8-15 Jason’s Going to be a Star! (Or maybe just a two-bit bully)

Behind the scenes of a bus crash.

 Love Patrol is a soap opera produced by Wan SmolBag. It was started to try to open up conversations about HIV/AIDS and STIs. It did pretty well and was granted a few more seasons. Now, it is a venue to talk about all sorts of nastiness. The most recent topics have ranged from domestic violence to police corruption to corrupt foreign investment and mafia involvement in politics. It airs all across the Pacific and is the basis for the sex ed curriculum in Fiji. Most recently, it got a slot on Australian TV.

Taking notes.  The director is on the far right.

A few months ago, my boss asked me and another volunteer at lunch if we knew any white men who would like to be in Love Patrol. He went on to say that the parts that needed filling were the sleazy investor and the mafia hitman. (As a side note, there are no positive roles for white people in the show. I don’t not like this, I think it is just a different kind of racism and a poor portrayal of people who are doing good things. Especially given that the writer and producer are white people and the organization runs on the backs of a small number of volunteers along side the large number of skilled local staff. I digress.)

I suggested Jason. I figured he’d get a kick out of being a mafioso. He went in for the audition. The director cut him off before his scene was finished. He got the part. According to my inside sources (I gossip with the crew all the time) Jason’s audition was great and they knew he’d get that part from the beginning.

The Good Take (on try #4)

So, now Jason is playing a Russian mafioso on a soap opera. He doesn’t have too many lines, but he’s not exactly silent, either. Much like his stint with the Comedia del’Arte troop at Fest, he spends a lot of time lurking in the background looking evil and not a lot of time speaking. Also like the Comedia del’Arte show, his character is a big jerk. Directors keep seeing a bully in him.

His first shoot was Sunday night. I hung out on set with him and my work colleagues and took a few pictures. It was fun. He only had one shot to do on Sunday, so we finished “early” at 10:30 pm. I expect future shoots to run a lot later. The crew hasn’t been finished before 1:30 am in the last three weeks.

Just to give you a hint of the drama…dead body!

So, Jason has a new hobby (bullying people) and a new career (soap opera villains). I have a new source of entertainment (teasing Jason about the above.) Vanuatu continues to provide us with opportunities we would never have in the US. Which is pretty neat.

Training the New Group

New Vols teaching their first class

In addition to starting at VIT, I have been doing most of the technical training for the new group of IT volunteers.  If I weren’t busy enough with the new job, this definitely makes sure that I am.

There are 5 new IT teachers in Group 25.  Two girls and three boys.  They, as usual, have a wide variety of previous skills and experience.  Histories range from graphics design to teaching to freelance web-master.  They are a fantastic group and have been fun to work with.  Even as they are nearing site announcements and are tired of training, they manage to keep their creativity up fairly well.  I’m positive that they’ll do well in their sites over the next couple of years.  
Teaching year 6 how to use a mouse
My task has been to teach them basic computer repair and networking so that they can keep their labs running.  Essentially, our goal is to make them entry level techs in 8 weeks around all their other language, cultural, safety/security, medical, and technical training.  Peace Corps is definitely an experience in figuring out how to do things on the fly.  We do what we can to give people the resources they need to figure it out but don’t have time for too much more than that.  There is also going to be a wide range of technical levels needed for their labs.  Some of them are going to need to know basic networking, others aren’t.  Laying the groundwork for those higher level things has definitely earned me some glazed over looks but they’ve been good students and at least have an idea of the basics.  During their training at the beginning of next year, I’ll be able to give them a bit more targeted and tailored sessions based on what they’ll actually need at their site.  For now, they just get to ask me to explain subnets again.

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

6-1 VIT Visit

Last week, I went to the Vanuatu Institute of Technology for a visit. They have been asking for a Peace Corps volunteer in IT for a number of years but needed on with computer networking experience. Turns out I’ve got some and might be interested in moving to Vila. How convenient.

