Thursday, July 31, 2014

Thanks USAID for the water!

A few months back I applied for a USAID SPA grant. SPA means Small Project Assistance and it's for projects related to climate change. Here in Vanuatu, it really makes sense to do water projects with it. I applied for roughly 10,000 USD in order to get 6 water tanks, and I got it!

[Thank yu USAID ... NBV gave me my money in a manila envelope. Those would be 5000 vatu notes right there. I don't know why Spider Man is there.]

So I run around Vila with my money in an envelope. Roughly 6500 at the tank place, 2500 at the ship's office, and the rest over at the hardware store. 

Everything goes on the ship, whereupon...

 So the approved way to get water tanks to shore is ... to throw them off the side of the ship.

Here are people trying to maneuver over to the shore. 
Push push push.

On top!

So now Tongariki has 21,300L of extra water tank space. Thanks USAID! This is going to make a nice difference -- the population exceeds the water storage space that we already have. Climate change is going to affect Pacific islands probably more than anywhere else on Earth. Luckily, Vanuatu is volcanic and it's not atolls, so, unlike with Tuvalu, there's no threat that we'll go under the water. But it's so hard to live out here and if there's not enough water during the dry season more and more frequently, this is going to make life even harder than it already is.

Good News!

Good news! The policy on feminine products has reverted back to normal. A number of volunteers wrote emails and contacted different people in the DC office, and things are back to the way they were before. It's a little thing, but it's not a situation you want to find yourself in ... 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Let's Talk (About Periods)

Peace Corps advertises itself as taking care of its volunteers' medical needs, but unfortunately in Vanuatu, one really important medical supply has been cut. According to DC, tampons/pads/diva cups are not a core health need and will no longer be provided to volunteers.

This is really out of touch with the realities of volunteers' lives here in Vanuatu. I live on a really tiny island and last year, when a woman in my village had a miscarriage, there wasn't a single pad on the entire island for her to use for her bleeding. This sort of thing happens in Vanuatu. Tampons are not available at all outside of Vila and Luganville, and you can't expect to buy pads, due to the nature of shipping. (Sometimes your store might have them and sometimes it might not, but as a woman, you're going to need them one week a month, every month. Everything comes out of Vila and maybe it'll make it out to you and maybe it won't. Maybe your ship will run and maybe you'll get a ship every few months.) Urban volunteers can probably buy their own menstrual supplies (at 10$ a pop) but volunteers in the bush can't just go to the store and buy a pack of tampons when they need them.

Especially at a time when DC seems to be trying to say that they're really supportive of volunteers, this seems tone deaf. I don't think DC wants us to be using cloth or leaves instead of Kotex, but they're not they're not thinking about the situation on the ground, here in Vanuatu. I'm sure in Thailand or Nicaragua or Moldova, volunteers can go to the store and buy their own tampons and it's not an issue, but I don't live in Thailand or Nicaragua or Moldova. 

Here's the email I got from the quality nurse. I really think that she just doesn't get it. Vanuatu is not like other countries; this stuff isn't available everywhere. Tampons, pads, and diva cups are a basic need, unlike moisturizing lotion.

Dear Ms. Russell,
While we do appreciate your concerns; the Office of Health Services cannot supply non-medical supplies to Volunteers.  Below you will find the email that we are sending to Vanuatu Volunteers explaining the policy.  Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have further questions.

The Office of Health Services (OHS) is authorized to provide medical supplies; toiletries, such as shampoo, moisturizing lotion, toothpaste/brushes, deodorant , tampons/pads/diva cups are not considered core health items and should not be provided by the health unit.  We can appreciate that personal supplies may be difficult to obtain in Vanuatu and that you are living isolated lives without many services or comforts.   While the policy not to provide toiletries may seem insensitive to your particular situations,  our mission is to provide health services.  This decision was not made without careful research and input from Volunteers, and staff alike; both in the field, at post and at HQ.  An intense yearlong study of OHS policy regarding medical supplies and inventory conducted by the Peace Corps Leadership Development Academy (LDA) concluded that valuable OHS resources (which in addition to funds, includes the time that PCMOs spend on filling orders for non-medical supplies) were being allocated to non-clinical/medical supplies and duties.   Peace Corps leadership accepted these recommendations in an attempt to keep finite funds available to provide the medical coverage that you refer to in your email and to free up the PCMOs to provide healthcare.  Every hour that a PCMO spends filling orders for non-medical supplies is an hour away from patient care.

Volunteer concerns, opinions and requests are respected, reviewed, researched and presented to administration for determination as appropriate.  We  are truly  grateful to each of you for choosing  to serve your country and the peoples of Vanuatu!
Nothing is more important to the Peace Corps than our volunteers, and though we can never fully overcome all the inherent challenges of providing health services  abroad, we must do all we can to preserve  precious resources for those times when those services are needed.

Warmest Regards,

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Other NYT Article

I wanted to respond to another piece that was put up on the NYT today. They're all really interesting essays that I feel really represent a good variety of opinions on the Peace Corps, by PCVs. Reading them, I was nodding my head, even when I've come to reach different conclusions than the author did.

Peace Corps Volunteers in their own Words

I want to talk about the piece by Emily Best. She served for a year in Senegal before ETing. She says:

For me, the most frustrating part of Peace Corps was its culture. The onus of success seemed to be placed solely on the volunteer. If the volunteer struggles, it’s because she isn’t trying hard enough to adapt. It’s a culture that ignores factors like: a host family with rigid expectations, a host brother making sexual remarks (or worse), a community in flux, incompetent administrative employees or poor program management. The culture tells the volunteer to make it work, and the volunteer quickly learns how to navigate within these confines. 

