Although the pictures you see of Fiji may depict an idyllic paradise, as we know of photographic representations of the developing world, images can be deceiving. The lush tropical beauty of the landscape is often starkly contrasted by the blistering heat and suffocating humidity that accompanies the climate, as well as the daily struggles and frustrations that typify life here. Let me be plain: no day is ever easy here. I will start with a snapshot of one of my days to dispel the illusion that my working life is the blissful tropical breeze the pictures may belie and try to give a more well rounded understanding of challenges of a Peace Corps experience in Fiji.
I wake up sweating. I go to bed sweating and I wake up sweating. I went to bed exhausted because Fiji has the kind of heat that sucks all the moisture from your body and makes you feel like a wrung, desiccated sponge by the end of the day. It is hot and moist as Hell’s ass crack here and just as unbearable. It saps away all your strength and energy, especially when everyone else around you is just as discomforted and unmotivated due to the heat. The previous day I had come home to find a letter slipped under my door by the Fiji Water Authority, informing me that they would be disconnecting my water in 24 hours for a fee I didn’t owe, left by the previous tenant. This is not uncommon in Fiji. Most PCV’s have a story about how they inherited hundreds of dollars in water debt from the person who lived in their house before. The bureaucracy of Fiji can be disorganized and representatives difficult to track down, which makes situations like these a bit of an exercise in futility.
Not only was my water disconnection an inconvenience (considering that my sulu jaba was damp from that day’s sweat), but not having water is also dangerous when you spend all day perspiring any fluids left in your body. Without water, I risk dehydration. In fact, every day I play a game of cat and mouse with dehydration, because to make up for the water I sweat out, I’d have to drink at least a bottle of water an hour. This is all well and good if you can be assured that you will always be close to a useable bathroom, but in Fiji, you don’t have that kind of guarantee. I sometimes spend hours driving to outreach in the interior of the island, where they may not have running water, let alone a toilet. So every day you have to make a decision—conserve water and chug when you get home or risk having to pee in a hole in the ground in the bush. Hopefully you remembered to bring toilet paper with you, because Fiji is BYOTP. The lack of water also complicates the constant skin problems I’ve had since I arrived in Fiji, which I keep under control with antiseptic soap, unless, in this case, I can’t take a shower or a bucket bath. It also hinders my ability to cook. There are no pre-made foods here and the vegetables and fruits I buy from my local market need to be thoroughly cleaned in case they carry disease from lingering animal feces, urine or run-off.
In the middle of cooking my dinner, my propane gas tank suddenly runs out of gas. Luckily I have some leftovers in my fridge, but it’s an uninspired dinner damped by the soot left on my half-baked sweet potato and the prospect of replacing my gas tank the next morning as well. A full gas tank weighs close to 60 or 70 pounds, and despite my own strength, I can’t carry one from town all the way up the hill to my house. Which means in the morning I will have to hire a cab to pick me and my gas tank up, drive me into town, buy the replacement, drive the new one up and help me install the new tank. Unless there’s a broken regulator or tear in the hose, in which case I will need to make several trips into town and enlist the help of a neighbor to ensure that everything is installed properly and I don’t burn my house down or accidentally asphyxiate on leaking gas.
So I wake up sweating with no water or gas, knowing that I am going to have to tackle the tangle that is the Fijian bureaucracy to ensure that they turn my water back on. I go into my kitchen, where I find a swarm of ants on the counter I thought I’d cleaned. So before I can have breakfast, I have to sanitize my kitchen, lay out more seemingly ineffectual ant traps, and line my walls and shelves with HIT chalk. I eat a quick breakfast because I have to go into town to make a copy of the latest water bill I paid to take into the Fiji Water Authority and fetch a new propane tank. Though Korovou is inhabited by government workers and full of local government offices, the ones I visit don’t have a photocopier, their photocopier is broken, or no one knows how to use or fix their photocopier. My other option is to visit an Internet shop. Though these shops are supposed to open at 8:00 am, everything here operates on Fiji Time, so the shops open whenever the staff decides they want to open. As I go from building to building looking for a working photocopier, I am given vague directions about where to look—“Go to that building,” or “Over there”—which seems to be sufficient information for their orientation but is infuriatingly ambiguous early in the morning when my clothes are already soaked through with sweat and I have to get to work.
After I finally manage to make a copy of my paid bills, I rush up the hill to my health center for our school outreach visit into the interior of Waidalice. Although we are supposed to leave by 9:00, considering that we have to screen every student in the school (a number usually between 150-250), we only have one driver for all the transportation needs of the whole of the medical sub-division. Sometimes the drivers stay up for 24 hours at a time on a shift, and this morning one the drivers is sick, so we have one driver and one vehicle for all the day’s outreach programs and medical emergencies. The driver doesn’t arrive until 10:00 and we have to pile all the screening supplies and seven staff members into the back of the ambulance. We get about halfway to the school we are visiting for the day along a bumpy, pothole filled road, before we pull onto a farm. The head father of the farm was gored by one of his bulls and needs to be taken immediately to the hospital. We subsequently have to unload our supplies as they carefully wheel the patient into the back of the ambulance to be taken to Suva. The family of the man lends us the use of their pick-up trucks and takes us the rest of the way to the school, although we have no way of being sure we’ll have transport back to Korovou at the end of our outreach session. We could be waiting at the school until 7 or 8 p.m.
