Friday, December 9, 2011

Two Years Ago

Two years ago the riddle was how
to suspend my mosquito net!
Two years ago today I entered my village to begin my two years of Peace Corps service. We were all strangers at that point. The man who picked me up in his white van at the Peace Corps office ended up being the father of one of my best friends in the village. The boy who greeted me at my house and helped lug my suitcases down the hill became like a brother to me. The women who knocked on my back door with a pillow and blanket in hand, asking me to go for a walk with her, became like a mother figure when I was so far away from my own.

On that first day, I felt like I was in a valley, looking up at this mountain I had to climb. There were lots of people there watching me, I just didn’t realize at the time in which ways they would help me scale to the summit. But slowly, over time we met and the relationships formed. We learned about each other’s lives—our personalities, our cultures, our languages. We made mistakes, yet we made huge strides. It was all done together.

I was lonely that first night. I felt like I was on my own planet, and wondering how I ever got there in the first place. But then my neighbor Milo, the one who had helped me with my bags, came calling from outside my bedroom window. I welcomed him into my house and I tried making sense of what he was asking me. After a few minutes and some improvised sign language on both our parts, I realized he was inviting me over for dinner with his family that night.

When I joined them for dinner, I never realized how much gratitude I would feel towards them that night for having welcomed me to their meal, their home and their family. I remember where I was sitting, the sound of the evening news on the radio, and the food we were eating. I remember the feeling of being unsure about so much, yet at that moment, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.

Tonight, we’re having dinner together again. However, as we do, we both realize that we are approaching our final weekend together, and the days are running short. I’ll be thinking about that first meal we had together, and how much we’ve grown since then. I was welcomed that first night by one family, but next week when I leave, I’ll be saying goodbye to a whole village!

The bed I slept on for the first week until I was able to buy a mattress.

I've been lucky to live in one of the most scenic places in Samoa for the past two years!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

That Feeling

Kids helping with village wide clean-up day!
Remember taking those timed tests where your teacher says you only have ten more minutes to finish, yet you know you don’t have enough time. What about watching a football game where your team is down by just a few points with 10 seconds left on the clock, and you know there just isn’t enough time. And then there are those days you’re late for work and driving fast, but you know that you just don’t have enough time!

I’ve been having those same feelings. With less than two weeks left before I finish my Peace Corps service and leave Samoa, I’m finding that the days pass like the blink of an eye. I keep looking at the calendar in my room and reminding myself it really is December, and this is it.

Despite that feeling of not having enough time, I don’t think I could have prepared any better for the end than what I’ve already done. I’ve taken the pictures I’ve been wanting to take, seeing the people I want to spend more time with, and eating the foods I know I will miss. I don’t think we can avoid getting that feeling of the end and crunch time, no matter how well we plan the end of an experience.

These past weeks have been productive ones. School finished on Thursday with our annual prize giving. The kids decorated the school early in the week to get ready to greet their parents and other family when they arrived for the ceremony. All the kids were in their normal blue and white school uniforms, except for year 8, which wore all white since it was their graduation day from the primary school.

Parents came walking down the hill next to the school Thursday morning with candy necklaces ready to award their children with for their hard work. The teacher’s had prepared for the event as well, grading our final exams and as is part of the culture here, ranking the kids based on their final grades for 1st, 2nd and 3rd places etc.

Prizes were giving out to students who were in those top three spots of their class. The top prizes were dishes which were awarded to the students, but which obviously would be used by their whole family. Samoan culture is very communal, so what’s good for one person, should be good for all. I broke in that tradition a bit, just because I didn’t have the money to go out and buy dishes for all my awards, so instead I gave out candy, pencils, makers, paper notebooks and hand made certificates.

The week before prize giving the whole school participated in a village wide clean up day! It had been on my project list for a long time, and thankfully my principal was on board and we had the kids years 1-8 go throughout the village and pick up rubbish. They filled several big black bags with rubbish from the beach, rivers and near the road. I considered the day a big success, especially when the teachers were explaining to the students what gets thrown in the rubbish, and what can be thrown outside. Samoan kids call leaves and twigs rubbish, so if there is a leaf and a piece of paper lying on the floor and you tell the kid to pick up the rubbish, there is a 50-50 chance they might actually pick up the paper, and not the leaf!

And finally, there are the emotions. They go along with the end of any experience which has had a profound affect on a person’s life. I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on where I started and where I am now. I think about the people I knew then, and the people I know now. I think about what was difficult, ridiculous, fun, and exciting. All of that is on my mind during these final days.

The packing has begun. I’ve just started to bring my first things back into the office, to set them aside in the free box for other volunteers from Group 83 to rummage through. Other things at my house will be given to people in my village. I’ve tried to put off the packing as long as possible to keep a sense of normalcy to life, but now it’s crunch time.

I also did cleaning at school. Going through two years worth of papers projects and hand made resources, I didn’t realize how much stuff I had accumulated. My heaping mound of newsprint papers got burned this week, that was a little hard to do, but really couldn’t be saved. Other things however are getting saved, in fact, I am leaving a number of books and other resources and materials at my school for the teachers to use in the years ahead. Peace Corps has always loved the word s-u-s-t-a-i-n-a-b-i-l-i-t-y!!!

