Slice of Life, July 24th 2017: Children's Day

Today is Children's Day. It's a public holiday in Vanuatu, thus schools are closed and I have a three-day weekend.

This has been the best day of my service so far, filled with so much joy and happiness.

I love projects; I started the day building a shelf. In my outdoor kitchen, there are a pile of wooden planks, one of which is bright teal, leftover from the brand new door that was installed on the outdoor kitchen. I've been seeking extra storage for my indoor kitchen, and this was the perfectly-sized plank for a shelf.

Building a shelf is an event. I needed to ask my host family for a saw and a hammer. No less than four neighbors walked past me as I sawed the support beams, asking what was going on. After the answer, "Mi stap bildim wan shelf," all the women's eyes widened, and they nodded their heads, impressed.

Men I didn't know would hear the sawing and approach me, telling me they could finish cutting the wood for me. "Tank yu tumas, be bai mi mekem hem mi wan no mo," (Thanks but I can do it myself) I'd respond, and after some hesitation, they'd leave.

The saw was feeble and rusty, and it took me a good part of an hour just to make the two cuts I needed. I had nothing but a rag to hold the wood, none of the luxuries of the tools my dad's work bench would carry back home.

But I finished. I am going for a Lisa Frank aesthetic in my home and chose to color the support pieces with hot pink Sharpie.

Just as I was wrapping up, a young boy pops by my house. "Mr. Ben says it's time to eat." This was his nephew, inviting me over for the birthday party.

Mr. Ben is the headmaster at my school, and on Friday he casually mentioned how he was celebrating his two kids' birthdays on Children's day. He told me to come if I wasn't busy, and as his family is delightful to be around, I excitedly accepted the invitation.

Now the time was 11:30am and I guess it was the time the festivities would begin.

I hurriedly walked over to Mr. Ben's house, not out of necessity (as this place is all about aelan time) but out of excitement. I saw games set up. I walked into their outdoor dining area and saw coconut leaves shredded and curled in decoration, complemented by green and pink balloons with bible verses and hearts sketched on them. One massive store-bought balloon read "HAPPY BIRTHDAY" and underneath it was scrawled "AND CHILDREN'S DAY!"

The kiddos were running around. Little Sonia was beaming, as she always does. Baby Shannon (named after the Gen 1 volunteer at my site) had mucus running from his nose and was curled in his mom's arms.

Everyone pushed me to sit down and enjoy the meal prepared for us (two heaping bowls of rice, a pot of boiled fish, a pot of fried fish, and a massive plate of lap lap) so we could move onto dessert. I shoveled food on my plate and chugged a glass of bright green juice that resembled the taste of key lime Kool-Aid.

Then it was time for cake. They lifted the lid of a cardboard box covered in shiny pink foil wrapping paper. In it was a professionally decorated cake, purchased in Vila. It cost $20, which is quite the luxury here. It even had CHOCOLATE! After snapping pics of the kids with the cake, Ms. Rarua cut into it, and everyone dug in with their hands and grabbed a piece.

Mr. Ben told me that after food, they had fulup activities planned. First there was the treat game (that I had seen upon approaching), there was a treasure hunt, and then there was a boat ride around the entire island of Pele! I laughed out of excitement at the activities planned. This was the most luxurious birthday I've ever attended.

First the kids lined up to do the treat game. There were two poles decorated with hibiscus flowers and curled coconut leaves and a string tied between them. From the string hung various treats. Each child was blindfolded, and the older kids were spun around, as they carried an open pair of scissors towards the rope to cut down a treat from the string. Treats included wasabi peas, mints, chocolate-covered wafers, and bags of Bongo chips. After cutting, the kids pulled off the blindfold to discover their prize.

Next was the treasure hunt. For the older cousins (over the age of 10), they had written clues. For the little ones (under 6), they had pictures. The first was a drawing of a coconut tree with two benches beside it. They hurried over to the coconut tree and dug around the ground until they found the second clue. After three clues, they found themselves at the school's volleyball nets. Mr. Ben told them this was the final spot, and they were now looking for a treasure! The toddlers and little ones wandered around the net's poles, but Mr. Ben told them to look down and up. I looked up and saw their prize hanging from the net: a plastic bag of hard-boiled eggs. Joyline looked around, then up, and spotted the eggs. Mr. Ben untied them for her and each child received one. The children giggled and happily ran off, peeling the shells from their eggs.

Meanwhile, the older kids were climbing trees to find their prize, as Mr. Ben laughed and told him he wouldn't bother climbing a tree to hide a clue. Finally, they found the prize, a roll of sandwich cookies. They passed them out and little toddler Robert handed me a half of his. Sonia sat in the grass eating the white of the egg, passing the yolk to her mom because she didn't want it. Baby Shannon altered between offering me one of his mints from the string game in his right hand and a half-eaten cookie in his left. I laughed and kept telling him that those were his treats to enjoy!

The treasure hunt wore us out a bit and we rested until Mr. Ben said the boat had arrived. It's the same kind of boat I take to head to Efate, but Mr. Ben chartered it for us to ride around Pele. After a mere five minutes of cruising in the bright blue waters, the boat stopped. I turned to look at the commotion and Mr. Ben was giggling with glee. His brother, the driver, caught a fish. He reeled in the line and yanked in a massive catch.

We continued on, in the expansive sea waters between Pele and Efate, rounding the east side near Emao, and hopping big waves near the village of Laonamoa. Little Joyline gripped onto the front of the boat and onto Ms. Rarua's shirt with each wave hop. I gave Ms. Rarua a verbal tour of Pele as I'd previously lived on it for a month of training, and despite her living so close, she had never stepped foot on it.

After two massive catches of fish, many splashes of salt water in the face, and hundreds of hops over mild waves, we found ourselves nearing Nguna.

We stepped foot once again on Nguna nearly an hour after our adventure began.

One of the fish was set on the concrete beside the water tank, and Sonia and Joyline sat beside it, staring into its dead eyes, petting its smooth scales. Mr. Ben asked me to stay for dinner, as he'd be frying up the catches from the day. I couldn't say no.

Mr. Ben offered me kava before the meal, but I passed it up to paint all the kids' nails (even Robert and Shannon's), give piggy back rides and run around with the kids. Soon after, we ate.

As it grew dark, they informed me their outdoor light wasn't working, so I grabbed my headlamp out of my purse and affixed it to the top of their tarp. Mr. Ben played some string band music off of his phone, and after Sonia wiggled around a bit to the tunes, I got up and asked her to dance. Under the bright white light from my headlamp, I channeled my inner Sydney and wiggled around, waving my hands in the air and stepping to the beat. Soon, Sonia joined, and silent, wallflower Joyline even grabbed my hand. We danced for about an hour, to the sounds of string band music and reggaeton beats. The adults cackled at the entertainment (people LOVE it when you dance here), Mrs. Thompson told me I was "wan nais wei" and I even held baby Shannon's hands as he balanced on his feet to move to the beat. He smiled and let out a "ksh" noise that I took as a sign of approval.

At one point, as I caught the sparkle in Sonia's eyes, the effervescent joy that she emits in the quietest of giggles, I thought to myself: I am so very happy to be here, and I am so glad I've met these amazing people.


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