Snorkeling through tropical waters, riding buggies through the jungle, a fire show, chasing waterfalls & more than enough coconuts to last me a lifetime.
This is just a brief snapshot into the last week that I’ve spent gallivanting across the pacific island of Vanuatu.
While it’s been a lot of fun, the reality is that it’s a 3rd world country with confronting living conditions & this trip has changed the way I think about the world.
Admittedly, I didn’t know too much about the country when I first arrived.
Through my time here, I’ve learnt so much about this beautiful tropical paradise and gained some interesting insights into the human race as a collective.
There’s some things that can only be learnt by stepping outside of our comfortable everyday lives –
1) Wealth and happiness don’t correlate
The island of Port Vila may be one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, however the economic reality for many of the people on the island is anything but beautiful.
With 3rd world conditions that most in the developed world would deem ‘unlivable’ I came into the situation with no idea what to expect.
I was blown away with the genuine joy that everyone in the country lived with.
I truly believe that the Vanuatuan people are the happiest people I have ever encountered.
From having the locals climb trees to chop down coconuts for us to enjoy, the countless kids that we met who’d wave at us with toothy smiles and the countless lifts, tips & advice from everyone we met along the journey.
It was a phenomenon that fascinated me. In most of the western world, we are intrinsically tuned to want more.
We’re told every day that we will never be enough until we have the latest items and look enviously at others who have more.
Here, I encountered a people who had so little.
Most bus-drivers we spoke of talked about the joy & the love of their job as they worked for 10 hours to earn the equivalent of $8 for the whole day.
Speaking to one of our drivers Glen, I couldn’t help but to exclaim –
‘Everyone we meet here is so damn happy’
His response was what fascinated me…
‘Here in Vanuatu, we don’t have a lot. Many people tend to the fields and grow enough crops to sell at the market and eat themselves. We live in a community together and even though we don’t have a lot, we have enough to survive. We make what we need, we are able to eat & that is all that matters.’
Seeing how the people in Vanuatu lived fascinated me, they didn’t need much because they focused on what was important.
The people who were around them and spending time spreading love through connections.
We are so comparatively rich, but this wealth does not always leave us happier.
We’re all on a pursuit to have more, maybe we should be on a simpler pursuit to be happy.
2) Everyone still looks out for themselves
This 2nd point may seem like a contradiction to the 1st point but please bear with me.
So we developed a really strong connection with our driver Glen and spent a full day with him driving around the island. It was such a good introductory day and I looked forward to this burgeoning relationship developing as we spent the week together.
We got past the stage of pleasantries that many travel interactions often stop at. He drove us to his home, we met his children, wife & mother. We had the opportunity to share drinks with his family, we drunk the local delicacy (Kava) with him and enjoyed a fire-show on the beach.
It was a pleasure to have a local on the ground, he was our tour guide but more than that — he was our friend.
After the day, we finally arrived home and as we jumped out of the car we asked him how much we owed him for the day.
We believed we’d got past the friendship stage where we were just tourists who he was trying to make a quick buck off. You can imagine my surprise when he told us it would cost 16,000 Vatu’s ($180) for the day.
We expected something between the 5,000–7,000 Vatu range especially after buying him food and drinks throughout the day. Before we’d even had the chance to barter, he saw our shock and begun dropping his price to 12,000 then to 10,000 before we finally settled on 8,000 Vatu’s.
He evidently had a lot of room to move and tried to price it higher so he could make more money for himself.
It didn’t hurt me that he tried to do that because I understood that life was tough for him, however it sucked that he didn’t trust us enough as friends.
My girlfriend & I were discussing during the day how grateful we were for his service and how we wanted to give him a big tip as our way of showing our appreciation, yet this left a (slightly) sour taste in our month.
After we got over the initial shock, we were set to be disappointed even further.
We finally agreed on 8,000 Vatu’s and only had 2–5,000 Vatu notes so handed him the 10,000. He told us he had no change. The 2,000 Vatu’s was no issue to us, we told him to keep the change but he promised us he’d bring it to us tomorrow at 5:30PM when he came to meet us for our next planned outing.
The money was inconsequential, and we both agreed that it was far more important that he had it than us.
So we turned up at 5:30 the next day at the bus stop, waiting to meet him for our next adventure but he never arrived.
We had resolutely agreed that he could keep the money. However he probably realised that he wouldn’t be able to make as much out of us as some other hapless tourist over the week so he would try his luck elsewhere.
This was a reminder that no matter how happy and caring people are, they are always trying to look after themselves.
It’s a stark reminder and when you approach things with a compassionate heart it can often leave you exposed.
However as I sat staring down a long and empty road in the sticky, humid afternoon heat at 5:30 I started to understand. People don’t do things out of spite or anger, in Glen’s mind he was just looking after those who were most important to him.
Humanity has many faces and we can never judge someone until we’ve walked in their shoes.
3) Education is the key
$150 per child for 1 term at a Government school may not seem like much, however for Vanuatuan’s, many of whom can work for as little as $5 a day — suddenly this becomes a nearly insurmountable struggle.
Parents are often faced with an impossible choice — food & necessities or their children’s studies.
Without education however, children have no future.
There were so many kids just sitting around with no-one to talk too, no books to read and no opportunity to learn.
Vanuatu is a nation that relies on tourism a primary industry and many of the best jobs go to those who can speak English, something that can only be learnt through school.
English literacy was how we decided which drivers to go with and those who had gone to school placed themselves n the best position.
It’s a cycle that we see in many nations around the world, only the wealthy can afford to send their children to school, those children who go to school make more money and so the rich stay rich while the rest of the population languish.
Free education should be a universal right for every child. It’s not a Government’s role to make everyone live the same life, however everyone deserves the same opportunities.
What we choose to do with these opportunities is what defines us.
Vanuatu was an eye-opening experience
I truly recommend everyone to take a trip off the beaten path to provide you with a perspective you can’t find at home.
Travelling truly is an investment in yourself.
I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about myself and humanity as a collective by observing the people I’ve met.
I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity to see the world
Returning home, my aim is to remember the places I’ve been and the stories I’ve heard and let it inspire me to make a difference in the world I’m blessed to live in.
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” — Anthony Bourdain