Friday, February 17, 2012

Do You See What I Saw?

Sunrise--August 18, 2010
As I continue this process of reflecting on my final days, memories and experiences from Samoa, I thought it would be fun to look back at what I thought were the best pictures from my time in the Peace Corps. The process of taking a picture happens in an instant, but the enjoyment of looking at them can last a lifetime.

During my two years in Samoa, I tried hard to capture the unique moments, the frustrating moments, and the joyous moments. However, I am fully aware that so many of them were lost in the blink of an eye, when the shutter lens was closed, and the camera powered down. Only if the camera had been with me at every minute, would I have been able to capture a more complete view of the culture, people, and places. But maybe it’s better this way, to have a piece of the puzzle missing, for that challenges me to recall, revisit, and reflect on those moments when the camera wasn’t around, when it was just me, living the life and loving the moment.

Editor's Note: After looking through the pictures, feel free to vote on your favorite picture! All you have to do is go to the right side column of this screen in the blue box, below my profile picture, and select your choice. The pictures are labeled above with the number of that picture. Thanks for your opinions!

Picture #1

Dreaming about the future. Walking through the village one evening, I found all these boys sitting by the ocean's edge, looking out over its open waters--2011

Picture #2

A culture and the test of time. A matai (high chief) from my village, during one of their weekly meetings--August 2011

Picture #3

Mighty force. Village members playing volleyball, seem oblivious to the waves crashing from passing Cyclone Wilma--January 2011

Picture #4

A breakfast for champions. This is what I woke up to in my room one morning--2009

Picture #5

Whatever it takes to get the job done! Here Alofa is working to remove pins in the library walls before painting--2010

Picture #6

It doesn't quite fit. A cow leg protrudes out of a freezer in the church hall--January 2011

Picture #7

Life in the slow lane. Here I am taking the long walk from the main road, back to my village on a day when the bus wasn't running--July 2010

Picture #8

Creativity at work! I had gone out jogging and when I got back, Saulo had left this behind, to inform me I had missed his visit--2011.

Picture #9

Simply Samoa. The view looking out over the water along the road to my house.

Picture #10

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom! During our group's Close of Service Conference, it was actually my idea that we all climb this coconut tree for our final photo together--September 2011

Picture #11

The Ringmaster. Milo was all dressed up and ready for Sunday church service--2010

Picture #12

Under the surface. Here I was snorkeling for the first time in Samoa--October 2009

Picture #13

The sweet spot. On one of my early days in the village when I was still very homesick, I walked up to this vantage point along the road and felt such a feeling of empowerment as I thought about the vastness of the ocean before me--2010

Picture #14

Love thy neighbor. In the Samoan culture, you look out for your neighbor, and in this case, those without a chair--2010

Picture #15

The love of learning & teaching. Here Christopher gets ready to ask me a question as I'm still helping someone across the room--October 2011

Picture #16

Keep on hanging on. Climbing a steep and slippery rock face--July 2010

Picture #17

Home is where the heart is. My heart wasn't here in the beginning, but eventually it found and made a home--one that will be a part of me forever.

Picture #18

Heal the World. Students prepare to sing and dance to Michael Jackson's "Heal the World"--November 2011

Picture #19

The expedition. For the first time in his life, a matai from my village heads up the mountain he has lived next to since he was born--June 2011

Picture #20

Friendship. Neueli and Saulo embrace for a picture during a field day at school--May 2010

Picture #21

Catch of the day. My neighbor had caught all of these beautiful fish using a spear, in two hours time--2011

Picture #22

The force of gravity. Spectacular Fuipisia Waterfall on the island of Upolu--July 2010

Picture #23

All dressed up with nowhere to go. In the training village, each of our host families put us in outfits before the village wide dance--2009

Picture #24

The break of day. Sunrise on Easter Sunday--April 24, 2011

Picture #25

Friendships made. Here I am with Saulo's family, who I grew very close to--November 2011

Picture #26

Heavy lifting. Logi may be short, but he's able to get the work done.

Picture #27

Moonlight hidden. Out for an evening run under the light of the full moon, I was able to grab this shot--2011

Picture #28

Blue Lagoon. Flying over Samoa's lagoons on the way to American Samoa--September 2011

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Brothers

Milo, Saulo & Neueli
During my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I gained three friends who I now call brothers. Although I gained friendships with many throughout my village, these three individuals each played a unique role in helping me through my toughest days, and then supporting me through my best. Looking back now, I see how each of us grew to become stronger people during those days we faced together, both the good and the bad. I invite you to read about how we became friends and what we learned from each other.

