Monday, September 3, 2012

Not a Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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