Friday, 27 December 2013

The Fiji List

New Year, new resolution, and I here I state publicly that in 2014 I will post on my blog at least once a month. I've enjoyed keeping the blog for its diary-like qualities and for the challenge of stringing words together in a pleasing way, but what I didn't expect was the number of people who have contacted me through the blog. Some want to know practical details about living in Fiji because they are arriving imminently.  Some are considering moving to Fiji and want to know the down and dirty on specific aspects of expat life. Then there are the other requests for guest blog posts (not a chance – too busy to write my own blog, thanks very much), a request for an interview for a travel magazine (unfortunately dropped into my inbox during frenzied work activity, so ignored) and a very sweet request to be interviewed as part of a student project (Clay & Co - you know who you are!).

When I first arrived in Suva I observed that the happiest expats were those that are counting down to their leaving dates. At first I took this as a sign that you could only be happy in Fiji when you were on your way out. Eventually I figured out that these people were frantically squeezing in their Fiji list of things to do (aka bucket list – hate that term) in their remaining tenure, resulting in a steady stream of what most people would consider holidays of a lifetime.

Once I realised this, I knew that we needed to make our own Fiji list and, more importantly, start ticking the items off without the pressure of an impending move. At the top of our list was visiting the Yasawas, so at the end of September, we booked a week long Blue Lagoon Cruise. Now, cruising isn't our thing - I strive not to look anything like those sweaty, slightly lost-looking people wandering through the streets of Suva with cruise-branded lanyards around their necks.  Any local rip-off artist that approaches me when a cruise ship is in town gets a “talk to the hand” palm in their face and a don’t-mess-with-me-I-live-here look.  However, the small boutique-boat BLC got rave reviews from friends and Anna, unlike us, was so enamoured with the idea of a cruise that she agreed to share a cabin with us.

Armed with a brand new underwater camera for John, we left Suva on the 7:30am Coral Express bus and by lunchtime we’d entered Fiji’s parallel universe – the well-oiled, international tourist world that is Denarau Island. Clean and slick, we finally saw what the majority of visitors see when they come to Fiji and we liked it. Except for the prices. How much for a Fiji Gold? You’re having a laugh - at our expense.

Beer o'clock on deck.

Because John and I have gradually turned into grumpy old people, we eyed the children running around the dock with our cruise ship name tags on their shirts and grumbled about how we were certain that the website had stated that children were not allowed on the ship. Boarding the ship, we were amazed to find that we were joined by only 14 other passengers on a ship that can hold around 65 passengers. The crew were friendly, the food generous and, despite our cantankerousness, the children delightful. How could you refuse to join a fancy hat competition when a nine year old offers to share her beachcombing hat-adorning treasures with you?

Yasawa-i-Lau caves - coldest I've been in Fiji.

During the next seven days, we stopped at Modriki Island (where Castaway was filmed), visited villages, made new friends, ate five meals a day, stopped smiling for several days due to sunburned lips (I was still happy inside), snorkeled until we were pruney, dived on healthy reefs and generally reveled in some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet. I never knew that water came in so many shades of blue.

John took hundred (thousands?) of underwater photographs – mostly close ups. His attention to the art of photographing corals is laudable except that it means that his buddy (usually me) could be kidnapped by pirates or eaten by sharks (or both) without him noticing. On one dive, his dive buddy saw five sharks and he saw none.

The ship tied to a coconut tree in the Blue Lagoon.

One of John's amazing close-ups.

I’d love to say that we’re definitely going to go back to the Yasawas – especially now that we've seen lots of placed that we’d like to go back to. However, we still have other items on our Fiji List to tick off first including the islands of Taveuni, Kadavu and the Lau group, the old capital of Levuka and whitewater rafting on the Navua River. So much to do - fortunately we still have a lot of time.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Cooking with Contraband

I waste an inordinate amount of time productively. Since moving to Fiji, I've expanded my vocabulary playing Words with Friends to include the very useful qi, dox, kine and za. I now have a good working knowledge of how Twitter works to the point that I gave my sister an hour long tutorial on Skype.  I have an active and attractive account on Pinterest (who takes all of those amazing photos?) and have accumulated about a thousand recipes to try some time in the future when I've got time. Oh, wait a minute, I do have time.

Actually, I do cook a lot here. After the initial honeymoon period with Fiji when there were still so many restaurants to try and not be disappointed by we ate out a lot. Eventually, we settled on our two favourites – Maya Dhaba (best butter chicken and naan bread ever) and Bad Dog (sashimi starter is the best thing on the menu). The combination of expanding waistbands and a shrinking bank account meant that cooking again seemed like a good idea. During my early attempts I usually ended up having to shower afterwards because I’d get so sweaty (one particularly memorable occasion included carmelised banana pancakes on a blazing hot morning – what was I thinking?). However, I learned how and where to shop (the market, Lazy Chef, Whaleys), what to avoid (local sausages and minced beef) and to turn the air con on if the temperature outside was already uncomfortable.

Unless it’s tipping it down or the outside atmosphere is sauna-like, barbecuing is an option and we do it a lot. In fact, I've started to wonder if I’m getting medieval northern European lung disease from the amount of particulate matter I've inhaled trying to light slightly damp charcoal with substandard firelighters. Our little back patio is eerily like our little patio in England, except in England we don’t light our patio with Tiki lanterns and the bats flying overhead don’t look capable of carrying off small dogs.

 Alex and Anna demonstrate the correct use of the patio.

Travelling and eating go together like wine and cheese, bread and butter and Fred and Ginger. When I’m in California I head straight for In–n-Out and order a cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate shake, eat Mexican food from taquerias, search for the perfect margarita and eat a lot of hot Italian sausages. In France it’s Breton butter with crunch seasalt crystals smeared thickly on bread. In Fiji, it’s tuna. Tuna steaks on the grill with garlic aioli and grilled tomato salsa, made with mint and fresh coriander (dhania here in Fiji). Raw tuna sliced and served with Japanese rice balls, wasabi, lime and finely diced locally grown chillies and fresh ginger. Leftover tuna made into salad. Tuna, tuna, tuna. We never get sick of it in our attempts to deplete the Pacific of its most delicious fish. We get our tuna from Island Ika, who post what’s in everyday on their Facebook page and, refreshingly from a health and safety perspective, keep their fish on ice. We have to eat a lifetime’s worth of tuna during our stay here as the average lump of tuna that I buy for sashimi at home would cost about a week’s salary in the UK.

My foodie photos will not be on Pinterest any time soon.

