Friday, May 4

MAY

Faithful readers - I've not been able to post to the blog in so long due to a very busy schedule. This past month we celebrated our one-year anniversary in country (although our halfway point of our contract is not until July) and now the entire Vanuatu Peace Corps is convening for our annual conference in Vila. We will be here for a week in a private island resort located near downtown. This will be a very interesting experience since many of us will be meeting for the first time. We have about 90 PCV's in Vanuatu and I've probably met about half. It will be great to hear stories from all the different islands that I'll likely never get a chance to visit.

After the conference I will be traveling to Sydney for one week - my 36th birthday present to myself. In Sydney I will rendezvous with Robert from San Diego who will then return to Vanuatu with me for an additional 10 days. This will be an incredible experience not just for him, but for me as well - to get to play Tanna tour guide to another American will be very validating. Most volunteers experience frustration after service when they realize that no one back home can ever really truly understand what all the stories mean for that person. There's a lot more going on that can never make it onto a blog or into a photograph. So having even one person that understand even some of this crazy place with first-hand experience will be pretty awesome. At the very least I need one other person to taste Kava, and to eat Tanna soup while sitting on the dirt floor or Dora's kitchen while fighting off a pack of starving dogs.

I have some good stories to share - namely my experiences with the cargo cult named "John Frum". In short, they worship the American military and spend their days awaiting our return when we will shower them with cargo to enrich their lives. As if. I got to watch some of their 50th anniversary ceremony and even presented the chief, I mean.. the "Admiral", with a gift for which I earned myself a commemorative t-shirt and some seriously suspicious glares. Then we ditched out to swim in the hot springs at the base of the volcano.

Then I've got a couple stories from life on the "Field Survey" trail. We've been engrossed in a massive survey from every area of the island. We are examining each coffee farmers plot of trees and compiling a ton of data. guess who does all the compiling? It's been hard work, physically and emotionally, but Matt and I have been having a good time (mostly) seeing all the different villages from all corners of Tanna.

My camera broke which I'm hoping to get repaired in Sydney. But luckily I have photos to share from John Frum and a few from the survey. For now I will leave you with this...


This is a grave in Mele, just outside the main city of Port Vila. When I stayed in Mele during the holidays flew past this grave day after day in a speeding mini-bus and always marveled that it was always covered in fresh vibrant flowers. It wasn't until I had to walk one day that I realized all the flowers were plastic. How did I not guess that before. I've never even seen these kinds of fresh flowers in Vanuatu before. And the shiny, silvery christmas garland is a special touch on many graves.

Thursday, March 8

YIKES!

It must be the weather.

Just the other day there was a land dispute in Lenekal, the main town in Tanna, and a land-owner destroyed a Rural Taining Center situated on his land, including all the donated computers (he smashed them with a bat). Then there was a fight between two villages up by Matt's house that sent a dozen guys to the hospital with bush knife wounds. It was some silly shit over a girl.

And then I check my email and got this message from our Country Director:

To: Peace Corps Vanuatu Volunteers and Staff
Fr: Kevin George Country Director
Re: Advisory - Exercise Caution in Port Vila Pockets of Civil Disturbance in Port Vila Area Involving People from Ambrym and Tanna Islands
Dt: Sunday, 4:00 pm, 4 Mar 2007

CC: Pacific Desk, Washington
CC: U.S. Embassy, Port Moresby
CC: MCC Office, Port Vila

In the afternoon of Saturday, March 3, Peace Corps Vanuatu received reports of a civil disturbance emanating from the Black Sands Area (between Tusker Brewery and Mele Village). The disturbance, which now appears to have subsided but perhaps not ended, appears to involve only persons from the islands of Tanna and Ambrym. Fighting between groups from these islands involved the use of fists, sticks and knives. There are reports of several houses being burnt [update: 12 homes burned] belonging to either Ambrym or Tanna families at the Ohlen, Malapoa and Black Sands areas. Unconfirmed reports indicate that up to five people have been killed [update: 3 confirmed deaths] with a significant number of injured persons at the hospital. The disturbance appears to have started over an allegation that a woman from Tanna died because of “black magic” performed by others allegedly from Ambrym. Reported violence has been limited to the members of these two groups. It may be further limited to families within these groups, but the general perception is that the dispute has been generalized to any person from these islands. The violence has not been widespread, but in isolated pockets of communities. For example, a home and minibus were burnt in the Ohlen area near the Jungle Juice Nakamal. The home belonged to a well-known family from Ambrym. Nearby businesses remained in operation and people were walking about without any apparent fear for their security.

As of Sunday mid-day the situation appears calm. The Police are guarding the hospital and the Vanuatu Mobile Force has been activated and has a significant presence at the Black Sands Area. The VMF is apparently armed (an order that can only come from the Prime Minister). A large gathering of people from Tanna occurred in the Man Ples area this morning. Reports later confirmed that this was a gathering facilitated by the police for the funeral of one of the young men from Tanna who was killed on Saturday. [update: over 100 arrests have been made and preparations have been expedited to return people to their respective islands if they want] It is very rare in Vanuatu for there to be violent disputes involving people from different islands. It appears as of Sunday that this flare-up is being contained by the police.

There have been no direct threats to Peace Corps Volunteers, the general population or commercial establishments. Supermarkets and other stores remain open on Sunday. Tension though is likely to continue until there is reconciliation among the two groups. Chiefs Day, a national holiday on Monday, will hopefully provide the opportunity for this reconciliation to start. It is believed that a meeting of all the islands chiefs in Port Vila is taking place on Sunday afternoon at the Chiefs Nakamal. This is a very positive sign that the traditional conflict resolution process has started.

Action by Peace Corps Vanuatu:

Notified all Volunteers in Port Vila about the disturbance. Adam Brzezinski and Julie Beierlein, and Volunteers with houses/apartments in higher risk areas were relocated on Saturday to a guest house (Whispering Coral) near the Peace Corps Office and will remain at the guest house until at least Monday. Higher risk areas are likely to be areas where there are concentrations of people from either Tanna or Ambrym. Caution to be exercised by Volunteers and Staff. There has been no indication that the general population or foreigners are being targeted.

The greatest risk to the general population would be to be caught in an area that suddenly becomes violent. There is also the risk that persons predisposed to criminal activity may take advantage of this situation. Therefore, Volunteers and staff are advised to exercise caution over the next twenty four hours when traveling in Port Vila especially in or near the areas of Black Sands, Mele Maat, Ohlen, Agatis, Man Ples-Tabakor, Freswota and Beverly Hills.

Travel by night is not advisable in any part of Port Vila until we can confirm that the risks associated with this civil disturbance have been resolved through conflict resolution and police action. Please report any unusual activity to Kevin at 43057 (backup’s are Relvie and\nJane) and, if necessary, take measures to reduce your risk. A Volunteer believing themselves at risk may contact Kevin at 43057. If telephone contact is not necessary and the Volunteer’s current location is unsafe then please proceed to Kevin’s home near the Peace Corps Office or the Volunteer Resource Center. The following staff should be contacted if you have questions or if you have information that you would like to report.



And then I found this on another news site after I learned the President had actually declared a State of Emergency. Remember, this all started from reports of black magic - a.k.a. local religion. Religion!! (oh, and I love the closing quote)

State Of Emergency Declared After Witchcraft Claims A state of emergency has been declared in the capital of the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu after clashes between islanders over claims of witchcraft killed two men and wounded 10 people, police said on Monday.

Some 200 people from Tanna and Ambrym islands clashed in Port Vila on Saturday after the recent death of a woman, married to a Tanna man, was blamed on witchcraft, police Superintendent Willie Ben told Reuters by telephone from Port Vila.

One man was stabbed to death in the initial fighting on the outskirts of Port Villa and another was killed and houses razed in retaliation later on Saturday night.

“A woman was killed a few weeks ago and some people blamed it on witchcraft,” said Ben. “Ethnic fighting broke out on Saturday … and two people died and another 10 were injured.”

Police said Port Vila had been quiet since the fighting on Saturday and 140 people had been arrested. A state of emergency covering the capital was declared by the president late on Sunday and will continue for two weeks, banning any public assemblies, said police.

“At the moment we do not impose a curfew or road checks but that will depend on the situation,” said Ben.

