‘She knew she loved him when ‘home’ went from being a place to being a person.’ ~ E. Levanthal
The Journey. Sometime in July 2008, I left the Philippines to serve as volunteer in Vanuatu Island. I headed to Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminal 3 and queued for almost six hours – long line to get inside the terminal, airline check-in, customs, immigration, until Qantas Airlines finally departed at 8:40 P.M. to Sydney, Australia, my transit route. The approximate flying time from Manila to Sydney was 7 hours and 55 minutes, 4 hours lay over, 3 hours delay, and the 3.5 hours flying time from Sydney to Port Vila: a total of almost 25 hours waiting and flying time in order to reach my destination.
What brought me to Vanuatu Island was a volunteering opportunity with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) (www.vso.international.org). VSO is an international development organization based in UK which offers voluntary services abroad to help fight poverty. In the Philippines, VSO Bahaginan back then, was the base management which sends Filipino volunteers abroad. My volunteer placement in Vanuatu was for two years but I ended up staying for a total of six years because I found work consultancy opportunities with UN Women and UNICEF in the pacific, and most of all, I found love.
Vanuatu Island. This is an archipelago located in the South Pacific Ocean. An island divided into six provinces: Efate, Malampa, Sanma, Penama, Tafea, Torba. Its capital town is Port Vila, Efate Island, and the other large town is Luganville, Espiritu Santo. Vanuatu’s climate is tropical and sub tropical. Most of the islands are mountainous and of volcanic origin.
Vanuatu is part of the ‘ring of fire,’ hence, subject to frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. An island rich in culture, and arts as manifested by various dance festivals, ceremonies, sand painting, string bands, and water music with ‘kastom’ or custom that varies from one island to another.
Arrival. At the arrival lounge in Port Vila airport, I noticed a string band dressed in in their island costumes while playing local music to welcome the arriving passengers. The airport was jam packed with tourists. Not surprisingly, considering that Vanuatu is a tourist destination. I was booked at Hotel Vanuatu Holiday, formerly called Hotel Formule, located in downtown area. It is a small, cozy, and clean hotel.
VSO Vanuatu held a welcome dinner at El Houstelet, a French restaurant, for incoming volunteers like me, joined by the Programme Office staff and other volunteers based in Port Vila. During my first three months, I underwent In-Country Training (ICT) which includes staying with the local community to integrate with the locals, and learning their national language which is Bislama. Vanuatu has three official languages: English, Bislama, and French.
It was my first time to live in another country outside of the Philippines. I was a complete stranger in Vanuatu. The locals used to call me ‘hemia wan white man (the term ‘man,’ referring both to the male and female sex) ia,’ meaning, ‘she is a white woman’ – anyone not of their skin color is considered a ‘white person.’ However, as days passed, I quickly integrated with the locals, and in fact, I have learned to speak and write their language in a span of three months. I have also adapted to eating the local food such as Tuluk and Laplap which are made of either grated yam, potato, banana or cassava drizzled with coconut milk and cooked in a traditional way by wrapping it with laplap leaves and burying it in a grater on the ground and with fire on top (caution for non meat eaters: sometimes cooked with pork lard or topped with ground beef).
My work and places I visited. I was based in the provincial government of Sanma located in Luganville town as the Area Council Development Adviser of the province. This placement post gave me the opportunity to travel to almost all the island areas but only in the four provinces of Vanuatu. Let me share an overview of the four provinces (also subject of my future blogs soon): 1) Sanma. I lived in this province for two years. Sanma is composed of Santo and Malo islands, hence, the name Santo. It is known for its majestic blue holes, and white sand beaches.; 2) Shefa. This province is composed of Efate and the Shepherd Islands. Most of the government offices are located in Port Vila, Efate. There are many island resorts to explore, hotels, casinos, restaurants to dine, coffee shops, and supermarkets (Au Bon Marche and Leader Price). There are also many small Chinese stores around town that sells grocery items and Vanuatu’s crafts and souvenirs.; 3) Tafea. These are the islands of Tanna, Aniwa, Futuna, Erromango and Anatom. This province is located in the southernmost part of Vanuatu. I visited Tanna when I conducted a provincial consultation as part of my consultancy work with UN Women; and 4) Torba. This is the acronym for Torres and the Banks. I spent my small personal holiday in the islands of Gaua and Sola. In Gaua, I trekked the jungle, crossed Lake Letas and had climbed Mt. Garet. Sola is gifted with beautiful white sand beaches and I had the chance to visit the twin waterfalls.
Finding Love. I met many volunteers from different international organizations, and other expatriates working in the island. After living for almost a year in Santo I met a Canadian expat who would be my husband. He was based in Port Vila but he was in Santo to provide support management work for his employer’s branch office. He was introduced to me by a Filipino friend who also happened to be one of his colleagues. I was 38 and he was 29. We were both single. He would visit me in Santo almost every two weeks as we started our ‘long distance’ dating. Fast forward, after I finished my two year volunteer placement, I returned to the Philippines to report back to VSO office. But after two months in the Philippines, I decided to go back Vanuatu and be with him. We got married in a small ceremony in our house in Pango, and I stayed in Vanuatu for another four years. The rest was history.
Vanuatu Island has taught me to love myself even more as spent my time alone for the first one year of my six years (but not lonely). It has widened my perspectives in life as I worked and immersed with the community of diverse culture and language, and as I traveled and explored other countries in the Pacific. Most importantly, Vanuatu has allowed me to again open up my heart to embrace love and be loved in return.
How to reach Vanuatu. I took Qantas Airlines from Manila-Sydney (transit)-Port Vila. There is also a flight route from Manila-Papua New Guinea (PNG)-Port Vila.
Visa. Filipinos do not need visa to enter Vanuatu Island only Visa on Arrival (VOA) provided you have a returned ticket to show and a valid passport.
Where to stay. I stayed at Hotel Formule when I arrived in Port Vila then moved to my own house in Santo, Luganville.