I’ve been intending to write this since December – but with a full time job and grad school in its final stages writing a blog post just kept getting pushed further down the priority list. However, after the devastating cyclone slammed in to the islands of Vanuatu a few days ago I feel the pull to write about my experience.
You’re probably wondering ‘Why Vanuatu?’ Well, a good friend of mine joined the Peace Corp a year ago and I told her immediately that wherever she ended up I would visit her in December. I’m sure she thought ‘yeah right’ but I was totally serious. And when I found out it was Vanuatu, I knew I would need to have a layover in Australia, which has been top on my Bucket List since before I even HAD an official list, so it was a no brainer.
After 30 hours of travel and a fun day exploring Sydney in the rain on bike, I arrived on the main island of Efate in the capital city of Port Vila. Lynda Mae met me at the airport and greeted me in traditional Vanuatu fashion with a fresh coconut, lava lava (rectangular cloth worn as a skirt) and flower necklace. We walked to the downtown area and through a marvelous fruit and veggie market where I had my first fresh pineapple of the week. It is so fresh you can eat the core! I was amazed by the colors, sounds and smells of the market and enjoyed seeing all the unique island foods. Later that day we had dinner sitting outside overlooking the beautiful Pacific.
The next day we enjoyed some touristy activities, ziplining and visiting Mele Cascades. On the walk to the cascades, we passed a group of men who seranaded us with a beautiful rendition of Silent Night. The cascades were breathtaking and we just sat there soaking in the beauty (I’m a sucker for waterfalls). While there we got to talking to Dinesha who is traveling the world by herself. The three of us are now Facebook friends – it’s hard not to be friends with someone like Dinesha! I could probably write a whole blog on her. Later that evening I met a few other PC volunteers and experienced my first (and only) Kava drink. If you are not familiar with this, I’ll leave you to your own research.
The next morning we took a boat to Nguna, the island that Lynda Mae lives and works on. I was a bit apprehensive knowing the island didn’t have electricity or running water, but was also looking forward to the experience. I was also a little nervous wondering if her host family and others in the village would accept me. A truck picked us up when we got off the boat and I was very glad knowing that Lynda Mae normally walked the 45 minutes straight up the mountain. But she had bought supplies while in Port Vila and it would have been near impossible for us to lug everything with us.
Her family and the villagers were very welcoming. Everyone was very nice and the kids were just the cutest. Lynda Mae showed me around her home and the village, talking about what she does as a community health facilitator (doubling up with community development as well). I was immediately struck by the sheer beauty of the island as well as the feeling of tranquility. The few days I was there I experienced so much that it is hard to even describe it all. They are developing a tourist area so they can bring much needed income to the island while preserving the traditions as well. (I can’t even think what this area looks like after Cyclone Pam – it was such a peaceful place to sit, listen to waves and look out across the Pacific at other islands). Lynda Mae was able to help secure a grant for an internet cafe (the island does have a generator) that would be used to promote the tourist area. We discussed the pros and cons of the villagers suddenly having access to the world wide web.
What were my biggest take-aways from my week in Vanuatu?
1. They are a people who are accepting, friendly and giving. They welcomed me with open arms, invited me to sit and join in (even when I couldn’t understand everything in their language of Bislama) and there was no judgment. I even received two island dresses the day I departed from Nguna, which I understand is unusual.
2. Peace Corp volunteers are doing some amazing incredible work around the world, something I had very little knowledge of until this trip.
3. Living on an island with no electricity or running water is a reminder that we really don’t need all the material things we think we need. This was also personally a much needed physical and mental refocus time for me.
4. Island Life is all about eating what you grow or grows naturally (I had some of the most incredible food!), speaking to and shaking hands with everyone you meet (even the littlest kids) – it’s all about respect, and ‘story’ or chatting often. It’s a slower pace of life and one I came to appreciate.
As I watch the reports and see the pictures of the damage that Cyclone Pam has rendered on Vanuatu, I am heartbroken. The devestation that has been caused is not even fully known just yet. Communication lines are down and much is still not known from all the islands that were affected – it may be a week or more before officials have a true picture. As heartbroken as I am having only spent a week there, I can’t begin to imagine how the PC volunteers, inhabitants and others are feeling. There are also no guarantees that the PC volunteers will be able to return to their work and those that are able to will most likely find themselves doing disaster recovery instead of what they were there to initially do. Please keep Vanuatu and all those affected by this tragedy in your thoughts and prayers.