1-8 Retroactive: Fest Napuan

 Retroactive = All things Vanuatu that I haven’t had time to write due to finishing the book.

Arno, rocking out on stage.  (He’s a tutor at the youth center, too.)

Fest Napuan is an annual music festival in Vanuatu. It is a Big Deal for people in Vila or involved in the music scene in Vanuatu. The organizing committee selects 3-5 international bands and pays their way to Vanuatu and there are competitions for Vanuatu bands to win slots in the performance schedule.

The first night is known as Fest Nalenga and is run by Wan SmolBag Youth Center. Needless to say, it was insane. Early on, they asked if I, and the photo class, would like to do the photography. I said yes, then made them promise that it would be me and photo class doing it, not having it co-opted by an outside organization. They agreed that the outside organization would have no claim on us, so I happily went ahead with organizing 4 nights of photography class.

She tried to get people to dance.  It was hilarious.

We arrived at Saralana Park around 5 on Thursday. We took lots of pretty pictures of the sunset, the stalls and other such things while waiting for the bands to show up. The bands showed up and we continued taking lots of pretty pictures. I got some pretty great ones of the hip hop dancers (though I was shooting on WSB’s camera, not mine), and we had a good time.

She rocked the dancing on stage.  It was great.

We had to beg a bit to get media passes for the next three nights, but we made it work. The organizers were, justifiably, unwilling to give just anyone a pass. So, my co-teacher asked very nicely if his pass could extend to cover his students. They agreed that as long as his students were well-behaved, it wouldn’t be an issue. We made sure they were well-behaved. I got to know the security guard on our little corner, so over the next few nights, he recognized me and the students. (He is now teaching our martial arts class, but that’s a different story.)

The youth learned a latin-style dance.

The music was excellent all week. It varied from string band to reggae to a group for Madagascar doing a local music/reggae fusion thing and a group from someplace in central Africa (I’ve forgotten where) that did a fantastic local music and drums/rock fusion. The headliners were Rise of the Morning Star, a music group made up of people from all over the South Pacific who are raising awareness of the Free West Papau movement, and Stan and the Earth Force, the top reggae band in the South Pacific. Though I enjoyed both those groups, the all-women’s ground was my favorite. The lead singer was not afraid to dance, to jump

out in the crowd and to use her music to tell people to respect women, end domestic violence and educate their daughters. They were pretty great.

Despite working a full week, I still went and ran my photo class (and practiced my own photography, while listening to great live music) from 5pm-10pm every night. Saturday we stayed even later. By Sunday, I was completely wiped out.

Stan and the Earth Force

Let me rant for a short time. I made it very clear to my students that there are a few rules of being a professional.

  1. Do not block the view of the audience. They are not here to see your bum, they are here to watch the performers.
  2. Do not use a flash. Figure out how to use the available light to make an interesting photo. The flash is distracting to the performers and often makes the photo look flat.
  3. Be respectful of the organizers and security personnel. If they tell you to move, move.

I consider these rules to be the absolute basics of being a professional. (Well, I guess more basic would be, “Be respectful of other performers, crew and, you know, everybody.”) I wish all the organizations had chosen to teach their students those basics. Or failing that, would have at least taught their students how to use their camera well enough to turn off the flash in low-light so that they had the option of shooting that way.

Ok, without spoiling the names of the organizations, I’m done ranting.

It was a fun week full of music. It was also an exhausting week full of teaching and working. You might ask what Jason was doing while I was busy teaching photography classes? He was drinking kava with our brothers. Sometimes, he’d even bring me a shell.

10-14 Trash Talk!

