Above is the island of Emae. I live on the farside beach between the two moutains on the left hand side.
My name is Matt Dwyer. These are stories from my life as a Community Health Peace Corps Volunteer on the Pacific Islands of Vanuatu.
If you want to drop me a line you can reach me at:
Peace Corps Vanuatu
Republic of Vanuatu
The following are my personal views and do not reflect in any way the opinions of the Peace Corps or the U.S Government.
By designation I am a health volunteer. This means that I am attached to a health facility and I am supposed to work with the community on all kinds of preventative health education campaigns. In practice every Peace Corps volunteer is a community development worker, a title vague by design. What it means is that we squat in a community and hang out until we get an idea what they want or need and get to it. While I’m a health volunteer much of my time has been spent building a library; education vols run health workshops and everyone is expected to be an electronics expert. But seeing as how I’m a health volunteer integral to the health infrastructure of this beleaguered country I thought I’d give you all an idea how that structure works.
The lowest level of healthcare is the village aid post. Every village or cluster of villages is supposed to have an aid post. Most do, although the functionality of the different posts varies wildly. Every aid post is manned by a village health worker, a local villager who is poorly trained. Some are paid, most are not. The level of competence and devotion of the different VHW’s also varies wildly. Some work very hard, man the aid posts every day, and educate the community on different ministry of health programs, others hardly show up and don’t know to wash their hands before they touch an open sore. Aid posts are expected to be able to tests and treat malaria, bandage small cuts, dispense panadol (Tylenol), birth control, condoms and antacid. Anything more complex gets referred up to a dispensary.
A dispensary is responsible for overseeing 3 or 4 aid posts in its area and is supposed to be manned by a government paid registered nurse. This is usually but not always the case. A dispensary is supposed to hold regular outpatient hours, have facilities for patients to stay overnight and engage in community outreach. Dispensaries can handle minor injuries, NCD cases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, do regular (or somewhat regular) checkups with the school children; dispense deworming medication and a host of antibiotics. Basically all the tasks you would expect from a small rural island clinic.
Above a dispensary is a health center. A health center is basically a bigger version of a dispensary with a few more amenities. A health center is supposed to have a maternity room, multiple beds for overnight patients, indoor toilet facilities, and the ability to treat lacerations and minor fractures. It should have a staff of a nurse practitioner, a nurse’s assistant and a microscopist for complicated malaria cases. A health center is also supposed to have consistent electricity. I can assure you it is exceedingly rare for a health center to have some or any of these things. A health center will also stock all the dispensaries and aid posts in their areas with medications and supplies when the government remembers to order them.
Next up is the hospital. There are four hospitals in Vanuatu, one on each of the largest islands. Hospitals in Vanuatu are not what you would think of as a hospital, a large clean building full of people in white coats. They are often dirty congested networks of small building with sick people always waiting around or just hanging outside. Since it is common for someone’s entire extended family to come live with the sick person at the hospital they are always very crowded with children. There are almost no Ni-Van doctors so hospitals are staffed by rotating doctors coming in to volunteer for 6 months at a time. Canada and Cuba have each claimed responsibility for a hospital and keep them well staffed. The Cuban doctors are widely admired here, the Chinese ones are not. An English doctor friend of mine told me how a Chinese doctor tried to treat a man with herbs while he was having a heart attack. England sends a huge crew of just graduated OBGYN’s, we call them baby docs, to come volunteer at the hospital in Vila or Santo. I have only been in the country’s main hospital once, to x-ray a sprained ankle, but I can tell you I don’t want to go back. As a Peace Corps volunteer we’re really not allowed to. Outside of very minor, no harm can be done procedures (like x-raying an ankle), any time a Peace Corps volunteer needs more medical care than our staff doc can provide, they fly us to Australia.
