Life, It’s Not All Hammocks and Cocktails.

As you may know, I’m spending this year living in Suva, Fiji volunteering at an NGO. The transition from my home town of Sydney to my new home in Suva has been quite smooth. The limit of my displacement has felt more like moving interstate than moving countries. Suva is the largest city in the south pacific, and in day-to-day life I have a lot less comforts than home, but I could fool myself into thinking I have moved to Townsville (This is easier because I’ve only been as far north as Gladstone).

Fiji is a country that is doing pretty well in a few of the really important MDGs (Millenium Development Goals), Suva especially so. Most people have access to food and shelter, as well as some level of education. There isn’t any malaria and a few of the things to do with HIV and kids etc. are better than some other places people go to help out. Fiji is not Australia though. Life here can be difficult for volunteers and especially the people that live here. The work people are doing in Fiji is based around water and sanitation, gender equality, Non-communicable diseases and Infrastructure. This is a simplistic summary of why people come to Fiji to volunteer.

The volunteer experience in Fiji is varied depending on who you are and your role. I am lucky because my personality fits in well with the Fijian culture and values. They appreciate my laid back style and my focus on relationships, and I’m always up for a bowl of kava, or at least to sit around the bowl while everyone else drinks. Many people working here who are wonderful motivated people can get stuck in the wrong role and find that people are actively working against the stuff they are trying to do to help Fiji. If I was in a place where my natural tendencies were contrary to the culture of the workplace I think it would be very draining to try to operate. This is something many volunteers have to face every day. I feel fortunate to be in a place where I mesh well with my boss and colleagues, and try to support people who are struggling with these issues as it can be hard to deal with day after day.

Socially, Suva provides a bit of a haven from anyone suffering from professional struggles. Volunteers leave behind their social support structures and come to an unknown place with strangers, but socially Suva has quite a big expat population so the fall is cushioned, and personally I have some great friends here. The psychology of this is cyclical for most people. There are weeks when home is really all you are thinking about, and that can get very depressing and demotivating. This happens about once every three months. Then there are times when you are walking down the street with some wonderful friends from about seven different countries and it feels like a nice dream. Regular reality is somewhere in between the two, and different people have different experiences. Some people get so well integrated they stay longer, and others find it very difficult to integrate. It’s a similar social change to say… starting high school.

In the city we experience only a few developing world problems. The water goes off sometimes for a few days, usually just after you have exercised yourself into a sweaty mess, and we all seem to get sick more often than back home. There are random outbreaks of diseases like typhoid and one person even got parasitic brain worms. The city is fairly sheltered though. When you go to rural areas for work, the conditions change drastically. The villagers go to a lot of effort to try to give you every comfort you would have in the city but even for the drastically naive it is easy to see there are needs that need to be met. Most people in Fiji wear second hand clothes from Australia, and the condition of these clothes in rural areas is low. Some villages you have to walk for a couple of kilometers to collect fresh water, and many places don’t have power except for a few hours by generator. Cyclones and flooding are common and hit hard because the houses aren’t always built to be disaster proof. The standard of living varies village to village but healthcare, education and facilities are sporadic. These are also some of the most beautiful places in Fiji, absolute pockets of natural beauty and wonderful people. Suva city actually has the worst weather in Fiji. It’s a peninsula and catches all the rain. It rains in Suva most days, whereas almost everywhere else there is a beautiful mix of rain and sunshine.

There are many wonderful things about my life in Fiji, the people and I get on well, everywhere is close to the ocean, there are some cheap and beautiful backpacker places to go for a weekend away when Suva becomes a bit too crazy or rainy and it’s always warm. This year has still been challenging for me though, it would definitely have been safer and easier to stay in Sydney. Fijians have taught me well about Fiji, and how it is both a beautiful, amazing place and a developing country in need of love, prayers and support. I hope I have conveyed those lessons accurately to you in this blog, and as I get closer to finishing up my assignment here, thanks for the support you have shown Connie and I while we have been away. It has been important to us especially when life is in a difficult period devoid of hammocks and cocktails.

Loloma!

Late Night Meanderings Mostly Mentioning Guitar

It’s a mild rainy night in Suva, but not the kind of rain that makes you think a dinosaur is urinating on your roof, or that you are in “Noah’s Ark: The Action Adventure Ride”. It’s more the kind of rain that is nice to listen to, but awful to walk in; stronger than a pitter-patter yet not pouring.

