Overall, I had a fantastic trip. I made a lot of new friends from all over the world because there were always new volunteers arriving, and at any given time there were about 20 of us on base. The staff members, Tamu, Thom, Lauren, and Dan were incredibly helpful, and were always making sure you were doing well emotionally and physically, took care to make sure your paperwork and visa details were sorted out, were always eager for suggestions and looking for ways to improve the base, and were genuinely fun to have around as well!
The actual volunteer work was super rewarding, the construction portion of the expedition having more instant gratification that the childcare portion (not that you didn’t have as equally large impact on the community because of your efforts!) because the installation of the water tanks is a measurable job - once the tank is installed, that village will have 5-10,000 more liters of water than they had previously. You could always see the gratitude of the villagers as well - they always made us lunch when we were working and thanked us profusely. We've even seen the chiefs get emotional when the tanks arrive, and remark at how their village will no longer go thirsty. For the education project, it’s hard to measure your success, but you can see easily the joy the volunteers bring to the kids and to the teachers too! you really get out of it what you put into it... the days are long (8:00-3:00)and hot with lots of energetic children, so it’s easy to get tired, lethargic, frustrated, and even bored if you aren't prepared for the day. You need to plan a lot of lessons or projects to make things exciting for the kids and for yourself! They don't need to be elaborate by any means, crafts or games or something academic, but something to keep you going for 6 hours of school (1hr lunch break). The language difference can also be hard - English is their third language, and it’s easy to forget that when you are trying to teach. However, the kids are eager and are so much fun. They love all kinds of sports and the fun ideas and things that people from the modern world can bring to them. They are also incredibly musically talented! What GVI brings to the school is invaluable. The school's resources are so limited, and only a handful of the teachers there are competent at their jobs. When we are able to bring in stuff for the kids to learn with, they will have access to materials and knowledge that would have been previously impossible. Without the volunteers, kids would never get one-on-one attention that is necessary for some students' learning. Even the standard first-aid kit we bring to school every day is a huge help to them (the kids have open-wounds of all varieties along with other ailments pretty often and their medical center is severely lacking). Also, who better to learn English from than English speakers! (Although not all the volunteers were native English speakers!). I made some really great relationships with my students and some other kids at Ratu Meli, and I miss them so much.
The conditions at base are decent... it depends how you look at it. During my stay, some people remarked at how great the living space was, while others were disgusted by the conditions. I didn’t really know what to expect when I went, and I was pleasantly surprised by some aspects and unimpressed by others. You have to realize that you are in the middle of nowhere really, and only so much can be done to make your stay comfortable. The dorms are all bunk beds and hold 10-12 people in each one. There is not a lot of space, so finding room for your belongings can be a challenge. Often the dorms will be extensively sandy and also very hot – ventilation is not great in there. My bunk seemed to always feel damp because of the humidity too… pretty gross feeling. The mattresses are pretty thin too... try and snag a spare one and double up to make sleeping comfortable!! Sand will become a part of your life, as it is in everything, on everything, all the time. The staff members do their best to create cleaning schedules so that the chores are being done fairly by everyone. Bugs and creatures will become commonplace to you. I can’t say how many times saw toads crouched on the ground, a gecko perched on the wall, a cockroach scurrying around, a rat dart out the door, or a giant spider lurking in the corner. Not only are these creatures common, but black flies, mosquitos, and sand fleas are also abundant. (Better or worse depending on when you go, the mosquitos got progressively horrible when I was there (sept-december) BRING A MOSQUITO NET!). There are also a couple friendly dogs on base, Mattie and Junior. You will become used to turning on the sink or shower tap and not being surprised if no water comes out… If the water has not been pumped or is on a shortage, the sink and shower won’t work, the toilet won’t flush. This sucks because you don’t know when it’s going to happen... you could be in the middle of brushing your teeth and then realize there’s no water to rinse with!
