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Shark diving, waterfall sliding, kava drinking and sea snaking in Fiji

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My 2 weeks in Fiji were exciting, beautiful and restorative. Fijians are among the friendliest people I've ever met, and traveling there was an absolute pleasure. This was my first time traveling solo, and I met so many wonderful locals and fellow travelers.

The trip started on Viti Levu, the biggest, most populous and developed island. Though much of it seems quite rural.

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Arriving at Club Oceanus in Pacific Harbour, the divemasters immediately plied me with beer and pizza. Clearly these are people who know how to relax.

That evening, my new friend Ash from the resort took me to a big party at Uprising, up the street. The party was a bit frat house, what with its Jim Beam sponsorship, silly dance contests, and heavy Black Eyed Peas rotation. I liked that local people and travelers were mixing it up there, and it had a fun, laid back vibe. A great way to kick off the trip.

The next day I swam in warm water at a local beach, and was joined by about 12 young local boys. They spoke great English (it's required in school), and played Marco Polo with me. They buried an older kid completely in sand, and offered to do the same for me. One boy sang Stevie Wonder songs in a beautiful voice. Several asked to borrow my goggles. Come to think of it, the same thing happened when I swam with local kids in Taganga, Colombia.

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White water rafting with Rivers Fiji was pretty fabulous (that's me on the left). Driving up a mountain on bumpy roads, our group boarded 4 yellow rubber rafts. A fun little group of Australians was on my raft — a mom and 2 daughters. Moses, our guide, did an excellent job steering our boat and keeping us safe. Moses and Abraham, another guide, instigated splashing wars, but of course Moses had the advantage in water-related issues.

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It was such a gorgeous day out, and the landscape was amazing — the river had carved deep, curving canyons through the mountain, and lush jungle dripped onto us from atop the steep canyon walls. The whitewater parts were fun, and Moses took us down a few little inlets to swim and splash in small waterfalls. Sometimes we'd float down the river in our life vests. At one point, we got soaked standing under a much larger waterfall. This is one of my favorite kinds of days — sun, water, adrenaline and fun!

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The next day, I rode the ziplines at Zip Fiji. The owner drove me there, and it was interesting to hear how he'd applied his airospace engineering skills to building zip line courses around the world. Luckily, my group consisted only of myself and a little boy.

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Two guides led us through some rain forest to the first platform, explaining local uses of some of the plants to me. Apparently there's a plant that serves as a fish sedative when you put it in the water, making it easier to fish. And there's even a scuba mask defogger plant!

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The platforms and ziplines looked well engineered; each line was actually a double line. I really liked the tour of the forest canopy that the ziplines gave. It was a course of 8 lines, so you could see the landscape change as you went down the mountain.

My final day in Pacific Harbour, I went on a 2 tank shark dive with Aqua Trek. It was pretty fabulous. I've seen and even snuggled sharks while diving before, but never so many at once.

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Photo: E. Cheng for Aqua Trek

We all descended to the ocean floor, overweighted so we could sit comfortably and not drift. 12 feet away, divemasters with chainmail gloves removed tuna heads from garbage cans, and the sharks began to swarm and feed from their hands.

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Photo: Pete Atkinson

There were black tip, white tip, silver tip, nurse, lemon, and my favorite, the bull shark! I'd seen all the others, but hadn't seen bulls before; in addition to being long, up to 11', they are quite wide and stout. A couple swam over my head. There may have been 20-30 sharks circling and feeding. Giant trevally, jacks, snappers, and other fish joined the fray — there were hundreds of fish in the frenzy. At one point, Sammy the divemaster came over to give me a beautiful bull shark tooth. After the activity died down we swam around a boat wreck for a few minutes.

While in Pacific Harbour, I met some interesting independent travelers, including a couple guys sailing around the world. One night, I tried kava, along with a couple fellow travelers and the locals who made it for us.


 

It's crazy how many cane toads there are on Viti Levu. They're an invasive species, and come out like a biblical plague when it rains.

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My last evening in Pacific Harbour, some of my new friends from Club Oceanus took me out drinking to say farewell.

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Early the next morning, I cabbed it to Suva, Fiji's biggest city, for my flight to Taveuni the "Garden Island." The airport cafe had some delicious Indian sausage rolls — something I haven't tried before.

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On Taveuni, I stayed at the lovely Coconut Grove resort, a small bed and breakfast with 3 guest bures (the name for a freestanding native home), and guest room in the main house (where I stayed).

