28 January 2016

The learning curve

"A journey is like marriage.  The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it."
-- John Steinbeck



In my home state of Ohio, after 8 hours of driving you would wind up in another state, or even another country.  However, in 2.5 hours I made it just 1 town north of Nadi to Lautoka -- 27 kilometers to be exact.  For an island smaller than Connecticut, I thought circumnavigating the main island would be a swift process.  Regardless of what the various names suggested there was nothing fast about public services in Fiji.
In the west's hub, I departed Lautoka (pronounced "L-oww-toe-kuh") on the "Express" bus toward Suva.  It was forced to drive 30 kph a.k.a. 19 mph -- instead of the national speed limit of 80 kph -- behind an oil tanker.  The Kings "Highway" -- again, a misnomer -- was riddled with patches of speed bumps through each village... and I assure you, between every town on the map, there are heaps of villages!
Passing vehicles on the curvy highway in a long, repurposed tour bus proved difficult.  During one particular steep incline the speedometer never crept above 10 kph.  Factor in that the bus also served as a courier.  A woman paid the bus driver to deliver car parts from Lautoka (NW corner) to Nausori (SE corner) because -- I imagine -- it's still faster by public transport than post.  And this goes both ways.  An older, male passenger notified the driver to stop at an unassuming driveway in the highlands.  The passenger jumped off the bus as it was still rolling to a stop, picked up a large sack of flour, stored it in the luggage compartment, then returned casually to his seat like he hadn't just interrupted everyone's trip.  Yet, no one seemed to be irritated by this, it was simply what the nation & locals affably referred to as "Fiji time".

Likewise, the ferry that frequented the two popular island groups off Nadi's coast was equally arduous. The Yasawa Flyer did not "fly" nor zoom anywhere.  Though signs with departure & arrival times were posted on the boat, on the website & on my ticket, I soon learned it was pointless to worry much about them since there was only one boat.   Ironically, the company asks that riders "Please allow 5 minutes for disembarking" the ship.  Whoever wrote the terms of carriage was ridiculously overzealous in his/her estimation, as simply unloading the luggage for 1 resort took 5 minutes alone.  Multiply that by the 3 resorts that were on each island.  Now, multiply that number again because you've got just as many oncoming passengers as outgoing, and you can see that it is logistically impossible to adhere to the Yasawa Flyer's time constraints.

Due to frequent mechanical problems with boats ranging in size from the ferry fleet to the small tinnys a.k.a. water taxis [that doubled as fishing boats when not in use], being a hostage aboard one was a real possibility.  If a boat broke en route, all you could do was float adrift & wait for a replacement. That actually happened, leading to many exhausted and seasick passengers, but there are far worse places you could be stranded!

So, Fiji is definitely not for control freaks, germophobes, nor people with pressing schedules.  Luckily, Mom & I had the time.  We did not care to spend an entire day (seriously, 8 hours) on a cramped, slow, humid bus, but we also wondered, "What else do we have to do tonight, other than eat dinner?" As much as we wanted to spend the $300 FJD a.k.a. $150 USD on the taxi direct to Takalana Bay, we relied on public transportation.

The first conundrum was I never knew when to pay.  On the Kings Road Express route, I learned by trial & error that I was supposed to immediately sit down & an employee would approach me later for payment.  At the frenzied Lautoka depot, I had to pay the Checker before setting foot on the Kings Road Express bus.  On the local Nadi bus, riders paid first.... but how was I supposed to know how much it was from my hotel to the depot?  There was no fare table, but I was repeatedly told $2 FJD.  After 1 week of travel throughout Viti Levu, I synthesized the rule was $1 per person, per segment on local busses, regardless of when you exited.  Once, I reversed the order & paid the local bus driver first.  He looked at me like I was psychotic.
Second, I never knew who to pay.  As mentioned earlier, I discovered the need to pay a Checker at depots.  However, they often blended in with the general public because they wore jeans & a nice polo t-shirt. No name tag; no company logo.  On the Queens Road Express route, the bus stopped at an unmarked location and picked up a local woman with a bushy ponytail.  The lady wearing a maroon polo started down the aisle, verifying everyone's receipt, then hopped off at another unassuming location.  I guess she was a Checker too.

