6-17 A Talent Show, Done Right

One of the final singers of the night.

You know when you went to talent shows in high school to support your friends but then spent the rest of the time kind of bored, or enjoying the schedenfreude of your peers’ botched performances? This was like that, except awesome.

Friday night was Talent Night at the Youth Center. The Youth Center has kind of a lot of talent, so I had high hopes. Most of my expectations were met, including the ones where everything was going to start late and run later.
Jason and my “karate” class volunteered to move chairs, which meant we should have been leaving the Youth Center at 3:30. We left at about 4 and made a pit stop to pick up 10 kilos of green kava on the way. We should have had 12 youth moving chairs but since the kava wasn’t finished, we only had 7. The other 5 went to go skin, grind and squeeze the kava. Still, we got the chairs into the hall and arranged before they opened the doors, though I’m not convinced it was before 5:30 when we supposed to have finished.
The lead singer from Realistic, a hip hop-reggae fusion band.
Festivities were meant to kick off at 6. My group started selling kava around 6:15. Festivities kicked off around 7:30, which worked to our advantage since that left more people outside buying kava, juice and popcorn from us. (Yes, I was basically running a lemonade stand. Except a lemonade stand for adults!) We were set to do a demo at 8. We actually performed around 9:30.
The police stopped by around 12:30 to tell us that we needed to clear out, which sort of kabashed the last few performances, though we actually finished at 1 am. Jason and I left before we had to move chairs again.
Don’t they look sharp?
First review: our youth did great. They were ready to take the stage when we were called. They walked on in order and went immediately into their lines. They bowed. They did their form, in-sync and with decent kyops. They bowed. The exited the stage precisely and sat where we told them while Jason and I did a bit more of a demo. They stood up together. They bowed. They left in a neat, single-file line. I have never seen them so well-behaved. They looked more put together and professional than any other group there. Not that I’m biased or anything.
Aside from the stellar performance, they also did a great job working the concessions stand. They coordinated themselves (with a few nudges from me) to get the popcorn popped and into newspaper cones to sell, make the kava, make the juice and start selling. They handled the money all night and handed over a completed stand to me at 1 am. I have no complaints.
The group before us took awhile getting set up.  We waited.
It has been rewarding to me to see the way they are coming together. They have gone from a group of youth interested in learning “karate like Jackie Chan” to a group of friends who use each other for support. I am watching them blossom into leaders within the group and within their wider social group. They are gaining confidence and with it, they are learning to speak up and assert themselves in a healthy way. They are not without their faults, like being way too squirrelly during class, talking too much, giving each other a hard time and spending 3 minutes trying to form a straight line. But to see where they were in March and where they are in June makes me want to stay here and train them until they grow into all this potential that I see.
Jason being a jerk.  Then again, I tossed him across the floor onto tile.
The other groups performing ran the gamut. Alpha, the hip hop tutor, did an impressive bit of coordination where he got about 12 groups to do a 5 second bit as part of the opening. The opening singer had a set of pipes that professionals would envy. She set the bar high. As usual, the hip hop dance groups did an excellent performances, all 5 of them. I particularly enjoyed a band called Realistic who I think embodies the future of music in Vanuatu. Rap lyrics and vocals over reggae-esque keyboard, drums and guitar. It works, despite that description.
I am impressed with the capabilities of the youth. I know that 90% of them are just killing time down at the Youth Center. But the other 10% are busy creating something amazing. I love watching that something.
[Photo credit goes to my photography class.  They took 541 photos.  I’m proud of them, too.]

6-2 Welcome New Orange Belts!

The new orange belts!
On moving into Port Vila and starting work at Wan SmolBag, Gaea brought up our interest in starting a club at the Youth Center. After we returned to Vanuatu from home leave, the Youth Center allowed us to start teaching. The youth were interested in learning “karate like Jackie Chan.” Classes started out with no dedicated training. We were either cramped in a loading dock or on display at one of the stages. We never started on time because we had to round up the youth and find a spot to train. Many of the youth had other commitments so they came late or left early.  Training was haphazard at best.

