Marine Program Manager Leba Digitaki is looking forward to welcoming back Rustic students to her country after a nearly three-year break from travel. For the first time since 2019, she is helping organize three programs in Fiji, including two with 30 or more hours of service. These programs have tremendous benefits for both the students and the local community.
“After service, you can see how rewarding it is in the student’s faces. They accomplish something every day, and it’s better to do something rather than sending money and not seeing how the money is being used,” Digitaki said.
The two programs primarily focused on service are Intro to Community Service in Fiji and Sun, Sand and International Service. The programs are similar except the introductory one is one week long rather than two. Common service projects include providing meals, doing environmental conservation work through tree planting and beach cleaning, and completing building projects in the villages and schools.
A third program, The Big Fiji Explorer, has about six hours of service. (We’ll have more about that program in our next Fiji blog!)
Digitaki says that one of the key service projects is an ongoing effort to provide clean bathrooms in village homes. Alumna Kylie Deverick is among the students who have worked on such efforts in Fiji. She fondly remembers one afternoon in 2018 when the students took a bus over hilly dirt roads to a small, one-room house belonging to a 77-year-old woman named Tai.
“I will never forget her smile as she watched us repaint her tarnished walls and begin building a new toilet at the side of her home,” Deverick said. “She had been walking across the road to another house to use the restroom for months! Seeing how happy of a woman she was despite her living situation was very humbling, and I think the world would be a much better place if we all could be as positive as she was.”
Sparking a Passion for Service
Such projects are so meaningful in a country where about 30% of its residents live below the national poverty level. This number may be even higher now since Covid harmed the tourism industry and decreased money coming in from overseas work.
A portion of the Rustic program cost is allocated to providing the resources necessary to complete the service projects. Digitaki says the initiatives are approved by the village headman who serves as a go-between outsiders and the village chief. The ability to make these kinds of connections is really what makes the Rustic programs so unique.
“Of all of the companies that offer travel programs in Fiji, Rustic’s trips provide the closest views of the traditions and culture,” Digitaki said. “Students get to see the real Fiji and not what they see online.”
Alumna Freja Tellefsen, who is from Denmark, found this on her Rustic trip to Fiji in 2019. She was so enthralled with her service program that she made arrangements to stay longer. After a week of the Sun, Sand and International Service program, she asked to add on another Rustic Fiji program, which gave her two more weeks in the country.
“It truly felt like a dream, and I was so grateful to the openness of Fijians and their culture who allowed me to see the “real” Fiji,” Tellefsen said.
Charlotte Maracina also was impacted enough by her program to want to keep helping. She reached out after her travels ended to launch her own service project.
“I continued working with Rustic Pathways for my Girl Scout Gold Award,” Maracina said. “We spent months creating, developing and raising money for a nonprofit smoothie cafe called Sun, Sand, and Smoothies – located on the Eco-Lodge’s property. The cafe became fully operational by the summer of 2018!”
Such community efforts supply important data to the Fijian government. Digitaki says she gathers information about projects to help track efforts related to reef health, mangrove rehabilitation, and other community benchmarks.
Experiencing Fijian Culture & Adventure
While the students enjoy these service efforts, they also get the opportunity to take part in Fijian cultural activities – giving them perspectives they would not get elsewhere. This includes kava ceremonies that are used to welcome the students. During this ritual, the root kava, which has a unique taste, is ground to make a shared drink.
“During the ceremony, we will officially welcome students to the family – no one is a stranger,” Digitaki said.
Students also will learn about Fijian attire, such as the wearing of the traditional sulu or sarong. Likewise, they may see performances like fire dances and learn about the importance of plants and wildlife, including local fish and mangrove trees.
In addition, students will have the opportunity to relax on Natadola Beach, where they can surf, snorkel and swim, or they can add-on various adventure elements that’ll enable them to see more of the country and maybe get an adrenaline rush.
The Sun, Sand and International Service trip has three add-on options for the weekend:
- Highlands Discovery – Includes a visit to the rural interior of Fiji, where students can swim beneath a waterfall, hike along ancient trails, race in bamboo rafts, and sleep in Fijian thatched-roof bures.
- Tropical Island Interlude – Includes an escape to a beautiful island retreat, where students can swim in the warm Pacific waters, play beach soccer or volleyball, snorkel, kayak and enjoy other nature-based activities
- Coral Coast Cruiser – Allows students to experience Fiji’s Coral Coast. Includes zip lining, a high-ropes course, beach lounging and exploration of the country’s capital Suva
Students in both service programs have the option of adding:
- Island Hopping to the Mamanuca Islands
- Banana boat tour
- A Fijian Massage
- Scuba Diving
Along the way, students will experience more of Fiji’s culture, which often makes them reevaluate their way of thinking.
“After witnessing the basic yet fulfilling lifestyle of the Fijian people, my thoughts and actions, as they relate to my needs versus my wants, are significantly challenged,” Maracina said. “The ability to have conversations on serious topics and understand different perspectives is something no classroom can teach you to do.”