There are a number of health concerns that the volunteer organizations focus on. Sexual health an STI’s are probably the most commonly preached subject. The reason for this is pretty simple, HIV is going to hit this very fragile country like a sledgehammer, and many (me included), don’t think that Vanuatu will survive it intact. The population is very young and very promiscuous. It’s like a fox reality show over here except everyone is ugly and smells bad. Indicator diseases like chlamydia and gonorrhea are extremely high (30% of sexually active people in some studies), and HIV is always just one step behind those other two. Also teaching girls that they are allowed to say no is fairly important and will hopefully go towards ebbing the flow of STI’s that is overtaking the country. Other nationwide campaigns focus on nutrition, diabetes and high blood pressure, which the typically overweight older generation has in abundance. For a very long time villagers ate nutrient poor root crops, so they had to eat a ton of them to replace energy. Now the diet has switched over to store bought rice and tin fish, but the portion sizes are still unbelievable, thus the older and the less active (women), are typically very fat and have all kinds of problems with diabetes and high blood pressure. Maternal child healthcare, nutrition, anti-malarial, sanitation, and clean water projects round out the typical areas for health development in this country.
The entire system is overseen by the ministry of health, which is so corrupt and incompetent it’s hardly worth my time to describe. People in Vanuatu are not what you would call intelligent beings to begin with, but the people they put in charge of ministries are astoundingly stupid.
From an on the ground perspective, the majority of cases we see at my clinic are skin infections. Because of the previously mentioned sanitation issues, any cut, scrape or break in your skin will become infected, badly if you don’t take good care of it, which the local children never do. Most of the daily traffic is cleaning and bandaging one kids infected sores and then another’s and another’s. This has been a particularly active malaria year so we’ve been busy testing and treating that. To many malaria sounds like a very scary thing but it is very easily tested and in all but extremely rare cases very easily treated. NCD cases come in to get there diabetes or blood pressure medication and women come in for their family planning. Until I started a program of anonymous drop points, young men would occasionally sheepishly ask for a condom, sadly though that was very rare. In a rare and recently won victory over the sway of local klevas (witch doctors), women have started coming to the clinic en mass for antenatal checkups and to give birth. Occasionally someone wants a tooth pulled or just has a headache, but it’s just all the things you would expect.
So that’s the roughest outline I can give you of the health system in Vanuatu. It’s not a distinctly unhealthy country, life expectancy is good (not great), and infant mortality has dropped exponentially in the last generation. Sanitation sucks and people seem intent on not making the very small changes needed to fix the myriad of problems caused by it. Clean drinking water is in pretty abundant supply in most places ( so much so it seems they go out of their way to make it dirty) and vitamin rich nutritious food is everywhere, even if some Ni-Vans would rather eat tins of tuna that didn’t pass consumer standards in China! Every health issue in this country is manageable, everyone except the looming sexual health catastrophe. That one is going to be rough.
A lot has been happening lately in Port Vila as the normally benignly inept Vanuatu government has been making one frighteningly hilarious gaff after another. Allow me to regale you with one that I find particularly head scratching and while it is funny, on a serious note it is really just one more step in the slow motion suicide of this young country.
About a month ago the Prime Minister’s private secretary was arrested in an Australian airport while traveling with the Prime Minister to Israel for one stupid reason or another. The Australians used a tricky but clever approach to arrest him, did one of those “hey check this out over here” moves to get him out of the international terminal and then put him in irons as soon as he stepped onto Australian territory. He was arrested on a ten year old warrant related to money laundering. Vanuatu is kind of the Cayman Islands for Australia; it serves as an offshore tax shelter for companies and a place for the shadier of Australians to launder ill begotten fortunes. That goes a long way toward explaining to scummy feeling you get from most of the Australians here, that and the yachties who are just douchebags. Sorry I got distracted.