Vanuatu’s National Council of Chiefs said the government overreacted in declaring a state of emergency. “The State of Emergency is like preparing for a cyclone that has already passed,” the council’s secretary general, Selwyn Garu, told reporters on Monday.

Wednesday, February 28

TRIMESTER

In lieu of any truly interesting stories of adventure or mayhem, I can offer these selections from my Trimester Reports for those of you who might like to know a bit more about my job. These reports are compiled and presented to members of congress who approve our funding. Some of the formating did not cut-and-paste perfectly, and some sections of the report were not included - sorry.

1) In 1961 President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps to promote world peace and friendship. Describe your progress (in terms of activities and numbers of participants) over the past trimester at site based on the three goals of Peace Corps:

A. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their needs for trained men and women.

By September of 2006 it was clear we were experiencing the re-birth of the Tanna coffee industry. I continued working the Coffee Development Program in the following ways:

 I continued to directly assist both farmers and the Purchasing Agent in the coffee buying transaction. This process repeated itself hundreds of times ultimately affecting upwards of 350 farmers (15% female) and their families.


 I began the training of a newly hired factory bookkeeper, a young woman named Ruth, to learn the simplified book-keeping records of the factory.

 I continued the training of Kamut Lao, the Purchasing Agent, in management, organization, farmer relations, as well as in the use of a digital scale which involved the application of rounding decimals. Kamut’s lessons on rounding have not gone well. Despite my best efforts the concept remains abstract to him and he will continue to need supervision when scaling coffee.

 I provided total day-to-day management of the factory during this period, as the local manager was not provided a 2006 contract for the program developers. This included assisting Kamut in acquiring official personal identification (birth certificate) so he can be a co-signer on the COV bank account.

 Continued the collection of data from all coffee farmers to provide DARD and Coffee Development Program participants relevant and accurate information from which to base actions (e.g. training)

 I met formally with the Board of Directors of the Coffee Organization of Vanuatu (COV). For our meeting I prepared a detailed “Technical Assistant Report” that was designed to bring all members up-to-speed on all issues effecting our operation. This report, including financial documents and forcasting was heavily referenced during the meeting.

 Greatly assisted in the organization and implementation of a “Coffee Day” awareness seminar. This involved providing scheduling, information, and talking-points to six different speakers and the coordination of disseminating the information to a room of coffee farmers and enlisting their help in further spreading the information through-out the island.

 Began monthly meetings with the officers of the TAFEA-DARD office to cooridinate projects, troubleshoots problems, and provide organizational and managerial assistance.

 Began meeting with TAFEA–DARD officers to discuss and plan a Peace Corps initiated Coffee-Kava Field Survey to commence the beginning of 2007.

 Closed the factory end of November and traveled to Vila to continue working on behalf of the Coffee Development Program. In December this meant a week with TCDC to map out logistical and financial concerns for the coming year.

 Providing managerial assistance to White Beach Bungalows came to a halt after the Chief abruptly took control of the financials and pushed aside other family members in the daily operations of the business. He has expressed no interest in continuing the dialoge I had established with the official manager nor have I attempted to provide further assistance at this time.

B. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

Now very well integrated into my Lowkatai village and the surrounding West Tanna I’ve had hundreds of conversations with Ni-Vans about American life, our culture and our people.

From my first Trimester Report, which can be quoted directly:

There have been countless situations where Ni-Vans will ask questions about the few subjects they know of America – namely the terror attacks of 9/11, World War II, and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – none of which they have any clear or full understanding. This provides me an opportunity to talk about American culture as it relates to foreign policy, and to explain about events like 9/11 that ultimately effect hundreds of millions of people around the globe and yet barely register in this remote island nation.

On many occassions I will sit down with Ni-Vans, many of which are illiterate, and go through an issue of Newsweek International, or other magazines, and try to explain, as simply as possible, the stories behind all the different pictures. In this way they learn not only about the United States, but also about the entire outside world.

Some families, such as my new Tanna family, some times have the ability to watch videos, or full-length films. This provides yet another opportunity to explain what they are seeing, to help them differentiate between reality and fantasy, and to give background where history is needed. As with the magazine sessions I often interject information even when not directly asked so as to provoke conversation.

Additionally I’ve cooked American-style meals for Ni-Vans, invited them into my house and explained my different objects, introduced them to my music which I play regularly at the factory, and allow them to observe my behavior when I do things like care for my puppy or wash my own laundry.

C. Helping promote a better understanding of other people on the part of all Americans.

I continue to write letters home providing in-depth details about the life and culture that I’m witnessing here in Vanuatu. In each case the recipients of my letters are asked to share the news and stories with other interested friends and family. Additionally, I’ve been keeping an internet journal, or blog, as a means of mass communication. The tone of the blog is designed for a small, personal collection of friends and family, much like the letters, but particular posts may possibly be read by countless Americans as everything I write on the blog is completely accessible to anyone with internet access. My goal with the letters and blog has always been to portray Vanuatu culture, as well as my experiences as a PCV, accurately if not humorously, and with understanding, curiousity, and humanity.

I have previously connected with, but have NOT continued to have any further contact with my matched Coverdall World Wise School teacher. I emailed as much generalized detail as I thought appropriate, as well as inviting her to read my blog (before sharing with her students) and to then determine a future course of dialog. She was invited to make further contact with me at her convenience but I’ve not heard back from her. At this stage I consider the match to be unsuccessful.

2) Describe the personal and professional challenges you experienced at site and the strategies you used to address them (confidential issues on a separate sheet)

My Peace Corps service began with me basically partnered with an extended PCV working on the same project. At first this was a huge bonus as he was able to more quickly get me integrated and up-to-speed on the project and into my community. In the beginning the project literally needed our combined efforts as the factory was understaffed at a time of high production. However in hindsight I can see how after the first one or two months this overlap actually became a hindrence to my professional progress especially as the project was concerned. Participants on the project continued to prefer to deal directly with the other PCV instead of with me and this put me at a disadvantage when the original PCV finished his contract. Further, our differing styles of management and organization continued to hold me back during the first six months of my service. At the time this was happening my experiences were all so new and different that I wasn’t aware of the effects this overlap was having on my work and life. For this reason I didn’t have any need to implement any strategies to address this issue.

Language has stopped being a professional challenge, although at times I continue to struggle with full comprehension. Some cultural issues have presented new and different challenges, such as the Ni-Van habit of not sharing information. This requires remembering to ask as many questions in as many different ways as possible.


1) Please list your priorities and plans for the next trimester:

I will begin the year stationed in Vila until the end of January when we have a scheduled COV Board meeting.

Ø Meet with the Ministry of Trade to discuss the Integrated Framework Program and how they can utilize the Coffee Development Program as an example for shifting economic policy.
Ø Meet with the Director of Agriculture to discuss the future of the COV Board, integration of Ni-Van ownership on the project, DARD staffing issues, CKPS – field survey, and additional PCV’s in Tanna.

Ø Begin seeking donor funding for a “wish list” of coffee factory needs and wants for the coming harvest.

Ø Upon my return to Tanna to begin meetings with DARD to coordinate the CKPS and then to, as soon as possible, implement the CKPS to be conducted during the months of February, March, April and May.

Ø With a Dept. of Agriculture agent, visit each coffee pulping station located through-out the island to assess maintenance/repair needs and to train the local farmers to conduct the maintenance.

Ø Assign a printed number to each pulping station for coffee tracking purposes. This will also help with future organic certification.

Ø Identify up-and-coming coffee producing villages to determine where to place future pulpers.

Ø Make further improvements to the factory to aide in the organziational flow for what we expect will be a doubling of production for the 2007 season.

Ø Contact and determine the needs of the Lowkatai School for participation in the Cyclone Ivy Re-habilitation fund.

2) Please provide feedback to your APCD and other Staff in terms of support you require:

I need support from APCD in the form of putting pressure on the (national level) Department of Agriculture to provide more thorough support to the COV and the coffee industry in general through the TAFEA-DARD office. The Director, Dorosday Kenneth, does not attend board meetings opting to send an alternate, and has not offered any solid advice or support to making the board more engaged. Additionally we do not have financial support from the Vanuatu government at a critical time when our donor support is being withdrawn. I need PC to pressure the Vanuatu government to lend any and all support to the program to keep it afloat during this tenuous stage of development.

