Thursday, December 27, 2012

Brenda Ellrodt

I had a great holiday in Boston. I'll fill you in on that later. Sadly, when I logged in to the internet tonight, I found out that my friend and accountant of 19 years had passed away.

 She was only 54 and we'd planned to get together for Mexican food next week. A reminder to not put off what we want to do.

 Brenda had kicked cancer's butt before and come back to work long hours and continue to love and spoil her family. She was a smart, funny, caring woman.

 I met her through my brother in 1994. I hope they're reconnecting now, in a way that we may not understand.

 To Brenda's family - she talked about you often and so loved you. I can only imagine how you'll miss her humor, caring and presence. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


I was just sitting on this very comfortable couch, watching Top Chef Seattle, relaxing and feeling very blessed. My mind wandered to the packing I need to do tomorrow in preparation for heading to Boston for Christmas. Suddenly, I sat up straight and had a "holy crap!" moment when I realized that I probably needed to wear something other than sandals when I headed northeast. The last time my little piggies were totally enclosed was February, 2010. I'm not looking forward to having to wear something that covers them. As I've described before, I have foot issues. My index toes cross over my toe "thumbs". It's a combination of bunions and hammer toes, caused by years of wearing very high heels and genetics. They don't hurt and kids find them very entertaining. Doctors have recommended that I leave them alone, since the surgery to repair them is both painful and can have complications. When I wear sandals, my feet are no problem. But regular shoes are a pain in the ...feet. I have to wear what I call toe condoms (rubber covers) over my index toes to cushion them from rubbing against shoes. I bought new shoes when I got home, knowing this was coming. But I haven't worn them because I didn't have to. It's been about 80 degrees and beautiful since I got home and sandals have been perfect. Now, I'll have to wear "real" shoes. Crap. Wish me luck.

Monday, December 17, 2012

People I Miss

Photos of a few of the people I miss in Savai'i....

The teachers, my boss (the handsome guy in the middle) and Avaoia, my principal's boss in the yellow puletasi.

My best friend Meripa and her youngest daughter, Lofi.  Lofi and I were pals. She spent much of the day following me from class to class.

There was a lot of groping going on here.  I was the gropee.

Pila, the cutie from next door, holding my boy Julius.

Savai'i Photos

Here are some photos of beautiful Savai'i.  If you're thinking of taking a vacation to Samoa but are worried about the impact of Cyclone Evan, come on over.  I've heard from family on the island that Savai'i was not damaged and is open for business.  The best way you can help the country recover is to plan your next vacation in this tropical paradise.

If you want to see me do the siva Samoa, you'll have to come to Florida. I left this puletasi behind but still have one to wear here.

Beautiful Upolu.  This was before Evan.

Main road on Upolu.  Also pre-Evan.

Taro and koko Samoa for sale by in my village in Savaii.  

We were barbecuing chicken behind the school.  These kids were bringing the firewood.

One of my favorite things I did just before I left was to attend the pre-school graduation ceremony. After the dancing and gift-giving, the kids chowed down.

Impressions of Home

I've been home for almost a month now.  The time has flown by.  Peace Corps did their best to prepare us for our return, saying that it is frequently more difficult to come back to the United States than to go to our country of service.

The first week home was challenging but good.  That was as much from exhaustion from the flight as anything.  Plus, I just wanted time alone to soak in internet, television, palagi food and privacy.

Since then I've been slowly adapting.  I've noticed that I'm no longer constantly comparing village life to Florida life.  There are some differences that stick out.  In no particular order, here are a few:

Mirrors.  I had a small hand mirror in my house.  That was the only mirror I ever saw unless I was in a hotel in Apia where there was usually (not always) a mirror in the bathroom.  In the United States there are giant mirrors everywhere.  Frankly, I don't like it.  I prefer believing I look as spectacular on the outside as I feel on the inside. And who decided it was a good idea to put a full-length mirror on a wall facing the toilet?

Makeup.  I didn't bother to wear makeup in Samoa.  There were several reasons.  1.  It just melted off.    2.  Who was I going to impress?  One of the Year 2 students?  3.  No makeup meant I could just wash the sweat off my face anytime.  4.  I am lazy.  One of my first stops after my arrival home was to a place called Ulta (or maybe Alta).  I was running errands with friends and one wanted to pop in to pick something up.  It is a HUGE store selling nothing but makeup.  Really, America?  A store larger than any store in the country of Samoa, just to sell makeup?

Food.  Samoans love food.  It is an important part of every formal and informal event.  But their choice of foods is limited.  Part of that is economics and availability but part is also culture.  I heard the phrase "Lei masani!" (Not normal!) often when I offered friends a palagi food I'd made.  In the United States, there is so much food.  All different kinds.  I'm still trying to get into my grocery shopping groove because there are so many choices.  Aisles and aisles of choices.  Rather than take advantage of all the riches, I've found myself wandering through the store, unable to make a decision on what to buy.

Freedom.  I've been going out at night.  Driving alone.  Just because I can.  No one asks where I'm going, which is kind of sad, but it's so freeing to be able to just go and do when and where I want.  I woke up at 4 a.m. the other morning.  I decided to get up and get a move on.  First, I drove to the 7/11 for a big cup of flavored coffee.  At 4:00 a.m. in the village, the only thing moving would have been a bus headed to the wharf, maybe.  Then I drove 20 miles to work on unpacking my home.  Through the dark, music blaring on the radio.  It was splendid!

