Soaking it all in…

Yesterday was a perfectly typical island Saturday. I woke up about an hour before sunrise to the sound of roosters crowing and tropical birds chirping. The morning air was cool enough to fog the glass window luvers and the waning crescent moon was still glowing mid sky.  I love the quiet solitude of the early morning, before the village begins to buzz and the sun burns up evening’s blanket of fog.

I enjoyed a slow morning of yoga, writing and sipping green tea while a pile of laundry soaked.  The easy flow of village Saturdays is natural to me now; by about 10am lunch is on the cooking fire and house work has begun in most households.  The smell of smoke and the rush of water pipes fill the air. Children zip around the village one after another like train cars, dragging make shift wagons and snacking on root vegetables.
I spent my morning scrubbing the dust, sweat and chicken poop out of my clothes. Scrubscrub-scrubbb, scrubscrub-scrubbb; there’s a musical quality to the washing rhythm. What was once a dreaded chore is just another daily task of living, like brushing my teeth or sweeping. Laundry machines and their rumored existence in far off lands aren’t a thought. I let Saturday be a meditative practice of cleansing my environment before the sabbath day of rest. (If I didn’t think this way, I might go mad!)  Kids filter in and out through the day, trading out story books, offering to sweep the sitting room, and mostly getting in the way; tangling themselves around me, eager and goofy. They’re all my little siblings and cousins now. “Go play outside, it’s nice out!” “Josese, wipe Juniors nose please!” “Eremasi, stop hitting Sia or I’m getting your grandmother!” “You want another cup of water? When’s the last time you drank?!” Saturday’s are sweet and silly, one long stream of memories that I’ll recall warmly when I’ve left my village.
My house work is done by noon, and the tide has begun to go out. Time to hit the sea!  I gobble down a hunk of va’lavalava (cassava cake) as a lazy lunch, while chopping up a bowl of bright orange pumpkin for dinner’s curry. I cover the sweet smelling cubes and a mortar of mashed spices with a dish towel and scurry over to Na’s, knife and plastic bag stuffed in my shorts.  We’re heading out to the “cakau” (reef) to collect giant sea snails, one of my favorite pastimes (leading later to a favorite meal!).  I’ll store my harvest in a makeshift pouch created by a sulu around my waste, but my supplementary tools are to “caka lumi” (collect sea weed) on the return to shore. Tomorrow is Sunday, we’ve got I to eat well! On my way over to Na’s I pass by a few friends mid-chore. “Let me guess, you’re off to the reef?” “You know it!” I feel a sense of pride that this important aspect of Fijian life and culture has become a part of my life, too. Gone are the days of, “Isa, you’re going to the reef?! But you’ll get sun burnt! Or drown!” Now people just smile and laugh, happy to see this funny “Kaivalagi” (foreigner) turned Kaiviti (Fijian) villager.
It was a beautiful day in the reef, the kind where the sun makes the deep water glow and the gently rippling waves sparkle. While floating about, another wave of understanding hit me, the way the sunset did the other day–who knows how many visits I have left to this reef that has become so important to me?
The sea in New England is different, tumbling with sand and sea weed as waves crash into the shore. The “waitui” (shallow sea near the land) in Fiji stretches out past where I’ve ever been.  It’s unlike the Atlantic I’m familiar with, which drops off into the abyss after a few strokes out! The waters here are shallow, clear and gentle. And the waitui is a workplace. Out there I feel a sense of purpose and gratitude; I’m reaping from natures’ abundance to feed myself and my family.  I’m working for my keep.  After two years of this, this span of reef at the north-western corner of Koro Island is like my back yard. I recognize the underwater landscape there like familiar wooded paths back in South Coast MA. The dips and crevice passages between mountains of reef lead me to well known coral landmarks.
The snorkel that I took with me turned out to be cracked (that was an uncomfortable lesson to learn). So after about an hour of trying (unsuccessfully) to snorkel sans snorkel, I decided I’d be of more use collecting seaweed. I snuck up behind Na as she hunted down a fat grouper, fishing my knife and bag out of the floating, repurposed yellow tub tethered to her  waist. She turned around surprised, “Where are you going?!” She’s always the one telling me: time to go in, enough for today! I explained the snorkel situation and that I’d take the lead to land. I half expected her to urge me to wait rather than take off on my own.  “Okay, good idea, make sure that bag is FULL.”
Even several months ago she may have said, “Ehh, how about I go back with you?” Or, “You just head in and I’ll collect the lumi.”  But today I’m just another member of the family out to work.  This strong Fijian woman who has taught me most of what I know about surviving here believes I’m useful and capable! Hooray! Moments like that glitter in my memory of Peace Corps like stars.
I’ve learned more than I think I’ll ever really comprehend in Fiji; from how to collect seaweed and hand wash laundry, to facilitating community workshops and project development.  From my Na and neighbors, to the teachers and the district nurse, I’m grateful for the humble, intelligent people here who have trusted me enough to let me into their world.  Because of them I’ve spent the past two years continually learning and growing in surprising ways.  And now just two more weeks of this wonderful village life until this chapter closes and the next begins… Isa lei…
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Wrapping Up

Last night I sat on the beach about 50 yards from my little wooden house to watch the sun slowly melt into the Pacific Ocean.  The golden orb grew larger as it made its descent, painting the horizon in fiery shades of orange and magenta. Above, the sky faded into the steely gray-blue which ushers in the night, and a few eager stars began to pierce the dark curtain of sky with light.

