THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A humbling lesson in false first impressions

Email|Print| Text size + By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2005

TAVEUNI, Fiji -- The rap on the door was followed by a woman's voice: ''Are you awake? We're leaving." I snapped out of my heavy dream and rolled over to find the clock reading 5:38 a.m. It took me a moment to remember where I was, inside a thatched hut on Taveuni, the third-largest island in that South Pacific paradise, Fiji. Taveuni is a coveted secret among scuba divers, known for its rainbow-colored reefs and abundant sealife. The woman behind the door, however, was more impressed with the island's landscape and flora.

Her name was Cathy, late 40s, a kind person I had met the day before when I was downing a Fiji Bitter in front of my hut, hiding from one of those endless tropical downpours. She was sitting outside her hut, and after a quick exchange, I realized she was American. In fact, she was from the same upstate New York city where I grew up. Based on this coincidence, our rapport was instantaneous.

She came here, not to swim with the fish, but to find the tagimaucia, a rare climbing vine adorned with a vibrant array of flowers. Tagimaucia can be found only at Lake Tagimaucia, a volcanic lake hidden in the island's mountainous interior. Cathy suggested we hire a guide and hike up to visit the neglected flower. I had agreed to go if the rain subsided.

''One second," I said as I threw on a T-shirt and shorts, and opened the door.

''It's starting to clear up. You still want to do this, right?" Cathy asked. Standing next to her was a gentle Fijian man who was holding a long walking stick. Cathy introduced him as our guide, Semi Waqa.

To be honest, I was feeling apprehensive. I had just woken up, had nothing in my stomach, and lacked my usual hiking gear. In front of me, though, was a petite and confident woman and our pot-bellied guide.

''What am I worrying about?" I thought to myself. I'm a fit guy in my 30s who has done his fair share of hiking. I tossed a tin of tuna, a Swiss army knife, and a jug of water into my daypack and joined them.

''How long does this hike take?" I asked Semi. He said he could climb to the lake and back in 3 hours. Since he was wearing flip-flops at the time, I knew we could easily match that.

As we strolled up a winding road discussing Fijian tribal rituals, I felt comfortable with my decision. Later, we approached a creek, shallow but too wide to jump over. Cathy and I removed our sneakers and rolled up our pants to get across. Farther ahead, however, our dusty road faded and we saw that the stream had become a raging river.

''What happened to the trail?" Cathy asked.

''The river is the trail," Semi said. Unfortunately, the river was dense with boulders covered with slimy green moss, thwarting any possibility of hopping from one stone to the next. We waded through knee-deep water, clumsily grabbing at rocks to propel ourselves forward against the strong current.

Two hours later, we crawled out of the water only to see a steep and narrow incline. Indiana Jones might have given up his quest for the Holy Grail at this sight, but I plugged on. The muddy path was narrow, and numerous roots jutted out of its terrain. We grabbed onto these roots and pulled our bodies upward.

I was exhausted and delirious when we finally reached the top of the crater. Semi then told us we still had another hour of climbing to reach Lake Tagimaucia. As I pushed through a swamp with sludge up to my thighs, I watched Cathy and Semi walk ahead gracefully. It was four hours into our trip by now, so I reminded Semi that he had said the entire trip would take 3.

''Yes," he agreed, ''I have done this trek in that time, but I was born at the bottom of the hill and I have done this climb almost every day for 30 years. It might take longer for you." Fair enough, I thought, but what about Cathy? How could she move so effortlessly?

Somehow, I suffered through this last leg as a torrential rainstorm pelted against my aching body. At the final destination, I was shivering and famished. I plopped backward, took out my tuna, and eyed this remote volcanic lake. It was nothing more than a grayish pond inundated with weeds.

''Where are all the tagimaucia?" I screeched.

''They don't bloom until December," Semi told me. It was July.

I wanted to cry, but didn't have the energy. Meanwhile, Cathy was prancing around snapping photos as if it were a majestic lake in the Alps. When she finally sat down, I discovered she was a triathlete who had recently reached the 19,340-foot summit of Africa's highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro.

I had no one to blame but myself. Less than 24 hours ago, she was a complete stranger, yet I had the audacity to think that after one brief chat about Schenectady, N.Y., I could do anything she could.

By now, I was freezing and we still had the return trip ahead. A wave of nausea passed through me. We made it back to town four hours later. I had leg cramps, but managed to crawl to my bed like a cranky toddler, covered with mud, sweat, and rain.

The guide, Semi, charged only $6. What a bargain.

Steve Jermanok can be reached at farandaway@comcast.net. He writes regularly about the humor he has found -- or tried to find -- in the travails of his travels.

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