A Last Lean Look at the Fijian Experience

svusvupanLooking at Fiji Island Nation from the perspective of this little place at the tranquil shores of the formidable Savusavu Bay, where we have loved and lived for what by now amounts to quite a considerable amount of time, it appears that this scattered speck of land so lost in the vastness of the Southwest Pacific Ocean finds itself at the very same crossroads many other places in the underprivileged corners of the world have stood at one time or another in their recent modern history. It is being overrun by the brutal pressures of the global commercial oligarchy, forced literally at gunpoint to take up the nasty habit of economically productive consumption. Of course the economy in monetary terms is the only accepted standard here. Sustainable strategies of have been kicked out the window before they had a chance to catch their breath. Traditional social structures and customs are all but whipped out. Left behind are only superficial remnants, desperately clung to as means for the confused locals to maintain a fickle identity that is quite obviously sick with a very serious bout of posttraumatic impotence.
Like in most other places where tourism has stepped ashore in leather boots and claimed a reckless foothold in the local economy, the question that most seems to haunt the local folks in their encounters with those fair-skinned invaders of their streets, streams and beaches goes something like this: ‘So how do you like Fiji?’ It is not so much an actual inquiry that I see in their eyes when they muster me in tempered fear, but a plea to confirm fast fainting remnants of their pride and self-esteem. Just barely have I mumbled my polite: ‘Oh yeah, very nice! Beautiful indeed!’ they splurge into a tirade of positive explications of how well everything is in this exemplary corner of the world. Just as we the intruders, the locals are not interested in seeing the fissures in their crumbling world, much less so through the probing eyes of visitors who muster them up with red, puffing and by stern faces. We want to hang on to our illusions as long as possible, as if our lives depend on them. And maybe they do!
About a week or so ago an awful deed was committed in Savusavu town. It happened overnight and it took me a good while to realize the actual extend of it. Our usual stroll to town leads us from the little jetty of the Surf’n Turf Restaurant, where we tie up our outrigger canoe, along the little playground inside the waste-high cyclone fence with bright green posts, and the backyard of the hardware shop wit hits rack of PVC pipes, to the parking behind the brand new office building, where after one year of completing construction activities most sweltering, glass enclosed office spaces are still awaiting tenants. Then we cross a dirt road, approach the main drag of town and pass the sky blue building to our right, which a plethora of government offices call home. Here the Ministries of Education, Women’s Affairs, the Offices of Micro-finance and Bio-Security and a good handful of others all house lazy-looking officials sitting on weary stools behind run-down desks in badly lit cubicles. Along that same facade I saw the first one. Attached firmly to every column with an excessive amount of wide and brown packing tape between the many windows along the sidewalk, a poster advertisement was staring at me aggressively. It was always the same one and continuing our walk through town it stared at me from everywhere. The shameless posters of those tasteless posters had not spared one speck of bare wall in the entire town. At the meat shop, at the banks, at the pharmacy, even the bulletin board of the town council sported this latest example of precisely calculated exploitation of the simple mind.
A picture supposedly speaks a thousand words, so I snuck up to one of those funky invaders yesterday with my digital camera to provide you with a visual in support of my verbal tirade. You may now judge for yourself and we shall see if you share my outrage. Should you not be willing to partake in my fury towards the desolate pitfalls of modernity, you might have to consider an extra-clinical self-diagnosis of insensitivity towards the bombardment of billboard publicity, which in your defense is a very common, albeit a bit trivial, ailment of our media-saturated mankind.

CameraA thousand one hundred ninety-nine dollars is a lot of money for most any Fijian citizen. The Fijian dollar converts almost two to one to the US dollar, but you might remember my friend Bot, who cuts through the brush surrounding the luxury hotel in town and earns two dollar fifty an hour for doing so. This means, should he decide to fall for the perfidious lure advertised now all over town, he would have to save up over the course of ten of his 48 hour work weeks without eating or drinking anything at all. And he’d had to sleep in town, since he wouldn’t have a cent for the bus fare, all that in order to be able to afford this monstrous attribute of civilization. Not that I’m suggesting in anyway he should!
