Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Last Post In Vanuatu

At a meeting in preparation for close of service, 2 months before departure we were instructed that when we get back to the US everybody is going to ask us how are service was and tell us they want to hear all about it but that their attention span is probably shorter than they express. The reality is that after two minutes of hearing your story most people’s eyes will glaze over as they mentally go over their grocery list. So I’m trying to sum up my service in two minutes. I think I got it down to 5 minutes. Here goes:

Vanuatu is an archipelago of 83 small islands in the South pacific with a population of 250,000 people. Due to this isolating environment of lots of little islands with rough terrain in a big pacific ocean, it is ridiculously cultural and linguistically diverse; over one hundred completely distinct languages for only 250,000 people. The people and islands of Vanuatu were not unified as a country until both the French and the English simultaneously colonized them at the turn of the 19th century. As a result they speak a creole of native languages, French, English all mixed together which is called bislama.

In my area at least, the people were not poor because they have a strong family support system, a diversified portfolio of income generating options, they own the land they live on and they grow all the food they need. They earn around $3000 per year and are pretty self sufficient. The main areas where they fall behind are in education, health care, and infrastructure. On average people have a 6th grade education and it can take between a few hours to a few days to get to the nearest hospital, always over rough terrain and with very unreliable and expensive transportation. The country became independent in 1980 and has been slowly but surely climbing out of the status of least developing countries and is now on the border to joining the ranks of developing countries. To catch a glimpse of the whirl wind pace of change, just think that every Vanuatu airplane pilot or computer systems manager is the grandson/daughter of someone who lived in the stone ages.
After two months of training near the capital in September and October of 09 I moved to the second biggest island, Malekula in the village of Lamap. Lamap was the former capital of the French colony and has many vestiges of this including French language, French schools, French Catholic Church, and some tasty French cuisine. Of course they also left rotting old cement structures like old government buildings without rooves, power lines even though there has been no electricity in Lamap since independence, land disputes and even an old tennis court with night lighting that doesn’t work.

The Lamap Ecotourism project

For the two years I lived in Lamap I worked as a business advisor to a grassroots ecotourism project as well as to a new community-run vocational school. The ecotourism project balanced community environmental needs with the income generating power of the growing tourism industry. Through ecotourism products such as hiking tours, snorkeling, cultural festivals and island entertainment, the community was able to afford environmental project such as waste management, coral reef monitoring and clean up, marine protected areas, environmental education campaigns, and the promotion and introduction of solar power lighting.

The vocational school was only three years old when I arrived and had never finished a full year of school. The manager, managing committee, and I faced many challenges as we couldn’t find qualified teachers that would take the salary we could afford to pay. After just settling in to site our head teacher stopped coming to school and so did most of the students. We changed the salary system to allow for more incentives and bonuses without over straining the budget and managed to attract two new teachers who finished out a full year in 2011. We lowered the reliance on school fees with secondary income generation projects integrated into the students’ studies. We also got the school recognized as an education institution, got it to fall into the guidelines required by the government in order to allow us to give out certified diplomas so our students could graduate and go on to higher level technical schools.

This was my host mama for 2 years. Miss her!

As secondary projects I assisted the local women’s association in getting up and running again and did some hygiene and sanitation projects trying to move away from open sewage toilets to water seal toilets built from cement. I also learned some of the local native language, lots of local stories, learned to weave mats and baskets and drink lots of kava, made lots of friends, chilled out and read a lot of books while hanging in my hammock in my bamboo hut.

My Favorite Grandma/kava drinking buddy and our favorite nakamal owner (the taller one)

Vanuatu is a beautiful place with such friendly people who accepted me as family immediately. I learned a lot of lessons from them. Like to complain is to ask for help. So don’t say you’re cold unless you want the shirt off the back of the guy sitting next to you. Also share everything with everyone, even if it’s your last one. So what? They’re just material things. The joy of giving is worth more than any one thing. My time in the Peace Corps was such a great experience; I would readily do it over again.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Hiking for two days without shoes and other skills that will be completely useless when I return to US.

These are just some of my many new skills that will be rendered absolutely useless and soon forgotten upon returning to the good old comfortable usa.

