Saturday, April 30, 2011

Bula! It's Fiji time . . .

What better way to end our adventure Down Under than by relaxing for a week at an island paradise? The Octopus Resort on Waya Island, part of the Yasawa Islands in Fiji, was exactly what we needed to wrap up our 4-month long adventure in the South Pacific. The resort offered just the right mix of pampering and relaxation without the pretentiousness of some of the other resorts. We reached Octopus via a 2-hour boat ride from Nadi on the mainland and were welcomed onto the beach by the Fijian staff, who sang a welcome song and greeted us with friendly bulas (the Fijian equivalent of aloha). After a fruity welcome drink in the dining room we were escorted to our bure, a traditional Fijian hut consisting of a wooden frame woven with branches and a thatched roof. Ours had an en suite bathroom with a fantastic open-roof shower and our very own hammock right outside our door. It was perfect . . . almost. Our first night we were awoken at 3 a.m. by drops of water falling on my face. A massive rainstorm during the night had soaked our roof and water was pouring down the walls and through various spots in the ceiling. After arranging our heads to avoid the dripping water we went back to bed, and the next morning arranged for a tarp to cover our roof in case of future storms. Problem solved!

Octopus Resort consists of a public dining area/bar/poolside deck (all open to the outdoors); an assortment of bungalows, bures, and dorms; beachside hammocks and lounge chairs; and a dive shop for renting snorkeling and diving gear. Octopus is staffed by Fijians from nearby Nalauwaki, a small village on the other side of the island. The resort has a very close relationship with the village and offers guided walks to it once or twice a week. We were able to visit the village on two different occasions: once for an Easter Sunday church service, and the other for a tour of the village with the mayor that ended with a kava ceremony (kava is a drink made from the root of the pepper tree; Andy loves it!) and a craft market. It was an amazing experience to visit this place that had not been "cleaned up" for tourists. The service was filled with beautiful singing, a rather intense sermon, and rows of children who, by the way, are impossibly cute and friendly.

Most of our days in Fiji were filled with exactly what we needed: wonderful food served either poolside or in the sand-floored dining room, reading on the beach, swimming in the pool, snorkeling the beautiful coral reef just a few meters from shore two or three times a day, and floating for hours in the warm waters of the ocean. Basically we slept, ate, and swam . . . it was a rough week!

One of the highlights of our stay in Fiji was meeting our wonderful new Italian friends: Lucia, Terence, and Marina. Terence and Marina have been traveling for 6 months through South America and New Zealand and are headed to Australia after their stay in Fiji. Lucia lives in Sydney and is working temporarily in Suva, a city on Fiji's main island. We all bonded instantly, eating every meal together, playing scrabble at night, and chatting for hours while floating in the ocean.

Fiji was the perfect ending to our trip, full of sunshine and great people we'll always remember. Now it's back home to Portland, where I hear it's almost summer . . .


The dining room

Poolside bar and deck

Our beach

Inside our bure

Our bure

Open-roof shower

Kava ceremony

Lucia, Andy, Matt, and myself after
church services


Kava ceremony at the village

Watching the volleyball game


Lucia, Marina, and Terence trying to
gesture like real Italians

Our beach

Hanging out by the pool

Terence, Marina, Andy, Lucia, Roberto,
and myself

Marina and I floating in the ocean
at sunset
The goodbye photo

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Our Final Days in Oz

After leaving the Great Barrier Reef—without injury, I’m happy to say—we headed to the Lamington Rainforest, south of Brisbane. Most Australian forests are filled with eucalyptus trees, which are well adapted to heat and fire, so it was quite a change to enter a subtropical rainforest thick with ferns, epiphytes (plants that make their home high up in the crooks of trees), and—our favorite—strangler figs. The figs start as modest vines that wind their way around a host tree, but eventually they grow so big that they strangle the poor host to death. Over time the host rots away, leaving a tree formed of trunk-like vines surrounding a hollow center. The strangler figs can be huge, as you’ll see from our pictures.

Upon arrival at Lamington we hastily pitched camp, finishing just before rain began to fall. We were bummed about the weather, but hey, there’s a reason the place is called a “rainforest” and not a “perfectly-blue-skies-all-the-time forest.” That evening we crowded under a tarp to eat dinner, and it’s fair to say there wasn’t one of us who longed to return to Heron Island. Fortunately the rain cleared in the morning, and we were lucky enough to have fair weather until the morning we left Lamington, five days later. In between, we learned all about rainforest ecology, which involved surveying vegetation and trapping insects and mammals (most of them bush rats and tiny marsupials that look like mice). One student, Rebecca, had the good luck to find an insect rare enough that our entomology tutor pinned it for display at the museum where she works. Rebecca’s name was written on a piece of paper below the insect (sorry, I can’t remember what the critter is called) so she could be given credit. Needless to say, Rebecca was pleased. Another high point of our time at Lamington was our nighttime hike to see glowworms in a small gully deep in the forest.

On the morning of our departure, rain once again started to fall, but this time gently. We managed to pack up our gear without getting too wet, then took a small bus to the Glasshouse Mountains, just a bit north of Brisbane. There we stayed at a quirky retreat consisting, in part, of an old tram converted into a kitchen and dining room and an old church transformed into a library/lounge with a sleeping loft above. Philip and I were given our own bungalow, which was so nice that we referred to it as our “villa.” We had the students over for a little celebration after they finished their last exam of the program (on terrestrial ecology). No one seemed to mind that it rained the entire three days at the retreat, which were spent relaxing in our cushy surroundings and reminiscing about our less cushy (but well loved!) travels. It was particularly gratifying to watch the students spend time playing the Australian version of Trivial Pursuit. The professor in me was proud as they enthusiastically yelled out the names of people, places, and events that none of us had heard of just months before.

From the Glasshouse Mountains we headed back to Brisbane, where we spent a day doing laundry and otherwise preparing for our departure from Australia. At our farewell banquet the students presented a slideshow of photos taken during the program. They also distributed “paper plate awards.” I’d taken so many notes and group photos over the course of the program that the students gave me a plate reading, “Never noteless, picture-taking Papa.” Philip got “Hot and dangerous.” Hmmm . . . At the end of the dinner, Nat, Philip, and I gave emotional speeches, and after a big round of hugs, we all headed back to our motel for one last night of sleep before heading our separate ways in the morning. Philip and I went to bed looking forward to our trip to Fiji, but we also felt a bit sad to leave our “mob” (the term used by Aboriginals to refer to a tight-knit group). Yes, everyone had a bad day now and then, and there were times Philip and I got tired of spending every waking hour with 19- to 21-year-olds, but mostly we felt lucky to travel with such an enthusiastic, hardworking batch of students. We will miss them . . . but not so much as to spoil our time in beautiful Fiji! More on that in our next post.


Lamington vista

In front of a strangler fig

John measuring the distance between trees

Emily going for a climb

Can you spot the epiphytes?

Students presenting forest survey results

Resident bush turkey walking through camp

Bush turkey close up

Students reading

Our retreat at the Glasshouse Mountains

Path up to our "villa"

Villa bedroom . . . what a change from our tent
at Lamington!

Celebrating with the mob

Alison, John, Sara, and Jared