Tuesday, April 27, 2010

My friend's crazy idea

A friend of ours who was in the same training class as Alex and I recently sent this email:

(I've edited just a bit to make it shorter)

"Greetings to my fellow PC Vanuatu family!
So I have this idea. And I think it's a little crazy, but I like it so much I can't let it go.

Let me paint the picture a little. I'm at Loukatai School on Tanna, a center school with about 150 kids altogether in years 1-8. As you already might guess, it happens to be the case that every one of my students is black. I have an identical twin sister in New York City, and she is also teaching (with Teach for America) at MS 223 School in the South Bronx. It happens to be the case that every one of her students is also black.

My sister and I have already started a correspondence project between her students in the South Bronx, and my students on Tanna. The first batch of 150 letters is currently on it's way here...

The lifestyles of these kids are so incredibly different. I doubt they could be more different! And on both ends, the students are so excited about the prospect of hearing and learning from each other. My sister and I are pretty thrilled about the whole thing too.

I'm trying to craft something that would bridge a number of things: the black students of Loukatai with those in the South Bronx; a Tanna village and New York City; the life skills on the island and the street smarts in the city; the culture of Vanuatu and the culture of America; Peace Corps and Teach for America; Ms. Dodd and the other Ms. Dodd.

So now I would just love love love to hear some feedback. What might YOU suggest to me? Who might I contact besides those I know back home? Anybody know someone I should email?

Thanks to all for hearing me out on this one!

Cheers from Tanna,"

Saturday, April 24, 2010

April 25

Hey everyone, life is well in Vila. We're eating lots of meat and dairy, two things we sometimes crave on the island.

Here's some questions we've been asked recently:

Hey, tell us about Ni-Van life.  Do the have hobbies, like carving or weaving small items?  Where do they get their clothes?  Do they sew it by hand or get it from Vila?   Do they keep two, one or four outfits?  Where do their blankets and beds come from, or do they sleep on mats?
Do you need more stickers for the children?

Ni-Van life [I presume] is good, especially if you're okay with the communal living situation. Alex and I never realized how independent we were until we spent a couple of weeks in our village on Pentecost Island. They have plenty of food and they SEEM content with their workload and their diet. There are some folks (I think) that would rather be a high-roller in New York City than a subsistence farm in a village of 20, but I think you would find folks like that anywhere.

Hobbies - they weave baskets and fish for fun and drink kava and they have bands (stringband music nomo). People snorkel just for fun and kids play. I haven't met any stamp collectors or bird watchers. We've met a guy in our district that lives out in the bush and spends his days reading and drawing. Some people get way into church and some people like gardening and cooking more than other people.

They weave baskets and mats that are absolutely beautiful - amazing really.

Clothes are commercially-made, not sure how many outfits they have but, it's more than four, not as much as you and I, but enough that I wouldn't notice when someone got a new shirt. Blankets come from Vila, and I'm going to guess most people don't have beds. They sleep on three-inch foam mattresses that look like they were made in China, some people sleep on mats that they have woven.

yes, please send more stickers, they were a huge hit when we did our health talks with the first and third graders.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

April 17th

It's Saturday afternoon. I just finished 5 days worth of Peace Corps training, with the bulk of it centered around project design and management. I will have three more days of training next week.

Alex flies into Port Vila tomorrow and I am looking forward to hanging out with her.

Port Vila is expensive, most things (except tropical fruit) are about the same price as they would be in America.

I've been eating a lot of ice cream. I think I missed it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

April 12th

I made it into Port Vila yesterday afternoon. I have an early service conference with the other business volunteers starting tomorrow. Looking forward to it. I've looked at the email account and will get emails sent sometime in the next two weeks.

Elissa - Alex and I are soooo so sad we missed you in Vanuatu, we don't have email access at the site, so didn't know you were here until today, and now your gone. It's so sad.

Everyone else - all is well, Alex sends her love, she's still on the island but will be coming into Port Vila this coming Sunday as she will be attending a training the week after.

I just got all of the blogs posted, two and a half months worth - since last time we were in Port Vila. And some pictures too. Here's two more pictures Alex wanted me to post. The first is a picture of our laundry with the smolhaos in the background and the second is from our smolhaos (outhouse, pronounced small house).

If any of you have the time and inclination, please send us pictures that we can show our community. Pictures of you guys or pictures of...well of anything really - they would all be great conversation starters. The Ni-vans love looking at pictures, love really isn't strong enough of a word, they really really really love looking at pictures. Can somebody send us pictures of funny American things - I don't know what, but there's lots of funny American things, or postcards with pictures of America, that would be great...like a post card of one of those rabbits with antlers or something. Any pictures really.

And if anyone can get us some giant pumpkin seeds that would be amazing. If you want to know why I want (need) giant pumpkin seeds there's a blog entry about it.

April 7

hello everyone,
Lucas and I have been talking to all the chiefs and important people in our district about doing an intensive water and sanitation program called PHAST (Participatory Health and Sanitation Transformation). It looks like we'll be doing 8-hour days for 5 or 6 days with at least two councils in our district. Participatory techniques have been around since the late 70's and is a really great way to work with communities as it is completely community-driven, encourages participation by marginalized groups (women) and uses pictures to both educate and to spur conversation, so you don't have to worry about literacy levels. Needless to say I am EX-CIT-ED! Our hope is that the action plan derived from the PHAST will lead our work for the time we have left.
In other news, there has been a wedding this week. Yesterday Lucas and I went to the nakamal of the bride's family to say goodbye to the bride. All the bride's friends and family shake her hand or hug her or cry with her and give her a gift. She will be leaving her friends and family and going to her husband's village in a few days. I don't know this bride personally, but we are friends with her mother and father. Watching everyone cry and hug and thinking about leaving made me cry with everyone else because I love you guys and miss you guys so much. Thanks for all your love and support. Thankfully none of the mamas asked me what was wrong as everyone else was crying too.
Lucas and I packed our on-top garden with seeds and seedlings since now is supposedly the time to plant. Lucas made a "Lucas Mix" of seeds (as we label his invention on our garden map) and planted it pretty densely on-top and has made a bed close to the house with the "Lucas Mix". I am going to be making a garden bed of my own that involves sheet mulching and building up the soil since the ground around our house is not too fertile and Lucas and I are going to see whose bed grows best. We'll keep you posted!
Today we listened to "car talk" on our HF radio and I was so so happy! I LOVE NPR!!! The sad news is that it cut out right when they were giving the answer to the puzzler... Well, that's it for the beautiful island of Pentecost!! All my love, Alex

