Sunday, December 19, 2010


A quick flash back from my Diwali trip months ago...

I returned to my settlement of Naqio for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. The mini-bus trip from Suva to Nausori occurred with only one note-worthy incident: I left my rain coat on the mini-bus, which is now the property of some lucky rider or Toyota Hiace driver. My rain coat, an obnoxious brickish red color, never suited me or my personality... I bought it on advice from Jay-Rocc who was accompanying me on my first winter SAR training in the Adirondacks. Given the choice between distinguishing myself as the only team member to die during a training because he could not be found in white-out conditions or being found alive because of his obnoxiously colored jacket and ridiculed for the rest of his life, I decided to hedge my bets, get the red jacket and consider the option of taking it off and burying it with my dying breath- thus avoiding the ignominy of the latter situation.

Aesthetics aside, it's unfortunate that my jacket is lost because the rainy/cyclone-y season has begun. It's been raining cats and dogs here and I could really use a rain coat*. I like rain coats because umbrellas are goofy looking and tend to blow inside out leaving me sheepishly holding what looks like a giant, water logged and decidedly dead, mechanical bat; its metal bones all busted and bent out of shape. 

Diwali, as I already said, is the Hindu Festival of Lights. Lord Ram, a prominent deity in the Hindu faith, returned from exile in the forest. Dubbed "the darkest night" in Hindu religious lore, Lord Ram's return was marked with celebrations and festivities; many lights were lit. So what does this mean now? Lights, fireworks, and prayer services- all beautiful to behold.

By lights I mean "christmas lights"- though it feels strange describing the decorations of one religious holiday using the terminology of another. The houses in the settlement were stringed with the blinking lights, unspoken but apparent attempts at one-up-manship being self evident.

As could be expected, my family's house was full-on spiffed, made further still by the jury rigged, spliced together strings of lights my dad had set up. I should have figured something like this would happen- my house in the settlement is the American equivalent of a Jeff Foxworthy joke. I'm not going to defend the last statement, because, 1, it's true, and 2, as we all know, every family has some amount of dysfunction (insert now deleted anecdotal family story). My dad's behavior is also kind of endearing, even though it provides the grist for ample bitter roti, rolled and cooked at different times throughout the settlement.

The jury-rigged lights: So, dad comes out, and starts hitting me with questions about whether or not we can splice christmas lights together. I didn't really know the answer. Even though we had just successfully trouble-shot the string that would only half work due to a wayward bulb, I wasn't feeling too confident. I didn't think we really needed to start cutting and splicing anyway- I considered the situation from the General Hospital perspective. .. "but doctor, is the surgery really necessary?"... in this case yes... hell yes. The alternative, taking down the lights and re-orienting them so that the plugs aligned properly, just wasn't an option; and besides, we were supposed to start drinking grog in twenty minutes. There simply wasn't enough time.

Now, the last time I was electrically shocked was when I was about four years old and I was up at my uncles apartment listening to ZZ-Top, fantastical stories, and the voice telling me to dump the entire glass of milk on the carpet. I have faint memories of a  tingle-y feeling going up my arm when I pulled two cords apart but that was it.

Flash back to 2010 Fiji. Dad just juiced the line and I wasn't paying attention. I've had 28 years of accumulated knowledge reinforcing the notion that the metal, prong end of a cord is no threat. It's not a threat because the male end goes into the female end [...tee-hee] of the wall outlet. Unless one is particularly diligent about putting something metal into the outlet end, or have particularly wet fingers, there's nothing to worry about. This common wisdom, incubated in a culture of Westernized electrical safety codes neglects the perfect storm of spliced Diwali lights, an imminent grog sesh, and a boorish but endearing (and quite electrically crafty) father.

So it seems my elbow, as I later pieced it together, brushed the live metal prongs of the exposed male end of one of the light strings. My arm spasmed backward and out, like someone had pinched the nerve in my elbow with channel locks. My mind ran through possible threats. Bees, *******ed kids, nervous system melt-down, or, possibly, an act of God. Then I realized what had happened. Everyone laughed at me and my response in the sort of good humored way that says, hahaha dance whitey!

Not true. I made the last part up. I actually don't know what my host family was thinking, obviously the weren't concerned like I was- but as I already stated and refuted in a previous blog entry, I'm a micro-managing kill joy in the safety department. Want to know what I was thinking? I was thinking... well I can't remember what I was thinking at that point, but as I walked off rubbing the singe mark that the electrical arc had traced on my forearm I did consider that in these parts a choking person is repeatedly slapped on the top of the head in order to clear their airway; I can't imagine what the response for an electrically induced cardiac arrest would be.

I walked off, rubbing my sore arm, it was time to visit Ram. Not Lord Ram, Ram my neighbor; whose English is as good as my Hindi, putting our verbal interactions somewhere between the predictable and absurdist.

Prior to the light incident, I met my first developmentally disabled child in Fiji. Dad and my sisters along with a Fijian boy named Galo walked up the road to visit a native Fijian family to borrow an extension cord. I swear the cord we got was made using bakelite- Hey, remember that stuff? Probably not since they stopped using it in the 40's. As we approached the drive way, Galo made some wise crack about the kid. My mom, my real mom, is a speech pathologist who has worked with developmentally disabled kids for ages- including, at different times and for different reasons, my dad, sister, and myself so I felt pretty comfortable around folks with these disorders.

On top of that, my Uncle Jerry- actually my great uncle, now deceased, was mentally retarded. Having him in my life was very important. It was his presence along with the vicarious experiences I got hearing my mom's work stories that evaporated the fear these sorts of conditions can provoke in children... thus helping to tame the ignorant and hurtful views many of us carry into adulthood. It also permanently stunted my ability to come up with hilarious Helen Keller jokes like so many of my hurtful and funny peers.

