Similar to Prego in Italian or Aloha in Hawaiian, Bula is a Fijian word that is imbued with a variety of meanings, each of which depend on the situation. Bula (pronounced boolah) means “life” and is commonly used as a greeting, meaning “hello!”. Using bula in this way is to express wishes for one’s good health. The full saying is “Ni sa bula vinaka,” (pronounced as nee-sahm-bula-veenaka) which equates to “wishing you happiness and good health.”
As part of the island closure section of our trip and our last "foreign" country, yes - we were counting down - Fiji could not have been a better destination. Large friendly people, cerulean blue waters, abundant marine life that made it feel like you were swimming in a crowded rainbow aquarium, pristine white sand beaches, and the air filled with the music of guitars, singing, and laughter made for an incredibly happy and eye-candy filled experience.
After arranging our island hopping transport with the help of Pela, the huge Fijian that picked us up from the airport, we boarded a large catamaran for a week plus of island hopping in the Yasawa and Mamanuca Island groups. Our first stop was Bounty Island, known locally as Kadavulailai. Bounty was a tiny dot of sand and palm trees a mere two meters above the ocean and small - we easily walked its entire shoreline in under a half an hour. The weather was windy and mildly stormy but I was able to go sailing on a tiny catamaran in a brief sunny period. The food was all inclusive (all the lodgings were setup this way as there is nothing else on the island) and delicious with fresh fruit at most meals. The pineapples and papayas were juicy and deliciously sweet and more importantly plentiful. During the evening meals, which took place only feet from the waterline, a highlight was watching the small black-tipped reef sharks prowl along and surf the waves for food. The lights from the dining room attracted fish, which in turn attracted the sharks, and at one point we could see six sharks cruising the waves less than 10 feet from us.
One of the many highlights was our stay at Manta Ray resort. The snorkeling in their marine protected reef directly in front of the resort was some of the best we had ever experienced. The multitude and variety of fish of different shapes, colors, and sizes combined with the numerous and colorful coral, clear waters, and slight current made for many relaxing underwater expeditions. The reef was sizable and with the current we could float from one end to the other in about 20 minutes. Exploring and holding position with an easy kick we were easily out for an hour or more at a time exploring the reef. We saw giant clam shells, a pair of clownfish defending a baby clownfish that was hidden among an anemone, and more bright tropical fish than we could count.
We had come to manta ray for its name sake, manta rays that regularly feed in a nearby channel. After jumping in the boat after the rays were somehow sighted, we sped around the island to witness dark amorphous shapes gliding slowly beneath the water. Our captain, a native Fijian, had a gift for sighting and could spot the rays where all we saw were white caps and blue water. He would drive us to top of the channel where we jumped overboard and swam upstream to keep our position against the strong current. The captain would then yell and point in the direction to swim when he saw a ray coming our way. Here the magic began as we popped our heads below the surface and were within 10-20' of a 10-12' wingspan manta ray gliding effortlessly through the water below us. Even if you tried you could not keep up with these magnificent creatures as they glided and fed beneath you. Manta rays are filter feeders and were having a meal in the plankton filled seas. With the rays were other fish, also filter feeders that schooled in the thousands. At one point of swimming and waiting for the next hand motion from the captain, a fellow snorkeler told me to look down. I ducked under to see I was in the middle of a circling school of eight inch silvery fish easily numbering 7000. They were so dense they blocked my view of anything else for 10-20' in front of me and down. They circled, zigged and zagged all with hungry open mouths. It was truly bizarre to suddenly be surrounded and engulfed by so many fish. I was glad they were filter feeders like the rays.
We drifted down seeing one sometimes two manta rays for 20-40 seconds at a time and would board the boat at the bottom of the channel to drive back to the top and jump in again. Somehow, one guy in the boat did not ever see one (he was new to snorkeling and could not put his head underwater), so we cycled four times getting in the water and drifting down amongst the manta rays and fish. Each time was magical and amazing and we could have swam there all day. On our last float downstream, one of the manta rays was 'playing' by repeatedly swimming in backward loop-de-loops about 20' below the surface with Adar and I literally on top of him. After about the fifth loop he altered course and with surprising speed darted for the area between Adar and I. We moved as quickly as possible out of his way and as I lifted my head out of the water to catch my breath I saw him midair about two feet above the water after just completing a backflip. We were speechless. His huge body crashed against the water making a gigantic splash and he was quickly gone. On asking our captain what happened, he said "Oh, he was probably happy and was just playing ...they do that sometimes". Wow, even the manta rays are happy here. I am not sure, but I think I heard the ray utter "Bula!" mid flip.