Other things that we feel the need to consume a lot of during our stay in Fiji include passionfruit, pineapple, cassava (who would have thought tree root could taste so delicious?) and New Zealand’s Tip Top Cookies and Cream Ice Cream. Local fish and produce are relatively inexpensive as long as you buy in season – during my year here, tomatoes have ranged in price from FJ$1 to FJ$18 a heap. Heaps are the unit of measure in the markets here and literally are heaps of whatever either piled up on the table or in small bowls. It does pay to ask how much things are before you start getting them to fill your bags at the market just in case you end up with a FJ$7.00 red onion like I did.

Imported food, on the other hand, is expensive and reliance on it can lead to bitter disappointment. Mayonnaise, for example. I grew up eating Best Foods mayonnaise, which personally, I think is the best in the world. Some of you may know it as Hellmans since though the two companies merged in 1932 they haven’t got around to unifying their brand names. I was relieved to see Best Foods for sale at Cost u Less when we first arrived, but after a few months there was none on the shelves. At that point, I hadn't learned the finer points of hoarding and paid for it. Antipodean mayonnaise is disgusting. I don’t know what they make it out of, but every brand we tried tasted like salad cream made with machine oil and a large dollop of sugar. We mourned for garlic aioli and tuna salad as did others who lamented to lack of good mayo on the Suva Expat Facebook page. However, we did drop a few pounds.

When we first arrived, we had English visitors, one of whom was incensed that the best condiment in the world, A1 Steak Sauce, had been invented by the Americans. Well, I could write an entire post about Americans and condiments (my neighbour in the UK who inherited all of our condiments joked that he had a special cupboard made just for our mustard). Lo and behold, out shopping the next day I found A1. Anna was instantly enamoured and it went straight to her top ten tastes of all times. Of course, we haven’t seen it since.

My current obsession at the moment is sourdough. September is sourdough month and with that in mind, I thought that I’d see if you could make a successful sourdough starter in Fiji with nothing but rye flour and water. Fijian microbes are notorious for being super-sized. You are advised by people that have been here longer than you and survived with all of their limbs intact that any cut or scratched bit needs regular liberal applications of anti-bacterial cream and that you need to have a low threshold for antibiotic seeking behaviour if you get any sort of lurgy. Well, I can tell you that within 48 hours I had a sourdough that smelled like Newcastle Brewery on a still day bubbling away on my counter.

On the counter is a bowl of the good stuff waiting to be made into sourdough poppy seed pancakes tomorrow morning. I brought the poppy seeds back from Australia in May because I couldn't find any here. I've since been told that poppy seeds are now on a list of things that cannot be brought into the country, presumably because there’s a fear that we might start producing opium. Well, I’m not going to waste my poppy seeds trying to grow them. I’m going to eat them and savour every precious bite.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

My new favourite expression

How could I not have heard the term FoMO (Fear of Missing Out)? I know the FoMO concept intimately, having suffered from it my entire life. It explains quite a lot of my behavioural quirks, like wandering around the house while brushing my teeth in case something else more interesting is going on or appearing at breakfast when we have houseguests, half dressed with wet hair, lest I miss a bit of news that my family members with certainly neglect to tell me later.

Being a FoMOist has its upsides. It’s what allows you to chivvy your companions along while walking around strange cities as you search for a restaurant better than the one you are standing in front of, which means occasionally you stumble on a real gem. It’s what gives you the curiosity to try every strange fruit that you come across in the market despite the fact that, up until you tried a mangosteen two days ago, you haven’t tasted a delicious new fruit since you tried a kiwifruit in 1978. It’s what makes you appear adventurous when what you really are is a perennial worrier, wondering if something bigger, better or more interesting is just out of sight around the theoretical corner.

Strange fruit – mangosteen, where have you been all of my life?

However, I suspect many FoMOists are paralysed with indecision because for every positive decision they make, there are the infinite possibilities that they’ve excluded by making that decision. This is typically demonstrated at restaurants, where FoMOists have a difficult time ordering from a large menu (“if I have the Caesar salad, which I love, I won’t be able to try the flambéed frogs’ legs, which might be delicious!”).

Of course, indecision impacts on bigger life events. For example, if you decide to be a fireman, you have passively decided not to be a butcher, a baker or a brain surgeon among other things. Therefore, I suspect most FoMOists let their lives play out, occasionally making some inexplicable (to themselves and to their friends) monumental decision based on nothing more than the fear that there might be something on the other side of that decision than is more exhilarating than where they happen to be standing at the moment of decision-making. That’s my excuse anyway.

Mind you, there was little opportunity for FoMO on mine and Anna’s recent trip to California because our days were absolutely packed with great things. Alex joined us from the UK and we saw every brother, sister, niece, nephew, brother- and sister-in-law on my side of the family. I also managed to see some of my very oldest friends from my early childhood who had the decency to still look young. Alex and Anna experienced their first US 4th of July (not a particularly popular holiday in the UK), we saw the awesome San Jose Earthquakes-LA Galaxy match at Stanford Stadium, picked berries in Santa Ynez, squeezed in three family birthday parties and went to the beach as many times as possible.

While we were stuffing in as much California culture as we could, John was back in Fiji running the Pacific Science Association Conference and looking after the four kittens that were delivered to our living room by a little stray that we’d been feeding. The conference was a success and the kittens well-adjusted enough to place in good homes. And yes, I do tell John he’s a hero at least a couple of times a week.

The kittens were replaced by the same number of toads soon after they were re-homed.

Back in Fiji, our UK next door neighbours came to visit on their round-the-world adventure. They embraced the Fijian experience whole-heartedly (despite it being so chilly that I had to don a fleece several times), going rafting on the Navua River, walking along the sea wall into Suva for a day’s sight-seeing, going off the rope swing at Colo-i-Suva and learning (and using) basic Fijian words. Their boys are going to be spoiled for life as on their second snorkel off of Naigani, we saw a white-tipped shark, a Ridley’s turtle as well as amazing coral cover. Seriously, there will be no point in them visiting the Caribbean now. On their last night here, we went to our usual, The Bad Dog, to toast them bon voyage with colourful cocktails/mocktails with them in their full bula regalia.

It’s times like that I can ignore my FoMO tendencies because I’m sure that if I were able to peek around the theoretical corner, my little piece of the world would be better than anything I might see on the other side.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Concept Home

A couple of days before we left Australia for Fiji after John’s successful op, I was startled to realise that I was looking forward to going home. I wanted to see our daughter, our cats and sleep in our own bed but it was the sensation of “going home” to Suva that caught me off guard.