We spent the first classes drilling on basic movements and doing strength training. It was detailed and hard work. We lost some of the students who didn’t want that kind of commitment. We gained more who saw the value of challenging yourself. As we showed consistently high attendance, we were able to secure training space and a regular time slot. A core group of students made coming to class a priority. We secured a second time slot during the week so that they could solidify their material. The students are even beginning to call it Tae Soo Do and saying “HwaRang!” when they bow.


Finally, we had a group of students who had learned enough material to test. I set a tip test to make sure they knew everything and could commit to showing up on time. Five students of the core group arrived on time and presented their material well. On Saturday morning, four of them showed up.  The only girl of the group took it on herself to lead warm-ups. One of the other students took it on himself to sweep the testing area. All four performed well. The hardest part for the students was the question of “What does ‘Loyalty to your country’ mean to you?” Most of these youth have less than an eighth grade education.  They do not live in a philosophical society. Despite this, they gave good answers. They focused on respecting and working with everyone in the community, values that ni-Vanuatu hold in high regard.

Philosophy time

The test was an accomplishment for the students and a culmination of their training, so far. It was also a culmination of our work in setting up classes and teaching the students. At the same time, it is a beginning.  Now, there are higher ranked students to be looked up to and learned from; the core group is learning etiquette and philosophy.  New students will be able to learn faster with more role models and more students are excited to join the class.  There are already students who will be ready to test next month.

The Wan SmolBag Youth Center is a fantastic fit for Hwa Rang Do. They, too, are dedicated to empowering lives and serving humanity. In a country full of at-risk youth, they serve the most at-risk. They take the kids that society has given up on and give them a place to go. They empower these youth by giving them skills and building their confidence.

After two years of training in isolation, we are creating a martial arts community piece-by-piece.  Our four new orange belts and the rest of the squad of youth inspire us to train harder, to find new ways of explaining, and be the best teachers we can be.  More important than how to kick or punch, is teaching the youth their own worth.  Through training, they are gaining confidence to be leaders.  Through example, they are learning the value of service.  The youth at Wan SmolBag will grow up to be leaders; we believe they will be the kind of leaders that inspire.


2-27 Maorip, take 2

Disclaimer:  The detail of this may not be of interest to you if you don’t train.  The gist is, we’re trying to breath new life into the “Tae Kwon Do Karate Klub” in the bush on Pentecost.  Wish us luck because we need it.

This weekend we went back up to Maorip to actually start training. 

It took me like five minutes to line up this shot.
We started on Friday afternoon.  Not having directly talked to the guys antap, we weren’t sure if someone was coming to get us or not.  We decided to wait until it was cool enough and just start walking.  We were pretty sure we could get back, the road isn’t that complicated.  Fortunately, this worked out and we didn’t get lost.

We got up to the nakamal around 4:30 and found one of the three main students.  He went and found the other one who was around, who brought sugar cane for a small refreshment.  The third was at a dead but would be there Saturday.  We rested and storied small.  Then we decided that it was not kava time yet so we might as well do a bit of informal training.  These guys do have previous training but I’m not sure how much of it has been with their various instructors, let alone how experienced those instructors have been.  There are some stylistic differences as well as some bad habits.  They definitely have even more experience using their bodies than most ni-Vans.  We practiced some basic kicking, punching, and blocking.  I will be spending a lot of time telling these guys to relax.  One of them bruised his forearm with an overly hard-style block and did not participate in grinding kava that night.

After a quick rinse, the guys convened in the nakamal for kava and storying.  Gaea spelled from kava in favor of going to story with the women.  We are trying to make a point of showing that it is possible to be a woman but still train.  The other guys were still up drinking when I went to sleep.  Moderation is another example we are trying to set.

Training started the next morning in typical Vanuatu fashion.  Slightly late and with people trickling in for the next few hours afterwards.  We actually started much more on time than most things here.  At the beginning, we had the three primary students and one who had never trained before.  By lunchtime we had four more actively participating, which was as many adults as we were going to get for the rest of the day.

