Delicious Chinese Dishes

by John Penisten, U.S. Peace Corps, Fiji I Group, 1968‑69

(Adapted from the book Green Hills and Blue Lagoons: A Peace Corps Memoir. The book is available through and Kindle ebooks.)

It was about a five-mile walk from the village of Nawi to Nutuvu at Buca Bay.  It was early 1968, and I’d only been in‑country a few weeks as a member of Fiji I, the very first Peace Corps group in Fiji. My assignment was to assist with the first ever Department of Agriculture census in the remote Buca Bay district of Cakaudrove Province on Vanua Levu.  I was still very much into the adjustment period of life as a PCV in the field.  I was up early, even before most of the rural village where I was first stationed.  The sun was just turning the sky pink on the eastern horizon, behind nearby Taveuni Island.   Since I  had  no  cooking facilities in the bure I slept in, I splashed water on my face, brushed my teeth, and left without breakfast.

            Nawi  sits  on a flat coastal strip surrounded by coconut groves.  Away from the coast, the steep hilly interior is dense tropical rain forest.   Behind the village, the road  passes  by  and rises sharply to the west, a  long  steep grade  covered  only  with  loose gravel  that  makes  the  walk difficult.   It is hard to get sure footing.  It’s part  of  the reason  the local Buca Bay bus wouldn’t travel on the hill due to its  hazardous condition.

The Nawi hill is the most difficult part of the entire walk over  to  Nutuvu, the Buca Bay boat landing and bus stop.  This was where one caught the “jungle bus” (as we volunteers called it) down to Savusavu.  The road up the hill is about a mile long,  winding  up through  the bush, rising from  sea level  to several hundred feet elevation at the summit.  Once  at the  summit, I was drenched with perspiration even though it  was still early morning and the sun low in the sky.  The humidity was high making for a difficult walk.

            Winding  down the western slope was much easier  of  course. The  sun  was blocked, providing cool shade, a welcome relief that made the walk down a breeze.  At the bottom  of  the slope was a relatively flat stretch of road leading into Vunikura Village and onto the seacoast to the Nutuvu landing.

            Except for the hill, it was a pleasant early morning walk.  It was  a time  to take in the beautiful pristine countryside and to try to sort out my thoughts.  If for  no other reason, the walk was necessary because it was the only  way for  me to get out of Nawi, unless I wanted to wait  indefinitely for the agriculture Landrover from Savusavu, which usually made a daily run to Buca Bay.  Savusavu, forty miles down the coast, was the provincial center with a population of around two thousand.  It was the town for the entire Cakaudrove Province.  One thing that kept me going was the  prospect  of a big breakfast in Savusavu when I  got  there.  Eggs, meat, bread, coffee‑‑these were things worth walking up the Nawi hill for at such an early morning hour.

            Perhaps  because it is one of the basics for survival,  food was  a  critical adjustment for us new volunteers.  The average  Fijian  village diet  is heavy on starch and carbohydrates and short on  protein. Starch  foods  such as rice and root crops of dalo,  cassava  and yams predominate.  Breadfruit is a seasonal food and  is  perhaps even preferable to the other starch  foods.   In many areas of Fiji, fish is a staple, especially fresh  fish  from the  ocean.  More often than not however, fish in the  diet  was usually canned mackerel, at least where I lived.  Fresh meat was scarce, and what meat we had was often the canned corned beef variety.  And even fresh bread was an unknown commodity in Buca Bay.

            The  initial adjustment to a tea, cassava, dalo,  yam,  rice and canned fish diet was a hard one.  And even though we ate, we sometimes finished a  meal  totally  unsatisfied with hunger  returning shortly  after. Visions  of  hamburgers, pizza, eggs, bread and hundreds  of other things played on our imagination.  There was no cupboard or refrigerator to raid at night.  No readily available snacks  were to be had.  It was a completely humbling experience. Only  after several weeks of adjustment did I begin to get comfortable with the diet.

            However, I  think I never really completely adjusted to it  Perhaps  it was  more  a case of tolerating it.  I recall that later  as  I made  frequent trips into Savusavu, one of my  biggest pleasures was  the anticipation of some good meals at one of the cafes  in town, a welcome change of fare from  the village diet.

            There were just two other Fiji I volunteers in all of Cakaudrove in 1968‑69, my good friends, Charles Matthews and Dave Reed.  A few others came and went, but the three of us somehow managed to tough it out.  Like me, Charles and Dave were attached to the AgDept.  To Peace Corps‑Suva, we were the infamous “Cakaudrove Team.” We conducted the first agricultural census in the province and got to be quite the bushwhackers, working for weeks at a time in remote isolated regions where transportation was usually our own two feet.

Ping Ho Cafe in Savu Savu, c.1968, the Peace Corps hangout

            Our favorite rendezvous in Savusavu became Ping Ho’s Cafe or “Vale ni Kana” (House of Food).  Ping’s was located directly  on the road winding along Savusavu Bay about midway in the settlement, surrounded by  several Indian shops.  It was an antiquated  wooden building with  metal roof, the usual type of structure, other than it  was painted  a bright blue‑green.  On the sign advertising Ping Ho’s Cafe  it also stated seriously, “Delicious Chinese Dishes.”  That was somewhat misleading however as the only Chinese food Ping’s ever had was a passable beef chop suey.   The rest  of the menu covered the usual steak and eggs, fried fish, beef, pork  and mutton curry.

            Ping  Ho  was in his late 60’s and was from China.   He  had been  in  the  islands a long time, ending  up  in Savusavu  and had  opened his cafe years earlier.   We  became  good friends with Ping and he always enjoyed having us stop in his cafe. 

As was typical of the fine relationship we established  with all the people of Cakaudrove, we got along well  with  Ping.  He  often fixed  us special meals, or  added  a  special  little dessert, whenever  we turned up at his cafe, tired  and  hungry.  Ping Ho’s was a Peace Corps hangout in Savusavu. 

The five-mile hike out of Nawi to catch an early morning  jungle bus and the forty‑mile ride from Buca Bay were well worth it to savor the menu of “Delicious Chinese Dishes” at Ping Ho’s Vale ni Kana in Savusavu.

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