During Peace Corps homestay, a volunteer’s host family is provided a fairly decent sum of money to provide all food. This includes the preparation of food, though the volunteer is encouraged to learn how the locals cook the local foods. For us in Fiji, we were required to learn to scale and gut a fish, husk and scrape a coconut, and peel cassava and taro. However, many of the host moms would not allow the male volunteers to perform these tasks.
Once I moved to Tawake (link) I was forced to provide my own food. This meant going to town about once a month to buy it, store it, and finally, cook it. Each of these contains its own challenges, so I will provide the details one by one.
Let us start with buying food. My village has a small canteen where I can buy things like Ramen noodles, canned tuna, rice, sugar, and a few other dry goods. Otherwise, I have to go to town. I can choose to go to either Savusavu or Labasa. Both are about the same distance, but each has its pros and cons. Labasa town is huge (relatively) and I don’t like how many people need to be pushed through to get anywhere. It is dirty and scorching hot but it is cheap. So cheap that people from Savusavu often travel the two and a half hours it takes to get there if they need to make big purchases.
Savusavu on the other hand is quaint and peaceful. It is on the rainy side of the island so its lush palms and jungles mix with the calm, sapphire bay in the background. It is approximately a quarter the size of Labasa, and there are not too many people, even on a busy day. The bus is a little bit faster (three hours and forty-five minutes as opposed to Labasa’s four hour ride) and it arrives at the pick-up point a bit earlier. Savusavu is my choice when I go to town.
Actually buying food is a huge pain. Everything I need is usually spread out between multiple shops across town. Healthy foods that will keep, like black beans, dhal, chick peas, and (surprisingly) eggplant are expensive and sold dry. I can buy canned black beans but they cost $2.50/can and it is hard to transport fifteen or more cans of beans back to my site. Especially when I am also carrying fifteen or more cans of tuna.
Because buying food in town, I mostly started buying food in the village. This means I ate rice and dhal soup, eggplant and Ramen, breakfast crackers and peanut butter, or tuna on rice every single day of the week, only changing the routine when someone in the village was kind enough to provide me a meal (usually about five meals per week). I got really tired of these few foods very quickly.
The next problem is cooking. I only have a two burner propane stove to cook on and limited cookware. These things are sufficient to cook, and though more options would have been nice, I have no room to complain about such luxury.
Where I do complain is clean-up. I hate it. I only have one water spigot, outside next to my bathroom. There is no sink, just a spout that spews water into the dirt beneath. No place to put my dirty dishes to be washed, or to set them to dry while I finish the others. This means that each dish I have to walk out to the spigot, rinse it off, bring it back in, lather it with soap, bring it back out to wash, then bring it in to dry. Every single dish. It gets old, fast.
Lastly is eating. Obviously, there is no table in my hut. I sit on the ground to eat, just as I do for everything else. I have no problem with this. Actually, I enjoy it. Now when I go somewhere a table is available, I will sit on the floor instead if it is an option. The problem with eating is that I have to eat every last bit of food. I don’t have a refrigerator to store things, so when I cook I have to make just the right amount or else it will go to waste or I will still be hungry.
Thus, food was a bit of a nightmare for me. Up until the beginning of this month, that is.
A couple weeks ago I began paying my tata (father) in the village to provide and cook all of my meals. This may sound expensive, but it only costs me $10 FJD per week (about $5 USD). Forty dollars per month is less than I was paying for groceries, and that doesn’t include the convenience of having someone else cook and call or bring the food when it’s ready.
This arrangement has been a sanity saver. I no longer cook unless I have an overwhelming desire to do so (almost never). I don’t have to wash many dishes. When I go to town I can just enjoy being there, and buy the occasional jar of peanut butter, rather than run around town like a madman with a ton of bags trying to get everything I need without forgetting anything.
Now I am free to enjoy my time in the village, without feeling that the majority of my day is going towards the preparation, eating, and cleanup of food. I have more time to go up to the school to see the children, go to the nursing station, talk with people in the village, read, write, and watch movies.
If anyone in America or other Peace Corps Volunteers around the world have the opportunity to make such an arrangement, I would highly suggest it. It was so nice getting back from two weeks in Suva (link) on Tuesday knowing that when I got here I could focus on cleaning my house and unpacking rather than making myself lunch. Having meals provided is the best thing I’ve ever done with my life.