Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Best of America Welcomed Me

Pete (left), and Tom who I met at LAX
After arriving in Los Angeles at 2:30 p.m., following a ten hour flight from Samoa, I cleared my way through customs. I had already missed my connecting flight on Southwest, but proceeded to the ticket counter to look into another flight. Southwest was very understanding and put me on the next available flight which was scheduled to depart at 6 p.m. for its four hour flight to Chicago. After checking my bag, I headed through security for the second time in 12 hours and then entered a part of the American fabric: the concourse of gates in the domestic terminal of LAX. Walking about, I was smiling at everything I saw. Suddenly I was thrust back into what I had left for the past 14 months, and I had many observations: the toilets flush themselves, the water at the bathroom sinks is run on sensors as well, and I even jumped a little when I accidentally set off the paper towel dispenser. Everything was easier here, compared to Samoa. Walking to my gate, I noticed the building was very clean, the people were all dressed in fashionable clothes and walking with a sense of urgency that Samoans never match. I even had to laugh when I saw two Starbucks within 150 yards of one another! I knew I was back in the U.S.A.
So excited at what I was seeing, I made phone calls to my parents and sister. I then decided to call a friend of mine, Katy, who had served in the Peace Corps in South Africa and had told me before of her experiences about first arriving back in America and the reverse culture shock that came with it. We had a good talk and then I went to get something at McDonald’s. After being handed my bag of food, I realized that I didn’t have my laptop with me! I had left it in its bag back at where I was on the phone, right there in the hallway of the concourse. I rushed back and discovered it was gone! My heart sank.
At that very moment I started glancing at every person walking with a computer bag—suddenly, everyone looked suspicious--but in an airport the size of LAX, and with 90 percent of the people having a computer bag, I very quickly felt as if I was being put into a trance. A part of me wanted to yell at everyone to stop! I had only slept for 30 minutes after being awake for over 24 hours and the thought of someone stealing my computer after serving my country for 14 months, made me suddenly build an anger towards the America I had just been oohing and awing over on the phone with my friend.
I finally decided I needed to find someone who could help me. I spotted a Southwest employee near a gate and ran up to him to tell him what had happened. He seemed half confused at the situation I was in, probably because I presented myself in such hysteria. The man said he didn’t know what he could do, considering he had just gotten off an airplane after being on it for the past couple of hours—I realized he was a flight attendant. He did tell me where the police were.
Walking towards the police I continued scanning the crowd. Everyone was walking as if they had a stiff wind at their backs, pushing them forward with momentum. I called Katy back, as if she could help me living 3,000 miles away. Making it to the police counter, I explained my situation to a group of 3 officers—I think I hung up on Katy at that time. They started asking a number of questions: can I see your ID? Can you tell me where you were standing? How long ago did this happen? What color was the bag? Was anyone near you? How long were you gone? What time is your flight?
Then one of the police officers, during my time of panic, took time to make a point out of what I had done wrong. He said: “you were standing, talking on the phone, and had the phone in one had. What was your other hand doing?” I didn’t respond. He said, “why didn’t you have your computer bag in the other hand?” Well the simple answer was that I had set it down. I obviously knew I had made a mistake, but he was almost saying “shame on you.” I said, it was my fault, I made the mistake, but now I just want to try and find the computer. Time continued to feel as if it were moving slower and slower. Another officer asked me to go back down to where I had made the phone call. On the way he said, “don’t you know you aren’t suppose to leave bags unattended in the airport.” Yes, of course I know that. I’ve flown all over the country and the world and had never had something like this happen before. In a polite way, yet with firmness in my voice, I said, “I didn’t leave my bag there on purpose. I wasn’t trying to have my computer stolen. I walked away forgetting it was there. I made a mistake.” I explained to him how important that computer was for my work as a Peace Corps volunteer, and that I would never want to lose it.
While standing at the place of my huge mistake, I was trying to recreate exactly where I was and how I was standing for the sake of the officer who kept asking me. While I was doing this, a man walked up to us and asked if we were looking for a bag. He had just found one that had been left and was getting ready to turn it over to the police if no one came back in five minutes. I said that I had left my bag there. He walked over to the row of black leather seats where he and his friend were sitting. There it was, resting on the chairs. I walked over and reached out to touch it with my right hand, as if to ask its forgiveness for having left it alone and having been so foolish. The officer said that I owed the two men a huge thank you. Indeed I did.
With the four of us there, I thanked the two men for having taken the bag and watching over it. After thanking them, I felt this instant guilt inside me, for having doubted everyone I had been glancing at in that airport concourse. As if entering a confessional and bearing my soul, I started an apology: “I have just gotten back from serving in the Peace Corps for 14 months and was so furious and felt betrayed when I thought the computer was stolen. I’m sorry for having thought the worst of my fellow Americans." At that moment my emotions overcame me and I started to cry. I felt so proud to be an American. I felt proud of those two men for having represented what I had always hoped America was. I didn’t feel at all embarrassed to be crying in front of three men and a gate of passengers waiting for their flight. I was elated. The one man, whose name I later found out was Pete, said, “We Americans are still looking out for one another. Welcome home. Welcome back to America.” I continued to cry.
The police officers work was done and he thanked the men and I thanked him for his assistance. I said I had learned my lesson and would be more careful. After I took a few deep breaths I offered to buy the two men dinner or a coffee, but they kindly declined. But I couldn’t just leave them; I suddenly felt this connection to these two strangers. I wanted to slow the moment and take a moment to visit. I asked them if they minded if I sat down for a few minutes.
We introduced ourselves and made some small talk. I asked them about their jobs—Pete is an aerospace engineer and Tom a mechanical engineer. I praised them both for their abilities as scientists. They asked me some questions about my service in Peace Corps. I mentioned to them how students’ test scores in Samoa are low in science and how I wished that the children could do better in that area, as I know it is important for any country. They asked where I was headed, how long I was going to be visiting. I still had to eat the meal from McDonald’s that I had been carrying all over the airport for that 30 minute ordeal. But before I said goodbye, I asked them if I could write about them here on this blog. We exchanged contact information and I gave them this blog address. I thanked them again and we said our goodbyes. A few minutes later as I was eating, I realized I had forgotten to get a picture of them. I darted back over—with my computer bag—and asked for a picture.
My flight ended up leaving about 45 minutes late. It gave me plenty of time to sit there at the gate and listen to the public service announcement stating: “Due to security measures, and for your safety, do not leave bags unattended and do not ask others to watch your bags.” The same message played on repeat. Each time it felt like a knife in my back being twisted. But each time it reminded me how lucky I had been that night.
Looking back on that night, I was able to see how my Peace Corps experience has helped change me. If this had happened a year ago, I might have just thanked the men and been on my way. I would have been grateful, but I’m not sure if I would have had the initiative to sit and learn more about them. After living in Samoa, where building relationships is such a huge part of a volunteer’s success in the village, I now realize that I’ve come to value this kind of friendly conversation, that causes one to slow their pace in a busy world. The relationships matter, they make us better communicators and listeners.
Tuesday night I was faced with a situation that tested ordinary Americans who did extraordinary things. I would never want to relive that fiasco again, but in a way, I’m happy I was able to see it unfold, because it was the best welcome back to America. It was hard proof that this country, despite its enormous size, can act as one family, looking out for another’s brother, or sister. Samoans proud themselves on being hospitable, friendly and caring, and I have found that to be completely true throughout my service there. Yet I’m so proud that America still has those same types of people who care for one another just because it’s the human thing to do. It’s the American thing to do. Thank you Pete and Tom for showing me once again, why I’m so proud to represent our country as a volunteer overseas.

