The Vaiala Heroes at Culture Day

Culture Day at Vaipua Primary

Books Donated from Darien Aid

Tree Planting with funds donated from WaterCharity

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An Ava ceremony and a Plan in Motion!

This morning, Talava presented me with a beautiful white puletasi. Nice and tight, the best fitted puletasi I own for sure. Telefoni gave me a brand new Samoan Bible and I walked to church in my new garb and with my new book. Church was short and entirely tolerable. Songs were sung, I read my English bible along with the message of the sermon, I day dreamed while we were kneeling for the 20 minute prayer and during the rest of the message I learned a few new words in my Samoan English dictionary.

After church, I took a long nap and read some of Wicked before going to meet up with Tuaia. We had promised to meet and go see the Women’s Committee president to talk about getting the Committee together Monday or Tuesday to discuss the grant proposal for the new steps down the cliff to the beach.

When I arrived at Tuaia’s house, she was busy changing into a puletasi and saying that she was obliged to attend a ceremony at the faifeau’s house and that I should come also. I didn’t really feel a strong desire to participate in the festivities, which would undoubtedly include politely refusing heaping plates of meat, fanning away flies from the plates of the matais and sitting for long periods of time straining to understand snippets of conversation between the villagers. But, thinking that this would be a valuable opportunity to meet and greet with some members of the community that I haven’t met and also show my prowess at the Ava ceremony, I hurried home to change into a puletasi.

I walked with Talava to Sulu’s house and when we arrived, the heaping plates of meat (sausages, corned beef, chicken, fish, ramen and taro) were already prepared and waiting on the floor surrounded by fanning women. I sat near half a roast pig and fanned the flies away, listening to the conversations around me and not understanding much at all. Finally, the men had finished their Ava ceremony in the fale across from us and we started to bring out the food. I presented a tray to the guest in the ceremony, a new Methodist preacher who was staying with our faifeau (pastor) then sat to fan the flies off our faifeau’s meal. I was told to sit next to Sulu and did so.

The runner gave me a cup of Ava and all looked on interested as I spilled a drop in front of me and said in a clear steady voice “Lea Ava lea le Atua, soifua!” before downing the murky contents and tossing the cup to the runner. They exploded into chatter at this and I concentrated on my cup of Cocoa Samoa. Sulu translated. The matais were saying what a good Samoan girl I was and that I needed a good Samoan boyfriend. She told them I had a boyfriend in America already and in reply to this they said I should have more than one boyfriend. They also encouraged me to come to the village and committee meetings to help with my Samoan.

After I had finished my second cup of Cocoa Samoa and had refused for the third or fourth time the food, I returned to where the women were gathered and thanked Loli Tui’s wife for inviting me and for the good food and drink. I then talked to Mele, the women’s committee president about wanting to meet with the committee before leaving for Apia on Wednesday in order to discuss the grant proposal for the new cement steps going down the cliff to the beach. She nodded at my simple explanation of writing the letter, discussing all the reasons why we need steps on the mako (cliff), how I will bring it first to the peace corps office and have it read and edited by the staff there and how I will submit it to the New Zealand High Commission office on Wednesday before going to Manunu. Mele presented this information to the Methodist ladies gathered in the fale and they nodded and agreed to meet tomorrow afternoon to discuss the idea further, but that they all thought the idea was very good and that the whole village would benefit from it. They patted my shoulder and back and said “Manaia tele oe” or “Lelei tele oe” (both mean "You're so good!" or "You're doing well!" as they left the house. I can’t describe how encouraging it was to be supported by the women of the village and for my plan to be in motion.

One of three 20-something birthdays of mine to take place in Samoa

My 24th birthday and the first of three precious twenty-something birthdays that will be spend in Samoa, in probably much the same way as I spent this one. Early in the morning, I took the bus into town and checked my email at the peace corps office. On my facebook page, many people had written a happy birthday message which was nice :D Alanna and Dad had sent me a message to watch out for a birthday/Christmas package that was in route. I’m so touched that they, especially Dad, have started to take the time to email and to send things like letters and packages.

Anyway, I made a quick run to the post office with the mail box key from the office to check for said parcel and to send out some post cards to family and friends in the states and in Japan. There was no package there and the people at the photo store couldn’t read photos from my Sony Memory Stick Pro or from a USB so I’ll end up printing pictures for Pulusila and Faafetai in Apia when I go on Wednesday. That’s going to be so nice, to do some shopping and run some errands.

I stopped by the Samoan Water Authority office on the way back and asked a couple questions about getting the main pipe in Vaipu’a extended up the hill for the families without piped water. I was told an application paper had to be filled out and the families would have to pay twenty tala to have the surveyors come out and check the water pressure and the feasibility of extending the pipe uphill. Good enough for me.

Finally, I was ready to catch the bus to Saleaula to meet up with Alli and a few other Peace Corps that might be coming to kafao (hang out) with us at the Bay View Resort at the Lava Fields. I saw the bus that I needed to be on pass me by and I ran back to the office, deposited the key on the wall and grabbed a taxi, telling the driver to catch up to the green bus going to Sasina! The taxi sped up the main road, stopping irksomely at a long red light before driving 20 minutes until the bus was in sight. I paid the driver 25 tala for the ride and hopped on the bus. The 25 tala was money well spent because the next bus would not have left the wharf for another 3 hours or so.

