The Permanent Endowment Fund for Martha’s Vineyard announced that Steve Ewing of Edgartown will receive the 2014 Creative Living Award in a ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 16, at 5:30 pm at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury.
The public is invited to attend.
This will be the 32nd year since the Creative Living Award was established to recognize members of the Vineyard community who embody the spirit of Ruth Bogan, who, in the words of her friend Ruth Redding, was a “gallant woman who loved beauty, who loved the Vineyard and who believed ‘anyone can do anything.’”
A native of the Vineyard, Mr. Ewing has grown his own company, Aquamarine Dockbuilders, singlehandedly dock by dock. He has built most of the private docks on the Island, and is well known by laborers, tradesmen, and private homeowners as a go-to guy for help, and not just with dockbuilding, according to a press release.
“Steve is a conservationist, public servant, family man, and storyteller,” said Permanent Endowment Fund board chairman Melissa McKee Hackney. “He has served on innumerable conservation committees, is a charter member of the M.V. Scottish Society, and was the first Poet Laureate of Edgartown. Yes, he is also a poet.”
He lives in Edgartown with his wife, Claudia.
The evening will include a drawing for a guest to win the opportunity to award $1,000 to an Island nonprofit of his or her choice. This drawing was made possible by the 11 members of the Permanent Endowment Board who donated $1,000 to demonstrate their commitment to fostering philanthropy on the Vineyard.
The first home football matchup of the season found the Vineyard overmatched.
The first home football game of the Martha’s Vineyard season ended Monday afternoon with a disappointing 22-0 defeat at the hands of a strong Bishop Feehan squad. Despite the defeat, the Junior Varsity boys made a solid defensive showing.
With only 20 boys in uniform to Bishop Feehan’s 41, the Vineyarders faced an uphill battle. They started strong, though, and the MV defense had a “bend but not break” attitude, giving up some yardage but eventually making a fourth-down stand and getting the ball back.
With 2:50 left in the first quarter, MV muffed a fourth-down punt attempt and fell on the football at their own 9-yard line, giving the Shamrocks great field position. Freshman Curtis Fournier had something to say about that, though. On fourth down, he batted down a Bishop Feehan pass at the line of scrimmage, causing the Vineyard bench to erupt.
It was a brief surge. The Vineyarder offense stalled, and at halftime the boys were down 6-0 after a touchdown and failed conversion early in the second quarter. During the opening drive of the second half, MV quarterback Sam Bresnik had a nice nine-yard run, but it could not save the drive. The Vineyard offense was focused on executing option plays, most of which were runs. But the Shamrocks defense stacked the box, making it hard to find running room.
With six minutes left of the third quarter, Bishop Feehan scored again on a screen pass, and after the two-point conversion left the Vineyarders trailing 14-0.
Freshman Zach Moreis had a good day on the ground, putting together several solid running plays. But that was not enough to make up for costly turnovers. With 3:20 left in the third quarter, a fourth-down punt was again muffed, and even though Martha’s Vineyard fell on the loose ball, a turnover on downs gave Bishop Feehan field position in the red zone. After a seven-yard TD run, MV was down 22-0 with just over a quarter remaining.
The boys did not give up, though. Their defense put together a solid effort culminating in a turnover; linebacker Wilson Redfield tipped a Feehan pass behind the line of scrimmage, falling on the loose ball, eliciting a raucous cheer from the fans and the bench alike.
To their credit, the junior varsity team never conceded the football game. They played hard, and made Bishop Feehan work to score. The next home game is 6 pm Friday, when the boys varsity team takes on Bishop Strang.
Following a tempestuous public meeting last Thursday night at the Oak Bluffs Public Library, the board of health took no action on the question of whether to continue the practice of adding fluoride to the town water supply, as it has since 1991.
The board agreed to take the issue under advisement and consider the comments and information provided by about two dozen of the 50 residents who jammed the library meeting room. Speaking after the meeting, board chairman William White, who moderated the fractious 90-minute debate, said his personal choice would be to bring the question to town voters at the annual town meeting in April.
If the issue does make it to the town meeting floor, voters can expect to hear a repeat of many of the positions held by fluoride opponents and proponents that were laid out on Thursday night, often in strident tones and through shouted interruptions that required Mr. White to repeatedly call for civil debate and orderly commentary.
