During a medical mission trip to Fiji in March and April 2012, we were based on Taveuni, also known as the “Garden Island” of Fiji because of its rainforests. Taveuni has an endemic bird species, the silktail, that lives in the high rainforest in isolation from man, and, other than nearby Vanua Levu, isn’t found anywhere else in the world. On Taveuni, I was told by locals that the silktail lives near Lake Tagimaucia, site of a dormant volcanic crater and location of the rare and endemic tagimaucia flower, also found only on Taveuni. I didn’t see the silktail or the tagimaucia, but I did see most of the other bird species indigenous to the island, as well as regional and introduced species.
The difference between the poor and the rich was immediately noticeable in Fiji. The villagers mostly did not have running water, a sewage system, or even electricity, but the resorts, which were located at several places on the island and which catered to tourists, were on par with nice hotels in the US.
Upon my return, a friend asked me about the most important insights or changes in perspective resulting from my experiences there.
One of these was that, compared with Americans, Fijians are very relaxed. They often don’t even have enough money, if they have any money at all, to take a bus from one village to another, or to take a boat from one island to another, but they have a serenity and cheerfulness about them that is rare in the US. I noticed a big difference between poverty in Fiji, which is endemic (almost built-in), and poverty in the US. Unlike the American poor, the Fijians have a strong social network (well-knit communities), access to food on land and in the water (many are farmers; they use coconuts at different stages of ripeness for different things: a green coconut has more coconut water in it and has softer flesh than a mature coconut; most know how to fish in the open ocean and over the reefs, and I heard that they are savvy enough to avoid fish likely to cause ciguatera poisoning), and don’t have to constantly compare themselves with the wealthy (nor are they surrounded by ubiquitous material goods they cannot own).
In contrast to the Fijian poor, the American poor are marginalized, live in “city deserts” devoid of grocery stores and other important resources, and are generally in much greater psychological, social, and physical danger.
We had drivers, as most tourists do in less-developed nations, although they certainly weren’t on 24-hour call every day, as they were for a friend of mine who recently spent a year in Angola. One of these drivers was Joe, a friendly, older Melanesian man retired from his position as chief of the island’s police force who now moonlighted as a taxi driver. I wanted to do some birdwatching while in Taveuni, and I’d heard that Bobby‘s farm was the “highest-yield” place to do it, so I spoke with Joe and he offered to take me there.
Birdwatching, pretty much anywhere, is best near dawn or dusk, because that’s when birds come out to feed. I had no choice but to go to Bobby‘s farm at dusk, in the rain, because my work schedule in Fiji didn’t allow me to go at any other time. Joe told me that although he’d taken many birders to Bobby‘s farm, he’d never taken anyone while it was raining.
We spoke English. Fiji was part of the British commonwealth, so it is possible to hike into even a remote village, where the residents’ ancestors, several generations ago, would have fit the “savage” stereotype–for example, until at least the mid-19th century, they would cannibalize invading tribes from other island systems–and encounter a native who can communicate with you in English.
Joe said he’d wait for me while I hiked with Bobby. I didn’t know how long things would take or if I could trust him, though. Would he wait for me on “Fijian” time, which has no need for punctuality? I wondered what I would do after twilight if I were stuck with Bobby on his farm. In the end, I went with my gut feeling and decided to go ahead with the trip. Fiji is underdeveloped but has a low crime rate; it’s not a dangerous country.
Bobby‘s farm was near Vuna, a small village at the southern end of Taveuni, where we had worked at a nursing station just a few days prior. Fiji, like most places in the world, has a shortage of physicians, so nurses are trained to do very basic triage and generalist work and are then sent to remote areas of the archipelago. However, from what I could tell, they are not regularly available to the public.
The drive to Bobby‘s farm took at least an hour and was a little treacherous because of the rain, the poor condition of the road, and the occasional steepness. Driving in Fiji was always a loud, bumpy, and somewhat unpleasant experience. We frequently encountered pedestrian travelers, usually young men either alone or in groups. Amazingly (you never see this in the US), they usually waved hello.
The road was at least as narrow as a one-way, dirt farm road in the US, but it was intended for two-way travel. Cows occasionally wandered onto it. At night, on the way back from the farm, the road was covered with frogs. They seemed, in my mind (it was rainy and dark), to face us as we approached. Their eyes reflected the truck’s headlights with increasing intensity until they met their doom. What could I do? Get out of the car and shoo them away? There were thousands of them. Later, I learned that these “frogs” were actually cane toads, intentionally introduced by the Japanese during WWII for insect control purposes.