3) Please attach any materials you have developed and wish to share with other PCV’s. Also, please attach your Reef Check surveys if applicable.

No new materials at this time.

4) Narrative: Write a press release about your assignment. This can be a specific project on which you worked, or a general account of the past trimester. In the opening paragraph please frame the press release in terms of who, what, where, why, how, etc. This may be actually used as a press release in Vanuatu, the U.S., or other media. Attach pictures if available.


The Peace Corps helped oversee the close of the 2006 Vanuatu coffee harvest – a season of amazing re-vitalization from a project five years in the making. After years of studies, infrastructure development, farmer training, cyclones, and other ups and downs, the program realized the fruits of its labors with the quadrupling of coffee production from 7 tons in 2005 to nearly 28 tons in 2006.

The development program has had many individuals and program participants lending support over the years with the Peace Corps role evolving and growing from it’s entry in 2004. During the 2006 harvest the Peace Corps, in the absense of a qualified Ni-Van, managed all daily activities of the coffee factory, lent support to the local purchasing agent, and trained a new factory bookkeeper. The Peace Corps continued on-going data collection to provide relevant and timely information to all program participants, in particular the names and addresses of all our registered farmers. We hope the information will be used to further provide training, strengthen the bond between the program and the individual farmers, as well as satisfy the informational needs of current and/or future donar bodies.

The Peace Corps continued to advise and support the Coffee Organization of Vanuatu Board of Directors (COV) – a collection of prominent Ni-Vans charged with overseeing the local industry. The Peace Corps directly assisted the Board with contract negotiations, price structuring, financial planning, forecasting, as well as providing general information to keep all members aware and up to speed on all factory activities especially during this time of renewed and rapid growth.

After the close of the 2006 harvest, with it’s surprising numbers, the Peace Corps travelled to Port Vila to meet at length with Tanna Coffee Development Company. As the sole purchaser of all COV production, it was imperative to discuss and strategize with TCDC all logistics for the coming 2007 harvest in which we anticipate a possible doubling of production from 2006 levels.

To help ensure the future growth of the newly revitalized industry the Peace Corps continues to work with and advise the local and national levels of the Department of Agriculture in their role on the coffee development program. The future will see the building of new pulping stations, development of new coffee nurseries, continued farmer training, and the proposed Coffee-Kava Production Survey (CKPS) to commence early 2007.

The Peace Corps-proposed CKPS is designed primarily as an important information gathering endeavor as well as a means to train the local Agriculture Officers in information gathering techniques and the importance and power of information. Our goals are to canvass the entire island of Tanna to learn exactly how much coffee is being farmed, where it’s being farmed, and who is doing the farming. Additionally to conduct a simultaneous introductory survey of kava farming with the goal of identifying motivated kava farmers. We anticipate the information will be greatly beneficial to all program participants in the future growth of the coffee industry as well as provide a foundation of data for the formation of a possible future kava organization.


POST DELAY

No... I'm not suffering from writers block, but rather Ghiardia-butt. I think I've been working through a minor (major?) case of ghiardia this past week. It's left me feeling more than a bit drained - pun intended. I haven't been in much of a mood to get out and about, to say the least. And yet, here I am.

Because I love you.

February has been a good month. Matt and I have been getting along in a whole new way - he seems to have given up some of his old hang-ups and that's a good thing. Then the Peace Corps decided to relocate to Tanna another volunteer from my training group, a girl who was a close friend of both Matt and I. So how lucky is that? She'll be in Isangel hopefully providing some much needed organizational support to the Department of Agriculture. As with Matt she is close enough that we can all see each other several times each week. I consider myself pretty damn lucky to have not just one, but two good friends so close. I was expecting total isolation, and for most PCV's that's what they get.

The survey has been delayed over and over again waiting for this thing or that person or whatever. At first this was really irritating to me since I was feeling pressured to get it finished before the start of the coffee harvest in May. Now I've decided that it really shouldn't matter that much. This means the past couple weeks have been all about welcoming a few new volunteers to Tanna, settling back into my bungalow, and having stomach issues.

Tuesday, February 20

DEAR ELIN

Dear Elin,

Thanks for your post on the previous entry. My name isn't Jeff, however. That was just a letter to another PCV who served on my project before me.

I'm excited for your impending "dive" into the Peace Corps - you are about to have a truly unique experience. Too soon to say whether it will be good or bad, but it will certainly be unique. hahah. Try and muscle your way onto Tanna Island 'cause we kick ass down here. Of course you will have no say whatsoever about which island you get.

Please send me a list of any questions you may have - I would be very happy to provide you any advice or information you may want or need. Please use my email: bserwalt@gmail.com.

If you are scheduled to begin training in April, as I did just last year, then you will likely get a one-day trip to our annual All-Volunteer conference which happens the second week of May. We will get a chance to meet at that time!

Some Tips: Bring a cheap hammock, lots of zip-lock bags, and if you wear contact lenses you should definitely bring them - the water is clean here!

No need to bring sunscreen, bugspray, or medical supplies such as tylenol - the medical office provides an endless free supply. Oh, and no one wears sunglasses outside of Vila. I know it's dangerous but that's how it is.

And my iPod is the best friend I ever had. Without it I may shrivel up and die. Get one, load it up as much as possible, and bring it along with a solar charger.

Best of luck with the rest of the process!

Thursday, February 8

DEAR JEFF

Dear Jeff,

Welcome back to Vanuatu!


Frankly I’m surprised that you decided to once again extend your volunteer contract knowing that you will be living in Vila and not Tanna – especially after having gone home to the U.S. for such a long time. I would think that would make coming back either really difficult or really desirable. It was really interesting to hear your feelings about returning home and the dis-connect you felt from your friends and family. Maybe that makes coming back easier?

After having been in Vila for 6 weeks I was really ready to return to Tanna. Vila was a much needed break. After having been on this island for almost 6 months, a very long stretch by any Peace Corps standards, it felt good to see everyone, to reconnect, and to decompress. And yet, after just the first couple weeks I was starting to sour on Vila. I left Tanna feeling absolutely giddy to get back to Vila - you leave with the idea that you’re heading for a nice urban experience... a taste of a more sensible lifestyle: restaurants, nightclubs, resorts, occassional air-conditioning. And then you get there and realize what you already knew -the restaurants are awful and over-priced, the nightclubs are a joke, the population is seperated into Ni-Vans and ex-pats when really I was looking for a mix of both. Even the kava isn’t that great. After just a few weeks, other than the work I was doing, I was ready to come back to Tanna... in fact, you could even say I was a bit giddy about coming back.

So here I am. And guess what… lots of little changes while I was gone. And yet, the more things have changed the more they’ve stayed the same.


But here are some highlights.

Many new houses are being built (but not mine!). I suppose the lifespan of a bamboo house is really only 5-8 years so I guess some of the construction is just replacing old houses – like the one for Chief Charley who promptly moved into the house they were building for you. But now Lucy is getting a new house, as well as Josep and his family. And Dominic was building a large house at the nakamal so we could sit inside and drink kava during a rainstorm. It only got half finished before he became really sick and bed-ridden. In fact, when I first arrived the word was that he was nearly on his deathbed. He couldn’t walk and hadn’t had a bowel movement in over a week. He had been sick for two weeks prior to my return. They took him to the hospital but of course they gave him some panadol and told him to go home. I asked more questions and learned that he never told the doctors about not going to the bathroom. The age old problem of Ni-Vans not sharing information even when it’s in their own best interest. Although now it seems like he’s coming along so I guess he’s going to be OK. He lost all his buff muscle mass and looks like a little kid again.

In other news… they raised the price of eggs and bread in Lenekal. Eggs are 45vt, and bread is now 40vt per loaf. The other night I was talking to Tom, the bread baker in Lowkatai, and asked if he was going to raise his prices as well. He’s still charging 30vt and thinks that if he raises the price then the people in the bush won’t be able to afford the bread. I pointed out that his expenses have gone up and that raising prices is a normal part of doing business. It was a pitch-black evening, and the glow from the brick-oven fire was reflecting off the faces of Yata, and small Jerry who were poking each other and messing around. The nearby “Bread Store” was still open, with it’s one lightbulb lighting the way for kava-drunk late night strollers, and the single exposed lightbulb hanging in the bread kitchen gently lit up the in-progress bread-making. I then suggested that he could raise the price to 35vt and still be selling for less than Lenekal. He shook his head “no”, and repeated his line about the poorer people who need the bread. I admired him for his attitude of good will.

