So here’s a picture of Papa Joe and us at Port Vila’s International Airport the day we left Vanuatu.
COMING SOON: more capsule stories with fantastic pictures!
But for now, anyone who is curious about what we DID here, professionally, here is my Description of Service (DOS). Peter will post his if he wants. I don’t feel comfy posting his without his permission.
REPUBLIC OF VANUATU
After a competitive application process stressing technical experience, ambition, adaptability, and cross-cultural understanding, the United States Peace Corps invited Nicole Areté to serve as a community health facilitator in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu from December 6, 2012 to December 5, 2014.
Nicole began her 10-week Pre-Service Training on October 7, 2012. This training included the following elements:
Nicole also completed the following In-Service Trainings:
On December 6, 2012, Nicole completed training and was sworn in by Peace Corps Vanuatu’s Country Director and other Vanuatu officials as a Peace Corps Volunteer. She was assigned to the village of Port Narvin on the island of Erromango. While living in Port Narvin, Nicole facilitated health education and development activities conducive to improving her community’s health.
Port Narvin is a rural village on the island of Erromango which is located approximately 80 miles southeast of Vanuatu’s capital of Port Vila. Port Narvin has a population of less than 700 people, located approximately 80 miles southeast of Vanuatu’s capital of Port Vila. Reaching the village from the nation’s capital requires hours of both boat and plane travel. Nicole was assigned a host family who adopted her as their own. She learned to adjust to their lifestyle. Living in a house of bamboo and thatch, she regularly engaged with her host family and other community members, as is traditional, both in her kitchen and theirs. She learned to cook traditional food, wash laundry by hand, take part in traditional ceremonies, and much more. She accomplished these feats while living without electricity, indoor plumbing, or climate control of any sort. Nicole’s achievements were due to the strong relationships she developed with family and friends she lived and worked with.
Activities For Fulfillment Of Primary Objectives
In addition to these accomplishments, Nicole was instrumental in bringing the renowned Grassroot Soccer Peace Corps SKILLZ program to the Pacific Region for the very first time. Nicole ran the pilot program for Vanuatu youth first in an urban local and then repeated the program in a rural setting. SKILLZ is a program for youth that combines soccer with life skills training and Adolescent Reproductive Health education. Nicole also created well-developed materials adapting the program to Vanuatu’s needs and culture, as well as translating printed materials into Bislama.
Nicole Areté completed her Peace Corps service in Vanuatu on December 5, 2014.
Intellectual Rollercoaster Vanuatu 2012-2014
2012- open-minded and humbled; 2013- stop caring about spelling (doesn’t matter in Bislama) and can literally FEEL my thoughts slow and simplify, the quality (and vocabulary!) deteriorating; 2014- thankful to see that my cognitive regression was not permanent—or at least, I’m either getting back up to speed or getting used to my newly simplified mental existence; second half of 2014- spent panicking because it’s all not coming back fast enough, no spelling looks right, and why can’t I think of that damn word?!?! (any of them!)
Boogeykids! main road in Port Narvin, 2014
Starting with little Nesi (9), the students would hide in bushes, behind trees, in the grass, and try to jump out and scare us on our way home from homework hour (in the dark). This generally resulted in us chasing them all screaming across the village. Nearly every night.
Ants Schmants everywhere 2013-2014
All those times we opened some invaluable food item to find it covered in ants or full of boll weevils, or something of the sort—and that it simply meant spending a minute or two pulling off the most visible bugs before enjoying anyway.
Nakamal Sardines Rungu Nakamal 2013
That time we were swarmed with students of all ages, as we were every night to help them study—packed around the table like sardines—and suddenly Alikton looks up, crunches his nose and whines, “Mr. Peter, wan man i fart!”
Learning to Fly Port Narvin to Ipota, 2014
That time when I walked from Port Narvin to Ipota with my friend Susian, determined to maintain HER pace. 4 hours and 40 minutes later, I had completed the hike that before had taken me 7-8 hours each time. Just as I began to feel pretty impressed with myself, Susian turned around to “hurry and get back to Port Narvin before it got dark,” completing the 15 mile hike twice in one day.
While she (leisurely, for her) sped back, I reclined and realized that I wasn’t going to be able to walk normally for at least a couple of days. In all my humility, I spent the majority of those two days bragging.
Who Needs a Pee Bucket? our house, Port Narvin 2013
Some volunteers, not being fans of going out into the weather and/or night for their toilet needs, reserve a ‘pee bucket’ for the purpose. I am proud to say, Peter and I never resorted to such an extreme.
But the day I accidentally locked Peter inside the house for half the day, he became extra grateful that we had a new kitten, and the litter box became the exception.
