Saturday, July 30, 2011

I'm Lovin It!

I was in town Friday night for dinner at a great Indian restaurant with my Peace Corps friends, Tiffany, Cassie, Corina, and Chelsea. In the midst of inhaling our meal, we all concurred that a trip to McDonald’s for ice cream would be a good idea after our Indian food.

McDonald’s in Samoa means more to volunteers than it ever meant to them when living in the United States. On several occasions I’ve heard volunteers say that they had only eaten McDonald’s once or twice in their life, before coming to Samoa. But walking down the road and seeing those Golden Arches here, stirs something inside of us that reminds us of home. It really does become what we call, comfort food.

After doing a little research, I found that McDonald’s first opened in Samoa on March 2, 1996 and has restaurants in 123 countries worldwide. Whenever traveling in another country, there is always something special about seeing that famous logo, and thinking about America’s ability to spread it’s corporations around the globe.

But Friday night’s visit wasn’t about analyzing McDonald’s ability to brand itself on the world stage, it was about its ability to satisfy my sweet tooth! Walking in I had intended to get a vanilla ice cream cone which is only 3 tala (1.23 US dollars). However, a big new advertisement behind the counter on their menu board looked much more appealing: apple pie a la mode for 6 tala (2.47 USD).

Waiting there in line each time I visit, I’m always amazed at McDonald’s ability to keep so much about its business familiar to their consumers. Everything from the cups down to the straws and paper napkins are exactly the same as in the United States. Wherever I’ve traveled in the world, the French fries taste the same and this is part of McDonald’s genius. Even its playgrounds and Ronald McDonald image have made it to Samoa.

Although there is a McDonald’s here, the average Samoans who live in the rural villages have never been there. They have heard of it, they just never have eaten there. This is mainly because they can’t afford to eat there when they have so many other financial responsibilities to their families and church. Therefore, McDonald’s has become mostly a destination for those families who live in the Apia area or for the tourists who flock there because of its familiarity!

For me, Friday night’s visit ended with no regrets in choosing the apple pie a la mode! I was in a familiar place and eating familiar food, and I must admit, I was lovin it!

My selection for the late night run was a new item on the menu here in Samoa. Last month they had taro pies and they were actually good too!

They look the same, but most of all, they TASTE the same too!

The night shift getting into the swing of things.

I'm lovin it!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Weeks 92 and 93

I’m not one to count the days or weeks, especially since I’m wishing them to go by slower than they are. Nonetheless, I was curious how many it had been, so I found my calendar and discovered that I just finished week 93! The past two weeks have felt like normal weeks for me as a volunteer, but I still thought it would be fun to give a few recaps about what’s been happening here in Samoa. So here you go...

Popcorn Diplomacy: I’ve found that food can serve as a great tool in community integration, particularly popcorn! It’s easy to make and the people in my village love it. I recently made bags for three different families and took it over to their houses in the evening for a “midnight snack.” So many people in this community have reached out to make me feel at home the past two years, so I’ve tried to continue offering my appreciation to them. Popcorn does the trick.

The Big Island: Samoa’s population lives mostly on two islands, Upolu and Savai’i. I live on Upolu, and had only made it to Savai’i twice in the past 21 months—until last week! It’s called the Big Island, simply because it’s the biggest of all of Samoa’s islands (although Upolu is more populated). I went over to visit Peace Corps Volunteers, Emily and Matt.

I started the journey after school on Friday. It was a voyage that included many modes of transportation. I started it off by running down my road to the main road, 6 miles away! I then took a taxi with Sam, another volunteer who was going over to Savai’i. Once in the capital we jumped out of the cab to get on the bus to the wharf. Then it was a 1.5 hour ride by ferry before reaching Savai’i and getting on another bus to Emily’s village!

Emily and I had a great visit at her house, which sits practically on the edge of the ocean. She showed me her school and I was able to see so many great things she’s doing with her classes! We went shopping for our dinner, which we cooked at her place and ate out on the rocks in front of her house as we watched a full moon rise over the South Pacific. At one point, I stepped on a board in the dark that sent three nails through my sandal, but luckily not into my foot, since I was able to avoid what could have been disaster.

