As I look through this blog I see so much snow, cosy jackets and other signs of freezing weather. While most other exchange students have to deal with acclimatising to the cold of the northern hemisphere, I’m slowly getting accustomed to the sweaty temperature of the tropics. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to actually believe that I’m studying in Fiji.
When boarding the plane to Fiji I was surrounded by honeymoon couples and families already wearing their sarongs and sunglasses, ready for the usual one to two week holiday to this beautiful country. When asked by other passengers how long I was staying, I still remember the shocked looks I got when I said I was staying in Fiji for five months. Before I left people just could not understand that there was more to Fiji than palm trees and cocktails. The most common response I got was “is there really a university in Fiji?” Yes, the University of the South Pacific and what an amazing university it is. Each and every day that I am here I am realising that this is one of the most fascinating places to study. The University of the South Pacific is extremely unique as it is a regional university. This means that there are not only students here from Fiji but students from the other 12 partner countries. These countries include Cook Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Samoa. It still gets confusing trying to figure out which countries all my friends come from (and I learnt very quickly to make sure not to mix up Samoans and Tongans).
It is so amazing to study development in a country described as ‘developing’, surrounded by students from all over the region. In the very first ‘Geography and Development in the Pacific’ class I had, the lecturer told us that for our research project we had to do our own research. He gave the example that we could go to the squatter settlement just 200 meters from the classroom. Literally I can almost see a squatter settlement (and also the ocean) from my classroom.
One day I was sitting with a close Samoan friend talking about marriage and weddings. She casually stated that she wanted to wait until her father had passed away before she got married. I was shocked at the casual way she said this and asked her why. I ended up finding out that she is the daughter of a head Samoan chief who is also the associate Minister of Health in the national parliament. Because of this her wedding would be like a national event. She explained to me just some of the complex rituals that would have to take place. Sitting on the floor of the dorm at midnight just chatting to these Samoan girls was probably the most interesting anthropology lesson I have ever had.
One of the best things about this university is the field trips. The most memorable one so far has been a three day village trip for my “Agriculture and nutrition in the developing world’ class. The first day of the trip we spent stopping along the way to visit different commercial and subsistence farms. It was so fascinating as I have never learnt much about agriculture and what a better way to learn then standing in a hot (never been so hot in my entire life) cassava field with a farmer, in the interior of Fiji. Arriving at Lutu village and meeting the family I was staying with was so wonderful. The next day I spent the morning with the elderly women of the village as they taught us how they weave mats. It included collecting the pandanus leaves, scrapping of the hard edges, drying, boiling the leaves, drying them again, smoothing them, cutting and then finally beginning to weave. They also explained to us the importance of the mats and how much they mean to women in Fiji. That afternoon one of the men in the village took a friend and I to his dalo (taro) plot, were we helped him dig up some dalo for dinner. Later that night us students held a cultural performance night. It was amazing to see dances from Tonga, Kirribati, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Fiji and French Canada, and they were all people in my class… Amazing! Throughout the time we were there they were always trying to explain to us about their livelihood and culture. They were so proud and content about their lives. I learnt once again that communities like these are the ones with so much wisdom. They live life the way it was meant to be lived. They in many ways are developed, we are the underdeveloped.
I realise that there are three things that are important to Fijians; Kava, Rugby and Church. What surprised me at the beginning was that Islanders can be very shy especially around international students. Many presume (and sometimes they are right) that the international students are more than happy to stay together and they are shocked when you actually show interest that you want to do more than just be acquaintances. Some of the highlights of the exchange experience is the moment were you transfer from being that Australian exchange student to being part of the group. And every time that it has happened, it has been while doing one of the three things mentioned above. Yesterday I was playing a game of touch rugby with some friends and like usually failing pretty badly. Then it was announced that due to the fact that we had been playing for so long, the sun had almost disappeared and that no one was bothering to score that whatever team scored next would be the winners. The game went on and I was trying so hard not to completely stuff it up for my team, as the guys especially were getting extremely competitive. As I was concentrating on the guy who I was meant to be defending I surprised everyone (including myself) by intercepting the ball and charging towards the try line (or the invisible line between a pair of thongs and a fallen coconut :)). Unfortunately my little legs couldn’t run fast enough and I was touched before I scored. But as I turned around every player was on the ground in hysterical laughter because I took everyone by surprised. As I left to go home every single one of them, including all the guys shook my hand and high fived me saying goodbye Katie. Suddenly I was no longer the white girl, I was Katie.
Kava is also a massive, massive thing in Fiji. Approximately 10 kava ceremonies down and I still cannot understand what is the huge appeal of drinking dirty looking water that taste revolting and makes your mouth go numb. But I’m slowly learning to block out the horrible taste and enjoy the amazing discussions and moments that occur around a Kava bowl.
Sometimes I feel like exchange is a bit like a balancing act. I’m still trying to figure out how to balance study and all the other things an exchange experience has to offer. Some weekends I choose to stay back in Suva to finish an essay and not go travelling with the other international students. I feel sometimes that I will end up regretting studying when I could be snorkelling on an island. But other times I realise how much I am learning and that studying human rights in the common room with a girl from Tonga and another from Vanuatu is experiencing the true life of a university student in Fiji. Other times it also is a balancing act between working hard to build friendships with Fijian and regional students or hanging out with the other international students. Sometimes I feel guilty that I am spending too much time with the other international students and therefore I am missing out on other cultural experiences. Then I realise that spending time with the other international students, who are mostly from the USA can be at times more of a cultural experience than hanging out with friends who live in Suva. I’ve learnt so much about Americans while I am here. Some of them I love and others are so different from me in their attitudes and goals for their time in Fiji. I’ve actually begun a list of crazy things other international students have said. At the top of my list and my current favourites are “is Wales in New Zealand?” and “Katie, why don’t you have an Australian accent?” (still don’t understanding what accent they think I have).
One of the biggest things I have had to adjust to is what is commonly referred to as “Fiji Time”. As a person who is usually pretty punctual, it has taken a while to actually force myself not to be on time to things. But still I seem to rush to the place I need to be, overtaking about 100 people to get there on time, realise that I’m in Fiji and no other Fijians are yet to arrive. Then I wait around for half an hour or more. But then occasionally something will start on time and all the Fijians are there on time. I still haven’t figured out when a set time is a vague suggestion and when it actually is going to start on time. Luckily it never really bothers me too much and is really teaching me the true meaning of patience.
Another 3 important things to islanders are family, laughter and generosity. One of my favourite things to do is go to the cinema in Suva to watch a movie. I don’t go just to take advantage of the $3.50 prices but to hear the Fijians hysterically laugh. Even in the most serious movies they still find moments to laugh at. I also have had to stop complementing my friends on their appearances or one of their belongings. I’ve already got a collection of bracelets, necklaces, a fan and even offered a shirt all because the moment you say you like it they take it off and hand it to you and no matter how many times you offer it back they won’t except it.
I like a recent comment made by another exchange student- “Fiji softens the heart and hardens your feet!”. I’m only half way through my exchange but already know that Fiji and the lessons I have learnt here will always be a part of me