Saturday, December 19, 2009

Water Filters & Bucket Baths: Welcome to the Peace Corps!

The Peace Corps calls these first weeks at our new sights the “settling in period.” We’ve been warned about them by friends we may have known who had served in the PC and we heard about the period during training. We tried to get ourselves ready for the big transition, but is there anything one can do to fully prepare themselves for the challenges that come with these first days and weeks at our new sites?

For me settling in has involved a lot of homesickness. I never lived abroad before and during college was only 45 minutes away from home. Living alone in a house on an island in the South Pacific makes me homesick, and I’m not afraid to mention it, or discuss it. It is natural. What I have found to be important is how I deal with it. Do I stay locked up in my room all day or do I take the opportunity to make connections with people in my new village and make new friends?

I’ve chosen to be proactive because I figure I should make the best out of this amazing experience. For the past 10 days I’ve been taking walks and meeting with village leaders like the church pastor and local mayor. I’ve already gone to the plantation to help carry back coconuts. I’ve gone swimming in the ocean and been to two different church functions. I’ve played volleyball with the locals and have dinned with my neighbors. I’ve also shown them how to play different card games and they love it.

Once I’m back home in 24 months, I’m unlikely to ever have the chance to do something as unique as moving to another country of the world and just setting up shop! As hard as it may be on some days to motivate myself to do these different things, I realize that if I don’t jump in for the full experience now, I may regret it when I’m on the tarmac getting ready to take off in December of 2011. The tone I set now has a lot to do with my tone for the next two years!

With that being said, there are many challenges I’ve had to take on this past week. They are not all unique to me, as Peace Corps Volunteers around the world probably have situations much worse than I do. Nevertheless, my struggles are real for me because this is my life and nobody else’s.

For example, the first two days I didn’t have a stove. I didn’t need the stove for food, because I was eating peanut butter and jelly, but I did need it to boil water. So this is where I started making friendships. I went to my neighbor’s house and asked if she would boil some water for me. She did, and then sent me home with an electric pot to boil water in. I returned it a few days later once I found a stove.

The first night I didn’t have a soft mattress, but rather was sleeping on a traditional Samoan bed, which is a woven mat. I tried to look at this experience as being one with the Samoans. Was it a little uncomfortable? Yes. Did I start to get use to it? Yes, and that is what started to scare me, so I eventually found a foam mattress which is working fine.

What about a refrigerator, how important is that? Not as important as a bed and stove and therefore, that is why I have just purchased one, 10 days after moving to my site. But I learned that if the power ever goes out, I can survive without it, and many Samoan do as well year round. It will be nice to have it at my house so that I can eat healthier foods, but I’ve survived without it, so no worries.

I still don’t have running water in the house, but I’ve been getting use to that as well. I’ve been getting my water from the school compounds drinking pipe. I fill a jug of water and then take it in and run it through the filter and then boil it. It tastes rather good, although I miss it being cold, but that soon can be fixed with my fridge arriving. I’ve been taking bucket baths which I learned how to do during training, so I feel like I’m using what I’ve learned. Some days I forget what a hot shower feels like, but who would want a hot shower when it’s 88 degrees out and humid?

There are also other little things that can play mind tricks with me and try to wear me down. I have cockroaches in my house for example and a few spiders now and then. At first they freak me out because I’m not use to them, but there aren’t lightning bugs here so maybe those would startle a Samoan. Samoans don’t flinch when they see a cockroach. I’m getting better and more aggressive, but it’s all part of the experience. It is the price I pay for living in a tropical paradise.

Overall this settling in period has been about learning to be flexible and have a good sense of humor. It has been about finding solutions to my problems. If I don’t have string to suspend my mosquito net, I can use duck tape. If I can’t get a cell phone signal at my village, I can ride 20 minutes on my bike around the mountain to get a great view of the ocean and a halfway decent signal.

I’m learning a lot about myself here in Samoa. I’m learning I can go without some of the stuff I took for granted back in the United States. It is hard some days, but that makes this experience all the more meaningful.

On that note, I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. I hope that your holidays are filled with happy memories and safe travels. Please know that I’ll be thinking about you and wishing you the happiest New Year!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

