2011 in review

January 2, 2012

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,300 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 38 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


Gade e Suva (Suva Trip)

September 9, 2011

*Pictures will follow in seperate entry

July continued to see maintained progress in terms of the village’s rainforest hike business, although, we didn’t get near the number I had been hoping for in regard to monthly attendance.  We finished the month with 12 guests, respectable based on past performance, but I was hoping for something along the lines of 30.  July is typically one of the busiest months; perhaps the heavy rains we experienced during the first half of the month can be held accountable for the shortfall.  Regardless, business has improved considerably since last year.

 The increase in business has been good for village morale, word-of-mouth referrals, and a sense of accomplishment for myself.  More business has been accompanied with new, unforeseen challenges, however, and I sometimes have to explain what our clients expect when I am certain the village management’s thinking is a bit askew.  I do this sparingly because I have no official power in hike management other than to give advice and have to respect village power structures and decision making processes.  Only when I see a true train wreck coming do I put my foot down and take a firm stance on an issue. 

 One such incidence came when we were discussing pricing structure in relation to profit margins.  Price of admission to the rainforest hike, $40 p.p., includes going to the neighboring village’s tourist attraction, Bouma Waterfall, a $15 value.  Of course, we have to pay the Bouma people a cut of the price of admission but only for groups of 3 or more.  When groups of two or less go on the hike we don’t have to pay Bouma their cut.  I don’t know how the villages came to this agreement (it happened before my arrival) but considering most of our guests come in groups of two or less and that Bouma Waterfall is Taveuni’s most popular attraction, I see no sense in rocking the boat.  Hike management has been concerned about this for some time. They see that the profit for a group of three is the same as a group of two and think it doesn’t make sense (the revenue from a group of four or more overrides the additional expense).  An attempt was made to negotiate what we pay Bouma to no avail.  Eventually, management decided the only solution was to charge groups of three or more, $50 p.p., groups of two or less would be charged the usual $40p.p..

 When word of the decision got to me I internally balked but tried to remain outwardly composed and talked to the appropriate people to point out the flaws in their logic from the tourist’s point of view.  “We need to encourage large groups” I began.  “If tourists at the hotel see it’s more expensive for large groups than small groups they may get confused or possibly even angry they’re being penalized for bringing more people.  We have a good deal with Bouma, we don’t have to pay them for groups of two or less, we should just let it be.”  I could tell I’d ruffled a few feathers with the powers that be in the village but I was persistent and insisted that they listen.  Eventually, they came around to my way of thinking. 

 A second incident also revolved around pricing in regard to Bouma Waterfall.  99% of the time people who go on the hike also go to the waterfall.  There is the option to do the hike without going to Bouma Waterfall for the price of $30 p.p., an offer that has largely been forgotten by hike staff, but is advertised in a flyer that is still floating around some hotels.  When two tourists were asked to pay $40 p.p. to go on the hike without the waterfall they didn’t think anything of it, nor did the receptionist.  When these tourists got back to their hotel, saw the flyer for the first time, and mentioned to the hotel’s activity director they were overcharged, we got a call from the activities director.  I caught wind of this as I always do, picking out bits and pieces of Fijian conversation.  I was sitting in one of the village’s common areas with a few others.  Maria, our receptionist, came and I heard her talking to Beni, one of the village leaders, about something I could tell regarded money.  The conversation finished and Beni left but I could tell things still weren’t sitting well with Maria and asked her what had happened.  She explained the issue with the pricing, that she hadn’t known about the different pricing structure, and that the hotel’s activities director wanted us to refund the guests a total of $20 (the amount of the discrepancy).  The activities director went on to say, if we didn’t give the refund, he would have to take our flyers down since the information was inaccurate.  I asked Maria what Beni had said.  She told me he said the price was $40 p.p., there would be no refund.

 I told Maria she was right to bring this to my attention and that I agreed we should honor what our flyer says and refund the $20.  I don’t make the decisions though so I went to Beni’s house to tell him what I thought.  Even though Beni is my age and I usually think of him as a peer, he is also the village Turaga ni Koro (elected leader), so I have to give his decisions the proper respect.  Maria had provided me with one of the flyers in question and I showed it to Beni explaining tourists expect that stated prices be honored and we didn’t want to lose guests from this particular hotel. Beni also wasn’t aware this pricing structure existed but was at first adamant the $40 p.p. stands.  I recognized this as one of those potential train wreck situations and decided to push a little harder.  I stated it’s good to have two options because many times tourists have already seen Bouma Waterfall and don’t want to pay to see it again.  I elaborated that we lose a lot of the backpacker crowd to price and it’s good to have a less expensive version of the hike for price sensitive customers.  Lastly, I explained if the hotels start pulling our flyers, it’s going to be bad for business and we don’t have enough money to print new flyers (to print a photo page on Taveuni costs about $10).  Beni pondered this information for a long while, crunched the numbers, realized we were still making a profit and eventually agreed to my suggestion, albeit after a bit of subtle coercion. 

 I could tell I’d pissed Beni off a bit in this particular instance by questioning his decision making but I knew I had done what was best for the hike as well as increasing the villager’s understanding of business ethics and best practices.  When it comes to operations at the hike, I often come up against a bottom line, profit motive mentality of management that would make even the greediest of CEOs blush.  This usually comes in the form of suggestions we should pay the guides and receptionist less to increase the profit.  I counter with the importance of the hike is to enrich the village and that comes in the form of hike profits but also in good jobs that provide a steady source of income.  I remind hike management that people could easily go work for a minimum wage at a business owned by a foreigner but the village businesses should take care of their own.  I suspect management’s ambition for profit comes from conceptions of modern society and business.  It’s easy for them to see movies or headlines in the business section of the Fiji Times and assume profit is the end all be all of business.  Such issues remain unresolved and hotly debated in modern society but I try to discourage a bottom line mentality at this formative stage of the rainforest hike.

 The villagers are all business owners selling their produce, dalo and yaqona, but their knowledge is usually limited.  Most village farmers sell to the lower rung of a series of middle men who distribute the produce.  Thus, village farmers are often the lowest paid in the supply chain.  They know the price per a kilogram of dalo and yaqona and don’t seem to be in tune with pricing variations.  I realized this when I finally hashed out the pricing discrepancy previously mentioned with Beni.  He seemed a bit uncertain about what the price to the hike would now be and it took me a few tries to explain to him the price was $30 p.p. without going to the waterfall and $40 p.p. including the waterfall.

 The hike continues to be interesting, however, has not been my main focus over the last several months.  When issues such as the ones previously mentioned come up I get involved but otherwise things seem to be running well without me.  Over the last several months my main focus has reverted back to the nearly forgotten community hall/evacuation center project as well as dealing with a problematic bacterial infection that started in my cheek and quickly spread to my nose.  I’ll start with the community hall project.

 With less than a year left in my service I am beginning to become more aware of a deadline.  Like most Peace Corps volunteers I’d like to leave a tangible improvement to my community after I leave.  The accomplishment of tangible, defined improvements are often unattained by Peace Corps volunteers, although I’d say almost all Peace Corps volunteers and the communities they live in  benefit from the experience in other less defined ways.  Nevertheless, with just under a year to go (not a long time), I decided to give it a solid try.  The community hall / evacuation center project has been long desired by the village and previously mentioned in the blog but has been touch and go due to getting busy with other things, disappearing village partners, and an overall lack of follow-up by all parties involved, myself included.  “Fiji Time” is contagious, especially to those who have always preferred leisure to work.

 The project got a breath of fresh air during a meeting with Taveuni’s District Officer (government official) I’d attended with Beni and Leone, the new manager of the hike. I had a mild amount of puss and gunk coming out of my nose at the meeting but it wasn’t easily noticeable.  We had gone to discuss the hike and ask for government assistance regarding road quality, electricity (lack thereof), and other items we had brought up during the Prime Minister’s visit.  I mentioned to Beni that it would be a good idea to ask about where the community hall / evacuation center project stood.  I had already submitted a list of materials and quotes from local hardware stores but had never heard anything back. Beni brought up the project and the D.O. said we had to submit a blueprint for the structure before proceeding.  This sounded encouraging.

 I had begun this project with Ana Maria, my ICCP (Initial Community Contact Person) and my Fijian mom.  Due to her constant absence from the village and her outlier status in village politics, however, I decided to proceed with Beni and other village leaders who had more influence and were readily accessible in the village. Beni called Kantu, the carpenter who had provided the initial list of materials, and asked if he could also provide a blueprint of the structure.  Kantu told Beni he was busy and it would be best to go with another carpenter, this was discouraging.  On the bright side, Elia, my village’s resident carpenter, had returned from an extended stay on an offshore island where he built an ex-pat’s house.  We approached Elia with the project and after some coaxing (Elia’s stubborn), he agreed to help. 

 The stipulation of going through the government for help on this project is a limit of $20,000 in funding.  That shouldn’t be a problem though, the structure is already partially built and the first materials quote, at full retail, came in at $23,000. With government assistance we would be able to get a lower price.  Elia looked at the list of materials Kantu provided and stated he could easily complete the project with fewer materials, at a lower cost.  I told Elia we had to keep materials below $20,000 and he, Beni, and I began put to a list together.  Elia has, apparently, wanted to complete the community hall for sometime and has drawn up plans in the past.   Elia began to ask Beni and I questions about what we wanted the community hall/evacuation center to look like and we began to collaborate on what sounded like a very nice building by any standards.  When Elia asked if we’d rather have mosaic or mono color tiles for the interior, I became a bit suspicious.  Once the materials list was complete I took it to town, made a few copies, and dropped one off at Hussein’s (Taveuni’s preferred hardware store). 

