Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Jenny's Guest Blog

Editor’s Note: Now that my sister, Jenny, is wrapping up her visit to Samoa, I asked her to write a blog that I could share with all of you. I told her she could write about anything she wanted about her time in Samoa. Below you will find her reflections on Samoa. It was an absolute joy to have my sister with me for two weeks to learn about my life here. In future posts, look for more of my own thoughts and memories on her visit, but for now, as she is about to depart Samoa, please take a moment to read through her thoughts on her time in the South Pacific!

Things I Learned During My Visit to Samoa

In no particular order, here are the things I’ve learned after visiting Kyle for 2 weeks in Samoa.
• Samoa in the winter has Houston summers beat for heat and humidity in the morning. I knew this as soon as I stepped off the 10 hr. Air New Zealand flight at 5:30 a.m.
• The term “clean” is very broad. Samoans idea of clean would not meet the US standards. However, I’ve been here 2 weeks and I’ve been perfectly fine. It’s all relative to where you are and I’m sure the same is true in other third world countries. Bottom line is that Samoans do the best with what they have and what they know.
• There are very few, if any safety regulations in Samoa. They pack the buses full with people until nobody can move, but people are friendly and accommodating. They hold random children on their laps, pass unknown bags down the aisles, and always move to make room for visitors (like me) to sit comfortably. I also noticed the lack of safety regulations when I was halfway through a river hike which consisted of climbing waterfalls and other dangerous landscapes. All of this without any type of safety equipment. I though to myself, “I don’t remember signing any waiver regarding safety.” Luckily I made it through with only a few scrapes and bruises!
• Samoans love music, including American music. They love it so much that they play the same songs all day, everyday, everywhere. I heard the same songs blaring on the bus, echoing in the taxis, and playing on Kyle’s neighbor’s radio.
• Samoans like to record American songs in Samoan and play them over and over as stated previously. The ones I’ll always remember (and probably won’t listen to for awhile) include Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” and Kid Rock and Cheryl Crow’s duet “Picture.”
• It’s normal to find pigs, chickens, roosters, dogs, cats, and cows wandering through the yards or down by the beach. Several times grunting pigs would meander around Kyle’s house. We also found them swimming in the ocean (piglets too)! Kyle also had a pesky povi (cow) that would run around his yard, with the owner not far behind trying to catch it.
• Roosters don’t only crow in the morning. They crow all throughout the day.
• The ants in Samoa are amazing little insects. They’ll find any crumb or dead insect almost immediately. They carry dead insects up walls and over anything. This has forced Kyle to keep all food and any trash containing food wrappers in Ziploc bags. Plus he keeps the bags, other food, and dishes in two large plastic tubs that seal up nice and tight. This also helps keep the rats and cockroaches away from those items.
• You can never have too many Ziploc bags. From keeping out unwanted insects to storing food in small spaces (like Kyle’s tiny fridge), Ziploc bags get the job done!
• Sleeping inside a mosquito net is pretty cozy. They do a great job keeping the bugs out and it’s like sleeping in your own personal tent.
• Always carry your own pillowcase with you when traveling to Samoan hotels, beach fales, etc. That way you know where the pillowcase has been.
• You can survive without all the extra toiletries. As long as you have a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, deodorant, a razor, and some moisturizer (ladies), you’re set!
• I don’t think I’ll never complain about having to take my laundry down to the laundry facility at my apartment complex. It definitely beats hand washing all your clothes in a tub and air drying everything.
• Taking a cold shower can be refreshing and having it come out of the pipe inside your house is a luxury.
• A little dirt in the water never hurt anyone. Showering in it is no big deal and just be sure to boil it and filter it before drinking.
• Everyone should have a Leatherman. They’re very useful-especially to turn the shower on and off.
• Keep all bags zipped up. This prevents cockroaches, spiders, ants, and rats from getting in.
• Samoans have beautiful voices. From the choirs in church to the students singing in school, it all is music to the ears and puts a smile on your face.
• Mormons are alive and well and can be found riding their bikes around Samoa. Almost every village has an LDS church and you recognize them instantly by their cream exterior with blue trim. In addition, they usually have the best kept grounds in the village.
• Christianity is prevalent in Samoa. Besides the Mormons, I’ve also seen many Catholic, Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, and Christian Congregational Churches, with the Christian Congregational Church playing an important role in villages.
• Samoans love to play volleyball. I didn’t get a chance to play with them, but we passed many games going on in people’s yards.
• Children and families are polite and respectful at mealtime. Guests and elders eat first. Then the children get to eat the food that is left or wasn’t finished by the first ones to eat. No food is wasted.
• You can ride halfway around the island on the bus for the same price of a 1 liter bottle of water. Drinks are very expensive, including bottled water.
• McDonald’s tastes just as good in Samoa, but often has to improvise if it runs out of something. We had fries similar to steak fries the first time we went to McDonald’s. Kyle said this was what usually happened when they ran out of fries.
• Making a 1 hour and 20 minute walk from the bus on the main road to Kyle’s village is a great workout and comes with a beautiful view. The road winds along the side, up and down the mountain. It’s even better exercise with backpacks and bags of groceries. I now see why Kyle has lost some weight.
• Children in Samoa are very similar to children in the U.S. In the classroom there are the well behaved and the ones that like to act up.
• Samoans have great teeth and beautiful smiles. Almost every Samoan I saw looked as though they’d had brace, but they obviously hadn’t.
• Hitchhiking is safe here, but watch out for the rare Samoan who will try to take advantage of the palagi (white person) tourist. Sometimes hitchhiking is your only option on Sunday when there are no buses and you don’t want to spend money on a taxi.
• Samoans love starchy foods. From bread to taro to fries to breadfruit, Samoans eat it all regularly. Saimini noodles are also extremely popular, but also extremely unhealthy. One bowl has 17 g of fat and over 2000 mg of sodium.
• Traveling through Samoa reminds one of the Disney movie Swiss Family Robinson. From the fales (Samoan homes) with thatched roofs made of palms to the landscape, I found myself saying to Kyle several times, “Swiss Family Robinson!”
• Samoans have great eyes! Walking down the road in the dark, they can see who it is from fairly far away with no flashlight at all.
• Samoans have a unique way of getting someone’s attention. It sounds like they’re trying to give someone a kiss.
• Samoans can read lips and have whole conversations without making a sound.
• Samoa had the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. I haven’t been to that many beaches around the world, but regardless, Samoan beaches are picture postcard worthy.
• Even in Samoa, Kyle still has his “systems” and ways of doing things. He’s adapting well and still is the same old Kyle.
• And last but not least-Always wear sunscreen!