Tuesday morning, I jumped into the truck with my Program Manager and Assistant Program Manager to head over to VIT. After a short wait in the lobby, we sat down for a meeting with the Principal, Deputy Principal, and Director of IT. The meeting was typical Vanuatu style which goes on for too long and everyone says the same thing a few different ways and is always vaguely awkward. I was told many times how excited they are that I am interested in working there. After the meeting, the IT director took the my bosses and I on a tour of the campus network. I felt a little bad for Antoine and Len as we looked at switches and talked tech. Fortunately they seemed to be fine chatting with each other.
The network at VIT is actually pretty decent. Not terribly well maintained at the moment and not living up to its potential, but has the right pieces. To talk tech briefly, they’ve got a Windows 2008 server (not running a domain), windows 7 clients, and an extensive network of managed switches (not managed) connected by fiber optic links. The switches around campus are even in mini racks that have locks on them… but aren’t actually locked. Also, they tend to be in break rooms where people eat. The rats then take leavings and go up into these safe looking boxes to eat their gains. Sometimes they eat the cords too.
The current IT Director actually seems to have a good idea of what the network needs. Unfortunately, he is kept too busy teaching to look after it properly. It also seems that his status as another teacher means he doesn’t have the clout to put the necessary policies in place, even though he knows what they are. It seems to be fairly common here for people to see what needs to be done but not be given the appropriate authority for others to follow them.
I also met the few other young men who make up the IT department. I did not get a lot of time to talk to them, but I understand they are capable at basic desktop support but not much higher level. I will also be working with them on improving their skills to keep up maintenance when I leave.
Once we finished the tour, we shook hands with the Principal and Deputy again and chatted briefly. Starting to discuss when it might work for me to start working and what that would look like. They remained very excited about the idea of having me there.
It was definitely a good visit. I feel like this could be a very good one year posting for a third year volunteer. A year should be a good bit of time to get things cleaned up and policies put in place, then turn it back over to them to run. Having lived on the islands will help me with understanding the culture as well as “street cred” with the other staff. At the same time, I can be an outsider with the authority and knowledge to put the policies in place and have some ability to enforce them. If I can do that, it will be easier for the local staff to maintain some amount of compliance. Also, if I do run out of other things, there are always plenty of viruses to deal with.
I think that VIT will be a good fit for me. My project managers also remain very excited. They have already passed my extension request letter on with enthusiastic recommendations.

5-28 Mommy came to visit – Part 1

Greeting my mom, Vanuatu style

The latest in a series of visitors, my mother has now come to see what life is like here. She ended up arriving on Mothers’ Day, which was very appropriate. On Sunday, I was able to meet her at the airport in Vanuatu style with a salu-salu (lei) and a green coconut. I also convinced a couple of the other volunteers to come with me. It turned out that another volunteer had a friend coming on the same flight so there were plenty of us as a welcoming party!

