Thursday, April 28, 2011

BYOP and BYOF (Bring Your Own Palm and Bring Your Own Flower)

Palm Sunday
The past two weeks have been busy ones for me at church. First there was Palm Sunday on April 17, and then the masses during Holy Week, which finally culminated with Easter Sunday just this past weekend! Last year I attended most of the masses at the Catholic Cathedral in Apia, which were in English. However, this year I deliberately decided to stay in my village in order to experience the masses in Samoan and be a part of their community. I have no regrets.

Things got started with Palm Sunday. I arrived about a half hour before mass started, and soon found out that palms were not given out like they are in the United States, but rather, people brought their own palms from their yards to have them blessed. With this being a tropical climate, I can see where this scenario works better here than it would in Michigan! But not to worry, my church friends quickly produced a palm for me before mass began. The procession began outside with the Pacific Ocean as a back-drop as we processed towards the church. On Palm Sunday the reading of the Lord’s Passion is read, and hearing it in Samoan this year helped bring to mind all the languages around the world in which God’s Word is being proclaimed everyday!

Holy Thursday mass began at 7:30p.m. and arriving to the smell of incense burning reminded me of my days as an altar boy. However, being an alter boy in Samoa requires a different clothing attire. At all of the masses the altar boys go without shoes. I remember back home that if we wore tennis shoes or sandals we might be asked to change shoes! But taking your shoes off in a house in Samoa is considered a sign of respect, so doing it in the house of God would only be natural. On other special occasions, the altar boys may also serve without any shirts on, and sometimes spread coconut oil over their chests and backs! But despite the differences in attire, Samoan altar boys are some of the most reverent I’ve ever seen.

Good Friday began with Stations of the Cross at 6:30a.m. and was held outside. Each family from the Catholic church had made wooden crosses for their front yards during Lent, decorating them with palm branches, fabric and fresh flowers. The procession wound its way through the village to different families’ crosses, before ending at the church. That afternoon we had service at noon, which was a real scorcher in the heat of the day, but that didn’t keep anyone away.

During the middle of the Good Friday service, a cross is brought before the congregation when they are able to kiss the feet of Jesus as a sign of respect and memory of His crucifixion. This is something that I’ve been doing throughout my life on Good Friday back in the United States. However, with a new culture come some new ways of doing things.

Just before people began processing up to the foot of the cross, a student of mine from last year, who was sitting next to me said, “Here is your flower.” A bit annoyed that he was trying to give me a flower during such a solemn part of the service caused me to give him a stern look and produce some type of no response, in which he retracted his arm with the flower still in it. Shortly after though, I realized that everyone else in church also had a flower in their hand, which they were taking up with them to place at the foot of the cross (a tradition I had never seen in the United States). Feeling very guilty for having snapped at this boy’s kind gesture, as he saw I was without a flower and was trying to help me, I turned back to him with a smile on my face and reached my hand out for the flower as I patted him on the back with my other hand as a way of expressing my embarrassment. He kindly offered the gift of the flower back to me, and I was able to proceed on without too much embarrassment. I know I’ll be thinking about him each Good Friday in the years to come, as a way of reminding myself of his hospitality and my needing to be more patient.

Holy Saturday mass always takes place in the evening as a vigil for Easter. The mass always begins out in front of the church with a huge fire which is used to light the Easter candle. Samoans make fires almost every day of the year in order to cook their food, so I wasn’t surprised to see the flames they had roaring in front of the church on Saturday night. They were using coconut shells to keep it fueled!

The following morning was Easter Sunday! My Mom had sent me an Easter package with Peeps, Reese’s Cups, M&M’s and marshmallow eggs, so I had a neighbor of mine make a Samoan basket and I put the Easter grass and candy in it, along with two hard boiled eggs I had boiled the night before. It really felt like Easter back at home. I headed over to one more round of church for the week, because mass began at 10a.m. The choir had been busy singing at every mass during Holy Week, and they finished strong. I love how music is a universal language and although I didn’t understand all of what was being sung, it nevertheless helped to facilitate with the prayer.

