Elizabeth the Island Enthusiast

a celebration of unconventional adventures

Tag: Cyclone Winston Disaster Relief

Trouble in Paradise [Guest Post]

Even though I’ve been enjoying myself in Australia (apart from the strep throat), I haven’t stopped thinking about my incredible nine weeks spent volunteering in Fiji.

To provide some more context, my fellow globe-trotting friend Sarah of Enrichmentality has kindly written a fantastic guest post – I had the pleasure of getting to know Sarah and her husband Simon during our volunteer placement in Fiji, and they were actually there when Cyclone Winston hit the islands this past February.

Read on for Sarah’s harrowing retelling of her first-hand experience (and be sure to check out her website for excellent money-related knowledge!)

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There are, apparently, 15 words for ‘heaven’ in the Fijian language – one of which is ‘yasawa’. And the Yasawa Islands, Fiji are certainly the closest thing to paradise I’ve experienced.

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Earlier this year, we were in Fiji with family when Cyclone Winston struck. We were out in the Yasawas, staying at the wonderful Naqalia Lodge and enjoying a Fijian dinner by kerosene lantern light, when the resort manager handed us two weather reports – one out of the country’s capital, Suva, and one out of the nearest city, Nadi.

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Each predicted a different path for the cyclone: one heading to Nadi, one heading to the Yasawas.

We had to make a choice – try to get on the evacuation ferry (which could be full by the time it got to us) and take our chances trying to find appropriate shelter on the mainland in Nadi.

Or, we could stay where we were, in the Yasawas, with the caveat that if Cyclone Winston did indeed hit Fiji and do a lot of damage (as it ultimately did), we could be stranded.

Deciding to take our chances with the boat, after a very rough ride, one injury, and a broken camera, we were back on the mainland, thanks to the extraordinarily skillful work of the various resort workers who managed to transfer terrified passengers from tiny boats onto the ferry in extremely choppy water.

Note the waves coming up over the side of the boat – this is the third floor deck!

Note the waves coming up over the side of the boat – this is the third floor deck!

We managed to find shelter in a dorm room at the hotel we had previously been staying at, and after a terribly windy night, awoke to debris everywhere. Several days later, when we could get our hands on a newspaper, we read a lot of tragic stories of lives and homes and livelihoods lost.

But the pages of the Fiji Times were also filled with messages of support and hope and thanks – for the local and international donations and aid. From our room overlooking the airport, we watched supply-carrying government and military aircraft landing on a runway lit by the headlights of cars, since the power was still out.

We were so grateful for the running water, the food, and the roof over our heads that we enjoyed.

We felt extraordinarily lucky – as we should every day.

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We made a few donations and did what we could to help out with the clean up, trying to relive some pressure from the staff who had their own homes and families to worry about. But we wanted to be out helping in the worst affected areas – although we didn’t have any structure to offer a hand through, and we weren’t keen to be wandering around offering help when the country was under a curfew and emergency services were already pushed to their limits.

At that time, we decided that we’d like to go back and help out as soon as we were free of the constraints of our jobs, and so, two days after my final work commitment, we boarded a plane back to Fiji to begin our volunteering experience.

Seven months on, much of Fiji looks restored to its idyllic reputation. Although there remains much work to be done, and your support is still needed, Fiji remains a beautiful place to visit.

Please be sure to visit Sarah’s website at Enrichmentality.com!

Did I Help?

I cannot believe I’ve been away for over nine weeks now.

As my term in Fiji came to a close, I couldn’t help but stop to reflect on a few things…

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For those who didn’t know, the primary purpose of my trip to Fiji was to assist those affected by Cyclone Winston devastation. I’d known for a while I wanted to return to Fiji after having the opportunity to visit last year, but hearing the news about Cyclone Winston back in February ultimately confirmed my decision.

My secondary reason for coming to Fiji was to escape the toxicity of my old life at home (I really don’t want to into it again, but I wrote a blog post kind of explaining the situation a while ago…).

Generally speaking, I was very unhappy and knew I needed to get away. My heart also ached for the people of Fiji, who had been so wonderful to me throughout my previous stay. I badly wanted to help, and shift my focus towards the needs of others, as my overall perspective on life was in serious need of a reality check – more or less, years upon years of perpetually ruminating on my “first-world problems” had turned me into a person I did not like very much.

Now that my volunteering program has ended, I find myself nine weeks later, with a dizzying array of thoughts running through my head – foremost, did I actually help?

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Sarah, a friend and fellow volunteer I met during my experience in Fiji, recently wrote a fantastic blog post on her website, Enrichmentality (please go check it out!), discussing questions all volunteers really should ask themselves, prior to and during their service.

How can I help? Why I am I doing this? Am I really helping?