Gatherings of volunteers often resulted in an outpouring of frustration, negativity and unhappiness. Volunteers coped by drinking too much, lashing out at locals and acting in ways they wouldn’t dare at home.
I found this to be extremely insightful--even though Senegal is a much different post than Vanuatu--and I think Best really struck the target with her division of blame when it comes to dissatisfied, out-of-sorts volunteers. I see this at my post, too, and even participate in it, some, although I'm aware it's not always fair.
I try to be fairly honest in this blog. I'm having a very good experience with Peace Corps/Vanuatu. I don't always love everything about my site, but overall I've had exactly the life-shaping experience that I was hoping for. I was a child when I entered the Peace Corps and I'm an adult now. I no longer feel a sense of confusion or a lack of purpose in my life. I feel like for the first time in my life, my head is on straight and I'm not worried about prestige or what other people think about me. This has been good.
It's not true for everyone. Some people have a miserable time in the Peace Corps. Sometimes their communities aren't really safe, or interested, or excited about development, and sometimes the volunteer is cocky and self-righteous, or looks down on local people. Sometimes the volunteer is really a good egg and their community is good, too, but the strain of living away from home makes the volunteer stressed, angry, and sad in turns. Some volunteers deal with their unhappiness well and some don't--I've seen some people behave like how Best describes in that second paragraph, although I think Best is overstating how many people behave that badly.
And the temptation is to blame the volunteer. I see myself doing it, too. Sometimes I look at another volunteer and I think, Why isn't he/she trying harder? If only he/she did XYZ, their service would improve and they'd be happy. Why doesn't he/she try harder?
It's totally unfair. I don't know their life. It's so arrogant of us to think that we know what's up with another volunteer, why they're unhappy, and what they could do to fix it. I know it's unfair, even though we all do it. 
I think it's a psychological coping mechanism. By comparing myself to a volunteer who is struggling (by struggling, read: expressing more discontent than I am at any given point in time), I come out looking great. I can forget about all the things I do badly and get all self-satisfied, thinking, if that volunteer just went to church on Sundays and talked to everybody like I do, they'd be so much better off. It's building yourself up by putting other people down, blaming the volunteer all the time when it takes two (a vol and a village) to tango. Some villages are more suited to volunteers and some volunteers are most suited to working in a particular context. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Weird lighting, but this sums up my entire Peace Corps experience...

I was playing around with my camera which is why the lighting is so messed up. That's Daddy Paul with an enormous fish. Wilma is just chilling in the foreground. Auntie Ruth is doing dishes. And that mosquito net? That's the net that's being used to pick up leaves and other dirty.

In front of my host families old kitchen, some time in 2013.

Where I've gone

I'm counting every island, even the teeny tiny ones!

1. Efate

2. Hat Island
3. Hideaway Island (resort, still counts)
4. Erakor Island (ditto)
5. Tanna
6. Tongoa
7. Tongariki
8. Buninga
9. Epi
10. Ambae
11. Santo (afternoon layover)
12. Iririki Island (see Hideaway, Erakor)
13. Makira
14. Mataso
15. Emau
16. Emae
17. Ambrym

Most of those islands are tiny, tiny islands. I've rounded the Shepherds now (Tongoa, Tongariki, Buninga, Emae, Makira, Mataso.) Tanna was for HVV; Epi, I was visiting friends (and trying to go home); Ambae, visiting friends; Ambrym, a workshop (and a volcano.) The other ones are all day trip things.

I want to go back to Santo and do it properly. Next year, I'm hoping to move to an outer island not on this list ... stay tuned. And I would like, if I have enough money, go to Gaua next year in August for this big kastom festival (+volcano, natch.) I am planning on going to Pentecost, too, if possible, for the land diving next year.

Travel in Vanuatu is $$$$$, but all of the islands are so different, I think it's really worthwhile to go around. I say this and say this and say this, but Vanuatu is not like Fiji or Samoa where almost everyone shares the same culture. There's 106 local languages in the country, and kastom varies widely from island to island. On Tanna, women spoil kava if they get within sight of the nakamal; on my island, women chew their own when they want to drink. Physically, too, the islands are very different -- sand beaches, stone beaches, mountains, people who live "on top" or who live down at the ocean, access to water, et cetera, et cetera. If I had lots of money (read: a yacht), I'd love to travel throughout all of Vanuatu. To see every island, every kastom ... that'd be so beautiful. It's such a wonderful country. 

Recent NY Times Article

The New York Times recently published an article about the 2013 death in China of Peace Corps Volunteer Nick Castle. It's an interesting read that gave me a lot to reflect on and I encourage other people to read it.

Trail of Medical Missteps in a Peace Corps Death

I've been happy with my medical care in Vanuatu. We have a Filipino doctor and an Australian nurse, both of whom are really responsive and attentive to volunteers' needs. Recently I got some sort of bacterial infection that caused my foot to swell up to gargantuan proportions -- like, I couldn't even find a slip on shoe large enough to fit it anywhere -- and the doctor has been doing nightly house calls to give me antibiotic shots. (Now the swelling's gone down a bit, but the foot still has enough water that when I press into it, the indentation stays for a good minute or two. Very disgusting seeing your feet look like an egg crate!)

