Fiji As Home

Mid-semester break sent most of my friends home for the week but with my home a two day flight away, that wasn’t really an option for me. The Americans from my abroad program were going to Fiji so I jumped on the band wagon for that. But with the trip just a couple days away, something started to feel not right.
I’ve been leading an amazing life lately, and I’ve been lucky enough to have incredible parents who’ve given me the world, quite literally. It’s been weighing on my heart lately that life isn’t fair to some people but for some reasons it has been incredibly fair to me. There are people who are more deserving of the luxuries both big and small that I have always had, yet they are bestowed upon me life gifts on Christmas. For the past few weeks, I just couldn’t understand why that was. I love every tiny aspect of my life and I would never want to give it up, but I just felt uselessly aware of such a large and unmovable injustice. And the last thing I felt like doing with that swimming around my mind was spending five days strait laying on the beach of a tropical island.
As I was doing research on Fiji I learned that they had been hit by the worst cyclone to ever hit the southern hemisphere, cyclone Winston, just a couple months ago. As it is, Fiji is already an impoverished nation, so the storm only made things tremendously worse. That’s when the puzzles pieces seemed to kind of reveal the whole picture in my head. I could help. It’s as if the question I had been asking in my head over and over was answered. My life hasn’t been drenched in happiness at random, I don’t take it as such. There are still many things that I can’t make a difference in for now, but in Fiji, I could.
So two days before my flight out to Fiji I signed on to volunteer for my week there while staying with a host family.
My volunteering didn’t start until Monday so when I arrived on Saturday I met my friends at the best hostel I’ve ever stayed at (and that’s saying something because hostels were my best friend in Europe). It was on the beach for starters and the lobby and attached restaurant and bar were housed under a straw roof, all outside in the sand. The beach wasn’t very swimmable, but it was very pretty. I think the sunset there was one of the most orange ones I’ve ever seen. That day we spent sitting there on the beach and eating and talking and looking at the view which never got boring because the colors would change every time I looked up. It only costs $10 a night to stay there, by the way.

The next day we all woke up and decided to road trip to the Coral Coast about two hours away so we rented a car and driver and took to the one two-way street in Fiji that runs along the coast. We arrived at a resort on a little beach with a couple of hammocks and couple climbable palm trees. The tide was so low and the shore line was so far out that we couldn’t even see the waves from the beach, you’d have to walk in shallow, spotty water for quite a while to reach them.  We explored abandoned beached boats and played on palms trees for a couple of hours with two British school children we befriended and then drove back in the rain.
(Substory: When we first got back to the car, it wouldn’t start because the battery was dead or something so our Fijian driver told my friend Ryan who was sitting in the front seat to hit the engine with a rock while he tried to start the car and it made the car start running in under five seconds.)

So on Monday I began my volunteering. I was picked up by Fijian man named Massi who runs the volunteer program in Fiji and he drove me around to all the places in Nadi where I’d be going and told me how to take the bus and then we picked up a nice Australian woman named Rachel who was also a volunteer and could show me around a bit. Eventually, I was picked up by my host mother, Mila.
“Hop in!” she told me when she pulled up in her car. The first thing I heard when I opened the door was not one thing but ten. A scream, a baby giggles, the music blasting Justin Bieber with a Fijian twang, a mad “OUCH”, one hi and the overlapping noise of Mila still talking to me. That is because Mila’s family was jammed in the car and they were all scooting over to make room for me. She introduced me to everyone as she turned back onto the road. Her four children ages one, four, seven, and nine, her two brothers who were in their 20s, and her nanny. I immediately dove into their world of chaotic happiness and love and never looked back. We arrived back at their house which was atop a steep hill and sat on their wrap around porch overlooked all of Nadi. Mila made me feel very comfortable and the kids took a liking to me as kids usually do and we sat and had tea as the magnificent, majestic, orange sunset commenced before us. After dinner, I bought out my ukulele and the boys immediate picked it up and harmonized perfectly. They sang a couple of island tunes as the little kids danced around in the middle of the living room.

The next day I woke up at 6am and became a part of the family’s morning routine for school as I got ready to volunteer. It’s a group effort with 4 little children running around. I took the bus with Rachel to the Red Cross and once we got there I met the other local volunteers. They were waiting for supplies to come in to be delivered to the homes that were effected by the cyclone so there wasn’t much to do and instead I went to the orphanage where Mila works to help out there. There were many chores to be done and stuffed animals to be thrown and then picked back up again with the 15 or so kids that lived in the colorful little half indoor half outdoor building.
The next day at the Red Cross, we went out to visit two homes to check up on the occupants. These particular two homes needed immediate attention when the volunteers from the Red Cross originally went out to assess their damages so they were being revisited to make sure there was no immediate threats to them until they could get the supplies in.

The first home was in a village nestled in a valley on the mountains. The mother of the home came out and met us and told us her foot, which was bandaged up, would get better soon, she knew it. The grandmother came out with cups and a jug of juice she made for all of us. They were very appreciative and very hospitable and very very optimistic. They still didn’t have electricity from when the storm knocked it out, and it will probably be a while until they get it back again. Sometimes it seems as if the less that people have, the more optimistic they become and it was inspiring to know how much faith, hope, optimism, and love can bring someone.
The second home we went to wasn’t much of a home at all. By the coastline among grassy mud puddles was a village that had extreme damage from the cyclone. Some of the houses weren’t even houses, just Red Cross tents tied to platforms where houses used to be. This particular one we visited, didn’t have a roof or walls, but the platforms holding up the house was still there and there was a tarp functioning as a temporary roof. A 16-year-old boy lived there with her grandmother, who was in wheelchair. They thanked us for coming and showed us around and told us what happened to them. It was impactful to hear their story but I felt desperately unable to help them right then and there. I didn’t even have anything with me. The only thing I had was my words and actions so I used them the best I could to show my deepest respects and condolences and that wasn’t taken lightly by those that I showed it to.
After everyday, I came home to my host family and we ate and sang and danced and played the ukulele and watched the sun turn the entire sky orange and it reminded me how excited I am about life and how special it is. Little kids don’t let you forget that.

My time in Fiji was too short, but I achieved exactly the kind of week I wanted (and needed). It was not a vacation in any way. I spent all my time working. At the Red Cross, at the orphanage, and then helping out at my homestay when I was there. Speaking of which, my host family has no idea how great of an impact they’ve had on me. I could never even begin to tell them how the way they live their lives ever day has opened up my eyes and made me see because I cannot full understand it in my own mind to begin with. I will not forget all that I learned here and I’m haven’t even begun to know how it will impact my future and furthermore, hopefully impact the future of others who’s lives I get the opportunity to be a part of.

The real vacation is my life here at Australian uni. More to come on that.

Published by Mia Olea Garza

I am a photography, videographer, and filmmaker in Austin, Texas.

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