12-28 Sacred Monkey Forest!

Monkey on a wall! They did that a lot.

After a 2 hour taxi ride, we arrived in Ubud. The taxi took 2 hours due to traffic, it had nothing to do with the distance we traversed. I had happily forgotten traffic existed.

We wanted to go out and explore a bit in Ubud and we had most of the afternoon to do it in. We put our stuff in our room and asked directions to the Sacred Monkey Forest since everyone said it was near by.
As far as I can tell, the story with the Sacred Monkey Forest is that a very long time ago, a group of Hindus built a temple in a forest. The monkeys inhabiting the forest were either made sacred by the presence of the temple or the temple was put there because they were sacred monkeys. I’m not sure, but either way those monkeys have a great life.
Seriously, hundreds of statues.

The entry is a wide walkway with stone walls and terraces leading up into the forest. The entire sanctuary covers several acres in the heart of Ubud, but the part accessible to tourists is probably about a square mile. The paths were mostly paved with tightly fit stones and framed in knee-high walls. There were statues, cornices and other fancy stonework every ten feet and much of the wall itself was carved. Places like the inner temple had higher walls. The stone work throughout the complex was covered in green moss, that almost glowed when the sun hit it right. It was a pretty stunning effect on the guardian statues.

The highlight of the place is the monkeys. Technically, they are long-tailed macaques, but whatever. They were totally not afraid of humans, like they brought their still-nursing babies out among the humans kind of not afraid. They would scramble past us, jump across the path in front of us, walk right up and say hello, rummage people’s pockets for food, and sit and stare at you from the middle of the path.
This monkey wanted to check me for food.  (I had none)

I think my favorite monkey moment was trying to take a photo of a monkey, only to have another one walk up and start exploring my pants. I handed the camera to Jason and let it explore my hands and pockets until it got bored. SO CUTE!

Jason and I walked behind the inner temple, to an area that was a bit quieter. There was nothing spectacular to look at, so it wasn’t full of tourists, which made it spectacular in and of itself. (The inner temple was off limits to people who were not dressed appropriately and they did not provide appropriate clothing. Basically, it was off-limits to tourists.) We were standing in a small walkway between the temple wall and the forest watching the monkeys on the wall when a monkey fight broke out. A bunch of monkeys went jumping to and from the wall while monkey noises were coming from the forest. Jason and I froze and watched behind each other to make sure we were not going to get in the way of any teeth or claws. The monkeys leapt around for a bit and then settled back down. The whole time we were back there, the monkeys totally ignored us, even when I was within a foot of one. (It snuck up on me!)
I bribed it with a banana, but it kept showing its butt to the camera.

While observing other tourists (a different breed of monkey) Jason and I both had some strong reactions to their actions. One group of tourists had a handful of bananas. They were tossing the bananas back and forth over the monkey and teasing it. When it got pissed and swarmed someone for them, they were surprised and tried to tell it “no.” Then they were surprised when the monkey didn’t listen and grabbed the banana. This offended me rather a lot for several reasons. First off, this is not your space. This is a place, and these are monkeys, that are sacred to someone. By opening up the space to people who do not share their faith, they are being generous. We, as outsiders, need to be respectful of their faith. It isn’t important whether or not I share that faith, I still need to show respect to the people for whom this is a sacred place. Secondly, the monkeys are wild animals. They are going to follow their own rules and do their own thing, they aren’t going to listen to being told “no.” I feel like that was almost part of the sacred space. The monkeys do their thing outside of human control. Which brings me to the last realization. People like that expect that they can control everything. They think they should be able to ration out the bananas to the monkeys they like. We don’t get to control everything, sometimes the monkey takes the bananas.

The creek that fed the holy pool.

Speaking of monkeys and bananas. The women at the front gate were selling bananas to tourists with which to feed the monkeys. We each took a few bananas and held them up. The monkey ran up our clothes and stood on our shoulders to grab its banana and a few then sat their to eat their bananas. It was pretty cool.
We spent probably 3 hours exploring the sanctuary. Aside from the gorgeous main temple, there were hundreds of other statues and shrines scattered around everywhere. A larger shrine to a holy spring was down a bridge (carved like snakes/dragons). At the bottom, there was a small temple, and a pool. From behind the temple, we followed a narrow path along a creek to the shrine for the holy spring.

Basically, the Sacred Monkey Forest has all the things I love: old cultures, beautiful art and nature. I was a very happy camper.

The wall of the inner temple was a work of art in its own right.

In great reverence and respect, the monkey peed on the statue.

Monkey, pillar, monkey, pillar…
Jason also bribed this one with a banana.
Regal monkey is a roof ornament.

The littlest monkey was SO CUTE!
The shrine at the end of the creek.

12-6 (From the island) Kastom Danis

Better late than never, right?
Lining up for the dance

Back in October, we had First Communion at the church. To counter any complaints I’ve had about the church, they have done an impressive job of incorporating kastom into the church. That is sort of how the Catholic church rolls, but still, I like to see the things that support local kastom here. Too much of it is being swallowed up by Western culture and Western ideals.

