Past volunteers

Volunteer stories: Gill Robertson

Gill Robertson

‘Can you believe we are actually in Fiji?!?!’ – A question I have thought of/heard often over the past (nearly) three weeks. It wasn’t until yesterday that I was able to answer it with a definite ‘yes’. Leaving a freezing cold/rainy/snowy Scotland on the 11th of January and landing in Nadi, Fiji two days later was pretty surreal. The flight over seemed to last an eternity but, when greeted by Fijian dressed guitarists and singers, it definitely felt like it was going to be worth the trek.

The drive with the team from the airport to Suva, where we were to get our boat to Caqalai Island, passed in a kind of blur. I was in a weird frame of mind – half of me desperately wanting to sleep (plane sleeping is no fun!) and the other half not wanting to miss out on a first glimpse of what would be ‘home’ for the next 12 weeks. I remember vividly being amazed at how green and lush Fiji actually is, of course I had seen pictures on the internet and on TV but seeing it in person was amazing. Looking back I think this was the first moment where I thought ‘Can you believe we are actually in Fiji?!’

Our time on Caqalai was amazing. From the word ‘go’ it felt like the team gelled together and after only a day it was as if we had been together for months! Of course we knew it wouldn’t all be fun and games – we did have to deal with the culture shock of mosquitos, outdoor toilets, very limited electricity, outdoor showers and, for me particularly, a huge change in diet. I have managed to surprise myself in terms food eating however, and I am coping with the change in diet far better than I thought I would have.

Caqalai was our chance to chill out and get into ‘Fiji time’ before being launched into village life- and we certainly managed to do that. The island was beautiful and there is no other word to describe it in the dictionary other than paradise. You would think that not having some of the basic household conveniences that there are at home would make it difficult but all those are easily replaced by the fact that I was able to wake up, take one step out of our boarding hut and I was on the beach with crystal clear blue water, golden sand and palm trees in every direction.

Our time on Caqalai came to an end and the team and I were ready to get into the village and get started on with the hard work that lay before us. Even though I describe Caqalai as paradise when asking myself if I felt like I was in Fiji the answer was no, it felt more of a dream-like phase that could be woken up from rather than reality. Entering the village was something I will never forget.

The entire population of Yanuca from the very old to the very young, plus all their relatives from surrounding villages, were at the sea to greet us with flowers, songs and huge smiles. Anna, Harriet and I were welcomed into our Fijian family and received flower filled garlands to wear for the rest of the party (or ‘hop hop’ as we now know it). I’m not going to lie, life in the village did take a bit of getting used of but with the friendliness of our Bubu (or Grandma as she would be known in the UK) we all settled into home life rather fast.

The hard work began and within days we had the foundations and posts in place for the community centre. Working all day in the blazing sun is mentally challenging as well as physically draining but once I got the hang of using a hammer (and over the fact that at some point on the build I would break a nail) I wanted to get stuck into every task. This week I have spent my time between Kindergarten and School.

Kindi cannot be described any other way than ‘insanely mental’. The children have endless amounts of energy and for the first couple of days I felt like I spent more time chasing after them rather than teaching them but by the end of the week it was obvious some progress had been made. A new structure was agreed with the Kindi teacher and the main learning topics of numbers, shapes and colours were chosen. On Wednesday and Thursday I spent my day teaching the Form 4 class in school. This was hugely challenging as I was left on my own with a class of nine/ten year olds, who spoke very limited English, to teach for 2 days.

The education system in Fiji is like nothing I have ever seen before and, although it is rather frustrating at times, I am glad I was able to step up to the challenge of teaching the class and I hope that all the pupils were able to take away something valuable from my lessons. The best part about being able to work over at the school and live in a proper Fijian village is being able to spend a lot of time with the children. They are amazing fun to be around with fantastic singing voices and a love for sports that is near obsession.

Having had such a busy week I didn’t feel I was able to take a step back and realise exactly where I was until yesterday. We had a free day, which was welcomed by the majority in the team after the craziness of the week, and some of us decided to take a hike up the hill at the back of the village in the afternoon. It was a bit trickier than we had originally thought but the views from the top were worth it. I don’t think there was one person in the team who didn’t draw breath and say ‘wow’ when reaching the top.

The views out over the village, onto the sea and over to surrounding islands were unreal. Sitting at the top looking out over our tiny village I was able to come to the realisation that I was actually in Fiji and that it was a million times better than I could have ever dreamed.

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I'm so grateful that I was able to be a part of Think Pacific. You have really created a great organisation and I love the fact that it is so small and personal.
Joe Lawrence, Shropshire
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