Because Emily’s host family is the pastor of the church in her village, and because I’m a guy, I wasn’t able to stay the night at her house, so we went to a nearby village to some beach fales (houses) that are built in the sand on the beach.

The following day Emily and I made our way up to our friend Matt’s village, which is nearly on the other side of the island from where Emily lives. It was a lot of time on buses, but the bus trips here in Samoa are the best. Two hours feels like 30 minutes when I’m looking out over the ocean and watching families go about their daily routines as we pass by.

We had a great visit with Matt and went to a nearby beach resort which is run by a family he is close to. We ate a great meal and had good conversation. We met up with Elisa, another volunteer from our group. That night we stayed at Matt’s before heading out the following day on a very rare Sunday bus from his village to the wharf. By the time I got home Sunday evening, I had more or less traveled from one side of the country to the other!

Picture Day: Growing up, who among us didn’t get a special feeling heading to school on picture day? It was always the day we looked our best, wore our best, and smiled our best! A few months ago I was looking at a Peace Corps magazine and came across a picture of a volunteer from another country. She was in the picture with her whole school. It looked like the perfect picture to capture what the two year experience is about. So I suggested the idea of a school picture to my principal.

I decided that I would use a sheet for a backdrop and take each student’s picture, which their parent’s could buy for 2 tala (the price to develop it). I also wanted several group shots of the kids and teachers.

On Monday morning, the kids came to school with a bounce in their step, looking their best with their fresh haircuts they had gotten in the village from family members over the weekend. The weather cooperated as well—thankfully it’s not the rainy season yet—as the sun was shinning with its usual force. At interval I arranged the benches out in front of the school so that the ocean would be in the background. Amazingly, the kids were very patient and the whole process of doing group shots, along with pictures by grade levels went very well.

Wristband Rage: This year’s health program among volunteers for our individual villages has a new twist. Every participant gets a pink wristband to help remind them to eat healthy foods and exercise. The program is being done with adults over the age of 21, but has also been adapted and modified for a separate program among grades 6-8 at the schools. Wristbands among kids and young adults was popular long before the health challenge began, but once they saw the pink ones they were getting for free, they got excited! Even traveling to the farthest parts of Savai’i last weekend, I saw kids walking the roads over there with the new fad.

I handed out a paper that was written in Samoan, explaining the program and how to eat healthy and exercise. In an effort to also educate parents more, I told my students they wouldn’t receive their wristband until I had the paper signed by them and their parents. Wouldn’t you know, the next day every single student brought back their paper signed! If only I could get that response for homework assignments!

Leatherman Letdown: My friend Katy, who was a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa, told me before I left for Samoa to get a Leatherman! I did and it was probably one of the most useful things that I packed in my suitcases for this 27 month journey. Leathermans have a knife, a screwdriver, a razor blade, pliers, wire cutters, and a tape measure, all packed in something that fits in your hand once folded up! Amazing! I’ve used it every day since being here, since in order to turn on my shower, I need to use the pliers! Well the many months have taken their toll on my old friend, and unfortunately it broke in half this week. Now I’m shopping around for something that will get me through the next five months.

Water and a Fuse: Luckily they weren’t mixed together, but then again, they couldn’t have been since I was without both at the same time! I was informed on Tuesday that the water would be off for two days as the men in the village did some repair work on the water tank up the hill behind my house. So this meant walking over to the neighboring village with two five gallon buckets and filling them up and asking for a ride in a friend’s van back to my house. It also gave me the chance to have a bucket bath, which brought back memories from the first two months here at my site when I took them every day since I was without water in the house then. It’s always good to remember where we’ve come from.

And on the same day the water went out, my fuse for my electricity did as well. Luckily, one of my neighbors is an electrician, so he was able to fix it by the end of the day and avoid too much hassle.

