This will likely be an earnest, though potentially infrequently updated, account of my adventures, tribulations,
and everyday experiences as I spend two years working as an environmental Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The San Antonios Come to Fiji!


It has been over a year since I last saw those parents of mine and infrequent calls of patchy service were just not cutting it. So happily, after months of discussion and hypothesizing they were finally stepping off the plane and being punched in the face with a wall of humidity. Or at least that’s how I imagined it. But apparently it was actually more humid back home… yikes.

They were to arrive in the Savusavu airport (it’s saying something that the one landing strip is paved) at 8:30 am on the morning of July 2nd, a Monday … and who ever said good things don’t happen on Mondays?

I wanted to surprise them by being at the airport when they arrived, which meant that I had to get down to Savusavu the night before and hoof it to the landing strip the morning of. As the taxi was careening down the final hill, I noticed a van full of white people drive by in the opposite direction – Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort… oh crap. Did the plane land early? It was only 8 am! The one time that anything happens early in Fiji, I get screwed! We arrive and I jump out of the car and start running around asking people if the Koro Sun van has already come and gone, completely forgetting to pay the cabbie. Apparently, there was another flight expected to land within a half an hour, which completely dumbfounded me that there would even be more than one flight in a day. Relieved, I plopped down to wait in some inconspicuous corner and began talking with this Fijian woman selling jewelry. I told her all about how I was meeting my parents after it had been so long and that I wanted to hide and surprise them when they came in, so she agreed to be my look out.

The plane lands and my new friend is giving me a blow by blow of what’s happening – it’s coming to a stop; the doors are opening; there are people coming down; what does your mom look like? Oh I see her! She’s off the plane! She’s running! She’s looking all around!

She is? But she doesn’t know I’m here! Then she came running in and sprinted right past me. I turned and followed her heading and then it became abundantly clear – bathroom. My dad followed shortly behind her. Well, I certainly didn’t want to interfere with that prerogative, don’t want any excited accidents to happen ;).

My mom emerged first and began walking towards me smiling. I thought she saw me but apparently she was just walking and smiling in relief and I had to practically hug her for her to see me. When she did it was like an explosion, she just erupts into tears and hugs me hard enough to crack a few ribs. When dad came out it was much the same except a little less wet. My Fijian friend was very pleased.

At the airport <3
Our first stay was at Koro Sun Resort, just a short trip out of town. It was only a one night rest stop before the intensity of the village the following day and it should have been comfortable and relaxing. Well, the place may have looked nice but it was hardly a 4 star in my opinion, particularly the part about waking up with a cockroach on me in my bed. I mean I can get that in the village for free!… not really their best amenity.

Mom at Koro Sun
Well we occupied ourselves as much as possible during that time by eating and drinking and taking a tour of Savusavu town, which took all of three minutes.

Shortly after arrival at Koro Sun
Tuesday – the village. The bus was late coming from Savusavu by about an hour and a half. My plan of forcing my parents to experience the real Fiji was succeeding thus far. When our stop came and we got all of their bags off, most of which were passed out through the windows (it is and open air bus) we were alone. Well, time to hike in to my house, which is maybe a quarter mile from the main road. I think there was something like eight bags between us. We managed pretty well and once we got passed the second house villagers came running out of their homes to offer assistance and meet the parents. Most of our bags were lifted off of us and the rest of the walk was easy (why don’t they ever help me with all my bags when I hike home after being away?).

Riding the late bus to the village
Three days basically flew by. Plenty of food eaten, plenty of grog drank, gifts exchanged, water snorkeled, school visited. It really was a whirlwind in which it would be impossible for mom and dad to truly grasp life in the village but at least they got the chance to see it, to meet the people, and of course to drink the grog. They brought some of this delicious staple home with them in the event that you want to experience the mouth twisting sensation yourself. 

Playing guitar and singing with my mom at home.
Drinking grog!

When we first arrived, I performed their sevusevu, which is the traditional offering of kava root made by visitors to the chief in order to visit/stay in the village. It was all in Fijian and a good friend of mine wrote it up in advanced and I basically memorized it, but my chief was all giddy at the situation of Tina performing a sevusevu, which is also traditionally performed by men.