Milo and I met on one of my hardest days as a Peace Corps Volunteer—my first day. I had just been picked up in a van from the capital, and ridden out to my village to start my new life. When the van came to a stop on the road near my house, there he was, eager to help with my heavy bags and looking at me with much curiosity. From that first day, when I needed him the most, when I needed a friend like I had never needed one before, he was there.

From that day on, there were very few that passed where Milo and I didn’t see each other, or talk to one another. He lived right next to my house, and I quickly became like an adopted son to his entire family. Milo and I spent so many days together, that on the rare occasions we didn’t see each other, I felt like something was missing.

As the months went by, our friendship continued to grow. At school he was my student, and during my first year, he was one of the weakest students from his grade level. He lacked confidence, and relied heavily on his mom to complete basic homework assignments. But as we spent more time together, both inside and outside of school, I began to challenge him more, and he began to succeed, recognizing his own abilities and strengths. By the time my second year arrived, he was one of the strongest students in his grade level, answering questions with confidence and a smile, the same questions which kids use to laugh at him for not knowing the answer to, just the year before.

Samoans are very competitive, and this certainly holds true at school. Teachers often post publicly, the class test results and end-of- the-term rankings of students. Therefore, I didn’t feel at all out of place when I posed the question to Milo about if he would like to gain the number one ranking in his grade level and be at the top of his class. He certainly said yes, but I told him he was going to have to work hard if he wanted to get it.

Milo did work hard, and on the last day of school, he had earned himself that 1st place ranking over his fellow classmates. I’m so thankful he learned how to dream for something, and then follow through to the end to accomplish that goal. I think he also served as a great example to other kids who took notice at how he had grown, and perhaps they are asking themselves now if they have what it takes to do the same.

I remember the first time I met Saulo. It was very early on in my arrival to the village, perhaps my second or third day. I was walking down the street with Milo, and beside me was this skinny little kid talking a hundred miles an hour and then laughing at everything he said. I remember feeling a bit annoyed at the time, not understanding what he was saying, and thinking he might be talking about me. He probably was!

As a student of mine, I quickly began to realize he was one gifted person. His English was one of the highest of any of the kids at school, and his energy day after day was infectious. This kid didn’t slow down, but just kept on charging ahead. He often enjoyed reading a book at school, titled, “Keep on Trying.” In this book, a boy had to keep learning how to do new things, such as riding a bike, or playing a game and thus was forced to “keep on trying.” I’ll never forget the time when Saulo and I were walking through the village one evening and he told me he was going to “keep on trying,” to do his best at school, and learn English. It was moments like that which made me smile.

Last June, when I decided I wanted to build on my Samoan language skills more, it was Saulo whom I turned to for help to act as my tutor! Yes, there were some adults I could have asked instead, but I knew that in asking Saulo, I would be placing a trust and responsibility on him that many hadn’t challenged him with before. It ended up being a win/win situation for both of us: my Samoan, and his English.

Many afternoons, it became routine to walk over to Saulo’s house to watch him prepare his family’s evening meal. I could just sit there for 15 or 20 minutes and watch him peel the green bananas, or cut up the chicken and toss it in the boiling water, cooking over a fire he had just made minutes before. I think it was a way of me simplifying my day, and appreciating some of the hard work that goes into preparing a meal for a Samoan family.

My first memory of Neueli was during one of my classes at school. It was a time when I was still very much homesick, and doubting myself as a Peace Corps Volunteer. He helped lift my spirits that particular day, just by his saying thank you to me, and from that point on, I began to look at my time in Samoa in a completely different light.

I also can remember the days when I use to pronounce his name wrong. Just by your reading it, I’m sure you can tell it is challenging, although it now seems like second nature. However, I had been saying it wrong for the first couple weeks of school, until one day, he and Saulo came up to me one morning and said that they were staying inside at recess to teach me the proper pronunciation. They did, in fact, take the time to come in, and I think they drilled me for 10 minutes before leaving. From that point on, I had it down!

Neueli was always smiles. He came in to the room each morning with a cheer that other students just couldn’t quite match; he must be a morning person! Neueli, like Milo, had struggles with his school work early on, not being able to read basic sentences. His favorite book was “Little Car,” and over time he began to master not only that book, but several others I would place before him. During our second year together, it was so rewarding to be reading with a student from a younger year, and have Neueli come strolling into the room over to the side of my desk where he would start helping the students on words they didn’t know. He always got this excited look on his face, after realizing that he once was the struggling reader, but over time had learned to achieve and move to a higher level!

