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The long journey north for summer by Helen Gilchrist
(Last entry for her New Zealand Diary) all photos © Helen Gilchrist
Fiji Boy

I can’t believe this is actually it. I’m standing in the living room with my rucksack on my back and a large lump in my throat as I cast one last look around the place that has been my home for the last four months. The room I see before me that is so immediate and familiar - the big blue sofa, wooden floorboards, plants, coffee table, CD rack, videos, pictures, brightly coloured mugs, magazines scattered around - is about to become no more than the setting for countless happy memories. My head is fuzzy and thudding after my farewell party last night, and the corners of my eyes are burning as I wearily fight to keep it together. Sensing my emotion, my friend puts his arm around me and leads me out to the car. It’s time for me to go home.

‘Why?’ A word I have heard a lot recently. Why the hell should I decide to leave a beautiful mild country with limitless open space and fresh clean air, lakes, mountains, beaches, a fantastic lifestyle, far away from so many of the world’s problems… for a small, cold, wet, overcrowded and polluted country which is battling against the foot and mouth epidemic and centre stage when it comes to problems? Good question. I must need my head checking. The only possible explanation I can offer is that I’ve seen everything I wanted to see, had some fantastic experiences, met a whole bunch of kind, funny, interesting people, lived a Kiwi life… but I only ever came here on an extended holiday, and if I’m not prepared to live permanently as far away from my family and friends as it’s physically possible to be, sooner or later I have to return.

The first chill nip of autumn is in the air. I see my breath when I walk outside in the mornings and the car takes a couple of attempts to start. I linger in the shower long after I’ve washed just because it’s warm. My mum tells me spring is beginning to poke its sleepy head out and the daffodils are blooming in her garden. If I have to go, then now seems like a good time. The birds are gradually leaving on the long flight back to the northern hemisphere, and I decide to follow them. If I leave it any longer it’ll be even harder to say goodbye.

So we load my things into the car (I’m pretty pleased with myself that I managed to fit my life back into one rucksack…), and I say my final farewells to flatmates, friends, and the dog. As we pull out of the driveway and I look back at the little white wooden house, shaded by a large avocado tree, and everyone stood waving on the front porch, it feels like the last frame in a film before the picture freezes and the credits start rolling

It’s a long way to fly without a break. The birds must touch down on some island somewhere in the middle of the Pacific or Indian ocean to break the journey, rest, and feast on lush tropical fruits… and so must I. There is no question that I definitely would need my head checking if I didn’t take the free stopover in Fiji, which was optional with my ticket. I leap at the opportunity to laze on a tropical beach in the hot sun, swim in translucent turquoise waters, snorkel thriving and colourful coral reefs, and take in a little South Pacific culture which I’ve heard so positively about - before finally heading back to the cold. And, as I get off the plane in Nadi, I know immediately that I will not be disappointed; my first impressions are the wall of intense sticky heat (even at 11 o’clock at night), flashing white smiles and ‘bula!’s (which means hello, welcome, pleased to meet you and good luck) and a group of three Fijian men dressed in skirts and brightly coloured floral print shirts, flowers behind their ears, playing banjos and guitars and singing traditional Fijian songs which drift through the Arrivals hall.

‘Bula Helen!’
I’m so tired I don’t even register my name being called at first.
‘Miss Helen? Bula!’
I turn to see Liti, who has come to meet me from the hostel on Mana Island where I’ve planned to stay tomorrow night. I didn’t even know anyone was coming to meet me, but there she is, smiling and waving frantically with one hand while the other clutches a placard, decorated with pictures of flowers and palm trees, which reads ‘Welcome to Fiji, Miss Helen!’

I normally try to sort things out for myself, but on this occasion I feel so drained I’m pretty thankful that, on the basis of one telephone call asking if there were any spare beds in the hostel, they have fully sorted me out with a free airport pick-up, somewhere to stay for tonight, and my boat transfer to the island tomorrow. It does feel like a bit of a waste going straight out to a small island resort without having a look around the mainland - but I’m on my own, have hardly any money and only six days, so I decide I’ll just have to laze around on the beach doing next to nothing…

Fiji Beach

Oh no. My worst nightmare. We’ve just arrived on the island and are being led through the hostel’s eating area which is full of about a hundred backpackers eating their lunch. As we shuffle through, weighed down with our bags, everyone stops eating and a sea of tanned faces look up to check out at the new arrivals. We put our bags down in the kitchen and collect our own portions of potato curry, rice, and green banana… and then it’s like being the new kid at school as I wander around with my dinner plate looking for a place to sit. No… I really must be at school - one of the guys is tapping his fork on the table to get everyone’s attention so that he can announce the ‘23rd Annual International Beer Drinking Competition’ which is to take place tonight: ‘get your teams together guys and let me know by 6 o’clock at the latest…$10 per person and I guarantee you’ll get absolutely wasted! There’ll be a bonfire on the beach, skinny dipping - and whatever else you can think of - afterwards!’ Well, what fun I’m going to have! With no money and no inclination to do anything other than wind down and enjoy the snail pace of South Pacific life, looks like I’m going to be the miserable old granny of Ratu Kini’s Hostel… In the end it’s not so bad. I meet a mellow, friendly Canadian girl who’s in the same position as me and isn’t too bothered about the whole getting smashed and copping off with other travellers scene… so at least we can be grannies together.
The Hotel Waiter

