Thursday, December 27, 2007

It’s Christmas time in Sāmoa


Christmas observations:

Christmas music is everywhere leading up to the holiday. More so than even the States. The best part is that most of it is traditional tunes that you guys would remember. There is something a little strange about listening to songs about “white Christmas” and “jack frost nipping at my nose” in Sāmoa. However, none of these traditional songs are sung in the same way. They are either in Sāmoan, or they have been sped up and funkified and are played over funky Casio keyboard beats.

People have Christmas trees. Mostly fake fir trees with decorations and whatnot. Occasionally some random tree with decorations.

We didn’t spend the actual holiday with a Sāmoan family, so we didn’t see the traditions first hand. However, we have been told that in Sāmoa the holiday isn’t about gift giving so much, but about church and spending time with family. Don’t get me wrong. There is gift giving. Cale went into town the day before Christmas and he said it was a madhouse of shopping. But I don’t think it is the same. The kid next door got a new bike, but he got it some time in the afternoon the day before Christmas when they went into Apia to buy it.

A brief run down of our Christmas related activities:

Paupau races

Saturday we went to our village’s Christmas games. The village is divided into five divisions called pitonu’u (nu’u means village and according to our dictionary pito can mean next, edge, border or point). Only four of these divisions compete against each other in the Christmas games because the fifth is too small. We weren’t there early enough to watch the kirikiti (Sāmoan cricket) but we did see some volleyball (voli). Later in the day we went back for the paupau races (outrigger canoes). Cale is very excited to get a paupau of his own. He would like to watch one built and then build one himself. He thinks that with a sail we could easily get from our village to Apia.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the village ended the games with song and dance. Cale was literally carried around by one faletua (minister’s wife). I am not kidding. She picked him up and carried him around. I was also compelled to dance, but no one picked me up.

That night we were invited to a birthday party (pati o aso fanau) that was also a Christmas party of sorts. One of the ministers in the division next to ours was celebrating his birthday and his son’s birthday. There were presents and cake for them. Then all the ministers and their wives had a sort of Secret Santa exchange. Of course there was food. We were given materials to make puletasi and lavalava out of and ula (flower necklace). Cale and I were also given a small round cake to take home for our holiday.

Two thoughts associated with the cake:

1. We are witnessing small ways that married people and single people are treated differently. For example, Cale and I got a cake for our holidays. Alo didn’t. However, Also is more frequently invited to to’onai’i because he is single.
2. Cakes appear to be a typical Christmas gift as we were given two.

Sunday was church and we were invited to to’ona’i (Sunday brunch) by a minister and his family. They live near Alo and the minister works in the Methodist School Board Administration building. Of course everyone spoke English at brunch, but we mentioned that we wanted to work on our Sāmoan, so they said next week they will only speak in Sāmoan. We appear to have a standing invitation to eat with them. They are incredibly nice. The minister lived in Tacoma, Washington for 20 years and his wife is from New Zealand. Their daughter will be getting her nursing degree at the National University next semester.

Monday was the Christmas extravaganza. Our next-door neighbor, the school board director, invited us to the Methodist Christmas pageant. It was five hours of singing and dancing. It is very Sāmoan for things to be a competition and the pageant was no exception. Each division of the village performed songs and dances. There was a panel of judges. In the end there were awards given out for both the winners of the games on Saturday and the singing and dancing that night.

Everyone in the huge Methodist hall was wearing white. We wore our white duds too. However, when we got there we also discovered that everyone had brought some kind of white cloth to use as a head covering. So we know that now for next time.

First each division sang a song. Then each division went up to the stage to do a elaborate singing/dancing/skit presentation. Some of the skits were pretty straightforward. Our group had a Mary and a Joseph and a live baby Jesus. However, another group did something that was obviously traditionally Sāmoan with ava ceremony sticks and fine mats and I didn’t understand any of that one.

The evening ended with a meal and I had some sort of delicious banana bread cake that rocked. I need to get a banana bread recipe.


Tuesday Gal came out to visit us and we had Christmas dinner together. We made tuna steaks, green beans and mashed potatoes. For dessert I made a pumpkin pie from scratch (I started with a freaking pumpkin for crying out loud) and Cale made apple crisp (well the recipe called it apple crunch, but I think we are calling it apple crumble as it wasn’t crispy or crunchy, but it sure was delicious). There were suipi playing and cribbage lessons and later in the night some impromptu flour tortilla making.

In general, quite a good Christmas was had.

I hope all of you in the States had a happy holiday as well.

— Sara

The boys are nerds

Cale is mixing ava (a mildly relaxing Sāmoan drink). Aaron is eating TimTams. They are talking about the structural properties of solid water, carbon- and silicon-based life forms and deep-sea tubeworms that live in volcanic vents. Here’s the thing, they haven’t even started drinking yet. This is just the crazy shit they talk about.

— Sara

A letter to John Deere

Dear Mr. Deere,

I am writing because when I think of lawnmowers, I think of you. Lately I have been thinking about lawnmowers quite a lot.

Outside my window a small team of men are running weed whackers with the mufflers removed. They have been working for 8 hours so far today and today is the third day straight. It must seem to you to be an incredible amount of time for so many people to be whacking weeds. It would be if they were, in fact, whacking weeds. They are not.

It is my limited experience that Sāmoans like to have meticulously-maintained, elaborate gardens and wide-open expanses of well-kept lawns. They mow these lawns with weed whackers. Teams of weed whacking men will mow a single lawn for hours.

I write to you because I can only imagine the hours of manpower that could be saved on my school’s compound if but a single one of your riding lawnmowers was graciously bequeathed. Just imagine, if you will, if this lawn-mowing phenomenon spread throughout the island. I believe it would fill small children with laughter and that joyful men and women would dance in the street.

I know of at least two palagi who would rest easily (at 6 o’clock in the morning) with the knowledge that lawnmowers had come to Sāmoa.


So, maybe we are not so good at “roughing it”


Today for lunch Cale has prepared sashimi with rice and mojitos with fresh mint and lime.

— Sara

Did I mention our new home is awesome?

New house

Oh, well it is.

We have lived in our new house for just over a week now, though by the time I can post this entry it will be two.

With the exception of a few amenities (hot water, washer/dryer, hardwood floors, 24-hour gas station convenience store, Wendy’s late-night drive-thru) our little bit of neighborhood here in Sāmoa is much like a neighborhood in Florida.

The house is large. The main room is an open floor plan kitchen and living room combo. The kitchen has tons of counter space, a refrigerator and a gas stove and oven. The kitchen also came already stocked with many items: electric teakettle, dishes, dining room table, etc. We have three bedrooms, one of which is set up as an office. Outside there is a porch that always catches a nice breeze.

Wait a minute? Weren’t we supposed to be roughing it in the Peace Corps?*
*See additional post about how poor we are at roughing it.

Living conditions vary widely from one PCV to the next in here. Some volunteers live with host families their entire two years with either a room of their own in the host family house or their own small fale on the family compound. Some volunteers don’t have host families, but still live in more traditional style Sāmoan fale. Other’s live in more Western-style homes like ours; the volunteer I stayed with on my volunteer visit even had a washing machine. Some people have flats (that’s apartments to you crazy Americans) in town or on a school compound. One guy in our training group is living in a brand new duplex with all the amenities. He says it is nicer than the last place he stayed when he was in college.

Some people have to trek across their compound to get water from a shared tap or water tank. Some people just turn on the tap in their kitchen or bathroom. Some volunteers have become very adept at cooking complex meals in nothing but a rice cooker. Others will be baking brownies today in their gas oven (oh, wait, that one is me).

I think that there are advantages and challenges to all of the living arrangements. Volunteers living with host families may find it easier to integrate into the community but harder to do their own cooking and to find privacy. Volunteers living in more Western situations may have to work harder at practicing their Sāmoan (everyone speaks English to us, everyone) but they might have more control over their living environment and their diet.