Third, I never knew what type of vehicle to expect.  The return Express bus from Korovou looked promising: high, plush head rests, large windows, and a motor with some horsepower.  The beat up, brown bus from Nadi to the popular Port Denaru had a window that banged so loudly I held it in place with my elbow for my hour-long journey to spare myself the headache.  The Queens Road Express bus's door did not work properly, so an employee jumped out first to pry it open for me.  The return bus from Sigatoka showed a cheesy movie with tons of profanity.  The kicker was a bus that looked like it should be on an African safari, not the highway.  Dusty, canvas curtains were rolled up & my elbows stuck out the hole where a window should go.  I was sweaty from sitting so close to the other riders in the Fijian heat, but I was in good spirits since this was the last leg of the all-day journey from Takalana Bay to Nadi.  I remember actually being excited to get on the clunker, thinking "Ha! We haven't rode this type [of bus] yet!"  Each leg of the trip the vehicles became more and more run down.

A sweet-natured taxi driver warned me to never take a mini-bus -- a converted mini-van like the one my dad drove to Disneyland.  Yet, despite the stress of navigating Fiji via public transportation, I never felt at risk. The locals were avuncular; many chatted with my mom or myself, asking how we liked the country. Mariah from the Yasawa Flyer helped us obtain a taxi from Port Denaru to our hotel* then went above & beyond her job responsibilities by listing appropriate rates. Every time we disembarked at a town's bus depot, a random person approached us and walked us to the correct bay.  In Lautoka, a few men offered to transport our bulky suitcases in a wheelbarrow through the gridlocked busses.  Two young Fijian men used their mobiles as torches a.k.a. flashlights and illuminated the way for my mother & myself as we trekked back to our hotel.

Despite the chaos of being thrown into a bitty country of 882,000 people, public transportation was a copacetic way to truly experience Fiji.  The return bus to Nadi followed a wide river with verdant banks where I saw men fishing from bilibilis a.k.a. local rafts made out of bamboo shoots bound together.  After seeing the northern coast of Viti Levu I realized the east was far more lush & wet than the sun-scorched western part.  I witnessed plenty in regard to village life: every house with a clothes drying outside on a line; ladies sitting at every bus stop with corn, fruit or nuts to sell; school children in crisp uniforms; guys playing volleyball in a green field; and a little Fijian girl standing in her front yard in a bright pink dress, waving goodbye timidly to anyone on the bus that might cast her a second glance.  It broke my heart because I imagined her there every day of her life, watching everyone go off into the world, while she remained in the front yard.  Plus, she probably waved in vain.  How could she see anyone waving back, smiling at her, or blowing her a kiss through the tinted windows as the bus sped off?  Still, I fought back tears & immediately waved back to her. I hope she knows that one person in the world noticed her.

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* Typically, taxis that have Port Denaru displayed on the vehicle or leave the port try to rip tourists off by over-charging & not using the meter.  If you want a great, local driver, I can give you my contact's number.  If you want to take your chances, the standard taxi rate from Port Denaru to Nadi should be around $20 FJD.  Vehicles should have license plates with a yellow background (though I rode quite a few without any signage).

If you see this on the license plate:
LT = licensed taxi
LH = may look like a taxi but is a hotel shuttle
LM = mini-bus 

05 January 2016

Phoenix

"And then the day came, when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."
-- Anais Nin



I was falling apart the entire drive up the Batavia Coast.  I had been deteriorating for an entire month.

In May 2015 my newly-ex-boyfriend barged back into my life only to unexpectedly leave it again.  When I clarified that I still hoped we could date, he [him-hawed around & basically] claimed he needed time to mull matters over.  He texted me, but never called; kept in touch, but never wanted to spend time together; notified me whenever something ordinary was reminiscent of me, but never mixed me in with his circle of friends; said "love ya" but never rekindled a friendship; slept in the same bed as me but frequently communicated with another female.

