I know what you are thinking, You are on a tropical island! How could that possibly be less than paradise? I got many comments before departing for residency on how I would be in paradise, and how lucky I was to be in a place like Fiji. I always paused for a minute, trying to figure out what the outside impression was of where I was going. I was not going to live in a resort on the beach… I was going to Fiji to bring services to marginalized populations. We are nowhere near the tourist track, or the beach. In fact, we have seen two other white people in this town since our arrival. The profile of Labasa was exactly what I was looking for regarding my residency, because it was an area of need without occupational therapy services, leaving lots of room for program development.
Although the lifestyle can be taxing in areas of need, the work is always intellectually stimulating. A lack of resources leads to great creativity. I have learned things about healthcare that never would have surfaced had I stayed in the United States. One example includes the discovery of a literature pool regarding the effectiveness of wound healing with banana leaf dressings. There is a shortage in wound dressings here in Fiji, particularly for the patients. There is no proper bandaging material available outside of town, so patients who travel hours to get to the hospital with a large abscess cannot safely change their bandages at home. This is a huge problem that leads to high rates of infection, and commonly amputation. My last educational lecture to the hospital staff focused on wound care, and I presented the findings from the studies that successfully used banana leaves and boiled potato peel for wound care. It was fascinating to listen to the discussion unfold with the staff and hear stories about what has been used in the past in Fiji and how things are changing. Big ideas don’t require fancy technology.
My experience working at the Labasa Hospital has truly forced me to step back and look at the big picture. As an aspiring type-A hand therapist, I find myself worrying about the elements of what is missing relative to my experience in the United States with hand therapy, because I have learned that evidence-driven interventions are most effective. I continue to remind myself that the way things are done in the states is not always relative to Fiji. Small gains in Fiji end up feeling like big rewards.
Now let’s talk about the beach. 5 weeks into Fiji and I still hadn’t seen the white sand beaches and blue ocean everyone raved about. I know, first world problems. I don’t want to give Labasa a bad rap, but Justin and I were ready to start exploring. Although Labasa can be rough living at time, the areas outside of town are dripping with heavenly beauty. Our first month in Fiji we stayed in town every weekend. I was working on my projects every Saturday, and we wanted to get oriented to our new home town. We also wanted to save money, because, student loans don't dwindle while in school. We gave ourselves a swift kick in the britches and got to planning some weekend excursions. My previous post highlighted our first getaway at Palm Lea Farm in Tambia. It was a short ride from Labasa (~30 min) and was a little slice of jungle paradise. But, the water on the north side of the island is murky and brown from the mangroves which is slightly nerve-wracking given there is a high concentration of bull sharks. Unless you can get on a boat out to the reef (which by the way, is the third largest reef in the world), brown water awaits you at the shore. I still can’t figure out why most people don’t venture out to the reef. After feeling like our batteries were recharged 110% at Palm Lea Farm, we decided it was worth our mental health to start taking weekend trips. We are nomads by nature and have never been the type to stay home when opportunities are at our fingertips. And working on a Saturday? I’ll be having no more of that.
Savusavu is a hidden gem in southern Vanua Levu. We hopped a 2-hour bus ride to arrive at the sight of the bluest ocean I have ever seen. The change of pace from Labasa was immediately palpable down to my heartbeat. This was the slow life I was looking for.
We chose Savusavu because of its convenience to Labasa. Reading about this sleepy beach town on travel sites sounded nice, but it was definitely downplayed. My first though upon arrival was – why aren’t people flipping out about this place? I just couldn’t believe how glorious everything felt. High hills of pristine greenery surrounded town and across the bay. And that insanely blue water with visibility down to the ocean floor made my heart sing. I suppose most people want luxury during vacation, which Savusavu lacks. It is a simple place, with a tiny strip-mall of local shops to cover basic necessities. There was a power outage on Saturday that lasted most of the day, but it didn’t bother us because we were out swimming and lounging until sunset. What Savusavu is missing in high-end creature comforts, it makes up for with jaw-dropping scenery.
And now, pictures of paradise.
