WELKAM LONG BLOG BLONG MI!....translation....Welcome to my Blog!

I have a Bucket List...even before "Bucket List" the movie was created I had a Bucket List. One of my Bucket List items has been joining the Peace Corps before I kick the bucket. So, 10 years ago I applied, was accepted and was moments away from departing before realizing that it wasn't meant to be because I had too many teeth in my mouth. Long story short, to join the Peace Corps you're obligated to extract your wisdom teeth if they're a hot mess, which mine were. I couldn't afford to extract them so after 3 months of crashing at my sister's apartment boo-wooing with disappointment I came to terms with the Universe and moved on.
I always knew I'd reapply, but wasn't sure when. So, one day in late 2008 when I realized I wasn't as happy with life as I once was I went online and reapplied. A year later on September 11, 2009 I boarded a plan in LAX with 41 strangers in route to Vanuatu-- a gorgeous South Pacific country consisting of 83 islands (that I never heard of before Peace Corps). Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am a believer in the power of manifestation not to mention I'm a persistent little Boriqua and now here I am sitting in the Vanuatu Peace Corps Office fulfilling one of my dreams and living la vida "Ni-Van" on the other side of the globe. I hope you enjoy my stories and thanks for visiting. Please note the contents of this website are mine alone and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Vanuatu 2011 - Family, Earthquakes, Cyclones & ABC 20/20

In comparison to my first Xmas and New Year's in Vanuatu, the end of 2010 & beginning of 2011 has been quite tame. It was refreshing to have a relatively quiet holiday. I completed my classes in mid-November and have had plenty of time to catch up with my friends in Vila followed by visiting my host family the Wallaces and their new addition to the family, Baby Mark, or as I like to call him Marky Mark or Lil Man. Whereas in 2009 we had a village potluck (aka Lafet) full of music, tons of food and Secret Santa this year we kept it simple with the immediate family. 

The last time I visited my host family was Easter so we had plenty to catch up on. I shared the latest gossip with Mama Dora who informed me that my neighbor broke my generator while I away on Epi. Proving once again how 'coconut wireless' (the act of sharing news or gossip with each other through word of month from village to village) beats technology. Needless to say, I will be having a talk with my neighbor when I return to campus as he conveniently overlooked telling me prior to leaving on holiday to the island of Santo; I babysat Marky Mark and introduced him to the solwota (aka saltwater or beach). It amazed me that although my family lives less than 40 yards from the beach they had yet to take him swimming. So as my Mama washed her cooking pots (sand is the equivalent of organic AJAX!) I splashed around in the shallow end of the beach with Baby Mark, who is in fact a Merman. He loved the water...that is, until I accidently dropped him and he choked on the saltwater...oops! He forgave me moments later. I danced in the kitchen with both my Mama and little sister, Florina, who got wasted on Tusker (local beer) and cheap rum followed by her first hangover; my little brother, Ramon, who produces his own music and loves to play DJ did just that. Unfortunately, after my Ipod battery died we were left to dance to the same String Band song that he looped over and over again for over an 1-hour.  

The next day as Florina recovered from her hangover laid out in our outdoor kitchen I taught my neighbors, their kids and my little brother how to play Gin Rummy, Uno & Idiot while sitting under our mango trees praying for a breeze because this has been the hottest summer ever. But the most unforgettable time was when Papa Joseph pulled out his only beer (Victorian Bitter) from his cooler, handed it to me and later asked me if I wanted to drink kava with him and his friends that evening. My first thought....WTF! It took me a minute to process what he asked me. Thankfully, I'm a good actress because I pretended as if he always asks me to drink kava with him. In reality, the first year of my service was awkward between us. He's an awesome Papa and definitely one of the most evolved males in the village in terms of having a 50/50 partnership with my Mama. He does the cooking when she can't, babysits Mark when necessary and I'm sure he'd do the laundry if asked. Although I've yet to see him in action. However, when it came to our relationship I think the fact that I am a female made him tiptoe around me and I figured he just wanted to feel me out first before he got too close. I guess he took this holiday to try something new outside of the cultural norm. 