We also have to be careful about the recent outbreak of dengue fever that has spread throughout the province. The hospitals are overwhelmed with the number of dengue patients and although health inspectors are supposed to be spraying and collaborating with the villages to cut grass and dispose of mosquito breeding grounds (like old tires or empty food containers), both health inspectors are currently sick with dengue, so the prevention efforts have ground to a halt. I try to layer bug repellant lotion over every part of my body, but I still end up discovering new bug bites at the end of the day, often in the places most difficult to scratch. The District Officer for our government compound has organized a dengue clean up for the afternoon, so I also know that I will need to spend about an hour and a half raking up the cut grass from my lawn when I get back from my school outreach.
Each day, just like I fix my hair, I have to adjust my disposition to make sure that to each Fijian I encounter, I am the best American I can be.
We end up arrive at the school around 11:00. There was no way to call ahead to let the school know we would be late, because the school doesn’t have a landline or is so far into the interior of the island that cell service doesn’t work. This would be a useful place for carrier pigeons. It takes the teachers about a half an hour to corral the students, so we don’t begin screenings until 11:30. My role is to serve as the Reproductive Health Peer Educator for classes 7 and 8. I go to their classroom to begin my presentation, but the room is connected to another classroom, the two separated by thin compartments of wood they can install or remove easily to make the space bigger. The room connected to mine is full of the din of talking, squabbling children, so I practically have to shout over the ruckus about puberty, reproductive health and condom use, which makes the lesson more didactic than I had intended. Reproductive health classes are difficult effectively even in English-language settings like the United States, but my job requires a certain amount of stealth and finesse. Firstly, sexuality is a taboo subject in Fiji, so I have no way of knowing how much of the information I present is new to the students. Secondly, because English is their second language and they might struggle with the language, I have to ensure that I speak slowly and at their language level, defining and elaborating whenever I see looks of confusion. I don’t want to infantilize them, but there are also basic health concepts, like germs and the immune system, that may still be new or unfamiliar to them, and scientific jargon like ovulation and fertilization are difficult to break down into easily understood, digestible concepts. Thirdly, the Ministry of Health has strict policies on what topics can and cannot be taught in schools. Conservative parents have been known to complain and my school health team was kicked out of the province’s secondary schools years ago because of some aspect of the content that the MOE found offensive or inappropriate for the students. I was not provided with the MOE approved curriculum though, and the nurses haven’t been able to articulate what areas are off-limits to talk about within the purview of my MOH mandate, so each class I am walking on egg shells. I have to carefully communicate the knowledge the students need to make informed decisions about their sexual health, while also upholding a lot of the Ministry’s bylines, which advocate abstinence and do not condone pre-marital sex or the use of contraception. It’s a tightrope act and I am still fumbling.
As a PCV, I am also expected to be “on” 24/7. As one of the only Americans for miles and miles, perhaps the only American many Fijians will ever meet, I recognize that I am perceived as a walking embodiment of all American culture. Those around me will understand everything I do and say as indicative of American behavior, and it’s part of one of the Peace Corps goals to facilitate a cross-cultural exchange by fostering a better understanding of American culture abroad. This means that I have to be my best self constantly. When I am waiting in line in the sweltering grocery and someone cuts in front of me, I can’t make a fuss. When I didn’t bring a snack because we were assured be given tea and lunch, and it turns out the school doesn’t have any food prepared for us, I have to keep my cool. When we are standing outside for hours on end waiting for transport because nobody thought to call ahead to ensure we’d have timely transportation back to Korovou, I can’t snap into a harangue about short-term planning and time management. Even small glimpses of my anger or frustration could be misconstrued as emblematic of American culture, so every day is also an effort to manage any negative feelings or emotions and keep them in check, striving to always remain polite and respectful. This has been a challenge because, for those who know me, I have a terrible poker face. This issue even emerges in more intimate settings, during which I have to reconcile cultural conceptions of my gender and my own liberal ideologies. Staff members will inquire why I’m not married yet, and then insist that I go out with their cousin or friend and marry a Fijian. When I walk by a group of youths on the way to work, they will all shout what they likely think are compliments, but from an American (and, frankly, jaded) mindset I read as sexual harassment. References to weight are common practice here, so I’ve grown used to having my physique examined and scrutinized, despite my attempts to cover it up in billowy shirts and skirts. Each day, just like I fix my hair, I have to adjust my disposition to make sure that to each Fijian I encounter, I am the best American I can be.
