Monday, 13 April 2015

Circumnavigation (or Ending up exactly where you started)

Emotionally, I felt ready to leave Fiji. Logistically, however, it was very difficult. The process for exporting locally acquired pets is long and tedious and shipping companies will show no shame in their efforts to rip you off by charging you for all sorts of mysteriously vague line-items. Then there are the endless trips to the vets, one of which referred to the cats as mongrels and the other said that they looked healthy, yet pretentious. We now call them our pretentious mongrels, though the correct term for them is Fiji Specials. I’m thinking of making them all little biker jackets. You think I’m joking, I’m thinking YouTube sensation.

And of course there was the worry – the cats' trip door to door from Suva to Northumberland took 56 hours. When I complained about the ground crews being nonchalant in their attitude towards my concern for the cats’ well-being to husband while I was en route, he send me the following email:

Desk man: ‘Are the three cats ok’?

Man in hold: ‘What cats?’

Desk man: ‘Ma'am, he says they are doing fine’

You: ‘Can you ask if their water is full’

Desk man: ‘Is their water full?’

Man in hold: ‘You’re kidding right?’

Desk man: ‘Ma'am he says they are purr fect!! And the water has been replenished with pure Fiji water to suit their pretensions’

You: ‘Oh that’s wonderful! Thank You’

Desk man: ‘The lady says thanks mate!’

Man in hold: ‘F… off’

Adjusting to a temperate climate in a house with all the mod cons isn't easy
Of course I was overweight at the airport and my cute carry on didn't fit in the Fiji Airways cabin bag checker no matter how I massaged (squashed) it. Now I’m not the most stylish person in the world, but I have certain fashion requirements when I travel. First, I wouldn't be caught dead in a pair of tennis shoes in an airport. Never. No way. The only time any sort of sporty footwear is okay on planes is if you’re travelling to a mountainous destination when it’s acceptable to wear hiking boots to save space and weight in your luggage. And my carry on must be cute. So it was with great reluctance that my vital travelling items were transferred from my cute cabin bag to my loud stripy beach bag that has been embellished with rust stains and a fine peppering of mildew spots during our time in Fiji.

The flight to Sydney from Nadi was a breeze – I was reading a good book and the few hours flew by (literally). But the Sydney to Dubai leg…. Even using my sensory deprivation kit (neck pillow, ear plugs + noise cancelling headset, and eye shades) which, when used properly, has the uncanny ability to squeeze time by a factor of at least four, the 14 hours seemed like a lifetime. I made a last minute, expensive, decision to check into the Dubai airport hotel for the seven hour layover. At least half of the time that I should have been sleeping I spent trying to figure out how to work the shower and turn off all of the lights using the myriad of switches dotted throughout the room. It was like some sort of episode out of the Candid Camera. But it wasn't funny. It was more like the Twilight Zone. I may have even shouted “why are you mocking me?” to no one in particular when I was standing, freezing in the shower. In the middle of the desert.

So far I have a worryingly lack of culture shock symptoms, besides binge eating everything that I've missed within the first couple of weeks of being home. Walker Sweet Chilli Crisps, shepherd’s pie made with Bisto instant onion gravy, a wedge of Stilton, jam roly poly with custard and a Tunnock’s caramel wafer? Don’t mind if I do!

The only time I've felt out of my depth was when I chose to ride in the front seat of a double-decker bus in Newcastle. I love the view of the city from up there. Or at least I did. This time it felt like I was on Mr Toad’s Wild Ride without a seat belt. The upper stories of the shop fronts whizzed by at unnatural speeds. It was mesermising – in a bad way. It took around ten minutes for me to get the nerve up to stand up and move (actually sort of crawl) to a seat away from the front window.

