Friday, February 10, 2017

My beautiful Pele Island morning routine

When living life at village pace, without electricity, it's pretty natural to go to bed early.  9:00 pm was a late night, I was often in bed by 8.  This leads to waking up early, a great thing when your morning trip to the latrine takes you past a beautiful white sand beach with an unobstructed view to the east over the ocean.  It became my routine on Pele to sit under a coconut tree next to the ocean for one or two hours each morning, watching the sunrise.  Gypsy, the family dog, would come and sit with me - more often than not, she'd try to climb up on my lap.  For some of the time I'd be alone, but at least one or two people would come and sit next to me and chat - going to sit next to the beach to look at the ocean in the morning was a very normal thing to.  Never before in my life has watching the sunrise been a regular part of my routine.  Each sunrise was different.  As the sky got light, activity would start on the beach - the village motorboats were making their daily trip to Port Vila, and people would come down to the beach to see off friends and family who were leaving - either for the day to sell fish, or coconuts, or prepared food in Port Vila, or for longer - school vacation was drawing to a close and several students were off to boarding school.  After the sun was up, the boats had left, and it was solidly day I'd finally get up off my bench and walk slowly back to my house - at island pace - to eat breakfast and start the day.

Pele was special, and beautiful in every way.  A perfect introduction to Vanuatu.  It's time for a new adventure on a new island, however - I've finished a good week in Port Vila, and tomorrow morning I'm taking a plane to Malekula, Vanuatu's second biggest island, to spend the week learning from some volunteers there!  There are worse jobs. Plenty new stories and photos to come.

Boats waiting for their passengers

Rain starting to fall in the distance - I watched it come across the ocean before it reached me.  

My morning sitting spot

Family members (and Gypsy the dog) waving goodbye to some of the older children heading off to school.  My host mama is the one in a blue dress.  

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Snorkeling in a plane, and other aquatic adventures

My first couple days on Pele were the weekend - no classes, nothing to do but adjust to village life and talk as much as I could in my broken Bislama.  I think it was my second or third day, I was alternating between chatting, napping, and reading my Bislama textbook, and the day was starting to drag.  "Hmmmm," I thought, "I remember this feeling.  Just like last Peace Corps."  But then - "Guess I'll go snorkeling!!!"  My village, Launamoa, was right on the ocean.  I swam at least once a day, and the snorkeling right in front of my house was pretty great.  I saw all kinds of neat fish, including a group of clownfish hanging out around a rock covered in sea anemones.  Some of my snorkeling adventures were farther afield, though.  One time after lunch I complained about the heat to Terry, our language traininer.  "Ok", he said, "Why don't we go swimming?"  He guided us to a place where the reef drops off and the ocean gets deep - a totally new, neat experience.  

Not usually one for selfies, but I think this one is pretty cool!

The coral reef right near my house

Facing off with a clownfish

Terry hanging out at the bottom of the ocean

 On our final weekend on Pele, we went with Terry and his family to visit the site of a crashed World War II plane.  (There wasn't any fighting here in Vanuatu to speak of, but there were bases here and pilots would fly to the Solomon Islands.  The trip was far, and often they'd crash in the waters off of Vanuatu, running out of fuel before reaching their landing strip.  In the case of the plane we visited, the pilot had been able to get out fine but the plane was lost).  Getting there was quite an adventure.  Our driver had to reverse the boat through a tiny channel through mangroves, everyone ducking to avoid being hit by branches.  (After getting through the channel, we realized there was actually a much easier, wider route though them - but what's the fun in taking the easy route?)

Our treacherous journey through the mangroves

  We stopped at a tiny World War II museum with articles and artifacts, and then asked the woman manning the museum how to find the plane.  The man who knew where it was had gone to town, she said.  They had attached a buoy to it at one point, but someone had stolen the buoy - so we'd have to go look around ourselves.  She did lend us two teenage girls who sort of had an idea of where to find it, but we were driving back and forth for a while, scanning the clear blue water for anything that looked like a plane on the bottom.  At one point, as you do when you are lost, we "Pulled over and asked for directions."  In our case, this meant asking a passing snorkeler - in Vanuatu many people snorkel to spear fish.  He gave us rough directions - but how do you give clear directions about how to find something underwater?

