I departed for Peace Corps service on September 1st, so I am officially one month into service. Starting week five feels more like starting month 5! Everything around me is so new, it feels like childhood again. My perception of time is so different given that at every turn I am adjusting to multiple aspects of my new life- language, social norms, family structures, village dynamics, food, religious life… the list goes on! I’ve learned so much in the last 29 days, that the days feel like weeks and the weeks feel like months. That being said, I’ll try to give an update of what my new life in Fiji is like for all those at home wondering J I don’t have the ability to call home much, given how expensive international calls are, and I don’t have internet (hence the lack of blog posts). I recently learned that a local school has free internet access at times, but there is a time limit and the hours aren’t that convenient. Plus, I’m trying to dedicate myself to integrating and becoming used to the lifestyle that the rest of my village enjoys (no internet access for me).
I’ll start out with the basics of my day to day, at the risk of being boring, mostly because I know my mom will appreciate it (mom you better read this!). There’s also a chance some curious future PCV will stumble upon this blog and wonder, what the heck will I be doing in (Pre-Service Training PST) every day? I’ll save you another boring play-by-play of my life until I am in my new assignment, promise. So be forewarned- this will be a long post, I apologize.
To start, I’m living with a host family in a village named Vanuadina (translation- True Land, how awesome?). We’re in the province of Tailevu, on the Eastern part of Fiji, about 45 min from the capital of Suva. I’m in the same village as 5 other volunteers, who I absolutley love. My village has running water and electricity, which came as a huge surprise. Most homes in my village are concrete with tin roofs. The tin roofs make for some awesome acoustics during the heavy night rains! My house is comparitively nicer than others, since both of my parents work. We take “bucket baths”, ie. fill a large bucket in the sili (bath-room) and use a smaller bucket to dump water on our heads. The cold water is refreshing in the Fijian heat, and I like that the method doesn’t waste much water. That’s probably the biggest difference in usually daily activities. I’m adjusting well to the physical condiitons, and feel lucky to have such a comfortable lifestyle during PST. I was ready, and excited, to really rough it here in Fiji from day one, but it seems to me that it’s likely I will have more challenging conditions once I’m at my permanent site.
Here in my koro (village), life is very communal. My village is made up of four mataqali (family clans), and even between the clans everyone is related in one way or another. Myself and my fellow volunteers have many aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, siblings and even parents, that aren’t related in the traditional sense of the word, but are non-the-less family, and treat us as such. The Fijian concept of family is evident in the way that the village community interacts. As one walks through the koro, every person you see will ask you “o lako i vei?!” (where are you going) and “mei kana?!” (please come and eat). The koro functions like a whole organism- it’s therefore in the best interest of the community to know who you are, where you’re going and if you’re hungry!
As one person explained upon my arrival, in Fijian communities no one goes without. There’s an understanding that what I have is shared with the community, because in the case that I am ever in need my village would be there for me. Even in my own home, my aunt is always here cooking and cleaning while my parents work. This seems to be the norm for families, there is an informal network of support and sharing so that everything gets done and it’s done together.
Kids play outside from the moment they return from school until dinner, and no one fears for their safety because everyone’s doors and windows are open, and there are eyes and ears all over the village. This of course lends itself nicely to “coconut wireless”, the lightening fast gossip network around these parts, but at least everyone is informed and safe! Village life is comprised of people bouncing in and out of each other’s homes, usually unannounced, and often carrying food, an instrument, multiple children and a story. The sounds of children laughing and neighbors chatting mix with the sounds of the tropical birds to create a soundtrack that I’m gladly getting used to.
My community is pulsing with so much life and love that “communities” in “developed” countries are sorely lacking. These traditional networks of reciprocity are something that all communities used to have, but have lost or are losing. It’s refreshing to see that this way of life still exists today, and I’m excited to see what I can learn and bring back to my community in the US after service!
Being in a culture where I believe in and appreciate many of their values has been really helpful in adjusting to my new life. There are of course many things that I am still getting used to. For instance, I can’t wear pants, and my skirts must be below the knees, preferably floor length. I’m also not allowed to wear tank tops. Luckily, I’m not in a village where women are physically punished or publically called out for dress code infractions. I do have to even wear a sulu (wrap around skirt) even in my own home, so that’s been a real adjustment. I really miss wearing shorts and a tank top. My mom had a traditional Fiji sulu jaba made for me though, so I now have something very appropriate to wear to church on Sundays.