How long does it take for popo skin to decompose?
My job in the last year has been focused on trash. I spend a lot of time talking about trash and compost and other such goodness. It isn’t nearly as fun to write blog posts about trash as it was to write blog posts about sex. That’s why there has been less work-related things on the blog. But, here goes another update on work.
My counterpart, Brian, and I got noticed back when we did the trash boats. Since then, we’ve been working on some fairly public stuff. Most recently, we’ve been part of a team effort to change the solid waste management system in the mamas’ market.
A few quick numbers on waste management in Vila. The downtown mamas’ market produces 55 metric tons of rubbish each week. The smaller Freshwota market produces 515 kgs of rubbish each day. Of that rubbish, 97% is compostable materials such as coconut husks, leaves, cabbage stems and coconut leaf baskets. The average single-family home in Vila produces about 15 kgs of waste that is about 50% compostable each week.
Peak Tire of Mount Trash.  (More on Peak Tire later)
These numbers are important for a two reasons that I understand enough to explain. The first is that we live on a small island. Land is scarce and needed for food production, especially as town is growing and the import/export difference is not in Vanuatu’s favor. The Municipal dump was meant to last 100 years. At current rates, it will fill up in 20-30 years. This is due to the speed at which Port Vila is growing and that it is the only dump available so everyone uses it, not just people inside Municipal boundaries.
The second reason also has to do with food production. The soil in Vanuatu is extremely rich. It is the kind of rich that makes fence posts sprout. Historically, the ground has been managed using a system that in the US would be called permaculture. (Here, it’s just called farming.) The crops are mixed together and plots are rotated every 4-7 years to allow fallow time. Due to increased demand and people’s interest in winning cash money, the fallow times are shortening or disappearing entirely. At the moment, the soil is rich enough to sustain this, but it is only a matter of time before this impacts yields. Replenishing the soil now by using compost will ensure continued fertility for future generations.

Minister of the Environment, putting his rubbish away.

So, back to the market. The previous system was to heap up all the trash – organic, inorganic, and recyclable – in a couple of major places. After a few days, scrape it up with shovels and move it to where the Municipal truck can reach it. The Municipal truck would come through “twice a week” (kinda, sorta, maybe) and scoop all the now-rotting trash up into a truck that would take it away to the town dump. The market smelled like sewage and rotting food (not helped by the sewer that runs in front of the market).
The new system is a bit more complicated. The mamas, or whoever is throwing away garbage, separates the waste as they throw it away. There are 55 gallon drums placed around the market with pictures of vegetables, tin cans or plastic. The person throwing away the waste, puts the right kind of rubbish in the right bin. Municipal will carry away the green waste every day (right now it is taking 2 trips a day). They will remove the other waste twice a week. The green waste is going to Rainbow Gardens where it will be used as compost or pig food.
Painted drums to show where things go.  It isn’t working.

Brian and I fit into this in the education side. We’ve been running “awarenesses” about decomposition, compost and rubbish separation. We started by creating a timeline that showed how long it takes different kinds of garbage to decompose. (Newspaper = 3 weeks, plywood = 3 years, cigarette filter =3-5 years, biodegradable plastic bag = 13 years, etc.) Our next lesson was all about compost. We took samples of raw materials, half-composted material and fully composted material and asked the mamas to guess what was in the half-composted stuff. We also explained how they can make this at their house to improve their yields. A lot of the flower farmers already use compost, but the vegetable farmers don’t much. Now, we are focusing on appropriate waste separation. Before you think this is too basic, keep in mind there is a problem in using the toilet properly. As in, which way to sit and where the toilet paper goes. Seriously.
The new system took effect last week. I left and went to Pentecost. I’ll see how it is going when I get back to Vila. We have 2 more weeks of educational activities, then it is up to the city to maintain the system. Cross your fingers that we’ve done enough and this takes off.

Waste in the right drum!

8-15 Jason’s Going to be a Star! (Or maybe just a two-bit bully)

Behind the scenes of a bus crash.

 Love Patrol is a soap opera produced by Wan SmolBag. It was started to try to open up conversations about HIV/AIDS and STIs. It did pretty well and was granted a few more seasons. Now, it is a venue to talk about all sorts of nastiness. The most recent topics have ranged from domestic violence to police corruption to corrupt foreign investment and mafia involvement in politics. It airs all across the Pacific and is the basis for the sex ed curriculum in Fiji. Most recently, it got a slot on Australian TV.

