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Published: March 5th 2018
Bula! Three buses, one train, two planes and a fourteen hour delay due to cyclone Geta I eventually arrived in Fiji the land of the coconut and Frangipani flower.
We spent our first day meeting the other volunteers and learning about the projects we were going to be participating in over the next two weeks including cleaning up an orphanage, teaching in schools and health screening for diabetes in villages and at the community centres.
I spent my first evening with my Indo-Fijian family in Navo, eating delicious curry and dhal using my hands (as they do) and drinking their traditional cava drink with their neighbour and another volunteer Elizabeth. Kava comes from the root of the yaqona bush, a relative of the pepper plant. The root is ground up and then strained with water into a large wooden communal bowl. The ‘national drink’ of Fiji looks like muddy water swishing around the bowl. However, I was pleasantly surprised that it tastes better than it looks with a slightly bitter taste! The affect of the drink mirrors the slow and relaxed pace of the island (Fiji time as the locals say!) and is a great social thing to do
on the verandah with friends and family. As the sun set, the frogs emerged from the grass in search of the flies circulating the security lights. I downed the last coconut shell of cava and my first day in Fiji drew to a close.
Our task for the first day of volunteering was to help clean and tidy up the orphanage, housing nineteen children across four crammed bedrooms. We scrubbed windows, disinfected toys and assisted with clothes washing. Although it wasn’t much, the workers were extremely grateful for the extra help as it meant they could devote more time to looking after the children.
Ram Ram Uncle! Ram Ram Auntie! This is how my host family like to be greeted in the morning before we tuck into our breakfast of dhal, curried green beans and chapati. They are hard workers, waking up at 5.30am everyday to make their traditional curries and roti to have for breakfast and lunch that day.
Our first health screening was at at Vatu Navulu school, to test the teachers blood pressure and sugar levels, followed by a food counselling session. This was my first time out of training on a real client
so I was a bit clumsy and nervous but after doing a couple I found a flow and my confidence was boosted. We tested 45 teaches, many of which had high blood sugar and were either in the pre-diabetic stage or heading that way. The Fijian staple diet consist of white floured roti, white rice, white bread and noodles - all of which turn to sugar very quickly inside the body. The shock on their faces when we explained that to many of the teachers, made me understand why it’s so important to educate them, so it can ripple out to their families and they can amend their eating habits before it’s too late. I learnt that just because you look slender doesn’t mean you’re healthy inside, which was the case with many of the people I tested. It made me reflect on the diets we have at home and what I can do to educate others about diabetes.
Only eight kilometres from Nadi is the Sikituru village where we were spending the day doing health screenings for diabetes. It was inspiring to see people coming back with their forms from the last volunteer group and showing us how
much of an improvement they had made. After three exhausting hours in the midday heat underneath the tin roofed community hut, the village chief warmly welcomed us to participate in a Cava Ceremony. Once the Cava drinking had finished, the community joined together to sing in acapella their harmonic farewell song which was a very moving experience. As a visitor staying with an Indian family, it was very interesting to see the different ways of living between the Indo-Fijians and the Native Fijians living in the community focused villages.
In the evenings I would spend time with my host family talking about their culture and showing them photos of my family and friends. Kapish, the cheeky young boy would be doing his homework and running around causing mischief with a big grin on his face. The house is chaotic with three generations living under one roof. There is a constant aroma of cooking, the swishing of brushes cleaning the floors and colourful Bollywood movies playing on the television! The family, like many other Indian families are resourceful, growing many of their own vegetables and slaughtering their own poultry in the garden.
We spent three hours volunteering in the
Nadi town hall, managing to screen 160 people between 8 of us which was hard but rewarding to know that we had helped the fight against diabetes. I spent the afternoon relaxing with the volunteer group at the Raddison Blue, with a well deserved glass of wine in the pool bar! The Friday evening was spent at the Holi celebrations with Elizabeth and her homestay family, that kindly offered to take us to experience their culture. The clashing loud percussive instruments, singing and bright colourful saris brought back many memories of India for me!
We had the weekend off from volunteering so a few of us booked a boat trip from Denarau Marina over to South Sea island which is a short 30 minute catamaran ride. Palm trees scatter the tiny island that can be walked around in less than 20 minutes. South Sea was the perfect depiction of a paradise island with its relaxing hammocks and bleached sand scattered with washed up coral along the shore, leading out to the bath warm water. Over lunch the native Fijian’s entertained everyone with transitional singing and dancing dressed in their grass skirts and faces painted with black tribal patterns.
I spent the Sunday morning at the Mud pools with Elizabeth, a short 20 minute drive from Nadi. The process involves lathering your body with warm mud extracted from underground and once the body is fully covered you wait in the sun for it to dry and the surface start to crack. There are four sequential sulphuric hot spring pools that you take a dip in to wash off the remaining mud. It was a very relaxing experience and I left with very soft skin! We took a road trip via the sugar cane farms in Lautoka that is only in operation for five months of the year during the harvesting season. With a busy week ahead of us we ended the weekend off at the Nadi cinema watching Black Panther.
The start of the second week! We spent Monday at Dratabu which is one of the biggest villages in Nadi. Myself and another volunteer, Maddie offered to go out to the homes to health screen the people who were house-bound. This was the toughest day so far for me as I am not a health professional and although we were only there for the basic health screenings for
blood sugar and pressure, we witnessed open wounds, burns, dislocations and people so overweight they were unable to leave their homes. It was a heart wrenching sight, extremely poor living conditions, with many of them unable to go to the hospital to get more medication. We did what we could and helped them to organise follow-up appointments with the nurse and hospital. It makes you appreciate the health service we are so lucky to have access to in a first world country.
We returned to the Treasure Orphanage, this time to take fifteen children on a very special outing to see Peter Rabbit at the cinema. The limited funding the orphanage has doesn’t stretch to take the children on trips to the cinema so this was a really great opportunity for us to give back. Something so small brought so much happiness to every single child and their smiles are something I’ll never forget.
Our last day volunteering was spent donating two villages sports equipment to set-up their own volleyball and netball courts. We visited Yavusania village and they welcomed us in with delicious fresh coconuts and handmade shell necklaces. It was exciting to hear ACATA and the
village chief talk about future collaborations and the opportunity for the next group of volunteers to go and provide resume/job application help to the youth in the village.
The final stop of the day was back to the orphanage to donate the money a volunteer from the last group had sent and to talk with the director about the urgent issues that need to be fixed with the money. It was a heart warming experience and her gratitude and thanks on behalf of the children brought a tear to my eye. It was the perfect close to an amazing project.
We had our group farewell dinner before we departed our separate ways. In a short two weeks I had made friends for life, supported each other, cried, laughed (a lot!!) and experienced an amazing new culture.
Before I headed back to Sydney I organised a two night stay down on the coral coast, a two hour drive from Nadi.
Tambua Sands, gave me time to reflect on all the people I had met and the experiences I had. Sitting in a luxurious resort, made me feel guilty but also appreciative for what I have. There are two very
contrasting sides to Fiji, one side which isn’t depicted on the picture perfect postcards. I am very privileged to have seen both and hopefully made a small difference to a few peoples lives.
The infectious beaming smiles and warm welcomes we received from the Fijians will stay with me forever. Vinaka Fiji until next time! https://www.claritycounsellingnorthernbeaches.com
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