Respect and friendliness.  I was worried about how I'd react to receiving less respect and less friendliness when I got home.  I've been pleasantly surprised.  It may be because I chose to spend my first month in a small, sleepy beach community.  People smile and say hello.  They hold doors and say "please" and "thank you".  It's been good.  I miss hearing kids screaming my name, though.

Sensory overload.  There was a lot to see and hear on the island.  A beautiful lagoon.  The mountains covered with palm trees.  All the kids playing, laughing, screaming.  I was taken by surprise at the sensory overload I've felt on a few occasions since coming home.  First was Day 1 when I had to go to the mall.  I was both awed  and overwhelmed at the number of people and amount of "stuff".  While I was in Tucson some friends and I went to a street art fair.  It was a beautiful day and one of my favorite things to do.  But half-way through, I had to take a break and just sit with my eyes closed.  The sensory overload was giving me a sense of vertigo.  It didn't last long but it was a gentle reminder that life here is very different than my very quiet life in the village.

Stuff.  Before I left for Samoa I ruthlessly thinned out my belongings.  I didn't want to pay for storage for stuff I didn't need.  I should have been more ruthless.  After two years of living with very little (although far more than most Samoans), my wants and needs have shifted.  I first unpacked two large boxes of clothes.  I sorted them and gave one of the boxes to charity.  As I unpacked my kitchen stuff, I wondered what the heck I'd been thinking in collecting all those martini glasses.  Big ones, small ones, colored ones, clear ones.  I put half back into a box for the thrift store.  That trend continued.  If things are in multiples or unless they have sentimental value, I don't need them and I don't want them cluttering my house.

I've noticed more differences - and similarities - and I'll write about them soon.  Now, though, I'm going to take a hot shower and drive up the road to buy a flavored coffee.  Because I can.  I feel very, very spoiled.

More Evan Follow-Up

A hallway in the Peace Corps office after cyclone Evan. 

I got great news this morning.  My Samoan brother contacted me via Facebook to let me know that my family and village are ok after the storm.

I also heard from some of the new group of Pisi Koa that they are ok but in limbo - they were supposed to be sworn in last week as Peace Corps Volunteers but that was delayed because of the storm.  They're training is finished but they're still officially Peace Corps Trainees.  I imagine they must be a tad frustrated and anxious to get sworn in and move to their new villages.

My friend Kyle wrote an excellent report of the damage by the storm and posted it on the Samoan Youth Empowerment Initiative, along with photos of the damage.  

The loss of life in the storm is tragic but I saw first hand how quickly the land can come back from what seems to be devastation.  In the short term, basic food will be in short supply but long term the country will return to the tropical paradise it was.

Life is going on in Samoa.  Clean up is underway.  I have no doubt that this tragedy will create even stronger bonds in this close knit country.  My heart is with them as they recover.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Cyclone Evan

I've been trolling the internet trying to get news about how Samoa is doing in the aftermath of cyclone Evan.  The media is saying that the devastation is as bad or worse than the 2009 tsunami.

I've heard from some Pisi Koa in country.  It seems that the swearing in for Group 84 was postponed.  One posted a photo showing them ankle deep in water in the hotel lobby which is connected to the Peace Corps office.  The good news is that they're all safe and staying dry.

There are inconsistent reports of the number of people who lost their lives in the storm.  Reports say that those who died were killed when the river between Aggie Grey's and the Peace Corps office overflowed it's banks.  I keep thinking of the people I'd met who lived and worked near there.  The friendly family which sold barbecue on the banks of the river.  The family that lived next to the taxi stand I always used.  They sometimes sold barbecue too and the kids always waved like mad when I walked by.  I loved stopping to say hello and give the little ones a hug.  I hope they are safe.

According to various news outlets, the greatest concern now is hunger.  There was a joke in Samoa that no one could ever starve in Samoa because your dinner will hit you on the head.  It was true - breadfruit, papaya and coconut were everywhere.  Almost every family has a plantation where they grow taro and bananas along with other fruits and vegetables.

Now, the plantations have been devastated and breadfruit and papaya trees blown down.  The staples of the local diet are gone.

One thing I learned in Samoa is that they are strong, resilient people.  They find humor even in tragedy.  They will find a way to come back.  The many family members in New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere will help, giving more than they can afford.

And no power?  No problem.  They'll spend the evenings by lantern light, talking and laughing, being there for each other.  The power of family, community and God will see them through.

The Samoans can teach the rest of the world a lot about overcoming adversity.

Christmas Came Early

Like most people, I don't like to move. The upside, though, is that it's the only time my closets and cabinets are sparkling clean and organized. For a variety of reasons, I decided to move back into my house in Florida.

 The company that stored my stuff for the last two years brought it back to me a few days ago.  The guys were very nice and quick and made it an easy process.  They put all the furniture back where I wanted it and I started unpacking boxes.  I'm about 2/3 done and hope to be done this week.

As I opened boxes and unwrapped stuff it was much like celebrating an early Christmas.  Most things I recognized immediately and it was like reuniting with old friends.  I've collected so much stuff over the years during my travels that each time I cut the tape and unrolled the bubble wrap I was reminded of all the good memories that came with each item.

In some cases, it was about family.  The wooden music box that my father made for me years ago, for example.  I remembered the day he gave it to me and it brought a smile.

In other cases it was memories of where I was and who I was with when I bought something.  It was a delightful romp down memory lane of life before Samoa.  The treats I unwrapped made the time unpacking the more boring items like pots and pans easier to do.

I unwrapped one covered ceramic vase that I bought in Lombok, Indonesia in 2001.  I was smiling as I remembered the day I bought it.  Then I realized that there were slips of paper inside the jar.  What the heck?  I started reading the slips and they said things like "JB's Fishcamp", "hot showers" and "cheese enchiladas".

