Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Bedrooms: Before and After

I’ve already posted a blog with before and after pictures of my living room, kitchen and bathroom, but since then have finished the painting in my bedroom and the spare bedroom. Below you will find before and after pictures of each room. It’s nice to have all the painting done now and the house really feels like my own.

The spare bedroom before the paint went on.

Facing the same wall after two coats of paint!

The dirty walls of the spare bedroom before.

A very different room after the paint and curtains!

My bedroom before. Notice the white walls in the back.

My room on my very first day at the house, December 9, 2009.

My room after some paint! I finally got that net up too.

There's a story behind the two colors of paint. All the walls were originally going to be the same color as the top portion, but after I dropped half a gallon of paint in downtown Apia, I decided on the green for the bottom. The way in which they mix paint here isn't all that scientific and I knew for them to create the exact match might be expecting too much! It turned out nice though, I think.

Moving in day: December 9, 2009.

Friday, September 24, 2010

W.O.W. to Group 83

After checking in for our flight in Oct. of 2009.
L to R: Jenny, Cassie, myself, and Elisa

Is W.O.W. an acronym widely used? W.O.W. = Words Of Wisdom! And some of you may be asking who or what is group 83. Group 83 is the next group of Peace Corps volunteers scheduled to arrive in Samoa in early October. Peace Corps has been in Samoa since 1967 and thus there will soon be 83 groups of volunteers who have landed on this tropical island.

Group 83’s arrival coincides with a special time of year for my own group (82). On October 7 we will have been living here in Samoa for one year! So as their arrival nears, my mind wanders back to what life was like for me one year ago at this time. That in turn leads me to this blog and pin points the meaning of the title: Words of Wisdom.
There is so much that I wish I had known last year at this time as I was preparing to live overseas for two years. They are very simple things that I was blinded to in all the bright lights of those last two weeks with friends and family.

Now in offering these suggestions to my future colleagues (and friends), I realize the importance of letting them experience the journey on their own. If I had known the ending to the book before I read the first chapter, the first pages would have read very differently. So with a bit of censoring, I offer the following counsel to any members of Group 83 who may be reading.

As future Peace Corps Volunteers, you are spending the last two weeks of your time in America frequenting every shopping center known to man. You’ve been to Target, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Radio Shack and Barnes & Noble—to name a few! These are places you know like the back of your hand. You’ve accumulated a stack of receipts that could fill a dump truck and know the return policies of every store. It may seem like a bit too much—it did for me. But while you’re there, doing what you have to do, take a moment to look around and say A-M-A-Z-I-N-G, because when you step off the plane here in Samoa it will all be gone. I don’t say that in a negative way, but just a fact of life way. I’ll never forget, about a month into training, Emily (group 82), and I, were going for a walk. I asked her, “You know what I really miss right now...walking through the doors into a Target.” She laughed immediately and said she loved Target and had been thinking the same thing. My longing for Target has lessened as I’ve adapted, but try to enjoy it just a little while you’re there now.

Next, take time to notice something really strange that you think you’ll never miss. I say this because at some point, you’re going to wake up under a mosquito net in the middle of the night and wish you had it with you. I remember one day I was really homesick and kept picturing our kitchen back home. I started thinking about an old pan that belonged to my Great-grandmother in which I had always cooked macaroni and cheese in—despite its loose handle. I was picturing our kitchen in every detail: the crack between the stove and the counter where food always got lodged, the designs on the fronts of the cupboards, and the sounds the dishwasher made. That stuff is just stuff, but it all brings about an image of home that you’ll run on replay over and over. So take time to take a picture of that weird thing you think you’d never miss and tuck it inside your suitcase to look at on those days of homesickness. You’ll be glad you have it.

Don’t wait until the night before staging to pack your bags. I’m an organized person and I tried my best to have my act together those last few days. Nevertheless, time ran out and there I was at 10 p.m. with heaps of stuff waiting to be placed into suitcases that had a wait limit attached to them. My friend Katy who was a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa, told me well in advance to get the packing done a few days before my departure so I could enjoy those last days with family. Katy was right! I wish I would have spent my last hours at home just living my normal routine. Plan ahead so you can have that experience I missed.

When you get to the hotel for staging, you’re going to be excited and meeting all the other members from your group. Make plans that evening to eat at In-n-Out near the airport. If you’ve been to an In-n-Out, you know why I suggest this, and if you haven’t been, you can thank me when you arrive here in Samoa. A bunch of us from group 82 went there for dinner together and it was a simple yet memorable thing to do. Be sure to order an ice cream as well!

