1-14 Cockfighting and Warungs

The men, lining up with their cocks.

Our transition into “travel mode” was fairly easy. We started in Bali, one of the travel destinations of the world where they are as used to tourists as I am to cockroaches. (That comparison speaks to the last two years of my life as much as anything else.) A lot of people spoke “tourist English.” That’s enough to hawk wares, order food and point to destinations. It makes being a tourist a lot easier.

So, what I’m saying is that we’d been taking it easy. We weren’t throwing ourselves in the deep end and trying to travel on local buses first thing. I did want to start easing into things more though, so I was determined to get out a bit more.

Opportunity number one occurred while we were waiting for the herons. We were waiting on the roof of someone’s house/shop. Below us, men started to amble up with chickens. They were sitting the road, laughing and chatting and petting these roosters. I have a very low opinion of chickens, so I thought they were a bit crazy to be petting them. Then they started riling them up, stroking their shoulders against the feathers and pointing them at other roosters. Once two roosters got going, the men would let them posture and start to fight while keeping a firm grip on the rooster’s tail. When the rooster got too aggressive, they would each pull their fowl back by the tail feathers and settle it down. This was meant to train the roosters on how to fight without damaging them.

Hold on tight to your tail feathers!

One of the other tourists we were waiting with decided the roosters were more interesting than the herons and went down to egg on the men. He didn’t quite get that they were training them and kept offering to place bets on the fight. His additions made watching them all the more entertaining. As the evening wore on, they did let two cocks fight for a brief moment.

More than the cockfight, it was interesting to see the process. As the day was winding down, the men started to gather in front of the shop. They fetched their roosters from wherever it was they spent the day and then started to congregate. They joked and gossiped like old friends. The cockfighting was really just a side gig, because what they were really doing was unwinding from the day. That became more and more apparent to me as the other tourist tried to get them to engage in the fight part. He didn’t get that it wasn’t about the fighting, it was about the socializing.

Once we got back, we decided to go find food. We’d been playing it pretty safe, eating in restaurants that had English translations on the menu or at the hotel. I wanted to venture out into the unknown. We went to a warungor local food stall. The one we ended up in was pretty local, but still had minimal English translations on the menu. (It is Bali, afterall.)

A street warung in Jember (a few days after this post.)

With very few problems, we managed to order food and drinks. Then we sat and waited. The place was dimly light and a bit smoky from the cooking, incense and cigarettes. We alternated between watching a gecko climb out from under the calendar pinned to the wall and the soap opera playing on the tiny TV in the corner.

The food was decent. Jason thinks Indonesian food is delicious since it mostly consists of fried noodles or rice. I think it is delicious because it has tempeh and tofu. We both win.

Going out was not record shattering. I did not have some epiphany about life. But it felt good to push the bubble and step away from the touristy things. Besides, it is better food at a better price.

12-25: Welcome back to the Developed World where Things like Mexican Food and Homelessness Exist

Jason and I spent 2 nights in Darwin before coming to Bali. In many ways, it was great to be in the developed, English-speaking world. I got Mexican food (of a fashion), decent internet (which another guest said “Is not the fastest but…” It was the fastest.  He was confused.), and generally returned to the lifestyle in which I grew up. It was an excellent break between the stress and emotions of leaving Peace Corps and the stress and emotions of traveling in foreign countries.

There is one thing that hasn’t left my mind about those few days though. There was a lot of homelessness and poverty immediately visible. It felt wrong. I know that Vanuatu is an impoverished nation, that it scores pretty poorly on development factors and the ones it scores decently on are often inaccurate for cultural reasons. (Unemployment is listed as almost non-existent because everyone subsistence farms and cell phone ownership is listed at 90%, but most people who have 1, have 2 because the 2 networks are incompatible and both have very poor coverage on the outer islands, really the ownership should be more like 45-50%.) But Vanuatu never felt poor the way the people in Darwin did.

