Sunday, September 30, 2012

Quick Update

First, I apologize for lack of spacing/paragraphs. Technical issues continue and with dial up it just is too hard to correct. I found out the reason the men took their shirts off yesterday is that it is traditional for young, untitled men to wear nothing but ie lavalavas when carrying gifts to guests. But because it was Sunday, the men left on their singlets. Also, if they have the traditional full body tattoos they pull their lavalavas higher so the tattoos will show. Works for me. I was one of the first at school today. We started about 45 minutes late. We're easing into Daylight Savings Time. Only six days until the arrival of Group 84. I hope you're enjoy what may be a bittersweet time. It may be hard to say goodbye to those you love, to say nothing of hot showers. But such an adventure awaits. As I was busy copying and collating today, my best friend (also a teacher in my school) came to talk to me. To tell me she'd love me and miss me. We both got a bit teary. And I'm not leaving for another month and a half. I told her that I loved her and would miss her but during my last week in the village, I would just call her the devil (my nickname for her) and tell everyone that I wouldn't miss her at all. Otherwise, I'll be sobbing the whole last week. I got videotape of Prince Julius being himself. I hope I'll have time to post that and some other photos this weekend. BTW, Group 84 - we're all excited to meet you but have been asked not to come to the airport to greet you. That would cause us to miss school on Monday. Instead we'll be meeting you later in the week. Manuia le malaga - safe travels!

Weekend Update

Daylight Savings Time, as I reported earlier, started yesterday in Samoa. Sort of. Things are running about half and half – half new time, half old time. The problem is in determining which is which. My boss said she’d pick me up at 8:30 a.m. yesterday to attend the teachers’ prayer service. I wasn’t sure if that was the “new” time or the old. It was actually 9:;06 – just about half way between new and old. The chartered bus for the teachers passed on her way to my house, so they were operating on “new” time. The church hall in Salelologa was already ¾ full with teachers all dressed in white, trimmed in green, the liturgical color of the month. I found a seat up front with the teachers from my school and my district. While all of the recent teachers’ meetings and my visits to the other schools in my district have taken me out of the classroom, the upside is that I’ve gotten to know a lot of the other teachers and principals better which makes it easier and more fun at events like this. I found out afterwards that at least two other Peace Corps Volunteers were at the event but I didn’t even see them, let alone have time to say hello. I was busy hugging, kissing and chit-chatting with my Samoan teacher friends. We were at the event around 9:30. I thought we’d start at 10:00, as promised. And we did. With us practicing our hymns, while a room packed with teachers listened and some joined in. The minister arrived a bit after 11:00, along with the television cameraman and we got started shortly thereafter. It was a nice service, with the hymns, bible readings, several prayers of over ten minutes each and a sermon. The service ended in traditional Samoan style – a mealofa (gift) for the Ministry. The pastor announced something I wasn’t paying attention to and there was a mad rush of people toward the parking lot. But the teachers around me weren’t moving. What the heck? Plus, I looked out and saw some of the men stripping off their dress shirts. Then the lead SRO got up with the traditional talking stick and from the floor, not the dais, started speaking to the Ministry staff sitting on the dais. As he spoke I realized what was happening. It was time for the teachers to show their respect and love to the Ministry to allowing us to teach. The teachers rushed in with numerous fine mats, trays of crackers and sodas (with cash stuck in the tops of the cans), envelopes filled with cash and what appeared to be a few checks. There were also cases and cases of corned beef, which were carried by the shirtless men. When that was finished, a representative of the Ministry spoke, then the pastor declared “uma” “done” and announced that there was free food being passed out in the parking lot. The room emptied of hundreds of teachers in seconds. The event ended about 1:30 p.m. That’s 1:30 p.m. DST. I asked my boss on the way home what time school would start today. She was surprised and said the regular time. “New time or old time?” “New time!” I got up early this morning to wash my sheets in a bucket. One of my least favorite tasks. It was dark at 6:15 when I got up. It’s now 7:15 and people are just starting to stir. No kids at the school. No kids at the road. Plus, it’s raining, which always mean things start late. I’ll go ahead now and hang my sheets out in the rain and head to school to get started on the copying I have to get finished. I bet I’m the only one there for another hour or so. Island time…

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Pig Chaser

Do you think adding “pig chaser” to my resume will be helpful in finding post-service employment? I can list it without lying because I helped chase down a renegade pig last night.

