Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Tale of Custom, Commerce, and Crossing Cultures

Here is a story that, to me, is wonderfully representative of what life in Vanuatu is like, of what can happen because of cross-cultural communication and its limitations.

Ed and Beth moved into a house in Lolowai during my second year as a volunteer and part of their decorations was a large custom mat dyed a beautiful shade of aqua. It reminded me of the water in Vanuatu and I had never seen another one like it. Apparently, the only women on Ambae who use that particular color dye are those in Lovunvili and the villages around it. I decided to find one of the mamas and ask her to weave 3 small mats for me, dyed that gorgeous aqua color, as mementos. It took several phone calls to find her phone number but eventually Mrs. Rosaline agreed to weave me three small mats, dyed blue, for 3000 VT (about $30).

Approximately one week later, she called me to say that she didn't have enough of the blue dye to do all three mats. Fortuitously, I was in Santo where I could buy another small container of dye for her to use to finish the job. I told her I would buy the dye and deliver it to her when I got back.

The day after I returned to Saratamata, Mrs. Rosaline appears in the office carrying a bundle of mats. They are purple, red, and dark teal. We share some small chit chat and then she hands me the mats. I open them up to admire them, hoping that they are just exhibits to show me what my mats will eventually look like, and that she has really come to pick up the dye. But no, the purple, red, and teal mats are for me, the ones I ordered. She did not wait for the additional blue dye but went ahead and used other colors. This was not what I wanted. These mats will not match my other house decorations.

We unroll the mats and Mrs. Rosaline, one of the few women who still know the custom stories that go along with the custom crafts, proceeds to explain the designs on the mats--designs she chose especially for me. The squared off spirals represent the moon, a feminine symbol, and its light. Its light is gentle, giving light through the darkness so that people are not afraid in the night. (It gets better.) She chose the symbol of orchids as another pattern for the mat, also a symbol unique to women's mats. The orchids represent how women move to new places. Like the orchid that appears unexpectedly in the branch of the trees, women join their husbands in his village, and surprise everyone because no one saw how they arrived or where they came from. She said that I was like an orchid that appeared on Ambae and now I was going back to my home. And the pattern of weaving at the ends of the mat represents two people coming together, traditionally a man and woman, but in this case it shows the two cultures of America and Vanuatu coming together. The smaller holes are footprints that show the customs or the "fashion" of each culture and are how people follow behind in our "fashion."

I was crying by the end. This beautiful, wise-in-custom woman presents me with three mats-- three mats that I am paying for and that are not what I wanted--and tells me the cultural stories behind the symbols and the sentiment she put into them . . . . and what can I do. I cry a little, I say thank you over and over, and I pay for them.

Shortly after she leaves, two of my colleagues in the office sit down with me. They ask to hear the custom stories Mrs. Rosaline told me because they don't know what the symbols mean. That knowledge is being lost. We storian for a little while and they too share some custom stories with me. Michael tells me that when he was growing up (he's probably in his 40s now), all of the custom mats were red. The color came from a particular vine that had to be dried and boiled and skinned and processed ad nauseum before it could be used. Now, the mamas are able to buy different color dyes at the stores so the red is usually store bought. Purple is the next most popular color for custom mats on Ambae. The blue ones are unique to south Ambae and they are using blue mats for their custom ceremonies and for custom dances. Krenny told me that the ends of my three mats should be yellow to be truly traditional and more beautiful. (Thank goodness Mrs. Rosaline did not feel that was necessary. I like the natural color.) The yellow color comes from a root that is a cousin of ginger and is bright orange when you break it open or grate it.

Then Michael told me the custom story that helps explain why custom mats are such an important part of Ambae's traditions. The volcano on Ambae, Manaro, is depicted as a god in most custom stories. In this story, a man falls in love with Manaro's daughter. She agrees to marry him so the volcano gives her to the man. At the same time he gives her three seeds--a natangura seed, a seed for a smaller palm that has wide round leaves, and a pandanus seed. The natangura seed is for the palm tree whose leaves they use to weave the custom roofs. This seed would provide them with shelter and safety. The second palm seed is called an "umbrella plant" here because of the size and shape of the leaves. When the sun is strong, we can hide under the leaves, and when the rain is raining, we can hide under them (translated from the Bislama). Finally, the pandanus seed would provide them with the materials they needed to weave custom mats for sleeping, for births, for deaths, for marriages, for chiefly ceremonies, for gifts. Today, a bride's uncles and aunts still present her with these three seeds after her marriage. Pretty cool, huh?

