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Opera (and jazz and blues) in Suva

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It’s not often there’s Big Exciting Cultural events in Suva, and last week, there were TWO. Naturally, we went to both.

First up was Karmen at USP , based on Bizet’s opera but placed in a Fijian setting and sung in English (except for the “Habanera” aria, which was in French) . Doing a local version seemed logical, as Carmen has been adapted a bunch of times in the last 100 years already, and the idea of a famous bullfighter isn’t really relatable for 99% of the world anyway. So now Carmen’s first beau is a policeman, and her second is a famous rugby player. The anthemic “Toreador” song becomes “Go Fiji go/ we need a champion” (Go Fiji Go is a common rugby chant) and one of Carmen’s songs has a chorus like “In Suva, I go to the seawall/ I dance meke/ and drink kava”. The big fight scene was adapted from a  Fijian men’s war dance/ meke- if you don’t know what a meke looks like but you’ve seen the New Zealand All-Blacks Rugby team do the haka before a match, it’s sort of like that.

Overall I really liked the production. I wasn’t so familiar with the source material to notice what had been cut to give it a run time of about 2 hours, but I’ve now been here long enough to get all the Fijian references added to the play. The story (boy falls in love with haughty girl, girl falls in love with someone else and leaves boy, it ends badly) is pretty understandable no matter what cultural signifiers you add in. The majority of the singers were quite good, even  when faced with difficult sustained aria segments that would be a challenge for anyone not trained in traditional opera.

I had one minor gripe regarding the new lyrics to “Beat out that rhythm on a drum” (which is actually from the musical “Carmen Jones” but is based on a melody from the opera): the chorus became “Beat out that lali drum”, which is two syllables too short and sounded weird if you know the original and are expecting that cadence to accompany the melody. Since the song was accompanied by a lali anyway, it seems they could have kept the original lyric, since anyone present could identify the lali being played as the drum of the song. I get the need to Fijify the bullfighting angle of the plot, but the original “drum” lyric didn’t need to be tampered with.

USP seems to do a big original play/musical/dance performance about twice a year. I’ve only seen a few of them, but they’ve always been good and ambitious. Unlike similar “Broadway” performances in the States, tickets were quite reasonably priced: only FJ$10, which is the cost of one McDonald’s value meal, or about one and half tickets to a first-run movie. I can guess why they don’t do more plays in a year: unlike your typical liberal arts college in the US,  I bet USP doesn’t have dozens of drama majors willing to appear in done-to-death classics like “Death of a Salesman” or “Our Town” just to get the stage experience- I’m not even sure it offers a theatre degree.

While I’ll see pretty much any musical theatre performance that happens in Suva, my wish list if someone’s going to adapt another well-known work would be Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Think of the potential given Fiji’s cannibal past!

So that was big event #1. The second was the Fiji Jazz and Blues fest, which had  both local and Aus/NZ/US acts over 4 days. They had acts rotating among 3 venues, which unfortunately weren’t all near one another, but it seemed like it was easy enough to catch a performance on a different day if you couldn’t choose between conflicting options.

I saw about 4 and a half full sets on Saturday, and only one was really not my cup of tea (a jazz vocal ensemble). We had reasonably nice weather and the schedule was only delayed by 20-30 minutes, which is admirable for any festival, to say nothing of one dealing with “Fiji Time”. I think this event is not quite annual (ie they didn’t have it last year, but had it the year before that), but it seemed well attended, which is hopefully enough to keep it going. My philosophy is that even if I’m not that interested in a type of music , I’ll go anyway, since it’s something different to do, and supporting live music and performance via buying a ticket is the best way to encourage more of it in the future. Other than cover bands that play at tourist resorts or at restaurants frequented by expats, there’s not that much live music here, so anything apart from the usual is most welcome.

Following such a busy week, this week is a bit of a letdown, though there is a netball (like Women’s Basketball, except with more passing and less dribbling) tournament that’s only $3 a ticket. We’re also eagerly awaiting the opening of the upscale Mexican restaurant (was supposed to be open by the end of April, but you know…Fiji Time), which seems like it could happen any day now if the placement of their outdoor dining furniture is any indication.

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Seeing the sides of Fiji the tourists never see, part 3: Small Claims Court

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For over a year now, I have had the rare opportunity to learn firsthand about Fiji’s court system. We’ve already had the pleasure of dealing with the police after a burglary (and a  year later, a mugging), but of course these crimes never resulted in arrests, and thus, no court. No,  my court experiences have all been part of a Sisyphean struggle to get my security deposit back from my first landlord.

Guidebooks and blogs will tell you that Fijians will  generally attempt to “save face” in a confrontational situation, and I have found this to be true. I would go further and add that if there’s something unpleasant that a Fijian doesn’t want to face and can potentially avoid by waiting you out, he or she may do so (more than a Westerner would). So if you’re a foreigner that will be leaving in a year or two, it might make sense to just try to ignore you (or whatever you’re doing/saying that is confrontational or makes someone have to admit fault) until you go away (either literally or figuratively).  Most frustratingly, this seems to be as true in business/customer service situations as well as in social ones.

This cold-shoulder approach generally works to make a minor confrontations like “the guy at the counter charged me for 5 ketchup packets but only gave me 2” or “your grocery store sold me a food product that expired 2 months ago” go away-  the employee will leave you waiting for a resolution long enough that you’ll decide it’s just not worth it (time or money-wise) to pursue the remedy. Where American retail employees generally pass difficult queries (or difficult customers) up to a manager, in the Pacific the strategy appears to be “stall, and don’t admit fault OR assign blame to another employee so that no one’s feelings are hurt”, which makes for challenging encounters.

