Island adventures & the end of the line…

Ok this is probably my final post in my super fun happy Fiji blog, and I doubt it will win me any friends… it turns out it’s quite difficult to blog consistently when you’re living on a remote island in the pacific, swaying between the breeze and the loose reality of the way life should be. So I apologise in advance for the length of this post, but it should be worth the read… When I look back at my time here I realize it has been an incredible mix of adventure, work, culture and new experiences and I wouldn’t change a thing. Ok, maybe one thing – air conditioning could have featured more prominently in my life. But hey on the plus side I survived a whole year in Fiji without air-conditioning at home or at work! The only place I go for a/c is the cinema which is the most air-conditioned building in town and requires that you take a jacket to survive the hour and a half movie that you’re probably only watching in order to sit in air-conditioning.

So the highlights have included chartering a fishing boat out to Kadavu island, going to Leleuvia more times than I care to count, attending my friends wedding at the Outrigger resort and diving with sharks in Beqa. There have been others of course, like my work trip to Vanua Levu, but I would need a separate blog to cover them all so I’ll just give you tidbits from the ones i’ve mentioned starting with our Kadavu trip. This is the closest I’ve ever come to seasickness. It took 5 hours in rough open seas to get to Kadavu which is a chain of islands south of the mainland, Viti Levu. And what a beautiful spot. We left after work and arrived late at night, dropped anchor, made dinner and were gently rocked to sleep by the ocean’s current.  I woke up to the sound of a loud splash, which as it turns out was the skipper diving off the top of the boat into the water. When he surfaced I asked him whether that was a good way to wake up and he simply shrugged his shoulders and said “some people prefer coffee…” I knew this was going to be a fun weekend.

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(note: i don’t have any more photos of Kadavu because as it turns out a waterproof/shockproof camera has limits like everything else)

Waking up and seeing the colour of the water (turquoise and so clear) and our surroundings (we had arrived under the cover of darkness) was one of the most amazing moments of my entire trip. We had dropped anchor near an uninhabited island named Namara and for the next 4 days we had the place to ourselves. What ensued was snorkeling, swimming, exploring the island, cracking open coconuts (or each other’s skulls when it all got too much), eating good food and drinking ourselves into a better tomorrow. If life was meant to be lived, then this was living! And we were actually only supposed to stay for 3 days but a storm hit and the skipper wasn’t keen on heading home in the thick of it so we ended up staying an extra night. None of us were complaining. If I were to complain about something it would be this: it took almost 3 days for the feeling of sleeping on a boat (rocking from side to side) to subside after getting back on land.

Leleuvia island is a must see if you’re on the Eastern side of Viti Levu. A tiny little island but very cute and comfortable with lots of fun water-based activities and toys to play with. We got to know this island very well because it’s very accessible and serves as the de facto birthday, new volunteer ‘meet & greet’ and friends visiting spot. I remember some nights and have completely forgotten others. This was also the island where I had my first ‘biscuit’ experience. Yeah, the name is a little misleading. It’s an inflatable oval shaped water sports toy with 3 seats and is towed by a jet ski via a flimsy rope. Wow that thing was fast, and when the driver turned sharply the rope jerked and you went flying off in a super awkward position (no matter how hard you were holding on) and hit the water at top speed. Ouch. It hurt every time and on the last run I hit the water kidney-first and was completely winded for 15 minutes. Luckily this was the last run, but only because the rope snapped and we had to head back in. Fun times.

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I also got to attend my friends wedding at the Outrigger hotel & resort in Pacific Harbour. This was a slightly more civil affair and it was really nice to see so many familiar faces at once.  It was also a complete coincidence that they had planned their wedding in Fiji while I was there on assignment. We partied like it was 2013 and the bride & groom were overjoyed with having all their close friends and family there. What a bunch of… white people… seriously.

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Then for some reason I decided it would be a good idea to go diving with sharks. I got some friends together, including my friend Alekz who was visiting from Sydney, and we all drove 45mins to Pacific Harbour and from there it’s a 20 minute boat ride towards the island of Beqa. This island has featured before in my blog, but this time it was providing my friends and I with a whole new underwater perspective – unreal. We were all a little nervous by the time we suited up. As soon as we arrived to the dive site (marked by many other boats doing the same dive) the dive master cut open bags containing fish heads, fish guts and lots of blood and poured it into the water. I’m sure we all had the same look of panic on our faces by this point. Not to worry! These guys are experienced divers. And surely if someone had been eaten by a shark on one of these dives we would have heard about it? Right? You can’t sweep something like that under the rug. I mean, there would be a body and – unless of course, the body was completely devoured by a hungry shark. Ok, feeling less confident as we start our descent to 25m. And did I mention there are no cages? Oh I’m sorry, should have mentioned that at the start!

