January is a difficult month in Vanuatu: the height of cyclone season and spell, in which school and work are paused. This means torrents of rain pounding on my tin roof and not much activity besides pulling weeds in the garden. Now that the end of my time here is tangible, if not still tantalizingly distant, I’ve sworn to utilize the long stretches of free time that accompany village life rather than lamenting it. My grandparents sent me a box of watercolors for Christmas, so in January I cut the paper with my gerber and taped it to the back of an in-flight magazine with electrical tape. I’ve always been an inconsistent, easily disheartened artist, but as the rain blew sideways through my bamboo walls, I finally had the time to draw things properly. To piece together all the fragmented to shapes into a coherent, multidimensional picture. Turns out a decent drawing far increases the odds of a decent painting, a lesson I should have heeded in high school. Now here’s to hoping they safely round the Pacific to reach American mailboxes.
Depicted: Hike to the airport from my village on Paama Island
Upon leaving my island nation home of Vanuatu for the first time since arriving in October 2012, I am just realizing how much I have forgotten of western culture. We flew from Port Vila to Brisbane, and then on to Christchurch, New Zealand. In my former life, the layover would have been a vexation to me, but after a year in the bush, the glossy walkways, kiosks with current magazines and a choice of eateries not featuring rice or taro was a source of fascination. I liked the glitz, but had forgotten how stressful feeding baggage and body parts through scanners at airport security can be. It got me thinking about my airport on Paama and just how indicative of Vanuatu’s development it is.
Paama’s airport is a open cement terminal on a grass airstrip that is serviced twice a week by an eight seater called “The Islander.” As much as I look forward to escaping the village, a trip to the airport is stressful, involving a 3-hour hike up and down the hill followed by a canoe/boat ride along the northern coast. Paama’s grass runway is the shortest in Vanuatu, which means rains, strong winds or roaming cattle can lead to flight cancellations. I always call ahead before embarking on the walk to the airport, as capping off a missed flight with a three hour walk back to the village is a bit morale-draining. However, the terminal has no cell phone service. If the flight is confirmed, checking a bag requires handing it to the agent and security is nonexistent. I’ve flown with a bush knife as long as my arm. The one things they are strict about is weight, as The Islander is pretty flimsy. All passengers must mount the scale, where the agent may decree them, ‘fat fat’ for all the hear. Vanuatu!
Pictured: Paama island, as seen from the shores of Lopevi. My village, Lulep, is the second valley from the right.
One of the main incentives to join the Peace Corps is the prospect of travel, but once they arrive in their host country, volunteers roam surprisingly infrequently. Volunteers are effective because they live enveloped in communities for two years, mostly in rural villages. I may be living in a bamboo house across the world, but I am very much settled. The wildest part of going to Lopevi for me was the change in perspective. Instead of staring at the volcano, the view was of my own island. Paama is essentially a crocodile submerged in water: one steep ridged hill punctuated by a valley here and there. The way the hill parts to form land flat enough to foster a village seems like almost a fluke. Upon arriving here, I half-jested that Paama seemed utterly unfit to human habitation with its brutally steep inclines, lack of rivers or creeks, and rocky coast smashed by fierce waves. But here I am — here we are — eeking out a living on this 3 by 5 mile scrap of an island in the vast Pacific ocean.
If the being here has taught me anything, it’s that this planet is absolutely teeming with life and it is all worthy of awe and exploration.