Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Yu No Kick Part 20: The End

Before beginning, I would like to apologize for my long absence from blog writing. This second year of my service I have fallen far from the one-blog-a-week standard that I held to for my first year. In short, I seem to have run out of things to write about. Living in Vanuatu is no longer a new and crazy experience for me, one worthy of chronicling, instead it has become the routine of everyday life. My time here has sort of fallen into a sort of lethargy. My village and host family no longer consider me a novelty and thus have ceased taking me out on adventures in the bush. Teaching class has become a simple thing, no longer needing much thought or effort to accomplish. Even such tasks as slaying giant centipedes are now performed with a kind of lazy efficiency that comes with constant practice. There are still stories to tell, for sure. Like how the constant stream of school children taking water from my house's water tank was slowly driving me insane and how I dyed the whole tank yellow with food coloring in an attempt to discourage them. Or how a misunderstood tsunami warning sparked a mass panic in my village, sending men, women, and children fleeing for the hills as fast as they could run. Time progresses and things happen but I'm afraid much of my motivation for writing about such happenings has been lost. In the last months of my service my mind has turned to other things. That being said, I enjoy closure and so I offer this final blog entry to round out the series.

It is not as hot as it was last year. The fierce November sun is sometimes hidden behind gray blankets of clouds, giving us precious hours or even days of respite from its persistent heat. My rain tank ran dry last week, the first time it has run out without me intentionally emptying it, as for almost a month storm clouds loomed and yet rain did not come, but now frequent showers provide all the water I could need. A strong wind has taken the pieces of corrugated metal that used to make up the roofs of my outhouse and shower, so now I plan my showers and prolonged trips to the toilet around the weather, lest I get rained on while sitting on the can. I also finally grew tired of the uneasy truce between myself and my household ants and invested in a can of Mortein spray. I destroyed four ant nests on the first day and now do daily patrols for ant trails. The used computers I ordered from the US finally arrived, almost a year after I collected money for orders from people in my village. A steady trickle of Ni-Vans drop by my house to pick up their orders and ask questions like “so... what does it do?” A new group of volunteers have also arrived, our replacements. Eight were assigned to Malekula and have already started their service, making my group essentially redundant. They are excited, energetic, and optimistic and roll their eyes, as I once did, when they hear McKenzie, Laura and I make cynical jokes about Peace Corps and discuss how nice it will be to be rid of Vanuatu's many annoyances.

Vanuatu has changed a lot for a country where nothing seems to ever change. The quiet, patient village of Tautu is not quite as quiet and patient as it used to be. Duncan, my host dad, is a working man now. He has taken out a loan from the bank and has used it to purchase a compressor and a machine for removing tires from their hubs. He has built an addition to his small store and now uses the extra space to run a wheel-repair business. When I go over to meet him for kava I now I find him wearing grease-stained coveralls and exhausted from a long day. He seems to be doing pretty well, and has told me that he is already close to paying off his loan, even though he still has a year and a half to go on it. Duncan has grand plans for his business. He envisions running a large store in the front of his property, near the road, and having a small guest house behind. He's already cleared the land in preparation for this. The twisted, l-shaped mango tree that used to overhang the nakamal is gone, as is the naus tree from which Duncan's nakamal light used to hang. The lonely white light announcing the presence of kava now sits atop a small, square, wooden post that juts up from the ground. The once shady yard is now a grass and dirt clearing marked by the tire treads of the many trucks that visit Duncan's shop.

I do not really know what to think of this. It sometimes seems sad to see the simple village lifestyle be invaded and transformed by western influence and technology. In many ways it seems like something is being lost, and I feel compelled to try and make Duncan understand this, to tell him that the western way of life he covets comes at the price of tranquility and that he may one day find himself working hard to procure things he once could have had for free. At the same time, I now find myself sweating away my final days on Malekula, anxiously awaiting the time when I can board a plane and return to the life that I would be maligning. In the end I found that village life did not, in fact, suit me as well as I initially thought. The slow pace, ample free time, and pervading lethargy fuel a slow boredom that eats away at you and makes you constantly restless. In the end it was not the difficultly of village life that got to me, but rather the simplicity. And who's to say that some Ni-Vanuatu don't feel the same, that they don't also become restless with their traditional lifestyles which we insist are so important to preserve. In the end I think I must confess my own ignorance. The ideals which seemed so clear when I signed up for Peace Corps have faded into a dull obscurity of confusion. In the future I will leave the giant muddle of international development to more able (or perhaps more stubborn) individuals.

In the end, leaving my village was much the same as coming to it, a calm, quiet affair with a good deal less fanfare than my ego would perhaps have liked. It was probably for the best though, I'd spent most of my service with my host parents, Duncan and Linda, and so most of my goodbyes were with them. They treated me amazingly well during my time here and I could not have asked for a better host family, and I hope to go back and see them sometime. It's hard to say whether or not I will miss Vanuatu, but I imagine I will, as one tends to miss any place where one has spent a substantial period of time.

Let me finish off this rather inconclusive conclusion by thanking all of you that have taken time out of your exciting lives in the US (and trust me, they are exciting. Most anything is compared to the slow life in Vanuatu) to read my blog. I hope it has been entertaining. I also very much appreciate those of you who went to the trouble of sending me emails, postcards, letters, and packages. You all were what kept me going. I hope to see many of you upon my return to the States, and I implore the rest of you to enjoy a bottle of beer and a plate of bacon on my behalf. Ale,


Friday, October 2, 2009

Yu No Kick Part 19: Ambae

Aside from Mount Yasur, the volcano on Tanna, the volcano that gets talked about the most by Peace Corps volunteers is probably Manaro on the island of Ambae. I think a lot of Manaro's fame comes not from the volcano itself, but rather from the fact that it's associated with a tattoo that a lot of volunteers have gotten. Manaro isn't as active (at least not in the flinging-lava-up-into-the-air sense) as Yassur, and I knew right from the start that my penny-in-the-volcano dreams would not be fulfilled there, but the lure of visiting a volcano is always difficult to resist and so when I was invited to climb Manaro with a group of volunteers I, of course, accepted. Although not as active as Yasur, Manaro is generally considered to be more dangerous as the consensus seems to be that at any moment it could blow and begin raining fire down on the surrounding countryside. Some parts of the island of Ambae have even been evacuated in the past for fear of this.

Ambae is just a little bit northeast of Malekula (although the plane ride necessitates a stopover on Santo first), and so, unlike in Tanna, no pleasant changes in climate could be expected. Shockingly, Ambae's airport had even less going for it than Norsup's. The building beside the tarmac could, just barely, be called a shanty. It looked to have been hastily constructed using bamboo and coconut wood, but a few details had been overlooked, including a roof. A few coconut leaves rested on top of the frame, providing a couple, haphazard, patches of shade to waiting passengers. The office was covered by a hodge-podge of tarps and plastic sheets which looked like they would hold up in a rainstorm about as well as pieces of paper. They even seemed to be using a bathroom scale to weigh people's luggage.

