Updated: Jan 30, 2018
By: Claire Walter
When looking back, I remain impressed by how quickly everyone adapted to the Fijian lifestyle. The shift was less of an adaptation than it was a total conversion. We morphed naturally, without hesitation or resistance. Because of this, I was further shocked by our rapid reversion to first world society as we traveled through New Zealand. I think it’s an occurrence worth exploring.
Ah, Fiji. The land of coconuts and untouched beaches, of translucent water, grand resorts, and that perfect tan. At least, that’s how foreigners tend to view the islands. Though Fiji is a paradise, it deserves higher appreciation than that of a decadent tourist destination. Fiji is centered on rich culture, a fusion between the practices of indigenous Fijians and the migrated Europeans. It is a country of chiefdoms and traditional ceremonies as well as Methodist churches and a widespread fandom for Celine Dion.
This summer, I had the opportunity to experience this special culture on the island of Vorovoro. One of thirteen Auburn students, I visited the island in hopes of challenging myself and learning about sustainable living. By the end of June, I left the island with much more. Concerned with the preservation of traditional Fijian culture, professors Kate Thornton and Kyes Stevens, along with Bridge the Gap founder Jenny Cahill, have led study abroad trips to Vorovoro for the past five years. The trips are focused on learning Fijian customs and implementing bio-sustainable technologies.
Inhabited only by Tui Mali, the chief, and his brother and sister-in-law, Poasa and Frances respectively, Vorovoro is not a tourist hot spot. It’s quite the opposite. The island has no running water and the huts, or vales, are complete without walls. I think it’s safe to say that most of the students on the trip shower every day in the United States. We are used to drive-thrus and Netflix and over twenty flavors of Pringles. None of these luxuries were available on the island—though some students did find two Pringle flavors on the mainland—but no one seemed to have trouble adapting. We quickly became comfortable baring our filthy, rough feet, and oily hair was the norm. When we did shower, we filled a bucket with water from a water catchment system that Auburn students built the previous year. The bucket held over two gallons of water, but most people left water in the bucket when they were finished. This shocked me. At home, I make an effort to conserve energy and resources, but when I calculated my estimated water usage for a month, it was near 400 gallons—yet there I was using only a gallon of water for my biweekly shower!
However, Vorovoro is much more than a lesson in water usage (though it is that). The members of the Mali tribe embodied patience and love. Never did a Fijian get frustrated when teaching a student how to weave bamboo or craft a bilo from a coconut. We learned how much better food tastes when picked or killed ourselves. If one was a skilled enough fisherman, he or she could catch himself or herself a fourth meal. Believe me when I say that fried barracuda satisfies more than Taco Bell’s fourth meal. We turned into hunters as well as foragers and fishermen. The moment a fruit bat lighted in a tree, a handful of Auburn students were armed with sharpened sticks. It was comical how swiftly we shed our American habits and altered our perception of what is or is not appropriate. Still, I didn’t notice these changes until we left the island.
Everything shifted so fluidly that it wasn’t until we set up camp in New Zealand for two weeks that I noticed we had changed. Here, I use the word “camp” only ironically. After a week, I noticed every one (including myself) showering every other day if not more. Faucets dripped aimlessly while people brushed their teeth far from the sink. Feet were scrubbed and hair was brushed. I’ve heard that it takes twenty-one days to break a habit and only one day to make one. Whether that is true or not, I was taken aback by our relapses. Complete with comfort and thrills, New Zealand was an incredible experience all its own, but when juxtaposed with our lives on Vorovoro, I couldn’t ignore how much we had lost with the reclaiming of luxuries. It was then, when I felt strangely about us acting “normal,” that I noticed how strongly we had assimilated into the Fijian culture. Though I am back in the United States now, showering with more than two gallons a week, I can’t help but miss Vorovoro’s simplicity and the rewards that come with fully earning what you have—particularly if that reward is a bite of fried barracuda.