For example, say your internet service is suddenly cut off,  even though you’re paid up. You call them and ask they look into it, which they promise to do, and then they say they can’t find a problem. Then you call and ask for a technician to check the lines/equipment, who they promise to send,  who does not come for several days. You call back and ask if the technician was in fact called. Instead of admitting that the technician was booked up or that they forgot to call, they say they’ll look into it and call you back when the technician will come, which they never do. When you call back, you get the run around again. I find that going to an office in person or asking to see a manager will actually get things done a little faster (though it still took forever to get our internet back on, and even longer to get a credit for all the days I’d paid for but could not use).

Saving face seems to extend even to something that isn’t anyone’s specific fault- instead of following the business model that if the customer’s service isn’t working, someone who knows what they’re doing needs to fix it so the customer gets what they are paying for, it’s almost as if the employee feels they will lose face since you have a problem with the business and they just happened to be the one that answered the phone. Needless to say, if you are disgruntled or angry about the thing that isn’t working rather than stating your problem matter-of-factly, the avoidance behavior tends to be more pronounced.

I’m not saying all Fijians do this, of course, I’m saying you will encounter this “ignore it and it will go away” behavior far more often in the Pacific than you will in North America, and that even if you understand why it’s happening, it’s super frustrating. Which brings me to my security deposit.

The security deposit was equal to a month’s rent, so my landlord would be silly to think if he waited me out I would just shrug my shoulders and write off the loss. But incredibly, that appears to have been his strategy, which is how I ended up taking him to court.

I had a 3 month lease, which we did not renew considering the burglary and subsequent prowlings. The law, as far as I understand it, says the landlord is supposed to refund your deposit within 14 days of when you move out. I figured, this being Fiji, that 2 weeks really meant 4 weeks, so when I left messages with my landlord on week 2 and week 3 about returning the keys and getting by rental bond. He didn’t return any of my calls.  At one point I called from a payphone to disguise my number, he answered and stalled, promising to call me back soon to return my money.

We moved out in early November 2012, and I called maybe 4 times total. I figured there was no point in pursuing any of this during the Christmas holiday since he’d be visiting family, so in January 2013, I called the Consumer Council of Fiji, a quasi-government independent agency that arbitrates disputes like this. To my great shock, they were able to coax my landlord (we’ll call him Bob even though that’s not his real name) to come to their office and meet with me and them. Bob took the keys and signed a document promising to pay the deposit back in three installments.

Let me digress to say that my entire lease term was only THREE MONTHS long, and somehow, Bob managed to spend, rather than hold on to, my deposit in that short period. Which is why Bob kept avoiding my calls, and as we’ll see,  most other official summons- he didn’t have my money. Many of my Fijian co-workers have said that iTaukei people are generally not really good about saving/budgeting when it comes to sudden influxes of cash. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it certainly seemed true of Bob.

Bob did not pay any of  the installments, so I had to file in small claims court. It only cost $5.75 to file, but then I had to pay a bailiff $25 to serve him with papers telling him to show up to small claims court a month later (May 2013).

He did not show up to court, so the judge awarded me the whole amount to be paid in smaller installments than the ones Bob had originally agreed to. But then I had to serve Bob with ANOTHER document telling him the court’s decision (and pay another $25 to have THAT served).

Bob came by my workplace a month later (June 2013) and gave me 14% of what he owed me in cash. Then, no more for several months. I waited, called, emailed, no response. So the next step is taking him to Magistrates court to enforce the judgement. This cost $17.25 in filing fees and $30 for the Baliff. The Judgment Debtor Summons I served him in October orders him to appear in court in November, or face jail time. Also, the $17.25 and any future fees I have to pay are now added to the amount he owes me. There’s also a requirement called “Conduct money”, which is basically $5  I give the bailiff  to give to Bob for bus fare so he shows up in court (I guess so you can’t use “I have no bus fare” as an excuse to not come).

You would think that the threat of being jailed would convince even the most stubborn practitioner of the Waiting Game to show up to court, but no. Bob is a no-show, so my day in court is pretty quick (once they finally get to my case). So the judge says the next step is a bench warrant.

In the US, bench warrants are issued by the court and served by the police. If you fail to show up to court or ignore traffic tickets for long enough, the judge issues the bench warrant (from his bench- thus the name) and the cops pick you up eventually when you get pulled over for speeding (or they notice the warrant if you manage to get arrested for something else). Apparently in Fiji, the rule is that the person who is enforcing the judgement (i.e, me) has to file another form and pay more money to get the bench warrant filed/served.

The judge didn’t tell me this, even though I’m obviously a foreigner, so when he said “We’ll issue a bench warrant” I figured the ‘we” was “the court” and not “you”. If I had to go file another form they’d tell me “Go to the such and such office after court”, right?

So I come back in a month (December)  for my next court date, Bob’s not there, and the judge says, Well, did you file the bench warrant? and of course I hadn’t because I didn’t know I was supposed to.  I’m frustrated that no one told me how it works and that I’ve lost a month thinking the court was serving the warrant. Bench warrant fee is $63.25, and I have to come back to the office a week later to pay $15  for the sheriff to go serve it and bring Bob forcibly to court. Of course, when I come back in a week as told, the document is not ready, even though they explicitly said “Come back next Wednesday”. I overstay my lunch hour to pay the $15, which is also supposedly added to what Bob owes me.

