Fiji Team: Class of 2019 Graduate, Joshua Olson, IBDP Seniors Jordan May, Jourdin Westbrooks, Anna Wood, Katelyn Chua-Chiaco and Leigh Farah; IBCP Seniors Katie Heim, Michelle Matsumori-Kelly
Socrates argued – famously and tragically – that a life unexamined is not worth living. He was condemned to choose between a life of exile and silence, or face certain death. In the face of such an awful end, he chose death. The search for wisdom by way of curious inquiry and an unsettled intellect may have led to the untimely end of Socrates’ life, but make no mistake -- the life he chose and lived to its fullest extent was one to be proud of. The paths we’re on may not always be the easiest, most glamorous or always aligned with the values of our society; when we’re true to ourselves and hold ourselves accountable for more than just time spent, but also a life of reflection, authenticity, honest dedication and effort, positivism, compassion, selflessness, sacrifice and love, you can’t go wrong.
A commonly shared opinion among students that walk our halls is that the quest for wisdom, enlightenment and awakening -- especially these days -- doesn’t come easily. Today’s world is ripe with distractions from what is actually important. It’s increasingly hard to remain calm and attentive to the needs of our own minds, bodies and souls, and even less so to the needs of others. But that is exactly where our efforts must go. Finding that balance is essential. And yes, the search is difficult. But wisdom is only unveiled to those who have worked for it, who have gone the distance, who have both suffered and loved in the most intimate and unimaginable of ways, who have reflected, revised, and returned, ready, poised, and beginning. To sit still -- idle, unmoved and unmoving -- agitates the soul and numbs the mind. Life is movement and learning is dynamic. The IB Life Travelers Program, which set out on its third travel program, was designed to compliment this journey for a special group of students interested in examining life further.
Here's one thing we can all agree on: It’s pretty important to live while we’re alive in the same way that it’s important to stay awake while we’re driving. Enlightenment is hard -- absolutely. The least you can do is stay awake. And keep the light on. That’s a good start. Personally, I’m taught this lesson every year by the wonderful young people that enter my classroom hungry for knowledge, in need of authentic experiences, in need of love, and in evermore desperate need to give love. I’m proud to say that this year’s IB Life Travelers family went well-beyond any expectations I could have had for this program. Choosing to return to Fiji every other year was a critical decision I made at the onset of the program. As a program, but more importantly as travelers, it’s important to be cognizant of our impact on the places and the people we visit. The effects of our time spent with others can never be fully known but if we're patient and we keep our eyes open, our minds disciplined and hearts free, we can come pretty close to knowing the extent to what we are capable of achieving as a human race. As we embarked and set out on this adventure, we were well-prepared to give this quest all we had and then some.
Landing in Fiji, like landing in any other country, means being ready to be immediately shake off any assumptions and prejudice we might have about the culture or social expectations that might take away from appreciating the present moment and the people that make them up. What I always tend to find remarkable about the groups that take on this elective IB trip is that their acceptance of the unordinary – or I should say extraordinary – comes so easily. I'm never surprised but I always just find it so encouraging. As a teacher, and I'd suspect the same goes for parenting, these moments where it all comes together -- what they've sown in their minds through study and listening, their hearts through loving and letting go, and their souls through understanding others' suffering and joy – it's absolutely a thrill to experience and the real joy of being an educator.
Following our introductions and checking in at the base how, we began our journey with a relaxing day at Momi Bay beach. Momi Bay is one of the only swimming spots on the south shore of Nadi. Most of Naviti Island and most of the islands are surrounded by reef or mangroves making coastal swimming difficult – but more on that later. In areas where hotels have taken over, in some cases by dynamiting the reefs and building the beach, swimming is much more prevalent. Momi has a natural coastline of beautiful beaches similar to Kailua Beach on Oahu, with the exception being that it has a single hotel at one end. We spent day one at Momi, relaxing in the warm Fijian water and getting acquainted with the Rustic Pathways program. That night, we sat around the base house listening to songs and stories from the Fijian staff. Many of the songs they shared had cultural and historical relevance while others were just for fun. If there's one thing you should know about Fijians, is that while culture and history is incredibly important and color and define their relationships, work ethic and values, they are incredibly laid back and always make time for play and laughter. As our group leader, John, told us when you're asking a Fijian a question about culture or anything important related to Fiji, the first thing they say will be a lie, typically followed by a confused face (usually yours) and raucous laughter on their side. Their playful nature is an endearing quality that is the perfect compliment to a trip like this and an excellent supplement to learning. Humor can be the best ice-breaker if you let it. While this certainly doesn't reflect all Fijians, it's a common theme of the leaders at Rustic Pathways in Fiji. If you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong. I agree with this to the fullest extent possible.
Years ago when we were first starting the travel program, we thought it critical that regardless of the type of service we get into, we needed to include cultural immersion and homestays wherever possible. Understanding ideas, ideologies, beliefs and values but through the lens of others is critical to gaining perspective. Home stays and cultural immersion in villages where indigenous people still live, work, play and practice their customs daily is critical to these aims. On this specific trip, we spent the first leg of the trip in Nausori Highlands. Nausori is a town of just about 200. It's one of many in the high lands above the city of Nadi, and while they may be spread across the vast expanse of central Naviti, they are all related in some way or another.
