11-25 In which we get a new house, I get a new name and interrogated

We have a house! It is an awesome house! First, let me tell you about getting the house.

We had a proper Welcome Ceremony, including starting on Aelan Taem. The schedule that I was given said we’d start around 8, we started around 10:30. First, we processed to our new house from the church, which is about the length of a football field. First in the procession were eight men wearing nambas (with clothes underneath*), singing and stomping a traditional something. Behind them was the paramount chief. After him, Jason and I and the president(?) of the Aid Post Committee. (I’m not clear who the president is, if it is that guy or the other tall, thin man. I’m sure that will become clear eventually.)

When we got to the house, we were presented with salusalus (leis) by the girls of the village. Then Jason cut the ribbon on the house and we took the grand tour. It has two rooms with a ceiling high enough I can stand up, even at the walls. So can Jason, just barely. The house is a kastom house which means natangura roof (thatch) and woven bamboo walls. The windows are louvered with mostly frosted glass and the floor is cement. As I am writing this, we have one chair, a table and a bed and recently installed shelving. When we opened the house, we had a table and bed. The bathroom is just outside and has a water-seat toilet. This is fancy. It flushes, when you dump a bucket of water down it. The bucket of water is easily filled from the spigot right outside the door or from the shower. That’s right, we have a shower.^ A shower where water comes out of a spigot above your head, not a “shower” that involves dipping ladles’ full of water. And it has water pressure! In fact, it has the kind of water pressure that is meant to exfoliate skin. Awesome!

After our grand tour of the house, we had some light refreshments. Fresh pineapple, Vanuatu apples (they aren’t actually apples but they are close), cookies and green koolaid. Then we sat around and waited. Because, this is after all, Vanuatu and nothing runs on a time schedule my poor Western brain understands.

Around lunch time, we all piled into the nakamal (gathering place/kava bar/community center/bachelor pad/ceremonial center) for a bigfala kakae (feast). First, the women laid out woven coconut leaf matts. On top of the matts was a layer of laplap leaves. On top of that, went the food. I don’t mean dishes of food, I mean the food. I layer of rice to hold everything in place then chunks of laplap, simboro, cooked crab, chicken, manioc, island cabbage, bush cabbage, and other things I don’t have a name for. And we ate and it was good. I even tried a nibble of crab.

After lunch, there were speeches. Oh my, were there speeches. First up was a short thank you from the Aid Post Committee (my new bosses), then my counterpart read the history of the Peace Corps and the Community Health Project as well as previous CH projects and goals. Then he gave a speech about the work I’ll be doing. Then “doctor” James gave a speech about the growing health issues of the area. He is not a doctor, he is a nurse but being a man, he gets called doctor. And at some point he told the audience that everyone in the US has an appendectomy at age 16 to prevent appendicitis, which is a growing problem here. Then it became my turn, but first, I needed a host family.

The Aid Post Committee gave me a red matt to give to my host papa. He gave me a swank bag in return. It has bunches of colors and a really neat pattern. He also gave me a new name: Matanhelala, which can be shortened to Matan or Lala, depending on the person and their mood.

I gave a very short speech. I said thank you a lot and that I hoped I’d be able to help improve health in the surrounding area.

Then the paramount chief gave a speech. His was actually quite good. (Most speeches here are atrocious.) He talked about the community, the needs of the community and how safe a place it is. I believe him that it is safe, it really does seem to be that everyone knows each other so no one steps out of line.

Then we had Grill the American Time. I was asked to talk a little bit about the differences between the US and Vanuatu. I said that everyone in the US has electricity and running water but that houses are for just one small family and you might live hours from your grandparents, aunts and uncles. I said that most people finish 12th grade and many go on to college but that if you don’t have a good education, you have trouble finding a good job and because no one has a garden, people without good jobs can’t eat good food. I said there aren’t coconuts where I come from in the US. That got a gasp. Then I opened up for questions. The questions themselves were interesting. I was asked if everyone in America is white (we have a Chinese-American volunteer in Ranwas and a black volunteer in Pongi, both of which are within a day’s walk of Vansemakul). I was asked about 9/11. I was asked about my family and what I was doing before I came here. I was asked about nuclear disarmament and what work I wanted to do while I am here. Eventually, they ran out of questions and I got to escape the inquisition.

When evening rolled around and I braved leaving the house again, I got more questions. Marijuana has only recently come to Vanuatu and people wanted to know if it was a problem in the US. I got to try to explain ice fishing again. I really need a photo of that. Then we had kava. Kava is a good thing after that kind of a day.

*Nambas are the traditional Pentecost clothing. It is a tightly woven matt dyed red in special patterns and boiled to soften it. Then a man ties it around his waist so it covers between his pelvis and ribs with a strap-thing that ties around the penis and holds it up. That is the traditional clothing for men. Jason wants one.

^I realized after writing that that anyone reading this from the US is probably thinking, well of course there is a shower. Isn’t that part of a house? The answer is no. No it isn’t. Here, the place to bathe may be the nearest stream, the bucket next to the spigot with a convenient bush or a small enclosed room with a bucket and ladle. Having a shower is the height of luxury and the water pressure is something beyond luxury. The only way it could be any fancier is if it had temperature controlled water. (Jason would like the point out that “We are living it up. As it were.”)

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