18 April 2011

Peace Corps visits the Navy

"Sometimes, it really pays to be Peace Corps," I thought, as I looked out the open helicopter door into an areal view of clear water filled with colourful reef. I looked back at the helicopter that Mark was in, circling above a spit of green land, in an azure blue sky filled with puffy clouds.

The other volunteers around me wore the same wide-eyed, open mouthed expression that was on my face, like the expression on a kid's face if you told her Willy Wonka's chocolate factory was real and she had an all-year pass to swim in the chocolate river.

It was the grand finale in a tour of the USS Cleveland, the US Navy ship that docked in Neiafu, Vava'u several days prior. 

Along with Navy from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the Philippines, the US Navy is here for Pacific Partnership, a programme in which the representatives from the various countries travel around doing humanitarian missions; running free clinics, teaching workshops, doing eye checkups, building school facilities and water towers, among other things

Door to get in the USS Cleveland
Fortuitously, right at the same time, both of our respective jobs sent us up to Vava'u, and we discovered that they were arriving just days after we were. The day of the helicopter ride, we woke up early, and met most of the Vava'u volunteers for the dinghy ride to the ship. 

It's a huge ship up close
The door was quite a bit higher than the water, so we all had to take the exciting rope ladder one step at a time, wearing helmets and life vests and looking stylish. Everyone was a bit nervous about the steep climb, but we all made it with no mishaps- even the girls wearing skirts!
You're so fascinating, Mr. Tour Guide
We were greeted by a nice tour guide, who, pointing to the red and green pins on his lapels, explained to us that this meant he was the youngest on the ship at 24. The USS Cleveland, he explained, is the third-oldest vessel in the Navy; built in 1968, it was used in the Vietnam war, but now, keeps its artillery covered on its mainly humanitarian missions. Although a little antiquated, the ship was in very good condition, and the Corporal later mentioned that when it was first made, it was the ship to be on.

Bunk beds, four to a stack. I would prefer the top.
Our first stop was one of the sleeping quarters, resplendent with tiny bunks and cool-looking red steps for the top bunk to climb up with. "It's a good thing you don't have any Tongans in your Navy!" said the Peace Corps nurse to our guide, "They wouldn't fit in these bunks!" The junior grade lieutenant told her that she might be surprised at some of the guys in the organization. "They fit in here somehow," he said. 

Captain Picard wouldn't laugh uproariously in his command chair, unless of course he was infected with an alien virus
My favourite stop on our tour was, of course, getting to sit in the Captain's chair. It sits quite high off the ground, so everyone else's head is at knee level to the captain. I hopped up and had to entertain momentary fantasies of being Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise. I couldn't keep a straight face for very long after saying "Make it so" in my best Patrick Stewart voice. Somehow it's just not the same if you're not bald and dignified.
Mark and his condiments
One of the places that got most of the "oohs" and "aahs" from the volunteers was the mess hall. The crowd of Navy personnel talking in the corner got quite a kick out of the line of Peace Corps volunteers taking pictures of the soda machine, the grapefruit, and the table of American brands of ketchup, mustard, and mayo.

Two guys on the propellers, a guy on the ground, and a guy on the tail. Thorough maintenance.
 As we were walking around the massive ship, we saw several people working on the two Navy helicopters. Even just seeing the the helicopters was a novelty for most of us, and we approached them like fascinating but dangerous wild animals, not sure how close we could get.

Mark and I took a first picture quite far away, but then quickly moved in when an officer told us we could get closer. "Really?" we said, feeling a little foolish that we were so excited. The foreign service liaison from the US Department of State is a returned Peace Corps volunteer who served first in Libya and then in Iran, doing teacher training. Knowing how much it would mean to all of us, he arranged for us to take the return trip on their helicopters, which weren't being used that day and needed to be taken on a training run. We couldn't contain our excitement.

On the helicopter, geared up for the flight
Finally, it was time to board the helicopters. We stood in a line in a cramped narrow corridor as they called our names from a list. "If you hear your name called, step forward!" a man with a clipboard yelled. There was general confusion and shuffle as the named individuals tried to figure out where they were supposed to go, stepping ahead, then pushing to the end of the line. We're Peace Corps volunteers, after all. This whole order and organization deal is foreign to us.

As they tried to line us up in vain on separate walls, we excitedly chatted to each other, and put on the goggles and noise cancelling helmets as they explained the rules to us. " Don't put on the helme--- mmrpphrrhh mmrhh mm safety mmrrhh --ter landing, just mmrm don't pani- mmrrph --ch your harnesses ..." The safety talk was best without the helmet on, as they said.

Flight deck personnel in their colourful uniforms, watching the Peace Corps volunteers get tangled in their harnesses.
Mark and I were in separate groups, so I waved goodbye to him as we walked carefully towards the helicopter. "Walk toward the copter only at 10 or 2!" our safety officer said. "Don't walk at 11 or at 3, or anywhere else, because the blades can slice you up!" Confused looks around. "What's 10 or 2?" the volunteer to my left asked me.

"So...uh.. if we just follow you to the helicopter we'll be ok?" someone said nervously. The Navy guy sighed. "Yes, just follow me." We officially fail at being in the Navy.

The blades are actually turning, not stationary as they seem. Really.
 I watched as Mark's helicopter lifted off first, over the blue Vava'u water. Before long, we were smoothly gliding up into the air, the open door a foot from my left foot giving me dizzying nearly-360 views of the Vava'u landscape. I thought of Planet Earth as I switched on the video option on our clunky personal camera. "And the snow bison gracefully gallop across the icy terrain..."

Mt Talau, east of the main city, Neiafu.
After watching so many Planet-Earth areal shots, I somehow had gotten the notion into my head that a helicopter was a smooth, quiet ride, circling above the landscape gracefully. It is not. My videos, though gorgeous, look like they were filmed from a car on dirt roads with no suspension, and sound like the middle of a hurricane.
Vava'u is dotted all over with islands and promontories 

The reef extends this island

Banking around a cliff-lined beach
We circled around most of Vava'u, looking out toward the outer islands, sweeping over mangroves and barely-submerged reefs.
Foreign Service Liaison and our pilots. Thanks guys!

Finally it was time to land, and we alighted like two giant dragonflies on the Vava'u airport runway, breathless and with eyes still shining from the ride.

More about Pacific Partnership, some already linked to in the blog:
US Pacific Fleet website
Pacific Partnership Blog
US Dept of State Blog section by Tom Weinz
Wikipedia on Pacific Parnership

1 comment:

  1. lol, I LOVE the picture of Mark and the condiments. And I totally get it!


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