Taking notes.  The director is on the far right.

A few months ago, my boss asked me and another volunteer at lunch if we knew any white men who would like to be in Love Patrol. He went on to say that the parts that needed filling were the sleazy investor and the mafia hitman. (As a side note, there are no positive roles for white people in the show. I don’t not like this, I think it is just a different kind of racism and a poor portrayal of people who are doing good things. Especially given that the writer and producer are white people and the organization runs on the backs of a small number of volunteers along side the large number of skilled local staff. I digress.)

I suggested Jason. I figured he’d get a kick out of being a mafioso. He went in for the audition. The director cut him off before his scene was finished. He got the part. According to my inside sources (I gossip with the crew all the time) Jason’s audition was great and they knew he’d get that part from the beginning.

The Good Take (on try #4)

So, now Jason is playing a Russian mafioso on a soap opera. He doesn’t have too many lines, but he’s not exactly silent, either. Much like his stint with the Comedia del’Arte troop at Fest, he spends a lot of time lurking in the background looking evil and not a lot of time speaking. Also like the Comedia del’Arte show, his character is a big jerk. Directors keep seeing a bully in him.

His first shoot was Sunday night. I hung out on set with him and my work colleagues and took a few pictures. It was fun. He only had one shot to do on Sunday, so we finished “early” at 10:30 pm. I expect future shoots to run a lot later. The crew hasn’t been finished before 1:30 am in the last three weeks.

Just to give you a hint of the drama…dead body!

So, Jason has a new hobby (bullying people) and a new career (soap opera villains). I have a new source of entertainment (teasing Jason about the above.) Vanuatu continues to provide us with opportunities we would never have in the US. Which is pretty neat.

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.

7-20 Work Trip Rollercoaster

 I’m in Santo. I came up north on Thursday morning and will be staying for a week.

Setting up the CD player
Brian and I are visiting schools around Santo to check on, and encourage, their Environment Committees. We should be hitting 2 schools a day every weekday and one school as an overnight because its out of town. When I’m not at the schools, I’m teaching poi spinning and recycled arts class in the youth center. It’s going to be a busy week. Unfortunately, it got off to a rough start.
Thursday morning, I left Vila. I had to get up at 5am to catch the plane. That is never a good start to my day. Then, when we arrived in Lugainville, we discovered that I did not, in fact, have a hotel room. The hotel had mis-booked us. We decided to leave our stuff in Brian’s room and go drop letter off at the schools. Brian grabbed the letters, only to realize they were empty envelopes and he’d forgotten the letters in Vila.
We stopped by the northern branch of Wan SmolBag, Northern Care Youth Clinic (NCYC), long enough to write and print new letters, then went around to the schools dropping them off. Because there is no mail system, no reliable internet and no landlines, the best way to inform a school we are coming is to go to the school and drop off a letter. We tried to get a hold of anyone in the one school we couldn’t easily drive to. We failed.
Friday morning, we went to the first school. It was a great success. The students were curious and engaged, the head mistress was excited to have us there and the teacher came to our lesson. The teacher even came up with ideas for the environment committee to do for their next lesson, without my giving them to her.
Friday midday, we found out that our plans for Friday afternoon had just fallen through. So, instead, I went to NCYC. I thought I’d teach a poi spinning class. Turns out, I walked head first into a massive hornet’s nest of politics. Ugh. I spent all afternoon discussing the situation with various people. At the end, the youth center coordinator and I decided out best option was to go to the “fire show” that was on for the evening. We didn’t actually know when it started, but we had a person in the village who would call us when they were announced.
I left NCYC and went to meet someone at a bar. This person usually drinks at this bar on Friday evenings, and I want to contact him. I didn’t have any other contact information, so I went to the bar and stood around awkwardly. Eventually, I discovered he was not there.
Fire spinning
The youth center coordinator called me and I met her on the road. We went to the fire show. It was not bad, but it was also not good. Then we decided to drink some kava. Then our taxi forgot us, for two hours. We drank a lot of kava. Our taxi did eventually come back for us. I got back to my hotel at 11 pm.
If the rest of the week is this much of a roller coaster, I’m going to need like a week to recover when I get back.