Our Fijian home away from home.

How and when the shift to having Suva feel like home is something that I was unaware of and I’m sort of at a loss to explain. It’s not like we’re surrounded by our own stuff here as we left most of it in a friend’s garage in the North of England. I still feel like we’re camping out in someone else’s house. Besides, after losing so many of our possessions (and our jobs) in 1989 due to Hurricane Hugo when we lived on St Croix, I've sort of lost my attachment to material things. Nothing like experiencing a storm of the century first hand, emerging without things but with all of your loved ones intact to make you realise what’s important in life.

Some of it must be down to creating a life for myself here. Life as a trailing spouse (hate that expression) can be a terribly lonely experience. You have to put yourself out there to find purposeful activity and friends even if you’re painfully shy. Otherwise you’ll end up only socialising with your partner’s colleagues. Not that I’m suggesting that your partner’s colleagues (or mine) aren't lovely, fun people, but you’d be very lucky indeed to get all of your emotional and social support from a pre-selected group of people.

When we moved to England from the West Indies, John started travelling a lot for work. In fact, we hadn't been in Newcastle for two weeks before he basically moved to Leeds to do some lab work at St James Infirmary (cutting edge science on sea anemones in a human fertility lab – imagine the looks when people saw what was in his petri dishes in the lift). I remember that time as being lonely, grey and very, very cold. Then we moved out to our lovely neighbourhood in Northumberland (in 1992 and we stayed until 2012) and our children were born and John continued to travel, but to foreign, exotic, tropical countries for long periods.

In the early days, he’d come home from a trip and I’d say “thank God you’re home, let’s go out!” at the same time that he’d say “thank God I’m home, I’m not leaving the house!” This was not compatible with a happy marriage. That’s when I had a parental “eureka” moment and started to engage our series of wonderful babysitters (Jenny C, Andrea & Leila R, Lynsey W) when John was away. This allowed me the freedom to attend girls’ nights at the pub, curry nights at friends, etc... Acquaintances that I knew from baby and toddler groups started to cement themselves into lifelong friendships through the shared experience of having a great time without being distracted by wiping snotty noses or keeping the children from breaking their necks on the play equipment.

At some point during that time there was a seismic shift and Hagg Bank, a higgledy-piggledy collection of two-up two-down brick railway cottages perched on the River Tyne, became home. But not just the place I craved to return to at the end of the day for a cup of tea or something a little stronger, it became my geographic and emotional centre. It was the place that I’d put down the deepest roots, the place that I am certain that I will forever get wistful about when I’m away from it. My late sister had a theory about the deep sense of home – home is not where you've grown up, it's where you've grown things like children or gardens – whatever requires love and attention.

My vegetable garden - one of the things that I miss the most about England.

Of course going home to Hagg Bank would require kicking out the tenants, leaving our current jobs, finding new ones, disrupting Anna’s schooling, transporting the cats - not to mention getting all of our furniture out of the garage and reconstructing it from memory using Allen keys and a lot of expletives. So for the meantime, home is Suva. Our roots might not be deep, but they are growing.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Birthday Reflections

Everyone knows that getting old sucks. At least that’s what you think when you’re young. However, when you get to middle-age - when the “c-word” changes from the word that rhymes with hunt to the word that rhymes with answer - you realise that you want to become that cheerful frail old lady that you see walking very slowly down the road pulling her shopping trolley or the old man with the flat cap sitting at the bus stop. The alternative is just not that appealing. The “I hope I die before I get old” attitude is a young person’s lie. And while it is tolerated with a knowing smile by us old(er) people, the holding of such a belief is a sure sign of a not-fully-formed mind.

And getting old isn't all bad. Ok, you might forget what things are called, what you were saying mid-sentence or that the phone that you've been looking for the last five minutes is actually in your hand, but if you’re lucky you might finally be making a decent wage, have started to take yourself less seriously and have acquired a modicum of wisdom.

When I turned 36, my husband forgot my birthday.* I’m not going to lie – it felt like the end of the world and our marriage. His subsequent attempts to buy me presents (camping gear – hah!) and a lemon tree (which I purposely neglected for several years before it finally gave up the ghost) only made matters worse. Looking back on it now I realise that I was the perpetrator of my own misery that day, which my mother went to great pains to explain to me at the time. Did I listen? I never did before and I wasn't going to start then. Well, eventually I did figure it out, but I would have been a lot happier if I’d been quicker on the uptake.

A marital milestone occurred when we went our first family holiday with only one nearly grown-up child. Camping in Cornwall for ten days sounded like a perfect way to test the impending dynamics of our shrinking family unit while Alex was in California with cousins. Realising the long-term impact of the following days, John and I made a pact not to bicker - for the entire trip. Now, those of you that have ever camped know that setting up a tent is pretty much the only time that you are 100% guaranteed to fall out with someone. (For a hilarious book about family camping, read The Tent, the Bucket and Me). Well, John and I set up our enormous over-sized tent on a blustery, damp day on the The Lizard with nary a cross word. I’m not saying that a miracle happened on that trip, but it was pretty close.

Anna and John on the South West Coast Path in 2010.

Fast forward a couple of years and I can say with complete certainty, that if we hadn't progressed past the Bickerson stage, we’d never been able to pull off our move to Fiji. First, there’s no way Anna would have come. Second, third and fourth, there were about a thousand times during the process of the move and settling in period that either of us could have said “sod this for a game of soldiers” or worse. And finally, if we’d expended precious energy on brooding, reviling and recriminating, we would have been very lonely indeed.

A wonderful Cornish holiday...

I’m not saying that we always get along. When we arrived in Melbourne recently for John’s gallbladder operation, we’d been travelling for about ten hours. Opening the hotel room door, we agreed that we’d arrived just in the nick of time because we’d begun to grate on each other’s nerves. The difference is that I didn’t demand to know why I was irritating him and vice versa.  That’s because we’re finally old enough to know better.

On the day of John’s surgery, I turned 49. I recognised the birthday card he pulled out of the nightstand - he’d obviously purchased in the Ian Potter Gallery gift shop when I went to the toilet the day before. (As a good friend pointed out, it’s better than getting a card from the toilet while I was in the gift shop.) Inside he’d written “Happy Birthday, Beautiful Wife”. Honestly, could there be a better gift than that?

John’s hospital roommate was a talkative elderly gentleman called Derrick. Derrick was in Exeter during WWII. He briefly recounted the bombing raids by the Germans, saying finally, “And in the mornings we woke up and said ‘good morning’ and we meant it”.

