Utanlang Good-bye and Final Reflections

April 1, 2018: Utanlang Good-bye and Final Reflections

Top things I will surely and sometimes sadly forget about village life:

1. The children chanting ‘go Morris, go Morris’ as Morris zips his boat around the point and into Utanlang’s shore.

2. The fact that everyone knows who’s boat is rounding the bend to the village before it is visible based on the sound of the engine  … even a 4 yr old has a guess…accuracy gets better with age…to a point.

3. The echoing sound of water filling my bathing bucket in the dead quiet night when the rest of the village is on water restrictions.

4. The feeling of interconnectedness with village life where all things are shared, everyday and everyone knows everything!

5. The sound of the wind as it rolls over the hills, through the trees and into the windows of my little grass hut, tinkling my shell chimes that I brought from home.

6. Nigh-time noises – rats scurrying, crabs scampering, pigs squealing, roosters crowing, and perfect silence.

7. The sound of Willie’s reassuring voice over the loudspeaker in the mornings announcing the morning village news – e.g., when the meeting bell rings, people are expected to attend the meeting; what the work project is for the day…that people are also expected to attend; church news…..These announcements are all done in local language so I can only understand snipits when enough bislama/english is used, but his voice ringing through the village has been a reassuring sound for me that all is right in our little corner of the world, the day has started and something is happening.



8. Lying in bed and hearing the sound of Willie and the women singing church hymns when the sun is barely up in the sky and certainly not above the hill yet.

9. After relentless searching for the cool spot in the shade finding a bit of a breeze under a mango tree that is still hot but is the only relief available and always with a half dozen others seeking the same relief.

10. Frankie, Freddie, Tasale, Marina, Erica and the rest of the five-and-under squad screaming my name when they catch sight of me from across the village.

11. The happiest look on Lie Tap’s face when we went to the city to buy school supplies and to pick up some donated supplies – the wall clock was most important.

12. The overwhelming flow of emotions from so many in the village when it was time for me to move out of the village; at five in the morning all lined up to shake my hand and share a final hug – a part of me wanted to be in their line saying good-bye to someone else as I had done so many times in the past two years.

13. The mix of emotions I had at my farewell celebration, ready and looking forward to moving on but then, Betina giving me a beautiful mat with a message woven in it from her to me – her whispering in my ear as she was crying, how important my friendship has been to her and how much she will miss me…..this weight of profound impact I have had on individuals and their impact on me that will reveal itself in time.

14. Early morning moon setting over the water.



It’s been almost two weeks since I left the village and five days since I left Vanuatu.  I’m sitting in a stunning bay just north of Sydney on a sailboat working slowly on my adjustment to leaving the village, working to process transitions.  I’ve been thinking a lot about how to write this final post; how to put into words reflections on my time in the village, the work accomplished and not, my friends and family left behind, the farewell process, and what carries forward with me as I move on.

In my first blog post, nearly two years ago when first moving to the village, I talked about the hope I saw and sensed in people at the welcoming ceremony when I was given my custom name – Lien Temate, a dress and was introduced to my sweet host family.  I was scared and nervous, taking on this life on the far side of the volcano where there was no internet, poor cell reception, no electricity or running water, or access to anything remotely developed.  It was just me and this little village of a few families that have been very welcoming to women marrying into the village from other islands…..but have never had a white person live with them.

At the farewell celebration, I talked about this journey that we have been on, the entire village and I.  It was evening two weeks ago, and the whole village was involved in preparing for and celebrating my two years with them.  I was served local fowl cooked in coconut milk, had a delicious lobster, fried fish and soup with chicken along with several kinds of lap lap (manioc or banana baked in a stone oven in the ground).  Before we ate, people gave speeches that always started with an apology for any failings, work they didn’t do but had promised to do, all the talk and lack of action, disappointing me in some way or not meeting expectations. The speeches were equally as gracious as apologetic, recognizing sacrifices I made to spend two years with them, away from my own family and friends.  They also commented about the work we had done together, our accomplishments like starting the fishing association and the primary school class-one.

By the time we started the evening program it was dark.  A generator was powering an overhead light in the nakemal (custom material shelter where we hold community meetings and celebrations with bamboo tables and benches).  Seventeen children walked across the island after school that afternoon to attend the celebration. They carried a box of books for our new class-one schoolroom that I had requested from the principle at the school on the south side of the island, passing the box between the older children as they walked the nine kilometers to Utanlang.  More children came from the city by boat and everyone was in attendance in the evening for the celebration. Older people and the children sat up close, on the benches in the light.  Others were scattered off in the dark, sitting quietly and listening.


Speeches were given by many leaders. The final person to speak was my friend Betina.  Batina is a quiet, reserved woman.  I could see that standing before the village and talking was very uncomfortable for her.  She spoke briefly about our time together, the knitting and computer classes, our friendship and quiet talks, my encouragement and support for her to develop and teach our new class- one students on the three new computers we have in the village.  She wove a beautiful mat from bandannas leaves – a large rectangle with dark purple died leaves fading to natural tan color with a message to me, using my English name. She openly cried as she thanked me telling me that I made such a difference for her.  When I stood to except her gifts, I whispered in her ear my love for her and how she made it good to be in the village many times when it was hard.  She is one of several in the village that shared their love, trust, and genuine friendship with me.


I had been thinking for a week about what I wanted to communicate in my final talk.  This would be a talk of celebration, a story about our time together and what we accomplished….but first, an apology.  In this culture of shaming and blaming, apologies are a must so I started off with an apology for….well, for being frustrated many times.  My frustration came from the lots of talk of needs/wants, problems and planning some discussions of possible solutions….and then no action.  After my apologies, I told a story, the story of me and the village; my arrival and accompanying fear.  I made some jokes about me fitting into village life which after two years of honing my humor got chuckles (e.g., early on my struggles with starting a fire and my morning match counts, reporting on how many matches it took me to light my cooking fire the night before – 20 at most, many looked forward to this morning report).