Let’s look a little closer at this splendid offer. For that respectable sum the happy buyer ends up with three gadget of technology, that will forever alter not only his vision of the world around him, but also his freedom to roam about this gorgeous garden of Eden with only very light strings attached to his vulnerable soul. The satellite dish might bring him two or three free channels with abysmal and vulgar programming filled with alerts that his free month of subscription will run out before he even knows it. Not to stay behind his beloved neighbors he will succumb sooner or later, hand over his hard earned cash, and from now on to eternity his anorexic paycheck will be reduced not only by this monthly donation to the media moguls of the world, but also by his contribution to the fitness of the petroleum barons of global domain, in order to fill the ever-thirsty tank of the explosion powered heart of his purchased setup for bound- and thoughtless media consumption. With that he is also condemned to set his definite mark on the ever accelerating expansion of humanity’s mammoth-sized carbon footprint and with that the systemic destruction of his very own living environment.
This very latest advertising frenzy is happily happening under the always vigilant eyes of the mighty national government, the well-schooled nose of the noble town council, the dwindling social control of the tribal elders, the lucrative noise-making abilities of the various religious leaders, and the zealous attention of all the other authorities burdened with some kind of pastoral duties towards their local subjects. While any poor kid with a trigger-happy spray can would be very quickly branded as a public vandal of the worst kind, sliding down the slippery slope of becoming a full-blown terrorist, this kind of defacing and subversive activity of reckless commercial trickery is very kindly tolerated, if not blatantly encouraged around here, it seems.
Sitting at the edge of a picture-perfect beach just yesterday during what might be our last joyful outing before Aluna’s imminent departure for less cyclone prone latitudes, a young local chap comes strolling along at a very leisurely pace and approaches to shake our hands for an informal chat between strangers. It turns out he works as what he proudly terms a massage therapist at the luxurious Namale Resort, which occupies the vast peninsula to the left of the picturesque bay our beach overlooks. Under the tutelage of super-wealthy owner Anthony Robbins of commercial motivation game fame, guests there learn to fulfill every last one of their ego’s aspirations while soothing their greedy souls sipping sweet tropical milk shakes and roasting their timid bodies in the sultry sun of the Hibiscus Coast. While the most affordable massage on the premises sets them back a hefty $275, according to our newest acquaintance of the instant friendship type, the administration of the resort passes a mere ten percent of that on to him, the actual provider of sweat equity. Our broad-faced and gold-toothed friend has learned to undercut this ruthless bout of 21st century exploitation. He lures guests to his home just at the other end of the beach, where the sleepy village of Naindi slumbers on a slightly slanted hillside amongst colorful flower gardens. There he offers them the same quality massage (his own words!) in a slightly more humble setting steeped in tradition (his own words again), accompanied by a full meal of local delicacies prepared in his own version of the renowned lovo, the Polynesian, or here Melanesian, earth oven found all across the wide Pacific ocean under slightly different names, all for a mere fifty dollars. That special deal seems to lure quite a respectable number of the worthy guests away from the fancy resort and over to our humble friend’s own machine of monetary extraction.
There is obviously a sound entrepreneurial touch to our friend’s exposé as well. While maybe just a short year ago I might have jumped in outrage at the miserable commission he has to content with, today I have become a bit suspicious at the veracity of such claims. While perfectly possible and even probable, sadly enough it is also just as possible and probable that this picture of economic injustice is painted by the hard earned experience of our massage therapist. It cannot escape his nimble mind that it is precisely this kind of sleek talking that provides the crucial argument to lure his wealthy customers away from the gated security of their well-manicured bures of traditional allure to the more wild but also more honestly friendly atmosphere of an actual Fijian village.
Be that as it may, it must be an uneasy relationship between the two villages on either side of the coast next to the resort, where, according to our informant, a majority of the workers of the lower rungs on the administration’s payroll originate. There’s a steady traffic of people in flashy uniforms strolling along the beach in both directions, but also groups of women in colorful dresses trying to keep their kids from rolling around in the sand, and other men obviously just going about their business.
