Taveuni & Vanua Levu

I wanted to visit Levuka, Fiji’s only UNESCO World Heritage site and former capital, but the complicated ferry systems wouldn’t allow me to figure out. Goundar Shipping sails most of the longer inter-island routes, but Ovalau trips are run by the Patterson Brothers, whose office I never found but an agent of theirs in Savusavu told me I’d better stick to the larger islands of Vanua Levu and Taveuni for island hopping. There was a cyclone last week and my flight back to the US next week got cancelled, so it seemed like a great idea.

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I think I may have rode this ferry in BC 15 years ago!

The Goundar ferry I took from Suva to Savusavu took 12 hours, but we left 3 hours late. Wandering around their ‘new’ ferry (it was bought in November from British Columbia -there was even a Shoppers Drug Mart advertisement from Tsawassen still hanging inside) reminded me how consumptive we are in the first world – it was a perfectly good ferry, but clearly not good enough for Canadian safety standards anymore, so it must have been someone’s great idea to sell it to Fiji, so BC Ferries can have enough money to put towards a newer, shinier, bigger boat.

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there’s a pot of gold in Taveuni, and only one road to get there

I continued onto Taveuni, an island renowned for its nature parks both above and below water. Bouma National Park is home to a rare, endemic species of flower, and one waterfall there falls directly into the sea. For divers, its one of the best places in the world to see soft coral, and just sitting at a restaurant drinking coffee, I saw a pod of 20+ dolphins swimming less than a kilometre from the shore.

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camp, with a partial view to the sky

I ‘camped’ there, which felt more like an impromptu homestay. Beverely Camping was a beachside hostel run by a couple who recently sold it to a dive center, but now you can stay with them up the hill in their garden, with all the chickens, dogs, horses and kids for company. If you’re lucky, you’ll be around when they start mixing kava, or ‘grog,’ and the powder/water mixture gets sent around until you say stop.

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there was no shortage of beautiful beaches or blue pools in the north of Taveuni

I camped further south on the island, where a woman who rarely leaves her home was hearing the news from me that Beverly camping had shut down more than a year ago, despite them being only half an hour apart.

The best part of camping in my hammock is being able to see the stars before I fall asleep. It gets a little distracting when every village dog has to come and sniff you out, but having a chicken fly into you is slightly more surprising.

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Which side of the date line am I?

Taveuni is special because its one of the only two places in the world where the 180 degree meridian makes landfall (the other location is in Siberia). So technically speaking, you can be standing with one foot in today and the other in yesterday. Or one foot in the now and one tomorrow, depending on which way you’re coming from.

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the smaller ferry between Taveuni and Vanua Levu puts down a fishing line for the crossing

Taveuni felt a bit like Wallis – calm and quiet. There’s no real city center or bus station, and even the ferry wharfs differ by the size of the ferry (and all of them were incomplete or broken to some extent). There is an airport, with a fence around it and a small hut to differentiate it from the road, but not even the once paved road makes it all the way around the island, since very few live on the south-east side of the island.

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table for 1, and a stump

It’s nice to travel to those kinds of places when you’re a solo female, but a Sunday is always a bore, unless you’re willing to join in for some rejoyceful church worship. You could hear the hymns being sung from the next village, but I was busy trying to find a shop or restaurant open to feed myself.

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the quiet bay of Savusavu

Going back to Savusavu felt like returning to the real world, but still a tranquil, beautiful world. They called it the hidden paradise, a place where the explorer Cook spoke highly of, and Jacque Cousteau did much of his diving. His son has opened a 5-star resort where families come to let their children learn how to dive, and I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful place to first meet the underwater world.

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the Jean-Michel Cousteau resort in Vanua Levu, where kids prepare for their diving lesson

The sunsets were the most memorable part of Savusavu, and the quaint little town offered a handful of exceptional shopping and dining. I met three French men who had been sailing from Tahiti, and watching them enjoy their first cold beer and red steak in weeks was nearly as much joy as they were experiencing.

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these sunsets never get old

I stayed in a dorm at a hotel called Hidden Paradise, and it was the third female who hosted me; it’s surprising how much more welcoming it is to enter a space protected by a woman. Taveuni and Vanua Levu were the first two islands in the Pacific where I noticed how well animals are treated – from stray cats to work horses, everything looked fed, fluffy and healthy. Dogs were never strays – many had collars or a home to protect, and the only unfortunate road kill I saw were a few frogs, which the chickens and rodents were quick to capitalize on.

