Thursday, June 30, 2011

I Left Paradise and Arrived in Heaven

I left my beautiful village yesterday for Apia. Had a great Chinese dinner last night and stayed at a dumpy hotel. Let's just say they have box springs but no mattresses and no windows. There is air con, though.

This morning I took the 30 minute flight from Apia to Pago Pago, American Samoa. Wonderful views of both Upolu and Tutuila. The only unpleasant aspect of the flight was having to be publicly weighed as part of check in.

I headed straight for the hospital, where I was to see the dentist. After getting my registration card, which was typed up on an electric typewriter, I went to the dental department. The hospital seemed clean but made me look for Jack Nicholson, playing his part in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Not a plush place.

The staff in the dental department were great, and thanks to our stellar medical officer, were waiting for me. After about a 30 minute wait, I was taken in to see the Fijian dentist. He patched my crown in short order and sent me on my way. He also told me where to catch a bus, so I could save cab fare.

I met several locals while trying to find the right bus. They were very friendly and several were from Savaii. I was happy to speak a bit of Samoan, since although people here seem to speak more English than in Samoa, I heard virtually no English except when addressing me.

I got off the bus at my first stop...Carl Jrs. Yes, that's the same Carl Jrs. that they have in California. The one where they have a green steak burrito. Green chiles. Cheese. Steak. Tortilla chips with rice and beans on the side. Yes,this is heaven.

I hopped back on another bus after chatting with another woman from Savaii. She told the bus driver the name of my hotel and was very kind. Several other people on the bus asked where I was going and also told the bus driver where to take me. Based on people's reactions, I'm guessing not many palagis here ride the bus.

The driver pulled the bus right up to the entry of a very nice hotel. The doorman came over to help me with my bag and was trying, unsuccessfully, not to laugh out loud over the the fact that one of their guests showed up on the local bus.

When checking in, I asked if I could have a room with a bathtub. It's been 9 months since I had a bath and was hopeful. The reception clerk said that my room didn't have one. Oh well, a hot shower was still going to be nice.

She then excused herself and disappeared into a back room for a couple of minutes. She came back and continued checking me in. As she handed me my key she told me that they'd given me a complimentary upgrade. I thanked her and followed a bellman (a bellman!!!!) to the elevator. 9 months since I've seen one of those.

He escorted me to my...suite. Complete with living room, kitchenette, dining area and bedroom with a 4 poster king sized bed. And a bathroom with an extra deep bathtub. And I'm not sharing it with a few PCVs. Yes, I've arrived in American-style luxury. Heaven.

Now I'm heading for a store we passed. It looks like a Sam's Club. I hear the prices are great and can't wait to check it out.

I'm considering chipping a tooth once a month so I get to come back here on a regular basis.

P. S. Please know that your tax dollars are not paying for my hotel in Pago. PC paid the airfare, but the hotel and food are on me, and worth every American penny.

I just realized that they stamped my passport when I entered American Samoa. That means I've now been to 57 countries. Still a long way from my goal of 100, but I'm inching closer.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Lew - This Is For You

Lew, I'm excited that after all the waiting and suspense you know you'll be serving in Macedonia. Very different from Samoa but so exciting. I'm a bit jealous, actually.

Would like to exchange emails if you're willing. My address is

So much for the personal message. On to the happenings of the week.

I was walking to exercise class last night, when I noticed 2 palagi women walking toward me. Hard to miss, since we were the only people on the road. I crossed the street to say hello. As I suspected, they are tourists, staying at the local resort.

We had a nice chat and I'll be joining them and their two sisters for some snorkeling on "my" beach this afternoon. They're interested in experiencing a "real" Samoan meal and I found a family who's happy to oblige, so will let them know about that.

They asked if I ever got lonely.

"You mean, lonely enough to stop strangers on the street to talk? Sometimes."

Friends at home will tell you that it's not so much lonely as just the way I am. I went to an antique store with a friend once. When we got back in the car, I'd bought a couple of things at a significant discount, had gotten a job offer from the owner and an invitation to his home for dinner to meet his wife. My friend said she'd been to that store a dozen times and had never gotten anything but good service and some nice antiques.

My view is, you just have to say hello. You never know if a new friend is waiting to say hello back. If you'd like to email, I'd love to hear from you. Can't promise a quick response, but we tend to be a bit slow here in the tropics.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Goodbye, Samoa

I broke a tooth last night. It didn’t hurt and I knew PC would arrange for a dentist so didn’t think much of it. I talked to the PC Medical Officer today and she gave me great news. Rather than going to the local dentist just up the road at the hospital, I’ll be going to American Samoa.

PC will pay for a day trip for me to get my tooth fixed. Because this is a chance to go “home” to America, I’m spending a couple of nights at my own expense. I’ve heard that Pago Pago is small and there’s not much to see. I’ve also heard that it is much more like Samoa than America, which is not surprising.
The thing that PCVs say about Pago, though, is there’s a store. Sort of like a mini-Sam’s Club I’ve been told. American products at American prices. Very exciting.

Last night, after the kids astonished reactions to my stash of food, I was feeling guilty. I should live a more Spartan, more traditionally Samoan lifestyle. On the other hand, will that make me a better teacher? A better human being? What exactly are the benefits of self-flagellation and a wardrobe of hair shirts?

If you read PCV blogs from around the world, you’ll quickly discover that some volunteers believe there’s a sort of caste system in PC. If you’re in Africa, far from electricity and running water, you’re hard core. You’re a “real” Peace Corps. If your job is working in Aids/HIV or hunger alleviation, your PC halo shines a bit brighter.

If you’re serving in a place like, oh, say Samoa…typing a blog entry while gazing out at a beautiful lagoon, you’re not even Peace Corps. You’re Beach Corps. I just had a cold beverage (Malaysian version of Kool-Aid) from the ‘fridge. Reinforces the notion that my living conditions are quite luxurious.
Call me Beach Corps if you want, but I’m excited about heading to Pago Pago for a couple of days.