So the packing will continue, and the goodbyes will begin. The process of bringing closure to my time in Samoa has begun. I’m excited about these next couple of weeks, and the great memories that will be made!

One of our teachers leading the students in the rubbish clean up.

Ropati from year 6 asked me what he should do with the tea pot he found!

After being sick for one week, I got caught up on some of my laundry.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

How to Avoid Aitu (Evil Spirits) : A Samoan Guide

In this post, Elisa shares
some Samoan superstitions with us.
Editor’s Note: A while back I was having dinner with my friend Elisa, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer here in Samoa, and she started telling me about a number of Samoan superstitions. Throughout my two years here, I’ve found that superstitions are very much a part of Samoan culture. Elisa, being very much integrated into her village and life in Samoa, was the best person to ask to write this for all of you. So a huge thanks to her for her guest blog, which you can read below!

Cover your mirrors at night with any ie lavalava you have lying around. Many a vain young girl hath been caught unawares by the jealous ghost of some ghoul while combing her hair or examining her visage.
Refrain from whistling while walking along the road at night lest you attract an evil spirit. Most times whistling gets you your mouth ripped off or your jaw broken.
Get tattoos and go fishing in even numbers unless you want an aitu to join your party to take the place of your missing member. Note: When fishing, if you can’t find a friend to accompany you, ghosts will accept a sturdy stick stuck into the sand to represent your missing uo.
Nothing brings bad luck like breaking a dish and the worst luck at that. A broken dish means the immediate death of a family member. Your family may be so extensive that you won’t be notified of the death of this person, but know deep down in your guilty conscience as you sweep up the shards of that ipu that somewhere your 5th cousin twice removed has dropped dead.
Always swirl eye sicknesses when you are removing them. Meaning, when you take your thin twig to poke at your inflamed sty, be sure to swirl it a time or two before you stick it soundly into your calloused heel. This way the ma’i is thoroughly confused and dizzy before it realizes it has been moved to the bottom of your foot and is consequently squashed.
Don’t act like a dead man and wrap yourself in an ietoga even if it does look soft and comfy. Lurking aitu may mistake you for a dead man and carry you away.
Owls are ghosts and cats have 7 lives so be wary of passing owls when you are wandering about at night odds are you are being watched and be careful not to incur the wrath of a cat as they can come back to haunt you six times.
Aitu are easily offended by obscene language so it may be worth while to scream a few choice swear words should you find yourself face to face with one.
Umbilical cords should be properly buried when they fall off or else you will leave your newborn restless and haunted.
It’s rude to old Samoan graves and their inhabitants who you offend may come after you to teach you a lesson. However, this only relates to old Samoan rock graves. New cement graves can be slept on top of and can even be used as a place to dry your laundry and pound your cocoa.
Should you find yourself under the influence of a curse and doctors cannot find a thing wrong with you (though you can’t control or see out of the left side of your body) cutting off your long locks is always worth a try. If you were cursed by a jealous lady-ghost then odds are she wants you humbled.
Keep an eye out for shooting stars as they mark the birth of a girl in the family.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Group 82 Year Book

Group 82 at the All Volunteer Conference
January 2011
We were the 82nd group of volunteers to arrive in Samoa. There were 23 of us who stepped of that plane from L.A. on that hot and humid morning of October 7, 2009. Now, over two years later, 15 of us remain, and our journey together reveals many stories about the lives we’ve helped change, and the ways we have changed as well.

My friends in Group 82 are some of the few people that will ever completely understand what this experience has been like. Although we’ve all lived in our own village, with our own school, and our own house, we can all relate to the overall journey we’ve been on, and the trials and successes along the way. When we first began, 26 months felt like an eternity, but here we are on the doorstep of our departure.

Although we all arrived together, our exits from the country will take place on different dates. Next week, the first volunteers from Group 82 will begin to head back to the United States. Recently, I asked my friends to share a few things about their time in Samoa. The first question I asked was what was the most useful item they packed for their Peace Corps service. After two years, we all know what that one thing is that we couldn’t have lived without. Secondly, most Peace Corps volunteers can explain in vivid detail certain foods they craved during their time overseas, and this leads most volunteers to plan out their first meal back in the United States months in advance. Therefore, I asked my friends what that first meal would be. Finally I asked them each to share a special memory about their time in Samoa.

As we begin to pack our bags and say our last goodbyes, I offer this tribute to Group 82, and wish them all the best in the months ahead.

Introducing Peace Corps Samoa—Group 82:

Most useful item packed for service:
Faded, old, red baseball hat.

1st meal back in the U.S.:
Philly soft pretzel

Samoa memory:
I loved being together with our whole group on the last night of our Close of Service Conference. The true highlight of that night was Kyle’s stand up comedy. He had us all laughing hysterically.

Most useful item packed for service:
Pocket knife and duct tape.