We chatted with a young girl, maybe 9- or 10-years-old. Her questions to us mostly revolved around food and where we were sleeping. Her language was heavily accented by what I took as her local language. She may have been on school break but she didn’t seem to have any of the concepts of geography that I would expect from a fourth or fifth grader, so I doubt she was in school or at least up to grade level. She lost interest in us after about 10 minutes, but it was an enlightening 10 minutes for me.

Mostly, the homeless we saw were Aboriginal families, which I think made it all the starker for me. I’ve been working with and for people who look like them, and not like me, for the last 3 years. That little girl told us about her 6 daddies, a cultural trait shared by ni-Vanuatu, and about how she was sleeping with one part of her family now but not be tomorrow. (In general in Vanuatu, your father’s brothers and male cousins are your “dads” and your mother’s sisters and female cousins are your “moms.” The opposites are your aunts and uncles. Children are raised communally, with special emphasis from their biological or adopted parents.) Now, here is a population that no one seems to be working with or for on similar issues of health, education, and goal-setting.

Interestingly, none of the Aboriginal people were poorly dressed. The three white homeless guys I saw were all your “typical” homeless individual. Ragged, poorly kept, surrounded by filthy possessions with a rather manic gleam to their eyes. But the Aboriginals had clean, good quality clothing, were not emaciated, and seemed to spend their time laughing and joking with each other during the day. Again, this implies to me that the Aboriginal culture carries some of the family values similar to Vanuatu. Their families are helping them out with clothes and food but can’t, or won’t, help them with housing.

I don’t know what to make of this. It is something that is sticking with me and something I kept noticing. I don’t want to turn my eyes away and pretend I don’t see people because they are homeless or in need. But I don’t know how to interact either. I don’t know how to politely handle beggars without giving away everything I have. And it was just straight up disturbing to see people in true poverty while all around them people just kept on with their affluent lives. This is not something I can reconcile in my head, even as I am doing it.

Welcome back to the developing world. Welcome to reverse culture shock.

12-19: Its been awhile…

So, I have completely failed to update in the last 2 months.  Sorry about that.

I plan on spending the next few weeks catching up on a lot of blogs but here is a short overview of the last few months:

– We started a program to bring 3 ni-Van youth home to train at the dojang in Minneapolis.  It has been a rollercoaster of emotions and failures and small successes.  More information about the program available at: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/hwa-rang-do-exchange-program–2
– I got a book contract to write a travel guide to Vanuatu. 
– I wrote a travel guide to Vanuatu.  (This is a significant part of why the blogs stopped.  Too much book writing.)
– We competed in another Judo Tournament with the club we’ve been training with.
– I ran a Girls Leading Our World Camp with three other PCVs.  It was fantastic and I’ve been able to see the change in the girls as they try to apply the skills they learned there to their lives at the Youth Center.
– We’ve continued our HRD/TSD martial arts club at the Youth Center to great success.  We have 6 yellow belts and 4 orange belts who train regularly.  They have promised to continue training next year using the videos and with a different instructor we identified.
– There were many Christmas and Break-Up parties at the Youth Center, Wan SmolBag, VIT, and the volunteers we’ve befriended.
– There have been hundreds of other little moments that deserved recognition, but trying to crank out a book took precedence.  Expect me to better in the next few months. 

We are leaving Vanuatu on Friday the 20th of December.  We will both be finished with our Peace Corps service and off to new adventures.  We will not be returning home in any kind of a timely fashion, but we will get there eventually.

Our plans at the moment are 3 nights in Australia then fly to Bali, Indonesia.  We will spend 2 weeks in Indonesia then hop across the sea to Singapore, Malaysia.  After a few weeks in Malaysia, we are hopping over a different sea to Cambodia or Vietnam.  We’ll backtrack sometime in early February to meet up with my dad, brother and brother’s girlfriend in Thailand.  After that, plans are quite up in the air.

8-8 My Life is Not What I Expected: Part I-Have-No-Idea-How-Many

Fancy-shmancy invitation.  I’m important.