It was incredible though; watching these giant fish swim by as they devoured the little fish guts being fed to them by the diving instructors. We saw grey nurse sharks, bull sharks, white tip reef sharks and another type that had the descriptor ‘yellow’ in its name. There’s also a rope at the bottom that the dive company has set up so that you can hold onto it during strong currents and watch the feeding frenzy unfold only a few metres in front of you. For some strange reason the sharks respected the ‘viewing platform’ and did not once cross over to our side. I thought they were very polite for doing that, and we were happy to return the courtesy. They truly are remarkable creatures and it makes me sad that we go hunting and culling them every time there’s a shark attack (WA I’m looking at you).

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When not on adventure I’ve lived in Suva, a small and unremarkable city on the Eastern side of Viti Levu. While there aren’t many notable features to speak of, it is a fairly pleasant and safe peninsula city with a nice sea wall promenade that makes for a great running track. A couple of shopping centres, a main drag, a cinema, and a litter of bars and nightclubs dot the city centre. It rains 300 days out of the year, and it’s always hot and humid (I haven’t bothered checking the weather forecast for the past 11 months and can predict the weather for the next 11 months – fucking hot).

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My two housemates and I (Brenton & Elliot) have lived in a four bedroom apartment that I’ve dubbed the Junkyard on account of how basic and run down the place it, and because of the electrical workshop downstairs that gives it a very junkyard sort of feel. Buying appliances when we first arrived was an interesting experience and worth mentioning. There’s this ‘mixed business’ mega store called Rups Big Bear down the road from our apartment which sells just about anything. We purchased most of our appliances from this place and at the check out there was a procedure that we had to undergo that had me in stiches for the rest of the day. Each appliance had to be taken out of it’s box and ‘fault tested’ – this process took an extra 15-20 minutes and had staff running around looking for free power-points to plug into. Starting with the iron, which seemed to work fine, we moved onto the toaster, then came the kettles’ turn. At this point I had to intervene and assure the staff member serving me that I was willing to take my chances with the kettle and that she didn’t need to go find a tap and fill it up with water. Are you struck by a thought at this point? Are you thinking whether a hot iron and toaster were re-packaged and returned to their box after being used? Yes, that’s what happened and I carried hot appliances out the front door – but hey, at least I knew they worked. Gotta love the Feej!

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From island adventures to testing appliances to working full time at Fiji Disabled People’s Federation, my experience in Fiji has certainly not lacked variety. I talked about work before, a passionate bunch of people working towards the progressive realization of the rights of people with disabilities. Their motto is ‘nothing about us without us’ and their mission statement is ‘working towards an inclusive, rights-based and barrier-free society’. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience and I hope I’ve left my mark. One of the ladies I work with (a board member) told me the Prime Minister had written to her asking that I stay on in Fiji so I guess that’s an indication that they were happy with my work and my presence there. Of course when I asked her to show me this letter she changed the subject…

I will miss this eclectic bunch of wonderful people, there’s no doubt about it. From my laptop disappearing when I go out to lunch, to my desk being usurped for storage space when I’m not looking, there was never a day short of drama, mystery or intrigue. I will miss the weekly offer for a belly rub from one of the other staff members (we called him papa bear) and the constant laughter and singing that Fijians are well known for.  Oh, and I found out in my last month that there is an unusually high level of electricity flowing through our office… 270v to be exact. No wonder our server is always down.

I’ll share just one last story from work. This is a conversation that I overhead between two of my colleagues:

(In the office, phone rings, one of my colleagues picks it up after letting it ring for a while)

“Can you talk to this lady?
(Hands phone to my other colleague)
“Who is it?”
“A lady for you”
“Who’s on the phone?”
“I don’t know, phone call for you, some lady”
“Well what does she want?”
“She wants to talk to the CEO”
“Well then why are you giving it to me?”
“Because we don’t have a CEO and I don’t want to talk to her”
(Meanwhile a few minutes have passed and this whole conversation is audible to the lady on the phone because she was never placed on hold).