April 6

hello all,
it's Tuesday afternoon, 4:44. Alex is eating oatmeal. We were meant to do a health training with class 2 this afternoon, but the teacher called in sick and the kids all went home. So instead we are taking some time to spel (spell, to rest or take a break). We have a dinner gathering to attend this evening, it's a community dinner in celebration of an upcoming wedding. They often have meat at these types of events, I'm hoping for beef.

"My name is Thomas Wilfred, I need giant pumpkin seeds"

"My name is Thomas Wilfred, I need giant pumpkin seeds". The man was well-dressed, enthusiastic and out-of-breath. He had caught Alex and I just as we were leaving our house to visit a neighboring village for the day. "Bae yu kam insaed", I responded, inviting him into our house.

I think I've found my counterpart! He lives in the district immediately north of ours, we're told it would be about an hour's walk to his village if you wokabaot kwiktaem (walkabout quicktime). Thomas is an agriculture field assistant for northern Pentecost (or some similar title).

Ni-vans are great gardeners, I've blogged about how great they are on numerous occasions I suspect. The great majority of their food comes directly from their land, the only foods imported in bulk are rice, flour and canned meat. As I write, Alex and I have local oranges, avocados, mandarins, sugarcane, taro and yams in our house.

There are some gardening shortcomings in Northern Pentecost too:
1. There is plenty of land. No one would attempt to "build soil" or have a garden in less than ideal soil. They would just plant their garden somewhere else. There is almost no composting, crop rotations, green manures or such things.
2. Everyone gardens; to find available fertile land, gardens are often an hour's or more walk uphill from the person's home.
3. As there is plenty of land, there's no need to plant densely or efficiently.
4. The total number of different fruits and vegetables grown here is low, probably less than 20. If some potato famine-type disease killed all our taro, we would need someone to send us food for awhile.
5. Nutrition needs are not getting met. As root vegetables are the simplest to grow, diets are often heavy on the carbs and light on protein and 'green vegetables'.
6. Taro and Kava can be sold in Port Vila pretty simply. You essentially just have to put it on the ship and go to the bank a week later and the money is there waiting for you. The price they get for this taro and kava is not much, but because it's viewed by many folks as their only income option, huge amounts of fertile land are dedicated to these monoculture fields that generate little money. There are literally valleys full of kava and mountainsides covered with taro.
7. You can put a seed (or a stick or a tuber) in the ground and it will grow. There has never been any motivation to complicate agriculture techniques and systems.
8. All of these issues become more dire as population increases, and population is increasing rapidly.
9. Everyone has enough food, every single person. People have little motivation to change what's working. If it's not broke, why fix it?

To combat these issues and potential issues, agriculture field assistant Thomas Wilfred has created a small, intensively-managed polyculture garden directly beside his house. His garden (so we are told, we haven't seen it yet) includes annuals and perennials, shrubs, vines, flowers, herbs and a few trees. There are plants for food, but also plants that attract predatory insects, plants that open the soil with their root systems (like radishes) and mineral-mining plants. He uses composting, green manures and lots of legumes. He makes his own insecticide by fermenting chilies and grows many plants that most Ni-vans are not familiar with.

Thomas Wilfred's goal is a model garden that can be used to help guide Northern Pentecost as the population grows, land becomes less available and Ni-vans have to reluctantly change their gardening ways. Problem is...he's having a hard time convincing folks a more labor-intensive garden technique is a good idea. And this is where the giant pumpkin seeds come back into this story...a giant pumpkin might just give the intensive gardening the validity it needs. Thomas Wilfred thinks that if he can grow pumpkins the size of small children, more interest will be given to his garden and his gardening techniques.

So please, please, please send us giant pumpkin seeds. My ability to bribe Thomas Wilfred to be my counterpart depends on it. We need all different varieties, especially ones suited to the sub-tropics and tropics.

Lucas Obringer and Alex Amorin
Peace Corps Office
PMB 9097
Port Vila

This is a fictional story based on actual events:

Person A is walking to his garden and sees that a lot of nuts have fallen from a nut tree in the heavy winds last night. The tree is not in his village or on land that belongs to him in any way, it is nearest the house of Person B. The nuts are Person A's favorite nut, so he gathers every last one from the ground (a lot) and begins to carry them back to his house. Person A quickly realizes the nuts are too heavy to carry back. It starts raining. Person A stops at person C's bush kitchen to de-shell the nuts, as the nuts have big shells and would be a lot lighter if he wasn't carrying all of the shells too. While Person A is de-shelling the nuts, Person C comes into her bush kitchen with her two children, persons D and E. Persons C, D and E help person A de-shell all the nuts he has gathered. Person A thanks persons C, D and E by giving them a good bit of the nuts. Person C has already prepped the evening's meal, so she and her children eat just a few and give the rest of the nuts to her mother, person F. The next morning person F cooks the nuts and leaves them in her bush kitchen. While walking to his garden, Person G stops by to visit person F. Person G receives a basket's worth of cooked nuts. Person G walks on and a few minutes later stops to talk with some kids that are just hanging out. Person G gives some nuts to each of the four young men that are just hanging out, person B is one of the four.

Including the immediate family of Person A, Person C and Person F, at least 16 folks ate these nuts. Though I'm confident person G wasn't the only person to stop and visit with person F that morning. And person A gave Alex and I some nuts after they cooked them for dinner that night. I suspect the actual number of people who ate from the single nut collection was more like 25.

