Peace Corps in 27 Months
What were we doing for 2 years in the South Pacific? We embarked on our journey to Vanuatu. Now, we are back in the USA for a 1 month break which has given me a chance to reflect on experiences in Vanuatu, the small island nation in the South Pacific we’ve called home. Our plan is to extend for 12 more months. If all goes well, we will be there even longer. Because our blogs were lost (virus? hacker?), I will slowly add to this post with photos and links showing what went on. Thanks for all of the support family and friends have given us, and thanks to our followers. You can see my blog here, http://steve.invanuatu.com or Lexy’s blog at http://lexy.invanuatu.com. You can also take a look at a curated view of Vanuatu and the internet/social media presence of people living and/or doing work here. This is a work in progress. When it goes live, you can see it here at http://www.invanuatu.com
|Events and Happenings
|-Staging in Los Angeles; met our new Peace Corps mates; arrived in Vanuatu; stayed shortly at IDS camp in Pango Village for or first exposure to island life.
-Saw our first big spiders and sweated through the night in the summer heat
|-I started training in Tassiriki Village, Moso Island. Relaxed in the sun and met locals while learning the language and culture.
-Lexy started training in Epau Village, Efate Island. Worked hard on technical training and made lasting relationship with her host family.
-Peace Corps changed our site from a city (Lenakel, Tanna) to an extremely remote and isolated village on Maewo Island.
|Steve and Lexy swap training villages:
-I returned for technical training in Epau Village, Efate Island. Planted a taro and kava garden; learned to use a machete. Taught kids English literacy for the first time in my life-Lexy returned for language and culture training in Tassiriki Village on Moso Island.-Survived the night during “unexpected” Category 2 Cyclone Lucy.
-Peace Corps official “Swearing In” ceremony. We were no longer “trainees”, but we were now officially “volunteers.”
|-We moved to Naviso, Maewo Island, a place of rich custom, culture and beauty, situated right on the open blue Pacific Ocean to the East, reflecting green mountains from West. No telecommunications, 4 hour hike to the Western side, and two days to the closest hospital. Isolation, remoteness, peace. This was an amazing first month of service getting to know our new friends in the village
|-Received our first visitors (Phil, Sydney and Emily) to our site and first packages from home. We received amazing junk food, magazines and supplies—our first re-exposure with the outside world and consumerism.
-I contracted island scabies for the first time (one of many times after) while being stranded on Ambae Island for over 1 week due to rough seas.
|-We traveled to the capital city of Port Vila, enjoyed and had the greatest feelings of returning from deprivation in the village. Tears came to our eyes as we ate spaghetti and pizza for the first time. We also tasted our favorites: Chinese, Thai, ice cream, and every other good food item. Looking back after two years, deprivation no longer yields such cravings. The more chances for deprivation and then subsequent return to normalcy, the less I realized I needed junk food or material things–a grand realization that has changed me forever.
-In Port Vila, internet at 56k dialup speeds (too slow!). Uploading photos to the internet nearly impossible. This would change in the next year due to the underwater submarine cable connecting to Vanuatu through Fiji. http://interchange.vu/current-projects/
|-I got to work in the classroom: Singing, jumping, dancing, teaching English to first, second and third graders. I worked as track coach and drill instructor to train kids for Children’s Day cross country and track meets. We had a great time team building through fitness.
-Lexy on the pulse with health issues in the community, working in the clinic–mentoring health workers, community members and clinic committee members
|-We welcomed our adopted new white puppy, Happy, into the family.
-Celebrated Lexy’s 30th birthday—slept and froze our butts off in the jungle on a mountain side—ate slingshotted birds from the trees, freshwater eels, shrimp and fish from the river-Steve achieved customary rank in the village by “killing” a pig. He could now go deeper inside the men’s meeting place (the “Nakamal”)
|-Lexy went to Tennessee to attend her cousin’s wedding
-Steve promoted literacy in the village by dancing in customary clothes and body paint, creating a character with the school committee’s help, “The Learning Man”, during the September 8th Mother’s Union festival, a gathering of Anglican women and families from all over Maewo.
|-Created first Halloween in Naviso with a Haunted House at Bakanao Primary School in Naviso, including goblins, ghouls, and scary music. Everyone dressed up in scary and fun costumes.
-A wonderful donation from Kiwanis Clubs of Port Vila and New Zealand was received for the future library, including over 900 books, resources and toys. These were shipped to West Maewo and transported by foot by students over the mountain to East Maewo
|-Thanksgiving in the Capital, Port Vila. We ate Pizza because there was no turkey.