There are many other things I’ll miss about Fiji. For example, this one time I went to the post office and was asked to glue 52 individual stamps onto the package I was trying to return which cost $32 in postage fees. I was there for 20 minutes. The intermittent availability of water was always a fun feature in our lives. Sometimes the water would cut out for a week at a time; but no matter, I just pretended I was camping. And no blog post would be complete without a rant about taxi drivers. There was the guy who asked me out for lunch, numerous taxi drivers inviting me round for dinner, one particular guy who slowed down every 50m or so to spit out the window at cats (?), a jolly fellow that was particularly unhappy when I handed him a $5 note for a $2 taxi ride, another guy that insisted on telling me highly inappropriate jokes, and all of whom would ask me to marry their daughter within a few minutes of jumping into the taxi.

I have been eaten alive by mosquitos, propositioned by just about everyone and anyone in the country, endured some of the most socially and culturally awkward situations I’ve ever been in, worked hard and then not so hard, enjoyed the good times and the bad, made some great new friends, lost my cool only once or twice, and carried my own toilet paper to work for a year. I’ve never used the phrase #winningatlife so much and I’ve never appreciated the small wins as much as I do now. I’ll return to Australia better equipped to deal with whatever challenges I’ll face next, in whichever part of the world I end up. Here’s to being awesome at life, just in time for my 30s – happy days 🙂

Here’s a photo of where it all started, on the steps of Old Parliament House, Canberra, in early 2013 (I’m in there somewhere):

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Thank you to all of you that have followed my adventures and bothered to leave comments. For those that haven’t, I’m judging you and the good news is you’ll never know you’re being judged.

I’ll leave you with just a few signs that I’ve seen here and there and a couple of quotes from my friend Leslie at work. Leslie is an incredible young man with a disability who has more courage and positivity than anyone I know. When he was only young and still in primary school he stepped on an exposed live wire when walking home from school one day with his friends. He was hospitalised for a very long time, has had multiple skin grafts and operations, and had to have his right leg amputated as a result. He was my constant source of inspiration and entertainment at work. I will miss you Leslie.

I saw this sign on a school gate and thought it was very appropriate: ‘Stupid people have no respect for wisdom’

I saw this sign in a nightclub: ‘A reasonable standard of behaviour is expected’

And this one was displayed at a resort in the Yasawas: ‘Be Politely’

And a few quotes from Leslie –

Leslie: “Man it’s already September. I want to be the first to wish you merry Christmas”
Me: “Um, thanks buddy”

And this gem –

Leslie: “I’m going to die”
Me: “Why Les?”
Leslie: “I just want to see how many people cry at my funeral and then I’ll wake up”

And my personal favourite –

Me: “Hey, where were you?”
Leslie: “In town”
Me: “Have you already had lunch?”
Leslie: “Yes. I ate four Big Mac meals”
Me: “Four! Really?”
Leslie: “Yes. I asked for 4 Big Macs, but I only wanted the burgers. They ended up giving me four meals”
Me: “What did you do?”
Les: “I paid for the four meals and ate them”
Me: “Good god Leslie”

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My first day at work (for all you haters out there, see I work!)

Thinking back now, I was really excited about my first day of work. Was excited to work out how to get to work, to meet the people I’ll be working with, to understand more about my role, and to get stuck into what I was here for: developing the capacity of my ‘counterpart’ and that of organization as a whole. Hmm, sounds easy enough right…

The morning started with a brisk walk to the bus station where I needed to work out which bus to hop on (this was a fun experience in itself). Once I was on board, we waited until the bus was full before leaving the station. In other words, there’s no real time table or system, just a simple glance in the rearview mirror to see that the bus is full before the driver speeds off. Just before we took off a guy approached the bus and held up one of those old-school 250ml glass coke bottles with a straw in it. He was holding it up for a girl on the bus to sip from, presumably his younger sister or something. When the bus started reversing out of the station, the girl held onto the bottle and continued to drink which forced the guy to walk alongside the bus as it reversed. All her friends started laughing and he started saying something in Fijian to the effect of ‘you can’t have all of it’ while smirking back at her and her friends. She waited until the bus had picked up a bit of speed before letting go. I thought this was very cute and remember thinking to myself ‘Fiji, you’re alright’.

