No Apology

I promised myself fifteen minutes of sorting photos on the computer this morning as I drank my first coffee. I spend too much time facing the screen and I had lots of things nagging at me. I had calls to make; taxes to prepare for the accountant; the Art Walk coming up. These last two, I am utterly unprepared for and I am tackling these tasks with the very best procrastination that I can muster. Avoidance reigns supreme.

It was for that reason that I took three hours last night to write a post about my trip to Fiji. I wanted to get a conversation with our taxi driver and a clerk in Suva down on paper before I lost the details. I had found the incident relevatory. It occurred on one of only two days that we left the resort to mingle in the general population, not the artificial population that a time-share resort tends to bring together of affluent North Americans, Aussies and Northern Europeans.

Having successful finished that pleasant activity and posting it, I then continued on in my avoidance mode and called a very close friend to see if I could come for a cup of tea. She eagerly read my post for me and then, oddly, quit half way.

“I can’t read it now,” she declared imperiously.

“You’ve read it half way. Why won’t you just finish it. It’ll just take three minutes,” I complained, a bit taken aback.

“No. No. That’s it. I’m not going to read it now.” She was bristling.

“Well, why not? What’s the matter with it?” I said, brazenly defensive.

“It’s white middle class crap. You walk in there like some affluent tourist and then criticize their society. It’s what is wrong with resorts, plunking rich cosseted tourists in the middle of third world poverty and then gloating about it; then pointing out how backward the general populace is.”

I had no intention to insult anyone with my writing. I was appalled that someone might think that that was the point of my post. I’d have to rethink what it said, see it again with someone else’s eyes. And so I left abruptly, went home to deactivated the post and then, disheartened returned to my friend’s place for the tea which would be ready for me.

We defended our points of view ferociously as we often do. Then her husband came home, mid-debate or mid-debacle, and he added his logical weight to our arguments, tipping the teeter totter radically in my direction. Soon it was political to change subject, and we moved on to topics like finding someone to mow the lawn, the demise of a microwave oven and finding its replacement; and lucking out on finding a giant Cheez Whiz sale at Costco. We were back on safe ground.

I said good night. They wished me a good night too.

“Don’t stay up too late,” he said as I parted. She said, “Phone when you get in.” It’s a safety check that have for each other, going home in the dark.

“Oh, I guess I’ll still be up for an hour or two writing,” I said, “I’ve got work to do.” It was a dig. I hadn’t been able to let it go.

So here I was sorting out photos of the trip, looking at them differently. I had taken a photo of Mels, short for Melanie, a beautiful Fijian with a stunning profile. She had soft eyes and a soft manner. Had I taken advantage of her by taking her photo. I didn’t think so. I could justify myself, but now there was a niggling doubt. And the photos at the Arts and Culture centre where the actors had portrayed life in Fiji before the explorers, traders and the Missionaries? What of those? They were expecting us to take photos, all dressed in their native costumes. What was the ethic of taking those pictures? Did we have to moralize about every photo we took? The photos I had taken of the gardeners and the bar servers and the boutique sales girl and the receptionist and the taxi driver – were these only reinforcing the servility of the people? Good grief! Canon and Kodak would go broke if no one took pictures of people.

As my fifteen minutes stretched into procrastination thirty, my computer alert dinged that I had new e-mail. It was entitled Apology.

My friend had awoken, her mind in a swirl, feeling apologetic that she had infected me with her negativity about the state of the world. She apologized for getting my back up and for defending her point of view even if it maybe, just maybe, had errors in it.

I’d like to share my response to her with you. I had to do some thinking to get there and the night, as often does, had brought some counsel to me. Here it is:

Dear friend:

Absolutely no reason to apologize. You identified something you thought in reaction to my work and voiced it. I gave me need to pause and think about I how I express myself. I have no desire to offend people, especially a whole nation of struggling people. I need to be careful about how I express myself and so acted quickly to withdraw the piece until I had time to reflect on how I do that.

