Fiji – Bureta Village, Ovalau

A hard bed, a crowing cockerel and cava pounding late into the night did not make for a very sleepful night but at least we didn’t have to get up too early! It is a little cooler on the island in the mornings which is welcome. It really is a lovely setting; the small, mainly wooden or corrugate iron houses surround a central green very reminiscent of an old English feudal village.  Each house has its own small plot of land with a variety of produce; flowers, as they are all over Fiji, provide splashes of bright colour – pinks, reds, purples.  The leaves too are colourful and the sun shines through them to give them a sort of iridescence. Cassava is here in abundance and taro, bananas and coconut also grace most gardens. 

Breakfast was a lavish affair and mainly kiwi-style – cereals, toast and pineapple jam, baked beans, spaghetti.  Banana cake and fresh pawpaw and pieneapple gave it more of a Fijian touch. First stop after breakfast was the medical centre to hand over the baby scales and the stretcher we had brought. The reception we received was generous and quite humbling. Their gratitude seems to know no bounds and we lost count of how many times the word “thank you” was uttered.  Jill was asked to bless the gifts and photos were posed for.  In return they presented us with a mat and some locally made coconut oils and soaps. We didn’t realise until a few days later just how much of an honour it was to have been presented with a mat – they are often made for weddings and other ceremonial occasions.  Hand-made from the pandanna leaves, they will apparently last for a good twenty years. Marama, in whose house we are staying, is one of the ladies who makes the coconut oil – a cooperative was recently set up and a group of women extract and process the coconut oil in the traditional way, by hand, which must be a painstaking job.  The oil is reputed to have healing powers and as well as being used to add shine to hair it is also used on skin to lighten scars and heal dry and chapped skin.

Next we were whisked off to go to the village school to deliver the maths and English books that we had brought.  We have already seen the children this morning, on their way to school.  The girls dressed in their pretty pink dresses and the boys in shorts and white, white shirts. Whenever I see films of children in third world countries going to school, I am always amazed by how clean, neat and tidy they look; proud to be wearing their uniforms and to have the opportunity to go to school.  These children also seemed very happy as they smiled and skipped their way along the path. The Headmaster was very welcoming and accommodating considering that this was an impromptu visit.  Our girls were keen to sing as a way of saying hello and so the Head Boy was sent for and asked to round up the children and send them to the library.  Our songs were replied to by two form the children.  We have noticed here just how beautiful the singing is here – loud, tuneful and melodic.

Fiji Day 3

Moving Day!  There is paint to be bought so Jill and I set off to catch the bus.  We took a roundabout bus tour all around the houses before going back past St Christopher’s 20 minutes after getting on and then another 20 minutes on to the paint shop! Never mind, we had plenty of time to chat and look out at the houses and the people.  One of the things that I like are the mottos on the schools that we pass.  The one for Nakasi High School I think is particularly down to earth and simple; ” In all things be human”. It made us reflect on the “striving for excellence” that many NZ schools have, including Dio.  Very laudable, but have we lost sight of what education and learning is all about? Strive to do your best, yes, but your best may not necessarily have to be achieving Excellence as a grade.  Anyway, what is “Excellence”? – a benchmark set against some given criteria that can, at times, be fairly arbitrary! 

Anyway, by the time we got back, Jo and the girls had sorted out all the toys, books and clothes we were taking to Ovalau. A quick lunch and soon we were all aboard the bus en route for the ferry. When I say “soon”, I mean in the Fijian sense of the word.  I love the laid back pace of life here; it is too hot to do anything fast and so the bus came when it was ready which was about half an hour after we were!

As we drove north the terrain changed; much denser bush because we left the built-up areas.  Taller trees with splashes of red at their crowns started to dominate after the scrubbier areas with banana groves and coconut trees.  Many of the dwellings were much poorer, more ramshackle, corrugated iron and wood but set in their neat little parcels of land planted with cassava, vegetables and flowers.  The mountains looked impressive and I was filled with a longing to get out and climb.  I wonder if there are treks in them thar ‘ills?  The trip across on the RO-RO was very pleasant; the islands dotted around the ocean are bright splodges of green in the dark blue of the water.  The ferry manoeuvred it’s way out of the port through the shallows where little mini islands of mangrove stand proud. We basked in the sunshine and it almost felt like we were on holiday as we chugged across the sheltered stretch of water to Ovalau. The bus drove us straight off the ferry and on to Bureta village where a welcoming committee awaited!

