It was entirely appropriate that the 150 voluntourists that descended on the Atitia Center were from a company called FusionStorm. I say this because they swept in like a storm and absolutely overwhelmed the center and the local participants with their enthusiasm and hard work. After it was all over and the members of Te Pu Atitia (the NGO that operates the center) were sitting around talking about the day, it was with a sense of wonder at how much work got done and how much fun was had. Papa Mape the chief elder of Te Pu Atitia kept saying how amazing it was to have tourists that not only appreciated the Atitia Center (which happens quite a lot) but also worked very hard in the hot sun to improve the site. The only reservation on the part of the NGO folks was whether or not the guests got enough out of the experience, if they should have been fed better or worked less. I assured them that, judging by the comments throughout the day, everyone was very happy with the way things went. It was truly a win win situation for all involved – i.e. what voluntourism is all about.
This whole event came about when a local travel agency contacted me and asked if I had any ideas about putting 150 tourists to work doing community service for a day. This was an incentive group from FusionStorm, a company that provides IT consulting and high tech services, and eventually I was put in contact with Kate Landers of Incentive Travel Source, who was organizing the whole week of their stay on Moorea. Kate came and met with myself and Hinano (President of Te Pu Atitia) and we concocted a day-long event at the Atitia Center where the FusionStorm group would be able contribute to a worthy program, interact with a lot of local people, learn a bit about Polynesian culture, and have some fun while doing all of the above. The plan was to focus on creating and planting some major sections of the botanical garden – terraces and beds and trees that had been planned but were waiting for adequate funding and labor. Te Pu Aititia agreed to put on a Tahitian feast (ahi ma’a) for the mid-day meal and I offered that Tahiti Expeditions would contribute the use our outriggers for races when all the work was done.
We had a few months to prepare but as always it came down to a few stressful days before the event: waiting for the excavator to show up, trying to gather enough tools for everyone, getting the food in, and worrying about whether we would get rained out. As usual though the Te Pu Atitia community came together and by the night before the event the site was ready, and the food was headed for the ground oven.
I must say that it is one thing to give a talk, or lead a tour for 150 people, but entirely another thing to come up with enough work to occupy them for a morning. My concerns however were alleviated when I saw the FusionStorm group sweep into action. Here were people who were ready to do any sort of work that was needed, cheerfully hauling rocks, and digging holes, and pulling weeds like it was their favorite thing to do. The fact that the owner and CEO of FusionStorm, John Varel, was possibly the most enthusiastic participant didn’t hurt either. We also had a team of 12-year old students who jumped right into the mix, and a whole classroom of preschool kids who got into planting plants and truly seemed to be fascinated with all of the action.
At the end of a few very hot hours a huge amount of work had been done. One 50 meter terrace had been lined out with rocks and planted, the medicinal plant garden had been cleaned up and planted, and over one hundred trees had been planted all over the property. As energies faded in the heat, people retired to the shade to drink water, cool off, chat, and learn how to weave palm fronds into plates. Some went to help with the food preparation, and some went for a swim in the bay. Eventually the ahi ma’a was ready and was opened with everyone crowded around to see what was there. People then pitched in to help lay the food out and feed the school kids who were waiting patiently at their tables. Hinano described all the food and then everyone enjoyed an amazing Tahitian feast of roasted pork, breadfruit, taro, manioc, fruit po’e, sweet potatoes, fafa chicken, and poisson cru. The keg of beer had been cracked by now and after a big lunch a lot of the group was ready for a much-deserved lazy afternoon. But some rallied for the outrigger races and we headed for the shore. Teams of five were matched up with a local paddler steering, and four canoes went out for the first heat. The winning team then rested as the second heat was run which included a team of the older school kids. This race was all but a dead heat between the school kids and one Fusion Storm team, so we decided to run the final heat with three teams. This time around the school kids showed their endurance by winning by a comfortable margin. But amazingly the two Fusion Storm teams came in neck and neck for a very exciting finish, and some really wiped out paddlers.
So here’s to voluntourism. Both Tahiti Expeditions and the Atitia Center will actively look for new opportunities to recreate days like this, and we hope that FusionStorm come back to see us again.