Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Aru was my first (and still one of my only) young male friends. The cultural separation of men and women and my own belief that a self-imposed distance from the mischievous youngfala boys increases my acceptance by the woman keep me from becoming too close to any men my age. However, most of our handcraft group's best carvers come from this demographic so out of necessity I struck up a relationship with the informal leader of the group: 25-year-old Aru. The boys sensed my hesitation to get too involved with them so they would send Aru to my door to ask for carving tools or negotiate prices and I in turn would send him back with tips for cleaner carvings or requests for specific products. Our friendship has grown (cautiously) through the months and after his village of Vuiberugu selected him to go to the leadership camp in May we've gotten to know each other better.

Besides being a contender for sexiest man alive (he has a smile that will make a girl forget her own name. But don't worry - he's happily married to a sister of mine and is a doting father to three adorable girls), Aru is an incredible leader, an extremely hard worker, and loves life with an enthusiasm that is contagious. Only finishing school through the 6th grade he considers himself dumb and uneducated but in reality picks things up with amazing speed and ease. Show him something once and he can do it. Show him something twice and he can teach someone else how to do it. He amazed everyone at the leadership camp with his proclivity for American sports - showing an effortless mastery of American football, Ultimate Frisbee, and even Yoga while his friends struggled just to understand the rules. You might expect someone as gifted as Aru to be arrogant and selfish with his skills but you would be surprised. He just doesn't understand the point of keeping knowledge to himself. Anyone who asks is welcome to his array of knowledge from how to play the guitar to how to carve the perfect dolphin to how to make home brew. If you told this unassuming and humble guy he was a natural leader he would deny it with embarrassment, but I think he acknowledges the adoration of the younger boys and tries to take every opportunity to show them how to be better men and specifically how to be better husbands. In a culture where domestic abuse is at least tolerated if not encouraged, Aru tells the boys it's not ok to hit their women. One time he told me the main thing he tells them over and over is that they all "mas gat love lo ol man."

Aru knows he will probably spend the rest of his life in the village. He's not trying to run for office or add things to his resume. He just truly wants everyone to live as full a life as they can, and if he can help - he will.

I don't have a lot of male friends, but I'm satisfied with choosing quality over quantity :)

Turn Right at the Coconut Tree

After living in this wonderful and exasperating country for a year I have grown to understand and even enjoy many of its quirks and idiosyncrasies. However there is one source of unending frustration that I have not been able to accept: the manner in which the people of Vanuatu give directions. On a side note I now find I must apologize to my oldest brother and his lovely Irish lass for previously accusing the Irish of being the worst possible direction givers. Sure they might send you through a string of unnecessary roundabouts, confuse you by giving contradictory information, or even lie to avoid admitting ignorance, but at least when you find yourself hopelessly lost some helpful soul will happily show you to the nearest pub and allow you to buy him a pint for his assistance. No such luck in Vanuatu.

Let me give an example of how directions are typically given here. A woman in your handcraft group has invited you to her house to talk about a new style of basket (and inevitably eat a heaping plate of simboro). You ask someone you know how to get to her house. "Oh yes!" they enthusiastically reply. "I know her! She's so-and-so's dad's cousin's sister! You know so-and-so in the next village over? Well her brother married your uncle's daughter and their son married so-and-so's mother's auntie's daughter!" Yes, yes, that's all fascinating and memorable of course but where is her house? "Ok, do you see that Naos tree up there? Her house is 'nother saed long wei'." Now here your months in the bush have taught you to pause. Even if you can determine which tree out of a dense mess of jungle vegetation that stretches on for miles is being referred to, the phrase "long wei" needs some illumination. In the muddled language that is Bislama "long wei" can either mean "over there" or quite literally "a hell of a long way away." You must clarify to determine whether your trip will require a packed lunch, a sleeping bag, or perhaps a week's supply of clean drinking water. Once the relative location and distance of the house is determined, you ask for detailed directions. "Take the path on top until you come to two coconut trees. Follow the path by the smol smol one. You'll go up a big hill then down a little one, up a little one again, and then down a sorta big one. Then you'll come across your uncle's cow - take the path to the right of the cow. Follow the path for a little bit more and you're there! It's the house with the natangurra roof."

Although perhaps you're not quite clear on the details, you're confident this is as good as you'll get so you set off. Almost immediately you are confused. Where there are supposed to be two coconut trees there are three! All of various sizes! You're supposed to follow the smol smol one, but was that determined before the even smaller one started to grow? You pick one and take a chance. Things start to improve. You traverse the hills easily and after going down what's probably the "sorta big" hill you see the cow! You permit yourself a break and a celebratory drink of water. But then. . .right in front of your horrified eyes the cow moves! Now both paths are to the right of the cow! What to do? You consider giving up and in desperation ask the cow if she can at least direct you to the nearest pub, but the only response you get is a lazily hostile chewing of grass. You sigh thinking how good a Guiness sounds about now but there's nothing to do but pick a path and follow it. Soon you arrive in a clearing and see a house with a natangurra roof. That must be your cousin's auntie's grandma twice removed or whatever's house! But then you look around and see five more houses with natangurra roofs! Luckily at this moment a curious kid comes to stare at you and can be persuaded to show you the right house. You are welcomed with smiles and food and can finally relax. Until the trek back. . .

