Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sounds easy enough

NOTE: I have wanted to share this type of story with you before (there are loads of them!), but have always refrained for fear of sounding as if I am complaining or degrading Vanuatu.  Hopefully you all know me well enough to know that neither is the case.  I just really want to give our readers a clear sense of what things are like here, and these two episodes occurred recently.  With that caveat out of the way, here we go...

There is a popular song here in Vanuatu that contains the lyrics “Oh my Vanuatu, beautiful Vanuatu, mi laekem yu (I like you).”  Our team has come to borrow the opening phrase whenever we have an “oh my Vanuatu” experience.  Allow me to share two with you.

Since our mission team spread out to focus on outer island work, we have to rely on each other in unique ways.  In fact, I think Mike might have started screening my calls because every phone conversation I initiate with him begins with, “hey, can you send me...”  We’ve been in Vila in June, which means we’re the go-to people for “stuff” you need from the capital.  The Bakers and Mike have certainly taken their turns, and we are glad to assist them as well.

A few weeks ago Aaron called and asked me to purchase an 1,100L water tank and ship it to him in Tanna.  Sounds easy enough, eh?  I went and withdrew the money from the bank, and headed to Fiberglass Vanuatu (“FGV”, which also goes by the name Pacific Polytanks, for some reason).  I was assisted immediately, made my order, paid my money, and the deal was done.  I asked the sales assistant what ship we could put the tank on to get to Tanna.  He looked at his board and said, “MV Malekula.” There were four different phone numbers written beside the ship’s name, so he tried one - wrong number.  Second one - wrong number.  Third one - wrong number. Fourth one - you guessed it, wrong number.  I inquired as to where the MV Malekula office was, and he said that they don’t have one.  Perfect.  He said there was a new ship servicing Tanna, that normally contacted him before they departed to see if FGV had anything to send.  He didn’t have a phone number for them (would it have mattered anyway?!?), but said he would put the tank on if given the opportunity.  He said that if I heard anything about the MV Malekula schedule, to let him know. 

A few days later, I stopped back by FGV, and thought I would give the MV Malekula phone numbers a try (they’re written on a dry erase board, that has been erased no less than 486,753 times, and never once cleaned, so it is a bit difficult to make out the numbers).  I had luck on the first try!  I asked the man when the ship was going to Tanna, and he said “Sunday morning.”  Great!  Only problem is, FGV only delivers Monday-Friday.  I told the lady at Fiberglass Vanuatu what I found out (of course, my original sales assistant wasn’t there), and asked her to pass the message to him.

I ran into the sales guy at a wharf a few days later, and he had actually received my message.  He said he would have them deliver the tank to the MV Malekula on Friday afternoon (this was Wednesday).  Putting it on there that early isn’t ideal (not much security, and no guarantees), but it was the only option.

I called him on Friday at 2:30, just to make sure our plan was still a “go”, and he said “oh, you want us to deliver it today?”  Yes, please.  A few minutes later, the driver called and said that the MV Malekula wouldn’t take the tank (he didn’t give an explanation), but that there was another ship at the wharf that serviced Tanna, and asked if I wanted him to try and put it on that ship.  Yes, please.  He said he would call me back with info.  I waited almost an hour with no call, so I called him.  “Oh yes, I put it on the ship.”  I asked when it was scheduled to depart and he said Sunday morning.  I asked him the name of the ship and he said something to the effect of “Tuaraken.”  “What?” I asked.  He repeated himself two times, but I never did understand what he was saying.  I said thanks, and hung up.

I was little concerned.  I didn’t know what ship the tank was on, nor was I certain that they had actually written “Aaron Baker” on the tank (such tagging is really as sophisticated as Vanuatu shipping security gets - it’s a wonder more things don’t get stolen).  So, Titus and I headed out to the wharf to scope out the tank.  I found the ship clearly marked “Tuaraken” (pronounced too-uh-rockin’ - sounds fun, eh?), and asked if I could board the (severely overloaded) vessel to make sure my tank was on there and that it was clearly marked.  They obliged, and sure enough, there it was.  It was even marked, though it did have my phone number on it instead of Aaron’s - minor adjustment. 

And would you believe that Aaron called the next week and had possession of the tank?!?  Even though “things are never easy in Vanuatu” (another one of our team’s favorite sayings), it is amazing that they almost always work themselves out - never in the way you hope or expect them to, but work out none-the-less.