At the end of the day, I ended up with some amazing custom stories, great storian time with my co-workers, and three beautiful customs mats that will not match with my American decor. All for $30. Money well spent when you look at it the right way.

Tomorrow, if I can get the necessary pictures to download correctly, I will post another mat story of similar beauty and tragedy. Tomorrow's will be funny as well. At least that's how I'm choosing to look at it. :)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Luganville, one last time

I am in Luganville, Santo, for the last time. Ostensibly, the purpose is a kindy conference. You may remember a similar post coming from Luganville about a year ago when I was waiting to find out where I was staying and when I was going to do my presentation. This is the same conference, and it is proving to be just as unorganized. However, it proved to be a great opportunity to take a last trip and get away from Ambae for just a little while.

The first part of my trip to Santo was spent with Karen, Mariann, and her husband Vic in Port Olry (close to Champagne Beach if you want to look it up on the internet). It rained the whole drive up there and the whole afternoon and night but it was great. The beach was still beautiful and I ended up sleeping most of the afternoon and about 10 hours again that night. Apparenlty, getting ready to leave Ambae has been more exhausting than I realized. The sun shone long enough for me to get a sunburn, we ate dinner at a restaurant that cooked island food with a Western twist, read books, walked along the beach, swam at Champagne and just had a restful weekend.

My presentations (two) are supposed to happen today and my time has been cut about in half. I'm not entirely sorry. And I'm hoping that the participants today will understand the purpose of Vision/Mission statements more quickly than my earlier workshop attendees. These guys are the coordinators for the 6 provinces in Vanuatu so they're more familiar with abstract concepts than the kindy teachers who are mostly untrained. For the local teachers, writing Vision and Mission statements proved to be a considerable challenge.

Once the workshop is finished, all that remains is to visit with my family who are here. My sister-in-law and niece, Clarissa, are both here. Monique is waiting to start work at a new Tusker beer factory opening in Luganville. She and my brother need money to finish their house and to pay the bride price, which has gone up now because they have a child. She has been here a couple of weeks but the factory still isn't open. My brother Demie came last week to start a job at a resort. He just finished the first of a two year course in hospitality and tourism at the local technical school. The teachers had set up practical job experience for them once the course was finished but Demie figured why wait. He asked about working and gaining some experience during the summer spel (now) so he was placed at a restaurant/bar/hotel here in Luganville. I haven't seen him yet to get the update but I was proud of him for pursuing the opportunity. And my oldest sister, Jenny, lives here with her husband and two children. We only just met a few months ago when she came to Ambae for a visit, but I'm looking forward to seeing her again.

The week before my Santo trip, I had several visitors who added considerably to the stress of that week. The new trainees arrived in September and have been in training on Efate until last week. There was a mass exodus of trainees from their training villages to the outer islands to get a look at what someplace else in Vanuatu is like. There were rumors that Peace Corps sent trainees to the sites that PC had in mind as their permanent placement, but it's just rumor at this point. Neill seemed to like Saratamata and East Ambae but it was quite tiring to be the tour guide for 4 days. When other volunteers visit, there's no pressure to be "up." They usually just want to hide in the house, buy things at the store that they can't get in their village, and watch movies. Trainees need to be shown the ropes, introduced to everyone you pass, acquainted with the work you are doing, had hoped to do, or would have done if you'd had more time. And they have questions, lots and lots of questions. Thankfully, Sheridan and Justin arrived right in the middle of Neill's visit on their way out of Vanuatu for good and they helped with answering Neill's questions. I think it was probably a great chance for Neill too since Sheridan and Justin live in a very different place than me and have had a much different experience. So Neill got the benefit of a town-girl and country-couple stories.