And just then the power went out.

We were in total darkness but for the weakening glow from the brick-oven. Turns out the pre-paid power card had just run out. Becky had to close the “Bread Store” and Tom wouldn’t be baking any bread that night unless he decided to use flashlights. The wood used to get the oven going would be wasted. Before walking away I politely reminded him one more time that maybe raising his prices wouldn’t be such a bad idea afterall.

And then there is Kael. I’m disappointed to say that he decided to close his store and be a lazy bum. He plans to live off his girlfriends future income when she gets a teaching job (as if that was gaurantee). He told me his plan a while back, but I was still surprised that when I got back from Vila it was completely done. This was bad timing for him, I think, since right next to his store the local momma’s have cleared a large section of road front land to create a Lowkatai Momma’s market. Can you believe it? We will have our own produce market in Lowkatai. And if Kael was smart, in my opinion, he would have not only kept his store open but expanded his inventory to complement this new development. Along with the “Bread Store” they could effectively eliminate the need for people to travel into Lenekal. All the people from Matt’s village, for example, could cut their travel time in half. Well.. at least the opportunity is there for someone else. I’m thinking of how I can encourage someone else to grab the store and open a business – maybe a co-op or maybe a crafts market or something.

Speaking of co-ops – the Tafea Co-op has gone through some shit. Our biggest and most well stocked store is caught up in some funny-money scandal. I don’t understand the details, but Yaken was voted off the board and then just the other day there was a mini-riot of sorts in front of the store. Seems some shareholders are also threatening to burn the place down or maybe burn down Yaken's house. Some silly shit like that. Too bad for Matt that he’s currrently living in Yaken’s house! He’s been desperately trying to get proper locks installed. Since Yaken got the boot, his wife closed up her restaurant – the one tried and true restaurant that had actual chairs and chilled water! Now it’s gone. And guess what opened in it’s place? Another freakin’ store that sells exactly the same inventory as all the other stores. It boggles the mind that they just keep opening more and more stores that all sell the same 25 items. How is it possible that they all don’t understand the concept of differentiation. Anyway… none of this bodes well for the co-op. I expect it to completely collapse within a few months unless wiser heads can prevail. Some drunken fool will likely burn the place down ‘cause he thinks he’s getting riped off from his co-op shares and then not realize that all the burned inventory represented his own money.

Oh – and Mary Jack, who moonlights as the Chairwoman of our ineffective COV Board, has been promoted to Secretary General of the TAFEA Province. This means, of course, that we will see her even less than before. I genuinely like Mary and I’m happy that she was promoted. But in my own selfish way I have to just give a big *sigh* and wonder how this coffee project is ever going to get into the hands of the locals.

Speaking of COV Board members - Rex is MIA and has not delivered the wood or the concrete bricks to build my house. Personally, I’m still miffed that Terry handed over the New Zealand High Comm check to Rex for him to supply the materials. I had suggested that maybe it would be wiser if we show him the check, and then withhold handing it over until the materials are actually delivered. Now he’s had the money for close to three months, and nothing has happened. Ho hum. With Kevin’s consent I’ve moved back into White Beach Bungalows. Only this time I’ve decided to make myself more comfortable, moving stuff around, installing a small desk(!), and hanging fabric on the walls. I can see myself here for the duration of my service. I can’t believe Peace Corps is paying for this, but then when Kevin told me our main office phone and internet invoice was THIRTEEN THOUSAND U.S. DOLLARS for just the past two months I decided not to ever feel bad about them paying the equivilent of $200 per month for my housing even though it’s contrary to PC policy to pay for housing.


APCD Mark was just down here the other day scopeing out a couple sites for new volunteers, which includes transferring Jess Porter to work with the Department of Agriculture. She's one of my personal friends from training. Can you believe it? I mean, how lucky am I to have not one but TWO of my friends located within walking distance? Tanna is just getting better and better. Plus, Mark said he is working on developing two additional new sites in addition to the extended services of Tony and Erica. Combine these five new sites with the replacements for Larry and David and that means come July we will have seven new faces for a total of ten Tanna volunteers (with me, Matt and Chris Beale). Jess, Erica and Matt will be within walking distance, but the others are all still pretty remote from Lenekal. Oh sheesh... I forgot Michael Hoffman - that makes eleventeen volunteers! (as the Kamut might say).

It's been hotter than balls down here and surprisingly little rain. I fully expected some hardcore weather happening, but it's getting dryer and dryer. Very worried about the coffee plants. They said it rained only two times while I was in Vila. Hmmm.

Walking around I'm still as likely as ever to have someone sing out your name when they see me. Or sometimes they might actually talk to me for a bit before realizing I'm not you. This doesn't bother me at all - I think it's funny and I understand how hard it is for them to keep straight the three white guys on an all black island. Lord knows I don't know any other their names either!

Well... that should be enough for now. Kamut keeps asking me to get a phone card so he can ring you, but the last time we tried calling you one of Vanuatu's founding fathers died and the news came through the phone we were trying to use. That was something. whew.

Maybe I'll see you at the next COV board meeting? It should be a good one! POPACA is likely going to grant us 4 million vatu instead of the revolving credit fund. This is good news... until you realize that we will most certainly run out of money come August. I did the financial projections and in a perfect word scenario it just won't work. I asked the Director of Agriculture what she thinks we should do and she sorta shrugged her shoulders. I guess that's how these development projects go - you are always just about to drown.

Friday, January 26

GOING BACK TO CALI

er... I mean "Going back to Tanna". And I'm very ready to head back to my home village even though I don't have a home. In fact, I'm not even sure if i'll be living at the bungalows again. Turns out that Kamut has built a custom house for either Jeff or I, but I really don't want to live in this home since it is right in the middle of all his other family homes and there is no private toilet or shower facility, not to mention a kitchen. Plus, there are tons of barking dogs, crying babies and the worst of all - cackling manfowl. Those are absolutely intolerable. At the bungalows I had the soothing sounds of the rolling ocean and nothing else.

I'm flying back with the Country Director, Kevin George, and bigwig visiting from D.C. His name is Reuban Hernandez and he's the Director of Operations for the South Pacific and Inner Americas - so he really is a bigwig. And whenever we have a visitor from the States it's practically written in stone that they will visit Tanna. The volcano is too tempting to pass up. And since I'm close to the airport and the coffee project is something of a dynamic "success-in-the-making" I get to be the local host/guide. I'll be flying with them today, traveling to the south of the island, visiting the volcano, talking about coffee the whole time, then Saturday I'll show off the factory and they fly out that afternoon.

That's when I get to find out if my puppy, C.J., is still alive and start to set up my next temporary home in the factory. The coffee season doesn't begin until May so there won't be any real activity. I guess I can sleep in the conference room or something. And there is an actual toilet, but we will need to build a new water tank to supply the bathroom with running water. Not a problem considering the alternative - sharing a bush toilet with the whole freakin' family village. NO THANKS.

I also want to give a big, fat THANK YOU to all the friends and family that sent cards, cash gifts, and packages over the holiday season. It's difficult to understate the significance of recieving even a card from the States. Getting mail, any mail, is one of the most incredible things to ever happen to a Peace Corps volunteer. I know, it sounds silly, but when you are on a remote, isolated island you feel very disconnected from the outside world. In fact, I'm so disconnected that I don't even think about what season you are experiencing (it's hot and damn humid here in the south pacific) or what holidays are happening or who is having a birthday or what. Our worlds are totally removed from each other so much that just a simple message is an amazing thing.

And then to get a package in the mail is practically mind boggling. So, again, thanks for sending the love!

Once I get on the plane I will be away from computers for at least two weeks.

Monday, January 22

PULLING OUT MY HAIR

A great example of pull-out-my-hair-in-frustration.

When I left Tanna there were still problems with the local electric company. Before I started work they had installed a serparate power box that was supposed to save us money. During the peak season we would use a 25-amp supply which charges us a FAT monthly minimum - something we can ill afford. During the off season we would switch to a basic 5-amp supply that allows us to use pre-paid cards with NO monthly minimums. I would buy these cards only when I needed to use the computer or turn on the lights.

