Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me!

Shockingly, at least to me, I turned 61 today.  I never believed I’d live past 30.  I certainly don’t feel 61.  28, maybe.

First, thanks for all the emails, cards,  texts and shout outs on Facebook.  I really, really appreciate it. 

I knew that birthdays are not a big deal here.  Other than the 21st birthday, they are not celebrated.  Last year my host sister and her family gave me an amazing day that with wonderful food, including salad and cake – both very expensive here – along with a relaxing day with kids and rugby on the tube.  They knew that birthdays are a big deal to palagis, plus it was my 60th.  I really don’t care so much about birthdays other than decades anymore.

My day today started early.  I woke up to watch the sun come up over the lagoon.  I actually sipped a cup of Swiss Miss while watching the clouds over the lagoon get lighter.  Then I dressed in my Halloween costume.  I dressed as a palagi for school.  I wore a skirt that came just below my knees.  My blouse showed a tiny bit of cleavage.  I felt like a hussy.   And the skirt shows my white calves and tan ankles.  How far I’ve come (or gone) in a year.

At school I quickly realized it was a special day for me.  The Year 8 teacher was at a meeting and the Year 7 teacher was at a funeral, so I got to have 60 students for the day.   I have become quite adept at dealing with surprises like this.  The first hour, at the direction of the Infant Supervisor, was cleaning.  She wanted the new hall cleaned.  I took it a step further and had them clean the hall, my room, the Year 8 and the Year 7 rooms.

I told the kids the day was special for two reasons.  Halloween and my birthday.  I tried to explain Halloween and I think they got the concept.  I told them I wanted a gift for my birthday.
 “What do you think I want?” 
“Fa’aloalo!”  Respect.
All I asked was good behavior for the day.  Did I get it?  About as much as you’d expect when you have a group of 60 kids ages 12-14 who are at the end of their last term.  Two boys did offer me their lunch money, which is very fa’asamoa and very sweet.  I did not accept, by the way.

We played games for the rest of the day.  First was charades.  They didn’t know the game and I changed it a bit.  I told one kid a sentence and he/she had to act it out.  The answer had to have correct grammar.  We divided into groups and the kids ate it up. 

I then moved to a wildly popular “game” that the kids loved.  I gave directions and the first teams to correctly follow them got a point.  For example:  “Make an oval, with everyone’s right hand in the middle.”

They clearly thought it was just play, but really it was education.  They had to listen.  They had to understand English.  They had to work as a team.  They had to be creative, in some cases.  It was a huge success.  I apologize to the teacher in the room next to mine since my 60 students were screaming like banshees.

Then I moved to a team game that was like a game show.  I announced a topic (maths, social science, English, spelling, etc.) and each team nominated a member of the team to answer the question.  They got points for their team if they got the answer correct.   Another success.

The day was not without its challenges.  The kids are used to a VERY structured environment, so when there are this many kids, playing what they think are games, they tend to get a bit out of control.  Most of the time it was fine, but the kids are competitive.  The worst offense of the day was when a Year 7 boy (who I love) mocked a Year 8 girl who has a speech impediment.  She was in tears and he was cocky.  I took him to the Year 8 teacher who is also principal for discipline.  (His meeting was over and he’d come back to school, but choose not to relieve me of his class.)  Not an action I would normally take, but I’m trying to help them understand that while mocking/teasing is fa’asamoa, it is not kind.

The teachers knew that it was my birthday.  They commented on it but no one said happy birthday.  I got a text while at school from the adult daughter of a friend.  She asked “Is this really ur birthday?”  I answered “Ioe”.  Yes.   I saw her and her mother later and neither said anything.

I’m now sitting in my fale as usual, with dinner on the stove.  Chicken.  What a surprise.  I thought about going to the resort for pizza but decided to wait for that until this weekend in Apia. 