Story number two is similar, but different.  A few weeks later Aaron called to ask for a truck part (his clutch had gone out).  Sounds easy enough, right?  A side note to the story: the Bakers have cell-phone coverage at their place in Tanna, but it tends to be a bit sketchy.  He called and wanted to explain what he needed, but our connection was bad and his voice was very “digitized” - sounded a lot like the digitization of a person on The Matrix.  It was frustrating for both of us, and we agreed that he would just text the info.  Got it!

As soon as I could, I went to the Mitsubishi place in town and relayed the information to the parts salesman.  He punched some things into the computer, disappeared behind the shelves for a few minutes, and then came out and said, “we have the part, but our computer system is down and so I don’t know the price.  Give me your number and I will call you when we’re back online.”  I saw the same salesman at the bank an hour later, and asked if the system was back yet.  “[In Bislama] Uh, yes, and, uh, I was going to call you, but, uh, the phone was no good” (translation: I forgot to call you).  He then said that the part was $90.  This surprised me, as Aaron had said it should be no more than $30.  I voiced my concern, and he just shrugged his shoulders.

I went back by the Mitsubishi place to talk to him again, and he said he realized that the $90 priced item was the “old reference number” and there was indeed the same part with a “new reference number” that was only $30.  However, the $30 ones were out of stock.  Same part - different reference number - $60 difference.  Got it.

Then, he suggested I try Pacific Autronics, a rival autoparts store.  I always have to chuckle when a store employee tells me where to buy their items for a cheaper price.  And it’s happened numerous times over the past six years.

Pacific Autronics had the part for $21.  Sold!  I boxed it up and got it on the plane the next day.

[As I re-read my accounts of these two events, I realize I haven’t really done them justice.  At any rate, you at least have an idea what it’s like getting things done in Vanuatu.  I’m not complaining, I’m just saying!  Talk to you again soon :o) ]

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tankyu tumas

 Near the end of June, we hosted a “kakae” (meal) to say “tankyu tumas” (thank you very much) to those who helped us with the construction of our house.  Such is a common practice in Vanuatu, so we wanted to show our appreciation in a culturally appropriate way.

We purposely chose to have the kakae while Shawnda’s parents were with us, so that they could also join in the festivities.  We hired a string band to play and sing Vanuatu-style for a couple of hours, which definitely turned out to a great idea (would have been kinda boring otherwise).

Being Vanuatu... [1] we were scheduled to start at 5pm, but most people showed up at 6pm or later; [2] though we invited less than 40 people, we ended up using all 100 of our paper plates and even ran out (lights + live music = come one, come all!) - oh well, the more, the merrier;  and [3] every crumb of food was consumed.

We also presented gifts to those who sacrificed a lot of time and effort to help us.  We presented them with a heavy-duty cooking pot to say thanks for all the meals they cooked me, an umbrella to say thank you for providing our shelter, and a solar lantern to say thanks for showing us the way to do things in Malekula.  They were all very thankful for the gifts.

Last but not least, the kakae gave us an opportunity to socialize with several non-Christians in the village, and it’s our continuous prayer that we’ll be able to reach them with the truth.  Keep praying!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


We’ve learned over the years that one of the most effective ways of teaching in Vanuatu is to offer a time for questions and answers in a public setting.  So, following each night of our gospel meeting, we took an hour or so to answer the inquiries that had been submitted to our question box.

Like those that Jesus received during His earthly ministry, we received genuine truth-seeking questions as well as “trying to trip you up” questions.  I actually enjoy both types.  The former obviously give you a glimpse into what the people are interested in learning about.  The latter are usually an attempt to support a false doctrine, and while I don’t have much hope in convincing the questioner, I do take it as an opportunity to teach the non-biased amongst the crowd the truth about the matter.

Something that I have always tried to practice (whether in a formal Q&A setting or not), is that of quoting/reading Scripture as a part of any answer.  I am amazed by groups who conduct similar sessions and quote experience and illustration without so much as mentioning a verse in support of their practices.  And truth-seekers usually take note.

The village SDA Church submitted some questions on the last day of the meeting, and also formally offered to set up a study with me to teach me the truth about the proper observance of the Sabbath Day and Jewish food laws.  I look forward to meeting with the leaders of their church when we return to Malekula in August, and hope that we will be able to base all of our conclusions on a proper understanding of God’s plan for His church.  Would you be praying that such will be the case?