Right, so we all love to travel but what about volunteering in one of the worlds most beautiful islands? Here is our interview with Natalie who became a volunteer abroad, teaching in Fiji for six months.
Why did you decide to work in Fiji?
I decided to volunteer abroad with Lattitude Global Volunteering as it combined the two main things I wanted to do in life: travel and teach. I wasn’t quite ready to settle down into a career just yet, I still had a travel bug I needed to get out of my system. I chose Fiji because, as well as it being on the opposite side of the world, the culture and lifestyle is the complete opposite of what I was used to. I wanted to learn, live and experience a different culture whilst teaching and helping others – and in order to “find myself” as cliché as that sounds!
Tell us about the recruitment process.
The first step was just like any other job; a simple application form and an interview at Lattitude Headquarters in Reading. Initially I applied for the Australia Lattitude program – which involved being a “schoolie” working in a boarding school. It was only the night before the interview, when I was swotting up on the Lattitude website, that I discovered the Fiji program – which seemed so much more suited to my previous experiences and what I wanted to gain from my trip.
Anyway, I had my interview which went very well and I was accepted onto the program. A few weeks after this, I had a skype interview with the country manager for the Fiji program; a lady named Joanne who is from the UK but has lived in Fiji for 15 years. This interview allowed me to make it clear what I wanted to gain from the experience and what I had to offer, so that Joanne could then match me up to a school/placement and pair me up with a volunteer partner as well.
A month or so after this, I found out more about my placement and who my volunteer partner would be. In the following months, a few things changed. I didn’t end up at my original placement and my volunteer partner and I didn’t live together but I think that it all worked out for the best!
Was the scheme expensive?
Yes, it was.
The scheme itself cost £2,500 – and then there’s flights, travel insurance and spending money to think about. The large expense had the potential to put me off but thinking about it, the fact that your accommodation and food is provided takes a large chunk off what you would need to spend in country. Plus, you can’t put a price on all the non-monetary things I would gain from this experience.
So many people said to me before-hand (and still do) “You’re not going to be paid?! You’re going to work for free?!” To be honest I don’t understand what their issue is? I gained so much more from the experience than money would ever give me and as they say, travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.
What was your first week like?
My first week was tough, really tough. Before I left, it was like it hadn’t hit me what a huge deal this thing was and the fact I wouldn’t see my family for almost 6 months. It suddenly hit me when I was on the plane, then that was it – I was an emotional wreck.
The first week was an orientation week, in which myself and the 29 other volunteers stayed in a hotel and got to know each other. We had training in teaching skills, the Fijian language, cultural values, behaviour management and of course, the dreaded presentations. Whilst this was all very informative (I wouldn’t have survived without that knowledge) , it was SO overwhelming. It was so much to take in, so much information, really long days of sitting and listening when all I wanted to do was sleep off my GMT+12 jetlag. My fellow volunteers all seemed so confident and looked like they’d be amazing teachers – I thought “why can’t I be like that?”
There were lots of rules and regulations regarding culture to remember. No-one else appeared to be as homesick as I was (looking back they were probably just like me and very good at hiding it), I didn’t know how I would cope. I thought “I’m going to be a rubbish teacher and a rubbish Fijian, I just want to go home now!”
Once the orientation was over, we all went our separate ways to our placements. It was a great relief to arrive in my village to find that the Kindergarten I would be teaching at and the children there were so cute (albeit a bit naughty). My host family were incredibly lovely people, and the whole community were so kind and welcoming.
That relief was short-lived, as two days later there was a category 5 tropical cyclone – the most devastating hurricane in Fijian history. Of course, this made me want to go home even more; to a place where a storm usually just means that your garden furniture gets blown over. It was the positive attitude of the Fijian people that made me pull myself together and believe I could do this.
What did you love and hate about Fiji?
It sounds weird to say this but the things I loved about Fiji sometimes coincided with the things that I hated.
I loved how friendly the people of Fiji are. It’s just in their culture. As soon as I arrived in my village, my host family and friends wanted to know all about my life – and always sent their regards to my family at home. During the cyclone (as well as the whole 5 months actually), when we were all living in the community hall due to flood damage in the homes, it seemed like the whole village’s priority was to make sure I was well fed. They always encouraged me to sleep in the middle of the day (I wasn’t going to say no to that) and they always wanted to know that I was okay.
If it’s obvious you are not a local, people come up to you and ask where you’re from, what brought you to Fiji etc. It is a major factor in the Fijian culture to share everything, whether that be food or your most prized possessions. Nothing is “too much” for a Fijian person to help you with.
Of course, you can take the girl out of Britain but you can’t take the Britain out of the girl.
Sometimes the things I’ve mentioned above were a bit difficult to deal with at times. I walked through town every day and there were some days where I was in a bad mood and just wanted to keep myself to myself. I didn’t want to have to talk to anybody but if I sat down on a bench in town, the person next to me would want to talk. Solitude literally is not a thing in Fiji, so if I wanted some ‘me’ time, I would often get asked what I’m doing.
