By Arnav Rai
It took me awhile to really understand what community service means. It doesn’t mean doing something for a group you perceive to be less fortunate than you. It doesn’t mean giving away items you don’t want or need to someone else. And it most certainly does not mean simply donating. The definition of community service isn’t something tangible, rather it is a mindset. It’s a way of thinking that one learns through his or her own experiences. I was fortunate enough to go on a National Geographic expedition where I was able to better internalize the spirit of community service.
Before I go there, let me take you back to the summer of 2016, when I first found out about this trip. A friend of mine had told me about National Geographic Student Expeditions over dinner. At first, I was a bit skeptical. How could a large organization like National Geographic take fifteen high school students across the world and still guarantee everyone’s safety and well-being? That may have just been the pessimist in me talking. Also, I did not want to spend money on a trip that wouldn’t really have an impact on me, nor help my college application (yes, I used to think that everything was about a college application). But after reading the online accounts of these trips, I decided to take a risk. While writing my application for the trip, I thought back to a book I read a while back called The Giving Tree. In that book, there is a tree that gives up different parts of itself to make a little boy happy. It made me think about what have I done to “give back,” or what have I “sacrificed for the greater good.” I immediately thought about how I donated my old clothes to the salvation army. I felt content with how I had contributed to the world, and I wrote about those particular endeavors in my application. I assumed that donating had put me on some sort of moral high ground, and my actions made me a shoo-in for this trip.
Fast forward to the summer of 2017 when I finally went on the trip. I remember the feeling I had at LAX. I was about to leave my comfortable life and go live across the world for two and half weeks. There really is no way to describe what I felt. I distinctly remember the metal butterflies in my stomach. The apprehension and nervousness was evident in the way I was talking and the shaky handshakes I was giving the other students and the trip guides. That’s when it hit me, this is not going to be any average trip; this is something really different.
When we got on the plane, I remember watching as many movies as possible to try and pass the time. I could not contain my feelings for all sixteen hours. I was constantly fidgeting and I could not get a wink of sleep. I couldn’t stop playing all the negative scenarios in my head. What if I get sick? What if I can’t make any friends? What if the villagers hate me? My thoughts started to spiral. Luckily, before my emotions got too out of control, we landed. We went through security and took a taxi to the lodge where we would be staying for a few hours until we could board our flight to the small island of Taveuni. For the next few days, we experienced the natural part of Fiji, including some of the tourist attractions. For me, the real trip began when we took a van to Natokalau, the village we would be staying in. From the moment we entered I felt something different. I felt a sort of acceptance that I had never felt anywhere else. The families in Natokalau immediately took us in with open arms. I remember one mother named Mary put a flower necklace around my neck. Another villager named Dama handed me his guitar; I tried teaching him jazz and he tried teaching me Fijian Folk songs on the guitar. There was so much singing and dancing and just an overall sense of happiness that was infectious. Everyone was so happy just to be in the company of each other. For the next thirteen days, the journey I embarked on was more fulfilling than anything I had ever experienced.
Our service project was to build a hurricane shelter alongside the villagers. At first, I thought we were doing the villagers a favor. I thought they needed us to make a shelter, because we were somehow superior architects and builders. Boy was I wrong. The villagers in Natokalau did not need our help to build the shelter. In fact, they were more apt builders than we were. The true purpose behind our trip was to build a lasting partnership—a partnership that was not defined by the shelter we built, but by the friendships and bonds we created with the villagers. The shelter is a symbol of our friendship, but it didn’t define our trip nor our relationship with the villagers. Our relationships and friendships were defined by the true joy and happiness we found in each other’s company. No matter what we were doing or where we were, there was always an unparalleled love and happiness felt amongst us.
I vividly remember every afternoon in Natokalau. After we were done working for the day, we would enjoy a lunch underneath the center tent, and after that we would have around 2 to 3 hours of down time. During those hours, we would take trips to local farms or swimming spots. The latter portions of the day are what really stood out and defined this experience. Once the kids came home from school, the villagers would gather and we would all play games together. It’s impossible to put into words the feeling of joy I had when I saw how happy all the kids were in the company of one another. Those images stayed with me for a long time.
One of my biggest reservations when I first applied for the trip was losing access to social media. In my life, I had become so content with the instant gratification of likes and retweets, and I was afraid of losing that. Constantly staying connected was part of my life. I was not sure how would I deal without having internet access for fifteen days. I was so wrong. The people in Natokalau made me forget in a heartbeat. I was filled with pure happiness from all the games we played and activities we did, I didn’t need instant gratification or snapchat streaks to make me happy.
I realized that filtered selfies and witty captions didn’t make this experience. What made this trip so special were the volleyball games, kava ceremonies, and spontaneous swimming trips—and just being around so many loving people. The friendships I made were so genuine and so pure because I knew that everyone there had a real appreciation for one another, and that is something you don’t come across often. I now find myself looking for those friendships at home and in school. I find myself no longer concerned with my social media image or how many likes I get on a photo. That’s one of the most important things I learned in Natokalau.
That takes me back to the beginning, when I talked about the mindset of community service. On this trip, I learned that community service isn’t only about the physical thing you build or donate—it’s about the friendships you make. It’s about the relationships you build and how you move forward with those relationships. The memories we made and the times we spent together live on in every action we take.
I hope one day to go back to Natokalau and meet all of my old friends once more. The experience I have the second time around will undoubtedly be different, and as I grow up and start my own life as an adult a lot about me will change—my responsibilities, my job, my home, etc. What won’t change is the genuine emotional connection I will always have to Natokalau and the people I met there.