Perhaps the ugliest scene of the evening occurred after resident Jennifer Kingsley, a biologist, said, “I can’t believe we’re even discussing this subject.” Ms. Kingsley visibly recoiled as a dozen antifluoride proponents shouted her down.
Opponents of fluoride centered on two themes: that the inclusion of fluoride in water systems by government robs them of a choice about using fluoride; second, that fluoride as used in U.S. water systems is a toxic byproduct of offshore metal industries and is dangerous to public health. Several speakers referenced studies that supported their position that the use of fluoride in water systems produces higher rates of cancer, osteoporosis, and other bone diseases.
Although the meeting was billed as a public forum, board of health member John Campbell, a chiropractor at the forefront of the fluoride-removal effort, used the forum to repeat his position, expressed at an earlier meeting, on why fluoride should be removed from the municipal water system. The public also had plenty to say on the topic.
“Would you use a product with this label?” Oak Bluffs resident John Casey demanded, holding up a picture, purportedly of a label on a fluoride container, that contained a skull and crossbones image.
“It’s rat poison, a known toxin,” echoed Eric Carlsen.
Several Island dentists attended the meeting to speak in favor of the public health benefits of fluoridation. They argued that their personal experiences and more than 60 years of research and study have proven fluoride to be an aid to dental health, and that it does not lead to other health risks. Several said that the “greater good” to the public from fluoridation, similar to flu shots and vaccination, should trump personal choice in this health matter.
Myron Allukian, who has chaired the U.S. Surgeon General’s Work Group on Fluoridation and Dental Health, and who managed the city of Boston’s dental-care program, joined the meeting via speakerphone.
“Dental health disease has been reduced by half if not more since 1978,” he said. “An enormous growth in dental health has been noted in 140 Massachusetts communities which fluoridate. Fluoride is a naturally occurring substance in the earth; we can’t get water without fluoride. We’ve just duplicated what nature showed us.
“It comes down to credibility. Who are you going to believe, studies or credible data, or junk on the Internet? If your board of health has concerns, then get the state health department and other parties involved. In a nutshell, virtually every health agency and the surgeon general support fluoridation. Don’t shortchange your community. I put it on your board of health to research the issue.”
Both sides in the debate waved studies and findings to support their viewpoints. Oak Bluffs resident and shellfish constable David Grunden asked people to take a considered approach to the issue. “Don’t cherry-pick the information that is available,” he said. “We know more now than we did 60 years ago. Some studies may be outdated. There are also different solutions today, such as sealants for teeth.”
“I’m more confused right now than when I walked in here tonight,” said Richard Combra, former Oak Bluffs selectman. “But I’ve been here awhile, with and without fluoride, and I imagine I’ll continue to be here, however it works out.”
Board of health members Patricia Bergeron and Mr. White did not disclose a position on the issue.
Asked prior to the meeting whether fluoridation was a new issue and why it is flaring up right now, Dr. Campbell said it had been laying in the weeds for some time, and was only coming up now because he is on the board of health and because the water department made a request of the board.
“My patients have asked me to take up the matter,” he said.
A town official who asked not to be identified said the fluoride-removal campaign was initiated by Dr. Campbell, not the water district, and that Dr. Campbell also raised the issue in his previous tenure as a health board member 15 years ago.
Fluoride was first used in American community drinking water in 1945. About 72 percent of community water systems in the U.S. contain a fluoride additive of 0.7 parts per million of water. Oak Bluffs and the Wampanoag tribe in Aquinnah are the only two of four Island community water systems that fluoridate.
The SteamshIp Authority (SSA) was back to normal operations Tuesday morning, following a day of delays and adjusted schedules due to a broken bow door on the Martha’s Vineyard that required some vehicles to back onto the double-ender ferry.
“The repairs to the bow door were completed and everything was tested by 2 or 2:30 this morning,” Mr. Lamson said. “All vessels were back in their normal position early this morning for the start of today’s operations.”
A crack in the support beams of the ferry door was the cause of the problem, Mr. Lamson said. Work crews welded plates over the crack as a temporary repair, and will make permanent repairs this winter, when the Martha’s Vineyard is scheduled for dry dock maintenance.
