Thursday, March 29, 2012

Peace Corps Name Change

I realized today that it would be perfectly appropriate for Peace Corps to change its name.  To “Well, That’s a Surprise.”  Not as catchy, maybe, but descriptive of Peace Corps life.

Sometimes it’s very small things.  This evening I opened a can of Fruit Punch.  I expected it to be red.   It was bright green.  It tasted like most fruit punch, it just didn’t look like most fruit punch.  Whatever, it was cold and fizzy.  Just what I wanted.

This afternoon I was in the office after my last class, working on lesson plans.  A teacher came in and asked me to make some copies.  That happens several times a day.  I’m frequently asked to stop teaching to make copies.

Today, though, the copies were for a young guy from some organization that is teaching cricket in the schools.  I made the copies and gave them to the guy and his partner.  Both attractive Samoan men.  The teacher who’d asked for the copies stayed and I teased her that as soon as she saw handsome men in “my” room she came running.  Then another teacher arrived.  I made the same joke.  Then a third teacher arrived, my best friend, and I pointed out that she was the devil and would never leave me alone with good-looking young men.

Then they all sat down.  One of the men asked me for brown paper and markers.  “Are we having a meeting?”  “Yes and you have to attend.”  Well, that’s a surprise.  I didn’t expect a meeting at the end of the day and never in my life did I expect this topic.  Not in my wildest fantasies did I ever expect to participate in training, in Samoan, to be a cricket umpire.   If you think having me receive the training is funny, there were three other women in the session.  Two are pregnant and the third makes me look anorexic.   If we are the future of cricket in our village, I believe the effort is doomed. 

We did have fun, though, and they checked occasionally to make sure I was getting all the sexual humor.  I was, especially when we practiced the signal for “dead ball(s)”.  Everyone gave the signal, yelled “dead balls” and I just held my nose.  All laughed heartily.  That’s Samoan humor.

Less of a surprise recently is the number of rats and mice.  I’ve seen at least one a day in my fale and several a day at school.  This evening though, as I was typing this, was my Well, That’s a Surprise moment when I saw two roosters heading toward my door.  That’s not unusual.  They know what times of day I sweep the bugs out of my house and they like to be there for it.  This time they weren’t looking for food because the largest (and oldest) rooster was carrying a very large rat.  The other rooster was chasing him and trying to get him to drop it.  Cocks, rats and fights.  So many jokes, so little time.  Please just make your own.  List them on comments

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Nancy-1 Rats-0

A few years ago I saw signs of a rat in my garage in Florida.  It was the first time and I didn’t hesitate to call my pest control buddies, who I pay handsomely to keep all insects, etc. out of my house.

They responded promptly with several large rat traps.  Like a small “snapping” mouse trap, but doubled in size.  I was told that when I saw the dead rat I should call and they would collect the rat and the traps, since they had done investigative work and determined there was likely only one rat.

A day later, a lovely black and white rat was crushed to death in the trap.  The exterminator agreed he was likely a pet rat that had escaped or been turned loose.  I felt horrible.  I considered a small rat funeral but resisted.

I felt sad and guilty about the first few rats that died at my hands in Samoa.  Heck, they were living creatures, too, just trying to get by in this world.

I’ve gotten over that.   If the Hindus are correct about the consequences for killing any living thing, I’m in deep doo doo.  I see a bug and he’s likely to be a dead bug, very soon.  Giant spiders?  I like to shoot ‘em with Mortein to watch them shrivel.  I know, it’s not very Peace Corps like, but they have the entire outdoors to roam in and I just ask to not have to share a bed or shower with things that poop, bite or entrap me in webs.  Except lizards.  They make a mess but watching them hunt bugs at night is one of my favorite forms of entertainment.  Life is tough with no television.

I reset the rat trap yesterday and used coconut as bait.  Samoans swear that rats can’t resist it.  They are correct.  I heard a noise in the bathroom and when I checked, there was Clint – my large, movie star imitating rat.  Trapped, like a rat.

I got one of my brothers to remove the rat, cage and all.  I told him it was a gift for his cat.  He was happy.  I’ve been very disappointed in the hunting prowess of the cats but given that this rat was about 1/3 its size, I can’t blame it.  And perhaps it will remind the kitty of how tasty those rats are so the hunting will escalate.

I really am not happy that an animal is dead.  I also know that he was not living alone.  The war continues.

By the way, how would you like to have the job title of “Exterminator”?   Imagine the reactions you’d get when telling people your job in places where they weren’t familiar with our usage of the term.  Bet you’d get a lot of respect. 

