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|Friday, October 17th, 2008|
|A brush with... the WORST job ever! A dramatization of real life events.
... name's and locations have been altered to protect the innocent.
Imagining another move in almost a year, I was ready to be self-determined and pursue a position that would blend my research skills, conservation interests and fascination with marine environments. I posted a letter and resume to the water quality and water-borne pathogen laboratory at my new graduate school. The professor was teaching an environment, climate change and public health course and happened to spear-head several research projects including the "bivalve mollusc project," loosely related to pathogen transmission from marine organism consumption. I enrolled in the course and interviewed for the position in her lab. It was thrilling to land an interview and then be offered the position within two weeks of moving to Atlanta. Everything was exciting but familiar and had excellent prospects of training me to be a competent laboratory technician.
A going away party was held for a former graduate student leaving the laboratory for a riskier and more technical virology bio-safety level 3 position at the CDC. The lunch was humbling and bizarro at the same time. A remark from the other end of the table contrasted the reason for the occasion. An academic, unrelated to the person for whom the party was given, was going to the CDC. "He'll be back in a week! The bureucracy is so bad over there!" It seemed like such a strange comment to hear, though truly valid if you're doing any sort of management in a federal level agency. To redirect the attention, one of my sweet friendly new colleague's asked "What's the worst job you've ever had?" The juxtaposition of this independent remark struck me. I shared my story about performing sea-mammal necropsies and having to sort through the intestines/stool to collect the remaining parasites in the carcass. Then finished my soda and snacks.
Training proceeded normally, yet this position didn't feel 'right' any more. I couldn't put my finger on it. I was happy that it involved genetics skills and required agility in a laboratory setting. I fully realized that it involved extracting virus from human clinical trial samples, blood, saliva and feces. However, I was certain that the feces samples were processed into small microbiology sample preservative jars by the patients. Should have asked for clarification. We went to pick-up the samples at the research hospital. Whole turds in a double bagged plastic container. I will emphasize, it was VERY sanitary and professionally done through a leading research hospital. But I was facing my deepest scatological fears of having to weigh and cryogenically store human fecal samples.
Even though this was about 20% or less of the requirements of the position I half laughed/cried at my sister's kitchen table one evening, "I'm a human poo librarian!" To feel so naive and vulnerable only created cathartic embarassment after I had researched, pursued and trained for the position. I liked the people I worked with and even though the head researcher did not actually become involved with my environment and public health coursework, she is an expert in a field that I wanted to explore. I had to face the music that five years away from the laboratory had been harmonizing ever since. I needed to pursue my interests and not the safety of the skills I was comfortable with.
I left the group after our brief relationship on very amiable terms and am now working on the next steps of climate change vulnerability assessment for rural communities. It's through an international NGO that has operated in 122 countries over the course of 150 years. Currently, it is headquartered in downtown Atlanta. The position has a lot of freedom and a lot of unknown's. I will be spending the next several months getting familiar with the culture of this agency and hope to collaborate with other's in the field of climate change vulnerability assessment. Therefore, I am now developing the career in environmental work that has relevance to human health issues that has also been a dream of mine from childhood. That is another story altogether.
|The BEST job ever! Land locked.
After months of trying to break into the employment scene of Denver, Colorado, I was thrilled to apply for jobs at REI, WholeFoods, coffee shops and other cash-flow generating activities. Never have been a bartender or waiter and sadly my life-guarding certifications were ten years old. It must be stated, I worked hard at state level conservation agencies in Florida, in laboratories at my alma-mater and overseas as a fishing/entrepreneur-ism/conservation trainer. But, I needed to start-up again after being away for two years. I envisioned being the informed and service oriented sales clerk at the REI flagship superstore, in my favorite part of the Denver across from confluence park on the S. Platte R. Or! I was going to use my two years of overseas fisheries experience to be the best service oriented sea-food attendant that Whole Foods had ever had. I could have walked right to work in Cherry Creek past all of the coffee shops and banks.
Then, I got the call from the Downtown Aquarium. I had also applied to be a life support systems operator behind the scenes. The division relies heavily on monitoring and troubleshooting the four most critical systems of industrial water quality in eleven main exhibits and numerous small displays as well as the chemical levels of the exhibits. I like to describe it now as "habitat engineering." I finally got to meet my supervisor, he was bearded and weathered like a sea captain. I was right in thinking that he'd be a tough manager, busy and commanding, but also a great person to know. Hard to explain, but it's the job I wanted since I was a child and went to go see the Baltimore Aquarium. I was ten and had no idea about sea-life or sea-water, but I could see how alive, vibrant and deadly it could be all in the blink of an eye, behind the acrylic divider between ocean and imagination.
Waking-up at 430 each morning, or more importantly going to bed early each night, was not a burden but a healthy discipline. When the weather warmed and the morning sunrise afforded a safe passage to the bike path, I was off to work on my bicycle to start at 6 am so the aquarium could be ready for guests. Can you believe it! A workplace that people WANT to come see. That made me laugh everyday to have a position that allowed kids to imagine a coral reef, a mangrove forest, a healthy native river or an ocean. Visitors could learn more about conservation or just watch the sleeping tigers.
Presenting an illusion for imaginary play was hard work, hard to manage and hard to make profitable. There was conflict, petty in-fighting, resentment and other forms of work/human relationship wreckage. Ultimately, the position at this particular aquarium could not provide incentives/benefits to keep employees long enough for stability, and many that stayed had understandable angst. Nonetheless, the perk of working at the aquarium was that if you didn't always get along with a co-worker, you could throw them into the shark tank. It was very gratifying.
Lastly, I worked predominantly with guys. It was an environment where you could see our greatest strengths and worst traits all at once. We are often derided for our faults, but never our virtues. The same qualities that create gangs of young men in inner cities, or bonding on a battlefield also make every male protective of their families and leaders in the community. Though the two sides of the coin are drastically different, it's still the same coin. I find it gratifying to accept that, challenging to direct that energy and amazing to see how good men are at problem solving in groups.
The satisfaction of the position merely resulted from the physical activity, creativity, conservation work, visitor friendly environment, problem solving and my undying curiosity with marine life and our relationship with the ocean. It was gratifying to be physically and mentally exhausted everyday and wake-up to do it again each morning.
|Monday, July 28th, 2008|
Gymnastics was a component of my service as a cross-cultural experience that helped tune me into the Ni-Vanuatu values and how they perceive the world. I'd initially performed gymnastics during the afternoon entertainment for Father's Day 2005 in response to several months of copra (dry coconut meat) hauling, taro gardening, kava planting and soccer games that exhausted me and still didn't seem to get me anywhere proving that white people are not china dolls that break easily. At the time it seemed most important to me do dispel stereotypes as quickly as they arose. Instead, I learned how long it takes to dispel stereotypes (generations) and only reinforced others (Americans must all be ninjas).
It became popular among the chiefs of my island to request my presence and performance of the tumbling stunts of handstands, round-offs, back-handsprings and back-flips. I felt like a defeated circus act that no-one would take seriously unless I was the afternoon's entertainment. I adapted. I consented only if they would permit me to teach a group of the kids to participate with me. We would jump rope, do back walk-overs, somersaults. Mostly, I declined because it felt inappropriate and I didn't want to spend two years being a traveling gymnastics school and performer.
Consequently, the head-mistress of the Nikaura Primary School invited me to teach the children regularly at the school. This seemed like a way that I could support the local school, and maybe interest kid's in going to school more often. It was very agreeable to accept her request, and I loved working with the kids. I felt like I could use this odd talent to reinforce important shared cultural values like education. I only consented again to doing the routine after my friend Jennifer Harris visited my site and held two workshops separately for young men and young women promoting women's rights, domestic violence prevention and adolescent reproductive health education. I wanted to to say thank you to the chiefs and the mamas for hosting us and taking good care of us and show them how important I felt that those workshops were.
I'd been relaying this anecdote of being asked to tumble at every event on the island and how frustrating it was to a group of friends at our annual All-Volunteer conference last year. The message got crossed and I was excitedly asked if I was going to do gymnastics at the talent contest. I laughed. Clearly, I'd been a little too concerned with messages and not enough on having fun. I signed-up for the talent night in between my friend's fire stick dance and the comical interpretive dancer. It was fun, helped relieve some pressure, and I got good feedback.
