An Adventure in Fiji: Journal
Denial is a wonderful thing. Here's an example. It's your senior year of college. You have a job, and so exercise time is cut down to a minimum. You also live next door to a liquor store and a few bars with great happy hours (this may also be affecting exercise time). There is a Starbucks on campus right next to your first class that makes great Iced Mochas. When these factors combine, the freshman 15 that you had successfully avoided for three years sidles up to you and plants itself firmly on your hips. Well, that's ok because your friend denial is waiting on the sidelines, ever ready and available, just like a friend should be, to blame the tightness of your jeans on the hot drier, or your strangely large bum on the broken mirror. That's it, problem over. No stress. Life is good, as usual.
Life isn't quite as good when that denial is taken away. It's a fact of the Peace Corps life that during the service, men lose weight and women gain weight. No one really knows what causes this phenomenom, but I have a few ideas, like the way a good number of females tend to deal with stress (pass me another chocolate bar please) and carbs (sticks to your bones like glue) differently from men. So, as a result of my femaleness, the freshmen 15 that I managed to get rid of in the months after I graduated has come back in the form of the Peace Corps 15. It's not too much extra weight; in fact, it should be easy to fit in to my pattern of denial, in my house that only has hand mirrors, and when all of my baggy village clothes still fit.
I must remind you however that this is Fiji. Denial is a piece of cake in America where thin is beautiful and no one except for maybe your mom would ever tell you all of your clothes were awkwardly tight. In Fiji, where fat is thought to be healthy and beautiful, it is considered a compliment to tell someone they're looking a little thicker in the middle. As I was hanging my laundry on the line outside a few days ago, someone I barely know walked by me. As he passed he said, “Maya o iko bulabula vinaka (Maya you're looking healthy). O iko levulevu (you're fat).” GASP!! How do you respond to that? “Thank you,” “No, it's just my (un)flattering shirt,” “Screw you”? And he's not the only one to say it. The old ladies will tell me, the young ladies tell me, the nurse says it, and even the little kids! For God's sake, I've only put on a few pounds! The bells are tolling to announce the iminent death of denial.
For me, the whole situation goes to show how funny culture is. The things typically considered to be most culture specific, like food or music, have been easy for me to adapt to. I'll eat octopus cooked in coconut milk while singing along to Dokidoki music anyday. However, body image has turned out to be one of my least flexible pieces of Americana. While yes, there are other big switches to get used to, such as the ocean being treated like a dumpster and beer being considered the work of the devil, being told I am becoming levulevu is the cultural change that affects me most personally. Chalk it up to those formative teenage years in the western world, I suppose. Lucky for my sanity though, I also spent those formative years perfecting the art of denial. Another cultural stronghold. So, when I hear levulevu and run inside to check out my waist in the tiny hand mirrors, I usually decide that Fijians just don't understand my curves and that the piece of pie I just bought is looking delicious! And anyway, I know that there are always a few parasites lurking around the village just waiting to reclaim an inch or two of that waistline.
As the opening credits of Catwoman started to roll, I laughed at the ways fate decided to show itself. I chose the movie without even thinking, and the opening images of cats and women prove the sneaking suspicion that has been creeping up on me for the last few weeks. I am officially transformed from the past, regular Maya into Maya, the Cat Lady of Namatakula.
It all started with some rat problems. The first house I lived in here in the village had a major infestation. Each night I moved the soap out of my shower and put it in a safe place. Why? Because if I had left it, the rat gang would move in and steal my soap. At that point, I was averaging about 2 bars of soap a month. And no, this was not because I had had a revelation about cleanliness-it was because of the thieves. Well, I moved into my new house and thought to myself, “Here's my chance to start anew and be super clean to avoid rat infestation. I am tired of breaking the bank on soap.” Unfortunately, no amount of cleanliness can keep those pests away. I wasn't sure what they were eating (the rats on this side of the village are not soap-eaters), but they came in droves.
Suddenly I found myself living in a rat's nest. I returned from a weekend away to find that they had been living in my underwear box. In their nightly gallivanting, they knocked spices and sponges off the shelves. I would wake up to hear them racing around the floor and walls near my bed. And then, the final straw. One night while I was sleeping, in a complete and utter invasion of my space, one took a big chomp on my finger in the middle of the night! In the morning, I awoke to find blood on my sheets and bite marks on my finger nail. Outraged, but to much of a wimp to go the route of the rat trap, I went for a two pronged approach, rat poison and a cat to do the dirty work. I quickly made a trip to the SPCA in Suva and, with the help of a few character judges, picked out the kitten who looked most like he would develop into a rat killer.