After mass I headed over to a families’ house for to’ona’i, the big traditional Samoan feast that happens each Sunday, rain or shine! Some weeks it’s not uncommon for me to receive three separate offers to dine with families after church. It almost has become an event I can book weeks in advance. There have even been weeks where I’ve accidentally double booked, and had to dash from one family’s house to another.

Easter Sunday’s meal for me included BBQ chicken (yum), hot dogs (which Samoans call sausage), breadfruit, taro, cucumbers and a couple other things I’m forgetting. I’ve really come to love the food here and have no complaints at all. I even had octopus for the second time a few weeks ago and enjoyed it!

I was invited over to this family’s house by a new friend of mine from church, although I’m loosing this friend next week when he moves to New Zealand to attend school. However, I’ll still remain close to his family! After we were done with the main course and I was brought the bowl to wash my hands in, and towel to dry them, ice cream was served! It was one of my new favorite flavors since arriving in Samoa, banana!

That afternoon the sun was intense as I walked back to my house. A few of my students from school who I’m good friends with came back to my house to hang out for the afternoon and one of them had heard about Easter egg hunts. He said he wanted to have one. I cut out some eggs from construction paper and hid them around my living room and kitchen. They had a blast as we took turns hiding them and trying to see who could find the most.

In the end, it was a great Easter weekend for 2011 and I’m so happy I was able to share the experiences with the people in my village. Once again, I’ve been able to make new memories to reflect back on, as Easter is celebrated each year in the future!

Processing to the church on Palm Sunday

Sunrise on Easter Sunday

Easter basket for 2011

Close up of the candy!

One of the altar boys lighting the candles before church on Easter Sunday.

The priest during mass on Easter Sunday.

I was able to get a picture with Fr. Mikaele after mass.

Neueli, a student of mine, sat with me during Easter Sunday mass. Here we are afterwards.

This is normal and acceptable footwear for attending all churches in Samoa. I had never worn sandals to church, before coming to Samoa. Here Neueli and I are sitting next to each other on Easter.

This was Easter Sunday's to'ona'i feast. The ice cream came later!

Here are Saulo and Neueli at my house during the Easter egg hunt they requested we have!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Popular Destination

Some of my Peace Corps visitors!
As some of you already know, my village is one of the most remote areas for any of the Peace Corps volunteers living in Samoa. Having this location conjures up a sense of adventure, and thus many volunteers have been making the trip out to my house to experience another part of Samoa.

Recently I hosted our monthly book club meeting, and had a record breaking, NINE visitors, at my house for an overnight stay! Since the majority of volunteers in Samoa happen to be girls, the book club is thus made up of mostly girls. After mentioning to my Samoan neighbors that I hade nine Peace Corps visitors coming—and them asking if they were girls or guys—word spread throughout my village quickly that in fact, I was having nine female guests at my house! My neighbor Naomi came over that Friday afternoon with a huge flower arrangement she had made, and later, my friend Milo brought over nine coconuts for my guests! I think they were as excited as I was for the weekend!

That evening all the volunteers, along with Denise, the Administrative Officer for Peace Corps Samoa, arrived by taxi. After giving the tour of my house, we began preparing the spaghetti dinner with garlic bread and salad (all on a two burner electric stove top). The day before they arrived I had a thought cross through my mind, about how bad it would be if my power went out (as it sometimes does) after they had arrived. And as Samoan luck would have it, just as we were finishing the dinner, the lights went out!

My neighbors, in their Samoan hospitality, quickly came to the rescue, stringing an extension cord from their house (which still had power), and thus we were able to keep my refrigerator running, and have one small light for the living room. Nonetheless, it still made for an interesting evening. But it was still just as special, and probably a bit more memorable. The next day we walked down my road to a big waterfall in a neighboring village before they all started heading back to their villages. It was great to have so many great friends come and experience what life is like for me at my place on a daily basis.