Waiting at the airport in Samoa after our plane was delayed to leave by more than 3 hours.

Leah, from Group 82 was layering to try and keep warm!

Getting ready to board the plane in Samoa at 3:15 a.m.

The exterior of the Boeing 767

A real dinner on board the plane. Breakfast was just as big!

The first sights of American soil after crossing the Pacific Ocean from Samoa.

Corina and Cassie outside the international terminal at LAX.

First picture with Mom and Dad at Chicago after a long journey.

Bundled up and wondering what happened to all the coconut trees.

Final destination. Home for the holidays!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Jet Plane

Leaving the house this morning at 6:28 a.m.
to start the trip back to America!
The journey home to Michigan has begun! I left my house this morning at 6:28 a.m. to come into town on the bus. I’m in Apia today, until tonight when I leave Samoa for the first time in 14 months. I’m boarding an airplane and jetting across the largest ocean in the world on a 10 hour flight to Los Angeles, California. Then it’s another four hour flight to Chicago. Then it’s a two hour drive from there, before I get to sleep at home for the first time since October 4, 2009.

Last night I took one final walk through my village for 2010. I went to a few houses to wish people a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. A bunch of kids came out and followed me down the street and asked when I was leaving for America. I ate at my neighbor’s house yesterday for a going away dinner and they had invited the mayor of the village, and his wife over for the occasion.

After saying my goodbyes I went back to my house to finish the last of the packing. I kept thinking to myself how much easier it is to pack for a month visit to Michigan, than a two year stay in Samoa. My stress level was very low as I went about the packing, but perhaps some of the “care free ways” of this island life have rubbed off on me the past year. I think that’s a good thing.

But just as I have come to live a relaxed life, I’m about to be thrust back into the rollercoaster life in America. For example, my flight arrives in Los Angeles at 11:40 a.m. on Tuesday but I have to make my connecting flight before it leaves at 1:55 p.m. That may seem like a good chunk of time, but here’s what I’m up against: I have to wait for the plane to taxi to the gate, deplane, go claim my luggage, go through customs, travel from the international terminal to the domestic terminal, recheck my bags on my next flight, go through security and then make it to my gate before they close the door to the plane! That’s a lot for someone who’s been living the slow life for 14 months. I’m keeping my fingers crossed though.

Once I make it to my final destination, I’m entering a whole new climate. The temperature in Samoa right now is 82. The temperature in Michigan: 15. The heat index in Samoa: 90. The wind chill in Michigan: 3. That’s an 87 degree temperature difference based on how the weather feels to the skin. My body has certainly grown use to the heat and humidity, considering I get chilled when the mercury dips to 80 degrees! 76 degrees in Samoa feels like a late October day in Michigan where I’m ready to bundle up. I haven’t seen snow since April of 2009, that’s 20 months without the slushy, slippery mess. At this moment, I hear reports about a large snow storm that has just passed through the Midwest. As much as I have missed the change of seasons, I haven’t missed the snow. But at the same time, I’m looking forward to a White Christmas, and think the snow will be exciting (at least for a month).

But among all the things I’m looking forward to, nothing compares to seeing my family. I was fortunate to have my sister visit me this past July and share that time with her, and my life here in Samoa. But other than her, I haven’t seen any family, the very people who raised me and supported me for 25 years! I wrote about what it would be like to be with them, back during my hardest days of homesickness. They have continued on with their lives, but they’ve continued to support me through phone calls, letters, packages, and most importantly, their prayers. This week we are reunited in what will be one unforgettable moment after another.

As much as I enjoy looking forward, I thought today might be an appropriate day to look back, and see what life was like one year ago today: December 13, 2009. Following are a few excerpts from my journal entry on that day.

“It’s 12:24 in the afternoon and I’m still homesick like you won’t believe.”

“I wrote a letter to Mom last night. I cried during most of it.”

“I’m trying to adjust, pray, and stay active, but whatever I do, I can’t feel that groove.”

“I feel so separated from my family, friends and traditions. I know it’s all just a 14 hour flight away, but I feel so trapped here.”

“I can’t forget I’m not in this battle alone. There are volunteers in this country and around the world dealing with similar situations.”

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and if I back out now, there will be huge consequences for the rest of my life, and that is a scary thought, perhaps enough to keep me grounded where I am.”

And I’m happy I stayed grounded, right where I am. Looking back 365 days is amazing, as I see how much has changed and how much I’ve come to love where I am. Last night as I was lying in bed, I just thought how grateful I am to God for leading me through those tough days, to the place I am today. Right now I’m thinking about my journey home, excited to see family and friends, but at the same time, I’ll be looking forward to returning to Samoa in 2011. Goodbye from Samoa. See you in America!

With 10 Peace Corps leaving on the flight tonight to L.A., this is what the Peace Corps office looked like this afternoon!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pineapples In December

I’ve now lived in Samoa for two Decembers. And that’s given me two Decembers to realize that December in Samoa will never feel like December in America. December in the United States has all kinds of cues that lead a person to know it’s almost Christmas. If I were brought out of an underground bunker after loosing all sense of time, and dropped at a Wal-Mart store in America, I could easily figure out it was December in a hurry. There are Christmas candies by the door, along with poinsettia plants wrapped in red, green and silvered papers. There are three or more aisles devoted exclusively to Christmas decorations. There’s someone out front of the store ringing a bell and 25 cashiers wearing Santa hats. There are major food brands plastering pictures of Santa onto their packaging and some that even change the contents inside that packaging: M&Ms become green and red, Little Debbie’s take on the shape of a Christmas trees. And if that all wasn’t enough, there is Christmas music playing over the speaker system in the store!

Those are all signs of December in America. If you love them or hate them, it is a part of the American fabric, and a way of knowing that December is upon you. But America is an exception. Sure, Christmas is celebrated all over the world, but in other places, it’s not being made known to you by advertisers, the way it is in America. So I asked myself, if I came out of that same bunker and was dropped in Samoa, how would I know what month it is, and that it is in fact December? What cues would lead me to know, it’s two weeks away from Christmas? Here’s what I came up with.