I talked about how initially I walked to a different house every morning, to get a cup full of hot water and to sit and chat, getting to know people.  After a month, the village bought me a thermos – the ‘white man’ interpretation is that this is unwelcomed behavior when really what they meant was that every house has a thermos and therefore I should have one too.  I also talked about the computer classes, work with the kindy, establishing a fishing co-op, starting the primary school, all our celebrating and the leadership changes that we struggled through as a community.  I think my talk did what I wanted it to do – unify us as one story, struggling, celebrating, thriving and living together over the course of these two years.

There was much more that I wanted to say but we still had to launch the class-one computer classes that would start next week and the food was waiting, we were all hungry.  While the women prepared the plates, I slipped away to share a bottle of wine with Dolly.  We talked about her two girls and their plans after they finish secondary school – limited options but with a scholarship maybe they could study in Australia or Fiji.

Upon my return to the nakemal, a table cloth was laid out for me with bowls of food and jokes were made that I was expected to eat everything given my tendency toward light eating compared to their very hearty eating, especially at a celebration. I savored every bit of the lobster and talked about lobster and other seafood in the U.S.  At this point it was just me and a couple of leaders sitting at the table and I was asked to share thoughts about what the village needs to do to receive another volunteer (they will spell for one year, taking time to make changes in the village before they get the second of three scheduled volunteers). They asked what they could do different once that volunteer comes.  I told them two things: the volunteer wants to be included in every aspect of village life so try not to view him/her as a white person but simply as another member of the village, invite him/her to the garden, to go collecting shell and catching crab – encourage participation in the work as well as the fun; and, it is the burden of the village to find the gifts the next volunteer brings – he/she will be different from me and the village must work to find the special treasures this next person brings.

The rest of the weekend, I spent eating with a couple of different families. It was hard to say good-bye to everyone with genuine emotion – over and over again.  I was exhausted by the end of the weekend but then there was the last good-bye early Monday morning with everyone lined up at the beach to shake hands and give hugs. I worked my way down the line hugging and kissing all the women and some of the men, whispering sweet thoughts to some of them, hugging some hard and crying with a few. As the boat pulled away, people lingered on the beach waving until we were around the point and out of sight.

Once in Port Vila, I had several days with a few Peace Corps friends to process our time and departures from our villages.  Now I spend some bit of time thinking about my time in the village – working to make sense of our exchange – what we both offered and gained from this experience.

Here are lists of some of the soft and hard accomplishments I can provide at this point:

Hard Accomplishments:

• Acquired a small development grant that acted as a catalyst for the men to form a fishing association that is registered with the government and may allow them to receive further assistance by way of resources and training to develop the fishing.

• Through the grant, purchased a 240L ice box and solar kit (regulator, inverter, four huge batteries, solar panels), many fishing nets, spear guns, repair parts for spear guns, and dive gear.  The men can rent the equipment if their’s is broken or if they don’t have gear and want to start fishing.  They can also purchase the repair parts in the village to fix broken spear guns saving them the $20 transport costs to get to/from the city.

• Trained a half dozen adults and a dozen secondary students on basic computer skills with two old computers that were donated upon my arrival to the village.

• Launched a small library with books donated from the Port Vila Rotary Club.

• As part of the grant, we acquired two new laptops and, along with a third donated laptop, to replace the old, failing laptops.  Several people were trained on how to make brochures for the tourism business that they hope to develop.

• Willie was trained on video editing with the new laptops and has been a film making fiend.  He has made videos of the building of the school house, a two minute thank-you message for donations and is charged with posting videos to fb for partner organizations that have helped us over these past two years.

• Developed and launched a computer class for class-one students, likely the only village-based weekly computer class program in the entire country of Vanuatu for primary students (maybe there are regular computer classes in the city schools, but not in any villages, I am quite sure). This is a small income for Betina, the teacher, and is set up in a way that she can expand to the small school up in the middle of the island if she so chooses.

• Brought Solar SPELL digital library to the village (a Univ of Arizona project – http://solarspell.org ) and put it to good use for homework help, see my story here (http://solarspell.org/solarspell-influence-in-vanuatu-letter-from-nancy-peace-corps-volunteer ).

• Expanded the computer committee to include Betina, the computer teacher, Lei Wia, the librarian, and Onz to expand the computer usage in the community with goals including: expanded computer training for children living in the village, offer computer classes to older students home on school break,  and classes for adults; have monthly programs using the Solar SPELL resources (e.g., show videos on climate change relative to the south pacific and disaster preparedness; host trivia research games with the downloaded wikipedia); use the music making software to remix the villages string-band recordings; teach others video editing and make a music video – lots of ideas and opportunities to use computers for learning and for fun.

• Building of a small, one-room school house using local materials, and starting a class-one school with plans to expand to class two and beyond in the coming years; thereby keeping the young children in the village with their families – everyone is healthier and happier for this.

• Receiving donations of money and supplies for the school.  We needed the absolute basics – a wall clock most importantly as the teacher did not have even 50 cents to charge her phone so she could keep track of her class schedule.  We also purchased alphabet and number charts for the walls, workbooks, pencils, glue, two reams of paper.  The Rotary club in Brisbane sent us nice wooden puzzles, musical instruments, alphabet and number flash cards among other supplies.  I also left Lei Tap oodles of office supplies that my parents had sent me in care packages (thank-you once again Lolly and Dad for all those goodies and support).
Soft Accomplishments

• Living as the locals do – cooking over a fire, collecting firewood, growing a garden, struggling through the hard times and celebrating the good times – a learning curve for the village as they see white people only living in the city with electricity, water, gas stove etc….and certainly a learning curve for me in terms of survival skills as well as holding my ground – for some equality and independence.

• In a post colonial state where the locals remember white people having the power and black people showing utmost respect, battling sometimes on a daily basis for equal respect (me giving in equal measure to what I am receiving – refusing special treatment that made my skin crawl at times).

• When John and I first started talking about the fishing grant, we attended meetings at the Dept of Fisheries, the Dept of Co-op Dev., and the Peace Corps Office. He then took the initiative to register the co-op and have follow up meetings.  My hope is that overtime, John and other fishermen become new leaders in the village and that the fishing association gives them opportunity to develop some leadership skills.