Eventually the short visit came to a close and we were finally leaving for a bit of real retreat on the beautiful little island of Qamea. I was so relieved to be done liaising and being put on the spot and was thoroughly ready for some anonymity.

In order to stay a second night in the village mom and dad had to cancel our flight from Savusavu to Taveuni (the intermediary island next to Qamea) and we were just going to take the bus up from my village to the ferry landing point about an hour away and take the hour long ferry across to Taveuni instead. This is not only cheaper but it’s also more of a real mode of travel. I really wanted them to see what transportation was like in Fiji. Be careful what you wish for…

The bus was late but I wasn’t worried since the ferry waits for the ferry bus to arrive before departing. Well, arrive we did and wait it did not. When we got there the wharf was crowded with people being noisy and generally disgruntled looking. I pushed my way up to the dock man and inquired as to what the hell was going on.

Dock man - We’re full.
Me - You’re full.
Dock man (nods) - We’re full.
Me - You’re full?!
Dock man - Yes, we’re full!

…uh-oh

Maybe not the most articulate conversation I’ve ever had but I think the long forgotten sensation of panic was starting to well up inside and I had quite forgotten how to deal with stress as such. There was only one boat docked. It only makes one trip in a day and docks for the night on Taveuni, the bus that just dropped us at the wharf had already left and was headed back to Savusavu for the night. We were in the middle of no where. I had no cell phone service. And this was ridiculous! Never in the history of this ferry running had it ever been full! (ok, maybe I’m just basing that exclamation on the three times I’ve traveled on it but I think most Fijians would agree with me that it’s rarely at capacity). Who the hell filled up the boat anyway? I tried to banter with the dock man some more but to no avail. When I asked him if there was another boat coming for the rest of us he just stared at me while standing on the boat and didn’t say a thing. He was still staring as they pushed off and left.

Now, if I was by myself I would not be inwardly freaking out. By myself, it would be no big deal to sleep under a tree or more likely find a family in some village somewhere to adopt me for the night. But having my parents there put my stress into overdrive. I was worried about them and concerned about them not having a good vacation. At the very least they were definitely experiencing what it’s like to travel in a developing country, things like this are par for the course in getting anywhere out here.

And then in typical Fiji fashion a solution materialized out of nowhere in the form of two white people who arrived after us and had chartered a boat from the resort they were staying with on Taveuni. They managed to fit all 25-30 of us still standing on the dock onto their boat and we were off.

When we got there all the taxis that usually wait for the ferry boat people were gone. We were just wondering how we would make it to our rendezvous point with the resort transport when a man we had been riding on the boat with told us he used to work at that resort and with a few quick well placed phone calls had our resort transport on its way to the wharf to pick us up!

Relief.

I was fairly silent for the drive around Taveuni, just savoring the peace of not having to think. We pulled up to Qeleni village where the boat transfers over to Qamea Island and hopped out of the van, all of us except mom. She was still sitting inside looking ill. I thought maybe she was feeling car sick from the bumpy ride. It wasn’t until we were on the boat that she turns to me and confesses that when we pulled up in Qeleni village she thought that we had arrived. Apparently, she forgot that the Qamea Island Resort and Spa was on Qamea Island… only mom would think that the village was our swanky hotel!
Beach on Qamea

Me and dad!
Our stay was phenomenal. The place was beautiful; the food was amazing (I think I had salmon everyday) and the people were great. We did a bunch of activities to keep us busy like hiking to waterfalls, snorkeling, or getting the best massages of our lives. It was exactly what I needed to feel normal again. At some point I gave up trying to be anonymous, seeing as how the staff all knew I was a Peace Corps volunteer and could speak Fijian. But it was rather entertaining for me to go back and forth with them when my parents couldn’t understand.
Part of our bure
Dad learning how to scrape a coconut to get the coconut milk
River crossing...they had this rope you were supposed to hold but that's just silly
Swimming at the waterfall

Tragically, we had to leave a night earlier than planned because I had to dash off to training the following day and with the flights as they were would never have made it to the pick-up in time. Or at least on paper I wouldn’t have but then this is Fiji we’re talking about and the pick-up was two hours late anyway. But on the upside I got to show them around Suva, if you can call seeing Suva an upside. I took them to the giant open air market so they could buy their grog to bring home, which would have been a daunting task, but I sought out some local friends selling at a nearby table and we were instantly transported to the sellers of the best grog for the best price. It’s good to have connections and in Fiji that’s all there is.

