Thursday, March 29, 2012

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.

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