Friday, 26 December 2014

In the deep end

I was looking forward to starting work. Really only knowing only one person in town, my flatmate who I had just met, meant I was left at a bit of loose end. Suva isn't that big to explore. Mind you, now that I'm at work I don't have time to explore it. Work has been keeping me busy.

A bit of beaujolais including beef bourguignon.
As far as volunteer assignments go this one is on the ground running productivity and outputs within the first week.

By week two, I've released a story to the international and local media. The usual IT issues are around. A new IT set up is never smooth sailing. Add to that a snail's pace laptop from last century and frustration creeps in. Thankfully all the work peeps are great to work with. My humour doesn't have to have subtitles for non English speakers.

A Suva sunset
There have been a number of functions I've attended.

A Beaujolais night with French food and wines put on by the local French/Fijian language school.

A meet and greet drinks nights to welcome moi.

Just your regular Monday afternoon walk to get groceries for dinner but stop off for a F$2.50 (A$1.50) beer along the way.

A fundraising night for a Fijian village to raise money for footpaths. A night full of Fijian food and entertainment. (The white people's table was piled high with dishes and dishes of food.) Everyone else got a plate served to them. I hope that isn't a left over custom from colonial days.

Hundreds of burrowing starfish in the
shallows of Leleuvia.
An overnight trip to Leleuvia island to laze in hammocks for a couple of days. That was tough.

The quiet side of Leleuvia

A village settlement in Suva
A wine tasting night that included 15 wines for F$20. Again, tough.

A Hunger Games feast-in to rewatch the previous instalments before heading to the cinema for part 1 of instalment 3.

A Cards against Humanity games night with a side serve of gumbo.

Birthday drinks, more birthday drinks, going away parties, two Christmas barbecues, a quiz night, two days in Nadi and Lautoka for work, brunches, a long haul trip to an outer island for work, a three day event in the park and the list goes on.

It has been full on.

After Australia's G20 summit we had a visit from the Indian PM Modi. The story goes he got a pig on the spit welcome although he is a well known vegetarian. Well done Fiji!

His 15 hours blow-in visit was heralded by street closures, massive billboards welcoming him. He departed with less moolah than he arrived with by donating India's money to climate change for Fiji.

Two days later the Chinese PM (President) blew in. He stayed longer. Other billboards were recovered with welcomes for him and he departed with less of China's dosh in the bank also.

I enrolled for Fijian classes and got my work permit. Yay! So then I got my Tax ID (which you can't do any of these following things without one) opened a local bank account and got my Fijian drivers licence, able to connect electricity and internet.

Meeting some village cuties.
Then it was time for a move.

I found an apartment across the street. I had it and then I didn't have it and then I did again. Most inconvenient. Of course, the final green light came when I was on the opposite side of the island looking at ads in the newspaper.

This was in the midst of a weekend of driving around Viti Levu, a visit to a village, a birthday party back in Suva and another drive to Nadi before a late Sunday night return to Suva.

The weeks have flown by. I seem to bounce from one thing to another. In the four weeks since I've moved into my apartment I've been home for dinner three nights. It has been crazy.

There has also been a work inspired river rafting day 24km down the Navua River. This in itself was spectacular. The narrow and high sided gorges at the top widen out dramatically to lush green fields further down the river where villages are.

Ancient coral is embedded in the rock face. At one stage these mountain peaks were significantly underwater. You have no choice but to admire and fear the power of mother nature.

There had been heavy rain the previous week and again the night before. The rapids were rapid and the river brown with stirred sediment. Jessica Simpson and her ex came in for their honeymoon complete with an entourage of helicopters and cameras. The depth of reverence and respect shown for the ancient landscape may be reflected in the longevity of their marriage. Just saying.

After a day of bracing in a raft I could hardly walk. Suva is full of inclines starting with the driveway I have to mount to make it to the roadway. It was a painful week with me feeling very much the grandmother that I am.
Simple but elegant @ the Pearl.
A work Christmas party at the Pearl Resort came after three intense days with youth building two houses in a park in town. And before a trip to an outer island to officially hand over a completed water project.