 The next day I picked up the quote.  “How much is it?”  I asked.  The clerk totaled up a few pages and said “$45,000, but we don’t have the tiles so we didn’t quote those.”  I was taken aback by the price but the clerk insisted it was correct.  Before heading back to the village I dropped off the materials list at a different hardware store known to have lower prices.  Back in the village I told Beni about the high price and he was surprised in a casual Fijian way, saying something like, “Booo… sa leqa” (Wow… that’s a problem).  At that moment Elia happened to be walking by and we showed him the quote.  Elia’s a funny guy, he’s small by Fijian standards, in his late thirties, and has the voice and mannerisms of a TV detective (think Columbo).  Elia looked at the quote and answered in his typically slow methodical English “This is very expensive, Geoff. I didn’t think these materials would cost so much.  Perhaps, someone at the store made a mistake.  I’d like to help more but I’m very busy at the moment.”  Elia left. It’s probable he wasn’t busy.  “Sona” (asshole), Beni called after him.  I told Beni I had left the materials list at a different hardware store and we’d see how their quote came in.

 I called the other hardware store the next day and, to my relief, the quote came in at $23,000, something we could work with and, better yet, the tiles were included in the quote.  On my next trip to town I picked the new quote up and brought it back to the village to show Beni and Elia.  After perusing the new quote, it didn’t take Beni and Elia long to notice many of the materials on the list were not quoted.  The materials not quoted were the significant ones: blocks, cement, wood, etc.  We had a quote mainly for incidental materials.  Elia explained that if a hardware store in Fiji doesn’t have a particular item they will simply give the quote without it, no explanation provided.  This was discouraging, we decided to call the D.O. and tell him about the pricing problems.  The D.O. said it shouldn’t be a problem, he could get materials cheaper from larger stores inSuva(Fiji’s capital) through government channels.  He told us to bring the materials list and the blueprints to his office and he would take care of the rest.  After receiving the D.O.’s feedback we decided to proceed without altering the material list to make the quote cheaper.  At this point in time there was a significant amount of puss and gunk coming out of my nose and I’d already arranged my own trip to Suva to see the Peace Corps doctors since the meds the Taveuni hospital had given me didn’t work. 

 At the next meeting with the D.O. it came to our attention that the local government owed the people of my village a favor.  Fiji’s government was involved in a business venture with the Chinese government (China has a large presence in Fiji) and would need to use some of my village’s unutilized land for the project, a hydro-electric plant to power the Northern part of the island.  The power provided by the plant would not reach the region of my village.  The D.O. said that we could sell the higher cost of the project on this basis.  When I mentioned to the D.O. that I’d be going to Suva the next week (Aug 1st), the D.O. said he also would be traveling to Suva soon and would arrange a meeting for us with someone at the Prime Minister’s office to discuss the project and asked if I could get a few quotes from Suva hardware stores.  I said I could and that I’d also like to see about getting quotes for solar systems for the community hall/evacuation center; after all, how nice could the hall be if it’s lit by kerosene lanterns.  The D.O. said he’d support a solar system. Beni, Leone, Elia, and I left the meeting optimistic. Beni said he would call a village meeting to see if this was an acceptable trade for the land.  

 Ana Maria came back to the village just before my leaving for Suva, found out I was working on the project with others, and became upset.  All I could do was explain nicely but firmly that I was going to complete this project before my service ends, and although she’s my “na,” she isn’t in the village enough to be an effective partner.  Immediately after that conversation I boarded the bus which would take me to her parents’ house in town where I would stay the night before catching the morning flight toSuva.  It was a good time to be getting out of the village for awhile. 

 Once in Suva I checked myself into the Peace Corps Infirmary, a small but comfortable room in the back of Peace Corps H.Q.  The infirmary may be small but with amenities like electricity, an air conditioner, hot water, a TV and DVD player, a mini fridge, an electric skillet, and is in easy walking distance to a mall, movie theatre, bars, etc. I had everything I could hope for.  I was self-conscious of going out at first, my nose was pretty disgusting looking, with dried puss and open sores that were easily noticeable to even the casual observer.  The first week I tried to only venture out at night, like a leper in hiding. 

 Fortunately, I was in Suva, where resources and technologies were at my disposal.  The P.C. doctors took a few samples of the gunk coming out of my nose and sent it to a lab.  The results came back as a strep infection and the PC doctors put me on the same Penicillin pills I’d received at the Taveuni hospital only in larger doses with an accompanying antibiotic ointment.  My nose started to look better after a few days, although I was nervous because the meds I had taken on Taveuni helped until I went off them and the infection came back. 

 I got quotes for the community hall/evacuation center project from a few Suva hardware stores and the prices all came in around the mid to high $40ks (we added exterior paint to the list).  A powerful solar system for the hall, capable of lights, charging electronics, and running a small fridge and TV came in around $8,000.  I called the D.O. to tell him the news, he asked me to email him the quotes, and I did.  The D.O elaborated that he hadn’t confirmed his travel to Suva yet and would confirm our meeting at the Prime Minister’s office once his travel plans were set. 

 I was discharged from the infirmary Aug 16th, and shortly thereafter made my way to the city of Nadi for one of the annual Peace Corps trainings.  Due to the D.O.’s schedule I didn’t attend the meeting at the Prime Minister’s office with him, he attended the meeting on the village’s behalf after I had left for Nadi.  I haven’t yet heard how it went.  The Peace Corps training in Nadi was good and it was nice to see my fellow volunteers again, some I hadn’t seen in almost a year.  The original group of 35 is down to 29, which isn’t bad considering the hardships we all face in our day-to-day lives.  I saw much more attrition in my former corporate life where staying with a company for over a year was becoming a rarity.  My nose is better than it was, with no visible symptoms, but I can tell the infection is still present by the tell-tale itch I often feel.  As per doctor’s orders I’ve been applying the antibiotic ointment that was given to me, so hopefully the infection will clear up completely, but its persistence is concerning. 

 Not much had changed when I got back to the village.  Happily, hike attendance for August finished strong with 17 guests.  A couple of former hike visitors from Australia are currently hard at work completing a website for the rainforest hike, pro bono.  I’ve seen some screenshots and the website looks very nice and should be finished by the time I post my next blog entry.  My village feels rural and isolated from virtually all conveniences.  My house seems small, dirty, and confining after a month of living in relative luxury and I am, no doubt, in for one of those transitional periods that are a fact of Peace Corps life and one of the biggest challenges.

Gade e Suva Pictures

September 9, 2011

My surfing at Fijian reef passes has improved but still needs work


The Fijian house spider, seen here next to a bar of soap


Peace Corps Fiji Headquarters


I don't think I'm on Taveuni anymore, Downtown Suva


The group reconvenes

Lesu tale mai na koro (reuturn to the village)

June 29, 2011

Natalia and I

One thing I hadn’t intended to do during my Peace Corps Service was go back to America for a visit. When I first got to Fiji some of the volunteers who had arrived in Fiji the year prior were talking about their recent trips home and I remember thinking they were corrupting the experience of immersing themselves in another culture by returning to the familiar. In hindsight, I can only scold myself for thinking such things. At the time I had been in Fiji for less than a month, they had been in Fiji for a year, and the latter group knew far more than I. If there’s one thing I should emphasize about Peace Corps, it’s that while stepping far out of your comfort zone and throwing yourself haphazardly into a completely different way of life is a rewarding experience, one that you’ll probably remember fondly for the rest of your life, it is also at times very difficult. I never feel completely comfortable, I don’t quite understand my community, they don’t quite understand me, and namely I am the minority and while I may at times regard the customs of the Fijian villages as unusual, the Fijians often regard some of my behaviors and practices as unusual (i.e. Why did Geoff leave during that great movie Shadow Warriors 2 where Hulk Hogan, Carl Weathers, and Shannon Tweed played mercenaries? Why is Geoff so worried about his latest medical ailment? How come Geoff doesn’t stay up all night drinking yaqona with us?) . A trip home as I approached the year mark turned out to be a great decision as the subtle rigors of village life had begun to weigh on me more and more.

I was curious as to what my transition home would be like after almost a year in rural Fiji but surprisingly I adapted back to modern life without difficulty (of course a leisurely visit home without the stresses of modern life such as work and bills is not an accurate representation). Nevertheless, I enjoyed myself a great deal. The single most difficult part of Peace Corps for me is being away from my girlfriend, Natalia, so it was good to see her and better yet we got engaged (the wedding will be after I finish Peace Corps). Getting engaged was the highlight of my trip home but there were plenty of other nice things that happened as well; I ate a lot of Mexican food, saw my parents, visited friends, drank good beer and other quality spirits, experienced the almost forgotten sensation of being cold, a lot of my rashes went away (most are back at the present time), I drove a car, caught up on but didn’t get to finish watching the current season of American Idol, and did a fair amount of shopping for items the villagers had requested from America. I ended up buying over ten pairs of hiking shoes for the villagers who work on the hike which I found at an outlet store for $9 a pair. I also bought a volleyball net and volleyball since the family who owned the village’s old net moved away and took the net with them. One day while running errands with Natalia we walked by a Home Depot and she commented that one of the storage sheds (the deluxe model) displayed outside was larger than my house in the village (remember she has already come to Fiji for a visit). At first I thought she was wrong but after seeing the dimensions of the shed 12’ * 12’ I realized she was almost right, my house excluding the hall and bathroom is about 13’ * 13’. Although the latter fact was a bit depressing, the rest of the trip home was great and made me happy. My stay in America was long, almost of month, but the time went quickly and as I watched my remaining vacation days dwindle, I couldn’t help but wonder what was happening in the village while I was away.

There was a lot going on in the village when I left. The Rainforest Hike, the village’s eco-tourism project was beginning to get into gear, we had hired a receptionist, begun to keep our phone charged on a daily basis enabling resorts to reach us when guests wanted to make a reservation, and put out signs on the road to let tourists know we existed. I was particularly optimistic of my idea to start doing tours of the village’s traditional bure, which is visible from the road and constantly causes tourist taxis to stop for a photo. Surely much had happened while I was gone and I would return to see significant progress, either that or everything would have fallen apart completely (the receptionist would be gone, the phone would be lying somewhere out of batteries and collecting dust, etc.) My trip home went by all too quickly and soon I was the only morose looking passenger boarding Air Pacific Flight 811, non-stop service from Los Angeles to Fiji.

