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

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What Now?

Just how terribly in suspense are you that you continue to read this blog? My consistency is least I'm consistent about that. Since coming back to Fiji a lot of stressful things happened to me to the point where I feared I was about to be told to turn around and board the next plane headed states side. Calm down - I didn't do anything wrong and thankfully nothing bad has happened to me or my person. It was job related, site placement related, a bit political, and every bit ridiculous.

In the end though, things ended up working out better than I could have hoped! I have a fun little house in a mixed Fijian/Indian neighborhood and have been very busy working at my new job - conservation officer for the Cakaudrove provincial council. See some pictures below on the waste management competition I organized for our local district - I was so impressed!

So, I'm sitting at home on the eave of leaving for a three week trip back to the states to celebrate a New England Christmas with my family for the first time in three years. I will be bringing my significant other on this trip and am greatly anticipating both the fun and challenge of taking a native Fijian and thrusting him knee deep into some good old powder. I haven't mentioned him before but with his permission, I'll be sharing some of our undoubtedly crazy experiences with you all upon our return to the tropics.

Before I post my next story about some life threatening dangers experienced on rough waters comparable to those of Capt. Bligh (well, without the mutiny), I'm throwing a few pictures up here first so you can see a bit of what my new neighborhood is like and what it's like getting a little exposure to the Indian culture here in Fiji.
On the overnight ferry to Suva - alas, the regular boat was out so they had this tiny little thing that nearly sunk on the starboard side every time it dropped the loading ramp. Indeed because it was so small there was not even sort of enough room for all of the people they sold tickets to, so we slept outside on the top "illegal" area on those giant hard red "life rafts." At least it didn't rain...much.

Participating in climate change workshop being given to all of the provincial officers in Fiji - explaining about climate change and introducing the Fijian government's initiative to assist village communities adapt to its effects and mitigate its causes

Fresh spring drinking water!

This village extends like a lollipop out into the ocean/mangroves with only this bridge to connect it. As cool as it is to have an awesome mote, this village is facing the effects of climate change - rising sea levels - and soil erosion. Soon enough this whole unique settlement will be underwater and its inhabitants relocated.
My climate change workshop group - they were a ton of fun and very enthusiastic and motivated to participate.

A few pics of the new digs:

The new house! It's really lovely :)
My house on our stay in dinner date.
My Happy Thanksgiving french apple cake :P

The Savusavu Waste Management Competition!

This is more or less what I've been working hard on for the past 2-3 months. I conducted a series of workshops in each of the nine villages in the Savusavu district on waste, its harmful effects on people and the environment, ways to manage it properly and then I kicked off the competition challenge: members of the women and youth groups from each village were to form a team that would work together to design a doable project that could properly manage some form of waste.

They could be as broad or specific as they wanted focusing on all of the litter found in Savusavu town or just on dealing with scrap fishing net that plagues their village. It was up to them to decide and then create their management plan. They then all came together last Friday for the final event where they would compete against each other by presenting their designs the best way they knew how. We considered creativity and enthusiasm in our scoring and I was blown away by what people brought forth! There were skits, poems, speeches, props and modeling! Not to mention the impressive design ideas being presented. They all did an amazing job spreading education and awareness about waste issues and came up with some interesting ways to manage it better.

I worked with the Ministry of Health to come up with an awards system that includes providing entire villages with trash bins, workshops on how to set up a composting system, tools to compost, hosting village clean ups, and providing supplies for the clean ups. All in all it was a great day!

A few of many spectators and supporters who came to cheer on their village team!

One village getting ready to perform a skit involving the harmful effects of chemical waste from spraying farms.

Judges deliberating
The first place team and their many creative uses for plastic trash!
Bags made from old potato sacks, rugs from scrap cloth, and decorative flowers from soda cans and chip bags - all for the waste management competition

A bit of the local Indian culture that I've had the pleasure of experiencing. The first few photos were from the second night of a neighbor's wedding. After that I put in some pictures of celebrating Diwali.

Indian men doing a crazy dance performance at a neighbor's wedding
Some excellent and definitely interesting music being played at ear splitting volume. The Indian woman next to me kept cracking up at the faces the singer was making!

The interluding drumming/singing band

The alter for the wedding - this is the second night at the groom's family's residence; the first night was at his fiance's family's house and the third night is the actual wedding ceremony
Mancheeka, my neighbor's daughter, giving me a bowl of sweets on Diwali.
The shrine my Hindu neighbors set up to praise the gods during Diwali - the festival of lights
On Diwali, everyone is constantly lighting off fireworks for hours into the night in celebration. Young children are running around with mortars; entire families are battling with roman candles; it's really chaotic and exceptionally loud. Meanwhile, everyone walks around to each others' houses and partake in sharing sweets. At some point our power went out and all you could see were candles and fireworks.
At one house we stopped at, these women had spent hours dying rice different colors and arranging these designs.

