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.  

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The case of the 2,000 ducks and the house without walls: aka what is my job and where do I live?

It would be fair for readers of this blog to wonder if I have a job here at all, or if my Peace Corps "service" just consists of being flown around to ever more beautiful islands, spending time on the beach and going on adventures.  Usually work for a Peace Corps Response volunteer starts right away, and in fact all of the other Response volunteers here in Vanuatu were packed off to offices around Port Vila right after their two-week training to start 9-5 desk jobs.  My case is a little unusual, but I am here to do a job, and here's some more info on what it is.

I was invited to Vanuatu to work on a program called Youth at Work, a program organized by the South Pacific Community  (SPC).  The program's core goal is to help out of work youth find employment, usually through starting small businesses.  It's been active and successful in Vanuatu's neighboring country, the Solomon Islands, for some time now, and SPC is now trying to introduce it to Vanuatu.  They've asked Peace Corps to help with this.  The Youth at Work program has an urban version, in which youth can either start businesses or intern with existing organizations, and a rural version, which I and three other volunteers will be starting on our islands for the first time this year.

The Youth at Work rural model is a 20-week program that has focuses on climate change adaptation, community service, and small business development.  I will run the program twice, in two villages on the western part of Ambae island - Walaha and Tavala.  In each village, I will work with a committee to select 20 young people between the ages of 16-29 who are not currently in school and would like to participate.  The program will begin with a 2-week training (basically like a day camp), in which the youth will be trained on topics like climate change adaptation (including things like agriculture and natural resource management), self confidence/goal setting, the importance of community service, and small business development.  After this, I and the youth will conduct community service activities in the village for 18 weeks, while continuing small business trainings.  Ideally much of our community service work will be related to making the village more resilient to climate change.  At the end of the program, participants will receive help with writing business plans for their own small businesses, and starting said businesses.  

So that's the well-worded, organized-sounding description of what I am up to here.  Like any time multiple organizations try to work together on a new program, however, everything is a bit up in the air.  Funding is one question - we're still working out where the money is coming from for the expenses associated with the training and starting the small businesses.  This is one reason I haven't started the program on my island yet.  And of course everyone involved in the project has different ideas for how it will go.  My first meeting with SPC, just a little more than a week after I got to Vanuatu, was quite a whirlwind.  It felt like jumping into the last third of a conversation that was well underway.  The whole thing was in rapid-fire Bislama.  Everyone was talking about how this and that minister should be involved, and we need to be sure to be represented at a big upcoming government meeting, which may or may not be on Epi island, and by the way there are 2,000 ducks in New Caledonia that need to be used, so can we work them into the project?  

Wait a second - ducks?  It turns out SPC had budgeted funding for ducks in their Cyclone Pam recovery funds (Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu a couple years ago, and many organizations have been helping replenish lost livestock).  But no one is really sure what to do with the ducks, so in the meeting I was told to do my best to incorporate around 700 ducks into my Youth at Work project.  I clarified that the ducks are a budget line item, not physical ducks sitting in a crate somewhere - if they were 2,000 ducks stuck in a box, this would be very urgent!  Instead, the plan is to purchase them from New Caledonia when they are needed.  So perhaps some of the youth in my program will end up as duck farmers.  But then again, not much has been heard about the ducks in the month since the meeting so maybe they've been taken care of some other way?  

So starting up this program will be interesting, to say the least.  An added issue is that, for those of you who are good at math, you will notice that running this 20 week program in two different villages will require around 10 months - 5 months per site.  This is assuming a mythical perfect world in which all the youth are already in place and ready to go, it takes no time to discuss the project with the community, it also takes no time to move house from one village to another, there are no local holidays to slow work down, and no follow-up is needed with the youth at the end of the program to make sure their businesses are going well.  Anyone who has served in the Peace Corps knows that this mythical, smoothly oiled world is so far from real that it's almost impossible to imagine.  So let's add another month for miscellaneous tasks and delays (which is pretty conservative).  That brings me to 11 months.  Now my contract here in Vanuatu is for 12 months, and as my faithful readers are well aware I have spent two of those months doing things like watching sunrises on Pele island, snorkeling in an underwater plane, riding pickup trucks around Malekula - and most of the time, sitting in the Peace Corps office on my computer - but either way, not running the Youth at Work program on Ambae.  The current plan has me moving to Ambae mid to late April, after assisting with the launch of the Youth at Work program on another island.  So essentially, I'll have 9 months to do what should really take 11 or's looking like this Peace Corps service will be significantly more fast paced than the last one.  Fortunately my two villages are close to one another so it should all be possible, I should be able to start working with the second village before I've finished in the first one.  We'll see!