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Fr. Mark

Fr. Mark Mwera is a happy, playful, and somewhat flirtatious guy, tiny in stature and huge in smiles. But if you want to say that to his face you're gonna have to shout. Quatamele's retired priest, at age 81, no longer hears very well, sees very well, or can go too far without his walking stick, but his heart is still that of a child's. He loves to read picture books, sing children's choruses, and tease the little kids. But although everyone in the village calls him Grandpa Mark and nothing lights up his face like playing with one of his many "grandkids", he has no children of his own. Anglican priests are allowed to marry but Fr. Mark never got around to it. When you tease him and ask him why he never found a good woman he gives you a different response every time. "You women are trouble and I wanted a peaceful life" he might say, or "I found one once but she loved someone else," or my personal favorite "Well I never found a woman that's as good looking as me!" But although he has no wife to cook for him, daughters to sew for him, or sons to cut firewood for him, our area is filled with his family members who try their best to look out for him. However, helping Fr. Mark is not an easy task and often his well-intentioned relatives become exasperated with the stubborn old man. And here's why: any little gift intended to make Fr. Mark's life easier will fly out his door before he ever uses it. New shoes will be found on his nephew's feet, a rain coat will turn up keeping a child dry, and food finds it's way into the kitchens of all his friends. "Stop giving stuff away - that's meant for you!" his frustrated relatives will exclaim, but that's Fr. Mark's style and he's not likely to change it soon.

Although at first glance Fr. Mark is just a goofy little grandfatherly figure, truly he is as wise as his years and has had some amazing experiences. He remembers well when the U.S. troops came during WWII (he can sings the whole Marine theme songs and sometimes when I walk by he salutes me) as well as when Vanuatu gained it's independence, and he worked for over 10 years for The Republic of Vanuatu's first (and some would say only successful) government. He has written a fascinating story about his life so people won't forget him, and I'm going to copy it and put it in a nice book for him as a surprise.

Yes you strain your vocal chords when you story with Fr. Mark, but hearing his corny jokes, his interesting experiences, his beautiful and heartfelt sermons, and his expert kastom story telling is well worth it. Fr. Mark easily takes down your defenses and makes you laugh, but look out - he might not be as harmless as you think. He keeps threatening to steal my passport so I'll be stuck forever in Quatamele, unable to leave him :)

What I Really Do Up Here

When I started this online documentation of my adventures in Vanuatu I promised myself I would never become the typical self-agrandizing blogger who uses words like "self-agrandizing" and urges her reader to realize how awesome she is. But it looks like I didn't make it very long. I must apologize, but I'm so excited about all the great things going on in North Ambae so you're just going to have to let me gush and brag for a post. But if it makes you feel better you can all write me about the cool things you're all doing :)

So here's the update:

  • My treasurer training workshop - One of the problems I've begun to see in my area is the widespread gross mismanagement of money. Community and group funds are constantly being raided for personal use - often by the treasurer of the fund or his family. Now maybe I'm too naive and haven't gotten the chance to have my idealism and my optimism kicked out of me yet, but I don't believe this embezzeling is going on because the treasurers are bad people. In fact I know many of these individuals and they're wonderful people. No, I think this problem comes from the fact that many people are just confused about money in general. Money is a fairly new concept in these parts, and in a culture that still often uses kastom woven mats and pigs as currency, it's hard to fully understand the value of a little piece of paper. I do not want to insult the intelligence of the people I live with - of course they understand that money has value and they can take it to a store and exchange it for salt and soap. But at the same time they haven't had the generations to get used to the idea of paper currency that we have, and how to use it right and manage it well can be somewhat of a mystery. In addition, in this culture if a family member asks you for something you are honor bound to give it to them. Food, clothing, tools, and even money are often thought of as family property and to refuse someone is to cause great shame. Now it is not my place (or even my desire) to question or change these cultural practices. I admire how tightly knit and supportive these families and communities are here. However when this "help yourself" attitude starts to seep into community funds, church funds, youth group funds, etc., resentment grows and fights break out. So last week I did just a one day workshop on how to be an effective treasurer. We talked about the correct way to release and receive money, how to keep good records, how to report back to your group, and most importantly the accountability you have to keep the money safe. I think it was pretty successful but we'll see if it does any good.

  • My family budget workshop - Word spread about the one I ran in my village in March and next week I'm doing it again in the neighboring village of Vuiberugu and I'll be doing another one in Wainasasa in September. Hmm. . .that actually isn't that interesting or cool. Next.