Returning to the All-Volunteer conference this year, I was closing in on the end of my service. I was thrilled with some of the friendships that grew exponentially over the last year and had some great independent workshops. Some of the boys from my village and I had been learning-from-our-mistakes setting up fish markets and were having a lot of fun. I had been able to initiate and develop the format of a training for Peace Corps Vols and Ni-Vanuatu to reinforce conservation areas as the heart of fisheries development and an important part of a solution to declining high value marine snail populations that have a mediocre response to alternative and highly technical breeding trials. It will be going ahead at the end of June, thankfully, but I will not be in attendance.
I was on the fence this year about doing a gymnastics routine. There was no pressure, nothing to prove, no-one to impress. But I saw the stage the night of the talent contest. The stage was small and I was sure that I wouldn't be able to tumble... unless. It occurred to me that I might be able to flip from the adjoining counter to the stage. I'd been tumbling without shoes for two years, so why would I give doing a simple back flip without shoes a second thought? The impulse struck to do a back-flip, immediately, to see if it would be possible. I climbed to a "practice" counter away from the stage and had asked my friend to spot me. I flipped, stuck the landing, but immediately felt pain standing up. So I curled to the ground and put my legs up. My friend Jessica helped me to the cooler pool waters where I drowned my leg. The staff brought over ice immediately.
Denial sank in as fast as the ice began numbing my foot. I was sure I would be walking on the leg within a week. To save face, I even mustered up a handstand contest to perform in the talent contest. God bless the two volunteers that helped me out and let me win! In reality, I had a complicated fracture and displacement of my right heal bone. It required the Peace Corps to medically evacuate me to the United States for assessment, surgery and physical therapy.
Goodbyes were fast, but it seems as though fate was on my side. I got to see some critical people including my counterpart, my friends that did the fish markets with me, and my host sister and niece as they had recently arrived in Port Vila for church related work. My departure may actually be somewhat of a catalyst for my counterpart to realize his critical role in the June training (he doesn't realize that every comment he's ever made to me helped shape the ideas for and necessitated the training, but I hope he will either in spite of or because of my efforts) My swift departure underscored my determination to return someday, not because things didn't finish neatly and in an organized fashion, but because I think I genuinely care for my friends in the village and I think they feel the same way. I think that there are still a lot of things I can do via e-mail to assist my friends back in Vanuatu that will be running the training.
So far, the surgery has been straightforward. There is one plate and seven screws lined up like a bicycle chain in my heal bone. Otherwise, I'm starting to think about the next step. I'll be in Denver for the next several months. I hope to begin a PhD program at the University of Miami next fall and will be working on applications along with my physical therapy as soon as possible.
The question still remains, to those with either a curious mind or that know me socially, "Was Mike drunk?" I will only respond ... not nearly drunk enough, but actually not at all. I am grateful for the events that I was able to experience in Vanuatu and pleased with the friends I worked with, worked for and served with that will hopefully be long term contacts.
Would love to hear from you all, hope that you are healthy and well.
Mike Dirks 05/2007
P.S. I found my black passport holder that I lost upon arrival in Vanuatu. It was a gift from Mr and Mrs. Walters and turned up in the belt of my travel backpack, that had gone unnoticed for two years.
|conclusion of vanuatu 12/17/2006
Americans are petrified of sharks, and I am red-blooded in the sense of sharing that awestruck fear and fascintation with all forms of these predators.
I have progressed in my friendship with Philip to the point that he's very straightforward with me and he even saw me "fit" enough when I wanted to join the crew going night spear fishing. I have had so many internal conflicts with how to approach most of the things I disagree with here, but have slowly come to realize that I have to participate in some of these things to create any dialogue. I do disagree with night spearfishing, it's not only dangerous, but it's bad fisheries management to shoot sleeping parrotfish. It also leads to activities such as spearing sea turtles. Philip has explained to me, after some boys were caught roasting a sea turtle in the bush one night that he has advised the villages to eat only male turtles. It seems like a reasonable compromise except that the law stipulates an enormous fine and jail time for this. I imagine it's sort of like the Inuit hypothetically making their own government in the arctic and deciding to ban whale meat, in the sense that they are both an endemic peoples with a traditional food source. However, spearfishing is not a traditional hunting method and there are plenty of other meat sources here.
Which we were out to pursue on the night Philip came to borrow a dive mask. "Philip, I've told you I think that night spearfishing is ..." " NOGUD!" he interjected with a pearly white grin. "No," I hate when people put words into your mouth, "I think it's a bad fisheries management strategy." Meanwhile, butterflies are swirling in my gut as I scramble to find my dive light and swim shorts by candlelight.
Down by the beach we build an enormous bonfire to keep our bearing of the shoreline from the ink black water and midnight spectral explosion of stars across the sky. In the light of the bonfire we can see the gill net stretched out from the stones on the beach and the flickering flashlights trace a dusky two meter form that turns sharply from the net. "Shark-shark-shark-shark-shark!" I couldn't be sure if the three young men I followed were hoping to capture the shark for food or chase it away from the net before it shredded it to pieces. I was glad that their adrenaline shrilled cries and frantic race over the stones chased it away so it couldn't attempt to shred us to pieces. We returned to the fire and prayed. As an afterthought, the boy with the speargun told us if we see a shark to shine it in the eye and follow the eye as it turns away, turn off dive light and swim away fast. I didn't bring up the shark's ability to sense our every movement in the dark, and I figured we'd be better off relying on the prayer.
The dive lights provide much better illumination in the dark water than on land and I watched my friends chase and capture mullet, lobster, enormous crab, or anything that moved bare handed. I caught a crab, but hadn't worked up the guts to fish out a spiny lobster from a dark hole. The current pushed us along and our lights captured the small organisms alert on the reef and the confetti storm of annelid worms spiraling like streamers in our beams. However, the large waves that crested on our course may as well have crashed down from the darkness of the sky. With very little warning, my limbs were stretched in different directions, a flipper removed and a blizzard of bubbles scattering a white-out of the flashlight beam surrounded my rolling body as I searched for a stone to steady my hand on. I slipped in to a pool where the waves weren't breaking and found Philip, laughing as we both spit out seawater. We separated from the boy with the speargun after seeing him splatter fish tissue and blood while removing the wire of his spear. We continued to shore after about two hours on the reef in the darkness.
At the embers of our bonfire, we threw a few lobsters on the coals to roast. Freshly cooked lobster, no butter, no soup and it was the best thing I think I've ever eaten. The moonrise began as an eery glow like orange embers of the fire. I confess, one of the reasons I wanted to be in the Peace Corps in the Pacific was to see at least one "Blue Planet" event in my lifetime and I think that it worked me over pretty well that night.
I think a lot about the spearfishing and the conservation areas. I've learned that I'm much better at the technical component of these issues and less of an educator in the ways of sustainable resource management. As I was on the Brooklyn cargo ship again, a year anniversary from the last voyage to Port Vila, I decided I want to work on a simple fishing workshop next year. I have three that I really want to offer that address coastal erosion and landslides; environmental education booklets in local language made on the island by the villagers; and the fishing component of trap making and fish smoking. The last is the most technical and I've already started constructing a fish trap with three other boys in my village who will help me out in the workshops. I'll teach how to smoke fish so that they can get fish meat to the local markets if they want to cut-in on the tin-fish products sold everywhere in Vanuatu. It's easier and cheaper to get tinned fish than freshly caught fish! That is not right, yet the fact that I was on a "transport/cargo" ship that is actually a converted fishing boat should explain more about the state of fisheries in Vanuatu.
Have a Merry Christmas and holiday season,
|conclusion of vanuatu 12/2006
I made it to Vila safely on the Brooklyn (cargo ship), to Port Vila last Friday. A lengthy comparison with last year's boat ride will be forthcoming, but I wanted to get to all the travel details of Vanuatu firsthand. As I remembered Paul Theroux musing in his book "The Happy Isles of Oceania," a tourist doesn't know where he's been, a traveler doesn't know where he is going. I thought it sounded nice, but I decided to do an itinerary anyway. However, especially in Vanuatu, you will be travelers and not tourists because even though all the logistics are worked out, I have no idea what we're going to encounter.
Sydney- don't know how it worked out this way, but it did, I arrive one day earlier and leave one day earlier than you guys. That's okay, because it will give me a day to get ready for your arrival in Vanuatu. The only important thing I need you to remember and remind me of is that I have to be at the Sydney airport at five o'clock in the morning on the 23rd.
