Saturday, October 23, 2010

"All My Bags Are Packed, I'm Ready To Go"

A cloudy morning in Apia

It’s early and I’m sitting in the dark, humming Peter, Paul and Mary in my head and enjoying the sounds of the birds and roosters.  The only person I’ve seen was Mika, who came out to get a glass of water (and give me a hug, which is always a nice way to start the day.) 

Speaking of hugs, I’d like to tell you a bit about what I learned yesterday as they prepared us to go to the village and not offend.  The Samoans are somewhat formal and PDA’s, even among married couples are not appreciated.  Having said that, it is ok for women to touch/hug women and men to touch/hug as well.  Same sex hand holding is ok, too.  Kissing the opposite sex on the cheek as a greeting is fine, but if I would hug a man in public, I’d be letting the world know he’s my boyfriend and it would cause a stir.

Feet are a big deal here.  I’ve found that in many Asian cultures as well, where pointing your feet, especially the dirty bottoms of your feet at people is considered rude and a sign of disrespect.  Since sitting on the floor for hours is the norm, that can cause problems for us Palagis (pronounced Pa-long-ees), who get stiff after about a nano-second.  We can sit with feet to the side and also with our legs outstretched, but only if we cover our feet with a mat or lava lava. 

Sa’u told us about talking while eating:  when he was a child his mother said “Do you have two mouths?  One to talk and one to eat?  No!  So use the one you have to eat!”  While our families may want to talk to us while we eat, in more formal settings, eating time is for eating, not talking.

Sa’u also explained that it is rude to carry a backpack, towel or anything else over your shoulder.  It seems that goes back to the days when tribes would fight and the winners would behead the losers and carry the heads, by the hair, over their shoulders back to the village to show they were the victors.  Once as a child when Sa’u was carrying something over his shoulder, his mother said “Who’s head are you bringing into this house?”  I wish I could meet his mother.

Umbrellas are big here, both as protection from the sun as well as the rain.  But it is rude to walk by a fale where a meeting is being held, or past the house of the high chief with an open umbrella.  Same with riding a bike.  Get off and walk past.  Or, if you’re carrying a large item.  Not sure how you get it past, but it would be rude to schlep past the important folks.

Eating or drinking while walking is also considered rude, even in the house.  Samoans take their food very seriously, so just sit and eat.  Smelling food is also considered very rude.  It seems a lot of Palagis pick up a new-to-them piece of food and sniff it before testing it and that is not viewed positively.

In our homes, we are to be treated as families and not guests, so we’ll be served with the other adults.  Adults, by the way, eat before children, to get the best bits.  If we are guests at another home or event, though, we’ll be fed first.  To signal that we’re finished, we push our plate/table mat away from us.  The trick is to remember that as guests, when we say we’re done, that means everyone is done, so as soon as we push our plates forward, everyone else will too.  Even the people who have just been served, but not eaten.  That would not make us popular.

One thing that will be hard to remember is that if someone serves us something (more food or drink, perhaps) and we say “thank you”, it means that we want more of whatever they just gave us.  Fale and Joe did a hilarious skit where she saw him drink some water, so poured more.  He said “thanks” and so she poured more.  It continued for a few minutes, with both of them becoming more frustrated and with all of us laughing our heads off.  Good acting, language teachers!

One of the other things we learned yesterday was how to take a bucket bath.  Joe demonstrated for the guys and Lumafale (my first language teacher, who I love) demo’d for the girls.  We’ll have showers at our new homes.  They may be in the house, or they may be a separate “shower house”.  But, sometimes, when there’s no running water (because of lack of rain or whatever) we’ll have to take a bucket bath and you do that in the backyard, with nothing around to provide modesty.  So, you bathe while wearing a lava lava.  I’d say it takes a great deal of skill and experience to do it and not flash the neighbors.

I pointed out that I’ve taken bucket baths at home, after hurricanes, when we have no running water.  I just used a bucket in the shower.  No need to do it in the yard.  They acknowledged that I could do it in the shower at the home as well.  But, it was hysterical, watching Lumafale simulate scrubbing and rinsing all the important parts. 

One of the guys reported that in their demonstration, after rinsing off the body, Joe removed his dirty undies to use them as a washcloth for his face/body.  I may never kiss a Samoan. 

Reminded me of being in the hamaam  (public bath) in Fez, Morocco.  After the woman assigned to wash me was finished, she asked me to stand up so that buckets of water could be tossed over me to rinse me off.  But first, she asked me to remove my wet, dirty panties and then handed them to the American hotel owner next to me, who I’d met a few hours earlier.  I felt bad until she pointed out that I’d been downstream from her the entire bath, so I’d been soaking in her dirty bath water.  Yeah, I’m Peace Corps ready.

Lumafale and Joe did another skit that involved placing a sleeping mat on the floor.  The point was that you never moved your mat so that your feet were pointing at someone else.  Ok, I can get with that.  My dilemma is that after sleeping on a mat on the floor, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to haul my fat carcass off the ground the next morning. 

At the hotel, we’ve been sleeping on wooden platforms, topped with four inches of foam rubber.  Let’s just say it’s firm.  Between that and spending eight ours a day on a wooden, straight-backed chair, I’ve been a little stiff and sore. A chiropractor could have a field day with me.  I’ve been mentally debating if my lower back muscles will toughen up and I’ll get used to it, or if I’ll just be achy for two years.  I’ll keep you posted.  Assuming, of course, that I can haul my carcass off the floor to get to my computer.

One final note before I go into radio silence for 7 weeks (radio silence – think anyone in Group 83 besides Patricia will know where that phrase came from?)  Anyway, yesterday was a red letter day for food.  Breakfast was the standard tea and toast.  Lunch as a veggie burger, which was actually a fried egg, cheese, pineapple and mayo-less coleslaw on a hamburger bun.  Deelicious.  Then, because we were celebrating, we stopped next door for ice cream.  Didn’t taste like any cookies and cream that I’ve ever had. It tasted like the best ice cream in the universe.

For dinner we continued the food extravaganza and went to Italiano’s for pizza.  Pat and I split a small veggie pizza, with thin crust and plenty of cheese.  They even had chili flakes.  A wonderful way to end the day.

I’m off now to repack for the million and 52nd time.  We can only take one small bag to the village for the next 7 weeks, so once again I need to whittle down my essentials.  Then off to see Upolu as we drive across the island to our villages on the south shore.
Lumafale drew the short straw and had to show us how to take a bucket bath, while wearing a lava lava.  
In the skits, Joe was the PCT and Lumafale was the patient host sister.  They were hilarious!
View to the east on the way to dinner.
View to the west, and downtown Apia, on the way to dinner
The ladies dining al fresco.  Notice that when they serve soft drinks, they're jumbo!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Red Letter Day

Beach on the south side of Upolu, near my new village.

It’s a big day today.  Not only did I get my village assignment, so I know who I’ll be with for the next seven weeks, and where, I also got my first mail.