The village is nestled in a valley surrounded by hills – not very big but they look like they might be limestone – I must check – maybe there are caves?!  We were taken to the house of one of the main families who were to be our hosts for the next two days while someone went to find Marama who is our main contact here. Jo and Jill were welcomed as old friends as they had visited last year, and the rest of us were warmly welcomed and introduced.  We were relieved to learn that we were all to stay in the same house (apart from Jill, who was chief guest and had the honour of staying with Donato and Vany) which belonged to Marama’s nice who was also called Marama.  Dinner was lavish – the women had clearly been hard at work all day preparing a feast.  There was soup, which was delicious, home made bread, chicken curry, chicken stir fry with veg and noodles, rice and taro – a root vegetable which is the staple diet of the islands. It is a strange fibrous vegetable with not a lot of flavour, but eaten with the soup it was quite palatable. 

It was rather unnerving and a little uncomfortable as our hosts did not eat with us but waited until we had finished. Nevertheless, we ate heartily as we were hungry and the food really was excellent. We stayed and chatted for a while and they asked to see the things that we had brought for the kindergarten.  It was funny because Sola, one of the young boys (probably around 19/20) who had been helping in the kitchen and was very chatty and friendly, ended up sitting on the floor with the girls eagerly unwrapping the boxes and playing with the toys we had brought!  Donato  is the main man of the house, is wheelchair bound and he is apparently the main driver of the village and instrumental in getting things like the kindergarten built. He will not be able to get to the kindergarten tomorrow so wanted to see the toys this evening. 

So we are all now in bed; I can hear the gentle snores of the girls next door as they sleep marae style on mattresses.  Jo and I have our own rooms although my bed is as hard as aboard!  Outside I hear the clicks of the geckos and the rhythmic hum of the cicadas.  There is also the steady thumping of the village men pounding the cava roots.  Tomorrow promises to be busy so I guess I should try to sleep  a little too before the cockerels start!

Fiji Day 2

I think I slept quite well but dogs barked incessantly until midnight and the first cockerel started crowing at around 3am! There must have been a whole coop full of them or else every household has one and they crow in chorus or in competition! Communion at 6am was a new experience for me and for the girls – not communion per se but the very formal format and the recital of psalms.  Some of the girls went back to bed afterwards but most came for breakfast and demolished pancakes, toast, cereal, yoghurt, bananas, etc. Then they spent a couple of hours working with the children in the kindergarten. They were amazed by how affectionate but how demanding the children were and how they climbed all over them.  The girls also sorted out the mound of stuff we had managed to cram into our luggage – clothes, puzzles, books, toys, toiletries – to give to the children here at the Home and also to the school and kindergarten in Bureta. 

Jo is still feeling under the weather with a sore throat and an aching leg but she insists on coming along for the day’s activities. There was no sign of the Sisters and in the absence of any other instruction we decided to take the girls into SUVA for lunch on the bus, have a look around the market and then visit PureFiji. Riding the buses proved to be a highlight for us all.  It is a great way to see “real” Fiji – the buses go all around the streets and residential areas where we could see how Fijians live. The open sided buses with roll up canvas “windows” provide a refreshing breeze and respite from the heat which is quite oppressive today. We also enjoyed the upbeat music that blares out and the continuous call of “Bula” as we pass people in the street. The girls do stand out with their fair hair and pale skin and seem to attract the attention of children with their mothers and, of course, the young men! The greenness that we noticed yesterday is remarkable and as we travelled into Suva we had views across the expanse of vegetation – tall pineapple trees, bright flashes of pink and red hibiscus and lots of other brightly coloured flowers, to the mountains and then also to the ocean.

The bus station is close to the port and main food market and once we had dodged the buses coming in and out of the bus station and made it safely to an island of relative calm we decided on a plan; head to the plaza where we could get food and toilets but not necessarily in that order! The plaza is a large shopping mall which we happily explored for half an hour or so, in which time I managed to buy Bula shirts for my boys.  The girls seemed happy to have just half an hour and were remarkably reluctant to be given any more freedom to explore.  Maybe it is good that they are a little nervous and respectful of the potential dangers but I find it unusual, nonetheless.  It seems that they are not so streetwise as they first appeared!  A tour of the market was next on the agenda and I suspect the girls were a little disappointed as it was predominantly a fruit and veg market. We too were surprised as we had expected a wider variety of stalls.  I always find markets fascinating though – the way that people present their wares, the care they take to make them look attractive – I mean, how can taro and cassava look good?  But they do! It was interesting to see that most things were sold by the “heap” and not by weight.  We bought a “heap” of green beans for $3 and a “heap” (6) mini pineapples for $5.  There were a few handicraft stalls at the far end of the hall – ladies selling sula, dresses, mats and bags made of pandana leaves. 