If I were dropped in Samoa I could tell it’s December based on the price of pineapples at the market in Apia. Pineapples come into their peak season starting in December, and thus the price drops significantly. A large pineapple in November can cost as much as 15 tala (about $6.19 U.S. Dollars). However, that same size pineapple can drop to 6 tala (about $2.47 U.S. Dollars) just a few weeks later in December. So was the case, this past week when I walked through the market. I knew the season was just around the corner and I kept holding out to buy one for the cheaper price, and it finally came down, just like it did last year. It’s as predictable as the inflatable snowman display at Wal-Mart, just another indicator in another country in the month of December. I’ve bought two in the past week and plan on getting one more before I head home for Christmas. Pineapples here are so sweat that as I’m cutting them up, it’s hard not eating half of it before I put it away in the refrigerator. I’ve also enjoyed mixing the pineapple with bananas and freezing them for a chilled desert.

Another way of knowing that it’s December in Samoa is by the number of unfamiliar faces appearing in the village. This of course, is preceded by the caravans of rental cars that come streaming into a normally quiet village. Most evenings when I go for a walk through the village I can easily identify most faces, but once December roles around I start seeing all kinds of new faces. This is because most Samoans have large numbers of family members who come back for the Christmas holiday from overseas; countries such as New Zealand, Australia and the United States. Within the past week I’ve met about 10 new family members in one family alone who have come in for a visit. Many of them are great English speakers so they enjoy speaking to me in English, and get a kick out of hearing my Samoan, so we have our bilingual conversation before we both go our own ways.

And of course, the third sign of it being December in Samoa is the rain. The rainy season officially starts in November, but I’ve found it’s like an old rusty machine that takes a while to get moving again. The engines were fired in November but now that it’s December it in full operation and dumping it in buckets at times. The rain normally comes at night and is weird on the dreams; I always feel half awake and half dreaming as the pounding rain disorients me. But I love it when it rains so hard here in Samoa, it almost makes me feel like I have this bubble around me, protecting me from the rest of the world.

Samoa may not have all the Christmas decorations and hustle and bustle before December 25, but as a person lives here and comes to know the routines and traditions of this country, or any country around the world, they can certainly come to know that it’s December and a time for family and friends!

My first pineapple for the 2010 season!

Cutting up the first pineapple for the year.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Prize Giving

I remember how the end of the school year felt back at home while growing up. It was always a nostalgic time with classrooms being disassembled after a year’s worth of time with friends and teachers. The warm days of early June reminded teachers and student alike that their summer vacations were just days away. There was always an end of the school year assembly where certificates were given for accomplishments made. My parents and grandparents came and took lots of pictures and gave warm hugs for another year completed.

And now having lived in Samoa, I’ve found that the similar traditions take place for the children of this island nation in the Pacific. Although Samoa lacks the change of seasons, and is perpetually hot, I was still able to sense a change of mood at the school as our year ended and the kids prepared for their advancement to the next year.

Samoa’s schools celebrate prize giving their last day of school, although it’s an event that is a few weeks in the planning. Prize giving is a chance for parents to come and visit the school and see their children receive gifts from their teachers. Although teachers in Samoa see the parents of their students every day in the village, either while playing bingo, going for an evening walk, or stopping by the local store, they hardly ever discuss a student’s progress and teacher parent conferences don’t exist here. So prize giving is probably the one day of the year where teachers, parents and students truly connect in a meaningful way in terms of accomplishments related to school.

Prize giving is something I began hearing about a year ago. Volunteers who had already experienced it warned us about it well in advance. But now having lived through it, I think it was a great event to wrap up the school year. When I asked other volunteers in the office to describe prize giving at their school in one word, here’s what they said. Jenny C. from Group 82 said “wild.” Tiffany, also from 82 said “superfluous,” while Corina, also from the same group said “Christmas.” Lisa, from Group 79 summed up the event with the word, “emotional.” My word would have to be “thoughtful.”

Our school began preparing for the event a couple weeks before when the teachers taught the students, years 1-8 dance motions for a Samoan song. Then the older years, 7 and 8 did a dance on their own. Dance and music are a huge part of Samoan culture, so this was a great way for the kids to unwind after 10 months in the classroom. Watching the smiles on their faces as they learned the dances was exciting to see. It also taught them about working together, since it was choreographed, and the younger kids were having to watch the older kids. After listening to the same two songs play over and over and over and over for two weeks, I was one song away from scratching the CD. But now looking back, I realize that whenever I hear those songs, I’ll always remember those kids and our first year together. Just today on the bus into town, one of them was playing on the radio and I just smiled at the thought of our time together.

Food is a huge part of social gatherings in Samoa. Between the help from families in the village, and the teachers, we were planning to feed all the family members who attended the prize giving. I didn’t want to be left out, so I offered to bring a fruit salad and popcorn. Also, the night before prize giving all the kids came up to the school with palm fronds to weave traditional Samoan baskets that the food would be served on. They had probably over 150 baskets! The next morning the food began arriving in huge pots that you would see used in a kitchen of a college campus’ cafeteria. We were busy organizing all the food as it arrived and placing foil in all the baskets from the night before.

For prizes, the teachers go all out. These are people who don’t have a lot of money but splurge for the kids on this one occasion. Many of the kids who receive prizes were receiving bowls and bags of chips, cookies, or candies. I had made certificates for my year 7 English class since they were the kids who I had taught the most throughout the year. I gave awards for the top grades on the final exam (ranking students based on test results and making it public is very common for this culture), as well as for attendance, overall best homework throughout the year, as well as a certificate for the student who washed their hands the most in our hand washing competition. I gave an award for the student who was most improved. That one went to Neueli, who could barely read English at the beginning of the year, but now is doing a wonderful job and is always excited to be in the classroom!

Also, I had a competition with students form years 7 and 8 for good manners. Beginning back in late August when I started the event, I kept track of their manners each day. We had talked about good and bad manners and so this was very helpful for overall classroom management. If they had good manners at the end of the day, they received a mark next to their names. Over the past few months they would come into my room to check their progress and I could tell they were taking it very seriously. Perhaps it was because of the reward: a free trip into the capital to visit the public library and then have lunch at McDonald’s and finish up by getting a double scoop of ice cream.

At the end of November, I counted up who had the most marks next to their name and it was Kolly from year 8. I got permission from my principal who was on board with the program and then spoke to the student’s parents who were also excited for Kolly, who was making his first trip to McDonald’s (and the library). On December 1st we had a great trip and spent about an 1 ½ at the library looking over the books. It was great to see his reaction as we walked in, and especially to hear him read English books with such ease in the children’s section. He had a great hamburger with his Happy Meal and then filled up with his ice cream. I had taken pictures throughout the morning and then made a point of stopping to have some printed off to give to him, knowing he would take them back to the village and share them with all the kids and get them excited for next year’s competition.

