Monday, May 28, 2012

Fiji in Pictures

Mirror Mirror

If Australia was a hefty dose of reverse culture shock, then Fiji is an even bigger dose of mirror culture shock. Since Fiji and Samoa are both South Pacific islands, and geographically pretty close, I figured they would be pretty similar, and in many ways, they are. But the devil is in the details, and Fiji and Samoa could be worlds apart.

My first impression of Fiji was “Wow, it’s so big!” I was on the airplane and because I was flying west, we hadn’t hit sunrise yet (for some inexplicable reason, every flight out of Samoa occurs at an ungodly hour. My flight to Aus left at 6 in the morning, but the shuttle to the airport left at 3. About the same for Fiji). I could see the edge of the horizon beginning to shade out of black, but the only other distinguishable feature was the lights of the town. Jeeze, there were so many lights! Samoa is at a disadvantage here because the airport isn’t in town – it’s about 45 minutes outside of town, so you don’t get the same light show when you land at even more ungodly hours (the plane going to Fiji leaves at 5:30 in the morning, so the incoming flight lands at around 4 so they can change out luggage and passengers. Planes don’t hang around in Samoa, they land and leave again).
The impression of “Wow, it’s so big!” was repeated many times. Fiji has real hills that I would dare to call mountains. If 20 feet above sea level in Samoa looks like 20 feet above sea level, 20 feet above sea level in Fiji looks like 5,000 feet in Colorado – if you’re looking away from the ocean, that is. Huge fields! Huge fales! Huge cities – and multiple huge cities at that. Samoa only has Apia, but Fiji has Suva, Nadi, Sagitoka, Lautoka, and over 300 outlying islands. Huge villages! Villages aren’t strips of houses lined up next to the main road, either – they more resemble a neighborhood. It’s unbelievable.

The people in Fiji are about as friendly as people in Samoa, so there’s no real difference in how many kids say “hi” to me. Fijian women tend to have shorter haircuts and people in general wear palagi clothes. The unexpected difficulty was the language. I thought that since both Samoa and Fiji are Polynesian islands, and, again, are geographically close, the languages couldn’t be that different, could they? WRONG. Fijian is so different from Samoan that it was completely unrecognizable to me. Fijian sounds closer to French or Italian than Samoa. I’ll have to look up the colonial history of Fiji at some point. Nothing translates and I felt weird that I could only speak to people in English. Mirror culture shock – everything looks about the same, but nothing is at all familiar.

I love the bus, and it’s a pity public transportation isn’t as widespread and convenient in the States as it is here (interpret those words loosely – public transport is much more of a necessity here than it is in the States for many reasons, including how many people can afford personal cars). The bus in Fiji has many advantages over the bus in Samoa though. It goes between cities on the island instead of only from the district to town and back again. I wasn’t in Fiji long enough to warrant learning the bus schedule, but that was another advantage. No matter how far away you are from the capital, or the nearest big city, buses were frequent enough that you only have to wait out by the road for a while and one will be by sooner or later. The thing I find hilarious about buses in Fiji is the ticket you get. Or receipt, I guess. You get on the bus, and the bus assistant (in Samoan the word is supokako, but they have a slightly different purpose in Fiji) comes to ask you where you’re going. You pay up front (in Samoa, you pay when you get off the bus) get a receipt, and then when you reach your stop, you give your receipt to the driver as you get off. I have no idea why it works that way, but I find it hilarious. I went into a couple stationary stores in Fiji, and about half the stock was invoice books. You get receipts for everything in Fiji, whereas we get receipts for nothing in Samoa. Also, buses in Fiji run just about 20 hours a day, seven days a week.

On top of all that, Fiji also has
• Billboards
• Road signs
• Real roads
• Islamic mosques
• Hindu temples
• Taxis of every shape, size and color
• Indian influence (Chinese are a huge presence in Samoa, Indians are the same for Fiji)
• Swing sets at primary schools
• Pay phones in every village I saw (not sure if they actually work, though)
• Pig pens
• Free wi-fi (!!!!)
• Goats
• Frogs (I went on a very short river hike, and at every river bank, I stopped to stare at the millions – ok, probably tens – of tiny black frogs. Nobody else cared as much as I did)
• Tourists out the wazoo, all the time, not just when the cruise ship comes in

Then come the inevitable questions comparing Fiji to Samoa. Surprisingly, the weather was significantly different – to me at least. The temperature was more moderate, and while I could walk down the street in the middle of the day without sweating to death, I was also convinced I would be the first person to die of hypothermia in the middle of the night in Fiji. Fiji is hands-down more wealthy and developed than Samoa, but that also means it carries the scars of development – like much more obvious differences between the uber-rich and the really poor, and pristine landscape ravaged for natural resources. I really enjoyed taking advantage of the conveniences that I don’t get in Samoa, and I loved that there were so many buses, but I also really love that I am on speaking terms with all 3 of my district bus drivers. I think you can guess which country gets my vote – home is where the heart is.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Mother's Day

Most holidays in Samoa are celebrated with a special performance at church, and followed with ice cream later that afternoon. Mother’s Day is exactly the same, except I perform with the mothers because I go to the women’s committee meetings. This is funny in itself because according to all the Samoan definitions, I am not even remotely considered to be a woman. I am not married (nor do I have a boyfriend), I don’t have kids, and I don’t have a woman’s body (every single person I talk to tells me this at one point or another, often multiple times). Oh well, as with most every other aspect of my life here, I just ignore it and pretend it works.