There is no word in the local language for 'economy'. There is a word for sharing.

People here sometimes talk about a "kastom economy", what they are referring to is using local products in lieu of money for business transactions. For example, in our community you can pay school fees or health dispensary costs with chickens or pigs or woven mats or money. I believe we learned about this "kastom economy" system in grade school. Our teachers called it bartering. Bartering was described as a primitive economy with money the obvious and natural evolution, as bartering only works when both parties have something the other party desires. Next came the evolution from money to make bartering simpler to bankruptcies, housing crisis and global markets; but who knew?

Bartering occurs here but it's rare and pretty scripted, it mostly only happens at the school and health dispensary. What is a lot more common is scenarios of sharing as I attempted to describe in the nut example. When you are constantly being given things (mostly food) by you neighbors, friends and family, you not only have more than enough to eat but you also feel obligated to give surplus to your neighbors, friends and family. As long as everyone in a community is sharing their surplus (and going out of their way just a little bit to have surplus to share), then everyone in the community is always going to have enough.

Sharing gets too complicated with specialized workers - like teachers and nurses. The specialist can't spend a lot of time in their gardens and thus would be almost completely dependent on people giving them food. To combat this potential issue (who would be comfortable never knowing where your next meal is coming from? or possibly more importantly who would want to teach little hooligans all day everyday if the reward was no different than spending a few hours (at most) in the garden every morning?) teachers and nurses are paid, thus creating the need for a "kastom economy".

In loving memory

halo olgeta, hello everyone

Our baby parrot is dead, it's really sad. She flew to another person's house and was living there and everything was fine and then the parrot flew into the fire and suffered second or third degree burns and then died of complications a few days later. The bird's adoptive mother came by the house this morning to tell us.

In brighter news, Alex and I have learned we can catch NPR's news program 'All Things Considered' mornings on the Armed Forces Network with our high-frequency radio. It's pretty exciting, we know all about the healthcare bill getting passed and record rains on the east coast and that there's some basketball team that nobody thought was any good that's winning lots of games in the big tournament.

March 30

7:08 on a Tuesday night, Alex's first-grade school presentation today on hand-washing went well. Her fourth toktok (talk talk) in five days.

The average life-span of a water system in Vanuatu is 5-10 years. This is in part due to spare parts not being available when you need them (there's no home depot on this island) and in part due to people not knowing how to maintain systems, but the main reason is water systems just don't last that long. Average life-span world-wide is 20 years. Alex and I are encouraging water tanks. They still have their maintenance issues, like cleaning and not letting dirty water (the first rain in months) get into the tanks. The supplies to build a village-size cement water tank cost about $1,000-$2,000 USD. This is more than the villages here have in disposable incomes. They can hold fundraisers or apply for grants. The best plan is probably a combination of both, as a grant application would look a whole lot better if the village could show they are making progress outside the grant money. This first step in all of this is getting water committees up and running in our villages, as water committees would organize fundraisers, talk to village members about water tanks and apply for grants. Alex and I are going to meet with the village chiefs individually to encourage water tanks and water committees. There's also a sanitation and hygiene training that has been endorsed by the World Health Organization that emphasizes the value of clean water. We want to do this training with individual villages as well.

March 28

On Tuesday, Alex will have done four toktoks (health presentations) in five days. She's reading about skin infections now, to present to third-graders tomorrow afternoon.

I'm listening to the bislama rap CD and just finished reading about tomatoes.

Puskat is sleeping in the living room and we haven't seen the parrot in days.

Here's a picture from her Class 3 toktok. She used stickers to bribe kids to answer questions.

March 26

Friday night 7:06 pm, I'm sitting in the living room of our house, Alex is eating two reef fish she just cooked and the puskat is eating fish heads.

Yesterday when we finally made it home, we realized our camera was missing, we were too tired to go looking for it and instead planned to go look for it this morning. We told the nurse - our next-door neighbor and Alex's counterpart - about the the missing camera and our plan to go look for it in the morning.

So, early this morning (early as in I was still in bed early) Alex's counterpart (and the district's only nurse) calls me over to her house to tell me she thinks that our camera is missing because we took a picture of something we shouldn't have taken a picture of and thus someone used black magic to steal our camera as punishment for taking tabu pictures (see above), And that if she was me, she wouldn't waste her time going and looking for the camera, And if I still wanted to go I must take someone with me to protect me from any further black magic that may be coming my way.

This afternoon myself and Alex's counterpart's husband walked on top to look for the camera and to harvest some root vegetables.

I found our camera, it was laying on the ground where we stopped to rest (and eat grapefruit) on the walk back from the east coast yesterday.

March 25

It's Thursday evening, Alex and I returned today from two nights on the East Coast with the Anglican Mother's Union conference. No rats! We are tired, a long walk today and the sun was strong. And the computer battery is at 9%, so expect a short blog.

The mothers from the mother's union are all really nice. They totally went out of their way to look out for us, a lot of mothering. Another way to say that would be that they treated us like children the last two days: "Don't sit there, sit here" "Don't do it that way, do it this way" "Don't put your basket there, put it here" "eat this" "you don't want to do that" and so on. It was more than my ego could handle, And though I never said it verbally, I'm pretty sure the mamas realized I didn't like it. It was hard for me to keep it together, I dunno why. Glad to be back to the home.

We lost our camera somewhere along the trail today, so pray it finds it's way back to us or yumi evriwan i nogat no pictures.

We met a charismatic cult leader, but that's another blog for another day.

March 22

Tomorrow we walk to the other side of the island, the east side. There is a three day event where all the Anglican Mother's Unions from all over North Pentecost come together to sing and dance to each other and attend lectures which are [presumably] about Jesus. I think our village is sleeping in a school classroom. I imagine there will be rats in the classroom. I'm really scared, I don't particularly like rats. There is a tent for sale at the big store in a neighboring village, but we couldn't convince ourselves to spend 8,000 vatu (about $80) for a tent that should cost about 1,500 vatu. So we'll endure the possible rats instead. I would never do such a thing in America, so I hope you see how Peace Corps has made me a braver man.