I also got to see Sandy from Maewo for a few minutes before she, Sheridan and Justin got on the plane to Vila. However, Sandy's Maewo host family was not content to say good-bye to her on the sandbeach by their village like Sheridan and Justin's families. Seven of Sandy's family members came to Ambae to put her on the plane. It was heart wrenching to see them say good-bye to her. Sheridan said it feels like you are dying; that the village and your family mourn you as if you're dead. I saw evidence of that with Sandy's family and it gave me an indication of what my own good-byes are going to feel like.

My last two weeks on Ambae will be spent at my host family's house. I was/am not looking forward to the long drop toilet again and swimming (i.e. bathing) in the saltwater, but it felt important to be back for a while. I will have come full circle, in a sense. And because it is difficult to visit with my family during the work week but stay in my house in Saratamata, staying with them in Vatumamea will give us lots of time for visiting in the evenings. I still plan to go to the office each day and have lunch at my house. This way I can finish packing and tidy up at the office and not have TOO much downtime in Vatumamea--those first months of idleness and crossword puzzles are still too raw a memory for me to want to that again. But we'll have the evenings and weekends for going to the garden and storian. I think it will also help me feel that this is really ending.

I've been working on a couple of lists. As I keep going back and forth from ready to go to wishing I could stay a little longer, excited to go home and sorry to leave, irritated by some part of life here but worried about readjusting to being home, I decided to write some of it down. So I ended up with a couple of lists that help to summarize some of the back and forths of this transition time. The headings are self-explanatory.

Things I won’t have to do anymore:
--wash all of my laundry by hand
--burn my trash
--tie a lavalava over my knee-length shorts so I’m “clothed” enough to go to the store
--use a toothbrush to scrub the dirt off of my feet
--check each morning to see if the water is running
--try to sleep through the chickens crowing and clucking at 3:30 in the morning
--use basins and colanders and tins to hide every possible item that might be of interest to rats
--go without eggs or meat or telephone credit because the ship hasn’t come in a while
--go without vegetables because the mamas didn’t come to the market house this week
--sweep the ceilings for cobwebs every time I sweep the floor for dirt
--lay awake most of the night because it’s too hot to sleep
--listen with a smile as ladies tell me I’ve gotten “fatfat” (not an insult here in Vanuatu, just statement
of fact)

Things I won’t be able to do anymore:
--go to work without looking in the mirror
--be “well dressed” if what I’m wearing is clean
--live 2 minutes’ walk from the ocean or hear it as part of the background all night
--eat mangos and pineapples straight from the tree or plant
--smile and say “good morning” to everyone I see
--choose to take an afternoon off from work and spend it reading a book or taking a nap
--get enough sleep so I can go through my days without yawning and without getting sick
--spend $20 and eat for a whole week
--be accepted and welcomed by people simply because I took the time to chat, because I tried
something new, because I participated in an activity
--feel like a good hostess just because I have an extra mattress and towel for a guest
--change my plane ticket the day before my flight without paying any fees or penalties
--get my take-away food in an environmentally friendly, totally biodegradable leaf

Things I’ve learned how to do or learned how to do better:
--do without
--enjoy the little things—rainbows over Maewo, an unexpected chat with a friend, macaroni and
cheese, cucumbers at the market, a rare breeze
--be idle . . . truly idle
--walk on muddy roads without flipping too much dirt up onto my skirt
--walk on bush roads without tripping over every root or stone
--approach babies and small children who are not used to white faces without making them cry
--stand up, kneel down, and sit at the correct times in an Anglican church service
--make laplap and roll island cabbage leaves to make simboro

If time allows, there will be one more post from Vanuatu within the next few weeks. And then it's off to SE Asia. Miss you all and SEE YOU SOON!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Home Stretch

My time on Ambae is drawing to a close and my emotions are . . . all-about. Within five minutes, my attitude can change from “If there was a plane leaving now and I could get on it, I would. In a second.” to “How can I be leaving already? How am I going to say good-bye?” It’s exhausting. I could maybe describe the experience as bi-polar . . . . . dichotic? . . . . intense in its opposing natures?