White belt form, first pass

The morning started with white belt material.  The three with previous experience picked up the movements quickly, though their form was the same blend of previous experience and bad habits of the day before.  Once we had a few more students, I moved the trio onto partner techniques while Gaea worked with the beginners on basic kicking and punching.  Then I started the beginners on blocking drills while Gaea practiced fancier kicks with the trio, including an introduction to wall kicking.  We finished off the morning with a review of the material and then broke for lunch.

The whole time we were up there, we were being fed by the family of the lead student.  The food mostly consisted of taro and laplap.  They did make a point to cook lots of elapmet, a delicious fern we both really like.  I went back to the nakamal to spell with the guys while Gaea was stuck with the children who consider sleeping to be a spectator sport.

After lunch, we started with another review of the material.  Then we invited the pikinini to join in and introduced everyone to acrobop.  We were once again reminded of the daily physicality of life here.  All of the adult men could do an assisted handstand, a somersault, and a cartwheel or shoulder-roll on at least one side.  They weren’t necessarily pretty ones, but they could do it.  The kids also picked up on the things quickly.   The mamas had a great time watching and translating, even if we did have to apologize for the wash they were going to have to do.  The children were sent to change and wash up while we moved on to grappling. 

Grappling was new to everyone.  The basic hip movement drills were as exciting as ever when a bunch of people learn them for the first time.  We managed to avoid anyone being kicked in the head.  Explaining those drills involved mostly demonstration because the Bislama went something like this. You start four-leg.  Right leg stands up, left leg goes here like this, then you turn yourself.  You do it again on the other side.  Two legs jump through.  Your butt goes up in the air, then your right leg goes under and you turn yourself.  (Then you do the hokey-pokey? Is that what it’s all about?)  As usual, there was a lot of “Put this leg here, like this (tug the leg)” and “No, roll this way and face that wall.”  Then we introduced them to sitting on each other.  Most of them are pretty serious about training but there were a few giggle fits. 
The more promising of the students

After they were good and dirty, Gaea took over for a bit of strength training.  Ni-vans do not like to show discomfort so it is sometimes hard to tell how hard we are working them.  The difficulty with which they got through (or didn’t quite) all the exercises indicated that they were feeling a little sore by the end.  As active and generally strong as they are, strength training isn’t done much at all.  Once everyone was good and tired I wrapped up with a toktok asking them to think about why they are training.  Violence is something of a problem here, especially domestic violence, and we are both attempting to address the problem as a couple who uses other methods and yet trains openly.  For me, talking about the importance of not using these skills to hurt people has become one of the most important aspects of training.  Finally, we ended with a brief meditation.
Jason remains dignified

As we were all sweaty and dirty, after training finished we went down to the river to swim.  After trekking down a hill through the mud, we came to the river.  The nice pool right there was not sufficient, however.  We walked up the river to a small waterfall with a very deep pool in front of it and climbable rocks on either side for jumping off of.  Flying side-kicks had various degrees of success.  Everyone had fun and got cleaned up.  As usual, we finished the visit with drinking kava in the nakamal that night.  Gaea did join us to story with the guys but we both went to bed earlier than most everyone else.  More demonstrations of moderation.

It was a successful trip.  One of the mamas told Gaea that they were interested in training but afraid to do it in front of the men.  Next time we are hoping to have a training time for the women while the men are busy with their own training.  The klub already has some demonstrations that have been requested around Pentecost that we can work on putting together.  For a first trip, it was largely successful.  We will be going up for these seminars monthly and hopefully having the guys come down every so often for more training.  There are still concerns about domestic violence but overall, it was a positive trip.

2-2 Maorip Tae Kwon Do Karate Klub

Our guide up next to some HUGE bamboo

We went antapto a community named Maorip in January. Shortly after Christmas, one of the men in the community had asked us if we were willing to come up and discuss the possibility of training a group of men there. We agreed with all sorts of red flags going off in both of our heads.

