Monday, February 27, 2012

I Don't Live Like a Local

Our goal in Peace Corps is “integration”.  To live like a local and become part of the community.  There are several reasons for that.

One is safety.  If people think we have a lot of “stuff” and money that places us at risk.  It also places us in a different social stratosphere.   It makes it harder for people to relate to us.  And being white, foreign and English-speaking, we’re already hard enough to relate to.  Living like a local also makes it easier to get things done.  If people think you’re part of the community they are more likely to trust you.

Today, once again, it was in-my-face that I’m not living like a local.  Teachers here get paid every two weeks.  My teachers were paid last week.  They were broke before payday and they’re broke now.  I get a monthly living allowance.  It is not a lot.  Let’s just say that I earned more in 5 hours as a consultant what I earn here in a month.  But it is more than teachers earn.

The other factor is that the teachers are typically the only bread winners in their families.  They may support 20 other people.  I just have to buy food for myself.  One of my host sisters was telling me she’s the only one in my family in Apia with a job.  So she is responsible for food, transportation, fun, etc. for four siblings either in university or looking for work.  She is 19.  She does not begrudge the responsibility.  And she gives one brother with a knee injury a massage every night.  I’d be telling him to get over himself and get a job.

We have interval every day for 30 minutes (or 20 or an hour or two, whatever).  That is the time for eating.  Today, the teachers ate rice.  They offered me a bowl but I told them to eat mine.  I had some ramen noodles that I pulled out of my cupboard.  They were jealous.  When was the last time your lunch was plain rice?  I gave half my ramen to my 3 year old friend, the daughter of one of the teachers.  They shared it.  I was still hungry but knew that I had a ‘fridge full of food. 

After school, I was talking with some of the teachers.  “Do you have food in your house?”  they asked.  “Yes, macaroni salad. I had some last night and it is my dinner for tonight.”  “Bring it to us.”  “No, because then I will have no dinner.”

I showed them the text I’d received from Peace Corps that my monthly living allowance is delayed a week.  No problem for me, since I live below my means (thanks, mom and dad, for teaching me that) but the other volunteers don’t.  Many were dead broke last week. 

One of the questions and challenges here is how far to go to integrate in the community.  If you’re Jewish, do you still attend a Christian church every Sunday because that is fa’asamoa?  If you’re a volunteer do you only eat what your fellow teachers eat?  Rice, canned sardines, taro and breadfruit?  Do you only take the bus when sometimes a taxi is almost as cheap and so much easier?  Do you spend weekends at resorts, drinking beer and spending money on food?  Do you stock pile food at Farmer Joe’s when you’re in Apia?

Those are questions we each have to answer.  We each have to find our own paths.  I’m trying to walk a middle line.  I will never be viewed as a Samoan.  I’m not.  I’m an American.  I’ll never truly live like a local. My friends will be eating boiled bananas or breadfruit for dinner.  I’ll have tuna mac salad and an apple/blue cheese sandwich thanks to my bargain shopping.   I just hope I’m living in a way that they can respect. 

Triumph and Sadness

There’s a teachers’ meeting for Years 7 & 8 so those kids stayed home today.  That meant I had much of my day free.  Hurray!  I worked on the office d├ęcor – typing signs and materials and posting them, per the request of my principal.  I also spent 30 minutes with a Year 8 student.

No, he wasn’t supposed to be at school.  Last year he had the dubious distinction of being the last in his class.  I told him this year would be different.  He lives next door to me and is related to my family in some way.  He’s a sweet, gentle, funny boy.  But he’s been left behind, academically.

This morning he came to drop off food for his younger sister.  He stopped by the office because he knew I was there.  I think he’s in the midst of a 13 year old teacher crush and was less interested in learning than just hanging out with someone he likes, who pays attention to him.  But he was willing to work.

We worked on phonics with flash cards.  I read him a story in English and helped him read it back.  That wasn’t working so well so I got a book in Samoan.  First go around, not so good.  Second time, much better.  I saw the light in his eyes when he started to connect that letters and sounds and words were all connected.  And could form a story.

This is why I became a teacher in 1972.  It’s why I agreed to be a teacher in Peace Corps in 2010.  To see a child learn.  The third time, he got it.  Not perfect, but he was starting to sound out words.

We were interrupted when his older brother came to the door looking for him.  Minutes later as I was walking downstairs, I heard the unmistakable sound of wood on flesh.  A sound I hear all too often.  I looked over toward his house and saw that he was being beaten.  I assume it was because he wasn’t doing his chores.  Because he was learning to read.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Small Things

I was talking to an American yesterday in Apia.  She’s here working on her doctoral dissertation.  We agreed that it is the small things that are both challenging and wonderful.