After the church-y bits of First Communion, there is kastom dancing. As I’ve commented before, kastom dancing is a lot like follow the leader and a pow wow. Get in a line, follow the person in front of you and stamp your feet a lot. It is fun enough to perform it but the really interesting part is in the rehearsal.
Chicken to the face prevention

Despite how simple that sounds, we did three multi-hour rehearsals. Because the girls are at school during the day and the women are busy in the evenings, we would start the rehearsal a little before dusk. The week leading up to the dance was the week of the full moon. We rehearsed until about 8 every night, which is my bed time and well after my dinner time.

Peace Corps moment: Dancing amid a horde of women in girls by moonlight.
For the most part, the rehearsals were just that. We would dance for awhile, the women would yell back and forth about how to do the dance in language and I would watch the pretty moon. The last night of rehearsals though, the boys decided to “help.” They finished their practice and came and joined ours. Rather than being at all useful, they got in the way, messed up the lines and sang the wrong songs. I scared one of them out of line when I told him if he wanted to dance with the women he needed to dress like a women and tried to tie my lavalava on him like a skirt. He hid from me the rest of the practice.
When my patience was gone and then some, we changed to a different dance. The boys kept adding in an extra shout where there wasn’t supposed to be one. Somehow, that was the issue that made the women chase them away. It was not the disrupting the lines, or distracting people, or flashing flashlights in people’s faces or getting in the way of the dance. The issue was shouting at the wrong moment. I still don’t understand some things here.
They did finally chase the boys off that night but throwing coconuts at them. That also struck me as just a bit odd. They were stoning their own children with coconuts. Whatever.
Dancing into the night

It turns out that the rehearsal with too many boys in the way was actually a good practice for the real deal. When the men finished their dance, they turned around and joined the women’s dance. So, we danced with all of the men messing up our lines, just like in rehearsal.

They explained that the story of the dancing is funnier if the men come inside it so the men come in to make fun of it and make it funnier. Or something. Again, I don’t quite understand. I just made sure to follow the person in front of me and try not to get hit in the head by a wooden chicken.

Cross-posted to our new blog at tegabis.com

10-13 Bridal Showers and Bachelor Parties, Pentecost Style

There have been a lot of weddings since we got to Pentecost. Some have been well-planned in advance, some have been a bit spur of the moment. One of them was an arranged marriage and one of them was a bit of a shotgun wedding. For the last month, we’ve had one wedding I was really invested in. My coutnerpart, auntie and friend got married to the father of her two children.
This wedding was supposed to happen December last year but got put off until May. When she got pregnant with the second child, they did special kastomto make it ok for her to go live with him without being married, which pushed the wedding back until this month. So, we had a month of full kastom for their wedding.
The groom sharing out mats.

I’ve written about the red mat ceremonies a bit before and it many ways this was more of the same. The bride and groom had to give red mats to their father’s brothers and sisters. To get enough mats, they had to ask their mother’s brothers and sisters for help. This is the normal web of debts here.

So, on the red mat kastom day for the groom, we all wandered up to the village around lunch time. Sometime after that, the mother’s family showed up and formally gave the mats to the groom. The nuclear family whisked the mats off into a house and we all ate and made merry while they worked. The men ground kava and the women attended to screaming children until shortly before dusk. The nuclear family came out and called out to all of the mom’s sisters (sisters in this case includes female cousins and women married in). Each of the sisters received a small red mat to tie around their waist as a thank you for their contribution in making the big mats being shared out. Then each mat was unfolded, the name of who was receiving it was called out, that person had to be found, they circled the mat and the group of women three times and then refolded the mat and they did it again for the next mat. The groom shared about 100 mats. We ate communally and the men drank a lot of kava. (And Jason dropped his iPod in the bush toilet.)
The ‘bridal shower’ part of things.
Those are the standard gifts given to
women when they are married.

The next day, we repeated the whole thing for the bride, with a few variations. It was her las kakaeor farewell feast, which is sort of the equivalent of a bridal shower or maybe a funeral. Before cell phones and easy transit, the women who were married away from their villages went and probably didn’t come back. Travel was too difficult and there was a high maternal mortality, so for many of the people in the village, the girl who was leaving was going forever. So, the communal meal had a more organized feel to it. Rather than everyone getting a leaf of food and finding a convenient piece of ground to eat on, we laid out coconut leaves in the nakamal, brought plates and silverware and sat down to a giant family meal.

