3-3 Travel Travails

I think I need a special tag just for the near-disasters of traveling off of Pentecost.  Here is the most recent.
We haven’t had cell service in about a week.  The day before our flight, I’d asked Joseph –Marie to pick up Alexandra in Melsisi at 11:30, then come get me in Vansemakul  and bring us to the airport for a 12:30 check-in.  He agreed.  None of that happened.
At 11:30, I magically got service.  I had a voicemail from Alexandra via Hannah’s (the new Oxford volunteer in Melsisi) phone saying she wasn’t sure about the rivers flooding and maybe she’d try to walk to Vansemakul to start working on that problem.  That was left at 9:30.  It takes less than an hour to walk from Melsisi to Vansemakul and Alexandra wasn’t at my house.  Curious. 
I called Joseph-Marie and asked him where he was.  Bwatnapni.  About a 2 hour drive the opposite direction from me and the airport.  He told me Alexandra told him not to come.  WHAT?!? Jason went to go see about his about his papa’s boat while I called Hannah to get ahold to Alexandra.  Hannah found Alexandra at the house in Melsisi and Jason found his papa.  We agreed to go get her in Melsisi and told her to get down to the shore.  It was a little past noon, for a 12:30 check-in.  Stellar.
We start going down to the boat but someone calls Jason’s papa away.  He says he’ll be right behind us and hands us the gasoline container.  We get down to the boat and wait.  And wait.  And wait.  And half an hour later, still no sign of him.  It is now check-in time.
Alexandra called me and told me there was a boat leaving from Melsisi that she can get on.  I asked her to come pick me up.  She asked the driver, he said yes and we’re in business.  I was watching for the boat and I don’t see movement coming from Melsisi.  I’m nervous.  We are LATE! 
A truck stopped by the store where I was waiting.  I asked the driver where they were going, they said the airport.  I asked for a ride.  He looked at me like I was crazy.  He asked why I didn’t have a truck.  I explained that my truck had decided to go to Bwatnapni, and Jason’s papa wasn’t showing up with the boat.  At that moment, Jason’s papa shows up with the boat going the wrong direction.
The truck driver tells me to get in or I’ll miss the plane.  I get in.  I try to call Alexandra to tell her I have a ride down but it doesn’t work.  We lost service again.
I get to the airport and am in the process of checking in when the plane lands.  Alexandra isn’t there yet.  I tell the agent that she is on her way and ask if it would be possible to ask the plane to wait.  He says he’ll ask the captain. 
Alexandra comes walking up with the guy who’s boat she got on about five minutes later.  Luckily, we were still loading and unloading the cargo.  They got checked in and we got on the flight.  Awo, Pentecost!