We had mail call today and my man Mica got a lot of dirty looks when Tevita kept calling “Joseph” (his American first name), “Joseph”, “Joseph”.  He got 4 letters.  Several other people got mail, too, and I was just watching the rain fall, trying not to sob into my notebook, when my name was called. 

Many thanks and kudos to Nan, a friend from Brandon who sent me a beautiful card and said she hoped it was my first piece of mail.  It was postmarked Sept. 29, by the way, which gives you an idea how long mail takes.  Also, we’ve heard that as we get closer to Christmas, all the Samoans living abroad send lots of packages, so it slows delivery.  There just aren’t that many planes that fly to Samoa, so it can delay the mail. 

So, about our villages.  We’re going to be in the Safata district on the south side of the island.  I can’t give you the village name for security reasons.  Seems Peace Corps is concerned that my many admirers will overrun the village.

Anyway, that section of the island is where the beautiful beaches and most expensive resorts are.  The village I’ll be in with four others is right on the bay.  Bay of what you ask?  I don’t know yet, but will find out.  I hope to be fishing on it next week.  Update - it's the Bay of Safata.

I’m tickled that I’m in a village with Chelsea.  I’m also sharing the village with Lopati (aka Robert), Cia (aka Patricia, the other mature volunteer) and Lindsey, whose Samoan name escapes me.  Funny that some of our Samoan names have really stuck, while for others, we have kept their American names.  I’m still Nesi and fine with that. Note to Mica's mom:  I was very disappointed Mica and I didn't get placed in the same village, but I'll see him every Friday and when I start blogging again, will keep you posted.

I know very little more about where I’m going.  I checked the internet and learned that there’s two villages with the same name, very close to each other.  I believe I’ll be in the smaller village, which has 320 people.  The larger village has 942.  Wowza.  I know nothing about the family I'm going to, other than names of two people and their cell numbers.

We’re headed out for pizza tonight for our celebration dinner.  We all feel that tomorrow really begins our Peace Corps experience.  

Things I’ll miss about being here:  hot water for showers, air-conditioning and being with Chelsea.  Things I’m looking forward to:  a room of my own, more opportunities to practice Samoan, the practicum in a Samoan school and learning more about fa’a Samoa.

About the room alone.  There’s been no really clear answer about having our own rooms.  They say we’ll have one, with a door that locks, but then say we may be sleeping on mats in the main room with the family.  The sleeping attire is the same as daytime attire, but less formal.  I can sleep in capris and a t-shirt.  I’m really hoping for a room/bed that’s private.

Wish us luck.

In Someone Else's Shoes

Dale, our PC Country Director, took a group on a hike up a hill outside Apia.  This is the view looking back toward the harbor.
I’m as excited today as I was on September 3, when I was preparing to leave for staging in L.A.  This time, though, there isn’t the same sense of being ripped away from home.  I’ve become friendly with some of the staff and will miss them, but not like the friends I cried with that last week  in Florida.

I’ve gotten used to our utilitarian room and know just where everything is.  Chelsea and I have developed a smooth morning and evening routine and I’ll miss that, although it will not be like saying goodbye to the house where I lived for 16 years.

So, the leave taking will be easier and the excitement as great.  I can’t wait to get out of Apia and see the “real” Samoa.  The villages that will be similar to the rural site where I’ll spend the next two years.  I can’t wait to spend more time with Samoans and less time with Americans.  That’s a common comment among all trainees, by the way, from what I’ve read.

As I was showering this morning I was wondering how the woman whose home I’m coming to is feeling.  A staff member let it slip yesterday that I was going to get a “sister”, not a “mother”, meaning I’d be living with a woman about my own age.  I assume she’s hosting a trainee at least in part because of the money.  The Peace Corps pays families to house/feed/protect us.  And, apparently it is a responsibility and honor that’s not taken lightly in the village. 

We’ve heard that the families are very protective – having someone sleep on the floor next to our beds, for example, and not allowing us to go out after dark unless they are with us.  If something would happen to us, even if it is our fault, it would bring great shame on the family and could cause them to be fined by the Village Council, which is made up of the matais or chiefs of all the families in the village.

I’ve been an active couchsurfer for a number of years.  If you’re not familiar with the concept, Google it, it’s a great program.  Each time I’ve hosted someone; I looked forward to it but also had some concerns.  My friends worried the guests might be axe murderers.  I worried that they’d be boring.

So, what do you suppose my new host family is worried about?  That I don’t speak Samoan?  Bingo!  Except, I must say, I’m proud of myself.  I can say hello and ask how you are.  I can tell you how I am (Manuia, fa’afetai!), I know the days of the week and can sorta count to ten, if you’re not overly picky about the sequence of numbers.  I’m beginning to recognize words and last night for homework I completed 20 sentences in which I had to create a complete “command”, such as “Stop making noise.” and “Don’t swear!”  It took me about 10 minutes.  I’m proud. 

Is my host family worried about me being boring?  Heck, we all know I’m one of the most amusing people you could meet.
Are they worried about me being a whiner?  Well, that could be a valid concern, but I’m going to try to limit the whining to my journal and blog.  Brace yourselves!

My new family will be my guide into really learning fa’a Samoa, or the Samoan way/culture, along with helping improve my language.  We’ll be eating every meal together, spending evenings and weekends together and attending church together. 

I hope my new “sister” is as excited to meet me as I am to meet her. 

P.S.  A bit of gratuitous whining.  It’s humid here.  I washed out a tee shirt last night and hung it on the balcony to dry in the breeze.  It was as wet when I woke up as when I went to bed.  During the night, I dreamt I was in a swamp.  I woke up and my sheets and body were damp.  I took a shower and after drying off, I was damp.  It’s an hour later and my hair is still wet and I’m dampish.  I live in Samoa, one of the most beautiful tropical islands on earth.  The key word there is tropical.
Some of the hikers:  Olivia, Robert, Rivka, Katie and Danny

Thursday, October 21, 2010

3 Weeks Already

Photo from last night's fundraising concert

Hard to believe we’ve been here three weeks already.  Having said that it seems like we’ve been together for ages and we’re all ready to leave the confines of the hotel and move out to our training villages this weekend.  A new environment and new faces will be a welcome change for all of us.  It will also be good to be in an immersion situation, where I’m forced to speak Samoan on a regular basis.

A few of us were talking about homesickness the other day.  Two felt huge guilt because they aren’t feeling homesick.  It’s not that they don’t love the family and friends back home, just that we’ve been busy and so bombarded with “new” that it has filled the space where homesickness might take hold.

I miss friends, of course, but have been in touch via email and for me to be away 3 weeks is so common, I’m not feeling at all homesick.  I’d kill for a cheese enchilada, but other than that, all is good.  If you’re in San Francisco, please stop by Don Ramon's and have a plate of green enchiladas for me.  A margarita would be great, too.

There are moments when I realize I’m really not at home, though.  The other evening, walking to a restaurant, I was looking at the sky and noticed the con trails.  Huh?  Wait a minute, I see con trails from planes flying into Orlando.  There weren’t any here, it was just a cloud.  Last night, lying in bed, I heard a plane.  Wait!  A plan?  Now I know how Tattoo felt on Fantasy Island.  Da plane!  Da plane!