The bus passed by Saleaula and took me all the way to Sasina and back, a nice ride along the coast and I got to see Alli’s village. I walked up to the resort with a small plastic bag of oreos, chips and a diet sprite, all luxuries unavailable in my village and met Alli, who was sunbathing on the water, with excitement and hugs. We went back to the main lobby restaurant area, met up with Lasela who gave me a hand made birthday card and some stickers, and had fish and chips and a nice cold one for lunch. Dana and Unicorn showed up shortly after and we all took the canoes across the water to the small island dividing ocean and lake. The sand there was black, no doubt caused in some way by all the black lava rock surrounding the area and the large waves crashed into us as we waded into the ocean up to our bellies.

When we paddled back to the resort, we showered and started pre-gaming before heading to dinner. Lasela and I shared a seafood pasta that was just spicy enough and quite delicious. There was a small fiafia and three hotel staff girls danced a few choreographed siva Samoa numbers to the delight of us and the other few guests that were there. After a hurried discussion, the four of us decided to perform our little siva Samoa we had learned for the last night in Manunu and did it together to a different piece of music, but with success. Jim even jumped in and “choo choo” ed for us and beat his chest.

After this, we played a couple interesting games of pool before Emi and two visitors of hers drove up. Kelly and Jeff joined us for Kings in Lasela’s rooms.

In the morning, we ate pancakes and watched Twister on the TV overhead. Alli confessed her love for Bill Paxton. We spend a few confused moments figuring out the bill for the last night’s dinner, the lodging and this morning’s meal before Dana and I hurried to catch the last bus to Salelologa.

Just another day in Vaipu'a

December 15, 2009

Today I slept until eleven on accident and didn’t get around to do anything until very late in the day. I didn’t really do anything anyway. I went to the beach and met Tili, the Methodist pastor’s daughter who’s visiting from New Zealand, there. We had a nice long talk sitting in the shade about her boyfriend, my boyfriend (Adam B.) and heaps of other stuff. We stayed there for a few hours (which her mom tisked at me for later, psh whatever) and I got sunburned, the worst I’ve gotten since I’ve been here. Not the worse I’ve ever been or anything though.

Then I went home and sat under the water pipe outside to cool down, took a shower, Talava asked me for my dirty laundry. I gave her a few things but kept my really dirty stuff for me to do later. Before the Sa, we went for a walk down to a house that’s far from the road on the north side and played a game of volleyball with some kids. We had some small fresh fish and rice for dinner. After dinner we joked around and looked at my language book a little bit. Foni did some balancing trick with a beer bottle, a fork, a spoon and a very small stick. I took one of the small sticks and made pegs for my wooden earrings and poked them through my lobes, to everyone’s astonishment. Earrings really make a difference. They make you feel like a girl, even when you are sweaty and dirty and your skin looks like an old catchers’ mitt.

We took a walk down to Asi’s house again because the Methodist Youth group was busy practicing for a play they were going to perform this Friday. All the girls wore puletasis and Loli Tui was there leading the songs. It was very much like the plays I’ve seen in Samoa so far. All with a Bible story or moral lesson attached. There are choir songs and group dances, a couple key actors for the story. The main character is the sinner and he or she comes to weep and pray to Jesus to forgive them for what they did. Jesus forgives and the choir sings a triumphant song. The end.

We sat around, the pastor’s daughters, my host sisters and I for a bit. Not talking about anything really interesting at all, but leaving at midnight.

Tomorrow, I’m going to get up at a decent hour and have a long busy day. I WILL visit every house tomorrow!! Well, at least every house on the main road.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

More on Vaipu'a

This morning, I had hoped to take the new Peace Corps bike, gleaming black and still smelling of new rubber, for a spin on the main road before school while the sun had not yet realized it’s full heat. Alas, I was disappointed to wake up and hear the pattering of rain on the torso sized fan leaves outside my room. The sound was soothing though, that I quickly forgot about the bike and slipped back into a comfortable slumber. Around nine, I finally drug myself to the bathroom to freshen up and eat a hot bowl of oatmeal (which I had brought with me from Apia of course) and a cup of tea. My family marvels at me when I proceed to drink the stuff without any sugar added and I love it.

I decided to go with just a ie lavalava and a polo shirt to school, since the day before everyone had worn casual clothes and I alone hot boxed myself in a polyester puletasi. It was a short meeting with only myself, Senerita, her baby, Fili and Loli. I proceeded to try and fill out some information on the school for the Peace Corps contact form. I was amused but not surprised to discover there was no phone and no address save “Vaipua Primary School, Vaipua, Savaii” and the same went for my house.