Why Did the Village Cross the Road?
To go by chicken at the store that had some! There are two family run stores (a counter at a window the size of a car’s windshield) that sell chicken in my village. Normally both stores have chicken, although one of them charges 30 sene (cents) more per pound than the other one. So it was the talk of the village this week when the less expensive store ran out of chicken, causing people to backtrack in their steps to the other side of the road to buy their meat at the other store. I even got caught up in the mess on Friday, after thinking that the less expensive store was re-stocked, yet finding out that it hadn’t been. So I got to cross the road like everybody else this week!

“Privacy Fence” Demolished:
There had been, until Friday morning, a nice hedge row of bushes at the top of the hill next to my house. It served as a natural privacy fence for the cars and foot traffic in and out of my village. But the teachers wanted to cut it down so I’d have a better view of the road. Oh well, this wasn’t a battle I wanted to fight, so I went along with it. It looks a bit stark compared to what was there, but I guess I’m already getting use to it.

Low Tide Leads to Cricket:
On Thursday I was determined to make it into this beautiful ocean in an effort to relax after what was a busy week at school. But I forgot how uninviting the ocean can be during low tide, which it was at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday afternoon. So rather than getting torn up on the coral, I “played” my first game of cricket on the beach with some of the kids from my class. They used a tennis ball I had and we swung at it using the base of the palm branches they had collected. It made for some good laughs when I was trying to hit the ball, but those kids sure know how to put a game together, because they were doing just fine!

Group shot with years 7 and 8, who I've come to know the best.

Emily in front of her house!

Emily and I in front of her house.

Watching the sunrise at the beach fales on Savai'i.

This boy sat on my lap for a two hour bus ride. The bus filled up and so kids sit on laps so that adults can have a seat.

Emily and I at Matt's house during my island tour.

The buses get full in a hurry after the ferry arrives at the wharf, as people prepare to head into the capital. My bus was just as full!

The kids sweeping the grass with the brooms during our clean-up day. The men from the village had cut it with machetes a few days before.

It's more than just the pink wristbands! Her are years 6-8 after school on Friday during our exercise workout.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Thank You Robin Yeager

Presenting Robin with a going away gift.
For the past two years, Peace Corps Volunteers in Samoa have had a great friend. Robin Yeager, who is the Charge d’ Affairs of the U.S. Embassy in Samoa, has been a huge advocate for the work we do. However, in the near future, her two year term in Samoa will come to a close and she’ll be heading back to the United States.

Due to the fact that the U.S. Ambassador to Samoa, Mr. David Huebner, also serves as ambassador to New Zealand, with his offices in Wellington, Robin Yeager is in a unique position. As Charge d’ Affairs, she is the acting ambassador when Mr. Huebner is not in Samoa. She keeps a very busy schedule, but despite her many commitments, she has always chosen to make Peace Corps one of them!

My first memory of Robin came during my second month in Samoa. It was November of 2009 and I was still a trainee in the training village. Those were the days of homesickness, stressful afternoons in language class, and awkward cultural clashes with my host family. So when all of us trainees heard that we were invited to Robin’s house for a Thanksgiving gathering, we all soon perked up a little bit more.

We were driven by bus from our training village to her house, about an hour’s ride away! When we arrived and walked into her spacious house with air conditioning, satellite T.V., and crown molding, our eyes lit up. We had been living in Samoan fales (houses) for nearly 7 weeks at that point, and being at her house made us feel like we had a part of our old lives with us. The food was amazing, and covered three large tables. The desert was even more impressive and we were invited back for seconds and thirds!

Since that first meeting at Robin’s house, we have been invited back again and again for all types of events. I think she always knew we had a soft spot for her T.V., which gets several American channels. She was always telling us that if there was some sports game on that we wanted to watch, just to let her know. And we did.

She had us over to watch the U.S. play in the World Cup in June of 2010, and then again in December to watch the Army vs. Navy game. Since there is a seven hour time difference between Samoa and the U.S., this often meant the games would begin at awfully early hours in the morning. But that wasn’t a problem for Robin. Instead, she always told us to come over the night before, cook dinner, and spend the night on her couches until the game began in the morning! She also had a great tradition of fixing us a huge breakfast casserole each time we stayed over for the night.