• Repeatedly talking about and putting into practice the process of identifying something we want to change or develop (e.g., the kindy program), analyzing what works and does not work then developing a course of action to create or improve things.  This was coupled with talks about not waiting for the white man, government or anyone else to tell us what we need to do – stressing that we can find our way forward – we are smart, capable and able to ‘develop’ (what ever that means to the village) and are not helpless, waiting to be rescued. I believe the primary school is a direct result of this thinking put into action.  This was quite a hurdle to overcome as the village culture is about waiting to be told what to do – by chiefs, church, govt.  The only thing the govt did was put up road blocks. Willie was instrumental in putting our talk into action and building the school

• Strategizing with the teachers about how to promote the work they do in school so that (1) parents will see the value of school and PAY THE SCHOOL FEES; (2) better understand that they are the first teachers and what they can do to help at home.  I also had some great conversations with some moms about how I saw their kids doing in our new little school house, encouraging them to visit and to get engaged.

• Probably most importantly to me, making genuine friendships with so many people in the village.

o Making pizza with families,

o family time with Jenny and the kids,

o cooking with Batina,

o killing a rooster with Teresa then making rooster and dumplings,

o climbing the volcano with Harry,

o Friday night dance parties with the girls – in the dark when no one is watching and they can let loose,

o pizza and movie night at my house for the youngfella – telling them they are just like American boys eating pizza and watching a movie.

o Talks with oldfella Harry, Morris and George about the ‘old times’, what’s working and not in the village, in the country, in the world.

o My friendship with Crissy and her family.  Crissy has all the leftover donated yarn for knitting and plans to make and sell things.

o Crissy’s sweet 10 yr old girl Flora who intends to be a Peace Corps Vol. when she grows up – that or a teacher!

o Lydia, Merci, Pauline, Kalman, Christina, Lie Tap, Lei Song, Jaqueline, Raymond – all those that overcame some level of discomfort and came to my house to sit and talk, to get to know me, ask questions about life in the US, what kind of food I eat, checking out my house to see how a white person beach hut/house looks.

There’s probably much more I can add to this list with time for reflection especially regarding what I gained and learned from the village – a list I have not spent much time thinking about yet.  On a recent phone call with my dad, he asked me if I accomplished all I had hoped to with the village.  With the little bit of time for reflection that I have had I would have to say yes. Yes because I lived the lessons my dad taught me and demonstrated the values he instilled in me: showing respect for others; acting with absolute integrity in all matters; showing an appropriate amount of humility; regularly taking the high road in difficult times without judgement of others; taking on the difficult tasks that others won’t or can’t do; trying with 100% effort; giving more than I receive; finding humor in something everyday. These attributes go a long way in addressing the second of three goals of the Peace Corps, to share a bit of what’s great and special about America and Americans with others, creating good-will, a positive culture exchange, and long lasting friendships.  Yes, my two years was well spent and I accomplished what I set out to do.



February 11, 2018 Brief Update


Early January:   When I returned from Australia, I brought back two new laptop computers.  I invited a fellow Peace Corps volunteer to my village for a week and we did some training with a few people that I have been training on basic computers skills.  At the end of the week, Onz and Betina learned how to make travel brochures to help promote tourism in our village.  Elder Willie learned how to edit videos and has made a two minute thank-you video for several organizations that have made donations to our kindergarten school (now if we can just get Willie and his tablet to place where we have fast enough internet connection to post/share the video….! – I will provide a link here once it is posted on our community facebook page).   I have been explaining to some of the leaders the importance of saying thank-you for donations and the importance of providing photos (and in this case a video) to donors so that they can market their good works as they continue to seek support from their networks to keep do thing the good work they do.

We are very grateful to the Rotary Club here in Port Vila and to the Rotary Club in Brisbane for their support, the SHARM Foundation here in Port Vila and the Bockhops, Annie and Suzy from NZ.  These groups and individuals have provided school supplies, cloths, building materials, books, medical supplies and most importantly good-will to us for the past couple of years.  The SHARM foundation will be coming to Utanlang in April to help with rebuild of our kindergarten building roof and hopefully installing gutters and rain tank(s) and possibly a new toilet.  The Rotary Club in Brisbane is active in doing fundraising for building a small 2 room schoolhouse for the community so that we can keep our youngest students at home with mom and dad for a few more years.  In the mean time, while we wait for funding, we have moved ahead with building a small one room school house using local materials.   Building a school was one of the five top priorities the village first told be about when I came to the village 2 years ago.  While we have been working to raise funds to build a permanent school house, I am so happy to see the village taking this on and building up a local house.  During my time in the village, I have talked a lot about the village not waiting for anyone to come save them, that they have control over the future and if they want to make change, let’s put a plan together and take action. I believe that some of that talking and thinking is taking shape in this building project.



Photo Caption: men and women worked to clear the land for building – this was impenetrable overgrown bush.  We used chainsaws, weed-wackers and bush knives (machetes) to clear the bush.  Paying for fuel to run the equipment is always a sticky point, I am not sure how we paid the for the few dollars worth of fuel but it was a very long conversation at a community meeting before we started this work back in November.  In December, the men cut trees in the bush to start framing the building.  We traded some sand and coral from our beach with a man in a village up the road a ways in return for metal sheeting for the roof and some bags of cement (a great trade as far as I am concerned). Under the metal sheeting are some timbers that the men hand cut with chainsaws.


Photo Caption:  We worked on the school house many Tuesdays and Thursdays during November, December and January (this photo was taken during the second week of January) .  The woman have cooked up lunch to feed us and the men who have been doing the hard labor.


Photo Caption:  This is an interesting photo – In order to make the walls of the school house, extremely long shoots of bamboo have been harvested from the bush and have been split open and are laying flat in the foreground. The team then weaves the bamboo together.  My house is made in the same way and I had not seen the process before.  The man in the red hat is Willie, all the others are young men/women in their teens/twenties, eager to help and learn.  There is another group not in the photo working on another segment of a wall to my right.