The SSA took the ferry Martha’s Vineyard out of operation at 5 pm Monday to begin repairs. Freight boats were pressed into service with extra runs to handle passenger and vehicle traffic, and some trips were diverted from Oak Bluffs to Vineyard Haven.
The Island Home’s 9:30 run from Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole was cancelled, and the vessel remained in Vineyard Haven overnight, because Martha’s Vineyard occupied its usual overnight berth at the Woods Hole facility. The two boats swapped places early Tuesday morning, in order to make their regularly scheduled 6 am trips.
The 26th annual Pat West Gaff Rig and Schooner Race, held on a sunny, windy day on Saturday, attracted an attractive field of 18 competitors ranging in size from 18 feet in length to 65 feet.
Nat Benjamin’s schooner Charlotte took first place for the fastest corrected time to win the Ingrid Robinson Memorial Trophy. Robert Soros’ schooner Juno received the Zeb Tilton Prize for the first schooner across the finish line. Jeff Craig’s Corineus received first place for the fastest gaff rigged sloop in corrected time.
The annual race, which honors Pat West and benefits Sail Martha’s Vineyard, was organized by race committee team members Scott DiBiaso and Nat Benjamin.
Top five results: 1. Captain Nat Benjamin, Charlotte, 13:00:00; 2. Captain Jeff Craig, Corineus, 13:02:00; 3. Captain Jeff Robinson, Phra Luang, 13:07:45; 4. Captain Skip Richheimer, Zena, 13:08:00; 5. Captain Scott DiBiaso, Juno, 13:09:00.
The Island Housing Trust’s (IHT) proposed Water Street affordable-rental apartment building has stalled at the Tisbury zoning board of appeals (ZBA). Having opened the public hearing process on August 14 and closed it on Sept. 11, on Tuesday the ZBA voted to reopen it again and make a decision on Oct. 17.
Philippe Jordi, IHT executive director, said the delay for a project that has undergone thorough review is exasperating. “I just found it very frustrating and discouraging, frankly,” Mr. Jordi told The Times in a phone conversation yesterday. “All the support that we’ve received from town funding to town board support, and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s unanimous approval, is now being stalled. We’re over a few months now into this, and I have no idea how much longer we’re going to have to go before ultimately getting the approval we need.”
IHT proposes to build a two story, 3,600-sq.-ft. building on the site of an uninhabitable house at 6 Water Street in Vineyard Haven. There will be six 600-sq.-ft. apartments, three ground-floor units and three on the second floor, each with one bedroom and one bathroom. Since the building is located close to Vineyard Transit Authority service and the Steamship Authority, there would be no onsite parking, other than a spot for deliveries, pickups, and drop-offs.
On Tuesday, ZBA chairman Jeff Kristal led a discussion of possible conditions the board might impose on the project. In the course of a 45-minute discussion, the board raised issues about parking, the number of apartment units, the sidewalk in front of the property, and the impact of vibrations from truck traffic on Water Street on the building.
Sue Fairbanks said she thought six parking spaces should be provided onsite and dismissed the notion that tenants could park offsite at the Park and Ride lot, saying they would likely park illegally at the Post Office lot. She suggested the ZBA ask IHT to change the building design and put parking underneath.
Tony Holand raised concerns about the building’s height. Neal Stiller said he thought the building would dwarf others in the neighborhood. The ZBA said it would consider a request to IHT to reduce the apartments from six to four.
The board agreed on four parking spaces, to allow room for people to use barbeque grills on the grounds. Discussing vibrations from truck traffic on Water Street, board members said they were unsure what IHT could do about it, but decided to require that something be done to reduce its impact.
“This is not an adversarial relationship here,” Mr. Kristal said in making a motion to reopen the hearing. “I think we all agree we want something at this site; we just need to get to what we’re all comfortable with.”
“I can appreciate some of the concerns, but I feel like we’ve addressed them,” Mr. Jordi told The Times. “And to expect to have the same type of bucolic, suburban amenities in a downtown setting, such as a place for my barbeque, or parking next to my house, I think it’s unrealistic.”
Mr. Jordi said IHT has already lost an opportunity to apply to the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that IHT plans to build a two-and-a-half story building. According to Mr. Jordi, working with the Tisbury building inspector, IHT modified the plans and widened the building by two feet and reduced the height to a two story building.