Back to the actual day of prize giving, the dances went well and plenty of food was eaten. The principal spoke and gave an overview of our school year and what had been going on in the school. He mentioned our new photo copier and the re-painted library with donated books from New Zealand. I gave a thank you in Samoan to all the parents and teachers, for their welcoming me into the community and looking out for me during my first year.

As the students started heading out the door at the end of the day, a few students brought some small gifts up to me. Luisa gave me a traditional Samoan wooden weapon that her brother had carved. It was beautiful. One of the last students to come up to me is one of my favorites. He handed me a piece of paper that was folded up to create an envelope. On the front it had my name and it said to “open up.” I put it in my pocket, wanting to enjoy reading it later in the day once things had quieted down. But just him giving it to me was enough to bring a couple tears on as I said goodbye. Our school year was ending, although I’d probably see him later that evening on a walk through the village, it was an emotional moment just thinking of his accomplishments and how we had both matured over the last year.

After saying goodbyes to the principal, teachers and school committee, I walked back to my house, changed out of my sweaty shirt and sat down to read my card. I opened the envelope and unfolded another piece of paper written on a piece of graph paper. I read it. “I love my best friend Kyle. Thanks. Saulo.” Below that was written the date, Saulo’s class year, and then the funniest part of the whole card, the expiration date! I started to cry. I was crying thinking about how I had almost left Samoa for an easy way out when things were hard, when life was tough. There were days when I didn’t feel a connection to any of those students. But now I was holding proof in my hand of what hard work and dedication would result in: helping change someone else’s life. That piece of paper alone made every challenge I’ve faced worth it. It confirmed the fact that I had indeed made the right decision by staying here in Samoa, to do the work I was asked to do, to do the work I said I would do, and to do the work those students needed me to do. Although the card had an expiration date of 2020, I’m hoping that the memory of our time together will last Saulo, and the other students for a lifetime.

The certificates I made for year 7 English students.

Some of the food before serving it at prize giving.

With my teachers (in green), principal (in blue), and school committee members (in white) after prize giving.

Students and parents at prize giving.

Monthly manners chart, with Kolly's name at the top.

The food in the ipu kuagiu, or Samoan plates.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Food For Thought

When I joined the Peace Corps I knew that I would be finally learning to cook some meals on my own. Always living at home, or at college, I never was in a position where I had to cook my own meals. Of course I could handle the basics like spaghetti, scrambled eggs or other easy fixes. I had even made a cherry pie and banana bread one time. But I guess whenever I made something I followed the directions and measured everything out. If I was fixing oatmeal and the box called for ¾ cups of oats and ½ cup of water, that’s what I put in.

However, living on my own and fixing meals on a regular basis—for the need to survive—has taught me I can bend the rules a bit when it comes to cooking and even experiment. Now when I make my oatmeal, I don’t measure anything. I eye the amount of water I put in to boil. I know how many oats I will need to add to the water to get the oatmeal the right thickness that I like. I sometimes laugh when I think about me measuring for such a simple meal like oatmeal.

I’m finding that cooking is teaching me patience as well. It takes a lot of effort some days to cut up all the vegetables, or to make the tortillas from scratch. Always having the food served to me, never made me appreciate the work and time that goes into making a meal. Even on the days that I’m tired I find that taking the time to make a good meal can help make me feel better in the end.

So what am I cooking, and how does it work? Well I’ve started off with simple things. Instead of buying box macaroni and cheese which is very high in sodium, I now make my own macaroni and cheese and find I like it more than the boxed kind. Then I started adding basil for some color and additional taste. I sometimes make garlic bread to go with this. And since Texas Toast and other popular garlic breads aren’t available here in Samoa, I have to buy garlic cloves (I didn’t know what they were a year ago) and add the chopped garlic to butter in order to make my garlic bread.

I cooked rice for the first time in my life. It sounds like such a simple thing, and after I had done it, I stood there and looked at the rice and told myself, “I really never had done this before, unbelievable!” It was just so easy. I never knew that you had to rinse rice before cooking it either. I use the rice to put into my tortillas or eat it on its own. One time I even added it to some left over spaghetti. Since I’m normally cooking for myself, all that matters is that I like it.

These tortillas I keep mentioning are actually really good. They are better than any tortilla I’ve bought in the stores back in the U.S. because these don’t tear apart when you fill them. They are so moist and soft. They remind me of a taco shell from Chipotle! It does take a little time to make them. All that is required is flour, olive oil, salt and milk. First I kneed the bread and then it sets for 15 minutes before I separate it into small round balls and then they set for 20 minutes. After they set, I use my rolling pin (an old glass Sprite bottle) to roll them out and then they each only take 1 minute to cook on the stove. Sometimes I go all out and fill them with beans, rice, lettuce and cucumber. Other times just rice, or sometimes I eat them by themselves and just put a little butter on them. Recently I’ve found that stir-fried vegetables are really good inside as well.

Stir-fried vegetables are another thing I had never made before but now I love. First I put a little oil in the pan and then add garlic, onion and then put green beans and carrots, and sometimes cucumber in to cook. I add all kinds of seasoning. When some volunteers left back in August, they left me with all of their spices which I now use on a regular basis. Sometimes I add cumin and basil to the vegetables, as well as salt and pepper. It helps make my house smell like a home and really makes me feel like I know how to cook.

Salads are also something I’ve always enjoyed, back home and now here. I normally just put carrots and cucumber in the salad and then use an Italian dressing. I am a huge fan of hard boiled eggs (as is most of my family) but I haven’t fixed any here yet, but soon!

I’ve also done my fair share of grilled cheese sandwiches and tuna melts are my new favorite. I like to top them with cucumber and use whole grain bread! I also tried sweet corn one time last January, but it didn’t even come close to the great taste of Michigan’s sweet corn, so I haven’t done it since.

Since meat is rather expensive here and sometimes hard for transport and storage (do to my small refrigerator), I have never cooked meat in my house. I normally eat with my neighbors a couple times a week and am able to have chicken at their house, or splurge on a hamburger when I go into town.

I cook all of my food on a two burner electric stove, which makes me feel even more accomplished. No oven, no broiler, no microwave, just two small burner tops. It requires me using a fair amount of aluminum foil—say aluminum Mom—(inside joke), in order for me to keep things warm. For example, when I’m doing tortillas, garlic bread or French toast, since I can only do one at a time, I stack the finished food in the foil as I do each tortilla or piece of bread individually.

Sometimes I forget how easy a microwave was. There’s a microwave in the Peace Corps office’s kitchen that we can use. Just last weekend I bought a bag of popcorn and popped it there. I actually had two bags so I brought the extra bag back to my house. This week I was trying to make life easy for myself and performed an experiment. I tried to pop microwave popcorn on my stove top. I got my largest pan as warm as I could and then put the bag inside. Unfortunately, nothing happened. Yet I was so determined to have popcorn that night that I got out my kernels and vegetable oil and did it the old fashioned way. It tasted just as good, but just required a couple extra steps.

