Fiji and Ecuador
Thanks partly to the MPW travel fund, I was able to begin my gap-year adventures into parts of the world that had hitherto only been shapes on a map and gain some life experience. I’d signed up for two projects run by a company called GapForce. The first involved marine conservation in Fiji; the second was based in Ecuador and combined working alongside the Red Cross in a school with outdoor work in the national parks.
FIJI: I left the UK in January. I remember seeing ice particles on the aeroplane window, as I felt the wheels leaving the runway. No turning back now. I arrived in Fiji 48 hours later, after a lay-over in LA, where I met a few other volunteers. We flew north to Labasa on Vanua Levu, largest of the northern islands on a much smaller plane that only sat 30 people.
We were met by some GapForce staff at the airport and we all set off to Savusavu, spending the first few days getting settled. On the third day we piled into the back of a truck with all our gear and rations: we’d be living basically from now on. Two and a half hours later, after the bumpiest ride ever, we emerged out of the jungle onto the banks of an estuary and saw our island, known locally as “Navatu” but to the wider world as the “Nasonisoni Islands”, in the Kumbalau region of Fiji.
My first impression of our camp wasn’t great: the roofs of the traditional ‘bures’ (wood and straw huts) were rotting and infested with every bug under the sun. Apparently, living in a bure is a selling
point of this particular project, but since the local villagers now lived in elevated houses, the point of this ‘tradition’ was lost on me!
I spent the first few weeks learning to dive. Rolling off the back of a boat takes you into a world in which there is no language or currency. You’re merely a spectator, a visitor whose role is non-existent. Some things I’ll never tire of, and this is one of them. By week three I’d passed my PADI [Professional Association of Diving Instructors] Open Water exam and was half way through my Adventures in Diving. Most of this happened out on the reef, about 150 metres from the shore. Despite a mild interruption – in the form of a cyclone – I finished my second PADI course. We now began to recognise species, and sat a number of tests on fish, invertebrates and coral, in order to begin surveying. By this time I’d become accustomed to my new way of life, and loved it. Even the accommodation bothered me less and less.
We set about surveying the local ‘tambo’ areas, set up to prevent over-fishing (which is a big problem, especially for the locals who rely on fish for their income). The tambo areas revolve on an annual basis, so fish have a chance to breed and grow. We conducted surveys at various depths, three or four times a day. Working in a team, we would log numbers of each species found.
We met with the local villagers regularly, accompanying them to church on Sunday and then having lunch. Later on we’d go and drink “kava”, a local drink made from pounded root mixed with water. It tastes like muddy water mixed with pepper, which doesn’t sound much like a recommendation!
By week ten, I loved the place. I’d overcome many challenges and learned a lot about diving, marine life, and myself. I came away from Fiji a changed person, more confident and comfortable in my own skin.
ECUADOR: I landed in Quito on April 16 and was met by the expedition leader, Andrea, at the airport and taken to the house we’d be staying in. The first two weeks were spent learning Spanish every morning. The last time I had studied a foreign language I was 15, and not particularly motivated. Now I was slightly daunted but ready and willing to learn. We had the afternoons free and one day caught the cable car up the mountainside, giving us an amazing view of Quito stretching across the valley below.
Weeks two and three were spent in Yana Cocha, an animal sanctuary in the Amazon, a five-hour coach ride away from Quito. Each day we all had jobs to do, feeding the animals and cleaning their enclosures. Other work ranged from building a new animal enclosure to relaying the paths. My favourite animal was the Red Titi monkey, so friendly it would often be waiting for you when you arrived at its enclosure in the morning.
When we’d finished there, we travelled an hour south to stay with the Shuar, an indigenous community. The bus ride yielded some truly spectacular views of the Amazon Rainforest, stretching on as far as the eye can see, vast and green. The Shuar live deep in the Amazon – this meant the conditions were slightly more basic, but nothing I hadn’t met with before. The house was made of wood and was, surprisingly, two storeys high.
Sections of the first-floor boarding were missing, so getting downstairs was very easy! The locals snorted a strange mixture of green tobacco leaves fermented with water. Supposedly it gives you vivid dreams; Federico and his father (two of the locals) had apparently seen us arriving in a dream!
We taught English in the local school, harvested sugar cane and dug the foundations for a traditional house. On one afternoon off we were taken on a trek into the Amazon itself, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; we hiked for about an hour till we reached an amazing waterfall.
At this point we had a week off and journeyed, via Quito, to Montañita, a popular backpacker’s town on the south coast. The routine of doing ‘nothing’ got a bit taxing towards the end of the week, however, and I was happy when we set off on the long and tiring journey to Musnie, on the north coast of Ecuador.
Andrea, our guide, was waiting for us when we got off the bus and drove us to the neighboring town of Bunche. Our two weeks on the coast were split between Bunche and another indigenous community, who lived in the Mache- Chindul Ecological Reserve. In Bunche we worked with cacao (i.e. cocoa), which is used to make chocolate, painted a school and helped out on a shrimp farm.
We also did DIY jobs, like building barbed-wire fences. I really enjoyed having something to do again.
On Friday we took the hour-long ride to Palma Royal Indigenous Community. Over the four days we were there we built an adventure playground. Unfortunately, my time there was marred by illness and homesickness, which caused me to sit out most of the weekend activity. But I had some great news: I’d been awarded an internship for the next phase in Fiji, beginning July 2012. As well as being a staff member, I’ll also be completing my Rescue Diver and Diver Masters qualifications. I decided to draw a line under Ecuador and head home. I’d been away five months, and needed some time to recover, and prepare to set out for Fiji again.
My experiences this year have been invaluable. As well as broadening my outlook, it’s helped me prepare, not just for university, but for life.