Volunteer Story: Rob Willmore
Bula, for one last time.
Having left the village a week ago I think it’s given us all time to step back and properly reflect on the past ten weeks in the village. Its seems like only yesterday that I was waiting outside Nadi Airport waiting for the other volunteers to arrive – time in the village flashed by far too quick for anyone’s liking. Whilst lying here on a white sandy beach, ice cold beer in hand, crystal clear water lapping around my toes, soaking up the sun I would still give everything to relive those 10 weeks once again. The crash back to reality is not as pleasant as it sounds, for many of the group the village was a paradise compared to the materialistic western stress ridden culture you return to.
I don’t want to bore you all with yet another account of everything which we achieved because undoubtedly you’ve been told already in every other blog entry, so I’m going to attempt to describe Fijian life- “The way it should be”, which engulfed me entirely and made me reflect on how things are so extremely different compared to home.
Our very first church service in the village was the initial realisation of the difference in way of life here. The kids were fascinated by this motley crew of kaivalangi’s having arrived the previous afternoon and played around our legs, used Tom as a climbing frame and cuddled up with Michelle. The church service was a very special one for the village; yes it was a welcome service for us, but also a service of thanks to God for answering their prayers for many years.
They believed we were sent by God to Nasavuki to build them a community hall- their religious beliefs are deeply rooted into every part of their lives in the village. The following Sundays had a standard routine of Church at anytime between 10ish and 11, ‘fiji time’ really applied here so you had to listen out for the lalli to signify church starting. The services are bright, colourful , musical occasions, not only does every member of the village attend church at some point during the day (there are 3 services generally) but the singing is done with a gusto like I’ve never seen or heard- every man, woman and child sings with a passion which puts English congregations to shame. The preachers keep everyone’s attention often with hoots of laughter echoing round the stone walls.
I’m not a ‘practicing’ Christian at home, my religious views are varied but it has really opened my eyes to the importance of religion in places where they have so very little. It is astonishing how the power of religion moulds these people in an extremely beneficial way to society. They’re not all bible bashing fiends trying to convert anything that moves but merely take morals from church into their homes resulting in an extremely kind, friendly, giving race of people.
They are so content with what very little they have and its humbling to think they would give anything for us to have a slightly comfier stay. Every door is open; every family welcomes every other family with open arms. It’s awful to think what selfish un-giving lives we live at home in comparison to these people living on the edge of humanity. The church brings the community together in every aspect of their lives- Sunday is strongly respected as a day of rest. No games. No sport. No cutting of hair. They won’t even fill up their shower buckets on a Sunday in respect of it. This all encourages family time and socialising with everyone and anyone. More often than not on a Sunday afternoon there would be half a dozen Fijians snoozing on the floor at home or telling stories over a cup of tea and a cracker. Masu (or ‘grace’) before meals, afternoon tea, rugby training and matches and many other occasions is something which I really have come to love. It makes you stop, and think in your busy life about the things that really matter- friends, family, the beautiful world around us which we inevitably take for granted, along with those less fortunate than ourselves, as cliché as it sounds. Towards the end each masu became more and more emotional as our departure grew closer accumulating in my and Will’s dad Maciu breaking into tears at our final dinner, and to say me and Will didn’t have teary eyes during his masu would be a “lasoo”. (I’ll let you guess the translation).
I loved the Fijian way of never knowing what was happening when and why, along with no one ever needing to be anywhere on time. Although frustrating at times it was miles away from the rigid, stress ridden timetabled lives we lead at home. The Fijian people live life how they want to live it, even if that means changing a whole islands time zone for their own benefit. Around week 6 it was decided in a very long, slow, groggy, village meeting (reminiscent of the Ents meeting in Lord of the Rings) that the village plus the island of moturiki would move their clocks back an hour. This was due to some children having to walk to school in darkness and as crazy as it sounds it does makes sense! Why not move school opening time forward an hour? Quite obviously so that meal times between the village and the school weren’t different! DUH!
