Monday, October 17, 2011

Home sweet home

So, it turns out I haven't written any blog entries for two months. It's a shame, really, seems like the last couple months would be the greatest part of the experience to capture in words. Fortunate enough for Alex and I she keeps a journal and we'll be able to look back on that in the years to come.
It is difficult to sum up the last two months briefly. Our projects essentially finished when we were in Vila in early August and handed everything over to group 23. Things at the house were quiet too, folks would come over just to talk, and hang out, we did a computer class with the kindergarten teachers and helped a group of guys write a project plan. We made road trip plans and mailed things back to America. We hosted a big yard sale, getting rid of everything that wasn't returning to America with us. We packed up seashells and displayed amazing patience when host country nationals came to our house and asked for our stuff. We wrote reports for Peace Corps and dreamed of our soon-to-be American lives. We had "good-bye meals" with each of our host families and a third meal for everyone in our district. I killed a pig with an ax. We waited and counted days and arrived. On September 3rd we said our last goodbye to the village and headed into Vila. It was a good feeling - sad, but not too sad, and glad too, though not too glad, some relief and some anxiety, it felt distant for sure, like we were actors in a scripted play. We both cried at different times, promised to write and had quiet moments that are difficult for me to put into words.

We spent a week in Vila finishing paperwork and then spent 5 days in Fiji. Fiji was a chance for Alex and I to be with ourselves for some time, to reflect and get ready for things to come. It was a very good plan and we are both so happy to have had the time in Fiji. We spent some time with friends in Fiji and had two days at a resort all to ourselves.

At this moment, I am sitting on the couch at Alex's parent's house as I write. We arrived in DC on Sunday morning, about 7am. We've made it! I feel like a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Alex is out getting letters notarized and learning how to use her new telephone. I just applied for a job. So American of us, don't you think?

Peace Corps was hard. Much harder than I would have expected. And I wholeheartedly recommend the experience to most everyone. Just know - it's really hard.

Here's something I read earlier today on the Peace Corps website:

Many families and Volunteers expect many more physical hardships and deprivations than there actually are. They also expect that it will be more difficult to adjust to these hardships than it is. Most former Volunteers would confirm that one adjusts quite quickly to reading by candlelight, taking cold baths, and doing without television, washing machines, or chocolate chip cookies. The greater hardships of Peace Corps service tend to be the multiple changes Volunteers must go through. These include loneliness, periodic doubts about the value of what the Volunteer is doing, the frustration of not speaking the local language very well, and the countless little challenges involved in adjusting to how people in another culture think and behave.

I concur.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

out tomorrow.

hey again,
We were able to get seats on the plane leaving tomorrow (Sunday). Alex had a cracked crown on one of her back teeth. They had to remove the old crown and make a cast for a new one and then they will put the new crown on next time we are in Vila. They have to send the cast to Australia to make the crown and we have been told it is sometimes a hassle to get the crown through customs. Peace Corps covers all of the expenses, that's one special thing about Peace Corps, they look out good for the volunteers, certainly in this country.
The next volunteers will becoming in October, just before Alex and I leave. Most of them have probably been told by this point that they are coming to Vanuatu. They have a group on Facebook "Peace Corps Vanuatu 2011". It's fun to read about their experiences getting ready for Peace Corps and such. They are excited and overwhelmed. I remember it was so hard to even imagine what it would be like, And just as difficult to paint a picture of what they could expect...
Not just because our experiences are so individual and the country is so diverse, but it's hard to wrap your head around the experience, even having the experience doesn't mean one understands the experience.
Okay, we are going to go back pizza at a friends house.

August 10

So, Alex and I are sort of stuck in Vila, again!! Alex has a dentist appointment tomorrow and the plane left this morning, so we are in Vila until the next plane, hopefully on Sunday. We are fine, I kind of hate that we are still in Vila, but what can you do? I could have gone back to the island by myself, but I would rather hang out with Alex, even if it means hanging out in Vila. Our hotel room has a television and we get a Chinese world news station (in English), so it’s fun to catch up on news. Now all we need to do is learn how to use a smart phone and we’ll be ready to return to the states.

We bought our plane tickets home!! Leave Vanuatu on October 11th, 5 days in Fiji and then leaving Fiji on the 15th and heading to DC. Road trip through Virginia to find our home and then meet-up with Lucas’ family in Dayton at Cousin Brian’s wedding.

We hope the 5 short days in Fiji will help put our experience into some type of perspective, seeing the Melanesian culture manifested in a different country. And we hear there is great Indian food.

We still have a while before October 11th, but it sometimes feels like we are leaving next week.

Okay, time to find something to eat.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hello again

Alex and I are in Port Vila, again. Peace Corps called us in to lead two workshops, one with volunteers and the other with staff, both about PHAST and participatory methods. We led the training with volunteers on Friday. The staff declared the training voluntary and we had a few folks choose not to show up (including some folks that have led PHAST in their village and we desperately needed their feedback, it was frustrating (more so for me, Lucas). But it was good in the end, very much Alex and I handing our project off to the newer generation of volunteers. And we feel good about giving it to them.
Our staff training is tomorrow, we still have preparations to finilize. It'll be good, and our expectations aren't as high as they were for the volunteer training.

We interviewed with Antarctica yesterday. We should get an email or call this week to see if we got a job, but I doubt there are any positions available this near to the start of the summer season. I suspect we'll get offered "alternate" positions, which means we'd be medically qualified and ready to go if they needed to replace staff that didn't work out for whatever reason. I was originally an alternate my first Antarctic season. It might actually work out better this way, we'll have time to go home and visit family and maybe even figure out where we are going to live before we get called up. And we might not get called up at all too, which would be fine too, as we really are ready to find some ground and put down some roots.

We will probably buy plane tickets tomorrow (after a meeting with our country director), leaving Vanuatu on October 11, a few days in Fiji and then on to DC. Visit family and then find a place to live in Virginia. Unless Antarctica calls early or we stumble onto some type of great job, Alex and I should be seeing lots of you (if your Lucas' family) at Brian's wedding in November.

We were without our computers for the last month on the island, (It's a long story but essentially we put the computers on the cargo ship and they took a month to get to us.) So I haven't done any blog entries at site this past month. We were good, more folks are starting to ask us for help, which feels good, we've gained some level of trust over time. The dispensary store had a theif, they haven't lost any money, but it's been 9 months now and they haven't made any money, well they have made lots of money, probably at least a thousand dollars, but they don't have anything to show for it. It's a common problem with businesses in the South Pacific, the slang for it is "rat i kakai"; which means that a rat has eaten the profits, sort of like a dog eating homework in America. Most of the rat eating probably came from giving family a can of food here and there and not thinking much about it.

Okay that's long enough for now, we are good, ready to get back home and start the next 'phase' of our lives.

Oh, and one last thing, it'll probably be good not to send us mail anymore, as it often takes months to arrive and we'll be leaving in not too many months. Don't worry though, we'll keep sending you mail.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

In Summation...

Hello everyone! Lucas and I have been searching for our new home and, as part of the search, I've been e-mailing mid-wives. As a passing note, everyone we've spoken to about our future has been so amazing! If you are one of those people and are reading this, thank you so much!
Anyways, one of these midwives is thinking about doing mission work with her family and asked us a few questiona about our experience. We realized that the e mail we wrote sums up the cultural side of what we have learned so far. Here is is:

"We are not exactly missionaries as we are with the United
States Peace Corps, but I think that the experience is very similar.
We are serving in a rural outer island. There are so many incredible
things about living where we do, and it's the hardest thing that I
have ever done as of yet.

There are FOR SURE places in the world that are racked with sorrow and
grief that are unfathomable (I'm thinking of places like Haiti or

Where we live is rural (no electricity, no roads, no running water, 30
hours on a cargo boat to the capital) for sure and pretty incredible.
People mostly live off their gardens in a seemingly idylic island
paradise--there is no genocide, no hunger, and no guns. People take
care of each other--a child is absorbed by the tribe if the parents
can not take care of him/her, the elderly and folks with special needs
are taken care of... all really special and cool. Obviously nothing
like haiti or sudan whose problems are so in your face and clear...

there are problems.

I think what makes it hard (especially for the sensitive) is that you
really get to know your neighbors, for better and for worse. Lucas
has to hang out with men he knows beat their wives, rape children, or
in other ways have really different values than he does. In America,
you can choose who you live with and who you associate with, but in a
village setting; there is no escape. Sometimes, it's the underlying
social issues that are harder to deal with than the poverty...In so
many ways, i've re-defined what i think of as poverty. And there's
the injustice from other nations that screw over the poor. I think
it's really hard because you really start to see all the other issues
that contribute to the problems and it makes you so so angry at the
injustice of it all."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Some pictures from the island

So, the ship is delayed for another day. We went last night and they told us to come back in the morning. We went again this morning, hung out for a few hours and they tell us maybe tomorrow. Will see how tomorrow goes.

