Sunday, October 9, 2011

Island Time?

Somehow, a lot of time has passed since my last blog post. I would blame “island time,” that curious slowing of the passage of time that tends to occur in the South Pacific, but it would be disingenuous. The fact is that Michelle and I have been so busy that I just simply haven’t taken time to write. You may be asking yourself, “what exactly do Peace Corps Volunteers do that could possibly keep them so busy?” Well, here ya go…

Day to day living takes up a lot of time in the Peace Corps. When the dishwasher stops working I can’t just call a repairman, mostly because Michelle wouldn’t appreciate it if some stranger showed up at the house and started using a screwdriver and a crescent wrench to poke around on her. Like most of the rest of the world’s population, we don’t have fancy electrical appliances to assist in daily chores. Thus, a lot of our time is spent doing by hand chores that folks in the U.S. just push a button to achieve, including laundry and dishes. Additionally, we generally don’t have the convenience of the pre-packaged foods available in the U.S. You won’t find “salad in a bag” in Fiji or sometimes even something as ubiquitous in the U.S. as jarred pasta sauce. And the closest thing we’ve got to a microwave is the heat generated by the tin roof in our kitchen in the hot season, although with the humidity I’m pretty sure you could cook a pot of dry rice on the counter without adding any water during that time.

Furthermore, unlike in the U.S., we don’t have a convenience store on every corner if we need something like milk, butter, or an onion. Our nearest markets are an hour and fifteen minutes by bus and the selections, as I noted previously, generally don’t rise to Western standards. So we have to plan our food and meals carefully, which takes time. You don’t want to store so much food that you just end up feeding the weevils and rats, but you also at least want enough that you don’t find yourself eating oatmeal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner until the next time you can get to town. So planning is important. Add to that the time that I spend catching fish (time I don’t mind spending, but time, nonetheless) as well as tending the garden, and the simple act of survival seems to take up most of our days. In any event, a good portion of our time is dedicated to preparing and cooking meals, chores, and miscellaneous repairs or other projects.

However, looking back over the past six months we’ve accomplished a lot in addition to simply surviving. In retrospect, it seems like we’ve been working non-stop on a number of projects and, at times, feel as though we work harder here than we do in the U.S. It has been challenging, frustrating, and rewarding at various times. Our projects have ranged from the small and routine to the complex and sophisticated, including everything from helping design a Village Development Plan to establishing income generation projects. Nonetheless, at one year into our service, we feel like we have contributed a lot to the well being of the village and its people.

The Village Development Plan (VDP) was a huge undertaking…and probably one of the most important things that we did. Many villages in Fiji have a VDP, but most of those plans are no more substantive than what a 6 year old would send Santa Claus come December…nothing more than a wish list. As facilitators, we actually sat down with village leaders over the course of six meetings and helped them work through priorities and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of different projects. We helped them create a vision statement, organize and prioritize all the projects, justify the priorities, and develop brief timelines for the top 5 proposed projects. In the end, the village had a long-term, comprehensive plan that they could be really proud of that showed the level of thought and consideration put into each proposed project. Each future project we took on as volunteers extended from that plan, but the plan also provides the guideposts for the village after we leave. More importantly, each time village leaders meet with a government minister or NGO they can hand the document over with pride knowing that they’ve done a lot of the difficult planning preparation for a brighter future in the village.

One of the first projects I took on at the request of the village was to help them set up a well-managed marine protected area. Marine protected areas (MPAs), or “Tabu Areas” as they are known in Fiji, have been used traditionally in Fiji for millennia. However, traditionally the Tabu Areas were unilaterally put in place by a chief and generally only for short periods of 100 days in association with a ceremonial event like a funeral. But one thing that the very observant Fijians noticed about Tabu’s is that, in terms of producing more fish in the protected area, they work. There was no need for me to even cite the science that proved it; they had seen it with their own eyes. The villagers knew my background in managing fisheries and asked me to help them set up a Tabu Area that better met the needs of the people than the one the chief had unilaterally put in place that disenfranchised most of the people. So I set about helping the village to design an MPA that would balance the needs of the people living nearby with the needs of the environment.

Over several months we did some research, a lot of outreach, and drew some maps. We had several meetings and got the local authorities involved as well. In the end, we created a Tabu Area that the people designed and agreed upon based on well-founded criteria established by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of the South Pacific (USP). After months of work and outreach, we held a ceremony in the village to dedicate the Tabu Area that even included a blessing by the High Minister of the Methodist Church. Most importantly, we’ve started to see the impacts of having the Tabu Area in place with many of the locals, including myself, increasing our catches out on the reef in the open areas.

I also helped the village start a community based tree nursery to grow sandalwood, locally known as “yasi”, as an income generation project. Initially, I worked with one of the villagers to write a proposal to get professional nursery materials provided by the Department of Forestry. After repeated attempts to prompt action on the proposal, it was clear that the project was going nowhere, so we changed strategy and asked simply for a workshop to be conducted by the Department on how to plant and care for yasi trees. Several phone calls and personal meetings in Labasa and Suva later, I finally got them to commit to coming to the village for the workshop. I actually did very little to get the project off the ground. Once the workshop occurred, the village took the initiative to build a nursery using locally available materials. When the Department officials returned a couple of weeks later to do a soil mixing and seed preparation workshop, they were stunned with the amount of work that the village had put into building a nursery out of natural materials found around the village. We got some great press coverage as a result in the Fiji Times. This is exactly what you want as a Peace Corps Volunteer…you provide the spark and they fan the flame and build the fire…

Michelle has also done a lot in the village. She has singlehandedly helped the village put together what will ultimately be the only community based virgin coconut oil business in all the South Pacific. The idea started with a visit Michelle made to Fiji back in 2003, when she was introduced to virgin coconut oil. In Alaska’s cold and dry climate, it was one of the only things she found useful in combating dry skin. With a little research, she also discovered a myriad of health benefits associated with VCO, including antifungal and antiviral properties. So when we arrived in our village and discovered acres of surrounding coconuts, she suggested VCO as a potential health/women’s empowerment/business project. After learning how to make VCO herself, Michelle taught three of the village ladies how make VCO using materials they already had on hand. Those three ladies went on to teach the other ladies in the village how to make VCO. Again, it’s exactly what you hope to see as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Seven months later, Michelle has organized the village businesses (including copra and the yasi nursery) into a federally registered cooperative, established savings accounts for the women in the cooperative (many for the first time in their lives), and helped the village secure funding for a small VCO factory to scale up production and potentially start exporting a superior product abroad (place your orders now, folks!). In just six months, the ladies have made over $7000FJD, which is HUGE in a village. Furthermore, proceeds from the VCO project were used to build a community copra dryer to support better income from that source. In addition to the VCO project being a sustainable source of income for a village that had very limited opportunities in the past, the project has been an enormous source of pride with many people throughout Fiji taking notice. It has boosted the women’s self-confidence and is a source of optimism for the future. Moreover, the factory will serve as a model and training facility for other communities in Fiji. What she has achieved in this short time with the VCO project is nothing short of incredible.

