On one of our last excursions we traveled back to the Yasawa Islands. The Yasawa Islands are mostly isolated and were difficult to reach until 2002 when Awesome Adventure Fiji started a ferry service. This daily roundtrip ferry makes numerous stops throughout the Yasawa Islands. Allowing travelers and locals the chance to access these areas. Awesome Adventures Fiji consulted the local villages before starting this ferry service and quickly realized this part of Fiji is far from “paradise”. Fiji’s Yasawa Islands are home to 27 villages living below world standards of health and poverty. Facing problems such as; shortages of water, poor nutrition, lack of supplies, and educational support.
Awesome Adventures wanted to assist these villages and so formed the Yasawa Trust Foundation. Vinaka Fiji Volunteering is the branch of the Yasawa Trust Foundation which organizes volunteers to work directly with the Yasawa villages. Vinaka means “Thank you” and thus the Foundation thanks the villages for welcoming people into their islands.
The aim of these programs is to improve the provision of basic needs and amenities missing from village life in the Yasawas. The program supports villages with their access to fresh water, nutrition and electrical power. Also in areas such as education, marine conservation, and the environment.
Upon our arrival in the Yasawas we met up with Vinaka Fiji. The organizer arranged a school visit for our group at Gaunavou School. We were going to spend the morning with the kids talking about ocean pollution and keeping the reef healthy. The school is one of the larger schools in the area with around 130 kids.
In Fiji, all of the kids from a village attend the same school up until high school. If the student wishes to attend high school he/she must attend one of the schools on the main island. This can be a costly endeavor. Thus many village kids do not receive a higher education.
As we walked the Gaunovou School grounds we were met with inquisitive looks, shy smiles, and bulas (bula means hello). We entered the classroom of the 5, 6, 7, and 8th grade kids. About 40 students total. Fiji students are very well behaved but you could see their contained excitement as the 10 of us foreigners walked into their classroom. We started off by playing a quick “ice-breaker” game to loosen everyone up. Then I spoke about what I do back on Maui and the importance of a healthy ocean.
Most Fijian children who live in the villages grow up on and in the ocean. It plays an integral part in their lives. Connecting them to other villages where no roads go. Providing the main source of food and a way to cool off from the hot Fiji sun. Despite their close tie to the ocean I saw countless locations plagued by trash along the shorelines.
As a traveler, marine biologist, and teacher I enjoy meeting the locals and talking story. These conversations often lead into teachable moments. Where I get the chance to share some of the knowledge I have learned about keeping the ocean healthy. If only 1 student out of the 40 I spoke to starts to pick up trash, then I have made a difference. I do not have these interactions to change peoples lives or shame them. But, instead to make a friend and share our mutual love for the ocean together. And to help keep the ocean healthy for all generations to enjoy.
Visiting the Gaunavou School and interacting with the kids was a highlight of the trip for me. Getting the chance to share my story about why I love the ocean. As well as how we face similar problems with our reef in Hawaii. We must all work together to keep the ocean healthy.
Someone recently asked me, “Did you find paradise in Fiji?” I feel paradise is a state of being not a place. It looks different to every person. Traveling around Fiji I surrounded myself with like minded individuals working towards a sustainable future. I saw beautiful places, and met some of the nicest strangers. This to me, is paradise. So yes, I did find paradise in Fiji. And I will be back again.