Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Vanuatu
- 1 Communications
- 2 Housing and Site Location
- 3 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 4 Food and Diet
- 5 Transportation
- 6 Geography and Climate
- 7 Social Activities
- 8 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 9 Personal Safety
- 10 Rewards and Frustrations
Pre-service training is held on the island of Efaté, north of Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu. During training, family and friends can send you mail from the Peace Corps office. The address is:
Republic of Vanuatu
Although you can collect your mail from the office, the Peace Corps staff usually brings it to the training site.
Once you are a Volunteer, you should have mail sent to your site. Most places in Vanuatu have a small post office; otherwise mail can be sent to the Peace Corps office and staff will forward it to your site. Airmail sent from Port Vila takes two to four weeks to reach the United States. The length for mail sent from United States varies, but small envelopes and parcels generally arrive in Port Vila in one or two weeks. If one is lucky, surface mail takes around three months.
There are two mobile phone companies in Vanuatu and soon after arriving in country, each PCT will be provided with a basic dual SIM card phone and a SIM card for Digicel. Once sites are assigned, those volunteers who Peace Corps have determined do not have Digicel service at their site can purchase a TVL SIM card and submit for reimbursement. You can also make reverse-charge calls and send faxes to the United States from the TVL office inside the post office. At your site, there is likely to be phone service within walking distance, but this is not always the case. Some volunteers bring their unlocked smart phones from the US to use during their service.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
There are a few Internet cafes in the Port Vila area, including one very close to the Peace Corps office. It costs approximately 30 vatu (about 26 U.S. cents) per minute to check e-mail and surf the Web. You can also use Internet phone service at these locations.
You can also access e-mail and the Internet at the Peace Corps office’s resource center, which has four computers for use by trainees and Volunteers. A sign-up sheet is used during peak periods. There is no Internet access at the training site and trainees visit Port Vila only occasionally.
Housing and Site Location
For the first few days of pre-service training (PST), you will stay in Port Vila. You will then move to a rural village on Efaté island, staying with a Ni-Vanuatu family for the reminder of training. Although some homes in the village use solar power or generators for electricity, you are more likely to use a kerosene lamp or candles. At the training site and in most rural villages, households have a rainwater tank, well, or piped water for drinking and showers. Most houses are composed of local materials including wood, bamboo, palm and coconut leaves and tin sheets.
At about the midpoint of training, you will go on a “walkabout.” This four- to six-day day visit to your assignedsite or a similar location provides an opportunity to discuss your assignment, meet and visit with future colleagues and community members and current Volunteers, and become familiar with living conditions in another part of the country. Before going on the walkabout, you will be given information about the site and have an opportunity to discuss the assignment with Peace Corps staff or Volunteers.
Living Allowance and Money Management
All Volunteers receive a monthly living allowance that enables them to live modestly by the standards of the people they serve, yet not in a manner that would jeopardize their health and safety. The monthly allowance is intended to cover food, household supplies, clothing, transportation, recreation, entertainment, and incidental expenses such as postage, film, reading materials, stationery, and toiletries.
Toward the end of pre-service training, the Peace Corps will open an account for you at the National Bank of Vanuatu, where it will deposit your living allowances every two months. This bank has branches on many of the islands, so it is easy for most Volunteers to access their bank account.
Peace Corps/Vanuatu will provide you with various resources and materials for use during training and service. Normally you are provided with items such as medical kit, mattress, lantern, sheets, and mosquito net. These items are yours to use while you are a Volunteer, but must be returned at the end of your service.
After you take the oath of service at the end of pre-service training, you will receive a settling-in allowance of 30,000 vatu per individual (approximately U.S. $270) or 50,000 vatu per couple (approximately $450) to purchase household items such as pots, pans, and a stove.
Food and Diet
Vanuatu has an abundance of fruits, root crops, tubers, and vegetables. Most island families grow food in their gardens, and under normal conditions, there will be no shortage of food in the communities. There are a few markets and numerous stores on the main islands of Santo and Efaté that carry canned goods, meats, spices, fresh vegetables, cheese, cereal, milk, rice, pasta and chocolate. On other islands, there are fewer stores and markets and few refrigerated products, but you usually can obtain the essentials.