Eventually the “c-word” will start to mean care home and an adventure will be travelling down to the bottom of the garden and back. Until then and beyond, I plan to greet each morning with a grateful hello and I’m going to mean it too.

*In fairness, John has asked me to state that once when he presented me with a gift of beautiful earrings on our anniversary, I argued the toss with him that he’d got the dates wrong. He hadn't.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Life, Applied in a Slapdash Fashion

When visitors arrive, Fiji shines. For the last two-plus weeks our son, Alex, has been visiting from snowy Sheffield in the UK during his Easter break. While the allure of rainy Suva wears off pretty quickly (visiting the university bookstore is on the guide book’s top ten things to do in Suva), the rest of the island, Viti Levu, makes up for it.

One of John’s New Zealand-based colleagues said that his family views the time that they lived in Fiji as time spent in a parallel universe. If you make the effort, you can regularly do things which most people only dream about doing or only do once in a lifetime. Diving with sharks? Just down the road out of Pacific Harbor. Seeing spinner dolphin? Just up the road at Moon Reef. Stay in an oceanside hotel room, with your own steps down to the beach? Not a problem – and you’ll get a local rate to boot.

The view from the front door of the bure at Wananavu.

The problem is real life gets in the way of doing all of this fun stuff. Anna has homework. John has to go to work. I am mysteriously busy without being in paid employment. Weeks fly by and, before you know it, you’ve lived in Fiji for over seven months, acquired three cats and have been completely deskilled by your housekeeper. So for maximum enjoyment, you either have to get out more or have visitors to force your hand.

In a move that completely confused the cats, Alex’s arrived just after John was admitted to the hospital. They gave Alex a wide berth, occasionally venturing forth to give him a good sniff before retreating a safe distance to observe the younger, fitter version of John. John’s discharge from hospital coincided with the kids starting a three day dive course. Besides a big bloody blow-out of cartilage, blood and snot after the first dive and some trouble with clearing their ears, they enjoyed themselves.

Anna’s school broke up on the Thursday, so first thing Good Friday morning, we headed northeast up towards Rakiraki to go to Wananavu Beach Resort. When we arrived, the sea between Wananavu and the nearby island of Nananu-i-Ra was smooth as glass, so we kayaked across. Stopping at the reef to have a quick snorkel, I spotted a medium sized spider on the side of Anna and Alex’s kayak. My attempt to knock it off by splashing water on it did not work and it ran back into the kayak where Anna was sat. Have I mentioned that Anna does not like spiders? Well, I nearly drowned sucking up water through my snorkel laughing at Anna’s reaction before I realised that her running up and down an unstable kayak over a sharp reef was pretty dangerous. Eventually, John managed to get the spider to jump onto our kayak, which was a fairly unsatisfactory outcome for everyone bar the spider.

Good snorkeling off Nananu-i-Ra.

As John was still a bit weak and I am a weakling, we turned back before we made it all of the way across while the children persevered. Our kayak back was dream-like. The sky was a monotonous grey and because the water surface was like a millpond, it was difficult to tell where the sky ended and the sea began. If we stopped to drift, we could hear schools of fish splashing around on the surface. I was very keen to see some dolphin, so we paddled from fish-splash to fish-splash hoping to see what was causing the fish to jump. When John started to slap his paddle slightly erratically onto the surface of the water, I asked him what he was doing. He said that he was feigning the sounds of an injured fish to attract sharks. Honestly, who would be crazy enough to go out in a small kayak in the middle of the Pacific with a marine biologist?

John's pre-op fat-free diet is making him grumpy.
Alex started referring to Anna as his adopted Spanish sister because of her tan.

The next day we had a pretty rubbish dive with Ra Divers. The weather wasn't great, the swell and current were quite difficult to cope with and the visibility was terrible. Also, despite being a fairly relaxed diver, I felt like I’d swallowed a swarm of bees diving with the children. As Alex said, the anxiety portion of your brain must hypertrophy when you give birth. I’m not sure that it ever returns to a normal size afterwards.

Fortunately, the next day was absolutely gorgeous, so we kayaked back out past Nananu-i-Ra and did some amazing snorkeling  We were out for hours and I felt like my exhausted arms might drop off by the time we got back. Our kayaking marathon revealed several issues regarding applying sunscreen. First, if you have hairy legs, spray sunscreen doesn't really work very well. Second, if you apply sunscreen in a slapdash fashion, your failed, non-systematic efforts will be revealed to all in bright red streaks. And finally, even if your children laugh at your silly hat, you can be smug when you’re the only one that returns without a pink nose.

Silly hat? I laugh at your sunburned nose!

We had a couple of day in Suva doing laundry and waiting for Alex’s sunburn to calm down before Anna, Alex and I headed over to Denarau Island which is near the airport. Denarau is like a Disneyfied version of Fiji - serried rows of resorts, golf courses and housing developments bake in the tropical sun. It wouldn't be my first choice for a place to stay, but the high Western standards for cleanliness and service and the big hotel feel make it an easy place to relax. We stayed at the Radisson which was just fine.

The kids parasailed and jet-skied while I enjoyed people watching and lying by the pool. Alex’s last night in Fiji was made special by a spectacular sunset and a wonderful dinner at the Steakhouse at the Westin. The steaks were delicious and the traditional farewell serenade by the waiting staff to Alex was really moving (or it could have been the wine).

Looks like a brochure shot, but it's just an ordinary day on Denarau...

We were really sad to see Alex off first thing the next morning. However, in all of the years that I've been saying goodbye to people, I've learned that the easiest way to make saying goodbye less painful is to already have the next trip booked. We’re going to see Alex in California in June, so it was sort of “see you later” rather than a tearful farewell, for which I am truly grateful.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Accidental Medical Tourist

Somehow, John and I managed to do virtually all of our pre-children travel without ever having to take an aspirin or buy a tube of antibiotic cream. However, since the arrival of our delightful children, now aged 19 and 16, we’ve made unexpected visits to hospitals and medical clinics in France, Italy, the Caribbean, the US and now, Fiji.

Our first encounter with a foreign medical service was in the South of France when one of the children, probably due to bad parenting, was allowed to toddle very quickly on an uneven cobbled surface in a walled medieval town resulting in a head gash that spurted blood in such a spectacular fashion that people actually said “Mon Dieu!” when we ran past them back to the car. Of course by the time we saw the slightly impatient doctor, who I just know was inwardly tutting about over-protective American mothers, Alex’s wound didn’t look so gory and only required a couple of butterfly bandages. We had to pay approximately £35 for his care, but by some miracle of bureaucratic magic and our trusty E111 card, we received a refund cheque from the French Government a few months later.