Then I remembered that at my going away party the week before leaving for Samoa my friends decided to play a game.  They each wrote the two things that they thought I'd miss most while I was away from my Florida home.

I'm planning a "I'm back!" fiafia, complete with Samoan food and lavalavas and ili for everyone once the holidays are done and I'm back in my house.  It will be fun to go through the slips of paper and see who was able to predict what I'd miss most.  I don't think anyone mentioned sleeping on clean sheets with no mosquitoes.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Apia Devastated by Cyclone

It is hard to see the damage caused by the cyclone Evan and even harder to hear that 2 or 3 (depending upon which news source you read) perished in the storm. Here is a link to photos of the storm and ensuing damage.

 The good news? Having lived in Samoa for two years, I know that the Samoan people will come together to whip things back into shape and will be laughing as they do it. Not that it isn't painful and hard but Samoans have a remarkable ability to find humor in the darkest circumstances.

 The only MacDonald's in the country was devastated but that's probably good news for Burger Bills - a newly expanded local competitor. On the other hand, Apia tended to flood during even "normal" rains, which is why they demolished the old market. Until it is replaced, vendors have set up temporary stalls in the surrounding area and I can only imagine what a mess they are.

 The airport remains closed. The flight that was supposed to carry home several PCV's was one of the ones cancelled. Three Samoan boys, part of the Samoan Youth Empowerment Initiative were also scheduled to be on the flight.

 I played a small part in helping Kyle Kincaid in raising funds to give the boys a chance to visit the United States for a month to experience a different culture. The boys worked hard at fundraising efforts and hopefully they'll land safely in Chicago soon.

 I'm happy to be safe and dry in Florida, but my heart is in Samoa right now.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Home and Cheese Enchiladas

Where to start. The short story? Coming home felt good but it felt like a vacation. It was hard for me to believe I wasn't moving back to the village after a couple of weeks.

 At first, I really needed "alone time". A chance for privacy, television and WIFI. Much like vacations in New Zealand. Then it began to sink in that I was home for good.

 I underestimated my tolerance for ambiguity. No home. No car. No job. The big game changer was that the tenant in my home didn't renew her lease at the end of November. That made the decision of where to live a bit tougher.

 After a few weeks, during which I decided to move back into my house and bought a car, I headed to Tucson, Arizona, my hometown. It was great to go "home" and see old friends and eat the Mexican food that I grew up (and out) on.

 I flew back into Florida on Tuesday night. Today, I met the movers at my house and started unpacking as they moved all my stuff back in. Luckily, I got rid of a lot of stuff before I left for Samoa. That should make unpacking easier.

 Do I miss Samoa? Yes and no. I miss my friends and the kids. I miss the beauty. I don't miss the limited diet, the bugs, cold showers, etc. I'm loving the freedom of being able to go out at any hour of the day or night. I'm enjoying the fact that no one is watching me and commenting on what I'm doing. I'm not so wild about having so many mirrors.

 I love grocery stores and having restaurants everywhere. Restaurants that sell more than fried chicken and french fries. I'm working on not constantly making comparisons between Samoa and the United States and that's getting easier. Luckily, I'm still finding the huge number of choices when shopping a bit off-putting. That makes it hard to shop, which is good for my wallet.

 I'll be busy unpacking and preparing for the holidays over the next week, but promise to work on getting photos loaded. In the meantime, I hope you'll join me in saying a prayer for those impacted by cyclone Evan. Apia was hard hit and according to News Australia, the storm is expected to turn and hit again. My heart goes out to all those impacted.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

I'm Home!

Well, I'm sorta home. I'm staying in a nice rental at the beach about half an hour from my home in Florida. At the last minute the tenant renting my home for the last two years decided not to renew the lease for another year. I'm now trying to decide whether to move into my own house or not. I hope to be writing more soon, as well as posting a lot of photos. Having free WIFI is terrific! I've been busy since coming home less than two weeks ago. Initially, I just wanted to hole up in my own place, cook and watch tv and surf the net. I read, slept, got over jet lag and then was ready to greet a friend who flew in to welcome me home. The last several days, she and some local friends have had a fun and busy time - dining out, getting manicures and pedicures and doing a bit of shopping. They also helped me pick out my new glasses. Mine gave up the ghost the week I left Samoa and my old pair weren't helping much. I picked up the new glasses today and am happy to be able to see again. Do I miss Samoa? Yes, but I've been so wrapped up in being home, it hasn't had time to sink in that this isn't just a vacation and I'm not going back soon. Some things I've noticed since I got is EVERYWHERE. As are mirrors. And food. I've been to the mall and been surprised at some of the new fashions. So far, being back is great. I'll keep you posted as time goes on.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Leaving for the airport in about 30 minutes. The blog will continue when I get home - in about 31 hours, although I may need a nap first. If you're thinking about joining Peace Corps...go for it!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Yes, I'm food obsessed. Have been since I was a child. I've learned to embrace the obsession and the girth that comes with it.

Thought I'd share a bit about food I've had recently.

I was invited for to'ona'i with my family Sunday to celebrate my leaving and more importantly, Julius' first birthday. The food was delicious. We had fried chicken, boiled chicken, roasted pig and roasted breadfruit. Samoa is not easy for vegetarians.

Last night in Apia I had dinner with two Peace Corps friends at Visions, the restaurant that is part of the Australian culinary program. It was a bargain and tasty. I had tuna to start - served in three spoons, one bite each, with a tiny salad on the side.