The bridal shower part was a bit awkward. (My whole life is a bit awkward these days.) Because weddings are causes for grief here, the bridal shower involves a lot of crying. The bride sits in front of a mat with two of her mamas. Everyone gets in line and drops the gifts on the mat then hugs, kisses the cheeks or just shakes hands with the bride and the two mamas. In some cases, that involves long embraces and much, much crying and bawling and wailing. In this case, she’d only going twenty minutes up the hill and already lives with the guy, so she was a bit less put out than most. Even the gifts are given in a desultory manner, they aren’t excited about giving them or about receiving them and the gifts are sort of dropped as you walk past. I think part of it is being flas. If you do something too outside the norm, people judge you for thinking you are above yourself. So, if you give a really nice gift, they assume you are showing off. To keep that from happening while still giving nice gifts, you have to drop it like it doesn’t really matter or isn’t important.
Her mother’s family had to walk a fairly long way so they were late getting down to us. They didn’t do the formal acceptance of the mats until about 3 pm. I followed the pile of mats down the hill and parked myself in a corner. I have been curious for two years how they decide who the mats go to and who gets which one and I knew Leslyn wouldn’t object to me sitting there. (Actually, I parked myself on top of a pile of already-designated mats. It was like a couch!)
Leslyn, covered in baby powder, with the tags for the mats.

Leslyn, her parents and one of her mamas spent almost 3 hours matching names to mats. We kept getting interrupted by Leslyn needing to breastfeed her 3-month-old or by the 22-month-old waking up from her nap screaming, but all in all I think it went smoothly. They had prepared a list of people they wanted to give mats to which they matched with the pile of mats they’d just been given. The value of a mat varies based on how much ‘hair’ (fringe) it has, how well the dye took, if it has any damage, how well cut the pattern is, if there are yellow-orange strips in the fringe and the weaving of the mat itself. The more important the relationship is, the higher value mat they get. So, the men and women who have looked after Leslyn since she was a child get high-value mats, except they often contributed a mat or two as well, in which case they get a thank you mat which does not have to be high-value. Any family who has taken rank in the chief system gets a higher value mat while younger or unranked people get lower value mats. People who live further away don’t necessarily get low-value mats but if they didn’t show up to the las kakae, they might get booted down on the importance list. The priority ranking was truly baffling.

HUGE heap of mats.

By the end of the 3 hours, we had 108 labeled mats and 3 deemed unacceptable to give out. We then had to go back through that huge stack of mats and double check the names to be sure that no one was forgotten. They checked the two lists against each other and we were off, back up to the nakamal.

Sharing out the mats went the same as it had for the groom. That process with 108 mats took about another 3 hours. I got bored and wandered off to read a magazine for awhile. I came back and they were still at it. The aunties who were standing in support of Leslyn were mostly sitting in support by then and some were actually breastfeeding, eating or changing diapers in support of Leslyn. Still, they stayed through to the end. We had to have the generator on to finish it.
Both ceremonies ended with another round of food, given in a leaf because the nakamal was full of kava-drunk men, and a lot of kava for the men.
Halfway done, half still to go out.

The sharing of red mats is not necessarily supposed to happen back-to-back like that, but because the villages are geographically close and relationally close, they did them together. That way families related to both the girl and the boy only had to come once. Don’t think too hard about families being related to both the bride and groom. It is a small island with complex family structures that extend out to third and fourth cousins.

9-23 Following a Deadman

Funeral procession, the flowers are covering the coffin

After our last trip to Vila, we came back to Pentecost at the same time as Eric, the PCV in the southeast corner of the island. I’ve been wanting to get down to visit him more or less since we got to Pentecost. The idea of going to the east side of Pentecost is fascinating and I’ve heard a lot of wonderful things about his village.

The truck driver he called to take him to Ranwas was the same driver we usually use. The driver lives about an hour’s walk south of Vansemakul. Since the driver was taking Eric down to Ranwas and then going back to Waterfall village, we thought we’d tag along for the ride. We all agreed on this plan in the Vila airport.
Remember how well planning transport has gone for us in the past? Yep, still works that well.
We got to Pentecost and found out that Eric’s uncle in the village had died. He’d been in the hospital in Vila so the body was coming back on the plane behind us. We had to wait for the body, or the people with the body, or something. I chatted with a group of women and got the post office opened up to get our mail. We waited for a few hours.
The body came with seven people and a truck’s worth of Chinese bags, suitcases, mats and other such things. We danced around trying to figure out how to get a coffin, seven crying people, three PCVs and all the stuff up to Ranwas. Jason and I volunteered to walk to Vansemakul and not go to Ranwas. In fact, we started walking. We got about three minutes down the road when the truck came and got us. They’d called a second truck and now there was plenty of room. Sort of.
We ended up on the same truck as the coffin. Not my favorite place to be, less because of the coffin and more because of the intense grief and grieving process here. I mean, I can’t say that I’m a fan of dead bodies, but they don’t squick me out too much and this one was firmly covered in a coffin, so there really was nothing to squick out about. The wailing, screaming grief on the other hand, I haven’t learned to handle.
The truck went slowly, as befits a funeral procession. It was not the usual pace for the driver who seems to believe in two speeds- “crossing the river” and “try to toss everyone out of the back of the truck.” We arrived in the first village twenty minutes later. The truck stopped next to a gathering of women. I saw the wailing coming and jumped out of the truck. I had a nice sit down on a tree root while everyone cried over the body. Then I got back in the truck and on we went.
After the third village, I switched to the second truck in the caravan, the one that was full of all the things. That was much more my speed. I like inanimate objects when my other options is a coffin full of deadman. Not that that was animate, either. That would be a zombie.
The football team carried the body from the truck up to the
house.  I don’t know if they were in uniform anyway
or if they kitted up  to be pall bearers.

