Saturday, February 26, 2011

Peace Corps HQ Visits!

As volunteers, we have all made a reference to, or heard a reference about, Peace Corps Headquarters. When going through the long application process, they were always the people we were talking to on the other end of the telephone line. They were the ones we were sending ream upon ream of paperwork to, and always hoping it ended up in the right hands. And now as volunteers, we know it as the place where most of the rules and regulations we are told to follow, originate!

However, last week, the much talked about and sometimes mysterious headquarters from Washington D.C. paid a visit to my house in Samoa! Actually, a group of four individuals has been in the country doing a review of the Peace Corps program here in Samoa, before they head off to do the same in neighboring Tonga and Fiji. I was asked if they could come out to my house to see what life is like for me as a volunteer.

Luckily, because I keep a rather organized house, I didn’t have to do too much cleaning before their visit, although I did complete a few household chores that had been on my list to do for a long time. My 12 year old neighbor Milo, knew they were coming and wanted to give some coconuts for them to drink, so he went and climbed the closest tree.

Whenever visitors come out to my house I always hope for a sunny day because it makes the drive out to my house much more stunning! Luckily it was a sunny day, and once the team arrived, one of them said it was one of the most beautiful places she had ever seen! Knowing she was a well traveled person helped remind me indeed how special this place is, and how I can’t take it for granted.

Although it was a sunny day, it had been a rainy week leading up to their visit, and thus the steep hill outside my house was nothing but mud. Tevita, the Training and Program Manager for the Peace Corps in Samoa, was the one who drove them out for the day in the Peace Corps Land Rover. However, this was Tevita’s first visit to my house and he didn’t know not to drive down the steep, grassy hill next to my house. After it was too late, and he had passed the point of no return, the vehicle had slogged its way down past my house, leaving a look of dread on all of our faces.

I greeted my guests as Tevita turned the Land Rover around. Kathy was the first I shook hands with. She is a senior adviser to the Peace Corps Director, Mr. Aaron Williams. The next to come through the door was Ren, the current Country Director in Micronesia here in the Pacific. I then welcomed Roger, who is the Chief of Operations for the Inter-America and Pacific Region. Finally, the last face I saw was a familiar one; Shelley is the Country Desk Assistant for the Pacific Region, and was at our staging event back in Los Angeles in October of 2009 before we left for Samoa.

Once they all made their way into the house I gave them a tour of what I call home. One of them joked if it was a four bedroom place, since it is rather spacious by Peace Corps housing standards. Before we sat down for our discussion, there was still an uncertainty as to what to do about the vehicle out front. Tevita wasn’t having any luck getting it back up, so Roger went out to try and lend a hand. The rest of us decided to start our visit. They asked a lot of questions about what life was like for me here in the village. We talked about my daily activities and what I do for fun. I mentioned to them some accomplishments from the first year, as well as some challenges.

Before too long, Roger came back inside and said that Tevita was going to gather some help from nearby neighbors to assist in getting the vehicle back up to the road. We decided to continue our conversation so we could finish, and then offer any help needed to get the vehicle back up to the road. I must admit it was a bit challenging to keep my full attention on my guests at times, considering there was a Land Rover outside the window behind them spinning its wheels in mud as the engine worked its heart out. But even they couldn’t resist glances as we all wondered if it would finally make it. Ren, who had his back to the window, asked me to warn him if the vehicle started rolling back towards the window!

It wasn’t very long though before I started seeing all of my neighbors arriving on the scene to lend a helping hand. Men, women and children were all gathering to help push and pull to do all they could. After our talk, we headed outside to offer our assistance as well. It wasn’t at all surprising for me to see about 20 of my neighbors lending a helping hand—it’s the Samoan culture to help your neighbor—and I’ve experienced that in all different kinds of ways these past 16 months. The Peace Corps team from Washington D.C. was very impressed by the willingness of my community and I think this particular situation helped them understand the Samoan culture in a unique way.

