Sunday, October 11, 2009

Feast or Famine


One of our “senior” volunteers was sharing an observation the other day that life in Vanuatu is either feast or famine. Since then I have had the chance to reflect on my own experiences here and see how true that can be, in so many areas.

I think all agricultural/farming societies or families are more accustomed to gardening feasts and famines than I am. My garden provides a continual source of island cabbage but all of the other plants are growing in their typical cycle. You wait weeks for beans and then you have more beans than you can use for a few weeks and then they’re gone again. There are several taro plants growing, but it will be close to year before they’re ready. I tried to plant tomato seeds in several phases so that, if the weather cooperates, the tomato plants will mature at different times. But the seedlings are taking much longer to grow than I expected. At the market, sometimes you can get loads of taro but there are no other choices. Then kumala comes into season and there is all-you-can-eat kumala for 3 weeks but no other choices.

There is no produce section at the nearby grocery store to provide vegetables in the off season. But the feast-famine cycle happens in other things too. For a long time, there was nothing to do and now there is plenty, augmented by the obstacles that make every task take longer than you expected. I am sure that there will come a time when, once again, there is nothing to do and I will be whiling away the hours at work with crossword puzzles and computer games. Right now, however, I either have a school to visit or sizeable to-do list to tackle each day. (And what a pleasure it is! ©)

Mail also tends to arrive in big bunches. Three weeks will pass without any letters and then 6 or 7 are delivered on the same day. If I had a little self-control, I would read one letter every couple of days to spread them out. But I can’t wait to find out what has been happening in everyone’s lives so I feast on letters for a day and go without until the next batch comes. Fortunately, I can reread the letters so it’s not a total fast.

For months, I will not get a visitor or see another volunteer. And then a wave of activity begins. Last Friday, Sheridan and Justin from Maewo stayed with me one night on their way to Vila. The next day, Krissy and Javi arrived in Lolowai, where they will be staying for 2 or 3 months. (They are working with the province’s health administrators to prepare the province for some new PC community health volunteers.) The next weekend, I walked around to their house for dinner and talk. It was a little bit of a special occasion because Thomas, one of the volunteers from West Ambae (which might as well be another island, as hard as it is to get from one side to the other), had come for the weekend. A day later, Justine, another volunteer from Maewo, stayed with me for a night so she could catch the next day’s flight to Vila. The plane arrived to carry her away, and delivered Blake, the volunteer who lives on North Ambae. He is just returning from a few weeks in Vila. He will stay until a boat is heading north or he feels like making the trek home (a 5 or 6 hour walk). A group of missions-minded people is here as well, from New Zealand, and I had dinner with them last night. Next week, I am going to Malekula to visit so I will be gone when Meg and Beth, two volunteers from another agency who live on Maewo, pass through. (Their service is finished and they are heading home.) I will also miss the return of Justin and Sheridan, the two who started this chaos, and a site visit by one of my supervisors from Peace Corps. This litany of visits is very misleading, though, because once this frenzy of activity is over, there will be months of quiet again, without a single visitor. Everyone will have taken their spels and be content to stay at site for a while, so the time of famine will begin again. This is another facet of life in Vanuatu that requires some adjustment on my part, but it has been much easier to handle those dry spells because I know that they won’t last forever—a letter will arrive, some work will crop up, my tomatoes will eventually ripen. It’s a long-term lesson in delayed gratification. ©


I have recently returned from a short trip to Malekula where I stayed with another volunteer, Karen. The trip was a mixture of rest, socializing, and work. During the past few months, two Malekula volunteers have conducted several phonics workshops for teachers of classes 1-3 and had scheduled a similar workshop for teachers of classes 4-8 during the week I visited. They already had the groundwork laid for the workshop but we tried to add some additional information that was appropriate for the older students. Laura introduced each topic or concept because her Bislama is the best; Karen followed with an activity or model lesson; and then I finished the topic with some suggestions for how to make the activities more appropriate for older students or more challenging for students who have some phonics training. We’re hoping that the phonics work of the two PC groups before us is going to become evident for these class 4-8 teachers in the next couple of years as the students matriculate. Right now the teachers need basic training and activities, but eventually they’ll need more advanced activities or applications. We’re hoping!
Besides the opportunity to help with the workshop, it was great to visit another island in Vanuatu and have a chance to see what life is like just a hundred kilometers away. I thought I’d put a little bit in here about my visit to Pentecost, too, since I didn’t write anything about it at the time.

