Saturday, August 11, 2012

Updates of all sorts

        I am well aware that these blog posts are way overdue.  Mahk dohlul (I’m really sorry).  Life is so new to me here that sometimes sitting in front of a computer for too long isn’t my most appealing option.  Nonetheless, I have plenty to say and I am aware of our third Peace Corps goal, which essentially calls for volunteers to share their host country’s culture with people in the United States.   I have so much to write about that this first entry will be on my present and future; a post immediately following will catch you up on the last month or so.

        I’ll be starting at Ohmine Elementary School in Kolonia (Pohnpei’s biggest city) on August 20th.  I have four teachers that I will be working closely with—one each from 5th-8th grade, and I have been asked to assist with computer literacy as well (Ohmine has a well-furnished and relatively new computer lab).  Our goal is to raise student performance on 6th and 8th-grade level  tests by at least 2% by the end of the 2012-2013 school year.  I’ve taught in one faculty or another for several years now and I still have to admit that I’m a bit nervous.  We have been told that apathy and low attendance have really hurt the schools here, and even aside from those issues I am working in a very different pedagogical environment than I ever have before.  This will take patience and discipline, but I feel really ready.  I talked to my parents some time ago about my strategy here, which basically amounts to a continual redefinition of “success.”    If, for example, I decide that making bonds with my host family is of some lasting value (which it certainly is), then I have already succeeded.  Frankly, all of us have succeeded because we are still here and willing to attempt integration into a foreign culture.  Reality, as I have said to many of you in the past, is all about perspective.   It is imperative on any of us, whether we are talking about an adventure abroad, moving to a new apartment, going on a diet or battling an addiction, to ensure that our perspectives and outlooks are primed to help us reach our desired mental and spiritual destinations.

                I’ll be moving to my next host family on Wednesday.  The Dakanos are a Mwokilese family (Mwokil is an outlying island of Pohnpei), and as such they will speak a slightly different language than the one I’ve been learning.  The challenge of learning yet another language is as exciting to me as it is daunting.   They have two children, both toddler age, which will be a new challenge as well.  I absolutely love children though, so more than anything I’m really excited. 

                Other updates:

                --Warer harvesting is one of the most unique and disgusting experiences I’ve had in Pohnpei thus far.  Warer is a variation on sea cucumbers—to my Korean friends, we have the cucumbers you are familiar with here but the ones I am talking about are larger and have a scaly green crust to them.  I was asked during a family picnic at Langur (an old Japanese airstrip) by an old woman to help harvest these things.  Essentially what this entails is grabbing the creature and poking your finger through its stomach, and then squeezing the entrails out into your hand.  Pellets of sand intermingle with a substance resembling mucous; you want to keep the mucous.  The hard part is separating the sand, which warers digest, from the fluids you want to keep (apparently good for the bones of older people).  I was not particularly good at this but I did manage to get a bottle’s worth of warer, which my host father was tremendously appreciative of.

           --I joined a Filipino rock band as the bassist, and ostensibly we will be covering Bon Jovi songs.  This is real.

          --Mail is going out this week, finally.  I'm so sorry I've been this awful about updating and spereading love to everyone.  All in due time.

More in a bit.  I have a few crucial emails to send but I'll try to get another entry on sakau up today, as Kayla has asked some very good questions about it.  Love and blessings!



Sunday, July 1, 2012


--Hiked up to Sokehs Rock, which was beautiful, on Saturday.  I'd put up photos (I actually took some!) but the IPod is at home.

--Model school, kind of a practice-teaching deal, began today, and my coteacher (a woman from Madolenimw named Kasmery) and I work together like Simon & Garfunkel.  If you don't know what that means then I feel bad for you.

--Shaved my beard!  Nohno says I look like a little boy now.  Apparently when she first met me she thought I was roughly 45 years old though, so I'll take it I guess.

--Training is still crazy but I'm getting more used to it.  Crucially, I have gotten to where I can take incredibly cold showers without screaming.  Gavrin's baby, 4 months old, is adorable.  Two trainees announced that they were leaving today, which is hard, but I'm still confident that we can hold fast and keep the rest of the group together for 2 years.

--Listening to my American music again for the first time since I've been here.  Still good!  I also found a place to get yogurt which is unspeakably cool.

