Saturday, 22 December 2012

Sleepless in Suva

The tale of our encounter with Cyclone Evan starts with Mummy Cat pooing and meowing outside of our bedroom door in the wee hours of Monday morning. I guess that her agitated behaviour was due to the drop in barometric pressure or some such animal-ESP type thing. Anyway, once the hallway was cleaned, she continued to mewl. John put a pillow over his head to drown her out. Eventually I dropped off and woke a little while later to no noise except the growing wind and driving rain. I got up to check on Mummy Cat and couldn't find either her or the kittens in the house, but assumed that they must have found somewhere clever to hide. As I turned to go back up stairs, I was horrified to hear a kitten squeaking outside.

There was poor little Reg, wet and shivering, sitting outside on the front lawn all on his own. Mummy Cat, I assume, was trying to show the kittens how to survive in the bush during a storm. Reg, having shimmied through a torn window screen, had thought better of it once outside. After calling for them for a minute of two, Mummy Cat and Khali raced back out of the bush into the house. They did not try to get outside again for the duration.

So there I was, up at the crack of dawn, the weather worsening. There was nothing for it but to make scones for breakfast. We Skyped with the children and family in the UK, taking the iPad outside to show them the wind rattled trees which at the time didn’t look very impressive. Coming back into the house, we discovered the first casualty of the storm – the kittens had eaten my scones.

For most of the day, it was blowing a gale rather than hurricane force winds. We took garden chairs out to our covered garage and watched two trees nearly come down (from a safe distance). One was absolutely fascinating. First the ground heaved around the base during each gust, then a crack appeared in the lawn, then eventually you could see long strands of thick roots being pulled out of the ground as the gusts got stronger. The tree still stands, but rests at an angle against the fence. I guess it will have to be chopped down. Pity after such a tenacious struggle. The other was a lovely Royal Palm, which now rests askew on the tree next to it.

One of the victims of the storm (the tree on the right, not me on the left)

Eventually, when we were actually a little chilly, we came inside, had hot showers, got comfy on the sofa and started to watch an episode of Rome (which is excellent, by the way). Halfway through it we lost power, so we resorted to playing games (Yahtzee and cribbage) and made pizza. In the evening it began to calm down so we relaxed a little, thinking that the worst of it was over. Then BAM - the wind picked up to what appeared to be hurricane force winds, the rain being blasted into the windows in a weird high-power mist.

Cyclone pizza - note that I am not drinking so that I can keeps my wits about me. No comment about John.

One of the nice things about being married for such a long time is that we often think the same thing at the same time. We didn’t waste any time discussing it, we just went downstairs and began to get the linen cupboard ready for occupation. Think Harry Potter’s room under the stairs but with an eye-watering aroma of mothballs. We provisioned it with the cat carrier (without cats) and a bottle of water and sat around for a bit, wondering if it was bad enough to take cover. Again, the wind started to calm down a bit and exhausted, we went to bed. John was snoring instantly (he put in earplugs), but I was up and down most of the night dreaming strange dreams when I did sleep.

We woke up to strong wind and some rain, but the worst of it was over. We had banana pancakes and wandered about the campus taking pictures of what little damage had occurred. Our side of the island got off lightly compared to other side, though amazingly there have been no reported casualties so far. Around lunch time the power came on (we never lost water) and we spend the rest of the day laying about in a languid state watching Rome (we nearly jumped out of our skin when we turned the telly on – we’d had it so loud the day before in the storm), napping and finally drinking a bottle of post-Evan champagne outside with the sky turning the most amazing colours.

The university bure with fetchingly placed downed palm tree.

It appeared we’d got off lightly. Then on Wednesday lunchtime we lost water and power and it is Friday lunchtime and the power company is still not giving us any indication of when things will be back to normal. Living in the tropics with all modern accouterments is exhausting. Living in the tropics without so much as a refrigerator or a ceiling fan during the night is hell. Last night (2nd power-free night) I struggled to rouse myself when I realised I was sleeping with my eyes open. It’s so still that the occasional drip of water off of the roof and onto the barbeque sounds like cymbals being clashed.

And the really bizarre thing is that it’s nearly Christmas! It has never seemed less like Christmas in my entire life. I am so sad, thinking about the children being so far away, with some pretender renting our house, sitting in front of our fire, gazing at our views across the River Tyne. John, however, seems more sanguine as demonstrated by this exchange last night at a waterside bar while having a beer:

Me: I miss the children.
Him: (Silence)
Me: The kittens just aren't a satisfactory substitute.
Him: Oh, I thought you were referring to the kittens in the first place.

So despite the mental solidarity honed by over twenty years of marriage, sometimes we are planets apart.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Annus Horribilis

2012. What a rubbish year. I lost my lovely sister, my wonderful mother and my mother in law. I said goodbye to my friends and family in the UK with great sadness to move to Fiji. I said farewell to my work colleagues at the Regional Maternity Survey Office leaving them to the vagaries of the UK coalition government who have systematically destroyed an internationally enviable public health system. Goodbye 2012 and good riddance.

Except 2012 isn’t finished with me yet. Cyclone Evan is slowly making a u-turn whilst sitting on top of Samoa and is setting its sights on Fiji.

Evan on Friday afternoon (Fiji time).

Those of you that have known me for a long time know that John and I have been here before. In 1989 on the island of St Croix in the US Virgin Islands, Hurricane Hugo nearly destroyed us. We lost our jobs, our home and all of our wedding presents (except the horrible ones that we’d put in the closet). What we like to say is that we (barely) survived Hurricane Hugo. A storm is not just the actual rain and wind, though those are scary and destructive enough, but the aftermath. No power, no telephone, mosquitoes breeding in stagnant water carrying dengue fever, evacuation chaos, looting, etc...

It has been dismaying to see how unconcerned people are here about this storm. Some of our friends and neighbours in St Croix were also blasé about Hugo. The last hurricane that had made a serious impact on the island was in the late 1920s so as far as most people were concerned, a hurricane was something that everyone got vaguely worked up about for very little.  As of early this morning, I appeared to be the only one stocking up on provisions – water, batteries, insect repellent, cat food (for the cats), first aid stuff, etc... Let’s just hope that Cyclone Evan passes us by and I’m stuck with a lot of dried pasta.

Fortunately Anna is away in the UK for Christmas, so they’ll be enough room in the linen cupboard for me, John and the cats if things get too wild. I was so sad that she wasn't going to be here for Christmas, now I’m just relieved. In my experience, in the battle between man versus nature, man always loses when Mother Nature is serious enough.

It is difficult to tie in the discussion about the approaching storm with the death of my mother, Marianna Wieder van Erp earlier this week, so I’m just going to jump straight to it. My lovely mother died a gentle death with very good hospice care (by Pathways) in the company of my surviving sisters. They, my brother, sister in law and his grown up girls have worked so hard since she fell ill in November – her prognosis was a moving target so what everyone was supposed to be doing or feeling kept changing. When I left her at the end of November, she was in rehab, planning to go into assisted living. I was convinced that I’d see her again in the spring. I’m very glad that I got to spend those ten days together, massaging her feet with Fijian coconut oil and filling her in on the minutia of my existence when she was too tired to talk. Precious moments that I treasured while they were happening, the memories of my sister’s passing being so fresh.