Breakfast has become one of my favorite meals; in part, because it’s still cool in the morning and I find it more enjoyable to eat when it’s 84 (normal morning temperature) as compared to 94 (normal afternoon temperature). I was always a big cereal fan back home, so I’ve continued the trend here. There are a handful of Kellogg’s cereals to choose from at the stores in Apia, but they are very expensive. However, there is one cereal called, Weet-Bix which is reasonably priced and happens to be my new favorite cereal in Samoa. It’s not just my favorite —it also claims to be New Zealand’s number one choice for breakfast cereal. It’s 97 percent whole grain and I love to cut up a banana to mix with it. It’s not uncommon for this to be my lunch or dinner if I’m in a hurry or just too tired to cook something “elaborate.”

Other breakfast food I enjoy: I mentioned oatmeal, which I add brown sugar to. I also enjoy eggs or French toast. Back in December and January I was doing a bunch of pancakes from a Betty Crocker box, but I’ve found that French toast is easier and cheaper. I also enjoy a few crackers. The crackers here in Samoa come from New Zealand and they are much thicker than the crackers in the U.S. They are really good to spread peanut butter or jam onto for a snack or with a meal.

And now I must mention my biggest food addiction here in Samoa: peanut butter! Peanut butter is reasonably priced. I always was a Jiff person back home, but since Jiff isn’t sold in Samoa, I’ve switched to Skippy. I eat peanut butter almost every day, and sometimes several times a day. It’s actually something I’m trying to get control of. Because it gets so hot here I keep the peanut butter in the refrigerator, which makes it easily accessible throughout the day. As I mentioned earlier, it’s great to spread on crackers for a snack, but is also great to eat straight from the jar. Yes, that may sound bad, but several other volunteers do it too from what I hear. It must be a real weak spot amongst volunteers here. There’s just something about the taste which is comforting and tasty and very addicting. Even when I wasn’t eating it just from the jar, if I would spread it on crackers, when I was done I would dip the knife into the jar and take a bite before sticking it back in the fridge. Now I have a new rule that I can’t eat it unless I’m sitting down and it can’t be from the jar. Believe it or not, but there’s something less appealing about eating peanut butter from a bowl as opposed to the jar itself, so this has helped me cut down on the amount of peanut butter I’m consuming. I was going through a jar a week (16.3 oz), but now I can make that last me two weeks!

As I mentioned I eat with my neighbors a couple times a week. I’ve enjoyed introducing some of these food to them, and my buddy Milo, likes to come over and watch me fix the food from time to time. One night I took a big tossed salad over there and he devoured it—a 12 year boy who loves salad! I think it’s been a part of the Peace Corps experience for me to learn more about their foods and for them to learn more about mine. Food seems to be universal language that brings different cultures together all around the world.

I hope you have a better idea now of what types of things I enjoy cooking and how I go about it. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m feeling much more confident than I was a year ago at this time. I’m still here to write about it, so I must be doing something right. Below I’ve typed up a list of some of the things I get at the store and the prices in Samoan Tala and then the U.S. equivalent based on an exchange rate of $2.42. And now before I close, I have to confess one more thing that I’ve fixed from time to time. My mom wouldn’t be too happy with me because it has raw eggs in it. Yes, you’ve probably guessed right: cookie dough!!! Except, after I make it here I don’t have to feel guilty about eating it raw, considering I don’t have an oven to bake them in!

Food / Samoan Tala / U.S. Dollar
1 Liter of milk = 3.80 / 1.58
Oatmeal (750 g) = 6.40 / 2.64
Crackers (375 g) = 3.00 / 1.23
Potatoes (2 lbs) = 2.10 / .86
Carrots (1 lb) = 3.08 / 1.27
Eggs (1 doz) = 5.80 / 2.39
Rice (3 lbs) = 4.70 / 1.94
M&Ms (46 g) = 2.70 / 1.11
Coke (355 ml) = 2.50 / 1.03
Kellogg’s Raisin
Bran (15 oz) = 17.00 / 7.02
Bananas (15 small) = 2.00 / .83
Papaya (1 large) = 3.00 / 1.23

Bananas from the market. Smaller than the kind you find in the States, but the same great taste.

A healthy omlet and French toast.

Grilled Cheese and "Sweet Corn."

Spices make food taste much better!

This is what my kitchen area looks like while I'm preparing for a dinner for five guests!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Shadow Visits & a Birthday

I’ve often thought it is a unique situation that I’m in: I have never owned or rented my own place back in the States, yet here I am living for “free” in another country and with a view of the Pacific Ocean! And this living arrangement also allows me the chance to entertain, and that is what I’ve been doing more often than not, this past week.

It began last Friday, November 12th, when four of my friends from the Peace Corps came out to my house to celebrate my birthday a few days early. I planned a meal of spaghetti, stir-fried vegetables and garlic bread. My guests were Kaelin, Cassie, Jenny C. and Jenny M., all from my group, 82. There is always a rumor going around the office that my site is so remote and hard to get to. That may be true, but nonetheless, the girls made the trek out to my place to help wish me a happy birthday. They were given a lift from the host family of Jenny C. I started to laugh when I saw them arrive—four girls wearing dresses, jumping out of the back of a pickup truck. It was great to see them.

Jenny M., who happens to be a great cook, had made me a chocolate cake. I gave them the tour of the house and then we started dinner. I kept commenting to them how nice it was to have other people in the house; sometimes I forget how alone I am out here. We turned on some music and had a nice visit.

Dinner was wonderful and I am still amazed at how much I can cook on my little electric, two-burner stovetop. We all had seconds and got really full. Then I remembered we still had cake, and I had made some chocolate pudding to go with it. My dad had sent some candles in his birthday package so the girls lit them and put them on my cake. I was saying goodbye to a long year that had so many ups and downs, so after they sang to me, it was then time to make a new wish for a new year. Each birthday I often wonder what the next one will bring.

We cleaned up all the dishes as we complained about how full we were. As we were doing dishes I mentioned how having them there with me and then the smell of the cake, really helped it feel like my birthday. Because I’m from Michigan and 40 degree weather is common by the middle of November, I’m still getting use to it being in the mid 90s on my birthday here in Samoa.

The following day, Saturday, I had more visitors come out. The Peace Corps office had asked a bunch of volunteers from my group to host one or two members from Group 83, who arrived in October. They were visiting us for a few days for a shadow visit. Peace Corps wanted them to experience what life is like for a volunteer on a typical day, since they themselves will be heading to their own villages next month after their swearing-in.

I hosted Mike and Danny. They arrived on Saturday on the bus and for the second day in a row I gave a tour of my house! We spent some time visiting, but in all honesty, I really thought they would get bored out here for their three day visit. Most of us volunteers had discussed this beforehand. As much as we enjoyed the company, our lives are pretty simple compared to the lives we lived back in America.