Mike's flight - Sydney- Brisbane 0635-0705 flt.# QF1132
I have booked all of our flights to Epi this morning and saved us 150 bucks!
24Dec. - Jesus is born and the Dirks family arrives in Port Vila to stay at the Hideawey Resort.
25Dec. - Question - do you want to spend five hours in buses rounding the island of Efate and get to roast lunch on the beach or stay on our island, snorkel as we please and either eat picnic style on the beach or from the hotel's kitchen? Tell me if you want option one (round island on bus) or two (chill on the beach).
26Dec. - Fly to Lamen Bay Epi and take half hour truck to Nikaura Sunrise Bungalows. Yay! THIS IS GOING TO BE LIKE CAMPING WITH A REALLY GOOD COOK.
27Dec. - go greet chiefs in my village and maybe catch a glimpse of preparations for a Vanuatu wedding!
28Dec. - Wedding in Nuvi! This is the biggest cultural event to see on Epi. We lucked out that we'll be there, and it's for a friend of mine. We need to be on the truck by three o'clock to get to Epi Island Guesthouse by five. Eat and sleep.
29Dec. - Fly to Vila, probably stay at Hotel Hibiscus guest house.
30Dec. - Fly to New Zealand, and my work as tourguide is finished.
There are some things that I really need to accomplish during our travels, that mostly involve purchasing supplies in Sydney (GPS, new digital Camera, replace a tent). However, I would like us to greet the NINE chiefs in my village in a respectful manner which will include giving of gifts that you all can help me with. Can each of you bring two inexpensive waterproof watches? My host parents are awesome too, if you could help me find cheap flashy sunglasses for my host dad and a nice crockwear pot for my host mom, that would be wonderful. A gift for the wedding would be good too, but that could be a nice blanket from the following request.
Please remember I'm in an a good position to help out in my community, but don't want to overgive and create jealousy. However, we have a great chance to give aid appropriately. One thing my community always needs are second hand clothes. They wear through them really quickly going to the gardens and washing them by hand every week. Please, everyone, fill up a garbage bag of blankets, long trousers, any lightly worn shirts, sweat shirts, knit caps or garments that you haven't worn in over a year and bring it with you. I plan to sell each item through the local cooperative store for a fair price and use the money for community projects. Yes, we could just give the clothes away, but that is charity and charity is not a concept that creates good feelings here and will put me in a position I don't want to be in. Besides they like having the chance to pour over items and make purchases. I would really appreciate it if each of you could bring a garbage bag of your salvation army stuff with you in addition to your luggage.
Luggage will be our biggest point of stress. I can tell you from experience, bring only the things that you need that are brightly colored so they don't get lost (water bottle, flashlight, moneybelt, minimal toiletries, pack towel, sunscreen, anti-malarial meds,bugspray). Back off on the make-up, jewelry and fragrant toiletries, it will just be wasted space. Anything you forget, or just don't want to make an international flight with, we can pick up in Sydney. Better yet, leave as much of it in America as you can. A good rule of thumb for all clothing items is one-to-wash-one-to-wear-and-one-to-spare.
Don't bring more than three shirts, shorts, underwear, socks. We are going to be travelers, so it's okay to rewear clothes a lot and take fifteen minutes to do laundry in the sink every few days. All shoes must be broken in sufficiently. DO NOT SHOW UP WITH BRAND NEW SHOES! Tara got the worst blisters of her life because of that.
In New Zealand and Sydney there will be opportunities to dress nicely, but don't bring more than one outfit of nice clothes. In Vanuatu, brightly colored shirts for men (wacky Dave shirts) and brightly colored full length dresses for women are the fashion. We can suntan and stuff on the island, but it would be good if all the girls had some surfboard shorts to throw on while going to the beach, and definitey need a wrap-around sarong or skirt to go in the village. Please, nothing too form fitting.
The last category is the chill factor, I don't anticipate it being too cold, but sometimes a long sleeved fleece, knit cap, and wind breaker are such nice comforts when the wind picks up or after a swim.
E-mail me last minute questions, I want to make a check-list of all this lengthy information and send it in the next few days. I really appreciate your help and hope this e-mail doesn't seem bossy, I just want our presence on the island to give the most straight forward impressions we can.
Miss you guys and love you,
|conclusion of vanuatu 07/2006
The news is spreading quickly, it was already reported in the papers here, but truly you can read it on the locals faces already. They are very happy, and interesting to note that the United States ranked 150th out of 178 countries ranked.
Being happy is yet another cultural hurdle that you have to adjust to being here. I know it sounds strange, but it was really hard for me at first. People laugh constantly at the smallest things, and I didn't understand why you had to laugh at things that just weren't funny. You can comment to someone that they are "fatfat gud" and get a chuckle even if they haven't gained an ounce of weight. It's neither a compliment nor a cruel remark to be "fatfat" it's just one of hundreds of buzzwards that people use in Bislama that signal you are supposed to laugh.
Ni-Vanuatu don't just chuckle, that's an understatement. They howl, squeal and sing out. If a group of young are really on top of their game squealing like little girls, it can really catch you off guard. But, you can tell when they are tired because the laughs become so automated and cliche. My host dad for instance is around sixty years old and always has things on his mind and people to boss around. He helps his son, the paramount chief, run a rather large community of people. He forgets to laugh sometimes until my host mom prompts him by inserting an "A-Whoa!" at the end of his tyrade and then he too will huff "a - whoa," rather mechanically.
Every once in a while you can see that people are trying to rationalize your culture through their world view, which brings me back to the point of America being the 150th "happiest" country on earth. Out of the blue one afternoon, one of my peers hurriedly sat next to me on my crushed coral walkway and said "White people aren't allowed to laugh, they have to walk around straight faced all the time and be very busy." I happened to be doing something inconsequential at the time and I was completely taken aback at the randomness of the comment and the fact that someone was trying to imagine what my culture might be like for them.
I do not try and "correct" people or explain my point of view to people anymore. As a matter of democratic fact, if my community has come upon an explanation for something, I would be the only one with a different opinion and therefore lose everytime. Plus, it would be insane and drive me to the brink of my own personal sanity to try and prove them wrong. This is a strategy I've tried and it does not improve your mental well being.
At the moment, I'm content just to grin at all of the hysterical things that set people off here. More importantly, it doesn't concern my community anymore that I don't laugh all the time. That's as much understanding as I think I'm going to get. I have compromised somewhat. People here grin so widely and show such beautiful ivory smiles, sometimes with toothless gaps, that I instinctively try to emulate them. I however reach a point where I can go no further and have to blink as an extension of a friendly acknowledgement.
Hope that you all are well and enjoying the summer. I'm glad that it is finally colder here, it's wonderful and makes me smile.
|conclusions of vanuatu 05/2006
No, it's true. It's not just a catchy subject line to make you feel good, I believe it. I got some encouraging responses to my last e-mail and it has made me think a lot over the last few months. "Just keep on trying to help..."
Which is really what it all is about. If there is a unified Peace Corps philosophy, which I doubt, but I think it would be something like 'just by living in the community, your helping, anything else is extra.'
One of the main problems in Vanuatu is that it has the highest per capita international aid of any country in the Pacific. It's a generous situation for a country that has an unbelievably generous culture. However, it has become common for the Ni-Vanuatu to associate westernized peoples as a source of "free" money, and they really DO NOT understand much about our cultures or heritages, and most times it's plain that they don't really care too. This I think is an important aspect of international aid, your recipients need to understand the fundamental basis and perspective for a westerner's concept of giving.
Therefore it's an acceptable Peace Corps philosophy to NOT write grants and use only local resources for your projects. However, in the end, there are actually a lot of needs here that can be addressed with foreign aid, and I think it's also an acceptable development philosophy to help people identify their needs and how best to allocate foreign aid to suit the needs. That's another challenge I thought I'd never meet, but I'm starting to write some grants for some of the work that I'm involved in.
One of the volunteer projects I'm most excited to work on is teaching gym class at a local primary school. Half the buildings don't have any rooves and will not likely be repaired because the school will have to be moved out of the tidal flood zone, but school continues. Most importantly, I get to use my surfboard to teach the kids how to surf. I haven't touched the board since I brought it, mostly because I'm afraid of sharks and being on the reef by myself. (Has it become clear that Vanuatu is a little isolated?) But I figured the school is right next to the best learning surf in the area and the pikinini would probably figure out how to surf faster than I could. I have to admit, I felt like the most kickass gym teacher the first day we went into the water.