On the positive, both Alex and I received wonderful emails this morning, so maybe its worth another night in Vila.


hey everyone,
We are still in Vila. We were meant to leave on Friday, but as it goes in Vanuatu, we are still here, it's Wednesday. The ship should be out tonight, of course they told us that yesterday too.

Our Vila stay has been good. We've identified a few places we might want to move to when we get back to the states. I am hoping for Floyd, Virginia; but we'll have to check it out first.

We haven't had much luck with our Antarctica applications. We both received emails that we were qualified for the jobs from human resources, which is a huge first step. The next step is to get an email from the hiring manager to set up an interview, we didn't receive any emails from any hiring managers. We applied for a few more jobs and sent a couple don't-forget-us emails to my last hiring manager, but no word from them.

So here's something interesting - on our trip to Port Vila this time there are lots of billboards advertising getting internet on your phone AND many billboards advertising how to get facebook on your phone. This is the first time there has been major marketing for internet in vanuatu, and especially for facebook. Our island friends don't use internet and have never heard of Facebook...yet. The times they are changing. I'd guess it'll just be a year or two until internet and facebook are common on the outer islands. Ten bucks says someone on Pentecost will ask me what Facebook is before we leave this country. And when everyone starts using internet on the outer islands, everyone has access to unlimited information, perhaps creating even less need for rural volunteers like myself. So I guess I'm lucky to have a chance to do this work before it's deemed unnecessary.

Sorry I never got pictures published. In my defense, I've been sick and the internet is really slow.

Friday, June 10, 2011

June 11

hey everybody,
I'm sitting on a soft couch in an air-conditioned room as I write. Alex and I made it into Vila just a few days ago. We decided to walk to South Pentecost, watch the land-diving and then catch a ship into Vila, which we did.
It was good, the walk took two full days and included a ride in the back of a pick-up truck over some of the steepest terrain. There were a total of 8 Peace Corps volunteers that made it to South Pentecost to watch the land-diving. We hung out, ate good and enjoyed catching up with everyone and their takes on the Peace Corps experience.
We have two weeks in Vila now to find a job and plan out our lives, or at least the next couple years of our life.
Wish us luck.
Will post some pictures when I get tired of the job/house search.
With love,

May 31

It's a tuesday evening, Alex and i were meant to head to south Pentecost tomorrow to watch the land diving, but it's looking like neither of the two ships that pass each week will be passing this week. One is in the shop and the other decided to take a different route this week. We just figured this out today, it's a little sad as we were looking forward to land diving and just getting out of the village for awhile, and spending time with some Peace Corps friends. We have the option to pay for a small boat to take us but would costs us more than two hundred dollars, so we won't. We could walk too, but it would be three or four days to get there and were just not really that keen on a long walk right now. I think we'll stay here and head into vila when we get a chance, when a ship finally comes.

I was remembering this moment earlier today - It was shortly after we arrived, a guy was visiting with us at our house, he started playing the guitar and as he played he stared deeply into my eyes, too deeply. I didn't know what to do, his stare was too intense, I was uncomfortable, I wanted to look away. I didn't know if his staring was culturally appropriate or if he was just a weird guy. I didn't know if I should look away or if that would be considered rude or if he would think I was weird for returning such an intense stare. In the end I did both, stared back and looked away from time to time when the staring was more than I could handle.

I have since learned that it's normal for folks here to stare at you when they are playing a song and also that this guy's stare was a more intense than what is typical. I still don't know the appropriate response, I just don't worry about it anymore, I do what's most comfortable for myself, which is short stints of deep staring but a lot of looking away and getting distracted by other things in the room.

I remember that moment, but I don't remember who it was, as I didn't have a clue who was who when I first arrived. I wish I knew who he was now, and if he is somebody that I now consider to be a little off, a little socially awkward; If he is just a weird guy.

May 21

okay, so it's been a while since I wrote an entry. It's not for any reason other than it just didn't happen. We haven't been terribly busy or disgusted with blogging or a computer failure or anything, just never got around to sitting down and writing.

Alex and I feel like we are at a point in our service where it's time to start finalizing our post-peace corps goals and objectives. We had applied to work in Antarctica, thinking that would give us an additional 4 ½ months to figure out what the heck we were going to do before returning to America - As it's tough to make such plans from our island shack, being without internet and all. We would have had internet in Antarctica, and it's much cheaper to call America from Antarctica than it is to call from Vanuatu. It seemed like a pretty good plan, except that we haven't heard anything from Antarctica yet; we should have heard from them by now, and with just 5 months until we return to the states, it's time start putting together some type of plan. (Sidenote: Any Antarctica friends that may be reading this blog and have an inside connection to get us a job, we need your help, please email me.)

Our work is a bit slow, not painfully slow, but slow enough that Alex and I have plenty of opportunity to discuss our post-peace corps goals and objectives.

We were thinking maybe the mountains of Virginia. We both think it's really pretty and it's sort of between our parents' homes. And (we hope) progressive enough for us without being too urban for us. Of course, we sort of feel like our hands our tied, without internet, it's hard to confirm if any of these things are true. So, although we have the time, it's hard to have serious conversations about our future plans, just because there are no facts to compare, because we have no facts. Which is kind of fun in that we end up just spending the whole time talking about dreams and visions, but I don't know if I would say we are making progress. How the heck did people decide where to live before internet? And looking for a job without internet? I haven't a clue..

We have a couple books about houses/homesteading in our house and a few more that touch lightly on the topic. We have read these book an innumerable amount of times, it's fun, but frustrating too, we want new information, more information, specific information. Who knew I would so desperately miss having access to information, and Alex too. I suspect our entire generation, and certainly the generations after us, is just completely addicted to easy access to information, Surely there was much going on in the world before the information age. Who knew we were such products of our age.

men's and women's work

I was drinking kava at the nakamal last night. As is typical, the guys were at one end of the nakamal getting drunk and the women were at the other end of the nakamal, slaving over the fire, watching the children and preparing the food for everyone. This scene always bothers me a little, the division of the sexes, the division of work. How could it have come to be that women have to do all the work and men just drink? Not that a scene similar to this one isn't common throughout the world, but I don't see how anyone (boy or girl) could convince themselves that this situation is good.

As is also typical, the guys were talking in the local language at the nakamal last night, and I haven't much of a clue what they were saying. The local language is a bit limited though and there aren't words for 'dispensary' and 'committee' and the like, so they just use the english words. Those kinds of words, along with references to people and places that I know, was enough for me to know that the men were talking about the dispensary's health committee, it's role and ongoing issues and such things. Certainly a conversation that needs to happen, as the dispensary lost their committee chairman a few months ago and just lost their [very organized] nurse recently.

It was probably due to the kava, but for some brief moments last night I imagined a bit of value in their system. Women take care of these problems (feeding everyone and attending to the children), men take care of those problems (governance).

Of course the system doesn't work, most of the men just want to get drunk, and you could easily talk about governance issues while you cooked your own damn food.


Our friend, Nora, died last night, a little before midnight, just 8 hours after returning to the island. Nora operated the main preschool in our district. She was probably in her mid-60s, she died of cancer. Nora was an educated woman, cared about this place, and she will be missed.

Critical Periods in the Life of a Peace Corps Volunteer

At some point during training, Peace corps gave us a handout titled "Critical Periods in the Life of a Peace Corps Volunteer". It basically outlines your service from month-to-month and list some of the negative issues and behaviors/reactions that are to be expected. It also lists possible interventions to address the negative issues and reactions.

We are in month 19 now. The handout suggests (among other things) that I should be seeing an increased work pace, becoming more aware of my time constraints and my own limitations.

The increased work pace is true, we have had something on the calendar every week this month and every week next month too.

Awareness of time constraints, well, sort of....I am feeling sort of stuck, becoming aware of how much more time that's still left...lots. There's not much going on here, just workshops on the calendar. And so much that could be going on in America - buying a house, starting a family, a salary, things like that. I spend a lot of time waiting - waiting for the next meal, or waiting to go back to America or waiting until it time to start the day's activities. Right now I am waiting for a plane to fly overhead. Nora will be on the plane, she's coming back to the village to die. There's a big meal planned for her return.

And awareness of own limitations - yes. And what a crappy issue. I am feeling remarkably under-utilized. And that I should never apply for a job that has the words 'self-starter' in the job description.

My behavior/reactions to these issues [according to the handout] might include procrastination, self-recrimination, resignation, disappointment, and downgrading of achievements. I didn't know what self-recrimination meant so I had to look it up in the dictionary - it's about telling yourself all the things you should have done differently, blaming yourself for all the mistakes you made.

These sound about right, the waiting is due to resignation. There's lots of self-recrimination if you're me. The downgrading of achievements is also true, and comforting.

Proposed interventions include visiting new volunteers, exercise, focusing on relationships at site, and re-examining goals and time-frame.

april 20

We had pancakes this morning. Which isn't really that special. What was special about this morning's pancakes is that we had an egg! Not that we don't get eggs regularly, we just haven't gotten any recently. We included the egg in the pancake batter. What a world of difference! Pancakes are so much better when made with an egg.