My main was lamb with a beet reduction and wonderful mashed potatoes. Also steamed pea pods and bok choy. The lamb was well done and I prefer very rare but it was still lovely.

Dessert was New York style cheesecake. While it was tasty, it bore no resemblance to any cheesecake I've ever had, especially in New York. And who puts raisins in cheesecake?? Still, it was good.

We ordered a bottle of wine with dinner and our server, who did an admirable job all evening, did an outstanding job of making a production of opening the wine and providing a bit to taste before serving ladies first. The funny part? It was a twist off cap.

A delightful evening in which there was air conditioning and I did not have to fan bugs off my food.


SeconAnd once again the caption feature isn't working. Sorry.

First is a shot of where the teachers were marinating the chicken in a bucket. Soy sauce, a little onion and a little sugar is how we barbeque chicken in Samoa. Oh, the white stuff in the jar? Salt, because soy isn't salty enough.

Second photo shows Pila and Julius. They're cousins. This was taken in my front yard.

Third shows Pila, Julius and Esther with Koki 2. Koki was a rooster, raised by hand who died last Sunday at 14. The new Koki is being raised by hand to take his place as the family pet.

Fourth shows what happened when I brought a couple large bags of clothes in to give the teachers. It was like a half off sale at Salvation Army. The funniest part is that some of them chose to wear new items over their puletasis for the rest of the day. Since they always wear tshirts and shorts under their puletasis anyway, that means three layers of clothes. Have I mentioned how hot it is in Samoa?

Buggy Trifecta

Written Tuesday, November 13,2012

 As usual, this evening before taking my cold shower, I sorted laundry and tossed “close enough” colors into the bucket. Close enough used to mean whites with whites, etc. Now, pretty much anything goes, although I did resist tossing my very sweaty new white PC t-shirt in with my orange mu’umu’u.

 I scooped the detergent and noticed that not only did I get soap, I got the bonus in the bottom of the box. A large, dead cockroach. We call them Palmetto bugs in Florida. They fly but this one was well past his flying days so I just picked him out of the soap and tossed him in the toilet.

 A few minutes later I picked up the toilet paper roll as I usually do, by inserting my thumb in the tube. I’m looking forward to having toilet paper that is attached to a wall, rather than roaming free range around my bathroom.

 Unfortunately a spider roughly the size of the palm of my hand was curled up in the tp tube, napping. I woke him/her up and it scared the bejeebers out of both of us. After a quick break to step topless (ok, I clutched aforementioned sweaty t-shirt to my bosom) into the main room of my house to fetch the spider killing spray (Mortein), I stepped into the shower.

 I was facing sideways – turning on the tap (there’s only one since there’s only cold water) and closing the very nice shower curtain when the third piece of the trifecta fell into place. Literally, a large lizard flew off the curtain and landed on my chest. I did not scream and believe I should receive Peace Corps bonus points for that.

 In another entry I’ll explain my own personal game of Peace Corps in which points are awarded or deducted for wimpy or really bonehead moves. For example, the time I was asked to dance for the matais at school last year. I lost 100 points because I bowed to the school, which had my back to the chiefs. I started dancing to the majority of people and one of the teachers kindly came up to turn me around. Bonehead.

 Note: Yes, I know that lizards are reptiles and not insects but I just preferred the buggy title.  

Don't Bother The Trainees

(Written Saturday, Nov. 11, 2012)

I was in Salelologa this morning to meet up with one of my group. It would be our last chance to see each other in Samoa. On the way, I stopped to buy a birthday gift for my baby Julius. He turns one tomorrow.

 While I was shopping, I heard my name. It was Kiri, one of the new group. Ten members of Group 84 have been in Savaii for the last couple of days, meeting their new families and visiting the schools where they’ll be living. We were asked to leave them alone, allowing them to have the time to start getting to know their new families and villages. I tried. I didn’t go to the wharf to meet them when they arrived, which was disappointing for me.

 I was happy to see Kiri and invited her to join Pat and I at Burger Bill’s. She’d been up since 4:25 a.m. but the bus didn’t show and they missed the 8:00 a.m. boat. Plus, the 10:00 a.m. boat was cancelled, so she had time to kill. Welcome to Savaii!

 I was surprised when one of the group showed up on my doorstep on Thursday night at 9:30 p.m. She, of course, was not alone. Her new host parents brought her over. Not to worry, friends and loved ones of Angelina, she was fine. They just wanted to stop by because they know me and figured it would be nice for the new Pisi Koa to chat with the old Pisi Koa. They also wanted to show her my house and invite me to spend the afternoon and evening with them on Friday.

The plan was to take Lina to school on Friday, go shopping in Salelologa after school and pick me up about 3:00 p.m. Then, they’d drop Lina and me off at the beach at Lano so we could swim while they headed home to cook dinner. They’d pick us up again later and have dinner, then they’d drop me off at home in Faga, which is only about a 15 minute drive to Pu’apu’a.

The plan was fine except that when they were ready to pick me up I was still at the hospital. Because the infection has spread, I felt generally crappy and more like sleeping than hanging out at the beach, so I headed home instead.

 I was on the internet when they arrived close to 9:00 p.m. to drop off dinner. It was really thoughtful of them to bring me food, although one benefit of the infection is that my appetite is pretty much gone. It’s really hard for me to believe that by the time the new group moves to Savaii in December, I’ll have been home for almost a month. In some ways, I’m very jealous that they’re just starting their time here.