Don’t get me wrong, my host family gave me all the space I needed. I had my own room with a lockable door. I was very lucky compared to some other volunteers. When I wanted to do something for myself, like my therapy colouring or read a book, a small army of children would gather round me to look at what I was doing.
As I said before, my host family and the community are all incredible people and I am so grateful for everything they did for me. I am in no way complaining when I talk about these things – I wouldn’t change them for the world but these cultural differences were a big thing to deal with.
Was it difficult to adjust to a new routine and place?
Leading on from the previous question, the biggest and most difficult adjustment I had to make was the cultural differences. You’d think that the differences in the standard of living; cold showers, no electricity for the three months after the cyclone etc, would be the hardest part but the culture shock was 1000x times harder.
Many of the values Fijians hold are similar to those typical values in the Western world 50 years ago or more. The typical family set up was a working Father (who was the most respected person in the household), a stay at home mum (who did all the cooking and cleaning) and children (whose responsibilities and chores depend on whether they are a boy or a girl).
Men are the most respected people in society and I think it was the view that women were the ones who needed to be looked after. Coming from a world where Women’s Rights, equality, LGBT and all that stuff, is a really big deal and has come a long way so the Fijian values were sometimes a bit difficult to get my head around.
It seemed to me that young, unmarried girls had to be looked after by someone – either a parental figure or a male. When I first arrived in the village, I needed a male chaperone to take me to town.
My host family and I went to the capital city Suva for a few days. I don’t think my host family realised that I was used to the hustle and bustle of a city; they kept calling my name to check I was walking with them and hadn’t got lost. They kept saying “come Nat”, one of them even tried to hold my hand as we crossed the road! I actually ended up saying “I’m from London, I know how to cross a road!”
Luckily in the typical Fijian way, they just laughed it off. I wouldn’t have wanted to come across as rude. I was just so frustrated at that time. Eventually I got used to it, I know that all they were doing was being kind and trying to look out for me. They were acting in the way they are accustomed to, just as we would.
*Disclaimer* I am not complaining or trying to offend anybody or the Fijian culture. I am in no position to complain about things I found hard to deal with or try to change their values, I was just a visitor to their country. All I can do is comment about my experiences.
In terms of routine and place, I do like having a routine. In the weeks following the cyclone, there was no school; therefore no routine and I didn’t know what to do with myself – so those were difficult weeks. Once everything got going again, I got pretty used to the place and how everything worked.
What did a typical day look like?
A typical school day started off with me waking up, having a cold shower, and being treated to a homemade breakfast by my lovely host mum. Fijian breakfast is pretty simple and consist of breakfast crackers, bread (in fact ALL Fijian meals include Bread), pancakes, bumbakau (pretty much like donuts without the hole), many of my fellow volunteers ate Weetabix which I was never offered but it’s okay because I am not a slushy cereal kind of girl.
I would then head to Kindergarten (which was literally two steps from my house) where I would meet up with the Kindergarten teacher. The school day started off with a morning devotion, as Fiji is a very religious country. We would say prayers, sing hymns and the children would recite a bible reading. My favourite part was when you’d ask the kids which song they’d like to sing, which would be met with a chorus of high pitched little voices shouting “Jesus loves me!” So cute!
I managed to get some of my own ideas into that morning devotion too. I introduced the “hello song”, which included sign language, which is how we started each morning and afternoon session off at my previous job in a Special Needs College. The children loved it and got the hang of the signing pretty quickly. I also introduced…the rules. The rules which needed to be followed in order to receive the Star of the Day award – another thing I introduced. Soon enough, the kids were reciting the rules “Listen. No running. No fighting. No talking while eating.” Although they didn’t always follow them, it was very sweet!
After this, the kids would do some kind of literacy or numeracy activity, which myself or the teacher would organise. Being quite a rural village kindergarten, the school was under resourced, so pretty much every written activity I had in mind required me physically creating worksheets and with no photocopier, I had to create at least 10 copies by hand. The children made great progress in writing whilst I was there, which was so lovely to see and made it all worth it. They would then do something a bit more fun, like an art or play activity. Again, art was quite difficult with a lack of resources but we made do with what we had.
The kids would then play for a bit before it was time for lunch. This was the time in which they’d create absolute havoc. They’d be running around, running out of the classroom, fighting (not just name-calling or a little pinch here and there, I mean actual fighting!), crying – it was crazy! This would be the true test as to who was the real Star of the Day!
Lunch time would come, we’d do a bit of singing nursery rhymes and before the end of school devotion, the Star of the Day would be revealed. The recipient of the Star would always be so proud, so happy, like it was the best day of their lives…for the others however, it caused World War III. There would be grumpy faces, there would be crying, there would be resentment towards the person who received the star.
Most importantly, the star improved their behaviour so much so it was all worth it in the end and we’d send them all on their merry way home.
So, Kindergarten was only half the day, so what did I do with the rest of my day I hear you ask? Luckily, I had another school to work at in the afternoons: a special education school where my volunteer partner was placed. This school was a 40 minute walk away, like I was going to waste $4 a day on taxis? I walked. Every day. For 5 months. It was actually a really pleasant walk and a favourite part of my day because it gave me alone time to think and reflect.