Our time in Nausori included one of the most important aspects of the Life Travelers Program – home stays. We were split into pairs and divided into homes that had a Momo (father) and Nene (mother) that we could learn from and live with for several days. In the homes our Nene and Momo taught us a lot about our Fijian life in the village. In one of our home stays, Sister Mary played a more intimate role teaching Anna and Jordan the importance of rest. In Fiji, work and rest come in equal parts and there is no real designated time to take a break. Sister Mary would pull Jordan and Mary aside for tea and crackers, and a nap. Sister Mary resembles much of Fijian women – strong, bold, comforting and wise. While much of our research into Fiji as well as other indigenous peoples specifically deals with language, culture, history and contemporary critical issues, it's important to remember that we are more alike than we are different, and realizing the beauty and truth beneath the surface of all humans is a goal worth shooting for. Living with the families in Nausori really drove this home was a wonderful start to this adventure.
To understand why Fijian communities are so strong, you need only spend a day sweating with them under the sun. The work we took part in while we were staying with our families in the high lands came in two parts. The first came in the way of building a 25 ft. cement walkway for their village pastor and the second was restoring their village lali (drum). In Nausori, the top two most important people in the village are the chief and the pastor. The village takes care of the chief and the pastor before all else. The pastor's house was just outside the village center and was without a path to the church making navigating the mud en route to the church difficult. A group before us had come and built a cement pathway from the church to just outside his gate; we were happy to help complete the path for the pastor. Halfway through our work on the second day, many of the Fijian men and children began joining us and working alongside us. Shoveling gravel, mixing cement and laying it down all helped us learn the skill, but resting with them in the shade and playing games with the curious kids that joined in helped us to feel more a part of the village. As we finished up our project on the last day, the pastor surprised us by asking us to grab little stones and spell out A-L-O-H-A right inside the gate to his yard. We were more than happy to oblige him. Reflecting upon our work in Nausori, what really stood out was the commitment the people had to each other. Whether you were 8 years old or 80 years old, work is vital to the growth and health of the community. Everyone pulls their weight and we were happy to pull our own. In Fiji, family is everything and no one is ever left to go it alone.
Leaving Nausori was difficult. Only having been there for 5 days, the families left an indelible mark on our lives. We all get so caught up in our own lives and satisfying all the expectations we have for ourselves as well as the ones others have for us, that we often forget how important family is and how important it is to work together for a common goal. Saying goodbye to these families who taught us such important life lessons, who invited us to birthdays, who taught us to cook, who nurtured us when we were feeling under the weather, and with whom we spent so many nights dancing and singing, left not a dry eye in the village. There were tears of sorrow, surely, but also of joy and we were full of anxiety leaving our new families behind but also the deepest gratitude that can be known. The human experience is a complex and windy road. But as we left that morning, all of our paths – the ones we share and the ones we must go alone – were a bit brighter. That is certain.
We had planned well in advance for a “rest day” at the middle point of the trip in anticipation of the heavy emotions we knew we'd be dealt and the heavy week of service. We scheduled a day back at the base house in Momi Bay to reflect, rest and re-energize. After a brief stop off at the mud pits for some skin and spirit therapy, we arrived at the base just before sundown. Together, we walked up to the gun site, or as we call them in Hawai'i “pill boxes”, above the base house to catch the sunset. Overlooking the beautiful coastline just beneath us and the vast horizon that stretched out in front, we spoke for a few minutes about what we took away with us from our stay in Nausori with our families. We talked about the importance of family and working together, and how wonderful it was to be welcomed in despite our differences. In addition to our reflection, we also shared something special and new to the program. A month or so prior to the trip, parents and families were asked to write letters to these young travelers about how proud they were of each of the travelers or how much they loved them. The students were given the letters and asked to walk out on the hill, sit, read and reflect on them. This proved to be a genuinely beautiful moment and upon returning to our group, there wasn't a dry eye among us.
The next and last leg of our journey took us to Somosomo Island where we'd spend four days working in marine conservation. Years ago, Somosomo was hit by Cyclone Winston striking a terrible blow to the island's marine habitat, food supply, economy and way of life. The island's people, economy and culture was catapulted into a state of constant stress and they were forced to adapt. The Fijian government took weeks to get to the people and supply them with food. The government brought seeds to resow their staple crops, such as cassava or kava. But their main crops take anywhere from 6 months to 5 years to mature. While the destruction on land was terrible, it wasn't the only problem they faced. Their coral reefs also were devastated by Winston. The last group that went to Fiji was in 2017 and had been tasked with constructing new coral reef habitats from shells and cement. The structures were meant to encourage fish to return to the shallow waters surrounding Somosomo. We were happy to see that much of the area was teeming with fish colonies, and the entire area was actually thriving, a much different reality than the one our first team saw years prior. During our time there, we conducted underwater research, recording fish population, health of the reef, algae and coral growth, etc. Upon completion of each day's work, we spent time reflecting on our findings with the Fijian locals. Because fishing in the main source of protein for this island community, the work done to restore the bay is essential. However, the complexity of recovery work following natural disasters, especially ones that hit independent island communities, is difficult to nail down perfectly. Often, you find that there is not one answer. And a solution that works for one community might not be the same for another. Communication and education proves to be the most essential component of recovery work. I'm willing to be this is true for all nations.
The piece of the puzzle that really hit a cord with many of us in regards to how we choose to recover and how we choose to protect our environment and communities was the planting of mangrove. We had the fortune to be taught and led by Rustic Pathways staff leader, Jenn, who was a marine biologist previously. She shared with us the importance of mangroves for island communities worldwide. She shared that they provide protection to the villages from tsunami surges as well as protection and habitat for marine life. The mangrove planted around the village in Fiji specifically serve to limit future disasters. We shared that mangrove, typically seen as an invasive plant in Hawaii, is one we've been asked to remove from certain areas. This raised many questions about the value of science, environment and culture in the places we're from. There are definitely commonalities between even this road-less Fijian village and our developed islands in Hawaii. We have much to learn from one another regardless of the state of our island communities. At the end of the day, natural disasters are the great equalizer. We could all do a lot to better prepare for them. Communication, collaboration and a little bit of faith could go a long way.