Of course, I base all of this on my vast experience of being a volunteer for one full week. Just wait until I have been a volunteer for a whole month, oh the knowledge I will have then.

— Sara

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Packages and Visits

Just a quick note, when sending us a package, please write on the outside one of the following messages in English and Samoan. It will help the package get here faster and in one piece:

E fa’amanuia e Atua api lea.
God bless this package.

E matamata Atua i api lea.
God watches this package.

Also, I mentioned earlier that we are off in Dec. and Jan. and those are good months to visit. This is true, but it is also the hot, rainy season. So you might want to consider May when we have a long break from school and it is the cool, breezy season.


kids eating ice cream with their hands

Heres the kind of completely different experience you need to prepare for in order to feel at home here...

The other day some kids were eating some Ice cream, no cones, just a big double handful of ice cream, and he drops it on the ground. plop. So he picks it back up with two fingers, the way you pick up a frog.... and slides it back into his hand and eats on it some more. I wasn't prepared for that. In the states I never hear anyone say "Hey Ted, I dropped my ice cream and it rolled under that bench- do you mind pickin' that puppy up and passin' it on over this way?"

It's just different here is all...

- Cale

and firedancers

So some times when you are just about overwhelmed with things, you look out your window and there are a bunch of pre-teen kids on the other side of the street Fire-dancing. And it is Freaking-A Awesome. So you wander over there and watch 'em. And a kid Dips a twin-tipped torch in a bucket of kerosene, lights one and and then USES HIS HAND to move the fire from one end to the other. And then he spins the stick at like ninety bajillion miles per hour all around and under his legs, and behind his back and all OVER the place. And it makes The Coolest Sound. The Coolest Sound. It sounds like a rhythmic pulsating whoosh, laid over a base of struggling fiery crackle. And all the kids in the area between about 12 and 16 take a turn (pun alert) and there is just 20 minutes of twirling fire dance.

And when its over, its pretty tricky to remember what you were all flustered about.

- Cale

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Swearing in

Swearing in

Swearing in

I am trying to decide how I feel about being an official Peace Corps Volunteer now. You know how I am with emotions.

“So Sara, how do you feel about (fill in the blank)?”

I think it was satisfying to successfully finish training and it was a little intimidating to think that this is it, you know, go out there and do something.

Our swearing in was held in the church at our training village.

And, if you don’t mind, I would like to take a little side trip here to talk about the church. Our village is primarily EFKS (which stands for Ekalesia Fa’apotopotoga Kerisiano i Samoa or the Congregational Christian Church of Sāmoa). The church and the fiafeau’s (pastor) house are brand new. Our village raised the funds and did all of the manual labor to big these two impressive structures. We have heard stories of the village women hauling tons of rocks from the river for the construction.

Ok, where was I? Oh, yes we were swearing in at the village church.

Our Associate Peace Corps Director, Fata*, made the opening remarks and ran the ceremony. The village pastor said a prayer. Then our training manager, HP, gave a speech about our training experience. The Associate Minister for the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture, Solamalemalo Keneti Sio, gave the keynote address. He is also a former member of parliament and a former member of the Sāmoan rugby team. He cut quiet the imposing and distinguished figure. Country Director, Kim Frola, gave her final swearing in speech as CD of Sāmoa. Come February she will be leaving us and a new director will come in March.

Then we were given our oath. The Chargé d’Affaires administered the English version and the language training manager, Sa’u, administered the Sāmoan version. Ryan gave a thank you speech in English and Gal gave a thank you speech in Sāmoan.

We ended the ceremony with another prayer from the village pastor. He also made a short speech at the end that had several funny bits. The best part was when he told us we are always welcome back at his church and that when we get married we will get married in his church, especially the single ones (I guess indicating that Cale and I can feel free to get remarried in the church?). He then went on to mention that all the single volunteers should find Sāmoan men and women to marry and come back to his church for the wedding.

After the swearing in the village fed us and there was quiet a bit of gift exchange between the village and the Peace Corps — the PC giving money to the pulenu’u and the pulenu’u giving cloth, fine mats, food and three large cooked pigs to the PC.

Then we were whisked back to Apia where Cale and I went supply shopping for our move to our new house the next morning.

*There are two groups of volunteers that come into Sāmoa: Capacity Builders and Village Based Developers. Each group has its own APCD. We our Capacity Builders and Fata is our APCD.

— Sara

P.S. There are some great pictures of us with our host family up on flickr, but you can only view them if you are listed as a friend or family contact on flickr. If you want to see them, get a free flickr account and mark us as a contact on your account. I will make you a friend or family (if you are) and you will be able to see the pictures.


Just before 5 am Thursday, December 13:

“Cale. Earthquake.”
“I bet Gal* is sleeping right through this.”
*Gal is from L.A.

I couldn’t get back to sleep right after the quake. It didn’t feel like a very big earthquake. It was big enough to shake the hotel and the bed. We definitely felt it, but it didn’t feel like anything serious. I base this one all my earthquake experience and expertise…oh wait, I don’t have any.

However, it did get me thinking. What do I do for a big quake? Stand in a doorway? Run out side? What about tsunami? How will I know? The Peace Corps has an emergency system in place. The islands are divided into regions and each region has a lead volunteer who contacts all the other volunteers in their area. However, we are new. Our emergency coordinator might not even have our phone numbers yet. We aren’t even out at our sites right now anyway; we are at the hotel.

I know that if there had been an emergency, we would have been contacted. Everyone in the office knew we were in the hotel that night. Our safety and security officer was actually late picking up the Savai’i volunteers who were heading out to their sites at 6 am because he was monitoring the situation from the office. Initially a tsunami warning or watch was in effect, but it was quickly cancelled.

Anyway, these are the things I was thinking about at five in the morning the day after our swearing in.

Here is some news on the quake, I think they have the day wrong, maybe because China is on the other side of the international dateline:
WELLINGTON, Dec. 14 (Xinhua) -- A magnitude 6.2 earthquake shook the South Pacific Samoa early Friday morning without causing damages.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning center said after the earthquake at 1551 GMT was 210 km off American Samoa's main island of Tutuila.

Meanwhile, Samoa's earthquake monitoring office said the quake, which was 171 km south southwest of the capital Apia, was the strongest felt there this year.

The quake did not generate a tsunami and there has been no report of damages.

A magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck in the vicinity of the Fijian Islands on Sunday caused no damages as well.

— Sara

Friday, December 14, 2007

We are official

Swearing in

We were sworn in as Volunteers on Dec. 12, 2007. More details and pictures to come.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Leaving the village

Farewell FiaFia

Saturday was a day of mixed emotions. Part of me couldn’t wait to close door of the Land Rover, roll over the river and put the village behind me for a while. I wanted peace and quiet and privacy and vegetables. But another part of me was sad to see this time come to an end, especially after seeing how sad our host family was to see us go and how much they had come to care for us in the five short/long weeks we had been there.

Anyone who knows us knows that Cale and I are not ones for teary good-byes. It doesn’t mean that we don’t care or that we won’t miss you, it just isn’t how we roll. Leaving the village wasn’t any different, but I did feel guilty. I felt like I wasn’t sufficiently sad about leaving my new family behind. I didn’t truly see it as a good-bye. We will be back. Cale and I have plans to go back to visit the family while we are in Sāmoa and we have invited them out to visit us in our village (something the 17-year-old is very eager to take us up on. Gee, I wonder why? Seventeen-year-olds are the same everywhere, I can promise you that).

The leave-taking started the night before at our Farewell FiaFia. We finally got to put all that dance practice into use. We did the sasā, a seated, hand-gesture dance of sorts, and the boys did their clap dance and the girls did their dance as well. After those dances we performed a short play of a bible story in Sāmoan for the village (the irony being that Gal, who is Jewish and had a hard time explaining that and why he wasn’t going to church to his host family, played the role of Jesus in part of the play). We ended our official bit with a thank you song to the village.