 I was standing in my doorway, chatting with one of my brothers. i’d just offered to give him one of the fa’apapa that I’d just purchased, hot from the umu, from one of my Year 7 students.

Fa’apapa is not only fun to say (there’s emphasis on the last two a’s) but it’s very tasty. I think it’s just made of flour and coconut cream which is made into a dough then wrapped in a breadfruit leaf and baked. Dense bread with a coconut flavor.

As I was going to get the fa’apapa, my brother said something I didn’t catch and ran behind my house. I put down the fa’apapa and ran after him to find out what was going on. Our pigs were gathered around the uma kuka because it was feeding time. They seemed to be watching with some interest as my brother tried to trap a small pig which had escaped from our neighbor’s yard.

As I was watching I realized that the pig had slipped by my brother and was heading toward me. I didn’t hesitate. Like any superhero, I leaped into action. Well, more like a hefty lumbering middle-aged woman, but I did give chase and blocked the pigs escape. The pig raced back toward my brother and he made an amazing flying leap – fully committed , body full extended, NFL-worthy, and grabbed the squealing pig.

He managed to get his arms around the pig and stand up. By then, the pig’s owner (and proud father of 1 week old baby boy David) had arrived and took the porcine hand off.

I pointed out to my brother that his leg was bleeding but he was unconcerned. “I’m used to it.” was his answer when I expressed admiration for his diving catch.

What do you think? Add pig chaser to the resume? Or just let it remain one of my hidden talents.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

At 3:00 a.m. this morning, Samoa, an island nation celebrating 50 years of independence this year, turned the clocks forward an hour to observe Daylight Savings Time.  Just like in the United States, we “spring forward” and “fall back”.  If you’re wearing a sweater and watching the leaves change in the Midwest, remember that Samoa is in the southern hemisphere, so we’re heading into winter.  Which is better known as the wet season.

Before going to bed last night, I set my two cell phones forward.  Then I set my watch forward an hour.  I left my wall clock and computer alone.

I didn’t sleep well because I was worried about waking up at the right time.  I normally wake up when the sun comes up, as do most Samoans.  That’s how we know it’s time to get up and get to work.  But with the change to DST, it would still be darkish.

I heard the roosters and saw dawn light creeping over the lagoon and got up.  I looked at my telephone.  5:45 a.m.  That can’t be right.  It’s too light out for that.  I looked at my other telephone.  5:46 a.m.    I checked my watch.  6:46 a.m.  What the hell?

Next I checked my wall clock.  5:47 a.m.  And my computer?  6:55 a.m.  I have to believe the wall clock is an hour late, since I didn’t change it.  I have to believe my watch is correct, since I did change it.  I also believe my computer, which switches automatically to the correct DST.

I believe the two cell phone companies actually changed the time BACK instead of forward an hour.  I changed them manually last night because although they should switch automatically, last year they didn’t switch until 3 days after the official switch.

Ok, so It’s 7:25 DST in Savaii.  Now the question is, what time will the special bus come to pick me up for the teachers’ church event?  I was told it will start in Pu’apu’a at 7:30 a.m., which would mean it would get to me around 8:00, which means I should head out to the road no later than 7:45.

But last year, even though people changed their clocks an hour ahead, they postponed everything by one hour.  Essentially, we were operating on the old time.  I found that out when I got to church last year and no one else was there.  The church was locked and I was too lazy to walk home, so sat in a beach fale in my fancy hat and puletasi, enjoying the dawn sea air.