Ask for an aisle seat on the plane at check in. I don’t think they’ll charge you extra and it will make your flight so much more enjoyable. I’ve always been a window person myself, but this flight is different. It takes off when it’s dark and it lands when it’s dark so you don’t miss anything as far as the view goes. Having access to get up with leisure without trampling over two other people makes 10 hours go by so much more smoothly. An added bonus: you’ll get served first by the flight attendants who normally serve from the aisle and work towards the window.

My final words of wisdom for group 83 are to remember the smells. If you’ve traveled overseas often, as I’m guessing many of you have, you know that you never forget the smells that hit you in those first few hours your in the country. I can remember how Ghana smelled as I rode along the ocean’s edge and the smell of the smog in Beijing as I departed the airport terminal. These may be good and bad, but they create an image in your head more powerful than any photograph ever would. This is often something that happens without thinking, but then again, you're going to be thinking about other things at that point: like how to say “Lau Ava lea le Atua Soifua!”

Best wishes group 83 and safe travels! See you soon!

Packing night for me in 2009. My sister's room had served as a storage area for several weeks leading up to my departure.

The last sunset in the United States, before heading out on our international flight.

Leah, just after boarding our plane in L.A. on October 6, 2009

Friday, September 10, 2010

Mr. Ambassador

Only in Samoa would you receive, via a text message, an invitation to dine with an ambassador. But that’s how it happened. I had been invited to dinner with the U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa. The dinner was scheduled for Monday night and it meant me having to rearrange my schedule, but when the Ambassador invites, I accept.

His name is David Huebner. I had seen him twice before—once back in December, and more recently in May. However, this gathering seemed as if it was going to be a closer encounter and a “get to know you” type of event. There were about 10 of us who were meeting with him. We were asked to be at the restaurant at 6:30 p.m. We arrived a few minutes early. The restaurant was outside of town and was a deserted place, so it looked as though we were going to have the place to ourselves. Shortly after 6:30, Ambassador Huebner arrived. Walking into the room by himself, I was surprised it was going to be just us, but very pleased at the same time.

He took a moment to walk around the table and shake each of our hands as we introduced ourselves. He was surprised we hadn’t ordered any drinks yet, although we were thinking it was proper etiquette to wait for him to arrive. The ambassador asked Joey, from group 81, to move to the left so that he could be seated at the center of the rectangular table—more conducive for conversation. We spent a few minutes breaking the ice before he decided to order some appetizers.

The evening got started by us finding out that the ambassador was going to be one of the judges for the Miss Samoa Pageant held this week. He told us he had just gone through a day of training on how to be an effective judge. We all laughed. Of all the things he’s required to do as ambassador, I’m not sure if he ever thought that judging a national pageant was going to be one of them.

Soon he picked up his drink and moved down to the head of the table to visit with those of us who had an end seat. He sat between me and Jim from group 80. I asked him how New Zealand was recovering after the recent 7.4 earthquake which struck Christchurch. He explained some of the damage to us, and said that the Embassy had started contacting all the U.S. citizens living in Christchurch within minutes of the quake.

With me being a fan of politics, both domestic and international, I wanted to pick his brain for some of his thoughts. I asked him how Hillary Clinton was doing as Secretary of State. He said that Mrs. Clinton—as I should have referred to her as—was a real “team player.” The ambassador explained that although she is head of the State Department, she is not his boss, but rather President Obama. This lead to another interesting fact. Because the ambassador is the official representative of the United States, appointed by the President himself, the ambassador holds the same status as a Four Star General within the country/countries he represents. Ambassador Huebner said that he has been saluted before by Three Star Generals visiting New Zealand.

Visiting with the ambassador, I quickly realized his level of intellect and knowledge of world events. This is a man who recently ran an international law firm with thousands of employees. He has lived in cities around the world, including London and Shanghai. Despite all of his accomplishments, he was a down-to-earth person with an occasional joke or one liner. His story about the interview process to become the ambassador left us all scratching our heads in amazement of that feat alone. 19 people working full time for 45 days to dig into his past and make sure he was a worthy appointee for President Obama. He said that there are so many positions to fill by the President, that a President can sometimes leave office after four years not having filled all the spots!