We continued that way for another few villages until we got to the last one before the ascent to the east. There, we stopped and took the body off the truck and brought it into someone house to cry properly. The people not busy crying were busy cooking so we had some rice in a leaf while we waited.

They brought the body back out and onto the truck. The truck in the back, the one I’d been riding in, turned around to go back to the airport. We took out all the stuff and stood around in confusion. Another truck came, which no one else was surprised about. I guess the usual ni-Van telepathy kicked in and I missed the memo. Still, we jumped on that truck and off we went.
The drive up was very, very pretty. Stunning views out over the ocean or across jungle-covered valleys. We saw a few people from Bunlap, the kastomvillage in the south. They are recognizable as being from Bunlap because they don’t wear clothes. As we arrived in Ranwas, they started the funeral. We continued on the truck until it stopped, then we left the funeral party and the falling-down grief.
Ranwas is a tidy village with about three times the population of Vansemakul. They have their own Aid Post and primary school up to year 6. There is a main nakamal and several smaller ones, which seems to be the normal layout in the south. The other villages I’ve been to there have a similar system. I got told that being a vegetarian is the best option because it means I don’t eat whiteman food. I don’t think the person telling me that noticed the irony of me being white.
We went to the internment part of the funeral and then hung around for awhile longer and chatted with people. We got given some more rice in a leaf. That is the standard at funerals. After about two hours, it was dusk and the driver was impatient. We jumped in and waited another half an hour for the rest of the people following the truck down.
Sunset over the mountain.  Yep, still beautiful here.

The drive down the mountain was more beautiful than the drive up had been. We were driving into the sunset which cast crimson and sapphire shadows through the valleys and created silhouettes of the black palms. The sun set completely before we got back to the shore.

We didn’t make it back to our house until well past dark. I think it took about two hours from when we reached the shore to when we arrived in Vansemakul. The day was full of travel, but it was worth it to take that detour. A bit of kastomand a bit of sightseeing always make a good day.

10-16 One more Mared

They had rings, which is unusual.

Weddings here are weird. They are exact replicas of a church weddings in the West in the same way that a doll house is an exact replica of a house. There are flower girls in matching dresses and shoes, a wedding gown and a veil, flowers for the bride and witnesses in the wedding party.

Except, the flower girls’ dresses have been cinched up with pins and bits of string, their shoes are too big, the wedding dress is one of three that get used at every wedding, and no one’s suit actually fits. It looks like kids playing wedding in their parents clothes. The scowling groom doesn’t help that impression.
Leslyn, all dolled up for her wedding.

Still, the ceremony was nice. They walked down the aisle under and arch of flowers with an escort of flower girls. The concession to kastomwas the aunties hiding under a sese. They even had an exchange of rings, which was surprising. That was the first time I’ve seen them do that.

After the church wedding, the kastomstarts. Really, it starts when they get back to the village but since a large portion of the kastomis bawdy jokes between women, it would be a waste not to start making them on the hour walk back to the village.
The people from the man’s village come to the woman’s village to take her to their village. It becomes a huge escort of people wandering their way from one village to the other. I do mean wandering. I would guess that the first people went up around noon and the last ones went up at about sunset. All of those times were perfectly acceptable times to show up.
I got distracted chatting outside the church and missed the party so I hung out in Melsisi and waited for the boat. The boat was waiting on the bank, so we stayed in Melsisi until 4:30 when the bank closed for the day. We arrived in a mostly empty village and continued straight up the hill to the village of the groom. We were some of the last people to arrive, but we weren’t considered late.
The women’s marriage kastomis called barate. Pronounced like karate except with a ‘b’. It is bawdy, lewd and ridiculous. I enjoy it. It is supposed to teach the new wife about the life of a married woman, but really I think they just have fun being silly. The aunties of the boy are ‘men’ for the evening as signified by their manly attire. I’ve seen everything from red sweat pants to a red mat loin cloth or board shorts and a button down shirt. The aunties of the girl are the ‘women’. The ‘men’ and ‘women’ do skits all evening.
I missed round one this time because I was being naughty and drinking kava with the handful of other women who drink. Round one is trying to eat a giant laplap without using your hands which turns into a metaphor for cunnilingus. Then they have to cut the laplap with means sticking a phallic object in something that has been a metaphor for women’s tabu part. Basically, more sex jokes.
Something old, something new
Something borrowed, something blue.
We got borrowed and old covered!

Round two is the reverse. The ‘men’ come in carrying coconut and lollipops that they give the ‘women’. Then they ‘teach’ the ‘women’ how to drink the coconuts or suck on the lollipops. This time around, one of the ‘women’ played it up with a popice which she kept asking how it went in and sticking one of the ‘men’ in the bum. Juvenile humor, yes, but it still makes me laugh.