One thing I didn't realize until I came to Vanuatu was how doctors everywhere are not always as professional or attentive as we expect in the States. I can imagine this affecting other posts (although I don't know exactly what went on in China, and, like I said, this is not the case in Vanuatu.) One instance: our doctor doesn't do gynecological exams, so we have to go to private doctors. This happened to me with an Israeli doctor and to another girl with a French doctor. Neither of us were offered gowns, and the French doctor apparently had the bedside manner of a slug. It was still medical care, but not exactly what you hope for.

I liked what Nick Castle's father said, about how he didn't expect his son to die in the Peace Corps because it's not like Afghanistan. It's so true. Peace Corps does do a good job (I think) of teaching volunteers to minimize risk, even withdrawing volunteers from country if the country is no longer safe. (Honduras, Ukraine, Mali, Kenya ...) It's a government organization, and definitely no one goes overseas with the idea that they might not come back.

I do feel like there are risks that can't be eliminated without eliminating Peace Corps' inherent mission. Peace Corps is supposed to promote world peace and friendship through 1) providing countries with trained men and women, 2) teaching those host country nationals about America and the American way of life, and 3) teaching Americans about HCNs, who they are, and how they live. We do this by working in mostly rural, under-served areas, at the ground level, and not in big, capital cities with excellent, American-standard hospitals. One thing I think is different about Peace Corps, and--I'm biased--I'll argue is better, is this particular focus on rural and ground-level work. Other volunteer organizations in Vanuatu are predominately located in or around town centers. Some volunteers work at high-level positions doing policy work without knowing much about culture, conditions in the villages, or even the language. They do a lot of good work, but I like that Peace Corps is known for going out in the bush and doing our work there. It's bottom-up rather than top-down development.

There are risks involved in doing this type of work--namely, that when volunteers have health emergencies, they don't have access to the same type of American-standard medical care. As volunteers, we do take a lot of risks, and I think for the most part, most of us find that we can accept some dangers because of the reward we get from volunteering. These risks are still there, and I think it's important for volunteers and for anyone thinking of doing Peace Corps to think about what if. I'm 24 and to an extent still think of myself as invincible--but, obviously, I'm not. This was a sobering read and a very interesting thing to look at.

Friday, July 25, 2014

So you got invited to Vanuatu...Packing list

I meant to write one of these before, but I figure better late than never!

When I was invited to Vanuatu, I spent forever stalking blogs to try and get an idea of what my life was going to be like. Unfortunately, in Vanuatu, you can't really tell how it's going to play out. Post is trying to get volunteers more involved in their site placement, but sites range from totally bush (aka me) to really pretty fancy (internet, flush toilet, running water and electricity, meat every day.) I'm going to do this post from my perspective, so for a volunteer who's thinking or wondering if they're going to be assigned to a bush community. It's also really written for a woman -- I don't know as much about men's clothing here.

This is my idea of a packing list:

1 pair of running shoes and 1 pair of flip flops. You take your shoes on and off constantly so I don't recommend getting chacos or other fancy hiking sandals. The flip flops here are of poor quality but they're cheap and widely available.

Lots and lots and lots of underwear. Bras are available but they're either very expensive or very poor quality, and the sizing isn't that great. Sports bras aren't really available if you want something that'll actually work for exercising. The underwear is cheap Chinese synthetic stuff, very bad quality. PC provides a list that says 2 weeks, but I'd say more like 4. Get your mom to ship you some extra if you don't have any.

Bring socks for your running shoes. You can get socks here.

1 or 2 pairs of yoga pants, long or capri. You'll want this for your house. Maybe even one pair of bike or short shorts, also for your house.

1 pair of jeans, for being in the capital.

1 pair of respectable looking long shorts. You'll need board shorts, but you can buy cheap ones in the capital.

5-7 calf-length skirts. You can wear knee-length skirts, but calf-length skirts are better because in Vanuatu you spend lots of time squatting and getting up and down from the floor. These are very available in Vila.

6 tank tops and 6 t shirts. Vanuatu is a pretty casual place and very hot, so you'll be wearing tank tops a lot. I'd recommend not getting ribbed ones for all of them, just because this is a conservative place and some communities will think that close fitting shirts are inappropriate. This sounds dumb, but also check that the neckline is good for leaning over.

2 or 3 bikinis or swim suits (for town wear and vacation.)

1 zip up hoodie.

1 or 2 light sweaters.

1 raincoat with a hood. I wish I'd brought a rain coat! I brought a wind breaker -- not the same thing. And 1 or 2 high quality foldable umbrellas. The umbrellas here are terrible.

DON'T BRING: Dresses. (You can buy them cheap in Vila and, if you're like me, you'll bring ones that you can't wear. You'll get lots of island dresses to wear to church, anyway.) Don't bring too much lounge wear for around your house. I brought lots of short shorts that I can't wear anywhere. Nothing should be white. White things go brown super quickly. I'd say let go on sunglasses--they're cheap here. And you can buy jewelry here, too.


Electronics die in Vanuatu very quickly. Bring a laptop that you're not attached to, a big external hard drive, an ipod, a camera, and a kindle. If you have a smart phone, that's ok. Just remember that everything dies in Vanuatu. Don't buy solar panels in the states or fancy solar lights. Those are available in Vila at reasonable prices (and you don't know what you'll need until you get here.)


If you wear makeup, bring a little bit. I haven't found any reasonably priced makeup in Vanuatu that's of decent quality. I don't wear it at site (doubt that anyone does outside of extendees with office jobs) but when you're going out to dinner with your friends, it's nice.

