Sunday, August 29, 2010

Clocks and Waist Lines

If you stick with me, I’ll try to explain that bizarre title, but first I have to fill you in on the latest news. For the first time ever, Samoa is about to begin observing Daylight Saving Time. Beginning on September 25, 2010 at 12:00a.m. midnight, the country will move the clocks ahead one hour (as it will be heading into spring here in the Southern Hemisphere). When I first read about this in the newspaper, I just shook my head and said to myself, “this should be interesting.”

Samoa is a country which did without clocks for thousands of years. Samoans have been living here for 3,000 years and only had clocks introduced to them in the 1800s when Europeans arrived. To this day, many Samoans don’t own a clock or watch, perhaps other than the clock feature which is on their cell phones. That is what first lead me to believe this could be tricky, trying to explain what all this clock movement is about.

But it goes deeper than that. Since Samoans don’t rely heavily on clocks, they go about their day using the light of the sun as their guide for activities. For example, evening prayer—which almost every village observes and is begun by the sounding of the conk shell—begins at dusk. And because there is a curfew to be in your house by that time, many people plan their evenings around evening prayer. My neighbors who I eat with each night always eat right after evening prayer. Therefore, when it got dark out at 7:30 p.m. last December that is when we ate dinner. But once the daylight started getting shorter in March and April, I noticed that I was showing up late for dinner because they were ready to eat at 7:00 and then 6:30 as the daylight continued to decrease. But now we’re heading back towards summer here in the Southern Hemisphere so we’re eating closer to 7:00 again.

My prediction is that after we set our clocks forward an hour in September it won’t be getting dark out until 8:30, come December. Therefore, I’ll be eating dinner at 8:30 and going to bed at the same time as usual and thus not having as much time to burn off those calories from the evening meal and in turn increasing my waist size! I also predict this to be the case among Samoans.

Nonetheless, I have been able to find some good points about observing Daylight Saving Time here in Samoa. Even though it will be bizarre that Hawaii will actually be one hour behind Samoa come November, there are a few points to consider. During the summer when the sun rises earliest—usually around 5:45a.m. it gets hot sooner and tends to limit the amount of sleeping in a person can do. But once the clocks are moved ahead an hour and the daylight is on the end of the day, it won’t get light out until 6:45a.m., similar to the time of sunrise on the first day of winter. Therefore my summer mornings may actually be a bit cooler and a bit more restful.

In addition, I may save my family some sleep as well. Currently I am seven hours behind Eastern Time back home where my family lives in Michigan. Normally I can only call them after the sun goes behind the mountains around 4:45 p.m. because I have to run to make my phone calls and it’s just too hot earlier in the day. So when I call them now at 5:15p.m. it’s already 12:15 a.m. there the next day, and sometimes that interrupts their sleep.

However, once we move our clocks ahead one hour on September 25th we will only be six hours behind Michigan. On November 7th, the Untied States goes off of Daylight Saving Time and will set their clocks back an hour, thus making us only five hours difference. So on November 7th when I call home at 5:15 p.m. it will only be 10:15 p.m. back in Michigan and hopefully a little less of an inconvenient!

So as with most things, this too seems to have pros and cons. I’m just hoping that the pros outnumber the cons. But I also have to remind myself that this country, less than a year ago, was ordered by the government to one day start driving on the left hand side of the road. If Samoa can handle the road switch in the blink of an eye, I’m guessing that moving the clocks forward one hour will seem like a piece of cake. Nevertheless, this country must be wondering what their government will want them to switch or move forward the next time. If only they knew they have to move the clocks back an hour next fall!!!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Ringmaster’s Wardrobe

For Samoans, living in this developing country means doing without many things, and new quality clothes like those in the developed world wear are among one of those things sacrificed. Many children get hand me downs that have clearly been worn before as they are frayed, stained and faded. Nonetheless, Samoans do seem to always keep the clothes washed and smelling as nice as possible, given the hot humid climate.

Men and women alike, where what is called an ie (pronounced “ea”) This is a piece of printed fabric which they tie around their waist and wear over their shorts. You can buy these in Apia, the capitol, for about 10 tala, or about $5 US dollars. In fact, many times you have to fend of the persistent salesmen and women who try to show you all their different designs and colors.

The ie is typically worn with a t-shirt or maybe a polo shirt by men. This combination is for everyday life in the village, such as working in the plantation, visiting a neighbor or playing volleyball in. It is not a formal dress attire. As a Peace Corps Volunteers, we are encouraged to conform to some of the local customs, and clothing is among one of the ways we can help do that. Therefore when I visit with neighbors or go for walks within the village, I often wear an ie to show respect to the locals and their way of life. But yes, technically, I guess you could say I am wearing a skirt.

