Saturday, November 27, 2010


Thursday was Thanksgiving, but you couldn't tell, here in Samoa.  We had language class, as usual.  I had my language proficiency exam that evening and am proud to say I passed.  Congrats to the group - everyone passed and Karen, Danny and Sarah aced it. 

The test required us to describe our American and Samoan families, name objects and explain where they were (The car is in front of the fale. The pen is inside the briefcase.) We had to demonstrate our knowledge of numbers and also how to tell time.  Then we had to do a roleplay as if we were shopping in the market, talking about the fruits/vegetables and discussing prices. 

We have one more test in two weeks.  I'm dreading it and will be practicing like crazy in preparation.

Anyway, back to Thanksgiving.  Although we didn't celebrate it on Thursday, it hasn't passed without notice.  On Wednesday, we were all together in Apia for training and Jenny distributed individual "cards" that she
drawn for each of us.  Yesterday, Sia (Pat) gave each of us a note, telling us why she was thankful to be serving with us.  Today, we're getting together at the Charge' d' Affaires house for Thanksgiving dinner, with all the trimmings.  All the volunteers in Samoa will be there, along with all Embassy staff.  The Charge' (head honcho in Samoa for the US government) had turkeys flown in from American Samoa so we're pumped.

At lunch break on Thursday I wrote a long list of things I'm thankful for.  I won't bore you with the whole list, but here are a few things I'm thankful for:

Being healthy and lucky enough to be in the Peace Corps.

The amazing friends at home who are keeping me going.

The terrific new friends in Samoa who are making this an remarkable experience.

All the trainees that I'm sharing this experience with.  They get on my nerves some times and I know I bug them a lot, but I can't imagine a group of people I'd rather go through this with.  In future blogs I'll be sharing more photos and stories about who they are with you.

This small island nation, that is so beautiful and has such giving, warm people.  I hitched a ride into town this morning with a neighbor (which saved me a 2 hour bus ride) and was singing Christmas carols with them as I watched a complete double rainbow over the sea and coconut palms.

I'm off to eat too much American food now.

Culture Day and Mika's Mom Made Me Cry

First, I want to apologize for no photos.  I was set to spend my morning and a big chunk of my money (I get "paid" $35 tala a week and 2 hours of internet is $18 tala) to update my blog, catch up on email and upload a bunch of great photos.  Then I realized that because my camera uses a special memory chip, I need the adaptor, which is safely locked with my laptop at the hotel.  I won't have access to it until we move back to Apia in two weeks.  So, I'm sorry.  Please use your imagination to picture what I describe.  May be better than photos.

Yesterday was Culture Day, something we've all both looked forward to and dreaded.  The day is designed to give us a real taste of Samoan life.  We were told to bring food to cook (a live chicken, pig, breadfruit, bananas, taro leaves, coconuts, taro, papaya and bananas) and told to ask one of our family to come with us.  Because my family members were busy, I went alone and passed on taking the chicken and pig.

The day started early, at 6 a.m. when we were divided into two groups.  Six of us stayed at the fale of a very nice Samoan family in Lotofaga (which is the village next to where I currently live). The rest of the gang trekked off to the nearby plantation. Their job was to dig up some taro and bring back some popo - ripe coconuts - the brown kind you can buy in the grocery store.  Our job, back at the fale, was to make some supoesi (papaya soup) that we'd feed the plantation guys.

I love supoesi (and virtually all Samoan food) and was happy to learn to make it.  It's an easy recipe:  scoop out the seeds ripe papayas (remove the seeds first) and put into a pan.  Add just enough water to cover. Boil until soft.  Add some softened tapioca, salt and sugar to taste and some coconut cream.

Making it the traditional Samoan way, though, is hard.  And this wasn't a history lesson.  This was just the first dish of the day and the entire meal is what virtually every Samoan family does every Sunday.

We started with scooping out the esi (papaya).  That was easy.  Unfortunately, there was a communication breakdown, though, and we just scooped into chunks, not small pieces.  That meant that after it started cooking, we had to use spoons to mash the pieces into smaller bits.  That wouldn't have been bad, except we were cooking everything over a wood fire and it was very hot and smoky.  Most families, by the way, still cook outdoors this way in the villages, using wood fires and the "umo" that I'll describe in a minute.

Anyway, after we got the papaya cooking, we started on making coconut cream.  Step one, open the coconut.  That involves husking it (the ones you see in the grocery stores have been husked) and then cracking it open.  Happily, ours had been husked for us, since that's considered "man" work and just us women were making the soup.

I was terrific at opening the coconut.  Four strong whacks along the middle of the coconut with the back side of a machete and it was open.  My sister Fa can do it in one whack.