P.S. In case you’re interested, American Samoa is not governed by Samoa. It is an American Territory, like Guam and Puerto Rico. I will need my passport to get into American Samoa and again to get back into Samoa. Even though the names are similar and they are geographically close, they are two separate countries.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Rat Wars Update

Nancy 1. Rats 0. I caught a good-sized rat last night. The trap is set again to see if he has any relatives still living here.

The bait? A piece of Palmolive soap.

It's Not So Different, Really

I was thinking about my friend the other day. The one who’s coming to visit in September. I was thinking that I should put together a list of “you might want to be prepared for…” for her. Stuff that’s different from home. I was struggling to come up with stuff when it hit me. I’ve been here long enough Samoa to have become my new normal.

Wow. I remember my head swiveling like I was in The Exorcist as I sat next to Mika on our ride from the airport to Apia the morning we arrived. Even though I’d been to a number of islands in the South Pacific, it seemed so different. When did it become just the way life is? I can’t wait to see my world through Heidi’s eyes.
Since the realization that I’m taking a lot of things for granted, I’ve made a conscious effort to try to notice more differences. Here are a few:

At a recent meeting at a local college (high school, in the USA), I looked up from my seat in the open hall. The rafters had been wallpapered. Those at the meeting may have thought I was particularly pious since I spent much of the day gazing toward heaven. I was trying to figure out if they’d wallpapered the rafters before or after they installed them. I think it was after. Keep in mind the meeting was in Samoan so I had hours for gazing and deep thoughts.

I noticed wallpaper again the other day on my bus ride home from my weekly bank/post office/store trip to Salelologa. Someone wallpapered the outside of their house. Seems like that would be expensive. And not easy to do. Many of the palagi-style homes have matching trim paint and grout. Green trim, green grout. Pink trim, pink grout.

By the way, the post mistress knows my name and can tell me, without looking, whether or not mail has arrived for me that week. Even the actual postman who delivered the mail to my house didn’t know my name in Florida.

I know what’s in the grocery stores here. There are only two, after all, and they’re small. I knew what was in my Albertson’s back home, too, in a general kind of way. There was a tea and coffee aisle, for example. But there were so many brands/varieties, I couldn’t have told you precisely what they had. Here, it’s pretty easy. There’re two brands of tea. No decaf, no herbal, just garden variety tea. You can buy either brand in the big box or the small box. Coffee is pretty much the same although you can get instant or ground. The ground is really, really expensive.

Interested in frozen vegetables? You can get a bag of mixed vegetables. Period. Unless you count an enormous bag of frozen ready-to-fry French fries as a vegetable. You’d like peas? Broccoli? Something with cheese sauce? Get off the island.

There’s more variety in canned vegetables. You can get beets, mushrooms (really expensive), corn (sometimes), creamed corn (less often) and mixed vegetables. Sometimes I can find canned tomatoes but they’re not a staple.

You can buy disposable diapers at the grocery store. One at a time, if you’d like. Imagine going to the store for one diaper. Says a lot about a different life style and economic status.

If you’d like some juice, go home, because we don’t seem to drink it here on Savaii. You can buy Torchy, which I don’t think really counts as OJ since it only has 10% juice. The sugary, orange flavored water is tasty, though.
Diet drinks? We rarely have those. We do have Tang. Who knew you can buy Tang that isn’t orange flavored? Grape Tang is right on a par with orange Tang. Tangy, but bearing precious little resemblance to anything grape.

There are things in the stores here that I was surprised to find. Wishbone Blue Cheese dressing is not only available, it is fairly reasonably priced. There’s no lettuce, but we have dressing. I use it with crackers and carrots.
A recent item that seems to appear and disappear at the Tuisivi store is chocolate. Decent chocolate bars, fairly cheap, with either peanuts or peanuts and raisins. When we did our trip around Savaii, Pat brought some and we each savored a bar after dinner, sitting on the porch of our hotel fale, next to the waves. They’ve only been available once since Easter, and never before, that I’m aware of. Chocolate is precious to PCVs.

I thanked my lucky stars that the Tuisivi store sold cheese. Cheese, right here next to my village for only $8 for 8 ounces. Cheddar (that tasted like American) and Edam (that tasted like cheddar). That has disappeared though. I’ve become friendly with the store owner and asked if she’d be getting more cheese. It’s been on order for two months but so far, the supplier is unable to supply it. Which means they shouldn’t really be called suppliers, should they? It may be a permanent condition. Which leaves me with the only currently available cheese on the island. Individually wrapped slices of Chinese processed cheese.

Not to cast aspersions, but when was the last time you had cheese at a Chinese restaurant? I’ve tasted the Chinese brand and think they should stick with egg fu yung.

Speaking of food, some of the Year 8 students came to my house yesterday. They helped me carry all the loot I’ve been sent to the school, since I now have a place to store it there. The kids are awed by my house. It really is one of the nicest in the village. I’ve got an indoor kitchen and an indoor bathroom, both with running water. When they saw the television they went nuts, although I had to explain that it doesn’t work. No, I don’t spend my evenings watching American Idol, which seems to be a very popular pastime here.

One of the girls had been here before with her sister and they were very impressed that I have a pusa isa (refrigerator). I opened it to take out some mango jam for the kids to taste and the jaws of all four hit the ground. They forgot their English, but I understood what they were saying. They were amazed that my refrigerator is full of food.

I’ve never seen a Samoan home that had food stockpiled the way we do it in the States. The concept of a pantry is completely foreign. You might have ten cases of tinned fish or corned beef on hand, but that isn’t really food, it’s currency to be used for weddings, funerals, etc.

A Samoan kitchen, in my experience will have the following: salt, vegetable oil and soy sauce. Pretty much everything else: rice, sugar, coffee, tea, flour, etc., the family will purchase at the nearby faleoloa just before use. Cash is in short supply so why spend it before you need it?

I whine because I don’t have the variety of food that I’m used to. Folks here eat what is ripe and available. Not in the mood for green boiled bananas tonight or taro? Guess you won’t be eating then. Meat, especially the relatively affordable vai moa (chicken leg/thigh quarters) is very popular, but most can’t afford it every day.

