My Favorite Place in Vanuatu

In South Santo it sometimes rains for weeks at a time. Until you forget what the warmth of the sun on your skin feels like. It’s during this kind of weather that I try to avoid venturing to my favorite spot in Vanuatu, the sinkhole, or hole blo stone in Bislama and Batunaire in language. Constant rain means constant mud, which means the steep climb down into the hole becomes a very dangerous slide.

Once during a dry spell, fellow PCVs Hunter, David, Rich, and Molly came to my site to visit. We hadn’t seen rain in a while and the climb into Batunaire was incredibly easy, including the trek through the river at the bottom of the hole to the opening of the cave. At the time Hunter commented about how the experience of the sinkhole wasn’t as magical as it had been last time, suggesting that it was because the journey down hadn’t been as difficult. Though as to whether or not I agreed that my experience was affected by the lack of me falling on my ass I didn’t know, but I did know that that particular visit was somewhat mediocre. As mediocre as the sinkhole can get, anyway.

This past weekend Hunter and Albane came out to my site to spend a few days away from town. Albane is a friend from France who teaches French in Luganville. She’s a petite brunette who almost never says something that doesn’t make you laugh. And she’s the kind of strong, independent woman that I love to see out there conquering the world.

As the clock is ticking on my countdown to going home, I spent most of the time quizzing Albane on her own experiences with extreme transitioning, which are quite extensive. Albane had lived in Argentina for a year and a half. Her time there had been sometimes very long and difficult. She talked a little about the feelings you don’t allow yourself to feel when you’re in the middle of a trying experience such as that, how you sometimes suppress the worst of what you feel, because you know that you have no choice but to be strong.

When she got on the plane in Argentina to go back to France, she said she thought she’d have her moment. A moment of being able to reflect and to be excited to go home, but instead she immediately fell into a sleep so deep that when she woke up she was the last person left to exit the plane. When I inquired as to why (considering I imagined myself sitting there wide eyed the entire time, every second feeling like an hour), she just said “security”. She was done, it was over, she was on her way home, she was safe.

And I realized that I have not even scratched the surface of what I have felt, learned, and experienced in this country. Albane is right, in the midst of any experience, you can not possibly feel everything that the experience will make you feel, you can not possibly understand everything it will make you think. Not until you’re in a familiar place, a safe place, where you can examine what you have been through with a clear head.

That afternoon, despite the fact that we had just seen two solid weeks of rain, the three of us decided to brave the sinkhole. The steep climb down into the hole wasn’t too bad, but even from the top we could hear the river running more intensely than I have ever heard it before.

We weaved our way over and under fallen rocks and through rushing water, praying we wouldn’t tread through Nangalot (the poison ivy of Vanuatu). Finally we reached the entrance of the cave.

The water was crashing into stones and echoing inside the cave so loudly that none of us fell into conversation. Instead we sat separately, staring up and out of the hole. The land itself folded over us, riddled by various plant life that hung upside down from it, and then broke off at a round patch of open blue sky. Birds that inhabit the cave were darting back and forth above us, some inches from our faces and some far above us at the top of the hole, looking like mere black dots swishing across open sky.

Streams of sunlight met the darkness of the hole, casting the rocks in a surreal misty light. Water glimmered white where it pounded down from higher rocks, like mini waterfalls. The music of water crashing into stone drowned out all other noise, all other thought, and we were left in a serene, beautiful space of time.

It had been difficult to get there this time, and I felt what I had not felt the last time: that the place I had struggled to get to, that I had been scratched and torn up to get to, that I had conquered fear and doubt to get to, was magical, was perfect. And I realized that the journey into Batunaire is like the journeys we so often make in life. The things that you work for, the things that you cry and bleed for, that you fall down for, those are what make the beauty of the place you end up in clear, tangible, and worthwhile.

I have struggled here. I have endured extreme and endless loneliness, weeks on weeks of eating food I don’t like, doubt that attempted to tear me apart, and so much more. I’m not home yet, but I can already see that the place I have come to while being here is worthwhile and that when the storm finally clears, I may finally feel what I felt at the entrance of that cave: serenity.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll spend all 14 hours on that plane ride home fast asleep.