Gonna get out of here.  There'll be more soon, I swear!


Saturday, June 23, 2012

6/24 Update


I know it's been awhile;  that was deliberate, as I will be away from reliable internet access after the next few weeks.  I'd like to get used to using the net only once every two weeks now so that I don't have withdrawal symptoms (embarrassing though that thought may be).  Revelations from the last two weeks:

--Smiling gets you far here.  Occasionally, it gets you too far, and can be seen as a form of flirting.  While this is generally more of a problem for Western women on the islands than for men, if you know me at all then you're aware I'm a pretty cheery bastard, and I don't want to give off the wrong impression to any island ladies.  Coincidentally, here's what I know about the dating scene here.

--Night-crawling::Traditionally, families will live under the same roof until boys (buchak) and girls (sarapain) are married, generally around the age of thirty.  This is not entirely different from American living situations in many parts of the mainland.  What is different is how those marriages come about, and how the courting process is initiated.  Apparently, if a boy(defined as an unmarried man, so, basically, a guy my age) is interested in a girl (same scenario), he will go to her house at night and attempt to break into her bedroom window.  Contrary to what we may believe in the States, this is legitimately just to talk about connections and whatnot.  Romeo and Juliet for the breaking-and-entering crowd.  The islands are very different from one another--Yap completely forbids night-crawling, as it is seen as a major embarrassment when one is caught, Pohnpei sees men visiting women at night, and on pious Kosrae the women actually crawl men.  I have heard that when a woman likes  you in Kosrae, she will throw stones at you and pour water on your head as you are sleeping.  Clearly I have a lot to learn before I get an island girlfriend.

--Honor, the concept of "saving face" and a seeming lack of emotion are key elements of Pohnpeian life for men and women.  There is something noble and tragic about this in my experience thus far, and I'll try to speak about that in as many ways as I can.  As I said in the previous entry, my host mother (nohno) seemed completely nonplussed when she met me, and yet as I have learned more about the culture I understand that she was tremendously excited and could not show it.  "Subdued" and "understated" are operative words in this regard.  Pohnpeians, as Gary Ashby notes in his 2003 book (which I am currently reading) Pohnpei: An Island Argosy, are tremendously proud of their cultures and traditions but are incapable of showing it without bringing shame upon themselves.  I can complement my host father (pahpa sau) on his cooking, which legitimately is delicious, and he will beam a genuine smile my way, but prior to that he generally apologizes for what he assumes is lacklustre food in my eyes.  This lack of emotional output, or the heightened level of emotional restraint, predictably brings with it a share of problems, the most notable of which is an alarmingly high suicide rate for Pohnpeians of all ages.  Hanging seems to be the preferred method; boredom, isolation, and failed love situations have been given to me as primary causes.  My host brother Gavrin has only sounded once like he was going to cry when talking to me; over a bottle of sakau, he was describing the last days of a girl  our age who lived up our street, a girl who felt like she had nobody to talk to.  The problem is literally and figuratively next door in Pohnpei, and shows no signs of slacking.

--Food as I mentioned is delicious and varied here.  Lime is a key ingredient in sauces, as is pepper (Pohnpeian pepper is a gourmet ingredient, and I'm more than willing to send any interested parties a bag or two once I get on this whole letter-writing thing going).  You'd be surprised how much you can do with spam and corned beef.  Chicken and fish dishes are an almost nightly occurrance, and the fish is easily the best I have had anywhere in my life. Mangrove crabs, which I can already promise you I will miss tremendously, may even put the crabs up in Trinidad, CA to shame (though I'd welcome a taste-test any day of the week).  Dog is a delicacy reserved primarily for feasts, as is pork.  Peanuts, though rare on the island, do show up in baked goods on occasion.  I know this far too well now; on Thursday (6/19), a seemingly innocent cinnamon roll put me in the care of the Peace Corps Medical Officers for several hours.  Coincidentally, this ended up being a very good thing, as I am now fully aware of what does and what does not contain nuts on the island.  Moreover, the medical officers took such good care of me that I am more comfortable with something going wrong now than I was before Thursday,  My allergy, unlike my asthma, has gotten worse as I have gotten older; I was told after my scare last week that I will be serving on either mainland Palau or Pohnpei, as the outer islands are too far from hospitals for me to be comfortable.  I had visions of being on isolated beaches and living the "Peace Corps life" prior to this experience, but this is outweighed by my desire to come back to the States in one piece in 2014, so I am very content with this.  I include this story not to alarm anyone at home so much as to show the degree to which my medical officers have ensured my absolute safety, and trust that my writing will be read in this way.

