Saturday, 22 November 2014

Things that go bump in the night

I had been thinking that a post about creepy crawlies in Fiji was long overdue when the inspiration arrived on my doorstep. My bedroom doorstep. Literally. At 3am.

Now all of you cat owners know about the lovely treats that your cute little killers bring you as gifts. Terrified mice, rats in rigor mortis, tailless chewed up lizards, half-dead birds and the like. All delightful and totally within my capacity to deal with. But the other night I met my match. I’ll admit there was some screaming and maybe just a little hysteria.

We have a long wooden landing at the top of the stairs outside of our bedroom. The cats use this as their killing ground. In the night you can sometimes hear them playing some sort of morbid version of catch. It sounds something like: scamper, scamper, thud, scamper, thud, thud. If any of the scampers or thuds is punctuated by a squeak, I’ll rouse myself from my slumber to undertake a mission of mercy to try to save the still living victim.

The other night there were quite a lot of thuds and scampers. Eventually there was a loud squeak, so I got out of bed and went onto the landing. A pile of clean laundry had been knocked over and one of the murderous beasts, Reggie, was looking expectantly at a crumpled up dark shirt, presumably the hiding place of a wee cute mouse that had managed to escape his clutches. In the dark, I stepped over the cat and the t-shirt to pick up daughter’s school uniform to hang it back up when the cat and the shirt suddenly engaged in mortal combat. The shirt wasn't a shirt. It was a fruit bat.

Now, I usually find fruit bats quite charming. They are wonderful to see flying overhead in the beautiful Fijian dusk – in silhouette they look just like Batman’s mark. However, they do get on your nerves when they screech and fight during the night. So there I was, penned in between blissfully slumbering daughter’s bedroom door and a flapping injured bat.

The cat, at least, had retreated a little. I grabbed daughter’s school shirt and was about to throw it over the injured beast when suddenly the fabric, in both substance and size, appeared to be inadequate for the task. Also the day was dawning on her second to last day of school (ever) and an important chemistry exam. I didn't want to be responsible for ruining a lucky shirt, or cause the entire family to become infected by a Fijian version of Ebola, so I turned to the only other option available to me. I screamed for my husband.

Husband, who had just hours before been complaining about our felines’ blood-thirsty ways (when dealing with a dead baby bird), gallantly appeared with a blanket. He gently picked up the poor little critter and took it outside. When he got back into bed later (after washing with copious amounts of warm soapy water – we've got a very good understanding of microbiology in our family) he said, “Poor little thing. It probably won’t live. Damned thing bit me three or four times – nearly took my finger off”. He then started making zombie noises. Funny.

Reggie as a kitten killing a catnip mouse
One of the great things about Fiji is its lack of deadly creepy crawlies. The Fijians think our fear of spiders is incomprehensible as none of the spiders here bite. There are snakes – both on land and sea. But the land based ones are mostly small and rare, while the banded sea krait is venomous but has a tiny mouth. Imagine yourself trying to take a bite out of a basketball - that’s what I imagine the degree of difficulty one of these striped critters would have trying to deliver a mortal wound to a person. Of course this is hard to remember when one is swimming up from the reef at you when you’re snorkeling – there is something particularly unnerving about snakes moving in three dimensions.
Scary if you're scared of snakes, I guess.
Poor daughter appears to be the one with the most frequent creepy crawly encounters. Soon after we arrived in Suva, she slayed a scorpion with a wooden spatula in the kitchen. Or at least she thought it was a scorpion. The fact that it turned out to be a harmless scorpion spider shouldn't detract from her heroic effort. Then there was the enormous Pacific tree boa in the branches above their heads during a biology field trip. This being Fiji, one of Anna’s classmate’s scrambled up the tree to get it down.

However, her worst encounter by far was with a spider. Now I know that I just said that spiders don’t bite here. However, when there is one the size of a dinner plate hiding in your untidy bedroom all rational thinking goes out of the window. She was saved by her friend, S, who stood like a Ninja for around 45 minutes on her bed patiently surveying the room for the elusive beast. Assisted by another friend, H, the beast was eventually caught. The fact that H has a propensity to eat all of my pickled jalapenos when he’s in the house was forever forgiven. John and I witnessed these unfolding events via inadvertent text messages as demonstrated by the phone screenshot below.