Well, now it's very late at night and it seems that I've contracted the I can go home sick. Again. The adventure story might have to wait until I return...

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Dumbness Continues But Luck Will Prevail!

In no time I was galloping around as desired and man what a rush! The wild bush woman, breaking the bonds (figuratively) of her boring existence, coursed through the jungle, adrenaline fueling her fire, 'Don't Stop Me Now' by Queen blasting in her head.

Haven't you ever felt on top of the world - awesome and free? Capable of doing anything you want? Usually I get a taste of this sensation when I am partaking in some sort of physical endurance activity and pushing my limits. It's the feeling you get when you successfully land that jump while skiing or when you sprint the finish line of any race. That's what I was feeling and it really was exacerbated by being largely unable to challenge myself physically.

Well, down the path I went. It took me past giant dalo plantations and copra cutting patches, vestiges of human presence scattered about. The path continued to branch until all I could mentally imagine was a giant tree laid out through the bush in the form of these dirt roads. It didn't matter much to me that they were branching; all I had to do was follow them backwards and they would funnel me down into the first one that connects to the road.

And then I got cocky.

A brilliant idea occurred to me. I remembered that the last time I had come down this path, we had continued our way right until we crossed a river, then we followed our way down the river path back to the main road. I knew that I had been running perpendicularly away from the road and if I turned right, I would eventually hit the river and I could then follow that in! How excited I was by my own cleverness at avoiding backtracking the way I had come, which would of course be boring.

So when I reached a clearing with a variety of paths branching off of it, I jumped onto one leading right. It quickly dissolved however and was decidedly no longer a path. But I didn't care. I knew where I was and I just had to keep going straight and keep the mountains on my left. Of course I would hit the river; I mean it flows down from up the mountains all the way past the road and into the ocean...I would come to it eventually.

Meanwhile, I was not just running anymore. I started climbing trees, doing running jumps over dead logs landing with a shoulder roll. I found strange little clusters of trees that formed tight tunnels and worked my way through them. I practiced my long forgotten taekwondo and remembered how to pull off a 360 turning kick. I worked my way through thick grasses like corn fields and even fought my way through waist deep mud pits.

I'm shaking my head as I'm rereading this. I mean, what on earth was I thinking to go off like this on my own? But it didn't happen that way, it was all very small and subtle decisions that I kept making - just a little further -  all with the idea that it I could turn around at any point and just go back. Trouble was, I had gotten so carried away with having fun and pushing myself, my straight path turned into some absurd maze.

Finally, I started to slow down. I looked at my watch and was shocked to see that it was 5:40pm. It had been almost an hour since I left the bus stop. And it would be dark within thirty minutes, probably less than that given the bad weather and the dense tree canopy blocking out light. The temperature started to drop and I started to feel the rain chilling my skin. I had nothing, absolutely nothing with me. I was wearing my work out capris and an athletic tank top; I had tied my rain slick to a tree once I started down the bush path, having been hot at the time.

Suddenly, I was not having fun anymore. The realization that I had not reached the river yet, which is only about 100 yards further up the main road from the bush path entrance was highly worrying. Surely after 45 minutes in the bush I would have covered that distance and hit the river? I remember it being closer when I had crossed it with friends before. But then I was following a path, and had Fijians who knew where the heck they were to guide me. That sunny afternoon sharing stories and collecting ferns seemed like a dream.

What the hell had I gotten myself into?

I started to run again. Sprinting would be more accurate; I knew time was not on my side. I found a path and turned right, continuing on in the direction that I believed the river should be in. After a few minutes of huffing rain, I came to a clearing at the base of a mountain. How the hell had I come so far inland to reach the mountains? I had no idea where the hell I was or where the river was. My only chance was to find my way back. But how? I had taken so many stupid jaunts left and right, the way back to that original path could be anywhere. I could tell it was getting darker; the sky was deepening its grey.

With no other reasonable option left, I turned around and sprinted back the way I came. I reached the path and decided that perhaps I should back track on it, thinking perhaps it was one of the many branches of that giant dirt tree. I found a path that veered left, which was still the general direction that I needed to head, well it was more correct than right or back, which obviously led deeper into the bush to the mountains. I followed it for a few minutes, it started to incline and the terrain began to change. This was not right. I turned around. I got back onto the path and continued to follow it. It was starting to get difficult to see. Then abruptly, the land dropped out from under my feet and I fell down the embankment into the river.

The river! It was swollen from the heavy rains and had a strong current. I looked down as far as I could see, hoping to see the bridge in the distance but there was nothing. I started to work my way down it with the current when a horrible thought occurred to me. I was in a slightly panicked state and was not thinking so rationally. It was nearing 6pm, which meant (on that particular day) that it would be the peak of high tide. During high tides, many rivers become flooded from the ocean and the current temporarily reverses direction along the flat areas, creating a briney pool at the base of mountains where the river flows down and meets the sea water.