No gifts, no hoopla.  Was it sad?  No.  I’m happy to say that I’ve been alive for 61 years and am healthy and ready for many more.  I had a good day with the kids and enjoyed volleyball with the women.  I walked home with my feet crunching on shells and coral.  As a child living in the desert I dreamed of living on a tropical island.

I am.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Day I Became an Exotic Dancer

On Friday, Oct. 28, we had the big event to officially open the expanded assembly hall.  It was a doozy of a day.  Here’s what happened:
7:30 a.m.  I arrived at school.  The playground was full of excited kids and there was a slew of men working over a blazing fire, barbequing chicken.

8:30 a.m.  The kids went into a classroom to continue practicing a song they’d begun learning the day before.  The practice session was led by the top Year 8 girl.

9:30 a.m.  The kids were still practicing and the teachers were still chilling in the classroom next door, drinking the coffee I’d brought as a treat.  And by coffee, I mean Nescafe 3 in 1, which is instant coffee with sugar and creamer added.  The teachers and I love it.  They add extra sugar to theirs but I’m tough and drink it as is.

10:00 a.m.  After a couple of hours of sitting around doing nothing, it was time to get the show on the road.  The hall was decorated and looked great, the pastors were there and we were set.  The school committee and matais (chiefs) representing each sub-village  stood to either side of the rows of kids and the teachers stood in the year.  We stood patiently in the hot sun as both pastors said prayers.  Then the School Co. rep made a short speech.  Then the principal made a short speech and cut the ribbon.  The school committee president handed over the keys to the rooms at the rear of the hall to the principal and it was time to go into the hall.

10:30 a.m.  The ceremony was comprised of prayers, speeches and songs done by the children.  I’d been sitting with the teachers when I was told I had to move closer to the principal, to a place of honor.  As usual, I never quite know the protocol and no one seemed to notice until 10 minutes into the program.

10:40 a.m.  The Year 7 girls got up with two teachers and left.  I didn’t know what was going on.  They quickly returned, carrying ulas (leis) for the school committee, matais, pastors and teachers.  I was already wearing two ulas that I’d been given earlier by 2 students.  Being given an ula is a sign of honor and respect.  I especially liked the frangipani ula, which had a lovely yet delicate fragrance.

10:45 a.m.  Just as I thought things were wrapping up and it would be time to go, the giant sound system came to life and Samoan music started playing.  At the same time, my boss leaned over and said “Time for you to dance.”  “What?  Me?  Alone?”  “Yes.  Hurry!”

It took me a second to realize that I was being told I had to do a traditional Samoan dance, with everybody staring at me.  I was unprepared.  I can no more do a traditional Samoan dance than I can do the hula or a fire dance.   I was not happy.  But I sucked it up, got up and started dancing.  Unfortunately, I was facing the stage/pastors and the children.  Wrong.  One of the teachers stage whispered “Turn around and dance for the chiefs!”  Oops.

I danced through the entire song, while everyone seemed to enjoy watching the awkward palagi.  What fun.  I gratefully took my seat and was starting to regain my composure when another song started and my pule leaned over again and said “Now you have to dance for each chief.”   “You’re kidding.”  “No, you must do it.”

I glared at the pule, considering how I might get even some day, and got up to dance again.  Since I’d never seen this kind of thing done and was clearly at a loss, two of the teachers got up and demonstrated what was expected.  I had to bow before each chief and dance for him.  While I was doing the dancing, in typical Samoan fashion, a box was placed in the middle of the floor so the chiefs could express their appreciation for my dance by placing money in the box.

Thankfully, that ceremony ended after that dance.

11:00 a.m.  The children were excused and hit the playground to play rugby and volleyball.  The teachers all got up and headed to the room where the young untitled men had been putting together plates of food.  The teachers began serving the chiefs, in order of rank.  Because there are few teachers and a lot of matais they even let me help serve.