After drinking our first shell of kava at our local nakamal we storied about his kids, how much he adores Marky Mark, my life at Onesua H.S. and how sad the family is going to be when my service ends; as I shared my fruit flavored Mentos with him as 'washem moat' (aka a snack we eat to get rid of the nasty kava taste) several village men greeted me and asked me questions about my life thus far in Vanuatu. It looked like he got a real kick out of all the attention because he and his Kool-aid smile were beaming with pride. The next night we walked to a different nakamal by the main road to drink because our local nakamal was closed and that gave me the opportunity to meet some new village men and almost get run over by my local bus driver who was drinking and driving while making a kava run for his next round of debauchery. Thanks to my Papa pulling me out of the way I lived to drink kava the next night and the incident gave us something to laugh about. Our local bus driver is a know kava-head! 

I don't know exactly what caused my Papa to promote my status from 'pikinini' (aka child) to grown ass woman worthy of hanging with him and his boys. It may have had to do with the fact that he's heard good reviews about me and my dedication to my students via 'coconut wireless', that I spent so much time with his newly adopted son, Marky Mark, or perhaps it was simply that he realized that I'm a pretty cool chick. Come to think of it perhaps our relationship has grown simply because I made the effort to visit with them and kept my word that if I did not visit America for the holidays I'd spend it with them. Whatever it was I'm so appreciative that he's given me the opportunity to share a small part of his world. He and I had a really good time just being friends and it's these experiences that make my service worthwhile.

On Christmas morning (1am to be exact) the village of Paunangisu along with the majority of Vanuatu had the pleasure of experiencing a 7.6 magnitude earthquake. I was awake listening to my little sister, Florina, moaning in pain and vomiting thanks to her hangover (she and I share a very thin wall). When the rumbling first started my heart was palpitating, but after a few seconds I got a gripped on myself and started to ask the Universe to make it stop, than I started laughing because while the earth was rocking back and forth my sister was crying out "AWOOOO!" (Ni-Van version of WHOA!). All I could visualize was Florina standing over her barf bucket (she conveniently carried it to her bedroom for hurling purposes) thinking that the alcohol was causing the room to rock. HAAAA! I eventually fell asleep giggling, thanking the Universe for making it stop. 

2 weeks into January we experienced another earthquake about 5.6 (a baby in comparison to Xmas) while I watched a movie with my girlfriends, Amy, Hali and Stephanie in Kalli's house. Stephanie and I felt the shaking first and looked at each other while Hali thought it was Amy who was shaking her leg and making the futon shake. We had a good laugh over Hali's silliness! Thankfully this earthquake didn't last long and we continued to watch Gone Baby Gone. Days later I experienced my first ever cyclone- Cyclone Vania. For those of you who are wondering a cyclone is the same as a hurricane except that is in a different region of the world. Many volunteers who had arrived in Port Vila from their holiday in the States wound up being stranded in Vila thanks to Peace Corps STANDFAST (no PCV is to travel due to inclement weather). Secretly, although some were not too thrilled that they could not travel, I was happy my friends were able to prolong their stay in Vila because I had enough alone time while they were away. Loud Americans in our PC Resource Center was a welcomed relief to the chirping of our neighborhood geckos. 

Most recently on January 14th, ABC 20/20 aired an investigation on the safety and security (or lack thereof as they slanted it) of Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). Most of us received an email or text from our Country Director informing us in advance of the upcoming airing of the show while others found the ABC 20/20 blurb on Facebook. I've been debating back and forth whether I should comment on it on FB or this blog and since I continue to be bothered by ABC's position and the negative individual comments on FB I've decided to write something in this blog. Below is my 2 cents:

First and foremost what happened to those young women who dedicated a part of their lives to uplifting those in need is tragic and I commend them for their courage to speak out. It was outrageous and heartbreaking to read and later watch the clips of their interview online. However, although I've not had the opportunity to watch the newscast in its entirety, the fact that ABC has sensationalized a tragedy and is informing its viewers that all female PCVs are not safe because Peace Corps and its staff are not doing their job is unfair. To make such a general statement diminishes all the experiences that the majority of us young women in Peace Corps have had. In my experience, Peace Corps done a good job of looking out for me and my safety.Case in point is this past holiday--when I informed my staff that my campus had less than 5 families and was therefore very deserted. They in turn gave me permission and insisted that I stay in town to ensure that I was safe. They were not willing to take the risk of having me stay on campus virtually alone during the holidays when many young men are known to drink and get silly. Not to mention our safety and security officer, who I have a great relationship with,  is outstanding, tries her best to take care of us, is approachable any time of day and is continuously working to improve our Safety and Security Committee to ensure volunteers are equipped to deal with safety issues and/or have their safety concerns addressed. 

