Finding Love in Fiji: My First Peace Corps Experiences
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, there were things that I thought I was prepared for, but it was the unexpected in my Peace Corps experiences that taught me the most.
I was prepared to integrate, learn, appreciate, and observe a new culture. I was prepared to live in conditions drastically different than my privileged American lifestyle, and to abandon the comfortable.
I was ready to listen. The best advice I received from a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer was to simply listen–not speak, but listen. I was instructed to listen and to go in without expectations, so that everything would surprise me. This was the best wisdom imparted to me before I left, and I carried that mentality with me every step of the way.
For the first time in my life I was fully invested in listening. I think as Americans, we get so caught up in hearing, but not truly listening, because we, as far as my observations go, are so focused on what we are going to say in response that we are not really listening. I learned to listen with intent and with purpose.
When I received my site announcement, which is a Peace Corps term for where you will live and work during your time in a country, I was ecstatic. My site was perfect for me, and it was everything I wanted out of my Peace Corps experience. I was in a little village of about 200 people, without electricity, in a little shack on stilts. I collected rainwater for drinking and for taking bucket baths, and I was able to walk from my village to my work site, which was only a couple of kilometers from my home. It was a three-hour bus ride to the nearest market and to where I could check my email.
Overcoming the daily challenges of living in Fiji became my reality–killing cockroaches like a champ, and using the sasa broom to sweep out ants, rats, and lizards was no problem. I could scrap and milk a coconut and hand wash my clothes with a bucket of water and a board like a pro. Children no longer laughed at my ignorance to their way of life. I became an equal. I had a name–I was no longer “that” kavalagi (white person).
I became Fijian. I could carry on conversations with my Fijian counterparts and was known throughout my province of Tailevu on the island of Viti Levu (Big Fiji). I was recognized in the streets, the marketplace, and buses, and also known as the volunteer who drank kava and danced, which is how I became comfortable in my own skin and integrated into Fijian life.
Not only did I fall in love with myself, I fell in love with the people who surrounded me on a daily basis. I had a two new families: my Peace Corps family and my Fijian family. I discovered an element that I had not expected: love. Love is what I found in Fiji. Love was all around me. Everywhere I went in Fiji, love followed me.
And even though I am no longer in Fiji, I know that when I return, I will be welcomed with open arms and a big bilo (bowl) of kava. I have been back in the States now for longer than I lived in Fiji, but I still feel such a deep and thriving connection to the people in Fiji that our contact remains consistent. It is through this lens that I stare adversity in the face and have the fortitude to begin my Peace Corps experience all over again–this time in Azerbaijan. I am ready and open to receive and give the love I found in Fiji to the rest of the world.