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.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"Be-le... be-le... be-le..."

(for my friend Tepora)

Walking over water
Along the cable lines -

Jisu clouds and streams of light
On the grey horizon -

Let’s go down the hill
To explore the jungle in Cheli’s garden -

Baby cats climbing
Deb and Thea mountains -

Pleating, wrapping, pinning
Glittering wedding saris -

Josi’s afro bouncing
Blowing bubbles for her to catch -

These are things worth living for.

Breaking chocolate

To watch you
A block of chocolate
Into equal portions
So everyone
Has squares to eat
Inspires me more
Than any quote
I’ve ever read.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Tuesday on the campaign trail

7am - Write radio briefing notes for our Miss Hibiscus contestant (Lucia)
8am - Attend Radio Fiji interview with Lucia and other contestants
9am - Meeting with co-sponsor South Pacific Productions (SPP), UNIFEM volunteers and Lucia
10am - Accompany Lucia to her Fiji Times interview and photo shoot. Collect sponsorship contract
11am - Visit Hibiscus Committee headquarters to select a more flattering profile picture of Lucia
12pm - Return to animal shelter to stamp contract (Fiji may just be the only country that still requires a company stamp on official documents!)
1pm - Try to drop off contract at HC headquarters but HC staff are out to lunch, office is closed
1.30pm - Arrange meeting to discuss sponsorship, call Lucia to ask her to spend some time with SPP this afternoon
2pm - Return to shelter, Dr Deb shows me a box of flea-coated puppies that have to die because we have no free kennels to house them. Extend insurance to cover our Miss Hibiscus contestant and volunteers throughout the festival.
2.30pm - Call Learning Centre to confirm details of Teddy Bear’s Picnic fundraiser. Call Village 6 cinema to organise fundraiser film screening
3pm - Respond to email from Fiji Times journalist asking for our response to town council poisoning campaigns and why our ‘charges are so high’.
3.30pm - Call from Cheli about a mangey white dog she has managed to capture at her workplace the psychiatric hospital. Try to organise for our ambulance to collect the dog. Ambulance gone on another house call.
4pm - Final tweaking of designs for Hibiscus promotional materials e.g. t-shirts, banners, stickers, bookmarks
4.30pm - Leave office to return to HC and try to deliver signed contract
5pm - Meet with board members and UNIFEM volunteers, discuss sponsorship and fundraising opportunities
6pm - Attend mock public judging of Miss Hibiscus contestants. Cheer for Lucia and take note of all the questions asked of contestants so she can practise her answers later

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Almost half way

When I can hold a newborn kitten in the palm of one hand
When the setting sun makes artwork of the evening sky
When a few remaining teeth line up in a smile for me
I think I could stay.

When the dogs in our street come running to greet me
When I understand a few words in Fijian
When I know what each market stall is best for
I feel at home.


When there’s no money at the shelter
When I stay in bed for a week with a chest infection
When an animal we cared for dies
I wish I could be somewhere else.

No sleep will come

A tangle of sheets around my body.
A lumpy pillow won’t hold its shape.
A kitten purring on my back.
A puppy barking outside my window.
A sliver of light glowing under the door.
A smell of smoke in the garden.
A cough crawling up my throat.
And thoughts of home won't leave my mind.
No sleep will come.

Red rope in our garden

With some old wood from the timber yard and a roll of chicken wire we had the makings of a puppy pen.

The sun was out so we tied Vuaka to a palm tree with a long red rope. He ran all over the garden and tangled himself up in everything: the chicken coop, rocks, pots of basil, coriander and aloe vera. All the local dogs stopped by to greet him. They got tangled up in red rope too.

Our housekeeper Aka and her family called us over to ‘mai kana’ – come eat. We sat on their big woven mat and ate two-minute noodles with hunks of boiled cassava: ‘Fiji food’. Aka's brother talked about lovo-ing a pig's head.

All day the sun shone and our neighbours Kola and Josi came to play in our yard. Two little girls as tall as the fence. We put them inside the pen and they couldn't stop laughing.

Then in the house and the girls blew gum bubbles on my bed while I cleaned Vuaka’s old room. Mopped it clean of poo and wee but couldn’t mop the smell away.