1st meal back in the U.S.:
Everything bagel with garlic and herb cream cheese; Starbucks iced vanilla latte.

Samoa memory:
Running the Perimeter Relay Race as a part of “Kope Keine.”

Most useful item packed for service:

1st meal back in the U.S.:

Samoa memory:
I know this sounds cheesy, but I will always remember the other Peace Corps I’ve met here. They have become another family for me. I will never forget my family and watching my two younger siblings, Fuaesi and Lehini learning how to ride a bike. Fuaesi was on the handle bars and Lelini was riding her around. I will also remember the chickens, pigs and the occasional horse running around.

Most useful item packed for service:
Computer and soccer ball

1st meal back in the U.S.:
Green Chile cheese chicken enchiladas

Samoa memory:
The tsunami evacuation on the first day—crazy! All other cyclone and tsunami evacuations (3)!

Most useful item packed for service:

1st meal back in the U.S.:

Samoa memory:
Climbing Mt. Silisili [the highest Mt. in Samoa] and only having 1 liter of water for the entire second day—about 10 hours of hiking. At the end of the hike, we walked through plantations and I drank 4 niu (coconuts) and the first sip is probably the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted. Upon finishing the hike and entering the village, we were celebrated as heroes.

Most useful item packed for service:
My kindle

1st meal back in the U.S.:
Fondue (chocolate & cheese)

Samoa memory:
I told my host brother I wanted a niu (young coconut). He agreed to climb a tree and get some down for me. Once he got some niu he told me that he was going to teach me how to husk a coconut. I’ve seen it done with a stick in the ground, so I asked him where the stick was. He told me that before the stick there was the rock. He then showed me how to use a rock to open the coconut by pounding the rock against the coconut to soften the husk before pulling it off the coconut inside with my hands. At one point I put my feet on the coconut to pull at the husk. After about 10 minutes I finally got the husk off so I could drink the water inside the coconut.

Most useful item packed for service:
I-pod, floss, coffee and French press

1st meal back in the U.S.:
Mom’s lasagna

Samoa memory:
Waking up with a chicken in my bed in the training village. Scary in the morning!!

Most useful item packed for service:
The most amazing thing is that its taken me 15 minutes to think of anything I brought that hasn’t broken—that I cherished and would be lost without—nothing! I don’t need anything I brought!

1st meal back in the U.S.:
Green Chile Enchiladas with a Mexican Martine

Samoa memory:
The first few weeks (which felt like months) were so challenging for a million reasons. Our daily walks to the ice cream shop in the training village, sharing memories, envisioning Target trips, commiserating on digestive discomfort and cultural misunderstandings helped mitigate the pre-integration trauma. The fate of our deep enduring friendship was sealed early on when we revealed our vulnerabilities. You were ther for me, a shoulder to cry on when I couldn’t stop crying, and I was there when you opened your mail and smelled the envelope—ha! I’ll always remember the morning of your birthday as we talked in your fale (house). I cared about you so much after a few short weeks, still do, and always will. I’m grateful to this crazy Peace Corps madness for that.

Most useful item packed for service:

1st meal back in the U.S.:
Mom’s Chinese food

Samoa memory:
Representing my village at the Teuila Festival as the taupou.

Most useful item packed for service:

1st meal back in the U.S.:
Dad’s homemade mushroom & bean casserole, cottage cheese and a Dairy Queen chocolate malt.

Samoa memory:
I was sitting in the bathroom at my host family’s house, shuffling my feet on the floor to discourage cockroaches from crawling on me and when I grabbed a piece of paper from the “toilet paper box.” I started flipping through, disinterested at it, and saw that the title said ironically, “Lo’u Olaga Fou” (Your New Life).

Most useful item packed for service:
Sneakers or computer

1st meal back in the U.S.:
Eggplant parmesan with garlic bread

Samoa memory:
I was biking home from a nearby village and made the mistake of leaving too late. To avoid the heat on my first huge climb uphill, I visited Pat (Group 83) for lunch. However, right after I left it started pouring. Someone I didn’t recognize was calling my name to invite me to their house. (I was over an hour’s drive away from home—forgot about biking distance). I hung out with this family for an hour for the rain to stop. I then continued. As I got to the next village which has a Peace Corps volunteer, it started to rain again. I was welcomed into Dana’s host family’s house with big arms (Dana was away). Of course after the rain let up, I left and was stopped again. The people there yelled at me to come inside. I am glad I went because the rain never let up. I stayed there for several hours, laughing and joking with the family. Of course it became dark. I had a choice: I was invited to spend the next few days with the family (no biking the next day on Sunday) or find a ride. Thankfully the fish truck drove by and offered me a ride home. I realized how easily and quickly relationships with Samoans are made and how many I’ve been able to make during my time in Samoa.

Most useful item packed for service:
Non-stick pan, good small backpack

1st meal back in the U.S.:
A big fat veggie burrito or sushi!!

Samoa memory:
That first training village siva (dance) when we all had to dance traditionally for the whole village and other Peace Corps Volunteers!