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Where in the world is Wallis?

I’ve traveled around the Pacific before and remember thinking Wallis & Futuna would be something like Pitcairn Island – totally unreachable and complicated to plan. When I landed in Suva from Tonga in 2015, I saw a Wallis flight boarding, flown by New Caledonia’s airline Air Calin, and found out it’s not that crazy to get to, or afford.

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public transportation in Wallis

It was my main destination this time around in the Pacific. Direct flights go twice weekly from either New Caledonia or Fiji, and even thought the 1.5hr flight is overpriced at more than $200US each way, it’s still cheap compared to a lot of other pacific island destinations.

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Jono and I in matching hats on our way to Wallis

It’s part of France, not a department or territory, but an “island collectivity” that still allows all residents to have French citizenship and all associated benefits. The population is just under 12,000 – 3,000 in Futuna and 8,000 in Wallis. Futuna is connected to Wallis by a tiny jet, but when the weather allows, flies multiple times a day, even though the distance to Futuna from Wallis is nearly as far as Samoa or Tonga. When the weather’s not so good, you can get stuck in Futuna for days, weeks even – the longest I heard was 6 weeks. With no ferry option, and the weather presumably too bad to sail, there’s no other option than to wait (Atleast they finally got an ATM and credit card payments working since November last year). Considering it was still the tail end of cyclone season, I decided not to risk it and visited only Wallis.

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Couchsurf camp, when the mosquitos and heat are too much inside

I was traveling with a friend who lives in Suva, and though he’s “European” too, it was weird for us both to be greeted by French immigration. Apparently 5% of the island is employed in government jobs, and all the teachers, nurses, doctors, dentists, lawyers and police seemed to be métropoles, so atleast 5% of the island is actually French. The rest identify as Wallisian or Futunan, and there’s a minority of Fijians, mostly for their rugby team.

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one of many impressive churches in Wallis

We couchsurfed, which was a feat in and of itself, since internet has been around for 10 years, but cell phones only the last 2 years, with barely enough bandwidth for smart phone apps. Our host was Michel, who had tan lines on the smile lines around his eyes. He was one of 3 dentists on the island, who had been working there for nearly 15 years and may retire at the ripe age of 55. He called himself a simple man, and lived in a shack with only mosquitos and giant cockroaches as roommates, and some retarded chickens and an extremely obese, angry pig as neighbours. We slept outside unable to bear the heat and bites without a mosquito net or fan, in a little shanty camp that atleast kept us breezy and scratch-free.

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kayaking to Tekaviki island

He was an excellent host, picking us up at the airport (there’s no bus), and driving us all around the island in a day. It doesn’t take more than 15 minutes to get anywhere, but there is quite a bit to see on this 250sq. Km Island. Most of the main highlights are large, imposing churches (99% of the population are devote Catholics), and tourists usually make it to Lalolalo crater, a volcano that filled with water and is now home to the sunken machinery of the American army who refused to give it to the French after WWII. Not much to do, but plenty of water to see and explore by kayak. We went to two islands off the coast of Mata’utu, but the shallow lagoon meant Jono preferred to walk than row. There was plenty of rain too, but it’s hard to flood a rural island living sparsely dotted around dirt roads, in sync with nature for hundreds of years. But apparently the heat and mosquitos have gotten worse, which was a relief for my pride as a whiny traveler.

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cava ceremony

We were extremely lucky to experience both Wallisian and Futunan culture, visiting the weekend when thousands of teens and youth were congregating for dancing and cava ceremonies with all their village chiefs. We met some expats our age that took us to the only nightclub on the island, which roared after 2 am Saturday night, and the traditional dancing kept going.

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Polynesian dance, Futunan style

A cyclone was predicted to hit Fiji the day we left, and thought we may get rerouted to New Caledonia where our adventure could continue, but it seems my bad streak of flight distortions is finally over. Let’s see if I can get stuck somewhere in Fijian paradise instead.