Church is a big part of the Fijian culture, since most of the country is Christian due to historical missionary activity. Many families attend three services, and my first Sunday here I spent at least 5 hours in church. Luckily we only have to attend one service now, and compared to Sunday #1, a 3 hour service is bareable. I’ve gotten my hands on an english bible, so I spend the service reading Psalms and Proverbs, reflecting, meditating, and trying to read the people’s minds… I’m still working on the last exercise 😉 It’s the longest stretch of time that any of us PCVs go without social contact, so it’s actually a welcomed break. Lack of personal time and space is one of the biggest adjustments of Peace Corps life, so using church as a spiritual and mental respite has been a useful perspective. I’ve found my life here to be so much easier when I just choose to focus on the silver lining in every new situation.
That being said, adjusting to a new culture has been much more enjoyable when I focus on small victories rather than minor mistakes. A story on the matter: After lotu last Sunday, my family hosted the church elders for a big vakasigalevu (lunch). I am still often treated as a guest in this kind of setting, given the first serving of food along with the men, while the other women wait until we finish. This makes me feel uncomfortable, but I try to graciously accept the gesture of hospitality. I make up for it by contributing to domestic tasks with the other women, like preparing meals, setting the table and cleaning.
Following lunch clean up today, I was craving some tea. Fijians drink a lot of tea, which I thoroughly enjoy (though I could do without powdered milk). Since lunch was seemingly through, I proceeded to make a bilo ni ti in the kitchen. The church elders caught sight of my tea, and playfully asked, “oh Keresi, iko gunu ti?” (You want tea Carissa?) Or in other words—I see you went ahead and made tea for yourself, how nice. Oops. Not only should I have waited for my mother to initiate tea time before serving myself, but I should have waited for the elders of my mataqali and lotu to have their tea before indulging myself. I was even so bold as to grab a hot sikoni as I sat myself on the mat beside the men. Double oops. I was an arm away from grabbing one off the pastors’ plate- thankfully I caught my mom’s dissaproving glance just in time. Sometimes I forget that 12 scones are considered a single serving here. It’s going to take a bit to get used to being a woman in a more traditional patriarchal culture.
The pastors and my family kind of laughed off the cultural mis-step and joined me in post-lunch tea and coversation. Given that I am a guest and a Peace Corps Volunteer I get some leeway, even being female. I’m just really hoping that my boldness didn’t embarrass my mom. There is much ceremony and tradition that goes along with eating that I am not used to! Situations like this are where my efforts to integrate make a difference, like attending church, helping with dishes and speaking Fijian when possible. I hope my sincere intentions will be obvious in those times that cultural norms go way over my head! Tea time was also a great opportunity to dispel some common misconceptions about Americans, for example that everyone in America carries a gun. Everyone was also pretty surprised to hear that I don’t have cable, internet or a washer/dryer at home, since their idea of America is shaped more by music videos and reality TV than truth.
Beyond culture, adjusting to a new diet has actually been quite a challenge. The usual Fijian diet consists of about 75% carbohydrates: dalo, tavioka, yam, bread, scones, biscuits, crackers, ramen noodles, white rice… you get the picture. No exaggeration, national surveys show that about ¾ is legitimately the proportion of carbs in the traditional Fijian diet. Today I was told multiple times that my village hopes that I can’t fit out the door by the end of PST. My mom also really hopes that my family doesn’t recognize me by the time I get home. Sometimes I wonder if my mom is covertly working to fatten me up. She might be dumping extra dalo on my plate and sugar in my tea when I turn my head… I wish I were kidding. Our village might just have a competition going on who can make their PCV the fattest! It’s not uncommon to hear through the coconut wireless who is starting to look “much better” and “healthier”, but I’m getting used to the Fijian tendency to exaggerate things. Granted, in Fijian culture being heavy is perceived as being healthy, and I know my mom just wants to feel she is taking good care of me.
That being said, all of the added sugar and processed foods quickly impacted how well I was feeling mentally and physically. Since I am here as a health volunteer, I used that as a way to talk about the importance of a balanced diet with my family, when appropriate. Turns out my mom really loves vegetables and is an awesome cook, and it didn’t take long before I was getting more fruit than I could eat and at least some vegetable option at each meal. My family has cut down noticeably on the use of salt, and a bit on the sugar (often the 3+ cups of tea a day involve 2-4 spoons of sugar). We’re also finally allowed to run in the morning without a village chaperone, so I’m feeling much better now, and hopefully still recognizable 😉
There is so much left to say, but the sun is setting and I still need to trek down the long dirt road back to my village to help prepare dinner. I’m hoping to get back to this school computer lab a few more times while here in PST, so I will have more blog posts soon I’m sure. Moce mada!