You will be excited to see fresh vegetables for dinner, and it will be normal to have some form of pasta 5+ times a week. The staff does their best to order food requested by the volunteers (but they can only get so much!), and provide fresh fruit and veg when they can. Breakfast is always porridge, so if you don’t like it I would recommend bringing granola bars or something else to keep your belly full. Even if we have bread to make toast, it has to be rationed, so usually only 1pc per person. Most of the food is canned, and it is cooked by the volunteers who are put into cooking teams of 3 people per team. Teams are responsible for cooking a meal for all of base, and doing the dishes. We only had meat for really special occasions, otherwise you will be eating canned corned beef (I was not a fan) or canned tuna (BRING BEEF JERKY!).
You will be lucky to use the internet once in a month, unless you bring your own laptop and Vodafone internet dongle – this is what the staff members use, and they will sometimes let you use their internet if it’s urgent or you ask nicely. Bringing an unlocked cellphone and getting a Fijian SIM card is a good idea – you can get a SIM card for free or for like $5, and the credit is also cheap and goes pretty far if you’re just texting. Incoming calls are always free. You can also buy a phone here for $30 FJD or so. However, getting credit isn’t always easy… you have to wait until someone has access to where they are sold (a resort, the ferry). Since there isn’t much other way of keeping in touch with those back home, a cell phone is a good idea. There is electricity from 7-10pm every night, make sure you have the Fiji-compatible plug adaptor.
You will likely have some form of gastro-intestinal problems due to the change in diet and water (BRING PEPTO-BISMOL TABLETS AND TUMS). Bring your own first-aid kit – go to your doctor and see what they recommend you bring. Definitely bring something to help itchy bites.
You may or may not get thoroughly soaked on the boat ride to the school (BRING A WATERPROOF JACKET AND CAMERA CASE!) because Ratu, the driver, is a little crazy.
There are a few locals that live on the GVI property (their family owns the land that GVI leases) and you will see them around frequently. The ladies provide all sorts of services for a small fee: Lice (pronounced Lee-day) will do a large load of your laundry for $20 FJD, she sells cigarettes, cookies, and chips for a modest price, and she sometimes will bake the volunteers a batch of bubbacao (Fijian donuts!) for breakfast, just because! Terri, the other Fijian mother, is equally lovely and gives excellent massages for $20 FJD – about 45 minutes, and will teach you some basic Fijian language if you ask! (The most important words you will learn are “Kua!” (Don’t/stop), “Nalengoo!” (That’s mine!), and “Lamai!” (Come here)... not that my spelling is correct though!). Their children are always running around base as well, they love to play with you, anything from cards to volleyball to swimming! However, make sure you keep your belongings in places where they aren’t accessible by the kids! Two of my pairs of sunglasses got broken by them because I left them out on the table, packs of cards are never full, and one time the kids managed to sneak in the dorm and eat my entire bag of dried mango!
When you aren’t working, you have plenty of free time. After arriving home in the early afternoon, you have the rest of the day to do whatever: swim in the sea, read, sunbathe, nap, play sports, go for a hike, drink wine, walk on the beach, visit with other volunteers, plan for your week at the school, do your chores, write in a journal... I loved the freedom the staff members gave you – you didn’t feel like a kid at summer camp. One bonus at base was the proximity to some of Fiji’s best resorts. Just on the other side of the island was the Nanuya Island Resort, which was too pricey for us to want to stay the night there, but offered a great lunch menu when we wanted to treat ourselves to a good meal (and a good hike across the island!). You can also make a weekend trip to Blue Lagoon Resort, Oarsman’s Bay Lodge, or Coral View Resort for really cheap. 3 meals are always included with the price, and very affordable. Blue Lagoon is the nicest in my opinion (they had the best food selection, and the dorm was air conditioned), and a night there (including the food!) was only $60 CDN/USD. Staying at Coral View is even cheaper – about $30 CDN/USD per night! Every other weekend or so some volunteers would go to the resort for the night (the transportation costs about $10 FJD pp), and it was a great chance to get to know everyone, have a good meal, let loose, and have a comfortable bed!
The entire experience was eye opening. I made incredible relationships, had a chance to see what life is like on the other side of the world, made a real difference in the lives of the children at Ratu Meli school, all the while enjoying the beautiful Yasawas Islands.