All posts by malachi515

Peter’s Reflections

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


Peter is published! Peace Corps Prime Directive

So here in Vanuatu the Peace Corps have a publication that volunteers can contribute to. Here is Peter’s latest contribution!

Peace Corps Prime Directive

In the Star Trek universe, the Prime Directive states that to interfere with the development of any culture or civilization is prohibited, and this includes avoiding first contact until that population has risen above faster than light travel (or warp technology).

This is going to start off nerdy, but there is a point, and it is relevant to all Peace Corps Volunteers.  In the Star Trek franchise, the Prime Directive is usually about technology, and only infrequently about any other oblique form of information, with the exception of knowledge of other intelligent life. This implicitly suggests that technology; especially new technology has an inexorable impact on culture, and the evolution of that culture.

New Technology Sticks Around

There is stickiness to new technology, I believe for two reasons. The first reason is that new tools allow us to do something either we couldn’t do before, or to do something in a new fashion. Once we have habituated to using a new tool or device, we resist returning to a previous tool. We lose skills that were necessary before the introduction of the technology that lead to that tool’s introduction.

The second reason is what I will call the toy factor. This is the aspect that encourages individuals to buy new models and newer versions of devices that they already own. To some degree this can make a lot of sense. Buying a new model of car that has new safety features, such as seat belts or air bags is a reasonable upgrade. Buying a new phone with either an mp3 player and/or a camera, albeit not better than the camera you already own- this is a toy upgrade.

Technology has an irrepressible impact on a culture and the evolution of that culture. We in the West have been aware of this for some time as can be substantiated by the existence of different strains of technophobes as well as the historical Luddites and contemporary Neo-luddite groups.  These groups, part of the English working class in the 19th century, feared losing their jobs and way of life due to an advancement in technology.  They have known that technology changes things like cultural strata and organization, not necessarily for the better. Once it is embraced, progress tends to be one way. With the exception of the Amish, hardly any ever give it up for a more rudimentary way of life.

Where is this unstoppable progression of technology leading us? Quite possibly to a state of affairs where we are incapable of living without them.  Once technology has been accepted and taken hold, it is difficult to reverse the impact it makes on a society.

In War, Technology is Transmittable

‘Tech gulf’ (similar to the idea of the bomber gap or missile gap during the Cold War),  is a term that I will use to describe when there are two different cultures, one of them with technology that is superior to the other. Should these two cultures compete, assuming they are equal in every other way, having superior technology will be an advantage to that culture. Being exposed to a culture with an advanced technology will be disruptive to your own development, either to its benefit or detriment. Think about the technology Ni-Vans can leapfrog over, skipping coal burning electrical generators and moving directly to solar panels. Also, the least advanced culture suffers the risk of being exploited by the more advanced culture, because as stated by Arthur C. Clarke’s Third of Three Laws, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The tech gulf does not need to be restricted to merely military or weapons tech; a tech gulf can exist to profound impact in economics, government, communication and intelligence gathering. For instance, the US proved superior in economic tech when we defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

Star Trek Prime Directive vs. Peace Corps Prime Directive

Let’s now explore the principle behind the Prime Directive. The unspoken premise in the Star Trek universe is that all cultures develop (or fail to and stagnate) towards a “universal cosmopolitan order.” (This phrase is borrowed from Immanuel Kant’s essay, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” in which he argues that a universal or world war involving all nations will bring about a collective distaste for war, effectively ending war as we know it.) At such a point, they are ready to intermingle with other races and intelligent life and join the confederacy of planets. But they are not ready until the race has conquered such domestic issues as civil war, poverty, inequality, etc… For some reason, the development of FTL travel or warp drive technology is thought to only be possible to a society that has become a universal cosmopolitan state.

After a culture has mastered these domestic policy issues, it is then possible to interact and share culture and technology with them without fear that said interaction will derail their moral and civil development.

The Peace Corps has a Prime Directive too. Not to avoid interference but quite the opposite; to aid development, to build capacity and to diminish dependency. We interfere with other cultures at their request, but we try to avoid the moral hazard of spoiling them or subjugating them to our culture.

We are in the midst of a grand age of globalization: of technology, of commodities, of information and of services. This is a patchwork project with no overarching philosophy or end. Sovereign nations and NGO’s and corporations all determine their own ends and the means to pursue them. It is a world where some people proclaim and strive to bring about the supposed right of internet access alongside the universal need for clean water. I do not mean to disparage any one project or goal, rather merely to show there is no unifying principle, everyone steers by their own stars.

