SEA Currents: Robert C. Seamans
October 22, 2015
18° 08.13’S x 178° 25.38’E
Anchored in Suva Harbor, Fiji
Partly cloudy. Hot, humid day, temperature 89° F.
When the U.S. Exploring Expedition anchored in Fiji in 1842, the men aboard paced nervously, for they knew what waited for them beyond the seductive, white sand beaches; cannibals. Fiji (known then notoriously as the cannibal isles) was home to some of the most savage man-eaters in the Pacific whose appetite for human flesh was matched only by their prowess in war. In terms of their culture, the best Western analog to the Fijians are Spartans: unparalleled by their rivals, and known for producing some of the most legendary violence in human history. (The men of this expedition would later experience this first-handedly during a massacre on the island of Malalo, west of Viti Levu.)
One hundred and seventy-three years later, the SPICE program finds itself treading on the same shores. As I walk out of the commercial wharf area and into the heart of adjacent Suva, it is hard not to be impressed by how dramatically a full century of British influence can change a culture's identity. For one thing, Fiji's ethnic composition is now about 40% Indian-mostly the descendants of indentured laborers brought in by the British in the latter half of the 19th century to work on sugar plantations. Curry, sweet and pungent, floats in the air. Down the street, two men mutter something in Hindi and shake hands, smiling. Hot, sweaty air tugs at my clothes, which bears the accumulated grime of a 7-day sea journey. I blink and remind myself that India is nearly 6000 miles away. Yet, empirically, reality suggests otherwise.
Suva is not easy to describe. A motley collection of high-rise buildings-the tallest of which are nearly sky-scraper class-shape the skyline, a testament to man's dominance over nature in this tiny patch of the Pacific Ocean. Suva: the Pacific annex of New York City. "It's poppin' here." Commerce and industry have combined forces, creating an environment of noisy cars and human bodies rushing past. After days on distant seas and in the tiny island communities of Apia and Mata-Utu, I am overwhelmed by the dynamic sounds of this metropolis and can't hear myself think. Luckily, the oasis of a college campus lies nearby.
The University of the South Pacific, the preeminent institution of tertiary and quaternary education in the South Pacific, resides in Suva. (USP has satellite campuses in Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and Samoa, but Suva is the flagship campus where most of the intellectual wealth is concentrated.) Classmate Chris Losco and I investigate the night scene on campus. We are curious: what does it feel like to be a student in this remote region of the world? We run into a USP student and introduce ourselves. Five minutes later, we find ourselves on a night tour of campus.
The cool evening breeze feels good against my neck after a blistering day in the tropical sun. Somewhere above, the silhouette of a palm tree sways gently back and forth. Our guide has a sense of humor and offers us a bottle of Fiji WaterR. The campus is a walking campus with little knolls and curvy paths lined with strange flowering plants whose vibrant colors are hardly discernable in the night. It feels like Amherst in the spring. Nostalgia hits me hard. I remember what it feels like to walk a good long way within the created security and comfort of a grassy campus, away from real life. A few other students chat quietly in the moonlit courtyard. No cars; tranquility and peace like none you can find in the heckling city. I lie down on the grass and just listen. Could I be at home here? I close my eyes and, smiling, let myself be transported back home, where the sweet grassy meadow beckons.