Technically, they are not rats, just insanely large mice.

I was telling a man today about my fears and he comforted me by telling me just to be sure to wash my hands after eating meat or the rats will bite my fingers.

March 22

Tomorrow we walk to the other side of the island, the east side. There is a three day event where all the Anglican Mother's Unions from all over North Pentecost come together to sing and dance to each other and attend lectures which are [presumably] about Jesus. I think our village is sleeping in a school classroom. I imagine there will be rats in the classroom. I'm really scared, I don't particularly like rats. There is a tent for sale at the big store in a neighboring village, but we couldn't convince ourselves to spend 8,000 vatu (about $80) for a tent that should cost about 1,500 vatu. So we'll endure the possible rats instead. I would never do such a thing in America, so I hope you see how Peace Corps has made me a braver man.

Technically, they are not rats, just insanely large mice.

I was telling a man today about my fears and he comforted me by telling me just to be sure to wash my hands after eating meat or the rats will bite my fingers.

March 21

The baby parrot can officially fly! It's true! I saw her fly today! Before she was always flying towards the ground, but today she flew up! Like into trees! I don't think she can choose which tree yet, but being able to fly up is a big deal, don't you think? Alex theorizes the parrot could also fly yesterday when she threw it off the side of a cliff. I dunno, when we finally found the parrot yesterday - she was walking, not flying, back to the house.

it's still raining...

it's saturday morning, it's raining. Alex is listening to music and making bread; I'm half asleep and in bed still. Today is probably the 10th day in a row of heavy rains, the garden is starting to feel it - some of the plants aren't looking fantastic, and at least one has stem rot. The parrot is crying and the cat is trying, at all costs, to eat bread dough.

Here's a quote Alex found in an old issue of The Sun, "I have a friend who has devoted most of his adult life to resisting the madness of war through actions of justice and peace... Does he have any results to show for his efforts? Has he been effective? Hardly - at least, not by the normal calculus. His years of commitment to peacemaking have been years of steady increase in wars and rumors of wars. So how does he stay healthy and sane? How does he maintain a commitment to this sort of active life? "I have never asked myself if I was being effective," he says, "but if I was being faithful." He judges his action not by the results it gets, but by its fidelity to his own calling and identity."

March 20

alex writing... Hello everyone!
Today I by mistake threw our baby parrot over a REALLY steep hill (some might even call it a cliff). Our baby parrot can only fly a little, We wince every time he lands as he usually crashes into something or lands head first...but I think it's important for him to strengthen his wings and about once a day, I'll send him off on a little flying adventure. He loves these jaunts in the backyard and will usually hop back to where we are, whistling the whole way...
Today, Lucas was outside planting seedlings and the baby bird was screaming his head off inside. I tossed the baby bird towards Lucas thinking he might need a little outdoor stimulation and the baby bird took a sharp right and headed down this very steep hill that drops off to the ocean.
Lucas and I just stared at each other.
We ran towards the edge of the Pentecost bush (the wildlife here is a consuming green organism) and whistled and called for Sivi and heard nothing. You must understand, this bird is LOUD all the time (except for when he's in REM sleep)...the silence was eerie. We both walked (slid) down a little to see if we could hear or see him...nothing.
a half hour later, Lucas went all the way down to the salt water and back calling for him and doing his best whistle and no luck.
It started to pour.
I went down again and called for him....nada
Lucas and I decided that he either died on impact or was lost in the bush for sure.

I whistled at the edge of the bush for a long time and tried to decipher which sounds could possibly be the baby parrot, but still nothing.

Lucas and I were really sad the baby parrot was dead...I kept whistling at the edge of the bush thinking how hope is the most painful human emotion because it springs up in the most improbable of situations making the impossible seem somewhat possible and it lingers beyond all reason... it hurts so much to let it go.

I whistled off and on for another two hours...

I thought I heard the baby bird out by the bush kitchen, which would be impossible, but I went out anyways and out by the path to the sand beach, I saw a parrot!!!! I went out and there he was by the Mango tree!!!!

The second I picked him up he started screaming! I was so happy that he was home!!! Lucas and I have no idea how this baby parrot made it back over the Penama bush...this baby bird is AMAZING!!!!!!!
As I write this, he is laying under the bench chirping softly to himself as he is not yet in REM sleep.

love to all of you...please send pictures!! We'll make a collage on the wall.

March 18

thursday night, 7:49 PM, all is well. we bought a new cell phone today as the two phones we were given during training are ded finis (that's bislama for dead, pronounced dead finish), the highlight of the day (buying the new cell phone was the day's highlight).

We took a shortcut on the way back from the store that involved walking through saltwater; the cat freaked out, jumped out of my arms and straight into the saltwater. I think she hated it with all her heart and soul. She cried the rest of the walk home and refused to be carried. All is well now, she's out hunting.

Our parrot friend is crying.

fyi-The picture is not with our parrot friend, but another tame one.

Lo America sam man i no gat kakae...

it's wednesday evening, I just made Alex help me with a workshop I'm trying to put together, to present to the other business volunteers during our early service conference, and our community at some point as well. The thesis is basically that the cost of oil is going no where but up and some little remote island probably shouldn't expect to see much fossil fuel in it's future; so as business volunteers we should try to steer our communities away from global economies and more towards local economies that work.

It's interesting and tricky at the same time, you could completely take away all fossil fuels from our community tomorrow and they would be fine, no one would miss a meal. But they don't necessarily see the value in being a completely self-sustaining sustainable society, as the grass is always greener. (I think our community sees the value a lot more than other nearby communities, but that's besides the point) And to make it more tricky, the completely self-sustaining sustainable society that could exist today probably won't be able to exist once the population gets to be too dense, which isn't too far off at the rate they are going.

Alex and I jump on any opportunity to talk about how the grass isn't greener, but talk is cheap (especially considering we (Alex and I) probably used at least as much fossil fuel in our lifetime as the rest of the community combined).