1 Killing and dressing a pig, chicken or fish
2 Doing anything and everything with a machete
3 Gardening in the tropics. It’s easy as long as you don’t bury it upside down it will grow. I’ve had particular success with peanuts, pumpkin, cucumber and onion
4 Reading the secret meaning behind what ni-vans are saying, i.e. reading ni-vans minds. It takes a lot of cultivation of relationships, observation of behavior, and analysis of motives to understand even a basic conversation. Essentially people lie expecting that you know their lying. So then it’s not really lying, if you have an understanding that one person is lying. At least that’s the local theory.
5 Staying clean without running water
6 Cooking like a ni-van: Cutting food without a cutting board, using my hands as a cutting board while sitting on a stool 5 inches off the ground.
7 Using coconut milk in every meal
8 Catching crabs with my bare hands and bare feet and tying them to a stick with a vine.
9 Baking delicious cakes, bread, and quiches in a pot over a wood fire
10 Speaking Bislama sign language, (also speaking Bislama (Pidgen English) for that matter)
11 Hiking barefoot all day long
12 Sleeping without a mattress

Breaking News: Community organizing can be a pain in the arse in Vanuatu!

My apologies in advance for another work rant about the difficulties of getting things done in Vanuatu.

The ecotourism project’s busiest month should have been June however many of the committee members were busy in the capital. So I was stuck being the only one freaking out about all the work that needed to be done. I could have just let it go and said hey this is their project and if they are in Vila well then it’s their fault if the work doesn’t get done. Anyway I didn’t do that. The biggest work was preparing the venue for the big tourism events coming up over the yacht season. The first event was going to take place on Thursday the 16thonly ten days away. However our venue had no roof, or chairs or table and there were only 10 days till the event. I get the tour guides together to try to make a plan to work on the house. They say ok let’s do it this Friday. I go talk to the chief to arrange his support to get more community members there. I then make an announcement at the two community churches to let the community know that they are expected to come give a hand.

On Friday, I go to the prospective venue and there is no one there. Nobody, not one person, showed up to work. I just stayed at the house all day waiting. Honestly it wasn’t so bad waiting. I visited a good friend who lives across the street and met a tourist that was passing through. I still felt pretty disrespected. Plus I was freaking out because of the approaching deadline. But I also knew that the fact that they disrespected me could be my best bet to get the job done.
That night, I go to my host family and tell them the story over kava. They were appalled. “They made you wait all day and nobody showed up!” (by the way the people saying that should have been there too.) The mamas in my host family then go walk with me to the various workers houses and shame them with the story of how they made me wait all day for them. The word gets spread all over about the horrible offense I suffered (though it really wasn’t as bad they make it out to be). All this sympathy drummed up a lot more support and awareness than my announcements and meetings. It just goes to show that people pay more attention to gossip than what’s said in church. Next thing I know the chief is coming to me saying he’ll have the whole community down there Wednesday. “You no worry You no kick.” I tell him that’s cutting it a bit close but he says well that’s our way of doing things here, wait till the last minute.

The American in me couldn’t deal with leaving it to the last minute so I managed to recruit some boys to get building supplies for the house on Tuesday. Then on Wednesday when I go to the venue low and behold 30 people are working away on the house. It was a miracle. For the first time in my Peace Corps experience everyone who said they’d show up, actually did show up. As I walked up to the group and grabbed a knife to help descale the fish for lunch, I couldn’t help but smile and laugh. You have to go about things in the most roundabout way to get results in this country. But I guess I’ve kinda got the hang of it. Look at me, I used my cultural knowledge for community organizing.

Thanks for the attentive ear. I feel a lot better now.XOXO

Highest Highs

and some lows

I’ve had some low points in the past 20 months; all of them in the first 9 months of service. It has been pretty much all uphill from there. They would include:

1. Feeling out of place in the training village,
2. Getting stared at and pitied in my first 3 months in my community,
3. The time the teachers stopped showing up and the school closed for a term,
4. Getting bed bugs,
5. Being medically evacuated for diphtheria in May 2010.

