Wherever You Go, There You Are - Paradise Or Not
“wherever you go,
there you are.”
Among the many who leave their home country, U.S. Peace Corps volunteers through the past six decades have lived this quote with varying degrees of personal enlightenment..
In the 1980’s, the tagline to attract new PC volunteers was “The toughest job you’ll ever love.” It was a great selling point for the young and idealistic individuals who felt called to sign up for the 2 year working stints in far flung countries, me among them.
Usually when I tell people my assignment was in Fiji, I get an earful of “must have been a fun 2 year vacation!” or something similar. Hardly. Matter of fact shortly after my group, Fiji-63, got off the plane and shuffled down the rusty ramp stairs pushing our way through the sweltering heat of Nadi, the challenges began.
No, not the language studies, or spicy curry for breakfast, hot tea breaks (thank you English colonizers) and long skirts (missionaries, I’m looking at you) - we had been told to expect all that. No, I’m talking about the coup d’etat that happened pretty early in our in-country training. Heralded as the “bloodless coup” by its military leaders, this tiny country made up of over three hundred islands in the South Pacific, heave-ho’d into a militaristic dictatorship overnight.
As super idealistic, mostly twenty-something Americans thousands of miles (7,239 between Suva and Chicago, where I’m from) and an ocean away from home, we had to learn how to operate effectively despite the collapse of most of the government offices our jobs were associated with.
Tensions ran high as the little country figured out how to deal with the racism between indigenous Fijians and the other half of the population - the mostly Hindu descendants of the indentured slaves colonists shipped over from India in the later 1800’s. It seems just about everyone except those in alignment with the coup leaders felt the strain of a country reinventing itself.
We volunteers were no exception. Most of us had sold everything, left jobs and otherwise exited the lives we had been building in the states to fulfill the various internal promises we had made to ourselves to somehow ‘make a difference’. But it appeared we weren’t going to be allowed to make much headway. There were also troubling discussions of sending us all home, which would have felt like failure for sure.
How To Cope Far Away From Home
We were mentally exhausted, unsure of what the next day would bring and felt our idealism being eroded by the cynicism usually reserved for disenfranchised career expats. So we did what peace corps volunteers have done through the decades, we convened at the local dive bars and attempted to drink, dance and bellyache our troubles away.
Katie-Kate, Bill Thompson and I were very good at finding the bottom of pitchers of Fiji Bitters. (Bitters were the original “session beer,” designed to be consumed in large quantities at the pub without getting you super wrecked. We drank our way past that inhumane limitation.). We did so usually on Saturday nights, but went other nights when we felt we could afford to, which means we probably just spent less on food that week at the M&H (Morris Hedstom) grocer.
Our favorite place to slurp the suds and let off steam was Trap’s Bar. It was, and still is, a popular bar for expats in Fiji’s capital city, Suva. Trap’s was dark, had loud multicultural pop music, a tiny dance floor and a personable proprietor called Gary Apted,
In 1987, as with every PC volunteer everywhere, we earned a salary on par with the amount a local teacher might make. At the time, it was about $463.00 Fijian a month. It was the equivalent of about $230US. Let’s say your apartment in the dicey neighborhood up the hill costs you about $175 FJD a month, you don’t have a huge sum leftover to cover your utilities, sundries and eat, let alone absorb much of the local swill. But we had come with some savings to use in the event of an emergency, which, obviously to our groggy minds, this was.
You're Thirsty? Paint A Desert!
But I’m a thrifty artist. And thrifty artists are always figuring out ways to trade talent for stuff. So one evening boozed up and ready to deal, I proposed to Gary that he let me paint a mural on the far wall in exchange for free beer. It takes a special personality to run a bar like Trap’s. Heck any bar, really. These are often people-persons with an excellent sense of humor. Gary said “Yes, io, sure” immediately. Since he had started the place up as a Mexican restaurant, there were some remnants of the decor left which inspired me to suggest painting a desert scene. You know, to help patrons feel thirstier, lol. “Yes, io, sure” to that as well.
