11-7 How to Lose Your Trainees
In case this has not previously been made clear, travel in Vanuatu is a chancy game. You take a chance and hope everyone is game. Lucky for us, our latest visitors very much were game.
We had three Peace Corps Trainees come out for a visit. (In Peace Corps language, you are a Volunteer only after you swear in.) They arrived in Vanuatu in early October. They were sent on their Host Volunteer Visit or Walkabout last week. There were eleven heading to Pentecost, six to the south and five to central.
Three days before they arrived, we booked a truck to meet them at the airport. Two days before they arrived in started raining. They morning they were meant to arrive, the truck showed up at 6:30 am. He’d wanted to cross the river early out of concern that it would flood. A valid concern, since the truck that crossed at 8 am almost didn’t make it.
We left an hour before they were meant to touch down. We got to the first major river between Vansemakul and the airport and ran into trouble. The river was huge. It was flooded a good ten feet on either side of its normal banks and probably three feet deeper than normal. We don’t have bridges on Pentecost, we have fords. (Think about how often your oxen died in Oregon Trail and you’ll get why this might be a pain.)
The truck taking Eleanor, the English volunteer to the airport was parked on our side of the river and empty. After a few minutes of dithering, we walked up to the “bridge.” I put bridge in quotes for good reason. The bridge is three pieces of buraow wood (the same stuff we use for fence posts and toilet paper) about as thick as my arm loosely tied together and tossed across the river. There is a natural handhold at about head height from the branches of the buraow tree. The whole arrangement requires a bit of monkeying to get onto and off of and jiggles so much when you walk so you feel like you might be doing the moonwalk in a bouncy castle. A bouncy castle over a raging torrent of river.
We ran into the other people from the truck coming back. Alexandra and Hayley said they’d stay with the truck while we crossed and walked down to the airport. We crossed in pretty good time with the only casualty a shoe that fell out of my basket and got to walking. Jason and two other volunteers took the lead, leaving me with Jason’s ten-year-old sister who is shy to the point of utter silence around men and while people, and a volunteer from Ranwadi named Matt who’s left shoe had been the casualty in the river. I have been in more awkward situations in my life but I try hard to avoid them. I was stuck trying to make conversation with two people who didn’t want to talk in two different languages while walking more slowly than I wanted and in a hurry to get to the airport.
Eventually, we lost sight of the other three entirely. I found out about an hour later that they’d jumped a truck. They hadn’t asked the truck to wait for us, they’d just gone on ahead like the good friends they are. We kept walking. We heard the plane land and take off. I tried to convince Matt to take my shoe so we could walk faster. I tried to convince him to just wait on the road since the plane had already gone. Eventually, I just ditched him. I felt bad about it but didn’t want to lose my trainees. Matt knows the road, the trainees didn’t.
I tried to call Betsy, my trainee, to tell her to stay at the airport. Jason and I were playing walkie-talkie with our phones we were calling each other so often for short bursts of information over a bad connection. Finally, Jason got to the airport. The trainees were not there.
Jason found out that they’d jumped on a boat and were somewhere between the airport and Melsisi. We didn’t know where they were going to shore or where they were. Alexandra was calling saying the driver on the other side was impatient. Finally, after many phone calls and much chaos, Jason found out that they were on the Melsisi side of the river closest to the airport. I flagged down a truck, related the story to him and convinced him to go back for them while Jason walked from the airport. As my truck pulled up, Jason walked up to them from the other side.
We loaded into the truck and headed back to the other flooded river. We picked up one-shoed Matt on the way. We got to the river and unloaded from that truck. We considered our crossing options and went for the “bridge.” After passing all the bags across, we all monkey-shuffled across and onto dry ground. We piled everything back into the original truck and got to the village without further incident.
It is not recommended to lose, break, scare or otherwise deter your trainees. We were a little concerned after that introduction, but they took it like troopers and thought of it as one big adventure. With that attitude, they will do well as PCVs.