Changes in the Weather

(Written Oct. ’15)

Yesterday morning I went for a run.  As I huffed my way up hilly coastal road the view stopped me in my tracks: the spectral moon hanging weightless in the cerulean sky, which was painted with the soft coral streaks of the rising sun.  From where I stood, the moon was framed by snowy branches sparsely decorated by yellow leaves.  The moment filled me with a wave peaceful energy, followed by a tide of bittersweet longing.  Something about the silvery gray of the moon, the autumnal color of the vegetation and the cool breeze stirred up a slight undercurrent of nostalgia.

Living in the land of eternal summer often feels quite strange to me, having grown up in a place whose story is beautifully punctuated by the four seasons.  It’s October, and my subconscious and body seem to pine for familiar autumn mornings; padding out from sleep across the chilly dew crowned grass to watch the steam rise from the Westport river, cool winds shaking loose changing leaves, steam curling up from a cup of Earl Grey held close to my chest.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The word was certainly one of my first loves.  As soon as I was old enough to read you could find a book in my hand.  Not shortly after you could find me with a pen and paper jotting down my own stories and thoughts.

Thus, you’ll always find a book of poems within reach in my home: bookmarked on the kitchen table, face down on the living room floor, waiting underneath my pillow… For me, finding a poem that resonates with an emotion I’ve been feeling is nothing short of a soul encounter.  It’s a lightning bolt of connection with the world, an electric shock of perception.

My latest companion is Mary Oliver’s, Blue Horses.  The first time (and each time since) reading “The Mangroves” from this collection I felt keenly that shock.  It strikes me much in the same way the silver moon did yesterday morning…

The Mangroves
by Mary Oliver

As I said before, I am living now
in a warm place, surrounded by
mangroves. Mostly I walk beside
them, they discourage entrance.
The black oaks and the pines
of my northern home are in my heart,
even as I hear them whisper, “Listen,
we are trees too.” Okay, I’m trying. They
certainly put on an endless performance
of leaves. Admiring is easy, but affinity,
that does take some time. So many
and so leggy and all of them rising as if
attempting to escape this world which, don’t
they know it, can’t be done. “Are you
trying to fly or what?” I ask, and they
answer back, “We are what we are, you
are what you are, love us if you can.”

I’m not quite sure of my purpose for writing this post, other than sharing a moment and a feeling that meant something for me somehow.  As time passes, eternal summer slowly feels less strange and I less foreign.  The sweet fragrance of frangipani and ripe mango have replaced the perfume of salty sea spray and rain soaked earth.  The jagged silhouette of palm fronds against the night sky has replaced cat tails reflecting on the river. Day by day this tropical land feels more familiar, it’s exotic landscape more comforting.

Admiring is easy, but affinity, that does take some time.

Love the life you live, live the life you love.

One oft quoted Peace Corps mantra is that your service is your own and not to compare it to that of other volunteers. We each have such different sites, work assignments and experiences, so this advice makes sense. Even so, in a group as small as 26, in a country as small as Fiji, this is easier said than done!

There are many a day here where I doubt what I’m doing. He’s already applied for two grants? She’s organized a GLOW camp for how many students?! Can I really consider myself a good PCV having accomplished so few concrete successes in the eyes of DC? Jeesh, where’s my sea wall, or my world map mural tagged with a snazzy PC logo? But that is just it: the word MY. It’s in the moments where I question what I’m doing with my time here that I remember I’m not in this for me.

Our wonderful staff always reminds us that the projects we undertake should be community initiated and led. We the PCVs should be a source of ideas, support and networking, but never the sole champion of a project. Sure I could decide tomorrow that we need solar panels on every house in the village, but what long-term good am I doing if my goal is to put “sustainable development experience” on my resume? What will happen to those solar panels when I leave if locals were never invested in the project?

There are several obvious needs that my community has brought to my attention, and I hope to use what skills and resources I have to address them. I hope at the very least to see our creek fortified so that it no longer floods our village, carrying debris and creating a safety hazard. Our community hall and bathrooms could also certainly use a make-over. It is used nearly every day by everyone young and old, and thus would be an impactful project. I’m about half way through service, so I’m starting to feel the pressure to get something concrete accomplished here.  But, I want to carefully balance my desire to feel accomplished with a desire to be a partner in sustainable work.

All that being said, my daily life has little to do with the “big” projects. My life in Nabasovi varies day to day, moment to moment. Monday it’s morning yoga and an afternoon walk with the women’s group. Tuesday it’s an NCD screening and playing with my nurses daughter. Wednesday it’s collecting seaweed with my Na. Thursday it’s an education session on cervical cancer. Friday it’s having tea with church elders, discussing everything from nutrition to relationships.  Saturday it’s accepting being made fun of for sleeping in until ten following too late a night of grog drinking.  And every Sunday, it’s singing with the choir, donning my ridiculous white sulu jaba 🙂

My service has had little to do so far in the way of big projects. (Dear PC Staff, I promise to use that Project Design and Management workshop before I leave =P ) Rather, in the year I’ve been in Fiji it’s been the accumulation of little moments that make me feel “successful”. My neighbor calling through my window, pre-sunrise, rain and all, to follow through on that walk we planned. A young mother feeling comfortable enough to kerekere wholewheat flour for her children’s breakfast. My uncle coming by to check his BMI before he left for the farm. These are the things that show me my community trusts and respects me enough to ask for my advice, request support, and confide in me. These are the things that assure me I am doing my best as a PCV and a community member.