Doctor, Doctor

Written on Thursday, November 8, 2012

Before I left Apia a couple of weeks ago I had a weird physical experience. I wasn’t worried, since they’re happening more frequently as I age.

 In this case, I was minding my own business when my elbow blew up. As in, one minute it was perfectly normal and a few minutes later it was about double the size of the other one. It was tender but didn’t really hurt. I let the Peace Corps nurse know and we agreed to meet the following morning if it hadn’t improved. But it did. Overnight it reverted to being a normal elbow. Still a bit tender but since I was focused on the hellish bus ride to the wharf, my elbow was the least of my concerns.

 Fast forward a couple of weeks, past a nasty bout of something that invaded my digestive system and was not happy to be there to early this week. The damn elbow blew up again. I decided to ignore it. I chalked it up (along with the puking, diarrhea and every other ache and pain I’ve had lately) to the stress of leaving. It’s not unusual for me to get weird symptoms that magically disappear when the stress disappears.

 I was doing a fine job of ignoring it but the kids and teachers weren’t. It wasn’t that sore, and it’s really hard to see your elbow unless you try, so it was easy to ignore. Apparently, though, from other angles it was looking decidedly odd. Kids kept sneaking up and poking it because it was large, puffy and red.

 The teachers decided to use traditional medicine and my best buddy Meripa had one of the kids fetch some nonu leaves and gave my arm a gentle massage with the leaves. It helped in the same way it used to help when my mom stroked my back when I had a stomach ache or gently brushed my hair when I had a head ache. It didn’t make a physical difference but it did make me feel better.

By the end of day yesterday, I’d decided it was time to stop ignoring it because it was hurting like a bitch. To make it worse, this morning I woke up with what appeared to be filariasis. What I always thought was called elephantiasis. Where one part of your body swells to huge proportions and stays that way. From just above my wrist to the middle of my bicep (on my arms a bicep is actually more of a theory than a body part) my arm looked a bit like Popeye’s.

The actual elbow seemed to be a bit better and I could even bend my arm enough to brush my teeth right-handed today, which is more than I could do yesterday when I was in full denial. Bottom line, my arm is infected.

 Seems it started in the elbow where I had a tiny, tiny scratch – which never looked red or infected, by the way. Since I ignored it, it spread up and down my arm. I’m concerned that if it moves to my butt and it swells as much as my arm, they’ll have to buy me a first class seat for the flight home. Or I’ll have to spend 29 hours in the john.

 I’ve been to the hospital, where I spent two hours and $13.50 tala – or about $6.50 USD. I came home with two kinds of antibacterial/antibiotics, a little something to reduce the swollen joint and pain pills. With that many pills, I’m afraid they’ll make me declare them as food when I go through Customs. So many people have been asking what I wanted to take with me when I left Samoa. This was not it.

Last Dance

It's Thursday morning, November 15, 2012 and I'm in a hotel in Apia.  I'll be doing final interviews/medical with Peace Corps today and tomorrow, along with last minute errands.

Yesterday was my last day in the village.  It was good, it was sad and I cried a lot.  I hugged each of the 215 kids and all the teachers.  I hugged my family and took lots of photos.

Before I head to the airport tomorrow night with a van load of other volunteers, I'll try to post some entries I've written recently as well as some photos.

Just to get started, here's a picture of me yesterday, during prayer with all the kids.  First we fold our arms, then we close our eyes...

BTW, notice my delightful farmer's tan?

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Little This and That About Utulaelae

I went for a short ride one evening with the man in charge of training to discuss some possible adjustments to the training. We passed a fale with a thatched roof. A kerosene lamp lit the night as the man in the fale watched the biggest flat screen tv I've ever seen.

 It was chilly in the training village. My BFF, a PCV who lives in a nearby village has said for two years that she just about freezes to death every night. I've told her repeatedly that it's not cold it's just because she has 0% body fat. Well, I am eating those words because I have a smidgen of body fat and I got cold several nights. The trainees, bless their hearts, were complaining about how hot it is at night. Don't tell them this may be the coolest they ever are in Samoa.

The first day of training we realized there was no table in the fale. We needed one for our laptops, printer, etc. At 7:00 a.m. we reminded the patriarch of the family of our need. By 8:00 a.m. a couple of his sons/son-in-laws had built a table. That's one thing about Samoans. If they want something to happen, it happens!

 Many of the trainees attended church prior to coming to Samoa. Many did not. They are getting a full dose now. Some are attending 5:00 a.m. prayer service along with daily evening prayers and twice a day church on Sundays.

 I was raised a Methodist, but there isn't a Methodist church in my village. I was happy to have a chance to attend two in the training village.At one point in both services, everyone kneeled. But rather than kneeling facing forward, toward the altar, they knelt facing the pew they had just vacated. Hard on the knees on the cement floor for a twenty minute prayer but provided a much-needed stretch for my back which has been acting up the last couple of months.

With the help of several trainees, I taught a group of kids to play Duck, Duck, Goose during a break in training. They continued to play over the two weeks. My last day there, one trainee reported that several of the little kids were playing in the adjoining village of Utulaelae where most of the trainees are staying. Some older guys - in their teens and twenties joined the little kids. They would walk around the circle, tapping heads and saying duck, duck, goose and then run around the whole village, with the "goose" in hot pursuit. Whatever works.

 Several of us played Uno after class on Friday, my last night in the village. Half Samoan staff and half palagi trainees/me, we had a lot of laughs. The fun ended for one trainee when her host mom arrived before 7 p.m. to take her home for dinner. She got a scolding for staying out so late.

