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.