Next, I sketched another improved version of the Vaipu’a map and included what families had water tanks. The map was cleaner and more legible this time, with a legend and everything. Fili and Senerita enjoyed looking over the map and showing me houses or important landmarks, like the piece of long cement walkway that sits on the grass where the matai sit during Sa to make sure everyone is inside and praying. We started talking about some things in Vaipu’a that they thought should be addressed. I, of course, brought up the rubbish issue along the cliff wall again.

The cliff wall spans along Vaipu’a and the neighboring villages to each side behind the houses on the north side of the road. Most families in Samoa tend to throw their garbage behind their house, dig a hole and bury it, burn it or feed it to dogs and pigs. The families that live on the north side of the road, by habit, throw their lapisi (rubbish) behind them and so it litters the walkway of the cliff and all down on the beach amongst the trees. Other than the walkway and right under the cliff stuck in the trees, the beach is pristine and hidden. The only garbage pick up is once a month and there are no bins or community dumpsters where people can put their garbage, what exists now are two tall thin table-like fixtures along the road that people put bags of trash on top of. Not many people use them though because dogs and cats tend to get at them and rip them open, leaving the trash sprawled all over the nice clean front lawns.

So, in light of all this, the project proposal I am currently devising will include a call to the garbage company in Savaii, the building of two or three rubbish bins that animals cannot get into. To jumpstart the Vaipu’a cleanup project, a group of youth and children will go one day to the cliff side and pick up all the trash. Finally, to keep things sustainable, the matai council will pass a village rule that any rubbish should be kept within the home or disposed of in the rubbish bins or by burning or composting. If any trash is found spilling out of people’s homes and into public walkways, roads or any shared environment a fine will be imposed. Of course, this is all in my head still. I have only discussed it with some teachers in the school, Tuaia actually brought it up to the committee. When I brought it up with Foni tonight at the dinner table, he seemed excited “Yes, I thought a cement stair on the cliff is a good idea. Just, I don’t know how to build something like that thing.”

We also talked gardens both at the school and at the dinner table later. Foni was all ready to jump on the idea and asked me if I would take a look at a plot in the yard that he thought might have tillable soil. He pointed to a piece of broken fence with chicken wire on it and said “We can use the wire there on the fence and make new fence for the garden”. It’s so exciting to have a positive and ready response to these small projects!

After school, the most AMAZING thing happened! Tuaia didn’t come to school for the informal meeting with her fala to weave like she said she was going to, so Senerita invited me over to her house to weave with her mother-in-law. Having nothing better to do and realizing that I had better start meeting all the families in town, I went along gladly.

We walked up the hill inland past a few houses until we reached her western inspired fale where there was a smiling, moustached man reading an enormous tattered book, a young lady breast feeding a baby, a few toddler boys running around without pants and a plump big-haired woman weaving a fine mat.

I was readily welcomed by all and took a seat in a wooden chair, grabbed my fala coil out of my bag, unwrapped the ties holding it together and started pulling long dry leaves out. When I did this, a chatter in the house erupted and Senerita translated. “Whose fala leaves are those?” and I replied “They’re mine, of course” and smiled slyly. When translated back, there was much more happy discussion about where it came from, whether or not I knew how to make a fala, when I had done it before, what I wanted to make and so on as I started weaving the corner of my mat, to everyone’s surprise and delight.

Thirty minutes of bending over crossed legs on the floor is my limit, so I stood up to stretch and remembered that Senerita had mentioned a couple days before that she had a laptop that she didn't know how to use. I brought it up and the laptop was brought to me in a bulky black carrying case. I took it out and dusted it off, it was a thick old Dell. It turned on with the normal Windows welcome sound, showed the account page, opened to a nice flowery screen saver and I found that it was running Windows XP and had Microsoft Office 2007 on it. She kept asking questions like “Is it a good computer?” over my shoulder as I explored the applications and programs installed and when I commented on a particular feature she would ask again “Is that good?”. I opened up Microsoft Word and started typing a couple sentences. Everyone was gathered around at this point and they whispered to each other on the speed. I showed Senerita how to use the built in cursor and where to place her fingers on the keyboard. From there, I directed her to change the font, the size, the color and the placement of the sentence “My name is Senerita.” and she was so happy to find out how these small features worked. She really wanted to know if the laptop would connect to the printer in the school office, to which I responded that it very well might, but we would need a cord to connect them and the installation cd that came with the printer. I gave her 10 sentences to practice typing with fingers resting on ASDF and JKL;.

Not having seen anybody in Samoa reading a book besides the Bible or religious pamphlets, I assumed the antique book the tattooed moustache man was reading was one or the other, but I asked anyway “O le a le tusi lale?”(What’s that book there?). Senerita replied for him saying it was a book of Samoan old stories. There was a shocked pause as I took this in. Then I shot up from where I was weaving and strode over to his side asking if I could see the book for a moment. Upon inspecting the outside binding, I saw it was Kramer’s Volume 1 of Samoan folktales! The same book that I had started reading in HP’s office a few days prior, the book that wasn’t allowed out of the office because of it’s cost, rarity and value. I couldn’t believe my eyes and exclaimed “Hey! I know this book! Wow! I can’t believe you have it!” and proceeded to launch into my interests in Samoan folklore.