At a winery during one of the family reunions my mother was generous enough to host in 2009. She and my dad cemented our family together with these gatherings.

One of my favourite quotes is by Gore Vidal – “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies”. Call me a cynic, but I think this is true for everyone except in the case of parents (particularly mothers) who rejoice in their children’s successes without reservation.  I was really happy that my sisters were able to tell my mother that I have a job now, because I’m certain that besides John (who has his eye on the bank balance) my mother would have been the happiest person on the planet about it.

I look forward to posting again soon to tell you about how all of our preparations for the storm were for nought. Maybe I’ll throw a party next week and serve pasta and cat food.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

These are a few of my favourite Fijian things

A friend emailed me the other day and asked me what appeared to be a simple question – “Do you want to be in Fiji?” This is different to the other obvious questions people ask (like “does it feel like you’re on one long holiday?”) because it doesn’t have an easy answer.

To put my quandary into perspective I received this email while in California seeing my mother, whose health is rapidly failing. Of course, my immediate reaction was I don’t want to be in Fiji, I want to be here with my mother. As the days passed, I started to wonder, do I really want to be in Fiji or would I hop on the plane back to the UK, given half a chance? Back to our son, our good friends and family, the cold and wet, the hell that is working in the UK public sector. Back to supermarkets, excellent healthcare, rampant consumerism and gross excess. When it was time to leave California, I did want to come back – to Anna and John and the cats and the quirkiness that is our life in Fiji. (Thank goodness for the kittens or else it would have been a close run thing).

I love living on the university campus. John can manage the odd lunch or coffee at home and evening work dos are varied and close by. Last night it was a cocktail reception for an English language conference that included wine and poetry reading. The landscaping is fantastic and the neighbours friendly. There is a wonderful Chinese restaurant on campus, the Southern Cross, which serves huge plates of delicious food for next to nothing. And because it is a university campus, there is always something interesting going on, like the carving of a totem by a team of Pacific Islanders and First Nation Canadians which you can drop in on when you walk past for a chat and to see how they’re progressing.

Ernest and Jeke working on the totem. I bought an ink drawing by Jeke which I'll post a photo of once the exhibition it's in is over.

I love that things we took for granted in the UK, like transport, can be adventures in themselves. Now, many expats here drive around in big black SUV type vehicles that come with their jobs. Not so families of humble academics. We travel by bus or taxi. The buses range from brand new air conditioned ones to vintage ones with no glass in the windows. Taxis are all of a certain age, but range from clean with functioning seatbelts to bone-rattlers that stink of petrol. The worst taxi ride I had was when I was driven home from the grocery store by a man that was probably legally blind. I was so terrified that I forgot to get his taxi number to report him to the authorities. There is a dearth of bespectacled middle-aged people here; including taxi drivers which leads me to believe that travelling by taxi is rather more dangerous than it appears.

The public bus. A trip to town costs FJ$0.70. Notice the well behaved, well groomed school child in front of me.

I’m not going to lie, I love not working (for now) and having a housekeeper who comes and executes her housekeeping magic twice a week. The contents of the dirty clothes baskets are found hanging freshly pressed in our closets, our beds made to hotel standard. Not only that, she also finds lost kittens in the dense bush, much to the relief of Anna and John, who lost one of the kittens twice while I was away.

I love the fact that while temporarily deprived of the internet and other human contact besides her parents, Anna taught herself how to play the ukulele. Yesterday, she had her first gig at the Home of Compassion care facility on her last day of work experience, when she took her ukulele and her electronic keyboard and performed a recital for the residents. They gave her a lovely card and one of the residents cried when she said goodbye – so sweet and poignant.

I love going to the fruit and vegetable market and getting unbelievably fresh fish from the small shop in Toorak then coming home to barbeque on our small patio with our newly planted lime and frangipane trees, surrounded by cheap tiki lanterns drinking Fiji Gold and watching the fruit bats.

So much good stuff, it's hard to stick to the shopping list when at the market 

I love the fact that when you’re flying here the plane is full of excited people heading for adventurous holidays. It’s like travelling to Europe 25 years ago, before people got jaded and long haul air travel became like cramped, overlong bus journeys.

I could dedicate a post to the things that I don’t love here, but instead I’ll give you a short list, in no particular order:
  1. Being sweaty. I have an aversion to perspiring that has kept me from going to the gym my entire life. Now I glow profusely just sitting at my computer. Yuck.
  2. Mosquitoes. Anna’s legs are covered in scars. I’ve got bites on the bottom of my foot right now. Torture. 
  3. Distance. This place really is in the middle of nowhere. There’s almost no point in sitting in a window seat when flying anywhere as for 99.9% of the time, you’re just looking at endless sea.
  4. Tile floors. This is related to the first point. Tile floors probably seem like a good idea. However, in high heat and humidity, water condenses from the air onto the tiles, so your feet feel damp all of the time. I’m sure that fungal infection is inevitable.
These lists are not exhaustive and will be added to in further posts. Things I love now I might grow to hate or the other way around. Such is life.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Warm Fuzzies

I was going to entitle this post "Proud to be 'Merkin" as in American, of course. However, I now realise that a merkin is a a toupee for the pubic area/genitals.The new title now refers to kittens and the warm feeling that I have about the election and has nothing at all to do with hair pieces used by 18th century syphilitics.

So much has been happening lately it’s hard to know where to start.

A couple of weeks ago our pregnant cat appeared not to be pregnant anymore. We’d assumed that she’d lost her kittens until we discovered two in one of the packing boxes stacked in the garden. I moved them all inside when I heard mama cat trying to scare away a large tom who was trying to get into their box. John grumbled the way that dads do when they’re pretending not to be big softies, but we know that he thinks that they are as cute as we do. The plan is that we’ll get them all neutered and vaccinated in December. We’ll then have to decide what to do with them. No prizes for guessing which way Anna will be voting.

Mama Kitty (aka Goldie or Roxy) with Regulus Arcturus Black (aka Reggie, Squirt, Runty, etc...) and  Daenerys Stormborn Targaryen (aka Fatty pants, Khaleesi, Daeny, etc...)

Speaking of voting – WELL DONE AMERICA! It’s easy to be an American abroad when we've got a great president. When George Bush was elected for a second term I spent the entire four years being quizzed about how it possible could have happened, like it was my own damned fault.

I was very lucky to get to go to the election party at the US embassy, as a plus one to one of John’s colleagues. They’d done a ballot at the party.  I don’t know what the exact numbers were, but it was something like Obama 110, Romney 8. I’m not sure how to interpret that without angering my Republican friends. Actually, I’m not sure I have any (friends that vote Republican, not friends in general). I hope someone emails me the photo of me with my arm around a cardboard cut out of the president. I wonder what they did with the one of Romney.

