Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Last Post

Well, I've been very remiss in updating this blog. Lots of things happening there for a while! I officially finished my service on November 15th, 2013, and after traveling in SE Asia a bit, came back to America on December 5th. And thus, the blog is concluded! The leaving process and readjustment to America is a whole story in and of itself, but I'd like this blog to stand as just a record of my time in Vanuatu, so I won't be posting any more updates. I mostly hope that future Peace Corps Volunteers invited to Vanuatu can find this and read it to get a little clearer of an idea what they're in for.

If any Peace Corps hopefuls or applicants read this and have any questions, about service or Vanuatu, please leave me a comment and I'll definitely get back to you.

And to everyone who read this blog, whether you saw every entry or just glanced at one or two: thank you! It really means a lot that anyone was interested in the stories I had to tell, and I'm so glad to know that a few people now know a little more about Vanuatu.

Ale, tata!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

10/26/13 Leaving Tanna

My name is Rosemary. A lot of people call me Rose.

When I arrived in Vanuatu over two years ago, I became Leipanga. That’s the name my host family in our training village gave me.

I also became whiteman, or missus, which is what white/foreign women are called here. I’ve always been white, of course, but coming to Vanuatu, it became one of my names. As in, “Who’s the whiteman?” or “Missus, where are you going?”

Then I left the training village on Efate and travelled to Tanna, the island that’s been my home for the past two years. When I arrived, my new host family gave me the name Nabubo, which means “Nabubo.” And of course, still whiteman and missus. Sometimes even yaramitunga, which means whiteman in local language.

When school started, I earned some new names. Miss Rosemary, or Miss Rose. Teacher Rosemary. And often simply Teacher.

Rosemary, Rose, Leipanga, whiteman, missus, Nabubo, Miss Rosemary, Teacher. For the past two years those have been my names.

When I leave Tanna, no one will call me Nabubo, Miss Rosemary, or Teacher any more. And two weeks later, when I leave Vanuatu, no one will call me Leipanga, whiteman, or missus. My name will just be Rosemary or Rose.

That’s a little scary. Those names have become parts of my identity, reflecting who I’ve been for the past two years as Peace Corps volunteer in Vanuatu. Here, I’m different, and special. I’m an obvious outsider, but with insider status. For better or for worse, I always get noticed. I’m never anonymous. Sometimes it makes me feel famous and sometimes it makes me feel uncomfortable, but I’m used to it now, either way. I’m respected as a teacher and an authority figure. I’m an expert in everything that isn’t gardening. I’m highly educated and experienced. I’m the representative of my whole country.

When I go back to America, I’m just going to be another 20-something college graduate with little work experience. I won’t be noticed. I won’t be a highly educated expert. I’m not going to be special. Saying a few words in local language won’t make everyone hoot with delight. Little kids won’t smile just to see me. That’s all going to be very hard to adjust to.

I’m really hoping that I won’t lose this sense of who I’ve become, here. Yes, I’ll just be Rosemary in America, and I won’t stand out in a crowd. I won’t know more about computers than everyone else, and no one will congratulate me for integrating. Little kids won’t look at me twice. But I’ll still be Nabubo, and Teacher, at least on the inside. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

It's easier to think of things in lists

10 THINGS I’LL MISS, in no particular order
11.       Classes 1 and 2 acting like I’m a rockstar every time I come to teach them.
22.       Fresh tropical fruit, all the time.
33.       The ocean.
44.       It being totally socially acceptable to answer questions such as “How are you?” “Where are you going?”    and “What are you doing?” with a simple, “No.”
55.       Feeling like my work is really meaningful.
66.       The gregarious, generous, unflappable mamas.
77.       Only ever wearing flipflops or being barefoot.
88.       Small, mundane things seeming like an adventure.
99.       Kids who are so proud and eager to learn.
110.   Being different.

