Carry On

When I went to study Development it was with the naivety of a middle-class, Canadian white girl with a Super Heroine complex. During my first (and last) placement as a Project Coordinator for a British NGO in Suva, Fiji I was quickly disillusioned. All the so called do gooders were driving around in air conditioned SUVs heading from cocktail meetings by the pool back to gated communities and HD TVs. They weren’t involved in local community culture and their interactions were transactional at best. They even had their own suburb 20 minutes out of town called Lami.  No one seemed as interested in working to better the community as they did in dating hotter, younger local men and, well, that was their main priority.  The foreign institutions were a hoax. I’d like to take this moment to shout out to the local Church organizations and the Rotary Club who do in fact follow their mandates in my experience.

Anyway back to me and my total break down of faith. Of course I quit my job. Of course there was a lawsuit. Of course there was a police report, with Interpol (at least that’s what the policeman said, he mighta been trying to get in my pants) but that’s a different story.

By the time I got back to Canada, I was a skeleton of my former self, both physically (my butt bones grinding on the airplane seat) and emotionally.  Of course being my younger self, and unable to process emotions in a healthy way at the time, I dove into my next career. Or let’s call it studies. Advertising, about as far as you can get. Now I told myself some logical throwback to childhood dreams and interests story about why I wanted to do this, and I told other people my back-up justification story (It starts in a laundromat and ends with Colgate Palmolive – a real interview winner) but really I was just tossing myself onto the “next thing” so that I could overlook the trauma of the “current thing.” Solange called me out on it, or at least thats how I choose to interpret her song Cranes in the Sky.

At the same time I threw the baby out with the bathwater – I ditched my whole do gooder mission and sold out to The Man (though I did semi-self sabotage my pitch to Nestle “health” science… it still came in second, cuz I’m a Professional). I now saw Development as self-righteous and just, not my business. Why these people need my help? Who the fuck am I to help them? I later learned from a classic Canadian TV show that this “Heroine” complex is rooted in the heroine’s own feelings of low self-worth. Thanks Dr. Ogden.

Ok so where have I gotten to now? I think that we can still work to better the world without being anchored to white male privilege and his neo-colonial institutions.  We can create positive change in any number of jobs and we CAN make it our life’s work without ever setting foot in a “Development” bank, a non governmental “AID” Organization or any inter-governmental institution dedicated to preserving their own prosperity and self-interest while disguising it as compassion and Human Rights.  There is a way to move forward, put the baby back in his tub, to carry on.


The Toilet Paper Diaries

Ode to Toilet Paper

Recently, I bought my first designer toilet paper. It was a big moment, “you’re moving up in the world” my doorman agreed. This reminded me of a time when I didn’t have any toilet paper, and what this bathroom staple means to me.

For a self proclaimed “world traveler,” it is perplexing to think just how much toilet paper has impacted my expectations culturally. You see, toilet paper isn’t common in some countries, like Fiji. Instead, after doing one’s business, it is customary to go ahead and take a shower. That’s a lot of showers for someone suffering with travelers’ diarrhea – someone like me.  When you’re spending as much time in the bathroom as I was, toilet paper, or lack there of, becomes ones best friend. I began searching out restaurants that had plenty supply; These tended to be the more “Western” restaurants and soon I found myself fanaticizing about being back in Canada, surrounded by plentiful fluffy sheets.

What’s more confronting is how a lack of toilet paper led to my longing for a higher salary. Indeed, once I moved out from the typical Fijian homestay into a more modern flat-share, toilet paper became the symbol of our differing socio-economic statuses, we had a toilet paper hierarchy. On my NGO “do gooder” salary, I had bought plain white grainy paper, conveniently shaped into toilet friendly squares. Of course, after a complete lack of toilet paper, this purchase led to mild and momentary feelings of ecstasy. Unfortunately, this state of euphoria came to an abrupt end once I spotted my flat-mates’ rosy two-ply. With one flat-mate a financial auditor and the other a paralegal, this toilet paper divide led to a fracture within our apartment. Toilet paper had impacted my feelings of self-worth, and my status in the hierarchy of the flat.

Not only had toilet paper influenced my personal expectations and feelings of self-worth; it provided a metric for my evaluation of other people like -date or not- worthy people. For instance, I met this guy. After a drinks one night a few of us went to his place to watch movies and there was no toilet paper in the bathroom. Upon this discovery, his ranking dropped considerably, how could I date someone with a “no toilet paper” mentality? But soon, I decided this to be a positive indicator. It meant that he did not invite girls over very often, as such my evaluation of him rounded-out positively.

