When I close my eyes, I can still hear the strum of the guitars.
It's been more than three years since I moved back to New Zealand after a stint living in Fiji, and - up until this year - I was successfully making a yearly return.
Fiji captured my soul. It's not just one thing that defines the island paradise. It's a combination of the vibrant tropical landscapes, the generous Fijian hospitality, the island vibes that instantly relax you, the warmth of the air absorbing all of life's stresses. Every time I return, the islands replenish a part of my wellbeing. Ironically, during a year when this is needed more than any other time of my life, I'm unable to visit.
I remember one particular trip to one of the Mamanuca Islands with a girlfriend who was visiting from New Zealand. Living in Fiji meant I was spoilt for choice for island day trips, and yet this trip always stands out. Two blonde besties with a shared desire for a good catch up, a bit of adventure and to soak up all the "vitamin sea" we could manage.
The set-up at Beachcomber Island is much the same as the dozens of other island day trips in Fiji, but I never grow tired of them. As the boat slows and the sound of the water lapping the hull intensifies, so do the voices. The guitars. The harmonies. There's always a welcoming song when you approach the island, Fijian men and women singing, smiling and concluding with a giant "Bula!" as the men offer a hand to assist you off the boat.
Louisa and I found a hammock between two palm trees and laughed as we clumsily clambered into one to share, top to tail, swapping yarns until the netting imprinted on to our skin. We ran into the water with snorkels and I helped Louisa learn to dive deeper to explore the tropical fish darting around their coral homes. We took cheesy underwater selfies before hauling our sunburnt bodies back to the main hut for a barbecue feast for lunch.
With full tummies, we looked at the activities board and a sign pointing towards jet ski rides, looked at each other, and practically ran to the booth to sign up. I bunny-hopped along the ocean surface; Louisa was a speed demon and I clung to her waist as tightly as I could, both of us laughing with equal parts fear and freedom, our salty crusted hair blowing into our faces.
The day trip may seem like a cliche tourist activity, but like so many memorable experiences in life, it was about what it represented. Friendship, freedom, connection. Three years on, both of us remember the trip fondly - even more so knowing we'd do nearly anything to be able to get on a plane right now to the South Pacific.