The World War II Museum

Searching for the plane

 I was the one who finally spotted it.  It wasn't that deep under water - if you stood on the plane your head was out of the water, and it was easy to hold your breath, dive down, and explore or sit in the cockpit.  The plane was now a habitat for plenty of fishes, and coral had colonized the tail.  It was such a cool experience!  Definitely a highlight of Peace Corps training.  Vanuatu will be a challenge for sure, like any Peace Corps experience, but being here can sure be pretty awesome.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Thoughts on being an official Peace Corps volunteer again

More photos and stories of Pele to come.  But as of yesterday, I am officially a Peace Corps volunteer again!  I once again swore to uphold the constitution of the United States and to defend my country against all enemies, foreign and domestic - and learned that repeating that oath in unison with just one other person is much more challenging than with a group of 60.  With 60 people everyone's voices blend together, but with two, every little slip up is obvious - but we got through it, and I now have a cool Vanuatu-USA Peace Corps friendship pin to go with my Benin-USA one.  Our swearing in ceremony was nice, most of the office staff and a few volunteers were there and we got to talk about our favorite memories from training - I shared a fantastic sentence we came up with in language class.  "Kasem" in Bislama can mean "to understand", "to reach", "until", and "to pour."  So "Bae yu no kasem kasem yu kasem Port Vila mo kasem wan bigfala kava" means "You won't understand until you reach Port Vila and pour a big serving of kava."  The other Peace Corps response volunteer and I had so many good things to say about all the staff who have supported us so far.

The first time I swore in as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was literally fulfilling a life-long dream.  I had grown up hearing my Dad's stories from his service in Peace Corps Nepal, and saw how that had opened the door for many exciting international opportunities.  We lived in Nepal as a family, and throughout my growing up from time to time he'd say something like - "Hey Bets, would you like to move to Guam/Botswana/______?"  I'd always say "Yes!!!!".  Most of these job offers didn't pan out, Mom had a much more realistic view of what made sense for the family and whatnot, but I always thought it would be great to have people calling me up from time to time and saying things like "Mongolia needs you!!"  I knew Peace Corps was the first step to this.  If I didn't join Peace Corps, it felt like something I'd always wonder about.

Peace Corps Response, on the other hand, was not as much of a life-long dream.  I never really thought I'd do Peace Corps twice.  Which can make figuring out why I'm here a little more complicated.  Adventure - that's a big reason I decided to do this.  As mentioned in a previous blog post, I've been interested in the South Pacific for a long time.  And it sounds like adventure will not be lacking this year.  Another reason I'm doing this is to get in-depth experience in a new community.  So far, the main experience I have living in a developing country comes from Peonga.  I think having experienced a second one - Walaha, the place I'll be living on Ambae - could serve me well if I pursue a career in development work after this.  If I just had experience with one community, I could make the mistake of assuming every place has the same issues, concerns, village dynamics, etc. as Peonga.

Being a Peace Corps volunteer again is also a great opportunity to "cash in on" all the work I did during my two years of Peace Corps Benin.  Learning how to be happy with a slower pace of life, how to take initiative and make things happen, how to be comfortable with ambiguity...basically how to be a volunteer.  My fellow Peace Corps Response volunteer put it well when he said this time it feels like just getting back on a bike.  You might be on a totally different road, but the basic skills of how to make the bike go are the same, and you've already learned them.

Last night, after swearing in, I found myself sitting outside with my journal, listening to the nighttime sounds of Port Vila and intensely missing the place where I first learned to "ride the bike" that is Peace Corps.  This is funny, in a way - Benin was as hot as Vanuatu but didn't have the snorkeling, bush taxis were less comfortable than the Port Vila minibusses, walking around in Cotonou you'd be greeted by "Yovo! Yovo! Yovo! (White person! White person! White person!) while in Port Vila everyone just smiles and says "Gud Moning!" .  The market here as a wider variety of fruit but no bargaining, the vendors are happy to chat but won't hassle you to buy.  So far, Vanuatu has just been an easier place.  It's beautiful, the Peace Corps staff is very supportive - I have pretty much nothing to complain about.  But at the risk of sounding very cheesy, people say your first love always has a special, unique place in your heart.  Benin was like a first love - like a real love, a real relationship - a messy one at that.  My Peace Corps service in Benin was at time a rosy romantic dream and at times a battle, a series of highs and lows with a difficult, messy parting at the end.  It forced me to learn much about myself, to come face to face with weaknesses that made me uncomfortable - but also showed me strengths and beautiful things about myself.  It was filled with moments of unbearable sweetness. At first, I thought maybe my experience in Vanuatu would be so much smoother than in Benin that I would be left thinking "This place is so much nicer, so much easier - I like it better!"  But now I know that nothing can really ever be "better" than Benin - because nothing else will ever be in the same category.  My feelings about Benin will always be complex and unique - missing a place that was not always easy to be in, loving a person who was not always easy to love.  But loving them nonetheless, to some degree, forever.  Benin was my Peace Corps country, and Peonga was my Peace Corps town. No matter how many places I live in, how many villages I love, nothing will replace the first.
So thank you, Benin.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Meet the Family - Pele Edition

