Monday, January 30, 2012

What a Day

I had a leisurely morning today.  Since school is starting later and I was caught up on laundry (which I do five mornings a week) I dawdled.  I tried to send an email to our Country Director with some info he requested but the internet was not my friend today.  No matter.

I toddled off to school, dancing along the way.  My family had Michael Jackson’s Thriller pumping on the stereo so I did my best MJ dance imitation.  It was horrible but the kids buying snacks before school were amused.  Except for the two new kids from Australia who apparently aren’t used to seeing palagis dance like fools.  I’m sure they’ll get used to it.  Heaven’s knows, they’ll have plenty of chances to see me dance and act the fool.

I discovered that there was a district principal’s meeting at our school so had to stop by to say hey.  Also to explain that it seemed the funeral wouldn’t be until later in the week, which was why I was there. 

Ten minutes later I had done some errands the principal had requested and joined all the kids in assembly.  The Infant Supervisor asked why I was there.  The relationship between us is sort of like the US and Cuba.  We’re in close proximity all the time but have significant philosophical differences, that go back a way.  I think she was looking forward to a palagi-free day.

She told me that she’d seen on the news the night before that the funeral I’m supposed to attend is this morning.  And, she saw the vans from the funeral home taking the bodies pass on their way to take the bodies to their village for burial.

Crap.  I was wearing a skirt and blouse, not suitable attire.  I had to interrupt the principal’s meeting to explain to my pule (boss) that I needed to leave.  He was sympathetic.  Then his boss, who’d heard me explain it to my boss, wanted me to explain it to her.  It’s a status thing.  Then, I had to explain to the teachers why I was leaving suddenly. 

I hurried home to change into my best puletasi and grab the floral wreath.  Swell.  It’s 9:05 a.m. and I’m sweaty already.  Doesn’t really matter, since it’s also raining so I’m destined to be damp for the day.   I headed to the bus fale at the school where a group of mothers had been sitting since dropping their kids off.  They’d seen me go by twice and now reappear in different clothes, with a wreath.  I used the newly learned term for funeral and told them the village and they understood, since apparently it’s been all over the news.

I took the bus to the market in Salelologa so I could change to an Itu o Tane bus that goes to the district where the funeral was to be.  Luckily, there was a bus there.  In my best Samoan (that I’d been rehearsing in my head) I told the driver I wanted to go to the funeral in a certain village, please.  He said he could get me there, so the wreath and I climbed aboard, out of the rain.

Then we sat.  I hopped on the Itu O Tane bus at about 10:00 a.m.  After half an hour of listening to loud Samoan pop tunes and breathing in both the cigarette smoke of the driver and the fumes from the many other buses, we took off.  To circle the market and park in the same place.  For another 20 minutes.  While we waited I took advantage of the food service provided.  That consists of the vendors strolling by with laundry baskets or Styrofoam coolers full of stuff.  I went for the $1 tala keke pua’a, which is a steamed bun with pork soaked in soy sauce in the middle.  I’ve been here long enough to know the kid who sells the one with the least fat and gristle and got one from him.  You have Big Macs, we have keke pua’a.  You win.

Shortly before 11:00 a.m., we hit the road.  My excitement at being on our way was short lived.  We stopped at the hardware store so two guys could buy a gallon of paint.  While they did that, another guy got off to head next door to buy some fried chicken so we had to wait for him, too.

Then we stopped at the bank so a guy could buy cash power credit, which is how we pay for electricity here.  You have to pay in advance and when it runs out, you’re in the dark, literally.  It’s happened to my family and I many times.

After a few more stops to pick up people, including at the hospital which is 1 ½ miles from where I started this journey, we were on our way.  As we approached the village, the bus stopped.  I looked around to see who was getting off.  Then heard the driver telling someone to hand me the wreath.  Seems this was my stop, but it was not in the village and not at the church.  The driver assured me that this was where I should be.  It was the fale of the couple who had died.

That’s when I first got an inkling that something was amiss.  I was at a house where there were a lot of people milling around.  In the main open fale there were a number of men, sitting in the formal positions of a matai meeting.  But there were also women.  I just walked toward them and hoped for the best.

