uphill from here

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKris Stice, our irreplaceable program director, brought the UWP family together again for four days of unexpected adventure. Our unique bond has thrived since our immediate connection on day one. For two months we’ve treasured our relationships with one another while each growing as individuals and settling into our home. We tease each other incessantly and cross every inappropriate boundary when together. We are an open book to each other whether in times of lively energy or potential public embarrassment. For our weird and distinct natures, we love each other to the end of the earth. Ha, we’ve been living with each other near the end of the earth. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Shoes off for the unique sensation of Moon Reef’s sand against our feet. Unlike many beaches off the Pacific and Atlantic oceans this combination of volcanic rock is more course and has a gorgeous mixture of black and white.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA step off of the black sand and into a boat fit for ten, we rode out along the Pacific’s piercing blue water to meet up with a crowd of dolphins. In a pack of about forty, the dolphins swiftly made their way around the boat showing off their silky gray tops and shark like fins every so often. After a few “woopee”s, claps, and attempted dolphin noises, the intelligent marine mammals recognized our presence and entertained our morning with their natural talents. An impressive trick, vertical jump, air spin, and dive, had us in awe of these magnificent creatures the rest of the afternoon.

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Survived our first hike of the trip; a three mile climb up jagged rocks, exquisite tree roots, and dangerous moss. The clouds hadn’t cleared yet when we reached the top, but how many people get to say they’ve stood in a cloud on the tallest mountain in Fiji…we have. The hike down was the real test of strength. It started raining and didn’t clear until we reached the bottom. We braced ourselves as best as we could. Sliding down mud and slipping on the wet rock was quicker anyways.

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After a late night of eerie Fijian ghost stories, Laney and I gathered enough energy for a quick stroll to catch the sunrise. The clouds slowly evolved with the awakening sun as fog spilt over the silhouetted mountains. Softly welcoming the new day with The Beatles hit, “Good Day Sunshine”, the sun responded blanketing our chilled our bodies with her revived warmth and energy.

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Type “Fiji” into any search engine and you’ll be memorized with pages of scenic romantic island resorts surrounded by the refreshing ocean waves and a prospering green landscape. What you won’t find are photos of central Fiji’s continuous mountain ranges, untouched by rainfall for the last four months. All nine of us were completely astonished at first sight of our stunning surroundings through the open back of our carrier transport.

10660203_10205032683801572_2053652779088771280_nOur carrier driver, Rocco, stopped numerous times along the way allowing us to capture the striking beauty of his land. As we stood amongst the powerful landscape and peered down at the toy sized villages below I thought to myself, this is Fiji. Not the Fiji you see in magazines. Not the Fiji honeymooners rave about. This is where natives derive from. Where they built homes and families, established a lifestyle, adapted to their given environment and survived. I close my eyes and imagine the Highlands. I close my eyes and I’m seeing Fiji.

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We continued through the Highlands on our way to Rocco’s village where we would spent the remainder of the day and night. Upon arrival we met the chief, devoured a lovely tea time prepared by the ladies of the village, and set off on foot for an unknown adventure. Led by our village guides, Etu and Mr. Rocco, we trekked through the mountains we admired earlier that morning.

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Despite the increasing sweat on my upper lip and shortened, heavy breaths I couldn’t resist singing “the hills are alive with the sound of music”. I felt as free as the Von Traps (without the anxiety of being on the run). We trudged through dry grass and cow droppings. The mountains and trees we had stood horizontal to now concealed us deep within the valleys as we followed the downhill dirt path to the river below.

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The South Pacific produces a vast number of domestic fruits and vegetables, many of which grow freely within the forests of the islands. Etu cut open the unfamiliar fruit that lay on the ground and passed around slices. My watering mouth was thrilled that moli kana not only resembles but also tastes just like the grapefruit found in the states.

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Down by the river we played in the rapid stream as if it was a water slide; as the current pushed us down the stream our hands helped our body dodge the rocks underneath to avoid spinal injury. With fresh bruises we swam back to the shore where freshly speared fish, graciously prepared by Etu, Mr. Rocco, and a few of the village women, fed our grumbling stomachs.

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Reverend Thomas Baker is infamous for being the only missionary to be victim of cannibalism. He was killed and eaten by members of the Nabutatau Village, our host village, as a consequence for touching the chiefs head. His tombstone on the village’s land reads, “Obedient until death”. The ax I am holding against Anna’s neck (the look of fear in her eyes was completely genuine) was used to slaughter Baker in July of 1867.

