Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Out and about on Vanua Levu

Last month Paul & I took a trip to the 2nd largest island of Fiji called Vanua Levu. We have been to this island 2 other times but we had always stayed in Labasa and then driven across the island (about a 2 hour drive) to meet with the priesthood leaders. This time we decided to fly into Savusavu and we would drive out to the remote villages and meet with these leaders in their "neck of the woods". Labasa is considered the drier side of the island and it is mostly sugar cane plantations. Savusavu is considered the "tourist" destination with most people coming for scuba diving and sailing. Here is the view from the balcony of our hotel overlooking the bay.
We enjoyed watching a good variety of sailing vessels coming and going. But this trip did not include any water transportation...

... oh no, we rented a 4-wheel, stick-shift, 5 passenger truck to get us down the rocky, bumpy, dusty roads. We figure we spent about a total of 10 hours in 2 days rocking and rolling our way to Tukavesi, Tacilevu and Nabua. About 180 k the first day and 60 k the second day.
Here is what the road looks like. There is not a lot of traffic but huge, city-type buses travel along these roads to transport the villagers into Savusavu so it is well used.
There is a large coconut drying business (copra, I think it is called) run in this area so there are lots of people cutting coconuts along the road. That large bush knife the man is holding is a very common and well used tool that everyone carries.

This man had gathered up his coconuts and was headed somewhere to sell them. I love the "bridle".

Here is the roadside convenience shop. People have these stands along the roadside and in front of their homes so they can sell and provide snacks and food for people passing by either on food, in vehicles or by bus. When we stopped for the photo opt, the mom and her baby raised up from where they were laying around waiting for any customer.

It is always so fun to be out in "the middle of no where" and turn a corner and come upon one of our chapels. One thing that I have noticed almost everywhere we have gone is our Church buildings are always located on a really lovely piece of property and very well groomed and maintained. This is the Tacilevu Chapel.
And below is the inside of this building. Sister Kumar, the District auditor that came with us on our adventure is standing next to me.

And just a short 50 yards above the chapel is this building which is the missionaries home. Here is the outside...

... and here is the inside. Looks really nice, doesn't it! Clean and organized... and they didn't even know we were coming. Elder Cegaudru (pronounced: thing-in-drow) and Elder Graham. Elder Cegaudru is from our "home" ward here in Suva. We were at sacrament meeting the week that he had his "farewell" and we sang with the ward members "God Be With You Till We Meet Again". We also met up with our mat! Remember the woven mat that was made for us by a woman to earn money for her temple trip... here is where it has been put to use!

Next we moved on to Tukavesi Village. After parking the truck, we followed the Elders who showed us to the next chapel where we met with the Branch President and his clerk and Sister Kumar and Paul each did an audit. It is always really interesting actually walking into a village because you aren't allowed to enter unless you are accompanied by a villager or you get permission from the village chief. Women must always wear skirts to enter a village and men may not wear hats.

Here is the building that the Tukavesi members use to meet in. It is a rented facility. There are about 30 families in this branch so my meeting concerning membership records was very short.
By the time the audits were completed, it was about 1 pm and everyone was hungry. While we had been meeting with the men, their wives had been preparing a generous lunch. We went to the Branch President's home. Here is his cute daughter (or niece or grandchild --- it is so hard to figure out how everyone is related... and believe me, it seems like everyone is related to everyone!).

As usual, there is a mat laid out on the floor and food is centered on the mat and everyone just gathers around and sits cross-legged and enjoys the meal. Luckily, they did have one chair in their home and they generously offered it to Paul. He was really concerned that if he were to sit on the floor for any amount of time, he would not be able to get up again. I think you have to do this your whole life for it to be comfortable. If you are planning to spend any time in Fiji, get off your couch and chairs and starting sitting on the floor --- oh, and sleep on the floor too with nothing but a woven mat.

Guests (especially, missionaries) always get served first. Well, not served. They just watch while you get to be the first to load up your plate. Then the men join in but the women and children do not eat with the guests and the men, they get to eat whatever is left over. They mostly just sit and wave towels and fabric back and forth to keep the flies and bugs away.

Here is my plate. I was a little hesitant to be very adventurous. The fish was delicious! The Branch President had gotten up early that morning and caught the fish just for this occasion. The banana looked like a safe bet but it turned out to be hard as a very hard potato and it tasted about like one too. The greens were some kind of leaves cooked in coconut oil. I have to admit I didn't eat very much but the young Elders made up for what I passed by. They seem to have assimilated well.

After lunch we decided to go across the street from their home and take a group photo with the sea in the background. These people may not have much in worldly possessions but between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the beautiful view of the sea, they are rich and blessed.

