At the beginning of my personal travel story, I went on a transformational journey, which I usually refer to as my own Eat Pray Love experience. I was merely 18 years old, and my life at the time had been subject to radical change. I had just graduated from high school, no idea what I wanted to do with my life and had to deal with a few personal matters. One of my closest relatives died of cancer leaving my family suffering. On top of that, my longlasting on-and-off relationship with my first love came to its inevitable end. To cut a long story short, I was completely thrown off track.
In situations like these, I have always tried to turn to activities that would put my mind far away from the actual problems. So, I only saw one way: I had to go away – away from my life in Germany. So I packed my bags and went, quite literally, to the other side of the world. From Europe to Fiji, a group of islands in the South-Pacific, east of New Zealand.
Born and raised in a family who loves traveling, I already had some travel experience. However, nothing could have prepared me for what was waiting for me on the other side of the world. Everything was different in Fiji: the climate, the culture, the smell, the lifestyle, the food, the language, the daily life, the infrastructure.
It was overwhelming and amazing at the same time, and perfectly put my mind off my dark thoughts. In a country where goods, as well as values, have different priorities, it’s a lot easier to take yourself and your first-world problems less seriously. For the first time in my life, I comprehensively realized what difference it makes for a human being in what country, what family he or she is born and raised. I guess that is an experience most travelers have at some point on their journey. For me, realizing this was the start of a beneficial process, I had no choice but embrace my new environment and to genuinly engage with it.
I stayed with an incredibly friendly host family for several months and volunteered as a teaching assistant at a local primary school during the week. I was surrounded by Fiji, and Fiji received me warmly. During that period I discovered approaches towards life that have stuck with me until today.
Pleasure, Time And An Easy Life
Just like in many other third world countries, food has a much different significance in the locals’ day-to-day life than in western countries. Food unites people. It´s not just about eating but about sharing a meal collectively. While in Europe having lunch often becomes part of one´s to-do list, Fijians appreciate every meal and consider food a major part of their life.
It didn´t take long for me to discover one of the main pillars of my wanderlust: the curiosity for foreign cuisine. And in Fiji, there was a lot to explore. Local cuisine is shaped by the indigenous’ tasty island dishes as well as the Indo-Fijians’ spicy curries and brings out an exotic mix of spices.
It´s also impressive to see the emotions and social expressions linked to food. Small rituals enhance the solidarity and the significance of a meal. For example, not finishing your food means you didn´t like it. And if you did finish your food, your plate will immediately be refilled – even before you may say “Au sa sinai”. In Fiji, there´s no false modesty, and everyone lives life (and eats food) to the fullest. Of course, you put on weight. But then again, people in Fiji don´t care about these things.
In fact, they don´t care about a lot of things Westerners usually care about. For example, sense of timing. German punctuality is simply not an issue in the Pacific. In the beginning, this had been difficult for me, but once I´d overcome culture shock and accepted “Fiji-Time”, I found myself relieved from all the self-made pressure back home.
The whole food experience, as well as Fiji-Time, taught me how much impact I have on my own positive and negative feelings. Feeling guilty about pleasure sometimes has a regulative effect, but may quickly change into an overall negative attitude, which unnecessarily makes life less enjoyable. If you open your eyes and pay attention to pleasure, you´ll soon find it in many small and ordinary things. However, it is important to give yourself time. You cannot find pleasure in a rush.
Religion And Devotion
Another significant part of my life is spirituality. For a very long time, especially at the time I went to Fiji, my spirituality had been associated with religious beliefs. Religion has always played an essential role in my family (I´m the daughter of a Christian preacher man). In Europe as well as other western countries, Christianity still prevails. So, a lot of people who mostly stay within European borders come to think that this is “normal”. Fiji taught me that there is no such thing as a “normal” religious belief.
Before going to Fiji, I thought I had already been open-minded towards different religions. However, it turns out what I thought had been a respect towards other faiths, was actually more of an excuse not to deal with unfamiliar topics out of my daily routine.