What Gets Left Behind

Since coming to site, I have had the experience of seeing globalization in action. I have learned the history of Western impact on these islands that we now reside on. I am (of course), not responsible for all so-called white man interactions with this culture, and yet at times I have thought, “We caused this,” and by “we” I mean Western culture. I have seen a village of subsistence farmers struggling to find ways to join our economy; some to find ways to pay for schooling and Western education, others to pay for laptop computers and TV’s. I have seen people who struggle between the values of Christianity that were fostered on them and the remnants of custom values left to them.

To be fair, this is just the way of the world- the clash of diverse culture has been the stuff of the recorded history of humanity for three thousand years. Every interaction has been a contest, the winner has spread their culture and the loser’s culture often disappears. Where before the Mongols came with the tech of mounted archers and the recurve bow, and the Spanish came with the musket and the galleon, we come with wireless devices and Google. Before, the clash of different cultures was motivated by , the looting of goods to sell. Today we may have become less violent as individuals, but we are still motivated by new markets and the profit that can be gained by the trafficking of goods.

Many Ni-Vans have already succumbed to the siren call of our society—captivated by our entertainment industry. After the first taste they are drawn into the web of participating in our cash-fueled economy at the expense of their traditional island economy of plenty.

Let me pose some questions now-

A.              Should our values dominate their developmental values without debate?

B.              Should we try to protect them from the damaging influence of our values and technology, much like Spock and Kirk must?

C.              Can we protect their agency and seek to only do good by offering improvements and amelioration?

I will try to answer these questions, but invite others to share their viewpoints to them as well. Questions A and B set up a false dilemma, an either/or scenario that are not the only two options. Rather, a third position somewhere in the middle is preferred. There should be a debate on this issue. Let them choose which values and goals to pursue, democratically.

I feel that this is what was missing in the work of the Missionaries before their Independence. The message Christianity delivered was, “You are wrong. Read the Bible.” Ni-vans are passively choosing our materialist values without the benefit of the deliberation of that choice – or without the realization of what they were likely giving up. Population wide consensus on this issue is unlikely any time in the near future. But that shifts the burden to us to inform them of the possible outcomes and perils of their choice. We cannot educate every man, woman and child, hem wan; but we can reach crucial numbers of individuals to start the conversation in a meaningful way.

The answer to Question C seems to be ‘No’ and yet modern man has repeatedly sought and failed to do just this. The frontier between two cultures is described as one civilized and the other (at the worst) barbarous, savage or (at best) simple or noble. Is this a comparison of religious beliefs or art or language forms? No, respect for those complexities always comes later. At first it is a comparison of technology- with one being ‘higher’ and the other ‘lower’. To be fair, there is more than this going on, and I have neither the wit nor space to paraphrase Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”; While geographical underpinnings might have had the causal power in giving one society an advantage or edge over another, I am speaking directly to the impact of relative levels of technology between cultures.

But not until modern cultural anthropology have we really considered judging them based on something other than what we value. I feel morally horrified and ethically superior when they mistreat dogs and other animals or when they have unaddressed sexism and domestic abuse. If it was turned around on us- if we were judged by our values- then even though we value egalitarian and humane treatment of animals, our culture is still horrifying and falling short.

It’s Up To Us

At the risk of losing you, my reader in a quandary, I give you my (imperfect) answer to this dilemma. I believe in the right of the individual and the collective culture to decide and grow in the direction it sees fit. To determine the wisest direction means having a proper education and ability to think critically. This is why I am in support of mandatory education- to develop the mind and the character to be capable of good critical thinking skills and being able to make mistakes, bounce back from them and learn from them.

Early on in the 20th century, America had a very ‘hands off’ approach to foreign affairs. In some regards, it seems an isolationist approach is more respectful of other cultures than our last six decades of activity in this sphere. But this is moot- the eggs are broken, we can either throw them away or try to make an omelet. And since we have done the egg breaking ourselves (through aggressive trade, insurgent democracy, infiltrating cultural media, and destruction of resources potentially necessary for self-sufficiency) we cannot take a stance like that of Switzerland or Bhutan. I feel we should- that is, we are morally obligated to try to make something of the situation. Nations like Vanuatu have no opt out option- they have already been contaminated by the outside world, so to speak. So knowing this, how do we do right by them, so that they can develop freely, so that they can choose for themselves their own values?

Given an understanding of the problematic situation facing us as American cultural ambassadors, there is wisdom in Star Trek’s Prime Directive. Like newly graduated medical doctors who take the ages old Hippocratic Oath, “First, Do No Harm,” we as a nation should try to fulfill the Peace Corps Prime Directive- to aid development, build capacity and seek to diminish dependency. The danger is that while we are in country seeking to do just that, American foreign policy is promoting dependency around the world.