--Intoxicants exist on the islands, of course.  As with anywhere, people like to get down.  Beer (men lai) is popular and cheap, generally fairly strong (~7% ABV), and far from the worst I've had (shoutouts to Korea on that one).  More engaging from a cultural perspective is sakau, also known as kava-kava.  The look from untrained eyes is similar to chocolate milk, but the taste is far different, I can assure you.  Sakau plants are cherished by those who own them, and while preparation is different from island to island, essentially the plant's fibers are twisted up in hibiscus leaves until a brownish juice is collected in coconut shells.  More concentrate is pounded out on a sakau stone, and tends to be much more potent,  The taste is widely regarded as unpleasant by foreigners, though I only find this to be true for the first few sips.  After several cups are passed, a general numbness (not unlike Novocaine) overtakes muscle functions, and speech is slurred somewhat, though most sakau-drinkers remain pleasantly lucid throughout their experience.  Some of my most honest conversations with Pohnpeians, the moments where they open up to me, have been over sakau, and so I can't act like I don't see its application to my Peace Corps service.  Sakau has a tendency to cause upset stomachs, and so eating food during or immediately after a session is highly recommended (I haven't tested the consequences of ignoring this suggestion, and I have no intention to)..  When one is sufficiently intoxicated (sakau lai), it is appropriate to say goodnight to everyone present and head to bed, where a pleasant sleep is guaranteed.  While some people mix alcohol and sakau, I certainly wouldn't recommend it, as the two products do very different things.  Sakau is a calming, narcotic substance and alcohol is alcohol.  Liver damage, a risk highly touted in medical articles stateside regarding the substance, comes primarily from the alcohol involved in so many people's sessions; More dangerous by far is the inclination to get loaded one way or the other and go driving around looking for girls, a level of stupidity which should ring familiar stateside as well, unfortunately.  As I write this, two members of my extended family are in jail on DUI charges for a sakau-drinking escapade last night.  As I would have done stateside, I told them not to go and thought I had convinced them that it was a bad idea before I went to bed, but apparently they had an unfortunate change of heart at some point aroiund 4 AM.  This, as I said, is similar to what you'd see in America, but it doesn't make it any more okay in my estimation.

--Education is dismal here, to put things mildly.  Because of a Compact Agreement with the United States, government positions outnumber private sector by far and pay roughly five times the amount of private sector jobs.  Compare this to the US where we have maybe 15% governmental positions (if that).  The upshot of this is that islanders tend to just wait for funding to come their way, and are not tremendously concerned about getting an education prior to that.  This. coupled with the fact that formalized writing instruction begins in roughly the 3rd grade (more realistically in some municipalities the 4th grade) means that none of us should be shocked at 97% failure rates on standardized tests.  Funding from the US, which has kept Micronesia afloat since the Compact was signed in '86, will dry up in 2023, and so true sustainability will be necessary then if the islands are to have any chance in a world economy.  My job as a Peace Corps volunteer is difficult, as a lecture from US Ambassador Prahar made abundantly clear yesterday, but in the confines of individual impacts it is a very possible one.  To say it differently, I am not meant to change the world, or even an entire school; if I can impact the lives of even a handful of students, or just one, I have done my job quite well.  With luck, I'll be able to encourage a sense of pride in traditional culture in my classroom, as well as an understanding that English is necessary to compete in an international market; a huge part of my job in  this regard will be sharing pedagogical techniques with Pohnpeian or Palauan co-teachers in the hopes that they can continue improvement after my service.