I arrived back in Fiji at the end of April and had decided to ease into the transition by spending some time visiting friends who were on Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu. These people have urban assignments and more modern and comfortable living arrangements than I. Regardless of assignments and living conditions it was clear to me my peers were doing their best to cope as the year mark encroached and I found I was far more refreshed and rejuvenated after a trip home. I returned to my village after a week of visiting peers and everyone seemed happy to see me and maybe even a bit surprised (I assume there was some suspicion in the village I would not come back and on a certain level I harbored such suspicions as well). I played coy and didn’t come right out and ask how things with the projects were going because I expected jubilant villagers to come right out and tell me. After no one came forward and sung the praises of my recent business innovations I went ahead and asked. To my dismay not much had changed. No one had come to take the Bure Tour although the Rainforest Hike had experienced a modest stream of visitors. The new management of the hike, which I spoke of in the previous entry, had met and decided to pay themselves $5 out of every tourist entry fee ($40). The prior management had not been compensated although Tony, the hike’s former manager, worked as a guide. The thoughts I had pertaining of vast and rapid improvements while vacationing in America turned out to be delusions and clearly reflected a prolonged absence from the village and the slow pace of rural Fiji life. Nonetheless, it was clearly a victory that the new hike management had maintained the receptionist’s position, had continued to pay her, and made efforts to keep the phone charged which is difficult when living in an area without electricity. With moderate use the fully charged phone will last a day which means the phone must be charged every night. Finding a running generator can be challenging and often requires going to one of the larger neighboring villages.

The villagers were coy about asking if I brought them anything, although I could tell it was on their minds. One of the children asked me shyly if I had brought a new volleyball net and when I told him I did he was immediately enthralled. I gave the hiking shoes to the guides and those who had been doing a significant amount of work on the trail. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough shoes to go around and this made for some tough decisions for me and possibly some hurt feelings in the village. Maybe this is why Peace Corps official policy discourages such gifts. To my dismay a few of the people I gave shoes to disappeared for extended periods of time shortly thereafter. In one such instance the individual left his wife and four kids behind without explanation, he was gone over a month and while no one seemed to know his whereabouts no one seemed to be greatly concerned either. He eventually came back and had been staying with family on the other side of the island.

Just as I had quickly readapted to modern life I also readapted quickly to rural life, as soon as I got off the plane and boarded a rickety bus my Peace Corps life came back into perspective. Tasty microbrew beer was out, yaqona was in. Being able to talk and listen to conservations in a language (English) I am proficient in was out, making out bits and pieces of conversation and struggling to speak in connected Fijian sentences was in. Dormant insects were out, biting insects were in. Driving a car was out, traveling by bus was in. Electricity was out, occasional generator power was in. A comfortable Southern California climate was out, sweating profusely and being drenched by random rain squalls was in. A plethora of food choices was out, root crops, rice, bread, and seafood ranging from delicious to disgusting was in. And so on…

A good day at my local break (this isn't me)

Upon my return, I had vowed to take advantage of some of the things I had neglected during my first year, namely surfing. I started cutting out all frills in regard to unnecessary expenditures and made do with a diet which usually consists of eggs, bread, tortillas, rice, and the produce I can pick in the village (eggplant, chilies, lettuce, papayas, bananas, etc.) With the money saved on food I can spend a few days a month at the budget surf resort on the nearby island of Qamea. By closely following the surf forecast I also improve my odds of getting good waves. It didn’t take long for this strategy to pay off and I learned that barreling Fijian reef pass waves, although beautiful and perfect, are also much more difficult to surf than most California waves. The wave is fast and powerful, although locals claim it has only a fraction of the power of Fiji’s more renowned surf spots, and breaks about a half mile out to sea. I’ve had a few incredible days of surfing with only a couple other surfers in the water but overall surfing in Fiji has been humbling (like so many things here) and I’ve set a goal to become competent at surfing my local break over the next year. I’ve also decided to start using the spear gun I bought almost a year ago. Spear fishing is a good way to enjoy a sunny day and calm seas but I’ve yet to have any luck at catching fish. The fishing off my beach isn’t great and decent sized fish are hard to come by (probably a result of over fishing). The Fijians compensate for this by shooting large quantities of small fish or by going spear fishing at night when sleeping fish are easily caught. I prefer not to eat small bony fish and am too scared to go spear fishing at night (I worry about sharks) so me walking up the beach with the best spear fishing gear within ten miles and no fish has become a common sight. When the villagers used to ask me, “Geoff, e vei nomu ika?” (Geoff, where are your fish?) I used to say something simple and truthful like “Seqa na ika nikua” (No fish today) or “Na ika raica au kei dro” (The fish see me and run away). I recently learned my inability to catch fish has become a topic of conversation and even gentle mocking in certain circles so now I am more creative and less truthful when asked the inevitable question pertaining to my lack of fish and say things like “Sobo, au vana rua na ika levu, ia na qio butako na ika.” (Bad luck, I shot two big fish but the shark stole the fish.) Most villagers recognize my story as bullshit but incidents such as the one described above are not unheard of. I’ve taken to following some of the village’s better spear fishermen around when they go and am hoping I can learn from them and to one day spear a fish and end village ridicule.

When I’m not surfing, fruitlessly spear fishing, or reading, I try my best to keep village momentum going in regard to the Rainforest Hike. Beni, the village’s Turaga ni Koro (like a mayor), is constantly asking me for ideas to raise funds in the village and while we are currently entertaining ideas such as a bread oven / bakery, and volleyball tournament, in my opinion the best resource in terms of long term potential is the Rainforest Hike. Some may remember from my previous post that two of the more popular village tourism projects have revenues exceeding $60,000 a year, create a variety of jobs, and give money back for village improvement and educational scholarships. While the Rainforest Hike is nowhere even remotely near this in terms of income the basic first steps we have taken are a good start. Furthermore, given that Vidawa is only a fraction of the size of the other villages not as much money would be needed to make a significant difference. Still many challenges remain. One such challenge as of late has been drop by visitors. Usually, we’ll get a call the day before from a resort to make a reservation for the guests making it easy to secure a guide. There have been a few times recently, however, when tourists passing by on their way to somewhere else see our sign and stop to do the hike. Sometimes this happens after all the men have gone to the farm for the day. In such an instance our receptionist will usually come get me and after we establish no guides are in the village we’ll send someone up in the hills (where many of the men farm) to find a guide. I’ll go to the office and talk to the guests, have them sign the log, tell them about my work in the village, hope a guide can be found quickly, and try not to be too obvious about the fact I am stalling for time. As I entertain the guests I can often hear our messenger in the hills shouting “Wooooo….” the Fijian bush cry, alerting the guides to return to the village. We’ve had a few close calls and waits of 15 to 20 minutes but so far we’ve been able to locate a guide every time. The potential time a guide is unable to be located and the resulting negative feedback from the tourists to the resorts worries me and we are doing our best to train new guides and develop a guide schedule. This is difficult, guide work is sporadic and most villagers choose to go with what is secure and familiar, their farms.

The hike trail, groomed and ready for tourists.

Despite the challenges, the slow and steady progress we are making is undeniable. I was sitting on the porch of the hike office one day at the end of May with our receptionist Tabiu (Tam-biu). I was silently cursing a tourist taxi which had stopped on the road and was taking free shots of our bure, she was picking kutu (lice) out of the hair of a village child with her fingernails. After removing a particularly large kutu from the afflicted child Tabiu said to me enthusiastically, “We had 13 visitors this month.” This may not seem significant and it’s not in terms of where we need to be in terms of making the hike a viable village resource but when the last four years of attendance in May look like this;

May 2007 0 guests

May 2008 11 guests

May 2009 4 guests

May 20010 0 guests

you realize a significant improvement has been made, especially when taking into account the entire first week of May was torrential rain. Furthermore, tourist feedback about the hike has been unanimously positive and we’ve noticed a greater amount of business coming from word of mouth. Matei, the touristy part of Taveuni is a small place with only a couple restaurants where groups of tourists talk amongst themselves of the day’s activities over dinner and drinks, a positive review spreads quickly.

The month of May past and so did the year mark in my service; I was excited about the developments and made them my key point during my portion of the monthly village meeting. For the first time, I also gave my entire talk in Fijian, albeit broken and less than perfect. The villagers were excited both about the progress the hike was making and the progress in my Fijian, although most seemed more excited about my Fijian than the hike. I’ve given many would be inspiring ra-ra speeches in English only to notice that most the villagers looked bored and clearly uninspired. After this simple speech, however, which spoke of the importance of keeping the phone charged, guides available, the hike trail clean, and the noticeable improvement in attendance, the villagers all clapped and cheered as if I had told them money grew on trees. As I write this, going into the last week of June, we have had 12 visitors which is our best June on record (previous June numbers look much like previous May numbers). July is usually the hike’s busiest month with historical attendance ranging from 10 to 22 visitors. I hope the new innovations and the increased village commitment to the hike can put us at, or, over the 30 mark this July and top the best month on record of 26 visitors (this number was largely the result of 18 anthropology students that were staying in the village that month).

My acquired dog Spikey, resting after a day of hiking.

The onset on July puts me over the halfway mark of my Peace Corps service with somewhere just over or under a year left, depending on how my name comes up in the going home lottery. The FRE-7s (Fiji Re-Entry Group 7), the batch of volunteers who got here the year before me started leaving in June and all but one of them who signed on for another year will be gone by mid July. The FRE-9s (the new batch of volunteers) got here in May and will finish training and be in their permanent villages by early July, none will be coming to Taveuni. In exciting news my friend Megan got sent to Taveuni and is living in a village about 5 kilometers from mine. I am no longer the only Peace Corps volunteer on the island and it is nice to have someone to pal around with and who can fill me in on the latest Peace Corps gossip. Crossing the halfway mark of my service is a large milestone and I continue to mostly enjoy the Peace Corps experience but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have an eye on the clock. A year, give or take, is still a long time, too long to digest in a single helping, so I’ll break it down into smaller, manageable, 3 month increments of time and attempt to accomplish goals that will be beneficial for the village and that can be carried on after I have gone.