Time is a funny thing. When I was in Fiji I felt like I’d been gone from the UK forever. As soon as I walked in the door of our home in England, I felt like I’d never left. It’s like I've come home from the longest holiday of my life and it’s taking a really, really long time to unpack. The first three things to come out of the last box from storage that I opened were a wooden model of the Cutty Sark, a black leather jacket and my potato ricer. Evidence, if it was required, of the chaos of moving half way around the world. However, it’s starting to feel like the pain of childbirth – it might just seem like a good idea to do it all again in a couple of years…

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Standing on the Edge

I leave Fiji lamenting and rejoicing in almost equal measure. So excited to get back to my own house, with my garden, old friends, family, pubs, walks, castles and cold delicious water straight from the tap. So sad to leave my wonderful colleagues, our great friends, relaxed social life and the coral reefs. However, I will not miss the grapefruit-sized toads that I occasionally find sitting in the cats’ food bowl. Every time I catch one to take it outside - a quivering, wriggling mass wrapped in a tea towel - I’m reminded of the Indiana Jones Aztec sacrifice scene and imagine myself holding a beating human heart. I’m not going to lie, it is disturbing.

Well, my bags are packed, the cats confined to the house (totally oblivious to their impending epic "adventure"), I've returned all the things that I've borrowed (I hope), said goodbye to everyone (including some people more than once) and have got to the point where there is really nothing to do except wander around the house wondering if I've packed the right stuff to keep me going until the shipment arrives in the UK in a couple months.

Poor unsuspecting kitties think that they've found a cozy place to sleep....
The contents of my suitcase are quite bizarre – it does look a bit a like the time I let a four year old pack her own suitcase for a holiday – while adorable, it was hardly appropriate to spend an entire week in a swimming cozzie, a pair of wellies, odd socks, a sequined dress and a tutu.  Having said that, each item’s inclusion has some sort of logic to it, supported by an internal narrative as I handle each one.

The three bags of Cheese Twisties? Those are for Fiji-homesick daughter, who despite having access to all of the comforts of M&S, Waitrose, etc… longs for the Pacific’s favourite snack. Due to rubbish quality control at the factory, I carefully squeezed each pack to make sure that they were full of plump Twisties. So if anyone saw me fondling packets of snack food at MH, that’s what I was doing. Really.

The PedEgg has made the grade because my feet are the unhappiest bit of me about going back to a temperate climate. As a fellow Suvan posted recently – wearing flip flops 365 days a year never gets old. My feet weep at the thought of being sentenced to entire months confined to winter boots (even if they look great in them). So I've made a deal with my feet. I will occasionally allow them out of their socks and pamper them.

My cooking knives come with me along with my mother’s metal spatula that she got when she got married in 1952 and my favourite garlic press. Anyone that knows me will understand that the inclusion of these items are non-negotiable.

Some of the contents of my bag reproach me. Why on earth did I bring precious family documents, some of which over 150 years old to Suva? I was going to dedicate the time when I wasn't gainfully employed scanning and cataloging them all. Of course I was. Instead they sat in a plastic box with paper-bag wrapped packages of cat litter to try to prevent them mouldering in the humidity while I spent my early months here marveling how much time it took to accomplish so little.  So now some come back with me in my carry-on while the rest awaits the return sea voyage to the UK.

Then of course there are gifts, including Pacific-themed artwork done by a friend which shall have pride of place once it’s framed. A colleague gave me a Fijian flag - she felt it was important that I had a version of the old flag before the revamped version, free of the colonial relic of the Union Jack, is rolled out. I shall hang it up every October 10th (Fiji Day) in my window in rural Northumberland, which will be confusing for the locals but will keep me connected to this wonderful country and the time that we spent here.

If you're wondering if I packed any clothes, well, I have so few cold-weather clothes (having been in cold weather for approximately 3 weeks in 2-1/2 years), that I even have room for my fabulous enormous cheeseboard made from part of a wine barrel that I got for Christmas in New Zealand. Now if I can just squeeze in some instant kimchi noodles, my packing will be complete.

Ni sa moce Fiji – I am going to miss you.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The End is Nigh

As my Fijian adventure comes to a close, I feel as though I am seeing many aspect of living in Suva in a new light. Things that I’d taken for granted have suddenly taken on a charm that until now has been hidden from me (probably through a veil of sweat), while other things that aren’t quite so charming have become immensely more bearable. The obsequious man that runs the little restaurant that I frequent near work that I suspect overcharges me on a regular basis? Over the last few days he’s started to feel like my best friend. Want to use your sharp elbows to get in front of me in the queue? Be my guest – soon I’ll be back in Blighty where everyone knows the rules of queuing and people like you would be crushed under an opprobrious avalanche of tutting and shaking heads.

