Posted by: Alicia Phillips | April 20, 2012

Work Exchange on Ovalau!!!

Bula Vinaka guys!

This past week I did my very first work exchange! A work exchange is when one volunteer asks another volunteer to come to their site and give a presentation or conduct a workshop on their “specialty.” One of my fellow volunteers, Sam, is an environment volunteer (you will hear plenty more about her later …she is awesome), and she wanted someone to come to her village and do a nutrition/aerobics workshop with the womens group, so she asked me!

Work exchanges are fun because you get to go and do your work but you also get to go visit other volunteers and see how they live and what they do and see their village. And like I have said before, the key to my happiness is getting out of Suva whenever I can. So when she asked me if I could come I was all for it!

Sam and I

Sam lives on an outer island called Ovalau. It is just off the east side of Viti levu (the big island I live on), I can take a ferry to get there- it costs around $75 round trip. When I first stepped off the ferry I could just imagine a T-Rex charging out of the jungle at any moment. This island looks just like Jurassic Park! Intense vegetation, mountains, cliff edges, waterfalls! There is only one road that goes all the way around the island. It is so gorgeous and seems so far detached from the “modern” Fiji that I am used to.

I take the bus to her village and once there I go and drop my stuff off at her house. That first night we go and drink grog at one of her friend’s house. Grog, as I have mentioned before, is a NON-alcoholic drink that people get together and drink all the time. It is their way of being social and hanging out. There is also A LOT of culture and rules that go along with it, and I would probably get it all wrong if I tried to explain it -so I won’t even attempt. Maybe in another blog post.

So, Sam’s village is really good about only speaking Fijian to her and now she is pretty impressively fluent in it. I think they were surprised by how ignorant I was; I couldn’t understand anything they were saying to me. They had to keep switching to English to talk to me. They kept telling me “Oh Ruseli (Sam) is very smart in Fijian, you not so smart because you live in Suva.” Mostly they just made jokes about me in Fijian so I couldn’t understand it and Sam would have to translate it while everyone would laugh. Ha! All in good fun though. We drank until around 1 that night. And that is when I was given my Fijian name: Alici. Pronounced uh-lee-sea. Fun huh?

Our namesakes: Alici and Alici and Ruseli and Ruseli

The next day all we had planned to do was the village meeting and my welcoming ceremony that night so we had the whole day to roam the village and meet people. We were smart about it and went around lunchtime and everyone we saw gave us something to eat. Breadfruit, Vudi (plantain), cassava, whatever they had.

The village meeting happened that night. The whole village attends these meetings to discuss issues within the village.  In the meeting Sam brought up our workshops and asked the women if they would please try and come. Once the meeting was over we had my sevusevu, welcoming ceremony. It’s pretty much just a more formal grog session in the community hall. We stayed there drinking grog, listening to them play music, and dancing until 1 or 2 in the morning.

The next morning was our nutrition workshop. In this workshop we just covered things like portion control, cutting back on salt and sugar, encouraging people to have more colorful plates, and healthy substitutions. We had around 12 people show up. They asked a lot of questions and promised to try and eat better. Pretty successful I think.

Eat this....NOT that Fijian Style!

Sam explaining portion control

Later that day we were invited to a neighboring village to attend the beginning ceremonies for a funeral. I have never been to one of these so I had no idea what to expect. About 20 people from the village were going so we hired a big truck to take us. The women weaved a ton of mats to give to the family and the men brought a lot of grog to drink. Everyone begins to load up on to the carrier, and when it’s my turn I am surprised to come face to face with a slaughtered cow. It was just laying there with it’s belly split open and its hind legs broken……it was still breathing. By the time we got to the next village it was dead.

The gifts given to the grieving village, hundreds of pounds of Dalo and the cow

The women donated mats and masi to drap over the coffin box

We get to the village and the men drag the cow out and bring it to the back where the ladies are preparing food. The women present all their mats and masi to the family, and the men split off and start drinking grog. And that’s how it went for the next 3 hours. Then dinner was served. Beef stew, fish, and cassava. I was a little nervous to eat since I had literally just watched this cow go from moo to stew in the time I was there. But, after I made Sam promise to hold my hair if I threw up, I dug in. It was pretty good!

One of the days I was there we took a trip into “town”.  Levuka town used to be the capitol of Fiji before it got moved to Suva. Try to imagine an old western town, with its old tyme post office and police station and church and school house. That is what Levuka is like. Small, charming, cute and right on the coast. It has everything you need, but not necessarily everything you could want. While we were there Sam went and did a little work with the town council and the provincial office. Everyone knew her by name and what projects she is working on.

