Friday, March 14, 2008

I’m sorry that it has taken me so long to post these latest two blog entries! My “Microsoft Picture Editor” went on strike for several months, and the files are so big when they come out of my camera that it would take 14 hours to upload them through our slow internet connection. So I’ve been writing but delaying posting until someone from IT could come up and sort out my computer. Thanks for the patience to all of you who have been waiting a long time for something new!! (Sorry, Lindsay, I know it really irritates you when I don’t blog often enough!)
At school we've been really busy lately getting our 2+2 club students ready to transfer. There are always bumps in the road, but we're having good success, and we should have about 15 of them leaving in August and about 5 more planning to transfer to Universities in January. It's really exciting to help them make plans about leaving home and having new adventures. (the pictures are from a recent 2+2 meeting)

My old bike finally got so rusty that the brakes don’t work, the handlebars don’t really turn very well anymore, and it’s now red instead of the happy banana yellow color it used to be. Besides that, someone tried to jimmy the lock while I was gone at Christmas and now my key wouldn’t work, so it was stuck to the balcony of my apartment, exposed to the salty spray off the ocean for about 3 months. I finally broke down and bought a new bike, named Luanne. It’s the twin of Isabel’s bike Lucinda, so I decided to stick with the “Lu” naming pattern. So far she hasn’t been exceptionally reliable, primarily because whoever installed her at ACE hardware didn’t quite finish the job. As soon as I rode away from the store, the seat shifted forward and dumped me off. A drunken old man on the side of the road tried to “help” me, and then declared his love and asked where I live. I declined his offer and went straight back to ACE. They fixed the seat, but the next day while riding, the right pedal fell off because when I pedal it unscrews itself. At my office-mate Peder’s suggestion, I went back to ACE and bought some “lok-tite” stuff to seal the bolt that was striping, and things seem to be much better now. In the meantime, I asked my landlord to help me cut the lock off the old bike so I could donate it to some neighborhood kids. My little friend Kan, a clever and outgoing boy who sometimes comes to visit me at my office or my house had requested to inherit my old bike when I didn’t need it anymore. So finally this weekend my landlord cut the lock and I oiled it up and delivered it. He was the happiest kid on the island this weekend, and since I gave it to him 2 days ago, I have spotted at least 5 kids riding it. It’s getting good use these days, and that makes me happy! For my birthday, Isabel gave me this cute "I love my bike" bell for Luanne, which makes me smile every time I see it.
Recently I read something very, very disturbing in the newspaper. The headline read “Ebeye Water Poisoned”. I’m not sure if you’re aware of Ebeye, but it’s a sad story. It’s the island in Kwajalein atoll adjacent to the US military’s Kwajalein missile testing base. It only has 0.14 square miles of land area, and a population of 13,500 people. It has one of the highest population densities in the entire world (96,428 people/square mile) despite the fact that there are very few high-rise buildings here in the Marshall Islands. The reason it’s so crowded is that many people from outer islands move there seeking work on the US military base, but because of security issues, they are not allowed to live on the base itself, so they have to cram into this tiny little island with thousands of other people and ferry across to work every day. While the land owners of Kwajalein make millions of dollars from the lease of the Kwajalein property to the US government, I doubt any of them actually live in Ebeye. The services to the people there are very poor, and electricity blackouts are the norm. The latest news is that due to terrible planning and no regulation of development, people have illegally hooked their septic lines into the sewer. But what they thought was the sewer was actually the fresh water pipe, and now the water system is contaminated with E-coli and other horrendous diseases because of sewage contamination. Because they are illegal connections, it will take public works a long, long time to locate the source of contamination and fix the mess. Well, luckily most people have catchments on their roofs where they catch rainwater for drinking, but when catchments empty before the rain comes again, people are dependent on city water. Incidentally, several months ago I noticed a large rusting piece of metal wash up on the filthy beach near my house. (see the picture above) It's probably not a piece of a missile, but doesn't it have an uncanny resemblance to one? You never know!

