A few months ago, my wonderful mentor/former professor/current friend made the exceptionally long trip to see me in Vanuatu. I asked her when she was returning if she could please write up some description of her trip for my blog. She came through! Here it is…..
"It has been exactly three months since I departed on what can only be described as a trip of a lifetime to Vanuatu, a cluster of 80 islands in the South Pacific and home for the past two years for my dear former student and wonderful friend, Betsy Jenkins. Several years ago-3? 4?-I lose count-I promised Betsy that if she decided to join the Peace Corps that I would go visit her wherever she ended up. Now, I must admit that at the time I honestly thought this would mean a trip to somewhere in Latin America as Betsy speaks Spanish, has studied abroad in Costa Rica, and is familiar with the ins and outs of many things Latin American-including chicken buses, wedding parades, and street vendors of Nicaragua. As it turned out, however, Betsy ended up on the other side of the world in a remote country made famous by its brief stint as a venue on the reality show, "Survivor".
Fast forward to about a year or so ago when it occurred to me that if I was going to make good on my promise to Betsy, that I was going to need to do it soon as she was already over a year into her service in Peace Corps and slated to come home toward the end of 2013. So, with a strategic mind I caught my husband at the end of a Gamecock Football win and thus happy time and casually mentioned to him that I “needed to plan” a trip to the South Pacific and would it be ok with him if I did that in the summer of 213. Bill, in his winning euphoria, said that was fine, and then I proceeded to check into airfare and flights from Charlotte, NC to Port Vila, Efate. I figured that I would just arrange a week trip-enough time to fly across the world, visit Betsy for a few days, and be back in time for the beginning of my kids’ summer vacation. When I shared these plans with Betsy, I was told that I would need at least two weeks to make the trip as it would involve multiple layovers, change of planes in Vanuatu, island hopping, catching a truck (if it came) from a grass strip to her village, and then more of the same on the return leg. Oh, and one more thing…the planes to her island only arrived twice a week. It was then and there that I realized that this was not the tropical vacation I had bargained for.
My first impressions of Vanuatu were from the air. Actually, come to to think of it, a lot of my impressions of Vanuatu were from the air as, being a series of 80 islands, small planes are the main form of inter-island transportation-that and boats. My main memories are of how green the country was-green and covered with trees. From my own Peace Corps days as an environmental education volunteer, I am trained to gauge the health and vitality of a region based on the number and variety of trees. Vanuatu is lush and vibrant with thick, tropical trees. Beautiful.
I also noticed how clean the islands looked. Once outside of the main port city of Vila, the region shifts very quickly to a dependence on natural, local resources. The homes, schools, clinics, playgrounds, food, even utensils, are all organic in the sense that most everything comes from the Mother Earth in the form of thatched roofs, bamboo walls, food cooked in banana leaves and tied with twine, coconut water (now so in vogue in packaged boxes in the U.S.) sipped directly from the coconuts, even the kava (the local choice of happy hour, if you will) enjoyed straight from shells. In Betsy’s village, the village of Endu on the island of Ambrym, the scarcity of imported goods and packaged products means that the village, while poor, is rich in lush, tropical environmental purity. It seems common sense that Vanuatu was recently voted the “happiest place on Earth”-the sacred communion with nature leaves no doubt in my mind that the brothers and sisters of this corner of the world have a lot to teach me and other Westerners about what really matters in life.
With that said, I also want to officially note that Betsy- and all her fellow Peace Corps Volunteers in Vanuatu-are the ultimate bad-asses and made my own days in Nicaragua seem like a Club Med vacation. Betsy has to fly to at least two other islands before she even reaches Ambrym. She then has to hike about 2-3 hours through the jungle to reach her village unless, on one of those rare occasions, her island family is able to secure the truck (note: it is “the truck” and not “a truck”. I believe the entire island only has 1-2 vehicles total). She sleeps in a thatched hut which is the quintessential Peace Corps abode, and with that comes the right of passage of mosquitoes. Lots and lots of mosquitoes. Mosquitoes in the morning. Mosquitoes in the evening. Mosquitoes in the shower. In the bathroom. And speaking of the bathroom, Betsy’s facility is a hole in the ground. Now, I have done my business in many, many latrines over the course of my lifetime, but I am hear to say that Betsy’s get-up is like no other. There are two holes that don’t line up, and I never did get the aim right-as Betsy can attest to the one night when unbeknownst to me I left her a little present.
