08. Walk Like A Man

  1. 01. Fiji…Again?
  2. 02. Fun & Games
  3. 03. Growing Indigenation
  4. 04. Coup de Grâce?
  5. 05. Friends Go Away
  6. 06. Mercy by Coup, Merci Beaucoup
  7. 07. It’s Nice to be Needed
  8. 08. Walk Like A Man
  9. 09. Extreme Retirement
  10. 10. Get a Grip
  11. 11. Dangerous Cargo
  12. 12. Drinking in the Holiday Season
  13. 13. Fit for Purpose
  14. 14. Emotion Sickness
  15. 15. New Fiji’s Eve
  16. 16. One Helluva Christmas
  17. 17. Enough is Enough

It was the perfect day to discover the real Suva: 35 degrees in the shade, 125% humidity, a searing sun interrupted only by ominous cumulonimbus clouds, dark, anvil shaped and towering to dizzying heights. We left the brollies behind, as if we found ourselves on the mean side of one of those monsters, our bumbershoots would be bumbershot in a lightning flash, literally.

I had mapped out a walk of about 15 kilometres, into Suva Obscura. Most notable about this course was the lack of anything particularly notable about it. But I love to walk, and I love cities, so it should be no surprise that I love to discover a city by walking the roads less travelled, uncovering the inadvertent secrets, the diamonds-in-the-rough. Off we went.

As it turns out, Suva has a remarkably low diamond-to-rough ratio. One doesn’t have to go far inland from Central Suva before the quality of the architecture and infrastructure takes a turn for the worse.  Sidewalks, where they existed, were crumbling, occasionally ending unexpectedly on clifftops. Reasonably pleasant houses and apartment complexes sparsely occupied the high ground, while below particle board shacks crammed the underlying gullies and mudOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA flats.

High or low, though, each Fijian that passed offered a cheerful “Bula!” accompanied by broad, genuine grins. Were these people actually happy, or is maintaining the outward appearance of happiness a cultural imposition? I reflected on my largely Scottish ancestry which mandates that a level of dourness and cynicism temper any joy that may present itself. Am I less happy because I have been culturally programmed to suppress the appearance of happiness? Are they happier because they are encouraged, perhaps required, to express happiness, always? Could these affectations create the opposite effect?

Probably not. Nevertheless, I was amazed to see photos of Fijians in the aftermath of a recent cyclone. Their village was utterly destroyed, their homes flattened, some loved ones were missing or dead. Yet there they were, packed in a rescue boat floating upon the yet-to-recede flood waters aside the remains of their homes — smiling and laughing and singing. No sobbing about having lost everything, no dramatic vows to “Go on!” like there really was much choice in the matter, no idiotic commitments to rebuild even though doing so ensures that the tragedy recurs, no bitter recriminations about the government’s response or lack thereof. Nope, they were all enjoying the moment. “Oh, look our village got wiped out, we get to build a new one. Yay! Hey, where’s mom?”

Of course, the death of a loved one in tragic circumstances causes tremendous grief regardless of culture. It might be easier to see one’s material wealth get wiped off the face of the planet with a laugh and smile if you didn’t have much material wealth to start with. The homes and villages of most Fijians are quite simple structures with sparse furnishings, so perhaps starting over isn’t such a big deal to them. This would go to support the notion that you don’t own material things, material things own you.

By contrast, the victims of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans’ lower ninth ward were not swimming in the bondage of material wealth, either. Yet, there was plenty of misery on display there, with far from all of it about the death of a loved one. In that case and place, a display of despair and despondency was expected, if not required, and at the least permitted. Despite this, some years later many of them have returned and rebuilt, ensuring another round of misery in the not-too-distant future. This would go to support the notion that you don’t make decisions, decisions make you.

Personally, I think sadness has its place, and from time to time I am happy to embrace it, if that makes any sense. Materially, while I am well-off compared to most of the folks in either Fiji or the lower ninth, there’s not much I’d really miss if it got washed away. My Dad used to say that the first half of life was a mad frenzy to acquire material goods, and the second half a mad frenzy to get rid of it all. I have recently traversed into the second half, so on some level having my house washed away would be doing me a favour, so long as the deluge didn’t take me or Frank with it. Even so, should the evening news stick a camera in my face, I’d probably be the first one vowing to go on with life and idiotically rebuild while casting aspersions on the efforts of government in my time of need. This would go to support the notion that you do not choose hypocrisy, hypocrisy chooses you.

