Friday, May 28, 2010

Early Service Conference

Playing a game of Monopoly during after hours of Early Service
Conference. Clockwise from me: Tiffany, Cassie and Corina.

The past two weeks I have been attending my Early Service Conference. This is a program that all Peace Corps volunteers at different posts around the world are required to take part in. It is a chance for the Peace Corps staff to give us more training in our projects so that we can become even more powerful volunteers in our communities. There are several informative sessions on teaching methodologies and strategies. We learn the steps in implementing development projects within our villages and how to go about seeking aid from donor organizations.

Luckily, we have also had a large amount of time dedicated to sharing our own personal successes and challenges of the past six months since we have been at our sites. There is nothing more enjoyable for me than to hear about what worked well for another volunteer and then think to myself how I can implement that in my own village. We have all learned so much in the past months and to have an opportunity for all 17 of us to meet as a group has been empowering. It has motivated me to do even better and has reassured me that I have been doing a lot of things well.

A few days ago while I was sitting at one of our sessions, I started thinking to myself about this whole new life I’ve been living. I just sat there in amazement and had one of those moments of awe where chills ran through me. At moments like that I can’t wrap my head around how much my life has changed and how much I have changed. In those iconic pictures of Peace Corps volunteers serving in far off lands, I went from being the observer to being the doer. When I sit by myself and ask the question, “Kyle, do you feel different now than you did eight months ago?” I say no. I don’t feel different, but when I look at different aspects of my life and the things I have overcome, I know I am different.

I love those moments of fascination when I tell myself how happy I am I went through with this. It makes those hard days seem a little more distant and moves the good moments more towards the forefront. If you had told me last December that I would be telling myself in May, that I was glad I joined the Peace Corps, I would have called you a liar. That is how far I have come.

A couple months ago I was eating dinner with my neighbors. I was sitting there with my legs crossed on a woven mat, wearing a lava lava (a piece of colorful cloth worn around the waist), eating traditional Samoan food, listening to and speaking in Samoan, in the South Pacific, overlooking the ocean, with people who were strangers just a few months earlier. That is when I just started to cry. I felt so lucky, so honored and so ready to serve my country and their country. It was one of those moments of awe I’ve been describing, where everything seemed to mesh at just the right time. I can’t remember if the next day was a rotten one or if the day before it was a fantastic one, but I remember that moment, that moment where I felt a part of something so unique.

Our conference will be ending soon and we will all be going back out to our villages which we have been away from for two weeks. Many of us are ready to go back to that life which is waiting for us. It has become familiar and a part of our routine. It is what makes us feel comfortable, productive and gives us those moments of awe. Village life has its challenges, but the more I overcome and adjust to them, the more I value the lessons they provide and the rewards that wait on the other side.

Enjoying dinner at the Curry House. Clockwise from
front left: Bill, Kathleen (they're married), Matt, Dana,
and Tiffany.

Before and After

I've spent countless hours with a paint roller in hand trying to make my house seem like a home. I moved into my house on December 9, 2009 and started the painting process on January 9, 2010. I've had a lot of help from my twelve year old neighbor, Milo. His company has been great and his painting skills have really improved. He now knows what the word "smooth" means and he can paint trim without making a mess.
The guy who mixes paint at Bluebird Hardware knows my face and that I normally buy paint in one gallon increments. I've bought 6 gallons to date. I still have some things to finish in my bedroom and the spare bedroom, but the living room and bathroom are done. They both look so much better and the change is unbelievable. I've put pictures of before and after for you to look at so you can appreciate how far I've come from those first days back in December. Enjoy the tour!

Milo and I playing cards in my living room before the paint went on. That is my front door in the back.

My living room after!

My kitchen area before.

The kitchen area after some mutch needed work.

My bathroom toilet before the paint.

The bathroom and toilet after paint.

The jail cell before.

No longer a jail cell!!!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Yesterday I had an experience at the hardware store in Apia which made me realize that I really have been in Samoa for a good chunk of time. Apia has roughly 40,000 people and after living in my village here with 400 people, that seems big!

