Monday, May 28, 2012

The Reunion

Milo and Saulo on April 21st with their new shirts.
On April 21st, I lived a dream. I traveled back to the village where I had lived for two years during Peace Corps. I had dreamed about what that day would be like, and about being with those I had come to love so much during my time there. Our final day together, last December, was one of the hardest and most emotional days of my life, but there I was again, traveling in the reverse direction down that long road that winds back to one of the most secluded places of this island nation!

I had called the week before to tell Milo’s family that I would be coming, and asked if I could stay with them at their house. They were my neighbors the past two years, and I had spent so many great days with them in the past. When I arrived, just before dark, everything felt familiar, yet in some ways like it had been ten years! It was hard to get a sense of time that had passed. I first gave a hug to Naomi, Milo’s mom, and then to his Dad, Taunaola. Several of the kids from the village had also gathered at Milo’s house to welcome me, and Saulo was the first one to walk up to me. Even though it had only been four months since we had seen each other, he looked older and more grown up. I just stood there and looked at him, and then Milo, and Mareta, all these people I couldn’t believe I was with once again! I just kept thanking God for that opportunity to be with them.

Within five minutes of arriving I was sitting in my normal spot on the floor at Milo’s house, being served a huge feast and drinking a fresh coconut! The kids bustled around with serving the food and clearing dishes. There was an electricity of excitement in the air, and it was heard in our voices and seen on our faces. Saulo went for my camera and quickly started taking pictures and videos on his own; I had forgotten how tech savvy he had become during the past couple of years! I also noticed how much more advanced his English was. He had always been one of my most advanced students, and since my leaving, he had only seemed to improve more!

After dinner I gave gifts to the kids and Milo’s family. I had made copies of many of the home videos I had taken of our two years together, and put them on DVD for them. Milo’s family has a small portable DVD player, so we were able to watch the videos that night. It was a trip back into the past, even as we were so much about living in the present moment.

That evening we walked down into the village and I said hi to one person after another who asked how I had been, what I was doing back in Samoa, and how my family was back home. That night, and throughout the rest of the weekend, I began to realize once again how amazingly lucky I was to have that great village as my site for my Peace Corps service. I knew I was lucky at the time, when I was living in the moment, but going back after being away, I was jolted once again at how much those people really loved me, respected me, and treated me like one of their own.

On Sunday of that weekend, I went to the Catholic Church and saw all my friends there. Samoans sing with such power and harmony, and the kids especially bolt out each and every note with such gusto. It was so good to hear that energy and praise to God. I was given a flower ula at mass, something that had always been a tradition. After mass I went back to Milo’s house where we all had a huge Toana’i (Sunday lunch). All my favorite Samoan foods were right there for me to eat again, and I didn’t hold back. Milo’s mom sent one of the kids to sit by my side and fan the flies away from my food. So many other customs and traditions like that took place over the weekend, ones which I had sort of forgotten about after returning to the States last December. It was so common for me to have my food fanned while I ate meals in Samoa, but then once I returned to my own culture where that isn’t done, I had started to forget about those things, so it was really an enriching experience to go back and live those parts of my life again.

That Sunday afternoon a big group of us walked up the road and back to our old swimming spot near a small waterfall. It was a long standing tradition for us, and the kids said they hadn’t been back there in the past four months since I had left. We finished the trip of with drinking fresh coconuts which some of the boys climbed the trees for.

On Sunday night I spent the night with Saulo’s family. While visiting with him and his family, he brought out a pile of papers to show me; they were all the letters I had sent him the past four months. He had saved them all, and I was impressed.

The next morning it was time for me to head back to my current village, and all the kids had to go back to school. I got on the bus at Saulo’s house and made that very familiar ride into the capital. I said goodbye to Saulo and the other kids when they got off at their school in a neighboring village. I was already looking forward to the next time we would meet! It was a weekend I will not soon forget, because when dreams come true, the memories withstand the passing of time.

Milo & Saulo with their motivational posters I gave them using the famous quote my Uncle Jamie told me when I needed some inspiration.

The kids watching the DVD I made for them of my videos from Samoa for the past two years.

Neueli and I meet for the first time in 4 months! He's getting taller!

After church on Sunday with my former students!

Walking back to the village from the river.

With Saulo, Neueli and Milo.

The two trouble makers!

Enjoying an evening walk in my old village with all my former students!

