Rules Don’t Stop

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Unfortunately these pictures are not, in any way, reflecting my current situation. These are where I thought I would be now…instead I have traded the tropical paradise of Vanuatu for the humid mess of Suva city. Suva is not just the largest town in Fiji, but the largest town in the whole of the South Pacific! It’s a bustling chaos of early development – a strange clash of old with new. The markets, food stalls and dirty streets ring true to the Melanesian style I’ve become accustomed to but dotted in between are large westernised shopping malls, clubs and even a cinema! Much to my disappointment, there is very little to actually do here. The nearest snorkelling spots are a good hour away, at least, and no beaches on this side of the island at all, really! What’s more, the forecast is one of the worst I’ve seen for a while! It’s been raining solidly for the last two weeks and is set to continue for the duration of my month’s stay.

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After the 40 minute drive from the nearest airport, I arrived late on Sunday evening to my homestay. I will be living with a local family around 45 minutes from the city for the duration of my stay. This was all organised by the volunteer coordinator that set up my internship with the Fiji Times. I have very quickly come to the conclusion that doing such ‘organised volunteering’ is an infuriating waste of money. With next to no information about what to expect, I arrived into this traditional Fijian home and was shown to my bed: the floor on a woven mat. At this stage, I hadn’t been contacted by anybody so had absolutely no information about where I was, how to get food, or even what I was to be doing! The only information I had was a comment from the taxi driver that this was a dangerous area and I shouldn’t go out by myself. Ideal.

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The family, headed by Jono and consisting of his wife, three children, extended relatives and the odd passer-by, all seem very friendly and welcoming, particularly the children who range from 13-18. They are incredibly devote Christians. Every evening at 8 we have ‘devotion’ in which we sit on the floor to recite bible verses, pray, listen to a sermon and sing hymns – meanwhile I’m getting such bad pins and needles that I’m having to wiggle awkwardly or bash my totally numb foot to try and regain feeling.

It’s challenging trying to keep up with the various cultural rules held by the family. Certain doors are only to be used by Jono, the man of the house, so are strictly off limits. No shoes, sarongs to be worn at all time, no noise, no alcohol, no eating before Jono, no leaving the table before Jono has finished and you’ve said ‘Vinaka naka kana’ (thank-you for the food)…these are all reasonably easy to abide by. The main one I keep forgetting is that whenever you pass somebody or reach over them in any way you have to say ‘tillo’ (pronounced chillo) to excuse yourself as you’re invading that person’s sacred space or something…

I eventually managed to get into town for a look around so am now feeling a little more orientated. Am infuriated to discover that I’ll apparently be needing to taxi in and out of town for work every day as buses are not reliable enough. NOT great for a serious budget!

This picture of the 'hibiscus festival' going on in town delightfully encapsulates the state of the weather...

This picture of the ‘hibiscus festival’ going on in town delightfully encapsulates the state of the weather…

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Even On A Rainy Day

Ha Long Bay

“Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.
 – Bob Marley

Unrelenting rain was making me increasingly frustrated as we headed straight from the overnight bus onto yet another bus, taking us on a three hour journey to UNESCO world heritage site: Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long Bay

Again I found myself hit by the problem of high expectations. Having heard from many sources about the incredible natural beauty of the site to the extent that I’d accumulated an almost unrealistic ideal, it was inevitable that I’d be slightly disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, it was undeniably a stunning location, but it fell short in a couple of ways: it was on a much larger scale than I’d imagined, with many of the iconic views being little dots in the distance (I imagine that the best way to see it is by air – where all of the postcard photos come from!) Secondly it was, again, slightly spoilt by the large number of tourists in assorted tour boats. It probably didn’t help that the weather was abysmal and I was running on just a couple of hours sleep! However, kayaking in the monsoon rains was actually quite a hilarious experience.

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We were firstly taken out to a limestone cave, which I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about. Yes, the stalagmites and stalactites were spectacular but the natural beauty of the cave had been distorted with multi coloured lights etc and the tourists were packed in like sardines.

