Saturday, July 31, 2010
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.