Over the past month, I’ve also had a couple unexpected guests! A former Peace Corps volunteer from Samoa, who was in Group 14 (I’m group 82) and served in the mid 1970’s stopped by my house with his wife. He said this was his first time back in Samoa since he had left in the 70’s! I asked him how strange it was, and he said he was shocked at how so many things had changed. It got me thinking about what any return trips I might make would be like. Despite the years that had passed, he said he still had a lot of the language skills down, which was neat to hear. I gave him my blog address, so I’m hoping he reads this! However, I have to apologize because I forgot to write his name down, and now it has escaped me! But check out the picture below that we took!

Another day, I was walking through my village when a recognizable tourist vehicle came through (they always drive a little bit slower). They stopped to say hi, and I found out they were Americans, who are teaching in American Samoa (about 60 miles to the east of Samoa) through an American program called World Teach. They were visiting Samoa during their spring vacation (fall). I invited them up to my house for a look around and short visit. It’s always neat to bump into other Americans in Samoa, so our accidental meeting was enjoyable. I also gave my blog address to them (trying to get the word out) so if they are reading, a big hello to them too!

When Americans aren’t visiting me, I have my Samoan friends stopping by to keep me company! A few months ago, a couple of the boys who hang out at my house a lot noticed a can of Campbell’s Cream of Chicken Soup sitting on my counter. It was given to me by Bill and Kathleen (volunteers who left back in August) but I had never really known what to eat it with, since I don’t cook meat at my house. But since so much time had passed, it expired in December, although I never threw it out. The kids kept wanting me to open it for them, and I tried to tell them it was expired, although they didn’t care. Samoans don’t waste food, and eating a can of soup that is a few months expired isn’t a big deal. So I finally invited the kids over one evening for “dinner,” and we opened the cream of chicken and ate it with rice. The boys brought some cooked banana and one of the smallest fish I’ve ever seen, but it was a nice gesture! They ended up loving the cream of chicken, and I never heard of any illnesses, so I guess it all went ok in the end.

And speaking of visitors, although they aren't visiting my village, I found out today that the production crew and cast members for a new CBS "Survivor Samoa," have arrived in the country and will be filming from May-August. However, their sense of "survivor" is a bit unrealistic (perhaps a blog to follow on that topic later).

In the meantime, this second year of Peace Corps service has been a new kind of adventure as I’m able to share my house with so many visitors. As much as I love to see them all visit, it’s still nice to get back into my normal routine after the “parties” quiet down. However, I’m still looking forward to the next time someone swings by my house for a visit. I may even have a can of outdated food for them if they like!

Naomi made this huge flower arrangement before my Peace Corps friends came!

Leah (foreground) and Blakey, working on a salad!

A former Samoa Peace Corps volunteer stopped by my house in March. He served in the mid 1970's. Here we are with one of my neighbors.

Here are the boys who came over for the expired cream of chicken soup!

They went after the cream of chicken soup without any hesitation.

A couple volunteers from the World Teach program in American Samoa were visiting Samoa during their school break. Here we are at my house.

For those who visit my house at night, I can offer you sights such as this!

If you prefer to visit me in the morning, I can offer you this!

If you are a mid-day person, this would be your scenery!

Saturday, April 9, 2011


Without any doubt, faausi is my favorite Samoan food. I remember the first time I had it in the training village, back in October of 2009, and as I ate it, just kept wondering what it was made from. Since then I’ve found out that it can be made by using either papayas or taro—I prefer papaya. So the full name would be faausi esi (esi means papaya).

While embracing my second year of Peace Corps service, I’ve been trying to learn more about the people and their traditions. Since food is such a huge part of this culture, I knew that asking my neighbors to teach me how to make faausi would be a great weekend activity—and it would please my stomach!