11-7 One year in

Today (when I’m writing this) is exactly one year on Pentecost.  Here is a list of our accomplishments, the good, the bad and the medevacs.
Taught 2+ terms of sex ed to year 9s and 10s
Taught 2+ terms of computer class to year 9s and 10s (Jason says that between the two of us we’ve taught most of three.  I’m only counting his classes.)
Ran 4 Participatory Hygiene and Sanitation Transformation workshops
Trained a ni-Van co-facilitator up to run a workshop without me present
Helped my community write a grant for improved toilets
Taught community computer classes to anyone interested
Got medevac to Australia.
The other half got medevac to Australia
Held a Koala (x2)
Visited New Zealand
Watched games from the rugby world cup
Published a story, twice
Learned to cook on a fire
Learned to roast food in a piece of bamboo
Learned to skin a coconut without slicing my hand open
Trained incoming Peace Corps Volunteers for their two year adventure
Drank LOTS of kava
Learned to grind kava
Learned to milk kava
Wore a loin cloth to public events
Did a health survey of my district
Assisted with a Training of Trainers for youth leadership camps
Taught sex ed workshops
Cut a bush garden
Cut a second garden in my lawn
Carved a jack-o-lantern on Halloween.  Carved 4 more out of green papayas.
Learned the basic scripted conversation in local language (where are you going?  To the garden!)
Learned to find coconuts
Learned to find firewood
Learned many, many uses for every part of a coconut, tree, leaves and fruit
Baked vegan banana bread on an open fire that is better than most banana bread I’ve had in the States
Explain in Bislama who Bin Laden was and why he got shot
Wove a basket
Explained that not everyone in America is white
Got diahrrea
Got diahrrea again.  And again.  And again.
Got giardia.
Got scabies.
Got strep.  Again. And again.
Used more h2o2 than the entire rest of our lives.
Learned the many and varied uses of a bush knife 
Transported cats as carry-on in an airplane
Stole eggs from a mama hen roosting in my kitchen
Learned to identify edible plants and how to knock the good fruits out of a tree with sticks or stones
Learned to eat coconut milk in quantity.  Large quantity.  Everything is better with coconut milk.
Walked an hour home kava drunk.  Again.  And again.  And again.  And again.
Met wonderful Americans with similar values and diverse backgrounds.
Made friends I hope will last the rest of my life
Walked up hill.  Again. And Again.  And again.  And again.  And again, ad nauseum (sometimes literally, the hills are really hard on hot days.)
Made a friend from a wildly different culture
Ate a giant bat
Ate sea turtle (didn’t know it was until post-consumption.  They like doing that to us.)
Ate fish I’ve only ever seen in tropical fish stores or on screen savers
Drank more kava
Made friends with people from New Zealand, England and Australia.  I know I’ll have a place to sleep when I want to go visiting.  (Right guys? Right?)
Celebrated 6 years of dating and 4 years of co-habitating
Explored the medical system in Vanuatu
Broke out in more unexplained rashes than ever before
Learned that staring at the cell tower does not mean you will have cell reception
Learned to speak Bislama fluently
Learned computer words in French (other basics including Bon Appetite and Bon giorno)
Cut the grass with a bushknife
Built a bush kitchen
Pinned natangura thatch
Lived in a convent for a month
Saw Brisbane, Australia
Saw a volcano explode from the front porch
Watched a volcano explode from the rim
Read a couple hundred books
Traveled by passenger ship and cargo ship
Flew in a plane small enough that the pilot turns around to make the seatbelt announcement
Flew in a 4 seater plane (I swear I’ve been in pickup trucks that were bigger.)
Wrote 20,000 words
Developed an interest in photography
Shot 10,000 photos (some are better than others.  We’re culling the weak and ugly.)
Killed a computer
Acquired a new computer
Taken many long, long walks along the beach (aka commutes)
Had a visit by a friend
Had a visit by a mom
Drank a pinacolada at a resort in the tropics.  It had a flower in it.
Destroyed our English language fluency
Learned to recognize the sound of the rain about to soak you to the skin as it comes down the mountain
Learned the real meaning of “heavy rains”
Sat in a bamboo hut during a cyclone
Felt an earthquake.  Felt a few big earthquakes
Learned to tie on a roof with coconut leaves
Grew tomato plants taller than me
Grew basil plants as tall as me
Said goodbye to friends (hopefully just “see you later.”)
Split firewood with a bushknife
Ate ferns.  They are damn tasty, especially in coconut milk
Walked most of the north-south distance of Pentecost
Got called fatfat a lot
Got a new name and started answering to it faster than my real name
Washed clothes by hand.  Learned that tossing them in the bucket with soap is the same as washing.
Cut my hair and grew it back out
Taught children to do acrobatics through cow pies
Relished a Thanksgiving dinner of boxed mac and cheese
Watched men jump from very high places with vines tied to their ankles
Missed three weddings
Missed one new born
Celebrated 26 with s’mores, mac and cheese cooked on an open fire and a bottle of wine
De-wormed. Twice.  Out of necessity.

9-16 The Final Schedule

Look, we made it to Dunedin!  I swear!

Our original schedule contained a few errors in planning, as the “6 Lessons Learned” post details. Our first error was assuming we could do 90 k a day and still sightsee. After one day where we missed our goal and had a terrifying run across a bridge, we decided to re-think our plan. At lunch on day 2, we considered options.

The original schedule or as much as we had looked like this:

Tuesday 6th– Pick up the bikes in Christchurch and bike to Ashburton.

It was a long bike ride the first day.

Wednesday 7th – Bike Ashburton to Timaru

Thursday 8th – Bike Timaru to Oamaru
Friday 9th – Bike Oamaru to Waiakouaiti
Saturday 10th – Bike Waiakouwaiti to Dunedin
Sunday 11th – Extra day, just in case.
Here’s what actually happened.