I’ve sat in this place countless times, on this flat rock wedged between curling roots as if designed by nature for just this purpose.  I remember the first few weeks in Nabasovi, when this view was still so new and each sunset marked the triumph of seeing another day through.  I was still familiarizing myself with the sights and sounds of this new place–the shades of twilight and the patterns of the night sky, the periodic caw of parrots and the gentle lapping of the sea.
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This view is no longer “new”, but it is still every bit as breath-taking!

 

The sunset last night ushered in my first wave of understanding; I’m about to leave this place. After two years of work and learning, loss and growth, this chapter is about to close.  From my beach perch I watched one village grandpa return from net-fishing. A wake of shimmering ripples trailed behind as he waded ankle-deep back to the village.  The sun dipped below the horizon with a final wink of light.
Until that moment, my departure still felt like it was some future event… Ever since the New Year I’ve been hearing, “Isa Keresi, iko sa vakarau na lako!” (What a shame that you’re about to leave!) And I’d think to myself, “slow your roll my friend, I’ve still got ten months here!”
Well now it’s down to half of one; I’ve got under 3 weeks left.  Three busy weeks to cap off a busy last two months.  Given the turbulence of the last several months, this last stretch of my time here has been a welcomed reprieve of laid-back fun and fulfilling work.
During my last stint at home I committed to staying connected to my village.  We’d been discussing a village chicken coop for a long time, and following TC Winston the need had never been greater.  From America I worked on fundraising so that the project could hit the ground running as soon as I could get back; with the clock ticking towards close-of-service there was no time to waste.  I’d been working with Austin Bowden-Kerby (local marine biologist and permaculture farmer) of Sustainable Livelihoods Farm in Siqatoka for months to put together a “Happy Chicken” project for Nabasovi: a project that would address food security, women’s empowerment and environmental health.
Fast-forward a month and a half, our chickens are happy and so is the women’s group.  As a matter of fact, tomorrow we will hold our own workshop for two neighboring villages!  One woman shared the project with her mother, another with her sister, and now we’re about to have three Women’s Group egg-laying chicken co-operatives running on the island.  Talk about grassroots development!
The project hasn’t been simple or without roadblocks; we’ve had chicks die in inclement weather, days where the feeding schedule was hectic… but all in all, I’m happy with the progress and have enjoyed the process.  Our workshop in Siqatoka alone was worth coming back for.  It was such a joy to spend a week out of the village with five of my favorite women from the village.  To see them free of familial obligations, exploring a new place independently, asking questions and engaging with the material–it was truly an honor to have a hand in creating that opportunity.  To all at home who have donated to the Happy Chicken project so far: VINAKA VAKALEVU.  Your generosity means more to the people of Koro than you know, and will have more of an impact than you could imagine.  Even if it’s just a young girl seeing her mama empowered and leading a project; that has the potential to be transformative.
Seeing the Happy Chicken project through will be my main focus for the remaining 2 weeks and change.  We’ve got a workshop to facilitate tomorrow, more chicks and feed arriving on Monday, and some follow up work to do with the Ministry of Agriculture and Sustainable Livelihoods Farm.  It’s been quite the learning experience, and I only wish we had more time!
Other than working on getting the chicken coop established and running well, I’ll be working on a few side projects to make the time left as useful as possible!  Following TC Winston, the government gave every family garden seeds.  Now a village that I could not manage to convince of the benefits of home gardens has a plot beside every house!  Never have I seen so many leafy greens consumed in Fiji 🙂  We’ve got cabbage, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and more pumpkins than the village could possibly eat.  After all the pumpkin curry and pumpkin soup I’ve consumed in the last few weeks, I may come home with a slight orange tint to me…  Since “backyard gardening” isn’t the traditional form of food security for an outer island like Koro, I’ll be facilitating a few workshops on topics like crop rotation, seed saving and composting.  I’m hoping to collaborate with the local agricultural officer so that he will continue the workshops when I leave.  I also worked with Habitat for Humanity to coordinate a district wide workshop and build to repair community halls in a storm proof manner, so that should be happening within the next week or so.
On top of all of that, I have visitors!  This week I have a Watson Fellow visiting who is doing journalistic research on climate refugees in the South Pacific.  He’s just come off of 2 months in Kiribati, and will be spending the week on Koro interviewing villagers.  It’s a fun opportunity to facilitate cultural exchange (Peace Corps “goals” 2 & 3), and I look forward to sharing my favorite parts of village life and assist in some interview translating!
My guest has also been kind enough to lend me his laptop to update my blog… It’s been way too long since my last update, but my computer sadly kicked the bucket on the plane ride over from USA.  Great timing, eh?  I’ll try my best to get in another post before he heads out and takes this precious technology with him!
Next week I’ll have my second opportunity to host two current Peace Corps Trainees on their “Host Volunteer Visit”.  Last years visit from Hannah and Kendall was so uplifting and fun, I can’t wait to connect with another set of fresh, excited fellow volunteers 🙂 It will be interesting timing too, having only weeks left in my service, and they having their entire service ahead of them… I can imagine it will be a nice time of reflection and help me move into the final stages of mentally closing my experience here in Fiji.
Well, I’d say that’s plenty for now.  I’m off to muck around the village–the sun is shining and I’ve got places to go and people to see today.  Until next time…

