Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Fiji
- 1 Communications
- 2 Housing and Site Location
- 3 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 4 Food and Diet
- 5 Transportation
- 6 Geography and Climate
- 7 Social Activities
- 8 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 9 Personal Safety
- 10 Rewards and Frustrations
Airmail leaving Suva takes about 6 to 10 days to make its U.S. destination. However, it takes sometimes twice that for U.S. mail to reach Suva. (Note: The farther you live from Suva, the longer the mail will take in both directions. The additional time may range from one day to two weeks or more.)
The local mail system is better than in many developing countries and once you have been assigned to a permanent site, you will be expected to have your mail delivered to your new address. During pre-service training, you may use the following address:
“Your Name,” PCT
Private Mail Bag
Suva, Fiji Islands
hi South Pacific
Most essential items that are available in the U.S. are also available in Fiji through local stores in Suva and in larger towns. If your friends and family want to send you packages, have them check with their home post office as to what they can and cannot send. Customs agents are diligent about checking for food items and no seeds can be shipped into Fiji.
If the declared value of the package exceeds $500 (Fijian), you may have to pay an import tax. If you plan to have packages sent to you or if you’re sending them to yourself, make sure you don’t declare more than $200 (U.S.) on the box!
The local postal service (Post Fiji, Ltd.) can be contacted in-country at: 0800.330.7966 for more specific questions.
Most Volunteers live close to a phone—either a conventional landline or a radio telephone. You may want to bring a cellphone (GSM-capable) for your personal use from the U.S. as service is increasing in Fiji. A few Volunteers own personal cellphones now, but the phone and use can be expensive. (Phone service and access is not covered by your monthly living allowance.) Most businesses will have a telephone, as will some of your urban neighbors. In the bush, people use a “radio phone” (similar to citizens’ band radios). In Suva you can place a collect call overseas 24-hours a day at the main telecommunications center. You can also pay for the overseas call yourself at a current rate of about $3–$4 per minute (Fijian). Fortunately, phone service, if available at your site, is generally reliable and connections are reasonably good.
Card-operated pay phones are located everywhere in the urban areas; prepaid phone cards are sold at post offices, shops, and service stations.
Many Volunteers use AT&T pre-paid phone cards (available all over the U.S.) to call home and have found the connection and service quite good. (The charge is approximately 35 cents per minute.) The country code for Fiji is 679; there are no city codes.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
There are several Internet cafés in Suva as well as in some of the other urban centers. Access currently costs $5–$10 (Fijian) per hour. You will not likely have access during pre-service training and it may be very limited at your site unless you are in a larger town.
Housing and Site Location
You will be living with a host family during your 10 weeks of training in Fiji. You will soon discover that families are very important to the people of Fiji and that living with a host family can be both enjoyable and challenging. Going into the experience, you should definitely set some learning goals and make sure that you’re getting the most out of your host family experience—including language, cultural, and other adjustment issues.
Your living accommodation is intended to be modest and comparable to that of your counterparts and neighbors. As in any country, housing in Fiji varies from place to place in architecture and amenities. Village houses (bures) may be constructed of coconut fronds or they may be made of wood, concrete block, or corrugated iron. Depending on assignment and project area, Volunteers will either live in a village, in a government compound, or in a rural housing area. In some cases, Volunteers may share accommodations with another Peace Corps Volunteer and/or with another international volunteer or host country colleagues. Please note that Volunteers may be required to live with a host family for the first few months at their site or all of their service based on site location and/or village resources.
Most houses in Fiji have piped running water, except for those in some rural villages. While rainfall is plentiful, there may be some periods where drinking water is scarce—especially in the western part of the main island.
Traditional houses usually have separate kitchen and toilet facilities. Rural communities do not often have access to electricity, but some houses have solar energy for lighting.
Some Volunteers may be placed on outer islands and/or interior villages where transportation is by small plane, boat, and pickup truck. Most Volunteers travel much of the time on foot, by bus, or small boat at their sites.
The packing list at the back of this Welcome Book offers suggestions on what to bring from home. All basic supplies can be purchased locally. After training, you’ll receive a settling-in allowance to buy initial household supplies. The Peace Corps staff and current Volunteers will provide information about where the good bargains are, but you are encouraged to explore on your own as well!