I CHERISH working with the pikinini because they have such solid family support which is part of the reason they are responsible, enthusiastic, well behaved and respectful. I'm planning a sports camp at the end of November. It's a little frightening to have a deadline in a culture that has such an amorphous concept of time.
On that note, time is anything but linear here. The "island time" myth is a westerners perception of how things 'should be.' Realistically, there are many important measures of "Time" here that may only coincidentally have any relationship to standardized clocks and calendars. Sometimes these timescales have little to do with all the other measures of time. Consequently, I barely use my watches anymore, which has yet to cause major problems.
Sunrise is perhaps the most important time of day, it's when you rush to get chores done before the sun gets too hot. "Tu dak" when the sun sets behind our mountain ridges is the official quitting time for the day: you better have your food cooking on the fire and your chores done by this point. This is the cue for the kava preparations to commence as well.
The Pacific version of the New Year is signfied by the "New Yam." The yan crop requires a full year to produce and signifies the end of eating boiled bananas. It typically coincides with the time before Easter and this year it was directly on my Birthday. I would have gotten photos of the massive piles of yams, fruits and dead flying foxes for the festival, but those piles are kind of like pinatas. You have to rush to get your pick of the pile that's gone in a blink of an eye. But I almost laughed to tears at my brother in law teasing my toddler niece by chasing her with a dead flying fox. When she started to cry, he'd pick her up and console her and then start the whole show over again.
Monthly time cycles are always meticulously observed, especially the New Moon that promises some good evening rains for the gardens. Perhaps the best moon is the full moon that coincides with the lowest tide. The yangfala in the village grab their spears and head out onto the reef to spear what ever remains in the tide pools. When they brought a sea turtle to my door, I was relieved they hadn't speared it. The boys do eat turtle here, big surprise. We woke up the turtle monitor of the village so he could measure and tag it, which we then released. Although I didn't have a spear, I managed to nab an octopus bare handed, which is my favorite food here.
Seasonal cycles are fascinating here as well. Although, we're in the Southern Hemisphere and you'd think all the seasons would be backwards, this year it feels like only Winter and Summer are reversed, while Spring and Fall remain in place. It feels like a really nice spring right now, but we're heading into winter. However, these are the western seasons. I've learned that there are maybe four or more seasons that are watched here and they overlap. The most interesting of these are the "Taem blong Flae," and "Taem blong Diarrhea." The fly season means that there is an overabundance of every kind of fly derived from rotten fruit or animal and human feces. Especially in my village, you are surrounded by a swarm of flies from the morning until the night time. Thankfully, we are closing that season now, but I was again shocked that we are entering the diarrhea season. As you can guess, that season kicked off in a torrent last week before I got into Port Vila.
Hope everyone is well and enjoying the warm weather. Eat a hot dog, drink a beer (GOOD beer), and eat some pancakes for me.
|The conclusion of PC Vanuatu 03/2006
I have to offer a couple of apologies. First, I think the last e-mail was a little gross, but those were truthful highlights of Christmas Eve 2005. Second, I'm not able to download any photos yet, that will have to wait until May. That makes me sad, because I have some good ones.
I've come to the realization that my island and it's host nationals are in an ever busy cycle of preparing for the next party (marriages mostly), catching up on paying school fees for the children in the village, worshipping in their particular Christian denomination five or six times a week and keeping up with the demands of daily life. In short, most people are too busy to think about the small amount of volunteer work and training that I'm here to provide.
My solution has been to develop a newsletter, a flier really, that is meant to promote a lot of the good environmental projects that are already happening. I've decided to treat my volunteer work like it's a real job. Like starting my own environmental consulting firm. It's a reassuring delusion that let's my imagination run wild. Now I can think of the host nationals as "clients" that really need to be sold on why turtle monitoring, reef conservation and tree planting in gardens is also a sound business investment.
The flier is a lot of fun. I hope to put one out every month. Because many people are barely literate here, I draw it as a cartoon to spread news about the things other villages are doing to "invest" in their environment. I've got two months printed so far and hope to put one out every month.
Other big events include my mariculture project and REEF Check. The mariculture center is only in the purchasing materials phase. I'm driving myself nuts trying to figure out what kind of pump would be best suited for this small scale aquaculture training facility. All of the plumbing supplies we need to purchase depend on specs of the pump that we havent' even ordered yet. I thought my idea of building a wind-mill powered pump was DOA, but their are organizations like Engineers Without Borders that might be able to offer their services.
Reef Check is a simple monitoring tool meant to be conducted on the reefs belonging to the remote villages surrounding me. Because each village already has trained turtle taggers and environmental liaisons, I think it should be feasible for them to carry out the Reef Checks once I train them. Unfortunately, many of them don't have masks and snorkels let alone adequate supplies for turtle monitoring. I'm not terribly sympathetic, the village culture generally means that once a mask or other resource is purchased or supplies are bouught with foreign aid, everyone has access to that resource. It would seem contradictory to purchase a mask for someone to tag turtles when it will also be used by night time spear fisherman to indiscriminantly hunt giant sleeping parrotfish and grouper.
I find it fascinating that Vanuatu is an island nation, inhabited for the past 3,000 years and a fishing tradition has only begun to develop in the past 20-30 years. There are no traditional environmental conservation measures for new fishing technologies like nets, diving masks, spear guns. Before, people predominantly lived in the higher elevations of the islands and relied on gathering the plethora of subsistence wealth growing in their gardens or ripening on the forest trees.
Hope everyone is well, take care,
|Tuesday, March 7th, 2006|
I'm going, I'm going, I'm going. I promise I won't clog your inboxes anymore but I had some more stories burning in my brain, so these will be the last until May.
Food, of course one of my favorite topics, is quite a challenge. After it dawns on you that there are no stores to buy fresh vegetables, meat or cereal, it becomes a major dilemma to figure out how to stock your kitchen. Refrigeration is out of the question without electricity, but things tend to keep nicely as long as they are still planted in the ground of someones garden. Meat can be steamed everyday for up to five days and still be tasty, but I prefer brining it, drying it then smoking it. It's labor intensive, but unbelievably tasty and lasts for a month.
Obtaining food. Well, I could just ask for some food at peoples' houses and my host family also shares whatever they prepare, mostly boiled bananas. But that doesn't sit well with me. One, I'm sick of boiled bananas. Two, everybody shares food here, and if I don't share food people start asking about what can I share? 'you're going to bring us stuff from America, right?' Especially as people still view white people here as "Masters," I think it's in my best interest not to act like one (which is hard, because some things in our culture just lend to that imperious hierarchical assumption - like privacy). My solution has been to hike into the gardens every week to go plant kava for someone in exchange for fresh sweet potatoes, bananas, taro, spring onions, tomatoes, peppers, ripe papaya, fresh nuts groing on the trees and whatever else might be available at the time. It's way more fun than actually cooking the food, but I'm learning to make some good things.
It's amazing how effortlessly people provide for themselves here. Kids could pretty much feed themselves by the time they can walk, which is also the time when they start wielding sharp objects. It's kind of scary to see at first, but they are more adept at using a bush knife than I am. Although I try my best to whip things up as quickly as they do, I will not stoop to eating a cat as a quick meal.( That or tin fish from Fiji, I hate that stuff. ) My friends were sitting down on the beach when one of the boys scooped up this cross-eyed, tongue askew, cat head. They started to laugh, and it was so bizarre I did as well. They explained it had eaten one of their chickens and they HAD to eat the cat then. I didn't react with my normal smug criticisms like 'if you feed your cats, they won't eat your chickens.' Instead, I had to be nosy and ask "you eat the heads of everything else, chickens, flying foxes, wild faol, fish, why don't you eat cat heads?"
Some of my favorite things to make now are mashed sweet potatoes, roasted cooking bananas with tin meat inside, sweat banana/papaya/coconut milk salad, island cabbage salads with peanut oil/lemon juice "dressing." Of course the smoked meat is unbeatable, but most times it's just nice to have a quick meal of instant oatmeal.