I've started Fijian classes. Au voli vosa vakaviti. I study Fijian language. The world is a small place. I walk into my first Fijian class and I am recognised by a guy I was introduced to in the north of Bali this time last year. Turns out we also know people in common.
An overnight stay at Anchorage near Lautoka.
I'm in town one Saturday before I move. I need eggs and frozen pastry to make quiches. I go into a supermarket and while I've found the eggs I can't find the pastry, so I ask. The shop attendant tells me they don't stock it in that store but they do at Damodar City (the other side of town).

Picture it: I'm standing there with my eggs, asking about frozen pastry. He tells me of a store that stocks it and I ask if it is open tomorrow. Q and A on grocery items is over.

He then asks me if I am from the cruise ship in port. Really? Buying a dozen eggs? I'm tempted to tell him yes, I'm the ships chef.

How many tourists get off cruise ships and go searching for eggs and pastry?

Sunset at the Warwick resort.

Confusion reigns supreme when it comes to street signs in Suva. Is it MacGregor or McGregor Road? Knollys or Knolly Street? Riley or Rilley?

Whatever, it all seems 'goodenough'.

close enough is Goodenough.
A work trip to an outer island paints a picture of simple living. Living off the land, or the ocean, as the case may be. 

It also shows how easily communities on these islands can be cut off. Our 20 foot fibreglass dinghy trip was not good for posture or bone alignment. An hour and a half of relentlessly smashing down over white caps on a fine day with a bit of a breeze clearly highlights how this journey would not be possible during an active cyclone season. 

This particular island, Viwa, is flat, basically a coral atoll. They have less rain in the west (where this island is) and they have been in drought during this year. Not a good scenario  for an island that has no natural water source other than rainwater. 

Fiji for a tropical country with reasonably high rainfall has little concept of guttering on houses. And fresh water, being a basic need for all human life, is sometimes scarce in places like this without the basic infrastructure. Around these outer islands desalination plants exist. It is a stark contrast to Australia, the dry continent, that has guttering on every house and very little investment in desalination. 

Those adventures have brought me to the fringe of the festive season. Plans are to returned to Australia for Christmas and my daughter's wedding for eight days. Selamat Natal - until the New Year!

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Markets, museum and movies

Rows upon rows of fresh fruit and veg are at the Suva Markets. 

They sell things by the 'heap'. So a heap of pineapples has about six pineapples in it. A heap of mangoes has 4, a heap of pawpaws has 5. If the heap can fit in or balance on a plastic bowl it does. Everyone seems to use the same standard measure and the prices have very little variation. A heap of pawpaws was FJ$2. There were bigger ones for FJ$3 but they didn't fit in a plastic bowl.

Everything here seems to come in a miniature size,  except for the breadfruit. The pineapples are small and ridiculously sweet. A small one, once peeled is a bit larger than a big apple. It is like all the fruit comes in individual portions. My grandmother always said good things come in small packages and when it comes to fruit here, that is true. I don't know if the farmers are too impatient to let the produce grow any bigger or it's to do with environmental adaptation but the results are delicious.

I walk down the hill to the market which takes about 25 minutes. Once I've loaded up it is time to catch a taxi back up the hill at a cost of about FJ$2.70 (maybe AU$1.60).

One of the great things about finding accommodation before arrival is that settling in and meeting people is easier. There is plenty of Fiji time happening already so if you layer that with not being able to find a place to live and having to work out sim cards, phone credit, exchange rates, bank fees, internet, food supplies, etc time would be gobbled up very fast and the process of settling in would take longer. 

A group of volunteers came in earlier this year. It took them weeks of living with bed bugs before they could find suitable accommodation that had some sense of permanency to it. Apparently the easiest way to find accommodation is by word of mouth which kind of makes real estates defunct for rental purposes.

Tuesday rolls on and it is Melbourne Cup day, 4 November. Since my arrival I have seen banners advertising betting for the Melbourne Cup. Indonesia is a non betting country so this advertising surprised me on my first day.

whipper snippering acreage
I visit the Fiji Museum. It is set at the rear of an area called Thurston Garden. When I arrive the gardens are being 'mowed'. With whipper snippers. Grass grows quickly in the tropics so I get the need for regular maintenance but a whipper snipper? Vast tracts of land. Whole backyards, parks, gardens. 

