Monday, October 26, 2015

Scandals Pt 2

I know two people in Vanuatu currently embroiled in sex scandals that may or may not affect their career. One did something that would result in prison time in America but is legal in Vanuatu. (It's the only crime that the American government can prosecute Americans for doing in another country. Hint: it's not murder or rape or theft.) The other did something that is legal in both countries but wouldn't really impact their professional career unless everyone involved worked at the same corporation. It's not clear if these people are going to keep their jobs, or lose them, but it's interesting to think about where the line between personal and professional life lies in different cultures. Here in Vanuatu your personal life directly impacts your professional life, whereas in America, in most cases, you have more privacy. (There was that sex worker/teacher in NYC who lost her job--which I think was wrong, since she wasn't a sex worker when she was teaching kids--but in general, most people have more space.)

Just something to think about.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Internet access is increasing in Vanuatu and I know that, some day, someone in this country will google “Amanda Russell Vanuatu” and find this blog. I often self-censor rather than write things that, while true, might be seen as disrespectful or inappropriate. I think that this is the right thing to do, because I am a guest in Vanuatu, but sometimes what I don’t write about is so interesting that I really, really want to write about it.

I tried to write a few drafts and didn’t come up with anything that I want to put my own name on. It sounds paranoid, but one of the first Peace Corps volunteers ever was administratively separated, in the 1960s, because she wrote a private postcard that disparaged the cleanliness of her country of service. She dropped her postcard and it was later found on the street, and then published in the national newspaper. So I don't want to write about politics here, just because everything is my own personal opinion, and I don't want it to be taken for the opinion of all Americans, everywhere.

BUT please, please, please google “Vanuatu bribery scandal” or “Vanuatu pardon scandal”. It’s so interesting. I think because the news media in America try to make everything into a scandal, American scandals are boring. Oh, look, another politician had sex with a call girl. Yawn. But this scandal has everything except, I guess, sex. And there’s no weapons or drugs involved in it. In fact, not much violence (except for a friend of mine who got slapped by a politician!) But there's money and constitutional misconduct. Even if you don’t care about politics at all, look it up. It's great.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


Went to Uripiv Island a while back with a coworker to meet up with the Disaster Committee on the island. Uripiv's a really pretty place, just a short boat ride from Lakatoro. As a result, I have gone there like four or five times now... lots and lots and lots.

Super beautiful place. Right now, because we're experiencing an El Nino, it's quite dry over there. I've heard that some islanders are carrying containers of water to Lakatoro to fill up before returning home in the afternoon.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Updating That Resume

October 7 marked 3 years of living in Vanuatu. It's been a great stretch. But -- I do one day have to get a job, probably one that earns me more than what I currently make (peanuts). Dusting off the resume is pretty hard work. I haven't updated it in years. Honestly. The last time I think I really looked at it was 2012. It's almost 2016. A lot has happened in my life, and the whole direction I want to take is completely different. I used to think I wanted to work in international development. Now -- it's got to be a different direction. I like what I do, and I like living here, but for a lot of reasons, I don't think I should make a career out of this. 

Happy Assumption Day!

I went up to Walarano to celebrate Assumption Day back on August 15 with my friend Magalie (not pictured), Kelsey, and Shaheed. (Shaheed is the mostly naked one). We went to Mass in the morning, had a good laplap lunch, and then there was some kastom dancing.

Since Shaheed is a young guy ... and all of these other young men were going to kastom dance ... they asked Shaheed to join in. As you can tell by the photo, I (and everyone else around) saw roughly 98.5% of him--those nambas don't cover that much.

It was a really nice event. The whole thing was to celebrate not only Assumption Day, which is a Holy Day of Obligation as a Catholic, but also the 100th anniversary of the Catholic Mission in Walarano. They have the most beautiful church up there, and during the ceremony, I kept thinking about what Walarano must have been like 100 years ago, when that French missionary got off of his boat and decided, here's it! 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Three Year Anniversary

Today is my three year anniversary of being in Peace Corps/Vanuatu. I can’t believe I’m still here. And yet, these past three years have been, without a doubt, the most intense growing experience of my life. I talk about this a lot, but when I was in training, our old nurse, Brenda, said that one old PCV said that he grew up in Vanuatu, the way you’d say you grew up in Pittsburgh or Houston. It feels true for me. In school, I learned a lot about things, but Vanuatu has taught me how to live my life. I’ve learned how to deal with a lot of disappointment, with joy, with loneliness, with frustration, with wonder, with rats and cockroaches and events that start four hours after they’re supposed to begin.