The taxi ride to Purefiji was interesting – 13 is an awkward number to fit into taxis that carry four people – so Jill and Jo each went with 3 girls, the remaining 4 girls went in one taxi in convoy with the others and I followed on my own.  My driver quickly fell behind and it soon became clear that he had little idea where he was going! I arrived a good 10 minutes after everyone else after several frantic text messages from Jo wondering where I was!  My phone came in very useful for finding directions!  We spent a happy hour or so trying out and buying beauty products before emerging laden with smelly stuff! 

We have been struck by the friendliness of the Fijians  and especially by the kindness of the bus passenger who having tried, in vain, to explain to us where we needed to be to get the bus to Nakasi, said to a young man who just happened to be walking by ” Bro, can you show them where to go?” (Well, I’m guessing that’s what he said, ‘cos it was in Fijian!) Said young man then led us for the next half a mile or so all the way to the bus stop.  What a wonderful boy! I chatted to him as we walked and found out that he was a student at the maritime college and is aiming to be the captain of a container ship. That will give him the opportunity to travel and earn a better wage than he can in Fiji.  He plays rugby – half back or 1st 5/8th and his uncle played for Fiji. He is hoping to visit NZ next year. I hope that he meets with the same kindness and generosity of spirit that he showed to us.

After dinner this evening the girls took the clothing that we had brought for the teenage girls at St Christopher’s and they enjoyed a pleasant evening chatting and sharing stories.  The girls have learned a lot this evening – one of the comments from them when they came back was “They are just like us – they go on Facebook and like music and make-up”.  I think some perceptions have been challenged!  Sister Kalo and Sister Mary came and joined us for coffee and we had a good old natter which was lovely. It was interesting to hear about their lives here and find out more about the children and what happens to them when they leave the shelter of the Home. The boys leave to go to a boys home in Nandi at the age of 12 but all the children have to leave at the age of 18 when they are no longer under the auspices of the equivalent of Social Services care.

I have a huge bite on my bum! The geckos are clicking outside and there has just been a bit of a shower.  Rain has been in the air since this afternoon – maybe a bigger downpour would clear the humidity a bit.  The dogs are quiet for the moment and the cockerels have not yet started – maybe I will try to sleep. 

