I’m not sure that Vila will ever stop being an overwhelming place. Aside from living on an island of 8,000 people and then going to a town of 35,000, the circumstances of being in Vila seem to lead to a sense of frantic and frenetic business.
The first day in town is always taken up with, “Oh no, TOWN.” There are so many people, so much traffic and so many shops. It is culture shock all over again, every time. Then I get into the harder things. I mean, I’ve been dodging traffic all my life, re-acclimating to that isn’t too hard.
Harder for me, is to learn to parse conversations again. Here on the island, nine-tenths of daily life is conducted in local language. The other tenth is in Bislama. I don’t speak local, so I just tune out the talking. I don’t listen and I don’t have to try not to listen. It is just so much white noise, so when someone speak directly to me, I have no distractions to what they’re saying. I get into town, particularly into the Volunteer Resource Center (the Volunteer lounge/work space/computer lab/central congregation point) and I go into shock. People in the VRC are speaking English, a language I don’t need to think about to understand. There is a minimum of five conversations happening at any time and at least one volunteer who just babbles all the time, whether or not anyone is listening. I can’t block them out. You know how you have the TV on and can have a conversation with the person next to you but when you get tired it gets hard to follow the TV show and the conversation? Its like that, all the time.
Then there is the work vs play conflict. On one hand, I come in to Vila to do work. I usually come in on Peace Corps dime for a committee meeting or a training, which makes that my primary obligation. But, when I know I’m coming in, I make plans to send emails to project donors, to get quotes for materials, to meet with people in the various Ministry offices or with my supervisors within Peace Corps. Of course, I show up and see my friends for the first time in several months and start forgetting all my good intentions about work. It is also my only chance to skype with friends and family, so then I try to balance my mornings to talk to people on the other side of the world, my afternoons to do work and my evenings to hang out and yet somehow I end up in a conversation about another PCV’s cat for an hour at 2 pm and then have to stay late in the office to make up for it so I miss kava time and then my brother gets online at 3 am his time when he gets home from work and I skype him and all of a sudden my carefully laid plans fall apart. It gets worse the closer I get to leaving for the island.
My usual coping method with stress is to go for a run. Because I don’t like heat exhaustion or dehydration, I only run in the early morning and late evening. In Vila, I don’t want to be caught running at dark (and evenings are kava o’clock) so I only run in the morning. That means I have to get up and run before whatever training I’m supposed to attend. Those of you who have seen me in the morning can imagine how good I am at getting up in time to run, shower and walk half an hour into town by 7:30 am. (Not at all.) So, scratch the running, most of the time. Instead, I walk everywhere. There are buses, they only cost 150 vt (~$1.50) but that 150 adds up fast and I like the exercise. As far as efficiency goes, sometimes it is better to walk. The bus system is like a first on-first off shuttle. You get on and get dropped off in whatever order you got on which sometimes means long winding tours of the city when you only needed to go ten minutes up the road. So, I walk. It takes up precious internet time, but it helps restore my sanity.
Lastly, and scatalogically, is food. After three months of taro, pumpkin and island cabbage, dairy hits the system pretty hard. The first four days in town are spent paying tribute to the porcelain god, in one way or another. Then there is the eat out vs cook debate. There are several decent restaurants in Vila, but every one of them is expensive. Think lunch prices at a mid-range restaurant in the US. That is not within the Peace Corps budget for very long. Being a vegetarian, my options on take away and pre-made market food are limited. So, do I eat out expensively or spend more of my precious time cooking? Usually, it is a bit of both and a lot of leftovers.
All of this begs the question, “What am I going to do when I get back to a real city?” Vila has 35,000 people and it is overwhelming. I can’t imagine what Minneapolis will be or if I try to go visit Jonah in NYC. That will be an experience and a half.