Friday, March 27, 2009

Feast or Famine

You wait three months for an update and then two appear within two weeks. Sorry for the irregularity, but I've got to take advantage of the technology I can get. I'm in Vila for about 10 days and wanted to take the opportunity to post some pictures of my site.

So here's the grand tour of my new life in Saratamata. These are pictures of my new house--cement walls and floors, 4 rooms with an indoor shower and toilet, screens in the windows, and furniture. It doesn't get much better than this. The small square thing to the right of the house is my rainwater storage tank. That's where I get my drinking/cooking water.

The indoor picture is of my dining room and kitchen. There are lots of windows and lots of light. The only thing not pictured is the mouse that has built a nest in the small wall with the window and the ants that are EVERYWHERE!
This is my favorite restaurant in Saratamata. No black bean burritos, but they do usually offer a choice between two meals--chicken wings in a sauce or minced beef in a sauce or an omelet on top of sauce, always served with rice and some island food like lap lap or boiled taro.
Underneath is a picture of my walk to school. It takes about 20 minutes to reach the local school and this is what the trip looks like. The only difference is that some parts are shady because different kinds of trees have grown up and over the path. About 20 kids walk this each day to go to school.

Our New Year's Day celebration included a trip to the garden antap to escape the heat and flies. Two of my host brothers are facing the camera, the other boy is a cousin of sorts, and the woman in front is my brother's fiance. They are beating roasted breadfruit with sticks dipped in coconut milk. A great treat here, though I will admit that I prefer the breadfruit just roasted. Yum.

To the left is the nakamal (or gathering place) that my extended family built in the middle of their village. We had Christmas dinner here and it was quite a large group of people. Almost all of the decorations were plants and flowers that they had cut and tied to the posts and beams, supplemented by a few balloons. It was very festive. My boss (and aunt-by-marriage) is on the right.

Here's a picture of my strait (immediate) host family with a few cousins thrown in for good measure. My host papa is on the left, then a cousin, then my host mama behind and my sister in front. A cousin (attending the Anglican seminary on the island) behind and two more brothers on the end.
And below is a picture of their house. Very flas. They too have screens and cement floors and walls and a generator which they use for watching movies and music videos.
Something that I find really cool is that their land is covered with fruit and nut trees. They grow almost everything they eat and a lot of it is right around the house.
A new house is going up to the left of the family
house--a custom house for one of my brothers.
They were working on the inside walls when I left and still need to harvest the bamboo for the
outside walls but the roof and floor were finished.

And introducing Mai. This was taken either at the end of January or the beginning of February. She has at least doubled in size. I can still lift her but she doesn't fit in my lap anymore.
She survived the flight to Vila though she did escape her cardboard box during one leg of the journey. She gave the cargo guy quite a shock.
She has been to the vet this week and is now de-ticked, de-fleaed, de -wormed, and de-feminized. It's a whole new world. I picked her up yesterday night so she could spend the weekend with me and she has been quite a hit with the other volunteers in my group. Everyone tells me how sweet she is and I have to admit that I agree.

In Saratamata, I attend an Anglican church.
Originally, my host family and I attended a small church in their village but the roof is a mess and now we all go to the seminary. It's a short walk, church begins at 7:00 am, and it's usually quite full because all of the seminary students are in attendance. The service is in Bislama because the students come from all over Vanuatu and the singing is incredible. I think one of the first classes the novices attend is the choral element of the service because they sing in 3 or 4 parts. Lovely.

Just below is a picture of the harbor. This is about a 30 minute walk from my house but I don't usually get the view because that requires a 30 minute walk UP rather than AROUND.

These two pictures are of my host family's garden antap and then of my fledgling garden behind the house. Just for contrast. The plants you see along the "path" are manioc plants and they're about shoulder high.

My plants are island cabbage, newly planted. I meant to take another picture right before I left because the view has changed a little. It is a now a large verdant cluster of bushes just waiting to be harvested. And my tomato and pepper plants are ready to go into the ground too. Very exciting.

And that's the tour. I hope you enjoyed your visit. Come back anytime; we're always open.