Yesterday in class, we heard a police siren.  The room became immediately silent as we each looked around.  It was the first siren we’ve heard since coming to Apia.  Well, except for the air raid type of siren that goes off every morning at 9 am.  Presumably a test for the siren to be used for emergencies like tsunamis.  And how young do you have to be to not know what an air raid siren is?  Or remember practicing crouching under our school desks in case of nuclear war.  That was misguided, at best.

I made a reference to the movie “10” the other day.  Nobody got it.  Bo Derek in cornrows, coming out of the water?  Blank looks.  Dudley Moore?  Nada.  Geesh.  I also mentioned Happy Days and Charlie's Angels.  More blank looks.  

We had both medical and safety and security presentations this morning.  Given everything we were told, I’m ready to move back to the safety and security of the U.S.  But, then again, they described all the things that could happen, not the things that typically do happen.

Speaking of medical, I went on the Samoan Diet yesterday.  That’s what I’m calling it, when the stomach rebels and food is neither appealing or practical (if you get my drift).  Apparently, it’s the most common problem among volunteers.  Mine only lasted a day, so doubt if I lost much weight.

I did hear a rumor, from a very reliable source, who let a bit of information about my host family slip recently.  I think I’ll be very happy.  I don’t have details and we won’t know more until we’re officially told tomorrow.  Can’t wait.

Other things that remind me that I’m not at home.  Samoans only have a “borrowed” word for lettuce, because it isn’t common here.  Who knew one of my cravings would be for a head of iceberg.  Or pretty much any vegetables.  Being the in the host village, where our families will provide our meals rather than us foraging among fast food places will be another nice change.  One that will hopefully provide some green food.

Here's some video of talented fellow trainees.  They did a benefit concert last night to raise money for instruments, etc., for a youth orchestra in Apia.  In addition to the music and the kids, the highlight seemed to be the cupcakes at the reception following the concert.  Cupcakes are always a highlight.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Questions and Answers About Life in Samoa

Jamie, Mafi and Me.  They're PC staff.

Are there ants in Samoa?  Yes.  Actually, my computer is crawling with them right now.  I’ve heard they like to eat the silicon inside the computer.  If you have any ideas on how to kill the current infestation, I’ll begin storing my laptop in a giant ziplock bag.

Do Samoans speak with their eyebrows? Yes.  When they lift their eyebrows, they mean “yes”.  I must be cautious with facial expressions.

Do you miss television?  I have not seen television in 3 weeks.  Shockingly, I haven't missed it at all.  I fill the time trying to remember how to say "Is there any toilet paper?" in Samoan.  I'd write it here but can't remember it.  Does not bode well for when I move to the village Saturday.

Are Samoans as direct as Americans?  Hard to say.  My limited experience shows that mostly they agree with whatever I say.  I’m fond of being agreed with, so it works for me.  If I’m asking about the next bus and they agree and are incorrect, I may be less happy.

Is Samoa a good place to retire?  Again, too soon to tell.  It is beautiful.  The weather is similar to Florida, except their version of “cold” is when it gets down to 70 degrees.  And, housing costs are a bit lower.  At least I think they are.  Real estate prices in Florida could have fallen again since I left home.

I can tell you that the whole “respect your elders” thing is true here.  With my fellow trainees, they’re respectful, but pretty much treat me like one of them.  Today, we did an exercise.  Most sat on the floor.  A few sat in chairs.  I didn’t feel like sitting on the floor so stood, since there were no more chairs available.  That wouldn’t happen if I was with a group of Samoans.  I’d get the seat. 

Consider the classic scene in Fried Green Tomatoes when Kathy Bates rams the VW repeatedly, after the “younger, faster” girls stole her parking spot.  Wouldn’t have to happen here.  I think that could be a big factor in planning retirement locations.

What do you want for Christmas?  Ok, this is a bit self-serving, and I realize it’s before Halloween, but it takes a long time for packages to arrive here.  What I’d really like is school supplies.  Stuff I can use to create exercises and keep the kids geeked up.  Stickers, temporary tattoos, markers, Crayons, etc. 

How was “mail call” today?  While we’re in Apia for training, mail is delivered to us twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  It feels very much like camp, with one of the trainers calling out the names of who got mail and the excited recipients racing over to pick it up.  Two trainees got packages today.  I have received bupkis.  I know that stuff is in transit, so I have something to look forward to.  For the next 7 weeks, we’ll only have mail call once a week.

The majority of us haven’t received mail, so moms and dads out there, start writing and get those CARE packages in the mail.  I know that some of the trainees are sending snail mail and wouldn’t you feel horrible if you received a letter from Samoa before your child received something from home?  Yes, this was written to inspire guilt.  If it helps get your kids more mail, excellent.  If you feel really guilty and want to send me a letter, too, cool beans.  BTW, I can be bribed.  Parents, if you send me CARE packages, I’ll tell you every detail of what your child is doing here.  Please don’t let them know I wrote this.  They’ll never let me have a chair again.  Plus, I won’t be invited to any more parties.

Do you miss the mimeograph machine you used in 1972?  Yes.  In 1972 I thought it was an annoyance and my hands turned purple every time I made copies of handouts for my students.  Now, it would be a beautiful thing, since we have no access to copy machines or printers.  Trainees have some cool hardcopy materials but to copy them, we have to do it the really old fashioned way, by hand.  I’m considering dressing like a monk and doing it by candlelight.

When can you have visitors?  The rule is I can't travel and shouldn't have visitors for my first six months, so that takes us out to March or so.  The best season to visit is apparently winter (summer, in the U.S.) since that's when the weather is perfect.  Hopefully, I'll have a calendar this week of dates I won't be working.  I'll share that as soon as possible.  Thanks for asking, Paula!  I hope more of you are planning to visit, too.

Are you still cranky?  No.  I slept like a rock last night and feel like a new woman.  I mean, I’m always a little bit cranky, but had no desire to hurt anyone today.  By the way, thanks to an email from Kit, a RPCV who was in Samoa in the 1970's with her husband when they were just out of college, the word for cranky in Samoan is "musu".  I'll try to avoid being known as Miss Musu Pants.

Danny and Sam
My man, Mica.  He's a sweetheart.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cranky in Paradise

I'm having my first cranky day here in paradise.  Lots of reasons, none of them worth being cranky over.  Certainly not worth writing about.  But I will anyway.  Imagine moving from the lap of U.S. luxury where your friends are over 50 and you're not with them 24/7.  Then imagine trying to learn 30-50 new words a day in a language that looks like Sesame Street lost it's consonants. It can be cranky making.   Like I said, nothing really wrong, just looking forward to a better night's sleep tonight and a brighter smile tomorrow.

The good news, I was finally able to load my video of the fiafia onto YouTube.  It was a good time and the video doesn't do it justice.  I also didn't get any photos of the food (so unlike me) but, hey, when you get that many PC volunteers/trainees together, you do NOT hesitate when it comes to getting at the food.

