Every volunteer is subjected to what is called a Host Volunteer Visit. You get to live for 5 days with a volunteer doing similar work to your own. The purpose of the visit is to give you a good idea of what living in Vanuatu will be like. And in part, the intention is to scare the hell out of you. Essentially, to weed out the weak volunteers before they’re sworn in.
As passengers in the bed of a pickup truck, fellow volunteer Jen and I, drove through three rivers to get to our hosts site after a shaky 17-seater plane ride to the island of Malekula. Later, we would walk through some of these rivers, hiking up our skirts and relishing in the cool of the water, amidst the scalding of the sun. In these 5 days we started fires, we gathered fire wood, we used a drop toilet, and we observed her classes. We did quite a bit, but nothing stuck with me as much as crabbing did.
With Ni-Vans as our guides, the three of us, plus two other fellow Vols got dropped off at the edge of a crabbing reserve. We hiked for about ten minutes before the holes started to appear. Amidst the giant expanse of trees, crabs darted for the cover of the dark crowded spaces beneath emerging roots. We chased them persistently with bamboo pinchers and then in times of success, piled them into large crab bags. As we walked further into the crab community it grew muddier and muddier, darker and darker.
The light I was holding had dimmed considerably and my Old Navy flip-flops were getting stuck in the mud every other step. The thicker the mud got, the more water it collected on its top, until every step had me feeling terrified that my toe was about to be clamped on by a crab holding out in the mud. Twice, I stepped in a crab hole and lost one of my flip flops. One of these times it had to be rescued by a fellow volunteer because it had been sucked under and I was too scared to reach my hand in. Three times, I almost walked straight into a giant spider web, with a giant spider just chilling in its center.
I have never been more freaked out in my life. I couldn’t see where I was walking and I could hardly even walk to begin with, my flip flops re-gluing themselves to the mud with every step. I was the only one having trouble and for just a moment I thought to myself, I can’t do this. I’m not like these people, I’m not as brave as these people. I don’t belong here.
And then my fellow volunteer, Lynn, came up to me and demanded we swap lights. And suddenly I could see where I was walking, I could navigate the holes. And then we had moved forward and the trees were gone. They had opened to a field of mud, clear for as far as the eye could see, illuminated by the glow of the moon and the millions of stars that splattered the sky. Littered in the mud were thousands upon thousands of crab holes.
The glisten of the layer of water atop the mud, and the bobbing lights of my fellow volunteers in the distance broke the storm in my head. And suddenly, all I could hear was the call of “Got one, got one! Who has the bag!” And then I’d watch as a light darted across the open mud field under a striking sea of stars, as my fellow vol chased the resilient crab that was scurrying towards its hole.
In some ways, my night had turned into a day. In the day, I never feel like giving up, nothing seems that bad. It’s at night, listening to the rats and enclosing myself under the safety of my mosquito net, that I feel it. That’s when all the fears hit me.
And I realized, that night I was crabbing, that I wasn’t even sure what I was scared of. Maybe it was just the dark, the unknown, not being able to look ahead and see where I was going. Not knowing if I was about to fall in a hole. Uncertainty.
Looking back it seems silly that I was so scared, when the night was so crowded by vibrant images and by playful chants of “gotta catch ‘em all”. The night had remarkably, transitioned to being a day, to being enchanting, something straight out of a book. I had almost given up, one foot in a crab hole. One misstep from defeat. But then a good friend had given me their light, had given me a bit of their bravery.
Fear is the most inhibiting emotion there is. It draws boundaries for us, it speaks for what we are allowed to be and to do. And in the end, it tells our story for us. But the thing is, it doesn’t have to.
I used to say “oh, I could never do that”. But then I stopped one day and I really thought about it. And I decided, why not? Why couldn’t I do that? Other people do that. What makes me any different?
Fear is just an emotion, like anger. It’s drawn from our own heads because of our own perceptions on life and our own experiences with it. The truth is, I’m scared every single day that I’m here. But I’ve learned to do something magical. I’ve learned to recognize fears as being pretend, as only being part of my own head. Now, I detach myself from them. I reason with myself that they don’t make any sense. And I move forward.
Being born fearless is easy. You never have to work for it. You never have to feel that tug that demands you move back towards safety and security and same. You can do whatever you want. Those born without fear though, they will never get to experience the strength that blooms in its wake. The strength that you earn on those days you move forward anyway. On those days that you decide you’re not going to be scared anymore. I want my life to be full of those days.
Fear will never not be a part of my life. In some ways, this exhausts me. But in most others, it constantly makes me stronger, more aware, more empathetic, and most importantly, more alive than anything else can make me. Fear is both my crutch and my spring. And really, it’s only up to me how I use it.