Having asked my neighbors what I needed to get while in town at the market, I picked up 10 papaya and six pounds of flour. Bringing back 10 papayas in a big basket on the bus sure did get conversations started. By Sunday afternoon when we actually began preparing the faausi, I think most of my village knew what I was going to do.

With paper and pen for note taking, and camera in hand, I headed over to my neighbor Naomi and Taunaola’s around 1p.m. and they had already started preparing. A relative of theirs was working on shaving the inside of 20 coconuts, which would later be squeezed for the cream. Someone had also gone out and gathered the firewood which had already been split and would be used to build the oven. My walking over with 10 papayas from the market and my bag of flour suddenly seemed like the easy part of the prep work.

First we cut the papayas and scooped out all the seeds (I’m already a pro at this). My hands always have some allergic reaction to the papaya and I asked Naomi if hers did too. She laughed and said no, and that her hands were strong. After we had the papaya prepared, she put it in water and boiled it over a hot flame for about 30 minutes. While we were waiting, I went over and tried lending a hand with the coconuts, but I was rather slow, and soon handed the operations back over to the pros. If I had continued, we would still be waiting on me! Nevertheless, seeing the manual labor that goes into what are daily chores for these people, helped remind me of how much patience is required.

As we were all in the Samoan kitchen, the smoke from the fires kept driving me outside to get fresh air, as my eyes were very sensitive and kept watering. Once again, if I had been left alone on my own to do this, I wouldn’t be writing this blog about my making faausi, because we wouldn’t have gotten past building the fire.

Once the papaya was done cooking, Naomi and her sister worked at separating it from the juice. This would then cool for a bit and then be added to the flour to make a doughy mixture.

While the papaya was cooling, Taunaola and another man from the village who was there helping us, started working on the sauce. After having built a big fire, they took some of the scolding rocks and placed them on two sticks over the pan with the coconut cream. Then they would pour the sugar onto the rocks and the sugar would caramelize into the coconut cream below, but not before causing flames to shoot up on the rock due to the sugar. I kept thinking how this felt like a science experiment my high school chemistry teacher, Frank McCauley, would have done for us. It was really neat to watch, and I kept wondering how everything would come together.

Once the papaya had cooled, we added it to the flour and mixed it with our hands. We actually could have used more flour, but I’ll know next time. After the mixing was complete, Namoi walked over with portions of banana leaves which she said were Samoan foil. How resourceful. She coated each leaf with a light layer of coconut cream and then we filled each leaf with a handful of the dough. She wrapped each one and then they were put over the hot rocks and covered with several banana leaves and even a woven mat to help bake them in the traditional Samoan oven (called an umu). At this point it was just wait and watch for about 45 minutes until they were done baking.

Finally, they came out of the oven, and we placed them onto more banana leaves and opened them up to cool. Flies are always a constant bother in Samoa, so I knew without being asked, to fan our food with a towel. After about ten minutes Taunaola washed the outside of a coconut which he then preceded to use as a cutting board. Cutting each baked papaya loaf with a dull knife, he placed the pieces in a bowl and I looked on with excitement. We had almost completed the very labor intensive meal.

Soon the bowl was mostly full and it was time to add the rich sauce we had made earlier. My nose instantly remembered the wonderful smells, as they mixed the two together. Bowls were brought out and as is Samoan custom, they served me first, and with a bowl that was heaping full of faausi. I waited for others to be served before eating, but I was urged to begin, so I didn’t hesitate any longer.

With that first bite I knew that my plan had come to fruition. I was enjoying wonderful, traditional, Samoan food, with people I love and now call family. I had taken the time to ask for their help, and I could tell they appreciated it. It was nice to see all the people gathered around eating, who had helped throughout the day. A bunch of the kids who had been there too, were enjoying the sweet treat and I was happy for them, since they don’t always get food like that on a regular basis.

Now word has spread throughout the village of my love for this Samoan food, and I’ve been invited to make it with another family on Easter. So in the end, this has become much more than a preparation of food, but rather, a way in which to learn more about the people I’m living with.

