Monday, 13 April 2015

Circumnavigation (or Ending up exactly where you started)

Emotionally, I felt ready to leave Fiji. Logistically, however, it was very difficult. The process for exporting locally acquired pets is long and tedious and shipping companies will show no shame in their efforts to rip you off by charging you for all sorts of mysteriously vague line-items. Then there are the endless trips to the vets, one of which referred to the cats as mongrels and the other said that they looked healthy, yet pretentious. We now call them our pretentious mongrels, though the correct term for them is Fiji Specials. I’m thinking of making them all little biker jackets. You think I’m joking, I’m thinking YouTube sensation.

And of course there was the worry – the cats' trip door to door from Suva to Northumberland took 56 hours. When I complained about the ground crews being nonchalant in their attitude towards my concern for the cats’ well-being to husband while I was en route, he send me the following email:

Desk man: ‘Are the three cats ok’?

Man in hold: ‘What cats?’

Desk man: ‘Ma'am, he says they are doing fine’

You: ‘Can you ask if their water is full’

Desk man: ‘Is their water full?’

Man in hold: ‘You’re kidding right?’

Desk man: ‘Ma'am he says they are purr fect!! And the water has been replenished with pure Fiji water to suit their pretensions’

You: ‘Oh that’s wonderful! Thank You’

Desk man: ‘The lady says thanks mate!’

Man in hold: ‘F… off’

Adjusting to a temperate climate in a house with all the mod cons isn't easy
Of course I was overweight at the airport and my cute carry on didn't fit in the Fiji Airways cabin bag checker no matter how I massaged (squashed) it. Now I’m not the most stylish person in the world, but I have certain fashion requirements when I travel. First, I wouldn't be caught dead in a pair of tennis shoes in an airport. Never. No way. The only time any sort of sporty footwear is okay on planes is if you’re travelling to a mountainous destination when it’s acceptable to wear hiking boots to save space and weight in your luggage. And my carry on must be cute. So it was with great reluctance that my vital travelling items were transferred from my cute cabin bag to my loud stripy beach bag that has been embellished with rust stains and a fine peppering of mildew spots during our time in Fiji.

The flight to Sydney from Nadi was a breeze – I was reading a good book and the few hours flew by (literally). But the Sydney to Dubai leg…. Even using my sensory deprivation kit (neck pillow, ear plugs + noise cancelling headset, and eye shades) which, when used properly, has the uncanny ability to squeeze time by a factor of at least four, the 14 hours seemed like a lifetime. I made a last minute, expensive, decision to check into the Dubai airport hotel for the seven hour layover. At least half of the time that I should have been sleeping I spent trying to figure out how to work the shower and turn off all of the lights using the myriad of switches dotted throughout the room. It was like some sort of episode out of the Candid Camera. But it wasn't funny. It was more like the Twilight Zone. I may have even shouted “why are you mocking me?” to no one in particular when I was standing, freezing in the shower. In the middle of the desert.

So far I have a worryingly lack of culture shock symptoms, besides binge eating everything that I've missed within the first couple of weeks of being home. Walker Sweet Chilli Crisps, shepherd’s pie made with Bisto instant onion gravy, a wedge of Stilton, jam roly poly with custard and a Tunnock’s caramel wafer? Don’t mind if I do!

The only time I've felt out of my depth was when I chose to ride in the front seat of a double-decker bus in Newcastle. I love the view of the city from up there. Or at least I did. This time it felt like I was on Mr Toad’s Wild Ride without a seat belt. The upper stories of the shop fronts whizzed by at unnatural speeds. It was mesermising – in a bad way. It took around ten minutes for me to get the nerve up to stand up and move (actually sort of crawl) to a seat away from the front window.

Time is a funny thing. When I was in Fiji I felt like I’d been gone from the UK forever. As soon as I walked in the door of our home in England, I felt like I’d never left. It’s like I've come home from the longest holiday of my life and it’s taking a really, really long time to unpack. The first three things to come out of the last box from storage that I opened were a wooden model of the Cutty Sark, a black leather jacket and my potato ricer. Evidence, if it was required, of the chaos of moving half way around the world. However, it’s starting to feel like the pain of childbirth – it might just seem like a good idea to do it all again in a couple of years…

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Standing on the Edge

I leave Fiji lamenting and rejoicing in almost equal measure. So excited to get back to my own house, with my garden, old friends, family, pubs, walks, castles and cold delicious water straight from the tap. So sad to leave my wonderful colleagues, our great friends, relaxed social life and the coral reefs. However, I will not miss the grapefruit-sized toads that I occasionally find sitting in the cats’ food bowl. Every time I catch one to take it outside - a quivering, wriggling mass wrapped in a tea towel - I’m reminded of the Indiana Jones Aztec sacrifice scene and imagine myself holding a beating human heart. I’m not going to lie, it is disturbing.