We finished a PHAST workshop this past friday. They gave us a chicken as a going away gift. We couldn't carry the chicken back with us on Friday night because we had too many other baskets and I was drunk off kava. Our friend brought the chicken down on Monday. He's a young boy - the chicken, not our friend, our friend is a thirty-something father. We tied our chicken to the bush kitchen - like a dog leash except that it was tied around the chicken's leg. We cut him free this morning - Wednesday, we think he'll stick around as he seems used to this place now. Our big rooster keeps pecking at the new guy since we freed him. We are hoping he doesn't run away because he gets tired of being bullied by the big rooster.

We have another workshop next week, it's a youth (18-30 year olds who aren't married) workshop, we are going to facilitate actives on hygiene, child spacing and money management. Our co-facilitator came over this morning and Alex and her went through the hygiene part of our workshop while I prepared lunch.

An Australian aid agency gave our community grant money a few years ago to build a classroom on the school grounds and a toilet at the health dispensary. Representatives came here yesterday for an opening ceremony for both the classroom and the toilet. I got a chance to speak with the representatives briefly. Apparently, they -the representatives- are traveling up Pentecost island, visiting each of the projects that they have funded over the last few years, which seems to be many, many projects.

Each day they start at 6am, going from one small village to the next, scrutinizing their funded projects, with little ceremonies and small speeches at every village. Our village was their last visit for the day yesterday. They arrived here a little after 9pm and were finished a little after 10pm. I heard their boat leaving this morning around 6am, they were off to the next village.

There is a village to our south that won a grant to build a market house in their village, the supplies came and they started building it a few years ago, they quickly lost interest and the market house was never completed. We are told it's now completely overgrown in bush. Flush toilets were built at our dispensary though we have no reliable water source. A vocational school to our north, where another Peace Corps volunteer works, was given a rather large solar power system a few years ago. It no longer works, we think the problem is either the batteries or the inverter.

These are three of the less than ideal visits that the aid agency representatives made yesterday and today. I am sure there are many examples like our school classroom too - a well-constructed building that the community can be proud of and will be put to good use. And I am also sure there were many other visits like the three I described. I guess mixed results are to be expected in such a business. I imagine the worst part being the range of possible emotions arriving in each village, not knowing if you are going to get an overgrown foundation or a classroom that 40 students use everyday.

I think I prefer my job; worrying about our chicken, enjoying pancakes and convincing people not to eat their own excrement.

StoveTec GreenFire

I am not exactly sure how it came to be, but Alex and I were given a StoveTec GreenFire 1-door wood burning stove. They call it a biomass cook stove. It's has these thick walls that keep the heat from dissipating. Along with directing all the heat directly to the cooking pot, the extra heat helps the firewood burn hotter and thus cleaner.

The thing is absolutely amazing.

We're using well less than a quarter of the wood we were using with open fires; and because the fire is always burning hot, we rarely get smokey fires, (only when we push our luck - thinking the fire is so hot that it can handle wet wood).

The manufacturer's write, "Efficient cook stoves increase heat transfer to the the pot, saving fuel. The stove top and the pot skirt force the hot gases closer to the bottom and sides of the pot. More heat enters the pot so less fuel is used for cooking. The insulative combustion chamber both increases the temperature and aids the mixing of gases, air and fire in the combustion zone. The GreenFire stove increases both heat transfer and combustion efficiency, resulting in cleaner and more efficient cooking".

We were given the stoves to take them to the island and show them off. I wasn't keen at first (dealing with the logistics of getting anything from Port Vila to our house is enough to make one not keen on pretty much most things), but there is such a dramatic difference from an open fire, we are both completely sold on the thing.

We'll get one for our summer kitchen in the states.

Alex informs me the rotary club and a RPCV named Charlie played major roles in the stove's appearance.

lazy saturday

it's a quiet, lazy saturday afternoon. It occurs to me that I haven't written a blog entry for a while, so time to check-in and let the blog know how we are doing. Well, we are doing fine. We finished another PHAST workshop yesterday. There was a closing ceremony during which I was given a really nice chief's walking stick thing. It's really nice. And I had two shells of kava and was totally drunk, I had use the walking stick to help keep my balance on the walk home. Crossing the Nabanga tree sucked. One typically doesn't have trouble walking after two shells. I dunno

We received mail yesterday. Some friends went north and carried our mail back with them (and flour!!!). Thank you to Michelle for the thoughtful package, we now have a Dulce de leche cake (that alex made) and a Uruguayan flag (sticker) hanging on our wall. We also received copies of both the Vanuatu peace corps staff newsletter and the vanuatu peace corps volunteer newsletter. They are fun to read and kind of catch up on things.

We had pizza and cake for lunch.

We are going to be pretty busy for number of weeks. Another PHAST workshop, a youth conference, head to south pentecost to watch the land diving and easter celebrations.

Urban migrations

We are facilitating the third day of a four day hygiene and sanitation workshop tomorrow. This morning we prepared with our co-facilitator. Her name is Regina, she is from the village hosting the workshop. She's smart, she attended University of the South Pacific for a couple years.
There's lots of competent people originally from our district. The administrative director for health services for our entire province is from our district (there are 6 provinces in Vanuatu). The Provincial pharmacist is from our district too. There's a medical doctor, his name is Dr. Solwin, I've met him once. He is originally from our village. He moved to Papua New Guinea, did development work for a number of years, progressed in his career and, if I understand correctly, was a professor at a medical school for quite some time before returning to Vanuatu (just recently) to start a medical school on Santo Island. There's Alex's counterpart, who just left the district this morning, a trained nurse, as well as one other trained nurse, a brother of one of my friends, who's off working somewhere else.
Then there's Simeon, he's the director of Youth Challenge Vanuatu (or some similar name), a pretty substantial development agency in Vanuatu. And his younger brother, Simon, who just finished University but has all types of potential and will be doing great things in Vanuatu in here shortly.
And there's several people like Regina, who has the skills and is sort of waiting for a good opportunity to get off the island. Not for getting off the island's sake, but for job opportunities.
I was talking about this with my friend this morning, how we have all these nurses from our village but not one with us now. He commented how there were only two teachers to ever come from our village, yet our school is fully staffed.

A day in Vanuatu

I wrote a blog entry many months ago that was written to the new volunteers, it was about packing and our impressions of Vanuatu and surviving pre-service training and such things. I thought it was a pretty good entry. While that's not the goal of this blog entry, I feel like this is another good entry for a future volunteer to stumble upon. It really sums up the "Peace Corps experience" in many ways. All in one day.

We have been facilitating a workshop in a village on top the last two days. The workshop was going great in the morning, lots of good facilitated discussions about water, hygiene and sanitation. I was feeling really good about the workshop. There was a little lethargy after lunch, but the group recovered quick enough. Then at one point in the afternoon, a number of young men just left the workshop for no apparent reason. I went to check what was going on and observed that they had left the workshop to go watch pacific pop music videos. Somehow pacific pop was taking precedence over clean drinking water and good toilets. I don't even like pacific pop, I think it's pretty bad, and I like bad American pop music. I walked over to where the young men were watching the video, thinking my presence would make them feel awkward and they would then return to the workshop, but it didn't work, they just looked at me and nodded, assuming I wanted to watch the videos too. I was infuriated, left, went back to the workshop, announced to everybody in the workshop that there was a group of young men that were watching videos instead of participating in the workshop and explained how I had tried to make them come back and how my plan had failed miserably. Someone in the workshop fixed my problem for me, a few of the young men returned to the workshop and others were decent enough to go hide and watch the videos some other place. The workshop ended on a good note and everyone seemed excited for the next day of the workshop next week.

After the workshop we had to walk an hour through a beautiful jungle to get back to our house and then hurry off to an evening ceremony to say goodbye to Alex's counterpart, who just told us yesterday that she is leaving this week. Four days notice that we are going to be without a counterpart.

There's a giant nabanga tree that has fallen onto the road, completely blocking the road. The tree was getting old and folks living nearby were worried it would fall onto someone's house, so they started burning the tree out, on the side of the house, they knew it was going to fall onto the road and they knew it would be a problem to have a 10-15 foot diameter trunk on the only road. They didn't really have a good option. The only truck in our district is on this side of the nabanga tree, meaning the truck can't leave this district until they get the massive tree removed. We have to climb over this giant nabanga tree. Alex has to climb over the tree in a skirt. It's kind of neat, and kind of annoying. Alex mentioned the skirt part was pretty annoying. The reality that there wasn't a good option for such a big, yet simple, problem is..well..telling.

We get back to the house, change into dry clothes and get ready to head to the goodbye ceremony/dinner for Alex's counterpart. Alex's host father, who we haven't seen in months comes over to tell us to hurry up. After he leaves I tell Alex he can shove it, the first time he bothers to come over in months and all he can think to say is hurry up.

We get to the community meeting place, lots of smiles, hand-shaking, and playing with little children. We feel very welcomed and it feels good to be so welcomed and so comfortable in our district. Alex goes and sits with her favorite women and I go about greeting all the 'big' [important] men at the gathering. We both know what to do and say.