The Rainforest Hike Part II

April 20, 2011

* All pictures will be at the end of entry

The last two months have seen the emergence of new persistent rashes, excruciating heat (the cause of the rashes), and the usual challenges of rural Fijian  life.  Despite these difficulties I took solace in the village’s continued involvement in and commitment to the village’s fledgling tourism business, The Vidawa Rainforest Hike.  Tony, the hike’s manager and heir to be village chief, who had disappeared for an extended period of time after the holidays with his supposedly disgruntled girlfriend, had returned to Vidawa sans mate.  Tony’s return is helpful, however, it is clear the driving force in village involvement in the hike continues to be Keleto, the influential village elder mentioned in the previous post.

One of our goals for the hike is to develop new trails so visitors, mainly those staying at the currently under construction Birdwatcher’s Lodge, can have some variety.  Keleto had told me about a large waterfall no Fijian other than himself seems to have seen that was a couple hour hike from the site of the Birdwatcher’s Lodge.  He wanted my opinion as to whether or not I thought it was something tourists would like, so one day a group of four of us and my acquired village dog Spikey, who follows me almost everywhere whether I want him to or not, set off to see this waterfall.  There was no trail to the waterfall and not even Keleto seemed to know exactly how to get there, so much of this journey was me following Fijians hacking through dense bush with cane knives and sliding down and climbing up a variety of terrain.  After about three hours and a few cuts and bruises we arrived at the waterfall and it was not disappointing.

The waterfall was probably over 100 feet tall, water cascaded down a vertical black rock ledge, rather than freefalling and there was a small, shallow pool at the bottom for wading and a much needed cool off.  The area around the waterfall was pristine and it was obvious to me this was something worth seeing.  Siri and Beni, two of the Fijian youth (unmarried Fijian males usually under 30) who had accompanied us, quickly climbed up part of rock face of the waterfall to a ledge where they could sit behind the falling water.  Siri andBenimade this look easy but when I tried I found the climb to be difficult, the rocks were slippery, and the climb required a great deal of upper body strength.  After a brief futile effort I decided to stay at the bottom of the waterfall and sit in the pool.  We spent about an hour at the waterfall. I relaxed in the pool and took pictures,Beniand Siri practiced their climbing and struck poses behind the cascading water, Keleto relaxed on the shore, and my dog Spikey, who usually is never out of energy, fell asleep, clearly exhausted.

On the hike back we tried a different route, climbing up steep dirt hillsides leading to a ridge, which was fairly easy to walk on. This route was more direct and about a mile in length to the Birdwatcher’s Lodge, and it could be cleared up and developed into a trail.  That night, when I returned to the village I had gained a certain amount of celebrity having been to a site that few had ever seen before.  For the next two weeks and up to the present time I am consistently asked by locals to see the photos I took of the “savu vou” (new waterfall, savu-waterfall, vou-new) and all the Fijians are impressed when they see the pictures, saying things like, “sa balavo” (it’s tall) or “rai rai vinaka” (beautiful / pretty).

I was still licking my wounds a week after the hike to the waterfall when Keleto suggested a group, which included myself, climb to the top of “MountKoroni Turaga” (VillageofMen) to evaluate it as another possible tourist attraction. “MountKoroni Turaga” is the peak of the mountain range that divides theislandofTaveuniin half.  I was told this was an easy hike and could be done in three hours but at this point I already knew there was a big difference between kaiviti (Fijian) easy and kaivalagi (European/American) easy.  This hike made the waterfall hike seem like a cakewalk.  The bush was thick and many of the slopes were steep and slippery. I was flanked by a group of six Fijians, a few of whom were doing the hike barefoot and were hacking through the bush with cane knives.  This hike was very difficult although the views, particularly at the top of the peak where you could see both sides of the island and beyond, were spectacular.  It would be possible to develop a trail here but it would take a lot of work and time, not to mention the task of maintaining the trail.  After returning to the village from this hike I was exhausted. We had moved at a fairly quick pace, stopping only for a few breaks and lunch, but round trip the hike had taken over ten hours.

In the midst of all this hiking, there was a lot of work being done on the Birdwatcher’s Lodge. Although most of the supplies were provided through a grant, we still needed money for fuel and oil for the weed whacker and chainsaw as well as buying lunch (canned mackerel and noodles) for the workers.  The hike has a modest cash reserve of about FJ $1,500, which is maintained by Anna Maria, the hike’s treasurer and my assigned village contact person.  Anna Maria had been out of the village for over a month staying with her family on the other side of the island and this was becoming a bit of a “leqa” ( problem, pronounced “lenga”) because I needed her to open the safe so I could get money to buy supplies.  I would call her repeatedly and explain the situation and she would say she would come back to Vidawa the next day to open the safe, but day after day she would never show.  This became increasingly frustrating and I would often vent to Keleto and others as I started to rack up a tab of money the hike owed me when I used personal funds to buy supplies (my Peace Corps stipend is limited but leaves me with a little extra cash).

My frustration with Anna Maria is also difficult because when I first got to Taveuni she was quick to appoint herself my “Na” (Mom) on Taveuni.  Most blog readers will recollect that she isn’t in the village that often, but when she is or when I sometimes stay at her family’s house on the other side of the island, she does an exceptional job of being my Na.  She cooks almost all my meals, and if someone else cooks me something or makes me a glass of fresh juice, she’ll taste it first to make sure it’s up to standards.  If something is not up to standards she’ll give advice on how to improve it.  A recent example, “This juice has too much sugar, Geoff doesn’t like a lot of sugar in his juice.”  She does my laundry, if she notices my house is dirty and I’m not around she’ll clean it, despite my objections she doesn’t need to do this.  Recently she sewed up a whole in my black backpack and apologized for using dark blue string.

An overabundance of niceness, amongst other factors, made it hard to be mad at Anna Maria but the fact remained – a lot of people were putting in a lot of work and she wasn’t around to do her job.  One day when I was walking by her often vacant house in Vidawa, Gabby, an outspoken five year old girl, put it best when she said to me.  “Geoff, e vei Anna Maria? Nomu Na sa yali.”  (Geoff where is Anna Maria?  Your mom is lost.)  It took me a second to translate the sentence in my head, then I laughed and said, “Sa lasa Gabby” (Funny Gabby).

Anna Maria and her husband Phil did eventually come back and when they did I sat her and Tony down for a talk and explained as nicely as I could that Keleto and others were putting in a lot work and that I wasn’t getting the help I needed from “The Hike Committee” (Anna Maria and Tony).  The Hike Committee and The Environment Committee (the committee which Keleto heads and is composed mainly of village elders) are often at odds, and Anna Maria made a case for herself citing following procedure set by the National Trust (government organization that oversees village tourism projects) and possible ulterior motives for Keleto’s involvement.  I tried to be sympathetic to her concerns but made the case that we had to show more initiative if the hike is to be successful and that is what Keleto was currently doing.

Not long after Anna Maria’s return to the village I started hearing rumors thatFiji’s Prime Minister, Voreqe Bainimarama, would be coming to Taveuni and amongst other things he would pay a visit to the Bouma National Heritage Parks (BNHP, the four village run tourism projects in my immediate area).  I hear a lot of things inFijiand most never happen so I didn’t pay much attention to this until I got word that the District Officer (D.O.), Taveuni’s highest government representative, had called a meeting with all BNHP staff to prepare the PM’s visit which would be in two days.  The meeting was held at the Lavena Lodge, and the D.O., who Anna Maria and I recently met to ask him for money to build Vidawa’s Community Hall /EvacuationCenter, said he thought it would be best if each of the four BNHP projects wrote up a typed report and gave a ten to fifteen minute PowerPoint style presentation.  Of course these things would be my responsibility since I’m the only one who has and knows how to use a computer.  The reports and presentations would be due in two days, and I pointed out that this would take an extensive amount of time and that since there was no electricity in Bouma the job was almost impossible.  The D.O. said we could work out of his office, which is in Wayeivo, a town where most Taveuni’s government offices and institutions are located.

Even with electricity it would be a big job so I enlisted the help of Ali, a doctorate anthropology student, who has been staying on and off for months at a time in thevillageofWaitabu.  With two computer savvy people and two computers I hoped we’d be able to accomplish the task at hand.  The next day we all went to the D.O.’s office in Wayeivo. Ali and I worked with the staff of each of the four projects preparing reports, detailing the successes and obstacles faced by each project, the financials of each project for year ending 2010, and most importantly what the government could provide each project to operate more effectively.  Working with the other BNHP projects also gave me more insight into how much money each project made and what they used it for.  All the projects had their issues, but Tavoro (which has waterfalls) and Lavena (which has a backpacker’s lodge and coastal hike) clearly demonstrated the ability to generate a significant amount of revenue and put some of the revenue back into the community.  Both Tavoro and Lavena had over 2,000 visitors in 2010 and both had revenue exceeding FJ $60,000 for the same year.  Their profit margins were hurt by damage caused by Cyclone Tomas in March of 2010 but even though Lavena sustained $21,000 in damage, they had the funds available to cover the expense.  These numbers eclipsed Vidawa’s 79 visitors and $3,160 revenue in 2010.  The other project, the Waitabu Marine Protected Snorkling Area, also struggled.  There are many factors contributing to the success of Lavena and Tavoro but I think the main one is that both these projects have full-time staff while Vidawa and Waitabu operate on an on-call basis.  Preparing for the PM’s visit took all day and into the evening but eventually all the reports were written and the PowerPoint presentations finished.  Each project did a practice run of their presentation and most of the presentations went for about twenty minutes.