To quote a wise man ya’ll may have heard of, Henry David Thoreau, “The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.” (Walden)

Feeling successful and fulfilled is a journey that will no doubt have ups and downs through the remainder of my time in Fiji. I’ve realized though that I feel most fulfilled when I’m doing what I love, what brings me alive and present, and sharing that with others. This is different for each PCV, and is what makes each experience so unique.

For instance, being active is important to me; it makes me feel happy, healthy and energetic. Since I go on a run and do yoga most days, why not include my community? The way my friends, grandmas and aunts crack-up mid-downward dog and cheer as they bolt down hills just makes my day!

Cooking is another activity that brings me great pleasure. I love finding exciting ways to use the usual available ingredients. By doing cooking demonstrations and nutrition outreaches I’ve been able to make creativity and a favorite passtime “work”.

I joined the Peace Corps knowing that I would have a hard time feeling fulfilled at the generic 9-5. I just don’t believe anyone is meant to sit at a desk and be told when to feel the inspiration to be productive. I also have a moral opposition to the modern work/pleasure dichotomy. When did it become the norm that work is something you can’t wait to leave, and pleasure is something you only sometimes have time for? What happened to people doing beautiful work that they felt they were born for? Work that is inseparable from pleasure because it’s what makes them feel alive and meaningful in the world?

In the words that are oft attributed to the great (as my niece refers to him) Mr. Marley, love the life you live, live the life you love. Our work is a huge part of our life—what gives us a place and meaning in this world. (And not to mention the money I need to top up the data to upload this post…) In order to love our life, we need to love what we are putting our time and energy into. This doesn’t just happen on it’s own! Each of us chooses how we will spend our time. Will we chase the next paycheck, hoping it’s enough to afford us a pleasant enough weekend? Or will we recognize what makes us feel most in touch with ourselves, our community, and the universe and find a way to make that our “work”?

I’m grateful to have two years as a PCV where my work and what I am passionate about are one in the same. My PC service here on Koro rarely feels like the modern concept of a “job” because I’m most often living my daily life in a way that feels good to me… sharing knowledge, culture, and experiences with a community I love and am a part of. An inspiring individual back at home once told me that whatever he does for a living, he wants it to be something that he’d want be doing (and enjoy) regardless of the paycheck. I thought to myself, well if only all the world lived like that… I hope one day we live in a world where everyone has that opportunity.  As for me and now, I took that notion to heart, am living it now, and won’t ever look back 🙂

Farrr Outtt

“Lesu mai Portukali? Sa yawa o iko!” This was the sample on repeat for the first days back on Koro following my much needed leave. Basically this means, “You’re coming back from a trip to Portugal? Well aren’t you fancy!” The phrase “sa yawa” can mean a few things. (So can most Fijian words, which can be terribly confusing or wonderfully enlightening depending on the context.) In this case it means something is really cool, surprising or fancy. “Sa yawa nona lorry vou, eh?” His new truck is pretty sweet huh? Fijians like to poke fun, so “sa yawa” is often used in a jesting manner. In english it’s comparison might be, “well well, look at you!”.

The other more literal translation of yawa is distant or far away. “Sa yawa mai Viti nomu vanua?” Is where you’re from very far from Fiji? Seems to me the very best translation of “sa yawa” would be one straight from the 70s… far out!

My village friends had a point; taking a mid-service trip to Portugal did feel pretty dang extravagant. And boy was I far out from Fiji, sa yawa mai Viti, while on leave. Physically and metaphorically speaking.

I began to feel my distance from my quaint island home when I settled into my comfy seat on the bottom floor of a double decker plane and turned on my personal in-flight television. Movies? TV shows? Games? I didn’t even have so many options in America… I didn’t even have cable in America! Then came my in-flight meal—baked fish with lemon tzatziki couscous and a glass of red wine, followed by chocolate mousse and French press coffee. As I happily cleaned my little plastic bowl of the last traces of velvety mousse the view from my window was usurped. An Ikea building that appeared to be at least twice the size of my village suddenly dominated the landscape, all cotton candy blue and metal amidst the dusty brown landscape. From there to Sydney the land was packed like a mall at Christmas time; neighborhoods of one massive home on top of the next. Yup, I sure was not in Fiji any more!

Six countries, five flights and about forty hours later I was cruising through Lisbon with my distant cousin Cesar, cursing myself for having forgotten so much Portuguese. “You understand?” he asked, after giving me a supersonic Portuguese play by play for the next week in Lisbon. “You’re grandmother told me you speak very well!” Well primo, that was before my brain was filled with a thousand permutations of vinaka vaka levu… At this point I probably know Fijian better, a language spoken by far fewer people than live in the state of Rhode Island.

Cousin Cesar dropped me off at what ended up being the wrong hotel. I crashed early for the night at my hotel, after a struggle involving phone volume and a hotel change resulted in my collapsing into tears. It was quite clear that I was culture shocked and exhausted by the number of languages I’d heard and miles I’d traversed in a matter of two days.

