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 Amazon.com 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.
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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