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The kayaking was undoubtedly the highlight. Setting off from a floating village painted in vivid colours (no doubt for the benefit of the tourists) we finally had a little freedom to explore the beautiful limestone ‘karsts’/islands. There were little tunnels in the rock which opened up into enormous open-air caves. Luckily I’d brought my water-tight bag for the camera as we got so soaked by the rain that we might as well have fallen into the water!

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Ha Long Bay Kayaking

Ha Long Bay

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Today is Vietnam’s ‘National Day’ on which they celebrate gaining their independence from France. In Hanoi this has not been of any particular significance other than increasing the crowds by about 300%. It was of much greater significance to a certain portion of the population, however, as, slightly alarmingly, 15000 odd Hanoi prisoners have today been granted clemency: http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Hanoi-frees-thousands-on-Independence-Day-but-no-political-prisoners-28881.html (perhaps this could explain the increase in the crowds!)  There are also Vietnamese and communist flags hung around the city for the occasion. Visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum was entirely pointless as the date also coincides with his death, so the queue was around three hours long: Not a portion of the day that I’d be happy to part with to see the embalmed body of old ‘Uncle Ho’, no offence intended.

Instead a couple of us headed out to the Fine Art Museum which was defiantly more than worthy of its dollar entrance fee. A short motorbike ride later, we arrived at Hoan Kiem Lake which was celebrating the occasion through an array of what, to me, looked like brightly coloured Harry potter-esque dementors. The park set out around the perimeter of the lake was beautiful, though, and led us to stumble upon the water-puppet theatre.

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The Buddhist art section of the museum

Shrine at 'One Pillar Pagoda' in the Ho Chi Minh complex.

Shrine at ‘One Pillar Pagoda’ in the Ho Chi Minh complex.

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Independence day balloons over Hoan Kiem Lake

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If crossing the road was difficult before, it’s now become a case of pure chance whether you’ll make it across alive. The only option is just to stride out into this and walk steadily across so they can dodge around you – they don’t even remotely slow down. It is completely terrifying.

The water-puppet show basically consisted of puppeteers standing waist-deep in water behind a screen putting on a display of different dances through the puppets on the surface of the water. It was certainly different. The live Vietnamese music was beautiful and the reflections/the way the light caught on the water were also spectacular.

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Three Little Birds

“It always rains on tents. Rainstorms will travel thousands of miles, against prevailing winds for the opportunity to rain on a tent.”
― Dave Barry

It’s night two at our camp near the Iguazu falls. The weather has been alternating between bright blue skies and heavy rain. We’ve had our fair share of rain throughout the trip so far. It’s not much to complain about as it’s still very warm and seems to be counterbalanced by an equal or larger amount of sun…not ideal when setting up tents though!

We had to endure a 16 hour drive from Bonito yesterday. Actually the time passed incredibly quickly; a few of us took over the table at the front of the truck and got pretty competitive over card games, eventually merging into drinking games when the sun went down. Not a bad way to spend 16 hours on the road! However, It did result in slightly drunken, blind and rainy tent-pitching!

We’ve made up for yesterdays inaction by starting early with a visit to a local bird park before heading down to the falls and signing up for a spontaneous bit of white water rafting! It was in hindsight a complete scam as the rafting turned out to be 3 minutes of ‘white water’ followed by an hour of slowly drifting down a calm river. However, doing flips into the water off the ‘trampoline’ that was the inflatable raft, certainly improved the excursion. Particularly the embarrassing slips that started arising as the raft got wetter! I attempted to do a front hand spring into the water and instead spectacularly face-planted onto the raft.

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Here’s the classic toucan which we spotted frequently in the Pantanal.

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Hummingbirds are the cutest little creatures in Brazil.

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And here’s a striking Scarlet Ibis.

Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls

IMG_0844The falls are crawling with these little Coatis! Very sweet but incredibly cheeky! One of them grabbed a mans camera out of his hand and ran off with it!

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And lastly, here’s a shot of a sneaky toucan taking a peck at my toe!!