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

Thursday, March 22, 2012

PART 3?! Good God...

I could see him. He had stopped near the bottom and was just standing there. Oh, please don’t open the ziplock bag and try to turn on my camera. The thought of it was making me anxious so I started calling to him. He turned and looked up at me with a grim your-camera-is-F@#$% sort of look. He made his way back up and over the gap to me. He gave me the bag and I pulled out the ziplock with the camera inside. It was wet but not swimming. I tried to turn it on but to no avail. Cait’iko nomu yaco, magatinamu! I shared my fluency in Fijian swears not really directing it at anything in particular. Oddly enough, though I was upset I was not nearly as upset as I thought I should be. Maika was devastated; he felt terrible because he thought it was his fault. I told him not be ridiculous that he was carrying my bag to help me, that he was physically helping me traverse this absurd rock face so that I wouldn’t be the thing falling off, and that I definitely didn’t blame him.

So, on we went. All ten feet of it. After all that, there was only ten more feet of available ledge before the wall became impossible to continue along. We looked up. The top of the canyon was only about four feet above my head but it was pushing out towards us and unfortunately the top of the wall was not flat but continued on into a steep hill scattered with trees, strewn leaves and covered in slippery mud. Even if we made it to the top with out falling off the rock backwards, if we slipped during the trek up the following hill it would likely take us careening all the way back down and over the edge with no option to stop ourselves on the ledge we were currently standing on. I looked at him and we both agreed that we had been stupid enough for one day and turned around to go back the way we came. 


The rest of our bush hike was pleasant enough, except for sustaining several dozen bee-sting like bites from some evil, clever, little, black ants that were crawling every where. We couldn’t stop for thirty seconds without letting out a yelp of pain. We crossed several more rivers and struggled up some hills so steep that we practically had to hop our way up from tree trunk to tree trunk. Meanwhile, Maika was pointing out pig footprints dried into the mud and showed me where a pig had just eaten, pointing out the details that made it clear a pig had been there recently.

Eventually, we crested our last hill and were standing atop one of the mountain ridges. We came upon a road that led to Coqe but we opted to skip our rest and just to reroute back home. It took another two hours from there but it was easy going with beautiful views of misty mountains to the north and turquoise blue waters defining the coral reef to the south. So, our pig hunt turned into more of a ridiculous, occasionally dangerous, thoroughly enjoyable, and rather exhausting adventure. Maika was so impressed that I was able to trek along with him so far and not complain or say that I wanted to go back once. I just smiled and told him that he shouldn’t be too shocked, that I am actually quite capable of doing a bit more that just spending a day stuck to my floorboards. Sometimes I just need a good friend to get me out!


We left the little settlement and made our way to a river that we were to follow up until it brought us to the waterfall. We had no troubles along this portion of the trip and I suspect that Maika may have been getting overly confident that the gentleman we just met had been mistaken; although, I was still unaware that we were going to our doom.

…ok, I might be exaggerating excessively, but doom just sounds so desirably intense! Right, anyway, we reached the waterfall after about an hour and were congratulating ourselves at our find. It was a lovely little waterfall with a cool looking cave at the top. In celebration of our hiking and navigational skills we plopped down onto one of the rocks and split a small pineapple. As we sat drinking in our juicy fruit, my curiosity was growing about that cave. I looked over at Maika who knew what I was thinking, smiled, nodded, and then went to cut a path for us to climb up.

The waterfall! Close to the top and on the left is the entrance to the cave.
I waited down below and watched until he gave the ok to follow his clear cutting up. It was only about twenty feet high but the bush was thick and steep and rather slippery from mud that never sees the light of day. I made it up quickly and peeped into the cave. It was wide and shallow and the ceiling was littered with these strange circular objects that were hanging down. “Weird.” I said turning to Maika, “What are those? From the bats?” We approached closer and saw that they were actually little bird nests and some actually had little birds in them. “Umm, Maika? Are they all dead?” We stood and stared. It was clear that there were birds in the hanging nests but they weren’t moving and they looked really awkwardly positioned with feathers sticking out weirdly. Maika went up to one and pulled out the little blue bird nestled inside. It was definitely alive and was clinging to his hand like it didn’t know how to fly. It was the kind of movement that you see bats making when they are climbing something. It couldn’t have been much bigger than a hummingbird, and I had just never seen anything like it! Maika didn’t know what they were either and we wondered whether they were just freaky little birds or if they were actually nocturnal?

Hanging nests.
With little birds in them.