On two other occasions we held our monthly book club meeting at her house, and were also invited to spend the night and watch the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, this past April. Her two dogs, Lexi and Katie always roamed about the house, making many of us think of our pets from back in the U.S.

When Robin wasn’t hosting us at her house, she was sponsoring us in relay races! Last July I was a member of the men’s Peace Corps Volunteer relay team for Samoa’s Perimeter Relay. Robin helped sponsor our team of volunteers by offsetting part of our entrance fees, as well as sponsoring the women’s Peace Corps team. None of us would have completed the race if it hadn’t been for the countless sandwiches, muffins, cookies, and PowerAde that she supplied throughout the race day. Both of our teams came in first place, so I’m happy we were able to get a win for Robin!

Robin was also crucial in establishing an “American Corner” at Samoa’s Public Library in Apia. The room is full of books about America, and has other great resources, such as computers for the public to use. She has also begun a traveling library which is going around to all the schools where Peace Corps Volunteers are located. This is giving countless children the chance to read great books!

Most recently, Robin hosted us at the new official residence, over the 4th of July! Although we were celebrating the 235th birthday of America, Robin had made most of the evening a tribute to Peace Corps, as her way of celebrating its 50th anniversary! Robin and her staff at the Embassy had gathered pictures and stories from volunteers, present and past, to help highlight the work we have done in Samoa. She thanked us personally for our service and the work we are doing.

At the informal gathering on July 2, the volunteers had a chance to show our appreciation for what Robin has done for us. Most of us volunteers had gone in together to have a Samoan plate made for her, with a carving on the front that read, “Faafetai mo lau auaunaga,” (Thank you for your service). It was a very small way for us to say thank you to someone who has made us feel so welcomed in a country she knows is not our own.

Robin knew most of us by our first names. Once when walking through Apia, she was driving by in her car and recognized me, giving a big wave as she drove by. Before my trip to Australia, I had a question for her regarding my passport. She quickly responded to my emails and followed up with a phone call. It was this personal attention and carrying that she did, which all of us are going to miss.

My final memory of Robin is also my dearest. Because or Robin’s position within the U.S. State Department, she was the one who swore us in as volunteers as we read our official oaths before her, on December 8, 2009. That was the day that began this amazing journey I’ve been living since. Its been full of challenges, growth and rewards. But most of all, I’m so thankful that it included Robin’s friendship. She will be missed. Best of luck Robin, we'll miss you.

Peace Corps Volunteers and staff in Samoa, past and present, gathered with Robin on July 4, 2011.

Emily and I at Robin's over the 4th of July weekend, 2011

Celebrating Peace Corps' 50th Anniversary with a birthday cake!

Robin always has sparklers for us on the 4th of July!

The beginning of the food line at Robin's, for Thanksgiving, 2009.

Samoan custom is to take off your shoes before entering a house, as we all did here at Robin's for Thanksgiving, 2009.

My plate of food at Robin's 2010 Thanksgiving gathering.

Crashing on Robin's couches and floor to watch the U.S. play in the World Cup in June of 2010.

Gathering at Robin's this year.

Robin with the guys team after we took 1st place in the relay last August.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Man vs. Wild: Samoa

Heading up the mountain!
Many of you have seen the popular cable T.V. series on the Discovery Channel, Man vs. Wild, with Bear Grylls. A helicopter drops him out in an unforgiving landscape and he has to survive with limited resources as he battles nature’s relentless power. He gives pointers on what to do if you ever were to end up in a similar situation, minus the camera crew and producers of course!

Recently I had my own Man vs. Wild experience, as I hiked up the 754 m (.46 miles) mountain next to my house on two different occasions. Within my first month of living here in my village, I made the goal to someday reach the summit of that mountain. I was able to accomplish that goal on June 11th, and then again on June 25th.