While marine conservation was our main priority, we also made time for family. The people of Somosomo, like Naursori, are a loving and nurturing people. They are hilarious and quick with the jokes, and are always trying to get a game of beach volleyball going. Hammock life was real as was shell-hunting. We spent the evenings, following our family-style meals, under the stars playing ukulele and talking. We concluded our time in Somosomo with a bonfire under a canopy of stars, epic marshmallow roasting, and of course, a 1-take shooting of a 2 minute horror film, written, choreographed and acted by everyone.
Before we said our final goodbyes, we awoke at 4 am for a final sunrise hike. We sat above the bay, as the sun rose in front of us, reflecting on our time together. Rustic Ties is an activity that Rustic Pathways likes to end each of their programs with. Each one is conducted differently but they're all beautiful moments. During this Rustic Ties, each person was asked to share something about the person next to them and tie a bracelet around their wrist as a symbol of our new family. And really, that was the theme shared by everyone in our group. More than anything, each person in our group really was able to add more to their definition of family. As they shared it became more and more clear that our time in Fiji didn't just help us to think critically about and reevaluate our own definition of family but also quite literally, allowed us to add more members to our own families. I can honestly say that the 8 young people that left Hawaii on June 2nd were not the same as they touched down in Hawaii two weeks later. Vinaka vaka levu to the wonderful people that helped make this trip happen, the families that welcomed us in and shared their knowledge with us, and of course the families of everyone in this group for believing in this program and understanding the true value of global travel and philanthropy.
And to my Life Travelers: VINAKA VAKA LEVU!
The trip this summer with the 2019 I.B. cohort to Thailand and Laos was incredible. Our great Southeast Asia adventure allowed us to dive into some of the deeper issues that the nations of Laos and Thailand are currently dealing with but also gain a beautiful understanding of the kindness and compassion that rest as the clear foundation of both the Laos, "Land of a Million Elephants, and Thailand, the "Land of Smiles". In Udon Thani, Thailand, a northern city of just over 300, 000, dirt roads curve and sprawl through dusty back roads but then almost immediately turn into crowded high ways alongside vast rice fields and swampland. The beauty of the Udon Thani is in its diversity and ability to hold on its history and culture, at the same time as stretch respectfully toward the future. In Na Som Village, a small community of just over a 1,000 Hmong people and whom are fairly new to the mountainous uplands of its town, Vang Vieng (only having built their village in the last 60 years), development tends to be much slower and more affected by weather and seasons - not to mention limited access to resources. The village's proximity to the city, many hours away, makes sustainability and stewardship their main priority. Everyone in the village, child and chief alike, work in the rice fields to provide sustenance for their families as well as their neighbor. Being able to experience both of these cities and work with and alongside the people allowed for conversations and relationships to these beautiful people to develop as we traveled.
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UDON THANI, THAILAND
The first leg of our trip in Udon Thani was meant to prepare us for our service work. We spent roughly 6 days at their Ricefields Base, a beautiful location set on a working rice field, across the street from a Buddhist temple and right outside a small, but busy residential town. Aside from team-building activities at night and a couple nights out on the town, and an incredible conversation about enlightenment and overcoming personal adversity with a monk, our main priority was to prepare us to assist nearby villages with their healthcare needs. We spent 3 days in class, learning first about what health care and first-aid looks like in the wilderness where hospitals and medical professionals are limited. The WFA (Wilderness First-Aid) certification course prepares individuals to respond to medical disasters safely and with professionalism, compassion and a necessary vision. The hands-on course walked us through a dozen hypothetical situations that would help us to develop the critical thinking skills needed to not just respond to emergencies, but help better prepare us for any situation. The course, though technically meant for the wilderness, or outdoors, urges students to become stewards of their own communities and rather see "wilderness" as any place that does not have immediate access to medical care. In other words, an elevator with no cell service could be considered "wilderness" even if it's just blocks from a hospital. A difficult hike with ill-prepared hikers might be "wilderness" even if its within a few miles of medical help because of the problems heat and dehydration cause to a person's state of mind as well as their physical condition. A plane could be considered "wilderness" because of the time it would take for an individual to receive help they might need in the case of emergency. The course teaches preparation for life and for saving life. During this course, we learned how to analyze emergency situations in regards to the injured and the physical parameters; provide immediate care specific to those in need; and determine severity of an issue and any particulars in order to properly assist medical professionals and Evac teams. It was an amazing, eye-opening course that every person should take. Should any of us seek further education, our current certification would help us become trained medical first-responders, a credential any person should be proud to have.
Our time in Udon Thani, while primarily was to become WFA-certified, was also to understand and be able to provide medical care to surrounding villages. Many families in Udon Thani and its outskirts don't have access to the health care they need, and medical professionals who work in the cities rarely make it out to the villages where their help is mostly needed. Many families will travel days for medical care in the event of an emergency and then wait in long lines, sometimes 24 hours, to be seen. To help eliminate crowded lines and clear clinic waiting rooms, the doctors rely on health care and volunteer-based organizations such as Rustic Pathways to go to these villages, seeing both children and elderly, and recording medical information for the doctors. The doctors go through the records and determine which patients and villages are most in need of care and require immediate attention. Being a part of this team and knowing the worth we have to these villages and these doctors was a respectable endeavor; but being able to actually go to the temple and provide care to 60 elderly people and then a school of over 100 was an unforgettable experience.