While many of Vanuatu’s foods, such as taros, yams, and breadfruit, will be familiar, you are likely to rapidly develop a taste for virtually all of them. Papayas, pineapples, mangoes, plantains, and sweet potatoes are abundant through much of the year. Coconut milk and cream are used to flavor many dishes, and you will soon appreciate them as much as the Ni-Vanuatu do. Most food is cooked using hot stones or through boiling and steaming; very little food is fried.
During pre-service training, you will become familiar with Vanuatu’s traditional island food (fish, taro, yams, etc.), or aelan kakae, by eating it with your host family. You will eventually develop your favorite dishes and learn how to cook some of them, albeit in your own style.
In Vanuatu, you will probably do more walking, riding in the back of pickup trucks, flying in small planes, and bouncing around in small boats than you have ever done before. The undeveloped road system, with less than 100 miles of paved roads, consists mostly of dirt tracks suitable only for four-wheel-drive vehicles. Every island has one or two short airstrips where Vanair’s Twin Otter planes land two or three times weekly. In addition, every island has a small port or wharf where small cargo ships and boats regularly dock. After one arrives at these locations, transportation is usually via pickup truck, foot, or small boat. Bicycles are becoming popular in Vanuatu, and, depending on your site, the Peace Corps may provide one to you. Port Vila and Luganville have numerous taxis and mass-transit vans that provide good service at a reasonable cost. Peace Corps Volunteers are prohibited from driving or riding on motorcycles.
Geography and Climate
Vanuatu features isolated rural communities scattered among a chain of beautiful, but rugged and lightly populated, tropical islands, which extend about 500 miles from north and south.
The water temperature ranges from 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees Celsius) in winter to 82 degrees Fahrenheit (28 degrees Celsius) in the summer. Cool between April and September, the days become hotter and more humid starting in October. The daily temperature ranges from 68 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees to 32 degrees Celsius). Southeasterly trade winds occur from May to October. Vanuatu has a long rainy session, with significant rainfall usually occurring almost every month. The wettest and hottest months, however, are December through April, which also constitute the cyclone season. The driest months are June through November.
Vanuatu has a variety of natural hazards, such as cyclones, volcanic activity, and earthquakes. Cyclones are the only natural event that generally affects the entire country at once in one way or another. Although they can occur at any time of the year, they are most frequent between January and April. You will receive detailed information about how to cope with cyclones and other natural hazards during your pre-service training.
Village life in Vanuatu is very social, resulting more in a lack of privacy than physical isolation from others. There are many opportunities to build supportive relationships at site, and to get involved in a village’s activities. Although cultural isolation can be a problem, it is less of one nowadays, due to the new Peace Corps/Vanuatu policy of “clustering” sites where Volunteers are stationed. Rural Volunteers now have the opportunity to build friendships and socialize with other Volunteers near their sites. Though distances vary from island to island, most Volunteers have someone within a few hours’ walk or closer.
Peace Corps/Vanuatu is headquartered in the capital city of Port Vila. Volunteers frequently travel to and from Port Vila for business and pleasure. While taking time off in the city, Volunteers shop, hang out, and enjoy good food at restaurants such as Jill’s American Café or the Café Deli. There are several bars and small nightclubs catering to tourists and expatriates. Port Vila is also home to several resorts that allow casual use of their facilities by Peace Corps Volunteers. Some of these resorts require a small payment while others do not. Snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, sailing, and horseback riding are some of the options open to Volunteers while in the city. Similar activities are available in Luganville on Espiritu Santo Island.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
One of the challenges of finding your place as a Peace Corps Volunteer is fitting into the local culture while maintaining your own cultural identity and acting like a professional all at the same time. It is not an easy thing to resolve, and we can only provide you with guidelines.
You are expected to show sensitivity to the culture of Vanuatu in both dress and behavior. A foreigner who wears ragged, unmended clothing is more likely to be considered an affront than someone trying to “get closer to the people.” Most Ni-Vanuatu are conservative in their dress. Since each job has different clothing requirements, you should consider your particular job. Volunteers who are assigned to classrooms, offices, or health posts have a greater need for professional clothing than do those who spend most of their time in the field. However, all Volunteers need an assortment of clothing for work and relaxation. Although t-shirts are suitable for days off and swimsuits are fine for the beach, you should have at least one or two nice outfits for special occasions, even if your work site is in a rural area.