The taste of Maya Dhaba’s crispy garlic naan bread dipped in butter chicken has already joined the pantheon of great taste related memories of my food-obsessed life. But, my God, the weather… What can I say about Suva weather that hasn't been said thousands of times before? After an afternoon of extreme tropic torpor with no electricity and no air movement, during which the cats and I all slept in a slightly comatose state with our eyes half open, I’ll be welcoming the biting cold wind off of the North Sea with open arms. Of course, I’ll be wearing my merino wool jacket and down parka that I bought in New Zealand in anticipation of just such an eventuality.

My time in Suva has been incredibly rewarding and I’m immensely grateful to the friends that I’ve made during my time here – the ones that been my Fiji “family”, who have talked me through bad Fiji weeks, rejoiced in mine and my family’s achievements and were available to pop open a bottle of something fizzy to celebrate for no other reason than it was Friday (or Tuesday. Or Monday). It’s amazing how close you can get to people when you’re thrown together for such an intense time. One blogger likens it to “dog years” - for every year you've known someone in an expat situation, it’s like knowing them for seven.

Too hot to be a cat
There are few things that I really, really won’t miss about expat life here. One of my biggest irritations is with some of the expat women of this town. Really, what decade are we in when one of the first questions you get asked at a function is “what does your husband do?” That question belongs in the dustbin of history. Seriously, being a trailing spouse can be lobotomising enough without having to leave the sense of identity that comes with your career, skills and interests at the immigration desk.

There is something profoundly sad about knowing that our Suva experience, with its distinct cast of characters, will never exist in time again. It’s all part of the great emotional rollercoaster ride that I’m currently on. I go from premature deep nostalgia for things that I’m going to miss to extreme anticipation for doing recreational things that do not involve alcohol, eating or sweating profusely (or all three things at once). Underlying all of this is a sense of grief at the closure of another life chapter. Though I’m anticipating an exciting next adventure, I’ll certainly be sad to see this one come to an end.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Nine out of Ten Cats

Meet Miss Laila. She’s a cat. While our other cats are aloof and slightly skittish, she’ll sit on anyone’s lap, particularly if it is already occupied by a laptop.  Out of the ten cats that we've rescued while we've been here, she’s the friendliest.

“You've rescued ten cats!” I hear you cry through cyberspace (believe me, I've heard it enough in person). Now take the next thought that is about to pop into your brain and strangle it before it fully forms. These poor homeless pusses were not the product of feckless locals not looking after their pets properly. No, nine out of ten of these cats were the result of the behaviour of someone that in expat parlance is cleverly referred to as a “bad expat”.

Though it needs in-depth anthropological study, I suspect that bad expat behaviour is not linked to people being inherently malevolent (in other words, just being a bad person), but rather an inexplicable lapse of normal behaviour when transplanted to a new environment free from the conventions of home (“Seatbelt? No, in Fiji I've acquired super-human strength that allows me to survive being flung though the windscreen at high speed!”). I've got quite a bit to say about bad expats, but this isn't the right time or place to have that uncensored discussion, so I’ll continue to mutter under my breath about them, quietly taking notes.

Now, back to cats. The road to becoming a certified crazy cat lady began soon after we moved to Fiji when we started to feed a pregnant female cat (Momma Kitty aka Goldie aka Cat 1) who had been abandoned by her expat owner when he and his family moved out of the neighbourhood. Soon she produced two tiny kittens (Daenerys Stormborn Targaryen aka Khaleesi aka Cat 2 and Regulus Arcturus Black aka Reggie aka Cat 3) in the stack of packing boxes outside our back door.

I can honestly say that without the appearance of those three wonderful whiskered balls of fluff, our time in Fiji might have been dramatically curtailed. Do not underestimate the power of pets to give you a sense of home when, standing at the bottom of a sweaty black pit of despair, you begin to question the wisdom of moving so far away from family, friends and Marks & Spencers.