One Word: Unbelievable

This is one of those stories you can tell again and again and you never get tired of sharing it, because it restores your faith in the goodwill of mankind.
Today was my swearing in ceremony and I was looking forward to traveling out to my site tomorrow to get settled in at my new village. A group of us decided to go to Italiano’s, a great pizza place downtown in Apia, for our last meal together before heading out tomorrow. After eating, I had to separate from the group to go pick up some groceries at the store. Now that I am an official Peace Corps Volunteer, I felt this new sense of independence and was in a great mood. I waved down a taxi out front of Italiano’s and asked to be taken to Farmer Joe’s Grocery. I made a good effort to communicate with the taxi driver in Samoan. I was asking him how his night was and where he lived, etc. I could tell he was pleased I knew some Samoan. Before long I was at the store and shopping. I went to call my friend Emilie because I had a question about something she had asked me to pick up for her. That is when I realized I didn’t have my cell phone with me. My heart sank.
At first I thought it must have been back in my room at the hotel and I had just forgotten it there, but I was almost positive I had it when we went to eat. I finished my shopping and took another taxi back to the hotel. Back there I started looking around my room and a friends room who I had been in before leaving. I used another volunteer’s phone to start dialing my own number in hopes I would hear it ring, or at least someone else would pick it up. There were two possibilities at that point: it was either at Italiano’s or in a taxi somewhere in Apia!
I had the hotel call Italiano’s. No luck. Then I was almost certain where it was: in the taxi. I started calling it again, and again. Every time I called without an answer, I kept thinking about how bad the timing was the night before leaving for my site. It made me so mad at myself.
Finally I was with a few of my friends in their room and told them that I would try sending one text message in Samoan, asking that they return the cell phone to the hotel. Just as I was about to start typing the text message, my friends phone rang! It was my number!!!! I answered and a man said, "Is this your phone?" I said "yes." I was so excited I could barely talk. I asked him if he could bring it to the hotel, fa’amolemole (please). He said he would. I said fa’afetai (thank you) and told him that I would be waiting by the road.
I ended the call and started jumping up and down like a kid on Christmas morning. This was my Samoa miracle story. I rushed next door to the K.K. Mart (local convenience store) and bought a can of Coke for the taxi driver. I went out front and waited for him. One taxi pulled over thinking I wanted a ride. I couldn’t remember if it was him so I said, "Do you have my phone?" He looked puzzled so I knew I had the wrong one. I continued waiting and then saw a taxi slow to a crawl and put their blinder on.
He pulled in and was holding my phone out the window with a great big grin on his face. I said fa’afetai (thank you) several times and handed him the can of Coke, along with 5 tala, which is a couple tala more than my original cab fare. He had a look of satisfaction on his face and he knew he had done a good deed. He deserved to be praised. What were the chances? He could have easily kept the phone, given the phone away, sold the phone, or just thrown it in the trash. He took the time to drive it over to me. I said, "Manuia le po!" (Have a good night!)
After telling all my friends the good news and phenomenal story I decided to check to see if he or anyone else had used any minutes from the phone to make personal calls. There was only one minute gone from the phone, the one minute he used to call me and tell me he had the phone! I was so delighted and pleased.
Tonight, being the eve of a big transition, reminded me that I am in the right place with good people who care about others. This isn’t to say that another taxi driver wouldn’t have made another decision, or that I don’t need to be vigilant. Rather, this demonstrates a link that exists in the human race throughout the world. This is a link of friendship, concern and goodwill towards others.
I learned a lot tonight, and perhaps more than I did during all of my cross cultural lessons during pre-service training. Tonight was unscripted, unplanned and completely real. It made me feel good, and I hope it made the taxi driver feel good.
Although it doesn’t feel like the holiday season for me here in Samoa, I know the commercial blitz is in full swing back home. Can you all do me a favor and remember this story, or another one like it the next time people start to get too drawn into the marketing by big name brands. Take some time this holiday to remember that there is a lot of good that goes on every day, and in every country, by people of every color of skin and of every language and ethnicity. These types of stories are happening around the world, and they need to be recognized because they are what can bring you true holiday cheer! Merry Christmas!

What Exactly Are You Doing In Samoa?

Because today is my swearing in ceremony as an official volunteer into the United States Peace Corps, I thought it would be a good time to explain in more detail exactly what I will be doing during my 24 remaining months of service.

Peace Corps has been serving in Samoa since 1967 when the United States sent volunteers here to assist after a devastating cyclone that struck the country. Since then, there have been 81 groups of volunteers to come and serve in many different areas. I am one of 20 volunteers, from Group 82, who arrived in October to work in the School Based Community Development Program. This is a new program that Peace Corps has begun in Samoa and thus my group has the challenges and rewards that are associated with being "pioneers" of a new program.
I have just completed 9 weeks of pre-service training where I was living with the other 19 members of my group in a small village. Each volunteer was assigned to live with a host family from the village. They provided our meals and living accommodations. This was a great cultural learning experience as we were interacting with them on a daily basis. During this time we were also undergoing intense language instruction, as well as training in teaching, medical, safety, and cross-cultural issues.

The project is two pronged. First of all, I will be co-teaching with Samoan teachers in English classes in a rural primary school. During my time at the school, I will be working closely with the Samoan teachers to develop lesson plans for each class. My duties will require that I travel to different classrooms and teach at different grade levels. I have been assigned to teach at a smaller school with about 85-90 students.

Another part of the teaching component requires that I design and implement several in-service workshops for teachers to demonstrate new teaching strategies for TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language). These in-service workshops won’t take place until my second year of service.
Therefore, about 20-25 hours of my work week will be devoted to teaching responsibilities. That includes classroom time, classroom preparation such as lesson planning, and any other duties such as teacher meetings or planning for in-services during the second year of service.
The second prong of my service in Samoa is a Community Development component. With this assignment, I will be working within the village to identify their local needs which will help enhance their village improve their livelihoods. Some development projects that volunteers might work on would be water tanks, homework centers, community gardens, sewing business, recycling projects etc. When I’m working with the community, I will be looking for projects which are sustainable after I leave. Peace Corps world wide has a philosophy of helping others to help themselves. I wouldn’t be much of an asset to my village if I went in and did all the work for them and then left in two years, because they wouldn’t have learned how to keep the projects going after I am gone, or be aware of how to implement new projects. Therefore, there is a large emphasis placed on us "working together." I will be devoting about 15-20 hours per week on the community development portion of my service.