As we approached the house, the family inside gathered on the porch to see what two little Indo-Fijian ragamuffins [my awesome tom-boy sisters], a goofy looking white guy, our soon to splice father, and a rotund Fijian boy wanted.

As dad was chatting, I caught a glint of something in the window. The majority of the residential windows in this country are made up of rectangular glass louvers [I know what a louver is because my dad, my real dad, pointed them out on the side of a white Ferrari Testerosa model I had as a kid]. These glass louvers open up at an angle so that when they are closed, the window looks flat, but when opened, the rectangles of glass pivot on an angle to let air in. The glint was from two large, watery eyes staring at me- accompanied by this sight was a vibrating, buzzing noise that I couldn't place. In the shadows, a little figure was eyeing us and sucking on the glass louver of the window.

I was taken by surprise but I didn't show it because demonstrating that sort of response isn't baller. I called out- "hey buddy!" but the child just sort of slunk back into the shadows. I can't remember if the child was brought outside or not- it's been weeks and weeks now... but I do recall the buzzing sound which I couldn't place. I was considering what sort of disorder the child could have as we left the homestead and headed back to our settlement. No one mentioned the child and when I asked if he was enrolled in any sort of special school I got a negative. These schools do exist in Fiji, the Sunshine Special School comes to mind immediately because another FRE8 and friend is placed there.

That night, the lights were all a-twinkle and the settlement was filled with native Fijian boys who had come in from the surrounding villages, lured by candy and fireworks. The Indos in the settlement have good relationships with their neighbors, but there is a common sense approach to having large amounts of strange village boys about [don't leave your sandals out]. I had brought sparklers for the kids in the settlement but I was mobbed by little shadows, their hands outstretched, asking for freebies. Of course I obliged- I'm not a dick.

Periodically I would stop throwing fireworks at my sisters (they were the non-pyrotechnic Snaps... see last comment) or giving away my sparklers to hungry shadows to go drink grog with pop. I was heartened when, who should show up, but our neighbor with her child that sucks on glass louvers.

The interactions between the little boy, his mother, and the Diwali festival was fascinating. The little boy was having a blast. I think. He definitely was over-stimulated but I couldn't blame him. We all sort of were. There were lights everywhere, sparklers, noise and occasionally fire-crackers. I remember the Diwali lights reflecting in little twinkles off his large eyes as he looked around, completely a-gog... "Maaaaaa- Maaaaaa" he would say. The buzzing sound I learned, was actually made by him- it was loud and a bit unsettling at first. The crowd of men around the grog bowl took it all in stride. I couldn't tell if this was because they took the boy's condition for what it was, or whether they were exhibiting some sort of "it's taboo to recognize this child's existence"  approach.  I honestly think it was the former as everyone was friendly to the mother, tolerant to her child and respectful of the buzzing noises. I can't fault people for remaining silent when they don't know how to engage a developmentally disabled Fijian child (I ran out of things to talk about after "bula" but was quick with the smiles in follow up), so their behavior was really encouraging to me and one more example of the many reasons why my family, our neighbors and the entire province of Rewa is super cool.

Oh by the way- my sisters and I set off one of the largest "bombs" of the night- a multi-shot piece of pyrotechnic art that caused gasps from the adults, screams of terror from the darkness of the road, and a chaotic scramble of little bodies from the Diwali equivalent of shock and awe. To quote Dick Marcinko, it was like the Fourth of July, Bastille Day and the Queen's ******ed Jubilee all at the same time.

Well... I thought so. It was beautiful. We did everything right too, but we still had to push kids back because, in every culture, they have a tendency to want to hunker down and look...really look... directly at whatever it is an Indo-Fijian girl and a goofy white guy are trying to light on fire. I left the actual lighting of the projectile in the capable hands of my youngest sister- something which is probably causing some people to sweat and swallow hard over but was a good decision on reflection. She was competent and I was needed for the pressing task of crowd control. Ha! Pressing. English, I re-discovered, is nowhere near as good as a gentle but firm push of bodies when dealing with twenty-odd excited adolescent boys. Once the fireworks started cooking off however, the light and sound took over and provided enough incentive for everyone to step back to a safe distance and enjoy the show- or run about in complete kid glee.

As the fireworks capped off the Diwali celebration, I listened, watched and savored the chaos... it was my favorite kind. Joyful.



*p.s. My new Marmot Aegis rain coat will be returning with my favorite PCVL in January. The color? A dignified white-ish"granite' color... I decided to hedge my bets with all this green jungle...


Sunday, October 17, 2010


Recently I took a trip up to the north of the country to hike Fiji's highest peak, the formerly named Mt. Victoria, now known as Mt. Tomanivi, a much deserved upgrade from the original colonial British name. I was excited to do the hike- hell, I'm excited to do anything that might result in mud smeared on my face and a chance to run around in Fiji's more junglii regions. The desk job just kills me some time.

The lead up to the trip was pleasant- I took a day off from work and rode a bus up to Nausori town where I met up with two other PCV's. I rode the bus up through Rakiraki town before getting off in in this little place whose name escapes me where we cached our packs in a park and snoozed in the shade waiting to meet up with the other PCV's that were coming in from different places. Stocking up on water [Fiji is in the middle of a drought emergency in several areas]- we boarded a transport carrier [the same type of vehicle mentioned in the last post] and rode the dirt road and it's many switchbacks up to the cabin where we spent the night.  The weather was noticeably cooler and wet and reminded me of Pennsylvania in the fall. I was glad that I had my rain shell with me.