Naomi and I preparing the papayas to be cooked.

Suese, shaving the 20 coconuts we would need to make the sauce for the faausi.

20 coconuts later, this is what he had!

I tried my best, but I was just slowing up the process.

Squeezing the coconuts for the coconut cream (called pe'e pe'e).

Ten papayas worth ready to be cooked, and seeds on the right to throw out into the rubbish.

The banana leaves which would be used as a "foil."

The guys were preparing the oven here.

Mixing the papayas and flour together!

Placing the dough in the banana leaves before taking them to the oven.

A nice hot oven (umu) to bake the faausi.

Here they are covered under the banana leaves and woven mat, starting to bake!

After they had baked, the faausi was uncovered.

This is when the sugar was placed onto the scolding rocks and mixed in with the coconut cream in the pan below the sticks! Pretty neat science demonstration!

The faausi cooling on banana leaves.

Who would have known coconuts make great cutting boards!

Mixing in the sauce.

Final product!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Verb Hats

There have been certain moments the past few weeks at school where I look around my classroom and really truly feel like a teacher. As someone who graduated college not intending on being a teacher—my degree was in liberal studies—I’ve certainly had many days where it has felt normal to be one.

This year I’ve had the opportunity to work more with the younger grade levels. Last year it was mostly just 7th and 8th grade, however this year I’ve been spending a number of days with 4th, 5th and 6th grades, and some days, even 1st grade. Students in Samoa’s public schools receive an education much different than their counterparts in the United States. To summarize the situation most simply, teaching styles are very different here, and in most situations, involve teachers drilling answers with their classes and then having them copy assignments from the chalk board into their notebooks. For most students in Samoa, that’s the only thing they’ve ever known.

As a result, this puts me in a unique situation to share so many of the teaching practices which I grew up with as a student myself, and help show these children and teachers, that there are other ways to learn the needed materials.

Early this past week, I was watching all the kids file out of the school at the end of the day and run up the hill to the road to head home. While sitting there watching them, the Holy Spirit put an idea in my head. I suddenly realized that these kids were leaving school empty handed (aside from their notebooks which they take with them every day.) I pictured myself as a 4th, or 5th grader and remembered taking art projects home on the school bus, and sometimes decorative hats I had made in school. Our school here in Samoa does have the resources to make those things, and although I’ve used those materials for daily lessons, I had never thought to send these kids home with something they had created.

So Monday night, with a general idea in my head, I had to put together a lesson that I would use for the 5th and 6th grade classes I knew I would be teaching later in the week. I had been working with those classes on verbs, and they were struggling, so I decided we would make “verb hats.” One evening I stayed after school to test a hat out for myself. With a template lined up, I cut the needed materials from our construction paper with hopes that it would bear much fruit.

Wednesday was the day! The kids came in and were ready for my usual way of going about things, but then I put my verb hat on and explained what we were going to do. We began by brainstorming verbs and then doing some other short activities, but moved quickly to the hats. They were to pick three pieces of colored paper and write three different verbs on each paper in crayon. On the headband part of the hat, they wrote the word “verbs.” They were allowed to decorate their hats with their crayons drawing other simple designs and pictures. I think they were slightly confused at first, but once I started handing out materials and they started coloring their hats, I could see I had them hooked on the lesson. At one point the room was so quiet that you could have heard a pin drop. It was so unlike anything they normally do, that they were devoting their complete attention to the project. At our interval (recess), one of the teachers came into my room and complemented me on the hats, and asked if she could wear my hat. I didn’t refuse.

That afternoon, I sat in the exact same spot I had a few days before, when I had first gotten the idea for the hats, except this time I watched them as they headed for home with all these creations on their heads. At that moment, I got that feeling that I was a teacher, as though I had helped pass on a part of what it’s like to receive an education in America—an education that is superbly unique to many other nations around the globe.