Ok, I've finished my homework and I'm taking the night off from studying vocabulary.  I now can introduce myself, saying where I'm from and who my parents are; I can count to ten (if I peek at my notes); I can say the days of the week (no peeking required) and I can greet people, ask how they are, tell them how I am and say goodbye.  I've got tons of other words that I half know.

Tomorrow, I'll have to find out how to say "cranky" in Samoan.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Quiet Aso Sa in Apia

Natalie, Chelsea and Sarah looked beautiful in their new puletasis at church
It’s Sunday (Aso sa) in Apia.  Sundays in Samoa are dedicated to church and rest and I’m taking full advantage.  7 of us went back to the Anglican church this morning.  It was youth day, so the youth group had prepared a special service of song, dances and skits.  They’d also asked us to perform (because we’re “youth”, sorta) five of us sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.  Not sure that Samoa is ready for our version of gospel, but it seemed well received.  We also joined in the fellowship afterwards, and got to meet some people while scarfing down some homemade goodies. 

I realized I was in Samoa when I received communion from a barefoot priest. 

After getting back to the hotel, a gang decided to head out to find an open restaurant.  Very few stores or restaurants on Sunday, because it is a day to attend church, then eat a huge meal with family, then nap away the rest of the day.  I was going to join in the hunt, since I’d only nibbled at the church food, but it started to rain, so I headed next door to KK to buy lunch supplies.  KK is a Chinese/Samoan store that seems to always be open and stocks pretty much everything we need, at reasonable prices.  The fact that it is literally next door makes it even better.

I bought the essentials for a comfort meal:  tuna, noodles, cream of mushroom soup and frozen peas.  I whipped up the casserole and shared with another hungry trainee.  People seemed to be impressed.  I don’t really think much about the varying levels of our life experiences until people start asking how to make tuna casserole.  I thought everybody knew how.  Apparently not.  I wonder if they’ll also be impressed when I make goulash.  Or chile con carne verde?  Of course, I’ll have to sweet talk someone into shipping me green chiles.

After lunch, Chelsea and I did some laundry in our room, then she went out to socialize and I kicked back with my Kindle and the air-conditioning.  Now I’m playing on the computer.  Feeling a little guilty that I’m not studying my Samoan, but there’s always this evening.

In order to continue putting off my Samoan language studies, here are some more observations:

I read a quote today:  “The only animals Samoans like are the ones they eat.”  I don’t know if that’s true, but the concept of pets seems to be very different than in the U.S.  Dogs are used for protection, rather than affection, and there are a lot of them.  I’ve heard in some areas they tend to run in packs.  People commonly throw rocks to keep the dogs away.  In fact, it’s so common that dogs flinch if you just bend over.

So, I found it wildly amusing this morning to see the Animal Protection car drive slowly by this morning, followed closely by a band of dogs of varying sizes.  Were they hoping for protection from the rock throwers?  Hoping for a spay or neuter on the run?  I don’t know, but it’s the first time I’ve seen dogs here run after a car.

I mentioned KK Market earlier.  I’ve been to one other grocery store and they have most of the same types of items.  Because KK is smaller, it just has fewer of them.  Much of what I’d be looking for at a Florida grocery store is there, but there are some exceptions.  At KK, there is a small section (about the size of a school desk) dedicated to vegetables.  Today there were bell peppers, cucumbers and bok choy.  If you want to buy vegetables, they come in large packages, such as 5 giant cucumbers or 8 bell peppers. 

There’s an entire aisle of cookies and crackers.  But with the exception of a couple of giant bags of suckers (known as “lollies” here, due to the New Zealand influence) the only candy is of the penny variety that is on the checkout counter.  And it’s way more than a penny to buy.

Something else I noticed was where they stock the deodorant.  The good news, they sell a small variety of brands/types.  The difference is that they are behind the counter and you have to have a clerk fetch them for you.  Chelsea and I had a brief discussion as to why that is.  Hot item for shoplifting?  People don’t bother to buy it, if left on a regular aisle, they just walk and swipe it on?  Don’t know.

By the way, feel free to send snail mail now.  As of this coming Saturday, I’ll be off the grid for 7 weeks.  No email, no blog.  Sorry, but it’s the Peace Corps way.  I will be taking photos, though and keeping a journal so will fill you in as soon as I can.  Expect exciting stories of cold showers, Samoan language class melt downs and a description of everything I ate.

Now, I should go study vocabulary.  But, studying is work, right?  And working on Sunday goes against the Samoan culture.  I must do what I can to integrate into the culture.  I’ll get up early tomorrow to study.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Saturday in Samoa

Breakfast was a bit more subdued than usual today.  Some drifted next door to the KK Market to get a cold soda to help reduce the after effects of last night’s party.  Some settled for the standard toast and papaya. 

Fale introduced a slew of new words and phrases during language class.  The focus was on commands we’ll use in the classroom, so I’m highly incented to study.  I’m trying hard, but continue to struggle with rote memorization.  And the diacritical marks may do me in.  There’s the komaleliu (‘) and the fa’amamafa (-).  One indicates a glottal stop.  One indicates a prolonged vowel and can change which syllable is accented.  With me so far?  If you put the fa’amamafa or the komaleliu in the wrong spot, you could be saying a dirty word.  See why I’m struggling?

After class, five of us crammed into a small taxi to head downtown.  We were in search of the store of the seamstress who’d taken our measurements for puletasis.  A puletasi is a fitted tunic/skirt that Samoan women wear as business/formal attire.  The cab dropped us off right where we asked, but not where we needed to be.  So we took an easy stroll around the corner and up the street.  When I say “easy stroll”, I’m being sarcastic.  When you are in the shade and there is a breeze, it is lovely.  When you’re plodding along in direct sun and humidity, it’s like being at Disney World in August.  Some of us strolled about ½ mile further than we needed to, but eventually we all got to the right place.  I picked up the lava lava that I’d given them to hem last week.  Sarah modeled the puletasi she had made.  She looks gorgeous in it.  My puletasi should be ready next Friday afternoon.

By then it was about 1:30 pm and I was hot and hungry.   Even though technically I could live through a long winter on my store of fat, when I go too long without food, I get cranky.  So, when the discussions began about where to have lunch or should we shop some more first, I bailed and set out on my own.

I stopped first at MacDonald’s.  Not because I wanted to eat there (although I guarantee I will sometime over the next two years) but because I was curious about prices and menu.  I didn’t see the whole menu, because I was staggered at the prices.  $16 for a burger?  That does not include fries.  That’s not a Big Mac.  I could have 4 large meals at DeAl for $16.  I’ll have to have a serious hankerin’ to pay those prices.

I kept walking and came across a family selling their barbecued chicken and lamb.  $8 for a plate of delicious food.  Admittedly, it was a little risky, given the heat and the mayo in the coleslaw and macaroni salad, but it was tasty and I seem to be suffering no ill effects. 

Now, it’s 6:30 pm and I’m thinking about dinner.  It may appear that I only think about food and money.  Actually, that is what I think about when not worrying about Samoan vocabulary.  But it really isn’t all I think about.  Other things include:

Wondering who decided to put the slogan “slippery when wet” on the condoms in our PC medical kits?