After collecting my mother, we made our way back to the Peace Corps office. We did some introductions and sorted out our stuff. Due to jet-lag, we took it slow the rest of Sunday and Monday. There were a few errands to run, flights to pay for, etc. There was also plenty of hand shaking. Any time family comes to visit, the staff is very keen to meet them.
Tuesday morning we got up bright and early to head down to Tanna. Check-in started at 6 but there wasn’t anyone in the terminal at all when we got there. This is typical of Vanuatu. We ended up standing outside and chatting with an Aussie couple until they opened up the check-in. Morning flights to Tanna are generally on the ATR (big plane- its got 65 seats). Air Vanuatu puts quite a bit of effort into making this a “real” flight experience. There are two stewardesses and a drink service. Did I mention that the flight is 35 minutes? Not worth it if you ask me but they like to show off for tourists, I guess. After landing, we waited in “baggage claim” which was WAY too small for the number of people in there. After finding our bags and the truck to the bungalow we made a quick stop to pick up another PCV before heading across the island to the volcano side.
The puppy had a dance party. Rose was skeptical.
The west side of Tanna has pretty good roads for Vanuatu. As soon as you get to the top of the mountain range crossing the island, however, that changes. They’re doing a massive project to improve the crossing but the first half won’t be finished until June and I’m not sure how quickly the second half will get done after that. My mother got to experience just how bouncy island roads can be. She was not impressed. More impressive, however, was the view which included Mt Yasur. We stopped for pictures.
Volcanoes in the tropics offer a sharp contrast. As you’re driving along, you pass lush jungle, lush jungle, lush jungle, desolation, lush jungle, lush jungle… It is one of the most interesting things about them. The driver was dropping a relation of his off at a village, so we got out and wandered around part of the ash plain for a bit. Smaller than Mordor but I definitely got a feeling for what that would be like.
Once we finally got to the bungalow, we dropped our stuff off and promptly turned around to walk to another PCV’s village. I had never been there and was unaware of just how far it was. It was not a ridiculously strenuous hike but it was definitely not a walk in the park. We got there while Jake was in a meeting so we waited at his house and storied with each other as well as a few ni-Vans who wandered by. Jake came home and we met the litter of puppies living under his house. The puppies are adorable, if a little mangy. Eventually we found a couple youngfala to chew us kava so that we could drink a shell before walking back to the bungalow ahead of night fall. Yes, on Tanna, the kava is chewed, generally by young men. It doesn’t taste too bad but is not the most hygienic.
Womens’ kastom dance
Wednesday morning, we went to a kastom womens’ dance. It was a half-hour walk out to the village where they were doing the dance. When we got there, they apologized for having few people but apparently a number had already gone to the garden when they hit the tam tam drum. It seemed a perfectly fine dance to us. Afterwards we gave the kids lollies and got the language word for thank you to tell them. Then it was back to the bungalow. I chatted with our guide (who was the daughter of the bungalow’s owner) along the way. It’s always fun to surprise people by being able to speak Bislama. They’re so eager to story with us.
We spent the rest of the day hanging out around the bungalow, reading our respective books. It works out well that my mom and I both really enjoy relaxing with a book. It also worked out very well throughout the trip that she eats small portions. Most of the places we stayed served a basic plate of rice, veggies, and meat. Not much choice but tasty. My mother would eat about half of her plate and I’d get a plate and a half!
After a relaxing day, we went up to the volcano that evening. We decided to walk up rather than trying to get a truck. It took about an hour which was fortunately up a fairly gradual slope. Walking up let us really examine the transition in the ground as we got closer to the volcano. It was very cool. We started finding more ash, then a few places where the ground was smoking, then finally the end of green as we got right up to the rim. We arrived with plenty of daylight left and not many people there. It is possible to walk around most of the rim of the volcano, depending on how strong and in what direction the wind is blowing. One side is a bit steeper and had more ash being blown towards it. We spent some time trying to get good pictures of the explosions and I went around to both sides. As it got darker, more tourists arrived and the explosions got more impressive. We managed to get the obligatory explosion-in-the-background-portrait photograph. Eventually, we decided to start walking down. After a while, the trucks started to catch up and one was nice enough to give us a lift to the bottom.
Thursday morning we made the trip back to the west side and checked into a guest house just outside of Lenekal. There are three “towns” in Vanuatu. Port Vila is the capitol and the biggest. Luganville is the main town on Santo. It is much quieter but still very well built up and stocked with things. Lenekal is referred to as “black man town”. It’s A LOT more rural. Plenty of people but no big concrete buildings and very few stores (all small shops.) Ship captains refuse to dock at their wharf because it is poorly positioned and two ships have sunk while docked. The ships bring in, or in this case don’t bring in, supplies, which leads to small and poorly stocked shops.
Volcanoes are AWESOME
We were originally scheduled to fly out Friday afternoon but decided to switch to the morning flight. There wasn’t much we wanted to do in Lenekal and I had found out about an Information and Communication Technology day back in Vila. Switching flights here is incredibly easy, you can do it over the phone in 5 minutes and there is no fee. It’s a good thing we ended up checking in early because there were plane issues and we ended up on an 8-seater. Not everyone who was booked on the flight was able to actually get on. We were joined by a group of New Caledonians who were very nervous about the plane (but in a laughing, upbeat way) and a ni-Van who joined me in laughing at/with them for it.