Over the past 6 months I’ve been doing a lot of painting at my house on the interior walls. My place was in bad shape and I’ve been trying to make it livable and inviting. So all that painting has required I make several trips to Apia’s largest hardware store, Bluebird Hardware. Every time I have gone to have my paint mixed, the same guy has waited on me. But yesterday I actually stopped by Bluebird and didn’t buy any paint. I was picking up some clothes pins instead. When I was at the checkout counter, I saw the man who normally mixes my paint standing nearby and he waved to me first and gave a big smile. I guess I’m not surprised he remembered a palagi (white person), who had asked for paint on several occasions, but it really made me feel more at home, and gave me that feeling of living in a small town again. That’s a feeling I’ve missed while living in this new country where everything has been foreign.

But thinking about the man at Bluebird reminds me that this “small town” feeling has occurred other places around town. For example, when I go to the photo shop, the two ladies who are always working there know me by my first name. One is Samoan and the other is from New Zealand. They always ask me how things in my village are going and how I have been.

The man who takes ticket stubs at Magic Cinema, Samoa’s only movie theater, knows my face and lets me get away with taking my backpack into the theater, something most people aren’t allowed to do.

The Chinese guy that works the cash register at K.K. Mart (the small convenience store next to the Peace Corps office) recognizes me now when I walk in there and knows that I can speak some Samoan, so he has quit speaking English to me—something he always use to do a few months ago.

John from the internet café next to the post office knows my name and that I normally like to buy a Coke when I go in to use the internet.

When I go to get my haircut, my barber Brian knows what haircut I like and says hi right when I walk in the door. The place is usually hot but the haircut is good and also reasonably priced.

Then there’s the old man at Farmer Joe’s grocery store who checks our bags before we go into the store. I can’t be positive if he knows me, but he always gets this look on his face like he’s acknowledging he knows me. If he does remember me, it’s probably because of the weight of my bag, which caught him off guard the first time!

And then there is a whole village that seems to know my name and I don’t even live there! I go walking down the street and kids who look like strangers to me, come out and say “hi Kyle.” It gives me a spooked out feeling and a welcoming feeling at the same time.

I’m pretty sure the mean waitress at Mari’s restaurant knows me too. She and I don’t get along all that well. Mari’s has nice food and a great atmosphere but I’ve stopped eating there. They are one of the few restaurants with a large flat screen T.V. and one of the very few that have CNN International and BBC showing from time to time. I use to like to sit in there eat and watch some world news. Recently though they refuse to change the channel to CNN or BBC, even if there’s no one else in the restaurant. She always says her “boss” has the remote. But I digress…

Overall though, I now realize that living here for nearly eight months has helped make this place feel more like home. The people have gotten to know me and I have gotten to know them. It’s nice to feel welcomed when being so far from home. It’s nice to live where everybody knows your name.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Then and Now

After living in Samoa for nearly eight months, I thought it would be fun to look back and see how my life has changed from what it use to be back in the United States.

1. I now carry a tala in my wallet instead of a dollar.
2. I can speak a second language.
3. Fungus grows on my legs.
4. Heat rash runs ramped across my arms.
5. I sleep under a mosquito net.
6. Eating dinner, I sit on a floor mat.
7. Before going to the bathroom, I inspect around the toilet for spiders, centipedes and cockroaches.
8. I wear mosquito repellent on a daily basis.
9. When out in the sun, I wonder if I might be developing cataracts or skin cancer from the intense rays of the sun.
10. Reading a newspaper or magazine from two or three months ago seems like new news.
11. I now have to run for 20 minutes in order to capture a cell phone signal.
12. I am limited to updating my status on Facebook to about four times a month instead of four times a week.
13. I no longer drive a car but instead ride in a bus.
14. I live next to an ocean.
15. I live on an island.
16. Before drinking water I boil it and run it through a filter.
17. My electricity goes off about every other day for several hours.
18. I send more hand written letters than I do emails.
19. When ridding in a vehicle, I travel on the left hand side of the road and when jogging run on the right side.
20. I experience earthquakes several times a week and tsunami warnings a few times a year.
21. Bananas grow in my front and back yard.
22. I experience cyclones instead of snow storms.
23. A weekend trip involves an overnight stay on a sandy beach in an open thatched hut.
24. My toothbrush handle molds so much I have to switch to a new one every couple of months.
25. I’m employed by the U.S. Government.
26. When going for a walk I have to look out for falling coconuts.
27. I do my laundry by hand in a bucket.
28. I take cold showers.
29. I’m given an extension on filing my taxes.
30. I live in the Southern hemisphere.