And so began my life as a Cat Lady. The little guy was an adorable little fluff of fur. Having him around (or maybe it was the poison) worked like a charm-he provided hours of entertainment and there were no rats anywhere near the house. Of course, he had a slight flea problem, and had mistaken the area under my bed as his bathroom, but these were small problems we worked through. He loved chasing anything that moved, be it my mosquito net or a mosquito, which I saw as a great sign for his future prowess as a ratter. I gave the wild little guy the name Riva (pronounced reeva), which is the Fijian word for crazy. It turns out, however, that unlike crazy, the word riva doesn't ever have a good connotation. You can't say, for example, “she's so riva! I love hanging out with that girl.” People who are riva go to the mental institution in Fiji. Moreover, riva also means mentally handicapped. (this is why that phrase doesn't work. Try it. “she's so mentally handicapped! I love hanging out with that girl.” Nope.) Oops. Luckily, Riva doesn't understand Fijian, and so doesn't know that I gave him a name that labels him as a resident of the mental institution.
Fast forward a month or two. Riva is starting to look like a real, grown up cat and understand the concept of a litter box. He loves to play. Life is great. One day I walk down to the beach to get some sand for his box and a crowd of little kids ran up to me. They were all speaking at once trying to tell me something about cats and a box and the beach and abandoned and.... Once I got them to slow down and tell me what the problem was, I found out that someone had abandoned two very young kittens in a box on the beach. Being the one crazy white person in the village who buys food for my cat and keeps him inside, they figured I was the perfect person to rescue the little guys. So, I took them in. I had to. I couldn't, in front of all of these sensitive, impressionable kids, leave the kittens there in a box where they would surely be taken away by the high tide and eaten by sharks. Or at the least be eaten by rats. So, Maya, the savior; the wonderful Peace Corps volunteer who is full of love (as the kids told me), took the two one-and-a-half week old kittens into her 16ft X 20ft home.
Thinking back, being labeled as someone who abandons cats may not have been such a bad thing. The two little cows were not yet old enough to eat on their own. So, every few hours I put a bit of milk into half of a contact solution bottle that was serving as a bottle. They weren't really very easy to feed, having claws and all, and so soon my house took on the smell of the old milk that had been spilled everywhere. I also realized that soap costs much less than milk in this country. Mornings were no longer relaxing because my new alarm clock was the obnoxiously loud mewing of the starving kittens. This alarm clock went off at all hours of the day and night. My social life was affected because people in the village were kind of afraid of the little kittens that stumbled all over the place and clawed their feet to look for food. If I went out somewhere, I had to make sure I wasn't gone too long so that I could get home to feed the kittens. They, like Riva when he first came to my house, could also not control where they peed. Nothing is quite so enjoyable as going to wipe your feet on the welcome mat and finding it already wet. They weren't even cute-they looked like rats and couldn't even really walk. What's more, they made Riva even crazier. Since their entrance to the house, he started galloping around the house, going full speed from one side to the other. If it wasn't the kittens that were keeping me awake, it was Riva's running. Thus my descent into Cat Lady-dom. One lady, three cats, very small house.
Things have gotten a little better lately. They have finally figured out how to eat on their own, however buying the food is still breaking the bank. They've quieted down a bit and mornings are a going a little smoother. Riva has taken to the little kittens (who I'm realizing might be females, which presents a whole other set of problems), and now sees them as great toys. He loves to, mid-gallop, tackle the kittens. This is hilarious to watch, but I do kind of worry about them developing some sort of complex or major injury. He also fills some of the mother roles that I can't by cleaning them and snuggling with them while they sleep. They are starting to get the walking thing, and starting to look cute, however they still haven't grasped the concept of the litter box and have they have fleas, two things which are causing major problems in our relationship. I am really hoping to hand them off to other families in the village. And I'm tired of cleaning up their poop. I am trying to talk up the fact that my house has been rat free since I got a cat, and prove how cute and fun the kittens are in hopes that this will help to unload them faster. My house is just too small to handle three cats. Or maybe I'll just give one away...two cats might not be too bad...
What does it mean to have a 24/7 job? Sometimes it means that I'm doing work type things from 8 in the morning till 10 at night. Other times it means that I'm sitting at home painting watercolors or reading a good book. How could this be? Well because instead of having working hours, life itself becomes “work.” Even though I might be sitting at home reading, I know that at any moment, some work-type thing could arise, and usually does. Of course, the great majority of that work does not involve sitting at a desk and staring at a computer all day (not having a desk, actually none of my work involves that....if anything, I'm sitting on the floor staring at a computer). My home time is generally interrupted by kids coming over wanting to draw, get help with homework, or use the computer. Often they just want to come in and hang out and talk for a while. The village minister or the mayor might come over and ask for some help typing something. The thing is, I can't really just shut the door and tell them to go away, because this is my work-this is why I'm here. To help people out, lend a listening ear, and to be a source of support.