When another expat family abandoned a pregnant Miss Laila (Cat 4) and her adolescent feral male offspring, Ollie (Cat 5), she moved straight in with us (we’re suckers and they know it) and quickly produced Cats 6-9. Did I mention that Miss Laila’s mother was Mamma Kitty (Cat 1)? So you can see that because some feeble expat couldn’t be asked to cough up the FJ$50 (approximately US$25) to get Goldie desexed in the first place, she turned into a Mama Kitty and was responsible for at least eight cats which were totally surplus to requirement.

Almost all of the cats have been rehomed, but we are looking for a new set of humans to look after Miss Laila. Ollie is still feral. We hadn’t seen him for nearly six months when I came downstairs one morning last week and found him asleep in the fruit bowl (obviously). He chowed down a couple bowls of kibble, asked for a scratch under the chin then headed off into the undergrowth without looking back.

And cat number ten? Poor little Teddy was found in a carpark in the middle of Suva by one of Anna’s friends aged two weeks. We hand fed him and raised him until, when he was four months old, a houseguest accidentally let him outside and he was killed by a pack of feral dogs. Seriously, don’t get me started on irresponsible dog owners – I wouldn’t be able to shut up.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Things that go bump in the night

I had been thinking that a post about creepy crawlies in Fiji was long overdue when the inspiration arrived on my doorstep. My bedroom doorstep. Literally. At 3am.

Now all of you cat owners know about the lovely treats that your cute little killers bring you as gifts. Terrified mice, rats in rigor mortis, tailless chewed up lizards, half-dead birds and the like. All delightful and totally within my capacity to deal with. But the other night I met my match. I’ll admit there was some screaming and maybe just a little hysteria.

We have a long wooden landing at the top of the stairs outside of our bedroom. The cats use this as their killing ground. In the night you can sometimes hear them playing some sort of morbid version of catch. It sounds something like: scamper, scamper, thud, scamper, thud, thud. If any of the scampers or thuds is punctuated by a squeak, I’ll rouse myself from my slumber to undertake a mission of mercy to try to save the still living victim.

The other night there were quite a lot of thuds and scampers. Eventually there was a loud squeak, so I got out of bed and went onto the landing. A pile of clean laundry had been knocked over and one of the murderous beasts, Reggie, was looking expectantly at a crumpled up dark shirt, presumably the hiding place of a wee cute mouse that had managed to escape his clutches. In the dark, I stepped over the cat and the t-shirt to pick up daughter’s school uniform to hang it back up when the cat and the shirt suddenly engaged in mortal combat. The shirt wasn't a shirt. It was a fruit bat.

Now, I usually find fruit bats quite charming. They are wonderful to see flying overhead in the beautiful Fijian dusk – in silhouette they look just like Batman’s mark. However, they do get on your nerves when they screech and fight during the night. So there I was, penned in between blissfully slumbering daughter’s bedroom door and a flapping injured bat.

The cat, at least, had retreated a little. I grabbed daughter’s school shirt and was about to throw it over the injured beast when suddenly the fabric, in both substance and size, appeared to be inadequate for the task. Also the day was dawning on her second to last day of school (ever) and an important chemistry exam. I didn't want to be responsible for ruining a lucky shirt, or cause the entire family to become infected by a Fijian version of Ebola, so I turned to the only other option available to me. I screamed for my husband.

Husband, who had just hours before been complaining about our felines’ blood-thirsty ways (when dealing with a dead baby bird), gallantly appeared with a blanket. He gently picked up the poor little critter and took it outside. When he got back into bed later (after washing with copious amounts of warm soapy water – we've got a very good understanding of microbiology in our family) he said, “Poor little thing. It probably won’t live. Damned thing bit me three or four times – nearly took my finger off”. He then started making zombie noises. Funny.

Reggie as a kitten killing a catnip mouse
One of the great things about Fiji is its lack of deadly creepy crawlies. The Fijians think our fear of spiders is incomprehensible as none of the spiders here bite. There are snakes – both on land and sea. But the land based ones are mostly small and rare, while the banded sea krait is venomous but has a tiny mouth. Imagine yourself trying to take a bite out of a basketball - that’s what I imagine the degree of difficulty one of these striped critters would have trying to deliver a mortal wound to a person. Of course this is hard to remember when one is swimming up from the reef at you when you’re snorkeling – there is something particularly unnerving about snakes moving in three dimensions.
Scary if you're scared of snakes, I guess.
Poor daughter appears to be the one with the most frequent creepy crawly encounters. Soon after we arrived in Suva, she slayed a scorpion with a wooden spatula in the kitchen. Or at least she thought it was a scorpion. The fact that it turned out to be a harmless scorpion spider shouldn't detract from her heroic effort. Then there was the enormous Pacific tree boa in the branches above their heads during a biology field trip. This being Fiji, one of Anna’s classmate’s scrambled up the tree to get it down.