Pangi, Pentecost—island of land diving, as the provincial hymn says—has a lot more rivers and streams to contend with than East Ambae. The drive from Pangi to the airport only lasts about 30 minutes but we must have crossed 4 riverbeds in that time. When you’re only traveling 5 -10 miles an hour, that’s a lot of rivers. Pangi itself, like Saratamata, is a government center rather than a village in the traditional sense. It didn’t exist until the local branch of the provincial government set up shop. Most people who live there are actually from nearby villages and have come to Pangi to work. It is very close to the water and they have a beautiful, crescent- shaped sandbeach. In order to make or receive a phone call, you have to go down to the water but the scenery makes the inconvenience easy to bear. The village itself is quite wealthy, as villages go. There is cash from the government teacher salaries and there is cash from the tourism. While we were there to see the land diving ceremony, an enormous cruise ship from Australia anchored in the harbor and disgorged hundreds of tourists. It was strange to see all of those white people in one place—and the women and girls were in shorts! (Pass out the lavalavas so those ladies can cover up! It’s funny how quickly your sensibilities can adapt to new norms.) Maybe because of the money, maybe because the people want Pangi to look nice for visitors, maybe because it didn’t evolve the same way a familial village would, whatever the reason, I kept feeling like I was visiting an exhibit at Epcot Center. The grass was so green and short and tidy—no stray leaves or flowers lying around. The houses and buildings are mostly made from traditional materials (I kept having flashbacks to seventh grade geography, making a Pacific island custom house out of toothpicks, palm fronds, and a Styrofoam tray) rather than the cement that is most common here in Saratamata. The main pathways are lined with coral and sand and it just looks so pretty, so orderly, so. . . . exemplary.
[For what it’s worth, none of the other volunteers who were with me saw things quite the way I did. So my observations deserve some skepticism and I definitely require some additional travel to test out my perceptions. There may be a trip to Maewo at the end of July to celebrate the completion of renovations at a school, but no definite plans yet.]

In Pangi, my fellow volunteers and I lounged about for most of the three or four days we were there, choosing to spend our time eating and talking rather than tramping about, so I don’t know how Pangi compares to the villages around it. Next trip!

Norsup, Malekula—is also a provincial center where you can find the Provincial Education Office, the hospital, offices for the provincial government, offices for Youth Sports, etc. And yet there are also family communities interspersed throughout the area. The road that connects the airport, Lakatoro, and Norsup (the extent of my travels on Malekula) is quite curvy and passes around or through a lot of areas that feel rural/traditional. What makes them seem rural rather than urban? Many of the families choose to live in custom houses rather than build a house of cement so, aesthetically, certain areas are very traditional. However, though so many people chose to use custom materials to build their houses, almost everyone has also chosen to hook up to the power source in Norsup (available 24-7!) so it’s not exactly ‘bush.’

One night Karen and I went to her host family’s house for dinner. Karen asked her ‘sister’ to make laplap sorsor for me as a special treat. (Laplap sorsor is unique to Malekula.) Laplap takes a long time so it is usually saved for the weekends, but Sister Doric made one for us on a weekday so I could try it. Delicious! It was manioc laplap with a layer of island cabbage on top, then a scattering of beef. Before you wrap it all up in leaves to bake, you put a few lava stones inside to help cook the meat. Once it comes out of the earth oven and gets unwrapped, you squeeze coconut milk over the hot stones and meat. It was wonderful—comfort food Malekula style. Karen told me later that my appetite was the topic of conversation the following Sunday; I just kept eating and eating and eating. Her ‘mama’ thought I was finished but then I’d ask for another piece.

Anyway, as we walked back to Karen‘s house that night, a weird mix of memory and impression and imagination made it a strange trip. It was so dark. The sky was overcast so there was no moonlight to light the path. We were carrying flashlights, of course, but every once in a while, there would be another patch of light, just off the path, through the trees. I was remembering family camping trips, where you could get away from the streetlights and store signs. When we were camping, the patches of light came from lanterns set on picnic tables where families were playing Boggle or Yahtzee (or was that just my family?). But there was also a lot of room for imagination and feeling a little like a visitor to this exotic locale. Like scenes from an old movie where the missionary or trader is following his “native guide” through the bush. Picture an old Tarzan movie or African Queen. Wrong location but right atmosphere. And then the reality, that these glimmers of light came from fluorescent lights hanging from trees or poles, lighting up a family’s everyday dinner. Nothing out of the ordinary for them. It was strange to have all of these impressions mingling in my head as we walked home through the dark, but the aftertaste is distinctly Michener-esque. Very romantic.