I was then given a woven plate and told to sit down and eat.  I sat down with my food and realized I was the only teacher (and only woman) still in the hall.  It was just me and the matais.  Awkward.  My tray included 2 chicken legs, part of a pig leg (I know because the hoof was attached), a sausage, 3 pieces of taro and a small piece of palusami.  Everything was covered in catsup, which is expensive and used liberally at special meals.  Finally, one of the chiefs got up and headed toward the school.  I followed, carrying my platter of food with me.

I found the teachers having a relaxed meal in one of the classrooms.  I asked why I didn’t get to eat with them.  “The men like you.”  How nice. 

We then sat around.  I kept asking what we were waiting for and people just shrugged.  Someone said we were waiting for the party to start.  Finally someone explained that the school committee was meeting and when they were done, we’d go back to the hall for the party.  The party was just for the school committee, the carpenters and the teachers.

While we waited, the teachers counted the money that the chiefs had put in the box while I danced.  I heard someone say $200.  I don’t know for sure how much was collected, nor do I know where the money went.  I did not get any.  After PC, maybe I’ll get a gig as an exotic dancer.  At least I’d get to keep my tips.

12:30 p.m.  Let’s get this party started!  The teachers moved over to the hall, the carpenters and school committee joined us and the music began.  The music was provided by a DJ, using the giant sound system.  It was really loud.  Kids were still hanging out on the playground.

The teachers sat together and there were three groups of men sitting together in circles, two circles of older men on chairs and the carpenters on the floor.   I was told I had to go and ask each man to dance, starting with the eldest.  I did.  I have photos (which I will not be posting) of me dancing with each member of the school committee, along with a couple of the carpenters, who asked me.   Samoans like to dance.  Men danced alone, with women (usually me), and each other. 

 The beverage of choice for the men was primarily the cheap local Niu vodka.  There were also a lot of quart bottles of beer.  Most teachers, including me, had one small drink.  The men made up for us and were making frequent trips to my families store next door to buy more liquor.

2:35 p.m.  Samoans love speeches, drunk or sober, and one guy took the floor to make a speech.  Another man seemed to take exception to what he was saying and they got into a shouting match.  I have trouble understanding Samoan when it’s spoken slowly and clearly.  I have no clue what they were yelling about.  To break the tension, two of the other (female) teachers and I got up and started to dance.
Shortly after that, someone made an announcement and all the men hit the dance floor.   The traditional “last dance” at a party in Samoa is to have all the matais dance together.  They started it but everyone who could still stand up joined in.

3:15 p.m.  Once again someone got up to the microphone and started making a speech.  I assumed it was the official end of the party.   The same guy who started yelling before, started again.  This time, two young untitled men also started yelling.  Next thing I knew, the young guy standing next to me had a ceramic mug broken on his head.  In response, he broke a chair over the back of the guy who cold cocked him.  Then the punches started flying.  This happened very quickly.  I immediately grabbed my purse and headed toward the exit.  Unfortunately, the combatants were also headed that way as the rest of the men tried to drag them apart.  My primary goal was to not get punched by mistake. 

I made it out of the hall without incident and went to my host brother, who’d come over a few minutes earlier.  He explained that the fight was about some men saying it was time to turn off the music and go home and others who weren’t ready to leave.  One of the young men wanted to speak to the group but because he isn’t a chief, the other young man was telling him he had no right to speak and to sit down and shut up.   One thing the fight confirmed to me – never, ever, ever get in a fight with a drunk Samoan.  They are strong, physical and you will not win.

While my brother was explaining this to me, some of the teachers and one of the school committee came over to talk to me.  They were very concerned that I was alright and did not think badly of them.  I told them I was fine and that I’d enjoyed the day.  I also let them know that we get drunk and fight in America, too.    As I was saying my goodbyes, another member of the school committee (the one who told me there’d be kissing) came over, put his ula on me and kissed me.  Very quickly, another man came over and did the same thing.  They were very platonic kisses but since I didn’t want to kiss 23 more men or wear 23 more ulas, I headed home.  The party seemed to be breaking up and I assumed everyone was headed out.