The experience has been long at times and short at others. It has been incredibly frustrating and extremely rewarding, sometimes at the exact same moment. Two years of boredom have also been two years of new experiences. It’s hard to reconcile all of that in one sitting. As soon as I commit one comment to writing, an opposing or qualifying statement has to be added. There are things I will miss and things I will be glad to escape. I am looking forward to being back at home, close to family and friends again, but I know there will lows in the months before a new job or grad school begins. My thoughts go around and around. I’m sad to be leaving, and I’m grateful that I do feel sad because there was a long while when it was just hard to be here. It’s going to be hard to say good-bye but I am so looking forward to saying hello again to people at home. This has just been a very complete, multi-faceted experience. And the more I think about it, the more I think that, as personal therapy perhaps, I’ll be continuing the blog for a while. There are so many things, little things, that have happened that were pushed aside by bigger events for the blog that I’d like to do some reflecting and remember even after I’m back. The nice thing about a blog is that, once it’s out there, it’s in your hands whether you want to continue with me. No pressure.

Here’s a little glimpse of life that normally wouldn’t make it into my blog. There is a cement water tank attached to the corner of my house. It is quite large, especially for one person, so lots of people in my community make use of the water. We use it for cooking and drinking, some of the men use it for cleaning and preparing kava, if the running water is turned off we use the tank water for washing too. But these last few months have been the dry season, and the water level in my tank has been dropping lower and lower. The water trickles instead of pours into the waiting kettle, bucket, or jug. I hear people come to the tank at night—to avoid detection or because they just thought about it, I don’t know—but they are filling buckets, big ones. And I fret. However, my tank continues to provide. At night, a small rain will fall and it is just enough to provide water for that day. It makes me think of the Bible story--Elijah, or was it Elisha, and the widow with her never ending oil and flour. I remind myself that there are other water tanks in Saratamata, but word goes out that they are emptying too and that is why more people are coming to my tank. But the last two days have been rainy, very rainy, and in 48 hours my tank is full to overflowing and the worry recedes. Cabbage leaves stand up again and the lone pineapple in my garden has had a growth spurt. Just like that. It's beautiful.

Here are my plans for leaving Ambae and Vanuatu, just so you know.
Last day on Ambae—November 12
Last day in Vanuatu—November 20
Traveling in Thailand, Cambodia, Taiwan until December 12
Arriving home--December 13

There is a lot to do before leaving so I haven’t had much time to enjoy all the possibilities of going to SE Asia, but I’m working on the to-do list. There are reports to write, grad school essays to complete, last kakaes (good-bye dinners) to schedule, and a house to pack. Most of my belongings will be given away or sold so I’ve been making piles all over my house—things to give to people, things to sell, things to mail home fast road (expensive but safer), things to mail home slow road (3-4 months but cheaper), things to carry with me on my travels, things to burn. Not much can be done with them until closer to the end but I feel like I’m making progress. It pleases me to see how little I will be bringing home. I've returned to the days when I could fit all of my belongings into my car. . . . until I get home and take a look into the storage container.

That’s the update from Saratamata, East Ambae, Vanuatu. Five weeks to go, counting down.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A week of city livin'

After 9 days of Brisbane's version of city living, I'm back in Port Vila, a city of sorts. In Vila's defense, they do have plenty of buses, though not on any kind of schedule since you just tell the driver where you want to go when you get on and he takes you there . . . . eventually. There are also lots of restaurants for a city this size, probably because of its development as a tourist destination. I can't get everything I want in the grocery stores but it's still a lot more varied than Ambae. All in all, not a bad place to be for a couple of extra days.

Jeannette and I had a great time in Brisbane. I am hoping that she is recovering from the jet lag gracefully. My new travel strategy involves staying for several days in one place, taking day trips if necessary, before moving to another "home base" for several more days. Brisbane proved to be a great city for this kind of travel--we spent several days exploring what the city proper had to offer and several more taking trips to nearby attractions but we didn't have to pack up and move every day or two. It's a much more relaxing way to see a country than the "5 cities in as 5 days" type of trip.

