Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Goodbye Vanuatu

It's hard to believe it's here, but it's time to say goodbye. I've already ripped off the band-aide of leaving my village and in two days I'll be heading back to the good ol' US of A. So many thoughts and emotions come along with leaving a place you've made your home for two years: heartbreak, relief, excitement, dread, and many more. So as I reflect on my service, I mainly separate things into two groups - things I'll miss and things I will definitely not miss. You know I love making lists, so here they are:

Things I Will Miss
  • Evenings in my parents' kitchen
  • Fresh pineapples
  • Being able to take a nap anytime of day
  • The smell of laplap leaves hitting hot stones
  • Exchanging hellos with everyone I see
  • My sister and everything about her - my first, my most loyal, and my best friend in Vanuatu
  • The warmth and humidity
  • Regularly seeing sights out of National Geographic - dolphins, sea turtles, flying fish, parrots, etc.
  • Being a part of the Peace Corps family
  • Living in a country where everyone is a good dancer
  • The "Ambae Girls"
  • The rare experience of living in a foreign country where Americans are loved and respected
  • Banyan trees
  • The simplicity of life without electricity
  • The overwhelmingly lush greenness of the jungle
Things I Will NOT Miss
  • Roosters
  • Rainy season
  • My sister's cat (and kids for that matter) leaving turds outside my house everyday
  • Dirty feet
  • Cold bucket showers
  • Carrying heavy bags and cartons 2 hours uphill
  • Spiders falling on my face, rats using my clothes for nests, cockroaches getting into my food, lizards committing suicide in my wash bucket, slugs leaving trails on my dishes, and ants invading every meal
  • Having to leave my house in the middle of the night to use the toilet
  • Living under a microscope and being stared at all the time
  • Mold infestation
  • Rationing my toilet paper
  • Sexual proposals that begin with: "I've always wanted to sleep with a white girl. . ."
There's not much I can say to adequately end this adventure. It's been hard and exhilarating and life-changing. I'm so lucky to have been here and I will never forget the people who made my life here wonderful. Goodbye Vanuatu.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Not a Movie

As I get closer and closer to finishing my service here, these posts will become more and more sentimental. So you must forgive me. Or else switch to a newbie’s blogs – they tend to be funnier and less emotional.
One thing that’s been bugging me is my complete inadequacy at describing these past two years. When I look through my blog – at the selective, quippy descriptions of my life – I feel like what I’ve accomplished is describing a movie based on a Peace Corps volunteer’s experience instead of the reality. But the thing is, this isn’t a movie! Partly I know that because I’m not being played by a naturally beautiful Natalie Portman whose hair is flawlessly smooth despite the humidity, and who meets a perfectly rugged James Franco whose five o’clock shadow is fastidiously groomed. In actuality most male volunteers have unwashed locks and a scraggly neck beard, and there’s a reason everyone says I look “soooo different!” in my photos from home. Certainly I have had my moments where I felt like cameramen must be hiding in the jungle – perfect snapshots of what we could call the typical Peace Corps experience. Barefoot black children chase the Peace Corps truck down a dusty road yelling “Pis Kop, Pis Kop!” and waving madly. A human bridge of strong men braves a rushing river to guide a group of women and children to safety during a hurricane. I stand on the edge of a volcano with a good friend watching red bursts of lava shoot into the air as night falls on the jungle. I join in a cultural dance at a wedding whose ancient song tells the story in the tribal language of how the first boy met the first girl. A shirtless young man hacks a path through the jungle with a machete as he goes to fetch a bucket of spring water. But these snapshots don’t always do life here justice.
Mainly I know this isn’t a movie because solving a problem or implementing a program isn’t simply a matter of a 45 second montage set to an inspirational Coldplay song. You start out with awe at surviving in one of the most primitive places on earth and a personal satisfaction of donating two years of your life to the poor. But pretty soon your idealism slaps you in the face and you realize not everyone is going to greet your efforts with effusive thanks and smiles. You learn that effective development is not a smooth and easy path. You struggle with predictable loneliness, surprising boredom, and many many hits to your overinflated self-image (as the remarkable Paul Farmer puts it: “Serving the poor is more important than soothing your own ego. It’s called eating shit for the poor.”). You might hit the very bottom and think you have no purpose and nothing left to offer. But then an amazing thing happens and you find a bit of strength from somewhere. It might come from a huge accomplishment like successfully running a workshop, or it might come from a small event like laughing through lunch with your favorite “Ambae girls”, but it always comes before your last minute of desperation.
If this were a movie, at the end of two hours the president would bestow an award upon Natalie Portman for incredible service to the poor while staying super hot, she would marry an equally super hot James Franco, adopt a couple local children and turn them into Gap models, and come back to her village 20 years later to find a bustling utopia of fat babies and prospering families. I now know this will not happen for me, but I think my last scene will be even better. I’ve fought a battle for two years and I’ve come out the other side a stronger, more realistic and more tolerant person. And if even one person’s life is changed by me being here, at least I’ll know I didn’t have to pay them to say that to the cameras.