In conclusion, toilet paper has impacted me somewhat unimaginably. From cultural expectations to feelings of self worth and relative socio economic status, to how I evaluate suitor eligibility.  I will never take toilet paper for granted again.

Jane’s Fiji Travel Guidance Part 2: More memories, more connections.

One hot Suva afternoon, after after a particularly soggy cold Mahi Mahi from a Chinese fish n chips shop in the back alley of the main drag, I decide to wash down lunch with a nice cool beer. I head over to Town House Apartments and take Fiji’s oldest elevator up to the garden deck. The waitress knows me by then and soon brings over a Fiji Bitter. The view from Town House is a treasure; one can stare straight over MHCC out on to Suva Harbour.

Not many foreigners know about this place, it is more of an after work spot for locals. It was first recommended to me by my friend Eliah, who I met at a cafe in Garden City where he worked (he later invited me to celebrate Purim with the Klesis 24/7 Ministry). At first I had trouble finding the place. I asked many people for directions, no one seemed to know where it was even though I was supposedly directly in the vicinity. I eventually asked an old, tired looking white man with a brief case who seemed to be exiting the tax office (where Paul worked) he directed me straight and to the right. I arrived at a luxury apartment severely confused. I asked the two door men where I could find Town House and they said I had to go back out to the left from where I had came and look up on the hill. Baffled, I turned towards the exit only to see the creepy old white man I had asked for directions entering two minutes behind me. I learned that day NEVER to trust anyone solely because they look like you or are of the same background.

Anyway, back to Town House. The Garden deck bar of Town House apartments soon became one of my regular spots. Unlike the constant Rihanna-pop abundant at most bars, cafes, nightclubs, public buses and everywhere, Town House played strictly island-style reggae. This particular day made a turn for the better when I met a Fijian Missionary group from one of the villages. They had been volunteering with the floods in Nadi, risking their health and safety to help others in need. Along with Colgate Palmolive (which I’ll describe why at another time) this was the only group I met that seemed to be doing good work in Fiji. They immediately invited me to join their table, where we laughed, danced and drank many rounds. We soon moved to a “locals only” club that I had been warned about. There was no air-con like at the expat clubs which made the place hot, sticky and intimate. After being checked out by some serious looking bouncers, we entered, which was more like being submerged underwater since the whole place was painted a deep blue. We ordered a case of beer (yes they sell beer by the case there! Genius!) danced and drank some more, and of course they didn’t let me pay for a single thing including my cab home. Upon arriving back, I received a text from them saying how’d they’d enjoyed meeting me and checking that I had made it home ok. I never heard from them after that, although I hope they knew the pleasure was all mine!

I spent a lot of afternoons drinking Fiji Bitters those days, alternating between Town House, Bad Dog and JJ’s but none was quite as nice as that particular evening and none was quite so inspiring.

A candidly coy Suva travel blog

Let’s delve into my Fiji memories and explore the complicated nature of being a tourist in Suva…

Jane’s Fiji Travel Guidance Part One

Welcome to Suva, Fiji’s capital city! Here the air is muggy, the coast is concrete, and downtown boasts fewer trees than a New York City postcard. This morning is consumed with the familiar screaming and shouting from the taxi-stand mixed with the confabulation of babies in the apartments next door, Suva is full of babies, and everyone is pregnant.  The heat is already sweltering so let’s take a stroll (the taxis are still busy arguing) down to MHCC, Suva’s original shopping center, complete with air conditioning, except on a Sunday.

The Gloria Jean’s Coffees is filled with fellow expats sipping iced-lattes and complaining about the lack of soy alternative, oh wait, that’s me, “I’ll take an americano please.”

The newspaper is dominated by stories of the tragic flash-flooding in Nadi, Fiji’s other major city, where all the flashy resorts are located. I have to say, that is one thing Suva has going for it, there may be no beach but there’s hardly any storm warnings either.

In terms of night life, Suva boasts an all american 6-cinema complex complete with current 3D movies and 1 liter disposable paper Coke cups that usually end up being kicked into the ocean by unaccompanied minors.  For those seeking a more traditional pass-time, Kava is the activity to choose.