Last year a Martha’s Vineyard visitor burglarized a house in Edgartown. While exiting the house, he left faint prints from stolen boots in the fresh paint on the porch. Later, the man posted pictures of the boots, his favorites, on his Facebook page. The photo of the boots led Edgartown police to the main suspect in the house break.
It is difficult to say if this crime would have been solved by a conventional police investigation. But Island police departments are increasing their use of social media and turning to web sites, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other online social networks to stay in touch with their communities, investigate crimes, and make information available quickly, and investigate suspects that post incriminating information.
For veteran police officers schooled in investigative techniques that depend on shoe leather and persistence, the reach of social media is revealing.
“It’s an incredibly useful tool these days,” Edgartown police Det. Sgt. Chris Dolby told The Times. “It helps us stay in touch with our community in ways that up until now didn’t exist, especially at that speed. It’s pretty unbelievable.”
Investigating at the speed of Facebook
The first step in many police investigations is to narrow the list of possible suspects. Prior to the popularity of social media, that could be a tedious process that began with verifying the whereabouts of possible suspects at the time of the crime, interviewing witnesses, and gathering information from a variety of sources. Now, detectives often turn first to social media networks to confirm investigative leads.
“People put a lot of personal information on Facebook,” Detective Sergeant Dolby said. “I’ve had numerous cases where it helps you connect the dots. Current pictures, pictures of people hanging out together. At certain points in an investigation, that’s really important stuff.”
In the case of the burglar who stumbled by posting his footwear on a Facebook page, the investigation began with conventional gathering of information. Once police developed a suspect, Detective Sergeant Dolby searched for his Facebook page, where he had posted a message and a picture raving about the comfort of his new work boots. The boot’s tread design was an exact match to boot prints taken from the scene of the crime. When confronted with that fact, the suspect admitted his crime.
Getting the word out
On Sept. 9, Edgartown police received a call from a resident who reported a stolen pickup truck.
“We checked all the normal spots, where we’ve had luck finding stolen vehicles,” Detective Sergeant Dolby said. “But there’s a lot of area.”
Edgartown police issued an alert to all the other Island departments. Depending on staffing at the time of day or night, that’s about 12 to 30 pairs of well-trained eyes on the lookout.
Social media can multiply that effect exponentially. The following day, Detective Sergeant Dolby posted a picture showing the same model and color truck, and an example of the truck’s specialty license plate, on the department’s Facebook page. The original post was shared 19 times to other Facebook pages, increasing the reach of the information far beyond the Edgartown Police department page. One of the places it was shared was a Facebook group called “Islanders Talk,” which has more than 2,300 members. One of the members recognized the truck immediately.
“I threw it up on Facebook, a woman saw it, and we recovered the truck in about an hour,” Detective Sergeant Dolby said.
Tisbury police utilize Twitter, and increase their reach by automatically posting each Twitter message on a Facebook page. In August, they distributed surveillance photos of someone they suspect shoplifted some sunglasses from the Sunglass Haven store on Main Street. The pictures show four clear views of the suspect, all from different angles.
Tisbury police chief Dan Hanavan said his department intends to increase its use of social media.
“You reach more people,” Chief Hanavan said. “It’s convenient for people, and they can find the information they need.”
Oak Bluffs police Det. Jeff LaBell, who handles much of the social media responsibilities for his department, said the multiplying effect is sometimes astounding.
“Sometimes we’ll put at the bottom of a message ‘please repost,’” he said. “People just keep reposting. We’ve had 15,000, 20,000 hits on some things. If we’re trying to identify someone, and we have a photo we can put on there, sometimes within a few minutes we’ll get a call.”
Social community policing
Local police departments are also using social media in the same way many users do: staying in touch with their community. In addition to reposted newspaper stories of arrests, announcements of newly hired police officers, and alerts about a phone scam are pictures of the Oak Bluffs police participating in a Little League parade, a group picture of Oak Bluffs police officers from 1992, and tips on safe winter driving posted on the eve of an impending blizzard.
“It starts to break down the barriers between police and community,” Detective LaBell said.
West Tisbury’s Facebook page includes photos of police officers at the fair, and a video of Chief Dan Rossi leading his department in an ALS ice bucket challenge.
