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.