For example, it’s been cloudy and relatively cool here this morning.  Probably mid-80’s.  Now the sun is out and my house is talking.  That’s how I think of it when it makes noises as the sun heats the tin room.  I’ll miss that sound although I won’t miss the heat that comes with it.

I saw my host sister petting one of the dogs today.  That’s the first time I’ve seen a Samoan pet a dog.  The visiting American was saying she found out recently that her cat (back home) has kidney disease.  It’s upsetting to her but she can’t share that with any Samoan friends.  Our animals are pets and members of the family.  Here, they are annoyances or serve a purpose.  The thought of sending a sympathy card for the loss of a dog or cat would seem ludicrous to Samoans.

The constancy of the sound of the waves is a great comfort to me.  It reminds me that there is something much bigger and more important than my puny complaints.  It reminds me that life will go on long after I will.  It reminds me that there is beauty and mystery under a seemingly smooth surface.

I was gone Friday and Saturday.  Today at church I saw many of my school kids.  You’d think I’d been gone for months.  Those delighted and genuine smiles are wonderful.  Yesterday I took a cab to the wharf with some other volunteers.  We stopped at McDonald’s drive-thru on our way out of town.  There was a car parked nearby with two little boys and their parents in it.  Those little boys couldn’t get enough of staring and waving at the carload of palagis.  If one palagi is interesting, seeing a whole car full is a real treat.  I waved back the whole time.

Not knowing basics of social cues is frustrating and makes me feel uncomfortable and like an idiot.  Many of the people I know live in open fales.  No walls.  Others live in palagi houses but the door is rarely closed.  The same is true of my house.  When someone approaches my house, the dogs usually announce their presence and I go to the doorway to greet them and invite them in.  That happens when I visit a Samoan home, too.  Sometimes. 

Other times, the person sitting in an open fale clearly sees me but says nothing.  We were told to just walk up, take off our shoes, step onto the cement floor and sit.  But stepping into someone’s house when they haven’t invited me in, or even greeted me, feels wrong.  It’s happened several times when a group of people is inside talking.  They see me coming.  Conversation stops.  They watch me walk up.  I say hello.  I may or may not get a greeting in return.  Usually there is some kind of greeting, even if just a nod.  Then I stand just outside looking, I’m sure, awkward and very palagi.

Sometimes I’ve realized they’re waiting to invite me in until whoever they’ve sent running to get a chair for me shows up.  Sometimes I think they feel just as awkward as I do.  Hard to say but it still happens and it’s still uncomfortable.  In the States, I know to just walk up to the door and ring the bell.  Someone will answer, or not. They’ll invite me in, or not.  But I’ll know what’s going on.

Yesterday at the wharf I was a bit early and the security guys invited me to put my luggage outside to make it easier to grab as I got on the boat.  Nice of them.  But when I went to get on my backpack was missing.  I asked the guard and he shrugged.  My sister was with me and she told him I was not just some palagi tourist but a Peace Corps and part of her family and he’d better find my bag.  He told us to check in the luggage area on the boat.

We did and my backpack was there.  My sister stepped in again and explained that someone had taken my backpack and brought it onto the boat and they better keep an eye on it so the same person didn’t try to take it off the boat.

One employee explained he had brought it on.  Why?  I’ll never know.  He didn’t bring the suitcase it was sitting on.  They’ve never carried my luggage on before unless I was with it.  I retrieved both bags as I was getting off the boat and everything was intact.

My sister and I were lugging my stuff as we headed toward the bus.  A man came running up and told me to come with him.  I hesitated and he grabbed my arm and started pulling me with him.  I still hesitated.  He started explaining he was the supokoka (what I call a bus boy) for my bus.  I knew that but I wanted him to take the suitcase that my sister was hauling for me.

He hefted the bag and led the way.  He loaded my stuff on the bus and when we got to my house told the bus driver to stop then unloaded my stuff for me.  That’s a 45 minute bus ride, personal service and luggage handling and music, all for $1 USD.

Food or Books?

When I go to Apia, which is usually every 2 or 3 months, I buy food.  Things I can’t get on my island.  Olives, peppers, marshmallows (although there were none to be had this trip), canned tomatoes,  nail polish remover (ok, not food), lentils, etc.  I also buy fresh produce that I can’t get here.  I couldn’t understand why they didn’t sell the same produce at the market since it can (and frequently is) grown on my island.  It’s because there’s no one to buy it.  There are very few palagis on my island and very few Samoans interested in expanding the very limited menu here.

Now that Mr. Kindle is brain dead, I need books.  Books are in short supply here.  They have a few English novels at the Wesley book store, but they are mostly religion-themed and about $20 US a book.  There’s a library which I hear has English books but the hours are 10:00 to 3:00 and I’m teaching then.  No Saturday hours.   Importing books from the stash at the PC office seems the best option.

