FIJI, CHAPTER 2: Between Cyclones

The floor to ceiling shower window that faced my neighbor’s lanai was not so awesome after all. The hotel staff and my neighbors were quite busy each morning, and I kept hopping back and forth in and out of the shower in an attempt to shield my body. Compounded with the fact that everyone knew where everyone else was staying, my bure was not as remote as I had assumed. Tim, especially, took advantage of this situation and persistently knocked on my door to alert me that breakfast was ready. Since my bure was constructed entirely of windows with curtains I had just opened, I was unable to hide. Even though I didn’t answer the door for the first five or so knocks, he continued knocking until I opened the door.

On the walkway, with Tim treading closely on my heels, I made it to the dining room for breakfast. I ran into Jennifer who said her stomach hurt, and she wouldn’t be able to make the dives. “Megan!” Brad announced, “Your dive buddy is Tim, and you’ll be on my boat with the cool people.” Oh, perfect. I loaded my plate with scrambled eggs and the largest, freshest bacon I’ve eaten since I visited London years ago. I joined Barry and Joan at the big table as Joan wrapped a pile of bacon in a napkin and stuffed it in her pocket.

The dive briefing was on hold until Stormy joined the group. The divers looked annoyed. No one likes a late diver on the first dive day, but I was happily plotting a way to transfer Tim to this Stormy, so he could persistently knock on her door every morning instead of mine. A win-win situation. Stormy finally appeared, leaving a trail of her dive gear in her wake as she squeezed her way to front and center of the group. A diver named Sam turned to his wife Maria and whispered, “The princess has arrived.” Princess Stormy was covered shoulders to toes in tattoos. She wore her hair in small braids and had an operatic voice. She laughed long and hard at everything. She was on her own like me but also had a shadow named Jason, Tim’s bure-mate.

After the briefing, the pangas shuttled us to the 3 dive boats anchored in the bay. After a rougher 45 minutes of dodging massive logs and other random debris, the captain halted our boat at a dive site that he thought was least affected by cyclone Josie. Brad disagreed and argued with the captain to move us somewhere else. The captain started driving around again. By this point, I was a little nervous. Should we be diving after a cyclone? Should the captain have stood his ground and not caved to our moronic leader? I couldn’t see any signs of a reef from the boat because the water was so brown. The captain stopped the boat at a dive site called The Cathedral; the site was also the location of the shark feed dive and pretty much the whole reason I was there. For some reason, the brown water line stopped here and gave way to a more emerald blue. “Look! The Loch Ness monster is in Fiji!” a diver joked, pointing to a giant twisted log bobbing behind the boat.

As we descended, we couldn’t see each other or anything else for the first 15 feet. Curiously, there was a clear line that divided the mud-mess-debris water from the decent 45 feet visibility. I landed in the sand arena next to the cage where the bait was supposed to go. There were already large swirling nurse sharks cruising the barren arena. I saw the rock wall where the divers are supposed to sit to watch the sharks feed. I hovered in the center of this stage and planned where I wanted to sit and the best way to position my camera. It was a huge tease. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed some hefty bull sharks sidling up to me. I swam towards them with my camera, but they turned. Then, we headed back to the reef, where I spazzed out over the most colorful soft corals I had ever seen.

So many different shades of pinks! Pinks and oranges blended together but also remained separate. The colors shifted in varying degrees of light. There were huge neon yellow fans! Clown fish colonies everywhere! Sharks and clown fish AND an underwater rainbow of corals. I was in dive heaven. I had never seen so many colors underwater before!

Back on the surface, Tim was very vocal about my terrible dive buddy skills. “Kelekele mana sunya,” I muttered, which roughly translates to “please move, you stupid butthole.” A little something I picked up from my Fijian language lessons with Joe. I elaborated, “Look, we dive as a group and we stay together as a group. We are all each other’s buddies. You don’t have to be right next to me.” He followed me on land, and now he was following me underwater.

My dive group joined the other two dive groups in the dining room for lunch. I sat next to Barry and Joan and Tim sat right next to me again. “So, how long have you two been married?” a diver asked me and motioned to Tim. “Not married! Not together!” I blurted out in my attempt to address the whole table. Tim, of course, didn’t say anything to diffuse everyone’s conclusion. Joan sprinkled bits of bacon from her napkin onto her salad like a bacon fairy.