Some of the other volunteers had also been practicing one of the dances performed at the Prize-Giving with the village youth and performed that. We were also regaled with the dancing skills of members of the village. One of our host sisters danced in four different dances and a host brother in another. Many of the dances involved people from the audience coming up to us (we were seated on the stage) and pulling us on to the floor to just kind of cut a rug to whatever song was playing. I managed to avoid most of those by looking sickly sitting on my hot water bottle and holding a large camera, but I still ended up on the dance floor. Let me tell you, this white girl cannot dance.

After that we had anticipated a quiet night with the family. We figured we would read our farewell speech, hand out the gifts we had bought, hang out with the family for a while and then head to bed. I was particularly tired from the boil pain and the cold I had developed. Earlier in the evening I had even considered backing out of the FiaFia all together and had talked to Teuila about the possibility of leaving early, but decided against it. I just couldn’t bring such an abrupt end to such an important time. I needed to stick it out and I was very glad that I did.

The family had other, more exciting plans for the eveing. Some relatives from Apia who had visited the previous weekend were back in town. Two of the girls performed traditional Tongan, Fijian and Tahitian dances for us. It was pretty amazing to see. They had hoped to get Cale and I in on their dance party, but I don’t think it turned out at they had planned. Cale was all done with dancing for the evening and my body just doesn’t move in the ways necessary to dance like that. The one cousin was trying to explain how to whip my hips around in a circle they way they do in one of the dances. I was trying to explain to her that my hip are attached to my neck and knees and I have no idea even how to begin to move like that. Cale says that I shake it like semaphore, which is not a compliment. However the dancing and music were fun and there was cake and pineapple and the ti lau mōli (orange leaf tea), which is just delicious.

Our host mom cried through her farewell speech and the family gifted us with ie (cloth used for the ubiquitous wrap skirts everyone wears) and towels. Then the aunt from a couple of houses over gifted us with ie as well. The visiting relatives also had gifts of ie and t-shirts for us. At this point, I was feeling a little guilty since we had only come with gifts for the immediate family. We hadn’t known the aunt and other relatives were coming to see us off.

Cale read our farewell speech for the two of us (in Sāmoan) and we handed out our presents. We gave our host parents a photo album with pictures from our time there and an “America the Beautiful” calendar we had purchased back in the states. We gave the older kids burned CDs and the younger kids we gave markers and colored pencils, coloring books, two mermaid dolls for the young girls and toy cars for the young boys. There was Bazooka Joe gum all around.

Wow, this post is getting long. Don’t worry I will breeze through Saturday as quickly as I can.

Cale and I set the alarm for 7 am on Saturday. We had to be at the trainers’ house with all our stuff by 8:30 and we were to be on the road by 9 am. However, the family decided that 5 am was a good time for us to be up by sending someone into our room to look for the iron and then again at 5:30 to ask us for one of my pulitasi (I think they wanted me to wear it that morning, but it was already packed at the bottom of a bag). So, by the time the alarm came at 7 am, Cale and I were already up, showered, breakfasted and sitting with the family waiting for the time to leave. It was a little awkward that morning. A lot of sitting around and making idle conversation.

Eventually it was time to go and it felt like the entire village was at the trainers’ to see us off. There was hugging and kissing and crying and then the door to the Land Rover closed, we crossed the river and we put the village behind us for now. (You like how I made this blog post come full circle? I know you do. I can feel it.)

— Sara



The last day of the school year in Sāmoa is called Prize-Giving. I am not an expert on the topic, seeing as I have only been to one, but I have heard about others, so I feel I can make some generalizations.

The students spend the last month or so of school learning dances and songs (all the finals are in late September-early November, but school doesn’t end until the end of November). These songs and dances are presented to an audience of parents and family and the village (if it is a village school).

The students also receive prizes based on their ranking in their class. For the Prize-Giving at our village school all the students for each class were called out in order according to their ranking. The top three students received larger wrapped prizes and the rest of the class all received the same prize. A lot of the prizes, surprisingly, were kitchen utensils: water bowls that are used for hand washing after meals, juice pitchers, platters, etc. There were also a lot of candy and trinket-type toys as well.

The kids’ dances were great. One of our host brothers was in several dance numbers and you could see him really getting into some of them and having a good time.

Most of the dances were by grade-level and a donation bowl was set out during the dance. Parents would run up and put money in the bowl during the dance and at the end of the program how much money each class had raised was announced. I didn’t realize that so many dances were going to be fundraising, so the first dance with a money bowl got 2 tālā and there wasn’t even a kid from my family in it. After that I caught on to the concept and gave the remainder of my monies to the dances with my families children in them.

Something really nice that the principal of the school did was that she called up the Peace Corps trainees in the audience to help hand out the prizes to each grade level. She tried to make sure that we had a grade level with one of the kids from our family in it.

The eight-year-old girl in our family got first in her class and the 11-year-old boy got the award for most improved. The Prize-Giving went on for three hours and got pretty exciting and rowdy at times. It was a great experience.

— Sara

Culture Day

Culture Day

Culture Day started out with our host sister hesitantly beating a chicken with a stick. I think the goal was to kill two chickens, but after much squawking (from the chicken and the sister) the second chicken was left alive, sort of.

The idea of culture day is for the trainees to get a tasted of a typical/traditional Sāmoan day. I hesitate between typical and traditional because of that chicken beating. I got the impression that it isn’t typical for our family to kill a chicken for dinner. They get their chicken frozen from the store. So I imagine the chicken beating is more traditional.

We were divided by gender. The guys went off into the forest to gather firewood, coconuts and taro. The ladies prepared koko esi, which is a soup made from papaya, tapioca, coconut cream and cocoa Sāmoa. We learned how to husk, crack and scrape coconuts. The guys peeled taro and prepared the umu, which it basically a pile of hot rocks that the food is placed on and then covered in leaves and left to cook.

Masi and Mataio were the braves one of the group — or the twisted ones, depending on how you look at it. They killed the pig. Pigs in Sāmoa have a slow death because they do not spill the animal’s blood when killing it. This pig was suffocated to death. A stick was placed over its neck and Masi and Mataio stood on the stick until the pig was dead. It took about ten minutes. I didn’t get any pictures of that part because I didn’t want to watch. Once the pig was dead it was cleaned and de-furred. Its innards were outered and in their place hot rocks and leaves were stuffed to help with the cooking.

We also cooked two turkeys donated by HP. They came from American Sāmoa complete with the little plastic buttons that pop out to tell you when they are ready. The ladies cleaned and gutted the fish (I took pictures, but I didn’t do any fish gutting of my own) and the guys prepared palusami, which is made from coconut cream and young taro leaves.

In the end this meal was served in a traditional fashion to the matai of the village, the honored guests (trainers) and two trainees who were given the role of tulafale (orator or talking chief) and ali’i (high chief). Cale was the tulafale and Alo was the ali’i. I was a serving and fanning girl. After I served food to the matai, I sat in front of them and fanned the food while they ate.

Once the matai were finished eating the rest of the trainees were served in a back room and once we were done all of the people from the village who had helped us all morning ate.

— Sara

J, povi

I try not to mention the names of our host family in these entries, but I think this is safe since his name is an initial.

Our oldest host sister has two kids. J is about a year and a half old. He, apparently, is afraid of cows. In Sāmoan, the word for cow is povi (poh-vee). Whenever he is being bad or not paying attention to instructions you will hear someone say, “J, povi,” in attempts to scare him with this imaginary cow. I have yet to see this tactic actually scare him or work in any other way, but it certainly is hilarious.

On a related note, I also thought for a while that his name was something like Jesau (jay-sah-ow), because I heard people call him that so often. However, my language training has since taught me that they were just saying, “J, sau,” which means, “J, come.”

— Sara

Lapisi Part II

New developments on the trash front.