Justine met me at the airport and we caught a ride into Saratamata, the provincial center of the province of which Ambae is a part. Saratamata followed the, what seems to be, standard provincial center town layout. There were a few stores selling canned and packaged food, a soccer field, and some government offices. They'd also apparently recently received some international assistance in constructing a new Provincial Education Office. Buildings built by Ni-Vanuatu on the outer islands all tend to share a number of characteristics. First, it's painfully obvious that none of the construction crew bothered to shell out a couple bucks for a level (keep in mind that buying enough cement, timber, and nails to put a small building together is going to run you at least ten grand in Vanuatu, so it seems like tacking on the extra couple dollars for the level shouldn't really be a problem). Doorways are uneven, window frames as well, walls tend to have a slight slant to them, which is most noticeable in the corners of the structure, which are never quite a clean 90 degrees. Second, it's equally obvious that no one knows anything about how to properly make concrete. The concrete bricks that houses and other buildings are built with have a consistency closer to that of a four-year-old's sand castle than the sturdy rock that they're supposed to resemble. Accidentally kicking one such brick will, likely as not, cause it to crumble and break. Thus, even newly built structures tend to look like they're in the rather advanced stages of falling apart. Finally, none of them make use of any shapes more advanced than the rectangle. Ambae's provincial education office, in contrast, had been built by an EU construction crew and made use of the rather advanced L-shape for its floor plan. Being on an outer island for a long time, you grow used to that new-yet-already-partially-dilapidated look that most of the buildings tend to have, and you sort of forget that it's actually possible to do better. Thus it's always kind of a treat to walk around a building where all of the doors are the same shape and the walls are actually perpendicular to the floor.

I was coming in on the tail end of a big youth leadership workshop that some of the volunteers were running at a big secondary school called Vereas Bay (not actually on a bay. Actually the school had originally been located on a completely different island in a village called Vereas Bay. For some reason they decided the move it to Ambae and didn't change the name). Vereas was a huge school, probably about the same size of my residential college at university. They had a nice campus with two long lines of dorms and classrooms enclosing a pleasantly maintained grassy quad. There was even a picturesque beach which seems like it would be a real distraction from any ongoing classwork. It was school break, so the majority of the students were gone, but there were still a fair number of people present as the school was hosting not only Peace Corps' youth leadership workshop, but also an unrelated cooking workshop (in my opinion, the latter is probably addressing the greater need in Vanuatu. While it's true that youth leadership is definitely lacking, the state of the cuisine here is far more deplorable), which seemed to be working out pretty well as the cooking workshop participants were able to try out their new cooking techniques on the leadership workshop participants. The group of volunteers I was to hike the volcano with were planning on catching a truck from the school at 5am the next morning to carry them to the base and so I hung out for the closing night of the workshop, which included a visit from our Peace Corps Country Director and the US Ambassador to PNG (and a number of other Pacific countries, including Vanuatu), which caused much excitement.

The next day 5am (followed by 6am and 7am) rolled by without the arrival of our truck, which meant that we would have to postpone our trip up the volcano as we would no longer have enough daylight for the drive to the base followed up the hike up and back down. It was actually later discovered that the number we had for the truck driver who was to pick us up was, in fact, incorrect and actually belonged to a random guy on Pentecost, who had good-naturedly agreed to drive us to Manaro despite the fact that he lived on a completely different island, probably didn't even have a truck, and had absolutely no idea who we were. Scrapping our original plan, we remained in Saratamata until the afternoon and made arrangements with a with another truck driver to drop us at a guest house at the base of the volcano, where we would spend the night and then climb Manaro the following morning. The guest house was pleasant, if primitive, and included kava and dinner that night, which was actually surprisingly good with lap-lap manioc (which is generally agreed to be the best kind of lap-lap), fresh prawns, and vegetables.

Manaro is a not a visitor friendly volcano like Yasur. There's no truck road leading up to the summit, making it accessible to your average out-of-shape tourist. Instead, a small, winding bush trail leads through six or so miles of jungle before depositing you at the top. It's recommended that you start the trip early as it's about a five hour walk each way so, if you leave around 6am, with ten hours of hiking and a half-hour or so at the volcano, you can just about get back before dark. We started walking around 6:30. The guest house provided us with bagged lunches, rice, taro, and canned meat wrapped up in little banana leaf lunch boxes. We also were provided with a Ni-Vanuatu guide to ensure that we did not become hopelessly lost in the bush. The trail, in general, was in very poor condition. Rocks, mud, tree branches and vegetation impeded progress with frustrating regularity. The trail cut up and down steep slopes (instead of traversing them), meaning it was often necessary to climb on your hands and knees or descend on your butt in order to keep from slipping and falling. I've actually heard that the trail becomes totally impassable during the rainy season and has to be re-cut every year when the rains let up. It also did not help that I was wearing sandals (although our guide was wearing sandals as well and didn't seem to mind). Really though, the main problem with the trail was its monotony. Aside from a plant oozing an unusual-looking gelatinous sap, there was basically nothing worth seeing for the duration of the five hour hike, just a lot of similar-looking jungle. Some Ni-Vanuatu on Ambae are trying to push Manaro as a major tourist attraction, but some very serious work is needed before this can become even remotely feasible.

Unlike Yasur, Manaro is not continually active. Not only are there no fireballs regularly flying out of it, but it occasionally it goes through spells where it doesn't do anything even remotely volcano-like at all. During these times vegetation begins to grown around the rim of the volcano. Then, when the volcano begins acting up, increasing amounts of hostile chemicals in the air and soil kill everything off. When we finally emerged from the jungle it was into a field of waist-high shrubs, the new growth since the volcano last went quiet a few years prior. Punctuating the shrubs were the twisted forms of dead trees, killed off some time before but not yet rotted. Their white, ashen trunks and branches looked like the bones of some great monster, picked dry of meat but not yet buried underneath the ground. The blighted trees surrounded a vast, misty crater, seeming to form the rib-cage of a recently slain titan. When we arrived, nothing was visible through the mists. The world seemed to end in an impenetrable fog of nothingness. We sat down to have lunch while our guide explained to us that, since it was our first visit to Manaro, we would probably not be able to see anything because the volcano is too shy. As he was saying this, the clouds overhead dispersed and the sun was able to shine through. In a matter of seconds the sun had burnt off all the fog and left us with an excellent view. Immediately below us, maybe fifty meters down, was a huge crater lake whose water was an unnatural bright greenish-blue. Supposedly, the lake is hundreds of meters deep and is unusually acidic. Some Ni-Vans claim that the water from the lake has healing properties while others hold that it's dangerous both to drink and to swim in. Either way, there was no apparent way to easily descend to the lake from where we stood to put these hypotheses to the test. In the middle of the lake, the cone of the volcano jutted above the surface, a protrusion of land that at first appeared to be an island but, as the fog lifted, became clearly visible as a sharp, circular upthrust whose center was oozing fog and smoke. The opposite bank of the crater was also briefly visible, home to more bone-white trees lining it like teeth. We had a clear view for a couple minutes and then the clouds rolled over the sun once more and the fog re-formed.

Manaro had an unquestionable mystical character to it. The fog, the dead trees, and the brief glimpse of the volcano all suggested a feeling of magic, and I could easily see how people living on the island would attribute spiritual properties to it. Really, more than the nature of the place itself, it was the lengths one had to go to get there that made it so mysterious. There was no parking lot visible from the top of Manaro, no Vanuatu Post mailbox (like there is on Yasur), and no collection of Australian tourists. It is not possible to take a quick trip to Manaro, just for the afternoon. It was a place where people were very obviously the strangers. It would be impossible to feel at home on top of Manaro because one is only ever there for a very short time, after a very long walk, and so it is by definition alien. Unfortunately, if Manaro were ever to become a major tourist attraction and a truck road were built up to its summit this feeling would probably be lost.

It had already been dark for a half-hour or so when we finally got back to the guest house where we'd started that morning. Our truck was already waiting to take us back to Saratamata, and had been for a couple hours, as we underestimated the time it would take us to get up and down the volcano. It was almost nine when we made it back to the volunteer's house in Saratamata where we were staying and we were pretty tired and not just a little bit beat up.

