Fiji: Ep. 2: Mana; or, Life on the Island
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living so dear, nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods
I write the following having just reread some of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. A sometimes arduous book but one of my favorites, it has informed a little about my preference for minimalism and simplicity, and a bit about the outdoors and even architectural philosophy. I hope you can forgive the long paragraphs and random bursts of philosophy-voice that were a natural result of trying to write something in the spirit of Walden. Some sections and ideas are borrowed directly from the book. Thoreau sometimes goes on and on about some very dry detail or idea, and I’m afraid I may have done that too, since my real purpose in writing this is for my loved ones who have been eager to hear details of life on Mana. If you find it’s not for you, feel free to skim or skip. I also want to note that the following is really more about my life on Mana than life here at large, and that it severely underrepresents the other student missionaries, the wonderful church community, and the everyday life of anyone else who lives on the island. There are many incredible people here and I hope to share some of their stories later on—for now, a bit about those details my mom has been asking about since I said I might be going to Fiji.
Where I Live, and What I Live For
I share a small house with three other student missionaries at the Mana Seventh-day Adventist School on Mana Island, Fiji.
Mana Island belongs to the Mamanuca (ma-ma-noo-tha) archipelago on the western side of Fiji, about a 45-minute boat ride from Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island. Mana is somewhat boomerang-shaped overall, its longer sides facing mostly north-north-east and south-south-east and spanning a distance of about two miles from east to west. The island was mostly uninhabited, with only three families living on it, until the 1980s, with the start of the Japanese-established Mana Island Resort, which brought in local staff from nearby islands and villages. A Seventh-day Adventist mission trip from New Zealand built the school at the same time. Slowly a village grew, where most of the locals live today.
The island is divided into several sections mostly by each resort’s property rights, as well as the school and the village. The Mana Island Resort is the largest of the four resorts on the island. It essentially covers the entire western half of the island, all but the beaches being exclusive to its guests. The eastern half of the island is home to two backpackers resorts—almost like the stage between hostel and resort hotel, or, an expansive tropical motel with restaurant, evening entertainment, diving trips, and friendly staff. Ratu Kini, the first, sits right against the Mana Island Resort’s eastern fence near the beach and sprawls east toward the village, leaving a small patch of land along the fence for the SDA church and school. The village sits against the ridge of hills running the island’s length, with the Lagoon Backpackers Resort sitting between it and the beach. Over the hills, on the north-east side of the island, lies Tadrai Resort, which is small, hidden away, and highly exclusive, said to be the most expensive and elite resort on the island. It can only barely be glimpsed by summiting the ridge of hills, where you may be lucky enough to see a helicopter land at their beachside helipad. Past the village, the eastern end of the island is mostly flat and empty, with a few large clearings where Survivor films challenge segments.
I estimate that the church property (school included) occupies about 1.5 acres. The compound includes housing for all the teachers and their families, the school building itself (with an office and four individual classrooms), a detached classroom, the volunteer house, the church, and an open-air classroom and meeting space, where church members gather regularly to hold special meals, several of which have been held in our honor. There is also an unfinished house that we will move into when completed, and a sprawling, loosely-organized garden the children maintain before they leave the compound after school. I hesitate even to use the word “compound” to describe the area for its connotation with high-walled enclosures that either keep danger out or hide danger inside—I can testify that the Mana SDA School poses no radical threat from within or without. Instead, it is a compound in the sense that there it is a shared space, with shared buildings, and shared people, shared food, and laughter, and games of volleyball, and a shared ideal for family and Christian education.
The compound is open and offers daily tours to some resort guests, who walk through sometimes as I’m perched on a rickety wooden ladder, scrubbing or painting the house, and say things like, “I dunno mate, that ladder might not be up to AHS code.” (So far these have been Aussies referring to Australian Health and Safety, not Adventist Health Systems.) I often wonder what such people think of me—sometimes I am able to chat with the tourists and explain that I am an American volunteer, and other times I am too absorbed in my task. I wonder at those times if they wonder why the young white guy who looks like a Ratu Kini guest is soaked in sweat, scrubbing one of the buildings at the small SDA school. Why is he here? How did he get here, scrubbing the building and dripping sweat? But these questions are not so much those of the onlookers but my own pondering; the manual labor I find myself employed in becomes a vehicle for my thoughts, and I sometimes let my mind wander with a clarity I’ve found enhanced by my disconnection from the familiar. Sometimes my mind finds something distant in myself I have forgotten, memories of places or people I haven’t thought about in years, or ideas or concepts I haven’t visited recently. These break open with new fascination and significance with hindsight, and as I scrub or paint or dig (my favorite task [except when I strike a resort waterline]) or hammer nails I imagine that I am as much a philosopher as a handyman, and I think I understand a little more what I live for, if just to get lost in my mind.