The next morning was the climb. Prior to climbing we had to perform a sevusevu ceremony in the village at the foot of the peak. The sevusevu [pronounced SAY-voo SAY-voo] ceremony is all about asking permission. Boiled down by an ethnocentric cook [me] it works like this: We enter the village bearing a gift, normally a brown bag of yanqona or some cash to buy yanqona. We meet with the chief of the village and the Mata ni Vanua [Maata-NEE-Voo-ah] who is the chief's spokesman. We tell him we're here to climb the mountain [which we must also pay for, in addition to "guides", or village youth].  He says a bunch of things that sound like gibberish [thanks for coming and thanks for the yanqona, God bless] and then we are free to pay our fees and head out on our hike. The chief was cool- he had obviously been through this process plenty of times and the sevusevu went smoothly. We were invited back for grog after our hike.

Our guides, two possibly three village youth, set out with our crew of roughly ten people to start the hike. Once we had gotten out of eye sight of the village, the ladies in our group took off their sulu's to reveal more appropriate hiking pants and shorts and some of the dudes went sleeveless. Modesty, always a crowd favorite in the villages, isn't necessarily the best attire for hiking. Walking up towards the summit was nice- we passed cows and soaked our pants with morning dew not yet burned off by the rising sun.

At this point, the hike was going along fine. Before setting off I went through what amounts to my normal OCD ritual of packing, evaluating, and re-packing my stuff. I'm getting very comfortable with the realization that others will always view me as an obsessive micro-manager with my kit. Actually, I'm not an obsessive micro manger- I have just sat through a a fifty hour wilderness EMT class and understand how easy it is for people to die in the woods. I don't share that part with people when I first meet them though- instead I take their comments in stride while I debate bits of gear and make mental notes of who will likely die first and be consumed when the situation gets tough.

I had done a brief internet check of the weather and for stories of the hike, with one guy saying it took one hour fifty minutes to summit with another 1 hr 45 minutes for the down climb. Ok- sounds reasonable. The crew of PCV's who had hiked it the year before made these claims, boasts really, about how they "swam" up to the summit because they had climbed in a "hurricane." They claimed that everyone had only been wearing sandals and that they had done it without incident. I was suspicious.

Packing my kit at the cabin, I sacrificed extra food for water- carrying two full nalgene bottles, my first aid kit, breakfast crackers and nutella, my rain shell, a spare shirt, a poncho, SAM splint, 30' of webbing, two locking 'biners, some prusicks, and a Miox purifier. I figured that stories of summiting the mountain in a hurricane while wearing only sandals was an exaggeration but I still wasn't keen on wearing my Teva sandals. Oops! I also realized that I had left my compass in the top drawer back in Suva...

A quick side note- an exhausting number of people have adamantly parroted the advertising rhetoric of various sandal companies; "Lucas, these are hiking sandals..." they say.  I am interested in learning how many wilderness incidents are caused by people over-estimating the performance of this footwear. They claim that the benefits of being able to get their sandals wet more than makes up for their lack of tread and ankle support. I will never be convinced. Ever. These sandals: Teva's, Chacos, Keens, Merrils etc. are great for walks on relatively level ground, or semi-tech inclines that are dry but anything other than these optimized conditions, to me, makes them a liability. I would rather walk around the jungle with soggy kicks and poly-pro socks then mess around with zero ankle support and no tread. Looking at the group, I figured this issue would be the most likely use of the SAM splint. I threw the Tevas in my pack though- why not, and laced up my New Balance trail shoes, missing my leather hiking boots back in America [hopefully] sitting in a cool, dry, place; mold free.

A part of me felt silly carrying all of this shit, er, I mean, kit- and I neurotically fantasized about what a jagoff I would be if it was me who was seriously mangled during the hike [the accident report states that the victim fell tits-over-ass to his death due to his over-weight, top heavy backpack filled with pretentious medical/rescue gear combined with the sheer weight of his neuroticism and paranoia. Investigators say the load apparently shifted, causing him to lose his balance on the approach].

Back on the trail, the hike was great. The stack of PCV's were starting to spread out, the more gung-ho at the front with everyone else somewhere trailing behind. Our point-woman guide was not wasting any time, moving at a brisk clip that was apparently unaware of our slower members in back. Fortunately, the guide taking drag at the back was sticking with this group. We crossed a couple of streams, myself almost soaking my butt in addition to my shoes because of the weight of my self-righteous backpack.

About this time, the trail started to do something fun- It became more of a path, which in turn became a path needing bushwhacked. Of course, this soaked everyone's upper body, the grasses leading up to this point having already irrigated our lower body to saturation.

As the trail got steeper, we began to spread out even more. I moved towards the front of the pack to get a better view of the terrain change. The hike was getting steeper, the path surface turning into wet mud and larger rocks. Stopping at our first rest point, I sipped some water. At this point, we were about a quarter of the way. I asked different people how they were holding up- everyone was doing fine. Even the PCV who was doing the hike in completely smooth bottom "going out" shoes. Hmm. Out came my teva's [they at least had some tread], off came her shoes. Glad I brought those along!

The trail now turned into a semi-technical climb. What does this mean? It means that if I was there with the Search and Rescue team I volunteered with in Pittsburgh PA, the AMRG, and we were using a litter to carry someone out, we would have it on a belay line to make sure it didn't get away from us. In other words, the terrain was getting steeper. By this point, the group was all spread out. The slowest members were barely within eye shot from the middle group [where I had positioned myself], the lead group even further ahead. Everyone seemed happy though and the last group still had a guide with them so we pressed ahead.

