When people think about Fiji, they often envision the breathtaking beach photos that appear on tourist websites. What they may be missing are the unique perspectives that come from interacting with the people of Fiji and learning about their culture and history.
Many students who want both aspects of the Fiji experience pick the Big Fiji Explorer program for their summertime trip. The program includes action-packed activities on the main island of Viti Levu, along with trips to the Yasawa Islands and the Mamanuca Islands, where the movie Cast Away was filmed.
Fiji Marine Program Manager Leba Digitaki says the students enjoy various adventurous activities throughout the program, but the best part of the journey for many students is their time spent with villagers on Yasawa Islands.
“Somosomo Village is the highlight for many of them because they get to see the real Fiji,” Digitaki said.
An Action-Packed Journey
Overall, students spend four days on the Yasawa Islands where they sleep in large safari tents and live without electricity. While there the students can snorkel or kayak in the south Pacific, enjoying the exotic marine habitat. They also can add on a scuba dive if they want to see Fiji’s soft coral reefs.
In the village, they may learn a traditional Fijian war dance called the meke and play with local school children. They also do a service project, which may include building homes, planting mangrove trees or working with children. Molly Antebi who participated in the Big Fiji Explorer program in 2017 says these interactions are what she remembers the most about the trip.
“I have never met such warm, loving, and genuinely kind people as Fijians are. The experiences in this country are like no other,” Antebi said.
Before the students go to the Yasawa Islands, they take part in numerous activities on Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu. They begin their journey by heading down the Coral Coast and staying in an island resort. There students can snorkel or learn about traditional Fijian sailing techniques.
After this stop, students zipline in the rainforest, visit the country’s capital, and hike through the Colo-i-Suva Forest Reserve. The long list of adventures doesn’t stop there.
Students also tube on the Navua River, deep into the mountains where they can swim at a local waterfall. They travel to Mamanuca Islands where they can snorkel and watch the waves at Cloudbreak, a well-known surfing site. After visiting these islands, the students return to the main island to visit the Sigatoka Sand Dunes and the white sand beach Natadola.
Towards the end of the trip, students join in a local church service in the town of Momi and visit a local Fijian’s home. They have an option of skydiving, and afterwards they head inland into the mountains and highlands where they learn about farming and life in the region. The students wrap up the busy trip by visiting hot pools and mud baths.
The Deep Impact on Students
Ryan Barish, who participated in the program in 2018, said the very active itinerary allowed him to see how other people lived in various parts of the country, which was eye-opening since it was so different from his life at home.
“The places we traveled and the service we performed in several villages was simply incredible. From the beaches to the mountains and through the jungles, the Southeast Pacific Ocean was life-changing,” Barish said.
Digitaki says it’s common for students to have experiences like Barish described. She noted that students frequently remark about how different life is in Fiji than in countries like the United States.
“The students see how happy Fijians are even though they have little. They are much happier than many who come from places with everything. What has stuck with me is that the definition of happiness in Western World and Fiji is very different,” Digitaki said.
Those lessons stick with students long after they travel. Gabrielle Antolovic still maintains friendships with Rustic students she traveled with in Fiji and other countries. She also retains her passion for service. Antolovic is pursuing a law degree with the goal of helping people in need. She says her trips inspired her passions and helped keep them alive – long after the journeys were done.
“After each trip with Rustic, I felt emotionally and spiritually renewed,” Antolovic said. “My energy shifted, and I was more inspired to tackle the year, the challenge in front of me, and the goals I had.”
Many other alumni also have used their Fiji trip as a springboard to bigger and better things. Robin Smith says her trips to Fiji and the Dominican Republic motivated her to major in marine biology, and a later trip to India inspired her to add on earth science.
“When I graduate I hope to work with grassroots organizations bringing environmental education and sustainable practices to developing countries. I want to do this not only for the environment but also for the health of the people living there,” Smith said.
Brynn Bottalico, who traveled to Fiji and the Dominican Republic is working on a masters in mental health counseling. She hopes to work with marginalized groups in New York City, particularly teens with mental health challenges. She says traveling with Rustic was the highlight of her academic career in high school.
“When I came back from Fiji, I had a brand new perspective on what matters, what is important, what I want to do with my life and what I want to do for the world, Bottalico said.
Gia Mariano, who traveled to Fiji, Thailand and Australia, looks at the bigger picture when she talks about the impact of her travels, saying her journeys made her more confident and bold. And that may be the most meaningful impact of all.
“I was always encouraged to never be afraid and try everything,” Mariano said. “Rustic has given me lifelong skills and lifelong memories!”