For most people, the concept of “getting home” after a vacation, a trip to a friends, a long day at work, is a fairly simple one. Hop in the car, maybe stop off for a few errands on your way back, for a vacation maybe it involves getting on a plane. I just wanted to take this blog post to explain my trip “home” after spending some time in the Capital.
If you read my blog update (2 posts ago) you know that I was in Suva getting tested for a myriad of unsavory diseases. Well, all the tests came back negative which is a good and a bad thing. Good because I don’t have something like dengue, typhoid, etc and bad because your guess is as good as mine what I was sick with! Regardless of the diagnosis (or lack thereof) it was refreshing to spend the week in Suva getting full nights sleep, catching up on work that seems nearly impossible to complete in the village, getting some administrative details sorted out with the office.
Getting home. It’s a doozie.
The first thing I have to mention is that there is only one option. I can only leave to get back to my island from Suva at 1pm 5 days a week. The two days the ferry/buses don’t run regularly change so it requires some planning .
I have to walk to Patterson’s Brothers Shipping Co.’s office in this little building next to a huge church in Suva to purchase my ticket. Call me lazy, but I pretty much always buy my ticket the day I’m going back to the village. The tickets cost $35 one way so $70 round trip. Not an expense to be taken lightly.
Then, I carry all my bags down to the bus station. Now, something you must understand about trips to the capital… there is STUFF in Suva. Good stuff. I regularly stock up on food items, spices, and miscellaneous items that aren’t available on Ovalau where I live. This trip to Suva, I came with a half packed backpack. Upon returning I had a full backpack and 2 reusable bags stuffed to the brim. I brought back honey roasted peanuts, black pepper, wild rice, hot sauce, shiitake mushrooms, honey, banana chips, 6 1 liter canisters of paint I found laying around our office and thought I could use, 5 water polo balls that another volunteer left for me at the office, a bunch of paperwork, and some new clothes from our PC office free box. Oh there was also a small bag of herbs and vegetable roots to start a small herb garden at my house given to me by one of our staff at the office. So its nearly 1pm (aka hot), I’m carrying 3x the amount of stuff I brought with me to Suva, and I’m now running the gauntlet of vendors that line the road by the bus stand, chain smoking, and calling out to me, “Lady, Ma’am, can I shine your shoes?” I dash and weave between the slow walkers and that group of 5 people that has to walk in line with each other and block the entire pathway… I avoid the pitcher after pitcher of “Fresh” juice (which is really Tang with some fruits mashed up in it served out of a clear juice bucket and poured into a glass cup for you to drink for the low price of only 50 cents! I must admit I have a sweet spot for this one old woman who is a juice vendor. She doesn’t use tang and it’s delicious, but usually I don’t feel like looking through the 30 other vendors to find her when I’m loaded down with this much stuff!), and then make my way past the bean carts (Indian snacks and sweets which are delicious and I do my best to avoid) and finally past all of the bus stands selling tickets for the bigger bus lines that go around the island. The bus I’m looking for is at the very far end of the bus area, and it’s always late. So I sit down under the shade of a mango tree and talk with the people I know from Ovalau that are headed back to the island with me. I’m usually waiting there for about an hour.
Finally our tell-tale white and blue bus with dolphins at the back comes rolling in to the bus stand. This is when things get really interesting. If you have connections (you gotta know the right people!) you can find out ahead of time how many buses will be going out to the island on any given day. Once privy to this information, you can avoid the swarm of people clambering against the collective mass of overheated, sweaty individuals pushing futilely to get their bag under the bus first and then push their way to the bus door to hand their ticket to the driver and climb aboard only to realize they have been outwitted by someone who knows the system better and is working in conjunction with non travelers… this person has usurped them by climbing aboard the bus FIRST and having someone pass their belongings through a window to either save seats, or just avoid the insanity of storing items below. Now, someone with better information, will know ahead of time how many buses will be coming through and they sit back in the shade of the mango tree watching all this unfold just 15 meters in front of them. Once that first bus is full and pulls out, the remaining travelers gab in the shade about how full the first bus was and how sweaty and uncomfortable they all looked. After another 20 minutes of waiting (which to a non-seasoned traveler of this route, it would appear as though they have been left behind and there IS no second bus) our second bus arrives. This one is usually boarded in a slightly less forceful manner and is usually not as packed as the first bus. The added benefit of not having to wait at the jetty later on is also a benefit of waiting for the second bus.