Tuesday 6th – Pick up bikes in Christchuch and bike to Rakaia River
Wednesday 7th – Bike from Rakaia River to Ashburton in the morning. Spend the afternoon at a wine tasting and playing on the internet.
Thursday 8th – Catch the bus to Oamaru in the morning. Spend the afternoon biking along the coast road to Hampden.
Friday 9th – Walk to the Moeraki Boulders at dawn, bike to Palmerston by lunch. After lunch bike to Waiakouaiti. Get picked up by friends in Waikouaiti to watch the Rugby World Cup opening ceremonies and match in their living room in Dunedin.
Plenty of time for play

While sitting in a MacDonald’s in Ashburton, we were faced with a choice; haul down the coast doing 90 k or 6-8 hours a day on the bike and sightseeing from the handlebars because we said we’d bike to Dunedin, or do we catch a bus part of the day and scale back to 40-50 k a day and 4-5 hours on the bike to take time for wine tasting, scenic photography and a more relaxing vacation. We chose to slow down and see New Zealand. We could have made it, but it seemed silly. So, we jumped on a bus to Oamaru and biked the hilly part.

This is a beautiful country worth seeing, we made a good choice.

8-14 My mommy came to visit! Part 1: Lessons in flexibility

This is the airplane we take to Pentecost.  It has 16 seats.

My mother is a preschool teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools. She gets summers off, unless she decides to teach summer school. This is a great time to do work on the house, catch up on projects, make Milk Carton Boats and go on vacation. She decided a vacation to the South Pacific was in order.

Before she left, she got a few lessons in flexibility including a downed tree on the only road back into town and a broken refrigerator. I figured that was just the world prepping her for travel in Vanuatu.
We timed her visit to coincide with me being in Vila for a meeting. My meeting got changed from Tuesday to Wednesday with only two weeks notice. There are only three flight to Pentecost a week, they leave Monday, Wednesday and Saturday mornings. We tried to find a way that I could make it to the meeting and we could still spend a week on Pentecost.
I called all six ships that have recently serviced Pentecost on Saturday to ask about their shipping schedules for the week. They didn’t have them published yet. I called back on Monday only to find out that Makila, Tina 1, Brisk and Saratoga were all broken. Fresh Cargo wasn’t coming this way and Halice had just left for Tanna. I’d heard a rumor that the Sarafenua had gotten repaired and was back in service. I called them back and was told to call the Captain to find out when he planned on leaving port. He didn’t pick up. That left me with the Efate Queen, which leaves Vila on Sunday evening, about three days later than we wanted to be leaving.
This is the luggage carousel in Santo.  We’re high tech here…
I decided that missing my meeting was my best option. I discussed it with the committee and with a minimum of drama is was decided that would be acceptable. We hadn’t paid for Ma’s flight, since we weren’t sure we’d actually be able to use it. We went to Air Vanuatu to pay only to find out that she’d been taken off the flight and it was now full. We put her on the waiting list and I went to the Peace Corps staff member who primarily deals with Air Vanuatu. She worked her magic and and on Wednesday morning, we got on a flight to Pentecost via Santo. It wasn’t hte flight we were originally on, but it was going to get us there.
We went snorkeling .  
There were two flights from Santo to Pentecost that day because a church group had bought out one entire plane’s worth of seats. They were doing a quick round trip run, land in Santo, fly to Pentecost, fly back to Santo, swing by Ambae on the way back to Pentecost. Of course, the luggage handlers are not at the level of sophistication required to get bags on the same flight as the person. (From what I hear, that’s true in the States, too.) We landed on Pentecost with only one of our two checked bags. We waited an hour or more for the flight to come back with our second. That worked out fine since our driver was an hour late to pick us up anyway.
We got to my house in Vansemakul without any further hassles. The driver even stopped and reversed the truck so my mom could see the waterfall on the way to the village. He won points for that in my book.