The pictures below are of some of the more interesting things we did. If I'd given in to my impulses, most of my pictures would have been of fast food restaurants, paved sidewalks, trains and buses, grocery stores that were selling DELICIOUS strawberries and cherries, movie theaters (I recommend the new Karate Kid--it's a good approach to a remake), and other modern conveniences. Each day, after our stop for coffee and chai, Jeannette would say, "What should we do now?" My response was genuinely unhelpful since, having had a hot shower and holding a chai latte in my hand, I was content. Anything after that was a bonus for me. It turns out that this is not unique to my experience. When I got back to Vila, I ran into another volunteer who had also been in Brisbane and he experienced the same thing. One of his first comments to me was, "Wasn't it so nice to be in a CITY?" I couldn't agree more.

Brisbane makes great use of the river that flows through the city. They built a botanical garden and pedestrian walkway on one side of the river, several pedestrian-friendly bridges to get across, and a lovely park on the other side, complete with bougainvillea covered walkways, lots of restaurants, and a man-made beach. Jeannette and I spent a lot of our unscheduled, left over type time there.

One of our days was spent at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary where we opted to have our pictures taken for free close to the koalas rather than pay $16 additional dollars to have it taken with koala in hand.

I have to admit they're pretty cute. Smelly but cute. If you look carefully at the picture of the lone koala, you'll see she isn't actually "lone." There is a baby koala hanging onto her stomach. Look for the browner shade of gray.

They also had Tasmanian devils at the sanctuary. After watching them run around for a few minutes we were both convinced that Tasmanian devils served as the inspiration for the R.O.U.S.es in The Princess Bride. Now you can believe they exist, in miniature.

The day we toured the river bank brought us to the Maritime Museum. The displays were low budget like most maritime museums but interesting nonetheless and the highlight was the two ships we were able to tour. One was a replica of a wooden sailing ship from the 1800s and the other a decommissioned WWII submarine destroyer.

Jeannette and I didn't know anything about military ships beyond what we've seen in movies so we were happily speculating on what different spaces were for and what it would have been like to live on a ship like that when a docent, probably fed up by our naivete and silly observations, offered to give us an unofficial tour of the dry dock area. Hard hats required. Of course we accepted and got to go down into the dry dock area to get a close look at how it worked and at the undersides of the ship. Very cool.

We also toured parts of Tambourine National Park which is home to a sub-tropical rain forest. The vegetation was interesting--a mix of palms and eucalyptus and strangler figs--but the signs were better. Sign spotting actually became a mini-theme for the trip since Australians aren't shy about designing pictures that tell you exactly what they want you to know.

Wish I could tell you which mountain that is but I can't. We're standing on Mt. Tambourine and Brisbane is just off the picture to the right in the far distance.

One of our field trips was to Surfers' Paradise Beach on the Gold Coast. It was a little cloudy that day but not unpleasant enough to cause any good sized waves. As a result, we weren't able to watch any "real" surfers but we had a good time watching the surf schools that were going on.

Chinatown in Brisbane is one block of Chinese restaurants and stores so not much of a destination. But I found dried corazol (sour sop) in one of the stores and that was exciting. It's a common fruit here in Vanuatu and I think also in parts of the Caribbean but it isn't easy to find. The tree are kind of picky about pollination and then people don't sell them at the markets because they're just every day food. No one is going to pay money for a sour sop . . . . except me.

This was our other beach day, to the north of Brisbane instead of the south. We went to the Sunshine Coast on a day with very little sunshine. We arrived in the rain and left in the rain but had a small window of sun peeking through the clouds during the afternoon.

The beaches we visited were very deep and had very fine sand. The water was way too cold for me though it didn't discourage many other people. I got my feet wet and that was enough.

On the Tambourine/rain forest day, we went to a relatively new attraction. This sky walk bridge had been built in order to give people a walk through a rain forest canopy. At this point, the canopy hadn't reached the height of the catwalk but it was still pretty interesting. In another 10 or 15 years, it will be a fascinating place to go.

This is the north bank of the Brisbane River as we followed the river walk back toward our hostel. Brisbane is a great city for walking, biking, roller blading, etc. because of all of the footpaths they've created. We had to be careful to stay on the LEFT because of the bikes and skaters coming through. Not easy when our natural inclination was to stick to the RIGHT side of the sidewalk.

