Fiji – An Experiment in “No Reservations” Cultural Island Travel

The interior of Fiji

 

I bought a cheap flight from New Zealand on my way back to the U.S.  On a discount Jet Star flight, I was in Fiji for a couple of days for less than a difference of somewhere between $100-200 USD.  It was great.  I loved Fiji.  The people were amazing!  The adventures I had in Fiji could not have been planned, and no guide could have planned some thing as authentic as what we experienced.  This post is the first night and I’ll separate the other experience in another post.  Fiji was just too amazing for one post.  Michael condensed his into one post on Fiji titled “Kava Shots and Holi Wars”, and I borrowed a couple of his great photos.  This post on our experience with the native Melanesian people and my second post on the hindustanis and celebrating “holi” with them.

When some people think Fiji, they think of beaches in paradise.  I was thinking… Natives in grass skirts, a real tribal experience that I couldn’t find in the Caribbean.  I knew I wouldn’t have my wife and kids with me, and hanging out on the beach was the furthest thing from my mind.  I wanted to go local and seek out a real adventure.

On the flight to Fiji I asked a flight attendant where I could find the most native village and one where I could live with the locals.  I was imagining huts or sleeping on mats or hanging hammock.  I was given the name of a place somewhere deep in the island.  When we went to pick up the rental car, they said we’d want a 4×4 to get there.  Ultimately we picked up a 4×4 and headed out into the woods.  Before we headed out, we wanted to make sure we had a gift for the village to cover any expenses we might incur to the village.

It was long before we started out on dirt roads, and deeper and deeper crossing rivers, and getting strange looks.  Miles and miles deeper we drove.  The stares started getting longer and polite “Boolah!” we would get.  We’d respond, “Boolah!” and smile big.  Then someone stopped us… where are you going?  We explained we were going deep into the heart of the island to this very native village.  He told us that was impossible and that we should turn around.  We let him know we weren’t in a hurry and were enjoying the drive.  He gave us a warning that the river had washed out the road.  It got more and more challenging as we drove along and finally we met our match.  The road was too much, so we turned around.  You’ve heard about Anthony Bourdain and his No Reservations show. On this day we were definitely traveling without reservations.  We were both up for adventure.  I was traveling with my friend Michael Noel of SharingTheGlobe.com and I said.  Tonight I want to sleep in a village, and we agreed even if we were on someone’s floor.  We were open to adventure.  As we drove back the way we came, we saw a big tent and a local gathering.  We slowed down to avoid the crowd walking along the street and gathered around the tent.

199332_10150112385697914_1787927_n

Young men were pounding long metal pipes in little wooden canisters.  They’d lift and pound, twist lift and pound. We slowed and said “Boolah!”… What’s going on?  He replied, it was a birthday party for his 1 year old daughter.  The entire village was gathered for the party.  The women were inside the home, and the men underneath the tent.  He invited us to join them.  We had heard about the need to bring cava roots as a gift, so we were prepared.  I was so excited to join this exciting moment and the family was happy to have some foreign guests of honor.  We were brought to the head of the tent to the elders of the village and sat down on mats.

image

The village chief elder asked us a few questions, but invited us to participate in a ceremonial “Kava” drink.  Kava is such an important part of the culture.  It is only consumed sitting with your legs crossed, with no legs and foot pointing to the sides.  The kasava root is pounded then put in a sock and water is added to create the drink.  The first person claps their hands twice, and from a large bowl a half coconut is dipped in and then the person who is presented the cava claps twice, then drinks the cava, after he’s finished he throws any remainder over his shoulder and hands the coconut back.  Both hands are used at all time.  It felt like a handshake, trust, confidence, and an opportunity to make friends all at once.

198136_10150112385652914_5096803_n

The tent was filled with happiness and order.  Those with the most age were at the front of the tent and as a rite of passage, you had to be twenty or twenty one to enter the tent.  Those at the back of the tent had paid their dues in the pounding of the cava and only those who had come of age could drink the cava.

191983_10150171723763783_4262152_o

In our search for a unique cultural experience we were given one.  We had arrived late to the party and the men had already eaten.  We were invited to eat with the women and children who as custom would have it, eat after the men.