4:30 p.m.  I can see the school hall from my house.  I could hear the music blasting and see people still dancing.  Seems I was the only party pooper.

4:45 p.m.  Music still going, but I can see the teachers driving away. 

6:00 p.m.  The music has stopped but there are still men there, talking and drinking.  Here’s another lesson:  never try to match a Samoan drink for drink.  You’ll lose.

7:30 p.m.  It is dark and I don’t know if there’s anyone left at the school.  The great news for me is that the light they’ve been leaving on all night at the hall is “uma”…done.  I’m back to sleeping by only the light of the stars and moon.

All in all, a good day.  I wish someone had warned me about having to perform.  I’ve been told that I’ll be dancing again at prize giving at the end of the term, for a much larger crowd.  They explained that having me dance for the crowd was to honor me.  I explained that in the U.S., surprising someone like that is not considered an honor.  At least now I’ll have a chance to practice.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Family Visit - Best Surprise Ever!

This was written on October 19, 2011

Today I spent the hour and a half before the exam with the kids again:  praying, singing and reviewing their test materials.  It was fun for me, and I hope beneficial for them.  I missed breakfast with the “honored ones” again, as did the Infant Supervisor.  I didn’t realize it but she didn’t get to school until after the test had begun.  The male teacher stepped in for us.  Phew. 

I did make second seating with the other teachers and enjoyed some koko esi (soup made with papaya, cocoa and coconut cream), vaisalo (another soup made with coconut and tapioca), and half of a mackerel sandwich. 

After breakfast I was filling out some Peace Corps paper work.  There is always PC paperwork.  It’s a government entity.  One of the teachers was glued to my side, watching as I wrote and stroking me.  This is a very physical culture and even though I spend about 20 hours a day damp with sweat, there is always someone pressed up against me.  Yesterday, it was the kids.  I realized at one point that of the five kids helping to serve, three of them were touching me.

Anyway, Meripa had her hand on my back and her thigh against mine.  Nothing sexual – just Samoan friendly.  She said something in Samoan to me but I was concentrating on the paperwork.  “What?”  “There’s someone here for you.”  I looked out the windows and saw a car.  A Samoan woman was getting out.  I shrugged.  Another parent bringing food for lunch. 

Meripa nudged me again and said “They are here for you!”  I looked again and thought “Mafi? “ (one of my favorite PC staff).  No, but who was it?  She looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite see…

By the time I got to the door I was trying not to yell “Kika!”.  It was my host niece from the training village.  I heard her say “She’s here.” And a carload of Samoans and I met on the playground.

It was Fuafa (Fa), my host sister from Sataoa, along with Kika, her niece and all Fa’s brothers and sisters from Australia.  I was floored.  I’d been thinking about Fa the night before and the fact that I was overdue in calling her.  To see her here was such a special treat.

There were hugs, kisses and a lot of photographs.  I introduced my family to the teachers.  We tried to be quiet, but I’m afraid we didn’t succeed.   It was a whirlwind visit.  They were only in the school for about 15 minutes, then I took them to my house so they could see my lux accommodations. 

I was just so happy to see Fa and Kika.  I met them when I’d been in Samoa for 3 weeks.  I spent the next 3 months living alone with Fa.  As I struggled with language, she supported me.  She and Kika, along with Kika’s mom and some other family members, gave me moral support and threw me an amazing 60th birthday party.  They gave me clothes and a specially made puletasi for my swearing in.  They came to the swearing in and cried along with me.  The three of us cried when I left for Savaii. 

They were the first Samoans I really got to know.  They epitomize fa’a Samoa.  They were friendly, generous and respectful.  We had our differences.  I’m Methodist and Fa is Pentecostal.  She believes in speaking in tongues, I don’t.  We agreed to disagree.  But living with Fa was great.  She remains the only single (widowed) woman I know living alone in Samoa.