Well, my bags are packed, the cats confined to the house (totally oblivious to their impending epic "adventure"), I've returned all the things that I've borrowed (I hope), said goodbye to everyone (including some people more than once) and have got to the point where there is really nothing to do except wander around the house wondering if I've packed the right stuff to keep me going until the shipment arrives in the UK in a couple months.

Poor unsuspecting kitties think that they've found a cozy place to sleep....
The contents of my suitcase are quite bizarre – it does look a bit a like the time I let a four year old pack her own suitcase for a holiday – while adorable, it was hardly appropriate to spend an entire week in a swimming cozzie, a pair of wellies, odd socks, a sequined dress and a tutu.  Having said that, each item’s inclusion has some sort of logic to it, supported by an internal narrative as I handle each one.

The three bags of Cheese Twisties? Those are for Fiji-homesick daughter, who despite having access to all of the comforts of M&S, Waitrose, etc… longs for the Pacific’s favourite snack. Due to rubbish quality control at the factory, I carefully squeezed each pack to make sure that they were full of plump Twisties. So if anyone saw me fondling packets of snack food at MH, that’s what I was doing. Really.

The PedEgg has made the grade because my feet are the unhappiest bit of me about going back to a temperate climate. As a fellow Suvan posted recently – wearing flip flops 365 days a year never gets old. My feet weep at the thought of being sentenced to entire months confined to winter boots (even if they look great in them). So I've made a deal with my feet. I will occasionally allow them out of their socks and pamper them.

My cooking knives come with me along with my mother’s metal spatula that she got when she got married in 1952 and my favourite garlic press. Anyone that knows me will understand that the inclusion of these items are non-negotiable.

Some of the contents of my bag reproach me. Why on earth did I bring precious family documents, some of which over 150 years old to Suva? I was going to dedicate the time when I wasn't gainfully employed scanning and cataloging them all. Of course I was. Instead they sat in a plastic box with paper-bag wrapped packages of cat litter to try to prevent them mouldering in the humidity while I spent my early months here marveling how much time it took to accomplish so little.  So now some come back with me in my carry-on while the rest awaits the return sea voyage to the UK.

Then of course there are gifts, including Pacific-themed artwork done by a friend which shall have pride of place once it’s framed. A colleague gave me a Fijian flag - she felt it was important that I had a version of the old flag before the revamped version, free of the colonial relic of the Union Jack, is rolled out. I shall hang it up every October 10th (Fiji Day) in my window in rural Northumberland, which will be confusing for the locals but will keep me connected to this wonderful country and the time that we spent here.

If you're wondering if I packed any clothes, well, I have so few cold-weather clothes (having been in cold weather for approximately 3 weeks in 2-1/2 years), that I even have room for my fabulous enormous cheeseboard made from part of a wine barrel that I got for Christmas in New Zealand. Now if I can just squeeze in some instant kimchi noodles, my packing will be complete.

Ni sa moce Fiji – I am going to miss you.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The End is Nigh

As my Fijian adventure comes to a close, I feel as though I am seeing many aspect of living in Suva in a new light. Things that I’d taken for granted have suddenly taken on a charm that until now has been hidden from me (probably through a veil of sweat), while other things that aren’t quite so charming have become immensely more bearable. The obsequious man that runs the little restaurant that I frequent near work that I suspect overcharges me on a regular basis? Over the last few days he’s started to feel like my best friend. Want to use your sharp elbows to get in front of me in the queue? Be my guest – soon I’ll be back in Blighty where everyone knows the rules of queuing and people like you would be crushed under an opprobrious avalanche of tutting and shaking heads.

The taste of Maya Dhaba’s crispy garlic naan bread dipped in butter chicken has already joined the pantheon of great taste related memories of my food-obsessed life. But, my God, the weather… What can I say about Suva weather that hasn't been said thousands of times before? After an afternoon of extreme tropic torpor with no electricity and no air movement, during which the cats and I all slept in a slightly comatose state with our eyes half open, I’ll be welcoming the biting cold wind off of the North Sea with open arms. Of course, I’ll be wearing my merino wool jacket and down parka that I bought in New Zealand in anticipation of just such an eventuality.