The Lavena Lodge would be venue for the PM’s visit and the village of Lavena was hard at work making sure everything was up to par.  Flowers were everywhere, there was a feast of fresh fish and other local foods, and a group of men set up in front of the lodge and started drinking yaqona early in the day.  Anna Maria was quick to appoint Vidawa as the first to give their presentation and she, Tony, and I felt ready to go.  Just to be safe we practiced our presentation to a group of tourists who had been staying at the lodge.    The PM arrived a bit late with a small entourage and we wasted little time getting things underway.  Tony, Anna Maria, and I presented for Vidawa and we talked about the project’s history, our meager revenue for the year prior, and I talked about the challenges we’re facing and what we could use from the government for assistance (this included; a real toilet at the hike office, electricity so we can keep phones charged, a paved road leading to the Bouma area, etc.).  I commented specifically on the fact that sometimes one of the bridges floods and either tourists can’t come to Bouma or they get stuck in Bouma overnight to which the P.M. jokingly replied we should use that to our advantage and charge stranded tourists for meals and accommodations.  The presentation ran a bit long, I knew because while we were presenting all the other project groups were trying to get our attention and making gestures like pointing at their watches (those without watches just pointed at their wrists).  I timed the presentation and we went 25 minutes.  This became a bit of an issue with the other presenters because after we finished the PM left and his staff explained he had to get to his next stop for the day.  We gave the PM’s staff the written report for each of the projects.  Although the other projects were mad at us I know the PM only had time to listen to one presentation regardless of length.

After the PM’s visit it was back to business, or lack thereof, as usual.  I began to push harder for a full time receptionist to work at the nice but unutilized office New Zealand Aid provided us to use for the hike.  A receptionist is a simple addition that I think is necessary to bring the hike up to speed.  Currently no one is responsible for monitoring the hike’s phone, although the fact it has been sitting in my house out of batteries for the last month makes this point somewhat mute.  One may wonder how guests book hike tours at all with no phone line.  Many resorts have complained about this and have resorted to cab drivers carrying messages and obtaining the few residential lines in the village.  The fact that there is no cell phone reception in the village leaves us dependent on TFL radio phones which are the Taveuni equivalent of a LAN line.  Having a receptionist to monitor our hike’s TFL line would be a large improvement from the current unorganized system.  Furthermore, if we had a receptionist my plan would be to put signs on the road for tours of our traditional Fijain bure at the front of the village.  This would be a good way for us to capture tourists coming and going from the more popular attractions Tavoro and Lavena who may not have enough time to do the hike.

Eventually Tony and Anna Maria entertained my idea and we interviewed Tabiu(Tam-biu), a twenty one year village girl who had expressed interest in the job.  Tabiu’s qualifications were evident to me, she speaks perfect English, had worked in resorts in the past, has a good personality, and she was the only one who came forward and expressed interest in the position.  I wanted to start her working right away.  Tony and Anna Maria said that wouldn’t be possible, that we would have to follow traditional village protocol.  We would have to announce our desire to hire Tabiu at the next village meeting and then have the village Chief approve of the hire.  This process would take over a month and was an example of the limited power of the Hike Committee and the slow pace of the Fijian decision making process.  I was a bit frustrated with the delay but checked my vakavalagi (American / European methods) at the door and continued my adaptation to traditional Fijian culture.

About a week after the meeting to hire Tabiu, I was at Anna Maria’s house one night and her husband Phil said in an ominous way that the Environment Committee (powerful village group) was having an impromptu meeting and the Rainforest Hike was likely being discussed.  Anna Maria isn’t on the Environment Committee but Tony is due to his chiefly blood line. The next day I was told that at the meeting The Environment Committee had stated they would be taking over the hike and that The Hike Committee (Anna Maria and Tony) had been out of line in requesting to hire a receptionist because they don’t have the proper authority.  I wasn’t surprised by the take over, Keleto and other influential villagers had been hinting at this for some time.  I was surprised about their resistance to the receptionist, however, since I had mentioned this to Keleto and others on numerous occasions and they all supported the idea.  The news of the change in management officially broke at the monthly village meeting and although I don’t understand the majority of what is said at these meetings, on this occasion I could tell the topic was controversial as divided villagers weighed in on the decision with tones that were passionate either for or against the change.

A few days after the monthly village meeting Keleto asked me if I thought it would still be a good idea to hire Tabiu as a receptionist.  To which I replied yes.  I also mentioned with a receptionist it would be possible to start attracting passerby tourist taxis if we put signs by the road advertising tours of our bure and the hike.  Keleto concurred with my thoughts and within a couple of weeks (record Fijian time) we had the badly neglected hike office cleaned, signs painted and placed on the roadside and Tabiu standing by, waiting for the phone to ring and taxis to stop.

Once my changes were implemented I spent a lot of time in the Hike Office to see how things were going.  It was early March, which is the slow season for tourism, but I thought it best to start the new systems now, so we’d have most the bugs worked out by the time the busy tourist season started in May.  I had figured bure tour visitors would be a sure thing.  Tourist taxis always stop on the road to look at our bure and I wanted to use the revenue from bure tours to cover Tabiu’s pay and other operating expenses.  After Tabiu’s first full week of work no tourists had come to take the bure tour.  I would see the taxis stop on the road, roll down their windows and take pictures from afar, they’d even stop again when they saw the sign for the office, but then they’d continue on to their destinations of either Bouma Waterfall or Lavena Coastal Walk.  This was becoming frustrating, but fortunately each week we’d have a couple tourists book The Rainforest Hike which would enable us to scrape by for the week financially with our added expense of full time staff.

I think with time, working with the resorts and taxi drivers, and increased familiarity with the improvements we are making the difficulties currently faced will subside.  Furthermore, despite the lack of visitors, having full time staff at the office has seemed to inspire the villagers to rally around the hike and recognize the project as a potential village asset.  I’m completing this blog entry in the comfort of home (America) where I am having an all too brief but thoroughly enjoyable intermission.  When I left Fiji on Mar. 29th there had been no guests to the bure tour, although we did have a few large group bookings to go on the Rainforest Hike.  I return to Fiji at the end of April and am both eager and scared to find what, if anything, has happened while I was away.

The hidden waterfall

My feeble climbing attempt

Tony Trailblazing

Top of Taveuni

Fresh river eel tastes good after extensive hiking

Vidawa presents while the Prime Minister (left) watches on

Most cars get stuck when the bridge floods

The bus however powers over it

Getting the hike office ready for business

Hopefully road signs will increase tourist traffic

The Rainforest Hike

February 3, 2011

Jumping from Lavena Waterfall helps relieve stress

After enduring a fair amount of burnout things seem to be back on track.  My usual grievances are the same; mosquitoes still feed on me, village options of entertainment are still limited, a few resilient bedbugs leave me love bites from time to time, the weather is either exceptionally hot or torrential rain with no middle ground, villagers come and go from Vidawa like vagabonds, and I continue to play the role of someone who is a long way from home, confused and unsure of what is happening, largely dependent on and at the mercy of the locals.  These and other factors had caused my mood to suffer, as mentioned in my previous blog entry, but after a bit of backlash forward momentum seems to have been obtained, or at least a greater appreciation of stagnation gained. 

There have been some tangible developments.  I had arranged with Filo, the head teacher of Bouma Primary School, to teach computer classes at the school’s quaint computer lab over summer break (November-January).  Filo and her husband Keleto have a house and strong ties in Vidawa, but live in a teacher’s house at the school.  Bouma Primary School is located in Korovou, a large village just south of Vidawa.  The computer lab features about 15 imitation Netbook type computers (8 of which work), running imitation Microsoft Office software.  The computers, although crude, are effective for teaching basics and are a result of a generous donation by the Taveuni Rotary Club. 

I had announced the classes at several Vidawa village meetings and told prominent people in other villages to spread the word.  There would be two one week classes, for which I had no set agenda, other than to make it up as I went along, after all how hard could it be to teach rudimentary computer skills.  I had a large turnout for the classes, it was mostly youth in their teens, but a few of the adults from Vidawa came as well.

When I started the first class it was good to see that everyone seemed to be able to start the computers on their own and had already figured out how to open games such as Solitaire and operate the computer webcams.  Although I was impressed by the skill set already apparent in my students, I became concerned as they became increasingly engrossed in games and making faces at themselves via webcam and decided I would have to get things started and try to establish order.  As mentioned, I had no determined plan as to the structure of the class but sensing that I was quickly losing control, I decided to open with an introduction to different aspects of computer functionality.  I asked (in English) what people would like to gain from these classes and what applications they thought computers could be used for.  I got the expected response from most, Facebook, email, music downloading, and other entertainment related internet applications.  A few outliers mentioned bookkeeping, document composition, presentations, etc.  Many students asked if the computers had Facebook on them, and I explained that the computers could access Facebook, however, since there was no internet connection at the school Facebook would be inaccessible.  This concept was hard to grasp for many students and the relationship between having a computer and having the internet is ambiguous to most in the villages.

Once things were rolling the students opened the computer’s imitation Word software and composed a brief letter to a friend and family member.  This took awhile due to the student’s unfamiliarity with the keyboard and excruciatingly slow hunt and peck style of typing.  As the lesson was going, I would walk around the small rectangular table at which everyone sat, and monitor individual progress.  Some were struggling at even the most basic things, spelling being one of them.  Others, perhaps the advanced students, would be neglecting the lesson to play solitaire or with the webcam.  I took offense to this until I remembered that, as a student, (and later as an employee) I would consistently misuse school (or work) computers.  At least I had the courtesy to close or minimize such applications when the teacher (or boss) would come around.  I would later learn even these advanced students were not yet privy to the beauty of and various practicalities of the minimize function. 