These kids, like most Samoans, have grown up in a very large family with many other siblings. Although Samoan parents love their children, it is still hard, and not completely a part of their culture, to spend individual time with the children as they are growing up. However, when Milo, Saulo or Neueli visited my house, I think they were able to find some of that personal attention which they didn’t always receive at home. In my house, I treated them as equals, as kids with ideas, challenges and successes. Perhaps at my house, more than in any other place, they were able to be kids—they weren’t required to do a bunch of chores, look after a younger sibling, or run an errand to the local store. They could just be themselves.

As not only their friend, but their teacher, I was left in a difficult position at school when I had to discipline them for one reason or another. I struggled until the very end to get them to understand that when we were at school I was their teacher and as a result, couldn’t goof around like we would after school. Although this was a challenge, it was one I was willing to take on, because our friendship meant so much to each of us.

We have so many memories together, both happy and sad. On the afternoon that the Peace Corps delivered word to me that my grandma had passed away, it was the three of them that came to my house to be with me, give me a hug, and then ask if there was anything they could do. We also shared so many happy times together: climbing the mountain near my house, going to the river or ocean for a swim, and dancing to music in my house.

There were also countless cooking classes, in which I taught them how to make “American foods” such as chocolate pudding, tapioca, popcorn or oatmeal. They were never shy about asking for a ripe banana or a cold glass of water from my fridge. They even were able to eat M&Ms and Peeps for the first time in their lives. When I cooked oatmeal before my Peace Corps experience, it was just oatmeal, but now when I cook it, it’s a memory of my time with Milo, Saulo and Neueli.

When I left Samoa, I left knowing that not only had I helped change the lives of these kids, but that they had certainly changed mine. I know they have bright futures ahead of them; I saw each overcome their own challenges and become better people in the process. I hope I never forget the things they taught me, like how to face new and unfamiliar obstacles, how to be accepting of new ideas, people and cultures, and most of all, how to love a dear friend.

Saulo licks the bowl clean after making tapioca!

Neueli enjoys listening to the music on my i-pod.

Saulo's turn for the music.

Milo and I at my house.

Saulo grading one of my Samoan tests he gave to me after a week of him tutoring.

I followed Neueli this day while he collected the coconuts to take back to his family.

Saulo climbed this coconut tree so I could have a fresh drink.

The boys taking in the sights on our mountain climb.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Sunday Sendoff

If there was ever a day that perplexed me in Samoa, it was Sunday. From my first weeks in the country, it had always proved to be a day that was both anticipated with excitement, yet dreaded like the plague. It was anticipated for the down time it provided: Samoa shuts down on Sundays, and thus everybody slows down, including me. It was a great day to write letters, catch up on reading, or just take a nap. As I came to know the kids better, many of them would wander up to my house in the afternoons to visit and hang out.

But on the other hand, I never felt completely comfortable with Sunday. In the beginning when I was homesick, it meant a whole day of sitting around, thinking of how much I wanted to be at home. Sundays also seemed to always be the hottest day of the week, but maybe I just never slowed down enough on the other days to realize how hot the rest of the week was. Nonetheless, Sunday was hot, and since it was mostly spent in the house, it meant a lot of sweating!

My last Sunday in Samoa was on December 11, 2011. The morning arrived like every other Sunday, with the smell of smoke in the air as every family prepared their umu (oven) for their Sunday toanai —the big feast followed by church service. Looking down over my village, the sight of thick smoke often made me wonder if there wasn’t a huge plume of smoke visible over all of Samoa from outer space. It was like a whole country sending up distress signals to someone from above.

After I had gotten dressed, I began walking over to the Catholic Church. I walked past my neighbor’s house and just like every week before, they asked me the rhetorical question, “Are you going to church?” Samoans always state the obvious, not to be flip, but just as their way of making small talk. I continued down the steep hill into the village as I noticed all the kids in their Sunday best. I came to love that walk over to the church. When I was homesick, I had started the tradition of humming my favorite church hymns on my way over, and this stuck as part of my Sunday ritual, even until that last Sunday. Since the mass at the Catholic Church was always in Samoan, I guess it was my way of offering up some songs in English.