March 16

Dear friends and family,
hello from beautiful Vanuatu! Alex and I have been here for just over 6 months now, we've learned how to de-husk coconuts, a new language and 30 different ways to cook sweet potatoes. My favorite part is going snorkeling at the local reef and Alex loves finding the time to get in some good quality reading. Our work keeps us busy but also allows us the flexibility to make the best use of our time. We've been working hard on our garden - beans, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkin, cucumber and okra for the most part - and have adopted two fun-loving pets - Lady Gaga and Half-half.
How is life your neck of the woods? What's going on? I suspect another winter is coming to a close, with April showers and May flowers just around the corner. How's the job? And the family? Is the economy recovering with time? What's the forecast for land prices? Do you think we'll have a new healthcare system before Alex and I return to America in November 2011?
Alex and I send our love and wish all of you the best in your endeavors. We are in good health and high spirits.
with love,

What's your average day look like?

We were recently asked in a letter what our typical day looks like, - so I'll try.

Alex and I sleep in a double bed, we have a locally made wooden frame with a 3-inch foam mattress and mosquito net. We have to be quiet when we sleep at night because if we are too loud we'll wake up the baby parrot, who will cry for an incredibly long time before it drifts back off to sleep. Sometimes our cat will come snuggle with us, and sometimes she won't and sometimes she will sing out in the middle of the night to wake us up so she can show off her prey she's caught, either a lizard or a mouse. We sleep in later than most of our community. Alex is typically the first out of bed around 6am and I'm typically out of bed before 7. We'll build a fire and cook breakfast. Our favorite and most common breakfasts are fried sweet potatoes, pancakes or bananas. Breakfast will be finished by 9 and then it's time for the real work to begin. Everyday is different, there isn't an overly typical day as of yet. We're trying to learn more about water systems in Vanuatu so we''ve got multiple books and manuals we are reading. We walk to the gardens 2 or 3 times a week. We cut grass on Tuesdays and we wash clothes on Tuesdays and Saturdays. People will come to our house and we'll story-on about life and America and cultural differences and water systems and such things. We cook our own lunch most days, and just like breakfast, it's a bit of a process. We eat a lot of sweet potatoes and taro for lunch. After lunch we'll do more of what we were doing in the morning. Dinner is our biggest meal of the day and the meal most likely to be more western. We eat pasta about once a week on average and beans once a week too. We try to get more creative with our evening meals than we are for breakfast or lunch. After dinner, we are finished for the day and it's our time to read and play the guitar and watch sunsets and talk about our future plans and such things. We typically crawl into bed between 7 and 8, Alex will read for a while every night and I'll write a blog if I'm up for it.

March 14

It's Sunday night, I'm tired. Alex and I just returned from our trip to the airport. It was meant to be a 2-night trip but turned into 4 nights as some cyclone cancelled the Thursday flight to our island. Bamma and Justin were able to get off the island on a flight back to Vila today.

Our other friend from Antarctica, Annie, was meant to fly here on Thursday, but her flight was cancelled by the cyclone as well. She tried to get on the flight today, but that didn't work out either, so it seems Annie isn't going to be able to come visit us on Pentecost, as she's heading to Hawaii next week.

The time with our friends was good. It was fun to show off our community, and to story-on with them about Vanuatu and their culture. And to get in a few evenings of Euchre.

One of the three major goals of Peace Corps is that folks in America learn more about other countries' fashion. Bamma and Justin certainly got a glimpse this country's fashion, and hopefully they'll be able to share that experience with their friends and family back home.

Lady Gaga and Half-half are both well, Alex and I like to imagine they missed us and are happy to see us return.

March 9th

it's Tuesday night, late. we just finished a dinner and story-on with Alex's counterpart. We ate taro lap-lap and a cucumber and chicken soup. That's cucumber-and-chicken soup (as together in one soup, not two separate dishes).

Plenty of people have been asking us what they could send us...and I now have a good answer! You should send us a couple pictures!...the Ni-Vans LOVE looking at pictures (picture above is of children enjoying Alex and I's wedding pictures on the laptop) and it would give us a good conversation starter - as one of Peace Corps' goals is to teach the folks here about America - to talk about America. And we'd enjoy looking at the pictures too. And it's a whole lot cheaper than sending us a big-ole package.

First ever guest blog entry!!

Announcing our first ever guest blog entry!! This post was written by Bamma after she spent a week with us in beautiful Pentecost, before we were stranded by the cyclone.

It all started when I received a call from Katie at work. "I got a letter from Lucas and Alex! Let's meet for dinner." At dinner I didn't even get to the second paragraph, when I looked up and said, "you realize that we have to go." About a week letter I was chatting with Justin about post ice travels, I mentioned that I was going to Vanuatu to visit Alex and Lucas, "do you want to go?" Without delay "yes"

I bought tickets from Brisbane to Port Vila allowing one day travel to and from Pentecost on each side of the stay. We flew into Port Vila on a Tuesday and tried to find the Air Vanuatu Office to buy tickets to Sara on Pentecost. We did a little site seeing (got lost). Wednesday morning we found the Air Vanuatu office at about 9-9:30 and learned that the flight from Santo to Sara was sold out and we could only stand by. Plan B was to fly to Santo and if we didn't get all the way thru than we would stay in Santo and then fly out on Sunday. We checked the schedule in the afternoon we actually got booked all the way thru!

The airport was good, we arrived and checked in, it was time to wait. I noticed that most of the ladies were sitting together and most of the men sat together.

We took the plane to Santo where we had to get our luggage and re-check-in. The carousel was a man who pushed a large cart out to the plane, unloaded the plane and pushed the cart back into the building. He put your luggage on the counter. You went to pick up your stuff once it was on the counter. I noticed that one piece of luggage was a live chicken wrapped up.

After we checked in for our flight from Santo to Sara, we decided to get some food. Ordering food was always an adventure, we would get what we ordered about half of the time.