Fact 1: Cale and I had been collecting our trash in a plastic shopping bag. Once it was full I gave it to a family member to dispose of. Two days later, the plastic bottles that were in the trash (empty shampoo bottle and empty hairspray bottle) had made their way to littering the yard. They rest of the trash had vanished.

Fact 2: I witnessed a neighbor girl come to our fale. Though I could not tell what she was saying, I could tell she was asking a favor. I could tell that our sister gave her a positive response. The neighbor girl then went behind the fale, fished around in the weeds and came up with an empty plastic bottle and took it with her.

Fact 3: Several days after the hairspray bottle ended up in the yard, I saw one of my little sisters surrounded by three other village girls. They were obviously checking out something my sister was holding. As I drew closer, I discovered it was the hairspray bottle. Apparently, when filled with water, it has become quite the coveted spray gun that other village children play with as well.

Conclusion: The empty plastic bottles littering the yard are not trash. This is actually some sort of storage method. They are being saved for either uses unknown to me or for use as toys at a later date.

I will report back when I gather further knowledge.

— Sara

Gaining a new family

It is very easy, in these posts, to spend all my time pointing out all the things that are new or strange or different in Sāmoa or giving you a run down of our activities. But I wanted to make sure that conveyed the appreciation I have for our host family.

There are times that their actions totally baffle me and times that I just wish everyone would disappear and leave me alone, but there are also times that I love them dearly and wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. Strangely enough, I feel the same way about my own family back in the states too.

Our host family has taken two complete strangers (from another country, who don’t speak the language) into their lives completely. They welcomed us with open arms. They gave us the best “room in the house,” which is usually reserved for family from New Zealand. They feed us, they do our laundry, they help us with our homework. They are wonderful.

Sometimes it can feel strange to live and interact on such an intimate level with a family you have only known for a couple of weeks, but I am sure it is just as strange for them. Yet I have never seen them complain or become angry about this intrusion into their lives. When we left the village after the previous two-week stint, our host mom was in tears at our departure. She is an extremely caring and outgoing women and I have no words for how much I appreciate her taking us in as her own children.

The Peace Corps practice of putting trainees into host family homes is a good one. Not only does it help you integrate into the culture, but it also gives you a home base of sorts in a foreign country. Particularly for the single volunteers, they now have a family in country. They have a place to go — if they choose — for holidays and other events. Cale and I are a little different, since we brought our ready-made family with us. However, it is still comforting to know that come Christmas time, if wanted to have the experience of family around us for the holidays we could always head home to our training village and our host family would be happy to see us.

— Sara


First trip to the village

Masi says many of his friends are reading our blog and that I had better make it interesting. I told him I would compose a poem just for him.

M is for masi (I know, not very creative), which means biscuit in Sāmoan.

A is for asiasi, which means to visit friends and which Masi is well known for
doing in the village. He’s a social butterfly.

S is for the sasā, our FiaFia dance that Masi served as our energetic MC in.

I is for igoa, which means name and is how I came up with this outstanding

— Sara


A brief note on the Sāmoan language.

I think it says a lot about Sāmoa that there is a word in the language that means “covered with ants.” That word is lōia (low-ee-ah) and my life in Sāmoa is lōia. I cannot escape the ants.

I am not sure if it is significant that the same word also means lawyer (sorry Dad), since I think it has more to do with it sounding like the English word than the meaning.

Finally, the word also means the feeling you get in your stomach after eating a lot of fatty, greasy foods. It is also a telling thing about the Sāmoan diet that they have a word for that feeling.

— Sara

Concerns for my health

So, I may be boily and fungusy and coldish, but no worries, I am okay. Many people have expressed concerns over my health from the last few posts. Don't worry. People are just boily and fungusy and coldish in the Peace Corps. I will be fine.

- Sara

Monday, December 10, 2007

Babies crying, Chirstmas cannons and boils

This is less a blog entry and more a moment.

I am lying face down on the bed, my right butt cheek exposed to the world while Cale re-bandages it. Just behind the house our littlest host brother is wailing at the top of his lungs and somewhere in the distance a family is firing the traditional Christmas cannon (basically a large, long piece of bamboo filled with kerosene). The booms of the cannon echo off the mountains and our host brother’s cries ring in our ears, just another day in the village in Sāmoa.

— Sara

I’m afraid my ass is going to rot off

I have rewritten this blog entry several times now.

The first time it was the tale of my two horrible, painful, disgusting butt boils, how I suffered through attempting to apply warm compress to them in the village and failed, how they oozed goo during my Volunteer Visit, how our medical officer poked them with knives for four days and how they were finally on the mend.

A riveting tale. But then something happened. I developed two new butt boils.

The second time I wrote this entry it was the tale of my four horrible, painful, disgusting butt boils, how I suffered through all the humiliation and pain for the first two only to have two more develop while those were on the mend, how our medical officer also discovered I had a fungus (like ringworm) on my leg when she was inspecting the boils, how I immediately filled my new hot water bottle and sat on it for three days straight and how the two new butt boils seemed to be taking care of themselves and were finally on the mend.

Also a riveting tale. But then something happened. I developed two new butt boils and one on my inner thigh nearer to my knee and a baby boil on each hip.

The third time I am writing this entry it is the tale of my eleven horrible, painful, disgusting boils, how I suffered through the humiliation and pain of two boils, how I developed two new boils that healed themselves, how boils then erupted all over me, how on the same day our medical officer put me on a high dose of antibiotics I caught a cold and I failed my Language Proficiency Interview, how I took to naming my boils like tropical storms (I got up to Karl, but both Karl and Jessica never made it to full hurricane strength before dieing down), how I spent all of Saturday in bed in our hotel room as the pressure in my head increased and the pressure in Eugene (the boils currently raging on my butt) slowly decreased and how the boils may finally be on the mend — again.

But I am not going to get my hopes too high. I may have to write this blog entry a fourth time when new boils erupt on my face or the soles of my feet or somewhere else equally comfortable. Or maybe they will just stick to my right ass cheek and slowly the entire cheek will rot off and I will be Sara, the one-butt wonder.

So, there you have it. The new, abridged version of my butt boils. If you are interested in the longer, day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of the boils, I can always email the earlier versions of this blog entry to you. I am sure you want to hear all the details of how difficult it is to apply a warm compress to your butt in the village when all you have is a handkerchief and a bowl of boiling water.

I would like to take a moment here at the end to express my love for Cale. I have no idea how a single volunteer could have dealt with this affliction. Cale has been inspecting, cleaning and dressing the wounds on my backside for three weeks now. There is no way I would have been able to care for them myself, especially in the village. If I had been single, I would have had to make a friend — a very awkward friend. I married Cale for a lot of reasons, not just all the presents we got at the wedding, but now I know that I married him because it means I will always have someone to bandage my oozing butt boils when I am living in a Sāmoan village and cannot do it myself.

— Sara

Since we’ve been gone

It’s been a while since I caught you up with what has been going on during PST. I thought I would give you a run down.

November 16 we left the village and came to Apia for the All-Volunteer Conference. Once a year all the volunteers in country get together for an update on the state of Peace Corps worldwide and in Sāmoa. We also got updates on Safety & Security and Medical issues (Peace Corps Samoa reported no new cases of STIs among volunteers in 2006, totally kicking to butt of some other South Pacifc island that shall remained nameless).

The following day was Saturday and our Thanksgiving celebration hosted by the charge d’affairs at the former US Embassy in Sāmoa. I left from the dinner for my Volunteer Visit with my host Moli. Cale left on his visit with Tim to Savai’i the next morning.

For the Volunteer Visit we were sent out to live for three days with another volunteer who has been in the country for at least a year. The goal being that we can see what volunteer life is like.

Moli shares a house with another PCV, Beth. Both Moli and Beth teach at the National University and live close to campus. Another PCV, SIta, was staying with Moli and Beth for a couple of days as well.