One interesting factoid that I learned during the election was that I have never been in a Republican stronghold state, except to pass through an airport. Maybe we should move to Tennessee next. I’m sure that, to me, it would be as foreign as Fiji.

From the embassy, we moved on to Oceania Art Gallery for the opening of an exhibit, briefly stopping at home to pick up our mobile phones (no point in taking them to the embassy as you have to check them in). Anna proudly showed us the remains of a scorpion that she’d squashed with a wooden spatula (it was the kitchen...with the spatula). This place is seriously hardening her up. At the art gallery I bought a lovely pen and ink drawing by a local artist which I will share with you once the exhibition is over in December. Now I know why they serve wine at exhibitions – to loosen the purse strings.

I was invited to go for a walk with a friend that I made at the fundraiser at the Fijian Museum a couple of weeks ago. Noriko is a very interesting woman who has recently lived in both Afghanistan and East Timor. Her emails to her friends during her four years in Afghanistan were published as a book (see here for a blog post about it).  I think that I needed to hear from someone that knows a thing or two about these things about the need for patience in moving forward with my life here. Meeting people like her is definitely one of the benefits of living someplace like this.

While I’m waiting to get a job I’ve signed up to do an intensive Fijian language course with Alliance Français. I’m looking forward to it for many reasons, but am particularly glad of the timing – it coincides with Anna travelling to the UK for five weeks over Christmas. I’m going to miss her so much - she’s such good company for her dear old parents. Maybe once I've cracked Fijian, I’ll have a go at French, which, despite numerous holidays to France over the years when we lived in the UK, remains mystery to me.

For those of you that may have missed it, last week our housekeeper, Mela, showed me how to make roti with potato curry. Next week we’re going to make Fijian donuts. I may shortly have to buy an entire new wardrobe consisting of trousers with elasticated waistbands and smocks.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Suva, Can I Learn to Love You?

It’s a funny thing, not working in paid employment. When I was slogging through the bureaucratic quagmire of the UK NHS I could go home at the end of every day and say that I had been at work, even if I hadn’t really accomplished anything (and believe me, that is how it felt sometimes). Now my days are completely task driven but what I am able to achieve doesn’t sound very impressive. (“Hello honey, how was running the university’s research & international office? Today I paid the phone and electricity bills and found a place that sells cat litter!”)

It’s unbelievable how exhausting carrying out these tasks is. It’s also kind of embarrassing. It hardly seems right to complain about being tired after a day of internet banking, doing a few laps in the pool and avoiding the housekeeper. It must be the combination of the heat and my brain losing functionality.

I totally relate to this clip from the Mitchell and Webb Look. It's a little rude at the end, so if you're easily offended stop watching after you get the gist.

Speaking of exhaustion, Anna had Friday off school again for the sole reason that neither of us could face getting up at 6am for a fifth day running. Before you all go off and judge my parenting decisions, can I just remind you that Anna is retaking the last term that she already finished in the UK? Most of her Suva classmates are taking their GCSE exams which she absolutely aced in May/June (clever girl). Things will get serious come January 2013 when she starts the International Baccalaureate, but until then...

A little mangrove stand on the walk into town. Note the brown water.

We had a wonderful day off. I introduced Anna to Bulaccino’s, a coffee shop that I’d stopped into the day before while running the aforementioned errands. It really is an excruciatingly ridiculous name (Bula + cappuccino = Bulaccino = Helloccino in English), but the service and food are of an international standard that we haven’t really found very many other places here. They also have smoked salmon, which is Anna’s all time favourite food. I know that we’re supposed to eat local produce and most of the time we do, but sometimes what you need is a little bit of home on top of a delicious homemade bagel smeared with cream cheese.

The Vessel of Honour and the view across Suva Bay.

It was a lovely evening so we set off on a walk. We ran into one of Anna’s classmates and her mother (it’s that small town thing again) and before we knew it, we’d walked the coastal route all the way into the city centre. While discussing whether we should eat out twice in one day, we found ourselves in front of the Bad Dog Cafe which pretty much decided it. This is the place where the waiter (Nat) greets us with “Hello John. Hello John’s family”. John was not with us (he was in Noumea), so we just got “Hello John’s family”. Nat took the opportunity to quiz Anna about our names while I went to the toilet.  Two Shirley Temples and two glasses of sauvignon blanc later, Anna and I decided that we could get to like this place.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

It's a Small, Busy World

This morning I went for a walk after I walked Anna down to the bus stop. On my short jaunt down Maunikau Road, I ran into one of the ladies that I met at the Fiji Museum fundraising morning a couple of weeks ago. Later, while returned to the university I started chatting to a fellow going in the same direction. He works for a removal company and was heading to the university to pack up the house of John’s colleague and good friend. When we arrived at the university back gate, my new friend stopped to speak to the security guard that we always say good morning to and it turned out to be his brother. The world seems even smaller here than it does in North East England and that’s saying something.

We’ve had a busy few days. On Friday, Anna had a day off school to deal with renewing her US passport at the embassy. I had allowed for the entire morning to sort it out, my only experience with US embassies being the humourless pedants in London. I needn’t have bothered, the staff at the Suva embassy were a delight and we were in and out in less than an hour. We then headed into town to do some clothes shopping. We lunched at the food court at the top of the Tappoo building where we had the most delicious vegetable biryani that I’ve ever eaten. The Indian food here is wonderful and I plan on eating as much of it as possible.

While we were out, John rang to say that our shipment from the UK was going to be delivered imminently. As we weren’t expecting it until later this week, we raced home to quickly tidy up and ready ourselves for the delivery of the 29 boxes last seen at the beginning of August. (Actually we had been told that the delivery would take between 6-8 weeks, but it took nearly 12. We were also told that each box would be surrounded by an inflatable sleeve to protect it. They weren't.)

The first thing that I pulled out of a box was a winter coat, which I had packed it for trips to cold climates. Even so, as I was drenched in sweat, I could hardly bring myself to touch it. The two things that Anna was desperate for were her Harry Potter books and her electric piano. As the piano had never been out of the box after purchasing, we were relieved when it made appropriate sounds once plugged in and assembled by the moving men for the small fee of six small bottles of Fiji Gold. As one of Anna’s school friends said, it was like Christmas day – my knives, my coffee maker, my cookbooks! Each item with a story, each one dear enough for me to have not wanted to part with it.

Our house was so tidy when we didn't have any belongings.

Early Saturday morning (when I should have been lying in bed drinking good coffee and reading cookbooks) Randy, John’s colleague, and his wife Konai took me to the market. Randy’s an ethno-biologist who has lived here since the late sixties so his insights into the fruit, vegetables and seafood were fascinating. (Click here for his book on the plants of USP which I highly recommend for anyone living here). He also appeared to know virtually everyone in the market. I struggled to keep up with him and nearly had to employ a barrow boy when my eyes were bigger than my carrying capacity and I bought five pineapples. Have I mentioned the delicious fruit here? My personal favourites are deep orange Hawaiian papaya/pawpaw, delicious with Filipino lime – known as kumquat here - squeeze on it and the amazingly sweet and juicy pineapples.

