Editor’s note: This next week, October 7, 2010, will mark my one year anniversary of arriving here in Samoa. This type of occasion causes me to reflect on the past year and consider where I’ve come from, where I am, and where I plan to go. Recently, I sat down with Myself and answered some questions on a variety of topics. Below you will find the transcripts from the interview, which was conducted by Kyle.
Kyle: Congratulations Myself, on making it through your first year of Peace Corps service in Samoa! This must be a special moment in your service. Can you tell us what your feelings are after 12 months in Samoa?
Myself: Thank you for this opportunity to share some of my experiences from this past year. As this date has neared, I have been reminded about how I felt when I use to look forward to my four month anniversary and then five and six months. As each month passed, I felt a little bit stronger, and a bit more at ease. And that ease has continued along the way. Perhaps it is the best way to describe how I’m feeling now at my one year anniversary. I’ve been in this country long enough now to feel very relaxed and comfortable about where I am.
Kyle: Thinking back to who you were a year ago, how do you think you have changed?
Myself: I feel that change is so hard to mark during the Peace Corps service. Many of the ways I’ve changed I may not fully realize until I complete my service and get back home. Coming into this experience we all realize that we are going to change, and that leaves us volunteers often asking when the change is taking place and what is it that is changing us? But from what I’ve learned this past year, the change is very gradual. It is so hard to pinpoint one single date and say, “that is the day I started to change.” I think the change began the minute I clicked send on my application to the Peace Corps. From that moment on it has been a part of my daily vocabulary.
But realizing that change doesn’t happen at one single moment, I can say that I have become a more patient person as the months have gone on. Patience is required in so much of what I do. Being one of the most remote volunteers in the country leaves me relying on patience when traveling to and from the capital. Patience is tested when speaking the language, or trying to understand the culture. Patience was at work in those early months when I was still getting use to my house being infested with cockroaches. This patience thing comes in so many different forms that it really does start to slow your life down and cause you to reflect more and take a few deep breaths at times.
Kyle: Can you recall a particular day or moment when things just didn’t seem to be going right? What got you through those tough moments to where you are today?
Myself: I’ll never forget those first weeks out at my house after I moved in. It was mid December and almost Christmas, although it never felt like it here in the tropics. I can remember waking up each morning with this awful feeling in my stomach. I felt nervous and anxious and would just pace around inside my house wondering what I was doing here. I had never lived more than 45 minutes away from home in my entire life and then all of a sudden I made this huge move. I had always heard about homesickness, but never felt it. I’ve been on vacations before overseas where I start to miss home, but homesickness is a whole other level.
On one particular day I was getting ready to leave my house to go out into the village and do some introductory visits. I can remember getting all my stuff around. I got dressed, put sun block on and then locked the door. I began to walk up the hill near my house and into the village when I just froze. I turned around and went back into the house where I proceeded to fix a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese that I had been sent from home.
I eventually made it out of the house, but looking back on that moment I can now see how much I’ve grown. Back then I was longing for anything that would keep my mind close to home, such as that box of macaroni and cheese. Those were the days that I was growing the most though, I believe. They were the days when I was learning to live away from home and learn to live here.
Sometimes when I’m walking up that hill near my house, I smile and remember that day I turned around and went back inside. It gives me motivation to keep going and to see what new things lay ahead in this experience.
Kyle: I understand that you have been teaching at the primary school now for eight months. How are things going at school and how have you seen the students change this past year?
Myself: I think these kids are giving me the perfect gift for my one year anniversary: they are learning how to read! Within the past month I have seen some huge gains made by my students. One of my year seven students who was one of the lower students in the class is reading words he couldn’t, just a few months ago. Just this past week he had one of the higher scores on a test, where as he use to score the lowest. All along I had been telling myself I was making a difference for these kids, but now to have the proof in front of me each day is really inspiring.
Kyle: What other projects are you working on at the school?
Myself: The library has been a major project of mine for the past couple of months. We were able to get roughly 3,000 English books donated to our school from libraries in New Zealand. They are children’s books, easy readers, and there are also class sets of many books. One of the big hardware stores here in Samoa, Bluebird Hardware, was gracious enough to donate four gallons of paint to the school and I’ve been working with the students to paint the library’s walls and bookshelves. We are just about finished with the painting and getting ready to organize the books so that we can establish a check out system.
Kyle: I understand that many Peace Corps volunteers find a routine that helps them make life run smoothly. Can you tell us a little bit about your daily routine?
Myself: Well I normally wake up around 6:15a.m. and get breakfast started soon after. I’ve really enjoyed breakfast as a time to wake up and read while I’m eating. I enjoy fixing oatmeal, scrambled eggs and some days French Toast! While I’m eating the kids begin to arrive at school and walk right past my house. Every morning I have about 10 students say, “Good morning Kyle” (teacher’s in Samoa go by their first name with the students). Shortly after, I head over to school myself, which is about a seven second walk.
School starts at 8:00a.m. and normally finishes around 12:30 or 1:00 in the afternoon. After school I either work on lessons for the rest of the week or do work in the library. I normally grab a quick and simple lunch. By this time of the day it’s normally 95 degrees in my house and I don’t feel much like cooking too much. A salad is usually a good lunch.
In the afternoon I either do laundry, write letters or read. Most people stay inside their house and out of the sun during the afternoon because it’s just so hot out. I’ve tried to visit families during the afternoon but most of the time they are always sleeping!