He continued to move around the table throughout the night and take time to visit with all of the volunteers. The mood was very relaxed and I always felt as though he was giving his full attention to us. A person in his position could very easily have several other things running through his mind, yet he never seemed distracted by anything else. There were a few volunteers from group 81 at dinner who were getting ready to attend their Close of Service conference later in the week. They had been preparing resumes for the conference and getting ready to return the U.S. in December in search of a job. The ambassador started giving advice on a good resume which made all of us lean in to listen more closely. He said typos are the big thing that turns him off when looking at a resume or cover letter. If a person didn’t have time to correct spelling in a resume, he said, how would they effectively operate as a lawyer?

I was very impressed by his commitment to working with youth. He said he enjoys teaching some classes a couple times a week at a school in New Zealand. It has been a priority for him to go outside of the office and meet with children. The ambassador is fully aware that he could be dinning with heads of state and other important figures, yet he said it is important to invest in the youth because one day they will remember that someone cared enough to invest in their futures.

As the evening ended, he wished us all well and gave us his business card. We took a group photo and said our goodbyes. I was very impressed by his desire to meet with us and the way in which he chose to do it. He could have invited us to a conference table, but instead he invited us to a dinner table. He didn’t need to meet with us at all, but he felt it was important and worth while. A big thank you to the ambassador for his acknowledgement of our work here in Samoa, and for his work as well.

Monday, September 6, 2010


I remember one particular warning that Peace Corps staff advised us of at our staging in Los Angles last October. It was my first day of interaction with Peace Corps staff and they told our entire group to get prepared for the use of lots of newsprint. What a warning! “Get use to newsprint?” It hardly seemed relevant at the time as we were anxiously awaiting our international flight to Samoa.

Well in the 11 months since that warning was issued, I’ve seen enough newsprint to blanket the islands of Samoa. Some of you may know this marvelous invention as butcher paper, or flip chart paper, I’ll call it newsprint to be consistent. Whatever you want to call it though, be rest assured the Peace Corps keeps paper companies in business throughout the world. It’s used at staging, throughout training and throughout a volunteer’s service at different conferences and meetings.

The newsprint measures about 72 x 25 inches and is usually plain white or sometimes a dark brown. It’s flimsy and comes in a large ream. If there’s newsprint in the room, expect there to be an assortment of markers nearby, as well as a roll of masking tape. With those three tools, a member of the Peace Corps can accomplish just about anything.

Most times when a Peace Corps volunteer sees a piece of newsprint, they know the very next line which will be uttered by Peace Corps staff: “Please split up into groups and brainstorm…” Is it an effective means by which to convey thoughts, especially to a large group of people? I often pose the question if it really is all necessary.

Often, by the time a group has finished writing all their main points on the newsprint, their energy level has already headed towards a decline. You then have all this writing crammed on this paper with no one who has the attention span to read it all. Not only is there a lot of writing, but usually there are a lot of people standing around the paper looking like they’re waiting to catch a bus someplace. Many times the whole group traipses up to the front to “present” the information, causing a huge distraction as you watch these group members awkwardly put their hands in their pockets or stare out into space. On the other hand, if there’s one person up there, then you have someone trying to read the newsprint upside down while trying to hold it steady in the wind that usually is blowing through the window—if you’re in a building at all.

So here’s some advice to any future Peace Corps volunteers: buy stock in the paper companies before heading over seas! Upon your return home in two years, you’ll have a hefty profit. And finally, a disclaimer I must put forward: I’ve been sucked into the addiction myself and use newsprint regularly throughout the week in my classroom. I’m currently debating counseling before the usage gets out of control.

Year 7 students taking my English exam, written on several sheets of newsprint!

Peace Corps volunteers at Early Service Training in May. Several sheets of newsprint are about the room.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Running In an Oven