Back to the Islands

Flying in along the coastline
of my former village!
After three planes and over 14 hours of flying, there she was, sitting like a jewel in the South Pacific: Samoa! Her turquoise lagoons contrasted by the steep, lush mountains of her interior were the first sights I saw out my plane window on April 14th as we started our decent. After hours of flying over nothing but ocean, not a spec of land in sight, there was the place I had called home for over two years, with all of the memories rushing through my mind. For the first time, I finally realized how small Samoa really is! Out my plane window I could nearly see the entire length of Upolu (one of two major islands that make up the majority of Samoa). I thought it was special that my seat happened to be on the left side of the plane, allowing me to have that great view, and how amazing to be flying along the coastline of my former village! When I said goodbye to Samoa last December, I wasn’t sure when I would return again, if ever! But as the plane made its landing, I was able to experience what it’s like to have a dream come true!

Stepping off the plane and descending the steps, the heat felt warm, just as I had remembered. Inside the airport, my first glance found Lilly and Chelsea, two Peace Corps friends who had come out to welcome me. Lilly is from my Peace Corps Group, 82, and has extended for a third year. Chelsea is in Group 83. They had a small palm woven fan for me, which I didn’t hesitate to use right away, considering I was still in jeans from the long flight from Hawai’i. As happy as I was to meet up with Lilly and Chelsea, I had to work on finding my new hosts from the Catholic church, so I got on the phone and tracked them down; they were on the other side of the room, and quickly came over and placed an ula around my neck and I suddenly felt at home with my fan and flowered necklace

Loading my bags into the church’s van, with Lilly and Chelsea along for the ride, we drove towards town. Even though I had been gone for four months, everything felt familiar. How refreshing it was to see kids and families outside and waving at me as we went along. Vaega and Anna, took us up to my formal welcoming ceremony in my new village where the Archbishop was waiting for me, along with the band committee and band students.

This return to Samoa has been led by the Holy Spirit! I was contacted through the Notre Dame Band about coming here to help assist in building up a band for Samoa’s celebration of 50th independence on June 1. An American priest who had lived in Samoa for over two decades and who is close friends with the Archbishop, was asked by the Archbishop to find someone for the job. He had contacted the Notre Dame Band about someone coming over to lead the program, and that’s when my name was mentioned. I will also be working with three Notre Dame Band students who will be coming to help the band in June and July! My work will continue through December, continuing to work with the bands for big events, such as a Catholic Youth Rally in July where Samoa will host students from Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Tokelau. There is also a big dedication of the new cathedral in December that I will be preparing the band to perform for.

Once I arrived at my new village back on April 14th, I was all smiles when I saw the band students put on a small marching show for me! I was very impressed by their skill level and knew there was already a solid base of talent developed and some leaders within the band had already emerged. As I sat there and listened to the band perform, and was served a huge meal, I was reminded of all the reasons I love Samoa, and why I wanted to return. Samoans give so much love and welcome to their guests, and although I hardly feel like a guest in Samoa, after having lived here for more than two years, they treat me with the same respect they would any other visitor to their country.

This mission I’m on now, here in Samoa, has many differences from my years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, yet many things feel the same. I am still here as someone who wants to reach out an help those who have asked for my help, and I am one who still has a great desire to learn more about their culture, language and traditions. I still find that my most enjoyable days are those where I spend time with neighbors, friends and students, getting to know more about them, and listening to their stories.

And over the next seven months, I hope to share my stories here with all of you, just as I’ve done in the past. We aren’t always given second chances to get to go back and do things we forgot to do, or wish we had done, but by the grace of God, I’ve been given that chance here in Samoa. Since being back, I’m taking the chance to do things I didn’t do the first time around. When I got home in December, I kicked myself on a number of occasions when I realized I forgot to take a certain picture, or visit a certain place. Well now I’m back, and the opportunity waits for me again; all I need to do is grab it. It’s great to be back “home”—it’s great to be back in the islands!

Mom and I at Chicago O'Hare before heading out on my 7,000 mile journey!

Dad and I at the airport.

My plane from Honolulu to Samoa on Air Pacific.

The breakfast served on Air Pacific was amazing!

Chelsea and Lilli at the airport to greet me! Good to see Peace Corps family!

Band students from my village welcomed me after my arrival to Samoa!

The Archbishop receiving the ava during my welcome ceremony.