In addition to both of my duties of teaching and the village development, Peace Corps in Samoa has asked us to work on health related issues. Samoa has a need for health education on topics such as washing hands, safe food preparation, nutrition and diabetes. Thus we will be working to integrate health awareness into our service projects.

During my service I will have access to many great resources. There is a great staff working at Peace Corps here in Samoa. The Country Director knows all of us and has encouraged us to ask him or any other members of the staff for assistance along the way. The Associate Peace Corps Director will also be working with us closely to make sure our projects are running smoothly. In addition, there are other members of the staff who can assist us with cultural issues that may arise, and we have a great safety and security officer and medical officer to help keep us safe and healthy.

We of course have each other to use as resources since there are 20 of us with different backgrounds and experience from all different geographic locations of the U.S. There are also dozens of other volunteers who were already in the country serving when we arrived and will be here for at least another year. Asking for their advice and assistance is a valuable resource as well and it is great to consider them friends on this exciting journey.

In order to complete our community development projects we will be working with members of our village to raise the money through different means. This may involve fund raisers or writing grants to aid donors for their assistance.

I hope this outline has given a better picture of what I have been asked to do during my time in Samoa. It will be a learning experience for myself as I make the journey. I feel I have a lot I can offer and the motivation to help make a difference. There will be tough and challenging days, but there will be those small moments which will bring me a lot of satisfaction and remind me why I’ve come here to serve. As they say in the Peace Corps, "It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love."

Monday, December 7, 2009

String Theory

Before I left for Samoa, I had a lot of packing to do. I had some luggage to use for my trip, but was offered by my friend, Katy Nykamp, a large backpack which she had used when she traveled to South Africa several years ago as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Before I left I went over to her house to pick up the backpack. She laughed when she saw this old faded purple piece of string attached to the front of the backpack. She explained to me that it was a string that Peace Corps gave to volunteers to help show unity among the group and make the bags stand out at the airport. At the time I was in a daze and wasn’t sure what she meant, so what I heard her say was:"PeaceCorpsgivesvolunteersapieceofstringtohelpshowunityamongthegroupandmakethebagsstandoutattheairport.
Katy had been such a huge help in my preparations before leaving and I have a lot of respect for her, knowing that she completed her full 27 months of service. She encouraged me to do this and realized long before I did, the challenges I would face. She had been were I was going. I ended up taking the luggage and saying my goodbyes to her a couple nights before I left for Samoa. I didn’t give a second thought about that old purple string until a few days later.

During the last hours of our staging event in Los Angles, just before we were about to depart for the airport for our international flight, one of the staff members went to the front of the room and was holding a wad of yellow string. She explained to our group that all Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the world have a tradition of receiving a piece of string to tie to their luggage as a way of forming a symbolic tie with all the other volunteers we would be traveling with, and as a practical measure for retrieving luggage at the baggage claim. I grabbed my three pieces of yellow string and walked over to my luggage to attach them. When I got to Katy’s old backpack, I decided to cut her purple string off and make the bag my own. I was about to throw her string away when I decided to tuck it inside my suitcase.

I let the string sit for the first two weeks I was here in Samoa. On my third week when I was in our training village, I began to become very homesick and was looking for strength and needed encouragement. I remembered that I had kept Katy’s string, so I dug inside my suitcase and sure enough, there it was, hidden at the bottom of my suitcase. I took it out and laid it on the table. I thought to myself about how hard it must have been for Katy during her two years of service, yet she had such a great experience that she had encouraged me to take part in the same challenges and triumphs. I thought about other Peace Corps around the world who had a piece of string tied to their backpacks and suitcases and about the same challenges they must have been facing that very same day. I also thought about the returned Peace Corps Volunteers like Katy, who still had their old luggage packed away in an attic or basement with their stings still attached. I felt a part of something larger and greater than my own individual problems of homesickness. I felt a part of a family who serves through challenges and successes because they want to do something great.

Little did I know the day I received Katy’s luggage, the impact that little piece of string would have on me. I still have that string, and when I get out to my house this week, I plan on putting it someplace safe. I’m keeping it nearby to look at again on those challenging days which I know will come again. It will remind me of her service and the service of thousands of other volunteers throughout the world. It’s something I like to call the string theory.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Challenges Begin

This is the first view of my village when you start coming down the hill from the bluffs. My house is pictured below and has two bedrooms and two bathrooms and a nice living room.

Dear Friends,
I’ve been so busy this last month with language, cultural, safety, medical and teacher training that I’ve barely noticed I’ve been without the internet. On the one occasion I did have internet access on Halloween, I was so overwhelmed that I had the internet, that I could barely make my brain work that fast. Also, every minute I’m online, it costs money, so it doesn’t make reading an email as enjoyable. I have been typing these blogs on my laptop and then copying them to save time.

Following is a time line of events of the last month’s activities, extracted from my journal. Feel free to read as much or as little as you like. I wanted to give some account of my time, because it has been an important month of growth and new challenges I could never have imagined. There have been great days, and there have been really bad days. Here we go.