And inside our bathtub the mama cat and her babies meowed. All four kittens stretched, yawned and opened their new eyes to see.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A wise Lampshade once said

Sometimes your sanity
Is like a sheet pegged to a line
Flapping in the breeze

When there’s a strong wind
You have to hold onto it tightly
Hold on and don’t let go.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Asleep on the shore of the meat slop ocean

Through a tear in the flywire door I watched Asata sleep. Leaning back in an old chair, arms crossed over her chest. All around her, on every inch of bench top and floor, were neat rows of metal dishes. Filled to high tide with meat dust and rice. Clouds of flies hung low over this meat slop ocean. I watched Asata sleep, in her faded t-shirt and trousers, her mud caked rubber boots. As though my eyelids were camera shutters I blinked to save this image in my head. And I wished I could buy her a yacht to sail across the meat slop ocean.

Doctor Deb

Dr Deb is a real doctor. She doesn’t just get called that because she’s a cavalagi who works at the shelter. I know because I see her at work. We eat lunch together on the operating table and dry our dishes beside syringe jars and surgical instruments. I made her a name tag to pin to her scrub top. It says Dr Deb. Some people think she’s too young to be a vet. Maybe I should make her a bigger name tag.

Remember you can turn on the oven

Remember you can turn on the oven.
There is hot water.
The door will open,
If you slide the lock with a knife.

The clock does work,
It just doesn’t keep the time.
The bin is collected,
Three days each week,
But the truck only comes once.

There are no set days for the bottle men,
But you’ll hear them calling when they come.

Sure you can walk barefoot in the lawn bowls club,
You just won’t get through the door in thongs.
This shelter knows how important animal welfare education is,
We just can’t afford to spend any money on it.

The government of this country means well,
It’s trying to build democracy -
Before it has been elected.

Remember you can turn on the oven.
Even if the grill shudders and falls,
The gas will light.

Behind the clinic door

I turn the handle slowly and push the clinic door with my shoulder. The door opens inwards, just a crack, and my knee goes in first to stop any of the patients escaping. The rest of me follows and tries not to get in the way of the real work that happens here. I feel small.

You may now vacate the room

How many Fijians does it take to build a table? We found out when the board asked us to shift our things to clear a space for their meetings. By Friday.

Seven of us stood staring at the table pieces on the floor of my new office. Me, Adi, Irava, Supa, Joji, Solo, Asata. Me, my local counterpart, our administrator slash shelter mother, ambulance driver and the kennel hands. All removed from our daily tasks to ready this room for the board. For their monthly meetings.

We hauled furniture and storage boxes from the front room to the back room, shifted junk into the side room, scrubbed the walls, repainted them. Hung new curtains, nailed a whiteboard to the wall. And then we stood and stared at the table pieces. Where were the legs? There was much shifting and rotating of each piece, a life-size game of Tetris as we propped the pieces beside one another and turned them over. I wish I had taken pictures.

Then we realised there were no legs, the table sides and tops were the same. The pieces could make half a table which could be secured to the wall.

At the board meeting we gave our reports, me and Deb and Joseph the vet nurse. The board thanked us. Nothing was said for a moment and then the President said ‘you may now vacate the room’. As I looked around at my old office, now exclusively for the board’s use, I thought to myself ‘I already have’.

Add one scoop of formula to 60ml of luke warm water. Stir until dissolved.

A pile of puppies sleeping in the corner, a layer of newspaper on the floor. Tins of formula on the table and puddles of wee on the tiles. Welcome to my office. Step over the board on your way in, it’s a piece of my build-it-yourself table but we couldn’t figure out where it fit. Now it keeps the puppies in. 13 of them.

Watch your head there, we’ve tied the computer cables up high so they can’t be chewed. Mind you don’t slip on that... We’re not quite sure why they have diahorrea, or why it smells bloody. They might be dairy intolerant so we’re trying soy formula instead. I’ll just grab some toilet roll to pick that up. Sigh. Looks like we’ll need to mop again.

This white one here is our baby Vuaka. Needs another bath.That little black one is the abandoned half-Rottweiler we’re fostering and in the bathroom over there are eight pups that were surrendered to the shelter in a pink laundry basket last week. Oh and just for this afternoon we have three heelers. Two blue, one red. They bite. Don’t worry about that noise, they’ll get tired of crying eventually. They’ll stop scratching at the door and curl up on one another to sleep. On my feet. Hush. Yes, I know, but I already fed you. Look how fat your belly is.