Another reason why Betsy and her fellow PCVs are the ultimate badasses in my opinion is because of the food they eat. Our brothers and sisters of Vanuatu eat a lot of root vegetables-wild yams (NOT to be confused with sweet potato pie), taro, manioc, and more-as well as wild cabbage (NOT to be confused to cole slaw), and coconut (NOT to be confused with coconut cake). One would think that the proximity to the ocean would mean a seafood buffet on a daily basis but this is not the case. I ate very little fish-minus the handful of prawns that Betsy’s brother caught one day and stuffed in his shorts pocked. What do they eat in terms of protein? Well, there are bats. And an occasional chicken or pig. Take note-they eat the entire chicken-head and all-and the entire pig-hair and all. I had not noticed this until dear Betsy pointed out to me one day, during a village picnic, “look at the hair on pig meat, Wendy!”
Vanuatu never gets dry. I was there during the dry, winter season which, in my opinion, was neither dry not cool. In fact, I’m quite certain I never quit sweating in Betsy’s village and I learned that showering in the cold water is just not a good idea because the water just evaporates off of you like running cold water on a hot pan. Steam. Pure steam. And due to the humidity nothing gets dry either. By the end of the week in her village I was craving two things only-bread and a dry towel.
I was not craving kava which is this wicked narcotic drink which Betsy’s mother described as “dirty celery water” and which I think is a fair assessment. Drinking a shell of kava is not like drinking a bottle of beer. For one thing, it tastes awful. For another thing, it numbs your mouth-much like novocain. And for another thing the hangover is wicked-especially if you have been given the “two-day” kava. On my first kava experience, I had four shells of two-day kava which apparently is a lot. I had no idea. I was just trying to be polite and fit in with the natives. I didn’t really feel it until the next day at kindergarten when Betsy led the boys and girls in a few jumping up and down games, and I had to call time out and hang on the mat with the teachers. Stoned in the kindergarten classroom-never a good idea.
The other badass thing is that all the women PCVs have to cover up in the village, meaning that they wear these skirts called “lava lavas” and these island dressed affectionately known as “Mother Hubbard dresses”. The men, I think, can get away with wearing very little, but the women have to be really modest which I found to be really hard when one is sweating buckets every day and hiking through cow shit, jungle grass, and volcanic sand.
But, the one thing I was reminded of so fondly in Vanuatu is that the living conditions, local cuisine, and expected dress pale in comparison to the warmth and compassion of the people I met. In ever single country that I have ever been in, the heart of the experience has always, always been the people, and Vanuatu is not exception. I have such fondness for Mommy Leelon, Daddy Sak Sak, Rebecca, Naomi, Judy, Black Gigi, and all the other brothers and sisters I met along the way. I am constantly humbled and touched by the way that people who have so little in terms of material goods have so much in terms of generosity and spirit. And they are so willing to share this and embrace Vava’s friend, “Akum” who has “travelled like a bird from a far away land.”
I have the utmost respect for Besty on so many different levels. She trusted the process and what the world had to offer her in terms of an opportunity to connect with Ni-Vans. She accepted the fact that a Peace Corps stint in Latin America was not in the cards, at least not for now, and she plowed forward with courage and integrity. She embraced her local village with love and affection and it is obvious that the feeling is mutual and that Endu will grieve the day when “Vava” must return to the U.S. And she welcomed her former professor and biggest fan with patience and open arms-a feat not easy to do when one has assimilated into the local culture to such an extent that hosting a visitor is much like introducing one to a far away planet.
For nearly four years I assumed the role of Betsy’s professor of social work, mentor, and unofficial life advisor. Those roles changed drastically the moment I set foot in Vanuatu. In the process I learned the beauty of passing on the baton to the next generation and opening my heart to all that Betsy could share with me. It is because of Betsy and this trip of a lifetime to Vanuatu that I am hopeful and grateful for all the future holds. Despite the wars, violence, deception, greed, and hate in this world, I am here to say that there is beauty, peace, and love on this amazing planet Earth. I rediscovered that in Vanuatu.”