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.

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