2 years. 2 years here. In this village. On this island. In Fiji. I honestly can’t believe it has been that long. I won’t lie, it doesn’t, “Feel like just yesterday…” or anything like that, I recognize in my head that it has been a long time. I know it to be true. But two whole years have already passed in this country.
Its hard for me to know where to even begin with this post. I just re-read my post from last year marking the groups 1 year anniversary here in Fiji and it seems fairly profound. I can’t begin to replicate what was written there although it all remains true. The only difference is now, instead of an inspirational, eager, and clean group of 26, we are a stinky and Fiji-fied version of the 18 of us that remain from Fiji Re-Entry Group 9 (FRE-9) or Fiji Group 88 as we are now called.
As a majority of our group prepares to head home in the next month or two (14 out of the 18 that remain) it is just a little crazy to think that most of my Peace Corps family here will be leaving. We have gone through so much together. A changing country director, the loss of 8 comrades, a change in our groups name, project failures and successes, site changes, the end of the Environmental Programme here, etc. I will miss their input, their stories, our crazy times together, being able to call them in the middle of the night to share some ridiculous story, having the appropriate response to anything be, “You’ve been Fiji’d”, and so much more. Many of them are off to travel for a few months, some are going straight into graduate school, others going right back home and off to a job.
I can only speak for myself, but with 4 of us remaining from the Environmental sector as third year extendees…. Its going to be really different around here.
We welcome a new group of volunteers to Fiji in September, Fiji Group 90 (Bula Vinaka to all of your prospective group 90 members!) many of which have already gotten their invitations to serve in Fiji and are beginning to ask questions about life here. So instead of blabbering on about what living here for two years has meant, what has changed, etc. Here is a note to all you Fiji newbies before you arrive.
Dear Fiji Group 90,
Bula Vinaka! Congratulations on your assignment to serve in Fiji, it is a wonderful country with incredible people and scenery. I know you have a lot of questions regarding your Peace Corps Service and Fiji in general and this is my note to you.
Relax. No seriously. Relax. Sit at your computer ( or apparently now maybe your phone, tablets, ipods, who knows maybe there are holograms in the States already…) regardless. Relax. Take 5 deep breaths. I’m not joking do it. Done? Okay. Continue…
I know you have a lot of questions regarding your service. I know that as an Environmental Volunteer I may not be the person most qualified to tell you about your projects etc. but after being here for 2 years I feel like there is some wisdom I can impart on your group before you get on that plane to come here that will hopefully save you some headaches.
- You will have diarrhea. A lot. Get over it. Embarrassed about “bathroom noises”? Learn to accept it. Peace Corps Fiji has 2 wonderful PCMO’s (Doctors) on staff that will take your call day or night to help you through whatever you need. Make your health and personal wellness your first priority. Filter your water. I don’t anymore because I have gotten used to it, but in the beginning, be careful but don’t be anal. So you get giardia (I have had it twice), so you have explosive diarrhea for 5 days. It happens. Take care of yourself as best you can but get used to interesting gastrointestinal happenings. Poop is a very common topic of conversation amongst volunteers. I think after our service we have all earned honorary medical licenses for self diagnosis!
- Get comfortable being uncomfortable. You will sit cross legged on a cement floor covered by a thin mat for HOURS on end. (So you can’t sit cross legged? You will learn… a few in my group started out that way too!) Even if you are model skinny, people will call you fat. So you have some pounds to lose? Accept your body for what it is capable of, not of its supposed drawbacks. You will get a thick skin here in Fiji. Like to have your own space? Learn to accept that a lot of the time you wont. You will sit in the back of a truck with a dead animal, perched on top of sacks of produce going to the market, you will be crammed into a bus so full you don’t think its possible to fit another person in, but they will. Embrace sweat. I don’t know why in America sweating in public seems gross. People seem really self conscious of sweat marks on their clothes. It’s a way of life here. Embrace it like a badge of honor. Someone makes a remark? Just use the go to phrase, “yes, very hot in Fiji” no, not “ITS very hot in fiji” just, “Very hot in Fiji”.
- Limit your expectations. Not of your service, of your ability to foster change, or of this country but limit your expectations on your preferences. You want to live in a town? Tough titties, you may be in a village. You want electricity and running water all the time? May not be possible… my water runs out regularly. You want internet access on your 47 electronic gadgets most of us here don’t even know how to use? May not be possible. Embrace it. You are here for the SERVICE. Being at home all the time face to a screen is not Peace Corps. Let go of the technology and you will be amazed with the things you find. You wanted to work on NCD awareness? You may be working in an area where their main concern is water sanitation… so you don’t know anything about water sanitation… so what? Ask around. Use the volunteers already here and the Peace Corps staff as resources. I never thought my service would revolve around pig shit… but here I am 2 years later and that’s what it is. Its okay. Embrace it, don’t fight it.