7-21 The pseudo-celebrity of a PCV

Peace corps is a great way to try out being famous for a short period of time.  Any white people on the outer islands are minor celebrities.  I’ve heard from other PCVs that this is true everywhere, being a Peace Corps is like being famous.  Here, this goes double for men.  As one of the other PCVs put it, “Guys are rock stars.”  Remind me never to get famous.  I am finding it not entirely to my liking.
Don’t get me wrong, there are things I enjoy about my celebrity.  New people want to talk to the white man and  I like meeting people.  The men all want to drink kava with me.  Even at a kava bar or fund raiser, where we buy kava, I pay for less than half my shells.  And that’s on an expensive night.  I can walk around anywhere and be welcomed into any Nakamal.  If I am going to end up crashing there for the night I will be ordered to one of the beds, not a mat on the “floor.”  I don’t think I could convince them I’d be just fine on a mat on the ground.  Anyone using one of the public water taps will back away from it and insist I take what I need before they finish if I so much as look like I might want water. 
Make sure to let me know if all this starts going to my head.
But there are downsides.  Being a celebrity is mentally draining.  You are on stage ALL THE TIME.  Everyone wants to talk to you but it never gets past the “cocktail party” level of conversation.  I don’t even get the tasty drinks to go with it! (I actually enjoy kava but there isn’t much variety to it.)  The conversation consists of anecdotes and short stories with no real substance or understanding for either party.  I’ve had so many of the exact same conversation that I have started finishing the stories they are telling me.  Even when I am conversing with a friend here, there are almost always others around and listening in.
The biggest issue is the lack of privacy.  I never realized how interesting it could be to watch somebody walk by just because they have a different skin color.  I still don’t actually get it myself but it seems to be true.  The kids still stop what they’re doing and stare every time I walk anywhere.  This is generally accompanied by exclamations to each other of “Tuturan, tuturan!” (local language for white-man).  There is a chorus of “Hello! Hello!” that starts after I’m a little past them.  Then it doesn’t end until I’m out of eyesight.  We have been intently watched for 20 minutes while doing nothing more interesting than reading a book.  It is almost a relief when the kids run away screaming, because at least they aren’t staring.
We’ve started to refer to ourselves as the “white-man channel.”  They’ll wander by our house, kids and adults, to see “what’s on” (what we’re doing.)  There’s a convenient community store just down from our house where they can hang out and keep an eye on us.  At least they don’t have cameras or mass media and thus no paparazzi.
This extends into the ceremonies and kastom events.  If I show up te mwalmwal (in a loin cloth), to an event, I will be shown off like a new toy.  The chief orders me around in language, just to show any newcomers that “his” whiteman speaks language and wears kastom clothes.  Gaea gets pushed to the front of a crowd to take pictures because “this is your only chance,” even when it is the third or fourth time to witness something, like a funeral.
We are definitely not celebrities in the same sense as movie stars are back home but it’s a decent approximation.  It’s a very strange experience and one more way of reminding us that we’re different.  I don’t really need the reminder, thank you.  It also feels unwarranted, at least the overly respectful parts of it.  I’m learning as much as I’m teaching and I’m not likely to forget that.  I do appreciate their appreciation.  It’s not entirely unpleasant and I can understand the appeal more than I did before.  However, I am getting to experience enough of the downsides to think they would out weigh the benefits.  Well known and respected I will shoot for.  Celebrity I’ll try to avoid.

7-31 Scheduling Vanuatu Style: A Practical Look

It was a damp kind of week
Every year, Peace Corps is required to send a staff person out to every site. The idea is to talk to the community about any issues with the volunteer, talk to the volunteer about any issues with the community and potential address them and to get a “real” impression of what the volunteer is doing. (“Real” as opposed to what the volunteer is saying.) The more accessible sites often have multiple a year as staff transits between other sites or other events while the more remote sites might have just two their entire service.
We had our first visit in June. Our Safety and Security Officer (SSO), Relvie, came out to Pentecost. The original plan had our Assistant Country Director coming out. She served as a volunteer in Melsisi three volunteers before Jason and still has a lot of connections there. She was too busy, so they decided to send her assistant instead, but a week before she was going to leave, they changed it to the SSO due to the number of issues we’ve been having on Pentecost.
Her trip fit the Vanuatu scheduling mold. Everything fell apart and it all worked out anyway.
Relvie and kids from Londar/Wanur in the south