The Best Laid Plans…

…of mice and men often go awry.

Did you pay attention to that lesson in Middle School? I did. It stuck… Dream and imagine, but know that the unexpected is bound to happen (for some more than others, I suppose).

In a week I will be finishing my close of service (COS) conference.  I will be arriving there, at the Pacific Coast of Fiji, Tuesday following a second several week stretch back home in America. At the start of this hopeful year I expected to be going into conference after 5 months at site; beginning construction of our river fortification, freshly returned from a chicken coop training.

Remember that thing about plans?

Going into Peace Corps I’d told my family straight out, don’t expect me to come home during service!  I was adamant about that.  Peace Corps service is only two years, why would I spend any of that back in a place that I’d spent the last 25?  Well, because storms happen.  The kind that tear up villages, and the kind that flip your world upside down.

It wasn’t even a week back on Koro, post Winston Emergency Leave, that I received the call that my dad had a stroke.  The time since has been nothing that I had imagined for this point in my service… for this point in my life.  Actually, nothing has been even remotely what I’d imagined it would be since February 20th.

Despite the challenges of the last few months, I’ve found peace and inspiration in the support and kindness of my friends and family; fellow PCVs already mid-project post Winston, receiving cards and flowers from Fiji, supportive staff in Fiji staying in touch, connecting with passionate people back at home, packing and moving with the help of my oldest friends… What remains of life before is being picked up, put back together, recycled and repurposed–in different ways, in both of my homes.  It wouldn’t be possible without the hands of my loved ones working with me.  And had it not been for my experience in Fiji, I’m not sure I would have known that I can ask for help, that I should.  It’s times like these that the meaning of community is deeply experienced and intimately known.

I’m also grateful that I have the support of those around me in returning to Fiji.  It would be easy for people back home to try and convince me to stay, but I maintain my commitment to completing my service and look forward to a few more months in my village home.

“Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost… Take heed, do not squander your life.”          –Dogen Zenji

I’d be lying if I said I am not a bit apprehensive about returning to Koro again, or that leaving my family at this time was a straightforward decision.  But I have an obligation to my village, a project to finish, and loved ones to properly farewell.  A storm is a reason to stop and rethink, but not to lay down.  If anyone showed me that through their actions it’s my village and my dad, and now is no time to forget what they have taught me.

For those who have asked in the last few months how they can support me, I finally have a concrete answer 🙂 (Other than keeping my families on both sides of the world in your hearts and thoughts…) I will be working with the women’s group in my village to achieve greater food security and independence through establishment of a village chicken coop.  We’ve talked about it for many months now, and it will be the focus of the remainder of my service.

When I return to site we will attend a training, build the rearing cages and coop, and hopefully use this project as a catalyst for similar projects on Koro in the future.
If you would like to donate, any amount will make a difference.  The training will be run by a local Marine Biologist and Permaculture Farmer, Austin Bowden-Kirby, in Siqatoka (he is the one setting up the Generosity account).

My last three months in Fiji will not be anything like I expected, although I can’t really say too much about what I do and don’t expect any more… What I do know is that the best one can do is move forward, slowly, and with the best intentions.  No matter what, I have a home and a community in both America and Fiji, where I feel safe, loved and happy, and no kind of storm can touch that.

Keep in touch, and keep on keeping on 🙂

Picking Up Where I Left Off

The call caught for only a minute, but it was enough to transform the traces of apprehension into pure excitement. My phone began to ring as I sat on my outdated motel bed, watching cargo ships, passenger ferries and yachts floating side by side in the Suva Bay. Off-beat reggae notes bounced up the hill. Knock-knock-knockng on heavens door… the live band crooned.

The breeze this morning is the season’s finest. Slightly cool with a touch of sea spray, telling of the heat to come but remembering the promise of a cool night. To my relief, the sights and sounds of Fiji have enhanced my excitement to return. It’s only my silly brain (I’ll blame two months with reduced yoga and increased junk food) that creates doubts… Makes me question my imminent return to Koro… Will my village forgive me for leaving after the storm? Could they even want me around, another burden on stressed resources? How will I possibly make my return useful? The questions aren’t my overarching feelings about returning. But they’re like the early morning fog before a warm day; chilling my bones just a little.