My work with Wan SmolBag hs started to get noticed. Two weeks ago, I received a very pretty, formal invitation to a screening of a film at the Australian High Commissioners Residence. The film, “Trashed,” is about waste management around the world. It seemed interesting and like a good chance to talk to some people, so I went.

I can’t talk to white people. Seriously. Jason and I showed up, shook hands with the person doing the greeting and then wandered out onto the porch. We started by joking with the ni-Van catering staff. Most of the white people, primarily Australians but a few New Zealanders and a Brit or two mixed in, were on the porch. The handful of ni-Van guests were on the grass just off the porch. Jason and I gravitated that way as soon as we ran out of jokes for the servers.

We started by chatting with the peons. The Lord Mayer’s son and driver (hold on, who has a Lord Mayor? Who calls them “Lords” anymore? I guess, the English colonies…) were hiding at the edge of the light. We got to chatting with them. We must have seemed like more fun than the people the Lord Mayor was talking to (or he was worried his driver was getting too tipsy) so he came over. We struck up an interesting conversation.

The owner of RecycleCorps, the only company in Vanuatu doing recycling, came over. Then the conversation got awkward. I disagreed with several of his policy opinions and, me being me, I didn’t keep my mouth shut. Before any of you who know me too well start worrying, I was very polite about my disagreements. There were no swear words involved. But, I continued to disagree. I don’t like to lie, not even by omission and especially not about important issues. So, we politely danced around our disagreements and I got the distinct impression that he considered me a stupid idealist. (I can’t help wondering if that was heightened by being a 28-year-old female. If I’d been a middle-aged man, would he have viewed my opinions differently? Or if it had been Jason voicing them? I digress…) He found a polite out of the conversation and Jason, the Lord Mayor and I started a new conversation with the Japanese Aid country director and head consultant. Both of the Japanese development workers are lovely people and we had an interesting conversation about potential survey methods of property lines and waste management for Port Vila. That lasted until we went to watch the movie.

Movie poster.  Go find it.

The movie was interesting. I would recommend it as a starting point for anyone interested in waste management options in the first world. I don’t think it effectively addressed the needs of the developing world and I was not satisfied with the depth of some of the information presented about research being done, but as an introduction for the general public, it was a great start. The information is accessible, the numbers are clear, the presentation is excellent with a good combination of horrifying and beautiful photography. Seriously, go check it out.  http://www.trashedmovie.com/

After the movie, the caterers came around with food again so we wandered back outside. We once again failed utterly to schmooze with the one white person who came our way. Instead, we had an interesting conversation about plastic bag taxes and reducing the use of plastic bags in Port Vila with the Lord Mayor. It seemed like the idea of a plastic bag tax was brand new to him, which is a bit surprising. Still, if I planted the seed of it in his mind, that’s something.

A bit later, he offered us a lift home. His driver had been drinking steadily since arriving because as the Lord Mayor put it, “He has to come to all these things and then he gets bored, so I drive home.”

In short, after a 3 hours event with a mixed group of ni-Vans, developement workers and ex-pats, Jason and I befriended the ni-Vans, had a lovely conversation with the development workers and utterly failed to connect with the ex-pats. We are going to be so weird when we get home.

5-11 On Aging

Beautiful oldfala at the Blacksands Market

So, I have like 6 back blogs to write. And a bunch of photo things to do. But instead, I’m going to write a non-cultural, non-event related blog because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. We’ll get back to regularly scheduled programming in the near future.