After a solid night of sleep on the comfiest mattress I’ve experienced in recent history, I was ready to enjoy vacation. The next two weeks in Portugal were filled with everything I’ve missed for the past year; hand in hand walks with my niece, late night talks with my sister, fresh baked pastries, journaling in the vibrant buzz of coffee shops, and of course plenty cheese and wine! I felt so grateful to have the means to take a vacation from Peace Corps service, half way around the world, where my family comes from. Connection with familiar faces and a familiar culture was just what I needed.

The days with my family were spent exploring my grandparents town of Linhares. Once a Lusitanian hillside fort it’s now an enchanting village situated on the Western slopes of the Serra de Estrela mountains. Here we got to know distant cousins over tiny cups of espresso at the foot of the old Parish. Under the shade of fig trees we tried my great-uncles moonshine as we listened to his stories of WWII and his magical birth-giving quartz. We spent an afternoon wandering through my grandfather’s farmland, which he currently rents for a couple bottles of olive oil and wine a year, eating blackberries and making up stories about our ancestors.

My time in Linhares was sandwiched between two brief solo stays in Lisbon. I much prefer the peace of a small town, but after a year of island life I enjoyed time in this beautiful city. I took great pleasure in the little things: rolling through Lisbon in a noisy old streetcar, side walk people watching while enjoying a fresh pastel de nata, reading in the warm afternoon sun by the ocean.

The ability of people to adapt never ceases to amaze me. It wasn’t long before I was speaking passable Portuguese with my great uncle Ti Moises and using the metro system like a regular city kid. This from the girl whose main transportation in the past year was muddy feet, and who sometimes doesn’t recognize her own given name (Keresi is really sticking). I settled back easily into life with my family in a “developed” country. Fresh bread and cheese for family breakfast in my Vova’s sparkling clean kitchen… had it really been over a year since this was my life? Suddenly I could access wifi at any corner, turn on a light when the sun went down, and put leftovers in the refrigerator!

I felt grateful, but I also totally jaded. How quickly things could go from miraculous to expected; a cold drink, a short wait, a hot shower.

Portugal was beautiful. The Moorish Castle in Sintra was nothing short of magical, the terracotta roofs and cobbled streets of Lisbon were lovely. Hearing Fado and having familiar foods was comforting and uplifting. Plus, seeing my sister and niece was exactly what I needed. Still, the modern world had me feeling totally satiated beyond necessity. The extravagance, luxury, excess, immediacy… is it really necessary? By my second pass through Lisbon I walked through shops stocked with clothes of every style and pattern, unease welling up—how I missed dressing up, feeling “pretty”! Then I’d think of Fiji, of my limited but perfectly sufficient wardrobe. I’d sit alone on a bench, missing the ability to recognize passing voices.  I laid in my bed one hotel morning, shivering from the AC, and remembered that where I was coming from climate control is limited to the shade of mango trees.

It’s so easy to live a life of excess when that is what the world around you encourages. Why not grab that dress, you have a party this weekend! Go ahead and blast the AC, don’t want to get sweaty and smelly! Those who have such access are certainly blessed in way. But if I took anything from my leave, it was gratitude for experiencing life in Fiji. Back on Koro I don’t have electricity, so you best believe I appreciate every time I have access to an outlet. My house doesn’t have refrigeration; that means no ice cream, no cold beer, no dairy products. But boy do I sure value each refreshing sip of a Fiji bitter and every bite of a Magnum bar when I’m in Suva.

Of course, it’s easier for me to say this knowing that I’ll soon enough be back in a “modern” place with easy access to any comfort, if I so desire. Yet, sitting here, back home on Koro, hearing the roosters crow, waves crash and children shriek in the background, I can’t say I’d currently trade this life for one more “modern”. (My fellow villagers might disagree, but I speak only for myself 🙂 ) There’s a reason gluttony, greed and sloth are 3 of 7 deadly sins, echoed in the ethics of countless world traditions. I don’t think people are meant to have everything they want exactly when they want it. I’d argue that such a lifestyle contributes to many global problems we have today—climate change, depression, lack of community, deforestation, etc.

This isn’t to say there aren’t things here on Koro that my community truly need, such as reliable renewable energy, proper waste disposal, and consistently clean water.  More traditional communities could also certainly benefit from “modern” values such as gender equality, freedom of expression, diversity, and access to educational media. I sure enjoyed this aspect of Portugal! What I mean to say is that as far as material goods go, there is merit in simply having “enough” in that one appreciates each thing they have. Going without some luxuries elucidates the major difference between needs and wants. Time away certainly brought me far out, thus giving me fresh perspective and a renewed appreciation for the lessons I’ve learned thus far in Fiji.

Sunday Morning Thoughts

Another Sunday morning in Fiji.  As I write I sit here at my kitchen table, watching the waves of high tide roll in and the breeze blow breadfruit leaves from the trees.  Steam is rising from my breakfast to my happy nose: oatmeal with fresh bananas and a strong cup of coffee.  Both topped with quite a bit more than the CDC’s recommended daily intake of coconut milk 😉  Just another reason to love Fiji; I woke up wanting coconut milk (this is becoming an every Sunday thing), and it took all of about 20 seconds to spot a neighbor and kerekere a coconut.   Fifteen minutes of scraping later I had fresh squeezed coconut milk.  There are few things that can’t be improved with coconut milk, from soup to coffee!  And there is nothing that can replace neighbors to share with.