As a side note from our trip... you may have heard me talk about the Cyclone Tomas that thankfully passed by Suva. Unfortunately, it slammed this area and did lots and lots of damage. It was an extremely slow moving but intensely strong, torrential storm. And because of their proximity to the sea, that became another source of damage from high tides. At our Monday morning devotional in our Service Center yesterday, it was announced that we will be gathering clothing to send out to these people because they have lost so much of their belongings. We were asked to gather any used clothing we might have and donate it. Since we have very little in the clothing department anyway, we are going to go and buy clothing to send over to help out. It makes a difference when you actually know the people that are in this difficult situation.

How strange is this? We just burst out laughing when we came across this sign in the middle of NO WHERE! But as strange as it seemed, we just about took the turn to see how long it would take us to get back to SLC! Maybe next time!

On our 2nd day we drove to Nabua and while Paul & Sister Kumar were meeting with the 1st Counselor in a very hot meetinghouse, I went out in back and walked about 25 yards and dipped my feet in the pleasant ocean water and rested in the shade of a huge tree. But before too long, I noticed that they had decided to move their meeting outside and under the trees also. Where does it say that meetings have to be indoors? By the time it was my turn to go over the membership records, everyone was feeling much more comfortable.

Then we were invited back inside for another lunch prepared by the 1st Counselor's wife. This is Brother and Sister Kalougati. This is the man that I have talked about before in an email. When he was about 12 years old, his family was on a boat on their way to Suva to be baptized into the Church. The boat capsized and all his family drowned. He held on to a sack of empty coconut shells for 3 days! He was the only survivor from the boat. As he grew up he drifted out of contact with the Church. People from the Church had been trying to find him but no one knew where he was. When he was in his 20s, he was working in a field and a car stopped and a senior missionary couple came over to him and asked if he knew Joeli Kalougati. He asked why they wanted to know and when they explained, he told them they had found who they were looking for. He told me this story back in about October when I first met him. This story has also been published in either the Ensign or the Liahona (I can't remember). He told me that he was mad and confused for a long time about why his family had to die. And why he lived. But he believes that he was saved so that he could do the Temple work for his family. He has a strong testimony now and is a great leader. His son is serving a mission here in the Suva Fiji Mission and his second son is preparing to serve his mission some time next year.

This was a delicious lunch. She served us fried eggs served on noodles (a very typical dish), dalo (upper left corner -- another very typical dish that is a root crop that is similar to a potato but it doesn't have much flavor that I can tell but Fijians eat it almost every meal), fresh papaya, fresh avacado and traditional lemon pie which is more like a cake with lemon pudding on it. The dish on the left hand side in front is a huge, banana that they boil in sugar and water and it is very soft and yummy.

Here we are back in Savusavu. Next to our hotel is this park that has several hot springs; hence the name of our hotel was The Hot Springs Hotel. The local people like to bring food wrapped up and leave it in these hot springs to cook. They were very, very hot!

As we were walking back to our hotel from the hot springs, this young boy started walking and chatting with us. His name is Joseph. He is about 9 or 10, I think he said. He was showing me all the flowers and fruits and telling me what everything is called. Then he showed me how to blow up a hibiscus petal. It blows up like a mini balloon. Who knew?! The Fijian children are so darling and friendly and curious about the white-skinned strange people. Aren't his eyes beautiful. I always consider them my substitute grandkids! We are so blessed to meet new faces and see new places. I hope you enjoyed coming along!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Amazing Kiribati!!!

We just returned from this small, shoestring island nation of Kiribati.
You may be asking yourself (as we did), where is Kiribati (Kerr a bus)? It is right on the equator just north of Fiji!
What an amazing, awesome, memorable experience!

From the air it just looks like palm trees lined up side by side in a straight line with the sea on one side and a beautiful lagoon on the other. The whole island chain is only about 3 or 4 feet above the sea -- no high ground anywhere!

(Right now, just for your info, we are sitting in our flat in Suva hunkered down and waiting for an intense cyclone to blow on through. We have had warnings since last Friday afternoon -it is now Sunday. The storm has a name, Cyclone Tomas and it is traveling very slowly but it is building up strength as it progresses. So, this post will have less words so I can finish before the power goes out. But since "a picture is worth a thousand words" you will still get a good report of our Kiribati trip.)

Here is The Lagoon Breeze Lodge where we stayed for 12 nights. Kiribati is not featured as a tourist destination so the accommodations are very limited. We were very happy with this place. We had a good sized room with a comfortable bed, air conditioned and a mini fridge. There was no hot water for our shower but we had A SHOWER! We have learned to appreciate the very basis necessities of life (those listed above and one other: Coke Zero! which was also available). That is our rental car too!