There are so many products that offer to remove wrinkles, save your skin, blah blah blah. I’m not interested. Maybe I’m saying this because I’ll probably go gray in 2 years, (My mom’s hair did. She’s had white hair more or less my entire life.) but I like to think I’m saying this from some deep seated wisdom and compassion for the aging masses.
I am proud to wear the impact of my life on my face, my hands, my skin, my hair. I am proud of the things I’ve done with my life, so I am proud of how it shows on my body. If smiling is going to give me crow’s feet, I welcome them. If sunlight is going age my skin, turn me into a mummy.
Youth is beautiful in the way that a blank page is beautiful. It is full of potential and possibility. It hasn’t been marred or scarred by a mistake. It is simple and beautiful in that simplicity. But staring at a blank page for hours looks a whole lot like writers block, not like literary analysis.
I hit my hand with a bush knife in February of 2011. I went to Brisbane and had surgery on that hand. It was kind of traumatic. Now I have a scar under my left thumb that will forever remind me of Vanuatu. I am proud of that scar because it is more than just a slip with a bush knife. It means I have a story about joining the Peace Corps and my life in Vanuatu. Wrinkles are the same thing, just written over a lifetime of smiles and worries.
The way our lives mark our bodies are the outward signs of the changes we’ve gone through. They are the loss of youth but the process of gaining wisdom. We may not be free of mistakes, but the lines in our faces show what we’ve learned.

I will add as a caveat that I am much less fond of the ache in my torn rotator cuff, how slowly my bruises heal and a my new found inability to recover from hangovers.  Those are not signs of mistakes I’ve learned from.  If I’m still getting hangovers, I’m really not learning my lesson fast enough.

PS – I passed the 300 blogs mark!  Whoop!  That’s gotta be worth at least a cookie!

1-2 Culture Shock, part 2: Crowds

We took a Big Plane on the trans-Pacific flight. The usual international flight with two seats, an aisle, five seats, an aisle and two more seats. The planes are so big, they break them up into sections about 20 rows deep. In the section of the plane we were in, there were more people than in the village of Vansemakul. In the entire plane, I estimate there was at least half the population of the district.

Population density is different here. It is overwhelming.
I’ve gotten used to long, quiet days where I talk to two or maybe three people throughout the day. I’ve gotten used to silent evenings alone with my book or my writing while Jason drinks kava in the nakamal. I’ve gotten used to silent days when Jason is at a training in Vila and the rain is pouring down so I can’t be bothered to leave my house and I don’t speak to anything that can talk back for the entire day.  That wasn’t every day, but it was often enough that my brain had room to stretch and fill the silence.
I am not used to crowds. I’m not used to being jostled by people. I’m not used to needing to be constantly aware of people, or having their personalities pressing against me. My tolerance has gone down. A lot.
Being in a room of five people is fine. In fact, it is kind of fun. There are people to talk to and things to do. Being in a room of ten people is less fun. I have trouble parsing out which is the conversation I’m having and which is the conversation someone else is having. I get lost and loose my train of thought because there is too much English happening around me.
I’ve never had a high tolerance for crowds. It got lower. I’m getting better about it just being home. And I’ve discovered that beer helps. I get a bit less of the sandpaper on my psyche feeling when I’ve had a drink or two. Unfortunately, my alcohol tolerance has gone down at the same time, so I can only have one or two.

1-2 Culture Shock, Part 1: Target

Shortly after I got back to the US, I decided I needed a few things I’d forgotten to bring with me. Things like razors. (I started shaving my legs again and it is kind of shocking to everyone, me included.)
My dad needed to stop by Target, so I went along for the ride. I mean, how bad can it be, right?
Target is insane. Seriously. I will leave the rest of the store out of this and focus exclusively on razors. The purpose of a razor is to provide a sharp edge with which to remove any offending hairs, right? So, the basic concept is “piece of metal with sharp edge.” Now, I understand that this basic concept can be improved upon by adding a second piece of metal next to the first to ensure that all the hairs are caught on the first go round. Fine. I get that. I can kind of even understand that some people might like some “conditioning strip” thing after the razor has crossed their skin in the hopes that a little pad of soap stuff is going to make a difference in the shine and luster of the skin you will never show in the Minnesota winter, not to mention that same winter is busy sucking all moisture out of your body and drying out your legs faster than the razor can keep up with. I mean, it seems a little silly, but ok, fine. I can handle that, too.
But why do we need 17 kinds of razors? I tried to understand what the difference was between one pack of razors and another. I looked to see how many blades (2 or 3, every time), how many in the pack (3-5), if the “conditioning strip” was different (not, and there aren’t any that didn’t have something there), the price (about the same across the board) and the colors (all pansy, stupid pastels). So, what’s the point of having 17 choices of disposable razors?
My conclusion is that there isn’t a point. One name brand is not significantly different than the other and in fact, having that many choices reduces our choices. We (I) get overwhelmed and fall back on whatever is familiar. I’m not going to branch out, try a new product or style. Advertising isn’t going to help, because everyone is doing the same advertising. Making a product more attractive won’t make a difference because my brain has gone into panic mode. There is no reasonable way to compare and contrast all those choices while standing in the store. So we don’t. We stick to the easy and the familiar.
I did get my razor, though my dad was wondering where I was by the time I had that conversation with myself. They work fine. My legs are shaved. I don’t even remember what brand they are, I only know they are pink and that also bothers me.