If you're really picky about any brands, bring that with you. Peace Corps provides sunblock, bug spray, face wash, applicator-less tampons, and so on. You can buy American or Australian brands of everything in town. In outer islands, usually stores will still sell shampoo, bar soap, and coconut oil, but they usually don't have deodorant, conditioner, lotion, et cetera. The sunblock they give is really, really thick but it does work. They give vitamins, too.

As far as medicine goes, bring a few months of everything you use. If you use herbal medicine or protein supplements or something like that, bring more. PC doesn't give that.


You can buy cards in Vila and there's a PC library. I'd recommend having a laptop, kindle, and ipod, but you don't need any of those. If you're really into some hobby, bring what you need -- like your guitar, art supplies, et cetera.


Bring a few snacks from home, to help with the first few weeks. It took me a while to get adjusted to the food and it would have been nice to have had something else to eat. Don't go overboard.

Bring spices. They're available in Vila but a little expensive, so it's worth while bringing some. Don't go overboard (I definitely did.)

Bring hot sauce!

DON'T BRING: Peanut butter (it's everywhere!! why did I bring two huge Skippys with me??).


If you really like coffee, it's worth it to bring a French press.

1 pocket knife.

1 purse or backpack.

I think that's about it -- I'll update it if I can think of anything else.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

C/o Daddy Paul...

Once upon a time in August 2013, I went over to Buninga island to visit another PCV. Since Buninga is sorely lacking in kava (o sori), I asked Daddy Paul if he'd mind digging up a stampa kava for me to take over. (Dranks.) Daddy Paul said OK, as long as I took a stampa over for his tawi the boat driver, but he was concerned. How would I be able to tell which stampa was mine, and which was Lolo Joel's?

Yep, that's my name which got carved into the stampa with a knife.

Disgusting lovely water.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What's funny about the Shepherds...

The Shepherds are kind of different from other places I've been in Vanuatu. What's different about them is that they're just a bunch of small, small islands dotted throughout the ocean. I stand on top in one village or at my school, and I can just see out to the other islands--Tongoa, Buninga, Emae, Makira, Mataso. I can see Epi and Efate even, a little more in the distance -- same with the islands around North Efate. 

Back before (before being a concept here that means a longish time ago but not so long that people would forget -- think 150 years ago) I've heard that young men used to routinely canoe (and occasionally swim) between the islands. That island that you see in the picture is Buninga, and it's about an hour canoe trip, so I could imagine swimming. I've even heard of the boys from Buninga canoeing to Tongoa to buy cigarettes, so I guess it's just a question of your commitment level.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Decisions, Decisions

My goal in writing this blog was mostly to present a picture of what goes on as a PCV to people at home. I remember when I realized that I was going to be doing PC here, I read everyone's blog I could find. It was really helpful for me to see pictures and read posts, even though I definitely didn't know then that literally everything depends. 

Some people work in offices. Most people don't.

Some people are super tight with their host families, have babies named after them, are bridesmaids and babysitters and so on. Some volunteers actually don't relate very well with local people and act like shut-ins.

Some people drink tons of kava all the time. Some people are not into that.

Some volunteers have electricity and cold showers. Some have electricity and hot showers. Some have nothing but well water from a bucket.

Some people have markets; some people have banks; some people are close to airports and have lots of ships that service their islands.

Some people basically sit around on mats eating breadfruit all the time.

I'm thinking about extending for another year. I'm not sure if I'm going to do it yet, but I would like to. What to me is most interesting is that I have had one specific style of experience and I could have a different one. 

I'm really glad to have had the Tongariki experience and to know that, short of going to do Pis Kop Matthew Island and teach English to the seagulls, I've had a seriously legitimate bush experience. I only very, very rarely imagine what my life would be like if it was more off the edge of the map. I live out in Tongariki by myself without all of the creature comforts that I've learned I don't really need.

It would be exciting, though, to do something else. I feel really constrained by circumstances sometimes and I'd like to feel like I could not have to worry about transportation or materials or timing. I would like to never, ever, ever again have to do worst case scenario stuck on Efate budget calculations. I'd like to have a job where I felt like my talents were being used and I could put more energy into it. Teaching isn't it for me. I don't dislike being in the classroom here and I think I would like it in the States more, if I had the freedom (and the resources) to have a really creative, material-rich class. But right now I'm looking into different opportunities. I don't want to say yet what I'm thinking because I haven't signed anything yet, but it would be a great opportunity and really, really different. If Tongariki is like AMANDA RUSSELL: CLUSTER OF ONE this would be more like AR: C o PLENTY. My lifestyle would be really different. I keep joking oh, extend to the Torres, but really this place would be great and interesting.

Easter Monday

This is a few months back ... I'm not that good at writing lots of posts when I'm in town.

Easter on Tongariki is OK. I prefer American Easter. During Holy Week, there's church or study every day, and on Easter Sunday, obviously there's church too, but nobody does anything special besides it. It's not like Christmas where there are big lavets in the nakamal for a month at a time. It feels almost like an after thought. 

We have the day off from school, though, and most families use Easter Weekend to do cookouts down by the ocean. Some families even establish little camps down there, setting up tarps and bringing down food and kava. It's a nice way to spend a few days, roasting yams, frying up fish, and drinking kava by the water.

I went down on Easter Monday and spent the day with my counterpart's family and all of the family from Lakilia, Tavia, and Muura. 