I love my students this semester. They are so great! Many of them need a big kick in the seat of the pants, because they don’t study nearly enough or take class seriously, but there are also some real jems in my classes, and nearly all their personalities are sweet and they make me smile. It is so great to see them start to creep cautiously out of their shells like little turtles. One student who I’ve had in my class for 2 semesters now is really soaring in my College Algebra class. He is a diligent worker and is at the top of the class. He has taken initiative to come seek help at my office hours (which takes a lot of guts because he’s pretty shy). At the bottom of a recent homework he turned in, he wrote, “please go to the next page, thank q for ur cooperation”. It totally cracked me up. Another student in that class, equally as shy, has also begun to soar. He has volunteered on a handful of occasions to go to the board and work problems. When I ask if he would be willing to explain them to the class, he hesitates for about 20 seconds, gathers his gumption, and then does a beautiful job explaining to the class. It’s so exhilarating to see! Another of my students left me her homework under my office door with a note attached that read, “Hi Britt, I am sorry for not waiting for you because I just hurry to go to hospital with my daddy. Sorry! Love, Always, Kamo”. At least once a week when she leaves class she says to me, “Thank you for your time and consideration.” Where did she learn to say that? Ownership of time is not a Pacific concept. There is something wonderful and sweet about many of my students. Then there are always some cheeky ones who liven up class. Last week we were talking about Certificates of Deposit and after one calculation of the interest added to a CD with a rate of 6%, I asked my class how the bank can afford to give away free money like that. I was trying to help them identify the fact that the banks charge 13-18% interest on loans and then keep the 12% difference. Before I got to that, one rather vocal student in the back of class said in a very matter-of-fact tone, “It’s because they’re always stealing money from people’s accounts!” We all burst out laughing, and I said, “Yes, that may be true on this island, so please balance your checkbook carefully just to make sure!”

We have had a string of Yokwe parties at church for missionaries leaving. Elder Beecher, a young missionary who has been here in our branch for about the last 8 or 9 months went home, so we gave him a party. Then a week later, the Pattens, a senior couple who has helped our branch tremendously got transferred to Christmas Island, so we had another party for them. As the Relief Society president, I’m expected to organize it, and also to conduct it. Organizing the food is no problem, the ladies really help me to do a lot of the cooking and I’m a decent host usually. But conducting the formalities is so awkward because I’m a ri-belle and I don’t understand the order in which things are supposed to happen. The entertainment at both parties was great. At Elder Beecher’s party, a couple Elders went out and shook their hips, and Elder Beecher’s companion, Elder Beaumaiwai, did a traditional Fijian dance which involved a fan, shouting, and some sticking out of his tongue. Elder Beecher got asked to dance by some primary kids and ended up break dancing. Two Yokwe parties in a row were a lot of fun, but exhausting, so I’m hoping no one else leaves for a little while so we can recuperate a little bit. We already miss the Pattens so much! They really helped so many of the families in our branch who are struggling with alcoholism and also they helped strengthen the leaders of the branch. I’m excited for them to have adventures on Christmas Island, but we will miss them tremendously here!
Last blog I wrote about Le Bouquet closing. Well, it may have been a false alarm! The latest rumor is that they are still in business, the owners just went home to Taiwan for about a month for Chinese New Year, and they will be back soon. They didn’t leave any kind of note on the door and the shelves are bare, but I’m really hoping for their return so I can have some more “gween tea muffins!” Yum!

Spring break is coming next week, which is a very big relief. A friend from my mission in South Africa 7 years ago is coming to visit, and we're going back to Arno with about 8 colleagues from work. I’m excited to see him again and introduce him to all the wonderful and wacky things and people on this island. I still have not decided about renewing my contract in August. I am leaning toward staying for another year, but things are still SO stressful at work. We have opened up a dialogue with the administration, so at least the communication is improving, but faculty morale is at an all-time low due to lack of moral and physical support for teaching. As faculty senate president, I’m trying to do something proactive to stop an exodus of faculty (including myself) at the end of the semester. We’ve scheduled some extra meetings to try to iron things out, but it’s so time consuming and stressful and it distracts me from my classes and students. But if we can improve the environment for all those working and studying here, it may be worth the effort.
Ok, time to go home now. I’ll write more later. Cheers! Britt

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The New Year is off to a good, busy start! Already so much has happened that I haven’t told you about. We kicked everything off with a psychotic, chaotic registration week. I think that we are the only school that does registration by hand still, and I hope that sometime soon they will give advisors permission to register their students online instead of sending them running around the campus for 3 or 4 hours and making faculty responsible for signing up every student by hand. The schedule was chaotic, full of conflicts, and so our Dean kept changing it, which caused a lot of confusion. To add to the confusion, the decision was made to extent the registration period by another week, so while we were trying to focus on teaching classes, we also had to keep registering students by hand. The result was that the first week of school felt like it lasted for a month! But it’s over now, things are settling down a little (although there’s always drama and political intrigue at CMI) and hopefully soon we’ll all settle into the routine again. It was a bumpy take-off, I hope the landing is a bit smoother!