To conclude, I’ve really enjoyed my time in Samoa and exploring it with Kyle, who is living and working here, has been a once in a lifetime experience. It was undoubtedly the best way to learn about the culture and people of Samoa.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Country Road

If you were to compare my life in the United States to a road, it would be like traveling down an American interstate at 70 m.p.h.. If somebody was going too slow, all I had to do was pass them and be on my way. Things moved along smoothly and I got where I needed to go in a reasonable amount of time. But traveling down the interstate also causes you to loose sight of the things around you. Everything seems a bit more blurry. The trees and fence posts on the side of the road seem to last but just a second. A driver on the interstate is more focused on what is ahead of them, rather than what is around them.

On the other hand, if you also compared my life here in Samoa to a road, it would be like traveling down a non-paved back country road at 20 m.p.h.. If I’m in a hurry to get somewhere, I forget about it because a person can’t drive too fast on those dirt roads without ruining their car. But driving down a country road does have some advantages. When you’re traveling at such a slow speed, it causes you to take notice of your surroundings. You have more time to appreciate the surrounding landmarks and nature's designs. The mailboxes on the side of the road seem stationary, as opposed to a blur on a faster road.

My experiences her in Samoa relate most to the non-paved country road, as opposed to the truck-honking, tailgating, side swiping ways of the interstate. Some days this country road here in Samoa feels like the best thing to happen to me, while other days it leaves me a bit frustrated, wanting to find the next on ramp for I-80. Both experiences have helped me to grow and become more flexible. When you are in a situation which is uncontrollable, you have to learn to fit in with your surroundings in order to be the most effective.

For example, being in Samoa without my own transportation has been a huge adjustment. I marvel at the days when I use to get in my car to go to the store for something I needed: I would just drive there, walk in, buy it, walk out, and drive away. I could easily be done in a half hour or hour depending on the store I traveled to. Life was easy in that respect.

But here in Samoa, I have to wait for a bus, and the bus doesn’t even come every day. On the days the bus does come, many times I can’t get on it because I’m busy at school. This leaves me with catching a bus on the weekend and then riding it for 1.5 hours into the capitol. Once in the capitol, it isn’t just walking in and out like at a Wal-Mart; I often have to go to a half dozen stores to accomplish the things on my shopping list. One store has the good bread, another store has the cheaper peanut butter and the market has cheap local foods like bananas and papaya. And in between those stores I’m having to lug the bags around or dish out precious cash for a taxi ride.