I tried to remain patient & not pester him with the one question that interrupted my thoughts hourly: have you decided yet?  During the 31 days of May I wept regularly.  Every time the ex & I conversed, that one loaded question vociferously insisted on clawing its way to the surface, but I rarely voiced it.  Adding salt to the wound, I was forced to interact with my ex-boyfriend regularly at work.  It gnawed at me to feign niceness (since he was the customer) and withhold my contempt for him making a mess of my life.  If I saw him walking down the building's hallway I would turn around or dart into another room.  Anything to avoid having to look into the eyes of the person who stomped all over my heart.  Unable to cope with the demise of our relationship and my ex's newfound bliss, I wished he would be promoted or I would be fired -- not that I wanted him to be rewarded or to lose my job, but that was how desperately I yearned for a reprieve. 

Having somehow endured the travails of May, at last 1 June 2015 arrived and I was in LAX's International Terminal gazing at the massive hunk of metal that would carry 300 passengers overseas to Melbourne (pronounced "Mel-binn"), Australia.  I felt relieved to be finally putting space between my ex and me.  Despite being as diametrically apart as possible, my broken heart unintentionally got packed in that suitcase bound for Oz.
Abroad, I dreampt a recurring nightmare: I was in the U.S.A. visiting my ex-boyfriend, but panicked because I knew I had to return to Western Australia to resume my vacation.  Even in sleep he plagued me. Circumnavigating Western Australia, I became a permanent fixture in the driver's seat.  Yet, even when I wasn't the captain of the campervan, I rummaged through thoughts and fantasies of us as the kilometers rolled by.  I wondered how my ex was passing his summer.  Whenever I wound up at a caravan park that offered free wi-fi, I tortured myself by incessantly checking for an email... sometimes dripping wet after a shower, while dinner sat getting cold, and once before bed in the freezing winter night, fingers numb. At this point, my hope for a future with my ex was so thin that his most meager correspondence would amplify the effects on me: heartache, bitterness, anger, confusion, excitement.

On 11 June, I made scant progress on the road to recovery.  It was my third day as a vollie a.k.a. volunteer with five Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins in Monkey Mia.  The day had been chocked full of work, errands, cooking, and a chilly sunset catamaran cruise.  I snoozed as soon as my head hit the pillow in the campervan.  In hindsight [the following morning], it was the first day I had not thought about my ex nor life back in the United States!  I thanked the Lord that I hadn't forgotten how to live in the moment.  Even though my ex robbed me of joy, trust and love, I was pain-stakingly 
building myself back up with the help of Piccolo, Surprise, Nicky, Puck & Shock.
Conscious of this minute anomaly, I made a pact with myself.  Each time I felt tempted to think of my ex, instead I would recall the irrabugas a.k.a. dolphins of Monkey Mia.  For over a month I had been creating my own prison, but this was the turning point. I intended to break myself out.  When my mind began to drift back to memories of the past year with my ex-boyfriend -- as it often did -- I actively recounted my day, such as: "I witnessed a dolphin jump completely out of the water by the jetty!"  Days or weeks later -- still traveling -- I reread journal entries about my time with the females.  Like clockwork, every time I redirected my focus to the dolphins, three results occurred.  First, I no longer wallowed in pity.  Second, I felt genuinely happy, an intrinsic happiness that cannot be explained, just felt.  Third, I would have a physical reaction, be it a smile or giggling aloud.  My conditioning never failed: I was always more cheerful afterward.  The healing process had started.
However, after I left Shark Bay I felt purposeless and despondent again.  Nomadic life began to take its toll, mentally.  Monkey Mia was the only place I lingered for more than three nights.  I came to know my campsite neighbors by name and connected with Surprise, Piccolo and Puck. I missed Monkey Mia's wildlife, community, slow pace, and -- predominantly -- the irrabugas.  I couldn't get excited about spelunking in the SW corner of the state or snorkeling in Fiji.  After leaving the dolphins, there was only one thing I looked forward to: solitude.

On the cusp of leaving Western Australia's coast, I planned to drive 7 hours inland through the Great Sandy Desert and Pilbara region of the state.  Amidst the Hamersley Mountain Range my mother & I would camp at an eco-lodge without warm water, a flushing toilet, nor electricity, and therefore, without internet access! Although I could not put any more literal distance between my ex & me, my soul was beyond ready for more emotional distance.