I talked to someone recently who said she’d planned to stop by my house the night before but got busy. Her kids came home and said they had to take money to school the next day. She didn’t have any money so whipped up some young coconut soup (which is awesome) to sell to the neighbors.

Both in the training village and here, kids and adults will occasionally come by with baskets/kettles of stuff to sell. Locals always warn them away from me, but I always want to see what they’re selling. And I usually buy. It’s generally cheap, it’s the closest thing to fast food we have here and I’ve tried a variety of new dishes this way. I’ve never gotten sick from it, by the way.

Imagine in the States – it’s a few days before payday and you could use some cash. Whip up some of your famous brownies and head door-to-door in your subdivision, charging $1 apiece. You get cash and your neighbors get unexpected baked goods in the convenience of their homes. Too bad all those worries about cleanliness and people putting poison or razor blades in treats messed that up for us. It’s one of the things I love about living here.

That and men not wearing shirts much. It’s hot here and men go bare chested a lot. They drive that way. They go on the bus that way, although not as often. Sometimes I have flashbacks to The Biggest Loser, but mostly it’s 6 pack abs on display.

Heidi, you won’t be able to get any of the international cuisine you’re used to in D.C., but I think you’re in for a treat.

Onofia Sione

The almost two months of language training in the village on Upolu was one of the most challenging things I’ve experienced. The day started about six with a cold shower and a sunrise walk to the fale where we had training on the large porch.

During the long days it was hot and there were constantly flies buzzing around us. Our trainer, Onofia, would patiently drill us and correct my grammar and pronunciation. He didn’t roll his eyes when I asked for the umpteenth time what a word meant. He created games to keep us engaged. When we got grumpy in the heat and frustration, he made us laugh. While we complained about our living conditions, Onofia never did, although he was sleeping on the floor of another man’s home so he could be with us in our training village. He only got to go home on weekends.

He and I blew out candles on a birthday cake together last October. He had just turned 68. It was a big year for him. He’d come out of retirement as a favor to Peace Corps to train us. He was determined that we’d be his last class.
The highlight of the year came in late December when his only son got married. Onofia was excited about the wedding although sad that his son would be moving to New Zealand with his new bride. He encouraged his son to go but acknowledged that his home would not be the same when his son was gone.

It was good to see Onofia and the other language trainers at our Early Service Conference last month. Onofia looked tired but said he felt well. He hugged me and complimented me on how much my language had improved. I reassured him that I told everyone in my village that I had a great language teacher, but he had a poor student. During ESC he told us about the legends of Samoa. He was a Talking Chief in his village of Mullivai and a great story teller.

I heard last night that Onofia died on Sunday. It was unexpected. My heart goes out to his wife and son. I hope they know how much Onofia gave to so many of us. We loved him and will miss him.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

1 Popo - What's Keeping Me From Swimming Toward Home

Warning: the following entry is pure whining. Hopefully it will be humorous whining and make you appreciate all you have even more, but it's whining.

I have a cold. Not a bad cold, but bad enough that my head is stopped up and it makes it hard to breathe. And sleep. It was hot last night and humid. Yes, it's hot and humid every night but I notice it more when I'm lying awake trying to breathe.

I've been getting a lot of bug bites. I thought it was the cheap mosquito coils so I bought a more expensive brand that I'd used before. That doesn't seem to be helping.

Repeatedly last night as I was finally dozing off, my senses would go on red alert when I heard the dreaded sound. The high pitched whine of a mosquito circling my ear. Every time I came fully awake as I slapped myself silly trying to kill it. Based on the blood on my pillow case this morning, I succeeded in killing at least one. Of course, that was clearly after he'd enjoyed a feast at my expense.

The final insult came at 5 a.m. I'd fallen into a deep sleep, finally. Then the sadist began to ring the church bell. I go to the Catholic church partly because it is closest to my house. It is close enough that when they hit the old oxygen tank with a metal rod to announce church it sounds as if it's ringing in my head.

This morning it rang promptly at 5 a.m., as it does every morning. This morning, though, it kept ringing. Sometimes I count the number of rings. Heretofore (early in the morning for that kind of word, isn't it?) the record was 73 rings.

This morning I didn't start counting until mid-way through and hit 84. I laid there contemplating what kind of God insists on waking people up before dawn every morning. Swatting at insects and listening to the rat move something over my head. Something that sounded suspiciously like a plastic soap dish.

I surrendered. I wanted to get to school early anyway so I might as well get up. I took a shower before bed but because I'd tossed and turned and sweated all night I wanted a cold shower. Actually, a hot shower would have been nice, but I was resigned.

I went in the bathroom. I checked the soap. It was still safely in the plastic dish, weighted down by a bottle of Clorox. The medium bottle of Clorox costs $18 here, by the way. So far, so good.

I like to brush my teeth first thing when I get up. It signals my brain that even though it's dark outside, I really do mean to be up and awake. There was no water when I turned on the tap. Not a drop. Just to make sure, I went to the kitchen sink. Nope, no water there either. Not that using a different faucet would have resulted in water magically appearing.

The pigs were fighting outside my bathroom windows. The damn roosters were cockadoodle-doing their hearts out. The mosquitoes and other flying instruments of torture were attacking tender body parts. And I was standing there pissed off, with a stuffed up nose and the taste of a dead mosquito in my mouth.

Luckily, I'd filled my water filter last night. I'd even put water in the electric kettle and set it out, ready for a morning cup of coffee. I used a small glass of filtered water to brush my teeth and rinse my bug-bitten face.

I stared at myself in my small hand mirror under the florescent light. Grateful for electricity but wondering what the hell I was doing here. I could hear the waves. If I swam directly east I'd hit Chile, I think. Then an easy trip up the Pan American highway toward home. I could stop in Guatemala and see my friends Mily and Jorge Mario.

I could go home. To electricity, running water, air conditioning 24/7, a pest control company that ensures that the only bug I see is a dead bug, a pool that's enclosed in screen so even outdoors I don't get bitten. But I'm not going. Not that I didn't want to swim several thousand miles. I had other reasons.