Her schedule was something like this: fly in Monday morning, catch a truck to Melsisi, walk to Labati (about 2 hours), spend the night. Tuesday afternoon walk back to Melsisi, talk to Jason’s principal and spend the night in Melsisi. Wednesday walk to Vansemakul and spend the day with my community and the night there. Thursday walk or catch a truck down to Waterfall for a court case and go back to Vansemakul to sleep. Friday take a truck down to Pangi and fly out Saturday morning.
Of course, this schedule is way too tight for Vanuatu and everything went hay wire. It had been raining for three days, which made the walk up to Labati rough. Once they got up, it downpoured and she got stuck. She came down in the mud on Wednesday and talked to Jason’s principal then we caught a truck over to Vansemakul. The court case got postponed but she got a call from a volunteer asking her to come further south. So, we went south to Londar on Friday and then back north to Pangi on Saturday. We stayed the weekend in Pangi helping a volunteer pack up to change sites and she fly out on Monday.
Most of the original plan just fell apart, but things all worked out. That is the way life works out here. Stay flexible and roll with it or as they say here, “Bae yumi jas luk…” (We’ll see…)

6-6 Traveling (mis)adventures

Traveling here can be interesting. Back home we go online, find out all the information, and book our tickets including paying for them right then. You’ll generally then print your ticket off and be good. Here things are a little more complicated. Take my trip here to Vila. It’s been fraught with messiness of the sort that is just to be expected here in Vanuatu. In summation, I nearly didn’t make it to Vila and now I’m staying for an extra couple of days. So how did this happen?
We book tickets from the outer islands by calling Air Vanuatu. We get the booking set and get a confirmation number. Then we have to get to our local booking agent who is generally the guy who works at the airport. Our airport is an hour truck ride away (which costs $40 if we charter the trip) and the guy is only there when planes are coming in. Fortunately, the woman at the post office goes down every Wednesday to get the mail. If a truck is already going somewhere you just jump on and don’t have to pay anything. Once you get down to the agent you give the confirmation number and pay for the ticket. Once you’re paid, the agent should call Air Vanuatu and let them know that you’ve paid and not to cancel the booking. This is where things broke down. Apparently, that communication didn’t happen. And no, I didn’t find out that it hadn’t until I showed up at the airport to get on the flight (which was on Ambae so not my airport). I gave them my ticket and was informed that I wasn’t on the list. They did a bunch of calling around and figured out the problem. Since I had the ticket telling them that I had paid, the agent there told me that he’d try to get me on the flight. So I waited. In another display of typical Vanuatu, I was never actually told I could get on the plane. I took them loading my bag on the plane, which was empty, to mean I could go. I got in just fine.
Today there was further excitement. Firstly, I’ve been sick for the past few days. I’ll spare you all the deals but traveling would have been inconvenient. So I went into Air Vanuatu to see if I could change my ticket to Wednesday. What do I find there but that I am once again not confirmed on the flight but wait-listed. We’ll see how Wednesday goes. Maybe this time the plane will have come two hours early and I’ll miss that one too. Yes, that has been known to happen.
On the upside, this does mean I get more time to take care of things on the internet.

Swearing in!

So far, most of our training has been about being flexible and rolling with whatever comes our way. I think our swearing in epitomized this lesson nicely. The original plan said that we would all wear island dresses/shirts and sit in neat orderly rows while various people spoke, including one soon-to-be volunteer as a speaker and one with a short reading. We added in me to present a plaque to our country director. After, we would finish up and go eat and say goodbye to our training host-families. That was a great theory that started to go wrong rather quickly.

Around noon, the man who was going to the trainees’ speaker came down with a bad case of something. By 1 pm, there was a question about whether or not he would be able to make it to the swearing in at all, and he was definitely not speaking. By 1:30, we were on a bus heading to swearing in without a speaker. Because I was already planning on speaking, I got nominated to just talk a little longer. Then that plan changed when another woman came forward and said she would do the thank yous. We had a plan again. However, by 2:45 we still didn’t have our clothes. At 3:00, still no dresses or shirts. At 3:20, ten minutes before the ceremony was supposed to start, the last of the host families come rolling in with our clothes. There is just one hitch. Jason’s shirt doesn’t have buttons. I go running to the bathroom to change into my dress and Jason starts looking for a solution. It turns out that little girl’s hairclips work wonders for closing a shirt in an emergency. By the time I got out of the bathroom, I couldn’t tell that he didn’t have good buttons. Then, the ceremony was delayed because the Minister of Internal Affairs was tied up trying to get an immigration bill passed. He ended up not showing and sent his second in command instead.

I believe this is a fitting swearing in. Roll with it and don’t get stuck on a plan, that’s the trick of the next few months and the next few years.