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Encounters on the Rugby Field

Every day when I drive home from town, I pass a rugby field. 

I actually pass half a dozen rugby fields, but this one in particular always catches my eye. Twice I’ve been honked at for slowing down to watch the players scurry around the field. Fijians are nothing short of obsessed with rugby, and I seem to have gotten the bug. Perhaps it’s something in the water. 

Today I finally decided to stop and watch. I parked my car alongside the massive green, grabbed my camera, then inched up to the side of the field. I felt a little self-conscious—between my big camera and my car stamped with a large “RENTAL” sticker, I was certainly out of place. But I always get a little braver from behind the lens, and within a few minutes I was right on the sidelines, furiously snapping away. 

There must have been six different teams sprawled across the field, ranging from an excitable group of preteens to office intramural teams. There was also very fit group of college students that threw themselves into the muddy ground with such vigor that I was shocked all their limbs were still attached. 

They THROW PEOPLE IN THE AIR in this sport.

They THROW PEOPLE IN THE AIR in this sport.

The guy in the San Diego jersey was an absolute champ. 

The guy in the San Diego jersey was an absolute champ. 

Most of the players on the field were so engrossed in their practice that they didn’t notice I was there, but there was one older gentleman who kept looking over at me. He seemed more curious than threatening, but still I was wary. When the group took a break to grab some water, he made a beeline to where I was standing. 

“You must be the American girl who is taking pictures all over town”. 

I was startled. I did seem to fit that description. 

“Uh, yes, hi! I’m Erin”, I stammered. 

“You took my brother’s picture last week”. 

How could you possibly know that, I wanted to ask. But instead I said, “How did you recognize me?” 

“You’re blonde and seemed like an American”. 

I laughed. Although I always try to play the local everywhere I travel, it was true I didn’t exactly fit in. Between my light hair, blue eyes, pale skin, imposing camera, lack of traditional dress, and bright backpack, I stuck out like a sore thumb. And being from the United States immediately draws attention—although American tourists are common in the resorts, amongst the towns and villages we are few and far between. I haven’t met another American traveler in the two weeks I’ve been here. 

The rugby player asked the normal range of questions: Where are you from, how old are you, are you alone, what are you doing here, etc. Anywhere else these questions might seem odd (or downright creepy), but here they’re completely harmless. I talked to him about rugby, my grant with National Geographic (“Is that the one with the yellow box”?), and my upcoming travel plans to other islands around Fiji. He asked me multiple times how I liked it here: Is your host family nice? Are you excited to see Taveuni? Do you like Suva?. It was as if he was responsible for making sure the country put their best foot forward for me. 

He and I chatted for about ten minutes, long after his comrades had started playing again. Eventually he turned and said “Well Erin, nice to meet you. Perhaps I will see you around Suva”. I thanked him for coming up to say hello, and he smiled. 

“That’s what we do when we see new faces in town”. 

He ran off to rejoin the team, leaving me once again pleasantly surprised at the kindness of the strangers.

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"The chief is ready for you": One night in a Fijian village

“The chief is ready for you”, Jone whispered. “Remember, don’t stand up once you sit down. And mind you sulu when you cross your legs”. 

I hurriedly tightened my sarong-like sulu around my waist, bowed my head, and followed Jone into the house. 

The chief sat solemnly in the center of the room, illuminated by a single fluorescent light. Along the left wall, three villagers sat silently, their faces partly in shadow. The four of us entered single-file and took our places on the right side of the room. Our two guides, Jone and a local villager who we knew as James Bond sat in front of the chief. James Bond began to speak. 

It was Saturday night in the village of Denimanu, an outpost on the remote island of Yadua. Our group, composed of representatives from the IUCN and Fiji’s National Trust, had spent the day on neighboring Yadua Taba, a small spit of land home to 95% of the world’s population of Fiji crested iguanas. We came to the island to observe this critically endangered species and learn more about the successful efforts to return the island to its natural state. This conversation, like many regarding conservation on Fiji, could not be complete without talking about the engagement of the local community. 

The Fijian crested iguana turns dark when it's angry. This one isn't too pleased with me, but he makes for a great photo. 