So anyways, Australia is cracking down so when they got the chance to arrest one of the ringleaders they took it. The Prime Minister was understandably pissed, it technically was a diplomatic mission and those are supposed to have certain privileges, also its kind of a dick move to do to an ally country. So Vanuatu was in a tough position that had to be handled with deft and understanding, one that could even be turned around into a windfall. Unfortunately Vanuatu handled it like a drunk toddler. Instead of playing down the fact that he hired a known criminal as his personal secretary to begin with and quietly handling the issue with Australia though back channels, he started ranting and raving, demanding an apology and telling Australia that they better remember who their friends were in the Pacific. This statement alone if ludicrous. Vanuatu quite literally gives nothing to Australia, except a chess piece in a game of pacific hegemony with China. Australia on the other hand has been donating more money and personnel to this country than I can even contemplate. I still to this day can understand why they are so generous with a country that had nothing to offer commercially or militarily. To those who think it’s a purely humanitarian gesture, get your head out of your ass. But regardless of why, they do support this comically incompetent country as it has tried for 30 years to figure out that independence means you need to govern.
Flash forward 2 weeks. Vanuatu has been insulted and screamed indignation, by understood diplomatic laws it now has to retaliate. It shouldn’t, in a dispute between equals this is appropriate, but biting the hand that feeds you is stupid. After hearing rumors of Vanuatu kicking out the whole Australian delegation or just sending one man in the embassy packing (an appropriate and time honored method) they instead kicked out the entire Australian police force training program. For five years Australia has sent police experts to work for free with the Vanuatu police force to try and modernize a comic keystone cops police force. Seeing as how criminality and violence in this country is at an all time high, spiking dramatically recently, the Australian PD was a godsend. The move was no an in kind retaliation, it was a drastic insult to Australia’s generosity. So Australia and New Zealand then basically told them to f**k themselves and stopped a bunch (if not all) of their current infrastructure aid projects. England is also pulling out its Peace Corps like VSO volunteers. Vanuatu asked the Australian PD to come back, they told them to f**k off.
So this led to a scene at the airport. Vanuatu requested Indonesian police officers to replace the Australian advisers, because as we all know, Indonesia is has a great record of proper law enforcement. Well the arrival of the Indonesians at the airport caused a stir because one of the many bleeding heart liberal organizations in Vanuatu thought it would be a good opportunity to protest for the free West Papau movement. If you don’t know what that is then google it, I’m personally of the finders keepers group when it comes to that conflict. Anyways, the Indonesian police arrived and were instantly busy, arresting the people there to protests their arrival.
From Jakes Village the volcano is omnipresent. Evidence of it is everywhere in grand and sometimes annoying ways. The falling ash is everywhere, the sky glows bright red at night, there is a constant sound of thunder in the distance and earthquakes every day. Venture 15 minutes towards the edge of the village and you get the full view of the cause. A giant ash plain lies in front of what can be best described as a giant anthill; Mt.Yasur the world’s most accessible active volcano.
A small PCV crew and myself set to walk the easy hour long hike to the top of the volcano in what has become a Peace Corps Vanuatu rite of passage. To get to the volcano you first have to cross the ash plain. You walk out of the dense jungle into a moonscape. Acres and acres of moonscape; fine black sand and jagged rocks seemingly from another world. Nothing grows on it and except from the occasional eruptions it is silent, the ever present jungle sounds you get used to disappear. The ash plain was created over thousands of years as lava flow wiped out any vegetation and the constant falling ash piles up on top. It took about 45 minutes to cross.
There is one road up the volcano. The local chiefs charge a good fee for the numerous Australian and NZ tourists who are driven up the hill by local bungalow owners all the way up to a parking lot at the very top. Where all this money goes, no one knows. We walked up for a reduced fee and along the one hour it takes to trek up the road we saw various steam vents, hot spots, flashes of hot air, felt the ground shake and hear the rumbling from deep inside the mountain.
When you reach the top, you approach another ash plain and climb up a set of old logs made into steps and pass a caution sign, the only sign of development. Then you are looking straight down over a ledge.