It is now January 2014, so I’ve been pursuing this for a full year now and collected only 14% of the total Bob owes me. I’ve paid almost $200 in fees, some of which are recoupable once I get the rest of the money Bob owes me, but really, how likely is that by this point?

I have no idea how the bench warrant is supposed to work- Is it just to make Bob come to court for the date in 2 weeks? Do they hold him in jail until he pays? Charge him with theft? I go to the January court date and find to my astonishment that they brought him to court already the week before (?!) and that THERE’S A CHECK FOR ME because Bob has paid some of the judgement. It’s equal to 29% of the total, so this with the cash he paid me in June 2013 means I’ve collected 43% of my deposit!  Even though the wheels of justice are turning very slowly, I am making progress.

After learning where I go to get the check, I ask how I go about getting the remaining 57% of the judgment. They tell me to come back to court in a month.

My check is issued by the Government of Fiji. My bank almost deposits it, but because it’s a over a certain value, I have to bring it to the Reserve Bank of Fiji to have it approved even though it’s a GOVERNMENT CHECK. I walk there, arrive at 4:05pm to discover the Reserve Bank closes at 4pm. When I get back to the Reserve Bank the next day, they barely glance at my check before stamping it with their approval.

I go to my next court date in late February, no Bob, so I pay another $15 to serve the bench warrant again. They set a new date in March. I go, no Bob. Judge says the sheriff was unable to get Bob, so they’ll try again in a month. New April court date, I go, no Bob. I wrote a date in early May on folder, but the judge said the court would call me if they had retrieved Bob and/0r more of my money. I think I’ll show up in May just in case, since I’ve already been to Small Claims once and Magistrates court 7 times, so why not?

As of March 2014, I’ve been in Fiji a year and a half, so theoretically, even at this glacial pace, I might still recover the remainder of my deposit. I can almost see why Bob thought he could wait me out; I started this process only 2 months after moving out, and it’s still taken over a year to get not even half of it back. I guess enough expats end their contracts early that if a landlord can successfully avoid getting to the bench warrant part of the process, he might not have to pay back the rental bond. Given that the penalties for missing court and ignoring the terms of the judgement appear to be minimal, I guess there’s no reason not to try to keep the money. Or maybe Bob thought that being an expat worker, I totally wouldn’t miss a month’s rent (even though I also had to pay a rental bond and the first months rent at the new place I moved to) or that I wouldn’t make him lose face by hauling him into court when he decided to keep my money and avoid my calls?

And then of course when I leave Suva for good, I’ll have to be a little more insistent with my current landlord that we will do a keys for rental bond handover the day I move out. I’m not falling for the Waiting Game again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So you’re moving to Suva: what rent and groceries cost

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Almost every week I get a comment to my most popular post “Should I take that job in Suva” asking about average rent and cost of living. Rather than continuing to answer each one, here’s some data you can use to guesstimate a housing budget.

I asked 3 Australian volunteers and 3 people with professional/University jobs what their rent was and what they got for it. Here’s the round up of what they reported (All prices in Fijian dollars):

  • $600 per month. Share with 2 others. 3 bedroom home. 2 bathrooms. No ceiling fans (which sucks) and no hot water in the kitchen but pretty safe house. We pay for location not amenities.
  • $600 unfurnished 2 bedroom , 1 bathroom but a bit further out of town.
  • $900 unfurnished 2 bedroom 1 bathroom. Includes clothes washer and gated yard.
  • $1200 -1800 – furnished houses on USP campus for USP employees.  There’s a waiting list of several months.
  • $1800 two bedroom, two bath, air con in all rooms, pool, but no security guard, just the fence and gate. When they got a security guard (after our two burglaries and two attempted burglaries, and break-ins in several other flats), the rent went up to $1920 per month.
  • $1800 two bedroom, one bath, air con in two rooms, no security guard, but this apartment is less vulnerable for several reasons.
  • $1900 two bedroom, one bath, furnished, air con in three rooms, covered parking,  fence and 24-hour security guard.
  • $2000 three bedrooms, two and a half baths, furnished, air con in one bedroom, no security guard. Moved after one burglary and one attempted burglary.

A comment from one of these renters:

“It’s difficult to find anything decent for under $1200 for a 2 bedroom place. (Name redacted) even looked at a number of 1 bedroom places for $1000, as did I last September when I was looking”.

So basically, if you want a furnished place with aircon that is somewhat secure (no guarantees), expect to pay somewhere between $1500 and $2000. You can pay well over $2000 for stand-alone (not in an apartment complex) larger places with extra amenities (pool, covered parking, security guard and/or alarm) but unless you are bringing a large family (spouse + 2 or more kids) or are a diplomat that will be entertaining in your home, that may be overkill.

There are real estate agencies (Harcourts and LJ Hooker are tw0 of the bigger ones) that can act as an agent to find you a rental property. Generally the property owner/manager pays the fee to the agent, but be aware this will likely result in a higher rent than if you had found the place yourself. This may be the best way to go for stand alone properties but is probably not a worthwhile expense for buildings in apartment complexes with multiple vacancies.

Also, while we’re on the topic of what things cost, Libby of the Be Prepared: Fiji blog prepared this shopping list spreadsheet (Excel format) for a scouting trip and shared it with the Suva Expats facebook group. She graciously allowed me to repost it here.

