This will likely be an earnest, though potentially infrequently updated, account of my adventures, tribulations,
and everyday experiences as I spend two years working as an environmental Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

How to Create a Locally Managed Marine Protected Area

**Fair warning in advance – this is a really long post. It details the primary project I’ve been working on during my past eleven months here at the new site. I’ve told you all the nonsense I get up to when I’m not working, it only seems fair that I share the other half of my life here.

When I first came to this village after having so abruptly left my last site, I remember being worried about having to adjust all over again and fearing that they would expect miracles from me upon the moment of my arrival. I just wanted to unpack and at least learn the name of the village first.

The first morning I spent in my new house I was awoken at 6 am by some aggressive pounding on the railing of my porch. I had to fight my way through all my belongings littered about like I was auditioning for a game show on Japanese prime time. Groggy, disheveled, and as previously noted, a bit overwhelmed, I opened the door to find the village chief standing there cane in hand, giant glasses askew, and sporting a big gap-toothed grin that gave an overall impression of an elderly jack-o-lantern. I half expected him to start poking me with his cane as he began to speak.

“Tina, we need to meet today about the projects you’ll be working on. We’ll have to contact the turaga ni koro to get his involvement and you should really acquaint yourself with the village development committee leader as you’ll be working with him a bit and they have been asking about you down at the provincial offices and the Roko Tui would like to have a sit down to get a better idea as to what your plans are for the next 18 months. Here are some folders, books and materials that detail all of the work the previous volunteer accomplished for us and she left some specific guidelines as to how to carry on with these projects and ideas for other ones. And what are you doing sleeping so late? The children will be here any moment to brush their teeth!”

He said all this in a mix of broken English and Fijian and then gave the greatest laugh (though I didn’t think it was great at the time) – something like the count from sesame street but with more ‘yukking.’

Huh? The children will be coming here to brush their teeth? At 6 am? In my house? … All of them?? Confused and panicky about brushing teeth and lacking a comprehensive 18 month plan of action, I just sort of stood there wondering where exactly I should respond. I just hadn’t been serving in Peace Corps long enough to realize that ridiculous conversations like this that make me have an internal conniption about my apparent lack of value as a volunteer are just par for the course. Thinking back I think the chief was just trying to mess with my head, see if he couldn’t freak out the newbie for some before breakfast entertainment.

Anyway, in an effort to look on top of things (with my shirt on backwards), I started rambling on about the knowledge and experience that I had to offer and how in my last village we had been really interested in creating some tabu areas (marine protected areas) and…

Mid sentence the chief cuts me off with, “Oh, vinaka Tina, we’ll do that then,” and then storms off to accept an invitation to tea that someone shouted to him from across the village, yukking to himself all the while.

And based on that absurd discussion on my porch at 6 am, we soon began our project on establishing marine protected areas within the bounds of village owned waters... sometimes it’s not as professional or inspiring as you would think; even really important and influential work can have the most absurd beginnings.


Step 1: Form the committee

In the village, whenever a committee needs to be formed or a leader appointed to a project the villagers have a traditional way of choosing the appropriate people – during a village meeting the subject will be broached and the announcement made for people to step up; silence ensues until someone randomly shouts out another villager’s name and it is immediately seconded before any arguments can be made; then being decided, no one has to worry about the responsibility any more because now it’s so-and-so’s job.

For obvious reasons, being that I wanted the project to succeed, I decided to be a bit more deliberate about forming our committee so I called a meeting and invited a dozen or so individuals who spend nearly every day on the water, who know the area well and who would likely be the most interested in helping the project. I was showing a DVD on coral reef ecosystems in Fiji and apparently word got around that we would be running a generator to watch a movie because roughly 60 people showed up including children with pillows and of course grog. It was a regular movie night and, well, I guess the more awareness we do the better!

The following meeting was more successful as far as getting things accomplished; we managed to form a committee of interested individuals and proceeded to assign each one a role (leader, secretary, etc). The next day we started phase two – transect surveys.

Step 2: The baseline surveys

To get an idea for the overall health of the reef ecosystem that existed throughout our fishing grounds we, as a committee, went out on the water for two days to conduct surveys. Based on previous experience and having gleaned some useful knowledge from local resources, I devised a transect survey that considered four aspects of the environment to determine overall health:

            1) Corals – quantity and sizes; living vs dead; bleaching and disease
            2) Algae – quantity and patch size
                        - The more algae the less available real estate for coral
3) Invertebrates – giant clams, conch shells, crown-of-thorns sea stars, sea cucumbers
            - These first two being both ecologically important and thoroughly overfished
            - The COT sea stars are becoming over populated in our area and destroying                          corals
            - Sea cucumbers are also being heavily fished for their export value to China
            4) Fish – top predators (shark, barracuda, trevally, grouper) and butterfly fish
                        - Top predators are indicative of a healthy trophic system and thus ecosystem
                        - The presence of butterfly fish as corallivores indicates healthy coral growth

I created a makeshift underwater slate for each of these categories by stapling scrap water proof paper (that I had left over from an old school notebook) to peace corps provided laminated cards I would otherwise have used in an AIDS awareness session. Slapped a pencil onto each and voila. The transect I made by evenly hammering pieces of lead onto a 50ft length of clothesline that my brother sent me. Perfect leaded line!

One person per slate, we swam along the transect line up one side and observed our respective categories for 2 meters out from the line. Then we repeated this by swimming back up along the other side. Our entire fishing grounds (qoliqoli) is approximately 15 square kilometers, unfortunately, we only had enough boat time to complete 14 transects in randomly chosen spots throughout the qoliqoli. 