In the late afternoon I normally do dishes and listen to the radio. Then I get ready to go jogging around 4 or 4:30. Before I go jogging I do my lifting, which consists of using a small wooden bench in my living room as a literal, bench-press. Then I’m off down the long, steep and winding road. I jog 20 minutes out, where I am able to get a cell phone signal to call home or text a Peace Corps volunteer. Normally after about 20 minutes the mosquitoes are starting to eat me alive so I head back in for another 20 minute jog.
When I get back I shower and then either go to my neighbor’s house for dinner or prepare my own dinner some nights of the week. If I go to my neighbors I normally go around dusk and they always have dinner ready for me when I get there. When I’m over there with them I try to speak only in Samoan. It has been a great way for me to develop my language skills. After we are done eating, we normally play cards for a bit. Most nights I help the kids with their English homework. After that, Milo, who is 12, and Alofa, who is seven, walk me back over to my house. I’m not afraid to walk by myself, but it’s kind of become tradition that they walk with me. We say goodnight and then I tuck myself away for the night. This is the time of day when I normally read my Bible, and write in my journal. I like to read one of several books I have going and then get ready for bed around 10 or 10:30.
All Peace Corps Volunteers have noted how early we seem to go to bed here. I remember when I was in college and would get out of marching band rehearsal at 8p.m. and eat dinner at 8:30 and start homework at 9:30!! But I’ve heard it mentioned more than once, that because we are dealing with a new language and culture every day, that can be exhausting and at 10:30 we are ready to crash.
Kyle: Is there something weird about your daily routine that makes you laugh?
Myself: Oh yes. Every night I have a procedure for getting into the mosquito net. First I tap around the outside to make sure there aren’t any huge spiders, cockroaches or centipedes lurking around. Then I shut the light off and quickly crawl under and tuck the net in under the foam mattress. I then take my flashlight and examine the interior of the net to make sure there are no centipedes. It does seem like a bit of a hassle and some nights I just laugh, but I’ve always been told that the one time you don’t check is the night you get bitten and centipede bites are the worst kind of bite you can get in Samoa! Luckily I haven’t experienced it and am just going by those who have.
Kyle: You mentioned a foam mattress? What is that like sleeping on?
Myself: Well considering during my first week at the house I went without the mattress and was just sleeping on woven sleeping mats, this feels like a plush mattress. It’s gotten indented in a few spots from regular wear and tear, but I guess the worst part is having to lay down on it during the rainy season when it doesn’t cool off below 90 in the house at night and the mattress is so full of humidity that I feel like I’m sleeping on a wet sponge. Other than that it’s great!
Kyle: Mail must help lift your spirits. Do you know how much mail you’ve received this past year?
Myself: I’m actually saving every letter that is sent to me, and as of today I have received 92 letters or cards from family and friends. This isn’t including the dozens of packages that I have received. My aunt Betty has sent me lots of chocolate and even some of her homemade strawberry jam. Aunt Carolyn has sent lots of pictures of the family and made me two pillow cases with a tropical pattern. My uncle Jamie has sent novels, such as On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, and a number of old Michigan History articles and magazines. Uncle Bruce has sent pictures from home and some Girl Scout cookies, among other things. My sister Jenny has sent countless CDs with her favorite songs for me to add to my i-pod. And my mom and Dad have been great sending anything and everything that I request from home. I’ve gotten Hostess cupcakes from my dad and several New York Times from my mom.
Kyle: So what’s the story behind your glasses?
Myself: Peace Corps discourages volunteers from wearing contacts because of the possibility of eye infections. We were required to bring two pairs of glasses with us. On two different occasions I’ve had to have my first pair of glasses sent back to the eye doctor’s office in Michigan. So my glasses first came here, went back to the U.S., were sent back here, and then when my sister came she took them with her back a second time and then they were once again sent back to me where they now rest on my face. To make a long story short: if my glasses could accumulate frequent flyer miles, they would have accumulated two, free round-trip tickets to the Far East.
Kyle: I hear a rumor that you are going home for Christmas. Can you confirm this for us?
Myself: Yes, your sources are correct. After much contemplation, I’ve decided to spend about a month at home over the holidays. The break coincides with our long school break here in Samoa so it will be a good time to take the leave. There are several other volunteers going home as well to spend time with family and friends. Originally, I had planned on taking a trip to New Zealand or Australia during that time, but a trip home will mean a lot more to me during the holidays. One of my grandmas is 95 and the other is 90 and I am looking forward to sharing this experience with them when I’m home. It will be great to be with them and my whole family for Christmas. I’m still planning on making it to Australia or New Zealand later in 2011.
Kyle: As you begin your second year in Samoa, tell me what your thoughts are.
Myself: At this point I’m going to continue taking it one month at a time. That is how I’ve done it from the beginning and it seems to be working well. The months are going by faster the longer I’m here. I can remember one night laying in bed and thinking maybe it was going too fast. I just want to take more time this second year to continue to learn about the culture and become even more integrated within my village. The hardest part is behind me though, in terms of settling in and meeting people and getting familiar with the language.
It’s like taking an introductory course to calculus. After you’ve gone through pre-calc, you can get on with the real business in calculus. I think this first year was my pre-calc year and now I’m looking to the future with more ambition and drive to solve the problems in the next part of the journey. It’s been a challenging and rewarding first year, but I’m anxious to see what unfolds in the next 525,600 minutes!