School wasn’t in session at NUS (National University Sāmoa), but Moli had signed up for a weeklong workshop on Pacific film. I went with her to that on Monday. I left early Tuesday morning to make my boil appointment with our medical officer.

We were in town for three and a half days and then headed back to the village on Saturday afternoon.

Wednesday in the village was our culture day, which I will discuss in more detail in another post. However, short summary: Pigs, chickens and fish were killed and cooked. Coconuts were husked and scraped. Baskets were weaved. Koko esi (papaya and cocoa Sāmoa soup) was made. Matai were served and fanned while they ate.

Thursday was the village school prizegiving. More to come on that as well.

Saturday was our third LTA (Language and Technical Assesment). It was a group teaching assignment. Ryan, Eli and I taught the year seven and eight students for 30 minutes. Tuesday was our fourth LTA. That was solo teaching for 20 minutes. I will probably do a blog post explaining the LTAs in more detail some day.

Monday we had our 90-Day work plans. The idea behind that being that we meet with our counterparts from our sites and discuss what we will do for the first 90 days in the village. The day didn’t start out so hot when a rockslide closed down the quick route to town and we drove the long, windy, bumpy route that made us almost two hours late and extremely carsick. The secretary to the principal of my school came to the event. We worked on the plan, but it was really just a vague outline since most of the secretary’s suggestions were that I talk to the principal, who could not be there because of a funeral.

Thursday was our Language Proficiency Interview in Apia. That is the big test that determines how well we have learned Sāmoan so far. I failed. I am being given a chance to retake it on Tuesday. If I fail again I will put in 40 more hours of language classes over the course of two weeks in January.

Friday was our last night in the village and our Farewell FiaFia. I will have a entire entry just on that to come soon.

Saturday morning we headed back to Apia. Wednesday we will be sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers.

— Sara

Technology Troubles

The internet cafe we have been using here in Samoa is experience some trouble with their service provider and have had to jack up their rates for laptop users. It might be a while before I can upload pictures or it might be tomorrow. We will see.

— Sara

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Back in two weeks

Once again we are off to the village for two weeks, so don't be concerned if you don't hear from us for a while.

— Sara

My kingdom for a lapisi (trashcan)

Trying to find a trashcan in Sāmoa is like playing a sadistic game of “Where’s Waldo?” Waldo isn’t even on this page. Waldo isn’t even in the book. It’s like trying to play “Where’s Waldo?” with a “Where’s Fred?” book

I frequently find myself with a small bit of trash looking in all the usual places where a trashcan might be. In my hotel room? No. In my hotel bathroom? No. Just around this corner in the lobby of the hotel? No. Drat!

However, out in the village it is even worse. To illustrate the point, let me tell you about teatime in the village.

Everyday at 10 am and at 3 pm we have teatime. It is a 30-minute break between classes and there are the makings of tea and coffee and frequently some little snacks (bananas, a package of cookies, like that). Everyday teatime generates some trash. But what to do with this trash? There aren’t any trashcans in the old church where we study or in any other buildings nearby for that matter. There was always an empty box on the floor next to the tea table that people would throw their trash into. The trouble with that was it wasn’t for trash. It was the box our tea stuff was stored in, so we were always scooping trash out of it.

Eventually someone started to bring a plastic bag to the tea table every day and that became the trashcan, which was great. But then we were stuck with a plastic bag full of trash—and nothing to do with it. The entire issue of dealing with and disposing of trash if very confusing to palagi in Sāmoa. Somehow I found myself handing small bags of trash to the pulenu’u (village mayor) at the end of every day. His family is hosting the trainers in the village and is supplying the cups for our tea—and apparently dealing with our trash. However, it feels very strange to be handing of a bag of trash to such an important man. Also, I am still not sure what he does with it. I think maybe they burn it? Or feel the organic parts to the pigs? It is a mystery.

On a trash related note, we had a language assignment. We had to ask certain member of our host families what they did during different times of the day. All of the kids in our family said that they picked up trash in the morning. I had a hard time with that one, since I had been walking past the same shampoo bottle in the yard for days. I knew no one was picking up trash. But then I started to pay closer attention to what they kids were doing in the morning and discovered that Sāmoans have a different definition of trash. The children were gathering up all the dead leaves that had fallen in the night and tidying up all the plant matter in the yard and garden.

Sāmoans have beautiful and meticulously maintained gardens. In our village there was going to be an inspection by the pulenu’u and our host mother spent hours out in the pouring rain (I mean pouring rain) weeding her garden and yard to prepare for this inspection. At first I expected to see her come in after it started to sprinkle, but she remained diligent. The sprinkle turned into a rain, the rain into a downpour and still she stayed out there weeding the yard while the kids carried away wheelbarrows of debris.

I want to make sure I am not creating a picture of beautiful garden, free of leaves, but strewn with trash. That is the other odd thing about trash in Sāmoa. Even though I have no idea where to put it myself and I usually see the family simply throw it out back behind the kitchen for the pigs, I don’t actually see that much trash around. Sure there is that one shampoo bottle and an occasionally tin can, but I know the family is generating more trash than that and I know that not all of it is things the pigs can eat. So where is it all going? That is the mystery.

— Sara

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Christmas in January

Since our training schedule is a little hectic and I am little hobbled by my butt boils, it is impossible for Cale and I to purchase and mail presents home during the remaining two days we have in Apia. After that we will be back in the village for two weeks with no access to shops or mail. So, long story short, we will be sending out our Christmas presents after our swearing in on December 12. Our presents won’t make it back to the states for the holidays; you can expect a Christmas in January from us.

— Sara

Saturday, November 17, 2007

That’s so palagi of you

Integrating into our communities is a key (probably the key) part of being successful Peace Corps Volunteers.

Our trainers have been doing everything they can to help us fit in and to become accepted members of the community. Two of the things they warned us of are Sunday activities and the nature of Sāmoans to want to make guests happy. Every village has different rules and standards, but for the most part Sunday seems to be a day for church, food and rest — and not much else.

As an example, our trainers have been telling us that we must ask the people of our village if it is okay to swim on Sunday. Many villages have rules against things like that. However, it isn’t enough to simply as, “Can I go swimming on Sunday?” because your hosts will want to make you happy and they will say yes if they think that is what you want to hear. You have to instead ask, “Do you go swimming on Sundays?” Or better yet, wait and observe. Are the people in your village swimming on Sundays?

Despite all the preparation, many of the people in our training group managed to so something very palagi (foreigner, touristy) in our training village last Sunday. One group went on a hike to a waterfall about an hour outside the village and another group went for a walk to the hydropower station, which is about a 20-minute walk. We were in the one that went to the power station.

It was a tricky situation. I don’t think either group believed they were doing anything inappropriate because both groups we made up of both palagi and youth from the village. I cannot speak for the waterfall group, but I was invited on my walk to the power station by a Sāmoan after church.

In retrospect, we should have been more cautious and followed the example of the majority of people around us, who spent Sunday afternoon visiting with family and napping.

The following day our trainers pointed out to us that the elders of the village had brought up our excursions saying, “That was very palagis of them.” Meaning that it is the foreigners, the tourists, the outsiders who do not really understand the meaning of Sunday in Sāmoa and who want to do things like sight see on that day. I did not get the impression that our actions offended the village, but I do believe that they set us apart others, people who still are not integrated.

I should probably back up at this point and mention that a walk to the power station isn’t just an educational hike to a clean source of energy. A lot of kids swim in the mini water park that is created by the fast moving runoff water from the station.

Anywho, I think a lot of us learned a valuable lesson from the experience and you can expect to see all the palagi in our training village visiting with family and napping the next Sunday we are in the village.

— Sara

Missing out

Most of the things I miss can come down to one very important thing: Independence.

One thing that PST is very good at stripping you of is your independence. So when the little things get you down, like wishing that you could have toast for breakfast that had actually been toasted recently — and not several hours earlier — it can all be traced back to a lack of independence. We depend on our host families and trainers for everything when we are in the village.