The only other thing I remember about that day was that I accidently threw the rental car keys into large rubbish skip with a couple of really juicy peach stones and actually had to climb inside to retrieve them. Of course John thought that this was hilarious. I did not.

The next foreign medical encounter of note was in St Croix in 1999. We all had some horrible lurgy over the Christmas holidays – a combination of fever, coughing and vomiting. We arrived at the airport for our departure looking like a family of zombies. The flight to Miami from London was memorable only because when one of the children was presented with their end of flight breakfast, an episode of projective vomiting ensued. Not surprisingly, no one in the remaining ten or so rows took up the offer of breakfast.

Unfortunately, Anna did not get better. In a pattern that was to repeat itself, Alex complained about being sick more, so while Anna was slowly going off in the corner, we expended our parental energy on Alex. By the time we noticed Anna was really sick, she was really, really sick and ended up in having to be admitted to the hospital. John and I had previously avoided going to the hospital when we lived in St Croix in the late 80s and early 90s, except once when John was bitten by a dog and was told by the receptionist to go home and put a bandage on his bloodied finger.

I cannot tell you how frustrating it was to be sitting in the reception of accident and emergency filling in insurance forms while Anna hung limply in John’s arms. However, in the West Indies, polite protocol is of upmost importance - just ask the tourist who arrived the same time as us with his foot wrapped in a bloody towel demanding to be seen by a doctor immediately. According to John, he was still sitting in the waiting room about ten hours later. Anyway, once you got past the horribly dirty A&E reception, a fairly modern hospital with competent doctors awaited you.

This was the first and last time that we accompanied John a work trip as we also infected John’s work colleagues, preventing them from diving for a good part of the trip. Having said that, the experience bonded the relationship between them and by the end of the trip they were engaged to be married. Amazingly, they were not put off having children and now have three of their own.

In 2001, we took the children to Italy to see some mid-winter sunlight which was sorely lacking in the north of England. Unfortunately, they both had colds and Alex basically could not eat without severe ear pain. This was horribly ironic, because one of the main reasons to travel to Italy is to eat. We had a lovely sunny day out at Pompeii when Anna started to fade in an alarming way.  By 3am she was in such a state that I was wandering the streets of Naples looking for a taxi as our bizarre hostel had no night clerk. Eventually I found some guys guarding market stalls, who kindly interrupted their game of throwing rocks at pigeons to find me a taxi and give me a blanket to wrap Anna up in.

When we finally found a hospital with an A&E department, we were sat in a triage room with Anna sitting on the examination table. The doctor, obviously an eminent one by the looks of his young (mostly good-looking female) entourage, arrived looking like he just woke up and smelling like he’d been asleep in an ashtray. He pulled up a chair in front of Anna, folded his hands together, as if in prayer and rested his head on his hands. Everyone sat expectantly. There was a slight discomfort in the room when we realised that he’d actually fallen asleep. Then completely unexpectedly, he looked up at Anna, all wild-eyed and shouted in English, “What’s wrong with you?!” I don’t know who was more terrified – me or her.

We high-tailed it out of there pretty quickly and in my non-existent Italian explained to the waiting taxi to take us to another hospital - any other hospital. In the end, we were looked after by a very good doctor who, after a chest x-ray and a thorough examination, prescribed a mountain of medicine (which was the only thing that we had to pay for). When we got back to the UK, we went straight to the GP, who confiscated most of the medicine and told us that he was sending the thick black drops that I’d been squirting up Anna’s nose for the previous week to the pharmacist for “safe disposal”.

I skip other stories to come right up to date, where the main protagonist in the story is John. Or rather, John’s gallbladder. A very acute attack of cholecystitis resulted in us having to go the public hospital in Suva as the private hospital currently does not have a night time emergency care. It’s all kind of a blur, but the short version is that John received excellent clinical care in a hospital that, like public hospitals all over the world, is over-stretched and under-resourced. Fortunately, we were in the privileged position to be able to move to the private hospital after a few hours and John is now waiting patiently for his gallbladder to calm down so that the professionals can remove the wretched thing.

I must come clean and confess that, as an American that worked and/or partook in the UK National Health System for over twenty years, I write this blog as a true believer in socialised medicine, or in less controversial terms, universal access to healthcare. In the post-Millennium Development Goal world, there will have to be an emphasis on increasing social justice to tackle entrenched inequities in both rich and poor countries alike. My medical travels around the world have only strengthened my resolve that this not only must happen in relation to healthcare, it can happen. Call me deluded if you like. I prefer the term optimistic.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Accident of Birth

Anna’s school (the International School, Suva) had a blood drive recently. I was a regular blood donor in the US and a not-so regular blood donor in the UK. One thing that put me off was the fifteen-odd page questionnaire that you had to answer that almost inevitably disqualified you from giving blood because of some obscure (or not so obscure) reason. No such problems here. The form was a one-sided piece of paper and the haemoglobin check consisted of me pulling down my bottom eyelids to reveal my healthy red eye sockets. As for the minimum weight requirement, the chap asked me to get on the scale, but when I stood up to walk over to it, he told me not to bother.

Besides the obvious altruistic benefits of giving blood there are other benefits. It’s the one time you actually have to eat cookies and take it easy for the rest of the day. I also get a delighted reaction when I tell them that my blood type is O negative. Though it is a complete accident of birth, it makes me feel bizarrely special to have the universal blood type. One thing that you must never do immediately after giving blood is have a few drinks at a dinner party. This can lead to dehydration and a severe hangover or vomiting in the neighbour’s hedge, or both. Don’t ask.

John said recently that if he died suddenly not to feel sorry for him as he’s had an amazing life so far. Of course I want him to live for a very long time, but barring a couple of blips (tearaway at age 15 and the “is this everything phase?” aged 36) my life has been awesome too. A good proportion of that awesomeness can be put down to the opportunities afforded me because of those very same accidents of birth that led to my blood type. Being here in Fiji I am constantly reminded of the privileges that come with being born into a relatively well off and educated family.

Two of the main reasons my life is so awesome.

One of the very frustrating things about being a trailing spouse in Fiji is that not only is it very difficult to get a job, but the law also makes it very hard to volunteer more than an hour a week. There is a lot of talent that could benefit local organisations going to waste as well as many families high-tailing it out of Fiji as soon as the working spouse’s contract is up because of these rules. However, there is a lot of energy spent in the expat community to try to make a difference in other ways.