As it turns out, the moustached man is an alii (a high chief) and a very well known orator in Samoa. Out of twenty or so famous oral historians in Samoa, there are four on Savaii island and he is one of them (the other three are in Neiafu, Iva and some other village I can’t remember. His ancestry links him to the famous story of Mount Vaia. The story goes that before fighting in an epic battle, this man called Vaia entered a cave and grew to gigantic proportions, after the fight, he laid down to rest and became Mount Vaia, which they say looks like the profile of a man lying down. His familiarity and delivery of countless folktales is constantly sought after and he even goes to Apia to meet with a council of orators Monday through Thursday every week.

Senerita went on to translate how he wanted to make a book of his stories and sell it to New Zealand or abroad. I immediately volunteered to help with the making of this book or DVD, since that was exactly what I had in mind for my personal folklore project. We arranged that we would record the stories, 5 at a time, in a natural setting and in natural Samoan dress every so often. I would then put these videos on my computer, edit them as best I could and finally burn a DVD of the finished copy. Anticipating future expenses, I mentioned that all they would have to supply me with would be blank DVDs and the containers to put them in. But my labor and technical skill would be gladly for free. They tried to offer some percentage of profits from the DVD that I immediately declined, saying that it was for educational purposes.

We ended the day with more weaving, songs performed with guitar accompaniment by Loli, the moustached man, and a nice cold niu. They offered the use of their refrigerator to me to store vegetables and fruits for the week knowing, by the coconut wireless no doubt, that I was concerned with not being able to keep the vegetables fresh for a whole week without a refrigerator at my house. So nice! Oh, and I named their hitherto nameless kitten Smeigle and they actually knew who I was referring to from the movie Lord of the Rings and started using the name right away. Right when I got home, I told Foni about it and asked why the family didn’t have a cat and he said “Well, because there are no kittens!” and when I asked if I could keep my own kitten if there were kittens around, he told me “Absolutely!”

How to do the laundry in Samoa. Throw into an old paint bucket, add water and laundry detergent from the pipe outside, pump with fists and swish around violently, ring out and hang on a wire attached to two trees. Underwear and bras dry on the wire in my room.

The Big Move to Vaipu'a

After a gruesome sleepless night due to a mysterious malady of the right ear (think swollen on the inside, tender to the touch, throbbing with pain if you tried to lie on it and imagine yourself unable to lie down at all because of the pressure that goes to your head) I was up and at ‘em at 5:30, bags already packed and grateful for an excuse to just give up on sleep altogether and move on to the next day. An exciting day! At 6am, our taxi vans were promptly leaving to take the new Group 82 Savaii volunteers to their sites, for GOOD! That means ALL of our belongings and the new things acquired during the Manunu days, not to mention our medical kits, cumbersome water filters and our mountain bikes and subsequent gear. I ended up with one enormous suitcase, one gigantic duffel bag, one small pot-bellied Jansport backpack, a mountain bike, a black plastic bag full of bike accessories, a medical kit, an awkward water filter cardboard box,  a woven rug, a roll of dried coconut leaves the size of a bicycle tire,  a red adidas duffel straining against it’s seams,  a fluffy king sized pillow and two bulging carry-ons.

The van ride there was quiet, save for some random-ness Alli and I thought worthy to comment on. For example, there was a sticker on the side of the van seat that said “In case of an emergency, pull the lever to fold down the seat”. We couldn’t quite think of anything that would constitute an emergency inside a taxi van and more than that, what good would folding your seat down possibly do? Alli got a text from Casey that she had left her green sports bra back at the Pacifika. Anyway, it was uneventful.

Unloaded the van at the wafu (wharf), grabbed some Arrowhead Crackers as per usual, Benj took my bulging carry-ons to the Peace Corps vehicle when I was sinking under their weight and so I gave him the finest meat bun a tala fifty could buy. Boarded the ferry, there was a group of New Zealand raised Samoan junior high school girls who were playing clapping games non-stop, laughing, screaming and being obnoxious. The lady next to me breast fed her baby and the guy in front of me kept sneaking looks at her.

We walked off the ferry and into Salelolonga, a half a block or so up the street, past where the buses leave from and to the left into the drive way of a small unmarked business were Fata (our assistant Peace Corps director, Savaii support staff, a graying, thin, approachable and purposeful guy) Rosie, and a pile of trucks manned by unfamiliar faces. Except one, I notice excitedly! I hop over to Telefoni, grab his outstretched hand for a shake and pull him in for a side hug. “Happy Birthday!” I say and he starts a little in surprise “Oh, you remember huh? Thank you very much.” he says in a hushed voice. I introduce him to the other Peace Corps standing around and say where they are going. He was really only interested in Maka since he’s going to Asau, Foni’s home village.

