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Call Me Jungle Woman

By: Camey VanSant

By Pallavi

This is long, sorry!

Yesterday marked 7 weeks since I’ve left home, and it’s safe to say that my time in Indonesia and here in Fiji has been both eventful and amazing. There are so many cool experiences I’ve had, like trekking 8 hours through a jungle, working with women’s health clinics and mental health services, experiencing traditional Fijian dances, hiking in a waist deep river (you can imagine how graceful this was with a 65L backpack…), cooking traditional Indonesian foods, and more. These are all things I am so grateful to have experienced so far, but to my own surprise, these are not the aspects of the last 7 weeks of my life that I feel most compelled to share in this post.

I’ve spent the last 7 weeks living in close quarters, and I mean very close, with the same 9 people. They have become my best friends and my biggest pet peeves, and with every day that passes, I learn something new from each one of them. I  anticipated that what I would take away most from my experiences abroad so far would be learning from the people around me, but I didn’t expect those people to primarily be my groupmates, who all came from the same country as I did.

Indonesia and Fiji have been beautiful, moving, and empowering facilitators of relationships on this trip. The people we have met throughout both countries have graciously shared their culture, their jokes, their friendship, and LOTS of their food. But when we reached the halfway point of the trip and reflected at one of our nightly evening meetings, our group of 10 in unison realized that the most valuable part of the trip has been the authenticity cultivated by each other. Moving across the world with no phone and no familiarity essentially forces you to be yourself. You are your best resource to meet your needs, and in order to get the help or friendship you might need from others, they need to understand who you really are, not just who you want to be presented as.

That same authenticity makes our experiences here in the Pacific Islands even more valuable, because we aren’t only receiving culture from locals, but we are giving our group culture back to the community members as well. It’s a trade.

Not having a phone, communication, comfort of normal life, your usual food, a hot shower, and my personal largest fear: large foreign insects, were all things I predicted to be the hardest aspects of the trip. But even just a few days into the trip I realized that the physical comforts and my lack of outdoorsy experience are not the biggest things that make this challenging. What makes it challenging is grit. The need to fully rely on yourself in the beginning, to take care of yourself when you have 7 full nights of food poisoning, to establish boundaries in a nice way with roommates, to keep putting in 100% effort when things get really out of your comfort zone, and as cheesy as it sounds, to be vulnerable with people you have never met.

Contrary to my pre-trip thoughts, it’s been harder to open up about feeling homesick than it has been to take a cockroach out of my room, but it’s also easier knowing that’s a universal experience that inevitably has brought us all together. It’s easy to feel isolated or to tap out of contributing fully in group discussions, but I’ve learned so far how to identify when or if I’m feeling that way, how to pull myself out of that feeling, and how to ask for help.

For example, on day 4 of the program, we embarked on a jungle trek through the Leiser National Park in Bukit Luwang, Sumatra, Indonesia. For reference, prior to this trip, I had embarked on one long hike in my life. A cold and dreary morning of February 27, 2020 in Shenandoah, West Virginia. It did not go very well to say the least. The fact I remember the date reflects that…So, naturally, the prospect of hiking through the mountains of the rainforest for 8 hours with a group of strangers in Indonesia was a little bit daunting. The first few hours were scary. I felt alone, physically challenged, unused to the extreme heat, and slightly defeated.

The group mid jungle trek!

My watch didn’t seem to move, and though I saw the comfort of 13 orangutans and hornbills, the first real relief was when I turned to 2 girls, who are now some of my best friends here, saw that they were struggling too, and confided in them. It was then that I first found solidarity. And that solidarity is what allowed me to soon find gratitude and excitement.

The hike (trek) became funny, a memory we all fondly look on. We went through the jungle hearing songs like Awimbawe and Don’t Worry Be Happy from our amazingly spirited and athletic guides. That was the first time on the trip I felt true panic followed by a wave of calm. I’ve only had that extreme feeling 2 or 3 times on this trip, but with each time that wave of relief comes and I exit the feeling of panic, I feel my scope of tools widen.

Catherine, the orangutan (who I spotted) that tried to steal our lunch in the jungle…

Anyways, somehow, I managed not to fall until the last 2 minutes. As we screamed and hugged for completing the most insane outdoor experience I have ever witnessed, I slipped on mud (on flat… ground…) and completely ate it. That is one of my favorite and most ironic memories of the trip.

You might be wondering, if you are scared of bugs, not normally outdoorsy, and bad at hiking, why would you choose a 70 day backpacking trip on the other side of the world? At times I have wondered that too. But I know I’m glad I did. Now, I am in Suva Fiji, and just got back from a rural village called Namosi in the highlands. No electricity, no service, the floor as the mattress, but a village full of people who I now call my friends, and who somehow got us on national Fijian TV. But that’s a story for another time.

In Namosi, we hiked up a mountain to see rural farming in the area. We summited, and I turned around and looked at the view in the pouring rain. My instructor, Kyle, caught my eye and smiled. “Gotcha,” he said. And I knew exactly what he was referencing. Nature won. I officially liked hiking. We did it mom!!!!!!!!

Friends and I at the top of the mountain!