10 THINGS I REALLY WON’T MISS, in no particular order
11.       Men staring at me and catcalling me on the road.
22.       Having an outdoor toilet.
33.      The social pressures and expectations of living in a village.
44.       Sweeping generalizations about “black man” versus “white man.”
55.       The giant hole in my ceiling.
66.       The rats that live in my walls (though that’s still preferable to when they die in there).
77.       How dusty everything is, all the time (I live next to a busy dirt road and on the same island as an active volcano that shoots ash in the air. It’s a lot of dust).
88.       Having the same conversation over and over and over again.
99.       Living in a very male-dominated society.
110.   Being different.

11.       Mexican food.
22.       Good beer.
33.       Having the same rights, freedoms, and respect as a man.
44.       Seeing my friends and family.
55.       Being anonymous.
66.       Fast and easily available internet.
77.       Landscapes other than “sunny rural tropical island” (I know, my life is hard).
88.       More privacy (not counting the NSA).
99.       Putting thought into my personal appearance beyond “Am I covered to my knees, and likely to stay that way even if there’s a stiff breeze?”
110.   A bagel with cream cheese.

11.       Big, crowded stores.
22.       All those cars moving so fast.
33.       That I may have grown apart from my friends.
44.       Not being the special, knowledgeable foreigner.
55.       The cold.
66.       The close-toed shoes.
77.       No longer feeling like I’m making a difference in the world.
88.       That people won’t care about the past two years of my life.
99.       Not being able to find anything interesting or useful to do.

110.   Speaking English.

Getting ready to say goodbye

Well. I have, at this point, about 2 more months of service. About 2 more months in Vanuatu. And then I leave this place, which has been my home for the past two years.

My group of volunteers just had our Close of Service (COS) conference, when they bring us all together one last time to talk about saying goodbye, readjusting to America, and finding jobs. A good 8 to 10 vols from my group have chosen to extend for a third year of service, and hats off to them. The rest of us are facing the intimidating prospect of going back to a place that maybe isn’t all that familiar, anymore. It was the last time I’ll see many of those volunteers, who have been some of my closest friends for the past two years. They really are like family. On the other hand, I went as long as 8 months between seeing some of them before, staying in touch just by calls and texts, so it’s not actually that sad to say goodbye to them. I’ll see them again.

What’s harder—much harder—is saying goodbye to this country, and the people I live and work with here. About 9 months after I got here, it was just starting to really sink in that I truly lived in Vanuatu—that this wasn’t just a brief stint. And now, nearly 24 months after I got here, I’m just beginning to understand that I’m really leaving. I’m excited, and sad, and happy, and nervous.

Today I sat down and made a list of everything in my house that I wasn’t going to take with me when I leave. I may not have all that much stuff, but since I plan to leave this country with nothing but a big backpack, it was a 3 page list. Then I decided what I was giving to who, and what I’d sell as a fundraiser for my school. Then I started thinking about the plans I’d have to make to say goodbye—who I’d have to see, and the speeches I’d have to give. It made me want to cry. I’m not a person who cries very easily, but just thinking about leaving here made me start to tear up.

I’m proud of what I’ve done here. I know I’ve taught people valuable technical skills, as well as broadened people’s cultural horizons and view of the world. I’ve made friends and family and colleagues. I have little kids who would hold my hand all day if I let them.

I also have regrets. There are things I didn’t do, or didn’t do well enough. There are roles I wasn’t willing to fulfill, or didn’t think I could, but now wish I had. I know when I leave this place, I’ll miss it, and never feel like I really appreciated it enough while I was here.

And that’s the kind of pressure I have to try to fight in these last two months: the anxiety that somehow I’m not making the most of every single second. The feeling that I need to wrap everything up, get everything done, make everything sustainable. That’s not in the island way, after all. Here in Vanuatu, we go slow, smile, and always stop to chat. If I can do that for the next two months, I’ll leave happy. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Party Time

Last week we had a big custom celebration in my village; a cower (coh-er), the party held to mark the end of the month-long seclusion for newly circumcised boys. This is pretty much the biggest kind of custom party that happens on Tanna, and they always happen around this time of year, because this is when we harvest the yams, and exchanging yams is a big part of this festival.