Despite the slow pace of life in the village, I think the visit was a good opportunity for them. We took a walk through my village and they got to have all the kids stare at them since they were the new attraction. I cooked dinner the first night. On the menu: homemade macaroni and cheese with vegetables and garlic bread.

Sunday was slow as always, but we made it to the Catholic Church and then toonai (the huge meal after church on Sundays). We ate toonai at my neighbor’s house. I had gone down to the store early in the morning to buy chicken to give for the meal. Whenever I eat at my neighbor’s house, I always sit with my legs crossed on the floor. I’ve gotten a lot of practice with this the past year and my legs have been toughened up for long periods of sitting. As I watched Mike and Danny grab their legs as they fell asleep, it reminded me of the days mine use to hurt. I can’t remember when they started feeling better for me, but as the months went by, they gradually got use to being crossed for up to an hour at a time.

Sunday afternoon was spent relaxing at my house. It got up to95 degrees that day and I wanted to lay down for a nap but my bed just feels too warm in the afternoon, so I put a towel on my floor and slept there for about an hour. In the evening I introduced the guys to the card game, Phase Ten. Danny won that and then it was time for bed.

Monday was school and Mike and Danny visited. Monday was my actual birthday, and the kids and teachers had found this out. They all sang happy birthday to me at the end of the day in Samoan and English! I received a couple of carved kava bowls from one of the students in year eight. His dad had made them, but he had been telling me about them the whole week before. I could tell how proud he was to give them to me. He also had his sister who is in high school make a card for me. I wish he had tried to make the card himself, but at least he had the thought.

Danny and Mike got to meet my teachers and see the kids. I explained some of the projects we had been working on this year. Our final exams were last week so this was a slow week at school, but I had a couple of kids read to them.

After school on Monday, Danny had to make a phone call and I wanted to call home as well. As the empty bus headed back out of the village we climbed on for a lift out to my area where I get a cell phone signal. We each made our calls before making the walk back to my house in the hot sun. That evening we went over to my neighbor’s house again for dinner. They had a huge meal prepared for us and had made a birthday cake for me. I’ve always appreciated receiving a birthday cake each year, and I think it’s something that Americans come to expect. But these past two birthdays in Samoa have really given me a chance to pause and realize some of the sacrifices others are willing to make so I have a special day.

Birthdays aren’t normally celebrated by the typical Samoan family. Everyone knows when their birthday is, but there aren’t normally cakes and ice cream or balloons. My neighbors don’t have a lot of money and for them to have a birthday cake for me really made the day extra special. As I sat there with them, Danny and Mike, it was a perfect image that reflected my own life this past year. I thought about Mike and Danny and related to them, knowing how I felt a year ago, sitting where they were—legs sore, trying to grasp the basics of the language. But then I looked at myself and how I had changed this past year and it was really a special moment that helped illustrate how comfortable I have become here since my last birthday. After they sang to me and we ate the cake, we played some cards before Danny, Mike and I went back to my place.

Danny and Mike left on Tuesday morning. It was great to have all the company, and especially during my birthday celebrations. I’m glad I was able to share my experiences and routine with some of the new members and I hope it helps give them hope that things do settle down and become normal. Those first months were the hardest, and most challenging, but I’m so happy I was here for my 26th birthday!

Danny listening to a student read, Six Ducks in a Pond.

Mike listening to a student read during his shadow visit.

Celebrating my birthday!

The kava bowls given by Kolly from year 8, as a birthday gift

Me in front of the birthday sign my mom sent all the way from Michigan. She has hung a birthday sign on my birthday since I was young!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Secret Garden

The kids took a picture of me
under the waterfall.
I can still remember when I was a child and would play out in the back yard digging holes and trying to build little rivers and streams using the garden hose. I asked my Dad on more than one occasion how we could build a pond. Before I was old enough to know better, I thought that just involved pouring water into a hole for so long that it would eventually stop saturating into the ground. I never mastered that and remember asking my Dad to get some plastic at the hardware store to keep the water in the “pond.” I remember he picked some up and I made a small pond and was very pleased with the experience.

There are also other occasions where I had a fascination with streams and water pools. I can recall visiting our local landscape nursery and always admiring the decorative fountains and trickling water pools they had on display. When I was in 4th and 5th grade I use to love digging trenches out on the school playground after a heavy rain, allowing the pools of water to flow like rivers around the playground. Going to play miniature golf as a seven year old was less about hitting the ball down the green turf and more about walking over bridges and amongst waterfalls that made up the landscaping. And during summer visits to the shores of Lake Michigan, I have fond memories of building sand castles with moats and little streams. All of these memories came flashing back this week as I set out on an adventure to the “Secret Garden!”

It all began on Wednesday. A group of boys who normally hang out in my room well after the bell rings at the close of school, were still lingering around and wanting to play a vocabulary game they enjoy. By that time, I had decided I wanted to go for a walk since it was such a nice day. I asked the boys if they wanted to go with me. They hid their school bags behind the bushes in the front of my house and we were off down the road. Along the way they would stop and break open an o’o, which is a germinating coconut. It has the texture of a sponge, but is a pretty tasty treat.

After walking for about 10 minutes, we reached the first of many streams that lead out of the mountains around my village. At first we were heading for the stream to get a drink of water, but soon we found ourselves walking into the thick brush, and away from the road. The kids were fast on their feet as they walked over the slippery rocks without any trouble. I, on the other hand, searched for a walking stick to support my clumsy body and slowly maneuvered around, and over the rocks which had water rushing over them. The rocks that weren’t under water were covered in a slimy moss and made the trek extra adventurous. One of the boys noticed my lack of abilities in walking up a river and gave me a steady hand.

We only went back up the stream about 50 yards before the kids found what they were looking for. It was a beautiful little waterfall that poured into a deep water pool. They all jumped in without any hesitation while I sat on a rock nearby. As I looked around that’s when those childhood memories struck me. I thought about how ironic it was that I spent so much of my childhood dreaming up how to build a fantasy world of waterfalls, streams and pools in my back yard, and here these kids had grown up with this all of there lives.

The first thing I wondered, was how they viewed it. To me, as a 25 year old who grew up in the middle of the flat corn fields of Michigan, I thought it was pretty darn awesome that these kids have this kind of a “playground” just minutes from their houses. The next thing that went through my head was what dream worlds do they want to create for themselves if they already have something like this.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t planned on going swimming anywhere when we left my house so I didn’t have a suit, and because I hadn’t put mosquito repellent on and we were in the “jungle,” I was getting swarmed by all sorts of mosquitoes. After letting them swim for 20 minutes we decided to head out with the plans of coming back on Friday, and me wearing my swimming suit so I could cool off as well.

Friday morning, they all showed up at school asking right away if I was going to go to the river to go swimming. I said yes and I could tell they were pretty excited. So after school on Friday I prepared myself for our adventure. I had my mosquito repellent, sun block, water, swimsuit, and camera. After we arrived I was happy to see my walking stick from Wednesday was still safely hidden in the tall grass for me to use. Nonetheless, I managed to slip and fall on a rock and almost brought Milo down with me.