The Corona group raises funds for local causes while providing a forum for expats (mostly trailing wives) and other interested people to get to know each other and learn about Fiji. I've previously blogged about their meeting in October that was held at the Fiji Museum. This latest meeting included a very sobering talk by some of the staff at Pacific Medical Services that provide reproductive and sexual health services throughout Fiji. Ladies of the developed world – cherish your access to birth control!

Last Friday, a couple of hours after dropping some cakes off at a home for disabled children (an idea that was suggested at the Corona meeting), I was on the boat with Anna and John on our way to Leleuvia Island Resort. It’s that accident of birth thing again – the yawning chasm between the haves and the have nots that is easy to ignore until you happen to catch sight of someone over on the other side. Even then it’s tempting to look away because it’s hard to know what to do and easier to get distracted than continue to contemplate deep injustice (“Am I being patronising?” “Am I doing enough?” “Oooh, that cafe does a nice iced coffee.”)

Anna had a rotten weekend as she woke up with a stinking cold on Saturday morning, but did manage to rally for a snorkel and a round of beach volleyball in the afternoon. John took me for a dive off the beach to see if I could remember how. It was just like riding a bicycle, even after twenty years. The only problem was that in the intervening years the tanks got a lot heavier and the weights a lot lighter. If anyone saw us, they’d have thought that we were being romantic, swimming along while hold hands. Actually, I wasn't wearing enough weight to ballast my body fat, so John was preventing me from bobbing up to the surface like a cork. We followed that up with a spectacular dive at a site called the Fish Market off of Motoriki where we saw sharks, barracuda and other big fish. I can’t wait to get into the water again.

The numbers on the gauges got smaller since the last time I dived in 1991.

A hair shirt here is out of the question as there are so many amazing things to enjoy, and besides it would be too sweaty. However, a purposeful mindfulness of the fact that many things that I consider a right would be judged by a large proportion of the world’s population as a privilege and the rest as an impossibility is something that I will endeavour to achieve.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Peering out from beneath the parasol

I have taken to roaming the streets of Suva armed with a large USP multi-coloured golf umbrella. This isn’t because of the rain (though it does come in handy for that) but rather to keep my brain from being braised inside of my skull. While you’ve been digging snow from your driveways, I've been cooked into a state of tropical torpor which I can occasionally rouse myself from with liberal doses of air conditioning, gin & tonics and the odd trip to the beach.

One wonders how I could possibly have so many places to go and so many things to do without being in paid employment (that is coming, but on island time). As we have no car, I travel by taxi or bus. I know that I’ve blogged about the taxi drivers here before, but I had three last week that are worth mentioning. One drove at speeds faster on the roads of Suva than I’d ever been on the island before. His driving technique was to drive at great speed, anticipating that other drivers would either drive sensibly or just get out of his way. I suspect that he may not live much longer. The next one drove very slowly but entirely erratically. I imagine that his vision was somewhat impaired. Finally, there was the personable chap whose driving was completely normal, but had Fiji Water bottle half full of what I suspect was urine sloshing around next to the gear shift.

Last Wednesday, Anna and I (having survived the taxi trip into town) were having a skiving afternoon watching Django at the cinema when the lights came on and the usher appeared. She announced that there was a tsunami warning and we could either stay to finish the movie or get a voucher to return to the cinema another day. The cinema is right on the harbourside and while we were really enjoying the movie, seeking higher ground seemed like the sensible option. Ironically, we’d just seen the trailer for The Impossible with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor which is about the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and decided that we wouldn't want to see it because we live on a tsunami-prone tropical island. When we emerged from the theatre, blinking against the sunlight, traffic was at a standstill and the pavements were full of people.

Previously I've experienced two types of natural disasters: earthquakes, which you can do bugger-all about when they strike except dive for cover, and hurricanes, which you have days to prepare for. I was at a bit of a loss with what to do next. Run to the top of the nearest tall building? Walk the 4ish miles home which is outside of the tsunami danger area? I literally had no idea if we had two minutes or two hours in which to act so I asked a couple who were studying a smart phone. According to them we had 2 hours to get to higher ground. Jumping into a taxi was out of the question as they were all full and weren't going anywhere anyway.

Traffic and people leaving town towards higher ground

So we started to walk uphill out of town. I was really impressed by the calm, orderly and friendly atmosphere. The only upset person we saw was a hysterical ten-ish year old. We overheard her expat mother say “don’t worry, it won’t be like the movie” when we walked by. I will refrain from commenting on parenting skills, though I suspect taking a child that age to see The Impossible was perhaps a mistake and may have created neuroses that will last a lifetime.

The sun was searing, but we walked most of the way home before Anna’s friend stopped to give us a lift the rest of the way. My shirt was literally soaked in sweat (I didn't have had my brolly with me), but before I showered we had to prepare for the impending disaster. This included filling up water bottles and posting updates on Twitter and Facebook.

Fortunately, just as an email from the US Embassy popped into my inbox telling me to prepare for the tsunami, a friend rang to say that the warning had been called off.

You all may be wondering where John was during all of this. Earlier that day, he had rung me from a waterside hotel where he was attending a conference just out of town to tell me that his phone battery was nearly dead. Despite me saying regularly that we should have a family plan in case of an emergency (like a tsunami) we hadn't made one. Well, at least we know what the first rule of the emergency plan will be. Keep your bloody phone charged.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Guilty pleasures

I enjoy many guilty pleasures. Hot dogs, for instance. I love them – sliced and heated with baked beans, rolled in a flour tortilla with mild cheddar and microwaved until the cheese oozes out of the ends or stuffed into a wonder-bread bun and slathered with bright yellow American mustard. I love a glass of cool white wine when I cook dinner, even if I’m on my own. I love getting my eyebrows waxed in a beautifying, though slightly sado-masochistic sort of way.

However, one of the things that I get the greatest pleasure from is.....cemeteries. Weird, I know. This is not something new. Ever since I was old enough to be able to drive a car, I have been swerving into gravelly lay-bys to inspect old cemeteries. Of course, in California, this meant any grave pre-1920. When I moved to the east coast of the US, I discovered really old graves. When I moved to rural Northumberland in northern England, I was in churchyard heaven. My children were forever getting irritated with me for stopping suddenly on country roads, knowing without even looking up from their Game Boys that they could either join me for a drizzly game of spot the memento mori or be left in the car. Anna made the mistake of once refusing to come with me and Alex and it was only around twenty minutes later we heard her, hysterical with fear, alone on the other side of the church looking for us.