The feeling from the top is pretty indescribable, but I’m verbose so let me try. You are essentially staring down at billions of years of energy and power being unleashed right at your feet. Below you in plain view is a river of lava and in 5 minute intervals there are huge explosions that sound like train collisions. Plumes of lava are shot hundreds of feet into the air into a very dangerous fireworks display above. It is raw and intense, a very beautiful natural phenomenon. We sat on the edge for hours, choking on air saturated with sulfur and counting the explosions.
You may be asking yourself what makes Mt. Yasur the world’s most accessible volcano in the world. There are hundreds of active volcanoes around the world, but there are a few things that make this one different. The first is that instead of being on top of a forbidding mountain it is on a very easily scaled anthill. It can be hiked in an hour or so, or you can just pay someone 30$ to drop you off at the top. The second is that there are no safety precautions that prevent you from just walking right up top the edge and look down into exploding lava. If this seems dangerous to you, I assure you, it very much is. Our friend Jake, who has been up the volcano dozens of time working with the local tourism board has described stepping on rocks and having his sandal melt beneath him, unknowingly having stepped on molten lava. On days of particularly bad eruptions flaming sheets of lava can shoot up thousands of feet and land over a large area. A few years ago a Japanese tourist was killed when a sheet of lava landed on his head. The Vanuatu government has told several villages around the base of the volcano to relocate, but this being Vanuatu of course they haven’t.
It’s the sense of danger and the rawness of the power that makes it such a great experience. I’m not sure it would have been so magical if you had to stand on a terrace or wear safety goggles. You get to walk right up to the edge and observe creation in all its violence. Being in the South Pacific for a long time will leave you with a jaded sense of natural beauty. The prospect of pristine beaches or breathtaking sunsets doesn’t perk my interest a tenth as much as the prospect of a Jewish deli and a mass transit system, but this one majestic powerful thing was a once in a lifetime experience that lived up to its billing.
[continued from part 1]
The first night we all crashed on the uneven floor of Jake’s hut and on the second day we set forth to build a shelter to set our tent under so me and Jenni could have our own place to sleep. In a particularly fun and satisfying afternoon we hauled bamboo up a large hill from a riverbed and built a very respectable shelter frame with local materials. We lashed a plastic tarp as a roof, and high fived each other for being such innovative woodsmen. We then setup a tent that proved to be the bane of our existence for the next two weeks, the shelter leaked, and huge pools of water would form on the tarps and dump on our very porous tent. Runoff from the rain would come in despite our attempts at digging diverting trenches. Almost every day for 2 weeks me and Jenni woke up in inches of standing water. We didn’t get dry until we got back to Vila.
Tanna is known for its strong kava and the kava culture associated with it. Just like my home island the kava on Tanna is prepared by chewing it. On Tanna, by rule, it must be chewed by prepubescent boys, on my island chewing it is just a pain in the ass someone has to do and who that is makes no difference. Around 4pm every afternoon the men meet up in the village nakamal (meeting area), which was literally just an ash clearing in the jungle. There a couple boys chewed everyone a shell of kava, talking was not encouraged. Women are not allowed under any circumstances. In olden time if a woman entered the nakamal she was put to death. Now they have to pay fines or be hit (not too hard) with sticks. Unfortunately for the women, the nakamal is where all major village decisions are made, leaving them completely out of the process. Not wanting to see my gf chased by villagers most nights we just grabbed a stump of kava and had jakes brothers make us a batch to enjoy in private.
We came to Tanna over the Xmas break and Christmas is a very big deal in Vanuatu. Christmas is followed the next day by Family Day, the second biggest holiday of the year. Essentially the whole country goes on Christmas spell (break) from December to mid February. Even with the influx and domination of Christian missionary culture you’d think that a 5,000 year old independently evolving culture would have a really unique way of celebrating Christmas. That’s what I hoped for at least, especially from an island known for its unique tribal ancient practices. Christmas on Imayo unfortunately was like watching 2nd grade Christmas pageant that lasts 4 days. Groups of children and a lot of young adults performed very awkward and sloppily choreographed dance routines to American Christian pop. It was cringe worthy. Jakes next door neighbor performed one of the routines so for, not kidding, 6 nights in a row they blasted two American Christian pop songs over huge speakers, over and over and over and over again. I still remember every word; it comes back to me in Vietnam style flashbacks.