The view from Bouma School

My vague lesson plan eventually took a form, and we spent a day learning the basics of each imitation Microsoft Office application.  The final day of class would culminate with a field trip to the internet café where everyone would sign up for an email address and perform a Google search on a subject of interest.  The internet café day was entertaining for me, the internet seems to be inherent to everyone in developed society but not so much in Fiji.  Once I had a few students successfully registered with email addresses I told them to email each other. A struggle ensued to locate the “To” box and after finding it one student typed his friend’s first and last name (no @ sign or anything) and then looked at me for direction as to what to do next.  Other than the internet café, the most popular day was the lesson on imitation PowerPoint (all applications functioned exactly the same as their brand name equivalent).  On imitation PowerPoint day the students formed into groups and prepared a “how to” presentation of a basic Fijian skill, making tea, cooking dalo, etc.  There was no working projector but the class would gather around each small computer to watch groups present at the end of the lesson. 

The computer classes were also a good opportunity for me to learn more about the people in the village.  So often in the village I’m the weakest link in many ways.  All of the villagers, small children included, are far more adept than I at rural living.  Usually I have to spend so much time and energy just figuring out the basics, I don’t concern myself with determining the nuances of the people around me.  I hear various things about people through kakase (gossip) but to me most villagers are the same and I watch all their inherent Fijian skills with awe.  Computer classes changed that, it was apparent quickly that many were far out of their comfort zone and everyone reacted differently.  A few I had to tread lightly around because confidence problems became apparent, two such people left class early never to return.   Others struggled but persisted, while a couple took on leadership roles, helping classmates and acting as my assistants.  The computer classes were a big hit, they were good for the students, good for me, and I’ll probably continue such classes for various groups of people during the course of my service.

Bamboo with buoy halves attached were a hot toy this holiday season

Christmas came quickly after computer classes were over and virtually everyone left Vidawa to spend Christmas with family in other villages.  I had several offers of places to go, including a Peace Corps party similar to the Thanksgiving excursion but I decided to take Anna Maria up on her offer to spend Christmas at her parent’s house in the village of Lovonivonu (literal translation, sea turtle oven) on the other side of the island.  Astute readers of the blog will recall that Anna Maria is my Initial Community Contact Person (ICCP), the one who requested me in the village, as well as the treasurer of the Vidawa Rainforest Hike.  She spends a lot of time in Lovonivonu where her two children (son 15 daughter 21) live due to Lovonivonu’s close proximity to their school and work, and its close proximity to her husband’s farm.  At first I resented the fact that Anna Maria was out of the village more than in it, and at times, particularly when it comes to operations of The Vidawa Rainforest Hike, I still do, but I have come to terms with the fact I’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Vidawa who doesn’t lead a similar lifestyle.  Furthermore, I’ve come to know her parent’s house in Lovonivonu as a second home, going there for me is like going to Grandma’s house as a child, there’s always a ton of good food, and despite my insistence not to pander to me, I’m waited on hand and foot.  Lovonivonu is also a bit more of a modern village that also has electricity twelve hours a day (many a blog entry has been largely composed at Lovonivonu) and is close to town. 

Christmas brunch

Spending Christmas in Lovonivonu I was not disappointed, it was three days of kana vakalevu, gunu vakalevu, cegu vakalevu, (eat a lot, drink a lot (yaqona and fresh juices not alcohol), rest a lot).  The food was all delicious, pineapple and mangoes which grow in the yard there, as well as fish, chicken, and other local concoctions.  Gift exchange is not part of a Fijian Christmas but my parents had sent some tokens of their appreciation which I distributed and were well received.  Keeping with cultural norms I accompanied Anna Maria and family to Christmas mass at Taveuni’s largest church in nearby Wairiki, which is not part of my holiday routine in the States, but the mass was only about an hour long, relatively painless, and I bumped into a few other Peace Corps volunteers there who had just arrived for New Years.

Scenes of a Peace Corps New Year

I had heard a long time ago that virtually every Peace Corps Volunteer in Fiji under the age of 40 (which is almost all of them) was coming to Taveuni for New Years.  These large Peace Corps gatherings can often be raucous, sometimes sordid affairs, the kind of which someone in their early thirties whose hard partying days are almost behind them can only endure maybe once a year.  I had been through three days of such a gathering about four months prior on the Coral Coast of Viti Levu which I detailed in the blog post “Bouma Day”, and got a small dose of such a gathering over Thanksgiving.  I began to make subversive calls to my immediate friends, a group of about 8, suggesting a covert New Years at Maqai Backpackers and Surf Resort on Qamea Island (Maqai is featured in the post prior this one).  I didn’t think any of the other volunteers would have heard of Maqai, it’s a bit of a hidden gem, but to my dismay about two months prior to New Years I saw a few mass emails go out suggesting the bulk of Peace Corps Fiji spend New Years at Maqai (these emails were the result of the vast collective knowledge of Peace Corps Volunteers in Fiji and not of a leak amongst the friends I told).  Of course Maqai became the choice of everyone for New Years, it was the ideal spot after all, and although what I had intended to be a relaxing holiday with friends turned into a fair amount of mayhem and debauchery, it was still good to spend time with my fellow volunteers.  I could only feel sorry for the other guests staying at Maqai for New Years, the innocent civilians that they were, as some thirty odd Peace Corps Volunteers descended on the place.

After the holidays, and as the villagers slowly filtered back from wherever in Fiji they been, it seemed The Rainforest Hike had suffered yet another setback.  Tony, the hike’s manager, who had spent the holidays with his girlfriend Vero’s family on the adjacent island Vanua Levu, hadn’t returned and I was told he likely had joined the growing cast of characters who had left the village on a permanent basis.  I heard several theories as to the reasons for his departure, the most popular being Vero’s insistence that she didn’t feel welcome in the village.  Tony had always taken a hands off role in the management of the hike, he’d attend meetings and so forth but other than that his lax, often aloof manner (even by Fijian standards) kept him from taking on any of the responsibilities inherent of his title.  On the other hand, his easy going manner, natural charisma, and knowledge of Fijian culture made him a fantastic guide.  One set of tourists remarked to me they felt as if they’d been led on the hike by an old friend (all the guides do an excellent job and get high marks).  The implications of Tony’s departure did not stop at the hike however, Tony’s father (now deceased) was village chief, Tony’s uncle Siri, who is very old and sick, is currently chief.  When Siri passes on Tony, being the only male heir, will be chief.  When I asked what would happen if Siri died and Tony was still gone, one of the villagers said the police would have to track him down and bring him back to the village.

The lodge in its early form

I wondered what would become of the hike with Tony gone.  The village owned and operated tourist attractions of Bouma National Heritage Park (BNHP) recently received a fair amount of funding (provided in the form of materials) from New Zealand Aid to improve operations and I wondered how I could possibly utilize this with things falling apart so quickly. Other than the fact the hike was down a guide, Tony’s absence made no noticeable difference in the management of the operation.  Anna Maria is verbally committed to the hike, as treasurer she valiantly defends the hike’s meager cash reserves from the “kerekere” system.  Kerekere means please and is slang for Fijian villages’ notorious borrowing system.  She is often out of the village however, and her lack of strong blood ties and therefore power, give her little influence.  One of the village elders, however, has become more involved in the hike, and in bringing me into other aspects of village business and that has made an obvious difference. 

I got to know Keleto better when I was teaching computer classes at the school after which I would stop at he and his wife Filo’s (head school teacher) house for tea or a snack.  Keleto heads the village’s most powerful group “The Environment Committee”, which is responsible for managing the Vidawa mataqali’s (land controlling Fijian family) land interest, which despite Vidawa’s small size are vast, and other aspects of village decision making.  The Environment Committee and Anna Maria often clash, as the Environment Committee makes power plays attempting to take over operation of the hike.  Before I knew Keleto he was known to me as “the dangerous one” as told to me by Anna Maria.  Anna Maria’s concern in letting the Environment Committee take over the hike is she believes all proceeds from the hike will be squandered by those at the top, which is the case for other mataqali controlled village tourism projects.  Of course at the moment, the less than ten guests the hike receives on an average month doesn’t leave much money to be squandered.  The lack of guests is a result of lack of village commitment not the quality of the attraction, and until recently I’d all but written off the hike as a project due to such factors.

Although Keleto’s motivations are not known to me, he has certainly been able to get things moving in regard to motivating people (possibly by passively telling them what to do).  After I’ve had a meeting with Keleto, Anna Maria, who I know to be of good character, is always quick to probe regarding what was discussed, she is quick to say watch out there are ulterior motives at work.  Keleto is more subtle but he also tries to pry any information from me that Anna Maria may be withholding.  I try to remain unattached and provide information on a need to know basis. Sometimes I see intangible subtleties in Keleto’s behavior that give me pause but on the other hand Anna Maria often reminds me of an overactive PTA mom who takes on more tasks then she can handle, for which the hike suffers.  At the moment the hike is basically nothing in regard to being a tangible village asset so I’ll take any help I can get.  Keleto has significant influence, is often in the village, and probably due to his wife’s full time job doesn’t spend much time at the farm.  When Keleto said he’d help me get the village motivated, we collaborated on what our priorities would be. 

The lodge after some renovation seen from a distance

 My first priority, The Birdwatcher’s Lodge, is an hour and a half up the trail.  The lodge’s state was the roofed frame of a mid sized rectangular room, it had been in such a state for years.   The lodge of course will be rustic, so in regard to the structure there weren’t drastic improvements needed other than to close the walls, make windows, doors, beds, etc.  With Keleto’s help, all of these improvements got underway quickly with villagers from Vidawa and the adjacent village of Korovou lending a hand.  The walls were done bure style and made of thick leaves and grasses, the windows and doors were made of plywood.  The construction of six beds was the most interesting part to me and the most time consuming.

