Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Next in the Who’s Who of Quatamwele, we have my father Hugh: a quirky, smiling, inquisitive man whose everyday movements around the village can only be described as puttering. His favorite activities include listening to the radio (Vanuatu only has one station so no one ever argues about which station to turn it to), telling stories, and fussing over me. He’s constantly bringing me overwhelming amounts of food, tweaking things in my house to make them “better”, and asking me if I need to lie down. Despite his short stature and thinning gray hair he is remarkably strong and one of the hardest workers in the village. He doesn’t back down from any community work and takes pride in making sure things are done well. Although he never attended school and cannot read or write, he picks things up very quickly and is so earnest about learning the “right” way to do things.

Dadi Hugh takes his role as my father very seriously and does his best to teach me everything he can about our island. Most of his information about different trees, nuts, and fruits are very useful and appreciated, but I have to try hard not to laugh when he says things like: “That’s a cow” or as a crab scuttles across our path: “One crab.” He also has the habit of randomly starting conversations in the middle, and what I first thought was a language barrier turns out to be me simply trying to catch up with his train of thought. For example, he might break a long silence by saying something like: “But they all went somewhere else because they were carrying something to go down.” He has too many accidentally hilarious stories and strange comments to document them all, but I cannot help but relay a couple gems here:

My first trek away from the village, we were visiting at another house when my dad leans over and whispers to me that if I need to use the toilet I can just ask him to show me where it is. He then said (translated into English for your reading pleasure), “You don’t need to be ashamed to ask where the bathroom is. Some people don’t want to talk about it. But what’s the big deal? You go to the toilet, I go to the toilet, everybody goes to the toilet! There’s no shame in it.”

Another time we were discussing handing out condoms in the village to cut down on teenage pregnancy and STD’s, and my father was adamantly for the idea. He said if he had known about condoms when he was younger he definitely wouldn’t have as many kids as he does. He then told me: “I tell all the boys (and the girls too) they should carry condoms around in their pocket all the time. They’re not heavy or anything! They can just sit in your pocket so you’re always ready. I know you ‘white men’ only do it indoors, but we ‘black men’ do it all about. Sometimes you go to the garden and see someone you like. You start talking and. . .there you go. You want to do it. It’s good if you have a condom in your pocket.” I think my eyes were watering at the effort to keep from laughing, but he was so sincere and serious about his idea that I could only nod and tell him he was very smart.

Although sometimes I find his overbearing attention irksome and I am tempted to rebel against it, I am truly lucky to have such warm, loving, joyful man looking after me.

I also have to take a minute to give a shout out to Elise. She’s been posting these for me since my limited internet connectivity in Lolowai allows me to email but for some reason doesn’t let me post to my blog. So thanks love for taking the time to make sure everyone stays updated and for being such an amazing friend!

A Rao-Rao Christmas

In some countries Christmas is just another day, in others kids wake up early to see what Santa has brought them, but in Vanuatu people celebrate by getting ridiculously drunk, singing, dancing, and fighting. Not exactly what I was expecting. . .

Nancy came up to my village on Christmas Eve to celebrate with all of us in Quatamwele. Her village is Seventh Day Adventist so they don’t observe the holiday. Nancy and I spent the night before Christmas drinking bottles of red wine, giggling over silly inside jokes, and watching Love Actually on my computer. Christmas morning came very early and found the two of us extremely hung over and not feeling very festive. But despite our pounding heads and churning stomachs we went up to my parents’ house to share a breakfast of white rice and boiled cabbage. After we ate, we all headed to the neighboring village of Vuiberugu for a Christmas church service and a goodbye ceremony for our area’s priest who has been re-assigned. The church service was beautiful, and we all gathered after to drink juice and eat bread.