How did the lady in the Laundromat know my name? We’ve been told that everyone is related and the coconut wireless is amazing, so did she hear about me from someone else?  Is this how Paris Hilton feels?

Why can we hear thunder but never see lightening here?  We’ve had some humdinger rainstorms.  I love them because it sounds good and cools the air.  But where is the lightening hiding.  It must be there for there to be thunder, right?  Please tell them not to let me teach science.

I still have a lot of clothes I haven’t worn.  They smell and I don’t mean that in a good way.  It’s not that humid and I haven’t put dirty clothes next to clean clothes, which is the laundry equivalent of kitchen cross-contamination caused by using the same knife for raw chicken and vegetables.  I know better.  So why do my clean, never-out-of-the-suitcase from Florida clothes reek?  I’ve begun wiping myself off with a dryer sheet before I leave the house, so I can smell spring time fresh.

As if Samoan wasn’t hard enough, my Spanish is getting in the way.  I say something correctly and my teacher says Malo!  Which means “bad” in Spanish.  I’m conflicted by her praise.  Today, I had to read a list of words and one was “puta”.  Not a word normally taught to “nice” girls. 

The rain has slowed and I’m heading out to KK to get something for dinner.  Perhaps the makings for a tuna sandwich.  Or some noodle ramen.  Eat your hearts out in America.  Here in Apia it’s Saturday night and I’m living large.

Fabulous Fiafia

Rachael, Lindsey, Jenny, Karen (all Group 83) and Blakey (Group 81, who's staying for another year)

Huge thanks to the volunteers in Groups 81 and 82!  They threw a party (fiafia) for us last night and it rocked.  It started informally with a cocktail party.  Ok, it was a very informal cocktail party that involved coconut vodka, Jaeger Bombs and Vailimia, shared while moving from one hotel room to another and helping each other put on make-up.

After cocktails, everyone gathered in the conference room where we have training.  That’s when the real party began.  Spirits were high and the entertainment was stellar.  We started with our Group, 83, introducing ourselves.  I announced “I’m Nancy and I’m from Orlando.  I get a lot of respect.”  I got cheers, since everyone knows that in Samoa, the older you are the more respect you get.  At one point I felt like I was at the Miss America pageant, since cheers went up as people announced their home state.  Colorado got the most cheers, by the way. 

Matt, Group 81 (world famous for his blog), created a really well done slideshow to introduce us to the volunteers of Groups 81 & 82.  Terrific music, photos and humorous comments.

Two volunteers sang the Samoan National Anthem – they were excellent.  I’d tell you their names, but I was at a cocktail party, remember?  Group 81 did a slap dance, which involves women and shirtless men, slathered in coconut oil, slapping themselves silly, with the rhythm getting increasingly faster.  Who wouldn’t like that?

The women of Group 82 then performed a beautiful dance that they first performed as a thank you to their training host families a year ago.  Nicely done, ladies!

Blakey performed a traditional dance that I can’t remember the name of.  It’s normally done by the daughter of the High Chief and since Blakey’s host dad in training was the High Chief she had the opportunity to learn and perform the dance then.  Fiafias are used in some villages to raise money and this is an example of how they do it.  Blakely was drenched in oil and audience members ran up to slap tala bills on her.  The oil makes it stick.  I’m not sure of the symbolism of having the man lie on the floor (and a woman, in this case) and letting Blakey step on him/her.  I have some ideas, but since they’re humorous but inappropriate, I’ll leave it alone. Information appreciated.

I think everyone will agree that when we moved downstairs to the pool, anticipation was in the air because it was time for FIRE!  I expected one guy, twirling a fire baton, but it was way better than that.  It was a mix of men dancing – and I’m not talking ballroom here.  I’m talking testosterone fueled, macho dancing.  First one guy was doing the fire dance, which was amazing.  Then a couple more fire dancers joined him and it was outstanding.  We were all screaming, whistling and applauding, while the drums pounded and the fire dancers performed.  Outstanding.  Really.  Worth the ten hour plane ride.

Group 81 was then asked to stand together so they could be serenaded by PC staff.  A bittersweet moment.  We’re on a newbie high, with two long years stretching out in front of us.  Group 81, however, are the veterans, wrapping up their time here. 

The evening didn’t end there, though.  The current volunteers had put together a potluck for us, so we traipsed back upstairs to chow down.  Following Samoan custom , because we were guests Group 83 got to fill our plates first, to make sure we got the best food.  We were not shy.  Pizza.  Homemade tortillas.  Some awesome casseroles.  Raw vegetables, cakes, brownies and ice cream rounded out the feast.

There was terrific conversation while we ate, with us newbies pumping the experienced volunteers for stories and advice.

Most of the group headed out to a bar down the block to continue the party.  I would have gone, but knew that language class would be starting bright and early.  I struggle on a good day.  I wouldn’t want to face Samoan vocabulary with a hangover.

Next year, our Group will be responsible for planning the fiafia for Group 84.  I hope we can come even close to the amazing party that they put on for us.  We felt welcomed.  We laughed a lot.  And, we got to blow off some steam, which felt really good after an intense couple of weeks.  Thanks, guys.  We really feel like part of the Peace Corps Samoa family!
Chris and Michael, rocking their lava lavas
Pat and Chris
Me (with the new look of no makeup except lipstick and no blowdry) and Blakey
Katie and Natalie
Chris and his wife, Rivka.  Does she not look like Aletha???
Kellye, PC staff on the right and a woman whose name I didn't catch - sorry!
Jamie (training manager on loan from PC Belize) and Mafi, TESL training manager, who I adore
More PC Staff - Hector, on loan from PC El Salvador and on the right, our cashier, on loan from Thailand

Friday, October 15, 2010

Another Friday in Apia

Our hotel room in Apia. By European standards, it's spacious.

It’s 5:00 pm in Apia and I’m sitting in my air-conditioned room, waiting for the fiafia to start at 6:30.  I’ve been told it will involve food, drinking, dancing and a fire dancer.  Since it’s being held in the same room as our training, I’m a wee bit concerned about burning down the place, but am going with the flow.

Speaking of which, I’m pretty proud of how well I’ve been going with the flow so far.  Much of our experience so far has been relatively stress free and fun.  But still, for the last umpteen years, I’ve lived alone and worked alone.  Being tossed into a group of 20, with only one other person within decades of my age and having a 22 year-old roommate is a bit different.  Heck, when I travel with friends we always get separate hotel rooms.  The fact that my roommate hasn’t smothered me in my sleep is a testament to the “go with the flow” attitude I’ve adopted and the fact that she can sleep through anything, including my snoring.

The language training, which I dreaded is going much better than I expected.  My teacher, Fale, is patient, articulate and is using a variety of techniques and approaches to help us learn.  We had a pop quiz today and I got 13 out of 15.  Smack in the middle out of five of us.  And yes, I’m almost looking forward to four more hours of language training tomorrow, even though that means all the stores will be closed for the remainder of the weekend by the time we get out of class.

