The day I went to Vanuatu for the first time started early and finished late. The easiest way to find a group of volunteers going to an island nation is to look for the people with long skirts, pillows, a large amount of carry on and, in my case, a ukulele.
The moment I stepped off the plane in Port Vila, I was slammed by a wall of hot and humid air. There were a lot of people we had to line up behind for customs. I later discovered that we could have been in the residents’ line because of our visas. We all trooped out and were met by the New Zealand and Canadian volunteers, along with our coordinator, Terry and his wife Esline. Our first encounter with ni-Van culture was nothing short of the standard. We were hugged as soon as they could get their arms around to us.
Along with the 18 other volunteers, I stayed in Mangaliliu Village outside of Vila. We drove up a winding hill, through a jungle and then there was a village there. We were all immediately adopted by some of the local families. After a ceremony that involved having flowers put around our necks, we had our first lot of island kaekae (food). I was so impressed by the spread that had been put out, there was so much food. What I hadn’t expected was not to like the taste of anything that was put out for aside from rice and biscuits. After the feast we were shown our new homes. My mama lives next door to her sister, so I stayed at Mama Louise’s with Tyler, another volunteer. Ni-Vans are now mostly Christians and this shows in their everyday life, Tyler and I would be sleeping in the same room. We were given a lecture by our papa about us being siblings, that he was a father to both of us and my mama was Tyler’s and vice-versa. We assured him that we understood completely. We had a lot of siblings, so we taught them uno, they all go to a francophone school, so it took a little bit.
The next morning, like all the others I would spend in Mangaliliu started with tea and bread of some sort. The day was spent learning Bislama and about the culture. Our classes were held outside under an enormous mango tree that provided the most amazing amount of shade. The roots were gnarled, like something from a story book and looking up into the branches made the tree’s height seem endless. Passing children would giggle. We also had a few lessons down at the beach, the cyclone safety one was really short because they hadn’t had a big cyclone in years.
We all spent the afternoon at the beach from what I remember. All the local kids were excited to go swimming with the white people. Shoes had to be worn in the water because of the coral, it is rather sharp. I kid you not, the sea did sparkle, it was like living in a nature photography shoot. The pikinini (children) spent the whole time laughing; some of the guys would throw them into the deeper water which they thought was fantastic.
One day we went into to Port Vila for medical and safety briefings. The medical one was pretty gross in places and made me very wary about a few things, it seemed pretty easy to get sick in Vanuatu. Port Vila was unlike any other capital I had been to. It’s pretty much a big town, two real main streets with roads full of potholes. The centre of town is the Mama’s Markets, which sell fresh produce. I bought a drinking coconut, not to be confused with a coconut for eating, and then walked through the town looking for Air Vanuatu’s office drinking it. I failed to drink all the coconut water inside, I swear it was an endless supply. I didn’t like Vila as much as the village because it was far less pretty, definitely more westernised but the vibe was very friendly and the only time I didn’t feel 100% safe was when I had to cross the road.
Trying kava was something I knew I would have to do. I was intrigued by it. Kava is a plant, the root of which can be used to make a drink. The drink itself is a narcotic of sorts and slows you down and makes you happy for the most part. It’s much better for communities than alcohol in terms of violence but as with everything, it has its downsides. For me, the downside was the entire experience. It’s like drinking muddy water with random herbal medicine thrown in, gag inducing, but I managed to down my whole shell in one go. The strangest thing about it was eating pineapple afterwards and being able to taste but not feel the fruit in my mouth. The volunteers seemed to fall in two groups, those who like kava and those who do not like it at all, don’t bring that stuff anywhere near me thank you.
We spent Friday morning at a local school, doing some practise teaching. Courtney and I did word searches, played bingo and wrote sentences with the kids who ended up in our “classroom”. They were gorgeous kids, although they were super shy. We ended up doing a very intense of heads, shoulders, knees and toes. We did it forwards, backwards, with words missing, fast, faster, superfast and with our eyes shut. I was exhausted afterwards, we were drenched in sweat and it was only before lunch. That’s what you get for playing in direct sunlight.
The last night in Mangalilu was interesting to say the least. The afternoon was spent learning about island kaekae and helped cook a feast for that night. It took all 19 of us to chase down two roosters, my proudest moment in that was nearly catching one of them, the bird got away though. The people who did catch them deserve a prize. Two of the guys had to kill and feather them when they were caught. I couldn’t watch that but I did help with preparing the manioc for simporo rolls. Manioc is a tree root which has to be peeled to remove the bark. We then washed and grated it. The white slime is plopped onto island cabbage leaves and rolled up like a rice paper roll. Island cabbage is nothing like cabbage. We ate a lot of coconut that afternoon because we had to grate them to milk them.
That first week I really did not like island kaekae. It might have been because I wasn’t used to the flavours, perhaps it was the texture, but whatever it was, it just didn’t set right. I ate a lot of rice that week, something I now regret because most island kaekae I love. The other thing that was difficult that week was the hygiene situation. The toilet we had did flush but you needed to pour water into the bowl for it to work. The door didn’t lock and I was always worried about being walked in on because it was in the middle of my family’s area. The family had a shower but somehow I spent a lot of time going to shower and discovering other people had beat me to it. So my mama lead me away from the houses and to a small stream and that was where I washed, skirt pulled up to my shoulders, gasping at the cold.
Aside from the feast, two things happened on the last night. We were all given island dresses or shirts made from the same blue flowered fabric. Our mamas had made them without us knowing, without taking our measurements and they were perfect. Mine has been worn so much the fabric is fading and wearing out. The other was far less pleasant and featured in many an English class. I slept in a room that had an open window above my bed and one above Tyler’s. We’d put our mozzie nets up, so we were not getting malaria. One the last night I heard this sound outside the window, tapping and footsteps. We had learnt about creeping, which is when a guy or girl will hang around someone’s house because they are interested in them. This had me terrified and I was freaking out. It took me half an hour of lying in the dark, listening to what I thought was a person outside, before I managed to get out of bed and wake Tyler up. We shone torches outside, the noise stopped for a bit and then it started again. Tyler went outside, I locked the door, and he walked around our room. He came back thinking that the footsteps had headed for the stream. He went back to bed and I spent the night smack bang in the middle of the floor, which earned me two sore shoulders, sore knees and not a lot of sleep, along with a visit from a coconut crab and a cat.
I would later discover that what had kept me up all night was a pig. I still cannot believe I lost sleep over a pig. That being said, I lost a lot of sleep because a lot of critters but those are stories for later.
Love from Me and My Backpack