A chorus of roosters, squealing pigs, and crying babies tugs me gently out of sleep every morning. It used to send me crashing to conscious, mid-dream, but it took my body a mere day and a half to find a way to sleep through the incessant volume. Now, I roll out of bed, still half asleep.
Some mornings I head straight to the bathroom to tackle my bucket “shower” and the bucket flush toilet. Other days, I go for a run with my host sisters and then read for a half hour to a group of kids near the school (my volunteer group started this and the kids seem to enjoy it- mostly because many of them have little to no access to books).
This may seem like a lot to do before 7 am but when you’re in bed by nine or animals have you awake by 5 but you don’t have class until 8, then you find yourself with a fair amount of time to burn. Though, admittedly, some days the bucket shower takes me a pretty good chunk of that time. Pouring water on yourself isn’t complicated sure, but pouring ice cold water on barely awake skin is a battle of wills.
After my “shower” I’m the coolest I’ll be all day, so I sit down to a hot cup of tea. In the states you’d have to force feed me tea in this kind of weather. Here, it’s too much of a precious familiarity to turn down. Plus, drinking tea that’s been boiled is the best thing I can do for my health.
During morning tea is when I usually get the scoop about my fellow vols. Jen went for a run this morning, and Kat made some joke and is now the funniest person in Tanouliu. Former Volunteers coined this phenomena- Coconut Wireless. Because everything we do is noted and shared, instantly, without any apparent means of getting from one person to the next. So I always know if a Vol was sick the night before, or what they had for breakfast, before I even get to class that morning. Every sip of tea, every bite of banana is observed.
The fishbowl aspect didn’t bother me too much until I was sick a couple weeks ago and no one would give me enough alone time to puke. My host mama even shined a flashlight on me as I threw up. Not one of my better moments.
Other than that, you get used to it. I find myself lying to my mama sometimes, telling her I’m going to go on a walk “with friends”, aka myself. And even then I’m not safe from others eyes. I’m addressed by my custom name (Leibet) everywhere I go, by people I’m sure I’ve never seen or talked to before. This even happens at the resort that the vols and I sometimes walk to- to steal a minutes worth of internet (So I can post my blog update and read the amazingly uplifting comments received from incredibly awesome people). Everyone that works at the resort is from the village and addresses us by name. Nowhere is safe from coconut wireless.
After the morning gossip session, I head to class. The days all vary. We learn everything from Bislama to rape prevention, from classroom management to the Vanuatu school system. Today we were taught how to recognize fruits and veggies here, and how to combine them to create the healthiest possible diet.
Some sessions are a waste of time, some aren’t. The rape session never mentioned you should pull out your bush knife and attack but that’s sure as hell what I plan on doing. One volunteer that’s been here a year calls her bush knife: “Man blong mi”, roughly: “my man”. We have to live with a volunteer for a week later on in training and they put me with her. I think if she had been born white, she’d have been a redhead because she’s out of her mind, and because I’m stuck on the island of Malekula with her for an entire week.
Anyway, depending on how early we get out of class, sometimes we’ll go for a swim with the pikinini (kids). One day I found one of the volunteers, Denis, playing his guitar near my house. A bunch of kids had gathered to listen. The kids in Vanuatu are really shy, especially around white people. So they sat close enough to hear but far enough where they thought they were invisible. In a matter of ten minutes, he had a small concert. I danced a bit, and for some reason, they were incredibly amused by this. Whatever.
Anything that makes the kids more comfortable around you is pretty important. Here it’s acceptable to say something is as is because they are “white man” or “black man”. White men are considered gods. The white male Peace Corps volunteers can get away with murder. White woman don’t have that same status. Though trust me, I’ll still murder if I have to (…joking). The black volunteers have a tougher time, though often they are considered ‘white’ because they come from America. They spend a lot of their time working to change perceptions here.
After Denis’ concert, the pikinini are comfortable enough to throw a Frisbee around with me. I almost have somewhat of a small classroom at this point. Each catch nabs a number and when we get high enough, we start on the alphabet. This quickly turns into tag, and then duck duck goose.
When I’m finally heading back with my cousin, Marie, and brother, Jimmyta, it’s dusk. This is my least favorite time of day. Everything’s cast in half-light: it’s too dark to see, too bright to turn on any lights. Thankfully, by the time I finish eating my Samboro and corn, the two torches we have are lit. I can see most clearly at night, when all the neighbors’ lights bob about in the distance, signaling life where it stands. During the day some houses are camouflaged by trees. At night, the splashes of light are harder to hide blotched against the backdrop of a black canvass.
I’m still sweating from duck duck goose, but I drink tea anyway. I sip while watching pigs, stray dogs, and small chicks wander on past my feet. One little cousin of mine wobbles over from next door, walking on newly tested legs and ducking behind others in a failed attempt to hide from me. She’s never seen a white person, or someone wearing glasses, so I’m sure she’s sure I’m an alien.
There’s also a small store attached to our house and I take turns with my siblings selling from it. Diapers, tin meat, and breakfast biscuits are some of our top selling items (and cookies, if my fellow vols are around). At night, I play cards and color with my host siblings, or chat in my terrible Bislama with my neighbors (who are all related to me in one way or another).
Finally, with the half-light of my headlight, I check my bed for monster-sized centipedes before tucking myself safely in the folds of my mosquito net. My room doesn’t have too many bugs, just the occasional gecko, so I could probably even do without the net. But it isn’t really all about the actual security of it, is it? It’s about how it makes us feel, it’s that splash of hot tea in our tummies that makes us sweat, but in the good way. In the way that pulls us back home and brings us some whisper of same that can drag us resiliently through the different.