Pity about the swearing but at least she demonstrates her vast literary knowledge
As for me, the worst that I've encountered is a venomous centipede that ran out of some lettuce into the salad spinner, where it was trapped and duly dispatched by one of Anna’s friends. I’m not going to lie – I absolutely loath the things. I hate all their horrible little legs and the creepy undulating way that they move. Not to the mention that a bite from them has been likened to the pain of childbirth. They are definitely my least favourite of all tropical critters along with crocodiles. Fortunately we don’t have those here.

Of course, all of this needs to be put into perspective. Even if you do the Beqa shark dive or happen to encounter a reef shark while snorkeling, it’s very likely that the most dangerous thing that you’ll experience in Fiji will be a ride in a taxi with no seatbelts and a driver in desperate need of a pair of spectacles. Unless you're smallish and furry, in which case I'd suggest that you stay away from our cats.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Terra Incognita disambiguated

Well here we are at the end of October, post-visitors, post-election and we’re still standing, though speeding towards 2015 at a rate that appears to defy the laws of space-time. So far, it’s been a terrific year, made glorious by its general uneventfulness. As one gets older, events (defined here as things that happen to you) tend to become increasingly more likely to be of the negative variety, so one can revel in any prolonged length of time where such things are absent.

As usual, we prepared for the worst and hoped for the best. We treated the approaching election (the first since a military coup in 2006) a bit like a strengthening tropical depression. We bought a couple of cases of drinking water, stocked up on gin, tonic, chocolate and cat food and kept a weather eye on the media. We dedicated a bit of time to pondering the implications of newspaper headlines like “Suva will not burn! Says PM” and the inevitable racist and misogynistic vitriol that surfaced occasionally on social media.

It was heartening to see the people of Fiji take their democratic duty to heart. The day came (it was declared a much-needed public holiday) and, besides a cracking combined neighbourhood birthday and election party, it was uneventful. The Fijian electorate (now all sporting fingers dyed deep purple) elected the sitting government who now are the majority party in a resurrected parliament. One is full of hope for this nascent democracy – it’s hard to imagine that, if things stay on track, the country will not be a completely different (and better) place in ten years’ time.

In the run up to the election, we had a series of overlapping visitors which gave us a great excuse to revisit some resorts close to Suva and try out some new ones. I will now describe them in 60 seconds without hesitation, repetition or deviation:

Leleuvia Island Resort. An old favourite – small island with lovely sandy beach. Has changed target market from backpackers to families in the time we've been in Fiji.

Reef off of Leleuvia. You have to look carefully to spot these little guys (nudibranchs).
Upside: Fantastic snorkeling if you know where to go, paddleboards, lovely bar, friendly staff and relatively easy to get to from Suva. On Saturday nights they serve the best lovo in Fiji.

Downside: Can be unpleasantly hot at night once ceiling fans go off. I’m going off having to put up with communal toilets and showers (though now some of the showers have hot water). There are probably too many children if you’re looking for a quiet holiday – particularly over long weekends when expats descend on the place with their families. Besides breakfast (which is wonderful), there’s no real choice at mealtimes.

Beqa Lagoon Resort. This is a new favourite for weekend getaways. It’s mainly a dive resort but it caters to non-divers too.

Beqa House reef. Who knew that worms could be so beautiful?
Upsides: Easy to get to – it’s a 25 minute boat ride from Pacific Harbour. The en-suite bures are lovely with 24 hour power, which means that you can have cool, mosquito-free nights. The house reef is impressive with good coral cover and loads to see – white tips, scorpion fish, octopus, lion fish were all there just off the beach. The free poolside foot massage with Pure Fiji products was a clincher.

Downside: Bearing in mind that Fiji is currently under drought conditions, the pool needs a serious clean and they need to figure out some way to aerate the koi pond.

Wellesley Resort. This was briefly my new favourite before we went to Beqa.