I’m not going to go into all the anthropological details—I did that in a post last year—just going to share some photos and fun tidbits. Basically it was a solid day of making laplap with the women of my host family, so lots of rubbing taro roots against a prickly black palm branch until they turned into mush. Around me, the other women cut up yams, bananas, and manioc, which still others were grating into mush like myself. My older cousins cut open coconuts and scraped out their flesh into bowls, which I was amused to realize were really large, round rubber buoys, cut in half. I asked one aunt about it and she said they’d washed up on shore on Erromango, an island to the north, and made much stronger bowls than the flimsy things you buy in the store.

Then that night there was a little pre-custom dance, which consisted of women from my village and surrounding areas basically getting drunk and dancing around a burning tree. Yes, it was as cool as it sounds.

The next day was the actual custom celebration. We ladies all put on our finest face paint and grass skirt, wrapped our heads in tinsel and stuck feathers in our hair. The men put on slightly more restrained face paint and wrapped themselves in sarongs, and we all went to the nakamal. The families of the circumcised boys built big piles of yams and baskets and mats, to be given to other families. So there was much exchanging of yams, then we went back in the afternoon and ate our laplaps.

That evening I busted out a bunch of glow sticks for the kids in my family, and we spent a while hanging out. Finally, around 11:00 PM, the dancing started. I went with my grandma and some of my cousins back to the nakamal, where people were doing custom dances. They’d keep going until dawn; I planned to just dance a little bit and then go to bed.

This being a pretty big event, there were people from all over the island there, and my obvious foreignness made me a novelty all over again. The people from my village all laughed and cheered to see me dancing in custom dress, of course, but they know me. Going that night, there were fewer people from my area and a lot more strangers, and in the shadowy nakamal I heard whispers of “Missus! Missus!” following me wherever I went. I gamely went out and started dancing—the men dance in the middle, and the women stand in a circle around them, jumping and sometimes skipping around them. At one point, my teenage cousin helpfully leaned over and told me, “They’re laughing at you.” “Yeah,” I replied with a smile. “I know.”

In a way it was frustrating—I mean, I’ve been here for almost two years. I LIVE here. Who are YOU? But at the same time, I’ve gotten so used to being stared at and noticed and whispered about that it’s not a big deal any more. One woman from the group of those dancing and staring and whispering nearest to me finally worked up the courage to ask, “What your name?” When I replied in Bislama and started chatting about who I was, she was very friendly and sweet. She held my hand while we danced, and squeezed it to signal when I should stop jumping, and led me in skipping around the circle.

I danced with the women for a while, chatting with my new friend. She told me I was the best of anyone in my village at custom, which literally translates as “You win at custom,” so that made me feel pretty good. I wasn’t sure what she meant—I guess that I was dancing and not many women from my village were yet? But still, I win! Yeeeeeah.

Then I walked home, past more men on the road staring at my whiteness, and washed the paint off my face, and fell asleep to the sound of the singing and dancing in the nakamal.

It was a lot of fun, and as I sat at the nakamal, and wandered around my host family’s compound from kitchen to kitchen that night to chat, it was remarkable how comfortable I felt. This is my place, now. And it’s my place to be out of place. The stares, the giggles, the endless conversations happening around me and about me in incomprehensible language—it just doesn’t bother me in the same way anymore. This where I’m at home being an outsider. It’s an odd thing. And it feels pretty good.

And it’s also just home. As I told another volunteer, “I can tell I’m more integrated now because instead of telling me to take a photo of the dancers, my mom is telling me to go find our mat and then cut the laplap.”