Welcome to life in Samoa, where it is most appropriate to be home before sunset on a Friday night in time for prayer and dinner. A big change from life in the USA for a 29 year old.

 I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the village with the new group. They're enthusiastic, smart and picking up the language quickly (damn them!) The host family is great and it was fun to run into one of my new "sisters" today while shopping in Apia. I'm ready to head home to Savaii, but it was a great way to spend a couple of weeks at the close of my service.

More Training Village Photos

Photo 2 - typical class for the culture sessions, which I helped facilitate.  Not enough chairs and no table.  This is Peace Corps training, baby. Photo 3 - These are two of the kids who live in the compound where the training takes place and where I stayed for two weeks.  Loved them.  We walked to the nearby resort one evening and along the way they showed me where a house used to stand before the 2010 tsunami.  Notice that the ocean is only barely visible in the background.  This area was NOT the hardest hit.  Photo 4 - Tilt your head and check out the food the family hosting Josh and Alisa sent for them.  They won't go hungry.  Photo 5 - At the resort, I treated the kids to a Coke (we shared a large bottle) and taught them to say "Cheers!".  Photo 6 - Then they discovered the slides!  Photo 7 - Training is exhausting.  These are three more family members of the main host family, relaxing in the space where training had just ended.  Photo 1 - not just the trainees were working hard.  This chicken laid an egg every afternoon.  Once on a chair, once in the duffle bag of a trainer, and several times on the table.
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More Pictures

Kate and Brad preparing for training.  Note the bandages wrapped on Brad's ankles with duct tape?  Mosquito bites.  They are better and the bandages are off now.  In the second photo - learning language! Third photo - Lu and Angelina, whose families gave them clothes and dressed them up.Photo 4 - the studying never stops.  Nor, seemingly, do my problems with Blogspot.  Sometimes paragraphs and captions work, sometimes they don't.  I swear I'll fix it when I have free internet in the USA.Photo 5 - Masi, a Talking Chief and Language trainer keeps the group entertained on breaks.Photo 6 - Millie got a cooler for her lunch! And fried chicken! Photo 7  Group 84 all dressed up in puletasis and ie lavalavas, going to church.  On the left, in blue, is Tuila - Peace Corps Medical Officer and the new best friend of the trainees.  Some aren't in the photo because three of us went to the Methodist church where their families go.
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More Group 84 Training Photos

FYI - I'm still having technical issues with Blogspot.  Anyway - it's not all touch for the new PC Samoa trainees.  This was the Friday night Fiafia (party) that my group hosted for them before the left for the village the following morning.  What's more fun than a fire dancer by the pool?

Before fire dancing we had a potluck dinner and a show, performed by Group 83.  I danced.  Badly, but I danced.

Let the show begin!  What a lovely smile - matches her sweet temperament.  She hasn't let the heat, humidity, bugs or language training get to her yet.  This was taken at fiafia night.

"Oh, no you didn't!"  This is in class at the training fale in the village.

No, she isn't paying me to publish her photos. 

Ali seems to be the language star so far.  I'd say her language is on a par with mine.  I've been here two years.  She's been here three weeks.  Youth sucks.

Chatting over lunch in the training fale.He's wearing a t-shirt and lavalava which is everyday wear.

Group 84 Photos

This is The house in front is where one of Group 84 will be living.  It is tiny but right on the water and has an indoor shower/toilet and tiny kitchen.  Their boss' house is the pink one just behind it.  I took this photo from the bus as we passed.The second photo is of Millie, the eldest of Group 84 and the other women in the group when we enjoyed Women's Night together.
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The women in this group are never at a loss for words.  Here are Lu and Alisa.    , enjoying conversation and niu (young coconut)The house, btw, belongs to a PC staffer, NOT a volunteer

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Two more of the ladies of Group 84 - Kiri, on the left and Angelina on the right.They enjoyed dressing as palagis at women's night - no spaghetti straps in the village.Below is the inside of the faleo'o where I slept for the two weeks in the training village.  The trainees faleo'os are similar but about 1/2 the size.  Mine is all indoors, with no "porch".  Theirs have a tiny bedroom and an open porch for hanging out and catching a sea breeze.

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Holy Crap, I'm Going Home!

I’ve been conscious that the time is coming to head back to the United States. Now, I feel like I just let go of the rail at the top of a very steep water slide and I’m picking up speed and getting a wedgie as I head toward the big splash

I think it really hit Saturday, when I realized I’d be sitting in my new apartment with old friends just three weeks from that moment. I’m looking forward to it. I’m also dreading leaving. Like any life change there are pros and cons. It will be bittersweet. I’m already having repeated dreams that any amateur psychologist worth his salt would tell you means I’m dealing with separation anxiety and issues related to the unknown life I’m going to.

 I’m certainly not unhappy about the uncertainty. It’s exciting. I’m lucky enough to be in a position to have a variety of options without having huge financial pressures to immediately start money rolling in again. Of course, after I have a sit down with my financial manager, I may be singing a different tune.

 My current plan is to spend the last half of November and all of December relaxing, visiting with friends and starting the readjustment process. In January, I plan to start the real search for work, while still staying in the rented place on the beach in Florida. I’ll start February by attending a wedding in Michigan.

Might I point out how much I love the bride to be? Because if I didn’t I would not be hauling my South Pacific feels-like-the-surface-of-the-sun ass to colder-than-a well-digger’s-ass Michigan. Heck, I’m already worried about the cold Florida winter I’m headed to.