The Weird Thing About Being In the Bush For So Long. . .

. . .is that you start to forget you haven't always lived in the bush. One year and ten months of service has lulled me into thinking that this rustic existence is normal and my every-day life uninteresting. It was only my mom's recent visit that jolted me back into reality and made me remember that people might still want to hear stories. I'm sorry I've neglected my faithful readers (are any of you still out there?) - it's not that I've forgotten you and my life back home or that you're all any less important to me, it's just that that life seems farther and farther away.

While I've been absent on this blog, a lot has been happening in my tiny neck of the jungle. Mainly, the bridge project that has so long been a dream of mine is finally becoming a reality. My village and the neighboring village of Vuiberugu are quite close and act like one community. Their side has the medical facility, our side has the school, we often all go to church together, and people go back and forth every day. Since there are no vehicle-accessible roads anywhere near our two remote villages, we are linked by a small footpath that takes about 30 minutes to traverse (20 if Joel is with you, 40 if my dad is). Although generally no more than a moderately challenging hike, the presence of four creeks along the path can greatly impede travel plans. I should pause here to explain exactly what I mean by "creeks." Surely when I use that word a sweet, babbling stream of water comes to your mind - innocent, playful, and easily jumped over. Well then I need to provide you with a new mental image. These old lava flows are smooth, volcanic rock measuring about 18 meters across (yes, I've switched to the metric system. It's much more logical and literally EVERYONE else in the world uses it. Get on board America). Even in the not-quite-as-rainy season the wet stone is extremely slick and people slip and incur injuries all the time. Then when the rainy season comes along these dry creeks become raging rivers and prevent people from crossing to the other side for weeks at a time. Even in my short time here I've experienced times when I can't go to my parents' house or I'm stranded in Vuiberugu because of the overflowing creeks. Luckily it's only ever caused brief annoyance for me, but people often get separated from health care, food, and school, and I've even heard stories of flash floods sweeping people out to the ocean.

Naturally after my first rainy season in the village I was less than thrilled with these death traps and decided to try and see if something could be done. It wasn't as if people hadn't tried - locals had felled coconut trees, created bridges from bamboo, and even trained the roots of banyan trees to act as natural bridges, but one strong cyclone always washed these efforts away. They just didn't have the money or the materials to make strong, permanent structures. So I decided to try and take on the bridges as a secondary project. Through all the other projects I've mentioned, the bridge project has been moving slowly in the background. I won't go on and on about all the blood, sweat, and tears (literally) that have been poured into this project, but after a year and a half we finally found funding from the unlikely source of the German government - 2,214,140 vatu (about $20,000 USD). Since the money hit our bank account in June we have been busy getting the construction off the ground, and it's been a rocky road (pun intended). Everything that could possibly go wrong has, including but not limited to: an unfavorable exchange rate, a pedophilic architect (since removed from the project), a cement shortage in Vanuatu, a momentarily mutinous workforce (resolved), faulty equipment (as yet unresolved), finding stones where there should be none, finding no stones where there should be some, too much rain yet somehow a shortage of clean water, delays due to the necessity of asking deceased ancestors for permission to take down trees, and of course finding a way to get 20 tons of cement up a mountain with no road. There have been plenty times I thought there was no way it was ever going to happen, and maybe I still shouldn't count my faol before they're hatched, but we're making solid progress. Work is being done, and although it's unlikely I will see the entire project finished before I go home, people promise I will not leave Vanuatu without walking across one bridge.

Many times I have doubted myself and this project - it's the most difficult thing I've ever done and I really have no experience to qualify me to manage a project of this caliber. But when I think about the finished product and know that this network of solid, cement bridges will prevent mothers from having to give birth at home, children from missing a month of school, and elderly people from breaking bones, I realize the painful process doesn't matter. And besides, how can you complain about a job that included watching buff, shirtless boys swinging machetes??

