Thursday, January 14, 2010

Old Post - Peace Corps Update


(Picture: Mount Yasur erupting on the south-eastern side of Tanna, Dec 31st 2006. Photo taken from Middlebush)

The Peace Corps Experience is something that I have only just begun, but to share a little of what has happened up until this point, I will try to remember the details and tell them with as much accuracy as my memory allows.

I arrived in Vanuatu on September 23, 2006. After nearly 30 hours of trying to sleep prostrate on cool, ceramic airport tiles, and vertically crammed into seats designed for the men and women of below-average high and weight. At six foot, the high problem was manageable on some of the planes, uncomfortable on most. I mainly feel sorry for anyone taller who might venture to fly today, as the accommodations were invented before their kith and kin had access, or reason to fly. I'm slender, but endowed with shoulders that protrude into the adjoining seats on both sides, making my interaction with neighbors a little tricky. I always try to get an aisle seat, not only because now you have unlimited access to walk about the plane unencumbered, but that way too my shoulders had a place to rest other than on the shoulder of the unfortunate passenger sitting next to me.

On arriving, we are greeted by the staff and a few current PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers), who hand us an open green-coconut, throw a lei over our necks, and take a picture of us. For the next three months, we would be asked to undergo the most well-intentioned drudgery. This was our training period, a time when we were to be turned from pedantic office-dwelling socialites into dirt-loving, bush knife-wielding machines that could hack our way through the toughest jungle to find small children to teach English, science, and math. Hu-ah! We're the Marines of International Volunteers. Well, that's what our imaginations were dreaming about when the plane landed at the beginning of the Vanuatu spring (or rain and hurricane season as we came to know it). We soon found that training was more a routine where we were waiting to get somewhere, waiting to do something (sometimes anything), or eventually engaged in some sort of perfunctory activity that often involved as little interest from the trainer as from the trainee. After a short time, one by one, we were each lost in a vapid and mindless scholasticism that made every moment of freedom a blessing from the god of sand beaches and sunburns.

To be fair, we came to love and adore our trainers and staff. It would take too long to go into all the great stories and moments that we each shared and cherish, but it would also be negligent to ignore the fact that we, as trainees, were slipping. Our trainers anticipated this as best they could, and struggled mightily to counter the effects of the island fever that we all felt in our own way. In the end, you can only do your best, plan your worst, and hope for the best. So, after several months droned by, pockmarked with moments of brilliance, hilarity, camaraderie, and relaxation (losing only one of our group in the process) we became official Peace Corps Volunteers, dun da da Daaaa!

Now, we have all shipped off (some literally) to our assigned homes and work places. They vary from the posh (or flas) to the rustic. An apartment near Vila is on the nice side; with electricity, running water, a gas stove, and proximity to nearly any modern convenience you could want. The rustic and rural areas can be found on ANY island, but each has its own problems. Some volunteers live close to a town, but live in a fully kastom, or traditional house of sticks and leaves. Others get nicer accommodations which usually include a varied combination of cement and tin, sometimes even with Masonite on the inside, and doors and windows varying in quality and age. Some of these nicer accommodations are offset by the problem of proximity or accessibility. For example, you might be assigned to work at a secondary school that is well established and where you have flush toilets, cement walls, and electricity once in a while when they run a generator. However, it might be a $200 flight, a $75 boat ride, and another 2 hour walk to get from your site to the nearest store, post office, bank, or semi-permanent hospital facility. So, it can be a trade off. We each have our own set of difficulties, and sometimes things that seem like a bonus, end up causing problems (say for instance, you have a solar panel and therefore electricity, but no one else does; it might cause tension and integration problems).

So, in the meantime, we are all meeting people, getting used to the accommodations or changes in lifestyle, and getting ready to start working in the next few weeks and months. It is an exciting time, but also an incredibly stressful time, as we don't yet feel settled, and haven't yet started work. For those of us who are ready to get to work, we're feeling the heat of patience breathing down our necks, which is making me sweat as much or more than this tropical sun.

For now, things are going, and are heading in positive directions. I'm happy with my progress, and am hoping (and praying) that everything is going as well or better for the rest of our group.

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