The Bay, a home away from home

I took a sketchy craigslist rideshare from Hollywood to San Francisco, and only realized half way that the couple driving me were on their way to the Iceland vs. Mexico soccer game in San Jose. I nearly blew my plans to join them, but had a special invite to a ´play´ party that I couldn´t miss.

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San Fran´s cable cars

I based myself in San Francisco for the weekend, the city itself, which is rare for my bay visits. I studied at Berkeley, once lived in Oakland, and usually stayed with friends in Walnut Creek or Danville. Now a handful of UBC friends live in San Fran, Alameda and San Leandro, so that’s where I bounced around for a week.

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my adopted family and hounds for the week

It´s getting rare to sleep on couches anymore, because my friends are all grown up, figuring life out with their families and houses with guest bedrooms. Our conversations revolved around pregnancies, children, home remodeling, gardening and the bowel movements of pets. I became a live-in au pair for Maya, whose 34 week belly made her less inclined to do house chores or walk the dog. We did manage to do some pregnant yoga, bake and cook a ton and I squeezed a whole lot of lemons and oranges into delicious, fresh, vitamin C rich juice.

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at the Stefan/Mane/Isabelle household for brunch

My friends Stefan and Mane bought a house in Alameda, where they´re waiting for their second miracle to enter the world. Their first daughter Isabelle is quite possibly the cutest kid I´ve seen – I totally understand the desire to make another one. We spent day on the beach flying the biggest, highest kite I´ve flown, and when everyone was busy working, We ate Ethiopian food in Berkeley for Maya´s mother´s birthday and drank patio beers at MadOak on the first hot, summer night of the year. I took a brewery tour on a pedal bike around Alameda, finally figuring out that I may be allergic to hops, not anything flour or gluten related.

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flying kites at Alameda beach

I reconnected with a couchsurfer I met traveling in Albania in 2016, first for coffee and an overpriced kimchi croissant (only in Frisco), and a night out in the city. A friend Billy was throwing a party to celebrate his self-proclaimed entry into a degenerate lifestyle, after quitting his cush job at Google and buying twenty people food and drinks at a speak easy bar called Bourbon & something. We had the ´Russel Room,´ hidden behind a rotating wall disguised as a bookshelf on one side, and a cigar cupboard on the other, and made way to an art-deco room that looked like a movie set, but was clearly authentically original, complete with its pre-Vegas Chihuly chandelier.

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Easter Sunday hike

My main goals in California were to eat plenty of In n Out, animal style, and shop at all or any Trader Joe´s that I saw. We hiked thru some red woods and poison ivy, discovered that the Oakland Zoo is not pet-friendly, and I assisted in a photo shoot with two Jess´s for maternity wear being modeled by Maya. Ironically enough the photographer Jess was also pregnant, and I started to wonder how much exposure I could have to pregnant women before being bit by the mommy gene. Fortunately for me, I´m now even more positive I never want to be pregnant, since everyone else seems to do it so much better than I ever could.

The OC and LA

I´ve been to LA a handful of times, and the city is always as big and intimidating as the last time. Within LA county, there´s so many neighbourhoods to visit and experience, and getting between them is hell, especially with the added charm of LA traffic.

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O´Venice, in light of St. Patty´s day

My week was based around visiting some familiar faces. I spent my first two nights in Venice, hanging out with Jake and his pregnant girlfriend and co. I met Jake in Iceland years ago when he was working on a film with Baltasar Kormakur, and we met up in LA once since. I met his friend Peter Harding again, a documentary film maker, for cappuccinos on the beach. Its some of the most decent coffee I´ve ever had in America, from a café called Menottis, and in the evening they´ve got live jazz downstairs at Townhouse to jive to.

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the Orange County Coast

My friend Luke, who I know through a mutual UBC friend, works in music and came to Iceland for Airwaves in 2013, trading an all-access VIP pass for rights to my couch. That’s a solid start to any friendship. This time around I got to surf his couch, with his dog that just got diagnosed with terminal testicular cancer. It was a bummer, so finding our temporary happy place watching Superorganism at the Echo where he books shows was in order. A friend from the WFR course also joined, and we after partied with a guy whose name I cant remember, but his look was unforgettable: he had visibly time traveled to the present from the 1960´s.

