Matthew Benczkowski is an official CAPA blogger for fall 2016, sharing his story in weekly posts on CAPA World. A molecular biology major at the University of Pittsburgh, he is studying abroad in Sydney this semester.
In this week's post, Matthew talks about celebrating his birthday abroad, while on vacation in Fiji. He also tells us about his experience in Fiji and what these remote islands are really like.
Fiji time -- no hurry, no worry.
I was lucky enough to be able to spend my birthday in Fiji as it happened to fall on our spring break week, and what a time we all had. I am so grateful for everyone and everything we did. It truly was an awesome experience. A group of about 20 CAPA students took to island hopping around the Yasawa islands, something unfamiliar to most of us. We stayed on very remote islands, most only having electricity for about 12 hours a day, if we were lucky. Also, one of the hardest parts of the trip was that there was no clean drinking water on any island, so buying bottled water was a necessity.
I have dreamed of going to Fiji for so long. You see the iconic beaches with crystal clear water and white sandy beaches, but what is always covered up is that Fiji is a second world country with low standards of living. On the mainland, Nadi, all the outskirts are geared towards tourism, which unfortunately has caused large amounts of deforestation. This is also seen on all of the remote islands where the beachfront is littered with dorms and bures for tourists, while the village is much further inland. What I found very surprising is that on the resorts, you see about 7-10 locals everyday and maybe a child or two, but if you go into the village there are over 150 kids in the school!
Traveling is already very new to me, as my study abroad experience in Australia is by far the furthest and longest I have ever been from home, but the transition from going to Australia to Fiji was still very different. In fact, I got very homesick while sitting on the plane because I realized that I was not going home. Beyond that, I was very nervous because I know that I am a picky eater and I have a weak stomach, and the weather was not looking to be in our favor while we were there. I did end up getting sick only two days into the trip, which than lasted me the rest of the time we were there. And we did have some unfortunate weather for three consecutive days, heavy downpours and strong winds all day long. This caused greater concerns then not being able to snorkel, but rather it prompted a bit of a panic in me; while staying in a beachfront bure, walls and roofs are not as sturdy as you would hope, and when the electricity is not on, it gets uncomfortably dark. At many points in the trip, we asked the locals about the weather and they often replied that it was unusual and that they were nervous about the storms.
Being in the remote South Pacific, the clouds roll over in an instant. It can be bright and sunny, then the next moment the sky darkens and gray clouds billow. Regardless of any trial or tribulation, the trip was amazing. It is a dream come true to see the the beach and hear the locals singing as they welcomed you. Everyone was so helpful as well, whether you needed a meal accommodation, didn't feel well, or needed something to do, they had an answer for everything. Their sense of direction is impeccable; they can navigate the waters seamlessly and are able to balance out boats to keep everyone safe.
Some of the activities we did were as close to unreal as you can get. Starting not even an hour after arriving on the first island, we got on a boat and were taken to go snorkel with the reef sharks. There were probably 15-20 sharks just swimming all around us, and if it wasn't nerve-wracking enough, I was even able to touch a shark! Next, we had the opportunity to hike to the top of the beautiful Waya Lailai Island and watch the fantastic sunset. For the next three days, it stormed and prevented us from doing activities, but the second island of Naviti was gorgeous nonetheless, with a walking path 500 yards into the ocean. Our third and final island, Nacula, was absolutely breathtaking. There, we we able to go to the oldest caves in Fiji, the Sawailau Caves. Here, we were able to take in the 20° cooler water, and then go into a cave that has no natural light. Later that same day, we were able to go to Blue Lagoon, which is only about 2-3 meters deep. The locals gave us loaves of stale bread to take in the water with us, and it was 100% worth it. The fish come by the hundreds to flock around you, completely unafraid.
Finally Friday came, and everyone came out to celebrate my birthday on the beach - and mind you, not just CAPA students, but some other world travelers we met! I made friends with people from all over the world: Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Scotland, Finland, Norway, Ireland, England and Canada. Everyone was in the same boat (literally and figuratively!). We all were in Fiji together and we all wanted to have fun, whether that was snorkeling together, playing cards, or relaxing on the beach. It was so surreal to spend my birthday on the beach, staring up at the gleaming stars and the moon as our only light.
To say I am privileged to take this trip is accurate, but it is what you do with privilege that shapes how the trip will play out. This was such a great opportunity for me, as it really takes you away from the modern culture you get not only in the States, but in Australia. Luckily, I still had the luxury of limited internet access to keep my family updated with the weather and my illness, as well as post a few pictures every now and then. This opportunity came to me because I am already halfway around the world, and I was going to treat myself for my birthday, and Fiji did not disappoint. The sand, water, and sun as well as the land come together to create one paradise.
Vinaka Vakalevu, Fiji!
Matthew's journey continues every Tuesday so stay tuned.