Sunday, January 15, 2006

6 Seven days in Fiji - Workweek

Workweek

The fact that I was in Fiji at all is a testament to the Internet. Eight of my students were employees of Vodaphone, a British cell phone company that has the cell phone concession in Fiji and two “students” worked for Datec a training company with an office in Fiji. This was their class. Datec offers consulting and training all over the South Pacific and are listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Vodaphone had asked Datec to create this class for their employees. Datec couldn’t find anyone that could teach it so they contacted the Australian division of a company based in Dubai called Flane. They looked on the Internet and found me. When they called I incredulously asked if there really wasn’t anyone between Boston Massachusetts USA and Suva Fiji who could teach the class they replied that they couldn’t find any. Good news or bad news? I’m either on the cutting edge of the new technology (which is what I like to believe) or I’m just a relic of a passed up branch of technology more suited for academic study than real applications. With competition I’d at least feel validated.

I had 10 people in my class, eight Indians, one Fijian and an “expat” Australian. I mention this because it was my first hint of how the Fijian society has segregated and isolated itself. Over the week it became apparent that Indians occupy the professional class in Fiji and if there can be said to be a Middle Class in Fiji they occupy it.

Rotary

I belong to a Rotary club. For those of you who don’t know Rotary is an international organization consisting of over 30,000 clubs. Put in its most simple form, Rotary is about world peace and cooperative living. Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals, all with capital letters belong to Rotary, its not about politics it’s about people organizing to help people. In my town we’ve paid for part of an industrial fish farm in Guatemala, lit the Christmas trees on the town common, sponsored a literary retreat (wildernesshouse.org) and paid for an industrial therapist to help the town fathers work better together. Our club meets Tuesday mornings for breakfast while most of the other Rotary clubs nearby meet for lunch. This is the pattern all over the world. If you miss one meting you can “makeup” at another club. Our club gets a high “makeup” traffic simply because we are a breakfast club.

In Suva there are four Rotary clubs, three meet for lunch and one meets for dinner. Because I had been imported to teach my class from such a distance I must be important so for the entire week lunch was catered. This is where British gastronomic tastes put a small damper on the beauty of Fiji. I think it can safely be said that British taste in food was vastly superior to the prevailing taste when they first arrived, roasted rump of one’s fellow man being rather unappetizing. However there is no excuse for rice and yellow curried chicken followed by rice and chicken with brown curry followed by rice and chicken with black curry and peas. You get the picture. No insult intended but why couldn’t I have gotten a job in Tahiti. Since Datec felt they had to cater lunch I felt honor bound to eat it. That prevented me from doing a “makeup” at any of the lunchen Rotary clubs.

I admit that what I am about to say is pure conjecture as I have but the scantiest evidence for what I am about to say save a list of names. Most towns the size of Suva sport one Rotary club. Suva has four. From the list of members names one is all Fijian, one is all Indian, one is all expat, that is, all Aussies and Kiwis and one is a dinner club suitable for making up if you miss the club of your ethnic choice. I managed to do a “makeup” at the Suva Peninsula club, the dinner club.

There were eight of us for dinner at the fanciest Chinese restaurant in Suva. The Rotary club web site said that dinner started at 6:30 so I was there 10 minutes early. I was the first one to show up and began to wonder when no one else had arrived by 6:45. “Fiji time,” I was told with a laugh, which means that everything in Fiji starts late. By 7:00 we had 8 Rotarians. I cannot remember most names but on my left was a large Fijian gentleman on the board of some large local corporation. On my right was the President of the club, an expat, who ran a canning company. Like all things in Fiji the Fiji Rotary clubs are modeled on their British counterparts. The president wore a ponderous gilded chain around his neck when conducting the meeting. In the states we assume that the man at the podium is the president, an assumption that has yet to fail me.

Of the remaining 5 Rotarians I remember only the two charming women of Indian extraction. The first, Dr. Bernadette, (I was told that I could never pronounce her last name) is a professor of dentistry at the University of the South Pacific as well as President of the Fiji Dental Association. The other was a charming well-healed pharmacist named “Josh,” a name that was short for something unpronounceable. Both were charming, animated, and very British and both invited me to be their guests at a meeting of the Fiji-British Alumni Association.

The Fiji-British Alumni Association had been created as an all-inclusive organization where Fijian, Indian and other Commonwealth types could meet and interact. It is the perfect type of an organization for a Rotarian to belong to. Unfortunately the coup d'├ętat of 2000 purged the government of most Indians and put an end to an ecumenical government. The Fiji-British Alumni Association had gone into suspension soon after the coup as ecumenism was frowned on. Time cures most things so the Fiji-British Alumni Association was trying to revive itself. This was its second meeting post coup.