The ceremony starts in the next hour or so. Everyone gives speeches. Everything is said in the local language and Alex and I catch little to nothing of what is being said. We don't mind too much, we are used to it, I find simple things to daydream about. During Alex's counterpart's speech, she includes enough Bislama so that Alex and I can follow her whole speech - our hero. She thanks us, but instead of thanking us for the ways we have empowered communities to look out for themselves - they ways we have built capacity, she instead focuses on the free water tanks that we helped the communities get - one of the lesser successes, and a success that at the end of the day did more to discourage community action than anything else. This infuriates me, that the stupid tanks take precedence over the real, sustainable accomplishments we have made fostering non-dependence. It's a strong feeling, I could go on a long rant about it right now, but that would distract from the point of this story.

Later in her speech, Alex's counterpart is passionately talking about the values and worth of independence, about not relying on donors and instead looking out for themselves - the same message Alex and I have been preaching for months and a message I thought was lost when she started praising the free tanks. A very proud moment for Alex and I indeed.

Later I am asked to give a speech and I have to invite Alex to join me for the goodbye speech to her counterpart, because Ni-vans are patriarchal. We give a good speech, tearing up as we say goodbye and wish Alex's counterpart all the best.

We've been "working" for over 12 hours now, including two climbs over the nabanga tree. I am expected to stay and drink kava, Alex is free to go. I do my best to politely decline drinking kava and we say our goodbyes, which take a while. My host father wants some time to brag about how soon his village will be building toilets. As we walk away, I am sure I have offended several people by not staying to drink kava. When we arrive home we open the basket of food they gave us on the way out. They have given us lots and lots of chicken, a special treat and a real sacrifice for those that didn't get the chicken because we got it. As we are eating the chicken our cat brings in a dead mouse and promptly abandons it on the living room, choosing to eat the chicken bones instead.

This is how your days go -
Lots of highs and lots of low.

Tuesday, April 5

We just returned from a day spent at our friends house. they live out (and up) in the bush, maybe 45 minutes walk away. We left their place around sunset and ended up walking the last half of the walk with aid from the display light on our cell phone.

So, here's what I was thinking about on the walk home...We live in the north of pentecost and thus speak the language of north pentecost - Raga. Our district is the southern-most district in North Pentecost. The district to our south speak their own language ( a less common one) and the district south of them speaks the language of central pentecost. There are at least four different languages on pentecost island, four major ones anyways, and several less common ones too. The language groups are geographically divided. But why would people living in such close proximity on a small island develop several different language groups?
It's a little crazy - this is a tiny island, and it's not like there are mountain ranges or impassable deep gorges or wild animals that inhibited folks from exploring their little island, I am sure all you anthropology majors reading this blog know the correct answer to that question, but I have my own theory.

It also seems to me that the areas near the language divides are typically 'more bush', meaning they seem less developed. I don't actually know if that's true, but it seems to be, I don't know how I would go about confirming if that true or not, but I'm not really that worried about it.

So here's my theory...I imagine the reason for multiple languages on such a small island - only a few kilometers wide and less than 80 kilometers long - the reason is the innate dark, sinister nature of Ni-Vanuatu people. It's true, I suspect anyone that knows this culture well would not hesitate to use the words 'dark' or 'sinister' to describe it. We have a book of traditional stories from Vanuatu, story after story after story is dark, most involve gruesome deaths and/or evil heros.

So, in my theory, this innate nature lends itself to distrust strangers. Thus, Ni-vans of before would not stray too far from home out of fear and distrust of the unknown. The multitude of languages developed because no one was interacting with anyone too far from home, It's a pretty simple theory, really, just an innate dark, sinister nature...and cannibalism. But don't those two sort of go together too? And it seems pretty plausible, I'll ask the next linguist I run into.

So, in my theory, the area where the language changes is sort of a no man's land, a safe space to divide language groups, a place that folks from neither language group would dare to tread, unless perhaps they were looking for trouble (or meat). And, in my theory, perhaps it hasn't been that long ago, since the areas near language borders still seem less developed than other areas.

So I was thinking about this theory as I walked home this evening, through the jungle with a cell phone for a flashlight, near a language border. I am not sure how long it's been, but in my imagination it hadn't been too long since -the reasons that kept the language development separate- were alive and well.

And if it really hasn't been that long, then that implies this place is changing rapidly. And how can one keep pace? And what implications would that have for 'development' work?

The innate dark, sinister nature theory could also be applied to explain the horridly low success rates of community projects in Vanuatu.

The road less traveled

There is no bookstore in Vanuatu. One of the grocery stores keeps a stock of about 20-30 books and the American restaurant has a bookshelf with a 'take a book, leave a book' system (which, by the way, seems to be a system that degrades to a bookshelf of second-rate books). Peace Corps Vanuatu maintains a small library, mostly just books that volunteers have brought into the country and then left behind when they returned home (also degrading). You can typically find a book worth reading, but sometimes you have to look for a while, kind of like shopping at a bad used book store, only much smaller. Alex picked up this book called 'The Road Less Travelled' while we were in Vila. It's not a book or author that she had read previously, but she had heard of it before and I think someone in our village had asked her to keep an eye out for it.

The book is fine but that's not the point of this blog. Here's a quote from the book that Alex read aloud to me:

"Pure communism, for instance, expresses ... namely that the purpose and function of the individual is to serve the relationship, the group, the collective, the society. Only the destiny of the state is considered, the destiny of the individual is believed to be of no consequence. Pure capitalism, on the other hand, espouses the destiny of the individual even when it is at the expense of the relationship, the group, the collective, the society. Widows and orphans may starve, but this should not prevent the individual entrepreneur from enjoying all the fruits of his or her individual initiative."

I have written about communism and capitalism several times since arriving to the island. It's something we end up thinking about more than you would expect and talking about with our Ni-Vanuatu friends regularly.

Our district (and much of the developing world, I suspect) is somewhere between the two. Communism roots from before are still strong, and capitalistic initiatives are common. It's a strange place to be, and a hard place to be, and in many ways a sad place to be - trying to find a way to have the best of both worlds without the negatives of either world - And not being able to find that way.

back on the island

it's nearing two weeks since we returned to site and this is the first blog entry I have written. This seems to be a pattern, there's typically a delay between returning to site and the first blog entry I write after returning to site.

We are fine at site, I cut my finger pretty deeply this morning while opening a drinking coconut. It's not too serious, just serious enough to get me out of doing dishes for a few days. Alex is well, she had some type a flu for a few days but she's better now. Well enough that she started back into her exercise/yoga routine this morning.

We made soap this morning, just the two of us, for our own personal use. Alex added mint and lemongrass and a concoction of anti-mosquito essential oils. We have to let the soap 'cure' for about a month and then we'll see if we become walking mosquito repellents.

Vila was good, we did a 2-hour presentation to the new group about our PHAST project and they expressed interest in the workshop tools we created. Enough interest that they organized a work party and put together several toolkits to be carried back to their island to utilize. It was a big compliment to Alex and I's work, we felt pretty good about it.

Our cat has life. The garden is good. Our island friends haven't rejected us. We started lots of seedlings a few days ago, hoping for a big harvest just before it's time for us to leave Vanuatu.

I feel like I could just babble on for a while, but instead I will just end this blog now.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

some more pictures

Here are a few more pictures from our last 5 months on the island...

Crossing the river to get to another village.

My host brother - Brian Tobias.

Baskets for an upcoming wedding.

Our very own Nemo, he lives in the reef near our house.

Friday, March 11, 2011

March 12

hey everyone,
Alex and I are in Port Vila, a few of you have picked up on that already, as I've noticed a few new e-mails in the inbox. We have been here for a week. We have been busy, and we are tired.
The first few times we came into port vila we had long to-do lists, and were able to stay focused, running errands during breaks in training and in the evening.
It doesn't feel as rushed now. We rest during our workshop breaks and don't seem to get much done in the evenings. We still have long to-do lists. I think we are more tired than we used to be. Port Vila isn't just about running errands anymore. Now it's about running errands and resting and maybe 'recovering' from time on the island.
We should be flying back to Pentecost tomorrow. But we are going to stay another week in Port Vila, to rest and work on the long to-do lists that we haven't started working on yet.
So send us some emails, we'll have time to respond to them.
The training has been good, the new group seems to have some interest in the PHAST workshop that Alex and I have developed for Vanuatu.
We applied to work in Antarctica, waiting to hear back.
We are eating a lot of meat, a lot of eggs and a lot of dairy. And enjoying hot water at the hotel.
I've uploaded the blogs we wrote during our last stint on the island and a few pictures. We have more pictures to upload, but it's slow to upload them and I'm tired. I'll get some more pictures uploaded next week.
love you guys
I'll write more soon.

too much daydreaming at church

It's Sunday, we just got home from church. We were there for two and a half hours, and we arrived late.