But the real action didn’t happen until about an hour later as we were all waiting for the goodbye program to start. The “boys” of Vuiberugu were already very drunk at about 8:00 in the morning and one of them started to make a scene (“boys” in this country refers to any male between the ages of about 15 to 30). He could barely walk and stumbled around the community field singing and shouting obscenities. Soon we started to see other drunken boys making their way to the gathering. At first they were simply making noise but then they started to get violent. Exchanging of aggressive words quickly turned into a full on beating up of one of the boys. The community leaders tried to break it up, but the rest of the program was plagued by these silly males coming in and out and threatening to disturb the peace. It was quite scary to have these vicious, uncontrollable guys running wild throughout the village. They seemed so unpredictable and I had no idea what they would do. When we finally left to go back home, I told my dad I had been scared. He said, “I know, but I was watching you two (Nancy and me) and if anyone had come near you I would have sent them to the hospital. Your dad may be old, but he’s still strong!” Good thing I have Dadi Hugh looking out for me :)

We arrived back at our village and got ready to eat our big celebratory meal. Accompanying the lap-lap and freshly killed pig, my family and I drank a jug of what I can only compare to Carlo Rossi wine. I’m not exactly sure what it consists of, but it doesn’t claim to be true wine. Instead the label refers to it as a “wine-based beverage” and truthfully admits to it being “produced with fish and milk products”. Interesting. But it did the trick and had everyone feeling very jovial. After eating we went to join other people from the village at a party at my brother’s house. There (not surprisingly), all the boys from Quatamwele were completely drunk. But although I’m sure their blood alcohol content rivaled that of the boys in Vuiberugu, our boys were happy drunks; choosing to sing, dance, and hug each other a lot over physical violence. It was hilarious to see my goofy dad drink beer after beer and my shy, quiet mom down mixed drinks. Nancy and I decided to abstain, not just because of our lingering hangovers, but also because of the drink options: warm bottled beer, cheap whiskey mixed with sugar water, a horrible malt beverage (also warm), or a homemade drink consisting of yeast, sugar, and coconut milk. No thank you. Instead we took ourselves out of the craziness early and retreated to my house before things could degenerate any further.

There is no effective way to sum up my Christmas experience. I can only say it was sweltering hot, scary, hilarious, and like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It was a long way from sitting in front of a cozy fire in Spokane, watching the snow fall gently, and sipping a nice red wine chosen specifically to complement the Christmas goose. But now I have yet another unique memory to add to my experience

I will be spending the New Year in East Ambae. About 12 Peace Corps volunteers from at least 4 different islands will be coming together to celebrate. Will there be fish product “wine” there? A girl can only hope. . .

Monday, December 13, 2010


I have decided it would be impossible to give an adequate description of all the wonderful people in my life here in just one post, so I have decided to do a series of profiles. To start, I want to introduce you all to my sister, Yvette.

First though, a note on names since I bet some of you are confused to encounter a “Yvette” on a small island in the Pacific. Really, there is no rhyme or reason to the names here. Some are classic Christian names (Patrick, Mary, Andrew), some are traditional Ambaen names (Mwerta, Tari, Garae), there are a few old-school Victorian names (Evelyn, Crimson), and then there are the random names that seem to come from nowhere (Hugh, Yvette, Ivanna, Anita). There is no way to explain where the practice of naming seems to come from, so instead you must accept it as yet another peculiarity of my strange new home.

Yvette was my first friend here and has been my saving grace in the month I have lived in Quatamwele. From the day I arrived – feeling overwhelmed, shy, exhausted, and in way over my head – she has taken me under her wing. Somehow she has a sixth sense about my moods and feelings and is amazingly adept at showing up at exactly the right time with just what I need. A day when I’m feeling lethargic and useless Yvette will come to my door and ask me to go to the garden with her. When I have nothing to say but need to be around people Yvette will call me down to her kitchen and talk and talk while I sit and listen. When all the praise and stories about the former volunteer start to annoy me a little, Yvette will jump in and highlight some of the differences between us and talk about how lucky the village is to have me now. All without me saying a word.

