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.