After a 10 hour flight from the deepest depths of hell, I touched down in Los Angeles a sweaty, feverish, broken man. I never normally feel compelled to applaud the landing, but this time I was clapping like a drugged up seal. Maybe it was my subconscious telling me to do the 'American' thing and raise a hand to the plane successfully touching down without any one of us being blown to smithereens. I might have even gone the whole hog and 'whooped' and shouted 'yeaaah!', who knows. All I know is that I was overcome with joy to be on the ground again. The reason? Bleedin' gastroenteritis. I won't go into the details because I'm sure you are all fully aware of what said virus entails. All I will say is that I'm pretty sure Imodium will see a sharp rise in their profits for this year.
On a more positive note, I'm feeling much better now, and I've loved my time spent in Los Angeles. I stayed in a hostel smack bang wallop in the centre of Santa Monica, one block from the 3rd St promenade; a pedestrianised street comprised of trendy shops, cafes, and everything else that's cool. It's also a couple of blocks away from the beach and the famous Santa Monica pier. Streets, not blocks. I'm Americanified already.
I don't know what it is about America, but it grabs me like no other place does. Just being here is exciting enough. Maybe it's the fact so much of the pop culture my brain has soaked up over the years has come from over the pond. Music, film, TV, WWF Wrestling etc. Or maybe it's because the food portions here are INSANE. Yeah, I'll go with the portions. For that reason alone I don't think I could live here. If I did I would most definitely end up on one of those Channel 4 documentaries. 'The Man Who Moved To America And Can No Longer See His Genitals', or something like that. Anyway, enough about my bowel movements and my family jewels, there's still a week in Fiji to talk about.
It was mid afternoon when I checked into Mantaray Resort, a 2 hour-ish journey south from the Blue Lagoon, and first impressions were that it was definitely more 'backpacker friendly'. If the last resort I stayed at was to be likened to an alcoholic beverage, it would be a pint of bitter, whereas this place would most definitely be a Jäger bomb. A few of my chums I'd met on my Fiji travels were here too; Sam and Terri from Wales, & Lemon (yes, that's her name) from China. Within a few minutes I'd befriended a guy called Mike from London, and before long we were quoting lines from The Office (UK!) to each other, something that continued throughout the entire period of our stay.
We all had dinner together that evening, and afterwards headed to the bar for the resorts organised 'Games Night'. On the menu was a game of flip cup, a table based game where each player has to flip their cup from the edge of the table so that it lands face down. For some reason I was an absolute master of the sport. Yes, I'm classing it as a sport. My team, however, weren't on the same page. It was like Accrington Stanley being captained by Lionel Messi. Yes, I'm likening myself to the greatest footballer of my lifetime as well. Our team lost, but only just. We then carried on drinking until the early hours, with some of the guys opting for a late night skinny dip. I know how cold that water can be, so I sensibly declined the offer. Hearing the shrieks and screams from the warm comfort of the bar was much more fun. The night ended late with me, Mike, Ren the Aussie, Simon the German, Darrell the Bristolian, and Angela & Christina the Americans staying up to the wee hours playing various drinking games. To quote David Brent, "I was a liiiiittle bit drunk".
The next day I had to go through the pain of my first Fijian hangover. I've come to terms though that Fiji might just be THE best place to be hungover. It's entirely fine for you to park your bum in a hammock and do nothing all day. No one cares, as everyone is on 'Fiji time'; like normal time but if time was into the sounds of Bob Marley and had just smoked a rather powerful spliff.
That day Mantaray Resort was offering a Sunset Tube Cruise for the guests, where a boat was to drop you off in the middle of the ocean with nothing but a rubber ring and a few beers, just in time for a stunning view of the sun setting. We all went on it, and for me it was one of the most unique things I've done on my travels so far. Plonked in the middle of the ocean. The sun setting on the horizon. In a rubber ring in Fiji. What a moment to remember. When the other boat arrived with more guests from the resort, it was apparent that there was not enough rubber rings to go around. This meant that the new arrivals had to squeeze into our tubes, with us still in them. Luckily I had to share with a lovely lady called Lucy. I say luckily as there was a party of about four or five big, burly Aussie guys I could have been paired with. Lucy actually thought I was a Geordie at first. I said I was a massive fan of Byker Grove as a kid, so maybe from that I've picked up a bit of the North East English twang.