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By Tuesday our group had ventured to unimaginable heights, literally. After one last magnificent and painful carrier ride two hours down from the Highlands on an unpaved road, our group split off to explore different parts of Fiji for the remainder of the break. Anna P., Laine and I took off on an overnight boat ride to Vanua Levu, the second largest island of Fiji. While Anna guarded our bags, Laine and I snuck to the front of the boat where Captain Eroni welcomed us into the boats control room. Capt. Eroni’s excitement was radiant as he taught us about the different devices and maps that will help us arrive to our destination safely.

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At 5am the next morning our boat pulled into Savusavu just as the sun was beginning its ascent. The full moon that watched over us on our 8 hour journey through the South Pacific lingered in the sky, seeing us off on our fifth form of transportation in the past 24-hours. One bus tire change and shaky ferry ride later, three tired and smelly girls stepped onto Taveuni soil.

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Walking down the road from our backpackers hostel we noticed a boat anchored close by. Two Fijian men and three Australians were returning from a successful fishing day. We chatted with them as they casually pulled the eight tunas and one barracuda they caught onto shore. They gave us permission to take credit for their catches so, here are the eight tunas and barracuda that Anna, Laine, and I caught. We’re eating fish tonight!

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Motivated to see some live fish, we joined Solo, Paulo, and George from Taveuni Dive for a day of snorkeling on Rainbow Reef, one of the most famous reefs in the South Pacific. I clowned around with Nemo and just kept swimming with Dory. Slapped fins and bumped noggins with Crush on his way back to the EAC and reminded one of Bruce’s fellow “Fish-Friendly Sharks” that humans are friends not food. Meet the cast of “Finding Nemo”, check.

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 The reef itself was insanely breathtaking. Delicately floating over the homes of millions of sea creatures, many of which I didn’t know existed, is the most exceptional sight I’ve seen. With the reefs to my left and the drop off to my right, “he touched the butt” was the only thought my mind could grasp. It was all too surreal.

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On Saturday we put away our fins and trekked up the Tavoro Waterfalls in Bouma National Heritage Park. There are three waterfalls throughout the hike, each one more stunning than the next. It was a wonderful day, we couldn’t have asked for anything more. And then our trip took an unexpected turn…

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Our plan was to spend the night in Lavena Lodge, a cheap accommodation within Lavena village. Luckily we arrived in time to snag the only open room left. The lodge was quaint and sat in between the village homes and the South Pacific sea. For $20 dollars we had a picturesque waterfront view. Within the first few minutes a young, curious, and shy boy approached us. For a few minutes we looked through the photos in a children’s book together, giggling when he raised and lowered his eyebrows to avoid speaking. Two young girls joined us and brought us out to the beach where a group of children were playing in the sand. For an hour we had sand wars, buried each other, played with a crab, ate a sea urchin, and was invited to join one of the families that night at the village’s party. Sesa, one of the girls we first met, was related to the band playing in the hall. Her cousin and brother were the invitees and also offered to take us on a three hour hike we were hoping to do the next day.

Ignoring any village dancing etiquette, we shimmied and shook our hips, attempted to learn some Fijian song lyrics and drink kava until 12am. The hall was packed with families and we were blessed enough to join one of them. Despite our late night, we woke up to an orange sky and calm sea ready to take on the mountains once more. As the bumping bus drove away from Lavena the sun slid up the horizon, lining the clouds with its intense glow. When we arrived to Villy’s home we immediately welcomed into his family members home for a quick breakfast of coconut rice and freshly machete’d pawpaw (papaya). Villy, Anna Laine, Marcus, one of Sesa’s five brothers, and I began the excruciating uphill walk. Three hours later, drenched in sweat we made it to the signal towers, one of the highest points of the island. Each breath I took I could feel the change of air in my throat, it was as if the clouds were filling my lungs. We risked one last climb up the signal tower and watched as the clouds disappeared revealing a bird’s eye view of the intensely green Taveuni below us, the piercing blue sea, and Vanau Levu in the distance. After a nap in the sun and a quick snack we began our walk back down hill.

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Taveuni is famous for the Tagimoucia, a flower that only blooms in the cold, volcanic mountains of Taveuni. Laine was passionate about seeing the flower, though we had been told it doesn’t bloom until October. Sure enough, on our descent down the mountain Villy spotted the dark red flower admit the forest. Marcus and he climbed a tree and cut a few branches of the rare Tagimoucia flower.

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Back to our host family homes, we were treated to a delicious lunch, a refreshing shower, and another night of dancing, kava, and mass amounts of joy and love.  Surrounded by all their cousins, aunts, moms and dads, brothers, and sisters, and  feeling completely at home with the family was the highlight of my break. The kindness of these loving people released a stronger emotions than any mountain, coral reef, or flower could. True beauty radiates from one spirit to another. It’s not just what our eyes can see, but what our hearts can feel.

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Moce manda, Taveuni. Vinaka vaka levu.

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