At least these guys were wearing knee high boots, long protective aprons, goggles and ear muffs. The other day it was a barefoot operator with no protective gear at all. Mind you, I never saw a mower the whole time I was in Jakarta but it isn't renowned for its abundance of park areas.

Thurston Gardens
Now defunct military uniforms -
I've never thought of a puffer fish as head wear
The museum is interesting enough. 

It touches on when the islands were settled, colonisation, independence and races and religions. 

With a small side serve of nature. 

I have no desire to run into these
beetles, larger than my camera
A wedding headdress -
teased coconut hush and shells
Colonial influences

Bollywood badness. God, Bollywood movies are crass.

Happy New Year is an Indianised version of Oceans 11. It is blinged to the max with 100 costume changes, includes a vomit-worthy romance, and a secondary story of winning the world dancing competition set in Dubai with luxury everything. Not only do the Indian actors overact, the storyline runs just short of world domination because their martial arts skills are better than their Asian counterparts, their motivations are righting wrongs and saving dying parents, while they are rescuing a child in danger (enough to be elevated to cult worship status) and teaching virtuous skills to small children. Oops, don't stop there! The icing on the cake was they won the World Dance Championship (they got into it through vote rigging and then a pity vote, not for their talent) and their 'dancing' evolved into badly overlaid singing to win. WT....?

That is three hours of my life I will never get back. I now harbour no regrets that I never went to see the Sunday afternoon Indian movies at the Grand Indonesian cinema whilst in Jakarta. But there is obviously a market for crass movies. I'm just not in the target audience. 

Sushi and sake rounded off the day. 

Grand Pacific Hotel

Other sights around town include the Grand Pacific Hotel. Set on the waterfront it screams opulence. The story is that it was closed for many years and has been refurbished and reopened recently.  

The staff are dressed to impress. The dude that opens car doors is hard to miss with his hat.

Of course, there are the obligatory KFCs and McDs around as well as Gloria Jeans coffee shops. 

The hat adds another 20 cm to his height.
Mixed in with a sikh temple, a mosque and numerous churches Suva is a visual landscape of diversity.

You can walk most places although for me it is mostly downhill going initally. Loaded up with groceries or shopping means a taxi ride back up the hill. While the centre of town is flat it is only a few streets back from the waterfront where the climb begins. 

From another angle I walk down to the University of the South Pacific (USP) to check out their campus and bookshop.  

And from there it isn't far to another shopping centre with cinemas. 

Another three hour marathon is spent watching Interstellar

The cinemas are reasonably cheap. Regular cinemas at about FJ$6.50 with the reclining chair cinemas being FJ$10. Much cheaper than Australia but not as cheap as Jakarta. 

Bula  - McDonalds makes you welcome in any language
Like Jakarta, there are security guards at apartment blocks. Unlike Jakarta ones, they aren't smilers or greeters. 

It is a shame because they are the first point of contact. I see on an expat facebook page that this is a regular complaint. 

I've also heard but have not yet experienced the shop stalkers. 

A sikh temple
I got used to this in Jakarta when you would have a shop assistant at your elbow every step of the way. At times it was an invasion of personal space, it gave the impression you weren't to be trusted and when they started suggesting what you should buy when you were only browsing was nothing short of annoying. 

I did experience here though, the cash register chick ringing up the goods and then passing them to the security guy who checked the product(s), in my case there was only one product, and he checked the register receipt and then stamped it before I could depart. Mind you he stood beside her and watched her ring it up as well. A bit of overkill for a packet of stick on hooks. 

Fun Fiji fact: only 4 of Fiji's 27 airports have paved runways. 

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Dawn in/of a new life

Early rising, my body clock is just as confused by the time as I am. I was out walking about 6am.

I was fortunate enough to make contact with someone who had a room to sublet in a two bedroom apartment before I arrived. My arrival was too late in the day to turn up with a million suitcases and expect open arms and a hot cup of tea from a complete stranger. So the plan was the morning after arrival I would loiter around the footpath outside the apartment block at 7.30amish to meet my proposed roomie.

