Friday, January 22, 2010

Better Than a Travel Guide

The bus is supposed to arrive at 6:00am but doesn’t make an appearance until 6:30. But then again, this is Samoa, the place where clocks didn’t exist until 100 years ago when the palagis, “white people,” introduced them to the slow paced culture. Some customs never fade. However the bus did arrive and that’s all that matters, because I haven’t been into town in a week and am in need of groceries. As I approach the bus, I wonder how many people will be making the same trip with me. Some days not as many, but as I reach for the outer handle on the bus, and climb the two wooden steps, I see today is going to be tight. But I am a palagi, and no matter how many people are on the bus, I always have a seat. It is part of the proper custom for a Samoan to stand or move to the back of the bus for a foreigner. The same custom also holds true for women, and elderly men. Age is of importance in Samoa, and on the bus, women are respected.

So as I predicted three people shuffle about so I can have a seat. It feels awkward for me to have others give up their seat for me, but soon I get use to it. I’ve tried to deny my seat and offer to stand, but they insist.

I’m the last one to board from my village. The bus climbs the hills slowly as it maneuvers the narrow road along the bluffs which overlook the Pacific Ocean. The bus is made mostly of wood with an engine that sounds like its on its last breath, but somehow it always keeps on truckin. The ceiling is low and presents challenges for those with height. I’ve bumped my head other days, but this morning I’m fully awake and aware. The leg room is limited, as the wooden seat back in front of me is usually firmly pressed against the joint of my knee. This is painful on the many speed bumps that exist in Samoa. But yet, I’m still thankful for my seat.

As we ride along, I forget about most discomfort as I listen to the unique mixes of music which are a staple on any bus in Samoa. For such a “plain Jane” piece of transportation, the Samoan buses have a speaker system that could rival the pimped-out cars on Chicago’s South side. The music offered has a distinct “island feel,” but most certainly always offers remixes of hip hop from back home, with the island feel. It is sometimes odd to look at the age demographics ridding the bus (mostly older) and then hear the music that is playing. I can’t imagine my Grandma ridding to the market on a bus that plays remixes of American hip hop, but then again this isn’t my Grandma’s culture.

After about 30 minutes, we reach the main road and it’s an hour ride along the ocean’s edge on a winding road. The sea is captivating as I watch the huge barrels of the waves crash, sometimes in beat with the music on board the bus. This is usually the time where I can’t believe I’m living in this country, by myself, with these people of another culture. It can send chills through me and can be an empowering feeling, giving me strength for another day or week.

On the way to town, our bus passes several villages, larger than mine. People can be seen in their open fales, “houses,” going about their morning routines. Kids are in the yards, some along the road. A man in a straw hat pushes a wheel-barrow toward the road. Many of the small shops already have customers standing at their counters. Under the counters of the stores are the red signs with white lettering that read, “Vialima,” advertising “Samoa’s very own Beer.”

We soon approach the outskirts of town, indicated by the paved sidewalks and curbs. Our bus makes its way to the fish market and we are in a different world than the one we started in an hour and a half ago. I often wonder how these people of such a slow pace of life handle maneuvering in the city where trucks, taxis and cars jam the streets. We de-board the bus and we scatter our own ways. It’s nearly 8:00am and we have only five hours to finish our errands.

Later in the afternoon, after a busy morning of shopping for groceries, I lug four plastic sacks and a full back-pack, all with groceries for the next week, back to the fish market to catch the bus. If the bus was crowded before we all went shopping, I know how it will look when I get back.

As I approach the door to the bus, a villager sitting in the first seat gets up and grabs the plastic sacks from my hand, the handles getting twisted in an awkward hand-off. I thank him and board a crowded bus, but thankfully not as crowded as last week. Last week there were woven mats, large containers of vegetables and boxes of jars, its contents unknown.

Today there are plastic bags like mine next to plastic bottles filled with kerosene. A man in one of the front seats rests his right foot on a yellow 20 pound bag of rice. Children are on the laps of their mothers, fathers, and even strangers. Children in Samoa can be held by most anyone and feel comfortable and not whine for mom or dad. It all goes back to the openness as displayed on the bus, where a stranger will gladly hold another’s infant, knowing they can expect the favor repaid in the future. It is such an enriching experience to see unfold each week.

Soon the bus is rolling out and it’s 1:00pm; the bus never leaves town late, it just gets there late. After all the hustle and bustle to get things done I take a few deep breaths and exhale.

On the way back to my village the bus makes one stop at a gas station to refill. There is also a small grocery store and several people get off the bus to buy basics such as bread and eggs. Some buy an ice cream cone. I got one last week; it’s tasty. After everyone’s back on, we pull away and head for the village.

Soon most people’s heads are nodding as they sleep. I can’t fall asleep on a fancy chartered bus in the United States, so I can usually count on the ride back as alone time. I enjoy glancing out over the ocean, wondering what the rest of the world is up to. Who else is traveling today? There’s someone getting of the New York Subway at Penn Station and another taking a taxi in Shanghai. There’s someone ridding a camel in the Egyptian Desert and a tourist on a double-decker bus in London. There’s a business man on a Continental flight flying somewhere over Colorado en route to L.A. and another just below him on an Amtrak train, ridding down the rails. Me, I’m ridding a bus on a South Pacific island, heading to a village so small, that many who live in the country don’t even know exists. Life is amazing.

