IT’S raining a sigh of relief on this humid day, which heralds the official turf turning ceremony at the Conua Primary School Kindergarden project. And aside from providing a welcome reprieve from the mugging March heat, it’s seen as good luck. I’m in Fiji’s Sigatoka Valley, hunting and gathering stories on the community tourism projects in which the Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort plays a critical role. And the new kindy is just the latest in a long line of voluntourism activities available to the resort’s guests.
This is a story about hope, community, cyclones and courage. The cyclone component was never meant to be a part of this tale, but when Mother Nature speaks, she cannot be ignored. In late February, just weeks before my visit last week, Tropical Cyclone Winston struck Fiji, killing 42 people, completely flattening more than 108 villages, leaving more than 80 schools without roofs and causing more than $1 billion damage to infrastructure and crops.
While the Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort was relatively lucky, weathering only superficial damage to things such as thatching on bures and destroyed gardens, its sister property Castaway suffered more serious damage and will be closed until mid year. Castaway guests were relocated to the Outrigger and everyone was placed in lock-down for six long hours while the cyclone raged. But Winston forgot he was dealing with Fiji. And despite the destruction, it’s still open for business with Fiji rapidly launching a fearless campaign #strongerthanwinston
These are warrior people from a warrior nation and aid is flooding in from around the world. But tourists don’t have to wait for something as devastating as Winston to help Third World nations such as Fiji. Since 2010, Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort has been involved in community projects and in 2014 it introduced the concept of “voluntourism” to its guests. Under the scheme, visitors are invited to become involved in a variety of projects from coral planting on the reef to visiting local village church services.
Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort General Manager Peter Hopgood has been instrumental in driving community tourism in the Nadroga province in which the resort is located.
“In my first year as GM I visited the 168 schools in the province and gave every kid a green shopping bag to take home to their parents to be used instead of plastic bags,” Hopgood says.
“We are now three months away from the introduction of Local Government legislation banning plastic bags in the province.
“It is still so pleasing, five years on, that every time I go into town I still see the green bags. Everyone has got one.”
And there are some big projects too. Last November, the resort opened the
$128,000 village meeting and school hall bure at the Conua Primary School in the Sigatoka Valley. The project took 14 months and the assistance of 80 volunteer guests to complete. The latest project is the construction of a $51,000 Kindergarden at the school. When finished in November it will accommodate 30 children. For the first time, the kids will have outdoor playground equipment.
Perhaps one of the most crucial projects about which he is most passionate in the new $384,000 maternity ward at the Sigatoka Hospital, built by the Coral Coast Hotels Association of which Hopgood is chair. The Association includes Outrigger, Intercontinental Fiji Golf Resort and Spa, Shangri-La Fijian Resort and Spa, Warwick Fiji, The Naviti Resort, and Fiji Hideaway Resort and Spa. Outrigger visitors can book a half-day tour every Tuesday and Thursday to tour the Conua School Kindergarden project, Sigatoka Maternity Ward, and local produce markets. Money raised from tour fees (Adults $64/Children $41) is used to purchase building materials.
Hopgood says while there are many areas of need in the province, the hospital was “diabolical”.
“There were no birthing facilities in this province. Because of the distance, the mortality rate was horrific,” he says.
“Health is the biggest issue in Fiji without a doubt. We do a really good job here on the Coral Coast but we can only really target our area of responsibility. You go outside the province and you see how harsh it is.
“It took us five years to build the facility, now it’s the best in all of Fiji. The reality is Fiji is still Third World but we have a very good hospital.”
The resort also enables 20 international professional eye surgeons to come to the province each year, who restore sight to between 80 and 100 people. And every year, former champion Australian swimmer Shane Gould is invited as a guest of the resort to teach village children, who have to cross the Sigatoka River to get to school, how to swim.
“It just can’t be a hand out to the community. We help those who help themselves. They have to contribute both funds and labour,” Hopgood says.