 I'm working up the nerve to try to cook some of this stuff.

Due to my anaphylaxis to handling eggplant, I will only be attending the market in close-toed shoes.

This is a bountiful island country. As one taxi driver said to me, while in other countries people die from thirst or famine, here there is so much surplus that some of the fruit gets left for the birds and bats. The market is full of locally grown produce – fresh coriander (called dhania), rourou (taro leaf), cucumber, tomatoes, pumpkin, green beans, ginger, fiddleheads and loads of stuff that I don’t know plus a jaw-dropping variety of seafood. If you stick to eating local produce and keep your grocery purchases of western items like cheese and mayonnaise to a minimum you could eat very cheaply. There is also cooked food, which I will have to learn to negotiate. In particular, I am tempted by the tapioca cooked with burnt sugar in a banana leaf.

The fruit on photo on the left is as forgettable as its name. Love the woven baskets of roots.

On Sunday, we went down to the Hobie sailing club at Suva Point. One of the first things that John did when he got to Fiji was join the Hobie club. It’s a functional sailing club rather than a yacht club. There is a small wooden building with toilets and showers next to a slipway with a grassy area covered in Hobie Cats. The water is not the clear blue water that you think of when you picture the tropics – it’s pretty brown and stirred up. But the bay is protected by the reef and there is a sandbar within a fairly short sail to aim for. The members are keen on racing each other as well.

In the olden days (late 80s and early 90s) John and I were members of the St Croix Yacht Club and owned a Hobie 16 which we raced regularly. I was a lot more flexible back then and the act of hiking out on the trapeze was done with speed and grace (that’s how I remember it anyway).  Twenty-odd years later, hiking out is a lot scarier and less exhilarating than I remember. I also looked like an arthritic crab when I moved about on the boat. I felt like one too. I’ve been on 600mg of ibuprofen regularly since then to ease the pain in my shoulder. Damn you, old age!

Anna overcame her reluctance and went out with John – her first time on a Hobie. They were gone for ages (I could only manage around 45 minutes in the sun) and she came back without too many bruises and no lasting ill-effect that I’m aware of. Ah youth!

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Is it hot in here or is it just me?

Yesterday was hot. So hot that John had to change his shirt before leaving to go to work. So hot that I had a semi-permanent rivulet of sweat running down my back. So hot that it was difficult to escape the ever threatening heavy blanket of tropical torpor. They should institute a law of siesta here, though it might not work as it would have to last most of the day.

Despite the sauna-like atmosphere, I had a great day. Every morning I walk Anna down to the back entrance of the university campus where the guards greet us with a friendly “yadra” (good morning – pronounced yandra). It is a lovely walk and bus stops right at the back gate. I then head back up the hill and inevitably work up a lather, some days are worse than others and yesterday was bad. I was reminded of Robyn William in Good Morning Viet Nam - "It's hot! Damn hot! Real hot! Hottest thing is my shorts. I could cook things in it. A little crotch pot cooking." Not to overshare, but you end up putting deodorant in the darnedest places here.

The road down to the school bus stop after a heavy rain.

After an hour or so of internet banking/emailing/tweeting/facebooking, Mela arrived and reminded me that it was market day at the university. So after a long Skype session with my friend Helen in the UK and a trip to the university book store to send off Anna’s UK passport to Wellington for renewal, Mela and I took our shopping bags and headed down to market.

First thing I bought was a woven palm fan, with which I fanned myself vigorously for the duration of our market visit. I bought two beautiful sulus – one for me and one for Anna – from a Samoan student, Mark, who dyes the cloth himself. We bought curried potato rotis for lunch, a painted fabric clothes peg bag, and my favourite – a balabala (sort of pronounced mbalambala). He is now in the drive but will shortly be watching over us from the garden. I haven’t given him a name yet – I’ll have to research appropriate Fijian names. For now Mr Balabala will have to do.

Mark and his beautiful sulus and uncut dyed cloth.

My balabala - Mr Balabala to you.

I met Anna from the school bus home at the university pool. I don’t know if it is the heat, but that pool is the most perfect temperature – the water feels soft and fuzzy, like a warm fleecy blanket, but refreshing. I probably could stay in there most of the day.

Last night I finally attended a university function with John. It was a celebration of Fiji at 42 – Fiji declared independence in 1970. Luminaries included Yash Ghai, a renown international scholar, who is the Chairman of Fiji’s Constitution Commission. He gave a very interesting talk on the rapid changes currently occurring in Fiji which is moving from a culture of community towards a society of liberated individuals. The politics of Fiji are a minefield. Much of the strife is down to the tensions between the various ethnic groups particularly the Fijians and the Indo-Fijians, many of whom are descendants of indentured workers who came over to work in the sugar industry in the 19th century. I quote from Wikipedia for an explanation here:

Relationships between ethnic Fijians and Indo-Fijians at a political level have often been strained, and the tension between the two communities has dominated politics in the islands for the past generation.

Suffice it to say that as there have been four coups since 1987 and Fiji is currently governed by a military dictatorship, I will mostly be keeping any opinions regarding Fijian politics to myself.

After the talks, there was a wonderful display of dancing and singing by students and local groups. Young people may be questioning the rules of traditional village life here, but from the amazing performances that we saw, they certainly still embrace their culture through song and dance. At the end of the show, all of the dancers and singers came out and got audience members to go onstage and dance. John and I nearly managed to escape, but a young lady from John’s office came and got us and up we went to dance the conga with the rest of them. Anna was mightily relieved that she hadn't come with us when we told her about our mortifying parental dance display. Next time she might not be so lucky.

Monday, 22 October 2012

The trailing spouse and other new vocabulary terms

Anna finished her first week of school with a mufti day in celebration of Fiji Day. Now I don’t know about you, but we’d never heard that term before for a non-uniform day. Apparently it’s been used by the British army since 1816 (thank goodness for Wikipedia). She was supposed to wear a sulu jaba which she doesn’t own, but a classmate let her borrow one.

Anna models a sulu jaba. That's Roxy, the pregnant stray, that's adopted us.

Anna said that Dr Dr Hind, the principal of her UK school, would not have approved of her school's Fiji Day assembly. When I asked her why, she said it contained too much joy. Small children stood up and wandered about while the likes of Miss Hibiscus, the head of Digicel Fiji and Iliesa Delana gave inspiring talks. Iliesa, for those you who don’t know (and if you don’t, you definitely don’t live in Fiji), won the gold medal for the high jump in the Paralympics. It was Fiji’s only medal in the Olympics. What makes it even more incredible is that he only has one leg. Awesome!