On the first expedition, I had the company of two other Peace Corps volunteers, Corina and Chelsea, as well as Denise, one of the staff from the Peace Corps office. The four of us were led by my neighbor, along with a few other men from the village. In the lead-up to that trip, people from the village continued to reassure me that there was in deed a trail to the top. We soon found out that the trail was actually decent for half the distance to the summit. The second half ended up being the most challenging, since the men leading us had to cut through growth, which was thicker than I had ever seen before.

Corina, Chelsea, and Denise weren’t able to make it all the way to the top because Corina and Chelsea had to get back into the capital to catch buses to their villages that day. But I continued on with two of the men who were leading us.

As we walked along, I was in awe of the men, as they made the entire trip without shoes on their feet! Samoans start walking outside without shoes on their feet from the time they start to walk as toddlers, so their feet have calluses as strong as the Nike tennis shoes I wore. In my mind, I kept saying “ouch,” every time I looked down at their feet, but it never seemed to slow them down. The oldest man on the trip with me was 59 years old, and he was more agile and limber than I was on the slopes of that mountain. At one point, I looked behind me to see where he was, thinking he had fallen behind. I was in for a wake-up call when I found him waiting for me some distance ahead.

That first trip took seven hours to reach the summit. It was a crystal clear day. By the time we did make it to the top, I began to realize that I hadn’t packed enough food or water because I started to get dizzy and very weak. I’m pretty sure I was experiencing some level of dehydration, which made the trip back down very challenging. Going to the top of a mountain is exhilarating, but then you remember that you have to get back down!

Living in Samoa I’ve been able to experience the convenience of being able to eat off the natural foods of the land. Coconuts are a great source of hydration and give the body lots of good vitamins. But since they don’t grow at the elevations we were at, I kept picturing how amazing it would be when we finally got low enough on the mountain, where one of the men could shimmy up a tree and knock one down for a much needed drink!

After what felt like ages, we finally did reach the coconut trees! This was the first time when I saw the strain of the trip on one of the men’s feet, as he had to make a type of shoe out of leaves to give some traction to his feet, in order to climb the tree!

Not only do coconut trees provide great drinks, they also bare great food. Around the base of coconut trees, you can always find the shoots of new trees that have started to grow. If you break open those coconuts and get to the germination of the new tree, it is very tasty to eat. This food called o’o, has filled my stomach on many different occasions, most of all on that day!

When we finally made it back down, a bunch of my students were following me down the street asking about my trip. We had put up a red flag at the top of the mountain, and many of them had seen it that afternoon. My friends Milo, Saulo and Neueli were all fascinated by my pictures from the top of the mountain and wanted to make the journey themselves, and that’s how the second trip came about on June 25th.

The second time up was much easier, as the trail had already been cut. I was better prepared with plenty of water and food. Saulo took along a hammer and nails, so that the men who were leading us could reinforce the flags at the top of the mountain, which had fallen down since our first trip. It was so much fun to see the kids’ reaction once we reached the top. We were able to see all the way down to our village, and across the island to many other surrounding villages.

Going up only took two hours on my second trip. However, it had rained the night before and thus the second journey proved to be much more slippery than the first. This all turned the fight against gravity on my decent, into comic relief for those who were with me. Only five minutes after we started our descent, and in one of the steepest parts of the trail, I slid and tumbled backwards into a bunch of limbs, ferns and other vegetation, which resulted in me needing the assistance of two of the men, plus Milo, to get me out back onto the trail. Luckily, other than a few cuts I was fine.

When we all got back, the boys told me they wanted to go back up again sometime, but I told them I thought I had had enough! Both trips allowed me to form new relationships with people in the village, which is always a rewarding experience. I was also reminded again, that nature really is wild, and that it takes a lot of energy from those who scale its summits. But when you do, the view is always waiting for you!

This is what we were trying to summit!

The view on the way up.

Milo, Saulo and Neueli with their new hairdo!

Looking down from the mountain on my village.

Conquering the summit!

Me on the summit, with my village and house below!