As one might expect, our awesome team of Kaiser students were well-prepared after training and enthusiastic (though perhaps a little anxious at first) about the chance to serve this community. Our first session took place on an early morning at a nearby temple. We set up our medical station on the temple grounds and waited for patients. At 8 o'clock, they began to arrive and our make-shift medical clinic began to bustle. As each patient went through each station, they laughed with each other and us, happy to be with us and to be receiving care. We tried out our fresh vocab, trying to making them feel comfortable and calm, though it mainly just brought giggles and smiles. Sawatdee! (Hello) Sabaaidi mai? (How are you?) Sabaiidi (I'm good!) Kon Chun Arai? (What is your name?) Pom chu Paul. (My name is Paul.) Each person's check-up took about 5 minutes and ended with a bowl of soup, and a Khop Kun (Thank you!)!
The second session of the day was at a nearby school where we set up a station to see their youngest. The students were so happy to see us and their curious faces were filled with wonder and excitement as they came in, 1, 2, 3 at a time and got checked for lice, sores and any other concerns that we could spot at a glance. We used a checklist for this session and made markings for severity or frequency of certain issues, like cuts on their hands (maybe from playing in the yard) or sores on their arms (possibly minor untreated infections or mysterious lesions or bumps. We were saddened to see how many students had lice, and we suspect the school was sent proper medical care shortly thereafter.
Towards the end of our Udon Thani trip, we had the rare opportunity to meet with two villagers that Rustic has a special relationship with. The first was a mother and her daughter, disabled from birth, who had been left by the father and who had taken the other healthy daughter. In an area where survival and healthcare is such a complex issue, a mother and daughter in this state suddenly abandoned by the only adult able to work full-time would ordinarily be a serious matter. The elder son had also left and went to college at a university in Bangkok. The family and the community are still hoping and praying he returns to the village to use his education and help their situation. In the meantime, Rustic has chosen this family as one of the many they provide specialized care for. Hearing this story and understanding the already dire situation much of this area is in anyhow in regards to health care was heartbreaking. While we sat with her on her living room straw-woven mat and talked for awhile, it was easy to understand that there are large parts of life and living on this planet that are just too far outside our grasp, that if we don't at least try to get there, and be there, mind, body and spirit, we'll never see them and never allow for those parts of ourselves to grow. Perhaps this encounter and this part of the trip was the most significant for me. Our time in Udon Thani had really opened all our eyes to much larger issues that don't quite make it into our little corners of this world, that books, film and studies don't come close to touching.
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NA SOM VILLAGE, LAOS
The second part of our trip took us up to the highlands of Vang Vieng, to a small Hmong village called Na Som. The people of the village traveled there and developed their village just about 50 years ago, so it's relatively new but contains some rich customs and traditions nonetheless. While driving up the hill side to the village, we passed several resorts. It would come up later in conversation as we looked at some of the issues related to having a resort and resort-activities so close to an indigenous small village. As we pulled into the village late into the evening after a full day of driving, we unloaded into our new home for the days, a home that had been built by other students and groups in years past. As we strung up our mosquito nets, realized there was no Wi-Fi and took a tour around the home base, it became pretty clear: the days of air-conditioned living at the Ricefields Base were definitely over. The "rustic" nature of our travel program was definitely upon us - a reality that we were all actually looking forward to.
While our stay in Na Som Village featured full service, cultural activities, night life and local adventure, our service project was at the center of our purpose there. The school only recently developed buildings with walls, ceilings and floors. Our project was primarily to install tile floor in two of their rooms and on the lanai that wrapped around the building. For most of us, tiling was a new skill we had to learn to develop. Making cement, grouting, and measuring and cutting tiles were among the skills we learned quickly from the people in the village and with whom we worked for the next few days. On the second day of service, the village gave us another task - to build a flagpole. In the Na Som village (and perhaps others), the Laotian government appropriates extra funds and resources for schools that fly the national flag. Tiling the floors was helpful as it provided an aesthetic appeal to the classrooms for the children that made a world of difference, but for the school master and the village, the flagpole could be used to solve financial issues that extend possibly outside the walls of the school.
On one of our afternoons, we were fortunate to sit with the a few of the important elders of the village. We were honored to that the two chiefs of the village (a man and woman), the school master, the head of the women's union, and the people's spokesperson took time to sit with us and answer questions about their village and culture. To hear directly from an indigenous people without having to read and interpret it in a book or documentary hoping we get it right was a thrilling experience. Knowledge gained through experience and a gaining of perspective quickly turns itself into wisdom and a depth of understanding that is sorely missed out on if we for a second stop listening. In this conversation we learned quickly the goals of the village. Education plays a large role in their village as many students will leave the village seeking employment and education elsewhere. The school master shared that he wishes people that are educated in the village and become wise to the world around them through a furthering of education - skilled in trade and vocation - return to the village to provide aid. I think we have something in common!
We also learned the importance of community in this village. The chief shared with us that every single person spends time in the rice fields. Because of the extreme seasonal shifts, only half the year produces rice in great quantity. Being their only real crop - a staple food as well as an economical resource to sell to nearby villages and hotels - having everyone in the fields during the planting seasons is incredibly important. The chief himself had just come in from the fields and mentioned he'd be returning when our conversation was finished. This was inspiring to hear. This type of leadership is what makes a community thrive. To know that they're all in this together must be a realization that brings the community a great deal of satisfaction, respect of each other's value and improve the relationships within the village.