I heard a lot about her brothers and sisters in Australia because they called regularly.  It seemed they were happy that I was living with Fa so she wasn’t alone.  So happy, in fact, that they offered to build a house for me, next to Fa’s, on their family land.  Based on the reaction today, Fa didn’t tell them that I can be a cranky bitch.  They were warm and so friendly.  I really felt like another sister. 

I knew, when I left the training village, that I would miss it.   It was hard there, in a variety of ways.  The weather, the flies, the food, the damn language, the lack of freedom and control.  But as hard as it was, I recognized that it was a very special time. 

I didn’t realize how special until I was hugging Fa and our family today.  I have trouble recognizing magic when I’m experiencing it.  Actually, I can recognize it, but can’t really internalize it.  Can’t process it to realize how important the moment is, until after it has passed.  That’s one of the many things I’m working on here.  Treasuring fully, in the moment, the amazing things I am given.

On a cultural note…my family gave me cash and two beautiful lava lavas when they arrived.  That’s fa’a Samoa.  An oso when you visit someone.  Especially if you come from overseas, you are expected to arrive with an open wallet.  I hated to take it, but refusals weren’t accepted and insistence on my part would have been incredibly rude.

I’m lucky that my teachers were on the ball.  While I was hugging, kissing and catching up, they were putting together a basket of the best food the parents had brought.  They gave it to my family to take with them.  They demurred at first, but accepted the food.  That’s fa’a Samoa.  You give whatever you have.  The best of what you have.

I told Fa that I was thinking of her especially this week because of my clothes.  Every day I wore a “good” puletasi.  Each day the visiting teachers asked where I got them.  In each case they were a gift from Fa.  I have 8 puletasis, the clothes I wear every day.  4 of them were gifts from Fa and Kika. 

BTW, the kids asked who the people were that came to see me.  They said “You looked so happy and everyone was hugging and kissing.”  I told them it was my Samoan sister from Upolu and the rest of my family.  “Really, you’re Samoan?  Your language is so bad!”  Yeah, I’m the black sheep of the family.

Friday, October 28, 2011

This and That

Last week, the grass in front of my fale was brown.  Today, thanks to a bit of rain, it is green.  The rainy season officially arrives in November.  When I start whining about it, please remind me how happy I was with the rainy days we’ve had lately.  Sunshine is great, but rain is a nice break from the sun and sweat.

At 7:00 a.m. yesterday I went outside to hang out the laundry I’d just washed by hand in a bucket in my shower.  Within two feet of my front door were seven pigs, eight chickens and a horse.  And 2 puppies.  I’ve come a long way from suburbia.  I gave the chickens and pigs some rice.  I shooed away the pups.  The horse kept sticking her nose into my bucket of clothes.  Then she’d nuzzle my clothes on the line.  I finally figured out she was thirsty and gave her three buckets of water.  Poor thing, creature comforts are not high in priority here.

I have a new way of watching TV.  It may be problematic when I get home.  I don’t have a television so I watch shows that have been recorded on my computer.  I can watch an entire season in a week or two.  I bond with the characters and plot in a different way.  Hollywood, can you please arrange to have every show of Breaking Bad and Mad Men shown in one week instead of spread out over several months?  I’d appreciate it.

The programs I’m watching are from other people, so I’m dependent on the tastes of others.  Group 81, I’m sure you did a stellar job in Samoa, but you proved to me that the stuff young men like to watch is so not what I’m into.  HB, I love the Indian movies your brought.  But the Korean “soaps” that the divine Ms. J. sent are beyond me.  Mostly because the subtitles aren’t working and my Korean language skills suck even worse than my Samoan language skills. 

The handsome husband of my buddy Denise has provided me with lots of television stuff.  I now know that I’ve been missing out by not having the channels you have to pay extra for when you have cable.  Darn now I’ll feel like I’m missing out when I’m home and too cheap to pay for them!