But wait, that’s not all! Michelle has also assisted the regional nurses and village health aides (sort of a village nurse) to become more empowered and effective, particularly our own village health aide with whom she has become very close. I helped one of the young men write and submit a proposal to the Fiji Government and Fiji Water Foundation to replace the village’s failing water infrastructure, teaching him about computers in the process (we’re still waiting on the results, but were told it was one of the best proposals they’ve ever received). With the architectural design help of my sister, Doreen, Michelle developed and introduced a proposal to build a village health dispensary to house medical supplies and tools for our village health aide. Thanks to a digital projector I purchased, we’ve been able to share numerous educational programs (and some just plain fun ones!) with the village on semi-regularly scheduled “movie nights.”

With the sponsorship of a wonderful Australian woman named Delia, who owns Daku Resort in Savusavu, we helped organize two separate village ecotours with the Cousteau Ocean Futures Society and a Nia Dance group.

We’ve also worked with the school, teaching occasional classes, leading the Environment Club, and even teaching the teachers how to use Microsoft Office products with the two working ancient computers that they have at the school. To top it all off, we provided training sessions for the new group of volunteers at two separate training events and I’ve represented the volunteers at regular meetings as an elected representative of the Volunteer Advisory Committee…whew!

All that said, some of our greatest personal triumphs have been the small things. For me it was when one of the young men I had been working with, Elima Rabuli, came to Michelle and I and told us how proud he was that he had completed an 8-week life skills training and hospitality training course he had sought out of his own volition…and then proceeded to tell us how we helped inspire him to do so. For Michelle, it was when she took one of the local women, Timaima Serakula (Kula), to do a presentation on VCO at a local resort. Kula was terrified and told Michelle that she “prayed and prayed” that she would not make a mistake. After the presentation the attendants (most of whom were American, Aussie, or Kiwi) all went to Kula and thanked her for the presentation and the great job that she did (and proceeded to buy about $150 of VCO!). Kula was simply glowing after this and it was clear that she had found a new confidence within herself that was not there before. In the end, it is the people of Wailevu Village that have made everything about our experience special. The people and their ability to come together represent the main reason we can consider our experience successful so far.

Somewhere in all the previously described craziness, we managed to visit Tonga and swim with humpback whales, travel to the Yasawa island chain and help another volunteer with his projects, dive uncaged with bull sharks…twice…, and swim with dolphins (all subjects of future blogs/videos). Yes, it’s been a busy year, so I hope that you’ll forgive my absence from the blogiverse!

Sunday, June 26, 2011


Those of you who know me know that I love to fish. It has been an important part of my identity, not to mention my mental health, since childhood. So, you can imagine that being sent to the South Pacific would be more or less a dream come true for any fisherman. And you would imagine correctly if you did.

Nonetheless, since coming to Fiji I have had few opportunities (at least not as much as I would like) to get out on the water and fish for a number of reasons. First of all, Peace Corps is not just hanging out on a remote island, going fishing, and drinking grog with the locals. We actually work on a daily basis, which sometimes includes working all day, or at least through the best tides. Second, the high chief for our region closed off the fishing area immediately adjacent to our village, forcing me and the rest of the village fishermen to walk more than a half mile in either direction down the beach to reach the nearest open areas…which aren’t necessarily the best areas. Lastly, when you’re limited to wade fishing in shark infested waters, you generally have less motivation to slosh around waist deep while chasing skittish fish that tend to struggle and bleed a lot when you hook them.

"Thaht's mah boaht..." Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump

That’s all changed now that I’ve built my bilibili (pronounced “mbilimbili”). A bilibili is a traditional bamboo raft that has been built since time immemorial by the Fijian people to transport goods, traverse open expanses of water, and, yes, fish. Fijians are historically known as great boat builders in the South Pacific, creating large dugout war canoes and very seaworthy sailing vessels. However, as much as I would’ve liked to build a 40-foot long sailing vessel from all native materials and methods, I simply don’t have the time, energy, or authorization to take the local materials. So, my options were limited to building the bilibili from some stands of bamboo owned by the village next door.

I will say that building a bilibili is more complicated and labor intensive than you might imagine. You would think that simply lashing bamboo together would be as simple as tying a few knots around some pool noodles. Oh, but you would be wrong. I had no idea what I was in for building a bilibili, but I was determined to have a watercraft to get beyond the outer reef where the possibility of Spanish mackerel, wahoo, and dogtooth tuna become a reality.

We had been in the village for over 10 months before I finally convinced one of the locals, Tevita Beka, to secure permission for me to harvest some bamboo from one of the local stands near the Nasekawa River. It turns out that it is much easier to build a bilibili on the river where you can lash the bamboo together in the water without worrying about being constantly pounded by the waves in the surf. Unfortunately, the river is about 2 miles away from our village. But, beggars can’t be choosers, so I asked our friend Tevita to guide me to the bamboo stand and assist me in building the bilibili.

The day started on a Saturday at 8AM when I walked down the beach to the neighboring village of Dreketi to meet Tevita. Tevita was waiting, cane knife in hand, ready to go and assist his vulagi friend in building a marvel of Fijian engineering. Ten minutes later we were traipsing through the jungle, ostensibly toward an unseen stand of bamboo. I was dressed in my standard Fiji attire of shorts, a t-shirt, and flip-flops. I also had a backpack containing my cane knife, a saw, about 100 feet of nylon rope, and a 1 liter bottle of water...I should’ve brought a gallon.

It was an evil kind of hot…the kind of hot where you are really more chewing and swallowing the air than breathing it. Moreover, there was not a breath of wind inside the jungle. The air was just freakin’ heavy. As we traversed the jungle to the bamboo stand I was dripping in sweat and so hot I thought I was going to pass out. This was a hot like I’d never experienced before, and I know hot. Between two-a-day football practices in mid-August Texas heat and the nuclear plant of a U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf, I thought I’d seen and felt the worst given that either of those two instances I was sure were second only to hell itself. But this heat was like doing aerobics in a sauna while wearing sweater, pants, and a knit cap, which were all made of wool and soaked with hot water. I began to think that no project was worth this kind of punishment.

