The charter bus had the air conditioning full blast. I reached for my sweater that I hastily shoved into my bag days earlier. It had been a practical effect for Australia, but who would have thought I would have wanted it while in Fiji?
The TTF bus clamored along. I wrapped the sweater around me, hugging my knees into my chest. I selected some Dave Matthew’s on my iPod and rested my chin on my knees, looking out the window. The coastline inched by. This was going to be a long four hours. Luckily I had more than enough thoughts to occupy my time.
Regardless of what my spiritual beliefs were, it was becoming clearer and clearer to me that I was brought to Fiji by… something. I replayed the events of the past year in my head. Everything in my life had been altered by my going to Nicaragua last summer. My mindset, beliefs, core values, and definition of happiness had altered from a brief few weeks abroad. Mostly due to the women I’d met.
The bus stop to let off a few passengers. We took on a few more. A middle-aged woman with long brown hair got on and made herself comfortable in the row of seats across from me. She regarded my posture curiously but then turned on her own iPod. We started to inch forward again and I went back to looking at the palm trees.
These women in Nicaragua had shown me that there was so much more to life than a degree and status. Spending time with them had made me realize that I was more interested in being a good person than having a good job. And while the two were not mutually exclusive, there seemed to be more emphasis in Western society on the latter.
Getting to surf, practice yoga, meet the locals, and board down the world’s most active cinder-cone volcano had all been secondary to meeting these women. We had all left Nicaragua on a high from our mutual love and respect for each other. As the youngest in the group, I left with hope and motivation to become just as inspirational and kick-ass as all of my new mates.
We went over a bump in the road. I remember the week that I found out so vividly. It had been a strange week for me. Talei had died on a Sunday night traveling with some friends, hit head-on by a drunk driver in Jamaica. I didn’t find out until Wednesday. But I dreamt about her.
It was the same recurring dream since the night she died. It was just Talei and I out in the water sitting on surfboards. I was stoked because we were back in Nicaragua and wanted to catch some waves. The rest of the girls were on the beach waving for us to come in. Talei was obviously troubled. But when I asked her about it she would just smile meekly and say something about us catching, “One last wave.” And we would paddle out and the dream would end.
I remember the shock and utter sickness I felt when one of the girls forwarded me the article about the car accident. The car looked like a tin can crushed by a shoe. I remembered my friends from Vegas not understanding why I was so upset, as I had only known her for a very limited amount of time. I remember the Nicaragua girls sending countless e-mails. But most of all, I remember imagining the what if’s. What if it had been me?
I know from my days in psych classes that thinking about your own death is very natural when things like this happen. But I became obsessed with the idea, wondering what if it had been me in that car… If my family was the one to have received the phone call while I was abroad. What would I want my friends to do? To say? To tell my family about my time with them on such a crazy and life-changing adventure? Only one thing could come to mind.
I wrote a letter to Felix, Talei’s brother. It would be the first of many to go back and forth between us, expressing my condolences and trying to share some stories of my time with her. I had posted a blog about it and reposted it on a memorial blog after being requested to do so by one of Talei’s flatmates from England. I sent photos of her to the family. But I didn’t feel like this was enough. In fact, I felt worse by the day. There was more to be done but I couldn’t imagine what.
The bus stopped at a small souvenir shop across from a village. The ticket taker announced we would have a fifteen minute rest stop. I got up and made my way out into the balmy afternoon air. The woman across from me followed and I smiled at her. She asked me where I was headed while we stood in line for the bathroom. I hesitated to answer. It was such a long story. I finally decided on, “I’m on my way to Suva. I have a friend whose family is Fijian and I was invited to come and live with them for a spell.”
She eyed me for a moment before asking, “Are you traveling alone?” I nodded. She took another moment before muttering, “You are one brave girl.” The stall opened up and she went in. I leaned against the wall, feeling a pit in my stomach.
The reality was I wasn’t brave at all. I felt so vulnerable and barely composed on the surface. This trip had been full of challenges so far and I had a feeling that more were to come. I was going to live with a family I had never met before. I had been extended the invitation because I had met their daughter, albeit briefly, right before she died. I was going to pay my respects and learn as much as I could about her but I had no idea what was to come. Felix had told me that their family was one of the chiefly families in Fiji, but I really had no idea what that meant for my adventure.
As I looked around the shop at all that was unfamiliar the knot doubled in size. I missed Brisbane. I missed the three boys who had fought so hard to convince me to go to dinner with them. A mental picture of Nathan, Alan, Ryan and myself at dinner brought momentary comfort but it was fleeting. Why was everything in my life always fleeting?
I knew that even though I didn’t know them well, I could trust them. And they had been nothing but sweet and kind to me (and fed me the most amazing of food). I wanted to run as quickly as I could back to their familiar voices. Back to a place where I knew I was taken care of.
I wanted to talk to Deedee, my gracious Brisbane friend who had volunteered her days to take me around the city. I tried to picture her comforting smile and presence but it brought me no peace now.
She had sent me off with a farewell hug last night and a promise to stay in touch via e-mail but I wanted to talk with her over coffee. I wanted to sit in a familiar space with a familiar friend, drinking a familiar drink with a familiar name. But instead I was an ocean away, half-way through the drive to my new home with new friends awaiting.
For the first time since Cairns I felt truly alone again. And I feared the feeling would stay.
On my way out of the shop I let my fingers trace the wood of the tribal masks hanging on the wall. I wondered what type of wood they were made out of. I looked past our tour bus and to the village entrance across the road. A couple of village boys stood in the doorway of a hut. I wonder what they thought of me and the other tourists taking this giant bus to the capital city. They waved. I waved back before getting back on the bus.
The thoughts continued to toss and pummel at the forefront of my mind as we crawled down the southern coastline. At one point we passed by a massive island fixated just off the coast. Mist covered the jungle laden landscape. I felt a chill run down my spine. There was strange magic at work here.
It was late afternoon by the time we hit the capital city. As we made our way through the winding roads and in and out of the taxi traffic, I felt my composure giving way. We passed through the center of town and I observed the congestion of pedestrians leaving and entering the city marketplace. I hadn’t expected Suva to be so populous. I smoothed the sleeves of my sweater in an effort to smooth out my nerves.
The bus pulled into the station, another scene of chaos that I was unprepared for. I took a few deep breaths and waited for the whoosh of the TTF doors to open. Waiting my turn, I smiled meekly at the woman seated across from me as we disembarked. “Good luck,” she called as she trotted off in the direction of another bus.
“Thanks,” I said softly. But she was already gone.
I stood on the sidewalk, feeling the heat of the day wash over me. I looked around, unsure. I thought this was where Felix was supposed to meet me, but besides referencing Facebook photos I wasn’t really sure what he looked like. And did he know the bus ride had taken longer than expected? I felt my knees starting to shake. Please let him be here, I wished.
Then I heard a voice behind me. I wheeled around at the sound of my name, exhaling simultaneously. “Good to finally meet you, Hilary,” said the man behind the sunglasses.
And so it begins, I thought.