Christmas day itself was ok. We all went to church where we got to hear a sermon from the most comically angry preacher ever. He was a portly young guy who obviously had been taught by some Pentecostal missionary to intensely scream and preach doom and gloom, but his whole act was pretty funny. Afterwards was the celebration. We got a plate of food, and watched act after act of the odd Christian talent show. It lasted about 3 hours. The last act of the evening, unknown to me, was us. Jake had plugged his iPod into the speaker system and blasted “Don’t Stop Believin” by Journey. He started to flail around and a second later all 6 of us Americans were dancing and playing air guitar to America’s most played out export. It was a huge hit; we were getting requests all week to do it again.
We spent the next few days playing monopoly (a game for gentlemen) and scrabble (a game for no-good cheaters), checking out a John Frum village and checking out the volcano. I’ll discuss those last two items in subsequent posts. Me and Jenni left a few days before initially planned, we had a great trip but 2 weeks of being constantly wet were starting to factor in. Also the volcano ash was causing open infected fly magnet sores all over our legs. Jenni and I flew back to Vila to do New Years Eve in a Hotel room with Champagne, hot showers and TV. We were both asleep by 10.
It’s been stressed, drilled into our heads over and over that top down development doesn’t work. Trying to initiate change from the top will inevitably never reach the people who need it. There is corruption, bureaucracy, inefficiency and apathy to compete with the whole way down the ladder. You can come in a build a school but unless you stick around for a while and teach the teachers how to run a classroom or teach parents how to encourage their children’s education then the school will go unused and unappreciated. That’s why anyone who has ever worked in development will tell you that Greg Mortenson’s best seller “Three Cups of Tea” is unmitigated bullshit. Vanuatu, and the developing world all over, is littered with the carcasses of well intention development projects. Water systems, trash removal trucks, libraries and village clinics rot and decay, unused, just a reminder of someone’s good intentions. Development people stateside measure success (and are paid commensurately) by how much money or material they are able to raise but it is much much harder to teach people how to use , much less value and maintain the largess.
This is the mantra of the Peace Corps. Volunteers are sent into the most remote parts of their countries for two years with essentially nothing. Vast majorities of other development workers stick to population centers and work short term contracts. A PCV’s sole purpose is to work at the lowest level possible to educate communities to do for themselves and pull each other up. It is grassroots development at its core and it makes perfect sense for Peace Corps to hammer us over the head with this message. Any organization (especially one that doesn’t pay) wants their employees to invest in the organizations philosophy.
In trying to analyze the successes and failures of this mission I am left with the problem of defining the question. What is development? The ultimate goal of grassroots development has to be positive social change. Yet to my knowledge the history of positive social change is congruous with the exploding middle phenomena not the collective rising up of the poor. The young educated middle class embrace an idea, the lower classes go along in an effort to one day be middle class and the elite catch up in fear of losing their subjects. The surgeon general issues a report on smoking, young people read it, realize smoking is stupid, and the national smoking rate goes down. College students and church leaders organize sit-ins and boycotts in the south and the Civil Right Movement is born. I know what people will say “The civil rights movement started with the frustrated poor”, sure the passion came from there, but the movement started in the middle. In America rich people had running water and electricity for decades before the middle class demanded it, shortly thereafter it was seen as a right for all. The Vietnam Anti-war movement didn’t pick up any steam until middle class white kids started getting drafted. The basic idea of this theory is that the top doesn’t want change because it’s at the top already, the bottom is too involved in surviving to care, the crux is that middle part.