The time came to board the flight to Sara. The plane held 10 people completely full. As we taxied out to the tarmac, we cut thru the field. I was able to watch the pilot the entire flight. We went up to about 9,000 feet. As we descended the grass runway came into view. We landed safely and taxied up to the airport, I saw Lucas and Alex! What a feeling of relief!

We gathered our stuff from the plane and met Alex's Papa and walked the 30 mins down hill to get the water taxi. At this point I was very glad that I packed light, but it still felt like I had too much stuff. We waited a little while under a tree drinking a green coconut. Yum! We took the water Taxi for about an hour, then walked about 20ish mins to their house. A beautiful bamboo house! I was truly amazed with the house and how well everything was put together. Leaves for the roof sewn together and the support beams tied together with dried leaves.

The next day was All Chief's Day, a National Holiday here. This event was my first opportunity to really see the culture of the area. So my first observation at the airport correct, in this culture the sexes have certain roles and I had to get use to it quick.

Ladies here have a hard life. What I have observed makes me feel like a whimp. For an example, Helen, Alex's counterpart, before giving birth, she had to walk down a steep hill and take the water taxi all while in labor. she delivered the baby about 30 mins after arriving to the medical center. A few days later, helen was back at work catching babies!

Right now I am sitting in the bush kitchen with everyone, including Helen and her husband. We just cooked a beautiful Lap lap. Helen is topping it with coconut cream that has been cooked down. The lap lap was cooked in large leaves; some leaves - the smaller ones - make the lap lap taste good. The leaves are similar to banana leaves and the oven mits are leaves too. Very few dishes were used in the making the meal. It was cooked over the fire with baking rocks. The lap lap looks so good.

okay, back to the story...the community is so welcoming! Food is always being brought over. it is truly a sharing community. I was adopted by a family here, my sister brought a gift of some food. It is difficult for me to get use to this because this isn't common to what I grew up with. Family is everything here.

It's time for me to bring this series of random events and thoughts to a close because we are getting ready to partake in the lap lap, Vanuatu is place that one should experience, especially the culture and the sense of community. People want you to be a part of their community, it brings you back to what is really important to you, it's a simple way of life.

love and peace,

March 8

It's Monday morning, almost 7:30. Bamma and Justin are still sleeping, Alex is boiling some water for tea and I thought I'd take a couple minutes to blog. We spent forever in church again yesterday, not really in church, but with the community after church, in their nakamal.

A nakamal is a community meeting place. Here they are weaved bamboo buildings with local thatched roofs. Some of them are pretty big, big enough you could play field sports inside. They have community meals inside the nakamals and drink kava and have community meetings and just hang-out and story-on. Yesterday the Anglican Mother's Union held dance rehearsal practice inside the nakamal.

The Mother's Union is ran by men.

We were going to walk to the water source today to get an idea of what it's all about, but it rained too much yesterday and I'm afraid it would just be too muddy and slick to go.

tea's ready, I'm out.

March 6

it's saturday night, the computer battery is almost dead, so this will be a short entry with little to no proofreading. Bamma and Justin arrived by plane on Thursday and Alex and I met them at the airport, we took a boat back to our village and here we are. Yesterday we walked to one of the villages on top to celebrate the Vanuatu public holiday of all chiefs day. The village baked a lot of taro and three pigs and had a small ceremony during which Justin had to drink kava with the chief in front of everyone and I had to give a speech. In my speech I talked about how great this place is and that if the rest of the world looked out for their people as well as the Vanuatu chiefs do that this would be a pretty good world, and that they should keep up the good work. I wanted to go on a rant about peak oil and the value of subsistence farming, but chose to keep that material for my first "business" workshop.
Today we showed off our gardens to our guests and went snorkeling, tomorrow church and lap-lap at the sunday evening market.
And we were able to pick up all of our mail from the post office when we went to the airport, so thanks everyone for writing us, and thanks for the care packages, and a special thanks for finding my special deodorant for me, and I really enjoy reading grandmas book. And I love my shirt from Peru.

March 3

March 3rd, I'm sitting in bed trying to remember today's activities as to choose what I will blog about. We went and visited the new preschool. They call preschools 'kindy', as in short for kindengarten. Alex's host parents started the new kindy, they are in their second week of existence now. They have 10 kids in their class and two teachers, they were singing songs in the local language while we were there.

Alex and I really enjoyed our visit to the kindy. They have an indoor sandbox and toys made out of local seeds and bamboo and such things, play dough was just local clay and scrap lumber for building blocks. They also have a tub of water that is a different toy every week. This week it's to play 'pretend washing clothes by hand', next week it's going to have canoes floating about, week after something else, I don't remember. And they have a room that is a different pretend place every week. This week it's a store, next week a health clinic, week after a school, then a market and so on. The toys are on a rotating schedule too, which I thought was genius, they give the kids some toys for a week and then they are put up for the next 5 weeks. Then when they pull them back out 5 weeks later they are all new again, so they have 6 weeks worth of toys, but the kids always have "new" toys.

We should have some Antarctica friends coming tomorrow - Bamma and Justin (I say should because we haven't communicated with them in the past month), so we're going to head to the airport in the morning, which means we get mail tomorrow, which is pretty exciting. They are going to stay for a week and then we'll have another friend coming. We're excited to show-off our new home to our friends. And I hope they like taro and kumula, as that's all we'll be eating next week. That's not technically true, we'll be eating other foods too, but a lot of taro and kumula.

March 2

it's tuesday night, 7:30 and we are both in bed. We set-up our HF radio as neither of our cell phones work anymore. The HF radio works fine as long as we don't try to call anyone. It shuts itself off when we try to call someone. HF stands for high frequency. We should be able to call into Port Vila once we get it working right.

We had a tsunami warning on Sunday from the earthquake off the coast of Chile. We were already heading to the village on-top for church. Counting walking time to and from church and socializing after church, we spent a total of 7 1/2 hours with "church" this past Sunday. Next Sunday we are going to another village on-top, so I expect similar hours.

I cut grass and cleaned house today. Also met with a guy about his "business idea", his "idea" essentially was that he wants to apply for a grant and doesn't want to try to start a business if he can't get any grant money.