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Ronna, the proprietor, and her sweet staff made it such a fun, comfortable stay.

The ladies at Coconut Grove made lovely food; I enjoyed it the whole time I was there. One favorite item was a sweet and spicy papaya soup.

Cats Popsickle and Creamsickle, and Millie the dog demanded daily belly rubs. Coconut Grove felt very homey.

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And Taveuni was incredibly beautiful, green and natural.

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Though Taveuni's population is quite small, there were many churches of different denominations, mosques, and Hindu temples.

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Soccer and rugby are super popular in Fiji.

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You can walk from today into tomorrow on Taveuni, as it's on the international dateline.

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This woman showed me her sewing shop, and accompanied me to the store to buy a sarong.

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The local fire brigade did their practice exercises for a crowd.

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I enjoyed the samosa shop's marijuana PSA poster.

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It was fun sliding down natural waterslides made of eroded rock with the local kids.

Waterslides

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I dove for a couple of days on Taveuni's Rainbow Reef with Taveuni Dive, but didn't bother with a camera this time. The coral was gorgeous and barroque; endless shapes and colors of coral were piled atop each other, and all the requisite tropical fish.

Coral Garden 

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Photos: Dominic Toledo

I especially enjoyed seeing a very large octopus, a couple unusual shrimp and lobsters, and some nudibranches. At one point, dolphins frolicked off the bow of our boat.

Another day I went on the Lavena Coastal Walk, a very well-built and groomed tropical rain forest trail by the sea. The plants, mountains, coast and waterfalls were gorgeous. Swimming in waterfall-fed ponds was delicious, as was sliding down a 12 foot waterfall into a lagoon.

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Jungle

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That night I stayed at a lodge next to a traditional village. I joined Ken, a marine biologist, and his group in giving kava to the village chief. This is a traditional way to ask permission to stay in a village. We walked through the village, took off our shoes, and entered a home where all the belongings seemed to hang from the rafters.

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The experience of sitting on the floor in the chief's dark room, as our greeting was translated, and our gift proffered to the chief was very powerful and special.

Later that evening, dinner was cooked by the local women, and included fish in coconut milk, taro, taro leaves (like spinach). Delicious. 

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Afterward, Ken invited me to go "sea snaking" with his group. He's an expert on sea snakes, and was counting the population along the shore. Shining flashlights, we waded around a rocky outcropping. The snakes can breathe air and water, and nest in holes at night on the shore. After a long search, a snake was found.

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One of his students carefully unearthed it from its hole, and I was able to hold the it! What a thrill. It was beautiful with dark blue and white banding, and a distinctive paddle-like tail. Sea snakes can be 20 times more venomous than land snakes, but I felt comfortable that the people around me were experts. I'm so grateful for this unique experience of seeing one up close.

It was so great to see the more developed (Viti Levu) and less developed (Taveuni) sides of Fiji in one trip. I hope to return and see my Fijian friends one day.

Hawaii Big Island

This summer, we went to the Big Island of Hawaii for a week and a half. Can't believe I'm blogging about it this late, but here goes.

We stayed on the west coast, in Kailua Kona, in a mildewy apartment, with a courtyard suitable for a Filipino inmate new Michael Jackson routine. Fortunately there was a lot to keep us out of the apartment.

 

Tattooing services were offered below our apartment.

And the Islands' oldest church was next door.

Walking around town, we occasionally saw a small weasels running around. They are one of many invasive species on the islands. Regardless, they are cute.

Our favorite meals were at a hole in the wall restaurant called Rappa Nui (which is the Polynesian name for Easter Island). Run by a New Zealand ex-pat and his American wife, they served delicious Asian fusion food with strong Indonesian and Malaysian influence. Really good nasi goreng! And the limited dessert menu was inventive; we liked white chocolate truffles with wasabi and coconut.

It was fascinating how the island's climate varied from one area to the next. North of Kailua, there were lots of lava fields, like this one, with varying levels of vegetation, depending on when the lava had covered the land.

There were also several world class beaches north of Kailua. Sigh.

South of Kailua, the climate was jungle-like, with some of the world's best coffee plantations. This is where Kona coffee comes from. We drove through the verdant landscape to Kilauea Caldera, to see the famous volcano. Unfortunately, there was no lava that day. But the steaming crater was impressive nonetheless; you could feel its power.