Often termed “grog,” the kava root a is a ceremonial drink, a staple for every occasion as well as the product of choice for every-evening consumption. It’s effects are similar to those of Marijuana but it’s intake method is not; the crushed roots are folded by hand into water to produce a muddy texture which is then offered by the Master of ceremonies to guests one at a time.  The drink is sipped out of a coconut bowl which is filled to one of three sizes: the overflowing “Tsunami,” the mid level “high-tide,” and the foreigners/beginner bowl, “low tide”.  As a guest you will usually be served first. As custom dictates, remember to clap once before taking the bowl into your hands. Depending on the occasion, grog ceremony rules will vary in level of strictness. Not to worry, Fijians are very welcoming, follow their lead and ask many questions. Of course, always remember to bring a bag of Kava root with you when invited to a local’s home, as it’s the customary equivalent of a bottle of wine or flowers.

Being a foreigner in Fiji can be the experience of a life time, or a previous life time even. Allow yourself to be flooded by the sensory perceptions of the kava ceremony, and all it has to offer, let it take you on a journey to your tribal past.

Paul’s Witness

Fiji is an awful place. Half of the people are sweet and beautiful and the other half take advantage of the kind group. You can find yourself a lonely fool in the middle. Those of us who can see the exploitation cycle spend our time at Happy Hour, or should I say waiting for the doors to open. One of my fellow Happy Hour regulars was named Paul. Paul grew up in Ireland during The Troubles and moved to New Zealand as a teen. He had recently run into some money trouble and was in danger of losing his house, so he took a semi-lucrative job at the Fiji tax office. A fellow Canadian in Suva once told me that “every expat in Fiji is running from something,” my first instinct was to say “No, I’m running towards” but it didn’t much matter. The place wore on me and despite my best efforts, I too found myself coping at Happy Hour.

Paul stood out because he was a rare gentleman. In Fiji women aren’t seen drinking a beer or even a coffee at a bar alone. I wasn’t about to give up my afternoon latte, an act of irreverence which led to most of the men assuming I was a prostitute, even the women gossiped about me. It wasn’t just the locals either. I remember I once asked a white foreigner for directions and he directed me to a building, his apartment building. Luckily his doormen knew where I was actually going and accurately guided me onward. You see, you can’t trust anyone in Fiji. But I could trust Paul. Paul even hired me to write letters to publishers about the book he was writing so I could get some extra income. When I hurt my shoulder, he got me in to see the physiotherapist of the Fijian rugby team!

Paul was there for me every time I needed a friend. After I left Fiji we kept in touch, he sent me pages of his manuscript. I edited them but never bothered to send them back. His book eventually came out, I congratulated him. We exchanged check-in emails from time to time. He didn’t respond to my last one, I figured he had gotten busy. The other day he was tagged in a photo on his daughter’s on Facebook page, the line read “RIP Dad.” I wrote a comment expressing my condolences. I received a message from Paul’s brother. Apparently Paul’s death wasn’t an accident. He didn’t leave a note.

As a family is left searching for answers, I am left with memories, memories that are suddenly only mine. Paul was witness to a strange and bizarre time in my life, now that he’s gone it’s as if the experiences never happened. As if none of it was real. Only my memory of Paul.


Nostalgic for Toorak

I really miss Toorak café today.  Toorak café was located under my apartment in Suva, Fiji.  I miss the whole street actually; the perfectly stocked corner store, the ever-ready taxi stand, the cheapest internet café.  That street had everything. The reason I miss the hood so much today is food poisoning, or water poisoning I’m not sure which.  The shower water tasted strangely odd today and my eyes stung as if I got shampoo in them only I hadn’t yet used any. Puzzling.

So anyway although food poisoning in Fiji was a regular occurrence, so much so that I moved down the street from Suva Private hospital, bouts of Istanbul food poisoning are considerably less frequent. When I felt crappy but not hospital crappy in Suva, I could go downstairs and have everything I need. Not so today unfortunately.  My local street’s got nothing; two rotting vegetable shops, a restaurant that noone eats at, and a bunch of art galleries.  Okay so I love living on a street full of art galleries but today I longed for my old street in Toorak, Fiji.

Toorak is the old Suva town center before they expanded onto reclaimed land.  Until lately it had a reputation for thieves and whores, which I’m guessing is why I got strange stares whenever I mentioned where I lived to any new acquaintances.  But Toorak was a great place to be.  It’s probably the ONLY place in Fiji which is paved enough not to have ANY mosquitoes around.  I still have a couple scares on my legs from the bites I incurred on my first homestead in Fiji, sure it was lovely to be in a homestay and beautiful under the mango tree but the mosquitoes there devoured me. Excluding my absurdly bollywood-esque roommates, my Toorak neighbours were lovely. Joe next door, stocked me up with kitchen supplies since my roommates would not share anything, not even salt  (we did not get along). The taxi drivers would invite me to drink kava late at night on the porch of Toorak café after it had closed.   My neighbour next door, Lusi walked me to the hospital the day after I’d moved in despite that we’d only just met, and soon became my greatest friend.   All the staff at the café were the greatest, and despite their in-house drama everyone was always chill with me.