Fiji 2012

Early, early start on a freezing Waikato morning. Scraping ice off my windscreen at 3am is not something I want to get used to. However, I did manage to sleep in the minibus on the way to Auckland airport along with the rest of the party once the initial excitement of finally getting away wore off.
I am one of three teachers and ten students heading to Fiji to provide support – moral, spiritual, physical and financial – to St Christopher’s Home in Nasaki, Suva and Bureta village on the tiny island of Ovalau.
Travelling is always exciting, especially when it is the first time you have visited a place; the anticipation and the curiosity – will it be what you imagined? What will the people, the landscape, the buildings, the food and the culture be like? The hanging around in airports, checking baggage in, eating aeroplane food, being squashed in tiny seats is not quite so exciting but it is all part of the journey and we make it what we can. It was good to have some time to get to know the girls – I don’t teach any of them and so they come to me as blank canvases which is great. It was also good to grab a coffee to boost the system. Teenage girls will be teenage girls and after much dilly dallying around we found ourselves walking more briskly than we had planned to our gate for our flight. I snatched a welcome hour of sleep during the flight before we arrived in Fiji and felt almost human! The warm air hit us as we stepped off the plane – in some ways it was welcome and very pleasant as it seeped into a body that had spent the previous 48 hours deeply chilled. The novelty soon wore off as we queued in a packed immigration hall which large slowly turning ceiling fans struggled to keep cool. However, by the time we made it through and out into the “fresh air” we realised just how much work the fans had been doing! We were met by the Sisters of St Christopher’s and Rev Jill was whisked away by them as Jo and I clambered aboard the bus with the girls. Air-con in the bus came in the form of open windows and doors – the breeze was welcome as we bounced along the road from Nausori to Nasaki. I had already glimpsed the verdant countryside of Fiji from the plane as we flew in. Now I could see just how lush the land is even here in the city. Banana trees, coconut palms, wide green leaves and gardens full of flowers flashed by and I was amazed too by the size of the river we crossed. Interesting also that the Rewa Bridge spanning the river was jointly funded by the European Union and the Government of Fiji.
I am curious about the number of car wash stalls I saw on the way – is there a huge demand for clean cars? Or maybe it is an indication of high unemployment? Car washing is an easy business to set up and I guess money would be cash-in-hand. I was also amazed by the number of Grog stalls and just as in Cambodia and Vietnam the were plenty of roadside stalls selling fruit and vegetable, sim cards, phone top up cards and mobile phones. There were also quite a lot of second hand car lots and yards selling car parts. We entered “Rugby Country” – huge hoardings celebrating the Fiji 7s team’s victories and a rugby stadium that appears to be an uneasy assemblage of ironwork; not sure I’d like to be high up in the stand! The houses were an assortment of styles and sizes; some were made of concrete blocks, some wooden and others corrugated iron, all painted in an aray of bright colours. They nestled higgledy-piggledy in dips and hollows or stood proud on brows of hills, each surrounded by generally well-tended gardens. It seemed that the more well off lived cheek by jowl with the poorer as ramshackle corrugated iron houses were mixed in and amongst the more expensive looking concrete ones. We soon turned off the main road and into a smaller street where we came to the, quite imposing, gates of St Christopher’s Home. My first impressions was that this was a reasonably wealthy establishment – the large gateway with the name in wrought iron above it leads down a driveway to the main building which had beautifully tended gardens around it. A §2 tip meant that the driver unloaded our luggage for us. We were immediately greeted by a little huddle of wide-eyed children from the pre-school who had waved enthusiastically at us as we drove in. “Bula” is the greeting used at all times of the day and we quickly learned to use it as everyone in Fiji greets everyone else – it is considered rude not to say “Bula” to anyone you cross in the street or in shops or buses.
The Home is quite extensive and as I already said it seems to be reasonably affluent, whether this is because people like us bring goods and donate money or because the church is well off, I don’t know. I was struck by how well-maintained the beautiful gardens are – brightly coloured flowers, tall coconut trees, banana trees and veggie gardens. The guest accommodation – The Light House – is basic but comfortable. We were glad to put our bags down and get changed into something more appropriate to the heat and humidity. First stop – local supermarket for some basic supplies for breakfast as we were all starving. Jill also needed to go to Suva to get the ferry tickets to Ovalau.
After an interesting walk through the locality to the supermarket we ate lunch and then the girls were keen to go into the nursery to play with the children. Some girls helped in the garden and we sat and weeded and talked to one of the ladies who worked there and we found out that the numbers 1 – 10 are almost identical to those in Maori. She also told us some other words in Fijian but, unfortunately, I can’t remember them. Hopefully later in the week I can find them out and learn them again. Her daughters Filo and Nani arrived back from school and we chatted to them for a while and then one if the girls excitedly pointed out a boy climbing a coconut tree! This, of course, is probably an everyday occurrence in a country where there are so many coconut trees, but it is a complete novelty for our girls from the Waikato! It turned out to be the son of the lady we were talking to and he was soon high up in the tree and dropping down ripe coconuts which one of the men expertly sliced with a dangerously sharp looking knife and handed to us to drink the sweet coconut juice inside. I am not a great fan of coconut milk but fresh from the tree it is refreshing and sweet.
By now the older children from the Home – apparently it used to be called an orphanage but the preferred term now is Home – had arrived back and our girls went to meet them and help the younger ones with their homework.
After dinner we joined the children and the Sisters for prayers and singing which turned out to be quite an event. All the students sang beautifully – ours included – and they clearly enjoyed themselves. Our girls taught the St Christopher’s children action songs and the St Chris children delighted our girls too and they came away with a new repertoire. Wonder if they will remember them when we get back to school? We were all amazed by te prayer and psalm recitals – all in English, long and complicate language and repeated parrot-fashion. I wonder how much of it they understand?
It has been a long day and we are hot and tired. Cold showers are actually quite welcome – just as well since there is no hot water! – and time for bed.