Although attitudes about women’s dress are more liberal in Port Vila and Luganville and some Ni-Vanuatu women in villages go without tops, female Volunteers must dress modestly. Wearing large blouses with skirts is a local fashion, so it is worth bringing such blouses with you. If a dress or blouse is transparent, a camisole or slip is necessary. It is never appropriate for women to show bare thighs (except at tourist pools and tourist beaches), and short shorts for women are considered improper. When swimming in non-resort areas, women should wrap a lava-lava around their waist. Many female Volunteers find that it is most acceptable in rural areas to wear a “Mother Hubbard”—a dress that is sold locally and may be given to you by your pre-servive training Ni-Vanuatu host family.
Lightweight but durable cotton or cotton-blend clothes are the most comfortable in Vanuatu’s generally hot and humid climate. Local methods of washing clothes can be very hard on them. Note that leather is subject to mold and mildew and elastic tends to lose its elasticity. Since you may not have electricity for an iron, you may have to get used to wearing more wrinkled clothes than you usually do.
In the hot, direct tropical sun, protective hats are a must. You should also bring raingear (a rain hat is especially desirable if you wear glasses) and a windbreaker for cooler weather. You will need some warm clothes, such as sweatshirts and sweaters, for the cooler months, particularly at night.
For most of the year, sandals without socks are the normal footwear for men and women (Tevas not only are very comfortable and durable but are a Peace Corps tradition). But many Volunteers like to wear regular shoes and socks in the cooler months. You will be doing a lot of walking, so think comfort and durability when you buy shoes (i.e., light hiking shoes or sneakers). Local people work and play in flip-flops.
All types of clothing are available in Port Vila and Luganville, but they can be expensive and of poor quality. However, many Volunteers find bargains at the used-clothing stores in Port Vila and Luganville. It is helpful to learn your sizes in the European metric system.
Volunteer safety is the Peace Corps’ number-one priority. More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (often while alone), having a limited understanding initially of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Vanuatu Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Vanuatu. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
Although the potential for job satisfaction in Vanuatu is quite high, like all Volunteers, you will encounter numerous frustrations. Because of financial or other challenges, collaborating agencies do not always provide the support promised. In addition, the pace of work and life is slower than what most Americans are accustomed to, and some people you work with may be hesitant to change practices and traditions that are centuries old. For these reasons, the Peace Corps experience of adapting to a new culture and environment is often described as a series of emotional peaks and valleys.
You will be given a high degree of responsibility and independence in your work—perhaps more than in any other job you have had or will have. You will often find yourself in situations that require an ability to motivate yourself and your co-workers with little guidance from supervisors. You might work for months without seeing any visible impact from, or receiving feedback on, your work. Development is a slow process. Positive progress most often comes after the combined efforts of several Volunteers over the over the course of many years. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results.
To overcome these difficulties, you will need maturity, flexibility, open-mindedness, resourcefulness, and a positive attitude. The Peace Corps/Vanuatu staff, your co-workers, and fellow Volunteers will support you during times of challenge as well as in moments of success. Judging by the experience of former Volunteers, the peaks are well worth the difficult times, and most Volunteers leave Vanuatu feeling that they gained much more than they sacrificed during their service. If you are able to make the commitment to integrate into your community and work hard, you will be a successful Volunteer.
Volunteers are usually readily accepted into their community and form lasting friendships. However, it is important to note that traditional customs and beliefs are held dear, especially in rural areas, and change comes slowly. Some Volunteers find the constant answering of personal questions, the lack of privacy, being considered a rich foreigner, and the need to be constantly aware of different social modes, trying. Please note that the Peace Corps is not for everyone.
Creativity, initiative, patience, flexibility, and a high tolerance for ambiguity are necessary attributes in confronting the challenges associated with facilitating change in a new cultural setting. Your dedication can, however, lead to real lasting results that empower community members not only to achieve your project’s goals but also to identify and address other important needs. You are likely to experience the deep satisfaction of having played a role in a grass-roots development process that gives the people of Vanuatu greater control of their future.