Junior Takes A Tropical Trip

Kai Wong smiles for the camera with children from the small village of Toga, Fiji. She spent 16 days on the trip, where she participated in restoration projects and cultural activities.

Jordan Lee and Tiffany Wu

In the small village of Toga, Fiji, the July air is muggy and stifling. Even the mosquitoes, which normally buzz furiously in swarms, fly languidly one-by-one, chased off only by the occasional wave of an exhausted hand.

 Junior Kai Wong takes turns with fourteen girls from all across the United States hauling fifty-pound bags of black sand up a hill to create a cement walkway connecting teacher quarters with Vuanicau Primary School. 

They work from morning until the afternoon, when the Fijian children are released from school and run to play with their foreign visitors. Immediately, tired and sweat-lined brows unfurrow and are replaced with bright smiles. 

“It’s almost like you get this ‘super star status’ when you step on the island, and all [the village children] want to do is play with you…it was really joyful,” Wong said. 

On the 16 day National Geographic-sponsored service trip, Wong immersed herself in Fijian culture, taking part in family-style meals, disconnecting from technology, and wearing a sarong, a cloth wrapped around the body to cover knees. Unlike a normal summer vacation, the main goal of the trip was to aid in restoration projects for the village, including building a 100 yard walkway and painting murals.

“It’s a really nice refresher to get off your phone, to get away from the screen and to look at what’s around you and be grateful for that,” Wong said. “They taught me a lot about being happy in general. Even now, I take it as a personal lesson that I learn, just hanging with your family and making the most of that time.” 

Unlike the hyper-social and mainstream media society Americans live in today, Fijians have limited connections to modern culture.

“I remember asking one of the little kids who his favorite athlete was, and he says ‘Thor,’” Wong said. “And I was like, ‘oh, you don’t know Stephen Curry or Cristiano Ronaldo?’ and he’s like, ‘I have no idea who those people are.’ And I remember because we’re supposed to bring gifts for the village, [my mom] gave me Disney pencils. They were more excited that I brought them a pencil rather than where it came from.” 

Throughout the trip, several girls became sick from a stomach bug and suffered painfully itchy bug bites. The village only had an emergency hospital, with access limited to those traveling by boat or helicopter.

“For the most part, we all would have to wait [to get to the hospital],” Wong said. “A lot of the kids in Fiji didn’t have the opportunity to see a doctor.”

Though living conditions were drastically different than what the volunteers were accustomed to back home, the Fijians’ resilience and zest for life greatly inspired Wong.

“It was very, very eye opening. A bunch of the little kids and families were genuinely happy with what they had. I know that coming from me and the 14 other girls, we were like, ‘oh, this isn’t that much,’” Wong said. “It taught me that I should be happy with what I have and to just be grateful.”