By local standards, the house we occupy is a very good house. It is about 500 square feet, lifted above the ground about two feet on posts, constructed simply with timber and wooden paneling, and features running tap water, toilet, and shower. As one of my first work projects, I have given the exterior a fresh coat of paint: bright green trim and off-white for the wooden paneling, per the school’s new color standards. A sign above the door reads “Vale ni PUC,” meaning House of PUC, after it was constructed by volunteers from Pacific Union College in 2015 (making us the third group of volunteers to use it). The thin door swings open to reveal a common room, divided into living room and kitchen areas. The living room area has a dining table about a foot and a half off the ground and perfect for four people, made by the previous volunteers. We eat every meal here, sitting on the floor in the absence of chairs and raised table. There are also a few small shelves (2x4s mounted horizontally between the painted studs of the wall) that hold some books, clothes pins, and cards. The kitchen area is filled with containers we use for food storage (to avoid insects and other pests) and has a large shelf and a gas stove. On the left side of the house are the girls’ two bedrooms, and on the right, my own, as well as the shower and bathroom. The shower is fairly spacious, which is helpful for easing into the cold water that pours directly from above. The bathroom is a single toilet stall, with sink and mirror in the closet-sized “hallway” connecting the three rooms. My own room I have grown to like, especially for having its own door to the outside, which I can slip in and out of without disturbing the girls when I go run in the mornings. Maps of Fiji and Mount Rainier National Park, and my ENO hammock gear, hanging neatly in a line, are my decor. I sleep on a camping mat on top of a thin foam mattress, and use my suitcase as my closet. To me, the house is what I want for my time serving as a student missionary, and maybe more than I should even have expected to get from a place I am only a visitor in.
The house does not have electricity or air conditioning, which I considered to be something it lacked, until it dawned on me that the vast majority of built environments (or shelters) throughout human history did not (and many still do not) have electricity or air conditioning. Living in the house has begun to change my perception of the utilities we integrate into buildings in developed countries: that they are not standard features in the grand scheme of global history, but recent prized commodities for those of us rich enough to afford them. Anyone’s house only lacks according to their standards. Someone might say this house lacks electricity, or that it lacks marble countertops or a three-car garage, but standing in their faux-grand entryway I might say their house lacks the character that would make it a home; to me, Vale ni PUC has the necessary character and really lacks nothing I can do without.
This is not to say the house is perfect, or that it is exactly as I would design it. Every day there are things that puzzle and irritate me about it—window screens ripped and blowing in the breeze, unfilled cracks just asking to be occupied by cockroaches and spiders, a sink at the right height to inflict back pain while washing dishes, counter space wider than a banister but narrower than a bar, making literally any task a typical countertop would be able to do much more risky. But these are all less important than what the house does function as: a shelter, a space for privacy, a place to share meals, bathe, and sleep. Some of the houses in the village are of more rudimentary construction (usually tin paneling and other thin materials), with no running water, the nearest toilet outside twenty steps away. I haven’t heard any of the villagers complain about what they lack—or rather, what we might say they lack.
When I initially arrived, the entire house was covered in a layer of grime (interior and exterior) that, as far as I could tell, was from several months without tenants other than wind, rain, and rats. Small rat droppings were on most horizontal surfaces. It was more difficult alone, but even then cleaning and maintaining the house gave me a sense of purpose and made me feel better about my environment. That I had contributed some effort to make myself more comfortable was pleasing, whether it was bringing the hose in and scrubbing the entire floor while the PUC group was here, or washing my dishes and doing other simple tasks.
On any given day, there are several small chores to accomplish.
