7-3 Camera and Technology Etiquette

In short, there isn’t any. Technology here is too new and too rare for any kind of limitations to be put on what is acceptable in the picture and what isn’t. They love the idea of photos and seeing those images, so anything we take pictures of is fair game. The only things stopping me from taking pictures is my own sense of etiquette.

Let me give an example. At the funeral of a man in the next village over, I was trying to get a shot of lowering him into the grave. It was crowded and I didn’t want to shove my way to the front. Then one of the oldfala who I really like saw me. He pulled me to the front and pushed two kids out of the way so I could get a better shot of it. This was perfectly acceptable behavior, I just felt rude doing it. It is like that with everything. I recorded the sound of crying at a different funeral, though I felt awkward about it. Here, they want me to do it because it is new and different.

That interest combined with the lack of personal space and personal possessions, means every photo I take has to be shown around. I don’t mind except it means I can’t take more photos and viewing photos on the camera takes up a lot of battery and it is hard to charge up the camera regularly. They are all afraid of actually using the camera, which works to my benefit because I’m a little afraid to let them, but if they weren’t, it would be fair game.

When I say fair game, I don’t mean asking to borrow it for a few hours. I mean just taking it and giving it back when they were bored or the battery was dead. The other day, I was working in the garden with Jason and an aunty and a sister. We went into the garden house to hide from the rain. Jason and I went back out to pick some cabbage to bring home and when we got back, they were unabashedly playing with our cell phones. In America, this is disrespectful and rude and an invasion of personal space. Here, it is expected. They weren’t pranking and changing the language, just scrolling through phone numbers, reading old text messages and checking our credit. Though it still feels like an invasion of my privacy, I have to tell myself that it isn’t and to let it go and laugh it off.

4-23 Friendly Visits

We had our first visitor at the beginning of April. To be more clear, we had our first American visitor. Our friend, Alyssa, came for a week. It was a whirlwind trip but we enjoyed it and I hope she did, too.

We went to Vila on Saturday April 2nd. We caught the morning flight from Pentecost, not that there is another one, but still, you get the idea. We were in a boat by 6:30 am and heading to the airport. Jason’s mama gave us some boiled bananas and some form of leaf boiled in coconut milk. The leaf was tasty but I can’t remember the name of it. We got to Vila a little before lunch time.

I went straight to the hardware store to get a quote for a water system while Jason went into to town to run errands. At 1:30, we went to lunch. We spent the rest of the day running errands and playing online. Finally, at 11:30 at night we went to the airport to get Alyssa. Let me take a moment to point out that bed time is now 9 pm on a late night. Staying up until 11:30 was rough, but you know how once your up it just isn’t worth the effort of going to sleep? I stayed up until 1:30 am chatting with Alyssa then calling my brother in the States.

The next day, we slept in as much as possible, then went to the Peace Corps office to try to catch some internet. Unfortunately, the internet went down. Sorry to any of you hoping for an email or skype call. I tried, really I did. We finally got the internet back about the same time we had to go to lunch before our afternoon activities.

After lunch, we went on a kayak tour with a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. He not only returned to the states, he also returned to Vanuatu. He is trying to start a kayaking company here. We went down to a good snorkeling spot he knew and swam for a few hours. The highlight for me was seeing a Red Firefish. Alyssa and I spotted it on our way back in. Then, we kayaked back to Ifira Island. We stuffed our new puscats in their traveling bags and went back to town for the night.

Monday morning, we headed to Pentecost. We settled in at the house then decided to go out for a walk. What’s the fun in having visitors without a massive walkabout to show off? That was sort of the theme of the trip, I think.

We walked over to Lalbateis and met Tamanok Philip, also known as the Pantsless Wonder. He is one of the high chiefs in our area and wears a loin cloth. We storied with him for awhile and then headed back the long way around. It was fun to see all of our reactions to this place again. I do remember looking at the footpaths and thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me. I’m walking down that?” as well as “Wow, this toilet is way better than I thought it would be.” There are things that have become normal to me, that a Westerner does not accept as normal. I was reminded of just what I’ve gotten acclimatized to.