10/17/09– Arrived at our training village of Manunu. Met host families and settled into our new space. I have my own fale (house) with a bed and table and chair. I eat my meals with the family and share their toilet and shower facilities. I have electricity in my fale and am still able to use my electric shaver! My host family has a flush toilet and the shower is a pipe with running water. The water is cold, but feels good on the hot days. Started wearing my lava lava, which is a wrap around "skirt" that is traditional dress for men here. The fancy ones have pockets sewed in, while the simpler lava lavas are basically a piece of fabric you wrap around your waist.

10/18/09– Ate Samoan pancakes (greasy) for breakfast. Attended church and became emotional thinking about the next 27 months. Met two Samoan kids at a neighbor’s house. I asked the first boy what his name was. He said, "Kyle." I asked the boy sitting next to him, what his name was and he said, "Howard." Howard was my Grandpa Blonde’s name. Kyle and Howard are not common Samoan names. I was not having a great day, so I like to believe that Grandpa was saying a "hello" and "hang in there." It was an awesome moment. Later, I was in the familie’s living room and they were listening to church hymns on the radio, then my favorite church song began playing, "O God Beyond All Praising." It was being sung in Samoan. Another great moment on what was a day of homesickness.

10/19/09– Time seems to be crawling. A day seems like a week, a week like a month! Got a text from Katy Nykamp, who served in the Peace Corps in South Africa for 27 months. Knowing she did this provides motivation. Also heard from my sister Jenny. She’s another person I look to for guidance, as I remember how she moved to Houston, Texas in 2002 to serve in Teach For America for two years. Good to hear from both of them. Jenny told me it might help to look forward to one special thing each week if times are tough. They are tough.

10/20/09– Began writing multiple entries into my personal journal. Spoke briefly with Kellye, the Associate Peace Corps Director. She wanted to know how I was doing. Ate last bag of M&M’s from L.A. Airport. Won’t be able to get more until we are in Apia.

10/21/09– Had dream last night about Mom, Dad & Jenny. Went running at 6:00a.m. for 30 minutes. Went to nearby school to listen to panel of teachers / principals about Samoan schools.

10/22/09– Learned a Samoan "slap dance" from host family for community dance tomorrow night. Went swimming at the waterfall near our village after training.

10/23/09– Looked through pictures from home. Thought about what those people would be telling me to help me get through my homesickness. Went to Samoan dance. Each volunteer performed separately for the rest of the village. I did my slap dance.

10/25/09– Choir sang, "God is so Good" in church today. This is a song my sister Jenny & I learned at church when we were young. We learned it in Swahili from a visiting priest. Today I got to hear it in Samoan. We lost our third volunteer today. The first went home because of medical reasons. The other two found that the program wasn’t for them. We’re down to 20 volunteers from Group 82. "Group 82" indicates that we are the 82nd group of volunteers to serve in Samoa since the program opened here in 1967. Currently there are volunteers serving in Samoa from groups 78, 79, 80 and 81. We will be sworn in on December 8th.

10/26/09– Had language presentation today, describing our host families in Samoan. ‘O lo’u ‘Aiga Samoa. (My Samoan Family). Went for walk and to get ice cream but they were out of my favorite flavor.

10/27/09– Sent a text message to my cousin Ryan and his wife Jennifer wishing them luck. Jennifer was scheduled to have a c-section and give birth to their identical twin boys. I later got a text back saying Michael and Thomas Wells were born at 12:19 and 12:20 p.m. Congratulations! My Grandma Ruthie now has six Great Grandchildren!

10/29/09– Wrote letters to send home tomorrow.

10/30/09– Received very first piece of mail from my friend, Katie Mixon who works at my mom’s school. It was great to receive mail! It put me in a great mood.

10/31/09– Went into Apia for the morning / afternoon. Got to ride into town on Samoa’s public transportation system: the bus. Arrived in town just before 9:00a.m. Mailed five letters to family and friends back home. Went to the internet cafĂ©. Saw the new Michael Jackson movie, "This Is It" at Samoa’s only movie theater. It was a really a nice movie theater. We bought popcorn and coke and enjoyed the movie. This is a movie I probably wouldn’t have seen back home, but it was so good to see something familiar. I knew my sister Jenny had seen the movie already. I found out later that my mom was watching the movie at the same time I was, but back in the U.S.! Ate lunch in town before heading back to the training village. The trainees put on a Halloween party for the Samoan kids of the village. Most of the kids had never celebrated Halloween. We had mask making, pumpkin designing, limbo, musical chairs and relay races. They each got one piece of candy. They had a great time and so did we.

11/1/09– The time changed back home today. Now a sis hour difference.

11/2/09– More mail today! Received two large packages from my mom. They were full of stuff that I didn’t have room for in my luggage due to the weight limits. It was the weirdest feeling to be opening up the boxes and going through all this stuff. It was a piece of home which had just landed on an island in the South Seas. When I left home it was just "stuff." Suddenly it was a connection with my life back home. I started smelling the towels and they reminded me of doing laundry at home. I smelled the board shorts and they still smelled like Kohl’s and it reminded me of the day I bought them with Jenny when I was in Houston. Mom also sent one of my books by Tom Brokaw, "Boom!" I hadn’t finished reading it at home. I’ll enjoy reading it here.

11/4/09– Taught in a Samoan classroom today in grades 3 & 4. Did a lesson on nouns. Students did a nice job. Language is still a work in progress, so that was frustrating at times. They were excited we were there.