“You’re letting the community know what their police department is doing,” Chief Rossi said. “You’re humanizing the police department.”
More than 73 percent of the survey participants say they use social media to notify the public about crime problems.
The third most-cited use in the survey was community outreach and citizen engagement, at 70 percent.
Of the departments that responded to the survey, 73 percent said social media has improved their relationship with the communities they police.
The association warns, however, that police departments need a clearly articulated social media policy that follows the same principles of law that govern any other conduct.
“Actions must be lawful and personnel must have a defined objective and a valid law enforcement purpose for gathering, maintaining,
or sharing personally identifiable information,” the association wrote in its guidelines and recommendations for law enforcement agencies. “In addition, any law enforcement action involving undercover activity (including developing an undercover profile on a social media site) should address supervisory approval, required documentation of activity, periodic reviews of activity, and the audit of undercover processes and behavior. Law enforcement agencies should also not collect or maintain the political, religious, or social views, associations, or activities of any individual or group, association, corporation, business, partnership, or organization unless there is a legitimate public safety purpose.”
There is widespread confusion about privacy controls on social media platforms, and many complaints about how difficult it is to keep information within a circle of friends. But even if users are careful about privacy controls, police may have access to personal information through a court order, subpoena, or search warrant.
Snapchat, the instant messaging service wildly popular with teenagers, allows users to send text, picture, or video messages that are deleted soon after they are read by the intended recipient. Except for unread messages, which are stored for 30 days, Snapchat says, it does not keep the messages on its computers. But with proper authorization from a court, police can get plenty of information. With that authorization, Snapchat is required by law to turn over personal information such as email address, phone number, and a list of the past 200 messages sent over the service, similar to a phone log.
But many times, criminals make all that court paperwork unnecessary, and simply post incriminating information that anyone can find with a simple search.
On Saturday, a large crowd of more than 100 parents and friends ringed the Edgartown Lighthouse under a brilliant blue sky for the 13th annual Ceremony of Remembrance. Many arrived early in order to lay flowers and seashells on specific memorial bricks engraved with the name of a loved one; others brought paint and Sharpies used to blacken the engraved name to make it more visible.
The annual Ceremony of Remembrance held by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, steward of the lighthouse, provides an opportunity — amid comforting music, prayer, and remarks — to remember young people who left life too early.
Rick Harrington first envisioned creating the memorial as a way to honor his son Ricky Jr., who died at 16 in an auto accident in 1995. A few years after the devastating loss, Mr. Harrington was inspired by a photo of Ricky at the lighthouse years earlier. He took his vision of a children’s memorial to the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society (now the Martha’s Vineyard Museum), where he received a positive response from director Matthew Stackpole, lighthouse committee chair Craig Dripps, and others.
After countless months of planning, gathering support, and facing challenges, a slow but steady restoration process began on the lighthouse, then in a state of extreme disrepair. Rebuilding the crumbling base and laying cobblestones was a first step.
The dedication ceremony on July 14, 2001, was a momentous occasion, with some 120 names scattered on stones placed across the plaza and a modest crowd. Now the inscribed cobblestones are everywhere.
More and more names have been added each year, as word of the unique memorial has spread far beyond the Island. Some cobblestones bear familiar names that commemorate those with connections to the Vineyard. Many others come from across New England, other states around the country, and even abroad.
Members of the Edgartown affordable housing committee promised they will re-evaluate plans for a 30-unit apartment rental complex on a town-owned parcel off Meshacket Road, following a spirited discussion with neighbors and housing advocates at a public hearing on Thursday, Sept. 18.
Chairman Mark Hess also told the packed meeting room that the proposal would likely be submitted to a future town meeting for debate and approval, because the proposal has changed since voters approved transfer of the nine-acre parcel to the affordable housing committee at the 2012 Edgartown annual town meeting. At the time there was discussion about creating nine building lots on the parcel, to be sold at below-market rates to qualified buyers who would then build their own homes.
The committee said it ran into engineering and environmental limitations which changed the original concept. The Martha’s Vineyard 2014 Housing Needs Assessment also swayed the committee’s view. That study, funded by the six Island towns, highlighted a greater need for rental units, according to committee members.
Mr. Hess stressed that the committee is not bound by the latest plan for rental housing, and is open to considering other options.