To add to the mix, my friend Anelang went to the Phillippines the week prior for cancer surgery. She has 4 really sweet children at home ranging from 5 to 13 years old. Her husband works the night shift, so I found them home alone the first night and invited them to dinner. This did not go over well with my Taiwanese landlord, who is paranoid that if some Marshallese Children come upstairs to my house, then the whole neighborhood of children will be over constantly. I explained to him that these are my sick friend’s children and they are home alone. My lease also does not have any statement restricting what visitors I invite. Anyway, the next day I was pleased to see that Anelang’s family had sent her sister to stay with the kids. Everyone told me her sister’s name is “Lebwebwe” which means “the crazy” in Marshallese. She is a little slow and not really capable of taking care of 4 children by herself, but she’s certainly not crazy. Sunday morning I got a knock at my door at 8am. It was Mary. She said she had terrible news: Anelang had passed away in the Phillipines. I couldn’t believe it! I was so shocked and saddened! Her husband was so distraught that he drank himself senseless that weekend. He had been sober for 4 weeks up until that point. We shifted into high gear to try to make plans for taking care of the children longer-term (which looked like it might include them coming to stay with me on weekdays until school finishes for the year). We called around and the Annie’s family in Laura started making funeral plans. Lebwebwe was grief-stricken. The kids heard the news but did not really internalize it. Three days went by (they happened to also be the first three days of school) and I was over at their house whenever I wasn’t working. I began to feel stressed out because assuming responsibility for 4 children means assuming responsibility for the whole community that they belong to. Annie’s kids are so well behaved and easy to care for, but the network of other people in the neighborhood who also need help was beginning to feel overwhelming!

On Wednesday as I was going to Annie’s house, her 13 year old daughter Della said, “My mom called my dad today.” I said, “WHAT?!?” She said that yes, her mom was alive, and that the story that she had died had been fabricated by Lebwebwe. I know that Lebwebwe believed it was true. She claimed that she had spoken with the doctors and they told her Annie died. Perhaps she had a really vivid dream or something, but we were SO relieved to hear that our friend was still alive and that her kids would grow up with a mother! By the next week, Annie was back in town, looking and feeling much healthier than ever before. Her surgery had gone well and she looks great. I’m SOOO glad that everything is ok!! But goodness, what a lot of grief and stress the whole episode caused!

During the time I was helping look after the kids, I went to the grocery store to buy some food for their family. I ran into my friend Robbin, who works at Co-op school. She has lived a fascinating life! She’s from New York City, was a very successful Reggae singer in the south of France in her early 20’s, recently worked as a Yoga instructor in New York, and then moved here for 2 years to teach school children at the same time I moved out here. I love talking to her because she has such great observations and comments. Her life has been so different from mine and it’s fascinating to me. She will be returning home in June after 2 years here in Majuro and we were talking about the difference between children here and children in the states. She coined the phrase (which I love and think very appropriate) “Free Range Children” (the variety that we have here in Majuro. If you walk out on the street at 10pm in Majuro on a school night you’ll find children everywhere playing. Their moms are at home (or at each other’s houses) talking, their fathers are all at little corner shops or take-out restaurants chatting, and the kids are running free and crazy. And because families have so many children here, the kids are EVERYWHERE. It’s just a completely different parenting mentality here!

