Saturday, November 20, 2010

Shadow Visits & a Birthday

I’ve often thought it is a unique situation that I’m in: I have never owned or rented my own place back in the States, yet here I am living for “free” in another country and with a view of the Pacific Ocean! And this living arrangement also allows me the chance to entertain, and that is what I’ve been doing more often than not, this past week.

It began last Friday, November 12th, when four of my friends from the Peace Corps came out to my house to celebrate my birthday a few days early. I planned a meal of spaghetti, stir-fried vegetables and garlic bread. My guests were Kaelin, Cassie, Jenny C. and Jenny M., all from my group, 82. There is always a rumor going around the office that my site is so remote and hard to get to. That may be true, but nonetheless, the girls made the trek out to my place to help wish me a happy birthday. They were given a lift from the host family of Jenny C. I started to laugh when I saw them arrive—four girls wearing dresses, jumping out of the back of a pickup truck. It was great to see them.

Jenny M., who happens to be a great cook, had made me a chocolate cake. I gave them the tour of the house and then we started dinner. I kept commenting to them how nice it was to have other people in the house; sometimes I forget how alone I am out here. We turned on some music and had a nice visit.

Dinner was wonderful and I am still amazed at how much I can cook on my little electric, two-burner stovetop. We all had seconds and got really full. Then I remembered we still had cake, and I had made some chocolate pudding to go with it. My dad had sent some candles in his birthday package so the girls lit them and put them on my cake. I was saying goodbye to a long year that had so many ups and downs, so after they sang to me, it was then time to make a new wish for a new year. Each birthday I often wonder what the next one will bring.

We cleaned up all the dishes as we complained about how full we were. As we were doing dishes I mentioned how having them there with me and then the smell of the cake, really helped it feel like my birthday. Because I’m from Michigan and 40 degree weather is common by the middle of November, I’m still getting use to it being in the mid 90s on my birthday here in Samoa.

The following day, Saturday, I had more visitors come out. The Peace Corps office had asked a bunch of volunteers from my group to host one or two members from Group 83, who arrived in October. They were visiting us for a few days for a shadow visit. Peace Corps wanted them to experience what life is like for a volunteer on a typical day, since they themselves will be heading to their own villages next month after their swearing-in.

I hosted Mike and Danny. They arrived on Saturday on the bus and for the second day in a row I gave a tour of my house! We spent some time visiting, but in all honesty, I really thought they would get bored out here for their three day visit. Most of us volunteers had discussed this beforehand. As much as we enjoyed the company, our lives are pretty simple compared to the lives we lived back in America.

Despite the slow pace of life in the village, I think the visit was a good opportunity for them. We took a walk through my village and they got to have all the kids stare at them since they were the new attraction. I cooked dinner the first night. On the menu: homemade macaroni and cheese with vegetables and garlic bread.

Sunday was slow as always, but we made it to the Catholic Church and then toonai (the huge meal after church on Sundays). We ate toonai at my neighbor’s house. I had gone down to the store early in the morning to buy chicken to give for the meal. Whenever I eat at my neighbor’s house, I always sit with my legs crossed on the floor. I’ve gotten a lot of practice with this the past year and my legs have been toughened up for long periods of sitting. As I watched Mike and Danny grab their legs as they fell asleep, it reminded me of the days mine use to hurt. I can’t remember when they started feeling better for me, but as the months went by, they gradually got use to being crossed for up to an hour at a time.

Sunday afternoon was spent relaxing at my house. It got up to95 degrees that day and I wanted to lay down for a nap but my bed just feels too warm in the afternoon, so I put a towel on my floor and slept there for about an hour. In the evening I introduced the guys to the card game, Phase Ten. Danny won that and then it was time for bed.

Monday was school and Mike and Danny visited. Monday was my actual birthday, and the kids and teachers had found this out. They all sang happy birthday to me at the end of the day in Samoan and English! I received a couple of carved kava bowls from one of the students in year eight. His dad had made them, but he had been telling me about them the whole week before. I could tell how proud he was to give them to me. He also had his sister who is in high school make a card for me. I wish he had tried to make the card himself, but at least he had the thought.

Danny and Mike got to meet my teachers and see the kids. I explained some of the projects we had been working on this year. Our final exams were last week so this was a slow week at school, but I had a couple of kids read to them.

After school on Monday, Danny had to make a phone call and I wanted to call home as well. As the empty bus headed back out of the village we climbed on for a lift out to my area where I get a cell phone signal. We each made our calls before making the walk back to my house in the hot sun. That evening we went over to my neighbor’s house again for dinner. They had a huge meal prepared for us and had made a birthday cake for me. I’ve always appreciated receiving a birthday cake each year, and I think it’s something that Americans come to expect. But these past two birthdays in Samoa have really given me a chance to pause and realize some of the sacrifices others are willing to make so I have a special day.

Birthdays aren’t normally celebrated by the typical Samoan family. Everyone knows when their birthday is, but there aren’t normally cakes and ice cream or balloons. My neighbors don’t have a lot of money and for them to have a birthday cake for me really made the day extra special. As I sat there with them, Danny and Mike, it was a perfect image that reflected my own life this past year. I thought about Mike and Danny and related to them, knowing how I felt a year ago, sitting where they were—legs sore, trying to grasp the basics of the language. But then I looked at myself and how I had changed this past year and it was really a special moment that helped illustrate how comfortable I have become here since my last birthday. After they sang to me and we ate the cake, we played some cards before Danny, Mike and I went back to my place.

Danny and Mike left on Tuesday morning. It was great to have all the company, and especially during my birthday celebrations. I’m glad I was able to share my experiences and routine with some of the new members and I hope it helps give them hope that things do settle down and become normal. Those first months were the hardest, and most challenging, but I’m so happy I was here for my 26th birthday!

Danny listening to a student read, Six Ducks in a Pond.

Mike listening to a student read during his shadow visit.

Celebrating my birthday!

The kava bowls given by Kolly from year 8, as a birthday gift

Me in front of the birthday sign my mom sent all the way from Michigan. She has hung a birthday sign on my birthday since I was young!

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