I remember getting off that airplane three years ago. My carry on was too heavy, so I had had to check my bag, and didn’t have any appropriate clothes to wear. I was stressing out, since I was wearing yoga pants, and Katelyn Connell offered me a dress to wear. I remember the line of staff and PCVs outside the terminal, getting a lava lava and a salu salu and being amazed at this girl who seemed super cool because she knew how to use a machete to open a coconut so we could get the meat out of it. (Ha). I remember that I felt so impressed with the two volunteers who jumped in a bus with me and some of the other new members of G25 because they knew everything along the road. Little did I know at that point that Vila is so small that it’s exceedingly easy to be aware of all of the businesses, nakamals, hotels, et cetera, along the road. I remember that we were deposited at this camp in Pango, which is a suburban village, and that they made us a nice dinner of good island food—rice and chicken and beef stew and island cabbage and salad, something that I’d eat now without worrying—and that I couldn’t eat it, that I felt disgusted by the food, and that I was convinced I would never be able to eat it. (Instead, I ate peanut butter straight out of the jar in the bathroom). I remember that we received island dresses a few days later, and we all thought that we looked absolutely hideous. I remember that we asked one of our language trainers, Terry, if he thought we looked pretty, and laughed when he was like, yeah! You look great!

I’ve been working on updating my resume lately because it’s getting to that time in my service. If we buy tickets for the day I think we’re going to, my last day in Vanuatu is February 15, 2016—131 days away from today. Because I want to apply for grad school, I’ve been trying to remember what it is I did when I was in college to prove that I wasn’t just drinking 2L of Diet Coke and studying until 11 p.m. every night in Club Hunt, although I did a lot of that, too. I found the resume I used to apply to Peace Corps, and while I was there, I found my aspiration statement, too.

As far as I can tell, the aspiration statement is something that only comes out if you die and they need to put something nice about you in a press release. It explains why, exactly, you want to join Peace Corps, what you think you’ll be able to give, and what you hope to get from it. I had forgotten that I’d even written it, but reading it made me feel nostalgic for those moments before I came here, when I wasn’t even sure what I was getting myself into.

"In order to work effectively with Ni-Vanuatu partners, I [...] will need to rely on my adaptability, patience, and knowledge of local culture. [...] I understand that there will be situations in which I will not comprehend why something must be done a certain way, or even why it is important at all, but I hope to develop the proper mixture of humility and awareness[...] I expect that my experience will frequently be frustrating, since my host country colleagues and I will both be operating from positions where it is easy to misunderstand one another, but I hope that I will be able to breach some of these culture gaps[.] [...] I hope to remember at all times that I will be [...] a guest in Vanuatu, and that it is my responsibility to learn and adapt my ideas of what is normal. [...] I must be willing to detach myself from many of my own cultural expectations. The way that I have lived my whole life should not serve as the gold standard by which all other people on Earth should live their lives." 

When I wrote that, I really had no idea what I was talking about. But I somehow got that all right. It's been a good, frustrating, exciting three years. I don't think I could have spent it in a better place.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Vacation on Vao

I went up to Vao Island to visit my friend Cade last week for a few days. Vao is a very small island off the northeast coast of Malekula. It's very popular with tourists, especially francophones, because it has a reputation for being beautiful and having strong traditional practices. 

It's about an hour and a half, two hour truck ride up to the boat landing. As I've said, it's been really dusty lately due to the drought, so I was choking on dust all way there. I counted twenty-one people in the back of the truck with me, which is pretty solid. I think we could have even fit in a few more people, provided that they were petite/actually children. On the road up to northeast, there are a bunch of little road markets selling vegetables and bread. The prices are always much better, so the trucks always stop so passengers can do a little last minute shopping before they go home. I got bread and some tomatoes--right now, there are tomatoes everywhere.

When I got to the landing, there were a bunch of men from Vao who had just gotten back from the garden. The boat wasn't too packed--maybe 10 people only. The sun was going down, so it was getting close to kava o'clock when I got there. That night, Cade's little host brother Nesario was having a party since he had just gotten his first tooth. I talked to his uncle for a while, who was one of the sharpest and most opinionated teachers I've met in this country--really cool guy. So his mom gave us chicken soup on rice in takeaway containers and sent us off to go drink kava with his dad (host parents are now separated). His dad has built this really nice new nakamal with Buvez Coca-Cola and Nescafe signs. Really good looking.

The next day was really slack. We got up, had tea and doughnuts his family gave us, then walked around the whole island. It only took about an hour and a half, but it was really pretty. When you get to the far side, you can see Malo island. Then we went swimming, made ramen for lunch, and lazed around until it was time for the French volunteer's good-bye party. They went all out. I don't think I've ever been to that fancy of a farewell in the whole time I've been at Vanuatu. I think it's because the primary school is so big, and Vao is wealthier than other parts of Vanuatu. Anyway, it was a lavish send-off. Lots of food, cake, kava, a laplap, and he got lots of presents and salusalu (like leis) past his chin, I swear. Afterwards, me, Cade, and Adrien (the French volunteer) had some of this terrible jug wine-based beverage they sell in Lakatoro and talked about America.

Day 3, Cade and I did disaster programs with the kids at the primary school. I did a more thorough talk with the kids in Class 4-6, about what disasters are, how you can prepare for them, and what they should do as kids. With Class 1-3, I was going to do this, but because the kids don't really speak Bislama, we played a disaster-themed game instead. Wash, rinse, and repeat for the kindy. There was a 50 day funeral event, so we had lunch there. 

