Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Interrupting for an important announcement ....

When you live in a country without good internet access, you can't hope to keep your blog updated too regularly. But with me, this is going to be exceptionally bad.

At noon today (12 December 2012), I'll be leaving for my site. I will be serving on the island of Tongariki in the Shepherds chain. Although the Shepherds are relatively close to the main island, Efaté, they are very bush and quite difficult to get to. I don't anticipate easily getting on and off the Shepherds--I've already been delayed a few days because water levels were too high. Whenever swells are above 2m, I can't leave Tongariki to head to Tongoa, which is the only island in the chain with a (grass) landing strip. Although I will have TVL access in my house and Digicel access at my school, I will not have internet access on my island at all. Mail access will also be pretty spotty as my mail is going to come in through the cargo ship MV Brooklyn. Word on the street is that the captain of MV Brooklyn is one man Tongariki, so he does come reliably, but mail will be very slow.

I'm going to have four kastom bamboo huts (sleep house, cook house, swim house, small house) without electricity or running water for the next two years. I'll next be in town (with internet) at the end of January, and after that, probably in August, and then December (should Mama and Papa Russell come for Christmas on the islands.)

If you'd like to write, my new address is:

Amanda Russell
Pis Kops/Peace Corps
Kokonak School
PASIS: Tongariki
c/o MV Brooklyn
Tongariki, SHEFA, Vanuatu

Saturday, December 8, 2012

26 October 2012

[Updating this early on 12 December 2012, right before I go out to site ... But I'll get to that later! At this point in my journal, I was still in training. These days are not a great example of what I did in training because they were just about the most idyllic. However, I also have journal entries for these dates that I can crib from without worrying about putting up anything inappropriate, so they're going up.]

Some days are beautiful here. Yesterday was almost immeasurably perfect and I think today is going to be similar. Today and yesterday have both been cooler, somewhat crisp, quiet--kind of incongruous in the tropics, and really reminiscent of high school camping trips with my dad. (I'm a little homesick sometimes; can you tell?)

But yesterday--got up, went to morning class. It was just Bislama, so it wasn't super exciting, but it was nice--Neneth is my trainer this week, so she set us up on a scavenger hunt using the word 'klosap', which means 'around', 'nearby', 'close.' We were digging in the dirt, looking under stones and in giant buckets for tiny little scraps of rolled up pieces of paper. Prize: one giant bag of Philippines-origen barbecue corn chips!

After a brief afternoon class, I went out snorkeling in the marine protected area with Michelle K, Mike, Sara, Molly, Noni, Jess, and Lynn M. Usually it's tabu to go into the marine area, but as Mike's Apu Charlie is the man in charge of the reserve, it was all right as long as we didn't touch anything... lukluk nomo. Denis and Zac stayed on the shore hanging out and playing guitar instead of coming in, and they really missed out. The snorkeling was fantastic. My mask was a little leaky (whoops! not getting a new one, hahaha) but there were parrotfish and butterfly fish and I even saw what looked like a red snapper ... There are giant clams that close when you snorkel too close to them, and some people (i.e. Lynn Marie) saw these giant blue starfish all over the water ... Hopefully next time I can find them!

After, we went to the stream behind Ulei Secondary. It's clean fresh water--some people actually wash clothes there still, and you can bathe there if you'd like, which I think is pretty cool. Before Tanoliu got its water system put in place, everyone had to go to the stream, but now it's just a good option if you'd like to wash your laundry at high noon (much cooler underneath all the trees) or if you'd like to socialize. Walking down the street back to the village, Denis was playing all of these songs with guitar and harmonica--either Lynn M or Noni commented that it was like the soundtrack to the Peace Corps-section of our Oscar-winning biopics.