We always get into rabid discussions. It’s who we are and who we are together. Gordon joined the fray. We bickered about our points of view. Gordon and I ganged up on you and your pigheadedness and defended another point of view. You, too, have to think your ideas through carefully…. and I can be just as obdurate.
At the end of the evening, I went home and slept soundly and without a trace of rancour. Not to say that I haven’t thought about it all, but that I will take my time to think about it and to think about the piece I wrote with another perspective. Frankly, I thank you for it. You are somewhat right and it’s something I have to deal with. I need to be clear when I am writing something and then be clear that I’ve achieved my goal.
You do quite well as a Jiminy Cricket conscience for me. I’m often more glib than people take me for and I need wake up calls from time to time. You are a perfect foil for that because you challenge my thinking.
As for the state of the world, it is negative. The question is, what are we going to do about it.
We found ourselves talking about an unresolvable dilemma.
If I write about my perceptions and things that have happened to me personally as a means of exposing the conditions in the world they are apt to be taken in different ways by different people.
Yes, the minute we buy into the big resort business by giving them our business, we are buying into a different manner of colonial imperialism. It’s an global economic imperialism rather than a nation-driven imperialism. It’s in some ways more insidious than an out and out takeover that can be focalized.
And yet, if one does not go and observe from whatever beginning foothold one has, then how do we even become aware of the disparities? How do we ever address the problems of the world? Do we leave entire nations to sink in the mud by themselves in a purist stance that they can sink or swim and that is all there is to it? (And then sneer as they fail, with an I-told-you-so attitude.)

Or, now that historical events have transpired over four hundred years and changed the whole mix beyond recognition, must we have to deal with the here and now? And then, how do we do that, allowing each sector of society to keep its traditions, its culture and its history while engaging in the modern world? After all, even they don’t want to go back to their cannibalistic society. When the missionaries showed them a different way, the general populace was only too glad to buy into it. The only person in the tribe who benefited from the cannibalistic society was the chief – all the others were in abject submission to the chief and his whims and terrified in their daily living. And, may I add, it was the pure Fijians in their own Arts and Cultural presentation who said that to us. They are glad to be out of it.

I don’t have the answers. I do observe what I see. And you helped me to see around some of it so that what I observed was more whole, less one-sided than what I had seen before.
I thank you for that, my friend,
And I’m sorry I gave you moments of a sleepless night

And that, my faithful readers, is now the intro to my post which I have reconsidered.

Suva

“What are those?” Heather asked.

“Those are wheelbarrow boys” said Rasheesh.

Rasheesh, by a network of Indo-Fijians we had met, had been assigned to drive us into Suva for the day at a princely sum of seventy Fiji dollars for the whole day. He picked us up at eight a.m. and brought us back at five. From that sum, he had to pay his gas and car upkeep.

The boys we were watching were actually grown men, each with a big rusty-looking garden wheelbarrow racing at Olymic speed after a moving bus at the very busy Suva bus station. There were about ten of them dressed in nondescript shorts and faded t-shirts, weaving their way through the throng of other bus passengers.

“See that building over there? It’s the farmers’ market.” It was a big grey concrete building looking much like one of our parking garages with no walls on the ground floors, only structural posts holding it up. It was the size of a large exhibition hall. Rasheesh was giving us a deluxe tour complete with tour guide commentary.

“The boys run to see who is coming off the bus with produce and needing help transporting it across the street into the market.”

I reflected on the entrepreneurial spirit of the Fijians, especially the Indo-Fijians who seemed quite creative in finding ways to add on extra activities to increase their income. Taxi drivers were apt to propose side trips for only a small increase in fare. They knew all the possible desires – to go clothing shopping, to see a temple, to visit a museum, to have a general guided tour.

These barrow boys we had just driven past were otherwise unemployed folk, trying to earn a little extra by being right there when the buses came in, offering to transport awkward or heavy loads that the passengers had brought with them.

Rasheesh who was at our service for the full day provided us a guided tour around the city, including accompanying me to the photo shop and helping me resolve my need to download my pictures from the camera onto disk. He also guided us to the best stores and found us an Indo-Fijian place to eat lunch. We hadn’t the heart to tell him that neither of us wanted spicy food. It was economical and quick, and for that we were pleased.

When we had first arrived in town, our first stop was an Esquire’s Cafe – the only place I could find a brewed decaffeinated coffee – the first I would have had in the 8 days we had spent in Fiji. Across the street was a photo shop that should have been able to download my many photos (642 in all, when I got the disks back) from my digital camera. It was on the verge of overload and I wouldn’t otherwise be able to take more if I couldn’t download them. We left Heather there while we tried to resolve my problem.

Unfortunately, the Photo Store clerk looked at my Sony Cybershot with consternation.