  • My rural banking project - It's gonna happen, it's really gonna happen! I would never publicly admit this but I'm actually very surprised this is going ahead. A note about North Ambae - people don't think we're very important. We don't have much development or wealth and we're largely illiterate (of course I could go on and on about how awesome we are but I'll save that for another time). We're basically the hicks of Ambae and people tend to ignore us or mock us (a common saying is "North hemi zero." Really nice East Ambae - you guys are clever!) But regardless there is some money around here and I think it would really help people's money management skills to have access to a bank (for now money is buried or put in an old peanut butter jar), however to hire a boat to the nearest bank in Lolowai is the equivalent of $60 USD - an astronomical sum to most people here - including me. So I thought - if people can't go to the bank, bring the bank to the people! I can't really credit myself with this idea (sadly) because the National Bank of Vanuatu (NBV) already has a mobile banking program. Just not in North Ambae of course (remember? We're "zero.") So I decided to pull it to us. I started in February by requesting a meeting with the Head of Rural Banking in Vila and he grudgingly accepted (I don't think he wanted to but in this country people work pretty hard to keep the Peace Corps on their good side). By the end of the meeting I had gotten his mandate - but that's it. I could use his name if I wanted but he wasn't going to make any calls for me. Next step - local branch in Lolowai, East Ambae. Through a combination of smiles and refusing to go away I got them to agree to a financial literacy toktok in North Ambae and then (more smiles and refusing to go away) they agreed to start sending a guy once a month to do deposits, withdrawls, and maybe even some microfinance loans. Next step - get the bigwigs on board. With the help of my wonderful chief I called a meeting of some chiefs, church leaders, the one rich guy in North Ambae, and the school headmaster - basically 8 of the most powerful men in the area. Trying to keep the butterflies in my stomach from choking me or making me throw up I pitched my idea (I couldn't even rely on my sister who usually helps me through these things with supportive smiles and head knods because she opted to sit outside and listen at the door. Coward. And this woman is not easily intimidated). And. . . they loved it! They all agreed it would be great for the North and said they backed me 100%. They'd even help with providing a venue and helping me spread the word (not easy in a world without cell phones, email, or trucks - we basically pass notes). Our first NBV day and official kickoff of the program is next month so there's plenty of time for things to go wrong but I hope I hope I so much hope this will go smoothly.

  • My (I use that term loosely) youth group - The two guys I brought to the Training of Trainers last month (remember? the youth leadership camp that you guys helped pay for?) have taken it upon themselves to start a youth group in Vuiberugu. Every Sunday after church the youth of the area gather to sing, tell kastom stories, and play all those silly camp games we taught at the TOT. Then these two (Aru and Tensley) sit them down and talk to them about one of the subjects we trained them on. They've covered leadership, communication, and building trust, and next week is good teamwork. With minimal help from me (we meet every Saturday to go over what they're gonna say and I jump in if they get stuck) and with zero resources and limited formal education, these two have started successfully building up the youth in the area. Sounds to me like money well spend :)

  • My dove necklace project - As a proud member and treasurer-in-training of the Gender and Development Committee I'm always trying to find ways to help our dismal bank account (it's a long story but we're very limited in where we can seek funds). As one of the managers of our local handcraft group I'm always trying to find new markets for the products. And Nancy and I have found a way to do both! I worked with North Ambae's incredible carvers who can make beautiful jewelry out of nuts, seeds, and shells, and we designed the Peace Corps Dove Necklace - a re-creation of the Peace Corps symbol made from a natangura seed. They've become very popular with the volunteers in Vanuatu and the orders are flowing in. Half the proceeds go to the carver and half to the GAD committee.

So there it is! I'm super busy and slightly exhausted, but very happy. As those closest to me already know, I'm never more content than when I have lots of work to do, plenty of projects to complete, and maybe just a few too many committments on my calendar.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

6 Months is the Coconut Anniversary, Right?

In honor of my six month anniversary of living in Quatamele, I would like to give you a summary of my time here. As an accountant I can only do it the way I know best, so here is six months in the jungle - by the numbers.

Days I've been at site - 180
Days since my feet have been clean - 180
Number of times a lizard has fallen out of a tree onto my head - 3
Days since my last hot shower - 74
Months since I've shaved my legs - 2+
Number of times I've fallen in the creek - 1
Months since I've worn any footwear other than flip flops - 8
Pairs of flip flops I've worn out - 4
Number of my necklaces stolen by a rat - 1
Straight days I've eaten simboro for at least one meal - 26
Days since my last manicure - 241
Number of pig killings I've witnessed - 6
Ants crawling accross my computer right now - 3
Number of people I've seen pick their nose today - 5
Days since I've spoken English - 7
Number of times I've almost been killed by a coconut - 1
Number of times I've almost been killed by a tiny boat almost sinking - I don't want to say because my mom reads this blog
Number of Prime Ministers who have governed Vanuatu since I've been here - 3
Bottles of insect spray I've gone through - 8
Days since I've seen a car/truck - 21
Number of times I've wanted to give up and go home - many
Number of times I've been glad I've stuck it out - more than above

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Unlike my outgoing, talkative dadi, my momi is quite shy and known throughout the community as being a quiet woman. While my dadi tells elaborate, exaggerated stories, she is content to sit in the background, her hands always working - peeling taro, weaving a basket, or rocking one of her many grandchildren to sleep. When he gets to a particularly ridiculous part of the story, she might raise her eyebrows at me or scrunch up her nose and shake her head, but her great affection for him and her quiet nature keep her from outright contradicting him.

This incredible woman whose saucepan is always full and whose kitchen is always open to hungry grandchildren daily endures the indignities of small hands pulling her hair, small feet dirtying her clothes, and small runny noses being wiped on her skirts, but she never loses her good humor. It is easy to make her laugh and when she finds something truly funny she squints up her eyes, throws back her head, and lets out a huge laugh unexpected from such a quiet woman.

Momi Evelyn has no interest in village politics or community development, but she loyally shows up to every meeting, every community work day, and every workshop. I know she would prefer to stay in her peaceful kitchen undisturbed, and her presence at these policy-making events is purely to show her support for me, my dadi, my sister, and whoever else might need to see a friendly face.