I followed Maika back down the path and was very near to the bottom when I reached the last stretch that was about seven or eight feet of more or less a straight drop. It was easy to climb up since there were plenty of holds and roots sticking out to grab onto, but going down was seemingly not as simple. Hmmm. Well only one thing to do right? Just start going and sort it out as you go along. I was doing just that and had positioned my self as if I was going down a ladder when Maika pulls a thick vine that was hanging into the bushes to the side and says, “Here, Tina, use this.” I grab hold of it lean back using my feet as support against the wall and began to work my way down. Snap! There was this precarious pause where I seemed to hover there, it was long enough to shout a choice profanity and a half before I came crashing backwards down the rock. Maika managed to half catch me and we both tumbled backwards into the river.
I wasn’t hurt and I wasn’t upset but I turned to Maika and shouted, “What the hell were you trying to do kill me? …telling me to use the vine to climb down.” He laughed then swore and retorted, “Man, Tina, you weren’t supposed to put all your weight into it! It was just a vine!” I wanted to smack him. :)

Well, after all that excitement we decided that we had wasted enough time fooling around and that it was time to move on. We continued our hike deeper into the bush, following the main river (the water fall was from a side river) as a guide. Several times the bank we were walking along just disappeared and we had to walk or swim across to the other side. Back and forth, over slippery rocks, crunching over gravel that kept getting stuck in my shoes, we steadily trekked on. The further in we got, the darker the sky became. We were getting more intimately involved with the mountain range and it always seems to be raining over the mountains. Maika had taken over carrying my little sling pack because he was able to cross the water and manage to keep it above his head… usually my feet couldn’t even touch. Slowly but surely, the river banks began to disappear altogether and we were forced to work our way up through the river itself. We found ourselves in this steep canyon swimming upstream in water over both our heads, Maika with my pack held in the air above his bobbing head but the current was too strong. The narrow canyon seemed to propel the water more quickly through it, causing it to form rapids and a tumbling flow pattern. 

The start of some canyon.

We huffed and puffed as much as we could towards this rapid but it was a futile effort; we gave up and let the current push us back to the nearest bank. Climbing out we looked back at how far we had come and looked ahead at our only other option aside from backtracking, to go up. Maika threw my bag back over his shoulders and holding his knife in one hand began to climb the rock side. It was easy going at first, no need for hands and with a substantial ledge to walk on but the higher up we went the slimmer this ledge became. Instinctively, our hands sought out useful holds to help maneuver us along. And I began wondering how that farmer could have possibly told Maika that following this river up was the right way to go…

Maika stopped. And I stopped. It was the first time I had really looked down since we started and was shocked to see that we were more than thirty feet up the side. He told me to wait and then made this absurdly long step across what I suddenly realized was a very wide absence of footholds. Maika is about a foot and a half taller than me and it was a stretch for him! He made it to the other side onto a ledge that jutted out only about eight inches. He put the knife and my bag down on a small outcropping and then turned around to grab my hand and help me across. I grasped his right hand tightly in my left, kept my other hand gripping the rock and positioned my right foot as close to the edge as I could go and still support myself. Then I stepped out towards him with a long stride with my left leg. I was about halfway through this procedure when I saw just over Maika’s shoulder the outline of my bag. What was it doing? It seemed to be tilting ever so slightly. And then I realized much too late that it was finding gravity far more attractive than the rock it was sitting on. All too quickly it went from tilting to rolling and finally to plummeting down the rock face into the churning water below. “My bag!” I shouted.

I immediately shifted my weight again and was maneuvering to go down and catch it wherever the river decided to spit it out. But we were too precariously placed across this gap. “Tina, no! Come! Tina, please come!” There was a desperate urgency in his voice, and I heard it. I reluctantly turned around and finished making my way over the gap. Without having a clue what was happening, I suddenly found myself where Maika was standing as he was already making his way back over the gap. I waited. I couldn’t really go anywhere so I just stood there wondering if the ziplock bag I put my camera in would be enough to protect it from drowning. A wry thought crossed my as I noted how completely screwed I would be if Maika decided to not come back.

To be continued…

You're Going Where?! ... Hang On, Let Me Get My Cane Knife - Part 1

Yes, I'm alive. I've been dying to get some posts up for a while now but, ah well, you know the story. So here's the first in what I hope will be several new posts! :)


So, for the months of December and January in Fiji it’s absurdly difficult to get any project work done. Why? Mostly because of the holidays - people are traveling or busy harvesting their grog for the big celebrations or just taking extended breaks or, quite typically, it is just too damn bloody hot to move at all so everyone just ends up lying on the floor of their house all day where it’s coolest and unsuccessfully attempt to swat away flies with a coconut leaf fan. 

It was the last week in January, and I had just woken up and began my day by rolling from the bed to the floor to begin a long day of lying there being bored of being bored. I let my cat in and she joined me in what was promising to be a good long session of absolute nothingness when I hear someone knocking on the railing of my porch. I let out a huff. Honestly, don’t people know the protocol for days like this? Stop being the independent thinker by marching around the village visiting with people when we’re all trying to languidly melt through the floor boards in peace.

