Anything for a month

More like anything for two years. To be updated with varying degrees of out-of-date photos during my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a country you've never heard of in the South Pacific.
Peace Corps skills acquired: how to scale, gut and properly cook a giant parrot fish. 

Peace Corps skills acquired: how to scale, gut and properly cook a giant parrot fish. 

Purple crabs of Lulep. 

Purple crabs of Lulep. 

Sweet bebe Remo. 

Sweet bebe Remo. 

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.

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! 

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! 

The general tedium and lack of manufactured products in the village life lends itself quite well to making things from scratch. As the closing of my three session women’s health workshop approached, I struggled to find a way to package the small presents promised to participants who attended every session that did not involve plastic baggies and duct table. I lamented not purchasing wrapping paper the last time I was in the capital city, but then I figured I could try and make my own. I spent the day in the aid post painting watercolor zigzags and loops on flip chart paper. It took the entire afternoon, but paired with a stream of three month old podcasts and visits from some of my favorite mamas,  I didn’t mind a bit. 

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. 

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. 

As a last-hoorah before my island-mate Sam finished her two years of service, we made the trip to Lopevi, the sea volcano we’d been staring at for two years. In the 1980s the government resettled Lopevi’s residents after a particularly large explosion. The uninhabited volcano is a kind of paradise to the islanders: fish, wild yam, crab and coconut are all in abundance. We packed tents, water, matches and kava, and set off for the volcano on a speed boat with some friends from the village. 

After an hour-long, wave-sloshing ride, we arrived at the south side of Lopevi where purple flowers grow over the black sand beach. As we landed the boat, a old man appeared and walks towards us. Apparently some of Lopevi’s resettled residents had began to trickle back to live on their ancestral lands, risk of fire and ash or not. His daughter welcomed us with a bamboo shelter to sleep in and a pile of wild yams to roast. Sam and my mission had been to enjoy and explore the volcano, but the ni-van’s viewed the trip as an opportunity to stuff as many crabs and yams into the rice sacks they held as possible. So as to not encroach upon this surprise family’s food supply, we sought out an uninhabited sleep spot.

Due to years of eruptions, trails of lava flows swerve down Lopevi’s hill and spill into the sea, creating a coastline of jagged volcanic rocks. Our boat driver managed to find a scrap of sand flanked by two magma spills where we landed the boat and set up our tents. I remember our country director describing the Peace Corps as “two years of camping”, but life in the village is much more permanent. I have a bucket shower, a bed shrouded by a mosquito net, plastic plates, a solar panel. This is camping. We dig a hole to go to the toilet, scratch coconuts with a clam shell, and strain kava through Sam’s spare shirt. At night we wriggle in our tents to carve out a space for our bodies in the dense sand.

Mt. Yassur on Tanna, the world’s most accessible/least safety regulated volcano, is billed as the must-see tourist destination in Vanuatu; it literally continuously blows scalding magma into the sky, guaranteeing a spectacular show. Lopevi performs no such magic, remaining banally inactive: not even a wisp of smoke since I’ve arrived! The villagers in Lulep love when Lopevi erupts. The ocean barrier prevents the lava from reaching our island; instead it runs into the water, killing all the fish that wash up on our shore, creating a biblical-style feast on the shore. Viewing the fiery eruption was “better than TV!” according to the villagers. If Lopevi blows, I’m claiming a front-row seat on our hill with a fire and sack of wild yams. 

Psychedelic sweet potato found in the South Pacific. 

Psychedelic sweet potato found in the South Pacific. 

Workshop participants map their villages.