Eventually, people started strolling toward church and that’s when I discovered it was starting an hour later than normal.  I made the same mistake the next day at school.  Instead of having the first bell at 7:30 a.m, it was at 8:30 a.m.  Ending time, though was on Daylight Savings Time.  School was just an hour shorter than usual.

As I was lying in bed, sweating in the humid air, pondering what time I actually had to be dressed and out the door, my phone rang.  It was now either 5:59 a.m. or 6:59 a.m., depending on which of my clocks you consulted.

It was my SRO, telling me she was coming to pick me up (which is several miles out of her way) so that I didn’t have to get all sweaty on the crowded bus.  She also planned to bring a hat so I wouldn’t be the only one in the crowd without one.  She was very surprised when I told her I’d bought a hat 1 ½ years ago and wear it every week.  Since we live in different villages, she’s never seen me on a Sunday.

I asked what time she’d be picking me up.  8:30 a.m.  As I was pondering whether that was the “new” 8:30 or the old 8:30, she clarified that the service was being held at the old time.

I plan to be ready by the new 8:30 just to cover my bases.  I don’t want to be late because I’ve been told I get to sit up front so the TV cameras can get a good shot of the palagi teacher.   I wonder what time school will start tomorrow? 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Packing and Housing for Group 84

A few other Savaii volunteers came over for lunch last Saturday.  We have a great relationship.  I love to cook and they love to eat.  The Mexican food wasn’t my best effort but still, it was Mexican food.

I passed the leftovers on to my family.  The chicken in enchilada sauce got a so-so.  It was chicken, after all.   Refried beans…no way, Jose.  The Spanish rice?  They ate it, but would have preferred plain white rice.  Except my little buddy Prince Julius, who will eat anything.

An aside, btw – Julius, 11 months old, has been the strong, silent type up until now.  Now, he giggles, cackles and shrieks at a pitch that makes the dogs hold their ears.  I can hear him now from his fale, checking his volume control.  Laughing loudly, just because he can.  Is there a more delightful sound than a baby laughing? 

Back to the point…after the other Volunteers and I talked about ourselves and each other we started talking about Group 84.  Get used to it, trainees – it’s a small country and everybody will be talking about everything you say and do for the next two years.

We were discussing packing.  The guys said absolutely bring dry bags.  Heat and humidity are really tough on electronics.  So are ants and ants love to eat the innerds of computers  (also known as silicon, which is not to be confused with silicone.  The tatas are safe).  They also suggested silica packs (which are neither computer nor tata innerds).  Yes, it’s really, really humid here.  And clearly, when you spend this much time on a small island your already one- bubble- off -plumb sense of humor gets one bubble closer to the end of the level.

In addition to electronics, dry bags are good for your stuff.  It’s not unusual to have a walk of a mile or so to school.  It’s also not unusual to arrive soaking wet after walking through a tropical deluge.  Do you want your lesson materials to also be dripping wet?

A couple of the younger, thinner Volunteers said to be sure to bring bras.  They can be hard to find here unless you’re one of us full-figure types.   Those are also poor quality and expensive.   Also – athletic bras or athletic clothes of any kind are very expensive here.  And wicking is a beautiful thing.

A good camera is a bonus but remember cameras and other electronic stuff tends to walk away here.  Sometimes you get it back, sometimes you don’t, so don’t bring something that would break your heart to lose.

Flash drives and a hard drive are also really handy.  Especially if your hard drive is filled with movies, games, tv shows, etc.  You will have countless hours to while away in your fale.   I’ve also found that after a particularly frustrating, maddening or whatever day, a good dose of Modern Family gets my mood back where it belongs. 

Cards or portable games are good and a great way to break the ice with your family and others.  Regular cards, the addicting Monopoly Deal, Uno, etc.  All are great in the training village and will be handy with your families.

