Monday, 28 July 2014

Random musings

My other half arrived in Suva around six months before Anna and I joined him. During our frequent Skype conversations I used to ask what it was like living in Suva to which there would be some mental and verbal cogitating before an unsatisfactory “I’m not really sure” or similar would be uttered. I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t frustrated at the time by the lack of a one word answer - “awesome” or “amazing” or even “meh” would have been preferable. However, now that I’m asked that pretty frequently by people contacting me through the blog I understand his inability to answer this question precisely.

I heard Suva described as a ‘Melanesian New York’ in a song recently.  That might sound like a bit of a stretch, but relative to the rest of the South Pacific, it is a megatropolis. And like all ‘big’ cities, it can be frustrating. It can be delightful. But the fascinating thing is how quickly what at first appears strange and exotic becomes ordinary and routine. I can go for days now without even remembering that I’m in a country that’s not my own. Of course, this could be because I haven’t lived in my own country for well over two decades. Or it might be a sign that I’m getting into a rut. But the most likely explanation is that I’m just a little dense.

However, there are a couple of thing that I cannot get used to – things I don’t want to get used to. Things that are like a slap in the face with a wet walu when I encounter them. Like the way animals are treated here. And I’m not just talking about the locals. We’ve rescued ten cats while we lived here and that doesn’t include the one that sneaks into the house occasionally to steal kibble. Nine of these cats descend from just one unspayed female owned by an expat who, when he left the neighbourhood, took his two male cats with him, leaving poor pregnant Goldie behind.  Some of her offspring were already roaming the neighbourhood by the time we inherited her, including a lovely female who had been adopted by another expat family in the neighbourhood – and left behind unspayed and pregnant when they moved as well.

Seriously – what is wrong with you people? Granted the SPCA doesn’t always have a vet in house, but they usually do – and spaying and neutering are not expensive. And don’t get me started on dog owners. When we lived in the Caribbean, there were canines charmingly known as ‘dumpster dogs’. These were generally a docile group what all sort of looked like…well, like “dog”. Black and brown and medium-sized these animals had obviously been self-perpetuating until they reverted to a canine variety that I imagine the original pooch looked like around a Neanderthal’s campfire. The packs of feral dogs roaming around Suva, on the other hand, look like a motley group of mutts of all different types, some of which are obviously abandoned pets.  And occasionally you come across a dog that you think is dead or at least should be dead – eyes infected, covered in mange and festering wounds. For these dogs I usually carry around a tin of meat with a pull-top lid. However, reflecting the futility of this, I now think that I should carry around a lethal injection instead.

Life is a lot less stressful if you're not having constant litters of kittens.
Another source of irritation is the term ‘housegirl’ used by many people here, including those that are employed at vast expense by UN-type agencies to address issues such as women’s equality. Now I’m old enough to remember the 1970s, a time when as one writer put it, ‘calling a woman a girl was like spitting in her face’. I am not a rabid feminist, but language is a powerful thing. To call a grown woman a girl in relation to her employment is to infer that she is not capable of being responsible for herself or others. That ultimately, she is a child. When a western expatriate in a developing country uses the term ‘housegirl’ to describe someone in their employment, it’s not only inappropriate, it’s inexcusable.

Recently we’ve come out of the other side of a dengue fever epidemic. Dengue is one of those neglected tropical diseases that are neglected because they only affect one billion or so people or so. Did I mention that they are the one billion poorest people on the planet? Dengue is a mosquito-borne virus that leads to a flu-like illness that can become haemorrhagic and lethal. It’s a scary illness with no real effective treatment or vaccination. The advice from healthcare professionals was alarming – take Panadol and drink plenty of fluids and go to the hospital if you start bleeding out of any of your orifices (including your pores).

Save your paranoia for mosquitoes, not sharks.
John and I have both had it after Hurricane Hugo in St Croix in the USVI when the mosquito population boomed in all of the post-storm standing water. The problem with dengue is that there are several serotypes and while you may gain immunity to one serotype, you can become more susceptible to serious complication if you contract the other types. Not knowing which serotype we had made me ultra-paranoid. Not to mention that I didn’t want to have to check anyone’s orifices if they got ill (including my own). I had aerosol and roll-on versions of DEET everywhere – in my handbag, at work, in the car. I gave out cans of Aerogard to visitors, told tourists at resort to spray themselves and sent Anna into school with multiple cans to leave in the common room. While others were complaining about how horrible the mass spraying in our neighbourhood to kill mosquito larvae was, I was transported to my happy suburban childhood by the smell of malathion which my dad used to spray liberally on the roses and we Californians were subjected to via aerial spraying to control the Mediterranean fruit fly in the early 1980s. Hmmmm organophosphates – the smell of summer!

When I’m not getting worked up about women and animal rights or the priorities of big pharmaceutical companies, I do occasionally get out and enjoy myself. Recently a friend and I went to the Crest Chicken Sulu Jamba Competition. We were the only kaivalagi there except one of the judges, which was a shame as it was a great afternoon out. It was serious but the mood was light-hearted with amazing designs of the traditional shirt/skirt combination modelled by women of all shapes and sizes. There was also entertainment, quizzes with prizes (mostly frozen chickens) and free ice cream. It was one of those quirky things that keeps living in this city interesting.

Rusila showing off her amazing sulu jamba skills
We are experiencing a well-recognised phenomenon where no one visits you for a long period of time then you get numerous sets of visitors– some overlapping - over a couple of months. Not that I’m complaining. Our first visitor was a niece who had been volunteering with GVI (and loved it) and spent her last couple of days in Fiji with us in Suva. We played tourist, finally going to the Fiji Museum (I had been saving that for a very rainy day). But most spectacular of all, we went up to Takalana for the day. It’s pretty much exactly a two-hour drive from Suva (if you drive like a Fijian taxi driver, probably a bit longer for the rest of us). The weather was rubbish, but the black sand beach was stunning. After a short bumpy boat-ride we were at Moon Reef enjoying the company of its resident pod of spinner dolphin. Because they are protected, you cannot get into the water with them, but they are totally engaging anyway. Back at the resort, they served us a decent lunch. It was a wonderful day and I’m just sorry that we hadn't done it before.

And with all of these visitors, we’ll be able to tick a few more things to do off of our Fiji list. We’ll let you know how it goes.

2 comments:

  1. Mary, I have so enjoyed reading your blog. I lived in Fiji as a child and teenager with my expat family in the 60s. Much of what you describe is very familiar - the heat and humidity and the intense feeling of being far away from anywhere and of course much is new. We nearly always bought curry and roti for lunch at school. It is fascinating to read your account of Fiji now and from a modern (post-colonial) perspective. I'm afraid to say we always referred to the lovely Fijian women who worked in the house as 'housegirls', but I am surprised and sorry that that's still current fifty years on! Sadly, we lived a very Suva-centred life - reading your account of your trip round the islands has made me dream of returning to fill in the gaps. Look forward to reading further posts...

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  2. Dorothy - thank you so much for the kind comment. I imagine that it must have been a very different place to live back then (both for the better and the worse). Please feel free to share some of your memories by posting comments- I'd be fascinated to hear them.

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