We wanted to spend as much time together as possible before I had to leave for the pick-up to training, which meant that our tearful goodbye took place on the first floor of the MHCC shopping complex. I managed not to cry. It’s not that I wasn’t sad but I decided that crying wouldn’t improve my situation any and that I didn’t want the other volunteers to be concerned when I met them shortly thereafter. But that didn’t stop my parents from letting the tears fall. Apparently, there was another volunteer in the mall that walked by the scene on his way up to the office. He said he didn’t know it was me but remembered thinking that there were some really sad white people in the MHCC.

So, thus ended our vacation together. It wasn’t the most ridiculous adventure any of us had had but it was really wonderful to get the chance to share my life here with my mom and dad. I know they had a great time and I hope they know that I did too. And if any of you want to come visit I will make you feel at home and cook my delicious tuna burgers with bananas.


Monday, July 16, 2012

This is why it's taken me so long to post a new blog


Have you ever been really, really bored? Would you like to see what that’s like? Well, allow me…

No, I’m not really going to bore you to death, least I hope not, but I’ve been dying to write about this for a long time, because I want you to know the truth.

In order to do this properly I’ve sought help from my fellow pcvs to get as much supporting evidence (I mean stories) as possible.

Boredom - none of you know what this is until you have been stranded in a remote little village for month long stretches with shoddy phone service, no computer, no i-pod, a radio that only broadcasts urgent announcements regarding the fall of the third reich, no electricity, and a cat. Sure, we’ve all become expert cooks and stove-top bakers; we’ve read roughly 57 books (last week); and know six different ways to kill a cockroach, but you can only partake in such activities for so many hours in a day.

Now, there definitely are days when crazy and exciting and unexpected things happen and plenty of days when we manage to do work or at least feel like we’re doing something that can be categorized somehow as work. But there’s definitely an absurd amount of down time and sometimes it’s just too cyclony, or the entire village is off at their farms, or your fingers are bleeding from playing the guitar so much and you resort to, well, other things.

This is a list of how we adventurous, world traveling, philanthropizing good-samaritans spend such hours. So if you’re ever faced with a day or month of sheer boredom here’s a helpful suggestion guide - in order from normal to send help asap:

  1. Sleep – all day. Move your mattress to the floor to make it more exciting.
  1. Secretly drink alcohol out of coffee mugs in your house and then pretend you’re drinking tea when a villager comes by (I will qualify this by saying it’s more a situation of sneaking a drink in a place where booze is not allowed and not about getting drunk by yourself).
  1. Try to fix your pair of $3 flip flops (your last pair of shoes) by any means possible including – stapling, sewing, gluing, nailing or a combination of all these. Fail on all accounts and just use duct tape.
  1. Do a 750 piece (minimum) puzzle in one sitting.

  1. Try to write your name as an ambigram. Repeat for the members of your immediate family; continue on to friends until you run out…then use their middle names.
  1. Make a cross-stitch pattern for every person in your village.
  1. Paint chalk board paint on your walls (or inherit a house where the last volunteer did this for you) and doodle incessantly. Write things in a language other than English or whatever the local language is so that you can feel like you’re not as much of a child as everyone would have you believe when you try to speak to them in their tongue. Je suis un pamplemousse.
  1. Practice lighting matches one handed – for showing off at grog or in the event that your arm is broken.
  1. Make origami out of toilet paper squares – feel free to multi-task during this activity.
  1. Wage war against all manner of giant creatures fighting to inhabit your house (this is more a happy chance event rather than the typical monotony, such as giant centipedes, giant rats, or giant spiders eating giant cockroaches). 