My foggy apprehension vaporized at the sounds of Na’s voice on the phone this morning. I knew it was her the moment the phone rang. Keresiiii! Guess WHOOO?! she sang through the line; like the rays of tropical sun her words burnt up the fog and warmed up my heart.

It’s been nearly 3 months now since I left Koro, the morning that cyclone Winston hit. Why do moments like that always stick in a certain way? To me that morning feels like a decade ago, and yet ever present. I remember the moment that the 8 seater Fiji link flight left the slick grass runway on February 20th, shaking through the rain drenched winds of the fast-approaching cyclone. I gazed below, feeling my heart sink as the plane rose. The ocean churned and the palms thrashed. A trio of black birds hung to the west like an omen. This could be the last time I see Koro… But in my heart I believed I’d return, because I knew I had to. I’ve held onto that hope since that moment, and the time to return has finally arrived.

Home leave was wonderful. I went for rainy walks in the New England woods, took road trips to see friends, attended concerts and plays, laughed with my sisters and cousins, gardened in the sunshine, went to powerful yoga classes, cooked with my grandmother, made new friends… It was refreshing and rejuvenating. I feel blessed to have a home to return to where I felt welcomed and comfortable. I can’t imagine what it would have been like without the people who housed me, fed me, loved me… you special people know who you are J Yes, a few weeks back home was clearly good for my soul.

It was also clear though that now isn’t the time to be back home. I committed to seeing my service through here in Fiji, and over 1.5 years into it, it’s so much more than just “service”. I have a family and friends here, and (despite my silly nerves) I know what my return will mean to them. I committed to seeing my service through with flexibility, no matter the conditions or situation.

Following Winston, there is really no telling at this point what the remainder of my time on Koro will be like, what life will be like. What will we eat? Can we fish and farm? Where is everyone else living? How is our water supply? I do know that most are living off 3-month amounts of rations from the government, that my cell/internet provider won’t be going up anytime soon and that the only other cell service is spotty at very best (hence Na’s call cutting out after a few seconds). It’s also unclear what my work there will be. It will be whatever the village needs, but that could be anything; water filtration, village gardens, rebuilding, sanitation, power…

What I do know is that I can’t wait to see the familiar faces of Nabasovi. I can’t wait to hang out with all of the little kids in my house and make them popcorn. I can’t wait to wake up to a burnt orange sunrise over the ocean. I even can’t wait to sing on Sundays at church again! I love village life, and what I love about it has nothing to do with whatever our material reality will be.

In the one full day that I’ve been back in Fiji it’s already felt like a village reunion, like I never left. While in the market I ran into Vakatawa (village minister), who made fun of my ratty bag and and caught me up on village gossip. At the grocery store I ran into my “Na Levu” (aunt) for the second time that day, who insisted I take juice money because it was so hot out. These moments bring me right into the present; slapping me across the face and saying: Wake up and get out of your head! What the heck are you so worried about?! Yupp, no doubt about it; Fiji is home. I ready to return to Koro and for this chapter of my time in Fiji.

Until my ferry departs (possibly Saturday) I’ll be restocking life necessities in Suva, the capital. Buying dried beans and rice, a pot and a pan, a mat to sleep on, etc. I’ve forgotten how terribly loud and oppressively polluted this city air can be though… So I’m itching to get back to my village, where the stars cover more night sky than the blackness and the loudest sound I hear is kids fighting!

Friends and family back at home—there’s no telling how connected I will be to modern amenities on Koro, so keep those letters coming 🙂 It’s possible I’ll be off the map until a conference on the mainland at the end of July, but I’ll do what I can to connect with home. Until then, kalougata tiko & loloma yani… (sending you blessings and love)

PEACE (corps) OUT!

Coming Home

It’s been 19 months since I entered service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Fiji.  I knew this experience would take me far out of my comfort zone and shape my future.  Little did I know though that leaving everything I knew would only lead me to, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “arrive where I started, and know the place for the first time”.  Peace Corps is about cross-cultural exchange. It’s a lived commitment to bridging gaps in experience and creating understanding among peoples. In a way, it’s about coming home.

It’s been a month now that I’ve been back in Massachusetts on temporary leave, following the destructive Tropical Cyclone Winston which laid waste to the island on which I reside and to much of Fiji.  A month to reflect from a distance, from where I started.  Since living in Fiji I constantly ask myself, how are my two homes connected?  And now since the storm, what does this disaster mean, to Fiji, to America, and to the world?

I was reminded of the material differences between my homes on my descent into T.F. Green; the sturdy houses framed by neatly fenced yards, parades of shiny cars snaking through perfectly paved roads… A stark contrast to the patchwork of Fijian islands framed by reef, parts glowing verdant with vegetation, blending into others stripped bare by Winston.  As each day passes though, the differences blur and connections come into focus.  Connections I feel compelled to share because of their significance to all of us interconnected peoples, from Fiji to America and beyond.  