What if I was following this the wrong way? The thought that I was flowing deeper into the forest obviously panicked me further and I immediately jumped out and scrabbled up the rough embankment. I fought my way through the difficult small bushes lining the water and found the other side of the path I had been on. Beginning to run again down the path and leaving the open space of the river, I realized that darkness was very near indeed.

I was very tired and I was very cold. I continued my sprinting and knew that I was going to spend the night lost in the bush. Cold, wet, alone, and hungry. There was no shelter, everything was soaked. I felt ashamed of myself for being such an idiot, when usually I consider myself to be a rather rational person. Thinking about the consequences of my actions before doing them. I was confident that I wouldn't die. That I might suffer from slight hypothermia but that I would be found by someone the next day or that I would be able to make my own way out once it was light again. The thing that was bothering me most was what the village would think not only of my careless behavior but of my incompetence with navigating through the bush; it would confirm the belief that I was an inept white girl but who was too foolhardy to know it. I feared that they would never let me do anything after that, but make me stay home and treat me like a child. Then I worried what Peace Corps would do, probably terminate my service for being an idiot.

I started calling out wildly.


Maybe there was still someone out here, on their way back from the farm or tending to their livestock. But no one responded to my calls. I kept running and calling. I was aching from head to foot. I checked my watch it was 6:05pm and I could just make out trees and the path as I continued forward. The darkness was playing tricks on me; I kept seeing branches that weren't there, swatting wildly at the air and connecting with nothing.

Up ahead, I could see a dark mass piled onto the path. What the? I approached it, still sprinting, as it didn't make much sense to do anything else. When I got close enough I realized it was a pile of coconut husks from people cutting copra. I stared at it, then noticed the angle of the path that crossed over my own and I realized that I had passed by here very early on.

Hope flooded through me. I knew it with every once of my shivering being that this was the very first copra pile that I passed after starting down the bush path. I turned left and sped along the path, feeling my energy slightly renewed. I passed through a field - you can see this from the road! I kept going. I saw something pink - my jacket! I stopped, untied it, and promptly put it on. Soaked or not it made me minutely warmer, though maybe that was an illusion. I took ten more steps and reached a clearing that spread far off to my left and right - the road.

Never in my life have I ever felt the urge to kiss the ground I'm standing on, but like a ship wreck survivor reaching the shore, I collapsed in a pile in the middle of the road and caught my breath. I was saved. For some unknown reason, I was spared the grueling and shameful experience of spending the night lost in the bush. Why was I to be let off the hook? I didn't care. I didn't question the luck. I just pushed myself back up and, though it was the last thing that I wanted to do, I started to run. This time I knew where I was going.

Halfway back, a lori stopped and gave me a lift to the village road. By the time I arrived, it was pitch black. I made my way up the village road to my house and no one saw me. I showered, bundled up in some warm clothes and went next door for our village's monthly fundraiser - a grog party. People asked why I was late, why I had cuts and bruises, why I had an angry red patch on my leg, which is a reaction to a plant called salato (named for its likeness to being stung by a jellyfish). I told them the truth more or less. That I was late coming back from my run and that I had fallen a few times during it. No more questions were asked, and we spent the rest of the night drinking grog, playing cards, and listening to music.

That night I slept like I had never slept before, nice and warm and safe in my bed.  

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Story in Which I Was Incredibly Stupid and Survived by Dumb Luck

I've avoided sharing this tale for over a year now because I am just so embarrassed by the depths of my own foolishness. But well, what's life if not a lesson for the learning? And learn I certainly did.

It all began on one fine Thursday afternoon in September of last year. It had been raining rather aggressively the past few days and our dirt roads were just a little bit too much like dirty swimming pools for most people to want to be out and about enjoying nature. I on the other hand had been feeling cooped up for days on end and was just itching to get outside. It was probably the long stay indoors that made me a little extra crazy, but I was feeling the need for a bit of excitement, adventure, and fresh air.

Before I joined Peace Corps, I had been big into triathlons and racing. Always one for doing things on the extreme side, I naturally participated in the Spartan race the first year it was offered in the Boston area and loved it! Mountains, mud, fire pits, barbed wire, scaling walls, and a fight to the death (with foam sticks) define that event pretty well. So, after being bored for so long in my little village house (not to mention stuck in the role of a woman in Fiji - not capable of much more than wearing skirts and doing laundry), how could I resist the tempting and dangerous weather conditions inviting me out for some adventurous nonsense?

I donned my running shoes, wrapped my sulu around my waist and stepped into the pelting rain. As I walked down the village road to the bus stop where I tie my sulu before starting, people called to me from their doorways or underneath their outdoor kitchen sheds asking me where I was going. I usually run in the afternoons but undoubtedly the villagers were a little disbelieving of the fact that I could possibly want to do such a crazy thing in such inclement weather.