Giant clam on the reef off of Wellesley. I never get tired of seeing these things.
Upside: As it’s on the Coral Coast, you don’t have to catch a boat to get there. This means that anyone in your party that can’t guarantee that they can get away early on a Friday doesn't have to wait until Saturday morning to join you. The accommodation is very comfortable (with air conditioning). A little bar opens on the beach for happy hour. The grounds are beautifully landscaped.

Downside: The way the grounds are laid out, you can be quite a way from the beach. The Coral Coast is often unpleasantly windy. This was the case when we were there. However, the pool was protected from the wind and was lovely to hang out next to.

Naigani Island Resort (Tau Resort). Imagine if a Fijian resort was run by Basil Fawlty. As I write this post, I am sitting on this lovely island wondering how to adequately describe it. Quirky might be the right word, but the magnitude of quirkiness really is too great not to be completely exasperating.

Naigani Island. Water quality wasn't great that day, but the coral cover was.
Upside: Naigani is a beautiful island with stunning reefs and great kayaking. The accommodation is spacious – more like houses than bures with ensuite loos and hot showers. There is a nice pool (with a little water slide), a little golf course and a covered area near the pool (which is currently being refurbished) for hanging out in out of the sun/rain.

Downside: The management. We received confusing instructions about where to catch the boat (currently QVS beach while Natovi Jetty is refurbished) but still arrived in time to catch it. The boat was not there. The fishermen at the beach didn't know what we were talking about. We rang all the available numbers for the resort and no one picked up. We emailed. No one replied. After 50 minutes (and 15 more phone calls, none of which were answered) the boat finally showed up. We had to wade through seriously filthy water that smelled of sewage to get to the boat.

The management seemed surprised that a couple that was supposed to be on the same boat as us hadn't shown up. I, on the other hand, am surprised that anyone actually ever makes it here.

Then the same thing happened to my other half when he tried to get over the next day. This is not “Fiji Time”- it’s downright rudeness.

On arrival at the resort, we were assured that we don’t need to lock our accommodation as it’s so safe here. However, when the manager went off island for five hours during the afternoon, he locked up the bar and took the key. This dry spell coincided with the generator being off, so not only couldn't we get a soft drink or a beer, we couldn't even boil the kettle to make a cup of tea (and I’m here with three English people so this is a calamity). Thank goodness we’d had the presence of mind to pack for all eventualities (plan for the worst, hope for the best again) and we’d brought over emergency alcohol supplies.

There are a lot of pluses to this place, but I’m not going to be coming back in a hurry.

No matter where you go here, if you have a food allergy, you have to be absolutely sure that all of the relevant staff knows about your allergy. At each one of the resorts above (with the exception of the Wellesley), I have been served eggplant despite telling the staff that I’m allergic to it. At one resort, when I pointed out that there was eggplant in the pasta dish I’d been served even though the waitress had assured me that there wasn't when she put it down in front of me, I was told “You asked if there was eggplant in the pasta. There isn't. It’s in the sauce”. Silly me. God help you if you have an allergy to something that isn't large and purple with distinctive texture and seeds that can be spotted a mile off.

I’m sometimes surprised by the Tripadvisor ratings given to some of the resorts here. I suspect the ratings actually measure how much fun people had on their vacation rather than giving a reliable measure of the resort and its facilities. But really, isn't that the point?

As usual - all photo credits to my talented other half...

Monday, 28 July 2014

Random musings

My other half arrived in Suva around six months before Anna and I joined him. During our frequent Skype conversations I used to ask what it was like living in Suva to which there would be some mental and verbal cogitating before an unsatisfactory “I’m not really sure” or similar would be uttered. I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t frustrated at the time by the lack of a one word answer - “awesome” or “amazing” or even “meh” would have been preferable. However, now that I’m asked that pretty frequently by people contacting me through the blog I understand his inability to answer this question precisely.

I heard Suva described as a ‘Melanesian New York’ in a song recently.  That might sound like a bit of a stretch, but relative to the rest of the South Pacific, it is a megatropolis. And like all ‘big’ cities, it can be frustrating. It can be delightful. But the fascinating thing is how quickly what at first appears strange and exotic becomes ordinary and routine. I can go for days now without even remembering that I’m in a country that’s not my own. Of course, this could be because I haven’t lived in my own country for well over two decades. Or it might be a sign that I’m getting into a rut. But the most likely explanation is that I’m just a little dense.

