This drink defines life in Fiji. Yaqona (pronounced yahn-go-na) is central to almost every occasion here, particularly in Ovalau. People will drink it to relax, to celebrate, to welcome visitors, even to mourn. While drinking yaqona, people will watch a rugby match, play cards, sing, and dance. On my island the plant has additional significance as being a major source of income. The people here are proud of their grog and they like to drink it strong- stronger than I’ve tried on the mainland, at least. I’ve been told it is not close to as strong as the Vanuatu grog, which I am still waiting to drink.

Any time I’ve taken part in drinking yaqona here, it has been pretty much the same. The root and stem are pounded into a fine powder and then wrapped in a cloth. Inside a basin (tanoa), that cloth gets squeezed into water which turns a nice muddy brown. The mix is then shown to an elder who decides whether it needs more water or more squeezing. That moment reminds me of the tradition in the West with waiters presenting wine. When it is deemed acceptable, the drinking begins.

One person will dip a coconut shell (bilo) into the basin and distribute the drink one by one. Bowls are distributed by order of ranking. A respected visitor is normally first, followed by the chief and senior elders. People usually sit according to their ranking, so the drinking begins in the front of the room, with guests and elders and ends in the back, with the women sit. Drinking occurs in rounds, so that an elder will tell the people distributing the yaqona to begin the next round with the word taki (they say talo in Ovalau). I find that people like me to drink each round, so I try to ask for the small bowls (bilo vakalailai) when it comes to me.

The taste of yaqona is actually not that bad when you drink the first bowl. It kind of tastes like water mixed with dirt. The first few bowls are palatable enough. Unfortunately for the unseasoned drinker, the negative qualities of the taste accumulate in the mouth and throat with each bowl. After a handful of bowls, depending on how much one is drinking, it can become quite disgusting.  The trick that I’ve learned from sitting in on grog sessions is to be prepared by always keeping a snack at hand. Borrowing from the vocabulary of Western drinking culture, they call these snacks “chasers.” Candies as well as salty snacks are used to try and wipe the kava taste out of the mouth, to make that next bowl taste as close as it can to the first. It does help, and if you plan on drinking any real quantity at all, I suggest using these “chasers,” though I find their effects short-lived. Another tradition that I have yet to take part in is the wash-down. After a long night of drinking yaqona, some prefer to drink a bottle of beer, to wash the yaqona taste out of the mouth. They claim that it reduces the severity of a hangover the next day.

There is plenty more I would like to discuss about this drink, particularly the negative impact on the productivity of society, but I will leave that for a later time.

Disclaimer: The contents of this blog are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

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Fiji Blog Entry 1: An Overview

Hello from Fiji. I am sorry that this has taken so long, but I am finally taking the time to begin blogging about my Peace Corps experience in Fiji. I’ve been here since late May and have already experienced plenty, with great expectation for the next 22 or so months here. With that, I will begin.

Peace Corps service in every country consists of a pre-service training period followed by approximately two years of service. Typically, the training period is supposed to last for 3 months, but my group’s training lasted only about 7 weeks. During that time we lived in clusters of 4, 5, or 6 in villages, with one host family per volunteer. Training consisted of language exercises, cultural training, and some basic “technical” training in development, health, and environment areas. The people in my group (FRE-9s) were sworn in as official Peace Corps volunteers on the 4th of July and shortly thereafter we traveled to our “true” sites.

My location is a Tikina (collection of villages) on the island of Ovalau. Ovalau is a tiny island, with only one town, Levuka. During the 1800s, Levuka was a favored location by European sailors and merchants and it became the first capitol of Fiji. That capitol status only lasted for a few years, but that time made a lasting impression on the island. The architecture in Levuka reflects that history- plenty of the buildings looking like they came from a John Wayne movie. If you want to learn more about Ovalau, I’m sure you could look it up.

I don’t think I am allowed to write the name of my Tikina, but unlike other volunteers who typically serve on village, I have been requested to work with a collection of villages. There are four villages of the tikina, as well as a number of settlements, which are all clustered together and all of which I am planning to work with. I’ve discussed a number of potential projects, but have begun the work on them yet. That will begin after our Early Service Training later this month. For now, my role is still to just make connections in the community.

Disclaimer: The contents of this blog are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps. 

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I’m writing this post from a hotel coffee shop waiting for the Peace Corps training to begin. I haven’t posted in a while as I’ve been tying up loose ends in preparation for my service. After graduating at the University of Florida and moving out of my apartment in Gainesville, I drove with my sister to Washington, D.C. and then flew back to South Florida where I saw some friends and family for the last time in a while. Now being in Los Angeles, I can feel the pressure and excitement of this new adventure awaiting me.