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.]

6-13 The Joys of Youth Work

The last few weeks have seen an uptick in insanity in the Youth Center. Not the fun kind of insanity.

I work with at-risk youth. On a guess, I would say that 50% of the older boys have had some kind of run in with the police, mostly for marijuana charges. The girls are less likely to attract official attention but they have an equal number of risk factors. This is the world I work in, so keep these stories in that context.
The Youth Center has a regular population of about 200. I mean that about 200 of the same youth come through the youth center at least once a week. There are another 100-200 that comes wandering in and out like erratic planets in the solar system. With that many teenagers, and that many hormones, we have about a fight a month. Sometimes it is just a swearing any maybe a slap and sometimes it goes a lot further. Similarly, with that many people, we have occasional thefts of petty things like cell phone chargers, portable speakers and flipflops. (Flipflops are an obnoxiously common theft, actually.) For the most part, the youth trust each other and respect the space. They get the golden rule.
The last two weeks have seen a rash of thefts, fights and other misbehavior. We’ve had 4 major thefts totalling 16000 vatu (~160 USD) and 2 laptops. There has also been an increase in smaller thefts. We’ve had three public fist fights and 2 incidences of public drunkness as well as a squad-wide bender and 2 sexual harassment complaints. (Again for context, there has been a general surge in all of these in Vila over the last few weeks. It is cooler, people are out of their houses more and we are leading up to Independence Day, the week-long, country-wide party.) Though I am not happy with the increase in issues, I’m also not unhappy with the response from them.
A lot of the issues revolve around Vanua Fire. For the most part, they are a good group of talented young performers. Rather than the Youth Center or SmolBag saying to the squad, “You can’t do this,” or, “You need to kick out those people,” they met to discuss the problem. They didn’t meet just with the ringleaders of the group or just with the trouble makers. They met with the entire group. They did ask for the removal of any one person but left it up to the group to decide how to go forward.
In forcing the Vanua Fire to make the decision about how they will proceed, the youth in Vanua Fire are taking responsibility for their own actions. They are in charge of the results over the next few months and they will be responsible for any further incidents. It is a subtle way of forcing the youth to cease being youth and become leaders. The Vanua Fire group are admired and respected by other youth and by the public around Vanuatu. This is a chance for them to start to grow into that respect.

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.


6-2 Photo round up: Miscellany May

Dragon breath at Mele Beach Bar
Jason and Ferrid “Hurricane” Kheder who came to train us.  Pretty cool guy.

A new tourist attraction behind WSB includes wildlife.  The invasive kind.

And wildlife of the less wild kind.

My new photo class is catching on to the idea of angles.  And of photo bombing.
I tried for this shot for like 15 minutes.  Jimmy didn’t mind, he got to practice his juggling.

5-27 Boat Race Photo Round up version

I threatened them that they would have to swim if their boat lost an garbage.  Patis found a kayak and played garbage man instead.  Smart boy.

On the winner’s stand. 
The first two people in this boat found it a bit too tippy.  Manuella got forward motion.

The crew of Apu Reggae (Reggae grandchild/grandparent).

MAN OVERBOARD!  Look for his legs behind Apu Reggae…

And then Apu Reggae took a turn for the deep water and scared up a school of fish.  Apu Reggae had a few problems.

Transporting boats back to the starting line.  It was too hard to paddle when they stacked all the boats together, so instead they swam.

Ok, I swear I’m done writing about the boat race now.  Though, just to put this out there, the boat race has been in the paper for two weeks in a row.  Hurray good PR!