We finally came to the edge of the jungle where a large stand of bamboo rose above the jungle canopy. Bamboo is amazing stuff. In some cases, it grows literally feet a day and is so strong that in China they still use it as scaffolding when building high rise buildings. It happens to be great for a bilibili material not only because of its strength, but because it is chambered. So if one chamber splits and floods you literally still have dozens of chambers remaining to keep you afloat. Thus, while it may not be a Boston Whaler, a bilibili is a pretty safe watercraft for the expense!

My admiration of the superior building material quickly faded as we began to cut select pieces of bamboo with our cane knives. A cane knife is a pretty effective tool…fairly light, sharp, balanced with an easy swing…so you would think that it wouldn’t take much effort to cut down a hollow piece of wood. Again, you would be wrong. After cutting just 2 lengths of bamboo that were about 8 inches in diameter at the base and 20 feet long, I thought I was going to vomit as that imaginary sweater and knit cap seemed to enhance gravity as well as temperature. But, being a man, I was not going to let Tevita see me sweat…or at least hurl up my breakfast. So, I swallowed my pride…and vomit…and kept hacking away at the bamboo. Ten lengths later, we had the base materials for making the bilibili.

After trimming all the branches from the bamboo we dragged them down to the river and lined them up in the shallow water. Tevita then disappeared into the bush to return a few moments later with three pieces of hardwood that would form the perpendicular structural support for the craft. We then cut notches in opposing sides of the first and largest chamber of each piece of bamboo where one of the pieces of hardwood would pass through and form the primary support for the bilibili. The other two pieces would be lashed on top of the bamboo further back and would help cinch the lengths together. Thus, in the shallow water and gooey mud of the Nasekawa River, the keel of the F/V Mi-SEA-chelle was laid.

Tevita had said that this would be the “easy part.” I can’t say it was easier, but at least it was cooler standing in the river and out of the oppressive heat of the jungle. It took both of us tying knots, pulling, looping, holding, and bracing our feet against the bamboo to pull everything together. After about two hours of rope burns, splinters, and an advancing sunburn, we had successfully cinched the raft together.

After a handshake and a hearty “vinaka vakalevu”, Tevita handed me a slender, 10-foot long piece of bamboo and like a modern day Tom Sawyer I started poling downstream. It was one of the moments in Fiji that has really made me smile. As I poled downstream (with that Rush song stuck in my head) my heart swelled as I thought, “this is the adventure that I was looking for.” Then I got a dose of “be careful what you ask for” when I hit the swells at the mouth of the river and thought, “OK, this was a little more adventure than I wanted.” After struggling against the crashing waves and nearly being washed off the bilibili several times, I made it back to the shallow side of the reef edge and started poling toward home. At 4PM, I finally poled up in front of our beachside home.

Over the next week I would build an anchor and a platform like all the other bilibilis in the village, only my platform and anchor would be like no other. Anchors in the village basically consist of anything heavy…a cinder block, an old lawn mower engine, an old pedal sewing machine. Sure, they’ll hold the bilibili in place in even the roughest weather, but all of these anchors basically crush anything they land on when thrown into the water. So I made a coral anchor using some small gauge rebar, an old piece of 2 inch pipe, and some concrete mix, which is designed to cause less damage to the coral by hooking onto the coral substrate rather than crushing it. The Fijian’s thought I was crazy for putting so much work into an anchor, but someone has to set the example. My platform perplexed them even more. The Fijians basically use any combination of old lumber and bush wood that they can find in the village and secure with any combination of nails, wire, and rope. My platform was squared, nailed, and glued using appropriately sized lumber. Moreover, I am fairly certain that my bilibili is the only one in Fiji, if not the world, designed with oars. I am absolutely certain that my bilibili is the only one with rod holders.

On its inaugural sail, Lucas Nene, another Peace Corps Volunteer, joined me in christening the F/V Mi-SEA-chelle by catching a respectable juvenile giant trevally, which also happened to be the largest fish he’s ever caught. More importantly, we are now mobile, able to access and explore parts of the reef we had not been previously able. A “flats cat” or Glasply she is not, but the F/V Mi-SEA-chelle gives us a new freedom to explore even more of what Fiji has to offer.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Death Happens

Recently, we experienced our first funeral in the village. This is something that all Peace Corps volunteers experience at some point during their service. It is a natural part of life that people die, sometimes unexpectedly and sometimes with advance warning. Different people and different cultures deal with death in different ways. Nonetheless, human emotion is universal and grief is no exception.

The good thing about funerals in Fiji is that when someone in the village dies everyone, including the animals, eats very well. It’s not what you think…the Fijians have long abandoned their cannibal days and the bodies are treated with complete respect. However, much like an American wake where any number and variety of casseroles and lime jello molds may surround a picture of the deceased on their dining room table, the Fijians pull out all the stops in preparing a feast that commemorates the departed.

Typically, several pigs, chickens, and at least one cow are slaughtered to support the feast and associated mourning period, which, in our region, lasts about 3 days. While the human emotion of grief is no different than anywhere else, the process of mourning bears some similarities and some differences to American culture. Some aspects are familiar and some might seem more foreign. One thing that stood out to me is that the Fijian ceremony is much more personal on several levels.

The man who died was named Matia. He was an older man, about his mid-60’s, but bore the scars and deeply creased skin of a man who had spent his entire life farming in the Fijian bush. Nobody had seen him on the day he died after he left for his farm at 6 a.m. that morning. They found him that evening around 4 p.m. in his dalo farm, his body prone with his right arm stiffly outstretched and his left hand clutching his chest; tell-tale signs of a heart attack.

The police were called and dispatched a Toyota Hilux truck to retrieve the body at about 9 p.m. They brought the body to his wife, Akessa, for a positive identification before delivering the body to Labasa for autopsy and preparation for burial. Interestingly, the police investigate every death in a village, no matter how clear and benign the cause of death may seem.

Michelle had grown close to Akessa over the previous weeks, so we had gone to lend support to her during this time of grief. The police truck arrived before us and the police were inside Matia and Akessa’s modest tin house consoling the widow. Outside, we waited near the police truck where Matia’s body lay in the bed, contorted beneath a blue tarp with only his worn and twisted feet visible on one end. This was not the first time I had seen a dead body, but it seemed oddly peaceful knowing that here, underneath a South Pacific sky full of stars where the Milky Way glows warmly absent the city lights that drown it out in most parts of the U.S., was a man that lived a simple, serene life that was uncomplicated by much of the meaningless clutter we accept as part of American life.