image

They accepted us and we had some interesting looks, but had some great local hand cooked fish and rice. The children thought we were interesting or funny looking.  Either way, we made friends with the kids, and eventually re-emerged back out toward the tent.  A couple of younger guys from the back of the tent approached us and asked us about our story.  Why we were here, asking if we were having a good time… Of course we were.  We were offered more kava.  At this point I was getting a little nervous.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to have strange dreams or what affect this kava might have.  I knew there wasn’t alcohol in it, but beyond that I didn’t know much about it.  I explained to the young man that I shouldn’t have too much.  He asked why.  I said for religious reasons.  He asked what religion.  I said. LDS.  He said.  “No way.”  I said, “yes way.  I am a Mormon.”  He replied…  That was impossible.  He stopped and said. I am a Mormon.  That house over there.  They are Mormon.  Many in this tent are Mormons.  I wasn’t sure if he understood me, or what, but then I remembered as we had turned off the road, I had seen an LDS church.  He said the prophet had told them that they could drink kava, but they should not drink too much.  Having spent the last 3 hours involved in the ceremony with the elders I could see the cultural importance, and for a young man this was a huge privilege for him to be under the tent and mingling with the men of the village.  He asked us where we were staying and I told him we were hoping to find a place to stay.  A while later he told us he had talked to his mother and we could stay with them.  Perfect!  We would be able to stay in the village and even if on the floor we had a real local experience rather than staying in some cheap hotel.  He wanted to stay at the party as late as possible, so I asked him about what time he’d be leaving.  He didn’t know, but somewhere around 1am.  We agreed that would be fine.  He ended up going back to the party after we settled down for the night.  The 1 year old’s party lasted till at least 2 or 3 am.  Wildest 1 year old party I’ve ever heard of…  The people celebrate together.  It’s a very communal society.

image

Music got more lively and ultimately it turned to dance, and we were invited to boogy.  After learning a few local moves, we were invited by some locals to start dancing.  We had some more kava.  Danced some more.  Had more kava, met more locals and spent the evening having a blast with the local Vatuvu villagers. Fiji was amazing and we were experiencing it raw.  No guides, not paid group.  Our payment, a gift of Kasava root, smiles and friendship.

image image

That night I would sleep on my new friend’s couch, and feel what it was like to be a villager.  Mission accomplished!

189698_10150112388687914_872224_n

Panama Island Escape: Bocas Del Torro and Urraca – Adventures in Paradise

Private islands

monkey scream

Before when I thought of Panama, all I could think of was the Panama canal.  Now I think of Islands.  There are so many little islands off the coast of Panama.

The only way to get around the islands is with boats.  The boats are like busses taking you from place to place.  The first time I visited Bocas del Torro, I thought the island was the destination.  It wasn’t until I spent a little time on the island and I discovered that the adventures are all around you.

  • Red Frog Island
  • Urraca Private Island
  • El Tigre – Native Tribe Island
  • Bat Caves
  • Waterfalls
  • Scuba Diving for underwater ship, sea horses, and amazing

I wasn’t satisfied just to see a small bit of Panama.  I had to come back, so I brought my family.  I did some searching and came across Urraca Private Island.  It sounded magical.  Your own private island, the lady who runs the place has her own monkey, a French Canadian who travelled the Caribbean looking for paradise.  She found 2 islands of mangroves and found a way to put a house on stilts.  These beautiful places are designed with nature in mind.  The electricity comes from the sun, the water in the house comes from the rain.

water out the window

While I was really hoping to find “utopia,” instead we had a great adventure that tested my wife’s limits.  I think over those few days I’d see something in her as an adventure traveler that would make me realize things have changed (at least knowing that there are comfort limits.)  My wife didn’t like the cold showers, didn’t like the rain showers that barely let up a couple of days. Even though it wasn’t the rainy season we spent a lot of time in the rain forest and you don’t know how it will effect a person.

I realized we couldn’t do hostels as a family.  I tried a couple of different styles and we drew the lines at A/C – required, hot showers – required, and no bugs.  We didn’t have screens in the windows and the little fans didn’t do enough to keep the kids and my wife happy.  The adventure became too much of one.

It was a little daunting not to be able to be in control.  You tell the boat when to come and that’s when it will come.  No earlier, no later.  When it’s time to eat and you’re on a private island, you don’t have a lot of choices if you didn’t prepare.  You likely will eat what is being cooked and if you don’t like it or don’t like the prices… tough.  You may not even know the price until the end of the week, and at that point you better be prepared.  Ask for a menu and ask for prices, and ask for alternatives.  I did come across some places, but easily 30 minutes away and that means gas or it means going to dinner on your way back from an adventure.

water bar bocas del torro island paradise

Pictured: Left the food places at Bocas are often out on the water with incredible views. Right: The swim up to it table, difficult to get on those seats at low tide, but beautiful to look at.  There’s a lot of symbolism in this… It looks better than it feels without knowing and realizing it’s going to be an adventure and that’s what it’s all about.

While it may not have been the ultimate paradise for everyone on those three days on the private island.  I really really enjoyed the adventure even though I discovered their comfort limits.  Here are just a few things we experienced.

  • Capuchin monkey
  • Fresh lobster
  • Private beaches
  • Encounters with natives
  • Snorkling and scuba
  • Cave spiders that look like scorpions
  • Seeing sloths in the wild!
  • Bioluminescent waters
  • Dolphins

monkey manprivate islandwater walkway

Crossing from Costa Rica across a wild train bridge was quite the adventure.  It really wasn’t hard to catch a bus from Puerto Viejo or Manzanilla to the border.  You can even pay to get all the way to Bocas del Torro which involves crossing the train bridge then riding a van transport to water transport and then on for another hour to Bocas del Torro.

big rodentbaby with monkey

Pictured: Jared with his rodent friend that had a rabbit face on Right my 3 year old and Tutsi the monkey

852143_10151558467413783_318332595_o

Pictured: Get your scuba certification in 3 days. Open Water PADI certified. It was the best dive with the worst equipment, but I got what I paid for… it was cheap!