For John’s birthday, we took a picnic down to the Hobie club. It was blowing a hoolie, so Anna and I sat in the shade of the palm trees while John tried not to get blown over sailing with one of the club’s regulars. John looks twenty years younger and a thousand times happier when he’s had a dose of Hobie. Can’t wait for the wind to die down a bit so that I can have a go. Perhaps I’ll look twenty years younger too.

Anna waits for John to come back while I cower in the shade. 

John doing the thing he loves best.

There’s a dreadful term that I only heard after I arrived here – trailing spouse. According to what I've heard since, trailing spouses have a very hard time finding jobs and getting work permits in Fiji. I am the trailing spouse, traipsing along after John while he pursues a career. How utterly prehistoric is that?

Last week, I went along to a fundraising morning at the Fiji Museum which I heard about on the Suva Expat Facebook page (which is indispensable). Of course, being an introvert, I didn't really want to go. I sat around in the morning, after John and Anna left, making excuses. In the end I decided that the need to make some friends and gather fodder to entertain you, my dear reader, outweighed the negatives. True to form, once I was actually there, I lurked in the entryway of the museum while the tropically attired trailing spouses made chit chat.

Overcome by a momentary loss of control, I actually approached a small group and introduced myself. They were very welcoming. I had an enjoyable morning watching Fijian dancers and singers, listening to a talk by the great grandson of Ratu Cakobau, the great Fijian king, who ate 1,000 people before converting to Christianity and watching a demonstration of how to make masi or tapa cloth. However, by the time the buffet lunch appeared I was starting to feel seriously disgusting.

Dancers from the Fiji Conservatorium of Music - they were amazing!

Being ill in the tropics is horrible. I felt generally rubbish – bad stomach and bad head, hence the lack of blogging. However after a week of sweating, being crabby and sleeping I’m almost back to normal. Well, as normal as I have ever been. Can’t say that reading the first book of Game of Thrones made my troubled sleep any easier – probably should have restricted my entertainment to something that didn't include decapitation and other sword-swinging barbarity. 

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The New Normal Report Card

Well, it’s Friday of the week that Anna started school. This was the week that I had promised myself that I would start a routine that would guarantee no time would be wasted and no opportunities lost. On reflection, I’d give myself around a C, maybe a C+ and make comments on my lack of effort and not living up to my full potential. It’s just so easy to while away the time - emailing, Skyping, Facebooking, meeting John for coffee or lunch, shopping, tweeting and looking in the fridge for the elusive delicious snack that might have materialised since the last time I looked 30 minutes previously.

One benefit of this free time is that I have the luxury of actually contacting people (I even emailed my brother – Hi Bill!) and have been generously rewarded by having people email me back with updates on their lives that are longer than a tweet or a FB post. What a lucky person I am to have such interesting and loving friends and family.

I am remiss to have not taken a photo of Anna on her first day at school. This is due to poor parenting. I confess to not even remember what her first word was (though I’m sure it was something cute). She has been very brave and even survived her first French lesson, where the teacher thought it would be a good idea to get everyone in the class to ask her (in French) something about herself to which she was to reply (in French). As if the poor girl wasn’t under enough pressure! As one of her teachers said, everyone in the classroom has a story and it does appear that her friends do have interesting backgrounds, one having been to twelve different schools.

For those of you that have expressed concern about the current status of John’s existence, he is still here. He was in the Marshall Islands last week, which appears to be quite close on a map, but isn’t. We do get to see quite a bit of him, which is one of the benefits of living on campus only a four minute walk from his office. When we lived in the UK, he travelled so much that 1) people thought that David Thomas was my husband and the children’s father and 2) some of Anna’s friends doubted his existence. It is really lovely to be able to spend time together now and even more a relief to find that we still like each other.

Hanging out on the patio after dinner. Anna plays her ukulele that is standing in for a piano until our shipment arrives.

Anna’s first week at school was perfectly scheduled so that Fiji Day (10th Oct) fell right in the middle. She declined the invitation to join some of John’s work colleagues for a Fiji Day celebration on campus as she’d used up all of her social mojo. John and I walked down to the lower campus, which is right on the coast and enjoyed lunch which included food cooked on a Samoan lovo (which is basically food cooked in foil or banana leaves between hot rocks).

The lovo being delivered in woven bags. John sitting at the drinks table. As usual.

Mela was there and she made the most delicious salad that included thick slivers of fresh coconut toasted until dark brown which soaked up the balsamic dressing beautifully. Yum. I have a coconut in the kitchen so she can show me how to butcher it next week. John played touch rugby (barefoot). For those of you that are unfamiliar with rugby, it is THE sport of the Pacific Islands.  He acquitted himself admirably, being able to walk off the pitch at the end of the game without limping.

 John, Me, Mela and Beth, John's colleague (who also introduced us to Mela)

John playing rugby with some of the guys from the university.

That night we had a visitor – a 3” cockroach that ran across the headboard when I was getting into bed. Instead of killing it on the spot, I uselessly shrieked and ran out of the room, losing track of where it went. Fortunately we were able to track it down and John manfully squashed it with his flip flop. I am mentally preparing myself for my next encounter where I will kill it instantly, without flinching, using a graceful martial arts move.

I have not been completely unproductive work-wise. I have been reading a book on the history of the Fiji Medical School and lots of papers of child and maternal health in developing countries. The more I read, the more I’m looking forward to working. Quite what as is yet to be seen.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Anna and Mary's excellent adventure

Anna and I are doing some serious research into the resorts of Fiji. Not the 5* ones or our research fund would dry up pretty quickly. Besides, who wants to hang out with drunk golf-playing Antipodeans and their screaming children, eating burgers and chips while money drains out of your bank account faster than Robbo gets a 1st degree sunburn?

We could fit in one more adventure before Anna started school. I emailed resorts looking for last-minute deals and read Tripadvisor until I was completely befuddled (does anyone else find Tripadvisor equally helpful and bewildering?) Finally, we found a little place on our island (Viti Levu - meaning Great Land), on the Coral Coast. To keep this trip as low-budget as possible we decided that we were going to take the bus for most of the three hour journey, reducing the travel costs from F$100 to F$20.

When I asked Mela how to get the bus to Cuvu (prounounced Thuvu), she stated the obvious - you go to the bus station and get on the bus. Where is the bus station, I asked. At this, she said that she was going to take Anna and me to the bus station and put us on personally. So with Binech, the trusty cabbie, and Mela and a couple of bags, we set off on Friday lunchtime for the bus station in Suva. Anna and I were both completely surprised when our taxi driver shouted to the bus station attendant who shouted at the bus driver who was pulling out of the station to stop so we could get on (another bus would have been leaving in 30 minutes). Pretty much our experience with UK bus drivers is that they drive off as soon as they spot you coming, almost certainly doing a dastardly laugh at the same time.