Now, even though sometimes it feels like I get stuck in my house, I really don't just sit in my house all day, waiting for people to come by. I frequently go to village meetings, youth meetings, and church meetings. Now, at the village and youth meetings, I will usually give people reminders or suggestions. At village meetings, I usually have to remind people to separate their recycling correctly and to continue building and using their compost pits. At youth meetings (youth being people above the age of 17 who aren't married) sometimes I'll suggest program ideas like setting up a role model program for the kids, other times I'll just sit in and be a presence. This is why I attend so many church meetings as well. It's not that I've recently become deeply religious, but it is the perfect way to let people know that I'm a member of the community and the perfect way to meet them. Because, really, a lot of my work here is about making connections. For example, I talk to someone at a church meeting and they mention a workshop they are going to where they will learn about starting a bread bakery. Then, I remember a friend who is very interested in starting a small business. I connect the two, and hopefully they'll both attend the workshop and start the bakery together, both being very committed. I feel like making these connections is a very important part of my job, which I wouldn't be able to do if I didn't get out and about in the village, attend different meetings, and talk to people.
And then there's the planned type of work. This is mainly the work that I do for the Environmental Committee that I work for, however there are other small things that I do. On the committee, we have women and men from all 5 villages in the district, and we meet monthly to choose projects and discuss progress on ongoing work. We organize the recycling for the district, set up an annual environmental day, build compost toilets, fix piggery waste systems (I have had far too much experience with pig poo since I've been here), and are going to (hopefully) organize a clean compound competition this year in the villages. Now, a lot of this stuff was started and done by the volunteer that I replaced, and in fact, she started the committee. My role here is to help the committee with their projects and make sure they progress (usually meaning I do them, though I am trying to change this), and provide guidance in choosing projects and planning. My main goal while I'm here, through planning workshops and delegating responsibilities, among other things, is to strengthen the committee and turn it into a force that will remain after I leave. It's a lofty goal, but if the committee doesn’t last it seems like a waste of all the education work. At this point, I believe, if I wasn't here to do a lot of the functional, organizational things, the committee would quickly dissolve. Hopefully, by the time I leave, this will have changed.
Other planned work involves weekly trash pick-ups in the village with the kids, attending various workshops about income generating projects and women in development. I’m pretty busy here, which is not something I ever expected from peace corps, but really, I’ve realized, that’s the way I like it.
There's this thing in Fiji called the Coconut Wireless. It is an amazing form of communication, that, like cell phones uses no telephone wires. Even better than cell phones, you don't even need towers, or phones, or...anything. Unfortunately with the Coconut Wireless, except for those expert users, you cannot control the items of information that are communicated; unless perhaps you spice up a meeting notice with a juicy bit of gossip.
My first experience with the Coconut Wireless occurred long ago, while I was still in my host village. The other Peace Corps Volunteers staying in the village and I were going to take a small 30 minute trek to the beach that followed the cane-train tracks. Alone. It turned out that my host mom (clearly an expert) was not thrilled at the idea of our solo venture, and using the Coconut Wireless, arranged an escort for us. When we reached the turn off to the beach, he was sitting there waiting. My host mom had not left her house, and yet the news and her request had traveled faster than we had. That's the incredible thing about the Coconut Wireless; it travels at lightening speeds through unseen channels. News travels far and wide before you even know that it left.
Now for my second encounter. As you might recall, I recently made a speaking blunder involving beautiful vaginas and wind. Well, lets fast forward a little from that day. I can't remember having told anyone aside from some fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, and I have basically pushed the incident out of my memory. I'm sitting outside the Provincial Office (aka, main government office for the district) in Sigatoka, about to go to a meeting encouraging villages to incorporate the environment into their 5 year plans. I am surrounded by mostly male Fijians, only one of whom I had met before. It's a pretty hot day, and there's not much talking. Suddenly, coming from behind me, I hear someone saying, in Fijian, "the vagina is beautiful." Hmm, I think, that's a weird coincidence. It is then repeated over and over and over, louder and louder. I realized that the phrase is being directed towards me, and I have never seen the man who is saying it before. Now, if it weren't for my previous blunder, it would probably be the sleaziest pick-up line ever attempted. I made eye-contact with him; my eyes giving him the "who are you-how do you know that story-do we really need to go into this now" look. Ignoring my silent request, he proceeded to repeat the story of my mistake to everyone attending the meeting. Everyone had a great laugh, and I'm sure my face turned shades of red that I didn't know existed. Now, how did this man who I have never ever spoken to in my life and has never seen my website learn about this story? Chalk it up to the mysterious and mystical Coconut Wireless.