The next day some of our group were interested in getting the “road to Manaro” tattoo, having just hiked said road. The road to Manaro tattoo is a very simple concept, just two, black, parallel lines spaced slightly apart. According to local custom, those possessing the road to Manaro tattoo will dance on top of Manaro for eternity when they die. We made a few phone calls and a few hours later a young Ni-Vanuatu man showed up at the door carrying his tattoo supplies. The supplies consisted of a jar of ashes collected from a kerosene lantern, a napkin full of orange needles, and a few dark-colored leaves. We watched as he ground up the leaves and milked them to produce a black-colored juice. This he mixed with the ashes to form a sort of paste. He then used an orange needle to paint the paste onto the skin in the shape of the intended tattoo. He then worked over the areas he'd painted, jabbing the orange needle rapidly and frequently into the skin, forcing some of the black paste in with it. Finally, he rinsed the remaining paste off of the skin, leaving the tattoo to heal. Custom tattooing is incredibly imprecise and attempting to make any tattoo more ambitious than a few lines tends to be a mistake (I've seen some pretty horrible-looking tattoos on people in my village). Still, the road to Manaro is simple enough that it usually turns out fine, and all the tattoos that my group got looked decent enough. Myself, I thought one trip to Manaro was good enough and saw no reason to want to dance their for eternity after my death.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Yu No Kick Part 18: Ples Blong Mi Issue 3 (Lakatoro)

Lakatoro is our very own slice of the western life here in on Malekula. It promises such amenities as ice, cold drinks, cheese, alcohol, ice cream, and internet (although, thanks to the arrival of Digicel, Lakatoro no longer has the monopoly on this). When I first began my service, I probably spent about as much time in Lakatoro as I did in Tautu. These days going to Lakatoro is a once or twice a week event (in some part thanks to the fact that there is no longer a Peace Corps volunteer living in Lakatoro) and is more of a chore than a treat. Lakatoro is south of Tautu and is most commonly reached by hailing a passing a truck and paying them 100 vatu to take you there. I'm one of the few who tend to forgo the truck and either walk or ride my bike. The walk (or ride) is pleasant as long as it's not too hot a day, as shade is often scarce. Tautu sprawls southwards almost as much as it does northwards (towards Norsup) and about a third of the walk is just spent clearing the village. Although most of this stretch seems uninhabited, there are actually large family compounds set back from the road all along it. So, while it looks like a bunch of unmanaged bush, chances are it's someone's garden or something. Early on in the walk you come to a mysterious sign that has intrigued me for most of my service. It's pretty large and (relatively) well made and proudly declares, in bright blue letters, “e-Shop” and advertises movies, computers, and other electronics. The arrow on the sign directs you to a follow a narrow, overgrown road off into the bush that seems rather unlikely to lead to much of anything, much less an electronics store. More baffling still is that there's an identical sign along the road between Tautu and Norsup which also points off into the bush, seemingly in a totally different direction. As it turns out, however, the signs do actually point towards the same thing, a fact I discovered one day when I decided to investigate the anomaly and set out along the tiny bush road indicated by one of the signs and emerged, some five minutes later, at the other sign. While the area that I walked through was not exactly bush, it was not exactly developed either. I passed by several bamboo and thatch houses, some complete with old ladies out front grinding yams to make lap-lap, but nothing that seemed like an establishment that might sell computers.

The end of Tautu is indicated by the Norsup Airport (like I said, nowhere near Norsup). Although having a paved runway is become increasingly common in Vanuatu, when I first arrived I considered myself very fortunate to be near an airport with a paved runway as flights would be considerably less likely to be canceled due to heavy rain. As it is, the runway is the only paved surface on the island. A small tin shack houses the airport office (with an all-in-one ticketing counter, check-in counter, arrival counter, gate counter, and baggage counter). Another small tin house is home to the airport tax collector, to whom you must give 200 vatu every time you board a flight. Attached to these two structures is a large cement outline of a building. The upper portions of the frame are in a gently sloping triangle, indicating that it may have once supported (or been intended to support) a roof. Rectangular holes in the walls at about eye level suggest the idea of windows. On the ground a cement floor is engaged in a slow, losing battle with the weeds and papaya trees which force their way through cracks in the stone. There's not much wood present in the frame, but what little there is is black and charred. The airport is the subject of a heated land dispute between a few families in the area because, as I understand, everyone really wants a piece of those 200 vatu departure tax payments (approximately 100% of Vanuatu's legal activity revolves around land disputes because of a clause in the constitution that states that all land must return to ownership of whoever owned it before the colonial government showed up. This seems like a good idea on paper until you realize that there wasn't any paper before the colonial government and so the only way historical land ownership can be established is via oral legends and hearsay. Thus, mayhem ensues), which a few years ago resulted in the airport being firebombed. Still, Norsup airport has its advantages. I can easily walk there, I can wait at the beach for my plane to come, I only need to show fifteen minutes before my flight, and no one asks me to take off my shoes before going through security.

The airport is located right on the water on the edge of a crescent bay that's home to what is, in my opinion, the nicest oceanfront in the area. A thin, pristine white sand beach encircles a bay of clear turquoise water. On especially calm days the glassy blue surface of the water surrounded by the stark white of the beach looks like a giant gemstone that somehow spontaneously formed on the coastline. Large trees grown on the fringes of the beach and provide pleasant shade on a hot day. At high tide, some of the trees even reach out over the water, allowing one to climb out over the ocean and watch the waves break below you. The opposite side of the road from the beach is covered by the ubiquitous coconut plantation, which offers little shelter from the sun and the constant dust kicked up by passing trucks clings eagerly to sweaty skin and quickly coats you in a fine sheen of dirt. Thus, it's usually more pleasant to walk along the beach when heading to Lakatoro on foot and join up with the road later. At the far end of the beach from the airport is Aop river which, according to Duncan is haunted and should be avoided, especially at night. I've never seen any evidence to support this, although Aop river does have the potential to swell considerably in heavy rain and last year knocked out the earthen bridge that connects Tautu with Lakatoro. A coconut log bridge was hastily erected in response to this to accommodate foot traffic over the river while the truck bridge was being rebuilt. At the time I predicted that, given the haphazard nature of the truck bridge that I watched public works build, the coconut bridge would outlast the new earthen one. A year and then some later, however, the coconut bridge is rotten and drooping while the earth one has yet to be washed out again.

Just outside of Lakatoro there's a Jehovah's Witness house, which is funny not only because it indicates the presence of Jehovah's Witness in Vanuatu but also because the phrase “Jehovah's Witness House” doesn't translate very well into Bislama, so they have this really big sign so that they can spell out the entire Bislama translation, which is “Haos blong Kingdom blong ol Witnes blong Jehovah.” The first thing you see when you arrive in Lakatoro is the LTC (Lakatoro Trading Center), the largest store on the island. It's kind of like a Wal-Mart in that, not only does it stock a lot of random junk, but it's also open 6am-7pm every day, even Sundays and holidays. A low wall separates the LTC's yard from the road on which Lakatoro Trading Center is spelled out in large block letters, except the first letter of each word is missing so it actually says AKATORO RADING ENTER. The LTC has a nice big building which is pleasant to walk around in, and it is the only store on the island that sells cheese, but, for the most part, I avoid shopping there because anything they sell can almost always be had a lot cheaper at one of the other stores in Lakatoro. Next to the LTC is a sort of strip mall that contains the Post Office, Bank, Air Vanuatu Office, the main office of the power company, and, in a recent addition, a customs office, which is odd because exactly zero vessels and/or aircraft arrive from overseas each day to the island of Malekula, but I suppose if an international flight crashes somewhere nearby and some survivors get washed up here and need to get their life jackets cleared by customs we'll be covered.