Assessing the situation, I could see the car was about a foot away from the eve on my house and was practically sitting on top of the bushes. With a harness attached to the front of the vehicle, and several guys—including myself—at the rear of the vehicle, we pushed as Roger took over control of the driving. After pushing/pulling the group of men would lodge rocks under the tires to create more traction before doing it again.

As they say, it takes a village, but after being splattered with mud and covered with sweat, we finally got that Land Rover back up to its comfortable resting spot on the road. The Peace Corps team looked at the damage the car had done to the front of my house, and offered there sincere apologies. It certainly was slick for a few days, and I nearly fell down several times that afternoon, but luckily after a week of South Pacific sunshine, my front yard is firm once again.

After helping maneuver the vehicle out of the mud, we all trudged very carefully back to my house for a group picture and a final goodbye. They gave me a Peace Corps pin, which I was happy to receive and invited me to visit headquarters if I’m ever in Washington. They thanked me for letting them visit and for my service. I thanked them for making the long journey out to my house. They said to be leery if anyone from headquarters asks to visit again—considering the event we had all just gone through with the mud! As Shelly commented at one point, it helped the whole situation for all of them, with them having been Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. The point being, that things like vehicles getting stuck in mud, don’t cause too much panic for those who’ve lived in another country for two years. After they all piled into the vehicle they had just helped get back up the hill, they waved goodbye. Their final words to me were to do something about the landscaping in the front yard, because it looked terrible!

Me helping push from behind.

The Peace Corps vehicle next to my house.

This is how close the Land Rover came to my house!

Without help from the village we wouldn't have been able to get the vehicle out of the mud!

Here is Roger, the Chief of Operations for the Inter-America and Pacific Region of Peace Corps, lending a helping hand!

Everyone pulling hard!

We finally got it up to the road!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

2nd Year Momentum

Peace Corps Samoa volunteers and staff
at this year's All Volunteer Conference.
Somehow another two weeks have slipped by and I’m left wondering what to write about for my blog. Since no one topic comes to mind, I’ll just give a quick overview of the past couple weeks, and perhaps some of you will enjoy a look into the life of a PC volunteer.

It’s been a solid two weeks in my village! I didn’t go into town last week on purpose. After my trip back to America for the holidays, and then two weeks away from my village for meetings, I had only been at my house for a couple of days in the past month, leaving me with a longing for the old routine.

Being back here in Samoa for my second year of service has left me looking through a different lens. A few days ago I celebrated 16 months since arriving in Samoa. Normally an anniversary day like that would be a joyous occasion for me and leave me longing for the next one to come around. But now I’m at the point where each month’s anniversary is a reminder of how short my time here in Samoa is. Another volunteer and I were discussing a couple of weeks ago how we finally “get it,” in terms of realizing why a Peace Corps service is 27 months long. We both commented on how that first year is about getting our feet wet, meeting people, learning the culture, and becoming comfortable with just being here. For me, I feel that my second year already has a momentum that my first year was lacking. This in no way leaves me feeling as though my first year were “lost,” or “wasted.” That first year had to be the way it was in order to get me where I am today!

This has been a bad week for me in terms of health. A slip in the mud last Saturday caused my knee to hit a rock and although the rock looks the same as before our run-in, my knee has been sore since then. Then with a cold arriving and a couple days later, the worst stiff neck I’ve ever had (it lasted three days), I was left unable to go for my evening runs. But this provided me with the perfect opportunity to work on school projects. That momentum I mentioned earlier has been noticeable at school. For the past week, I’ve been working at school until 7p.m. in my classroom, making resources and lessons for the kids.

School began on January 31st, and I knew going in this year that these first weeks are very slow in the Samoan school. Many students don’t even come to school the first week. Since there is no janitorial staff at the schools, the kids spend the first week cleaning the rooms, moving the desks and picking rubbish up around the school grounds. Instead of bringing paper and pencils to school the first week of school, students are required to bring woven mats and brooms that will be used throughout the year. The number of mats and brooms they have to bring is determined on how many children are in their family.