Although I haven't started the Youth at Work program yet, I did get to finally visit my site last week!  I and Fredlyn, the Peace Corps staff person who coordinates Peace Corps Response here in Vanuatu, visited Walaha for three days.  We met my future host family, who seem wonderful, and saw my house - which lacks walls, roof, and floor, but otherwise is great!  As some of my ever-positive Facebook friends who have served in Peace Corps before commented, the house has great ventilation, excellent natural light, is very energy efficient, and does not have bats living in the ceiling.  So the proverbial glass is solidly half full, if not overflowing.  I also got to meet with some members of the committee in village who will be helping me with the Youth at Work project, and I think we'll work very well together.

My house - so much potential.

Meeting the family!  

Here are a few scenery shots of Ambae.  Every island in Vanuatu is so different- Ambae is not at all beach-y like Pele, and instead has a rugged coast made of black volcanic stone.  In fact, the coast is so rocky that it wasn't possible for a road to be built that goes all the way around the island - if I want to visit Peace Corps volunteers on the eastern part of the island it will need to be by boat!  Ambae is also significantly hotter than Port Vila, being closer to the equator.  It's beautiful, though, and I felt at home.  

The view of the ocean from the guest house where we were staying

The Ambae coast - this is where I'll be swimming every day :)

Heading back to Port Vila.  The airstrip is grass - which means planes can't land when it's rained too much.

Ambae from the air

My village - the building with the large pointed roof is a church, and my house is pretty near there.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Getting around Vanuatu: Planes, Boats, and Pickup Trucks

 In the Peace Corps Vanuatu welcome book I was sent before coming, I was told that "In Vanuatu, you will probably do more walking, riding in the back of pickup trucks, flying in small planes, and bouncing around in small boats than you have ever done before."  On my recent trip to Malekula, Vanuatu's second largest island, I got my first real taste of Vanuatu travel.  I am someone who loves all of those modes of transport - pickup trucks, small planes, boats - so this is a great country for me.

I was spending a week in Malekula with a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader - a 3rd year volunteer who helps with developing sites for new volunteers, among other things.  I spent the week living with her and visiting different villages around Malekula as part of her site development work.  The idea of me being along was basically for me to get a sense of village life, and I also got the chance to chat with a couple volunteers who will be doing the same project as me.

To get to Malekula I caught a flight from Port Vila to Norsup, the airport near where the volunteer I was staying with lives.  It was a 20-passenger plane - not quite as small as the Cape Air flights that fly from Boston to the Adirondacks, but still cozy!  There were only 5 of us on the flight.  It was neat seeing all the islands from the sky, and then flying over Malekula and seeing all the rivers and hills from the sky.  It really looked like a tropical wilderness - but maybe that's the romanticism that the South Pacific inspires in me.  We landed on a grass airstrip next to the ocean, and I was met by two Peace Corps volunteers with a lei and baby powder - it's a Vanuatu tradition to sprinkle baby powder on guests.

I'd taken a small boat in Vanuatu before, to and from Pele Island - and got to do so again when we had to visit a Peace Corps site on a small island near Malekula.  To catch the boat, we walked down to the wharf and waited until we saw a man loading his motorboat with coconuts and other things to take to the island - apparently they didn't have enough coconuts.  He agreed to take us.  The ride over to the island was nice, but it was the ride back from the island that was adventurous - it poured the whole time, and the sky was so gray we couldn't see any land.  The swells were pretty big too.  But it was beautiful - all the gray colors, and the glittery look of raindrops on water.

Everywhere we went on the mainland was by pickup truck.  Sometimes we had to charter one to go somewhere far or off the beaten track, but often we could just flag one down on the side of the road.  My favorite truck ride was when I had spent the day visiting two volunteers - a married couple - who will be working on the same project as me.  When it came time for me to go back to the village where I was staying, we flagged down a truck that was full of mamas (basically mother/grandmother aged women).  I knew the ride would be great - all my friends in Benin were grandmothers for the most part.  When I asked where they were going, they cheerfully said - "one of us is going to catch the boat to Port Vila, we're all going to the wharf to see her off!"  We had a great ride together - we talked about which island I'll be working on when I start my project, I was gifted two mangoes from one of their baskets, and they included me in their laughing and joking the best they could.  My language skills still need some work.  But the whole ride reminded me how much I  love public transportation, and the easy connections you can make with people.

And like everywhere in Vanuatu, Malekula was beautiful to explore by foot, too.  My host lived in a village near the ocean, and I shot some nice photos there when I took afternoon walks.  Here's a taste!

Everything I've posted has been pretty cheery so far.  And Vanuatu really is a big adventure.  But some things have been hard - like feeling in limbo, not really knowing what my schedule is going to be like and always moving and living out of a suitcase.  This place is still pretty new.  I'm very grateful to be here though, and am feeling more and more settled.  I know this year has a lot of good in store.  


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.