Friday I went to Apia for meetings, shopping and a cooking lesson with our Country Director’s wife.  It was a dilemma.  I had a carry on bag (roller type) and a back pack.  Since I was just there for one night, I took very little with me.  The problem coming home was less space than weight.  I typically read 2 books or so a week.  If I exchange books every 2 months, that’s 16 books.  That’s a lot of weight.  Jar of jalepenos or a book?  Choices, choices.

I was talking to a couple of other volunteers yesterday and admitted that I’m a food hoarder.  They said they were too.  I used to read magazines like Family Circle which advocated making up menus for a month and shopping only for those items.  If you planned carefully and used leftovers you could save millions of dollars.  I tried it.  Once.  But sometimes when it was spaghetti night, I wanted chicken. 

Samoans eat what they have.  And typically, they have food in the house for one meal.  If you’re not in the mood for whatever that food is, you don’t eat.  But that wouldn’t happen.  They are not spoiled, like I am, and think you should be able to eat whatever you have a taste for at the time.

It felt better to hear that the other two volunteers use my approach.  Keep the cupboards stocked with staples and fresh veg of some kind and then you can whip up whatever.  No advance planning needed. But I still feel a twinge of guilt when I look at my fully stocked ‘fridge and cupboards.  Misplaced guilt?  Perhaps.  Guilt or not, it’s the way I prefer to eat and I’ll keep doing it.  I’m already planning to “eat down” my pantry before I leave.  Most of the stuff I have my Samoan friends and family wouldn’t want and the new volunteers will be in training on the other island.  Even the pigs won’t eat my lentils.  They don’t know what they’re missing.
I’m getting ready to leave for church and still don’t know what I’ll have for lunch after.  Because I shopped in Apia yesterday, I have meat other than chicken legs/thighs.  I scored some chorizo.  Locally made and barely spiced, but still, it’s chorizo.  Also got a few pieces of chuck steak.  I freeze packages of about 3 ounces and use it to make green chile stew and other treats.  I also have bleu cheese.  Farmer Joe’s discounts their dairy products when the expiration date is nigh.  I got the cheese for $2.50, US.  Normally $13 and out of my price range.  There were two packages left and I bought them both.  Another volunteer was thrilled to repay me for it so we both got bargain cheese.

I also have “real” green beans.  Not the tough long beans that I can get here part of the year, but actual green beans.  My options for lunch are endless.  Every Samoan family in the village will be having taro, breadfruit, chicken and, perhaps, pig. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


I have trouble with time.  It can drag.  Or speed by in the blink of an eye.  Samoa has not helped.  I never know when things will start here.  Or end.  Church is scheduled for 9:00 a.m.  Sometimes it starts then, but that's rare.  Usually it's more like 9:20 a.m.  Rarely, it's 8:45 a.m.

School is the same way.  We have a schedule.  We ring the bell when it is time to start assembly, start classes, have interval, etc.  But the time varies.  Today, we were running early.  Instead of the normal 8:10 bell, it rang at 8:00. The bell for interval, which normally is at 11:20 rang at 11:10.  I was in the middle of something with my class so we kept going until 11:20.

I was substitute teaching for Year 8 today.  Their teacher, who is also the principal was at a meeting.  The Year 7 teacher could have taken them since he wasn't teaching Year 7 but he was too tired.  He went to Australia just when school started.  After the two month break, followed by his 3 week vacation overseas, he says he's too tired to teach so needed this week to rest.  While I taught Years 7 and 8 today, he slept in the library.

At the end of the day I'd taken Year 8 out to the hall.  I'd asked the neighbor boy who's in that class to cut some sticks for me.  I asked for four.  He brought me 24. 

I showed the kids how to play a game that involves rhythmic hitting and throwing of the sticks between pairs of players.  It's a Maori game I saw at the cultural show in New Zealand.  The kids loved it.  Since there is no love lost between Samoans and Maoris I didn't tell them where the game came from.

I was busy working with the kids as they learned this new game when the Infant Supervisor asked what I was doing.  I explained the game.  "No" she said.  "Why are you still here?" 

I looked around and realized all the other kids were headed toward the street with the teachers on their heels.  I looked at my watch.  We still had 30 minutes before school was scheduled to be out.  The Infant Supervisor explained that she dismissed the school early because she and the other teachers wanted to go into town to the bank.  We dismissed early yesterday, too, because it was payday and they wanted to go to the bank.

I hustled the kids back up stairs and we finished up and said a prayer.  The other teachers were gone by the time I left school.  Still 5 minutes before school was supposed to be over.

I feel like I just got to Samoa.  I feel like I've been here a lifetime.  I don't understand time.