Earlier this week during our recent two-week stay in the village, HP, the training coordinator, interviewed each of us to see how PST was going. One of the things I brought up was the feeling I had of loosing my tenuous grip on adulthood. Maybe it is different for people who have been adults longer, but I have only been doing this adult thing for four years now. I am finding it easy to regress back to a college-like — heck, a middle-school-like — state in the camp-like environment that is PST (I wonder if I could have worked more likes into that sentence).

Later in the week I had a chat with HP where he mentioned that he had thought about being a teacher one day.

“You are a teacher now,” I said.

“No. I am a professional trainer. I see you as professionals,” he replied (in my paraphrased, yet using quotes, throwing journalism ethics to the wind story telling).

However, when I thought about it, I don’t see myself as a professional anymore. I see my self as an adolescent or kid of some kind. There are silly-songs and warm-up activities and skits. The only thing we are really missing is bonfires and arts and crafts — soon we will all make lanyards to send home to our moms. I have come to see the trainers as these older, camp-counselor, authority figures. In reality, one trainer is only five years older than Cale.

I don’t think that this is an inherent aspect of PST. I think that it is just a role I have found myself slipping into. I have so little control, over so little things that I think I find it a coping method to let myself let go of even the few adult-like things I still had and fall back into the role of kid and student.

There are times though that I find myself day dreaming about things like buying my own groceries and making my own toast.

— Sara

First mail

I just want to give a shout out to Grandma and Pep-Pep Hoffman whose Halloween card was our first in-country mail — and it even came close to Halloween!

I also wanted to give people an idea on timelines for packages. Cale’s mom mailed a package for us right after we left for staging. It took one month to reach us in Sāmoa. However, on the same day that we received our package, another volunteer finally got a package she had sent to herself two months ago and she even used a faster mail option. So what I guess I am trying to say is that packages come when they come, but don’t expect them to arrive any sooner than a month.

So, ahem, if you were thinking about sending a Christmas package, now would be the time to get that puppy in the mail. (I see, after writing this entry, emails from Mom and Dad about a package they have sent — so this pointed message is not for them.)

You also may have noticed a new list in the sidebar (see that over there on the left? Yeah that, that’s the sidebar) of things to consider including in a package if you send one. Just some ideas, cough, you might consider.

On a semi-related note, I have also started a list of afflictions. You know, just so you can keep up-to-date on all the fun things that can happen to you while in the Peace Corps. In fact, while I am typing this I am sitting on a hot water bottle (I think I almost cried when Teuila, our medical officer, gave it to me, I was so excited to have a hot water bottle) because of the pain of the two, giant boils on my butt. And when Cale gets up he is going to try a new experiment with the mysterious rash on his side, no more anti-itch cream, now hydrocortisone cream. Very exciting.

— Sara

Finally, Cale has something to say

So — Sara keeps getting after me to write a blog entry, so here I go.

It's only after you've been here a while that you notice some of the little things:

Panhandlers — I have only been asked for money one time, and it was while skate boarding along the seawall in a hat and sunglasses. I may as well have had a sign on my forehead saying "Not From Here" A fellow approached me, complimented me, asked me how I was doing, we chatted about the weather (hot), we made introductions, and after we bid each other goodbye he asked me for two tala. I said I didn't have it. He said Ok. It was the most pleasant panhandling experience I have ever had. Nothing like the endless parade of gruff 'can I have some change' requests I got in Orlando.

Stars — Well, there is a lot of them, that goes without saying. Less light pollution = more stars. But they are all different. Way different. I'm no astronomer; up north I can pick out Orion’s belt, and usually one or two of the dippers. I never knew how odd it would be to look up and see nothing familiar. A lot of nothing familiar.

Exotic vs. Domestic — I’m sitting under a mango tree. There are mangos everywhere. I think I paid 7 bucks for a wine glass full of mango juice in Broad Ripple before we came here, and now I'm sitting next to half a dozen of them. On the other hand, anyone got any red onion they can spare?

Anyway - that's enough for now


Don’t worry, we are alive

We have been in the host village for the past two weeks, so no internets. I hope that no one has been too concerned about not hearing from us.

Just one blog/flickr maintenance message. For the safety and privacy of our host family, I have made any recognizable pictures of them private on the Flickr account. That means that only people logged into Flickr and on our friends and/or family contact list can see these pictures. If you want to be our friend or family, simply sign up for a free Flickr account and send us a contact message. If we trust you, we will put you on the list.

(Mom: Dad already has an account, just ask him what his login is)

— Sara

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Cale versus the centipede

The mattresses in our house at our site are very mildewy and moldy since the house was left open for several months. We plan on remedying the situation when we move there in December. However, for the two nights of our site visit there wasn’t anything that could be done.

I was having a hard time breathing in the bedroom lying on those mattresses. On the second night Cale and I had set up sleeping on the floor of the living room. I was lying on some chair cushions, but Cale was lying on some sheets spread out of the floor.

I was half dozing, listening to the iPod when Cale woke with a start, yelling and thrashing around with his sheets. Needless to say, this scared me awake and had me yelling in fright as well. I am sure the neighbors were wondering what crazy things the palagi were doing at 10 pm.

Cale thought he might have rolled over on a millipede because they are supposed to cause a burning sensation when crushed. However, when he investigated the sheets he found one large, mean-looking centipede. It was still alive and uncurled itself and scuttled away.

Neither of us had our medical manuals with us and all we could remember about centipede stings is that they hurt, which I think that Cale can attest to now. We called the medical officer and she had Cale ice it and take some Ibuprofen. In the end, Cale says it was a similar experience to a bee sting. However, we have heard of other people stung by centipedes who experienced a lot of pain for several hours. In one of the nonfiction books I read set in the South Pacific the author was stung by a centipede on his foot and it swelled up for several days, so I am glad that Cale got off so lightly.

— Sara

On-the-job “Training” (yes, I used quotes there. I meant to)

Recently someone posted a comment to our blog asking about our Peace Corps experience. She mentioned that most of the blogs she is reading only say good things about the writers’ time in the PC and she was hoping to hear more about the trials and tribulations of serving. At the time, I told her that we were only three weeks into our time in the PC and that nothings bad had happened yet. Yes, training is hard and yes, at times I am hot and tired and overwhelmed, but nothing really negative had happened so far.

On Tuesday we went on our site visits/on-the-job training/independent travel trips. Basically the idea is you find your own way from Apia to your site and then you spend two days there getting to know the people you will be working with.

Oh wait, I am sorry, am I getting ahead of myself here? Did I fail to mention that site announcement was on Monday? Oh goodness. Well, on Monday we learned where we are going to be spending the next two years. Such a small detail to gloss over.

Cale and I are living and working in the same village. I will be teaching computers at a college (read: high school) run by the Methodist Board of Education and Cale will be teaching woodworking at the vocational school next door, also run by the Methodists. There is also a third member of our PC group, Aaron, living and working in our village. He is going to be working with Cale at the vocational school. He will be roommates with a JICA volunteer at my school. I don’t know all the details about JICA, but it appears to be the Japanese version of the Peace Corps.

So, where was I? Oh yes, the site visits and negative experiences. So something I learned about negative experiences in the PC is that it is all a matter of your attitude, time and processing. If I had written this post immediately after my first day at my school, it would have been incredibly negative. In fact, I did write something in my notebook the day after and it is very long and complainy. However, I have had time to think about the experience and time to process it with the other volunteers and trainers and it has given me a better perspective on things.

I was very overwhelmed on my first day. The school didn't seem to know I was coming. The principal paired me up with one of the other computer teachers who was very nice and seemed like someone it would be good to partner with later. Unfortunately, that teacher had only been teaching at the school for four weeks (two of which were a break) and didn’t have a lot of information about the computer department or program. He did show me the computer lab, which is FULL of potential. It is a clean, well-organized, air-conditioned room with more than 20 new computers. However, only six of them are working at this time. I feel pretty confident that is fixable.