The Fijian crested iguana turns dark when it's angry. This one isn't too pleased with me, but he makes for a great photo. 

Fiji is nothing if not deeply rooted in tradition. It permeates every facet of life here, from appropriate dress to land ownership to social encounters. Understanding and respect of the complex web of Fiji’s social structure is imperative to accomplishing anything. 

Which is why I found myself cross-legged on a woven matt, head bowed as I listened to James Bond softly speak to the chief. He spoke in the local language of bau, his voice almost purring as he rolled over soft l’s and k’s, the chief saying nothing but an occasional “vinaka” or “thank you”. After a few minutes Jone pulled out two wrapped packages. One was a yaqona, or kava root, which the chief inspected briefly before handing it to another villager to his right. Then Jone presented a much smaller package, which the chief unwrapped and studied very closely. It was a tabua, or whale’s tooth, a rare gift that is the ultimate sign of respect and gratitude. The chief looked at each of us in turn before saying a soft “vinaka”. 

It was the chief’s turn to speak. He continued in bau, rarely glancing at us but rather focusing on Jone and James Bond. I was prepared for this part of the ceremony: this was when the chief decides whether or not to bless us with his permission and allow us to stay the night in the village. Typically, we would have sought the chief’s permission before venturing to Yadua Taba, but the strong wind and waves had prevented us from completing this courtesy. But the National Trust has a long established relationship with Denimanu, and our whale’s tooth was representative of our respect for the village. 

Whale's teeth are hard to come by, making them a rare and significant gift to a village chief. 

Whale's teeth are hard to come by, making them a rare and significant gift to a village chief. 

The chief finished speaking and the atmosphere in the room shifted significantly. Suddenly, everyone was much more relaxed, and a few of the villagers even began to talk amongst themselves. The chief had given us his blessing. 

Robin Yarrow, one of my fellow travelers, asked to speak. Although Robin is of Australian descent, he was raised in Fiji and has lived here all his life and dedicated his career to civil service. He is currently chair of the Board of National Trust of Fiji, and organization committed to protecting Fiji’s natural and cultural heritage, and the group responsible for maintaining the iguana sanctuary on Yadua Taba. 

“It is truly an honor to be here and to have visited the iguanas today”, he said. “This sanctuary is something all of Fiji can be proud of”. He continued, “This would not be possible without the support of your people. Thank for your continued support, and we hope to keep this relationship for years to come”. 

He wasn’t exaggerating: the island is leased from the locals to use as a sanctuary, and the villagers provide the manpower to remove the invasive weeds that destroy the iguana’s habitat. Without their support, the sanctuary wouldn’t exist and the iguanas would be on the fast track to extinction. 

As Robin spoke, the chief smiled and thanked him. You could tell he was proud. 

And therein lies the key to the success of the sanctuary. The local villagers not only participate in conservation efforts, they are proud to do so. The iguanas are a large part of their identity, and they feel the drive and the responsibility to protect them. This is largely due to the National Trust directly engaging the locals in management and respecting their local traditions, a model that should be emulated through the rest of the country and throughout the world. 

The chief spoke to Jone, who then turned to us. “He has invited us to stay for kava”, he said. Of course we accepted and thanked him profusely. Because when a chief offers you something, you don’t say no. 

Some younger villagers took our kava root outside, and soon you could hear a distinct boom clink, boom clink as they ground the root into powder. Another villager brought in a large wooden bowl and rested it on the floor in front of the chief while more and more men filed in, each taking their seat around the perimeter of the room. 

Younger members of the village prepare the kava as the chief sits on the far right. 

Younger members of the village prepare the kava as the chief sits on the far right. 

For the next twenty minutes, I observed quietly as the young men filtered the power into the bowl, speaking softly and occasionally clapping at appropriate moments throughout the ritual, a deep booming clap that seemed to shake the ground. The chief took the first drink of kava, then offered it to Jone, then to Robin, then to me. I clapped, took the coconut shell filled with muddy-looking water, and swallowed it in one gulp. It tasted exactly like it looked (like muddy water), but I kept a straight face and thanked him. Immediately its anesthetic properties started to take effect and my tongue turned numb, followed by my lips and the rest of my mouth. By the third round, I simply felt peaceful and content. 