Hiking through the jungle near the crater, one trail went through areas that had recently been covered by lava. It was stunning to see the contrast between lush jungle and moonscape lava field — you could literally stand with a foot in both.

The Big Island has a lot of historical Hawaiian sites as well. As we
toured the Place of Refuge, the ranger showed us how to play the
traditional Hawaiian nose flute. We loved his tour.

Diving off the Big Island was lovely. The waters are the calmest in the Hawaiian Islands, and it was nice not to deal with any chop. We saw some great underwater fauna, including a few nudibranches. The fried egg nudibranch looks like its namesake. Orange gumdrop nudibranch was my favorite.

A live conch about the size of my fist, had its pink mantle wrapped around the shell. Having only seen conch shells, I didn't recognize the live animal.

On a manta ray night dive, we hoped to see a herd of Volkswagen beetle sized manta rays gliding right above our heads. Unfortunately the mantas were elsewhere; at least we got to see one in the distance.

The daytime dolphin swim was more successful. We swam with a pod of about 50 wild dolphins for an hour and a half. Snorkeling in the clear deep water, they surrounded us. At times there were 10 in a row, swimming many feet below us, or three off to the side, or a mother and baby at the surface. Their staticky calls and R2D2 yips filled the water. I swam hard to be next to 3 of them, and was beside them for most of the minute, before I had to catch my breath. They were close enough that I could see little nicks and scratches in their skin. We didn't bother with pictures that day.

At one crowded public beach, we were immediately greeted by large green turtles, the minute we put our heads under water. Snorkeling in general was pretty great on the big Island. At another site we saw so many adult and baby puffer fish, several varieties of triggerfish, and many other fish.

I spent the last day at a calm little beach in town. Perfect.

Un-Belize-Able

Over the holidays, we stayed on Ambergris Caye, a Belizean Caribbean island. It's essentially a long thin spit of sand, about 30 miles long, and only 4 blocks wide, kind of like Fire Island.

Unfortunately, my brand new SanDisk 8 gig card fizzled out after the trip, and we may have lost all our (above water) photos. Jason's trying various methods to recover them. In the meantime, I'll just post my underwater photos from the trip, which were burned to CD on the island.

It was nice to be in tropical climes during the US cold snap. Belize is an incredibly easy place to be, since almost everyone speaks English. It was part of the British empire until 1981 independence. People also speak Spanish and an English-based creole that I only understood a few words of.

Ambergris Caye feels at once like Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. We stayed at a place called Ramon's, which has a style of decor I would call Mayan Tiki. Tiki style always comforts me. Our room was a freestanding little tiki hut with a thatched palm roof. The pool had a giant Mayan style head statue at one end which somewhat resembled Easter Island's maoi, and there were beautiful flowering plants and trees forming a garden maze between the various huts.

Wandering around San Pedro, the only town on the Caye, the buildings were fairly simple; some were made of wind-worn board; others were painted in bright Caribbean hues. Most charming were the small cottages in colonial British cottage style. On the path along the windswept beach, friendly locals often greeted us. Some made offers of "good pot, good pot?"

The food on Ambergris was lovely and fairly simple — very fresh fish prepared myriad ways, barbecue, Mexican cuisine. Johnny cakes are one surprise staple. We had jerk and coconut curry chicken at the Jerk Pit. At Wild Mangoes, one of the more innovative restaurants on the island, I had some delicious mini puffy tacos with smoked chicken and a fresh watermelon margarita.

We enjoyed listening to the local radio stations. Hearing ads for a certain hardware store or clothing store on Punta Gorda (an entirely different location) emphasizes how small the country of 300,000 people really is. Playlists were eclectic, with Elvis, El de Barge, Marvin Gaye, and some song wondering "what the crazy monkey won't do." We were particularly startled to discover a song called "Backdoor Santa," which was in frequent rotation. 

It was great to get back in the water and dive; it had been over a year. Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world, second only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef. On one of the first dives, we saw some gorgeous spotted eagle rays, big and patterned. Morray eels the color of velvety emerald are common, and I saw one longer than my body and wider than my head, rippling through the water. 

There were lots of schools of fish, plenty of blue tangs, and scores of other small fish.

On my second dive, nurse sharks began swimming near us, so the divemaster brought out some bait to give them incentive to stay. I couldn't believe there were 8 beautiful sharks writhing around my feet. Their skin felt pebbly as they brushed against me. The nurse sharks were beautiful and seemed quite gentle.

