Solo Female, Will Travel: Finding freedom in Fiji
August 9–18, 2019
Fiji doubles as an adrenaline junkie’s dream plus a beach bum’s paradise. I was able to feed 15-foot sharks as well as chill on the shores of the most pristine beaches I’ve ever seen (could the ocean BE any bluer??) Extra bonus: the people are so incredibly hospitable and joyful, it’s like they’ve found Nirvana. And when you live on this little island of Heaven, I can see why.
- Volunteering at Treasure House Orphanage [blog post]: Staying at the orphanage for 1 week changed my life (for the better), as I was surrounded by constant generosity, compassion, and joy. Hope I can adopt kids of my own someday :)
2. Shark feeding: quite possibly the scariest thing I’ve done in my life
3. Sigatoka Sand Dunes: this stunning national park contains so many diverse natural terrains: the beach, forest, and desert
4. Watching a Rugby game: if you want to engage a local, just start talking rugby. Every single little boy and girl grows up on the island playing their national sport.
Pro tip for my Cali friends: there are 10-hour direct flights from LAX to Fiji… whaaat??
SHARK FEEDING DIVE
When in Fiji, feed sharks. I defied all my ancestors, who worked so hard to evolve preservation instincts. Instead of fearing predators and darting the other way, I decided to flirt with danger and feed giant bull and tiger sharks — hopefully with something tastier than my right forearm. The Beqa Adventures company is the original (and cheapest.) They’ve been operating for 15 years, and have had no casualties to date… so they say.
Unfortunately, you need to be scuba certified to do this shark feeding dive. And as you descend in the water, you better know how to equalize your ears, and fast! No joke, we immediately began the dive together by plummeting down to 60 feet. Safety in numbers, the instructors reminded us! We didn’t want a lone swimmer looking like an easy, quick snack to the sharks. We all descended in our “menacing” black wetsuits to form a wall behind a coral barricade. The only defense “protection” the crew had were aluminum canes that I could bend with my bare hands (not reassuring). These sticks were more for prodding than causing any real damage to the sharks, if necessary.
As soon as the leaders released bins of dead fish heads, dozens of eight different types of sharks — from Bulls to Tigers to Silvertips — beelined towards us, gnashing their rows of teeth trying to catch a fish head. My initial terror receded after dozens of sharks had their fill, and they more casually started to snack on the food.
After you get over the initial shock value, it is truly wondrous to silently lie on the ocean floor and just marvel at the sharks’ graceful movements and interactions. The ocean’s pecking order dictated which sharks could eat first, and which smaller fish were daring enough to hitch a free ride under the sharks’ bellies, then strategically dart up for a chance to nibble. The instructors had done these dives so many times that they even named the frequenters — Coke (for the white line running beneath her snout), Finn (for the shark with a severed left dorsel fin), and my favorite: Curl (for her top fin curling left).
And because the sharks were so close, we could intently gaze at what beautiful physical specimens they were. After you got over their sinister (multiple) rows of teeth and piercing yellow neon eyes, they actually seemed downright playful. The sharks bumped into each other and jostled to snatch their morning snack. And once they were satisfied, they would glide away, right above our heads. I had never looked up and seen so much shark vagina in my life. I laughed into my regulator mouthpiece to see one shark burying its head inside the trash bin of fish heads, thrashing around for any leftovers, like a dog scrounging in an empty dumpster. I loved watching their gills expand and deflate with each crunch of their jaw.
Sharks have such a mystical air about them, that they still don’t seem real even though there are dozens of them 1 foot from your face. In a movie theatre or an aquarium, there’s always a movie screen or a glass wall between you and them as a barrier. It’s not until you have to duck your head to avoid headbutting them that reality hits you: yes — there is a shark 12 inches from my face.
After resurfacing to the shore, I thought, did that really just happen? I was grateful for the absence of a GoPro camera and let my fellow divers snap away so I could observe the sharks with my full attention. Ah, the perks of being shameless and mooching off others’ photos…
(Sidenote: I had many questions about the sustainability of shark feeding. Apparently, these fish heads are merely snacks, and the real meals are hunted in the wild. The team does studies to see how much of the sharks’ diet comprises of these fish heads. This ensures that we’re not overfeeding the sharks and forcing reliance upon these fish as a main source of food.)
Getting from Nadi to Pacific Harbour isn’t easy. I blindly took the advice of the orphanage coordinator, and boarded the Sunbeam bus from the airport for a mere $8 USD. The bus was fine, it had air conditioning, and I got a seat. But if you’re the least bit claustrophobic and are used to familiar tourist faces, this bus is not for you. Nadi to Pacific Harbour is a three-hour drive with a few stops along the way. I was still so exhausted from the flight that I was able to pass out despite being squeezed up against the window, next to a gangly teenager and robust auntie lady. I was definitely the only foreigner on that bus. Oh well, saved a few bucks, and.. when in Fiji!