In yet one more twist of the percentage kind we learn how easily injustice of the economic kind is learned and perpetrated. Sam cleans yachts and helps out with all kinds of other boat related chores. He edges out a small living with his maritime handyman skills and adds to it with inventing all kinds of tragic stories to extract little loans with aspirations of becoming donations from his clients. Every time I meet him he comes up with a new version of his string of misfortunes, his cell phone having fallen in the water, his ATM card swallowed by the machine at the bank, his kids being hungry at school due to lack of funds, his creditors coming after him this very moment, in short, anything remotely tragic enough to encourage a drain in your wallet through human empathy. I have myself had the fortune to look after a yacht here at Copra Shed Marina, and part of that job included scheduling with Sam for him to clean the marine growth off the bottom of its hull. The owner had allocated the sum of F$50 for that chore and I was in charge of paying that to Sam once the task had been completed. Once I met Sam at the dock he seemed weary and wanted to postpone the cleaning with all kinds of dubious excuses, his daughter injured this morning, the water being too turbid, and a big Lionfish circling under the neighboring pier being among the more logical of them. I managed to convince him to agree to get started, after which he disappeared with the explicit intention of fetching his gear. A half an hour went by and no Sam in sight. After an hour he finally reappeared and brought along a young fellow, which he presented to me as his helper for the day. The two of them set to work for the next hour and a half, mostly Sam shouting orders from above and the other guy pumping his lungs while free-diving back and forth under the hull. Once the cleaning was finished Sam again disappeared and since I knew a nutritious diner was waiting for me back home aboard Aluna, I left myself as well. I had not reached home sweet home for more than a couple minutes when Sam came scooting along in a dinghy. He obviously had come to claim his pay. Since my soft heart had caved in once a week ago to his latest reel of financial wrath, I deducted, as he had insisted I’d do, the small sum from the payment and handed him a bundle of cash, consisting of two twenties and a five. He immediately asked if I didn’t have two tens, which I did not. His pal must be awaiting payment as eagerly as Sam himself and must be waiting for him ashore. You can do the math yourself, but I myself am having trouble to imagine that good ol’ Sam has the noble intentions of paying his crew a good thirty dollars, so the only way to explain his need for tens is that he will hand down a mere twenty percent of his catch to his momentary employee. It has to be said in his favor that twenty percent is twice as much as ten, so the shame to carry around on his broad shoulders due to the economic abuse and exploitation of others of his own kind is lessened by half in strict mathematical terms. Just as with the African war lords and gloomy-eyed tribal chiefs who sold their own people as slaves to the Spaniards and English along Africa’s Western shores a couple centuries back, it seems clear that blame is always much easier to paint than the moral guilt and real responsibilities born by the actual perpetrators of the many crimes against humanity our race has had the intelligence to commit. Sam has learned the first and foremost lesson of the monetary economy: Rising up towards the promised land of wealth and power is done by stepping on the innocent backs of the less astute.
With our stay here rapidly coming to an end, it is hard to wrap my mind around all this in any concrete and hands-on kind of terms. By official definition I’m nothing than a fleeting visitor here, barred by government decree from any kind of activity that would bulge the carefully drawn curtains enough to reveal between the rose colored drapes the true tragedy of this steamrolling invasion of the capitalist kind. This truly boundless wave of re-colonizaton of the already colonized is nothing less than a force-fed takeover by the senseless material-bound mind, a mind that can count, but no longer feel, plan, but no longer care, define, but no longer understand, mandate but no longer lead by example. It really is the exact replica of the cancerous growths that more and more invade our physical bodies world-wide, where by some strangely meaningful defect at the core of our existence a senseless growth is unleashed that expands into heinous tumors without the slightest sense of proportion, and blindly overpowers the carefully cultivated systems of checks and balances good old Mother Nature had in store for us back then, in those ancient times of wild and brutal, but very functional harmony, before we all gave in to our fickle fears of the raw side of life, and decided to fall down the rabbit hole of comfort.

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