11/6/09– Beginning to get sick. Have 100 degree fever. Attended planning session with Samoan teachers we would be teaching with next week in their classrooms. Planned our lessons for our co-teaching.

11/7/09– Happy Birthday to my uncle Bruce and Aunt Sandy! Wish I could be there for cake and ice cream. Still have a fever. It comes and goes. I’m on Tylenol to keep it under control.

11/9/09– First day of co-teaching. Taught in a sixth grade class. Students did a great job. I can make improvements before my next visit on Wednesday.

11/11/09– Happy Veteran’s Day to those who have served or are serving around the world. Being away from home for more than a month, I have a new outlook on sacrifice and service to our country. (More on this in future blog). I had the second day of co-teaching. Things went much better today and students seemed more relaxed in classroom. I had a good working relationship with the teacher. When we left the school they had a ton of fresh fruits and some cake for us. I ate the best pineapple in my life. Also had some type of "banana soup." It was sort of like bananas mixed with a tapioca mixture. It was actually pretty good.

11/13/09– The Country Director and Associate Peace Corps Director were here today to announce our sites: the villages where we will be living and working for the next two years, beginning in December.

11/15/09– Today was my 25th Birthday! A couple of interesting facts: I’ve never been out of the United States before on my birthday, so therefore I’ve never celebrated my birthday in another hemisphere, or during spring, which it is here. I had received some birthday cards a couple of days ago from family back home, but saved them for today to open. Having the cards helped me feel closer to them. Received calls from my dad, mom and sister. After church, my Peace Corps friends gave me a book with illustrated pictures. It was a very uplifting, original creation written by my good friend Leah, about how I ended up in Samoa, and that I’ll always have the support of my friends. Everyone signed it and it is something that meant so much. I will be holding onto it for the next two years, and reading it on the tough days. I also received a pineapple from Leah and some chocolate chip cookies from my other good friend Emiilie. Due to village rules, the Peace Corps couldn’t have a party for me without having to invite the entire village, which would have been hard to provide for. They are planning something in Apia. However, my host family found out it was my birthday and had a huge feast for me with some extended family who came in from town. They also bought a huge industrial size container of ice cream. After everyone had ice cream, they sang to me, "Happy Birthday" in English and then in Samoan. I started to cry. I was thinking of my family back home and all the times they had sung to me over the years and how I wish I could have been with them. Yet, I was so happy that strangers on the other side of the world would take time to celebrate my birthday, and sing a song to me which had so many memories from the past 25 years! It was a birthday to remember.

11/16/09– Was driven to my new village where I will be living for the next two years, beginning in December. We are visiting our sites for today and tomorrow. I am in a small village right on the ocean. It is located next to the largest mountain on the island of Upolu and is a very scenic area. It is very remote, as you must travel here by a long winding, narrow road along some high bluffs that stretch along the ocean. My house has two nice size bedrooms with a living room, kitchen and two bathrooms (plenty of room for those who visit me!). No one has lived in the house in a long time, so it is being repaired by members of the school committee. To get from my house to the ocean you must walk down a hill for about five minutes. I have a great view of the village and ocean from my kitchen window. I also met with my principal, teachers and then stayed the night with the vice-principal and her family. She gave me a tour of the village.

11/17/09– Met with the Women’s Committee and matai (village leaders) of my community to discuss possible projects I can assist them with over the next two years. It was basically a meet and greet. As is normal Samoan custom, we sat cross-legged on the floor during the whole meeting, which lasted for 1.5 hours. My legs felt like they were going to fall off, but I made it through. Visited the school again and had dinner with the vice-principal and her family.

11/18/09– Took the 6:00 a.m. bus from my village to Apia. It was a beautiful ride into town which lasted about an hour and 20 minutes. It was nice to arrive back in town. I had three great meals for the day. Pancakes in the morning, lasagna for lunch, and a huge hamburger with French fries for dinner (with a banana smoothie). After dinner a group of us went to the movie theater to see "2012." I wasn’t that impressed with the movie, but it was still nice to get out to the movies. We also had class earlier in the afternoon and discussed our development projects. In addition to teaching English, we will all be working with our own communities to help address their needs and help implement plans to accomplish the projects they want completed, such as water tanks for the village, or sewing machines for the women’s committee.

11/19/09– Second day in town. Had more classes and was able to get on the internet which as I have said before is so weird after going weeks without it. In the evening the Peace Corps celebrated my birthday by fixing my favorite meal of spaghetti at the hotel. They had homemade garlic bread and salad which was awesome. The meal reminded us all of home and we smiled the whole night!

Well that is a summary of the last month of training. Thank you to those who read all, or even part of it. I’m glad that you are able to read about my experiences. In future blogs, I plan on going back to more of a "topic" or more focused summary, but as I said, I felt this past month was so long, yet so important that I decided to write about it this way.
If you have anything you would like me to write about in the future, please leave a comment and I’ll add it to my list. I would love to hear some of your ideas. I hope everyone is doing well and that you are getting excited for the Thanksgiving holiday! Take care and enjoy the turkey!!! Gobble, Gobble!
This is my fale where I slept in the training village. It has electricity run from my host families house!
These are fire dancers from a party the current volunteers had for us the night before leaving for the village.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Village Stay

This is a blog just to let you know that I will not be able to update my blog for about a month, as we are heading to a village without internet. Please check back later in November and I hope to have a good update for you all.