-Peace Corps Regional Director, Ken, and Country Director, Keith, visited our village and experienced one of the most wonderful and special welcomes a guest has ever received upon arriving in Naviso.
|-I attended workshop on Project Design and Management with my counterpart, Derik, to plan a community project in Naviso
-Vacationed in New Zealand with Mom, Dad and Lexy.
|-We ran a gender-inclusive two day workshop on community priorities and needs. Shook our booties off, danced, played, drew pictures, planned and discussed the community’s future
-Founded the Community Safe House project committee (to build a community center and cyclone evacuation center). Began designing and planning with full community support and involvement by using the participatory planning process. Crafted a vision for our project: To create a central place where all people can come together, in times of celebration, times of disaster and at any time—to unite and strengthen the voice of the community; to display and preserve kastom; to improve education and learning; and to develop the local economy
|-Whale vomit (known as ambergris) purportedly discovered in Maewo, floated to the shores, potentially yielding $25,000 per kilogram. This rare ingredient is used in very expensive perfumes, especially highly valued in Europe. An Asian proprietor chartered a plane to Maewo to try to purchase this product. It’s a gold rush (ambergris rush)! Steve leads a journey to sell this lucrative product for fair value, but only reveals to villagers that all of our hope for grand fortunes is just “fool’s gold.” The ambergris isn’t real, but rather floating ocean trash and dead animal remains. Lessons: Everyone learned a lesson. So, now we know what the real ambergris looks like, and we have a more legitimate way to sell it if the people of Maewo actually strike gold in the future.
|Monster Category 5 Cyclone Pam slammed Vanuatu, leaving massive destruction in its wake. Peace Corps charted a plane to evacuate us from Maewo Island. After much deliberation with the US Government, it was decided that a commercial jet would evacuate us from the country. We stayed 10 days in Sydney, Australia in suspense with hearts in knots, unsure of the fate of our village with telecommunications broken for weeks. Peace Corps told us we were going back! Rested and ready to see and help our families, we returned to an emotional welcome and began to survey the damage. We carried on, changed, but still volunteers in Vanuatu. Thanks Washington for letting us go back to the place we fell in love with and couldn’t let go of.
|-Returned to Naviso village after Cyclone Pam. Limited damage in our village. 3 houses collapsed, minor injuries.
-Ran workshop on Virgin Coconut Oil and Soap production in the community with the help of Elvina Baniala. This was a fun way to explore the value and many uses of homemade coconut oil and to open up new income generating opportunities for families. It resulted in great interest in the process and new demand for this healthy and precious oil.
|-Created grants proposals to build the East Maewo Community Safe House. We were still unsure where funding would come from and whether this project would actually happen.
|-Received funding for Community Safe House through both French and German Embassies (nearly $30,000 USD total)
|-Horses offer potential transportation of people and cargo across the island of Maewo. This presented an opportunity to teach about this transport method and animal husbandry. Lexy purchased a horse from the island of Santo. Nancy, the horse, arrived in Maewo by ship in July.
-Grand Opening of the Bakanao Primary School Library, creating employment of two women (Librarian and Assistant Library jobs) and giving 120 students the chance to hold, read and check out books for the first time. Thanks Kiwanis Clubs of Port Vila and New Zealand for these resources, and thanks to Facility Solutions (http://www.facilitysolutionsinc.com) for donating three laptop computers.
-Projects starting to roll: Negotiated free shipping for Safe House materials to East Maewo thank to Y.A. Shipping in Santo (https://www.facebook.com/yashipping/). Contracts signed with France and Germany, materials ordered.
|-Gary, Lexy’s brother from the USA, travels from Bali, Indonesia to Vanuatu to visit us. He is the only family member able to make the full trek to our village. He stays the whole month and gets the full village experience.
|-Lexy implements the solarSPELL digital solar library, developed by California Polytechnic State University—a wifi hotspot that doesn’t require internet to load content. This helped educate community members and students on mobile device functionality, computers and basic knowledge of the internet. Photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/l3xy/sets/72157659667930711 Field update article: https://ict4dviewsfromthefield.wordpress.com/2015/10/11/solarspell-first-field-update-from-alexis-steve-in-naviso-maewo-vanuatu-a-smashing-success/ Additional publicity: http://solarspell.org/voice-of-america-features-solarspell-on-learning-english-news-program
-Ship LC Sabrina carrying Safe House project supplies wrecked on shores of Naviso for one month. Crew stays in village with ship and becomes family of Naviso, East Maewo.
