Our Fiji Airways plane to Vanuatu was tiny, had propellers, and was playing something that sounded worryingly like “Highway to the Danger Zone”, but nonetheless we made it to the island of Efate safely, and even got to fly over our beloved Bounty. We’d applied to volunteer with an organisation called Volunteer Vanuatu, having heard about March’s Cyclone Pam, and had received an email back to say someone would meet us at the airport. With no more details than that, we turned up at the airport and crossed our fingers. Fortunately, we were greeted by a lovely American girl called Jana, and Jeff (who runs the organisation along with his wife Amanda) in a pickup truck.
We went through the tiny capital Port Vila to Pango Village, where we met some of the other volunteers and learnt about the work they’d been doing, then we were taken to the volunteer house where we would be staying. Amazed that people don’t lock their doors here, we awoke to find that there was bread for breakfast waiting for us in the kitchen, met and bathed the loveable stray puppy Scratch, were introduced to some phrases in the local language Bislama (“basket blong titti”— bra—being our favourite), then spent the morning in town with Jana shopping for sarongs as women have to “show their modesty”, not their flesh here.
In the afternoon, they drove us to the north side of the island and we drove through some of the cyclone devastation, once-towering palm trees toppled, roof-less buildings, piles of rubble and iron, and the occasional large charity organisation’s tent. As we drove, we noticed two major things. The first was that we’d never seen anywhere like this before. Out of the capital city, Port Vila, many of the houses are built using tree stumps as posts, with walls and roofs of corrugated iron. Although there are no street lights in Pango, there is electricity in the houses, but the electricity cables run out half way around the island. Without pylons or overheard wires, the landscape is a wild and untouched kind of beautiful. The second thing was that every town we drove through, we were greeted with waves and beaming smiles from all of the locals.
A few miles from the village, we happened up 15 kids on the long walk home from school, and Peb (who had been sat in the back of the pickup and had no idea what was happening) was suddenly surrounded by fifteen school kids asking him obligatory questions like, “Did you play in the world cup?” and “Do you know John Cena?”. When he announced that he’d met John Cena twice, the pickup almost erupted with excitement.
We dropped the kids at one of the villages, Peb played a game of footy with them, while I met some of the locals and was stunned when a woman I’d just met hugged me like a long lost relative and stoked my hair. When you come from England—land of the stiff upper lip—it comes as quite a surprise when a stranger greets you with such genuine affection.
We moved on to the next village where we’d be staying. The house, unlike most of the other houses around, was a concrete structure rather than corrugated iron, but had no electricity, a bucket flush toilet, tons of mosquitos, and tree stumps for seats. Rustic, you might say. We checked out the unspoiled beach at the end of the track, then met the other volunteers who were staying at the house, Myra, Neri, the NZ girls—Nat, Paris, and Anna, Jelmer, and our local host Selwyn. After dinner, we fell asleep to the charming tones of the choir practise.
If we’d thought Fiji Time was laid back, then Vanuatu Time (if there is such a thing) is so laid back it’s almost flat. Me and Myra patched up some holes in the volunteers’ tent while Peb and Neri demolished the corrugated iron and tree stump kitchen as it needed rebuilding. I quickly learnt that Vanuatu women don’t work, so the locals struggle to accept volunteer women doing manual labour. Added to that, no work happens at the weekend and the girls had all gone to an island, so we ended up getting a bus back to Pango with Neri.
On Saturday, we went into Port Vila with Neri and had lunch in the market, which is a series of small kitchens each with a bench only big enough for a few people, and your food is cooked fresh by the person who owns that kitchen. Ours was so fresh in fact that when we ordered, our lady had to walk to the shop to buy the ingredients. In the afternoon, we walked through Pango to Honeymoon Bay, past a questionable pile of bones, or perhaps it was just the stories of early cannibalism on the island that made it look questionable. Nevertheless, the beach was untamed and beautiful, and empty aside from three locals building a fire and another group practicing a scarf dance. I, unintentionally, read “The Beach” on the beach. Peb swore he saw a sea turtle and went running into the sea like a madman. We didn’t believe him until I spotted the same turtle swim right past us a few minutes later, cue Peb running back into the sea but this time fully clothed.
On Sunday, me, Peb, Neri, and two of the other volunteers got the bus to Hideaway Island, a cute little island accessible via a short ferry ride. Peb went snorkelling but my swim was short-lived as the water was freezing. Nat’s friend Hannah had arrived, and when we got back to the volunteer house, she spotted the biggest and fastest-moving spider I’ve ever seen. Peb and Neri, the brave manfolk, chased it around the room and eventually caught it in the kitchen bin.
On Monday, we all went back up north. We collected mounds of firewood from a fallen tree using bush knives, then I patched up more holes while the men demolished the rest of the kitchen. We all spent the late afternoon at the beach, then played cards with the local boys using torches to see which cards we had. The adorable Abel taught me to play Seven Lock, which must be the longest card game ever, while his older brother Noah asked Peb tons of questions about his life and wanted to see all of his photos of England, then the choir master played rock classics on his acoustic guitar while me, Peb, and Neri sang along.
The following day, the men worked on the kitchen while the girls sorted donation clothes and made lunch on the wood burner. We learnt a little about the attitude towards women, which is a sensitive subject that I don’t profess to know much about and some of which doesn’t bear repeating here; suffice to say that the chief of the village can have multiple wives and keep reproducing until he has a son and heir, and that I was a little surprised the women here are so happy.
That being said, everyone here is so happy. The Open Uni Psychology textbook that first alerted us to Vanuatu’s existence illustrated that people in so-called “undeveloped” countries like Vanuatu were far happier than in “civilized” Western countries like the UK and the USA. Aside from the attitudes to women in Vanuatu, which I’m obviously not a fan of, it’s abundantly clear that both here and in Fiji, there’s something refreshingly uncomplicated about their lifestyles that seems far more congruent with happiness than our materialistic, narcissistic “western” lives. Here, where a lot of people can’t afford to fix the damage to their houses after the cyclone, they are, incongruously, happier than those who never have to worry about having literally no roof over their heads. In a nutshell, being here makes me think that we’ve overcomplicated our lives.
On our final day in the village, the girls were allowed to do some manual labour, so me and Nat built kitchen windows out of corrugated iron and bits of wood, while Peb attached the door. The new kitchen was complete. We made lunch in the wood burner, which took an unbelievable two and a half hours to make pasta. Finally, we packed everything on to the back of the ute and said goodbye to the kids, particularly sad to leave Abel and Noah. We all piled on to the back for the blustery drive back to Pango, which we survived thanks to some nifty driving from Jelmer when another car almost drove head-on into us.
For our last day in Vanuatu, a local guy took us all in his bus to the Blue Lagoon, a bright blue natural swimming hole surrounded by trees, with rope swings that the locals use to swing out over the water and perform Olympic quality triple flip dives. We took lunch with us and had a lovely day swimming in the beautiful surroundings. After a final dinner, we were sad to say goodbye to our little volunteer crew. Although we didn’t get to do as much useful work as we’d hoped, volunteering was a great experience, seeing a country so vastly different to ours was incredible, and we made some wonderful friends there.