I've been blessed with many wonderful families in my life.  Of course my own family, Mom, Dad, and Nathan are great - and I feel their support just as tangibly when I'm thousands of miles away as when we're together in person.  It's a great gift.  Over the course of my travels, I've accumulated several wonderful host families as well.  As an exchange student in Finland, I lived with the Ahos, and Heikkilas, and the Wahlrooses.  In Benin, I spent training with the Azagbas in Porto Novo and then lived with Banna, Delegue, and their wonderful family at my post in Peonga.  While in Kenya this summer, I expected to spend my two months living in a hotel - only to be spontaneously offered the chance to live, free of charge, with the Nyende family in their apartment at Kibabii University.  I may have a pretty strong wanderlust, but I'm also a homebody in that I love putting down roots and being with family (new or old) - so these people have all been such great gifts.  And I'm still in touch with most of them - I sent a crop of Christmas cards back to Finland this year, e-mail Kefa Nyende (the father of the Nyende family) regularly with updates, and just talked on the phone with Papa and Mama Azagba yesterday, after being out of touch for quite a while.  One of Mama Azagba's first questions: "Have you had a baby yet?"

Here in Vanuatu, my list of families is going to grow yet again.  On Pele Island, I spent my 10 days living with Papa James, Mama Leimas, and their nieces, nephews, and other related children.  When I move to Ambae, my permanent island, I'll get yet two more families- I'll be spending 6 months each in two different villages.  My family on Pele was great.  They never spoke a word of English to me, but spent so much time helping me learn Bislama.  We would just chat and chat.  I played bingo and learned how to cook simboro (rolled island cabbage leaves with a manioc (cassava) or banana filling and how to scratch (grate) coconuts with Mama Leimas.   I drank kava with papa, had a late-night dance party with my sisters Patricia, Phoebe, Annie, and Lizzie (which ended abruptly when Papa peeked his head in the windows and all the girls hid, screaming and giggling, embarrassed), and spent hours upon hours with Jeanneth, the 6 year old.  

Mama Leimas making Simboro

My sisters Annie and Lizzie (with Jeanneth as the photographer)

Jeanneth was great fun.  6 year olds are great at helping you learn languages - they love to have the same conversation over and over again.  I brought two photo books from home with me, with photos of family and friends - one is a book I had printed before my first Peace Corps service in Benin, and the second one is new photos I printed out right before coming here.  Jeanneth never got tired of looking at the photo books - she would ask to see them several times a day, and repeated everything I had told her about the photos to anyone who would listen.  A favorite discovery - it's possible to cross reference the books, looking in the earlier book at the picture of my cousin Jill's wedding to her husband Aaron, and then in the second book at a group photo that includes Jill, Aaron, and their baby son Davey.  There are three weddings of cousins of mine in the two books - those are always popular.

Jeanneth showing the page of photos featuring my brother Nathan to her friend Leiwiya
Jeanneth and I also went swimming a couple times in the ocean together - I went swimming at least once every day.  We often had silly nonsense conversations while we swam - the last time we swam, I saw that the sky was getting cloudy and their was rain on the horizon.  "Bae i rein (it's going to rain)" I told her - (a key part of learning any new language is narrating each and every obvious fact you can, the more talking the better.)  "No, bae i no rein (No, it isn't going to rain!)" Jeanneth replied. "Si, bae i rein! (Yes, it's going to rain!)", "No, bae i no rein (No, it isn't going to rain!), and so on and so forth for quite a while.  For the record, it started raining soon and didn't let up for a day.