Most useful item packed for service:
Kitchen knife

1st meal back in the U.S.:
Peaches and watermelon

Samoa memory:
I recently headed out with a former Peace Corps Volunteer, Max, to catch Palolo, a worm that comes out from the coral during one night in October. We were heading out into the water and had to swim across a portion of water to reach the reef. As we were swimming, Max dropped his flashlight we were using, and then his shoes started to slip off. In the whole mess, Max started making noises as he tried recovering the lost items. Nearby, men heard him and misunderstood his cries of frustration as if he were drowning. The men rushed out and started to drag Max to safety, while the whole time he was ok, just without his flashlight and shoes! It reminded me about how generous and quick to act Samoans are towards their neighbors and even complete strangers.

Most useful item packed for service:
Wrap-around skirt

1st meal back in the U.S.:
A pot of my sister’s homemade beans

Samoa memory:
I was sleeping one night when a rat walking on top of my mosquito net peed on my face. I just rolled over and went back to sleep!

Most useful item packed for service:
Leatherman knife kit.

1st meal back in the U.S.:
For the trip home from the airport, Dairy Queen’s chicken strip basket with a chocolate chip cookie dough blizzard!! The next day, my mom’s lasagna with garlic bread and a salad.

Samoa memory:
While in the training village for my first two months in Samoa, I shared the family’s bathroom on the compound. There was a string you could wrap around a nail from the inside to “lock” the door, but my host family didn’t use it, because one day I rushed to the bathroom with an emergency and found my host sister sitting on the toilet texting on her phone. We both gasped and the rest of my host family in the house heard and saw the incident and started to laugh hysterically. They yelled at her to hurry up as I waited in embarrassment outside for her to finish!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

National Exam Week

With year 8 during an exam study session.
There’s a certain level of excitement that leads up to exam week in Samoa. It’s a week that is taken seriously by both teachers and students alike. This year’s exam schedule ran for one week, where all students in year eight (8th grade) throughout Samoa took the same exam in five different subjects: Monday—Samoan Language; Tuesday—Basic Science; Wednesday—English; Thursday—Social Science; Friday—Maths (Australian and New Zealand spelling).

I have spent more time with year eight over the past two years than any other group of kids at the school. They were my students last year when they were in year seven, and so we started this journey together then. At the beginning of this year, I started mentioning the national exam to them, trying to give them a goal to work towards. It is a very challenging exam for the level of most Samoan students, and I wanted to do everything I could to give my students the best chance of succeeding.

In February I started giving them each a packet of work for the week that had English topics they could expect to see on the exam. They did a packet like this each week throughout the school year. In July I knew I needed to get them more prepared for the essay portion of the exam, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit I was able to develop an effective outline format to help teach them essay writing. I drilled this into them week after week doing all kinds of examples as I tried to break them of their old habits.

Samoan students have a tendency to write a short paragraph for what is supposed to be a full length essay. They normally will include in this paragraph a sentence such as, “I like fish and taro,” or “My mother weaves the mats.” No matter the topic of the essay, they always revert back to these sentences they have learned and been drilled on from an early age. So when having them write an essay about going to New Zealand for a vacation, I tried to explain to them that they don’t need the sentence, “My mother weaves the mats.”

During the week leading up to the exams I really raised the bar for year eight, giving them a big review packet of work and holding evening review sessions, and even one on Saturday evening! I think it helped get their attention and focus them more before the exams began. For the three different evening sessions I had, I only had two kids who missed on one day, so I was so proud of them taking the time to come and be responsible for themselves. It was just me and them, no other teachers at the school so it really gave them the chance to feel relaxed and more comfortable.

On Wednesday evening, after the end of the second review session, I looked down at my desk while they were still in the room and just looked at the pile of papers, folders markers and books and realized I just needed to chill out and take it easy for a minute. I had been pushing them really hard and I suddenly had a desire to just talk to them and calm them down, as well as myself. It was only a test.

I had them bring their chairs in to form a circle and I sat there for a few seconds trying to think about what I wanted to say to them. I looked around the room we had shared for two years, and at them, and the memories of all the things we had accomplished together started hitting me. I realized that the curtain on our two years was starting to close. As I was saying how proud of them I was, I couldn’t hide my emotions. Before long, nearly all of them were crying as well. Samoans normally don’t show many emotions, other than laughter, so a few of them were covering their faces. I looked over at a boy who has been one of my weakest students, yet has come so far, and he was crying the hardest. I collected my thoughts again and gave the kids examples of how much they had accomplished since we had started together. It was one of the best teaching moments in the past two years, and it wasn’t planned out in a long lesson plan, it just unfolded as we were living it. I’m so glad we had that time together to reflect.

The teachers and year eight students came to the school on Sunday evening to help get things ready for test week. Students were sweeping out the classrooms, moving desks and woven floor mats. They were the final preparations before the big exams started on Monday!

