I read this today in the Fiji Times and it's rather typical I guess. Aussies out for adventure, go to Fiji, love the experience and of course find a Fijian partner. It's common these days but when I was young there weren't so many cross-cultural marriages - I'm thinking of the 60s.
It's soul food
Michelle Talemaitoga in Nayavu, Wainibuka, Tailevu. Picture: SUPPLIED
Helping yourself is food for your stomach, helping others is food for your soul. This mind-set brought Michelle Unwin to Fiji — a country she eventually fell in love with.
Michelle came to Fiji a year ago under the Australian Volunteers for International Development Program, working as a communications and public relations mentor for Habitat for Humanity Fiji. Doing volunteer work challenges Michelle to go the extra mile.
"I did a volunteer assignment in Indonesia in 2013 and really loved the challenges that came with living in a different culture. After returning to Australian public service working life, I couldn't settle and was longing to experience the same thing so I applied for a couple of assignments — one in Laos and one in Fiji. The application process for both were running parallel but Fiji made the first offer and I was already packing my suitcase," she said.
She has a versatile personality and enjoys learning new skills and the experience that comes with it. "My attempts at learning the Fijian language mean this will be a hard-won skill," says Michelle.
The Australian-born and bred lady has always been involved in volunteer work in some form or another whether it has been editing website content for a Nepalese trekking social enterprise or being team manager of a children's soccer team.
Being in Fiji, she says, has been a great experience.
"It's like a family, comfortable and relaxed. Everyone was welcoming when I arrived and I'm sad it has come to an end. I know I'll be welcomed back whenever I visit and I'll probably run into them on the street," said Michelle.
One of her most touching experiences was visiting a water project in Cavucavu, a settlement in Ra.
"I went first for a training session and we stayed overnight. I returned at the end of the project for the handover. The turaga ni koro (village headman) cried because they had spent 51 years carting water from shallow wells up and down hills to their homes. At the end of the project, they had water at the front door. The grandma we stayed with insists on kissing me on the lips each time we meet. That is special," she said.
And her nightmare memory here is what she describes as "Fiji tried to kill me".
"During the year I got sick, so sick I was hospitalised while they tried to work out what was wrong with me. I couldn't walk and was out of action for about six weeks. For days I was drugged to the eyeballs until they found an abscess very deep, close to the bone in my thigh — some big long medical name that might as well be a Fijian word because I have trouble pronouncing it."
Being a volunteer in a different country and culture takes resilience and patience, says Michelle.
"You have to take your time to observe the culture. That is the challenging part initially. It is all too easy to measure up everything by where you come from. Sometimes things just don't make sense. It doesn't work that way where you come from and it may seem ridiculous. But if you are patient and observe you will understand why things are the way they are."
Volunteering, for Michelle, is also about what you can leave behind.
"It's about building the capacity of those you work with, about making a difference even if it is a small one. It is the act of kindness that creates its value. Using your skills to teach and mentor with an aim to improve their knowledge and understanding of the area of expertise or skills you bring. It doesn't matter if it is frying sausages at a fundraiser or taking out a grandma's garbage. Every kind act makes a difference. I read a quote by Lailah Gifty Akita who said, 'The more you give of yourself, the more you find yourself.' I identify with her words," she said.
2015 has been a year of unexpected happenings for Michelle. She now plans to stay and work in Fiji.
"This year has been full of the unexpected and part of that package is a brand new husband, a locally-grown Fijian one. So the time feels right to put down some roots and Fiji provides the fertile soil for that," said Mrs Talemaitoga.
She treasures having some quiet time the most as this allows her to reflect and write and think.
Her advice for youths is to volunteer as early as possible in life. "You create great relationships along the way and you do good deeds. It's a win-win," says Michelle.