I’ve had a lot of excitement with wildlife in my apartment. A few blogs ago I told you about the persistent little crab that keeps trying to move in. Well after coming back from Christmas break, I discovered little poops around my house that let me know someone else had moved in to replace the crab. Sure enough, a little mouse about 3 inches long ran from my sink to my couch one day. He’s cute and not threatening, but he keeps leaving chomp marks in my bread loves and he ate my chicken bouillon in the cupboard, too. So finally one time when he tried to run under the couch, I happened to have the broom in my hand and I was able to sweep him outside. I cleaned up the poops and had a good night’s rest. The next morning, there were poops in my cupboard again, but this time they were the cockroach variety. I emptied the cupboard and evicted him too (a 3-inch long sucker). I have found that cockroaches are easier to get rid of than mice. I had 2 full days of peace before finding poops again today! The mouse is back again, that little stinker!! My colleague and friend from work, Max, told me about how he got rid of mice in Kiribati. He put peanut butter in a plastic bag on the edge of the counter and then tied the bag with string to door handle. When the mouse goes inside, he falls off and ends up hanging in the bag from the handle. Sounded like a good idea, so one day I gave it a try. I set up the trap on my sink and left to do some errands. I came back to find the bag swarming with ants, but no sign of the mouse! After that I tried putting bread into the bag. I came home to find what was left of the bread on the counter and no mouse in the bag (see photo above). That little turkey! I chased him out from under the sink and turned the couch upside-down so he couldn’t hide inside. He ran right through the crack between the door and the frame (I didn’t even know there was space in between). He kept coming back and back, even though I locked away all my food, so I went to ace hardware store to look for humane traps. There were about 15 types of poisons, snap traps and glue traps, but only one harmless deterrent: a little box you plug into the wall which makes ultrasonic noises that hurt their ears (see other picture above). I plugged it in the kitchen and it worked very well. It annoyed him so much he moved into my bedroom with me! I didn’t see him for a couple more days after that. Then on Thursday morning I woke up and found him in the middle of my kitchen floor, spread-eagle on the tile floor, dead as a doornail! I thought he might be pretending, so I poked him with a paper, but he really was dead. I was really sorry, because he was a cute little guy, and very small. Maybe he ate my laundry soap or drank my bleach because there was no other food in the house accessible to him? Anyway, I’m sad that he died so abruptly, but I’m very grateful to not have so many poops all over the house! A lovely little gecko moved in soon after (aparently he's not detered by the beeper), but he eats bugs and doesn't poop in my house, so I think I'll leave him alone.

I’m so disappointed that I didn’t even get around to telling you about “Le Bouquet Café” (you read correctly, not "La Bouquet") before it went out of business! Yesterday Susan and Isabel decided to go to dinner there, but when we arrived, the door was locked and all the shelves were bare. We knew it was likely that the business would not survive, but it’s really sad to see it close. Last summer we noticed extensive renovations and the establishment of a little café next to the tuna loining plant and Majuro Sewer Company in the industrial section of town. Susan, Isabel and I decided to give it a try one evening. It is absolutely a surreal experience walking in there! It was owned by a Taiwanese couple who were so cute. They had fancy specialty rolls and breads, French provincial (floral and stripes) furniture from IKEA (keep in mind that the nearest IKEA is 1000’s of miles away, who knows how they got it all here!), a menu with 30 kinds of coffees and teas, pastries, and sandwiches. The walls were lined with shelves of specialty items, which included things from gourmet teas to cans of creamed corn. On another shelf I found Austrian crystal salt and pepper shakers next to an electric fly zapper and an overpriced hair dye kit! Just browsing the “specialty items” packed onto the shelves was plenty of entertainment for an evening! It had all the trappings of a European café, except for the fact that it was located in the industrial section of a small island in the developing world (and the creamed corn!) The owner, a cute Taiwanese lady in her mid 50’s would perk right up when we came in (I don’t think they got many customers) and excitedly point to their specialty breads and announce the names. My favorite was the “gween tea muffins”. The food was very good, and the atmosphere very nice. Last semester we sat on the pink floral couches, ate dinner, and vented about how crazy things at work were, vacation plans, any drama or excitement on the island. But we knew it couldn’t last long, and it didn’t. Yesterday when we looked inside the shelves were empty, even the creamed corn was gone! What a tragedy!

Today I got a Marshallese drivers license. Susan needed one too, so we went together. It was quite an interesting experience. There's no background check, no driving test (which explains why drivers are SO bad here!), no driver's training, no check to see if we had a previous license, or even if we're in the country legally! Just show your passport, get your payment form, go across town to the capital to pay your $20, then come back, take a picture, wait 5 minutes for lamination, and you're finished. While we were waiting at the police station for the picture and lamination, the prisoners were having a ukulele sing-a-long behind the door with a sign above it that said "May peace prevail on earth!" It was a really quite a unique experience. We never even filled out a form, the guy just gave us an interview: hair color? weight? height? Village you live in? and typed it right into the typewriter. Actually, he didn't even ask for my weight, he just guessed, and he was about 40 pounds underweight, but I don't mind. I don't even think they kept a copy of our information or any record that they gave us driver's licenses!! Unbelievable!!

Well, that’s about all I have time for tonight, I’d better get going home. I’ll write more again soon!