The Catholics woke me up but were paying off now by letting me hear them sing. The sound was faint, but loud enough for me to hear their harmony over the low roar of the waves.

The sun was starting to lighten the sky. Everything always seems less dire when it's light out, don't you think?

Mostly, I didn't hit the waves because I was thinking of the kids. They won't care if I show up slightly sweaty and with bed head. Yesterday two things happened that made me want to stay here, bug bites and all.

Yesterday they saw my wand. A gift from Nan in Florida. She's sold them for years and I used to use them in training/meetings for adults. They're about a foot long, an inch in diameter and filled with a viscous liquid and sparkly things. You tilt them and the sparkly stuff slowly moves from one end to the other.

Nan sent me a couple of wands recently. I figured I'd use one as a pointer and took it to school yesterday. One of the adults took it before I could show it to the kids. She kept it all day, admiring it. At the end of the day the other teachers saw it and were checking it out. The kids were lined up, prepared to walk home when they saw it. Mouths literally dropped open. The reaction to that simple wand was astonishing. The only other time I've seen kids faces look that way was at Disney World.

I taught Year 1 yesterday. Shapes - square, circle and triangle. I gave them a sheet so they could trace large shapes and then draw their own. I paid special attention to one boy who is young and still has trouble navigating his pencil around the paper. I helped him draw a circle. He did one on his own. It wasn't a great circle but he did the best he could. He looked up at me with fear because he's used to being slapped when he makes a mistake.

When he saw me smiling at him, saying "good job" in Samoan and then asking him to "maiska lima" (give me five), a slow smile started. After the high five, he was beaming. And trying to make another circle.

I feel better now. I'm over the buggy night and no water morning. I remember why I'm here. Thanks for letting me vent.

A Typical Monday in Faga

Ok, one thing I’ve learned is that there IS no such thing as a typical Monday. Yes, the days all have a certain sameness but almost every day has at least one tiny surprise. That works for me since I get bored easily and any break in the daily routine is a cause for celebration.

This week my school is the site of a 3 day workshop for Years 1-3 teachers. I figured that would cause a bit of a stir and I was correct. When I rolled into the playground, it was filled with men. With large knives and machetes. Nope, not a village uprising. It was a mowing party. The men of the village showed up to cut the lawn, by hand.

I asked if we’d have school as usual today. “Of course.” I knew the teacher was a big fat pepelo (liar) but just waited to see what would happen. At 11:15 I went in to teach Year 8. The principal who teaches that class asked if I’d be done by noon. “Yes, why?” “Because then the children will sweep the yard and start preparing for the meeting tomorrow.”

I knew it! My last two classes of the day were toast, since all the kids from Years 4-8 were sent outside with brooms to sweep up the cut grass. Yes, they literally sweep the lawn with the same hand-made brooms they use for the floors.

After sweeping and collecting the grass, the kids started moving the new furniture into the faleaoga (outdoor, open air hall) and moving some desks and benches from the Year 3 room upstairs to Year 8, whose new furniture was outside. It was mayhem. The kids were told what needed to happen but given no specific details. Over 130 kids running and screaming, loving the disruption. Teachers intervened only once, when some girls dropped a desk. They were told to back off and let the boys do the heavy lifting.

The funny part of that was the first boy they tagged is the smallest member of my family. He’s 12 and built like a fire plug. Although small, he picked up the solid wood desk, tossed it on his shoulder and jumped off a 2 foot step to take it across the lawn before heading upstairs with it.

Within 45 minutes, the lawn had been swept and the furniture moved. School was dismissed early. Years 6-8 were told to come back at 4 pm today with their parents to decorate the hall with flowers and straighten up the desks. No one will be there to lead the effort. I guarantee that tomorrow morning the place will be spic and span with beautiful flower decorations. It may seem like chaos at times, but when Samoans want to get something done, they make it happen.

52 teachers from neighboring schools will be showing up tomorrow morning. All of our Year 1-3 kids are staying home since their teachers are attending the workshop. It promises to be an interesting day.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Where are the Photos?

I have them, I swear. The good news is that I have internet at my house now. The bad news is that it’s dial-up. Remember how slow that was? It’s so slow that I can’t Skype, even without video. It keeps dropping the calls. Downloads are excruciatingly slow and since I pay by the hour, expensive.

To upload photos I’ll have to hit the internet cafĂ© in Salelologa. Please bear with me…I’m living in a rural village on an island in the middle of the South Pacific. I feel very lucky that I have electricity, running water and any kind of internet connection.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Rat Wars...It's On!

I don’t mind coexisting with a rat or two. I’m courteous enough that I knock before entering the bathroom so I don’t startle him. Actually, it’s so he doesn’t scare the crap out of me, which happened yesterday.

This rat has not touched my food. Only the soap in my bathroom. I keep my bar of soap in a soap dish. Until a few weeks ago, I kept the soap dish open. Now I close it tight except when I’m using it. I thought it was a good system until yesterday.

In the afternoon he knocked the soap dish off the shelf. I hadn’t sealed it tightly and it opened and the little bugger took the almost whole bar of soap across the room and apparently tried to climb up the wall behind the toilet with it.
I’ve seen him go up that wall to then disappear into the space between the wall and the ceiling. He then headed across the ceiling into my living area. Based on the noises I hear at night, that’s where he has his nest.

I recovered my soap and washed the large rat teeth marks off it. I placed it back in the soap dish and made sure it was tightly closed. I was surprised this morning to see that the dish wasn’t on the shelf where it belongs. It wasn’t on the floor underneath the shelf.

It was at the base of the wall, near the toilet. A distance of about 3 feet. Somehow he’d dragged it behind the pop-up mesh laundry hamper Sister Mary Margaret sent me. It was still sealed, soap safely inside.

That rat must have some kind of jones for bath soap. There were teeth marks on the plastic dish where he’d tried to get his mouth around it.

I’m now debating whether I should borrow a couple of the family’s cats and risk fleas to get rid of the rat or try a rat trap. I’m leaning toward the trap. I’ll let you know who wins the next skirmish.