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


I painted a map of Vanuatu on my school! The big colored names are the provinces, the smaller names are the island names. As I was painting it, a 1st grader came up and asked me what country it is.
"What do you think?" I asked her. "Is it the U.S.?"
"Yes," she said firmly.
I laughed. "It's Vanuatu!"
"Oh. Which one is Australia?"
"None of them. It's just Vanuatu."
"But which one is Vanuatu?"
"They all are!"
"But which ONE?"
...I think this map will be useful here.

8/13/13 Insert Monty Python Dead Parrot Joke Here

This morning I sat on a tiny chair in front of the second grade students, who sat on a woven mat at my feet.
                “The title of this story is ‘Angelina Ballerina,’” I said in my slow, friendly teaching-voice. “The author is—” I stopped as a flash of movement and color caught my eye, and looked over to see Elisha cheerfully hitting his friend in the face with a dead parrot.
                “Elisha!” I snapped, surprised. He froze, looking at me and holding the small, electric-green parrot in his hand. “Put that outside right now!”
                He looked at me like I was crazy, as did the rest of the class. They understand that Miss Rosemary gets unreasonably upset when they hit each other (everyone, kids and adults, hits very freely here, and they never quite get why the Americans look so shocked by it). But why was I telling him to put the parrot outside?
                Admittedly we don’t have a specific rule that says “No dead birds in the classroom,” but it seemed like a given. Integrated or not, I didn’t feel totally cool going ahead with story time while a small boy played with a deceased parrot at my feet.
                “Outside,” I repeated firmly. As he went to obey, I called after him, “And, um, go wash your hands. Put the dead parrot outside and go wash your hands. Then come back.” I looked at the rest of the class. “Dead things are dirty,” I explained, aware that I was sounding crazier by the minute. They touch dead things all the time. They kill them. They eat them. Elisha had no doubt killed the limp little parrot. “So, um, after you touch them…you have to wash your hands.”
                They kept staring. When Elisha returned, I explained again to him, smiling, trying to seem less scolding than before. I mean, he didn’t see anything wrong with bringing his dead parrot to class. When I really thought about it, I was having a hard time seeing anything wrong with it, too.  I made myself move on.
                “Okay, guys, let’s look at the cover of ‘Angelina Ballerina.’” The cover showed a smiling white mouse dancing in a pink tutu and ballet slippers. “What do you see? Yes, Leonita?”
                “Wan bigfala rat!”
                “…yes. It is a very big rat. Good job, Leonita.”

Later in the class, we were making our own stories out loud together. I held up a picture of a ship at sea in a storm. “Okay, who wants to start the story? What happens first? Mike?”
                “The name of the ship is the Touraken!” (the name of a cargo ship that goes between Efate and Tanna)
                I nodded. “Great, okay, so one day the Touraken was at sea. Yes, Lona?”
                “The sea was very rough and the ship began to sink!”
                “Okay!” I said. “One day the Touraken was at sea, and the sea was very rough, and the ship started to sink! Oh no! What happened next, Willie?”
                “The Touraken hit a stone and sank!”
                I smiled. “So the Touraken was at sea, sinking in the rough waves, then it hit a stone, and it sank. Who wants to tell me what happened to the people on the ship? Mike?”
                “They all died!”
                I paused, a little taken aback. The students beamed at me excitedly. “What, all of them?”
                The children nodded, unanimous, and a chorus of voices assured me, “Everyone died!”
                I’d really been expecting a rescue boat, or something. “What if another ship came?” I suggested, feeling like it was my duty as teacher to keep things light.
                “And then another ship came,” said a child, dutifully. “And saw that everyone was dead.”
I shrugged. “Ooookay! One day, the Touraken went to sea, the sea was very rough, the Touraken hit a stone and sank, and…everybody died! Then another ship came, and saw that everyone was dead. The End.”
                The students applauded.
                On the plus side, that was the first one of our stories that didn’t end with the characters going to sleep.

                (the students’ answers were actually mostly in Bislama, I just translated for you)