A word about pets and other critters: There are a lot of animals in Fiji, and you’ll experience the wildlife of Fiji no matter where you’re stationed. Some Volunteers choose to have cats and/or dogs, but this can be challenging. Dogs and cats are not treated like they are in the U.S.—they are considered “animals” as opposed to a “pet.” They serve a purpose and are typically kept outside. Volunteers who choose to have a cat or dog are strongly encouraged to wait until they have been at site at least a few months, and to have the pet neutered or spayed. We also encourage Volunteers who have not had pets before to learn basic pet care, as veterinarians are available only in Suva and a few other urban centers.
Outside of the urban areas most people do their laundry by hand either in their homes or at a local water source. You will likely do the same.
Living Allowance and Money Management
During your training period, the Peace Corps will open an account for you with one of the local banks. The Peace Corps will deposit your living allowance into this account each month. There are banking stations and ATMs in all of the urban centers throughout Fiji. Most banks are open Monday through Thursday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Some urban stores also allow you to use your ATM card to make purchases and to receive cash back. International transactions are commonplace in the banks of Fiji, so it will be no problem getting traveler’s checks or overseas money orders if or when you need them. Some Volunteers have found it advantageous to keep a checking account in the States as it’s much easier to send a regular U.S. check for things like magazine subscriptions from back home than it is to get money orders from here. If your American checking account has a Visa/Cirrus/Plus debit card (with an international access PIN), you can use it to access extra personal funds you might want to use for annual leave.
Every month, the Peace Corps will deposit a lump sum into your local bank account. It will be enough money to cover modest living expenses with the expectation that your lifestyle is similar to that of your local counterparts. Your living allowance also covers utility expenses that are not covered by your host agency, and a very modest amount to cover in-country telephone or Internet charges.
Fijian money is counted out in dollars and cents. They have 5-, 10-, 20- 50- and 100-dollar notes (not bills), and 5-, 10-, 20-, 50-cent pieces and 1-dollar and 2-dollar pieces (no pennies, nickels, dimes, or quarters). The exchange rate between the American and Fijian dollar fluctuates. The rate at the time of this writing is roughly $1.67 Fijian for every $1 American. The estimated costs quoted in this Welcome Book are in Fijian dollars, unless otherwise noted.
Food and Diet
Fiji has a wide selection of food and many fruits and vegetables are locally grown. Availability is seasonal, but you can often get pineapple, mango, and papaya as well as many other fruits and vegetables. The staple foods in Fijian villages are starchy root crops; namely, dalo (taro root) and cassava. There is also plenty of curry eaten in Indo-Fijian communities. Urban areas offer much more variety and you can get very inexpensive Chinese food and even pizza (the local take on it). Suva has a wider selection of restaurants, from upscale to very cheaply priced food stands on the corner—including McDonalds and KFC.
Volunteers receive a local cookbook and will learn how to cook local foods during pre-service training. Volunteers in remote areas will find that their daily selection will be limited and may wish to start a garden to grow their own vegetables. Flour, tinned fish, rice, curry spices, and dalo are usually available everywhere. The farther you go from the urban center, the fewer choices you will have.
Cassava is one of the more pervasive root crops to be found in Fiji. Cassava is the root from which tapioca is made. It’s white and starchy and tastes something like a textured potato. There’s plenty of fish available here—fresh, frozen, and canned. Most villagers (and Volunteers) in coastal areas fish for their own food. Mutton is imported from New Zealand while chicken is raised locally.
Most fresh fruits (mangoes, bananas, pineapples, oranges, passion fruit, guavas, papaya, etc.) and vegetables (cassava, dalo, beans, squash, jack fruit, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, Chinese cabbage, English cabbage, chilies, tomatoes, etc.) can be purchased from local open-air markets. Vendors set up their wares on rickety tables and crates or just on the ground, and sell it all “by the heap.”
Shops range from the small corner markets and village shops that sell basic items to large supermarket outlets that offer goods from food to tools. Cost-U-Less, a warehouse store much like Costco, has opened an outlet in Suva, but prices are higher than in most other stores.
Depending upon where your site is located, you may find yourself cooking on a small two-burner gas stove, kerosene, or an open fire. Gas stoves are more common in urban areas and the kerosene burners in the bush.
