Life lessons in Fiji

Suzie Harrison

Most people would think of leisure and relaxation if they thought

of taking a trip to breathtaking Fiji.

The 300 islands, pristine white beaches, blue lagoons, reefs


decorated with colorful fish, as well as rich forests and mountains

across 200,000 square miles of ocean conjure a vision of a vacation

dream come true.

But for a group of Laguna locals and Southern Californians the


gorgeous view was just a backdrop to their task.

Headed by Laguna’s Kay Ostensen, a counselor at Thurston Middle

School, in cooperation with Laguna Beach United Methodist Church, the

group of 11 went to Fiji to help build a United Methodist Church.

To get to the village they had a two and a half hour ride into the

jungle. The island had 40 families and a population of less than 200.

Ostensen found out about the opportunity to help in Fiji through the

Dream Machine, who help support a Seventh Day Adventist School that


had been contacted by the village chief about helping build a

foundation for a new church.

But their trip to Fiji turned out to offer a lot more.

Bill Wheeler was part of the group and is the son of Rev. Ginny

Wheeler at the church. He’s a recent graduate of UC Berkley and got

to go to Fiji as a graduation present.

“The chief’s son was into modern exposure to our culture. We were

the first interdenominational group to stay in the village,” Wheeler


said. “Fiji has a strong sense of culture and trying to meld it with

modernization and electricity was the best of both worlds.”

The sentiments from the group about the people of Fiji were

resoundingly positive.

Even though he’s traveled all through Africa and Europe, Wheeler

said he has never met a more hospitable group and has never been

treated better. “They’re awesome, awesome people who really took care

us. The sense of community that comes from a village -- you go to

sleep with the moon and rise with the call of a rooster,” Wheeler


What was probably the biggest change for the group was the fact

that there was no electricity in the village.

“Trying to do it without electricity, no phone messages, e-mail or

a Xerox. We would get the use of a generator, so we would have a

couple of hours of electricity at night. We didn’t know when the

generator would go out,” said Ostensen.

She also gave an example of having to travel two and a half hours

on a dirt road to buy food to make dinner, and taking for granted

that the villagers would have salt and pepper already. Another stark

difference was revealed through a poem by Monica Gunning. She writes

children’s poetry and had a translator read one of her poems to the

village children.

“One of my poems speaks about a mean person. The children didn’t

know what that meant. They didn’t know anyone who was mean. That poem

was completely foreign to them,” Gunning said.

* SUZIE HARRISON is a reporter for the Laguna Beach Coastline

Pilot. She may be reached at 494-4321.