Rebecca Glazer - 2014 Program Participant

Fijian man opening a fresh coconut

Program leader Ravo “Rex” Senitukewai splits open a fresh coconut for the Rustic students and village kids

What made you decide to volunteer in a village in Fiji?

I’ve always been drawn to small groups of people and tight-knit communities, so when I heard about the programs in Nasivikoso, they sounded like the kind of atmosphere I would enjoy. I am also very interested in education and agriculture, and Nasivikoso offered programs addressing both. Mostly, though, I was drawn to the idea of living in a rural community with a host family, rather than staying out at a base house, like some of the other programs.

How did you hear about Rustic Pathways, and what how did you know they were the organization you wanted to volunteer through?

A representative came to my high school at lunch one day when I was a freshman. Interested in travel, I decided to stop by their table and picked up a brochure. As I read through it, I got a sense of the deep respect Rustic Pathways has for all the communities they work with. Although I love traveling, I dislike the superficiality of “tourism.” Rustic Pathways holds a similar belief, so all their programs really focus on the intercultural exchange that happens during travel, rather than just sightseeing or collecting stamps on one’s passport.

Price was another important factor as well. I looked at several other travel organizations before deciding on Rustic Pathways, and they were all at least twice as expensive, making Rustic Pathways by far the most accessible option.

You have volunteered in Nasivikoso village in Fiji with Rustic Pathways multiple times, and even participated in a special program just for the alumni of the program. What are the benefits of volunteering several times in the same place rather than choosing a new place each time?

I actually had signed up for a program in Peru my second summer with Rustic Pathways, instead of Fiji. But as the summer approached, I realized more and more how much I missed the friends I had made in Nasivikoso. I then heard from a couple (American) friends who were planning to go back for a second summer in Fiji, which made up my mind for me. I contacted Rustic Pathways and switched programs, deciding to stay in Nasivikoso for a full three weeks.

I love visiting new places more than most anything, but I also love visiting old friends. I formed such a strong connection to my Fijian friends that I couldn’t abide the thought of saying goodbye with no intention to return, especially when they made me promise I would. Of course I didn’t go back to Fiji just for the sake of a promise, but because of the genuine emotion and friendship behind the promise.

Coming back again and again reinforces those friendships, and also allows me to see people grow and change, which is pretty incredible when it comes to the kids. I’ve known some of them for half their lives or more! It’s crazy to think about. I’ve promised to keep visiting, even without Rustic Pathways, now that I’m in college, and I fully intend to keep that promise.

Volunteer with host parents in Nasivikoso, Fiji

Rebecca’s host mom (“nene”) Mere and dad (“momo”) Apisai have hosted her all three times she’s been to Nasivikoso.

Volunteers in Fiji live in homestays with local families. Did you enjoy your homestay?

The homestay was one of the primary reasons I chose Rustic Pathways’ programs in Nasivikoso rather than at their EcoLodge base house. I really wanted to get a sense of what it was like to actually live in the village, in a family. My host family are some of the most kind, generous people I know. I’ve stayed with the same family all three years I’ve visited, and they welcome me home like one of their own children every time. Some of my best memories are of lying on the floor of their home around the kerosene lamp, drinking tea, and sharing stories. I can’t pretend to “understand” life in the village after only spending a few weeks there, but I don’t think I would have nearly the appreciation for Nasivikoso if I hadn’t lived in a homestay.

What is an interesting cultural trait you were introduced to while living with a family in Fiji?

When first entering a Fijian village, it is customary to bring an offering of a kava root to the chief, who then ceremonially welcomes the visitors with a sevusevu, offering kava for everyone to drink. Fijians often hold “kava circles”, where friends and family gather to drink kava and, more often than not, to sing. It’s not uncommon to get invited inside to join a kava circle when walking through the village. There’s definitely a different atmosphere at these circles, where we’re just more participants, unlike the ceremonies which are put on for the benefit of tourists and other visitors, to “demonstrate” what Fijian culture looks like.

What were some of your day to day responsibilities volunteering in Fiji and what was your favorite part of your volunteer work?

During the various programs I’ve participated, I’ve had a variety of different responsibilities, from working on construction in the village school to teaching lessons to helping out on the nearby farm. My favorite was working at the farm, which is owned by a few very close friends of mine.

I’ve had long conversations with them about this idea, and we agree that the farm work is a very different type of volunteering than one usually imagines. In construction, the volunteers serve as extra manpower, and in teaching, we impart our knowledge on the village children. But in farm work, we are the students. The Fijians know more than us, and they could probably do everything more efficiently than us as well. We do provide extra hands, which always helps, but we also take away an understanding for the labor that goes into making food grow. It’s a real exchange happening, where both sides benefit, and I think it goes a long way in saving us from the “white savior complex,” which is a serious concern for volunteer programs.