I’ve put a few beds together in my time, the last of which was from Restoration Hardware, part of the Shutter Collection.  My girlfriend had insisted on this bed to complete and perfect her beachfront apartment.  Unfortunately the Shutter Collection was backordered to Infinity but after some legwork we were able to find a display model for sale, the only downside being White Glove delivery was not available for display models and I would have to assemble the bed myself.  After an hour or so and minor cussing, I had the Shutter Bed completed without incident.  Building the beds for the lodge was a bit different and due my utter unfamiliarity with such an operation I took a fairly hands off approach other than to haul some materials and go up to the lodge on work days to show support.  The first thing we needed was wood, fortunately there are plenty of mahogany trees so Leone (one of villagers) cut one down with his chainsaw.  One tree would be ample to provide the wood needed.  After the tree was down, Leone then cut the bark away and he and other villagers used an ink dyed string to draw clean lines from which to cut planks.  This went on for two days and as the fallen tree began to turn into cleanly cut pieces of bed frame I was amazed at the precision of their work, the pieces looked like those you’d see in the Home Depot lumber section. 

Keleto, Bati, Toma, and Mika (prone) admiring their work

The mahogany trees are not near the lodge, so the next step was to carry the wood about a half mile to the lodge.  Sometimes I would push myself and carry four pieces at a time, while the average Fijian, even the older men, would usually carry six as they walked barefoot on uneven terrain.  Once the wood was at the lodge is was all hand powered tools to manipulate the wood to the desired lengths and assemble the beds, it took two full days, with about six people working to complete the beds.  All the work was done “vakavanua” (in the way of the land) in which the villagers would work for lunch.  The hike staff was responsible for providing lunch so each work day I would take up two cans of canned mackerel and two packs of Magii Noodles (like Top Ramen), which was cooked via open flame into a soup at the lodge site.  Mattresses will be provided via the grant money and I’m not entirely sure why we didn’t use grant money to buy the beds. 

The Staff of BNHP Parks

The lodge is coming along nicely and my vision for it is to serve as a base of operations for birdwatchers, hikers, and other nature enthusiasts.  At the moment the hike has only one trail, but I’d like to develop many others, from novice trails that follow the coastline, to advanced trails that go to the top of the mountains that divide the island.  I’d also like to have custom hiking available, where a guide would take people on rugged two to three day hikes in the bush, exploring the habitat and living off the land.  I’ve already told this to the National Trust (the organization that governs BNHP) and it’s going to be in the new brochure that comes out around August.

My building relationship with Keleto has also brought me into other meetings with the powerful Environment Committee (a group of about eight).  To be on this committee an individual has to be full blooded mataqali and the structure often reminds me of someone being “made” in the mob.  These meetings involve the management of the mataqali’s land and ocean rights which are vast, and often sought to be leased (not bought) for operations that include everything from a pearl farm to a hydro electric facility.  These projects are very interesting.  As things are still in development and due to the fact this is a public blog, I won’t go into a lot of detail at this point.  The common factor amongst all these projects is what outsiders offer to pay the mataqali for the land or ocean rights seems exceptionally low and despite the wisdom of the village elders and leaders in regard to traditional ways and methods, when it comes to dealing with confusing and unfamiliar legal contracts they usually take the path of least resistance and sign without any fuss.  These things aren’t exactly familiar to me either, but I do have more commonsense when it comes to value, the intentions of businesses, and talking to business owners.  These projects and negotiations could possibly bring in a lot more money to the village if successful and if the money is managed properly (an enormous challenge in itself), a lot of good could be done, such as college scholarships, etc.  I have a few government officials helping with this and hopefully things will come to fruition.

There are other things happening that I don’t have room to go into here.  I was able to track down a carpenter to give me a quote on my community hall/evacuation center project and the next step is to ask for government assistance in funding.  Some may recall in one of my first posts after arriving on Taveuni that a small settlement of houses next to Vidawa called Villa Maria was awaiting the results of a grant request a former Peace Corps Volunteer had submitted to the Fiji Water Foundation (A division of Fiji Bottled Water).  The grant, which is aimed to provide the materials necessary to clean up their tainted water supply, has been funded and work started a few days ago, it’s an interesting process to watch.  At the moment I find myself with many balls in the air and feeling if I can just catch one of them and make something meaningful out of it then my time here will be justified, at least from the villager’s point of view, a few years away from the 9-5 life justifies Peace Corps from my point of view.

First Visitor

December 8, 2010

I’d been eagerly awaiting the second half of October since I had found out Natalia, my girlfriend from the States, was coming for a two week visit.  The end of October found me at the five month mark and the effects of separation from friends and family was beginning to become a factor in my overall demeanor.  As excited as I was, I immediately started to fret about what could go wrong.  What if I got a giant boil that required surgery?  This has happened to other volunteers and usually results in an extended stay (a month or more in some cases) at the Peace Corps Infirmary, a small room at the back of Peace Corps Headquarters in Suva.  What if I got a minor cut that became grossly infected and required surgery?   This also has happened to other volunteers and usually results in an extended stay at the Peace Corps Infirmary.  What if I was stricken with dengue or some other tropical illness?  What if there was a cyclone or weather phenomenon?  One thing I’ve learned in Fiji is there’s an array of complications that can derail even the simplest of plans. 

Tony, looking Zen like at the tanoa

To lessen the chances of illness I played it safe.  I cooked almost entirely for myself, since I know my kitchen and cooking methods are more or less sanitary.  I also avoided yaqona sessions, the preparation of yaqona (i.e. someone’s dirty hands wringing a pounded root through a dirty cloth into a shared basin of water) and the shared drinking cups can occasionally result in some minor issues, usually lasting a day or two.  Typically I don’t mind these occurrences but with a special visitor coming I wasn’t taking any chances.  Despite my efforts, a week before her arrival, to my dismay, a skin outbreak which resembled chicken pox erupted from my abdomen. 

I didn’t think the itchy, ugly, unpleasant, and numerous stomach pimples would land me in the infirmary, but my mind did jump to the conclusion that I had scabies, a highly contagious skin infection rampant in Fijian villages.  I phoned the Peace Corps vuniwai (doctor) and in a mild panic said I thought I had scabies.  She replied, the symptoms described didn’t sound like scabies but advised me to go the hospital on Taveuni and let the vuniwai (doctor) there have a look.  I took the bus to Wayeivo, which is on the other side of the island, in a state of controlled panic and despair.  Going to the hospital in Fiji is easy, you just show up, put your name on a list and wait, no insurance forms to fill out, no hassles.  The Fijians tend not to utilize the hospital, usually turning to traditional remedies (massage, village healers, wearing socks to bed, etc.) and faith before modern medicine (I use the term loosely here).  This is a nationwide problem, as small medical problems often turn into major medical problems that exceed the capabilities of Fiji’s limited medical facilities, but on this day I was grateful to see a nearly empty waiting room. 

The vuniwai in Wayeivo agreed with the Peace Corps vuniwai and said the pink polka dots on my stomach did not look like scabies, but were more than likely the work of bed bugs.  The fact that my blanket, which I hardly used in the first place, had been mysteriously disintegrating gave merit to the vuniwai’s hypothesis.  Prior to arriving in Fiji I thought bed bugs were a fallacy, a fiction derived by parents to subtly scare their children before bed.  Bed bugs are indeed a reality in Fiji however, and children should heed caution when their parents say “don’t let the bed bugs bite” because they do bite and the bite is itchy and visually unappealing.  To be on the safe side the vuniwai prescribed me a scabies crème and penicillin pills, to avoid infection.  She also recommended I take my mattress outside and “sun it” to kill the bed bugs.  Sunning things is a common Fijian remedy, on a hot, sunny day in the village there will be assortment of items hanging on clotheslines letting the intensity of the tropical sun do its work.

 Unfortunately we’re going into summer here, which is the wet season and the sun isn’t around all that often, which isn’t to say it’s not hot.  The wet season and the hot season are the same and lately I’ve been surprised to find myself perspiring profusely under a gray sky.  To compensate for the lack of sun I went to the store and stocked up on bug spray.  When I got home I sprayed my mattress with enough Mortein (local bug spray manufacturer) to kill a cow and hopefully send all the bed bugs to hell, where they belong.  I worried briefly about the health ramifications my actions might bring upon myself but decided any risk was justified when dealing with bed bugs. 

The mosquito was my greatest nemesis in Fiji and I continue to hate them with a passion.  I don’t have a strong adverse reaction to mosquito bites but something about that buzz in my ear right as I step out of bed in the morning or looking down and seeing two of them sucking at my ankle drives me nuts.  I had thought nothing could be worse than the ever-present blood sucking pests but now it seemed they had a rival.  My bed was formerly the closest thing I had to a haven in Fiji, my mattress is somewhat comfortable (best you can hope for), my mosquito net is 99% effective, making my bed an almost mosquito free zone and providing a sense of security that here, on my lackluster double mattress, I was safe from the elements.  My bed had been a place to go at the end of the day to reflect on my successes and/or failures, listen to the ocean, and fall asleep with a book.  But now I didn’t even have that, when going to bed I was now contending with being eaten alive by bed bugs. They had to die, no matter what the cost. 

When I woke the next morning I was grateful, I survived the night on a mattress heavily laden with insecticide.  My quality of sleep that night however had been poor, I spent the night wondering if the little bastards were there, waiting to attack.  As to the whereabouts of the bedbugs, I was uncertain.  Resilient bed bugs may have survived the Mortein spray onslaught, possibly hiding deep in the mattress. The large number of bites on my abdomen made it difficult to determine whether or not I had been bitten anew during slumber.   

Maqai beach

 A week later Natalia arrived and it was very exciting.  The majority of my bed bug bites had healed, but there always seemed to be a few new ones popping up each morning.  The number of new bites was small, suggesting the majority of the bed bugs had been killed in the initial onslaught.  I was also able to give my mattress one quality day of sunning, aiding the cause.  I had booked the first couple nights of Natalia’s visit at an inexpensive, but nice guesthouse style lodge in Matei.  I was grateful to have a few nights away from my bed, of which I was still mildly frightened.  Staying in Matei was nice, Natalia had said she wanted to get an idea of what my day to day life was like but I thought it would be best to ease her into it, after telling the bed bug story and showing the bite marks I think she understood. 

