Monday, November 28, 2011

Would You Do It?

I met two guys on the ferry yesterday.  One from the UK, one from Normandy in France.  They had just met on the flight from Fiji.  I’ve talked with PCVs here who have never traveled alone and tell them to do it.  There’s always someone to talk to, eat with, explore with.  And if you just spend time with yourself, all the better.

The English guy, David, explained that Xavier, the French guy, was a “real traveler.”  He had 5 kg of luggage.  A tiny bag.  I carry more than that with me to church.  He’s traveling across the Pacific for several months.  In that 5 kg bag he has a sleeping bag, cooking gear and clothes.  My underwear weighs more than that.

Neither of them had any plans, nor did they have much money.  David is working as a volunteer in Fiji for a year and was traveling as a normal palagi – with luggage and the expectation of hotels.  But he was lured in by Xavier’s spirit of adventure.

I told them I couldn’t have them sleep in my house because that would cause a scandal, but that my family would likely be willing to let them sleep on their property.  They opted to walk from the wharf to my village.  It’s a 40 minute bus ride.  I told my family about them, but assumed they’d find someplace to stop along the way.

This morning I was greeted by my brother who said “Your friends came by last night.”  “Really?  Did they ask for me?”  “No, they just came to buy some food.”

Later, at school, one of Year 7 boys ran up yelling “David is here for you!”  Yes, the 2 men were there.  They’d spent the night before in my village with a family they met on the road as they walked.  The family gave them a place to sleep and information about how to find my school.

David and Xavier spent almost all day with me at school.  They got to see every class sing and dance.  I asked the Year 8 boys to get some palm fronds and make some baskets.  The palagi’s were amazed at the skill of the kids in making baskets, head wreaths, bracelets and rings out of a single palm frond.  The kids were amazed that two palagi men wanted to spend time with them.

I explained which buses led to the next part of the island and how to flag them down.  They have no idea where they are headed next.  They don’t know where they’ll eat or sleep or bathe.  David said that Xavier is rubbing off on him and he’s becoming more adventurous. 

Would/could you do it?  Leave home with 10 pounds of luggage for 3 months?  Depend on the kindness of strangers in cultures you don’t know?  By the way, Xavier spoke English, but it seemed to be limited.  Neither David nor Xavier spoke a word of Samoan.

I took more than 10 pounds of luggage to Apia to spend one night for Thanksgiving.  I had a place to stay.  Part of me is jealous.  I wish I had the cojones to travel that way – accepting things as they come and having faith that there will always be someone there to provide what you need.  Another part of me thinks that it is a bit arrogant and selfish to put the responsibility of your room, board and safety on strangers.

Whatever, both men are having an adventure.  Experiences they never would have had if they’d stayed inside their comfort zones.  One thing I believe in, absolutely, is that it is a good thing to step outside the space where you feel safe and comfy.  Do something that scares the bejeebers out of you.  It’s good for the soul and will keep you young.

Steven Wright, an amazing comic, once said something like “You know that feeling when you lean back and balance on two legs of the chair?  When you think you’re just about to fall over?  That’s where I like to be.”  Me, too.    For me, it was Peace Corps, although this is more like three legs of the chair on the floor instead of two.   For some, that may mean going to a movie alone.  Or eating alone in a restaurant.  It doesn’t have to be a huge thing.  Just something that feels a little scary. 

Fear won’t kill you.  It will let you know you’re alive.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving Dinner in Apia

After a rocky start, I made it to Apia.  I missed the first boat because of a cab driver who showed up an hour late.  But like much of my life in Samoa, that low was followed by a high of meeting a really nice guy on the ferry.  He happened to be a cab driver.  He offered me ½ fare to take me to Apia.  Did he do it to be a nice guy, because he knew I was Peace Corps?  Or did he do it because he didn’t have another fare and ½ was better than nothing?  Probably a bit of both.  Bottom line, he was a really nice guy, we had a good conversation and I got to Apia faster than on the bus and without spending over an hour jammed into an overcrowded, hot bus.

The new Charges de Affaires and his wife hosted dinner at their home, which is the official Embassy residence.  They just moved in a couple of months ago and are still getting settled, but they had enough tables for 80 people and there was plenty of food.  It was a potluck and the food was the best I’ve had since coming to Samoa.