Most villages have three women’s committees – pastor’s and matai’s wives, wives of titled men, and wives of untitled men. I go to the meetings for the wives of untitled men because that’s the group my neighbor goes to, and I couldn’t survive without my neighbors. I danced with them last year for Mother’s Day too, but this year was much funner. The groups were divided differently this year. Instead of each of the three groups preparing their own songs, dances, and dramas for church (which resulted in a four hour marathon of church last year), it was split up into deacon’s wives and everyone else. Since this was just a church division – not village-wide – my neighbor ended up on a different committee than me, but I still knew some of the women in my dance group.

I was a little late to practices; they practiced for about two weeks, but I didn’t make it until the halfway mark. I knew they were having dance practice, but I didn’t know where and when, and I didn’t run into one of the women to ask about it until halfway through. But I regularly attended dance practice once I knew where to go and when. Well, I only kind of knew when to go. I generally prefer to be in bed pretty soon after the sun goes down, which means right after dinner here. Since the days are so hot and the mothers spend all their time taking care of kids, the only time they really have for practice is after the sun goes down. I was told dance practice would start after dinner (which doesn’t really mean anything except that it is after my bedtime), but that didn’t stop me from always being the first one there. So I would sit at the committee house waiting for all the women to show up, and then we would dance for an hour or two – really, we would dance for an hour, and between the dancing there was all kinds of gossip and all the mothers would try to set me up with their sons. It’s one of my favorite topics of conversation because it’s always funny. Not only did I actually catch some of the conversation, I even contributed to some of it. I’m quite proud of my Samoan. Practice always ran until 10 o’clock or later in the night, and I would generally follow it up with late night laundry (my water is starting to go away, but I usually have water at night, so where the water is, that’s where I go. Or when, I guess). Then I would get around 6 hours of sleep (which would have been fine in the States, but I’m exhausted all the time in Samoa, and any deficit in sleep hits me exponentially the next day), then go to school the next morning, nap in the afternoon, and repeat. After our performance on Mother’s Day, I told everyone I would be sleeping for the next three days to make up for my lack of sleep during practice, but it has yet to happen.

I knew I would be featured in all the dances (I lucked out with only one line in the drama because my memorization and acting in Samoan aren’t quite up to par with my conversational abilities), so I put in my best effort to learn all the moves. Everyone said I did great. Even with most of the dance moves down, I knew I would miss some important part of our performance for Mother’s Day, and it turned up in the uniform. We were supposed to buy blue fabric to wear as ies (an ie is the bottom half of an outfit) so we would all be matching. They showed us the fabric one night at practice, and then I went to town the next day to buy it. As I was waiting on the bus, one of the other women from the committee got on and asked me if I had my uniform. Yup, I’m on top of it (although it took me three tries to get it right. We were supposed to buy our fabric at Frankie’s, but there are now 3 Frankie’s in Apia and I didn’t get the right one til the last try. It’s the brand new Frankie’s that was remodeled and only opened a week ago). Then she showed me her fabric, which was brown. Wait, they showed us a blue ie at the practice. “Oh, no, that uniform was cancelled.” “When?” “This morning. Come with me, I’ll take you to get the new uniform.” So she took me to the shop, we got my fabric, and I was still on time for the bus. The other problem I couldn’t quite solve – “what kind of ie do I need? Ie puletasi (with strings that you tie) or ie lavalava (that you just wrap around your waist)?” The only answer I got was “ie,” so I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to take it to the village seamstress or not. I didn’t, mostly because I really liked the pattern of the fabric and wanted to turn it into a skirt after Mother’s Day. So I have my brown ie, and at our final practice, they tell us what our whole uniform is supposed to be for the performance at church the next day. I couldn’t catch everything, but I knew I needed a seed necklace (which I have), a white, long-sleeved button up shirt (which I don’t have) and a short sleeve top. I heard something about a puletasi, so I figured we were just supposed to wear a puletasi to church and then we would all change for our performance.

So I walk into church on Sunday morning on one of my church puletasis, and I’m just sitting waiting for everything to get started, then one of the women from my group tells me that I’m supposed to be in my uniform already. So I run outside to change because I brought my uniform with me in a bag. Then she tells me that I tied my ie wrong, so she takes me outside to fix it, and when she discovers that it doesn’t have strings is when I learn that I was supposed to take it to the seamstress. Oh well. We got it all situated so that it looked mostly right anyway. Then I had the wrong top on. I have a white button-up with sleeves that hit my elbows, and I was hoping it would suffice because I don’t have any other white button-ups, but of course it wouldn’t do. So one of the moms had her kid run next door and grab one of the his white shirts for me to wear (we only needed it for one song). The sleeves were way too short, but it was still longer than elbow-length, so it passed. After that, I didn’t really encounter any problems. I remembered 95% of the dance moves (amazing, considering nothing every passes 80% certainty in Samoa!), only stumbled slightly over my one line in the drama, and gave my camera to my kids so I would have some pictures of the whole thing (they took over 100 pictures in about 30 minutes). I learned about a dozen new names in the duration of our dance practice, and I like to think I have made some new friends in my village. It was pretty great. All the other PCVs thought it was too bad that I had to stay in my village for Mother’s Day dance practice on Friday night (there was a big celebration in Apia for the end of term 1), but I think I had much more fun in my village than I would have had in Apia.