Yaqona is the Fijian name for a non-alcoholic drink made from the roots of the kava plant, which is a member of the pepper family. The roots are ground and made into a sort of muddy-water looking drink that turns your tongue temporarily numb and has something of an “earthy” taste. (Some say it tastes like water that twine has been soaked in.) It has a pleasant, calming/relaxing effect on the body and may make some people slightly drowsy. It is a ceremonial drink—the ceremony is called sevusevu—and it has great significance to the Fijian people. You will see yaqona offered at virtually every event of any significance and at many ordinary events. You will also see people (mostly men) drinking it in the markets, at taxi stands, at work, and at most social gatherings. Though of indigenous origin, many Indo-Fijians also drink it but in less ritualized settings. As a Volunteer, you will be involved in many ceremonies and significant events, which means you’ll be drinking your share of yaqona. You will get used to it, and possibly become fond of it. It is considered impolite to refuse the first bilo (smooth, half-coconut shells especially used for drinking yaqona), but after the first, you can either drink more or not. (But be forewarned: Fijians will be delighted if you drink more than one!)
You will learn much more about yagona and the sevusevu ceremony, Fijian protocol/etiquette, and Indo-Fijian customs during your training.
Most of the time, you will travel by foot. Look to the right! Fiji is a former British colony and everyone drives on the left side of the road. There are buses to nearly every community in Fiji, except for the outer islands. The bus prices are great: in-town fares are under a dollar. Local buses (the ones that travel in and around town, or those that stop at every stop along a longer route) generally do not have glass windows. If it rains you unroll a plastic flap that’s designed to keep most of the mud out of the bus. Express buses that connect urban areas usually have glass windows and may have air conditioning.
There are also mini-buses (small vans) that carry passengers among the main urban centers and around villages. Until recently, they have not been regulated and have tended to be overcrowded and poorly maintained. Volunteers are strongly advised not to ride in them unless this is the only mode of transportation to your site.
Taxis are numerous in Suva and they seem to make up the bulk of the traffic on city streets. Rides within town are usually governed by meter, whereas longer trips are negotiable. Most rides in town will cost between $2 and $5, depending on how far you are going.
Fiji is a country composed of islands. Chances are very high that you will travel by boat at some point during your service. The larger islands have regularly scheduled service, but all schedules in Fiji are subject to last-minute changes. Many of the villages on outer islands have local boat captains to bring villagers into the larger centers for shopping or to catch a ferry to Suva. There are also punts in some areas for crossing rivers.
Volunteers serving in Fiji should be comfortable both on and in the water, as many assignments will require periodic boat travel. If you are uncomfortable with your swimming skills or have a fear of water, please contact the Pacific country desk unit at Peace Corps headquarters to further discuss this issue prior to accepting your invitation to serve in Fiji.
There are two international airports, Nadi International Airport in the western division and Nausori International Airport outside Suva. Many of the outer islands have airstrips for periodic Air Fiji and Sun Air flights and/or private planes.
Geography and Climate
Fiji is composed of 332 islands with a total area of 18,376 square kilometers. Fiji is located between 15 and 22 degrees south latitude and 177 west to 175 east latitude. There are four main islands: Viti Levu, Vanua Levu, Kadavu, and Taveuni. Fiji is located just at the edge of the International Date Line, so it is one of the first countries in the world to see the dawn of each new day! Fiji is 12 hours ahead of Greenwich mean time, which means that it is generally 19 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time, and 16 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Daylight Savings Time is not observed in Fiji.
The main urban centers on Viti Levu are those that are usually labeled on maps of Fiji (e.g., Suva, the capital, Nausori, Korovou, Rakiraki, Tavua, Ba, Lautoka, Nadi, and Sigatoka). The main urban centers on Vanua Levu are Labasa and Savusavu. For the outer islands, the port town is generally the main trade center.
The weather in Fiji is “mainly fine with some scattered showers, especially over the eastern parts of both the main islands.” This is a typical weather report that is aired every two hours on radio Fiji. It is usually steamy and hot here from November to April during the rainy season. Generally, it will never get cooler than the low 60s (to the low 50s in the winter in the hills) and never be any hotter than the 90s. Many people wonder during the rainy season (i.e., most of the time on the eastern side of Viti Levu) if their laundry will ever dry out. Refer to the packing list for some detailed suggestions for things you could bring to be comfortable in this weather.
Fiji has an absolutely beautiful natural environment, which draws many tourists to the resorts that are located throughout the islands. Although Volunteers are considered “on duty” 24-hours a day/seven days a week, every Volunteer receives 24 days of vacation per year of service. Even in remote areas, villages and settlements usually have social events nearly every weekend in which Volunteers may choose to participate.
