Bethany Keats, Vanuatu


Bethany Keats - Teacher, Vanuatu

"Six months may not seem like a long time, but when you find yourself so very removed from life as you know it, it seems like a much longer time. A time in another world. There are aspects of Ni-Vanuatu island culture that have barely changed since the Stone Age. If you were to take away their mobile phones – they’d barely notice because they rarely have battery or credit. If you take away their generators – they’d probably thank you for the money they’d save on $3 a litre petrol. If you took away their money – they’d keep living as they always had: feeding themselves with the food they grow themselves, building their shelters out of the materials they find in the bush. If there is a world away from the lifestyle that I live in Australia, Vanuatu was it.

And the thing is – you don’t miss it. There are so many other things that come to your attention when your vision loses the constant bombardment of stimulation found in the ‘developed world’. I won’t pretend there weren’t times when it was rough: Waiting around in the dark for a meal that would never come when you weren’t fed breakfast that morning either and your lunch was two pieces of fruit. Or when I was lying in bed feverish that the doctor told me was the Dengue virus without the fever (I have never been more glad to be told that I “only have a virus”) while at the same time worrying about what the hell the random swellings were. Only staphylococcus. It’s common in the jungle apparently. But when life slows down, you notice the things around you. Your landscape, your community, your lifestyle.

The important things that we often overlook back home. The ability to sit in a kitchen or under a tree and just be with those around you. What at home would be awkward silences are just the Ni-Vanuatu culture; why say anything when there is nothing to say? When you can just sit and be a member of the group without requiring dialogue of any sort. Belonging doesn’t require language. Belonging doesn’t require appearance. It just requires the courage to be involved. And I never could have imagined the scene at the beach when we left. Everyone from the villages down the bottom of the hill came, and a fair number of those from up in the bush came too. Lined up in single file on the beach we shook hands with them one by one as we made our slow and painful walk to the boat waiting for us. I knew the profound effect the village had on me, but I couldn’t have known the impact I had had on the village in turn.

As I was making my way along the line with tears streaming down my face, I came to one of the women, Agatha. I cannot remember a time when I would have spoken to her anymore than a “good morning,” and I had danced with her when we did the dance for Pentecost Day and again at the welcome party for the two new girls. But as I came to her to shake hands and kiss her goodbye on each cheek, she pulled me into a tight hug, her head only reaching my shoulder, and sobbed into my chest. I thought I’d never be able to let go of her. Then I had to say goodbye to my sisters. Goodness knows how I managed to let go of them. And little Henry knowing, in that way that children do, that Aunty Beth isn’t really happy and that smile she’s putting on for him is just a façade. I had to look straight ahead as I got into the boat, I couldn’t look back. And when it came to the plane, Dad had to practically push me onto it because I kept running back to hug Mum.

I arrived home on a cold Sunday night. I was assured that it was a rather mild night, with perhaps a hint of spring air. Whatever. I’m still cold two weeks later. And I still continue to be in awe of the things around me; the tropical jungle replaced by a concrete one. A culture shock that many people do not realise exists for the homecoming as well. When you’ve been living so far removed from the lifestyle of one’s culture, it’s not just a matter of turning on a switch and fitting into “normal” life again, adjustment must be done. Which is perhaps one of the biggest things I’ve gotten out of the whole experience: It’s not just foreign culture which needs to be approached with an immersion attitude – it’s your own culture as well."