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November 11, 2011

Last Paradise

PART 1: By Daniel Arnold

(The views expressed in this article do not represent those of the Peace Corps or its affiliates.)

I see the bilo being passed to me, as it usually is after the Chief and the Priest have taken the first drink. The tall Fijian man approaches me to hand me the cup. I clap once to signify that it's my turn, take the bilo (a hollowed out coconut shell), raise it up and look around at all the faces in the hall. There are about fifty men sitting cross-legged in a semi-circle around a larger wooden bowl while the women are in the back of the hall preparing plates of food. Today is special. It's the Bose ni Tikina, which is the bi-annual meeting of all the heads of the main villages along with a few from the regional government in the district of Na Viti Levu in the province of Ra. I hold it up, say the customary "Yandra", and drink down the muddy colored water faster than my body can reject it. To the rest of the world this drink is known as Kava, but here in Fiji, we call it Grog. My face grimaces (but that's ok), hand the bilo back, and clap three times. That's how it's done here, and I've gotten very used to it. Now it's just more serious. 

The meeting goes on for hours, and I'm in pain. Sitting cross-legged in one spot for so long still takes getting used to. My Fijian is developing, but I still have little idea on what they're talking about. I hear the word for school and know that they're talking about the fitness program that I've started there. I get some stoked nods from the crowd which I take graciously. (Just wait until I give those kids some water-polo balls and have them do swims in the ocean, Junior Lifeguard style.) To me, the discussions seem casual as I'm mentally staring at the giant elephant in the room that needs to be addressed. I certainly want to talk about it, but I'm certainly not going to speak about it first, being the only non-Fijian in the room and all. I just sit there quietly as more bilos are passed my way. I can start to feel the grog circulate my body as all my muscles relax and my mind becomes clear. I begin to day dream about all the perfect Fijian waves that are barreling hard over shallow reef somewhere near the island that isn't here. That's why I was so excited when the Peace Corps told me I was going to be sent to Fiji. I thought I was going to be in those barrels, but alas, it's been four months now and I haven't had the chance. At least I got in that one solid day of surf at the beach break. 

It had been almost four months of living in this village when I realized something was terribly wrong. Since I arrived here, the villagers and I have been working hard on building a sea-wall to combat erosion. Erosion is becoming an ever increasing problem as more and more roots are exposed by the shore-line. By simply placing stones in front of the village in a foot high wall, sand and sediments are actually trapped at high tide when the water exceeds the wall, remarkably de-roding the coast, and bringing the beach back. This project made me feel good as I knew that by building this wall, we were ultimately saving the village from washing away into the rising sea. Then something happened which gave me cause for concern. 

Upon my visit to our neighboring village to the West, I saw a sign on the beach which read ‘Datum Post. China. Tengy Cement. July 2010’. This sign concerned me. Selling the village’s beach sand to a cement company is cause for a whole mess of environmental consequences. The first would be the drastic increase in erosion, exactly what we’re trying to stop. The second would be the damage to the fisheries as all of that sand that gets churned up in the process is excavating it will settle onto the nearby coral reefs, killing them, and ending the fishing in the region for God knows how many years. I sat down with the Chief of that village to discuss the Tengy deal. He was reluctant to talk about it with me. I knew that it was because ultimately, the check was going to be signed in his name. I later learned that that Chief is the head of the chiefly ‘Yavusa’, which is the head of all the clans in the region, which gives him legal authority to sell all the sand in the region, including the sand in front of my village. Great, that just increased the stakes extremely higher. After that, I tried talking to local fishermen and other villagers about the issue. Apparently, people were upset about the deal but were too afraid to talk about it. I guess no one wants to take a stand against something the yavusa has decided upon. 

I was feeling overwhelmingly discouraged as I didn’t know what to do. Then it occurred to me, I’m overhyping the situation. I just need to go surfing. So I did, and it fixed everything. 

Sigatoka River Mouth is Fiji’s only beach break. Not as heavy as Fiji’s famed reef breaks, like Cloud Break, but it offers a non-vacationing surfer with no money to spend on a boat an excellent outlet as the spot breaks with the power of Huntington Beach like waves, and is VERY un-crowded. I stayed that night in a house of some local surfers and was offered the best advice I could ever ask for, and without even asking for it. “Man, what the villagers in your area want is income. They want it so bad they’re going to do things they don’t understand. You need to figure out a way to use your resources, but don’t sell the sand. Grow seaweed!” “Seaweed?” I asked. “Yeah. The Chinese buy seaweed in bulk. They’re investing millions of dollars in Fiji for it.” they said. “That sounds like a pretty sweet idea.” I said. Then I thought, “That might be a good thing to mention during the Bosi ni Tikina.” Speaking of which…

I snap back to the present as I hear the word for environment and my island name, Tanela, spoken. I look up to see everyone’s faces, including those of the Chiefs and heads of the regional government staring at me. “Are we talking sand here?” I said. Nods of yes came after. After I gave my spiel, there was a long discussion. After that, the government head looked at me and explained in English that the head of the yavusa has decided to hold a special meeting reserved exclusively for the sand topic, and wants me to the chief organizer for the opposition of the deal. Wow, pretty gnarly. I’m currently working on the presentation right now. Well, actually after I finish writing this article. 

I like Fiji. I’m looking forward to exploring the vast fields of sweetness on this island (Viti Levu), along with those on Vanua Levu, the garden island of Taviuni, Ovalau, the Yasawa group (where Cast Away was filmed), the Mamamuca group (Cloud Break), as well as all the other three hundred plus islands in the Fijian Chain, and walk with sheer gnar as I pretend I’m strolling through a gorgeous place on earth spared from time, and then at some point, surf my brains out! Ultimately, I want to keep this place clean and trash free, but I can’t be the only one who sees these threats to the island spirit and takes action. I hope we can all learn from each other over the next two years…

By Daniel (The Danimal) Arnold 

Peace Corps Volunteer