Chad, the Charges, made the turkeys (8 of them) and stuffing and both were awesome.  There were mashed potatoes, cranberry jelly and all manner of other pot luck items.  Desserts included pumpkin pie, a pumpkin cheesecake, pecan pie and fruit salad.  All amazing and the first I’ve had in over a year.

I met some new people, which was nice.  Talked to a new embassy employee who recently worked at the embassy in Pakistan.  Met a woman who’s married to a Samoan and has lived here for 18 years.  Enjoyed talking with the mom of one of my fellow volunteers.  Chatted with a couple of Americans who have been here less than a year.  He’s working in a program for troubled youth and I enjoyed talking with him, since I once taught at a residential treatment center for teenage girls. 

I also got to say goodbye to some of the Group 82 volunteers who are leaving within the next week or two.  They’ve served in Samoa for over two years.  And, of course, got to catch up with my fellow Group 83 volunteers.  We’re all excited about vacations coming up and most agree that the last year has flown by.  We expect next year to fly past even faster.

Chad and Ann were gracious hosts.  The food was superb.  The atmosphere relaxed and casual.  Interesting conversation.  Lots to be thankful for. 

After the event, I went home with friends for a quiet evening and the chance to sleep in a real bed, with no bugs.  In the morning I took a hot shower and was served a delicious breakfast.  Over food and tea we had an intense discussion about the role of “aid” in the world and the book “Debt Aid”.

I took the bus back to the wharf in the rain.  Usually it is over-crowded and when it’s raining the windows are closed and it’s like a college prank of seeing how many people can fit in a steam bath.  Today, though, was perfect.  There were less than 10 of us on the bus.  It was like having a limo, with bad shocks.

Bonus, the big boat is back in service so I didn’t have to take the tiny boat which I took Saturday. It’s not only slower, it has no seats and not much cover.  In the rain that would mean getting very wet.

It’s now almost 9 p.m.  Dinner is over, dishes are done and I put clean sheets on the bed.  It’s very cool, which feels wonderful and will make for good sleeping tonight.

I couldn’t have asked for a better Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving Transportation Rant

It’s 5:30 a.m. on Saturday morning.  I’ve been up for over an hour.  Not because I like getting up in the dark on the only day of the week I have to sleep in.  But because I wanted to take the 6:00 a.m. ferry to Upolu, where I could catch the bus to Apia, arriving there about 9:00 a.m. 

I  am trying to get to Apia to attend the Thanksgiving Day dinner that’s being hosted by the U.S. Embassy.  All Peace Corps, the few other Americans working in Samoa and some high ranking Samoan government officials have been invited.

I’m dressed and ready to go.  Unfortunately, the taxi my family called to take me to the wharf didn’t show.  I decided to blow the $20 on a taxi because my other option is to take the bus.  That would mean standing by the road, in the dark, starting at 4:00 a.m. and hoping a bus comes.  There are no bus schedules and sometimes there’s a bus for the early boat and sometimes there’s not.  Once, a bus came and the driver waved as he drove past me.

In addition to the crapshoot of bus transportation, because it is considered inappropriate for me to be alone in the dark, I’d have to find someone to wait with me.  My 18 year old host brother volunteered but I figured a taxi would be easier all the way around.  I figured wrong.

Since I’ve now missed the early boat, I’ll try to catch the bus for the 8:00 ferry.  That means heading out to the road at 6:30.  Still dark, but with a bit of light from the east.  I’ll try to slip past my neighbor’s dogs who like to sleep in the empty lot in front of our compound.  They know me, but have attacked me in daylight and I hate having to pass them in the dark.

Did I mention it’s raining?  And I have a bunch of books I’m returning to the PC office in Apia so my luggage weighs a ton?  Am I feeling really pissed and sorry for myself?  Yes!

As to why the taxi didn’t arrive…it’s not the first time.  He could be sleeping or just forgot.  He might have awakened and just decided the fare wasn’t worth getting up for.  Doing things on a schedule here isn’t important.  So what if I missed the boat?  There’s another one.  And if I miss that, I can take the 12:00 pm boat.  Except that’s when the dinner starts. 

If I don’t get a bus by 7:00 a.m., I’ll come home, go back to bed and call it a day.  Happy belated Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 25, 2011


I’ve talked to a number of people about sleeping in Samoa.  Lights, noise, activity don’t seem to deter a determined sleeper.  My host brother’s view is that it’s comforting and makes it easier for him to sleep when there’s a lot of noise and activity.  The sound of people talking, in particular, seems to be a soporific.

