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!