That said, I can only speak for my experience as a Peace Corps Vanuatu volunteer as every Peace Corps country and its In-Country Staff is different. If the in-country staff for those victimized PCV young women should have done more, did not do their job, attempted to cover up the truth, and/or abandoned their volunteers shame on them! They absolutely should not be employed by Peace Corps as it goes without saying that a PCVs welfare and state of mind is the staff's first priority. Nonetheless, watching ABC paint a picture that taints all of Peace Corps, the work that we have done in developing countries and the phenomenal  positive experiences the majority of PCVs have experienced is even more shameful. After watching an 18-minute clip of the show I would have appreciated a more balanced and less sensationalized program.

In a BIG nutshell, these have been my experiences and thoughts thus far in 2011. Vanuatu continues to teach me the importance of relationships. I can sincerely write that I adore my Paunangisu family. They show me that 'family' is the key to happiness. So much so that I'm happy to report that after a 3-year hiatus I've rekindled my relationship with my 'stret' BIG brother in the States, whom I've missed tremendously and I've reconnected with one of my college friends and I'm getting to know him on a deeper level, which is uplifting. Both relationships have made my life more satisfying...and isn't that what we as humans live for...happiness & personal satisfaction? 

Classes begin February 14. I'm anxious to meet my new students and catch up with my Purple House dorm girls. I'll continue to keep you posted on how my last 10 months of service unravel. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Epi Island

Black endless beaches that feel like a sponge cake under my feet; dogs with seemingly broken legs  limping about or basking in the sun; being lulled to sleep by the waves breaking against the beach at night; these are the images of Lamen Bay on Epi Island. The Peace Corps GAD committee, including our honorary member Desiree, flew out to facilitate yet another one of our youth leadership Camp GLOW/BILD (Girls Leading Our World/Boys In Leadership Development) in the village of Bonkovio. Prior to the start of our camp we held our last quarterly committee meeting at Paradise Sunset Bongalows in Lamen Bay. A peaceful site that serves as a Yacht Club during its peak season. It's a great place for anyone visiting Vanuatu because of its proximity to the beach, cleanliness and peaceful atmosphere. We have a new PCV, Kathy, stationed minutes up the road from Paradise in Epi High School teaching computer science. Her site is awesome as is her computer lab. Very lucky chick.

20 minutes across the Pacific we find Lamen Island with 3 villages and a population of 500 people -- Lamen Island is breathtaking. When we boarded off our boat and walked a few yards into the village I felt like I walked into a fairytale. Black sand makes up its main road outlined with banks of black rocks that were initially created to keep the villagers' pigs from running away. Although considering how tiny the island is unless the pigs are good swimmers or cut a deal with a local boatman they would not get too far. The rock bank is covered with olive green moss and the contrast in texture and color looks wicked. It never ceases to amaze me what a great designer Mother Nature is. What I fell in love with the most were the tightly woven canopy of trees that stand like watchful soldiers over the main road. I was glad we were visiting during the day because I can only imagine how spooky the main road looks under the cover of night.

Because the island is so small one Abu (Grandmother) I spoke with explained that everyone shares the responsibility of cleaning or 'brooming' the road of fallen leaves and debris. Imagine that! America would be a different country if we made 1/2 the effort these folks make. Lamen Island exemplifies what happens when a community cares. They make a weekly community project of it and take pride when foreigners visit. I was hesitant in tossing a banana peel on the ground for fear of tarnishing their land-- an act that in many villages of Efate and other islands is not thought of twice. Then again, many villages I've visited are infested with flies because rubbish is disposed of everywhere whereas on Lamen Island flies were not as much of a nuisance...go figure! My friend, Amy Orr, lives on Lamen Island and I now understand why she is so in love with her island and her family.