Across from the strip mall is Kimberley's, the one (pseudo) restaurant on the island. They've got maybe six tables inside and, if you show up in the afternoon, you can usually get a plate of rice topped with meat or fish for 300 vatu or so. If you're looking for something in particular, or if you want to come for dinner, you can make arrangements in advance with the chef, who actually does a pretty good job as long as you're specific about what you want. Next to the restaurant is a meeting area which, according to the sign, seems like it should be the offices of Vanuatu's People's Progressive Party, but is actually a nakamal. After the PPP nakamal is an auto repair shop which always seems to be doing brisk business, probably because the roads on Malekula are rarely kind to the trucks that drive upon them. Across from the auto shop is another nakamal, this one marked by a revolving yellow light on top of a wooden pole, which we like to call Cancun. Most nakamals consist of a little tin shack where the kava is served and a collection of coconut wood benches outside for people to sit on and ponder how disgusting kava is. Cancun, however, looks like something from a spring break special. Its seating consists of several, circular, thatch-roofed, open-air huts which look like they should be peopled by bikini-wearing, sunburned, inebriated college students sipping complicated-looking frozen drinks served by Mexican waiters instead of gruff, shabbily dressed Ni-Vans pounding cupfuls of mud-water and hocking loogies.

After the Cancun nakamal there's a roundabout and a road splits off from the main road to the right and heads uphill to the provincial offices The main road continues on to the second half of Lakatoro, which is separated from the first half by a good stretch of nothing. I once ran into a tourist in between the two bits of Lakatoro who stopped me and asked me which way town was. I just nodded sadly and kept walking. The beginning of the second part of Lakatoro is marked by the school on one side and a nakamal on the other. When I first got here this nakamal, Jean Louis, was by far the most popular in town. The benches were always full, they made several buckets of kava each night, staying open late into the night until all other their customers left, and sometimes there was even a line to get served. The kava crowd, however, is fickle and recently Jean Louis lost its luster. We'd show up to find it totally deserted, its single bucket of kava going unsold night after night. These days they've stopped making kava altogether there. The coconut benches are rotten and broken and the sheets of corrugated metal that used to cover some of the seating areas have all been removed.

Next to Jean Louis is the department of agriculture and fisheries, an agency who's function I'm still uncertain of. Across from this is our Stadium, a large field overlooked by a stand of bleachers on the far side. Up next is the market, a big, open concrete structure that's home to not one, but two signs. Of course, neither of them advertise the market. The first is a giant, side-of-the-highway-style billboard advertising Digicel and the second is a hand-painted pink wooden sign which says something to the effect of “Welcome to Malekula. Please Be Aware That People Here Have AIDS,” which, aside from being more or less completely untrue, has got to be pretty detrimental for the tourism trade. The market itself is painted in a sort of Christmas theme with dancing Santas, Christmas trees, and decorative bells because, I guess, someone decided it would be a good idea to paint it one year for the holidays without thinking ahead to how this would look after the holiday season was over. There's another bank of stores next to the market, the first in the bank, and my favorite, is the PIM, which I like because it's about the size of a ticket booth and yet somehow manages to have a larger selection than any other store in town. You walk in to find the entire store full of towering stacks of stuff, most of which looks like it's about to fall over and bury you along with all of the store clerks under a mountain of retail goods. Generally I walk in, take a look around, trying to spot whatever it is I want to buy and, unable to locate it, I ask, skeptically, “do you have any lawn tractors?” To which the clerk will respond, confidently, “yes, of course,” and then wander over to a tower of powdered milk tins, push it aside and, sure enough, there they'll be, a nice, neat stack of eight lawn tractors. No matter how many times this happens, I never cease to be impressed. There's another store, the MDC (yeah, I don't know what the deal is with the initials either), in the same block which is about six times bigger and has about six times less stuff.

There's another roundabout, this one marked by a large pillar which, for some reason, is painted with a bunch of World War II images, with a road continuing south to Litz Litz and another heading to a third block of store up the hill. Between the three blocks of stores, it's usually possible to find whatever it is you happen to be looking for, although this can sometimes involve a lot of walking around in the heat and dust to check all the stores. Sometimes though, you're willing to do just about anything for a bottle of wine or a cold beer.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Yu No Kick Part 17: Tanna

Ni-Vanuatu from other islands have something of a mystique regarding Tanna. Although it's probably the second most visited island after Efate, Tanna maintains a reputation of being primitive and steeped in custom, two of the big reasons why it is such a popular destination for tourists. Ironically, Tanna is being exposed to large amounts of western influence and is becoming increasingly western because of its reputation for being so un-western. Among other Ni-Vans, people from Tanna (“man Tanna” in Bislama) are often looked down upon for being primitive, uncivilized (and yes, it is kind of strange to hear people living in bamboo houses accuse others of being primitive. The deciding factor seems to be whether or not you have a DVD player in your bamboo house), and practitioners of black magic and old customs. There have even been several occasions where I've heard man Tanna discussed in terms that bordered on hatred and fear. Despite the best efforts of the various branches of the Christian Church in Vanuatu, strong belief in black magic still persists (or perhaps, to some extent, the church is encouraging these beliefs. Pastors often stress the importance of attending church and praying because it is necessary to combat black magic, without realizing that this is somewhat counter-productive, as their arguments are implicitly acknowledging the existence and validity of magic), and islands that are perceived as having strong magic (namely Tanna and Ambrym) are viewed with suspicion.

Any evidence of Tanna's primitiveness was not visible from the airport, however. The airport was an impressive structure that was significantly nicer than our airport in Norsup, mostly because it had not been recently firebombed, but also because it had two stories (and as an added bonus the second story showed absolutely no signs of an impending collapse on the first), two sets of bathrooms, and even a customs and immigration counter. The latter, apparently, had just been installed in preparation for the opening of international flights between Tanna airport to New Caledonia which, due to Tanna's extreme southern location, is actually about as far away as Port Vila. In celebration of (or at least in some way related to) the opening of this new flight route, Lenekel, the largest town in the area, was hosting a joint arts festival with New Caledonia showcasing Tafea (Vanuatu's southernmost province, which includes Tanna) and New Caledonian culture, which had been generating a lot of excitement over the past few weeks.

Justine, a volunteer who was accompanying me on this expedition, and I caught a truck from the airport into town and right away I was struck by the large differences between the northern and southern islands of the country. The islands of Vanuatu are spread out laterally over a length about the same as the state of California, which means fairly large difference in climate between the northernmost islands (which are essentially on the equator) and the southernmost. Tanna was noticeably cooler than Malekula, a fact that I welcomed, and the weather seemed to actually be acknowledging the fact that it was supposed to be winter. The flora was also noticeably different, gone (or at least not as dominant ) were the reckless, heat-loving, vines, creepers, and shrubs that preside over the Malekulan bush and in their place were larger, more responsible trees that see the wisdom in growing slowly and protecting their assets with things like bark. Our truck driver dropped us off at the market in Lenekel, which, again, proudly sported its differences with the one in Lakatoro as, instead of the usual collection of bananas, coconuts, and grapefruit, it was stocked with produce more familiar to the American palate. Things like carrots, lettuce, and tomatoes were abundant and I'd heard that even things like apples, grapes, and wild raspberries are sometimes available.