So you are on the bus. Hopefully with a little bit of leg room and an open window. After another 20 minutes of waiting around (just so the driver can finish his last cigarette outside) you will take off.
The bus will drive steadily north. Sometimes it will stop for a minute to pick up an extra passenger in Nausori town, about 45 minutes out of Suva just across the Rewa River. Then you will continue on the bus through the province of Tailevu which is absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately I usually fall asleep during this leg of the trip and wake up about an hour or so later when we hit Korovou town. In Korovou the bus driver will stop, and say a number between 5 and 20. That is how many minutes you have to do what you need. I always use the public convenience for 20 cents, then go next door to the market to purchase my fruits and vegetables. Korovou has a larger selection of produce for a cheaper cost than Ovalau does, plus buying my produce here saves me an extra trip into Levuka and allows me to cook at home for a few days without worrying about having to get into town. In Korovou you can also pick up some snacks, roti parcels, fish and chips, mutton pie, sausage and chips, samosas, and your run of the mill junk food like Twisties (Fijian Cheetos), Tymo’s (cookies), or any other sort of snack. Then you load back onto the bus, get to the end of Korovou town, and follow the round-about to the right to head out to the Natovi Jetty, about another 30 minutes North-east of your current location.
After arriving at the jetty, you will get off the suddenly stagnant bus and roam around aimlessly waiting for that white speck to reveal itself across the horizon, signaling its return to Viti Levu (your current island) from Vanua Levu (the Friendly North Island) and thus signaling your impending return home to Ovalau, that island just to the east of your current location which seems constantly shrouded in clouds. Kids roam around selling fresh pineapple or watermelon (“Painapiu or Meleni”) and roti parcels (roti stuffed with potato curry and tinned fish) for a dollar each. Most people sit on the jetty or the rocks watching the weather change and waiting for the ferry. Once, I waited 3 hours for the ferry to arrive to the jetty, other times, the ferry has been waiting for us when the bus arrives at the jetty. You never know, you just prepare to wait. This time I sat with one of our Fisheries officers on the rocks drinking a bottle of Tang. We waited for about 45 minutes for the ferry to dock up to the jetty and unload its passengers from the North Island before we walked on board, handed our tickets to the guy that guards the stairs, walked up onto the main deck and relaxed.
The ferry is called the “Spirit of Harmony” and has those same dolphins printed on the side like the bus does. The cars and buses going out to Ovalau load onto the ferry and the passengers scatter across the deck, picking chairs, or going inside to the passengers lounge to get a snack. I usually head into the passengers lounge first, but you have to take your shoes off at the door. It seems totally normal for me to take shoes off immediately when entering a building these days, but visitors out to the island always get a laugh or uncomfortably walk back outside with their shoes on, or sometimes they just ignore the rules and keep their shoes on inside the lounge area. I leave my shoes at the door, and walk up to the counter and get a black coffee, strong. Sometimes they sell chocolate or banana cakes, chicken pies, mutton pies, or these pineapple/passionfruit pastries. I usually stick to my coffee and return outside to watch the now fading coastline of Viti Levu.
