Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Paid in full

I have begun to realize that Northwest Malekula is one of the wealthier parts of Vanuatu.  Of course, it doesn’t begin to compare with the wealth generated by the “upper class” in Vila who have access to regular paychecks, but for a rural community I doubt there is a region with more wealth.  This is primarily due to three cash crops which are in abundance in our region: copra (roasted meat of a coconut), cacao (raw beans from the cacao plant), and kava (a root that is ground up and added to water, the product of which has an intoxicating effect).  Almost 100% of the copra and cacao are exported (copra used in anything that smells like coconut, such as soaps and lotions; cacao is the main ingredient in cocoa and chocolate), while almost 100% of the kava is consumed locally (in kava bars and nakamals).

The wealth manifests itself in gas-powered generators, TV screens, DVD players, MP3 players, mobile phones, cement-floor houses, processed foods (rice and tinned meat from the store to supplement garden produce), trucks (for public transportation as opposed to private use), and boats (for commercial fishing and inner-island transportation).  Most recently, we’ve seen an increase in the use of solar power in our area (used primarily for lights, movies, music, and charging mobile phones).

Since I “installed” my own solar panel system at the house (which involved little more than connecting the red wire to the red wire and the black wire to the black wire), it is common knowledge (i.e. assumption) in the village that I am the one to call on to install your new solar panel.  This was magnified by my installing the system at the area’s Medical Clinic in Unmet Village a few months ago.

So, a few days after we arrived in Malekula this trip, a man from a neighboring village came by the house and asked if I could help him with the installation of his system.  I am glad to help out, as it’s the neighborly thing to do.  After dropping the kids off at kindy, I walked to Livit Village and found the man’s house.  Come to find out, everything was still wrapped and boxed up - he had purchased the system several weeks prior, but was afraid he would “spoil” it if he opened it up (and certainly wasn’t about to try and install it himself).  We opened everything up and got it connected.  And true to fashion, new electronic device + white man working = a big crowd.  They were all very excited, giddy even, to try it out.  They plugged in their TV and DVD player, and started up a movie.  They were all amazed that the sun was providing power, and quickly realized that they wouldn’t need to purchase fuel for their generator any longer. 

A neighbor heard about my presence, and asked if I would stop by his house on the way  home to install his too.  The installation process itself only takes about 10 minutes, and I was already there, so I agreed.  Different house, different system, same size crowd gathered to watch.

Both of these men tried to pay me, but I refused their money.  They were very appreciative.  I told them I was just helping them out, and for them to “pass it on.”  Frankly, this society exists on such a “pass it on” philosophy - they just aren’t used to expatriates following suit.  We’ve certainly reaped the benefits of the philosophy, and are glad to share in it both physically (installing solar panels) and spiritually (teaching the Bible).

However, in true Vanuatu form, Jile came to our house that afternoon carrying a chicken and a giant yam to show his gratitude.  When I saw him coming, I told Shawnda to grab the camera.  I wanted  proof that I had officially been “paid in full.”  Just another reason I love living here.

Putting our payment to work, we enjoyed a customarily prepared “laplap sorsor” (yam laplap cooked with chicken) with Abu Mommy and Abu Daddy early the next week.  Well worth my effort, and hopefully we also opened a door for the gospel in Livit Village.

An "after" view of the chicken

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It's laplap time

by: Shawnda

After being given a HUGE yam and a chicken as a thank you gift (Eric helped a guy install his solar panel system) - I decided I’d much rather eat that chicken than keep it around and have to feed it and deal with another animal around (our high-maintenance cat is more than enough animal trouble for one family!). :o) Now if our kids were sentimental at all about animals, we wouldn’t have considered this so soon after receiving a chicken...but they are NOT. The first thing Titus asked after the man left was, “When are we gonna get to eat that chicken?! How ‘bout tonight?!”