That night was a chilled out affair. There were no games at the bar, but there was a traditional Fijian dance, a 'Meke', performed by the staff. It was thoroughly entertaining, and afterwards I was ready for sleep.
In the last blog I mentioned my desires to snorkel with Mantarays whilst I was staying here. Well, the following morning I was in luck. When the staff here spot a Mantaray swimming in the channel, someone at the resort bangs a drum down at the beach, signalling for everyone to run, get your snorkel gear and hop on the boat. It was whilst we were eating breakfast I heard the crashing sound of the drum, and from there everyone left their half eaten toast and bowls of cereal to join the stampede to the beach. It was exciting. Once on the boat it was only a short journey to where the Mantarays were located, and once we had the ok from the guide it was time to jump in. If you saw one you were to raise your hand in the air to let everyone else know where they were. For the first five minutes I couldn't see any signs of the Mantarays, then all of a sudden one the guys behind me raised his hands, waving them like Cliff Richard in the Mistletoe and Wine video. That could only mean one thing. A Mantaray was about to pass underneath me at any moment. I put my goggles to the water and watched with anticipation, and there they were. Three gigantic Mantarays glided past me, each within touching distance. They were absolutely massive. I'd say 3-4 metres in width. From that point it was a game of follow the Mantarays, but it was hard swimming against the current. I'm still a bit mentally scarred from my near drowning experience in Byron Bay, Australia, so I found it a challenge to keep up. I blame the armbands (only kidding). Still, just to see them so up close and personal was definitely something to tick off the bucket list.
That night was slightly more raucous than the previous one, but since I was checking out the next day I didn't want to get too drunk. I can cope with a Fijian hangover in a hammock, but not on a jam packed ferry. The game for the night was the 'pick up the piece of cardboard with your teeth' game. I didn't take part, as bending down to tie my laces is a difficult enough chore for me. At around midnight I hit the hay and made the gruelling up hill climb to the dorm room for the last time.
I had a great time at Mantaray. Whilst it may not have been as pretty and lush as Blue Lagoon, it made up for it with a feel good vibe and atmosphere. The people I met there made it all the more enjoyable too. Mike is a top guy. It turned out we both went to Uni in Sheffield at exactly the same time. He's working in Christchurch at the moment, but I'd like to think we'll meet up again at some point. There's lots more of the Office we have to quote.
I said my goodbyes to Mantaray and headed further south to my last Island stop in Fiji, Octopus resort, and if the last place was a Jäger bomb, this was a gold plated bottle of Cristal. The beach was pristine, the water clear blue, the dorms were better than any dorm I've stayed in. There was also a swimming pool, a sand floored restaurant, amongst other things. It really was paradise. Coincidentally, Sam & Terri and Lemon were staying here too, so it was nice to catch up with them again.
After a delicious three course seafood special, and I mean delicious, the resort was hosting a 'Movie Night' under the stars, with a screen erected above the swimming pool for the film to be projected onto. After a public vote, the film we were to watch was The Hobbit. I'm not really into all that fantasy stuff to be honest. Forget enchanted rings, dwarves, and ZZ Top beard wielding wizards, I want to see some gritty gangster action. Having said that, it was cool to watch a film outside by the beach at night. If I got bored of Middle Earth I just gazed up to the sky. Boredom eradicated.
The next few days were spent just snorkelling and sunbathing in the intense South Pacific sun. I don't have too much to write about, other than I now have quite a bit of a tan as a result. I made some new dorm friends too. There was Stef and May from Germany, and Reece from Australia. Oh and there was one more friend that I've forgotten to mention. We had a mouse in our room! Now I'm 24 years of age, and I can even grow a full on beard now, so you would think a measly mouse would be nothing for a strapping young lad like myself. You would be wrong. I'd like to be able to say I caught it and killed it with my bare hands, with a single karate chop to its head, but I was too busy cowering behind a bush outside as the caretaker caught it. Throw me out of a plane any day over spending time in a room with a mouse.