My plan is to write another update and send it home. That will take about 3 weeks so there should be a new update at the end of April. My parents and I are trying to work out a system so that the updates are a little more evenly spaced.
Thanks to all of you for keeping in touch. I always enjoy your letters and hearing the news from home.
Miss you!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

UPDATE - written 27 ab 2009, posted 3.12.09

Hello, everyone! I'm sorry it has been so long since my last update. Technically speaking, it should have been another month before I was able to post anything new, but my parents have offered to type in a more regular update as long as I'm willing to write it and mail it home. So hopefully we'll get into a monthly-ish pattern. I do have access to a computer here but it's most useful for saving pictures, playing computer games and music, and watching movies. Internet access is . . . . limited. Right now the landline phones are down again - I think out of 7 weeks that I've lived in Saratamata, we've had phones for about 10 days. When we do have phone lines, the access is dial up and anyway the office stresses "official work" on the internet rather than personal use so I'm dependent on regular mail for communication these days. I do have a cell phone I can use to call home and call the PC office and talk with other volunteers so I'm not totally cut off, but my communication techniques are limited to those available, say 20 years ago. I will be back in Port Vila for a week or so with the rest of my group at the end of March for a Peace Corps meeting/training session. I'll try to put up some pictures that week.

It's funny how quickly life begins to feel "everyday" even though so many parts are truly extraordinary. Sometimes, when thinking about writing letters, I find myself thinking, "There's nothing new to write about, nothing to tell." Ridiculous. Even the routine things like house work and my community and my job are different from, or at least I have to do them differently than, in the U.S. So I thought I would spend some time describing a few of the "normal, everyday' elements of my days here in Vanuatu.

Sleeping under my mosquito net - I use the possessive here on purpose; I am quite attached to my mosquito net at this point. It is a high, filmy white canopy stretched out over my bed and it represents sanctuary and rest. Not just because it's where I sleep, but because it protects me from all the scary, itchy, scratchy things that lurk in the night - mosquitoes, of course, but also cockroaches, mice, beetles, and various moths and small insects that swarm around flashlights and kerosene lanterns. It is such a pleasure to climb under the net for a nap or for the night and escape from all the creepy crawlies in the rest of the house. (The first time something finds its way INSIDE my shelter, I will be devastated, but so far so good.) Yes, it can be tiresome to fasten and unfasten and refasten on those nights when I have to get up three times to tell the dogs to be quiet or to investigate a mouse-like noise in the kitchen or to shut the windows because the rain is blowing in but the irritation is a small consideration next to the peace of mind it brings.

The dogs - I have gone from a pet-less household in the states to leading a pack of Vanuatu dogs. Mai is the one I lay claim to and take responsibility for, but my yard has been home to 2 of her siblings, her mother, and another big red dog that has lived there for quite a while. I was also caring for another volunteer's dog for a few weeks so that brought the total to 6. Everyday, everywhere I went, 3-6 dogs milling around. I'm sure it provided a lot of amusement for my neighbors. For a while I considered scouring the neighborhood for any other dogs that needed a home and forming a pack I could rent out to run wild pigs, but no need. Things are looking up. First, my temporary boarder, Stew, went back to his owner. Then, I ran mommy dog off. So, for the past few weeks, I've been down to 4 dogs (Mai, 2 puppies, and the big red one) who follow me everywhere. As of yesterday, I'm back to two. One of my co-workers took the littlest puppy and another volunteer took the other puppy yesterday. Relief.

Training Mai - In addition to the usual commands of "sit," "stay," "down," and "NO!" our training regime includes necessary commands like "stay out of the office," "stay out of the store," and "no chasing/killing/eating the neighborhood chickens." During working hours, the businesses here just prop their doors open so there's nothing keeping Mai outside except her interest in avoiding my discipline. Of course, she quickly figured out how to stay just out of reach as I chase her back toward the door so now she spends a lot of time tied up. She's still young though, close to 6 months old would be my guess, so we're going to keep working on that. More serious is the chicken-thing since she's killing my neighbors' dinner. But I refuse to give up . . . . at least not yet. The last time she actually killed the chicken she was chasing was about 2 weeks ago and then she didn't eat it so we're making progress, I think. That particular chicken was laid outside the provincial government office where I was attending a workshop, her attempt to pacify me since I wouldn't let her in the building, and it was witnessed by quite a few of the senior government officials as we left for lunch. So embarrassing. I couldn't even pretend it had been another dog because Mai was sitting right next to it with a feather hanging out of her mouth.

Trips to the store - Gone are the days when ice cream topped the grocery list (it's available sometimes but no freezer to keep it in), when cold cereal was my back up dinner plan (only powdered milk here), or when any kind of salad was a possibility (too few vegetables). These days a typical shopping list is a loaf of bread (and I'm so thankful I can get it), two cans of cheap tuna for the dog, two cans of decent tuna for me (or, if the store has eggs, one can of tuna and 2 eggs), an onion, some chips or crackers, and one maintenance item like peanut butter or sugar or oil or rice. I usually go to the store every two or three days and the list doesn't change. Seasoning options include salt, soy sauce, and curry powder, I can usually pick up an onion and sometimes there are garlic cloves. There is also a market that usually sells the local produce like island cabbage or some other form of greens, manioc, taro and sweet potato, and a wide variety of bananas. Occasionally I can get a cucumber or pineapple. Those are exciting days.

