Sunday, October 1, 2017

My Life as a Port Vila Volunteer

One of the benefits to Port Vila - weekend scuba diving!

The other day, someone I met asked me how being a Peace Corps volunteer in the capital compares to serving in a more rural community.  While I haven’t served on an outer island here in Vanuatu, I did serve in a rural community in Benin – and told him that “it’s completely different – it’s like having a regular job, only without the money!”  Working with World Vision is very much like having a regular job.  I have a desk and a computer, I’m in the office from 8 to 5 – and there’s lots of work to do.  While I wouldn’t trade the challenges and rewards of serving in a rural area during my first service, at this point in my life this is exactly what I need.  I often find it amazing to look back over my time in Vanuatu so far, and think about how despite all the challenges and uncertainty of my first four months I ended up in a situation that is such a good fit – really a much better fit than my experience on Ambae would have been.Here’s a taste of what I’m working on here with World Vision:

ADTEG Project in Tanna

One of the projects I’m helping with is called Agricultural Development for Tanna’s Economic Growth (ADTEG).  This project has been going for a bit more than a year, in Tanna – an island in southern Vanuatu.  I got to spend about two weeks there in June.  The project is helping coffee farmers improve their practices, and introducing new horticultural crops.  I helped the team write their annual report for the first year of their activities (ah, the glamour of development work), and am working with them to think about ways to involve more women in their activities and to incorporate new crops like chickpeas into demo plots to be planted with farmers. 

Tanna is a really cool island – kastom, or traditional culture, is particularly strong there.  I got to tag along with the World Vision team to the opening ceremony for a water system they’d helped build (World Vision also does a lot of WASH work), and took part in a huge kastom dance as part of the celebrations with more than 100 people!  Tanna’s naturally beautiful as well, I had a wonderful time watching the sunrise each morning from a rock outcropping in the ocean near my bungalow.  And the Tanna World Vision team are wonderful people.  We spent a lot of time practicing songs and dances to perform at a World Vision-wide conference/retreat which took place in Port Vila immediately after my trip. 

Dancing with the Tanna office team...

And joining in a kastom dance in the field!

Waste Not Want Not Project – in Port Vila and Luganville

The second project I’m involved with, which is currently taking up more of my time, is called Waste Not Want Not.  It’s a project focusing on waste management - like many countries, Vanuatu is experiencing more and more problems with waste as plastic bags, bottles, wrappers, and other types of non-biodegradable trash have become more and more common.  Unlike the ADTEG project, this project is a new one – it is still being designed.  Which is a neat opportunity for me – being part of discussions about how the project will work.  The idea is to help communities start small businesses around waste management, following the model of Pango Green Force – a local, community-based trash collection company who World Vision has worked with.  I helped run a two-week design workshop with project staff earlier this summer, and am taking the lead on writing up the project design document – more glamorous report writing!  But an important skill to develop.

Serious times with the WNWN team.  Photo from Jowenna Halili

And outside of work...

And then of course one of the benefits to a 8-5 job – the free time in the evenings and weekends. Here again, living in Port Vila is very different from being a rural volunteer.  I shop at a grocery store and cook things pretty similar to what I would at home, I have electricity so I can read and watch tv on my computer easily in the evenings.  Port Vila is a great place to live – very much like a small town.  I’ve been swimming in the ocean regularly with friends, doing a kilometre or so 3 or 4 times a week.  I’ve become scuba certified too, and try to go diving (on guided dive trips through the same company who certified me) a couple times a month.  It’s a pricey hobby, but so worth it – I love anything that gets me out in nature.  And I’ve gone on some good vacations – I went to Aneityum, in the south of Vanuatu, to attend a friend’s wedding and recently had a 2-week visit from my Mom – we spent time with my host family from training on nearby Pele island, and went up to Gaua, an island in the north of Vanuatu – where we did a (very strenuous) hike to a waterfall, and then an overnight hike to lake Letas, the largest freshwater lake in the Pacific, and took a canoe across it to hike Mt Garet, a volcano! Anyone looking for a vacation destination?  I have a guest bedroom...  