However, there are a couple of thing that I cannot get used to – things I don’t want to get used to. Things that are like a slap in the face with a wet walu when I encounter them. Like the way animals are treated here. And I’m not just talking about the locals. We’ve rescued ten cats while we lived here and that doesn’t include the one that sneaks into the house occasionally to steal kibble. Nine of these cats descend from just one unspayed female owned by an expat who, when he left the neighbourhood, took his two male cats with him, leaving poor pregnant Goldie behind.  Some of her offspring were already roaming the neighbourhood by the time we inherited her, including a lovely female who had been adopted by another expat family in the neighbourhood – and left behind unspayed and pregnant when they moved as well.

Seriously – what is wrong with you people? Granted the SPCA doesn’t always have a vet in house, but they usually do – and spaying and neutering are not expensive. And don’t get me started on dog owners. When we lived in the Caribbean, there were canines charmingly known as ‘dumpster dogs’. These were generally a docile group what all sort of looked like…well, like “dog”. Black and brown and medium-sized these animals had obviously been self-perpetuating until they reverted to a canine variety that I imagine the original pooch looked like around a Neanderthal’s campfire. The packs of feral dogs roaming around Suva, on the other hand, look like a motley group of mutts of all different types, some of which are obviously abandoned pets.  And occasionally you come across a dog that you think is dead or at least should be dead – eyes infected, covered in mange and festering wounds. For these dogs I usually carry around a tin of meat with a pull-top lid. However, reflecting the futility of this, I now think that I should carry around a lethal injection instead.

Life is a lot less stressful if you're not having constant litters of kittens.
Another source of irritation is the term ‘housegirl’ used by many people here, including those that are employed at vast expense by UN-type agencies to address issues such as women’s equality. Now I’m old enough to remember the 1970s, a time when as one writer put it, ‘calling a woman a girl was like spitting in her face’. I am not a rabid feminist, but language is a powerful thing. To call a grown woman a girl in relation to her employment is to infer that she is not capable of being responsible for herself or others. That ultimately, she is a child. When a western expatriate in a developing country uses the term ‘housegirl’ to describe someone in their employment, it’s not only inappropriate, it’s inexcusable.

Recently we’ve come out of the other side of a dengue fever epidemic. Dengue is one of those neglected tropical diseases that are neglected because they only affect one billion or so people or so. Did I mention that they are the one billion poorest people on the planet? Dengue is a mosquito-borne virus that leads to a flu-like illness that can become haemorrhagic and lethal. It’s a scary illness with no real effective treatment or vaccination. The advice from healthcare professionals was alarming – take Panadol and drink plenty of fluids and go to the hospital if you start bleeding out of any of your orifices (including your pores).

Save your paranoia for mosquitoes, not sharks.
John and I have both had it after Hurricane Hugo in St Croix in the USVI when the mosquito population boomed in all of the post-storm standing water. The problem with dengue is that there are several serotypes and while you may gain immunity to one serotype, you can become more susceptible to serious complication if you contract the other types. Not knowing which serotype we had made me ultra-paranoid. Not to mention that I didn’t want to have to check anyone’s orifices if they got ill (including my own). I had aerosol and roll-on versions of DEET everywhere – in my handbag, at work, in the car. I gave out cans of Aerogard to visitors, told tourists at resort to spray themselves and sent Anna into school with multiple cans to leave in the common room. While others were complaining about how horrible the mass spraying in our neighbourhood to kill mosquito larvae was, I was transported to my happy suburban childhood by the smell of malathion which my dad used to spray liberally on the roses and we Californians were subjected to via aerial spraying to control the Mediterranean fruit fly in the early 1980s. Hmmmm organophosphates – the smell of summer!

When I’m not getting worked up about women and animal rights or the priorities of big pharmaceutical companies, I do occasionally get out and enjoy myself. Recently a friend and I went to the Crest Chicken Sulu Jamba Competition. We were the only kaivalagi there except one of the judges, which was a shame as it was a great afternoon out. It was serious but the mood was light-hearted with amazing designs of the traditional shirt/skirt combination modelled by women of all shapes and sizes. There was also entertainment, quizzes with prizes (mostly frozen chickens) and free ice cream. It was one of those quirky things that keeps living in this city interesting.