I strut my way past – what a little rebel, I thought, snickering to myself. When I got to the bus stand, I tied off my sulu, skipped my warm up stretch, and just bounded off up the mud slick that was once our road. There were enough firm areas to make running possible, finding them and dodging puddles became a little game. I was practically sprinting I was having so much fun. Of course that died down as soon as my breath ran out around the two mile mark. At which point it became a much slower hopscotch battle and, unbelievably, I started to get bored.  

Looking around through the sheets of rain I noticed that I had arrived at a bush path that I had once followed with some villagers to collect some ferns for cooking. Hmm… dark, wet, and dangerous jungle or boring dirt road? Bush running in this weather? That’s an awesome idea! …or so it went in my head. I’ve been down here before and I’ll just stay on the path! Now I can have some real fun sprinting and leaping around like an idiot with not a soul to see me. Having easily convinced myself of my brilliance in endeavoring to escape the obvious tedium I found myself in, I stepped from the road, turned up the path and was soon swallowed up by the dense trees.

To be continued…

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Funerals in Fiji

When I received my invitation packet from the Peace Corps saying that I was going to Fiji, the first thing they said in the 'what clothes should I bring' section was to make sure I had something long and black for funerals because I would likely be going to several of them throughout my service. Well, that was a cheerful thought - Welcome to Fiji! Be ready to consistently lose members of your new community! Slight exaggeration? Maybe, but I still felt a bit uncomfortable at the prospect and a bit taken aback by their sureness, I mean how many funerals have I been to in my entire life? And wouldn't I be living in a tiny village for only two years?

Turns out their prediction was pretty accurate. I won't say I was wearing black every week but I was surprised at how frequently I was being invited to attend funerals in my area. It seemed a bit crazy to me that the mortality rate would be so high as to justify so many events. So I did a little research and came to find out that Fiji actually has a lower death rate than the U.S. So what gives?

To put it simply - community. In Fiji, whenever there is an important event, like a wedding or a funeral, the entire community gets involved on some level. By entire community, I mean the person's village, surrounding villages, and friends and family from around Fiji and other countries. All of these people will be in attendance for the event and many are often involved in the week long preparations and aftermath.

Imagine this: a person living on your street 12 houses down from you is getting married, you and every other member of your street would go to that person's house and help cook food, prepare decorations and clothing, build the arena that would stage the wedding and all those attending, help coordinate visitors and distant family members coming in, and just socialize in general for the few days before and after the event.

Now, I'm not saying that whenever something like this goes down everyone just drops what they are doing to work non-stop on said project; people still have their own families to care for and chores to manage. So depending on the size of the family, each household will send a few people down to help out while the rest continue to manage at home. Under these conditions you can imagine how one would end up attending so many funerals - it's part of being in the community no matter how closely related you are to the person or how much you like the person.

Group of villagers cutting up a cow together for an important meeting in the next village up.

Only once did I know the person whose funeral I was attending and because of this I wanted to be fully involved in the entire process, which, though it involves more people, is generally the same sort of process that I have been a part of in the states. While I am aware that every funeral is different and that there is no definitive standard practice in Fiji (with different religions and regional traditions), these are the things that I took note of:

The most notable difference was that the body was not embalmed and the people did not view it to pay their respects. Instead, the body was dressed and wrapped in hand woven mats and then placed in a plywood coffin. For several days prior to the actual event, friends and family from all over arrived to perform a special ceremony and present gifts of mats to the family for their loss.

On the actual day of the funeral, the coffin was placed at the front of the congregation for the funeral church service (he was Methodist) for people to privately pay their respects without actually going up to it in person. I have heard that at other funerals the attendees were expected to kiss the deceased on the head as a sign of respect and farewell (this came from another volunteer who was needless to say a bit uncomfortable about the prospect).

After the funeral service, the body was moved to his family cemetery for burial, which was within walking distance from his house. As far as I know, there are no general public cemeteries in Fiji, just small plots on family or clan land.
Moving the body after the funeral to the burial site. The journey included a mud hill so treacherous that a dozen or so guys had to push the truck up.
The burial itself was very informal where any young man present was expect to take a turn with the spade to fill in the hole. The preacher said a few words but nothing personal was shared from family or friends, though some did through a dirt clod down onto the casket.
Lowering the casket.
Once the area was filled in, the closest family members decorated the grave with mats, flowers, masi and colorful fabric. After some number of days (I'm not sure if they're supposed to wait for a certain period of time) the family will purchase cement and completely cement over the burial mound, adding a small plaque at one end set like a pillow.