SHOPPING LIST FIJI groceries

Most of these items should be self-explanatory, but a few (Jelly Babies/Snakes= candies, Milo=like Ovaltine) will be familiar to Aus/NZ readers but not to US readers. Regarding tinned tuna fish, I will opine that most of the locally available stuff is packed in a lot of oil and that it’s probably worth paying the higher prices for the imported brands that are packed in water.  You can get Starkist and/or Bumblebee tuna at Cost u Less or Best Buys in Garden City.

 

 

 

 

Hey, I wove a mat (mostly by myself!)

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A  lady I know organized an informal weaving class for interested expats (though it turned out to be all women, go figure) that I recently attended. We got to learn more about Fijian culture and craft, learned how to make something, and our teachers (local weavers the organizer knows) got to earn a healthy bit of money for teaching Western women a traditional Fijian skill. Win-win!

Fijian mats (called ibe, pronounced imbe) are often used as floor coverings, but they’re also places to sit or sleep. If you attend a kava ceremony, the kava bowl (tanoa) will be on a mat and you will sit on the mat near (or around) the tanoa. Mats are also given as gifts for occasions like weddings, funerals, etc. Borrowed from my recent post on kava, here again is a photo of mats (under the tanoa) I have personally sat on:

tanoa These large floor mats are often monochromatic in the woven area, but also sometimes have  a colourful yarn (Fijians call it “wool”) border. Sometimes smaller mats have a black stripe or border. I used to wonder why the large mats were often so plain. Now that I’ve made a small mat, I understand- weaving a mat is a lot harder than it looks.

Amend that:  Weaving a mat is fairly easy. Weaving a mat WELL is like learning to play chess: the basics come quickly, but being any good at it requires a combination of skill and practice. For the record, I am terrible at chess.

A nice overview of how mats are made is here, but there’s three parts:1) obtaining, drying and preparing the pandanus leaves 2) splitting and cutting the prepared leaves into the stuff you weave with, called voivoi, 3) actually making the mat.

Apparently step one is very labour-intensive, so even master craftswomen often buy rolls of voivoi from the market instead of doing it themselves. It seems like step one is it’s own craft, so I can’t say I blame them for letting someone else make the raw materials. I will certainly make another mat, but I don’t intend to learn how to do step one.

Step 2 involves unrolling the voivoi  (see the 4th photo from this blog, which also contains another expat resident’s interesting  story of learning how to weave) and using a knife to split it into strips of even width for weaving. This is the hardest part, in my opinion, because you’re splitting something not uniform (a long plant leaf) into 30 (or 60, 100, or who knows how many for a large floor mat) pairs that are all supposed to be about the same width of a finger (or thinner). The Fijian women we learned from can split 10 of these with an amazing precision in the time it took me to do one. Even taking my time, I more often than not ended up with uneven widths. My finished mat reflects this.

Step 3 is waving the mat. Once you get it started with 4 pairs of voivoi, it’s just a matter of adding to it, the same way over and over again (unless you’re adding a black stripe, which is more difficult, so I didn’t attempt to learn this). The tough thing is that weaving is done on the ground, bent over, and after an hour or two, you are very sore. My little mat probably took somewhere between 10-20 hours to do (I wasn’t counting)- I can only imagine how long a floor covering takes!

Anyway, here’s my mat:

ibe

I’m about 5 foot 3 inches, if that helps, and you can see how far my arms are outstretched.The edges are  a little more even/square than they look in this photo, but the mat certainly has some flaws in its proportions. I am not providing a closeup of the weave itself because while it’s fine for a first effort, it’s a little embarrassing compared to what an authentic mat looks like.

At the first class, I made maybe 4 inches of the mat from the edge, and learned how to finish the sides. So maybe 10-15% of the mat was done at the workshop. I took it home and worked on it on the floor of our apartment while binge-watching True Detective DVDs from our  Totally Legitimate Not Pirated No Sirree Neighborhood Video Store.

I was weaving for 4 hours straight, and when I stood up, I hurt with a pain I have never experienced from doing something while merely sitting. I continued working on the mat in fits and starts, and then brought it back to our teachers today to learn how to finish the top and bottom edges. I will confess that even though I did most of edge one after learning how, my teacher did the final edge, probably at 12 times the speed it would have taken me.

Though I did get some satisfaction in my craftsmanship when, upon seeing how much of the mat had been completed since our first meeting, my instructor said ‘You got a Fijian lady to help you with this”? Nope, all me!

Weaving is a little like I imagine knitting to be: enough of it is repetitive that you can listen to music or TV while you do it without breaking your concentration, and it can be kind of meditative. Except that once you stand up after being hunched over for 4 hours, any Zen-like calm you had is replaced by searing back pain. Next mat I do will have “time-outs” rigorously imposed.

I am not clear on how widespread weaving knowledge is in Fiji. It’s a woman’s craft, like quilting in the US, but pretty much every home in Fiji will have at least one mat, which you can’t say about quilts. I suspect that (like learning to make bread from scratch in home economics class in the US) most women living in traditional villages have been taught to weave by an elder; even if they don’t currently make mats themselves, they could do it  a bit better than my pictured effort if they suddenly had to for some reason.

