Friday, 20 April 2012

We three Aussies in Paradise

There are three Australian facilitators on this trip to Vanuatu.

Gabrielle has spent most of her adult life in PNG and Indonesia and Timor as an educator and Community Development worker. Most recently, in East Timor, she lived on the remote island of Atauro, two hours by boat off the coast of the mainland. She lived loved and worked there until she recently returned to Australia to be nearer her three grandchildren and her daughter and son-in-law. She's had all the real world experiences that give her a great understanding about how communities in countries like Vanuatu work. Her language experience in PNG means she can understand the local Bislama speakers.

Mark has been here many times and Melanesian history and culture is his PhD thesis topic. He left school at 15 and set off to gain some life experience. He travelled around Australia, sailed across the northern seas to Papua Nui Guinea, fell in love with the culture and now at 42 is nearing the end of his great anthropoligical adventure. His next life begins after this. As a father of three children below the age of ten and a partner to a very supportive woman he will soon be looking for a real job. For academic anthropologists that's not an easy task. Mark is so well read and researched that it makes my head ache. In a strange way he almost knows too much. That's not to say his knowledge is only book based. He has lived in remote villages for extended periods doing his research and experiencing the culture first hand. Naturally he is a fluent Bislama speaker.

And then there's the Team Leader. Me. This is my fifth trip as a facilitator to Vanuatu. I was one of the University of Queensland team who initiated the Community Development training package here so I am "the expert". Luckily I don't believe in experts except when it comes to building large structures like bridges and sky scrapers. This is fortunate because, given my background, no one else would quite believe it either. I don't speak Bislama beyond what you would call tourist level - I can ask for things, tell people where I am from and use a reasonable range of greetings but in conversation I am lost. I understand more than I can speak, which is pretty typical of people immersed in new languages, and it makes it easier that Bislama is based on English, my native tongue. So with limited language, no formal studies in anthropology and 50 days in the country I am the least experienced.

But I have lived. and I think I have some natural communication and facilitation skills and I reckon I know a bit about people and relationships. Now I hadn't intended this post to be "all about me" but I am interested in the sets of skills we all have and how we use them. We three aussies are, in a sense, mentoring each other. Mark helps me uncover some of the less obvious aspects of Vanuatu culture, Gabrielle brings a calm and grounded common sense to the process and I see a role for myself helping us to learn from each other and, without being patronising, helping guide Mark to be a better facilitator and helping Mark and Gabrielle work quietly and effectively with a team of locals whom I have come to know and trust.

It's not without its challenges but we are, each of us, committed to becoming better leaders and learners. We've completed the three days training which we were responsible for. We now travel with the large ni-Vanuatu team to Nguna (Pronounced with a silent g) where they will lead a five day training program for a group of 40 leaders from across the region with us as the observers and back-up team. Nguna is reputed to be a beautiful island. We've been told we'll be staying in two thatched bungalows on the edge of a pristine white sandy beach. Wish you were here.

More about the workshop next post.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Vanuatu Trip No 5

I'm off to Vanuatu for 12 days for work. I'll try and post a few thoughts on my experiences when I have access to the internet.

Temperature in Efete and Port Vila - Min 25 Max 27. Haven't packed anything warm. Have a bag full of reports to read, my Bislama dictionary and enough pills to open a local pharmacy. And a pair of flippers and a snorkel and goggles.

We'll be on the small island of Nguna for a week.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Rat a tat