We unloaded the flatbed, threw everything in our respective vehicles, exchanged a few hurried hugs and “see you soon”s before setting off. Foni and the guy who owned the nice truck we borrowed, Eli, asked if I needed to do some shopping. I really didn’t at the moment, so I asked if we could only stop at the Westpac ATM, thinking of how I would be needing to pay my month’s family contribution of 250 tala at some point. I took out 300, leaving me with only 300 left. Well, I probably have more like 500 to last me the rest of December, which is only 3 weeks and my food is all included. I just need money to go to Salelologa and use the internet and have a beer every other weekend, and of course that New Years party that we’re planning to have is coming up as well. Everything should be within budget.

Eli threw us hurdling up and around the tar-paved main road that goes around Savaii island and at one point I had to say, with faked laughter, “Eli, what’s the big hurry?” and he slows down a bit, but not before my red adidas duffel back straining against it’s seams flies out the back of the car and bounces along the road and into the bushes. Honestly I didn't’ even know what had happened until we were suddenly backing up, the music had been turned off and both Foni and Eli seemed to turn serious. My initial reaction was “What was in that bag?” and then I thought, only my sketch book, a bunch of tampons, a water bottle, some markers and other things of little consequence. Beyond a doubt, it’s the best thing that could have fallen from the truck, but I was liking how this turn of events had changed the demeanor of the two so suddenly. There were lots of apologies, a good ten minutes of rearranging and checking and re-checking the security of my belongings. The first 20 minutes of the ride, I was with sunglasses trying to get a little bit of shuteye while being bombarded every few minutes with rapid-fire k-language Samoan that I couldn't’ understand a bit, even more frustrating is that both of them spoke fine English, they were just testing me. After the bag incident,  the joking stopped. * smug look *

We arrived, unpacked and threw everything in the long room. I did not anticipate such a large table to be added to the furniture, but I was certainly glad of it. The bed was moved around from it’s nice tucked-away place in the far right corner, instead it was against the long wall opposite the door, a terrible use of the room space. Realizing that now, before all my things exploded everywhere, I should and had to paint,, I reluctantly started taking out brushes, tape and masking the edges of the door and moving away the nice fala mats from near the wall where they might be dripped on.

There was an impressive inscription on one of the walls that was done in permanent marker reading: “God will give me strength” and “Praise be to our Lord, who through Him we can do all things” and other little ditties like that. The color for the wall I had chosen though was not dark enough to cover something like that, so it was time for a scrub brush and to just scour that puppy right off. It was a little strange to be scratching away at the word “LORD”, making it slowly disappear. Somewhat sacrilegious don’t you think, or at least blasphemous. We got it off after an hour or so, painted a former dirty abused wall and turned it into a clean warm tan color, that perfectly matched both the flowery curtains and the interesting purplish colored fala mats all over the ground.

I brought up the money issue with Foni at the lunch table over palusami and taro. I just wanted it over with so I started out “Telefoni, let’s talk about money. Peace Corps has given me 250 tala per month to contribute to the family in order to pay for the electricity, water, food and supplies I use. I could either give you the full 250 tala and tell you all the things I need to be eating every day, or I can give you half of the money and I can use the other half for my own food shopping to supplement what food you normally serve, or I’m open to other suggestions.” He nodded throughout this and replied satisfied “How about you give us half and tell us what you like, take the other half and buy the food you like too. If that doesn’t work out well, we can change the arrangement any time you like.” Perfect, I handed over 150 tala and told them I love vegetables, fruit, taro and niu. I don’t need rice or bread or palagi food. I’m not super into meat, except fish. I don’t eat a lot of sweets or processed foods. Keep in mind that these are all lies, but in Samoa meat equals fatty on the bone mutton and turkey tails unless it’s fresh fish or chicken (with all the fat and bones), processed foods equal cheese curls and ramen, sweets equals ice cream, donuts, sweet breads, etc. So although these categories are all things I love in the States, I want to stay away from them in Samoa, so I made it known from the start.

We went for a swim after that down the cliff, I met a nice 19 year old girl who had been chilllin at my house with Talava (my “mom” or older sister, depending on how old you think she is), named Yupi. She’s quite and has no expression in her face whatsoever, but is interested, kind and offered to show me around to the youth group, to her family and to help me if I needed anything or if I had any questions.

I leant out my goggles and snorkel to Mei and Solomona, the phrase “pick your battles” rung in my head before agreeing, knowing that later I would be saying a lot of “no”s to them. About the computer, the bike, hanging in my room, etc. I met my older younger sister, who’s 16 or so and much quieter than Mei. So quiet I can’t even remember her name at the moment.

After swimming there was a brief volleyball game where I had the opportunity to meet a few young men from the village (don’t worry, nothing struck my interest especially, or at all) but it was so bright, you couldn’t really see, so we headed back home. Mei climbed a tree and plucked a ripe mango out of someone’s yard and Solomona had collected a popo (coconut) from the beach and so I ate both things as a snack when I got home and couldn't have felt more naturally hungry and healthily fed.

The room made great strides after that. Foni put in a bar for me to hang my tasi’s and other clothes on. I set up the silly water filter (I’ll be drinking way more water here than in Manunu, I’m sure because it’s the only thing here is to drink here, much better for you anyway besides niu, which would be my first choice) put away books, clothes, electronics. Gave my pots, pans and knives to Talava to her great excitement. She even lifted the pan to her head and tilted forward in the formal grateful gesture.