I will miss my family and friends and wish you all the best of luck in your lives in this country while I am away. It will be interesting to see where everyone is and how much has changed when I return. Please keep me updated on your exploits and adventures and I will try to do the same with this blog.

Anyone who wants to see the progress on the garden at my old place should check out the blog my old roommate, Chris, has here. As beautiful as it has been this year, I am expecting him to outperform our results over the next few seasons and cannot wait to see how it looks.

Please let me know if any of you are going to maintain blogs, as I would like to stay updated when I am able to access the internet.


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Garden Update

My garden has been humming along recently, with all the plants growing at a fairly nice pace. The past few weeks have been fantastic because the weather hasn’t been too hot and I’ve been able to spend time with friends enjoying the beautiful garden. I figured it would be a nice idea to show you how well some of my plants have been growing.

Corn on April 25th

As you can see, our corn plot has been exploding recently. Also of note, only some of the pole beans that I had planted along with the corn ended up germinating, but they are vining quite well. Also, the other plants you see interspersed with the corn are volunteer tomatoes. They must have traveled to this plot in our compost.

Garden Peas on April 25th

Here is the raised bed, with garden peas growing along a trellis. The plants have started producing peas recently and they have been absolutely delicious. A freshly harvested pea has a sweetness that you cannot find at the grocery store.

Cucumbers and Tomatoes on April 25th

A bed with cucumbers and tomatoes is shown in this picture. Some of the tomatoes in the garden have started to flower and I have found at least two fruiting (not shown). The cucumbers are also flowering and one of the flowers is visible in this picture.

The rest of the garden has a variety of other plants scattered around, as the emphasis was on maximizing usage of space while still encouraging a nice area for spending time with friends. Some other plants found in the garden are zucchini, potatoes, elephant garlic, brussels sprouts, basil, thyme, oregano, and lemongrass. The only source of nutrition that I have been providing the plants is compost, but it appears to be serving their needs well enough.

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Community Supported Agriculture

Some of you may not know that I have a CSA with a local farm in Gainesville. CSA is an acronym for community supported agriculture, a program where consumers pay local farmers before the season and receive veggies throughout the season. A CSA gives consumers more of a stake in the welfare of local farms and it is beneficial for the farmer because they collect income and share risks with their CSA members. Farmers also have an easier time paying for the costs of crop production, rather than having to rely on loans which they would pay off over the year.

There are advantages in having a share. Usually, the vegetables are cheaper than if they were purchased individually. They are fresher than vegetables you can get in the store and you know where they were grown. Also, having a CSA forces me to cook healthy meals with my fresh produce when I otherwise might have gone out to eat.

Veggies for the week.

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Today, I had the privilege of touring a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO). A CAFO is a production system for animal products where the animals are confined for most of their lives. They live in cramped spaces surrounded by feces. The animals all looked miserable and it was a difficult experience, to say the least.

The CAFO I went to was a dairy production facility in Trenton, Florida. The employee giving us the tour bragged about the cleanliness of the facility and the company’s compliance with the best management practices promoted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. I must admit that the facility was cleaner than I had seen in images of other CAFOs in the United States. In a way, the sterility of the milking parlor reminded me of  Our Daily Bread, a film depicting the ruthless efficiency of factory farming in Europe.

Cleaner than I expected.

Our guide also showed us the feeding areas, where the cows spend all of their time when they are not being ushered to the milking parlor. The cows looked sickly and unhappy. We were also told that after their milking days were over, the cows were sold and slaughtered for low quality meat to be sold at restaurants like McDonald’s. In an average year, 27% of the cows at this facility are “culled.” The interconnectedness of the dairy and meat industry as well as the unbearable lives these animals endure struck me quite hard.

Feeding area.

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Mulberry Season

Fruit trees are some of my favorite things in life. Having the chance to pick fruit and immediately devour them is incredibly fun.  Mulberries are finally in season and there are plenty of mulberry trees scattered around Gainesville. I was lucky enough to find one in Fifield, across the street from one of my classes. The one problem with mulberries is that I can eat them far faster than I can pick them, leading to a voracious feeding frenzy where my hands scramble to meet the demands of my mouth. If you have never had the chance to pick mulberries off a tree, I suggest you try it soon, while they are still around. You will thank me.

Careful, they will stain your hands.

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