Milo taking in the view from the top.

Aaron with our victory flag.

Neueli grabbed some sugar cane to take back to his family.

Starting to get a bit tired on the trek back down the mountain.

One of the men on the trip, who named his son after me, carved this into the tree as a gift to both his son and me.

Milo, Saulo and Neueli stop for a picture by the waterfall on the way back down the mountain.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Saulo's New Job

Saulo likes pay day!
With each week that passes here in Samoa, the end of my amazing journey here seems to be drawing closer. It’s now about five months away. To look at five months by itself may seem like a good chunk of time, but when you put it next to the 26 months I began this experience with, it seems so much shorter. Recently, I’ve been making a conscious attempt to accomplish personal goals which I had set for my time in Peace Corps. One of those goals was to have a very good understanding of the language before I reached my close of service, this December.

Learning a new language has never been something that has come easy to me, so there are still many days where I am blown away at what I have learned and absorbed in the past 21 months here. Although I’ve felt for a while now that I’ve had enough language to be effective as a teacher at school, and a respected member of the community, I was still left wanting to learn more. I didn’t want my time in Samoa to come to a close and find myself wishing I had tried harder with the language.

When I was in Australia recently, I came up with a plan to get my language skills more polished and pushed to a new level. I decided that I wanted to have one of my year 8 students, and good friends, Saulo, serve as my tutor on a weekly basis! His English is probably the best of anyone else’s in the school, and I have always felt more comfortable speaking Samoan around my students, as opposed to older village members.

I told him about my idea and what it would entail. We would meet every other day during the week after school for a lesson. To help keep me accountable, I asked if he would give me a test at the end of each week’s lesson. Also, Samoan children aren’t given any allowances, so I thought by paying him five tala a week, it would help teach him the value of earning money, as well as make his work feel more legitimate. After I proposed the plan, he eagerly said he would help me.

This past month we’ve been having our lessons and it has been such a great experience. Some days that we meet, he comes prepared with a lesson. Since he and I are good friends and spend a lot of time together, he knows what all my bad habits are in terms of the language. During our lessons he’ll remind me of a time we were walking through the village and I said something wrong, and then he goes on to teach me the correct way. I never realized that he was that aware of what I was saying to other people, but he really does know where my weaknesses are.

For other lessons I’ll make a list of questions I have. All I have to do is ask him what a certain phrase or word is in Samoan and he writes it down without much effort. When we both are stumped, we turn to my Samoan/English dictionary, which he has come to enjoy looking at. From the very beginning of this idea, I knew that not only would our time together be helping my Samoan, but also his English. I think this may be something I’ve disguised from him, as all the attention usually seems to be about me learning to speak his language more fluently.

Since I’ve been teaching him in my English classes since last year, he has picked up on a lot of my teaching habits and ways of doing things in the classroom. Now that he is teaching me though, it has been interesting to see him formatting his lessons and tests in the same ways I do for my English classes! The tests he writes for me are normally similar to the ones I write, but he has also come up with great ideas on his own.

Because the Samoan culture has such a great amount of respect for the elderly, as well as for village leaders and the pastors of churches, being able to use the formal parts of the language can go a long ways in helping establish oneself in the village and being respected by community members. When we’re walking down the road together and are approaching someone, I’ll quietly rehearse my greeting with Saulo as we approach the person to make sure I’m correct. He usually nods his head, or will add something he thinks I should say. I can usually tell that they are pleased that I took the time to greet them in the proper manner, and I think it shows them that I respect their culture and traditions.

I’ve also enjoyed asking Saulo for help with phrases I can use with the kids. Walking through the village and talking to them in some of their informal or slang phrases has been fun to do and it’s always interesting to see their reactions. It has helped the kids to become more interested in me, and for them to be less timid when we are together.

I think he really appreciates being able to help me and takes a lot of pride in it, especially when he hears me using phrases and vocabulary he has taught me.

Taking my first test!

Saulo and I after the big test.

My first test was an 81%, although every test since then has been an A!