Friday, March 23, 2012

Endings & Beginnings

As I write this final blog about my Peace Corps experience, on the other side of the world—7,000 miles away, are the people and places I came to know and love. There are the children I taught, the parents I visited, and the high chiefs I respected. There is the bus I rode, the road I walked, the ocean I swam in. Those people and places conjure up memories that are etched forever in the journals I kept, and the pictures I took. I will forever have a reference to look back on, and thus, the memories can always remain clear, distinct, and rich in my life.

Several years ago, when the thoughts of applying to the Peace Corps were just in the beginning stages, I use to visit their website and look at each page with those wholesome pictures of people doing good works in far off lands: a picture of a young woman, standing in a rundown school room, teaching her class using nothing but her creativity and the dusty blackboard behind her desk. It seemed like an imaginary life; could it really be possible to recreate those pictures in my own service?

When I first stepped off the plane into that hot and humid climate, the story of my Peace Corps service was yet to be written. I was presented with one challenge after another—some I had expected, others were complete surprises. As time went on, I found that what I once thought were challenges, were actually blessings, and opportunities to grow, and move towards a different way of thinking.

The night I boarded my plane to leave Samoa, I remembered having looked at those meaningful pictures on the Peace Corps’ website. I felt a sense of accomplishment, because looking back on my 26 months in Samoa, I felt that I had become one of the individuals in those pictures, the person in a distant land, reaching a different culture, while learning more about myself. But as many of you know, it was a long and winding road filled with many adventures!

The challenges and successes were written throughout this blog, and you all seemed to follow with great loyalty. Looking through the statistics for my blog, I found that in my 111 blog postings, I had a total of 12,029 viewers to this page! My readers came from countries near and far. Thank you to those who read from Australia, Malaysia, Germany, Sri Lanka, Armenia, Brazil, Belize, and Pakistan. Thank you to those in New Zealand, Senegal, Russia, Canada, India, Chile, and the U.K. And thank you to my friends who read from Samoa and the United States, and countless other nations around our globe. I wrote these blogs with the hopes of sharing Samoa to all of you, and so thank you for your interest in that great country.

However, I want to return for a few moments to examine that very last day in my village, and the exit I made from that place I called home. It was a day full of emotions, and of new beginnings!

After just a couple hours of sleep on my last night, I woke early before the sun rise around 6:30 to the sound of thunder off over the ocean. Thunder and lightning are very rare in Samoa, so I felt as though the skies were giving me a grand send off on that last morning.

Despite my weariness and feelings of anxiety, I quickly began what needed to be done: clipping the strings that had held up my mosquito net, packing the last of my things into bags, and giving final items away to whoever would take them. I found it ironic that the first two people to visit me that morning, Milo and Ickle, were the first two who were there to welcome me the day I entered into the village in 2009. They sat on my wooden bench as I dashed about the house. Soon it was time to head down to the village for morning tea with one of my teachers and her family.

By that time, the thunder had backed off, and the hot sun was beating down. Eating the breakfast my teacher had prepared for me, I sat there in amazement of how much my village had offered me, even to that last day. They sometimes had so little, yet they always made sure I had more than enough. There was nothing I lacked for, they had given everything.

After saying my goodbyes to that family, I made my way to the road. Milo, Saulo and Neueli, three of my best friends, were sitting on a stone wall waiting for me. They had a look on their face I had never seen before. It was a look of great seriousness, and of understanding that this final day had arrived. They said very little, yet in a way, I think we felt closer than we ever had. We walked over to the neighboring village where I said goodbye to Neueli’s family, giving big hugs to his mom and aunt. After leaving their house, Saulo started telling me that the high chiefs of both villages were waiting to say goodbye to me and wanted me to visit them. With emotions high, and running on very little sleep, I asked Saulo for some words of advice about what to say, and told him I was worried about crying in front of all the matai. As I approached the open fale, Saulo’s dad came up to me with tears in his eyes and gave me a huge hug. I suddenly let go of my insecurities for having so many emotions.

I entered the meeting of the high chiefs and sat down as the pulenu’u (mayor) thanked me for my service. I responded with a short thank you, but was to the point where I could barely talk, so I explained to them my need to keep my remarks short, and they seemed to understand. As I left, I shook hands with each of them, some of them wiping tears from their eyes as well. It made me feel humbled, that I had been able to live amongst these individuals, and their culture that has lasted for over 3,000 years.

Walking next door to Saulo’s house, I said goodbye to his mom who was waiting there for me. Standing next to her was Saulo’s three year old brother, Vaiusi. As I started to say my goodbyes to them, Vaiusi started to cry and wipe his eyes. Although I never spent much time with him, I realized that just by my relationship with his older brother, and the rest of their family, he too, even though he was only three, had formed a bond with me, and I was so happy for that.

