Monday, April 30, 2012

May Day in Samoa

May, 2012.  Hard to believe it.  I’ve been here for almost 19 months.  I’m leaving in less than two weeks for vacation in New Zealand.  Time is both flying and dragging simultaneously.  I’m not sure how that can be.

By 8:00 a.m. on this beautiful, sunny, sweltering day in May I had checked and responded to email, done a bucket of laundry and hung it out to dry, had a cup of coffee and a few gingersnaps, walked to school, spent an hour with a bunch of kids and copied stuff for a teacher from another school.  Isn’t it swell that my expertise with a copy machine is spreading across the island?

Then I left.  Not forever, just to finally go and buy the locks for my still open-to-the-village house.  Several teachers asked me what food I was bringing back for them.  If I was on my way to have my brain removed they’d ask if I could bring food back from the hospital.  I told them that I’d bring back whatever food I could find at the hardware store.

But I’m a sport and needed to hit the market for some vegetables anyway.  Plus, other than copying for other teachers and finishing grading the English exams I administered yesterday, I have nothing to do at school.  So I took the bus all the way to the market.  That caused a stir.  Several parents of my kids sell produce at the market and they were surprised to see me in uniform but not at school.  I explained about the broken locks and got a lot of sympathy.  I also got 10 free oranges as a gift from one parent.

While I was waiting for the bus to take me to the hardware store, I strolled over to the fish market to see what was on display.  I have a friend that is totally disgusted by fish markets but I find them fascinating.  Lots of eels and octopi today along with the normal reef fish and some fresh tuna.  One guy kept offering me different fish and I kept saying no thank you.  His fishing partner/relative finally laughed and said “She never buys anything.  She just likes to look.”  He seemed ok with that.  He also seemed to enjoy having the still alive slipper lobster “ride” an eel.   I watched and laughed.  We make our own fun here in Samoa.

I grabbed the locks at the hardware store ($55 USD for two deadbolt locks, no door handles included) then headed next door to Uncle Bill’s, the fast food joint.  I realized I’d bought popcorn and German buns for the teachers but nothing for my family.  I bought them two chicken dinners and a mango smoothie for myself.  I’m now addicted to anything slushy.

You may be wondering why I bought a gift to take home along with the locks.  It’s known as an oso.  It’s not really a gift, but I went to town so they get something.  Now, my mother and brother go to town everyday to work and they’ve never brought me anything, but I’m the one who needs new locks installed.  If $20 worth of fried chicken and French fries can make that happen sometime before I leave for New Zealand, I’ll be a happy woman.

The family seemed happy for the chicken and I was told they might do the locks tonight.  I’m hoping before dark because it will make it much easier that way.  


At a meeting last Friday, all of the School Resource Officers, including my boss, were given an application for a new Peace Corps Volunteer.  They were told a group of 15 will arrive for training in early October.  They will be mostly female and all would be between the ages of 25 – 30.  Since I wasn’t offered an invitation to serve in Samoa until September, with a start date in October (2010), I find it hard to believe Peace Corps knows exactly which 15 individuals will be coming.  If Group 84 has been invited, good for them.  More time to prepare and surf the internet for any references to Samoa and Peace Corps.

My boss and his boss were discussing the application in the office this afternoon.  I was there; busy typing, copying and collating (by hand) 100 copies of a 12 page document.  They seemed to think it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.  I assured them it would take a couple of hours, minimum.  It took 3.  They only thing more challenging for me to type than a Samoan test is a math test filled with algebra and geometry.

I was half-listening to them talk about which school might want a new volunteer and the odds of keeping one in Faga.  Suddenly my boss said, in English, “Are you extending?   Will you stay for another year?”

Perhaps if I wasn’t annoyed at having had to break in to a classroom that morning and sub for a teacher who didn’t call or show for school and wasn’t going to be spending my afternoon copying instead of buying locks for my house which still is wide open, I would have given it more than a second’s thought.  Or at least been a bit more diplomatic.  Instead my response was a blunt “No.”

They both looked shocked, although I’ve been trying to prepare them for this.  After the direct first response I went on to explain I need to find work to earn some money.  Plus, I miss home.  I miss my friends, who are like family to me.  My boss was still looking at me in amazement.  How could I leave?   I asked if he wouldn’t be homesick for the place and people he loved after more than two years.    Maybe, but this is Samoa, whose island beauty, culture and people are so far superior to anyplace else.   And the school here IS my family now.  How can I leave them?

The decision of whether or not to extend has been harder for me than I expected.  I never planned to extend, but then it started to take on a certain appeal.  I know though, if I extended it wouldn’t be for the right reasons.  Could I make more of a difference if I stayed?  Perhaps, by teaching more children for a longer period.  But it would not be sustainable or long term.    And deep down I know that part of wanting to stay is because I don’t want to say goodbye.  And I don't want to start again.  It’s a way to postpone something new and challenging.   The time to leave would still come, someday.  And isn’t the scary feeling of doing something new and challenging what keeps us from taking all the good stuff for granted?