After staying in the comfort of tourist and ex-pat dominated Matei, we made our way to the village which was more rugged but also more authentic and picturesque.  We stayed at my house in the village one night, before heading to Qamea Island to stay at Maqai, an inexpensive backpacker / surfing resort.  When we woke at my house we both had a few small bite marks suggesting the perseverance of a few bed bugs. 

Natalia, enjoying time away from the office

Maqai had been high on my to do list, since I knew this is where the quality surf in the area was.  The surf wasn’t great during our stay, but the perfect beach, abundant hammocks and comfortable lounging areas, and mostly good weather let me excuse the fact that I only got to surf one day.  While staying at Maqai I often couldn’t see Taveuni, the island I call home was lost in clouds and fog and I suspected we were avoiding heavy rain.  By our last day at Maqai the rain had found us however, and we had a wet boat ride home. 

I had heard about the effects of heavy rain on Bouma (the region I live in) but as of this time hadn’t experienced it.  That changed once I returned to Taveuni from Maqai.  After getting off the boat and onto the bus we were immediately delayed by a flooded bridge.  The bus waited for several hours, hoping the several feet of water rushing over the low concrete bridge would subside.  Eventually a few people crossed the bridge by foot and the bus driver who had been napping returned to the driver’s seat and put the bus in gear.  Natalia and I were a bit apprehensive, there was still a lot of water coming over the bridge, but all the villagers on the bus didn’t seem to be worried, and I figured they’d been through this before.  As the bus started to cross the bridge, I knew we would make it, the water’s flow was no match to the bus’s weight, although there was a slight sideways movement.

My lake house

Once back in the village I saw the area around my house was flooded, my house is elevated about three feet on a cement foundation and half the foundation was submerged.  I’d planned four days in the village and had made arrangements with the villagers (dinners, etc.) that obligated me to remain in the village all four days.  When I had made these plans the weather was good and I had yet to experience the relentless ferocity of the wet season.  These were a miserable four days, the rain never stopped and my little house isn’t 100% watertight so it was damp and musky.  On some days in the village we couldn’t hear the bus or any trucks on the road and knew the bridge must be out.  This led us to worry we may be stuck in the village for an indefinite period of time.  The weather eventually improved a bit, although light rain was constantly present.  The villagers threw us a big dinner on our last night and the next morning we were happily on our way to Matei.

Todranisiga, affordable and nice

It was great to be back in Matei, there was still rain but not as much as in Vidawa. We stayed at a different comfortable, inexpensive, bure style guest house which felt like the Ritz after being stuck in my house for four days.  We stayed in Matei four days before Natalia caught her flight home.  During these last days I wondered how the hell I was going to return to the village and how I’d made it as long as I did.  On the last day I took a boat to Vanua Levu (adjacent island) for a Peace Corps training and Natalia took her flight home.

Having a visitor was one of the most exciting moments of Peace Corps for me so far.  I got to share what I’d been experiencing, introduce Natalia to people in the village she had only heard about in phone conversations, take a break from village life and for a moment, remember what my life was like back home.  This last point, remembering what life was like back home, is a bit of a double edged sword.  I’d settled into a rhythm since arriving to Fiji, and having a visitor threw me way off the beat.  I’m still readjusting, which isn’t to say I don’t appreciate visitors.

R & R at Maqai

The Peace Corps training on Vanua Levu was in Labasa, a Hindi town that sprung up around the sugar cane industry.  Like many of the developed towns in Fiji, Labasa is a small in area, dirty, and crowded with people and buildings.  Suffice to say Labasa is not a popular tourist destination.  I was meeting Anna Maria, my formerly wayward but now returned Initial Community Contact Person there, and we were going to attend a class on how to execute specific village projects.  The project I had decided to present was finishing the village’s community hall in such a way that it could also double as an evacuation center for hurricanes.  I chose this project because it was a high priority on the village’s five year plan (goals decided on by the villagers) and because the goal was straight forward and obtainable.  The training lasted four days and on the last day we presented our plans to high ranking government officials who have their offices in Labasa.  Anna Maria and I did a simple presentation, with some pictures to demonstrate the flooding and the current sorry state of the community hall.

At the end of our presentation the highest government official present said he saw the need for our project and would help us with funding, we were the only group who received his instant approval for help.  All we had to do was provide him with a quote for costs of materials and so forth which we could get from Elia the village carpenter.  I left Labasa feeling accomplished, tangible results were on there way.

After returning to Vidawa the first week of November, we found that Elia, the village carpenter, had left for a neighboring island to build a house for a family member and wasn’t scheduled to return until after Christmas.  Anna Maria called Elia and he said he was familiar enough with the community hall to write up a list of materials and send it over on the boat, later Elia said he would return to Vidawa within a week.  It’s currently December 4th and neither Elia nor the list of materials have arrived.  I don’t know Elia well, but he doesn’t seem to be a flake and I don’t want to portray him as such.  I can tell Elia’s a very sharp guy and he’s a strict taskmaster when it comes to me learning Fijian.  The problems I’m encountering are simply related to culture.  There are other carpenters on Taveuni but I’ve yet to have a good talk with them.  I also worry that if we wait too long, the government official who pledged to help us financially may forget his statement or doubt the village’s commitment to the project.

Perhaps it’s Natalia’s departure after a blissful two week visit (save the rainy days in the village), or maybe it’s the building frustration with the difficulty of accomplishing seemingly simple tasks, or possibly it’s the fact I’m daily assaulted by mosquitoes, unfavorable tropical weather conditions, and other challenges in an unfamiliar environment a long way from home but I’ve noticed as of late the luster is beginning to wear off.  My Fijian has reached a plateau if not digressed and I’m not eager to try to learn more.  The continual frustration I experience trying to communicate in a language and culture foreign to me has taken its toll.  Everyone is, as always, very friendly but I can’t deny the fact that I often feel grumpy and don’t feel the enthusiasm I used to when participating in social events.  One thing about living in a small village, on a small island, in a small country, is the social occasions always seem to be the same people, talking about the same things, telling the same jokes, and to those who are accustomed to such a lifestyle everything is fine and dandy but I often find myself bored, which isn’t to say my life in the States was particularly exciting.

Thanksgiving potluck

I found the phenomenon I was experiencing wasn’t unique to me while staying in Savu Savu, a touristy part of Vanua Levu, for a Northern Fiji Peace Corps Thanksgiving.  There were about twenty of the Vanua Levu volunteers attending the party, many who had arrived in Fiji a year before my group, but all seemed to be going through or had been through a similar experience.  To cope the Vanua Levu volunteers tend to socialize amongst themselves frequently.  Vanua Levu is a big island (by Fiji standards) but the large number of volunteers on the island means there is usually no more than an hour bus ride separation between adjacent volunteers.  This is a luxury I don’t have being the only volunteer on Taveuni, it takes me a total of seven hours by boat and bus to get to the closest volunteer on Vanua Levu.  This creates an entirely different dynamic as to the life of an isolated Peace Corps Volunteer to that of a volunteer who has peers nearby. Although it’s difficult at times, I prefer the isolation.  If I wanted to go to town and hang out with my friends all week I could have stayed in the States, which isn’t to say I don’t get jealous when I call someone to chat and find out they’re hanging out with so and so having an ice cream in town.

Kindergarten grads

I was running a slight fever during Thanksgiving and there was a tropical depression hanging off the coast of Viti Levu sending torrential rain which made all the tap water at the one houses we had rented brown, the second house we had rented had no water at all, can’t escape Fiji, not even at the resorts.  Furthermore, even though Savu Savu is the dubbed “The Hidden Paradise of Fiji”, I wasn’t impressed.  A crowded ex-pat dominated port town, Savu Savu has nothing on even mediocre parts of Taveuni. These factors also put me in a bad mood.  One thing I don’t think I’ve made clear in the blog as of yet is the mood swings.  Peace Corps is composed of highs and lows, and the lows can be tough especially when they persist and things aren’t going your way.

I had one thing to look forward to when I got back from Thanksgiving weekend and that was being the key note speaker at the graduation of Bouma Primary School (K-8).  I’d been invited by Filo, the school’s head teacher, and although I was a bit nervous about the engagement I was also excited.  Neither my academic nor professional accomplishments in the States would have qualified me to be a key note speaker for anything back home, but one thing that’s nice about living in a rural village is being American is usually enough.  I’d put together a speech that was about ten minutes and almost entirely in English except for the introduction and conclusion.  I wasn’t sure what the speech should be about so I talked the importance of education, picking a sustainable career path, the undisclosed perils of modern life, and the integration of traditional Fiji with encroaching modern society.  I tried to keep the English basic but poignant and the speech seemed to go well, however, I couldn’t tell by the small audience’s silence if they were transfixed by what I was saying or bored to tears.  The optimist in me believes the former, the realist in me believes the latter, in any event I thought the points made in my speech were important and I’d give the same speech again if given the chance.

After the diplomas were handed out (by me) the kids all did skits and dances that were far more entertaining than my speech and the crowd really got into it and showed the best of Fiji.  I’m going to start teaching a few classes at the school once the next term starts and am going to do computer classes for adults at the school’s quaint computer lab during the break, which I’m looking forward to.  I haven’t noticed any bite marks when I wake up lately so I think all the bed bugs are dead, although I still take my mattress, sheets, and pillow outside to be “sunned” whenever the weather permits.  We’re entering cyclone season and Taveuni is a popular cyclone destination, so that could be interesting.  Also, people seem to be getting motivated to vamp up the Vidawa Rainforest Hike.  The hike, an undiscovered gem of Taveuni tourism, gets high marks from those who embark on the full day journey.  A little TLC and increased village participation could unleash the hike’s potential and make it one of Taveuni’s benchmark village owned and operated tourist attractions.  It seems the powers that be within the village are putting more backing behind the hike and I’m going to try to get a lot done over the next 6 months, the slow tourist season.  By the village’s current level of commitment to the hike I see a lot of hope but you can never tell…..