7-20 I’ve Learned to Integrate

So, I arrived at Northern Care Youth Center (NCYC) on Thursday morning. Brian and I made a quick tour of 8 local schools to drop off our letters and make sure we had meeting times established. After lunch, I went back to NCYC. They were doing a nem cooking workshop. (Nemis like a springroll and they are sold in almost every Chinese store.) I stood around, watching other people do things. I wasn’t the only one standing around, because watching other people do things is a national pass time. I cracked a few jokes about making sure to cut up the hot water (cultural humor) and generally hung around.

Poi class at NCYC.  There are going to be some bruises today…
I met the coordinator of the Youth Center and got to chatting. She is excited to have me teach a basic poi class and an arts and crafts class. I realized I didn’t have the supplies needed to teach, so I asked if I could make a few sets of practice poi from scraps from the sewing class. She was fine with that.
I went to the sewing class and chatted with the tutor there. She agreed to let me use a sewing machine outside of class times and showed me where the bag of scraps was. She had to leave because she had another commitment, but left me with scissors and fabric. I sat down on a mat and got to work. About five minutes later, one of the mamas in sewing class came up and asked me who I was and what I was doing at NCYC. We got to chatting. It took another 5 minutes for the second mama to join the conversation. Two hours later, I had all my poi cut out, had contact information for a village we’ve been trying to reach, and an offer of transport to the village.
The next day, I arrived in at NCYC after lunch. The youth center coordinator and the NCYC manager got in a lively discussion of the politics within the youth center around the fire dance/poi class. It culminated in them deciding that I should meet with the youth, and that the coordinator and I should go to a fire show.
The beginners fire show.  Not pictured: Kava.
She and 2 tutors picked me up in a taxi and we went to the show at 7:30 at night. We watched the show. We drank kava. We drank more kava. We called the taxi. We had another shell of kava. We waited for the taxi. We ate laplap. The taxi finally came at 10:30 at night. They dropped me off at the hotel at nearly 11 pm.
In short, it took me two days in a new city to make friends and end up spending a late night with ni-Vans who seemed to genuinely enjoy my company and for me to get into a political mess as the arbitrator between two groups. Yep, I’m getting good at this “Peace Corps” thing.

10-22 Transfer Complete

Fresh news! Not a month and a half old!
Office at the Big Smoke

We have moved to Vila. We arrived on Efate on Saturday, October 20th. We immediately moved into our new house, or at least we left all our stuff there. Due to the help of some lovely friends, most of our bags and boxes that we shipped ahead of time were already in the house when we arrived. I have great friends.

Saturday we spent in Vila Shock. (It is a unique syndrome in which the early symptoms combine a fear of crossing traffic with an intense urge to sit in the Peace Corps office and waste time while alternately craving and gorging on cheese and ice cream. Late symptoms include dairy-induced gastrointestinal distress, confusion about the loss of hours of productive day time and the sense that you have misplaced all of your last paycheck.) We made it over to the office in the afternoon and then goofed off on the internet for awhile. We celebrated our move with dinner at a new Indian restaurant.
Sunday morning I ‘slept in’, cooked and ate breakfast and showered then looked at the clock. It was 7:30. I guess I’m still on island time. Still, that meant we had plenty of time to work on moving stuff into the house before we were expected to be anywhere.
Jason started pulling things out of bags while I reorganized the kitchen. It didn’t take very long for us to decide that what we really needed to do was move a bunch of furniture which somehow led to me removing two pieces of trim. On the up side, the fridge is now in a much better place than it was and the kitchen has a bit more space. Somehow, the six bags we’d brought off the island managed to explode enough stuff to cover every flat surface in the apartment. I’m still puzzled about how that happened. We’re getting things moved in and put away pretty well. There is still several hours of work to do, but that will have to wait until the end of the week.
Carla, the previous denizen of this house, left us really well set up. The apartment itself is pretty nice but she left it fully furnished and well furnished. We have 4 sets of good American sheets, 4 fluffy towels, as much cook wear as I could want and high-quality pots and pans. The only things we will be purchasing as kitchen knives (she took hers back with her), a blender (I love smoothies!) and maybe a book shelf or two. Oh, and I have to put the trim back on the wall, which means I need a saw to cut it the right length.
I am pleased with the new house. I’m excited about the new job. I’m looking forward to getting to know the new trainees and help them adjust to life in this wacky place. I miss Pentecost and free mangos, but life is looking pretty good at the moment.

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.