Because there was no bus to the capital on the Thursday I left my village, I had to find a way to get to the main road to catch a bus there. Although I could have found a lift from someone in my village, I had decided that I wanted to walk that long scenic road one last time on my way out of the village. I had asked Milo, Saulo and Neueli if they would help me carry the last of my things down to the main road and then say goodbye to me there; they had agreed. However, as I walked through the village, other kids started coming out and asking if they could walk with us as well. By the time we made it back to my house, there were 10 boys ready to carry my things for me!

The last stop I made was at Milo’s house, where I said goodbye to his family. They were the first to greet me, and they would be the last. We said our goodbyes, I locked the door to my house one last time, and then I and the kids were off down the road.

Walking down that road, I thought back on the first time I traveled it, not knowing when it would end, or where it would end. Over the two years, that road took on different meanings, and began to serve as another way of looking at my journey in Samoa. Walking it that day reminded me of the past.

Every corner of the road held a memory, a memory of going to the plantation, of walking to the river with the kids to go swimming, of bolting to the main road on a Friday after school to catch a bus into town, of a jog in the evening for exercise, or to make a phone call. It reminded me of riding my bike out to call my mom and dad on my first Christmas Eve away from family. It reminded me of riding down to visit my nearest Peace Corps Volunteer, Uefa.

That road reminded me of the times I needed to clear my head and take a walk up to that first view that looked through the coconut trees and down to the ocean; that very same view providing so much encouragement on some of those hardest days. That road served as an example of how far I had traveled and how much was at stake. Traveling that road those two years reminded me it wasn’t just about Kyle, but instead about the villages I had come to serve at the end of the road.

It reminded me of the huge fruit bats which use to gracefully glide amongst the coconut and breadfruit trees on those warm evenings. The road reminded me of the power of nature, as I recalled the flood waters which would rush down its side on those rainy days. The road reminded me of the beauty of the moon, which I saw rise so many times from those high vantage points, and even the night I took a long run under its bright glow.

That road reminded me of the patience I had gained when I was forced to walk its whole length. It reminded me of the long bus rides with my village—our remoteness and the length of the ride seemed to create solidarity among us, and perhaps we felt a bit tougher for living way out there. The road reminded me of Samoan’s love for neighbor, as I was offered lifts dozens of times while walking that route. The road reminded me of the pure beauty of nature and its power to thrive day after day.

The road reminded me of fears I had let go of, as I was forced to walk it in the dark of night alone on a few occasions. The road reminded me of how important it is to step away from the business of life and to go to another place to meet other people and try new things. I didn’t like that road in the beginning, because it separated me from what was more comfortable, what was easier and familiar. However, over time, I came to love the walk along that road, and there on my last day with my dearest friends, I felt no different.

As the 11 of us walked together, I kept wondering what these kids were thinking about, and how we would get through this final goodbye. Reaching the bridge where we waited for my bus, I took time to say goodbye to each of the kids. After about 30 minutes, the bus came, and they were helping me aboard with my big bags behind me. As the bus pulled away, and I leaned out the window to wave goodbye to them, I was left wondering when I would see them next. Would it be 5 years, 10 years, 20 or more? Would I ever return to Samoa to reconnect with this life I had fallen in love with?

After two months of transition and adjusting to life back in the United States, the answer to my question about returning to Samoa was answered! It wouldn’t be 5 years, 10 years or 20 before I returned, it would be…4 MONTHS!!! In an exciting turn of events, in what I truly believe to be the work of God, I will be returning to Samoa on April 14th to serve in a new and exciting program.

Through a chain of people that is so complex it would normally only be found in fictional stories, the Catholic Archbishop of Samoa has contacted the University of Notre Dame Band about helping form a marching band, made up of local Samoans, to perform for the 50th celebrations of Samoa’s independence this June. Because of my connection to the Notre Dame Band—where I use to play the trombone—and my recent experience in Samoa, I have been asked to help facilitate with this new program.

The Notre Dame Band will be sending a few students over to Samoa in the upcoming months to assist in the formation of the marching band for the Independence Day celebrations. I will be helping to lead this program on the ground in Samoa, with the collaboration and support of the local Samoans, Notre Dame Band students, band staff, and Archdiocese in Samoa. In addition, I will be helping to form a concert band for the dedication of the new Cathedral in the capital of Samoa at the end of the year. I will also have the opportunity to work in the Catholic high schools in Samoa, another challenge I am greatly looking forward to.

Returning once more to my Peace Corps experience, I am reminded often of one of the most difficult times during my service, a period of time where I felt like throwing in the towel and giving up. It was during those toughest days that I asked my Uncle Jamie for what I knew would be his honest and down-to-Earth advice—and that’s exactly what I got, when he said: “Quitters never win and winners never quit.”