In the standard notion of the concept, Fiji is a “developing” country.  This is the material difference that my descent into Providence made clear. Fiji lacks basic infrastructure, access to resources, and modern technology.  These challenges are compounded by exploitation from foreign interests, climate change pressures, and a diabetes epidemic.  Damages caused by Cyclone Winston have only exacerbated the issues.  And yet, Fijians are some of the happiest people in the world.  Even after the cyclone ravaged villages, people chose to stay put and carry on–smiling.     

America is considered “developed”.  We have consistent electricity, sanitary waste disposal, and efficient transportation.  We have high life expectancy and GDP to match.  But what does this mean if our 80 years feel empty?  If all the goods we produce enslave us and services we provide don’t inspire us? America may be developed, but something is missing.  We have the skeleton of life, but no flesh and blood.  We’re losing that vital something which makes Fijians so happy: community.  This is the flesh that protects them, the blood that provides what is essential to life; satisfying work, meaningful relationships, a sense of place.  It’s the intangible backbone that remains when a disaster leaves the physical world unrecognizable.

Whether you live in an isolated island village in the Pacific or a bustling gateway city like New Bedford, MA, what we all innately desire is to feel productive and connected.  Fiji and America are mirror images of one another: Community is suffering at the hands of “development”, and “development” is failing due to a lack of community.  For Fijians and Americans alike to find greater health, wealth and happiness we must consciously develop with our values and desired future in mind, while concurrently cultivating community.

What might Fiji be like if this disaster were an opportunity to rebuild more resilient, modern infrastructure upon the backbone of community? What might American towns and cities be like if we took advantage of our modern infrastructure and creative powers while restoring community?  A cyclone is a catastrophic.  Isolation and poverty devastating.  These disturbances though are the breaking down of old patterns of being and doing.  The pieces are back in our hands–together we must re-imagine, regenerate. By acknowledging this we can empower each other to begin together: across neighborhoods and across oceans.

So what is the point of the Peace Corps? This realization: though my two homes are separated by thousands of miles our struggles are connected, and our strengths are complementary.  Cross-cultural exchange illuminates what we have so we can value it, and what we lack so we can create it.  By journeying beyond, we can come home… to a more beautiful one, wherever that may be.

“If you don’t leave, you can’t return.” –Eugenio Tavares

*I will be returning to Fiji in the next few weeks, once staff has determined whether returning to Koro is viable or if I’ll require a site change for the remainder of service.  I look forward to making the best of whatever opportunity I’m offered to continue working with the people of Fiji who have made the last 1.5 years of my life so meaningful and transformative.

Eye of the Storm

“Na, do you have enough canned food at home? If the winds start to pick up you’ll come here right?” I questioned my mother in Fijian as I handed her several bottles of filtered water.  It was 3 in the afternoon, Friday January 19th. I’d just received word from Peace Corps that Cyclone Winston, that unpredictable tropical storm, had taken a sudden hairpin turn straight back to Fiji.  I’d be consolidated with my fellow Koro PCV on the other side of the island, due to his proximity to the police, health center, and higher ground.  I was reluctant to leave my village, but had to follow Peace Corps protocol.  I told myself it was nothing more than that, protocol; that headquarters were simply being extra cautious.  Still, a faint anxiety loomed.

“I don’t want to leave you all, Na” I explained, choking back tears, imagining what might happen to my family’s tin house if the storm came for Koro.  “It’s better you go,” she said resolutely, “we will be fine and you have no choice but to listen to your boss.”  Had this been a year ago, I might have missed the slight shadow of trepidation over her countenance, the crackle in her throat that betrays her cool exterior before every trip I take.  At this point we still had no idea just how strong the storm was going to be.  No idea that I would be emergency evacuated to Suva the following morning, just hours before Cyclone Winston ripped apart our island, our home.  All I knew was that I wouldn’t be able to brave it with my village, and that alone felt like a cyclone ripping my heart to shreds.

 

 

The days following the cyclone are a blur that feel more like weeks.  The first reports of damage to Koro came through the radio, 24 hours after Winston had passed through: “We’ve received word… Nabasovi… quarters completely destroyed…” I sat on the floor of the Peace Corps office, our evacuation center, dumbstruck.  Did I hear that right?  Somehow a call went out from my village before the storm hit in full force- the school compound had already been nearly been blown away.  The was only the beginning.  I winced at the thought of the devastation that must have followed the storm’s arrival to my little sea-side village. I reminded myself to hold a peaceful place somewhere deep inside that could connect to my family back on Koro.  I’ve been centering myself in that place since.

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In the days following the storm contact with Koro was minimal.  Luigi (fellow Koro PCV) and I knew that the cell towers were down, but kept calling anyways.  With a storm of this impact we worried that it could be days before ground contact was established, and that wasn’t something we could wait for.  Finally we got through to our District Officer; he’d just walked 7 hours to catch service on his TFL line and ours was the first call to get through.  “Everything is gone…” I remember him telling us, voice strong but hollow.  In the hour that followed Luigi and I held our cell phones together on speaker, connecting D.O. with a government minister in Fiji, listening as the first few known facts post-storm were relayed.