BTW…my open box of laundry soap is in the bathroom and hasn’t been touched. My food is all in cabinets or the refrigerator and I don’t think he can get at those. I keep garbage in a rat-proof bucket. There are mangoes and oranges on my kitchen counter and he hasn’t touched those but I think I need to start keeping my fruit under lock and key, too.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


One would think that after more than eight months in Samoa, I’d be in tune with the culture. One would be wrong. The thing about cultural differences is that there are so many small things that we take for granted. When you’re living in the culture in which you were born and raised, you know how to act. You know, without thinking, what is expected in a variety of situations.

In a foreign culture, not so much. And just when I think I’ve figured it out, I realize I haven’t a clue. Here are some recent examples.
My friend brought another big bag of mangoes to me at the school yesterday. I was upstairs working when she arrived and she sent them up via her granddaughter. When I went downstairs for assembly, I saw that she had given another bag to one of the other teachers. That teacher shared them with all the other teachers. They were eating them, peel and all.

I was told in training that it is perfectly acceptable and even a good thing to regift food items. Rather than making the giver think you don’t appreciate their gift, it shows that you liked it so much you wanted to share it. Plus, it lets everyone who is a regiftee know the largesse of the original giver.

So even though I selfishly didn’t want to, I figured I should share my mangoes with the other teachers. I took the bag down to the room where we have tea during interval. I, figuratively, stepped in it. The teachers were hungry and wanted the mangoes, but the woman who gave them to me made it clear she’d brought them especially for me and they were not to be shared. Awkward.

Late yesterday afternoon I joined my first exercise class with my sub-village’s women’s committee. When I arrived, they were sitting in a circle in the sand near a house. As I approached, conversation stopped and everyone stared at me. No greetings and no smiles. Intimidating. I’ve walked by this group of women numerous times and with the exception of one woman, they never speak to me. They watch me but that’s as close as it gets.

I had been specifically invited to this meeting and was determined to make friends. Finally, as I was within feet of the group, the woman who’s been friendliest in the past said hello. I responded in Samoan and asked her how she was doing. The group murmured and nodded in approval at that. One woman sent a younger woman into the house. She returned with a folding chair so I didn’t have to sit on the ground.

I spent about an hour with the women. I led “jazzercise” which involved all of us standing in a circle with me doing the few moves I recalled from an aerobics class decades ago. Mostly, it was moving around in time to the music with a little booty shaking thrown in for good measure. The women laughed and seemed to enjoy it. While this was happening, the president, who had invited me to join the group showed up. She asked me to make a speech to the group when we finished exercising.
I kept it brief and started in Samoan by apologizing for not speaking more Samoan, then ended in English by thanking them for letting me live in their community. It was hardly articulate, but got smiles and nods of support.

Then a woman said that she’d speak to me on behalf of all the women. She made a speech in Samoan. I didn’t get every word, but the gist was that I was welcome and they were happy to have me there. She thanked me for teaching at their school and said they loved me and would pray for me.

Before leaving a many of the women hugged me, shook my hand, or waved goodbye. As I walked home I thought about the taciturn looks I’d always gotten from these women. I realized that as intimidated as I was of them, especially when there were 20+ of them gathered together, they were even more intimidated by me.
I’m a palagi, which gives me status here. I’m “elderly” which also gives me status. Plus, I’m a teacher. Once again I got the message that while I’m waiting for them to make the first move in welcoming me into their world, they’re holding back out of fear of offending.

When the president of the committee came to my house the other evening she told me she was nervous about talking to me. I told her I was nervous about talking to her. We laughed.

The language barrier is part of the issue. Not knowing quite how we’re supposed to interact is also part of it. Concern about doing something out of line makes all of us feel as if we’re walking on eggshells. The fact that they would immediately run to get me a chair – the only chair – shows that they think I’m different. And when they brought it, I had a moment of panic. Sit in the chair, like the Queen of Sheba, a status I don’t think I deserve, or sit on the ground with them which would make me more comfortable (emotionally, if not physically) or would that offend because they’d offered me the chair? I sat in the chair, by the way.

At least the ice was broken in a big way. I think we’re moving forward. I’m playing volleyball with them on Monday afternoon. Forget cold showers, hand washing all my laundry and limited food options. The biggest challenge is trying to feel my way through the cultural differences. So far, so good.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Social Butterfly

I enjoy the small variations in the daily routine. Yesterday I experienced a real treat. One of the teachers brought a couple to the room where I was substituting for the absent Year 8 teacher. Wayne and Lisa are a couple from New Zealand. They were enjoying a dive vacation in Savaii and were staying at the resort in my village.

Lisa is a primary school teacher in their small town. Wayne runs the family’s dairy farm. They wanted to spend the last day of their vacation at a Samoan school. Since I wasn’t prepared to teach Year 8 all day and was winging it, I was happy to have another teacher volunteer to join the class. Lisa led the kids in a couple of art projects with Wayne and I acting as assistants. The kids loved the change of pace and having new people there.

The day before I’d had both Years 7 & 8, over 50 kids, for the day. They’re good kids, but we speak different languages and they’re pubescent kids. We had a chat about fa’aaloalo…respect. For each other, for the school and for me, as the teacher. The message seemed to take hold. Several times while they were working with Lisa and Wayne the noise level started to rise and a few kids were getting a bit too enthusiastic. As I was getting ready to tell them to cool their jets, I heard “fa’aaloalo” being whispered around the room. I love those kids.

Wayne and Lisa asked me to join them for a trip to the market in their rental car and I jumped at the chance. We had a great time and after we got home they invited me to join them for dinner at the resort. Pizza at a restaurant. Or leftovers in my fale. I joined Lisa and Wayne. The staff must be wondering what’s up, since I was also there last week with the Americans who came to the school. It probably reinforces the theory that all palagis know each other.

After a delicious dinner and great conversation, Wayne, Lisa and one of the hotel staff walked me home. It’s a short walk, although the amenities at the resort make it seem light years away. The night was perfect with a full moon and the sound of the waves lapping just a few feet from the road.