Another massive part of my experience in Fiji was the rugby I played- nearly every day for 10 weeks. Fijian rugby is a totally different game to what I’ve played in England. The first half of the project we played 7’s: their national sport. What the village guys lacked in skill and simple rationale they made up for with pace, natural flare and banter. While forward passes and illegal knock-ons were more than common place, taking advantage of a simple 5 on 2 over lap just wasn’t and often a miss pass to the wing would ensure another touch being taken. Playing the amount of rugby we did with the village guys was probably the reason we bonded so quickly and closely with them. One of the most magical moments of the entire trip excluding the last few days was the rugby dinner Harry organised the evening before the village had a XV’s match against the rival village Uluibau. Just the rugby team. No women. No elders. No kids. A sit down dinner then a couple of bowls of grog. I was nominated Captain of the team, Will vice, Tim head gym coach (haha), then the Fijian guys sang a traditional song associated with rugby- “I know the Lord”. It was a moment I will never forget, the guys singing away, grog bowl in the centre of the room, kerosene lamp flickering. It hit home what an amazingly special place Nasavuki was. It was humbling to be so accepted into their way of life, playing rugby shoulder to shoulder with guys we could call brothers on and off the pitch. The rugby song became THE song of the trip- the rugby team got up in the final church service the night before we left and sang it once more. Standing in church in front of the village singing it with all these guys I had become incredibly close too over the past 10 weeks played havoc with my emotions- it was going to be seriously hard the next day to finally say goodbye.
The departure from the village is something I honestly don’t believe is possible to put into words. The events can go down in the blog- the drinking of grog through the whole night, the dancing all night, getting picked up the next morning etc etc but these events seems to fall back into the shadows of our memories compared to the feelings every member of us was going through. To see a full grown Fijian man, rugby player, elder, mother or child cry is tough but leaving your brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents and an amazing Fijian life behind is soul destroying. I have no embarrassment in admitting that I cried buckets and buckets of tears that morning. Hugging each new person brought a new wave of emotion. It was so difficult to have Moje, Isoa, Melle, and all the other rugby boys crying away as you hugged them for the last time. I embraced my father Maciu as the boats pulled up to the sea wall- he freely wept on my shoulder for minutes on end. I cried with him. I can honestly say that I have never felt, nor can I imagine feeling again, the same sense of loss and love I felt for that man and his family, his village, his country.
For me leaving the village was leaving Fiji, going to the white sandy beaches of Viti Levu could have been anywhere in the world and seemed a million miles away from village life. I think any member of the team would agree that the past ten weeks has been an experience none of us will ever forget for the rest of our lives.
When Harry talked to me on the phone nearly a year and a half ago he told me: “There is nothing quite like a Fijian village”. I thought this was just another typical hard selling gap year slogan, but I was more wrong than I’ve ever been in my life. There IS NOTHING like a Fijian village. It’s impossible to describe. I feel awful to say it, but as a westerner you just can’t understand what it is like without being there and absorbing everything. No matter how much of the blog you read, no matter how many pictures you look at, no matter how many videos you watch- You can only go there and experience it for yourself!
The whole experience wouldn’t have been anywhere near the same had it not been for the group I shared it with. Every single person bought something different to the group whether it was the ability to make everyone laugh, be able to eat 11 banana’s straight, or saw a telegraph pole in two without breaking a sweat. As a group we moulded together as one; we did everything at 110% with a team spirit incomparable to anything I’ve ever been a part of before. Spending 3 months with 18 other people I thought we would have our differences and you can’t like everyone but this wasn’t the case.
Think Pacific attracts a certain type of person who doesn’t tread the same old beaten track of backpackers getting drunk in Irish bars (No offence to the Irish intended- I love Guinness) it’s an experience rather than a trip or expedition and that’s what we all came for. It has shown the best of all of us. I’m going to walk away from these three months with not only a new family (no I haven’t made anyone pregnant parents), but also a bunch of fantastic friends who I will undoubtedly have a pint or 12 with in England and reminisce about our little Fijian village far away in the south pacific.
Along with the group, the Think Pacific team has made everything as amazing as it has been. Harry couldn’t have picked two better or friendlier guys than Tim and Benji to be our expedition leaders over the three months. They have so many different roles as team leader, way too many to put down here, but probably the most important- just being there to chat to when you need it. We were each given a leader as a ‘mentor’ who, every Sunday we would chat to about everything.
