Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Micronesia
- 1 Communications
- 2 Housing and Site Location
- 3 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 4 Food and Diet
- 5 Transportation
- 6 Geography and Climate
- 7 Social Activities
- 8 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 9 Personal Safety
- 10 Rewards and Frustrations
The postal system of the Republic of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia is modeled on the U.S. Postal Service. Costs for mailing letters and packages were identical to those in the United States, but as of January 2006, international rates have been phased in incrementally. FSM and Palau use their own postage stamps, and a customs declaration form is required for packages. Items that ship airmail normally take about two weeks between the U.S. and FSM or Palau, but those that go by sea may take months to arrive. The mail system is generally quite reliable. There is one post office in each of the state capitals of FSM and in Palau; all are open during regular business hours. During training, you can receive mail at the main Peace Corps office in Kolonia, Pohnpei:
“Your Name,” Peace Corps Trainee
PO Box 9
Kolonia, Pohnpei, FM 96941
After you move to your site, you must make arrangements to have your mail sent directly to the state where you serve.
Phone service within the main islands of both FSM and Palau is generally reliable, and long-distance service is available in most locations through the use of a prepaid phone card from FSM Telecom or Palau National Communications Company.
Phone service is not available on most outer islands. The four
FSM states and Palau each have one main telecommunications office in their capitals where you can make telephone calls and access the Internet. Cellphones are available in FSM and Palau; their coverage is limited but expanding.
Calls within FSM cost about $1 to $2 per minute, depending on the time of day. Rates for international calls using a prepaid phone card in FSM were recently reduced to 47 cents per minute off-peak; peak times cost about double. Palau prices are slightly higher. (Refer to www.telecom.fm for more information on FSM communications services and prices and www.palaunet. com for more information for the Republic of Palau.)
If your site is on an outer island, you will communicate with the Peace Corps offices using single-side band (SSB) radio (all outer islands you may serve on have at least one) or a Peace Corps-issued satellite phone, but you will not have international calling capability from your site.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
The main Peace Corps office in Pohnpei and the field offices in the other FSM states and Palau each have one Volunteer computer with limited Internet access for Volunteers. Note that the Peace Corps offices are located in the state capitals and your site could be more than a two-hour drive away.
Telephone offices in state capitals and Palau offer Internet access for about $4 per hour, and there is currently no Internet capability on any of the outer islands except Ulithi, Yap. Some schools in FSM and many schools in Palau have Internet access on site, and Volunteers working with schools may have some Internet access at their school. Partner agencies that Volunteers assist may also have Internet access for Volunteers. The public libraries in Pohnpei and Kosrae offer Internet access at reduced prices. There are also Internet cafes in Palau and Pohnpei, which also charge about $4 per hour. FSM prepaid telecom cards can be used for prepaid dial-up Internet service from all four FSM main islands. Charges are based on traffic, and many users report that a $20 card will last them a month if they do not download large files.
Housing and Site Location
Volunteers in Micronesia are required to live with a host family for training and for the entire two years of service. Many Volunteers find it a challenge to adjust from the independent living they are used to. Household rules, especially for women, are likely to feel very restrictive compared to life in the United States. Yet the rewards tend to be immense. Almost all life in Micronesia revolves around the family, and being “adopted” into a family gives a Volunteer a vehicle to becoming part of the local community. Micronesians live with extended family, and find it extremely odd for anyone to live alone. Living with a family makes it easier to learn the language, provides unique opportunities to become part of the culture, and ensures a safer and more secure environment. Much of a Volunteer’s life in Micronesia is based on interactions with the host family, and these interactions help facilitate community entry. Married couples also live with a family for their entire service.
If you serve on a main island, you will likely live with a family in a small village. On main islands host family sites range from a two-hour drive to the capital to right near the city. Peace Corps/Micronesia is committed to focusing on rural communities. Living in the more rural villages is a very different experience from living in one very close to the capital town. On main islands, you may be surprised by how spread-out houses in a village tend to be. On outer islands, space and land is more limited.
If your primary site is a school in your community, you will likely be within walking or biking distance from the school. Taxis are available and inexpensive in most cases. You will likely use taxis or get rides with host families to get to town if you live in a village outside of town. Only the main island of Yap has a “public transportation” system of sorts; school buses transport workers from villages to the capital in the morning and back in the late afternoon.
Although living situations differ, most host families’ houses in the main islands of FSM and Palau are constructed of corrugated iron and cement, with tin roofs, and have electricity. Most houses have running water inside, but some have outside toilet and shower facilities on their “compound.” Most Volunteers take bucket showers. In most homes, you will find televisions, VCRs or DVD players, telephones, and other Western conveniences. Host families are required to provide you with your own room for sleeping, with a door and lock. Peace Corps staff attempts to identify host family situations for married couples that offer slightly more privacy.
If you are assigned to a lagoon or outer island, you will probably live with a large extended family, and you are not likely to have running water, electricity, or inside toilet facilities.