After the wedding, I’ll be heading overseas to live inexpensively, continue job hunting online and enjoy another adventure. Currently, India, Thailand, Uruguay and Guatemala top the list but there are many others in contention.

 I’ve heard from my legion of fans (ok, my two best friends) that they’ll miss my blog. Don’t despair – I can still bore you silly, since I plan to continue writing. I’ll keep you posted on my readjustment process (translation: more whining) and also post many of the videos and photos of Samoa that I haven’t been able to from here. I also plan to do a little processing of my experience in Samoa by continuing to blog about some stories of Samoa I haven’t shared yet. Or that I haven’t shared fully. Some funny, some not.

 In any case, I hope you’ll hang with me.

Food in the Training Village

As with clothes and housing, the families are vying for the honor of feeding their trainee the best and the most food. One family is hosting two volunteers and bought them teach an insulated small lunch container. I never bought one because they are so expensive.

 I have memories of eating a lot of boiled green bananas in training, with ramen noodles as a treat. This group is dining on fried chicken, fish, M&Ms (really!), catered burgers and fries from Apia and imported apples and oranges.

 I have no complaints about the food I’ve been eating for the last week in the village. Just the opposite, I’m dining on fine Samoan meals, three times a day. I’m being fed, along with the Samoan staff, by the family of the ali’i. For breakfast we have piles of egg sandwiches and sausages and tea or Koko Samoa. Or, supo esi (soup made with papaya, coconut cream and tapioca) and rice. Or pankeke and papaya.

For lunch (known here as tea) we have a feast with a variety of meats (fish: raw and cooked; chicken and sausage) and a variety of starchy vegetables – taro, banana and breadfruit. The food is plentiful and well-prepared but for the first three days, other than the starchy vegetables, there were no fruits or vegetables. There was, however gallons of coconut cream which is delicious but not helpful in maintaining my girlish figure. I pointed out to the lead trainer that the other volunteers who will be coming to take my place next week are vegetarian so diet could be a problem. That’s when the papaya showed up for breakfast.

Since then, they’ve also added a bit of bok choy to the menu. Some of the trainers have gone to Apia and kindly brought back avocado, mango and pineapple, all of which is in season now. On Saturday, since the Samoan trainers were all going home for the weekend, they prepared a to’ona’i for us. That means making the oven (umu), roasting a small pig and also adding a variety of other kinds of meat and starchy vegetables. Along with cold niu to drink.

Sunday is the traditional day for to’ona’i, so we had another feast, complete with another roasted pig and all the rest. Very tasty and I’m working hard on restraint and filling up on raw fish and other more healthy options, although they are limited.

So far the trainees seem happy with the food. Some are getting tired of the fact that Samoan foods tend to be bland and soft and may be greasy and salty. One of the group doesn’t like coconut cream, which is a shame since it is used in so many Samoan dishes.

Samoans in the village keeping asking which foods I’ll miss most when I go back to America. I’ll really miss oka (ota) which is raw fish (reef here in the village, tuna in town) with onion, tomato, cucumber, coconut cream and lime juice); poke, which is another version of raw tuna, not found in the training village; and many of the fruits, including vi. Vi won’t be in season before I leave so won’t be having the delicious, tart/sweet/rich grated vi salad which is mixed with coconut cream and topped with crushed peanuts.

I will NOT miss simini – ramen noodles nor canned corned beef. I also won’t miss getting a mouthful of pig bristles or fat when dining on roasted pig.

The best thing I’ve eaten/drunk in the past week? Hands down it was the chilled drink I was served as a snack yesterday. Grated ripe pineapple (and juice) mixed with a bit of coconut cream. If they’d added a bit of rum it would have been the best tropical drink ever. As it was, it was the best, most refreshing drink/snack I’ve had in Samoa.

What's Peace Corps Samoa Training Like?

A one-word answer to describe PC training is “intense”.  I struggled with training in 2010.  The amount of new information combined with a completely new environment as well as having no personal time to be able to process what was going on made it daunting.  This group seems to be handling it a bit better but is still feeling the intensity. 

Group 84 spent one week in Apia, getting the basics and meeting staff.  They arrived in the villages on Saturday, October 13.  They were welcomed with an ava ceremony by the matais (chiefs) of the village and were introduced to their new families.

On Monday, one of my group helped two PC staff member conduct the Water Safety Training.  Tuesday morning started with a Safety and Security session designed to inform them of local laws.  Then came language training, followed by their first cultural training.

During the rest of the week, the trainees arrived at the training fale by 8:00 a.m.  Most were dressed in new clothes (puletasis for the women, lavalavas for the guys) and jewelry when they arrived.  Samoans are competitive and the host families are sewing and buying things like crazy for “their” trainee to make sure they are the best dressed.  They also “help” the women with their hair to make sure they are the best groomed, by Samoan standards.  Braids and buns are everywhere.

Each morning starts with check-in, just to see if anyone has questioned or anything new has come up.  We also let them know the schedule for the day.  After check-in comes language until morning tea at 10:00 a.m.   Language continues from 10:30 to noon, when we break for lunch.  The families either send lunch in the morning with their trainee or deliver it around noon.

At 1:00 p.m. each day we have cultural training for two hours.  That’s what I’m here to help with.  I’m working with the lead trainer on staff to combine theory and the ideal of fa’asamoa with the current reality of what they’ll be experiencing in their sites. 

I’m trying to help keep the sessions varied, interesting and helpful and so far informal feedback has been good, but the evaluations will tell the tale.  It does feel good to be back doing the kind of professional work that I did for years before coming to Peace Corps.