There is also the existential struggle of being a Peace Corps volunteer. In the Peace Corps handbook, they have a chart outlining the critical periods of service, with different behaviors or reactions for each period. Each day, mark it, each day a PCV with cycle through feelings of loneliness, abandonment, self-doubt, elation, anxiety, nerves, restlessness, irritation, fright, frustration, feelings of uselessness, tolerance or intolerance of host culture, homesickness, lethargy, over-zealousness, self-recrimination, resignation, panic, disappointment, and giddiness. If you think that no healthy human being can cycle through that many emotions in one day, you’re right. It’s exhausting having to field so many feelings in a single 24 hours, only to know they’ll likely disrupt your sleep and reemerge in the morning. And one of the feelings I struggle with the most here is guilt.
When you join the Peace Corps, you have an image of the “typical Peace Corps experience.” Now, there is no “typical Peace Corps experience,” that’s the point, but that doesn’t mean that I hadn’t built up in my mind what it would be like. I had mentally prepared myself to live a Spartan, acetic lifestyle, out in a remote, nearly inaccessible part of the world among a small collective or tribe, likely in a hut, where I’d speak a foreign language every day and be submerged in a culture totally foreign to my own. Instead, I am in a three room wooden house on government quarters, with running water (sometimes), electricity, a local grocery store, neighbors with televisions and a job where I don’t have to speak Fijian all the time. Fiji was colonized, so there is enough familiarity that things don’t seem completely alien, and yet enough cultural difference that I miss the things I had at home and I never feel totally at ease. These conditions may seem preferable to the hut in the middle of nowhere but for the first several months at my site, I was full of nothing but self-loathing. I hated myself for getting such a “cushy” site placement. I was disgusted with myself that I had bought a little mini-fridge and a couch to furnish my empty house with, that I had afforded myself such luxuries. I was supposed to be a Peace Corps volunteer, roughing it and toughing out the difficult conditions of a treacherous landscape—that was what I had prepared for. And despite these small luxuries and my placement, every day was hard. Then I would berate myself for complaining and considering my conditions difficult—what right did I have to consider my job easy, when I could come home and put ice in my filtered water? That was a luxury many PCV’s don’t get. For weeks I mooned over these feelings of guilt and shame—I felt like a fraud. I felt like a fake PCV: sad that I hadn’t been placed in a village as I had desperately wished, despite my language training test scores and cultural integration; torn between buying small things that would make my life easier and adhering to the bare bones image of Peace Corps life I had constructed for myself; angry at myself for feelings so frustrated and put upon when I imagined the far more difficult struggles other PCV’s were having in other parts of the world; and, ultimately, unwilling to authorize the validity of my own emotions.
I cannot speak for other PCV’s on this count, but this feeling of guilt, almost of self-abasement—that I had to make my life harder and atone for the “luxuries” I’d been given to call myself a true PCV—ate at my conscience every day. But my days, as you’ve seen, are hard enough without feelings of shame and self-recrimination. There is no one true, typical Peace Corps experience and this is, and likely will remain, the toughest job I’ve ever had. Every small act here is mentally taxing, and at the end of the day, I am physically and psychologically exhausted. Every day is another existential crisis waiting to happen, and even the small trips away from site that I allow myself for a mental break are stressful. You have to plan for every contingency. Even if you’re just going on a day trip, the buses may not arrive on time, or may not come at all, and you could have to unexpectedly sleep over at someone’s house, so you always have to pack for Plans A, B and C. We are living on a volunteer allowance, and consequently conserve our food as much as possible, so traveling is also an exercise in figuring out how to spend the least on food and not feel like you’re constantly on the brink of starvation. You’re always trying to plan around buses that are unreliable, relax while making sure none of your valuables get stolen, and enjoy yourself even though you’ve been sick for months now. You lose clumps of hair daily, never drink enough water or eat enough protein, and feel your most unattractive and ineffectual. So I’ve made peace with my placement and learned that it’s okay to treat myself every so often—the Peace Corps does not have to be a daily penance, it’s difficult enough as it is.
Every small act here is mentally taxing, and at the end of the day, I am physically and psychologically exhausted. Every day is another existential crisis waiting to happen, and even the small trips away from site that I allow myself for a mental break are stressful.
In the Fijian language, dredre has two meanings, depending on where you place the emphasis. One way, dredre can mean challenging, or difficult; the other way it can mean smile or laughter. In Fijian culture, internal emotions are not readily or easily expressed through words or body language. Instead of asking people how they are doing, Fijians will typically ask “Where are you going,” or “Where are you coming from?” To show emotion, to reveal that you are sad or upset, is considered weak and inappropriate, especially for males in the culture. In difficult situations, therefore, Fijians will laugh. When a 12-year-old girl at one of our schools stepped up to have a rotten front tooth removed, she was giggling. As she tilted her head back for the anesthetic, her giggles transformed into the kind of laughter that shook her whole body. There’s a certain logic to this—to forestall the pain, to keep it at arm’s length, they laugh at it. Perhaps then no one will be looking when they wipe the tears away from their eyes. You have to learn to find the dark humor in the challenges here, or else they will wear you and break down your resiliency. In German there’s the word Schadenfreude, which means laughing at other people’s pain. In Fiji, I suppose I’ll have to invert that, and learn to laugh at my own pain.