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the Surfliner, the train with a view between LA and the OC

Conrad, an American raised in Iceland that I met tango dancing in San Francisco nearly ten years ago lives in San Celemente. I took the train up through Orange County after finally getting my first glimpse of real Californian sunshine. People were out surfing, jogging in their Lululemon get-ups head to toe, and I finally got my first tan of the year. Conrad and I went tango dancing in LA, and drove back to San Celemente late that night with the top down on his BMW convertible, with the heat and music blasting. I cant think of a better way to stargaze.

I met a couple in Reykjavik last autumn who lived in Pasadena, and I met the woman for happy hour in North Hollywood. She´s a dog rescuer by day and got bit by one of her rescue animals, but even with a bandaged hand and her private car full of dogs, she glowed.

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the City of Angels wouldn´t have been much without these darlings

The reunion I cherished the most was meeting Moira, 12 years after we circumnavigated the world together on with Semester at Sea. She was happily married, living in Hollywood with the perfect husband and two cuddly dogs, in a picture-perfect home with their one and a half year old bundle of joy named Dempsey. I can´t believe how its possible to still relate to one another, and keep up with these people, half way around the world, from the many walks in life we´ve had to where we are now, all in different stages. I definitely have to thank social media for allowing it, but your people are always your people, despite how much or quickly the time goes by.

Wilderness First Responder training in San Diego for an Iceland Guide

The tour guiding world in Iceland is exploding, and almost any people person who speaks decent English can get a job taking tourists around the Golden Circle. The problem is, a lot of them are either foreigners who don´t speak Icelandic or know Iceland as well as they should, or they´re Icelander´s who aren´t professionally trained in tour guiding or leading… yet. Its been evolving for the better the last couple of years, with the standard and safety of guide training getting better every year, but it´s not cheap to get all the licenses and certifications, so going abroad to train is still ideal for the career guide.

I have my first aid and CPR training from the Red Cross in Iceland, but it’s a single-evening course that you have to repeat every two years. This year, I decided to take an 80-hour Wilderness First Responder course instead, since that covers my basic training plus some, a whole bunch of some, and re-certification isn´t required until three years later. I had a handful of options as far as location – even Reykjavik was one – but I wanted the warmest place possible. That ruled Ohio and Colorado out, but California in, and last week, the Wilderness Leadership Institute ran one in San Diego.

We were five miles from the Mexican border, and the forecast said warm and sunny when I was packing my bags, but arriving in Jamul a week ago taught me that its not just in Iceland that the weather guy is wrong. It was cold and wet, with the most rainfall all year that area had seen all year, and my summer sleeping bag and one-season tent proved totally inadequate. Luckily our course had a lot of props to work with, so I borrowed a sleeping bag from the litter packaging and some warm layers from other students to survive the nights.

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practicing spine protection while lifting someone from a tree fall

We spent half our time in the classroom, learning about facts, figures and wilderness protocols, and the other half of the time outdoors running exercises and back-country medicine simulations. Sometimes you were the fake patient, practicing your Oscar acting skills, and other times you were the responder being tested, seeing if you could figure out what the right thing to do was, when to do it, how to relay it for other EMT or paramedic teams to understand, and when it simply wasn´t an emergency at all.

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being the fake patient; a double femur break means being carried down in a litter

I met some awesome people in the course, surrounded by like-minded, outdoor enthusiasts and leadership type-A people. A few of us drove into downtown San Diego on Saturday to celebrate St. Patricks day, and I left the course by ride-sharing with a guy to LA. It was such a relief to know I had passed, after a lot of intentional ASR and overwhelming amounts of information that I may or may not have absorbed all the way, and I was looking forward to a warm, dry night indoors in LA.

Spring Skiing in BC

My favourite time to be in Vancouver is springtime. I was a little early for the cherry blossoms, but the first warm weekend and sunny skies did have a few trees blossoming early. It was my first trip to BC that I truly felt like a tourist – renting a car and booking hotels is something I´ve never done before.

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Gastown´s steam clock

Fewer and fewer people from my UBC days are left, and the city has transformed so much since the Olympics that I barely recognised parts of downtown. Robson street and Granville look like old-fashioned relics of the good old days, Gastown looks the same but feels completely different, and I don´t even remember what the new Olympic Village neighbourhood looked like before it was there.