Learning to Swim, Port Nouma 2012
Playing in about 4’ of water, we tried to coax our 2 ½ month old puppy into the water for her first swim. She whined and cried, touching the water with her paws, then jumping away repeatedly. As I called and cooed her name, Peter snuck up behind me and pulled me under the water, making it look like I would drown. Instantly our little wriggly puppy dove into the water and swam to my rescue.
Giaman Kanu! Port Nouma 2012
Auntie Yam and I playing with logs in a river, trying to balance on them like they were real canoes. We played and laughed like we were 9 years old, at the ripe (and shared) age of 27. A great introduction to my new family and community.
Nicole, the Dancer and High-Fiver, family nakamal, Port Narvin 2014
What 20 month old doesn’t LOVE attention? Well, this one more than most. So when her mom tries to stop her from eating rice covered in hot chili sauce, she naturally needs to sneak an entire spoonful into her mouth. All looks fine at first. Then, just as Peter says, “There’s not much hot sauce, just enough to make it tangy probably,” we see her expression begin to change.
Her top lip transforms into a squished ‘M’ and her lower lip a “W”. Then out comes the tongue and her mouth slowly stretches wide open, becoming almost as large and round as her alarmed eyes. But does this girl cry? Oh no, she just pants and laughs with us (Mama Claudie, Peter and I, who are rolling on the floor) even as her mouth is stretched as wide as possible. And what does she do the moment we all recover? Where did that plate of rice go?!?!?!
“Bring shoes you can cross a river in.” Cooks Bay 2013
That time when Triston and Karen casually, but with difficulty, swam across the Cook’s Bay river, both in their shoes and Triston in a nice button-up shirt. They were ready for anything. Well, nearly anything. ;)
The Great Escape, Port Narvin, Erromango 2013
Walking down the main road in our rural village, we hear a commotion heading our way. Dogs, chasing something. Kids yelling and chasing not far behind. Must be a chicken trying to escape the saucepan.
We wait and listen as the noise moves in our direction. Then boom! A pig comes flying out of some bushes, 8 or 10 dogs frantically barreling right behind. The small pig swooshes past us and down to the beach. Another unfortunate pig tied to a tree nearby squeals as it’s confused for its brother by one of the dogs. Before we know it, the pig that had shot past us like a bullet was splashing into the ocean and began to swim. A pig! Swimming in the ocean! The dogs are too afraid of the waves to continue in their pursuit. We watch as the latest refugee grows smaller and smaller, paddling straight out into the bay.
“Pigs can swim?!” I asked my host pappa. “Of course,” he answered, “but they usually just get eaten by sharks.”
There’s a meal i never imagined on a shark’s menu: bacon.
We later learned that the pig managed to swim around and come out at the end of the bay, several kilometers away. Super pig!
The Universality of Toilet Humor, our kitchen, Port Narvin 2014
That one time over dinner in our kitchen when Esther (age 8) farted loudly, and the ever-silent Mama Claudie, Alisia, Nesi and I didn’t recover from our giggles for at least 10 minutes. Then Mama Claudie told Esther she must have had an inflated balloon in her stomach—then let go. Another 10 minutes of giggles.
Ben the Co-Op Keeper, Port Narvin 2014
The store keeper who blamed Peter for his store never having any peanut butter. Corey visits:
Corey: “Good morning, Ben! I need peanut butter!”
Ben: “Sorry—Peter buys all of them!”
Um. NE Erro Council HQ, Port Narvin 2014
That one time when the conversation at a Gender-Based Violence workshop digressed into a 20 minute debate about whether women have moustaches as often as men. (Gender, or sex?)
Teaching Life Skills to One Eleven Year Old at a Time, our kitchen, Port Narvin 2014
The first time I played the Game of Life Card Game with my sister Alisia, we practiced stealing each other’s pets, husbands, and children for two hours, laughing harder than we ever had together.
When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up to be a wildlife vet. My life goal was to someday pet a real cheetah. My favorite channel was Animal Planet and my best friend was my dog, Booboo. My family rescued animals and I adored each of them and sobbed like it was the end of the world when one of them died.
Then I grew up~ and put myself through university grooming dogs. I met most of my best friends through taking care of their pets. For years, my life was philosophy and dogs.
Then I joined the Peace Corps. I came to a country where people don’t always take exquisite care of themselves, let alone animals; where dogs steal people’s food, make things dirty, shit everywhere and do nothing to help a family except on the rare occasion they go hunting. Cats are good to have around (better than the rats), but still dirty and a sanitation risk. Both will steal baby chickens and eggs. Similar to many rural developing countries, dogs and cats are not exactly part of the family but instead dirty animals that simply live alongside humans and only have minimal purpose. Some people even consider dogs and cats best when roasting over a fire. To do so relieves the problem of an animal that steals protein and instead makes them a source of protein.