My limited reading suggests that currently (especially in cities like Suva) most large mats are purchased from a craftswoman/ market rather than being made by a woman in the family who will use the mats. Though the labor to weave a floor mat is intensive,  labor (especially women’s labor) is cheap in Fiji, so I suspect that once you subtract the materials cost, a woven mat yields no more than $50-75 profit for the woman/women who spent dozens of hours (with the attendant back pain!) making it.

I guess some of this is the problem of what the market will bear: if the weavers charged the same hourly wage for their labour that we paid them for a four hour workshop, not many people could afford them, and families would just make their own mats, even if they looked wonky like my mat , and these ladies would have no outside income. So it’s a fine line, and I don’t claim to have the solution.

I will say that if you are a tourist or expat in Fiji, and you have the opportunity to buy a woven basket/purse from a local woman for $25 or less, you should do so. Unlike the fancy tanoas with inlaid turtles in the souvenir shops that are almost certainly made in China, a basket or woven mat is 99% likely to have been made in Fiji by a solo craftswoman or village crafts consortium, and your cash will go directly to someone who could really use it. Plus, they’re much sturdier than a reusable shopping bag for a quick trip to the market.

A linguistic aside: the one (recently reprinted) Fijian dictionary I own is copyright 1941, and has an anthropological bent as far as the terms it includes (like “Waqa-  title of honour given to the slayer of thirty in fighting”, though it does admit this term is already obsolete in 1941). Under the entry for Ibe, one of the terms is “Ibe walu- a disease that lasts a long time, using 8 mats”. Walu is Fijian for the number 8, so this makes sense etymologically, but what I want to know is how does a disease “use” 8 mats? Through soiling them with disease by-products? By being so contagious 8 people in a family will die (and thus 8 mats will be needed to wrap the bodies of 8 deceased people in)? While Hermes was in the worst part of having dengue  fever this week, he sweat so much that I can see it would take 8 sleeping mats to absorb it all if he slept on a mat rather than a mattress. Is ibe walu actually dengue fever? If you’re reading this and are a Fijian language expert, lemme know what ibe walu is, because now I’m curious.

 

 

You’ve got dengue!

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Fiji has been having a dengue fever outbreak since about the start of the New Year. Over 10,000 people have had it in the last few months, with 11 deaths. In a nation of less than a million people, that’s like 1% of the entire population! Among my work colleagues and friends, I know at least 5 people personally that have had dengue fever this year.

Make that 6- Hermes got sick a few days ago, and today the doctor confirmed that it is in fact dengue.

If you’re otherwise in good health, dengue is  usually not deadly, though it will make you feel really awful. Aside from the high fever, you can look forward to chills, sweats, headaches, and pain in your joints so severe that it hurts to move. The old name for it was “bonebreak fever”, if that gives you a clue what to expect from the joint pain. There is no vaccination or cure; you basically have to wait it out with rest and fluids. If you get sick enough, you get IV fluids to get you back on your feet. It is possible to have a mild case where you’re just sick for a few days, or in the worst situation, internal bleeding that can kill you.

Hermes started feeling like he had the flu, then got a fever close to 40 degrees C, and then spent a day and a half in bed sweating buckets. The fever broke about 24 hours ago, and the doctor said the next thing to expect is a day where you don’t feel THAT bad (today), then the fever will come back, followed by the joint pain and a rash. Oh, and then 2 weeks of being really, really tired.

We generally wear insect repellent whenever we leave the house, but we suspect what happened is that we went away for the weekend and stayed one night in a place that did not have air conditioning  (note to self: do not do this in summer. Ever). We arrived about an hour before dark after it had rained (standing water and puddles = optimal breeding grounds for mosquitos), and the building not only had some open windows with no screens, but it was so hot we started sweating immediately after entering. We probably sweat off the mosquito repellent, and the one puny fan in our room didn’t keep them away from us. The mosquito that carries dengue usually bites during the day, so I guess they only needed that one hour (though we were also  bitten by “regular” mosquitos throughout the evening).

While I didn’t get dengue (yet), I currently have my own weird Fiji disease: this terrible skin rash:

yuck

It appeared about 2 days ago, looking like the result of  skin brushing repeatedly against  something irritating  like burlap . Then it started itching, and blistering. It looks a lot like what happens when a drop of hot cooking oil bounces from the pan onto your arm, but times a hundred. It doesn’t hurt like a burn, but it itches a lot. Fiji doesn’t have poison ivy or poison oak, so it’s not one of those, though it certainly feels like poison ivy feels. I also have a less severe similar rash on my leg above my knee.

At first I thought it was just a heat rash, but the coloring and placement is wrong (this is my wrist and arm; heat rash usually appears where you are sweatiest, like underarms). I’m seeing the doctor tomorrow in case it’s shingles (chicken pox for grown-ups, apparently) or something new to worry about.

If I suddenly stop writing here, assume that this rash is the symptom of some kind of  horror movie/1st season of X-files transformation and that I have lost my humanity and/or ability to type and am lurking in the cargo hold of an abandoned freighter. Or, more likely, assume I’m offline whilst looking after Hermes, who’s going to be taking it easy for a few weeks even after the worst of the dengue is over.

Kava, or, introducing your potential Fiji frenemy

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We have now been here 18 months, which marks the halfway mark on my employment contact (so we’re in the literal “home stretch”). Somehow, in all that time, I have failed to make one post worthy of being tagged “kava”, even though I know I mentioned it here and there. I guess that kava is such a part of Fijian daily life that I almost forget it’s not common knowledge to my US readers; kinda like how Starbucks is so ubiquitous in the US you would never think to point it out to an overseas visitor as something worthy of discussion / explication, even though Starbucks would be a useful signifier to explain many aspects of American culture to a foreigner.