Little baby pig dog

As you squirm in my grasp, wriggle across my chest, nuzzle into my armpit, I remember why I came here. I came here to help, and when I hold you I feel like I can. You need me to feed you and change your blankets. You need me to hold you and keep you warm. You need me to be your eyes until they open. And I will do it gladly.

Aka found little baby pig dog in a hollowed palm tree outside our house. He was curled up in the dirt by himself, the only puppy of our neighbour’s dog, just one week old. His mother came looking for him but wasn’t sure what to do with him. We put him in our bathtub. Now ‘Vuaka’ little baby pig dog is our foster child. He lives in a laundry basket filled with old towels and blankets. We feed him baby formula from a bottle. I love him.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Just call Ma

Seymour Drive is the other SPCA house. No one has been living there since the last vet left so Deb and I were given the keys to check the place out, see if we might want to move in there. With Deb away on a vet clinic I set out alone one Sunday morning to case the joint.

The bure family (caretakers who live in an attached house) waved as I walked up the drive and greeted me like an old friend. They invited me in for a cup of tea and five hours later I was still there, talking. That’s what happens when you sit on a straw mat in Fiji.

Ma made boiled egg and potato curry while her husband Manu, a policeman, told me all the stories of his life. Ma’s cousins dropped by with fresh bread and invited Deb and me to feast with their family one Sunday. Ma told me to call her whenever I didn’t feel like cooking. “Just call me and say, ‘Ma, I’m coming for dinner,’” she said. “And then you come. Even if we only have tea that day, we will drink it with you.”

The sheet metal prophet

He was hovering by the SPCA van as I struggled to loosen a sheet of tin metal from a junkyard pile. I wanted it for the roof of our chook pen and I didn’t care much if taking it meant stealing. All that scrap metal just sitting beside the car park, surely it couldn’t belong to anyone or they’d see me looking and come running up to tell me how much to pay.

I finally got it free and lugged the metal sheet back to the van. Deb opened the back and we tried fitting it in at different angles. “Nah, too long” (me) “And if we put it over the top of the cage it’ll slice our heads off while we’re driving” (Deb). Well, we tried.

He was still there, that man. Watching us. He came closer, took a long drag on his cigarette and said, “bend it.”
“Bend it?” we asked. It was a thick sheet of metal, heavy to lift.
“Like this,” he said. He placed the sheet flat on the ground and gestured for Deb and me to stand in the middle while he pushed one side up. Soon enough we had an L shape that could fit easily in the van.
“Anything is possible,” said the man. A sheet metal prophet.

What would you be doing?

“What would you be doing if you weren’t in Fiji? You’d be selling your pussy on the street, do you hear me?” This was spat at me by a street cleaner as I passed him on the footpath one afternoon. Was it my unmade face, loose-fitting t-shirt or my below-the-knee skirt that gave him the wrong idea? Oh but of course, it was my fair skin: that’s all it takes.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Next time you come can you bring a mongoose?

No, we don’t keep mongoose at the animal shelter. That much I could answer. But some of the other questions really tested me. Like, ‘do you think it’s possible that my dog’s spirit could be transferred to my son’s body? I think this is what has happened. What about the blood? Could animal blood be in a human body?’...

I was speaking to patients at the psychiatric hospital. Just down the road from the shelter, up a hill, looking over the prison. One of the other volunteers invited me, to see where she worked and talk about how animals are good for our mental health.

We’d brought a puppy with us. Raffa, four months old with honey-coloured fur. He was a bit nervous and his limbs went all floppy when we let him out of the cage. Ioane cradled him, walked round to let the patients pat him while I spoke.

My notes curled up unread in the palm of my hand as I did my best to respond to a barrage of patients’ comments...

‘I think people rights are much more important than animal rights. I know a family who feed their dogs well but don’t look after their children.’
‘How often should I bathe my dog?’
‘We have kittens here, two of them’
‘Excuse me, but I know everything you are telling us, I saw it on the Get Set program on TV’
‘How much is this puppy? Can we buy this puppy?’
‘What about when I call the shelter and they don’t come?’
‘He likes it when you pat him’
‘Do you have mongoose? We have mongoose here’
‘Where are you from?’
‘The dog bit my son and now my son has the dog’s spirit in him. Do you believe me?’