The following day brought the funeral preparations. As I said before, the funeral was a three-day event. The first was a day of mourning for the widow and immediate family to grieve in private. Meanwhile, relatives from every corner of the South Pacific and reaches beyond poured into the village in taxis, transport trucks (loris), and private cars, practically doubling the population of the village overnight. The village men put up several temporary sheds constructed of bamboo, bush wood, and sheets of roofing tin to provide for shelter from the sun and rain. The women began preparing the food that would feed hundreds over the next two days.

The next day, the widow and family received visitors while families gathered on porches and beneath the shelters. Yaqona was plentiful and there was much ceremony at each tanoa bowl as ministers and associate ministers gave thanks and shared scripture related to the death in some form. A tea was held that afternoon with an abundance of cakes, scones, and a variety of traditional desserts made from tavioka (cassava). Two hours after the tea, there was a full meal that consisted of several curries, pork and dalo (taro) cooked in a lovo, waci (dalo leaves cooked in coconut cream), and several other dishes. Occasionally, you could hear uncontrolled sobbing erupt from Akessa and other relatives through the thin panel of tin on the house that was only about 30 feet away.

The last day there was a morning tea at about 10 a.m. with more mounds of food and a lunch with even more food following at about 1 p.m. There was so much food that the dogs, which were usually so emaciated you could see their ribs, were turning up their noses at pork and beef bones tossed their direction, nearly bursting from the scraps of a monumental feast. Then the pastor made an announcement and people began to stand and head toward the edge of the village where the burial ground sat inconspicuously between the last homes and the jungle.

The ceremony started rather abruptly. Fijians from several clans gathered around the grave and began singing hymns, many of which the tune was familiar even if the words were not. Shortly thereafter, several young men carried the casket toward the gravesite in a solemn and methodical fashion. The casket was wrapped in elaborately crafted woven mats made from local plants, representing days of work on behalf of the women who made them. The mats were beautifully decorated in unique patterns and included brightly colored fringes of yarn. The sound of the hymns only slightly overwhelmed the sobbing of many of the relatives, as the men slowly approached the grave.

The ceremony might have been like any in the U.S., except that the pallbearers, and many of the extended family, were immediately involved in physically lowering the casket into the ground. Men, young and old, gently placed the casket in the ground. Each man then took a shovel or digging fork and covered the casket completely with soil. Stones were then carefully piled on top of the soil followed by the men wrapping the entire structure with swaths of brilliantly colorful fabric and flowers that surrounded the entire rectangular perimeter of the gravesite. The personal involvement of the family lent an air of finality…of closure…that I think sometimes is not achieved in funerals in the U.S. where sometimes people never even see the casket go into the ground.

The senior pastor made a final benediction and people went on their way, some in sobbing tears, others in solemn silence. In any event, the privilege of observing this ritual reminded me of the saying that, “the measure of a man’s life is not made by the number of people who come to his birthday, but by the number of people who come to his funeral.”

Saturday, April 9, 2011's what's for dinner!

I have traveled the world and eaten an amazing array of cuisines ranging from bamboo worms in Thailand to aged tripe sausage in Paris (between the two I’d probably take the bamboo worms over the andouillette if I had to do it again). I’ve even eaten the still-beating heart of a yellowfin tuna fresh from the ocean. However, nothing compares to the uniquely Fijian meal I ate last week.

Late on Wednesday night, I heard a knock at my door accompanied by a polite request of “bogi” [pronounced BON-ghee; meaning “good evening”]. I came to the door to find my neighbor with a big smile and holding a loose bundle of dark and light fur attached to some leathery wings. It was a fruit bat.

South Pacific (Insular) fruit bats (Pteropus tonganus) are the only indigenous mammal in Fiji and often the largest flying creatures found on many South Pacific islands. The largest reach 40 centimetres (16 in) in length and attain a wingspan of 150 centimetres (4.9 ft), weighing in at nearly 1 kilogram (2.2 lb). Fruit bats, as their name suggests, feed solely on the abundant fruit that grows in the jungle canopy…and in the trees around people’s homes. For the last two months we have watched and listened to fruit bats swooping into the breadfruit trees surrounding our house at nightfall and proceeding to fight noisily over the ripe breadfruit. They sound dreadful; screeching and squealing in a way that invokes visions of Vlad the Impaler. Even worse, as they move through the trees in the twilight, they look like something only H.R. Giger might imagine as their shadowy, leathery wings tipped with claws reach from branch to branch. Then again, they really amount to nothing more than a Chihuahua with wings (although that vision is actually far more disturbing to me than one of a blood sucking minion of Count Dracula).

Anyhow, Mere, our neighbor, said “kana beka” [roughly “eat bat”] and motioned for me to take the bat, so I thanked her and took what is often the largest flying animal in the sky, save the occasional frigate bird or heron, into our house for closer inspection. This particular bat was not exceedingly large, being a juvenile that was only about ¾ of a pound even if its wingspan was over 2 ½ feet. So then I thought, “now what?”

I’ve dressed a lot of animals in my time ranging from things as mundane as rabbits to those as exotic as an alligator, but I’ve never field dressed anything remotely as strange as a bat. I wasn’t sure where to even start. Luckily, my Fijian friend Elima Rabuli stopped by to drop some things off after Mere left. I told him I had a bat and he looked at me in amazement, almost with a sense of pride. “No, I did not kill the bat.” I told him, “Mere brought it to me.” He looked disappointed that I had not killed it, but was no doubt impressed that I even planned to eat it.

Elima is a local expert on bats; how to get them, dress them, and cook them. I’m sure some of you are asking yourself, “How, exactly, do they get these creatures.” Well, let me tell you, in a country where nobody owns firearms, you would be impressed. I have personally seen Elima cut about a 2 foot long stick from one of the dense local hardwoods using a cane knife, then take that same stick and wing it with unimaginable speed and accuracy to take out a bat in mid flight about 35 yards away. I have a friend named Brad Tyler in Texas that would probably miss that same shot using a 10-gauge shotgun fitted with a skeet choke and loaded with 3 ½ inch #6 shot maximum loads and this Fijian guy has better aim and killing efficiency with a stick! Nonetheless, knocking them out of the air is only the first step.

Elima explained that there are basically two ways that Fijians clean and cook bat. The first involves putting the bat in boiling water…fur and guts and all…and boiling the bat until everything is soft. This method was simply not an option for me. No matter how adventurous an eater I like to think I am, I don’t ever intend to eat the anus or feces of any animal…unless, of course, it is mixed in as part of bologna or hot dog weiners (you did know they use every part of the cow/pig making those, right?). Even worse, there were these mites that looked just like spiders that would crawl about the thin, soft fur when you disturbed it…and spiders were definitely not on the menu. The second option was to skin and gut the bat and then either fry or roast it. That sounded much more appealing, especially since removing the skin would simultaneously remove the fur and, ergo, the gross little mites. Not to mention the fur harbored the musky stink that falls somewhere between ferret and skunk. Thus, I asked Elima for instructions on how to skin the bat. Of course, I had to insist that I wanted to do it on my own or, in Fijian tradition, I would’ve been the confused valagi standing there and watching the Fijian do everything.