5-3 Happy Birthday, Jason!

Cupcakes with candles. Awesome!

We had Jason and Alexandra’s joint birthday in style.
It started with kava the night of their birthdays. Since May 1st was a holiday here, we drank kava with the Oxford volunteers from both Ranwadi and Melsisi, as well as one of the teachers at Melsisi. It was a party. It was enough of a party, that we sent the plastic back to be filled up three times and we all had a shell at the nakamal first. It was the kind of party that made us all sleep in until 7 am. Believe me, that’s late here.
In the morning, we took chocolate chip pancake mix, blueberry pancake mix and the makings for more pancakes to the Oxford volunteers house. We proceeded to gorge ourselves on whiteman food while recovering from our kava hangovers.
The icing on the cake were the hostess cupcakes my mother sent us. She even sent birthday candles and “writing gel,” that clear frosting stuff that comes in a tube. I wrote on the cupcakes, which were mostly intact, and lit 27 candles for Jason and Alexandra to blow out.
To me, it felt like a real birthday. I hope it did to them, too.

3-11 My changing relationship with technology

My Peace Corps experience has had a profound effect on my relationship with technology. This is something I had some notion was going to happen but I could never have really imagined quite what the reality would be. For a long time, one of the things which as defined “me” has been technology. I am a computer and gadget nerd. I tinker with computers and gadgets and acquire new ones as often as possible. I can no longer do these things like I did back home.

Pulling myself out of the developed world has forced me to realize just how much I had attached my identity to technology. It has also forced me to detach to some extent because I just don’t have the access. I no longer have a smart phone. My access to replacement parts or new acquisitions is severely limited. I have zero connection to the internet most of the time. Some of the other volunteers are enjoying this disconnection from the distractions they bring. Not that I am actually suffering or depressed from withdrawal or anything. Disconnecting has simply taught me that I really like being connected. I enjoy having a constant stream of news available. I like being able to communicate instantly with people.
I have also learned more about what my healthy relationship with technology can be. I am more comfortable not being in front of a screen for the majority of the day. I do the things I need to do on the computer and then shut it down. When I do have internet, I check the things I need to check and don’t “need” to spend another couple hours on all the time wasting sites. I still enjoy browsing the time wasters when I have the time to but they no longer grab my attention like they used to. When there are other things to do, I don’t have to yank myself away.
Of course, my relationship with technology will change again when I have more electricity and internet access. Will I still be as comfortable unplugging or will I get drawn back in? I can’t know, but I feel like some of it will stick. At the very least, I’ll be more aware of how amazing it is and how different it makes our lives.

10-7 Jason’s Medivac – before surgery

There have been four medivacs this year.  Both of us have now been included.
The beautiful view landing in Brisbane

Before we left for New Zealand, I had an abscess developing on my leg.  I discussed it with our doctor and the hope was that it would go away while we were on vacation.  Unfortunately it didn’t and instead got bigger.  By the time I got back, it was gross enough that our nurse made a face.  Antibiotics and hot packs were applied to no result.  Then our doc cut it open and we tried to drain it.  A week later and it’s smaller but not gone by any means and still draining.  Now I am in Australia and getting it removed in a real operating room.
My medevac has been much smoother than Gaea’s was.  Much more what we understand to be the typical medevac experience.  There was still a small amount of scrambling involved to get my travel arranged.  The medical stuff was confirmed Tuesday morning.  Wednesday was a public holiday but also had the only direct flight before Saturday.  Bookings and travel expenses all happened Tuesday afternoon.  I wasn’t rushed but the staff was a bit.  Still, there were very few problems getting me out of the country.
My huge, cushy hotel room.  Not pictured: very nice kitchen.
Unfortunately, no internet at the hotel.