However, these experiences are teaching me how the majority of the world lives. Those who make up the “Third World,” or the “Developing World,” are the majority here on this Earth. My time here in Samoa has forced me to apply my foot to the brake and turn off the cruise control. Most people in this world can’t do their shopping at a Kohl’s, Target or Macy’s. They buy the things they NEED at stores which don’t have a sliding front door, that don’t have air conditioning and don’t have electric scanners to read bar codes. Those are all the frills of the interstate life where things move along at break neck speed. The roads are smooth and highly maintained. Is that to say that the ruts of the county road don’t have things to offer? Certainly not, and I’m finding that out each day I live here.

When my bus driver knows me by name and the days I ride, that says something about this culture and lifestyle. When the store clerk at the convenient store knows my face and the things I usually buy, it reminds me of how impersonal life back home can be at times. When you’re moving slower, you have time to say hi and recognize another person, rather than just noticing a figure whiz by.

Since there is no cell phone coverage in my village, it has left me having to walk or jog for 20 minutes around the mountain to receive a cell phone signal. Is this the country road I was referring to earlier? Yes; literally and figuratively. As inconvenient as that jog seemed back in December, it certainly has grown on me since then. Being able to jog along bluffs overlooking the largest ocean in the world has given me a chance to appreciate where I live. If I was traveling down the interstate it would just be a body of water, but traveling down the country road it is a work of God. Receiving a phone call at the ready back home made me a little tone deaf to what was being said on the other end. Having to work hard and break a sweat just to call a loved one causes you to pause and really appreciate what they are saying and what their voice sounds like.

I could go on and on with the comparisons of my life then and now and how each has positives and negatives. It’s all part of my daily life as I continue to adjust to a new culture which I will never completely understand, for it will never be my own. I love America, I love my culture and I certainly love driving the interstate. But I’ve also learned over the past several months that taking the scenic route has its advantages too. So here’s a challenge to all my readers: next time you can choose between the interstate and a country road which runs parallel to it, choose the country road as an opportunity to slow down your life, and remember how most of the world travels—on that very same road you will be on.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

When it Rains it Pours

In my invitation kit I received before coming to Samoa, there was a packing list which was provided to me. Among the several dozen suggestions of things to bring was an umbrella. That seemed practical, considering I was moving to the tropics for two years. But the list didn’t just say umbrella, it said a “sturdy umbrella that could withstand the heavy rains and winds of Samoa.” Well somewhere in my daze of visiting shopping malls in Michigan, Indiana and Texas, I forgot about the last part that advised to bring a “sturdy” umbrella, and I ended up settling for a black $9.00 Nautica brand from T.J. Max.

I picked that particular umbrella because it was light and compact—one of those nifty retractable ones that opens when you press the button. I was packing two years worth of possessions in two suitcases and could hardly have made room for a golf-sized umbrella. To my delight, my umbrella was working very well during my first few months of training and settling in time at my village. It was withstanding the torrential downpours that Samoa is famous for and the high winds from the tropical depressions.

However, one day I started to recognize rust on the handle and even on the fabric. I wasn’t worried, what could rust do to an umbrella? How bad could this climate really be on an umbrella? The answer turned out to be pretty bad. The fabric was the first thing to go and began to rip and leak. That all came about after the heaviest and longest rainstorm I have ever lived through. Next the handle started to go and I could feel it becoming loose. I still wasn’t worried. But then one day, that neat little button that opens the umbrella was jammed and wouldn’t work at all. I couldn’t get the umbrella open, although even if I did, the thing was rusted and leaked. So I finally decided to part with it at the beginning of January and gave it to my twelve year old neighbor, Milo. I think he still has it, although I never see him with it. A lot of Samoans do without an umbrella and just walk through the rain and dry off later. If anything, they use the umbrella more as a shield from the hot rays of the sun.

When I was left without an umbrella I broke down and bought one in town for only $15 tala, which in U.S. dollars was actually cheaper than the first umbrella I bought back at T.J. Max. I knew it was only a matter of time before this one was trashed as well. Well sure enough, I had to pronounce it dead in the middle of June after it made a very long walk with me down a very dark road in a very heavy rainstorm (see picture above).