This is the house that Lars built

Imthurn (a street name – we refer to housemates collectively by the name of the street in which they live) wanted to eat their chickens because they weren’t laying. They gave the chooks till the end of the feed bag to produce some eggs or they would get the chop.

Deb, being a vet, and me, having no idea whatsoever about keeping chickens but being very excited by the prospect, decided we would have better luck with these hens. We would make these chooks lay eggs! So we started to build a chook pen. Lars helped us, lured by the promise of fresh eggs (and we agreed to name the pen after him – we’ll even make a sign).

The house that Lars built is a 3 x 2 x 1.5m castle made of some old cross-wire pieces we found in our garage attic, once used as bars for the house windows. Irava at the shelter gave us a roll of chicken wire she had lying in her yard – ‘you need chicken wire or the mongoose will get in.’ Now we just need a roof and some straw and we’ll be 'set' (the Fijian word for 'cool').

It's a Fiji Special

Asata laughing like the wicked witch of the west, if the wicked witch of the west was good. The van door rolling shut. The click of the padlock on the main gate. And dogs barking. They’re the sounds of the animal shelter.

I sit upstairs, in a little office above the reception building. Every morning ‘the cake man is here’ with a box of baked goods to sell. We chat. And he asks me to go to church with him.

I make notes and pin them to the board. Small scraps of paper with all my hopes and dreams for the shelter. Some may come true, if we can find the money. Adi and Ioane will come and check in with me, complain about the heat, pull books out of the resource cupboard, ask what we should do next.

Our computers are slow, the internet unpredictable. The air-conditioning is broken. Downstairs there is a mess of paperwork. The filing will get done, but the dogs need feeding first. We have broken dogs, learning to walk with one leg in a cast, and dogs with surgical wounds covered in purple antiseptic spray. We have euthanised dogs in the freezer.

Old pop songs play in the clinic, three CDs all day on repeat. Deb will have her hands in a dog’s stomach, pulling out the reproductive bits. Or maybe she’ll be bandaging a bloody paw or sealing the side of a cat with a needle and thread. No gloves, we ran out.

In the kennels, rows of plates are filled with meat dust and rice. For the dogs. What kind of dogs are they? ‘Fiji Special’ - a mix of some kind, but no one knows what.

Cars pull up at the gate, their wheels crunching on the gravel. People climb out clutching cardboard boxes and laundry baskets with little puppy and kitten heads poking out. On plastic garden chairs they wait. Next to the dog chained in the corner with a tumour on its face.

The phone will ring with another complaint. Irava will call out ‘SUPAAA’ and he will back the ambulance out to drive to the next house call.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

I think someone has set it on fire

At 2am, my mobile rang. ‘Thea? I just got home and there’s a dog on my doorstep... I think someone has set it on fire. Nearly all its fur is gone and it has open cuts all over its body, there’s blood and pus coming out. Is Deb home? Can someone from the SPCA come pick it up? I’ll try and get it to drink some water. It’s’s... I’ve never seen a dog before and wanted it to die.’

Colorado. Didn't ask.

The crowd parted as she made her way down the stairs. She wore a baseball cap to one side and a grey crop top and board shorts sandwiched her ample stomach. She strummed a guitar, tunelessly, while calling out ‘aloha, aloha, aloha’ – to us. We had no idea who she was or even where she’d come from. She just appeared at the top of the stairs in the middle of the Colo-i-Suva rainforest.
She walked straight towards us – we were sitting by the waterhole with the big rope swing – and she asked ‘where are you from?’.
We said: ‘Australia.’ And there was silence.
Another splash in the waterhole as someone let go of the rope.
‘Colorado,’ she said.
‘Didn’t ask,’ we thought.
After she briefly explained how she had lived in Hawaii and the States (still, we hadn’t asked) she put down the guitar and dived into the water. As though her presence needed no further explanation. She swam quickly to the other side and waved back at us.
It was the most random encounter I’ve ever had with a human being. We laughed out loud. ‘Colorado’, we thought. We didn’t ask.