Friday, May 21, 2010

You Know You Live in a Tropical Climate When…

1. You have to put mosquito repellent on before you go to work.
2. Bread starts to mold within 48 hours.
3. You have to place all electronics inside air tight bags to protect them from the moisture.
4. Locals start putting sweatshirts on and saying it’s chilly when it gets to 70 degrees.
5. Coconut palms lean at 30 degree angles.
6. Cockroaches grow to the size of Boeing jets.
7. It rains so heavy you wonder if you should start building an ark.
8. Your clothes dry outside on a sunny day in less than an hour.
9. You sweat so much you can ring your shirt out at the end of the day.
10. You wear shorts every day of the year.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

This is the front of my classroom. I asked the students to draw pictures for the alphabet that I had written. Each picture begins with that letter. The kids loved the project and get to look at them each day. I also have a calendar I put up each month. The kids need a lot of practice with knowing the days of the week and dates. There is a pocket chart below the calendar and I got that idea from my mom who has a very nice laminated one in her kindergarten classroom in the states. The classroom rules are also clearly stated in the front of the room also!

This is one of the spots where I can make a phone call from near my house (10 minute jog away). This coastal route to my village is recommended in local tour guide magazines! I have to agree with their suggestion.

This is in an area on the south side of the island that was hit hard by the tsunami in September of 2009. There use to be a beach resort at this location to the left of us before it was wipped out in seconds. The resorts are slowly starting to rebuild but it is a long road. Here Casey, Corina and I enjoy the beach for a quick picture..

This is a huge trench where water from the ocean comes under one side of the rock. We went down the ladder for a swim in the refreshing water. As someone in our group commented, in Samoa there are no warning signs or lifegurards near by, it's all at your own risk. Pay the 10 tala and you can have all the fun you want!

He Reminded Me Of Christopher Lloyd

Very few buses run here on Sundays. They’re hard to avoid any other day of the week, but Sundays the roads are easy to cross and a little less noisy. However, I had heard a rumor that there was one bus on Sunday that left from the market and traveled to a village near mine. After doing my grocery shopping, I walked across the road to the market to wait for this bus. The market looks like an abandoned city on Sunday, with only Taxi drivers napping on the benches which are normally crowded with people. I didn’t want a taxi though, they are too expensive.

So I sat down next to an older man who had longer white hair (long hair is uncommon for men in Samoa). He didn’t seem like the friendly type at first and I had an Economist I was looking forward to reading, so I figured I would just wait for the bus in silence. But before long, he started speaking to me in perfect English. The first thing he said, and what most Samoans ask right off the bat is, “where are you going?” I told him and asked him about the bus. He confirmed to me that there was one bus and it would be there at noon—30 minutes away.

Normally, if I’m sitting with a Samoan, I will try to speak in Samoan with them, for my own practice and out of respect for them. However, I knew this man was proud to be speaking in English, so I went right along with him to avoid the hassle of me trying to grapple for Samoan words. The first thing that goes through my head when I hear someone speak as well as he did in English, is where did they learn to speak that well, or why? Sometimes people have lived in American Samoa for several years, where English is spoken. Sometimes they lived in New Zealand or Australia. Other times they just did well in school here, went to the university, and found a good job in Samoa where they used their English daily. And other times, they have lived in The United States of America, just as this man had.

He explained to me how he married a women from San Diego and that she was there now. This man, who slowly started to remind me of Dr. Emmett Brown from Back to the Future, said he had come to Samoa to look after some of the land he owns. I asked when he was planning a trip back to California and he said soon. Most Samoans who have lived in the U.S. don’t seem to mind visiting again, but most I’ve spoken with say they want to come back to Samoa and live the rest of their life here, to die in their own country. Not this man, he said he was going to go back to the U.S. and planned on staying there.

As time passed, I became curious about his life in San Diego. I was dying to know what his wife did, and then luckily he told me. He said she was a professor. I was very impressed. “Where is she a professor?” I asked. “At the University of San Diego,” he said. But then I wanted to know what she taught. He said she was a shrink.