Where was I? Oh, right, Suva.

Our walking tour led us from the central hills along Ratu Mara Road, a major thoroughfare cut along a hillside. On the damp, low, muddy gully side was a benign slum known as the “Nabua Squatters OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACommunity”, one of many ramshackle communities. By most estimates about one-fifth of Suva’s population are squatters who occupy land to build their homes out of the detritus of others’ dreams.

Successive governments of every kind have struggled to deal with these settlements, which cause all manner of issues with health, infrastructure, safety and security, but at the same time provide homes to a good proportion of those who do the work that needs to be done. For the most part, governments had responded by attempting (and failing) to evict, from the wholesale evictions of entire neighbourhoods, to more targeted evictions of identified troublemakers that were disproportionately chosen from the small but growing Muslim community, curiously. For now, from what I saw, nobody was going nowhere soon.

We descended into an ugly industrial district. Mercifully this gave way to the coastal plain at Laucala Bay which offered more pleasant walking conditions, alongside a golf course and rifle range. On Fletcher Road, I noticed that every vehicle that passed immediately came back. Looking ahead down a long stretch, I could see each car, bus or truck come to an abrupt halt and turn around. Soon enough the explanation became apparent – a closed bridge, the bane of the pedestrian.

I dug a map out of my backpack, the only map I had, a tourist map of Suva, and we were nowhere near anything touristy. Near as I could figure, we had come about eight kilometres along our planned route, with another seven to go. If we couldn’t take the bridge, the next best route was pretty much back the way we came – an unattractive option in many respects.

We approached the bridge, inspecting it as best we could from the barbed-wired barricades that unsubtly instructed all comers to be goers. The sun was getting more intense, our water bottles were low, and there wasn’t a café or shop in sight. Nor was there any police or traffic control in sight. We regarded the circumstance and each other for a moment, when Frank broke the silence.

“Oh, c’mon, what could possibly go wrong?” He carefully maneuvered his manhood over a low place in the barbed-wire, and started off across the bridge. I furtively scanned the horizon for the police once more before following. Instantly, my shorter legs caused my more down-to-earth manhood to demonstrate exactly what could possibly go wrong.

“Aiieee!!” I remarked, my shoulders and head coming to the ground, the rest of me dangling by the crotch from the barrier. “Help!” I clarified. Frank hustled back to extract me and mine, which he did, with no harm done other than a few scratches, my shorts newly enhanced with supplemental ventilation. We proceeded daintily across the bridge, which thankfully did not collapse.

Once across, we repeated the process, transcending the other side’s obstructions less eventfully. As we congratulated ourselves on the caper, three boys came up to the barriers, scampered over the highest point in the blink of an eye, and trotted across the bridge to do the same on the far side, as if they did this a dozen times a day.

We passed through another squatter settlement before coming upon the National Stadium, a modest structure offering built seating for a few thousand with a grassy embankment that sometimes seats another ten thousand or more. Crowds of that size are mostly the domain of rugby matches, as Fiji, like much of the South Pacific, is rugby-obsessed, although soccer gets its due as well.

Next, the manicured campus of the University of the South Pacific presented. USP is a highly regarded institution, and certainly Fiji’s foremost centre of learning. It is shared with, paid for by, and has campuses in twelve nations throughout the South Pacific. Not surprisingly, it is an unwieldy organization, its governance a political football in a game with a dozen sets of goalposts. Despite this, learning happens, with professors as absent-minded and administrators as absent-headed as anywhere in academia, which is really quite an achievement.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe rest of our walk was a lovely jaunt along the foreshore seawall, back into central Suva. I have to say, though, the rubbish that delineated the high tide mark on the mudflats extinguished the last wisp of any sentimental illusion that Fiji was some kind of paradise.

SK

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