There is ONE paved, main road in the whole country! Between the minivan buses that "own" the road, the potholes, the narrowness of the supposed two lanes, locals walking alongside the road or down the road and only moving off the road two seconds before we could have run them over, packs of dogs and many, many speed bumps that seem to magically appear just when you least expect them, driving was a huge challenge especially at night! Because of all the above mentioned obstacles, it would take about an hour to drive 15 - 20 ks but because we were traveling so slowly, we did get to observe everything along the roadside.

During WWII, the Japanese occupied this land and they constructed 3 main causeways to connect some of the close islands that today make up the main island of Tarawa. This portion of the roadway was in the best condition and very scenic with the ocean on one side and the lagoon on the other.

We were not prepared for how poor the living conditions are here in this land. Because the base of this land is just coral reefs, the soil is not fertile so things don't grow like they do here in Fiji or Vanuatu. These people really just live on the fish they catch daily, rice that is imported and whatever fruit their trees can grow like breadfruit and coconuts.

The children are darling! So happy and active! Remember they live on the equator so clothing is not really necessary for these little ones!

When Paul & I would go out on the main street each morning for our daily walk, we soon turned into the entertainment committee and we always had kids following us and calling out "mauri" ("hello" in Gilbertese: pronounced like "howdy" but with an m as in "mowdy")

Fresh catch of the day! There are lots of people along the roadside with these cooler containers and weight scales to offer their fishing results.

Fresh water is a huge problem in this area as fresh water has to come from wells and because the soil is so shallow and filled with rubbish, buried bodies, etc and that has contaminated the aquifers. There are wells everywhere along the roadside and in the "neighborhoods". Everyone shares the water. These guys were just having their morning shower along the side of the road as we walked by one morning. The guy on the right is covered in soap and the guy on the left had a #10 can tied to a rope and he draws water from the well just next to them for rinsing.

This was a new fruit to me. In fact, I still don't know what it's real name is but it is called the ice cream fruit because when one of those knobs is pulled out it is in the shape of an ice cream cone and very sweet. I just took their word for it!

These kids were on their way to school. All the children wear school uniforms. Here is the neighborhood "7-11". These kinds of shops are up and down the main street and in every neighborhood so the locals don't have to travel very far to get things like canned beef and crackers, and sweets, of course.

Accountants are needed everywhere!

I loved these blouses that were for sale along the road. They are handmade by smocking.

Here is the symbol of Kiribati: the sea, the sun and a seabird.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Gilbertese.

This chapel was located right on the seashore. A beautiful view from 3 sides. I had to laugh; the 4th side looks directly at the local prison! There is a lovely garden with a lot of beautiful native flowers between the prison and the chapel but still....

Here we are having a wonderful reunion with a friend of ours from almost 36 years ago! This is President Brad Smith. He is the mission president of the Marshall Island mission. He just happened to be in Kiribati (which is part of his mission) and we got to spend time together 3 or 4 times.

Just so you don't think we were just off on a vacation, I thought I'd better post some photos of some of our training meetings and the Priesthood leaders we got to visit and interact with. What dedicated, committed, sincere men. The highlight of each and every day!

We got to take 2 boat trips to go out to 2 remote branches. One branch was on the far, far end of the main island that is not accessible by a vehicle and the other was to a remote island sail about
1 1/2 hours each way. This is the rural chapel on the outer island.

After the training session, we were served lunch by the wives of the priesthood leaders. Be sure to notice the lobster! When was the last time you were served lobster at church! Right next to the lobster is the usual dish of canned corned beef with rice and crackers. The most odd item served, I thought, was the hot chocolate (in the kettle). Seriously, it was so hot outside and they served hot chocolate? Not too sure about that one!

There was a missionary house next door to the chapel and this was the "welcome to this area" information that some previous missionaries had left hanging on the wall. I'm not sure if you can read it. It is very eye opening! It begins with: Rats, Rats, Rats!!!! Yuck!!!

Here is our destination as seen from the boat as we drove to the shore of the outer island. What a beautiful sight!!!

Here was our welcoming committee! Just another day on the beach for these kids!

On the trip over, one of the men decided to throw out a fish line. Notice he didn't exactly need a fishing pole. He just held on to the fishing line. I was disappointed I didn't get to see him pull in a big one!

When we arrived at our destination on our 2nd boat outing, the tide was out so the water level was very shallow and the boat had to be pushed in as far as it could go. We still ended up having to wade ashore about 100 yards. The water was clear and warm and it was actually really enjoyable.

Here are Elder & Sister Phippen. They are one of the 4 senior couples that serve their mission in Tarawa, Kiribati. They came along on the boat outing so they could check out the missionary house (the one with the above instructions on the wall). We so admire this couple. We were in the MTC with them last August and were so excited to get to run into them again. They are in their 70's and serving their 3rd mission: 1st in Brazil; 2nd in Conneticut and now in Kiribati! They are happy and dedicated and just love and serve the young missionaries. They also took such good care of us!