While many of the evenings were quiet and spent storytelling and playing games like "Black Magic" and "Snaps", we did take one evening to head down to the city of Vang Vieng. During the daytime in the village, while we were playing soccer with the children, talking to the locals or working on our service projects, tourists would speed through the village in their dune-buggies, throwing up mud and dirt on the homes, and endangering the lives of the people and the animals. It was hard to watch occur in such a beautifully raw and natural village. To head down into the bustling town's nightlife 30 minutes away was a shock, that despite the daily nuisance of the tourists driving through the village, caught us all off guard. As we unloaded from our vans, tourist groups piled out into the streets from their Jeeps, wet with the river and bottle, half-naked, loud and boisterous ready to take on the night. To think, just 20 minutes away from this chaos was a village with barely enough electricity, that depended on a crop only available if the season and weather were right, schools that are still being tiled and water that was only just recently piped in from a nearby river. We did have a wonderful time that evening, enjoying the food, music and shopping. When traveling in different countries, exploring the nightlife and economy can be just as important and seeing the people as they are. It raises important questions about development and sustainability that everyone everywhere can benefit from. But of course, this conversations have to be had.
Our time in Laos wouldn't be complete without adventure. Hiking into the caves nearby our Village and cooling off after a day of service at the nearby dam were among my personal favorites. For some, hiking into a cave was a new experience. But to mediate in the back of the cave in complete darkness was an awesome way to take it up another level! Kayaking down a river and swimming in the Blue Lagoon were all excellent ways to take a break from the hot and muggy days that were pretty much the daily weather conditions. Laos is such a beautiful place. The landscapes and horizons, sheer cliffs and rice fields make for beautiful walks out in nature. Many of the us took advantage of this by waking up early and going for a jog through the village. Of course...many did not and preferred to sleep in. Like me.
As our time in Laos came to a close, we had one final dinner together. Some of the village's elders came to eat with us and then, afterwards, treated us to a traditional celebration. After some words were shared by the chief about our work in the village and our time spent there, each of the elders came around to each of us and tied a white string around our wrists as they said a prayer and wished us blessings for our travel. The shaman was there as well with his wife which was especially nice. Leaving Laos behind was difficult to do. The beautiful countryside, the warm and loving people, and the rich culture and traditions were so vibrant and so alive. Our time there was a gift and a blessing, and a journey that all of us were lucky to walk, and lucky to walk together. As we said goodbye to the children (leaving our soccer ball behind for them), goodbye to the amazing women that prepared our meals and the men that taught us how to make cement and build foundation, and of course the dogs, we took a few last mental pictures of the cliffs and rice fields, took a deep breath as we loaded the vans, and began our journey back down the mountain and back to Thailand.
What a wonderful and beautiful journey of learning, leadership and adventure.
We'll have a fundraising meeting in January 2018. Please continue to keep an eye on our shared Google Drive for information, updates and notes. Also in January will be our next Skype chat with our Team Rep, Dustin Huffman. He'll be traveling to Hawai'i in February to meet you and your families and answer any last minute questions about the trip. Hopefully by that time we'll be neck-deep in fundraising and preparing for our trip. If you haven't already, visit the trip site again to look at CDC recommendations for vaccinations as well as information you'll need to know regarding your Passport. If you don't have one, NOW is the time. Do not wait!
There is nothing sweeter than the embrace of a people who've brought you in despite the risk, fed you despite the loss, laughed with you despite the sorrow, and clothed you despite the cost,
At our best, we are for each other.
"When you get, give. And when you learn, teach." - Maya Angelou
Thailand + Laos Travelers! We will be opening enrollment soon! Stay tuned!
Our first international service learning and cultural immersion trip just completed two days ago and I'm still reveling in the experience. Our group did some extraordinary things, learned a great deal about the Fijian people and served communities recovering from natural disasters and searching for a sound economic future. Planned with advice from Britt Herron of Rustic Pathways, our trip was to incorporate service projects that were tailored to things that Kaiser students might find interesting or useful. These were 1) conservation and 2) education. We kept our schedule flexible and found that learning about the culture through a series of activities and a home stay allowed for very meaningful and substantive immersion.
We began our adventure at the Eco Lodge in Momi Bay outside Nadi, Fiji. The city of Nadi is beautiful. It has a very diverse population of more than 40,000 people. It seemed to be a developing and thriving city. The people are friendly and look to reach out to you and have a conversation. We had a wonderful time exploring the city at the beginning as well at the end of our trip. The Rustic Pathways Eco Lodge sits snug in the middle of the an Indian Village. In fact, one of the women from the village works with Rustic and is a very loved member of the Rustic family. The Lodge is complete with several camp-style multi-bunk rooms for all sorts of groups. In the distance you can see the whitewash of world-class surf sport, Cloud Break. We watched it in the distance upon arriving, letting our imaginations guide us through its barrels.
Our arrival to the Lodge marked opening day for their summer season. There were what seemed to be a hundred Rustic staff on-site for training, some of which came to greet us when we arrived with songs and dance, and all of which came later to celebrate the opening of the summer projects. It would be naive of me to think that we had the best program leaders in all of Rustic, but our leaders were hands-down extraordinary. Hollie (from Baltimore) and Jolame (a local from Nasivikoso) were amazing. They bent over backwards at every turn to ensure our trip was safe and fun and packed full of meaningful experiences. It seemed on Day One, however, that Rustic was full of incredible people - we just happened to get two of their best!
Not more than a couple hours on the ground in Fiji, Hollie and Jolame took us to spend the day bodysurfing at a nearby beac - the best start to any trip! Later that day we explored the wonderful Eco Lodge and its surroundings. That night we ate and danced and sang merrily with the Rustic staff and the locals from nearby villages. It was awesome dancing alongside the Rustic family (most of whom were just outside the average age of the group). The Rustic family is comprised of college-age, or post-university individuals who've decided to take the world on, living in a more meaningful way, searching for purpose and what's beyond their dreams - what's there just waiting to be discovered. It was only day one and we already knew how huge this trip was going to be for all of us. As a teacher, I search for opportunities to give students authentic experiences that are true to life and true to people. This was it. Personally, this first night reminded me of my college days, traveling the world, finding myself surrounded by other adrift travelers dancing crazily to samba in basements in São Paulo, or with the people along the Mekong River in Vietnam or even curiously in African drum circles in Hawai'i. It was a beautiful night to witness and to be a part of. There's something to be said for music, as it's understood globally. A good way to get a real feel for the people of any culture is to listen to their music and dance alongside them.