I wasn't so good at coconut grating.  It involves sitting on a very low, long stook that has a piece of metal on one end.  It's about 1 inch wide, with serrated teeth.  You push half the coconut against the teeth, while pushing down really hard and shove, to grate the coconut.  Fa does it everynight, since she feeds the chickens the grated coconuts.  Let's just say it involves strength and some skill and those chickens would starve if they had to depend on me.

I was better at squeezing the milk.  You use some type of fiber, scoop up some of the grated coconut and form it into something that looks like a burrito and then squeeze the bejeebers out of it.  What comes out is the fresh coconut cream.  It tastes absolutely nothing like the stuff you get in the can at the grocery store.  It is time consuming and hard to make and is used in most food here.  I love it.   

I asked where I'd be able to buy the little stool thing so I could grate my own at my own house and was told that wasn't necessary.  As a "Pisi Koa" I should tell my neighbors I want some and they will be happy to give it to me.  That's the kind of hospitality I'm experiencing here.  It's amazing and wonderful.

But I digress - back to Culture Day.  The troops arrived back from the plantation.  Mika was carrying a stick, onto which were tied 4 coconuts (husks and all).  His shirt was wrapped around his head and he was a sweaty mess, but with a big smile.  Thanks for the sweaty hug, Mika.  He commented that one of the Samoans mentioned that it was typical for kids who work in the plantations to carry 30 coconuts at a time, walking over a mile back to their homes.  Mika was pooped after carrying 4 and he's a young, healthy guy.

The work to prepare the main course got going then.  We cleaned breadfruit, yams and taro by scraping off the skin with the edges of tops of tin cans.  We prepared young taro leaves and filled the with coconut cream and wrapped them for palusami (which is delicious - sort of like a creamy baked spinach).  The reason I mentioned that some were dreading the day was the next part.   We killed, plucked and gutted chickens.  We (okay, our Samoan families) killed and dressed 2 pigs.  We wrapped whole, large fish in coconut leaves.

The young Samoan men got the big fire going and added the lava stones to heat.  After the stones were red hot, they swept away all the wood ash and started adding the food, which were covered with more hot stones, then covered with leaves.  At the same time, the chickens were put on a smaller fire to boil.

We worked on learning to weave baskets out of palm fronds while everything was cooking.  We also had a drawing to see which roles we'd each take for dinner.  Samoan culture is very traditional and roles very clearly defined.  The matais (chiefs of the village) and honored guests sit in the open fale and are served.  Young women and the untitled men (young men who are not a chief) do the serving and fanning of the matais and guests, which keeps them cool and keeps the flies away.  They also provide bowls of water and towels before and after the meal for handwashing.  We were drawing roles - 5 got to be matais (4 Talking Chiefs and 1 Ali'i, or head chief).

Sia and I were approached by Sa'u, the language coordinator, before we drew roles.  He explained that because we are over 50, it would be very uncomfortable if we were chosen as servers, since as senior women, we would NEVER be expected to serve others.  As Fa told me when I was leaving home:  "You are a queen here and must accept what others offer."  Sia opted to be part of the drawing.  I was planning to, since I knew the Americans would think I was taking advantage of the situation if I used age as an excuse to make them serve me.  But then Lumafale, who was my first language teacher and a good friend, came to me to beg me to change my mind.  She explained it would be very difficult for the Samoans if I served them and would ruin the day for them.  So, I opted to eat first, with the matais.  Luckily, Sia drew the role of Talking Chief, so joined me with the matais.

We were served woven mats covered with leaves and tons of food.  It was delicious and tasted even better, knowing we'd done a lot of the work.  The Samoans, even though technically we were doing everything, did a lot of the work, because if they had counted on us, we'd still be there husking coconuts.

It was a bit awkward, being served and fanned by my fellow trainees.  They were hungry, too, and had to watch us eat and were not allowed to speak.  That's the tradition.  And that is how it works in Samoan families.  I've been at meals where I eat (as the guest) first, then the adults, then the children, who have been serving and fanning us.

The bad news for the servers was that we ate all the palusami, so they didn't get any.  The good news for them, was that they got to eat in another fale, where they could talk and joke around.  We ate in silence, then listened to speeches of thanks by the matais.  At that point, it was raining softly and all I wanted to do was slip down onto the mat and take a nap.  Yes, we all ate while seated on the ground.

After the food was gone and dishes done (by the servers, while we listened to more speeches) it was time for entertainment.  The group from Tafitola (for training, there are five trainees in four different villages) had been practicing a dance and changed into matching shirts and lava lavas.  They performed a slap dance that was rhythmic, well done and hysterical.  Four sat on the ground, slapping knees, chests, hands, shoulders etc, to the rhythm of the sticks that Lumafale, their trainer, was hitting.  In this type of dance, there's a guy who stands and gives orders and keeps the dance going.  Mika was the star of the show, dancing up a storm, while yelling in both English and Samoan.  He mimed creating a spiritual "juice", much like making coconut cream and then "pouring" it on the clappers.  We laughed and enjoyed it immensely.