Weekend resort-ing with a friend - this could be you!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"Blessed are the Flexible, for they shall Never be Bent out of Shape"

First day of work at World Vision!

The title of this post was a motto of the Rotary Youth Exchange program, and I learned it when I was an exchange student with them in Finland the year after high school.  The phrase stuck with me in Benin, as I dealt with the infinite frustrations and challenges of my first Peace Corps service.  And now in Vanuatu, I’ve had yet another chance to experience the importance of flexibility.  The good news is, whenever I get the question about whether or not I can work in a rapidly changing/flexible work environment during future interviews, I’ll be all set!

Some time ago I wrote a post about my job here in Vanuatu/ what I will be doing for work.  You may not have read that post; it was very long, and didn’t have any pretty pictures until the end.  If you did read it, disregard everything you learned from it – my situation has had some pretty major changes.  Shortly after my time on Ambrym working with fellow Peace Corps volunteer Kathleen, we learned that our project (the Youth at Work program, helping young people with climate change adaptation-related service projects and small business development) was going to be cancelled.  There are a variety of reasons for this, too complicated to get into in detail, but the decision was mainly due to lack of funding.  So all of a sudden, I wasn’t really sure what would happen next – would I stay in Vanuatu through January was planned?  Would I remain a Peace Corps volunteer, or not? 

Peace Corps wanted to work with us to help us remain volunteers if we wanted, and they offered me the opportunity to go to Walaha (the community where I’d originally been posted) to work in the school as a literacy teacher.  I did like the community and thought I’d enjoy living there, but my long term goals are to work in international development with a focus on agriculture or environment, and my preference was to find something I could do that was more in line with that.  So at the encouragement of some friends, I sent out copies of my CV to any and all international development organizations in Port Vila and asked for informational interviews.  I wanted to see if I could leave Peace Corps and get a “real job” with one of these organizations in Vanuatu.  It was a fun process- I interviewed with quite a few different organizations, learning a lot about the development community here.

 The final organization I talked with, World Vision Vanuatu, just felt like a great fit.  They had projects that interested me, and I got a great feeling from the two staff members I met with – I got the sense that their office culture would be a good fit for me.  The whole conversation felt very natural – I didn’t feel like I needed to “sell myself” at all, since my skills and background honestly could be of use of them.  The only catch – like the other organizations I’d talked with in Port Vila, they didn’t have the ability to offer me a job right then.  I didn’t think Peace Corps would allow me to work with them as a volunteer, but we all thought it was worth a try – and a series of meetings later, Peace Corps had agreed to let me spend the rest of my service working with World Vision Vanuatu!  So 4 months in, more than 1/3 of the way through my service, I finally, finally have a job.

I’ve been with World Vision for two and a half weeks now, and I'm sure there will be plenty of interesting posts to come about my work.  But a brief summary: I’m now based in Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital, but will be doing some travelling to other islands to help with World Vision projects there.  (In fact, I’m out of town on a business trip right now!)  My title is “Livelihoods and Resilience Officer,” and I’m helping with a couple projects: one, on Tanna (an island in southern Vanuatu) involves working with coffee farmers, and a second one, in Port Vila and Luganville (Vanuatu’s second largest town) focuses on waste management and business development.   This is now my third week at work, and the impression I’d gotten of World Vision Vanuatu during my interview has proven to be correct.  There’s really a good bunch of people working in the office here.  I feel challenged by the projects I’m working on, but also like I’m able to contribute – and I really think this experience is a good career step.  So at long last, things have gotten started – no more lazing around on the beach, there’s work to be done!  

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Musings from a Bench in the Port Vila Post Office

All the post cards I bought during my long wait.  

Yesterday, I was working in the Peace Corps Office resource room when a friend asked if I could help her run an errand.  Another Peace Corps volunteer who is serving on Ambae had a package at the post office, and it couldn't be delivered to her on her island until the customs fees were paid.  I didn't know much about how to do this, but I was free- and so I walked to the post office downtown, stopping into stores to browse as I did.