Monday morning the teachers arrived at the break of dawn to start preparing food for the test supervisors who were visiting from a neighboring school. Samoan culture places a lot of importance on receiving guests with a lot of hospitality, and this is most reflected by the amount of food that is prepared. Each student in the school was assigned a day when their family was to prepare or buy a certain food to give for their assigned day. Brothers and sisters in the same family shared a dish, and food was served for both breakfast and lunch. Food ranged in variety throughout the week, consisting of both traditional Samoan dishes as well as more palagi foods (white person’s food). Kids brought hard boiled eggs, chicken soup, cooked bananas, breadfruit, corned beef, clams, octopus, and the list goes on. The big ticket items were size two pigs which were given to test supervisors to take home for their families to eat. Pigs are classified by their size using a number. Size two is a nice size pig that is typically slaughtered for several occasions throughout the village. A size 4, 5 or 6 would be a huge pig offered to a family at a funeral or wedding.

On Tuesday I had offered to make omelets for breakfast. The Samoan teachers had never heard of them before, so I was excited for their reaction. I woke up early that morning and started cracking the 24 eggs to make the eight huge omelets stuffed with sausage, onion, tomato, cheese and sprinkled with basil. They were a huge hit and one teacher ate three of them! That was nine eggs in all for her, but it was a nice complement I suppose.

Wednesday was the day I was waiting for: the English exam! Since Samoan kids normally don’t eat breakfast, I told all of them to stop by my house early in the morning and I would have rice ready for them to eat. All of them showed up and some even ate a couple bowls worth of rice. After they had finished I sent them on their way to take the long awaited exam.

A few hours later after they had finished, I saw them out in front of the school and got a picture of them with relieved looks on their faces! It all felt kind of anti-climatic for me since I wasn’t the one taking the exam, but I knew that I had done my best to get them ready for that day. In the end, it was only a test, but I think it became more than that along the way. It became a goal for them to work towards, and something they could feel proud for having achieved. I hope they can look back on the process we underwent in getting ready for it, and use it as motivation to accomplish their dreams of the future!

Working with students during our Tuesday evening review session.

The kids working at a our Saturday review session.


A size 2 pig that was brought by a parent of a year 8 student.

Octopus which I found to be pretty good!

The omelets I made.

The size 2 pig after it was cut up!

This little piggy got eaten.

Plates of food that were sent home with the test supervisors from the neighboring villages.

Crab anyone?

The school's copy of the 2011 English Exam.

The gang after their English exam on Wednesday. Malo lava...good job!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Packed in the Back

A couple weeks ago, Samoa celebrated one of its biggest holidays, White Sunday. This was my third White Sunday experience since being in Samoa. The day is set aside as a celebration for kids. It is the one day where children, who normally fall at the bottom of the pecking order, are given the spotlight, praises and gifts. Every other day of the year, kids are doing far more chores than any American child would ever dream of doing, and also more strenuous tasks than most kids from American culture would experience. These kids are use to going out and collecting firewood, gathering coconuts, hauling rocks, weaving mats, and preparing the evening meal to name a few things. But on White Sunday, the kids set those chores aside and enjoy a day of rest.

The two days leading up to White Sunday are without a doubt, the busiest shopping days of the year in Samoa. People from the rural villages make an exodus by way of their local buses to the capital of Apia where they stock up on food, clothes and candy, which are all a part of the holiday. It’s the one day where families who normally go without luxuries, like ice cream, might splurge and buy a huge box carton for the entire family. It is the one day where I have seen new clothes be given to kids, as well as new shoes, and jewelry for the girls.

I’ll never forget last year’s White Sunday weekend when I was riding back on my village’s bus on Saturday afternoon. I have never seen so many people in such a small space, and with so much stuff. With there only being one bus to my village, everyone who had any shopping to do that weekend was on that bus.

As I’ve written in past blogs, because of my position within the community as a Peace Corps Volunteer, plus the fact that I’m a foreigner, I am always guaranteed a seat in the front of the bus out of respect—someone would always move to give there seat to me. And although I normally sit near the front of the bus, I decided that on the busiest shopping weekend of the year, I would give up my seat in the front and head to the very back, where I had never gone before. Since the front of the bus is reserved for the high chiefs of the village—matais—as well as older women and women with children, the back is where everyone else goes, and that leaves a lot of people!

After fighting my way through the busy streets and stores to do my shopping, I made it over to my bus where I arrived a half hour early, to guarantee my seat in the back! Upon arriving I told people from my village what I was doing as they laughed and still invited me to sit in the front. But I made my way down the aisle and found my seat in the back right hand side of the bus.

Before long people started stepping aboard the bus and cramming in. Babies were being passed through windows, toddlers getting comfy on their mother’s, or a stranger’s lap. I had my ears wide open to take in the language as I heard people trying to discuss who would sit where and who sat on whom. An older and rather large lady made her way to the back seat where I was and then had a small child sitting on her. There ended up being 6 people in the back seat, not counting the four people sitting on them. I offered to let someone sit on me, but I was in a corner seat so it would have been a bit uncomfortable, although not impossible.
As the bus continued to fill, people were juggling their cartons of eggs, ice cream and loaves of bread. Near the front of the bus were a couple big stalks of bananas, and 6 large coconuts rattled around on the floor near my feet. At one point, I also spotted a yellow 20 lb. bag of rice and some flour. It all came aboard the bus and somehow fit amongst the mass of humanity. Before long, the bus driver fired up the engine and we were off.