It’s barely half past nine, and I have already said good morning to most of my neighbors, greeting them and the new day as they mozy past my windows.   Generally the church lali should have played several times this morning already, but not today.  After having requested my breakfast coconut I was informed that one of the village elders, Tukai Sau, passed away in the night.  Isa, Tukai!  He was a funny old man.  One of the last memories I have of him was at the nursing station before a health talk.  (In Fijian:) “You know if you want me to listen you’re going to have to speak Fijian.” Yessir!

Though Tukai Sau will be missed, I’m happy to say that he lived a pretty long life (I believe he was around 70) and was mobile and happy until the end.  In America the old are often so sickly and immobile before they pass; we can usually expect that the time is near.  Though Tukai Sau was an old asthmatic, I had no inclination that he might pass any time soon.  The Fijians I have known seem to keep on living full lives until the moment they go!  I can only hope that is how my life will turn out.

Once again I’m astounded by the attitude surrounding death.  The village this morning is filled with the usual sounds of children laughing, old men story-telling, women cooking.  No air of sadness, no tears.  Today we say farewell to one kind soul, and tomorrow we may welcome another new soul.  That is the circle of life to which we are not immune!

Following the funeral today I plan to take a walk out to Waisali, the “village” where some foreigners currently live.  I have made friends with a kind young couple from CO who are building a small hill-top home there for themselves and their three precocious children.  The first time I met Denise she appeared at the nursing station, throwing open her arms for a hug and a warm greeting.  “Hi! I was hoping you were here, how are you?!” she greeted me, as if we were old high school friends.  She’d heard that there was an American PCV in Nabasovi and had taken the long walk from her property, small children in tow, to meet me.  Needless to say, their presence has been a total blessing to my life here.  It’s been so good to have like-minded peers around.  Plus, they are super down to earth, wanting to be a part of (rather than “above”) the Koro Island community.  In contrast to many kaivalaqi out here, Niel (Denise’s husband) works every day alongside his Fijian work crew.  Their eldest child is even attending Fijian school.  It can be rather isolating on this tiny island, so having friends from the same culture, people who understand my humor, struggles and stories, has been good for the soul and spirit!  I’m also super grateful for the baby SCOBY that Denise recently gave me–pretty soon all of Nabasovi will be drinking kombucha! Or mushroom tea, as my incredulous neighbors call it.

Well my thoughts have not quite run their course, but my computer battery has.  I’m also out of hot coffee and coconut milk (did I really drink it all?!).  Village activity has picked up: women in sulujaba bustling by with pots of root crops, men carrying shovels to lay their brother to rest.   Funeral time must be approaching.  I’ll head out now into the day to see where I can be of help, cooking knife and hymn book in hand.

“There are always more brothers!”

Back home I sometimes struggle to explain my extended family dynamic to the incredulous.

“What do you mean your cousin?  But isn’t she your great grandfather’s sister’s daughter?”
Wait, doesn’t everyone have cousins like that…
 “You had HOW many people at your ‘family’ Easter?”
         Just 50 or so…
“Does it really matter if you’re at your mom’s cousin’s daughter’s christening?”
           Well sure it’s important to me, she’s like my sister…

The dismissive tone can be off-putting and makes me wonder…  Am I crazy to put such significance on “extended” family?  Then I came to Fiji.  Here the conception of family that has always felt true and beautiful to me was illuminated in light of the old world way of relating.

In “modern” society the nuclear family has become the norm. (Not universal, but certainly normal.)  “Family” often consists of two parents and a few children living in a private home in isolation from their neighbors.  Your priority is within your immediate family: your parents, grandparents and siblings.  Beyond that immediate scope, aunts/uncles and cousins often have tenuous significance, their place in your life  competing with the world of work, privacy and paid leisure.  Anyone beyond “first” cousins, aunts and uncles are “distant relatives” at best.

Upon first arriving in Fiji, family relations here were baffling. Trying to remember who was who to me in my host family was a puzzle.  Cousin-brothersSmall moms? Say what?  Then one day I pulled out my own family pictures. I proudly passed around a picture of my niece, heart swelling with love and pride at the sight of my tiny soul-sisters smiling face.  “Look at that big beautiful hair,” marveled my host-aunt, “just like her small mother!”

In Fiji, your Na’s (mother) sisters are your Na as well; Na lailai if they are younger, Na Levu if they are older.  Literally translated: small mom and big mom.  Same goes for Dad’s brothers.  Sometimes I even hear kids simply refer to their mother’s sisters as Na, or father’s brothers as Ta.

Beyond that (to put it simply), your cousins are generally considered veitacini (siblings), and your grandparent’s siblings are also your grandparents; there is little differentiation.  This extends well beyond that first layer of relations, to the point where a seemingly distant family member might still be considered your “brother”, or it’s would take a gnarly family tree to figure out how so-and-so is your “Na”.   Relations are generational and vast.

Case and point: a backpacker on Koro was recently interviewing villagers in an attempt to gain an understanding of Fijian family relations and village structures.  Our village chief explained that when he, or any chief dies, chiefdom is passed on to his brother. “But,” queried the incredulous foreigner, sensing a break in logic, “what if there are no brothers?”  A puzzled looked passed over Tuinaiqani’s face, breaking into a wry grin.  “But there are always more brothers!”

