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!!!