The terrain got steeper still. The ground was wet and our path ceased to be. In many places our semi-tech approach turned into a vertical scramble up moss covered boulders, giant, muddy tree roots, and other obstacles. I was having a blast- but I was also aware that no one had expected this sort of terrain.  It was also taking far longer than most of us had expected and many people were hiking [now climbing] in wet, unfamiliar conditions with sandals. I'm sorry- hiking sandals.

I had long since grabbed one volunteers bag to carry for her. She had been using one of those cloth grocery tote bags to carry her stuff and it was becoming a hindrance because she couldn't use her arms as effectively during the scrambles. The med-kit came out for the first time on a tiny precipice to improvise some blister protection from a volunteer whose ankle was getting chewed up from her footwear. Duct-tape. I used the break to call the group furthest behind and got no answer. Times like this are interesting to me because no one else ever seems concerned. I remained silent considering the situation; maybe I'm just over-reacting. Ok. Move on out.  We kept climbing, vertical scrambling, walking along muddy ridge-lines, etc; the cost of straying more than a foot in some places could have resulted in a long, muddy cartwheel to the bottom of Mt. Tomanivi. Like I said, I was having a blast- but I was also getting concerned about the last group.

The middle group, my group, made the summit; the exact time I'm not really sure... The summit, a clearing in the trees with a sign and a pile of rubble to sit on was a sight to behold. Not really. The summit is often shrouded in clouds today was no different. The sun had not yet been successful in burning them off. I remember it being chilly up there too and I was glad I had my rain shell because of the temperature difference and periodic drizzles. I was also really hungry. I dove into my breakfast crackers and nutella- trading some for additional fruit and peanut butter. I'm not sure what I would have done [besides mooch] had I not packed food. I could feel how drained I was from the climb up and I needed sugar and carbs.  I wish I had brought more food.

Fortunately, the final knot of people made the summit, much to my relief.   We all sat there, eating our food, enjoying the warmth when the sun periodically broke through the clouds. Some of the group had neglected to pack food so we shared with them- others had not brought rain gear. Still another person was almost completely out of water. I'm glad I had brought both nalgenes.

I'm not knocking the folks who were unprepared. I get psyched when people want to do stuff like this and I want to encourage it. For many of them, this was their first serious hike and they had no previous context in which to consider and plan for. Of course it would have appeared crazy to some of them to go rolling in loaded with kit. I am starting to think that most people see preparation as outcome oriented as opposed to prevention oriented. In other words, why would someone need 30' of webbing and a riggers belt if they had no intention of rappelling down a cliff? Or, I'm just going for a day hike, I won't even go off the marked trail- why should I bring two large garbage bags and lighter if I have no intention of spending the night miserable and alone...but at least dry and warm. Those attitudes are human. I reflected back on times in the woods with my dad growing up, lessons I had learned from J-Rocc, my designated life tutor, and my time spent with AMRG. More than particular skills, that time reinforced how important having an awareness and context for actions are. At times it haunts me, manifesting itself in ways that appears to obsess over information and planning. People respond by saying "your planning is too intense, you have to be flexible." What I have a hard time articulating is that planning helps to define my flexibility because it increases the awareness I have for a particular subject. More awareness means more knowledge to act on when avoiding or dealing with the shit-storm. It seems like a no brainer but it took a couple of miserable nights out in the woods for it to sink into me. Planning, in many ways, isn't even the point- the increased awareness is. The plans don't even need to work right- or even be utilized- but that awareness will always help a person out.

We ate some more food, I pulled out the kit again to re-tape the volunteers blister dressing and we began the down climb. I made a request for everyone to stick together- that lasted for about three minutes and then everyone was split up again. The lead team raced ahead, I hung back with the slowest members- made slower because the path we took for the down climb, the same we had used to summit, was now a muddy, slick chute without ladders. This played havoc with several volunteers sandals. Unfortunately, when mud and water get between the foot and the sandal surface, the foot tends to slide around in the sandal bed, no matter how tight you lock down the straps. Several PCV's actually took them off believing they could get better purchase going barefoot. This also slowed progress. I personally slid most of the way down on my ass; better I thought, than my forehead.

We met up with the middle group near the bottom. They were finishing up a rest stop and waited with my knot of people. We waited quite some time for the final stragglers to catch up. The sun was out and in full force by now, drying up the mud and eliminating the dew. The clouds parted and as we returned to level ground, the blue sky and sun reflected on the plant life. At one point, the path moved through a clearing of wildflowers that I had missed when tramping up the soaking wet countryside that morning. It was nearly 4:00 when myself and two others returned to the village. There were still four people some twenty minutes behind us making it nearly 4:30pm before everyone was accounted for. Our hike had lasted at least 7 hours, possibly more, covering terrain that no one had anticipated.

Aside from being muddy, tired, and banged up everyone had made the summit and returned without incident [aside from some odds and ends lost during the frequent falls from slipping in the mud.] I spent that night at a PCV's home in Rakiraki. That night, we had a nice spaghetti meal before hitting the sack and I was on the bus bound for Suva the next day.

The hike had been just what I needed and I'm looking forward to doing it again- I will bring just as much kit with me, and I'm excited to see whether or not our "guides" will use the same approach.  I'm thankful that no one was injured, and interested to see how what was learned and observed is applied to the next outing. Looking forward to it...

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Going on four weeks ago I finally got the chance to try snorkeling. A good pal, Jenn had invited me to come out to her village's Marine Protected Area [MPA]. Environmental work not being my specialty, I'm not entirely able to describe what an MPA is- what I do know is that it's an area of water that villagers and outsiders are prohibited from fishing in, throwing rubbish into, or driving boats across. It's essentially a safe zone for corals, reef fish, and other aquatic flora and fauna to thrive- the idea being that the MPA will serve to anchor marine life so that it can grow and spread into the other areas; i.e. the rest of the local reef.