From our experience of village life to what we wanted to get out of the project, how we were getting on with our families and the group, food, sport, the weather even! In the beginning I was a typical proud male- “no problems, fine, fine, fine, ok cool, see you later.” But as I got to know Tim I opened up a lot more and told him anything and everything. Sometimes it was great to get some things off your chest or if you had a particular issue Tim would sort it. Towards the end we would spend 2 hours or more casually chatting as mates about village banter of the week or rugby or life back home. So a personal thanks to Tim for the banter, the pecks and also playing rugby alongside him was a great laugh. Also thanks to Benji for dealing with my eye gouge so patiently and taking me all the way to Suva hospital hoping to stand in and watch an eye examination only to be told to bugger off by a very moody Indian doctor who had serious anger management issues.
It’s scary to think that miles back home “UK guy” Simon knows each one of us nearly as well as we do having been responsible for the blog and a million other jobs. I remember asking Harry in our first few days what Simon actually does, Harry attempted the impossible and opened my eyes only slightly to the hours Simon puts into a day. Harry and Simon will often have phone conversations about the project or weather forecasts (or the rugby score-very important) as late as 2 or 3 in the morning UK time. We often wondered if Simon even slept. I know that he was also a rock all our parents relied on as with category 4 hurricanes (worst for 30 years) heading towards us Simon was on the phone constantly updating all our parents on our safety and the unfolding events in the village. It’s that kind of personal touch which separates Think Pacific from any other gap year company in the world. Calling it a company seems inappropriately cold and hostile – its more an organisation putting enthusiastic young people into a place they can’t experience anywhere else whilst answering Fijian’s dreams. They are not motivated by profit but by seeing the results they achieve in such a short space of time at the grass roots of real Fiji. You can see where every single penny of your money goes: our family receives money to cover the cost of our stay; sports equipment, exercise books, reading books, pens, paper for school; a community hall worth tens of thousands of pounds in materials alone; architect and builder fees; transport to and from Moturiki; trips to hospital (my bad!); and endless more unforeseen costs. How on earth there is any money left over to cover the cost of amazing rafting trips, a tall ship cruise round the Yasawa’s and staying in some paradise beach front resorts I do not know!
Finally I wanted to say a tiny bit about Harry- he will deny all of what I’m about to say because he’s the most modest person I’ve ever met! Harry and Simon set up Think Pacific a few years ago, he always had a dream of what he wanted to do and here he is implementing it- helping the Fijian people whilst giving young guys like me an experience I will never forget. Taking 18 volunteers (most of us straight out of school) to a Fijian island in the middle of the pacific, to live for 10 weeks in a village full of strangers is brave for any guy but for a twenty four year old is nothing less than a leap of faith. What he has created in Think Pacific has set an extremely high bench mark for any other gap year organisation to ever enter the Pacific. In everything he does he sets the highest standards possible from village etiquette to quality of beard trimming he delivers on Tim once a week. Harry has the most infectious laugh and it’s not even humanly possible not to like him. He loves Fiji, he loves his job and we all love him. I consciously try and hide my beer from him while sitting here writing this blog so he might not think less of me for consuming alcohol! (I don’t know if that’s even a joke or not…!) Every member of the group strives to impress when ever around him and I think that speaks dividends for the respect we all have for the guy. Without Harry Think Pacific wouldn’t be what it is, it’s an honour to have known a top bloke who has already achieved so much in so little time so young and with another 50 years to go (yes you will retire at 74 Harry, no slacking now) who knows he may save the world along with the universe. I know he has plans for the future but the Fiji projects will always be his baby and I feel very proud to have participated in one of the very first ever expeditions Think Pacific led in the south pacific. Ok, done- You can stop blushing now Harry.
Watching the sun melt into the horizon I think it’s time for another beer and maybe a stroll along the beach just to reflect one last time on my time here. It’s all been one massive adventure through the highs and the lows, but I can certainly say next time I decide to go travelling, whilst listing my planned destinations first of all, of course, I will think Pacific….
Vinaka vaka levu Nasavuki and Think Pacific for a trip of a lifetime.