As we turn off the main road, we climb the road back towards the bluffs. Once high over the ocean, our view is fantastic and something for post cards. Coconut trees bend and sway, leaning out over the hills towards the ocean’s edge. Waves crash against the rugged rocks as the bus driver brakes carefully, knowing every pothole and crevice on that familiar road. As we approach my house we spot five cows being chased down the road by a vicious looking dog. It’s a sight that reminds me I’m back in the village again.

I grab my four plastic bags and my back-pack too, as the bus driver comes to a stop. I give him his pay and wish him a good day and carefully step off. I turn back towards the bus and offer a smile to my village.

As I head to my front door, I realize what a cultural experience I’ve just been able to take part in. Samoa doesn’t have Amtrak and fancy chartered buses. They have the uncomfortable wooden buses with the great sound system and friendly gestures for those who ride. If you ever visit Samoa, or any other country, take the local transportation and you will learn more than any tourist book could ever describe. In the meantime, I will be looking forward to next week when I hear the hip-hop coming towards my house.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Sun’s Curtain Bow

For most of the New Years of the past, I’ve watched the ball drop on T.V. in New York’s Times Square. This year I wasn’t able to see the Waterford crystal ball drop amongst the thousands of pounds of confetti, but I was able to see a drop of a different kind: the sun.

Most of the volunteers from my group, 82, met in Savai’i, the other major island of Samoa where volunteers serve. We had a 1.5 ferry ride to the island from my island, Upolu. When we arrived in Savai’i, we had a taxi ready to take us to the opposite side of the island, the western most point in the country, which happens to be the most western point in the world. Samoa is the farthest country to the West, before you cross the international dateline where it is the next day and 23 hours ahead of Samoa.

We gathered on New Year’s Eve and arrived at our beach “fales,” or houses, which were just feet from the ocean. We spent two nights there. That evening, after enjoying the warm waters of the ocean, we began to wander out to the beach with our cameras in hand, to watch the sun set for the very last time, for the very last set of eyes, on that year that was soon to be history, 2009! I felt like we were turning the lights out on 2009, a year that meant a lot for so many of us.

For me, 2009 was the year of chances and changes. It was a year of anticipation and new journeys. It was a time of transition and sad good-byes back home. It was also a year of new friendships, languages and culture. It was a good year; it was a year to remember.

The sun gleamed brilliantly across the water and reflected oranges and reds throughout the different layers of clouds. 2009 took one final bow and then said farewell. After it was all over, I started looking forward to what that new sunrise would bring. Happy New Year, 2010!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Bowl of Oatmeal

Some of you may know already that mornings in Samoa are my hardest time of the day. I’m slowly getting use to them, but have yet to develop a routine that feels good. But the past few mornings have gone smoother because of some small things. I’ve learned that the things you don’t think will matter, do!

A couple mornings ago, about six men from the village came by my house at 6am to cut the grass around my house. I said “E te manaomia se fesoasoani?” or “Do you need any help?” One man said no as he continued to cut the grass with his machete so I went to the back of the house and saw my neighbor working on the grass there. He knew I wanted to help so he handed over his knife and I began to swing it from left to right. I imagine I was putting too much effort into it, and there was probably an easier way, at least they made it look easy.

After about 10 minutes he took over again. I walked around the yard and picked up small pieces of rubbish (it’s called rubbish here, not trash). They were done within an hour. But there on the ground, lay all the long grass clippings, yet I wasn’t worried; I knew they would finish the job. Sure enough, they sent three young boys over the next morning at 7am. One of the boys is my neighbor. He and his two cohorts were using Samoan brooms, which are like firm long grasses tied together in a bundle. I figured I should go out and help since these kids were sweating for me.

I found out their brooms weren’t working all that well and I wish I had had a rake. Instead I took some cardboard scraps and made a sturdy handle which gathered the grass well. I think they were a little impressed with my ingenuity, because they put down their brooms and used my “rakes.”

They did the front yard and said “uma,” or “done.” I said “lei uma,” or “not done,” and led them to the back yard where they had yet to pick up the grass. I thought of my uncle Jamie who always taught me to finish a job and to do it right. I thought it was my turn to pass on the lessons of life and work ethics. As uncle Jamie always said, “Look at the BIG picture.”

After we finished the back yard, I thanked them and said “sau ai,” which is “come eat.” I handed them a deck of cards to play with while I cooked them oatmeal. When it was cooked, I added brown sugar and cut up some esi, which is papaya, to go with the oatmeal. I found myself watching them eat as closely as Samoans watch me when I eat. I was curious if they would like the oatmeal. They dug into the esi first, but of course they would, it’s familiar to them. But the oatmeal, that was something new. One of the boys admitted he didn’t like it, and I’m glad he told me the truth. The other two ate all theirs and said they liked it. I believed them. After they were done I thanked them again and told them to have a nice day.

As they left, I looked at my watch, it was only 8:30am and I felt like I had had an enriching day already. When you’re in a different culture trying to adjust and make relationships, it doesn’t take much to make a day feel fulfilling. I’m just happy they helped get my morning off to a good start, and hopefully I was able to do the same for them with my bowl of oatmeal.