Despite her gentle demeanor, my momi looks out for me like a mama bear and woe to the man that gets in the way of my eating or sleeping. The first day of my workshop, as we neared our lunch break momi discreetly approached to tell me she had food waiting for me at the house - she knew I had been too busy to think about it that morning. At the break some participants came up to ask individual questions and I saw my chance to eat quickly slipping away. At this point my unobtrusive momi came up to our group and said some very sharp words in the local language. Although I didn't catch the exact meaning, the hasty retreat of the questioners told me momi had voiced her displeasure that they were keeping me away from my simboro. I am never allowed to go hungry and always the best of her garden - the ripest mandarins, the biggest tomatoes, the sweetest mangoes - find their way to my already overflowing plate.

I get great comfort from my momi. Her quiet, consistent presence makes me feel peaceful, and she seems to be the only one in the village who doesn't have the need to constantly pepper me with questions or requests. Often we can peel taro, rasras bananas, or roll simboro without talking - content to just sit together. She never fusses over me and without comment lets me crouch down around the fire with her, subtly teaching me how to cook, wash, and paint mats - imparting her vast knowledge of what it means to be a woman in this culture.

Surely I would be lost without this soft, loving woman, and her calming presence makes living this crazy experience possible.

I'm Back!

I've been away from my blog lately because I haven't been around the Internet and I've been busy busy busy. And before that. . .I had nothing interesting to report. January was a tough month filled with cyclones, and I experienced the worst Peace Corps hardship yet - Excruciating Boredom. I had no cute, witty stories to fill my blog (once you get over waking up with the first lizard in your bed, the second and third bed-invading lizards just don't provide good material. If you've heard one lizard story, you've heard them all) and I had already complained enough about the weather. Then most of February was spent in a classroom in Vila and I was pretty sure you guys didn't want to hear about Project Design Management or how to maintain good mental health out in the jungle.

But don't you worry because now I'm back in the village and gathering lots of blog-worthy material. The sun has come out, I have lots of work to do, and the weeks are flying by.

One of the highlights is that I ran my first workshop. Weeks of planning and preparing culminated in a 2 day workshop on Family Budgeting and Household Money Management. In a total of 10 hours I worked with people with little or no education on how to properly manage their finances. We played games, did group activities, and they listened to me talk way to much, and at the end we celebrated with kava and a roasted pig. Among the attendees were 15 men, 13 women, some kids and a chicken, and I was very pleased with the turnout (except for the chicken - he was very rude and disruptive and had to be kicked out of class). It seemed pretty successful. Already word has spread and several other communities have approached me to ask if I could bring the workshop to their area.

As for my other work: I found an additional buyer for our handcraft group so we're getting busier, I'm helping with the budget and the finances of building a new church house, I've been working individually with some small business owners, and I hope to soon be successful in getting the National Bank of Vanuatu to come start a rural banking program in m area. Like I said - busy! But being busy makes me happy and I finally feel like I'm doing the work I came her to do. The last thing I want to do is turn North Ambae into a greedy, capitalist society, but if I can instil some financial competency, help provide ways of making income (if wanted), and train people how to plan for the future, I will consider myself lucky to have had such success and will be extremely grateful I can give back even a tiny portion of what these amazing people have already given me.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

How Kymani Marley Saved My Relationship

This past week in Vila has not been a good one. Of course I'm enjoying showers, lights, and seeing all my PC friends, but in general my initial optimism and humor where Vanuatu is concerned was growing thin. And I believe the problem comes from the fact that Vanuatu and I have reached the point in our relationship where we are past the honeymoon phase but not quiet truly comfortable with each other yet. All those little things that were so charming and original when we first met have become simply another annoyance that often leads to a fight. Where before I loved the relaxed, easy-going way of life, now I am frustrated that it takes infuriating amounts of time to accomplish anything. My initial appreciation of the friendliness and openness of everyone in this country has turned to aggravation at having to explain my story to everyone I meet. I used to admire the fact that business is not the most important thing to people here, but now I am plagued by stores closing for lunch "hour" every day or shutting down operations at 3:00pm. Even the weather has become nothing more than a thorn in my side, and at night I lie sweating in bed longing for the days I complained about the snow and frigid Northwest temperatures. I was losing my infatuation and starting to wonder if maybe Vanuatu and I weren't cut out for a serious relationship. Maybe I should start seeing other countries.

But then Kymani Marley stepped in and showed me the error of my impatience. Now in the U.S. when an offspring of Bob Marley announces a concert date, for most of us it means nothing more than an excuse to wear hemp, wave a lighter back and forth, and maybe even smoke something you haven't touched since college. But in Rasta-crazed Vanuatu any son of Bob Marley is royalty, and consequently this week leading up to his concert has produced waving flags, Reggae blasting from every speaker, and posters of Kymani plastered on every available surface. To say people are excited would be an understatement. As I was bumping along today in a beat up old bus on my way home to my hotel, my driver suddenly turned into a dirt parking lot close to the waterfront. "Be, yumi go wea?" I asked the driver, hoping I wouldn't have to brave the downpour to find another bus going my direction. The driver turned around and excitedly told me Kymani Marley's boat was about to land on this very dock. He then asked, with the pleading eyes of a child in an ice-cream shop, if we could please just wait 5 minutes till he arrived. He just wanted a look at the legendary man's son. Although I was annoyed and the word "typical" flew through my brain, I fought down my new-found cynicism and agreed that we could indeed hang out for a few minutes. I got out of the bus, camera in hand, and waited. Soon a group of boats could be seen coming around the corner, and the sight took my breath away. One weighed down boat with the celebrity on board was surrounded by smaller boats, overloaded to their limits, zipping around the bay. People were singing, using the side of the boats as drums, and waving a huge flag. Not part of his official posse, people had jumped on any seaworthy (I use that term lightly) craft they could find and rushed to be part of this Rasta sea parade. People began to swarm off the streets and line the dock, all wanting a look at Mr. Marley. It had the feeling of a carnival and everyone was laughing, singing, making beats, and dancing long after the superstar had entered his hotel.