When I got to the post office, I went to the desk labeled "customs" and explained the situation - but they were confused about why I had come and not the volunteer in question, and why I didn't have an invoice for the amount I was supposed to pay.  They suggested that I try another desk, labeled "items to collect" or something like that.  Before I headed over there, I got into a conversation with a couple of men sitting on bench.  In Vanuatu "storying", or chatting, is a big part of daily life - so I told them everything about my situation, the volunteer's name, the island where she was serving, the fact that I got this mission third-hand so wasn't exactly sure what I needed to do, etc.  Well, it turned out that the men worked for the post office, and one of them remembered seeing the packages in question.  Small countries are wonderful this way - would that happen at the national post office in Washington DC?  Anyway, the two men offered to go and get me the invoice form I needed in order to pay for her customs fee.

Off they went, and I sat on the bench and waited.  I didn't have a book or any games on my non-smart phone, so I sat there with my thoughts.  A familiar situation from other Peace Corps and travel experiences, the type of waiting that is surrendering to the slow, uncertain pace of life - just accepting how things are.  I thought about memories I have of other post offices around the world, trying to visit each one in my mind, remembering everything about it.  I thought about how exciting checking our family's post office box at Paul Smith's College was when I was a child - box 265.  I can still remember the combination.  And the box I rented at the post office in Kalale, Benin.  I'd swing by when heading back from Kalale to my village, Peonga, which was a 30 minute motorcycle ride away.  The post office boxes were outside, near the market - I'd ask the motorcycle drive to wait while I hopped off and ran over with my key.  More often than not, the only thing in the box was a thick layer of fine red dust, the dust from the road that had found its way through the cracks.  But sometimes, a letter from home - always covered in red dust itself.  And then the post office in downtown Sitka, Alaska  - where I also rented a box.  I remember sending an Alaska-themed care package from there to my friend Camille, who was still serving in Peace Corps Benin; smoked salmon, pine-scented soap, a t-shirt, fish flavored cat treats for Furlock, her kitten. I spent a long time in the post office trying to figure out what items to remove to make the package a more affordable weight.

The woman sitting next to me on the bench in the Port Vila post office was playing with her keys in her hand, making a rhythmic jingling noise.  "They're all coming back from the RFU", she said to me, starting a conversation.   She was talking about the long line of people collecting money from the Western Union counter in the main lobby.  I asked what RFU meant, and she said it was the people who go from Vanuatu to pick fruit, apples or grapes, in New Zealand for a season.  They had gotten back the day before, and were collecting their money.  I asked her what island she was from, an easy conversation topic in Vanuatu; she was from Makira, a very small island part of the Shepherds group north of Efate.  We talked about how a Peace Corps volunteer is serving there right now.  Then after a while she got up and used her key to enter one of the back rooms, and I kept sitting alone.

And I waited.  I thought about how glad I was to have so many memories to keep me entertained.  Really, I thought, the phrase "I've lived a long and rich life" could be applied to me.  Why only use this phrase when at the end of one's life?  It's good to take pauses at any point to appreciate life's richness so far.  So I thought about more memories, and kept waiting, and watching other customers...and slowly the waiting started to get old.  That's the thing about the calm, patient waiting state of mind we take on as Peace Corps volunteers - it runs out.  We're patient, and it's fine...until all the sudden it isn't, and the fact that we've spent more than an hour sitting on the side of the road waiting for a bush taxi, or on our porch waiting for our counterpart, or on a bench waiting in the post office, whatever it may be, starts to feel unbearably frustrating.

I could tell I was transitioning from blissfully grateful for this opportunity to reflect on my life to unbearably frustrated at how long I'd been sitting on that bench, so I got up to buy some post cards.  I ran into the woman from the bench again - it turned out she was the janitor.  "The men haven't come back yet?" she asked, and then told me she'd give them a call.  I chose my post cards, and then waited again in a different place - a long line at the cash register - when finally, I saw one of the men come back in the front door.  He gave me the invoice - an official-looking form with photocopies of the packing slips - and I was finally able to pay the customs fee and be on my way.