I think I'm satisfied with this post. One final note: we are officially more than two weeks into training now, and none of us have left yet.  I don't agree with the mentalities of every trainee, to be perfectly honest (different strokes, as always) and there are certainly one or two that I would never associate with under any circumstances in the States, but we are all here for a reason and so I will support even those trainees if obstacles come up.  I have grown quite attached to a number of them, and will miss them very much when we go our separate ways, but this is just another stage in a larger adventure; several of us already have plans to do an Appalachian Trail through-hike once we get back in 2014.  Until next time, best of luck in all you do, love and blessings to you and your family and sochuk mwao (good night).


6/16 Entry

Update 6/16

There is a LOT to update on right now--this may take me quite awhile to get together but I'll do what I can. Regrettably, training has been so intense that blogging had to take a backseat, as did journalling and photo-taking.  That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.  What do you want from me?  Island time, am I right?

Anyway, here's the immediate scenario.  I am living in Kolonia, Pohnpei, and specifically I am on Nan Pepper road (also a neighborhood) with my host family.  Nelson Joseph is a judge--he has been in Reno, Nevada on a business trip, so I haven't met him yet, but he is my host father (my "Pahpa sao," to use the formal title).  I don't remember her name because I never use it, but "Nohno kat" (my host mother) is a nurse in her late 50's.  She was not particularly responsive to me at first but as my Pohnpeian has gotten better and I have shown a genuine interest in the food she has warmed up to me.  Coincidentally, my judgment of warmth or lack thereof may be ill-advised, since emotion is handled very differently in Pohnpeian culture; this can be for another blog post, though.  I have a brother, Gavrin, and he has been the doorway into this culture.  Gavrin is 26 and a 6th-grade teacher at Ohmine Elementary school.  His English is quite good and he and Michi (my cousin) have been excellent teachers ("sonpata mwao") since I met them last Monday.  Tun-Tun is 19, girl-crazy, and loves baseball.  Some things are not so different--teenagers are teenagers.  Other people come in and out, as the household is very communal, but this is the core group.  I have probably the biggest bedroom in the house, a fan, and some drawers--it is at once a very comforting existance and a humbling one.  Nohno kat was going to go to Reno with Pahpa but decided not to so she could greet me, which further shows the extent to which they have invested in me as a guest.  We have seven dogs, countless chickens, and some pigs--none of these are pets, though.  The dogs guard the house, and if you know me at all than you know that getting used to them has been one of my first major trials in my new environment.  I wouldn't say I like them, but I am not afraid of them because they know me.  They stay outside, and are not considered pets--while we do not eat our dogs, dog is a popular food here and my family has told me that they do eat other dogs on occasion.  I have eaten dog before, coincidentally, so this does not particularly phase me.

Life consists of avoiding the heat, going to market, and getting back and forth from training (Monday through Friday).  I don't mean to shortchange a thing, as all of this has been fascinating to me.  As I write this I am experiencing my first Saturday on the island.  Saturday is a work day for most families, meaning that necessary chores (trash-dumping, lawn-mowing) are saved for today.  To my delight, I have recently been allowed to participate in chores, which makes me feel more like family than I did at first.  The turning point in this regard came several nights ago, when I managed to say "Bansang Ih ban cola witten ta" successfully, which means "tonight I will go wash dishes."  Somehow using the Pohnpeian got me in when using English could not.  Dr. Scott is always talking about the power words have and I have seen that quite clearly since I've been here.

Training is intense and makes me tremendously glad that I took a year of graduate school first. We are actually reading a book (Diane Larsen-Freeman's "Techniques and Principles of Language Teaching") for our methodology unit that I previously read in class, and so I have been quite comfortable in this regard.  I can see on the faces of other trainees, as well as our Pohnpeian co-teachers, that training is exhausting for other people as well, but I know it will pay off.  In two weeks, we are running a "Model School" at Ohmine Elementary (where Gavrin works) for interested students; my partner, Kasmery, has been teaching for 6 years, and though she is shy we hit it off immediately.  I'm excited to start working with her, and I'm excited to be working with kids again.  I'll do a separate blog post on education in the islands in a little bit; for now, this is enough to offer my readers some context.

