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.

2-23 Routines

Routine was something I took for granted in the US.  Think about it, our cliches reflect how thoroughly our lives have patterns.  “Stuck in a rut.” “A weekend away to break out of your routine.” “Get into a fitness/training/artistic/hobby-of-your-choice routine.”
Here, the only things that get stuck in ruts are the trucks.  Every day brings different challenges, different opportunities and different perspectives.  I’m not talking about a great new project at the same job you go to every day.  I’m talking about deciding to walk 7 hours to visit a friend with no advance planning or the great new project being to start a youth group, from scratch.
In many ways, this lifestyle suits me fantastically.  I don’t settle well, I like to wander, I rarely focus on a project for more than a few weeks or months.  I like to change things up and do a lot of different things.  On other other hand, I’m finding it to be very challenging in the Minnesotan way.  Without all the external routines, I can’t form any internal routines.
I am learning the value in having an external force saying, “Be here at this time for this long.”  It gives structure to the day and sets me daily deadlines for doing work.  If I have to be at class at 6 pm, I can’t tell myself that I’ll just do this one more game of freecell before I get around to writing.  I don’t have time for that one more game.  Really, it comes back to motivation.  It is hard work to motivate myself all the time, even for things I want to do. 
Part of the struggle in forming my own routines here is the lack of cultural routines.  In the US, we have decades of history around work bells, ships hours, five-day work weeks, forty-hour work weeks, three-day-a-week classes.  Here, the routines are yearly.  Go dig yams in April, plant them in May.  Watermelons are ready before Christmas and mangos and pineapples are ready at the same time.  There is no sense of “Monday” and “Tuesday” or the sense of them is limited to “not Sunday.”  With no work schedule to follow, the day of the week doesn’t matter.
So, I am learning the value of external routine.  Not that every moment has to be scheduled like my life was before.  More that things like a class schedule in college and work hours form a skeleton of routines on which to hang all the other tasks I want to do.

1-19 The State of the Work

Despite what this blog reflects, I am actually in Vanuatu to do a job.  That job is a little unclear most days, but I am here to do it.  My job description translates to something like “Improve the health of the area.”  It is up to me to determine what that means.

PHAST in action, discussing toilet improvements for the community
I like these parameters.  I am a self-starter and I work best with minimal supervision.  (Its a nice way or saying I don’t like authority.)  Most of the time, this works out great for me.  However, there are days it is kind of rough.  There are days I want nothing more than to show up to a job and be told to go take care of something that I can then proceed to ignore or half ass until the end of the work day when I can go home and feel like I did my eight hours.  I don’t do that here.  Even on the days I feel like slacking, I have to motivate me to go do work.
This conundrum has been challenging for some Community Health volunteers.  It is hard work to go make yourself a job every day.  For some volunteers, their last year of service becomes a year of watching time pass.  They’ve run out of steam to find work and are just waiting to finish their contracts.  I’m at the point right now where I can choose to sit back and play with my cats and go swim in the ocean or I can make the choice to keep working hard and searching out things to do and people to do them with.  Those of you who know me know which choice I’ve made, but that doesn’t mean it is easy.
Here is what I’m doing and how it is going. 
After a four day PHAST workshop, we did a group picture


I did a lot of workshops about hygiene and sanitation.  In them, the community chose a project to improve their hygiene and sanitation.  I chose these workshops based on surveys in which the community members told me there is a lot of trouble with toilets.  So, the community chose to build water seal (dump a bucket to flush) toilets.  I agreed to help them write a grant.  That was over six months ago.  The grant is still incomplete, though it is under consideration by the funding agency.  The community contribution was due over a month ago and I haven’t seen or heard of anyone giving their portion of the money.  The person I was working with has forgotten to show up to talk about this twice in a row.  In a continuing effort to not give up, I went to the chief to discuss this state of affairs.  We’ll see if there is any change in the coming month.  If not, I will strongly consider pulling the grant out of consideration. 
Children’s Sanddrawing workbook
There are beautiful sand drawings that have meanings and stories that go with them.  The stories and even the drawings themselves are disappearing as the oldfala die or become to senile to show them to people.  There are a few people who are interested in preserving this art form.  I am trying to work with one of them to create a small workbook/coloring book for kids that include how to make about a dozen of the drawings and the stories that go with them.  If I can pull it off, I’d like to stories to be in Apma, Bislama, French and English.  Literacy, here we come!  Of course, the last three times I’ve tried to meet with the oldfala, something has made us not connect.  I still don’t have the drawings or the stories so I can’t even start to type them up and create a layout for the book, much less look for a publisher or funding to publish it.  Sigh.
Weekly Health toktok
I want to get my  counterpart involved in doing more health outreach as well as learning more about health and medicine herself.  She is interested in going to nursing school in the future.  I thought we could do weekly or bi-weekly lectures of an hour or less about one or two topics each week.  It would give the two of us a chance to discuss health topics and hopefully increase her knowledge while doing some basic education within the community.  We set a date for the first one.  She cancelled it the night before.  We set a second date.  She cancelled it.  I went to her about a third date, she cancelled it.  I tried a fourth date, she cancelled in the morning of.  I think I’m done trying on that plan.
High School Health Class