So...I asked Abu Mommy and Abu Daddy if they wanted to eat laplap with us. (Of course, that means I would have to cook it at their house b/c I do not have a place for cooking laplap at my house.) We set a date later in the week that suited us all and planned for it. So the morning of the big laplap making day, the four of us headed down to their house. Eric and the guys did some work on their house while Lexi, Abu Mommy and I got to work on the laplap. We cut, skinned and washed the yam, grated it, and put it aside. We cut up lots and lots of vegetables (some for laplap and some for the soup we’d eat for lunch). Then we got to work on the chicken. Someone killed it (I had run home for the camera I think so I didn’t see how they killed it), but when I got back, the deed was already done. We then poured boiling water over the feathers. let it cool down, and got to plucking. Now I’ve seen a chicken being prepared many times, but have never actually plucked one. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it till I got in there and tried it. I actually enjoyed it. Crazy, I know. I’m not saying I’d want to raise and kill my own chickens all the time, but once in a while “ain’t” too bad. Lexi even got in on the chicken action when she begged Abu Mommy to let her hold the chicken once it was plucked. She held it up proudly and said, “Look at me, mom!” I couldn’t help but think of those funny rubber chickens that comedians sometimes use. Ha! That Lexi is one funny little girl!  And she definitely feels comfortable in the village.

In short...we had a lovely day. The kids played with all their favorite buddies, we had a nice lunch and laplap dinner, and the best part of all was just being able to fellowship with some people we love dearly.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Problem Solved

Those of you who read our post on "Houston, we have a problem", might be wondering, "what ever happened to the shipment?!?" Well, as they almost always do, things did indeed work out, but not exactly in the way I had planned. If you haven't read that post yet, you might want to read it first so that you are up to speed.

Last you heard from us, I was at the Internet cafe in "town" on Friday morning, under the impression that the ship was going to arrive the next day and that I had "booked" a transport (thanks to Alsen's assistance) to take all our stuff back to the village. I was just supposed to call him when I was ready to go to the wharf, and he would come pick me up and off we'd go.

On a side note, the decision to "just make a night of it" turned out to be a great idea. We stayed at the Nabelchel Bungalows, which was recommended by our New Zealander friend, who volunteers in the tourism department. The bungalow was very simple, clean (relatively new), and located in the midst of nice gardens. We heard through the grapevine that most tourists (though there really aren't that many yet) balk at the price - $60 per night. On one hand, I totally understand their thinking, as it is quite basic, but to us it had running water, electricity, and cooked meals, so yeah it was worth every penny! Too, we cheated a bit and fed the kids Ramen noodles and had them in bed by about 7:00 (which is normal), and then snuck over a stone's throw away to the common dining area and had a great tasting dinner (fresh fish, sautéed pumpkin, kumala, rice and cucumber salad - I had bought a Coke in town and put it in their freezer for an hour, which completed the meal nicely). We had he place to ourselves for the first thirty minutes or so, when two local guys came in for dinner. We all sat at the same table, and enjoyed getting to know them a bit. Of course, situations like those always provide us with an opportunity to share about our work and the Lord's church. But I digress!

About 9:30 the next morning, Steve (the bungalow's new chief cook) told me that he had just heard that the Big Sista had just pulled into port. I immediately starting walking towards Litz-Litz wharf at a brisk pace. I figured I might as well gain some ground while I waited on my truck to come get me. However, in true Vanuatu fashion, I called the driver (whom, by the way, I had seen in town the day before and reconfirmed) and seemingly woke him up. I told him the the ship had arrived and where I was. He groggily said (in Bislama), uhhhh..... sorry..... but, uh, I can't take you today because, uh, the truck's no good and, uh, yeah, the truck's no good, so, sorry.".

I was a bit miffed, but had known that such was always a possibility. I asked him if he could help me find another truck, but he said he didn't know of any. That really irritated me, because every truck driver on the island knows every other truck driver on the island - it's kind of a fraternity of sorts. Anyway, I knew there was no sense in arguing with him, as I was just wasting time. You see, the unloading of the Big Sista is a mass hysteria free-for-all. And oddly, there is always seemingly a 10-to-1 person to parcel ratio. That means that if you are not present when your stuff is thrown (literally) off the ship, you might well never see it (though I must admit that the level of theft is amazingly low). All that to say, I really wanted to be there when the ship started unloading. Problem was, I was over an hour's walk away from the wharf, and when I made it the wharf I wouldn't have a truck to load anyway (I was a unique customer because (a) I had a full truckload of stuff, and (b) I needed them to go all the way to Tulwei Village (a little over an hour's drive one way).