My seat during the car ride was fixed in a single position: I was uncomfortably hyperflexed at the hip the entire time. Joe, who looks like the mature Muhammad Ali, and I talked about many things. I was a little surprised to learn that he had spent a year in Namibia and South Africa as a younger man. What had impressed him, he said, was the relative sophistication of Fijians and the much lower rate of crime. I didn’t know him well-enough to know if nationalistic pride fueled that statement. He said he still keeps in touch with friends he made decades ago in Africa.
We reached the farmhouse, a one-story, white-washed wooden building atop a grassy hill. Bobby walked out to greet us. I was surprised at myself for being a little surprised that he’s of Indian descent, bearded, and tall (with a slight stoop). I was surprised again to see that his wife’s Melanesian. She smiled at us from the unlit kitchen area of the house. This was the first and only time I encountered an interracial relationship in Fiji, although I heard rumors of significant mixing amongst the Indian and Melanesian communities there. Both races were beautiful and had very balanced facial features. I was most impressed by the large, clear eyes and the ready smiles of the children. I had heard that, instead of regular baths, the natives would rub coconut oil onto their skin. Other than diseases like tinea versicolor (which was, admittedly, common), the natives generally had great-looking, shiny skin.
A different day, during a long hike through a coastal rainforest, we came across a remote village where the resident black pig confronted me when I took a wrong, muddy path. In this and other villages, I was surprised to see Melanesian kids with curly, blond hair. Later, I also learned that most Fijian islanders are related to each other.
Bobby had a cell phone in his hand; this is how he and Joe had coordinated the birding trip. Many of the islanders, even those in remote villages, had cell phones. I wondered how often they were able to charge them.
Bobby put on a bright white head wrap and handed me one of the two umbrellas he had brought out with him. Joe stayed on the front porch. He started to read the local paper while we began our hike. I immediately noticed that Bobby exuded a spiritual, guru-like aura. I wondered if he might be a little crazy. Other than our conversation, the hike was very quiet, as if the surrounding rainforest muted all noises other than ours and the scuffling of nearby fowl.
The acuity of Bobby’s distance vision was shockingly good. I was a little embarrassed for having to use a binocular on top of corrective lenses to see the same birds. With his naked eyes, this middle-aged man could identify small birds at great distance. Whenever I double checked him with my binocular, I learned that he was right.
We initially walked around the farmhouse grounds, which included the chicken coop and surrounding buildings; these buildings seemed pretty decrepit by our standards (rusting, corrugated metal walls and roofs).
A long clothesline held drying clothes. I glimpsed two young women near one of the buildings and assumed they were Bobby‘s daughters. This was confirmed later. They looked at us with expressionless faces. I wondered what they thought of their father. There was a satellite dish nearby (turned out later that Bobby had internet access, too). The chicken coop and surrounding area held not only chickens but also junglefowl; the latter were likely introduced to Fiji long ago from the Asian subcontinent. Junglefowl are more colorful (especially the males) than chickens. Bobby said that one way to differentiate them is to see where they sleep: junglefowl sleep in the trees, while chickens sleep on the ground. As we walked around, chickens (or junglefowl?) and their chicks pecked at split coconuts on the ground. It was surreal. By the time I pulled out my camera to photograph them, the camouflage-colored chicks had scattered.
Bobby intermittently made a single, low, clicking sound with his tongue. He was calling the orange dove. He eventually pointed out a male in a nearby tree. It had a flame-orange body and a green head and it moved slowly through the trees. The female, which we didn’t see, is dark green. He pointed out a red shining parrot, which I couldn’t initially see. When I finally did see it, it was large and as exotic as the island of Taveuni itself, with its deep red head darkening along a gradient into the blackness of its beak, its wild, bright yellow eye at the inflection point between the black and the red. It held some fruit up in one foot and ate while observing us. It squawked occasionally, moved on to other trees. Bobby can have this birding business on his farm because he has so many fruit trees (they attract the birds). He refuses to cut down the fruit trees on his farm to do more lucrative stuff because the birds of the adjoining rain forest feed on the fruit. He has a lot of respect for nature. He tries not to muck with it.