We were interrupted (saved?) from the continuing rounds of kava by an announcement that dinner was ready. I stood (careful that my sulu was still secure) and turned to thank the chief, bowing my head in gratitude. I left the room feeling thankful that I was able to witness this sacred piece of Fijian ritual and inspired by the dedication of the villagers to the iguanas of Yadua Taba. 

If we could all interact with each other and the environment with as much respect and gratitude as these Fijian villagers do, the world would be a much better place. 

A young boy walks between houses in the Denimanu village on Yadua. 

A young boy walks between houses in the Denimanu village on Yadua. 

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Invasive Species Spotlight: Common myna

A common myna in Suva, Fiji. Not pictured: Me crawling around in a parking lot trying to get this photo. 

A common myna in Suva, Fiji. Not pictured: Me crawling around in a parking lot trying to get this photo. 

Name: Acridotheres tristis

Native Range: Asia

Introduced Range: South Pacific Islands, Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, United States (Florida), and more. 

Introduction: Myna birds were intentionally introduced to Fiji in the late 1800s to control pests on sugar cane crops. Now, have become one of the worst invasive species in Fiji, and are one of only three birds mentioned on the world’s 100 most invasive species list.  

Why are they harmful?: In India, myna birds are called the “Farmer’s friend” because they eat insects that destroy crops. In their invaded range, however, they damage bananas, pawpaws, chilis, and other crops that are a necessary source of income for rural farmers. They are also simply annoying: they steal food from kitchens, pollute drinking water with droppings, and congregate on building roofs in large numbers, resulting in a bad smell. And they are LOUD.

Most disturbingly, Mynas are fiercely territorial and have been observed destroying the eggs of other birds native to Fiji. Although they only use one nest during breeding season, they create many nests simply to reduce the available nesting space for other birds. They also harass other native birds by pushing hatchlings from their nests and chasing birds away from food sources, sometimes just for fun.   

Methods of control: Some have used chemical control (poisons), but this method is quite expensive and kills household birds and pets if accidentally consumed. A cheaper and more humane method is a Pee Gee (PG) trap that lures mynas in with food. This trap is environmentally friendly and catches the birds live, meaning that non-targeted animals and birds can easily be released, unharmed. A study conducted in rural Fijian villages found that a PG trap collect about 30% of resident mynas, although these traps need to be monitored frequently as they are sometimes disturbed by village kids of predators like cats and dogs. Another method is removing myna nests, although in urban areas nests can be difficult to reach, as they are often on building roofs. 

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Photos: Into the Rainforest

This week I took a trip to Colo-I-Suva Forest Park, a gorgeous patch of low-altitude rainforest just north of Suva. Native Fiji wildlife packs the trails between a series of waterfalls. Check out some of the photos from the hike! 

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Ignore the Signs and Go Diving

By 7:30 a.m., the universe had already given me a half a dozen reasons to give up and go to bed.

The weather was cold and rainy as I loaded my dive gear into the car, blundering blindly in the pre-dawn darkness. Within 15 minutes of leaving the house, I got hopelessly lost thanks to Fiji’s frustrating habit of only labeling about 25% of its roadways. The drive took me about two hours, as I gravely miscalculated the distance from the resort to the nearest town. Once I finally found the turn off, my car got stuck twice in the muddy roadway (I fortunately remembered my Dad’s advice when he used getting stuck in the snow as a teaching opportunity — thanks Dad).  

The rain stopped for ten minutes on my marathon drive, and it was gorgeous. 

The rain stopped for ten minutes on my marathon drive, and it was gorgeous. 

My next sign came as I was filling out my dive paperwork. One by one, each of the other five divers that signed up for the morning’s outing backed out, citing watered-down excuses like “My back hurts”, “I’m tired”, and “I want to hang out with my friends”. When it came time to board the boat, I was the only diver remaining. When I pressed my divemaster, Ilse, for information about my missing comrades, she replied casually, “It’s probably because the conditions have been so lousy. Almost everyone got sick on the boat yesterday”. 

