After researching for marine biology-related volunteer work worldwide, I was drawn to GVI for their direct involvement with the community and hands-on research experience. Considering I had nothing but my open water certification in Canada and I was dedicated to pursue a career in the marine sciences, I believed that this program would offer me a great deal of insight (as well as self reassurance that this is the niche career I wanted for potentially the rest of my life).
A rather small Canadian girl that took the term 'go big or go home' quite seriously, and has plans to visit 25+ countries between 2018/2019. Still staying true to her love for volunteering, she's looking for opportunities world wide to expand her experiences and give a little love back to the Earth!
Why did you choose this program?
What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?
GVI provided me with constant help during the planning stages of this extensive trip. Their email support was remarkable, and even with timezone differences, I usually got a reply within a day or two. That being said, they scheduled everything from the pickup at the hotel, to the weekend boat pickups that would transport us to the mainland.
While they did not personally book our flight tickets, or accommodations before we were first picked up (they did book our taxi, hotel, and dinner for when we were leaving), they assisted us whenever possible and gave us recommendations to make the process of arriving as easy as possible.
They also got our extended work visas for us while we were on the island because when you first arrived they only one they offer is valid for a few weeks.
What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?
Be prepared!!! I can't say this enough but you're going to live on an island with a little less than 50 people for months at a time. You will have to put in a lot of work, wake up early and have a complete change of lifestyle.
So ideally, aside from preparing by not bringing any designer clothes or things you'd not like to get moldy/dirt, come with an open mind to invest yourself into every part of the island life. I never imagined I'd bond with some of the friends I made on the island over bleaching clothes, but somehow it became quite the little event that I now cherish as a heartwarming memory.
Always be prepared for the unexpected, and when the unexpected does happen, learn to laugh it off... And to look around and remember you're living in paradise :)
What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?
Everyone usually wakes up around 6am on an average day. Duties are at 6:30 and rotate daily, so everyone will have the opportunity of making breakfast, preparing the boats for dives, cleaning out the trash/washing the bathrooms and general courtyard leaf cleaning (we get a LOT of leaves). After that we have breakfast at 7, and everyone begins their schedules which vary from taking courses to collecting data on dives. Typically everyone gets two in water activities a day, and possibly a boat/shore Marshall to make sure those in water activities are supervised and cared for in case of an emergency.
Lunch is made by some of the most lovely Fijians, and is usually served around 12. Activities will then continue until 5, which is when some duties such as boat and galley begin again while everyone else has a bit of free time. Finally at 7pm, dinner is served with a briefing for the next day at 7:30. After this, people are in charge of cleaning their own dishes, but then have the rest of the night free to either go straight to bed or play cards while the generator is still on (usually the best option, we played a LOT of cards).
Weekends are different, as we only have half a day of collecting research, and people are given the option to leave the island (they help plan boats, but anything after that is up to the volunteers to plan). Those who stay, however, still have to participate in duties to keep the island running, but get to relax, do some fun dives, and enjoy the peace and quiet of the island!
Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?
My biggest fear to be honest was the complete change in culture. I had never left the continent of North America before this trip, and I seldom left Canada aside from one or two trips to the states. At home, I was greatly privileged to experience a multitude of cultures; however, the people I was around made it easy for me as English was the main language and my community was quite westernized.
What I feared most was infringing onto other peoples culture/belief, or somehow insulting them with my ignorance. However, once I arrived to Fiji, and Caqalai in particular, my views had completely changed.
From the very first day they welcomed us all into their village church to attend a Sunday ceremony, and afterwards they were nothing but patient and kind to all us newcomers. After spending months with them slowly learning their language and their culture, I outgrew the fear of asking questions and being involved in a culture not traditionally my own.
I was deeply afraid of committing cultural appropriation, but thanks to the ever so welcoming Fijian community, I learned how to respect and honor their traditions while being involved in a way I had never felt before. They truly made me feel apart of their family, and what they taught me has helped to give me the confidence to continue learning and opening myself up to other traditions/beliefs as I continue to travel around the world.
What's your advice to other volunteers?
Please don't take fancy clothes. I really can't state this enough, they will get destroyed. If the mud, mould and chickens do not, you'll somehow find a way, trust me. Bleaching has been done, but when all you have is a bucket, some bleach, and a crew of sad young adults with dirty clothes and a free afternoon, it's fun, but I would have preferred playing volleyball.
On a more positive notes, I literally have too many amazing memories to fit into anything less than an essay. I've spent evenings by the sunset chilling with people (who are now some of my closest friends) in a hammock over the ocean. My friends and I would cook dinner while blasting top hits like Africa by Toto, Celine Dion - My Heart Will Go On, and of course, Scatman.
The countless tournaments of volleyball and cards, the endless nights of dancing in the water to stir up all the bioluminescent phytoplankton that lit up the ocean like the stars - there's just unbelievable moments I doubt even the worlds best photographer could catch through a lens. Purely because of how genuine all of our emotions were in those moments. But that is exactly why I think they're so precious, and despite all the hardships I faced, I wouldn't ever regret volunteering on Caqalai. All I can hope for now is that I can return soon to the little island I now call home :)