In Jason’s classroom, mine is up the hill with chalkboards, not computer.

I was teaching the high schoolers health.  By health I mean sex ed.  This is one of the places I can say I’ve been successful.  I’ve increased the knowledge of STIs and STI prevention among the 14-17 year-olds in the area.  I know they are using condoms because I keep finding the condom wrappers hidden in dark corners.  When we did Sex Jeaopardy on the last day of class, there were only a few questions that stumped them.  I’ll be teaching in the school again this coming school year, though I may try to expand from sex ed to include nutrition and basic first aid.

Children Hygeine and Sanitation Transformation
It isn’t a success yet, but its getting there.  I’m working with some other PCVs to create a toolkit of pictures to teach hygiene and sanitation to first through fifth graders.  We’re ready to do a beta test of it when the new school year starts, I’ll tell you if it goes anywhere from there.

At the Training of Trainers for a GLOW/BILD.
Next step: run a GLOW/BILD


These are youth leadership and empowerment camps that are really encouraged within Peace Corps.  We went to a Training of Trainers last May.  We left with every intention of running one in our community.  Since then, the girl who came with us left to get married on Santo, one of the boys got married and is too busy and the other one hasn’t showed up to talk to me about it.  We may try to do a long weekend instead of a full week sometime in the next few months.  Again, it seems like the momentum is lost and it will take some serious effort to build it back up.
Adolescent Reproductive Health Curriculm
This is another project to try to give Peace Corps more resources for the future.  I’m basing it on my experience teaching last year.  I haven’t done a lot yet, but again, I have high hopes.  I always have high hopes.

I have a few more ideas of things I want to do before I leave.  I’d like to do a AIDS/STI workshop in the community.  I may try to make it a really big deal over two or three days and do a tournament and hire the band to play or watch AIDS related videos in the evenings.  We’ll see.  I’d like to do a maternal and child nutrition workshop with the mamas.  I’m going to talk to someone about that today.  We’ll see what other work I can find to do.  I’m good at coming up with ideas for work, anyway.

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.

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…)

7-5 Bike Commute – Vanuatu Style

A flat section of road

Last time I was in Vila, I bought a bike. The Peace Corps gave me money to do so as a special circumstance with our split sites. I was excited and hoped it would make my commute easier. So far, this hasn’t panned out.

Firstly, finding a bike in Vila was not terribly easy. I was hoping for a proper mountain bike. I ended up with a solid bike but hybrid wheels. The only two mountain bikes I found were definitely out of my price range. Also, getting the bike once I’d paid for it was very Vanuatu. The bikes were sitting outside of the hardware store with a big chain through the tires. I checked them out and paid inside after picking up a lock, pump, and patch kit. Then I handed the receipt to the security guard. He went inside to get the key. I waited. And waited. And waited. Eventually, a manager came out, tried a couple keys and told the security guard to just go grab a bold cutter. Glad they were a hardware store.

Then I had to get the bike back to the island. The planes here are definitely not big enough to take a bike on and I just wouldn’t trust it alone on a ship. Fortunately, Gaea’s papa was in town and heading back on the ship the next day. I met up with him at the dock and handed the bike over. The ride was not kind to it. When I picked it up back home, the wheels were out of alignment and the gears needed adjusting. Nothing my talented partner couldn’t handle.