As a town, Lenekel was pretty similar to Lakatoro. It sported a number of stores (more stores than Lakatoro, actually), all of which pretty much sold the same thing: rice, canned food, and packaged crackers and cookies. Unelco even provides power to the town using the same pre-paid power card system as Lakatoro. Unlike Lakatoro, however, which is laid out in a line, Lenekel was more of a square, which made it a lot more convenient to get around. Because of the festival, Lenekel was crawling with people, more people than one usually sees in Vila, much less on an outer island, which made our arrival a little intimidating. Some of the Tanna volunteers met us at the market and escorted us back to the stadium, where the festival was taking place and where one of their families was running a food stall. The arts festival showed really no signs of containing any actual art, however, and looked pretty much exactly like every other event I'd ever attended in Vanuatu, except on a bit of a larger scale. Food stalls arrayed the edges of the stadium (which was actually quite large) selling the standard Vanuatu festival food (chicken wings, fish, plates of rice and meat, fried dough, and strange-tasting cakes and other baked goods), and kava. The field was occupied by soccer players working their way through a tournament and a stage had been set up on which a band was to appear later. The entire festival seemed to be served by only two outhouses with pit toilets which, judging by the stench, had filled up long ago. The only sign of any sort of ongoing cultural-related activity was a small area where representatives from various places in Tafea had erected houses built in the traditional style of their island. For the most part the construction materials were all the same, uncut wood and coconut leaves (unlike in the north where natangora, which makes an excellent thatch, and bamboo, which is naturally grows in nice, straight, beams, are abundant, in the south coconut seems to be the staple building material), and only the shape of the houses varied. Standing next to all the Vanuatu structures was the New Caledonian contribution, a large, circular, concrete building with a thatch roof that looked like it had been erected with aid of cement mixer and a union-certified construction crew. Now, I don't know much about New Caledonian history, so I suppose it's possible but that they developed cement, along with the Romans, a few thousand years ago and have been using it as a building material ever sense (granted, at least in Vanuatu, there is an abundance of limestone from the coral reefs, which is the crucial ingredient in cement), but I kind of doubt it. Really it seem more like the New Caledonia contingent was just showing off that, since they're still under French rule, they have more money than they know what to do with. On a less cultural, but more pleasant, note, we were directed by the Tanna volunteers to a food stall that was making and selling hamburgers, which were excellent as, much to my surprise, they didn't skimp on the meat and included such extras a lettuce, tomato, onion and ketchup.

The festival proceeded pretty much as expected. The main act was a Vanuatu pop band that played a set of reggae-ish music that was heavy on the synth and included mostly covers. After they finished other, more amateur groups took the stage and the music continued into the early morning. Myself, I had my fill come about 11 o'clock and Justine and I pitched a tent in a quiet area behind the stadium and went to sleep. The next day we were planning on heading to the other side of the island to a village called Port Resolution, about 15-20 miles away, which is close to Tanna's volcano. Since it was Sunday, we were outside of the schedule of the usual service trucks, and, being volunteers, we were loath to spend the money that drivers usually charge tourists for charters. It was a nice day, however, and there was a lot of traffic because of the festival so we set out on foot, knowing that we'd probably end up in Port Resolution eventually if we were patient. The road crossing the island was in excellent condition, another testament to Tanna's booming tourist trade, and trucks passed frequently. Unlike on Malekula, where two white people walking outside of town is a rare sight and cause for much consternation, we merited little attention and very few trucks stopped to speak to us (many of the trucks were even carrying other white people and some had done up their truck beds with rain covers and cushioned seating). Tanna is shaped kind of like a hat. We had a steep climb initially, but it leveled off as we got farther from the coast and then sloped down again on the opposite coast. We gauged our progress by how insistent Ni-Vans we spoke to along the way were that what we were doing was impossible. Close to Lenekel we were told that we'd never, in a million years, be able to make it to Port Resolution on foot, towards the middle of the island we were informed that Port Resolution was really, really, really far away, and by the time the opposite coast was visible we were down to people giving us pitying looks and nodding their heads sadly. The highlight of the walk was when we rounded corner and the coastline with the volcano came into view. It was a nice, sunny day and off to the left the ocean sparkled magnificently and looked invitingly calm and peaceful. White beaches were like walls separating the green of the middle bush from the patient turquoise of the ocean. To the right the volcano jutted out rudely from the coastline, smoking ominously and covering the surroundings with a dark haze, seeming to hide something terrible and mysterious. A few minutes later an SUV rounded the same corner, pulled to a stop a few meters ahead of us and a collection of tourists got out and began photographing the vista. The driver, a Ni-Van, came to talk to us an insisted on giving us a ride. Having come this far, Justine and I were somewhat set on finishing our journey on foot, if only to say that we'd done it, and were a little hesitant. “Where is Port Resolution?” I asked. The driver pointed to the smoldering volcano blanketing the landscape in fog and said “On the other side of that.” We looked at the strangely malignant peak for a few more seconds and then got into the car.

As it turns out, it was a good thing we got a ride when we did as the nice packed coral surface of the road soon gave way to the black sand of the volcanic ash plain, and hiking through sand is notoriously difficult. For a while vegetation persisted to poke its way through the sand, before suddenly giving way to a desert of ash. The landscape in front of us was pure black and quickly turned into a minefield of sharp-looking volcanic rocks carelessly tossed onto the smooth sand. To our left, the volcano rose up like a gigantic black sand dune. I had no doubt that we had just crossed into Mordor proper and would soon begin ascending Mount Doom (although it turns out that Mount Yassur, as Tanna's volcano is called, is filled with far fewer orcs and far more Australians than Tolkien's Mount Doom). Our driver skillfully navigated through the potentially tire-puncturing rocks, following some road that I could not, for the life of me, discern. We rounded the base of the volcano and came to a road junction on the other side. One road obviously led up to the summit of the volcano, while the other made its way away from it. The driver explained that he'd be taking his carload of tourists up to the volcano, but that we should follow the other road to get to Port Resolution. As it turned out, we actually weren't even particularly to our destination, as it took another two hours of walking to reach it. We were both pretty exhausted by the time we pitched out tent and went to sleep that night.

The next day we set out to experience the strange volcanic character of the area around us. Across the bay from Port Resolution, where we'd spent the night, was a volcanic vent that had led to some interesting natural features. First, we hiked up to a large, rocky rift where volcanic gases mixed with water to send up wafts of egg-scented steam that seemed oddly refreshing (or maybe it was just that when the wind brought in breezes from across the ocean they seemed refreshing by comparison). Next we were directed to a patch of volcanic mud, a stretch of strangely spongey multi-colored earth. A little digging revealed that the upper layers of clay-like mud were warm and an inch or so away from the surface were downright hot. You could dig around to find pretty much any color of clay you wanted and its consistency made it kind of like a naturally-occurring Play-Doh. Finally, we climbed a ladder down a cliff-face to the ocean below where the tide-pools were dotted with springs of boiling water that occasionally let out sulfurous belches. That evening we caught a truck up to the top of the volcano, the event that was my motivation for coming to Tanna in the first place. The black sand road wound its way up the slope of the volcano, where the air became steadily cooler and more biting. We jumped out of the truck a couple hundred meters from the summit and continued on foot. At this point, the winds were quite strong and, even though I was wearing I jacket, I felt the coldest I'd ever felt in Vanuatu. Mount Yassur is billed as the world's most accessibly volcano. I don't know if this is true or not, but it certainly seemed plausible to me. Unlike the volcanoes I'd visited in Hawaii when I was little, which were carefully controlled with areas where it was safe to stand nicely roped off and park rangers ensuring that no one wandered off somewhere where they might be hit by a bit of flying magma, Yassur (in typical Vanuatu style) was just there. You were free to explore at will. We hiked all the way up to the rim of the volcano, where being shoved in by the strong winds seemed like a very real possibility, especially given the slippery footing offered by the volcanic sands. Unfortunately, you could not, as I'd hoped, stare down from the rim into a boiling pool of lava. The volcano was essentially a very large, circular sand dune. It slowly sloped up on the outside, finally coming to a peak at the rim, and then sloped downwards, somewhat more steeply, into the the volcano. A ways downwards a sort of flat, circular shelf was visible which separated the slope of the inner dune from a giant, dimly glowing pit in the middle. It seemed possible to safely walk down the interior slope of the volcano and stand on the shelf overlooking the pit, and we briefly considered this option when a deep grumbling sent hundreds of chunks of flaming magma flying up out of the pit. For a moment these glowing fragments hung still in the air and then descended, blanketing the shelf where we'd just been considering standing in brilliant, burning embers, and we decided that the view was just fine from the rim. The volcano's activity apparently fluctuates week-to-week (or even day-to-day) and we caught it during something of a quiet spell. I was told that it's not unheard of for the volcano to fling magma up over the rim where we were standing and onto the outside of the volcano and the assortment of volcanic rocks that dotted the outside flank were a testament to the truth of this. As it was, however, while we were there the bursts of magma never came close to the rim. We watched the volcano for about an hour and it fell into a sort of pattern. It would spend a ponderous five to ten minutes plotting its next outburst. Rumblings and tremors would announce that it was about to fire up. A sort of crashing boom accompanied each flare and chunks of burning red rained upward in one mammoth firework. Then the glowing rocks tumbled downwards, their bright forms twisting and turning in the short evening light. They peppered the shelf and sometimes the inside flank with flaming dimples which dimmed slowly as they cooled before finally going out. It was an awesome sight, but the novelty soon wore off as the wind became colder with the setting sun and soon enough we were ready to head back down to our ride.