I don't care that I saw Kymani Marley. Until a few days ago I didn't know he existed. So why was he the perfect form of couple's therapy for Vanuatu and me? I'm not exactly sure. It was just another display of chaos that is so prevalent in this country, but for some reason I began to smile and cannot stop. The people of this crazy country are so vibrant and alive. Yes, things can be extremely annoying here, but you will always find people willing to dance, laugh, and sing. And aren't mutual love, a sense of humor, and a dedication to working things out the most important things in a relationship? Maybe I'll give Vanuatu another chance. But I better be getting flowers out of this. . .

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

You can help!

As you sit at your computers, reading about the amazing people that live in Vanuatu and some of the extreme challenges they face every day, I bet you often wish you could do something to help improve the lives and the opportunities for these unique and wonderful people. Well good news - now you can! By following the link below you can donate any amount of money, however small, to help the Gender and Development committee work to provide support for the country's youth.

But what is the GAD committee? We are a group of eight volunteers who meet three times a year and try to address issues of gender inequality, gender-based violence, and others in Vanuatu. As our mission statement says, our goal is to "encourage cooperation between women and men to build strong families, communities, and nation." This encompasses a broad range of activities from raising awareness of domestic violence to helping people re-evaluate gender roles to providing training for Peace Corps volunteers in GAD related issues. But one of the most important things the GAD committee does is to focus on educating the youth of Vanuatu and helping foster confidence, leadership skills, healthy relationships and much more. As we focus on empowering the young people of this country we are ensuring that the next generation of Ni-Vanuatu will have the strength and the tools to improve the country from within. By providing training we can hope to put into place a sustainable development plan that will flourish without volunteers and will hopefully eventually make Peace Corps's presence in Vanuatu unnecessary.

A way to accomplish this is by running BILD (Boys In Leadership Development) and GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) camps in different locations around the country. These camps are a great way to gain access to and engage the country's youth and have been proven time and time again to be effective. Although the Peace Corps is extremely supportive of the GAD committee and our mission, unfortunately for the moment there is no available funding for us to run these camps. So instead, we look to you! You can help us accomplish our goals by donating any amount of money. Any gift of any size is greatly appreciated and gets us one step closer to our goal. So if you want to help the youth of Vanuatu, or get a nice little tax deduction, or if you just want to support your favorite Peace Corps blogger, please follow the link and donate anything you can. Thank you!!


Monday, January 31, 2011

Girl Quatamwele

I am back in Vila for more training classes and I find my impression of the city has completely changed. When I first got to Vanuatu I thought Vila was a dirty, sleepy little town with not much going on. Although I still think it’s dirty, now I view the rushing trucks, rows of stores and restaurants, anchored yachts, and so many white people with the wide eyes of a country bumpkin. And I suppose really, that description wouldn’t be too off the mark.

I expected as a Peace Corps volunteer in a 3rd world country I wouldn’t be living in a Hilton with wireless internet and 24 hour room service. I also expected that whatever my living conditions ended up being they would no doubt evoke feelings of sympathy from those faithfully following my blog at home. However what I did not expect was the outpouring of horror and concern that would come from local people on my own island when I mention my home village.

Inevitably, when people hear I live in Quatamwele, they give one of three reactions: they emit a low whistle and shake their heads; they grasp my hand tightly and say, “Oh, sori!” like I just told them the family pet died; or they simply laugh and laugh. The times I make it into the small “town” of Lolowai, shopkeepers will see me and yell out, “Luk! Gel Quatamwele i kam daon lo bush!” causing everyone in the store to stare at me, or residents might simply shout, “Woman Bush!” as I walk by.

Even on North Ambae, where the stores are fewer, cold drinks are impossible to come by, and only one brave truck will dare take on the dirt roads, I am still a source of curiosity and concern. People in the villages on the coast, like Nancy’s Vandue or the neighboring Waluimbwe, are constantly asking how I’m doing “up there.” When I come down to visit, some worried mama will predictably take my hand, and with her brows knit together will lean close and ask in a low voice, “How are you?” No matter how convincingly I say, “Great! Things are great!” she will keep a hold of my hand, concerned eyes searching my face as she asks again, “No, but seriously. How are you??” Although the concern and mothering can be comforting being so far from home, I start to get a little annoyed by people’s constant anxiety that I’m wasting away in the jungle. My favorite fretful mama story comes from Waluimbwe when a particularly apprehensive woman said to me: “Oh my goodness, how are you feeling? Are you sick? Because you look awful!” Being in perfect health I was initially slightly peeved at this woman’s undisguised horror at my appearance, but to be fair I tried to assess the situation through her eyes. And what I saw was a little white girl standing in front of her, feet eternally dirty, mold growing on her skirt, shirt smelling like algae from the dirty creek it was last washed in, a mixture of sweat and dirt plastering her hair to her forehead, and wearing a broken flip flop. Ohhhhh, I did look awful! But up in the bush this is the normal way of things. We don’t concern ourselves with petty things like appearance and cleanliness. Up there the way I looked wouldn’t have garnered a second look. Maybe I have been in the bush too long!