A former volunteer downloaded a ton of podcasts of This American Life.  If you haven’t listened to this program on Public Radio, please start.  You’ll be doing yourself a favor.  The topics and content are insightful and interesting.  The host, Ira Glass, is articulate, personable and funny.  I knew we had a special connection as I listened to him.  Ira, will you marry me?  Or can I just stalk you when I come back to the US?  It doesn’t matter that I’m your mother’s age.  Really.

I was invited to to’ona’i by a member of parliament as he gave me a ride home from church.  He lives up the road and lets me use his beach fale.  It’s like living next to the Kennedy compound, Samoan style.

I was planning to go to Apia this weekend.  Was going to get a haircut and go shopping.  But since I got a haircut in Salelologa, I don’t really need to go and would rather stay home.  The hair cut, by the way was great and cost $5, US.   No need for the bright city lights.  I’ll probably go in a couple of weeks since I have to deliver some paperwork to the office.  My shopping list for Apia?  

New shoes (the soles of my black rubber thongs are starting to wear thin)
Olives (only available at Lucky Foodtown)
Hot peppers (only available at CityMart)
Cotton balls (available at several stores in Apia but not in Savaii)
Canned frosting (available at Farmer Joes and excellent when desperate for chocolate)
Sponges (only really crappy foam sponges are available on Savaii)
Canned tomatoes with jalapenos (I just heard they are available at Farmer Joes.)
Lentils (only available at Lucky Foodtown)
Marshmallows (available at a random faleoloa in Apia and excellent for dessert)
Other things I typically stock up on in Apia – sweet pickle relish, cream of mushroom soup and hot sauce, I’m ok with…still have plenty.

Samoans can’t afford to stockpile food.  Limiting my shopping would be a good thing.   I think I may have a bit of a hoarding thing going because I have a true palagi pantry.  Had to laugh this week when Dale, our country director sent a message that we should have at least a couple of days of food and water because it’s cyclone season.  I could feed my village for a couple of days with the amount of canned goods I’ve stockpiled. That’s not to mention the spices my friends have sent.  All combine to make mealtimes very enjoyable.

Group 82 is leaving soon.  They seem to be excited, relieved, nervous, anxious, giddy and sad.  Much the mixture of emotions I had before coming to Samoa.  I wish them well and will miss them, especially Emily, who lives closest to me.  I’ve talked to some of them about their resumes and plans as they transition back to the States.  It’s such a great time – one door is closing but another is opening.  Perhaps only a tiny crack, given today’s economy, but there are still opportunities.  It makes me think about leaving.  If someone told me I had to leave now, it would be hard.  I can’t imagine how much harder it will be after another year.  My tear ducts are already gearing up for saying goodbye to Year 8 at the Prize Giving in December.  Peace Corps has turned me into a cry baby.

Gossip!  Heard about a teacher from another village who got into a fight with her sister the other night.  First arguing and then physically fighting.  As a result she’s been kicked out of her village and has to change schools where she’s teaching.  Wow.  Is that worse than the married guy who got caught in his single girlfriend’s bedroom and had to pay the village 150 pigs?  Please do not complain to me about your HOA rules against a plaid paint job on your house.

Other gossip.  A friend just stopped by.  She mentioned that at church the ladies behind me were talking about me (I knew it!).  The gist of the conversation was that one of the widowers made a point to wear red (which I always wear at church because it’s my best puletasi) and to sit in front of me, so we’d match.  There are a surprising number of widowers in the village.  My name has apparently been linked with them all.  The fact that I have not been seen out with any man seems to make the married ladies more comfortable.  Really, you thought I’d come to a village of 400 people to find a husband?

I’ve found that between 5:30 and 6:00 is the sweet spot for a shower.  There’s still sun-warmed water in the pipes and yet it’s not still so freaking hot out that I sweat to death when I get out of the shower.  Today I took my shower at 5:50 p.m.  I got a blast of cold water as I stood under the tap.  The good news about rainy days is that they’re cooler.  The bad news is that they don’t warm up the water in the pipes.   Damn.  Still sweaty during the day and a cold shower in the evening.