I have been out of the village for three weeks now, first to attend my group’s final Peace Corps meeting in the city.  we stayed at a really nice resort for a few days to learn of all the things we need to do as we end our service in the next two months.  Our group that started out at 39 volunteers has shrunk to just 18 at this final meeting.  As this final meeting ended, I got word from my brother that my mom was in the hospital having suffered a stroke and was not expected to survive. One and half years ago, when I was just starting my service, my mom’s wife of 37 years suddenly died and for the second time, the Peace Corps office staff worked hard to get me home quickly under emergency circumstance. I was able to see my mom and we exchanged brief words of love for each other.  My brothers, some close friends and I were with my mom around the clock for a week until she peacefully passed away this past Sunday.  I am grateful to the local Peace Corps staff for their support in getting me home on both occasions and for being so supportive and encouraging in bringing me back to finish up the last few weeks of my service in my village.

I am heading back to the village tomorrow and will be writing up a couple more blog posts to share a few more stories about the work we are doing with our new computers, work with our solarspell library and what’s up with our fishing project in addition to some final reflections on my two years of service so thanks for reading and please check back here in March for my final village stories.




February 11, 2018 Published Story

Over the past year, I wrote two stories about life in my village for a local magazine published here in Vanuatu called Island Life.  The first article came out in October and is now available on-line here:


I have 10 copies of the magazine to share in the village when I return this week.  When the opportunity came up to publish some stories in this magazine I thought this might help support the tourism business the village plans to start.

The next article will come out next month (March or April) and is called ” A Year of Magical Living”.  It will not be available on-line for several months but I will try to remember to post a link here as it is a combination of several of my blog entries over the first year of my service and helps explain what a special place my village is.


Holiday travels

With only a few months to go in my 26 month long commitment, I took a few weeks off to sail with someone I met earlier in the year in Vanuatu. I joined Philip in early December in Brisbane and we sailed to Sydney for New year’s. We went to a concert of famous Opera hits that was most entertaining and had a great time seeing a little of the coastline of australia.

Philip did a lot of this….

And an awful lot of this



While I did a lot of this (laying down looking up at the mainsail)


That also looks like this


Fortunately I never had to do this


Unfortunately, sometimes I did a maneuver similar to this, imagine me out at the tip of the bow rigging up a thingamagig at Philip’s instruction and image the boat is bobbling on ocean waves, nothing big but it didn’t need to be…. In this photo one dude passes off some school supplies that I will take back to my village. 20180103_100308

I also brought back two laptops for my village as part of a community development grant we have been working on in the village. Please stay tuned for the next couple of blog entries that will provide updates on this grant, our work with the kindy and our primary school plans….

Happy New Year and thanks for continuing to read.

November 5, 2017, water, it’s not a cut and dry issue

November 5, 2017, Water, it’s not a cut and dry issue

We have not had rain for at least six months now. I have refrained from sharing this current saga, photos of families lined up with their buckets for every-other day fill up and all the sad stories about lack of water because WE WERE IN THIS SAME PREDICAMENT THIS TIME LAST YEAR AND DID NOTHING ABOUT IT! Why did we do nothing last year…..because it started to rain….. and, you see, we live in the here and now, the present moment in this little village and we don’t think about tomorrow (or apparently yesterday!)….
When we are running out of water in the village and are rationed just two 3 gallon buckets per family per every day or two, here is how it progresses:
1. First, we delineate potable water from non-potable (some rain tanks are not potable because they have not been cleaned or maybe the corrugate metal roof that feeds them is very rusty). We use the potable water only for cooking/drinking. Mind you, we are always respectful of water usage, never wasting even in plentiful times;
2. Next, we bathe in the sea, an easy fix for those that have lived and breathed the salt water all their lives, can swim with their eyes open under water by the age of two, and know the ebbs and flows of the sea inherently;
3. Afta, we wash our sauce pans and pots in the sea as any salt residue is…tasty, after all, we season with sea salt gathered from the black stones along the shore;
4. We then go skimpy on the clothes washing, using as little water as possible; things are so soapy hanging on the lines, missing a good rinse;
5. Around this stage, animals are starting to suffer. The cows tied on ropes ringing the village, off in the bush, are singing out and look….gaunt. The pigs break thru their pens and get a little more personable and assertive. The young pigs start for the sea thinking it is drinkable. Chickens seek out dish water for a bucket bath, birds hover around flowers seeking the nectar with licks of fluid. Dogs eagerly seek out soapy wash water.
It is definitely the animals that I am seeing struggling the most. Cows need a lot of water and for many months now they have been going short and it is showing. Understand though, no person is suffering, we seem to be getting by. Just as the rain tanks in the village measure another day or two of supply, we get a small, brief shower that fills up buckets, adds an inch or two to the tanks, the gravity fed system flows a little stronger….
The chief stopped by my house tonight and filled a bucket for his family. He told me that they will drink coconut water in place of water soon. The tank at my house has I estimate 4-5000 liters, this will last one person forever. Tho I have plenty, I ration myself and am very self conscious of the sound the water makes filling my bathing bucket at night when the village is dead quiet.
I have suggested that we add a by-law to the list of community laws that would require every new house to first have a rain tank and all existing houses to have good gutters in place. This would be a start and lots seem to agree but it’s all talk for now. I secretly roll my eyes a lot when dire talk of water comes up!!

Post script: five days after writing this, a girl told me that two of her dad’s cows died. Six days after writing this post I awoke to the sound of rain. I thought I was dreaming!

October 12 2017 The View is Good Enough From Here…Despite finding a little bit of New Mexico on the volcano….

October 12, 2017 The View is Good Enough From Here….. Despite Finding a Little Bit of New Mexico on the Volcano!!