The final plot.
Once the person has been laid to rest, the congregation returns to the person's house and partake in the funerary feast followed by a long night of drinking grog. Depending on the family and a number of other factors, the grog drinking can last quite a while, from a few days to upwards of ten. The event I was present for went on for a few days but not everyone partook everyday and most, except the close family, returned to their usual routine after the first day or two. I've known many people to go on a grog 'rest,' which signifies a mourning period and can last for months, though traditionally I think it is meant to last for 100 days, after which another ceremony is held to lift the mourning.

Needless to say, the tradition of burying people has changed since the arrival of missionaries in the early to mid-1800s. The incorporation of religion, praying, and singing hymns originated here. Today what we usually see for a funeral seems to be a mash up of the traditional ceremonies of respect and mourning with more modern views of spirituality and the afterlife. But one thing has remained the same over the centuries and that is the involvement of the entire community.

Nice Picks on the Poll - That's What I Would Have Chosen

Well, the polls are closed and I'm now back in Fiji! How time flies. I'm in the process of moving into a new house and starting a new job and will be a bit busy for the next few days. So, to tide you over until I get a chance to divulge some of my more ridiculous stories, I'm going to give you a post that I already wrote.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Help me out here!

Part of my problem with posting regular stories on my blog is an inability to come up with things that are interesting frequently enough. That and a general lack of electricity everywhere. So, while I'm stuck on medical hold with a computer I suppose I'll put in a little more effort...

Actually no, scratch that! How about you do some work here? Take a look at this poll and tell me what you want to hear! You can pick more than one answer so if I get a lot of response I might write a few of these.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A bad...No, a typical day in the life of a peace corps volunteer

Around March, my village was slated to play host to one of those big all important fishing grounds meetings like the one we went to to request permission to set up our tabu area from the high chief of chiefs Tui Cakau. That meant that Tui Cakau would be coming to our village for the first time in about fifty years. We were just all of a dither.

Part of preparing for Tui Cakau's arrival was the giant fish harvest. This would be a traditional gift to Tui Cakau and his people, it would also feed the participants of the meeting, and the remainder would go to our community for their sale or consumption.

I was very torn over this whole situation. I had a sincere desire to be a part of my community in all aspects, to see and experience new things within this different culture and to respect the rules and traditions therein; it was also important to me to continue to maintain a good connection with Tui Cakau and the other leaders of our province so that when I put forth suggestions, ideas, or project proposals they won't fall on deaf ears.

However, the very basis of this giant fish harvest was essentially going against every conservationist message I had been trying to spread. Now, we agreed in the bylaws of the temporary marine protected area that it was temporary in the fact that it would be opened once a year around Christmas time for people to have some extra freedom in preparing for the feasts of the holidays. After opening it for a week or two, it would be closed again. This, of course, is only in reference to our smaller tabu area and is completely separate from the larger permanently closed area.

In honor of this important meeting, the villagers chose not to open the tabu at Christmas time and postponed it until March. I did not have a problem with this nor did I have a problem with temporarily opening the tabu for fishing. My concerns stemmed from how this fishing was to be carried out.

We did something called a qoli wawa. It is a rather rare event and hadn't been done in our community in over three decades, possibly because it requires close to a hundred people to help. For the week or two leading up to the event, the community was busy preparing the hand made rope that was to be used. It was close to a half a mile long and consisted of beaten vines woven together with split coconut fronds braided around it.

On the day of the event, all those involved boarded one of the half dozen or so fiberglass boats we could scrounge up for the day and sped out into the middle of the tabu area (approx. 1 km from shore and 1 km from the reef break). Once the entire armada had arrived, the elders with experience took charge directing which boat should go where and in what order.

Some of the boats grouping in the middle of the tabu before getting started.
Essentially, the lead boat was the boat with the giant vine rope in it. The plan was for these guys to drive in a huge circle within the tabu area whilst letting the vine drop out little by little from the back. The remaining boats would follow and people would dive off these moving vessels navy seal style at periodic intervals along the rope until eventually the entire rope had been released forming a completed circle with divers spaced regularly along it.

Releasing the vine into the water in a circular fashion
For the next 3-4 hours, the divers worked together (with direction from the elders still leading from the boats) to bring the rope ends passed each other and to little by little coil the monstrosity up - thus making the circle smaller over a long period of time and forcing the fish inside to get trapped in the center.

My first problem with this, and I can attest first hand from the scars still remaining on my legs, is that all of the divers in the water were just trampling corals left and right in their effort to maintain control of the unwieldy vine in the current and waves. While the tide was going out and the water level dropped to waist height, the people in the water were still trying to work the vine into a smaller and smaller circle and effectively destroying all of corals within that original circle's area in the process. 

After close to four hours in the water we finally managed to close the vine into a nearly solid barrier. At this point the circle's diameter was only about 30' across.
My second serious issue arrived when it was time to catch the fish that we had trapped. While I do not want to besmirch the reputation of anyone from my community, I cannot tell you how upset and shocked I was by what transpired. For months now, I had been working with my community to understand this upcoming event and to help prepare for it.