How can I help?

In truth, my past two months involved a variety of situations – from enriching, memorable, and deeply moving to just plain unpleasant. I’ll admit, there were moments I weeped for the pleasant chill of an air conditioner, consistent internet access, hot showers, and many other mundane first-world luxuries I’d taken for granted. There were numerous occasions I had to question my own integrity; times I had to let go of all conceit and give selflessly; other times I had to walk away from a despairing circumstance, escorted by the pain realizing there was nothing I could do.

Did I help? Am I at all a better person than I was nine weeks ago?

Did I develop more contempt for the ants scurrying across the table than integrity for others, simply based on my longing for the world I came from?

I like to think my head’s in a significantly healthier place now than it was before traveling here, but this experience wasn’t entirely about me.

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With that said, I’ve learned a lot about myself the last nine weeks. Or rather, confirmed personality traits in myself a lot of folks wouldn’t consider terribly desirable.

After spending approximately an hour curating a stereotypical instagram “layout” photo of assorted stuff, meticulously arranging the items in a way I believed to be most aesthetically pleasing when I should have been packing for my early-morning flight, I can conclude that I’m fairly materialistic, if not vain. I’m also frivolous and an enormous procrastinator, seeing as I found great joy in taking photos of the contents in my suitcase, rather than promptly and responsibly organizing them.

Even in spite of mailing another sizable box of clothes back home, I’m willing to bet my checked luggage is still utterly overweight.

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I like clothes. And shoes. And handbags. And clutches, and jewelry, and perfume, nail polish, fluorescent prints and all things that sparkle.

It occurred to me merely few days into my journey I did not pack nearly enough solid-colored clothing options (apart from jeans and leggings, I’m pretty sure the only solid-colored bottoms I have on me are two pairs of hot pink shorts). Oh well.

Honestly, it’s refreshing to let myself focus on something enjoyable. I want to live a blissful, passionate life in which I can wholeheartedly immerse myself in the raw euphoria of creating.

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I get sad a lot. There are times I’m ridden with crippling anxiety. Hell, I spent most of the past year absolutely paralyzed by my anxiety. Although I’ve miraculously conquered a number of fears in recent weeks, I’m still working to dig myself out of the massive, destructive emotional hole my mind spent years festering in.

Prior to dropping everything to travel, I never realized just how badly I’d prevent myself from having fun with my passions. For some reason the simple thought of enjoying myself made me break down in guilt and shame. I felt guilty about literally everything.

I felt beyond guilty leaving everything in my life behind, even while being fully aware if I didn’t leave, the self-inflicted deteriorating nature of my circumstances would destroy me completely.

I know I’m flawed.

Grossly flawed.

There are flaws I want to change, and others I’m learning to accept. I’ll always find myself drawn to visually pleasing objects, find joy in wearing debatably overpriced attire, and want to help make anything and everything I do as beautiful as possible. I tell people the biggest reason I eventually intend to own a home someday is because I can’t freaking wait to decorate it. I guess my point is I’m learning how to refrain from automatically getting down on myself for feeling unreasonably giddy when I think about Carleton Varney-inspired design concepts, versus how to end world hunger…

Trust me, I’ve pondered that too. I wish I were a better entrepreneur. I wish (desperately, at times) my mind fluently spoke the language of making money, so I could invent a brilliant and wildly prolific foundation to save the world’s children, build new homes and schools for the cyclone-affected people of Fiji, ward off all animal poachers, cure cancer, cease all war, and provide a thorough stellar education for everyone. It makes me happy to make others happy, but I’ve learned my true skills and passions may not necessarily translate into benevolence. That pains me.

However, I know from too many past experiences wallowing in anguish over being who I am simply does no good. Even despite being unsure about certain qualities in myself, and knowing with certainty individuals exist in this world that likely find my personality quirks totally repugnant, I’m finally starting to accept that’s fine. After all, what anyone else thinks is none of my business.

I’d like to try celebrating my weirdness, earthly flaws, and love of creativity. I want to be genuinely excited about life, and it feels so good to have gotten past the worst part – taking the first step away.

For far too long, excitement would translate directly into fear for me, and I’ve had enough.

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So did I help during my time in Fiji? I earnestly hope so… Fiji certainly helped me, in more ways than I can even fathom. But again, that experience wasn’t entirely about me. If I made a positive difference in anyone’s life while serving there, that’s what matters.

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I hope I helped make someone happier. Not only can I say my volunteering experience profoundly improved my life, I sincerely hope my work was able to enhance the lives of everyone I had the privilege of meeting during my stay. Even if only somewhat, at a very minimum.

Vinaka vakalevu, Fiji. You’ll always have a place in my heart.