Though flight eight-eleven bounced and skidded onto Fijian concrete in the same unforgiving darkness through which I slept, by the time I exited the airport, the tropic sun was quickly hoisting itself to the top of the sky, breaking through hazy early morning clouds in that way that always looked like heaven to me. If I believed in such a place, anyway. Immediately after clearing customs, I made my way into the kind of stagnant humidity you wear like guilt and attempted to find a ride to Port Denarau. The first woman that approached me smiled and offered to help me with an earnestness I had learned to be skeptical of when traveling and asked me my name. “Taylor,” I said, and exchanged the same question to her. I abandoned my suspicion for the honesty in her words and smile and Vera agreed to take me to Port. She booked me on the Yasawa Catamaran to Kuata, a small nature reserve, two hours away by boat, and immediately I was three hundred Fijian dollars poorer. As I had missed the shuttle to the port and Vera was driving me in her car, we stopped to pick up her children and drop them at school on our way. Marie, 10 and Peter, 7 slipped quietly into the back of the car as I turned back to introduce myself. Apprehensive and reserved out of respect for their mother, they both shyly looked down at my cheerful introduction, barely uttering their own names in response. Their mother began to speak to them in the first bouncing, song like tones of native Fijian I heard, and slowly they began to relax and chat openly in their native tongue, though were still too shy to offer more than a word or two of English to me. Regardless, a smile stayed drawn across my face as the warm nature of the Fijian was the very first welcome I received.After the confusing and costly check-in process at Port Denarau, I made my way immediately to the bar on the boat to taste my first Fijian beer (a bitter disappointment), and then immediately to the upper deck to absorb the paradisiacal setting that would be my home for the next four days . The tiny islands scattered themselves in hazy voids across the cobalt blues of the south pacific horizon, as if mirages, slowly gaining in size and detail as the large, quick vessel tore through the endless waters. As the boat approached the Yasawa Islands my body smiled in the glow of freshly found freedom, absorbing the majesty of these mountains rising from the sea like some ancient paradise lost. As we stepped off the boat we were greeted with a round of “Bula Bula,” a Fijian welcome that you quickly tire of being required to enthusiastically shout at every arrival, departure, and event. The fanless room dorm room was more stifling than the air itself, but as the seven of us that arrived together from Nadi got settled in our beds, the easy conversation of past travels began. Despite the fact that in America the large majority of people were shocked and scared for my spontaneous and open-ended adventure, the rest of the world seems to thrive on travel the way I do. Most had been roaming on one-way tickets for six or eight months, with plans to continue on for a year or longer. It is contagious to be surrounded by the kindred spirits of wandering souls and within moments I had already begun to plan a trip to Indonesia and Thailand when New Zealand’s autumn dipped into the frigid winter I had only just escaped. Of my six dorm mates that had been traveling around Asia and the South Pacific for the better part of the year, most had only run into a handful of Americans and I found myself once again trying to defend my fellow countrymen against the worldwide stereotype that we are moronic, close-minded, and ethnocentric. A difficult thing to do as I believe there is a good amount of truth in that stereotype. Despite the fact that there are plenty of exceptions. Will, a charming yet arrogant young Brit, dropped a statistic that eighty percent of Americans don’t even have a passport and I didn’t doubt its validity. Why is it that international travel isn’t important to American culture? I constantly desire to expose myself to as many new cultures as possible and yet a large and ignorant piece of our population actively chooses to stay put, insisting that they can find everything they need in the States. The thought made me sad for such people, but regardless, as the only American on the island I did my best to represent my country well. By the end of the boisterous night of playing drinking games to the lilting Polynesian strums of ukulele and guitar, I am pretty sure I convinced the group that all Americans are charming, witty, good-humored, well-traveled, reckless alcoholics. After only one day in this remote crescent of more than three hundred islands I sank easily into what the locals refer to as Fiji time. Minutes drift into irrelevance in a place like this and lazing the days away weaving or carving any and everything out of coconuts slows the soul and loosens the limbs. I passed two easy days walking around the islands, snorkeling, kayaking, napping in the shade, and looking out over the South Pacific letting the beauty and tranquility of this place sing to my venturing bones. By the time I awakened to the breakfast drum on my third morning in Fiji, it was already time to