In Fiji, I tried to stop avoiding and rather grow my respect towards religions in experiencing them. I participated in a catholic-orthodox mass, a Buddhist meditation, and a Hindu ceremony. Although there was a lot I didn´t understand due to language barriers or simply because I wouldn´t feel a connection, I still found the services to be beneficial in some way. In fact, there had been many aspects I really liked, for example, the use of music within each ceremony. Probably that´s a very subjective thing, but I can feel devotion in music.
And that taught me one crucial thing: prayer is not necessarily composed of rituals or stereotyped words. In fact, a prayer is devotion, devotion to a god or any kind of deity you feel connected to. At the same time, it is humbleness, gratefulness, and joy about life. And you may actually feel it in several activities, a loud conversation, silent thoughts, music, dance or regular breaths in a meditation. I feel it in all the things I do for their own sakes.
By the way, I´m still super fascinated by different religions and love getting insight into different points of view, such as in this inspirational post about the Islam in Indonesia. Whenever I travel, I try to participate in local services and spiritual ceremonies. Also, I love talking to locals about their faiths and really try to have an open mind toward all kinds of religions.
What would a real Eat, Pray, Love – story be without love? 🙂 But I have to dash your expectations. In Fiji, I did not find my soulmate, at least not in a romantic way. However, I did meet some other fantastic people. I´ve not always had a fuzz-free experience while staying in Fiji. And precisely in those moments, people who didn´t even know me entered my life and took care of me.
My host family took me in and treated me like their own daughter despite all my European quirks. The other volunteers helped me out in times of sorrow and culture shock, probably because there has always been this least common factor: European / Western origins. However, I was fortunate enough to share all of these incredibly intense experiences with one person in particular, and knew that is was going to be a connection that will last. In fact, it´s continued until the present day with one of my best friends. She lives quite close to my hometown, but I had to fly to the other side of the world to get to know her…as my roomie in my host family. 🙂
Moreover, I experienced love at the school I was teaching. I learned how much I love to guide and motivate people. It´s incredible how fast you can become a significant part of a child´s life and how the small things you do are meangingful for them. Those kids showed me great love – I still keep all their goodbye letters and sometimes wonder how they are doing now.
Last but not least, I learned to love myself – at least a little more than I used to before. Although it sounds pretty easy to love and accept oneself, for most people this is a big deal. Everyone of us attaches conditions to love, probably in self-protection. And while this often seems pretty reasonable, it may quickly lead to excessive self-expectations. Fiji taught me that it´s better to question these expectations on a regular basis and to let go of those that are either inconvertible or unrealistic. It´s not easy to recognize those expectations as it means to admit to yourself and others that you´re not perfect – and to allow others not to be perfect either.
The most authentic Fiji-example here would probably be weight. While for me it was horrible to put on so much weight during my stay (about 1.5-2 kg per month), Fijians told me that I was becoming really gorgeous the longer I lived there. Fijian rule: the bigger people are, the more attractive.
In the end, it´s all about feeling comfortable with yourself. Each and everyone of us is able to fix this feeling by impugning our own judgement. That means trying to genuinely accept yourself for what you are and how you look. You can be the one to definine what YOU think is beautiful, what you think feels right. In Fiji, another thing I learned is that judgment is also influenced by our environment (society and media).
So, here´s what you´re gonna have to do: Get some backup! We always have to ask ourselves: Are we surrounded by people who judge some of our characteristics or by people who accept us for what we are, maybe even appreciate the things we don´t like about ourselves? The best way to find the last two categories of people is by becoming a non-judgmental person yourself and, as hard as it may seem, starting to appreciate yourself.
Obviously, I´m not done learning new things, and all the experiences I shared with you in this post took me a long time, sometimes hard time, to gain. Perhaps this article is not more than an attempt to cherish them. But I also wanted to share them with you and invite you to tell me your stories. What are your most life-changing experiences you had abroad?
Regarding Fiji, I will always associate these experiences with this beautiful country. This trip gave me the freedom and opportunity to determine my own attitude towards life. And that is a memory, I will carry around with me forever.