The next day we took a 20 minute truck ride from our bungalows to the village of Bonkovio to begin our youth leadership camp. We had an awkward start as the Paster was not present for the opening prayer and when he finally appeared we were in the midst of an introduction Ice-Breaker (The Human Bingo) with our kids. Needless to say , my friend and fellow PCV, Jeff Kladder, had to apologize profusely to everyone for starting the camp before praying. Although it's funny now at the time my first thought was... if the Paster had been on time we would not have seemed disrespectful. Needless to say, the locals forgave us, we 'lego' (let go) and moved forward with our sessions.

Day 2 was interesting because while we played our popular afternoon sport (Capture the Flag) our ears were filled with a terrorizing scream. The young men and women we were competing with and/or against made no attempt to figure out where the screams were coming from, but the Pikininis (young boys/girls) collectively ran behind the Nakamal to watch the killing of a pig. Apparently, while we were strategizing  on how to capture the opponents flag the 'oldfala' men and women were conducting a 'sori ceremony'. Although I don't know the details of what caused this particular ceremony, in general a sorry ceremony takes place when an individual or nearby village has offended another. During the ceremony the village chiefs have their say as well as the person(s) involved. They apologize to each other, ask for forgiveness, present their 'gifts' (usually some mats, kava and pig) and end the ceremony with shells of kava and a feast. In this case, the feast was Wilbur the Pig. Although I didn't watch the slaughter my PCV friends, Billy and Chris, did and it seems the traumatizing squealing was due to the pig being butchered to death. First, the men involved in the killing attempted to silence Wilbur by knocking him in the head with a hammer not once, but 3 times. Unfortunately for Wilbur, who's a 'strong head', that didn't work. Next, as Chris so delicately put it, another villager "went Dexter" on the pig. This caused blood gurgling squeal #2, but once again, Wilbur was a fighter and was not going down for the count. Ultimately, it took a series of stabbings in the gut for Wilbur to cross over. By the way, this spectacular event occurs under the watchful eyes of the entire village who huddle around the men and the pig criticizing, laughing and/or making suggestions as to what will and will not work when it comes to pig killing.

I've come to understand and to some degree appreciate this cultural event. We all have to eat, right?! However, although I usually buy my chicken or bacon long after the animal has been slaughtered I can't bear to watch the animal suffer for sport. I've come to the conclusion that I may just have to look into kosher foods when I return to the States because the sound of Wilbur crying out is not something I can easily forget.

Jeff & I reviewing the 3-day schedule with the kids.
On our way to Lamen Island
Pikininis play on the main road of Lamen Island
Nature at its best on Lamen Island
On the beach enjoying the view with Desiree
Pikininis help their parents with the garden veggies
OMG it's a parrot on my head!
Not Wilbur...but possibly a kin.
Camp GLOW girls learn how to tie-dye
Camp BILD young men hanging out.
Tie-Dying is a great success.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Celebrating Halloween in Port Vila

My girl Courtney and I LOVE Halloween. It is hands down my favorite holiday ever! So she and I decided to create a "Halloween Commitee" this year, which basically consisted of the both us as co-chairs. LOL For the past month we toiled over the details of what we wanted to do and on Sunday, October 31st we had the 1st Annual Halloween Party/GAD Fundraiser in Port Vila at The Saloon Bar/Restaurant. It was a blast! Check out our pictures.

Lady Gaga, Greaser, Sue Syvester (from Glee) & Fortuneteller Madame Esperanza make their appearance.

It took a Team effort to put on the Lady Gaga outfit. Awei!

It's not an outfit without a manicure.

Even Rainbow Brite showed up...A-listers only!

Flipchart Man crashed the party! LOL J/k
Madame Esperanza attempts to kick the random dog that entered the Greaser's home.