Six days pass in a blur of going to the beach, snorkelling, lying in hammocks, reading, walking, talking, and eating fresh juicy tropical fruit. One day I sit on the beach watching the men spear-fishing and the boys shinning up the coconut palms. A few of them come over to talk to me, bringing a green coconut with them. In a deft swoop, they slice the top off with a machete (which is almost as long as they are tall) and hand it to me to drink as they ask me all sorts of questions and chatter argue scrap amongst themselves. An older brother comes to get them for dinner, and before we know it, Lisa and I are up in the village, sitting on the ground in a large circle with a group of old men and young boys, drinking cava. The cava root has been used in the Pacific as a relaxant and mild stimulant for centuries, and they’re only too happy to enjoy this bit of their culture with us! The roots used to be ground up in the mouths of young virgins for the chief of the tribe, but these days it usually comes ready-powdered in a brown paper bag, and is then mixed with water in a large wooden bowl. The half coconut shell full of the bitter brown sediment is passed round again and again - it tastes foul and is hard to swallow but it does make us feel slightly euphoric and even more relaxed than before… the conversation flows along with the cava for several hours before we finally glide back through the warm, clear, starlit night to the hostel for bed and the best sleep I’ve had in a very long time.

Once again it’s time to leave. Lisa and I are sitting eating our last breakfast of pineapple, papaya, and pancakes as we wait for our boat - which was supposed to leave half an hour ago - to arrive. But hey, that’s Fiji time. It’s not that which worries me - I’m more concerned about the storm which seems to be brewing; the black skies, distant rolls of thunder, strong gusts of wind, and big waves which are frothing up on the reef at the edge of the lagoon. When the boat finally does arrive, it does nothing to calm my fears… in fact it doubles them as I watch the small, battered outrigger being pulled up onto the beach. The women load it up with big baskets of fish and coconuts while the children heave big tanks of diesel down the beach and into the boat. It’s already fairly weighed down by the time 5 of us finally clamber on with our heavy packs. It’s just started to rain, so we huddle up close under the canopy as the boat begins to chug out over the lagoon… until ***CRUNCH - we run aground on the coral, as the tide is so low and the boat is so full. Great. Good start. Really reassuring that. One of the men pulls a long stick off the roof and pokes it around on the bottom, trying to dislodge us, but the boat just grinds and scrapes and drags along. We all look awkwardly at each other and I picture the gashes and holes being made in the hull… but the boatmen don’t seem particularly bothered as they carry on prodding and poking. A few more scrapes and we’re finally free, heading out to the open sea.

The waves are big - really big - and they’re banking up, peeling and breaking all around us. The boat is pitched up and slammed down, rolled violently from side to side as the helmsman battles to steer her through the angry seas. Each time we smack down onto another wave, the wooden uprights supporting the roof of the boat creak and sway. No-one says a word; we’re all just staring silently at the horizon, willing our safe arrival to come speedily and trying to rationalise our own fears. The old Fijian man at the back of the boat is getting soaked with spray and the driving rain, but he doesn’t even flinch as he stares fixedly at the distant horizon. Even the potent smells of fish and diesel don’t make me feel seasick; the only thing I feel is the adrenaline racing…
Just when the conditions and my nerves seem to be calming a little, one of the outboard engines coughs, splutters and cuts. Without the forward movement, the boat is once again tossed and rolled ferociously by the waves, and one of them even washes over the back of the boat. This is it. Has our moment come?! … I feel like a stupid nervous wreck as one of the boatmen moves towards the back of the boat and calmly continues smoking his cigarette while he changes over the fuel pipe to a fresh tank. After a couple of attempts, the motor starts up again and we finally continue moving towards the black mass of land which is gradually, thankfully, looming closer.

Instinctively, the birds must take the most direct and logical route to their final destination. Korean Air, however, does not. Instead of continuing across the Pacific, Central America and the Atlantic towards London, we take off from Fiji and veer north west … for a 14-hour flight to Seoul, 9 hours in Seoul airport, then another 12 hours to London. Lovely. I wish I was a bird… Unfortunately I am not and so sit cramped up between two fat men who are sleeping contentedly and snoring while I struggle to find a comfortable position to sleep in without touching either of them. To my weary frustration, this proves impossible and I am forced to find other ways to pass the infinite time that stretches out before me. The in-flight movie is 'Nurse Betty', which doesn’t grab me particularly, so I lean cautiously over fat man A and peer out of the window. The sky is completely free of clouds, and so I have a fantastic bird’s-eye view of the Gobi desert… Siberia… the Ural Mountains… then I’m lucky enough to doze off for a couple of hours, and when I come round (fat man B has just called the stewardess over), we’re passing over a snow-covered St. Petersburg, the icy Baltic, and the frozen lakes, forests and fields of northern Europe. It all looks so fresh and pure; white snow glistening under a clear blue sky… until we enter a thick bank of heavy grey cloud which tells me we must be getting pretty close to England.

Sure enough, the captain announces our imminent arrival at Heathrow, where the temperature is just above six degrees and it is raining. Surprise surprise. Peering out the window again, my first glimpse of my homeland is a flash of brown grey green disappearing behind dense cloud. I imagine the fumes of burning animals mingling with the thick grey fluff… My ears pop as our descent sharpens and we punch through the blanket of cloud for the last time, circling above the brown grey green again, looking down on empty fields and the orangey yellow glow of sodium lights and commuter traffic.

A couple of hours later and I´m sitting on the platform at Paddington, looking at the old, soot-coated bricks, peeling advertisements, tattered newspapers flapping in the breeze… watching the long dark overcoats of the commuters, young shoppers chatting on mobile phones… listening to snippets of conversations in a hundred and one different accents… and it all feels so familiar, like I was never gone at all. Home sweet home…

© Helen Gilchrist May 2001

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