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UBC alumni reunited in Olympic Village

Going to BC means the routine family check up. My grandma would be furious is I was around and didn´t visit. But visiting her always means a cloud of guilt, for not visiting earlier or more often, not staying long enough, and not eating enough. This time, I got in the most trouble for not calling ahead since she didn´t get a chance to cook up a storm and overfeed me the best Guyanese chicken curry you´ve ever had, but it wasn´t meal time and we had places to go.

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the Fraser River

I was with Master Chef Thrainn, on his first visit to BC, and I wanted to impress him with the wining and dining scene. It wasn´t all fancy – Tim Hortons and A&W are Canadian musts, and wine tasting in Langley and visiting a BC liquor store to see the Okanagan selection were part of our master plan. I saw my oldest friend from Canada, Lisa, who took us around the vineyards, and visited her younger brother, sous chef at Coquilles, in Gastown. We had to go to Cactus Club and Earls, the two Canadian chains I owe all my server training to, and the trip highlight was hands down Araxi in Whistler; the shucked right in front of you oysters, fresh sea food and local wine list impressed even Thrainn, who doesn´t normally like oysters.

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The Peak2Peak Gondola, taking us from Blackcomb to Whistler mountain

We spent four days in Whistler, with fresh snow on our first day and a couple days of powder, but most importantly, we had three days of sunshine on the slopes with a hottub to soothe our muscles every night. I had a friend in Whistler and a few in Vancouver to visit, and we tried some local brews at the Craft Beer Market.

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feeding the birds on 7th Heaven

We started our trip with the first night at Cultus, and woke up to a glorious morning on the lake. We ended our trip with an upgrade at the Shangri-la hotel, in Vancouver´s tallest building, but looking across at Trump tower made us prefer the view from our other hotel balcony peering down Thurlow street to the Olympic torch. Stanley Park was still as I remember, but the one morning of dismal rain we had on our trip ruined our plans to bike around it. At least I have that and a few more cherry blossoms to come back to, so its not goodbye yet…

Oysters in Colorado

Colorado is one of those places everyone else has been, and I’ve been on my way for way too long. My best friend from Canada, Clio, moved there more than a year ago and I finally took her up on the standing invitation to visit. Spring skiing seemed like a great time, since Denver can reach temperatures of 20 degrees but the mountains still get fresh snow. The days are long, bright and sunny, and I was happy to realise I had two other old friends in town.

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Clio and I in Denver, enjoying the hottest day I´ve seen since Dec 10th last year

It was a rough start – after being stuck in Greenland for five days, I arrived in Reykjavik just in time to miss my flight to Denver, but then discovered it had actually been delayed a bunch, and then cancelled. It was a shame, but still very convenient for rebooking, although I was number 56 in line on hold when I had to call Icelandair.

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Denver and the Clock Towwer

Clio picked me up at the airport, and we went straight to a local brewery called Crazy Mountain Brewery, where you could try a new beer every day for weeks until they rotated their taps, and start all over again. We ate perfectly made margaritas and tacos at Machete, and tried bison burgers at the Bush and Bull – think about that name for a second. We watched the Oscars with bet sheets, and Clio lost, badly enough that she had to cook us breakfast.

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El Dora, with Clio and Damon

We thought we´d save money by skiing at a smaller resort like El Dora, skipping the busier Vail or Brackenridge slopes and all the traffic associated with them, but a day pass was still $120US plus rentals, so not the cheapest day trip. We made the most out of the drive by overnighting in Boulder, where Clio´s parents-in-law live and a friend from UBC I had forgotten about.

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Avery Brewing Co in CO

 

Visiting with Max at Avery brewery, which had more beers on tap than the Crazy Mountain, was a prefect pre-amble to my upcoming visits in Vancouver with all my favourite UBC peeps.

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Max and I at Avery

Ironically enough, when it was time to leave Denver, I checked in online on the way to the airport, only to discover my flight was delayed. It started with a two hour delay, and with dried out, uprooted tumble weeds blowing past the runway, I thought I´d get stuck another day in Colorado. It seemed like the curse of my travels lately, so I was ready for it. Luckily enough, my plane took off for Seattle only two hours later, and I knew my spring skiing plans for Whistler wouldn´t be shortened.