Friday’s visit was more impressive than Wednesday’s, due to the fact that on Wednesday night we had a torrential downpour that lasted a couple of hours and thus the river was flowing with a much greater force than earlier in the week. The boys were walking up to a ledge and jumping into the deep pool. I took a plunge and they all laughed. I worked my way over to the waterfall and sat underneath as the water came pouring down onto my head. It made for a nice back massage.

While I was sitting under the waterfall, I felt something dangling around my head. I turned and looked up and one of my students had draped a vine down the face of the waterfall and was prompting all the boys to climb up. The vine could have supported one boy, maybe even two, but not four! In the process of me telling them to get down, they came down—in a huge pile—and fell on to me. Luckily everyone was alright and I made it clear there wouldn’t be any more swinging from vines.

As we were in that pool I kept looking up and wondering what was at the next level above us. That water was coming from somewhere much higher than where we were. There was a safe path around the waterfall that we decided to explore. The boys charged up the hill without any trouble and I brought up the rear. Saulo from my year seven class was one step ahead of me. Saulo is one of my strongest students and has fairly good English. As we were climbing up a steep part of the hill he was giving me commands as to which branches to grab.

I’ve been teaching the kids a number of vocabulary words this year and some of them have been really challenging. As we continued up the hill Saulo made my day when he used one of the vocabulary words in the perfect context. The word was hoist, and as I was looking for my next step in the slippery mud with ants running down my arm, he yelled out, “Grab here and hoist yourself.!” It was nice to know that even under these conditions he was able to recall vocabulary words.

We all safely made it up the hill and found another pool of water from another waterfall. This pool was about twice as large, although much too shallow to do any jumping into. I took a few pictures of the kids and had them take one of me. The bugs were horrendous so we decided to head back down. We revisited the first pool of water for a quick cooling off and then headed back out to the road. I was more careful on my way out and managed to stay on my feet.

As we gathered near the road I tossed my walking stick into the weeds in the hopes that it would stay hidden for my next visit. I felt a bit like I was hiding the key to the Secret Garden. Although most everyone in my village has swam at that same waterfall at some point in their lives, I still left with the feeling that it was something that I had discovered all on my own. Perhaps that’s because it helped to make one of my childhood dreams come true, of having that place where streams rushed over rocks, and waterfalls emptied into deep pools below.

As we walked back in the hot Samoan sun, our suits and shirts started to dry. I was so glad that I decided to go for a walk this week and so pleased at where it ended up.

The boys swimming in the pool below.

Saulo is my student who knew the vocabulary word, "hoist," during our river adventure.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

This and That

Walking from my village to catch
a bus on Friday after school.
I thought I would dedicate this entry to updating you on a number of different things going on the past couple of weeks.

1. The rainy season seems to have arrived on time this year. It typically begins in October, and I’ve noticed this past week a return to those days when it rains whenever it wants to, followed by sunshine. I have yet to experience that first torrential downpour of the season, but it will be fun to see when it happens. A torrential downpour in Samoa grabs all your attention and you are lured in by its pounding force and just stand at the window in hesitation, wondering if it could possibly rain any harder. Sometimes it does.

Unfortunately, because the rainy season is beginning, it makes life a bit more challenging. I’ve had to cancel my daily run for the past two days and finding a time to do laundry seems to be a losing bet against Mother Nature. But somehow I made it through last year, so I guess I can do it again.

2. Many Samoans eat corned beef from a can, otherwise known as pisupo in Samoan. It is extremely high in salt and fat and it is one thing I’ve chosen not to eat while here. However, on a few different occasions I have been given a can (or two) as a gift, and to turn down that gift would be culturally insensitive, so I always seem to have a stack of pisupo on my kitchen counter. On Thursday I decided I would open a can for the two teachers at my school. I knew that they liked it, so I thought it would be a good solution to get rid of it. I decided to cut some carrots up to make the meal somewhat healthy. I warmed the corned beef and took it over to the school. The teachers seemed really surprised and grateful. However, once they started eating it I could tell they didn’t care for it. I’m not sure if I overcooked it or if the expiration date had passed, but because they couldn’t just set the food aside, they thanked me for it after a couple bites and then called in some kids to finish the rest. I could hardly keep from laughing as the kids ate the food. I don’t think they cared for the carrots either.

3. Remember the term caveat emptor? It was a business principal that came from England which meant, “buyer beware.” Well I’ve found that it also applies in Samoa. I had been buying, and enjoying a chocolate breakfast cereal here that was very similar to Coco Puffs, although I’ve bought my last package a few weeks ago. The last batch I bought looked different when it was in the milk, and also tasted much different than all the other packages I had bought in the past. I checked the expiration date and that was fine, and it wasn’t the milk. I took the bag back to the convenient store where I bought it. Of course I didn’t have a receipt, but I tried to explain my situation. The store clerk said there wasn’t anything he could do because the food came from another distributor, but didn’t hesitate to sample some of the cereal just to make sure. He stuck his hand into the bag—the same hand that had been working the cash register all morning—and took a few bites. He said they tasted the same, but got a second opinion from his colleague behind the counter, who stuck her hand into the bag— the same hand that had been stocking shelves all morning—and she said they were the same. Just to be sure they were in fact the same taste, they both asked the lady waiting behind me in the check out line to try some, and she stuck her hand into the bag—I don’t know where her hand had been—but she delivered the same ruling as the first two.

Cereal is not cheap here, especially for someone on a Peace Corps budget, so I took the cereal back to my house with me in the hopes of figuring out what to do with it. A few days later at school, my year seven students had done a great job so it dawned on me, “give it to the kids.” They had never tasted the cereal before and would go crazy for cereal (most Samoans don’t buy cereal because of the price and because many families don’t have refrigerators for the milk). It ended up being a huge hit and the kids loved it. I even gave some to the teachers!

4. Thanks to Lisa, a Peace Corps Volunteer from Group 79, (who has just extended in Samoa for a fourth year!) I found a man who lives near Apia and makes soap at his house. I went out to his house with Lisa last Saturday and bought a small square block of soap for only 4 tala—less than $2.00 U.S. Dollars! He uses the coconut oil in making the soap and has many different scents and designs to choose from. I’ll be making a visit back there again soon.

5. I’ve had a fever twice within the past two weeks. This isn’t all that uncommon for volunteers, although I had gone several months with good health. Having a fever just slows me down here. It is hard being sick back home, but being sick in a foreign country is harder. The language, and daily routines seem a bit more harder on those days. But I’m back to feeling pretty good now and hopping it stays that way!

6. September and October have gone by so fast and November is going to do the same I’m sure. We start final exams at school in one more week and those will last two weeks. After that it will be all about end of the school year cleaning and preparing for prize giving (look for a future blog on this in December). Right now I have that feeling my mom always talked about at the end of the school year where she is trying to get stuff done with the kids. There is so much more I want to do with them, but I guess some of it will have to wait until next year.