However, after first period that teacher disappeared and I was left to my own devices in the teachers lounge. I made some conversation with other teachers, but they seemed like they needed to work, so I mostly sat to myself and wrote letters home. During this time the principal was also away, when he returned I asked him if I could observe a computer class and he sent me off to watch another computer teacher for the last period of the day.

This is when I discovered that no teaching is going on this week. Students are having self-study for the exams next week. It highlights the difference between the Sāmoan education system and the one that I am used to. In the States the week before a big exam the teachers spend it doing review, frequently with games and quizzes and practice tests, and all the quiet self-study is something you are supposed to do on your own at home. In Sāmoa (or at least at this school), the students sit quietly and study at their desks and the teachers just act as room monitors during the week before the exams. I wonder if part of that is because the students do not have time to study at home, they have lots of chores to do when they get home.

Anyway, this teacher decided to do something with his class because I was watching, so he started to ask them questions about things like input devices and RAM and ROM. Then, he started quizzing me a little. Which is where my day really fell apart. When I didn’t know the answers to questions, it set the class laughing and he had to give them a speech in Sāmoan about not laughing at me. It was pretty humiliating.

Before we left, your trainers prepared us saying that the school would have a place for us to stay set up and that they would be feeding us while we were there. However, the people at the school didn’t know anything about this, which jacked my anxiety level up even more. I was sent me off across campus to find the director.

By the time Cale and Aaron found me 30 minutes later sitting in the director’s waiting room I was pretty much a mess. I was hot, hungry (I hadn’t eaten anything all day but bread and tea from the tea break), anxious, humiliated and in general in fear for the next two years. And, to be totally honest, I cried.

Thankfully, the director was totally on top of things. He knew we were coming and planned for us to stay in the house where we will be living when we work there, only a stone’s throw from the school and next door to his. The house is awesome. It looks just like the sort of house you would find in Florida. Cinder block construction, three bedrooms, a large living room and dining area with a dining table, a large kitchen with gas stove and oven with broiler and refrigerator, and a large wrap around porch. The house is rock-tastic and totally not what I expected at all. We will need to clean the living daylights out of it. The last volunteer to live there left rather unexpectedly in June or July and the house was left open to the elements for all that time (all the louvered windows were left open and it might have even been unlocked). It is pretty filthy inside, but nothing a power washer (or a lot of hot water and soap) won’t fix.

I went to school the next day with an improved attitude and determined to take things into my own hands. I still ended up sitting in the teachers’ lounge for most of the day, but I did get to meet the head of my department and ask him questions and I did make a friend with one of the science and maths (they call it maths in Sāmoa) teachers (I think). And after processing with the group and trainers back in Apia the next day, I was determined to look at the potential of my site and not at the experience of the first day. There is one guy in our group whose site was a completely wrong match for him and right now, he doesn’t know where he will be working, yet he has the best attitude out of all of us I think and that was really inspiring.

My school has a computer lab all set up and, with a little work, ready to rock and roll. I met a new computer teacher who has a lot of good ideas for the school computer program including getting a computer with Internet in the library and teaching research skills to the students. The head of my department is interested in having me help him learn more about computers. I made friends with a teacher my age and I might even join her soccer team when I get there. I have Cale for support and Aaron and the JICA volunteer are down the street if we ever need a suipi party.

One of the things I kept telling myself after the first day was, “If everything here was the way it should be, they wouldn’t need Peace Corps in the first place.” I cannot look at all the difficulties I had with my site on the first day and let it get me down. That is what I am here to do, I am supposed to find areas where there might be room for improvement and then do what I can to help people improve them. So how is that for a Hallmark-movie ending of inspiration and up-lifted spirits?

So now that I have blathered on for a ridiculous amount of time (word count at this point: 1,675) you may be wondering, “So, how was Cale’s site visit?” I cannot speak for Cale, other than to say that it sounded like it was pretty amazing and he is stoked to get to work. Hopefully, I can get him to start making posts to the blog and he can tell you about his experience.

— Sara

If this were real, we’d be underwater by now

Monday was Sāmoa’s first national tsunami drill. When the announcement went out, everyone was required to make his or her way to designated high ground. Ours was at Chanel College, about four miles away. Of course, you cannot use vehicles, as that would lead to standstill traffic jams. So we hoofed it up the mountain at 11:30 am under the blazing sun for an hour or so. I was actually enjoying it. It was hot and sweaty and long and quite a work out — and it felt great. Of course later that night my hips had a thing or two to say about the whole experience.

— Sara

Oh, aren’t we adorable?

So, rumor has it that Sāmoan couples will frequently dress in matching outfits. I have yet to see any locals do this, but host families sure do like to dress up their married Pisikoa in matching outfits.

Cale and I now have three matching outfits that our host mom made for us. Speaking of sewing clothes, our host mom is just amazing. She sewed outfits for us three times in the week we were there and all of those times she either did it that morning before breakfast or just the night before. She really is talented.

Apparently there is a contest between the families and status is associated with who can best dress their Pisikoa. It is like we are life-sized dolls. Even when our host mom hasn’t sewn something for us to wear, she would give us some of the families clothes to wear to class — and made us keep those clothes. That makes me feel a little guilty, but we will try to reciprocate with gifts back. Thanks to this practice, Cale is now the proud owner of an orange Snoop Dogg sports jersey and I have my very own, surprisingly slinky, crushed velvet maroon skirt. I can feel your jealousy all the way around the world.

— Sara

Do you like pig trotters?

Our trainers prepared our host families for us in a variety of ways. One of them was the food. They told the families that palagi like soup because soups in Sāmoa usually contain vegetables.

Our family has been giving us soups frequently and they are usually delicious. Ever since Cale told them potatoes are my favorite food, they usually have potatoes in them. They also use a lot of pumpkin in soups, which I have not seen before, but is delicious.

Sāmoan soups frequently contain large chunks of whatever meat is flavoring the broth. These chunks can contain bones and gristle. I am pretty sure you are supposed to eat around them. However, I didn’t know that the first night.

I put the ladle into the pot of soup to serve Cale and as I pulled it out and headed for Cale’s bowl, I saw the large chunk. I looked at Cale in horror as our host mom asked, “Do you like pig trotters?” I was about to dump an entire pig’s foot into his bowl and there was nothing I could do about it. I was poast the point of no return without looking rude. We locked eyes. Cale’s were asking, “What are you doing to me?” and mine were asking, “What am I doing to you?” With a splat the foot landed in his bowl.

Thankfully there was fish for dinner too and Cale was able to set the pig’s foot aside gracefully.

I haven’t been doing so great with Sāmoan food, but I think that in part it is attributable to two factors:

1. I was sick for a couple of days when we were at the host village. Nothing serious. I was just a little nauseated and tired and not hungry. So I wasn’t eating

Speaking of not eating, the family comments on my “figa” quite frequently. Apparently, I have quite a nice one, which they attribute to me eating less than the baby. To be honest, I have lost some weight, thanks to being ill and the four-mile hike we had on tsunami safety day (more about that later). The Sāmoan weight-loss plan is great!

2. Someone is always watching me while I eat. In Sāmoan culture, adults and guests always eat first and the children serve them. There is always a kid (or often, even our host mom) fanning our food to keep the flies away and other kids waiting for me to finish so they can bring me a bowl of water to wash my hands with.

It is hard to navigate the an experience with a new food when your every move and bite is going closely watched.

Our family loves Cale. They say he is a good eater and he has taken to some of the Sāmoan foods better than me, like the boiled banana and coconut cream, fa’alifu, and the young taro leaves and coconut cream, pulusami.

Speaking of coconut, that is one crazy versatile plant. You can build your house out of it, thatch your roof with it, make a bowl or a basket or a broom out of it and feed your family with it. Every stage of the coconuts growth yields a different kind of food — and none of it tastes like the shredded coconut we put on cookies and in cakes in the States.