“Just a minute,” said the young store clerk as he took my camera to the manager. A small crowd of camera shop personnel huddled around the camera looking at it and talking in low voices.

“We can’t download this camera,” the clerk stated flatly, almost defiantly, as he returned it to me. “You will have to go across the street.”

I raised my eyebrows questioningly to Rasheesh. He nodded. It was true. They couldn’t do it here in the biggest photo store in Suva. They didn’t carry Sony and they didn’t have the attachments to do it. My heart sank. But they did offer another possibility. Perhaps the big department store could help us out.

“Come on.” Rasheesh said to me, and we crossed the street, entered the department store and then took the escalator to the second floor.

There were three clerks standing about watching rows of television screens. When they saw us, two moved away leaving a young lad of about nineteen at the till. Rasheesh explained my plight. The clerk held his hand out for the camera and immediately opened up the battery door.

“Oh Lord, I thought, It’s not the battery that’s the problem. Does he have a clue what he’s doing with our one and only operative camera?” The clerk picked out the memory card “Oh that’s where it’s stored,” I said to myself mentally as I panicked. Hugh had set the camera up for me. I just point and shoot. The operation of it is somewhat of a mystery to me still.

The two lads spoke in Hindi rather rapidly. My eyes whipped from one to the other somewhat like watching a tennis match. I didn’t understand a word of it and the fate of my camera and all my week’s pictures were in these young men’ hands. People are vulnerable when they can’t understand what’s being said.

Finally Rasheesh looked at me as if explaining to a child, “He says it will take him two hours. We can come back for it after twelve. He has to go buy some disks and he has to have a computer big enough to download so many pictures. So it will cost seven dollars and fifty cents.”

I made a rapid calculation. It cost me fifteen New Zealand dollars when I was there. This was half the price. The price was right, but why did it take two hours? In New Zealand it had taken less than five minutes, so I asked.

“He has to do it on his lunch hour.” said Rasheesh.

I made a rapid decision. I had little choice. By nature, here or anywhere, I was somewhat suspicious. What if he erased my pictures? What if, what if, what if? But if I didn’t, I couldn’t take any more pictures. What was my risk?

I nodded my assent. The clerk held the memory card between thumb and index finger as if looking at a precious stone. Rasheesh said, “Well, let’s go then.” and we walked away. They did not speak again but there was a look of commitment, of some special understanding between them as we left. I sifted this gesture in my mind to decipher its meaning.

I waited until we were out of the store and going down the escalator back to the car where Heather was still waiting, probably wondering what had happened to us.

“He’s doing it under the table, isn’t he?” I said.

Rasheesh nodded.
“He’s going to take it home on his lunch hour. It’ll be alright. Don’t worry. If he doesn’t do it right, then he’ll lose his job. If he doesn’t, we won’t bring customers to his store anymore because we’ll know they haven’t been dependable. He can’t afford to fail.”

Don’t worry!

Don’t worry; Be happy was the mantra of Fiji..

It was the whole record of our stay! It was Heather’s and Lizbet’s too. Lizbet had not been able to recharge her battery and so was camera-less. Heather was still using film and only had three rolls with her. And my memory card was worth almost a hundred dollars. How would I replace it if I didn’t get it back intact?

We had at least two hours to wait. He offered to take us on a tour around Suva. He pointed out the multi-cultural schools, the Institute for Hospitality and Tourism, several religious schools, the Sports arena and school. I had a bit of business at a local printers and he found that place for me. Heather and I were invited to look at the printing plant while he waited in the heat of the midday sun in the parking lot.

When our tour was just about done and we were headed back, he took us past government Embassies and Consulates, some compounded diplomatic homes, all fenced with chain link fence topped with rows of razor wire. We stopped at Thurston Gardens a bit further on this road, with its Fiji Historical Museum. He allowed us about an hour though we could have taken two or three. The history was interesting and the displays, although mid 20th century in style, were excellent and informative.

Like many indigenous populations, the Fijians had not wanted the European and South Asian traders and explorers to take foothold on their lands. They were devastated by the introduction of European diseases for which they had no immunity, and the recovery of their population still has not come up to the number there was pre-“discovery”. All sorts of social and economical issues were described alongside the cultural displays of the primitive boats, household goods and other artifacts and it made for good reading.