Rusila showing off her amazing sulu jamba skills
We are experiencing a well-recognised phenomenon where no one visits you for a long period of time then you get numerous sets of visitors– some overlapping - over a couple of months. Not that I’m complaining. Our first visitor was a niece who had been volunteering with GVI (and loved it) and spent her last couple of days in Fiji with us in Suva. We played tourist, finally going to the Fiji Museum (I had been saving that for a very rainy day). But most spectacular of all, we went up to Takalana for the day. It’s pretty much exactly a two-hour drive from Suva (if you drive like a Fijian taxi driver, probably a bit longer for the rest of us). The weather was rubbish, but the black sand beach was stunning. After a short bumpy boat-ride we were at Moon Reef enjoying the company of its resident pod of spinner dolphin. Because they are protected, you cannot get into the water with them, but they are totally engaging anyway. Back at the resort, they served us a decent lunch. It was a wonderful day and I’m just sorry that we hadn't done it before.

And with all of these visitors, we’ll be able to tick a few more things to do off of our Fiji list. We’ll let you know how it goes.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Suva – A Beginner’s Guide

Suva, our home for the last couple of years, was obviously chosen as the capital of Fiji because of its naturally deep harbour rather than its white sandy beaches (of which there are none) or beautiful weather (it’s in a notorious rain shadow). This lack of stereotypical tropical accouterments sometimes has us scratching our incredibly sweaty brow and asking ourselves “What the hell are we doing here?” Generally this pondering peters out inconclusively after a large gin and tonic (or two).

You can usually pick out the newly arrived expats by their pale skin, numerous bright red mosquito bites and slightly alarmed, confused looks. Here are a few of the things that I have learned since I was in that vulnerable state what seems like such a long time ago.

1. Fiji is far away from (almost) everywhere.

The first clue about how far away Fiji was from anywhere should have been when someone pointed out that Fiji appeared on the edges of both sides of the map hanging up in our UK dining room – literally at the end of the world, twice over.

Our second clue was that it took five days to travel from our little village in the North East of England to Fiji due to multiple Pacific typhoons. There can’t be many families that can say that the only time they were in New Zealand was for a day trip.

People that come to visit us from the UK have to be very committed considering the expense of the tickets and the fact that travel time is around 30 hours each way. That’s a lot of your vacation time spent sitting on airplanes and in airports before you've even got anywhere. Mind you, when you arrive, it’s pretty awesome.

The exception to the faraway rule is for New Zealand and Australia, which explains the plethora of Kiwi and Aussie expats here.

2. It’s hot in Fiji.

One of my abiding memories of living in the Caribbean was the total change of atmosphere when the plane doors opened on arrival from northern climes. Arriving at Nausori Airport, in our damp little corner of Fiji, the sensation is more like entering a steamy sauna than opening a West Indian oven door.

I've had to get over my sweat phobia and my eco-reluctance to put on the air conditioning to survive here. The great thing is that the humidity and rain is often localised to Suva which means that you can get on a boat or a taxi and escape to typical tropical paradise without too much effort.

Too hot? Stick your face in the water! (Full disclosure - this photo was taken in the Yasawas)

Just existing in this heat can be exhausting. There’s a term used locally by expats – tropical torpor – which describes a state of inertia that one occasionally sinks into here. Any effort to be productive is scuppered by the sensation that you’re wearing a lead-lined suit and existing in an atmosphere made up of mostly molasses. The best cure for tropical torpor is to turn the air con or ceiling fan on high and spend a weekend on the sofa napping and watching an entire series of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or similar which you bought from the local DVD shop for FJ$5.00.

3. It is 99% certain you will not get a job as a trailing spouse in Fiji.

I’d never heard the term trailing spouse until we started our preparations for moving to Fiji. Everything about it is ugly, from being defined by your relationship, to the implication that you’re trotting along (or being dragged) behind your partner as they engage in worthy employment.

