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.

7-11 Breaking News*

A minor explosion

There is a hose that attaches the toilet to the wall.  It is silver mesh around a black tube and is what runs the water from the pipes in the wall into the toilet.  Mostly when I’ve seen these, they are equipped with a small on/off valve at either end, but I guess that isn’t strictly necessary.
Captain, the water line has blown.  That black tube appears to have some of the same problems as say, a faulty vein in the human body, by which I mean it can rupture.  Seriously, the water line in the room upstairs just blew out.
Now, I would imagine that one could turn off the on/off valve on the wall side and stop the flow of water.  Unfortunately, this particular toilet was not equipped with the on/off valve in question. So instead, we sat and giggled while the water gushed out of the pipe and swamped the floor, the towels we put down to soak it up, the mop and eventually got to be about ankle deep in the bathroom.

Clean up crew: Neill and Princess

Someone finally got a bucket to catch the water in and we started emptying it into the shower rather than having yet more go spilling all over the floor, but well, there just wasn’t much we could do until the manager showed up.  She shut off the water line.

We mopped, dragged and bailed the water out of the room and moved the two people out into the next room over.  They are resettling and I am tempted to have a water fight.  Anyone want to try sliding on the tile floor?

*There is a pun there since this is actually written when I’m publishing it.  Weird.  I almost never do this.

3-29 How to Build a Kitchen, Part 2

Our roof, in pre-roof form

With the walls finished, it is once again time for a trip into the bush. This time, you are getting natangura. You know that tropical house plant that grows in long stalks with a plethora of long, narrow leaves that looks vaguely like a very small palm tree? Now imagine if that grew to be about twenty feet tall. That’s natangura. You chop down a stalk then strip all the leaves off. The leaves go into a bundle which is attached to your horse or your friend’s back. Then you carry it back to the nakamal where more friends are working on de-boning it.

To de-bone a natangura leaf, you hold it upside down and in the middle. You break the central “bone” or stem in the leaf. Then without tearing the leaf, you peel the top layer of that stem down to the base of the leaf. The last four to five inches of the leaf you tear out completely. Then you add it to the pile to dry for a few days.

The bamboo acts like a pin, or a stitch in hand sewing

Once the leaves are dry, it is time to pin them. Pinning will take you all day. You take two wild cane stems of roughly equal length and fold one of the leaves over them. The next leaf covers half of the first leaf. The third leaf covers the middle. Once you’ve tightened the leaves up against the cane as much as you can, you use a strip of bamboo about as wide as your middle finger to stab the all three leaves. It should go in about an inch to the right of the bone on the last leaf. Holding the knife like you are about to stab something, you cut a slit just to the right of the bone. Now, you use all of the strength in your hand to shove the piece of bamboo back through the slit you just made. It looks like a single stitch in hand sewing.

Two shingles

Leaving the rest of the bamboo to hold that piece, you add the next three or four leaves, covering the exit wound of the bamboo and working to the left. You snap the bamboo with your right hand while holding tightly to the leaves with your left. Stab, slit, rinse and repeat until you have a section about 5 feet long.

Because that will take all day and you have to go to the garden sometime, you get a break for a day before you put the roof on.

Before attaching the roof, you have to get the “trusses” in place. Once again, out in to the bush you go. You get the longest pieces of bamboo you can find and carry them back to the kitchen. Then you cut a notch in the middle and whack it against the center beam until it breaks. Trim the ends to suit.

Bucket o’ nails

To attach the roof, you use the other kind of nail. That kind that looks suspiciously like a vine and has less to do with a hammer and more to do with tying knots. Each “shingle” of natangura attaches to every post. There is a post about every ten inches. That makes for a lot of nails. Before being used the nails are dried for a few weeks, then soaked in water and lightly roasted to be made soft again. They are inserted by punching a hole through the natangura with a sharpened piece of bamboo then tied tightly around the truss.

