in Brisbane,” the girl sitting next to him chimed in. “I actually don’t have any Aussie friends. So much for an exchange. Ha!”, another one said. “I took a class in Oceanography just so that I could go to the Great Barrier Reef,” the girl in front of me smiled conspiratorially. I felt happy for them and then told them how, ‘gap year’ and ‘exchange’ were unknown concepts during my college years in India. “Traveling is not something you do at all in college. It just isn’t a thing in India,” I explained.
“But what do you do then?”
“Hmm, you just study,” I said and immediately realized that I strengthened the very stereotype I’ve always tried to weaken.
We sped past peaceful, idyllic islands. Mounds of lush greenery floating in the ocean. The Mamanucas group, of which Mana Island was a part of, is a chain of 20 islands to the west of the main island of Viti Levu. Apparently, one of those islands is where they shot the Tom Hanks movie, Cast Away. I could totally see why movie location scouts were thrilled about these islands. They were time capsules, relatively unscathed by modernization.
Which one is Mana? I wondered. After gliding on the calm waters for more than an hour, the boat took a sharp turn and started slowing down. Only when the engine was shut off did I realize how silent and peaceful everything was. It’s called the Pacific Ocean for a reason, I thought.
The image in front of us was one of the prettiest I had ever seen in my life. A white sandy beach, thatched huts in the foreground and a dense tree cover in the background, a grassy hillock, and emerald green waters near the beach. This was Mana.
We were greeted by a welcome party that included a song, a dance, and a speech. “This is a small island,” said the manager of the “resort” (for the lack of a better word), a Fijian Indian guy in his late 40s. He continued, “We are all one big family here. The boys, please take care of the girls and the girls, please take care of the boys.” Everyone laughed. Throwing aside the sexual innuendos in that sentence, I realized that safety would actually be a legitimate concern here. Here we were in the middle of the South Pacific in an island populated by a few hundred people. There were no cops. Law enforcement probably wasn’t a thing. People would have to rely on keeping each other accountable on civic sense and decency. An image of Fiji’s cannibalistic past flashed through my mind. But it went away very quickly. It was impossible to think of anything morbid in this Garden of Eden.
Our names were added to the community blackboard when we checked-in. The blackboard was the source of truth about logistics in the entire island. It had information about who was checking in, who was checking out, when the high and low tides were, what the cost of renting snorkel gear was, and what the menu of the day was.
“Dietary restrictions?” the manager guy asked, when we walked in.
“Yes, there are 2 vegetarians in our group,” I replied.
“100% vegetarians?” he asked.
“Uhm, yes, 100% vegetarians,” I said.
“What’s your name?” I asked, shaking his hands.
“I’m Manager,” he said.
Our dormitory was essentially a shack. Bright colors on the outside, an asbestos roof on the top, and a tiny window which seemed like it was there only for ornamental reasons. It was a furnace inside, thanks to the relentless tropical heat. “Oh there are only four beds here. Let me get one more for you,” one of the local villagers said and shoved the 5th bed in an already cramped room. I walked to the common bathroom to wash my hands, only to realize that there was no running water. There was a girl standing next to me applying sunscreen on her body. I stretched across to her sink and tried the tap there. No luck.
“Just wash your hands in the ocean. There’s so much water here,” she laughed.
Her name was Jin. I learned that she had been staying in Mana for the past 4 days. I also learned that the shack got running water only when the pump was turned on. And the pump was turned on only when there was electricity. And there was electricity only when there was enough kerosene to power the generator. And there was kerosene only when a supply boat arrived to the island. One part of me was incredibly frustrated — this was a huge culture shock to my urbanized self. But the other part of me was thrilled. It reminded me of the past. I’ve stayed at hostels during my college times that were way more primitive than this, unhygienic even (I’m looking at you, IITs!). I told this to Jin.
“Of course. This place is great,” she said. I couldn’t agree fully, but I saw her point. While it was very primitive, it was fairly clean. And surprisingly, bug-free. Perhaps your everyday critters never managed to make their way to this island.
“Where are you from, Jin?” I asked her.
“South Africa,” she said and laughed.
“What’s funny about South Africa?”
“Do I look African?”
“Uhm, not natively, no?” I said gingerly.
“Of course I’m not from South Africa. I’m from China. Isn’t that obvious?” she waved her hands across her face.
I was about to tell her that she could be born in another country even if she was ethnically Chinese, but I thought otherwise.
“You boys want to go snorkel?” one of the Fijian guys came over and asked us. It was hard to tell who was a staff member and who wasn’t. It seemed like everyone in the village was “working” at the hostel in one form or another. After all, the influx of tourists like us is what paid for the supplies that came in to the island. We rented our snorkel gears (“If you break it, there will be a fine!” “Uhm, how much?” “5 Fijian dollars.” “Great!”) and followed the man. There was a chance that we would get ripped off. But that didn’t worry me. What worried me was the act of snorkeling itself.
Okay, here’s when I make a big public confession. I don’t know how to swim. What’s worse is that at the time I went to Fiji, I was terrified of the water. Water level above my waist was a no-go.
“How deep is the water?” I asked the man.
“As deep as it can get,” he laughed.
“It’s the Ocean, you dumbass,” added my friend.
Succumbing to peer pressure, I strapped on my life jacket. I fell a couple of times trying to get my fins on, much to the amusement of the Fijian guy and the Brit students who were getting into the water with us. “You won’t die,” one of the girls giggled.
Mustering all the courage I had, I walked into the ocean. The water was cool and pleasant against my skin. The life jacket lifted me up and kept me at the surface. Being buoyant on the water was a wonderful feeling.
“Now put on your mask and lie face-down,” my friend who was babysitting me said. I put on the mask, started breathing through my mouth, held on the life jacket and got myself to a lying a position. I put my head under the water and got my first glimpse of life inside the ocean.
I was still panting heavily. But now, more due to excitement than due to fear. I could see why people enjoyed snorkeling. There was a whole new world in the ocean just waiting to be explored!