After Elima gave me basic instructions and went home to take care of his own family, I preceded to skin and gut this bat in our kitchen. Now some of you might be thinking, “How in the world would Michelle ever allow something like this in her kitchen?!” Well, first of all, she’s actually intrigued by these bats and was interested in seeing one up close. Secondly, and most importantly, however, she was out of the village when all this transpired. Anyhow, I made the incision up the back of the bat from the tail to the head and cut the collars around the first joints of the “arms” and legs. With one moderate pull the skin of the bat came off rather easily, leaving a pinkish body and head that looked like something straight out of Stephen King’s imagination.

Surprisingly, the guts were easily removed as well…and did not smell all that bad. I guess when all you eat is fruit things can’t get too terribly stinky. However, after cleaning the gut cavity I decided that leaving the head on was a little more than I could bear, so I cut the head off as well. Don’t worry, none of it went to waste! The kitten was more than happy to take it off my hands as he thought it was simply delectable!

After washing the bat well inside and out, I seasoned it using a combination of spices and positioned it as one would a chicken or turkey on top of a bed of cabbage, carrots, garlic, and onion in a small roasting pan. I also made sure to insert garlic and onion into the body cavity. I then proceeded to roast the bat and vegetable ensemble in a makeshift stovetop oven for about 1 ½ hours. It smelled as good as anything else we might cook in the same manner. Later, I turned off the heat, let it cool, and then carefully removed some of the vegetables and gently placed the bat on top for the proper presentation. And it was…

…ABSOLUTELY DELICIOUS! Once you got past the fact it was bat, it really did have a very nice texture and flavor something like rabbit or quail (I will NOT compare it to chicken, which is the least descriptive way you can ever describe a cooked meat!). Moreover, it tasted far better than most wild game we Americans spend millions on chasing and shooting only to wrap it in piles of bacon, breading, and strong spices trying to make it not taste like strong cow’s liver. In any event, it turns out the Fijians were right when they told me that bat was one of the “finest meats in Fiji.”

So I’m sure that some of you cringed and squirmed, maybe even gasped and grimaced at the thought of eating a bat, but this is part of the Fijian culture and a mundane experience for most Fijians – as common as you eating a hamburger. But before you judge, my western friends, remember that many of you eat ground up unidentifiable meat paste (including lips, noses, bone, and, yes, assholes – not to mention stabilizers, preservatives, and an FDA limit for rat feces) molded into cylindrical shapes and then either boiled, grilled, or roasted on sticks as a ritual celebration of our nation’s independence every year or, at least, at ball games and backyard barbecues.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Planes, buses, and maddening frustration...

It’s hard to say many good things about the transportation infrastructure in Fiji. With regard to getting around in Fiji, it is definitely a third world country. If you want to get somewhere, nothing is easy in Fiji. I’ve had days where I would relish being stuck on a transcontinental flight in coach next to a talkative guy named Del who is a shower curtain ring salesman that likes to air out his socks while flying. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we are not allowed to drive anything…period…not even an outboard motor…so we’re stuck with being dependent on a less than stellar public transit system. However, only part of the difficulty is simply the poor infrastructure. There is also a cultural component to traveling in Fiji that can be far more challenging than finding a functional mode of transport.

One of the most frustrating things about traveling around Fiji is the sheer lack of concrete schedules for any form of transportation, be it ferry, bus, or even aircraft. Even if you hire a private taxi to pick you up you may find yourself waiting around for a lot longer than you expected. There is a “general understanding” among Fijians as to when buses go by or when planes leave, but they never know exactly when a bus goes by a particular stop or even when the ferry arrives. Nonetheless, when you’re on “Fiji time” it doesn’t seem to matter if you get there in an hour or in four hours (or even the same day, for that matter), so it seems to work just fine for the locals. For us valagis who are used to trains, planes, and automobiles designed to run like clockwork; this can be a little more than frustrating.

Take for example a trip Michelle and I were taking to Suva, the largest city on the southern island of Viti Levu, for a Peace Corps training session that we were supposed to attend. We had planned to travel from our village to Labasa, where the flights seemed to be more reliable than in Savusavu, to catch a flight to Suva. Before leaving for Labasa, however, Michelle needed to stop at a nursing station on the way in the village of Nabalebale for a meeting with the Village Health Aides. She had asked the head nurse when the buses go by for Labasa and the nurse responded, “oh, there are buses almost every hour.” We were looking at about 1.5 hours on the bus and had arrived in Nabalebale at about 9AM and didn’t need to be in Labasa until 4PM, so we felt pretty safe about making it to our flight on time.

As the meeting progressed, we watched a bus go by at about 10:30AM and then another at 12:30PM, so it was clearly not “every hour” that a bus went by. I was feeling a little nervous about making the flight, so I asked when the next bus was going by and the nurse said, “I think about 2PM.” This statement was from a woman who works every day next to the stretch of road where the buses go by and waves at most of the drivers because she knows them personally, so why would we have reason not to trust her, right? Oh, how wrong we could be…

If there is one thing Peace Corps Volunteers learn in Fiji, and usually it’s the “hard way,” is that you never, ever trust what any Fijian tells you about when any form of transport arrives, passes, or leaves. This moment was our lesson. Some volunteers use the “law of averages” and simply ask multiple people what time the bus comes and pick a response somewhere in the middle. We were not that well versed in Fiji travel to have considered that method, although it could be as equally uncertain as asking one person.

