Monday, October 26, 2009

Emotional buoyancy

“You’ve got to have some emotional buoyancy otherwise this place will sink you.” That’s what one of our old board members said as he stood out the front of the shelter with his neighbours’ dog in the back of his car. The dog had swallowed a cooked bone and was shitting blood.

“Yeah, well we all have our moments,” I said, thinking…

We play music in the clinic, make jokes about members and clients we don’t like, cook and eat a lot of food, fill cups with powdered milk and sugar and add a little tea, take naps and cigarette breaks on the mortuary (a deep freezer), play cards, drink grog, scream with laughter at nothing at all (or at the Rotumans for their ancestors’ thinking they could plant sweet biscuits and harvest a crop), drink beer when no one turns up to our kati beer raffle night, pull $2 notes out of the donation tin slots with tweezers so we don’t have to cut them open before they’re full, drink homebrew (fermented coconut/paw paw or vegemite and tomato), pool our coins to eat deep fried cassava out of oil drenched paper bags, and sit on rubbish bins and broken chairs and yarn.

And yeah, we do alright.

O Dia i tauba (Thea outside)

Piggy-backing my neighbour’s four-year old daughter to Vale ni Cheli (our friend Cheli’s house) was not what I expected to be my first real life situation where animal welfare education came in handy.

There we were, me and two small Fijian girls, walking barefoot with two stray dogs. On our way to Vale ni Cheli to borrow a knife to open my house. My housemate Deb had just left for a vet clinic in Nadi and I had locked myself out.

Well, actually my puppy locked me out. I took him for a walk around Veiuto then thought I would bring him inside to play. So I put him in the house and left the front door ajar while washing out the cat's litter tray at the outside tap.

At the same moment Luisa and Josi came over to play and in all the confusion Vuaka started doing his scratching/drumming routine at the door and pushed it shut while we were all outside. I could see it happening the split second before it did but could do nothing to stop it.

So then Vuaka and the cats were inside and I was outside with no keys, no money, no phone and no shoes. I couldn’t get in through a window because each one is covered with a metal grate. Aka wasn’t home so I decided to walk to the closest house I knew. Josi took great delight in calling out ‘O Dia i tauba’ (Thea outside) to all our neighbours.

There was no one home at Vale ni Cheli (Cheli and Lars’ house). As we reached the end of that street, a pack of angry dogs encircled us, growling and barking and flashing their teeth. The girls were afraid and started to whimper. I tried to reassure them with calm words of ‘just don’t look at them, look at the ground, turn your back to them, don’t run,’ all the while thinking ‘please don’t let these dogs attack us, what will I tell the parents of these kids?’.

Slow steps and a few deep breaths and we were safely past the dog gauntlet. We went to find the girls’ father. He was sitting under a tarpaulin with his friends drinking grog; we interrupted hesitantly. He looked at me with one of his daughters on my back and the other clutching my hand and said ‘where are your shoes?’ (even though all the kai Viti - locals - were barefoot).

He sent Luisa to fetch a kitchen knife (he’d done this once before for a Japanese volunteer who used to live in our street). After watching the ease with which a thin knife could slice between our door and doorframe, I decided we should get a new lock.

Now, three months later, our lock has been replaced. Things take time in Fiji. First we fixed it with blu-tack, then the public works department men tightened the screws - it took three of them and two onlookers to do the job.

Then it came loose again and the door wouldn’t hold shut. Supa and Irava from SPCA bought a new lock.

Two weeks later, me and our housekeeper Aka tried to hammer in the new lock but didn’t have the right tools to make it fit. It was like a bizarre game of Tetris as Aka rotated each lock piece to try and figure out where it should go. With my limited Fijian it was difficult to explain. We bore holes in the door with a hammer and nail, then hammered the screws in tight. The wood was rotted and the screws were rusted. It lasted a day.

Then the public works men tried again. I told them the new lock was too thick and eventually they chiselled off a bit of the doorframe to make it fit. They were splintering wood to use as nails and hammering bent screws straight and all before (without) breakfast. I love this country.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In your memory

It was hard to turn the earth for your vegetable garden
Your back was sore, but you did it anyway
I never wanted to help.

I played in the shade of the fruit trees
Eating fallen plums and apples
And cracked walnut shells with a hammer
Between pavement blocks.

I loved it when you bounced me on your knees
As you sang in Ukrainian
The song about the horse that goes clop clop.

You made the best pyrohis dumplings -
I would fill my mouth with the potato mixture
While you filled the half-moon pockets of dough.

We knew only a few words in each other’s language
So we talked about the weather.
I often wondered what more we would have talked about
If we could.

The cancer made a patchwork of your skin
And there were hairs from your leg
Growing on your cheek.

You were so excited to see Benny Hinn
Heal all those sick people on TV
You thought if we could take you there
He could cure you too.

Then, as the first threads of your mind came loose
You would offer tea to me
Holding the cup from underneath with both hands
Because you couldn’t feel the heat.

The sharp edge of the knife
Would threaten to draw blood
As you sliced apples into quarters on your open palm.

You left the stove on
And forgot where the toilet was
You needed help to bathe.

At breakfast you would give several orders
For everyone to eat
But forget to feed yourself.