My advice: never volunteer with the idea of ‘saving’ anyone. Go with an open mind, intending to help but also knowing that there is as much (if not more) for you to learn as to teach.

Cliff jumping at a waterfall in Fiji

Three of Rustic’s local staff members sing the Fijian national anthem before plunging off the local waterfall

What was the biggest challenge you faced while volunteering in Fiji?

On any volunteer program where you go with another group of Americans, I think there’s always a point where you’re faced with a choice: do I bond with my fellow volunteers, or do I really get to know the locals? A lot of people choose to stay with the other Americans, and understandably so. It’s safer, more comfortable, and you already have at least one thing in common. But in choosing to socialize mostly with the other volunteers, you lose part of the cultural immersion promised by the program.

On the other hand, if you spend a lot of time with the Fijians, you miss out on bonding with the other volunteers. My biggest challenge has been that I tend to mostly spend my time with the Fijians, especially now that I know some of them so well, but it also isn’t very appealing to leave Fiji without any good American friends. It’s always a balancing act.

Fiji is such a popular tourist location, many only picture fancy resorts and beautiful beaches. Were you surprised that the islands are also a great volunteer destination? 

There’s a kind of tension between the tourist face of Fiji and the “real” face. I use the word “real” to describe the Fiji of Nasivikoso, as opposed to the Fiji of the resorts. I remember stopping by a resort on my last day of the summer, arm in arm with friends from the village, and watching tourists’ jaws drop in awe at the sight of Fijians, barefoot and un-uniformed, walking down the beach instead of serving drinks. To me, it’s sad that people come to Fiji without the expectation to see a single local not employed by the resort.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of people (especially high schoolers) decide to volunteer in Fiji with the idea of kicking back on a beach for two weeks while simultaneously checking off their school’s community service requirement. But Rustic has done a really wonderful job with marketing recently, making it clear that volunteering in Fiji is not a vacation, and that the islands have an incredibly rich culture which is (in my opinion) far more fascinating to explore than a beach.

What would you like to tell people that would overlook volunteering in Fiji because they think of it only as a beachy tourist getaway?

If you’re truly interested in meeting incredible people and immersing yourself in a fascinating culture, come to Fiji! The more volunteers who come with that genuine intention, the more positive the atmosphere of the program will be as a whole.

Realize that there will be some people who are just looking to kick back, but don’t feel the need to do the same. Get to know the Rustic Pathways staff and their friends and family. The people make the whole experience. And anyway, Nasivikoso is a three hour bumpy truck ride away from the beach. There’s far more to the islands than just beaches, and there aren’t resorts where there aren’t beaches.

Fijian youth sitting in a wheelbarrow

Junior, a student from the village, takes a break during our construction work on the school

The fact that you keep returning to Fiji must mean that there is something extra special there for you. What is it that keeps drawing you back?

What keeps me coming back to Fiji are the people. It’s hard for me to say if this pull is unique to Fiji. Maybe if I’d spent my first summer in Peru, I’d have spent all the rest of my summers in Peru. I can say that Fijian culture is incredibly warm and welcoming. More importantly for me, though, is that as I got to know the local staff and my host family, the welcoming exterior melted almost imperceptibly into a deeper, more genuine bond of friendship. I don’t mean to say that their welcoming attitude is only a show, but they are definitely capable of being friendly without feeling any connection to their visitors. Taking time to really become friends with them, though, we developed a mutual respect for one another. Some of my truest friends live in Nasivikoso, and choosing not to visit them when I have the means to just strikes me as absurd.

How has your time volunteering in Fiji affected your professional or academic plans back home?

I’m still trying to figure out what I want to study and pursue in my life, but my time in Fiji definitely had a profound impact on my worldview, and has given me a lot to think about in terms of my life philosophy. I finally managed to keep a journal my last summer in Nasivikoso, after a few failed attempts, and I found it immensely useful in sorting out all the ideas chasing each other in my head. At this point, I’m thinking of majoring in Sustainable Development, and hopefully getting a grant to pursue an independent research project at my friends’ farm near Nasivikoso.

Rustic Pathways has such a rich variety of programs all over the world. If you could choose another volunteer program, which would it be?

It probably won’t surprise you to hear me say I would go back to Fiji! If Fiji wasn’t an option, though, I would love to try the Come With Nothing, Go Home Rich program in Thailand. In that program, students may bring only a carry-on bag with five items. The rest they purchase at a local market on the first day, before heading up to three rural villages where they live, build community infrastructure, and learn about the local culture and traditions.