2-1 Identity and Ice Cream

There are a lot of really interesting parts of living abroad. The first is in realizing what you took for granted. Doesn’t everyone have milk and cookies as a childhood treat? Or ice cream? Who doesn’t like pasta and pesto or a good pizza? Walking into a room and flipping the light switch is autopilot for most of us, we only notice when we have to grope along the wall for it. Even things like playing a couple games of solitaire on the computer to unwind or drinking a glass of juice are so second nature that their removal causes a sense of disorientation.

I am surprised by how much I miss cheese and how little I miss ice cream. Not that I don’t miss ice cream, but I just don’t crave sweets the way I crave savory on the island. I don’t know if it is an availability thing or that I sweat so much I never feel like I have enough salt in my body. But I do often wish for things like pesto, crackers or garlic mashed potatoes.

Those are all surface things. My identity isn’t wrapped up in how much juice I drink or how much ice cream I eat. I’m learning that my identity isn’t really wrapped up in whether or not I put on a skirt, too. The skirt doesn’t change who I am, it doesn’t negate my ability to climb a tree or suddenly give me feminine wiles. It just means I occasionally trip over the extra fabric while I romp through the bush or have a little extra towel available to wipe my hands on. The me doing the romping and the wiping is fundamentally the same, just in a skirt now instead of pants. I do miss pants.

There are other cultural assumptions that have been part of “me” in the US that I am learning are not “me” but rather what the culture around me has imposed as part of my identity. Now that I am in a totally different culture, I can see more and more of these cultural expectations and how they fit with me. I notice them most strongly when they contrast with the culture here.

For instance, I don’t consider myself an affectionate person. I’m not a big fan of kissing in public, holding hands only really happens when I’m intentionally being affectionate, like on a date. Even with children, I limit my physical contact and affection. Here, I am considered incredibly demonstrative. Jason and I talk to each other in public. We intentionally spend time together during the day. Sometimes, we touch each other outside of a handshake. We laugh together. I pick up puppies and kittens and play with them. I go out of my way to make faces at children and make them laugh. None of these things are done here, they are all much too affectionate. Here, I am a very affectionate person. Go figure.

11-21 Fishbowl Effect

On the Fishbowl Effect or Why Aquariums are Inhumane

I know that I am supposed to remain culturally sensitive at all times and I know I’m not supposed to judge people in this culture based on my own cultural mores, but there are some days that that is very, very hard to do. Take for instance, what we refer to as the fishbowl effect.

The fishbowl effect is where we are watched, every second of everyday. Not just subtly or surreptiously observed as people go about their own business. I’m talking about being blatantly stared at. If we go for a walk, people will stop their conversations to watch us walk by. If I sit outside the house to read my book, I have an audience with a minimum participation of about 4. Dinner time is like monkey feeding time at the zoo; if I choose to sit on the porch to eat, that too requires an audience. At least the audience stays about a hundred feet back in the cover of the nearest shelter. That doesn’t apply to times when Jason and I want to train. Then, all bets are off. In the first twenty minutes of training we have yet to acquire an audience of less than 8. This is not an audience at a respectful distance that you can pretend doesn’t exist. This is an audience that sits as close as possible, like 10 feet away. When all I really want to do is work out, I get to do it in front of a group of people as they blatantly and unapologetically stare at me. We made the mistake one day of training during soccer practice. The entire team stopped, came over and sat down in a half circle around us to watch. That same day, a truck drove by, decided what we were doing looked interesting and drove onto the soccer field to join in the watching. It drove away and came back with more people to watch us workout. The first time it was odd, the second time funny and now it has gotten old. I’d really like to practice falling on my ass without the added pressure of twenty pairs of eyes.

I do understand that we are the best amusement to happen since the last volunteer got here and I understand we are doing something that looks interesting. I also understand that in this culture time is a fluid thing and if something more interesting comes up you can drop what you were working on and pursue the new thing. Understanding it doesn’t help. I still feel like a dancing monkey doing tricks for the amusement of others. I think if there was less of a sense of “let me sit and watch” and more of a sense of participation, I wouldn’t mind as much. I think if it were only during training and not every moment I’m outside my house, I wouldn’t mind as much. I think if we were being talked to or treated as part of the community, I wouldn’t mind as much. But right now, I’m feeling like a fish in an aquarium. Here to be stared at but never interacted with. I’m Ni-Van equivalent of 24/7 TV channels.

I don’t think I’ll be going to an aquarium anytime soon. If I do, I might find myself trying to have a conversation with the fish.

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

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

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

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

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

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