I would see the red shining parrot again, this time while searching for the international date line, the 180-degree meridian, with my co-resident and friend, Mark, and our friend, Seaver. The date line is where each new day first begins and where each new day first ends. We almost trespassed through a man’s yard to get to the sign marking the invisible line. We saw the sign in the distance, near an overgrown rugby field, then started going through what seemed like abandoned property to get to it: to our left, as we moved through a small yard, was a large, decrepit, yellow house with only blackness behind the intact windows and glassless window frames. Suddenly, a Melanesian man came running out of the house, shouting about what we were doing. We explained ourselves. He understood and pointed the way through his yard. We scrambled down an overgrown slope, past a fierce-looking dog, then walked through tall grass to the date line sign, which was intentionally split in two (to signify the invisible date line passing through it). We took photos next to it with Mark’s iPhone.
While walking through the rugby field, I thought I heard parrots. I exclaimed to Mark and Seaver that every time I think I hear parrots, they turn out to be common mynahs. This time, however, they were actually parrots. I looked behind me and saw three birds flying across the field, with long tails and blunt faces shaped like the mirror images of commas: red shining parrots! I pointed them out to Mark and Seaver before the birds landed on a tree; they were able to see them for the first time. Seaver said that this sighting “made” this excursion for him. At the edge of the field, Mark showed us some small ferns with leaves that closed when touched. I observed that the rate of closure depended on how forcefully they were touched. We filmed them with his iPhone.
As I hiked with Bobby, he waxed poetic about the importance of conservation and of being close to nature. We walked past his immediate grounds and into a nearby forest, dark, dank, and quiet. He took me there to show me a wild orchid. It was a plant with large, deep green leaves and small, bright white flowers that didn’t look much like the orchids we see in American nurseries. Near the plant, he pointed out a bizarre sight (to Americans, but that is pretty common in the tropics): a bright yellow land crab situated sideways on a tree trunk, observing us.
He told me that he has $3 million worth of jungle on his property — family land handed down to him by his father — and that people think he’s crazy for not developing it. He owns the farm, the nearby rainforest, and all the associated land to the shore, where he has fish feeding sessions; people go there to see reef fish because of great visibility. He’s a passionate diver and also passionate about conserving the reefs in the area. I awkwardly congratulated him for standing up for his environmentalist beliefs in the face of community criticism. In Fiji, individuals cannot own reef systems or waterways, although this seems to be changing; each reef (rightfully, I think, when viewed as a resource) belongs to a nearby Fijian village.
Outside the forest, collared lories congregated in the tall palm trees. They scattered suddenly; Bobby pointed out a Fijian goshawk that flew overhead a moment later. I had seen both species before. He pointed out several other species, some of which I recorded in my journal: Fiji white-eyes, a Vanikoro broadbill, a barking pigeon, and others.
Back at his farmhouse, he insisted that I have a “lemon drink” and pineapple slices that his wife had prepared for us. I tried to refuse, because I had been told to not eat food offered by villagers (to prevent Giardia and other forms of travelers’ diarrhea), but I couldn’t say no, because it would have been rude. I had a pineapple slice and drank the lemon drink they gave me. He showed me a photo album of birds seen on his farm, the business card of a man at Conservation International, and told me that the head of Conservation International had birdwatched with him a few days ago. In fact, I had been informed by other people at the resort that this man was staying there and was on a birding trip, but I didn’t get to see him. Bobby then showed me a book of medicinal plants and a couple of children’s picturebooks about how outsiders threaten to ruin Fiji’s primeval natural resources. He gave me his own business card (the name of the farm is actually “Nabogiono Farms“). He charged me only $15 Fijian so I gave him some more because I felt that he was charging too little for such an interesting experience.
I did have a bout of diarrhea a day or two later, but it went away with several doses of Pepto-Bismol. I continued to occasionally try foods, offered by villagers, that I couldn’t refuse.
During the drive back to the resort where we were stationed, Joe told me about Bobby‘s family. Apparently, his father had been a respected justice of the peace and his brother had been a pillar of the community and had died of a heart condition. Joe and many others in the community had visited him during his final days. He remarked on his good sense of humor even on his deathbed.
Update 11/26/2017: adding my Fiji bird list to eBird last night, I realized that I didn’t fully appreciate the rarity of the birds I was seeing in and around Taveuni during my mission trip in 2012. Many of them were endemic to Taveuni or to Fiji: northern wattled honeyeater, orange fruit dove, red shining-parrot, and others. Knowing what I know now about natural history and especially about island endemism, I would have a much deeper appreciation for the fauna and flora of Taveuni if I could repeat the trip.