We sat at the bus stop until 2:15PM when another Fijian told us, “Oh, the nurse was wrong, there used to be a 2PM bus, but it doesn’t run anymore.” We were reaching the point where we would not be able to make our flight riding a bus, but in what seemed a bit of luck, a taxi full of Kiwis (tourists from New Zealand, not flightless birds or fruit) stopped to buy some drinks at the canteen at the bus stop. We asked the cabbie, who was obviously coming from Labasa, if he could pick us up on the return trip from Savusavu. This would be perfect because return cabs are required to charge the same $4.50 USD as the bus and would be a whole lot faster. He agreed and we assumed that, given the timing in a car between Savusavu and Labasa, we would have just enough time to make our flight…but you know what happens when you assume…

Lo and behold, the bus that was supposed to come by at 2PM showed up at almost 2:30PM. Given how long it would take for the bus to get to Labasa, we would barely have enough time to make our flight…maybe…if we took that bus. But we had already asked the cabbie to return and trusted that he would be back by soon enough and would likely pass the bus on a more direct route to the airport. So we watched the bus pull away from the stop toward Labasa in a cloud of dust. (Sigh) We were so na├»ve…

When the cabbie didn’t arrive by our crunch time we only had one choice left. The canteen owner at the bus stop had a truck he was willing to “charter” to the airport in Labasa. We negotiated from an outlandish $45 USD (about 20% of our monthly stipend) down to $30 USD and he swore he could get us to the airport in 30 minutes, which would allow us to just make the flight. So we hopped in the truck and zoomed down the road toward Labasa. When my watch indicated we were at 50 minutes I just conceded that we were not going to Suva that day, but Michelle insisted that we go to the airport anyway where she hoped to plead to be allowed on the flight.

Unfortunately, just weeks before, Pacific Sun Airlines had instituted a 30 minute check-in policy that they were strictly following (never mind that they frequently cancel or change flights when you are there hours in advance). We watched the other passengers board what would’ve been our flight and take off for Suva as I watched our driver sheepishly slink out the airport entrance. Luckily, there was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Labasa that was kind enough to let us stay with her for the night until we could catch the next flight the following morning.

The thing about the whole situation was that nobody intended to be malicious or dishonest about what they said or did. Time, for the Fijians, is simply relative. Nobody worries about missing a bus because they’ll just catch the next one. They don’t necessarily have to be at their destination at a certain hour or even on a certain day in many cases. Why worry about a specific schedule or time for transport when your own schedule is so flexible? So when you ask someone what time a bus arrives, they don’t look at their watch (rarely do you even see Fijians wearing watches), they just recite this vague notion of when they recall a bus going by the previous day or week. Unfortunately, this vague notion is almost never accurate and certainly not precise enough for us westerners.

In any event, our adventure in missing our flight to Suva was not my only painful travel experience. In early December, I had another meeting in Suva I had to attend. This time, I planned on flying out of Savusavu, knowing personally the schedule for that city much better and feeling more confident about being able to make my flight. I scheduled my flight for 4PM on Monday afternoon, giving me ample time to return on Monday morning from another Peace Corps Volunteer’s site we were going to over the weekend to assist with a project in his village. Unfortunately, on Friday afternoon, as we were on our way to the other volunteer’s site, the regional carrier, Pacific Sun Airlines, called me on my cell. This is the conversation that transpired:

Me: Hello?

Pac Sun Representative: Hello, is this Mr. Cook?

Me: Yes, this is he.

Pac Sun Representative: Yes, Mr. Cook. I regret to inform you that we are rescheduling your flight on Monday from 4PM to 8AM. We are very sorry for the inconvenience.

Me: What? Wait, don’t I get a say in this?

Pac Sun Representative: I’m very sorry Mr. Cook, but you understand that there is only one flight per day out of Savusavu and we are experiencing mechanical problems on one of our planes. Thank you very much for flying Pacific Sun. [click]

I sat baffled for a moment about the conversation that had just occurred. I suppose I should be thankful that they called, but the fact that the decision was made for me was a little more than irritating. Moreover, there was really no other choice at that point as I was forced to take whatever flight was on Monday because of the bus schedule from the other volunteer’s village of Nakobo…which presented a whole suite of problems in itself.

When we got to Nakobo, I told Ben, the volunteer there, what had transpired with the airline. Not at all surprised, Ben said that there was a guy in the village with a truck who could take me back at least as far as the next bus stop, if not all the way to Savusavu, on Sunday so that I could make my flight on Monday. So I didn’t worry too much until Saturday night, when the guy with the truck had not returned to the village. Not to worry, according to the folks in the village, because there is a bus that comes by Bagasau, the nearest village with a bus stop, on Sunday at 10AM. Moreover, one of the men in the village could take me to Bagasau by boat for $4.50 USD. Problem solved, right?...wrong…some of us never seem to learn…

My day started early on Sunday. At about 9AM, I waded out into the bay where an older Fijian man wearing a truckers cap and Oakley knockoffs was waiting in a wooden punt with an outboard mounted on it. This started what was actually the most pleasant part of the whole day. There was just a breath of a breeze and the crystal waters were slick calm. Our captain poled the punt out to deeper water where he pulled the cord on the outboard and the smell of 2-cycle and salt water filled the air. As we pulled further from shore you could see large stands of coral of every different color and kind passing beneath the boat. A little further out, about a half dozen small blacktip reef sharks cruised the surface chasing bait. Ten minutes later we approached the shore at full speed, clearly aiming for an entrance that only he could see. I had started to grip the rails and grit my teeth right before we skimmed just beneath the overhanging trees and into a river. As we entered the mouth of this small river, I was awestruck at the beauty of a complete canopy of mangroves covering the winding stream that was probably 40 feet across at its widest point. The cool, shaded breeze ran across my face as we wound our way up to a bridge where I disembarked and paid him for his kind service. “What a great way to start!” I thought to myself.

Unfortunately, things just went downhill from there. On my way to the bus stop someone told me that I had just missed the bus, which actually comes at 9AM and not 10AM. “No worries,” he said, “another bus comes at 11AM. I should’ve known where this was going. But I had a copy of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and a covered bus stop, so I wasn’t too concerned. I just kicked back and started reading about temporal anomalies and event horizons, which made me wonder if maybe Fiji is at the edge of a black hole where time almost slows to a stop.

There was a bus at 11:30. It stopped at the bus stop and people filed off. When it appeared everyone who wanted had gotten off the bus, I reached for the handrail and stepped up with my right foot…and the bus pulled away with a purpose, nearly knocking me off my feet and leaving me standing in a cloud of dust and exhaust. “What the f***!” I thought to myself, as I turned to look at a group of equally surprised Fijians. “That bus is an express bus that does not have an agreement to pick up passengers here,” a Fijian told me. I restrained a growl and asked when the next bus was to which the answer was “12PM”.

At 12:30PM another bus came rumbling up the road toward Savusavu. By now I was alone at the bus stop and anxious about being stuck in Bagasau, so I stepped toward the edge of the road, raised my hand, and mouthed the words “Savusavu”. The bus did not even slow down. The bus driver just looked at me with a grin as he passed with a half empty bus. Agreement or not, he just passed up an additional fare on a bus with plenty of room. With that, I looked at a pile of fist-sized rocks at the edge of the bus stop and thought, “the next bus driver is getting one of those in the face if he doesn’t slow down or tries to pull away.”