Flash back nearly five months ago to this guy struggling though YP's swimming lessons [and valiantly treading water and swimming laps when he forgot to wake up, thus missing swim class]. I took that challenge on because I had preemptively told the truth to the Federal Government... "Of course I'm a competent swimmer... of course going to a tropical island country surrounded by water won't be a problem." People are funny with swimming. I have associated with some strong swimmers in my day- people who were swim team champions, varsity water polo players, folks doing triathlons etc. My role in these relationships generally involved making snarky comments while secretly hoping that some their athleticism would rub off on me. It didn't- what did was an appreciation of the fact that my swimming two or three laps in a pool does not constitute being a "strong swimmer." That statement is generally followed up with a blank stare from the person I'm talking too, meant to imply that I must either be completely physically incompetent or had an extremely poor and sheltered upbringing. Thus creates the feedback loop where I explain away about three laps in a pool not equaling ability etc, etc.

When Jenn invited me to come out I made it clear that I was skittish of my swimming ability. I got this look that was a mix of pity, worry that she just invited a liability and, I sense, a vague feeling of superiority..."We'll take it easy- you can always stand up if you panic, just watch my coral." Or something to that affect.

This trip, about 35 minutes outside of the town of Navua along the coast was my first real trip outside of Suva. I needed a trip so bad. The city and its challenges for integration and community finding needed a break from me and the feeling was entirely mutual. I had visited my family in the Naqio settlement which took a lot of the immediate pressure off but was still itching for something larger. The bus ride out was spent mostly engrossed in a wonderful book I've since finished called The Zanzibar Chest, it's the memoir of a Reuters news stringer covering the calamities of 1990's Africa. When I finally looked up I thought for a second that I would look over and see Faf and Rachel sitting next to me on the way to safari- the landscape looked so similar. The sun was out and the sky was blue and beautiful. The bus was packed. In front of me a sticky handed toddler stared back at me- the left side of her face past her eye riddled with acne-like bumps, a cross between white-heads and swollen mosquito bites. The speckling descended down to her cheek and neck. Bumps were also on her elbows and arms. It looked like a bad case of scabies to me- something common in the rural villages. It's easy to forget that I'm living in a developing nation in Suva. Out in the rural areas it gets junglii real fast- exponentially growing as one gets more remote. Meeting up with Jenn and walking through her village, I could see the disparity between rural and city, Indo-Fijian and Fijian. The shacks the people lived in were essentially an open room with a cooking area in back- imbe [wrong spelling] [pronounced imh-bay] mats on the floor placed over a layer of dried leaves spread on the rough beams the only furniture. Fiji is a nation of floor sitters.

Jenn showed me her two room burre [pronounced burr-ay], three if you count the shower [I have an extravagant six at my house- plus maid's quarters and garage. .. no, I do not have a maid or a car...]. She also showed me the lock that the local children keep finding a way to lock from the outside- effectively locking Jenn inside her own house [occasional text message: ...those little ****ers...]. It was a wonderful little house and we had a snack of breakfast crackers before lunch, catching up. After lunch we gathered up our snorkels, masks and fins and made our way to the MPA. Swimming for western women in the villages is a bit of a challenge; conservatism is the rule and it stretches well beyond a one piece bathing suit. Try shorts and a long sleeve shirt over a bathing suit. This serves the duel role of adding more protection against the sun and coral which will beat the hell out of you while in the water. The first thing we did was to talk more about my swimming abilities [brief look of pity mixed with earnest pedagogy]. We then performed "the ritual." The ritual involves christening one's snorkel mask- something I think Jenn made up on the spot but she claims was shown to her by the Fijians. It works like this: Take your mask, have you used it before? no? ok... let's back up. Before we left her burre the ritual had already begun. New masks have a layer of something over the lens, best removed by wiping toothpaste all over it. Ok, no problem, my eyes like a nice fresh scent- flash forward to the MPA. We're sitting indian style in the surf on a deserted beach facing each other. The water comes up to our waists and we have our fins and gear sitting in our laps to avoid being carried away by the surf. We look like two kendo warriors about to spar. Following Jenn's instructions I had taken a handful of leaves off this vine-y thing growing at the tree line and had carried them with me. We tore them up, dunked the masks in the water and then rubbed the leaves all over the lenses- inside and out. Done? Ok- time to christen them. We each hocked loogies into our masks, swished it around, rinsed and dawned our masks. Fins on, awkward steps, and Jenn's gone; apparently she has the unique ability to de-evolve millions of years to a fish-like state in a matter of seconds.

My turn. Fins on, awkward shuffle step, water up to my waist, almost fall on razor sharp coral... ok, swim time. With that I was on a completely new planet. Breathing through a snorkel was a new sensation. It feels as though you are getting enough oxygen, but the the lung/air resistance sensation is strange. Mouth breathing, reserved for runners and those with special chromosomes, just feels wrong. It was keeping me alive though and that was great- what was even better is that it allowed my brain the process the ridiculously awesome sights in front of me. The colors and textures were just indescribable. There were all sorts of corals, including brain choral which these small , shimmering fish would swim into, causing the undulations of the coral to be covered in blue dots before the fish would pour out in an iridescent halo of blue. There were sea stars, crown of thorns [no touchy or serious ouchie] and a variety of other reef fish species. The aquatic life was just amazing.

