If there was one sentence that could capture the first half of my time in Fiji under the New Colombo Plan, it would go something along the lines of: diving deep to a reggae beat, safe in the eye of the storm.
My first two and a half months studying at the University of the South Pacific have been nothing short of a rollercoaster: an unpredictable and exhilarating ride. There have been fiery sunsets over the Pacific Ocean, snorkelling with reef sharks on the outer islands, watching mist dance among the mountains that rim Suva Harbour, a killer hike in 100 per cent humidity with 360 degree views of those very same forested peaks, pot luck meals with international students from around the world, singing with the USP Graduation Choir, and a blissful kind of serenity that bubbles up on early morning bus rides into town. There are days where life here feels like its falling into a beautiful rhythm.
And then there are other days, usually filled with the kind of oppressive heat that makes it hard to move and think or periods of waiting that drives anyone unaccustomed to island time (read: me) up the wall. They are the days that I’m crabby because I’m missing home or just feeling overwhelmed; it didn’t take long to realise that everything from interning to grocery shopping feels harder when you’ve got to learn your way through an unfamiliar environment before you can even start the task at hand.
Add to that mix cyclone season, which has been ruthless this year. Fiji has had several tropical depressions and minor cyclones since Cyclone Winston hit in February. Many of the country’s poorest households lost family members, homes, schools, subsistence crops, power… for many people, there’s a very long road ahead before life can return to normal.
A view of the devastation from Cyclone Winston
Working with the High Commission in the wake of Cyclone Winston
I realised in the weeks after Winston that I’d been relying on the familiarity of certain routines— going to work in the commercial bustle of downtown Suva or to class amidst the eddies of students on campus— to ground myself while I settled in. While I noticed and adored little differences like the rowdy reggae remixes blasted on all the city buses and the abundance of hibiscus flowers on every street, it took the fervour of the nationwide recovery efforts to remind me that there are big differences between Fiji and Australia, and that I had a lot to learn by immersing myself in that gap.
I’ve since thrown myself in to every opportunity that’s come my way, no matter how uncertain I feel about my capabilities. I’ve been keeping up with classes, interning with the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and the Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development, attending public forums that explore the nuances of climate change and development in the Pacific, and squeezing in as much local travel as possible. After my semester in Fiji, I have a six week internship with the Office of Attorney General in Bhutan and a three month internship in Tuvalu to look forward to before graduation this December.
It’s safe to say that the New Colombo Plan has given me access to some unreal opportunities and insights. When I arrived in Suva, I knew that I wanted to spend my life working for human rights and climate justice, but didn’t know what kind of work I might want to experience, let alone what I wanted to do with my graduate years. In the few short months that I’ve since been an NCP Scholar in Fiji, with the support of the Australian High Commission, I’ve been able to reach out to and gain invaluable experience interning with two very different regional organisations that are both working to protect and promote human rights in the Pacific.
Attending a New Colombo Plan event with a fellow scholar
I’m learning a lot through this work, including technical skills and a more nuanced understanding of regional politics, trends, strengths and challenges. Perhaps most importantly however, I’ve discovered an amazing sense of best fit. Oceania feels like the best place I can be to learn from an incredibly diverse, resilient and connected peoples, to try and test my professional capacity as a human rights defender, and most excitingly of all, to wait and see what other twists and turns this rollercoaster has in store.