In Vao, one of the things that really struck me is that their kastom is really different. In the Shepherds, men and women mix pretty freely. They do separate at two of the churches, and usually at community meals men will butcher the animal and women will get started at preparing the carbohydrate. But men and women sit next to each other, drink with each other, hang out together, et cetera. On Vao, at this event, men were sitting in one location and women were sitting in another. Cade went to go sit with me and all of the women so I wouldn't have to chill out by myself.

Another point -- on Vao, there are roads that women aren't allowed to walk by. These are really central roads, not men-only places in the bush. This is the first place I've seen that in.

That afternoon ... Cade and I painted his canoe. I wish I had a photo, but my camera is broken. It's boss. Think like Dr Seuss meets fish meets the 1960s. Then he showed me the nasaras--kastom gathering areas, kind of--on the island. That night, there was the dead, and I had kava and some bread for dinner because neither of us was feeling laplap.

The next morning when I left, I felt a little sad. Vao's really great for a little vacation. You get to swim, look at pretty things, eat bread, talk to Cade, shout over to Cade's girlfriend on the phone 6-10x daily, and generally hang. It was one of the cooler work/play trips I've taken so far in this country, and I've taken a lot of little trips. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

El Nino

Right now, Vanuatu is in the middle of an El Nino. El Nino Southern Oscillation is when the ocean in the eastern South Pacific, near Peru and Chile, gets warmer. From where we’re standing, in the western Pacific, the southeast trade wind becomes much weaker. The cloud system in this region, the South Pacific Convergence Zone, drifts away to the east. As a result, Vanuatu is in the midst of an extended dry period that is turning into a drought.

The drought is pretty serious. I haven’t seen rain in a few months, although there was a little rain in the southern islands over the weekend. In general, throughout the country rain water tanks and cisterns are running dry. There’s just not enough water anywhere. It’s only been in the past few weeks that it seems like everyone’s started paying attention to what’s going on, because we are coming to the end of what should be the dry season. Usually every year, October is about the time when the rains start to come, so that crops can grow and water tanks can fill up. But this year, since there’s not going to be a lot of rain, it’s going to be much harder.

From where I’m standing, in Lakatoro, the main thing I notice is dust. There’s dust everywhere. When I walk around, I have to wear sunglasses because there’s so much dust thrown in the air from trucks. When I ride in the back of pickup trucks, my hair, clothes, and face get covered in dust. It feels really gross to travel and then touch my hair—it’s so dry and sticky. There’s a new trend of women wrapping their hair up in cloth, sort of like African women do, just to protect it from all of the dust on the truck ride. I’ve been told by friendly strangers on a truck that I should start carrying some cloth myself to cover my eyes when a big cloud of dust roars towards us.

Water is also running low in Central Malekula. It’s not as serious as in some other areas, but the rain tanks are all dry. I am connected to the water supply system, which means that I have piped water in my house. But the water is changing. It’s always tasted bad but the taste is getting stronger. A friend told me that it’s because there’s some algae growing in the big tank at the top of the system where the water comes from the source. (Not sure if that’s true, but it definitely tastes bad.) In the past two weeks, the water supply has started to be turned off at certain hours in the afternoon and night. I think it’s to conserve water and make sure that there are no leakages anywhere in the system. It is, however, very inconvenient since there’s no public posting of when the water turns off. I’ve already had a moment when a friend and I got back from kava and wanted to shower (dust!) but couldn’t.

The market is also getting bad. There are lots of vegetables available right now but very few fruits or root crops. This is because there just aren’t a lot of fruits or root crops available in any of the gardens; they haven’t been growing. This is the time of year when everyone should be eating lots of mangoes, and there aren’t any for sale yet. People are eating a lot more rice and flour than they usually do because the price of root crops is increasing. In a few months, I think the market is going to get really bad because the crops are getting burned by the sun out in the gardens.

Other parts of Malampa Province are facing these same problems but on a more serious scale. Some schools are going to have to end the school year early because there’s no water for the children to drink. I have a friend who brought her dirty clothes in town with her last week to wash at my house because she has no water to wash in at her site. On Ambrym, some people have chartered boats to get water from the north, where there's a system, or from Lamap, the biggest village in South Malekula.

It's supposedly even worse in areas that were really struck by Cyclone Pam. I don't know what's true and what's not true, because we don't get a newspaper up here. I have heard, though, that a child died on Tanna of malnutrition. I've also heard that there are families on Tanna who want to put their children up for adoption to areas with more water and food. I don't know what's true and what isn't. It looks like this is shaping up to be another disaster, though, so quickly upon the heels of Cyclone Pam. Many parts of the country are not yet recovered from that damage, so this is really going to have a horrible impact on many people's lives. It's estimated that El Nino will end in March 2016, which would leave only a month or two of rain before the next dry season is expected to come. My friend who works at UN Women told me that the government is reactivating disaster clusters--like gender protection, water and sanitation, health, et cetera--because they're expecting this to get a lot worse.