So how do you apply that to a country like Vanuatu, or the dozens of other countries like it with no middle class. Worldwide, despite the hand wringing and back slapping of development experts, grassroots movements have had a very spotty success record at best. Vanuatu has slid drastically backwards in its 30 years of independence despite being overloaded with foreign aid and development workers. So in a place like this, where do you find that precious middle?
(Written March 25th)
I am handwriting this blog because a week ago the worst thing possible happened, my computer died. My little 250$ ASUS netbook finally succumbed to heat and humidity. No amount of yelling or stuffing it into rice bags could revive it. I thought this blog would serve as a fitting memorial to the computer I wrote all the other ones on.
I didn’t come to Vanuatu with a computer, I didn’t think it was a very “Peace Corps: thing to do. When I got here I saw that everyone else had one so the first time I got to town I ordered one online and two months later it got here. By that time I had been here for three months and had read 30 books. I’ve led a downtime free life since college and what I’ve learned is that there is a ton of downtime in Vanuatu and I’m not very good at dealing with it without some sort of visual entertainment.
In town we have a giant external HD that volunteers have filled with movies, television shows and podcasts over the years. In my total isolation with nothing else to do I have been very lucky to have a solar system that allows me to power a computer and I’ve been in TV heaven. I’ve been introduced to new series like HIMY, Dexter, Modern Family, and caught up on some old favorites like The Office, Sopranos and Futurama, I’ve even sat through some real shitty ones (24, Big Bang Theory) just because I could. I’ve watched classic movies and the Chinese pirated new releases. I even have a film review column in the volunteer newsletter. All my diligent viewing has finally led me to be recognized as something I always new was true, an authority on culture.
So I say my final goodbye to you my friend, my ASUS EEE PC Seashell Series, you had exceptional battery life and never gave me a problem until the day you died. I used to love the routine of trekking out in the morning to do whatever work I could come up with until it cooled off enough in the evening to throw on a sitcom and work out in my living room. You made rainy days (or seasons) bearable because it gave me a guilt free excuse to watch an entire season of 24 in one day. You were able to overpower cripplingly slow internet speeds and still download two or three Howard Stern shows a night when I was able to plug you in in town.
It will be several months before your replacement arrives and I desperately need to find something to do to fill the rainy day downtime. It’s been one week and I’ve read 4 books.
There have been yet another wave of prison break outs in Port Vila yet again this week and I thought I would use the opportunity to tell you all a little bit about the justice system in Vanuatu. Not an academic or fact based evaluation of course but how it appears to function to someone who has seen it for two years.
It is exceedingly difficult to get arrested in Vanuatu. There are really only 3 ways to go about it. The first way is to get caught harming or stealing from a white person. The entirety of this countries economy is foreign aid investment, offshore tax shelters and expat tourism. The police force was formed during colonial rule with the idea that you protect the hand that feeds you. The second way is to murder another Ni-Van, that might get you a few years in jail, provided the person you murdered wasn’t someone unimportant, like a woman. The third way is to be accused of practicing black magic. How this works is say, for instance, an old fat man in your village who smokes all day dies from a combination of diabetes and heart disease. Well in many cases the elders of the village will be sure that the person in fact died because they were poisoned by someone practicing black magic. They will have a village kangaroo court and someone will testify that they saw someone else spit out taboo leaves or turn into a bat or something equally ridiculous and the chief will determine a person guilty of witchcraft. In some of the more remote places in this country that person is banished from the village (his family stays), or in one specific case, hacked to death by machetes. Sometimes the police are called.