Riding the buses in Fiji is always an adventure. They don’t have windows so there’s always an amazing breeze and the driver is usually pumping island beats through an elaborate Kenwood speaker system with wires hanging out of every which place. Oh, and each bus has a strange name. Yes, they name their buses here. The first time I rode the bus was during the amazing race (see earlier post) and that particular bus had a Céline Dion island beat remix playing and it was fantastic! Almost made Celine Dion bearable. I also think Australia could learn a thing or two from Fiji here. I think people would be much happier arriving to work if they had music playing on buses, particularly happy island reggae. I know it will never happen, but boy does it put you in a good mood in the morning! And you don’t even mind how slow the bus is going (or how it’s falling apart while moving) when there’s music pumping. Although I will say this, it is surprising how often I find myself thinking: ‘for fucks sake, just drop it down into a lower gear!’ when going uphill on a bus.

Arriving at work was like arriving for your first day in a new school. There were about 9 people crammed into a tiny little ground floor office with no air-conditioning (or landscaping for that matter). I met everyone, had a mini-orientation and then sat down at my desk and scratched my head thinking ‘what do I do now?’ So I decided to start with the basics like finding the light switch. I searched everywhere and then eventually had to ask, thinking to myself this is probably not a good start. Turns out the light switch could be found wedged between the 19th and 20th of Oct, covered by the wall calendar. This made me feel better about my inability to find it in the first place, and I took a permanent marker and highlighted these two dates on the calendar to remember. This was more of a joke but I think my colleagues may have taken me seriously on that particular occasion.

I don’t want to go on about my working conditions, it’s an NGO in a developing country after all, but I will share just a couple of stories. Firstly, let’s talk hazards – the office kettle. The spout is broken so when you pour boiling water out of it into a mug, it pours all over your hands, pants, feet and the floor. Imagine feeling like a cup of tea and then thinking twice because there’s no mop handy. Then there’s its location, nestled between power cords, extension leads and other office equipment. No exaggeration here, the kettle is actually located at the back of a couple of PC towers, at the foot of the server, tangled in between all the power cords and PC cables. No one seems to be phased by this, although I have politely suggested a number of times that we could find a more suitable spot for the kettle to avoid electrocution of staff. The kettle hasn’t been moved yet, but I’ll keep you posted on progress.

The second thing I think is my favourite. So behind where I work is a special school and every break time someone rings a bell so all the students and teachers know it’s time for morning tea or lunch. Makes sense right? Sure does. Every once in a while they let a particular student ring the bell. Let’s call him Gary. And let’s just say that Gary is very enthusiastic and takes his job seriously. Sometimes he doesn’t stop ringing the bell until one of the teachers comes out and snatches it from his hands.  When this happens I don’t hear from him for a little while. Oh Gary, you make me so happy.

Vuci Village Part II

Bula! So I’ve been a little slack in updating my blog. Ok, I’ve been very slack in updating my blog. Can you blame me? What would you do in my place? I’ve been having adventures, meeting all manner of new and interesting people, working away in my tiny little office, enjoying island beats, snorkeling with Manta rays, turning 28, learning sign language, completely immersing myself in the Fijian culture and fluid concept of time and so son and so forth. A lot has been happened since my last update but at the same time things don’t seem to be moving in any particular direction and at any given speed. It’s the strange lure of Pacific Time, a wonderfully pleasing yet frustrating phenomenon that dictates the pace at which things are done but surprisingly not the pace at which you live your own life. It’s hard to explain, but there seems to be a mismatch between the two and it leaves you feeling both hungry and satisfied at the same time.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes we were still at the village. I’ll wrap that up quickly: after the party on Saturday night (in our honour) we had a church service the next morning and it just so happened it was Palm Sunday (the weekend before Easter) and the children from the village were in charge of the Sunday Church service. It was a beautiful service, lots of hymns and choir singing, the kids were very cute, some as young as 2, and I said a vote of thanks on behalf of the volunteers. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but there was a lot of ‘vinaka vakalevu’ involved – basically I just thanked everyone there was to thank.

We then had a traditional lovo feast (earth oven) for lunch, for which I helped grate coconut the traditional way. Mind you they don’t do it this way anymore, but felt the need to make me do manual labour and then watch me intently. We wrapped the trip up with a farewell Kava ceremony, then packed our bags and said our goodbyes. I can’t tell you how amazing the air-conditioning was on the ride home that afternoon after a weekend of intense heat in the village. What an incredible experience.