Ouch. 

I had just a moment of hesitation before my stubbornness and overwhelming desire to dive took hold. And so curled up in a sweatshirt, cap low on my brow to protect from the blowing rain, we embarked on the 45 minute boat ride out to the site. 

They weren’t kidding about the poor conditions. The boat rhythmically lurched above the waves and landed with a resounding thud that sent shocks straight through my spine. Anything on the boat that wasn't secured chaotically flung around the deck, leading Ilse and I on an uncoordinated (at least on my part) mission to collect the items. I was certain there was about a 68% chance of me either throwing up and/or dying before we reached the site. 

Thankfully, I was saved by the instant bond of divers: I settled into a deep conversation with Ilse about our experiences as divemasters, each of us braced precariously between metal poles on each side of the boat so we wouldn't be flung off the side. It was a miraculous distraction. Even though I’ve felt seasick in waves a quarter of that size, I never once felt queasy, and the travel time passed quickly. 

By the time we reached the dive site, I was nervous. Not for the physical act of diving, but rather for what was waiting below the surface. All of my diving up to this point had been in the Western Atlantic and Caribbean, where most of the conversation revolved around the damaged nature of the reefs. I was worried this Pacific reef would be just as worn. 

It took me about 30 seconds underwater to realize what I was looking at. Stretched before me in every direction was piles of the most spectacular coral I’ve ever seen: branching Staghorn stacked five feet high, flat Tables that were actually the size of my dining room table, and colorful soft corals tucked in every nook of the rock formation. I was giddy. 

A wreck near the reef is covered with sea life. 

A wreck near the reef is covered with sea life. 

There’s something rejuvenating about immersing yourself in a healthy reef. Every square inch is teeming with life, from minuscule neon nudibranchs to swaying anemones and beyond. And the color: fish of all sizes splashed in glowing yellows, blues, reds, and purples. It’s comforting to know that no matter what happens elsewhere in the world, this place exists, with each plant and animal interacting in turn to create a spectacular ecosystem. 

Ilse and I drifted slowly along the reef, occasionally grabbing the other to point out some small crab or flatworm. We were visited by both a green sea turtle and a whitetip shark, each eyeing us lazily. After 50 minutes were emerged on the surface, freezing and thrilled. 

The stressors of the morning were long forgotten. It didn’t matter how tired, cold, hungry, or sore I was, that dive was a reminder that every minute I get to spend alongside a coral reef is truly a gift. It was also a reminder of the importance of protecting our oceans; everyone should have the opportunity to experience the beauty of these coral reef ecosystems.

Lastly, it was a reminder that sometimes you should ignore signs from the universe. Especially when those signs conflict with diving.

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Welcome to Fiji: First Impressions after 48 Hours

After a 36 hour and 8,000 mile journey across the world, I’ve officially arrived in Fiji. I’m staying in Suva, the country’s capitol city located on the southwest coast of its largest island, Viti Levu, and will be based here for the next month as I explore invasive species management in Fiji on a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant. 

The view from my apartment as I write this post. Not too shabby. 

The view from my apartment as I write this post. Not too shabby. 

This trip represents a series of firsts for me: first time in the South Pacific, first time traveling alone in a new country, first time in a place where I know absolutely no one. It’s a strange mix of elation, anticipation, and uncontrollable nervousness, and each emotion dominates in turn. 

I only have a microwave and a mini-fridge (but one outlet, so only one can be plugged in at a time). Thankfully, my pantry has the essentials: Oreos and Diet Coke. 

I only have a microwave and a mini-fridge (but one outlet, so only one can be plugged in at a time). Thankfully, my pantry has the essentials: Oreos and Diet Coke. 

The the last two days, I’ve settled into my Airbnb apartment, started to explore Suva, and finalized my plan of attack for my research. Fiji is certainly unlike any country I’ve ever been to, and each new experience has taught me more about this incredible island. Here are a few of my first impressions: 

Fiji is friendly. 