Okay so I might be painting my stay in Toorak in rose-coloured retrospection. But despite all the hardships underwent there, when I got heat stroke or food poisoning or any other kind of tropical disease  (thankfully I never caught dengue) there was no better place to be. So Toorak I salute you, you’ve got an underserved bad reputation but to me you will always be lovely. Thanks for the GTs.

Purim in Paradise (March 2012)

There are no Jews in Fiji, sure there are a few transient expats such as myself, rumored to be scattered across the archipelago, but not a community, not a synagogue.  Nevertheless, Fijians harbor a certain fascination with the Jewish people, and with Israel.  Mysteriously enough, Israeli flags hang sporadically in local windows. This in tern led to a certain fascination which I developed about the role of Judaism in Fijian life. To explore further, I took advantage of an opportunity to celebrate Purim, Fijian style.

The last time I celebrated the holiday Purim, was roughly 15 years ago. As children, we would all dress-up in costumes as characters from the story, and bake hamantashan treats; it’s the secular Jew’s version of Halloween. For the Messianic Fijian Community, the celebration is different, but same same.

On March 8th 2012, I celebrated the Messianic Perspective of Purim (Esther) with the Klesis 24/7 Ministry of Suva, Fiji.   The Klesis 24/7 Ministry was started by Minister Barak John and his wife Missy, in December 2000. It is located in a working class neighbourhood of Suva, the capitol of The Fiji Islands. The prayer chapel is on the second floor and there is a day school below that teaches an American Christian curriculum.  Minister Barak says he was always interested in the “Hebraic roots” of his faith and eventually got in touch with the Kadesh Ministry in Jerusalem; Then began a long period of repenting and renouncing their past culture. He and his family changed their names, in fact the whole congregation did! Missy told me some members of the congregation had been disowned by their families or ridiculed BUT she reports, Messianic Fijians are nevertheless happy with their new faith and culture.

I was the second Jewish visitor they had hosted. When I entered the service I greeted everyone with the Fijian word “Bula” and was quite surprised to be greeted with “Shalom” in return.  Messianic Fijians are big supporters of the Jewish people and of Israel, although they are not actually Jewish themselves.  Messianic Fijians believe Yeshua, or Jesus in English, is the Messiah for the Jews and Israel.   They read the King James Bible in English, old and new testament.  There is a giant Magen David at the front of the chapel on display and Israeli flags waving. The supporters’ dress is casual, slacks and Bula t-shirts, they haven’t reached the costumes stage of Purim yet, the year 2012 was actually their first Purim celebration (talk about timing!). The service began at 7:30pm precisely, with Worship Songs to begin. The songs had a nice melody and the Worship Leader, Isaak plays a mean piano. Personally, I found the spontaneous wailing of a woman at the front a bit much, nevertheless considerably more bearable than the Methodists preaching in my apartment building.  During the singing, there stood out a line that to me summarizes their faith nicely “we the gentiles of the earth shall be joined to Yisrael.” By 8:15pm we had reached the time for the reading of the Megilah what they refer to as the Book of Esther.  This was particularly enjoyable as it was very interactive. Each person of the congregation (about 100 or so) got up to read a verse, and there was the usual booo-ing and cheering at the mention of key names.  After that, at about 9:40pm, Minister Barak was joined by Isaak for “Communion Song,” and bread ripped of a mini challah (!) was passed around with small cups of wine.  At 10:00pm the Purim feast was served!

As I reflect upon the evening, I realize the experience had sort of a comforting effect on me. Fiji is the first destination I have been to not to have even the tiniest of local Jewish communities. When confronted with such a reality, I guess you can have one of two reactions, first, forget about your religion and assimilate, or second, get totally weirded-out and leave. For me, celebrating Purim with the Messianic Fijians provided a middle ground, a way to connect to my roots while not feeling completely alone in a land where I was the only one of my culture. There are some things from the Messianic Fijian culture that I will adopt, for one: they add coconut to their Israeli salad, delicious!

The Messianic Fijians hope to build the first Synagogue in Fiji one day. They are also eager to visit the State of Israel.  Eliah, the friend who brought me there, hopes to join the Israel Defense Force. If you do get to meet them, you can expect to be greeted with a friendly “shalom” by a very welcoming people.