Because of the absence of electricity, we light the house after nightfall with battery-powered LED lights called Luci Lights. These are about the size of a CD, with a small solar panel on one side and a circular array of LEDs on the other. We have about eight of them, which must be collected from their various places around the house each morning and put outside the house so the sunlight can charge them up for use that night. My phone and internet modem I also charge with a portable solar panel on sunny days, to avoid relying too heavily on our kind neighbors who insist we walk in and plug our devices into their limited electricity (itself gathered by a large solar panel mounted above their roof). It’s a simple task, but I like the feeling of being prepped by harnessing only the natural resource available to me.
My favorite task, filling our fresh water jugs, I like for the same reason. It is also about daily that I take one of the near-empty five gallon water containers across the compound to one of a few large green tanks of water to replenish our supply for drinking and cooking. The water in the large tanks is rainwater that has been collected from a gutter system on the roof of the school or a house at the compound. Although I sometimes consider that there could be something hidden in the tank and we would have no idea, the water is always extremely clean and hasn’t caused any sickness. I usually enjoy this chore in the morning, after a run and while my housemates are still sleeping, and I’m able to take advantage of two to five minutes of uninterrupted nothing while I wait for the container to fill. Then I carry the container back to the house and set it quietly on the counter (next to the backup).
Clothing becomes a chore with no washer and dryer. I wash my clothes in a plastic basin at the sink mounted outside the house. After adding a bit of Sudso powdered laundry detergent to the tap water, I individually knead each piece of clothing in the foamy mix. Once each piece has been thoroughly sudsed, I individually rinse and wring out each one. The final step is to hang them on the line beside the house. On a sunny day, the clothes will be mostly dry in one hour, but woe to the one who hangs them in the evening or a cloudy day, forgetting the rule of sunlight: it’s good, and helps things dry, and things stay damp indefinitely without it.
At nightfall, the Luci Lights must be brought in and distributed throughout the house. Having decent, if limited, lighting reduces the number of creatures that crawl out of the floorboards at night—or gives enough light to see a gecko catch a moth high up on the wall.
I was a little concerned about the food situation when I arrived. Not being a very good cook myself, I selected some bags of rice, cans of beans, and other inexpensive supplies one thinks of when it’s their first day in a foreign country, where they will have to live on their own, and are thinking of their limited stipend and what can keep in humid air outside a refrigerator. Since then, I have benefitted greatly from the hospitality of my neighbors and the cooking skills of fellow volunteer Taliah, who enjoys cooking as much as I enjoy washing dishes (which in this case is quite a bit, since it has become one of my primary tasks and means I don’t have to worry about cooking).
So far, we have eaten well—too well at times. The majority of our supplies we purchase at grocery stores on Viti Levu (the main island) every two weeks. A list of essentials might include: eggs, rice, beans, pasta, noodles, canned corn, and canned tuna. Without refrigeration, we must be careful to use up some perishables in a matter of days. Some produce and fruit last a a while, such as potatoes, apples, and oranges; some other goods hardly last two days—soy milk sours in three days, bread molds in two, and anything left on the counter may be covered in ants in an hour. To keep our supplies pest-free, we package most of it away in plasticware or large metal pots with lids. Jelly and peanut butter, one of the ultimate treats, we keep in a shallow tray of water (“What is this, a moat for ants?”) when we are not spreading them on the ultimate treat vehicle, bisiketes, or, breakfast crackers. Breakfast crackers are manufactured by both Flour Mills of Fiji (FMF) and Punjas, two huge companies whose logos are plastered everywhere and seem to manufacture every packaged food in Fiji (probably history books and voting machines too). Bisiketes are fairly plain-tasting, less salty and more dense than saltine crackers, and highly addictive. They are also a misnomer—we eat them not just at breakfast, but at lunch and dinner and any time between.
Bisiketes are popular in the local community too, most Fijians preferring Punjas over FMF to accompany their daily tea, a remnant British involvement in Fiji’s history. Tang is a popular beverage served at most local meals. Other local favorites are tuna-cabbage-noodle salad, fried fish, chicken curry, rice, and cooked casava, a starchy root. Like any culture, Fiji has its own rich food heritage, and I hope to dedicate an entire post to it soon.
There are many, many sounds heard through the open windows of the house at any hour of the day. Roosters wander the compound and crow at any given time, their favorites being about 4:30 AM and any moment someone is saying something quietly in church. To me the sound, attitude, and perfect size of the roosters effectively says Punt me, and although I’ve been tempted to do so, I’ve avoided it so far.