“From a tourism perspective this is what all the other resorts in the area need to do…engage and bring guests into the community.
“It’s almost like every western child should experience this.”
Fiji may be the occasional cyclone, but it is overwhelmingly warm waters, sizzling smiles, aqua oceans and white sand. These are fresh fruit, frangipani and hibiscus flower days. It’s local seafood washed down by cold beer. Champagne and sunsets. Fire dancing under crescent moons. Shuffling hermit crabs and kids who play outdoors. It’s warrior dances and sanguine smiles. Bold singing and big hearts. Humility, humanity, resilience, family, community and courage. Above all else, Fiji is courage.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of the Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort – http://www.outriggerfiji.com
The resort has established a Cyclone Appeal to assist people living in the north of the country. The bank account details are:
Account Name: Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort
Bank: Suncorp Bank; Gold Coast Business Banking Centre
SHE’S here! Dear Global Goddess follower – In response to requests from many of you, I am delighted to announce I have just published my first book! Destination Desire – The Global Goddess, a single woman’s journey is being billed as Sex and the City with an Aussie twist and a global perspective. It contains some of your favourite Global Goddess blogs, plus some new chapters you’ve never read before. Details for purchase, via eBook or a limited edition hard copy version, can be found at the end of this blog.
Because you are a valued Global Goddess reader, please find a sneak preview of the Prologue below. I hope you enjoy reading it, as much as I enjoyed writing it. It would make a great summer holiday read or a cheeky Christmas gift. If you like what you’ve read below, please share this blog with your family and friends! (And I’d love it if you bought a book). x
“A fronte praecipitium, a tergo lupi. Alis volat propiis.” In front is a precipice, behind are wolves. She flies with her own wings.
IT is five days before Christmas and I am on Christmas Island. But I am not feeling festive this humid December evening. I am sitting in a morgue, on what should be my fifth wedding anniversary, mourning the death of my marriage. I have lost my husband, my job and three dress sizes. If I can’t find work by the New Year, I will also lose my home. Down below, the Indian Ocean is uncharacteristically calm and quiet. Even the nearby blowholes, which normally bellow like dragons, barely muster a whisper. An empty bottle of gin rests to my left, alongside a crushed fragrant lime discarded in an empty glass. The ice is the glass is long melted. My red leather journal, which smells like expensive Italian shoes and has become as much a lifeline as my lungs themselves, sits perfectly positioned on my right. It is five days before Christmas and I am on Christmas Island. I am 38 years old and I am all alone.
I have lost my life compass, my job, quite possibly my house and definitely my husband. The irony of being on an island that has unwittingly become home to so many refugees seeking asylum along Australia’s sunny shores is not lost on me. I am seeking refuge from my own life. I have flown, via Kuala Lumpur, to sit in the middle of the Indian Ocean. To grieve.
Seven months earlier, I had come to Christmas Island a healthy, happy, married woman with the rest of her life ahead of her. I had a stimulating life as a travel writer, which had brought great rewards and some awards, and lived in a safe city in a beautiful home with my devoted husband. We played cool jazz and cooked hot curries. We went kayaking at sunset, watched foreign films, flirted with the idea of returning overseas to work and had fabulous friends. We regularly travelled the world and finally, after some years of hard work, had money to spare. Life was perfect. That May, I had been offered a five-day travel writing assignment to Christmas Island – the “Galapagos of the Indian Ocean” – to celebrate Australia’s 50 year sovereignty over this tiny dot in the middle of nowhere, which is closer to Indonesia than to my homeland.
So remote is this Australia territory, it sits some 2600 kilometres northwest of Perth and 300 kilometres from any other land mass. A trip to this outpost, which made world headlines with the Tampa refugee boat crisis, was an offer too good to refuse. In 2001 a diplomatic dispute erupted between Australia, Norway and Indonesia when the vessel Tampa rescued 439 Afghans from a sinking fishing boat in international waters. The former Howard government flouted international law by preventing Tampa from offloading refugees onto nearby Christmas Island, and the Afghans were eventually transported to Nauru and held in detention camps.
