Monday, February 18, 2013

Looking at other islands

I took this photo while walking around a while back. Tongariki is really, really green:

If you look in the distance, the first two islands are uninhabited. In the far back is the island of Tongoa, where my airport is.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Traveling to Tongariki

It's been a long time since I updated this blog, but that's what happens when you live on an island without internet access! I've been back in town since January 18th, but I've been postponing an update in the hopes that my new laptop would one day come in the mail. Unfortunately, since it's now over three weeks late, and DHL can't promise that I'll get it before I go back to Tongariki on Friday, I can't delay this any longer. I hope that over the next few days I can retrieve some photos from my old computer--without any photos, I think it's really hard to understand how this country looks, and, specifically, what my site looks like. I could tell you to imagine Jurassic Park with a shanty town, but I still don't think that gives it quite enough credit. Tongariki looks amazing.

As I said in the last post, to get to my site I have to fly to the airport on the island of Tongoa and then take a fiberglass boat over to Tongariki. Flights from Vila to Tongoa are not particularly reliable, but they do occur regularly three days a week--Monday, Wednesday, and Friday--when you can catch them. I was originally scheduled to leave Vila on Monday, December 10th--but since the water was too high for safe travel in the boat, I was delayed until Wednesday the 12th.

On Wednesday, I went out to the airport, laden down with all sorts of bags, mattresses, and boxes, only to find out three hours after the flight was scheduled to depart that Air Vanuatu had cancelled the flight. A minister from Tanna, the big kastom island down in the south of Vanuatu, had died up in Santo in the north, and so they needed an airplane to take his body down for burial. The domestic terminal of the airport was absolutely packed with people holding mats, flowers, and food, so I had thought that it might be a wedding, but it was actually just a bunch of man Tanna who had come to do their part for the dead. I heard from Rose, the volunteer down in Tanna who I visited back in November, that it seemed like every truck in that island took part in the funeral procession--he was a very important man in Tafea province, and Tanna especially is famous for going all out for kastom celebrations.

I finally was able to leave Vila on December 14th. It was a pretty emotional day for me--a volunteer went home early that morning, while the last two of us from our group were finally heading out to site--and I felt like I was constantly ricocheting between excitement and terror. When we had site announcements, I felt a little underwhelmed about my site. To be perfectly honest, I had been hoping for an extremely bush site, probably since I had some weird ideas about how a bush site would be this classic Peace Corps/Zen experience. Then, when I found out that I was going to Tongariki--which is moderately bush and fairly isolated--I immediately realized that I was an absolute moron and would probably want a proper shower or electricity in my house at some point in my service. At site announcements, I had learned the basics: no running water, no electricity, water seal toilet, solar charger at the school, no market, no bank, no post office, no airport... Furthermore, since Tongariki is in the Shepherds, it's more isolated than a lot of other posts. I'm lucky to have a very lovely volunteer on a nearby island, but the next closest volunteers are up on Epi or back on Efate, which is like the capital island. That means that while a lot of volunteers can hike a couple of hours or take a truck to another volunteer's site for the weekend, I can't really visit anyone on a casual basis (except for the aforementioned nearby girl). If I want to visit someone, I have to jump on the cargo ship that comes to my island (the MV Brooklyn) and commit to staying somewhere else in week-long increments. Tongariki is nowhere near one of the bushest sites here in Vanuatu, since the school has a big solar panel, I have reasonably full cell phone coverage (TVL everywhere, Digicel [which I can use for free texts/calls to other PCVs] at the school and down by the beach, and there are little stores on the island that sell basics like peanut butter and tinned makerel. But at the time -- as I was preparing to leave -- I kept thinking to myself, I went to college for this?

The plane from Vila to Tongoa is a little eight-seater, counting the pilot and (always absent) copilot. You don't need to present any identifying information; you don't have to go through any security line; and, as Mike from my group found out, no one will stop you from carrying a gigantic bush knife with you on the plane.You have to weigh all of your belongings (and yourself) to get on the plane, but there are basically no rules about what you can or can't carry. In fact, on my flight back into town, a woman carried a live chicken--all Air Vanuatu did was make her put a checked sticker on its leg. Despite how it might sound, it's actually a really civilized experience to fly in this country, and the whole system is pretty honest, too. When my flight was cancelled on that Wednesday back in December, I was able to leave some checked luggage at the airport for two days without any of it going missing. Unfortunately, since the plane is so small, flying is not the most pleasant experience. It only takes about thirty minutes to go from Vila to Tongoa, but since it's such a short distance, it's a recipe for motion sickness.

When I got to Tongoa, I had another moment in which I thought to myself, Wait, what am I doing? In my defense, the airport in Tongoa is a grass landing strip and I saw pigs running across the field while the plane landed. The airport itself is a two-room aluminum house that gets locked up with a padlock at night, and I have since met the man who does check-in. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, like all other things in Vanuatu, travel is a fairly personal experience.

When I got off the plane, I was greeted by my then-headmaster and the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Erata village. The headmaster has now been transfered to Ekipe village on Efate (chockfull of all man Tongariki) but since he was the one to apply for a Peace Corps, he was the one to greet me. I was introduced to a bunch of people that I think are part of my extended family but who I have never seen again. A strange thing about Vanuatu is that everyone is related to everyone somehow; if you put two strangers in a room for three hours, they'd somehow find out that they are tawis, or in-laws. It's absurd. After about twenty minutes we hopped on a truck for a very bumpy thirty minute ride. There are a fair number of trucks on Tongoa, but the dirt roads are in such poor condition that travel is fairly slow. When we got to the pasis, there was a small boat waiting on the beach for me. As it turns out, it is the only motor boat that my island has--when my neighbor is too busy to take passengers, we have to use the boat from Buninga.

That day was drizzly and a little gray, so as we headed off to Tongariki, islands appeared out from under the mist one by one. At first, it was thrilling--here I am, at the edge of the universe! An hour later, when we finally got to the black stone beaches, I was mostly thrilled that I hadn't vomited all over myself. The men on the boat helped me get off onto the stones, and then threw all of my belongings off of the boat (...). While they jumped off into the saltwater and dragged the boat back onto the beach, I looked around dazed. Tongariki--as I will prove tomorrow--looks like something out of LOST.

I honestly don't understand how I live here.