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.
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.