Many volunteers come and understandably have a difficult time adapting to this atmosphere. As you may guess, myself not least of all. But then by the end of two, three, four or more years of living here, they adapt. I have met volunteers that have not only gotten over it, but have tasted and/or also come to detest cats and dogs in the same way many local people do. We even have one fellow volunteer who has since admitted to me that he initially hated me for how invested I was in the dogs in our training village. (I’ll forgive this volunteer, who I have come to think of as family, for this judgment if s/he forgives me this post. ;) )
When I was in the depth of my culture shock (maybe 1-2 months in), I was torn~ I needed to get through the shock and learn to live with it if I was going to succeed in completing my service. But I didn’t want to become detached from and lose my compassion for life beyond the category of human.
As you can see, I made it through my service and (at the time of writing this) have a mere two months left. So I got through it one way or another. If you have seen my facebook pictures, you’d also see that I am posting pictures and videos of our dog, cat, and pig (ok, our family’s pig) almost as often as I am of people. Clearly I have not turned into a dog beating, cat hating person. But I also don’t burst into tears when I see a hungry, flea-ridden dog limping down the road. If I were still in that place, I would have gone back to the States a long time ago and been a traumatized mess.
I have come to know the people. I have come to know the culture, the context, the animals, and a bit of the history. I have gotten used to seeing drastically unhealthy and uncared for animals on a daily basis. Just as anyone who regularly visits any city knows, when you see something often enough, such as a starving and unhealthy beggar on the side of the road, you learn to walk past without turning your head. Part of this is unfortunate desensitization that holds us back from being as great affecters of change as we could be. But whether it’s some level of habitually turning your head from beggars, broken animals, horrific world news, tragedies even in your own neighborhood, or whatever, this behavior is a necessary coping mechanism that all humanity needs in order to be as adaptable as we are. While we should be aware of this natural coping mechanism, aware enough to not let it get in our way of making the world a better place, we should also forgive ourselves for it.
Before I came here, people who weren’t as radical in their animal loving as me would criticize me for equating animals with human beings. I would come back and say that we’re not equal. Animals aren’t capable of the atrocities that humans are capable of. In addition to learning to forgive myself for peacefully living alongside suffering in order to do my part as a Peace Corps volunteer, I have also learned that animals are a lot more like human beings than I could have imagined.
Being responsible for their own acquisition of food does not result in animals sitting around a dinner table together to share their meals. Mating among free roaming animals does not look like some friendly flirting followed by peaceful consensual intercourse. Being territorial isn’t solved with white picket fences. In the best and worst health, I have seen dogs: tear each other apart over something that might be a shred of food; males violently attack a female when she’s in heat and willing to kill any male that comes near; nearly destroy each other for walking near their family’s house; and so much more. I have had a male cat break INTO our house in the middle of the night to attack our brand new (male) kitten because, I guess, he was in his territory—and bandaged wounds time and time again that were inflicted by this bastard (who also steals my family’s baby chicks instead of catching rats). I have seen that 90% of chicken reproduction looks very violent and non-consensual (I concede that there may be some humor in that—or at least in reading about it). And I could name an equal number of endearing moments of loyalty and love among non-homo-sapiens.
So long story short, I have learned that I too am subject to one of humanity’s greatest strengths and weaknesses: adaptability that learns to ignore things that could otherwise hold us back. I have learned that humans and animals are more alike than I thought—I already knew that animals can be loyal, loving and wonderful, but I’ve also learned that animals are capable of incredible viciousness just like humans. And I have learned that in spite of all this, I still am full of love for living things of all shapes and sizes. I have learned to understand non-animal lovers better, and feel compassion for the causes behind their inability to connect with other species in this way. My compassion may have changed shape, but it has not been diminished. It has grown stronger and expanded. Through a human perspective, all life has it’s own light, dark, and plenty of grey, and every day I am learning to better appreciate the balance.
If you got through this and just need a little more cuteness to make it worthwhile, click here.