Well it’s dark in my room and the moonlight is spilling in, my ear is starting to hurt, so it’s time for 600 mgs of Ibuprofen before a well deserved rest. Fa!

Training Comes to a Close

The last week of training was filled with language refreshers to prepare us for the LPI (Language Proficiency Interview) that was to happen on Friday. Most of us were fairly confident we could surpass the required “Intermediate Low” mark and so, slacked off most of the week. Throwing around the football outside the hall, but mostly inside barely missing breaking the windows several times. We would pick a category, something like “Words for Male Genitalia”,  and play catch with the football, everyone saying in turn one word. I believe  “Purple headed yogurt slinger” was said at one point, which was amazing. We did everything but study. The only thing I think I learned during the last week of training was how to form sentences beginning with “can”, “should” and “must”.

Alli couldn’t wait a day longer to get out of her suffocating Mormon pastor father (“He’s like the Giant from Jack and the Beanstalk!” – Alli after coming home one night from watching LOST at my house a little after her “curfew” of 10. He sat in the dark in the kitchen area tearing into some taro, crunching bones, gnashing teeth and grunting inaudibly with his mouth full…did I mention he was sitting alone in the dark?) I, on the other hand, was a bit sad to leave my family. They have been so good to me, not only have they extended every courtesy and responded to any need I might have had, they also embraced me as a member of the family. Joking, watching movies together, laughing at each other, playing volleyball, making fala’s with Pulusila, helping each other with homework, giving me rides to school when it was raining, and above all, understanding when I didn’t want to go to church because “I just don’t understand anything they’re saying…it’s boring” and letting me stay home and cook with my older brothers. Fantastic.

The much anticipated Friday went really fast, I was with Manu last and he asked me some crazy discussion type questions that weren’t in the study guide, which I struggled through with my limited Samoan. He asked me things like “What do you hope to accomplish in the Samoan schools?” and “You are at a store, you’ve eaten some chocolate and some ice cream but have just realized that you forgot your wallet. Explain the situation to the store clerk and arrange for later payment”. The school question, I explained that I would teach new methods (Manu kept having to supply the word “method” to me) of teaching, like not hitting kids or sending them out to pull weeds when they’re bad because MESC is against the first one and because the second one is not contusive to learning (no I didn’t use the word contusive in Samoan). It seemed to do the trick, at least for him, because Fale divulged to me later during a cigarette break that he had decided to give me an Intermediate High!

There was only an hour to run home, get changed into our matching blue tases (82’s slang for puletasi created by Kaeleni of course) after the final last minute dance practice. Oh yeah, that was a bit of drama I didn't mention in the entry before. Half of us wanted to finish the girl’s siva instead of stopping after two versus, two choruses, but the smaller half wanted to just leave it as is. We ended up leaving it as is and after all like Niko said in his brief salute to Group 82  “All of the things that stress you out now, will be completely meaningless soon (when you are in your sites)”

The night was exhausting. All of us showed up in the matching puletasis and looked really good! It was fun to see everyone’s own design (Corina’s mom’s interpretation of it anyway) and to have a feeling of solidarity as well. Well done. The girls siva was awesome, no major flaws. The boys siva was jumpy, slapping, yelling and oiled up bodies. The sasa dance (slapping of the knees to a wild drum) was AWFUL, a complete disaster. Terry, who practiced with us before with the drum, decided to try a whole new beat and we couldn’t tell when to come in or do the next set of moves, so the clapping wasn’t together, the slapping was helter skelter and finally Su’a sat in front of us to try and lead us through the rest of the song and he forgot a move and was off beat also. J The Manunuans got a kick out of it though.

We did the choir song again, Corina and Su’a did their little song also, but the highlight was Su’a, Terry and Joe dressing in drag with lipstick and all and doing a choreographed dance to “Mama Mia” during which a couple of mothers from Manunu got up and danced/fought with them, throwing in kicks, hiking up their ie lava lavas and doing the funky chicken…it was something else.

Next day, we loaded the bus at 7am but not before we were presented with a bunch of roasted piglets and their charbroiled mother by all the matais and given a great epic speech by the village tulafale. I got a great picture from where I was sitting.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Another Thanksgiving

Saturday, we had our second language assessment in the morning, where we went around individually to all the trainers and did a role play demonstrating our ability to Find a Bus, Shop at a Store and Greet and Take Leave in Samoan. It was only irritating because it was in the morning on a Saturday, the only day we can sleep in usually and my host parents had invited me to come with them to Apia and I had to say “no”.

Well after that charade was over, Alli and I went to the mini store in Manunu and bought a “lolly chain”, I’m not sure what it’s really called, but it’s a necklace that's made of either plastic wrap or thin mesh with goodies wrapped inside and sectioned off by colorful ribbons. One of these necklaces, to my amazement, had two bags of Grandma’s cookies in them. Chocolate chip and Double chocolate, you have got to be kidding me. So we bought and consumed them with much pleasure at Kaeleni’s house, where Alli borrowed a skirt and I borrowed some mascara. Kaeleni is pretty much the only one in our group of 16 girls who has preserved some semblance of girly-ness. She still wears makeup and paints her nails and wears cute clothes, even when the rest of us have given up on shaving, let alone make up, bless her. Since we were going to Apia later that day to a Thanksgiving party at the house of an Embassy official, we were getting a little excited about the dress up potential of the occasion and busted out the mascara and knee length skirts (oh, scandal!).