On the eve of abandoning the ocean, I comprised a farewell Skype message to my ex-boyfriend, stating that I refused to invest a modicum of effort in someone who would not reciprocate (though my actions, up until now, proved otherwise). Upon reflection, I wonder if I didn't compose the email for my own benefit?  The draft was succinct yet uncensored.  The burning question of "have you decided yet?" was eradicated from my mind and never typed into that message.  I wrote in assertive, declarative statements.  Finished, I snapped and attached a photo to showcase the growing number of freckles around my nose, but I also stared at the photo in the passing days because I looked mildly content.  I think I also felt content to be on the verge of purging my former, miserable self.
My second day in Karijini National Park, my mom & I explored the gorge system from above, at Oxer Lookout, and below.  We descended into Weano Gorge and easily sauntered... until the way suddenly vanished.  A long stretch of transparent, emerald water concealed the terrain ahead.  Mom & I paused to evaluate the situation.  We incorrectly assumed the trail would continue without incident.  We weren't expecting to get soaked or, perhaps, eaten by a croc.  However, we were already on the canyons' floor and decided to stay the course. I cinched the backpack tighter, moved my insulin pump higher up to my chest, rolled up my capris, and proceeded into the depths.

Scaling the wall with my mom was actually fun, albeit tense. One slip or misstep and we'd be swimming, but we were earning Weano Gorge's prize: protected Handrail Pool.  The end of the route through this gorge was labeled "Class 5", the most cumbersome rating.  At this time of day, the bright, unobscured sun illuminated the scorched, red rock until it deepened to a glossy, obsidian color where the stream washed over the floor.
I contorted my body into an X to stabilize myself on the wet, slick Dolomite.  I continued in this fashion through the narrow gauntlet until, slowly, I entered the calm cove that is Handrail Pool.  The activity felt so rudimentary.  I innately just knew how to maneuver my body, as I was a curious child again. 
Likewise, I battled against gravity and physics as I hugged the cliff edges through more Class 5s in Joffree Gorge.  At one point, the rock wall pushed me so far outward that I was forced to remove my Camelbak & lower it to a natural platform.  With less girth, I frantically shoved my fingers into any crack and cautiously lowered my body, scraping my butt the entire way down to ensure I remained as inward as possible.  Next was a wide, flat section downstream of Joffree Falls but smoothed by its waters.  Knowing I would never make it across without tumbling, I knelt into the cold current and crawled like an infant 20 feet to the other bank.  I shared the place with only the small, scurrying lizards. Here, I stood up in a quiet cul-de-sac, the culmination of Joffree Gorge.

I think Karijini -- and that day particularly -- reawakened my soul and shook off some of its heavy detritus.  As I navigated the rock ledges I touched every piece of earth jutting outward to assess if I could support myself with it.  Literally, & as a metaphor for my emotional state, I was finding my own way where no path existed with everything I valued on my back.  Forget about all my stuff still in Ohio; I carried my food, medicine, camera and mother's best wishes.  I needed nothing and no one else.
The time spent in Karijini National Park was devoted to feeding my curiosity, pushing my limits, and always trying -- similar to my role as a girlfriend.  Except there was no endgame, like marriage; no guy at home in the U.S.A., no dolphins to tend to, no swimming alongside whale sharks. The only experience left was to explore more of the world and perdure.  The harsh, sunburnt desert cured my nonfeasance thus far into the trip and my life.  It forced me to sever all communication with my ex-boyfriend and concentrate on me.

Two  more weeks in Western Australia elapsed and I finally had access to internet in my luxurious Sydney, NSW a.k.a. New South Wales hotel.  I read an outdated, lame Skype response from my ex-boyfriend and felt utterly deadpan.  He typed not a single inquiry; only blabbed about his summer in the States.  The message contained nothing that warranted a response so I deleted it.  The outback had changed me; it hardened me.  My ex harbored no control over my feelings or future anymore.  With gentle, deliberate, sluggish progress I had liberated myself from my own oppression! I murdered the weak, melancholy Michelle who entered the desert weeks before and birthed a much stronger woman.  I returned to the  independent, tenacious 31 year old who is convinced it's always better to be single than endure a hollow relationship.