We stepped off the small boat from our resort onto the shores of one of the villages in Nacula, Fiji. Nacula is one of the over 300 islands that make up Fiji. It has a population of only a few hundred people, many of whom work in the many surrounding resorts, including the one where I was staying.
Our boat came ashore next to another filled with young Fijian boys. They were the cutest sight to see, goofing around on the boat with their backpacks on, waiting to go home to their village. It brought a “school bus” to a whole new level, and I did note that the boat was a familiar yellow color. As one boy was getting onto the boat he dropped his bright red notebook in the sea. Clearly annoyed he picked it up and threw it back out into the crystal blue and green water. I wonder if his teacher the next day would accept the excuse that his homework got wet. Perhaps that excuse is as common as “the dog ate my homework” is in other places.
My group got off the boat and followed a path surrounded by lush green plants. We would pass small children going the opposite way. Each one would look at me, smile and say “Bula!” which is hello in Fijian. A random cow could be seen in the dense foliage. Our first stop in the village was the primary school for the island. Children from the other 3 island villages had to come here as well. The furthest ones boarded, the rest took the “school boat” I mentioned earlier. The grounds was a collection of small, humble buildings, all one level. The classrooms were simple with desks, a chalkboard and diagrams on the walls. It sounds plain, but there was so much to see! English was everywhere as it is a priority that they all learn it. Where the classrooms lacked in equipment it made up for in bright colors everywhere. A mural of the world map took a whole wall, and next to it a map of their own island. One wall in a classroom depicted the universe, another geometry with all the shapes named in English.
As a teacher, I appreciated these classrooms. They were incredibly basic, without a single piece of technology, and yet I could feel an imprint of the learning and energy that takes places in these rooms every day. I think of how hot it is on the island and wonder how the students are able to concentrate under such conditions. I know that I personally struggle to do my job during the early days of summer.
We thought the school was empty but as we approached the last building singing started to trickle into our ears. The sound intensified as we approached the door. A very young male teacher wearing an Australia rugby top invited us inside. In this tiny room sat on the floor about 50 little boys and girls, all sitting cross legged and in the same uniform. We sat practically on top of them in two rows of wooden seats, myself being in the front. Then, the singing continued.
The best way to describe it is being slapped in the face with a wall of noise. The kids were belting, singing their hearts out. At first I felt a bit ridiculous that these children were made to put a show on for our behalf. I almost felt embarrassed. I was looking at these kids and they were looking right back at me. I wondered what they thought and how many times they had done this before. But then I relaxed and really took a look. The kids were smiling and enjoying themselves. Perhaps a few weren’t singing a song, but then they usually started in on the next one. At one point some of the students got up and danced as the other kids giggled. Most of the songs were Fijian, but in the end they sang a few English songs including “The Ittsy Bittsy Spider” and another with lyrics about Mc Donalds, KFC, and Pizza Hut. Uh wait - do these kids even know what those are? Because the last I checked, there was no fast food on this island, and no TV either.
The students’ passion for the singing overwhelmed me with emotion. The simplicity of the situation was beautiful. And how well behaved they were! As soon as the teacher spoke they hushed down right away. He explained how the school was partially funded by the European Union and he was very grateful. Part of what I paid at the resort I was staying at also went towards the school. He thanked us for our visit and told us we could now go to the village. He wished that God would bless us all.
As we walked some of the children followed us. They wanted to know our names and where we were from. These children meet people from all over the world, but will they ever leave Fiji? Their curiosity was so innocent and genuine that I couldn’t help but smile.
The village was a collection of mostly cement structures over grassy flat areas. Some of the buildings were partially collapsed. Some homes had thatched roofs while most were just cinderblock. Nosy me tried my best to get glimpses inside as I walked past. While there were some small amounts of furniture, homes seemed to be mostly sparse. I wondered if these structures stayed cool in the intense heat and humidity on the island. I can’t help but think about the happiness and wellbeing of the villagers.
Some of the villagers go to the main land to work and live but they almost always come back when they are done. A trip to the main island is very expensive and I don’t think people go very often. The island depends on a cargo ship that comes once a week to drop supplies off to the island. They have a few hours of power a day from a generator and that’s it. There are limited solar power options, but setting it up is very expensive. They exist on a tiny little island cut off form the rest of the world. Maybe that’s why the kids enjoy school and meeting outsiders so much. Perhaps this simple way of island living is ideal for some. I just can’t comprehend it. I think of all the places I have seen in the world and can’t fathom what it would be like to never leave a small bit of land. Ever.
That evening I was back at my resort, not far form the village enjoying my creature comforts. My room was cooling off in the air conditioning. A beautifully cooked dinner sat in front of me. I looked over and saw a little boy guest at the resort, no more than 2 years old, sitting on a chair and using an Ipad. His calm face glowed in the light of the screen as he used his fingers to play a game. How completely different is this child from the ones I met today? Or how similar? What was dinner time like for the villagers, living not that far from here?
Call me a naïve traveler, but the comparison of ways of life is still rattling around in my mind. My life is so different from those living on Nacula, and yet I lived briefly on the island and met these extremely kind and hospitable people. I guess the important thing, for both parties, is that we did meet. It’s important that in life we continue to meet and see places and cultures different to what is considered “normal”.