One of the things that my kids love me for is puzzles.  My friends have generously sent box load after box load of stuff, including kids’ word search and crossword puzzles.  Spot the difference is also good.  You can download a lot of that stuff for free while you’re still living in the land of free wireless.  Remember that pre-K and very low level is where many of the kids are here, even in the higher grades.  Connect the dots alphabet and number pictures are also outstanding.

The best gift I’ve received for the school was white board slates.  A friend just sent a bunch from the dollar store.  $1 apiece and they are awesome.  The kids have never seen anything like them and I use them frequently for small group work.  They love competition and the boards make it easy.  Huge smiles every time I pull them out.

About housing.  I saw the Pu’apu’a house.  The good news – it’s right on the water, as in you’ll be able to throw bread to the fish from your window.  It’s a nice little (about 10X12) house with an indoor bathroom.  They’re also putting in a kitchen sink.  Because it will be almost all windows and is on the water it should be pleasantly cool.

The downside?  It will be almost all windows and is very close to the main road.  You will have no privacy, but not to worry.  There is no privacy in Samoa.  It’s about a mile walk to school and the nearest store.  And, your house is being built by your new boss…literally in front of his house.  You’ll be able to say “Goodnight, Johnboy” every night.  Ask your parents about the quote, you’ve probably never heard of it, but bet they remember The Waltons.

I heard from an Upolu volunteer that she got to see the housing for the new volunteer near her village on the south side of Upolu.  It’s a room in a family’s house, but in a fale that you’ll be the only one living in, most of the time.  And, she described it as a mansion – it even has tile floors throughout.  That’s quite a luxury – most floors are bare concrete or linoleum laid out over bare concrete.  Just to keep your expectations in check, there are no mansions in Samoa as we think of them in the USA.

The famous Patamea house is also set.  It’s famous because it was the nicest house of any in our group.  The village not only built it from scratch on the school compound, they put tile on the floor, painted the walls and stocked it with dishes and everything else you could need.  I don’t know if all that stuff is still there.  The volunteer who lived there left early after months of service so it was left empty and the village may have taken some of the stuff out rather than just let it sit there.

I just got back from an impromptu visit to the hospital (to meet someone, not health related) and the Tuisivi store.  While I waited over an hour for the bus (too friggin’ hot and sunny to walk in mid-afternoon) home, I chatted with the owner.  Let me just say upfront that If I had known this before I decided not to extend, I might have changed my mind.

They are expanding the already best store in Savaii.  It will include “spare parts”.  I’m not sure what that means.  It is very close to the hospital and there are a lot of amputations due to diabetes here.  Could “spare parts” be arms, legs, toes, etc? 

There will also be more groceries, but chances are no more vegetables.  Really, who would want to buy them?  They’re also adding enough space to house a bank branch.  National Bank of Samoa just opened a tiny branch across the street so it’s not them.  Since she also said there would be an ATM, that means either ANZ or WestPac.  Cool beans for Savaii volunteers.

Not that I’m bitter or anything that all of this will happen after I leave, but crap, you might as well stay in Surprise, AZ.  You’ll have almost all the same amenities.  Just kidding.  It will still be a challenge on so many levels.

Just over a week to go before you begin a huge adventure.  Samoa’s waiting for you!


I knew that I wouldn’t be teaching the kids today.  I’ve been too busy typing and copying and my boss has his priorities in order.  Anyone can teach.  Only the Pisi Koa and make magic on the computer.

School started for me at 6:45, when I did get to hang out with some kids.  I needed to watch a video of the siva (dance) I need to learn and they were enthralled.  Watching me do a Samoan dance is always fun because while I’m enthusiastic, I’m also hilariously bad.

The video was one I filmed during our COS conference.  One of the resort employees offered to teach us a dance they use in their Fiafia Night for guests.  I filmed not only her, but the ladies of Peace Corps, practicing behind her.

Having me there in person was funny stuff, but having a video of young, cute Pisi Koa, doing a Samoan siva?  Priceless.  But I think this morning was when they realized they’d been cheated.  They got the old wrinkly Pisi Koa instead of the young, hot Pisi Koa.  Too bad for them.