Coral that we hope may recover with some time under protection from feet and anchors.

About to go spearfish some lunch! Doing so many transect surveys can be make you hungry.

Nothing better than some fresh fish for lunch.
Sadly, I don't have any pictures of us doing transects or of the materials we used. All these pictures were taken on different trips but were more or less the same as the survey days.

Step 3: Choosing the area to protect

Once we completed our surveys, we compiled the data and, using a self designed ranking system, rated the health of the surveyed areas. We wanted to include healthy coral reef areas in our MPAs so that the damaged areas would have more success at efficient recovery (see # 4 below). But we didn’t simply make our decision for location based on this. We followed a list of seven criteria put out by NOAA, University of the South Pacific, and the FLMMA (Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area) Network:

            1) Include all different types of habitat in the managed/protected area
            2) Have several similar areas protected
            3) Protect areas that may be more resistant to hazard damage (bleach, cyclones, etc.)
            4) Protect more healthy areas over damaged areas
5) The areas should be big enough – at least 1/5 of the entire qoliqoli, with a minimum perimeter of 1 km x 0.5 km if possible
6) There should be buffer areas of spillover
7) Should include some permanent sites

Google map image showing the tabu areas and the locations of each transect survey we conducted to evaluate the reef health and choose locations.
On Boxing Day in the midst of festive meals, dancing, and grog parties, we met as a committee and hashed out our proposed tabu areas. These we then presented at the next mataqali (term for clan; most of the villagers are in the mataqali and there is only one in our village, everyone else is married in; the mataqali  makes all the decisions regarding land usage in the village) meeting, which was approximately three weeks later. After this it was presented at the bose va koro (village meeting) where it was discussed openly between all members of the village.

We had created a shoddy hand drawn map during our group sessions that we had used as a prop to discuss with at the meetings. During the bose va koro some villagers took the map at one point and started to draw new lines on it in different locations. Of course they were going back and forth in rapid Fijian, so I couldn’t really understand what the conversation was about until they turned to me and asked if it would be alright to create a second tabu area in this new location they demarcated (see the temporary tabu area on the map below).

…umm, yeah, that would be swell - !

Definitely not my shoddy hand drawn map showing the permanent (larger red area) and temporary tabu areas. Although it's not highlighted, the dark green area next to the permanent tabu shows all the mangroves that are also under protection.
Step 4: Get approval from the big guy

Well, we had succeeded in spreading awareness throughout the village and getting their overall support but it didn’t mean anything unless we got approval from the chief of chiefs of our province – Turagabale na Tui Cakau. He lives on Taveuni, the next island over.

It took another three months before we managed to raise enough money for our group to present our request to Tui Cakau. In the mean time, we went around to the families in the surrounding settlements and discussed our proposal with them to spread awareness and garner further support and respect.

On April 4th, we went for two days to Taveuni to make our case. In our traveling entourage we had two members or our committee, our village chief (who was crucial for speaking to Tui Cakau), a member of a nearby settlement who generously agreed to provide us with a whale’s tooth to offer during the ceremony, a giant sevusevu of bundled grog, and one squealing pig. Upon arrival on Taveuni we would be collecting ten pre-prepared bundles of dalo to present also.

Well, the pig died en route. We forgot the grog at the departing ferry landing point. Someone somehow forgot to call and tell anyone we were coming so there was no dalo ready for us and Tui Cakau was in meetings all day. Incredibly my two accompanying committee members pulled through by hiking into the bush and pulling three whole yagona trees and enough dalo needed to make the ten bundles (which they then did); they carried all this back down by themselves and proceeded to clean and prepare the recently deceased pig for cooking in an underground oven, which they also constructed on the spot.

By the time Tui Cakau was ready to see us it was almost 9 pm and the weather had taken a turn for the worse. A friend had agreed to drive us up to the big guy’s compound in his taxi and he apparently really meant drive us up. Tui Cakau’s compound is at the top of a small mountain and is only reachable by a narrow dirt road with steep drop offs on either side most of the way up. When we turned off the main road to start our ascent it looked as though we were driving into a wall, the grade was so steep. The torrential down pour was causing small, yellow rivulets of liquid mud to carve its way down the road; its pace seemed to be increasing. Sitting soaked in the backseat because my window was broken open, I was trying to see out the windshield with only one wiper half working just waiting for the dim headlights to jostle their way onto a tree or point suddenly in a downward position because the mud river we were driving up in this guy’s cab had finally swept us off the edge. 

After a few more minutes of speculating at our eminent demise, we arrived at the top and were greeted by an official big guy representative. Thirty seconds later we’ve turned around and are rafting our way back down the Yangtze because we were told that Tui Cakau couldn’t meet with us after all. Now normally this is when I would start to politely protest or aggressively demand that we do something because of all that it took for us to get here and we won’t be able to make this trip again anytime soon…dammit. But I’ve learned to just keep my mouth shut and see how events unfold themselves and low and behold when we had reached the taxi driver’s house again, where we were all staying, we got a call saying a rep would come down to us so we could do our presentation. 

After the gift presenting ceremony, my chief presented our proposal while I sat next to him acting the necessary part of a wall flower and just hoping everything was being said right. Well, we received our approval in the traditional sense and were told that Tui Cakau supported the plan but it wouldn’t be officially recognized until we present it at the next provincial qoliqoli meeting to be held the end of June. That way leaders throughout the province would know about it, could discuss it and agree as a group to support it. 
Yaqona root to be presented to Tui Cakau.