Also, last night I believe I felt my first earthquake. My roommate and I both felt are beds shaking as we were about to fall asleep. Not a major one though.

Stay well and I'll talk to you later!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Haven't I Met You Before?

I know you have all met someone before who reminds you of a friend, co-worker, or family member. You do a double take and sometimes find yourself looking really hard, trying to figure out how their gestures, expressions or physical appearance could be so similar. It’s kind of weird, and you often debate whether or not to tell them that they are a spitting image of someone you already know.

By now, you may have guessed where I’m heading with this. From the first day I arrived in Los Angeles for staging, and began meeting other Peace Corps members, I noticed some who reminded me of friends, family, and even professors. At first, I thought there were just a few who had similarities to those I already knew back home, but as the days passed, it just became strange.

Yesterday I was sitting in our pre-service training class and counted across the room...1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7!!!! Seven Peace Corps Trainees who remind me of someone I already knew! I know you’re dying to know if you’re on the list, so here’s a few to read over. For the sake of protecting people’s identity in a google search, I will only use first names, or only last names in some situations. Also, I will provide a scale to represent their overall likeness. 1= slight resemblance 10= strong resemblance

Peace Corps Trainee Alli, reminds me of my friend Becca who was in the trombone section of the Notre Dame Band. Scale: 7
Casey reminds me of my friend Ellen from Holy Cross College. Scale: 5
Corina reminds me of my sister’s friend Emily from St. Mary’s College. Scale 7
Elisa reminds me of my very good friend, Claire from Holy Cross College. Scale 6
Emelie reminds me of my mom’s best friend’s daughter, Amber. Scale 4
Jenny McC. reminds me of my friend Mary from Holy Cross College. Scale 7
Kathleen reminds me of a former professor from Holy Cross College, Mrs. Baldinger. Scale 7
One of my language instructors reminds me of a former professor from Holy Cross College,
Fr. Thomas. Scale 5

Thanks to all those involved. You’re helping me feel more at home in a country halfway around the world! If you’re not on the list, don’t worry, I still think of you and miss you just as much. Now for some other news...

In case you weren’t aware, Samoa has some problems with wild dogs. They roam the streets and travel by themselves, as well as in packs. The Peace Corps safety handbook recommends that we carry a stick to fend off any would be attacking dogs. Last night myself and about 6 other trainees walked downtown to Apia to find a place to eat. Soon we saw dogs near one of the intersections. They were waiting at the light and we commented on how neat it was that they were crossing at the crosswalk. What wasn’t so neat was when they started following us. My friend Leah told us to remain calm. Soon they had us circled. They weren’t growling, but looked very curious and made us feel like we needed a way out.

We tried crossing the street, but they followed us over, we crossed back over again. My friend Leah and I picked up some broken asphalt and a small 2 by 4. Her and I crossed back to the other side and the dogs continued following our other friends on the opposite side. We thought it would be best to monitor the situation from the other side of the road.

We finally made it to a more populated area where there were restaurants. We felt a little silly with all our "weapons" in hand. We still didn’t know what to do to make the dogs leave, so Leah lifted the 2 by 4 over her head as if she was going to throw it. Just like that the dogs ran across the street. In the end we were fine, but were reminded that many of the dogs do bite. Next time I’ll be ready to fend them off with a good piece of lumber.
Thanks for reading. I hope you are all doing well.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Turquoise & Devastation