Let me try to explain the multitude of red flags. First, we don’t know these men. We’ve been seeing a lot of domestic violence and unnecessary violence recently and don’t want to teach men how to better his their wives and children. We don’t know what these men are like or if they will follow a rule about no hitting people. Second, they claimed to have previous training. To me, that sounded a lot like “We like to fight,” or it sounds like the guys who box who just sort of flail at each other and have very little discipline or control. Third, they live close to two hours away from Melsisi which is an hour away from Vansemakul where we live. How are we supposed to train a group of men that far away? Fourth, when we said I would be training to, the man who brought this up to us seemed confused. When we set up the day to go discuss this, he assumed it would be just Jason going, not me. I pointed out I want to train other women and he had absolutely no response. He was flabbergasted by the idea.
In short, we had some reservations. We went up anyway, at the least it was a chance to go see another part of Central Pentecost.
We walked up the hill after a downpour, which is always fun. The rain makes the road slick and increases the humidity making it a sweaty, slippery walk straight uphill for two hours. We made it to the first house and got fed lok is or banana laplap and crab. We continued to the nakamal where all the events of the day would be happening. We showed up and they were not ready for us. This is normal and not at all cause for concern. We hung out and ate more banana laplap and Jason’s got chicken wings.
After a few hours we got started on the welcome ceremony. They did a short demo, in which it turns out that despite the name “Tae Kwon Do Karate Klub” they do Kung Fu. Go figure. Though the name is a confused thing, they didn’t seem to be. They actually knew something and had put together a decent demo. There were hitches, but when aren’t there hitches? In this case, it had more to do with the very small space and having three men swinging sticks.
The view from antap as we got closer to the village

After the demo, Jason and I did a short demo. We hadn’t prepared anything, we didn’t realize that we should. We did white belt form in unison, I did brown belt and Jason did blue sash. Then we each did three or four techniques and called it a day. For having no warm up and no demo practice, we pulled it off. They were impressed anyway.

Jason talked about non-violence and the importance of using training to make your body and mind strong, not to train to hurt someone. As Jason was saying this, one of the men was nodding and all of them were listening. I told them that they had found brothers for Jason to train with but now i wanted them to find me sisters. We’ll see what happens.
I got sent away to go hang out with the women while the men ground kava. I caused quite a stir by trying to weave a little girl’s basket. She got bored and didn’t feel like weaving anymore. The basket she was weaving is the second pattern children learn. I’ve learned the first, so clearly, it made sense for her to give me the second to try. I had a group of about 10 women and girls watching me figure out how to weave. I got saved by a man coming to get me for kava. Actually, I was a little disappointed. I was having fun.
We drank kava. The awesome part about drinking kava is the atmosphere and the conversation. As a woman, I am often stuffed in the corner and can only talk to one person at a time. I sat and chatted with one of the men who had done the demo for over an hour. We talked about how non-violence is important, how using violence in the place of teaching through words and actions is the cowards way out. We talked about how important it is for women to train too, for both self-defense and for confidence building. He told me that if we come to teach them, they will have to “become like children again” (his words) to learn a new style. By the end of the conversation, most of my red flags had collapsed into little piles of dust or maybe a more accurate statement would be piles of kava makus.
We left the next morning carrying sweet bananas, sugar cane, taro and leftover pig. We’d set a date to come back to Maorip and do a full day workshop-style training. If all goes well, we’ll be training with them once a month and doing demos around the island to help various groups raise money. The first one they want us to do is a school fundraiser in a village where there is another Peace Corps. Cross your fingers for us, maybe we’ll have people to play with.