Most of my time since then has been spent waiting for things to happen.  Waiting to go to the airport, to get on the flight, for my appointments, and now A LOT of waiting for surgery.  The only “excitement” I’ve had is a few extra questions at immigration.  I’d want to ask more questions of anyone coming for medical treatment too and it really wasn’t that interesting.  I did have time to walk around yesterday and take a few pictures after my preliminary appointment with the doctor.  Those are now sitting in my expensive camera, locked up while I’m in surgery.  I really should have brought it up so I could A) upload the latest photos and B) take a picture of the fantastically stylish surgery duds.

I love the controls on this temperature control

Today is surgery day.  This means I sit around in the hospital.  We do have a woman here who is our point of contact and looks after us at this hospital.  She is quite nice and walked me up to surgery. No food since last night means I’m a bit hungry but that’s what the internet is here to distract me from.  There is also a TV here but I’ve already lost interest.  Now that I’ve found the outlet, I have the internet and I have books.

Hopefully the surgery will go smoothly and I’ll be updating sometime this evening.  Current plan has me out of the hospital tomorrow but I have no idea what that means for getting back to Vanuatu.  It would be great to be able to see a bit more of Brisbane while I’m here but we’ll see.

Send some good wishes for the surgery and I’ll check back in when it’s all over.

5-30 End of term

Well, I’ve finished my first term as a teacher here. I feel like I am getting more of a hang on what I’m doing but there is definitely room for improvement.

Grades here are different. First of all, grades at Melsisi are done out of 20 points. I give them a percentage and then figure out what that is of 20. Most of my kids got around 12 or 13. This is normal. 80% is an A here. The standards are just lower here than we are used to in the west. The education system here is just not doing a great job of teaching these kids. There is no accountability for the teachers who sometimes just skip their classes. The transportation infrastructure here is also so broken that having all your students for the second week of classes is something of a surprise. Then there are all the missed classes for various reasons. My year 9A class didn’t end up with an official grade this term because I missed a month of classes in a three month term. One of the first teachers at the school died so they cancelled school. Then some AusAID donors showed up late and I was involved in that so they didn’t have class. Then we had Easter, then we had Labor day. I did get a class with them the last week of school but that was after grades were due. The administration had me re-work the whole school’s schedule for second term. I no longer have a class on Mondays.

Despite the obstacles, I feel like my kids are learning. They’re generally capable of opening programs and moving around the operating system at a very basic level. My year 10s are able to successfully create some basic letters, essays, and posters in word. They may not be great essayists but that’s not what I’m working on. They also remain excited about classes.

My computer repair class is also moving along after a couple hitches. I started out teaching two of the male teachers. Then one of them (the one with better knowledge) was moved to a school on Santo. Yes, this can happen in the middle of the first term. I re-started the class with more teachers. I only got a few classes in before the end of term but did have three women and three or four men involved. Hopefully they’ll carry on into the second term. All of them seem to be picking up the material fairly well. I’m interested to see how much of it will stick through the break.

I also finally have a schedule for my community classes. They’ll be starting the week after I get back from Vila. When I left, there were only a few signed up for the class but I hope to have more by the time I get back. There was a lot of interest expressed. I’ve learned well here that this doesn’t always translate into participation but it doesn’t hurt.

In other exciting news for the school and Melsisi community, we may be getting more reliable power. There is a large pot of money currently available for energy development. Last month, we had an engineer visiting to scope out Melsisi for being one of the places to get access to that pot. He identified a lot of good places to put solar and sounded pretty optimistic about getting some put in. There will also hopefully be a wind speed tester to look at possible future development of wind power in the area. If we do get solar, it will be a vast improvement over the generator we have now. For one thing, we will no longer be concerned about the cost of fuel. For another, the current generator is only just big enough to support the number of computers we have now. We also don’t currently have a regulator on the power flowing to the office block. When a generator outputs power it does not do so at a constant level. A regulator smooths the bumps out and prevents damaging spikes or drops in power. I’ve told the administration multiple times that this is why their computers keep cutting out and that they need to bring the electrician back to hook up the regulator we have. They haven’t listened to me yet. I hooked up the one in my lab myself. If we get solar, there will be some big batteries and nice smooth power. Hopefully more than we have now so that we can expand.