In addition to the complete visual overload, the sensation of movement using swim fins was also completely knew. Being an entry-level swimmer, I often forget to balance the efficiency of out-put between my arms and legs. Often, I would be propelling myself along before realizing that it's my arms doing most of the work... those lazy ass legs doing next to nothing. Swim fins is the exact opposite situation. The efficiency of propulsion it lends to ones legs is incredible. I was motoring along at speeds I'd never experienced as a swimmer, my arms clasped behind my back or at my sides to minimize drag. The feeling of water blowing past my face like wind when running was great. Having an unobstructed airway and becoming comfortable with clearing my snorkel occasionally made the need to completely pull my head out of water pointless. It was a very free, magical sensation. Looking down into the water at all the life made it easy to forget the water was only five feet deep in most places. That was fortuitous too, as I down-flooded my snorkel on two occasions necessitating a quick stand-up to get my bearings.

The MPA completely spoiled me. We swam around for several hours watching the aquatic life, checking out the submerged coral and shrimp farms and practicing some snorkeling fundamentals like mask clearing, fully submerged swimming, and learning why swallowing sea water is bad. After that, we beached ourselves like lizards on a plateau of black, dead coral [the beach] and took a rest. It was sharp and uncomfortable- I fell asleep. Then back to the water for more swimming. When we wrapped up the day, the sun was getting low. Jenn showed me this method of "clock construction", essentially a modified sun dial, that she claimed she learned at camp. With that we went back to the burre. We cleaned up, met the local children [including some guilty of occasional door lockings...] who seemed to take a shine to me [which I exploited to proselytize about the importance of good oral health care...]. We grabbed some dinner before I flagged down a transport truck and caught a ride back into Suva.

The transport trucks, or carriers as they're called, are essentially covered stake trucks that can be hired by multiple people to move groups or freight. They're laid out like military trucks: three can sit up front in the cab, including the driver and the back has two bench seats on each side of the bed along with a welded hoop perpendicular to the edge of the bench on the tailgate side- to prevent the unfortunate but not uncommon instances of ejection from the vehicle. I rolled a quarter of the way home riding in the back along with a Fijian man whose name escapes me... it sounded like "corduroy" but I can't remember. When the front passengers got out, me and Cord moved into the cab- The driver on the right, me and cord on the left. Speeding through the night, I was gripped by the realization of my own mortality. After Cord got out, I moved to the passenger seat where I was able to seat belt myself in. I also got to play the interesting role of being the fare collector for the carrier. We would roll up on a group of Fijians wanting a ride in the dead of night and they would approach my side of the cab with their fare. Out would come my tac-light and things would go smoothly or would descend into a discussion of why the fare was so high. The shock of coming up on a white guy in the middle of nowhere was generally adequate for maintaining smoothness. Coming back into Suva, it was my turn to not catch a break- the transport cost being nearly three times that of the bus fare I paid to get out there. Too tired from my success at sea, I consigned myself to defeat on land. I paid up and headed back to my house in the night.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


As some of you have gathered via other means, I have been spending some of my time here judging beauty pageants. I have been looking forward to explaining what this means for awhile now as the image of me as a lecherous, imperialistic, pervert is probably too good an image for some of you to pass up.

The Fiji Hibiscus Festival is a huge blowout that Suva hosts each year. There are rides, attractions, parades with floats, bands etc... Some bill Hibiscus as the largest carnival in the South Pacific. Tourist literature will tell you that there are also "beauty pageants", which is the same term that I used to describe what it was that I participated in as a guest judge. This blog entry is to clarify what "beauty pageant" means in regards to Hibiscus.

I fell into Hibiscus because the PCV that I will be replacing at the MOH was active with this group as an organizing volunteer. The entire Hibiscus planning committee is made up of unpaid volunteers who dedicate an enormous amount of time to putting the festival together. There is a small cadre of paid staff but their numbers, from what I remember, are less than ten. In case it needs to be said, a Hibiscus is a flower, and a very popular one here in Fiji to boot.

Anyway, the PCV I'm replacing explained to me that the ladies were practicing for their public speaking role and they needed some judges to evaluate the candidates. She said it would be a good way to meet people and since that's what I need to do to integrate here I said yes.

The closest thing that equates to the Hibiscus Pageant for Americans would probably be Miss America- that relic of Americana that was enjoyed for many years before a confluence of changing social tides, vampiric corporate interests, and I suspect...guilt... made the pageant less appealing to the masses. Because physical beauty seemed to be emphasized above everything else (or so it seemed to me as the last time I saw a Miss America pageant was as a lecherous young teenager) I could feel that perception color my assumptions about the event.

Putting all that aside as best I could, I went and judged the teens and ladies division. There are four divisions: Teens, Ladies, Queens, and Kings. I was invited back after my first encounter to judge the Queens, and found a legitimate excuse to avoid judging the Kings.

Hibiscus participants don't prance around modeling different styles of clothes (or lack thereof), they come out, are introduced and asked a series of questions. The candidates are evaluated on the thoughtfulness of their answer, their public speaking abilities, their poise, grace, and how "lady-like" and "royal" they appear when answering their questions.

Particularly for the Kings and Queens, the primary participants of the pageant, coaching is provided to improve (or teach) public speaking skills, personal presentation and research methods. Having not been to a place like Fiji before, I would have taken this sort of training for granted, dismissing it as more of an attempt to keep the candidates from embarrassing the festival than for the benefit of the participants.

The reality is that the team that works with the ladies is wholly committed to the well being of the ladies. For a lot of these women, it could be their first experience to this sort of training and the importance of this is not lost on the planning group. On top of that, the questions are not fluff. I cringed when one young woman had to explain her position on creationism versus evolution, or the other woman who had to explain her views on abortion within the context of the country. In a nation like this, tightly intertwined with Christianity and still very modest in regards to cultural/social issues it was shocking, and refreshing to hear someones opinions on these matters expressed out loud and to a large group of strangers.