  1. Figure out how easy it is to add the numbers 1 through 100 in your head in less than 30 seconds. Realize that there are tricks to dividing or multiplying anything by 5 and get excited when you can do it with any number in less than 10 seconds. Did you know that 12,713/5=2542.6?
  1. Make two different types of bread and bagels and then proceed to eat them all.
  1. Sit and stare off into space without moving… for hours.
  1. Play with the fish eye setting on your camera. Set it to the moderately distorted setting and take a picture of your hand and make it look like you have elephantitis. Or just take several hundred self-portraits, only moving a little bit each time so that when you review them quickly in your playback setting it looks like a stop-motion film.

  1. Sit like a ninja on your mat and destroy each fly as it lands. Continue ad infinitum.
  1. Watch the geckos on your ceiling stalk giant moths (two-thirds their body size); watch a gecko pounce one and manage to catch the moth head in its mouth. Then watch as it slowly digests the moth bits inside the gecko’s mouth, little by little eating the whole thing. (Sometimes when I find one of these giant moths bashing its head against my ceiling I call my cat in and make sure she notices it; then I take my woven hand fan and smack it so its flight path dips down to about a foot or so above the ground at which point my cat launches into the air after it; we continue to tag team it until my cat manages to eat her tasty late night snack).
  1. Listen to the bats fight over the breadfruit in the tree next to your bedroom window. Wonder what happens to the one that loses.
  1. If it’s dark out, surreptitiously sneak out your back door and embark on a stealth mission to eliminate the left over fish heads cooked in lolo that a villager kindly brought over to you but who didn’t realize that you are the only one staying in your 12 ft2 house and that you’re not housing 11 others and that you cannot possibly eat that many fish heads in a week and a half let alone in the amount of time it takes them to go bad. Manage to chuck them into some seemingly inconspicuous bush and creep back into your house hoping no one sees you only to find the 25 pieces of boiled dalo root that you were supposed to eat in combination with your fish heads. Go back outside.
  1. Watch little jumping spiders chase each other around your bookshelf. Never cease to be amused when one jumps behind a book and the other one jumps left and right in place trying to figure out where the first one went.
  1. Watch the same little spiders sneak up on ants and then get terrified when the ant happens to be walking toward it.
  1. Find a trail of such ants. Watch their route for a few seconds, then when there’s a break in the march swipe your finger across their path and let your skin oil erase the trace of their pheromone trail. Enjoy the ensuing terror and consequent pile up and ultimate success at rerouting by the one brave independent thinker…then do it again.
  1. Or sit in front of a trail of ants with various food items at your disposal. Toss a few crumbs along the line – observe how long it takes for one of the ants to actually realize that it’s food and not just an obstacle to go around. Continue to watch as he tells the others and they begin excavation. Wait until they finally decide to just pick it up and carry it back to their nest instead of just nibbling off bits and as soon as they start marching away with it, snatch it away and put it back to where it was originally.
  1. Gather together a bunch of plastic bags. Meticulously slice them by spiraling down the bag in one continuous piece. Braid them together into a rope that breaks during the first test; try again with a different style of plastic bag.
  1. Determine the exact amount of protein, calories, carbohydrates, calcium, and iron in 1 Tbsp of crushed Natrala soy protein supplement; repeat using whole chunks.
No, I did not take this picture.

  1. Walk to the ocean and fill up a pitcher with sea water; carry it back to the house and pour it into a pot. Find another pot and fill it with fresh water from the tap. Place the two pots on a table in front of you. Then put your left hand in one pot and your right hand in the other. Maintain this position for at least one hour. Remove both hands and compare the differences in their wrinkling. (Ha, I feel the need to defend myself on this one – I got the idea when I noticed that after spending 11 hours out at sea kayaking and spear fishing, my hands were thoroughly wrinkled but my Fijian friend still had hands as smooth as baby’s bottom; for some awesome evolutionary reason, they don’t dehydrate the same way as we do, so then I wanted to see how differently we wrinkle in salt water vs fresh water. Oddly, the results were the opposite of my scientific postulating and I am going to have to attempt this endeavor again…).
  1. Make lists of things to do in the painful boredom you feel for much of most days.

Though there are doubtlessly thousands of other things that I could potentially place on this list, I can’t think of any more and I can’t remember any other ones from the other volunteers, without whom this blog post would sadly still have been entirely possible, but whose contributions were greatly appreciated none-the-less.

Perhaps look out for a part two…sometime in the far future.