Of course, whenever I took home an art project from school as a child, it was displayed on the refrigerator or put away in a memory box. But not so for my students! On Thursday morning I saw all my kids come bouncing down the hill wearing their hats they had made the day before! I made a compromise and told them they could wear them before school and during interval, but not during class. I also asked that they be cleared out of my room by Friday, because they were creating a mess. I explained that they can be worn outside of school for fun.

When I’m not busy making verb hats, I always seem to be keeping busy with something else. I arrive at school by 7:45a.m. and many days stay as late as six or seven, with only an hour or two of break in the afternoon to eat lunch and do laundry. Living next to my school gives me a unique situation that many other volunteers who live farther away don’t have. I’m able to hop over to school from 3-6 and work on lesson plans, without it being a huge inconvenience. Last year when I was still adjusting to being a teacher, as well as just living in Samoa, I wanted to leave school and not think about school after it was over. However this year I have this new urge to keep working there, thinking up new lessons, organizing papers, or grading. I take my small radio over with me and tune it to the Christian broadcasts that come from Southern California. It’s great company while I work and great for the soul! Some days, like this past week, I’m even kept company by rats in the staff room while I work. It’s all a part of the daily challenge!

Throughout any normal school day, whenever I have free time I’ve been having kids come into my room and read to me. I started this program last year where they each receive a “Reading Book,” and after they read to me they receive a stamp. After they have five stamps accumulated they get to pick a sticker from my huge collection. This program has proved to be highly beneficial for all of my students. I’ve seen their reading abilities jump so high just after the short amount of time they spend with me. Last year I did the reading books with grades 6, 7 and 8, but this year wanted to reach more kids so included 5th grade. Now some of my most enthusiastic students are in the 5th grade, with a couple boys asking to read to me nearly every day. They don’t even seem concerned about the stamps or stickers, but I can tell they love the one-on-one attention they get from sitting down with me. It makes me smile.

This year when I get ready for bed at night, I’m excited for the next day to begin. I look forward to seeing those kids come walking into my room with huge smiles on their faces as they say good morning and ask to read a book from the box I keep on my desk. And at the end of the day when they stop by my room to say goodbye, I’m sad to see them go. Some days I have to kick them out of the school because they won’t go home, they just want to be there in that atmosphere. I could go on for 10 more paragraphs about the changes I’ve seen in my students during the past year: ways I’ve seen them grow, ways I’ve seen them mature, ways I’ve seen them gain trust in me. No matter how many times I see it, it never gets old. Each time I’m blown away! I’m reminded of how I’ve been able to be there for them, and how they’ve been there for me. We’re there for each other!

My mom has been a teacher for 31 years so I now know what a messy desk looks like! My normal neatness escaped me this day and I realized how easy it is for a desk to get out of control.

I laughed when I found Charles, a 6th grade student of mine, smelling one of my new books I brought back from America in January. As some of you may know, I have an obsession of smelling new books (or old books that still smell good). So I'm happy to know I'm not the only one with this weird quirk!

Here is Neueli leading a bingo session for the year 8 kids. The boys are often told by the principal to climb a coconut tree during their interval (recess), so that the staff can have a drink. Although I love the coconuts, all that climbing is hard on their shirts and thus keeping a button on is nearly impossible, as you can see!

This is the pipe under the sink outside the school. It serves as a foot washing station for those muddy feet after the torrential downpours we get.

I've been intrusted with the care of the keys for the school since I'm the first to school and often the last home. So when I locked them in the library after school one day, I had a bit of a problem.

Luckily, the keys were near the window, so scheming a plan to get them out, this is what I came up with.

Lucky me! I won't make that mistake again!

This is in my room. When it rains heavy water comes in around the board at the bottom. It's also an entrance/exit for the rats that roam about in the evening and after dark!

Here I am after school marking the students with good manners for the day.

A random exam schedule from 2006, still up on the wall in the staff room.

Kids from my 6th, 7th and 8th grade classes are writing letters to middle school students in America. Look for a future blog post about this!