Our dead pig, prepared and presented to the rep for Tui Cakau along with the freshly pulled yaqona root, the two whales teeth (tabua), and the 10 bundles of dalo root in order to traditionally and respectfully request permission and support for establishing the tabu areas.

Step 5: Meetings and awareness

We had close to another three months to kill before we would be getting our official approval at this meeting so we tried to keep ourselves occupied by working on the bylaws for our entire qoliqoli, which would naturally include the restrictions for the tabu areas. We had two of our villagers attend a four day training to become Honorary Fish Wardens recognized under Federal Fijian Law. Naturally, I had to attend and get certified as well ;). We used the information we had gleaned on national fishing laws and considered what the village wished for its fishing grounds and used these to write the qoliqoli bylaws.

Working in teams at the Honorary Fish Warden Training to discuss and present destructive fishing methods.

All the newly certified Honorary Fish Wardens! My certificate is hanging in my kitchen.

Walota and Akuila - our two village fish wardens

When June finally came around my group was eager to get provincial approval so we could move on to demarcating the boundary lines. At the right moment, I was shuffled to the front to kneel in front of Tui Cakau to make our case once again but this time the presentation would be geared more towards the other leaders present. It was a bit awkward to do this because it’s apparently extremely tabu to turn your back on Tui Cakau, but he’s sitting at the front with everyone facing him. So my presentation to the attending leaders was made facing away from them. I had to hold my map behind me until my turaga ni koro came up to hold it for me.

Provincial Qoliqoli meeting held in June where our plans for establishing tabu areas was officially and publicly presented and requested of Tui Cakau (he's the one sitting in front of everyone in the back of the picture).
When I was done there was some discussion and what seemed like arguing but I was having difficulty following it or even seeing who was speaking. Eventually, Tui Cakau spoke. He thanked me for our project and the presentation and said that there was general support all around but said the group does have concerns about the supply of food for the local people if we cordon off these areas. He requested that we have a secondary meeting to follow up with the leaders in our direct area to discuss further and to determine if establishing the tabu areas would be directly beneficial to the people or not.

My time for speaking was over. So I had to simply sit and listen to what was said and to thank them once it was concluded. When all I really wanted to do was just debunk all these concerns they had right then and there so we could speak of it, discuss it and be done with it once and for all without drawing it out into more meetings and ceremony. But my respect for these people and their culture held me back, so it was back to the waiting game. 

 *Article from the meeting:

Step 6: Clarifying the benefits of tabu areas

When I heard people saying that they are afraid to implement a tabu area because that would mean they wouldn’t have fish any more I felt terrible. I felt like I didn’t even remotely do a fair job of getting the point across about the benefits of a tabu area.

Our village turaga ni koro and I on our way to Naweni Village for one of our outreach marine and tabu area awareness trips.
So I tried to make very concise points based on the resources I had available to me and present these to people every chance I had, including at those aforementioned follow up meetings. The Ministry of Fisheries even came to the village for a partnered workshop on marine awareness at which we hosted representatives from villages all up and down the coast from us.

  • Protecting just 1/5 of your qoliqoli with the minimum size dimensions of 1 km x 0.5 km will increase your fish catch in the remaining fishing grounds by 60 % within the first three years.
  • The boundary is for us, not the fish. They have a protected area to spawn and for juveniles to grow but they don’t know it’s protected; they’ll still swim in and out at will. As more juvenile fish grow and fill up the tabu, the amount that swim out will continue to increase. It’s the spill over effect.
  • Protecting the mangroves is crucial for two reasons – 1) mangroves are prime real estate for fish nurseries and will greatly increase the efficiency of the tabu area recovering fish populations; 2) everything we do on land has an impact on the sea- using herbicides/pesticides, burning mangrove trees, throwing trash and other wastes, penning pigs within the mangroves, all of it washes to the ocean potentially increasing the nutrient content and instigating algal blooms, which can out compete corals.
  • We want more than one tabu area primarily to benefit marine organisms that are sessile (fixed in one place) that adopt broadcast spawning as their method of reproduction. One of the more threatened species in our waters is the giant clam, a broadcast spawner. Say that there’s one clam in the protected area and it releases its eggs and sperm into the current; if no other clams exist close enough down stream (because they’ve all been fished out) then reproduction won’t occur. Having two tabu areas within relative proximity increases the recovery possibilities of organisms such as these.
  • The combined protected marine and terrestrial habitat from our two tabu areas is roughly 5.43 km2. This sounds like a lot until you consider that the entire village owned fishing grounds is nearly three times this size, which allows for ample opportunity to fish elsewhere.
  • The most important point I tried to impress upon all my audiences is that recovery and benefits may start off slow but that’s no reason to scrap the project; sometimes it takes a small sacrifice now to glean greater benefits in the future. This concept is one that many here struggle to grasp – they don’t see beyond today; they don’t consider future generations, what they’re leaving for their children

Presenting our tabu area project to members of villagers from up and down the coast participating in the marine awareness training that our village hosted.
Some of our villagers presenting about threats to the marine environment and possible solutions at the marine awareness training in the village.  

Member of the Ministry of Fisheries assisting our project by acquiring GPS coordinates during the marine awareness training.
Following these awareness sessions, we attended the next provincial qoliqoli meeting just last week. Again concerns were raised about our tabu areas and tabus in general but this time they gave me an opportunity to respond. And respond I did. When I was finished talking there was not a hand raised in the house. After that there was discussion about other villages wanting to establish tabu areas as well. Tui Cakau asked if the province could use the bylaws that we created in our village as guidelines for other villages looking to structure their qoliqoli and to properly establish tabu areas.