Monday night was kava time. Really, you can’t come to Vanuatu and not drink kava. So, we did. Alyssa took the kava like a champ. The first shell always goes to the guest, which meant she didn’t have anyone to set her a good example. She knocked it back without flinching. It doesn’t taste good. When you drink kava, it comes in a half a coconut shell. You are expected to knock it back like a shot. A shot that looks like dirty water, makes your mouth numb and tastes like pepper and mud. For me, one shell and I’m buzzed. Jason is usually more like three. Alyssa had three and said she barely felt it.

Once we crawled out of bed on Tuesday (kava makes you sleep) we walked down to Waterfall. The walk was hot and sweaty which made the icy cold river all the better. It really is a beautiful place. We spent a while playing and exploring around the waterfall itself then had a mini-picnic in the grass. Someday, I want to walk up to the top of the waterfall and look down, but I’ve been told the path up is bush and unsafe. It will happen, someday.

We walked back and wished for a truck for most of the walk. We got passed several times but no one picked us up. I took Alyssa down to learn a bit of weaving. The woman who has been teaching me was happy to have another person to show and we even got some simboro. Alyssa said it was good. It was fun to translate back and forth, especially when my translations included cultural translations to make things clear.

Wednesday morning, we walked over to Melsisi. Jason had class at 9:30, so we left him there and went back to Vansemakul. Alyssa’s check in time was 1pm for a 2:15 flight back to Vila. Around 11:30, I started looking for the truck to take us to the airport. At 12, I started getting nervous about the truck. At 12:15, I called Jason to ask for the driver’s number to call him and ask where he was. At 12:30, he still hadn’t answered his phone. I found Jason’s papa and asked for a ride down in the boat. At 12:45, we were pushing off the reef and heading down to the airport. At 1:25, we made it to Lonorore and the airport. At 1:45, Alyssa’s plane took off. Typical Vanuatu, the only thing that happens early are the planes.

It was a fun few days, though far too short. My highlight was the hours of conversation. It was great to hear about things from home, to discuss long-term plans, to hear about all the gossip and feel connected again. To know that I am not forgotten and to know that I still have a place there.

Showing this place to someone else was a great way for me to see it again. I got to look at it like I did that first day, as a tropical wonderland, but with a constant overlay of names and memories. It is a unique kind of amazing to look out over a stretch of tropical beach and think, “I had lunch there last week,” or stand and watch a sunset from the grassy spot we refer to as our dojang.

4-1 State of Technology

Being here is definitely giving me a new look at some of the expectations around access to technology we have in the developed world.  My job before was to keep people connected so they could work, I did have a decent grasp on how important technology is to life.  Here I’m having certain things I took for granted highlighted.  Technology is coming here very quickly but there are a number of things still missing.
As it seems to be across the developing world, cell phones are booming.  Until the market opened in 2008 there was just one cell phone company in the country (TVL – Telecom Vanuatu Ltd).  Now, it has been joined by a second (Digicel).  From what I’ve heard, the service pre-’08 was limited and expensive.  Competition has spurred a huge boom in the number of towers in country and dropped the prices.  When we arrived on Pentecost we found that, in our area, TVL is available on most hills while Digicel appears in tiny pockets the size of your head.  Our village has a bench down the hill from our house that was about the only place to get it (though unreliably) without a fifteen minute walk uphill.  They installed a new tower a few miles south and yesterday was discovered we can sometimes get texts on our front porch or make calls from the store just down from our door.  Barring that, the previous area seems even stronger in signal.  Peace Corps has a deal worked out with Digicel so that anyone on our “Team Talk” plan can call each other for free.   Having the easier access is huge in keeping us sane and talking with our fellow volunteers.  We’re not positive that this is going to stick but we’re hopeful.
Computers too seem to be swiftly pushing further out into the islands.  People are pretty generally excited and eager to learn how to use them.  Of course, the knowledge of quite what they’re to be used for is not there yet.  That’s part of what I’m here to work on.  At the moment, they’re all too often viewed as more playthings for the boys.  There is a sense that there are better uses and a few people even have some concept of what these might be. 

Unfortunately, the delivery system isn’t keeping up with desire or the speed at which machines break in a hot, humid environment.  In the last month I’ve had three of eleven computers develop problems.  Though one mysteriously fixed itself, two are still out of commission.  As these went down while Gaea was in Vila, I spent some time attempting to contact parts suppliers in town so we could purchase and have her pick them up.  This met with great frustration and general failure.  I needed a couple new motherboards, to get them I had to talk to the technicians to get specifics on what they have.  In more than ten phone calls to three stores, I actually talked to a tech four times.  When I did manage to talk to a tech, my service would give out or there would be a problem transferring the call and it would drop. 