At the special needs school I would take up Teaching Assistant duties such as making learning resources, reading with the students and even taking part in a game of volleyball (I hate sports).
About halfway through my placement, I had the opportunity to teach at a third school, an Anglican primary school, where I’d be teaching a reading program for years 1 & 2, and year 7 & 8. I did this two days a week, and went to the special school the other three days.
After school, I would have a shower after that sweaty walk then take a nap. I’d wake up around dinner time – evening meals were often curries of some sort; Daal, Fish, or soup and would usually include heaps of carbs, on carbs on carbs. I’m talking noodles, with potatoes and rice. With bread on the side.
Mealtimes is an important family time. In Fijian culture, you sit on the floor to eat around a table cloth with lots of food laid out and you had to say Grace before eating.
After dinner, I would usually help my host brothers with their homework or watch TV – once we had our electricity back.
Pre-electricity, I would often have an early night – literally going to bed between 7-8pm. Once it got dark, there wasn’t really much you could do. Of course, the time prior to going to bed was nice because you HAD to talk to people – you couldn’t just sit on your phone, or watch TV, because you literally could not.
That was a really valuable part of my experience and made my placement different to others – as far as I know, none of the other volunteers were without power for as long as I was.
Post-electricity, my nights seemed to get a bit later and end up with me falling asleep in front of the TV. May as well have been at home eh?
What was the best day you had?
My best day was the first time that I had to teach the Kindergarten class by myself. This was about 6 weeks into my placement, the Kindergarten teacher had a really bad toothache so had to go to hospital (GP surgeries are not a thing in Fiji). I was a little nervous about controlling the little (lovely) terrors on my own, but by this point I knew the routine of the day and was confident I could at least get through the day.
I took it as an opportunity to execute some of my own ideas. For an adult, I have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with the book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. I literally adore it. For those who don’t know it, it is a children’s book with a tuneful rhyming narrative, about a family who are obviously going on a bear hunt; but come across some obstacles including long wavy grass, thick oozy mud, a deep cold river and lots more, before coming into contact with a bear. Much to my delight, the village actually had pretty much ALL these things, apart from bears, obvs. This book has so much potential for sensory stories and art projects, so I took the children around the village for our own Bear Hunt – collecting the natural elements from the story in order to make a nature collage. It went so well, the children had so much fun outdoors, then making the collages. Children who seemed to find it really hard to sit down and focus on tasks were just getting on and doing it. I was so proud of them, and proud of myself too. I’ve wanted to be a teacher for quite a while now, but never really had to confidence to do it before. This was my first time teaching alone, and it went well! That’s when I started to really believe I could do it, it was an important turning point for me.
What was the worst day you had?
My worst day started off similar to my best day. It was a few months later, another day where the teacher was sick. It was set to be a really brilliant day; as the big box of donated items from my family and friends had arrived and today was the day I would present it to the children.
So, I got the children to gather round the box and open it. They completely lost it. They were ecstatic. They were all tugging toys, books and fancy dress clothes out of the box, each child was claiming what he/she wanted for themselves. They were really convinced the stuff was for them to keep and take home. I made it clear that these items were to play with and use in school, then I let them just spend the day playing. I was in a good mood.
I soon realised this was a pretty rookie error.
They were running around like crazy, none of them wanted to listen to me and I was getting pretty stressed. To make matters worse, I caught one of these 5 year olds stuffing a Fancy Dress outfit into their bag! Of course, I told her off, made her put them back and thought that was the end of it – until I checked everyone else’s bag to find they ALL had attempted to steal things! I was fuming!
Anyone who knows me will know that I’m pretty quiet, I don’t like confrontation and I don’t shout. However, I flipping SCREAMED at them.
I was so disappointed. I felt like I’d done something so nice for them and they just threw it back in my face. In this country, shouting like that would not be the best way to handle it but in a country where corporal punishment (hitting students) is still a thing, sometimes they won’t respond to a calm but firm voice. Sometimes you need something a bit more extreme that doesn’t include violence. The children all looked pretty upset and full of apologies. It’s hard not to forgive them when they look so adorable.
Of course, the next day everything was back to normal and okay but that day was just so stressful. Unlike at home, I couldn’t unwind from a hard day with a bit of netflix and chill (not in that way) and a glass – or bottle – of wine. So yeah, pretty tough day, but there were plenty of good days to make it all worth it.
Any tips for other travellers who want to volunteer abroad?
I would say, just go for it. There are no words to describe how much an experience like that will enhance your life and change you, the way you feel about yourself and the world around you, and the way you conduct your life from then on.
If you decide to go for it, go into it with an open mind. I think I’ve made it pretty clear that you will see or hear some things you don’t agree with, or you’ll encounter experiences that you’re not used to, but just try it out. I ended up doing things like going to church every Sunday and finishing a 100-day bible reading plan, swimming in a river and eating weird things like fish with a face and even a bat! Just go with it, you might be surprised.
Wow! What an incredible experience Natalie had as a volunteer abroad in such a unique place like Fiji. Any questions or have you volunteered abroad too? Share your experience in the comments below!