The Return of Miss America

Did you know that renting a camper van is the most cost-effective way to travel in New Zealand – assuming you are a group of 3-5 people and you already own sleeping bags? It is. I know because roughly 10 different people told me so this weekend when I inadvertently checked into a backpackers’ hotel on one of Fiji’s outer islands.

But that’s to be expected when you socialize with 20-somethings in a budget accommodation: every conversation is conducted through the lens of cost. Sure, Peru is lovely, but isn’t the trek to Machu Picchu a rip off? And no, the water in Zimbabwe isn’t totally safe to drink, but isn’t that a great way to save $6 a week? When the group began debating the merits of a $9/night dorm vs. one that was $7, it was all I could do not tell them that they should have skipped both, pocketed the airfare and taken a train to Paris instead. Because despite having ventured half a world away to Fiji, most of them had hardly bothered to explore Europe.

The saying about travel is true: when you have time, you don’t have money. And when you have money, you don’t have time. I’ll add that when you don’t have money but travel anyway, you become fixated on your budget. But I suppose that’s human nature – to resent the parameters of your life, even if you’re the one who set them. Don’t believe me? Eat lunch with a vegan and you’ll see what I mean.

 

One of the best and worst things about traveling alone is that people often assume you’re eager to make conversation. That’s how I’ll explain why a French couple who sat next to me at breakfast told me all about how they spent the better part of the night trying to capture a tarantula that crawled into their bungalow through a ripped window screen. Shockingly, their two-part strategy to intimidate it with a flip-flop and then herd it out of the room with a beach towel didn’t work. Not knowing if the spider was poisonous, they decided their best course of action was to go outside and sleep in a boat. On the way to the shore, they were attacked by a stray dog.

That would have been a hard number to top, but an hour later, just as I was about to check out, I came across a 20 year old German girl slumped in a chair in the dining room, a can of Coca-Cola in front of her.

“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Did you have a tarantula problem too?”

Germans rarely seem to welcome a joke, but she seemed especially disinterested. “I don’t know how to say in English,” she said, before pantomiming the universal sign for vomit, immediately followed by the one for diarrhea.

There’s no good place to have food poisoning, but a dorm-style bathroom on remote island chain in Fiji would be one of my last choices. In fact, if I were making a list, it would fall somewhere between “an airplane” and “anywhere I might encounter an ex-boyfriend.”

Just as I was about to ask her what she ate, the manager of the resort appeared. “She’s sick,” she clucked. “But it will be fine. I told her, this is what God does when he needs you to be cleaned.”

As far as I know, there’s no connection between Jesus and food poisoning. There is, however, a link between food poisoning, undercooked food and this woman’s kitchen – which made me all the more annoyed that she was dragging God into the conversation.

“That has nothing to do with it,” I snapped. “She has food poisoning because she…” And I trailed off because I realized that I, like the manager, had no idea what I was talking about.

“What did you eat yesterday?” I asked. “Did you have the shellfish?”

“I ate… one clam,” she said, a dry heave escaping her lips.

“She has food poisoning because she ate a clam!” I finished triumphantly.

I turned back to the girl. “I don’t think you should be drinking soda,” I said. “The sugar will make you feel worse.”

“I don’t even like Coke,” she confessed before motioning to the manager. “She said I should.”

In that moment, I remembered just how young 20 really is. This girl might be brave enough to travel the world alone, but she wasn’t yet confident enough to politely tell someone to take their soda and shove it. At 34, I haven’t quite mastered the art of the gracious decline either, but I do know how to do it like a raging bitch, and that’s exactly what I did on this girl’s behalf.

I narrowed my eyes at the woman. “You gave her a soda?” I sneered.

“Well, yes…” she stammered. “Sometimes that helps…”

“Interesting!” I snapped. “I don’t remember Coca-Cola being part of your local herbal medicine tour yesterday.”

The manager’s eyes widened. She seemed shocked to learn that I had been paying attention to her lesson… as opposed to what she thought I was doing, which was looking at pictures of dogs on my cell phone.

“Get me some ginger and hot water,” I commanded. “And where’s the guy with the coconuts?”

I don’t know why the manager listened to me, but she did. Not only that, but neither she nor the man who started hacking a coconut with a machete acted snide about it, which is absolutely what I would have done if some skinny white bitch showed up on my island and demanded I make her a cup of fresh tea.

Then, because I was about to leave in 90 minutes, I decided that I might as well keep my rampage going. “And they have a tarantula in their room,” I announced, pointing at the French couple.

“I know,” the manager said. “They’re moving to your room.”

“Good,” I replied. “But you need to fix the screen. Otherwise, you’ll have this problem again.”

She nodded.

“Do you need them to show you which window?” I asked.

“No,” she answered. “We know it.”

“Good,” I repeated. “Then we’re all settled.”

Later, as I stepped onto a speedboat that would carry me to the ferry that would then take me to my next destination, I tried to shake the New York bitch that had just reared her ugly head. I thought I got to her in time, but I guess she slipped right by in her $100 sandals.

Turns out, she was just getting warmed up.

 

As far as I’m concerned, there’s no better hotel amenity than a dog named Romeo.

“He’s our escort,” the receptionist told me at the next resort I checked into. “If you want to go to the other side of the island to visit the Blue Lagoon, he’ll take you there. Just say, ‘Romeo – Blue Lagoon.’”

It was an activity I decided I had to try right after lunch. “Romeo,” I said, crouching down and petting his head. “Blue Lagoon.”

I waited while Romeo scratched his fleas.

“Blue Lagoon!” I repeated.

Reluctantly Romeo got to his feet and walked down the path from my bungalow. I followed him for about 50 meters before he stopped directly in front of a hammock and sat down. He looked to me then back to the hammock before falling gracelessly into the sand.

“There’s your Blue Lagoon,” he seemed to say.

Well played, Romeo. Well played.

 

When it comes to budget accommodation, we all have our limits. Mine falls somewhere around having a rat tuck itself into bed next to me.

I saw it when I was setting up my mosquito net. Not a rat, but rat poop. On my pillow. Where my head should have been.

I yanked the pillow off the bed and marched up to the main house.

“Look at this,” I said as I threw the pillow on the counter. “I’m checking out. And I want a refund.”

No one argued with me. The only problem was that it was 10 p.m. and I was on a remote island. There was nowhere else to go – not until the following day.

“Do you want to switch rooms?” the receptionist asked.

Behind me, a Slovakian couple laughed. “Don’t bother,” the woman said. “Romeo caught a rat the first night in our room. The second night, another one chewed through my phone charger. And then last night one came in and ate a biscuit.”

I looked at her for a few seconds, my mouth agape. “Honestly,” I said. “What are you still doing here?” Then I snapped back to the front desk. “Don’t bother changing rooms. I won’t be able to sleep in the bed anyway.”

With that, I went back to my bungalow and changed into a fleece jacket and pair of leggings. I took my inflatable airplane pillow and returned to the hammock, Romeo in tow. We spent the night there, me lying in the net, him directly (hilariously) underneath, listening to the waves and looking at the stars. It was almost enjoyable – until it started to pour.

 

On my trip back to the mainland the next day was similarly eventful, which is to say that they the boat was delayed for two hours and my suitcase fell out of a van. But it was still a much better day. And even with all the talk of rats and tarantulas, dog attacks and food poisoning, I still felt pretty happy about the weekend. Fiji is a lovely place, even if it delivers its fair share of plot twists. If you go, be ready for anything.

And don’t eat the clams.

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