However, her worst encounter by far was with a spider. Now I know that I just said that spiders don’t bite here. However, when there is one the size of a dinner plate hiding in your untidy bedroom all rational thinking goes out of the window. She was saved by her friend, S, who stood like a Ninja for around 45 minutes on her bed patiently surveying the room for the elusive beast. Assisted by another friend, H, the beast was eventually caught. The fact that H has a propensity to eat all of my pickled jalapenos when he’s in the house was forever forgiven. John and I witnessed these unfolding events via inadvertent text messages as demonstrated by the phone screenshot below.

Pity about the swearing but at least she demonstrates her vast literary knowledge
As for me, the worst that I've encountered is a venomous centipede that ran out of some lettuce into the salad spinner, where it was trapped and duly dispatched by one of Anna’s friends. I’m not going to lie – I absolutely loath the things. I hate all their horrible little legs and the creepy undulating way that they move. Not to the mention that a bite from them has been likened to the pain of childbirth. They are definitely my least favourite of all tropical critters along with crocodiles. Fortunately we don’t have those here.

Of course, all of this needs to be put into perspective. Even if you do the Beqa shark dive or happen to encounter a reef shark while snorkeling, it’s very likely that the most dangerous thing that you’ll experience in Fiji will be a ride in a taxi with no seatbelts and a driver in desperate need of a pair of spectacles. Unless you're smallish and furry, in which case I'd suggest that you stay away from our cats.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Terra Incognita disambiguated

Well here we are at the end of October, post-visitors, post-election and we’re still standing, though speeding towards 2015 at a rate that appears to defy the laws of space-time. So far, it’s been a terrific year, made glorious by its general uneventfulness. As one gets older, events (defined here as things that happen to you) tend to become increasingly more likely to be of the negative variety, so one can revel in any prolonged length of time where such things are absent.

As usual, we prepared for the worst and hoped for the best. We treated the approaching election (the first since a military coup in 2006) a bit like a strengthening tropical depression. We bought a couple of cases of drinking water, stocked up on gin, tonic, chocolate and cat food and kept a weather eye on the media. We dedicated a bit of time to pondering the implications of newspaper headlines like “Suva will not burn! Says PM” and the inevitable racist and misogynistic vitriol that surfaced occasionally on social media.

It was heartening to see the people of Fiji take their democratic duty to heart. The day came (it was declared a much-needed public holiday) and, besides a cracking combined neighbourhood birthday and election party, it was uneventful. The Fijian electorate (now all sporting fingers dyed deep purple) elected the sitting government who now are the majority party in a resurrected parliament. One is full of hope for this nascent democracy – it’s hard to imagine that, if things stay on track, the country will not be a completely different (and better) place in ten years’ time.

In the run up to the election, we had a series of overlapping visitors which gave us a great excuse to revisit some resorts close to Suva and try out some new ones. I will now describe them in 60 seconds without hesitation, repetition or deviation:

Leleuvia Island Resort. An old favourite – small island with lovely sandy beach. Has changed target market from backpackers to families in the time we've been in Fiji.

Reef off of Leleuvia. You have to look carefully to spot these little guys (nudibranchs).
Upside: Fantastic snorkeling if you know where to go, paddleboards, lovely bar, friendly staff and relatively easy to get to from Suva. On Saturday nights they serve the best lovo in Fiji.

Downside: Can be unpleasantly hot at night once ceiling fans go off. I’m going off having to put up with communal toilets and showers (though now some of the showers have hot water). There are probably too many children if you’re looking for a quiet holiday – particularly over long weekends when expats descend on the place with their families. Besides breakfast (which is wonderful), there’s no real choice at mealtimes.

