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Changing, and Being Changed, by Fiji

When I heard that the Peace Corps was leaving Fiji after 30 years, I could not help wondering: Had it all been worth it? I was one of the 2,136 American volunteers who had served there. Had we changed anything?

Fiji was but a teaspoon in the tumbler of the Peace Corps's $234 million annual budget, and one Fiji volunteer's experience did not make much of a splash in the South Pacific. But so what? I decided to go back and see for myself. The whole experience of the Camelot years had been quixotic, hadn't it?

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When I'd first trudged the muddy footpath to the Vunindawa Provincial office, I'd been primed with enthusiasm, goodwill, and the memory of Naca, our warrior-clan instructor. He'd cautioned us that Fijians were katakata va kuro kava koro: hot like an iron pot. Remove the heat, and enthusiasm cools.

I was gung-ho to change things. But after months in a rain forest without electricity, where business meetings devolved into pick-up rugby in the mud, siga na liga - "not to worry" - came more and more easily.

Indeed, easygoing Fiji so adjusted my sights that when I returned decades later it was without great expectations of change, even though our Peace Corps team had done much. We'd made a first-ever survey of every village and settlement in Fiji - more than 1,600 of them on about 80 islands. We had identified, computerized, and publicized rural resources and needs.

I was astounded. Government friends stepped forward gladly from every province to point to real, brick-and-mortar changes that had resulted from our Provincial Profiles. A village in Ba had been electrified and another equipped with a new sewage system. A village in Gau had a new community hall and kindergarten. In the province of Navua, 352 homes had been equipped with flush toilets. All were the results of the needs we'd identified.

I resolved to visit and photograph each site.

But somehow I didn't. The weather report, always the same in Fiji - "mainly fine!" - lured me up the Yasawas, the string of outer islands that lie like pearls on a pillow, to Fanny and Otto Doughty's on Tavewa. My purpose became sidetracked, what with checking out the wild goats and fruit bats on the hill and meeting the Doughtys' new dog, Two-Socks, who replaced their cat, Fik, and rooster, Thud-Thud, who'd thought he was a dog. There was also snorkeling over the rainbow reefs, and burning on the powder sand on the palm-studded beach. Not to mention stuffing myself on tea cakes like those Fanny once made for Queen Elizabeth, and recording her recipes for seafood mornay, sweet-and-sour sausage, and the corn soup she made for the pope.

"How long do you bake your lemon cake, Fanny?

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"Until it's done."

Instead of photographing indoor plumbing in Navua, I went to Beqa island snorkeling, then took a trip up the Navua River to the waterfalls. There I got involved in a long downriver conversation with a distant grandson of the William Danford who had been cast ashore by a Kadavu sea captain at the mouth of Navua. He'd become such an asset to the cannibal chief that he wasn't eaten but was given two Fijian wives.

I missed the bus to Gau because I became embroiled in a conversation at the Suva station (a great people-watching spot) with Semesi Nadroboluka, an ex-Great Council of Chiefs member and uncle of my friend in the Ministry of Fijian Affairs. The septuagenarian lives alone and had come to Suva on business with the Native Land Trust Board. I also spoke with Muktar, a university student who had never been away from his Lautoka home before.

Let me emphasize that Fiji is implementing real solutions. Lives are being changed with sanitation, showers, schools, and electricity much faster, surely, than would have happened without the Peace Corps.

But my friend Maureen Southwick's tropical Suva gardens offer a golden palm to the right and a philodendron to the left of a baptismal font, and poinsettias flowering behind it. A sacred palm, Neovichi storchi (named by a Fijian), once was grown only on the grounds of a chief. There's pink ginger from Tahiti, and a rain tree, its lightweight wood good for carvings. Here, a beautiful hanging tickamanci ginger has cross-pollinated to yield a beautiful white and pink color; and there, one of the rarest palms in the world, bachardia pacifica.

North of Nadi lie the lush and languid orchids in Raymond Burr's Garden of the Sleeping Giants. And to the east rises Ovalau and old Lavuka. To the south are the mysterious islands of Lau and Kadavu. How the South Pacific sun caresses you!

Yes, the Peace Corps made a difference in Fiji. But just maybe Fiji has changed me more. I spent more time in play and conversation, and less time collecting data or taking photographs.

I gave my grandsons the acid test: What did they learn from my being in the Peace Corps? They report that they've learned that Fijians used to be cannibals but are not anymore; that Fiji is a great place for snorkeling and hiking, and for a starving artist to live.

Does the Peace Corps do some good? Siga na liga.

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