That week on Christmas Island had been delightful. There was no way I could have foreseen the tsunami of pain that was to follow just two months later. I had been asked by Tim, an old and interesting mate, to join him and two other journos on this journey. My other two travelling companions turned out to be kind and colourful characters. Sally was an insomniac with a husky voice that betrayed her years of smoking. She was physically invincible – a woman who had trekked the Kokoda Trail (not once, but twice), thought underpants were a nonsensical notion but wore a heart that sparkled like the rare golden bosun birds which circled this island. In contrast Leila was an innocent, bubbly, fun, friendly photographer, who wore her camera like an extra limb and was prone to saying things like “whoopsie” as a substitute for swearing. And then there was Tim, a gentleman with a sharp sense of humour and an even pointier intellect. We befriended local couple Linda and Phil, and the delightful Lynnie – an island resident for 15 years and dive master who had completed 2,000 dives and knew every inch of its 28-degree waters.
If you could bottle the “perfect week” and capture it in a little snow dome, Christmas Island would be it.
We ate Indian food and drank overpriced wine on a deserted beach, under the glare of the full moon, with curious giant robber crabs as unexpected guests. Then there were the red crabs. They are like flares on the forest floor, hitchhikers on the roadside and occasionally, uninvited guests into your hotel room. The annual red crab migration in December is Christmas Island’s most famous natural attraction, an event leading naturalist Sir David Attenborough named as one of his top 10 nature experiences of all time.
But there’s much more to Christmas Island than crabs and detention centres. With 63 percent of the island protected by national park, it is also home to giant mana rays, whale sharks, laying turtles, 575 species of fish and more than 200 species of coral. Bird watchers will fall in love with this island where an estimated 80,000 seabirds nest annually. At the same time, it boasts some 80 kilometres of shoreline and gorgeous beaches.
Among the population of 1000 to 1500 people – depending on with whom you speak – there lies three distinct cultural groups – the Australians/Europeans who largely inhabit The Settlement area; the Chinese who live in Poon Saan; and the Malays, who reside in the Kampong. More than 10 languages are spoken on the island, including several Chinese dialects, English, Malay and Bahasa Malay.
Christmas Island’s history is as eclectic as the population itself and can be traced back to early trans-oceanic travellers from Polynesia and Melanesia who are thought to have sailed past en route to Madagascar.
These days, stepping on to the island is like stepping back into 1970s Australia – with a spicy infusion. And that week we lapped it all up.
We ate fresh roti and spicy curry for breakfast at the Malay Club, next to the Mosque, “ordinary noodles” for lunch at the Chinese Literary Association and imported Northern Territory beef as the sun set at the modern Australian Rumah Tinngi restaurant.
We languished in the island’s natural spa at Dolly Beach, snorkelled among an army of sergeant major fish at Flying Fish Cove and hunted for the island’s only mammal – the Pipistrelle bat – in the cool shadows of Daniel Roux cave.
Off the boardwalk between Lily and Ethel beaches, we stumbled across the island’s brown boobies displaying their white pinafores like nuns while nesting among sharp limestone rocks.
One night as the sun set, we joined Lynnie, Phil and Linda and watched the clouds twist into random formations over the Indian Ocean, spending hours testing our imaginations and guessing what the various shapes could represent. An elephant? A clown? A woman with a dog on her head? And we laughed outrageously at the childlike simplicity of our game.
Among all this, one of the highlights was taking an ice-cold shower at Hugh’s Dale Waterfall. Unbeknown to me, Leila had captured me on camera in one of life’s magical moments. We had trekked through the rainforest, past hundreds of red crabs shuffling along the forest floor like old men, to the top of this waterfall on a day when the air was heaving with humidity. The picture, which later ran in an Australian lifestyle magazine, captures me as I stood under the ice-cold waterfall for the longest of times, watching the crabs scurry around me and expressing gratitude for my lovely life.