“Our goal is to do what is reasonable, right, and practical,” Mr. Hess said. “The committee has explored many plans, and hasn’t settled on any one plan. We have not made any final determination. It’s a town issue, it’s a town project.”
Some neighbors objected to the density of the current proposal, which would create 52 bedrooms in five buildings clustered close to Meshacket Road. A recreational area and protected habitat would be sited at the rear of the parcel.
Others told the committee they object to the project because they believe it will create more traffic on the narrow, winding roadway.
“The traffic on that road is horrendous,” said Paul Hudson who lives on Meshacket Road. “I can’t walk my dog down that road. I was all for this project, people need housing. But it has turned into something else.”
Mr. Hess noted that nearly all of the correspondence to the affordable housing committee cited traffic as an objection.
Doug Ruskin, a former member of the committee, said traffic concerns are a separate issue.
“Traffic is a problem for the same reason that we need affordable housing,” Mr. Ruskin said. “We have more people arriving all the time. I think the traffic problem needs to be dealt with, but I don’t think you can put the solution to traffic on the backs of developers. You can’t ignore it, but I don’t think a traffic problem should knock a development out of the box.”
David Vigneault, executive director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, said some towns have moved away from creating single-family houses to address the need for affordable housing, because even at subsidized rates, people who may qualify according to income guidelines cannot get financing to buy the homes.
Mr. Vigneault said currently, there are 265 households on the housing authority’s list of people waiting for subsidized rental housing.
“Of those, 50 have current physical addresses in Edgartown,” Mr. Vigneault said. “Forty-three of those 50 current Edgartown residents have incomes below 60 percent of the area median income. That is, depending on the size of the family, $37,000 to $48,000. Banks are not going to lend on these incomes.”
Fern Thomas said she is one of those people who would like to own a home, but sees rental housing as her only practical option.
“When they advertise the opportunity to own my own home, there are quite a few of my equals, my friends got all excited,” Ms. Thomas said. “We went down to the meeting, we can’t meet the criteria. I’m one of the lucky ones that has been able to live at Morgan Woods. Every year my rent goes up. For the past three years, my income has gone down. I don’t need two bedrooms, I’m looking for a one bedroom, that’s not that easy. I am not alone.”
Micah Agnoli told the committee he is the kind of person that the original concept of creating home lots was intended to help.
“I’m one of those young people looking to move back,” he said. “It’s a constant discussion among my friends. They benefit from home ownership, and not necessarily from rentals.”
Several neighbors suggested the Jenney Way development, a cluster of 10 homes off Pine Street in Edgartown completed in 2008, as a more appropriate model for development of the Meshacket Road parcel.
Committee member Melissa Vincent said the demand for home ownership at Jenney Way was less than expected, because few people could qualify for financing.
“We had five subsidies, and we had six applicants,” Ms. Vincent said. “We could have come up with other subsidies, but we didn’t have any more applicants. We were surprised as a committee.”
Selectman Margaret Serpa, who attended the forum, said the town is pursuing several parcels in Edgartown that may be seized because the owners have not paid taxes on the property. She said those lots may present opportunities for homeownership.
“Selectmen are very aware, and are looking into other opportunities with some of the tax title properties coming to the town,” Ms. Serpa told the affordable housing committee. “It’s certainly not something we are, and your committee is, ignoring.”
The committee said it plans to hold further public forums as the plans for the development progress, and invited anyone interested in the issue to attend meetings of the affordable housing committee. The committee meets on the first and third Wednesday of each month at 3:30 pm, at town hall.
In the original online version of this story, the quote attributed to Micah Agnoli, was incorrectly attributed to Jeff Agnoli.
Laura Jernegan was born and raised on Martha’s Vineyard and graduated from MVRHS in 2009. After graduating from American University in Washington, D.C., in 2013, she signed up for the Peace Corps and was posted to Malekula in Vanuatu in January 2014.
Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014.
Around 5:30 am the sounds of roosters, dogs, and church bells combine to create the surprisingly peaceful melody that prompts me out of bed every morning. After a little stretch and a few minutes of enjoying the sounds of the morning from my hammock, I unzip my mosquito net and touch my feet down to the cool concrete floor.