The bus was air conditioned, very clean and quite slow, but it felt safe and it was a great way to watch the landscape change from jungle to sugar cane fields and grassy hills. We got off at the community post at Cuvu. I'm not quite sure what the community posts are for, but I think that they are a bit like police stations, but serve a wider purpose. At the one in Cuvu, for example, someone went into the village to get a taxi to take us to the resort.  When we got into the taxi the driver said ominously "no one else wanted to take you". Okay....we then started down a bumpy dirt track that must have been 5 miles long, passing sugar cane fields and a pair of yoked oxen pulling a wooden sledge.

The first 30 minutes at the resort were a disaster. The staff looked surprised to see us and there appeared to be no other guests. When I picked up Anna’s bag to carry it over the threshold, she screamed. There was a large spider on it (the first we’ve seen here). Then the resort lady said something that you should never say to someone that has just screamed after seeing a spider – “that’s just a small one”. Anna suggested that we turn around and go straight home. I’m glad we didn’t as the resort turned out to be my favourite so far.

Anna relaxes on the room's porch. Please ignore wonky horizon.

Once we saw other guests (to be fair, there was only two other people staying) and decided that the resort wasn't a ruse to get us to an isolated place to murder us, we relaxed. Namuka Bay is a wonderful place with the most amazing Fijian staff, no televisions or radios and no electricity during the day guarantees enforced relaxation. The food was cooked to order by Sylvia and was by far the best resort food that we’ve had so far – grilled marlin, Fiji donuts, chicken curry, etc... And, joy of joys, there was fresh milk from the resort’s cow every morning to put in my coffee. I nearly wept at the deliciousness of it.

Simon (who turned out to be the cousin of Bose, the chief of Wailotua, even though it’s on the other side of the island) was a fantastic tour guide. He gave us the tour of the abandoned historic settlement site where the local tribe lived during the time of cannibals and a limestone cave right on the coast. Fiji has a very strong history of tribal warfare and cannibalism. I’m not a big one for the conversion of “natives” to Christianity by missionaries, but I must say, I think that it was an improvement here.

Simon demonstrates the Fijian "naughty seat". The one in the kitchen next to the cooking pot for the ultimate punishment.

Me laughing during my go on the chair - I like the way my scrunched up face hides my wrinkles.

We also participated in a kava ceremony with the other guests, presided over by Simon. You have to drink the kava in one go, clap your hands before and after you have your turn and say the appropriate Fijian words with a big kava grin on your face. It’s not easy as after the first bowl, your mouth go numb. It tasted a bit like cold tea with earth in it. Not sure I’m its biggest fan, but it was a fantastic experience. The ceremony was followed by a full moon bonfire on the beach. We chatted with the other guests who have given up their respective homes in Columbia and New Zealand and were now intentionally homeless. They are staying in the resort for a month to figure out what they’re going to do next.

Anna and I returned home and are busy getting ready for school to start on Monday. It feels like the end of the summer holidays.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Miasmic time travel and other miscellany

Miasma. Now that's a word that doesn't get used very often in the 21st century. However, sometimes it's the only word that can be used to describe the atmosphere here.

We had a very hot sweaty walk at Colo i Suva park with Mike and David on the day before they returned to the UK (squeezed in between lab treatments - they were working!) Anna finally got her chance to go on the rope swing which she did with grace. I declined the offer -  having had three frozen shoulders in the last five years, I have to choose my thrills carefully. The last part of our walk was a slog uphill at which point, Anna began to feel a little poorly, which I put down to the heat. David also looked like he might collapse from heat exhaustion, though this was almost certainly due to the rum consumed the previous night. The air was thick with what the Victorians would call vapours. We finally reached the waterfall, took our shoes off and cooled down as much as we could while eating tuna sandwiches. Anna should not have eaten that sandwich, poor poppet.

The most flattering shot - no one looks great while swinging on a rope, arms and legs akimbo.

In the taxi on the way back, David fell asleep and Anna tried to cool herself down by leaning with her head partly out of the window to catch the momentum-generated breeze. She went straight to bed when we got home and appeared around two hours later to be sick in the most spectacular fashion on the stairs (and up the wall - I had to stand on tip-toes to clean it). Poor thing was sick on and off the rest of the night.  I was a little alarmed the next day when she woke babbling about time travelling when I put my hand on her warm brow, but she explained that she'd been dreaming after watching the Time Traveller's Wife to distract herself the night before.

Of course, as soon as she got sick, I was going through a mental list of tropical diseases. Malaria? Yellow fever? Some sort of parasite from the swim? Fortunately it turned out to be a 24 bug - probably  just a bout of food poisoning, which was overdue as we've been eating out an obscene amount.

We had a day of rest, then went into town to look for a ukulele and a school bag for Anna (both unsuccessful). You have to understand, the shopping opportunities are limited. Outside of the bigger department stores, there are little streets of small Indian-style shops. Some selling beautiful saris, others selling miscellaneous stuff so that it difficult to categorise them. What do you call a shop that sells bleach, sponges, plastic pinwheels and Jesus candles? There are also street stalls, selling locally grown fruit, vegetables, fish, flowers, crafts and some tourist tat (but not much - this is not a tourist town).

The flower stalls.

There is also a multiplex cinema, where Anna and I can get two tickets, plus share a small drink and popcorn for the princely sum of £7 total. While Mike and David were here, we went to see my first Bollywood movie, called Heroine. It was quite an education. First, even though it was subtitled, about a third of the dialogue was in English. It went something like this: "Hindi, Hindi, Hindi...You look sexy, babes...Hindi, Hindi, Hindi...What are you doing this weekend, babes?" They called each other babes a lot in this film. Also, despite having a lot of pressure on the industry to be chaste, the lingering shots of writhing scantily clad female bodies appears to be okay as long as they are dancing. David pointed out that if they'd played the slow-motion shots at regular speed, it would have been half the length (which was very long and included an intentional intermission). The shocked reaction from the audience during a mild (suggested) lesbian scene was definitely liked travelling back in  time.

You can see the poster for Heroine - very risqué indeed.

From the bridge between the flowers and the cinema looking out to Suva Harbour.

Most of the stuff in the supermarket is recognisable, though not always desirable (farmer's tinned mutton? I don't think so.) I still haven't provisioned the kitchen properly and won't do until our shipment arrives from the UK arrives at the end of October. I didn't send any food (except Rington's tea bags), but have sent knives, measuring cups and things like that. My neighbours had a tombola to split up our liquor cupboard (with the proviso that they have to come up with a dish for each of the bottles they take home) and our friend, David, said that he had to built an extra cupboard in his kitchen just for the condiments that he rescued from ours. I'm looking forward to a time when ramen isn't a normal meal option, I've got more than three spices to season with and I can actually measure quantities with something other than the cup that came with the rice cooker...when it doesn't feel like we're camping in our own house any more.

Laundry soap in a fascinating format. 

 Anna demonstrates size of laundry soap (and, no, it doesn't work, according to Mela).