We’ve done sessions on cultural values and compared things that Americans typically value to things Samoans value, and how that impacts behaviors. We talked about specific examples of things the trainees have seen and experienced so far as well as things the Samoans have observed from the Americans and how the behaviors might be interpreted.

The session on non-verbal communication was funny and eye-opening, I think.  We did it as a competition, with teams having to interpret non-verbals that  the language trainers demonstrated.  We went through about 30 different non-verbals.  The group started asking “Really?  How many different ways are there to say you want to have sex with us?”  It’s a Christian country, but they love to laugh and flirt and some of the flirting is very direct.  I got to demonstrate how to turn down an advance, non-verbally.

After two hours of culture training, we have another 30 minute break, followed by language training until 5:00.  By then, the trainees are hot, sweaty and mentally exhausted.  Many, however, stay for another optional hour of tutoring. 

Then, they usually fill up their water bottles and head toward their fales.  Frequently members of their families arrive to walk them home. 

The trainees have homework each night and also are anxious to interact with their families.  Plus, most have a need to take a walk or go for a swim to try to get their bodies as tired as their brains.  Many families have the nightly traditional “lotu” or prayer for half an hour at sunset, followed by dinner and time to work on the homework.  Then, early to bed because some volunteers attend 5:00 a.m. prayer with their families.

The trainees are healthy (except for the minor bug bites, infections, etc.); happy (except for the occasional moments of feeling overwhelmed or homesick) and very, very busy.  It didn’t take them long to realize that “Beach Corps” just means they happen to live on the beach.

What's the Training Village Like?

The training village is actually two villages that are so close together that they seem like one.  Located on the southeastern coast of Upolu, the villages are small and well-kept.  One of the villages is on the water.  It looks as if all of the houses and structures are new, because they are.  The village was essentially wiped out during the 2010 tsunami and was rebuilt “uta”, away from the sea.  That’s the second village that is hosting the training.

The “tai” (close to the sea) village was rebuilt to host the trainees.  This is the fourth time the village has hosted Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) and they are justifiably proud of that record.  They are paid to feed and house the PCTs but the money doesn’t come close to covering the actual expenses, let alone the inconvenience and disruption caused by hosting 13 PCTs, several PCVs who are helping with training and Samoan PC staff.

Each PCT (or couple, since there is one married couple) has been assigned a host family.  Some families built accommodations from scratch, just to house their trainee.  My favorites are the traditional faleo’os (also called fale Samoa) that are small, cozy and have sea views.   Each has a small enclosed room which can be locked and is large enough to hold a mattress and small table and a suitcase, and a covered porch that is just a bit larger than the bedroom.  Each has an overhead light, just beneath the thatched roof.  There are no electrical outlets.  The faleo-os have colorful lavalavas (pieces of cloth used for sarongs and a variety of other uses) covering the thatched ceilings to minimize insects, mice and natural debris from falling into the fale.

The fale’s also have mulit-colored curtains, although the cotton is thin and doesn’t provide much privacy.  The mattress is on the floor.  The entire floor, both in the bedroom and on the porch are covered with mats – some of the mats are plastic woven mats made in China, while others are the traditional handmade falas (mats) made by the women in the family.

For someone like me, who was in college during Woodstock, the fales are a flower child’s dream come true.  The PCTs, most of whom weren’t alive in the 60’s (there is a 71 year old woman), may not have the nostalgic appreciation (I used cheap Indian bedspreads back then, but the effect was the same) but they seem happy with their tiny new houses.

Volunteers who aren’t in the traditional fales have been given a room in a family’s palagi fale – a western style house.  While several of the volunteers are living in the “tai” village, close to the sea, there aren’t enough families there to host all volunteers.  Others are in the other village “uta” about a ten minute walk away.   They’re in either a traditional fale or a palagi fale as well.  One volunteer’s palagi house has been dubbed a “palace” by her fellow volunteers, because of the tile floors and other amenities.

Most volunteers have both outdoor showers and toilets, usually connected to each other.  Imagine an outhouse that has a toilet side and a shower side, separated by a shoulder-high inner wall.  It’s a flush toilet and generally a cement shower with PVC pipe, sans a shower head.  When I’m dreading stepping under a cold shower, I distract myself by considering that I am a PCV, taking a shower under a PVC pipe.   My humor has not become more sophisticated here.   I also find pig farts laugh-out-loud funny.
The large fale tali malo where we’re doing the training is “uta” and no more than a ten minute walk from the furthest volunteer.  I’m housed there, along with the Samoan PC staff/trainers.  When the family (headed by the ali’i – highest chief in the village) found out that an older female PCV would be here for two weeks to help with the training they “built” a faleo’o for me to use.  I discovered last night that they didn’t actually build it, but moved it from a house not far away.  New or used, it’s comfortable and about twice the size of the small faleo’os built for the trainees.  I’ve been alone part of the time, but shared it with one of my favorite PC staff members.  She and I also shared it with chickens.  After the big meal on Sunday we were napping on our mattresses and a chicken came in the front door, walked over Teuila’s mattress and then flew out the “wall”, which is open air.  Scared the beejebbers out of her and gave me a good laugh.

At night we share the fale with pigs and dogs, since they both like to sleep under the fale.  The first night, when I was alone, I woke up and heard breathing and thought for a second someone was in the fale with me.  Then I realized a pig was softly snoring directly under my head, about a foot away.  

I’ve heard some funny stories from the new group about their first couple of weeks here, but will let them share those.  Let’s just say they have discovered that there is no such thing as alone time in Samoa – even when you’re taking a shower or using the toilet.