It was several days before I could reach Nabasovi.  Every night I looked out at the full moon, grateful that my family and friends had some light to see each other, to find strength in each other’s gaze.  I maintained hope though that Nabasovi had fared okay, that at least everyone survived.  Still, it was a trying time. Finally, I got through to the school TFL line and my Na came on the phone.  She sounded shell-shocked:  “We’re all alive”, she said in a voice not so familiar, “but the village is unlivable, Keresi, everything is gone…”

Nabasovi

One of my uncles from the village relayed his experience of the storm.  “We made it out of the church just moments before it collapsed,” he explained, “had it not been day time, well, I cannot think of what may have happened to us.”  He described hiding out on higher ground as the rains came down: “My eyes burnt, like I’d touched them with chili.  Then the rain trickled into my mouth and it was salty.  It was sea water. Blowing from the other side of the island.”

Fast forward over a week, and the reports tell us the following facts: TC Winston is the strongest storm in recorded history to hit the Southern Hemisphere, with wind gusts over 200 mi/hr and waves nearly 40 feet high crashing into villages.  The fatality count is at 42, the number of homeless at least in the many tens of thousands.  All of Fiji was impacted, some areas worse than others.  Koro was nearly wiped out; any given village of the 14 is lucky to have a roof or two left.  Our crop loss is expected to be 100%.  The newspapers are covered with headlines of devastation, especially in Koro, cyclone ground zero: “The Smell of Death in Nasau”, “Call to Close off Koro”, “Island of the Homeless”.

That is the bad news.  And I think quite enough of it.  The good news is that though the devastation is unimaginable, so is the resilience of the Fijian people.  All over Fiji we see images of people helping one another pick up the rubble, of children smiling.  The Fijian spirit is truly unshakable.

Since my first call with Na I have been in contact with her twice, Nabasovi District School & Nursing Station, as well as Koro family and friends in Suva.  Nabasovi is hopeful that we will rebuild sooner rather than later, that our island will heal. Koro, and all of Fiji, is picking itself up and getting to work.  But we aren’t doing so alone-currently the Australian Navy is working tirelessly along with the Fijian Army and Government on Koro to clear roads & debris, deliver rations and build temporary shelters.  Everything may be gone, but rebuilding has begun.

For now I am stuck in the capital, staying out of the way of the initial aid and relief efforts to Koro.  I feel grateful to be safe, but am itching to get back.  The government has requested for no civilian travel between Koro for now, lest aid efforts be negatively impacted.  I’m hopeful though that with all of the attention from the government and other nearby nations that Fiji will rebuild and I will return home to Nabasovi.  It may be months, but I’m optimistic.

For now, my thoughts are on the future of Koro.  How can we rebuild in a way that will help us be more resilient through the next cyclone?  What can we do to re-establish food and water security?  What role can I play in advocating for my island, connecting aid organizations with the ground?  Will the world powers recognize their role in climate change and own up to their partial responsibility for storms such as these decimating whole nations?  These are big questions, but I have the time and space to think about them.

I’m confident that there is a reason for why I’m in Fiji at this time, and I’ve never felt more committed to my service and to the Fijian people.  While I’m not sure how the next several months will unfold, I’m certain that I will find a way of doing what I can in this very different next chapter of service.  The love and strength of my community here continues to inspire me, and I hope those of you throughout the world as well.  More updates to come soon.  For now know that while Fiji needs all of the international support we can get, we are “stronger than Winston”.

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Some news articles about the Cyclone Winston:
Asia Pacific Report
Atlas Obscura
Fiji Times
Slate
Fiji Sun

 

Vinaka Vakaniu

I adore the coconut, in a way that I’ve never adored a tree fruit before. Fijian life has given me a new appreciation for the abundance of nature, as there is little in daily life in Fiji which the coconut doesn’t contribute to.  Actually, a great deal of daily life depends on it.

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Bawara – sheath of the coconut stem which is crucial fire-starting material

So how, may you ask, does one Fijian villager benefit from the gifts of our dear friend vuniniu (the coconut tree)?  Let me tell you:

  1. Cooking: We use the bawara and outer shell of the mature coconut for cooking fires.
  2. Coconut milk:  If you’ve read any thing else of mine, then you may know I love lolo (fresh coconut milk).  To the point where I’ll put it in my coffee and oatmeal in the morning (and then not be hungry again until the afternoon because it’s so filling… guess it doubles as a money saver?). “How would you could that?” is almost always followed by, “Oh that’s delicious in coconut milk!” I’m not complaining 😉
  3. Coconut Oil – If you are alive and using a computer, then I’d bet you’ve read about the miracle that is coconut oil.  Maybe you even buy some oil of your own! Well here it’s homemade (more on that later) and used mainly for body oil and sometimes cooking.  I use it as a lotion, hair conditioner, cooking oil, and mouth wash (weird, but healthy I swear).  It’s also anti-fungal, and used medicinally sometimes.  I’ve even got rid of mild skin fungus with it! (TMI? Eh, better than boils or parasites…)
  4. Sasa – The dried out palm fronds, called “sasa” are used to make traditional brooms with the same name.  They are also used in gardens to protect seedlings from strong rain and harsh sun.
  5. Taqa – Coconut palm fronds can be woven into a durable, and quite beautiful basket.  Perfect for carrying what else but, coconuts!