I dropped my dirty clothes off across the street to be washed today.  Everyone else is doing laundry in the sink,  but really, for a total of 18 tala for over a week’s worth of dirty clothes?  To have them completely dry and smelling like Downey?  It’s a luxury I’m willing to pay for.  It’s funny how we’re each managing our money.  I’m living on the cheap with occasional splurges on things like laundry or a meal out.  That’s allowing me to stash some money for either a big splurge or a rainy day.  Others are using every penny, knowing that another “pay day” will be coming. 

Some are treating themselves with food.  Cheese and peanut butter are both popular and fairly expensive.  Cookies and chips are also popular.  Chips are outrageously expensive here and I’m glad I don’t crave them.  Cookies, on the other hand, are relatively cheap and are my nighttime treat. Vailima, the local beer, is the indulgence of choice for others.  I’ve had a few and it is a nice way to relax after a long day of class. I’m already thinking about splurging for my 60th birthday in a couple of weeks.  I’ll be in the village, so need to plan ahead.  My dream is a chilled gin martini and a rare grilled steak.  I’ll be happy with a Vailima and a hot dog.  If it turns out to be water and taro, I’ll get by. 

Speaking of food, 10 of us went out for Chinese food last night.  It was not cheap, especially if you got a large Vailima (Ms. Thrifty here abstained), but was delicious.  Chinese food seems to be ubiquitous, worldwide. The version here is similar to what we have in the States, which means when homesickness hits, I’ll be stopping by the Sunrise Restaurant.  The décor is also reminiscent of every Chinese restaurant I’ve ever been to.  This one is a bit on the upscale side, which is a nice alternative to the places we’ve been eating so far.

Some other observations on a beautiful Friday afternoon:

I’ve gotten used to the bells that clang outside our room every morning.  To me, they just signal it’s 5 am and I can go back to sleep.  I suspect to locals, they signal prayers.

The cats here seem to be tiny.  I haven’t seen many, but the few I’ve seen are the size of half-grown kittens.  There are two who live in the hotel.  They liked me a lot at lunch when I opened a can of sardines.  My fellow trainees didn’t seem as thrilled with the smell.

I have dirty fingernails.  I shower at least once a day, sometimes twice.  I’m in a classroom, not doing gardening.  Yet, every time I look at my hands, my fingernails are filthy.  What’s up with that?

I’m very fond of the smell of burning trash.  It’s not constant or overwhelming.  Just a light scent in the breeze that combines with the perfume of flowers to create a unique and pleasant aroma.  Sarah pointed out that it probably contains carcinogens that will cause lung cancer.  I responded that by the time I’m exposed to that much, I’ll probably be dead anyway.  She acknowledged the point.

I was not flirting with the cab driver.  Somehow, I’ve developed the reputation as a flirt.  Or perhaps “most likely to marry a Samoan”.  Or trainee (I don’t think there’s enough Vailima on the island).  It is all a complete façade.  So last night when we arrived at the restaurant, everyone else hopped out and headed into the restaurant.  I lingered, not because the young Samoan driver was good looking (he was) but because I wanted to get his number in case we needed a ride home.  The fact that I captured it on video was just a convenience. 

I’m off to get ready for the fiafia.  Most of the women are getting dressed up.  I figure I smell like Downey, so that’s good enough.  

Thursday, October 14, 2010

It's Been a Week Already?

The beach where the Water Safety Training was held.

Hard to believe that we’ve been here a week, because it feels like we’ve been here so much longer.  I understand now, the volunteer blogs that say the days drag, yet the time flies.  This week started with Water Safety Training and has continued with classroom training, primarily focused on the skills we’ll need to teach English literacy. 

We’ll each have a class of our own, one day a week, of year 7.  They’ll be 12-13 years old.  I met a year 7 girl in the market last Saturday and she was very excited to speak English (with her mother encouraging from the sidelines) and even more excited when I told her I was here to teach English.  Her dream?  To have a book in English.  If all my students have similar attitudes, I’m going to love teaching.  If they don’t, I’ll have an opportunity to test my creativity.

We had language class for only the second time yesterday.  Given that we’re going to be tested and must achieve a certain level to be sworn in, I find that a tad worrisome.  Having said that, the PC has invested a lot in us and I believe that if we’re making a real effort, limited language at the beginning won’t be a deal breaker. 

I’m keeping flashcards of the words and phrases we’re learning.  Partly for practice and partly so I have a tangible sign of what I’ve learned (and what I still need to learn).  I’m proud of the 20 or so words and phrases I’ve learned in a week.  And, that I can have a 30 second conversation in Samoan (Hello!  How are you?  Fine, thanks.) I’ve even learned the 3 titles to be used depending on your level – talking chiefs are referred to as Tofa, for example.  And just to keep me on my toes, Tofa also means “bye” and “sleep”.

I’m interested in watching the dynamic of our group, given my background in team development.  So far, we’re clearly still in the happy “forming” stage.  The pressures of classes increase every day, but we have relatively little other stress. Our food/sleeping conditions aren’t ideal (think backpacking rather than luxury hotel) but are fine.   I suspect that will change when we go to our training villages.  Plus, we’ll be separated in 4 different villages.

Here’s the plan.  A week from Saturday, we’ll take the bus to our villages.  We’ll leave most of our stuff in the hotel here in Apia, taking only toiletries and a few clothes.  No computers, no electronics, nada.  They want us to have an immersion experience with our host families.  We’ll be dropped off in groups of five at each village.  The groups will be determined on our language proficiency at the time.  I expect to be in the Bluebirds (euphemism for the slow group).

We’ll be in our villages, living with a host family while having training every day with our four fellow PC villagers.  Each Friday, we’ll hop on the local bus to commute to Apia for “center day” which means training for all 20 of us.  It will be a two hour bus ride each way, using the public buses.  After seven weeks, we’ll all be back in Apia for our final week of training, testing and swearing in.  The shifting dynamics of the group will be interesting to experience.  I think we’ll need to make a conscious effort to maintain our group vibe.

We have incentive.  Group 81, who just celebrated their 2 year anniversary, is a tight group.  Everyone who started is still here.  Group 82, however, is a bit different .  23 PCTs started 1 year ago.  Now they are down to 17.  Apparently, some chose to leave.  Others had the decision made for them when they broke the rules and some left for medical reasons.  We hope to replicate the group 81 experience and have all of us still together in 2012. 

December, 2012.  That’s when we’re due to end our tour.  That brings me back to the whole quirky time thing.  My roommate Chelsea mentioned last night that it still feels like vacation to her.  I feel as if I’ve lived here forever.  I was enjoying some quiet time last night, sitting in the dark, enjoying the breeze and the sound of the native drums.  Just letting my mind drift.  What the heck, native drums????  Yes, Nesi, you’re not in Lake Mary anymore.  Lest you think the folks whip out the drums every night in their backyards here in the capital, the music/drums were coming from Aggie Grey’s resort (the one in town, not the one where we snorkeled).  Apparently a fiafia for the palagis.  We get our own fiafia Friday night.  Can’t wait.