When I was cajoling Kaelini’s mom into making me a skirt with an elastic waist band, instead of the standard wrap around, tie and pray it doesn’t fall off when you stride too wide, I got a phone call from a really long number, it was Aya from Japan!! What an amazing surprise!! I had mailed her a couple things and called her once and left a message from Apia and hadn’t heard from her so the correspondence was expected, but not in call-form! No Japanese would come to me,  just a bunch of “Manaias” and “O a o mea nai fais” I really need to make it a point to hang around some JAIKA volunteers and practice while I’m here, or I’m going to irretrievably lose the ability to speak the language.

When the bus reached Apia, we were told we would have an hour to shop at the market before having to get to the party. But a few of us turned up to the bus late, we had to make a stop at the hotel for some of us to pick up things from storage and with all of us having to withdraw money from the one working ATM, by the time we got to the market, we only had 20 minutes. Alli was able to buy the candy, cookies and brownies for Sana’s birthday, which we had all pitched in for. I found a volleyball, which I wanted to buy for my host brothers, miraculously in the store next door for only nine tala.

The Embassy worker’s house was incredible. Beautifully western and Martha Stewart in every way, there were high ceilings, framed pictures and paintings, matching bed sets, and furniture, comfortable couches, a full kitchen with spotless surfaces and all the appliances and best of all, 3 tables and a kitchen counter stacked with traditional Thanksgiving dishes. Turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, casseroles, mac and cheese, pies, rolls, beans, chips, dip. There was beer and wine and a football game coming in loud and clear and in color on the TV in the living room. Dan probably really cried at some point during the evening from overwhelming happiness. We stuffed ourselves, drank and swam or just kicked our legs in the huge swimming pool out back while enjoying the view of the ocean and all the green coconut trees and mountains surrounding it.

We filled the bus and rubbed our satisfied bellies all the way back to Manunu. Only 364 more days until the next Thanksgiving feast at the Embassy.

Culture Day and Thanksgiving

We gathered at 7 in the morning at the trainer’s fale with supplies for the feast in tow. We had all received a note from HP to deliver to our families with the items we were to bring for “Culture Day” written out in Samoan. On my list read: one coconut tree branch, two s (shorn coconuts), two taro, two taro leaves and either one fish or one cleaned uncooked chicken. My tina had everything tucked into a woven coconut leaf basket, everything except the tree branch, which had to be carried.

All the volunteers walked through the open field in the middle of the village with their coconut branches balancing on their shoulders, the long green leaves sticking out everywhere and the length of the thing dragging on both sides of the volunteer. Most had a relative with them, a brother, sister or mother carrying their woven basket of food alongside them.

Once we were gathered completed at Manu’s house, we were separated into two groups. The majority of the women would stay and prepare the cocoa-esi (cocoa and papaya soup) to be served to the matai of the village in the “ghost fale”. It’s not really called the “ghost fale”, but since a few of us were told that the fale was rarely used because it was built on top of old graves and that there had been frequent ghost sightings, the volunteers just started calling it that. The men would travel out to the taro plantation and collect firewood, large leaves for the umu (the Samoan oven) and unshorn coconuts. Since there were only four men in our group able to go, one of which was recovering from a basketball injury, a few of us girls were chosen to join them.

Corina, Lili, Alli and I went to the plantation. It was a thirty-minute walk from the trainer’s house to the cleared patch in the jungle with identical stout fan-like leaves popping out of the ground attached to green and white thick stalks. Fighting swarms of mosquitoes all the while, we split up into three groups. One group went to chop down tree branches for firewood, another group were to gather fallen coconuts, and we were to find smaller branches to attach and carry coconuts with. We must have been quite a site to see swatting away mosquitoes and hacking awkwardly at tree branches with machetes. Where to stand, how to hold the machete, not knowing these in addition to how best to cut the branch so it didn’t take an hour to finish. The trainers who went with us were patient and cautioned us not to swing the machete to wildly, as there was a chance of it flying out of your hand and chopping a piece of your nearby comrades.

Soon we were all laden down with large pieces of wood on our shoulders or thinner pieces with coconuts tied to each end and we made the trek back through the jungle, across the small bridge over the dried up stream and back to the training house.

The group that stayed had bowls of cocoa esi (cocoa and papaya sweet soup dish) ready for the matai and by the time we had been cheered and had unloaded our baggage we were carrying trays of the chocolate papaya soup to the “ghost fale” to serve the awaiting matai. As soon as they had  been served, the servers were able to grab a bowl for themselves and enjoy the hot liquid before returning to Manu’s.