Round three is what I refer to as the baby-making round. The ‘men’ carry in a doll and give it to the women. (The direct translation from Bislama for how someone gets pregnant is that the man gave her a baby. I’m pretty sure it is a direct translation from language as well.) The women then breastfeed the doll and coo over it like a baby. In this case, the bride already has 2 kids, so they names the baby Sawan, which is her first born. They called in the baby’s father, which was the groom himself to milk the laplap. He did that with the moral support of one of his papas (no one can ever be alone). The groom gave his papa a red mat in thanks for his support during the terrifying ordeal of walking into a roomful of women. I presume there is more to it than that, but I don’t know what it is. Finally, the ‘women’ get called out by the ‘men’ using the makasof the coconut the groom milked. (Makasis food scraps or the used up part of an organic material like the leftover coconut shavings or milked out kava.) The ‘women’ run out like they are chickens running to their food. As with many things kastom, they closed with a dance.
She was so cute.

In the spaces in between the rounds of barate, I drank kava and hung out with various women. One of my kava buddies decided to drink some tusker beer after her kava, which I wasn’t on board with. Aside from the stomach ache it gives me, I like my reputation the way it is. It would be a bad move for people to know I drink alcohol on the island, so I left her to go story with other people. I got a chance to sit and chat with Leslyn, the bride, for awhile. I goofed off with some of the kids. I took a nap under the eaves of a kitchen, though I kept getting woken up by people shining lights in my face.

Jason and I left the party around midnight. I was ready to go get most of a night’s sleep in my own bed and the young men were rather drunk. Jason didn’t want to be a bouncer so we left before he got turned into one by the young men or by his own conscious.
At 5:30 am, we were woken up by the return of those same young men. They got down to the nakamal with music blaring and all the yelling your would imagine from a bunch of drunken frat boys. By mid-morning the village was silent. Really, even in the afternoon, the village was rather quiet between people napping and people hungover.
Weddings here are a big deal. I’m glad I got to witness this one because the bride is someone who has been important to me over the last two years. I am also fine with missing many more than I attend. I like to sleep at night, not dance until daylight.

5-28 Mommy came to visit – Part 2

Nagol remains crazy.
Back in Vila, we spent Friday re-packing for the island and wandering around town.  We headed to Pentecost on Saturday. Air Vanuatu had apparently received more bookings than usual to go see Nagol (land diving) and took two flights. We got on the later flight which left time to go cinnamon rolls.
Once we arrived, it was straight over to the dive site. They put on a dive for tourists right at the airport so it was a very short walk. There were a lot of spectators. The weather was mostly cooperative. It didn’t rain and the clouds even wandered off for part of it so we could get some good pictures.
During the week, there had been some back and forth about whether Gaea was going to be able to make it to the island. She had been in Santo for a Peace Corps workshop. Air Vanuatu ended up canceling her flight and didn’t have space to connect through Vila. After a trip to their office where I was told the flight was still on and she could get back on it, we checked again Saturday morning. It was cancelled. She talked her way onto a flight through Vila which got her back in time to catch the last plane that was coming for the tourists. I had just enough service to find out that she was coming and hold the boat. When she got in, we loaded into my papa’s boat and made the trip up to the village.
Meeting the host family before dinner.
Since the flight got in late, the sun was setting and it was dark by the time we got home. Night time boating is cool but unfortunately there were too many clouds to get a good view of the stars. There were algae or small glowy fish in the wake of the boat, so I think that made up for it.
Sunday we got to show my mom around the house and a little of the village. We decided to walk over to Melsisi for church so that she could see my site, too. It’s a long walk but pleasant and we were in no rush to get there. After church we took her around to shake hands with the people we spend time with and gave a little tour of the school. After resting at our house over there, we walked back to the village.
Tossing my sister around the waterfall
That evening, we went down to my family’s house for dinner. As always, it was a little awkward but we’re used to that. My papa enjoyed showing off his pigs while we waited for food. My momma can cook some pretty good white-man acceptable food so it wasn’t too bad. My mom even tried the laplap (which was taro, the best one.) After dinner, my family gave my mom a basket and a red mat and I handed out various presents she had brought for them with the appropriate toktok(small speech).
Monday we were headed back to Vila. We caught the afternoon flight and spent the morning at Waterfall. My momma and my sisters joined us in going for a swim. This involved my little sister getting tossed into the water a couple of times and was great fun! Eventually, we got back in the boat and down to the airport.
Obligatory resort promo shot.
Coming into Vila always seems to entail being busy and this time was no exception. Tuesday, I had a meeting with the Vanuatu Institute of Technology and Wednesday I had a safety and security training. Gaea hung out with my mom and did some shopping and read.
Thursday, I was finally free again. My mom rented a car and we checked into Aquanas Resort where she was putting us up. Staying at resorts has been one of the most fun things we have done with family when they came to visit. Aquanas was a very nice resort with a pretty beach (parts of which have wi-fi) and fantastic food. There was also AC in the rooms and the internet was quite fast for Vanuatu. It was so nice that we decided to just hang out at the resort on Friday. Reading on the beach, going for a tour around the lagoon in kayaks, playing around on the internet, and eating delicious food. It was a good, relaxing day.
Meeting the training family, getting an island dress.
Saturday, we drove around Efate. There is a black-top road the circles the whole island. I had called my host brother from training to tell him that we were going to go out. He failed to let the rest of the family. Even with no warning, they were very excited to see us. Unfortunately our mama wasn’t home but our sisters cooked lunch and gave my mom an island dress. We walked down to the ocean while lunch was being cooked and then storied while we ate. We handed out a few small thank you presents to this family as well. On the way back to town we stopped at Onesua School and took a tour around with Tim, the volunteer there.
The last night at the resort we filled with delicious food. Every meal, we would banter with the staff. I enjoy surprising ni-Vans by telling them that I live on one of the outer islands and drink kava, especially the ones that work at resorts and are used to tourist white people.
This is where we ate most meals.
The next morning, we had a last breakfast on the beach and said goodbye to the wonderful resort. After dropping our stuff off at the cheap Peace Corps dive, we went with my mom to the airport to say goodbye. We saw her off to security and she has now arrived safely back in the US.
It continues to be wonderful having family come visit. Not only is it fantastic to see them, but it also means they really get what we’re talking about when we call home. They’ve seen where we live and met some of the people. Having people back home who can relate means a lot.

