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SEA Currents: SSV Robert C. Seamans
October 22, 2014
Make the Strange Familiar and the Familiar Strange
18° 07.9’S X 178° 25.6’E
Course and Speed
Docked in Suva, Fiji
Today was an on and off rainy day in Suva. The past few days—our port stops in general, actually—have been packed with so much activity that the rain and the quiet mood in me that it brought was a nice relief. Lately, I’ve been thinking about a concept in anthropology that was introduced to us in class back in Woods Hole (doesn’t that seem ages ago): strive to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.
The phrase seems to suggest that while away from home we will experience the strange. Here in Suva, the opposite seems true, for there is so much here that feels familiar—at least to me, the city kid from Brooklyn. It’s comforting to be where the bustling life engulfs everybody in a blanket of people and noise and fumes. As I’ve walked around Suva, there has always been something present that feels like home, lingering behind the new smells and unfamiliar foods and music blasting from cars. It’s the energy created by the presence of so many humans walking by each other, off to run their errands and create their own stories. Like at home, the days are full of microscopic encounters: passing eye contact and rare smiles, the occasional honk from a passing bus or a wave from its passengers, the nod and “bula” (“hello”) from the people opening doors at the bank, the solicitation from a stranger that you’re not sure you should stop to answer, and the panhandlers.
Then there is the blatantly unfamiliar, popping out everywhere in the splashes of vivid purples, oranges and blues on houses (New York is a gray city) or big billboards with Diwali-themed cellphone ads. These things stop me in my tracks the minute I start getting too comfortable: in the mall, for example, lulled initially by air conditioning and rows of plastic-wrapped and canned food, I am confronted with a whole two aisles of labels I cannot pronounce.
Most of the time, though, the familiar and the strange are laid side by side, twisting and weaving around each other so tightly that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. As I walked by the bus depot for the first time, I was distracted by the bright colors on the vehicles and the painted wood single person booths with timetables written on them, their gaudy carnival air standing out oddly next to the drab shipping wharf. In the next moment, as I watched people waiting on benches and boarding buses, it occurred to me that these were commuters, using a terminal the same as my near and dear subway stops and Grand Central station.
A few times, I have been stopped almost literally in my tracks by the eerily familiar, like the green and white street signs designed identical to the ones in my Bay Ridge hometown—but the surnames written on them, European or not, bear reference to people I don’t know, a different history than was written on the streets of my childhood. Living on a ship docked at the end of a huge commercial shipping wharf has to be one of the stranger things about living in Suva: this is a separate city in itself, a desolate and expansive maze of metal industrial shipping containers, bearing the logos of international corporations. One of our neighbors, a cargo ship from Hamburg, makes us seem tiny: with its huge metal hull, it seems too big for the water itself, sitting unmoved by the swells or the wind like a giant in a baby’s cradle.
Yet even here, I’ve been arrested by the familiar. Our other neighbor is a colony of very noisy birds that live in a tin parking lot building a few yards from the ship. If you’re brave, you can take a shortcut to the boat from the wharf gate by running through this shed, weaving your way through the cars decimated by bird poop, the sound of the birds ringing in your ears, amplified to sound like the jabbering of millions. Believe it or not, this shed is what reminds me the most of home. The minute I walked through it, I remembered the notorious passageway underneath the FDR drive, a highway that runs through the Lower East Side in Manhattan—the one dubbed the “Pigeon Palace” by me as a kid.
Westerners often fall into the habit of describing places like Fiji as “exotic”—the word implies, among other things, total newness and otherness. I’ve come to realize that Suva is neither exotic nor identical to the cities I’m used to. It is familiar and unfamiliar all at once—but no less a hodgepodge of cultural influences than New York itself. In keeping with that anthropological phrase, I might return home only to wonder why the bus drivers don’t keep their doors open when they drive, or why none of the buildings are painted bright orange.
P.S. Hi, family. As you can see, I’m not dead. I love you.
P.P.S. Hi, friends! Hopefully the many postcards I’ve sent make it back to you. To those at Carleton, please hug everybody I know on campus for me and shake it hard at the Silent Dance Party in my honor. Thinking of your lovely faces keeps me up when I’m down.