I was out-partied this week by a bunch of rodents. Not huge river rats from the Thames but mice sized black coated country rats who like to play.
We were up on the highlands, two hours inland from Brisbane for three Autumn nights post Easter. To get there we travelled south-west through the Fassifern Valley and climbed through Cunningham's Gap. Up and over the saddle straddling the Great Dividing Range. It's short and steep here and on the other side it flattens again into fertile grasslands which canter on mile after brown mile until you get to Stanthorpe.
Stanthorpe is granite country. Huge gray outcrops dot the landscape and boulders emerge unannounced from every surface across the undulating plains. It’s always significantly cooler than the coast and this week, while Brisbane sweltered, we sat around a fire each night and sighed and drank our way towards bed. Drank because, though we are in the subtropics, the altitude is friendly to stone fruit orchards and to grape vines.
Once the province of rough reds made by the a handful of early Italian settlers, the area now boasts dozens of wineries producing ever improving vintages of chardonnay and semillon, shiraz and cabernet. Old names such as Puglisi and Barbagallo live alongside the newcomers, the Tobins and Masons and the 'tree changers' who have arrived in large numbers. Why wouldn't you? Plenty of good wine, five degrees cooler than the coast, a thriving arts community, free of traffic jams and full of city small croppers all willing to give advice and learn from each other.
And its cheap. Half the price of its lowland neighbours.
Our accommodation was shocking. As we rounded the bend along the single vehicle track close shepherded by scrub on either side we all gasped. It was bloody incredible. Our simple accommodation stood before us all ripple iron and raw timber with decks leading off each bedroom and another off the living space. We couldn't believe our luck. Over the years we've tried to find affordable cabins within a few hours drive of Brisbane but our quest has always been in vain. Seems like there are too many people with too much money willing to pay stupid rates for bugger all. But here we were. And as it turned out the fridge was stuffed with home made jams, thick home smoked bacon and pork sausages from the owners free range pigs, milk, cereal and, wait for it - fresh baked bread and muffins delivered each morning with the newspaper. And the rats, or as our host might have preferred, the marsupial mice.
We didn't notice them at first. They're nocturnal. Our host warned us to be ready for the scamper of tiny feet each evening and she assured us they were vegetarian - not at all interested in human flesh. The ladies breathed. I smiled. Why would you be scared of some cute little field mice. Native mice at that. They probably even spoke English.
All was well until the third night. Something woke me at about two in the morning. It was the sound of a party. There was squeaking and dancing; there was flirting and hide and seek and occasionally there was a jealous outburst when, I suspect, one of the boys had cut in on someone elses' dance partner. This was not some party in the distance, in some neighbour's house, but in my room. By my bed. Mistress A. snored on. Oblivious. At first the action came from one corner of the room and then without warning, as if teleported across the room, the party goers suddenly decided to jive in the opposite corner. I was convinced I was surrounded. I swear there were at least twenty of the little buggers.
At first I was amused, but slowly I had this sense that if native rats were comfortable spinning across the carpet in this room and sliding across the polished floor in the living room why would they not be quite relaxed about climbing into bed with a warm human body. What was the distinction between the floor, the benchtop, the ceiling cavity and a bedspread? None of these environments was native. Obviously the human owner had the rats in mind when she commissioned this retreat in the bush. What better way to protect vulnerable marsupials from predatory owls and mopokes, from carpet snakes and foxes.
Nights can be long. and though I am a sound sleeper by nature, in this case I was double bluffed by my fellow tenants. I listened while they caroused, half inclined to join in but sadly this was not my party. I finally fell asleep from exhaustion and boredom. There is only so much partying one can listen to; and only so much waiting for the scamper of feet across one's bedclothes one's mind can cope with.
I expected to wake to a scene of chaos - clothes chewed, toiletries scattered across the room and my mobile phone scarred with tiny teeth marks. In the early morning silence, a silence which had me thinking that perhaps I had imagined all this, I crawled out of bed to inspect the shambolic room.
To my consternation there was no evidence of the night of debauchery. Not even a dropping. I believe I have discovered the rare existence of the tidy mouse. The intelligent mouse which cleans up behind him/her to minimise retribution, to reduce the liklihood of a bloody revenge.
But even native rats and their native rat cunning have their point of vulnerability. On the bench in the kitchen lay the devestating evidence of the evening's party. Two half consumed muffins, our treat saved for our final day, lay side by side, still partially wrapped in their linen cloth, a hole gnawed where once a knot resided.