Our final stop was Oarsmen's Lodge on Nacula, the last resort island in the Yasawa group. The bay in front is called the blue lagoon and was an expansive shallow bay with a white sand bottom. This made the water a light blue that was mesmerizing to see as it contrasted with the dark blue sky, white sand beaches, and green palm trees. The staff at Oarsmen's were very friendly with Oni and the crew greeting us with guitars and singing as we floated in. On the night of my birthday, the staff fixed a huge traditional Fijian meal cooking everything from chicken, lamb, beef, pork, pumpkin, breadfruit, and potatoes in the ground similar to a Maori hangi or Hawaiian luau. Typical meals were small but filling, but this feast was immense. Prior to the feast the staff sang and danced as the sun dipped below the horizon and they gave all of the guests leis. The singing and playing continued and we all ended up dancing to work up an appetite. After the meal, the staff again pulled out the guitars and started to sing. Another person was celebrating their birthday and a married couple was celebrating their anniversary. Everyone joined in as they sang Happy Birthday to me and a young British girl and a cute Happy Anniversary song to the couple. Surprisingly and much appreciated, they also baked us all large cakes that we tried to eat after our feast but barely made a dent into. We ended up eating most of them at breakfasts, lunches, and dinner for the next two days.
The snorkeling at Oarsmen's was also amazing. Similar to the reef at Manta Ray, there was a reef out front crowded with a myriad of colorful fish and corals. At one point we saw a large eel and near the shallows we played in another school of 1000+ fish. A highlight for Adar was a pod of curious cuttlefish that investigated us as we swam around them. A neat thing about cuttlefish is they can swim forward and backward, side to side, and up and down all the while changing colors. After about three minutes they lost interest in us and swam away. I am not sure but I think their dance and color show was their way of saying "Bula!".
One morning we hiked up to the ridge line above the resort and marveled at the views of the small island and blue water. The grass was head height and occasionally Adar and I would lose sight of each other on our way to the peak. The sun was fierce but the stiff breeze kept us cool. The views atop were outstanding and we stayed for while in the strong breeze admiring our location in life and on the island. From the peak you could see almost all of the shoreline for about 300 degrees. We were on the south side of Nacula and we could not see most of the island to the north.
Another day we visited the sava-i-lau caves just to the north of the Nacula. These limestone caves are half flooded with rain water and many side caves are accessible via the central chamber with vertical walls extending about 60 to the sky above and 30 below the water line. We visited one of these side caves whose large access was underwater. To get into the cave you had to dive beneath a rocky outcrop and swim into total blackness guided only but the light of the guide in front of you. It sounds scary than it actually was as we were only underwater for 5-6 seconds. Once your eyes adjusted on the other side you could see the large opening in front of and beneath you glowing blue green from the light on the other side. After an otherworldly swim to the far end of the cave we stopped to hear the Fijian lore about Uluitini, the ten-headed god of gods, that lives in the cave and the eel and two fish the did not ever grow old by living in the cave's restorative waters. On arriving back in the main chamber, we found a group of young boys who were scaling the walls and jumping back into the water. Feeling young again, I scaled about 20' up the vertical wall and counting to seven with the excited boys (dua-rua-tolu-va-lima-ono-VITU) I leapt with excitement into the clear water below. BULA!
Bula Vinaka (Thank you) Fiji for many wonderful memories and a solid week of smiles and laughter.
"Bula!" was the friendly Fijian greeting always said with enthusiasm and a huge welcoming smile. I am smiling now as I remember this phrase, the amazingly happy Fijians, and our time on the idylic Yasawa Islands just north of the main island Viti Levu.