Leaving for home is going to be hard, just as leaving home for Samoa was a mix of emotions.  I’m looking forward to creature comforts and long gabfests with good wine with dear friends.  I’ll cry a lot before I leave.  I’ll cry a lot when I get home.  Good tears, both times. 

Cultural Differences

After a relaxing weekend in Apia, I had a very enjoyable trip back to Savaii.   I made it the market in Apia Sunday to wait for the bus to the wharf.  I met a lovely woman from American Samoa who is the principal of a private primary school.  She was looking for an English teacher and said she wanted to keep in touch and send me photos and information about the school.  I don’t know that anything will come out of it, but nice to know there options out there. 

On board the ferry, I met a really nice Canadian women who is leading a group of nursing students in their practicum in Samoa at the hospital near my village.  She’s been coming for several years and since it’s a very small country, it wasn’t a surprise that we know several of the same people.

The bus home was packed and I had a little girl on my lap for most of the trip.  She was about 4 and was very uncomfortable sitting on a palagi lap.  Kids on the bus stare.  It’s not unusual that sitting next to me on the bus is the closest they’ve ever come to a white foreigner.  Some adults stare too but I attribute that to my dazzling beauty. 

Sometimes I’ll feel a small hand touch my hair or skin.   Even the kids at school who are used to seeing me will occasionally sneak a touch of my hair.  It is baby fine and very different than Samoan hair.  When I want a laugh from kids or adults, I just demonstrate how puny a bun I’d have if I tried to wear my hair the traditional way.

When I got home a group of the boys/young men of my family were lounging near the road.  They watched me carrying my suitcase filled with books.  I told them they were cheeky and requested help.  I asked the brother who helped me who had the new keys to my house.  He pointed to where his mother was sleeping in their open fale.  I hated to wake her up but didn’t want to sit outside either.  Her daughter called her name to wake her.  I never hear kids here, even young ones, call their mom anything but their first name, or nickname. 

She woke and told me they hadn’t fixed the locks and they couldn’t get the back door to shut so it had been open all weekend.  She also told me that they’d gone in to check on things and noticed the refrigerator was turned off and leaking.  She said they’d swept for me.  I thanked her.

When I got to my house I noticed the smell first.  Yes, the refrigerator had been off (no idea how that happened) and as a result all the meat in the freezer had thawed and was starting to rot in the tropical heat.  My cheese was toast.  Damn.  I should probably also toss the new jar of mayonnaise but mayo here is about $9 US a jar and I’m cheap.  The dogs enjoyed the meat.

I also noticed that someone had been using my bathroom.  I figured that out when I saw the toothbrushes on the sink, next to the newly opened extra tube of toothpaste I had purchased.  Someone also seems to have checked out a suitcase where I keep some clothes and other small items.

Here’s the cultural difference.  To me, it is incredibly rude to just go into someone’s house without permission and use their stuff.  I have dear friends who have given me spare keys to their homes.  It would never occur to me to snoop or use their house just because I know they’re out of town.  There’s a reason that the bit George Carlin did on “stuff” is a classic.  We Americans take our stuff seriously and it is ours.  Keep your mitts off.  How many siblings have shared a room with a tape line down the middle and death matches if someone encroaches on the other side?

Samoa, on the hand, has a communal culture.  Individuals don’t own stuff, everybody owns it.  I think I could live here forever and not really get that. 

I have, by far, the nicest bathroom in my compound.  The other families have flush toilets that are in “outhouses”.  They have a separate shower which has tin walls but no roof.  Teeth brushing is done at the spigot behind the house.  Technically, I’m a guest in their home.  If the door is wide open and that nice bathroom beckons, why not use it?

I want to stress that nothing was missing.  Cameras and computer were still here.  My family watches out for me.  We just have different views about privacy and boundaries. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Locked In

On Friday morning I was supposed to be ready for a friend to pick me up at 4:45 a.m.  We were headed to the ferry.  I was going to Apia to see the PC doctor and my friend was going to a meeting at the Ministry of Education.

I was ready to go when she arrived just before 5 a.m.  Not fully awake, but ready.  When I turned the key in the deadbolt lock that serves as my door knob, it turned but nothing happened.  I couldn’t get out.  My friend got out of the car and was talking to through the window, asking what the problem was.  Within minutes my host parents got up and came to see what was up.  I felt like an idiot. 

I passed my key outside through the gap between the wall and the ceiling, hoping that they could open the lock from the outside.  They couldn’t.  I was very glad the house wasn’t on fire.  I was also concerned that the delay would cause my friend to miss the boat, literally. 

My family suggested that I use the backdoor.  But I couldn’t find the key.  Eventually I found it on the floor where it had fallen.  I believe it either jumped (unlikely) or a rat knocked it off.   Unfortunately,  that lock wasn’t working either.  I was beginning to think I was in the Twilight Zone.   Or that I was still sleeping and having a nightmare that I would be trapped in my fale forever.

By that time, my friend had taken off and I knew there was no bus to the wharf at that time.  I was not smiling.  I passed the key outside to my patient parents along with continued apologies for getting them up before dawn.  As a tenant, I was a pain in the neck.  After a few minutes, they were able to open the back door.