Now that we’ve acknowledged that elephant, we need to discuss formal dress. Formal dress is worn to church, school and of course weddings and funerals. For men this would mean an ie fai Tonga, which is made of a cotton polyester and is a solid color. A button down shirt is worn with this and can be worn un-tucked or tucked into the lava lava (un-tucked is much cooler).

But not very cool is what the women have to wear for formal attire. Essentially it is fabric from the shoulders to the ankles. Usually a colorful printed pattern with a bottom skirt and long top, it is known as a pulatasi. When my sister Jenny visited last month, I gave her one which I had had made for her. Teachers wear these to my school everyday and I always feel sympathetic for them as they must be so hot to wear in this climate.

As mentioned before, Samoans don’t have a lot of money to spend on clothes and often times it is second hand or given from relatives over seas. It’s not uncommon to see the “I love L.A.” t-shirts or a Spider Man t-shirt on a child. It always reminds me how global this world has become.

Back in June, my neighbor, who makes hand carved crafts for a living, had an opportunity for work in American Samoa, some 60 miles to the east of Samoa. He was there for about a month and when he returned he didn’t come empty handed. For the past couple of months I’ve been able to see all the clothes he was able to pick up (second hand) while he was working there. It is the most thoughtful thing he could have done, to have brought clothes back for his family of four children and his wife. Each of them has been wearing the new shirts and pants that he bought there.

Milo, my 12 year old neighbor and a best friend here in Samoa, has been enjoying all his new clothes, almost as much as I have. As the weeks go on, he keeps wearing things that make me laugh to myself a little bit harder each time I see him. The first thing I saw him wear was a long sleeved zip-up hooded jacket. When he first brought it out I told him how much his older sister Iva must like it, not knowing that it was for him, although he didn’t know that it was a girl’s jacket. It has fir around the hood and is plaid. He only wears it on the nights when it gets chilly, which means 75 degrees!

And then there are the red pants. Milo is a little plump and the pants are a bit too small for him. So the first time I saw him trying to get the button done, I was reminded of my chubbier days when I had the same problem on different occasions. But these were new pants to him, and ones his dad brought back, so they were special—as they should be.

And just last weekend I found out there is a red jacket that matches those red pants. He came over to my house after church and knocked on the door. When I opened it up and saw him there, I thought he was getting ready to audition for a ringmaster’s position in a circus. His smile was the brightest as he was waiting for a reaction—that was really dressed up for him, considering he usually goes without a t-shirt most the day. I told him how much I liked his dress coat and asked if I could have a picture (with the idea of this blog suddenly blatant). Off we walked to his house for the Sunday meal as he wore his red pants, red coat and flip flops! I just smiled as I walked behind him wearing my ie and un-matching button down shirt.

Milo was bundling up for the 70 degree weather one night, so I went along with it and dug out the long pants and long shirt! BRRRR!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Thank You, Jenny!!!

Last time I posted to the blog you had a chance to hear from my sister, Jenny! However, for this entry, I’d like to take a few moments to capture some of my own thoughts on her visit here to Samoa, now over two weeks ago.
Jenny’s visit here was one which we started talking about back in December when I would call her from the edge of the mountain where I make my phone calls. I’ll never forget calling her in tears about how bad the homesickness was and she would reassure me things would get better, which they have, and that she would be here for a visit in eight months, which has happened! Just knowing that I was going to see my sister and have family here with me helped me through some of my toughest days, so for that I thank her.

As I’ve mentioned to Jenny before, there were a dozen other destinations she could have visited on her very short summer vacation from school, and certainly other options cheaper than flying more than 5,000 miles to a South Pacific island. Nonetheless, she was committed to supporting me, encouraging me, and learning about this culture during her two week visit. There were several things she had to deal with that were different from her life back home, yet she was a real trooper. She never complained once about the cold showers or having to seal all the food in plastic bags inside of plastic buckets. Jenny went with the flow and I appreciated her willingness to experience the “Peace Corps life.”

I went to the airport to pick her up at 5:30a.m. on Wednesday, July 14th. I hadn’t been back inside the airport since the day I arrived back in October, when things were all a daze, so it was nice to re-familiarize myself with Samoa’s Faleolo International Airport. I can remember how it was so unbelievable that we were going to meet, after I had gone more than 9 months without seeing a single family member. But Jenny and I finally did reunite and embraced in an emotional hug. I remember being excited for Jenny as she would be experiencing this new country for the first time, and it was also her first visit to a developing country.