And this was the ultimate proof that we were in a developed country -- Krispy Kreme donuts available, hot and now.

I didn't intend to put two pictures of myself in a row but it gives me a chance to explain the unvarying outfits. When I packed for the trip, I packed everything suitable that I had available--3 pairs of pants, 5 shirts, one fleece and one windbreaker. Also socks, though I forgot the requisite tennis shoes. Plus the weather, in my version of reality, required some sort of covering for the better part of each day. As a result it looks like we took all of these pictures in one day, but no. Different days, same wardrobe.

The last picture here is of a banyan / nabanga tree. We have these in Florida and Vanuatu as well. On Tanna, the people have learned how to sculpt the roots that are growing down into benches, frames for houses, and frames for tables. This one was growing along the Brisbane River.
And that is some of our trip. Many thanks to Jeannette for (1) coming at all, and (2) for providing all of these pictures. I forgot the wire to connect my memory card to the computer so I used Jeannette's photos from my flash drive.

South Bank Brisbane--they had a purple theme going in the city.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

En route to Australia

I'm in Vila-town for about 18 hours before heading to Australia to meet Jeannette. I'm looking forward to seeing her, catching up on the news from home, taking hot showers, and having more than one choice at the restaurants. Life's simple pleasures. I'm coming to believe that the real mark of modernity is having choices.

Anyway, here are some new photos from the last few months in Vanuatu.

From left to right is Ed who lives in Lolowai, Sheridan and then Justin, a married couple who live on Maewo, the next island over. Sheridan and Justin had come to Ambae before our last conference and we all went to Ed and Beth's house for Cincinnati Chili.

Take a close look at the table settings. We were scrounging for enough dishes for the five of us so Ed and Sheridan ended up with coffee mugs full of chili and Beth is using a little tin bowl that held about a 1/2 cup. Ed and Beth are currently living in what is known as the "doctor's house" because it's where the temporary, visiting doctors stay when they come to serve at the hospital. It's quite a grand house by Vanuatu standards but we were still hard pressed to serve 5 people with the dishes in the cupboards.

My biggest project the last 2 months has been organizing reading groups with the class 1 teacher at Ambaebulu. We spent 1 week just teaching the kids some classroom management stuff, the activities they would be doing at each station, and a bit of self-management. It was quite an adventure for me since my only experience with kids under 12 was a very painful afternoon substituting in second grade.

The reading groups ran a second week before I left the teacher to run them solo. Since then, it has been busy at school and we haven't been able to set a certain day for an observation but I'm confident the teacher will use the groups. Though I don't feel like I gave him the best example, he seemed to see the potential of working with the kids in small groups.

I took the pictures of the kids one day when I accidentally ended up substituting while the teacher went to a "short" meeting. I ran out of activities after about 40 minutes and the kids ran wild for the next 20. The pictures were a temporary reprieve.

Above are Clemson and Lloyd. The girls here are Ester and Chelma.

I don't know why this picture downloaded on its side, but the point of the picture is still clear. Rats can do a lot of damage in a very small period of time. Fortunately, they didn't get to the peanut butter but they made enough holes for the ants to have easy access.

Recent home improvement projects have included cleaning out my rain water tank after a rat crawled in and drowned. I needed a chair to get on top of the tank and then had to lower the chair inside the tank so I could get in to scoop out all of the water. Not a hard job but something interesting to put on my resume. These pictures show the other project. The papaya tree was growing too close to the house, (I think it was one way the rats were getting into the water tank and up into the roof) so I decided to cut it down.

I was a little concerned that I wouldn't be able to do it--it was a pretty good sized tree--but papaya wood is soft and the tree came down in short order. I am also proud to say that my aim proved true most of the time and I didn't have to hack too many times to get the job done. It saved me from some embarassment too because there was quite an audience that afternoon. There were soccer games going on on the field behind my house and all of the players and spectators were either passing by or camped out on the grass nearby.