I put on a pot of red tea and drank it with a blitz (gaytime impersonator) ice cream that Glen purchased for me. We sat around talking about Norway while I practiced my Arpeggios and tried to convince him to play ukelele. I think I made a good case.

I broke the Y key on my keyboard. It’s not a key that is used in a lot of words… unless you are attempting to explain to people that you “broke the Y keY on mY keYboard”. It was only working if you pressed it in the correct way. This Ameant if I was looking at my hands and not the screen then there was sometimes Y’s missing from my text. a couple of awkward typographical errors ensued, the pick of which was me calling a girl from high school’s wedding “our wedding”. Oops. I fixed the key tonight, which is my first successful laptop repairing experience. Might be able to get my nerd badge back after all.

Arpeggios are the first thing I have learned on guitar that sound really great straight away. Can you like arpeggios on facebook? You probably can. The internet rarely disappoints in its breadth of knowledge. Back in the 90s though we had geocities instead of wikipedia. Those were dark days.

I played some guitar on a little island on the weekend and I was trying to pick the key that these Fijian people were playing in and then solo along. I didn’t always get it right, but a lot of Fijian songs seem to be in G, A and B. Must suit the way they sing somehow. While we were playing guitar, the anchor rope of one of the boats moored just off the beach frayed and snapped and the boat drifted away. They tried looking for it but it’s probably in Tonga by now. I felt bad because it was a freak accident and some poor Fijian guy is going to get grilled by the owners.

Give me that guitar you tonedeaf kaivalagi!!

We sent our friend Shelly home today. We have one more confirmed visit from Connie’s cousins and then I think that might be it until we leave to come home. Flights are really expensive in August/September compared to normal. This might mean I go fishing on an island with my leave instead of coming home for a visit. There are lots of people I miss though.

I taught Connie what a hipster is tonight too.

Return to Oz Part 2: The Recap

For the most part, Fiji is not a difficult place to live, in fact many facebook chat exchanges with volunteers in legitimate situations where they are actually roughing it go like this:

14:53 I got a sweet coffee grinder
unnamed-volunteer-in-a-crazyass-place* is offline.

(* online name changed to protect the innocent)

So when I went back to Sydney and a lot of people asked “Is it good to be back?” and “Do you think you will stay longer?” and “Have you tried kava? What’s it like?” I didn’t know how to answer? I mean I wrote about my kava experiences already! Aren’t they reading my blog religiously? Also… my horrible secret is that Suva city is a lot like Australia, except the coffee sux, everyone is tall and black and my friends and family are only on computer. So in both a sociological and geographical sense, being back is both strange and familiar. Mind you, rural Fiji is very much a developing country – I just don’t live in that part on a day-to-day basis.

It was great to come back and see everyone I love, and there were some amazing experiences in such a short week, but I kind of missed Fiji a bit, because at the moment it is home, and maybe even becoming comfortable. I’ve always thought of expat Suva to be a bit of a false community, because there are so few of us, and everyone is coming and going a lot, so the depth of relationship is hard to attain, but going back made me realise even more that I have genuine friendships in Suva, so I predict for the foreseeable future I will love wherever I am but miss wherever I am not in my trips between the Feej and Australia.

As far as back home goes, for the sake of brevity I will catagorise my comings and goings.

Good times:

  • Dee and I both caught marlin and Dan and Kyle were stuck on a ship with nothing to do but talk to me. Kyle also hooked a dolphin which is pretty unheard of.
  • My mum’s birthday was beautiful.
  • I finally played the new COD and got killed a lot because I have no idea about the maps.
  • I got to go to my church twice and had lunch with some great friends.
  • White horse and Single Origin! Proper coffee! Frozen Ristretto!
  • Seeing how much people’s babies had grown even in 4 months.
  • Taking my boat out on the harbour with Eddy.
  • Rockband session with the crew that involved more gear than a real band uses.
  • Mexican food in Newcastle with Carla.

Regrets:

  • I packed to go back to Fiji too quickly and accidentally left a lot of things in Sydney… like my camera charger.
  • I didn’t buy any Powerade™ powder, which was pretty high up on the list.
  • I should have brought back more heavy wooden souvenirs because next trip I can see myself being over the luggage allowance.
  • Shoulda bought more coffee 😦
  • I didn’t get to see some people that are very important.