[Elsie and smol Renata]

[I fell and scraped my foot. Since, you know, kava is medicine and stuff ... I tried to chew a shell.]

[It went rather poorly. So Hancy, aged 11, finished chewing my shell for me.]

[Greg and Rexzdon dance a little. They were being such goofballs--Greg, it only takes the slightest bit of encouragement and he hams it up all the way. He's such a funny little kid.]

Friday, July 18, 2014

Professional dirty hippie?

OK so I find this really, really funny.

And maybe you have to be here for it to be that funny.

But I used to always think that Ni-Vans knew that we were Pis Kops by positioning and language skills, I guess. You know, if you see a white person on a cargo boat, chances are high that they're a volunteer. Or if someone's storying in high quality Bislama at the nakamal, it would make sense to figure that we were Peace Corps.

But sometimes people can tell without us saying ... anything. Like sometimes I'll be at a resort and I'll order a coffee in English and the waiter asks if I'm a Pis Kop. From wanem? I thought. Hao nao oli save se mi mi wan pis kop volontia?

Mystery solved. Drum roll ...

Oh man, it's because of what we look like. That's rough. And this is confirmed.

One girl in my group tried to get some alcohol on a Sunday at a duty free store and got into a disagreement with the store clerk. "How do you know I'm not a tourist?" she asked. "Your clothes," he answered.

Other proof: no one has ever, ever, ever challenged my attempts to get local rates at hotels and tourist attractions. Never once, not ever, has someone been like, "Really? Where do you work?"

And you know, we do dress differently from the tourists and the expats. Even when trying to look cute. We all wear old, crummy looking flip flops. Most of us carry baskets. I would say that, on an average day, my hair looks like hell. You can't see our butt cheeks hanging out of our shorts. Here's hoping that at some point I will start to look like a well-groomed adult human without permanent dirt ground into my heels. But still, really, really funny.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Crazy ideas about diet and exercise

So ... Writing this in March, natch. (Still in town--hopefully I will return to site on March 21st. My original return date was the 10th, but then Cyclone Lusi happened, so that's that.)

I want to talk about working out. And eating local food.

So I eat lots of local food. In fact, I would basically describe my diet as local food + ramen + peanut butter crackers + snacks my mom sends me. 

Frankly, my diet is both awesome and terrible. On the awesome side: I eat all organic super fresh foods. It's good for the environment. Generally speaking, no animals were harmed in the making of my dinner. But ... so many root crops. Coconut milk on everything. I have basically no self-control around tasty food, so in that sense, it's great that I'm not in PC Thailand, you know? 

I try to watch what I eat here when I'm on the island. It's not too hard because I've never been tempted to overeat breadfruit. When I'm in Vila, though, I just eat everything. Tonight (March 13th) I made beef stroganoff for dinner. Delicious. But I also had cheap takeaway beef curry for lunch. And bread and peanut butter. And a pop tart. And a carrot. And a naus. Even though I'm in Vila, I still live on a largely carbohydrate diet. What does that say about me ...

For the record, here are some unflattering pictures of me making island food. (Emphasis on the unflattering. Man I look enormous/sweaty.)

I was in the nakamal when I took this photo. We had roasted breadfruit over the fire. I'm holding it on the bottom with a coconut shell and whacking it with a stick, to make ....

My favorite kind of breadfruit!!! I actually made this all by myself (cutting off the burned skin, beating it, mushing it, and milking it.) This is called sala and it's by far the most edible type of breadfruit. You cut off little pieces with a knife and eat it. Alternatively, you can make it look like a huge breadbowl and put all of the milk in the middle, and cut off pieces into the milk -- sort of like fondue.

Now that I've digressed ... I go running all the time on the island to try and deal with what I eat. The rainy season is starting soon, though, which means it's going to be only mud, all the time, constantly. I try to work out in my house when it's rainy, but yoga is hell on my mats. They get ripped and torn pretty quick anyway, but I don't want them to look so bad, you know? So my new idea -- work out in the mama's house! There's a big cement house in my village that's normally empty in the mornings. Yeah, it'd be less private than my house, but there'd be more than enough space (and that itself is a nice change.) Thinking that if I can charge my laptop up one night, I can do yoga or insanity or something in the morning. Just a thought!

I can't rely on kava for weight management always. Hahaha.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

This place

I love Vanuatu so much. It’s funny; sometimes my friends and I joke that being at site is like being in prison, because you sit … and wait … but overall Vanuatu is an incredible, wonderful place. Confession time: I wasn’t that excited when I received my invitation. I thought: Vanuatu. Vanu-what? I didn’t really know where it was, I didn’t think that being in the South Pacific sounded that great … I could hit my old self over the head.

Living here, I put up with a certain amount of deprivation, but there’s so much that makes up for everything. I like the sunshine, I like the relaxed pace, I like how friendly everyone is, I like feeling like I’m doing good things and enjoying myself. I like how connected I feel to the community I live in. I just like it here. I think back to how I sometimes felt in college -- and it wasn't anything big, but I just felt so constrained. Everything was so regimented, there was no time for freedom or adventure. I'm glad I got the education that I did, but I get so much more satisfaction doing projects and working than I did studying. Doesn't everyone say that, though? I do miss feeling intellectually stimulated--I learned new things all the time at CMU, whereas here, I don't get quite the same amount of stuff. But I love it here and I don't want to leave quite yet. I love feeling like I am doing things that I can actually see

Which is good because ... I'm not leaving! That's all I can say for now.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Hiking in N. Ambrym

Some point, I need to write a long blog post. I just went to North Ambrym, where I climbed Marum volcano, saw a bunch of kastom, saw the Rom dance, did a phonics workshop, and drank a lot of kava. 