Hot, hot, hot!!! You haven’t experienced the full force of the sun until you’ve visited Samoa. I’ve gotten plenty of sunburns and seen countless 90 degree days back in Michigan over the years, but none of it compares to the heat I experienced on Saturday, August 28, 2010.
I was one of six team members for the men’s Peace Corps relay team which participated in a 62 mile relay around half the island of Upolu, the same island I live on. The relay race was sponsored by the U.S. Veterans living in Samoa. They’ve organized other races and community events in the past. This race has gained more popularity over the past couple of years. This year there were ten men’s teams, with the Peace Corps contingent being one of them. Each relay team’s six members were each responsible for running 12 miles. We ran these over four heats with each heat being about 3 miles long!
There was also a group of six female Peace Corps volunteers who participated in the ladies race. The ladies began running on the south side of the island at 4:20a.m. on Saturday, and then the men began a couple hours later. Our team was the last to take off from the start line around 6:45a.m. I would have preferred to start around 4:20a.m., but they wanted the women and men to finish near the same time. So starting at 6:45a.m. meant that the sun had already been up for 15 minutes and it was hot from our first heats (no pun intended).
A.J. ran in the first spot for our team and started us off strong, and then Dan took over from him. Our Peace Corps Country Director had rented a van for us to use, so when we weren’t running we were traveling to the next hand-off point to stretch and get ready for the next runner to grab the baton and continue. Robin Yeager, the Charge de Affairs from the U.S. Embassy also helped us enormously by helping with our race fees and also packing a ton of sandwiches, energy bars, muffins, water, Gatorade and many other goodies we kept in the van for our long journey!
Taking over the running after Dan was Joey, our team captain, and a great competitor. He ran the third spot. I was in the fourth spot and grabbed the baton from Joey all day long. After me was Ben in the fifth spot and finally Matt who ran our sixth position. Between the six of us we traveled from the south side of the island up the mountainous east side of Upolu and back down to the relatively flat coastal road on the north side of the island. We would eventually end the race in the heart of Apia, Samoa’s Capitol.
Each time I prepared myself to run I got a little nervous. All my team members were telling me just to run my own comfortable pace, but still that didn’t take away from excitement and desire to pull off a good run for the team. We had been favored to win based on estimated ending times, and the team we were trying to beat was the Samoan team who had won last year when Peace Corps came in second. There was a little unsettled business. It was always a friendly competition, but knowing we had to perform helped us do just that!
That first run was annoying because I had planned to run with my i-pod, but my headphone set kept falling out of my ears and I couldn’t seem to find a decent song to match my mood, so I finally stuck it in my pocket after a few minutes and ran the rest of the day without it. I normally run with music, so this required me to focus on other things in my head to get me to that next point. It was hard. That morning sun was hot and humid and it was only 7:30a.m. It felt like it should be 11:00.
My second heat took me along the southern coast where the tsunami had hit, now nearly one year ago. There were beautiful beaches and blue waters, and I tried to remind myself how awesome it was that I had this chance to compete like this in such a beautiful place. This is something I probably wouldn’t have taken the initiative to do back home in the States.
We continued switching through our rotation. Chris, one of the female Peace Corps volunteers was our driver and was great about getting the van to the next hand off point with five guys telling her how to drive—and it smelt awful in that van! She motivated us and took pictures along the way.
Before my third heat it was discovered that because of the rotation I would be running the steepest part of the entire race, heading through some of the most mountainous areas of Samoa. We weren’t scaling the summits of these mountains, but we were high enough that my ears were popping as I ran up and then back down. I run hills on my daily runs, so I felt prepared and that I could help keep my time consistent to keep us on track.
Matt had the joy of going down the hill which we had all just helped to go up. It was a big drop to the ocean’s edge where the road flattened out for the most part. By this time it was getting close to noon and the heat of the sun was in full force upon our bodies as we ran even harder to get us to that finish line, still more than two hours away!
My fourth and final heat was the most strenuous physical activity I’ve ever done in my entire life. I can run three miles without too much trouble at 5:00p.m. in the evening, but I was trying to push myself in the intense tropical heat at 1:30p.m. The Sun was relentless and unforgiving! The country director was out there at the hand-off as I began my final stretch and my team members cheered me on. Three of the guys had already run that final heat and they said it was HOT! I kept my pace steady as I ran along the beautiful rocky shoreline. Countless coconut palms lined the road but the sun was so high in the sky that there was just no shadow to find to run in. This was it, I had to push myself. As I kept running I kept waiting to see the van and where they had stopped at the next transition spot, but every corner I rounded they weren’t there. Every long stretch I saw, they just weren’t in sight. Children were saying hi to me as I ran through villages but I didn’t even have enough energy to say hi. I was so motivated on my end destination.
And finally, there it was, the van. In need of a bathroom, I interrupted a social gathering going on in a local church hall as they all saw me dash for the bathroom. Leaving the bathroom still shaking from my race and not having time for any water yet, the group of Samoans were as polite as their culture always is and offered for me to sit with them and eat. What they were eating I had no desire to eat after running that last stretch, so I politely thanked them for the offer and the use of their bathroom facilities.
We were off for one more hand-off and then headed into Apia as Matt lead the final stretch for us. Once we got the van to the finish line we all got out and went to wait for Matt. Once he was about a minute out from the finish line we all ran with him through the last stretch and across that marvelous line! Our time: 8 hours and 5 minutes! Rumor had it that we had come in first place!!
The rumors were confirmed and it was all made official at 5p.m. during the award ceremony. We did indeed have the fastest time by seven minutes. We also found out that the women’s team from the Peace Corps had won first place for the women runners! Two huge victories for our teams!
As I said before, this is one of those things I probably wouldn’t have done a year ago. I’m finding that as I’m here longer, I’m more willing to tackle new challenges and push myself a little bit harder than I had in the past. Being a Peace Corps volunteer, I’ve been able to see how the struggles and frustrations of “the race” which we call life, can provide such confidence and motivation in how I live my own daily life.
Running in that heat , I kept telling myself I was crazy and this would be the last time I did this. But of course that was in the moment when things were feeling tough and I was certainly tired. Yet I knew deep down that each stride I took I was helping my team and myself by achieving the goals I had set out for myself. At the end of the race, I was so excited that I had decided to run the race! And yes, I may even do it again.