Though the diving was great, choppy water made entrances and exits a little tricky. Most of the diving takes place outside the barrier reef. Our trip to Hol Chan marine reserve was easier, as it's inside the barrier reef. There, we saw many more sharks and rays.

I chased this boxfish for a picture.

We found a big crab in a crevice, and saw a couple of eels, including one in a shallow cave. The area had lots of schools of fish hanging around big coral heads and antler coral. We saw two turtles on as well, munching seagrass.

All in all, it was a great trip, till poor Jason got one of those awful cold/flu things that's going around. At least we got several great days of sun and diving in. We'd definitely go back.

Kauai

Kauai was lovely.

The trip started with a
helicopter tour of the island.

Kauai has a
lot of different ecosystems for one little island — hot dry plains
with cacti; a mini Grand Canyon; the wettest place on earth, a huge green, waterfall filled canyon; and some of the most gorgeous jungle vegetation
we’ve ever seen. Lots of movies were shot there, including Jurassic
Park; Ben Stiller is shooting one now.

Shave ice is an island fave — basically a finely ground rainbow flavored slushee over ice cream with toppings like fresh coconut.

We spent a day riding ziplines and swinging on rope swings into a jungle pond; I got a nasty bruise from the latter.

And inner tubing down an old sugar cane irrigation ditch was way more pleasant than it sounds. A cool , gentle stream took us through some pretty jungle scenery, and our headlamps lit the way as we floated through tunnels dug through the mountains. Apparently Chinese immigrants dug some of the (extremely accurate) tunnels by hand. Incidentally, the land we tubed through is now owned by Steve Case.

And we returned to scuba diving for the first time in a year. During boat dives off the south shore, we saw brilliant schools of yellow tailed fish and a few sharks. On shore dives from the north shore, we swam through lava tubes and caverns with eerie skylights, and a turtle swam over our heads.

Later, I dove with a boat at Ni’ihau, a small, privately owned island near Kauai. Looking down, on my first descent, I almost landed on a big monk seal. After averting said seal, I watched him frolic; he was really performing for us. The water was quite clear, and the seascapes were massive, dramatic, and a little haunting. Some of the diving was along a giant cliff that extended so far down that we couldn’t see the base. Fish included the Hawaiian turkey fish, octopus, sharks, etc. On the last dive, my group swam simultaneously through a wide cavern, with air at the top where past divers had exhaled.

I took my first underwater pictures on these dives. View my not so professional shots here.

 

Diving the Great Barrier Reef

In Cairns, on the northeast coast of Australia, we made our first dive-related purchase — masks and snorkels. Mine are in white, and make me think of A Clockwork Orange somehow. We also attended a "Reef Teach" lecture on the flora and fauna of the reef, taught by the bizarrely theatrical, yet incredibly informative Paddy.

The next day, we boarded a Pro-Dive live-aboard dive boat for a three day adventure on the Great Barrier Reef. The boat was very comfortable, and with a good set of people.

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The three hour ride to the reef was incredibly choppy, and most were feeling queasy on arrival.

While at the reef, Jason and I did our first unguided dives together, some more successful than others. We saw some interesting fish, yet the reef seemed rather dead in some areas. We also tried night diving for the first time, and really enjoyed the feeling of floating in outer space. Many large red cod were out at night.

On one particularly good dive, we saw several large sea turtles. One of our fellow divers, Donald Cantlon, took this and all the other underwater shots in this post:

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There were multiple types of Clown-fish (Nemo) on the reef.

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Lion-Fish (or Scorpion-Fish) were well camouflaged.

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At one point, Jason and I were trying to navigate around a big coral formation and find the "swim through" to get back to the boat. We didn’t find it, and figured we’d swim over the top of the formation. Unfortunately, the flattish top of the coral was quite broad, and was only about three feet away from the roiling surface of the sea. We were churned around up there, and struggled to get back to the boat. It was exhausting. After a struggle, we finally cleared the coral. Now we know why it’s called a swim through. Not to be repeated.

We purchased a slate on the boat for the next dive. A slate is a tablet you can write on underwater. We figured this would help us communicate better. Our first underwater "conversation" was something highly streamlined like,

"Where boat?"

"Maybe that way –>"

"But are you sure we passed this coral?"

"Compass says that way."

"You sure?"

"Think so."

etc.

We spotted a few nudibranches (tiny colorful slugs), a sign we were improving — diving slowly and observantly.

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There were a few rays in the reefs too.

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