4-29 Visiting a Sickbed

How we deal with illness is fascinating to me.  In working on the ambulance, I saw hundreds if not thousands of people going through the process of being ill or incapacitated.  At the time, I thought about how some people seemed more cheerful, some more faithful, some optimistic, some crabby, some pessimistic.  I didn’t think about how cultural each of those reactions is.
We went to visit a sick man in the village.  It was the most awkward experience I’ve had here, so far.  (That includes teaching sex ed to teenagers…) 
As far as I can tell, the culture around illness goes something like this.  “You are about to die.  Deal.”  It seems that serious illness, or anything more interesting than a flu, is cause for everyone around you to stop all activity and wait to see if you’ll die.  It makes sense I suppose, where there is no medicine, no doctor and no real knowledge of germ theory any illness is potential fatal. 
We went to visit our sick chief between classes at school.  We stopped by and were promptly sent into the house.  I had to go in, despite my best efforts to sneak away to the kitchen.  We were sat close to the sickman, though not too close.  Then silence reigned.  There were five other people in the room, all sitting and staring at him.  Silently.  Not doing anything else, just staring.
People would come and go, quietly and with a minimum of conversation.  That is very unusual here.  Normally, greetings and partings are shouted back and forth and given to even the smallest of children.  The only person to directly address the sickman did so slowly and repeated himself over and over.  The sickman himself seemed perfectly alert.  He was moving around on the bed, sitting up and lying down, drinking water and following the movements of people in the room, yet all any one did was stare at him.
In Bislama, they ask if you’ve “gone to look at the sick man.”  They really do mean, go look.  I guess it is partially a show of support to come and be with him for a bit, in the same way I might go bring a meal to a chronically or severally ill friend in the US.  Except there, people chat and make small talk, here it was just staring. 
It was interesting to see this side of dealing with illness.  He is surrounded by his community and extended family.  He is literally not left alone.  He isn’t required to interact with people, he isn’t required to show gratitude or fortitude.  His job is to be sick.  And to be stared at.  Everyone around him fills the roles of being stoic, being worried, being tired, being optimistic.  His job is only to be ill.
It is a different way of dealing with the whole situation and one that interests me.  I would prefer to be interested from a distance next time.  It really was that awkward.

4-8 Kava Kastom

We spend a lot of time talking about kava, or it is tangential to a lot of our stories. It is central to life in Vanuatu and especially on Pentecost where even if you don’t drink kava, you grow kava, you sell kava, you dry kava, you know the kava market and who is opening or closing a nakamal in Vila. Which is all just an excuse for the time Jason spends drinking kava in the nakamal and the time I spent drinking kava in the kitchens (or the church house or behind a truck or in front of the community store…). We’re integrating.