Herein lies the cultural difference, the place where foreign backpacker and Fijian chief both think the other just a bit mad.  In a way it’s not all that complex: in Fiji family is family.  And why is that? Because here families depend on one another!  There is not the same Western parsing of relationships.   There is nothing weird about expecting your grandmother’s cousin’s niece to watch your daughter for the afternoon—that’s what “sisters” do right?!

A great deal of modern Americans are removed by many generations from their ethnic motherland.  They have never known what it means to live in an extended, interdependent network of family.  Yet in a traditional Fijian village, family is nothing but extended and interdependent.

The modern family, this strict way of relating, seems almost an escape from the expectations extended family entails.  Even if extended family exists, the modern independent person sadly often doesn’t have the ability to be part that network. Family is beautiful, but it can also be a burden.  More family means more people who might demand a sharing of your time, money, personal space… Who has time for that in a 60 hour work week?  Who can afford to share when they have smart phone bills and car payments?

So yes, I’m surely oversimplifying modern families. There is a great deal of diversity in American families. The point here is that family life in Fiji is beautiful.  The more I see the way that people in Fiji care for and rely on their extended family, the more I can’t help but feel most people have been robbed of a layer of life’s depth and meaning in this age of big bills and small (nuclear) families.

Being a member of a village family network means many things.  It means your day’s harvest is lighter by the time you reach home, having thinned out at each home you pass.  It means passing the crying baby around church from the loving arms of Bubu to another.  It means your cousin-sister watching your children for 3 months while you give birth in the capital city. It means when the job is too big there are always more brothers.

The Fijian family network is a genuine relationship–connection and involvement with one another. What does one lose in this way of life? Some privacy and independence, maybe even the ability to accumulate much personal wealth.  But, from what I’ve experienced and witnessed, the vast network of support, sense of belonging and security is a worthy trade off.

When I show pictures of my family at home, the Fijian way of describing who people are makes sense.  I don’t have to detail how my cousin is related to me, I can just call her my sister, and that feels right!  Being away from my niece for 2 years might not be all that significant in the modern context, but when you’re her “little mom” the sense of obligation is appreciated.   Fiji has given me new appreciation for my tight knit extended family back in the US.  All my grandmother’s sisters are also my grandmothers.  My mom’s cousins are her sisters, and they are my aunts.

Family are a network of interdependent people who share a bond of history and love.  Who share stories and traditions, burdens and blessings.  We can’t all go back to the village our family came from, but we can take a lesson from the beautify of traditional family bonds that are still alive and well in places like Fiji.  It’s a way of life I feel grateful to be experiencing first hand. For many of us Fiji PCVs, having integrated in a village family has been one of the most rewarding, enlightening aspects of service… a perspective that I hope to share with others.  It may be wise to question the modern concepts of independence and isolation, and take a lesson from the beauty of interdependence here in Fiji, the way of life that everyone lived not to long ago!

A kerekere of my own…

So, you lovely friends and family from home whom I miss so much, now that you know what a Kerekere is, I have a few of my own… I’m in my tenth month here (crazy huh?!) and things that I had originally requested for packages are no longer at the top of my wants list.  Read, want.  At this point I am living quite comfortably here on Koro.  I’m learning to live the way my neighbors do, and what I need for daily life can be found in the ocean, at the farm, or in the Chief’s small shop. That being said, there are always home comforts (especially things without creepy chemicals!) that I’d appreciate if one is so inclined to send a package 🙂 Here are my kerekere’s:

  • Candles/tealights (no electricity means I use these alot.  Plus they are the one sure fire way to make a sad day happy!!)
  • Spices/Cooking Things: tamari, sea salt**, ground ginger, cinnamon (need this to ferment food, can’t find it here)
  • Good Peanut Butter!! (I really miss honey roasted natural PB)
  • Floss, toothpaste (I miss Burt’s Bees, herbal kind)
  • Soap (no nice smelling, safe ingredient stuff here)
  • Computer charger (mine broke if you want to send your old
  • Mason jars (using them to sprout beans to up my veggie intake!)
  • USB with music/movies (If any one could find It Started in Naples or the old version of The Little Princess I’d love you forever)
  • Notecards (I use the 3×5 cards  for work)
  • Push pins (good to hang kids pictures in my house)
  • Duct Tape (expensive here and good for everything)
  • Tea (missing my faves like Irish Breakfast, Earl Gray, Chai, and anything Lavender or from Yogi Tea!) and ground coffee
  • Cards (for writing home!)
  • FOR MY COMMUNITY!
    • Health Related goods: I could really use things to use as prizes in the Health Challenges that I’m running for example– yoga mats, pedometer, water bottles, etc.  TJMaxx always has those little things)
    • USB with kids movies (some of my old faves that I’d love to share: Fern Gully, Once Upon A Forest, The Rescuers, We’re Back, An American Tale, All Dogs Go To Heaven, Troll in Central Park, Rock a Doodle, My Neighbor Totoro.. you can skip the Disney Princess ones 😉 )
    • Coloring books
    • School Supplies
    • For my family: tshirts with symbols of home, your old ties (Ta can use for church)

Vinaka vakalevu in advance.  Thank you so much for the many thoughtful letters and packages ya’ll have already sent me.  The thoughtfulness and generosity of my friends and family never ceases to humble me 🙂  Sending you all loloma bibi (much love) ❤

Kerekere

Kerekere is the Fijian custom of making requests of relatives and friends that are difficult (and often rude) to refuse– Kerekere nomu masese? Can I use your matches?  Kerekere dua na kequ dalo?  Could I have some dalo?  Reciprocity; it’s a social system based on mutual supportiveness, and the basis of functional community life.