Tired of walking, we caught a truck back to Lenekel to visit the last item on our agenda: a giant banyan tree. The banyan is a strange tree, not content to grow slowly thicker with each year, its branches attempt to create satellite trunks to support their rapid growth. Thin wooden tendrils worm their way down from the banyan's branches and, when they hit ground, begin to thicken and eventually form sturdy trunks which then sprout more branches. Older banyan trees are a mess of intertwined trunks and branches that form a sort of wooden jungle gym. The giant banyan on Tanna is supposedly the third largest in the world, a fact that I'm sure some Ni-Van just made up at some point and is now endlessly repeated. Third largest or not, however, it was a pretty impressive sight. Its network of trunks covered an area on the ground approaching half of the schoolyard at which I teach and the canopy was much larger. Intertwining woodwork formed thousands upon thousands of rungs which made the tree easily to climb up and maneuver around. Basically, it was the ultimate tree fort, the kind of thing every eight-year-old wishes they had in their backyard. Even at 23, I spent a couple hours climbing around it and could easily have spent several more.

After visiting the banyan, we headed to the airport. I liked Tanna, although my Peace Corps service has made me somewhat desensitized to natural wonders and I appreciated the plate of hot fish-and-chips that I got just off the plane in Vila almost as much as I did the volcano. Really, though, the only true disappointment was that, due to the geometry of Mount Yassur, throwing a coin into the lava pool had not been feasible, and thus my lifelong dream remains unfulfilled.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Yu No Kick Part 16: Ples Blong Mi Issue 2 (Norsup)

Tautu is sandwiched between two commercial centers, Lakatoro and Norsup. They're not really towns so much and not many people live in either of them, they're mainly just locations where various stores and offices happen to be. Back when Vanuatu used to be jointly ruled by the French and British, Lakatoro was home to the British provincial offices and Norsup was home to the French ones. Today, Lakatoro has a little bit more going on in terms of commerce, but Norsup definitely has its upsides as well. There's a roundabout where the road out of Tautu joins up with the main road along the coast of the island. One turn takes you to airport and then to Lakatoro while the other takes you to Norsup. Ironically the airport is called Norsup airport even though it's not really anywhere near Norsup, which I suppose is in keeping with the time-honored tradition of airports never actually being in the cities (or villages) they're named for. The airport is probably about the midpoint between Norsup and Lakatoro, which makes Tautu a bit closer to Norsup than to Lakatoro. I'm actually not sure exactly where Tautu ends and Norsup begins (and I don't really think anyone is sure) but I usually take it to be around a house on the side of the road that would be quite a home in rural Georgia or something. Broken down cars and car parts absolutely litter the lawn. There are rusted out hulks of every kind of vehicle imaginable, buses, trucks, cars, and unidentifiable wheel beds. There's about as many broken cars on this lawn then there are functioning cars on the island, and I have absolutely no idea where all these wrecks came from, but they probably date back to British and French rule.

After passing Georgia, you round a bend to the left and the ocean, which is hidden from view for the majority of the walk from Tautu, emerges. Personally, I think Norsup has some of the best views in the area. Norsup Island, a small island just off the coast, is plainly visible and there's usually at least some canoe traffic going back and forth from the mainland. My favorite nakamals are here too, situated between the road and the ocean, providing and excellent view of the moon and stars over the water at night during kava time. There used to be only two nakamals along this stretch, but in recent months they've been springing up like Starbucks, one right next to the other. Considering that they all sell exactly the same (disgusting) thing for exactly the same price, I'm not really sure what's fueling this boom, but I suspect it has something to do with the Presbyterian Church in Tautu banning kava there on the weekends, thus forcing Tautu residents to search elsewhere. Just past nakamal row on the left is the Provincial Education Office, whose shabby-looking, dull yellow exterior masks a shabby-looking, dull yellow interior. Behind the education office is the Co-op, a large-ish store with the reasonable selection, but no refrigeration (hence no cold drinks or meat or cheese and, really, why else would I be going to the store?), and thus really only visited as a last resort. Behind the Co-op is another bank of nakamals providing emergency backup kava in case the oceanfront nakamals run low. Across from the education office is what is probably the nicest looking and newest building in the area. It was actually built by the French army when I first got to site, and thus it's larger and looks more structurally sound than most buildings on the island. It was also a source of amusement when it was being built as the construction crew was big into really short shorts and cowboy hats and thus tended to look more like an escort service. Originally the building was supposed to house a branch of the University of the South Pacific, but that didn't pan out for some reason and so this year it was re purposed as an office for the TVET program, a nebulous, Australian funded aid organization whose purpose still remains unclear to me. After the TVET office come another cement court that looks like it might once have been intended as a basketball or netball court but is currently being used as a nakamal.

The Norsup French school takes up a considerable amount of space along the road and is actually pretty impressive-looking. Unlike the British, the French have continued to fund their schools in Vanuatu even after independence as part of their (seemingly failing) mission to maintain French as an important language in the world. To their credit, however, the French schools do somehow manage to teach all of their students excellent French, a feat the English schools have yet to duplicate with English. Because of their funding, the Norsup school is able to build and maintain its facilities and has an excellent campus. Despite me having been here for almost two years, the students still seem to not have caught on to the fact that I don't speak French and so always call out to me in French as I walk or ride by on my bike.

Following the school is the hospital which, like the school, seems to be in impressively good condition. The buildings are relatively new and modern and the hospital is quite large. It's also probably the last place I'd want to be if I were sick. Norsup hospital lacks a regular doctor and the Ni-Vanuatu nursing staff are woefully under-trained. Malaria is given out as a default diagnosis for most ailments, including cuts. After McKenzie's and Elin's experiences with the hospital, I've avoided it for purposes of health care. The real reason for going to Norsup is the plantation. The PRV Plantation is (I think) the largest coconut plantation on the island and focuses on producing copra, although they also grow cocoa. The plantation worker housing is located right down the road from the hospital and is a collection of about ten to fifteen duplexes that look strangely reminiscent of cooker-cutter housing developments in the US. The walls and roof of each duplex are constructed entirely from corrugated iron, which undoubtedly makes them preposterously hot during the summer. Although I initially thought such houses to be totally unlivable, they're actually some of the fancier homes on the island. They even have legit power lines running between them. At the end of the housing comes the plantation store, a large, white, wooden building elevated off the ground a good six to eight feet for no reason that's apparent to me.

