VANCOUVER — For most of us, vacation means taking it easy. But when Vancouverite Jill Goldberg went to Fiji for two weeks in May, she was ready for some hard work – the kind that requires a hammer, calls for early mornings on a construction site and involves building houses.
A 38-year-old English literature professor at Langara College, Goldberg had joined Habitat for Humanity for a two-week excursion to Lautoka, an industrial Fijian city, “with dusty streets, peeling paint, shabby exteriors and no sparkling beach to be found,” she said.
Goldberg and her team were tasked with helping to build houses in the community of Koroipita, home to some of Fiji’s most destitute citizens.
“The work was hard,” she recalled. “We were doing wood framing, but there was no nail gun, so that meant that every last nail was driven in by hand. I went to sleep each night with the sound of hammering ringing in my ears, yet I woke each morning eager to start again.”
Goldberg wanted to form a deeper connection with local people than she had during previous trips as a tourist. “When I was in Bali, it was so lovely, but I was so aware of the equality imbalance between me and the people who lived there. I wanted to get past the tourist scenario, and I really wanted to help. I thought, if I can go someplace and contribute something other than sitting around in a hotel, I might feel like I’ve done something useful,” she said of her decision to join the Habitat group.
The prospect of running around a worksite with a hammer was appealing to her, and watching two homes erected over the course of her stay in Fiji was very gratifying, she said. She and her team were on site by 8:15 a.m., unloading trucks of lumber and sweating beneath the Fijian sun until 4 p.m.
Her trip came at a cost of $1,800, which went toward covering her meals and accommodation, as well as toward building materials and salaries for the construction workers.
“I loved that the usual relationship between traveller and local was, even just for moments, reversed,” she said. “I also loved that we got to eat food cooked in Koroipita and not in some fancy hotel, that we cleaned our own table at lunchtime, helping out those who made us food and snacks. Over the time there, we learned ways to befriend the Fijian workers that let us on their building site and showed us such endearing hospitality. That type of cultural exchange goes a long way toward breaking down stereotypes.”
It was Goldberg’s second Habitat for Humanity trip – the first one was in Hawaii two years ago – and its effect has been profound, she said.
“In Fiji, the poverty was much more evident and pervasive. Some of the Fijian people we worked with would show up on the worksite without shoes, for example, and this made me reflect on what it means to have so little that certain basic things, things pertaining to safety and health, are unattainable.
“It reinforced the feeling that participating in a Habitat build let me see not the glossy Fiji of travel brochures, but the difficulties of Fijian life as it is for many of its inhabitants. Of course, this made working on homes for people who don't have a home all the more profound.”
Goldberg is planning to become a team leader for future trips, with Africa next on her list.
“This trip reminded me that, no matter my own skepticism about the West’s efforts to do good, there are moments, opportunities and places that do enable significant work to be done – whether in the form of hammering nails or in the form of a cultural exchange – that, even just for a moment, reverses or equalizes the usual power dynamics that exist.”