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These are just some of the uses that came to mind, I can imagine I’ve even forgotten some.  So you see, from helping us glow like tropical goddesses to protecting the tiny buds of next months dinner, the coconut really sets the bar for utility here in Fiji.  What else could possibly be vinaka vakaniu, or “good as the coconut”? I can only hope one day to be half as good as one.  Until then, I’ll settle for being slightly coco-nuts 😉

Smart in Eating Mangos

After 15 months in Fiji, I finally had a visitor from home! My dear old friend Sara made her way over from Seattle to stay two weeks here.  She cut herself off from technology to spend a week in my village, fishing, weaving, drinking kava, singing with the kids, and of course eating plenty mangos!

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Obligatory post-meal nap and middle-school reminiscent selfies

Now I’ll be short and sweet about this, since I don’t want to make anyone too jealous about what a great time we had 😉 But some highlights of the trip were:

  1. Leleuvia: The first few days of her visit were spent at a beautiful backpackers resort on the small island of Leleuvia.  Here we made new local friends, SUP’ed, drank beer, and went scuba diving.  Helping out at their coral farm was awesome, and the least we could do for them giving Sara her kava christening!
  2. Fishing: I was quite proud to have invited a “useful” kaivalaqi to the village c(: That girl’s is a natural fisherwoman!  We spent three days in a row out at the reef, though one day we did ditch Na early to go “turtle searching”.  No turtles, but we did get beached on a sand pit and nearly sink a canoe…DSCN0369
  3. Beach cook-out:  After one day fishing we made blackened fish on the beach, eaten with a mix of sea water, cumquats and chili peppers.  I’ve said coconut milk is the best way to eat fish, but this now takes the top spot.  Fish were MADE to eat this way!  When I tried explaining to Bu (grandma) Kula that Sara wasn’t hungry enough for round two, she said quite seriously, “This is our visitor, and we need to care for her well, Keresi.” Yes ma’am, Bu Kula, ma’am! Well, Sara didn’t complain. Not a bad lunch to have twice!RSCN0340DSCN0323
  4. Soli:  Sara was here for the soli, or fundraising kava party, for my aunt.  It was so fun to see my friend all dressed up in Fijian attire, get her face baby powdered and drink kava with my village.
  5. Family Time:  By the end of the week the village was referring to Sara as “luvemu” (your daughter) when speaking to my Na.  I haven’t stopped hearing “Isa Sera” at the mention of good stories or a hearty laugh 🙂
  6. Mango snacks:  This is worth mentioning simply because there was barely a moment where we weren’t looking for or eating mangos!  If only it were mango season all year round, maybe I wouldn’t feel the impulse to eat ten a day. (But I probably still would)  As I’ve previously explained, Fijians like to say people are “smart” in things… well, if us two old friends proved anything, we’re very smart in eating Mangos!

I’ve been told time and again by RPCVs that having a visitor from home will be crucial to re-adjustment back in the states.  When no one quite gets a story, I’ll just have to give Sara a ring 🙂  I feel lucky to have a friend who wanted to experience the real Fiji with me! I can’t stress enough how happy it made my soul to have some quality time with someone who understands me without explanation.

I can only hope Sara made as many wonderful memories! And that her reverse culture shock isn’t too rough… not sure how her boss will feel about her stretching out on the floor for a post lunch time nap…

A breath of fresh air

(From Oct. ’15)

This past week I was lucky enough to get my first two visitors on Koro; Kendall and Hannah, new arrivals from Group 92 who are currently training on Viti Levu.  The Peace Corps almost didn’t send me anyone for HVV (host volunteer visits) because of the boat schedule.  Visitors would have to arrive 7am Monday morning and leave at midnight on Wednesday!  I begged the staff anyways, promising them that visiting my village would be worth a trip cut short.

The days before they came I started to worry that maybe they would have rather gone elsewhere.  Taveuni has waterfalls!  Rakiraki has scuba diving!  Suva has movie theaters!  Can I really make 24 hours of ferry travel worth the same amount of time here?  Caught up in my own excitement at the prospect of finally having visitors after a year at site, I’d assumed that a “fun” HVV for them would be the same as my “fun”… collecting seaweed to make your own lunch with fermented coconut scrapes and fresh coconut milk is pretty cool right?

Well, luckily it was cool to Hannah and Kendall (the pot we consumed between us being proof)!  Besides lumi (seaweed), they loved snorkeling in the beautiful reef and spending time in talanoa with all my village mamas, aunts, sisters and friends.  Their visit turned out to be a “real treat” (yes, I’m quoting you Kendall!) for all of us, and we walked away having learned a lot from one another.