At the end of the meeting he requested to speak with me in private. Well as private as you can be when you are sitting in front of an entire crowd of people who were all trying to look busy. He shook my hand and thanked me for the work that we were doing with our project; he said that this is what the province really needs is something concrete and in black and white – structure, a guide, a means to help the villagers protect their marine resources and clear reasoning as to how such actions will help. He told me he is happy that my village is happy and wondered if he could burden me to do some workshops with other villages looking to set up tabu areas, because it’s good to conserve our environment like this - we have to look to the future after all. He paused and smiled at me. Deciding that bursting into tears of joy would qualify as overreacting, I simply said that I would be happy to help.

So within the coming month I will be traveling with two members of my committee to conduct workshops on how to set up a locally managed marine protected area. Who knows how far this chain reaction can go.

Step 7: Demarcation

We officially placed our first set of boundary markers on August 9th. I say first set because right now they are simply sticks with white flags stapled to them and we are hoping to replace them with buoys if we can collect enough of them.

Villagers placing sticks in dead coral and boulders to use as initial boundary markers.
Placing the boundary markers.
Zebra shark in the tabu area :)

Searching for appropriate holes to place the boundary markers in and we found an octopus!
The day we went out we were joined by the talatala (our district’s Methodist priest) who blessed the boundary markers and more or less made the start of our tabu area official. Naturally, upon completion of this task we hunkered down for a long night of grog drinking, guitar playing, and overall celebration.

The talatala (Methodist preacher) blessing the official demarcation of our tabu areas. This act more or less solidifies the tabu areas as being complete.

Step 8: And now?

And now what? Well, aside from trying to tweak things like the boundary markers and attain things like binoculars for monitoring purposes, we are looking to develop our tabu areas by starting giant clam and sea cucumber breeding programs. If we manage to take off with these two projects they will primarily be used to recover native depleted populations and then eventually they will be used as an income generating activity (particularly with the sea cucumbers). By farming these guys instead, we can better protect native populations and the villagers will still be able to earn money from them that can be used on other development projects.

Whew. Ok, if you made it all the way to the end here and somehow it still wasn’t enough for you feel free to contact me to see more pictures, our qoliqoli bylaws or the data analysis from our transect surveys, or if you simply want to impart any advice!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The San Antonios Come to Fiji!

It has been over a year since I last saw those parents of mine and infrequent calls of patchy service were just not cutting it. So happily, after months of discussion and hypothesizing they were finally stepping off the plane and being punched in the face with a wall of humidity. Or at least that’s how I imagined it. But apparently it was actually more humid back home… yikes.

They were to arrive in the Savusavu airport (it’s saying something that the one landing strip is paved) at 8:30 am on the morning of July 2nd, a Monday … and who ever said good things don’t happen on Mondays?

I wanted to surprise them by being at the airport when they arrived, which meant that I had to get down to Savusavu the night before and hoof it to the landing strip the morning of. As the taxi was careening down the final hill, I noticed a van full of white people drive by in the opposite direction – Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort… oh crap. Did the plane land early? It was only 8 am! The one time that anything happens early in Fiji, I get screwed! We arrive and I jump out of the car and start running around asking people if the Koro Sun van has already come and gone, completely forgetting to pay the cabbie. Apparently, there was another flight expected to land within a half an hour, which completely dumbfounded me that there would even be more than one flight in a day. Relieved, I plopped down to wait in some inconspicuous corner and began talking with this Fijian woman selling jewelry. I told her all about how I was meeting my parents after it had been so long and that I wanted to hide and surprise them when they came in, so she agreed to be my look out.

The plane lands and my new friend is giving me a blow by blow of what’s happening – it’s coming to a stop; the doors are opening; there are people coming down; what does your mom look like? Oh I see her! She’s off the plane! She’s running! She’s looking all around!

She is? But she doesn’t know I’m here! Then she came running in and sprinted right past me. I turned and followed her heading and then it became abundantly clear – bathroom. My dad followed shortly behind her. Well, I certainly didn’t want to interfere with that prerogative, don’t want any excited accidents to happen ;).

My mom emerged first and began walking towards me smiling. I thought she saw me but apparently she was just walking and smiling in relief and I had to practically hug her for her to see me. When she did it was like an explosion, she just erupts into tears and hugs me hard enough to crack a few ribs. When dad came out it was much the same except a little less wet. My Fijian friend was very pleased.

At the airport <3
Our first stay was at Koro Sun Resort, just a short trip out of town. It was only a one night rest stop before the intensity of the village the following day and it should have been comfortable and relaxing. Well, the place may have looked nice but it was hardly a 4 star in my opinion, particularly the part about waking up with a cockroach on me in my bed. I mean I can get that in the village for free!… not really their best amenity.

Mom at Koro Sun
Well we occupied ourselves as much as possible during that time by eating and drinking and taking a tour of Savusavu town, which took all of three minutes.

Shortly after arrival at Koro Sun
Tuesday – the village. The bus was late coming from Savusavu by about an hour and a half. My plan of forcing my parents to experience the real Fiji was succeeding thus far. When our stop came and we got all of their bags off, most of which were passed out through the windows (it is and open air bus) we were alone. Well, time to hike in to my house, which is maybe a quarter mile from the main road. I think there was something like eight bags between us. We managed pretty well and once we got passed the second house villagers came running out of their homes to offer assistance and meet the parents. Most of our bags were lifted off of us and the rest of the walk was easy (why don’t they ever help me with all my bags when I hike home after being away?).

