The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
My family in Vanuatu
The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.
Some people will tell you that you can’t possibly feel homesick for a place that you’ve spent only six months of your life. I will tell you, without a shadow of a doubt, that those people are wrong. I can tell you that certain places, certain people and certain experiences, have the ability to touch your soul and change who you are, in ways you would never have imagined.
For me, it was a placement on Pentecost Island, Vanuatu with Lattitude Global Volunteering that opened my eyes and changed my life. I had always joked about visiting Vanuatu, blaming a Dara O’Braian sketch for my interest, but finishing my degree and my Masters took priority and after that, I just assumed I was too old to take a Gap Year. How wrong I was! A chat with a Lattitude Representative showed me that Lattitude encouraged graduate volunteers and valued the experience we could bring.
And so, eight months, a graduation, and plenty of 50-hour weeks working in a coffee shop later, there I was on a 15-seat plane, landing on a grass runway, and my volunteer partner Caitlin at my side. I had never felt more like Indiana Jones in my life!
To the people in my village, Latano, it didn’t matter that we were different in appearance or culture or beliefs. We were family and a member of the community from the first moment we arrived. After shaking hands with everyone imaginable, I was introduced to my Mami and Papa, my Ni-Van family. And not only did I have Ni-Van parents, I had four brothers, three sisters, and three nieces (the youngest of which was named after me, and all of whom called me Mami Becky).
My family were the people who made this experience magical for me. We cooked and ate our meals together every day, we went to the gardens together, we swam together, and I hope I taught them nearly as much English as they taught me Bislama. Since I left, they seem to have forgotten about the time difference between there and England, so it’s not unusual for me to wake up in the early hours of the morning to a text in Bislama from my Mami, keeping me up to date on the village gossip, hoping I have a good day and wondering when I’m coming home.
I had had some experience of teaching before I went to Vanuatu, but this was an entirely different kettle of fish. To some of those children, I was teaching them their fourth language and my teaching style is very different to the one they were used to. In fact, I’m pretty certain that they thought I was crazy! For children who had been taught by rote and repetition throughout school, a pale faced English girl making them learn Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes and dancing around the classroom pointing out colours and shapes was a highly amusing sight indeed.
Monsieur Tevi , the Headteacher, was definitely entertained by my techniques, and this created one of my proudest moments in Vanuatu. He had begun sitting in the back of my classroom while I was teaching, and this had made me very nervous. What if he thought I wasn’t doing a good job? What if he thought I wasn’t being disciplined enough? What if he was actually taking notes on what his children were learning and the ways they were learning them? I popped back to the classroom later on that week to discover him using one of my playful techniques to compare French and English vocabulary, and to discover that the children were loving seeing a different but equally educational side of him than the one they were used to. In that moment, I genuinely felt that I had made a difference to their lives.
Volunteering in Vanuatu wasn’t just a teaching experience for me; it was also a learning experience. I learned more about myself in those six months that I had in the six years before it. I’ve learnt little things like I love to snorkel, yet I’m not a fan of scuba diving. I’ve learnt weird things like I have no problem killing a pig with an axe if my village wants bacon (that’s a true story!). And I’ve learnt big things, like how much I love to travel, and how a village can become a family and stay your family, even when they’re half a world away.
I think I’ll be going home soon.
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Rebecca volunteered with Lattitude Global Volunteering (www.lattitude.org.uk), an international youth development charity with 40 years’ experience in sending young people on long-term, challenging placements. Find out more about volunteering abroad (http://www.lattitude.org.uk/gap-year-volunteering/volunteer-in-the-pacific/) in the Pacific.