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.