But despite people’s dismay at my living conditions, I really like it up here. Sure I may eat only local kakae instead of rice and meat, and sure I may fall asleep to the sound of frogs and cicadas instead of the whiring of generators and the twanging of local “string band” music. But it’s peaceful in the bush and we live a happy, quiet life. I’m sure it must seem unlikely to all of you. Here I am—a girl with more pairs of stilettos than stamps on her passport, a girl whose drink at Starbucks takes longer to order than to consume, and a girl whose idea of hardship is when her favorite Indian restaurant is closed for remodeling and she has to get Thai for take-out instead—living in a bamboo house without electricity or running water. But the truth is I’m here, I’m making it, and I actually (mostly) enjoy it. I am Woman Bush, I am Girl Quatamwele, and I’m proud of it.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Patrick and William

Patrick and William are my sister Yvette’s two youngest children and are about 4 and 2 years old respectively. These munchkins spend their days running around the village, causing a ruckus and generally living out every boy’s dream. In this place, no one is a stranger and there is no danger of being kidnapped, so kids are free to roam at will. Patrick and William might disappear for hours on end but their mother remains unconcerned, assuring me they must be at their grandparents’ house or playing in the creek. Besides “don’t talk to strangers”, “don’t run with scissors” is another phrase never heard in the jungles of North Ambae. It is rare to see Patrick without a machete twice the length of his arm, and even William likes to wander about with a knife clutched in his chubby toddler’s hand.

William is a loving, smiling little guy and unbeknownst to him made my transition here a little easier. One of the first nights I was in Quatamwele we were having a goodbye for the former volunteer and amidst the speeches, the tears, and the eating; William kept coming over to me and climbing in my lap. His mother was appalled at his boldness and in embarrassment tried to scold him. But he was undeterred and nestled himself into my arms. William has started to talk but only speaks the local language. Sometimes we will have a conversation—me speaking Bislama and him speaking a mixture of language and toddler gibberish—and although neither of us knows what the conversation is about, William will cock his head as if listening closely to me and I will nod in understanding at his undoubtedly profound statements. He has earned many nicknames from his mother and me including “Man Bush” for his affinity for taking off his pants and “Hurricane” for his propensity to destroy plants in the garden with his ever present knife.

Patrick is a precocious thing and is going through the phase where he just wants to be a big kid like his siblings (I don’t have the heart to tell him that longing will last into his adult years until he finally reaches 21 and thanks God he’s not old and boring like his siblings J). Every morning his little voice sings out, “Gud moning Mac!” and sometimes he will simply poke his head around my door and say, “Hey!” Today as I sat in my house working, he came by and stated: “Hea blo yu i naes.” (basically he told me my hair looked good today). What a flirt. Patrick is clever and observant and always making me laugh with his unexpectedly on target remarks. When he recently went to Vila with his parents, his mom told me every white woman he saw he would grab her arm and say excitedly, “Look! It’s Momi Mac!” She would have to explain it was someone else and his face would fall in disappointment. Although he’s a good older brother, sometimes I will catch Patrick poking William with a stick or throwing seeds at him until William starts to cry and Patrick adopts an innocent look on his face.

These two keep me laughing with their antics and charm me with their loving ways. In our “family” they are supposed to call me Momi and they have taken on my new role with enthusiasm. They come to me with special rocks to show me, they cry to me when they skin their knees, and William is even comfortable enough to pee right on the floor of my house. I knew I wasn’t ready for kids yet!

Rainy Season? That's an Understatement

I see the sun today after a string of 10 straight days of non-stop rain. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot to you. Maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, the girl lived in Seattle for over two years and she can’t handle a little rain?” If you are thinking that, thanks for being so insensitive you big jerk. But you could potentially have a point. Except for the fact that the rain in Seattle drizzles slightly while the rain here has been coming down in sheets so thick you think you might have accidentally fallen in the ocean. And while in Seattle I dealt with the gray, soggy weather by baking cookies and watching chick flicks with Elise, unfortunately here that is not an option.

Up here in Quatamwele we have been enveloped in a cloud for over a week. It will lift long enough to pour down rain and then descend to hide any remnants of a sun and throw a thick fog over everything. The creeks are dangerously full, making it impossible even to go to my parents’ house, and everything turned into slick, slimy mud. No one can go to the garden, get to the mobile reception place, go down to get provisions from the store at the bottom of the hill, or really do anything at all. Thunder cracks all day, the rain pours down, wind threatens to take down trees, and to step outside means to be soaked to the skin instantly. Not that it’s much better inside. I can actually say, for the first time in my life, that it rained inside my house. The strong wind blew a bit of a cloud through the un-insulated bamboo walls, and it hovered right near my ceiling, emitting a small mist of rain droplets that fell on everything I own. As I looked at the beam from my solar light (necessary to read by even in the middle of the day), I could see the rain coming down. And of course, consequently everything is wet. When I go to bed my sheets are wet, when I wake up my clothes are wet, my matches, firewood, notebooks, towels – all wet. And this swampy atmosphere has confused a whole new set of critters into thinking that my home is in fact their home. I have come to terms with the lizards, spiders, and ants that are my usual constant companions. Since none of them are poisonous I generally have accepted a live-and-let-live policy with few negative experiences (with the exception of Harry, the spider that lives in my swim house. He’s a creep and I’m convinced he only chose that as his permanent home in order to watch me bathe every day). However, I am not a fan of this new contingency of boarders in my house. It’s gross to step on a mushy worm when you get out of bed, it’s annoying to be serenaded by a frog perched on your shoe, and it’s just plain distracting when a slug leaves a slimy trail across the paper you’re using to try to put together a financial statement.