It's very labor intensive to live in the village. The mamas take care of most of the operations, the men take care of most of the providing. I'm trying to be a one man show doing all the operations and providing myself, which I'm learning is not very smart. I am still doing my own wash out of pride and protest. Ordinarily the women would insist on washing the "masters" clothes, and men do not wash for themselves most of the time anyway. The wash has to be done at least once a week, taking account for rain, sun, and water availability. It's best if you can get it done before it's too hot (like 8:00 a.m.). I'm usually hanging the laundry by 9:30 or 10:30, if I get started around 6:30 or 7:30. It gives me plenty of time to think about projects, but I'm a little short on time for organizing them.
An important lesson that I've learned in my big push not to be seen like I'm a "master," is that all of the work I put into taking care of myself is just making me more of an outsider. I hardly have time to hang out with people, or if I do I'm just irritable because I'm tired. Their must be some balance between "fitting-in" and being true to one's ideals and one's culture, but I would not be an expert in that sense.
On a final note, my dog is still alive thanks to some uncharacteristicly quick thinking on my part. Someone suggested after a common joke about eating my dog that it's poisonous because I give it "white man medecine." I caught myself before trying to explain that wasn't true, and simply said "Yes, if you eat my dog, you will die because white-man medecine is poison for all the germs in your body." It was only a half-truth, but it's working and has stopped the stupid jokes about my dog.
Kilo is a healthy dog, thanks to the de-wormer, heart worm and parvo vaccination I've paid the veterinarian in Port Vila to put into him. He's every dog's friend in the village, which is really surprising because of how territorial they all are. He's the last to join a fight and only because I think he thinks it's a game. I can't get him to chase off the dogs that like to come pee on my house, because they are his friends. My host brother-in-law has taught him chase off the pigs and cattle that come into the village at night. But he has trouble seeing them in the dark and he usually chases after me when I try the command to send him after the cattle. He follows me to the garden, where he bounces between rows of corn until he's exhausted and falls asleep in the shade while I work. Kilo also likes to chase chickens, but I think he'd rather eat a banana than actually kill and eat a faol. Which is good, because their are plenty of bananas for him to eat and no-one will want to eat him for killing their chickens.
Take Care, Hope to hear from you soon, Talk to you in May,
|Friday, March 3rd, 2006|
It's so warming to bask in the glow of a computer screen, much much more so right now after spending many mellow evenings eating with my host family by a kerosene fed hurricane light. Imagine, food is an amazing part of any culture, and sharing it is the cornerstone here. Food is probably more important than religion, language, music and more in any culture, but you probably understand I have a very heavy bias in this area.
From the replies I have received, everyone seemed to enjoy the sheer grossness of my last long message. Maybe I'll try and follow the same vein without crossing the border into completely gory.
Christmas Eve was bittersweet. It is the time of year when boys become young men through the right of circumscisions. Everyone is worried for their health and swift healing. In my village they practice the tradition of washing the boys' Uncles' families with fire ashes mixed in water. Long before, they used to smear them with pig manure as a sign of their suffering along with the boys. I'm much relieved that they have decided to use ashes and water now.
I had no choice. The uncle ordered his nephew to show me his recently curcumscised genitals. I turned my head, but had to look back. Was that really a circumscision or was the poor boys manhood sewn into the side of his leg? Thankfully, no, it was just painfully swollen. Nobody has ever more deserved the candy canes that my family sent for Christmas, and I left the box for him and his friends.
I had no choice. Do you want to see my "Boila?" (translated as painfully enlarged subdermal infection that erupts in white puss) I did say forcefully "NO!," but his waistband had already been pulled over the hairy, black skinned left buttocks, which contrasted greatly with the large white bloody pimple creating an astonishing welt. Three flies had already assembled to feast. His Christmas gift was a painful washing with hydrogen peroxide, iodine and then a LARGE bandaid so no-one would ever have to see that thing again.
I had no choice. I was hungry and spilled a can of Australian brand Heinz Spaghetti with a tomatoey glue and "baby finger" sausages into a saucepan on the top of my new gas stove. I wolfed it down, but immediately felt a the sweaty feverishness and general ill/weak stomached. I was sure my face was green too. I ran to my bamboo hut shower and left the entire meal for a ravenous village dog. Merry Christmas, Fido.
I had no choice. I was feeling better and still hungry, and we had to hunt and kill Christmas dinner. A bull. The young men in the village were already in hot pursuit with bush knives. Guns had been confiscated several years ago, because nobody has licenses for them, so people MacGyver long spears with bush knives and chase a cow around until it's bled to death. Hooray! the bush knive I had loaned a friend downed him! It was my honor to start the butchering between the hind legs. I punctured the rectum, which is not a good thing. Another man salvaged the mess. Wed did eat happily on Christmas day however.
Fast forward to last month. I contracted ringworm on my right foot. No worries, my Peace Corps medical kit is stocked with anti-fungal creams, but I did not choose wisely. I decided to venture into Kastom Lif Meresin ( leaf medecine). My host sister had successfully treated her infant daughters ringworm with a leaf that grows in the village. Well if it can't hurt a baby, why not? It'd be a good cultural experience. I squeezed the green juice over the crimson halo and pink irritation on my foot. It was a very nice color, like wheat grass juice. Then my determination to heal was diverted by the suggestino to use salt. That burns, don't ever do that. After someone suggested lemon juice, it was over. That's just plain crazy.
My antagonistic relationship with my supervisor now boiled over. "You should be careful! There's too much cow, pig and chicken shit in the village to step in, you have to shower every day," he stated authoritatively. I thought, weren't we going to start project to build a FENCE a month ago to keep domesticated animals out of the village? Instead I replied "I DO shower EVERYDAY, " pursing my lips and clenching my teeth against the pain of the salt on my foot and the insinuation that I was dirty. After scrubbing my feet and body thoroughly every night with the course green side of a dish sponge and strong soap, I did feel very insulted. "No, I've seen you miss your shower sometimes," he hesitantly suggested as though he couldn't possibly be wrong. Who is this guy? Does he follow me around? I flipped him off, I'm ashamed to say, and had to leave before my temper got the best of me.
I since apologized with a large hot pot of tea and tried my best to explain my cultural viewpoint. I spoke carefully in English, which is one of the things I have to do when I am particularly frustrated. He finished high school at an English secondary school, but he still sounds like an alien when he talks back in English. He forgave me. They are very forgiving here, you don't even need to explain to receive forgiveness, but I'm sure glad we talked. Work is proceeding a lot better now, and he has backed down on his assertion of his absolute omniscience.
If I haven't sent a snail mail letter or a reply, I hope to do so soon.
Take Care, Love
Mike - Vituaruwo
|Saturday, December 10th, 2005|
After three months out in the islands, I have to express what a relief it is to be near a culture in the main city that is relatively familiar to me. Three people from my group, one in training and two after moving to site, have returned to the U.S. One claimed, unreasonably, it was due to "civil unrest" when she witnessed a man chasing a man from another church congregation away from the village water tank with a bush knife (machete). That water dispute has since been resolved, and nobody was actually in danger of being hurt. However there are a lot of things you see at site that defy any explanation except ... culture.
It's not the culture that's insane, but I'm going crazy trying to understand it. I'll try to explain what very little of the culture I do understand, mind you it is only one perspective, in one district of one island. I also have to explain that I miss a lot of communication because most of the daily activity is conducted in a local language (Leiwo). Any verbal exchange in Bislama, the language I was trained to speak, is nuanced with inside jokes, cultural double standards and personality touches that I have barely begun to understand. Consequently, people have had a very hard time understanding that I too am a human even though I can't immediately learn their language and my skin color makes the children cry.
A second crucial understanding of my surreal situation is that my friends see things through a black and white lens. Everything is either good or no-good; "blackman" or "whiteman"; expensive or free; fast or slo-slo; Naoia! (immediately) or Aelan Taem (whenever the sun's not too hot, I'll get around to it); man or mama (girls aren't valued until they are bought for marriage, have children and work hard from sunrise until sunset, not that anyone knows any differently or wants to complain... but I digress). This lens has made it very hard to build any understanding of my own culture except that some things are same and some are different. I am sure that people are completely blind to any middle ground. For example, if I am in my house, I must be asleep because you only stay in the house to sleep, otherwise you are under a tree in the shade "storying." If I am standing up walking around with tools or reading a book or yelling at the dog, I am asleep and I don't like storying because I'm inside my house.