 He says “I sleep better when people are next to me, talking, because I know I’m not alone.”  I, on the other hand, can’t sleep when I know I’m not alone.  I prefer complete darkness, silence and solitude.  He thinks that’s creepy.  This is just an example of a basic difference in cultural perspectives.

As I type this I’m listening to my host sister sing.  She likes to sing and does frequently, usually at the top of her lungs.  Luckily, she has a good voice.  Currently, she’s in the family’s fale which is about 15 yards from my open front door.  It’s an open fale, with a roof and floor but no walls.  Another sibling is watching tv in the same space and a third sibling is taking a nap.  The mom just walked in from the shower, wearing a towel.  She’ll get dressed, doing the “pull on the clothes under the towel” trick.   There are also currently 3 dogs, 2 cats and a rooster sharing the space.  They don’t even notice the others as a distraction.

Their fale is a small space where the family spends most of their time, frequently with ten or more there at once.  That means everyone is no more than a foot away from another person. 

Like most Americans, I like my personal space.  Samoans like togetherness.  Yesterday during the rehearsal for English Day I was sitting on a small bench.  Within minutes another teacher sat down next to me close enough that our thighs were pressed together.  She put her arm around my shoulders.  Seconds later, another teacher pressed in on my other side.  She held my hand and put her head on my shoulder.

I appreciate that they want to be close to me and show their friendship, but GET OFFA ME!  They laugh at me and do stuff like this on purpose now, to tease me.  I can even get over the personal space issue but it’s hot here.  I wouldn’t care if it was Daniel Day-Lewis and Johnnie Depp wanting to make a sandwich of me.  It is too hot.  GET OFFA ME!

Prize Giving and Summer Vacation

Prize Giving is a big day.  I’ve seen mini versions after the first two terms.  The teachers make a speech and read not only the rank of each student in the class but also their total score for the term.  Great for the top students, not so great if your kid ranks 42 out of 42 and made 28 out of 500 points.

I’ve been told I’m expected to make a speech, in Samoan, at next week’s event.  I’m semi prepared.  I have a speech and I’ve practiced, but it needs work.  Really, when you see a word like “fa’aaloalo” in a sentence doesn’t it cause you to pause and consider how to pronounce a word with three consecutive a’s?

The top five students for each class are given prizes (hence the name Prize Giving).  The prizes are for the parents of the students.  Mugs, plastic trays and pitchers are what was delivered to the school this week.  I will be asked to take photos of the top students.  There is not a doubt in my mind that at some point I will be expected to get up and do a traditional Samoan dance.  I’ve repeatedly asked teachers to teach me how to do a “real” Samoan dance and they just laugh.

 “Just do what you learned when you were a little girl.”

“But I never was a little Samoan girl.”  I can’t dance but will do my best to be entertaining, if not authentic.

After prize giving, the kids are on summer vacation but teachers have another week for planning for the following year.  I suspect there will be a lot of food and very short days.

When school is out, I’m taking a road trip around Upolu with a couple of the other volunteers.  It should be very exciting since I’ve gotten permission to rent a car so we can drive around.  When I say exciting I mean I haven’t driven a car since October 4, 2010 and then it was on the opposite side of the road as here.  I’m getting insurance with the rental car.

I’ll be back in Savaii for a couple of weeks in December where I’ll continue to try to drum up interest in the customer service training I offered to do for resort staff.  Only one resort has expressed real interest and I’m not sure if that was real interest or Samoan interest.  Time will tell.

For the holidays I’m heading to Auckland.  I’ll be spending Christmas on a dairy farm with a family I met when they stayed in my village on vacation.  Then one of my closest friends is joining me for a week in Auckland.  I think she’s a tiny bit worried that all I’ll want to do is eat spicy ethnic food, hang out in grocery stores and watch the washer and dryer in the serviced apartment we’re renting.   It’s a legitimate concern.

In early January we’ll head to Savaii to spend a week as tourists.  I’m looking forward to showing her my world.    Having her here will also help me transition back into rural life here.  Plus I’ll be happy to have another person who’s visited, so when I mention something about my life here, they’ll be able to picture it too.

At the end of January we have training in Apia for a few days, followed by the start of school.   I’ll be working in the evenings with my church next year to run a reading program.  Last time they did it they had 50 kids enrolled.

I think I know how things are going to work in 2012, since I’ve taught here for a full school year, but I bet I’m surprised.    That seems to be a constant in my life here.