It’s been 23 days since I landed in Nadi, Fiji, anxious about my homestay and not having enough time to do the work I need to do. It was hot, I was exhausted after 32 hours of airports and bags and customs officers, and I had no idea what Fiji was about. When I considered Fiji for the Watson, I was as much interested in lifestyles in the South Pacific as I was curious about how people perceive climate change in paradise. I was, am, disgruntled that I have to spend most of my time here cooped up in a library cramming to apply to grad schools, suddenly taking the GRE, and writing an academic article on my own. Regardless of the fact that the three months I’ve committed to in Fiji make up my longest stint in a single place, my concerns are only barely allayed 23 days later. How do I take advantage of paradise when I’m here to work? Rough stuff, I know.
I came to Fiji to investigate community development projects centered around coral conservation in the South Pacific. Tracing project reports online, it seemed that sites had either been successfully maintained by communities or that they’d died after funding dried up for this fashionable conservation technique. Additionally, with the decline of community projects seemed to coincide an increase in the number of resort-sponsored sites. Is this a coincidence? A matter of funding? Role allocation? There’s also a huge mariculture distributor in the Northern province of the main island to investigate, and disappearing islands to see.
So what have I been doing for 23 days? Besides hitting a wall and trying to love myself in spite of my protesting Protestant work ethic, despite chronic illness and just needing a second after a month of flitting across Borneo (which I am filing under “Major Success”), I’ve been living on a permaculture farm 30 minutes inland along the Sigatoka River with coral restorationist Austin Bowden Kerby. Lots more to say about Austin and his project, for another time. Short version is that he is working on some of the more systemic issues facing local coral reefs by farming without fertilizer (which leads to runoff and algal blooms) and restoring a local species of heritage chicken (to reduce overfishing by providing a cheap alternative source of protein). I’ve been doing handiwork around the farm and getting a feel for his life. Austin’s conservation priorities enables his preferred lifestyle, with the consent and aid of his wonderful wife Kim and their staff.
There’s still a lot of Fiji, and maybe other nations in the South Pacific, for me to see. I’m determined to get a good sense for this place and its people despite my first academic article, GREs, and lone grad school application being due the day I depart for China (February 29th, happy leap year folks). Frankly, I needed a few weeks to check in with myself and army crawl my way through the 5 month mark. It’s time for me to start earning my keep again on this beautiful island in the middle of the South Pacific.
Tropical marine tourism trades in what photography historian Peter Osborne called “currencies of paradise.” Palm trees and cracked coconuts, white sand (made of fish poop, FYI) and bright sun. A “tropicalized” place is expected to satisfy the tourists idea of paradise, regardless of the actual socio-ecological reality of that location. These are global tropes of tropicality, the complex visual systems through which the islands were imaged for tourist consumption, through which imagined paradise had actual social and political implications on the islands and their inhabitants. Krista Thompson outlines these concepts in Eye for the Tropics.
In my skepticism I never imagined a place as beautiful as Fiji could exist. It’s the kind of beauty you see behind your eyelids when you recall paradise, even in industrialized areas to the north like Lautoka. When it comes to coral conservation, do restoration efforts have solely ecological functions or is there something else at play? When and why do resorts take on coral gardening projects? Why haven’t community-based conservation projects succeeded? Is paradise or livelihood at stake? Two months doesn’t seem like enough time to do the people or the question justice.
Happy New Year, Kittens and Lovers. I guarantee you I’ll beat you to 2016: Fiji is pressed up against the time and date line. I’ll let you know what it’s like on the other side from Suva.
P.S. Fiji Water is the cheapest bottled water here and it weirds me out to have what I always saw as a truly shitty social status symbol be my bath water.