Though I had already made some progress down the road by this time, I decided to turn back to Nabelchel and ask Steve if he knew of any trucks. He tried a few of his friends, but they were all already at the wharf with trips scheduled. Steve really wanted to help, but there was nothing he could do. He gave me his phone number just im case, which actually worked out quite nicely. You see, in a classic moment of boneheadedness, I packed the charger for both mine and Shawnda's cell phones in our stuff on the ship. So by Saturday, they were both maxed out. Thankfully I had my old one as a backup, and now I could communicate with Shawnda if need be, through Steve's phone.

My only option now was to take off walking, and hope that I could find a truck to at least get me to the wharf. Problem was, most trucks don't run on Saturdays, and those that did were most likely already at the wharf. As I speed-walked in the direction of the wharf, I called my aforementioned friend from New Zealand, to get the number of a local mechanic we both know. I explained the situation and Howard assured me that it was no problem to store our stuff at his place (and even we could stay there if need be) until we could find a truck to the village (now most likely to be Monday).

I was able to get the number of the mechanic, and he agreed to call a few people to try and help me out, though he wasn't very optimistic about finding a truck to the village at this late stage. I had been walking for about 20 minutes when a transport approached from behind me and stopped when I flagged him down. He was actually taking three men to the wharf, so I got a ride all the way there. I tried to pay him when we got there, but he refused my offer.

I hurried my way down to the ship, keeping an eye out all the while for a truck I might recogize and cooerce into service, and noticed and it had only recently began unloading. I saw that some of my things were indeed waiting to be picked up, but also saw a familiar face from the village and spoke to him briefly (we'd been talking back and forth in town and the village since we were in the same boat (pardon the pun) trying to retrieve our cargo from the delayed ship). He assured me that a truck from the village had come loaded with kava to send on the Big Sista, and thus would be going back empty, and that the two of us could share it. What a relief! I then began the process of collecting my things one by one as they were offloaded. This actually proved fairly difficult because the relatively small wharf is extremely overcrowded with people getting off the ship, people getting on the ship, people retrieving cargo from the ship, people trying to get cargo loaded onto the ship, 20 or shiphands, every truck in town trying to get as close as possible so people won't have to carry their stuff very far, lots of people just there for the entertainment value, and one white guy. We shipped a record 22 things this trip, becuase this was our last shipment before we completely move out of our house in Vila, which basically means we had to ship everything we want to keep in Vanuatu, save a few items we'll leave with some friends in Vila.

Having so many pieces and being the only white guy there ended up being quite favorable, as before long all 200+ people there knew exactly who "Eric Brandell, Litz-Litz Wharf, Tulwei Village, Malekula" was. Before long people were carrying things to my pile for me. By the time I got all my stuff together, I turned around to see my "empty" truck 75% full (keepingin mind that I basically need a whole truck to myself). It was beginning to look like plan B (store everything at Howard's until Monday) was going to go into effect.

My friend soon noticed our truck too, and went to talk to the driver again (the driver's response was "we can just pile every thing up really high"). While he did, I spotted another driver that I knew and went to talk to him. I had met Yano back in 2010 when we got stranded in Santo together (perhaps some of you remember my "we have a plane and we have gas, but we have no truck to get the gas from the garage to the plane" story?) Anyway, Yano and I had spent several hours together then, and I has since seen him a few times around town in Malekula. I asked him about the possibility of taking me to Tulwei, knowing that he would have to complete one trip first as he was already loaded down. He said he'd be happy to, but that his trip to Rano Village would take over an hour round trip. It was really my only option now, so I said I would just wait for him there. I called Shawnda to give her a heads up, estimating that it would be about two hours before we were there to pick her and the kids up (and as it turned out, it was only two minutes shy of two hours - do I know Vanuatu or what?!?).

Within the next few minutes the boat was off for Santo (with several of the crew members yelling bye to me by name as they sailed off) and all the people and trucks cleared out ... and then there was one. There is absolutely no shade whatsoever at the wharf, and since there was still the occassional wanderer passing by, I couldn't leave the wharf altogether. So there I sat in the sun for a good two hours total. I was actually quite patient, but being the American that I am, I couldn't resist calling Yano twice just to confirm that he was indeed coming back for me.