I am a business volunteer and Alex is a health volunteer. We decided early on that we would work on any and all projects together. Our health projects have gone well, very well when compared with other health volunteers. Our business projects not so much. I had expected a community-led, community-initiated business project would evolve with time. Now, with 8 months left, I am not too optimistic that a business project will ever develop.

I have talked about this concern with a few of my Ni-Van friends and a few random men at nakamals. The feedback is typically the same, the essence of it being - people in Vanuatu have all of their basic needs met and they don't work well together when money, or the potential for money, is involved. It's true, everyone has enough food to eat and a place to sleep, I've noted this reality before.

It is also true that community-based business business ventures have a terribly low success rate in Vanuatu. A friend of ours can give you a list of cooperative business attempts that have failed, one after another, all off the top of his head. It's counter-intuitive in many ways. People here live and work in community everyday. They are masters of community living. There are men and women working in each other's gardens most days, lots of sharing and community meals almost nightly. I have been involved in multiple work parties myself, where 10-20 people or more all show up to work for one man, without immediate compensation or even a clear agreement of how the work will be compensated at a later date. It seems like this would be the ideal situation for a community-based business venture.

There are unwritten rules about community living on the island. Rules that I certainly don't understand. There is, of course, the idea of mandatory sharing, people have no problem giving you things, because they understand that you have and will continue to give them things. But the rules are a lot more complicated than that. For example, I believe there are some men that are designated to have more wealth than everyone else, and then they, because of this designation, would always be the first person anybody would go to when they needed something. It gets more complicated, Like I said I don't really understand it.

So here's a problem with community-based business ventures: they take their unwritten rules and try to apply them to western business.

Of course the unwritten rules don't fit well onto western business models, so the rules are bent and forced on to a prototype they have little in common with. Sadly, the misfit causes lots of misunderstandings, shortcomings, envy, and broken promises. Real anger and loss of trust can ensue, and this is really bad if you are dependent on your community for daily living .

I read somewhere recently that the only clear indicator of how well a developing country will succeed in making the cross-over to western system of governance is how closely their traditional values align with the overarching western values. The unwritten rules of community living in Vanuatu do not align well with community-based business ventures.

Perhaps, if people in were a little more hungry there would be more motivation to dismiss the unwritten rules. As it stands, the unwritten rules accomplish the task of ensuring everyone has enough to eat and a place to sleep; something western business does not accomplish!

As this island's population continues to grow, they will face the challenge of producing more food on the same finite (and relatively small) amount of land. But today, food security is the least of anyone's concerns on Pentecost island. Lots of good food grows year around, and there are fruit and nut trees planted all over the place. It is not difficult to grow food here, hard work yes, but there is no chance that you would fail at growing your own food. And the traditional governance systems ensure everyone has space for a garden. You could probably gather all the food you need without even cultivating a garden, and at the very least, the mandatory sharing ensures that all your food needs are met.

Alex and I joke that this is the only place on earth where people would build a village 30-60 minutes walk from the nearest water source. This is true, it happens here, and without logical reason, there are plenty of water sources. We theorize that because the villagers are so used to getting all their basic needs met that there is little motivation to plan ahead for things like water. And they are right, because food and housing come so easily, they have the time to walk an extra hour everyday to fetch water. (Most villages now are using water catchment systems, but these villages were established well before the water tanks were an option).

In church this morning, one of the readings was the one about how God looks out for the birds, the birds don't have to plant a garden or anything and God takes care of them, and surely we, as humans, are much more important to God than the birds, so of course God is going to take care of us. The reading was about living today and not worrying too much about tomorrow because you can trust in the Lord to look out good for you.

I would have loved to hear the sermon that followed the reading. How such a reading applies to life in our communities. Was the preacher man preaching on the value of living in the moment? Sadly, the sermon was in the local language and Alex and I haven't a clue what he was saying.

February 20

our low depression turned into Cyclone Atu. It's a category 2 cyclone now, but it's past us. We are still getting heavy winds and some rain, but it doesn't feel like a cyclone anymore. Cyclone Atu should be hitting Port Vila's island around midnight tonight.

Atu means 'man' in the local language. And it's the name of a popular card game in Vanuatu too, similar to spades.

We are not sure if and when we are going to Port Vila. Hopefully we'll go Sunday the 27th. Depends on planes and cyclones more than on when we want to go.

alex is on page 315 of War and Peace. There are 1,144 pages. It's pretty good.

February 19th

hello again.
It's super windy today, there's said to be a slow-moving 'low depression' about 100 kilometers east of us. It could turn into a cyclone, but it hasn't as of yet. The wind has blown down 5 banana plants, including one that had a huge bunch of ripening sweet bananas. We've also lost many of our green beans, lots of our sugarcane, a big basil plant, some marigolds and one island cabbage bush to the wind. On a positive, there is lots of easy-to-find firewood lying about now.

We have been cooking a pot of baked beans all day, they still aren't ready, I think the wind blows all the heat away.

Back home

hey everyone,
it's been a while since I blogged. All is well. Alex and I headed to the far north of pentecost island last Thursday, the 10th. We went to the post office on Friday. Thank you for all the letters. And for the chocolate and the Splenda and the Christmas candy and the snowman candle the guitar book and the harmonica and the tea and hot chocolate and the yoga CD and the spy pen. And everything else too. We love our family and friends.

I was meant to fly into Port Vila on Sunday for an in-service training. I didn't fly. Two planes in Air Vanuatu's small fleet are currently out of commission. We got word a few hours before the flight that it was cancelled. Peace Corps tried to find me an alternate route into Port Vila. I almost had to cross the ocean on a small boat to get to the airport on another island, but that flight was canceled too.

In-service training happens annually for all peace corps volunteers. I missed the first two days of my first in-service training because a plane couldn't land at our airport because of the bad weather. And this one I will miss completely because there just aren't enough planes. Not that I am complaining - Peace Corps has offered to fly me in and put me up during Alex's in-service training next month.

We had a volunteer on Pentecost island that had to be medically evacuated yesterday because she cut her hand pretty bad with her bush knife. Peace Corps offered me a seat on the chartered flight. I could have made it to the last day of my in-service training. They gave me the option to go in yesterday or go in with Alex for her in-service training.

I am going to go into Port Vila with Alex. We are hoping to find a road into Vila near the end of February. Antarctica applications open up March 1st.

There's a 'low depression' 60 kilometers east of the island just to the north of us. It could turn into a cyclone in the next few days.

February 3rd

it's 10:13pm. We are still awake. Our friend brought us a big chunk of raw beef about two hours ago. They killed a cow today because a woman died this morning. She was the grandmother of Alex's counterpart. (and aunt of Alex's counterpart's husband)

Though it is extraordinarily exciting to get a pound of raw beef that we can cook however we like, we are typically asleep by 9.

We are baking the beef with garlic, onions, bay leaf, thyme, olive oil and red wine vinegar. It's on the fire now, I should probably go make sure the fire is still burning good.

February 1st

So I think I've probably read all four of our 'Communities' magazines from cover to cover. One of the basic premises of the Communities magazine seems to be this: "The world is changing. The growing demands for the Earth's finite resources is a disaster waiting to happen. Organized intentional communities use resources more efficiently than non-organized neighbors. Thus, at some point, we are going to need to be able to live in communities in order to survive. The problem is that we don't know how to live in communities. And this is, therefore, the main objective of many communities - to learn how to negotiate living in community."

Another common premise is that one of the key factors to successful community living is 'consensus'. All decisions are made by consensus - meaning every member of the community must agree to a plan before the plan goes ahead, no voting. Consensus, of course, is a challenge, requiring superhuman patience, understanding and humility. Very egalitarian. Not all intentional communities have sustainability, consensus and egalitarianism at the top of their lists, but these seem to be the main overarching themes.

In our district on the island, we are mostly all living in community. There are some of folks whom "stap em wan long bus" - they live with just their immediate family (partner and children) out in the bush somewhere. But all of our friends know how to live in community. And here's the thing - this place isn't egalitarian in the slightest. Egalitarianism is an American value.

Egalitarian means "of, relating to, or believing in the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities".

Our Peace Corps issued cross-cultural workbook suggests, "In a strong reaction to the repressive class structure in Europe, Americans created a culture virtually built around egalitarianism: the notion that no one is superior to anyone else because of birth, power, fame or wealth. We are not all the same, but we are all of equal value." I don't know what the deal is with slaves and egalitarian founding fathers, but that's what the book says.

There are many egalitarian values incorporated into the 'kastom' values of Vanuatu. Like "nogat man we igat samting bitim tumas ol narafala man". That translates to, "We shouldn't have any people that have too much more than any other people." That's a big one, very egalitarian. There lots of other 'kastom' values that have equality at their base as well - everyone should have access to land for a garden; families should ensure that everyone in their family has a place to sleep and enough food; and there should never be nursing homes for 'olfala' (old fellows), sick, or krangke (crazy, pronounced cranky) people, this responsibility falling on family as well.