The next week after assembling the supplies I started transforming the chipped black wall into a cartoon desert, complete with cow skulls, cactuses and puffy clouds. It didn’t take me long. It wasn’t a huge wall and friends popped in the help out. Couple of afternoons, after putting in some time drawing cartoons for the World Health Organization at the kitchen table (my 'real' assignment), and it was ready to be unveiled!
That weekend Gary, a young man true to his word, poured me, Kate, Bill, and others pitcher after pitcher of that watery lager we threw back like sailers on leave. We danced to “Jungle Boy” (a personal fave), INXS, reggae and local Fijian bands until the taxis were about to stop running. Beer a.m., I think it was. This was repeated several more weekends, until my reassignment went through and I headed up ‘into the bush’ to finish out my stint teaching a village full of kids about worms and germs, and other basic health stuff.
The Peace Corps stayed in Fiji despite not wanting to ally with a military dictatorship. It took many years for Fiji to recover. In some ways, it still is.
Some volunteers, when they return home, are happy to put it all behind them. It’s pretty intense to live in the type of uncertainty and stress we experienced. Twelve of the 16 volunteers I arrived with left by the start of the second year. See, because despite having great intentions, the fact is, our own weaknesses, fears and propensities accompany us on our journeys. You can’t outrun them. That’s what Confucius was talking about. I bumped into my own ‘stuff’ big time while living out of the hut in the middle of the jungle, on a tiny dot of land in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean. But one thing I’m real good at is coping. Lots of bad things happened, very un-vacationy, non-paradise things. But I fulfilled my commitment because that is part of who I am. It accompanies me wherever I go.
I lost track of Kate but kept in touch with Bill. He went on to study diplomacy at Tuft’s and worked in some of the world’s most dangerous hot spots for NGO’s like Save The Children. We would sometimes reminisce about those wacky nights at Trap’s. He passed a few years ago but not before marrying the love of his life. Gary not only kept Trap’s open, he went on the expand it! It became the local headquarters for live music and he is remembered by many for helping start their careers. In writing this post I found out that cancer took him several years ago.
Me? I still find ways to trade my art for good stuff. My recent best score has been to trade painting a mural for garage door at Christy Webber Landscapes in Chicago for a ticket to Game Three of the World Series at Wrigley Field! Yeah, ok, the Cubs lost that game, but you know what happened after that! You don't? Hell froze over and the Cubs WON the 2016 World Series!
The Joy Of Memories
I’ll finish like this. Every time we really allow ourselves to plunge back into a memory, we get to relive what we now know is a special moment. I truly re-lived what it felt like to be with Kate and Bill at Trap’s as I drew the illustration accompanying this post. I google earthed Trap’s and had a fun time flying through the streets of Fiji, picking out landmarks still there these 30+ years later. My time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji (1987-89) were two of the hardest years I’ve lived. And while they contained some of the toughest challenges, they also allowed for some of my best achievements and strongest friendships.
And I can't sign off without sharing this gem, lol.
Here's the lryics. They're surprisingly apt.
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh Jungle life I'm far away from nowhere On my own like Tarzan boy Hide and seek I play along while rushing 'cross the forest Monkey business on a sunny afternoon Jungle life I'm living in the open Native beat that carries on Burning bright A fire blows the signal to the sky I sit and wonder, does the message get to you? Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
Night to night Gimme the other, gimme the other Chance tonight Gimme the other, gimme the other Night to night Gimme the other, gimme the other world Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh Jungle life You're far away from nothing It's all right You won't miss home Take a chance Leave everything behind you Come and join me, won't be sorry It's easy to survive Jungle life We're living in the open All alone like Tarzan boy Hide and seek We play along while rushing 'cross the forest Monkey business on a sunny afternoon Night to night Gimme the other, gimme the other Chance tonight, oh yeah Night to night Gimme the other, gimme the other Night to night You won't play Night to night Gimme the other, gimme the other Chance tonight, oh yeah Night to night, night to night Gimme the other, gimme the other Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh