In the wake of Cyclone Winston

Loss, devastation and human suffering are a sobering part of reality that is all-too-often swept away from the traveler’s eye. Open any travel guide on almost any country and the author will say the same thing: stay away from the bad areas! And that’s what many travelers do! The tourists you see rallying in Manhattan’s Times Square are the same tourists that wouldn’t be caught dead in Queens or other unappealing neighbourhoods. But do they see the real New York? Some would argue yes, others no.

This week we saw something real in Fiji. Just over a week before we landed, Cyclone Winston – a deadly category five cyclone – devastated the island nation of Fiji. The natural disaster relentlessly razed schools, churches, houses and in some cases, entire villages, to rubble. Around sixty people were killed in the initial incident (which lasted 24 hours), but this was only the beginning of the bad news. A large portion of the population have been left without electricity, water, and shelter, and repairs are going to take time. Until then, there are many Fijians sleeping rough and struggling to sustain themselves.

When we heard the news about the cyclone, our first instinct was to research what we could do to help while we were over there. We felt terrible for those suffering, and agreed to devote a day or two to assisting those affected. But it can be hard looking for volunteer work! With voluntourism on the rise, there are so many organisations masquerading as volunteering organisations but, in reality, only benefit the traveler. We didn’t want that. So instead, we decided to hire a cab.

Our cab driver Ifran picked us up at 9:00am. “Drive us to the affected area”, we said. So for a hefty fee we set off two hours north to the town of Rakiraki – the place where the cyclone hit hardest. On the way, Ifran echoed the words of all the Fijians we had talked to. “It is very bad. People are doing it tough out there”. Ifran’s experience was personal. Amongst the severe damage to his own village, a woman had been killed, leaving her two young children behind. The kids now had no way of paying for their school supplies.

On the way to Rakiraki, we saw many villages destroyed. Take a look for yourself:

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In the town before Rakiraki, we asked Ifran to stop at the nearby supermarket. We all had an idea to buy groceries such as juice, biscuits, chips, and coke to hand out to children and young families affected. Here’s a photo of the box.

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For the rest of the day, we drove around Rakiraki, surveying the damage and giving groceries to locals. And at the end of the day, Ifran took the remaining groceries home and gave them to those affected in his own village.

There is a glimmer of hope in the wake of such a horrible disaster: The Fijian government is offering to rebuild everything that was damaged, including houses and villages. But it will take months, maybe years to recover. Let’s hope for minimal suffering until then.

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