Where Vanuatu ceases to be egalitarian is also part of the 'kastom' values of Vanuatu - "Sapotem olgeta Jif blong yumi", Support all chiefs of you and me. Which isn't completely anti-egalitarian in and of itself. But, in Vanuatu, they say ,"The chief's line follows blood", meaning the son of the chief becomes the next chief (superior because of birth and power). That seems pretty far removed from egalitarianism.

I emphasized son in the last paragraph because, unlike the olfala, the sick and the krangke, Vanuatu 'kastom' values do not place much value on women's rights. Young women are regularly forced into marriage. Violence against women is off the charts, even chiefs and priests beat their wives. All chiefs and priests are men. Husbands believe they own their wives. Certainly NOT egalitarian!

It is considered "spoiling kastom" to be a non-consenting voice. People will agree with [support] a chief, even when the chief condones human rights violations (aka beating your wife). Even when a chief condones non-sustainable ways of living in the world. Even if the chief condones inefficient use of our finite resources.

The people of our district have found a way to live in community. A way that I am sure has evolved through centuries of trial and error. A way that you and I as outsiders - as well as the folks on the island, living in the community - find many shortcomings.

I wonder if there are traditional societies anywhere in the world that rely on a consensus-based, egalitarian way to live in community?


In North Pentecost, there are two main tribes: Tabi and Bule. The tribal designation passes down the matriline and may or may not have to do with land...we've never really gotten a clear answer...But it's deeply embedded in the culture. A tabi must marry a bule (and vice versa) and the resulting children will follow the mother's line . I am a tabi (my host mom is a tabi) and Lucas is a bule (his host mom is a bule) and our kids will be tabi(they follow me, their mom). Our girl children will have to marry a bule and all her children will be tabi again...Our boy children would have to marry Bule but his children will all now be bule following their mother's line. It gets more complicated, but that's beyond the scope of this blog entry and our comprehension.

Where this becomes most apparent is around weddings or "marrieds". This last January, two men, from a family we are close to, got married. Weddings are a BIG deal on Pentecost and it is not uncommon for them to happen in stages. It is also not uncommon for more than one couple to get married at the same time. Both these men have been together with their partners for a while and they each have kids already. One of the men is a follower of the Ward fellowship, a small apocalypse-focused christian american church that despises Kastom. But, Kastom is STRONG on pentecost around certain things and Marrieds are one of them. He did not have a choice in the matter.

The following vignettes are brief sketches of the week long married:

Baratoa Rocks! During the married week, the tribe of the bride gets to throw things at the tribe of the groom. In this case, the grooms were bule. So that means, me, as a tabi, got to throw water, finely grated banana, mud, and anything I wanted for as long as I wanted at any bule I saw. It just so happens that most of my pals and my husband are bule! I ended up teaming up with muana (see picture), another tabi, and we were a baratoa machine! No one was spared--it was so much fun! I baratoaed so well, that the family of the grooms gave me a red mat.

Why two years in the Peace Corps makes sense
Marrieds on Pentecost. like in most cultures, involve the whole family. Here, family systems are intact. Strong surges of urban migration have not hit Vanuatu yet so it's not uncommon to see a great- grandmother looking after her great granchild while her daughter and grand daughter go to the garden. I love that about this place.

One of the traditions for marrieds is that there are different work teams to get everything in place. Remember, these folks are feeding hundreds of people without electricity or supermarkets. There's a work team for firewood, for taro, for lap lap leaves, for white stones (stones used for baking), for slaughtering animals, for harvesting kava, etc. It's absolutely incredible to watch.

I loved seeing all the different groups come down because they were arranged in family groups, and now, I know most of the families. My papa's family came down carrying firewood. They are beautiful: Sinuous , Strong, Black. I've never seen all the men together like that and the family line was clear and evident. This same experience happened with all the different work parties and I understood why two years makes sense for Peace Corps Service.

I know these people. I've played with their children and eaten at their kitchens and probably charged their phones. I've sang with them at church and slipped on the same paths they do on the way to the garden. I know who has had affairs with who and whose relationships are riddled with violence. I've been angry and hurt by people here as well as loved and supported. In short, my heart has given itself to Pentecost a little more each month (for better or for worse) and I can't imagine the richness of experience if it wasn't for two years. And, of course, it makes me appreciate my own family spread across two continents and my chosen family of friends that have supported Lucas and I through this time.

Longo Party
I complain to Lucas about how the culture here is so much like Junior High and how it drives me crazy eighty percent of the time. But, in the important emotional life cycles of family life, the folks here have it down.

A longo party is the last longo (lap lap in the local language language. Lap Lap is a pudding made from root vegetables baked in an earth oven with coconut cream on top) you have with the bride and the groom respectively at their home nakamal.

The bride will be leaving her village and going to live at her husband's village with her husband's family. In this case, Judy, whose longo party we went to, only lives a twenty five minute walk away to her husband's village; but sometimes, it's really far away and you might not see your daughter for a long time.

Anyways, the whole village and all the bride's friends gather together to tell her goodbye and give her a small present. It's what a bachelor/bachelorette party should be, but somehow is not anymore. The chief and community leaders give speeches and everyone lines up to shake the brides hand and cry with her. These are people that have changed Judy's diapers and watched her go through her awkward phase. These are the children, now grown-ups, who swam naked with her in the ocean and waited to hear if she passed to the next grade on the radio with her. In short, this is most everyone that's loved her with all their hearts and who she loves, too. One by one they line up to shake her hand, hug her, and cry with her for as long as feels right...they are letting Judy go as their relationship with Judy will change after she gets married.

Marriage, of course, is a happy and wonderful thing, but it's also really really sad. At my own wedding, I didn't have a longo party--instead, I found myself crying in a ditch by a turkey processing factory in rural Ohio with my amazing cousin, Michelle. It's not that I didn't want to get married to Lucas (quite the opposite), it's that I was sad to change the relational position in the lives of my friends and family--I was mourning that change. Instead of having an event designated for that mourning where you eat lap lap that's prepared with love, I mourned around turkey feathers and old cigarette butts.
American life makes it difficult to gather all those people in one place and the bachelor/ette party isn't quite the same. I can suggest a "longo" party to my soon to be married friends/family who have a sentimental streak.

January 29

we had bean burritos for lunch. It's a special treat for us. We were extravagant with the onions today as a couple kilos worth of onions just arrived at one of the stores.

I think I've officially started counting the days until I go into Port Vila (15), poor alex has another 6 weeks before she goes. I'm excited for ice cream and lots of meat and air conditioning and internet access.

Somebody mentioned again today that we are leaving soon. Eight months is a while still.

My host father's brother, whom I have never met, lives in Port Vila. He has just released a music CD. It's pacific pop, I'm not sure if that's the appropriate genre name, but that's what Alex and I call it. It's like 80s pop meets reggae meets synthesizer meets CHEESE! Anyways, about ten guys brought the CD over to our house this afternoon, so we could all listen to it on the laptop. It was the first time the artist's family had heard the CD. It was sweet, they were all really excited to hear it.

Eight months

Thursday, January 27th

Dear blog,
It's hot in beautiful Pentecost. We are listening to the BBC on the high-frequecy radio and Alex is pumping iron. Our friends Jess and Michael spent most of the day hanging out with us - looking at pictures, joking around and being too hot.
We still have lice. The Peace Corps nurse sent us special shampoo and a fine-toothed comb a couple weeks ago. We haven't got it yet. We have a friend that lives north of us on Pentecost island near the post office. He has our shampoo and comb. We could walk the 12-hour roundtrip or pay the $50usd for a boat ride. But we haven't. Instead we just scratch our heads, complain about the lice and take turns pulling louse out of each other's hair. Lucas has gotten pretty good finding and destroying eggs in his own hair.
Lucas leaves for Port Vila in about two weeks for a week-long training while Alex will stay on Pentecost for six more weeks until her training and a break in vila. We are saving money to go see the active volcano on Tanna island in the south of Vanuatu. We hope it's worth it as a week being apart will be the longest we've been separated since we married (and Alex thinks about ice on an daily basis).
We haven't been swimming in the ocean because the ocean has been rough for weeks and there's a high chance of these little biting sea bugs. No relief from the heat.
People keep talking about how soon we are leaving, but we have 8 more months. At least one person mentions it everyday. We are going to apply for another season in Antarctica, we'll see what happens. If we get the jobs and accept them, we will return to the states in March of 2012. We plan to move to the Washington D.C. area, find good jobs and pay off our student loans. And have a baby, of course.

Alex & Lucas


It is monday afternoon, a quiet day, it is hot, very hot. Alex and I haven't done much today, it's too hot. We looked at our finances this morning, just to check in and see where we stand, something we try to do at least every month or so.

I have a pretty significant to-do list, it's not really that significant, but significance is relative, eh? It's not that long of a to-do list, but longer than I typically have. I want to work on my list, but I haven't started, not today, it's too hot. The list is mostly computer work, typing out the results of a community survey that a friend and I initiated, organizing a PHAST slideshow for my upcoming in-service training, organizing the blogs I've written and finding some pictures to match, things like that, not really work that you can't do when it's too hot.