This is another sister of mine here in Vanuatu. She recently made a trip to Ambae to visit so I met her and her two children. Her name is Jenny. She's the oldest in my family but still younger than me.

And the other family photo is of my brother Bradford and his friend Jemima. Jemima came from Maewo to live with Brady in March. Brady "blocked" Jemima, meaning he brought some gifts to her family and declared her officially off-limits to other men, in September last year. In our terms, you would say they are engaged. The wedding won't take place for a while, maybe for years, while both families work to stock pile the gifts they need for the exchange.

This last group of pictures is from the Culture and Custom Show at Ambaebulu Primary School. My assigned post was in the food stall selling rice and soup so I didn't get to see much of the show but I sneaked out for one of the school performances.
The costumes are traditional style but with a mix of materials--traditional and modern.

That's it for now. I should have a chance to post some pictures of Brisbane when I get back from Australia since I'm planning to stay in Vila for a few days before going back to Ambae.
Miss you all. Four months and counting!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Recent Events Complete with Visuals

Our last training as Peace Corps volunteers occurred last week and was surprisingly good. I think we were all wondering what kind of training could possibly be helpful at this point in our service but our program director did a great job finding speakers and topics that were interesting if not immediately useful. We heard from several departments within the Ministry of Education that are working on some serious reform here in Vanuatu, UNICEF did a presentation about an initiative that they started in one province a few years ago and are now introducing in 2 new provinces, mine included. There were also several sessions that gave us a chance to share some of our experiences, good and bad :), and to brainstorm some solutions for other people's challenges.

Since then, I've been running errands and scheduling meetings and eating ice cream and generally keeping busy in Vila. I will be here until Sunday and then head back to site. This visit/meeting has been the first time in over a year that I have seen some of the other members of my group and it has been really great to sit around at the hotel with them and hear how they are doing.

Knowing I would have some internet time while here, I brought some pictures with me to bring everyone up to date on what I've been up to on Ambae for the past 4+ months. It was a long time to be at site and I was ready to be in Vila for a while but there have been some fun and interesting events along the way.

These pictures are taken at Hideaway Island, a small island off the coast of Efate. I spent a weekend here with the ladies in the next picture as an early birthday celebration. It was gorgeous and the first time in a long time that I had my bathing suit on. It was a little frightening to reveal parts of me that haven't seen the sun in a year and half-- "Turn a whiter shade of pale" kept running through my mind--but so relaxing to stretch out in the chairs on that beautiful white coral beach. Two of the ladies in the picture are volunteers from my group and the other two are volunteers from New Zealand.

A couple of National Geographic photographer attempts here. The tide went out every day close to noon and left all kinds of interesting and colorful creatures temporarily stranded on the coral.

We spent most of our day here, reading and snacking and napping. Beautiful.

One week in March, I helped to run a workshop for 12 kindergarten teachers from our province. These ladies and gentleman run their own pre-schools but
also supervise several others so we were teaching things that
they are responsible for passing along to the teachers in their
The picture to the right is the runway on West Ambae.
The planes come in from the ocean, soar right over some very large rocks along the coast, and then have to stop before crashing into the bush at the other end of the runway.
It's a very exciting landing for the passengers, no matter how calm the weather and/or pilots.

This is the pre-school building where we did our workshop.
All of the participants sat on mats on the floor, for 5 days and evenings of sessions. The pre-school itself has about 30 students when they all come.

The set of pictures below are from a trip I took
to North Ambae to help with a water/sanitation workshop being led by Blake, a volunteer who is based quite far north. Blake, Beth (a health volunteer from the new group) and I did a week long workshop on good sanitation practices and how to keep water supplies safe. In the afternoons, the community members worked on building two new small houses that are better in terms of sanitation.

This picture came after a trip to a nearby primary school. The teachers there found out I was coming and asked me to come do a phonics refresher so I followed these kids down to their school. It was a 45 minute (with me along) trip, it had rained the night before, and it was down down down the whole time. I was in a bent-knee skier crouch for 45 minutes straight and my legs were jello by the time we got down. I could always tell when a particularly slippery spot was coming up because the kids who were out in front, skipping easily along, would stop and wait for me. My slipping and falling was always a crowd pleaser. By the time we had walked back up again, I was covered in mud and the kids looked like they'd just stepped out of the shower.