With time to kill I lapped a couple of blocks to try and get my bearings before I made my way down to the town area finding a hot bread shop open. Thankfully, I had ordered coffee and food before the mad rush of people who spilled in through the doors about 10 minutes after me. The place was chockers. Note for future reference: don't go to the hot bread shop at 6.45am on a weekday if you want to be served that same day. 

By 7am I had seen more people in that shop than I did at the domestic airports in both Suva and Nadi.

By 7.30am I was loitering as arranged and met my proposed flatmate. The next few hours found me moving my luggage into my new abode and then heading off to the volunteer office for orientation. 

My schedule for orientation was to be for the remaining two and a half days of the week. But with a big dose of Fiji time full days became a half hour session and orientation fell over into the following week also.
I was looking forward to a two hour Suva tour which was on the schedule. It ended up being a half hour whip around town, this is the hospital, this is the private hospital, this is the Australian High Commission and up the road is the US Embassy. Oops, out of time, here we are for your next appointment.

That appointment was with a doctor. She was very informative.

"Yes, you can drink the water here. The infrastructure is old so the ground water tends to leak into the pipes. It won't kill you but you might get sick." 
"We treat everything with antibiotics. Tests take a long time to do and aren't reliable, or accurate in most cases, so we just treat with antibiotics. You know how it goes, when in Rome…." 
"Dentists? Oh yes, there are two types here. The ones that have been trained overseas and the ones that have been trained locally. The ones trained overseas will give you dental treatment; the local ones just pull your teeth out. Fixes the problem." 
"Yes, we were a bit late in getting on top of the dengue fever outbreak last year. You know, lots of talk about elections coming up this year, we got distracted. But we will be on top of it for next season. When is next season? October, November. Yes, that would be now."
I wondered about her bedside manner. She wasn't cushioning the blows so far.

The first week finalised with a cool beverage overlooking the bay on sunset. No, there was no sunset visible but the Fiji Gold is a nice drop. 
The weather has been overcast since my arrival. At some point of the compass ominous rain clouds are threatening. When they open up it isn't for long and when they aren't overhead and the sun peeks out it is hot. Not oppressively humid as yet. Mind you, this is the doorstep of the rainy season so it won't be far off. The locals are talking about it being unseasonably cool. The nights are 26 ̊C. Not in need of air conditioning.

I checked out grocery shopping. Anything imported is expensive. Local produce cheap. I was so excited to see this in the shops. I haven't seen one of these since I left high school. They were a favourite back then. 

Jelly tip - a substitute for a gaytime 

Solo fisherman off the seawall
If it isn't the sea it's the mountains
Heading down towards one of the unis
My new flatmate had already arranged to go to basket weaving classes on the Saturday so I tagged along for the adventure. 

You weave the inside layer 
We were taught by two local Fijian women. Their design of weaving is unique to their family which is part of their livelihood. So, we can't be showing any other Fijians how it is done. 

Staining the outside layer with
boot polish before we burn it

My teacher's name was Evie. She was a hard task master. Showed me once and instructed, "Weave."
She continued to use that word like a riding crop until I picked up my pace and finished the bag well before the others. 

The use of dark tan shoe polish over the outside of the woven bag gives is a polished glow after it has been set alight. 

You would think natural materials such as fronds from trees would be an extreme fire hazard when holding it over an open flame. Not a fire extinguisher in sight. 

And you hold it over the open flame with your bare hands.

Adding the decorative bits - the flowers
In another time and in another place this would be a reason to shut down the work site because there was no compliance to workplace health and safety standards. Not here.

 Lastly, you add the button and catch, the handles and the decorations. (not in that order).

The finished product
And the end product is a strudy woven handbag. 

Still on the theme of OH&S. Later, there were council workers digging up the roadway during the night. 

A solitary torch.

They did have hi-vis clothing on and boots so that a marked improvement that I have seen since my last visit here. Then they were building a jetty with an excavator and a pylon driver on the water's edge. The uniform for the whole work crew was boardshorts, singlets, no shoes, the odd one with thongs and definitely no hard hats. The public mingled on the beach around them. At least this work crew had a few markers on the roadway around where they were digging their hole.