Now you might have thought our next stop was the village, but not so—there’s a surprise! Our bus always stops at a petrol (gas) station outside of town to fuel up before the long journey out to the bush. There is also a nice size grocery store at this petrol station where people like to stock up on food. So after cramming the bus full and situating everything just right, the whole thing is undone and 90 percent of the bus disembarks to do some more shopping. And yes, you’re right, what goes off must come back on, and then some!

People were buying bread, chicken, bags of chips and ice cream cones. I chose to stay put, rather than possibly loosing my seat. While we waited for everyone to re-board the bus, a guy sitting in the back with me started smoking a cigarette, which didn’t do too much for the air quality on an already very hot and sticky bus. Yet I signed up for everything I was getting that day.

About 45 minutes after stopping at the petrol station our bus rolled out and headed to the village. With the speakers of the bus pounding out one great song after another, I sat back, and enjoyed the ride. Our bus followed the road along the ocean’s edge as some people even managed to fall asleep.

As we approached the village people started reaching for the bags and boxes they had stuffed under their seats. Slowly the bus started to empty as one family after another got off in front of their house. Mothers and fathers would be greeted at the edge of the road by the younger children who waited to haul the groceries and other goodies back up to their house. All the kids were waving to me and seemed a bit surprised that I was sitting in the back of the bus.

With my two months left in Samoa, I’m glad I took the time to do something I normally wouldn’t do. It may seem like a simple experience, but I can assure you, it will make me appreciate my seat in the front a lot more!

Standing room only!

Some of the guys loading things onto the back tailgate of the bus.

Bananas on the floor of the bus.

Friday, October 7, 2011

1,051,200 Minutes!

Editor’s Note: Today is the two year anniversary of my arriving in Samoa to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a rural village for 26 months. As a way to reflect on these past two years, I recently conducted an interview with myself. Please feel free to read through the transcripts of the interview to see how the past two years have unfolded, and what is in store for the next few months!
Kyle: Happy Anniversary, myself!

Myself: Thanks, Kyle. It’s been another busy year here in Samoa!

Kyle: I’m sure it has been. Can you tell us how your life as a volunteer is different today, Oct. 7, 2011, compared to last year on this same date, as well as the date you arrived in Samoa, Oct. 7, 2009?

Myself: Compared to last year, I feel more confident having been through it another 12 months. I’ve had that time to learn about how to best accomplish things and be more culturally sensitive. I guess I feel much more integrated into the community overall, and perhaps more “Samoan.” I’m less rushed and more relaxed about daily life.

Compared to two years ago, it’s almost hard to remember all that has changed since then. Obviously my language skills have improved by leaps and bounds since that first day, as well as my tolerance for the heat. I remember those first few months having heat rash all over my arms and legs, but I haven’t had that since early 2010.

I would also say that my confidence in dealing with other people has improved so much since I first arrived. Having entered into this other culture with another language really humbled me and then challenged me to work with other people in order to accomplish my goals.

Kyle: What is an example of a challenging day?

Myself: I guess a challenging day most often occurs when one of my lesson’s at school doesn’t go as well as planed, or the kids are acting up. I’ve gotten a lot better about correcting “derailments” before they get out of control. I’m usually able to end the day at school on a good note and can always look back and find things that were positives about each day. Other things that also use to seem like the right ingredients to make a bad day, such as no water, no electricity, or my neighbor's radio blasting, just don’t seem that challenging anymore.

Kyle: Is there anything that use to annoy you in the beginning of your service that you now have come to love?

Myself: During my first month of teaching in 2010, I was still really homesick. My house sits right near the school, so every morning, while I was still inside my house, I would hear the kids come walking past and they would always say “Good morning Kyle!” You would think the sound of kids greeting me in the morning would be a motivating factor, but it use to drive me crazy and remind me of how much I didn’t want to be there at the time. But since then I’ve come to love the kids who bounce down the hill next to my house and wish me a good morning. There was one rare day when all the kids passed by my house without saying a word to me—they must have had something else on their minds—but it really made me feel forgotten! It’s also funny when some of the 1st graders who don’t know much English at all, but know I respond to “good morning,” wish me a “good morning at four in the afternoon!

Kyle: What student of yours has improved the most in the past two years? How have they improved?

Myself: Without hesitation I would have to say Milo. Milo is my neighbor and so I’ve spent a lot of time with him these past two years. He knew very little English when I first arrived. I wish I had a video of our first conversations together because it was quite entertaining between my lack of Samoan and his lack of English. He was also one of the lowest students in his class and would often be laughed at for not knowing the correct answers. But now he is one of the top students in my English class and is often able to help other weaker students when he’s finished with his work. He is so much more confident when he speaks or deals with other students. It has been a lot of fun to see him grow.

Kyle: You mentioned Milo is your neighbor. Describe your relationship with his family, whom you consider your “host family.”