After our quick lunch, we had ten minutes left on the parking meter, and being frugal, we took the time to explore a small fashion shop. Most of the styles were aimed at a younger Indo-Fijian crowd, but there were larger sizes too. The Fijian culture appreciates roundness in their women and many of them are quite tall and big framed like North Americans – unlike the small framed norm for most Chinese and Japanese Asians. So there was a wide variety of sizes, which allowed my thin sister and portly me to anticipate that something might call out our name with “Buy me, Buy me”.

I think our driver was getting impatient because, as we piled back into the car, he said, “Have we done everything now, except the camera?” It was akin to in impatience to “Are we there yet?”

“We’d like to go back to Jack’s,” I said. “We haven’t gone shopping yet. We saw some things earlier that we would like to buy now.”

Whether he was typically male, hating to wait for women to shop, or whether he was hoping to get home and get a few more taxi rides in, I don’t know. He said nothing; started the car; drove without commentary.

Traffic had thickened in the centre of the city. It turned out he was somewhat concerned about rush hour, if that can be said about Suva. Traffic was mildly bottlenecked. We inched along for about ten minutes and I itched to take photos but my camera was without memory.

Once more back at Jack’s, we left Heather in the car and went back to the photography section of the department store.

Rasheesh and the clerk had another three minute intense conversation in Hindi, their eyes locked as they battled out some question that I was not privy to. “What did he say?” I said when the conversation abruptly stopped.

“He wants another nine fifty for downloading the camera.”

“Why? Why does he want another nine fifty? We made a deal for seven fifty.”

“He says you are using the camera wrong. You take vertical pictures. They should all be horizontal. He had to turn all the pictures upright for you. It took him a lot longer and he couldn’t fit them all on two disks. He had to buy another disk.”

“Nonsense!” I said. “Let me see what he has done. Can he show me the pictures on the DVD player over there?” I said with a mild defiance, I wanted some proof of his claim.

The clerk took a disk and put it into the store DVD player, extracting one that was already sitting in the drive. The pictures of underwater tropical fish went black and twenty pictures of our family lounging at the resort lit up across twenty wide, flat- television screens on the department store shelving. The pictures changed over in slide show fashion at a maddeningly slow rate. I asked if he could speed it up, but he couldn’t and he was beginning to look worried.

Eventually enough had passed by to show me that the pictures were there and that the verticals had been rotated. I had known that I would not fight the added cost before I had asked for proof. The delay it gave me allowed the calculator in the back of my mind to reason that if I had had to rotate all the pictures it would have taken me an hour; and if I paid a total of seventeen Fiji dollars, it was really only the same price as I had paid in New Zealand. The only difference was that it had taken me five minutes in NZ and two hours plus here. For the difference, I had bought myself a good story and all my pictures would be upright.

I took a couple of pictures with the reloaded memory card, one of the clerk, one of the bank of televisions, to verify that all was in working order. I paid my money and we left.

Heather and I promised to be only half an hour to make our purchases of sarongs and postcards. I looked at Fijian black pearls and found them way too expensive for my pocket book. We drooled over the fantastic, brightly decorated fabrics that were arrayed for saris, then we were back in the car with Rasheesh driving, racing back to Deuba before the half hour was up.

There’s more to tell about the trip back, but that’s for another time.

I was a bit silent in the back of the car thinking about the entrepreneurial spirit of these people. They were eager to please and eager to accommodate. I’d had fine service from this young lad and from Rasheesh too. I thought of what Rasheesh had told us – that he earned 100 Fiji dollars a week – that’s about 70 of our dollars – and he considered that he was very well paid. The amount was fixed, but he worked long hours and had no overtime. If he got stuck in Nadi late in the afternoon, he was expected to stay there and wait for an Airport fare back to Deuba. He had to arrange for his own overnight stay, but he had family there and could sleep on the couch.

He told us he had two children and that one was lacto-intolerant. He had to buy formula to feed the infant and this cost him $27 dollars per month. It was a hardship on the family. Working life was not easy in Fiji.

Before we were half way back to Deuba and our hotel, Rasheesh had a phone call from his company. Where was he? What was his estimated time of arrival? There was a customer waiting for him. When would he pick him up?

His day that had started early was going to be a long one.

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One Response to “No Apology”

  1. alen saji Says:

    You have a good weblog , i think i will check your weblog some days for every week .

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