The entertainment was a lot less alcohol orientated at Octopus, mainly because the resort wasn't really geared towards backpackers. Once Sam & Terri had left, it was only us four in the dorm that were travellers, whereas the rest were mainly families and couples. This didn't necessarily adversely affect my stay here, but it made it a little more difficult to make friends and socialise. We still all had fun though. On one of the nights there was the International Hermit Crab Racing Competition, where everyone picked their crustacean and gathered around the racing track, cheering on their crab to cross the line first. I think I picked the only hermit crab to have arthritis. I've seen some of the Home Reader Library Service borrowers move quicker than that crab. On another night we sat and drank kava with the staff and played the guitars until late. Some of those Fijians can really play, on a purely instinctive level. Music seems especially important in Fijian culture, with singing being at the forefront. Most blokes in the UK can just about pluck the courage to muster a purposely off key and gnarly rendition of Wonderwall when required to sing, whereas in Fiji singing is seen as a something to do with pride. I definitely fall into the Oasis singing category by the way.
After four chilled nights in paradise, it was time to board the ferry for the last time and head back to the Fijian mainland. In another moment of sheer coincidence, I bumped into Christy, a girl I met all the way back in Australia, then in New Zealand, and now in Fiji. Crazy. We sat together and exchanged travel stories. As I looked out the window I remember marvelling at the beauty of the sunset and the volcanic peaks of the Yasawa Islands receding into the distance. It was at that point that the Home Alone 2 theme song came on my iPod shuffle. I bet I'm the only person to listen to Somewhere In My Memory on the ferry in Fiji.
Arriving back to Nadi, I was this time staying in Smugglers Cove, *not* the prison cell with the obese Canadian man. Hallelujah. I checked into the 34 bed dorm, where I met my bunk bed buddy Caity from New Zealand. She invited me out to the bar area where she was drinking with a few others. It was there that I met Justin from Kansas, and Christy from the UK (who knew some people I did from Sheffield Uni, mad!). We had a fun night. I'd liken Justin to an American version of Alan Carr, on a purely personality based level. He's hilarious. His catchphrase of "...bye" was infectious, and he had us all laughing through the night.
The next day I woke up feeling rather fragile. It couldn't have been the drink I thought, because I only had about three glasses of beer. I dismissed it as dehydration and went ahead with my day. Me, Justin, Caity and Christy went to the mud pools, situated about a 30 minutes drive away in a nearby village. After being caked in the sloppy (and smelly) mud, it was time to dry off in the sun, followed by a trip to natural thermal pool to wash ourselves down. The mud is said to have healing properties, and although my skin was left to feel as smooth as a babies bottom, I was still feeling a little worse for wear. It was great fun though nonetheless.
Afterwards we paid a visit to the orchids garden, which was beautiful. It was the sort of thing that my Mum and Nan would love. By this point I was resembling an even paler, more fragile version of Shane McGowan. The guys were even commenting on how rough I looked. Things weren't looking good. What on earth was wrong with me?!
After we'd seen the orchids in all of their glory, we were dropped off in Nadi town centre. The guys wanted to check out the Hindu temple that I visited with Diogo and Bruno a couple of weeks back, so as I'd already seen it, and since I was shaking like a dog taking a forceful poo, I decided to get a taxi back to the hostel. From that point onwards it was just a relay race between my bunk and the toilet.
The next day I felt even worse. I could see the sun peaking through the cracks in the blinds, and I could hear the waves crashing onto the beach outside, but I didn't want to do anything other than stay in my bed. After speaking to my Mum, aka Dr Gill Whitfield, she diagnosed me with having gastroenteritis, and gave me the instructions of doing nothing but resting and drinking fluids. Still though, I think I attained my personal best on the bunk bed to toilet race.
That night it was time to leave Fiji and fly east over the Pacific Ocean to the land of the free and home of the brave. Justin just so happened to be on the same flight, but I was sat the other end of the plane. Just as well for him really. I don't think he fancied catching the bubonic plague off me. After taking enough Imodium to not need to go the toilet for a good few years, I boarded the plane and located my seat. On the plus side it was a window seat. On the down side I was sandwiched between 4 or 5 rows of surfer duuuudes. And these surfers were absolutely rotten drunk. After the initial awkward drunk person vs. acutely sober person conversation, I made the mistake of telling them I'd been ill the past few days.
"*shouted out loud* Duuuude you're not going to s*** your pants next to me are you?".
People turned around. I exclaimed amidst some awkward, nervous laughter, "No *laughs*, you don't have to worry about that". When if I was being entirely truthful I should have said,
"Well judging on the last few days, quite possibly. Buckle up. It's a 10 hour flight too isn't it? Yippee".