During “site development”, Peace Corps identifies housing and host families using criteria that include safety and security guidelines. Your host family might provide simple, basic furniture; a bed/mattress, table/desk and chair, and storage space.
Living Allowance and Money Management
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you will receive several types of allowances. FSM and Palau use the U.S. dollar for currency. Allowances will be deposited quarterly into your local bank account, which we will assist you in setting up once your site is assigned.
You will receive a living allowance of around $383 to $415 per month to cover your living expenses. You will provide $75 of this amount in cash or in-kind as your contribution to your host family. You will eat primarily with your host family. The remainder of your living allowance is provided to fund your needs for toiletries and household supplies, clothing, supplemental food you choose to buy, transportation, reading materials, recreation and entertainment, and other incidentals. A vacation allowance of $24 per month will be deposited with your living allowance. After you swear-in as a Peace Corps Volunteer, you will receive a one-time settling-in allowance of $150 to purchase household necessities such as a futon, lantern, and fan. You may find that even though you are a Volunteer, you receive more remuneration than your Micronesian counterpart or even your supervisor, which can create certain challenges. Additionally you will probably have more material goods and actual money than your host family, issues that should be dealt with sensitively.
Peace Corps/FSM/Palau will likely ask you to travel for training events/conferences. For these instances, you will be given funds to cover the cost of any additional transportation and meals.
Most ATM cards can be used in the capital towns of Pohnpei and in the Republic of Palau. Credit cards and traveler’s checks can be used in tourist areas in Micronesia and Palau. Volunteers are discouraged from supplementing their living allowance with money from home. It is important for Volunteers to live at an economic level similar to that of the people they serve in their communities.
Food and Diet
You will be living and eating with a host family, so your diet will be heavily dependent on what the family eats. In FSM and Palau, staples consist of breadfruit, taro, tapioca, and many varieties of banana, rice, ramen, canned meat, pork, reef fish, and tuna. On ceremonial occasions, dog is eaten in the Eastern Caroline Islands. Canned foods are popular, and SPAM, sardines, and turkey tail are dietary staples among Micronesians. Many items may be cooked with coconut milk, and Micronesians like sugar added to many dishes. Seasonal fruits and vegetables include papaya, soursop, eggplant, cucumber, avocado, and green beans. These fresh fruits and vegetables may not be a usual part of your host family’s diet.
Generally a meal is rice, soy sauce, and a meat/fish product. Local root crops (taro, tapioca), bananas and oranges can also be found at reasonable prices. For the most part, especially in FSM, few local fruits and vegetables are available at the markets. Some Pohnpei and Yap stores carry imported fruits and vegetables when the ship arrives, but they are more expensive and not fresh. In general, more produce is available in the capital of Palau. Cheese is sometimes available in Pohnpei and common in the capital of Palau. Eggs, tofu, onions, and butter cannot usually be found in rural communities, but tend to be available in island capitals after the arrival of a ship. It is important to remember that the host family is doing you a service by allowing you to stay; it is a hardship for them to constantly worry about the Volunteer’s eating needs.
The local diet is often high in fat, cholesterol, and carbohydrates. Vegetarians will find it difficult to maintain their diet both because of the limited variety of fruits and vegetables and because host families expect Volunteers to accept the food that they eat. Most vegetarians choose to modify their diet while serving in Micronesia, at least to include fish.
There is no public transportation in FSM or Palau, except for the limited school bus service in Yap. Volunteers are encouraged to use taxis, which tend to be inexpensive. If you choose to purchase a bicycle, the Peace Corps requires you to wear a helmet and will issue you one. You may travel by boat on a regular basis, and you are required to wear a life jacket (also provided by the Peace Corps) any time you are in a boat. Peace Corps prohibits Volunteers from owning or driving motorized vehicles and riding on motorcycles. Violations of these policies may result in immediate termination of your Peace Corps service.
Geography and Climate
The climate of Micronesia is tropical. Temperatures fluctuate very little annually (86 degrees Fahrenheit is the average year round, but it can seem warmer under the intense sun). Rainfall and humidity are high year-round. Northeast trade winds bring relief from the tropical climate during the first few months of the year, but these breezes are mostly felt directly along the coast. October through May is typically typhoon season in the Pacific. Although most of Micronesia is outside of the main typhoon belt, Chuuk and Yap are the most likely to be affected by typhoon activity.
All of the main islands receive a fair amount of rainfall, but none as much as Pohnpei, arguably the wettest place in the world. Pohnpei averages more than 400 inches of rainfall per year in the upland forests and more than 200 inches on the coast. On these islands, people go on with their daily chores, seemingly oblivious to the rain.
Most social activities in Micronesia center on the family. There are many sporting events, cultural events, and customs throughout the year in which you may be able to participate. Micronesians love watching movies, and most families on main islands own DVD or VCR players.