There are only a handful of police on the biggest islands, and none on the smallest islands, so most of the justice is doled out by chiefs in kangaroo court but I’m going to skip that process. The one thing I’ll mention is what’s called a ‘sorry ceremony’. I have personally never seen one although they are very common. Essentially it is an event where the whole village comes together and the offending party apologizes to everyone and gives the victim some mats (as in door or bathroom) as compensation. A sorry ceremony is performed when a volunteer’s cell phone is stolen, it is also performed when a man beats his wife to death and then strings her up in a tree to make it look like a suicide (his sentence was cut in half because he gave all his mats to his wife’s family). Police are only involved when the chief makes that call and when they are available. Last year there was a police man power shortage because officers were investigating vampires in the capital. True story.
The prisons themselves look like little schoolhouse, completely undistinguishable from surrounding buildings, except for a flimsy fence and patchwork barbed wire. Prisoners routinely breakout, sometimes they just go across the street, get some kava and come back. Recently a dangerous violent offender was let out for a few days to hang out with family members in town. The papers were shocked when he didn’t come back. In fact it’s in the constitution that prisoners have the right to leave prison on Sunday to go unsupervised to church and eat with their families after. The constant escapes of criminals is especially great for the female volunteers who live by themselves, sometimes very close to these facilities.
I’ve never been inside any of the prisons but I know a little about them. They used to be awful, gross, dirty and essentially everything you think of as a third world prison. But then New Zealand attached a prison reform package to a financial aid package. This is how foreign governments try to affect change. A country will dangle a large amount of money but only if certain laws are passed first. Recently Australia pushed through the Vanuatu Family Act which on paper makes it illegal to beat your wife and kids and guarantees certain safeties for whistleblowers. Mind you, it changes nothing, there are simply no mechanisms for enforcement. Nothing changes except the donating nation gets to pat itself on the back for ‘curing’ domestic violence in Vanuatu and local officials get another fund to skim from. Since a prison is a tangible thing and only blocks from the embassy, these reforms were enforced. Now people in the cities slums are outraged because life in prison seems better in many ways than life outside. Prisoners are guaranteed a balanced diet, exercise, access to western level medicine and mental health care. In fact the only mental health professional in the country works at the prison. Plus it seems like you can come and go as you please, it doesn’t sound like a bad deal.
That is a ranty overview of Vanuatu’s justice system. Just like everything else in this country it is not inherently evil. There is no sinister hand, just one without a working sense. This country is the domestic equivalent a ten year old who runs away to live in his tree house. It is bold but not well thought out and ultimately incapable of taking care of itself.
This post was inspired by a front page story in the horribly written national newspaper about a man receiving a five year sentence for witchcraft and on the third page of the same newspaper (which is seldom more than 10 pages) there was a story about a man who got three years for raping and robbing a teenage Australian missionary at knife point.
Editors note: In the 5 weeks between writing this and posting it a group of escaped prisoners have been robbing government ministries and even killing tourists (a first for Vanuatu). And as usual everything I say eventually comes out in the wash.
For Christmas this year me and my girlfriend and a few others took a trip down to Tanna. Tanna is one of the larger islands in Vanuatu and also one of its biggest tourist draws. Tanna is known for its bush culture, black magic, strong kava and antiquated gender roles.
Getting there is easy. Tanna has a paved airport with daily flights and trucks ready to take tourists into town. The town I speak of is Lenakal, or as Ni-vans proudly call it “Black Man Town”. It is the largest block of locally owned businesses in Vanuatu (Almost all businesses in Port Vila are foreign owned), it is a little exciting but it is also filthy, disorganized and very crowded for its miniscule size. The stores all had the same inventory and broken wrecks of old cars and buildings were everywhere. From there we jumped into the back of a truck with 10 other people and started on the 3 hour drive to our destination.
To get to our friends Jakes village we first had to drive over a mountain. Our overloaded pickup climbed up the twisting pot marked dirt roads, perilously close to cliffs on all sides. The driver cheerfully pointed out a 20 meter stretch of particularly harrowing turn that was paved with cement. Apparently a truck load of Japanese tourists went tumbling off the mountain a couple years ago and under pressure from Japan, the government of Vanuatu laid down a small strip of concrete. Apparently a “dangerous curve” sign too, but that was long gone.