Before the end of the season I checked in the with local Unelco manager and asked him if everything was cool with getting the power supply switched and what I needed to do to make that happen. He clearly said everything was good to go and all I had to do was let him know and it would happen the same day. So on the last day of the season that's exactly what I do. But when he comes to the factory he tells me the factory isn't connected to the new power supply and that I needed to hire an electrician to do the job and that it was my problem not his. Then I tell this story to the head of the agriculture department who insists that it's not our problem and that he'll get Unelco to come out and solve the problem.

At this point we aren't using any power so all I'm thinking about is that we have only 3 more days before the next billing cycle kicks in and we get charged the monthly minimum.

One week later the agriculture guy tells me he was wrong and that we need to hire someone to do the work. So we got screwed for December, and now it's too late to do anything else as I'm in crunch mode preparing to get ready for my trip to Vila. I tell the Unelco guy that we can fiddle with the specifics when I get back, that I don't want the factory to incur any further charges, and for him to just "shut off the power".

Additionally we still had the problem with them adding a past-due amount to every bill.

So when I packed for Vila I just grabbed the Unelco folder with all our bills and reciepts and decided I would just take up the issues with someone at the head office. And that's what I just did today.

And guess what?

Turns out when you tell them "Shut Off The Power" it means they shut off the power, but not the bills. Boy - the FRENCH sure are clever! They told me since I didn't say "Cancel The Contract" that they continued to charge us the monthly minimum. She could clearly see the "what-the-fuck?" expression on my face. I asked if she was kidding.

And then she laughed right at me! She wasn't kidding.

I said "excuse me for not knowing the magic words, but it would seem that a reasonable person would understand that "shut off the power", especially in the time and context it was used, would clearly mean the same thing as "cancel the contract" or whatever other wording you need to hear so that we don't incur any further charges - which was obviously my priority when I made my request to the Tanna Unelco manager".

Sorry, she says.

Then she could see me clench my jaws and tighten my fists, and certainly she could see the smoke coming out of my ears and the red swirls in my eyes. I was incredulous.

Then she laughed nervously and tapped away on her computer when we started to talk about the billing error. Seems they mistakenly double billed us one month. We then mistakenly double payed before noticing the error (this happened before I arrived). Instead of recognizing that they had double billed us they instead took our double payment and applied it to a security deposit which had never been paid. This so called "bond" was never mentioned on any bill and they didn't indicate that we still had an outstanding balance. So then the next month when I realized we double payed I simply deducted the amount from the current bill and submitted that - with their approval. So now, and for every month that followed, it appeared as if we still owed this amount.

Turns out we owed them some huge deposit, plus two months of bills that I tried in vain to avoid, plus the past due amount that I had deducted from a bill in May.

Now get this: When I said the magic words - cancel our contract - she told me I would now be credited the total amount of the deposit that had been paid in 2005 which was never returned to the factory. Astounding! And shocker of all shockers: this was more than enough to cover all the other charges with money to spare. Of course we will need to pay a new deposit in May, but that won't be a problem.


Holy mamma - I hate utilities.

Thursday, January 18

GROWING PAINS

Blogger has updated their software. So I'm updating Transit34 - at least a little bit. Since I can only do this a little bit here and there you may notice some screwyness (more than usual).

This is not intentional.

Wednesday, January 17

THE INFAMOUS TOKA

The MEKOWIAR Ceremony (August 2006)


Legendary as the single most spectacular custom ceremony in Tanna, and possibly Vanuatu…

Mythic in it’s proportions, intensity, scope, and duration…

Fear-inspiring in it’s tales of sexual debauchery and social mayhem…

Rare and exclusive – it happens just once every four or five years, only on Tanna Island, and the exact date is shrouded in mystery and confusion until just days before the massive, multi-day dance is to begin.

This is the famous… and infamous Mekowair Festival.

Commonly known As:

TOKA (thundering drums pounding in the background)

We, the Peace Corps Trainees, had been hearing tales, and warnings about this large custom ceremony since the day we set foot in Vanuatu. By our good fortune 2006 was the year of the Toka – the first time in over four years. And by my good fortune Tanna Island is once again the place to be. Or not be, depending on how brave you think you are.

I wish I had kept a log of all the different things we heard about Toka from all the different sources. Here’s a quick list off the top of my head:

1. Toka is a massive week-long festival involving thousands of islanders
2. It’s all about sexual debauchery. During three special days the men can grab any woman they want, run off into the bush, fuck, and then move on to the next woman and no one is allowed to judge or complain in any way. Married or not. You call it rape, they call it ceremony.
3. Women can grab any man they want (see above) – although I heard this one much less.
4. The women dance on opening night and don’t stop until the sun comes up the next morning. The men do the same two nights later. All sorts of revelry happens in-between.
5. The festival is called The Mekowair, but the men’s dance is called The Toka –hence the common name for the event is simply “Toka”.
6. The whole area surrounding the Toka is dangerous – constant fighting, too much drinking.
7. Tourist women should not attend without several male escorts – they might be expected to have sex in the bushes.
8. Tourist men, including Peace Corps, might be expected to run off to the bush with an admiring Ni-Van woman. Saying no is not accepted.
9. At the end of the festival, when all the dancing and bush sex is finished they slaughter hundreds of pigs and literaly wash themselves in the blood to cleanse themselves of their sins of the past three days.




Even our medical officer, among other Peace Corps staff, perpetuated these stories – often out of genuine concern.

Naturally the more debased the stories became the higher the number of Peace Corps Volunteers who planned on flying down to Tanna to experience this once-in-a-lifetime event.

So of course I’m feeling a mix of curiosity and concern. I didn’t want to miss this rare event, but nor did I want to put myself in harms way if this “Toka” thing really was all that they were making it up to be – and why would I doubt the stories since I was new in town and had no idea what Ni-Vans were capable of.

Plus, Man-Tanna has this pervasive reputation (at least in Vila and Lelepa) as a "bad boy" town. Seems that whenever there is trouble in Vila it’s often a guy from Tanna, so much so that now Man-Tanna has become the scapegoat for every time some punk causes a ruckus. Since I’ve been here, though, my casual readings of the local papers makes me think that all the ruckus is happening in Luganville – Vanuatu’s second largest urban area on the island of Santo.

Before I even arrived on Tanna the locals had begun training for Toka. Each village that planned on participating would have weekly training sessions at their respective local custom nakamal. I was able to witness several of these sessions and watch them trying to coordinate dance moves, practicing little solo numbers, and then doing it all over and over again – sometimes in everyday clothes (t-shirts and board shorts) but sometimes in various levels of custom dress.

Vanuatu is a land of custom ceremonies, I suppose not unlike the rest of the world - except we don't dance around wearing only a penis sheath when our sister gets married. They have several small ceremonies such as:


Shaving Ceremony - boys aren't allowed to shave their first time until the father says so, at which point they make a party out of it (can you imagine? puberty is hard enough but do we need to celebrate new hair growth?!). There is a similar ceremony for girls when they have thier first period - which they cleverly call "Sick Moon" - but I don't know the name of the ceremony and I haven't seen either of these take place in my village.


Sorry Ceremony - where someone has done something wrong both people get together in front of the whole village and swap pigs and kava and such. Speeches are made and all is forgiven. I got to see one where a wife had told her husband he couldn't drink kava and a fight broke out which included a stick and some broken bottles. In the end she was told she has no right to tell him he can't drink kava and he was told to be nicer. She cried the whole time and he sort of grinned the whole. Then they slaughtered the pig and drank kava and the world kept spinning. These sorry ceremonies are actually a very important part of Vanuatu culture. Even our Country Director has insisted that the very fabric of our national government has been held together through the wonders of the sorry ceremony.


The bigger ceremonies are for Weddings and even bigger is the annual Yam Harvest. But bigger than each of those are the Circumsision ceremonies which takes place several months after the actual procedure which I've not yet witnessed. I've attended several of these parties and the biggest one, up in Matt's village was for about 5-6 boys and was really quite massive.