Thankfully I managed to sleep for quite a large portion of it, but for those hours I was awake it ranked as my worst flight of all time. And from here is where I started the blog; the most relieved man in the world to be on the ground again.
My parents, or more crucially the Bank of Dad, had clearly felt sorry for me over the last few days and had booked me into an airport hotel for the night to replenish myself. I was so grateful. The room was very fancy. To reference Home Alone 2 again, it felt like I was staying in the Plaza Hotel. I did nothing but snooze in bed and watch dodgy American TV all day and night. They love a good true crime documentary do the Americans. I was a little drowsy from the time adjustments too. Since the flight crossed the international date line, we left Fiji at 10pm on Saturday 15th June, and arrived in LA 12pm lunchtime on Saturday 15th June. I'd gained half a day. Mind boggling stuff.
I woke up the next morning feeling a hell of a lot fresher than I had been, checked out of the luxury hotel and made my way on the bus to Santa Monica. I was staying in Hostelling International on 2nd Street, and it was very nice. There was free wifi, free breakfast, free days and nights out organised by the hostel themselves, comfy beds (with two pillows!), and an outdoor courtyard where they played movies.
That day I had a wonder around Santa Monica boulevard and the 3rd St Promenade, before checking out the fairground on Santa Monica Pier. On 3rd Street there were dozens and dozens of street performers, my favourite being the sunbathing dog. There it was, on a doggy mattress, with a pair of sunglasses on, and it was making tonnes of money. The owner wasn't stupid.
That night I went to bed early and called it a night. My first night off the Imodium. Bliss.
The next day I decided to buy myself a couple of books from a nearby Barnes and Noble (two of James Patterson's new ones), and strolled along the promenade in the direction of Venice Beach. Along the way I passed some iconic Los Angeles landmarks. There was Muscle beach, where the West Coast body builders all like to flex their muscles and pump some iron. There was also the basket ball courts as seen on the film White Men Can't Jump, each court full of people playing. Just past that there was a skatepark attracting the crowds. Before long I was in Venice Beach, the Bohemian and artistic side of Southern California. Graffiti art lined the walls, the smell of cannabis permeated the air, and budding artists tried to sell you their work. There were also a lot of crazy people, but the sort of relatively harmless, hippy crazy people. I found a spot on the beach and read my book, falling asleep in the sun. I forgot to apply sunscreen, so when I woke up I had the face the colour of a tomato. Whoops.
That night the hostel had organised a trip to a local burlesque night. Me and some of the guys from my dorm decided to go and check it out. I tried to back out at first, using the "I've been a little ill" card, but Nick the American was taking none of it.
"Charlie, even if you're dying inside, there is always time for boobs".
Surprisingly it wasn't seedy at all. It was quite cool actually. It beats the sleazy wet t-shirt contests most hostels seem to put on to get things pumping.
The following day, and my last full one in LA, I'd decided to book myself onto a day tour of the city. After scouring the web, I settled on the Rastabus tour (number 2 on Trip Advisor!). The bus was painted in the reggae colours of red, yellow, and green, and had RASTABUS written in big letters along each side. It played out reggae music too. What was funny is that most of the tour were of the older generation. It must have been amusing seeing a Rastabus drive past, packed to the brim with white perms, with Damien Marley being blasted from the speakers. The tour guide was a good laugh. She took us to where various celebrities live, Hollywood Boulevard, Beverly Hills, Griffiths Park (where you had a great view of the Hollywood sign), as well as a few other places along the way. We didn't spot any celebrities though. Never mind.
That night I went to a nearby bar to watch the NBA finals between the Spurs and Miami Heat. I wanted the Spurs to win because they seemed like the underdog, but, as it always is, Miami Heat won in the last few seconds of play. That was it then. I made my final journey along 3rd St Promenade, weaving through the street performers, back to the hostel where I was to pack for my flight to New York the next morning.
Right now I'm just about to board the flight from LAX to Newark. West Coast to East Coast. Pacific side to the Atlantic side. The last time I was in the Big Apple was in 2011, and since then I have said repeatedly that it is my favourite city in the world, and I think it still is. You don't get more iconic than NYC. It'll also be a really nice way to round off my trip, as I fly home in 4 days time. This means that this is my penultimate blog *wipes tear from cheek*. I'll make sure I get up to lots of fun things so that my final blog packs a bunch. See you in a few hours, New York City. And see you in the not so distant future, England.