But let’s not focus on the negative. I think the highs make up for it:

1. Moving to my very own cute as a button little thatch house after living with a host family for 5 months.
2. Getting little baby Marie Antoinette during my first week in my comunity. She was so tiny and fluffy and full of fleas!
3. Organizing 30 self important busy community leaders to build a venue for the tourism events.
4. Organizing 50 self important yachties to attend our tourism events in one of the most remote places on earth.
5. Finally being able to tell a good joke in Bislama and making my friends laugh.
6. Peering over the edge of Marum Volcano with Virginia in Dec 2010. Plus the trip to Australia over Xmas/New Years. All 3 weeks were a high.
7. Nina’s Visit! Land diving wooo!
8. Visiting other volunteers in Vanuatu; Justine on Maewo, Amy on Lamen, Robert, Gaia, and Jason on Pentecost, Hali, Zoe, Laura, and Jake on Tanna, Zoe and Whitney on Santo, all my peeps on Malekula, Ambae, Alisha on Ambrym, Desiree on Nguna and Alexia and Kalli in Vila.
9. Electricity and meat vacations: Meeting up with the other volunteers on my Island, organizing beer pong tournaments, snorkeling, and eating lots of meat; Karen, Sandra, Ricky, Andrew, Marie, Neill, Josh, Sara, Yegor and Jeff
10. Helping out with all the youth leadership camps (called GLOW/BILDs) in Wowo, Lakatoro, Lamap, and Blacksands. Soon to come one last camp in Emua my training village.
11. Having a kava bar named after me. And enjoying a good storian session with my oldfellas over kava.
12. Painting huge world map murals with Neil, and an environment mural with Amy. Soon to come another world map in my community.
13. Hiring Karine to teach at the vocational school. You Yes Karine! She literally saved the school from ruin and took heaviest the burden from my shoulders.
14. Realizing my students have actually mastered the material I’ve taught them.
15. Seeing my projects functioning properly on their own as I finish my time and prepare to leave.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Y’all’er a buncha ripe bananas

My auntie the other day says to me, “Stephanie, when you go back, your family won’t even recognize you. You look like a ripe banana.” It took me a sec to realize she was commenting on all my freckles. At least that sounds better than pizza face.

I still haven’t gotten the hang of taking eggs from the chicken that lives in my kitchen. The other day she flew out the window, presumably to peck around outside for food. So I took her egg and got ready to fix myself something to eat. I put the frying pan on the fire, greased it, and then just as I was cracking the egg on the edge of the frying pan I hear this screech right in my ear. I jumped I was so startled. Then a wave of embarrassment, then shame came over me. Apparently the hen had been watching me the whole time from the kitchen window sill. And she was screaming at me and chewing me out for killing her baby.

Then after a second or two of feeling like the worst infanticidal murderer ever, I remembered that it’s just a stupid bird and shooed her away. I had to remind myself that it’s her job to make eggs for me. But I still felt bad for her, having to see her egg cracked open into a frying pan, right in her face. I wonder if she even knew it was her egg or if she was just screaming because she’s a crazy bird.

Four months more in the Peace Corps! This is the home stretch people. I just wrote a to do list of everything I have to accomplish before I leave and I realized I could get it all done in one month if we were in the States. But no, here in good old Vanuatu, it will take me 4 months to complete all that stuff because every time you plan anything there is just a 50/50 chance people will actually show up and do what they said they would. But the good thing is I know I can get it all done and leave here feeling like I did something and have something to show for my two years. We’ll see how that plays out.

I’m jealous of all my friends in the states enjoying summer in the city. I miss US most during the months of Jun-Aug. In the winter, when everyone’s telling me about blizzards and unbearable cold in the states, I feel all smug like, ‘ha well it’s 85 degrees here. Who’s made the more sensible decision now?’ But just the mention of the word ‘July’ summons up images of drinking cold lager in the hot sun out on some porch (or roof) surrounded by friends. Banterific! Or midnight bike rides to a sweet swim spot or my favorite 24hr Italian bakery. Outdoor concerts, festivals, backyard bbqs, beach trips, road trips, etc. In other words, the best stuff life’s made of. But alas I’ll just have to live vicariously through facebook for one more summer. Enjoy it my little ripe bananas, and then write me to tell me all the juicy gossip.

I out new pics up on facebook. I'll blog again soon. XOXO SteBlau

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Post Office is Open!

Today has been a great day! A year after our local post office was robbed and shut down it has reopened and I received lots of letters and packages. The oldest being the letter from Dossie dated July 18th 2010. And more recently an awesome birthday package from Justine. I also received a Halloween package and two Christmas packages and a cinco de mayo birthday package. I ate half the Halloween chocolates and a bowl of cheesy tortilla soup. And I feel kind of sick but am loving it.