I climbed the volcano, Mt Taputaora, this past week. It’s my second time as I climbed it in September with a guide from the village, Harry, and a visiting backpacker. The first time the three of us made it from the base to the top in about 1.5 hrs – EXTREMELY fast for me! But, the two guys were young…and well apparently in a hurry; and, it is widely assumed in the village that because I am a woman….and particularly a white woman….I can’t do it so of course I was determined to show them otherwise….and not cry as it was widely predicted that I would…..humpf!
Harry took us along the water supply line, straight up one side amongst heavy bush. I was amazed at how lush and green everything was. The trees have mossy sprouts all up an down their trunks while we have not had rain for more than 6 months and everything down below is dust bowl dry. As we climbed, it occurred to me that the wind is constantly blowing sea water across this side of the hill creating the low hanging clouds and the lush, wet, tropical rainforest I find myself in towards the top of the volcano. The men from my village cleared the water supply line just six months before so the ‘trail’ is very clear with the black (pcv??) water line clearly visible most of the time. With that said, at times we are squirming under fallen trees, crawling over slippery rocks, and creeping along narrow passes; at no time can I say I am actually walking during this hike/climb – we are always moving upward at a steep incline.
Near the top, but still in dense bush on the side of the hill, we reach the ‘eye blo water’, a small concrete pool, maybe 2 ft square, where there are three black pipes draining to fill the pool (ok so while it has been described as the water source, I see it is a collection pool from three different sources somewhere further up at the peaks??). An outbound pipe heads down to the village. We rest here and fill our water bottles. I explain to Harry in broken Bislama that Jack has a forestry degree/background (difficult connection to make because Harry didn’t finish primary school and really doesn’t know what I mean by university) and he is interested in some of the fauna. Jack appreciates my attempt at making an intellectual connection here and Harry works to answer some questions – offering up more info for me to translate to Jack. As we take a break, I tell Harry that I have cramps in my right foot and that two of my twos have contracted. He knows I have been struggling and after taking a look at my foot, he kindly says, yup that has happened to him too. We rest and refill our bottles from the running water.

As we break thru the bush near the top of the volcano, Harry cuts right, through the tall, waist to shoulder height grasses and up to an overlook. The three of us stand there waiting for the clouds to part to see a glimpse of the village. We can see beautiful coastline with shades of light and dark aqua water to our left, wrapping all the way around to the village straight ahead. I pull my binoculars out of my bag and hand them right over to Harry; he spends probably 10 minutes hunched down scanning the village. I imagine that he is looking at everyone’s house, every building, every roof; his little world. He points out a huge fenced area deep in the bush that I have heard of but not seen where we have penned cows/bulls.
Harry heads off to find the true ‘eye blo water’ while Jack and I scout out other views along the peak. The top of the volcano is not flat like I thought it would be, instead it undulates with grassy knolls and dense bush. Jack and I struggle to find good lookouts in different directions. As we stumble through the thick bush off to one side, we come upon quite the surprise…..a car license plate from New Mexico….what the????
Jack and I never find great vistas off all sides of the peak and are exhausted. So, once Harry tracks us down, thanks to his dog, we discuss our dissent. Harry asks me if we should go down the way we came up or down the grassy side. Um, I know enough at this point to recognize this as a trick question. Going down is going to be a bitch….worse than the vertical climb up and Harry wants me to choose the torture. I decide that we already know the slip-sliding mess we could go thru if we take our assent route so I vote for the grassy side, ever the optimist!
The entire side of the volcano where we descend has been burned so the grassy stumps are sharp, ashy blades slicing our legs as we cut straight down the hill. This is reminiscent of my climb up a big hill this time last year (see past Post). It is at this point that I realize that the view from the village – out to the beautiful ocean to the horizon is good enough for me, with the salt water lapping at my feet. I don’t need to make a torturous hike where I could get injured and have to be medivaced…. No, the view is good enough from the village.
With that said, I can’t help but appreciate the magic of the day. You see, Jack, the backpacker, is a young 25 yr old from China, he is exploring a little bit of the world working as he goes. Here in Vanuaru, there are strong anti-china sentiments because of China’s overbearing economic and political presence. But on this hike, it was just the three of us bonding over the journey; the hard climb; our cultural, racial, gender and age barriers; reliance on me as the um translator; Harry’s bush knowledge; Jack’s kind, gentle and inquisitive spirit.
When we returned to the village, I wrapped up in a lava-lava and headed directly to the salt water for a swim, so exhausted. The guys followed, swimming at the far end of the beach. Later, Jack was out on the soccer field offering advice to all the young guys as they took practice shots at the goalie. Danny, one of the young guys, came to me later for a chat about our climb. He commented that Jack was a really nice guy, offering help to everyone. I had one of those moments….where my heart filled up with gratitude and thought…yup, Jack came to a special place and he made the absolute most of it!

Photos: Harry resting; eye blo water; my dirty feet and coconut I am drinking; village; jack

September 21, 2017: Everyday Living

September 21, 2017 Everyday Living:

1. I cooked a birthday dinner for my friend Teresa and for her four children.  I made spaghetti using a jar of sauce.  The kids had never opened a jar before and were about to use a knife to pry the lid off, when I quickly rescued them and the jar.  When I tapped the edge of the lid with the knife handle and the little bubble on the lid popped to release the seal, you should have seen their look of surprise.  By the light of the cooking fire, the kids read every word on the label of the sauce and the noodle package.  They took the jar home to reuse.  The kids watched a movie with talking dogs and cats on my laptop while Teresa and another friend and I sat around the fire being silly.

2. If you don’t put on your reading glasses to examine the bread, then slather it thick with peanut butter, some mold is tolerable.

3. I suspect the above observation now applies to ants but I prefer not to think about this.

4. A 4 inch crab crawling across my bedroom floor does not phase me now, I am working on getting a picture of him but he is one fast little sucker.

5. It is absolutely possible to fall in love with a five year old boy named Frankie. If I was also five, we would be an item – this boy so loves me and I find myself loving him backagain!

Photo of Frankie pending

6. Sitting and talking with my neighbors at 7am this morning, ten year old Henry and his two year old brother walked by heading to the salt water, each carrying a dead chicken (Jack’s was as big as him – note to self, carry camera at all times). I was told that these chickens died over night. The chief then pointed to one of his chickens noting that it was also sick yesterday (falling down and sleeping too much from what I gather) but that he gave them some liquid aspirin and his chickens are fine. I lost myself in the moment and burst out in laughter at this. He explained with all sincerity that a headache, or something similar, was the problem.