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mary Jane

The wonderful thing about babies is that they never feel the need to hide their thoughts and emotions. When I first arrived in my village 18 months ago, Mary Jane was a perfect example of this: she screamed every time I came near her. People would try to tell her that I was her Auntie - her dad's sister - but you just can't fool a 6-month-old and she knew my skin was the wrong color. She was not going to accept that she had a terrifying, pasty relative. I looked different, I sounded different, and by no means was I going to be allowed to come near her. Luckily for me and my mental health, toddlers are also extremely forgiving and willing to adjust their beliefs. You rarely find a one-year-old holding onto a grudge for too long. We've just passed Mary Jane's second birthday and I am happy to say she's now as loving and affectionate with me as with any of her true Aunties.

Mary Jane is built like a little tank - her big head, healthy belly, and sturdy legs give you the impression of a well-grounded square, and when you pick her up it's hard to believe she's only had two years to fill out that solid frame. One of my favorite things is to watch people try to put clothes on little MJ. It is always a tights squeeze to get her massive noggin into the chosen shirt for the day, and perhaps that's why she's much more likely to be found running through the village naked. Not much phases this little one and I've seen her come up dry-eyed from a spill that might have made me cry. Maybe it's her low center of gravity or her substantial figure, but she consistently seems to merely bounce off roots, rocks, and cement stairs. The rare times you do catch tears running down her pudgy cheeks she can easily be distracted and won't stay upset for long. The youngest of five children, Mary Jane lives in fear of being left out and will copy anything one of her beloved siblings does first. The first thing I ever heard her say was her sister's name and long before she could articulate complete thoughts she could point out and name all four siblings. Her easy-going nature makes her easy to have around and luckily for her all three brothers and her sister dote on her - especially 10-year-old Tari.

It's been an incredible pleasure for me to watch Mary Jane grow from a crawling baby to a running, talking, playful toddler. She loves domestic work and will often come keep me company when I was or try to help with the evening meal. MJ has found out that her Auntie Mac has quite a weakness for her and will often take advantage of that for hours of play. She likes hide-and-seek, peek-a-boo, and her own creation, "Butu Sala" (translated as "your shoe's gone!"). In this game the little munchkin will steal your shoe, put it behind her back, show you her empty hands and chant, "Butu sala! Butu sala!" Mary Jane knows only the tribal language and not a word of the national language of Bislama. I am in the process of learning the tribal language also, but currently I probably have about the same vocabulary as Mary Jane and perhaps that's why she feels so comfortable telling me stories about the chicken pecking a coconut, her grandma giving her a banana, or other crucial things that fill up her little world. MJ is not an easy person to win over. Unlike her attention-loving cousing William, Mary Jane needs some time to figure you out first. Even though she's past her screaming-at-every-white-person phase, she will still fix each new acquaintance with a quizzical stare that somehow makes you believe she'll end up knowing all your hidden thoughts. But believe me, it's worth the time it takes to work your way into her good graces. As cautious as she is, once you've been accepted into her circle you are awarded with dazzling smiles, chubby-armed hugs, and a fierce loyalty. If you can count yourself as loved by Mary Jane, you are truly in an elite and delightful group.

Peace Corps Invasion

Before last week the most white people that had ever been in my village at once was five - and that was only for an hour when the other "Ambae Girls" came up to get me last year for Thanksgiving. But on March 19, 2012 every Peace Corps business volunteer in Vanuatu along with our program manager and the PC administrative officer descended on Quatamwele for four days creating a buzz that will probably never be forgotten in North Ambae.

Twice a year volunteers meet with others in their program for training and updates (we call these MST's or Mid-Service Trainings). Usually these trainings happen in the capital of Port Vila since the Peace Corps office is located there and lodging for big groups is readily available. But for the business volunteers things went a little differently this year. First of all I should tell you that the business program has been cancelled in Vanuatu. While new health and education volunteers will continue to arrive each year, the 2010 newbies were the last business volunteers to come. Because of this and our strangely un-proportional early termination rate we are now a small, elite group of eight. Add to that the fact that there are no new volunteers to initiate and not much to talk about regarding our dwindling program, and you get a somewhat ambivalent attitude from the staff regarding us few brave souls. We still receive excellent support and care, but the attention has somewhat shifted to developing the two remaining programs. Because we are now a rogue program and able to fly under the radar, someone suggested we get out of Vila for once and experience rural life. Because I seem to live in the most "bush" site of the business volunteers, my quiet little village was chosen for this unique meeting. This of course deprived me of a free trip to civilization, but after promises of wine and chocolate were given, I readily agreed.