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Kendall and I wading through low tide

Having been here a year, I shared what I could with them about life as a PCV, being ever clear that each experience is personal and theirs will vary in many unknown ways.  The purpose of their visit was for new PCVs to get a glimpse of how one person lives at her one site, and this way get an idea of the site they might succeed at.  Most importantly though to me, it was about establishing relationships between the groups and some momentum for the year to come.

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Roti and curry for lunch with Hannah!

If anyone took anything away from this visit, I’d have to say I’m the lucky one!  Being in such a beautiful place, in a community where I feel safe and appreciated is such a blessing, but sometimes it takes fresh eyes to see all of that and reflect it back for you.  As much as I am always subtly aware of how blessed I am to be serving as a PCV (in Fiji of all possible places), on some days I find myself mired in my struggles with a muddy  perception of the beauty around me.  This week I saw Fiji through the clear eyes of my new friends; I saw sunsets that reflected metallic off the boundless ocean, palms that seemed to dance along the coastline, fish so bright that they could be mistaken for stars glowing atop coral reefs…

I also saw that my community does appreciate what I do, however insignificant it seems some days.  Everyone made an effort to make Hannah and Kendall feel right at home; I think my village now expects that they will be back for Christmas.  It’s the least they can do if they can’t stay forever!  A few of my friends even brought over yaqona to have a welcome kava session in my home, something that is a Fijian tradition, but having never drank grog in my house I wouldn’t have even thought of it!  “Welcome to Keresi’s house, to our I house,” declared my friend Laisa as she took her first bilo cross-legged on my floor, “since Keresi hasn’t said it yet, I want you to know that you are always at home and welcomed back to Nabsovi.  Thank you for coming!”  (Okay, I swear I told Hannah and Kendall that they were welcomed back… but I guess if the words aren’t christened with kava it ain’t worth diddly!)

Having two new PCVs visit at around the half way point of my service couldn’t have been more wonderful.  Their actions and words reminded me what a special opportunity it is to be a PCV.  I’m so very grateful to share this life-changing experience with bright, passionate people like my very special HVV visitors!

Sun set over Dere Bay, Koro Island
Sun set over Dere Bay, Koro Island

Glow On

It sure has been much too long since my last post… I blame it on Fiji time. Living here feels like living in the twilight zone. I generally know around the time of day (morning, afternoon or evening is sufficient), but the day of the week? The date? Forget it! And I like it that was J As long as I make it to trainings, a fluid sense of time will do.

The last month and a half has been quite busy though, and luckily I remembered to get my butt up to Vanua Levu for the recent GLOW camp! In late November I helped facilitate a GLOW (girls leading our world) Camp. GLOW is a Peace Corps wide iniative, with camps being held everywhere from Azerbiajian to Jamaica. A fellow PCV, Melissa, who lives up north, organized this leadership camp with the over-arching theme of preventing teenage pregnancy (a big issue in her province).

Working at the GLOW camp will certainly remain as a highlight of my Peace Corps experience, for many reasons. First and foremost, I really believe girls lives were changed. We began the week with 30 shy highschoolers; girls who barely wanted to share their names, never mind their personal opinion. By the end of the week we had girls confidently discussing condom negotiation in the presence of their teachers!

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Leading sessions for the camp was also really gratifying, and such an awesome learning experience. I led sessions on decision-making and self-esteem. Some parts of my sessions were a total hit (creating affirmation hand print necklaces) and others a total flop (role playing following tea time sugar crash = bad idea). Details aside, it was a real opportunity for personal reflection. Just a few years ago I’d nearly faint at the thought of a ten minute presentation in a small seminar. I would have shrunk in my seat if a volunteer were needed to be put on the spot. Today? Leading an hour long session for 30+ teens is exciting! And when asked at 8am to take on the 3 hour long morning session dedicated to reproduction and safe sex, with zero preparation and an unfinished afternoon session to follow, my thought was “well let’s see I’m made of”!. Whether my efforts stood out or fell flat, I was content with my intention to do my best and learn regardless.

It feels good to realize how much I’ve grown in the last year. I’ve discovered new skills and developed those that I’d doubted. I’ve figured out what I enjoy and what is best left to others. Over half my service down, and I’m all around just more comfortable in my own skin. I have Peace Corps to thank for the opportunity to push my boundaries and challenge myself. More importantly though, I have my fellow PCVs to thank! It’s a blessing unlike any other to work and live with people who say what they mean and mean what they say. I love that within the same fifteen minutes I can hear “you really killed it in that presentation” and “you should do that over in a way that actually makes sense”… that’s true friendship!

It was so wonderful to watch my fellow PCVs shine at GLOW camp, and an honor to share the experience with each one of them. As we go into the lull of the holiday season, I’m happy to have had the opportunity to work at a GLOW camp with such a fine crew of people, making memories and hopefully impacting a life or a few… 🙂