Jeanneth heading to church in the rain that same day - look who was right about the weather!

My favorite conversation with Jeanneth, though, took place on an earlier swim.

Jeanneth: Leifao, Amerika i nais? (Leifao (my new Pele island name), is America nice?)
Me: Yes, Amerika i nais. (Yes, America is nice.)
Jeanneth: No, Amerika i no nais. (No America is not nice.)
Me: From wanem? (Why?)
Jeanneth: Hmmmmm - from we i gat fulup mared! (Hmmmm - because it has too many weddings!)

I guess my photo albums give the impression of the USA as a land of many weddings.  I don't think Jeanneth has anything against weddings really, for the record - she loves those photos!

At the end of our week on Pele island, Nick (the other Peace Corps Response volunteer) and I were supposed to return to Port Vila on Friday in order to spend the weekend in the capital.  We both loved the island and our families so much, that we requested permission to stay on the island an extra weekend with them - and Peace Corps accepted!  At the end of the weekend, our families hosted a joint going away party for us.  We were each given gifts - I got an Island Dress, also known as a "Mother Hubbard" - the dress of choice for Ni-Vanuatu women, and a beautiful woven mat.  Our families also assured us that we're welcome to come back to the island any time we find a free weekend.  It's safe to say that we'll be taking them up on that offer as soon as we can.

Me with Papa James and Mama Leimas.  Note Papa James's big smile - he was always smiling - and my lovely island dress!

All the girls of the family.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Less than two weeks in, and I already know how to speak sea cucumber

I've just returned to Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital, after a wonderful ten days spent on a small island called Pele.  Along with another new Peace Corps Response volunteer, I lived on the island with a host family and had lessons in Bislama, Vanuatu's national language.  Bislama is a creole language in which most of the words are based on English with some French influences, but the sentence structure and grammar have connections to local island languages.  Vanuatu happens to be the most linguistically dense country in the world, as far as how many languages are spoken here per the population size - there is somewhere around one language for every 2,000 people, well over 100 languages.  Because of this linguistic diversity, there wasn't much of a way for people from different islands or even different parts of the same island to communicate.  When Ni-Vanuatu (the word for people from Vanuatu) were "recruited" (often forcefully) to work on sugar plantations in Australia, Fiji, and Samoa in the 1800s, Bislama was developed so they would have a way to communicate among one another.  It's very similar to Tok Pisin, spoken in Papua New Guinea, and Pijn, spoken in the Solomon islands.

As we learned Bislama, Nick (the other PC Response volunteer) and I would occasionally wonder how Bislama got its name.  After all, the names Tok Pisin and Pijin both clearly are based on "Pidgin English" - but what does Bislama mean?  It was on our list to ask our language trainer during one of our classes, but before we got around to that I was lying on the beach reading one of the "B" pages in my Bislama dictionary when I came across the following definition: "beche de mer: bislama."  For those of you not familiar with what a "bȇche de mer" is, it is a sea cucumber - a marine animal that can be eaten fresh or dried and is a delicacy in many Asian cuisines.  (See the wikipedia article).  They are a valuable fishery in many areas - I met a man who dives for sea cucumbers at a breakfast place in Ketchikan, Alaska, and they're also found here.  However, not the most obvious choice for a name for a language.  In case I'd misunderstood, I asked our language trainer the next time I saw him.  Yes, he confirmed that the word "Bislama" can refer both to the national language of Vanuatu and to the sea cucumber.  (And when you look at it, you can see how "Bislama" and "bȇche de mer" sound the same).  Did he know why the language was named after the sea cucumber, I asked?  Well, he replied "Tok Pisin" and "Pijin" were both taken - so he guessed the Ni-Vanuatu thought they should have a more unique name.  Fair enough.  But still, why choose the sea cucumber as the language's namesake, of all things?  About this he wasn't sure.  My Bislama textbook*, too, makes no mention of how the language got its name, although it has plenty of other information about the language's history.  Wikipedia mentions that the word, in addition to the term "Sandlewood English", "came to be associated" with the language being spoken by Ni-Vanuatu laborers amongst themselves - these laborers harvested sea cucumbers and sandalwood among other things.   I personally enjoy imagining this "coming to be associated with" as some sort of meeting of a group of Ni-Vanuatu sitting on a beach somewhere, in which someone said "Look - the guys in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are already calling their languages things that sound like Pidgin.  Therefore, we obviously need to name ours something different.  Sea Cucumber - that's the obvious choice."