This is one of the classrooms. A lot of the kids didn't come down this particular day because of the rain the night before and the bad weather that was expected. They all have a climb either coming or going and the day I visited, they were all dismissed early because of the potential bad weather (which never materialized).

My faithful guides on the trail back to the village. They were very patient with me, even pulling me up some particular slippery spots and always watching for the easiest path. Normally, they are running and singing and playing the whole climb back.

At the health workshop, my primary job was to do an afternoon session with the kids. Beth had some really great ideas for health activities to do with the kids and it was a lot of fun. In the picture below, the kids are drawing their favorite foods on some paper plates. Afterward, Beth came by with a little paper fly she'd made; it had cotton ball feet she had dipped in "sitsit" that looked an awful lot like red food coloring. The fly then landed on all their favorite foods, depositing its load of germs.

This is the site for one of the new small houses. They were VIP toilets, which means Ventilation Improved Pit toilets. The idea is to keep them dark so the flies enter a pipe to escape. There is a net on the top of the pipe that traps the flies and prevents them from carrying germs out of the small house and onto people.

I included the picture mostly because of the green.

One of the finished small houses, complete with hand washing dishes and reminders about how and when to wash your hands.

And these are some of the kids from the village. They loved looking at the picture afterwards and identifying all of the faces.

This is Beth, the volunteer who lives in Lolowai with her husband, Ed. The two of them moved to Ambae in November last year, and to Lolowai in January or so. It was been so nice to have volunteers so close; their house is about a 30 minute walk from me. I've really enjoyed getting to know them--they're a fun couple.

One weekend, Blake and I walked to Ambanga, a village a little north of me, to do a site visit in preparation for a possible volunteer site. It took us about 3 hours to walk there (with a short truck ride in the middle) and about 4 and a half to get back because we missed a turning somewhere. My host family thought that was pretty funny since the road we missed was a truck road, rather than a bush trail.

We stayed one night and walked back the following morning. My host was Emina who runs a guest house for people who want to climb Manaro. She walked with us the first hour to show us a shorter road down from Ambanga. Just after we left Ambanga, it started to rain and the girls were using custom umbrellas (taro leaves) to shelter from the rain.

Just setting out on the road back to Saratamata.

My host family and I have been experimenting
a little lately. This picture is of my host brother,
Wilson, and a cousin brother, Stephie, preparing
a banana cake in an outdoor kitchen.

And below is my brother Lonnie with his friend Monique.
Monique had tried pizza before and wanted to see if we could
make it on Ambae. It was delicious in spite of yeast that didn't rise and no cheese.

Several volunteers came to Ambae in April to climb Manaro before going to Maewo to do a workshop. I went along since I haven't climbed Ambae's volcano yet. The village where our road began has been working hard to prepare a good path for tourists to follow and to bring some interest from Vila tours. We were not expecting anything more than a guide or two but they village really gave us a red carpet welcome.

The men and women did custom dances
and they had prepared a sampling of food for us when we returned from the climb. None of us
needed to sample laplap since we're all very familiar with laplap of all flavors. But they are definitely prepared for visitors, as long as you don't take their "Close up nao" comments too seriously.

This is the new cone forming in the acidic lake on top of Manaro. There are three lakes, one cold one that is either spring fed or all rain water. That is the lake we reached during our climb. The lake with the new cone is just beyond the fresh water lake and is too acidic for swimming. We could just see the steam from our position.
The third lake isn't visible from here.

This was the climax of our 4 hour climb--not for unfit people or those just getting over a stomach virus (like I was). Billy in the middle lives on North Ambae, about a 7 hour walk from my site, and Bob on the right lived on Tanna, though his contract has finished now.

Part of the road we followed to get on top.

Two of the lakes with the steam from the cone in the back.

And one more aerial view of the cone. An obliging pilot flew over it when I was headed for that grass airport on West Ambae.
That's all for now. I hope everyone is well. I'll be in Vila for the next few days and should be able to access email if anyone has something to say. :)