 I had a boss once who suggested my title in a new job be “Change Agent”.  I asked if I got to carry a badge, like an FBI agent.  He chose a different title and I didn’t get a badge.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Rat War is Back On

I didn’t get much sleep last night while the family was preparing for today’s funeral.  It didn’t help that I had two separate rat encounters during the night.  The Rat War is officially back on. 

The first time was at 2:13 a.m. when I made a trip to the bathroom.  Luckily I was sitting when the rat ran over my foot in his effort to escape.  Have I mentioned he likes to pee and poop on the toilet tank?  I didn’t even flinch.  I was too tired and have become used to rats.  There was one in the classroom yesterday, too.  Now, if he had jumped onto my back, that would have been a whole different story.  They might have had to start planning another funeral after I had my heart attack.

The second encounter was a bit more unnerving.  The first time, the rat was small and seemed more afraid than I was.  The second time was at 5:45 a.m. when I walked into the bathroom to brush my teeth. 

The 24 pound rat (ok, slight exaggeration, but he was definitely bigger than the other rat) was sitting on my bathroom sink.  He was smirking and seemed to be doing a Clint Eastwood imitation.   I’ve learned to always turn on the bathroom light to scare the rats away but this one seemed to appreciate the light.  We contemplated each other for a few moments before he swaggered off into a hole in the wall.

I’ve tried soap, toasted coconut and peanut butter which are all reputed to be the best rat bait possible.  I think they’re on to my trap.  I’m working on a new strategy.  Clint, my rat nemesis, better watch out.

Funeral In the Family

This post is about the funeral of an elderly man who was part of my extended family.  I’m not discussing the emotions or loss but rather the burial process and the differences and similarities I noticed compared to what I’ve experienced in the United States.

Today is Tuesday, March 27, 2012.  This morning it is pouring down rain and we will be having the funeral for a member of my extended family.  He was elderly and died at home last week.

Since his death, I’ve watched the work that the family and village have done.  They dug the grave in front of the man’s fale, which is close to mine, and lined it with bricks and cement.  They have made a cover for the grave to put on top of the casket.  It has taken several men over five days to complete the work.  The downpours we’ve had the last week haven’t helped.

The women have also been preparing.  Food is a major part of Samoan life and that is especially true of any fa’alavelave, like a funeral.  There has been shopping and preparing places for cooking, storing and serving food.  Every person who attends the funeral or helps in some way will receive a Styrofoam container of food or several containers of food to take home.  That could be over a hundred meals served.   Many people will receive cases of tinned fish, corned beef and  partially roasted pigs.  Fine mats, artificial flowers and cash will be exchanged.  All of this as a sign of respect for the man who died and his family.

They are cooking in the house next to mine, in the “umukuka” or outdoor kitchen.  That’s where they prepare all the meals.  In this climate it makes sense not to cook where you live because of the heat.  Every night when I cook my dinner the room temp goes up significantly.  Soup, which is a common evening meal here, is lovely in the fall in New England, but increases the sweat quotient in the kitchen here.  The umukuka  is covered but has no walls and the fire pit isn’t large enough to accommodate all the cooking that needs to be done.  They’ve built multiple fires to handle the mass production of food.  They are also roasting pigs.  I’m not sure how many. 

Last night they put up a tarp over tables for food preparation and serving.  The fale where the family usually sleeps has also been transformed into a food prep area.  There’s a lot of cooking to be done and the extended family is working together with friends from the village to get it all finished.

Throughout the night I could hear the sounds of wood and coconuts being chopped for the fires.  There was talking and laughing as the women and older children worked together.   Luckily there were only light showers in the night, but now the skies have opened and we’re having a tropical downpour.
I’ve stayed on the sidelines during the preparation.  Although he lived next door, I’d never met the man who died.   I want to be respectful but don’t want to intrude or be in the way.  No one expected me to help all night with the cooking.  A palagi with limited Samoan would have been more in the way than helpful, I’m afraid.  Plus the distraction factor of the women being concerned about making sure I was comfortable.

I did buy artificial flowers and plan to give them to the family at the church service, which is scheduled to start in 30 minutes.  The church is just two houses down from mine.  After the service the body will be taken to the grave for another service.  Then the eating and giving of food and mats will happen at the house next door.

My family asked me to take care of the baby after the church service, since they will be so busy.  I let my boss know that I wouldn’t be coming to school today and he understood.  Because of the teachers’ meetings this week, most of the kids I teach have today off, so there won’t be too much impact of me missing school. 

 I’ve lost almost all my immediate family so I’m familiar with funerals in the US.   We also come together as families and communities and food is an important component but here they take it to another level.  It is hard and it is expensive and it binds the family and village even more closely.   As always in unfamiliar situations when i don’t know exactly what is expected I’m feeling awkward and uncomfortable.  I also feel very privileged to be allowed to be involved in a small way in this important event.

Post Script:  I wrote this early this morning.  As usual I was confused and misunderstood what was happening.  Yesterday I was told the funeral at the church would start at 9:00 a.m.  This morning I was told it would start at 8 a.m. so I ran to school at 7:30 a.m. to drop off the keys.  When I got back, grabbed the flowers and headed out in the rain toward the church, my host father asked where I was going, since the service didn’t start until 9:00. 

That’s when he asked me to take care of the baby.  I was surprised since there are so many family members around and babysitters aren’t fa’asamoa, but was thrilled to spend a few hours with a six month old.  Later I discovered that he was joking and I shouldn’t have called my boss since I was able to go to school before interval.

I walked through ankle deep water to the church, where the high mass began at 9:10 a.m.  I was told to just take the flowers up and place them next to the casket.  I had been advised by one teacher to take along four yards of lace but the other teachers said it wasn’t necessary so I didn’t.

After I placed my flowers, some other women placed flowers by the casket.  They were holding up yards of lace as they walked toward the casket.  They draped the lace over the casket, which was also covered with a white satin cloth with a red cross.  Before the service began, the catechist removed the lace and set it aside.  It didn’t go to the grave and I’m not sure what happened to it, but was told later that the purpose is to ask for forgiveness from the deceased.

After the church service, everyone moved to the grave, where the priest gave another short service.  In some ways it was very formal with the priest and catechists in robes and men and women in their best clothes.  In others it was very informal, as the youngest kids from the family wandered around and the young people who had helped prepare the food and the grave and didn’t go to the church service were there in their “working” clothes.

Within half an hour after the service, the grave had been sealed.  I didn’t participate in the eating or gift exchange but instead was busy teaching.

I admire the respect and effort put into creating a funeral that honored the life of a good man.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Busy, Busy

What a week this is turning out to be.  Today my extended family, who live on both sides of me are busy preparing for a funeral tomorrow morning.  An elderly man who lived next door died.  He was unusual since he never married or had children.  I've also been told he didn't have siblings but I'm not sure if that's true.

I'll take flowers to the family tomorrow morning when the body is delivered to the home and pay my respects.  Then I'll head for school.  After school, the PC Country Director is coming by for a couple of hours.  It's part of his tour to visit all the volunteers on the island.

Wednesday afternoon I'll be hanging with another PCV from the other island.  She's here for meetings with two schools and we're planning dinner after we finish our school stuff.

A former Samoa volunteer just arrived in country today with her father.  I'm looking forward to meeting them both.  Since I hear he's a regular reader of the blog - here's a shout out to Ed! 

I got a call today from the owner of a resort on the other island.  She heard that I'd designed customer service training for resort staff in Samoa and asked if I could help out.  I have to confirm time off school with PC and my principal but have tentative plans to do the training there starting Sunday and doing it again for more staff on Monday and Tuesday.  Should be an interesting experience.  Plus, they generously offered to put me up at the resort and cover my food/travel expenses.  It will be work but also should be a nice change of scene.

We were told that our second year of service would fly by and if this week is any indication, I'll be so busy that if I blink I'll be on a flight to Florida.  Time is flying!

Just Show Up

I’d done my vegetable shopping at the market during the week so skipped going on Saturday, which is my normal routine.  It turned out to be a good thing.

My boss called Saturday morning and said some men were on their way to the school and I needed to let them in.  They were delivering new file cabinets and I have the only key to the school.  No one checked with me to see if I’d be home.  They just showed up.

That’s common here.  Several times other teachers or my boss have come to my house to get the key because they needed to get into the school.   No one has ever called first to see if I’d be here.  It’s not a problem for me, but would be a wasted trip for them if I happened to be away from home. 

 It is common for people from the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Health to show up for meetings unannounced.  People just change their plans and adjust.

As a management consultant I spent a lot of time coordinating meetings and schedules to make sure the right people were available and there was the least amount of inconvenience for all involved.  I could have saved a lot of time if I did it the Samoan way.