I also learned about his children who are living in New Zealand and another who lives in Phoenix. He was also proud to tell me that he once held a wrestling championship title in New Zealand. He said that title earned him a lot of respect.

I learned about his lineage. Part German—he had a father from Germany who was in Samoa during the war (German blood is common among many Samoans). He was part Scottish and part something else…it starting to get confusing, but nonetheless, he had me listening rather well. He explained a few things he thought Samoa could improve on, and was well aware that they have faults, just like every other country. He was particularly frustrated with the youth of the country, those who hang around with a lazy attitude. Religion even was mentioned, as I learned he was a Christian. He also made known his opinions about other religions, which seemed a bit un-Christian to me.

During our whole conversation, I was keeping one ear and one eye open for the sound and sight of the bus that I needed to catch. I knew what color it was and became anxious for its arrival as noon approached. Finally at 12:15 I heard a bus, but when I saw it, it wasn’t the bus I needed. When the bus arrived, the old man wished me well and waved goodbye as he headed for the steps of the bus that had just pulled in. After he left, I started asking others if there was in deed a bus to the village I needed to go to. One after another they said with a slight laugh, “no, there’s no bus on Sunday.”

If you wanted me to pinpoint a moral to the story, it is this: seven months ago a situation like this would have frustrated me (heck, I wouldn’t have even been in a situation like this), but today I have changed. I left home for the Peace Corps knowing that I was going to change and it’s exciting to think about. However, that leaves me wondering, “when is this change going to happen, what will it look like, and how will it unfold?”

As the months have passed, I’ve begun to realize that it’s not an earth shattering moment here that changes me from that old person, and way of thinking, into the new. Rather, the changes come slowly and gradually from situations like this one, where I learn about other people and am tested with my patience. The lazy moments that I don’t think will have anything to do with my “change,” end up being some of the most interesting encounters of this whole experience. But the final moral of this story is simply this: if you’re ever at the market in Samoa on a Sunday afternoon, be careful who you ask when wanting the bus schedule, especially if it’s a man whose wife is a shrink in California!

The G Force

I’ve always been a fan of analogies, but even more so since being in Samoa. I guess they help explain this new life I’m living. I recently wrote my sister a letter where I compared my life here to a rollercoaster ride. Here’s how it goes:

If you’ve ever ridden a rollercoaster before you might have experienced some hesitation before you got on and were strapped in. I know I have. Well Peace Corps is definitely something I hesitated doing. I had actually been contemplating Peace Corps since my sophomore year in college. It takes some guts to leave the comforts of home, just as it takes guts to ride the steel tracks of a rollercoaster.

A rollercoaster also has such a diverse group of people who ride it. Some are young, some are old. Some close their eyes; others stretch their arms above their heads. The Peace Corps also has a dynamic and varying group of people. I’ve met some wonderful individuals through this organization, people with drive and determination.

You might have seen this next one coming and it’s a bit clichéd, but there are highs and lows throughout the Peace Corps life. Just like that rollercoaster, there are times in the journey where you feel like your on top of the world, so comfortable you feel you can stretch your arms out like those die-hard rollercoaster fans and still feel safe. But there are other days where you feel scared, confused, and maybe a little lost, as if you don’t know which way is up or you’ve entered one of those tunnels that the track runs through.

For some who’ve ridden a rollercoaster, there might have been times when you wondered if you were completely safe. Those hard turns and upside down loops can play with your mind. For me, I’ve looked for the tight embrace of God on my challenging days and have found Him to be like the safety harness that locks in tight over your shoulders. God is bracing me and holding me on those upside-down days, making sure I make it to the end of the track.

At some point the ride does come to an end. Some will say it went by fast, while others will think it took forever to be finished. However, a lot of people who may have hesitated to board in the first place find themselves exhilarated, or at least proud of their taking on a new challenge. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I’m trying to enjoy all the moments of this ride. I’m trying to learn about myself and others around me. Just like those on the rollercoaster, I’m trying to step away from my comfort zone to experience the view from another angle, a new height. As the rollercoaster reaches the peak of the highest drop, I’m hoping I have the courage to raise my hands up, keep my eyes open and enjoy the next challenge before me.