Fortunately the meeting of the Fiji-British Alumni Association was being held at the Fiji Lawn Tennis Association, right down the street from me at the edge of Albert Park, and next to the Cricket game that was still going on. The meeting of the Fiji-British Alumni Association was a completely informal dinner. I wore a jacket and tie, which I quickly shed. The Fiji-British Alumni Association was made up of almost equal parts Fijian and Indian with a reasonable representation of Ausies, New Zealanders and me. After an initial pleasant mix of pleasantries everyone segregated themselves into Fiji and Indian tables. I sat with Dr. Bernadette and Josh.

Apparently, the meeting of the Fiji-British Alumni Association was a major social event with the Fiji Times sending both a reporter and a photographer. Yes my picture was snapped with Dr. Bernadette and Josh but I don’t think I made the social column. There was an Indian woman who is a famous Judge, a very big deal I was told. She mugged for the camera and made sure her picture was taken with everyone present. She looked like an old fashioned politician running for office. I mentioned this to Josh who reminded me quietly what the last coup was all about. Apparently there is an expat woman that might indeed become a compromise candidate for Prime Minister. Fijian politics is a very strange beast.

I can only hope that Fijians and Indians come to some understanding before someone resorts to violence again. Fiji is a beautiful place with a thin veneer of civilization provided by British institutions but with an unfortunate history of ethnic problems and an equally unfortunate British taste in food.

When the event ended I walked with Dr. Bernadette and Josh to the cabstand on Victoria Parade. We walked pass a group of Fijian youths hanging out with smoke wafting up from their midst. I was enjoying the night and oblivious to the real world around me. “Lets hurry,” Dr. Bernadette whispered to me, “They are smoking marijuana and two Indian girls and middle aged white man are a very good target for mugging.” I didn’t recognize the smell, I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s, and I still didn’t feel threatened but my escorts did so we hurried.

“It’s a weed,” she said. “Did you know it grows wild here,” Dr. Bernadette asked?

“I think it grows wild almost everywhere its allowed,” I answered.

“They found a fully grown pot plant in the courtyard of the Town Counsel building in downtown Suva last summer.” She went on. “You can imagine the furor over that,” she went on with a giggle.

We walked on in silence, giggling to ourselves.

Monday through Friday

With the exception of my Thursday evening feast at the Fiji-British Alumni Association my week was as predictable as it would have been if my class were in Peoria Illinois. I got up early, had breakfast at the bar/restaurant, taught my class and toured the town looking for a good place to eat and be entertained.

I’m from New England in the northeast corner of the Unite States of America. We have a delicacy found nowhere else on earth, Maple Syrup. We take it for granted and use it (or maple flavored corn syrup if we want to be cheep) liberally on pancakes and waffles for breakfast. To someone used to the maple flavor anything else is … unnatural. Fiji’s major export is cane sugar and the syrup of choice is a mild molasses. Breakfast became a source of nourishment rather than a celebration of the senses.

In the evenings I scavenged the town like a feral cat in search of a meal. I sniffed at the door of almost every restaurant in town. The choices were between Indian and Chinese cuisine. In most cases I opted for a Chinese appetizer (yes you can ruin a spring roll). Almost every restaurant, both Chinese and Indian, also served “Fish & Chips” which became my staple dinner simply for its lack of curry. On my way home each night I passed the American Embassy where the guards began to recognize me and say hello. I passed the girls and “puftas” assembling for the night’s work. After the first night they too said hello and “Have a good night Sir, we’re here if you want us.” I think it became a sport for them to spot me and say hello. As the week wore on it became a rising chorus. If I had worn a hat I would have tipped it to them. Although I was told that it was a bad corner to pass through I never once felt threatened, the livelihood of to many people depended on the corner being safe and so it was.

One truly remarkable feature of Suva Fiji is the complete lack of Japanese tourists. I’m not sure why but I can speculate that they haven’t discovered it yet or there is a lasting distaste for visiting lands once threatened by the rising sun. Should the Japanese ever discover Fiji they will not only improve the cuisine on the islands but also discover that the Fijians also drive on the British side of the street a feature shared only among British Commonwealth countries and Japan. It should be a natural.

There is an active nightlife in Suva but since my body took its time adjusting seven hours to Fiji time I faded well before any of the hot spots got cooking. In Fiji the nightlife begins at 10:00 P.M. and continues well past the legal limit of Midnight. The music on the radios and in the nightclubs is the same in Fiji as it is anywhere in the US. The only difference is that on Radio Fiji the DJ’s speak with that ever so delightful British accent.

I had been scheduled to leave Fiji on Saturday as I had come in, a flight from Suva to Nadi and then home. I had mentioned to the manager at Datec that I’d rather take a buss from Suva to Nadi so that I could see the countryside. Would I rather take a cab I was asked. That option never dawned on me since Suva and Nadi are 200 km apart by car. Of course I’d rather go by car with a knowledgeable guide.

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