I got up and went to the door. Being vertical was a strange sensation as was the ten degree temperature difference between where my feet were on the floor and where my head now found itself all of five feet higher – clearly, one of the times that I was grateful for being shorter rather than taller. I managed to sloth myself over to the door and found my friend Maika standing there wearing his big black sunglasses, a thin roll of suki (the locally grown tobacco) sticking out of his mouth, which he was protecting from the wind in an attempt to light, and a machete jutting out from its dangerously wedged position underneath his arm. Maika is the leader of the committee for the marine protected area project we’re working on and I know him better than most in the village; yet, whenever I see him outfitted as thus I can’t help but imagine him looking at home overseeing some high-end cocaine production operation hidden deep in the jungle somewhere. I jokingly told him this once and he said “Thank you, Tina.” I wasn’t sure if he was just saying thank you because that’s what Fijians say after you say or do anything or if because he actually liked the idea of him looking like a dangerous drug lord.

My friend Maika. He's never without his cane knife and a pack of dogs.

His typical look - barefoot, suki and knife in hand, and always looking so casual... or like a drug lord.

Anyway, Maika asked what I was doing and I half-seriously glared at him since he obviously knew that I was busy figuring out the coolest position on my bedroom floor before he interrupted. He smiled when I didn’t say anything and said, “Well, I’m going hunting for wild pigs; want to come?” Say what?! Heat shmeat. I was back outside my house and locking my door having changed and gather a few supplies within two minutes.

Now, to be honest I was not particularly keen on the idea of being directly involved in capturing and killing a wild pig, partly because they are shockingly dangerous (Maika has told me that the pigs can very easily kill his dogs when they are trying to take it down and that he’s lost some more than once), but also because I just don’t enjoy killing animals. However, I was not going to pass up this opportunity to go romping around on an adventure deep in the jungle, especially when I had such an enthusiastic and willing guide.

Off we went. Since, my house is in the candy portion of our lollipop shaped village, we had to walk by half the houses on the way out. Everyone we passed unsurprisingly shouted out, “Eh Tina! Sa la’o i vei?” (Where are you going?); I responded in kind by telling them we were going to Coqe (thon gay), which is where Maika’s grog farm is up on the mountain side. We had decided we would hunt our way up there have a rest and then come back down. I thoroughly enjoyed the look of shock and disbelief that every person showed when they heard our plan, particularly that their white, female, kaivalagi volunteer was going so far into the bush and back in one day. Even most the villagers aren’t physically or mentally able to do that.

It was impossibly hot. The good thing, though, was that once we were under the cover of the trees the shade would make it substantially cooler and there were plenty of rivers to jump into to get wet and cool off along the way; the bad part was that we had to walk about a mile up the main dirt road before we reached the right turnoff into the bush. The sun was scorching even though it was only about 8:30 am and we had to repeatedly step off to the side for a quick nip in the shade. During one of these brief respites, we had just come around a turn in the road and were standing off to the side when a bull came quickly trotting by. Curious, but not altogether that surprising. Then we heard shouting and running and a few seconds later a couple of guys came trotting around the corner after it, carting with them three other cows and a calf.

The main road.

Cooling off in one of the many rivers we would soon come across.

Apparently, they were trekking five miles up the road to another village to deliver the cows and were having issues controlling them. So we jumped in to give them a hand. At that moment the bull decided to seek a bit of shade himself and went stomping off into the trees. All four men and Maika thrust their ropes into my hands to hold the remaining cows and went tearing after the bull to try and bring it back. It was a rather awkward and bizarre spectacle. There was me just standing in the middle of the deserted road in the middle of three mooing cows and a calf, staring at the trees where there was a lot of shouting, loud mooing, and tree breaking noises emanating back. Then I heard a new noise. Is that a bus? Crap.

I started moving to the other side of the road and was struggling to bring my herd with me. The bus was rumbling closer but it hadn’t hurtled around the bend just yet. Come on dammit! It was just the calf that was putting up a fight. It seemed scared while the other cows just followed the pull of their ropes like good little domesticated livestock. Three were safe. I went back into the road and started to shove this stupid cow with all my might into the ditch on the side of the road where the rest had clustered. There was the bus. Move! And it did. Finally. And I pushed it into the ditch and followed suit as the bus sped past and I got a multitude of extremely curious stares. It passed and I saw the men coming out of the bush across the road leading the bull. Maika looked up and across and spotted me standing on the other side in the middle of our tight little huddle of noisy cows and he started laughing.

We continued to help them until we reached our path and then bid them adieu as we turned off into the bush. Happily it hadn’t rained for a few days so the route we were taking was blessedly dry and easy to walk on. We continued along it for roughly thirty minutes, laughing and joking and sharing stories about our respective cultures until we eventually reached the first settlement of houses where people stay when working on their farms. We stopped for a quick chat with one man there who usually stayed in a village that was about an hour drive from ours; he traveled to his farm house by riding horseback across the small mountain range that lies between. Maika had been asking him in Fijian how we could get to a nearby waterfall on our way up to Coqe, since Maika had never been to it before and thought it would be nice to show me. 

The four house farmers' settlement
Apparently, this guy knew it well and told Maika two ways of getting there and then onto the farm, one of which he said was rather dangerous and he didn’t recommend it. I of course was blithely unaware of what was being exchanged in this rapid Fijian conversation. I only found out about the wrong way from Maika about an hour and half later as we were discovering just how dangerous that particular route was.

To be continued…