Finally, I had a working bike (including stylish helmet, per Peace Corps policy) and could try it out for a commute. I’m less than impressed so far. The roads here suck to bike on. Our “truck road” is more rugged than most country dirt roads back home. It is not kind to my butt. There are also a number of hills. These I could just put down to good training and it would be fine. I like workouts. Unfortunately, the tires on my poor bike don’t seem to. The first time went fine (sore butt and out of biking shape aside). Not even halfway through my second ride I got a flat tire. We patched it. On the next trip, flat again. I have not yet checked to see if the patch failed or if there is a new hole. The next trip into Vila will involve more patch kits and maybe the purchase of a couple new tubes for the bike.

If the tires can withstand the roads, I should be in very good biking shape by the time we’re done here.

3-19 RIP Musashi

In January, we got a puskat. He was an adorable black kitten with blue eyes. Actually, he was a black-on-black tabby, which was just neat looking.

The story behind his appearance in our lives goes something like this: I’ve been wanting a cat since we got here. We need a good mouser and it is just nice to have a pet. I figured having a cat, we’d be less attached than having a dog (we nearly ended up with a dog anyway). After four months or so of asking around, I found out that there was a kitten in one of the neighboring villages. I went to ask about it and was promptly handed the kitten and told to take him home. I did. He cried about it the whole way home.

What I didn’t know at the time, was that the reason there was only one kitten was that he was a bush kitten. One of the youngfala went out “torching” crabs. (They carry a light “torch” and flash the ground. The crabs freeze and then they pick them up and stuff them in their baskets. I would really like to watch them try to keep the crabs in the baskets, but I haven’t seen that yet.) This youngfala torched a whole mess of crabs and in their midst was a kitten. The crabs and kitten all tried to scuttle into the crab hole. He dug back the rocks and in the process of getting to the crabs, pulled out the kitten, too.

As cruel humans, we even bathed him.

After about a week of debate, we named him Musashi. We figured we’d give him a name suited to killing things in hopes that he would be a good mouser. We were considering Sun Tzu but I realized I didn’t want an army of rats, I wanted no rats.

Earlier this week, we found him dead. The cause of death is a little unclear. He might of strangled while trying to get out of the house, through a hole he normally used. He had grown too big. That hypothesis doesn’t quite fit because he should have cried or figured out how to get his head back. At the very least, it seems strange that a hole that he could previously walk through was suddenly too small for him to breath through. No matter what the cause, he was still dead and we are both sad.

I hope he had a happy six weeks with us. I know we tried very hard to give him a good life. I’m sorry it was so short.

Our adorable shoulder kitty is sadly missed

Updated contact info!

This is the latest information we have about where we are going and how to send things there.

If you want to mail a package, it has to go through customs, which can be a total pain. If it needs to be inspected, we get charged a one-time fee, it doesn’t matter how big the package is or how much stuff is in it, the fee is the same. Things that need to be inspected include any food (not candy), magazines, clothing, packages over $100 and anything they think might contaminate the country. If you label the package as being a “personal item” it is more likely to not get inspect, or if it is inspected, to not get as high a fee. So, to help packages get through customs, one of the PC staff members makes regular trips down to deal with all the paperwork, which means it is best to mail packages through Port Vila. After they go through Vila, the same PC staff member will ship them on to our island. The address to do all of that is:

Jason Ritenour and Gaea Dill-D’Ascoli,
C/o Peace Corps
Private Mail Bag 9097
Port Vila, Vanuatu
South Pacific

If you as mailing only a letter, we have two more addresses. Letters don’t get tied up in customs. Unfortunately we are not leaving them here for security reasons. Most people have them by now anyway. If not, contact someone else who knows us and might or e-mail and we’ll reply when we can.

Tomorrow we leave for our island. This is where we start the real work we are here to do. I’m excited and nervous and everything is a jumble but it is a glorious jumble because I have work that I believe in and I’m following my dream.

We are planning on having no internet access until late January. The best bet at this point really is to send us letters. I’ll try to write back. If we do get internet, I will make sure to update here, but I can’t promise return emails. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write them, I’ll get them eventually and I will appreciate it when I do.

Until January, keep yourselves safe.