We are now in the “dryer season” for Samoa, which means it rains less than it does in the wet season, which still means it rains a fair amount. Are you still with me? So now I’ve gone nearly a month without an umbrella, but I’m beginning to wonder when my luck may run out. But the longer I go without one, the longer I want to push my luck. Joey from Group 80 laughed at me in the office one day when I told him I was on my second umbrella already. He’s gone more than two years without an umbrella here in Samoa, and I know that other volunteers have gone without as well. Yet, I still feel that I’ll have to get another one, although I may try and hold off until October when the rainy season begins again. In the meantime, I’ll keep a close eye on the sky in an effort to avoid getting caught in a messy situation.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Remembering Grandpa and Nation

On this day in 1916 our nation was celebrating her 140th Birthday. World War I was already in progress, although the United States wouldn’t enter the conflict until 1917. America still had the majority of the new century ahead of her and so much would be accomplished in that 20th century! However, July 4, 1916 was also the birthday of another kind—as my Grandpa, Howard Blonde was born into this world. He lived a great and successful life and was a smart man. He made sacrifices along the way which helped better his life and his family’s life as well. Grandpa Howie, as I called him, worked hard at many jobs and even at the age of 45 had enough energy to start his own business, selling docks which he had brilliantly designed. He had that business until 1992 when he decided to retire at the age of 76!

Growing up, July 4th was more than this nation’s birthday, it was a day to celebrate Grandpa’s life, and spend time with the family he loved. The 4th meant immediate and extended family coming from near and far to gather at my grandparent’s lake house on Klinger Lake, in Michigan, which they moved into in 1954. Both Grandma and Grandpa had a love for the lake. The appreciation for that special spot we called our “slice of Heaven,” has been cultivated and grown throughout the years as five generations have been able to enjoy it for the past 56 years!

The first thing I remember about walking into my grandparent’s house at the lake each 4th was getting the first glimpse of Grandpa’s American flag socks which he wore each 4th of July. They were kind of like a Christmas ornament which only served a special purpose once a year, and then were tucked away in a safe spot. Even one year when Grandpa was in the hospital because of heart trouble, his socks followed him to his hospital room where he received all kinds of complements from the nurses.

The 4th also meant boat parades on the lake and warm summer heat. It meant watching the sail boats cut across the water and jet skies race by the house. Looking back at the handful of pictures from over the years, I think 99 percent of Grandpa’s birthday cakes were decorated in red, white and blue—again, going back to that dual celebration of nation and Grandpa.

Perhaps the most magical part of the day was watching the fireworks be shot off from in front of my grandparent’s house. Shot from a sand bar in the middle of the lake, the fireworks would explode and send echoes in every direction over the water which looked like glass. When the finale had ended I knew Grandpa’s birthday was over for another year, but with great memories having been made.

Other than 1989, when I was visiting family in Idaho, I have been at Klinger Lake every July 4th since 1985. For me, it’s a holiday which stands next to Christmas in terms of excitement and tradition. It was a special day because it was Grandpa’s day!

Grandpa Howie passed away in 2003 at the age of 86. Since then our family has continued the traditions which became a part of that day. Despite our gatherings though, there was a part of us that just never viewed that day the same way again, and it always felt like something was missing amongst the fireworks and cookouts.

Today is a day for America. It’s a day for her to be celebrated with those who love her the most—the citizens who give her its vitality, ingenuity and drive. For those who protect her, serve her and immigrate to its majestic shores. This day has meaning for all of us and traditions all our families carry out. However, this year, because of my service in the Peace Corps in Samoa, my July 4th is being spent away from Klinger Lake and the family I love. My grandma is now 95 years old and still living in the same house she has since 1954! Our family will gather there with her today and the traditions will continue: good food, fireworks and a celebration of our country’s 234th birthday. There will be more memories made and perhaps some time reflecting on the years that have passed. I will be with them in spirit.

However, this year, I have a whole new perspective on Independence Day, and our country, which I never could have gained if I had stayed within her borders and even if I had stayed at Klinger Lake. Living away from home for nine months now, I have come to love my country in a whole new way, in a way which I never had before, despite the traditions and gatherings with family.

This year I’m thinking of those 4th of July parades taking place all over America in small villages and huge cities. I’m thinking of the veterans who are Honor Guard at the beginning of each of those parades. They are the men and women I always use to stand and salute, but never could quite connect with in terms of sacrifice. The Peace Corps isn’t the armed services, but it is a sacrifice and for that it has helped me feel a connection to their service.

I’m also thinking of those great American cities I’ve visited over the years: New York City, New Orleans, Phoenix, St. Louis, Chicago and Los Angeles. I think of the ingenuity it took to build them and the perseverance it takes to maintain their identities. They are the symbols of our desires to achieve, persist and improve the country which the craftsmen of our nation set in place 234 years ago today.

And so my thoughts turn back to what this day has always meant to me and always will, no matter where I may be living in the world. It means family. I’m reminded of Grandpa’s part in improving America, in helping his children and grandchildren attain that American dream, and sense of accomplishment we all long for as Americans. I think of the chances and risks Grandpa took and how he helped support, encourage and inspire me to do the same. Today is July 4th and as the years continue, this day will always be a day to reflect on Grandpa and our nation’s birth. Happy 4th, 2010!