I have to admit to being a little dissatisfied now with Saratamata. I thought life was pretty fias here with indoor plumbing and electricity for parts of the day and 3 stores and cold drinks. But Norsup/Lakatoro is a whole new level of fias living. I base this almost entirely on the availability of food, but that is an important factor to consider. They do have power all of the time (even in the middle of the night!), but the food, oh, the food. The stores there have lots of cuts and amounts of beef for sale—stew, steak, mince, etc. There are crabs at the market (Twelve crabs for 200 vatu! That’s about $2 US) and fish in a traveling truck. I found canned corn and green beans, canned lentils, spices like fennel and cinnamon, lots of different biscuits (aka cookies), and faux cheese (like Velveeta). The cheese was really expensive, though. Almost $6 for a small package—that hurts. And the mama’s market was full of produce—lettuce (lettuce!), tomatoes, capsicum, spring onions, watercress, pamplemus (grapefruit), mandarins, coconuts, taro, kumala, manioc, yams, strong bananas, all at the same time! It was wonderful. I loaded up a bag full of goodies to bring back with me—crabs and mandarins to share with my host family and spring onions for me to plant in the garden.

Now I understand why there is always a live chicken in a basket or a yam wrapped up in a palm leaf waiting to go in the airplane’s cargo hold. Some things just aren’t available in some places and family members on other islands have to look out for you. I know that there are people growing a lot of those things here in East Ambae, but they are growing them to EAT rather than to sell so I am out of luck. However, a local businessman is in the process of erecting a market house in Saratamata. I don’t know all the details yet but I am hoping that it will encourage some of the farming families nearby to plant a few extra feet of garden so they can sell the surplus produce at the market. And East Ambae is too dry for some of the juicier items—tomatoes have to be watered and there are no wet areas for planting watercress or lettuce.

Whatever the differences between islands or villages, everywhere I’ve gone, the people share some basic characteristics—they are interested in you, friendly, generous, and wonderfully hospitable. You never leave someone’s house empty handed and you never feel like you intruded or interrupted even though you may have done exactly that. In my experience, the people of Vanuatu are never too busy to stop and chat. Sometimes that can be extremely frustrating, like when you’re waiting for the truck to carry you to the airport or for someone to arrive so a meeting can begin. But most of the time, it’s very refreshing and an important reminder that people can and should come before schedules.


While visiting Karen on Malekula, I was struck by the surreal quality of various comments made by various volunteers. In the setting, in the moment, they were entirely natural and commonplace. Taken out of context, put into the more familiar setting of everyday life in the US, they become absolutely ridiculous.
For example.
--Spoken in a tone of wonder -- “You can get lettuce here?”
--The secretary talking to Karen 2 days before our workshop-”Your workshop is cancelled because another government office just requested the room.” (We found another venue.)
--Discussing routine travel arrangements for the workshop—”Laura is going to stand out by the road so she can catch a truck to Norsup.”
--Any given day—”There will not be power today.”
--Sandy, a Maewo volunteer, and Esther (ES ta) who cooks at one of the food stalls here in Saratamata— “What’s in the stew?” “Bullock.” “Real bullock?” “Where are you from?”
--Any given office—“No copying or printing because we’re out of toner until August.”
--The executive officer for our office commenting on the electric bill for my house—”One two hundred vatu blong wan manis? Hemia sas we!” (One thousand two hundred vatu I About $12 a month? That’s too much!)
--On a school report for the Ministry—”We began school two weeks after the official start date because the students didn’t come. By February 12, we had enough students to begin.”
--A health official about an imminent, government-sponsored inoculation campaign—”The team will arrive either Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. I’m not sure which day.” (Today is Friday and still no sign of the inoculation team.)
--Our office secretary to me—”You didn’t know Blake [the volunteer in N. Ambae] in the US? The people from your town don’t know the people from his town?”
--Me to Mami Doreen—”How can you tell it’s a woman crab?”
--Karen about one of our dinners—”This is wonderful. It’s like real black bean soup!” (It was pretty delicious even though our salsa was made with canned tomatoes and whatever we could find to spice it up and the sour cream was actually yogurt.) -