This aisle is for the very old, very young and very bored.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

A weekend of sharks, snakes and bats

We’ve been very lucky to have one of John’s colleagues, Mike, and his MPhil student, David, here since before Alex left. Mike is a post doc that did his PhD with John, so we’ve known him for a long time. He’s slotted into the big brother role quite naturally – he definitely should have had a younger sister.  With them around, we’re still in sightseeing mode, though the list of sights to see around Suva, which was short to begin with, is growing shorter.

Mike demonstrates how to use a cannibal brain fork.

On Sunday, Mike, David and John went on a shark dive. This is where you go out on a boat, don scuba gear with lots of extra weight and drop to the bottom in around 30m of water to see bull sharks being fed tuna heads. The extra weight keeps you from bobbing around in the water column like a tasty morsel. Once you’ve used up your allotted time at that depth, you come up to a shallower water to see black tips, then shallower still to see white tips. Anna isn’t a certified diver and I’m not certified crazy, so we went to the Holiday Inn in Suva and had lunch by the pool before lounging next to it for the afternoon.

Not as attractive as a pina colada by the pool (thanks for the photo, Mike).

Because John had rented a car to go on the shark dive, we had a car for the entirety of Sunday. We’ve pretty much exhausted the tourist attractions close by, so we set off to Wailatua, north on the King’s Road, home of the Snake God Cave. The condition of the roads here are variable. None of the taxis appear to have any suspension left. Neither did the rental car. The road west out of Suva is called the Queen’s Road and is paved at least all the way to Nadi. North is a different story. The King’s Road has sections that are gritted, some that are paved but with enormous potholes, some that are under construction in variable states and one stretch, around 5 miles long quite a way up north that is paved to a standard that any developed country would be pleased with it.

We stopped just out of Suva to get some kava root for a sevusevu for the chief of Wailotua. Kava root is from a pepper plant that is ground and made into a drink that is associated with a strict social ritual. A sevusevu is the presentation of a gift to a village chief, the acceptance of which confers certain privileges or favours to the giver. It is the polite currency for accessing areas of Fiji that are close to villages.

On arrival to the village a group of children ran out to greet us, one of which wiped out on the gravel and gave himself a nasty gash. Fortunately the rental car had both a first aid kit and a roll of toilet paper in its glove box (for the consequences of not have having suspension, I guess) and Mike put a plaster on the boy’s knee. I missed the giving of the sevusevu as I was parking the car.

Chief Bose is the chief of five villages and played for the Auckland Chiefs for three years as a winger. He led the entire tour barefoot. I think that he probably could have done it without the lantern as well. Despite its name, the cave is full of bats, not snakes. There is the brothy, roast chicken smell of bats, particularly in the bigger caverns. The name of the cave refers to a formation of minerals that look like six adjacent snake heads. The floor of the cave was either slick, wet earth or dry crumbly bat droppings, which I had to put my hands in several times to help myself up particularly steep bits.

The Chief was very attentive to me, either because I was John’s wife or because I looked like the most likely to slip and break my ankle. So while I got polite chat about the possibility of holding weddings in the largest cavern, Mike and David got to see where they used to sacrifice people.

Unlike caves that I’ve been to in the US and Europe, this one was very hot and sticky.  Though interesting, I’m not going to go back in a hurry - at least until our UK neighbours the Bevans come for a visit. Richard can bring his bat detector (Richard is a zoologist – most of my UK neighbours do not have bat detectors). Mind you, you don’t need one of those here – the bats are the size of small turkeys.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

A Culinary Treasure Hunt

The other day Mela, our lovely housekeeper, gave me a list of ingredients to get for the Fijian dinner that she was going to make for us. I cannot remember the name of the dish that she was making, but the ingredient list called for fish, preferably ogo, dalo, coconut cream (specifically the one in the yellow tin), moce, and other things that were pretty straightforward, like onions.

As my friends and family are aware, I am obessessed with food. I know several languages, but only in relation to food items. However, this treasure hunt for culinary booty was going to be a challenge. You can't just go the the grocery store to buy this stuff. Well you can, but you wouldn't get the best ingredients. You have to go to market. If I were cooking myself, I'd probably go to the grocery store and buy it all, but if I brought substandard ingredients home I feared that Mela would tut and shake her head and I couldn't bear it (I will write an entire post on the dynamics of have a housekeeper at some point. With Mela's permission, of course).

Our outing started with a trip to Anna's school to get her uniform. I assessed the taxi driver. This one was too quiet, so I didn't ask him to stick around and wait for us. Fortunately the one that picked us up wasn't the ebulliant, won't shut up sort of taxi driver, but something in between. Once he ascertained what we needed, he became our navigator.

First off, the fish market. We pass an amazing fish market on the way to Anna's school. Right on the roundabout, stalls displaying tuna, grouper and colourful reef fish. Rather than stopping there we stopped about 100m down the road at a smaller stand. The fish was fresher here, according to our taxi driver. I was warming to him.

Pronounciation of the Fijian language has fairly straightforward rules. A "g" is pronounced like there is a "n" in front of it - like in sing. Therefore ogo is pronouced ongo with a sort of soft "g". Fortunately Mela had written the ingredients with the actual and phonetic spellings.

The woman swatted away the flies from the fish (which was not on ice). I asked her for ogo. She held up a string of three long barracuda looking fish, probably enough to feed a dozen people. She insisted that I had to buy them all. Instead I bought a string of five smallish snapper, the taxi driver watching the exchange intently from the car. He asked me how much I'd paid when I got back into the taxi. When I told him he gave a positive shrug. I got the feeling that he'd have got out and argued with her if I'd been ripped off. I warmed to him even more.

At the vegetable stand I asked if they had any dalo. Well, that was a stupid question, as there were dozens of bunches of the stuff at my feet. It is sold everywhere in Fiji and I didn't know what it was. Dalo is taro, which I happen to love. It tastes like really starchy potato and is lovely slathered in hot sauce.

Dinner doubles as a doorstop.

Moce was another matter. It should pronounced "mothe" with an accented "e" at the end. No one at the vegetable markets knew what I was talking about even though I was certain that it was very popular. Anna and I went into the grocery story and looked at all of the signs associated with the various piles of greens. In the end, I asked an older Fijian gentleman, who pointed to bunches of very dark greens which he called something else. When we carried the bag of greens to the car, the taxi driver told me that if I'd used the proper word for it, we'd have got it at the first vegetable stall we'd stopped at. Mela slapped her forehead when I told her. She's from another part of Viti Levu and had given me their local name for it.

She boiled in the fish with tomatoes and onions and made lolo, which is like a runny salsa using coconut milk. She also boiled the dalo and the moce (the proper name for which I cannot remember). I'm rather squeamish when it comes to fish, so John manfully took the meat off of the bone and arranged little fillets on a platter, leaving behind the little fish heads with their little fish eyes and little fish jaws that I find so distracting on the dinner table. Mike and David came over and we enjoyed the fruits of Mela's labour, though I felt that I'd definitely contributed my fair share to the bounty.