In the village context, kinship relationships are of greater importance than individual advancement or accumulation of wealth.  Here we receive freely from the abundance of nature: fresh fish from the sea, vegetables from the mountain top farms and forest.  “Fijian’s relationship to their vanua or land is an extension of the concept of self”, and this concept of self is one that is greater than the individual.  It encompasses the land one occupies and the community of which one is apart. The generosity of nature is thus mirrored in village ecology; when one experiences abundance, it is only natural and right to share, knowing the courtesy will be returned.

Kerekere was initially an intimidating and frustrating concept for me.  I remember after receiving my site placement learning that there are no markets on Koro.  “How will I get food then?” I asked a staff member.  “Just ask anyone for what you want, and they’ll bring it!”  “…umm… just like that, huh? What about money?” I asked incredulously. “You should try to pay them of course, but they more than likely won’t accept payment.”  Absurd, I thought.  They will have to!  Who gives food away for free?

Turns out everyone.  And at first, the generosity was totally overwhelming (beautiful and appreciated, but overwhelming). They simply would not accept payment, and my inner cynic poked it’s head out of dirt whispering doubts.  As a foreigner in a Fijian village, I wondered if maybe they just expected more from me.  Maybe they just don’t want a few dollars in exchange for a few bananas, maybe they expect that I’ll build a new school?  Or bring back each child a new pair of shoes when I return from trainings in Suva?

It’s now been seven months here, and I know what my community wants.  They don’t want a fat check or new shoes (though ya’ll at home are welcome to send that =P ), they just want me to be apart of the community!   They taught me by their example how true interdependency functions, and gave me time to assimilate organically to this way of life.

Just this morning I returned from my run and stopped by my Na’s vale ni koro (kitchen).  I wanted simply to say good morning, but she refused to let me leave without a pile of food–freshly picked bananas, eggplant and plantain.  Had she not seen how much dalo I’ve already eaten this week she would have insisted on my taking a plate of that too!  I quickly returned with my own offering: a grapefruit (which had been given to me yesterday in exchange for chocolate), ginger (also given to me yesterday in exchange for bananas), and granola bars (thanks to ya’ll at home!).  As if that wasn’t enough, my Ta soon returned, two eggplant plants in one hand and a shovel in the other.  “E vei me’u tea ka ‘qo?” Where should I plant these?  Each exchange is simply part of a network of reciprocity, continuously flowing “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” (call me a Marxist, but this socialism 101!).

Ta planting some baigani (eggplant)
Ta planting some baigani (eggplant)
fresh eggplant, bananas and plantain-- vinaka na!
fresh eggplant, bananas and plantain– vinaka na!

And just now?  The conclusion of this post was interrupted by a knock at my door: the nurse bringing by a bag of fresh baked buns.  I refused to let her leave without a big slice of moli kana!

It took a while to learn this lesson. To learn how to be apart of this system of reciprocity and put to rest my inner cynic.  But, what was once an intimidating aspect of Fijian culture is now most dear to me!  Feeling like you’re truly part of the ecology of a place is a way of living that cannot be replaced modern individualistic culture.  Connection, belonging, fulfillment… you can’t find those things in the mall or on Amazon.  Don’t believe me?  Next time you cook, bring some over to your neighbor and notice how it feels.  That right there? That is true living.

Na on her way across the village with a bag of goodies
Na on her way across the village with a bag of goodies

 

Resourcefulness: A PCVs best friend

“Necessity is the mother invention.”

Why?  Because you have no other choice!  Inventiveness and ingenuity are spurred by difficulty, be it great (I’m stranded and lost with no call credit, now what?) or trivial (I’m out of shelf space and cardboard boxes).  Boy, If I wasn’t certain of this proverbs verity pre-Fiji, I sure am now!

Surely there is no better way to encourage creativity than to be devoid of simpler options 🙂  It’s just human nature that if we have the option, we will choose the easier, expeditious route.  Ease and speed are in short supply in the village, but lucky for me time is not!  Queue the gears of imagination.

Take lunch today for example.  With the dearth of culinary options in the village I have three options, 1. beg (a.k.a. kerekere, which is actually totally acceptable here), 2. starve (much less acceptable than begging) or 3. be resourceful.  Well, “…I ain’t got no worries, ’cause I ain’t in no hurry at all“.   Plus, I actually had a solid 8 hours of sleep last night and got in a nice long run this morning; no excuse to be vucesa (lazy), and I’m quite hungry–creativity for the win!

Just a half hour later I’m happily munching away at the product of my culinary adventure: spicy hummus with a fried egg and arugula on a whole wheat roti. Success!  This isn’t to say I wasn’t capable of this a year ago (hummus and roti are quite elementary).  But, had my belly been rumbling at noon time a year ago, back in the good old US, I would have hopped right in my car and sped over to the market.  Maybe I would have eaten the same things: hummus, arugula, a whole wheat wrap, but surely the wrap and hummus would have been pre-packaged, and the arugula wouldn’t have been fresh from the garden!  (Though maybe fresh from my CSA… oh how I miss my CSA… but I digress.)

hummus and whole meal roti -- who needs whole foods when you can cook?!
hummus and whole meal roti — who needs whole foods when you can cook?!