Placing the final layer of shingles on the peak

The final layer of natangura made to help seal the peak. To get the wire to hold it on tightly, you untwist some handy chicken wire. Then you layer to shingles and wire the cane together. After you’ve tossed it up the roof to your friend, he opens it like a giant book and flops it down on the peak then wires it in place. When he’s done, he runs down a single piece of bamboo laid over the natangura. You don’t want to damage the natangura you’ve worked so hard to put in place.

Final touches like the last layer of grass along the roof and a door can wait until next week. (We don’t have them yet.)

My grandpa on the roof of my bush kitchen giving a thumbs up.  Want to guess how he got up there?  See that piece of bamboo sticking up?  Yeah, he walked up that, onto my bush kitchen, at the ripe age of old.

EDIT 4-2: We do have grass on the roof. We still don’t have a door.

3-29 How to Build a Kitchen, Part 1

My papa and kitchen skeleton

First you find a reasonably flat piece of land. If you are lucky it will be by both the house and a water source, but those are often mutually exclusive. Once you have your place, you go out in the bush and start cutting down trees. The trees form the posts for the frame. Being trees, not pre-cut wood, this will complicate things down the line. Trees don’t grow into a convenient 2×4 shape nor is there a hardware store anywhere closer than Vila.

So you dig your posts and then run the top beam. After the top beam comes the tops of the walls, at about waist height. These are all nailed in with nails made of real metal, unlike the nails you will use later. In our case, you let the skeleton sit for a few weeks while cyclones and funerals interrupt work days. These things happen. Especially the cyclones at this time of year.

Jason on a Vanuatu ladder

Once the world has calmed down a bit and no new inclement weather is coming your direction and you’ve had a chance to repair the roofs of the other houses, you come back to work on the kitchen. The next step is to build walls. There are several options for wall building. You could chose to weave your walls, which lasts longer but is time consuming and requires more bamboo. I refer to that as the “plaid” method. In this case, we went for stripes.

Again, you head out into the bush and this time cut down a bunch of giant bamboo. Bamboo that is about as big around as your thigh, or maybe a little bigger. Then you hit the bamboo with the back of an axe to break all the “joints” in it. Once it is sufficiently broken, you find a likely looking spot and split it. You pry it open and stand on the halves (or thirds). With both feet firmly braced, you start chopping slits along all the segments and turning the joints into so much kindling. The point is to make the bamboo lay flat without destroying the integrity of the piece. Once the bamboo is nice and flat, you slice the joints off with a bush knife (aka machete). Despite how everyone around is doing it, this takes practice.

Bamboo slicing and cleaning

With several nice long segments of bamboo ready, you gather about four friends and start holding them up to the wall. While you are busy doing that, you make sure another friend is setting nail holes for the stripe of bamboo or piece of tree that will hold the bamboo on. The big segment of bamboo goes horizontally while the “locking” pieces go vertically. Each locking piece is nailed into a “stud” which is where that complication from earlier comes in. Bamboo tends to go in more or less straight strips. Trees don’t grow in straight lines. There after comes a bit of finagling with angles to try to line up the best possible combination of stud and bamboo.

The wall building method of choice

Each wall is built from bottom to top and nailed in place before the next one is started. If you run into a need to cut angles, that’s fine, just trace it on with a piece of charcoal you took from the fire and hit it with an axe.

3-26 Construction Projects

Shelves are awesome.  They keep the books off the floor.

We’ve been on a stint of construction recently.  Before I left on my Brisbane adventures, I decided further shelving was required in my house.  So I built some.  In the process, I got my saw taken away from me and got one shelf built for me, but since then, three more have gone in.  Jason installed one while I was gone and we built another two in the last few weeks.  The last one I finished up yesterday.  I am going for function, not beauty.

