Days of Heaven

AKA: That time QUT sent me to paradise on earth

I’m not proud to say I had the jaded student lifestyle down pat. I was a master at KG busway tetris (i.e. swiping your gocard before the driver has time to protest that the bus is full), I’ve slept through many a night in the editing labs undiscovered, and I have tried every meal the Urban Village has to offer (Danny Boys all the way).

But I was tired last semester. I’d been tired the semester before, and the year before that, and the year before that, and, probably, the year before that. I had resigned myself to being equal parts apathetic and stressed for the rest of my study, if not my life. I was actually nurturing a fantasy of finishing my degree and then just becoming something completely un-stressful, like a motorbike postie.

Then QUT sent me to Fiji.

The Sabeto Project

They wanted some students to film a documentary in Fiji.

The aim of the Sabeto Project was to take about a dozen QUT students from a bunch of different faculties and get them to teach at disadvantaged schools in Fiji. The six chosen Film students would also shoot a documentary of the whole experience.

To be honest I don’t even know how I got to be a part of the crew.  I signed up last minute, because I’d always loved working with kids, and going to Fiji didn’t sound too shabby either. One rainy afternoon (after a particularly stressful day) I got the email- I was in! To say I started grinning like an axe-murderer on the bus, would be an understatement.

For the next few months, the promise of the trip became like a talisman for me. I loved telling friends, workmates and random strangers about it when they asked me how my learning was going. No more boring ‘oh yeah classes are alright- as always’. Now I could say ‘actually I’m heading to Fiji with the Uni’ you know, just casually.

We left Brisbane on a freezing June night. As a team there were seventeen of us. Six film students, two engineering students, two education students, two fashion students, the QUT staff and Epi, an international Architecture student, and our Fiji cultural translator. I knew three of team (fellow film students)- the others I’d only ever met once or twice before.

The Film Students at departure. (From right to left: Tyra, Brendan, Regan, Michelle, Me and Jarrod)

The film students, I’m proud to say, started the trip with a bang. We found Epi, our Fiji cultural guide, drinking in the BNE airport bar, joined him, and nearly missed the flight. We’d never met Epi properly before and it was lovely how instantly he won us over. It only got better from there.

The whole QUT team assembled outside Natalau

Fiji is a deeply weird country. I did come to understand why, as a native, you’d never want to leave.  By the end of the trip, I didn’t want to leave. If I was on a crazy quiz show and (for a set of waterless cookware) I had to sum up Fiji in one sentence I’d say: the opposite of boring.

Never a dull day in Fiji.

Bulafest. Imagine Ekka, but without the animals and Fijian. Yeah.

The view from just outside our room

Since I’ve come back, I’ve had to try and condense, for friends and family, what this trip meant to me. My standard response has become ‘it was amazing’ with the most reverence I can inflect into my voice.  It doesn’t cover much, and in no way describes the tightly woven light of joy that nestles next to my heart when I think about those two and a half weeks.

In my experience people avoid hearing long overseas stories anyway, whether they were life-changing or not, so I will write about Fiji once, here, and you can read it or skim and just look at the pictures. I don’t mind.

What we did

  • Teach school children from Year one to Seven about filmmaking, digital storytelling, and science experiments.
  • Create media (traditional dance DVD, Christmas CD) for the Sabeto people to sell once we’d left
  • Teach the Sabeto women basic machine sewing to make crafts and other sellable items.
  • Film a documentary about the entire journey

The mission statement of the Sabeto Central School...painted outside their classrooms

The Team

The heart of the beautiful experience we had in Fiji were the relationships that grew between the team. Most of us had never met each other before, save for at a few preliminary meetings. We were no better than high schoolers. The film students sat with film students.  Fashion sat with fashion. Education with education. Engineering stayed with engineering. Totally tribal and totally ridiculous in retrospect. I have some distant memories of making polite small-talk with Zoe, Carly letting me in to a meeting room, and a series of awkward messages with Jeremy.

By the time the trip was drawing to a close, I could not imagine not being physically close to these people. It’s all jumbled now- Courtney braiding my hair, Jarrod attempting and failing to braid alongside her, Tahlia’s easy hugs, sitting squashed between Brendan and Michelle in our tiny van, Tyra shaking her stupid butt in my face at night to annoy me, singing with Epi, teasing Edwina, walking arm in arm with Leo to the bonfire, dancing to endless reggae with Regan and Jeremy, Zoe holding my hand on the paddleboard, riding in taxi boots all squashed together, and sitting on the endless procession of grass mats, leaning on each other, as comfortable as if we’d known each other ten years instead of two weeks.

Our impromptu 'tribe' after Eel fishing. I'm taking the photo in case you're wondering.

Brendan: my food safari brother.

Classiest girls on the trip.

After climbing a mountain. While filming.