Thinking about it, I'm pretty sure those two men had gone all the way to the package sorting center, in a completely different part of town, to get the form I needed for me.  Certainly not part of their job.  Nor was it the janitor's job to call them and find out what was taking so long.  The whole experience was an example of how things get done, here in Vanuatu, and also in many of the other countries I've spent significant time in, like Nepal and Benin.  Systems are in place, or at least the appearance of them - offices, desks, lines, forms.  But the way things really work is by chatting, making friends, telling the other people sharing your bench your story.  And then they choose to go out of their way to make whatever needs to happen, happen.  Would it have been nice if I'd dashed into the post office, paid the fee, and then been on my way?  Sure - but then I wouldn't have developed connections to other people, and have that warm feeling in my heart that comes from being helped by strangers.  So all in all I'm grateful for the experience.

And glad it's over.

Surely it was a one-time experience -

The post office had better not always take that long...

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Catching up on Efate Adventures Part 1: Lololima Waterfall and Wading to the Grocery Store

Most of my time here in Vanuatu has actually been spent in Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila - waiting for work to get started between trips out of town.  I haven't written about many of that time - a lot of it has been wasting days on the internet, nothing that would really be interesting to read about (although maybe it would give a more realistic view of what my service has really been like).  But several adventures have been sprinkled in.  Here are some of them!

One weekend early on in my stay here, another volunteer and I decided we wanted to visit Lololima Waterfall.  He'd heard the waterfall was cool, but neither of us knew how to get there.  I asked the women who work at the hotel where I've been staying, and they thought we could probably flag down one of the "busses" in Port Vila and get it to take us there for around 400 vatu ($4).  Busses in Port Vila are actually minivans that act sort of like taxis, driving around and picking up and dropping off passengers wherever they want to go. Well, we stood by the road and flagged down several busses who either didn't know where the waterfall was or weren't willing to take us there.  Finally, we found a bus who, like the others, wasn't sure where the waterfall was - but he was willing to try to find it.  We got in, and off we went, asking for directions along the way.  It ended up being much farther into the bush than any of us had thought - the paved road ended and we bounced along a dirt track, asking for directions from a group of horseback riders and people in houses.

 Once the bus driver realized how far away it was, he asked us to charter the whole bus for the afternoon; there was no chance we'd be able to find another bus to get back in that remote area.  We agreed, especially since he was concerned that he might be harming his bus on the dirt road.  Now we weren't the only passengers in the bus; other passengers included a young woman who had been on the way to the hospital for pneumonia before we took over the bus.  I kept telling the driver that we could swing by the hospital and drop her off first, we didn't mind - but she kept saying "no, no, it's ok!"  So she came with us.  (I think she was one of his relatives).

When we finally found the waterfall it was all worth it- very beautiful, with deep, cool pools to swim in and even a small cave to explore.  We all - me, my friend, the driver, and the other passengers - went swimming together and had a great time.  None of them had been there, and the woman who had been on her way to the hospital said "Oh, I feel much better now, this water is great!"  It ended with the bus driver giving us his phone number for our future adventure needs.

A second, more recent adventure took place on what should have been a pretty ordinary errand - running out to the grocery store for supplies.  I had just gotten back to Port Vila after my time on Ambrym, and wanted to walk to the nearby Au Bon Marche (Port Vila's grocery store) to buy food.  Now, Cyclone Cook had brought quite a bit of rain to Port Vila, and the road between my hotel and Au Bon Marche has a deep dip in it.  When I got to that part of the road this is what I saw:

The water looked to be at least waist high at the deepest points.  Only the hardiest cars were crossing - making big waves in front of them as they did so.  Now the logical thing to do would be to turn around and take a bus to one of Au Bon Marche's many other locations in Port Vila, but I saw that some other people were wading across - and if they could do it, so could I!  So I made my way across, helped by the many people who called out to me to tell me the best way to go.  A group of men in a construction site helped me cut through their site to avoid most of the water, but I still waded up to my knees at one point - and combined with the heavy rain that was coming down I was completely soaked when I got to the grocery store.  