They have a word in Bislama - 'les', pronounced like 'lazy' without the 'y'. Lazy would be the literal translation. I could use the word today ' "Mi mi les tumas blong mekem eni samting" - I am lazy too much to make any something. But les doesn't translate exactly to lazy. It doesn't have the negative connotation, it's more about me acknowledging that I'm not up for it right now, that it would be healthy for me to rest.

Mi mi les.


January 23rd

Alex and I just received our first copies of 'Communities' magazine. It's the magazine of the 'Fellowship for Intentional Communities', like hippy communes and such things. It's a fascinating magazine, we can't seem to put it down. It's not like it's that great of a magazine as most of the articles are too long, there isn't a consistent level of quality, and most of the articles are geared towards folks 'living in community', not us. We are not sure if it's because it's the first new reading material in the house in three months or if it is really that interesting, but for whatever reason Alex and I are fascinated by the magazine.

Most of the authors live in community, I think they are used to everyone knowing all their secrets. Most of the articles are surprisingly open. There are lots of sweet articles about the trials and tribulations of navigating human relations and human emotions when your trying to live in close contact with lots of other people. I think it's very human.

One issue had the theme of families. There was a sweet article written by a new mother about life with a new baby in the community, she writes, "My fantasies involved dozens of fat-legged toddlers scampering through acres of basil and butternut squash, wearing clover necklaces, harassing chickens, mimicking goats, and being nurtured by many mother and fathers. That vision was a far cry from...".

The next article was by another mother writing of her sons struggles to create a family tree for a school assignment, she writes, "he's been raised with a healthy mix of strong parental ties and having lots of kids and adults in his life that mattered a lot, but aren't related". The article started off really sweet too but somehow drifted into the mother talking about her multiple partners and 'polyamorous' relationship attempts. Polyamorous means sleeping around.

As we flip through the pages of the magazine, we learn about inter-generational communities that focus on care for the elderly, communities where all of the children sleep in separate quarters, and communities for older adults that are just basically managing their own retirement home. There is a group of neighbors that share chicken-care responsibilities and cook food for each other and wonder if they are 'living in community'.

And then there are articles about polyamorous communities, advertisements for clothing-optional summer camps, and sentences like "The upstepping of the adjudication of the bright and morning star versus lucifer", I don't even know what that means. There are lots of authors with non-traditional names and groups that use the spelling womyn. There is one woman that insists on using the lower-case 'i' in her writing as an expression of her egalitarian values.

Not that I am judging (too harshly), it's just you never know what you are going to get when you flip the page, it's fascinating.

So, we've learned there's lots of different kinds of communities, big and small, most have their own focus or speciality - sustainable communities, 'consensus decision-making', and 'social experiments' seem pretty hip. Agriculture-based and homesteading communities aren't as hip as you might expect. There is co-housing, ecovillages, incoming-sharing communities, 'spiritual commitment required' communities, urban house sharing, egalitarian communities, car-less communities, 'gun owners preferred' communities and so on. Each different from the other and lots of overlapping. I don't really understand it all but it's fascinating.

There is a classified ads section. One section is for 'community openings', one ad reads "rural cohousing community with 11 members and 10 kids on 500 acres. We have four ponds, a creek; wetlands; pastures; bluff & forest lands and 80 acres of land in crops farmed organically. We strive to live lightly on the land. There are seven individual homes; and sites for six more, a common house; two barns and several outbuildings. We have a community center and spring fed swimming pond, a rec field, trails and barns for animals and storage. Decisions about the land and community are made by consensus, all others are individual. If you're interested in small-scale, organic farming or just in living in a rural cohousing community, contact us at...".

instant meals

it's Wednesday night, the moon is bright and ocean waves are crashing. We had one of those just add water instant meals for dinner, as it was late and we were tired and hungry. I spent the evening hours in a local village storying with the men and Alex was here at the house storying with a few of her girlfriends. That's how Ni-vans like it, men at one place and women at another. It's funny and silly and really annoying sometimes, but Alex and I are starting to get used to it, slowly.

January 15

It's 10 am. it's raining. It looks like it will be raining all day. Our friend, just got a new phone. The phone has an mp3 player and 3.9mb memory, which is enough for one short song. He put one song on the other day and came back today to switch it for a new one. We went through our music collection, playing each of the songs that are smaller than 3.9mb. He would listen for a few moments, reject it and we would move onto the next. It took a good 45 minutes to find a song he approved. The song is titled "Fallen Angel", we think it probably comes from the South Pacific pop scene. it is certainly not a song that Alex or I would chose to listen to multiple times throughout the day.

missing google

Today is January 13. It's a quarter after eight in the evening. We have had a quiet day, we stayed inside as we are getting plenty of rains from cyclone Vania.

Alex tells me that cats are immune from human lice. I can't hardly believe this is true. I would google it if I could, but I can't.

Being one year since their big earthquake, there has been lots of talk about Haiti on the high-frequency radio over the last couple days. Have you ever seen the aerial picture of Haiti and Dominican Republic? (if not, you must google it) Haiti is this orange-brown color and the DR is a bright green. A straight line down the middle between the two. I heard today there are something like a thousand aid agencies currently working in Haiti. Surely there are some tree-planting groups there, you think? Again, I would google it, but I can't.

January 12

I checked the cat, he has lice too. Alex carries the cat to bed more often than I do. This stands as further evidence that Alex is to blame for the lice.

January 11

On occasion, there is 'wasem aot' served while drinking kava. The literal translation of 'wasem aot' is 'wash out', it's little bite-sized pieces of food that you can eat immediately after drinking kava to get the kava taste out of your mouth. As kava has an absolute horrid taste, wasem aot is a pretty good idea.

There was wasem aot at the nakamal two nights ago. Two different kinds of wasem aot to chose from. One was aelan kabis (island cabbage), a kale-like leaf that was boiled until it was well over-cooked then served with the water it was boiled in and a little bit of salt, very slimy. The other wasem aot option was these two small pineapples that were super sweet, cut into bite-sized pieces. The pineapple was some of best, sweetest pineapple I have ever tasted and the aelan kabis was, well, gross.

After more than a year at site, Vanuatu continues to surprise, for reasons unknown to me the aelan kabis was finished (and all the water slurped off the plate) before the pineapple was hardly touched.

In other news, Alex and I both have lice. Alex blames me for not washing my hair often enough, but I don't think that's fair. She argues that because I have more lice and don't regularly wash my hair, it is obvious that I got the lice first and subsequently passed them on to her. I point out that I have more lice only because she washes her hair regularly, thus keeping her numbers down. I also point out that she has more friends than I do that share her personal space. And that she hugs others more often than I do.

in the black

it's raining, very heavy, super heavy.

I've been trying to put together a 'starting your own business workshop', it's coming together well. I am hoping to lead the workshop before I go into vila for training next month.

It's the middle of pineapple season, we get fresh pineapples most days. Yesterday's was exceptionally sweet, we made a salsa with it, soaked some black beans and fried up some tortillas. Alex commented that at the beginning of pineapple season we would eat all the pineapples as soon as we received them, only after half a season worth of pineapples can we start using them as an ingredient. Kind of like walking past good mangoes laying on the ground by the end of mango season.

I was creating some accounting tables for the new health dispensary store to keep track of their money and was inspired to see how profitable I have been in my life. If you add up our assets (including retirement funds, canoes, bicycles and book collections) minus our liabilities (student loans) divided by the number of months we have been in the work force, divided by two, we have averaged a profit of about 28 dollars per person per month. Which means we are currently in the black!! (but without a house☹)

Neither of us realized we were in the black until we made our maths today!

January 3

it feels like it's been a while since I blogged. Days slip by quickly.

I would estimate there are probably about 50 stores for 600 people in our district, or about one store for every 12 people, or about one store for every two families.

The health dispensary decided to open a small store as a fundraiser. There are already a million stores in the villages around here, all selling the same things from the same supplier in Luganville. The dispensary store is just like all the other stores, except it's not in a village, thus likely to see less traffic.

It's kind of like building flush toilets in a place with no running water and seasonal water shortages. (Those toilets still have not been used.)

The dispensary spent almost $600usd to stock the store. Imagine how many bed sheets that could buy. A good bit of the stock are things they need to sell quick before the bugs get to it, including 100 kilograms of rice.

(I wrote a blog a long time ago about about how the dispensary doesn't have bed sheets and is building a cement building to house flush toilets. I believe in that blog entry I blamed the folks who financed the toilets. The funding organization is still to blame for agreeing to financially support the flush toilets, but, perhaps, like the store, the folks here really thought it was good idea.)

I did learn one rather interesting thing while helping the store set their prices: The dispensary store (just like all the other stores) paid about 135 vatu per kilogram of rice (including freight costs) , the average cost at the local stores is 230 vatu per kilogram.

December 28

hey everyone,
just a quick note to say hello. all is well, it has been raining for like ever. we have been celebrating christmas by eating good. Our friend made cheese out of powdered milk and vinegar yesterday, pretty exciting.