When our taxi driver dropped us off with the groceries, I asked him to write his name and number in my little notepad. He wrote his name as Mohd. I asked him how to pronouce it. He looked at me like I was from Mars and said "Mohammed". Man, do I have a lot to learn.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Blue skies and broken hearts

We were fortunate enough to get away for Alex's last weekend here - out Viti Levu's rain shadow and into sunny skies. Leleuvia Island is the stuff that tropical dreams are made of - bures literally right on the beach. You can walk, snorkel or kayak around the island in less than an hour. If one side of the island is breezy, you just walk to the beach on the other side, around 50m away to lay down your beach towel.

Mike & I explored the tidepools at low tide - the bures can just be made out on the beach behind.

The only problem (besides the communal toilets) was that John and I exceeded the average age of the rest of the clientele by around 30 years, though they were extremely well behaved in terms of noise. It did remind me of Jeff Goldblum's line in the Big Chill that went something like "I get the feeling that there is a lot of sex going on around here".  I did occasionally have to remind myself that they were all adults, especially with the sun-burned ones, who I wanted to tell to put a t-shirt on. This pertained to my own children as well. At one point, I told John I was going to find Alex and Anna to tell them where we were. Then John pointed out it was 5:30pm and we were in the bar. Duh.

Where I laid my beach towel. Sickening, I know.

The entire weekend was tinged with a deep sadness, knowing that Alex would be heading back to the UK in early hours of Monday morning. Before my sister Ruth was diagnosed with cancer, my heart felt snug in it's protected place in my ribcage, my happiness inviolate. Now it's like I'm walking around with it on the outside of my body, completely vulnerable to any bump or bruise. There was a lot of crying and cuddling after the taxi drove off. We'll make plans to see him again sometime in the next month or so after he's settled into his new course and he's got an idea what sort of workload he's going to have.

When we woke up properly on Monday, it was moving day. It was also the hottest and stickiest day so far. It got hotter and stickier in three stages. During the first stage, I wondered if I could get away without wearing a bra. I entered the second stage when I started to fantasise about wearing disposable clothing. Finally, the idea of clothing of any variety seemed like a tyrannical plot. Around 4pm we finally moved all of our stuff into our new house and, lo and behold, the air con is only working in mine and John's room. Almost all of the delay about moving into this house has been about getting the air con to work. How naive were we not to check that all of the problems were sorted before we moved?

To cool off (physically and emotionally), Anna and I jumped into the university pool, which is unheated and never has anyone in it, so it's perfect. John arrived at the pool too close to closing to get in, so he walked over to the store to get stuff for dinner. He came home with ice cream, pasta, jarred ragu sauce, cheese and a remote controlled helicopter. Too bad he forgot the batteries, because we were forced to watch Fijian telly for the first time as our evening's entertainment.

The commercials are out of the 1980s, are repeated ad naseum and have catchy jingles like "you've got to wash, wash, wash your hands!" A University Challenge-type panel game with high school students demonstrated an interestingly diverse curriculum (Who will represent Fiji at this year's Pacific Sugar Forum? What's the difference between a warranty and a guarantee? Physics questions that I didn't understand the first time I heard them so cannot repeat here).

Anna and I stayed up and watched a dreadful modern version of Hawaii Five-O, the only resemblance to the original being the theme tune. Before I came here I thought that perhaps Fiji was a feral version of Hawaii, but I can say with complete certainty that it is not. What exactly it is, I'm not sure, but watching the telly here will certainly give me a better idea.

Friday, 14 September 2012

A deluge of rain and Pepsi

Sometimes it does not feel like I am living in paradise. It has been raining non-stop. Anywhere else everyone would be shocked and overwhelmed by the ferocity of the downpours (think Newcastle in June, but for several days). Everything is so wet. John tells me that foot rot is common here - it is not only in my imagination that my toes feel like them may drop off of my feet. Everything has a sheen of greasy dampness to it - the floors, the dining room tables, the bedsheets - it's enough to make one want to blowdry one's life.

The dampness, living out of suitcases and the thought of Alex going back to the UK soon has been a little emotionally challenging. However, looking at the bright side of life, eating out here has relatively inexpensive and mostly a delight: Indian, Chinese and John's regular, the Bad Dog Cafe (usual tuna sashimi to start, Sir?). However, after two weeks of it, I would like to eat some home cooked food that is a little more complex than pasta and jarred ragu sauce.

Mike Sweet, a post doc that works with John, and his MPhil student, David, arrived the other day to entertain us (and to do some work). Even though our Suva stuff is mostly packed up (with the UK stuff still somewhere between Newcastle and Fiji), I decided that it would be a good idea to cook dinner. The trip to town to go shopping started in a rare moment of sunshine. Optimistically, we only brought one brolly.

On the menu was lamb chops, vegetables from the market stall and my mother's key lime pie. However, by the time I got out of the supermarket it had begun to sprinkle. The kids were staying in town to go to the movies so I gave them my umbrella. When the taxi stopped at the market stall, it was like standing under a blasting hose pipe. In the five minutes it took me to do the shopping, a small river appeared between me and the taxi and I had to do a running jump to get to the other side.

When I got home I was soaked to my underwear. I dried off, changed my clothes and unpacked my shopping and began to cook. The first challenge was the pie. Digestive biscuits are four times more expensive than other biscuits so I got gingersnaps. They were the hardest damned cookies I ever had the displeasure of crushing by hand (using one of my precious zip lock bags and a wine bottle). The rest of the pie making went smoothly though the pie turned out orange because of the type of limes here - they are more like sour oranges.

Looks like orange, tastes like lime.

As I started prepping the vegetables (mustard greens, tomatoes for salsa, sweetcorn, pumpkin and a white sweet potato) the power went out during a particularly heavy bout of rain. At this point I decided to sit down with my book and a glass of diet Pepsi. I opened the freezer to get out the 2 litre plastic bottle of Pepsi which I had put in ten minutes before and dropped it. It exploded. Really. Two litres of diet Pepsi dripped off of me and walls. It had even blasted up into the cupboards through the slats. My clothes were soaking wet. The bottle lay on the ground looking completely intact but empty - only a smallish crack in the bottom of the bottle gave a hint as to the physics of disbursing a large amount of liquid in very small amount of time over a maximum area.

I had put the Pepsi in the freezer because I can't figure out how to get the ice cubes out of the ice cube tray. This is something that I've had problems with since the demise of the metal ice cube trays with the lever that those of you who where born in the 60s will remember (or those of you that watch Mad Men). An attempt to put ice into my drink the other day resulted in splintered plastic in my drink and a shattered ice cube tray in the bin.

After standing in mute disbelief for a minute or two, I got the mop and cleaned the kitchen. Just as it was getting dark, the lights came back on. I finished cooking dinner which turned out fine bar the corn which was only fit for livestock. As I slipped between the damp sheets I reflected that life isn't too shabby at the moment, even if it is still the dry season.