Alex danced.

February 28

it's sunday night, one of the local villages started an every-Sunday-evening market, Alex and I have been going every week. We've come late the last two weeks and all that has been left to buy has been lap-lap. It's pretty good, Alex would agree.
I think our tastes our changing, changing to meet our environment. It makes sense, we work hard and walk a lot and the sun is hot and our bodies crave carbs. I think there may be more than just economics, ethics and good taste to the whole eat seasonally and locally thing, it's a way of ensuring that your diet matches your environment. Of course, if your job and/or lifestyle doesn't match your environment, than I guess it wouldn't really matter.

February 27

It's saturday afternoon, Alex and I were planting the garden, but then the rains came in heavy, so we are sitting inside storying-on now. We got some okra in the ground before the rains came, so that's pretty exciting, and some flowers too.

February 25

It's Thursday night, it's raining, we just finished a pasta dinner, we're going to have some pineapple for dessert. Billy is telling stories about ex-girlfriends, it's pretty funny.

I was angry at the world today, but just for a bit:

If your us, people cut your grass when it gets too long and they get to it before you do, And they plant your garden for you if you are putting it off for another day, And when your cooking fire isn't burning good enough, they cut firewood for you and teach you how to build a fire. This all happened today, (one incident being an 80-90 year-old frail great grandmother staying at the health dispensary for the birth of her 5th great-grandchild cutting our yard with her bush knife), it's a real work-out for my ego. The fire-building lesson was the most challenging for me. I wanted to go on a rant about my fire experiences, but instead Alex came outside to the bush kitchen and sat with me as we were taught how to properly build a campfire.


Alex's counterpart gave birth to a little girl last Tuesday. As is fashion here, it is taking them a bit to decide on a name. Helen, Alex's counterpart and the baby's mother, wants to name the child Yonder, as in "When the road is called up yonder, I'll be there", it's lyrics from a song they sing in church. With the accent, Yonder is pronounced 'yoon-der'. The children want to name the child Erica and some one else has suggested naming the child a local language word that would translate to "over yonder".

February 24

It's wednesday night, our friend Billy, another Peace Corps volunteer from another island is here visiting us. He was meant to attend a workshop this week, but the workshop was delayed a week and then officially cancelled this afternoon. So he's on the next ship back to his island, probably on Saturday.

So this is how developing world development work appears to go...(this is may not be accurate information as it's only what I understand to be true at this point; and it's not in chronological order)...A large percentage of villages in rural Vanuatu don't have water systems and don't know where to start. Peace Corps volunteers are fairly randomly placed in small villages throughout Vanuatu and they ask the community what they want. The villages that don't have water may answer "water". The World Health Organization, presumably via academics, creates this worldwide-applicable workshop and names it with some acronym, the workshop is designed to be a week-long participatory process that helps the community determine a starting point from which to begin fixing their water shortcomings. World Vision likes the workshop and creates a version of it that is appropriate to Melanesian cultures. A Peace Corps Assistant Country Director googles the internet for information to help her volunteers dealing with water issues in their village. The assistant country director finds some basic information referencing the World Health Organization (WHO) workshop and tells the volunteers about it during a training. Volunteers are told World Vision may be using a similar tool. A volunteer, on his initiative, calls world vision to inquire. World Vision says that cannot share their resources because they are copyrighted, but that the volunteer may sit in on a workshop to gain a better understanding of the WHO created acronym. The volunteer takes a ship to the island to observe the workshop and then the workshop is cancelled so the volunteer goes back to his island.

February 22

So here's the thing, this is what I've been thinking - In America you have to work, and for the most part you have to work hard - there's no way around it - most everyone needs to have a job, except the very rich and very poor. You have to buy land and you have to buy food and health insurance and a car to get to your job that you have to go to. And houses are expensive, like way expensive, like 30 years expensive, and there's clothes and new shoes and there's plenty that you just want to buy so you buy those things too. Which is fine and it creates this kick-ass economy that affords us things like huge hospitals and cars and power tools and full-on entertainment and social programs and such, and it works out pretty well. We have to work hard, but there's lots of rewards that come from doing so. And for the most part everyone is satisfied with the system, everyone except those that it doesn't work for, like those who can't pay for everything we have to pay for, and those that really struggle everyday meeting the our culture's working demands. And the homeless, of course.

As you can guess, it's different here. Everyone has family and a home and every single person gets enough to eat. (Very different than America, huh?) It's a place where necessities don't have to be paid for. Which means you don't have to make money, which means their economy is always going to be weak compared to societies where everyone is sort of forced to help increase the gross domestic product. The price they have to pay for this is that they don't get huge hospitals (you get mild pain-killers for any medical issues and a massage after a stroke and such shortcomings that are much more real than just the size of the hospital) and they don't get endless entertainment and a natural right to 18 years of school (like myself, Alex has 19), Expensive clothes and power tools and newspapers and flour and an endless list of luxuries we take for granted are rare here. And there are expectations that you shouldn't "want" as we "want" in America. Which is no good at all - if your the type who wants to go above and beyond and succeed and buy a new sparkling truck - you would probably get run out of this community - really. You'd get ran out of the community because there is an expectation of sharing, and you really can't save up for a truck and share well at the same time.

And being one that wants but isn't given the opportunity is no better (or worse) than being the guy that doesn't want but must live as if he does. It's seems more of a question of who loses out in the end than anything else.

February 21

It's Sunday night, I wrote four letters and an email (to be sent out in two months when we have internet access), so I'm feeling as if I accomplished something today. Played Uno with some kids too. And read a few articles.

At least three times in the past week Alex has commented on how good the laplap she was eating tasted. I don't know what that means, surely it's some kind of milestone.

Alex and I's 'to-do' list is fairly substantial, we've talked to lots of Peace Corps Volunteers here who comment they don't have much to do, but that doesn't seem to be our experience at all. Not sure what that means either. Tomorrow I have to hand copy a bunch of information to disperse (there's no copy machines here; well, there is - it's me and a pen & paper).

