As Think Pacific’s final gap year expedition of 2011 gets off to an incredible start in Fiji, it’s also that time of year when many of Think Pacific’s recently returned volunteers begin their new adventures at university or start their chosen careers.
Richard Bennett, who took a gap year with Think Pacific this time last year, has sent across a fabulous account of his gap year experiences as he looks back upon his Fijian expedition, his other gap year adventures and his decision to return to Fiji this summer.
Best of luck for University Richard and Vinaka Vakalevu for bringing back some wonderful memories of our September 2010 gap year expedition to Fiji. Here is Richard’s story of what a gap year is really like, which as his title suggests, was everything and nothing he expected!…
Sitting in Los Angeles Airport waiting for my last flight home, it seems like a good and almost fitting time to go back down memory lane and think about the ups and downs, the tough times, the good times, the great times and even some of the greatest moments of my life I will struggle to forget.
Coming out of school you have expectations about what you want to achieve on your year of freedom- I was no exception. I was so unbelievably excited about my trip to Fiji and I had a fairly good idea about what I was going to do after that. But before the travelling began it was time for a taste of the working world. Unlike school, it was not always fair, you weren’t given a prize (or even a thank you!) if you did something well, and the things you did wrong had real consequences not just on yourself but on other people-slightly more serious consequences than a detention! Working as a waiter in a hotel I quickly grasped the fact that an employer doesn’t care whether you got 3 A’s at A Level or not, it was simply a matter of whether you are willing to put your hand up to work the extra hours if someone was unable to work or whether you had the right people skills to deal with a customer complaint. Such skills were never examined or written in a text book by AQA!
So, with a few months in the real world behind me I embarked upon my expedition to Fiji-the completely unknown. The thought of living and working in a small, remote Fijian village in a culture not in the slightest bit similar to that of England’s filled me with excitement and terror at the same time.
Nothing would be familiar to me; the volunteers I would be working with, the family I would be living with as well as the culture I would become immersed in. But during those 10 weeks, the volunteers who seemed alien when I met them at Heathrow Airport became some of my best friends. My Fijian family became my second family in my second home, and the culture became so natural to us that wearing a sulu became just as normal as wearing jeans back home. I found myself saying “Vinaka” to customers in the shop I worked in after I got back from Fiji!
I mentioned at the beginning of this article about the ups and downs, the good, the great and the unbeatable moments. There were definitely times when what I had embarked upon hit me and made me realise that I did miss home, my best friends, my own bed and maybe a few home comforts. The times when stomach problems hit and all there was to comfort you was humidity, a hard bed and a pit toilet made me realise how lucky I was back home and naturally made me cherish the good, great and unbelievable times even more. Those moments of greatness seriously outweighed the bad times, which was what made the experience so rewarding.
Describing to my friends and family what Fiji was like was a near impossible task because so many of the moments which I knew I was never going to forget were too personal. I couldn’t tell people about those moments in any sort of context, so they either came across as boring or simply trivial. It felt very frustrating.
For me personally, my moment of the trip was my birthday. In 2 days there came so many moments which could have counted as a moment of a lifetime; wearing a bark dress and saying a speech in Fijian to welcome everyone to the party, dancing to the tune of Happy Long Life played by beautiful Fijian guitar strumming and singing, playing rugby for the first time in years with the team against huge Fijians whilst my fellow volunteers sung “Happy Birthday!” from the sidelines, and then the village allowing me to sit in the Chief’s position in order to receive the first bowl of grog in each round. It was the first time in my life when I experienced utter perfection. There was nothing anyone could have done or said that would have made the moment any better than it already was. It wasn’t an emotion I had experienced before. What a time to experience it for the first time.
Saying goodbye to the village was horrible. Never before had I seen 18 people cry like that, and never before in my life did I ever think I would see a fully grown man weep so much in my arms into a blanket. It was gutting to see my Fijian Dad in that state. That morning my Fijian Mum had prayed in tears, and Savve, a small Fijian boy, had tears in his eyes as I gave him one last hug.
However, the last 10 days of the trip was special for a different reason. It was a time when friendships were sealed and new passions were found. Sky diving and white water rafting were quickly ticked off my bucket list!
Never before had I felt as much of a part of a team as I did in Fiji. Leaving our beloved leaders in Fiji was one of the hardest experiences I have ever had to go through. To them, I am grateful for providing me with a life time experience. Teaching 21 kids in school, getting a child in Kindi to count to 10, building a community hall for the village and teaching “Joseph” the musical to 30 Fijian children were just some of the hugely rewarding experiences on project.
Flying back in shorts and a shirt only to see England covered in snow made me realise how different our lives had been to others back home in the last 10 weeks. We had no idea! We were simply mocked and laughed at by people passing by, but we didn’t care! We made our way to the arrivals gate with huge smiles on our faces as a team for the last time. It was an epic way to end the trip.