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Vuci Village – Part I

That’s it, first week done! Completely oriented-out, still hadn’t found a home at this stage, but looking forward to our first weekend in Fiji. Our in-country manager Dan had planned for us a weekend away in his wife’s village, Vuci (pronounced Vu-thi). It’s about a 45 min drive from the city and near Nausori airport. We had cultural training before the weekend to prepare us for village life. All 7 of us would be living with a different family in the village for the weekend and we were all feeling excited, a little anxious and tired from a big first week. “But what the heck, let’s roll” I said to the group. “Shut up” they replied.

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We arrived at the village without a clue of what the hell we were doing there or how we would be spending the weekend. I guess you could say we had no expectations, which seemed to be a good frame of mind for Fiji and was quickly becoming the team motto. Plus, all the cultural sensitivity training seemed to go straight out the window. Except that I remembered it was considered disrespectful to enter a village with a hat or backpack on and so I reminded one of the volunteers of this fact as we entered. She was mortified, since she was still carrying her backpack on her shoulders, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Not to worry, we were happily greeted with a song by the villagers as well as flowers and fresh coconuts, which were so yummy and hydrating in that heat (the coconuts – I didn’t think it was appropriate to eat the flowers on our first day). They instantly won our hearts and minds and they had me at fresh coconut. We immediately proceeded to the community hall to present the ‘sevusevu’ which is an offering of Kava root to the village Ratu (chief). The sevusevu ceremony must occur when you visit a village for the first time and is considered a way of asking permission to enter the village. It’s really quite fascinating to watch and be a part of. Once the ceremony was complete we were considered ‘locals’ and were given permission to stay in the village. At this point the group separated and each went to stay with their new Fijian family. We wouldn’t see each other again for a couple of hours. You might think I’m being melodramatic but after spending so much time together in the first week it was easy to get separation anxiety. It reminded me of my little nephew who has a winge the second you put him down and walk away. Ok he’s only a baby but still. He’s cute, whatever.

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The Fijians are such warm, welcoming people and we experienced their hospitality immediately. I was especially lucky as my host family had a surprise birthday planned for that night for the husband Inoke who was turning 54. SURPRISE! Strange guy living with you for the weekend. I offered to help out with the preparations but they insisted I was their guest and refused to let me help. This resulted in me watching them work (a common feature of this weekend) and later enjoying their spoils. We had a delicious BBQ, followed by cake and Kava. From that point onwards, the night seemed to rotate around Kava sessions. Lots of Kava…

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Ok so if you’ve never tried Kava there’s nothing to fear. It’s well worth a try. Not because it tastes good (dirty laundry detergent comes to mind in terms of colour, consistency and probably taste) but because it’s a remarkable cultural experience to sit around the Kava bowl with Fijians and partake in the ritual itself. In terms of taste, it’s not nearly as bad as I had been told. It’s a slightly earthy taste, one that you would expect from pounding a root to powder and ringing it in water through a special sack. For most of us it’s a taste our taste buds have never experienced before, and that’s where the shock ends really. The effects are a numbing of the mouth, slight light-headedness and a really good night’s sleep. Oh and some people have an allergic reaction to it which sends their face into a swollen frenzy but I’m told this is rare.

After the first round of Kava you can opt for a ‘low tide’ option which means they only give you the Bilo (Kava cup) half full. Before accepting the Bilo you cup your hands and say ‘Bula’. You are not to sip it slowly like you were attending Nancy’s tea party; Kava is to be drunk in one go. You then return the Bilo to the Taki Master and say ‘Vinaka’. This ritual is repeated over and over again until everyone in the Kava circle has had a bowl and then we go around again. And again. The only real limit is running out of Kava because we went until 2am on my first night in the village (and remember, this is the first time I had tried the stuff). Even then somebody I hadn’t seen before would magically appear with more Kava – so much of the stuff was consumed that night! I would ask for ‘low tide’ but the Taki Master would always smile and give me something that resembled a high tide. I remember turning to my friend (a fellow volunteer) and asking him whether he thought a ‘king tide’ would kill you. He laughed so hard that our new village families wanted to know what was so funny but he politely shrugged his shoulders and changed the subject. By 2am the Hong Kong Rugby Seven’s tournament was being repeated for the third time that night and half the guys in the Kava circle had fallen asleep sitting up. I thought it might be ok to politely excuse myself at that point, especially since I figured they might be waiting for me to go to bed as I was their guest, while I was waiting for them to go to bed so they didn’t think less of me on my first night – a stalemate which had to be ended or none of us would have slept that night.

