Collecting Memories in Faraway Places

Collecting Memories in Faraway Places

Elyse Lebrun

Big Fiji Explorer 2022 | Surf and Service, Costa Rica 2021

All images have been provided by Elyse. Please read Elyse’s story below.

15-year-old Elyse Lebrun has many tangible memories of her travels abroad. Since she’s a musician she collects world instruments when she takes trips. She bought a rain stick when she went on the Surf and Service program in Costa Rica. On the Big Fiji Explorer program, she got a wooden percussion instrument that’s similar to a rattle.

She’s also gathered a finger piano, a pull whistle and other small instruments when traveling. They remind her of the most memorable moments when she was on the road. In Fiji, this included the day when the students were getting ready to leave the country at the program’s end. It was then that her love of music, instruments and travel combined.

“When we left Fiji they sang us a song, and one of our program leaders played the ukulele. It was really nice. I bawled my eyes out because I didn’t want to leave and I was touched by the song,” Elyse said.

Around the same time, the students also took part in the Rustic Ties ceremony where they discussed what they learned during the program. This gave Elyse the chance to grab another tangible memory.  Her Rustic Ties bracelet from Costa Rica had fallen off after she wore it for so long. Now she was given a new one that she placed on her ankle.

“It will be worn until it breaks,” Elyse said.

Such concrete reminders help bring Elyse back to her summer adventures in two different countries that gave her two very different experiences.

Learning to Go with the Flow

Elyse says the Costa Rica program she went on in 2021 was a good introduction to student travel. She had already gone on a number of trips with her family but wanted to follow in the footsteps of her brother’s friends who said Costa Rica was their favorite destination.

Before the trip, the only thing Elyse said she was really nervous about was embarrassing herself while surfing. But those jitters melted away when she had found that wiping out in the ocean was pretty fun and somewhat funny.

When not in the water the students did infrastructure service projects at a school and enjoyed getting coconut milk from the “coconut man” who brought them the tropical treat. At the end of the program, Elyse was in tears when it was time to leave just like she would be in Fiji a year later.

“We all could not sleep because it was the last day… so one of the guys made a speech. Everyone started crying because we were going to miss each other so much,” Elyse said.

Only two days after she returned home she signed up to travel to Fiji the next summer. That turned out to be a very different experience that required her to roll with the punches.

The first difference was the transportation to get to the program site. There were multiple legs that made it a long journey – starting with a plane ride from the east to the west coast in the United States, where Elyse then caught the group flight to Fiji.

“I like the group flights because it gives you an opportunity to bond with the people,” Elyse said.  “If I’m going to be traveling that long alone, I might as well make friends. I felt like by doing that it made it much, much easier.”

Once she got to Fiji the group was on the go. The Big Fiji program has quite a bit of travel compared to the surfing program. Also, the order of the itinerary had to be changed because of an illness in another group. To avoid interaction, they were on the move.

Along the way, Elyse’s group tried a host of adventure activities from a ropes course to snorkeling. Elyse says she also enjoyed helping with a coral propagation project and mangrove tree planting.

“We were at the same location where all the other kids had planted trees, and you could see where the main ones had been planted years before. They were producing the seeds that we used to plant the new ones,” Elyse said. “It was really nice, and the leaders told us stories of how the area used to be empty and how this planting helped the community.”

The project was in line with Elyse’s interest in science. She hopes to be a biomedical engineer and is signed up for Rustic Pathways’ Climate Leaders Fellowship. Because of this focus, getting engrossed in environmental projects was not unexpected for her. But other highlights of the program were.

Absorbing the Culture in the Highlands

Elyse says the portion of the program that ended up being the best part for her was the journey to the Highlands. There they got to interact with local villagers, including the children. She says a young girl there gave her a necklace with a turtle and in return she gave the child a bracelet. It was through these kinds of encounters that she realized how much she was learning on her travels.

“I have found my interests more easily through Rustic… I learned that I really like being around kids. I definitely learned that I love coconuts, and I like opening coconuts. I learned to enjoy reading more,” Elyse said. “I also learned that it’s okay to be yourself. You don’t have to put on a shield.”

Elyse embraced this realization during this portion of the program when they got to live a little more like the locals. The program leaders gave the students instructions in the indigenous Fijian language, which she liked trying to use.

The students also worked with the families to collect firewood and to cook. When they were relaxing, they got to sleep on the floor, dress in local attire, and eat on the floor like one big family.

“I loved it because it’s more realistic. That’s how people live, and that I didn’t sign up to be living in luxury. I signed up to be working and experiencing the culture – to have more immersion and transform myself,” Elyse said.

With these cultural lessons fresh under her belt, Elyse returned home where she started classes in a new school. Her new-found confidence made it easier to adjust to an unfamiliar environment. And that’s something that’ll stick with her as she moves through her education in the next few years.

“I just feel like I’ve grown a lot as a person, especially with the time away from my parents and everything,” Elyse said. “It gave me the opportunity to truly find myself.”