Our second day in Fiji started with a trip to Food Haul, a local market. We were each given a list of the things we needed to buy for the families we'd be staying with. We broke into the pairs we'd be staying with at our home stays in Nasivikoso and were given a list of supplies. The list contained basic cooking items such as rice, flour and sugar, as well as household supplies, like soap and detergent. Once each of our carts were full and we checked out it was off to the village. A 4 hour off-road ride up to the highlands in the back of 4x4 vehicles was an excellent way to start the journey, and prep us for the rustic nature of our trip. We were entering a part of Fiji only accessible by helicopter and 4x4. We were leaving behind some parts of civilization that are perhaps taken for granted and replacing them with parts of humanity many don't often get to see - and perhaps parts of ourselves that we didn't know existed. This would prove to be exactly the way things were.
Nasivikoso Village - over 3, 000 ft. above sea level, populated by 200 people living in 5 clans, and set in the most lush landscape with towering mountaintops only a stone's throw away. Upon arrival, we were swiftly taken to meet the chief, Chief Simeli, and the elders from nearby clans and villages. We presented sevusevu, and were given their blessing for our stay. Several people spoke and chanted on behalf of us and on behalf of their village. When the ceremony was complete, one of the program leaders of Rustic and a local of the highlands (and who would we'd soon come to adore), Oro, turned to us and said, "You are no longer guests. You are now family." I'll never forget that or how true that statement was. For the next week, we were invited to everything and accepted as family. In our own homes, at the school yard, with the locals - we were loved.
Take a look at the Google Earth shots map of where we're at!
Our service component in this village was primarily at the Nasivikoso Village School in Lovo Qa Rau Valley. "Lovo Qa Rau" which translates to "plant to grow", is home to the school and to the teachers' homes. Not many years ago, the students were walking or taking a bus several miles to the nearest school. The area as well as the school itself was built, and is staffed and maintained by both Rustic Pathways and their Foundation, as well as the government.
Our service-learning tasks were both in the classroom as well as continuing construction. At the school, we were to provide lessons that would teach English and provide 1-on-1 support. The classroom sizes were well over 30 students so with 8 of us we decided group activities would be best. Our first activity was to teach colors to their youngest Class 1 students. Through singing and outdoor activities our first experience as teachers was a total success. Our service at the school also include art and sports. We loved this part of the project because it really gave us an opportunity to get to know the youth. I noticed that they are learning English alongside Fijian. For every Fijian word or sentence on the board, alongside it was the same phrase in English. Even at 6 years old, their English is fantastic. A secondary part of the project at Nasivikoso was helping to construct a footpath for the teachers. In their rainy seasons, the area is incredibly muddy and it's difficult at times for the teachers to get to school from their homes and back without getting filthy. We were able to install about 10 feet of cement footpath while we were there. It was hard work but everyone enjoyed learning how to mix cement!
See more about the history of Rustic Pathways' efforts to provide access to educational resources for the children, and you can donate!
Another part of our stay in Nasivikoso included getting to know the customs as well as the lifestyle of a real Fijian village. One of these activities included hiking to a nearby waterfall. The waterfall known as Magunu (or "drinking water") Falls has a very significant history. Not only does it provide water for the village but it also sits right next to their ancient village. The ruins of the village, very visible as we passed through, led us to imagine what life as cannibals and warriors was like. The waterfall added even more mysticism to the history. As told by one of the locals, when they'd have war at their doorstep, the villages would cut down long and thick bamboo stalks from the forest and dunk it in the waterfall until it touched the earth. If fire shot out from its top, the Gods were telling the village to go to war as it was sure they'd win. If it didn't, it would mean a loss and the village would go into hiding. This led to a conversation about magic and spirituality. Fijian folklore tells much of intense spiritual beliefs and connections. There are still people who are connected to these powers and practice old Fijian "magic". This is well-understood by everyone I spoke to and a part of life in Fiji.
We spent every night in Nasivikoso singing, listening to music and storytelling until the generator turned off. People would come from around the village to sit with us. It is customary to meet with others in the village, even in their homes. As everything is shared, it is common practice to walk into each others' homes and have tea or a meal, or just sit and talk. We loved this and were blessed to be joined by our extended family in the evenings. On the third night, we had a bonfire. A group of children sat with us and sang songs and watched the fire. As the children left and the flames dimmed, the stars shone bright. We caught a few darting across the sky. We found ourselves laughing uncontrollably, telling stories and talking about adventure.
Nasivikoso did something to our group. The love the village shares for each others and the traditions they hold dear are so deep and so visible in their relationships. They are so truthful and honest with each other. Their generosity and sincerity was such unwavering. Every moment of the day in Nasivikoso seemed to bring a new realization - a new discovery - about life and purpose.