May 23rd- Heading back to site

This should be my last word on the internets for the next 3 or 4 months.

I don’t send word out as much as my better half so I will say some general things and then close with a story about teaching at my school.

Things are pretty good! My site is great, the village is full of amazing people, and the obstacles (there are always obstacles) are not completely insurmountable- it will be a challenge and will require a lot of patience and hard work, but it is possible to overcome. Now, I feel like MLK Jr.
Some of the most difficult obstacles are the differences in culture. These cannot be side-stepped out of frustration, they must be (*big sigh*) embraced. The ones that are most challenging are the differences in acceptable communication. I am not the best communicator in the world- I don’t like talking on the phone, I can become overwhelmed by groups larger than 4 people, and I cannot listen and talk at the same time. That said, I have built up communication skills that serve me well professionally, at least in the states. However, those skills are NOT the skills I need to successfully communicate with Ni-vans. Being direct and confrontational will get things done back home; here, it is a poisonous stance.
So on top of getting out of my comfort zone I need to develop (what feels like) a lackadaisical approach to timely communication and scheduling- and to do so with an excellent upbeat attitude. Not impossible- but very challenging.

This school break (Spring break back home, here it is just first spel) we went to New Zealand. We had been planning a visit there, it just became more sensible to complete it sooner than later. It was amazing! Very beautiful, and the weather this time of year was very nice, klosap to Portland in October/November. It was a good break, but honestly I am ready to get back to my school and get back to work. The next 19 months are starting to look like they will fly by really fast. A good thing- but also a scary thing, considering everything that I want to accomplish before then.

  I do everything that I can think of to become or at least emulate a great teacher. To my way of thinking, (since I work with very young children), this boils down to motivation and the cultivation of the desire to learn. So I stock up on things to bribe children with every time I come to town. Marbles, stickers, small pieces of candy; these are just some of the things you can get from me for doing your homework, or successfully doing an exercise publicly in class. Parental Involvement is another way to impact learning, so I made a point of talking to some of the parents and asking them to ask their children, “What did you learn today? What homework do you have tonight? How many stickers have you gotten?” I also asked my host Papa to do this. He shook his head, and replied that he did not need to ask his kids if they received any stickers on any given day. I asked why not. He said that when they get a sticker in class, on their way home they run down the street screaming, “HEY! I got a sticker today! A big one!” He said when a child gets a sticker in class, everyone knows. Needless to say, that story made my day. I can’t wait to get back to site and see their faces.

We miss you all- thank you for reading, writing and caring about us and our work. We could not keep doing what we are doing without your support, so thank you- we appreciate every single one of you. Take care, and we look forward to hearing from you, and connecting again in August/September!


Pics from December-January 2012-13

The setting for a kastom marriage ceremony.
The setting for a kastom marriage ceremony.
 6(?) or more coconut crabs.
Andrew with 6(?) or more coconut crabs.
Burial spot of murdered Missionary.
Burial spot of murdered Missionary.
Inside view of swimhouse.
Inside view of swimhouse.
Fav place on beach- the bench under the Banyon tree.
Fav place on beach- the bench under the Banyon tree.
View of front door.
View of front door.
Mount Urantop-  view from front door.
Mount Urantop- view from front door.
House and swimhouse.
House and swimhouse.
South view of beach in front of house.
South view of beach in front of house.
What is this strange alien pod growing in the tree in front of our house?
What is this strange alien pod growing in the tree in front of our house?
Papa Joe ontop of the house he built for us- he is currently adding weight to the roof to protect it from Cyclones.
Papa Joe ontop of the house he built for us- he is currently adding weight to the roof to protect it from Cyclones.

How do I feel about going to Erro-

Ever since site annoucements (the MOST exciting day in all of training, even more so than being sworn in), people have been asking me if I am excited about going to Erromango…

So, here is my complete answer. I am beseiged with guilt about how privileged I feel- because I got everything that I wanted at my site. That- of course, is given the info that I currently have. I always make an exception to say that I won’t know HOW great it is until I get to the site. (e.g. I found out that our roof on our house was completed as late as Thursday, 3 days ago. It is not uncommon for PCV’s to get to site and not have a finished house to live in.) If I accept what I do know about the site, then it has….

* A black sand beach less than 15 meters from our house. This is such an exotic and awesome beach that yachties often come ashore to walk on it.