I need some old man rub

An hour and a half of aerobics at the Suva YMCA and I hurt for a week. We did step-ups on little wooden boxes to songs like ‘jump (for my love)’ and all sorts of bends and stretches and lunges. In pairs one person made an A-frame with their legs and the other crawled between them. We ran laps of the gym. Over and over. Half way through the class I heard a woman begging her partner to let her leave: ‘Please, I promise I’ll stay till the end next week but I just can’t do anymore tonight.’ Our laps became slower and slower. Our clothes were heavy with sweat, our barefeet slipping on the wooden floor. First we ran from end to end, hurdling over the step-up boxes. Then we could only run half a lap. Toward the end we just walked in a circle around our step-up box. It was all we could do not to collapse.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Kere kere

Aka, our house girl, ‘kere kere’-ed our television. She walked in and asked ‘kere kere, can I borrow your television?’. A direct translation of this would be ‘please can I borrow your television?’ but in Fijian this means ‘please can I borrow your television (and not give it back)?. Good thing Deb and I don’t watch it anyway.

What it means to go fishing

At home, our kitchen cupboards are stocked with plastic bottles of tap water for when the mains burst and the water gets cut. That’s when we shower with a bottle and bucket flush the toilet. There are bars on all the windows and deadlocks on the doors. We hang our washing out to dry and wonder if it will still be there when we come back.

Aka, our house girl, leaves the outside lights on at night. Lights on, doors locked. Even when we’re all at home. We’ve learned what it means to go fishing here. A bamboo rod will come through the window slats and hook onto anything valuable within reach. So anything treasured is kept hidden.

The dead beach

The weekend started with a bumpy SPCA van ride down the Coral Coast to meet Jess for her birthday. We swam in the pool while it rained and lightning made silhouettes of the palm trees in the night sky. There was far too much drinking and vomiting in the poolside garden, and a topless Norwegian girl asked us if we’d seen her bra.

In search of a waterfall we walked barefoot for hours, through a forest behind a nearby village. We brushed our toes across ‘touch weeds’ and their little fern leaves curled up as soon as our skin made contact. Our feet were sinking in the mud and our legs were smeared with black and red.

At Sigatoka sand dunes we found a dead beach. A dreamscape. Black sand with old driftwood and seed pods, littered with plastic bottles and broken flip flops. Waves lapped at a giant tree branch submerged in the sand. Hermit crabs were the only sign of life around.

Walking back through the forest we discovered the first offerings of a public art project. Women made of tree roots sculpted around tree trunks. Tree-huggers with their heads bent forward and their arms wrapped tight. Not much further on we found the ‘tree of lost souls’ a beautifully shaped tree with strings of flip flops hanging from every branch. All odd flip flops. Washed up on the dead beach.

We were pulled over by the police on the way home. With none of us wearing seat belts and Lars sitting in the dog cage with the spare tyre at the back. Policeman looked over the van, saw us all inside, and asked for a lift. He’d hailed us down thinking we were a public mini-van.

They called to say they couldn't see the mainland

They called to say they couldn’t see the mainland. It was raining so hard on our return to Viti Levu, the captain called Caqalai for advice. We spent Prophet Muhammed’s birthday weekend snorkelling, diving and crown-of-thorn-spearing on a tiny little island off the east coast, where Rae’s friend is a dive instructor. Someone would blow a conch shell like a horn to let us know when meals were served but otherwise we lost all sense of time.

Skipping over asphalt islands

When it rains in Suva the roads become rivers and we skip over the asphalt islands that are left above the surface. Flip flops spatter mud up the backs of our bare legs. The air is thick with the exhaust of local buses and all along the roadside grows cassava, bele (spinach leaves) and dalo (taro root). Pairs of small children twirl coloured golf umbrellas to mark the school crossing. Taxi drivers lean out their window to offer you a ride. Strings of laundry adorn the house fronts and mounds of rubbish are set alight.

Joseph and his shiny, shiny pants

Joseph and his shiny, shiny pants. That’s what made me want to write. Deb, John and I were sitting in the SPCA van waiting for Joseph to give us directions to Artika’s wedding. The van with the broken door. So we had to climb over the front seat to get to the back, which is difficult in a skirt – and even the men wear ‘skirts’ here (sulus). After half an hour on the side of the road, Joseph came back for us. His pants shone silver in the moonlight. He had gone to fetch some of the other SPCA staff and then our van could follow his the rest of the way. A small SPCA convoy through the dark streets of Suva. Empty except for a few dalo sellers who sleep on the roadside with their wares.