Immigration laws here mean that getting a job once you've arrived with your employed spouse will be next to impossible. Volunteering opportunities are also extremely limited due to the same visa restrictions. Having said that, there are plenty of people in the same boat so friend groups form quickly and the days become inexplicably busy.

This can be a real eye-opener if, like me, you get to the end of your first six months here and you realise that you haven’t even started the great American novel that you told yourself you would write if ever freed from the shackles of gainful employment. Some people do end up getting jobs (I did eventually) but it is the rare exception rather than the rule.

4. The more I know about Fiji, the more complicated it becomes.

Fiji has had a number of coups over the last couple of decades and is currently being run by the military dictatorship that engineered the last one in 2006. Having said that, this isn’t a country of scary armed men and civil unrest. In fact, I feel as safe here as anywhere else I have ever lived. The complexities are subtle - so subtle that until now one could completely ignore them if you wanted to. Elections have been called for September 2014 and while we’re all excited to be in the privileged position to witness the birth of a new democracy, I won’t pretend that it’s not without a bit of trepidation that we’re watching events unfold from front row seats.

5. You can get pretty much everything you need in Suva.

Every few months some poor unsuspecting impending arrival to Suva will post a question about what to bring to Fiji with them in their shipment on the Suva Expat Facebook page. Suva newbies will implore them to bring a lifetime supply of stock cubes, garbage bags and bath mats. This in turn elicits a torrent of responses from old-timers and locals telling everyone to get a grip. The good news (for Americans) is that you can get Skippy peanut butter (Cost u Less) and green enchilada sauce (New World). You can even now get a decent baguette from the Hot Bread Kitchen at Damodar City.

Beats Waitrose hands down.
If you want lashings of gorgonzola and Parma ham, you’re moving to the wrong country. If you want shimmering lumps of sashimi-grade tuna and heaps of beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables that are reasonably priced then you’re coming to the right place. Mind you, I'm considering adopting a public display of mourning now that avocado season is over.

There are hardware stores, banks, chemists (pharmacies), schools, three universities, public pools, film festivals, good and cheap public transport, outdoor pursuit clubs, cooking classes, language classes... It’s all there – you just need to know where to look.

The USP campus is pretty darned attractive.
6. You can be happy in Suva.

Despite anything negative I've said in this post, I would never discourage anyone from moving to Suva. Living here has had it challenges, and while we've been forced outside of our comfort limits once or twice (or a hundred times), our time here has been rewarding and exciting.

My Suva Picnic Park - my new favourite place to loiter.
Suva itself is undergoing a transformation – the waterfront part that stretches from Suva Point towards the city centre around the peninsula, My Suva Picnic Park, is a wonderful place to walk and people watch. We've witnessed the resurrection of the Grand Pacific Hotel and anticipate having high tea in grand style when it opens. We’re also getting a Mexican restaurant in the brand new Damodar City complex, which also has a food court, a cinema (the second multiplex in town) and lots of other useful shops. This is an event of intense culinary interest in a city with no Italian, Thai or Vietnamese restaurants.

But it’s the people that make the place. Everyone in Suva has a story to tell – the Fijians and the expats. If you put yourself in the position to listen to them you will find some of the most fascinating people on the planet. Some of them will turn into good friends, others will be passing acquaintances, but each encounter will leave you a little richer than you were before.

Occasionally when I walking down the mean streets of Suva, I get a similar discombobulating sensation to when I’m flying. But instead of “OMG, I’m in a small metal tube, 51000 feet above the ground with no visible means of support!” it’s more like “Am I really existing on a small speck of land in the middle of the Pacific? How weird, because it feels strangely like home.”

Friday, 14 February 2014

Lunch Lessons

When I was a teenager and a frequenter of dining establishments open in the wee hours of the morning, there was a chalkboard in the local Denny’s foyer which stated “You only get three meals a day. Don’t waste them”. I have often pondered this bit of culinary wisdom when contemplating my vacillating waistline and America’s growing obesity problem.

I would rather make a bit of an effort to make myself something delicious for breakfast rather than resorting to toast, which I consider a sad excuse for a meal (unless it’s whole-wheat toast with Hellman’s mayo, avocado and chopped red onion  or similar). For lunch on work days, I usually dine “al desco”, but at least take the time to savour whatever I've made the effort to pack for myself.