Beqa Lagoon Resort. This is a new favourite for weekend getaways. It’s mainly a dive resort but it caters to non-divers too.

Beqa House reef. Who knew that worms could be so beautiful?
Upsides: Easy to get to – it’s a 25 minute boat ride from Pacific Harbour. The en-suite bures are lovely with 24 hour power, which means that you can have cool, mosquito-free nights. The house reef is impressive with good coral cover and loads to see – white tips, scorpion fish, octopus, lion fish were all there just off the beach. The free poolside foot massage with Pure Fiji products was a clincher.

Downside: Bearing in mind that Fiji is currently under drought conditions, the pool needs a serious clean and they need to figure out some way to aerate the koi pond.

Wellesley Resort. This was briefly my new favourite before we went to Beqa.

Giant clam on the reef off of Wellesley. I never get tired of seeing these things.
Upside: As it’s on the Coral Coast, you don’t have to catch a boat to get there. This means that anyone in your party that can’t guarantee that they can get away early on a Friday doesn't have to wait until Saturday morning to join you. The accommodation is very comfortable (with air conditioning). A little bar opens on the beach for happy hour. The grounds are beautifully landscaped.

Downside: The way the grounds are laid out, you can be quite a way from the beach. The Coral Coast is often unpleasantly windy. This was the case when we were there. However, the pool was protected from the wind and was lovely to hang out next to.

Naigani Island Resort (Tau Resort). Imagine if a Fijian resort was run by Basil Fawlty. As I write this post, I am sitting on this lovely island wondering how to adequately describe it. Quirky might be the right word, but the magnitude of quirkiness really is too great not to be completely exasperating.

Naigani Island. Water quality wasn't great that day, but the coral cover was.
Upside: Naigani is a beautiful island with stunning reefs and great kayaking. The accommodation is spacious – more like houses than bures with ensuite loos and hot showers. There is a nice pool (with a little water slide), a little golf course and a covered area near the pool (which is currently being refurbished) for hanging out in out of the sun/rain.

Downside: The management. We received confusing instructions about where to catch the boat (currently QVS beach while Natovi Jetty is refurbished) but still arrived in time to catch it. The boat was not there. The fishermen at the beach didn't know what we were talking about. We rang all the available numbers for the resort and no one picked up. We emailed. No one replied. After 50 minutes (and 15 more phone calls, none of which were answered) the boat finally showed up. We had to wade through seriously filthy water that smelled of sewage to get to the boat.

The management seemed surprised that a couple that was supposed to be on the same boat as us hadn't shown up. I, on the other hand, am surprised that anyone actually ever makes it here.

Then the same thing happened to my other half when he tried to get over the next day. This is not “Fiji Time”- it’s downright rudeness.

On arrival at the resort, we were assured that we don’t need to lock our accommodation as it’s so safe here. However, when the manager went off island for five hours during the afternoon, he locked up the bar and took the key. This dry spell coincided with the generator being off, so not only couldn't we get a soft drink or a beer, we couldn't even boil the kettle to make a cup of tea (and I’m here with three English people so this is a calamity). Thank goodness we’d had the presence of mind to pack for all eventualities (plan for the worst, hope for the best again) and we’d brought over emergency alcohol supplies.

There are a lot of pluses to this place, but I’m not going to be coming back in a hurry.

No matter where you go here, if you have a food allergy, you have to be absolutely sure that all of the relevant staff knows about your allergy. At each one of the resorts above (with the exception of the Wellesley), I have been served eggplant despite telling the staff that I’m allergic to it. At one resort, when I pointed out that there was eggplant in the pasta dish I’d been served even though the waitress had assured me that there wasn't when she put it down in front of me, I was told “You asked if there was eggplant in the pasta. There isn't. It’s in the sauce”. Silly me. God help you if you have an allergy to something that isn't large and purple with distinctive texture and seeds that can be spotted a mile off.

I’m sometimes surprised by the Tripadvisor ratings given to some of the resorts here. I suspect the ratings actually measure how much fun people had on their vacation rather than giving a reliable measure of the resort and its facilities. But really, isn't that the point?

As usual - all photo credits to my talented other half...

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.