On my way back, I decided to try to take a dirt road up a hill to avoid the water.  When I asked a young woman I saw how to get back down to the main road on the other side of the water, she pointed out the way, a path between houses - but also said that there were dogs along the way that could bite me.  So she and a group of girls walked along beside me to protect me from the dogs, holding their flip flops in their hands to fend them off.  We all laughed about the situation.  I got back to the hotel safe and sound, and don't even remember what food I ended up buying - but the memory of the adventure stuck with me.  The way that seemingly routine tasks can lead to adventure and connections with strangers is one of my favorite things about experiences like Peace Corps.  

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Ambrym Lessons Part 2: "Who's the Lucky Lady?!?"

Ambrym is a beautiful island, and not all of my three weeks there was spent lying around on the floor - I also went swimming in the ocean almost every day.  Another good place to reflect on life.  I'm not dating anyone right now, and while I love the freedom to pack my bags and move to a tropical island in the South Pacific whenever I want sometimes I really feel like I'm ready to find my life partner.  The idea of sharing all these experiences sounds great.  One day on Ambrym I was alone at the beach, standing in the water and thinking about this.  I thought about how many of us have this desire to find a person that will make our lives feel complete, to be able to say "you complete me."  I've been in love in the past, and have dated some wonderful guys, and I do know that it isn't that easy - no matter how great a person is or how much you love them, they never are able to make everything perfect.  Maybe we're thinking about the phrase "you complete me" all wrong, I  thought.  We are always being completed, moment by moment, by many different things.  Every experience we have, everything we see, helps complete us.  At that exact moment, I was being "completed" by the beautiful beach where I was.  So I ran my fingers through the water and thought, "You complete me."  I put on my mask and snorkel and swam, thinking "You complete me" to the fish I saw swim into a tin can.  I floated on my back, looking up at the beautiful blue sky and enjoying the water's support, thinking about how important it is for us to appreciate the beauty of every moment and its role in making us who we are.

Hard not to be inspired on a beach like this

Another related insight I got on Ambrym was about another common phrase: "Who's the lucky lady?!?" or "Who's the lucky guy?!?"  We usually say this when a friend has gotten engaged or started a relationship.  Of course that's exciting, but why not think of using the phrase more often - even in just thinking about ourselves and our lives.  After all, a lucky lady isn't just someone who's found their life partner - they can also be someone who's got a great job, or just bought a plane ticket, or is  enjoying a beautiful sunset, or eating a great ice cream sundae.  I wrote this idea into a poem for my friend Taylor in Alaska.  Taylor had sent out poems that she wrote to several of her friends, including me, months ago, and I'd told her I'd write one in return but never got around to it until my time on Ambrym.  So here's what I came up with:

"Who's the Lucky Lady?"
A Poem for Taylor Ciambra

Who's the lucky lady
With blisters on her toes
Poems in her typewriter
And flour on her clothes?

Who's the lucky lady
Who saw the northern lights
And learned about banana slugs
And read a book last night?

Her life's no fairy tale
It's got far too much rain
And awkwardness and "now what's next?"
And little bits of pain.

No "happily ever after" -
Her story's got no end-
But off she goes in her Xtratuffs
To find the happy around the bend.

Maybe she'll marry a prince one day
No one really knows
But a lady's luck is always born
In the blisters on her toes.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Ambrym Lessons Part 1: Insights from Lying on a Concrete Floor

Peace Corps, especially in Vanuatu, is certainly full of adventure - but the experience also involves a whole lot of personal reflection and wrestling with complicated issues.  Figuring out personal relationships, dealing with uncertainty about what my service is supposed to be about, what in the world I'm doing with my life, etc.  When I spent three weeks on Ambrym last month (the island where I went through Cyclone Cook), a lot of this wrestling came to a head.  While there, I learned that the funding for the project I originally came to Vanuatu to do had still not come through, and there were some serious doubts about if/how the project would go forward.  Everything felt very uncertain - I didn't even know for sure if I'd be able to finish my service here in Vanuatau.  This was pretty stressful for both me and the other volunteer I was staying with, who was doing the same project in her community.