As we got closer to Jakes village the roads turned from hard rutted dirt to soft black sand. There also seemed to be a lot of dust in the air, enough to hurt your eyes in the back of a crowded truck. There was also a faint sound of thunder in the background. The reason for this became apparent as we turned the corner; Jake’s village lies at the foot of Mt. Yasur, the most accessible erupting volcano in the world.
Imayo is a nice village, by Vanuatu standards. People live in nicely constructed custom (locally material) houses and there is plenty of open space for the kids to play soccer or just run around like maniacs. The first thing you notice is the ash. The black volcanic ash was everywhere, it was on everything you ate, in everything you drank, and it got between your toes, in your eyes, nose, mouth and permanently lodges in your hair. The second thing you notice is that in Imayo it rains a lot, a lot. The volcanic ash hits the heavy moist air and drops a continuous stream of rain over Imayo.
to be continued….
Hello all my dedicated readers (Plocher and my mom). Its been a long time since I’ve written anything on this site, mostly from laziness and technical issues. My computer broke at site and took with it 6 unpublished posts, but I’ve written a few since I’ve been in town this time around and I’ll be putting them up over the next few weeks. Subjects include a multivolume description of my Xmas trip to a volcano, an obituary to my computer, tips on cat ownership, island recipes and sardonic takes on this countries judicial and health systems. I’m on the fence about posting one because my girlfriends parents read this and one more because it discusses my not so rosy predicitons for this country and I’m not unsre about the rules with that sort of stuff, but there will be more content. I’ve been a pretty awful self reighteous blogger, I know. Also check my FB page for pictures, Tumblr has an awful way of integrating pictures so just look at them there. Also to all you people (again Mom and Plocher) I will be writing a lot more honestly about things in this country for the short remainder of this excursion and it is going to seem negative, it doesn’t mean I’m sad or upset and no one needs to write me FB messages trying to cheer me up. I’m fine, I’ll be fine I’m just trying to be honest in reporting what its like here. If you want blog after blog about the sunsets and snorkeling there are plenty of options I’m going to start talking a little about the corruption the laziness and the wasteful hand out culture that is retarding any potential growth here. If you a blog monitoring person in DC and you don’t like it, please note your complaints in a letter, throw it in the garbage, and quit your job . I hope you all enjoy.
How to Make Island Fish Chowder
I do a bit of cooking here since the local food is so bland. Yesterday I caught a fish and improvised a bit of fish chowder. Here is the recipe.
1.) Catch a Fish
- How to catch a fish
o String a small net in between two boulders of coral parallel to the shore
o With a few other people start on the shore and come running into the water making as much noise as possible, trying to scare any fish into the net. If you have any fish in the net them untangle them and kill them by biting them on the head. Throw it in your rice bag.
o Reset your net in a new place and try again until you have enough fish.
o Try not to turn your ankle or step on the coral or you will have a nasty infected cut on your foot like I do.
2.) Clean (degut) your fish, scrape off the scales and filet it.
3.) Chop up the filets into nuggets, rinse them off and let them sit in a container with a little salt and oil.
4.) Make the fish stock
a. How to make fish stock
i. Take the spine, head and fins and boil them with salt over a hot fire for 40 minute. Run the water through a piece of calico to strain it.
5.) Chop up the kumala (sort of like a potato), onion, snake bean and any other vegetable you can get your hands on.
6.) Start another fire and get your fish stock to a boil.
7.) Boil the kumala in the fish stock until it looks about half cooked then add a handful of rice, your other vegetables, a healthy dose of salt and pepper and 3 heaping tablespoons of milk powder.
8.) Break down the fire so the pot reduces to a simmer. Add in your fish chunks and cover. Let it cook for 15 minutes stirring periodically.
9.) Remove the pot from the fire and let the chowder cool and thicken for 20 minutes.
10.) Drink 2 shells of kava and enjoy.