My chief wanted to perform the event the way it had been traditionally done - using a poison derived from the root of a local plant called Duva. Basically, once all the fish are trapped in the circle a few people jump in the middle with this root, put it in the water and grind it up in their hands until its juices start to mix in. Once the fish are poisoned they start to act erratically and attempt escape at which point the barricade is able to stop and catch them. This doesn't just kill the fish in the immediate area but the corals and every little living thing within a 2 mile radius (as the poison is carried by the current and waves and apparently even a small dose is enough to cause harm). It is also illegal. Upon discovering this I did all I could to discourage this method and as an alternative, I coordinated with the ministry of fisheries to borrow their giant nets for the day, which are several hundred meters long.

The nets were dropped off the night before and I was immensely relieved knowing that we would at least be doing as minimal damage as possible in that regard. The nets were taken out in a few of the boats that day and once the circle had been constricted to its final point, the nets were laid out in concentric rings around the group with the vine.

Then someone on my boat (I was out of the water at this point to take pictures) withdrew a large flour sack from under one seat, opened it up and withdrew giant fistfuls of duva. I was taking a video at the time and you can audibly hear my shocked voice ask dumbly what that was and another girl in the boat joke to me about pounding it up and drinking it like you do with grog (which comes from a root as well). And then it dawned on me that after months of discussions and encouragement about not using the poison and after working hard to acquire the nets to use instead, the community all just nodded and agreed and then went and planned on using duva anyway and just didn't tell me.

How did I feel? Well, try to decide how you would feel after almost two years of working with this community on sustainable fishing and believing that you had garnered trust and understanding. Things like this are par for the course while doing development work with a very different culture and I knew that but it didn't make me feel any better.

Just after using the duva, the divers started collecting dead/dying fish and throwing them into the boats
Almost the full haul - all in all there was several thousand fish of all manner of sizes and types
After all the fish had been collected, the vine was tossed in a boat and we all returned to shore. The fish was then brought up to the village center - the bulk of the catch was to be brought across to Taveuni for Tui Cakau and his community as a gift while the rest was divvied up into equal piles for the families of the community and for the meeting. The village was proud of their gift to the high chief as they were able to send several thousand fish and many of them were large in size. Later, Tui Cakau shared to me in private that he was impressed with the gift and was convinced of the effectiveness of creating tabu areas on recovering fish populations and size.

While I still do not agree with the way things unfolded during our qoli wawa and still can't help but feel a little betrayed I am actually appreciative of many things.
  • That I was able to see and experience this centuries old and rather rare method of group fishing in a subsistence community. I imagine that centuries ago when they were first discovering the powers of the duva root and how useful a tool it could be in catching fish, the reefs were healthy and bountiful and could handle the very occasional mass fishing event. 
  • I have respect for the skill they have honed in preparing for and conducting the event with the efficiency of the military and I was glad to have learned the process, which not only helps me understand their culture, history, and traditions better but also gives me a better perspective of their 'side of things' when it comes to me giving them workshops on the reef ecosystem and sustainable fishing.
  • In the end, a silver lining shone through when the results of the event reaffirmed Tui Cakau's support and belief in the effectiveness of protected areas on recovering the reef ecosystem. 
So, does this mean that I believe the ends justified the means? Well, no, definitely not - I'm still an environmental conservationist! - but I will be grateful when something positive can result from something so negative.
The meeting went off without a hitch the following day. Each village has their own special relationship with the high chief and as such performs their own unique ceremony upon his arrival. In general, however, this involves the presentation of grog by the men, mats by the women, and some kind of food from everyone.

Awaiting Tui Cakau's arrival with some villagers

Tui Cakau - I took this picture whilst presenting mats with the women.

The men performing the grog ceremony

Presenting the food - in this case it was a whole roast pig and some roasted taro root
Once the beginning ceremonies are completed, which can sometimes take up to two hours (I think ours was only about an hour or so), the meeting begins. These are known to last for 3-4 hours as there are all sorts of topics being discussed including last meetings minutes, new projects, the scholarship fund, general issues, and sometimes me.

I'm usually the last person on the docket to be given time to speak. This can be particularly frustrating if you are personally asked to prepare a specific presentation for a meeting and then during the meeting be asked by said requester if you still have something you want to say because otherwise we can adjourn and everyone can go enjoy lunch, which is always met by a lot of nods from hungry member participants, and when you say yes you'd like to speak be informed that you are being allotted 1/10th the amount of time expected and have already lost much attention from those just wishing to fill their stomachs.

I believe I more or less shouted my presentation at the increasingly restless attendees as fast as I possibly could to fit my time slot. But, I know at the very least I had a handful of people nearest to me listening intently and managed to have some nice in depth conversations with some after the meeting finished. Sometimes I think I'm more productive when I'm just sitting and chatting informally.