Over the next two weeks we had several adventures which led us around the country. Jenny was able to stay in the spare bedroom at my house during our time in the village. My neighbors, who I normally eat dinner with each night, invited us over and had a huge feast for Jenny’s first Samoan meal. That first night, Jenny was running on very little sleep, but she remained flexible and took in the whole new experience. Watching Jenny eat dinner while sitting on a woven floor mat with her legs crossed, I started thinking back to my first days in Samoa and how new the experience was to me at that time. It reminded me of how far I’ve come.

Jenny was able to come and visit me in my classroom as I taught my English classes. Jenny has completed service with Teach for America in the United States, and now has been teaching for over eight years, so it was nice to have her thoughts on my school here in Samoa. She was able to meet the students, teachers and principal as well. My students were as excited as me about her visit. They had asked what my sister’s name was and I had told them months ago that she was coming for a visit. Back in May and June I started noticing that my students were writing Jennifer and Jenny in the fronts and backs of their English notebooks. Some of them were spelling it correctly, others struggled, but each time I saw her name it made me smile and it reminded me how little it takes to leave a large impression on these young children.

Our first walk through the village left Jenny busy taking pictures and looking behind her as a stream of kids followed our trail. I remember Jenny being fascinated by all the pigs roaming about the street and on the beach, something that has become so ordinary for me to see in everyday life was something rare and extraordinary for someone living in Houston, Texas.

We also took time to explore outside of the village. Our first weekend together was spent on a river hike where we met up with other Peace Corps volunteers for a thrilling hike through thick tropical forests that lead to one waterfall after another. We made some adventurous climbs and pushed ourselves in the heat to climb up rocks and next to, through and under waterfalls. Our guide, a local who has made the trek countless times, helped keep us safe and guided us along the way. This part of our time together helped remind me that I do live on a tropical island and there is more to this country than teaching at the primary school or taking a trip into the capitol of Apia. Each corner we rounded and each waterfall we met got more thrilling and more breathtaking than the one before it.

Jenny and I also made it over to Savai’i, the largest of Samoa’s nine islands, yet less populated than Upolu, the island which is home to the capitol of Apia. To get to Savai’i from my site requires a walk to the main road, a bus to Apia, a bus to the wharf, and then a ferry ride which lasts 1.5 hours by itself. The waves can be choppy and the boat isn’t that large. They pack it with people, cars, trucks and food going to or from Savai’i. Jenny’s stomach was slightly nerved by the tossing of the boat, but she soon recovered as we made our way to the beach fales (houses) where we would stay for the night.

In Savai’i we were able to see the beautiful sunsets and brilliant turquoise waters. We stayed overnight in small houses built on logs right in the sand. The sounds of the waves helped us rest well. Jenny was able to realize the true size of this other island as we rode the bus from the beach fales back down to the wharf, and perhaps not in the most direct route, yet we made it to our final destination in the end.

Before Jenny came I had told her that I often have to hitchhike to travel where buses don’t, or when they don’t. So to help her get the true experience of being a volunteer in Samoa, I led her on an adventure to a beautiful waterfall which required us having to hitchhike. I have never been asked for money before from someone who has given me a lift, although I always offer a fair amount for the gas used. So when we traveled about 15 minutes with this old man who had picked us up along the side of the road, I was shocked when he didn’t except my 10 tala I offered for the gas. Instead he demanded 100 tala!!! I was not happy and was able to really dig into my Samoan language skills as I debated with him about how ridiculous he was being. Let’s say we settled on an amount which was considerably less than what he was wanting, yet more than I had ever planned on spending.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of having Jenny here with me for two weeks was her being able to see this new life of mine. I have been talking and writing about it for the past nine months and now she has a unique perspective on this place which others back home don’t have. When I talk to her on the phone and tell her what I had for dinner at my neighbor’s house, she won’t just think about the food I ate, she will think of me sitting with my legs crossed and mosquitoes flying about. When I tell her I jogged out to make a phone call, she’ll be able to picture the coconut palms and the mountains jutting up from the oceans edge.

Jenny’s trip seemed to last but just a few moments for me, yet she commented on how long it felt for her. I can relate to her, as I remember my first two weeks in this country felt more like two months. Yet as I said goodbye to Jenny, I realized how much I had come to love this place and how comfortable I’ve become in being here. For a long time I had worried about what our goodbye would be like and if it would leave me wanting to jump aboard the plane with her. But when the time came, I felt confident and reassured that this is the place where I belong. Of course it was sad to see her leave, and the house was a little extra quiet those first few days without her, yet I was so thankful that she was able to come and learn what it means to be a Peace Corps volunteer. For that I say thank you Jenny, and thanks for the memories!!!