Several animals make squealing or chirping noises. Large fruit bats occupy the top of the breadfruit tree next to our house, and have a habit of squabbling in the evening or early hours of the morning. Their sound is a tense and strained chattering squeal, very unlike their near silence as they cruise through the air at twilight. The geckos that live in and around our house make similar chirping noises that sound like they’re coming from every corner of the room at once. Outside, native birds chirp in ways I don’t recognize from their North American cousins. Sometimes a breadfruit from the tree next to the house will be split open, attracting the birds, and I will hear an intense, uneasy scratching and thumping on our tin roof as the birds perch there and fight over the food. At night, crickets provide a gentle background music.
There are plenty of man-made sounds too. On quiet days I can hear the horn of the South Seas catamaran arriving at the dock, and many hours of the day we have to listen to a generator on the far side of the property (operated by Ratu Kini) supplying power to a water pump, although this sound is pretty muffled and I don’t notice it very much. Prior to church services, the “wooden bell” is struck, which sounds like a tribal drum beat to various lengthy patterns. Other churches on the island carry out this tradition, and some nights I hear their own staccato drumming. But the best man-made sound is the schoolchildren singing—sometimes it is in church, or morning worship before class, or the Fijian national anthem on Mondays and Fridays (my personal favorite; their national anthem is really, really good). Maybe it is because of their limited instrument accompaniment (usually none) or something about the culture that makes all the kids a really good chorus overall, even when they sing at the top of their lungs.
Reading and Freetime
The island lifestyle provides a lot of time for reading and other hobbies as long as I put forth a little effort to seek it out. One key I have found is to read a few pages here and there in the in-between moments of the day—often it is those moments I am tempted by my usual habits to look at texts or check Instagram that I have started to try to fill, slowly, with reading a page or two from a book, or sketching, or learning the next letter in the Morse Code alphabet I’ve taped up in our living room.
Reading-wise, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has captivated me for many spare hours, transporting me to a different world while I don’t have typical entertainment (movies) to take me there. In the Heart of the Sea, about the sinking of a whaleboat that inspired Moby Dick, is keeping my attention at the moment. Timothy Keller’s Jesus the King provides a bit of spiritual food in its simple, approachable writing, along with C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which I found in the house when I arrived. I hope to add all the books I brought to the growing student missions library. Maybe someone else will resonate with Unbroken or Walden the way I have.
There is more than just free time for reading. I spend time writing, for my blog as well as personal note taking and journaling, a mental exercise I’ve started to like more and more. The beach is a one-minute walk from the school, where I enjoy swimming, hammocking, and slack-lining. The ocean offers a new world I am always amazed to see through my dive mask, which I plan to write about later on. I have been practicing my design sketching, finding new enjoyment in it without the pressure of an assignment or portfolio piece due. Podcasts have become a staple of whatever time I’m not just thinking while doing my work. Recently I’ve enjoyed learning about the Watergate scandal in Slow Burn and random economic knowledge in Planet Money (such as the government cheese buy-up of the 1970s), along with my favorites 99% Invisible, American History Tellers, and The Way I Heard It. All of this is not to mention the activities I get to do with my American and local friends, but, like the food we share, those details are for another article.
The island offers solitude in some forms, which I am often eager to get. In the housing situation, and in the school compound, and the island community at whole, I have had to adjust to being fairly constantly with other people and very comfortable around them. And while I have a greater appreciation now for saying yes to offers people make (“Do you want to go with me to collect coconuts?”), I am too stubborn to ever abandon on my own admittedly selfish primary and sometimes favorite companion: just myself, alone, running up the hill, or listening to podcasts while painting, or slack-lining and thinking of my family or friends that understand me the most fundamentally. That I have to seek out time alone I think must be a good thing: I would rather feel overwhelmed by the kindness and company of good people and find relief in time alone than to feel constantly underwhelmed and lonely because of too much time by myself.
I have gone out as a student missionary because I hope to try what to our neighbors in other parts of the world is a normal lifestyle and to people like myself is a greatly reduced but greatly rewarding lifestyle, and to see if I can do some good for such a community at the same time. But in its “lowest terms”, I have found that this place has already blessed me more than I will be able to bless it. I will be thinking about this for a long time.