Big parties surround events, such as a new Volunteer’s arrival in town, weddings, New Year’s, birthdays, etc. When a Fijian or Indo-Fijian child turns one year old, there’s a big family birthday party to celebrate it. The same goes for the 21st birthday. Occasionally, for important events, there will be a traditional dance performed called a meke or an all-night dance party called a taralala. Hopefully you’ll encounter a lovo (feast) and/or taralala in your training village. There are quite a few festivals between July and September, many of them fundraisers. The Hibiscus Festival in Suva is especially popular and takes place in August. Nadi hosts a Bula (“Welcome”) Festival in July, and nearby Lautoka hosts a Sugar Festival in September. In addition, there are many Christian, Hindu, and Muslim celebrations throughout the year.
Sports, such as cricket and rugby, are very popular here. Rugby is to Fiji as football is to America, except that it’s easier to get an autograph from a local hero here! Fiji’s seven-man team is often considered the best in the world. Many Volunteers jog or walk for exercise. While exercising, women generally wear sulus, skirts, or knee-length shorts depending upon their site.
There is an Olympic-size pool open to the public in Suva and Labasa, as well as opportunities for swimming at local beaches. Volunteers are expected to observe local customs for dress as well as for using an area that belongs to a particular village; in Fiji, there are very few areas that are truly public places, even if there is not a town or home in sight.
There are many activities available to fill your leisure time at site. Some Volunteers learn to socialize more; others spend their time introducing their hobbies to their new local friends. Some Volunteers have taught aerobic classes (which go over surprisingly well here!), taught local kids new songs, or established a weekly craft night. Volunteers may also find themselves learning some of the local handiwork skills, such as mat making. Others rediscover their love of reading. If you like to read, bring some good books, as they are expensive to purchase locally. Paperback books are available in many local stores and the University of the South Pacific (located in Suva) has a fair selection in its bookstore. There is also a public library in Suva in which you can borrow books for two weeks at a time, which may or may not be viable for you depending upon the location of your site.
Consider keeping a journal of your stay here in Fiji. It’s not only a great way to document your experiences and accomplishments, but it’s also great to use and review when filling out your quarterly reports!
Fiji has 3 major television stations and 12 radio stations. Suva, Lautoka, and Nadi all have cinemas that carry first-run Hollywood movies. (Some movies have even had their premier screening in Fiji.) In the villages, Volunteers may find themselves invited to a common building to watch an old movie, which someone rode into town on a horse to rent, on a VCR powered by a gas generator!
During vacation time, many Volunteers choose to explore other areas of Fiji. There are accommodations ranging from the typical inexpensive “backpackers lodge” on the beach to very expensive resorts catering almost exclusively to tourists. Often, resorts have nice, if overpriced, restaurants, shopping, and will be overrun with tourists in the high travel season. Less expensive properties are often much quieter and more relaxing.
The reefs that surround most of the islands here are teeming with wildlife, offering excellent snorkeling and diving opportunities. If you own your own snorkeling equipment, considering bringing it along or sending it to yourself. There are many dive shops that offer SCUBA (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) training, certification and equipment rental.
There are also several nearby destinations that Volunteers may also want to consider, including Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu, which are easily accessible by plane from both Suva and Nadi.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
Fiji is a warm and welcoming place where foreigners are a familiar sight. What distinguishes Volunteers from tourists is their knowledge of and respect for Fijian and Indo-Fijian customs. Volunteers receive extensive training on culture and the important part it plays in community life.
The atmosphere in Fiji appears somewhat relaxed, slow and
perhaps less formal than what you may be used to in the
U.S. However, do not assume that the informal atmosphere allows for informal dress. Just as in the States, people dress differently in various situations. Volunteers are encouraged to carefully observe what others are wearing—how professional people dress for work and social occasions. Learn what these standards are and follow them.
Being sensitive to Fijian dress norms, which lean toward the more conservative, will increase your effectiveness as a Volunteer. Volunteers are expected to dress and appear appropriately—both on and off the job. Volunteers who are sensitive to the cultural norms will gain respect and acceptance more readily. This respect is integral to an enjoyable and meaningful Peace Corps experience. Generally, a clean, unrumpled, somewhat low-key appearance works well in Fiji. In Suva, a more fashion-oriented style is typical; in rural areas, most people dress in more traditional, conservative clothing.
For women, dress is conservative and women cover up a lot more in Fiji than in the U.S. Ankle-length skirts are recommended. It is best to have them wide enough to sit comfortably on the floor with legs covered. Full dresses or skirts with modest tops and sleeves are very appropriate. These are easily purchased in Suva if needed. One-piece, loose fitting dresses with no waistband are also very good for hot weather. Wearing shorts in public is inappropriate except at resorts or other tourist areas. Miniskirts, short-shorts, tank tops, plunging necklines, midriff shirts that expose your belly, and strapless tops are inappropriate.
