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Volunteering in Australasia

Volunteering in Chuuk, Micronesia

I went to Chuuk, one of the four administrative divisions of the Federated States of Micronesia in the South Pacific Ocean, to work as a volunteer. 

Chuuk is a diver's paradise in large part due to its unique underwater graveyard of Japanese ships and aircraft, bombed by the U.S. in 1944 during Operation Hurricane. There are in fact more than 2,000 islands in Micronesia. With more ocean than land, some of the best sights are underwater. In addition to Chuuk, Guam is the largest and most populated island, at the southern end of the Marianas chain. Palau is famous for its Rock Islands, with three ocean currents converging in its water, bringing in some of the most dazzling and varied marine life in the world. 

Yap, with its giant stone money, grass skirts and traditional men's houses is a fascinating slice of the past, although the island has paradoxically used aid money from the U.S. and Japan to invest in high tech. 

Pohnpei, the capital, harbors the ancient and mystical ruins of Nan Madol which are not to be missed. The town is surrounded by a wealth of lush rainforests and waterfalls and one small, rather ancient cinema. 

The Volunteer Position and its Realities 

I had been offered the 3-month contract through an aid agency which places business volunteers mainly in Asia and North and South Pacific countries for short term assignments lasting from a few weeks to a maximum of six months. I took three months leave without pay from my job and set off. 

I arrived on the seven square kilometer administrative capital of Weno, via Cairns, North Queensland, Guam, and Pohnpei in late July, 2002. It was humid, a steady 28 degrees Celsius all year round. It was an ideal climate for me.  

I settled into a small but comfortable room at the Truk Stop. Next door was the “office” where I worked, occupied by my client, who slept there, one or two staff, and me.  

Resources scarcely existed. My employer had a laptop which she loaned me while she went overseas for five weeks, leaving me to figure out what she actually wanted me to do. Not quite what I expected from the job description which specified that all necessary resources would be provided for my work, including a computer and a client who would be present. 

Back in Sydney, the job had sounded intriguing. It included training Chuukese women in public relations, holding relevant workshops, producing a newsletter, and initiating various gender awareness campaigns. The reality was quite different. I was led to believe my employer was a women's network, but in fact it was only one woman who was campaigning to get into Federal politics

Upon her return from various trips my employer’s views about my role constantly changed. Ultimately I had no idea what was required. I could have returned to Australia immediately as the resource criteria had not been met, particularly after a vicious cyclone devastated the island a few weeks into my arrival, causing landslides which flattened many flimsy homes and killed hundreds, including some of my client's relatives

The aid agency asked me if I would consider returning to Australia, but I was challenged and involved by then, and wanted to stay. An imminent threat of cholera almost changed my mind but luckily the disease held off. 

Daily Life in Chuuk

So I set about carving out a life on small island.

The other volunteers on the island came from the American Peace Corps. All but one completed the 2-year contract. All of them lived with the Chuukese, sleeping on the floor with the families and eating what they ate. I did not find way of living always palatable. I was spoiled by comparison to my hotel room, and regularly invited them for a meal. The highlight of our week was a Saturday evening church service where the singing was transcendent.

I went swimming most evenings in water iridescent with golden light from the setting sun. 

I hiked into the hills, discovering old lighthouses where the Japanese had holed up, too traumatized by the war to admire the views.

I walked and walked along streets marred with wrecked cars, past shanty huts where dirty children with huge smiles waved. 

I found odd little stores off-the-beaten-track. One store daily baked a delicious coconut cake, and it was there that I also found a rare can of baked beans and some beef mince which II bought in order to to cook pancakes and beans on my mini stove. 

I hitched rides with villagers on their canoes to other islands, happily paddling along with them.

I flew to Pohnpei for one day and night. I got a ride from the hotel to Nan Madol with a driver who dribbled the red juice of the narcotic betel nut. He told me airily on our death-defying return along tortuous roads that he did not have a driving license. He refused to go far into Nan Madol—the locals believe it is bewitched. The trees are dead, the water sluggish, huge basalt tomb-like structures occupy the area, with their history vague.  

I helped with cyclone relief work, delivering food supplies to the stricken islanders who had pitched tents beside the rubble of their homes, or where they used to stand—now buried under the landslides. 

Saki and Sunken Ships 

Australians Sally Makin and Stephen Graham, were running the diving school in Chuuk and had rediscovered some wrecks which had not been dived for 30 years. They were stunned by the treasures of the lagoon. “Many people's favorite is Fujikawa Maru, a Japanese freighter which has fighter planes inside the hulls. You see bundles of shoes at the wrecks. Big shells. Sometimes you can swim through thousands and thousands of bullets, see hundreds of saki bottles. A diver once said to us, 'no wonder they lost so many ships, they drank so much saki.'” 

Experienced Chuukese diver, Kitachy Eram, from the outer island of Udot, has dived all his life. “I lived in Saipan for four years, “ but I missed here,” he said, as he steered the boat around the island of Tonoas, in calm aqua waters where it was hard to believe that cyclone Cha'taan had caused havoc not long before. “I don't like places where money is all that matters. Here we spend money on food and grow our own, and don't ask for too much. As long as I can keep diving I love it, I wouldn't want to do anything else.“ 

I returned to Australia from Chuuk sad that I had not completed the extent of the work I had hoped, but with potent memories of friendships, a greater understanding of my own and other's fallibilities, and memories of the special excitement of unexpectedly finding things which meant so little back home—like baked beans and coconut cakes. 

For More Info

Volunteer Organizations Offering Assignments in the Pacific Region

Australian Business Volunteers Abroad, www.abv.org.au. A Canberra-based agency which focuses on capacity building within micro, small, medium and large enterprises in the private sector, and is largely funded by AusAid, the Australian Government's overseas aid agency. It operates in 11 countries in South East Asia and the Pacific region. Generally ABV volunteers are expected to have at least five years experience in their field of expertise. Assignments range from one month to a year's duration and the average is about two months. 

Australian Volunteers Abroad, www.australianvolunteers.com. Assignments can be from three to 24 months and placements are world wide as well as remote areas of Australia. Skills required range from agriculture, to finance, education and training to health and media.

United Nations Development Program (UNDP), ww.undp.org. Search here for paid jobs as well as volunteering positions. No specific financial outlay is required for the above, but many other volunteer organizations do expect you to pay for travel, accommodation and other expenses.

Other private volunteer services providers available for prospective volunteers, including gap year students who can sometimes get university assistance through grants if the work contributes to their studies. One such organization is Projects Abroad, www.projects-abroad.com.au.

If you are trying to get work overseas that is not voluntary, check out the websites of embassies worldwide. They often employ locally engaged staff on temporary or fixed local contracts, paying local wages with no perks. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website, www.dfat.gov.au lists Australian embassies worldwide. If you happen to speak the language of a particular country (as long as you were not born there, as according to security rules you may have conflicting loyalties) it is worth applying. I was employed as a contractor at the Australian Embassy, Budapest for three years after applying online.