Riding the late bus to the village
Three days basically flew by. Plenty of food eaten, plenty of grog drank, gifts exchanged, water snorkeled, school visited. It really was a whirlwind in which it would be impossible for mom and dad to truly grasp life in the village but at least they got the chance to see it, to meet the people, and of course to drink the grog. They brought some of this delicious staple home with them in the event that you want to experience the mouth twisting sensation yourself. 

Playing guitar and singing with my mom at home.
Drinking grog!

When we first arrived, I performed their sevusevu, which is the traditional offering of kava root made by visitors to the chief in order to visit/stay in the village. It was all in Fijian and a good friend of mine wrote it up in advanced and I basically memorized it, but my chief was all giddy at the situation of Tina performing a sevusevu, which is also traditionally performed by men.

Eventually the short visit came to a close and we were finally leaving for a bit of real retreat on the beautiful little island of Qamea. I was so relieved to be done liaising and being put on the spot and was thoroughly ready for some anonymity.

In order to stay a second night in the village mom and dad had to cancel our flight from Savusavu to Taveuni (the intermediary island next to Qamea) and we were just going to take the bus up from my village to the ferry landing point about an hour away and take the hour long ferry across to Taveuni instead. This is not only cheaper but it’s also more of a real mode of travel. I really wanted them to see what transportation was like in Fiji. Be careful what you wish for…

The bus was late but I wasn’t worried since the ferry waits for the ferry bus to arrive before departing. Well, arrive we did and wait it did not. When we got there the wharf was crowded with people being noisy and generally disgruntled looking. I pushed my way up to the dock man and inquired as to what the hell was going on.

Dock man - We’re full.
Me - You’re full.
Dock man (nods) - We’re full.
Me - You’re full?!
Dock man - Yes, we’re full!


Maybe not the most articulate conversation I’ve ever had but I think the long forgotten sensation of panic was starting to well up inside and I had quite forgotten how to deal with stress as such. There was only one boat docked. It only makes one trip in a day and docks for the night on Taveuni, the bus that just dropped us at the wharf had already left and was headed back to Savusavu for the night. We were in the middle of no where. I had no cell phone service. And this was ridiculous! Never in the history of this ferry running had it ever been full! (ok, maybe I’m just basing that exclamation on the three times I’ve traveled on it but I think most Fijians would agree with me that it’s rarely at capacity). Who the hell filled up the boat anyway? I tried to banter with the dock man some more but to no avail. When I asked him if there was another boat coming for the rest of us he just stared at me while standing on the boat and didn’t say a thing. He was still staring as they pushed off and left.

Now, if I was by myself I would not be inwardly freaking out. By myself, it would be no big deal to sleep under a tree or more likely find a family in some village somewhere to adopt me for the night. But having my parents there put my stress into overdrive. I was worried about them and concerned about them not having a good vacation. At the very least they were definitely experiencing what it’s like to travel in a developing country, things like this are par for the course in getting anywhere out here.

And then in typical Fiji fashion a solution materialized out of nowhere in the form of two white people who arrived after us and had chartered a boat from the resort they were staying with on Taveuni. They managed to fit all 25-30 of us still standing on the dock onto their boat and we were off.

When we got there all the taxis that usually wait for the ferry boat people were gone. We were just wondering how we would make it to our rendezvous point with the resort transport when a man we had been riding on the boat with told us he used to work at that resort and with a few quick well placed phone calls had our resort transport on its way to the wharf to pick us up!


I was fairly silent for the drive around Taveuni, just savoring the peace of not having to think. We pulled up to Qeleni village where the boat transfers over to Qamea Island and hopped out of the van, all of us except mom. She was still sitting inside looking ill. I thought maybe she was feeling car sick from the bumpy ride. It wasn’t until we were on the boat that she turns to me and confesses that when we pulled up in Qeleni village she thought that we had arrived. Apparently, she forgot that the Qamea Island Resort and Spa was on Qamea Island… only mom would think that the village was our swanky hotel!
Beach on Qamea

Me and dad!
Our stay was phenomenal. The place was beautiful; the food was amazing (I think I had salmon everyday) and the people were great. We did a bunch of activities to keep us busy like hiking to waterfalls, snorkeling, or getting the best massages of our lives. It was exactly what I needed to feel normal again. At some point I gave up trying to be anonymous, seeing as how the staff all knew I was a Peace Corps volunteer and could speak Fijian. But it was rather entertaining for me to go back and forth with them when my parents couldn’t understand.
Part of our bure
Dad learning how to scrape a coconut to get the coconut milk
River crossing...they had this rope you were supposed to hold but that's just silly
Swimming at the waterfall

Tragically, we had to leave a night earlier than planned because I had to dash off to training the following day and with the flights as they were would never have made it to the pick-up in time. Or at least on paper I wouldn’t have but then this is Fiji we’re talking about and the pick-up was two hours late anyway. But on the upside I got to show them around Suva, if you can call seeing Suva an upside. I took them to the giant open air market so they could buy their grog to bring home, which would have been a daunting task, but I sought out some local friends selling at a nearby table and we were instantly transported to the sellers of the best grog for the best price. It’s good to have connections and in Fiji that’s all there is.