854699_10151558465448783_1785836785_o

Local breakfast on Bocas del Torro… a local meal of scone and two meatballs.  I’m sure there was a local name for it.

Nicaragua: Historical Gem in the Rough

Granada Historical Cathedral

855998_10151563985998783_1599806251_o

Cathedral in Granada

Nicaragua is one of the poorest/cheapest countries in the Americas.  It’s been an underdog for a couple of decades.  As a tourist attraction it’s easily overlooked for Panama or Costa Rica or Guatemala.  Many may not even consider it.  Nicaragua is really under the radar as a tourist destination, and as someone who loves discovering places off the radar where they knock your socks off and they haven’t been discovered I LOVE Nicaragua.  I actually had doubts about writing this because some who have made Nicaragua as their home away from home or for their escape may not want extra attention, but that hasn’t stopped me in the past.  I’ve been to Nicaragua twice and love loved both times.  The first time I did a bunch of research.  In my pursuits I came across a lot of warnings and enough to really scare you.

“Armed robbery attempts have increased in popular tourist destinations where armed, and sometimes masked, assailants emerge from roadside locations to stop vehicles and rob passengers. One common tactic is for assailants to place rocks, tree branches, or other large objects along roads and wait for cars to stop. When the driver gets out of the vehicle to remove the obstruction, assailants come out of hiding to rob victims.  Criminals posing as Nicaraguan traffic police occasionally target visitors. The imposters conduct traffic stops and rob vehicle occupants at gunpoint.”

One post I read was an expat from the US that runs a white water rafting place, they had moved from central Oregon.  In the post, they went on to explain that Nicaragua gets a bad rap that it doesn’t deserve.  They compared the crime rate in the worst city in Nicaragua with an average city in Oregon and explained it was worse in Oregon.  Looking again there are horrible warnings designed to scare you.  In my research the crime rates are comparable to the US and in many cases worse.  Compare Numbeo country crime rates of Nicaragua 41.93 and US 53.44 a higher crime rate.  Hey, I’m a fan of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, they both have a lot to offer and shouldn’t be compared since they are so different in terms of what they have to offer.  Costa Rica has the beaches, and Nicaragua has the big lake and historical colonial cities.

888525_10151563915863783_2109482319_o

The cost of living is one-third cheaper in Nicaragua. Tourists are very concerned about safety, so it is necessary to look at crime statistics. The homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants in Nicaragua was 12 in 2005, 13 in 2011, an increase of 8%. The homicide rate in Costa Rica in 2005 was 7.8, with a 32% increase in 2011 to 10.3.  The ten most violent US cities each have more homicides than the whole country of Nicaragua.  Chicago a city I wouldn’t even bat an eye to visit had 50x the homicide rate.

image

I hope you notice the HUGE lake, the largest freshwater lake in Central America, and really the largest islands in freshwater in the world.

Nicaragua, officially the Republic of Nicaragua, is the largest country in the Central American isthmus, bordering Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south

888474_10151565874328783_1354856892_o 855150_10151564006183783_1678481189_o

In Nicaragua it’s about the lakes, volcanoes and natural beauty.  Lake Granada has hundreds of small islands in addition to the big volcano islands.  Beautiful personal islands with one house.  Jump in the water, it’s nice all year round.  I have heard about the fresh water sharks, but they don’t hang out near the city on the Granada side.  Catch a ferry over to Ometepe, and stay on the island.  I went on a kayaking excursion.  Amazing views.

854824_10151563208663783_1118786154_o

Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua

Colonial Towns Granada – Ometepe holds the distinction of being the largest island in a fresh water lake in the world. It is also full of pre-Columbian history, statuary, and other relics, plus two magnificent volcanoes.

855689_10151563911693783_496703690_o

Granada is a very historical city.  Nothing compares with it across central america, the closest is Antiqua, Guatemala.  Incredible beauty.

853154_10151563205178783_1925537262_o

At night go out on the closed walking streets and be serenaded with incredible food from around the world.

855363_10151564163098783_1845212822_o

Managua has the big man in the hat on the largest hill in the city.  Great views. You may not agree with the politics, and some local friends of ours are waiting for change, but it’s amazing.   I personally would recommend spending your time with Granada as your base.  Don’t hang out in Managua.  It doesn’t have much to offer.  Get out to the lake and you’ll feel the relaxing atmosphere.  As a non native Spanish speaker, I still found enough people who spoke enough English to get around.  You will want to have a few words.  One of my friends only used USD while in Nicaragua.  Even the ATM provided choices for USD or local.  Our hotel took credit cards.  You likely will want to make sure you have cash before you take the ferry out to Ometepe.  On the islands things are pretty spread out and the roads are pretty rough, but that’s part of the adventure.