Going out at night to a bar or restaurant is more difficult for female Volunteers than male Volunteers. Traditionally, local women would only go out to the houses of other family members in the evening. Volunteers under age 35 or 40 will still be considered “youth” per the Micronesian definition of youth, and will likely be under the protective and watchful eyes of strict host families. Standards of social behavior may appear somewhat more relaxed in communities in Palau closer to the capital, but the nuances of what behavior is considered acceptable and not acceptable take time and patience to learn. Kosrae is the most religious of the islands, and Volunteers there may find themselves in church with their families every Sunday. Despite these differences in social activities and norms, most Volunteers learn to enjoy recreational time with Micronesian friends and find their niche over time.
Possible outdoor activities include snorkeling, hiking, and kayaking. There are marvelous waterfalls on most main islands. Caution is necessary, as currents can be strong and flash flooding can occur. SCUBA diving is expensive, but spectacular. Much diving in the FSM and Palau is rated as advanced due to the currents. Volunteers interested in diving should become SCUBA certified before arriving in-country, as not all the islands offer accredited certification classes.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
Micronesians in all FSM states and Palau dress conservatively. Micronesian men rarely wear shorts to work. The average Micronesian woman does not wear anything that would expose her thighs or knees. Women typically wear longer skirts and muumuus (loose dresses), often with layers of slips or other skirts underneath so that their thighs are not visible when backlit. Bicycle-type sports shorts can also be worn underneath skirts. Tight blouses, halter-tops, and tank tops are never appropriate for women. Loose-fitting blouses with covered shoulders or T-shirts are appropriate. In your home, loose sleeveless tops that are not “strappy” may be acceptable. Men should wear casual slacks and sports shirts. On some of the outer islands (Western Chuuk and Yap), both men and women go bare-breasted, but women still cover their thighs.
Although island dress tends to be casual, trainees and Volunteers should dress up (long pants for men; nice long skirt/dress and covered shouldered blouses for women) during special occasions and when visiting government offices.
Volunteers are not only guests in the country but also representatives of the Peace Corps. Micronesians will look up to you for dressing well, and earning their respect will help you succeed as a development worker. Peace Corps/ Micronesia’s recommendation is to dress as conservatively as possible until you learn the norms at your permanent site. You may choose to consult with your host family and colleagues. Keep in mind that it is the older, more traditional generation whose support and approval you will need throughout your Peace Corps service for you to be effective. Modeling your attire after the extremes that may be visible in some members of the younger generation can quickly alienate the elders, who are the decision-makers in these communities.
During pre-service training, trainees will be expected to follow these same Micronesian norms of attire.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Although Micronesia presents relatively few risks to a Volunteer’s personal safety, harassment is common and there have been infrequent incidents of assault. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment, having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Assuming personal responsibility for your actions and integrating into your community as a member of your host family will help keep you safe. Appropriate dress and behavior will help minimize occurrences of harassment and the risk of assault.
Avoiding bars or isolated areas (such as ports) late at night and not walking alone after dark can also decrease risks. It is also important to be attuned to water hazards, and to check with your program assistant on your island of service before traveling on the water. Peace Corps/Micronesia monitors weather and water conditions, and will, at times, restrict water travel when there is a “high surf warning” or other weather advisory.
Most Micronesia Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. Peace Corps/ Micronesia has established procedures and policies designed to help reduce your risks and will provide ongoing training to enhance your safety and security.
Rewards and Frustrations
Most Peace Corps Micronesia Volunteers have rewarding personal and professional experiences that are with them for the rest of their lives, but you will inevitably encounter frustrations. Collaborating organizations and host families do not always provide the support they intended due to cultural and family obligations, changing financial situations, or illness/obligations that cause people to unexpectedly travel off-island for long periods of time. The pace of work and life is slower than what most Americans are accustomed to. Family, not work, is the priority of almost all Micronesians. Some Micronesians are understandably hesitant to change practices and traditions that are centuries old in the name of “development.” For these reasons and many others, the Peace Corps experience of adapting to and living in a new culture and environment is often described as a series of emotional peaks and valleys.
You will have personal responsibility and independence in your work in a way that you have not had in any other job. You will initially be a listener and an observer, and you may do little else for your first six months of service. Micronesians have their own goals and community priorities, and your biggest task will be to acquire an understanding of what they want for themselves, their family, and their community. You may find yourself in situations where you have little guidance and want to motivate your community partners. You may work for months without seeing any visible impact from your efforts and may not receive any feedback. Development is a slow process. Progress may come only after the combined efforts of several Volunteers over the course of many years. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results.
Your impact on the ambitions and English language skills of a child, your lifelong friendship with your host sister, or the computer skills you teach to a colleague are each significant accomplishments. You will feel a sense of accomplishment by focusing on your positive impact on the people around you and on your own personal growth and experiences.
You will need maturity, flexibility, open mindedness, resourcefulness, and a good sense of humor. Micronesians are hospitable, friendly, and warm people. The Peace Corps staff, host families, colleagues, and fellow Volunteers will help support you through times of challenge and in moments of success. Most Volunteers feel that the peaks of their service are well worth the difficult times and leave Micronesia feeling that they have gained much more than they sacrificed during their service.