That evening I made it on the invitation list to an invite only Halloween party hosted by the American Women's Association. It's all about who you know. I know three people here. I'll reword that. Know is too committed a word, met is more accurate. I've met three people here. 

The party was run (I say run because it was scheduled within an inch of its life) from the point of entry. Two at a time only were allowed through the gate. Once checked off the invited guests only list and paying the entry fee you got your mugshot taken before being instructed to go to a door and knock three times.

Frankenstein, or one of his relatives, allowed entry through a cobweb infested, scarily decorated hallway to mingle on a deck in low lighting. Once all the guests had arrived, the lights went on. Then there was a rotation of games scheduled. (I don't know if throwing darts at a wall with a ceiling fan whirring above the dart board after numerous alcohol beverages were consumed would have met OH&S standards either.) A word search, a card game, fishing and hula hoop (which was actually ring toss or quoits depending on where you come from) were the other forms of entertainment. The household staff was dressed in theme also—the housekeeper and the guards all masquerading as vampires or zombies.

The bonus of the games is that you had to mingle with people you hadn't met. Superman was as dodgy as hell. Voting himself as best dressed in both the female and male category a number of times on leftover voting forms. I certainly hope he didn't work in the electoral office in the recent elections here.

Until next time, moce (pronounced mothey) goodbye.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Touch down in Viti