I spent half an hour before school with one of the teachers, showing her some more stuff on word processing.  While all the teachers have expressed interest in learning, she’s the only one who actually shows up every day. 

School started as it does every Friday morning with assembly.  First prayer, hymns and religious education then announcements and discipline.  The discipline today was because some of the kids were playing in the road yesterday on their way home and almost got run over by the husband of one of the teachers.  I was screaming at them from a distance, seeing that they were being stupid and oblivious to traffic.

Ordinarily, that offense is worthy off a beating but because I was there they held back, much to the chagrin of the teacher who usually administers the punishment.  I believe that when I leave she’ll make up for lost time.

The announcements were about the Teachers’ Week program next week.  The big day for the kids will be Wednesday.  We’ll be up in the dark, walk to the end of the village, I’ll wait an hour in the dark with the kids for the other teachers to show up, then we’ll march through the village singing and yelling and waiting for parents to come out and give money to the teachers.

I was taught it was shameful to beg and have had trouble with “tausalas” (dancing for donations) and constantly asking the parents for food and money.  I have to keep reminding myself that just because my values are different doesn’t make them better.  It is still hard for me, though, knowing the parents have so little.

Once we get to school, after the march, the kids will each perform songs, dances and poems (all in Samoan) and then dance to encourage their parents to give us more money.  Then the teachers will dine on food prepared by the families of our students.

After assembly, the students were sent to their classrooms.  The teachers hung around in the hall for another half hour or so, discussing the logistics for Sunday’s teachers’ prayer service and then gossiping.  My boss had brought additional papers for me to copy so I was sent upstairs to work while the remaining staff relaxed and the kids ran wild.

 I practiced patience and humility as I worked, which are two traits that are really, really hard for me.  I’ve developed a new phrase that I only use in my head.  When really pissed off and frustrated and know that I need to suck it up and not show it my mantra is “I’m gonna  get all Mother Theresa on your ass!”  As in, keep pushing and I am going to act like a freaking saint.  On the outside,   I’m all cool and angelic while on the inside I’m a gangsta with a halo.

The rest of the morning I made copies.  I typed and scanned images into an exam that will be used district wide in two weeks.  It is 30 pages long.  I’m copying it double-sided but had trouble explaining that I still have to make 100 copies of 30 different pages.  Each page takes 13 minutes, with no interruptions.  I was interrupted an average of 4 times each half hour by other teachers needing to use the copy machine.   I expect to get it done by Christmas. 

As I was copying, my boss, as she’s done all week, observed.  While the machine was copying I was working on the Answer Key for the exam and then some plays for English Day.  I had to stop copying and print out what I was doing so she could check it.  As a consultant I was unaccustomed to this level of micromanagement.  I continued mentally goin’ gangsta.

Happily, she collated and stapled another large document that she’d asked me to copy.  That gave her something to do, which was good for me.  I’d finished what I needed to do on the computer, so turned on the siva so I could watch and try to get the moves down, while the machine was copying.

That got her interest and we had a good conversation about Samoan dancing and I was able to let her know that I really do understand that the movements mean something related to the words of the song.  I just seem to be physically incapable of dancing so that it tells a story.  Well, besides the story –“Here’s a woman who has no sense of rhythm and absolutely no grace, which is why she’s a barren old maid.”

I continued copying and she continued observing for the next several hours.   We chatted as I copied and since both of us will be turning 62 next month I asked how old she felt.  She said “Like you.  I’m very young, maybe 23.”  Then she giggled.   It’s those moments that I treasure – I get so damned uptight about things needing to be done, children to be taught and my Samoan friends are trying to help me enjoy the moment.

Then it was interval time and the two male teachers joined us and the three of them watched me work and commented on how busy I was.  Deep breath…and live in the moment or not…Mother Theresa…on all your asses.