-Steve goes to Santo with his host brother Salemala, who nearly died in a 10 foot fall on his back. The next day, partially paralyzed, he was carried up the mountain and transported to West Maewo. On Day 4, he was finally flown to Santo where he received an x-ray and slowly regained function to his body after one week. He was released from the hospital after one week and received a clear bill of health, returning to Maewo island as happy as young kid could be.
|-In order to prepare for Nancy’s arrival, the community took action to improve the trail to Naviso. In the process, they realized that they could build a road on their own—a road that could accommodate a horse or a truck. This grand realization resulted in a “trans-continental railroad –esque” project. The community in Ngota dug out the road from Ngota down. Naviso dug from the bottom of the mountain up along the side. About one full mile of road was carved out of the mountain with hands, shovels and garden tools. This was pure man and woman power. The prospect of a horse coming helped to motivate people, as well as the long-term need for a road—unanswered requests to the government and unmet promises by politicians over 30 years.
-Trip to Australia with Steve’s parents. Attempts made to redesign the Safe House building so that it was structurally sound for cyclone and earthquakes. At first, failed due to my inexperience, long time frames from engineers and logistical issues. However, the project was going to happen no matter what, I thought.
|-Nancy the horse happened to be pregnant when we bought her. In November, she delivered a stillborn baby horse (black male). We believe this was due to her being so young (2 years old) and additional birthing complications. The amniotic sack was late to break, so the baby horse only took a few breaths before she was fully delivered. This was the first time the community witnessed a horse birth and burial of a newborn horse.
-Lexy sent two youth boys to Vila to train with the “Horse Whisperer of Vanuatu”, Tom, in order to promote the good management and use of horses in Maewo. They stayed for 4 months, came back to the island for Easter 2015 and will return to continue their training.
-Baby blue, our cat, gave birth to three beautiful kitties. Baby Blue disappeared two weeks later, so we nursed the kitties ourselves with coconut milk and powdered milk. They are now healthy young cats.
|-LC Sabrina repaired and returns to drop remaining materials off for Safe House construction. Building redesigned using existing materials and new foreman engaged to help complete the project.
-Safe House construction project starts by breaking ground. The full community effort now starts.
|-Lexy moved to Port Vila to work on project to get telecommunications into the village. Lexy moved Nancy the horse to a ranch in West Maewo, took the three kitties, Happy the dog, and flew to Port Vila with all of them—leaving me alone for two months 🙁 to finish my projects in the village
-Lexy went to Hawaii for the Pacific Telecommunications Counsel conference
|-Safe House under construction and in homestretch: Over 3 months, 250+ community members made 3,322 concrete blocks by hand, carried 300+ metric tons of building materials over 10,000+ miles uphill to and from the project site. 12 carpenters worked long days and nights with big hearts at great sacrifice to their families and gardens. During this project, there was amazing community solidarity, logistical nightmares, physical strain and injury, mutiny and reconciliation, and delays due to three villager deaths (all of natural causes).
-Lexy proceeded with survey phase of the Maewo telecommunications and telemedicine project
|-Lexy came to help me move out and for the Grand Opening Event of the East Maewo Community Safe House and our farewell send-off.
-Moving out, the weather responded to our departure. We got drenched, along with all of our possessions, upon our move out by pouring rain. Later, we were stranded on Maewo due to plane cancellations. However, this gave us the chance to say good bye to friends and do much needed ground work for Lexy’s telecommunications project.
-During our trip back, we held a workshop to set up a Maewo telecommunications advocacy group, the Maewo Telecommunications Committee. There, we developed the vision and goals of the committee. This body will be used to advocate and implement projects related to telecommunications in Maewo.
-Plans finalized to extend 12 more months. I will be working for ACTIV (www.activassociation.org) working on marketing initiatives, supply chain items, training programs, and a virgin coconut oil production facility. Lexy already started working under the Office of the Chief Information Officer as volunteer project manager of pilot telemedicine projects.
|-Received official certificate for setting up the Maewo Telecommunications Committee (Inc.)—a community-based telecommunications advocacy association.
-Vacation in the USA before re-upping in the Peace Corps. Thanks for following us along our two year stint. Looking forward to 1+ more!