While everyone back home in Minot was freezing one January, Daniel Gerszewski spent his Martin Luther King Jr. Day swimming in the ocean with dolphins.
Gerszewski, a 2002 Minot High School graduate, was a Peace Corps business volunteer in Alack Village on Epi Island in the island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. It took him 18 hours to fly to the country.
He returned home late last fall, bringing assorted mats and turtle shells and other gifts presented to him by his host family and friends. Last Thursday Gerszewski visited Bel Air Elementary, his old elementary school, and talked with fourth-graders there about his experiences.
Daniel Gerszewski, right, talks to fourth-graders at Bel Air Elementary on Thursday about his experiences in the Peace Corps in Vanuatu.
Gerszewski explained that Alack is a fairly poor village, where people who have managed to graduate from high school are viewed with great respect by the villagers. There are no stores or industries per se, so almost everything the people own they have to grow on the island or make. Gerszewski's host family earns money by selling coconut to coconut oil factories.
The concept of financial management is fairly new to some of the residents; Gerszewski gave presentations on budgeting and setting up savings accounts.
The villagers were as interested in stories about North Dakota as the Bel Air fourth-graders were about Vanuatu. Gerszewski said people living in the tropical environment have never seen snow or people skiing and were surprised by how cold North Dakota gets.
Gerszewski told the children at Bel Air that families in Alack Village often have several structures on a property. People sleep in one structure, cook in another and have bathing facilities in another. The villagers built Gerszewski a house with bamboo walls, one of the nicer homes in the village.
"It seems like you had a mansion in tiny pieces," said one of the Bel Air students.
Gerszewski explained that he learned how to take his shower in a bath house with a bucket of water and to wash his clothing by hand, first soaking the clothing in the water and then scrubbing them on a board. It took him half a day to do his laundry when he first started and some of the villagers wondered why he was so slow, he said.
Kids there wear school uniforms.
"That's not so bad," commented one of the Bel Air students. "At least you don't have to spend 30 minutes picking out your outfit every day."
Gerszewski said that's true, but his host sisters also had to wash their school uniforms out by hand each day.
People there cook food over a wood fire, using a pile of heated volcanic stones that they have collected over the island. Food is wrapped in large leaves that are placed over the stones.
Family ties are important there and everyone older looks after the younger ones. Gerszewski said there always seem to be children around, sometimes including kids who don't actually belong to the family. When he joined his host family, other villagers soon came up to him and introduced themselves as his cousins because they are related to the host family. He called his host parents "Papa Daniel" and "Mama Susan" even though they are not much older than he is.
Woven mats are particularly important in the culture of Alack Village, explained Gerszewski. He said they are given as gifts for important life events such as the birth of a child, the marriage of a couple or graduation from school. People sleep on them, sit on them and do everything else on them.
"Your whole life there, there are mats," said Gerszewski.
The people of Alack Village gave him several mats as farewell presents. His young host sisters translated a farewell message into English, which was inscribed on the mat they gave him. They asked him to hang it in his home in America so it is the first thing he sees when he comes into his house.
Gerszewski, a graduate of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said he had always wanted to join the Peace Corps and this was the perfect time in his life since he is still unmarried and doesn't have children. He was also qualified to serve as a business volunteer because he has worked in the financial consulting area before joining the Peace Corps.
Now that he has returned to the United States, Gerszewski is looking for his next job opportunity. He said he would be happy to give a presentation on his experiences in Vanuatu to other schools or groups. People can contact him at 852-8446.