My bosses bought us all ramen noodles and instant coffee so I took a break and we enjoyed dining together.  Then it was time for school to be dismissed 1 ½ hours early so we could have singing practice with all the teachers from two districts in Salelologa.  These are the hymns that we’ll be singing Sunday at the service for all the teachers of Savaii.  It will be televised nationwide on one of the two channels in the country.

My boss offered me a ride in her air conditioned car, which was so much better than the bus.  Her cousin, who’s also my neighbor, was our driver.  She seemed surprised but pleased that I chatted with him in Samoan since I usually only speak English at school.

We stopped to take care of a couple of errands she had and one was at the market.  I asked if we had time for me to run in and buy some carrots.  We did.  Technically, we didn’t but she’s the boss and we were operating on island time.

I bought two expensive mangoes and a pricey avocado along with the carrots.  Saves me having to take the bus to the market tomorrow which takes hours even though, by car, it’s only a 30 minute drive.  And it means that tonight I’ll be having a cabbage salad topped with crab, mango and avocado.   With an orange vinaigrette.  You can’t imagine how hard it is for me to be both a saint AND Julia Child.

We were early for practice because it started 45 minutes late.  Our teachers were 1 ½ hours late.  I have no idea where they went instead of coming directly here.  During the singing, I tried to stay incognito.  As the only volunteer (the other Peace Corp and the Japanese volunteer wimped out), I’m hard to miss but I do my best.  Ironic then that just as we came to the end of one hymn and there was a moment of silence, my phone rang.  Goody, now everyone knows I’m here.

It was my country director, calling to discuss the schedule for the session I’m facilitating the first week of training for the new group, which is in just over a week.  Yes, PC staff has had almost two years to prepare the schedule.  Yes, I’m sure there are a lot of good reasons why we’re coming down to the wire with a schedule still in flux.    I did my best to be calm and flexible.  Mentally, however, I was goin’ Mother Theresa gangsta, again.

After singing I was supposed to go to siva practice at a nearby resort with the other volunteers.  However when I checked with them they hadn’t started (it was planned to start an hour prior) and I decided I wasn’t in the mood to sit around waiting for something that might never happen, so I headed for the bus home.

I caught the same bus that about 50 other teachers were getting on, to say nothing of the normal passengers who must have been doing their own mental version of gangsta when they saw a herd of teachers waiting for the bus.  Normally, teachers get priority seating, but when it’s this crowded you take what you can get.  I got a seat and no one took me up on my offer to sit on my lap.

It was very hot, very crowded and a very slow trip.  It was also a preview of the hellish ride we’ll have next week from the Mulifanua Wharf  to Apia (normally about 1 ½ hours) when ALL the teachers from Savaii are headed into Apia to march in the big Friday spectacular conclusion to Teachers’ Week.

I got home to find my family hanging out in their faleo’o, as usual.  And, as usual, I stopped to say hello and get my Julius fix.  When he heard my voice, he turned, gave me a heart melting grin and started his unique one-knee-up-one-knee-down crawl as fast as he could toward me.
We giggled and cuddled together for a few minutes, then I put him down.  I was feeling all warm and happy inside.  Then I saw Julius turn on the million watt smile again.  The same one that always dazzles me.  This time it wasn’t for me.  It was for the rooster who was standing in the fale next to me.  Really, Julius?  I’m in the same category as a rooster?

I trudged off to my house, unlocked the door and threw my bags on the bed.  After taking down the laundry from the line I went inside and stopped dead.  Because something smelled.  Dead.  I went back over to the family and asked for one of the younger kids to come over.  I wanted them to stand on my toilet so they could look into the space between my roof and ceiling in the part of the house that has a ceiling.

All the kids came along for the fun and while I was getting a flashlight, one of the sisters said “Do you think the smell is here?”  And pointed up.  To where the body of a lizard was rotting after I’d apparently squished it to death when I closed the door this morning.

I scraped it off .  That’s what Friday’s are like in Savaii.