11-30 What have I been doing? aka Where did November go?

Sorry for the lack of blog posts. I’ve been slacking. Sort of.

Wan Smol Bag’s Vanuau Fire Troupe

We got in on October 20thand it has taken me over a month to get my life organized. I don’t think that is surprising. I moved, I started a new job, I started another new job, I rediscovered dairy and the Western world, I reconnected to the internet and wrote 50,000 words on a novel.

So, I have been working with my Assistant Project Manager, Excellent (who has the best name ever), to do all of the technical trainings with the new group. We had Global Core Sessions provided by Washington DC to use. After looking at the first week of sessions, I pulled all the objectives out and chucked the rest in the “alternate filing folder” for safekeeping. I haven’t looked at them since. So, we started from scratch to design sessions that meet the criteria from Washington while remaining accurate and relevant to Vanuatu. I have no background in curriculum development, teaching or development work. I refuse to do things halfway so I poured a lot of time and effort into creating sessions that would be interesting, informative and useful. I think I mostly succeeded. I still need to get the review sheets back and see how my pupils graded me. That job was taking up 3 afternoons of teaching each week and at least 3 mornings of prep, if not more.
Playing in the solwota at the picnic

I started working at Wan Smol Bag a few weeks ago. (That will get its own post.) The main thing I’m doing there at the moment is “integrating.” I sit and chat with people, I listen to their opinions about what they want me to do or what they think I’m there to do, I ask questions, I show up and be present. I’ve been doing that a few days a week.
They are touching each other.  Eep!

I am starting as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader. We’re still working out what that means, but as you may have guessed, it means more work with the same amount of pay. (I’m a terrible capitalist.) I am the PCVL for Small Grants Coordination. I’ll be working closely with a staff member to help other PCVs write and submit grants and I will be especially focused on using a new funding source we just acquired through USAID. Basically, I’m ghost writing grants. Can anyone say useful future skills?

When I’m not working, I’m trying to find a balance in my life between ex-pats, ni-Vans and alone time. There is a Monday afternoon pick up frisbee game which is a good time, though it is nearly exculsively ex-pats. I drink kava a couple nights a week, usually one or two with PCVs and ex-pats and one with ol man Pentecost. I’m trying to re-establish all my good habits of running and working out, thought that is proving challenging. I have to get up before 6 am to do any real work out otherwise I run into this new “being at work” deadline before I get a proper workout in.
Wan Smol Bag’s New Generation Hip Hop Troupe

The other huge project I took on was NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month happens in the month of November. It was started by a creative writing teacher to teach people that writing a first draft isn’t about crafting the perfect most beautiful creation in one go but rather to get words on the page that can be sculpted into your magnum opus. The goal of the month is to write 50,000 words between November 1st and November 30th. You are considered a winner if you finish the 50,000. I finished my 50,000 on November 26th. I am very pleased with myself and plan on finishing the novel in December so I can start the New Year with a new writing goal: learn how to revise.

Basically, I’ve been crazy busy and I love it. I haven’t gotten over how awesome it is to have light switches and how the light switches connect to light bulbs that produce light when I turn the switch on. Also, hot water is a gift from on high for stinky people and don’t let me get started on ovens. My life is different and busy and full and it is going to be a great year.