Another interesting aspect of this pageant is the diversity of it's participants. A lot of the women are students or graduates of the University of the South Pacific, Fiji's top university. Many hold multiple degrees but there are several candidates still in high school, single mothers, etc. The Hibiscus Pageant serves as a kind of public forum for the candidates to take up their causes and voice them to the community. Topics like child abuse, gender inequality, and economic issues were all brought up.

Falling in with the planners of the pageant was very fortuitous for me. Aside from its members being warm, funny, and gracious, the committee is also made up of the very people I've been looking to connect with in order to better understand how to apply design methodology to my health promotion responsibilities. In two nights I met the creative director of an advertising/graphic design firm in Suva, a young woman with a background in communications (and reigning Hibiscus Queen), and a researcher who works for the only firm in the geographic region that is capable of gathering the sort of intelligence essential for successfully mating our health outreach efforts to our rural demographics.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this year's Hibiscus festival will come together. It should be interesting to see what opportunities exist for future collaborations.


It's been nearly four weeks now since I packed up my belongings and moved from my training village to my current location in Suva. It was a very sweet send off. My host family ("training family" sounds kind of weird...) as well as the other families in the community arranged transport so that they could be present to see the latest batch of volunteers,FRE-8's, swear in as official Peace Corps volunteers. My host dad (against my suggestion that a collared shirt would be more appropriate) wore the Pittsburgh-ese tee-shirt that I got him as a gift. I should have explained to him what a jag-off was but I wasn't really in the mood and it probably wouldn't have mattered.

I thought I was being clever when I shot some portrait shots of my family (some of you probably saw them already) ages ago thinking that I would get them printed on nice paper and framed since my family didn't have any updated family photos. I remember walking through Nausori Town and passing several other 8's who had the same idea. Apparently, great minds think alike- my family enjoyed the framed prints all the same...

The swearing in ceremony was on a bright, sunny day filled with speeches and hardened vehicles. At this point, four weeks later as I'm finishing this blog entry I can't recall entirely what all the speeches were about but i remember enjoying them and feeling good that part of my job description involved representing my country. It has not always been that way for me- but as I've grown, and particularly as I've been able to travel to places that are not free; not free to say what they want in their press, not free from their crushing history of poverty, or not free from the burden of non-existent health and sanitation infrastructure, it's given me a much better frame of reference in regards to how I view nations (particularly mine), patriotism, and what is necessary to maintain these institutions and my role within them.

The entity I was assigned to work with, the Ministry of Health [MOH], is a good fit for me. When I started this blog entry weeks ago, I was still on shaky ground as to whether or not the experience of living and working in a city would keep me happy. I think that ultimately this position and location will be best for me. The MOH is what I would consider a corporate gig. This pretty much sets the tempo for my life here in Suva- I will explain what I mean as I sometimes get comments from people alluding to my having to wade through waste deep mud, pith helmet strapped firmly to head and cane knife at the ready in order to get to any sort of oasis of civilization. Now, perhaps those leavers of comments are exaggerating slightly, but in the interest of the people I respect who are in the deep bush let me explain how it works here.

Just like in America.

There are some differences though: I wake up early every morning to take the bus into work for example. The buses are monsters and grind gears the whole trip. Most of them don't have windows as I've mentioned before- which is good... I had front row seats for a near-miss bus accident yesterday (front row in that I was sitting in the back of the bust that nearly plowed into the one in front of it while traveling at a good clip) and I'd rather have easy access to self ejection then some of the other buses whose windows lost the ability to open ages ago.

I get into the main bus depot around 7:30, it's a neat ride because we come rolling past the entire depot on the harbor side, music blasting while we survey the scene before roaring inside. I realize that it's a horrible comparison but I can't help but picture the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now whenever I come in on the morning bus, all I need is a CB radio squawking over the din of the music and the grinding gears of the bus to make it perfect. The bus depot is crowded, there are people everywhere and vehicle emission standards are a concept for the future not the present- the buses, all owned by different companies, jockey for positions, revving their engines and sending plumes of diesel exhaust into the air while giving the finger to each other via their air horns. It's the good kind of chaos that gets one moving in the morning... After a half mile walk to work (up a hill I might add, the grade about as steep as Stanton Heights Ave off of Penn in PGH) I get into the office about 8:00am with a sweaty back and my energy from my always too light breakfast used up.

My work day lasts until quarter to five when I take off. If I don't have meetings that I've set up after work to talk shop with different people in Suva (or lately, judging beauty pageants), I walk down to the bus depot and catch the bus home which takes me along the harbor to my stop where I walk back up another hill about a quarter mile to where I'm currently staying.

I have electricity, running hot water, and enough water pressure to take a nice shower each morning. Gas for cooking comes out of a gas cylinder that gets exchanged when it runs out and heat here is supplied by God, in abundance, free of charge. I do have to hand wash all my laundry though- which keeps my feet on the ground and a small shred of Peace Corps legitimacy intact. That and I have to be careful of everything I spend my living allowance on since I don't get enough from my handlers to be living the fat life here like I did in Pittsburgh. Yes Pittsburgh.

In terms of comfort, I don't have any issues. I n a lot of ways, it's spectacular (minus the fact there's no beach close by). All of this has to be taken in context though- I'm away from my friends and loved ones- bike riding here is risky (I would say worse than PGH as there isn't even the foundation of logic in a drivers mind to look for a cyclist, or medical infrastructure to take one to the hospital should something happen... somebody call a cab!... and watch those pot-holes driver, I'm trying to hold my C-Spine straight!).