On our last day, Michelle K and I were told that the ship was going to come pick us up late at night. The day before, we'd wandered over to Melvat village to see a circumcision kastom. Unfortunately, we missed the circumcision, but Michelle met some family -- there's a girl she sings out sister to who got married to a guy from Melvat. The guy, Joel, offered to take us up hiking to the top of this mountain nearby.

It was actually really hard -- much harder than climbing the volcano, I think, because it was just straight up. Maybe 3 hours up and 2 hours down? But most of it had to be done barefoot, and it was slippery, and raining, et cetera.

What I thought was really cool, though -- so Michelle and I are thinking that maybe we'll just be walking around with Joel. But this is Vanuatu, and as we're walking along, a bunch of yangfala guys start joining us. Michelle told me that the joke is 'waet pej', like, 'white page for today, no plans.' It was really cool, though, that we all ended up on this little expedition.

The funniest part is that an old volunteer, Betsy, told me over facebook that she sings out brother to a bunch of these guys.

(Oh, and that white shirt? I wore it hiking the volcano, too ... You'd think I'd learn not to buy white things in this country. It's definitely deteriorated to garden status, now.)

Ships at sea

I was going from Emae to Vila on Big Sista when we saw a little fishing boat that had engine problems, outside of Lelepa island. For context: Big Sista is this big passenger ship and Lelepa island is off of the coast of the main island, Efate.

Big Sista pulled the guys for about two hours at a slow speed. You can't go that fast if there's a small boat behind. Once we got closer to Lelepa, local boats came out to help. 

I've been thinking about this because there was a really big marine accident here in Vanuatu over the weekend. MCY, which is this ship I've never even heard of, sank outside of Hat Island (also close to Efate), killing four people. One of them was a baby. Big Sista went out to do rescue, and 37 of the 41 passengers were saved, but 4 drowned. 

The thing that's so awful about this -- I've been reading in the newspapers -- is that the ship sank because it had a hole in its body. Literally, that's why the ship sank. I guess they had tried to repair it on the cheap and the owners of the ship figured that they'd risk it on the run to Malekula. The owner, the captain, and the supercargo have been arrested and charged with manslaughter, but it's awful that a ship that was in clear violation of all the marine codes was even able to leave.

In America, I think we complain a lot about our laws, but laws and safety regulation make our lives so much safer. We don't have to worry in the same way about bad operators who know that they are risking our lives. In Vanuatu, there are government organizations but they lack the same power that similar organizations have in America. Even just the fact that there are ships that still run when they haven't been cleared by Marine -- that's crazy.

There are about ten ships we're allowed to go on here in Vanuatu. Some of them are more comfortable than others, but they're all safe. The ship I use, Brooklyn, is a cargo ship so it's not the most pleasant ride. But the owners pay attention to safety. They don't leave port when the water is really rough and when there are repairs that need to be done, the ship gets repaired. Man.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Smol wol

I just went up to Epau, on the northeast side of Efate, for two nights to visit another volunteer from my group. I'm leaving for Samoa tomorrow (tomorrow!!!) and I've been meaning to go see Divya for a while, so it was great I was able to do that this weekend.

We just hung out, made some pretty good Mexican-esque food (tortillas+salsa+island vegetables, what?), went swimming, watched some movies, drank a lot of kava.

Which brings me around to my point.

So her village is right next to Ekipe village. Ekipe is all man Tongariki. On both Friday and Saturday night we ended up going to the nakamal in that village, and today (Sunday) the bus drove over to Ekipe before coming into town. It's always so cool to see people I know from Christmas and holidays over there. It makes me really happy to feel like I just know so many people.

What was really funny, though: so I'm sitting at the nakamal with Divya, the guy who owns the local recycling company, his girlfriend, and all their friends. I look over and I see this guy who looks just like my brother John, but I'm like, no, can't be. He's still on the island. This guy is from Ekipe, but he went to Tongariki for Christmas and just ... hasn't left. I'm like, no, must be his brother or something. Turns out -- he just came in on the last trip of the ship, to be the MC for Ekipe Independence celebrations, and then he's going to head back.

So this isn't a total small world scenario, because I do expect to see people I know in Ekipe. But really, really, funny to me that that happened.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Woman Atong

I’ve been thinking a lot about integration lately. My time in Tongariki is coming to an end and it’s hard for me to explain what I think about Tongariki or how I feel about it now. I’m glad I went there, but I don’t think I would encourage just any volunteer to follow me. This makes me sound like a jerk. I’m not trying to say that I’m the best and greatest PCV of all time, and anyone who’s met me can point out some of my flaws very easily. But I do think that you need certain qualities to do well at a very isolated, very small, very inward-looking site. You need to be able to work by yourself, without a lot of direction, instruction, or collaboration. You need to be able to find the energy within yourself to go forward every day and continue with your projects. I guess what I’m saying is that you can’t need other people—really, really need them—and expect to do well at an isolated site. I’ve been lucky enough to find some really good friends in Vanuatu who are terrific people, but they’re not there at site with me. It’s not overwhelming; I’m not saying that. But it is a lot to take in. Two years and change, and just living on Tongariki is still a lot to take in.