Levuka town main street

The next day we had the aerobics workshop. Since I am trying to get waist to hip ratio used more widely in Fiji I decided to do a baseline testing on all the women who attended, then in 3 months, come back and take it again. We did a quick 30 minute workout and then sat down and figured out a program for everyone to participate in everyday for the next 3 months. I really think the women enjoyed it, everyone was laughing and sweating and keeping up. Loads of fun!

The ladies and I after our workout!

Later that day, it started to rain. And by rain I mean Fiji rain which is more like a torrential downpour. Then I watched as almost everyone in the village went outside and had a rain bath. All the kids were out in the rain having a freaking blast running around and playing in puddles. The rugby team was practicing in the rain like it was nothing. People were walking around talking to each other, getting soaking wet. It was a bath and a clothes washing at the same time. So fun!

Rain Bath!!

These kids were having a BLAST!

Later that night we had one of Sam’s best friends over to hang out with us. He is 13 and his name is Koli. We spent an entire evening answering all his questions about America and different books and current worldly affairs (nothing political was discussed as that is against Peace Corps policy). Sam and I surprised ourselves when he asked what the words are to our national anthem and we knew them all, then I explained the story behind the song. He is such a smart boy, he wants to be a pilot one day so he can see the world.

Koli showing me everywhere he wants to go one day

My last day was a lazy village day. We just stayed in the house, with the door wide open, and read books all day. People would come over and say hi to us or come in and have tea. Once rugby practice started we went and watched the guys do their drills. Sam is blessed to be in a village where the men are gorgeous. I’m talking GQ models, super fit and athletic. I am super jealous. Later that night we were invited to dinner at Liti’s house, the leader of the women’s group. She made fish and bele and dahl soup with boiled eggs.


The people in Sam’s village are so amazing. So generous and sweet and understanding. I attribute a lot of that to Sam and how she has interacted with them while she has been here. They take such good care of her and love her so much. So much so that whenever she has a visitor, they do the same for them. Before we left, Liti surprised me with a salusalu, which is a kind of super fancy lei. She tied it around my neck and asked to take photos with me, telling me how much she would miss me when I left and made me promise to come back soon. The whole night people kept saying “Isa, Alici” or “Vinaka Alici” which just means they are sad I am leaving and thank you for coming.

My gorgeous salusalu

My farewell dinner party

We knew we were in for a pretty long night. Since I was leaving the next day, their custom is to drink grog all night until the bus comes for the ferry at 4:30am. So at around 8 we go back to Sam’s house and both drink a cup of coffee to wake us up. Then we head over to the farewell ceremony, which is just a lot of the village elders getting together to drink grog and thank me for coming. We stay there for about 3 hours until they run out of grog, then we head to another house where people are drinking grog. This is where all the youth are drinking. (Side note: “Youth” in Fiji is anyone under 35) They are all drinking and talanoa (telling stories) and playing music. Doesn’t that sound like so much fun? They do this every night! I got lucky and ended up sitting beside one of the gorgeous rugby players all night. So we drank and sang for hours. By this point my hips and knees and ankles were KILLING me from sitting cross legged on the floor so much.

I wish I could say I was strong enough to make it to 4:30 when my bus came, but my body ended up getting REAL upset with me around 2am. I guess I just wasn’t used to drinking so much grog. So come 2 am I start to get sick. And I continue to be grog sick the rest of the morning until my bus came. FYI, grog tastes significantly worse coming back up than it does going down, and that’s saying a lot.

Needless to say, the ride back to Suva was unpleasant. For me and everyone else on the bus. Isa….

But, putting aside the last 5 hours, my “work vacation” to Ovalau was phenomenal. It was one of those experiences that remind me how freaking awesome Fiji is and I get amazed that I am even here in the first place getting to live it. How did I get so lucky? Why would I ever want to leave this place?

Here is a link to my facebook album if you would like to see the rest of my Ovalau photos:


  1. Beautiful!!!

  2. Sounds so fun!! I have to say I would probably be so thin if I lived there because although you say that food is delicious and looks good, I doubt I could actually bring myself to eat it! FIJI diet it is!! BE right over! 😉 Miss you!

  3. Reblogged this on InspiredWeightloss!.

  4. That’s awesome Alicia. That is the real Fiji right there. Grassroots communal living. Keep em coming!!

    Just as a side note your Fijian name would be spelt Alisi.

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