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.
Thursday, February 8