A big part of that was Fiji. Don’t let any stupid holidaymakers tell you different: that place is paradise on earth.  Everything grows there. In winter it’s about as warm as our summer. When you drive down a street in Fiji- there’s a whole set of in-the-moment traffic rules, depending on the drivers, that start to make a whole lot more sense than our carefully regimented and formalized Australian ones. Apart from teaching and filming, we went to hot springs, climbed mountains, hunted pigs, surfed, had bonfires on the beach, swam with sharks, danced at military training bases and so much more.

It was absolutely glorious.

The People of Sabeto Valley

Then there were the people.

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Tyra with our incredible guides Tony and Miri

One of the many golden afternoons we had in Sabeto Village.

Our big brother Epi and some of the local village boys.

Some of the QUT girls at our village welcoming ceremony!

If any of my friends in Fiji, in the village of Sabeto or Natalau, or at the Central or District school are reading this: thank you. Thank you for being the kindest, warmest and most wonderful people I have ever met. Thank you for letting us teach your children, and letting us into your lives for those two weeks.  Your hospitality on all those long and peaceful afternoons was a marvel. I will remember it forever as some of the most wonderful and comfortable moments of my life.

Local Sabeto women weaving mats in the Sabeto Village community hall.

I even had a Fijian mum: Olo! We went to church in the village on Sunday and afterwards we were all divied up between families and taken to Sunday lunch at their house. Then we got told full-stop that they were our Fijian family now, It was amazing how generous the people were. I had a mad time watching this crazy Indian soap with my family, and afterwards we had this huge feast, with rice, river fish, cassava and dalo and just the most delicious food you can imagine. I felt so incredibly welcomed.

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The QUT team all snazzed up for...

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...church!

Sunday lunch with my Fiji family!

Teaching

The students we taught at the Central and District school of Sabeto valley were an absolute joy. They took to our lessons in filmmaking and digital storytelling like ducks to water. And they took to us in no time at all. I especially want to thank the District school kids for erasing any bad memories I ever had of primary school netball, with the best game I ever played at their school! Everywhere we went we had a throng of kids following us.

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Basically everywhere we went- this happened.

At the central school I played tag and piggybacked kids around for hours making so many lovely friends in the process. Naia- if you’re reading this – you are a way cool kid! Keep doing amazing work- I was so impressed by you! Also Kelly and her gang- thanks for the fun lunchtime sports and being mad bros! If I could change one thing about this trip- I would have wanted to spend more time teaching at the schools. The children were advancing at such an insane speed and I would have loved to be witness to that a bit longer.

Refurbished PCs donated by QUT at the Central School

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Vinesh firing up some robots. Me filming for the documentary.

It was also a total honor to join the education lecturers, Dr Vinesh Chandra and Dr Carly Lassig, as well as their students Zoe and Courtney, in teaching and working with the kids. I wish I had had teachers like them as a child.  It was beautiful to see everybody discovering the teacher in themselves, whether it was as natural as breathing (like my fellow film student Regan), or a wonderful caterpillar to butterfly transformation, like with our sound girl, Michelle.

Sabeto Village

Our second week in Fiji was focused around the Fashion students, Tahlia and Edwina, teaching basic sewing skills at the community hall and us film students, filming the bulk of our documentary. That week was a bit more stressful for us film kids- but still a very blessed time. We shot hours of the village life, cultural histories, traditional dances, farming, hunting, traditional crafts, fishing and interviews. My favorite part was recording a CD for the village choir. I cried the entire time because they sang so beautifully.

Traditional dancers

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Filming in the village in week two of our stay.

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Fashion students Edwina and Tahlia doing their sewing lessons in the community hall.

We had transport issues in the second week so we spent a lot of time waiting around. I think this was a little bit annoying at times, but for the most part it made for the most beautiful afternoons. I had these two friends, Nancy and Salu, who’d come and see us in the afternoon at the community hall and we’d just goof around for hours. I also had a very sweet friend from year five called Bill who held my hand, and always sat with me.

Nancy and Michelle

Bill out and about in the village.

The first time I met Nancy and her friends

Other days we’d meet other people and just be invited to hang out. One day, Brendan, Tahlia and I were left in the village for an hour and a bit, and these guys invited us to an impromptu kava session. Another day we stayed behind at the hot springs and played games with kids there and drank fresh coconuts. Then there was the day we went eel fishing, got left in the countryside and formed a tribe. Yet another day we had a lovo, which was food cooked underground, and we had a ball telling jokes with all the village students. There are too many days to mention now that I’ve started thinking about it!

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Our farewell morning tea in Sabeto village. It. Was. Amazing.

In the End

There is no limit to the amount of beautiful memories I could conjure up here. But to write them all down would never adequately convey their perfection and importance to me. University had shredded me these past few years. This journey in Fiji, and all the people I met there were like a balm for that.  When we returned to Australia I found that I couldn’t even describe the wonder and the glory of the trip to my parents.

I think I’m still struggling for a vocabulary to explain Fiji.

In the end all I can say, with total reverence, is that it was amazing.

 

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