Archive for December, 2009

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

Life as an expedition leader in Fiji

Expedition Leader Tim (L) with Bis, our local Mata ni vanua

I have been intending to write a blog for a few days now but thought it best to wait until a bit of time had past after the team had left so that I could be as objective as possible. With emotions  high as the team parted ways I felt that I may easily forget that there had been some tough times along the way, especially after an amazing adventure phase. So many blogs have been written by volunteers, but I thought it interesting to reflect from the other side of the fence, especially as this was, as for the team, my first expedition with TP.

During the build up to the project I was amazed at the organisation that needed to be completed for the project. Harry had a 9-5 in Suva just confirming arrangements and preparing events for the village and adventure stage.  Having only just completed a masters course back home I had not given much thought to Fiji in regard to details. I was confident in my ability to be a leader and put faith in my time in Fijian villages over the years, but in the build up I was not short of questions for Ben and Harry. I had my own apprehensions too in regard to leaving behind friends at home, my dislike for fish and my penchant for getting stomach bugs.

When I first met the team I was taken aback at how young they were, I have a habit of forgetting I’m now 24 and some of these guys were just 17. In Caqalai I first appreciated what kind of questions I would be asked, and after fielding questions on local starfish and whether the north star could be spotted from our little island in the south pacific I knew anything was on the cards.

The village experience was what the volunteers had really come for and from discussions with the group I could tell they could not wait to get stuck into the building projects, and the first day proved a steep learning curve for myself as a leader, and for us all as a team. With Harry in Suva to collect materials, and Ben in Levuka with a volunteer who was unwell, I was in the village holding the fort. The team work that flowed so freely between the volunteers and the local boys in the weeks ahead was not yet in place and the first day brought out a few frustrations from the volunteers, and myself, at the evening debrief regarding the dynamics on the project. The volunteers felt they had been sidelined by the local guys in respect to hard graft,  whilst I recognised that they seemed slightly unwilling to get involved and may have been too easily brushed aside. The situation required me to listen and to be sympathetic to their grievances as I could understand that early on it would be difficult to stand firm, but impress upon them the need to be proactive as sometimes it seemed they lacked the motivation. It was early days, and the thousands of photos that followed in the weeks ahead of everyone pitching in together, with the villagers and team side by side, are testament to the how the relationships so quickly developed, and that day itself was a very worthwhile process to go through in my own development as expedition leader.

One challenging aspect of life as a project leader was adapting to the sustained responsibilities that come with the position. The team naturally adopted their role as volunteers and therefore looked to me for guidance on all aspects of expedition life, often without much contemplation themselves. I guess I wandered that if the leaders had left the village would the different characters within the team step up and take the responsibility, but ultimately we had a permanent presence, and it was my role to guide in any given situation. It is the leaders job to always be thinking ahead and have a greater awareness, and whilst it now comes so naturally after our time in Naicabecabe, it could still be frustrating on occasions to have such a degree of administration for people who were more or less my peers. I like to think that I did ok for the team along the way.

For me the most important role as a leader was to be there so that anyone in the team could come to me with any problem, however big or small. I was always looking to pick up on the little things when my team were having good days and when they were struggling. and to keep my team happy and safe. This I found to be a real enjoyment. The personal project planning was a weekly individual chat which provided an opportunity for the team to bring up any issues and discuss on a one to one basis how their experience was mapping out. It often turned into a deeper chat about life both in the village and back home, an experience which allowed me to get to know people so much better. In any case I often felt like the volunteer when Oli Gray would just turn the questions back on me with ‘and how about you buddy?, how’s life as a leader?’

The Sabbath chats became a yardstick of how quickly time in the village past. With the project phase nearing completion inevitably there were moments of reflection.  The changes in the team were staggering and made me realise how well these people had settled in Fiji. The chats no longer involved troubles with food or rats in the house but more poignant moments regarding the realisation that soon we would be leaving the village, friends and by now family. I was surprised on day one not to see a group of hardened travellers who had experienced South America or Africa and all saw pit toilets and bucket showers as the easy life, but by the end I could understand that Fiji had taken in people from all backgrounds and united them as a team through the experiences shared together.  At the start we had people I had seen to be stronger than others, but I quickly came to realise that every person in the team had phoned Simon and Harry with their own apprehensions because they felt  Fiji would present challenges, and their achievements were all the more admirable for that.

The last day in the village was tough for everyone. I thought I would be very British about the whole affair and remain stoic but it can throw you when even the toughest of men cry, besides we all had individual relationships that make leaving a group that much harder. With the village phase over I immediately felt more relaxed. The nature of the village and strong aspects of culture meant that inevitably during the adventure phase we were no longer working to such strict rules. The adventure phase was like spending time with friends, an awesome two week experience complete with rafting, tall ship sailing and sky diving (for some). In this setting friendships were cemented and I quickly realised it would be very hard to say goodbye.

As I look forward to Nasauvuki I feel confident as a project leader with an epic 3 months under my belt. Naicabecabe was an excellent learning experience, which presented me with many challenges, and im sure that I am stronger for it. It also left me with some very special memories!