If you intend to travel overseas, and you get on an aeroplane in Canberra's not-so-international airport, you have no choice but to go via a functioning international airport that has customs. That airport will still be in Australia.
Ironically, had I left on this trip 10 years earlier there was a six month window in that year that I could actually get on an international flight from Canberra to the country I am headed for. Not anymore. Progress?
For me, my customs check was via Sydney. The first of my first world problems in the lead up to this was in fitting a year's worth of living into 2 x 23 kg suitcases. That, incidentally, wasn't going to happen because my suitcases either took 10 kg or 30 kg.
So, oversized luggage charges came first domestically. This 2 x 23 kg domestic limit in no way aligned with the 1 x 23 kg limit for the international leg of the journey.
Requirements for holidaying on an island in the South Pacific could easily pack inside 23 kg. 7 pairs of bikinis, 7 pairs of havianas, 7 sarongs  and 7 cotton dresses, underwear optional (because you have so many bikinis) with some shampoo, conditioner and a toothbrush for good measure. You would even have room in the suitcase for gifts on your return journey.
However, planning for a year required something a bit more substantial. This resulted in more excess luggage charges for the international leg also.
The 50 minute flight from Canberra to Sydney was the shortest and most successful forward movement in this journey in that whole morning.  I spent the better part of my time trying to kill myself carting around tonnes of luggage from the domestic to the international airport on the Sydney end before replicating the same heavy lifting in between Nadi's* international and domestic airports to finally get to Suva's** international airport later that day.
At this juncture it is probably wise to point out that I have moved to Fiji known as Viti to the indigenous folk of this particular group of 330+ South Pacific islands.
I strongly suspect Suva's international airport actually gets international flights on occasional days unlike the capital of Australia, a far bigger nation.
Call me crazy but I kind of expect that if you leave from somewhere that has an international airport (whether it is functional or in name only) you should be able to check in your luggage once, just once, and the next time you see it is when you pick it up at your final (international airport) destination.
Even for a three flight journey. You should not have to collect it and check it in again. Three times.
Maybe I'm a before-my-time visionary or maybe efficiency and customer service just aren't a priority in the airline business. Well, not enough to warrant the streamlining of services across carriers and across countries. Man on the moon, sure. Streamlined air services, nah. By the time I arrived at my destination, I was sure I would need surgery for my newly acquired hernias.
In the week prior to this trip I had changed time zones twice, this trip added another dimension.
For another week I would be totally confused as to what the real time was. It didn't help that the departures board at the Nadi International terminal gave me a time different to what the staff were saying. It didn't help when the domestic terminal had a departure board in the check in area, to say my flight had already left although the time (according to staff) was still an hour away.
It didn't help that flight 25 became flight 27 and then reverted back to flight 25 once you stepped into the departures lounge where another departures board told you flight 25 had already left.
It also didn't help that computers and phones around the world have been programmed to think daylight savings for Fiji starts on the last Sunday in October. Fiji didn't agree this year. They wanted to mix it up and decided to start daylight savings a week later. Ahhh, I see what is happening here - Fiji time.
I alighted from the international flight 3172 km later (plus add on what feels like another 50 kms for Sydney's long runway) in darkness.
An airport policeman took pity on me with my tonnes of excess luggage and my time zone confusion and quite possibly the way I rolled my eyes when he told me I had to walk (with my tonnes of excess luggage) to the domestic terminal which was 3 kilometres away, well …. maybe closer to 500 metres. But it was all outside. No air conditioning. Not clearly signposted and in parts of the journey an SUV would have come in handy to negotiate the walkways with all that luggage.
Thanks to him, I made it, I could get on the last flight to Suva that night (25, 27, whatever) and as there were only three other passengers, and two crew, I could take my tonnes of luggage also. Hallelujah.
This aeroplane was a model I'm sure Amelia Earhart was familiar with. It had 24 passenger seats built for either Lilliputians, pre-schoolers or people without lower limbs.
I'm not a tall person by any means but my knees were tightly squeezed into the wall in front of me. That would be the wall of the cockpit cabin wall which was about six inches from the co-pilot's back. Compact little machine.
The security (not) door between the passengers and pilots dropped off its rollers on a number of occasions during the flight. The pilot fixed this minor safety issue by putting his left hand behind his head on the wonky door and ramming it back into the wall cavity from where it came. One hand on the wheel, one doing running repairs.
I don't know what I am more in awe of:
  • a man multi-tasking (always astounding when you see that happen), or
  • what he was multi-tasking - a man who's name I don’t know# but who is at this point in time was responsible for the continuation of my life, driving a tin box at 2100 feet above the ground, juggling a laminated paper map on his lap and containing errant objects such as doors and sliding folders on the floor, or
  • that me and my tonnes of luggage arrived in one piece and roughly on time.
#He didn't multitask so far that he took on the role of steward as well. He kind of said, 'I'm your pilot, we will be there in 35 minutes, don't use any electrical equipment and buckle up.' I was on an economy flight after all.
Arrival on the other end was just as insincere with the pilot and co-pilot getting out of the plane once we had taxied to a standstill. They opened their doors, stepped out onto the tarmac and headed off towards the terminal. Leaving the 'seatbelt on' sign on.
I wondered what else they had neglected to shut down or turn off properly before their quick exit. Fuel maybe? Autopilot? The engine? I didn't hang around to find out. I disobeyed the sign, as did all the other passengers, unbuckled and got out as soon as I could.
The luggage carousel made me smile. There were four of us on the plane. One without luggage. But they took a trolley to the plane, unloaded the luggage and took it all of 75 metres away from the cargo hold to an outdoor luggage carousel. They could have just stood the luggage next to the carousel or just next to the plane to save those one hundred steps.

All five pieces of luggage on the carousel never even made a half cycle of the carousel. It was roughly the length of a car. Three pieces of the said luggage was mine.

As I had the lion's share of luggage I needed a trolley. My next job was to use my depleted muscle power to pry apart two rusted Siamese trolleys so I could get to the carpark and a waiting taxi.
one night's accommodation only! I later heard stories that bed bugs were an additional feature to this hotel last year.
I was checked into a motel by 9.45pm and ordering something for dinner by 9.50pm before the restaurant closed at 10pm. I munched on kokoda (pronounced kokonda) a raw fish in coconut milk dish while trying to follow the story of an Indian soap opera, in Hindi, on TV.
The BBC were reporting on Jokowi's ministerial selection, a prime minister in another country I had lived in not that long ago when he was still a governor. Here in Fiji, they had just finalised their first democratic election in decades. Good on them. Coups are so old hat.
Well, that news report was my segway for bed before I could draw too many parallels between developing countries that I had or would reside in.
Nadi – pronounced Nandi, it is on the west coast of Viti Levu, Fiji's main island.
** Suva – the capital of Fiji