When joining the Peace Corps, I hoped to do my part to lift up humanity, pile unique and diverse experience into my theoretical personal bio, and most likely endure groundbreaking self-revelations along the way. In one way I got it right, but in another, what the flug did I know? (‘flug’ ™ by Nompunvi) The following is a list accompanied by some anecdotes of what I really didn’t know I would learn and experience. My goal in sharing these reflections is to perhaps preserve some of these life lessons for myself, but also share them with anyone interested in the kind of personal growth that is endured during an adventure such as this one. After all, every one of us has so many inimitable life lessons, imagine how much we all learn by sharing them. After reading, please post any stories, words of wisdom, jokes, whatever in the comments. This is just a sampling from my Peace Corps experience, but it’s better than nothing. I have learned that: And… As time passes and I continue to reflect, these lists will likely come to look incredibly quaint. Nevertheless, never underestimate the importance of looking back on your life, seeing the good and the bad, and making the greatest effort to appreciate every moment of what you achieve, of what you learn, and everything else. All of our ambitions, accomplishments, and challenges are unique in so many ways. Take the time to remember it. And share it, so we can all learn from each other. That said, don’t forget to share a story or two in the comments! “There are some things that you can’t know Unless you’ve been there But oh how far we could go If we started to share” -Ani DiFranco
This may have been posted before, I seriously cannot remember. It is an article I wrote for my fellow volunteers a few months back on the topic of maintaining their optimism. I think it should be noted, that writing this helped ME maintain my motivation through to the end. I hope you enjoy.
So here you are. You have made it to the end of the beginning. A long obstacle course of self selection, medical exams and forms, loan deferments, next of kin notifications, bank statements and so on. What have you gotten yourself into? Well, now that it is too late to turn back, I will tell you. If you are here chances are you are a bleeding heart liberal-do-gooder that like a superhero wants to make the world a better place. Now you can point a finger at Ghandi (Be the change you want to see in the world), JFK (Ask not what your country blah blah blah), or even Obama’s Hopey-Changey thing (Yes We Can); but those were just inspirations. Somewhere inside you, you committed to this service with the loftiest of goals and expectations. How can we protect and defend this waif of a feeling that got you into this in the first place? How can we sustain our original optimism in the trenches of PC service?
Before getting on the plane we all had a very general picture of what our service would be like. My picture had rainbows and carebears and conversations of deep political, social and philosophical importance. That’s me. Jen Green I imagine had a picture of zombie slaying, french toast making and creative writing workshops. As Tom Petty says, ‘the future is wide open’- its very common to have hopes of a general nature about your service. Then you get to site, and all the myriad possibilities coalesce into concrete specifics. Before we had theoretical knowledge of Peace Corps service. And now slowly that theoretical knowledge shifts into empirical knowledge. This can be a fascinating time of wondrous discovery- but most experience it as some kind of disappointment. You may look back at your original idea of service and think it was the work of a naive and misguided mind. There is truth in that- but don’t disparage it. Everyone gets a reality check in the first few months. Because we were so filled with optimism and a personal dream in deciding to come- pessimism can be a real threat to our service. So let’s talk about optimism and pessimism and realist viewpoints. I think these ideas get tossed around and many people have strange ideas about them.
What is optimism? Merely a hope for the future. If you have optimism about your service in the PC then you believe your service can make a difference. It is a positive attitude about the future. But it is by nature abstract and undetermined. Once specifics start becoming a part of your hopes for the future- they become expectations. And this is natural and normal- in all cases in all times, we move from abstract and general ideas of the future to actual events of the present, and then on to mere images of the past that we recall and reflect on to inform likely outcomes for our future endeavors.
What is realism? Realism or pragmatism is the view of things as they are now, informed with wisdom of what has worked or failed to work in the past. This view seeks to limit as much as possible the wasted effort between past mistakes or inefficiencies and what we hope to achieve in the future. And this is good. This is the principle of induction. Past outcomes should help us make good decisions in planning and preparation for striving for our hopes and dreams. This is how we learn- we test, evaluate and revise and try again.
Often when people disagree, they are merely not understanding the others views. Pragmatic views are important for deciding how to go about doing something; what to change to try something bakegan. They can also help us see if our goals can be achieved within a certain timeframe. Here is a spoiler for you. Your goals, your hopes will not be visible in the way you want them to be, before you go home (caveat- unless you pull a Matt Hardwick or Sarah Lightner).
And so disappointment is natural; Because we are used, oh so used to seeing the impact of our work. Accept and remember this, it will save you headaches. You may want to say- “But I can see raintanks and toilets!” or “I can see a library or dispensary etc..” You would be wise not to pin your aspirations on a project that may not finish or come to fruition before you leave. And this is NOT A FAILURE. If your project is completed, great! But our primary task should be sustainable development. So while you can see and (eww) touch a toilet, it is not sustainable. A community that knows how to organize, plan, fundraise and build its own resources however- THAT is sustainable. This is near impossible to see while you are at site, and even harder after you leave.