My time in Suva has been incredibly rewarding and I’m immensely grateful to the friends that I’ve made during my time here – the ones that been my Fiji “family”, who have talked me through bad Fiji weeks, rejoiced in mine and my family’s achievements and were available to pop open a bottle of something fizzy to celebrate for no other reason than it was Friday (or Tuesday. Or Monday). It’s amazing how close you can get to people when you’re thrown together for such an intense time. One blogger likens it to “dog years” - for every year you've known someone in an expat situation, it’s like knowing them for seven.

Too hot to be a cat
There are few things that I really, really won’t miss about expat life here. One of my biggest irritations is with some of the expat women of this town. Really, what decade are we in when one of the first questions you get asked at a function is “what does your husband do?” That question belongs in the dustbin of history. Seriously, being a trailing spouse can be lobotomising enough without having to leave the sense of identity that comes with your career, skills and interests at the immigration desk.

There is something profoundly sad about knowing that our Suva experience, with its distinct cast of characters, will never exist in time again. It’s all part of the great emotional rollercoaster ride that I’m currently on. I go from premature deep nostalgia for things that I’m going to miss to extreme anticipation for doing recreational things that do not involve alcohol, eating or sweating profusely (or all three things at once). Underlying all of this is a sense of grief at the closure of another life chapter. Though I’m anticipating an exciting next adventure, I’ll certainly be sad to see this one come to an end.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Nine out of Ten Cats

Meet Miss Laila. She’s a cat. While our other cats are aloof and slightly skittish, she’ll sit on anyone’s lap, particularly if it is already occupied by a laptop.  Out of the ten cats that we've rescued while we've been here, she’s the friendliest.

“You've rescued ten cats!” I hear you cry through cyberspace (believe me, I've heard it enough in person). Now take the next thought that is about to pop into your brain and strangle it before it fully forms. These poor homeless pusses were not the product of feckless locals not looking after their pets properly. No, nine out of ten of these cats were the result of the behaviour of someone that in expat parlance is cleverly referred to as a “bad expat”.

Though it needs in-depth anthropological study, I suspect that bad expat behaviour is not linked to people being inherently malevolent (in other words, just being a bad person), but rather an inexplicable lapse of normal behaviour when transplanted to a new environment free from the conventions of home (“Seatbelt? No, in Fiji I've acquired super-human strength that allows me to survive being flung though the windscreen at high speed!”). I've got quite a bit to say about bad expats, but this isn't the right time or place to have that uncensored discussion, so I’ll continue to mutter under my breath about them, quietly taking notes.

Now, back to cats. The road to becoming a certified crazy cat lady began soon after we moved to Fiji when we started to feed a pregnant female cat (Momma Kitty aka Goldie aka Cat 1) who had been abandoned by her expat owner when he and his family moved out of the neighbourhood. Soon she produced two tiny kittens (Daenerys Stormborn Targaryen aka Khaleesi aka Cat 2 and Regulus Arcturus Black aka Reggie aka Cat 3) in the stack of packing boxes outside our back door.

I can honestly say that without the appearance of those three wonderful whiskered balls of fluff, our time in Fiji might have been dramatically curtailed. Do not underestimate the power of pets to give you a sense of home when, standing at the bottom of a sweaty black pit of despair, you begin to question the wisdom of moving so far away from family, friends and Marks & Spencers.

When another expat family abandoned a pregnant Miss Laila (Cat 4) and her adolescent feral male offspring, Ollie (Cat 5), she moved straight in with us (we’re suckers and they know it) and quickly produced Cats 6-9. Did I mention that Miss Laila’s mother was Mamma Kitty (Cat 1)? So you can see that because some feeble expat couldn’t be asked to cough up the FJ$50 (approximately US$25) to get Goldie desexed in the first place, she turned into a Mama Kitty and was responsible for at least eight cats which were totally surplus to requirement.

Almost all of the cats have been rehomed, but we are looking for a new set of humans to look after Miss Laila. Ollie is still feral. We hadn’t seen him for nearly six months when I came downstairs one morning last week and found him asleep in the fruit bowl (obviously). He chowed down a couple bowls of kibble, asked for a scratch under the chin then headed off into the undergrowth without looking back.

And cat number ten? Poor little Teddy was found in a carpark in the middle of Suva by one of Anna’s friends aged two weeks. We hand fed him and raised him until, when he was four months old, a houseguest accidentally let him outside and he was killed by a pack of feral dogs. Seriously, don’t get me started on irresponsible dog owners – I wouldn’t be able to shut up.