And since lots of friends back home in the US ask about it, and anyone reading this blog because they’re about to move here for a job should know a little about kava before they get offered their first shell of it, here is your introduction to your new pal kava, or “grog” as it is also called in Fiji

The TL; DR version is that kava is a drink with a peculiar taste with deep cultural/ social aspects in much of the South Pacific, and it’s a mild narcotic and/or intoxicant (depending on how much you drink). It’s not a “drug” in the sense we think of in the US; kava is legal, widespread, not expensive and entrenched in mainstream life – like coffee in the Western World.  And just like coffee, if you drink enough of it at once, you will notice distinctive (and possibly unpleasant) physiological effects.

First- what is it? Basically it’s a beverage made of a specific root that’s been ground up and mixed with cold water. If that sounds like a weird thing to drink, consider the Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy parsing “tea” as “The taste of dried-up leaves boiled in water”. It is NOT alcoholic, and it is NOT fermented.

You can buy the roots and pound them yourself, or you can buy powdered kava that’s ready to mix. I don’t know any expats who pound their own roots- we just buy the powdered stuff from the market.

Here is a typical kava stand at the Suva fruit and vegetable market:

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The unpounded roots are sold in bundles, the powdered stuff is in brown paper bags (on the shelf above the woman’s head). “Waka” is a grade of kava made from the stronger/more potent roots; other kava will be a blend of different parts of the root/plant. You can also buy kava in the chain grocery stores in the same $5 to $15 sizes, though it will typically be so-so quality (not all waka, more “filler”) compared to the stuff sold at the market or stand alone kava shops.

Kava is never* sold as a ready-to-drink liquid in a bottle or can; you consume it shortly after you mix it and should there be any left over that no one wants to finish (unlikely),  you don’t save it.

Traditionally, kava is mixed in a large wooden bowl called a tanoa. It looks like this:

tanoa

The large pink plastic bowl is for the cold water to add to the tanoa. The small pink bowl is a water scoop for the larger bowl (since adding water to the kava to get the perfect ratio is an art and not a science).

Kava for the entire group (however many will be drinking it) is mixed into the tanoa (more on the precise method later), and then served/scooped into cups called bilos, traditionally hollowed out coconut half-shells. When the bowl is emptied, more is made (repeat as needed).

This photo will also give you an idea of a typical “traditional” set up for social or ceremonial kava drinking: you sit on the floor around the tanoa on a large woven mat. This photo was taken before a retirement party at my work; while you wouldn’t drink kava at work normally, the tanoa will come out for special occasions like a retirement or the after-hours Christmas party.

The tanoa is part of the “kava ceremony” that is still part of Fijian culture today, but it’s not like every Fijian family these days would necessarily own a tanoa, especially if they live in a city and not a village. If you drink kava in a village community hall as part of a formal celebration, there will certainly be a tanoa present. If you are invited by a co-worker to have kava after work at his home, it will likely be mixed and served in something resembling the pink bowl in the photo.

You will see tanoas for sale at souvenir shops that have fancy inlays in the bowl of Melanesian design motifs, but the ones people actual drink from tend to be plain wood. Fun fact: the tanoas used in Samoa look similar to this, but tend to have way more legs than the ones in Fiji. There are also tiny tanoas that would fit in the palm of your hand sold at tourist shops; I’ve also seen these used as salt and pepper vessels at restaurants.

Second frequently asked question: What does it taste like, and what does it do to you?

This is why I call kava your potential frenemy. If you move here, you will have many, many opportunities to drink kava, and you may quite enjoy the effect. However,  you are unlikely to ever enjoy (much less crave) the taste of kava. After a long hot hour of jogging or mowing the lawn, no one has ever said, “You know what would REALLY quench my thirst right now? Lemonade? Light beer? No, I want a nice tall glass of kava. ” But the effect is worth dealing with the taste for many people. Maybe like beer, it tastes weird the first few times and then you become fond of it. I’m not at that point yet, but I don’t find the taste awful, either.

Kava has been said,  perhaps uncharitably, perhaps accurately, to taste like dirty dishwater. I wouldn’t go that far, though it certainly looks like it. Think of hot chocolate without froth or foam and you’re close. There’s definitely an “earthy” or if you prefer, “dirt-like” taste to it, but it’s not gross. Depending on how concentrated the mix is, it will numb your lips and tongue a little (or a lot) pretty quickly. If you’re going to be drinking a bunch of it over the course of an evening, you might consume hard candies (called “lollies” here, I guess the word is derived from “lollipops”) every hour or so as a palate cleanser or something.  Note that Fijians probably wouldn’t say that the taste of kava is unpleasant,  but they expect that foreigners won’t really care for it. If you try it once and don’t care for it, that’s okay. But if you drink it again after your inaugural cup, your Fijian co-workers will likely be delighted.

Kava makes you both mellow and chatty if you drink a lot of it. One or two bilos will probably do little to you other than numb your tongue a bit. But enough of it will make you very calm and not wanting to do much other than sit, talk, and drink more kava. I’ve heard it described as being similar to being stoned on marijuana, except without the munchies or thinking stupid things  are hilariously funny. There does not seem to be a tradition of drinking kava while watching Will Ferrell movies, so I’m guessing that analogy is probably somewhat accurate.