What is pessimism? The absence or privation of hope. It is an attitude brought about from disappointment, from expectations that were not met, from a lack of beer, ice cream, cheese and other delicious necessities- this pain is real, but it should not inform our outlook on the future. As an attitude, it leads to self-fulfilling prophecies and thoughts. This is depression. You cannot reason yourself out of despair- other than to realize it is not useful, not pragmatic. So, adjust your expectations, maintain your hopes and good attitude, reflect and adjust your actions with realistic and practical experience.
I want to try and share a point that Nietzsche tried to make. He was a great student of the Greek classics, especially the tragedies. Which is strange because most people find tragic stories depressing and hardly helpful. But, Nietzsche points out that life is full of disappointments and suffering; it is also full of joy and pleasure, but never just the one. He thought that the lesson the Greeks could teach us, was that we should try and harness our suffering and make something beautiful out of it. It may be that all volunteers suffer for the extent of their service; but even if we do, we are still making a beautiful project out of it. Reaching out to our fellow human beings, strangers and trying to help them often in ways they cannot understand- this could be the definition of a meaningful life.
You will feel frustrated, isolated, lonely, depressed, ineffective. Ignore it. The big picture isn’t about our feelings, our viewpoint. The feelings will become manageable and pass, if you focus on the goal- the gift of your knowledge and labor and the sharing of our culture. Persevere towards your goal with the right attitude- and that stret attitude is optimistic. We are moving a sand beach one grain of sand at a time.
They tell us in PST-lower you expectations. Don’t. Lower your expectations of seeing the change you want to make. We are rolling snowballs down mountains. We are a swarm of butterflies on the far side of the world. Have faith in the value of your work. Have faith in the community of humanity. People can let you down, especially if you have unrealistic expectations of them. Instead, attach yourself to effort and your service. That is the sacrifice you must make to survive your service.
You are part of a grand adventure. Peace Corps is a team working towards reducing the amount of global life suck, and increasing the amount of human awesomenicity. Adventures are never predictable. This is the sport of the long shot, the long game. Ours is the work of an Epic- a story of heroic deeds long in the telling; Dragon-sized mosquitoes slain, the Sith Lords of illiteracy and unhygienic practices defeated and sent running, of magical swords of empowerment and education being pulled from the stone anvil, the bad behaviors of domestic abuse and corporal punishment being tossed into the volcano of Mount Doom.
Since I opened with the inspiring quotes that helped motivate us to come, I thought I would finish with two quotes that can help us finish.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead
“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” –Albert Camus
That big blob is the island we live on, Erromango. It is only about 20 miles wide, and not much taller. To someone from the giant continental USA, it’s minuscule. But do you see the tiny little dot on the upper right corner? That’s Goat Island, as we affectionately call it (Vete Manung Island on this map). And we’ve wanted to visit it since we laid eyes on it.
Our Erromangan family and neighbors refer to this speck as Goat Island because someone used to keep their goats there. Given how difficult it is to get on and off this rock, they were more or less left alone. Their population grew and grew until they pretty much decimated all vegetation on the island. Then they were moved back to Erro. Since then, this place rarely gets any visitors.
When we said we wanted to stay the night sometime, our host papa’s eyes grew big and he paused in silence…then he recovered and said “No problem. I’ll go with you.” That was some time last year. Since then, we learned that our island neighbor is thought to be haunted, and that no one has spent the night there in anyone’s memory. Naturally, we were even more intrigued. Besides, Pappa Joe assured us that it was just superstition and silliness. Pffft.
So finally it came to pass that we made the journey. We did not end up staying the night (children were with us for goodness sake!), but had an incredible time anyway. Below is the visual evidence. Enjoy.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get pictures of getting off the boat and onto the island. Imagine standing on the front of the boat, waiting for the water, the boat, and the slippery wet lava rock to all line up just right so you can make your jump. Good times.
So that was our adventure to Goat Island. It was totally worth the incredible sunburn and even the infected foot wounds (in my opinion…hopefully Peter agrees with me. They were his feet…). I hope you enjoyed joining us on the adventure via these photographs.
A very small sampling, for anyone curious. Most gardens here include a minimum of: several kinds of bananas (usually harvested while still green, flavorless, and nutrition-less), taro, manioc/cassava, several types of yam, sometimes kumala (sweet potato), papaya, and usually plenty of island cabbage. Less common but still around are things like garlic, local curry, spring onion, tomatoes, grapefruit, mango, passionfruit, etc. Much out of the latter list is very seasonal.
I don’t have many pictures, but here’s what I have for a visual: