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.