Communication Breakdown

All PC volunteers are issued a digital copy of "On The Homefront: A Handbook for Families of Volunteers." In the handbook, it makes sense of a lot of the life of a PCV that may otherwise not make sense to a non-volunteer. Among the many topics discussed is communication.

Communicating with a volunteer can be frustrating, and trust me, the feeling goes both ways (Taylor write an excellent post on this topic recently, because it affects us all!).

There are a handful of issues that contribute to issues with communication specifically here for volunteers in Vanuatu. Let's take a closer look.

Time Zones

This is the most obvious factor in communication issues. We're nearly a full day ahead here in Vanuatu compared to US time zones. As I finish work at school, it's nearing midnight back at home and not an ideal time to call friends and family.

Below, I'll go into more detail, but I'll generally say that it's a lot harder for us to make ourselves free to you, and it's much easier for you to make yourselves free for us. Think about it: we may have a sliver of wifi access on a Tuesday while you get wifi almost 24/7 back in the states.


Technology is another barrier in communicating with friends/family back home, and it's one of the biggest ones.

Service isn't always great

Service has drastically improved since we arrived in-country. In the mere two years since arriving, all islands can now access 3G at peak service. Also, I will note that here in Vanuatu (in Luganville and Port Vila at least) we have lots of free and decent access to wifi, which I can't say the same for regarding neighboring Pacific countries. Vanuatu has them all beat. However, the rural areas still have issues with service.

My friends on other islands sometimes have to walk 10-15 minutes away from their home to get any sort of service at all. That includes calls, texts, data, everything. That tunnel you drive through on your way to work back in the states? Imagine living in that tunnel, despite being in a wide open space. Often, that's how service is here in Vanuatu, especially in rural areas, where most volunteers are located.

On the far north end of my island, where a G28 volunteer was once based, service was awful and only had tiny patches of service. Her host mother had a cell phone that hung from a tree branch, where there was a small pocket of service. Walk a foot to the right or a foot to the left, and the call was dropped. This branch, this string, this tiny pocket right here, was the only place you could get service. People would often call her host mother's phone to get a hold of others in the village, but she complained that she didn't sign up to be the phone operator for the entire village...the tree just happened to be located on her property. Other volunteers have told me of the "DigiTrees" located in their village as well: the trees where you can magically get service.

There are two cell service providers here: TVL and Digicel. TVL is great in some areas, in others it's not. Sometimes TVL is down for an entire week for no reason (well, there are reasons, I'll get to those in a second). Sometimes Digicel is spotty for no reason. We as volunteers have gotten used to this, though it's still just as frustrating as the first time we had a dropped call. All G29 volunteers have dual SIM cards, one for each provider. G30 and future groups only have one unless they've purchased the other on their own dime. Having both services doesn't always matter because...

Topup and Rifil aren't always available

G29 has free calls to all volunteers and staff on Digicel. All data (what we're using to talk to you back home in America) is purchased by the volunteer on a pay-as-you-go plan.

People in Vanuatu don't have phone contracts. Instead, you purchase Topup (Digicel) or Rifil (TVL) cards from a shop that have a scratch-off code to give you credit. Other methods include a representative from either of the companies using a phone to take your number down and transfer credit via a text message from their phone. Basically, you hand them cash, and they jot your number down in a notebook and text someone for a couple minutes. Then, BAM, you got 200vt credit!

Seems simple, right? Well, as I mentioned above, we're mostly located in rural sites. Rural sites don't get those scratch-off cards shipped to them on a daily basis and can run out. It happened a lot when the 41 PCVs of group 29 were training in Epau or Pele. The village couldn't keep up with demand of 41 people in their small village constantly requesting phone credit so they could update their Facebook or send WhatsApp messages to their significant others back home.

"What about the person who can text you credit?" you may ask. Sometimes those people aren't at the store. I remember a time in Vanua Lava when I desperately needed to contact a non-PCV friend in Luganville regarding my change in travels for the following day, and it was quite the ordeal. I went to the village store, the person I needed wasn't there, so other people had to call her, and they themselves were low on credit, so it took about five people to get me in touch with the person I needed. Frances sums it up perfectly in this video touring the village stores in her village on the island of Erromango...people simply aren't always there, and it's not as simple as "just go to the store to buy some credit."