The dance was the fitting conclusion for a terrific day. 

Speaking of Mika, I got a letter last week from Betsy, Mikas mom.  We were on a break, so I read it to those sitting around.  I had to stop a couple of times, though, because her words and sentiments choked me up.  She'd printed some photos of her and her son, Mika (aka Joseph Michael in the USA) and wrote about my leaving my life in the US behind to go to Samoa.  I was really touched.  Plus, we all got a good laugh out of Mika with an afro (he has curly blonde hair). 

Betsy, I asked Mika about you yesterday and I think you'd appreciate his response.  He described you as the person he wants to be when he grows up. A saint with a sense of humor.  He clearly loves and admires you greatly.  Mika is a sweetheart and one of the most popular among all the trainees. As with any group of 20, folks have favorites.  Mike is one who mixes and mingles well with everyone.  Thanks, too, Betsy, for the stickers - my kids in Faga will love them!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanks, Danny's Mom!

I hit the mother lode with four packages last week.  Thanks to Gail and Bob, Donna, Mary Lou and Ralph and Linda for the great loot!  A wonderful mixture of stuff I can use at the school along with some treats for me, which I'm sharing with my training village folks, including my host sister, Fuafa.

I had mentioned macaroni and cheese in a previous blog and man, it has paid off.  Linda sent an entire box, filled with boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese - delicious and hysterical!  We're eating some now (Fuafa loves it as much as I do), sharing some and I'll be taking some to Savaii for those days when I need a touch of home.

Most surprising was when Danny brought me two boxes of mac and cheese from Trader Joe's and said "These are from my mom."  So thoughtful and very much appreciated!  Danny's mom, I appreciate the food, but even more, I appreciate the chance to spend time with your son. 

Danny's a young college graduate with a passion for travel and giving of himself.  He lived in Argentina during study abroad and we've talked about Buenos Aires, where I've also spent some time.  He's also been patient when I try to talk with him in my bad Spanish.

Danny is behaving in a way that would make you proud, Danny's mom.  His sense of humor and mature perspective make him a pleasure to be around, and popular with Pisi Koas and locals alike.

Yes, I've heard he enjoys the occasional Vailima, but is acting responsibly.

Good job parenting, Danny's mom!

Gagana Is Hard!

I'm in Apia for the day and only have a couple of minutes before heading to training, so just a quick update.

If all goes well, I'll be living in the house on my own, facing the lagoon.  It needs some work (currently the only electricity is to the one light in the ceiling and there's no cooking facilities) and hopefully that will be done before I arrive there on December 18.  Check out this video of my new village - Faga, Samoa.

The only fly in my current ointment is language.  Yes, I'd prefer hot showers and some enchiladas, but the real problem for me is learning to speak fa'a Samoa.  It's easier than English, but for me, is a killer.  They have a different alphabet and use a sound for "g" that we don't have in English.  It's sorta a "ng" sound.  Instead of putting the tip of your tongue on the top/front of your mouth to say "n", you put the back of your tongue on the roof of the back of your mouth to make the "gna" sound.  So, Faga sounds more like "Fawnga", but not exactly.

And the vowels.  Oh, my heavens, the vowels.  And can we talk about the komaleli'us (the mark in the word) and the fa'amafamafas?  That's the straight line over a vowel that changes it to a long sound and changes which syllable is stressed.  Don't even get me started on noun markers and tense markers.

Having said all that, I know my numbers, can tell time, know the days of the week/months, know words for common objects/food and can say complete sentences.  But by the end of the day, my brain aches.  And there are some Spanish words that are also Samoan words (but with different "puta" means "fat" in Samoan) so sometimes I spit out a sentence that isn't coherent in English, Samoan or Spanish.

I'll get there.  Slowly.  Hopefully, I'll have some internet time Saturday and will try to load some photos from the training village, Sataoa and Faga.

P.S. Gagana means "language".  Be sure to pronounce it with both the "gna" and the "nu" sounds!

Friday, November 19, 2010

I Was Voted Onto the Island

It's been quite a week and I wish I had the time to upload photos, but will do my best to describe my new home in Savaii.  I won't bore you with details of the island, since you have Google. 

I visited Pua Pua first for a few days with Lissa, a current PC volunteer.  She and her Samoan family are fabulous and I feel as if I have a new home.  Had a chance to walk across the street and swim in the lagoon a couple of times.  Also got to spend the day at the school in Sasa'ai, where Lissa teaches English and her host mom is principal.  They turned me lose to do impromptu sessions with year 7 (they taught me about rugby), year 5 (we played Simon Says and Bip, Bap, Bop) and year 1 (I read them story books in Samoan and they corrected my pronunciation.)  It was a great few days.