I went home, took my bucket shower, then sat for a few minutes with my mama and som smol pikinini gel I didn't recognize cutting long beans. I left to go play ultimate frisbee and got over to the Presbyterian church just in time to find out that Denis was still playing guitar, now with an audience of around 30 pikinini, a few parents, and a handful of Peace Corps (Jess and Graham, I think), ending with another rendition of Kids (at my request.) Sitting on the ground, propped up on my elbows, I couldn't help but think what everyone in Peace Corps probably feels at some point--I could be in grad school right now, or putting in my dues interning somewhere or being a baby office worker, stressing out about getting my dry cleaning done, wondering what on earth I could get for dinner... And there I was. There are all of these little stresses in my ordinary life that I feel have completely disappeared in this country. It feels like I rejected them wholesale for a new and different experience that's going to mean so much to me in the future. I mean, there I was sitting on grass here in the South Pacific listening to someone play guitar when I could have easily not come here at all, made a whole different set of choices that would have led to me becoming a whole different person entirely.

I played some frisbee with a bunch of kiddos and storianed with Lynn A and two teachers -- Class 1&2 and Class 6, they're married--then went back to my house when it started to get dark. By that point, Jess had transitioned all of the kiddos from frisbee to duck duck goose, so I was able to grab my frisbee back. Went home where--SHOCK OF ALL SHOCK--I realized that I might finally be starting to get the hang of this horrible island food business. It was cucumber, tomato, tin meat and long bean stew, kumala, and milo, and I ate two helpings of everything, even though I made my first cup of milo with salt instead of sugar. (Whoops.) I storianed with my host mama and papa about kastom and how it's different in Tanna (where my mama comes from, and where I'll be visiting in two weeks), about weddings, and why most people take such a very long time to get married. (Answer: it takes forever because it's mind boggingly expensive--bride price on Efate is 80,000 vt, or 800$, which is big bucks considering that a lot of people make only a couple hundred vatu every day.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Birthday blo mi! (18 October 2012)

Updating this on Thursday, November 15, but I wrote this entry on my birthday, October 18, so let's play pretend!

Happy birthday to me from Vanuatu! I've been meaning to journal more often but I've been just totally exhausted 100% of the time or too busy storianing with people. Storian in this country is a verb that can mean anything from hanging out with friends to aimlessly talking with people for no particular reason--I spend a lot of time nodding and going 'uh huh' and waiting for other people to think of new topics of conversation. It's great, but rough on my journaling habits, to be perfectly honest. I'm thinking that I'll start journaling during class now, since I like to go jog or wash clothes in the morning, and night time is story time, but this is probably going to be irregularly updated. Fair warning.

I'm in Tanoliu village now of north Efate, after spending a week at IDS Skripja Yunyon Baebol Kamp, about twenty orthirty minutes outside of Vila. IDS is already kind of a blur, to be honest--it was really ncie to have all of the volunteers together, especially since I love a lot of the health volunteers, and they live in Malafau village--but I was jetlagged as hell and it was a lot of boring, heavy, long stuff. You know, like health classes focusing on diarrhea and the prevalence of chlamydia in this country ... Not exactly information that's fun if you'd rather be sleeping. Probably the only session that is still really memorable was a session discussing the differences between Ni-Vanuatu and American relationships, but I'll save that for another post (maybe when I can talk about kriping as well). In addition, I've never felt like a particularly picky eater before, but sometimes during meals at IDS (and once or twice at dinner here in Tanoliu) I've found myself fantasizing about being an explorer with Ernest Shakelton or being a soldier during the Civil War or the Korean War, eating hard tack with weevils and gnawing on salt pork, or choking down some kimchi somewhere and thinking about my mom's casserole back home in Kansas, or something. It surprisingly helps minimize my whining. But yeah, food here in Vanuatu generally isn't all that great--very bland, tons of carbohydrates, not nearly enough vegetables or maet, although I'm thinking I get my 2-a-day of fruit usually (mostly all papaya, although I ate a mango today!! Ate it off of the edge of my non-stick knife and felt pretty much like a barbarian, not going to lie.)

Breakfast at IDS: Huge pieces of French bread that some mama had hacked apart with a bush knife, spread with butter and jam/peanut butter/nutella. Popo (papaya), occasionally with coconut flakes, but usually not, and never with lime. (Side note: they call both limes and lemons here "lemon", except when they call it "citron." I asked my host family if they eat popo wetem lemon, and they said yes, but so far I have never seen this happen. Strange.) They also had Lipton tea (gold standard here), Nescafe, boxed miilk, Milo, and what they called juice. Milo first--Milo is like Ovaltine, except not so sweet and not so chocolatey. You add sugar but it still doesn't really taste like anything. I've been drinking like 2 cups a day of it--maybe it will grow on me. Also, what they call juice here is what we'd refer to as squash, or drink--it's like concentrated drink mix, and it's usually mixed with lots of juice, little water.

