October 1, 2014
My birthday today so I take the liberty of writing a particularly long post!!
After the first few weeks of total sensory overload, I have begun to make some sense of the time here by focusing on one particularly striking difference to Fijians: my over-dependence on eyesight. Maybe it is for general lack of use of my other senses like hearing and smell that they have felt under assault since being here. Life in Fiji is certainly loud and inundated by strong scents – beautiful and not.
In so many interactions and situations, I have been struck by the ability of Fijians of all ages to walk, either barefoot or at the most in flip-flops, in places where most North Americans like myself, would fear to tread without sturdy hiking shoes, trekking poles and a high-powered flashlight. While I stare at my feet and grasp a walking stick for every footstep of an 11-hour hike both up and down a slick and thickly root bound, rain forested mountain, my guide (in borrowed gumboots with the soles falling off!) watches and warns me carefully about particularly dangerous spots as well as points out the flowers I miss spotting along the way (15 metres up!!). The two flip-flop-shod gazelles in their twenties race both ahead and back down the mountain, with plenty of time to gather rare flowers from the treetops. The bounty from the coconut trees they’ve climbed are quickly chopped open, as they walk, using 18-inch machetes without missing a step or a beautiful vista ahead of them. Thankful for the boys’ prowess, my body and brain are revived by copious amounts of coconut water and flesh, as well as freshly chopped sugar cane (delicious!!). Finally at the end of the long hike, crossing a river, putting full trust in my solid hiking shoes, I take a confident step on a dry rock, slip and end up nursing a tennis-ball-sized bruise on my leg for 3 days. Damn!!
Eyesight – for me at present, the most disturbing and clearest indicator of the aging process. With time to think and reflect, I notice how much I rely on that failing sense and how I am concerned by the effect it is already having on my work. Much to the amazement and amusement (these people LOVE to laugh, both with and at each other!!) of middle-aged Fijians, this 54-year old has the energy and strength to trek up a very challenging mountain but the reality is that my falls and eye issues concern me far more than I’d like to admit. At what point will I begin to limit my activities because this one particular sense is letting me down?
Reading material this week: “The Brain that changes itself” by Dr. Norman Doidge. By good fortune, the book was on my son Jonathan’s Kobo which I am borrowing for this journey. Turns out it’s broadly about brain maps, plasticity, and how senses, thoughts, movement are recorded in various and changeable sections of the brain. Essentially, it demonstrates how, when we neglect to use particular senses for whatever reason, our brains switch to using the intended map area for a different purpose. By relying heavily on vision, for instance, we severely limit development of other senses and in fact, the area that could be used for those others is quickly hijacked by the visual. Eventually, the space allotted in the brain for other senses is simply no longer available, without real effort to retrain them.
This all seems highly technical but the evidence has been so obvious in the past weeks here that I can’t ignore the implications. Here, children jump barefoot on wet rocks, do back flips into 2-foot deep water and run around on hard, broken coral paths, completely unaware of any possible discomfort or danger, all the while developing and strengthening the neural pathways in their brains and their kinesthetic sense of their bodies within space. In our highly-developed our society, the majority of children waste away in front of screens doing schoolwork, watching TV and texting with their friends who may be sitting only a few feet away! Recreational time is widely spent in organized games that although valuable in many ways, can also limit the creative potential of the child both physically, mentally and emotionally.
In putting all these ideas together, I decided to become my own science experiment. The path to my bure (traditional Fijian house) is relatively steep and uneven with a few stairs and numerous frogs thrown in for a little excitement. After 3 days, I can already take this path more securely at night without a flashlight than in broad daylight! And I now also perceive and enjoy far more beautiful scents, like the lemon trees at night. The brain has such huge potential for quick and lasting change if we take the time to use it well.
My newest definition: Fiji Time – moving forward at a pace that is in tune with the space of which one is an integral part.
Resolution as I celebrate my birthday and prepare to leave Fiji: maintain Fiji time, taking a pace slow enough (preferably barefoot) to feel the ground and see with my feet. Walk confidently in the dark, and resist the incredibly strong temptation to look down when walking in the light. Recover space in my brain for all of my senses. Look up and spot the rare flowers hidden in the heights of whichever jungle I am exploring.
By the way, according to Doidge and considerable scientific research, just imagining what we want to achieve can physically change our brain in such a way that the dream soon becomes reality. Now that seems like a great lesson to carry forward from this first month of my sabbatical.
Students, consider yourselves fairly warned that your first lesson when I’m back will involve a hike up a mountain in the dark! Better start practicing now!!