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, 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.