The thing that’s a lot to take in about Tongariki is how much I am a part of something that, shortly, I won’t belong to anymore. When you live on these little islands, you end up really fully committed to everything around you. (What else could you do?) You eat the same things, you do the same things, you go the same places, you talk to the same people … You don’t have a sense of distance from your community, which, sometimes, you do want. The result is that frankly, I don’t feel like an autonomous, independent professional. I feel like a yangfala, which I pretty much am.

It’s weird about me to think about integrating now because I feel so integrated, honestly to the point that I’m looking forward to having a different living situation next year. Sometimes I’d like to be able to drink a shell of kava without my favorite aunties knowing about it. I think integrating is complicated ... You have your own life except that you don't except that you do, but only with certain limitations. I'm glad that I have had this experience and that I'll never really fantasize about what my life would be like if I was more out there. But my goal for next year: bread. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Library Project

I did a big library project. So when I got to site, they had books stuffed in this little room that was like a closet. The books weren't sorted or leveled, and many of them were inappropriate or in extremely poor shape. Like racy romance novels ... outdated Microsoft Office books ... and even just dirty, molding books that with half of the pages stuck together. Students weren't getting books out of the library, teachers weren't really using the books, either, and it was just messy.

The project that I do here, VITEL, focuses on improving literacy teaching here in Vanuatu. We're supposed to work with teachers to get them to do learner-centered instruction, phonics, word wall, sight words, etc. One of the other big parts, though, is that we're supposed to help schools find materials for instruction. One of the most obvious ways to do this is by setting up or improving school libraries so that teachers and students have access to these materials. I think we don't think in America about how utterly surrounded we are by English language print: books, advertisements, even just labels on food products. On my island, honestly ... Most families do not have books apart from Bibles, and no one is rich enough to eat lots of food from stores. In class, they're mostly looking at the textbooks. The textbooks here aren't terrible, but they are not sufficient for getting kids to really experience English.

I was pretty lucky and this project went over really well. I got about 800 books shipped to me by Rotary in January of 2013. Later, I got about another 60 books shipped by a yacht charter and found some more new books hidden behind the sports materials. (This is a big issue at a lot of schools: sometimes you have the materials where you are but no one knows where it is.)

I went through all of the books that we currently had and tossed everything that was useless or really dirty. My theory in trashing books was that I wanted to be on the generous side with the library; if a book was just a little dirty or had a bad spine, I used tape to repair books, but if it was just totally trashed, time to go. Kids can even use an expired atlas, if push comes to shove, but it has to be clean and neat.

Then I sorted the fiction books into four levels, putting colored stickers on the spines. Each color got its own shelf. I didn't bother to do a card catalog because the library is still small enough to scan the shelves. Nonfiction got its own color, and then I separated out teachers materials, School Journals (NZ school magazines), Vanua Readers (Vanuatu-themed stories) and other Vanuatu-related materials.

Clean up, clean up...

Olive (my super cool Class 2 teacher)

Oh luk, not dirty anymore

Unfortunately, these walls are actually really against glue tack. I need to just buy some super glue and make them properly stick.

Steve, Me, Charlie, Kiki, Tommy, on the morning of the library opening. We had a little program -- cutting open a ribbon, toktoks, and some snacks.

Elder Marang opens the library.

So flas.

So the library isn't normally a classroom, but it works as one too, sometimes. This is from earlier this year when I was substitute teaching class one. There are chairs and tables in the back and sides, but the front part of the library has mats and the kids can work off of the black board. It's also a space for kids to study and to do their work, especially for the kids in Class 4/5. That class is huge -- like 30 students -- and if they try to do group work, they really need more space.

Things I learned from this project:

1. Lending libraries are a ton of work. As the responsible teacher, you have to chase students down ALL THE TIME. Don't do it. Reading rooms are the best.

2. Make it incredibly, incredibly, incredibly obvious where the books go. I originally did not put stickers on the books, and students slowly reshuffled them out of their mix. Also, straight up write grade levels on the front of books.

3. The easier it is to find a suitable book, the more likely a teacher or a student will actually go grab a book. It has to be really, really easy, like, go to one book shelf and grab a book. You can't ask a student to try and judge a book if they're not used to reading a lot.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Life Lessons, Number Quadrillion

Like I said awhile back, I’ve been thinking a lot about the lessons I’ve learned so far in Peace Corps. Insert obligatory statement: this has been the weirdest/best/worst experience of my life, depending on the day. There’s a certain amount of discomfort, boredom, and restlessness that characterizes the bush experience, but it’s never like that all the time. Some days, I climb volcanoes; more typically, I stare at lizards and wonder if any diseases can be transmitted through kava spit.

I’ve said this a bunch of times, but I’m the only volunteer in my part of the country. Sometimes it’s lousy because I want a captive audience to hear me bitch and moan—and who doesn’t want that? Sometimes it’s no fun because I’d like to be able to watch a movie with someone who’d understand the punch lines. Sometimes I’d just like to share macaroni and cheese with someone who’d appreciate it.

But there are some things I’m so proud of. Tongariki is weird and different. I know that in a certain sense I joined Peace Corps to test myself, and now I know certain things. I know that I can live without lots of things – electricity, running water, a gas stove, a house that is sealed to the elements, access to fresh vegetables, et cetera. I know that I can spend two days on a ship if I have to, and that I can deal with endless ambiguity. I can deal with cockroaches and rats. I know that even though I don’t want to work in education, I can teach children how to read.

