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!

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