5-2 How Jason tried to get Medevaced

After hearing of my exotic adventures in foreign health care, Jason’s subconscious thought it might be fun to go find some kangaroos, too. Luckily for him, his body had other intentions.

The weapon and victim

On Good Friday, we had a lovely picnic on the beach with Jason’s family. We went snorkeling and Jason got to try spearfishing for a bit. He didn’t catch anything because he was too noisy, though he says it was because the rope was too short. (The spearfishing is done with a “gun.” The harpoon has a rope attached so when the fish gets speared, it doesn’t swim off with the harpoon. The rope is about 9 feet long, which is the distance the elastic or spring mechanism can shoot underwater with accuracy and force. Jason would like it pointed out that the gun he was using was shorter than 9 feet and the man who’s gun it was also didn’t catch anything. I think his manhood is hurting. Now he is glaring at me.)

As we were getting ready to head back to Melsisi, Jason decided to make a potty run and feed the cats while he was at the house. We hadn’t been home in a day and we weren’t planning on coming back that night, so we gave the cats some tin tuna. It keeps them happy, though they are such good hunters they don’t really need the supplemental food we give them.

While opening the tuna can, Jason cut his left index finger. He didn’t think much of it then, he just rinsed it out quick and stuck some cotton balls and tape on to staunch the bleeding and got back down to the boat. We were already running late.

We went through the rest of our day without any further incidents. Jason’s hand was thoroughly taped up, so I didn’t give it a second thought. It got to be bed time and I went to go shower. I came back from the shower to find Jason sitting on the front step saying, “uh oh” and looking pale. I asked him what was wrong and he looked away before showing me his hand. Please keep in mind, I just got out of the shower, which means I am holding a sarong around myself with one hand and my towel in the other. I was not in a state to deal with a large, fainting man or blood.

I told him to apply pressure and stop thinking about it until I got some clothes on. He did that and I got dressed. Then I took a proper look at his hand. The cut ran from one side to the other and looked pretty deep. No bone showing and only a little bit of fatty flesh I could see, but there was blood still coming out. That probably wasn’t helped by him pulling the cotton balls off.

Jason is not a squeamish person. He wouldn’t survive living with me if he were. He isn’t squicked out by poop, menstration, vomit, or any other gross things. However, he is very, very firmly convinced that his blood belongs inside his body. He is in fact, so convinced of this that he has fainted when giving three vials of blood for tests. The blood coming out of his finger really didn’t sit well with him.

While he stuck his head between his knees, I tried to figure out how I was going to get it cleaned up and whether or not I needed to call the Medical Officers. Jason being woozy finally convinced me to call. I put him in the shower to rinse off everything except his hand and went to call. I couldn’t get through, because our reception is that great.

I pretty much bathed Jason, because he was holding onto the wall. I tried the Medical Officers again and didn’t get through. This was Friday evening, which meant that if Jason was going to get Medevaced, he would be going on the Saturday morning flight. I knew I needed to get through to them, but I also wanted to get the cut cleaned and dressed.

For the sake of not trying to pry him off the floor, I decided cleaning and dressing first. Jason has lost a lot of weight here, but he is still a big guy and I didn’t want to try to move him if he fainted. As soon as I unwrapped the bandages again, he started complaining of dizziness, light-headedness and general fainting symptoms. I gave up.

I soaked three cotton balls in iodine, unwrapped his hand, put the cotton balls on and covered it in gauze and tape. It applied cleaning solution and he didn’t faint. I figured I’d either clean it better in the morning or he’d be heading to Vila where they could find someone his size to hold him up.

I did finally get through to our Medical Officer, who decided that since he had sensation and movement, he could stay on Pentecost. She put him on antibiotics, because things grow at a really impressive rate and told him to call in the morning after I’d re-dressed it.

The next morning, he did much better. There was less blood involved, which helped. We got it thoroughly rinsed with iodine and held shut with steristrips. Those things are awesome. Now, a little over a week later, he is wearing only a bandaid and not complaining of any pain.