No, I still don’t have the parts.  If I have time while I’m in town I’ll visit some places.  If that goes well,  my Headmaster will be coming in for other business and could pay for/pick them up.  If not, we get to rely on either the slow and only minorly inconsistent shipping system or the wildly inconsistent postal system.
Finally there is the internet.  This is currently an exciting front for me.  I have known since I came out to site that there was supposed to be some kind of project that would bring internet to Melsisi but, I had no details.  Then the telecommunications regulator came to town to explain this project that is definitely coming.  They have recently put together a program to push cheap, reliable, and decently quick internet out into the islands.  The bonus for me is that they’ve chosen Melsisi as one of four pilot sites.  All the pilot sites have a secondary school and a health center for which the government will fund the connection.  Additionally, there will be a community telecenter with at least three computers, printer, and copier. 

I had planned to put together some community education classes anyway, but now there is a lot more interest and the knowledge will be a lot more useful in the long-term.  The community still has to choose a location and the government has to find contractors.  This means won’t be in until the end of the year, we hope. That it is coming eventually is still exciting.  I’m focusing on the fact that this gives me time to teach people how to double-click and maybe even right-click.

3-31 Being left behind for a messy medevac

Gaea has several nice long posts up about her medevac but we’ve gotten some questions about how it was for me back on the island.  This blog is being written a bit further out from the events than may be ideal for capturing my experience fully but it’s not a thing to be forgotten that easily.
In brief, it sucked.  I can’t imagine it being pleasant any time ones partner is whisked away to have surgery in another country.  Unfortunately, this whole thing went above and beyond in its commitment to being less than pleasant.  The pick-up from the island itself was rushed and awkward.  I had a class to get to in Melsisi (which, if you’ll recall, is 45 minutes away) as we were trying to get her down to the airport so I was unable to go even that far.  After she was off the island, the real annoying bits came in.  The reason that the medevac got as rushed and messy as it did was primarily the incoming cyclone which would have frozen travel.  Fortunately, Gaea managed to get out of country before it reached us.  Unfortunately, when it did reach us very shortly thereafter it played havoc with the already flaky communication systems. 

There are two cell companies in country, Digicel and TVL.  Digicel is the carrier of choice for Peace Corps because we have a deal with them allowing us to call each other for free.  However,  there has been only one place in Vansemakul where we can get Digicel when it feels like cooperating, otherwise it’s a 15 minute walk uphill on a good day.  On a good day, the path is a dirt road, on a bad day (like when there is a cyclone) it’s a muddy river.  We’re lucky to get Digicel coverage anywhere in Melsisi and it rarely appears in the same place twice.  Thus, Gaea and I have a TVL phone so that we can actually be reached.  While the cyclone was in the country, the TVL coverage disappeared completely from Vansemakul.  This meant that living in the village primarily, I had to walk uphill any time I wanted to try to find out what was going on with my partner.  Over in Melsisi I did still have reliable TVL coverage.  Of course, no matter how I got service, calling was expensive with her in another country.  Despite the difficulties, I believe we did manage to communicate most days (we are both known for being a little stubborn about making some things happen).  Not that I managed to get a lot of information even then.  It really seemed like I could not manage to get good timing to call.  The doctor would just happen to come in for one of his few minutes shortly into the call or a nurse would stop in to check on her.  It was frustrating to say the least.
TVL remained flaky until after she was already back in country.  Given that her surgery and return were on Monday and Wednesday respectively, these events coincided with me having classes and not being able to get up to Digicel.  Once she was back in country, of course, I no longer had class and TVL was back, too.  Timing continued to be poor here too as she got back later on a Wednesday, fully missing the flight out to Pentecost.  There are three flights a week to Pentecost, Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.  She had classes starting Tuesday so coming back Saturday and heading back to Vila Monday didn’t make any sense. It was another few weeks before she got back. 

