My hands were clammy as I half carried, half dragged my duffel from the domestic terminal at the Los Angeles airport to the international terminal. My next flight would take me to Viti Levu; the main island of Fiji, but first I had to meet up with my group. This seemed easier said than done as I made my way though the crowded terminal with flights heading to such exotic places as Singapore and Istanbul. Eventually I located the kids all wearing big backpacks and light blue shirts emblazoned with the Academic Treks logo and a map of the world. Together we formed a group of eleven students and two instructors ready for excitement and the main focus of the program: sharks. Everyone was very shy while we waited for our flight but then Greg, one of the instructors, had us sit in a circle and each tell the story of our “gnarliest” scars.
Following the ten hour flight we boarded a bus that would take us to the South side of the island and our new home. I listened to my iPod and looked out the window as the bus made its way through lush fields of sugar cane. We settled into our bures (Fijian bungalows) and that week got used to our usual schedule of morning shark dives and afternoon studying. The sharks were enormous! It was amazing how they seemed to appear out of nowhere and disappear just as fast. Pacific Harbor is one of the best places in the world to view them because of Shark Reef Marine Reserve, one of the world’s first examples of sustainable tourism. When we were not learning about sharks we were learning about each other as we walked to our destinations or hung out on the boat between dives eating cookies and drinking a sweet, creamy tea.
We learned much about the residents as well, in Fiji the people exclaim “bula!” to greet each other and wear a wrap around skirt called a sulu. The most popular ceremony in the islands is that of kava drinking. Kava is a root that when mashed and combined with milk and water makes a laxative/narcotic. It is mixed in a special bowl and served in half of a coconut shell. The society is male dominated so when I sat down with my guy friends for kava the older men would often be puzzled at our strange American ways.
Although the sharks were incredible, the best part of Fiji, in my opinion, was the village-stay on Beqa Island. The village is named Rakua and is protected by the ancient shark god Dakuwaqa. The house where I stayed had a faucet but no hot water or electricity. Our home-stay parents felt we were much too skinny for our health and were disappointed when we would not take third or fourth helpings of their delicious food. Any leftovers from our meal would become breakfast for a chicken or pig.
I have countless memories of Fiji which include: playing soccer with the locals on the beach, hiking Shark Fin Hill as local Fijians used machetes to clear the path ahead of us and river rafting down the Navua Gorge. My favorite memory of all is painting a school house, a simple concrete structure which served the whole village. It seemed as though the whole town turned out to help with the painting and thank us for helping them. At this time I could not help but stand back and admire Fiji. Despite their meager living they were completely happy, I think everyone could learn something from the Fijians.
Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.