I guess what I’m saying is—this place has made me feel more confident and competent. Yeah, I’m a generalist. That’s the Peace Corps-approved way to point out that I have no real technical skills apart from being educated and able to read and follow training manuals. I’m not a lawyer or a civil engineer or a deaf educator. I don’t know how to clean up a reef or dig a toilet or start a fish farm, but I know that someone else does. And given that it’s Peace Corps, they probably wrote a very thorough manual on it. This place has made me realize how many jobs can be done by just anyone who’s … willing to do them. And projects are so much fun! When I was in school, basically all I did was write essays and do problem sets, and while that’s how you learn, I feel so much happier having active work to do. I always assumed in the back of my head that I wanted to go into policy work, and while I’m not uninterested in it, working on a more basic level is exciting. I like doing things, not just talking about them.

I’m still thinking about what I want to do next year, and I haven’t committed to anything yet. Hopefully whatever I do, it’ll keep going forward and help me to get to where I (ultimately) want to go. I wish I knew for certain, but living here is all about uncertainty. Is the ship going to come? Is the water going to be all right? How much time is any given thing going to take? I hope that in the next six weeks or so, I'll be able to firmly say, one way or another, what's going on. Awo...

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Class 6 doing kastom

One of Class 6's units is about kastom. They read stories about kastoms from other islands and they're encouraged to explore their own kastom.

I would say that Tongariki is not a kastom island but that people still practice their kastom. We do do some kastom dancing and there's still kastom for weddings, deads, new babies, and so on, but without some of the other taboos that are common in different parts of Vanuatu. (Woman Atong drinks kava and can cook while she's on her period, for example. Also while it's respectful to call everyone Mami, Uncle, Tawi, you can use their names. In some places, certain relationships have taboos, such that instead of talking about Auntie Lewi or Mama Dora, you talk about Auntie Santo and Mami Pis Kops.) 

At my school, I would say they do a good job of teaching the kids their kastom. They do a kastom show every year and they practice doing cultural activities about one afternoon a month, more around the time of the show. The kids on Tongariki know how to make mats, how to do basic carvings, and they know their dances.

This dance is not actually a girls' dance--it's really for the boys--but they performed the first half of it. The dance is done to the sound of a stick hitting a tamtam (kind of like a stand up drum shaped a little like a canoe on its side) and it's about young men learning to become warriors. So they carry the sticks and there's all these other bits about learning how to fight. In this particular dance, you don't sing -- it's only the sound of the drum. 

[Rinnie and Ryana]
Obviously, this isn't normal kastom wear ... but on Tongariki, from what I've seen, this part is pretty legitimate. Last year during Independence, everyone who was dancing put bunches of leaves around themselves and we were painting ourselves with chalk and ashes from the fire. I think it's more just to make style, really--because like I said, we're not kastom like that so in a sense, it is like putting on a costume.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Traveling is fun fun fun

Traveling in Vanuatu is hilarious. It’s always kind of unpleasant and nothing is secure unless you are on the plane and it’s taxi-ing down the runway. Even ships, if you’re on them, they can change the routine, and be like, oh sori, we’re actually going to do this other thing first. It can be pretty stressful to travel if you have a set date you have to get somewhere else by. But if you have a lot of free time, it’s kind of fun. I think if you had enough money and felt like you had the freedom to say “I’m going to a northern island and I’ll get there when I get there,” you’d have a good time. I actually fantasize about that sometimes, imagining the time and the money to go all over the Pacific, seeing everything over the course of a few years. Kind of like Paddling the Pacific by Paul Theroux, but on a longer time frame.

I’ve been trying to get to Ambrym to do a workshop and walk around a little. People in Vanuatu think that Ambrym is full of black magic, and I was told by an auntie to look after my food while I’m there, so no man Ambrym can put a love potion in. (She said it in a joking tone but it’s still like, whoa, that’s your advice.) They also have some really nice kastom things. They do really nice wood carvings, making these figures that are called tamtams. In Vila, and on Ambrym, too, you can buy these little ones, maybe the height of your hand to the length of your arm. But in kastom for men who are taking different chiefly ranks, there are special ways to carve them and they can be really, really big. In the Cultural Center here in town they have a few tamtams that are just enormous.
[Insert picture of the tamtam with me and my parents.]

[wan tamtam ia]

So what’s complicated is this. I’m trying to travel north with Jessica (another vol) out of Vila. There’s Michelle, who’s trying to meet us out of Epi. So we need to leave Vila, hit Epi, and then get to Ambrym—three points on our travel.

Over the weekend, when we called the office, they told us that the ship would definitely go Vila-Epi-Ambrym. On Sunday, the crew told us that, kiaman, the ship would definitely go direct to Santo, in the north, do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars. On Monday, we called the ship and they told us that they were definitely still going Vila-Epi-Ambrym and that they would be out that night. But around mid-day, they told us that it would be delayed until  Tuesday. Yesterday, we put our stuff on the ship and bought tickets, and got told that the ship would Vila-Epi-Ambrym out at 8. We got so prepped; I got 500 vatu of kava and two Solbrews, calamari from Island Time, bread and butter and pate and cookies. Then we got to the wharf and … No gat. The ship’s now supposed to be out tonight at 6.

A volunteer who lives in town was really nice and let us all crash over at his place last night. We went out, drank a little kava, ate our dinners, rolled out in the morning. God willing, I will leave Efate tonight. But you know ... it's not the end of the world if it doesn't work. I'll get a refund and I'll go do something else. I do have to be back in Vila on July 14th because I have an international plane ticket -- awo.