Last week, serious work got started on our bush kitchen. They’ve been talking about it for a while. Like, months. While I was in Australia they dug the holes and placed the posts. Then a hurricane happened. Then a dead happened. Then people sort of lost momentum. It stayed a kitchen skeleton for about three weeks. Last Tuesday, they cut the bamboo and attached three of the walls. On Thursday, they cut a huge amount of natangura leaves and we pulled the “bone” out. That took basically all day. On Tuesday of this week we pinned the natangura into long strips of “shingles.” That took all day, as in dawn to dusk. On Thursday, we attached the natangura to the roof. Then we attached the front wall. Now, we have a kitchen! Of course, there are still the odds and ends to finish up. Things like the last layer of grass to block the peak of the roof, a door and shelves are all still missing, but I have a place I can cook. This is awesome. (Expect a post about how to build a kitchen later.)

The basic shelf

I was feeling inspired to build things. Today I put on the carpenter’s skirt and had at it. I went out into the bush and chop down a couple of branches with my bush knife. I managed the find four good forked branches to hold the two long straight ones. I don’t have any rebar for my fire pit yet so I will be using green branches for the foreseeable future. Wish me luck on not spilling my food into the fire. Still using only a bush knife, I dug out the fire pit and dug the holes for the forked branches. Now, I have a kitchen with a “stove.” Or something that will pass for a stove until someone gets around to finding some rebar.

It is an ugly chair, but it holds weight!

I figured I’d take a nice sit down on my stool and enjoy my new stove. Of course, my stool is also my coconut scratcher and a cut my hand. This inspired further construction adventures. I am sick of having not enough chairs and catching everything on the head of the coconut scratcher. So a built a chair. It is an ugly chair. On the other hand, it is a chair. I used all the leftover bits and pieces of wood from the kitchen and my shelf building projects to build the frame. That means that all of the pieces are basically a chunk of tree hacked off at each end and skinned of bark. None of them are straight. I consider some of those angles to be custom fit. Then I used leftover bamboo to make the seat and back. Jason is currently sitting in it and it hasn’t fallen over yet. I take this is a good sign. That was just the afternoon’s work. The mornings work was much less interesting and involved a lot more paperwork and toilet talk.

1-8 Architecture, Vanuatu style

Basically, the architecture here is perfectly suited to the climate. The buildings are mostly made from woven bamboo or wild cane with natangura thatched roofs. We’ll go top down.
The natangura is that tropical houseplant that looks sort of like a coconut leaf. Here, it grows to be about fifteen feet tall. The individual sections of the leaf are folded over a section split bamboo and then “pinned” in place using another section of bamboo. “Sewing up” natangura takes a long time, but it also holds for several years. The sections are laid like shingles, starting and the bottom and working up until you get to the peak. The peak is natangura that is just folded over and pinned with two long pieces of bamboo that run the length of the house on either side of the peak.
The structure of the house is either bamboo or a local wood that grows straight and with minimal branches. It is framed up more or less like any other house I’ve seen. The difference is that instead of using nails, they take green vines and lash the posts in place. When the vines dry, they’re pretty much impossible to move. The natangura is attached the same way, a vine around the bamboo than around the rafter.
The walls in our area are all woven bamboo. It is a pretty neat process. First, you half the bamboo. Then you take an axe and crack bunches of holes in it the long way. Then you flatten it out and trim off the section bits. It makes a multi-yard by two to five inch section of bamboo with bunches of small cracks running through it. These are woven like the matts and baskets are woven. That forms a wall which can be cut to size as appropriate. These walls are amazing because they let in a slight breeze. The breeze is absolutely necessary here.
The sheet of woven bamboo is fasten to the studs by another layer of bamboo. This is a third or so of a piece that lays reasonably flat on its own. The bamboo is placed on the outside of the wall and nailed in place through the wall, pinning the wall to the stud.
Traditionally, the floor is dirt covered in coconut leaves and matts. In our house, we have a cement floor. It is sort of awesome because it stays nice and cool during the day.
Other non-traditional methods of construction include corrugated iron roofs and walls, cinder block construction, heat-reflecting under layers to metal roofing, solar panel installation and screens on the windows.
In traditionally construction, all the materials are not only local and suited to the environment, but they are also highly sustainable and re-grow very quickly. I’m totally impressed.

