Boi Boi Waga will always hold a special place in my heart - partly because of how difficult it was to get there, but mostly because of the resident family.
They were an old couple, perhaps bordering 60. It was hard to tell as it usually is with people who have spent their entire lives by the sea. Their complexions were weathered and their hair bleached a light copper; and I didn't have the eye nor the forwardness to discern if it was because of age or the harsh salt air.
As the boat pulled up on the shore, my guide - their daughter - stepped out slowly. She wasn't young herself, and it showed in her movements. But there was palpable excitement in the air and a clear sense of purpose as she led the way towards a half-stone-half-wooden hut at the end of the beach.
I have not seen them in a year, she had said to me as our boat bounced over the swells two hours earlier. Thank you for this chance to go home.
The journey here had been tiring at best. At first the boatman had tried to hug the coastline, where there was some reprieve from the two metre tall waves. Miles after miles of lush primeval forest and sheer cliffs had sped by and kept us company for the first hour. Occasionally we would see a hut or a boat pulled up amongst the trees, but they were so few and far between that it had been hard to imagine anyone living there at all.
Then our boat had rounded the cape and we lost the shelter of the coast. For a while we battled the open sea as I clung on to the hull of the dinghy, desperately trying to steady myself on my makeshift wooden seat. (The dinghy is the main mode of transport for the locals traveling between their villages and the market - and as such, because the aim is to accommodate goods like entire livestock, there aren't any seats. Everyone sits on the bottom of the boat amongst their produce. My boatman, upon seeing that I was a traveller, had picked up a nearby plank and wedged it across the two sides of the boat as a makeshift bench. As you'd expect it hadn't been very effective, and more than once I found it bouncing along with me when we bashed through a wave.)
And now, we were finally on her home island, where her parents still lived with a motley gang of dogs, cats and chickens.
The tour of the island didn't take very long. There was an outhouse, a well, their sleeping quarters, and an outdoor cooking area, all built on the sand. The perimeter of each block was lined with an assortment of seashells, some larger than my face, and some like nothing I'd ever seen before.
As I stood on the beach inspecting the shells, she came up beside me. They're here, she said, nodding at the sea.
"The manta rays," she replied. "I see them."
I immediately hopped up and ran over to the boatman, who by some form of telepathy had read my mind and was already revving the engine. With my mask and snorkel in hand we headed out in the direction of the shadows she had seen.
The first manta ray came into view less than fifteen metres from shore. In the time it took me to strip to my swimwear and put on my mask, it swooped by and vanished into the depths. I bit back my disappointment as I scanned the waters, not quite daring to hope I'd see it again - but all of a sudden there it was again, and another, and another! They circled the area over and over, and just floating off the side of the boat I came face-to-face with a manta ray for the first time in my life.
Back on shore after an exhilarating half an hour, my hosts led me to their cooking area, where they had arranged a plate of baked potatoes and a grilled fish. Mum set to work on the fish, swiftly de-boning it and insisting I ate my fill, while they stoutly refused to eat until I was done.
I wound up feeling so bad for sharing whatever little food they had that after the meal, I offered to pay for my portion. They declined, of course. It's curious how the most generous people are often the ones who aren't the richest - but then, wealth shouldn't always be measured in material terms.
Determined to repay their generosity in some way, I struck a bargain with my guide. Let me pick some seashells as souvenirs, I suggested, and I'll pay your parents $10 for each one. She agreed.
I picked three - which by the way I still have on my bedside table now, bar one that got confiscated at the airport for being so big that it was essentially a weapon - and handed over $30. Pleased with myself for what I thought was an ingenious idea, I waved at them energetically as we bade them goodbye - only to see them press the money back into their daughter's hands.
As we pushed off and left them waving on the shore, she turned to me and explained simply, "They want me to donate it all to the church."
And that's the thing, isn't it? It doesn't even matter that I don't subscribe to their religion. But I can appreciate the spirit of the gesture and the mindset that underlies it. We are often so singlemindedly caught up in material pursuits that we forget how to be happy and contented. And truly, there are so many blessings we should be grateful for - health, time, the company of those who are dear to us, and the privilege to see the beauty all around us, if only we know where to look. In a way, I'm glad I'm writing this at the turn of the year. I've never been a proponent of new year resolutions so I won't go down that track, but what I've come to realise is that I'm thankful, hugely thankful, for everything that has placed me where I am today.
Happy new year everyone! xx
(No awesome photos as I didn't have a proper camera during this trip!)