Ricky Kresslein

Shirt Swaps and Mildew


If you are coming to Fiji, I would suggest you don’t bring any nice clothes. Not because it is not necessary to look nice here—it is, but in a different way than in America—or because you will be targeted by thieves as a rich tourist, though you will, or even because they will get dirty, which will definitely happen. Nice clothes don’t belong in Fiji because they will be destroyed. Yes, the clothes will get muddy and bloody, but that stuff washes out...sometimes. The biggest problems are mold, critters, and washing laundry by hand.

Mold and mildew grow on everything. It can’t always be seen, but it can be smelled. My belts are mildew, as are all of my clothes that I hang up, my shoes, my backpack, and the fabric that hangs from my only interior doorway to provide some privacy. If washed, the smell goes away, only to return a day or two later. The only thing one can really do is endure it.

I am from Virginia. Virginia is extremely humid, especially in the summer, and I have occasionally seen on the weather report that the humidity reached one-hundred percent. This was either a lie, or Fiji has defeated the laws of science to increase its humidifying capabilities to reach two-hundred or even three-hundred percent. Occasionally, when it has been particularly wet and rainy, I go to bed only to find that my mattress, pillow, and blanket are wet. Just another thing to endure.

So, with air so humid, one can only imagine that it does not take much time for mildew to completely attack and destroy clothing, a backpack, a pair of shoes, or anything else one wishes not to throw away. So, when coming to Fiji, always pack old t-shirts, or some that are disposable. One of the greatest lessons I have received in life is not following my own advice on this. It taught me that I was way too attached to meaningless items like shirts. Now I have decided to go home with completely different shirts than I came with. Or maybe none at all.

The reader may think that I will do this by ruining all of my shirts and buying new ones. Rest assured, this is not the case. There is a phenomenon in Fiji called “shirt swapping” and it must be one of the greatest inventions I have ever come across.

In Fiji, there is a relationship between people called tavale. The best English translation would be cousin, though it is not a cousin in the blood-tied way that we use it. A tavale can be one’s brother-in-law, cousin by blood, friend, acquaintance, or random stranger just met on the street. It can be anyone, really.

A man can shirt swap his tavale with no questions asked, at any time. The process involves is simple. Sometimes, it starts with, “I like your shirt.” The tavale might say, “Thanks, I like your shirt, too.” Then the original man will ask, “Trade?” take off his shirt, and toss it to his tavale. Then the tavale does the same. Voila—the men have performed a shirt swap.

Usually, the swap is much simpler. A man sitting in a kava circle spots his tavale, takes off his shirt, and throws it at him. The tavale is obligated to do the same. Thus, the shirt swap.

I have performed about five shirt swaps thus far, all of which I have initiated. Fijians are much too polite to ask for the shirt off the back of a kaivulagi. After a couple of these, I have become a bit sad to have lost a shirt whose origins I can recall. Then I think about it and realize that it is ridiculous to mourn the loss of a piece of fabric stitched to other pieces of fabric.

So, when traveling to Fiji, whether as a Peace Corps Volunteer or otherwise, remember to travel only with clothing that can be easily replaced. Whatever you bring will be destroyed. And by packing some cheap t-shirts, one can leave the country with a suitcase full of Fijian made shirts. Believe me, Fijians wear some funny shirts. Attached is a photo of a boy I saw at a primary school. It is hard to read in the picture, but this five-year-old boy is wearing a shirt that says, “Lock up your daughters!”