Every ounce of my patience is tested every day because I generally try to avoid polarizing discussions on anything. I hate giving definitive one sided opinions. However, if I don't say that something is "good" it's perceived that I think it's "no good." For instance, one of the double standards in the village life is the condemnation kava drinkers to be against Jesus, but you are free to plant it in your gardens and sell it as it is your only source of income. This condemnation is reserved for preaching only and people will gladly make kava for you. While I appreciate that kava is used as a currency in this country and appreciate how it enriches culture, if not abused, I only want to drink it if it is for a ceremony. But, depending on the person you ask in my village, I either drink it all the time or am too afraid to drink it, neither of which is true from my perspective.
The only conclusion I can reach at this point is that the culture here understands clear black and white divisions but continues to smoothely go about their business in all the various shades of gray. Now I see my culture as allowing at least a rainbow of positions on varying subjects, which very few people are inclined to definitively stand up for. I think with time I'll get to appreciate the shades of gray and see some of the color eludes me right now.
Because you've read attentively up to this point without yawning , you're probably thinking, "Yes, Yes, Yes .... but what is Mike doing, exactly, in Vanuatu? And how did he come to have access to the internet?" Both very good questions.
I am a REACH volunteer (Resource Enhancement, Agriculture and Community Health) I'm also the first volunteer to stay in my particular village (Nuvi village, Epi island), which means I don't know which ugly beast is more important - protecting the reefs and ocean, protecting people's villages from being overrun by livestock or protecting people's health by improving sanitation. More than likely, I'll pour my heart into any project that a villager wants to initiate (like the livestock fence) or taking care of and irradicating scabies in the households. Scabies is a mite that produces itchy welts all over the bodies of children and the elderly, but they persist and result in sores and leathery textures on all the tiny hands in the village. My main project is to design and help build an aquaculture center with tanks. Don't get impressed, I'm just deciding how best to place the bricks, stack them and fill them with water. What I would LOVE to do is build a windmill powered water pump to get the seawater into the tanks. I truly think that wind powered water circulation might be the piece of the puzzle that is missing from small scale, locally managed marine aquaculture that might make it more feasible in this country. That is part of the reason I have access to the internet now, to do research for this aquaculture project. Well, that and I need to have Kilo fixed, as he is getting more aggressive when I leave him in the hut. His hormones can only explain why he starts tearing things apart when he's perfectly able to crawl in and out of the hole he has dug underneath my door.
Kilo and I embarked helter-skelter and last minute on the ship that anchored just beyond our reef two days ago. The tide was high, the waves were strong and the ship was early. The latter exponentially increases my adrenaline and my forgetfulness, so I'll have to purchase toiletries and extra shorts at the store. My instincts told me not to feed Kilo that morning, which I ignored. Consequently, not a moment after we boarded the ship from our violently rocking dingy, Kilo spewed on my life jacket. It washed away with a little water from my water bottle, but it made a few of the already sea-sick passengers manually fight their gag reflex by tightly clasping their hands to their mouths.
I was in heaven. The clouds and saltwater cooled the refreshing breeze, the island was a brilliant green as every position of our ship showed new angles. My mind was fixed on nothing but the happiest memories when I stared down at the violently, sapphire blue water. We quickly filled the ship to capacity with other people, cargo and seven cattle, five pigs, three goats and baskets and baskets of woven coconut cages for chickens and my one puking dog. I'm pretty sure that Noah's Ark was not the children's ulitmate fantasy we envision. Living in a village with all such animals has taught me that at any hour of the day they will produce copius amounts of excrement that you can tread on barefooted if you're not careful.
The sea became rougher and the waves started to whisk the excrement about the ship. Simultaneously, the children and some mothers began to vomit, but due to sea-sickness as there wasn't any stench that was too unreasonable. Additionally, those of us that weren't sea-sick, shouted with tremendous joy as the crew hauled in five of the most enormous Wahoo fish that I have ever seen and three different kinds of tuna ( yellowfin, bonito and ?????). Fish blood began spattering about. Aside from the poop, puke and blood drenching the deck, everyone that didn't have their head's between their legs were smiling and singing-out (Wah- hoooo!) happy that we would eat meat with our rice and noodles.
I can't explain why on such a cramped ship I was so overyjoyed. It must have been the combination of the freedom, the change of pace, the different scenery. I also happen to like being on ships that shake you around like your in a washing machine (on the gentle sycle). Although I have lots I need to accomplish in Port Vila in the next few days, my most urgent thought now is where to eat, where to take a shower and what time can I buy that gas stove that I yearn for to make anything other than boiled, roasted or fried bananas back on my island.
Miss you all and think about you every day. Love to show your pictures, so send more.
|Thursday, September 8th, 2005|
It's been three very long months preparing to work at my site and Saturday I will be moving there to conduct my service for most of two years.
It's a guessing game determining what you need at site. Anyone could develop a whole curriculum of workshops and lessons to do with a community. However, that would defeat the purpose of facilitating development: to bring awareness about opportunities to use local resources before relying on foreign assistance. In order to accomplish this, I need to have a solid understanding of the community's needs before I hold workshops.
Additionally, considering what you need to bring to make yourself at home can be challenging. Some considerations are more pressing than others, but there are many small things I never had to worry about in the U.S. For instance, I have to keep the moisture out of everything as much as possible. I also need to make everything rat proof, they can chew through most tough plastics. Although I'm looking forward to building and planting a garden, there is a bit of pressure for it to be successful because I will need it for food.
Lastly, you must consider what you will need to maintain a positive attitude and your sanity. Naturally, you think about what brought you peace and joy in more familiar surroundings. Before I left the U.S. I made sure to get home to Colorado to snowboard. The thought that I won't see snow for a long time recurs often. I've thought that I can try and make a trip to New Zealand for snowboarding. Although it's something to look forward too, it won't help when I need to get some perspective from site in the hot season. I didn't need to dwell on the absence of snowboarding long, as a volunteer close to the end of his service has sold me the surfboard that he learned to surf on. I bought it cheaply and he threw in ragged rash guards and some old board wax. The board is 6'4" long and has fiber glass patches, dents or bights from the nose to the tail. It's brand name is an ironic misnomer, Perfection. However, just the idea that I have an extracurricular sport to learn while at site relieves my deepest anxieties about moving.
This past week I've been completing a slope stability training on a southern Island called Tanna, which proved to ease more of my longing for snowboarding. Tanna is famous for its dogmatic Kastom. Women are not allowed to go to the nakamals, which are large, very old banyon trees with sculpted roots. Kastom dances are spectacles of songs, hand clapping like thunder and foot stomping rhythms like earthquakes. Kava is imbibed every day at sunset. The Kastom is not the only attraction of this remote island. The cauldera of Yasur volcano can be climbed and nightly shows of molten orange rock erupting hundreds of meters above your observation point at the peak. One morning before our workshop, we trekked to the base of the volcano to ride the sandy dark grey ash. A crazy American had left an old-school unidirectional Burton snowboard at our bungalow village. The metal edges have been worn to broken segments and large areas of the wax base have been torn away. None-the-less, we carried the board up a dune-like ridge barely avoiding the acidic rainy mist that stings your eyes and the sulfurous fumes that permeate the desolate immediate surroundings of the ash plain. I put fresh tracks down and completed a 180 at the base, stopping right before the moonscaped, debris strewn base. I wish I could say that the ride down was graceful, but learning to snowboard on a snow powdered mountain does not translate to the semi-wet ash of a volcano.
Tanna is also a place of incredible soil. For the workshop, our Ni-Vanuatu counterparts joined us and spent many hours examining the local flora and taking clippings to plant back in their villages. While we Americans made memories with pictures and having adventures, the Ni-Vanuatu made their own souvenirs by carving walking sticks from Namaru wood or prepping twigs to plant in their gardens. It's an uncanny phenomenon that any stick you plant in the soil here will grow. I decided to give this method of souvenir collection a try and brought a small coffee plant to raise close to my house. If I don't learn to like coffee, I'll probably learn to like gardening.
|Sunday, August 28th, 2005|
|Vanuatu is amazingly small
The past couple of weeks in our training village, most of us felt as if we were truly apart of the community. Friday before last, the whole village got to watch a film projection of the first three Survivor episodes. They made a community fundraiser out of the event using a generator for the electricity and a French organization brought the rest of the equipment (the school in Mangalilu is Francophone, but all the parents are Anglophone, one of many incongruencies found throughout the country that badly disables the education system).