Now we’re heading into our third week, and I can feel the pace picking up, and I’m glad it is. I have changed some of my classroom procedures from last year, trying to make things run more smoothly, while at the same time be more challenging and fulfilling for the students. I’m trying a new alternative to homework. Although I still plan on assigning the traditional homework assignments from time to time, I’m going to give the majority of their “homework” at the beginning of the week and have them turn it in to me on Fridays. Each packet of work will be tailored to each student’s level. I have kids that are reading rather good English and others that don’t know the alphabet. Why assign a homework assignment on sentence structure to the student who doesn’t know the alphabet. This will allow me to work with each student individually. They will be required to come to me during the week and ask for help on particular areas they’re having trouble with. Having them turn in the work on Friday will also allow me time to review their work over the weekends and help prepare lessons for the following week. I think it will also help them to become more responsible in terms of making sure they keep up on their work so it’s ready to turn in on Friday. I’m doing this with my year 7 and 8 students, which is a total of 15 students. So my weekends just got a bit more full, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. I expect my kids to raise the bar this year, so I most certainly expect it from myself.

Despite all my enthusiasm for the new school year, I haven’t been spending all of my time there. As I noted earlier, last weekend I stuck close to the village. Some of the boys from the village had been wanting to go for a walk to a nearby village and get ice cream at the roadside store, since we don’t have ice cream in our village. The walk took us about an hour and a half, but it was a nice sunny day and the treat at the final destination was worth it. I bought Chilly Chocks Ice Cream for all the boys and we sat next to the ocean and enjoyed the cool treat. I had been wanting to call my Dad to say hi, and thought the kids might enjoy speaking to my Dad. I let them dial the number and say hello in Samoan. They got a kick out of it and enjoyed asking questions in English and Samoan. It was a fun afternoon.

My meals the past two weeks have been as interesting as my adventures for ice cream and time in the classroom. Due to circumstances I couldn’t control, my power had been cut the night I arrived back from the capital with all my groceries. Without a refrigerator, I was left with limited choices for my diet over these past two weeks. So to make a long story short, I’ve been having Wheet-Bix cereal for not just breakfast, but sometimes lunch or dinner. The same with oatmeal. This past week has been mostly a pasta and rice marathon though, when it comes time for dinner. But remember, I have no butter and no money to buy butter, so the menu would read like this: Monday: rice and crackers; Tuesday: pasta with basil leaves (no butter, no sauce), and crackers; Wednesday: same as Tuesday; Thursday: same as Wednesday; Friday: Wheet-Bix and the last cracker in the box—which I dropped on the floor where the cockroaches scurry, but I ate it anyways! However, despite the lack of main entrĂ©es, my desert selection has been amazing, considering I still have all my candy that I brought back from America.

And finally, I didn’t want to spend too much time commenting on the weather, since my past two blogs were about weather events, but I can’t let this get posted without mentioning how wonderfully pleasant the days and nights have been here in Samoa. This is based off my distinct memory of last year’s rainy and humid season being a scorcher. I remember streaks of heat rash up and down my arms last year in February. Even the people in my village are wondering where the heat is. So what gives? Evidently, this is a La Nina year and thus causing “cooler” temperatures. Now when I say cool, I mean mid to high 80s for daytime highs, but the lack of 90 degree days are certainly recognized and appreciated. Now just wait, March will be an oven.

Well now I better head off to Farmer Joe’s to do some grocery shopping. Thanks for letting me share the past couple of weeks with you. I hope it was informative.

Saulo, Neueli and Milo talking to my Dad over the telephone.

Neueli getting ready to climb the coconut tree for a coconut!

Neueli going up.

Neueli made it!

Enjoying our coconuts.

All the new charts in my classroom have been made!

My new bulletin board idea for the year!

The brooms that have been brought for the new school year.

My desk is all organized.

New classroom rules, and February's calendar.

My new role book for this year smells like Byler's Market, which is a small bakery near my house back in Michigan. It's a good smell!

Kid's fighting the rain on their way to the first day of school.