Aside from the dogs, I've only had one "What am I doing here?" moment, and it is in regards to the water.  Being from a landlocked state, I am fairly nervous about water activities, and I am also aware that there are a number of things living in the water that an uninformed person could be seriously hurt by.  We had a training recently on many of these creatures, and it was good in some respects but it also made me more nervous.  Spearfishing, specifically, sounds awesome and rather terrifying--it involves diving down roughly 5 feet or so and catching fish to eat, and while not practiced everywhere, it is necessary on the outer islands for subsistance.  I want to be on an outer island because as a teacher the potential is greater for change (very few resources out there), but the spearfishing is daunting.  Nohno kat said she understood that very well today, and told me that when Pahpa sao gets back he can take me with his cousins and show me how to do it in a safe place.  I'm not sure if it's the calm tone of voices here or if it's the island, but her demeanor was such that I trust this as a good idea.  I don't want to be afraid of things, and I am aware that I am here to better not only Micronesians but myself as well.

That's all I want to say for now.  So far, so good.  I heard from a friend that he couldn't send mail to me for some reason--if there's a problem, it's isolated because I have gotten other mail.  My address, again, is

Ben Taylor, Peace Corps Trainee
Peace Corps Micronesia/Palau
PO Box 9
Kolonia, Pohnpei, FM 96941

Much love and blessings.  Bansang mwao (good night)!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The first few days

NOTE:  I meant to post this several days ago--unfortunately I must have cancelled the update.  More will come when training gets a bit less intense, but trust that I should have enough awesomeness to write the next great American novel within the next week if things keep going as they have been.  Love and blessings.
It’s been an intense several days.  We spent staging in Honolulu largely finding out what the immediate next steps would be—money card, to be destroyed upon arrival in Micronesia.  Very James Bond.  One mediocre Mexican restaurant in Waikiki and it was time to go.  I was made one of four leaders for our journey from Hawaii to Micronesia; largely, my responsibilities consisted of making sure we had appropriate tips for our bellhop and airport and also in charge of the bag sweep, but this was not much of a job because everyone was well aware of their bags.  Myself and two other volunteers were within 5 minutes of missing our flight out, but it all worked.  Coincidentally, on the rush through Honolulu terminal we ran into two returned Peace Corps volunteers on their way back to the states—crazy feeling to be in a room all together like that.  They gave us our blessing and we were off. 
Flying anywhere for longer than two hours is a drag.  I always hope for a conversational flight buddy, but invariably said buddy is too chatty or not chatty enough for my liking.  I was pleasantly surprised on our hop between Majuro and Kosrae (the link between Marshall Islands and Micronesia, essentially)to find that I had a pretty perfect flight buddy,  Never got her name but she’s from Austin, Texas and has been working as a military contractor in the deserts of southern Cali for two years.  They asked her what position she wanted next, and she wouldn’t give up until they gave her  the Pacific Islands.  Hard work pays off.
Did everything I could to stay awake on the flights over because I am trying hard to avoid jetlag,  I’m sure it’s effecting me to some degree but I have to tell you that I woke up after 8 hours of sleep maybe 20 minutes ago and it’s 6AM in Kolonia, Pohnpei.  Fingers crossed that this means I’m over that obstacle.
Training started virtually as soon as we got off the plane.  We were given these flower y head-wreaths by current volunteers (I’ll put up a photo; until then, think Jesus but with less thorns and more tropical) and transported downtown to our current stop, Yvonne’s Hotel.  I am staying with Ben and Nick, two guys from Wisconsin and Colorado respectively.  Ben and I have been placed together on everything so far, and so I know him very well—we have similar senses of humor, which means that we will inevitably get through this thing together or at least have a clever way to see each other off at some unfortunate but nonetheless awesome volcano sacrifice down the road. 
Training, though, sorry—my brain has been wandering as of late.  Money issues, safety issues, then we got photos and a lot of local fruit.  The bananas here are varied and absolutely delicious.  I interviewed with our training manager, a man named Garrison, and we hit it off completely.  He has invited me to come eat and celebrate with his extended family in the not too distant future, and he was excited to learn that I am interested in serving on the outer islands (sorry, internet—sometimes I have a real desire to get away).  More on my outer island choice later, but for now know that this is absolutely what I want and that so far all is well in that regard.
Language training, to the extent that it has already begun, is going well.  We have two words, and I’m not looking at my notes so here goes nothing:

kaselehlie (caw-sa-lay-lee-uh):  hello/goodbye
kalangan (caw-long-on): thank you
If you can’t tell, I’m not tremendously familiar with phonetic spelling but this is how I understand pronunciation of these words.  We were invited out by current volunteers to a spot downtown called Cupid, which I’m sure would have been great but I was tired and felt like drinking would be a really bad move at this point, dehydration and all that.  Instead I walked around for about 15-20 minutes with another volunteer named Gretchen until we found a place called “Wall Mart” that sold some groceries we could understand.  I bought some ramen and corned beef, came back to my room and cooked a bit.  I also tried boiling water to drink, just to see how it would go.  So far, so good.
My first host family will be  interesting—a judge on the island named Nelson Joseph.  Someone tell Alex Enyart about this and let’s get some  transcontinental judge-mail going.  That starts Monday.  This is plenty long enough for now, so until next time, kaselehlie, everybody.
ONE FINAL NOTE: Much love and respect to the mighty Joni Murphy for getting me my first piece of mail! I cannot even tell you how good it felt to have something ready for me as soon as I touched down.  Once you have an address (in Spain or in California) I swear I will write you the greatest thank-you ever and hook up some gorgeous shell jewelery.  One of the best ladies I know, hands down.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Hawaii has been good so far.  Lots of synchronicity in our little group (24 volunteers altogether)--no less than three of us have taught in South Korea, and I am currently rooming with a volunteer named Ben.  Talking with other volunteers has really helped put a lot of this into perspective; everyone is excited about one thing, nervous about another.  The fact that statistically half of us will not make it through all two years of service blows my mind when I see so many inspiring people in front of me.  Maybe we will be the crew that breaks the mold.

Monday, June 4, 2012

On Departure, Endings, and Beginnings

If you're reading this right now, I want to sincerely welcome you to my new blog.  The purpose of this is to document, to the extent that I can, my adventures in Micronesia as a Peace Corps volunteer over the next two years.

A bit of context:  I am being sent to the Federated States of Micronesia, an island archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, to teach English as a Foreign Language to 1st through 8th grade students.  Working with children in one faculty or another has been a passion of mine for the last 3 or 4 years at least; my attitude about this sort of work, more than any innate talent for education, has blessed me with the ability to make a palpable impact on students in the past.  My thesis (as I am also a graduate student at Humboldt State University, working through a jointly-run program called Master's International) is essentially that community involvement in the educational process can move mountains.  I have seen this to be true everywhere that I have lived, and unfortunately, I have witnessed the effects of an educational system without community support as well.  Through pictures and written documentation I hope to bring you as a reader along with me through what should, by all accounts, be a transformational process for myself as well as for islanders.

A note on departures.  There is something intensely bizarre about leaving my stomping grounds in southern Illinois to help children halfway across the world.  I say this not because the islanders do not need help--if they didn't, volunteers such as myself would not be asked to serve there--but because my home area is far from flawless itself.  I have visions of returning one day to St. Clair County and using whatever gifts I have been given, as well as my experience, to give back more to this community.  Until then, the name of the game is change and grow.  Nothing happens if we sit and wait for it to happen, and so I know why I am leaving so soon.

As a more general statement, leaving has been especially wild this time around because I got back to southern Illinois so recently from California.  I have wonderful friends, some of the best I've ever made, out there.  Leaving them was difficult, as are all goodbyes with true friends.  Here, I have many people I love, but these are also people that I see maybe once or twice a year to begin with.  I called my good buddy Chad yesterday and described the experience as being a "goodbye-vacation."  This concept still feels appropriate for my situation.

We'll see how this whole "updating" thing goes--if you have known me for any length of time, you'll know that regular contact is something I struggle with even when I have reliable and easily-accessible internet, and I will quite likely be without these luxuries over the course of the next two years. 

Once I am around internet again, I'll update this site with a mailing address*, perhaps some photos, and whatever observations I may have made at that point in time.  In the meantime, feel free to contact me by leaving comments on this blog.  Alternately, my email address is, and my Facebook profile is "Ben Zion" (hint: I'm the guy wearing a turban).

Stay bold and beautiful, America.  It's been real.

*UPDATE:  Here's that address:

Ben Taylor, Peace Corps Trainee
Peace Corps/Micronesia
PO Box 9
Kolonia, Pohnpei FM 96941