Sure enough, he came back and we got all our stuff loaded. He had received a watermelon in Rano (as partial payment, I presume), and asked if it was okay if we ate it before we departed. Let me tell you, watermelon never tasted so good! I gobbled down several pieces, enjoying the opportunity for rehydration.

It was smooth sailing (another pun?!?) from there, as there was even still one store in town open where I bough a bottle of water and a sleeve of cookies (not even out of date ones!). Within an hour we were unloading our things in the village. I gave Yano an extra $10 to show my appreciation, and waived goodbye.

And so, as I mentioned before, "problem solved" - in a very-Vanuatu sort of way! ;)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Houston, We Have a Problem

The Brandells are back in Malekula safe and sound, but not without some interesting events transpiring!

About midway through our otherwise peaceful flight on our 18-seater aircraft, I felt a frantic poking on my shoulder from the seat behind me.  I turned around just in time to see Lexi's second "deposit of vomit" onto the floor, her seat, her clothes, and her mother's clothes.  For such a small girl, she sure can hold a lot of stuff in her stomach!  Of course, Shawnda and I both just sort of panicked, as there is no bathroom and no stewardess on the small plane.  Thankfully, Shawnda had three handkerchiefs in her carry-on, which she masterfully employed, along with Lexi's shirt, to complete quite a cleanup job!

Of course, as we disembarked in Malekula, other passengers are waiting to board the aircraft, with no cleanup whatsoever conducted in between.  We reluctantly walked up to the pilot and apologetically told him about our plight.  He grimaced, but told us it was no problem.  The workers who were unloading and loading luggage were as ill-equipped as we were, and went in armed with nothing more than several pieces of paper that they had dug out of the trash can.  Unfortunately, they had nothing to spray in the aircraft to mask the odor.  We felt terrible, but there was just nothing we could do!

We had actually become aware of "problem" number two before we even boarded the plane in Vila, but didn't realize the scope of the problem.  Alsen called me that morning from Lakatoro ("town") to let me know that he heard that the ship we had put all of our cargo on in Vila the day before had experienced engine trouble and was still in Vila.  I hurriedly went down to the wharf, and sure enough, the "Big Sista" was still moored to the seawall.  I asked one of the ship-hands when they planned to depart, and he replied very matter-of-factly that they would depart that afternoon, scheduled to arrive in Malekula the next day (thus, a day late).  "No problem," I thought, as such is to be expected in Vanuatu. 

We made our way to the village, and Alsen and I set up a plan to return to Lakatoro the next morning to retrieve our cargo from the ship.  However, upon arriving in town, I was informed by the agent that the ship had in fact not left Vila the afternoon before, and was now scheduled to arrive tomorrow.  "Tumoro nomo" is an oft-used phrase in Vanuatu, and while it's literal translation would be "just tomorrow" it in all reality means "not today."  I could have kicked myself for not confirming that the ship had departed the night before, as now we were stuck in town for the full day with little to do. 

I learned from my mistake, and called everyone I could that evening to confirm the ship's schedule.  Thankfully, I learned that the ship would NOT be arriving the next day, and was able to circumvent another purposeless trip to town on Thursday.  I went though the channels again Thursday afternoon, and felt pretty confident that the ship would indeed leave Vila on Friday afternoon, and thus arrive in Malekula on Saturday around lunch time.  The problem is, trucks don't depart the village for town on Saturday, and they offload cargo from the ship without concern for whether its intended recipient is present or not.  I counseled with Alsen, and he suggested I go to town on the regular service truck on Friday, and then charter a truck from Lakatoro on Saturday.  Thankfully, he called a "brother" who drives a service truck in town, who agreed to make a charter trip for us on Saturday.

So, here I am in the internet cafe on Friday morning, wondering what the weekend holds in store.  We decided to just make the best of it, and the whole family came into town and we will spend the night in a locally-owned bungalow.  It's something we've wanted to do for a while anyway, and figured this was as good a chance to do so as any. 

The best thing about both "problems" is, we've been in Vanuatu long enough to have learned to roll with the punches, come what may.  I think we've handled it quite well, if I do say so myself!  Especially since we have gone several days without the large majority of our supplies (food, clothes, phone charger, refrigerator, etc.).  "Oh my, Vanuatu!" indeed.