The thing about each of the above custom ceremony’s is that they each have a purpose. In my opinion, from what I’ve witnessed with my own eyes, they are all very similar – differing mostly only in size and duration. But at least they all have an underlying reason for being. A milestone has been marked, a change has taken place, or a dispute needs to be resolved.

Not so with the TOKA. If I were to take everything I heard about the TOKA and create my own conclusions I would have to say that due to the cultural seperation of the sexes the TOKA was invented as a way to let loose for a few days and experience sexual freedom – a simple, and momentary, lifting of the cultural ties that bind. And just like the Sorry Ceremony, once the TOKA is over you go back to your daily life as if nothing had ever happened.


What happens at TOKA stays at TOKA.

Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel were in town for the event. We’ve seen them toting around the last couple days getting acclimated and visiting other custom ceremony’s while waiting for the official word on the start of TOKA. Jeff happened to be nearby while the film crew from Discovery was getting a TOKA explanation from one of the local chiefs who was using another Ni-Van to translate into English (even though Jeff knew this particular chief could speak English well enough – the translator was just window dressing). He heard the chief explain, at great length, how the TOKA was an event to honor the chiefs of the villages (well of course it is!). No mention of the sexual debauchery – the chief was keen to the idea that the white man wouldn’t approve of such things and probably didn’t want to attract any unnecessary attention. The erroneous tale about honoring the chiefs sounded so much nicer and more “Made for TV” than raping women in the bushes for three days.

At the end of July we were told TOKA would begin Aug. 10th. I was supposed to call PCHQ and let them know the date so the word could be spread around to all the other PCV’s that wanted to travel down for the spectacle. Travel plans would be difficult and they would need as much time as possible. Before I had a chance to call I learned the date was pushed back to Aug. 15th and maybe that wasn’t even the real date. No one really knew for sure, and there didn’t seem to be anyone really in charge. We started speculating that maybe they didn’t want to reveal the actual date too soon as a way to discourage tourists. Indeed so yachties had been waiting for over two weeks when they finally gave up and sailed home.

When Aug.15th was just a few days away it became the 16th, and then the 17th. It became too difficult for other PCV’s to make travel arrangement when the date kept changing. If they got down here and then learned that it was pushed back another week it would be a wasted trip for them – and a big finanical setback. So no one made any plans to visit.

Nor did any other tourists. We had expected all the bungalows to be packed but they weren’t. One other reason – The largest plane servicing Tanna, a 40-seat turbo-prop of unknown make, was once again on the fritz. This surely had a huge impact on tourism during this week.

So anyway…

TOKA was to begin on a Monday with the womens dance. The weekend before I had a hell of a time trying to get the agenda down as I kept getting different answers. The location was very far away, the festival spanned several days, and if you stayed over night it meant sleeping in the bushes – literally. Other than Matt all the men I knew were going to be actually dancing in TOKA with the Lowkatai village – even Jeff and the Japanese aide-worker named Katsut would be joining in the dance.

Monday rolls around and we find that another PCV has flown down with a friend visiting from the US. Turns out that most of the people from my village aren’t attending the first day, so just the white people hire a truck and drive out to see the women’s dance. We arrived in the afternoon just in time to see the last 30 minutes before a break. This was a huge bummer, but what we saw was pretty cool. They would start back up again after dinner and would continue dancing until dawn. Stop again for food, then start again until late Tuesday night when they would finish so the men’s dance could begin.


We came back that afternoon and descended into our own personal white man party mode. We retreated to the bungalows, which we had exclusively to ourselves (the other PCV’s rented a room for the night) and started drinking rum and beer on the beach. Later that night a big bonfire, and more rum and beer on the beach. Now we were joined by Kamut and a friend of mine named Kael (more on him in a future post). We were getting toasty and happy and feeling the excitement of a festival we weren’t even participating in – let alone witnessing.

The next day the other PCV and her friend had to leave. Matt and I immediately set about making preperations for the big night – we didn't know what to expect on any level. Where would we sleep (the bushes) what would we eat (close to nothing) woud we be warm enough (no) would we be able to endure the whole shabang (no) would we get dragged into debased debauchery (no, sadly). So we packed some snacks, some rum, and some magic pills to keep us awake and happy or alseep and happy depending on the need. As for warm clothing we were shit out of luck, as has been the case since we arrived in Tanna.


It’s important to note at this time that every debased thing that was propagated about this event was proving untrue. In fact, after talking with Kamut about all the stories we learned that while some it was true it hadn’t been so for many years. We no longer had any fear of any dangerous situations and didn’t anticipate any sexual debauchery – and after witnessing the women’s dance we were pretty convinved that the whole affair was about dancing and nothing else. The TOKA as it was billed to us was a bust. In it’s place was more of the same stuff we had been witnessing in every other custom ceremony – with two big differences – the sheer enormity of the event, and all the different villages that were showing off to each other.

And to be honest, the dancing wasn’t even that varied, creative, or intense. Matt is a much harsher critic than I, but I have to admit the biggest concern we had about watching TOKA through the night was how to keep from being bored.

As it happened Matt and I found ourselves traveling up to the festival alone. The entire village had left before us to prepare, since they were all involved in the dance. They needed to go ritualistically clense themselves in some river before putting on their Toka face paint. We, however, didn’t need to arrive until several hours later. They gave us what seemed like simple and straight-forward directions and having been there just the day before we felt confident that finding them wouldn’t be so hard.

We arrived when the sun was still up, but we were still wandering around lost when the sky went to pitch black. There were thousands of people milling about – no dancing was happening at this time even though we were told that the women would be dancing through the night. The main dance area was a massive nakamal, but it was deserted as people were wandering around all the smaller nakamals in the surrounding kilometer radius. We kept asking for directions, but no one knew anyone from our village or they didn’t understand our words, or they erroneously sent us off in wrong directions. It was only by chance that we happened upon Steven (French aide-worker) walking with Kamut. It was absolutely pitch dark, hundreds of people were walking up and down this path, but Kamut was able to pick out the two white guys. To him we stood out. But I didn’t even see him standing next to me when Steven was saying hello to us. I ignored him for a long time not realizing who he was – but he was only two feet away!


And so, joined with our people, the revelry began in earnest.

We were led to a nakamal where we were united with a few others from our group standing around a small fire. They were all chilly wearing only custom skirts with no shirts. And the fire was, as usual, little more than smoldering embers. I drank some rum punch. And then more.

When I wasn’t paying attentiong the energy level shifted. Suddenly people were on the move, including my people. Not sure what happened to Matt, but I was noticing that the nakamal was clearing out. Thank god for my buddy Josep (who I had been slipping some of my booze even though they are not allowed to drink during the TOKA – another phallacy brought to light) who realized I was too drunk to walk straight before I even realized it myself. He took me by the arm and we started what I would later realize was an epic hike back to the main staging area.

Funny thing was that I didn’t realize at the time that almost the entire trip was on an uphill incline. I just thought I couldn’t walk ‘cause I was drunk. If only someone told me the road inclined up I might have been able to compensate! Instead I kept falling backwards and Josep had to struggle to keep me upright. What the hell was wrong with me? 30 minutes ago I felt sober and now all the sudden I was drunker than I’d been in ages. And this was the infamous TOKA!

When we got to the staging area – the places where all the separate villages waited before queing up for the dance – they made a bunch of small fires and started putting on face and body paint. It was late and I was suddenly dead tired and layed down in the dewy grass for a nap.

I woke up many hours later (1 or 2am), but amazingly right as they were about to que for the dance. I had impeccable timing! And more importantly – I felt great!

As the group was led out to the opening of the nakamal, lit by only a handful of lights stuck up in trees, Matt and I wandered around the perimeter to view the action.

The dancing begun and we watched from the sidelines. I was surprised when I watched the sunrise come up over the festival – had we really been watching that long? And we continued watching – only now we could actually see people’s outfits.


I’m told that I actually did miss one of the best parts – the women’s dance that immediately preceded the men’s dance. Apparently this was quite a show of force, and although I missed it I had a taste of it the day before and my own personal highlight was about to happen.

At one point, without warning, all the men and women of all the villages formed one large mass of people and then started galloping in one direction while chanting tribally. A large cloud of dust wafted into the air and the ground started to thud. And then they stopped, reversed direction, and came galloping back in full force. This went on for over half an hour and was really quite dramatic and impressive. I made a short video but haven't been able to upload it.