Suddenly, my stomach hurt. I looked around to find Jennifer, but  to no avail. “Hey, Nick, is Jennifer okay?” Nick mumbled, “I don’t know.  She’s in our room. You can go see her.” I didn’t have time to check with her to see if we had the same issue. My stomach decided I had to go now and the closest restroom was inside of the dining room. Instead, I sprinted from the dining room through the pouring rain back to my bure. I barely made it to the bathroom. It was bad. I curled up in my bed and napped until dinner.

I awoke to a loud knock at my door. Luckily, I remembered to pull the curtains over every single window. I froze and buried my head under the covers. The knocking continued. My stomach rumbled. Oh dear lord. After Tim’s footsteps disappeared, I ran back to the bathroom.  I heard my mom’s voice in my head, “You really should pack some Imodium.” I don’t get sick, Mom! I imagined her smirking and singing: “I told you so!”

The drums echoed across the hotel grounds which meant dinner was ready. I quickly changed and headed out of the door. As soon as I turned the corner to the main walkway, there was Tim. “Oh, fancy running into you. I stopped by your room to let you know dinner was ready.” “Look,” I said, “If I don’t answer my door, it’s because I’m asleep, which I was.” At dinner, I still didn’t see Jennifer. I approached Nick again and asked him if she was coming to dinner. He snapped, “I don’t know. If you want to see her, feel free to go and see her.” 

Brad stood up and announced, “I have some news everyone! I don’t want you all to panic, but dives are cancelled tomorrow because a cyclone is on its way. We don’t know when yet, but the hotel staff will be going around to board up your windows…” I spit out my delicious tomato grown by the Beqa farmers on the peaks of the impenetrable jungle at bat island. “Son of a B$&CH!” I sighed with frustration. Joan dropped her bacon bits. The dining room was silent. My stomach rumbled, and I took off in the rain back to my bure. I was back to two choices, as I stood in front of my open mini fridge….1.) Fiji Gold beer or 2.) Fiji Bitter beer. I chose Fiji Gold.

The next morning, Brad decided we should all visit a village where the locals lived–to distract us from the impending cyclone, which he said was only a category 1 and would instead hit us the following day. We walked single file on a narrow path along the coast for about a half hour. We passed by some large, hungry pigs that squealed with excitement when they assumed I was approaching them to feed them rather than simply taking their picture. When they started banging against their stalls, I thanked them for the amazing bacon and scampered back to the path.

When we arrived at the village, I was dripping in sweat, and I wasn’t sure if it was because I was wearing a jacket or because I had a fever. Brad said we had to cover our shoulders out of respect for the village chief and the only non-tank top I brought was a jacket. The voices of children yelling “Bula!” echoed from all directions amongst the kissy-chirp calls of bats. School was cancelled because of the cyclone, so the kids were at home with their families.

I found it awkward walking through their neighborhood and especially inside of their homes. The homes had no electricity or running water or any furniture. The villagers slept on thin mattress pads. There were no obvious signs of where they went to the restroom. To think I used to complain about not having a dishwasher. But, something attracted me to their ultimate minimalist lifestyle. The village was absolutely serene. No one was stuck to their phones, or cars, or computers, or blaring TVs. There was no human-caused noise whatsoever. Their church was especially peaceful at the water’s edge.

I bought a few trinkets they offered us in their homes. A diver sidled up to me and whispered, “Well, you either hit a goldmine with those pearls or you were scammed.” I sighed, “I don’t care.” That’s when I recognized a few of the hotel staff. “Hey! You live here?” “Yes, we all do.” A smiling five-year-old boy wearing Spider Man pajamas approached our group and offered us his steamed rice that he was eating. The Fijians didn’t have much, but they offered us everything.

Our tour guide said the children really needed calculators in school. I thought about how much I was paying the hotel and yet the staff’s children didn’t have calculators. Brad couldn’t have mentioned to us to bring 20 calculators with us? A few of the village dogs’ ribs were sticking out, and there wasn’t enough food to feed them? I tried to do the math in my head of typical customer tips, but it didn’t add up.

On the walk back to the hotel, Joan and I hunted for sea shells. When we reached the dining room, Shelia, the hotel activities organizer, made an announcement. “Who wants to visit the bats at the other end of the island?” She said. I dropped my fork and leaped out of my chair, “ME!” I was excited to escape the hotel for a few hours. Only five of us and the driver loaded into the panga. Me, Tim, (of course), Barry, Joan, and Jason carrying a pack of Fiji Bitters.