They were leaving for home this morning, so before we parted we exchanged contact information. They invited me to visit them in New Zealand when I go there for vacation next January and I plan to take them up on it. I’d love to meet their family and see where they live. It didn’t hurt when they mentioned we could do some diving for scallops.

Since I've arrived in Savaii, I've been out after dark a total of five times. Three of them in the past week. Dinner with the Americans, the fia fia on Saturday night and dinner with Wayne and Lisa. I'm a wild woman.

The socializing continues. Just before dinner at the resort, I talked with the president of the Women's Committee of my sub-village. Long story, but we'll be working together on the Samoa Health Challenge III. I'll be joining women every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for volleyball and jazzercise. It isn't exactly the jazzercise we're used to, but I think I'll enjoy dancing by the ocean and shaking my booty as the buses pass by.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hard to Give a Popo Rating

Lew asked what I'd give last week as my popo rating. Hard to rate when there are such extreme highs and lows. I could average it out as a 3 but that doesn't really reflect the truth.

Yesterday was an example. The day started with my walk to school. First I head directly toward the lagoon and a spectacular sunrise. Definitely 5 popo. Then I realized there was not another person heading toward the school. It was 7 a.m, so I was late. But no kids. No kids in uniform walking on the road toward the school. Was school cancelled and they forgot to tell me? It wouldn't be the first time. I continued on and everyone showed up about 1/2 hour later. Why the delay and how did everyone but me know? Not a clue.

I disagree with corporal punishment, but it is a fact of life here. It is the way parents discipline their children. This is not my country and it is not my culture and I'm not here to judge. Having said that, it took everything in me not to lose control when I saw not one but several very young children get slapped across the face. Definitely a 1 popo moment. I excused myself from the situation as quickly as I politely could so I didn't say or do something I'd regret.

School then soared to 5 popo. The kids were learning and having fun. They were anxious to learn and seemed happy to have me as their teacher. Good all around.

The afternoon/evening were uneventful and calm. A good thing. I took a short walk at dusk to enjoy the amazing sunset and stand next to the lagoon. It was high tide and there was a strong breeze. Waves crashing, cool wind and an almost-full moon visible in the still light sky. Another 5 popo moment.

I went home and took out my garbage, which means walking behind my house to toss it on the pile. I'm a city gal and didn't count on the roosters already roosting. In the tree over my head. One cock-a-doodle-dooed and pooped as I walked under it. Scared the crap out of me. And it, apparently. Luckily, I was planning to shower anyway.

Sleep was tough. I learned that I should not try to save $.50 on the cheap mosquito coils. They don't work as well and the mosquitos kept me up much of the night. I have bites on my face and butt and all places in between. 1 popo.

I also learned that rats tap dance. At least the one does that has moved into the ceiling over my bed. He was channeling Fred Astaire last night and helped the mosquitos keep me awake.

Did you know that pigs sound like people? I thought someone was walking toward my fale in the middle of the night. My senses went on full alert, waiting to see if they steps went past my house. They did not. Just as I prepared to leap out of bed and defend myself from an intruder, I heard my attacker snort. And snuffle. Just one of the huge pigs nosing around my fale for food. I shouldn't have given them all those mango peels. Now they think my fale is a big feeding trough.

Speaking of mango peels, I used most of the 20 mangoes to make jam on Sunday. Two large jars of golden yellow, sweet deliciousness. I'm going to let folks taste it and explain how to make it to see if they want to make it to sell. Could be a source of income, if they're interested.

That's why it's hard to rate my weeks. I can soar from a 1 popo to a 5 popo in seconds and then plummet back down just as quickly. In between are a lot of 3 popo times, just as most days are...routine and ordinary. So far, I'm still really enjoying the ride. Soaking up those 5 popo moments to make up for the dips.

Have to run. There's a beautiful sunrise and school waiting.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Fa'alavelave and Funerals

A member of my family died this week. If I understood it correctly, she was the my father's grandmother's brother's wife. She was 99. The funeral was this morning and in Samoan tradition involved fa'alavelave.

Fa'alavelave is a concept I've struggled to understand. I don't believe I ever will. It basically involves the exchange of goods and money. I mentioned in the previous post that money was given at a school meeting. That's fa'alavelave (I think). Here's how it worked for this funeral.

Last night my family slaughtered a large pig. It was butchered and taken to the home where the funeral was to be held early this morning. It was not to be used to feed the family/friends present, but it was to be divided up and given to those present.

In addition to the pig, the family also gave money to the family members hosting the funeral.

A few minutes ago a pick up truck arrived and they off-loaded 2 large fine mats, 10 cases of tinned fish (probably mackeral) 2 cases of tinned corned beef and about 20 styrofoam containers of food. The family is currently sitting around eating the food. The fine mats were put away and the tinned food stored.

In addition to the "stuff", chances are the family was given cash. Fa'alavelave involves an exchange of goods and cash and causes families to go into debt. Most families have little cash. They eat what they grow and raise. When there are weddings, funerals, a new matai (chief) is named, etc., families frequently take out loans to pay for the fa'alavelave.

I've had numerous discussions with Samoans about how fa'alavelave works and why they do it. I, rightly or wrongly, equate it to weddings in the U.S.

Think about a typical wedding. A couple decides to tie the knot. They plan an expensive wedding, frequently involving parents helping with the expenses. Many couples take out loans to pay for the wedding.

Guests are treated to a lovely event with food and drink. In exchange they give a gift, that may or may not cost more than the cost of the event they attend. So, like, fa'alavelave, it's an exchange in which there's an event and people demonstrate love and respect by sharing money or items which they may or may not be able to afford.

Just as I went into debt when I was younger and all my friends were getting married (shower and wedding gifts) and having babies (baby shower gifts) people here go into debt for family occasions here. A big difference is that families here are huge and it doesn't matter how distant the relative, it still involves fa'lavelave.

It is such a serious issue here that the government and banks are trying to regulate and limit the amount of funds that can be borrowed for fa'alavelave.