The Onesua Presbyterian College Computer Science Department Certifies 233 Students

The Onesua Presbyterian College re-established their Computer Science Department this year after 8 years of not having a computer course or lab because their computers’ were massively infected by viruses. That’s where I come in. With the collaboration of Vanuatu’s National Training Council (VNTC) in Port Vila we implemented a Computer Science Course 1 that teaches students the basics of computers. At the beginning of the school year in February students had the opportunity to register for the course for an additional 6000 vatu. Initially, we started with almost 350 enrolled students ranging from grades 9 to 13. Throughout the academic year each student was taught how to operate a computer and use various Microsoft Programs (Word, Excel & PowerPoint). The curriculum requires a minimum of 130 hours, which was a bit frustrating to accomplish considering how many days off we had due to holidays, exams…and did I mention holidays? Nonetheless, the students were eager and excited to learn and many of them have become extremely proficient in using computers. I was most impressed with my 9th graders many of whom excelled in creating PowerPoint presentations. A few were brave enough to explore the programs and teach themselves how use additional functions that were not part of the curriculum teachings. Way to go Freshmen! I was also proud that many of my female students enrolled and gave the boys some competition for our Student of the Month.

Despite the many hiccups throughout the year from equipment breaking down to viruses and no internet service we managed to certify 233 students (70 of which were my students) by graduation on October 31st, 2010. A feat that we are extremely proud of especially because the VNTC certification is nationally recognized and will assist our qualified students to land business jobs throughout the country.

Next year, we are looking forward to implementing a tourism business course that will complement our computer course and is also VNTC approved. Teaching computer science in the #1 worst country for computer maintenance is hard work…honestly, teaching in general is bloody hard work, but I can honestly write that watching a student go from being afraid to touch a mouse to creating a professional PowerPoint presentation with ease is worth all the headaches, sweat and tears.

Camp GLOW/BILD Arrives At Onesua Presbyterian College

OPC Students receive their Leadership Certifications

On October 1-2, 2010 the Onesua Presbyterian College in North Efate had the opportunity to experience G.A.D.’s Camp G.L.O.W/B.I.L.D with the help of Alexia Pool, Desiree Lopez, Jeff Kladder, myself and the majority of Group 23’s Peace Corps' Trainees. This was the very first time we brought the camps to my school and it was well worth it. I was a bit nervous at first because after 2 weeks of attempting to recruit male and female student participants I only managed to round up 15 by the time the camps were scheduled to begin. However, Alexia reassured me that the day we set up and paint our banner we would successfully recruite enough participants and sure enough she was right. We managed to recruit a total of 32 participants with a good balance of both boys and girls ranging from 14 to 18 years old.

It was a typical fun-filled weekend; full of laughter, relationship-building and inspiration. We split into female and male groups with Jeff leading the boys’ sessions and us women facilitating the girls. After creating our traditional camp banner with painted handprints, we established our rules for the weekend and opened with friendship bracelet making. It’s amazing how much teenagers love beads! As usual the kids were initially shy; however, by the time we began our public speaking session (Day 2) they came out of their shells and did a fantastic job speaking in front of each other with confidence. We covered an array of workshops from discussing the qualities of a great leader to the myths and facts of marijuana. In the end, our kids created a drama on a topic we had covered in our sessions and needless to say the boys’ skit on being a good leader by acting out the first encounter of the Ni-Van natives by the white man (costumes all all!) was hilarious.

I was so proud of my kids for taking the initiative to sign up to our camp and I was pleasantly surprised when my principal called me to tell me he was paying the 200 vatu for each of our 2011 Prefects (11 students), because he thought it was a great opportunity for them. We ended our second night with speeches, cake and the distribution of their certificates.
Next year, I expect our next camp will be bigger and better now that my students understand what the camp is all about. Our camps are not only a fantastic opportunity for kids to learn new skills, but they are also an opportunity for us volunteers to learn from our kids. By the end of the weekend what I took away from this experience was that my kids are a fantastic group of "leaders in the making" who are helping me live a life-long dream (I even got a little choked up when I gave my speech on dreaming big and being persistent) . I can’t express enough how proud I am of being a GAD member and Peace Corps Volunteer in Vanuatu!

1. Communication Activity --> the Human Knot
2. The Boys go all out with their skit on Leadership
3. Desi and Jeff resting before we begin our Welcome Toktok
4. Students share who they believe is a good community leaders
5. Female student participates in a communication activity
6. I run through our 2-day schedule with participants
7. Female participates making bracelets
8. Yet another communication activity with participants
9. Students decorate our banner.

1. 2. 3.

4. 5. 6.

7. 8. 9.