It rains inside my house. Bits of bamboo and Natangora dust layer my desk and books. If I sit still for a while, waiting, I can watch it fall from the roof, like gold tinted snow.
After two months of building, fighting, and struggling towards moving into a completed house, I spent the first night inside of my dust-raining mansion petrified.
There’s a tradition in Vanuatu known as Creeping. To the locals it’s pretty normal, but to us it’s, well, creepy. If a guy has an interest in you, he’ll stand outside your house very late at night, close to where he knows your bed is, and whispers your name, asking you to let him in (or in the case of the local girls who live with their families, asking you to come outside).
So, if rats (which live in my kitchen), poisonous centipedes (which I’ve found in my bathroom), and giant spiders (which frequent my bathhouse) slithering across the floor weren’t enough to worry about in the pitch black of night, you’ve also got the potential of creepers. That first night I lay awake wishing I could stick my fingers in my ears and hum very loudly until I fell asleep.
All these things are much easier to cope with when I had my host sister a foot away, laughing at my endless fears (“the spiders don’t bite men, Sica”) and telling me all her boy troubles. Regardless, the night was relatively uneventful.
After spending that next morning observing my first class, I went back to my host family to say goodbye to my sister. My only friend in Narango, Terina, was leaving to go to college in Vila. Selfishly, I wished she wasn’t so damn smart.
Ni-vans take welcomes and goodbyes very seriously. My family had prepared a small feast for her, or rather, she had prepared it for us. I honestly don’t know what they’ll do when she’s gone, as she is constantly working; doing laundry, cooking food, and taking care of the garden.
What felt like an hour of speeches preempted the feast (and made already terrible tasting food into cold terrible tasting food). They spoke at length about how they’d miss Terina and they thanked her for all her hard work.
I’ll write you a pretty sappy letter, but I’m not one for vocalizing my feelings. Somehow though, sitting there in the dim light, my sister with her head in her arms, crying, and my host mama adding little pieces of warning into her speech- look both ways before you cross the street- as she cried too, forced me into speech. It wasn’t at all eloquent, but it happened. The Peace Corps is making me soft. I blame my fellow volunteers, who like to make bonfires and sit around them talking about their feelings.
Observations that first week mostly taught me what I had already been told to suspect, that the kids were very, very behind normal grade levels. But it also showed me how eager they are to learn.
Eventually, I’m supposed to co-teach, which I find highly intimidating. In some ways it feels almost like telling the teacher you’re working with that they need to change their ways and are not good enough. But when you sit observing a class that is so boring you are falling asleep in full view of thirty watching students, it’s hard not to want to attempt a subtle change. Though most of my teachers seem quite good, so as long as I openly seek to learn as much from them as I’m attempting to teach them, I think it’ll be alright, but that’s a challenge that will most likely blanket my entire service.
Thursday, I pulled each of the kids out of class 3 and gave them handmade sticker books (a folded piece of paper with their name on it, which theoretically will be filled with stickers by the end of the year if they behave well). I asked them to pick out their names from the display of sticker books (name identification assessment) and then asked them what their favorite animal, color, and food was, and what they wanted to be when they grow up, a question they’ve generally never really been taught to ponder. I wrote all this very important information into my notebook. Not the type of real assessment I know my fellow volunteers are doing, but I think it was valuable all the same. If, at the very least, it allowed me to form a relationship with them and eradicate any fear they had of the white girl with the scowl on her face.
Prior to and after lessons that week, I endured a ton of kids standing around my house, peering into my windows. White people are something of a spectacle here. I won’t lie, there were a few times where I put my head right up to the window and scared the heck out of them when they tried to peer in and saw me staring right back. Thankfully, they’ve given this up recently. Thankfully for them, I mean, as I was going to cut out pictures of scowling faces to tape into the windows to do the job for me.
After my first week of observations and the first time living inside my new house, I headed into Luganville with fellow South Santo island mate, Mike. We were gathering there to celebrate my birthday, which was the following Monday. On Saturday, Noni, Daryl, Hunter, and Mike took me to a blue hole close up to Luganville.
A blue hole is a patch of water that, as you’ve probably guessed, is blue. But blue isn’t really an adequate enough word for the color of this freshwater. The water was so unbelievably vibrant that it looked fake. Even rain failed to dampen the color. When we dipped below the surface, the electric fizzle of a billion raindrops hitting the surface above us was almost equal in intensity to the waters color.
From the waters edge, a giant tree stood towering the blue, some of it’s roots stuck out the side of the dirt and extended over the water. Millions of trunks, interwoven with one another climbed upwards.
One of the branches supported a knotted rope. A swimmer would drag the rope over to the tree and then another person would climb up the trees many trunks, before finding a solid grip on the rope and then swinging, freely, blissfully into the depths of the deep, piercing blue.
I climbed up there myself, determined to swing from the massive tree. Fear, as strong in me as ever, gripped me as tightly as my two arms hugged the branch in front of me. I’ve spoken a lot about fear in this blog, but that’s for good reason. It’s something that the Peace Corps has forced me to confront head on every single day.
Mike told me later that for him, it’s all about risk management. He said that you have to ask yourself: what’s the worst that can possibly happen? And, while I agree this is solid logic, it’s not something that generally is able to stop me from feeling terrified. The most that can happen from a giant spider in my bathhouse is that it crawls on me, but I’m still going to run out of my bathhouse when I see one.
Fear feels complicated and it attacks you in many different ways, often depending on the situation. Yet, climbing up slippery branches and swinging from a sketchy looking rope is the same kind of fear you feel when you step onto a plane boarding for Vanuatu, with 29 other Peace Corps Volunteers. The longer you delay- the longer you stand hugging that tree- the more fear you build up, the more anticipation claims you as a victim, and the less likely you are to let go. Sometimes you just have to take a leaf out of Nike’s book, and just freaking do it. Don’t wait. Don’t let fear grow. Take the jump. Make the swing. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?
The blue hole was a perfect ending to my week of firsts. I went back to my house that Sunday and lay in my bed, watching dust fall slowly from my Natangora ceiling, the rain pounding my roof. I had two presents waiting for me for my birthday the next day, both from two very awesome volunteers (Lynn and Naseem) who had hidden them inside my bag before I had left Vila the week before.
The friends I have found here are some of the nicest people I have ever met. They are one of the good things about being here, but also one of the most unexpected. Like the dust falling from my roof, these good things are always coming, you just can’t see them when you’re not watching for them. And maybe one day, those good things will form such a thick layer of dust, that I won’t be able to see or feel all the fear growling beneath it.
What’s the worst that can happen? I don’t know. I have no idea if I’ve seen the worst of what stepping on that plane in October has meant. But I do think that, maybe, I’m beginning to see the best.