The announcer comes over the ship’s PA system to remind passengers of the rules, tell us that throwing rubbish overboard is damaging to our marine ecosystem, that drinking and unruly behavior is not allowed, and that the PFD’s are stored in 3 locations throughout the ship. The only part of his announcement I now pay attention to is our destination. Ovalau is a small island but there are 2 choices, and depending on the weather or the captains cruel intentions, you can end up at either jetty. The Jetty that makes sense is Buresala. 90% of the time we dock in Buresala. It is a direct eastward port from the Natovi jetty and takes about 1 hour to reach. The second option, that I HATE, is docking in Levuka town. The way the islands surrounding bathymetry maps out makes it impossible to take an easy direct route to Levuka which is situated on the islands western side… so the ferry passes the eastern dock of Buresala, and goes north around the island before coming in to dock at Levuka town… a 2 + hour ferry ride. Yesterday, we went to Buresala. Perfect. We all got back in our correct buses, waited for the ferry to stop, and drove off the ferry and on to Ovalau.
The first thing I see when getting on to the island is this decrepit old rusting boat off to the right hand side of the dock. Its listing to it’s starboard side and is half filled with sand, but still clearly visible on the side, written in white paint is, “MERRY X-MAS” and it makes me laugh every time. Once on the island the bus takes off trying to race the sunset. The sun is setting over Viti Levu and the contest between the fading sunlight’s brilliant colors and the ominous clouds that are trying to cover it up is almost always beautiful.
Every once in a while a little ding signals the bus to stop and a passenger (or 12) are let out in front of their villages. With just one road that circumvents the island, most people are let off the bus nearly directly in front of their homes. After waiting for all the passengers to unload their precariously packed items, the driver takes off down the dusty, rocky, and potholed road around hairpin turns and nearly into ditches to avoid the oncoming truck returning PAFCO workers from town when they pass on the JUST wide enough road. After 45 minutes or so (depending on how many people get off the bus and how quick they are in the previous villages) we turn one last beautiful bend that reveals the shorefront expanse of the village I live in, our tiny island just offshore, and the bustle of activity that never seems to end, even in the fading light. I pull the string to signal him to stop, grab my parcels, and step off the bus back into the village.
There are usually children about and they help me bring some of the smaller items to my door. I open up and am greeted by the slightly damp and moldy scent of a home that has been locked up in the tropics for a week and immediately light a mosquito coil, open all the windows, and sweep the floor. With an assembly of children watching, I unpack my bags, make a washing pile in the corner, sweep the whole house, seep my bad which always seems to attract gecko poop and unintended spiders between the sheets during a week away, I put the vegetables purchased in Korovou in the kitchen, and make a cup of tea.
Last night, while putting clothes in my wash pile, I looked in the corner and something caught my attention. Now, normally I find something absurd at my home after being gone. I have had animal infestations, mosquitoes breeding greedily in my toilet (which I had accidently left the lid open one rushed morning), mysterious poops inside, a mini flood that crept under my front door during the cyclone and got my mats and clothes moldy and wet, a pipe burst from a pica-afflicted mouse, and a bed full of bird poop. But this one was different. I looked in the corner under my tin box which is held up by cinderblocks and I saw something white and fluffy. Not really what I was expecting. I look closer and eyes appear along with the tell tale hiss of a kitten in a mood. I pick it up by the scruff of the neck only to find her feistier brother in there too. I recognize them instantly as the recently born offspring of this demon cat that jumps through my windows constantly, during the day, the middle of the night, and will sleep under my bed, eat food left out, or just generally make herself feel at home. The cat belongs to my neighbor so I bring her kittens back over and order is (momentarily) restored. Mamma came into my house through the 12” gap between my tin roof and cement walls (which is how I’m assuming she got her kittens inside because all the doors and windows were shut) and she wasn’t too happy with me. So I smacked her backside with my sasa (coconut stem) broom until she jumped out the window. I’m sure she will try to pull the same stunt again.
I took my shower in freezing cold water, not wanting to waste time boiling water for a bucket bath, got changed, and was nearly immediately invited to a kava session at a house across the village to talk with members of the Agriculture team from Suva. So, I closed my door, and headed across the village to spend the night drinking grog and playing music with people from the village I was relieved to see after a week away.