In the end, we had several people come up to us (my counterpart and I) telling us they couldn't believe how big the fish were that we were serving for lunch and that they wanted us to come and give presentations directly in their village on creating and managing their own tabu areas (since they couldn't fully get the gist of my presentation that day). It was heartening to hear that people were beginning to see the changes in the reef and the importance of protecting some of their own environment.
Giving my presentation on managing one's own tabu area or maybe shouting it
The rest of the evening was spent drinking grog and celebrating the successful completion of the event. So then what was the point of this whole tale into the trials and tribulations of preparing for and carrying out this meeting? To divulge just how challenging, frustrating, and time consuming such projects can be but also to emphasize the fact that though such struggles are to be expected when in the early stages of developing new topics/ideas like environmental conservation and sustainable fishing, small successes and steps forward can be possible even if they come in unexpected forms.

I've decided, therefore, to not be discouraged into uselessness by my failure to convince my community to not use poison while fishing but rather to strive on and try a different path. I'm looking forward to testing out my new position as a provincial environmental resource management volunteer in town and to see what new ways I can reach out to my community because those small successes are worth it.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

8 Months in 8 minutes! (well, maybe 88 minutes)

To my three potential blog followers:

Please forgive my eight month foray into the land of unmotivatedness and for not posting any news about my many adventures whilst living under a rock.

Effective immediately, I am initiating a blogging do-over (or maybe just a recharge?) and vow to at least attempt more earnestly to update my blog with interesting pictures and stories. So, until I can come up with an interesting story, here's a slew of pictures from the past eight months that are not necessarily in any particular order and my be slightly shoddy due to the fact that my camera was stolen sometime around mid-April. And, yes, you should give me credit for taking pictures without a camera.

But first, a quick update: I have completed my two year service with the Peace Corps and have since moved out of my village. However, I applied for a third year extension in town and it was granted! So, now I'll be the same old integrated environmental resource management volunteer, ahem, that I always was but now working at the provincial office in town I'll be able to conduct workshops and trainings on the good stuff in communities all throughout our province!

Found this juvenile reef shark caught in someone's longline.
Just like it sounds - a longline is a length of fishing line with hooks spaced at various intervals that the fisherman puts out for a few hours or overnight and then returns later to collect what is caught; they are prone to bycatch, especially sharks and sea turtles. There are no established rules in Fiji regarding the use of longlines (with exception to adhering to lawful hook sizes) but sadly this was the third time I came across a dead shark. The first time was with a large female reef shark that was pregnant with 12 pups - all of which died. Awareness about this sort of thing is all part of the job but the full message doesn't always make it across.

Working with some of my villagers to create a miniature sea cucumber raising pen.
Eventually, with assistance from the Ministry of Fisheries, we will create 4 pens that are approximately 100 m2 and will each house approximately 1,000 sandfish sea cucumbers. The goals behind this are:
  • A) to stop harvesting these highly lucrative (in the Asian markets) sea creatures from the deteriorating reef and thus help the wild populations and the reef recover; 
  • B) to act as a sustainable income generator - after two years, the villagers will be able to harvest these sea cukes instead and will be able to raise upwards of $50,000 in the process; and 
  • C) to give added motivation for the locals to continue to respect their tabu area, as these pens will be situated inside and are an investment.

My counterpart and I worked together on creating an official sign that would declare the boundary of our permanent marine protected area. We didn't have any colorful paint at the time except a primer that made things look pink when applied so... (I edited out our village name)

'Our' Village Marine Protected Area - Fishing and Anchoring are Forbidden

My counterpart jumping off the beacon marking the southeast corner or our tabu area. The beacon marks the channel that leads into a nearby harbor. Meanwhile, I'm speeding around in the boat threatening to ride over to Taveuni (in the distance).
We thought the orange cone would make it a bit more noticeable in an important sort of way to any yachts or fishing vessels that might be anchoring in the neighboring harbor.


Within the past few months, my village community became active in the provincial sports league. The guys formed a rugby team that they train with every day and then on Saturdays travel to different spots around the province to play against other villages. I was having fun watching and rooting our team on until the women decided they were going to start up a netball team for competing as well. They asked me to join, which I was stoked to do (it's not like I have much opportunity for displaying athletic ability whilst wearing my ankle length skirt and hand washing laundry like a good lady of the village). Then I realized I don't know how to play netball. Then they made me the starting center. K...

The village rugby team playing in a weekend tourny up the coast.
Playing in a netball tourny! If you squint you can see me kind of in the middle in the back wearing black - I'm the one with white skin.
Netball turned out to be a ton of fun! It's kind of a crossover between basketball and ultimate frisbee. If you have the ball you can't move with it but have to pass it on and the hoop has no backboard so there's a lot of swishing involved. Luckily, my job was not to shoot but rather to run up and down the field trying to do everything else. We didn't win many tournaments but I had tons of fun looking foolish anyway. And most tourneys ended with a grog drinking dance party!