3-19 Teaching Tae Soo Do

One of my great passions for the last several years has been training in Martial Arts.  It has meant a great deal to me and I am excited that I have the opportunity to pass some of that value along to people here.  I do believe that the school timetable is finally sorted out which means I can actually have a schedule.  With interested parties being spread out a bit, I have decided to be doing two classes a week in different villages.  Thursdays I walk over to Vanwooki and Fridays are in our home village of Vansemakul.  Hopefully, I will add a third at the school in Melsisi after I have talked to the school council.  As with everything here, this is happening on “island time.” 
I do have one adult student in Vanwooki who trains every week and another student who has come to several classes in our village.  There are three more men and one girl who have showed up once but have been at the gardens or otherwise occupied other times.  There are a lot more who have expressed interest.  Unfortunately here interest doesn’t always convert directly to attendance.
The kids are a whole different matter.  They show up, usually in a screaming, shrieking, giggling horde.  Firstly, I don’t speak their language.  One of the difficulties we deal with here in Vanuatu is that there are over a hundred languages spoken in the country.  We learn the common language of Bislama in training so we can communicate with most people.  The children learn Bislama in school, but in our area, they don’t teach exclusively in Bislama until third grade.  Until I learn local, directions are left to whatever translator happens to be around and gestures, and supplemented by the basic phrases I’ve memorized.  Being a physical skill, this is not an impossible task.  Their punches are improving and blocking is alright when they block at all.  The gymnastics skills are a big hit.  Eventually, the children will even stop running away from me. Most of the really little ones in Vansemakul have stopped crying when they look at me; this isn’t true in other villages. 
This brings us to the other issue and, interestingly, one of the reasons that martial arts could be such a good influence here: discipline.   The kids here are both more wild and more responsible than they are at home.  When they get old enough to be able to dress themselves (not that it always happens), feed themselves and ask for their needs to be met, they are left on their own.  On the other hand, they are expected to look after the younger kids, create havoc, and do any work any adult tells them to do.  When they are sent on errands, it’s a little like the boy from the Family Circus cartoons.  They’ll get there alright but it will involve going over, under, and through most everything remotely on the way through the neighborhood.  This is perfectly acceptable behavior, too.  They have to get the job done and if they don’t there will be punishment, but a few distractions on the way are totally normal.  All of which means that getting them to stay in a line, focus on one task or even show up in anything other than a screaming horde is pretty unrealistic.  I’m trying anyway.
Despite the wildness, there is a great enthusiasm to learn.  They are fearless about throwing themselves into cartwheels and handstands and they shriek with delight when they punch the targets.  They are physically active and fit children who are used to a level of roughness American children aren’t.  This is some of the best fun most of them have all week.
In starting to teach here, my respect for Do Joo Nim is only increasing.   I am teaching in a language I have not yet mastered or one I don’t speak at all, which is teaching me just how much of a challenge communication is.  Explaining philosophy and ethics in a language that just doesn’t have the vocabulary to tackle the task, adds a new level of challenge to the development of their understanding and commitment to the art.  Yet, I look at the flourishing community that Do Joo Nim created after starting in a foreign language and a foreign culture and I am inspired to work harder to accomplish what I can.
Additionally, this is where we train. It’s pretty gorgeous.
Then the sun goes down and we finish our workout to views like this every day.

Martial Arts

I am sure that this will come as a big surprise to absolutely everyone but I seem to have acquired a group of young boys as admirers. Seems that a bit of showing off with forms will impress kids (boys especially) just about anywhere and make them want to learn. I hadn’t really planned to but I’ve been running some classes as our training schedule allows. The kids seem to be having a fantastic time so far and mostly get what I’m trying to tell them. There are some difficulties with my limited Bislama, especially when it comes to the words used to run a martial arts class which are, oddly enough, not quite in the vocabulary that they teach as basic language skills. Fortunately, I can do a good bit of showing and I do know how to say “you do it like this” so that can cover most of it. It helps greatly that the kids are so excited and eager to learn this stuff. I have also had some interest from adults, both locals and a few of the other volunteers which has allowed me to play a little more. Classes are a bit more loose at this point, given that I will not be staying here too much longer to continue running them. I am greatly encouraged with the reception thus far and look forward to establishing a regular class once we have our posting.