7. I have further proof that the “coconut wireless” is alive and well here in Samoa. I told only my neighbors who I eat dinner with regularly, that I was going back home to the United States during Christmas; I purposefully only told my neighbors, wanting to see how fast the word would spread. In less than a week, most of my students seem to know and several people throughout the village who I’ve talked to, so I guess I won’t need to announce it any further.

8. It is continuing to get dark out later and light out earlier as we head towards Summer here in the Southern Hemisphere. Sunrise is somewhere around 7a.m. and sunset around 7:45p.m. And that reminded me about a neat feat that I will have accomplished once I return to Samoa in January. Within less than a month's time, I will have lived a part of every season. When I leave Samoa in December it will be spring here, but fall when I arrive home. Winter will begin while I’m at home and subsequently, when I return to Samoa in January it will then be summer! So let’s get this straight, the order of the seasons is spring, fall, winter, summer—right?

9. The new group of trainees (Group 83) arrived safely a few weeks ago. They will be sworn in as volunteers in December. We welcomed them a couple weeks ago with our traditional fiafia which included a night of Samoan dances, a great slide show put together by Matt from Group 81, and a buffet dinner cooked by us (or picked up by us if you got Chinese take-out like I did). They are currently out in the training villages for language, cultural, medical, safety and teaching training. Best of luck to them as they continue to slog through the first couple of months in country.

10. My last bit of news is actually about family. I found out on Thursday, October 21st that my cousin Anita and her husband, Phil, are expecting their first child! I received a text message from my sister announcing the fantastic news. Unfortunately, I’ll be in Samoa during her delivery, but I’ll be looking forward to meeting them after my close of service. Congratulations to Anita and Phil!

11. And just because I didn’t want this to turn into a “list of 10”, I’ll let you know that my birthday is on November 15th!

The waterfall I have to cross over was flowing pretty heavy on Friday.

The view as I walked from my village!

These two guys visited with me during the last part of my walk. They asked for me to take their picture.

My cousin Anita and her husband Phil, who are expecting their first child the middle of next year!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Char's Letter

I recently received a letter from a good friend of my mom’s, Char Snyder. In the letter Char asked a number of questions and then kindly apologized if she was too nosy asking any of them. But she had no need to apologize because they were great questions, and questions that help me reflect on my time here in Samoa. They are the types of questions which I never ask myself, yet great to-the-point types of questions that are important to think about. Therefore, I thought I would take this opportunity to look at a couple of the many she asked and share the answers with all of you.

Three questions stood out to me the most:

What do you miss the most? (other than family)

After living away from home for a year, you might think that this question would be easy to answer, when in fact, it is one of the hardest to respond to. The longer I’ve been away, the more I’ve realized that I can do without almost everything that I had before which made life convenient. I had a car, but now I can’t drive. I use to use a washing machine, and dishwasher on a weekly basis, but now I do those chores by hand. I use to walk into stores that had a sliding glass door, but now I have to pull or push. I use to peal off stamps and they’d already be sticky on the other side, but now I have to lick them. I use to pop popcorn in a microwave, now I pop it on the stove. I guess maybe this is what it was like to live in the 1970’s?

Each of these examples shows how life has changed for me, but to say that I miss something the most is very difficult to do. But perhaps the thing I miss most isn’t a thing, but a concept. What I really miss at times is the language and culture. Even though I’m living in a country where many people know at least some English, it has never been the same as when I was living at home.

While I’ve been living here and learning to speak a new language, I’m often thinking two thoughts in my head at any given time during a conversation. The first is, “what are the words I need to make this thought make sense?” The other is, “is this person understanding what I’m saying?” Recently I’ve noticed that when I’m watching a movie and two people are speaking to each other, I find that internally, I’m asking myself if the other person understands what the other person is saying. Or if one of them says a big word, I think to myself that the other person won’t know that word. And then I catch myself and say, “of course they understand, they are both speaking English.” That is when I miss being around those who speak English as a first language. Volunteers obviously have the opportunity to speak English when we are together, but it never seems to last long enough. I’m looking forward to the day when I can go from the morning to the night without thinking about what I’m saying or what others are saying to me. To go to the gas station and talk with the sales clerk, or go to a restaurant and be able to eavesdrop on the person sitting next to me will be an amazing experience.

Did you feel prepared?
Yes, but let me explain. I’m not sure if anyone can fully prepare for the experience that the Peace Corps throws at a volunteer, especially given the fact that each volunteer has unique situations that belong only to them. But at the same time, when I look back at all the challenges I’ve faced, I feel as though I had the right “tricks in the bag,” to solve the problems and come up with a reasonable solution to each.

What is the most unexpected delight about this adventure?
My unexpected delight has been being so highly thought of by the people in Samoa. This is a culture that is very friendly and very neighborly. As a Peace Corps volunteer, that places me at a certain level by itself in terms of the kind of respect I receive from Samoans. This is true wherever I may travel in the country. Many times when visiting with a taxi driver in the capital they will ask me what I’m doing here. When I tell them I’m a Peace Corps volunteer living and working here for two years I am frequently thanked by them for my service. This type of general respect exists throughout the entire country from village to village.

But then there is another type of respect that I receive within my village. This is the place where they know me much better than any taxi driver ever would. These are the families that live beside me and whose children I teach. I walk down the same road they do and ride the same bus they do. I speak the same language and wear the same cloths. Because of all of this, I am, in a way, a superstar in my village. It is a type of attention that many volunteers experience in posts all over the world, and a type of attention that Peace Corps reminds us will vanish once we return to the United States. Here in the village I am like the fish in the fishbowl with everyone looking in. But back home I’m just Kyle, not Kyle the Peace Corps volunteer.

It is hard for me to go for a walk through my village and not be followed by 10 children or waved to by 10 adults. When I go for a walk everyone watches and takes notice. I’m not saying that I like this type of attention, but it does make me feel special and loved within the village.

Once I return to the United States I hope to develop closer relationships with my neighbors wherever I may move to in the years ahead. As Americans we tend to stick to ourselves and maybe just wave or smile at our neighbors, instead of really getting to know them. I love how Samoans interact with one another and treat one another as family.

Random Photos:
My year 7 students loved cutting card holders for the backs of the library books! It kept their attention for a few hours and they wanted to do more!

Let's just say it was easier going up the coconut tree than going down it.

I realized one day how lucky I am to have such great tropical fruits available and for very little money if at all. The coconuts I had my neighbor get and the mango (front left) is from a kid at school. The bananas were just a couple tala at the market and the papaya (large, center)was a couple tala as well!

Teacher's Appreciation Day was in September and one student gave me an ula. Here we are together. He got some brownie points!

My sister Jennifer and I are famous at my school where the students have taken to using our names in their graffiti messages.