The Village is quite orderly, set up in a grid system, with the chief’s house usually elevated in the middle of the village.  It’s neat and tidy and well kept and everyone looks after each other hence a real sense of community. It’s a very patriarchal self-governing society that practices the three R’s – Ratu, Religion and Rugby. Ratu is the chiefly system that is at the heart of village life. Religion is a very important and central part of life in a village also (and almost everywhere in Fiji) and Rugby is self-explanatory and something we can relate to. Let’s not forget, Fiji is the nation that postponed negotiations for a couple of days during the 2006 coup to watch the Rugby! You have to give it to them; they’ve got their priorities straight.

So it turns out that Vuci village’s nickname is army village which is linked to the number of guys that have served in either the Fijian armed forces, UN peacekeeping missions or the British service. What was even more interesting was the number of guys that had served in Lebanon on UN peacekeeping missions during the civil war. Never had I imagined I would travel to a remote village in Fiji and meet guys that spoke Arabic and had served in Lebanon! It was bizarre but also very cool to walk around the village and be greeted in Arabic with ‘Kif Halak’ or ‘Inta Quaise?’ Word spread around the village like wildfire and before I knew it I was being referred to as ‘Lebanon’ or ‘Libnani’, which is just as well because no one could pronounce my name correctly. This obviously came as a huge shock to me, but when I finally got over the initial shock, I embraced my new namesake and engaged in stimulating conversation about what it was like to serve in Lebanon on UN peacekeeping missions.

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The next day on Saturday I joined the two other male volunteers and some locals on a trip through the mangroves to collect firewood for the Lovo (earth oven), harvest coconuts to sell at the markets and set traps for mudcrabs for the Palm Sunday farewell feast. Of course we did very little besides watch the village men achieve these things but I like to think we provided moral support and motivation by being an audience throughout the day’s activities. I also gave things a go but there were limits to my participation due to my general incompetence at village life and lacking of specific skills in the areas of machete wielding, coconut tree-climbing and the setting up of sophisticated mudcrab traps.  Still, you should have seen how quickly these guys could climb a coconut tree! I’ve never had coconut water and flesh quite so fresh before 🙂

Afterwards we returned to the village and had a nap (one of many naps throughout the weekend – it’s so incredibly hot that most days involved napping at regular intervals). After the nap we met up again with the girls who had been fishing for shrimp in the local creek. We were told we would partake in some weaving activities in the afternoon but when we arrived we were more properly informed that only girls weave in the village. “OK” I said to the village headman, “what do we (the guys) do then?” The village headman replied “Take 5” which of course meant have another nap. And so the afternoon was spent with the boys napping while the girls weaved and I was becoming quite accustomed to this lifestyle…

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When I woke up from my well earned nap I was told that there would be a party that night after dinner and that I should go home and rest (haha), have dinner and change and then come back to the community hall (this was the hall where most social activities are held in the village). So we all returned to our families, had some more grog (Kava) and came back to the community hall for more grog, music and dancing. The Fijian woman performed a Meke for us which is a traditional song and dance which was fantastic to watch and had a very mesmerising tune. During the Meke it was customary to walk up to a girl and tap her on the shoulder to ask her to dance. The girls would then reciprocate by walking up to some of the guys and tapping them on the shoulder. It made dancing more fun and interesting. At one point I decided to break with tradition and spice things up a little bit so I tapped three girls on the shoulders. This seemed to cause a bit of hysterical laughter and confusion amongst some of the woman, but eventually the three girls got up and danced with me. Not only was this fun but also it was cracking everyone up including the village chief who found it very amusing. The highlight of the party was probably when my sarong came undone while I was dancing…

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Renovators Delight

Our first week in Suva included many hours of apartment hunting. It was fun to begin with, but we quickly grew tired of looking at dilapidated apartments too far out of the city. It was really funny to see how quickly we turned from amateur apartment hunters to pro real-estate experts – if that’s any indication of how many apartments we looked at! At one point we even just parked the van and sat around waiting for a real estate agent to call to let us know whether we could view an apartment, and that was the only viewing ‘scheduled’ for that day. We also took to nicknaming the apartments as a means of entertaining ourselves in between apartments showings. There was the Asian crack den, the Colombian drug cartel villa, the ‘murder death kill’ house on account of all the hazards lying around (including exposed power points in the shower) and finally the AYAD house on account of how many past AYADs had lived there as well as the landlords fondness of Aussie volunteers. Needless to say the search continuous…