My day has begun. From there I turn on some tunes — these days it’s usually Ayla Nereo or the Velvet Underground — and head out to my bush kitchen to build a fire so I can boil water and make some coffee. From there my day will go in a variety of directions, but never fails to provide new adventure, a few laughs and the ever-present reminder that my life on Malekula — the second biggest island in the archipelago nation of Vanuatu — is really, really great.
This is how I start most of my days in Vanuatu, but one Sunday morning I was motivated to go for a run that ended up taking me on an adventure that truly encompasses the life, culture, and beauty that exists everywhere on this island paradise.
After climbing out of my hammock — Peace Corps gave me a mattress, but I prefer sleeping in my hammock — I changed into my culturally appropriate running gear (long pants and a T-shirt), laced up, and headed out to the road. There’s one road that runs through my village connecting my community to Lakatoro, the provincial center on Malekula — approximately two and a half to three hours in the back of a truck, Monday–Friday only. The road is dirt and full of holes and stones of varying sizes, so as I run I have to be sure to keep my eyes on the ground or else suffer another fall that will be just as painful and embarrassing as the first. It’s hard to do anything in Vanuatu without everyone in the village, or even island, knowing. While this sounds like an affront to privacy, it’s really not. Lacking the ability to communicate constantly and affordably as in the United States, “coconut wireless” carries news of births, deaths, family updates, and scandals that often get skewed throughout the villages and islands of Vanuatu.
For example, in May I purchased a goat from a nearby village. I live in the middle of a coconut plantation, so I figured the goat could just live in the plantation, frolicking with the other goats and enjoying all the grass it could want for two years. Before I leave I will ask one of my host brothers to help me kill it, and we will all roast it on the beach as a farewell dinner. I didn’t mention my goat purchase to the other volunteers on my island, but about a month later I got a call from one telling me that I was the talk of his village (which is about a five-hour truck ride south) — the white girl from Northwest Malekula who bought a goat. I find this endearing because I know that the only reason that this story got around was because the idea of a white girl buying a goat was actually one of the craziest things that happened recently and everyone wanted everyone else to know.
So I run with my eyes on the ground to make sure I don’t fall — wanting to avoid the painful scrapes more than the rumors — and decide to go see one of my host sisters. My sister, Makenah, is pregnant, and her husband is currently working as a seasonal laborer in New Zealand — a popular and very fruitful option for Ni-Vanuatu men (and some women) who are able to save up enough for the plane ticket — so she ends up working much harder to clean, cook, and take care of her 3-year-old, Samio, than an 8-month-pregnant woman should. I arrive at her house in about 15 minutes, where she greets me by handing me a freshly picked mandarin and telling me that I work too hard.
My favorite, and perhaps the most important, element of Vanuatu culture is called storian (literally story-on). To storian you simply spel (rest) and chat about anything and everything. Men and women in Vanuatu work very hard, taking care of their gardens, which provide all the food they could ever need, from avocados and mangoes to yams and cassavas depending on the season, to raising sometimes as many as nine children, so when they take the time to spel they just relax on a mat woven from natangura leaves and talk. Sometimes there is big news from the capital, but most times storian focuses on the weather, work being done in the village, or coconut-wireless messages about who is getting married or news of a new truck that will be servicing our village.
This Sunday morning the storian focused on me telling my sister not to work too hard and her telling me how excited she is for her husband to come back. Of course we also talked about how it hadn’t rained in a few months, and how excited we are for the rainy season to come to fill our rain tanks with drinking water and bring life back into our crops. After about an hour of storian I decided it was time to head back and get on with all the chores I had to accomplish before the end of the day. As I was about to begin running back to my house, my sister ran into her kitchen and came back with two freshly laid eggs. Eggs make me really excited, because if I want to buy them I have to ride into Lakatoro and pay about $10 round-trip, so when someone gives me eggs it’s a good day. Of course, acquiring these eggs meant I wouldn’t be running back home, so instead I made a pouch out of the front of my T-shirt and carefully walked through the coconut plantation and out onto the main road with two local eggs in tow.