After negotiating a price for a cab into town yesterday, my driver started asking me questions (see #3). As soon as he learned this was my first time in Fiji, he made an abrupt U-turn and declared “I will show you Suva. No extra, just come with me”. Over the next forty minutes, he transformed into my own personal tour guide, showing me the stately parliament buildings, the best place to get fish, where the rugby team plays, and the university campus. He also gave me his thoughts on the Prime Minister (he likes him) and invited me over to dinner with his family. What should have been a quick ten minute drop off turned into a grand welcome to Suva, and he sheepishly wouldn’t accept any additional money over the agreed-upon fare of a measly 8FJD. I left the cab feeling warm, welcome, and excited to explore the city. 

This scene replayed itself in a variety of ways over the day, from fish sellers giving me descriptions of the best fishing spots, to a shop keeper spending a half hour describing the history of a series of beautifully-carved wooden souvenirs. She covered each one in turn, from the ceremonial “Neck Breaker” (you can deduce what it was for), to the woven cloth used in weddings. You could tell she was thrilled to have an audience with which to share her island’s culture. When I asked what she loved most about the island, she giggled and said “Fiji is the way the rest of the world should be!” 

I came home with a "Cannibal fork" which is EXACTLY WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE. 

I came home with a "Cannibal fork" which is EXACTLY WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE. 

Fiji is loud. 

No matter where you are or the time of day, Fiji hums with sound. Palm fronds rustle in the breeze as loud choruses of birds ring from all directions. In my neighborhood, there are large packs of half-domesticated dogs whose situation resembles West Side Story, in that there’s an ongoing turf war and they break into song every ten minutes. Suva’s streets are packed with (somewhat reckless) drivers, calling and honking to each other as they weave through pedestrians and crowded roundabouts. I’m constantly surrounded by a mix of languages I don’t recognize, punctuated by loud calls of “Bula!” as people see friends and neighbors on the street. The constant noise is a reminder of how alive the island is; constantly moving and changing. 

Fiji is curious. 

Unlike in the United States, Fijians aren’t afraid to ask blunt questions up front. Most people will ask a chorus of similar questions, including: Where are you from? How old are you? Are you traveling alone? Why? Are you married? etc. My apartment is also located on the grounds of a Latter Day Saints school, so a slew of religion questions typically follow: Are you Mormon? Why not? Why are you staying there? and more. They aren’t attempting to pry, it’s just a part of the culture to be outwardly curious of a person’s circumstances, especially when you’re a foreigner. Rather than being offended by these questions (although they do take a little getting used to), I find it’s a way to skip the small talk and get right to the meaty conversations. Some are surprised to see a young girl traveling alone (as one fish seller put it: “But you are only a child!”), but many respond in a protective, supportive way, as if it is their responsibility to take me under their wings. 

Nathan thinks it's crazy for infants like myself to travel alone. 

Nathan thinks it's crazy for infants like myself to travel alone. 

This, of course, is only the beginning of my experience — I have a month remaining to explore the island and further my research. But if these first few days are any indication of my time here, I can’t wait to see what the rest of the month has in store.

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How to Wear an Invasive Species

In New Orleans, I stopped by to visit Cree McCree and Megan Holmes of Righteous Fir, a group that has developed an ingenious way to repurpose invasive nutria in Louisiana. Instead of discarding of nutria carcasses after their removal from the ecosystem, McCree uses them in what she calls "a massive recycling project". 

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Invasive Species Initiative in the News

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Invasive Species Initiative in the News

I was thrilled to work with RYOT News to spread the word about invasive species efforts in New Orleans on the Millennial Trains Project! Check out the video to see Asian carp cakes, nutria jewelry, and shots of me dramatically walking around New Orleans. Click here to see the full article. 

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Exploring San Antonio with the Balcones Invaders

I had the pleasure of joining a few San Antonio locals who have made it their mission to fight back against invasive weeds in their hometown. Cheryl Hamilton, Lonnie & Judith Shockley, and Liz Robbins took me to three different removal sites to show the progress they've made and how much further they have to go. Some photos are below, with an article to come! 

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