Our radios couldn’t get reception in this weather, but the Peace Corps office had successfully sent a message to my satellite phone saying a small hurricane was hitting the southern part of Vanuatu and we were getting side effects from that. Then there was an earthquake with a resulting tsunami warning and our volcano was moved from an alert 0 to a 1 (out of 4). What is this place??

Although I am a little bit of a dramatic weather junkie and I love a good thunder storm, I have had quite enough. I’m ready to stop having pruny feet, finally be able to wash the mold out of my underwear, and write a letter without my pen ripping the damp paper. Today I see the sun and my spirits are lifted, but I’m told the rainy season can last until March or April. Ugh. On the other hand, the hurricane forced Harry to relocate and I can now bucket shower in peace. There’s always a positive. . .

Friday, January 21, 2011

Black tie optional . . . very optional

When the clock struck twelve on January 1, 2010, I was standing in my downtown Seattle apartment, in a sliver strapless cocktail dress and black peep-toe pumps, gazing out my 14th floor windows with 20 of my equally decked out best friends, popping bottles of champagne as fireworks exploded off the Space Needle. When I welcomed in 2011 I was dirty, without electricity, drinking wine that makes your lips burn, and slapping mosquitoes at a furious rate. What a difference 12 months and an ocean can make…

After spending a bizarre Christmas in my village, Nancy and I decided it was high time to get out of North Ambae and have some American time. We hightailed it to the relative luxury of Melissa’s post at Vureas, just outside Lolowai (she has electricity for 2 hours every night! And a shower! Albeit a cold one. And a gas stove with four burners!). We were not the only Peace Corps volunteers feeling antsy at our sites and before we knew it we had a party of 12 volunteers from 5 different islands. Lindsey, Jennifer, Nik, and Nic came from Maewo, Gene came from Santo, Jenni came from Vila (a good time to leave considering the flash flooding and 8 escaped prisoners on the loose), Jeff came from Malekula, and of course the Ambae girls were there (Melissa, Megan, Kara, Nancy, and I). We had a wonderful week – during the day we would swim in the ocean, play soccer, make trips into Lolowai to buy supplies or use the internet, or just hang out, and at night we listened to music, watched movies, played cards, and drank bottles of cheap wine and cases of warm beer. The whole time there was tons of laughter and I think everyone enjoyed getting a break from normal life.

Two of the highlights of the week were both the products of some excellent imagination and cinematography work. Vureas is a boarding school for grades 9 through 13, but their “summer” break is during December and January, so the campus was almost deserted. Students and teachers alike go back to their home villages to celebrate Christmas with their families, and Melissa was one of the only people left at the school. Nestled in a small valley with dramatic hills filled with jungle foliage rising up on all sides, the abandoned school grounds was beautiful and a little creepy. And in Nancy and my minds . . . a perfect place for a scary movie! So we recruited our actors, came up with a (vague) plot line, and began shooting scenes. What we ended up with was an awful, hilarious, perfect slasher horror film that I’m sure the Academy will be looking at closely this year. Be on the lookout for Peace Corpse: Vureas to come to a theatre near you soon. Or at least be posted on Facebook.

The other filming triumph of the week was a re-creation of Shakira’s wildly popular “Woka Woka” music video. For some reason this song was never that prevalent in the U.S., but being specially recorded for the 2010 World Cup, it became popular all over the world. I have heard “Woka Woka” so many times it is ingrained in my head, and since anytime anyone runs a generator the video is bound to be played, I could do the dance in my sleep. The only logical thing left to do was film our own Peace Corps Vanuatu version of the video. And it is beautiful. Ok, that’s an exaggeration. Comical? Yes. Amateur? Maybe. Would Shakira cry if she saw our style? Probably. And not from happiness. But it was fun, and the most booty shaking I’ve done since I came here, so I deem it a huge success.

As the 31st loomed nearer and nearer, we decided we had to do something to mark the start of our first full year as Peace Corps Volunteers. But what? There were no fireworks to be had, no horns to blow or bells to ring, no champagne to pop, and no TV on which to watch the ball drop in Time Square. But as one ingenious volunteer pointed out (or maybe two – the credit for the idea is still under some contention) we could make our own ball drop! So in the midst of a cramped little kitchen, illuminated only by solar lights and battery powered torches, 12 volunteers had our own countdown and watched our own coconut “ball” drop to the floor at midnight. We cheered and yelled and hugged each other, drank the last of the tequila, and then proceeded to fall exhausted into bed (in a land with no electric lighting, 8:00 is a normal bedtime and staying up till midnight was quite a stretch for most of us). During the next few days people filtered off to their respective sites by truck, plane, or boat. While some of us were headed back to the bustle of town and some of us were resuming our quiet village lives, everyone seemed to carry a new energy and a new resolution to make this year a productive one. 2011 will see the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Peace Corps, and the 73(ish) of us in Vanuatu will do our best to make sure we’re a part of a lasting influence.