I’ve also become quite the pumpkin match maker in the last few months.   There seems to be a lack of pollinating bees here on Koro (or at least the kind keen on pumpkins), so I’ve had to supplement their efforts by learning a thing or two about the secret life of bees.  My eye is now trained to spot female flowers like a hawk in search of prey!  What can I say? I love pumpkin: pumpkin stew, pumpkin bread, pumpkin curry, pumpkin pancakes…  I’ve got to admit, creating sweet pumpkin love gives me quite the chuckle, especially when accompanied by an internal chorus of “here comes the bride” 😉 I now pronounce you stamen and pistil: you may make Carissa dinner!  Necessity apparently breeds creativity, a touch of insanity and small gourds.

my hand-pollinated pumpkin-baby a.k.a. dinner
my hand-pollinated pumpkin-baby a.k.a. dinner

Following my hummus wrap lunch I was faced with clean up, and the realization that (vinaka vakalevu family back in the states) I now have a deluge of spices. This means bottles spilling over my small counter top every time I cook or (even worse for someone who loves to cook) missing the one spice that would complete a dish!  Ahhh what to do?  The easy (ahem, lazy) route would be to buy a shelf.  Oh yes, let’s me and my Peace Corps budget just drive over to the nearest Lowe’s and pick one up… ummm ya, keep dreamin’.

Since purchasing a shelf wasn’t an option I took to the village.  A few kerekere’s later I had a nice big plank of wood hanging above my stove.  Voila–a shelf! And a nice looking one if I do say so myself.  Farm house rustic even?  Necessity happens also to be the mother of original style =P

getting handy!
getting handy!

While looking around for shelf materials I was reminded of my basement back home.  Having resided there forty years, my grandparents had accumulated an abundance of life’s leftovers: piles of bricks from retired buildings, retired chicken wire, left over tiles…  I must admit, I was a bit ashamed when I compared my refuse-ridden basement with the tidy, finished rooms of my friends homes.  “Why hold on to old boards”, I thought in my younger days, “when there are plenty new ones at Home Depot whenever we need them?!” It wasn’t until I built my garden back home, and was encouraged by one wise individual to repurpose whatever I had lying about before spending a cent, that I truly realized the virtue of recycling!  Turns out I even had things lying around that seemed to be junk to me, but were necessary component’s in my friends projects.  Much money is wasted, and good conversation and collaboration missed, when we resort to trashing without thinking and buying without pause.

Well, I don’t mean to make this post a look-at-how-creative-I-am brag-fest!  Rather, I mean to show that we’re all capable of innovation if we have a bit of a push.   Not having the options and materials that you’re used to can either be a nuisance or an opportunity.  In the hustle and bustle of the modern world it’s too easy to decline an occasion for creativity in exchange for extra time for more “productive” endeavors (facebook? pinterest?).

I challenge ya’ll back at home, the next time a difficult scenario arises, to summon your wit and make use of what you already have.  An old dress might make a lovely tablecloth that no Target will show-up!  I guarantee on my PCV honor, whether you come out with a fabulous invention or simply a good laugh, you won’t regret trying 🙂

p.s. your pet will love you even if you aren’t the next Rube Goldberg

obligatory Peace Corps pet shot, my bff and dinner date errrday
“You’re going to do what with that? Hmmmmm…”

The Wind is Alive… and Bossy!

Sa bula na caqi” literally translates to, “the wind is alive”… and this was the given reason for the cancellation of my return flight to Koro today. Well, Saka Caqi certainly is alive and well, and his feeling extra spritely today didn’t work out in my favor! I had just finished writing my last blog post from the worn leather terminal couch when my name was called over the loud speaker. I jumped out of my seat like it was on fire, thinking I was about to miss my flight. “Will they still let me on? I need to get back to my village!” I informed the security guard. He led me to the desk where I was informed of the winds intent to determine my fate sans-consent. Turns out I was the only passenger on the flight anyways, so I can’t imagine that was a convincing reason to press on with the voyage!

Riding yet another crowded, manic mini bus, paying another round of fairs, was not what I had in mind for my Wednesday.  I imagined myself sprawled on my ibe by noon time, doors wide open with the sea breeze blowing through, snuggling with my kitty and chatting with my family… Well, “the best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry”, especially in Fiji!

Admittedly, the post-poned return to Koro caused me a bit of grief today. You’d think I should have been able to transfer my enthusiasm for going home to a pleasant day at the very least; but, alas, I’m a regular grump. I’ve spent all the energy that I had left for Suva! Thankfully the Peace Corps has provided me with lodging, so I will soothe my sorrow by writing while enjoying the comfortable accommodations. Maybe if I meditate on the beauty of spring mattresses and AC long enough I’ll get out of my funk.  It is nice to listen to music and blog without incessantly monitoring battery life!