My sister has a great sense of humor, a mischievous crooked smile, and an energetic sparkle to her eyes. Although she spends all her days corralling her five children, cooking for her husband, doing the wash, and also managing the village’s handcraft group, her enthusiasm and liveliness never flag. She loves to play volleyball (although she complains she was much better before kids made her “fat-fat”), go to the garden, and tease her husband (the only one who can get away with poking fun at the chief and chairman of the village). She and I work together closely in regards to the handcraft group and I am consistently amazed at how quickly she picks things up and how well she manages people with a mix of affectionate humor and firm guidelines. She has no idea how talented she is and continues to lack confidence in her abilities to manage money, but I hope soon she will realize what a great asset she is to the community. I cannot imagine how dreary life would be here without her, and she says as the only girl with six brothers she’s ecstatic to finally have a sister.

An American Holiday Comes to the Pacific

Thanksgiving 2010 was one I will not soon forget. It was my first Thanksgiving away from my home and family, my first Thanksgiving without a turkey, strangely NOT my first Thanksgiving meal cooked over a fire, but the first where I actually did some of the cooking. Although it lacked the cold winter weather, the good china, and the pumpkin pie that anchor the classic American holiday, it was a fantastic day that will stay in my memory as one of the best Thanksgivings I’ve had.

On Wednesday, Megan came from Lolowai, Kara from Luvunvili, and Melissa from Vureas (all in East Ambae), and together with Nancy made the trek up my hill to see Quatamwele. My village gets ridiculously excited when we get visitors, so they planned a whole welcome ceremony for the girls filled with classic rambling Ni-Van speeches and way too much food. We left soon after in order to get down to Nancy’s village of Vandue before dark. That night we laughed and talked and broke open one of the cherished bottles of wine the girls had foraged from the few sparse stores in Lolowai.

Thanksgiving dawned cloudy and rainy and in good holiday fashion we lazed around the house all morning, until the food preparations began. We carried spices, pots and pans, various ingredients, and all the necessities over to Nancy’s kitchen and started the fire. Over the next few hours we slaved over a hot fire and were rewarded with a home-made feast of curry pumpkin soup, beans with island cabbage (similar to spinach), mashed kumala (sweet potatoes), bread (not an easy task when you don’t have yeast or an oven. But doable!), two chickens, gravy, yams fried with onions, mac and cheese (not a Thanksgiving classic but just so American that it made the cut), and a banana cake for dessert. It was a challenge, but we had a blast and celebrated by eating a feast, drinking wine, and lying around like true Americans on Thanksgiving.

The next day Nancy and I followed the boat with the girls back to Lolowai to use some internet and eat something other than our usual diet of simboro and lap-lap (more on the food here in a later post). Although the weather looked ominous, we only get a chance for a cheap boat ride once every two weeks, so we decided to go for it. Small amounts of rain came down on the two-hour boat ride to Lolowai, but nothing too dramatic. However, on the way back the skies opened up and buckets of rain fell on us. The ocean became very rough and waves crashed into the boat soaking us to the skin. The weather continued to get worse until we were in the middle of strong winds, crashing thunder, and the kind of rain I had never seen before. I later learned a hurricane was in the area and that we were catching the fringes of the wild weather. At this point my biggest concern was for the infant that was in the boat, coming back from being immunized at the hospital. The only place that has vaccines is the hospital in Lolowai, and the only way to get there is by boat, so the mother didn’t have any choice. Everyone was trying to shield him from the rain and the waves as much as possible, but I was terrified the boat was going to flip and send us all into the ocean. The men in the boat told me that in times of heavy rains the road up to my village turns into a river and is impassable, so I continued on to Vandue to stay the night with Nancy. After getting the baby out of the boat safely, jumping onto the shore amidst crashing waves, and helping to pull the boat up a hill and out of the ocean’s reach, Nancy and I finally slogged back to her house. By this time we were so wet we might have well have jumped in the ocean, and the rain was providing better water pressure than we’d seen in months, so we decided to wash our hair outside in the rain. Then we changed into warm clothes and huddled under blankets, drinking hot chocolate and watching a movie on my laptop. The next day the rains subsided a little and I could finally go back up the hill to assure my worried parents I had not gotten swept out to sea.

Like I said, a Thanksgiving I will never forget!