Cruise Control

The more normal the weird things become, the harder it is to write about this experience. Last week, I was half bitten by a poisonous centipede while running in the rain, woke up with a weird rash on my leg, and watched my kitten dance around with a dead rat in its mouth, all in the span of 12 hours. Yet, a day later when someone asked me why I hadn’t written a new blog entry, I answered that I had nothing to write about. It took me a while to realize how exactly I had tricked myself into thinking that.

First, the things that happen to me might be wild and unordinary, but they are pretty disconnected from one another. I like a narrative. I want a main story, a story where all the components fit together. It doesn’t work to have a bunch of little stories and the only feature tying it all together being that it all happened to me in a weird country.

One of these little moments occurred one day last week. The community was working on building a teachers house. I saw a group of women sitting under the mango tree pinning thatch. I walked over, grabbed some Natangora leaves and started weaving with them, without saying a word. Those of them who hadn’t been around to see me build my own house got a good kick out of it. I was just thrilled that I remembered exactly how to do it and was still pretty good at it. I admit that it crossed my mind several times that I was way better at building houses than I was at teaching. I should have signed up for the Peace Corps as a construction worker.

A group of my students also came to sit around me during lunch break and watch me pin the thatch, laughing when I complained that the leaves were being stubborn. My favorite moment each day is when I’m walking towards the classroom first thing in the morning. The kids are always dangling out the window and when they spot me moving towards their classroom they start screaming “Pis Kop, Pis Kop!” to their friends who have all their limbs inside the room. I know they’re just entertained by me sticking my tongue at them and making weird faces, but I’d like to think that my lessons are usually fairly fun.

Kids are pretty easy to get along with though. It’s the teachers that are harder to please. I don’t think they consider the games I play in class to be the best learning technique. But they don’t realize that I’m learning how to do this at the same time that I’m doing it. Don’t get me wrong, throw me into the fire, it’s the best way to learn, but don’t expect me to get it right immediately.

I don’t know how much I’ve gone over this Bislama phrase, but it’s almost central to the Vanuatu culture. I’m not sure of it’s exact spelling but in Peace Corps slang its “story on”. Basically, it defines that time when you sit around doing nothing but talking to a person or group of people. If I had to pick the three top things that Ni-Vans do it would be eat, sleep, and story on. They sit around talking a lot. And if you forget to do that, you immediately remove yourself from the culture.

That was my first mistake with the teachers. I engaged in polite small talk, but I didn’t stop and have conversations with them. The second that I did that, I was able to better understand what they wanted me to do in their classes and they were better able to see that I respected their culture.

“Storying on” was natural when I was living with my host family and even more so when I spent those weeks building my house with my “construction crew”. But on my own in my house, I reverted back into an American and a shy person, relishing in my alone time. Mike is going to read this blog and rub it in that I was again somewhat influenced by him, but I remembered that I needed to story on when I visited him one weekend. We went to a Nakamal near his school to drink Kava. A Nakamal is a small hut like area, kind of like an outside bar. Most of the time it’s where they hang out and drink Kava, but in other cases- when the Nakamal is big enough- it serves as a place for community meetings.

I generally don’t drink Kava in Narango. It can get you a bad reputation. Not with the men, but with the women. While it would be slightly more acceptable for me, as a “white man”, to drink kava and hang out in Nakamal’s, it’s still not the best thing I can do as a women to integrate. For a man, though, it’s absolutely the best way to do it. Hunter, one of my other island mates, and Mike both go to the Nakamal almost every night and it works really well for them.

As I “storied on” at the Nakimal, I remembered that this was the other part of my job. Integration. Just because I’m pretty good at adapting (yes, good at it, this is the one and only thing I will ever admit to being good at) doesn’t mean I’m excused from doing it.

The other thing that gave me the push I needed to start integrating again was my new cat. Stupid proved her namesake a month into me having her by getting pregnant. I gave one of the babies to Mike, who has an almost comical rat problem (I bring headphones to his house when I sleep there so I don’t have to listen to them running around in the roof). I took the other kitten, along with its mother Stupid, back to my house. When I first got Stupid I was still living with my host family so she got used to all the extra food that was lying around. Naturally, the first thing that she did when she got to my house was run away. Great. Thanks for nothing, Stupid. I named it’s kid Pima, an acronym for Pain In My Ass.

Stupid comes back every night to feed Pima (entering the house by scaling the wall and squeezing through the gap between the walls and the roof), but I’m too stubborn to be glad to see it. I have no desire to be responsible for two cats, but I reserve the right to be offended by him running back to my host family. That being considered, I’m grudgingly impressed that it found it’s way there and back and that it takes the 20 minute walk every night.

I was less impressed the night it disappeared for five minutes and returned with a dead rat (which I assume it got from my rat infested kitchen). I wasn’t paying attention at the time, but I eventually realized that Pima was jumping around way more than usual, which is saying a lot, because she jumps around quite a bit. She likes to take turns knocking everything I own on the floor and trying very hard to bite me enough to draw blood. Anyway, the spastic jumping is enough that I look up from where I’m sitting on my mat. There’s a dead rat dangling from it’s mouth. And Stupid is just lying there, lazily watching. The irony is that I had specifically got the damn cats to keep rats out of my house and I had not seen a rat in my house up until this moment. Needless to say, sometimes I leave my house just to get away from the cats.

As you can see, there is almost no connection between rats, storying on, and my potential career as a house builder. So the lack of an overall narrative is the first reason that I assumed I had nothing to write about. The second is that none of this stuff struck me as not being ordinary at the time of it occurring. I used to walk into my bathroom every day like I was entering a battle zone. Bush knife at the ready, senses on high alert. Granted, this had a lot to do with the time I found a 6 inch long poisonous centipede living under the toilet lid. But now, I’m pretty complacent about it. As complacent as I was when I saw that dead rat, or when I sat down with the women to weave thatch. Or even when the year one teacher whips out her boob in the middle of class and breastfeeds her kid while using the other hand to write new vocabulary words on the blackboard and simultaneously scold a student that’s not paying attention (by using the eyes in the back of her head). These things might have been out of the ordinary for me four months ago, but now I don’t spare them much more thought than I used to do when pushing the gas pedal in my jeep when I wanted to move faster.

Efate volunteer and crazy redhead Naseem told me a story a few weeks ago about how she hated summer camp so much that she had her parents come pick her up. She hated it because of the conditions. The conditions that we now both live in. It made me think of how when I was a teenager, there was very long list of things I would do before I went camping. This list included jumping off some very high bridges. And yet here we both are, complacent about giant spiders, bucket baths (in her case, bathing in the river), the constant chirp of insects, and the moon as our main source of night light.

It’s like with driving a car. Before you learn how to do it, it seems difficult. After you’ve been doing it for a while, you can’t even remember not ever not knowing how to. And often while driving, you’re so complacent you even end up on autopilot.

I think that means this is getting easier. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel like I have a thousand and one days left. I’m still struggling. But I can autopilot through the rats and spiders, and I can enter my bathroom without strips of black war paint under my eyes. It’s not much, but I’ll take it.