I am not alone in this obsession. Just ask my cyber-companions. This is where it all gets a little strange (or rather, stranger). If you’re a keen family historian and you know where your ancestor is buried, you can go to this site and ask for a volunteer to go hunt for their headstone, photograph it and post the photo. Having fulfilled several of these photo requests at the cemetery that abuts my late sister’s house in Holyoke, Massachusetts, I was delighted to see that there was a pending photo request at Suva Cemetery that I could spend my free time hunting for.

Suva cemetery sprawls over a hillside as you approach the city from the west. Ironically, there is a government-sponsored billboard on the roadside opposite the cemetery that proclaims something like “Welcome to Suva – Fiji’s healthy city!” After walking Anna to the bus stop on her first day of school (at 7am) I caught a taxi to the cemetery. Armed with a large umbrella to keep out of the sun, a bottle of water and a camera, I intrepidly dodged commuter traffic across Suva’s main road to the unimpressive gates. Almost immediately it was apparent that not only were my flip flops completely inappropriate (despite being order from an orthopaedically correct old lady catalogue), but that I should have also brought a emergency beacon in case I fell into one of the large holes that pock-marked the grounds.
There are a lot of young sailors buried here.

The other thing that was obvious was that there was absolutely no way that I was going to locate poor Mr Mantell’s grave that morning. The cemetery was bigger on the inside than it looked on the outside, with irregular boundaries and meandering lines of headstones that were impossible to follow in a systematic fashion. And being an easily distracted sort, I kept forgetting about the holes.

Some estimates state that up to 14% of the Fijian population died in the 1918/19 influenza pandemic
I never feel scared in cemeteries, but I do feel that the air is thick with stories, even if I am making most of them up myself from the scant information on the headstones. In the older parts of the cemetery I felt deeply moved as I read some of the inscriptions. Young seaman, missionaries, small children, many buried singly, not in family plots which resonated the displacement chord that is forever humming in my heart here in Fiji.

By 8:50am Mr Mantell was still eluding me and I was starting to think that I might collapse from heat stroke, so I sat in one of the open shaded bures, looked out at the harbour and let the breeze cool me down contemplating a rather long verse on a grave on one of the last graves I’d walked past:

Master, I've filled my contract, wrought in Thy many lands;
Not by my sins wilt Thou judge me, but by the work of my hands.
Master, I've done Thy bidding, and the light is low in the west,
And the long, long shift is over... Master, I've earned it.....Rest.

This was on a grave of a 24 year old who died in 1921 (Late Lieut. Royal Field Artillery). One can only imagine the toil that he’d endured to have his parents feel like his shift was over so early.*

How privileged I am to be the grand old age of 48 and still be fit and greedy for everything that I love and find interesting! Even if those things include processed meat products, depilation and hanging out with dead people. And blogging, let’s not forget blogging.

*An interesting post-script to this blog is that the verse is from a poem by Robert Service called The Song of the Wage-Slave. Also, the young man is Alan Ross Wilkins, an Australian, whose war diary was published for private circulation in 1922. Well, I know what I’ll be doing on my next trip to Australia – going to the National Library to have a look at it. That’s probably not normal, I know. But afterwards I’ll go to the pub and have a hot dog and a large glass of chardonnay.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Always look on the bright side of life*

Anna came back from the UK. It was always going to be a bit of a gamble letting her go back to visit so soon after we arrived as there was a district possibility that she’d seek asylum with a willing aunt, her brother or an ex-neighbour. But after five weeks of indulging in a proper English Christmas (including three proper Christmas dinners) she was ready to come “home” to Fiji. She starts her international baccalaureate next week, which will be the first proper work that she’s done since June 2012 when she finished her GCSEs before we moved. I expect her brain will hurt for the first couple of weeks.

My job hunt is progressing nicely. I have been fortunate to get a position at the Ministry of Health working on maternal and child health information systems. From the responses that I get from fellow expats (shock, surprise, hearty congratulations) I assume that it’s fairly unusual for the trailing spouse to sort out employment in such a short time here. Luckily, my skills fit in nicely with the work around some of the health-related Millennium Development Goals. Though I have enjoyed my time off, I am relieved and excited about starting work. Believe me, I know that this is a privileged situation to be in.

In my progression from not having a furry pet larger than a gerbil in over twenty years to becoming a certified CCL (crazy cat lady), I have travelled a great distance. To Nadi and back, in fact. On the bus on the way back from Nadi after picking Anna up at the airport, I got a phone call from the vet’s office in Suva (currently, the only practicing vet in town) to say that she needed to extend her leave by a week. Poor Reg was barely limping along with his suppurating leg wound. A few phone calls later, and we’d hired a car so that we could drive back to Nadi the next day with Reg to see the vets at Animals Fiji.

Taking a sick cat on a 3 ½ hour drive requires a certain amount of planning. Litter tray? Check. Towels? Check. Goat’s milk? Check. Fresh tuna offcuts from the my favourite place to buy fish, Island Ika in Toorak? Check. Poor Anna sat in the back with the mewling Reg, who was not interested in the sashimi or milk, but was rather intent on escaping from a moving vehicle. Eventually we pulled up at Animals Fiji and my heart sank. A couple of make-shift looking buildings with a lot of animals wandering about did not instil confidence. But never judge a book by its cover! What wonderful staff, obviously working on a shoe-string (BTW - consider them if you're a local looking for a charity to donate to). Thirty minutes later we were parked up at McDonalds enjoying our lunch. Again, Reg turned up his nose at the tuna and discovered a love of fries (after we forced down the new antibiotics).

The trip home was much more pleasant as Reg, who had not shut up for the previous five hours, passed out from exhaustion and stayed curled up in Anna’s lap the entire way home. He’s now almost completely recovered but is irrevocably spoiled.

Reg sleeps to recuperate while Khali just looks gorgeous.

Alex has booked his flights for coming to visit in March during his Easter break. Travelling here is a journey, not just a trip. The investment cash and time are both substantial – it takes around 40 hours each way to Newcastle, which means that you spend four days of your holiday travelling (though I think that it works out that you only actually lose three calendar days which is too taxing for my brain to compute). I’m making plans for the week that his visit and Anna’s school holiday overlap to go and stay in a resort. It’s bizarre but strangely pleasing to think that I’ll have to book time off of work.

*For the full lyrics of Eric Idle's song, click here.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Warning: this post contains spleen venting

First thoughts on what it would be like to move to Fiji? Endless sun, sand and sea? Ha! Let me dispel you of this notion once and for all. True if you move to a resort and work as a divemaster your life will all of those things and more, I’m sure. But for most of us that have jobs that require sitting at a desk, living in Fiji means living and working in Suva, and at the moment, Suva is in my bad books.