There is a culture of kava. There is how you drink kava in Vila at the kava bars and there is how you drink kava on the islands. Each island has its own kastomand really I think each area of each island is different. So, here’s what I’ve seen.
In Vila, the kava bars have a lot in common with a quieter, outdoor version of a bar in the states. You go to the counter, buy however many shells it is you are planning on buying, everyone grabs theirs and you walk together to the place to drink. Usually, it is a wall or a cliff, someplace where no one will be walking. You say whatever form of cheers you want to say and everyone downs the shell. (Kava is always drunk in one go. Never, ever sip kava.) Everyone puts there shell in the wash bucket (usually a water-filled garbage can) and you go back to your seats and chat until the next round. If you want kava, you drink, if you don’t you sit and chat. Everyone drinks at the pace she or he sets for him or herself until an end is called and everyone goes home to sleep or try to cook dinner in a stoned stupor.
In Central Pentecost, things are done differently. The nakamalis the primary domain of men. Basically, women don’t drink in the nakamal. I’m sort of the exception. It is a bit naughty of me, but sometimes I have work to do or I want to socialize with a certain group of people. It happens. So, kava o’clock starts anywhere from 4:30 to 6 pm on a normal day. That’s where men start to gather at the nakamalwith intent to drink kava. They gather up there all the time but the kava intent has a different feel to it. Eventually, usually a little before sunset, someone comes wandering in with a chunk of root they just pulled out of the ground. It is covered in dirt and looks like you’d be better of running it through a wood chipper. In fairness, it would probably speed up the process.
Everyone drinking contributes kava. It’s a little like buying rounds where even if you didn’t bring some today, you are expected to bring some at some point. Just like buying rounds, I can never figure out if there is an order to who brings the kava or if they just work it out by magic. Some nights, more than one person brings the kava, though that happens on larger drinking nights usually.
Once the kava is in the nakamal, the men work together to prepare it. We’ve written about that process before, so here is a quick recap. The root is cut into smaller, roughly fist-sized chunks and rinsed in a bucket of water. The chunks are cut even smaller into roughly flat pieces about half an inch thick and then mashed in one of three ways. The first and most common in this area is hand ground where each man takes three pieces in his left hand and a phallic piece of coral in his right and grinds one into the other until a pulp comes out. They do this sitting one or two to a board, like a giant cutting board. They will work the kava as a pair all night. The second way is ramming, which produces more kava with less energy but it is said to be not as strong. The kava chunks of put in a tube (usually PVC) and rammed with a heavy chunk of wood. The last method is considered poor form and only used for fundraisers. That is where they take a meat grinder and run the kava through it about three times. Like a said, it is considered cheating and only used for special occasions.
In the first two methods, the kava is “milked” by hand. A small amount of water is added and kneaded into the pulp. The liquid is then strained through coconut tree fibers until it is no longer chunky, or about 3 times through.
This is where the real kastomgets going. Every man or pair of men working the kava finishes a shell at different times. The first shell of the night is the “holy” shell. The honored person’s name is called and he gets up to get the shell. Now, to get to a shell of kava, you can’t walk in front of or between the men working the kava. This can make for some interesting routes to kava, especially for me since I can’t go in the back half of the nakamal. The trick is to plan out your route well before your name is called or know the rotation of names and plan to be conveniently near your kava when your name is called. So, the first person walks to their shell, but he should never reach across the board for the shell. He has to approach the board, and the man who milked the kava, from behind. He kneels down on the man’s right side and takes the shell. From the time he touches the shell to the time he finishes drinking, every other person is still. That means anyone grinding stops grinding, anyone talking stops talking and almost everyone looks at the ground. He places the shell back in the holder or he gets up and washes his shell and everyone starts moving again.
The first shell goes to the highest ranked person in the room. Guests outrank everyone. If there are a few guests, it goes to the oldest male. After that it follows age and rank. Old men often don’t grind at all, they did their time grinding as young men and now it is the other young men’s turn to grind. The chiefs may or may not join in the grinding, it depends on the chief and on the night. So, for instance, my dad and brother came to visit me. My dad got the first shell, my bro go the second shell, the oldfala and chiefs got the next few and Jason and I drank down the line. We are no longer guests and I am proud of that.
To wash your shell, you can’t pass in front of people working kava, which usually means another circuitous route through the nakamalto wash it and back again to put it in the holder. This doesn’t apply to the man working kava, he can go straight through to wash the shell.
You go back to a nice, dark corner of the nakamaland continue whatever conversation you left in the middle of. Don’t worry, it isn’t rude to leave your conversation mid-thought to go drink kava. When your name is called, you go. That is true all night. There is no saying, “No, I’ve had enough. I’ll just sit and chat.” If you are in the nakamalyou are drinking. When your name is called, you get up and drink.
Kava should always be drunk near the person who milked it for you. The first few shells should happen kneeling next to them, though after that it is kind of ok to stand up. I was recently informed that it is never ok to stand up, but I’ve seen it done. Some people like to take their kava outside, but that is poor form around here if done by anyone but a chief. We drink inside like good little peons.
The only way to limit your kava consumption while continuing to drink and thus socialize in the nakamalis to pour half back. It is acceptable to pour part of the shell back into the strained kava after you’ve drunk one whole one. I use this tactic a lot. I like the socialization, but I find my belly doesn’t much like kava and to stay in the nakamal, you have to drink.
When you “hear the kava’s song,” you tell the person milking your kava that you are done for the evening and escape to the house. No one will put pressure on you to stay and everyone agrees that when you are done, you are done.
The nakamal is an odd combination of really great atmosphere and really bizarre peer pressure. It is so pleasant to sit and make your and your friends’ drinks while chatting with everyone. On the other hand, you can’t be there unless you are drinking. I think both of those have to do with the high rate of kava use around here. We all want to be social creatures, but that means drinking a lot of kava.