Imagine a gunfight at the OK Corral, where steely eyed gunslingers approach each other warily.  It was sort of like that, but all sides here looked more confused than grim and there were flowers not weapons.  I was invited inside and used the extremely little formal Samoan I know (yes, isn’t it fun – there’s a whole separate language for formal occasions!) to greet the guy that seemed to be in charge.

A girl immediately ran and brought a chair for me, but I just kicked off my shoes (I wasn’t raised in a palagi barn) and sat on the floor, near where I’d come in, as is proper.  At least I think/hope it is.  No one seemed offended.

I quietly explained to the young woman who’d brought in the chair that I was the Pisi Koa from Faga and was here for Rachel.  She then went across to whisper to the man I’d addressed earlier.  He then explained that he was a brother from California and thanked me for coming.  Thank God.  English. 

He also explained that I was a bit early.  Tomorrow (Wed.) they’ll be bringing the bodies of the husband and wife and they’ll be buried on Thursday.  I told them I thought the funeral was today and apologized for intruding.

We went on to have a brief conversation about the deaths of the couple and the love they showed for their family, village and Peace Corps.  They accepted the flower wreath and thanked me profusely.  I explained that it was from the PCV who’d left recently and was very upset that she couldn’t return in person.

The family spokesman then explained that it is fa’asamoa to exchange tokens of respect.  I’d brought the floral wreath.  In return I was given a fine mat, a case of tinned corned beef and $100.  I accepted them on behalf of Rachel and thanked their family for the generosity. 

Then the man said “Thanks for coming by.”

I have a tough time deciphering social cues in my own culture.  In Samoa it’s a whole different kettle of fish.  To me, “Thanks for coming by.” is a very polite way of saying “hit the door.”  But I now had 2 hours until the next and last bus back to Salelologa.  I was thinking I could just grab the huge fine mat, case of meat and head up the street to wait inconspicuously for the bus but the logistics of that seemed problematic.  You may never have seen a fine mat.  This one is typical – about ten feet wide and twenty feet long.  I’ve lived in apartments with less floor space.

And at the same time he was saying “Thanks for coming by” one of the family was bringing me a tray of crackers with butter and tea.  It is imperative that when someone visits your home, even if unexpectedly, even if for a few minutes, you offer them food and drink. 

I asked the young woman who brought me the tea about the next bus.  That generated a buzz of discussion.  “You’re taking the bus back?  But you should not ride the bus.”  Yeah, I hear you, but try telling Peace Corps that. 

The family then went into a huddle to discuss what to do.  I was told I might be able to get a ride with a member of the family.  I offered that I hated to inconvenience anyone and could take the bus.  They countered with “Someone is driving back and forth to Salelologa all the time and the next time someone goes, they can take you.”

While this exchange was taking place, a young man was collecting my fine mat and carton of meat.  I asked (duh) if I should go with him.  Yes, he would take me home.

We exchanged final thanks and words of respect as I got into the car.  The whole interaction felt awkward to me but believe that at least they know that Rachel, the palagi/Pisi Koa daughter of the couple for the last two years, wanted to show her respect and sense of loss.  The local family, along with family from abroad seemed to appreciate the sentiments as they shared their grief and shock that someone who lived so close to a dangerous road crossing could have been killed there.

During the ride home, I discovered that my driver was the nephew of the couple and also a teacher.  He’d taught at the college my family’s kids attended and knew them.  He’s actually staying with a family in my village this week since he’s moved to Upolu.  When he dropped me off at my house, he was hugging the kids he’d taught while they unloaded not only the fine mat, case of pisupo but also a plate of food (chicken legs, sausages and chop suey).  That’s fa’asamoa.

School was still in session when I got back so I headed over after giving my family the case of corned beef and the plate of food. 

I spent the next hour listening to a discussion of how to provide lunch for the 100 or so teachers who are coming to a district wide teachers meeting at our school on Thursday.  My sole contribution was to suggest we have salati vi (a salad made from a local fruit, with peanuts and coconut cream)  I was voted down and then ignored.  Until they realized they needed some money up front.  I was asked for $100 which they will repay on Thursday when the teachers chip in for their lunches.

I gave them the money (which was the money the family of the deceased couple had given me)  but explained to the teacher asking (who’s one of my best friends) that her daughter was the collateral for the loan.  If I don’t get my $100 tala on Thursday, her adorable four year old daughter will be coming home with me.   I think I’ll get my money.

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