I have no interest in selling either copra or cocoa, but I frequent the plantation store probably more than any other on the island because they have by far the best butchery. As I explained in a previous entry, coconut fields are very large and relatively empty on the ground, leaving lots and lots of space for things like grass and shrubs to grow. Now, in order to make coconut harvesting easy and effective, its important to keep the grasses cut low so that workers don't have to be tramping through knee-high grass looking for fallen coconuts. Of course, there aren't very many lawn tractors on Malekula (and, even if there were, maneuvering them through the coconut trees would difficult), cutting grass with a machete is a gigantic pain, and even push mowers would take forever to cover that much ground, but there's actually a simple, 100% natural solution: cows. You see, cows eat grass, lots of grass, and they're totally automated, and never have to be paid or re-fueled. They even reproduce. The only thing is that, if you have a lot of coconut plantation to cover, you end up with a lot of cows and you've got to have something to do with the excess ones that are bound to spring up every now and again. Thus, most coconut plantation also wind up selling beef. Now, Vanuatu doesn't have a lot going for it in the food domain. Most of the local dishes are bland and boring and exist simply to sustain life. Plus, the hands-off approach to agriculture generally means that the quality of produce and livestock is inconsistent at best. But I tell you, Vanuatu has the best beef I've ever tasted. I was actually never that into beef in the US. True, I am totally obsessed with meat, but I tended to prefer pork, lamb, fish, and poultry to beef. Now I am a convert. The thing is, beef in the US is a little on the tasteless side. Our modern agricultural practices have indeed succeeded in producing cows that are more muscular and meat that is more tender, but we seem to have lost some flavor along the way. But Vanuatu beef is amazing, it's juicy and flavorful and you can eat it with absolutely no seasoning and it's delicious. And it's not just me. Every visitor we've had from the US and every volunteer that we've eaten with has mentioned that the beef here is some of the best they've ever had. The problem is that Ni-Vanuatu don't know how to respect a good cut of meat. To them, meat is meat. When Ni-Vans slaughter a cow, they chop it up with a machete into a bunch of one or two kilo chunks and sell all the meat for the same price, no matter where it came from on the cow. Thus, most of the beef Ni-Vans eat is tough and inedible unless it's stewed for many hours or cooked in a lap-lap. You never really appreciate the services a good butcher provides until you don't have one. The PRV, however, is French run and the French will be damned if they're going to see a good piece of meat go to waste. Unlike most stores on the island, the PRV store butchers their cows properly and sells their meat by the cut, from filet all the way down to stew meat. Fortunately, their prices are still all incredibly reasonable (filet for example, the most expensive cut, sells for about $4 a pound). Unfortunately, the names of all the cuts are in French, and it's taken me a while to sort out what's what, but I think I've got a pretty good handle on it now.

Upon entering the store, you're usually greeted by a plump, French-speaking, Ni-Van lady passed out behind the store's counter, her head pillowed by her arms against the wood of the counter top. Her eyes are the only thing that move as you approach. A dusty blackboard on the left lists the various cuts of beef available and their respective prices. It's up to you to initiate the transaction, as the lady behind the counter could comfortably let you stand in the store for many hours on end without speaking to you, so once you're sure of your order, you tell her, politely “half a kilo entrecote, please” And, seeming to marshal great amounts of energy in order to accomplish this, she'll lift her head off of her arms, shout your order to the wall behind her, apparently to no one, and begin rummaging around for a pen. A few moments later, strange noises will begin in the back of the store, clanging of metal, stomping of feet, occasional cursing and, sometimes, what I swear sounds like an electric saw. Once the lady finds her pen, she calculates your total on a large calculator sitting next to her on the counter, all the while muttering to herself in French, takes your money, and begins recording your purchase in a beat-up school notebook. A while later, an old, skinny, wily-looking Ni-Van man comes shuffling out of a door on the left side of the store wearing a white apron in various stages of being totally covered in blood and asks something like “two kilo faux filet, yes?” After you correct him, he shuffles back through the door and the strange noises resume. A little while longer and the man re-emerges clutching a plastic bag filled with red meat. If you're really lucky, the meat will still be warm from the slaughter, although this has only happened to me a few times over the couple of years I've been here. The total round trip from Tautu on foot is generally around an hour, but the results are so, so worth it.

Yu No Kick Part 15: Ples Blong Mi Issue 1 (Tautu)

The village where I live, Tautu, is actually made up of two villages. There's both Big Tautu and Small Tautu and, as these things tend to work, I'm pretty sure Small Tautu is actually bigger than big Tautu. Of course, it's hard to know for sure because the city has been a little slow putting up one of those big, friendly, welcome signs on the side of the road that say “Welcome to Tautu, Population: **,” but I'm pretty sure Small Tautu at least covers more area than Big Tautu. According to what I've heard, these two actually used to be separate villages, with Big Tautu being called Tautu and Small Tautu being called Alau, which grew together over time to form what you could call a twin village area (but probably wouldn't). Since the two villages couldn't have ever really been any more than a kilometer or so apart, the growing together probably didn't take much effort, but there you go. Big Tautu is built directly on the beach, a good move both because of the nice view and the cooling breezes that come off of the ocean during hot season. The houses along the beach are older and thus are almost all custom: woven bamboo walls with thatch roofs. Some houses mix the old with the new, they sport concrete floors in lieu of sand and coral covered with pandanus mats. A few windows made of glass louvers set into their bamboo walls. These glass slat windows are the standard in Vanuatu for some reason unclear to me, as I've never seen one that's not in some way broken. A typical window consists of parallel metal frames mounted against the wood of the window frame (perpendicular to the ground). Each frame sports 5-8 slots for glass pieces. The glass pieces are slender rectangles, maybe two feet long and half a foot wide, that sit in said slots and span the width of the window. Each slot is hinged, allowing you to adjust the angle of the glass pieces using a lever protruding from the frame. When the window is open the glass slats make what looks like a set of transparent shelves and when the window is closed it approximates a standard single pane of glass. Not a bad idea in theory, but the slats are easily unseated from their perches by strong winds or earthquakes and are broken and often never replaced. The humid, salty sea air also makes quick work of the hinges, rusting them into uselessness and freezing the louvers in position. Myself, I prefer the older method, windows covered by hinged wooden boards that can be opened and closed, essentially miniature doors. Glass is more expensive, however, and thus more desirable, and my preference is rarely implemented anymore.

In the main village, the houses are crowded closely together. A housing unit usually consists of at least four separate structures, one house for sleeping and general purpose use, one house for the kitchen and dining area, one smaller shack (often constructed of whatever junk happens to be lying around; rusted, jagged corrugated iron sheets, coconut leaves, pieces of tarps, black plastic garbage backs, or old burlap sacks) for the toilet, and another shack for the shower. White and brown electrical cables worm their way out of the thatch roofs and run between the various buildings, precarious power lines to give life to electric lights, televisions, and DVD players. The lines originate at little gray boxes on poles that allow the power company, Unelco, charge for power consumption. Users must buy little plastic cards at various stores through out the village and insert them into the Unelco boxes in order for them to work (a system similar to prepaid phone cards). One card entitles one to 30kWhrs of power. Sometimes the power lines are allowed to drape lazily between the two structures they connect, requiring anyone passing beneath them to duck to avoid being clotheslined. The more safety conscious prop their lines up with bamboo pole which, for some reason, are always wedged into the ground at an angle as opposed to being vertical. Since I'm taller than most people in the village, I generally still have to duck for these elevated lines, just not as much (actually this is a common problem for me, not just with power lines, but also with doorways and ceilings). Extra power cord is often run between a series of bamboo poles to make clotheslines, which are always placed on the ocean side of the house to take advantage of the nearly constant wind. Such a crowded collection of ramshackle structures, where it to appear in or around a large city in the West, would probably be called a slum, but the picturesqueness of the nearby ocean (literally less than a stone's throw away) and the swaying coconut tree in the distance make it difficult to apply that term here. Also, the crowded character of the village is not due to the space restrictions imposed by a city or town, there's plenty of undeveloped land stretching in both directions from the village, people just prefer to live close to each other.