What a simple set of words, yet packed with so much meaning. After I reflected on what that really meant, I knew I wanted to be one of the winners, and so, by the grace of God, with the help of family and friends, and those Samoans I lived and worked with, I am able to say today that I didn’t quit, and that I won.

But as I head back to Samoa to start this new mission, and return down that road I thought I had walked for the last time, I will be returning to my friends from the past, and also meeting new friends for the future. While I’m there, I believe I have an obligation to pass on what I learned along the way, what helped me through my toughest days. So when I reunite with Milo, Saulo and Neueli, and meet new students through the band programs, I plan to share with them my uncle’s famous words: “O tagata fiugōfie e lē manumālō, ‘ae o tagata manumālō e lē fiugōfie.” “Quitters never win and winners never quit!”

Editor’s Note: As I head back to Samoa in April, I invite you to return to this blog site as I begin writing once again about new and challenging experiences in Samoa. Although my Peace Corps experience is over, we have a road left to travel, and so I will look for you along the way!

Folding up my mosquito net on my last morning in Samoa, December 15, 2011.

Morning tea with family from the village.

A final picture in the house I came to call my home.

All packed up and ready to go.

Walking out of my village with friends at my side!

Last picture with village before rounding the corner of the mountain.

One of my favorite vantage points along the road.

Carrying the last of my things for 1.5 hours, my friends lead the way down the road as we head to catch my bus.

Standing on the bridge, just before our goodbye.

Boarding the plane early in the morning on Friday, December 16, 2011 as I ended my 26 months of Peace Corps service in Samoa!

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Day of Goodbyes

As my final days in Samoa approached, I had made a plan of how I wanted those final moments to come to an end. I knew I would only get one chance to get it right, and I wanted to have a good sense of closure as I exited my village, and then the country.

My last full day in the village was spent going house to house from one end of the village to the other. It gave me the chance to say final goodbyes, take pictures, and remember those who had welcomed me into their homes for two amazing years! My friends Saulo and Neueli joined me on the adventure, lugging around a big bag full of stuff from my house I was trying to get rid of in those final hours. I had decided that since my village had given me so much, it was a good way to give back to those families who had helped me out the most.

The two boys were so patient throughout the whole day, and never once complained about having to stop and wait for me at everybody’s houses. As we would approach someone’s house, they would ask me what I was going to give that family from my bag, and at a few houses, they told me to change the gift and give something else. I guess they had a better sense than me about what families could use, or would want. Along the way I was giving away my radio, nonstick frying pan, laundry bucket, old cans of paint, and much more!

Visiting with different families, I was able to see the true warmth and hospitality of the Samoan culture one last time. Once they saw me coming, families would rush around to place a clean woven mat down for me to sit on. I was given fish and baked bananas at my first house, and later in the day some wet sticky buns! Saulo and Neueli even got to eat at that house, and so that put them in a good mood.

Walking to each house, I was expressing my thanks to the families, and telling them how much I would miss them and the village. I was greeted by high chiefs of the village, mothers, grandparents and children. They all took time to sit with me and visit as I said my goodbyes to them. At some houses, I would exchange phone numbers with those who had them. It was a way of making us not feel quite as far away as we really would be.

By the time late afternoon rolled around, Saulo, Neueli and I were all exhausted! We headed back up to my house and I did some final cleaning and packing. I had promised them we would go for one final swim together in the ocean, so as evening approached, I set the work aside at my house and walked back down to the village for my swim. Before too long, there were over 15 kids out in the ocean swimming, and I realized they knew just as well as I did, that this would be one of our final memories of each other. As I swam there in the ocean, I remember thinking about how much life was going to change in the next 24 hours. I was looking out over that water, and realizing I would be jetting away from this small slice of paradise I had called home for 26 months.

That evening, I walked over to my neighbor’s house for our final dinner together. It was Milo’s family who welcomed me on my very first day in the village, and continued to treat me like one of their own family members for the entire two years. That night they were having my fa’amavae (going away party) and had gone all out to prepare a huge feast, and invite their extended family to celebrate my last night with them. I knew it was going to be an emotional night, as we said our thanks to one another, and prepared to say goodbye the following morning.

As I gathered there with Milo and his family, I was reflective of our time together. We had seen each other nearly every day for two years, and grown to love each other as the months went by. His family led the evening prayer, all of us sitting together there in a circle as they sang these songs I had come to recognize. Before too long, my meal was being brought out by Milo’s sister Iva, and placed before me: fried chicken, pig, soup, breadfruit and cooked bananas! As is the usual custom, I ate first, along with the head matai of the family. After we were finished, we drank our tea together while the rest of the family ate out back of the house where the food had been prepared.