The Amazing Race – Suva

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Our first week in Suva (Fiji’s capital, formally ‘Levuka’ an island east of Viti Levu up until 1882) was a mixed bag. The local in-country management team took care of us, and really held our hand throughout the whole thing. There was possibly too much hand holding as it got to the point where you were unintentionally rendered useless and incapable of making a decision on your own. But still, it was nice to have the support. They provided us with a week of orientation including speedy language lessons (crash-course would be an understatement), a visit to Suva markets, plenty of apartment hunting and University of South Pacific (USP) guest lectures on everything from cultural sensitivity training to ‘what will kill you in the ocean’ – thankfully, not everything wants to kill you here like back home. Although we did learn the very useful slogan ‘if in doubt, don’t go out’ which I feel could prevent humans from stepping foot in the ocean ever again.

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The highlight of the orientation process was an amazing race style event to help us navigate our way around Suva. There were clues, challenges that needed to be met, people waiting at pit stops to give you your next set of clues, etc. There was even a clue that required us to go into Bad Dog café and find out what the 4 local beers where and what time happy hour was. Seriously, I love this country (and as it turns out very useful information as in Fiji happy hour is usually happy several hours). My team didn’t win although I feel like we made use of the race to actually orient ourselves. The winning team was a couple of girls who shall remain nameless (for now) and who obviously cheated.

Touchdown in Bula town

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We touched down in Nadi (pronounced ‘Nan-di’) on Sunday afternoon and waited for four hours for our connecting flight to Suva, our home for the next 12 months. 7 eager volunteers, most of us novices in the field of international development (which is what the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development or ‘AYAD’ program is all about), but all united by a sense of adventure, the desire to learn and contribute from our diverse skill sets, and the lure of overseas work experience. We are, by all accounts, a very different bunch of people but I think this diversity will work in our favour as we learn to support each other over the next year. It’s also really nice to meet so many likeminded individuals, all of whom are really fun and down to earth. Fiji intake 36/100 rocks!

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Farewell Sydney!

Coogee farewell BBQ

This is where it all began at my farewell BBQ in Coogee, Sydney, with a wonderful bunch of people. Actually it began months earlier when I first applied for the position through AusAid. Volunteering in a developing country and applying my shiny new advocacy skills somewhere where it will make a difference (hopefully) sounded like a pretty sweet deal. So I applied, and obviously having been successful, the reality soon kicked in that I would be living in Fiji for a year. Then came the endless application forms followed by Pre-Departure Training (PDT) in Canberra where I got to meet the 155 or so other volunteers all departing in March 2013 to various exotic locations in Asia-Pacific. Rydges Lakeside in Canberra didn’t know what hit it – we pretty much took over the hotel for the week (oh and for the Canberrans, even though I have a personal vendetta against that hotel for unrelated reasons, their full buffet breakfast is delicious). Inevitably the packing nightmare seemed to go on for days (I hate packing, really if I could throw money at that problem and make it go away I would – name your price!). Passport, pen and paper packed (and a few items of clothing) and I was ready to go, or ‘set’ as the Fijians would say.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy myself in the last couple of weeks before heading off.After all, I had finished up work, was anticipating my forthcoming journey and decided to fill up my time by catching up with friends, family and fellow volunteers. Even PDT was a blast; we must have gone out every single night and the record was 6am! (I think, memory a little hazy on that detail). I can honestly say I was excited, anxious and READY by the time my flight came around. But what adventure did Fiji hold for me? Would it be a rewarding experience, and would I achieve great things? These thoughts swirled around in my head as I said farewell to my mum and sister at the airport, checked my bags and cleared customs. I would later learn that I had packed a number of useless items such as a bike lock and helmet (no body rides in Fiji, haven’t even seen a bike yet, and the one girl that brought her bike with her keeps getting chased by a pack of rabid dogs) yet I left my toiletries bag behind, an essential item, hanging there in the bathroom laughing at me. Now how am I supposed to manage my hair in order to achieve perfection…?