Sigatoka Sand Dunes
Sigatoka is Fiji’s largest National Park, and I could feel the expansiveness as we traversed the terrain. The park is famous for sand dunes that tower towards the sky and stretch towards the shore. The vibrantly blue and green ocean waves clash with the warm, earthen sand dunes, yet both still live in harmony. As we climbed the oppressively hot sand dunes, I understood what it must feel like to witness a mirage. But I was lucky that our view of the beach was reality, and we gratefully ran to splash in the ocean to verify its existence.
Wooden teepees also dot the shoreline, which apparently help with erosion of the beachfront. The teepees’ vacancy added to the still isolation. We saw maybe 5 other folks in the dunes throughout our 2-hour walk.
Sigatoka includes every possible natural terrain. The park even housed deep forests with giant trees that blocked out the sky. My favorite inhabitants of the forest were the “treehugger” dolls. Fijian environmentalists wanted to make a statement about protecting the trees, so they created these life-sized dolls from bundled vines who wrapped their “arms” around the tree. Pure genius, which also added a magical quality to the forest.
Rugby games: my timing to Fiji was perfect: the national Fiji team was playing their arch rivals: Samoa, and I had to watch the game. I quickly befriended my scuba diving instructor (when you feel like you’re in a life or death situation, you become friends pretty fast). We headed to the game in Suva, the city 45-minutes across the other side of the island. It’s a super accessible game: you can pay up to $30 for premo seats in the bleachers, or $10 for lawn seats. Guess which ones I opted for…
Massive respect for rugby players: the intensity is equivalent to American football, minus the helmets and once you’re tackled, you get right back up again and run. And of course, Fiji beat Samoa (though I can’t remember the score.)
Someone aptly bestowed Fiji the “soft coral capital of the world,” so I obviously had to scuba dive to confirm the veracity of that title. On Malolo Island (a short ferry ride from Nadi, we scuba dived around the Pinnacle, a massive beacon for marine life underwater. The soft coral in all shades of rose, mauve, and muted mustard dangled tassle-like from the reefs to create this beautiful underwater curtain.
Because much of the marine life revolved around Pinnacle, I independently ventured out much more on my own in the water. Typically, I still hover cautiously close to the dive instructor to avoid any chance of getting lost. But this dive, I gathered more courage and could glide through the water around the Pinnacle confidently. The Disney fanatic in me delighted in the resemblance to Ariel’s Grotto :)
We swam figure 8s through a giant opening at the bottom of the pinnacle to see swarms of fish emerge. Even the fish embody the chillaxed demeanor of the Fijians! I could swim through their schools, and they couldn’t be bothered to dart away from by approaching body. The array of fish was impressive: spiky black and white lionfish scattered everywhere, and I even spotted a purple stonefish, completely camouflaged and covered in a purple coral blanket. The only way I spotted any sense of life was his small gill huffing and puffing.
Even the cheapest resort Funky Fish Plantation Resort on Malolo was stunning. I had my own little hut with its patio facing the ocean. I woke up at sunrise to the most magnificent view, and was able to do a lot of reading and writing, completely disconnected from the digital world.
The locals taught me a few tricks as well, like how they husk their own coconuts. I consider myself pretty strong, but this was one tough coconut to crack…
The resort also offered their national drink “kava” which is made by pounding the plant root into powder then mixing it with water. It basically tastes like muddy water, and leaves your tongue feeling a bit numb. It’s served in a wide, shallow bowl, around which a group of people sit and socialize. You scoop a smaller bowl into the bigger bowl and continue sipping and passing it around the circle until the whole bowl is finished. Definitely not the preferred social gathering for germaphobes.
Other things to do (that I didn’t have time for, and are still on my list for next time):
- Sri Siva Subramaniya Temple: a beautiful Hindu temple, but I see a few of these in Singapore :X
- Garden of the Sleeping Giant: the giant garden contains 2,000+ orchid types plus other beautiful plants
- Sabeto Mud Pools: the poor man’s version of a spa treatment, I guess
Fijian food is hearty, to say the least. Diets comprise of lots of root vegetables, like cassava, taro, and sweet potato. One of the most pleasantly surprising foods at their traditional “lovo” ceremony was the tou tou soup, made of ground up taro leaves. This coconut-y curry vegetable mix on top of boiled cassava was also delicious, and the cassava cake for dessert satisfied my sweet tooth. And of course, you have to try their national dish of kokoda (pronounced “ko-kon-da”), which is like a ceviche. Nothing to write home about (or be an Asian taking pictures of her food) but it was different, and tasty.
Warning: The bugs are ferocious here. No matter how much Deet I applied, I managed to take home an additional 40 bug bite souvenirs. I can’t even blame the mosquitoes — I think all bugs feasted on me equally…
But in spite of these bugs, Fiji was truly remarkable. I barely scratched the surface by only exploring the biggest island of Viti Levu and neighboring Malolo Island. The next chance I get, I’ll be back for Fiji’s pristine beaches and their enduring hospitality.
August 9–18, 2019