Fiji is not a place that accepts physical disabilities as a society. Nothing is ADA-accessible to even a mild degree, which makes my daily commute a constant adventure. I knew I was entering this country with added challenge if I was going to require a wheelchair for walking tasks. Once that notion became a lived experience, the anticipated challenge was so much harder than I could have imagined. One of the most shocking experiences I endure multiple times during my work commute is random people walking up to me, blocking the path, and asking why I am outside in a wheelchair. Comments such as “you cannot be out here as a woman like that!” or statements that prod at my personal information like “What happened to you? What did your doctor say?” happen nearly every day. Sometimes it’s humorous, other times it’s bizarre, and most of the time I am just overwhelmed as to why a complete stranger is touching me or demanding answers to questions about my health. Frequently, they will not even speak to me, they question Justin directly as if I am invisible.
I had many concerns about how my patients would view me, but this has ended up being easier than I anticipated. My yoga programs I wrote before coming to Fiji had to be changed to a sitting position on the floor or in a chair. I had fears of my patients disliking my classes because they would be taught in this manner, but people are surprisingly adaptable. What I have also found, is that my classes have required adaptations regardless of my own injury because my patients ALSO need adaptations. Thus, the nature of the class needs no explanation. Most of my patients have never done yoga either, giving me a blank slate to work with and formulate my classes however I want. I gained trust from the kids at the special needs school quickly, because I was relatable as a person navigating my environment with a disability. At the hospital, I generally assist with upper extremity patients, so I get to sit during patient treatment. But most days I am asked by other patients if I am in the physio department for treatment, and I catch them by surprise when I say, no, I'm here to give you treatment.
I’m trying to see things in a light that offer growth and flexibility. But there are days where I feel knocked down, because it’s all just too much. Last week I was exhausted, sick of being in a wheelchair, sick of the stigmas, tired of being constantly stared at, and overwhelmed by the cultural differences. The chronic pain I push through each day breaks my focus at times and I yearn for normalcy. I had to stop and reset. This type of environmental setting is not new to me, but the wheelchair makes me feel like an alien in my own body. Self-care has been pushed to the side for many weeks so I can focus on the care of my patients. But we all know that if we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of others. I was not practicing what I was preaching. Justin and I were long overdue for a weekend vacation. I have been logging many overtime hours on Saturdays working on my projects so they are ready for the following week. But not last weekend. Justin and I found an affordable resort to the west of Labasa and made a last minute booking. I eagerly counted down the minutes to sleeping on an actual mattress and having a hot shower. The true luxuries in life are the little things we take for granted.
The weekend was a dream. We slept in and ate fresh fruit and vegetables from the organic farm on the premises. We kayaked to a secluded beach and swam in the private pool under the palms. We spent our afternoons reading on the porch and staring at the big blue ocean. I tried to let go of any school tasks on my mind (emphasis on tried) and treated the weekend like time off. The life changing magic of self-care should never be underestimated.
I was torturing myself for a while by continuing to hide my physical limitation I am currently living with. I posted one photo on Facebook exposing my reality, and thereafter continued to portray myself on social media in a wheelchair-free manner. I am slowly accepting my reality. I mean, do I have any other choice? I still shudder when I see my reflection in a wheelchair. Self-love is complicated. The cultural stigmas in Fiji amplify my desire to hide this part of me. Fiji’s culture wreaks havoc on my ego, but at the same time it brings me peace. I don’t know anyone here, and the people I am meeting don’t know my past. I have nothing to live up to or explain of my changed life. I don’t always have the gumption to stand up for myself, but when I do, I hope I can use the abrupt confrontations from strangers in the street as an opportunity to educate people about disabilities. Fiji is not progressive in this manner and badly needs reform. Simply being out in the community, no matter how horrified passersby are by the sight of a woman in a wheelchair, is a means to show the community that everyone is capable of participating in daily life.
And now, some snaps from the weekend.
My husband and I are outdoor travel junkies who like to spend our free time experiencing nature and new cultures. On Sweet World Travels you will find stories of our adventures, our lives as health care practitioners, and the communities we serve in our travels.