On Tuesday, they took me to my new school/home in Faga.  What a magnificent place!  The school has about 230 students and classes from year 1 (think first grade) to year 8.  They're fully staffed, with the largest class being 37.  I'll be co-teaching English with teachers at all grades.  It was exam week, so time with the kids was limited, but I got to play some games and get to know some of the kids at interval (recess) and everyone now knows my name.  I had the toughest speaking engagement of my life when I was asked to give an impromptu speech to introduce myself to the school.  In Samoan.  At least it was brief and I should get an A for effort.

I was given two options for housing.  One is to live on a compound with the year 1 teacher at my school.  I stayed there for the week and they were wonderful.  I lived in a fale with an 18 year old girl (who beat me soundly at gin rummy after I taught her to play) and a 21 year old girl.  The fale adjoins the "main house" where they do the cooking and hanging out.  Mom, dad and other family sleep in other fales on the property.  It is not on the beach, but only a couple minutes walk away. 

They were incredibly friendly and welcoming and in Samoa, hospitality means food.  I drank enough Koko Samoa to float a boat and was happy to do it.  That's freshly roasted cocoa beans, crushed into a chocolate paste and mixed with water and sugar.  Fabulous.  I also ate lobster, octopus, seaweed, fish, fried chicken, beef curry, pankake (think donut holes), fresh pineapple, papaya soup, taro, breadfruit, and more.  Oh, did I mention they took me out for an ice cream cone every day?  All the food was raised or caught (in the case of seafood) locally, most from the families own plantation.  Fresh and delicious.

The other housing option I was shown is a 2 bedroom cement block home, facing the beach.  It is a five minute walk from school and five minutes from the Siufaga Resort.  The view from the house is the incredible lagoon.  I've been to places like Bora Bora and Aitutaki (Cook Islands) and I know incredible lagoons.  This one is right up there and I'll be looking at it every day.

The house needs some work, but has indoor toilet/shower and the basics.  It has huge potential.

Both options have huge pros and very few cons.  I'lll be talking to the PC this afternoon about which I'll go with.  I'll post as soon as possible to let you know.

There are so many things about Samoa I want to share. 

Experiences like

Driving past a fale at 5 a.m. last Saturday.  It was completely open-air, with an overhead light on, which illuminated the four people sleeping on mats under mosquito netting.  No security locks required. 

Joining the women in Faga for an evening aerobics class, held next to the beach, by the main road.  As I was shaking my palagi booty, a full bus drove by.  I got cheers from the bus and big laughs from the other ladies.  Seems I'm the first palagi to join their group.

Hearing kids hum the song I taught them the day before and calling my name to say hello.

I couldn't be happier about spending the next two years in Savaii.  For now, it's back to language training in Sataoa.

Friday, November 12, 2010


A quick message.  Even though I'll be moving, my address remains the same, so please keep those cards, letters and packages coming. 

If you're dying to send me something, here's a wish list:

School supplies (stickers, markers, cool stuff that I can use to create games/exercises for the classroom)
Boullain (or however you spell it.  Outrageously expensive here)
Crystal Lite (Ice Tea is my favorite)
M & Ms and Skittles
Green Chiles
Enchilada Sauce
Surprises - just knowing that it came from home makes it special.

Mostly, I value your texts, calls and support!

I'm Alive!

This will be a very short post, since I only have a few minutes before I have to head off to catch the shuttle back to the training village.  We were all in Apia today for training and the big announcements - where we'll each be assigned for the next 2 years.  It's a HUGE deal to us - almost as exciting as finding out that PC was sending me to Samoa.

On December 18, after being sworn in as an official volunteer, I'll be headed to teach English in a primary school in Faga, Savaii.  I was hoping for Savaii and hoping for my own house and it looks like both wishes were granted.  I leave tomorrow morning to visit Savaii for the first time.  First, I'll spend a few days shadowing a current volunteer, then I'll go on to Faga (pronounced Fanga) to meet my new boss and see where I'll be living and teaching. 

According to PC staff, I'll be teaching very large classes (70 or so in a class) in a village that's right on the water and has one of the most beautiful beaches in Samoa.  I'll have electricity, running water (no hot water) and will be only 30 minutes or so by bus from the largest town on Savii.  That means easy access to the market for produce and an internet cafe, until I can get dial-up in my house.

I'm loving the training village.  I live alone with my host sister, a 52 year-old widow who is wonderful.  She has a fabulous sense of humor and treats me incredibly well.  I've already told her that she's spoiled me and I'm not sure I'll be able to cook/clean for myself when I leave her.

That's it for now.  I'm 60 (it was a great birthday, celebrated with my sister Fa and some of her family) and happy.  Stuggling with learning Samoan, but can now make complete sentences, so I'm getting there.

So far, Samoa is all and more that I hoped for.  Peace Corps was right when they called it "The toughest job you'll every love."