I climbed up the steep cement steps to the threshold of the church and did a 90 degree turn to my right to look out over that beautiful ocean, for I anticipated that the following week, the scenery would be completely different. It grabbed a hold of me, and I sat down out front for a few minutes to take in the sights, sounds and emotions. A few minutes later I walked in and took my regular seat on the left side of pews, next to the older lady who always wore the “Samoa” barrette in her hair. A couple of my students from school who are altar boys came over and sat on the other side of me. They didn’t even say a word to me—they just looked at me with a smile of reassurance, and we both knew what the other was thinking—this was it!

Church began, and I tried my best to soak in the last hymns sung in their beautiful language. Although I didn’t understand all the verses, it never mattered. Music is a universal language.

The priest began the mass with the usual opening, but then took a moment to recognize me and remind the congregation that it was my last Sunday with them. Throughout the whole mass he included me in the prayers and made me feel welcomed, just as he had made me feel each and every week I was there. As church continued, I had to hold back tears, trying not to think of everything that was going to change, but instead just focusing on being with these people on that particular day.

In Samoa, it is always tradition for the priest, and other senior elders of the church to receive a flower ula (lei/necklace) just before the start of the Eucharistic prayer. For many weeks, I had received an ula as well, and my final Sunday was no different, when one of the ladies walked over and draped it over my shoulders.

At the end of church, the priest took a moment to speak about my two years in their village, and give a thank you to me. His thanks ended with an applause by the entire congregation. I had always felt a part of their faith community, and most especially on that last day.

Following church, I was invited to a huge feast that had been prepared by several families in the village. It was attended by all the women from the church committee, as well as all the matai (high chiefs) from the church, and of course Fr. Mikaele, our priest. I had heard a few rumors about the party for me in the days leading up to it, but I had no idea it was going to be as formal and elaborate as it was.

When I arrived at the open fale (house) and saw all the woven mats placed precisely around the perimeter, I knew we were going to have an Ava Ceremony. Ava Ceremonies are given on formal occasions for meetings of matai, or when welcoming or saying goodbye to someone in the village. In fact, my first ceremony was with all my other Peace Corps Volunteers, just a few hours after we arrived in the country back in 2009. On this Sunday in December, I was having my last.

I was invited to sit in the highest place of honor, where the priest normally would sit. Two years ago that all would have felt so uncomfortable, but on this occasion, I felt like one of them!

Soon after the Ava Ceremony had finished, the women started shuffling around outside the fale and I knew the food was about to arrive. The priest and myself were served first, with several plates of food placed before us. It was one of the biggest meals I had seen in Samoa. There was fish, lobster, chicken soup, chicken curry, fried chicken, hot dogs, pig and corn beef. There were bananas, breadfruit, taro, and palusami (made from the coconut milk and delicious). As soon as all of us were served, the prayer was said and then the women came to sit in front of us as they fanned our food to keep the flies away.

After our meal, I was given the chance to say a few words to everyone gathered. I began my remarks by addressing everyone present in order of their “ranking,” similar to how we would welcome the guest of honor first, at our ceremonies and gatherings. I gave them all thanks for welcoming me into their village, lives and church for the past two years. I thanked them for their prayers and told them they would be in mine. I never prepared any of my words ahead of time, but my language skills seemed to flow well in that moment while I was in the spotlight. After I had finished, one of their high chiefs gave a final thank you.

The afternoon kept me just as busy as the morning had. I attended afternoon church service at the other church in my village. Although I hadn’t attended that church as much, I was still very close to the pastor and his wife, and of course all the people who made up the congregation. After that service, I was again invited for a meal! By this time my stomach was stretching to its limits, but I ate quite a bit, knowing much of this food I may never eat again. The meal was followed by another round of thank you speeches from the high chiefs of that church, and another thank you by me.

The evening was spent walking through the village, while visiting more families and kids. That night, I did the majority of my packing to prepare to leave my house later in the week, but as I did, I was thinking back on that day I had lived. There I had been, a 27 year old, eating with high chiefs from a Pacific Island country, speaking their language, wearing their clothes, sitting in their highest place of honor. The following week I was going to be Joe Shmoe, but on that day, my last Sunday in Samoa, I had enjoyed feeling a bit like royalty.

The reflection of coconut trees in muddy water on my walk to church.

Men from the church, presenting pigs to the priest and high chiefs at the end of our meal.

With the pastor and high chiefs from the other church in my village.

Wearing my ula, which I had been given at church on my last Sunday in Samoa.