From there communication was stabilized but still not easy as I either had to walk fifteen minutes uphill from the village at a time when she was available or we had to pay for calling.  The worry about what was happening was gone but the very rocky start made me feel uneasy the whole time she was gone.
The community did try to look after me in her absence.  I was brought food fairly often though I did make something of a point in cooking for myself so I didn’t always get as much food as I might have otherwise.  I feel that continuing to show that yes, men can cook for themselves and take care of things like the laundry is a good example.  I did also have plenty of company at the Nakamals any night I felt like going up.  This ended up being a good number of them.  I believe that at one point I was asked about the cause of earthquakes when four shells in and a little buzzed.  Not the ideal state to try to explain plate tectonics but I think I got the point across.
All in all, not an overly pleasant experience.  It was, however, one that reminded me how strong the community here is.  Anyone I saw expressed concern and I was looked after, as always.

Updated contact info!

This is the latest information we have about where we are going and how to send things there.

If you want to mail a package, it has to go through customs, which can be a total pain. If it needs to be inspected, we get charged a one-time fee, it doesn’t matter how big the package is or how much stuff is in it, the fee is the same. Things that need to be inspected include any food (not candy), magazines, clothing, packages over $100 and anything they think might contaminate the country. If you label the package as being a “personal item” it is more likely to not get inspect, or if it is inspected, to not get as high a fee. So, to help packages get through customs, one of the PC staff members makes regular trips down to deal with all the paperwork, which means it is best to mail packages through Port Vila. After they go through Vila, the same PC staff member will ship them on to our island. The address to do all of that is:

Jason Ritenour and Gaea Dill-D’Ascoli,
C/o Peace Corps
Private Mail Bag 9097
Port Vila, Vanuatu
South Pacific

If you as mailing only a letter, we have two more addresses. Letters don’t get tied up in customs. Unfortunately we are not leaving them here for security reasons. Most people have them by now anyway. If not, contact someone else who knows us and might or e-mail and we’ll reply when we can.

Tomorrow we leave for our island. This is where we start the real work we are here to do. I’m excited and nervous and everything is a jumble but it is a glorious jumble because I have work that I believe in and I’m following my dream.

We are planning on having no internet access until late January. The best bet at this point really is to send us letters. I’ll try to write back. If we do get internet, I will make sure to update here, but I can’t promise return emails. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write them, I’ll get them eventually and I will appreciate it when I do.

Until January, keep yourselves safe.

Technical considerations and travel plans

Well, I suppose its about time that the other half of this adventuring couple makes a post. What better way, I figure, than with my expertise in technology and what I know about its relation to our trip.

Unfortunately the answer is not much. My fantastic company has purchased (and partially decorated) a laptop to bring on our travels, for which we are both very thankful. We will definitely have some amount of internet access while we are in country but it could range anywhere from broadband speeds at home to none unless we travel to an internet cafe or peace corps headquarters. Worst case scenario is that we will write of our adventures offline and post multiple items at once when we have access when we are able. Please do e-mail us any well wishes and updates on your lives which we will read and respond to as we can. We can pretty much guarantee little to no access to the internet during the first few months while we are in training. Once we complete training and are given a final posting we will make an update with more details and, hopefully, further contact information. We have also set up a joint Google Voice account if anyone wants to leave us a voice-mail to check as we have internet access. Just click the “Call Me!” button to the right of our blog, enter your number and Google will call you to record a voice-mail.
The bit I can tell you all about in more detail is our travel plans for getting there. We fly out to Los Angeles on September 9th and have orientation sessions through the morning and early afternoon on the 10th. At 9:30pm that evening, our flight departs to take us out of the country. September 11th doesn’t so much exist as far as we are concerned, being that we’re flying across the date line that day (skipping 9/11 by flying… seems.. appropriate?). September 12th we have a brief layover in New Zealand before we finally arrive in Vanuatu and start to see what this country is all about. We will be sure to post pictures as we are able to, everything we have seen so far looks beautiful! It is also well known for some amazing scuba diving so we are thinking a certification is in our future.
Finally, we are asking for letters we can bring with us and open as we are feeling homesick to help us along. We got a good many at our party this past weekend but would be very happy to add to the collection. Just write something to one or both of us, stuff it in an envelope with the appropriate name on the outside and get it to us. Let us know if you need a mailing address or e-mail it and we’ll promise not to read it ahead of time while printing it out and labeling.