I suppose you could drink enough kava to be “impaired” enough to prevent you from driving or making rational decisions, but it doesn’t act like alcohol as far as that’s concerned. In my limited experience it can’t give you anything like a hangover; the few times I’ve had a bunch of kava I slept very soundly but woke up as usual the next morning. Strong kava supposedly makes your eyes sensitive to light, which is why it is often consumed at sunset or in the shade. It will relax you enough to make you unmotivated to do much, so I guess it might be like taking valium- you might be able to function at work after taking it if your stress level is VERY high, but for a normal person it would just make you a bit sluggish and not particularly fond of being at work.

Unlike alcohol, it will not make you want to get in fights or otherwise lower your inhibitions. However, if you have kava after a few cocktails, they do not play well together. I made this mistake on our first holiday to Fiji 4 years ago; I had a cocktail and then wine with dinner, and then had my first ever bilo of kava at the “kava ceremony” the resorts do for tourists. I was fine for 40 minutes and then I crashed and needed to sleep NOW.  It’s probably okay to follow one with the other  once you have more experience with it, but you’d probably be wise not to have any alcohol in your system the first time you try kava.

Third frequently asked question: What do you mean about the traditional/ ceremonial aspects of kava drinking?

Hoo boy- you could write a book about this (and people have). The Cliff’s Notes version is that in rural village life, kava drinking is both a social thing (because it’s what you did for fun on a Friday night before electricity/radio/TV came around, but it’s still a big part of social life now that there’s more modern diversions to compete with sitting around the tanoa) and the thing you do in conjunction with important events (weddings, funerals, meetings, making family decisions, etc.).  If the Queen or Pope comes to Fiji, there will be a kava ceremony to welcome them (and they will be expected to drink a cup, too). Of all the changes that Fijians have gone through in several hundred years since contact with other cultures (adopting Christianity and the written word, dumping cannibalism and tattooing), kava drinking has been a constant.

Even though the 19th century missionaries successfully dissuaded Pacific Islanders from traditional “savage” practices like inter-group warfare,  and wearing minimal clothing, kava drinking seems to be the one thing that few were willing to give up in the name of becoming Christian. Most of the early missionaries did not approve of kava because they either thought it was an intoxicant or that it made men lazy, but even they couldn’t convince the chiefs that kava was incompatible with being Christian. Today there are a few Christian denominations in Fiji that prohibit members from consuming kava, but they are definitely the minority. Even the Mormons, who prohibit alcohol, coffee and “hot drinks”, have a complex position on whether kava is allowed or not for Polynesian church members.

The procedures for the traditional “kava ceremony” are  easy enough to find online if you really want to know more.  The chief  sits in a particular place, and there’s rules as to who serves who and in what order. There’s a script of what you say when the kava is mixed, and you clap your hands in a certain way for a certain number of times after you drink. Even when you are drinking kava in a group socially (ie there is no chief present and there’s no occasion being marked) people will do the claps and other parts of the traditional procedure. You drink it all in one gulp; considering the taste, most folks wouldn’t be inclined to sip it anyway. Cups are shared and passed back to the person refilling them after you drink. Wait til everyone in the group has had one serving before asking for seconds.

It’s fine to ask “where should I sit” and “what do I do next” to the person who invited you to drink kava- Fijians are generally enthusiastic about explaining the traditions and what’s happening to a visitor/outsider. If you experience a kava ceremony at a resort, it will actually probably follow the traditional script, even though you the tourist have no way of knowing whether they’re being “authentic” or not. Sometimes at kava ceremonies that only exist for tourists (resorts, sponsored village tours, etc), the Fijian participants will kind of “go through the motions” of the process and not explain it to you and maybe not be so enthusiastic about it because they’ve already done 2 of these today, but they will  almost always follow the proper ritual with all the steps.

Kava is not just a Fiji thing- it’s also part of the tradition in Vanuatu,  Hawaii, Samoa, and Tonga, and probably there are some Pacific Islands that adopted it in the 19th century via trade/exploration contacts. In some cultures, it was just for chiefs; in some, women couldn’t drink it (this is still kind of the case today in most parts of Vanuatu aside from the capital and tourism destinations). In Vanuatu, there are many “kava bars” called nakamals (also the word for a meeting house) where you purchase kava by the shell and drink and chat with whoever happens to come in; these don’t exist in Fiji, not even for the tourist trade. Also, kava in Vanuatu is well known for being super-strong, so that two shells can actually make you disinclined to stand up or move. We did not drink any kava when we visited Vanuatu, mostly because we didn’t want to hang out in a nakamal and find ourselves unable to articulate to a cab driver how to get back to our hotel.

Kava is kind of a guy thing, though, even in places like Fiji where there isn’t a rule restricting it to men. It’s not that women don’t like it or don’t drink it, it’s  that sitting around the tanoa for hours is a male-bonding thing that doesn’t seem to include women much. There is a popular TV show called  “Bati ni tanoa” that I’ve written about before that’s just 3 dudes talking and joking while sitting around a tanoa that, even though it is a “talk show”, will give you an idea of how “social” kava drinking differs from the “ceremonial” kava drinking (though I believe that the social drinking generally follows the occasions that call for a traditional kava ceremony anyway). I have not spent enough time in villages to know if there’s a group of women drinking kava on a separate part of the mat from the men on a Friday night in the community hall, but when we’ve been  walking around after sunset and seen a group drinking kava in the carport of someone’s house, it’s -always- men. Also, there’s  kind of a cliche in Fiji that wives complain that their husbands stay out late drinking grog, which implies women don’t do the same (presumably because they have to stay home with the kids).  When we had the (several) batches of kava at the retirement party, it was mostly the men who sat around the tanoa- the women sat on the edge of the mat and had an occasional bilo passed to them.