Friends here were very surprised when I explained how funerals worked in my family. Yes, we brought food, but it was usually a cake or ham or covered dish. Only enough food was brought to feed the funeral crowd and the family for the week or two following the funeral. Noone would think to bring a few dozen cases of tuna.

Just one of the aspects of Samoan culture that is interesting yet difficult for me to fully understand.

Catching Up

Good morning. It’s 7:20 on Sat. morning and I’m sitting in bed (my only other option is an armless plastic chair) enjoying the view of a calm lagoon, with lots of clouds building on the horizon. I’m enjoying a cup of coffee, which is actually an individually packaged product called Trio. It’s instant coffee, creamer and sugar. Not healthy but tasty. I’m also enjoying a masi popo that I just bought from my family’s faleoloa. Masi popo looks like a thick, square cracker but tastes more like a sugar cookie with half the sugar and a smidge of coconut cream. I’m hoping for rain, although it’s the dry season and unlikely. Yesterday we didn’t see rain but as I walked to the store in the late afternoon there was a beautiful rainbow.

I owe you a post about Independence Day and promise that will come soon. I’ve been busy getting back into the swing of school, since the new term started last week. To be honest, I’ve mostly been busy getting myself back into the swing of village life after almost 3 weeks in Apia. I’m getting used to no air conditioning again. I’m already used to being back to cold showers and no food that I don’t prepare myself. I’m getting back into Samoan-instead-of-English. My Samoan is so poor that after three weeks of almost straight English, I lost my already dull edge. Yesterday I followed a complete five minute conversation with the teachers, so it’s coming back. Of course, I felt like my brain was melting after that much intense concentration, but I’m getting there.

Here is some stuff about my week:
• A professor and group of undergrad/grad students are visiting from Emory University. The professor has been bringing students here every year for 8 or 9 years. He and one of the male students showed up at the school on Monday. It was interval and I was in a teachers’ meeting. Someone saw them and told me Peace Corps was here for me. Since I expected someone dropping off materials for me I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised when I didn’t recognize the car or either man.

People just assume if someone is white and young he’s Peace Corps. I was at the store with Samoan friends one day and they asked why I didn’t like that Peace Corps guy. “Why are you ignoring him?” “I don’t know him.” “You must, he’s Peace Corps.” “No, he’s not. I know all the Peace Corps and he’s not.” “You should make up with him.” “Really, I don’t know him.”

I finally dragged over the confused tourist from Germany who was nice enough to explain that he did not belong to Peace Corps and he didn’t know me.

But I digress. The professor explained he’d done research at the school in previous years and wanted to do it again this year. He’s doing cross-cultural research about views about race in the US and South Pacific. It involved observing some Year 1 and 2 kids doing some “games”. They were at the school every morning for the week, except Thursday, when we had a teachers’ meeting in the district.

On Wednesday evening, the Professor took his assistant and I out to dinner at the local resort. He also invited Warren Joplin who is known by everyone in Savaii. Warren is an Australian geologist who has lived in Savaii for 29 years. He’s lived all over the world and is a really interesting guy. He gives tours of the island, focusing on geology and culture. Did I mention he’s 82? Dinner was great, with excellent food and interesting conversation.

The Professor invited me to join the group this afternoon. Warren is taking them to see a demonstration of how to make tapa cloth. Should be interesting.

• One of my Year 7 boys was coloring in a book. He showed me and it made sense. We’re used to blank coloring books. Just outlines of drawings. This one, which I assume was from China, since that’s where most products here come from, had the outlines of drawings but had something else. On the facing page, it had the exact same drawing, but colored in. No imagination needed. Color it just like this. And my student had followed the guidelines exactly. I’ve found that kids here are given very few opportunities to use their imaginations and find it frustrating and almost scary when I ask them to do something without giving very explicit directions.

For example, if I say “Draw a house” they want to know what kind of house, what does the house look like, what color is the house, etc. They don’t want to get it “wrong”. They’re just starting to believe me when I tell them that sometimes there is no right or wrong answer.

• The morning of the teachers’ meeting, I woke up to no electricity or running water. Annoying but a good reminder of how lucky I am to have both on a regular basis. I went to the faleaoga to wait for my ride at 7:20. Pick up was to be at 7:30. Two people were going by and they agreed I’d go with the first one to get to me. At 7:55 a group of other teachers noticed me and picked me up. The meeting was scheduled to start at 8:00. One of the people who was to pick me up arrived at 9:20.

The meeting started with a welcome speech, then the introduction of a minister. That’s normal, since we start every meeting/school day with prayer and hymns. After a long prayer there were two hymns. They were in four part harmony. It doesn’t matter which church you go to, everyone knows these hymns because they’re taught in every school, to every generation. Then the minister gave us a sermon. For 50 minutes. In Samoan. The business meeting actually began at 9:35. We then took a half hour break for tea at 10:15. Tea cost us each $10 and included a toasted corn beef sandwich, a mackerel sandwich, ½ an egg salad sandwich, a piece of coconut, a piece of papaya, a raw hot dog and 2 cracker and butter sandwiches. Washed down with milky/sugary instant coffee or Koko Samoa. I had ½ a mackerel sandwich, ½ an egg salad sandwich and papaya.

At the end of the meeting, the teachers gave the person giving the workshop $150. He’s their boss. He, in turn, gave the minister $200. Money changing hands like this is very fa’a Samoa. When Samoan Peace Corps staff comes to the school for a meeting, they are typically given money at the end of the meeting as a way of thanking them for coming.

• During morning interval (recess) at school, the kids eat snacks that their parents bring or that they buy at the canteen. Teachers have ramen, purchased at my family’s faleoloa and prepared by one of the Year 6 girls. Every other week, I take food for the teachers. This week I took two boxes of crackers and a large jar of Goober. My friend Nan sent it to me. It’s the peanut butter/jelly combo. The teachers were initially suspect, but I explained it was tasty and just like putting jelly and peanut butter on separately. I left the room for a minute and when I came back, they had carefully mixed the contents of the jar. Whatever, they enjoyed it and said I was a “good girl” for bringing food. 8 teachers ate all the crackers and jar of peanut butter/jelly.