One day we were both particularly down about the whole thing, which is never a good combination - neither of us felt very optimistic or able to cheer the other one up.  This being Peace Corps, there was a lot of down time that day and it was also quite hot so I went to lie down on the concrete floor of her house for a nap.  This nap ended up being a sort of turning point for me - instead of sleeping I ended up thinking and praying about my situation for an hour or so, and by the end of the time my thought had turned around.  Nothing had changed about my situation, I still had no idea what was going to happen or even what I wanted to happen.  But I felt motivated and happy to find out how I could best be helpful.  Instead of feeling that none of the possible scenarios for what would happen next could work or make me happy, I felt like I had the ability to be happy no matter which one happened.  After all, if I could turn my thought around by doing something as simple as spending time lying on the floor, the ability to make my situation happy is clearly something inside of me, that I can never be without.  Once I returned to Port Vila it turned out that our program was cancelled after all, and it's taken more than a month to figure out how I'll spend the rest of my service.  I can't say that I've always felt perfectly calm and happy about all the uncertainty, but I've also never stayed down very long - my perspective had changed in a small but permanent way that day on Ambrym.

No good photos were taken of the concrete floor in question.  But you can see a bit of it in this photo of a cute dog!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Meet Cook, my very first Cyclone!

I recently got back to Port Vila after three weeks spent on Ambrym, another of Vanuatu's islands.  I was spending time with Kathleen, a volunteer there who is working on the same project as me.  I helped her lead part of the two-week training with youth that starts the project, and had plenty of time to enjoy her site - one of the most beautiful villages I've been to so far.  Ambrym is volcanic (it has two active volcanoes), so the beaches are all black volcanic sand and it has a beautiful, mountainous landscape.

At the end of my second week there, Cyclone Cook passed through Vanuatu.  This is the first time I've experienced a cyclone or hurricane firsthand.  A couple days before the cyclone passed through our area, the weather started to get windy and the waves were stronger than before.

Peace Corps does a great job at looking out for the safety of volunteers, and we began to get regular texts from our Safety and Security manager in the office about the storm's location.  Vanuatu has a cyclone tracking map - here's an image of it.  Along the side of the map is a description of storm categories; Cook started as a "Tropical Low", but was a category 1 cyclone by the time it reached us.  It ended up reaching category 2, but by that time it had moved further south than us.  Peace Corps used the coordinates on the map to tell us where the storm was located, and the national government was also sending out the same information by radio.

As the storm got closer, the wind and rain picked up.  Some members of Kathleen's community own fiberglass motorboats (used for fishing and transportation), and we went down to the beach with a group of men to help haul the boats out of the water.  They were pushed high up into the bush by rolling them on plastic pvc pipes, so they couldn't be swept away by the waves.  It was fun being out there in the rain with everyone, getting soaked and helping push the boats.  Everyone prepared their houses, as well.  Many of the houses have thatch roofs, which are great for keeping a house cool and allowing air circulation - but the thatch can be blown off in heavy wind.  To prevent this people cut coconut leaves, tie them together in sets of two, and lay them over the top of the roof to weigh the thatch down.  Here's a photo of Kathleen's house once we'd done this, with the help of her family in village:

Once the house was all set, nothing was left but to wait for the cyclone to blow over.  It never went right over where we were, but passed relatively close by - we had one very windy night where neither of us got much sleep, but the roof stayed on the house and only a little rain got in through the walls.  In the village as a whole, most of the houses got through the cyclone just fine, although lots of banana trees and manioc plants in the gardens were blown down and will take a long time to grow back.  But everyone was safe, and once the wind died down we all got to work cleaning up downed tree branches, drying out wet clothes and mattresses, and starting normal life again.