11-12 Housing, or how two houses turned into no houses

We are going to have two houses. Sometime. Eventually. Maybe. We hope. Right now, we have no houses.

We arrived in Melsisi, knowing that the house in Vansemakul isn’t finished, only to find out that the house in Melsisi needs repairs and we can’t move in. In fact, the house in Melsisi needed to have its septic tank emptied, which was done on Monday, and then it needs a new toilet. The old one was leaking. The shower leaks as well and the screens on the windows all need to be replaced. At this point, I’m trying to convince the headmaster to give us the leftover paint from the school and let us paint the inside of the house, too. It’s sort of a mess. We keep hearing next week, when the toilet gets in, we’ll have a house.

We’ve been hearing “in a few days” for a few days about the house in Vansemakul. I’m not quite clear about what is going on with that one, except that it isn’t finished. Latest reports tell me we don’t have a toilet or a swim house and other reports say there is no kitchen. I haven’t actually been to Vansemakul yet, since I have no place to stay and there are more than enough things to explore and do here in Melsisi.

You might at this point be wondering where we are staying if it isn’t in our house in Melsisi or in Vansemakul. If you had to choose the most unlikely place for Jason and I to stay, you might be close to right. We are staying in a convent. That’s right, manly, atheistic Jason is living with nuns. Well, one nun. We are actually staying with two volunteers from the United Kingdom who are here for the school year to teach English. They are living with the nun because their housing fell through, so we got put with them because we are all white. We, that is the 4 of us, share the bottom floor with the housegirl for the convent and the nun has the upper floor to herself. She’s living the high life by standards of Vanuatu, she’s got 6 rooms and a kitchen, all of them in a permanent structure.

Here is hoping we get a real house and can stop living out of a suitcase sometime soonish.

Who likes religious holidays in French?

We do!

We are going to Pentecost Island. Look it up on google earth and youtube. Google earth will show you beautiful vistas and youttube will show you land diving. Jason will be teaching basic computing to 9th and 10th graders at the Catholic Mission of Melsisi. The reason he isn’t likely to be teaching to the older students is because this is a Francophone area, which is to say, they speak French. I will be working at an aid post in a village about an hour’s walk away. You may be thinking, “Wow, an hour walk, isn’t that rather a long commute?” And I would say, “Yes. Luckily the Peace Corps has considered this and built us not one but two houses.” Seriously, we have 2 houses. I’m not sure how this is going to work out, I’m just thinking that my childhood experiences with divorced parents and changing houses is probably going to come in handy. And apparently it is reasonably normal around those parts for families to have two houses, one at the mission and one in the village or by their garden.

Here is our work as far as we know so far. Jason will be teaching basic computing and keyboarding skills to young teens, supporting the computer lab on the tech side, and assisting his counterpart in teaching computers and in building curriculum for the upper grades. For those of you who realize Jason has basically no experience with teaching in an academic setting, don’t worry, he doesn’t. But, we’ve been in training for two months and there are some really excellent resources in the other volunteers and their experience.

My job remains a lot less well-defined. I am going to be working in the public health field in the village of Vansemakul. If you can figure out how to pronounce that, more power to you. Depending on what my counterpart wants, I could be doing anything from running workshops, trying to re-invigorate interest in general health in the area, starting a water and sanitation project, building toilets, teaching teens about reproductive health at the high school, running and leadership camp or anything around the idea of making people healthy. Some projects that have been successful have been things like hand-washing programs, running water projects, toilet projects and the leadership camps.

The first thing we are both expected to do is actually nothing. We are under strict orders from the Peace Corps to sit and integrate. Don’t work on projects, don’t start trying to push an agenda, just sit and watch and listen and eventually, the projects will start to appear. This is a challenging order for people like Jason and I who are more active and involved than might be healthy.

For the sake of time on the internet and needing to go make dinner before the Halloween party tonight. Happy Halloween Everyone!! (It is Halloween here, as I’m writing this.)