Twelve months. Twelve months?! It’s nearly been a whole damn year since I moved in with a small village in Fiji! As another PCV recently put it – “The days feel like months and the months feel like days” – I could not put it better if I tried. And all this time I’ve been doing my darndest to get a real understanding of the Fijian village way of doing things. I’m about as close to really getting it as I am to being tall enough to work in Penguins.
Truth is, life in the village can be very intense and challenging but never in a way you expect. Resources and funding may not be as abundant as the mosquitoes on this tropical island and we may not move in our projects as quickly the average Fijian flocking to the grog bowl but work has a way of being accomplished at its own pace.
A friend of mine who enjoys giving me quizzes to answer via facebook messages (usually questions along the lines of – if my life was a movie what would the title be? or should I (I being my friend) hit on the girl with blond hair or the one with a PhD?) recently asked me what was the biggest thing I’ve learned since becoming a Peace Corps volunteer.
The Biggest Thing I’ve Learned Since Becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer in Fiji
The biggest thing I have learned since becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer in Fiji is to never expect that a fruit smoothie bought in town will not have a finger nail as an ingredient.
…Actually, I feel that that really sums up a lot in just a few words even though I’m joking…sort of. Alright, since I know you’ll just be wondering about it throughout the rest of this blog post I’ll just say that yes, I did indeed suck up a thumbnail through my straw and chew on it for a minute or two wondering what it was before removing it and discovering with something less than delight that their secret ingredient may or may not have been growing fungus.
The second most significant thing I’ve learned is very simple and a bit cliché so I apologize in advance, but it’s very true – to actually get work done while living in a remote little village, just go with the flow! Granted, often the flow here is as quick as concrete but every once in a while there are bursts of great productivity and development with the village and it can come at the most unsuspecting moments.
Therefore — you should relax to the pace of the village and let life come at you as it will but be ready on the balls of your feet to give a presentation in the native tongue about the process and importance of locally managed marine protected areas to village representatives from the entire province at six in the morning eight villages away, which you only learn about because someone is knocking on your bedroom window at four-thirty that morning to, umm, remind you.
Well, it was this precise skill of going with the flow that allowed me to become a guest on a premier SCUBA diving live-aboard that was cruising throughout the turquoise waters of central Fiji. Not exactly the definition of Peace Corps living but there’s going with the flow for you. And how could it possibly float me to such a desirable situation instead of to my bathroom with another bout of food poisoning you might ask? Well, let me explain officially:
Every eighteen months, the New England and Monterey Bay Aquariums lead a joint expedition to Fiji for research on South Pacific coral reef ecosystems, conservation outreach, and cultural exchange. They spend their ten day trip on board the fully outfitted diving vessel, NAI’A, traveling from Lautoka through Bligh Water up to Namena Marine Reserve, all the way down to the southern end of the Lomaiviti group at Gau Island, and then a return passage that has stops at Wakaya, Makogai, and Vatu-I-Ra islands before making berth once more in the Lautoka marina. My participation was spurred on by the desire to get cultural perspective from a Peace Corps volunteer with former ties to the NEAq.
|Rough map of the NAI'A's route through Lomaiviti. Original photo from - www.usdivetravel.com/V-Fiji-Naia.html|
|NAI'A Dive Boat|
|Looking down from the crow's nest.|
Translation – There were people visiting Fiji that like me and they agreed to let me onto their very nice boat so that I could get some exposure to white people and feel normal again while they could hear fascinating stories of what it’s like to live in a village and perhaps actually gain some of that understanding of Fijian culture that I’ve been working so hard to attain.
Really though, this expedition turned out to be a mind-blowingly amazing experience and was the consequence of good timing and great people. The sixteen other participants on board comprised a magnificently diverse group of marine biologists, senior aquarists and fish curators, professional underwater photographers, and several other talented SCUBA divers interested in marine conservation.
|Going out for a dive in one of the skiffs.|
Even though the entire crew, with exception to the cruise directors, was Fijian, I managed to become the go-to girl for curious questions about Fijian culture. Undoubtedly, this was because people could probe without accidentally offending someone. Typically the conversations would start simply, often after I had experienced some small form of reverse culture shock, such as spotting blueberries deliciously draped over our french toast one morning for breakfast, having all but forgotten what blueberries taste like. This then would lead to a discussion about the differences in food between our two cultures and then bridge off into the state of agriculture in Fiji and its impact on the economy.
|French toast with blueberries. I may have cried...|
The majority of each day was spent eating and diving, as such:
6:00 am – wake up, eat a cold breakfast
7:00 am – sunrise dive
9:00 am – hot breakfast
10:30 am – second morning dive
12:00 pm – lunch
2:00 pm – midday dive
3:30 pm – tea/snacks
5:00 pm – sunset dive
7:00 pm – dinner
8:30 pm – night dive
10:30 pm – sleep
Granted we didn’t have to do all or any of the dives that we didn’t want to but I mean come on… how well do you know me? The diving was incredible! I had completely forgotten about my addiction to breathing compressed air and for a long time after I returned to my village I suffered withdrawals.
|The dive board where the divemasters do the briefing before each outing.|
|The tanks all lined up at the fill station.|
The time between dives and meals were chock full of lectures, presentations, and discussions on marine ecology, marine protected areas, and the experiences of yours truly. My hope was that I could provide some knowledge about the Peace Corps with a little more accuracy than the movie Volunteers where Tom Hanks and John Candy play Peace Corps volunteers trying to build a bridge in Thailand while simultaneously fighting off communists, drug lords, and the military. Just so we’re clear I only fight communists during my leave days… We also made visits to villages where they are working on setting up a locally managed marine protected area; and we even made a stop at a fisheries station that is currently farming giant clams and breeding sea turtles, which are both considerably endangered. My village is very interested in implementing a giant clam breeding program in our marine protected area once it’s fully established.
|Site visit to Kiobo Village in the Kubulau District on Vanua Levu Island.|
|Giving my presentation about the goals of Peace Corps, my projects, and life in the village.|
|Young giant clams (vasua) being grown at the Makogai fisheries research station.|
|Baby Hawksbill sea turtle at the fisheries station.|
However, I think that my most exciting moment on the surface was successfully nailing my first ever real back flip off the 15 ft high guard rail.
I also romped around the boat marveling at niceties like napkins, chairs, and running water that was wonderfully hot. I was instructed in the fine art of making a cappuccino, because there was naturally a cappuccino machine onboard. Underwater, I spent a shocking amount of my time doing photo shoots in all sorts of ridiculous poses (but this was only when we weren’t watching manta rays feeding or hammerheads swimming by).
Photo Credit: Keith Ellenbogen
Being on this boat with so many white people was also a bit of a shock at first for me, although an enjoyable one; and it has turned out to be an amazing opportunity to share what I have learned with people who were honestly interested and to gain valuable resources and information to bring back to the village in turn. It was certainly an enjoyable trip and as usual I feel as though I am gaining more than giving. Still, there may now be a few offices and homes around the western world proudly displaying colorful little drawings happily created by the children in my village for all the “white people on the big boat.” It is still incredible to me that two such places can be connected on such a level, and yet such a connection has become the norm as a Peace Corps volunteer. I made some new friends, reconnected with some old ones and had one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life.
|Divemaster Jo on the left and Skiff driver extraordinaire Eddie on the right. These guys and all the rest of the crew on the NAI'A really made the trip that much more incredible.|