Nobody in the village had watched their beaches on television before, so I felt right at home having heard many stories in the village, but not knowing what happened in the series. All the men had drank kava and stayed towards the outer dark perimeter of the benches set up to view the image on the white cement wall of the church. Kava dilates the pupils and makes it very hard to stand bright light, but the mamas sat next to us and laughed while whispering a narration of the show. My host mama and her grandson Kalo pulled a canoe out in one of the opening scenes as the whole village and neighboring villagers sang the same Kastom song that we used in our welcome ceremony for the government and Peace Corps representatives conducting our swearing-in:
Palse! Palse! Palse!------ Paddle!Paddle!Paddle!
Now-ra-po-teen-ee-ta(3x)-- The currents are pushing our boats
Palse! Palse! Palse! ----- Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!
Raow-rua-sale-pano (3x)--- Pull your canoes strong against it
Our chief, a man that I am deeply fascinated by, arranged our kastom dance and liked it particularly for our purpose as Peace Corps volunteers, where as we go to the outer islands for service, we will be fighting strong currents that push away national literacy, healthcare, environmental damage and local business development.
While the host families were very sorry to see us go, they have followed us to Port Vila. Today the mamas showed up en masse as their budgets afforded and infiltrated our hotel with some papas and the pikinini too. I had been sleeping trying to kick the cold finally, when I decided I needed to get out and walk around. I ran into a very familiar Ni-Vanuatu papa, mama and their pikinini with their daughter. I talked for a little bit as their P.C. pikinini gave them a tour, then found more of them outside. While I had been determined to get out and about, another mama demanded that I stay, because more of their troops were coming with food my host mother had sent because she didn't have the fare to come. I wasn't the only one held hostage, others that had been visiting a nearby village and various resorts where they had just changed into swimming clothes, had been found and corralled back to the hotel in the same truck they had come in from Mangalilu. After all the eating and storian, they said goodbye with kisses to both cheeks and hugs before piling into flat of the single truck. I guess mamas anywhere are the same: they take food, families, and clean sheets very seriously. It's just in Vanuatu, motherhood is like tribal warfare.
|Friday, August 26th, 2005|
|I'm a volunteer!
Swearing in yesterday was a major success. We all thoroughly enjoyed it and made it short, to the point and there was time to have a shell of Kava before the sunset. We got to play our string band song present salu-salu's (Bislama term for Lei), to our host parents.
I've never cried so much in my life as I have in the Peace Corps training! I cried leaving my family at the airport in the U.S. in Denver, and now I've been crying with my host family now that I have to leave them (and relive the experience of leaving Mom, Dad and Anne, while sobbing on the cell phone to Kath, in the US. As we left the training village today (moved out for good) we all had tears welling in our eyes as the whole village lined up and shook our hands before the buses left.
The day of swearing in I made french toast for my host family on the kitchen fire with the cinnamon that my Mom sent me in a package. My host dad's eyes welled up as he thanked my and told me he was touched that I made it for the whole family (the ladies eat in the kitchen on the crushed coral floor and me and my host dad and/or brother eat at the table). The tears came as he let me know I was like one of his own sons, which means a lot and I know is true because they have adopted two boys and a girl that they raised with their five other children. Although his family is mostly grown, my host dad and mom, his youngest son (Raynold 23), youngest daughter (Leatu 25) and her three children all enjoyed french toast with coconut jam (no gat maple syrup) and peanut butter. We all cried and struggled to wipe the wet lashes and dripping noses, but the leaks were unstoppable.
|Saturday, August 6th, 2005|
|Things I've Lost
2. Travel Organizer
3. Tube toothpaste with toothbrush
4. Underwater LED flashlight
5. Montbell wide brimmed Hat
6. Blanket from the Air New Zealand
7. 7 kilos of body fat (16 pounds) I'm a stringy bastard now
Things I've Found:
1. Montbell wide brimmed Hat
2. Blanket from Air New Zealand (Kilo's blanket now)
3. Rainjacket! (Thank-ya-Jisas!)
|Monday, August 1st, 2005|
Strangely, I wake up every day feeling like a completely different person than the day before. I'm using Bislama as much as possible and have adjusted to a lot of the different daily routines including the food. However, I think many of my personality quirks translate clearly. I still eat a ton of food, drink water a lot, and am running with the same damn hip pain.
Also, I'm sustaining my reputation for losing plenty material possessions as I travel. My family will attest that I've lost shoes, jeans, a passport and myself on separate occasions traveling abroad. The going rate now is about one major thing per month. When I first arrived, I must confess that a very nice departure gift, my travel organizer, fell out of my pillow on a truck that I did not load, but I did not secure it in a closable bag either (I'm really sorry Jon and Caroline, but I searched the hotels, airport, PC office staff, trainees and it still hasn't turned up- I still have the pen though). This month, I've lost my rain jacket. I adapted on my wokabaot by using the giant leaf "island umbrellas," as the first rain storms came since my arrival.
In spite of what I've lost, I'm slowly collecting and trying to make sense of all the information in my new surroundings. Running was always a good time to process that information, so I kept it up with a fellow trainee that is a much more avid runner/marathoner who is becoming a good partner in crime. Sarah Gigliotti and I have alternately run to Survivor Beach and up the steep road belonging to Mangililu every day at sunrise. Our training sessions grew into training for the Round Island Relay, an annual Vanuatu Independence day run where 10 runners take sections of a 138 kilometer (85.5miles) race around the island. We had six trainees and four men from the village. Two men were my host brothers, one a brother of another racing trainee and another a papa of a racing trainee. We all crammed into the Peace Corps truck at 4:00 am on July 30th to get to the race start. After, we stopped and cheered for each teammate at the nine race checkpoints.
I had the longest stretch on the northern part of the island (16 km = 9.6 mi) with about a 7.6 min/mile pace. It was long, hot, and dry. Some of our team had great big festivals to great them as they passed by villages or went over bridges brimming with locals wearing grass skirts and mats, singing Kastom songs and banging tamtams (log drums). I was glad enough for the smart villagers hiding in the shade clapping encouraging rhythms and the one man that poured cold water from a tea-kettle into a mug that he ordered me to take, drink from and then throw into the grass by the road. I avoided sunburn and horrible dehydration by wearing my widebrimmed Montbell hat. It has now been officially added to the list of things I'm grateful I brought from America (This includes my underwater LED flashlight and knit cap). It might also be the next thing that I've lost if I can't connect with the PC driver tomorrow.
We finished nobly with a respectable 11hr 56 min time. Sarah may have broken a course record, but the officials were not very well informed about how critical it is to record times, so we recognize and claim our pride unofficially.
Other new developments include my new puppy. He's about a month old and getting more bold than ever, having chomped my nose severely already. He got mad that I was combing the fleas from his fur in full view of the plate of rice I brought him and the other puppies (with curry and coconut milk sauce leftover from my lunch). I've given him the name Kilo. I realize that should I want to take him home in two years, his name will raise alarms in the Customs Department, but I meant it to be a mixture of my belated dog Kiefer's name with my Kastom name in the village.
Strangely, It won't be a problem for Kilo to hop on any local flights or boats in Vanuatu and I'll be glad for the company. I wanted to fill you in on the other characters in my training group, but that will have to be another lengthy entry.
|Saturday, July 16th, 2005|
Wow, internet three times in a week. I'm so spoiled.
When I envisioned my live journal, I thought I'd include a bit of Kava trivia and a confession or two with each entry. I'm not that organized, so I'll make an entry just about Kava. I've learned some key lessons on kava etiquette.
Leaves of the plant are used to ward off evil spirits from sleeping infants. When a tot becomes a man, it's the root he is primarily interested in. Women too drink Kava, but typically stay away.
The time to drink kava is at sunset before you go home for dinner. The kava is a narcotic that can vary greatly in potency. Consequently, you have a suppressed appetite and go straight to bed after eating a light meal. Kava is prepared at the Nakamal, or Nasarae depending on where you're from in Vanuatu. A traditional Nakamal was used for a chief's meeting area and could be a structure or natural landmark like a tree.
When going to a nakamal you look for a lantern hung by the roadside indicating fresh kava, (sort of like the Krispy Kreme hot-n-fresh sign conceptually but for a COMPLETELY different product). Once the light is put out, you can tell that there is no more to drink.
If you are going to socialize, you're being a good kava drinker. Just don't talk to loudly or shine bright lights, to do so would be poor form. Kava heightens the auditory sense and dilates your pupils.
Take one shell (bowl or coconut) at a time and WAIT.