4-2 Biblical Slapstick and Other Entertainments

Sunday March 30th was World Youth Day. There are a lot of World Something Days that I didn’t know about until joining Peace Corps. Someone around here finds a way of doing something for nearly all of them, or at least finds a way of reminding me at an inconvenient moment that it is the World Whatever Day and I am failing to celebrate appropriately. Whoops.

For World Youth Day, the local Youth Committee (There are all a lot of Committees, usual they sort of follow their names but in this case, the Youth Committee has people who have gray hair and in fact contains both the mother and daughter in one family. I guess they just mean young at heart.) put together a shindig. It was lunch and then all the different groups of youth in the area did skits of some form or another.
The boarder girls from the school did several dances. A few of them were better coordinated, a few worse. A lot of the same moves, though one group got creative and sort of mixed some kastom dance in with some of the string band dance moves. I was impressed with the girls, since I’ve seen how they behave (or don’t) in class and I am starting to understand how crippling the idea of shame is here. For the girls to get up and dance in front of a room full of people must have been the hardest thing they’ve done this term.
The youth group from Vanmelang, my district, did several different skits, each of which required ten minute costume changes. We listened to a song about development in Vanuatu. I’m not sure where they found that one. They did a dance that looked a lot like a line dance. Then they did a dance, still in lines, that could have been a simplified version of River Dance. I have no idea where they found that, but the English volunteer sitting next to me found the whole thing as ridiculous as I did and we kept giggling that we wanted to find a DVD of an Irish Cailli to show them. I think Contradance would go down well here, though they’d have to hold hands with the opposite sex.
The last thing they did was a skit. Half way through the skit, I realized it was biblical slapstick. First, one of the youngfala came in dressed in rice sacks with a rice sack covering his face and a walking stick. He staggered around stage like a caricature of a blind old man. Eventually, he fell asleep. Then we waited awhile, like ten minutes while the previous group of performers came back in and took there seats. Finally, the procession arrived. They were singing about going to Jericho to meet Jesus while in their midst was a guy who had stolen the priests robes for the occasion. I don’t know where else he would have gotten long white robes, unless he got them off the priest. The “blind man” woke up and came to ask about Jesus. One of the leaders shoved him away in the most overdone, three-stooges-esque way. He fell down. They kept going and he came back. He got shoved back again. He came a third time and got shoved a third time. On each shove he’d find some other dramatic way of falling all over himself.
On the last time, he wasn’t turned away and Jesus laid hands on him, which involved taking the rice bag off his head. When he could see, he started skipping around the room like a five-year-old on speed and shouting about how he could see.
The entire thing would have fit will in a moralizing vaudeville performance and had the audience in stitches the whole time. Biblical slapstick is a hit around here. Who knew?

12-27 Merry Non-Denominational Gift Giving Season!

We live in a French Catholic area. I don’t mean that it is Catholic like how Minnesota is Lutheran. In Minnesota, though a lot of people are Lutheran, there are lots of other churches and religions around. Here, there is Catholic, Catholic or Catholic. Our nearest church that is not Catholic is an hour and a half walk south and is a little pocket of Churches of Christ before it becomes Catholic again. So, we had a churchy sort of Christmas.

The Christmas festivities started on Christmas eve. We had Christmas eve mass. We walked to Melsisi around 6 and had mass at 7. It ran under two hours, which made me happy. Our current priest likes to talk and often makes mass run long. There was much talk of love in the sermon but I really wasn’t paying attention. I don’t usually. The services happen in French, Bislama and Apma. I only speak one of those languages, so I can’t follow what is going on most of the time.
After mass, we jumped in Jason’s papa’s boat to go back to the village. The boat was pretty full but Jason’s papa is a very skilled driver and knows the run well. The tide was as low as I have ever seen it when we landed. We had to walk about 200 feet through ankle deep water even after Jason’s papa jumped out and towed the boat in when the motor would have been too deep for the water. The low tide exposed hundreds of little sea snails which everyone got very excited about. We stopped to gather sea snails on our way back to the village.
We went directly to Jason’s papa’s house for Christmas Eve dinner. I ran up to my house to wash off my feet (I stepped in cow poo and have a couple of cuts on my feet at the moment), and grab the pumpkin pie I had baked. I caused a stir when I came back carrying the pie. Jason’s sister kept trying to find excuses to poke at it, which I finally just gave her because she was so curious. We cut the pie and nibbled on it until the rest of the food was done. People liked it, so I consider that a success.

Dinner consisted of pumpkin pie, sea snails boiled in coconut milk (think: escargo), laplap banana (my least favorite laplap), beef soup with ramen noodles, pineapple and boiled taro. Perhaps not the Christmas goose you may have been anticipating, but well, my life is different now.
We hung out until around 1 am, which is way late for Vanuatu. We went to bed and got up too late to get the boat to Christmas mass, so we had to walk.