Cross-posted to our new blog at tegabis.com

Starting at VIT

Coming into town has been a drastic change from the island.  I’ve been joking lately that I barely feel like a Peace Corps Volunteer anymore.  This is definitely not a complaint however.  I am very much enjoying the transition back to a busier lifestyle.

The big change is that I have a full-time job.  I have an office.  I have a full week of hours during which I am expected to be in that office and productive.  I have a business dress code.  I have bosses and reports to write for them.  It’s basically like any job back in the states.  I know, most of you have them so this isn’t terribly impressive.  I’m not complaining about any of this either, I’m really enjoying it.
The thing that I am enjoying most is that I have a full-fledged network to work with again.  One of the biggest things I have learned about myself over the last two years is that I love technology.  I love experimenting with gadgets and learning new ways to use them.  I love figuring out the best way to make computers work with each other.  I love helping figure out how to get the most of their devices.  Technology, networking, and useful solutions are my passion.
So what, exactly, am I doing now?  I am working at the Vanuatu Institute of Technology as an IT Consultant and Network Administrator.  I am going to be cleaning up the network and advising them on its continued management.  I have been working with (aka. pestering) the internet service provider we’re trying to switch to because they have been having technical difficulties with the service.  I’ve also re-written the IT policies and am finalizing a detailed report on the status of the network and recommendations for improvements.  Next I will be writing proposals for any of the projects I’ve recommended that involve acquisitions of equipment.  I’m talking to vendors about pricing (and hopefully working out some details).  In summary, I’m busy doing office work.  It may not be what I think of as “Peace Corps” but I’m loving it.

Cross-posted to our new blog at tegabis.com

10-22 Transfer Complete

Fresh news! Not a month and a half old!
Office at the Big Smoke

We have moved to Vila. We arrived on Efate on Saturday, October 20th. We immediately moved into our new house, or at least we left all our stuff there. Due to the help of some lovely friends, most of our bags and boxes that we shipped ahead of time were already in the house when we arrived. I have great friends.

Saturday we spent in Vila Shock. (It is a unique syndrome in which the early symptoms combine a fear of crossing traffic with an intense urge to sit in the Peace Corps office and waste time while alternately craving and gorging on cheese and ice cream. Late symptoms include dairy-induced gastrointestinal distress, confusion about the loss of hours of productive day time and the sense that you have misplaced all of your last paycheck.) We made it over to the office in the afternoon and then goofed off on the internet for awhile. We celebrated our move with dinner at a new Indian restaurant.
Sunday morning I ‘slept in’, cooked and ate breakfast and showered then looked at the clock. It was 7:30. I guess I’m still on island time. Still, that meant we had plenty of time to work on moving stuff into the house before we were expected to be anywhere.
Jason started pulling things out of bags while I reorganized the kitchen. It didn’t take very long for us to decide that what we really needed to do was move a bunch of furniture which somehow led to me removing two pieces of trim. On the up side, the fridge is now in a much better place than it was and the kitchen has a bit more space. Somehow, the six bags we’d brought off the island managed to explode enough stuff to cover every flat surface in the apartment. I’m still puzzled about how that happened. We’re getting things moved in and put away pretty well. There is still several hours of work to do, but that will have to wait until the end of the week.
Carla, the previous denizen of this house, left us really well set up. The apartment itself is pretty nice but she left it fully furnished and well furnished. We have 4 sets of good American sheets, 4 fluffy towels, as much cook wear as I could want and high-quality pots and pans. The only things we will be purchasing as kitchen knives (she took hers back with her), a blender (I love smoothies!) and maybe a book shelf or two. Oh, and I have to put the trim back on the wall, which means I need a saw to cut it the right length.
I am pleased with the new house. I’m excited about the new job. I’m looking forward to getting to know the new trainees and help them adjust to life in this wacky place. I miss Pentecost and free mangos, but life is looking pretty good at the moment.