Alex pictured with lots of taro that's been peeled and is ready to be turned into laplap.

February 17

I stayed inside and spent most of the day reading about water solutions. It's interesting, kind of. Alex and I have been told the community has a good source, which makes solutions a whole lot simpler. But it's still complicated. And the village doesn't have the resources, organization or expertise to ensure all maintenance requirements of a even a simple gravity-fed system will be looked after well. They had system installed some time ago, and it's now essentially defunct. The information I read today suggested the expected life for a water system should be ~20 years, but due to lack of resources (replacement parts, local technical knowledge or otherwise) the average life-span of a water system in rural Vanuatu is about 5-10 years. This suggest the last system was relatively fine, the local community just forgot to plan for it's replacement, so I guess that's a big part of our work as well.

The simplest solution would be for everyone just to get their own water tanks and set-up rainwater catchment systems wanwan (that's bislama for individually or each, pronounced one one). The problem with this solution is that there's (we've been told) a fairly long dry season, meaning that everyone would need really big tanks, which are sas (that's bislama for expensive).

The baby parrot sat beside me and screamed the entire day.

People giving us food in exchange for charging their cell phones with our solar panel seems to be a pretty good system that's developing organically, today we got oranges, kumula (sweet potato) and snake beans (which are really good, they look kind of like a bean but their about 12 to 18 inches long and about as fat as a half dollar coin).

February 16

dear blog
I'm laying in bed and listening to the bislama rap CD. Alex is out in the living room, reading about pilates. We had bell peppers with a sweet chili sauce and bread with tomatoes and basil for dinner. I think we've eating for bell peppers for at least the last six or seven meals, not that I'm complaining, mitufala likim kapsikam bitim fulap narafala aelan kakae.

When we were in Vila last week I downloaded a bunch of reading material off the internet and onto our computer for our reading entertainment. One of the articles I downloaded was about how farmers in africa use chile peppers to keep the elephants from trampling their crops. Among other things, the farmers crush the peppers, mix them with engine grease, and smear them on their fences, When elephants touch this substance, it greatly irritates their skin.

Reading the article re-emphasized to me how relatively remote alex and I are, as we have neither fences nor engine grease.

We're on a fairly small island, a full [24 hour] day's boat ride from the capital city of a country with a population of ~200,000. Yesterday I explained how banks make money by charging interest on loans to a fairly influential community leader, he had no idea. We can rarely buy flour locally. There's no refrigeration or freezer in the area. As far as I'm aware, Alex and I have the only operating propane stove.

There are generators, and a television and a DVD player. I've seen Finding Nemo 2, The Karate Kid, a movie about the life and times of Mike Tyson and a Billy Graham Christmas sing-along. There's also a truck in a village an hour's walk from our home, so, technically we could get engine grease. And technically speaking, there is a barbed wire fence keeping the cows in the coconut plantation. And there's at least one chainsaw, so we could cut some timber and make some fairly substantial fences to keep the elephants out.

February 12

Alex woke up this morning unable to speak, we haven't been able to reach the Peace Corps nurse yet as our cell phones couldn't find any reception today. We think it's strep throat and Alex started antibiotics. God bless the medical kit and guide. She's still has a slight fever but is able to comment as I write.

I think I might hate the baby parrot, it cried for hours today and refused to eat, twice. And I had to yell at Lady Gaga for trying to eat it.

Alex typing now: The aforementioned baby parrot worries us so much. He likes to climb down from the safety of his perch and hang out on the floor where the cat will eat him. Lucas went to go check if he's still there, we have a plan B: to put him in a box with newspapers for the night if he keeps putting his life at risk.

Lucas typing bak bakegen (back again)
The parrot is still in its perch.

I planted a banana and some pumpkins this morning, then washed clothes, combed lice out of the damn parrot and then storied on with some guys from the village. A month or so back some of the guys from the village were asking Alex and I if it was true that men lived in space, we told them about the international space station. When we went into Vila we downloaded some pictures of the space station, I showed the guys the pictures today and they seemed pretty fascinated. Also showed them some pictures of strip mining and the southern lights.

We had some rockin curried lentils for dinner.

February 11

I put the baby parrot in a bowl of water and poured more water on it's head. I thought it was nice to give the bird a bath, but Alex just thinks it was mean.

This is Alex writing now--the bird screamed, jumped out of the bowl, and tried to hide. Later, we ended up brushing the bird with an old toothbrush to get his/ her lice off. We've named the bird multiple times today: We've decided on Siviru (see-vee-roo-- the language name for parrot) BIll Sisi--Sivi for short

He's not as cool as a bat, but he's growing on us. He sings in his sleep which is really sweet, but we worry that he'll get eaten by the cat if he keeps singing at night.

We've finished moving out of the other house. It's a big pain to move every thing you own by foot. What didn't seem too heavy at first, gets really heavy after a while. We've been puttering in the new house and making it homey--This house will be the longest place we will have lived together since we've met.

Back to the island

it's 7:20 on a Tuesday night, Alex and I are both laying in bed, IN OUR NEW HOUSE!!! It was finished when we returned from Vila. It's a gorgeous house, like probably the prettiest house Alex and I will ever live in, and you know we're going to live in pretty houses nomo. And the view is fantastic too, we've been taking pictures of the sunset every night. We have two bush kitchens, which I can't be bothered to explain, and I don't fully understand, if I'm honest.

We're listening to a CD that a Peace Corps Volunteer created. It's American hip-hop music but in bislama, it's really funny, lots of references to peculiarities of the Ni-van culture.

So our flying fox flew away while we were in Vila, Alex thinks it was murdered by a child, though she doesn't know which one yet. My host father gave us a baby parrot today as a reconciliation gift. I tried to give it the same name as the flying fox, but Alex thinks that's a dumb idea. He's cute too, but really don't you think a gigantic bat is way cooler than a baby parrot? And the parrot has lice too.

Alex has been in bed all day, she's got a fever of 101F. Wish her good thoughts.