I had a beautiful breakfast of poached eggs and amazing coffee on Monday morning with my brother then came back to Suva. It was sad to say goodbye again to a lot of people that we loved.

Nikki’s parents are in town at the moment and her mum mentioned she reads my blog and enjoys it. So here’s a shout-out to you Mrs Harte. It was nice having teppanyaki with you! I also caught one movie already since I was back, and dismayed over suckerpunch getting delayed until the 7th of april. Here’s my review anyway:

Battle: LA – This is another “deceptive preview” movie where all the shorts make it seem like it’s the greatest movie ever and it turns out to be ok, and not at all the type of movie that they paint it to be. If they just made movies to accurately represent what they show you in previews I would be a lot happier. I’m secretly terrified suckerpunch is going to be like this. Battle: LA was less of a starship troopers type assault on crazy mechanical aliens and more of a black hawk down style survival movie that made me feel like I was playing one of those splinter cell games. I might have to go see the King’s Speech to purge myself. Rating: Excellence in explosion frequency.

A New Home

After a lot of preparation, training and filling in of forms Connie and I have landed in Fiji. We’ve been on the ground now for almost two weeks and I finally got internet so I can put some thoughts out there about this town, and our experiences thus far.

We are on an Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) program placement in Suva, Fiji. There was five of us that headed over in this intake, but there are already a lot of people who have been here for a good while. We will be placed in capacity building roles here for one year, attempting to help various Fijian organisations with tasks, and also to train native people with our skills so that after we go home they are able to take over the reigns. At least that is how it works in theory. We shall see how that pans out in the weeks and months ahead.

Connie and I

I am here with my wife Connie. Her assignment is monitoring and evaluation with habitat for humanity, mine is marketing and IT with The Good Neighbour International (TGNI). When I tried to google TGNI all I got was a couple of press releases, so if you are looking for information on TGNI and you ended up here, drop me a comment please.

Connie has started today but I am starting on monday for some reason. I intend to do a bit of work tomorrow though as I already have a couple of deadlines for end of year stuff. The time off before starting is really useful because it actually takes a long time here to get phones, internet, banking and other stuff sorted out.

Intake 29

These are the people we came to Fiji with. The small Fijian boy is working for the UN doing… aha no, he  just snuck into the photo for cuteness factor. From back to front we have Glen, myself, Grace, Sneakyman, Nikki and Connie. Glen and Grace have sports related postings and Nikki is working at Habitat with Connie. We all get on well thus far and are sharing a house together. Connie cooked us all italian food last night, the meal was served sans basil as the island seems to be devoid of it.

Our experience so far has been really great. We had a few days in Nadi followed by an induction in Suva. The induction was a week-long and involved a mix of language classes, indian cooking demonstrations and an amazing race – which the men won convincingly, even though the girls cheated. We are currently considering buying a $250FJ trophy to commemorate the occasion. It’s real nice.

Connie drinking her kava

One of the highlights of induction was a visit to a village outside of Suva. We met a chief, had a lovo (ground oven) and drank kava. All of the locals seemed to enjoy our presence, and I might have the opportunity to return as a helper with the next intake.

If you have never been to Fiji, let me briefly explain that kava is like an institution over here. It’s shared between friends, it’s part of welcome rituals and it’s given as gifts when you savusavu (ask for entry into a village). We had about 7 half-bowls this day and I didn’t feel any different, but apparently it is a muscle relaxant. It tastes bad, but not as bad as what everyone says.

I was worried about whether it would be the right thing to do to drink it while I was here, but honestly the vibe about it was ok, and it seemed culturally like a good thing to do. Some of the devout Christians here don’t drink it. I haven’t had a proper conversation with them about why yet, just that they consider it to be like alcohol which they also abstain from.

There is a lot of social interaction that happens around the kava bowl, and it is not uncommon for people to stay up really late talking and drinking kava and singing songs especially on a weekend.

Basically things are going really well so far, we’re right in the middle of the honeymoon period, and loving the food, the people, the weekly frisbee games and the $3 cinema tickets. I’m sure as we settle in and start to miss things from Australia I will probably have some emo blog posting times, but for now, things are pretty good.