TRAVEL DIARY: The Expat Experience in Fiji

Posted on June 18, 2011 by


The Salmon family in Suva, Fiji.

BY LIZETTE SALMON.

Ahhhh, Fiji … land of sun, sea and sand, coconuts, coral and coups. But also, as we’ve discovered, land of pollution, potholes and poverty, housemaids, home-husbands and hermaphrodites.

We moved to Suva, Fiji’s capital, in January 2011 and are staying for a year while my husband teaches at the local university. We’re renting a 1950s weatherboard home with a leafy garden in a peaceful, beachside suburb.

Pollution

Sadly swimming in the sea at the end of our road, or anywhere in Suva, is not an attractive proposition. The beaches are lined with old drink bottles, ice cream containers, glass bottles, plastic bags etc – it really is a veritable tip. Littering is a massive problem all over Fiji. Coastal villagers deliberately leave their bags of rubbish on the beach so it gets swept away by the tide, while urban residents toss their rubbish onto the streets or leave their picnic waste in the parks. The council threatened to start issuing on-the-spot littering fines, but it seems this isn’t being enforced.

In addition to the problem of solid waste pollution, Suva suffers from lots of diesel pollution. Thick, black diesel fumes pour out of the cars and buses, especially as they’re chugging up the hills. It seems bus companies and drivers can’t afford to get their vehicles serviced regularly so we’re stuck inhaling the consequences.

Potholes and poverty

The first thing we noticed on our taxi trip from Suva airport into town was the incredibly potholed streets.  Drivers swerve around them but they are a source of accidents and irritation and a big deterrent to potential cyclists. Although photos of the worst potholes regularly get printed in the newspapers little gets done to repair them. It’s symptomatic of a poor government with a limited budget and many competing costs.

Unemployment is high, wages are low and cost of living, particularly in Suva, is high. I’m not aware of any government benefits such as the dole but the government does allow people to live rent-free in squatter settlements. There are many settlements dotted around Suva, including one 200 metres from our house. The occupants live in corrugated iron huts with access to running water. Somehow they manage to get by; they fish in the sea and grow their own vegetables. A few of the residents hold down jobs, including government jobs such as policing (gives you an idea of how little they earn!) but most are unemployed.

Crime is also a problem. Guide books suggest it’s not safe to walk the streets of Suva at night and stories of burglaries and muggings abound. Virtually all homes have bars on the windows and most expats employ full time guards. We don’t have a guard but we do have an impressive 13 locks on our front door. I kid you not – there are two dead locks and 11 slide locks. On weekends away we use all 13 but if we’re just out for the day we only use three. But it’s still a palaver and you can imagine how annoying it is when I lock up only to realize I’ve left my glasses inside … or my brolly (it rains most days) …  or some toilet paper (it isn’t provided in public toilets or places like swimming pools, libraries, hospitals etc) … or the insect repellant (the mozzies are ferocious). It’s hard to know if this level of security is necessary in our suburb. According to the small police station around the corner, ours is a very safe area and the only burglaries occur around Christmas time when people are away. The most unusual break and enter story we heard was of a family who’d gone overseas and crooks converted their home into a brothel.  When the owners came home all of the bedrooms had mirrors on the ceilings. Eeew!

Housemaids and house-husbands

The immigration department makes it almost impossible for both spouses in a family to obtain work permits so the norm amongst the expat families is for just one adult to be employed. In the majority of cases it’s the husband who’s in paid employment, but in a significant minority it’s the wife who works while the husband stays at home. In our small suburb alone there are three expat households where the wives are employed by the United Nations or European Union while their husbands take care of the children, do the grocery shopping and cook the meals. But all three households and, indeed the vast majority of expat households, have a full time housemaid to do the cleaning, washing, ironing etc. Employing maids is considered the politically correct thing to do in Fiji because it provides locals with employment. But to be honest it makes me feel like I’m trapped in some kind of Mississippi backwater. Are expats really assisting or are they exploiting? It’s so much the norm that my children’s printed homework often refers to maids e.g. instructing students to chart the height and weight of each member of the household including the maid.  These women work long days for little pay – on average only A$60 per week, which is barely enough to cover basic groceries. I wonder why those on wealthy Western salaries don’t pay their maids a better wage? I’m afraid it’s a topic I’m not yet courageous enough to raise.

Hermaphrodites

Another unexpected phenomenon has been the large number of transgendered people in Suva (they’re not actually hermaphrodites – apologies for misleading you for alliterative purposes). These men who like to cross-dress but cannot afford gender reassignment surgery are referred to by the locals as ‘shemales’, ‘point fives’ (because they’re half one gender, half the other) or, I’m sorry to say, ‘poofters’. They seem well accepted in urban areas and appear to have plenty of friends of both genders. Apparently rural areas are not always as accepting, although it differs from one village to the next. My Fijian neighbor has three ‘point fives’ living in her small village and said they’re considered an asset because they help with the women’s work.

There are also quite a few Fijian women with beards. Hubby wonders if that’s due to higher testosterone levels, which might be linked to higher levels of testosterone in men too. This could provide a partial explanation for the domestic violence problem and Fiji’s history of cannibalism. Hmmm.

Sun, sea and sand

One of the best things about life here has been wonderful weekends away in gorgeous tropical surrounds, enjoying the picture postcard veneer that most tourists come here for. We head off every month or so by bus, boat or taxi and explore what’s on offer. Swimming, snorkeling, dolphin-watching, hiking to waterfalls and simply having a few hours to read a novel have been so pleasurable.

So life in Fiji is a mixed bag indeed. It’s a privilege to experience such a different culture, scenery and lifestyle, but by jingo we’re looking forward to returning to Albury-Wodonga by Christmas!

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Lizette Salmon hails from Wodonga and is a founding member of Wodonga and Albury Towards Climate Health (WATCH).  She is currently living in Suva, Fiji

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