New friends seem to come along in spurts. I can go for months or even years feeling like i’ve developed zero new friends and then all of a sudden, the friendship spark ignites and I’m forming new relationships left, right and centre. A month into my year in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville and the cycle of developing new friendships was well and truly underway.
Are these sporadic friendship spurts a coincidence? Are they conceived by our state of mind, the environment or by unforeseen circumstances? Do I seek to forge relationships in the same manner whilst in the familiar surroundings of my hometown in Wellington, New Zealand? Are the people of Bougainville naturally seasoned professionals at seeking out and developing friendships? All of these thoughts have been running through my mind of late.
At the best of times, moving to a new country can be daunting. The defining factor that will make or break your experience is often the people you meet in the early stages, who can unconsciously help to shape your experience. Throughout the first month of my island life, I have been lucky enough to meet people, who have made me feel welcome and open up new opportunities, that without them, wouldn’t have been a possibility. Our neighbours, expats, volunteers and the local people of Bougainville have all contributed to making me feel a part of the community.
Let me talk a little about the first group of people, my neighbours.
Just like in New Zealand, most people will forge a connection with their neighbours. It might be a simple connection, which can be of a positive, negative or of an ambivalent nature but whatever your feelings towards them, the connection exists, which given time and effort can often lead to friendship.
In Bougainville, I feel like I was able to quickly establish a positive connection with the people that surround me including expats, volunteers and locals. Why did these connections or dare I say it, friendships ignite and establish so quickly?
There is a multitude of reasons, however I believe the major contributing factors are common experiences, like-minded personalities, individuals that go out of their way to be welcoming and proximity.
You don’t just end up in somewhere like Bougainville. It’s not somewhere that people tend to take a 2-week vacation. It takes a lot of planning and preparation and is visited by a handful of volunteers, expats and contractors each year. The fact that everyone who is here, has chosen to come to Bougainville and invest a prolonged amount of time here, appears to provide an instant level of mutual respect.
That initial connection has quickly developed into something more robust, friendship. On-going engagement, conversations, activities and shared experiences all adding to the development. I can’t recall the number of conversations I’ve had with our neighbours about things like a container ship arriving at the port with new produce and where the produce has been spotted around town. Ice-cream here, whole chickens there, steak pies in this fuel station, 5 Kina bread at this store, which all add to the necessary ingredients required to form friendship.
The second group of people are expats and volunteers from across the globe.
In our first few days here, I attended an International Volunteer Weekend in a small village, north of Arawa called Chabai. This provided the perfect opportunity to build connections with the like-minded people in a beautiful and relaxed environment with volunteers situated all over the island of Bougainville from Buka down to Buin.
Most volunteers have the common goals of supporting others, self-development and experience. These common goals make it incredibly easy to forge connections, which, in my case, were further developed over dinner, drinks and activities such as canoeing, trekking, snorkelling and dancing late into the night.
These expats and volunteers have provided an incredibly valuable network of information, advice and support, with a diverse background, varied skills and a vast experience. They are living proof that even in the remotest of places with limited resources, it’s possible to thrive, integrate and make positive change and have certainly contributed to a smooth first month of island life.
Finally, the locals of Bougainville.
Friendship comes naturally to the locals of Bougainville. It seems incredibly effortless. People from all walks of life who love to smile, engage and share stories. Everyone I have interacted with thus far has one common trait… genuine friendliness. Often, it can be difficult to forge connections, let alone establish friendship within a community as an outsider. However, I have been astounded by the number of connections that I have established in my short time here and that is only possible when both parties are open to the possibility of friendship.
Examples of this present themselves regularly. Just a couple of days ago a lady stopped me on the street to say that she saw me at the medical centre the other day and just wanted to say hello because she recognised me. On another occasion, the market manager came up to me on a busy Friday afternoon to say “hello, thanks for coming to the market and have a good day” whilst shaking my hand and smiling. And finally, our landlord and her friends sell ice-blocks at the market and are always eager to chat, wave and smile, whenever I visit to stock up on fruit and vegetables.
However, the connection that has surprised me most is that people have extended invitations to visit the beach, snorkel, visit their village, spend time with their wantok and even partake in Christmas Day dinner.
None of these activities are possible without invitation. I can’t simply go to the beach and swim without an invite or the necessary permission. However, this has not proven to be a barrier to experiencing the beauty of Bougainville as people have gone out of their way to be welcoming and inclusive.
The friendliness and generosity of the people of Bougainville has far exceeded anything I expected. A local business owner of whomI had met once extended an invite to dinner at his on Christmas Day. The buffet of local food that was prepared was mind-blowing, the sunset was spectacular and we were made to feel incredibly welcome. They even loaned us a vehicle with the recommendation to get up at 5am the following morning and head up to Premier Hill for the sunrise. It’s the sort of experience you hope for but are never sure when or even if it will happen.
Are these sporadic spurts of new friendship a coincidence? No, I don’t think so. They come with wanting to listen, learn and absorb everything people, a new culture, environment and surroundings has to offer. They come with being open-minded and taking a leap of faith in people. Don’t get me wrong, it’s challenging to get into this mindset in my hometown. The familiar surroundings, routine and established friendships all prove a barrier to being open-minded, however, that’s the beauty of travel. There’s something about the unknown environment, the lack of routine, a new language, that unshackles the mind and enables possibilities and new friendship to blossom, of which, the people of Bougainville seemed to have mastered the art of.