Simboro bakagen. Sigh

This post is doomed from the start to be mundane and uninteresting because it is about my diet here in Quatamwele, and that varies about as much as the weather during rainy season – which is not at all. It rains every day. Seriously . . . every day. But I’ve had some questions posed, and like any good blogger, I listen to my audience (however small it might be). So, without further ado, here is the explanation of simboro, lap-lap, and the other bland “kakae” that make up my daily meals.

Up on my hill we are mainly subsistence farmers, so with some exceptions we eat almost exclusively what we grow. Our main foods are bananas, taro and manioc (starchy root crops), and aelan cabbage (which is a large, dark green leaf that’s actually more like spinach than cabbage). The funny thing about taro is that if it is peeled wrong, not cooked long enough, or just too old, it causes great pain to eat it. When I first arrived people would warn me that taro can “kakae man” (it can eat you). I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant until I had a bad piece of taro, and then it became all too clear. It’s an awful stinging, burning sensation that feels like a hundred little bee stings in your mouth. Even after you spit the offending piece on the ground for some unlucky faol to eat, the pain continues for another 20 or 30 minutes. As you gaze at the people you thought were your friends in horror, your eyes asking the question: “Why would you give me this food and put me through such torment?” people just laugh and say: “Curry blo black man!” Yeah right. And why do people make this temperamental root one of our main foods? It’s hard to tell. Probably because it grows like crazy. Or maybe because living without electricity and running water just isn’t hard enough and people like to punish themselves. Another great mystery of Quatamwele.

In the villages klosap to the solwater people tend to eat rice a lot, but since that would involve lugging huge bags of rice up the hill (which I’ve done, NOT fun!) I don’t often see rice on my plate. I get to eat meat about once a month when someone kills a faol, or if there’s a celebration someone might kill a buluk (cow) or a pig. When I first arrived I would turn up my nose at the occasional canned meat (basically spam) or canned tuna (NOT like tuna in the U.S. This stuff is brown and still has bones in it. Kinda looks like cat food). However, I now consider myself extremely lucky when I hear the magical sound of a can opener. I guess that’s what three months in the bush will do to you.

Although sometimes you might just boil all your food in one big pot, it is more usual to make simboro or lap-lap. Both of these culinary masterpieces start with “ras-rasing” your starch of choice (for simboro – usually green bananas, for lap-lap – taro, manioc, or green bananas). This involves skinning the food, and rubbing it up and down on a stick with little sticky-outy things (I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s a plant that grows in the bush and can serve as nature’s cheese grater) until a gelatinous mess falls down on the plate in front of you. Then, if you’re making simboro, you plop a glob of the mushy substance onto a leaf of aelan cabbage, wrap it up, and put it in the saucepan. Once you have a whole mess of gooey little parcels, you fill the pan with water and put it on the fire to boil. When it’s almost done you dump some coconut milk in for flavoring, boil smol more and then hemia nao: your feast is ready. For lap-lap, you dump the whole half solid, half liquid result of your ras-rasing onto a banana leaf, cover with other banana leaves, and bake it by putting it on a bed of hot stones and covering the package with more hot stones. In a few hours when it’s done, you cut it up and eat the rubbery squares with aelan cabbage, coconut cream, or if you’re lucky some faol or tin meat.

So that’s it. That’s basically the extent of my culinary excursions in Quatamwele. When I first got here I hated the food: it has no flavor, texture, or really any redeeming qualities at all. But it’s amazing how adaptable humans are, and I have quickly grown to relish the thought of a big plate of simboro or get excited when I smell burning banana leaves because I know someone has made a lap-lap. I have learned to appreciate the little additions my mom might make – throwing some ginger or basil in the pot or including ripe tomatoes or green peppers, and on rare occasions when we do eat rice it’s a significant treat, even though it’s usually just a huge plate of white rice with a little aelan cabbage on it and maybe some tin tuna. It’s a good thing that I have developed a taste for aelan kakae since I rarely see a deviation from this menu. I might go weeks at a time eating banana simboro for lunch and dinner. Breakfast is my one break and the one meal I make and eat on my own. I brought a French press so I have coffee every morning and eat oatmeal with coconut milk or breakfast crackers with peanut butter and bananas. Sometimes I crave protein so much I just eat spoonfuls and spoonfuls of peanut butter.

The bright side of living here though, is that there is always something delicious in season. First it was mango season. Fresh, sweet, juicy mangos are everywhere and you eat them morning, noon, and night until you feel like if you saw another mango you might traot. Then, mangos are finished and before you’re too sad about it, breadfruit is in season, then it might be grapefruits (they’re amazing here. They have the flavor of a grapefruit, but they’re sweet!), mandarins, papayas, avocados, raspberries, and a variety of nuts (nangae, natafoa, namambe, navel, and probably some other “n’s” I’m forgetting). Plus if you can get someone to refrain from cutting down every green banana in sight, you can eat ripe bananas year round.

I have adjusted to the food here and even like it, but that doesn’t prevent me from having detailed food fantasies. I dream of pasta, chocolate, ice cream, cheese, big steaks, cold drinks, and spicy, flavorful Indian food. So next time you cook a meal, put an extra little shake of hot sauce in there, throw in some garlic, chili powder, lemon pepper, or oregano, and most importantly sprinkle cheese on everything. Flavor your food and think of me, and somewhere in the dense jungles of a tiny South Pacific island, I think my simboro that night will taste just a little more exciting.