A few hours after sunrise Matt and I were pretty exhausted and took the opportunity to jump on a truck that was heading to our area. Turns out we missed the slaughtering of the pigs, but there was no washing-in-the-pigs-blood-to-absolve-us-of-our-sins going on. They swap pigs, kava, fowl, handcrafts and vegetables with other villages, then weeks later they swap it all back, then weeks after that there is more swapping. I still don't understand it and after the first couple explanations I stopped asking questions.

So that was TOKA. And even though they say it only happens once every 4-5 years we weren't surprised to hear them talking about

Friday, January 5

THESE ARE THE PEOPLE...

...IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD.

Chief Charley
aka The Crypt Keeper. I've never NOT seen Charley in the act of either rolling or smoking tobacco. And for the first 5 months I only ever found him sitting in his spot wherever he was, always with a bush knife in hand, and always randomly hacking at the ground. It was a shock to me to one day seem him walking down the road - I didn't know he could. And then there was the time he decided to wear coke-bottle glasses. Presumably he needs them to see so it calls naturally calls into question every time he's not wearing them, while randomly swinging his knife. I rarely talk to him, since it's mostly unintelligible grunts and such. He can often been seen using hand language to simulate masturbation as a way of being smug - exactly the way some punk teenager might use the same hand language to say "fuck off". Yet when Charley does it I get a strange uncomfortableness. But I was sparred the true horror that poor Matt had to endure one day when he was standing in front of Charley while Charley, sitting on the ground wearing only a skirt of fabric, rolled backwards and totally exposed himself. Matt, feeling traumatized and a bit nauseous, ran to the factory office to share the experience so we could both feel sick together. The best part is that Charley looked at Matt and just laughed at him as he ran off.

Vanessa
A sweet little girl, the daughter of a good friend and staff member of the bungalows where I'm staying. I don't have much to say about her, except that I really like this photo for it's deception. You can practically hear her crying: "for just the price of a cup of coffee you can feed me for one week". This photo looks so sad, pathetic and hopeless. All completely the opposite of what is actually going on. Her face is dirty, it's true, but it's from the joyous feasting on fresh and abundant mangoes. There is just no way to eat a mango without making a mess. And for me the worst part is the pulp getting all stuck in my bottom teeth. Behind her, on the ground, are palm fronds waiting to be crafted into the roof of a new house. The village mamma's had all been on hand to help in the construction of the new home and had just recently taken a mango break when I appeared to take the picture. She ran over to me hoping to get a peak at the camera, but when I pulled back in order to get her in the frame she was disappointed and quickly put her hands behind her back as if I had just reprimanded her. In the very next instant she was all smiles and rubbing her messy little hands all over my camera when I tried to show her the picture that you now see. In the background, behind her right ear, you can see a woman laying down on a matt. I think that's her grandmother taking a break, just chilling in the afternoon sun. It wasn't too hot that day.


Nimisa & Josep
The twins. In fact, Lowkatai is filled with twin boys. The village isn't really a big place, and yet there are no less than 6 sets of male twins in a quarter mile radius... that I know of so far. Did I mention that Nimisa & Josep have twin brothers? Danny & Abel. They also have three other siblings for a total of seven. Danny has been raised since birth by Kamut, my counterpart. So Nimisa (on the left) is the silly, goofy, moronic one with the soft, likable face. Josep got the darker, harsher features which is fitting since he's the "stronghead", fighter-type who is always getting into trouble. Not unsurprisingly I found Josep to be a bit threatening when I first came to site. I seriously thought he was going to be a problem for me. Turns out he's really just a pussy like the rest of them and he was just testing me. Before he even knew anything about me he was making really strange sexual come-ons. Clearly he didn't know who he was dealing with. Once I finally got sick of his inappropriately-timed bullshit I sent the test right back at him. One day when he was repeatedly making innuendos towards me (in a tough-guy kind of way) I cornered him against a wall and put my nose right up next to his nose and told him to kiss me if he wanted to kiss me (for the record I have zero attraction to him). He didn't flinch, but didn't know what to do or say. I finally stepped back and laughed at him, called him some degrading names, and then walked away. The next day he came to my bungalow and talked to me about how we were such good friends and didn't I want to be his friend? and blah blah blah. He never made any more sex jokes after that. I think I confused him real good. So we had a rocky start. In fact, I started out liking Nimisa much more. He seemed like the kinder-gentler Josep. As time went on, though, I decided that Nimisa was far too dumb for words and Josep was actually a really good guy in need of some direction. They are 20 or 21 and only went to year 4 in school (which means basically kindergarten). Since that first month there have been many times when Josep proved himself to be a good friend not the least of which was the night of the famed Toka dance (a post for another time) when he had to steady my drunk and wobbly ass up a long dirt hill in the dark. When we both stopped for a piss I rolled backwards down the hill with my pants at my knees. Oh those where the times! Thank god for Josep's good nature and discretion when he helped me get my shit together when everyone else took off - including Matt and Kamut! Those bastards!. So Josep sometimes works as a cook at the bungalows, but mostly is a bundle of un-tapped energy - the sad story of most Ni-Van youth. He's far too smart for his own good (idle hands are the devils plaything) where Nimisa is just the opposite (ignorance is bliss). Nimisa, as indicated, is good for almost nothing - however he did participate in the Provincial Games (a mini-olympics between all the islands of Vanuatu) as a runner. And they both will do anything for me. Fetch mangoes for example. If I put in a request in the morning a bucket-full will arrive before lunch.

The Lao Family



L to R we have Felina (1.5), Dora, Danny (12), Selina (5), and Kamut. Dora and Kamut have been married for about 14 years, but none of the children are theirs. After trying unsuccessfully for a child for about 2 years one of Kamuts brothers, upon the arrival of his second set of twins, gave Danny to Kamut and Dora for them to raise as thier own. I'm sketchy about the origins of Selina, but Felina, the youngest, came as part of a marriage swap. Dora has an adult child, named Nora, from a previous husband (again, sketchy details). When another man wanted to marry Nora they agreed that the wife price would be their first born. Normally there would be a large swapping of pigs, fowls, kava, mats, and food, as well as maybe some money, but in this case Kamut wanted and needed another child. This worked out well for everyone since they all end up helping each other anyway. It truly does take a village in this place. Now Nora and her husband Poita (a good friend of both Matt and I) have just had a second child and were troubled about what to name the child. Poita, wanting to be everyone's best friend, claimed the child would be named Brett. But at different times he was also to be named Matt, Jeff, or Danny depending on who he was wanting to impress that day. In the end the child is Danny Kaltoro - Kaltoro being my custom name. But I digress. Danny is the boy with the massive sores on his leg. The Peace Corps doctor thinks it's a form of elephantitius (sp?) and that he will have to live with this condition (open, oozing sores) for the rest of his life. Felina use to cry each time I walked towards her (scary white man!) but now will fall asleep in my arms if I bounce around just right. Selina pays me little attention except when I have candy. Dora cooks me Tanna soup nearly every night - she makes a special vegetarian pot just for me and it's always far FAR more than I can ever hope to eat in one sitting. I bring her vegetables and buy them things like salt and spices that they might not normally use. And Kamut is the guy I spend the most of my time with. He works at the factory with me. In the background is a half-built custom house they were constructing in the hopes that Jeff would be extending his contract again. Turns out he is extending but will be stationed in Vila. This means that this will probably be my house when I return to Tanna - NOT what I want since it's super close to all the other houses in his station. My official house still has not yet been started. ho hum.

SOME DUDES


Just some dudes hanging out showing off their custom stuff. This is another photo I found on the Peace Corps computers. Not sure what island these guys are from, but I really like the composition of this picture. Thanks to whomever left it for me to find.

TANNA COFFEE IN MELE

This is the house I've been staying at while in Efate. The village is called Mele, and the Ni-Van section is across the street and is quite massive. The ocean is a stones through off the left side of the photo. Now before you go thinking I'm living it up in some luxurious plantation-style home I would have to correct you a bit. First of all, there are three large dogs that I'm caring for, one of which is most definitely retarded (in a lovable, but dangerous-to-herself kind of way) and she's a puppy to boot. As for the house, it was built in 1901 and according to Terry it's the first "house" in Vanuatu (all the other Ni-Van abodes apparently not qualifying for that title). The original upper floor is just one large living area - very open and breezy with two large sliding glass doors and full of hand-painted wall tapestries. Only two bedrooms and a bathroom downstairs. The previous owner built a massive addition to the back of the house, but it's unfinished except for the upper level which has been made into a kitchen.