There happened to be a few tasks that I neglected to complete while in Suva, mainly IT related, that I now have time to work on. There’s a plus! Got to do some research, printing, downloading; all the things I’m incapable of doing village side. How do I have things left to do after a month? By the end of a long stretch in Suva I start to get lazy. Technical tasks that, back in Nabasovi, I swore I’d complete the moment I got to the mainland are still low hanging fruit on the to-do list tree. Turns out I despise computer work wherever I am, despite the importance and diminished access at site. At least I’m consistent.

Speaking of errands, it amazes me how little I do in Suva compared to what I plan on doing. It seems to be a combination of a perpetually expanding to do list and urban drain. All of the commotion of the city sure taxes my nervous system. Then there is the air of Western influence about town that seems to make each day feel ever more busy and ever less productive. It’s like I create nonsense things to do thanks to the buzzing go-go energy around me. Looks like I still have some learning to do back in the village!

Anyways, I’m back in Suva for up to an additional week.  I can imagine my family will be happy to see more blog posts and video chat, so I’ll do my best to use this time for more than indulging in iced coffee (no promises).  Hoping to start my day tomorrow with yoga and a run on the sea wall—get back into a routine that feels good, even if I can’t be home.

Did I just call Koro home? Well, it’s getting there. At the very least, it’s where my cat and coffee press are… sounds like home to me 😉

my little piece of paradise
                 my little piece of paradise… it’s calling my name! 

Va’rau na Lesu Tale (Ready to Return)

It’s been exactly a month since I left Nabasovi for training in Nadi and work exchange on Kadavu. Outer island transport schedules will do that to ya! The last few weeks were packed with electricity and internet use, friends, and everything (and anything) cold (I was even keeping my bananas in the fridge). To the chagrin of my wallet, I splurged on comfort foods that I won’t be seeing for some time: apples, ice cream, burritos, ice cream, cheese, beer, ice cream… you get the picture?!

meeting up with Suva folks and the outer island crew , treating ourselves to pizza
meeting up with Suva folks and the outer island crew , treating ourselves to pizza
Cinco de Mayo with the lovely Suva PCVs
Cinco de Mayo with the lovely Suva PCVs

I’m certain that the first thing I will hear upon arrival is my favorite (*sarcastic tone) Fijianism: “Isa Keresi, Iko sa levulevu!” Translation: Oh Carissa, you are looking quite fat! Followed by, “Gunu icecream vakalevu mai Suva?” You ate a lot of ice cream in Suva?! Whether I lost 5 kg or gained it, this will surely be how I’m greeted home. Poking fun at body image is just normal here, especially in the village. It quite often is meant to instigate a reaction for laughs! While I can’t imagine I’ll ever like it, I think I’m starting to be less sensitive to it (okay, trying). When the comments frustrate me, I mentally chide myself. Am I really that vain that it matters enough to throw off my day? As an American woman I have a lot to gain (ha) in easing up on my body image, so this is one cultural lesson I’m trying to take in stride! And If I can’t, maybe I should lay off of PB Nutella Cookie “dinners” in Suva. =P I might do well if I get better at teasing back—who knew sassiness would be such a valuable skill in Fiji?

Last night as I was watching youtube videos and drinking wine with a fellow PCV I couldn’t quite place my emotional response to returning to village life. Were it a recipe it might have been: 1 cup apprehension, 1.5 cup relief, 2 tablespoons excitement, and a pinch of panic. An emotional Monster Cookie. Going from the land of markets, electricity and friends to village life is a lot for the psyche (and this is why I don’t think I could handle a mid-serve trip home!). How can I possibly have an iced mocha at 8am and no electricity and brown tap water by noon? HOW?!

But, sitting in the airport this morning, it seems my mental monster cookie has been frosted with contentment and sprinkled with extra excitment 🙂 (you thought I was corny before PC? Emotional rollercoasters have a way of enhancing that quality.) I’m ready to be back in Nabasovi, and that realization feels darn good! As much as the spoils of Suva are a treat, it gets old fast.  I miss waking up in the morning and picking fresh drauna moli, and calling lako i vei?! out my windows when people go by. People in Suva often give me a funny look just for offering a simple yadra.  Enough of buses, air pollution, tourists; I want my little (not so quiet, but comfortable!) village.

Of course I’m truly grateful that I’ve been able to have somewhat regular breaks in Suva, as anyone who receives calls at home can attest to… But Suva is like a vacation, and vacations are meant to end. I’m not in the Peace Corps to drink happy hour beers and bake my friends cookies. Those things will be available to me eternally after my two years here! The spoiling of city life has me jaded. As I mentioned in my last blog post from Kadavu, the challenges of village life are not always fun when they are happening, but they instigate growth and create the best memories!  For better or for worse, I’m longing to return to the simplicity of village life.

On the way to the airport this morning, following the usual what’s-this-fijian-speaking-kavailaqis-deal introduction, my cab driver asked the classic question: “It’s good staying in Fiji, eh? Good life here, eh?” In my minds eye I saw my breadfruit tree shaded home, my smiling sisters, and my cat lounging happily in my garden.  I saw myself lying star-fish-style on sun warmed san island, shivering and exhausted after hours of fishing in the reefs.  “Saaaaa dina!” (My translation: Ain’t that the truth!)

amidst all of the work on Viti Levu I was able to enjoy a short vacation with other PCVs at Beach House :)
amidst all of the work on Viti Levu I was able to enjoy a short vacation with other PCVs at Beach House 🙂