The week leading up to the meeting was frenzied. People in the area were awestruck and flattered that they were chosen to host such an important meeting and no small preparation was left undone. The grass was cut, the houses cleaned, the roofs were patched, meetings were held to determine the head cooks, and everything was planned to the letter. My friends and family kept pulling me aside and explaining how excited they were to meet all the "big men" and how we were making a history that will never be forgotten. You could see the eagerness in people's faces and could feel the anticipation in the air.

Finally the big day arrived and I went to meet everyone at the airport. Despite all my careful planning and preparation, the first major event did not go smoothly. The truck was five hours late. I tried calling his mobile, I went to his house, I enlisted all the store-keepers in the area to watch for him, and I did a lot of pacing up and down. Was this an omen of how this whole week was going to go?? But eventually he arrived and things picked up after that. We were dropped off at the last possible place the truck could get to and found half my village waiting to greet us and carry bags up the rugged path to Quatawele. That afternoon there was a huge welcome ceremony and everyone got settled into their rustic lodgings.

The next few days went by in a blur. The mornings were spent working on a community project - the building of our new church house. We carried cement up from the coast, shoveled sand out of the creeks, gathered stones to strengthen the mixture, and finally started laying the floor. The afternoons were dedicated to Peace Corps business and our small group met in the community house to share stories, ask questions, and gain valuable knowledge from each other. Every meal was fully catered by different mamas in the village and each one tried her best to outdo the last. Trays of food were paraded by, several different dishes crowded the table twice a day, delicious fruit of every kind was available any time, and each morning fresh flowers would appear to decorate the house. In the 18 months I have lived here I have never seen my village so full of laughter and fun. The other volunteers were amazing with my community - they storied with the adults and played with the children and were so generous with smiles and laughter that any apprehension people felt was quickly wiped away. People swam in the creek, learned a few words of the tribal language, and whole-heartedly jumped into life in North Ambae. In a very short time it didn't seem to matter who the volunteers were and who the locals were. People worked together and giggled together and created such a warm and loving environment as I've never seen before. Several volunteers let me know how special my community is and told me these few days were the highlight of their entire Peace Corps experience.

The four short days culminated in a thank you/farewell ceremony that went on for hours. Speeches were made, songs were sung, kastom dances were showcased, and there was even a skit put on by the area youth. Each volunteer and PC staff member received a fresh flower lei and had to shake hands with every member of the community. It was an emotional time for everyone and even some of the most powerful chiefs in the area had tears in their eyes as they sincerely thanked our group for honoring them with our presence. Then of course there was kava, tons of food, and even some warm beers, and people danced until late into the night on a grass dance floor illuminated by solar lights.

The next day everyone was out early in the morning to catch the truck to the airport and just like that my village was quiet again. Somehow it seemed so empty all of a sudden and I could tell from people's eyes how much they missed the ruckus. We've settled back into our daily routines now, but people still remember each volunteer's name and continue to tell stories about all the funny things that happened that week. I truly believe them when they say never in their lives will they forget that week.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Women of Waluriki

Each of the incredible women in my next biographical installment deserve their own blog post, but I look at the dwindling months of my time here and I know I won't get a chance to do everyone justice. So I've grouped them together, but don't make the mistake of thinking that makes them less important to my life here! These women who make my life so much happier and more fun live in the neighboring village of Waluriki, down at the coast. When I take the boat from Lolowai I land on their beach and take the road directly up the hill to my own little village.

