A Return to Fiji

by Paul Balazs

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 aligned with the values of our society; but when we’re true to ourselves and are accountable, reflective, have an honest dedication and effort, positivity, compassion, 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. 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.



Map of Fiji Map of Fiji highlighting nausori and somosomo


Following our introductions and checking in at the base, 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.



Eating in Nausori village life


Years ago when we were first starting the travel program, it was critical that regardless of the type of service we get into, we needed to include cultural immersion and homestays in villages where indigenous people still live, work, play and practice their customs daily is critical to these aims, wherever possible.

Understanding ideas, ideologies, beliefs and values but through the lens of others is critical to gaining perspective. On this specific trip, we spent the first leg in Nausori Highlands -  popluation of 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 Anna 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 and was a wonderful start to this adventure.


Turning cement for the walkway Aloha Walkway The completed walkway


To understand why Fijian communities are so strong, you need to 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 was building a 25 ft. cement walkway for their village pastor and the second part 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 helping to work alongside us. Shoveling gravel, mixing cement and laying it down all helped us learn the skill. But resting with the villagers and playing games with the curious kids, 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.

Painting an outdoor room the nausori villagers Anna and Leigh with a Fijian lei

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 ours and others expectations 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 would be dealt with and from 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, working together, and how wonderful it was to be welcomed 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 and/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.


Watching the Sunset in Nausori Fijian villager young boy


The next and last leg of our journey took us to Somosomo Island where we would spend the next 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.

boat to somosomo bay Building fish houses to help restore the reef Learning about mangroves

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 good 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 and how 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 serves to limit future disasters. We shared that mangrove is typically seen as an invasive plant in Hawaii and we've been asked to remove it 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 all can 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.


learning Fiji fighting painting faces resting in hammocks


Before we said our final goodbyes, we awoke at 4:00 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.



morning hike The cohort at sunset


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.


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!

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