Fourth frequently asked question: How would I mix kava at home? Where does the best kava come from?

Kava is mixed by placing the powder into a thin cloth (like cheesecloth, a (clean) hankerchief, a (clean) tea towel) and making a ball (think of if you were trying to mimic a tea bag). You place the bag in a bowl of cold water, and squeeze and wring the bag repeatedly to mix the water and the kava. This 3 minute video will give you an overview (skip to the 1:40 mark to see the part specific to massaging the bag) of the process.  It’s like brewing tea, except you have to force the kava to mix since it doesn’t “steep” like tea does. You can vary the ratio of kava to water depending on how strong you want it to be.

This is the part a lot of Westerners have a problem with- when you drink kava at a resort or a village, some dude you don’t know has had his hands in the tanoa squeezing the bag into what you (and a dozen other people) are about to drink. No one wears gloves when making kava, not even at the 4 star resorts. If you’re a germ-a-phobe,  be quiet about how grossed out you are that someone’s hands are soaking in the beverage; I get why you think it’s gross, but people in the South Pacific will find your phobia weird and/or rude. The guy (it’s always a guy) mixing the kava has an important responsibility to the chief and the group, so if he forgot to wash his hands before touching something as important as kava, it would be a very big deal. Even if having clean hands before you stick them in the punch bowl wasn’t part of the ritual, no resort or tourist show wants to see people get sick from dirty kava- it’s bad for business. But if you’re still freaked out,  politely decline to drink offered kava without giving the real reason. And if you really want to freak out, consider that the OLD (pre-missionary/Colonial period) method for preparing kava in much of the Pacific was to have children or women chew the root and then spit the mashed up root parts into a water bowl for mixing. Yum!

While most Fijians acknowledge that Vanuatu kava is more -potent-, there is no agreement as to which of Fiji’s 100+ inhabited islands produces the -best- kava. Every Fijian I have asked seems to think the best kava comes from whichever island he is originally from! But Kadavu and Moala  seem to be mentioned a lot on signs in the market, ie “Pure Moala kava”.  Unlike wine, even the “best” kava will not taste much better than middling kava, and also unlike wine, it’s hard to spend a lot of money on premium domestic kava- the price for small quantities seems to be about the same no matter where it comes from.

Last frequently asked question: Can I get kava in the US/Canada outside of the Pacific?

Maybe, but you’ll probably have to hunt for it (unless you live in a place like Hawaii, or a city with a large percentage of Samoans or Tongans).  There’s now a kava bar in Portland, Oregon if you’re in the area. There’s no legal prohibition against kava in the US, but it’s probably easier to get someone coming back from Melanesia to bring you some than to try to track it down in the Midwest.

Anything else I didn’t cover (unlikely, considering how long this ended up!) that you wanna ask, leave a comment and I’ll try to find out the answer.

*I say never, but then today in MHCC I saw a poster advertising this:

takimai

These look to be the size of “5 hour energy” type shots and not “drinks” in the typical sense of things you would sip. These are almost certainly intended for export, as the idea of mixing kava with a fruit flavor would be bizarre (or possibly blasphemous) to most Fijians, to say nothing of the “drink it on the go” aspect of this product.

But if you like the calming effects of kava and don’t have buddies to empty a tanoa with, this might be just the thing.

Two Vanuatu photos that are funny if you speak Fijian

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Don’t worry, I’ll translate for my non-Fijian readers, and hopefully they will still be funny even if I have to explain the joke.

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I have no idea what “Kaiviti” means, if anything, in any of the 100+ languages that exist in Vanuatu. But in Fijian,  “Kaiviti” means “Fijian people” or “Fijian person”. Since nouns in Fijian don’t have plural forms and you must understand whether “person” or “people” is meant from the context of the sentence, I can’t tell you which the sign here means; it could be either.

So this is a sort of odd name: imagine a place in Europe called “The Belgian person motel” or “Italian people motel” and you’ll see why I think this is funny. It reminded me of the small town in Louisiana called “Des Allemands”, which is French for “The Germans” (and also a strange name for a town).

Maybe the owner of the motel is Fijian and wanted to convey that in the name. We didn’t stay here, though I was tempted just because of the name, so perhaps its a clever marketing strategy.

My Fijian language teacher introduced “kaveti”, the word  for cabbage, into the food chapter, probably so that one of us would mispronounce it as “kaiviti” instead and confess to cannibalism when asked to say “I like to eat cabbage” in Fijian.

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If this is actually pronounced “eh-saw”, it’s not really funny. But if it’s pronounced “ee-sah”, then it sounds like “isa”, which is a Fijian expression meaning “that’s a pity” or “I’m sorry things are going badly for you”.  Which would be a terrible name for a corporation.

Tourists  may encounter the word Isa  in Fiji’s famous goodbye song, “Isa lei”, which is often sung to you as you get on a boat or bus to leave  the resort to go back home. At my job, when an employee resigns, Isa Lei is always sung to them on their last day of work. They hand out lyric sheets for those of us who aren’t Fijian speakers, but pretty much every Fijian speaker in the country will know the words to this song by heart.