Listen to your kava. The spirit of the drink will indicate whether you need another shell. To drink too much too quickly leads to temporary loss of feeling in your extremities, which makes the walk home more of a crawl home.
I mentioned a confession earlier. The first night I stayed with my host family in Mangililu, I went to have a few shells of kava with my host dad. I tried my legs after the first shell and thought "I can still feel them and stand upright, I'm okay." Other nights I drank kava it wasn't that strong, so I had about two and a half shells of the strongest kava yet. Although I could stand up to go home for dinner, I hobbled sideways making a zig-zagging path down the road to my hut.
As we sat down to a meal of Aelan Kabij and Rif Fis with Waet Raes (island cabbage, reef fish, white rice), I knew it was going to be a tough go. I didn't want to be rude and eat too lightly. However, the fish is served complete with scales and heads, which didn't bother me much after the first few days. Mid way into the fish, I had to race as fast as my jell-o legs could take me to the smolhaos (outhouse). I lost my meal along the way on the crushed coral path.
My host dad had troubles of his own. He fell over in the bush trying to get to bed quickly while I was still sick. My host sister tried to cheer me up by pointing and laughing at my host dad. I look at it now as a bonding experience. However, I know that kava just wasn't right because my host dad can drink kava like a chief. He had an enormous bowl for his birthday that his son in law filled with sixty-two soup spoons.
That's all for who knows how long, Miss you and hope to hear from you soon.
|Thursday, July 14th, 2005|
Did I mention their were three weddings in my training village? It was a lot similar to my cousing Todd and Judy's wedding in that the minister was Presbyterian. (Not quite sure if that's true for Todd and Judy). All three couples were married in one service. However, it was slightly different in that the village doubled in size over the week and all the guests came by boat with yams or woven pandanas mats.
The biggest procession is actually the payment of the Bride Price. The sons families sing and march throughout town with yams tied with calico (bright cloth) to a long pole carried between two burly guys' shoulders. The carry the pig in such a fashion as well, but the poor mat bearers only receive a heaping pile on their heads, neck and shoulders.
Much pig slaughtering and all night dancing of the villagers ensued. I danced some, but was otherwise preoccupied with training aside from gorging on pig and buluk and laplap (root and coconut custard) at meal times. Unfortunately, I was in bed by 11:30 at the latest.
Didn't sleep much though, due to several strange dreams. I thought it was the mefloquine. What else could it be when you dream that you're a pregnant man and how the hell could you deliver a child? On a separate occasion I dreamt that I was to undergo a hazing ritual with my counterpart in my village site- he wanted me to let the poisonous centipedes crawl all over me. I reasoned that La Maz breathing ought to calm me as the millions of legs wriggled up my feet and legs. I rationalized that I was a bit nervous about my site placement and was a little stressed out.
Believe it or not, you need a vacation in the Peace Corps. We went to the island north of Efate called Gnuna. It was training related, a volunteer hosted us to partake in his work with a Marine Protected Area. Seeings how this is my dream job, I was thrilled and went straight onto the reef in spite of treacherous waves that threatened to drop me onto spiny coral fingers with each choppy drop.
The coral was brilliant in wavy leaves, spiny horns, massive boulders and fountains of branches in all the rainbows of colors. However, I returned at night to assist with the turtle tagging. I saw my first cuddle fish and nabbed a turtle!
The water was dark and cold, but the crinoid sea-lily's were out feeding on the bioluminescent algae. It started to rain as we kicked on the choppy surface, dodging arms or coral and flashing our underwater lights on the sand caves below. A big green turle was spotted by others in my group. While they hesitated diving down to it, I dove underneath and slowly lifted the big turtle from his resting spot. The turtle rocketed from his slumber to the surface with me riding him like rocket ship. The other snorkelers back kicked for their lives until the turtle got loose and swam directly towards their lights. Not wanting to pursue the turtle to the deep channel that might carry me off into the pacific ocean, I decided to drop the chase. That big mama got away but we tagged one other and measured another. HEAVEN!
Sorry that story was brief but I've been invited to join the truck back to the training village. Since they feed me there, I better go. It'd be a long walk
One last exciting piece of news. I'm going on wokaboat to my training site this week. I overlook an awesome bay and a volcano that gives amazing fireworks shows at night.
Take care and keep the e-mails to the PC address coming.
|June 22nd, Citronella Man
here aren't any movie theaters here, but I do
remember that Cinderalla Man was "coming soon to a
theater near you" back home. I was the Citronella Man
the other night, as we explored a seaside reggae fest.
I coated myself in a lemon-eucalyptus spray to repel
the mosquitos. Instead, I got several compliments on
my cologne and attracted a close crowd so that they
wouldn't be bitten by mosquitos either. So I guess
I'll be using that spray only for special occasions
Speaking of special occasions, there are to be three
marriages while I'm in the village of Mangaliliu. I
don't want to upstage the bride, so I'll try and stay
fragrance free. I'm leaving in a matter of minutes to
pack things for three months of training and then I'll
figure out what my assignment is going to be.
I'll meet my host family today as well. They are
Ni-Vanuatu grandparents named David and Lottie. I
smiled instantly at the close resemblance of their
names to my Mom and Dad, David and Laura. The term
Ni-Vanuatu replaces "Vanuatuans," the "Ni" is a
Bislama dialect for "From." Ni-Vanuatu means, From
Hope that everyone is well, and I look forward to the
quickest possible update.
|thoughts on development
I'm preparing for wokaboat today in Vila. Have a few
errands to run but wanted to say a quick hello.
I had quite a panick after my last note on Monday.
Immediately after, I learned about the bombings in
London which happened to coincide with my parents
visit there. I was just about to call my sister in
Boulder and wake her up to find out more, when I got a
printed e-mail from her that they were safe and far
away from the bombings. Phew!! Somehow I still kling
to the notion that the more information I have, the
better the situation will be. However, I'm still sorry
that the death toll in London is bigger than a small
village in Vanuatu.
Most of the experiences I share are and will continue
to be the fun and exciting one's, but I will primarily
be working full time on the "front line" of
development in a small third world country. Vanuatu,
from what I can tell in my host village, has had three
significant encounters with white man in it's history.
First, the missionaries, especially from the London
Missionary society. Many died from Malaria and some
died from the Kastom practice of Cannibalism while
attempting to build schools and clinics as well as to
evangelize and build churches. Missionaries stayed in
mission stations which were isolated from the
Ni-Vanuatu until services on Sundays. I can't fully
comprehend how they instilled such a strong sense of
Christian identity among the people, but they also
eliminated Kastoms that are now lost forever because
they didn't fully understand the Ni-Vanuatu
communities. Since this country's independence in
1980, they have slowly worked to rebuild and
independent cultural identity. Some traditions and
stories have continued while the meanings are lost,
but some dangerous practices like witchcraft and
poisoning continue, especially in the outer islands.
The next major white man encounter came with American
soldiers in World War II. They've left behind a few
gun turrets and gun platforms as well as crashed
planes and and sunken ships. My host dad has found
coke bottles in the bush from WWII soldiers, the small
heavy antiquated glass ones. They also left a sense of
pride and connection for a small country to be
involved in major world developments.
Lastly, Survivor landed in my training village. I wish
now that I had watched the show, because I run past
the Survivor beach and immunity challenge areas every
day. Some of the props from the show are now jungle
gyms (see-saws) for kids or fishing reels for the men.
My host dad worked security for the show and was one
of the very few villagers to actually go past the
barriers between the cast beaches and the village. He
felt bad that he couldn't offer the cast any food, but
he got to see all the cameras from the crew.
Survivor has left a legacy in Mangalilu that seems
representative for the entire country. It made them
realize that tourism offers a way for them to bring
money to the community to pay for development which
will allow income for children's education and
healthcare. As pleasant as the communities are, they
are very far from reaching that level of organization
and have several barriers to obtaining self reliant
income generation while sustaining the subsistence way
of life they rely on. I'm deeply grateful that my
Americorps training will help me prepare workshops on
community/team building activities to protect and
promote ideas for conservation, business, and land use
that the villagers develop.
Sorry my "hello," is becoming very long. But, I have a
lot to think about and will know how to proceed with a
project better after I integrate into my own village
beginning with my wokaboat that starts Saturday.
If you need or want to say anything to me while I'm in
the field, send a message to
firstname.lastname@example.org with my name in the
subject line. I've been fortunate to be able to
respond withing a week or week and a half.