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01 April 2014

A solo traveller in the Pacific

After 7.5 years as a strategy consultant I desperately needed a break. I had asked for a sabbatical 8 months before and after careful planning trying to fit in as much as I could in my 7 weeks I finally boarded a plane from LA, my first pit stop visiting a friend, to Nadi in Fiji.

To say that I was excited would be a major understatement, I was finally living the dream I had been waiting for for years. I was ecstatic. 

Not to mention that the Pacific has some of the most stunning sights, beaches and experiences you will ever partake in from active volcanos to isolated islands, diving the largest ship wreck in the world to WWII relics


You would be forgiven for thinking that 7 weeks is not really a sabbatical, not enough to disconnect and recharge but to me, 7 weeks was 4x longer than my longest vacation in 10 years so it was a real treat. And, more importantly, there would be no phone calls or emails to catch up on every hour of every day, no conference calls to attend while sipping cocktails in my over water villa, no requirement to answer client requests day or night, and no power point - it would be just me and my adventures.

I had chosen the Pacific islands after a lot of research. Having already visited a lot of Africa I had short-listed the Caribbean and the Pacific as the two options but the Caribbean proved to be a hard to hop on/hop off destination not to mention that some of the biggest islands are quite dangerous, even more so for a solo female traveller. A friend was going to be in the Pacific for 2 months as well and we would overlap on his last week and my first so I thought it would be a good warm up to spend the first week in Solomon with him and get all the insights.

Trivia night in Vava'u
From day 1 I can honestly say I was never really a solo traveller. Not only did not feel alone once but I also was not alone for most of the time. Either because the locals were extremely welcoming and helpful or because I met fellow travellers or expats, very few days did I actually spend on my own. In fact, in several occasions, I found myself trying to actively avoid conversation with people because I genuinely wanted some me time. But it only required the most subtle eye contact or passing look to invite anyone to a conversation. And then, how could I say no?

Most people were absolutely stunned by the fact that I was travelling alone for almost 2 months, they simply could not understand it and one of two thoughts crossed their minds: they felt terribly sorry for me and felt the needed to keep me company AND were very curious to hear my adventures, on that specific trip or on any of my previous travel adventures. 

A kiwi & an Aussie in a night of kava in Vanuatu
This was the case with an American family who had trouble sleeping in American Samoa because the nights were dark and silent, they had to leave the lights on and turn on the radio in order to sleep - I found this an odd combination of sadness and disbelief. They invited me to their table with their three teenage kids and although in an endearing manner, I felt that they were trying to provide their children with an experience to meet a well traveller interesting person. They asked me all sorts of things and generously paid for my dinner.

It was the same with a couple of grannies from New Zealand in Samoa, they saw me alone at dinner and immediately invited me to join them, I presumed in their generation girls did not travel or eat alone and so I must have been really lonely and scared. 

Our guide in Vilnu War Museum, Solomon

Although in some of the countries such as Fiji or to an extend, Vanuatu, tourism is starting to have an impact but, for the most part, tourists are scarce so when you combine a tourist, a solo traveller and a woman you find a very rare sighting for the locals. And just like the kiwi grannies, they feel terribly sorry and their communal attitude and culture makes them invite you to partake in their activities. In Solomon we picked up a priest and a "vagabond", for lack of a better word to describe him, when we asked for directions to a lost WWII museum and they took it to their hearts to not only make sure we found the place but also to get us a guide, a mostly sleepy caretaker who had not seen a tourist in weeks, and also to share with us everything they knew about the place. Even when it started to rain they stoically remained there recounting every single detail they had been passed down by their parents about WWII. 

I got invited to Sunday church and lunch in Tonga, a truly memorable experience. Sunday dressing up all in white just like the outfits Southerners used to wear in the times of separation in the US completed with large white hats, lots of singing and lunch cooked underground. I felt like in a movie.

Diving with the Norwegian family in Fiji
In American Samoa a conference took all the 80 rental cars available on the island so I was stranded. It didn't take long for the lady at the Tourism Information office to lend me her personal car. She tried to help me find one for an entire afternoon without success and finally, the following morning, at 7am, she turned up at my hotel with the car keys and her son ready to be dropped off at school. She had gotten her husband's permission to lend me their car, a huge pick up truck, for me to drive around the island for as long as I wanted it. For free! Of course I made sure to invite them for dinner and to leave the tank full but it was probably the kindest gesture a stranger ever did to me.

In Tonga the pilot and co-pilot of the plane offered me a ride to my hotel which was made more interesting by the fact that the car broke down in the middle of the road. In Vava'u, the archipelago in Tonga where you can swim with humpback whales, I met a group of mostly American and Kiwi expats working in a few super yachts anchored there and a few others working for NGOs in the area with whom I partied in the full moon on a deserted island, played trivia and explored the islands. In Samoa I hired a driver for the day who happened to be the captain of the national football team moonlighting as a taxi driver, football in Samoa is not as big as in Spain I realised. In Fiji I met a Norwegian family who had been travelling in the country for 4 weeks.

One half of the honey mooners
One of the most interesting people I met were three Spanish. A couple on their honeymoon was visiting something like 15 countries in 5 weeks, they were literally island hoping across the Pacific, Australia and Japan with an average of 2-4 days in each location. They had an incredibly well mapped trip, a home made travel guide which contained every information they needed, all deeply researched and bookings in every place to make the most of it. Because most of the countries are served only on a few days a week by flights departing from Fiji I met them in three places: In Vanuatu, where we first met on our way to see the active volcano (by that point they had been more than 36h on the road and had crossed 2/3 of the world: Galicia -> Madrid -> Los Angeles (US) - Nadi (Fiji) -> Port Vila (Vanuatu) -> Tanna (Vanuatu)), a couple of weeks later in Fiji airport on a stop over, me to Tonga them to Kiribati, and lastly in Samoa where, we shared an interesting dinner with the third Spanish who was my dive instructor. The dive instructor had decided to leave Spain when he lost his professional underwater construction diving job as a result of the crisis and had ended up in Samoa. If that wasn't enough of a coincidence, they were also from the same part of Spain. It was heart warming to share an evening where Spanish, not English, dominated the conversation.

As a result of all the invitations and conversations that I randomly started with people I ended up behind on my diary writing. I had set-off on this adventure committed to writing a diary of everything that would come to mind mind. Perhaps one day I could write a book? The fears, the experiences, the learnings or the people I would meet along the way, the beauty of some of the places, the stunning nature...yet I was constantly 3-4 days behind because, contrary to what I had foreseen, I was not usually eating lunch or dinner on my own. What saved me where the multiple flights and waiting times at airports when I could concentrate on my writing. Although airports are places full of solo travellers, ironically,  I never stroke a conversation with any there.

Fales - Acommodation in Samoa
A lot of people asked me if I was scared or felt unsafe and I can honestly and without a doubt say that the Pacific is an extremely safe area for anyone to travel. Crime is very low and locals very friendly so save for the odd barking dog in Tonga, a real problem in the capital, Nuku'alofa, for the rest of my trip I not once felt unsafe or scared. And this is despite the fact that, in Samoa, accommodation was in the traditional fales, a hut-like room with no walls, even at night, you are sleeping in the open and the locals live in such type of houses. Driving around you may see fridges or TVs under the roof but no house has walls. What clearer illustration is there of how terribly safe the place is when everybody's possessions are in plain sight 24/7?

I hope that this inspired any debating traveller to take the plunge and travel solo in the Pacific.

My travel included Solomon, Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga and American Samoa (American territory)