It's a 1-2 minute walk to any of the three stores or the market, but it's a little tricky. One of the stores is hardly open at all. Another is owned by Seventh Day Adventists so the store is not open on Saturdays. And the store with the biggest selection of things is closed after about 5 pm on weekdays, Saturday afternoon, and all day Sunday.

So no Mojo burrito for lunch and Thai food for dinner one day, with barbecue for lunch and spaghetti for dinner the next. It's aelan kakae (island food, including greens, bananas, and lots of kinds of root crops) or something on bread three meals a day. Fortunately, I like aelan kakae but I do dream about food from home, usually salads for some reason. One night I enjoyed three different salads in one dream - I was attending a lunch meeting where you could choose which salad you wanted: a beautiful fruit salad with watermelon and grapes and cantaloupe, a very colorful lettuce salad with lots of toppings, or pasta salad with chicken and a creamy dill dressing, but I chose all three. Couldn't taste them of course but I still enjoyed that dream. I miss salad. And cheese, I miss cheese.

I've never been much of a chef so, when I actually cooked, I ate a fairly unimaginative diet in the U.S. too. Sometimes, though, I think if I WAS some kind of a chef, I'd eat better here. And then I realize you can only combine the same 6 ingredients in so many ways. Even Emeril or Rachael Ray or Julia Childs or that blond guy who picks up women in the grocery store and cooks dinner for their families would find it difficult to be inventive here after the first few weeks.

The sounds - here on Ambae you can always hear the outdoors. There's no air conditioning and the windows and doors are always open so, even over the sound of three or four people typing and talking on the phone at work, I can still hear the crickets and birds and wind and rain. I love it. I can also hear the roosters at 4:30 am and the dogs barking in the middle of the night and the cows lowing (at my host family's house, not in Saratamata) but it's still wonderful. I have grown accustomed to the peace - and subconsciously attuned to the generator, which is housed just across from my house. My brain notices when it come on (POWER!), the slightly different sound it makes before the lights go off, and the quiet that comes when the generator turns off.

The quiet is magnified (is that possible?) because one of my neighbors usually takes advantage of the power to play music on his very nice (=loud) stereo so that we can all enjoy it. One night it was the same song over and over again for two hours. I think he must have hit the "repeat" button and then wandered over to chat at someone else's house. Another night we enjoyed the same song about a dozen times; Kenny Loggins of all people. (Tina, I think of you every time that happens. :))

So there's a sampling of my Peace Corps experience. Hopefully, my next update will include some stories about teaching here in Vanuatu! I begin to co-teach class 7 (the kids are 12-14) at the local school on Monday. Just one unit, or approximately two weeks, but it will be a great chance to learn about the students here and what kinds of activities are interesting to them. Kinds here tend to be quite shy and quiet so it will be a challenge to draw them out. Just another new adventure.

Thanks again to all of you who have written letters/emails or sent packages. (Mom and Dad are printing out messages sent to my gmail account - - and sending them to me by regular mail since the Peace Corps address - is proving less than reliable.) I REALLY ENJOY hearing your news from home.

Jeannette reminds me to update my wish list. I'll do it on the side panel in March, but for the moment . . . I am still enjoying all of the things currently on the list. You may feel unimaginative if you send drink mixes or Oreos or Chex Mix or cross word puzzles (which can be printed off the internet) or whatever, but I am actually using them up so don't feel that you need to think of something new.

--letters all by themselves are wonderful

--any of the things on the list already are wonderful

--small games that are easy to explain (Go Fish was a big hit, but I couldn't figure out how to explain Gin Rummy if that gives you an idea), maybe travel sized type things

--a Frisbee

--toys for Mai (she's tired of the empty peanut butter jar and the dish rag I tied in a knot)

--boxes of macaroni and cheese

--recipes for sweet potato casserole, bread, pancakes, chips, etc., etc.

--basic recipes using potatoes (I will substitute manior)

-- recipes using cooked spinach (I will substitute island cabbage)

(pasta is only available as Ramen noodles or from Vila so if you have a recipe that uses

spinach some other way, that would be great

--a bread pudding recipe would be stupendous!

(My access to ingredients is pretty limited so if it's more sophisticated or exotic than cinamon or yeast, I'll probably have to wait until I go to Vila to find it)

--and I'm still hoping for some constellation information for the southern hemisphere