Service cuts out due to a lack of fuel or solar power

Service isn't seemingly "magic" like it is in the USA (I know it's not magic in the USA, but I can guarantee most people haven't thought about where their cell service comes from because it simply always exists). Here, cell towers are powered by fuel-powered generators or solar power. The fuel-powered generators depend on -- you guessed it -- fuel, so if someone hasn't refilled the generator, there isn't service. Service outages due to lack of fuel are very common in more remote areas of Vanuatu, where cargo ships aren't as prevalent to send these villages the fuel they need. Or maybe there is fuel and a cloudless day, but the workers weren't paid...which means no one will refill the generator. During these outages, people are frustrated, but they generally accept that it's just how it is.

Solar power runs a lot of other towers, but that means that outages can occur during bouts of rain, especially during cyclone season. Service, even in villages near provincial centers, can be spotty when a mild rainstorm comes through, especially if it lasts more than a day. In general, outages during the night are quite common, rain or no rain, since the sun has gone down. I notice that calls I make are much more likely to sound robotic, choppy, or silent to the volunteers I'm calling if I ring them after 6pm.

Sometimes these outages only affect one service provider and not the other. However, some villages only have access to one or the other. But even access to service doesn't matter when you encounter....

Smart phone issues

As someone who had never once owned a smart phone until April of last year, I can praise the glories of having a "dumb" (read: much better and far superior) phone. The little Nokia phones issued to volunteers aren't anything durable or waterproof, but they do sustain falls better, repel water better, and are generally more reliable than smart phones. Smart phone PCV users may disagree, but I can tell you of at least a dozen times when a PCV was unreachable because of issues with their smart phone (stolen, broken screen, broken sim card reader) and zero times because of an issue with their Nokia.

The little Nokias we're issued are easily chargeable, even in cloudy cyclones, but smart phones will drain your solar battery in no time. But, as you know, a little Nokia phone doesn't have access to data, so that means no calls home and no internet surfing.

Some volunteers own the "local" smart phones, which are much lower in quality to those that a typical American would use (mine cost under $30usd). However, you get what you pay for, and in some cases, you get a limit to 3G service and under. No matter how great of a signal you may have, your device may limit your access.

And even if you found a good call time with the time zone differences, and even if you have good service, and even if you have plenty of phone credit, and even if you have an excellent cell signal, and even if your phone is capable of accessing what it needs to access, you could still have issues with...

Culture and generally being occupied

One of the hardest things to explain to friends and family back home is that I can't call them because I need to go into the village, or someone just came over to my house.

One of the confusing things for an American about the culture here is that everyone is unavailable and available all the time. What does that mean? Well, I mentioned above how you could go to a store in the middle of the day and not be able to purchase something because a person isn't there.

On the flip side, if I want to talk to the chairwoman for the nutrition committee about an upcoming workshop and apologize for disturbing her while she's cooking dinner and bathing her children, she'll insist that I sit down during this busy personal time to talk business.

That's why it can be so difficult to set up meetings or times to hang out with someone, because anything can come up in an instant, and anything can be changed in an instant.

Sometimes a PCV will be sitting at home, not doing much, and a neighbor will come over to say, "We're cooking laplap now at our house, come," and you go. You drop what you're doing and go. There are so many times this happens, from invites to drink kava, to swimming in the ocean, to going fishing with friends, to going on a hike to that place you've wanted to hike for forever but never had anyone to lead you there until RIGHT THIS MOMENT.

So it may seem like a PCV has lots of down time, but it's unpredictable down time. And it can change at a moment's notice. Our time here, while it may seem lengthy at two years, can be very short when there are so many fleeting moments where you just have to be in the right place at the right time to experience.

The nature of this job is that it's not 9-5, Monday through Friday. We're busy when we're busy. We're meeting with chiefs, hosting workshops and trainings, helping teachers type tests, giving reading assessments, helping our host families with the garden, working in the local aid post, building toilets, and well, doing work.

Inconveniently, our busy times can be during those small slivers of time when our friends and family back home are typically awake.

This is all to beg of you all back home: please don't get frustrated with our lack of communication. We're trying our best, and a lot of times, there's nothing we can do about it.


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