One place we tend to visit wherever we stop is a local school. There's a reason for this beyond curiosity about educational systems in other countries. It's a wonderful introduction to the community. Both kids and teachers are usually outgoing and pleased to see visitors and they welcome us warmly into their classrooms. There's a lot of pride is showing what kids are learning and what they've done. They happily perform songs, dance and generally entertain without hesitation.
In Trinidad, we participated in a Kids'n'Cruisers program where cruisers went to the local schools to help tutor local kids in the basics … math, writing, reading. In most places, however, there's nothing quite so formal. On one of the San Blas Islands of Panama, for instance, the school master rang the bell and all the kids came running. I was asked to take a group picture of all of the school kids … and the teachers … which we printed on plain bond paper and which was proudly displayed on the community bulletin board for the whole village to see. We were quite popular after that and were invited to sit and chat with many of the locals.
In Ecuador, we were invited to judge a talent contest at the Interamericano School. These teens worked at speaking English and trying to be very hip and American when quite honestly, they were better off as Ecuadorian teens.
As we ventured further into the South Pacific, we made it our business to visit the small island schools. Matamaka,Tonga was a delight. We visited the two-room schoolhouse and had quite the performance from the kids.
When we learned that John, the schoolteacher, hadn't had an electric light in his hut for over six months, David offered to fix his solar panels and shed some light on his evening hours. Word got out and before you know it, David was fixing lots of solar panels and generators. We met lots of villagers that resulted in being the guests of honor at the school graduation feast and David attending a kava circle with the local men.
In New Zealand, we visited the local school in tiny Opua as part of a fundraiser. Later, the kids performed a “haka”, a traditional Maori dance, for all the cruisers. This school was more akin to a small, rural American school, except for the Maori influence that is.
Probably the most memorable school visits, however, were in Vanuatu. People here live at a subsistence level, but take pride in their community and educating their kids. The country does not provide a school building. That's up to the community to build and maintain for their children. Teachers are trained in state schools, but the cost of all supplies and books, as well as teacher's salaries must also be borne by the community. We contributed lots of baked goods and attended many a fundraiser during our stay there.
I met Natu, the first grade teacher in a little village on the island of Aneitym (Anatom), shortly after we arrived in Vanuatu. We spent many hours together talking about teaching English, improving parent participation in the education process, life in Vanuatu and just life in general. While David went with the men to repair generators and solar panels, I spent time at Natu's house, learning more about her and her way of life. As fascinating as her lifestyle was to me, my lifestyle was just as interesting to her and it was easy to spend hours comparing those things that were so different between us, but also those things that were so much the same.
Whether you're traveling on a boat or just traveling the countryside, if you're interested in learning more about a community, check out the schools. Beyond the cultural exchange and experience, we also succeeded in lowering the waterline by unloading most of the school supplies we carry aboard. Glue sticks and colored markers were never so popular!