The panga slowed as we approached bat island, and I felt like I was transported to Jurassic Park. We were the only boat, the only people around. It was absolutely silent when the driver pulled the panga to shore and cut the engine.  The driver stuck the palm of his hand to his mouth to mimic the kissy-chirp calls of the bats. Tim, Jason, and I mimicked the driver and also made smooch sounds. Suddenly, the bats emerged. They were enormous–the size of vultures, at least! I heard the wind under the bat’s beating wings as they flew. To get a closer look, we climbed through the tangled muddy mangroves that provided us cover from the rain.

The bats dangled upside down in a line on the tree branches. Every so often, they would wake up, scream, and push each other off of the branches. I found it hilarious. After a few beers, Jason thought it would be a good idea to shake the trees to get the bats to move. To my surprise, he caused the whole tree of bats to fly off. Back on the panga covered in mud, we laughed as the driver continued to teach us the proper way to make kissy-chirp bat calls. “I love the bats,” he said. “They are so interesting.”

The next morning, I awoke to the sounds of drilling and banging. I poked my head out of the door to find the hotel staff wearing hard hats, reflective neon orange jackets, and heavy boots as they hammered wooden boards over my windows. “Bula!” They dropped all of their supplies to greet me. “Bula, hey do you need me to leave now?” I asked. They said no, they would be finished soon. I sat on my bed and watched board after board go up over my windows. I got a little excited that they would also board up my floor to ceiling bathroom window, but they left that one alone. Of course. I had never been boarded up before. A fluttering feeling appeared in my chest. I had the urge to run, but there was nowhere to run to. Water, water everywhere, not a drop to dive under.

I headed to the dining room to get the latest news on the cyclone. Brad said that it was going to hit us in the afternoon and that it had been upgraded to a category 3. The frustration and fluttering in my chest grew. I sat at the bar alone, trying to ignore the boards going up behind me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being boarded up, like in a coffin. The dining room grew dark. I sat at the bar and asked the bartender for a Fiji Gold, which he grabbed from the fridge. Shortly afterwards, Fijian church songs started playing and the hotel staff sang along. Barry and Joan quietly played a game of cribbage, and then I noticed some divers kicking out to the house reef. “Wait! We’re allowed to dive?” I put down my beer. Barry said, “Yeah, I have to certify Maria before the cyclone hits.” Joan said, “I was planning on joining them, but maybe you and I can do our own thing?” “HA!” I laughed. “Diving before a cyclone. Let’s do it!”

The tide was really low, and we couldn’t find anywhere deeper than 15 feet. I found a family of clown fish at 10 feet which instantly calmed me. It was only a 10 minute dive or so since the visibility was so terrible. I mostly floated on my back at the surface and stared at the hotel. Then, I looked behind me at the black clouds moving in the distance. I reluctantly kicked back to shore at the sound of the drums announcing it was time for lunch.

There were whispers in the dining room that the Aussie hotel manager took a boat to the mainland that morning and that the private Aussie family also left. “What do you mean the hotel manager left us? Is he coming back? Can we leave too?” The divers shrugged their shoulders. Barry said, “They already moved the boats out of the bay. We can’t go anywhere.” The boards were up, the boats and the hotel manager were gone. We were abandoned along with the Fijian hotel staff.

Shelia made another announcement. “The cyclone is moving really slowly and now won’t be here until tonight. For all of you staying in the beachfront bures, you will need to move your things to the pond bures. Please let me know if you need help finding someone to stay with.” Shit. I turned to Joan. “May I please stay in your room tonight?” She smiled, “Of course! We also invited Tim if that’s alright.” I ran across the grounds to my bure and tossed everything into my suitcase as quickly as possible. I also grabbed the remaining beer from my mini fridge. Just in case. I ran past Brad in my rush to the pond bures, holding the bottom of my dress to keep from tripping since it was so soaked. “Megan, are you ever not wearing a dress?” He laughed. “No, Brad!” I yelled back.

I dropped off my bag and ran back to the dining room. Shelia and a few of the divers’ kids had collected a pile of hermit crabs from the beach. “Crab race!” Shelia announced. The divers got up and joined the ruckus, placing bets on the fastest crabs. I cracked open a fish identification book and tried to ignore the crackling lightning and booming thunder. The wind roared. I texted my friend back home for news on the name of the cyclone. She wrote back…Cyclone Keni. I shook my head like Cartman from South Park: God dammit, Keni. The wind was already at 50 mph and the ocean started to churn and rise, spilling into the pool as the rain continued.

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I create original abstract paintings inspired by my undersea adventures.

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