— Sara

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Sāmoa is made of music

The sites

Our first week in the training village was an interesting experience. On Monday, I thought the week was never going to end and by Friday, I couldn't believe it was almost over.

When we arrived at the village we were greeted with an ava ceremony. (As an aside, we met a man from the attorney generals' office at one of our training sessions and he said he has only been to three ceremonies in his life and we have been to three in the past three weeks.) We could tell right away that the faife'au (pastor) of the village was an important man because he sat in the position for the high chief during the ceremony. At the end of the ceremony, our names were called out one by one (or in our case two by one) and we were handed off to our new host families.

We were met by our host mother. As it turns out, she is related to one of our trainers, Leata. She had been at our hotel earlier in the week and had already seen us before we met her that day.

That first night we experienced our first Sa (village prayer of sorts). The entire village has a curfew from 6:30 pm to 7 pm. A warning horn is blown around 6 pm. Our family gathered in the fale i tua (back house) to pray. They started the prayer with a song, which was sung beautifully and with enthusiasm by the entire family, from mom and dad all the way down to the three year old. What was amazing was sitting there in the twilight, listening to this family singing in a language I didn't understand and hearing all across the village and off into the distance other families singing as well.

We ended the evening playing a Sāmoan card game that has become all the rage among Group 79 boys. It is called suipi (I think. I will have to check on the spelling, but is sounds like sweep-ee). The second oldest daughter and our host mom played with us while the the other kids hung around, too.

I should probably introduce the family better. Our mom is a seamstress and she has a shop in Apia. Our host dad works on the village plantation (farm). Their oldest daughter is twenty-three and married with two kids. Her family lives with her parents. The next daughter is 17 and waiting to go to New Zealand for school. Apparently, she will be adopted by relatives there. The next daughter is about 13 and goes to high school. The only boy is 11. The two youngests are about eight and six.

There is a lot of English-speakers in the family. Our family is really great at helping us learn the language. Of course, Cale is doing better than I am, but I am slowly picking things us.

Our schedule is pretty packed. We are at school everyday by 8 am and classes end at 5 pm. They are followed by a one hour optional tutorial. When school is out we head home to shower before the Sa and dinner and then after diner we usually do homework or play suipe with Gal (Kale) who is with the next family over. Then we sleep.

More from the village to come.

— Sara

40 years of Peace Corps in Sāmoa

Fire Dancer

We were lucky enough to arrive in Sāmoa in time for the fortieth anniversary of Peace Corps in Sāmoa. The celebration was the second weekend we were in town and RPCVs from the first two groups were in country for the celebration. These returned Volunteers were the first ones on the ground in Sāmoa in 1967 when PC started here. It was extremely interesting to meet them and to hear their stories.

We actually got an early taste of the RPCV when we ran into a group while we were out to dinner at the Rainforest Café. We were told they could tell we were new because some of us were drinking wine instead of the local beer, Vailima.


The first event for the several-day long celebration was a parade of sorts from the PC headquarters to downtown lead by the police band early Friday morning. Then there were speeches from the country director of PC, the charge d’affairs from the U.S. consulate and none other than the Prime Minister of Sāmoa. It was pretty amazing to see the prime minister of a country giving a speech in the open meeting fale to a small group of people with no pomp or circumstance. One of the RPCV also gave a speech; he had actually served as the country director in Sāmoa several years ago, in addition to being one of the original volunteers.

There were other events during the day, but we couldn’t stay because we were packing for our village visit that we would be leaving for on Saturday afternoon.

Friday night was the fiafia. Usually a welcome fiafia (party) is held for the new PC trainees their first weekend in town. The current volunteers put it on. However, because of these extraordinary circumstances, this welcome fiafia we held a week later and the RPCVs were the guests of honor. I mean, how often does a group of original volunteers return to Sāmoa on the 40th anniversary?

The fiafia was pretty cool. At the end of the ava ceremony, one of the original RPCV (have I mentioned that stands for returned peace corps volunteer) gave a fine, woven Sāmoan mat that he had received during his tour 40 years ago to Aaron, one of the guys in our group. During the events, he had discovered that he and Aaron were from the same hometown in Oregon. He charged Aaron with returning to Sāmoa in 40 years to pass it on to another volunteer.


After that the current volunteers put on a show for us with Sāmoan siva (dancing) and pesie (singing). It was pretty fabulous. I did have a little trouble because I had unknowingly sat at the end of the row in the audience. Anytime the dancers or performers wanted to pull someone in form the audience, it ended up being me. And you know how much I love being the center of attention and being awkward in front of an audience. Add to that I was tired and hot and hungry and I was a little upset for a little while after the performances.

We also had a fire dancer perform. She was one of the Year 9 girls from the school where the fiafia was hosted, Kolisi o Sānele. She was probably about 13 years old and she rocked. It was amazing.

After the show was the feast. The current volunteers had prepared for us a smorgasbord of food. It included two cooked pigs and other Sāmoan foods, but there were also refried beans and pasta salad and rice krispy treats and other palagi foods.

Something pretty exciting about the whole event was that the head of state came and sat in the front row with the country director and watched the whole thing. He didn’t want to be introduced and it was all very chill and under the radar, but still very prestigious that he was there. I know I mentioned earlier that the PM was at the morning events; this is a different guy. He is a little like royalty, the way the Queen in the head of state in England, but different. In Sāmoa every family has it’s own matai title and villages have high chief and orator matai titles. There are four families that have the highest matai titles possible and it is one of these matais (a first among equals of the other families) who is the head of state. He also happens to be the PC training coordinator’s uncle. I hope I have explained this correctly. If not, I will get back to you to correct myself.

On Saturday we went to a symposium organized for the 40th. There was a panel of RPCV who talked about their time here. One woman returned to the states to get her nursing license and work in public health when she was done with the PC, something she had no background in before. She discovered once she moved to her village, people came to her with their medical troubles because she had a PC medical kit and that sparked her interest in the field. Another man actually went on to be the country director in Sāmoa years later. He also was a graduate of the public health doctorate program at Mizzou, so I talked to him for a bit with that as an introduction.

During the panel he talked about how your PC experience will be what you make of it. He shared a story of a time in country when he was trying to build chicken coops, but he had no hammer. He found himself sitting there, wondering what he would do with out a hammer and so he turned, picked up a rock and used it as a hammer for his coops. He said not to focus on what you don’t have, but to instead focus on what you do have and make that work for you. Another volunteer talked about how there wasn’t one epiphany moment for him where PC changed his life, but he did say:

You will benefit. I promise you that.

We had to leave the symposium early because we were leaving for our host village — which is a story for another day.

— Sara

Monday, October 29, 2007

New Names

I think I mentioned in passing that we were all given new Sāmoan names. I figured I would give you the run down. Most of them are pretty straight forward, but some of them are a little strange.

Sara: Sela, say-lah
(The Sāmoan alphabet contains all the letters to spell my name, but the “R” is an adopted letter that wasn’t in the original alphabet. Also, this is the name they use for Sarah in the Bible.)

Cale: Tēvita, tāy-vee-tah
(Since Cale is David on all the official paperwork that is the name they were working with when they picked his Sāmoan name.)

Gal: Kale, kal-lay

Rosie: Rosalina, rose-ah-leenah

Lissa: Lisa, lee-sah

Hanna: ‘Ane, ah-nay

John: Ione, ee-oh-nay

Michael: Mikaele, mee-kah-el-lay

Matt: Mataio, mah-tie-oh

Ryan: Lene, lay-nay
(That is one of the weird ones that doesn’t really make sense when compared to his palangi nam)

Aaron: ‘Alo, ah-low

Erik: ‘Eli, el-lee

Max: Masi, mah-see
(Which happens to be Sāmoan for biscuit, so we all find it hilarious)

— Sara