On our last night together, all our host families came to dinner in the staff house. They sat with us, close like family. So much laughter and so much love. The children climbing all over us, and each other, electing to dip their cassava in the curry and eat balls of rice with their fingers. As did we. For our farewell, Oro spoke with us again. It would be the last time he spoke with our group as a whole. He thanked us for our work in the village, and shared how much he loved our group. He shared that there had never been a group like ours who brought so much love and energy to the village. We all tried to keep from weeping as he spoke - several not being able to help it. The love that these men and women gave us and the way the village opened up their homes and their hearts to us was enlightening and breath-taking - and as we now knew, simply Fijian. Following the farewell ceremony, we danced. The night was electric. We stayed up late (they decided to leave the generator on a little longer for us!) listening to them play music, embracing each other, eating candies and enjoying our new family one last time. We'll never forget it.
Leaving Nasivikoso was not easy. After breakfast, we returned to our homes to grab our bags. The families presented us with leis (or Salusalu in Fijian) made of woven ti leafs and flowers, and put baby powder on our faces. As we embraced, they breathed in the powder, a way of blessing you for your journey. I found many similarities throughout our trip to some of the customs we have in Hawai'i. This was definitely one of them. It was hard to say goodbye to the children and families we had spent so much time with, to the dogs we had befriended and to Tuki, the village boar that was just a few months old and already absolutely enormous. He enjoyed belly scratches and would collapse to the ground for a full massage if you kept going! As we boarded our carriers, the village surrounded us, sang songs and embraced us. Even as I sit here writing this, my eyes are filled with tears and my heart hangs heavy. Leaving those families was incredibly difficult. The relationships we made just within the week we were there were life-giving and life-long. They asked us when we'd be back and if we could come back and stay for longer. Why wouldn't you want to be in a place with so much love and so much depth in relationships? I will return to Nasivikoso some day. That is certain.
When planning this trip, we thought it was important that the group had time to bond and catch their breath between service projects. This was a great idea. After coming down from the Nausori Highlands, the students enjoyed a day of relaxation at the Eco Lodge. Lounging by the pool, getting henna tattoos or massages at the spa, exploring the grounds allowed them to recharge their batteries. The work in Nasivikoso wasn't incredibly physically challenging, but I believe the emotions were running pretty high due to the awe-inspiring experiences we had and the love we so quickly shared and then had to let go. It was good to take a break.
Rustic Pathways also came up huge for us again. Since the beginning of planning this trip, the students had a fixation with the Koko Maggie, a small boat they had seen online prior to their trip. Rustic group leaders, Hollie and Jolame, had told them they could "try" to set something up just to go see it, but they weren't positive it would work out. It's a good thing we set aside this day to relax, because the staff had been working behind-the-scenes on making their dream come true. We boarded a Rustic van and they took us down to the bay. And there it was! Anchored just outside Awesome Aimee and Joyful Julie, Koko Maggie sat. The students made their way out to the boat and I was told to run back and grab the gasoline (hint hint!). As the students took photos next to the anchored vessel, trying to capture a memory and photo that would suffice, Ben said that the man who came with us was the boat captain and he wanted to know if we'd like to go for a ride. They were ecstatic! Moments later we were speeding out of the bay into the sunset, everyone laughing and myself in full wonderment of their luck and even more to the truth, the love and magic that seems to surround this group. I jumped in the ocean with my cell phone and got the iconic picture and video they wanted! The Rustic staff are absolutely some of the best people in the world.
The wonderful Koko Maggie! (video)
When we got back to the bay, as the sun finally set behind us, we dodged sea snakes and eels as we sprinted to the van. We drove to a nearby hilltop and sat looking out at the ocean. The students reflected on their journey so far with Hollie and spent time writing in their journals. I sat with Jolame talking about the history of Fiji and his people. He shared with me the stories of the first-landers and the stories of their deep ties to Christianity. He shared some ancient truths that are passed down to the children of Nasivikoso and in other highland villages that would make even the most staunch Christians' eyes water in loving mystery. One of which is so deep that the Prime Minister himself chooses to remove his shoes miles away from one village that is believed to have enormous spiritual significance and walk in barefoot. (I won't post this story as I can find nothing online and don't wish to publicize it! But if you ask me, I'll share.) We spoke about development and the loving public perception of foreigners who are more than welcome in Fiji. We sat and spoke long after the students returned in the van to the Lodge. When we were done, we walked back barefoot in the dark (I discovered then that I had left my slippers with Koko Maggie) on the stony road to the Lodge where everyone was finishing up their meals. The Lodge was different than when we had left it a week earlier. It was now teeming with students from all walks of life. It had a great energy to it! But we had to be up early as our trip had only just begun.
The second leg of our trip was to Somosomo Island, one of the last islands in the Yasawa Island chain and home to two small villages. In February of 2016, Fiji was hit by one of the most devastating hurricanes in recorded history. Cyclone Winston touched down on the 20th of February in Viti Levu with winds upwards of 190 mph and sustained winds of 150 mph. More than 40% of Fiji's population was severely impacted by the storm. On the island of Somosomo - where our group stayed for the second part of our trip - this catastrophe translated into incredible economic devastation. Parts of their nearest reef systems which provides 1/2 of their island's income in fishing had been destroyed. We went on several snorkeling expeditions around the island and noted the dead coral reefs. While we debated on whether global warming played a hand - a subject we covered in school - it was clear that the reef was suffering and it was most likely due to debris and sandy soil suffocating the reef. This was later confirmed by the local staff who've noted the recent escalated decline. Agriculture is another huge contributor to their income. The land was ripped to shreds by the cyclone leaving behind acres of uprooted crop.
With just over a year since the cyclone, the island people are still recovering and families are supporting themselves as best they can. In one conversation regarding employment I had with one of the women staffed by Rustic Pathways, she said that many islanders will seek employment on one of the resort islands. The resorts provide steady income but don't necessarily allow for the people to return home at their choosing. Some will work weeks on end before returning to their village. Rustic Pathways employs locals in villages across Fiji to allow them to make a decent income and stay close to home. Here on the island - especially due to geographic isolation and Winston - this is a wonderful resource. The woman I spoke with thought very highly of Rustic for allowing her the opportunity. I would think with Fijian customs the way they are (being very close with family and loyal to one's village), this is a very common sentiment. It was very nice to hear that Rustic's involvement in these indigenous villages is well-received and appreciated.