When I started my job in Suva, I religiously took my lunch every day. The first day that I left it on the kitchen counter at home, I was stuck. Where would I get my lunch that wasn't too expensive? There’s not an M&S, Waitrose or even Starbucks in sight. The little restaurants dotted around the area of Toorak where I work looked too scary to enter, let alone eat anything out of. That day, I spent my entire lunch hour walking down to Dolphin Food Court to get sushi from the Daikoku. It really is the best take-out sushi I've ever eaten, but it’s a long way to walk and the entire way back is uphill.

The next time I forgot my lunch, I decided to brave one of the local Chinese eateries. I watched the person in front of me in the queue being served an enormous pile of food. When the server turned to me, I asked him to give me a small amount of rice and chicken. He plopped a paddle-full of rice that would have served at least two people into a Styrofoam container. He looked surprised when I stopped him serving me another pile of equal size. He covered the rice in a generous serving of chicken stir-fry and again seemed puzzled when I told him that was all that I wanted. “You want pork?” he asked holding up another ladle full of food. I said no and turned to the register to pay, glancing back, I saw the guy ladling more food into my takeout container. When I asked him what he was doing (politely) he said that obviously I didn't want pork, so I must want lamb.

As I sweatily trudged up the hill back to work with 1.5kg of lunch in a thin plastic bag every bad restaurant-related environmental health story ran through my head until I felt like I was carrying a throbbing bio-bomb. Then something happened that has never happened to me before and hasn't happened to me since – a destitute young man asked me if he could have my lunch.  I was as grateful to give it to him as he was to receive it. To be honest, I pretty much tossed it to him like it was a live grenade.

Fast-forward a couple of months and now I hardly ever take my lunch to work. This is because I have been shown the amazing secrets of Indian fast food. Sometimes I get Indian snacks late morning from the friendly staff at Khana Kazana on Toorak Road. If you haven’t had an idli (a steamed bready thing that looks like a flying saucer that’s been stuffed with a fresh chutney of grated fresh coconut, dhania (cilantro/fresh coriander) and chopped chilli, you should make it a culinary mission. They also make a fried spinach fritter things which are amazing as are their gulgula (little donuts). And it’s so inexpensive that it’s not even worth contemplating making them at home.

 You have to get here after 9am and before lunch if you want to bag an idli.

If I want a proper lunch, I walk down to the Curry House. You have to cross the most dangerous intersection for paedestrians in Suva (the corner of Renwick St and Raojibhai Patel Street) to get there, but it’s worth it for the vegetarian thali (2 veggie curries with 2 rotis) for FJ$4.95. Cleverly origamied in butcher paper and wrapped in a plastic (the local term for a plastic bag) I sprint back up the big hill to work so that I can devour it without even resorting to a fork or spoon (I've become an expert at eating with roti rather than cutlery).

Running the traffic gauntlet to get to the Curry House.

This culinary discovery has piqued my interest in cooking Indian food at home – taking advantage of the amazing seafood and produce at the market to make a more healthy version of what’s available at restaurants and also to prepare me for the sad time when we’ll have to leave Fiji (and the Curry House, Khaza Khazana and my other favourite, Maya Dhaba).

What my Rick Stein book looked like before a cat peed on the book jacket.

Santa brought me a Rick Stein’s India cookbook. I’ve managed to find all of the non-mainstream ingredients that I've needed from Halwai’s Spice World (aka Zealot Agencies aka Halwai’s Spice Castle). I briefly earned the scorn of the proprietor by asking if he sold coriander seed, which I couldn't find in any of the little store-packed plastic bags. “Do I sell coriander seed?” he muttered to himself leading me to a large burlap sack full of coriander seed, which the locals obviously buy in amounts that would take me a lifetime to get through. At that point, a lovely middle-aged Indo-Fijian fellow shopper took my arm and led me through the rest of my shopping list.

The name of this place is lost on me, but it has every Indian Spice imaginable.

It truly is a castle of spice.

