Billibilli & Cava

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20120707_122406Saturday was our day for being tourists and learning a little more about the culture of Fiji. One of the important things we learned was the concept of “Fiji time”. Our itinerary said that we would be picked up at 8.30am so we were all waiting at the end of the drive at 8.30am! We were still waiting in the hot sun an hour later despite phone calls to the tour operator and were feeling frustrated and overheated, all ready to complain and ask for some recompense. However, when our drivers arrived they were friendly and smiley, telling us stories of life in Fiji and pointing out places of interest along the way. They charmed us all and as the day went on we realised that we probably just had to accept that Fijians live their lives to a different rhythm.  Our driver pointed out the high security prison which has no fences, flood lights etc that are the usual signs of a place that houses a country’s most dangerous criminals, and explained about the  experiment i n providing the prisoners with training and educuation to reduce recidivism which has been a huge problem in Fiji.  Lack of educations and opportunitis is als othe biggest root cause of criminality (apart from addiction to cava, which you can argue is the result of not having a job or any prospects of one.)  That is linked to the chauvinistic heritage that the man earns a living and the woman stays at home and looks after the house and family)  In more recent times the economy and trade has meant that there are plenty of jobs for women in the low paid service industry and factory line manufacturing and little for men.  So men have essentially become disenfranchised and have lost their sense of self-respect and pride.
We soon reached our destination and were kitted out in lifejackets before climbing into the long, narrow dugout boats.  These were powered ny an outboard motor – very similar to the ones in Vietnam we crossed the river in.  The local boatman revelled in racing up the river, the spray from the water as the boat cut through it going upstream soaked us but it was all part of the fun.  It is a wide river with lush vegetation on either side but unfortunately many of the native trees seem to be being strangled by bindweed which is rampant.  Our guides told us that the local community are fighting a losing battle against it and are worried that indiginent wildlife will disappear as the flora does.
We soon came to the “Village” – a tourist village which tries, like places like Whakarewarewa in Rototua to preserve the ways of the past for posterity.  A so-called living and working village where we were treated to the traditional Cava ceremony – welcomed onto the whare, offered cava and became part of the community.  Cava is a strange brew – maybe I don’t have a discerning palate, but to me it tasted like muddy water with a kick.  After that we were taken on a tour and shown the “traditional” school, shop and local crafts where we were encouraged to part with as much money as possible!  I am being rather cynical; the tour was informative and interesting and the people were very welcoming, but, at the end of the day they just wanted to tyake our money off us!  And why not?  As long as it was going to the people that needed it and not into the coffers of the already well-off!  I bought some trinkets and Christmas presents which were very pretty to send back to the UK. 20120707_120108

Then we carried on upstream to the waterfall; an opportunity for a bit of a walk – it reminded me of the Waterfall Walk in Ingleton; it was a relatively roughly made track that led along a tributory to the river up the valley for about 10 minutes to a waterfall.  The water dropped from about 40ft into a brown pool.  We were assured that the water was clean despite the murky colour which was due to the recent rain.  Since it was hot and humid we decided to dive in.  The girls were keen to sample the water and Jo, Jill and I follwoed them in.  I swam out to the waterfall to recce it for the girls and ascertained that it was okay, kept a close eye on them as they swam out and shepherede them all back to the rocks at the edge of the pool where they splashed around until our guide beckoned us out of the water to go back to the boats. 20120707_140936

On the way back downstream we had the opportunity to go on the traditional “Billibillis” – basically a few thick bamboo poles lashed together to make a raft that is punted down the river.  We all piled onto a large, very stable Billibilli but we saw young boys and girls on the river in crafts made of just 3 or 4 bamboo poles which looked very lightweight and not a little dubious!  I was disappointed that we were transfered back onto the boats for the rapids – I had secretly hoped that we would have had the excitement of shooting the rapids on the Billibillis!  But then, I guess safety comes first!

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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 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.