Note: Rustic was also on the ground in Somosomo during the cyclone. UNICEF came to Somosomo Island after Winston and has not left. The kids toted around UNICEF backpacks proudly.
We completed two service projects on Somosomo. The first was helping to restore the reef biodiversity. We handled this in two parts. The first was pulling Crown of Thorns Starfish from the reef. These starfish are incredibly poisonous and dangerous to the coral reef systems. It's argued that the starfish actually help in maintaining biodiversity of a reef system but studies show that its harm to the life of the reef itself as well as the risk of outbreak is too great. We broke into groups with local Rustic Pathways divers and searched an area known to have COTS. In less than an hour, we were able to pull 20 COTS from the reef. While methods of injecting the starfish with a poison have worked, the local staff preferred pulling them from the reef altogether and collecting them for land burial. Personally, it was gruesome to bury them 3 feet underground, but their impact on the reef system and thus the economic impact on the people of Somosomo is far too great. The second was building "fish houses" out of concrete, coral bits and sea shells. We teamed up in pairs and built structures for smaller fish to hide in and corals and sea-life to attach to. It was fun working with the cement to build towers resembling castles with little windows cut out throughout the structure just big enough for fish to get in but small enough to deter larger predatory animals.
Our last service project in Somosomo was to rebuild their signboard for Gaunavou Primary School. It had been destroyed by the Cyclone and the school and village were still waiting for a new one. We all worked together and made a sign that represented their island food, the coconut, and their island animal, the manta ray. One one of our snorkeling trips, we were searching for manta ray but came up empty handed. We learned later that since the resorts had implemented manta-tagging projects for their guests the villages have seen a drastic decline in mantas around the island. They fear the tagging has changed the behavior of the manta, an island favorite much like the Humu Humu is to Hawai'i. The fish in that area, however, were incredible. We were surrounded several times by millions of tiny neon blue and green fish. They swam with us and didn't seem afraid by our presence. It was a very surreal experience.
Here is a timelapse video of the sign we made for the school!
And a timelapse of our sign going up!
And a video of our celebratory Cinnamon roll!
We spent a lot of our time on Somosomo relaxing and exploring the reefs and beaches. We met with the village several times, playing soccer, participating in their "meke" (a traditional Fijian dance) and learning about weaving - one of their sources of income on the island. Somosomo was a lot different than Nasivikoso in terms of its landscape, but it had similar issues. Access to resources, sources of income and economic development all were pretty significant challenges for the people. Similar to the people of Nasivikoso, however, because of their close-knit community, Fijian people never stopped being Fijian people. They still shared, and still took time to talk and enjoy the company of others. Our team loved this island and loved the Rustic island team that we worked with.
Here is a video of meke being performed at Somosomo!
On our final day, we awoke at 4:30 a.m. and hiked through the village and up to the summit above the village for the sunrise. We took photos, embraced and reflected on our adventure that was near complete. We were able to watch our sign go up at the school which was incredibly rewarding. Back at the village we packed, played a few more volleyball games, collected a few more shells and said "moce" to our hosts.
The ride from Somosomo back to Denarau Port on the Yasawa Flyer is over 4 hours. On the ride you get to see the resort islands that people spend sometimes thousands of dollars a night to stay at! How close to a real Fijian village they are but so disconnected. We were so fortunate. We were blessed with a dolphin show as our ferry cut through the Pacific and a sunset that made even us Hawaii-natives catch our breath.
We spent our last night in Fiji at a hostel/resort (that's what it is and that's what they call it). The following morning we reflected one last time together about our trip and the connections we had made. Rustic's own farewell ceremony is called "Rustic Ties" and is about showing appreciation and affection towards the people that you shared your adventure with. We all went around the room talking about how much we loved each other and how blessed we were to share the experience with them. Very beautiful ending to an incredibly beautiful adventure.
The Rustic staff, including the director, met us at the airport to say farewell. I don't know of any organization who is more involved and more committed to its students. From start to finish, the Rustic family went out of their way to show us their love and to prove to us that what we were doing was not just a meaningful service project - it was a way to live sweeter and love deeper, and understand the importance of searching the world for purpose, not just choosing the easiest route.
Special thanks to the AMAZING group of students that went on this journey:
Charlotte Wood, '18
Tabatha Knudson, '18
Monica Guirguis, '18
Vanessa Kwong, '18
John Isaac Fuchigami, '18
Jordan Kaneshiro, '17
Leana Vestal, '17
The Kaiser staff who supported us:
Mr. Bradley Bogard (I.B. Coordinator)
Mrs. Rinda Fernandes (I.B. CAS Coordinator)
Mrs. Shareen Murayama (I.B.C.P. Coordinator)
Mr. Justin Mew (School Principal)
and many more!
And to the wonderful Rustic team:
AMAZING Team Holame (Hollie and Jolame)
Our Nasivikoso family: Oro, Johnny, Freddy, Ben, Ili and Amelia
Our Somosomo family: Captain Sai, Seta, Billy, Wais, Lepps, Koro and Sarah
All the staff that helped us along the way: Bethany, Jake, Amanda, Erin, Cassie, Andrea, Aimee
Our Hawai'i rep for helping us build the perfect trip: Britt
Until next time, Bula Vinaka!
A special video of Jolame playing "Senikakala" a song about long-lost love.