This last semester that I had with the kids I decided to take on a new topic - world geography. Most kids in Fiji have a difficult time visualizing the other islands within their own country let alone have any perspective on where America is in relation to Europe. The word for a white person is kaivulagi, which means native of a strange land but is translated as European. It doesn't matter where you are actually from; if you're white, you're a European.

So, I decided to become part of the World Map Mural club within Peace Corps and initiate said project with my class 7 and 8 students at our primary school.

The origin of the world map project in Peace Corps:

The beginning. This is the concrete wall of the primary school's outdoor bathroom. My counterpart and I measured out a 2:1 rectangle, taped it off and painted the interior with the bluest paint we could find. I know... it looks grey, but you work with what you got!

Once the area was prepped, I laid out a giant grid that the students then used to carry out task number 1: drawing the map.

Once the map was completely drawn, we began phase 2: painting! Hands down the best part of this whole thing. The kids really got into. We painted one color each day - that way we didn't risk two neighboring countries blending their colors.
Slowly but surely the colors began to almost looks like a real map!
This is more or less the completed map! We still want to put the Fiji flag in the upper left hand corner and fill in the Peace Corps symbol in the upper right.
I was super proud of the kids and the work they completed and the enthusiasm they had for the project. I lied about the best part being painting it - the best part was having all manner of students come up to the map and quiz each other on geography and get excited and surprised when they saw how far away certain countries are from each other or how big they are. It was perhaps one of the most satisfying things I've been able to do while serving here. Seeing them so excited about this thing that they could use and learn from was amazing!

The last day we had a jeopardy party! Three teams - 2  boy teams and 1 girl team. I'll give you one guess which team won.
Working on an all play question - so it wasn't exactly like jeopardy...
Our project group!


During my last month in the village we did our last tomitomi (picking up trash) day with the village kids. So, being that it was the last one everyone and their mother came out to participate. Seriously, kids were coming out of bushes and sliding down coconut trees. Eventually, we had somewhere close to 35 kids marching along our village road in a rambunctious parade. Shockingly, they still managed to pick up trash and not just run around in a wild frenzy.

Two of the kids working together to put the right trash in the right bag.
Little Viwa! Always wants to carry the trash bag.

Group shot! I think half of the group was off running amok.

Here's most of them just dying to break down my porch and swarm into my house to get their toys! That was a challenge... but luckily I had some friends come to my aid - you know the kind that can actually communicate in Fijian.

Me and my little namesake! Kirisitina (Christine turned Fijian - just throw a vowel between every constant and one at the end)


So before I could depart from my village, the place that I called home for two years, we had to partake in all manner of ceremony and partying to "properly send me off." The first part involved me presenting my itatau, which is typically a gift of a bundle of grog, to my chief and community. I speak about my time with them, how they've made me a member of their families, about the work we've done together, about my hopes for their future, and an apology for any of my own misdoings during my stay - that's the basic recipe for the goodbye speech. The chief will accept this and speak in turn. Then to seal the deal, of course we partake in a bit of the grog I presented.

The grog that I presented at my going away ceremony for the village.
I repeat this process with any number of close friends and families that deserve a special parting as well as with the school. Often they will do something in turn such as preparing food, speeches, and gifts.

The going away ceremony performed for me by the school. I presented grog and gave a speech and they returned the speech and prepared dinner.

Master Vavi - he was my counterpart for our coral farming project last year.
 My final day in the village was spent at a giant party with all the members of my community present. They presented me with kuta mats, prepared a feast of a dinner, and even agreed to lift the ban on dancing so we could make it a real party! I gave another speech; they gave more speeches. Much grog was drank and food eaten. I had blisters on my feet the next morning from dancing so much.

The high table for my going away party in the village! Only the chief and the elders sit up here. I was included because I was the guest of honor.

That's me on the right and my chief on the far left. The village presented me with three hand woven kuta mats (kuta is that rare swamp grass that gross some places in Fiji, and is considered more valuable than other types of mat - our village is known for it).

The women and children at my party, just hanging out and waiting for the party to begin!

And then came grog. Closely followed by dancing! :D
The next day was my last in the village and was very brief. Many tears were shed - though in Fiji it is tradition to force cry at a supposedly sad event because they say it makes it pass easier and won't invoke bad spirits. So I'm not sure whether my friends were actually tearful to see me go and couldn't help but cry or whether they were turning on the water works so no bad spirits would come for them and their seemingly hardened hearts. Either way it didn't matter much to me as I surprised even myself by bursting into tears as everyone came up to hug me and wish me on my way. My hired ride showed up and we packed up all my belongings into his pickup and off I went to my next job and adventure in town!

Stay tuned - more to come!