Terry, as owner of Tanna Coffee - the roasting, packaging and wholesaling business - is by no means a wealthy man as some might have expected. In fact, he and his lovely little wife live a very modest life. While the house is large and roomy and the front balcony is amazing, the amenities are basic at best. Hot water is hard to come by except in the shower where it works in spurts. The TV gets 20 channels, but only 3 of which are worth watching - although I use the word "worth" VERY generously here. I'm not complaining, but asian (australian?) satellite TV is pretty bad. Thank god they have BBC and National Geographic channel. The thing I was most looking forward to - unfettered and "high"speed internet access - is not happening here. Apparently Terry only has a 5-hour per month dial-up connection and his monitor has a habit of going green after several minutes. This means traveling to the PC office to use our computers. Not a terrible thing, just not what I was looking forward to. And since the house is outside of town I have to be careful how long I stick around in the evening so that I don't miss the last bus home.

On the other hand I have a kitchen with no tourists, a ping-pong table where I kick Kael's ass every day, a large proper mattress, a full-size shower, and I can watch TV (regardless of the quality) sitting on a fluffy sofa while eating my dinner. And best of all - no cackling chickens or crying babies, although I still do have barking dogs.

So I'll be here until the 20th and then I'll be back in a guesthouse (traveler's motel) until the last week of January. Then it's back to Tanna where I'll most definitely miss living in Terry's house.

HAPPY NEW YEAR

Here is me sipping a weak cocktail at "Shooter's" - one of the three bars in downtown Vila, and the only one that seems to get any Ni-Van clientele. The others bars are mostly just ex-pats and yachties - bleeech!


Happy New Year!

I think I look sort of strange in this photo, but it's appropriate for the occasion. I'm still sporting some pretty sun burnt cheeks so that adds to the strangeness i suppose.

There was hardly any other PCV's in town for New Years Eve. Kael, my friend from Tanna who was on holiday with me, and a PCV from my training group named Teresa decided to make a night on the town. Just the three of us. It soon became apparent that we were a little triangle of sexual frustrations. She wanted me, I wanted him, he wanted her. But I didn't want her, she didn't want him, and he didn't want me. It was a classic impasse. Nothing left to do but make the situation worse. We grabbed a bottle of wine from Terry's liquor cabinet and started drinking in the bus ride into town. You can do that here. In fact, you can walk around with open bottles if you like. And just because we can, we do. There's a tremendous novelty feature in public drinking. But don't worry Grandma - I'm not a lush. Then we got ourselves some pizza. Actually kind of tasty. Oh the joy of delicious foods!




It was AFTER pizza that we headed to Shooter's. After a couple drinks and hanging around for a bit we headed to the water front to watch the midnight fireworks display over the harbor. I was told they were being put on by the Iririki Island resort so I made the mistake of having higher than reasonable expectations. When they went off, which was intermittent, they looked a little bit like this...


Actually, some of them were pretty good. But there was long pauses in-between fireworks - like they were looking around for more matches or something. At the same time there was a cacophony of noise coming from the main street drag. Cars were driving around honking horns and pick-ups over-flowing with screaming people were given police escorts, sirens and lights blaring, as they drove around and around the loop. Then we headed back to Shooter's for another drink and some dancing. My knee has been absolutely killing me lately so I was well supplied with Vicodin. Thank god for effective pain killers. We danced like fools for about 2 hours before deciding we should try and find transport which we knew was going to be a problem since our house is almost 10 minutes outside of Vila and tonight is a dangerous night to be driving around. Ni-Vans are known to not be able to handle their drink.
So it took a while, including a series of unsuccessful negotiations (screeching tires, flipping of the bird, angry face-making and so forth) but finally we got ourselves a little old man in a tired and beat-up micro bus to take us out to Mele for double the usual price - still a bargain at 2am on New Years Eve.
Halfway to our house some asshole jumps up from behind some bushes and hurles a rock into our windshield. The rock makes a hole the size of a large foot, but miraculously bounces off instead of coming in. Glass hits me, sitting in the back of the bus, and the windshield completely shatters so the driver can barely see out. Kael was in the front passenger seat, covered with glass, but so lucky that he didn't get hurt at all. The driver didn't stop, which was probably a very smart move, but once we got the house he was too scared to drive back. We phoned the police and left him by the road to wait.
Now I hate to disappoint my 10 loyal readers by not finishing the part about the love triangle, especially since this is the part where the story gets interesting, but some peeps here are pressuring me to hurry up and get off the damn internet. Time for lunch. Time for the next persons chance to use the computer. The story about love in a developing country will just have to wait until next time.

Saturday, December 30

THE CLEVER

Our volunteer in South Tanna, David Keppen, had some items stolen from his property a few months ago. This is kind of shocking to me, since the culture and island life don't really leave themselves open to this sort of behavior. Plus, at least for me, it's easy to develop a family-like repoire with your village where they would feel very ashamed if anything, especially a theft, occurred. In fact, it's been my experience that they are very protective of me and my belongings. On the other hand, man will be man. And when you have flashy things like CD players and digital camera's I suppose you open yourself up to any possibilities. And of course people from outside your village are just as capable of theft as anyone.


So David had some items stolen right from inside his house. He talked to the village about it, had some meetings and so forth. No one seemed to know what to do, and David wasn't about to let it go. If someone knew what had happened they weren't sharing any information or they were too ashamed for one reason or another. David needed to appeal to a higher power - higher than the village chief. Turns out his village had a suggestion. They told him to go see "The Clever". "The Clever" - David had never heard of him. What kind of person was this? what sort of special powers does someone that goes by that name possess? But David had little other choices and in any event this all sounded rather intriguing, so why not humor everyone. And so David went to seek out this mystical sounding individual.

As if he had stepped into the Matrix seeking the wisdom of the Oracle, David found himself climbing hills, jumping rivers, and crossing forests of lush green tropical flora in hopes of having a face-to-face with the all knowing, all powerful Clever.

Upon meeting the Clever the interview process began. There was no pomp, no ceremony to the occasion. Just enter the hut, sit down, and wait for your turn to speak. What is your name? where did you come from? what is your business here? and so on. The Clever understood the problem and declared his ability to help David and restore his possessions.
But first he needed to communicate with his underlings.

The Clever reaches to the ground by his side, where David notices for the first time a selection of small stones and random sticks and rocks, and makes the carefully considered selection of a small, plain looking stone. He then nonchalantly places the stone into his ear. Then, while holding a finger to the inserted stone, and looking absently away from David, makes like he is placing a cellphone call. To David's great credit he stood by patiently and politely while waiting for the call to go through. Then when there was an apparent connection The Clever begins speaking out loud providing details of the situation at hand, periodically pausing to get clarification from David.

"Yes, that's correct... a Peace Corps Volunteer", he says to the... stone.

Then quickly turns to David:

"Uhm... What did you say your name was?"

"David Keppen

"Ah yes", then turns his face away, "He says his name is David Keppen". Then to David again:

"And you are from which village?"
"High Hill"

"Ah yes", then looks towards the ceiling while continuing his call, pressing the stone solidly into his ear, "He's from High Hill and he had items stolen from his home..."

This line of behavior continued for some time before The Clever purportedly hung up (pulled the stone out of his ear and carefully returned it to it's special place on the dirt floor) and explained that all was going to work out just fine, he would have his items returned shortly. David thanked The Clever, and took his leave without asking any questions.

Returning home from work the next day he found on his doorstep his CD player and digital camera and the other random items that had been taken. No indication of where they came from or who may have taken them - but there they were back again with nary a scratch.



He later came to learn who the most likely suspects where, as did all the villagers, and he decided to let it go - to not follow up by "pressing charges". The village, however, insisted upon have a "Sorry Ceremony" as a way for healing and moving forward. More about "Sorry Ceremony's" in another post. Couldn't we all use a Clever.
Love the name.