Peace Corps serves in countries all over the world, and as a result, it must tailor each of its programs to the particular challenges which may face a volunteer in their particular region. Today we received water safety training, seeing as how we our located in the middle of the South Pacific. Water safety consisted of a training session by an expert diver and then a plunge into the turquoise waters off the shore of Samoa.
We left the hotel at 8:45a.m. on a local bus, which is basically four wheels mounted to a bunch of lumber. They are quaint and charming for the first 20 minutes, until the wooden seats and lack of shocks take a toll on you. Nonetheless, it provided us our transportation to a tropical paradise.
Our training took place in crystal blue waters that I had never seen before. The scenery looked like one of those wallpaper settings you can select for your computer. After going over the do’s and don’ts of swimming in the lagoons around the Samoan islands, a group of 23 loaded onto "Shillo II," a large sail boat with a lower cabin. The wind was brisk and made for a lot of wave action. Off in the distance, I could see the waves breaking on the reefs. Heading away from shoreline, I looked back to see the palm trees lining the sandy beach, some leaning at 45 degree angles out over the water. Once at our anchor spot, we put on snorkeling gear and plunged into the very warm water. Snorkeling can be a lot of work on a choppy day, as the waves break over your head and send salt water rushing down your snorkel. One gulp of unwanted salt water is enough to cause frustration. Three gulps was enough to remind me that I was a beginner.
Our snorkeling revealed a whole new world. Coral reefs were stacked like skyscrapers below the surface, and fish of many different colors and sizes could be seen just feet away from us. Blue star fish were nestled safely on the ocean’s bottom. Every direction I turned revealed a different part of the underwater puzzle. The water was in fact turquoise, glistening beneath the sun’s rays.
Following our snorkeling adventures, we loaded back on the bus to continue traveling around the island. We made an hour stop at another beach that had white sand and slippery rocks lining the perimeter. The waves crashed with such force it made me feel so powerless.
The power of the water was fully realized when we later drove to the Southeast side of the island to view the devastation from the tsunami which hit in late September. It has claimed over 150 deaths in Samoa. I remember watching the news coverage back in the United Sates, feeling so bad for those who lost everything in an instant. I was happy to see that the networks and cable T.V. were devoting so much time to the tragedy. Many news organizations even sent correspondents to report on location. This was good work, and helped generate assistance from around the world. The Samoans were in need of all the help they could get.
But then something happened. David Letterman admitted having sexual relations with members of his staff, and it later was reported that he was allegedly blackmailed by an executive producer at CBS News. All of a sudden, Samoa became a small side note scrolling along the ticker of the cable networks. Do you think the Samoans had their mess cleaned up as fast as Letterman got into his? No. They were still searching for bodies and cleaning up the devastation that nature’s furry had left behind. Today I saw that devastation. It was pilled up on the edges of what was dubbed a tropical paradise. It was hanging in the trees and probably still floating in the water. The devastation was still there. Those people living there weren’t able to forget about it after three days and turn their attention to some other story. Those people are forced to mull about, salvaging what they can of their possessions, and burning those things that are ruined.
As we made our way through each village, you could see exactly where the water had its grasp. Steep cliffs inland were only devastated to a certain height, and above that it was still lush and green, never having been disturbed. Below that mark, it was a tangled mess of palm trees, scrap meddle, cars, and lumber.
What reassured me that the Samoans would be ok, was when driving by, I saw families spending time together. One family’s house was half demolished, yet they were gathered around the dinner table eating a meal. Some houses had nothing but a foundation left, yet I saw kids playing with smiles on their faces. They waved at us, and I realized they didn’t know the full impact of what had happened. But I also saw parents take time to wave to us, and I knew they were aware of the impact. They had lost everything, but still waved at us as we passed by what was left of their houses. Those who were picking up the pieces of their lives weren’t as lucky as those who were picking up the latest headlines on cable T.V. They were still there, trying to make sense of nature’s wrath.
I write this with a disappointment for those who cover and report the news. I want to work as a broadcast journalist when I finish my time with the Peace Corps. I only hope that my time here will help make me a more valued employee, so that I can identify and continue addressing those stories which are in most need of being covered. For those who view the work of the news organizations, I ask that you be vigilant of those who are forgotten in an instant by the fast pace marathon that is the media.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fun in the Sun

Trying to build a blog from the bottom, I’ve asked myself what might be some basic topics to touch on early in the game. After a long day of sweating, and receiving a bad sunburn, I thought the heat would be appropriate.
Having just lived one of the coolest summers on record in Michigan, I forgot the power of the sun, even if it is 93 million miles away from Earth’s front door. Each day near the equator is intense. The sun beats down on you in a way that it doesn’t on the hottest day of the year in Michigan.
A group of us left the hotel at 6:00 a.m. to go for a morning run. At 6:00 a.m. the sun isn’t too bad; by 6:15 the sun is hot, and by 9:00 a.m. you would think it was high noon. After our sweaty run along the seawall, we headed into Apia to buy cell phones and look around. When we left the hotel, some trainees were applying sun block. I told myself, I didn’t need sun block, I don’t burn easily and we would be walking in and out of stores. It was hot today, although I don’t think as hot as yesterday, but by the time we returned to the hotel in the early afternoon, I had been burned on my neck with a farmer’s tan I hadn’t seen in a long time.
Living hear involves not only sweating, but wearing it, smelling it, and trying to clean it off. I’ve given up on the last. If you take a shower, you only find your efforts to be wasted because by the time you walk down the stairs, you’ve begun to perspire. I’m learning how to deal with it.
Of course, after sweating, clothes are wet, but it’s hard to dry those clothes without a dryer. I could try to find a place to hang them in the sun, and that might be a little ironic to hang the problem in front of the cause, but regardless, it would work. However, my clothes lines here at the hotel are limited, so the clothes hang in the room on hangers, chair backs, backpacks etc. In the end, they remain damp and leave a weird smell hanging in the room that reminds me of a boy’s gym locker.
For all the complaining I do, the sun and heat make life so enjoyable, and a part of why two different cruise ships have docked hear in the past couple of days. The sun also helps make snorkeling in the 80 water a little more tolerable. Heat allows for towering palm trees, banana trees, and rainforests to grow, making this country a little more exotic.
I"ve talked to current volunteers, and they say that we will get use to the heat. That makes me feel better. For all the complaining that I have just done about the heat, please know that I love the heat. Weather makes us funny and plays with our mind. No matter how hot and humid it may become here in Samoa, I will stay refreshed knowing I will be avoiding all snow for the next two years. Until next time we meet, so long from the South Pacific!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Someone in Samoa

I am currently writing this post from Samoa in the South Pacific! However, let me take you back in time to describe how I got here and what my emotions were along the way.

On the evening of October 4, 2009, I began packing my suitcases for a 27 month excursion to the South Pacific island of Samoa. I was preparing to leave for my training and service in the Peace Corps! The evening was spent meticulously placing items into my four pieces of luggage, (2 checked, 2 carry-on). At first, I was functioning normally, but soon it became a real chore as I started growing more nervous. I was excited to be leaving, but just knowing the time was hours away caused me unneeded distraction.

