04 February, 2006

An Experience of a Lifetime by Curtis Feather, Northwest Missouri State University, U.S.A.

It was early February 2003, and I packed the last of my things and said my goodbyes. Soon I would be on a plane to a distant land, an unfamilar land, and a land that will forever be in my heart. For five months I stayed in Suva, Fiji at the University of the South Pacific. I had preconceptions of what a study abroad experience meant; I had heard and read it all before, but it was not until I stepped foot in the humid tropical air that I realised I was in for the experience of a lifetime. For the next five months I made lifetime friendships with people from all over the South Pacific and the rest of the world. I learned new things about myself and others, and truly experienced individual freedom for the first time. The simple aspects of life suddenly were so much greater. A ride on one of Suva's open air buses, eyes curiously gauging all around, smelling the tropical air, and hearing the upbeat reggae and African music was an experience that I will never forget. No matter how many great beaches, mountains, and rainforests I visited, the people of Fiji will always be remembered by me. Fiji is a very diverse country, especially Suva and to even a greater extent the University of the South Pacific (USP). Suva is the largest and most developed city of the South Pacific, and this has led to a migration of people from all over the region. Because of former British colonial sugar plantations, today Indo-Fijians (Anscestors from India) make up nearly 45% of the population. On a simple walk down one of Suva's streets, Christian churches, Hindu temples, and Muslim mosques stand side by side. The smells of Fijian lovo, Indian curry, and Asian foods fill the air. At USP, there is no exception to this diversity. The university is a regional university with students from all over the South Pacific. Not many study-abroad options create such an atmosphere to sit in class and become friends with Fijians, Indo-Fijians, Cook Islanders, Samoans, Solomon Islanders, Ni-Vanuatu, and so on. During my stay in Fiji, there was plenty to do to keep busy. Some of my classes were tough, but there was plenty of time for fun. I played in a five vs. five soccer tournament, attended a Hindu wedding, got my PADI scuba diving certificate, hiked through amazing lush rainforest, swam in waterfalls of pure mountain water, and went to some of the world's best beaches. I love to hike, go to the beach, make new friendships, and learn about cultures and traditions. Fiji had everything I wanted. My geography classes at USP also allowed me to go out and have new experiences. All geography classes have field trips as a core part of the course. The three units I enrolled in had field trips ranging from a four day loop around Viti Levu (main island) to a week long trip to Samoa. These trips also provided the opportunity to stay in Fijian and Samoan villages, and truly have a chance to interact with the local people. For the nightcrawlers, Suva has plenty of pubs and dance clubs. Sometimes a night at the movies was enough, and other times the night started at the campus bar, the CRC, and ended in one of Suva's many night spots with music ranging from local reggae, Indian, techno, and rap. There was more than enough to do in Fiji, but the South Pacific holds so many other lands to visit. I had many friends from Vanuatu, and eventually I decided to take the two hour flight west and explore a new place. Fiji is located at the center of the South Pacific, making travel west to Melanesia, north to Micronesia, or east to Polynesia, an easy endeaver. Several of the other students took trips to Australia and New Zealand; but I chose to visit Vanuatu, a much more remote place, a place I would likely never have the opportunity to visit again. I spent two weeks in Vanuatu and saw some amazing things. I stayed for several days at the USP Centre Emalus Law Campus, and actually took one of my final exams there. I ventured out from the city and to the more remote islands, where traditional people and natural beauty of the mountains and forest co-exist. As mentioned earlier, one of my geography classes provided me with the opportunity to travel to Samoa, the heart of Polynesia. There are many Samoan students at USP, and I was excited to get the chance to see the land they call home. Samoa was a beautiful country, with excellent beaches. We researched in Satapuala village for several days, and then travelled around two of the islands, with plenty of time for fun. It was an excellent chance for our class to become closer and experience an unfamilar land together. Many of the Fijian and Indo-Fijian students on the trip had never left Fiji, so the trip was a very exciting experience for all of us. After the semester ended, I travelled around Fiji more. I travelled to Taveuni, the so called "garden island" of Fiji, where the forest and waterfalls never seem to end. Taveuni also holds one of Fiji's greatest diving areas. Our time in Fiji was quickly coming to an end, and it was the hot topic amongst the international students. I returned back to Suva just in time for the South Pacific Games, an event of great magnitude, comparable to the impact the Olympics has on larger nations. All semester I saw stadiums being built and preparations being finalised for the event. Twenty-two small island nations competed against each other. The South Pacific Games were a time of both great and sad memories. Suddenly the first of the international students were beginning to leave, and we all were parting. Friends from school were going back to their home countries, and we all were moved out of the dorms. Packing up my room and telling people bye created a very strange feeling. After being in Fiji for five months, it was what seemed right, and I really did not want to leave. All semester there were times when I missed people back at home, but when the time came and people began leaving, it was a very sad time. When I first boarded the plane for Fiji I was full of an excitement and also nervouseness and wonder. Now it was time to head home, and the sense of wonder was quite different. I was not heading back to a distant land I knew little of and had never experienced, but rather I was heading home to what I had known for twenty years of my life. I was filled with a mix of excitement to see family and friends and the few food items I could not get in Fiji, and at the same time a great emotional connection to my new friends, the University of the South Pacific, and Fiji. As I sit today and look back on the experience, I have no regrets. I have experienced something that most students never will. I travelled to a new land and forged friendships that will last a lifetime, and memories that only those who were there can truly understand.

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