Myself: Milo and his family have been such a blessing for me. I believe that whenever we face challenges, God puts someone or something there as a guide, and as a support system. Milo’s family was that extra support for me during my hardest days. Milo was at the road to help unload my bags the day I arrived in the village in 2009. His family were the first people to invite me for dinner, and since then they have continued to be there for everything. When my electricity was cut off, his family strung a wire from their house over to mine with electricity. They have helped improve my language skills and taught me so much about their culture. They have welcomed me into their home and made me feel as if I’ve always been a member of their family. It will be sad to say goodbye to them when I leave.

Kyle: What do you like to do for fun?

Myself: I’ve continued to find exercising a great outlet and way to stay in shape, so I normally try to run about four times a week. I also enjoy riding my bicycle down to the main road. This past year I’ve really enjoyed going over to family’s houses and just sitting with them visiting and practicing my language skills. I’m almost certain to always receive a cup of Samoan hot coco, and maybe even a bit of food. I have also really enjoyed spending time with my students, whether that be after school during tutoring sessions, or outside of school at their homes, along the beach, or swimming in the ocean. I also enjoy writing in my journal and reading three-month-old New York Times.

Kyle: What is something you’ve surprised yourself in this past year?

Myself: My desire to learn the language! A year ago I was kind of in the mindset that I had learned as much as I was going to. I really had no desire to open a language book and start teaching myself more. But once I got back to Samoa from Christmas in the States, I really had a desire to learn more. I started working a little bit on my own, but then got the idea to hire Saulo, one of my year 8 students who is also a good friend of mine. It has really been fun learning more of the language and being able to use it in the village. I think it shows a certain amount of respect to the host country nationals, and certainly allows me to be more effective as a volunteer.

Kyle: I hear you’re still writing letters back home! How is that going?

Myself: I’ve kept track of every letter I’ve sent since arriving in Samoa. I’ve currently sent 167 hand-written letters to friends and family. My goal is to send the 200th by the time I leave in December, so friends and family should be checking their mailboxes!

Kyle: How much do you know about events happening in the United States or other parts of the world?

Myself: Not very much. When I was in the States, I would be in front of the T.V. every evening at 6:30 to watch the nightly news, or even record it if I had other obligations. My first months in Samoa I really missed not knowing the latest news, but then I came to accept and even get use to not knowing what was going on in other parts of the world. Since I don’t have a television, and only limited internet, I guess it is one of the few time in my life where I have a good excuse for not being well informed.

Other volunteers from my group were also commenting on how little they know about world and national events back home, and how we might be a bit of a social miss-fit for our first few weeks back home. Tiffany, a very proactive volunteer from my group then prepared a timeline of U.S. and world events for the past two years which she gave to each member of our group to help us readjust to life back at home!

Kyle: What are a few things you’ll miss about:
Mornings in Samoa?
Afternoons in Samoa?
Evenings/Nights in Samoa?

Myself: Mornings: Sunrises and kids saying good morning to me.
Afternoons: Being able to take a nap and not feel guilty about it, since everyone else in the country is taking one.
Evenings: My run overlooking the South Pacific Ocean, and dinners with families from the village.

Kyle: What is one thing you won’t miss about Samoa?

Myself: The mosquitoes! They are relentless here. I’ll never be able to complain about mosquitoes again once I return to the States because they just don’t compare. Volunteers expend a lot of energy trying to avoid them. We put screen on all our windows, sleep under mosquito nets, use repellent and some burn mosquito coils to keep them away. Normally when I go into my classroom in the morning I’ll have a swarm of them near my desk and around all my books, so I’ll have to fan them away.

Kyle: What do you do when you’re frustrated?

Myself: This week I received a new camera that I had sent from the States. My other camera which I had bought just in January while home for Christmas stopped working due to a “lens error.” Well this week, after only using my new camera for two days, it displayed the words on the monitor, “lens error!” I was certainly frustrated, yet I realized how calm and adaptable I’ve become to different challenges.

Soon after this all happened, I could see my neighbor Milo, out my back window preparing his family’s evening meal. I walked over there and watched him go about his chores for about 45 minutes. I reminded myself about how simple his life is, and how he doesn’t have to worry about digital cameras and i-pods breaking. I guess I felt a little jealous of his simple life. It was nice to refocus my thoughts and remember that it’s just a camera. Other things matter much more.

Kyle: What part of the culture have you come to love the most?

Myself: I really love the way Samoan culture is so welcoming towards others, and caring for neighbors. Samoans take a lot of pride in giving a good welcome for guests, and not just for foreigners like myself. Whenever villages travel to another village for any event, the receiving village always has a certain protocol to follow in terms of making someone feel welcomed. That may be shown through an official ava ceremony where all the high chiefs from the village meet, the giving of food, or other material things such as fine woven mats. Every time our school has a guest from the Ministry of Education, you can count on there being food and tea to welcome them.

Samoans live in such small communities that they really get to know one another, often many of them being distant cousins, aunts or uncles. But even for the unrelated members of the community, there is still a deep caring and respect that exists, and that if one family needs help, they can always turn to their neighbor who will lend a helping hand.