They suggested calling their friend the cab driver, since if he drove like a maniac, I might still make it to the ferry in time.  The went off to call him and I grabbed my suitcase.  As I tried to lock the door I quickly realized that it wouldn’t lock.  I gave the key to my host mom and headed for the street.  My parents insisted on walking with me and waiting until the taxi arrived.

The driver got there quickly and we made it to the wharf in record time.  I made the boat.  Onboard, I found my friend.  I prefer to sit outside so left her in the air conditioning after agreeing we’d meet when we got off the boat.  She assured me I’d be welcome to ride with her and the other pules in the Ministry van. 

But when I got off the boat I couldn’t find her.  I finally walked up to a van and asked the well-dressed occupants (in Samoan) if they’d seen my friend.  I used her name.  They said no.  I asked if it was ok if I rode to Apia with them.  They said sure and put my suitcase in the van.  Air conditioned,  uncrowded comfort.  Much better than the hour ride in a hot, crowded bus.

A few minutes into the silent ride, I tried to make conversation by asking which schools they worked in.  They didn’t work in schools because they weren’t with the Ministry of Education.  It was a Ministry van but it was the Ministry of Women.  Wrong Ministry, wrong van.

Samoans are very flexible so when they realized the problem, they sped up to catch the correct van.  They caught it, signaled for it to pull over and they transferred my bag.  I hustled into the van but my friend wasn’t there.  Wrong van.  Again.  No matter, their were two vans from the Ministry of Education and my friend had taken the first one.

I went with them to the Ministry office and was lucky enough to immediately get a taxi to the PC office.  That  night I got a call from my friend.  She said she’d seen me arrive at the Ministry and get in the cab.  She also said that the other pules teased her all day because “You lost your palagi!”

Imagine the whole van escapade in the US.  Somehow I just don’t think they’d let a stranger hitch a ride with no questions asked.

The visit to the PC doctor was uneventful.  I got my flu shot, discussed my on-going battle with skin infections and found out my blood pressure was significantly higher than usual.  I explained that I had a reason for that.

Another Day

Tuesday started like Monday.  I was the first one at school and no one arrived for another twenty minutes.  Eventually, we had 7 teachers.  I normally teach two Year 7 classes before interval but the kids were off for teachers’ meetings.  One teacher suggested I take her class but I pretended I didn’t understand what she was asking and just went upstairs to work on a Peace Corps report.

I felt horrible about my best teacher friend.  She’d been absent the day before and should have stayed home today.  She clearly has a massive infection.  She’s been to the hospital and gotten antibiotics but her glands are so swollen you can see them, her eyes are swollen almost shut and she has a horrible cough.  I took her class for half of the day and took the Years 2 and 3 classes for the remainder of the time.

After school, I walked the half mile back to the resort to get my change.  They seemed surprised to see me and didn’t have any change.  After 20 minutes, we worked it out.  By then it was raining but I walked across the street to catch the bus to Salelologa to run some errands. Two minutes later a friend stopped in her van to offer me a ride.  My sick teacher friend was already on board.  What a treat to have a ride with friends instead of being crammed on the bus.

I used the ATM, did some grocery shopping then took a taxi to the post office.   I also stopped off at Samoa Tel to discuss my bill.  I have a landline that I use for the internet.  Although I’d paid my bill I receive a taped message each time I log in that my bill is overdue and that they were going to disconnect my phone.  The woman made several phone calls and told me that “the boys” would be told to remove the message since, yes, my bill was paid.

While I was waiting in the air conditioned comfort of the Samoa Tel office (very few offices in Savaii are air conditioned) I noticed a white chicken pecking at the door.  The chicken seemed determined to get in.  I believe the chicken could tell we had air conditioning and was jealous.  Whatever, she stood in the crack in the doorway where the cool air flowed out for the entire time I was there.

I had no mail at the post office but I stopped next door and bought some fried chicken for dinner.  I walked across the street with my bags to wait for the bus.  My sick friend and her daughter joined me after finishing their errands and we chatted for a couple of minutes as we waited.  Then the friend with the van rolled up and offered us a ride – again.  What a treat.  We stopped for gas and I was happy to contribute, although she was reluctant to take the money.  She gives me a ride every time she sees me on the road and I so appreciate it.

We chatted as we drove toward home.  We passed a college (high school) girl arriving home and greeting her young brother.  You’d think they hadn’t seen each other in months.  Lots of laughing and talking and ruffling of hair.  Very sweet and very typical.  It doesn’t matter if siblings have 10 -15 years age difference.  They are very close.

Next we passed a funeral that we’d passed earlier.  It was for one of the most famous pastors in Samoa.  He was 82 and highly revered.  I’ve never seen so many people/cars in one place on the island.  There were dozens of huge artificial flower arrangements.  Hundreds of people.  Knowing what is expected of the family when someone dies I was doing some mental calculations.  I’m guessing the cost to the family was in the tens of thousands.

I came home to enjoy my chicken.  I also got a “fix” of Julius, my five month old uo.  He was screaming because it was time for dinner but when he heard my voice, stopped and started laughing.  He looked at me, ducked his head, smiling in shyness then remembered he was hungry and started screaming again.

Another day at home in Samoa.