It’s been over 9 months now since I moved to Vanuatu to volunteer as a Clinical Psychologist with the Port Vila Central Hospital and the Vanuatu Government’s Ministry of Health. That means that I am over a third of the way through my volunteer experience.
The first 1-2 months were challenging and a little overwhelming with so many new things to learn and new people to meet. I was also feeling a bit guilty about the people that I had left behind to have this experience. Especially my old jobs in private practice and the patients that I had there.
Once I settled in however, the following 7 months have been some of the best times of my life. I’m not pushing myself too hard anymore, am experiencing a great variety of opportunities with my volunteering work, helping people where I can, and developing some excellent friendships too.
About two months ago, I returned from a two-week trip to Australia to attend my sister’s wedding. It was my first time going back to Melbourne since moving to Port Vila, and I was really excited to go back, but also curious to see if things felt any different after not being there for the prior 8 months.
Before I left Melbourne in August 2018, I was burning out. I had been highly productive and efficient with my work and was cramming a lot in to every day and every week, but I was also stressed out and exhausted, and my elevated blood pressure and constant fatigue were pretty solid indicators that the lifestyle that I had was not going to be sustainable forever. I was also beginning to feel more isolated and disconnected from others, and wondered if this was just a sign of the times, my age, or my environment.
Moving to Vanuatu for 2 years was the perfect way to find out. Port Vila is a really social place if you want it to be, as people are always willing to stop for a chat or a drink at one of the 400+ nakamals in town. Vanuatu is also said to run on “island time”, which means that Port Vila operates at a much more leisurely pace then Melbourne. This isn’t so great if you want your 3-on-3 basketball tournament to start on time, but pretty great for reducing stress as long as you don’t worry too much about things that are out of your control.
The first thing that highlighted to me how much more relaxed I am in Vila is that when it came time to wrap up work to fly to Australia for my sister’s wedding, I felt so refreshed already that I didn’t even feel like I needed to have the holiday. That had never happened to me before.
The moment I arrived back in Melbourne however, I felt stressed again, and shortly after that, tired. I don’t know if it was staying in the city, but a lot of people were rushing and agitated both on the road and walking around. Everyone seemed to be on a personal mission to get from point A to point B as fast as they could because they had important things to do and important people to see. Even I began to get caught up in this way of thinking within a day or two, and it was hard to unwind and relax.
People in Melbourne also seemed to be off in their own world of headphones and smartphones, with very little interaction with anyone on the street. The few strangers that I did smile at or say hello to looked at me like I was weird, and I was like “oh, yeah…we don’t acknowledge other people here!”
Reverse cultural shock is a real thing. Sometimes it does take a while to adjust back, even longer than it takes to adjust to a new culture in a new place. People from Melbourne often expect Asia or South America or Africa to feel different when they first travel there. It is a much weirder experience for things to feel unusual in the place where you grew up.
My sister’s wedding was beautiful and heartwarming, and I couldn’t be happier for her and her new husband. It was amazing to see a lot of my friends and family again, and I do hope to stay in touch with all of the important people in my life from Melbourne.
I just don’t know if I still call Australia home.
Dr Damon Ashworth