Some locals in Bagasau had been watching this all transpire and took pity on me, inviting me over to have lunch with them. They told me the next bus was not until 3:30PM. “Sure it is.” I thought to myself. In any event, their kindness and generosity was greatly appreciated and the conversation was good, too. About 3PM, we walked back toward the bus stop and a commercial truck was driving by that Semisi, the patriarch of the house that took me in, flagged down. Abrahim, the driver, pulled over, invited me inside, and I hopped in, thrilled that it finally looked like I was going to make it to Savusavu to catch my flight the next morning.

The day that started well, but almost climaxed in a potential assault charge ended well when Abrahim refused to take payment for bringing me what would’ve been an almost 3 hour bus ride to Savusavu. So all in all, it wasn’t a bad day even though I had started traveling at 9AM and it was now almost 5PM…just to go about 30 miles.

In America we have public transit systems in many cities like Washington D.C., New York, and San Francisco that virtually eliminates the need for a car and an amazing array of options for air travel anywhere in or out of the country, but watch folks reactions when a train is a minute late or their flight is delayed an hour. We live in a society that is built on strict schedules and a pumping, repetitive cycle that has us living to work and not working to live. Thus, there are some things that we could learn from the Fijians about slowing down. Learning to slow down and enjoy life is something that we Americans have all but forgotten as we strive to make more money and buy more stuff. God forbid we don’t work ourselves to death in order to buy that 5 bedroom, 2 ½ bath home so that we can fill it full of crap that we’ll rarely use and ultimately dump in a landfill in a few years.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Idle hands...

It's not often that I have a lot of "free time" in Fiji, but sometimes I do. Of course, there's always something to do to pass the time. One thing I've been able to do here that I haven't seemed to have time for in the U.S. is creative writing and I truly, truly enjoy it. I was asked to submit something for a monthly publication written for Peace Corps Volunteers by Peace Corps volunteers and distributed by the Peace Corps (making it a "government" publication). Below you will find the two pieces I wrote that were both rejected because they were considered a tad risque. They are, no doubt, edgy, but by no means offensive and are aimed at being amusing and humorous. Alas, the government is not allowed to have a sense of humor lest they offend someone.

Both stories are completely fictional. The first was intended to be a monthly column written by my alter ego, Sir Reginald Copperbottom. His run was short-lived, unfortunately, as it seemed unproductive to continue writing submissions that would be summarily rejected. Sir Copperbottom, as you will see, is a legend in his own mind and an expert on Fiji's wildlife. The second story is one of adventure and intrigue experienced by Peace Corps Volunteers seeking perfect tomatoes. Both are riddled with innuendo and suggestive language. If you're easily offended, I suggest you exit the blog now and go live in a cave in the Himalayas to shelter yourself from all reality where no one is offended, birds sing Justin Bieber tunes constantly, and everyone craps rainbow colored marshmallows.

Sir Reginald Copperbottom's Fiji Wildlife Corner

(Sir Reginald Copperbottom is a self-proclaimed British naturalist and distant [really distant] cousin to renowned scientist David Attenborough. He has no real credentials, but once met Jane Goodall in a train station. He’s not even really a knight. Nonetheless, to be fully comprehensible, this must be read in a British cockney accent.)

Welcome to the first installment of Fiji Wildlife Corner! My name is Sir Reginald Copperbottom and I am here to be your guide through the wilds of Fiji. As you well know, Fiji was once a British territory, so who better than myself to describe the perils and wonders of the Fijian wilderness, if I do say so myself. I must say that the invitation to contribute to your esteemed publication, The Coconut Wireless, marks one of my most significant achievements to date and I relish the opportunity to educate and inform the Peace Corps volunteers about Fiji’s abundant fauna.

Today I would very much appreciate your attention to a grave danger lurking in the Fijian jungle. The danger of which I speak is one that can easily be avoided, but some Peace Corps volunteers seem to have deliberately sought it out. The danger I speak of is bufotoxin. Bufotoxin is a poison secreted from the parotoid gland of a number of species of toad. The poison can contain a variety of compounds that include stimulants, laxatives, and even hallucinogens. Specifically, some toads harbor a very potent hallucinogenic tryptamine known as 5-MeO-DMT that has been known to cause such visions as being in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies as well as cellophane flowers of yellow and green towering over your head…at least that’s what some spacker from Liverpool told me.

Here in Fiji, there are at least three species of toad that possess bufotoxin, including Bufo marinus, otherwise known as the cane toad. Indeed, the cane toad possesses a level and mixture of bufotoxin that can prove deadly. Most unfortunately, it seems that some PCV’s have intentionally engaged in the dangerous game of “toadlicking,” presumably seeking those toads harboring hallucinogenic properties in an effort to temporarily escape the trials and tribulations they experience as volunteers.

To illustrate the extreme danger of toadlicking, I must relate to you the story of one unfortunate bloke we all know quite well, but that we shall call Smalden Pitts. Smalden had been experiencing some particularly taxing ordeals following his assignment to a remote village on the island of Vanua Levu. Smalden had hoped dearly to find a Fijian wife upon his arrival in his village. Unfortunately, Smalden was of a very slight build and, despite his most admirable efforts, his advances were categorically begged off by the fairer sex, who seemed to be seeking a more strapping specimen. In a swirl of despair and utterly disenchanted with the effects of yaqona, he sought a more powerful escape from the rejection of the village totties.

On a particularly warm and humid South Pacific evening, just as the toads were emerging from their burrows, Smalden ventured out on what almost became his final quest in Fiji. Determined to reach a new plane of existence, Smalden set about to find a toad to take him away from his unbearable pain. Unfortunately, Smalden did not know the slightest bit about psychoactive toads, or much less toads in general. Smalden licked several frogs and even a gecko before coming across his first toad, but a bloody good toad it was! Indeed, the toad was the dog’s bollocks for a short time.

As the toxin entered his bloodstream, the psychoactive elixir drove his imagination to mither of giant singing tacos dancing in a Broadway revue. Not satisfied with this vision, and becoming quite annoyed if not frightened by the content, Smalden sought out another toad in hopes of “changing the telly” so to speak. Alas, things went even more pear shaped as the next toad only intensified even more frightening images of a group of circus clowns chasing him whilst each waggling an artificial phallus in their right hands above their ginger quiffs. Whilst running to escape the evil jesters intent on buggering him, he felt a searing pain flushing over his skin, following which he looked down to see his knickers ablaze. The last the villagers observed of Smalden that fateful evening he was shrieking wildly whilst dashing naked through the middle of the village. In an unintelligible conclusion to a presently confusing situation, Smalden screamed “Eskimo Pies!” before disappearing into the jungle.