First of the four is my Auntie Roline. Initially I got to know Auntie Roline through the handcraft group and quickly came to realize that she was the most talented and innovative of the basket-making artisans. Her baskets are consistently top quality and she's recently come up with a new basket design that is all the rage in Vanuatu. When I carry her creation around the capital of Port Vila tourists and locals alike inevitably stop me on the street and ask where they can purchase such a beautiful basket. Unfortunately, Auntie Roline is the only one who can create these unique baskets and there was no way for her to keep up with the demand. So we no longer market the baskets and only a lucky few get to decorate themselves with these collector's items. In spite of her incredible talent, Auntie Roline's weaving proficiency is not the reason she appears in this blog. Rather it is her quiet confidence, her loving personality, and her commitment to looking after me that makes her so special to me. Even when I was very new here and barely even knew the people in my own village, Auntie Roline took me under her wing and made sure I never wanted for anything. She has an amazing ability to pull fully cooked meals out of thin air and any time I see her she makes me eat. One time I protested and asked her why she feels she always needs to feed me. True to her personality she simply said, "Because I'm your Auntie and I like you." Simple, to the point, no-fuss kindness - that is Auntie Roline. Waluriki is in a central location and I often walk through it on my way to other villages or when I'm trying to find transportation to Lolowai. Anytime I pass her house I know I can stop and chat, get a drink of water or a snack, or even sleep on her floor if it gets dark and I don't want to climb the hill by flashlight. Somehow being with my Auntie Roline is so calming and comfortable - I know I can relax and just be myself and she will take care of me. She and her husband are also extremely supportive of all my projects - coming to my workshops, acting as liaisons to other villages, and helping organize the rural banking program. My life would certainly be a lot harder without the two of them.

In stark contrast to my quiet, unassuming auntie comes the other three Waluriki Wonders: Anita, Olga, and Betsy. These three are sisters and range in age from 18 to 25. In the very reserved culture of North Ambae, people usually try no to cause a scene and in public rarely show outward signs of emotion or affection. But these giggly, loud, and lively ladies break the mold. Being a hugger myself, it was hard to get used to living in a place where physical contact is rare and at best you might get a kiss on the cheek from your close female relatives. But luckily for me I found these affectionate sisters. Any one of these girls will launch themselves at me when they see me, hugging and laughing and pulling my hand to drag me into a gossip session. Sometimes their overly enthusiastic attitude and loud affection attract looks of disapproval from the more traditional women on the island, but I find them refreshingly fun and friendly. It is impossible to be lonely in their presence. Olga will come tackle me and refuse to leave me alone until I'm breathless and laughing like a pre-teen. Betsy will see me on the sidelines of a soccer game and promptly install me as team goalie (graciously ignoring my lack of skills). Anita will whisper in my ear and steal me away for a private gossip. On one occasion Betsy and Olga showed up at my house with mischievious twinkling eyes and poorly hidden giggles telling my family they had something extremely important to discuss with me. When we were out of hearing distance they confessed they were kidnapping me to accompany them to a birthday party in another village. I am quite sure my protective mom disapproved, but it made me happy for a week. In my community I am lucky to have a loving family and many people who respect me and look after me. But only Anita, Olga, and Betsy can be considered true "girlfriends." Although they could never replace my fantastic four at home, these girls have the ability to make me forget I'm a Peace Corps volunteer living way out of my element, and instead make me feel like a girl just hanging out with her friends.

Vilej bakagen

Although I greatly enjoyed my journey into the land of hot showers and cold beers, I have to say I'm actually very glad to be back in my tiny little village. When I finally arrived back in Quatamele after a 14-hour day of plane rides, truck rides, boat rides and lots of hiking, I was greeted by my family with my favorite kind of laplap and smiles all around. I laughed with my dad, played with the kids, and handed out presents from Australia, and although my first bucket shower in over a month was quite a shock to the system, I felt so relieved and happy to be back with the people of my village. The entire next day was devoted to claiming my house back from the squatting tenants who had occupied the empty space in my absence. I swatted spiders, shooed cockroaches, swept out rat droppings, and put EVERYTHING in the sun to try to fight back the encroaching mold. A few hours later my house was finally habitable again and I snuggled into my freshly laundered sheets.

The next few weeks were taken up by planning and running a small business workshop. I developed a three day training that would help people start a business, manage their business, and of course control the money within the business. Once again I tried to use a lot of games and activities to get people to really involve themselves and take the message to heart. One of my favorite activities was the first of the workshop. I gathered about 25 different items - all things that could be found on Ambae. There was a saucepan, a piece of fabric, a fishing line, an empty jar, a bag of sugar, a piece of bamboo, and other small things. Then I split the participants into groups of two or three and had each group choose one item. They then had to come up with a business idea using that item and decide on five other things they might need to start their business. I saw this activity open a lot of eyes and turn on a lot of lightbulbs. Sometimes people think that they have to move to the capital or work as migrant workers in New Zealand to make any money and I think they started to understand that money can be made on the island too. We live in a place with amazing natural resources and I loved seeing people start to figure out how they could use those resources. We had a lot of fun over the three days and of course ended with kava and a pig (as you have to with anything in Ambae). And then I slept for two straight days :)