Check out the brief water safety video here.  Folks were jumping off the boat and convinced Tevita the PC training manager to jump, too. Dave, PCT, is closest to the camera and provided support by joining him in the jump.  It was a good time.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It Was Training, Not Snorkeling!

Yesterday was a National Holiday in Samoa, to continue celebrating White Sunday.  We still had training, though.  Don’t feel too bad for me because it was Water and Safety Training.  A chartered bus picked us up at noon and we headed back toward the airport.  After about an hour’s drive, we arrived at Aggie Grey’s Resort. 

We received our initial training in an open fale on the beach.  We discussed possible dangers in the water in Samoa and use of two types of life vests were demonstrated.  Mostly we were advised to avoid liquor, drugs and stupidity when around water. 

Then we hopped on board a catamaran to sail across the lagoon toward the reef.  After we dropped anchor, snorkeling skills were explained and then they forced us into the water.  Ok, that may be a bit strong, since most of us were in the water about 2 seconds after they said “go”.  We sunned, we snorkeled, we catapulted off the boat, we scarfed sandwiches that we’d either brought or purchased and we laughed a lot.  As we sailed back to the resort a few hours later, the Captain threw a long rope into the water and the first mate demonstrated holding on while being dragged by the boat, then pulling himself up the rope to the boat.  Most of the guys then decided to try it along with Karen and Lindsey (way to represent, ladies!)  All in all, it was pretty funny to watch.  My large, buoyant behind remained on the boat.

We were all in a fine mood as we headed back on the bus to the hotel.  .  A large number of our group started singing on the way home.  I knew when they started with N’Synch, it could be a long ride.  One of our gang, Tevi, seems to know the words to every pop and rap song ever written.  A few of the girls in the back of the bus weren’t far behind, so there was quite the medley of tunes.  I still have N’Synch’s “Tell Me Why” stuck in my head.  I plan to hum “It’s a Small World” all night just to get even.

I doubt if any PCT, anywhere, anytime has enjoyed training quite as much as we did yesterday.  Lest you think we’re part of the Beach Corps, today was back to the routine of classroom training and one morning session took over where our Diarrhea session ended.  We learned about common diseases we may get, including Typhoid, Dengue, Rheumatic Fever and more.  Not to worry, moms and dads, we discussed how to avoid them as well as how to deal with them.  Plus tomorrow we get our Typhoid vaccine if we haven’t had one in two years.

The training has been well done - well thought out and effectively presented, but like training anywhere, it gets old after the first six hours or so.  And my bum was numb after about hour one.  Still, good information that will be invaluable as we go out on our own.

To answer some questions I’ve received:

Do people speak English?  In the capital of Apia, where we’ll be for another 2 weeks, yes, most people speak English.  Some don’t speak enough to carry on an in-depth conversation, but it has definitely been easy to communicate.  That will change when we reach our site villages (that’s where we’ll go after we’re sworn in and where we’ll spend our final two years), since many of the villagers don’t or won’t speak English.  Samoa has two languages:  English and Samoan.  To get an advanced education or a good job, Samoans need to know both.  Which is why so many villages applied to have us come to their schools to teach English.

What are you doing for food?  Well, you know me, just living on a carrot stick and a couple of glasses of water a day.  Actually, the food has been good.  Our first day, the hotel provided lunch and dinner, which both had a lot of variety and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Breakfast is provided each morning by the hotel and is coconut, papaya, toast, tea and instant coffee.  Yesterday, instead of toast, they made pankeke, which is OMG good.  Pancakes made with bananas smushed into the batter.  Today, they added avocado to the menu.  I’m hoping tomorrow they’ll bring back the pankeke.  Most are hoping the papaya will be replaced by…anything.

We’re on our own for lunch and dinner.  Several of us frequent the DeAl Café across the street for lunch.  Curry, chop suey and either rice or plaintains is $4, less than two bucks US.  Not the highest quality, but tasty and affordable.  Scoops is also popular.  Just up the block, it’s an ice cream parlor/café.  I personally have grown attached to the Deluxe Dog ($6.50), which is an American style hot dog on a fabulous bun, with cheese, sautéed onions, ketchup and mustard.  I have only heard about the cheeseburger, which comes topped with coleslaw.  The fish and chips are supposed to be excellent, but at $13 are out of my price range.

A number of us have also “cooked” for ourselves.  For me that meant sardines, cheese and crackers.  For others, it meant pasta with canned sauce or veggie stir fry.  Cooking isn’t so easy because of the limited facilities, but still a nice option to have.  And, most are doing what they can to make sure they eat healthy, with lots of fruits and vegetables.

Karen, one of the group, just reported that she and her husband had my back as they toured a market up the street after class today.  They sell packaged Mac and Cheese.  Knock off brand and I understand the nutritional pitfalls, but consider this:  in less than 2 weeks we leave for our training villages.  We’ll be there for 7 weeks and will be fed by our host families. That’s 7 weeks of a lot of taro and breadfruit and probably limited fruits, veggies and comfort food.  I’ll be indulging in Mac and Cheese this week.  It will be $4.60 well spent.

Speaking of cravings, I haven’t had many.  Yes, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (think they’ll send me some for free if I mention it often enough on this blog?) but not much else.  I haven’t seen TV for over a week and haven’t missed it.  I’ve only used the internet for blogging/emailing.  I haven’t craved Mexican food, although I’m afraid to even type the words.  It could kick up a serious enchilada craving, much like scratching one mosquito bite makes them all itch.

Most of our evenings are spent hanging out in small groups.  Really, like a dorm.  There’s studying going on, some drinking, and lots of speculation about where we’ll be going and what the next two years will be like.  There have also been card games and singing.  Last night, while sitting on the balcony at the front of the hotel where there’s a nice breeze and a view of harbor, a couple of people mentioned their moms were reading my blog.  I told them if they paid me $5 each a week, I’d say they were behaving like perfect ladies and gentlemen.

Actually, no need for them to pay, since it’s a really good group, with sensitive, smart caring men and women who are here for all the right reasons.

Parents, please don’t be alarmed at the level of interest in one trivia fact we heard yesterday.  In the 1999/2001 group, they had 27 volunteers.  17 of them married Samoans.  There are strict rules about dating during training, so you have at least 9 more weeks to relax.

On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is “I wish I’d never heard of Samoa” and 10 is “I can’t imagine ever leaving”, I’m right at about a 9 today.  And that’s only because my butt is still numb.

I’m too lazy and hungry to upload photos, so they’ll come later.  Just imagine the most beautiful lagoon possible, with water a clear turquoise blue and that’s what the photos look like.

Monday, October 11, 2010

More First Impressions

Enjoying food and conversation during Girl's night at Blakey's house.

It’s 1:09 pm in Orlando, which means it’s 7:09 am here in Apia.  I’m the first one up and it’s quiet.  A few cars driving by, birds calling, a light breeze and the sun coming up behind large clouds, creating a spectacular sunrise.  Linda Lavin is singing quietly from my computer and the scene matches my mood…serene.