head back to the mainland of Vita Levu and I knew I needed to return to this place soon. I had seen only two of hundreds of islands snaking their way in an arc around the two main bodies, and had seen nothing of the mainland itself. As it was, my time was almost up and I headed back towards Nadi with Sebastian. He was a smart, though somewhat humorless, textbook Aryan with white-blonde hair from head to toe and almost translucent periwinkle eyes. We met on South Sea Island the night before and talked for hours about traveling, the world, and life in our respective countries. As we were headed the same direction, we accompanied one another on the three kilometer walk from the bus stop to the hostel in the piercing sun and tangible humidity. My pack grinded and stung my sunburned shoulders with each step as we trekked towards the beach, our shirts soaked in tropic sweat, mouths stuffed with cotton, and dreamed of the first cold sip of Fiji Bitter that was sure to touch my lips as soon as we arrived. The heat kept us mostly in silence, until, in true Fijian fashion, a car traveling the opposite direction stopped and asked if we needed a ride. An older man in his late forties with an a smile that asks for nothing in return carved into his instantly welcoming face, and his plump, quiet wife happily turned their car around and we felt the forgotten relief of air conditioning with the weight off my pained, stinging shoulders. After checking in to the cheapest room on the beach at just fifteen Fijian dollars, I passed the hours in the shade of a small thatch umbrella letting the words to describe the unwinding I had felt since arriving find their way from pen to paper. Hours are easy to pass in Fiji when the breeze sweeps the heady humidity from your neck and before I knew it the tranquil beach was a torch-lit club and I found myself making friends with a table full of locals and Australian ex-pats that had made their homes here. As once again the sole American at the table, the conversation immediately made its way to our egotistical and unwarranted national pride. Yet again I found myself defending the large part of our population that understands and attempts to change the antiquated idea of world dominance that pervades the worldwide American stereotype. After several hours of passing a pitcher of beer around the table from which you pour a shot and offer it to someone else (a friendly tradition I found promotes good will amongst strangers), the bar topped its bottles, closed its doors, and the handful of us sober enough to keep drinking headed into Nadi proper to Ed’s Bar. American hip-hop pulsed through the street outside as we approached and my body buzzed with alcohol and anticipation for true Fijian nightlife. The only girl among four intimidatingly large, but good humored Fijians, two greying Aussie ex-pats, and one Norwegian wanderer, we chatted and ribbed one another in playful jest while dancing to the same five songs on repeat the entire night. We shot a few games of pool, and threw back bourbon (a tradition I brought to the group) until the bar closed its doors as well and the boys congregated outside deciding where to head on to next. I was assured by the group as a whole that I had changed their opinion of at least one American, but I guess stereotypes are a hard thing to break down. Drunk, tired, and departing for New Zealand tomorrow, I was ready to head back to the hostel. Dee, a Guiness-toned native, whose formidable build belied his sweet nature, prodded me to join them at his house party. For the first time since I arriving in Fiji, I declined and instantly tensed at the bitter hint of unwanted pressure. Grasping the crook of my arm the way you would a petulant child he pulled me away from the bar in requests that quickly lost their playful nature. It is not often I turn down a party, especially not while on vacation surrounded by friendly and exciting strangers. But I also have a strong relationship with my instincts and the discomfort I began to feel spread to my bones like cancer, and the defenses that sit dormant in me most of the time threw up their stony walls. My tone and posture hardened and I pulled myself from the prodding crowd, attempting to find a taxi. Even, the soft, Norwegian traveler that had accompanied the group from the beach to the bar sensed my discomfort and the change in my demeanor, and found a cab for the two of us to return to the hostel. Conversation between us had been easy from the start and the long, fair-haired Scandinavian and I made our way to a hammock on the pre-dawn beach to drink the last beer I had found in my bag on the ride home. The desire to kiss the kind spirit came to my mind more than once, though never made it to my lips. And when the beer was done and it was time to turn in, I offered him to share my bed as his hostel had already closed its doors for the night. I laid my head on his chest under the cool breeze of the fan and we found sweet sleep together on my last night in a place I knew to which I would one day return.
Traveler’s note: Our sweet and peaceful rest at Horizon Backpackers left me covered neck to toe in excrutiating bed bug bites. Lesson learned: ALWAYS use your sleeping bag, even if it’s a hundred degrees.