Trouble in Paradise

Posted on March 1, 2017

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The honeymoon period lasted just four weeks. I was under no illusion that the next six months wouldn’t be hard work; but I hadn’t anticipated just how bloody difficult it was going to be dealing with people voluntarily exiled on an island too small for big egos.

Then there was the disorganisation and chaotic management; poor leadership at every level, staff hypocrisy, being patronised daily and food portion control. I’m sure Alcatraz wasn’t this bad. I paid nearly six thousand pounds for this privilege and today I walked away without regret and without my dive master impending internship – enough!

I was so furious that I cound’t be refunded some of the cash that I declined the offer by GVI yesterday to still have my visa registered under their care. I don’t want to be associated with a company that’s unprofessional and shambolic and fails to tackle problems when they occur pronto. Sod the money. They are an awful brand.

My experience has tainted my view of volunteering to such a degree I would whole heartedly never recommend anyone should ever try it with GVI Fiji and I certainly will never volunteer again.

Over the last eight weeks it’s felt like a bad social experiment minus the cameras. It’s been morbidly compelling to observe how people change gradually, stoked by difficult situations and comments made by alpha personalities. Tactics like intimidation, competition, goading and peer pressure affects people, some more than others. Caqalai Island had all the hallmarks of Lord of the Flies.

I’ve never followed the crowd and the announcement last night that I was leaving shocked all the volunteers. It wasn’t anything to do with them. Both sets of groups have been full of enthusiastic young people who have early life anxieties. On the whole they are nice people trying to experience something different and hoping to walk away with a marine qualification.

My bugbear has been down to staff attitude. The people employed to support, encourage and make life on the island enjoyable. The people responsible for ensuring that you get value for your £6,000. But sadly the immature, egotistical and in some cases self-importance has meant they have failed miserably and they are still failing those I have left behind.

Unless you enjoy laddish banter, are young enough to flirt with or boss around they simply have no clue how to deal with someone older than them but not realms away from their age group. I came here to pick up knowledge and have fun. I can identify some fish species now and know how to compress – so there’s some silver lining, but fun? No. That left after week four. I’m sorely disheartened that this is the calibre of people entering conservation. It’s all about them and not about doing good.

GIV Fiji as a business model has a ridiculous turnover rate of staff. Jobs are short term and people stay in their posts usually between 6-9months. This means there’s no incentive long term towards commitment, accountability or investment in their role or the people they look after. It’s good for now but in the end there’s something else to go onto, so why bother? That’s the impression I have been left with. Every now and again you get an older volunteer like me who’s lived a bit and worked in many different roles and companies and can see past the sunshine and endless after-dinner games. I’m also not the first older person to have left early, I learnt from one member of staff it has happened a few times. “GVI why can’t you put your house in order and vet and train people how to manage all ages of volunteers properly?” Having the odd pensioner volunteer is an anomaly.

If you stay for four weeks you wouldn’t know any different. But sign up for twelve weeks and by week five your suffering from island fever and looking for any escape off the island. The two older women with me who stayed just a month said the same thing. It was the right time to go.

So what was so bad? For me it wasn’t the early rises – i’ve worked shift for decades nor was it doing camp duties (they included cooking dinner for 30 people, cleaning toilets, showers, raking the grounds, compressing tanks, sweeping and clearing the common room. Basically getting volunteers to cover maintenance of the camp instead of employing full time staff – why did we pay so much money?) I’m an adult i look after myself.

But when some staff started being personal, that was it for me. Constructive criticism is one thing, but slagging is not on. I don’t care which individual said what or why they decided to start “hating” or “stirring”. The point is with the exception of two members of staff, none of them actually bothered to get to know me, or were interested in making conversation. They made an opinion based on what I do for work and what they think they know about me.

As an intern you have weekly meetings with your mentor and in week five I was told I was the brunt of a bitching match in a staff meeting: “She walks around thinking she is better than everyone else. She rolls her eyes at briefings. Perhaps she is faking her ankle injury (severe ligament damage post bungee jump in New Zealand). She does what she wants.”

All of this was allowed to escalate into a frenzy during a staff meeting apparently. So how do I now trust the people I am reporting to? The most frustrating thing was that there was no solution offered to how to improve the situation it was just “feedback”. If I was younger and greener I probably would have been crushed by those sorts of comments and perhaps my confidence would have been knocked totally. Is breeding insecurity necessary to bully people into doing what you want?