We wanted to spend as much time together as possible before I had to leave for the pick-up to training, which meant that our tearful goodbye took place on the first floor of the MHCC shopping complex. I managed not to cry. It’s not that I wasn’t sad but I decided that crying wouldn’t improve my situation any and that I didn’t want the other volunteers to be concerned when I met them shortly thereafter. But that didn’t stop my parents from letting the tears fall. Apparently, there was another volunteer in the mall that walked by the scene on his way up to the office. He said he didn’t know it was me but remembered thinking that there were some really sad white people in the MHCC.

So, thus ended our vacation together. It wasn’t the most ridiculous adventure any of us had had but it was really wonderful to get the chance to share my life here with my mom and dad. I know they had a great time and I hope they know that I did too. And if any of you want to come visit I will make you feel at home and cook my delicious tuna burgers with bananas.

Monday, July 16, 2012

This is why it's taken me so long to post a new blog

Have you ever been really, really bored? Would you like to see what that’s like? Well, allow me…

No, I’m not really going to bore you to death, least I hope not, but I’ve been dying to write about this for a long time, because I want you to know the truth.

In order to do this properly I’ve sought help from my fellow pcvs to get as much supporting evidence (I mean stories) as possible.

Boredom - none of you know what this is until you have been stranded in a remote little village for month long stretches with shoddy phone service, no computer, no i-pod, a radio that only broadcasts urgent announcements regarding the fall of the third reich, no electricity, and a cat. Sure, we’ve all become expert cooks and stove-top bakers; we’ve read roughly 57 books (last week); and know six different ways to kill a cockroach, but you can only partake in such activities for so many hours in a day.

Now, there definitely are days when crazy and exciting and unexpected things happen and plenty of days when we manage to do work or at least feel like we’re doing something that can be categorized somehow as work. But there’s definitely an absurd amount of down time and sometimes it’s just too cyclony, or the entire village is off at their farms, or your fingers are bleeding from playing the guitar so much and you resort to, well, other things.

This is a list of how we adventurous, world traveling, philanthropizing good-samaritans spend such hours. So if you’re ever faced with a day or month of sheer boredom here’s a helpful suggestion guide - in order from normal to send help asap:

  1. Sleep – all day. Move your mattress to the floor to make it more exciting.
  1. Secretly drink alcohol out of coffee mugs in your house and then pretend you’re drinking tea when a villager comes by (I will qualify this by saying it’s more a situation of sneaking a drink in a place where booze is not allowed and not about getting drunk by yourself).
  1. Try to fix your pair of $3 flip flops (your last pair of shoes) by any means possible including – stapling, sewing, gluing, nailing or a combination of all these. Fail on all accounts and just use duct tape.
  1. Do a 750 piece (minimum) puzzle in one sitting.

  1. Try to write your name as an ambigram. Repeat for the members of your immediate family; continue on to friends until you run out…then use their middle names.
  1. Make a cross-stitch pattern for every person in your village.
  1. Paint chalk board paint on your walls (or inherit a house where the last volunteer did this for you) and doodle incessantly. Write things in a language other than English or whatever the local language is so that you can feel like you’re not as much of a child as everyone would have you believe when you try to speak to them in their tongue. Je suis un pamplemousse.
  1. Practice lighting matches one handed – for showing off at grog or in the event that your arm is broken.
  1. Make origami out of toilet paper squares – feel free to multi-task during this activity.
  1. Wage war against all manner of giant creatures fighting to inhabit your house (this is more a happy chance event rather than the typical monotony, such as giant centipedes, giant rats, or giant spiders eating giant cockroaches). 

  1. Figure out how easy it is to add the numbers 1 through 100 in your head in less than 30 seconds. Realize that there are tricks to dividing or multiplying anything by 5 and get excited when you can do it with any number in less than 10 seconds. Did you know that 12,713/5=2542.6?
  1. Make two different types of bread and bagels and then proceed to eat them all.
  1. Sit and stare off into space without moving… for hours.
  1. Play with the fish eye setting on your camera. Set it to the moderately distorted setting and take a picture of your hand and make it look like you have elephantitis. Or just take several hundred self-portraits, only moving a little bit each time so that when you review them quickly in your playback setting it looks like a stop-motion film.

  1. Sit like a ninja on your mat and destroy each fly as it lands. Continue ad infinitum.
  1. Watch the geckos on your ceiling stalk giant moths (two-thirds their body size); watch a gecko pounce one and manage to catch the moth head in its mouth. Then watch as it slowly digests the moth bits inside the gecko’s mouth, little by little eating the whole thing. (Sometimes when I find one of these giant moths bashing its head against my ceiling I call my cat in and make sure she notices it; then I take my woven hand fan and smack it so its flight path dips down to about a foot or so above the ground at which point my cat launches into the air after it; we continue to tag team it until my cat manages to eat her tasty late night snack).
  1. Listen to the bats fight over the breadfruit in the tree next to your bedroom window. Wonder what happens to the one that loses.
  1. If it’s dark out, surreptitiously sneak out your back door and embark on a stealth mission to eliminate the left over fish heads cooked in lolo that a villager kindly brought over to you but who didn’t realize that you are the only one staying in your 12 ft2 house and that you’re not housing 11 others and that you cannot possibly eat that many fish heads in a week and a half let alone in the amount of time it takes them to go bad. Manage to chuck them into some seemingly inconspicuous bush and creep back into your house hoping no one sees you only to find the 25 pieces of boiled dalo root that you were supposed to eat in combination with your fish heads. Go back outside.
  1. Watch little jumping spiders chase each other around your bookshelf. Never cease to be amused when one jumps behind a book and the other one jumps left and right in place trying to figure out where the first one went.
  1. Watch the same little spiders sneak up on ants and then get terrified when the ant happens to be walking toward it.
  1. Find a trail of such ants. Watch their route for a few seconds, then when there’s a break in the march swipe your finger across their path and let your skin oil erase the trace of their pheromone trail. Enjoy the ensuing terror and consequent pile up and ultimate success at rerouting by the one brave independent thinker…then do it again.
  1. Or sit in front of a trail of ants with various food items at your disposal. Toss a few crumbs along the line – observe how long it takes for one of the ants to actually realize that it’s food and not just an obstacle to go around. Continue to watch as he tells the others and they begin excavation. Wait until they finally decide to just pick it up and carry it back to their nest instead of just nibbling off bits and as soon as they start marching away with it, snatch it away and put it back to where it was originally.
  1. Gather together a bunch of plastic bags. Meticulously slice them by spiraling down the bag in one continuous piece. Braid them together into a rope that breaks during the first test; try again with a different style of plastic bag.
  1. Determine the exact amount of protein, calories, carbohydrates, calcium, and iron in 1 Tbsp of crushed Natrala soy protein supplement; repeat using whole chunks.
No, I did not take this picture.