You would thank me for visiting
And ask me how my mother was.
She was well, I would say
But I would never tell you
She was sitting right beside you.

It broke my mother’s heart
When you didn’t know who she was.
She cared for you as long she could
Until she needed to be cared for herself.

When she died you couldn’t be there
We’d already lost you
Not from this world just yet
But to a place without memory,
Without us.

You would look through me
With vacant eyes
No more my grandma, just a body.

But somewhere within you
I know you remembered me.
And as your body leaves us now
I will find somewhere within me
To remember you.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Trump 10s

Call out ‘yadra’ to Joseph as the shelter van parks in our drive. Pull the cats from the loovers, shut them in the only part of the house they can’t escape. On the road and the van door opens. Lean over and hold onto our things in the back, door slides closed as we go down the hill, reach back and pull the cord to make it lock.

Not even eight in the morning and the kennel hands are already putting up the marquee for Open Day. Like most of our things it’s broken. It takes six of us to prop it up with a broom handle and weigh it down with rocks. ‘That’s what I like to see, the local way (of solving a problem),’ the President comments as he brings in the sound system.

We fill an esky with sunquick juice and fire up the gas BBQ. Everyone is wearing ‘We are all God’s creatures’ t-shirts. Buns are sliced and buttered while second-hand books are dusted off and arranged on a table. It’s hot. Pink and yellow cupcake icing melts beneath its gladwrap shield.

The secretary of the board arrives with a bucket of kava and half a coconut shell. We drink.
There is some talk about the local council and what to do about the stray dog problem. We dream about owning more land and building a new shelter, far and away from the sea wall and tsunami threats.

Consider how to photocopy back-to-back as Lo is asked to copy a whole school textbook for one of Asata’s children. Show people around the shelter. Try to find a family composition form for Irava to fill out as part of her visa application to visit her sister in Australia. Chat to potential new owners for Vuaka. Paint children’s faces: dog, cat, spiderman, butterfly. Sweat makes face-paint colours run.

Then everything is packed away except the plastic garden furniture - we sit back, relax and drink more grog. Dump the broken marquee frame beside the rusty trapping cages (irreparable but too big to dispose of, it sits there like a bizarre art installation).

Scrounge around for empty bottles to fill with leftover sunquick, nothing can be wasted when we have so little. Another basin is filled with kava and a pack of cards comes out for ‘trumps 10’. Papa Joe shows me how to play, pointing to the cards I should discard with his one long finger nail.

Asata says ‘kana katakata koli’ (hot dog - literally a hot dog, not the food) and we laugh and laugh, slapping the back of one hand into the palm of the other.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Ice cream soup and homemade citrus aid

We sun-bathed on the grassy banks of the sea wall, toying with paper cups of ice cream melting into soup.
Next to us an unwashed man slept under a coconut tree, just one more discarded item in a pile of rubbish.
Back at home Vuaka played in the grass grown tall inside the unused chook pen, barking when he got his head caught in the crosswire.
We laughed when Laura tried to get ice out of the freezer to make homemade citrus aid and the freezer door broke off.
Another Sunday in Suva.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

All the women in saris, all the men in jeans

The bride had mehendi stained hands and sparkling bindi on her forehead - a pair of diamond eyebrows above her natural ones.

Inside the temple had been decorated with coloured balloons and the space was filled with the sound of bells and chanting.

Babies wailed and were shifted between shoulders and little girls tottered between seats in cheap plastic heels. A crowd gathered out front as the groom arrived in a jeep adorned with yellow flowers. All the women were in saris, all the men in jeans.

The ceremony was led by an old man dressed in white – he read from a book in Hindi and every so often would turn his face from the microphone and whisper instructions to the bride and groom.

There was much holy water dripped from the tip of a leaf dipped into a plastic cup. Drips on the floor of the altar, over an offering of flowers, banana and honey, and into the couple’s clasped hands.

A fire was lit in a small bowl and some of the holy water was drunk. Relatives sat behind the couple and fussed with the bride’s red sari or dabbed at her tear streaked cheeks with a bright yellow cloth.

Two pillows and a blanket were passed through the altar, from the bride’s family to the groom’s. The dowry: unwrapped gifts with the price still marked (sale items reduced by almost 1/3 of their original price).

Our workmates waved at us from the car park, beckoning to us to join the wedding feast in the laneway next door. So as the ceremony continued we sat at a long row of tables covered with the plastic of many milk arrowroot biscuit wrappers taped together. A line of men passed each plate to dole out portions of oily curries. We ate our fill of roti, rice, tomato chutney, jackfruit and other delights.

In the nearby makeshift kitchen, a scratchy broadcast of the rubgy was showing on TV. Inside the temple the bells and chanting continued. Back in the car park we found one of our friends who had not yet eaten; the wedding was so long he had gone to sleep in the van during the ceremony.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Palms, then backs, then palms

Somehow turning both hands,
Palms, then backs, then palms,
Communicates a message between Lo
And the shopkeeper we pass in the street.

No words are exchanged,
Beyond his first ‘eh’ to attract attention.

Then it is left to hand signals,
Palms, then backs, then palms
To ask a question
And answer it.

‘Oh, Irava has it waiting for you in the office,’
Lo says.
The shopkeeper raises his eyebrows in reply.
The conversation is over.