Local volunteer returns from Fiji

Bryce Forbes

For Aaron Petrin, it was an experience he will never forget.
Along with 19 other people, the Fort Frances native ventured down to the South Pacific country of Fiji.
Through the Volunteer Eco-Tourism Students Abroad program, the 23-year-old Fort High grad spent two weeks down in the third-world country starting July 5.
“We were completely immersed in their culture and got to see what it is like through their eyes,” Petrin explained. “They were so happy to share their culture with us too. They were really accommodating and easy people to live with.”
The two-week endeavour was split in two with one week in Dravuni Village in Fiji and the other week island hopping on the Korovou, Kuata, and South Sea Islands.
“Living in the village was a great way to do it cause you got to experience what their life is like,” he remarked.
“It was very humbling too. They made me appreciate what we do have here in Canada.”
Although it was partially a vacation, the group went down with a purpose.
“For each day we were living in the village, we were doing a full day of volunteer work so we broke up into two groups: education and construction. Education was teaching English to the kids as well as Phys. Ed.
“Construction included renovating the classrooms. They were in pretty rough shape when we got there but we sanded them all down and painted them and they looked great after.”
Using the money the group raised beforehand, they purchased a 5,000L water tank for the 60-person village to help solve one of the major problems Petrin noticed while he was down there.
“Running water is an issue, and even though they are surrounded by water, fresh drinking water and potable water is hard to come by sometimes,” he reasoned. “They really depend on the rain. The village we stayed in, we were told it rained 300 days a year and it only rained once while we were there.
“In the last days, they were running really low on water, especially by adding 20 people to a community of 60.”
In addition, he saw cleanliness was a major problem as well.
“Sanitation was a big one I noticed at the school and the village because of the lack of running water,” he continued.
“[Soap] wasn’t always there. When I was at the school, there wasn’t any soap. We had our own sanitizer and were telling them the importance of it cause of the diseases that can be spread through it.”
While in the village, Petrin paired up with a fellow volunteer and lived with a Fijian family for the week.
“I stayed in a hut while I was there,” he said. “There were a few houses in the village but our hut had a straw roof.
“It was really nice in there but the guy I was staying with half jokingly said ‘It’s like an ecosystem of its own in there.’
“The things we were not used to were in there, like animals were in the hut.”
But he admits the eco-tourism aspect was his favourite part of the trip.
“I liked it so much better than typical vacationing and travelling because while you are there, you’re totally immersed in their culture, you get to do something that gives back to their society, and while you are there, you get to do a lot of exploring and adventure tourism,” he enthused.
“It was a completely different culture as we come from a individualistic society and they are very much a collectivist society with community first and individual second.“
One of the misconceptions shattered during his time in Fiji revolved around the life expectancy of the residents.
With a life expectancy around 71-years-old compared to 81-years-old in Canada, Petrin admits he didn’t know what to think going in.
“At first glance, you would think that it might be a bad thing,” he suggested. “But after being there and living with them, I just noticed their style of life, they really enjoy life.
“Whatever metric you want to use to measure quality of life, it’s completely different when you are in there and see how happy they are.
“They have a reputation for being the nicest people in the world and I could definitely get behind that only living there for a week.”
After spending the first week in Dravuni Village, the group moved onto the island hopping section of the trip, testing out three islands in the final seven days.
“The village was beautiful but the island was just amazing,” he enthused.
“Once the volunteer work was done, we were able to enjoy life on the island.”
Although he has only been back in town for a few days, he is already signed up for their next trip.
Come November, while most Fort Frances residents are battling the beginning of winter, Petrin will be spending time in Ecuador with the Eco-Tourism Students Abroad Program.