A few minutes down the road I ran into one of my brothers-in-law and was swiftly carried into another storian session. He asked me if I would be willing to help his daughter apply for scholarships to go to university in New Zealand or Australia. She is currently in secondary school at one of the best schools on Malekula, and has been at the top of her class for the past few years. She is passionate about becoming a doctor, and is ready to work hard to achieve this goal. As the sole “whiteman” in the village, I am part of conversations like these often, and my responses are always the same. Of course I’m glad to help in any way that I can, but that’s all I can do — help. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I’m a partner in sustainable development; unfortunately, I can’t just make money appear. My primary assignment is as an English language teacher/teacher trainer, but I am glad to help with anything that my community wants. Luckily the people in my community understand this because I am the fourth Peace Corps Volunteer they have had, so they know that whatever kind of project we venture in on, they are equal partners. This is important for ownership as well as accountability, because once I am gone, the projects I work on need to continue — sustainability is the only goal.
After another 45 minutes of storian with my brother-in-law, ending with me telling him I would be calling my program manager in the Peace Corps office to ask him about scholarships to study abroad, I got ready to head back home. As I was turning to go, he asked me to wait. He ran into his kitchen and came back with two freshly laid eggs. I laughed to myself at how beautifully humorous this was, added them to my T-shirt egg pouch and headed back down the road. Now that I was cradling four eggs, I took my time walking back home. About 30 minutes later I arrived at home. It was now 9 am.
What should have been a casual 30-minute run ended up being a 2.5-hour run/walk adventure filled with family, good storian, and the acquisition of four freshly laid eggs. Long Vanuatu laef hemi olsem nao — in Bislama, “In Vanuatu, life is like this.” Whenever I go anywhere, I try not to have an agenda or a time limit. When walking to the well to get water, I always leave time for spur-of-the-moment storian, and when I walk to school in the morning I am always sure to leave at least 15 minutes early so I can stop to chat with anyone I meet along the way. Understanding “island time” is the key to success in Vanuatu, and is encompassed in the local saying Sipos yu ras bae yu kras, or “If you rush you will crash.” Don’t rush things — if it’s important, it will happen.
It has been only eight months since I arrived in Vanuatu, but my experiences have already instilled invaluable positive changes in my overall mental and physical well-being that any other post-graduate experience just could not compare to. I will probably never speed again in my life — whether it be while driving, spending time with someone, or deciding on the next step in my future. Whatever I would be rushing to do can wait — being careless of the opportunities or dangers on the road along the way can only lead to accidents and missed opportunities.
I came to Vanuatu with the typical Western development-worker mentality that it was my job to change my community, forgetting that with this I would be changed as well. Life isn’t always easy, but when I have to struggle is when I learn the most. This isn’t something specific to my life in Vanuatu; it’s something I believe we must acknowledge every day, wherever we are, so that when our time on earth is over we can be confident that whatever we did, we did it right — without regrets, avoidable accidents, or missed opportunities. Laef hemi olsem nao.
A conversation with Laura Jernegan
Tell us about the Peace Corps application process. You apply online, then wait to be contacted for an interview. After the interview you get a nomination, and then wait to hear where you’re being sent, what kind of work you’re going to be doing, and when you’ll be leaving. You don’t have much control over any of these things, except for your work/volunteer experiences, which funnel you into a job placement. I was at work at Katama Airfield in July 2013 when I received an email saying I’d be going to Vanuatu in January 2014.
How’s the weather? Can you drink the water? Weather is subtropical — really, really hot and rainy from November to March, then still very hot but dry from March to November. My drinking water comes from rain tanks at my school, but the only other rain source is a well where everyone else in the village goes for water. Once our rain tanks are dry, I use the well water but filter it through a water filter given to me by Peace Corps.
Does anyone there know where Martha’s Vineyard is? No, but it’s always great when they ask where I’m from and I get to tell them I’m from a small island too. I joke that growing up on an island prepared me for life on Malekula, but really that would be far less than accurate. Besides being used to taking a boat or plane to get home, not much could have prepared me for life here. They are always astounded when I tell them that no, my island doesn’t have coconut plantations or papaya trees everywhere, or that the water is pretty cold most of the year, so swimming isn’t an everyday thing. Being able to share information about my life on Martha’s Vineyard has been a really special part of life here because for Ni-Vanuatu people, it’s hard to think about life on any other kind of island. My connection to the Vineyard has only intensified since settling into life on this very beautiful but very different island paradise, but I know that it will last for the rest of my life.