Once the business of dinner had subsided, the head matai (chief) of Milo’s family—his uncle, gave a formal thank you to me for my service and for my friendship. As I was listening to him, I realized I had forgotten to prepare any remarks for my thank you to them, something that completely slipped my mind in the hectic final days. However, looking back, I’m glad I didn’t prepare anything ahead of time, because it gave me a chance to speak directly from my heart, as I was living in the moment.

I delivered my entire thank you in Samoan, lasting about 10 minutes in length. I spoke slowly as I tried to keep my emotions under control. I recalled so many of our great memories together, and what each of them meant to me. As I spoke, I looked over at Milo and he was sitting in the corner with his head turned away from everyone else. I knew he was listening, but just needed his own space. I spoke to the family about how Milo had reached out to me in the beginning, about how he had been like a brother, a true friend. Whatever I needed, whenever I needed it, Milo was there and more than willing to help me. As I continued to speak, I had to stop several times as my emotions took over, and looking around me, it was comforting to see my neighbors felt the same way. Somehow, by the grace of God, I made it through, and when I said Soifua (good health) to end my remarks, the head matai of the family started a slow and deliberate clap which the rest of the family joined in on.

Later that evening, I had a chance to give Milo’s family some gifts I had prepared for them. The first gift was an album full of pictures I had taken of them during my two years there. I had them printed off in America, and then sent to Samoa, since printing pictures is much cheaper in the States. I placed them in the album chronologically and they seemed to really appreciate it. It would give them a way to remember our time together long after I was gone. I also gave a set of carving tools to Milo’s dad, Taunaola. The tools were a gift from my Uncle Jamie who had sent them over, knowing that my neighbor could get more use out of them than he could. Other than a bunch of smaller odds and ends things, I gave Milo’s family my refrigerator that final night. Most Samoans can’t afford refrigerators, so this would be a big treat for their family.

Milo and his family had given me my gifts earlier in the week because I had to pack them away in my suitcases then. Milo’s dad made me a traditional kava bowl, along with a carved plate. They are gifts which mean a lot and will be cherished for years to come, but in the end, it’s the relationship I had with them that I will remember the most! It will be the time they invited me for dinner on that first night in the village. It will be the things they did around my house to help make it more livable: fixing a pipe, toilet or window. It will be their concern for me when I was sick or feeling sad, or their interest in the “American things” I did, such as jogging every day for exercise. It will be their loving me, even though they didn’t have to, but doing so because they wanted to.

After I left their house on my last night, I walked back down the hill towards the ocean and through my village, getting one last glimpse of night life in Samoa. Kids were out playing in the street, families gathered under their open fales relaxing in the cool breeze. It was a peacefulness I was going to miss. Milo and two of his cousins walked along with me, and by the time we decided to head back up towards our houses, it was nearly 12:30 a.m.

That night as I tried to sort through the last of my things, people kept stopping by my house to visit, as they knew it was one last opportunity to be together. Although I was tired and had things to do, I was still happy to see all of them come by to visit, some as late as 3:30 a.m.

Finally, by 4:30 a.m. my guests had left! Exhausted and mentally drained, I gathered enough strength to write in my journal before turning off the lights for the final time. I went to climb under my mosquito net, and perform the inspection of my bed for centipedes. The next day would bring many changes, changes that I wasn’t sure I was ready for. I had arrived in Samoa not sure if I wanted to stick it out for two years, and suddenly my final hours had fallen at my doorstep, and the sunrise of my last day was quickly making its way across the Pacific Ocean…

During the worst of the packing process, a few days before I left the village.

Saying goodbye to Saulo's grandma.

A nice old lady who went to my church.

Another great family!

Here I am saying goodbye to my year 8 student Luisa's family.

I was always so impressed with how active this lady was. I often would see her out in front of her house pulling weeds in the evening, or sometimes even hauling palm branches back from the plantation for weaving.

Notice the kid poking their head out from behind the door.

This family was weaving a fine mat when I arrived.

Neueli took this picture of Saulo resting as I was visiting with a family. The poor kids were tuckered out.

Another great family. I really enjoyed visiting with them.

A high chief from my village who I always thought fit the "grandpa" stereotype well.

I gave my laundry bucket to Lisa's family. They were always so good about giving me a ride when they would see me walking the long distance from the main road.

Cleaning house on my last evening in the village.

All the mats in my house had been taken outside and beaten and the inside floor swept clean!

The sun's lasts rays for the day visible on the mountain next to my house on my final evening in the village.

Saulo climbing the coconut tree in front of his house to give me one last fresh drink.

My going away meal at Milo's house was a big feast with many of my favorites!

Just before dinner with Milo's family. Here I am with his uncle and aunt.

Milo's dad, Taunaola, with his new carving tools.

One last picture with Naomi, taken sometime after midnight. Notice my refrigerator in the background, which was a gift to them from me.

A final visit with Fa'afetai's family, again, sometime after midnight!

During my late night walk through the village with Milo, Ickle and Palafu.