7. A skirt, the right skirt, can serve the following daily functions:

Hand towel; After shower cover up; Beach blanket; Cover sheet for a cool night; Base sheet for stinky bed (not my bed, I have learned the hard way to put mine in the sun routinely); Bath towel; Hot pot pad; Emergency dress; Swim suit – sometimes serving more than one of these uses at the same time.

I have two of these multi purpose skirts, the one photoed here was a gift from my second host family, given to me a long time ago. I have two and have learned not to travel without one.

Photo of me, compliments of PD.
Photo of pile of leaves: I made a biggish fire and heated a pile of lava stones. ONce the fire burned down to coals and the stones were hot, I baked a cake in my cast-iron pot and covered it with green leaves for insulation – island style baking.

Photo of plate of food: fried manioc chips from my little garden along with a fish someone else caught – I struggle to catch the bait to catch the fish so this was not one I caught though I think i gave the head to my host mother – she loves fish heads!

Photo of lobster shell – find these on the beach regularly.

Photo of tongs: most important kitchen utensil ever – used to manage the fire, move hot stones around, pick up a hot pot, etc… made for me by friend Teresa, about 18 inches long and made from bamboo (probably about 16 inches long now as a result of me frequently leaving the tips in the fire….)




September 16, 2017 – Education continued from past post

September 16, Education Continued from past post

Continuing with discussions about our challenges with education and keeping kids in school, I am going to now describe the circumstances for our primary and secondary school students here in Utanlang.

Primary and Secondary School:
As I have mentioned in past posts, we do not have a primary or secondary school in our village. There are two schools on our island, one is 7 kilometers away by dirt road up and around the volcanos. The other is on the southern tip of the island, 9 kilometers away and really only accessible by boat given the poor condition of the dirt road that crosses the island (two trucks provide transport across the island but daily commuting is NOT possible, the road is way to rough and the transport cost is way too much). So, our kids, starting with class one at age six, live away from home for school.

The primary schools are fully funded by the Australian government; however, all primary schools that I know of have implemented fees for families to pay to cover things like stationary (I can understand this as many families can’t get into the city to buy paper, pencils, etc…); to pay temporary teachers’ salaries (e.g., a combined grade 1 and 2 class has 40 students and must be split into two or a teacher goes on maternity leave– there’s plenty of poor coordination to get a new teacher on the payroll and therefore is paid locally using family fees); pay the librarian and groundskeeper, and other miscellaneous things the govt doesn’t cover. Last year, I reviewed a budget from one school, hand copied it and shared this with families encouraging them to understand the budgets, attend meetings and question spending……it is really hard to help them understand the power and responsibility they have and to be involved.

In thinking about writing a post about school, school fees and challenges of keeping kids in school, I spent some time with one of my favorite families in the village. Crissy and Tapanga have five sweet children. Their oldest, a girl, dropped out of school at age 15, when I first arrived last year in the village – she has since had a baby boy and lives with her parents (the baby-daddy is a teenager in another village on the island). Their next oldest is a girl of about 14 who is in class eight, I believe and lives on the other side of the island with a host family. The next child is also a girl, my sweet friend Flora – she is about 10 and wants to be me when she goes up, I think, as we are bosom buddies. There are two boys, one is eight and the youngest is six. Flora and her two brothers attend the school that is 7 kilos away, up through the hills in the middle of the island. They and Crissy live in a village with Crissy’s family and closer to school during the school week, coming back home on the weekends.

My pal Flora and her brother Shema coloring – thank you SC for book and pencils!


For the three primary students, the family fee is 2000 per child per term, so for this family it is 6000 per term.

The family pays 6000 vatu per term for their girl in secondary school (grades 7 and 8 for this school) – 9 kilometers away, on the other side of the island (3 terms = 18000 or about $180 usd). Secondary school is only partially government funded, families must pay a set fee to cover school tuition. Lie Song is in class eight this year and will take some tests to determine which school she will go to for class nine. Based on her scores, she will be assigned to a given school that has curriculum specializing in her strength subjects. This could be on another island far from home. Some families are so desperate for their kids to do well and get good school placements. In January, we will all sit huddled around the radios at our homes listening to the national radio station read off a listing of all secondary students and their school assignments for the following school year – every morning in the village there is chatter about the school assignments from the night before. This is done for the whole country and takes a couple of weeks.

To give you a sense for where the money comes from to pay fees, I spent the morning with Crissy and the kids while they prepared for Crissy to go to Port Vila and ‘make market’. She will take what she has prepared to the city and sell at the local mama’s market, along with 5799 other women also trying to scrounge up a little money to cover the necessities. Note that this is a Wednesday and the kids should be in school but Crissy explains that she can’t leave her kids in the care of her elderly mother and so has to pull the kids out of school and back down to our village where Crissy and Tapanga’s gardens are and she can prepare for market.

Photos: Tapanga returning from the garden with a big wrap of banana tree leaves that Crissy will use when making lap lap this evening; Crissy and kids cracking nuts that she will ‘string’ on the spine from a coconut tree leaf; Crissy and I in her kitchen (wish I had seen she was not smiling and would have retaken the photo – she has a beautiful smile!); monster fish head she is frying up – on the forehead is a …menacingly looking spike).

The costs to make market (1000 vatu = about $10 usd):

Transport to/from market for the bus/truck = 1500 vatu (500 more than if just going to the city for a visit or shopping, I guess the rationale is all the stuff going to market to sell is taking up extra space on the truck/bus?);

Transport to/from market for the boat from my village = 1000 vatu (boat captains don’t charge anything extra for market day transport; we are all family here and look out for each other);

Table fee at the market = 450 vatu (I am not sure if this is for one day or for the duration of a woman’s market stay, I think the latter) – it seems women can share this cost but only one will get the stamp on their hand that permits them free toilet use (bring your own toilet paper – Crissy made sure I understood that!) and access to a bathing room where they have clean bucket of water for bathing. Note most women spend several days at the market, until everything is sold and sleep under their tables at night. Without a hand stamp, the toilet fee is 40 vatu.
Cost of the fish Crissy will sell: She has paid 2000 to some fishermen in the village that fished with spear guns overnight and got some impressive fish – good for crissy.