* Fulap fresh water/rain water. Water is life. I did not want to have to deal with droughts and water impurities and so on. I WILL go fetch it, I just didn’t want to have to go without it. Erro is considered a river island because it has so much rain/fresh water.

* No roads, No scary trucks. Most island travel is riding in the back of a pickup truck that bounces all over hell and back on 45 degree dirt roads. If you don’t flip over and die, you will become butt sore and/or nauseous. Erro has only 1 truck on the whole island and no roads. Only footpaths. You want to go somewheres, you must walk/hike it out.

* While volcanos are fun to visit, you do not want to live under one. Not because of the lava- I can outrun that! Because of the ash fallout and acid rain that accompanies it. Erro has no active volcano. Tanna does, and it is the nearest island to Erro.

* Every island varies due to its vegetation, micro-climate, terrain and so on. Erro is one of the most remote islands, in that it does not receive a lot of commerical or tourist traffic. Boats do not often and regularly visit the island, so it can take some time to get on or off the island, the same can be said for mail. It is a fair sized island but only has 1,900 inhabitants. It is very lush- it has not been developed like some of the other islands (i.e. plantations) so it is, as we say, very bush.

* It has a plentitude of fruits and vegetables and flora in general. (Erro is also known for having a lot of sandalwood trees.) While this might mean we would definitely be eating a lot of aelan kaekae (e.g. laplap), the fishing is very good at our site. Mostly because they have not over-fished the area yet. A product that is shipped to the island for sale, for example peanut butter costs $3.50 for 150grams; a fresh fish (between .5-1.0kg) costs $1.00. This means that not only will we not have any protein problems, but that we get to live on the most amazing seafood you can possibly find. (I have already tasted some great white fish that I believe was a pacific red snapper…)

So, yeah. It is a paradise. I KNOW, it will be work, and hard, and isolating and all of that. But, based on what I thought my island could be like, I got everything I wanted.  😀

I will be doing my service, camping in the Happy Hunting Grounds.
This blog will next be updated in February, unless I made a glaring omission and/or error, in which case it will be fixed tomorrow.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!!!!

….And finally we have made it to Vanuatu!!!

The road trip finally concluded, we flew out of Salt Lake, Utah on thursday, October 4th 2012. We landed in L.A. that afternoon and began the intense experience that is staging; which included meeting all of our group 25 that was going to Vanuatu this year (30 of us!). Staging was an overnight and all day event with us flying out of the country at 10:30p at night to Auckland New Zealand- an overnight (obviously) 13 hour trip.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I did not get one wink on that flight- but I did watch 4 movies, which just may have to hold me over until 2015 (MIB3, We bought a zoo(which made me cry), Moonrise Kingdom,  ). More security, more waiting, and another take off and landing- New Zealand deserves more time than 2 hours spent at the airport. Just sayin’.

And, then we landed in Port Vila, Vanuatu! Local time- 10:30am. estimated biological time for me- 5:30pm after having been awake for 35 hours. It took a week, but I finally got caught up on sleep and recovered from jetlag. But what a week- training is intense and the first week was even more so! But we have survived, even 24 hour bouts of sit-sit-wota (don’t ask).

As it now stands we are in our training villages (me in Tanaliu-Nicci in Malafau) living under the care of our host families who feed us and make us talk in Bislama while taking 8 hours of training classes everyday. Our free time is filled with cultural activities (cutting open a coconut with a machete, making laplap~a taro product, repairing grass structures, killing hundredleg (code for a giant centipede), etc.), swimming in the ocean, and trying to get a decent night sleep- which is hard given the sun starts coming up at 430am, and the roosters and dogs make a ton of noise and they don’t wait until light to do so.

We have 4 more weeks of training including an island visit to an existing volunteer site- and THEN we find out which island/site we will be working/living at for the next two years. I am currently reading Les Miserables, assorted Buddhist texts and re-reading The Fellowship and Ishmael when I need light reading. We would love to receive letters via snail-mail from any and every-one! And care packages too! (big hot item winners include dry package food(-macncheese, ricearoni, zatarains), quinoa, dehydrated hummus, dark chocolate and umm hot sauce- franks, tapatio, or sriracha).

The address- it may already be on this blog but oh well-

Peace Corps Vanuatu

c/o Peter &/or Nicci Areté

P.O.Box 9097

Port Vila, Vanuatu

If you REALLY want to hear from us, I recommend writing a letter- updates will continue to be forthcoming at this blog, but only on a 4-6 month interval. We will update again the week before we go to site, the beginning of December.

Lukimyu, Tata!