Lunch and dinner at IDS were baically the same. It was usually boiled rice, boiled kumala or taro (the taro being undercooked for your optimal gastronomic enjoyment), slightly curry-flavored beef of chicken stew, usually with potato and island cabbage, and some type of salad. The salad was usually either a riff of coleslaw (slightly sweet with shredded carrot and green/red cabbage) or cucumber/tomato nomo. Sometimes (usually actually) they'd have lap lap or simboro, but not always. Thank God.

I'm going to be totally honest here. So far here in Tanoliu, I've only admitted to disliking one thing--and that is lap lap. Simboro is also pretty revolting, but I'm going to learn how to make it this weekend, and that means that I'll have to choke it down. Lap lap, however, is like the devil's food. It's either manioc, banana or taro grated, put inside a pot, and gently cooked over warm rocks. The result is a gelatinous mass that's hard to swallow, smells faintly musty, and tastes worse than it smells. I honestly loathe lap lap. I've tried it like ten times, I don't like it, and that's where I'm planting my flag--never surrender or retreat. (Simboro is virtually the same, except you put the mush inside island cabbage leaves and steam it. After steaming it, you pour fresh coconut milk on it. Usually my host mama makes it a good four hours before it's time to eat, meaning that it's gooey, and it a bad way. Still, it's better than lap lap.)

Onto lighter topics: so IDS is a Christian campside usually used for youth. It's right up against this great beach: walk along a small path through palm trees, and BAM: coral. The first day we arrived we all went down to the beach and it was just so shocking .... I feel like I'm writing a mash note here, but since the joke is that Peace Corps Vanuatu is an integral part of the Beach Corps, I might as well admit it: the best part of this gig is the solwata. I go all the time. It's like living in tropical island paradise--it's completely unfair. I have no idea what I did to get sent to this country, except that Vanuatu has basically the last available staging date in 2012. It's incredible and I go maybe three or four times a week? Just wonderful. In Vanatu, women usually wear a tshirt, board shorts, and a sarong called a lava lava to go swim in -- the lava lava comes off right before you go into the water -- and you can just go for however long, doesn't matter. You also have to wear thick soled shoes here since either a) you could cut your feet on coral or b) you could step on a stone fish and die. But the beaches here -- it's nothing like I've ever seen before. Have to put pictures up--just amazing.

[Have to stop typing this now since I have to go on the bus back to Tanoliu -- hopefully I can update more really, really soon, two weeks from now. May or may not have internet access between now and then--depends on if I walk to Wahoo Bar anytime soon. If I don't: still love and miss every one of you so much, and I'll get back here two weeks from now.]

Thursday, November 1, 2012

October 2012 in Vanuatu

I arrived in Port Vila, Vanuatu, on Sunday, October 7 at about 11 a.m. local time. I had a long and mostly boring trip from Los Angeles (where I had my staging) through Auckland and onto Port Vila, except for one minor disaster. The Air New Zealand staff in LA made me check my rolling suitcase, which happened to carry not only all of my electronics (eep!) but also my island change of clothes. (!!!) Background info: Although the rules about dress in Port Vila are different than they are in the rest of Vanuatu, it's not common for women to wear shorts or trousers, unless they're gardening or swimming--some sort of physical work. Even then, most women wear men's board shorts rather than anything more close-fitting, and in many villages, in public places women will tie a lava lava (like a sarong) around their waist on top of their shorts, anyway. At the time, I happened to be wearing ancient yoga pants, a tank top, and this old sweatshirt from Kappa booth my freshman year, and I had this horrible image of showing up on the first day of my stay as like the antithesis of a team player. You know: Hello! I have arrived! And I am not going to listen to any of your puny taboos about dress! Luckily, Katelynn (another trainee) had the dress she'd worn on the night before staging tucked into her carryon, so she was kind enough to let me borrow it. Crisis avoided. Whew.

When we flew in over Vanuatu, the landscape looked incredibly gorgeous from out the window. The joke is that Vanuatu isn't Peace Corps, it's Beach Corps, and the beaches did legitimately look incredible. It was shocking to finally sweep down over this totally verdant countryside: palm trees everywhere, and so, so, so green.

The airport in Port Vila is tiny. I'm not exactly certain how many runways there are, but there is exactly one baggage carousel in the entire country, if that says anything. At all the other airports throughout the country (and air is a major form of travel throughout the islands), you have to wait on the tarmac and pick up your baggage yourself. As Peace Corps volunteers, we got to go through the residents' line, so immigration was quick, and since I don't think anyone declared anything during customs, we got waved right through. I personally lied like a rug; I brought about 25 lbs of spices and food with me, and I'd heard stories that customs sometimes takes things, even though it's mostly meant to be an anti-drug and anti-foreign plants deal. So yep. Shhh.

When we got outside, we were greeted by a line of staff and current volunteers. It was pretty much a blur, to be honest--they gave us a lava lava, which is like a sarong, a sulu sulu, which is like a lei, except made out of leaves and therefore itchy as hell, and a green coconut to drink from. We shook everyone's hands, took a few pictures looking incredibly gross and greasy, and one of the volunteers from G23 who was on her last week obligingly whacked open a few coconuts with the blunt side of her bush knife. Afterwards, we all headed into taxis with one or two volunteers (Betsy and Elyse from G24 were our guides) and a staff member (I forget ...) for a quick drive through Vila.

Vila is pretty small and the amenities vary widely. I heard that at the food stands behind the Mama's Market, you can get 2 or 3 meals' worth of island kakae--sweet potato, rice, and meat with sauce--for like 350 vatu, or like $4. But if you go to a resort or a nice restaurant, you might as well just open your wallet and let them just take everything out, since they're going to, anyway. Vila is not actually a cheap place to live or stay by any means -- it's an island economy, meaning that they have to carry everything in. Prices for food are about the same as they are in America or more expensive. Chocolate, for example, is really sas we -- really expensive. A big bar of Cadbury can cost you about 680 vatu, or like 7.50, 8$. But like a beer at a bar can be like 4.50 vatu, or like 5$, and a can of Coke is like 80 vatu at the store, like 85 cents. On the other hand, clothes here can sometimes be really cheap--you can get an island dress for like 800 vatu, or only a little more than the price of a big chocolate bar, and I just bought a skirt today for 500 vt. (Today being date of typing, rather than date of the story.) Anyway, slight digression aside, Vila is an interesting place. It's more western than the rest of Vanuatu--sometimes you'll see Ni-Van women dressing in short skirts or shorter shorts--but it's definitely a split kind of a place, with very different amenities for Ni-Vans, expatriates, and tourists, all of whom have different price points they're willing to uphold. Also interestingly, it has a very different racial makeup than the rest of Vanuatu--there are a large number of Chinese immigrants in Vila, many of whom are small business people, running stores generally known as 'Chinese.' If you go to a Chinese shop, they sell all sorts of dry goods--clothes, pencils, ipods, soap, light bulbs, plastic containers, bush knives, cups--basically anything, but the quality can vary widely.

Some of the Chinese goods are really great--I bought these great Chinese pens at the stationary store--but sometimes they can be pretty shabby.

 After our drive through Vila, we headed over to IDS Skripja Yunyon Baebol Kamp for a week of Bislama learning, basic medicine, and fun/games. Time for another blog post! Hopefully I'll be able to put something up in the next week or two, next time I get internet ...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


I got into Vanuatu four days ago! I'm currently in the resource room of the Peace Corps office, but I don't have a lot of time to make an update since I have to run really quick. Hopefully I'll be able to put up a better set of posts in a few weeks ... months?

I'm currently in Pango Village at IDS Bible Camp, maybe like 20-25 minutes outside of the capital. On Sunday, I'll be moving to a village on the northeast part of Efaté Island, where I'll be until about December 6th (swearing in.) No internet, not sure about power ... This is looking very fun, and also like I'm not going to be able to easily keep this updated. (Still, thanks mom! I'll send you a letter as soon as I can!) I just bought a couple of things at Au Bon Marché (like a miniature Target) and a nice bush knife to go crack open coconuts and kill things with. I think that this is going to end up a lot of fun--I'll give you a better heads up when I can!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

TO DO--Eight days to go!

I have eight days until I head off to LA, and then nine days until I fly to Vanuatu. In short, @#$@SDASAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. I both feel like I have basically done everything already (I have -- haven't I?) and also that there's an endless supply of little nitpicky tasks that I need to accomplish before I go. Things like:

1. Vote. Conveniently I got my emailed ballot last weekend, and so all I need to do is stop being hilariously lazy, print out the dumb thing, and hunt for a stamp.

2. Cancel my contract with AT&T. Allegedly, they'll let PCVs use the military pause on contracts and will let you take a timeout while still keeping your number, but you have to call them once a year to keep it active.

3. Find (or buy) new USB connectors for my DS and camera.

4. Actually decide what bags I want to take and start putting stuff in them. I was feeling pretty ambitious this morning and started to iron clothes, then proceeded to melt a bit of cheap plastic lace and get green bits stuck on a tshirt. Urgh. I now have a vision of moving to Vanuatu with everything I own covered in little stupid green bits. Clearly I'll be the classiest and most attractive elementary school teacher ever to hang out in my village.

5. Finish doing media things -- change all of my .epubs to .mobis and take things off of my laptop and move them onto my external hard drive. My CD drive is messed up so I currently don't have any movies on my drive, but other people in Group 25 sound like they have a bunch of stuff ... Hope so! Otherwise, I'm going to be relying on my kindle and In Our Time Podcasts from BBC Radio 4 (you seriously can hear every capital letter when they read it aloud) and I suspect that will get really old, really quickly.

6. Clean out my closet of all the clothes I think will look childish, dumb, or freshman girl on a night out  on a twenty-five year old. I'm also trying to get rid of basics, like white t shirts or leggings, since I think I'll probably just want to buy new ones when I get back.

7. Decide if I want to update this blog with a giant data upload once every few months or if I want to snail mail my blog entries to someone in my family and have them put things on here.

I guess that those are the main things that I have to do... That, and possibly say good bye to Houston. I'm not sure if my parents will still be here when I come back (they're not sure, either) and it's sort of bittersweet to think about every little errand being the last time I go here and everything. Meh.

I think I must have used up all of my nervous energy on worrying about whether or not I'd be accepted to PC, so I don't even feel very nervous about any of this. I've just had the longest summer of my life (May-October) and I really am ready to go. Just eight days, though ...

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Staging Update!

I've been putting off updating this blog for about two weeks in the hopes that inspiration would strike and I would write a really fantastic and insightful post. Hah! However, since staging is now exactly two weeks away (eek!) there's no time like the present to explain a little more about what I've been up to and where I am going.

At the moment, I'm still packing for Vanuatu, and I'm pretty sure I'll be packing up until the last possible minute. My Kindle has about five hundred books on it and I've been trying to put as much music as I can on my laptop. I seem to have bought some weird external hard drive that doesn't automatically want to work with my newly-prettified Mac, so I'll need to have my older brother check it out this weekend before I can put any movies or TV shows on there. According to all of the current volunteers who've been on Facebook the past few weeks, there's a big community external hard drive in the main office in Port Vila that everyone shares off of, but it's always good for new volunteers to bring whatever they have, also, so that people have a wider variety of materials to look at. As far as actual packing goes, I have my hammock; my snorkeling gear; about twenty pounds of peanut butter, spices, hot sauce, fussy little drink packets, and tea; yoga mat; a couple of pairs of shoes; pocket knives and a big ceramic knife; Nalgenes; a world map and a map of the US; an American flag (need to go looking for a Texan one); my old flute; and a bunch of other odds and ends (jogging armband, Timex ...) . I only have a hundred pound weight allowance, though, and it's possible that I could have to carry that hundred pounds five hours up a mountain (no joke--one of the current vols actually lives five hours up a mountain) so I am a little concerned that I'll wind up with too much stuff ...

As far as clothes go, I have a bunch of knee and calf length skirts, two dresses, and a bunch of shirts which I hope scream both "professional teacher" and "easily washable." I'm planning on getting more clothes when I get there, since I do want to look like I'm wearing the right things (island dresses with bold prints on them, here I come!) but the main thing I'm trying to figure out now is how many non-work clothes I want to bring. The packing list said to bring a dress to go out in Port Vila in, and the current volunteers on Facebook have said that it's worthwhile to have American-style clothes to putz around the house in, but I'm pretty sure I can't wear American college-age shorts or leggings outside of my house without causing alarm. It sounds like my parents are thinking of coming for Christmas 2013, and that's another thing--assuming that they'll come visit my village but that we'll also go to the capital and around some, I'll probably want some clean, stain-free western style clothes as well. Maybe I should try to guess now what I'd like to wear in a year? Watch as I'm the one volunteer in the history of the program who actually adores Vanuatu food and I promptly gain fifty pounds. I doubt that will happen--it sounds like the food there is very root vegetable-based, lots of taro and sweet potato, and generally kind of bland, but who knows?

I don't have a lot of time left to figure things out, though. I'm leaving tonight to go to Richmond for the weekend, to see my family one more time before I go. Friday I'm getting lunch with my grandmother and at least my Uncle Richard (not sure about Aunt Carol or anyone else) and then hopefully going to the hospital up in Reston to see my grandfather. Saturday, I'm hanging out with Nick and Anna, and tentatively getting coffee with Naseem, who'll be another volunteer with me in Vanuatu. Sunday, it'll be Ben and Alyssa and I think a little of my Aunt Patricia and Co., and then Monday, it's back to Houston. I've been saying bye to and touching base with a lot of people over the past few weeks -- went to New Orleans over Labor Day weekend with Marina (which was amazing!!), went out one last time with Emily to the most Texan dance bar we could find, had lunch/dinner with friends, and it's kind of ridiculous to believe how soon I'll be out of Houston, maybe for good if my parents do move. I've been trying to eat everything that sounds tasty and do everything that sounds fun one last time, even though that's a bit of a tall order.

As far as staging/start of service goes, however, this is the timeline at the moment:

October 4: My mom and dad are taking the day off from work to see me off for my 12:35 p.m. flight to LAX. I'll get in around 2, at the same time as a couple of other volunteers, then head over to the Radisson in the airport. We have to be checked in by 6 p.m., but then the evening's free. I assume I'm going to be getting dinner with other volunteers, and about a dozen of us decided that we're going to go see the midnight premiere of the new Tim Burton movie that night. I will have kind of an early day the next day, but Lonely Planet Vanuatu said that there are two movie theaters in the whole country, and one of them shows movies in badly-dubbed French, so it should be kind of a blast.

October 5: From 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. I have staging. They said to wear professional attire, but since I don't have infinite space in my luggage, I think I'm assuming that means "look like a clean adult human being" and I'll wear one of the teaching outfits I've packed. It's like a long pre-training info session where they talk about safety and expectations and stuff like that, I think, but also a way for us to introduce ourselves to the other volunteers. Most of us won't work near each other, but we'll be in the same training village for about three months together, so it's important that we get to know each other. Around 10:35 p.m., my flight will leave for Auckland, New Zealand!

October 6: Owing to the International Date Line, we skip this day.

October 7th: Arrive in Auckland. We have enough time to go through customs and change out of leggings and into our island clothes, and then it's a three hour flight to Port Vila, Vanuatu!

We'll be in Port Vila for a little while, and then we'll head over to Efaté--I don't know exactly when, but I'll let you all know as soon as I do. Only two more weeks to go until this all gets started!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Welcome to my blog!

Hi everyone!

My name is Amanda Russell. I recently graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and, for my very first job, will be leaving for Vanuatu in October to serve as an English Literacy volunteer with the Peace Corps for twenty-seven months.

My first response to finding out where I was going involved stunned silence and something very articulate along the lines of: "So, uh, Vanuatu? Huh. Um. How 'bout that? Um... Where is that?" As my brother and sister-in-law can testify, I was absolutely convinced that I was going to serve in either Eastern Europe/West Asia or in Africa, and hadn't even thought about the South Pacific as an option, so learning that I was going to go to Vanuatu was a total shock. We quickly settled a few questions (they don't eat spam; they occasionally eat dog; they sorta maybe kinda speak English; it's a hike and a half to get there), but the more I read about Vanuatu, the more excited I am -- it seems like I really lucked out. The Peace Corps packing guide told me to pack my own snorkeling gear, after all.

So where is Vanuatu? And, uh, what is Vanuatu? If you go to a map and find New Zealand, then look a little northwest, you'll run right into it. It's a tiny nation composed of 80-odd islands (60-some of which are inhabited) with about 220,000 people and roughly 100 local languages. Until 1980, it was known at the New Hebrides (or les Nouvelles-Hébrides, si tu préfères) and was jointly ruled by the French and the British as a Condominum. (Yeah, it's a little mysterious to me, as well.) After independence, during which the islands were renamed Vanuatu (meaning something like independent land), and the people started to go by the name Ni-Vanuatu, or people of Vanuatu. Theirs is a long and complex history, featuring everything from blackbirding (forced slavery on Fiji and Australia), missionaries, kastom, and cannibalism to sundown towns, liberty (and land redistribution) and tourism, and hopefully sometime before I go I can write a post that outlines my understanding of it.

Until I leave for staging in Los Angeles on October 5th, I'm going to be packing and getting ready for my trip. This is probably a sign that I am A) a reader and B) something of a horrible control freak, but one of my main ways to prepare for serving as a volunteer in Vanuatu has been to do obsessive research. In addition to reading blogs of current volunteers, I've been reading books on the country to try and get a feel for where I'm going. Earlier this summer, I raided the Houston Public Library for every book I could get about Vanuatu--being the Lonely Planet, Getting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost, and The Shark God by Charles Montgomery, as well as a couple of others that were just generally about Melanesia. Troost's book had a dumb provocative title but was a good read. The Shark God, though, was really great -- it was all about an atheist from Canada retracing his English great-grandfather's footsteps as a missionary in Vanuatu, and talks all about the history of the country (via the lens of missionaries and others) and the tension the author feels as a non-believing outsider in what seems to be always described as a wholly religious land, whether kastom, Christian, or six-of-one-half-a-dozen-of-the-other. (More about that later).

I've also been trying to get a head start on learning Bislama, which is an English-based creole, and, along with English and French, one of three national languages in the islands, but that's been a bit of a drag. I've found a website that hosts a copy of the New Testament in Bislama, but other than that and a short podcast that the Peace Corps sent us, there doesn't look like there's anything else in that language online. It actually looks a great deal like English, so I hope it's as easy to pick up as it sounds, but it's still very interesting to look at. As an example, the first verse of Revelesen (Revelation) starts: Long buk ya, mi Jon mi raetem ol samting we Jisas Kraes i soemaot long mi. Hemia ol samting we God i givim long hem, blong hem i soemaot long ol man blong hem. Ol samting ya, bambae i no longtaem, oli kamtru. Mo Jisas i sanem enjel blong hem i kam, blong i soemaot ol samting ya long mi, we mi mi man blong wok blong hem. When you say it out loud, it actually makes some sort of sense in English, but it's still a little different. I mean, it's a book written by John about something Jesus Christ something something something God given, something something came true, something Jesus and angels ... I've read that Bislama can be described as English vocabulary with an Oceanic grammar, and since I know nothing about Oceanic grammar, that sounds good to me!

But yep! The next month and a half, I will be saying good bye to my friends and family while reading up about Vanuatu and trying to decide if, say, a solar charger for my laptop is a fantastic idea or a colossally dumb idea. (Point in favor: I presumably will be able to watch TV on my computer when my village completely shuts down for the Sabbath. Point against: solar chargers don't work when it rains. And it rains a lot.) But I'll keep you all posted. Lukim yu!