Any new year's resolutions? I don't think I'll be making any, as I'm feeling lazy.

Merry Christmas everyone!

In north Pentecost we sing out 'Christmas Tavuha' which translates, I believe, to Christmas comes.

We have spent the last few days with two other Peace Corps volunteers from the central part of our island. A married couple just a hair younger than ourselves. They came up here to spend the holiday season with us. We have been preparing fancy meals and storying-on. It's been good.

We spent Christmas day with our Peace Corps friends and my host father's family. They made up a fancy meal with rice and beef and chicken and pineapple and watermelon. We brought a pumpkin pie and a loaf of pumpkin bread to share. We were given baskets and a chief's walking stick. Very sweet.

They just brought the food in, so it's time to eat. love you guys, miss you guys and thinking of you this holiday season.


We just finished a 3-day routine site visit with one of our bosses from Port Vila. It went well, she seemed to enjoy herself, complimented our cooking and as far as I am aware the community didn't complain about us too much. She had to do interviews with our host parents and our counterparts. She said my host father was very enthusiastic and complimentary, which I am sure he was.

Tata Bob (tata is the local language word for papa) has become one of our best friends on the island. We sort of invited ourselves to spend Christmas day with him. We are looking forward to it.

We took a boat to the north of the island with our boss this morning to see her off at the airport, it was nice as we were able to get some flour for Christmas baking and pick up our mail at the airport. We received a package from our friend Bamma, it was postmarked - sent in July. We also received package from Maggie that we have been anxiously awaiting, a sweet package from my mother and lots of wonderful letters. Thanks for keeping us in your thoughts. Things from America gain an extra layer of specialness when you are in the middle of the Pacific ocean (aka the middle of nowhere).

We also received a copy of the Vanuatu Peace Corps volunteer newsletter. We wrote an article about our project for the newsletter. We just got a copy of the newsletter today. Here's a copy of what we wrote:

"PHAST is a water and sanitation workshop that was developed by the World Health Organization and the World Bank/UNDP (field tested by Peace Corps!) as a tool to promote hygiene and sanitation at the village level.

Here's our PHAST story...Arriving at site, our community had made it clear that they would appreciate our attention being given to water supply issues. Our health surveys indicated hygiene and sanitation should be addressed. We did not see much value in education and we both agreed that environmental improvements alone wasn't sustainable. We needed a way to energize our community, to get them excited about water and sanitation. Well, maybe not excited - but at least get them talking about water and sanitation.

Our friend and fellow PCV, Billy, was having a similar experience at his site. He called our community health program APCD Sara for guidance and she suggested investigating PHAST. Billy did the legwork, he met with World Vision, the only folks we are aware of that were currently carrying out PHAST workshops in Vanuatu. Billy familiarized himself with PHAST and introduced it to the community health volunteers during a PST II presentation. We were intrigued by PHAST's participatory methods and wanted to try the workshop in our community.

We had one major problem though, we needed pictures - lots of pictures. The backbone of the PHAST workshop is the pictures, country-specific pictures. The workshop is unique in that there is no reading, writing or 'talking at' the participants. We, as facilitators, simply give the participants piles of pictures and ask them to be sorted in particular ways - use these pictures to create a story about your community, do you consider these hygiene and sanitation practices to be good or bad?, use these pictures to create a story about how this poo gets to this persons mouth, put these sanitation practices in order from worst to best. Things like that. The picture sorting gives the community the opportunity for meaningful dialogue concerning their hygiene and sanitation. World Vision, an NGO working in Vanuatu, had the pictures, but their pictures were not, at that time, available for use by other organizations. We considered stealing the pictures, but that idea was quickly shot down by Sara. We had only one choice - we had to create another set of PHAST pictures. We called fellow PCV and our artist friend Amy and she graciously agreed to meet us in Port Vila a few days early (before an IST) to create a toolkit. We sat down and created about 80 pictures.

We took the pictures back to our communities and tested them during 3 different week-long PHAST workshops. Most of the pictures worked great, but some - like the man openly defecating then digging a hole afterwards to bury his poo and the pig tied to the coconut tree failed miserably. Our communities pointed out to us that in Vanuatu, one digs the hole first, that way you don't have to move the poo into the hole; and one would not typically tie a pig to a coconut tree as that means that someone has to walk through pig poo to collect coconuts.

Throughout the course of these three workshops we fell in love with the PHAST methodology and became a bit evangelical of its merits. We did a PHAST presentation at the PEACE program's in-service training. Several PEACE volunteers expressed interest in the workshop. We decided to go forward with the project. We met with Amy a second time, this time on her island, and 'fixed' about 30 pictures that were not saying what we had intended them to say. With the improved pictures from our preliminary testing, we put together 5 additional PHAST toolkits and sent them out with Peace Corps volunteers to each of the provinces for additional testing.

After the pictures are tested throughout the country and adjusted as necessary, we are hoping to laminate a number of toolkits and make them available to PCVs and anyone else that wants to PHAST."


it's 6:24am on a Tuesday. I am still in bed, Alex has been out of bed for a while. For reasons not understood by myself, Alex is now a morning person, preferring to start her days before 6am. There was a chainsaw going in the distance, but it has ended now that it has started to rain.

I have mentioned before that our friends here are mostly subsistence farmers; there are plenty of stores and it's not uncommon to be served rice and canned meat by our neighbors, but the bulk of everyone's diet is locally grown foods, mostly root crops. Taro and Kava are the only two crops that are grown locally to sell outside of the district. As I have mentioned in a previous blog entry, when we did health surveys it was common for families to report that they had eaten taro for each of their three meals the previous day. Yes, taro for breakfast, taro for lunch and then taro for dinner, most days. Kava is just as heavily consumed, I am not sure how several of our male friends would function without kava. Kava is consumed at most every community gathering and all significant events that take place in our district and most nights as friends gather to hang out. (kava is a narcotic)

The kava and taro don't sell for much, but they always sell. The average farmer here could make about $1000usd a year selling kava and taro to Port Vila, if they wished. This isn't a lot of money, but there aren't many expenses on the island, mostly rice and canned meat when the mood strikes and fundraisers which people are pretty much obligated to participate. There are more, of course. Some folks are very happy with their subsistent life while others wish they could live a more western lifestyle with a fancy house and gadgets and a high-paying job.

Some development groups have suggested that those that wish for more western lives could obtain it with 'high-value cash crops', basically foods and plants that you grow to sell but you would not really grow for eating. Vanilla beans would be a classic example, as would sandalwood trees and black pepper. There's a lot more too, and probably a few that could make a meal. Some big businessman in Port Vila are pushing tamarind now. The cacao tree was pushed at some point. Islanders were told (via the radio) that everyone must plant cacao trees and they would all get rich. There is little market for the average islander for cacao now, all those trees that people invested in and planted are still growing but they are not being harvested.

Cuba was growing a lot of high-value cash crops just before their big crash in the 90's. Among others, they had plantations full of sugarcane. They were growing sugarcane, selling it outside of the country and using the profits to import food to eat. When they lost the ability to export the sugarcane and other high-value cash crops (due to the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of more than 50 percent of Cuba's oil imports and 85 percent of its trade economy), people went hungry and the average Cuban lost 30 pounds. You can't eat most high-value cash crops.

We don't grow many high-value cash crops in our district, you can still find stands of Vanilla beans from the days when the radio told everyone that was the road to richness and some stands of lumber trees that are now being harvested for local use. The radio now says that we can't compete with the Asian islands to our north in vanilla bean production and tamarind is our new road to richness.

What would happen if the radio was right this time? What if our farmers could make a significant profit with plantations full of tamarind? They could grow and export tamarind and import whatever they wanted to eat instead of eating taro for every meal. With the leftover money they could build a cement house and buy gadgets, like television and MP3 players (and water tanks and solar panels). Doesn't sound so bad? Those that were not interested in a more modern life could continue to plant and eat taro everyday.

There are potential issues that we can learn from Cuba (especially with the talk of peak oil), and there is at least one more necessary consideration. As land becomes profitable, it is coveted and thus flows into the hands of those people with the money and/or the power to obtain the land. This has been the case throughout our history. If, through the proper mix of high-value cash crops our farmers were able to make enough profit to afford a more western life, it is likely their land would be bought or taken by people who see land as a financial investment and only look at land production in terms of profitability. Of course, profits from the sale of their land could be used to build cement houses and buy gadgets, water tanks and solar panels. There's a good chance some could find work on the tamarind plantations. With more money in the rural communities, as the argument goes, other businesses would have an opportunity to grow and thrive.

We were at a big Christmas party yesterday, Anglican priests from all over North Pentecost gathered in our district for two days of drinking kava and eating. A huge picnic shelter was built with a giant table. There was a significant spread of food, all kinds of fruits and vegetables and meats and lots of rice. Beef, chicken and pig, every tropical fruit that is in season, root crops, vegetables and lots of watermelon. Do you know what food was most popular? Which food was finished first and was stacked in high piles on most everyone's plate?

Taro, of course.