At 4:30a.m. I had the goal of being done at 5:30 a.m. to get a couple hours of sleep. When 5:30 came, I quit setting goals and just dug in for the long haul. The next hour flew by and I finally weighed my luggage to find that it was overweight! Never mind, I would take care of it after a quick sleep. At 6:30a.m. I crawled into my bed at home for the last time until December of 2011. At that moment, the emotions hit me: all I wanted to do was have 8 hours of sleep in my own bed, but I had to wake up in an hour and try to get rid of extra weight from my luggage and say good-bye to my parents.

After my hour nap, my alarm rang and I awoke to the worst migraine headache I’ve had in years, along with a stomach ache of nerves. I was pins and needles, trying to stay focused on what had to be done, but at the same time, not having the full power to control my thought process. By 10:20a.m., I had everything loaded and my mom and dad took me to South Bend, Indiana where my flight would depart at 12:41p.m. After a tearful good-bye, I was off for Chicago with a connecting flight to L.A.

In Los Angeles, I grabbed my baggage and climbed aboard a shuttle bus to our hotel. When I got on, I saw two girls near the back of the bus who had large, oversized bags of luggage. I had a pretty good idea where they were going. Before long we were introducing ourselves and I felt like I was on MTV’s Real World and I was meeting my new roommates. We arrived at our hotel and spent the next 24 hours with our group having staging and preparing for our flight to Samoa.
After a 10.5 hour flight from Los Angeles, California on Tuesday night, our group of 23 landed at 5:30a.m. local time on Wednesday October 7, 2009! Our Air New Zealand, Boeing 767 landed safely in Apia, the capital of Samoa. It was still dark when we descended the staircase to the tarmac and began our walk into customs. When we had our luggage, we were greeted by current Peace Corps staff and Peace Corps Volunteers, who presented us with freshly made leis for us to wear. Soon we had our luggage loaded onto a flatbed truck and loaded the bus for our journey along the shoreline back to our hotel.

Later that morning, we had an Ava Ceremony with all the Peace Corps Trainees, staff and current volunteers. We knew this ceremony was going to happen, but we were still nervous because of the fact we had to recite some Samoan phrases. The Ava ceremony involved us all sitting in a circle, cross legged. Sitting with your legs straight out in front of you is considered rude in Samoa, so the legs remained crossed for the whole ceremony. Different members of the staff spoke to the group in Samoan (we had no idea what they were saying) and then we were presented with the Ava to drink. We recited our Samoan phrase and finished the cup of Ava. This occurred for each of the volunteers.

Later that afternoon we were about to begin our first session of training when we found out there was a tsunami evacuation for Samoa, due to an 8.0 earthquake near Vanuatu, a nearby island nation. We were evacuated lickety split and went to higher ground for about an hour until the all clear was given. There was no tsunami in Samoa. During this whole process, I found out exactly how prepared the Peace Corps is to handle these situations, and how professionally they did so. I feel completely safe here in Samoa, knowing the proper precautions to take if this were to happen again. It was weird having it happen on our first day though. This tsunami warning came about two weeks after the large earthquake and tsunami which affected part of the island and killed more than 150 people. Samoans are more aware of the situation, and are on high alert. I have yet to feel an earthquake.

Over the past few days, I have found the transition to be painless. The people who are a part of this organization are driven and motivated and have such a desire to serve and be a part of this country. We thrive off of one another’s ambitions and work to support each other. We have begun our training classes which are intense, but we find ways to relax: going for a 6a.m. runs along the ocean seawall, and getting a strawberry milkshake from a nearby ice cream shop. These things help remind me of home, while at the same time taking place in a whole other world.

For now I will say good-bye. Most posts won’t be this long, so don’t let me scare you off already. There was a lot I wanted to set the mood for this first major writing. Until next time we meet, so long from the South Pacific!

Monday, October 5, 2009

My Address

Kyle Kincaid PCV
Peace Corps
Private Mail Bag
Apia, Western Samoa
South Pacific

I would love to hear from all of you!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Moonlight in Michigan

My final night in Michigan for the next two years is one to remember. I am at my Grandma Ruthie's house at Klinger Lake. The moon is sparkling across the water, reminding me of how much I love my family, my friends and my country.

These past weeks have been a whirlwind. I've been to St. Louis, MO; Houston, TX, Rockford, IL, South Bend, IN... So many people to see and so little time.

This journey began back in February, when I submitted my application to the Peace Corps. It has taken countless hours of preparation to get me to the point where I am right now, hours away from beginning an experience of a lifetime.

Tomorrow I leave from South Bend, Indiana at 12:41p.m. and fly to Chicago, Illinois for a connecting flight to Los Angeles. I will have one day of staging in L.A. and then leave at 11:15p.m. for a direct flight to Apia, Samoa (10hrs. 15mins.)

I am hoping that this blog serves as a way for me to stay in touch with all my family and friends so that they can more fully understand the experiences I have. Feel free to leave comments and stay in touch. I will need your prayers and support.

I am excited to meet my new friends from the Peace Corps, and then the Samoans who I will live with for the next two years. This will be hard work, but it will be good work.
For now, I will say so long. Thanks to all those who have helped get me to this point, and to all those who have made these past few weeks in the United States so special. Goodnight from Michigan!