Over the last few days, things have happened that have really tested my affection for this hot, sweaty place. First, I misplaced my passport. Now it would be churlish to blame this momentary lapse of being a responsible adult on where we live. However, I had stashed it away somewhere safe for the duration of Cyclone Evan and on going to retrieve it I could not find it. John and I have searched everywhere in the house at least twice and still no luck. It was about to expire anyway, but my main record of travel over the last ten years has disappeared in a post-storm, bereavement-fueled fug.

Of course you need to file a police report to replace a lost passport. Obtaining the police report required three trips by taxi to the police station. To be completely fair to the Fijian police, I never had to wait more than ten minute to be told to come back later and on the third trip, it took less than five minutes for the neatly typed, very boring police report to be placed in my hands.

Also, I have had two attempts to get my American passport photo taken. The place that takes them here specialises in taking the least attractive photos ever. For the next ten years, my glowering stare from beneath my perspiring brow in my passport photo will be a reminder of our time in Fiji. If you plan to move abroad, be sure to have a couple of different photo IDs besides your passport and some decent passport photos. It could save you a lot of bother.

Our beloved little Reg, the cutest, scruffiest kitten this side of the International Date Line, broke his leg on Friday. Over the weekend, he managed to progress it from a greenstick to an infected compound fracture. Problem is that the only vet in Suva left for her week-long holiday on Friday afternoon.  Yes, you heard me right - THE ONLY VET IN SUVA. Even the Society for the Protection of Animals in Suva does not have access to a vet until February. Here, animal life is cheap. If you’re seriously attached to your animals, I would suggest that you keep Fiji as an expat destination off your list and check the availability of veterinary care wherever you’re thinking about going.

We had a sleepless night nursing him. Thankfully, I’m married to a mad scientist who happened to have a bottle of powered ampicillin in his office left over from an experiment, so a slug of that mixed with goat’s milk in a syringe, cooling with damp towels and the occasional cuddle kept him alive until we got him to the vet’s this morning. He’s only receiving nursing care though, so we’re hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

Finally, after dropping Reg off at the vet’s this morning, I fell asleep for an hour and woke to no power. It was only after another hour or so that I realised that we were the only ones in this situation in our neighbourhood. In our house, that’s how you can tell that the electricity bill is overdue - they turn off your power. Of course it does help if you receive the bill. The timing of the bill arrival is completely random. I had suspected that this might happen so last week I tried to put some money towards our account but was told that they needed a copy of the bill or the amount due to pay it. It is like a Kafkaesque nightmare. Another trip into town to pay the bill, a six hour wait and the power is back on.

Maybe I’ll feel a little better now that the ceiling fans are on, I've eaten some delicious half-melted ice cream from the freezer and I've vented in this post.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Off with her head!

Yesterday, the Queen’s head disappeared from Fiji’s banknotes. The government has made a short commercial to be played in cinemas explaining the new banknotes, which John and I saw while waiting for The Hobbit to start yesterday. This move is completely understandable as Fiji was kicked out of the Commonwealth in 2009 after delaying elections after the 2008 coup (elections won’t be held until 2014). However, is feels little disrespectful to see a large insect crawling onto the space where Lizzie’s face peered out from moments earlier, even in the name of celebrating the biodiversity of these wonderful islands.

It wasn't the best picture of the Queen anyway.

It’s been a while since I last posted because I've been busy snorkelling or being in either a languid or a slightly inebriated state during our amazing trip to Vanua Levu over the Christmas holidays. Our power finally came on in the wee hours of the 23rd, shortly before we took an early morning taxi to airport to await our flight to Savusavu. There were only two small Pacific Air prop planes at the airport that morning and one was not fit to fly, so we had to wait for the other one to fly wherever it was going, then come back (empty) before we could take off. We could see small islands and complex reef systems almost the entire way before making our descent through a small valley, the height of which made it seem like you could reach out and grab coconuts off of the trees.

The men's toilets and the welcoming committee at Savusavu Airport

My first impression of Savusavu itself is that it was just what I thought Fiji would be like before we moved here. Savusavu Bay is unbelievably beautiful and we enjoyed the view from the balcony at our room at the Hot Springs Hotel. The name of the hotel is slightly misleading as they don’t really have hot water at the hotel. They installed a geothermal water heating system which meant that (in our room anyway) when you turned the hot water tap on there was only a 50/50 chance that hot water would come out.

The view over Savusavu Bay from the Hot Springs Hotel

Our ultimate destination, however, was the Pearl Shack on the south shore of the island. The owner picked us up from the hotel on Christmas Eve morning and kindly took us into town to do our grocery shopping. What a nightmare! Savusavu is not a big town (probably around 5000 people), but every single resident was squeezed into the narrow aisles of the supermarket that morning. The market was the same. I battled the feeling of claustrophobia to try to buy what I could off of my list, but in the end I kind of gave up so we ended up with a selection of weird stuff to eat. John had been in charge of going to the liquor store, and with steely determination did an admirable job. Fortunately the previous occupants of “the shack” had left a good supply of condiments or the food might have become rather boring.

I could have written an entire post just about the shack. In fact I did, but it was so tedious in its lyrical waxing that I thought that I’d make everyone hate me if I published it. It was a completely relaxing, healing place. The snorkeling was unbelievable. Parts of the back reef were really interesting with enormous heads of coral and a good diversity of fish, but the fore reef was stunning. A walk across the reef pavement in low tide, followed by a short snorkel in about half a metre of water led to a drop off to around 20-30 meters. The wall was covered in healthy coral. John took loads of video, most of which came out kind of rubbish because his camera started to fog up. The reef went on for a long way, but we didn't need to venture too far to stay amused. Besides, once you got out too far, the drop off was too pelagic to be comfortable without eyes in the back of your head. It’s funny how the Jaws theme tune just pops into your head at the most inopportune times.

Besides snorkeling  we kayaked, cooked (we didn't eat out once we got to the shack), drank and did silly things like attempt a romantic canoodle in the two person hammock after some champagne. This ended badly with both of us stuck with our feet up in the air and our heads pile-driven into the sand. John worked on teaching himself the corals of Fiji and I wasted an embarrassing number of hours reading the Game of Throne series.

We came back to Suva to see in the New Year. Our “celebration” consisted of Thai beef salad and champagne on the patio with the kittens and enough episodes of Rome to see us to midnight. Bliss.