Since I’m feeling chatty this morning, and this is an excuse to delay studying Samoan, here are some more first impressions:

The 4-piece live string band at the airport beats the heck out of Muzak.  They were smiling, nodding and making eye contact, along with making music.  Now, that’s the way to greet tired strangers to your country.

I’ve had a tough time wrapping my head around the “fale” concept.  Fale is the word for house (and, apparently also the nickname for people, since both my language teacher (a woman) and the culture and language manager (a man) are called Fale).  Anyway, fales are traditional homes that are oval in shape, with high ceilings and are open air.  They have Roman-style blinds made of woven palm fronds that can be lowered in case of heavy rain, but otherwise are wide open. 

As we drove in from the airport, we saw a lot of them.  Most were large and looked very nice.  But have to say it felt weird.  Imagine driving through a subdivision where all the walls on the houses have been removed and you can see all the furnishings and people inside.  Oh, I guess that would have been like driving through sections of Orlando after Hurricane Charlie.

Anyway, the concept makes sense.  The temperature here is very comfortable, if you’re in the shade and have a breeze.  An open house allows both.  Still, will take some getting used to.  The other day as part of training we discussed the type of housing we’ll have once we get to our sites.  Most of us will have an open-air fale.  There will be a small room attached, with walls and a door that locks.  A relief, since I had visions of changing clothes in full view of the entire village, while humming the Stripper song.

The other thing that struck me as we made the 45 minute drive from the airport to town was the number of people who smiled and waved as we drove by.  We asked our Samoan trainers if it was genuine.  They assured us it was and it had nothing to do with us being Pisi Koa.  Nope, they just like falagis. 

Something that we’ve all been talking about a lot is money.  Tala is the local dollar.  I exchanged my US dollars at $2.31 which gives me way more Tala than dollars.  We’re encouraged (and are committed to) living on our Peace Corps budgets.  We received $120 (US dollars) for “walking around” money in L.A., which was quite generous.  And a good thing, since we only got $185 (tala) for our first week in Apia.  That’s for all meals and other expenses (taxis, etc.)  Since we were required to buy a phone for $89 tala our second day here, that really put a crimp in our food money.

I’ve been to two supermarkets since arriving and the prices were similar.  Not surprisingly, anything imported costs more.  If it’s imported from the US rather than closer New Zealand, it’s even more.  Local beer is a couple tala at the grocery store and $4-5 in restaurants.  Liquor is very expensive.  Low-end vodka is about $70 a bottle.  Soft drinks are also expensive – costing more than the local beer.  Sprim is only $1.20 and makes a liter of water taste better than Kool Aid.

At the open-air market, fruits and vegetables are very affordable.  Tasty avocadoes are $1.  5 large cucumbers were $3.  Squash started at $3 for a small one (enough to make a meal for two). 

Many of us cyber-stalked the current volunteers on their blogs before arriving, trying to get insights into what our lives here would be like.  I started reading Matt’s blog even before I knew I was coming to Samoa.  I just like the way he writes.  He’s featured a lot of photos and stories of his Group 81 compadres, including Blakey.  So I was pretty darned thrilled when I exited customs and the first people I saw were Blakey and Matt. 

On Friday night, we enjoyed “boys’ and girls’ night”, which is a tradition in Peace Corps Samoa.  Jenny and Kaelin came to the hotel to help us get cabs to head to Blakey’s house, while some Matt, Koa and some other guys came to take our guys back to Matt’s house.  I can’t speak for the guys, but the women had a great time.  Blakey lives on her school compound, just outside Apia.  Her house is large (about 1,500 sq. ft) and has all the amenities.  We were quickly told that she has the largest house and we should expect something much smaller.

Two Jennies, Kaelin, Blakey and Chris were our hostesses and had made sure that there was plenty of wonderful food.  We’d stopped at the liquor store so anyone who wanted could have a beverage of choice.  There was oka (raw fish, marinated in lime, onion and coconut milk – delicious), vegetarian and non-vegetarian chili that was wonderful and perfectly spicy.  There was a huge pile of fried chicken and a variety of other dishes that I can’t remember.  My favorites were the spicy chili and the awesome dessert that didn’t have a name.  It was “liquid fruit salad”.  Imagine a cup filled with small pieces of tropical fruit and a liquid made of coconut milk and fruit juice.  It tasted like liquid ambrosia.

The best part of the night was the conversation.  As you can imagine, we’ve got lots of questions, some of which can really only be answered by a woman who’s been through it.  While the men are apparently obsessed with poop, for women it was periods.  An important topic when you’re in a place where feminine hygiene products aren’t available.

Blakey’s pule (principle) stopped by for a bit and was wonderful.  Middle-aged, she’s head of a school with more than 500 students.  She was funny and gave us great insights into the Samoan world.  Some in our group have been concerned about the very strong gender roles in Samoa and our willingness/ability to take on the female role.  The pule explained that while there are strict rules about gender roles, that doesn’t mean that women are subservient.  In fact, just the opposite.  She described the wife/mother of the home as the iron, responsible for smoothing out any issues within the family. 

She was dressed in a beautiful puletasi (traditional long skirt and fitted, matching blouse) and carrying a jungle purse, with a flower in her hair.  The yellow flower is the symbol of the school.  They refer to the campus as the “jungle” (it’s actually a beautiful, well-manicured school campus) so when she made her small purse out of a palm frond, she called it a jungle purse.  It’s not a traditional design and she’s planning to teach some kids to make them to sell at the market.  We’re hoping for a PC discount, since we all want one. 

Something else I noticed about current and new volunteers.  They're all good looking.  Several of us have commented that it seems that "more attractive than average" men and women seem to be drawn to the Peace Corps.  I'm feeling a bit like Dodo the dog face girl at cheerleader camp.  Oh, well, I have a "special" kind of beauty that comes with age.

Enough rambling for now.  Tea, toast and Samoan vocabulary await, since e la’ititi la’u fa’asamoa, which means I don’t speak much Samoan.  And yes, that’s one of the phrases I’ve learned.  I also learned “fia le tau” (how much is it?), which I proudly used at the market, only to feel like an idiot, when I was answered in Samoan and had to trot out “e la’ititi la’u fa’asamoa” again.

BTW – I now have a cell phone so I can receive texts (free for me, not sure of cost to you) and calls (not sure of cost for either of us).  I understand that I can receive Skype calls for only $.01 per minute from the U.S.  That means using Skype to call my cell, rather than going computer to computer.  That option is also available, at least until we leave for training in 2 weeks.  My phone number is 1 685 725 7126.  That includes the area code and should work.

The biggest impression I’ve had is that people here seem to be relaxed, smiling and happy.  That’s rubbed off on us trainees and even after a very eventful first week, everyone seems happy and well.  

Squash in the market.
 Sarah and Patricia on the main road in Apia.  We were walking home from the market.
Breakfast every morning in the hotel is tea, toast, coconut, pawpaw (papaya) and banana.  With an amazing view of Upolu.
Some of the food at Blakey's house.  Chicken on the left.  Salsa and chips (chips are uber expensive here and quite the treat) and in the foreground, some type of root vegetable, boiled, then topped with coconut cream.