This is something I hope to take back home with me. I really want to do a better job of getting to know my neighbors. Not only those who I live near, but those people I meet at church, and in the workplace.

Kyle: What’s something you want to do before you leave Samoa?

Myself: I have been wanting to return to my training village for a long time now, and plan to go visit my old host family there before I leave in December! The training village is where my whole group of volunteers lived for 10 weeks upon our arrival in Samoa to learn the language, as well as cultural, and work related skills. We each lived with a host family during those 10 weeks. I haven’t returned back for a visit since I left there in early December of 2009, so I am anxious to go back and say a proper thank you to my host family there who supported me during my first months in Samoa. At the time I was going through all the emotions and still getting a grasp on the language and culture, but now I’m looking forward to going back and just being with them.

Kyle: What is one thing you will make sure is packed in your suitcase the day you leave?

Myself: Kids have been making me cards and drawing me pictures for the past two years. I’ve been throwing them in a box to save. Some of them say “I love you Kyle,” or have a phrase in Samoan with their name and mine. One of the cards I kept was from my friend Saulo which he gave me on the last day of school last year. It was a thank you note and his saying I was his best friend. It really helped remind me at the time about what all the struggles of that first year were for, and gave me hope for this second year which I’m now about to complete. So those will be the things I make sure get into my suitcase for the trip home. They will be cherished for years to come!

Kyle: Thanks for sharing all of this with us on your two year anniversary, Kyle!

Myself: No problem. Thanks for letting me share! I’ve really enjoyed these past two years and have learned a lot about others, as well as myself in the process!

Marking the two year anniversary with Milo, Christopher and Saulo!

The morning I arrived on October 7, 2009.

With Corina at the airport two years ago today!

At our ava ceremony to welcome us, just hours after arriving in Samoa two years ago.

Here we are during our tsunami evacuation only hours after arriving in country on Wednesday, October 7, 2009.

Wear & Tear

These shoes weren't made for walking!
Over the past two years I’ve been able to see firsthand how things wear out, break down, fade or rust! I remember in my welcome packet from Peace Corps they reminded us of the dangers of bringing anything irreplaceable to a climate that is so humid. We were told to bring plastic sealable bags to place all of our electronics in, along with Silica Gel packs (those pouches you find in shoe boxes to help suck up all the moisture)! However, despite all the preparations, there was no real solution to battle this climate and the two years of beating our things would go through.

Here are a few things I’ve dealt with:

1. Termites eating through stationary, books, and most of all, all the wooden window frames in my house. Several times throughout the week I have to sweep up the piles of dust the termites leave behind. Most of my window frames look fine from first glance, but if you went and pushed your hands against them, you’d discover they are hollowed out!

2. Electronics crashing or malfunctioning. The i-pod I brought in 2009 lasted about a year here until it fizzled out in November of 2010. And on an even more depressing note, I’m now the owner of two cameras which say they have a lens error, with my newest camera having only worked for two days before the misfortune. But on a brighter note, the camera which I’ve had since the beginning, and which is five years old, still works, it’s just a hassle because it requires AA batteries.

3. My Chaco sandals are now on their last leg, (no pun intended). I bought them right before coming to Samoa, but within the past few months they are getting pretty bad. The bottom of the left shoe has nearly fallen off all the way, and requires me to place duct tape on it to keep it attached (see picture below). I’m bound and determined to make them last for the remaining 10 weeks.

4. I won’t be taking many clothes back home in December. It’s not because I’m being wasteful, but rather because I’m being practical—they are in really bad shape! Faded, stained, molded and with holes in several of them, they have served their purpose, but will be retired by the end of the year. I’ll probably be giving them to neighbors or kids so they can use them as work shirts.

5. The candle on my water filter looks like it was pulled out from the bottom of a swamp. I’ve actually gone through three separate candles for my filter in the past three years. They are supposed to last a year, but no such luck in my case. The one I’m on requires cleaning every other day to keep water filtering through it, but it should last me until I leave.

6. Anything metal rusts so easily. I brought a stapler with me from home which I’ve had since I was about seven years old. It still looked brand new the day I brought it to Samoa, but within a few months it was starting to rust over, and now is nearly all rusted, except for the plastic parts. Paper clips on all my papers are rusted and the spiral binding on my notebooks as well. Living with this much humidity makes anything possible.

So those are a few examples of how two years has had an effect on my things. Overall, I think I’ve been lucky compared to other volunteers in terms of loosing things to the weather and climate. But here’s your warning: if you ever visit the Pacific, or any other equatorial region, be advised that nothing is safe in terms of the climate!

The candle of my water filter looks more like a health hazard as opposed to a means to stay healthy!

The darker color of my shorts you see is the inside of the cargo pocket, the color the shorts were before they faded after two years of wear and tear!

Termite damage to one of my books.

A box of some type of nuts that our principal had the kids gather to sell to China. This is the day they were cracked open at school. See picture below for more!

This is what the box of nuts looked like after sitting in a cardboard box during our two week break from school. The point: mold grows so easily in this climate!