- Be adaptable. This ties a lot into the last one. Coming into the country and having in your mind already exactly where you want to live and what you want to be doing can be a hindrance to your service. This isnt about you. It really isnt. This is about Fiji. Fijians. Your community. Take your first three months and do a community needs assessment. Talk to as many people as possible. Form REAL relationships. Figure out what they need and WANT the most and work towards that. You will find that working together on something they want will be a thousand times easier that forcing a big project on them they want no part of. It will kill your confidence in the end and be frustrating for both you and your community. I’m not saying not to try new things. If it were up to my village we just would forget about waste management because its easier that way, but be inventive. Come up with new and FUN ways to present information to them, make things a game, involve the children, give away prizes.
- Try new things. So you have never seen a shark in real life before? When the divers go out go with them and see these majestic creatures. Go snorkeling and touch one of the bottom dwellers. Have no idea what that weird mushy green stuff is on your plate? Try it. It could be your new favorite food. Always remember to experience this world. I came here as a vegetarian, that doesn’t mean I havent tried the fish my villagers have brought back for a funeral, or eaten the pig liver after spending all night with the boys making an earth oven to prepare it, or eaten a village chicken we killed with a log. Try things! Even if you hate them, at least you will know (and probably get a great story out of it!).
- Limit what you take with you. I know it can be hard. Trust me. But I think all of the volunteers in country past and present would agree, we took too much crap. I will be honest with you… of all the stuff I brought with me when I came into the country, this is what I still have; an extra mosquito net, a camp cup, my gerber multi-tool, Gerber pocket knife, Swiss Army Knife, Knife sharpener, 3 bandanas, pocket shower from REI (awesome in the cold season to have a warm shower), Coffee Cup, Scissors, computer, cameras, memory cards, chopsticks, reusable grocery bags and one of those knitted produce bags (its hung from my ceiling to keep the ants and mice out of my produce), a journal and 2 notebooks, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass , Thoreau’s On Man and Nature, My backpacks and duffel bag, external hard drive, Carribeaners, Sharpies, tweezers, nail clippers, my glasses, small sewing kit, 1 hat, 1 pair of earrings, slingshot I made, my Venus Razor, all my cards/ID’s, 5 spaghetti strap tanks, 4 t-shirts, 3 shorts, 2 skirts, one pair leggings, 1 sweater, 2 sports bras, one REI quick dry towel, and my chaco’s. That’s it. After 2 years and all that crap I lugged here with me… that is all that remains. To be fair I did pack some perishable items, ground coffee, apricot fruit leathers, a little chocolate, super glue, duct tape, Dr. Bronners Soap, Burts Bees chapstick… but most of that stuff has been given away or lost in the Fijian Abyss over the years. Really think about what you are packing. Most of it isn’t needed or can be bought here. One recommendation: Find someone with a vacuum sealer. Take 12 pairs of underwear or so and vacuum seal them for your 1 year anniversary in Fiji. Underwear wear out QUICK here with all the hand washing plus ants will eat through them along with various other critters… it will be a nice surprise to have new underwear! And ladies… do the same with real bras… the ones here SUCK and trust me, those little hooks at the back will rust faster that you believe is possible… I have been tying mine in the back because the hooks are gone.
- Enjoy your last 4 months at home. You will miss things you never imagined you would miss. I miss hearing my roommate play videogames to the wee hours of the morning sometimes. Other things I KNOW already you will miss, dark beer, chocolate, AC (anyone? Anyone?). Reconnect yourself to your home community, spend time with your friends and family. Things change. Two years is a long time and other peoples lives continue while you are here. Babies are born, people get married, graduate from school, get “real” jobs. Take pictures before you leave and have people send you pictures while you are here. Fijians LOVE seeing pictures of my friends, family, and new baby nephew… he’s a celebrity out here!
I hope that wasn’t overwhelming. Please take everything that I have said with a grain of salt. Remember, I am ONE volunteer out of many that have served in Fiji. My experience is incredibly different from even other Environmental Volunteers in my own group! You just never know what the next day will throw at you here. So with all that being said, I can’t wait to meet you when you arrive in September. Best of luck in the next four months, and get ready for Fiji!
Rusila (AKA Samantha)