Often it is hard to describe to Westerners why it is sometimes so frustrating doing work, or sometimes anything productive, in third world countries and especially Fiji. I like describing these events not as a way to bash Fiji or the developing world but to help give perspective to those who have never experienced life without all the conveniences the West takes for granted. These conveniences are not just in water, electricity, infrastructure, and food but also relate to a more general sense the practical awareness of getting things accomplished without having to make every situation difficult. That latter part of that sentence doesn’t make a whole lot of sense so here is the story to help drive home my point.
I am starting up a rain harvesting tank (catchment) inspection program in the village and requested hydrogen sulfide test tubes from the World Health Organization office in Suva. They offer these to start up water testing programs in villages helping prevent the spread of water born pathogens. (Fiji is currently the highest ranked country for Typhoid.) My contact at WHO, Tema, responded immediately to my request and air freighted a box of the tubes to a courier’s office in Taveuni. The problem was she didn’t notify me she did this so I had no idea they were waiting for me there a couple of days after my initial request. The courier also didn’t think it important he advise me they arrived. In his defense my number wasn’t on the box but may have been on the shipping label. Regardless, it sat in his office for quite some time.
When I followed up with Tema about three weeks later she informed me she had shipped them some time ago and gave me the name of the office that received them, CDP. It just so happened the island council was going to that office the same day to send a broken freezer via ship to Suva. Coincidences like this just don’t happen in Fiji and I had a personal mental celebration of this gloriously harmonious event of supreme logistical efficiency. When the boat captain returned from delivering the freezer he informed me the office was closed and is only open during the morning of the day the ship arrives, which is one day a week. So he was forced to leave the freezer outside the office. I quickly told my brain not to try and make sense of how any business can sustain itself on four hours a week and reminded myself I.F.F. , translated: It’s, Flippin’, Fiji (G-rated edited version).
Plan B, as it is always important to have at least 12 contingency plans while working in Fiji, was to have the boat captain pick the package up the next time he went on a Wednesday morning. Thankfully, the island’s lack of efficiency in fuel delivery scheduling worked for me here as fuel runs are made on an “as-need” basis and could happen any day of the week. I had to leave for training in Suva so I left the situation in the hands of Petueli, the interim chairman while most of the councilors attend one meeting in Tuvalu and do to ship schedules are there for 4-6 weeks.
I got back from training to find out the package had still not been retrieved. To Petueli’s credit he had waited outside the shipping office for an hour trying to get the staff to look for the package. I started thinking the package might be at the Post Office so I grabbed the Yellow Pages, yes Fiji has Yellow Pages, and tried to find the number. The Yellow Pages are organized with White Pages, Yellow Pages, and government directory at the beginning. Since the post office is a government run organization I thought it natural it be in the government section. Nope, not the case, it is in the White Pages. I was slightly amused, however, to find the police department under ‘F’ for Fiji Police, rather than ‘P’ for police. I immediately visualized a poor tourist frantically thumbing through the ‘P’ pages while an angry mob of youth plummet him inside a phone booth.
After finding the Post Office number and getting no answer after several dials, I contacted Tema and she gave me a name and number for the shipping agency. I noticed the shipping agency name had changed from CDP to Venus and suspected this was the root of the confusion. So I contacted Michael at the Venus office and asked him if he had my package. He looked for all of 10 seconds and then said no. He gave me the number of the sea freight office nearby. I called them on the number he gave me and it was disconnected. After calling back and getting another number the lady on the other end also looked for about 10 seconds and said she didn’t have it.
I was almost at the point of giving up but couldnÂ’t waste the monumental amount of time, words, and phone minutes invested in this amazingly simple process. I put on my thinking cap and retraced my steps to the beginning of the process. I started to wonder if WHO had shipped the package at all. But this seemed unlikely as Tema always quickly responded to my emails in a professional manner making me think she probably followed through with her commitments. I then went to the mystery of the two shipping offices. One of them was lying and it was my duty to get to the bottom of it. If I confronted them I knew I would get nowhere but if I made it sound like it was my mistake some progress might be made. Saving face in Fiji is culturally more important than accountability. So I called Michael back and said that I was mistaken and the box may not have my name on it but instead my number. Thus the reason why he couldn’t find it had changed from him not looking for it to me not giving him the correct information. This worked like a charm and this time after actually looking around he found the box. It took all of 15 seconds.
It just so happened Jone was making a fuel run from the island and could pick up the package that same day. I was hoping when I received the box it had been mislabeled so some sense could be made of all this. Nope, it had a 12”x12” bright white label with my name, address, and “US Peace Corps Volunteer” all in 24 point font on BOTH sides of the box. Tema had even liberally taped the sides with a 2” wide tape with World Health Organization printed on it in blue letters. I don’t think I have ever received a less inconspicuous package. So what have I learned from this exchange; frankly, nothing, other than I.F.F.