Food for Crissy while in the city – 200 vatu for coffee/tea and some bread; 300 vatu for a plate of food. She may take her own food, I suspect.
Income: Crissy will make lap lap tonight (grated manioc cooked up as a big firm patty in banana leaves over coals and hot stones), cut it into 20 pieces and sell it with a big piece of fish for about 300 or 350 vatu. So, she will make about 6000 vatu off of the fish and lap lap. She is also working with the kids to crack some local nuts and string them on the spine of a coconut tree leaf. 20 strung nuts will go for 100 vatu. I look at her pile of nuts and think maybe she will make 1000 vatu.
So, Crissy will spend at least 5000 vatu to make market (more if she has to buy her own food) and will make about 7000. So, a profit of about 2000 for probably a weeks worth of work – painful. She has told me that at times she has not been able to sell off everything and comes out even or loses money (e.g., when she takes buckets of mangos in to sell them for 30-50 vatu a piece and the market is flooded with every other mama selling the same thing…..).

Each family has their own story about how they raise money, handle sending their kids off to live with other families, and cope with a myriad of challenges to keep their kids in school. My best friend Teresa moved across the island this school year to live with her kids and look after them while at school. She was in tears thinking of sending them off again this past February so worked with the school headmaster to find an empty house that she could stay in. She tells me that she takes lunch to school and eats with her kids everyday. They go to school in clean uniforms and hair well managed! When they come home in the afternoon, there is routine – everyone helps with chores (collecting fire wood, cleaning up in the yard, preparing super). They all do school work in the evening; Teresa did not feel her kids were getting any of this stability living with other families. I’ve stayed with them when I have been on that side of the island – Teresa struggles and sacrifices everyday for her kids.

Unfortunately, we have extremely high rates of school attrition – I only know of one man in the village that has gone beyond class six – this includes young teens to the olfella. Lack of school is a multi-generational issue for my village. Girls are more likely to stay in school, we have several teens, twenty and thirty something women with class ten or more education. We even have about 5 trained teachers!! Note though that these women get fined 200 vatu if they were trousers rather than the required skirts in the village so even though they are more educated there are both overt and subversive kinds of oppression going on.

When I first got to the village, back in April 2017, the village was already in talks with the Min. of Ed to get permission to have a small school built here. The thinking is start with class one and expand every year at least through class four so that our kids can stay at home until they are little older. I have taken this on as one of my projects, written letters and met with the Min of Ed. many times, wrote some grants for the Rotary Club and am talking with parents and leaders about options of a private school if we don’t/can’t get help and support from govt. and others. The Min of Ed has asked for more letters…..I fear are a stalling tactic. A fantastic woman from the Rotary Club in Australia is due for a visit in October and I am hoping for making some more good team work with her.


September 15, 2017 – Challenges with Education and Keeping kids in school

September 15, Challenges with Education and Keeping Kids in School
We are expecting some volunteers from NZ and Australia in the village in October to replace our kindy roof, add gutters/rain tanks, and hopefully work with us to build a new toilet and hand washing place for the kids. So, it seems like a good time to talk about school related issues. There are three levels of education for children: kindergarten/kindy; primary school with classes one to six; and secondary school from class seven to thirteen. I am going to describe some of circumstances that I understand regarding school and challenges in keeping kids in school, at least in my village.

There is a national curriculum, government staff, teacher training with levels of certification, expectations that communities set up kindergartens, and that all 4 and 5 year olds attend. There is no funding for the teachers, no school supplies are provided, though teachers have curriculum books and assessment books for each child. Our kindy building is a local structure though it has a concrete floor and metal roof. There is in fact a detailed manual about how to set up and run a kindy, I read it last December when I started working with our kindy program. We pay the teacher 6000 vatu (about 60 us$) every two weeks. Our teacher, Lie Tap, works from 7:30 to 11:30 teaching our approximately dozen kindy students. As do most teachers, she spends evening time doing lesson plans. So, she probably works 30 hrs a week and makes about 1$ per hour. Regular income of any amount is a lot of money here. Her pay comes by way of school fees that our local kindy committee has set. This year the fee is 20 US$ per student for each of three terms. Other kindy programs charge 50$ per term but we have been promised a couple hundred dollar donation to help the kindy so passed the savings on to the families. If you think about it, 150$ an year is a lot of money for families that really don’t have many options for making money.

Photos: Rafters in the kindy are paper thin from termites so they will be replaces as part of the roof replacement.  Am not sure if we will use local wood (trees from the bush) or if the volunteer org we are are working with can bring lumber.  If we use local wood, I have asked that we plan to soak it in salt water first to kill the bugs.  Photo #2 is the toilet – pit potty – am hoping for materials to build a good ventilated toilet.  Photo #3 is the back of the kindy building – local materials and in need of repair.  Am hoping the roof work motivates the village to further repairs.

We are struggling to pay the teacher and have not raised any funds for her to purchase supplies, provide transport for her to attend trainings, or repair the roof of the kindy building. Our issues are complex. There is poor leadership with the kindy committee. An olfella was elected to chair the committee because no one else wanted the responsibility and he says yes to anything if it comes with a flashy title like ‘chairman’. This olfella is not capable of the work including holding the fundraisers we had scheduled. Fundraisers entail each family making five plates of food and selling/purchasing it here within the village. He’s been unable to hold a parent meeting to communicate info and promote the program (due every term) and has not organized a work team to have repairs done to the kindy school grounds (outdoor play equipment, monkey bars, made of local wood from the bush and repairable/replaceable with local materials sits crumbled – full of rusty nails). Problem is, he is also the temporary (for five months now) acting chairman of the community….so there is no authority to appeal to for help other than him…. (note, the kindy is only one project tied up in this dysfunction).