Little did I know that it was to be the last time in many months that I would feel the same way. I had no idea at the time I was about to enter my biggest challenge of my life, which would see me cry an Indian Ocean of tears and thrust me into a vicious cycle of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs, sleeping pills, alcohol, insomnia and starvation.
Seven months later, back on the island without Tim, Leila or Sally, things are different. My husband and I had been together since we were 16 years old – almost 22 years – and had somehow managed a balanced act that seemed to suit us perfectly. We were like two ballet dancers in perfect rhythm. We never went without, wore nice clothes, ate out and trekked the globe. And now it was all gone. One night was all it took to annihilate 22 years with his words: “I don’t love you anymore, I’m leaving you,” spoken from behind his hands, which were shielding his eyes.
From my privileged perch, I am under no illusion that I share anything in common with the poor souls who have desperately turned their back on their countries, cultures and families, spending their life savings to flock to Christmas Island in a leaky boat with no guarantees. The only thing we share is that we have all come here for answers. A new life.
The “lucky ones” who do make it here are now locked up like animals for “processing” in a multi-million dollar jail that stands in the middle of the island, heavily guarded as successive governments fumble for a “Pacific solution” to the issue of illegal immigration. Off shore, the Australian naval boat HMAS Ararat sits for days, awaiting permission to “come alongside” and deposit its latest “cargo” – another boatload of asylum seekers.
Sitting in the Golden Bosun bar one night, where the Navy boys are enjoying two days’ R&R after weeks at sea, I am reminded of the complexity of border control issues. I listen as a naval officer has a spirited debate with the Department of Immigration staff. The naval officer refers to the latest people they have brought onto the island as “refugees” but is quickly corrected by a Department of Immigration staffer, who refers to them as “asylum seekers.” It is clear that there is plenty of ink to be dried on this issue, let alone this latest batch of boat people.
Back in my room, I am tucked away, miles from the detention centre, in the morgue, which no longer carries the dead, although the deeply superstitious Malay population thinks we white fellas are crazy for even setting foot in the place.
It is now a simple cottage – the aptly named Captain’s Last Resort – on the edge of the Indian Ocean and perfect for the task with which I have set myself. To heal my heart.
For the first time in months I sleep like the dead who have lain before me in this place. On my first night, I imagine I hear the chatter of thousands of voices swirling around the room.
It’s Thursday, and the local Christmas Island roundabout blackboard, which comically carries the daily news from tonight’s soccer game to a Christmas party, informs us that three asylum seekers have escaped from detention. The chalked words slouch there casually.
In deference to the island lifestyle I have quickly embraced, I don’t even bother to lock my door this night. I am facing my own demons and suspect, so are the escapees. They have no business with me.
There is nowhere for them to go on this island in the middle of nowhere, and they are quickly captured. The next day nobody bothers to erase the escaped sign from the blackboard. Instead, they simply cross out escaped and scribble “captured.”
I am well aware that despite everything I am the most fortunate of souls. I can leave at will when the next plane arrives in a few days’ time.
In between I snorkel and eat Chinese noodles with my friends. Attend the outdoor cinema under a blazing Southern Cross canopy. Go to beach barbecues with Phil, Lynnie and Linda. Look at Christmas Island’s Christmas lights. I drink sweet Malay kopi and eat hot curry for breakfast. Wake before dawn to see the annual red crab migration to the beach. Drink more gin.
On Monday, I pack up, jump on a jet, and head to Kuala Lumpur, and back into Australia with my much-coveted Australian passport.
Like the refugees I leave behind me on Christmas Island, and the many boatloads to come, I am still lost and have no idea what my future holds.
But unlike them, at least I am free.
To purchase a copy of Destination Desire – The Global Goddess, a single woman’s journey go to Amazon. The eBook costs $4.99. To order a limited edition hard copy of the book, priced at $14.99 (plus postage and handling) please email me at Christine.email@example.com