I am however far from green; instead I was at first horrified, then upset, followed by seriously annoyed that there was no real purpose or benefit or indeed truth to this, I was being told this to provoke a reaction. Bravo, you got one.

I am 41 years old. I don’t roll my eyes in briefings they are important. It’s a timetable we have to follow. I resent being told playing games is mandatory. I shouldn’t have to spend every waking hour with the same people. Yes sometimes i had to use initiative and do things without a general duty team approval because people were diving. I had an ultrasound on my foot for ligament damage. Strapping it up and taking part in swimming training is not going to help it but exacerbate it. And it did. I’ve only just started snorkelling as diving is much easier on the foot. None of them are trained doctors and if I say i can’t do something they shouldn’t force the issue. I do as much as I can each day. I don’t avoid exercise.

I’m massively frustrated that my fitness has gone to pot being on that island, but I have to be patient. I was made to feel like a shirker and someone incapable of being physically fit enough for my upcoming placement. Ridiculous! I turned up on time to lectures, did my duties without complaint, stepped in to clean up other people’s mess. And always got permission to leave the island for specific project-related work. I can follow orders.

So yes I was stunned to hear i was a proverbial punchbag as I generally try to avoid conflict and unnecessary stress/gossip. I came to Fiji to make a positive impact and remind myself there are people trying to do good in the world after 16months of suicide bombs and war, war, war.

Part of the Dive Master Training (DMT) programme is to create a project. I opted to play to my strengths. Investigating and interviewing with the view to writing about human-wildlife conflict issues. My topic – long term food security and if overfishing can be solved with alternative food protein. I set out to interview those at the top of their game in conversation in Fiji but had no expectation I would be granted access as I only had one contact in Fiji. If it weren’t for my professional career I doubt I would have succeeded but instead of support from GVI staff I was criticised for getting above my “intern” station.

Four weeks into the programme I got an invite to a UN fisheries conference on the mainland from my contact and during the Q and A I made sure I asked a controversial question. I also happened to be the first hand up. This was intentional to ensure the people I ran after post conference would remember me and speak to me. It opened every door I needed to get interviews and the qualitative data I collected has been really interesting and would benefit GVI. But instead a few staff have had their noses put out of joint and this was the catalyst for the slagging and being blatantly ignored or having people talk to me like I was a child or incompetent.

As a compromise to rectify the situation after the “feedback” I approached my base manager two weeks ago to ask if I could go on the DMT placement early. Still completing the DMT. I did my own research and found the Jean Michel Cousteau dive centre on Vanua Levu. The staff had not at that time started looking at placements for us. It’s been voted the best eco resort in Fiji and of course the legacy of Cousteau is world renown. I rang, spoke to the instructor, forwarded my CV and personal statement and he said yes I could come. When I put this to GVI the answer back was a flat no. If I exit the programme I lose all the money because I have not fulfilled another six weeks of lessons on leadership and mentoring. You can fund this privately unless you stay the term and get placed. I have paid for this internship surely it should be up to me if I want to get placed early? Also isn’t it within GVI’s interest to build more contacts with dive schools?

So I asked, “What about taking into account life experience and age and profession? These are qualities I use daily in my work. I realise this is an exception but it’s due to the staff that I am leaving. It’s a management issue not I wanna leave camp early issue.”

“No,” came back the reply. That was Monday.

Today is Wednesday. I have left.

I don’t need to stay on an island where I go to bed hungry most nights, watch volunteers turn into vultures gagging for second helpings and scrapping pots. Second guess everything I do, be made to feel frustrated and awkward I can’t be more active, live in an environment where competition is encouraged to the point where it affects social cohesion of the group. Listen to people get emotional because they feel unsupported and criticised and not listened to. Watch volunteers spend more money buying sugary snacks because nutrition is not consistently catered for properly. And the worst – be patronised on a daily basis about time keeping when staff are late for their duties every morning.

The Cousteau group have been sympathetic and brilliant and want to help me achieve my goal. I will do this without any affiliation to GVI. Lesson learned.

Tomorrow I am off to see my new instructor and his team. I intend to spend a couple days there and then head off to Oz to catch up with friends. When I return I will nail this training and leave Fiji with what I set out to achieve – my Dive Master Certification.

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