Men are also expected to dress conservatively. Long hair or untrimmed facial hair on men is considered unprofessional to Fijians. Nice slacks and shirts are the most appropriate attire, as are dress sulus (men’s skirts). Men often wear long pants in public, and shorts are worn when doing outdoor activities in the village such as gardening, or for sports and hiking.
Nice-looking sandals are appropriate for both men and women. For those Volunteers who may work in an office setting, especially in urban locations, flip-flops are not acceptable at work. It is considered very rude to wear any type of hat inside of buildings and may be considered offensive to wear them in a village. Bathing attire for women should be very conservative (bikinis are only acceptable on resort beaches); local women wear T-shirts and wrap-around skirts (sulus) while swimming.
For most of the year, the climate will be hot and humid. Neutral-colored cotton clothing works best in this environment. One of the paradoxes of packing is that while lightweight clothes are the most comfortable to wear, the laundering process (do-it-yourself with scrub brushes and harsh soaps) favors sturdy items. Bright colors will fade in harsh sun and light colors will pick up curry and mud stains. Consider bringing some medium-weight cotton-poly blends that will survive the washing, sun, and climate without looking worn out in the last months of your stay.
More information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and occasional incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although many Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal safety problems. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help Volunteers reduce their risks and enhance their safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Fiji. At the same time, each Volunteer is expected to take primary responsibility for his or her safety and well-being. Fiji needs more and better security.
Peace Corps/Fiji has developed a local emergency action plan that covers most contingencies. This will be discussed in more detail during pre-service training. In the event of a stateside emergency involving a close family member, the Office of Special Services at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., can get a message to you. In addition, if your relatives hear or read something concerning Fiji that gives them reason for concern, they can contact either Office of Special Services or the country desk unit for updated information. Emergency contact numbers are listed in the back of this book.
Rewards and Frustrations
While the vision of a tropical island in the South Pacific may capture your imagination, romantic notions of this lifestyle may quickly wear thin as you adjust to the heat and humidity that descend on Fiji for six to eight months of the year. Other challenges include the occasional cyclone; the incessant ants, cockroaches, and mosquitoes that you will likely encounter; the “island fever” that can arise from living in a relatively small community where everyone knows what everyone else is doing; and the seemingly laissez-faire attitude that some people exhibit toward work and change. The island lifestyle, tropical climate, isolation, and lack of work-related resources and materials call for individuals who possesses good health, stamina, self-reliance, flexibility, and a positive attitude. You will need to adapt to a pace of life that, though not unique to the Pacific, may be quite different from what you are accustomed to in the United States.
Some individuals are surprised by the fact that, when joining Peace Corps, they become subject to the norms of their local in-country agencies, as well as those of the Peace Corps. As an employee of a host agency or institution, your professionalism will be counted on in order to respect policies your supervisors have established for their staff. Although you may be given a high degree of responsibility and independence in your work— perhaps more than in any other job you have had or will ever experience—you will often find yourself in situations that require an ability to motivate yourself and your counterparts with little guidance from supervisors. You may also work for months without seeing any visible impact or without receiving any feedback on your work. This is the nature of development work. It’s a slow process and often results are only seen after the combined efforts of several generations of Volunteers. You must possess self-confidence, patience, and maturity to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results.
Peace Corps has a highly successful history in Fiji, and most Fijians fondly remember Volunteers living and working in their communities. Now that Peace Corps has reentered Fiji after a five-year absence, Volunteers play both a technical assistance and a diplomatic role. When citizens of Fiji interact with Peace Corps Volunteers, their impressions of America are formed by those interactions. Your ability to serve as a competent professional and a tactful “ambassador” will affect both the image of Peace Corps as an agency and of Americans in general. This is a significant responsibility for all Volunteers worldwide and will become part of Peace Corps/Fiji’s continuing legacy.
The goodwill and hospitality of the Fijian people and the richness of their culture, the beauty of the environment, and the challenges offered by your work can make your life as a Volunteer exciting and rewarding.
Peace Corps service requires dedication, a “can-do” attitude, commitment, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of humor. It will be an emotionally exhausting and demanding experience. However, it is an opportunity for personal as well as professional growth and fulfillment, and the rewards are likely to far outweigh the challenges.