The village is built a respectful 50 or so meters away from the ocean, leaving a sort of open sandbar between the rows of houses and the craggy black rock that makes up the ocean bottom. As you work your way along this bar you can see the entire village, row after row of brown bamboo walls, occasionally punctuated by what can only be described as the occasional empty lot: a broken cement foundation in various stages of being overrun with weeds and young papaya trees which worm their way through the cracks in the rock, finally terminating in a low tree line that marks the end of the village. The house nearest the tree line belongs to a cement worker and so the patch of sand in front of his house is always covered with homemade cinder blocks and cement toilet seats drying before being sold. Across the sandbar from these stone concoctions is a long wooden bench where the chief and other important men in the village like to hang out. The bench is a makeshift job consisting of a long wooden plank supported in various places along its length by a number of old pieces of machinery. Most look like they were once part of a car, but I'm not really sure. A small path leads into the bush that borders the village, which seems deceptively thick near the village but actually thins out quickly into a pleasant wooded beach area. Occasional short trees with broad branches give excellent shade to what is mostly a bare sandy beach. In lieu of rocks, large washed up pieces of coral dot the ground. Old brain corals have a distinctively rounded shapes, like pieces of a large, spherical shell, that are rough on one side and comparatively smooth on the other. Other corals are bizarre branching structures that look like little stone trees. Remains of giant clam shells are also a common sight, including some that have fused into the rock of a dead coral formation and look like petrified fossils. A little ways down the forested beach gives way to bush once again, but a narrow path offers easy passage through. After a a couple hundred meters, the path spits you out onto the ocean. At high tide you emerge from the bush directly into the water, but at low tide you are greeted with dry, craggy, black rock instead. The sharp and uneven nature of this surface makes it uncomfortable to walk on, even with sandals or shoes protecting you from the worst of it (some Ni-Vans, however, fish along the shallows so often that they have grown used to walking on this sharp surface even when barefooted). The rocks are often slippery as well and the sharp protrusions seem to be taunting you, just daring you to take a fall. At low tide, this area is ripe with tide pools and you can see all matter of bizarre aquatic life living in them. If you walk or wade further you will quickly come to a sharp point from which you can see the shining iron roofs of the French school in Norsup. As the point terminates in the ocean, a couple pillars of black rock jut out of the water, reaching up about eight feet or so. The rough surface of the pillars makes them easy to climb and the tops are covered with vegetation which offers some padding should you wish to sit on top of one and stare off at the sea.

Moving inland from the main village brings you to the community center, an open sand and dirt square shaded by a huge natafoa tree growing in the middle of it. The natafoa is a strange looking tree, as it seems to prefer growing at right angles. The trunk, as you would expect, grows vertically upward, but its all of its main branches extend almost perfectly horizontally outward, with the smaller branches growing out from the main branches then reaching up vertically again. On the right as you walk up from the ocean is one of the village stores, a large window from which you can view the various items on sale and direct the storekeeper (who is usually found sleeping on a bench just in front of the window) as to what you'd like. On the left is a large custom house where I used to live until an unusually leaky roof led me to take up residence at the school. Directly in front is the community dining hall, a large wooden structure with iron roofing, which is currently undergoing renovations and is home to the village's public phone. The phone has been broken since I got here, but nobody really seems to mind (including myself) as Digicel's cell service is both cheaper and more reliable. Behind the dining hall is the soccer field (or anything field I suppose. There are no goals or anything to distinguish it as a soccer field, but that's all I've ever seen played there). The road which connects Tautu to the wider world dead-ends in the soccer field and is often accidentally followed by tourists looking for Lakatoro. Occasionally a particularly obtuse tourist wanders into the village and the villagers have to come fetch me so that I can clearly explain to them in English that they've gone the wrong way.

After the soccer field comes the Presbyterian Church, the largest building in the village. It's painted white with a the iron roof seems to have done an exceptionally good job remaining shiny through the years, which makes the place (compared to the other builds at least, which are usually unpainted) seem very bright and cheery. The community water tank is fed by rain gutters off of the church roof and is a large cement cylinder sitting next to the building. Behind the church lies the school and the ambiguous ending of Big Tautu and beginning of Small Tautu. Houses in Small Tautu are newer, more modern, and spaced farther apart than houses in Big Tautu. Here cement and corrugated iron dominate as the preferred building materials (which to me seems strange given the abundance of high-quality timber available in bush on the island. The problem, I suppose, is the lack of a local saw mill to process the raw trees into timber to be used for building. Cement, on the other hand, can be made by hand relatively easily), some houses could even pass as reasonable houses in the US. The pastor's house, for example, which is located along the path connecting the church with the school, is large and has a big, inviting front porch.

The school's the first thing you see when rounding the bend in the road up from the soccer field. The school consists mainly of a large, open yard dotted by school buildings (including my house) along the edges. About a third of the school yard is taken up by what was at one point almost a basketball court. A while back a Peace Corps volunteer won a grant to build a court but money or interest ran out sometime mid-project and now random, crumbling cement pads adorn the entrance to the school. We also have a mostly rusted iron pole that looks like it might have one time have thought about holding up a backboard. Following the road up from the school away from the ocean takes you into the part of the village I know best, as I walk through it many times daily. The road is white, made from pressed coral, and is fairly wide, at least as far as Vanuatu is concerned, in that it can ALMOST accommodate two cars next to each other. Greenery surrounds the road on either side occasionally punctuated by a clearing denoting a house. The store I frequent is just a hundred or so meters up the road and is set back from it by one of the nicest lawns I've seen in Vanuatu. The store owner liberally enlists the many children in his family to achieve this and one can usually see them laboring away in the heat with a bush knife keeping the grass and weeds at bay. Across from the store is a nakamal known as “Christmas tree,” which I frequent whenever Duncan fails to make kava for whatever reason. The name comes from the fact that the nakamal light is hung from a large Christmas tree in front. Of course, Christmas trees in Vanuatu aren't the same as Christmas trees in the US or elsewhere. Pine trees aren't known for their ability to thrive in the tropics. In Vanuatu “Christmas tree” refers to a large tree that produces long bean pods in the summer, which coincides with Christmas in these parts of the world.

Past the Christmas tree nakamal you finally come to a large, stone roundabout which sits at the intersection of two roads. Going straight through the roundabout will take you to the airport and, eventually, Lakatoro, while the road to the right leads, most immediately, to Duncan's house and then onto the rest of Small Tautu and Norsup. Duncan's, however, is pretty much the end of what I would consider to be my home base or, in Bislama, “ples blong mi” (from the English “place belonging to me”). Home sweet home.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Still Here...

Hello all, I'd like to apologize for the long delay between posts. I owe you a lot of writing and I'll try to get it posted as soon as I possibly can. July's been a busy month (well, busy for Vanuatu) and I've spent a lot of time organizing various 4th-of-July related parties and attending to visitors. Here are a few tidbits to tie you all over until I can get a real post up:

-Jack, a volunteer down in the south of the island, did us all proud by landing a beautiful tuna and a giant mahi-mahi during a boat trip he took up the coast. Unlike tunas we've caught in the past, this one had the rich, dark, red meat that makes excellent sushi and so I got more practice rolling sushi rolls.
-The 4th gave me an excuse to bust out the sole Weber grill in the country (thanks to Jammy) once again. Still haven't figured out a really good way to make charcoal, but the burgers came out well anyway.
-My waterbed started leaking, leading to a lot of consternation on my part, but I was eventually able to fix it using a whole lot of contact adhesive. Here's hoping it will hold together for four more months until I leave.
-I'm heading to Tanna next week to go see the "world's most accessible volcano" and fulfill my lifelong dream of throwing pennies into a volcano. Will let you know how that turns out.