  1. Walk to the ocean and fill up a pitcher with sea water; carry it back to the house and pour it into a pot. Find another pot and fill it with fresh water from the tap. Place the two pots on a table in front of you. Then put your left hand in one pot and your right hand in the other. Maintain this position for at least one hour. Remove both hands and compare the differences in their wrinkling. (Ha, I feel the need to defend myself on this one – I got the idea when I noticed that after spending 11 hours out at sea kayaking and spear fishing, my hands were thoroughly wrinkled but my Fijian friend still had hands as smooth as baby’s bottom; for some awesome evolutionary reason, they don’t dehydrate the same way as we do, so then I wanted to see how differently we wrinkle in salt water vs fresh water. Oddly, the results were the opposite of my scientific postulating and I am going to have to attempt this endeavor again…).
  1. Make lists of things to do in the painful boredom you feel for much of most days.

Though there are doubtlessly thousands of other things that I could potentially place on this list, I can’t think of any more and I can’t remember any other ones from the other volunteers, without whom this blog post would sadly still have been entirely possible, but whose contributions were greatly appreciated none-the-less.

Perhaps look out for a part two…sometime in the far future.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Words from this post: John Candy, SCUBA diving, thumbnail

 Twelve months. Twelve months?! It’s nearly been a whole damn year since I moved in with a small village in Fiji! As another PCV recently put it – “The days feel like months and the months feel like days” – I could not put it better if I tried. And all this time I’ve been doing my darndest to get a real understanding of the Fijian village way of doing things. I’m about as close to really getting it as I am to being tall enough to work in Penguins.    

Truth is, life in the village can be very intense and challenging but never in a way you expect. Resources and funding may not be as abundant as the mosquitoes on this tropical island and we may not move in our projects as quickly the average Fijian flocking to the grog bowl but work has a way of being accomplished at its own pace.

A friend of mine who enjoys giving me quizzes to answer via facebook messages (usually questions along the lines of – if my life was a movie what would the title be? or should I (I being my friend) hit on the girl with blond hair or the one with a PhD?) recently asked me what was the biggest thing I’ve learned since becoming a Peace Corps volunteer.

Well, Alex:

The Biggest Thing I’ve Learned Since Becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer in Fiji
By: Christine

The biggest thing I have learned since becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer in Fiji is to never expect that a fruit smoothie bought in town will not have a finger nail as an ingredient.

The End.

…Actually, I feel that that really sums up a lot in just a few words even though I’m joking…sort of. Alright, since I know you’ll just be wondering about it throughout the rest of this blog post I’ll just say that yes, I did indeed suck up a thumbnail through my straw and chew on it for a minute or two wondering what it was before removing it and discovering with something less than delight that their secret ingredient may or may not have been growing fungus.

But anyway.

The second most significant thing I’ve learned is very simple and a bit cliché so I apologize in advance, but it’s very true – to actually get work done while living in a remote little village, just go with the flow! Granted, often the flow here is as quick as concrete but every once in a while there are bursts of great productivity and development with the village and it can come at the most unsuspecting moments.

Therefore — you should relax to the pace of the village and let life come at you as it will but be ready on the balls of your feet to give a presentation in the native tongue about the process and importance of locally managed marine protected areas to village representatives from the entire province at six in the morning eight villages away, which you only learn about because someone is knocking on your bedroom window at four-thirty that morning to, umm, remind you.


Well, it was this precise skill of going with the flow that allowed me to become a guest on a premier SCUBA diving live-aboard that was cruising throughout the turquoise waters of central Fiji. Not exactly the definition of Peace Corps living but there’s going with the flow for you. And how could it possibly float me to such a desirable situation instead of to my bathroom with another bout of food poisoning you might ask? Well, let me explain officially:


Every eighteen months, the New England and Monterey Bay Aquariums lead a joint expedition to Fiji for research on South Pacific coral reef ecosystems, conservation outreach, and cultural exchange. They spend their ten day trip on board the fully outfitted diving vessel, NAI’A, traveling from Lautoka through Bligh Water up to Namena Marine Reserve, all the way down to the southern end of the Lomaiviti group at Gau Island, and then a return passage that has stops at Wakaya, Makogai, and Vatu-I-Ra islands before making berth once more in the Lautoka marina. My participation was spurred on by the desire to get cultural perspective from a Peace Corps volunteer with former ties to the NEAq.