Nina was just here last month on her way back to the states. I was meaning to visit her on my way back but she beat me to it. It was a nice excuse to travel around the country. We visited the island Pentecost where they have a peculiar ceremony for celebrating the yam harvest every May and June. They build tall towers out of sticks and vines 40 ft high and jump off of them into the dirt with a vine attached to their ankle. It’s sort of like bungee jumping. It was really impressive. After that we were supposed to head off to Yasur volcano, which is the most magnificent approachable active volcano on earth. Unfortunately it was being a little too active and consequently not very approachable. Peace Corps forbid me to go so we decided to hop on a small passenger ship heading to the island just to the south. That ship should have arrived at 6 pm but instead it showed up at 1 am. We got on only to find out that it was not stopping at the next island but going directly to the capital city. 12 hours after our 3 hour tour had started, we finally reached the capital and spent several days lounging pool side at various resorts to make up for the time we’d spent on the boat. It was good fun to catch up with Nina and hear all the Friar news. Nina quote, “So it seems like the theory behind Peace Corps cuisine is ‘it’s better with Peanut butter.’” Yep, so true. Biscuits: better with peanut butter; ramen noodles: better with peanut butter; spoon: better with peanut butter.

Here's a video about Land Diving, the Nangol Ceremony

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Things that make me smile in Vanuatu

I’ve been here for a year and a half and there are so many things that still make me crack up inside. I could be in a serious meeting but then the area council secretary will start digging in his nose while talking to me and I just lose it. At least it never gets boring.

1. Although it is sold in the shops, nobody ever has toilet paper:
In fact, most people don’t have toilets. But those that do are totally confused about them. In the hospital for example, they built the toilet stall to the exact size of the toilet. It’s so small that you can’t close the door unless you are already sitting down. So you have to pull your pants down and then close the door. Another thing that cracks me up is when the toilet is facing the wrong way. It’s like people don’t know where the front of the toilet is. Here are some drawings of actual toilets I’ve experienced here:

Speaking of sanitation practices, did you know it is customary here to wash your hands after every meal? This unfortunately is not the most effective method of preventing the spread of disease.

It is not impolite to pick your nose in public, while having a conversation, while eating, or where ever. In fact some people grow one fingernail longer than the others for the job.

Also one polite way to burp is to say “OHH!” louder than the sound of the burp so it just sounds like you are surprised by something rather than just burping.

2. Names:
Some common Vanuatu names I’ve encountered: Rock, Coozy, Tito, Fanny (that’s my name here), and the very common family name Bong. I eagerly await the day that I will find a way to use the phrase “He’s got more Bongs than a Vanuatu phone book,” in conversation.

There are a couple families in my area that have named all their kids with variations of the same name. My favorite of course is the family that named all their children variations of Stephanie. There is Stephanie, Stephan, Stephana, and Stephano. I have to admit it is a lot easier to learn everybody’s name when they're named like this.

3. My English class dynamics at the Lamap Vocational School:
-Rachel 15, 5th grade education 0 years of English in school
-Ilene 16, 8th grade education 8 years of English
-Calixto 21, 10th grade education 4 years of English, forbidden to speak with Lidiana
-Cindy 20, 10th grade education 4 years of English, teen mother
-Anika 17, 8th grade education, 2 years of English, teen mother
-Lidiana 18, 6th grade education 0 years English, forbidden to speak to Calixto
Calixto and Liliana are forbidden to talk or sit next to each other or work together due to traditional law that you can’t speak with certain cousins of the opposite sex. And all the other girls are just too shy to talk to him haha. So between the different maturity levels, education levels, language levels, social taboos etc. you can see how this class can be rediculous at times.

Other good news:

I just went on a great three day hike to a small village deep in the bush. It was such a great break from Lamap because it's not humid, it was about ten degrees cooler, there were no mosquitos, and lots of fresh water to swim in. Plus so much great food. You can catch prawns in the river. We collected shellfish and even fresh water eel. One day we went wild pig hunting and caught one! Also the village has a big herd of cattle. We ate meat at every meal.

Also they just put up a new cell phone tower across the way and as of next week I will have cellphone service in my house! Happy easter to me :)

Love you all
Miss you much