Comfort isn't the reason I'm here though- and there are ample challenges to all facets of project work. I feel as though I'm beginning to find the balance of where I fit in. Working in the city I have objectives that are not dis-similar from my brothers and sisters in the villages: whereas they are responsible for integrating themselves into their local cultures in order to learn the language, power hierarchies, and opportunities that are available at the the village level I find myself having to learn and navigate the myriad of interests, hierarchies, and players at the Capitol level.

This task will be completely daunting. In addition to Fiji's different ministries and political situations, there is a plethora of different actors involved: Foreign aid and lending bodies who alternately attempt to change and exert pressure on the country, NGO's and UN officers who form an alphabet soup of interests and opportunities as well as the private sector that actually has the most reason to succeed- it's their families who depend on success the most. These people speak a language that I've heard before, business tinged with a desire for personal gain, and I had better make sure my vocabulary and grammar is accurate before I start gabbing with these folks.

In short, this rabble IS my community and I've decided to integrate myself by diving head first into it all, mouthing a silent prayer mid drop that the murkiness of the water will betray a pool of significant depth. I've been lucky so far in that I've met people who are willing to help me navigate these systems and point me in the right direction when I get myself turned around. I expect there to be bumps though- can't wait.

Monday, June 28, 2010


At the same conference mentioned in the previous post, we gathered that Monday night [this current post is being written over a week later] for our site announcements. It was a really nice evening... the 7's were in town also and everyone met at the home of the training director where a huge map of Fiji was laid out on the floor. After getting our site locations, we stood on the map so that our team mates could see where we were placed.

Everyone will be happy to know (especially any AMRG'ers reading this blog) that after approximately three years of wilderness search and rescue training, I will be exceptionally prepared for living and working in Suva, yes Suva, the largest city in the South Pacific, where I will be spending the next two years.

I was expecting a city for my placement and I had weighed the pros and cons early deciding that and urban placement definitely has its advantages and could be pretty cool. This thought process was built around rural cities however... smaller places like Lobassa or Nausori where I would have access to creature comforts and resources that utilize my background skills while still allowing me to keep touch with the rural communities. Suva is a metropolis compared to these places and very westernized.

This is not to say that I'm not excited... Having some time to think about my placement before writing this blog entry, I can say that I am very excited. I have been assigned to replace a volunteer who will be leaving after extending her PC tour for a third year. My position will be with with the Fijian Ministry of Health [MOH] working in their Oral Health Unit. That's the MOH building in the photo... and that's me jumping for joy.

Working at this position will be unique as I won't necessarily be working every day at the grass roots level. I'll have the opportunity to learn from and work with the health workers and policy makers at the government level as they understand and synthesize health issues at the macro level.

Since Peace Corps encourages its volunteers to have multiple projects, I will be uniquely placed to work with a variety of MOH departments. I have already inquired about Environmental Health [waste management, sanitation infrastructure etc.] opportunities and the signs look good. On top of that, my supervisor will be the director for the Central East [Cent/East] portion of the nation. If you look at a map of Fiji, "the nation" is all the area covered by the various islands... meaning that Cent/east is a big eff-ing region. There could also be opportunities for work related travel to the various islands in the eastern region.

My fears stem from lessons learned from design: I don't want to lose touch with the communities I'm supposed to be working on behalf of. In other words, while I'm in the city, I don't really know what's going on in the villages... or the settlements etc. I feel that the issue is even more important because of the obvious fact that I am not of the land and people.

With a week and half left of training before I move to my permanent site, I feel excited about the opportunities and experiences that lay ahead of me in Suva.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Last week the FRE-7's [7's] and the FRE-8 [8's] attended a three day conference in the capital city Suva. Suva is the largest city in Fiji and, to my knowledge, one of the largest cities in the South Pacific. It's a hub city where business, politics, and trade occurs for the entire region.

The conference was a lovely break from our training communities and the sometimes smothering attention of our host families. We covered a host of topics, including technical training for volunteers and informational sessions on Peace Corps policy.

Our technical training was on HIV/AIDS education and pretty interesting. Often time, our trainers are PC volunteers who have already been in-country for a year. I really enjoy this kind of education as it reminds me of design school where so much of the knowledge was passed down from one class to the next.

Part of HIV/AIDS training is the inevitable "how to use a condom" demonstration. These demos can be a bit arresting: most everyone has a condom story, how it broke, how they left them on the nightstand, how they don't use them because they feel like snow-pants etc...given the fact that the actions around condom use are rather personal it was understandable that there was a bit discomfort by some people in the group when it came time to do the demo.

After the class room training we formed teams, loaded into vans and went off to different areas to actually conduct a training. I was interested in my group, a boys only vocational school, and how they would respond to the subject matter. Everyone was attentive though and had a good foundation of knowledge regarding safe sex, STI transmission, etc. We did some additional activities followed by my award winning performance of "Rubber Meets Banana."

The demo went smoothly, I was surprised by my maturity addressing the subject matter and really enjoyed working with the youth... as some of you know, my sense of humor can easily veer off the road of good taste, cartwheeling through the guard rails of decorum only to burst into flames...

I think what grounded me was a thought that popped into my head as we were finishing up training. It was a very clear thought, the kind that emerges in your mind completely intact and crystal clear. As some people were showing apprehension at demonstrating proper condom use to a group of 40-some boys, I thought about some of the privileged experiences I had had riding on ambulances. When I considered that I had watched a person die, that I had seen death, the idea of talking about life... healthy, safe, responsible life became laughably easy. The baggage surrounding the topic just wasn't an issue anymore.

When I originally experienced these events I wondered how they would inform my future actions. In this case, I consider myself lucky to have those experiences to fall back on.