Rough map of the NAI'A's route through Lomaiviti. Original photo from -

NAI'A Dive Boat
Looking down from the crow's nest.

Translation – There were people visiting Fiji that like me and they agreed to let me onto their very nice boat so that I could get some exposure to white people and feel normal again while they could hear fascinating stories of what it’s like to live in a village and perhaps actually gain some of that understanding of Fijian culture that I’ve been working so hard to attain.

This is Bailey, without whom I would have continued living in happy ignorance back in my village and would never have ended up in this highly unique and fantastic situation. You'll have to ask him why he has 'weightbelt?!' scrawled across his dive slate...if he hasn't told you already. ;)
Really though, this expedition turned out to be a mind-blowingly amazing experience and was the consequence of good timing and great people. The sixteen other participants on board comprised a magnificently diverse group of marine biologists, senior aquarists and fish curators, professional underwater photographers, and several other talented SCUBA divers interested in marine conservation.

Going out for a dive in one of the skiffs.
Even though the entire crew, with exception to the cruise directors, was Fijian, I managed to become the go-to girl for curious questions about Fijian culture. Undoubtedly, this was because people could probe without accidentally offending someone. Typically the conversations would start simply, often after I had experienced some small form of reverse culture shock, such as spotting blueberries deliciously draped over our french toast one morning for breakfast, having all but forgotten what blueberries taste like. This then would lead to a discussion about the differences in food between our two cultures and then bridge off into the state of agriculture in Fiji and its impact on the economy.
French toast with blueberries. I may have cried...
The majority of each day was spent eating and diving, as such:

6:00 am – wake up, eat a cold breakfast
7:00 am – sunrise dive
9:00 am – hot breakfast
10:30 am – second morning dive
12:00 pm – lunch
2:00 pm – midday dive
3:30 pm – tea/snacks
5:00 pm – sunset dive
7:00 pm – dinner
8:30 pm – night dive
10:30 pm – sleep

Granted we didn’t have to do all or any of the dives that we didn’t want to but I mean come on… how well do you know me? The diving was incredible! I had completely forgotten about my addiction to breathing compressed air and for a long time after I returned to my village I suffered withdrawals. 

The dive board where the divemasters do the briefing before each outing.

The tanks all lined up at the fill station.

The time between dives and meals were chock full of lectures, presentations, and discussions on marine ecology, marine protected areas, and the experiences of yours truly. My hope was that I could provide some knowledge about the Peace Corps with a little more accuracy than the movie Volunteers where Tom Hanks and John Candy play Peace Corps volunteers trying to build a bridge in Thailand while simultaneously fighting off communists, drug lords, and the military. Just so we’re clear I only fight communists during my leave days… We also made visits to villages where they are working on setting up a locally managed marine protected area; and we even made a stop at a fisheries station that is currently farming giant clams and breeding sea turtles, which are both considerably endangered. My village is very interested in implementing a giant clam breeding program in our marine protected area once it’s fully established.
Site visit to Kiobo Village in the Kubulau District on Vanua Levu Island.

Giving my presentation about the goals of Peace Corps, my projects, and life in the village.
Young giant clams (vasua) being grown at the Makogai fisheries research station.

Baby Hawksbill sea turtle at the fisheries station.

However, I think that my most exciting moment on the surface was successfully nailing my first ever real back flip off the 15 ft high guard rail.

Photo Credit: Keith Ellenbogen

I also romped around the boat marveling at niceties like napkins, chairs, and running water that was wonderfully hot. I was instructed in the fine art of making a cappuccino, because there was naturally a cappuccino machine onboard. Underwater, I spent a shocking amount of my time doing photo shoots in all sorts of ridiculous poses (but this was only when we weren’t watching manta rays feeding or hammerheads swimming by).

Reef camo.
Photo Credit: Keith Ellenbogen

Being on this boat with so many white people was also a bit of a shock at first for me, although an enjoyable one; and it has turned out to be an amazing opportunity to share what I have learned with people who were honestly interested and to gain valuable resources and information to bring back to the village in turn. It was certainly an enjoyable trip and as usual I feel as though I am gaining more than giving. Still, there may now be a few offices and homes around the western world proudly displaying colorful little drawings happily created by the children in my village for all the “white people on the big boat.” It is still incredible to me that two such places can be connected on such a level, and yet such a connection has become the norm as a Peace Corps volunteer. I made some new friends, reconnected with some old ones and had one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life.

Checking out the cards and pictures that my village kids made for the trip participants. I also had the students in my environmental club write down some of the things that they've learned about coral reefs so far. Some were a little off but some were spot on :).
Divemaster Jo on the left and Skiff driver extraordinaire Eddie on the right. These guys and all the rest of the crew on the NAI'A really made the trip that much more incredible.

Me and Ernie, one of the friends that I made when I was volunteering and working at the NEAq. He assisted with the implementation of the new (or I guess year old now) shark and ray touch tank and is now working full time with the Design Department at the aquarium on the GOT renovations. Ernie wholeheartedly believes in the work that we're doing in the village, setting up a locally managed marine protected area (tabu area), and he kindly donated to our cause. Because of his spontaneous kindness my project committee was able to travel to Taveuni Island to see the Tui Cakau, the chief of our entire province in Fiji. In order to implement this protected area we need his approval and support. Well, Ernie, we finally made it to see him and we have succeeded in getting his support. With some final touches on the bylaws and boundary markers we will officially be closing off our tabu area on June 21st after the provincial qoliqoli (fishing grounds) meeting.