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of places to eat lunch in Suva – the little deli upstairs at Prouds makes good sandwiches, the food courts at Tappoo and MCHH have a huge amount of choice – noodles, Korean, Fijian, etc…). There’s even a McDonald’s. But by destroying my prejudices about what a restaurant should look like, I have totally expanded my culinary horizons. And for a person in their 50th year that’s been obsessed with food since birth, that’s quite an achievement.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

There’s no place like home...

By mid-December, home was feeling very far away. Worn out by work, emotionally fraught by the death of our hand-raised kitten by a pack of dogs and exhausted by the increasing heat and humidity, I was ready to escape from Suva for a few weeks. Home not only felt far away, it really was far away. While we achieved a three month sea voyage in a mere thirty five hours I cannot recommend it. A younger body can probably withstand being confined in a small space like a battery hen for two 10-11 hour flights in a row, but as I am in my 50th year I can say with complete certainty that it is not a good idea. I made the mistake of grabbing a burrito at the new food court at the international terminal at LAX and eating it as we sat down on our flight to London. I now know what a boa constrictor feels like after it swallows a small goat.

Having been away from the North East of England for sixteen months, my not very surprising conclusions were that it was dark and full of germs. Of course it is also full of some of my favourite people in the entire world and this more than made up for living with heavy colds in a perpetual cycle of dusk and night. For those of you unfamiliar with the Newcastle upon Tyne area, it’s famous for three things: the locals (Geordies) and their imperviousness to the cold (boob tubes and miniskirts at -10c? Really?); their dialect (wye aye, man); and football (Howay the lads!). I love Newcastle for many reasons, including the fact that a women 30 years younger than me ringing up my groceries calls me “pet” without the slightest affectation, that the area continues to undergo a transformative food renaissance and that the surrounding countryside and coastline is full of amazing places with very few people to spoil it.

 Our friend David, the Earth Doctor Baker

Experiencing my first Christmas in the England in the late 1980s, the excess was shocking to me. Any culture where you’re expected to eat a dried fruit and suet pudding which has been drenched in brandy and lightened up with either crème anglaise or double cream after a day of eating canapés and a full turkey dinner is serious about testing the limits of overindulgence and waistbands. And it goes on for days – Christmas starts around the end of the first week of December with parties and ends when everyone feels ill from chronic over-eating and -drinking on the first of January. Of course all resolutions about losing weight are on hold until the last Terry’s Chocolate Orange and wedge of Stilton is gone. I am pleased to say that our 2014 Christmas didn't disappoint – amazing food, wine, wonderful friends and family. How lucky we are to love and get along with our families!

However, it was strange to be home without really being home. The sense of displacement was slightly discombobulating – like the sense of vertigo when you’re standing in the surf and a wave is receding around your ankles. We declined the kind offer from the tenant of our house to come meet her and have a look around as it just sounded too weird. We left feeling like we had only really just begun our visit, already looking forward to and making plans to see everyone again.

Thankfully, we’d plan to break up our trip in California on the way home to see family. Our flight was uneventful except for the bizarre use of the English language by the flight attendant on American Airlines. At one point she said, “Please wait for the captain to extinguish the seatbelt sign before leaving your seats”. Are they on fire? Powered by gaslight? Perhaps we need to stay in our seats while he traipses up and down the aisles with his candle snuffer?
Spudnuts - just one more reason to love the USA

The Santa Barbara weather was like summer and we savoured the cool sunshine, having been warned about the increasing heat and humidity in Suva. Again, there was too much eating and drinking (and shopping in the sales) and before we knew it, it was time to go home, this time to Fiji. Back at LAX, we decided to forego burritos and stick with sushi at the Flying Fish. As an American I was totally embarrassed by the waiting staff there – we want you to serve us food, not form a lifetime bond with you. The final straw was when we paid for our meal. “Ooh, you bank with Wells Fargo too”, she cooed, cuddling my debit card to her cheek. Not only is that inappropriate, it’s unsanitary.
Beachcombing at Gaviota State Park

We were excited to get back to our cats and the new Damodar City complex, which contains an expat-life-changing grocery store (see post about it here). Home feels so much more like home when you can get A1 Steak Sauce, green taco sauce and marshmallow fluff.