The next 6 months were much tougher than I expected them to be in many ways, but just like Fiji, they were also filled with many great moments which put stress at work into perspective. A month into working in a cafe I found myself being shoved into the position of being supervisor and being in charge of the shop, staff and the paperwork when my manager wasn’t there. This was certainly a growing up experience. Slightly different from the washing up and clearing tables job I had been expecting to get. But once again, as it was in Fiji, it made me appreciate the really good moments even more.
Working in two youth amateur productions was absolutely incredible and increased my appetite endlessly for continuing my participation in drama. I met some amazing new people which transformed my social life in Salisbury and it was fantastic to really get stuck into the plays I did. Acting on the main stage as Sherlock Holmes in front of an audience of 500+ fulfilled a dream of mine. I will miss the fun we all had together backstage. It was valuable experience in setting an example to people whilst being their friend whenever they needed it, regardless of your problems.
But shortly after being applauded off the main stage of the Salisbury I was on the plane to Australia with a couple of friends to travel from Sydney up to Cairns! During those 5 weeks we ticked many more things off our bucket list and saw some amazing sites. For me, it’s difficult to beat a 2 week period where we visited a Cattle Station to go and horse ride, crack a whip and learn how to lasoo a goat, sky dive from 14,000 ft over Mission Beach, white water raft down the Tully River and then see turtles, sharks, clams and nemos in the Great Barrier Reef during an Open Water Diving Course. Although, seeing near 5 metre crocodiles wasn’t too bad either! It was nice to get in a bit of culture as well, as we watched with admiration the famous Goat Rodeo between New South Wales and Queensland. And of course we experienced also the rage of the Queenslanders against New South Wales in the State of Origin Rugby League match in the pub! Being woken up by a wild dingo on Fraser Island was also an interesting experience!
However, I promised my Fijian family that I would come back, and so I flew on from Sydney onto Nadi for a trip down memory lane. I knew I had arrived back when it took 3 Fijians to push start my taxi to my hotel! The trip back to Moturiki was more exciting than I had hoped for. I almost didn’t get on the bus to Suva because I got 3 different explanations as to how I should book the bus ticket and once I got to Suva I got cornered by a Sword Seller. But not to worry, my boat had been booked and I was on my way to Nausori on time! If only. Fiji time kicked in and I was half an hour late for my boat to Caqalai. The one time I wanted the Fijians to be late and they were on time! After a few pleading phone calls I got them to send me another boat. A boat arrived quickly, and I enthusiastically bound down to the boat only to find out they were from Leluvia island. However, they knew my family and offered to meet the Caqalai boat half way; what could possibly go wrong?! Well the Caqalai boat only just spotted us and once it got to us the engine began to fail. The last thing I wanted to happen when it was pouring the rain and when the seas were rough! But finally I made it to Caqalai for the night where I was welcomed by the classic Fijian guitar strumming, and I even managed to book a dorm and receive the single room with a double bed! Being an ex-think pacific goes a long way you know!
Being back in the village was very different without the team there. The first seven days were excellent as I was always doing something, whether it was spear fishing with Savve, painting the school roof or walking the kids to kindi. My sevu-sevu was fantastic and attending the village baptism was really special. I even got invited by the town crier to accompany him round the whole of Moturiki island to tell all the villages about a funeral coming up. However, the last couple of days were a little tough as there wasn’t much to do and I fully came to realise how slow village is. I wasn’t used to this, but seeing some of the guys from think pacific including Harry and a fellow volunteer from last year in Suva was incredible as it was a chance to catch up and reminisce about old times. My highlight was arriving back in the village by creeping through the back and then coming out to surprise Savve who was sitting in his house! Everyone crowded round to say hello and when I went up to the school to paint the roof all the kids from classes 1 and 2 ran out and crowded round to say hello! And just to finish it off Savve and Kara showed me their new-born baby called Loma Richard William Kaivalau. How many people in the world have a Fijian child named after them?!
The evening before I left, Savve specially served me grog. In his farewell speech he apologised for things being “different”. I had to try and convince him that that was exactly why I came back. However, unless I decide to apply for a job with think pacific I don’t think I will be returning for a while as I would like to continue exploring different parts of the world, meeting new people and finding new interests.
I would love to take my family back there one day as my memories of the village mean a lot to me. Even though it isn’t a perfect memory, I have come to realise that that isn’t really the point. During tough times I just think to myself, “If I was a Think Pacific leader, what would I do?” Usually the answer is something like “keep going, don’t give up and set the example”. And I will always remember my birthday. It contained the single greatest moments of my life.
This year has changed me as a person, but in a way I would not have imagined last September. What I mean by that, is that like my experience in Fiji, I can’t describe that change to you, as it is very subtle. My message to anyone considering a gap year is that, as my title suggests, it may be everything and nothing you expect if you put your soul into making your year of freedom your own. Say “yes” to things you never would have considered doing before and see where those new experiences take you. You just never know where you’ll end up at the end of it.
Find our more about taking a Gap Year in Fiji and follow in Richard’s footsteps!