After Fiji

I leave Fiji and its summer behind. Some days sizzling above 100 degrees F, westerlies would push hot air into your face smelling of dust and sugar. Even the ocean was more than lukewarm when I snorkeled over shallow patches of seagrass or soft coral fields. I leave Fiji and its sorrows behind. They’re really my sorrows, or perhaps my hubris, failed expectations that believed their own lies. I thought I knew paradise’s tricks. The further I fly from Fiji, though, the less I call them failures. 

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I came to Fiji to unpack the relationship between resorts and community restoration efforts. Coral gardening tables, mainly, which at their best aid in the rehabilitation of a bleached reef’s genetic pool. I lived with Austin, who ultimately was occupied with his efforts at the farm and couldn’t take me to the restoration sites he knew about. While I lived with him though, I learned about managing a farm and the ways he struggled with local and international NGOs. I saw what it would take to make Fiji’s agricultural system more sustainable, and how one conservationist made a lifestyle out of his beliefs.

 Austin did get a chance to show me one resort: Shangri-La. It’s a family resort, where marine conservation becomes a consumable and educational experience. Families can pay US$20 to build a “fish house,” a shelter for reef fish and potential artificial reef substrate. Some families from Australia and New Zealand come back every year, marine-biologists-in-training returning to assess sites from prior years. There’s a really wonderful marine education center accessible to local school groups; Austin was concerned the Fijians running the conservation program weren’t getting enough funding and encouraged an educator to make a case for more funds. The educator seemed nonplussed. Austin has good ideas for where village-hotel conservation programs can go, but is often occupied with the day-to-day at the farm and without time to start up new projects. 

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I lived in Suva for, in total, about two weeks trying to study for the GREs, write articles and reports, and take care of miscellany. Then New York needed to happen, so before I left Fiji I decided to check in on one of the really old coral tables Austin had helped install as a case study. It was situated south of Ovalau, home to Fiji’s first capital, Levuka, on the teeny island of Caqualai (pronounced Than-GUH-lai). I hopped on a bus, then a ferry, then back on the bus to catch a skiff in Levuka. 

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Levuka is a UNESCO world heritage site, colonial buildings nestled into a small volcanic island in the town where Fijian chiefs signed the islands away to the British. The fury over this exchange is apparent in the tourist materials around the town. I met a pastor who attended a local climate summit and now includes marine conservation and sea level rise solutions in his sermons. It was very, very hot. 

When I got to Caqualai, I was very surprised to find a group of volunteers renting out half of the hostel with a program called Global Vision International (one of those paid volunteer programs). They were all sweet volunteers, with a young 20-something staff, working on CoralWatch surveys, SCUBA certifications, and marine education programs for the schools on neighboring Moturiki. One 70-year old woman was learning to dive and do surveys after her husband passed away, seeing the world. I had an amazing solo snorkel with a juvi. White Tip, swimming back with the current from Snake Island where sea snakes curl up together during low tide. It was a redeeming trip. 

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When I came back from New York, I had a six days left in Fiji. Three days to cram for the GREs and get my belongings together while I recovered from a cold and while my skin decided to throw an utter fit, still reeling from seeing so many people who are so important to me. I took the GREs on my birthday, totally miserable. 

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I missed a few interesting project items in Fiji. I wanted to go to Walt Smith, a plant that grows and harvests coral for aquariums. I missed an active community project in the North Austin’d told me was no longer operational. Overall, Fiji time kept me a little lethargic, and I didn’t learn quickly enough that most Fijians take weeks to answer emails but are constantly on their phones – methods of communication aren’t universal, and that’s on me as a researcher. 

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My last day in Fiji was the date of my birthday in the States, and home didn’t feel so far away. I watched Rugby with the staff and visitors at the airport hotel, yelling and squealing. I ate kokoda, my absolute favorite local dish (stewed fish in cold coconut milk, so delicious). The excitement of going to a place I truly don’t know, Hong Kong, kept me up late. It is totally possible I left Fiji too early, but I,m ready to harken in new beginnings with the Chinese New Year this week. 

Here’s to new beginnings, 

Rennie

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