I’ve been working with the treasurer of the kindy and the teacher to present a report about these circumstances to the community and appeal to them for support in creating a new kindy committee– but it has been hard to get both of them to a community meeting to provide reports. This is due partly to the fact that we are a small community so it is hard to raise possibly confrontational issues as we all have to live very intimately – additionally, both the teacher and treasurer are young women who struggle with speaking up in meetings much less against a male leader. I have tried to help the treasurer and teacher, and even some other men in the village, look at this issue in terms of the our goals – analyzing the circumstances and do some constructive problem solving rather than the blaming and shaming that usually occurs but it is challenging on so many levels. With little progress there, I have started to turn to individual parents, pointing out the problem and encouraging them to speak up at community meetings, ask questions. In this culture, they just don’t think of holding others accountable (beyond the blaming and shaming) and there is a general assumption that those in charge will deal with things.

On the bright side, we have a wonderful teacher that holds class everyday and with only a couple of exceptions we have great student attendance. Additionally, a group that does charitable work in Port Vila will be coming out in a few weeks with classroom supplies the teacher has requested as well as supplies to replace the corrugated metal roof (including all the support wood framing on the inside since that has been eaten by termites and is paper thin). They will also add gutters and rain tanks since this is the second biggest roof in the village, and build up a new toilet and hand washing station. This has been in the works for six months and I am both hopeful and anxious to see this project come to fruition!


August 21, 2017, Falling in Love Again…

August 21, 2017 Falling in love again…
…with my village, this is my current focus. In case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t made a post to my blog since end of May or early June. Around that time, I began to see the start of the end of my time here. During the past year and half I have been entirely focused on my village and my work with them. This has been the great mid-life escape and transition as I move from two kids, a thirty year marriage, dead dog & cats, satisfying career – to something… so different. I couldn’t find a more different life than to come to this little village on the side of a volcano and learn how to love and be loved all over again.

If you read my past posts, you’ll find they are mostly devoted to sharing my love for this village, the people, my life here. And, there’s a smattering of my…frustrations. Overall, without a doubt, I made the right decisions and came to the right place, but oh the trying times. Early on the Peace Corps office intervened in some issues that I was having about my house (really a bamboo & grass hut). I had to tell them to back off, that I am in an early marriage, arranged one at that, and we need to build trust without a third party!

Well, a year+ into this um ‘ marriage’ and the honeymoon has worn off! We have had a trying time, my village and me. But, with both my future and the future of the village in mind, in June, I started two projects: 1.) Laying the ground work to help the village identify a new ‘village health worker’ (vhw), and; 2.) Laying the ground work for my departure from Vanuatu in early 2018 when my time is done here.

Now, I have to be honest, work on project #1 – not going so well! I met with ministry of health people in June and learned that they will have a training for new vhws and I asked them to hold a spot for us because we (me) are so motivated and see the need and opportunity for change given that the olfella currently doing this job has been doing it for 20 yrs, the village has already tried to find a replacement 2 times, and they have me, the strategy tool! Honestly, we have had lots of small talks in the village and people want change with the vhw.

Here is what I do, I read all the materials about the vhw, the aid post, my word I download and read the evaluation report that the Ausies did on the vhw program in 2015. Then, I make some, um, thinking materials for the village. I present this very positively as a retirement celebration for someone who has given great service and as a transition opportunity. I want to help them envision what could be, that is a well functioning Aid Post focused on prevention and education. I present at a community meeting and well, despite the fact that in private everyone is on board, in public it’s just me alone on this lil bitty train that left the station to find a new vhw. There is strong resistance from the sister of the vhw even a little hostility, as if it is my idea, alone. Over the next week, I work to host some small groups to further discuss and plan, these opportunities fall short, victim to our small village lifestyle where confrontation is not worth the price and change that takes effort just isn’t worth it and where there is a void of leadership (the newly elected chairman left the village 4+ months ago and now the vice chairman, the elderly brother of the vhw, reigns).

So, I turn my energy and attention to….project #2, my departure plans. Since I first came here to this little known, isolated island in the South Pacific, I thought maybe I would leave by boat. Why? To prolong the great escape? Escape from the great escape? Not sure, it’s a bit of a fantasy. Given my hometown connections of Annapolis as the penultimate US sailing city and my tour guiding of sailors showing up to visit my village, I found my way to a sailing opportunity to some islands up north in July and August. Suffice to say, Project#2 is going much better than project #1! I had a truly wonderful time exploring some other islands with some new friends. Some of the highlights: seeing the brilliant orange glow of the Ambrym volcano at 4am; passing along the West coast of ambrym one long luxurious afternoon; watching the movie Moulin Rouge in a secluded cove; spending the night on a reef; swimming with dugongs and huge sea turtles; eating wonderful dinners, drinking cold beers and listening to great music every evening followed by strong, fresh coffee every morning, and so much more, and so wonderful. Project #2 is so far progressing great .

Now, after a few weeks escape from the turmoil I started in the village, I am back, mostly fully committed, and looking to build up the love again.

Sipos you want to know how I build up this love to sustain me for another 6+ long months, the longest test, you have to come read more because I myself don’t yet know what will sustain me these final months. Here is what I do know…. It is half past 8 on Sunday night; the church, which is right next door is having an evening service. They have not replaced burned out light bulbs and so do the service by flashlight. I can see them thru the window, plenty of the village sitting by quietly listening to the lessons and singing along to the hymns. Their singing mixes with the sound of the surf; the sea is exceptionally strong tonight and their voices are so gentle. My heart goes soft seeing so many that I care about come together trying to make meaning of their lives. I don’t attend the service because if I do, they have to switch from their local language to bislama for me. Instead, I lay in bed listening, having made a fire and cooked some simple kakae, I feel at home if not yet quite in love with my little village again.

Photos: Moon setting one morning; Moses and his friendly smile going fishing; kids back in the village for school break and doing projects at my house; jack looking menacing with a knife; my host father Tatu and his clone, I mean son, Steven – on our way back to the village.