The next morning the villagers found Smalden knackered, bare arsed, and covered in his own cack (turns out one of the toads had the laxative compound) in the middle of a dusty road with both hands covering his John Thomas. Thinking him a bit nutter, the village immediately held an emergency Bose va Koro in which they voted unanimously to expel Smalden from the village, permanently.

Smalden has since recovered from his psychadelic bumble through the terrors of the Id, but, being banned from returning to his village, he is forced to wait out his days in the city of Savusavu, hoping that his exploits do not become widely known. So let this be a lesson to all of you chipper young PCVs, the perils of toadlicking are dire. Although Fiji’s wildlife holds unfathomable wonder and beauty, there is danger around every corner. Until the next installment of Fiji Wildlife Corner, don’t ponce about, take life by the bollocks, and keep Peace Corps chuffed!

Masters of the Garden Universe

Of all the Peace Corps Volunteers in Fiji, Bob is by far the most profound expert at home gardening or other quasi-agricultural endeavors. He is especially well known for his ability to grow certain vegetables in conditions that mere mortals simply would not be able to achieve, but is also a skilled leader and diplomat capable of sowing peace and goodwill among his cohorts. The following story is sort of truthfully based on events that were confirmed after being repeated third-hand from a guy in Germany on Facebook, thereby ensuring their absolute veracity. Names have been changed to protect the innocent (Bob’s name is used because he is far from innocent…).

After being in Fiji for almost four months, Meg B had been missing home terribly. One of the things she missed most was salsa and chips. Unable to find a respectable salsa in the entire country, she determined that the only way she was going to have decent salsa was to grow her own garden, including those ripe, red tomatoes that are critical for the most popular condiment in the world.

While some of her vegetables did modestly well, Meg’s first attempt at growing tomatoes was less than stellar. For hours of effort that included getting her nails dirty, squishing icky bugs, and actually scooping real poop to fertilize her plants. she was rewarded with less than 10 small tomatoes that looked more like developmentally disabled marbles than tomatoes. Needless to say, her first efforts did not produce the fruit, or the salsa, that she so desired. However, Meg remained desperate for her salsa fix.

Like a commoner seeking wisdom from a mountaintop yogi, Meg trekked to see Bob and learn from the master. Upon reaching Casa del Bob, she saw a paradise of green, like she had stepped into the Garden of Eden. There were big round pumpkins in a variety of colors, large ripe melons covering every spare patch of soil, and the intoxicating fragrance of bulbous chrysanthemums paired at the end of each plot. And then there were the tomatoes…big, plump, brilliant red fruits the size of softballs that seemed to scream, “eat me!” As usual, Bob was hunched over in his garden of plenty, unaware he was exposing his golden underpants from under his pocket sulu while mumbling something unintelligible about someone named Joseph Smith.

“Bob?” said Meg tentatively, not sure if the golden bloomers did indeed belong to the man with the gilded green thumb.

“Giiiiiiaaaaaannnnnnttttttssssss!!!” screamed Bob unexpectedly, flailing and seeming to jump out of his own skin.

Bob was still suffering from a condition known as worldseriesosis, which results in paranoia, tunnel vision, impaired hearing, an inability to focus on anything other than very discrete television or radio signals, and an unquenchable hunger for roasted peanuts. It is a disease that is incurable, but fortunately the symptoms only manifest annually for a short period of time. Gardening was the only thing that seemed to alleviate the symptoms for Bob. Nevertheless, the unanticipated visitor startled him almost to the level of incontinence.

Meg nearly fell backward onto a blanket of enormous acorn squash before regaining her footing next to a row of round eggplants that came up to her chest.

“Bob, it’s Meg. I’ve come seeking your guidance and wisdom. You have to help me with my garden. I’m desperate!” said Meg.

Bob stood up with his back still turned and slowly rotated toward Meg. Placing his hands together while his right eye twitched uncontrollably (no doubt a side effect of worldseriesosis) he said, “Then you have come to the right place, my child. What is the knowledge that you seek?”

Almost in tears, Meg exclaimed, “Bob, I’m desperate to make some salsa and I absolutely must grow some tomatoes! I’ve tried everything and all I get is these…” She extended her hand and let a half dozen misshapen, marble-sized tomatoes drop to the ground.

For the next ten minutes they engaged in a question and answer designed to eliminate every possible problem that Meg might be facing with her tomatoes. Beetles, slugs, nematodes, blossom rot, planting over an Indian burial ground…Meg had either solved or had not even experienced it all. In the end, Bob sat confounded, rubbing his chin with his thumb and forefinger while maintaining one raised eyebrow. Then a sly grin slowly overtook his face and he looked at Meg directly while extending his arms and grabbing both her shoulders firmly.

“Meg, what I’m about to tell you is one of my greatest gardening secrets. I am about to pass on knowledge to you that very few people on this planet know.” Bob said with a tone of seriousness.

“Uh, OK.” said Meg. “Is this going to cost me anything?

“Not a dime.” said Bob. “The secret to my tomatoes, aside from the organic fertilizer and my godlike gardening skills, is something special I do when I tend my garden. You know that I’m prone to remove my clothing at any opportunity. When I tend my garden, I do it naked!”

“Really?!” exclaimed Meg. “But what about the villagers and the modest dress code here in Fiji?”

“Not a problem. I do it after the grog session shuts down in the middle of the night. Nobody is awake to see anything at 2 a.m. in the village.” Bob said. “Oh, by the way, if you decide to follow my advice you might want to see Dr. Fina about some more mosquito spray.”

“That’s it…naked…that’s all I have to do?” she questioned.

“Yup! Works for me! Look at my pumpkins, melons, tomatoes, and even my papaya!” Bob responded emphatically with a smile and a jig that looked like he was in an Appalachian hoedown.

So Meg went back to her village and set about practicing the wisdom that had been passed to her by Bob. A few weeks went by and Bob, wondering whether she had heeded his advice and whether it had worked, decided to call Meg and see how things were going.


“Meg! So how’s it going? You got some good tomato action goin’?” Bob said over one of the better Digicel connections he’d experienced.

“Um, well, better I guess.” said Meg rather unsurely.

“So since you’ve been gardening naked you have seen an improvement in your tomatoes, right?” Bob responded.

There was a pregnant pause that made Bob think that maybe the call had been dropped.

“Meg, you there? You’re garden is doing a lot better, right?” he said again.

Meg responded in a very cautious but deliberate voice, “Not exactly. The tomatoes are still doing about the same, but now I have cucumbers, zucchini, and bananas that are three feet long!!!”