Accepting our first place award.

Getting ready for the race, just before sunrise.

Joey handing the baton off to me.

Here we are. From the left, Dan, A.J., Matt, Me, Joey and Ben

Friday, September 3, 2010

Bill and Kathleen

If Thomas Jefferson hadn’t been able to get Lewis and Clark on contract to explore the Louisiana Purchase back in 1804, Bill and Kathleen could have handled the job just fine if they had been around. I’m referring to a married couple who are now former Peace Corps volunteers from Samoa. They are a real force and have plenty of savvy to get any job done. They arrived with my group, Group 82, back in October of 2009. Unfortunately, because of medical reasons they had to return back to the United States in early August, but not before leaving a lasting impact on Samoa.

Bill and Kathleen had already proven themselves before they ever stepped foot in Samoa. They are both retirees who were and still are driven people who like to get stuff done and know how to go about it. They work well together. During their time here in Samoa they were assigned to teach at one of the largest schools in the country. While there they set up honors classes for the older students at the primary school who they knew needed that extra “push” to make it to the top schools following high school. They worked with their school to plant hundreds of fruit trees which will be around for years to come and provide a healthy option for students at lunch compared to the junk food served from the school canteen.

Bill and Kathleen also worked with their school to create a world map which now hangs out by the road in front of the two story school. It represents the similarities we all share as a human race and perhaps our desires to explore new places and ideas. And new ideas their students did explore! Bill and Kathleen brought music into their classroom on a daily basis which they had from their own travels around the world. Exposing the students to other cultures and familiarizing them with those countries on a map inside the room, gave those students a much broader horizon than the ones they’d known. When talking with Bill and Kathleen, perhaps one of their most exciting successes was obtaining a projector for the school on which students are now able to watch episodes of “Planet Earth,” giving them factual knowledge they would never have been able to grasp from the outdated text books and schemes provided by the school.

These are just a few of their many accomplishments while here in Samoa. But perhaps what they’ll be remembered for most by their fellow Peace Corps volunteers will be their friendship with us.

After arriving here in Samoa last October, the homesickness began to set in. Being away from family was hard, especially my parents who I am close to. I felt this gravitation and instant connection toward Bill and Kathleen, almost as if they were like a mother and father figure for me here, someone to talk to or give a hug to and feel perhaps a little bit more at home with. They were always willing to listen. Whether it was venting after a long day of language training or bouncing ideas off of for a classroom lesson, they were always there. In fact, Kathleen gave me my very first haircut in Samoa when she used a pair of clippers from someone in the training village. I’ll never forget that she was half through cutting it when the conch shell rang for evening prayer and we had to stop. I went to evening prayer at her host familie's house and they started laughing during prayer, thinking my hair was actually finished! Kathleen eventually got me put together and it looked great. When I had a button fall off, who did I go to for a refresher on sewing? Kathleen of course!

When I heard that they were going to have to leave I was sad to hear the news, yet I was so grateful for their help along the way and I think they knew that they were leaving a Kyle behind that was much stronger than the Kyle they met back in October. I owe a lot of that to their support and willingness to listen on those tough days.

Before they left they told me that they had a couple bags of food for me that they needed to get rid of. I didn’t have a chance to pick it up until after they had left. Once I started going through it I realized it was like Christmas morning in August! So many wonderful surprises and their generosity will certainly save me some money in the months ahead as won’t have to buy as much food. So a huge thank you for their parting gift. But I’d gladly give it all back to have them here with us again.

Bill and Kathleen will still be blazing a trail in whatever they may do in the years to come. They’ve already built three houses together, so who knows what’s next. Wherever their future leads them, I know that they’ll have a road map of how to get to the finish line, and together, they’ll change other’s lives along the way.