Regardless of the language's history, Bislama is fun to learn.  Since so much of it is based on English I've picked it up more quickly than any other language I've studied - and it always feels good to be learning fast!  It was also helped along by the fact that Nick and I were in separate villages on Pele Island, so when we didn't have class we didn't see one another much.  That meant 10 days of just talking Bislama as much as I could.  Pele was a beautiful place, and many adventures were had - more posts to come on those.  But I'll leave you with a photo of where we had classes.  Life isn't too bad when your job is learning a language in a place like this.

*Bislama: An Introduction to the National Language of Vanuatu by Darrell Tryon

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Landing in Port Vila- I now live in Vanuatu!

I've made it to Vanuatu safe and sound - minus my checked bag, but hey, what can you do.  I'm sure it will get here eventually.  The flights went just fine - on my first flight from Seattle to LA I'm pretty sure I was sitting next to the Australian James Bond.  Clean-cut man wearing cologne and an expensive looking shirt who was very friendly and talkative, interested in learning all about what I'm doing, but when I asked him what he does for a living he paused and then said "security stuff" with a smile.  On my long haul flight to Fiji I also sat next to someone interesting - a German woman who works in Tuvalu as a human rights consultant for the government!  Tuvalu - the country I was dreaming about in high school.  Maybe it's a sign I need to make a her e-mail just in case.

 It's been a whirlwind of a day since getting to Vanuatu. especially given the fact that I haven't slept in a while.  I've been meeting lots of people, staff and volunteers, at the office - I love it so far.  It sounds like I'm in for an adventurous month (and then year) - during my training I'll spend time on 4 different islands, before moving to my island (Ambae) in about a month!  I'll write another post soon with more details about training and what my actual job will entail, but first - here, for your viewing pleasure, are photos from my landing here in Port Vila (the capital of Vanuatu, on the island of Efate).   The flight from Fiji to Vanuatu was all over blue, island-less ocean until Efate appeared in the distance.  The island started flat, then the landscape rose up into hills and ridges, all deep green.  A river cut across at one point.  And then we landed - the airport is on the edge of town, so everything around it was green too.  I've never experienced anything like this, landing on a green, lush island that appears out of the beautiful blue sea.  It felt like such a special place.  And once I left the airport everything was so calm - the pace of everything, the feel of the city, etc.  No one hassles you, or tries to get you to buy anything.  I know that this island, like all other "tropical paradises", is far from a perfect place and I'll have plenty of frustrations to share.  But so far, I feel very lucky to have this be the setting for this new chapter in my life.  

Monday, January 23, 2017

"Go west, young man, go west!"

I guess the saying in my blog post title should read "Go west, young woman/young lady/etc" instead of "young man", but it somehow doesn't have the same ring to it.  Either way, there's something exciting about setting off for the west - such journeys have great precedent.  And in all of my travels overseas, it's been pretty rare that I've headed west across the Pacific - usually everything has been via Europe.  I started my great journey west on Thursday, and spent the past several days in Olympia and Seattle, WA.  First visiting my brother Nathan, then spending time with Peace Corps Benin and Principia College people in Seattle.  I don't really have a core group of friends in a hometown like some people - but instead I have quite the diaspora, "friends in every port."  That's pretty great!  

The Pacific Northwest certainly didn't disappoint.  Where else can you go to the beach, the rainforest, and the mountains for cross country skiing all in one weekend?  Not to mention riding a giant ferris wheel and having a final american lunch of salmon empanadas and triple-berry cheesecake.  A highlight was probably staring out across the Pacific "towards Vanuatu" - roughly - and thinking about how I'd soon spend almost twelve whole hours flying over that ocean.  We certainly have a big, wonderful world. 

I'm posting this using expensive in-flight wifi, as I land in Los Angeles (on my first flight from Seattle).  Now for a mad dash across several terminals to my Fiji flight, on a very tight connection - wish me luck!  When I post my next post I'll be very, very far away.

Me and Nathan looking like we're members of a super cool band.  Thanks self timer!

Vanuatu's out there somewhere!

Nathan exploring an excellent treecosystem, as he called it. 

The last skiing I'll see in a long time