On Friday, the professor brought Koko Samoa, sugar (for preparing the Koko), butter and six loaves of bread as a thank you to the staff for letting him use the school. The teachers were complaining when I went into the break room that there was bread, but nothing to put on it but butter and you don’t eat that. Crackers and butter, yes. But plain bread and butter? No. I ran home and got the other big jar of peanut butter that Nan sent. The teachers polished off all the bread and the full jar of peanut butter. It would have lasted two months for me. Once again, I was a “good girl”.

• My SRO, who is my age and becoming a friend, stopped by the other night to drop off some mangoes. About 20 of them! They were small and green and she said I could just keep them in the freezer until I needed them. Hmmmm. I didn’t think it was mango season and questioned freezing 20 green mangos. I tried one and although it didn’t look or feel ripe it was. It was delicious. It was a different variety than we get in Florida and than I’d seen here when we arrived last year. Very sweet and juicy and best eaten leaning over the kitchen sink. This weekend, I’ll be making some mango jam. No need for the freezer.

By the way, several people have been astonished when I tell them my plans for both mangoes and pineapple while they’re in season. I like to make a variety of fruit salsas to go with fish. Both pineapple and mango are tasty when added to rice. I also like to cook both with chicken. Samoans do NOT cook fruit and don’t understand that it can be used in savory dishes. I plan to do some food demo. Their reactions should be interesting.

• Late yesterday afternoon I took a 3 mile (round trip) walk to the store to buy a can of corn. I actually just wanted to go for a walk and prefer to have a goal. I ran into my host brother who was on his way to play voli but decided to keep me company instead. Late afternoon is the time to be out on the street. It’s cooler and people come out to weed their yards, play voli, soccer or rugby and just stroll and socialize. According to Warren, there used to be even more people out in the evening but now they’re inside, watching tv.

Lots of kids and a few adults yelled and waved as we walked by. A few kids joined us and walked along toward the store. Some made fun of my “brother”, asking if he had a Peace Corps girl friend. He’s 17, by the way. A few cars honked as they passed and I waved, never knowing if it was someone waving at me or at my brother. In one case, I didn’t realize until after the car had passed that it was Robin, the Charges de Affaires for the US Embassy. We later saw her car at the resort, so I assume she was on the island for a meeting of some type.

In addition to getting a can of corn at the store (which I’ll use with black beans, dried cilantro, hot red chiles that grow in front of my house, mango and onion to make a salad), they had cabbage and tomatoes so I bought those. Instead of paying $4 and taking 2 hours on the bus to the market to buy veggies this morning, my weekly shopping was uma (done.)

• The big news is that I have both water and electricity again. The electricity was out due to a general blackout. I have no idea why. It happens occasionally, but usually doesn’t last long. The water was out because my family had turned it off. Seems there was a crack in the pipe to my house. They spent all day Friday laying new pipe to correct the problem. The very exciting news is that as part of the project, they’ve moved their shower from next to my house to the other side of their house. They take showers at all hours and sometimes they keep each other company while they shower so it can get noisy. There are currently 15 people using that shower. It will make my nights much quieter to have it moved.

• My soap disappeared. It was the last of a bar of Burt’s Bees soap that I’d been treasuring. When I was in Apia I let a couple of other volunteers use it and they were equally thrilled. It was Peppermint and Rosemary and smelled wonderful. I woke up the other morning and found my soap dish on the floor and the soap gone. I thought I was losing my mind. I checked the locks to see if someone could have creeped in during the night to steal the soap. Unlikely since it was nice, but just soap. And only a sliver was left. A mystery. The next morning, my soap dish was again on the floor but the new bar of local soap (which is called Protex and actually quite nice) was on the floor.

I thought perhaps I was knocking it off the shelf when I dried off after my nightly shower. I checked it the next night before I went to bed. It was firmly set back on the shelf. The next morning, it was on the floor again. What the hell? I talked with my brother about it. He said it was a rat. A rat? That’s going after my soap but not touching my food? He explained that his soap had been missing recently and he found a stockpile of it that a rat had moved into a nest.

This morning my soap was on the floor again. I checked and there appear to be teeth marks. Something also peed on the toilet tank. It looked like way too much for the lizard who generally just poops on the tank. I’ll be buying some rat traps and my brother is going to have the family’s cats hang out around my house.

• I’m old enough to remember home milk delivery. It’s even better in Samoa. Yesterday I was in my fale chatting with my brother. Yes, the 17 year old is my best friend, since he speaks excellent English and likes to practice. As we chatted, a man walked by, looking in inquiringly. He was carrying a bag. I asked what it was. Ula. Lobster. He wanted $20 for 2. I offered $10 for one, which he politely refused. After some rapid Samoan between my brother and the man, I was told I could have both for $10 which was way below market price. I refused but did take one for $10.

I asked if he could get tui tui (sea urchin), alili (a shellfish that tastes like conch) or vaisua (giant clams). Yes, he can provide all of those. I asked him to stop by anytime he had some to sell. He was excited about having a new customer and I’m thrilled to look forward to having a supply of seafood. All of those items, by the way, are relatively expensive here compared to chicken legs, but I can still afford them and compared to prices for the same thing in the US, they’re dirt cheap. I plan to eat enough sea urchin to last me a lifetime while I’m here.

After he left, we talked about the small shellfish that my neighbors were digging for the other evening. Sounds like they’re similar to mussels and available on the dead coral just off the beach. They’ll teach me to gather my own. They eat them raw and since I love raw oysters and clams I’m up for it.

The lobster was delicious, by the way. Local lobsters have no claws but a large tail of sweet meat. I enjoyed it with melted butter, coleslaw and garlic bread. Food here does not suck.

That’s an overly long drone on the trivia of the life of a PVC in Samoa. It was a good week. Some frustrations as I got back into the village routine but overall a good week. I’m happy to be back with the kids every day, still enjoying the ocean and glad to have some different fruit and seafood in my diet. What more could I ask for?