Next were the preparations for the umu. There were several stations around the outside kitchen fale that volunteers could rotate around to and try out. One station was gutting and stuffing a dead piglet with coals and leaves, another was husking coconuts with sharpened sticks, another was ripping apart dead chickens to throw into a gigantic soup tureen,  another was scraping and peeling taro and breadfruit using old tin cans. Needless to say, the piglet stuffing and the chicken ripping I avoided but I got the hand of husking the coconuts and peeling the taro. Those of us who sat around scraping the taro and breadfruit started playing a game where one player would imagine a person that everyone knew and the rest of the group would try to guess who it was by asking questions like “if they were a shoe, what would they be”, “if they were a genre of music, what would they be?” or “if they were an animal, what would they be?”

When all the ingredients had been finished, they were piled on top of hot rocks inside the kitchen, along with the smoking stuffed pig. Large leaves were layered on top of the taro, whole fish wrapped individually in leaves, the breadfruit and the pig to keep the heat in and create an oven effect. We wove plates and baskets out of the huge palm leaves that we had all brought to serve the food in.  Dan commented in mock distress that his career as a basket weaver would continue to be just a dream as he struggled to braid the long green leaves.

While the food cooked, we gathered for an Ava ceremony in the “ghost fale”.

Matt was voted the tulafale (orator) for our group, and Kyle got to be the Ava runner. The matais talked over each other for about 10 minutes and each made a short speech before Matt began to call out the recipients of the Ava, in order of status. The real village tulafale was whispering what to say to Matt, and he was doing his best bless him, but the Samoans had a few good laughs when he changed something like “honored person” to “my wife” or when he botched a Samoan name. I guess a year or two before, the volunteer that was chosen to do the orating for the Ava ceremony ended up calling someone an asshole on accident. Samoans have a great sense of humor though, and just laughed their heads off.

By the time the Ava ceremony was finished, the food inside the umu was ready. We drew titles out of a bag, and our roles during the meal were decided. I had a food preparer title along with the majority of the other volunteers, Leah got the high chief title, some other people got matai titles and these volunteers got to go to the ghost fale and be waited on, Leah first.

We went back to uncover the piglet and the taro, breadfruit and pulusami (coconut cream wrapped in taro leaves) from under the leaves. The chicken soup was also ready and myself and most of the other volunteers who had drawn food runner positions out of the bag took bowls of chicken soup, with the chicken feet sticking straight out of the bowl talons red and curled in protest, and a plate with pieces of the roast piglet, taro, breadfruit and pulusami. I was in the front of the line and had the best plate, one with two chicken talons, and the foot of the piglet and Leah having pulled “high chief” out of the bag was the first to be served. I quickly looked back at the plates Dana was carrying behind me and whispered urgently, here you go ahead and serve Leah first. The second person to be served was the faifeau, Alli’s dad. So he got the plate with all the feet on it, an extra good plate I was told.

The food runners sat in front of those who were eating and fanned their plates to keep away the flies and just watched while they ate. I’ve been in the opposite position several times, as a Peace Corps and a guest, I’m always sitting with matais when in a group or near the head of the table with my folks at home and the kids or other younger members of the community fan my plate, so it was a nice change of pace to be the server and the fanner. I especially got a kick out of fanning my host dad. He’s so funny and humble and he’s always laughing and cracking jokes, I think he was a little bemused to have me sitting there subordinate to him.

After we servers cleared and went back to the kitchen to grab a plate and eat our fill, we sat around in a circle with our Thanksgiving Day meals, each saying in turn what they were thankful for. Most of us said something similar, about how we were thankful for each other for how great our host families are, etc. What everyone said was so touching and the meal was so welcome after all the work we put into it, and the fact that we were eating together outside of our own country with the Samoans who welcomed and taught us their way of life, it really felt like the first Thanksgiving (or how we romanticize it was anyway).

But the amazing day doesn’t end there, after the feast we handed out strawberry and banana ice cream cones to all the ladies that helped with the preparing and the cooking. It started pouring rain and we had all planned on playing ultimate Frisbee or some other sports. But instead of resigning to our houses, I went and grabbed the baseball equipment from the trainer’s fale and a handful of us walked out into the rain carrying the bases, mits, balls and bats. Once we got the field set up, others joined us out in the rain and the game began. I haven’t gotten the impression that baseball is incredibly popular here nor have I seen any Samoans play baseball, most likely because it takes a lot of gear to put together a game and I feel like Samoans prefer games that allow the most opportunities for everyone to play, games like rugby and volleyball especially. But, as could have been predicted, the Samoans who came to play with us were naturally talented. They hit every ball and sped around the bases, knocking into the other team mercilessly. The grass was so wet and everyone was soaked, so there was a lot of sliding and slipping accidentally when trying to round the bases. It was SO fun. I slid into third where Alli was manning on the opposite team a few times, once knocking her over with me. Sua, one of our trainers, slid on his belly into third once. Another time Dan slid into second and knocked Sua over, who fell on top of him.

We played a couple games of volleyball before having to practice our song for the Saoluafata church choir contest that was Sunday, we were chosen by Manunu to represent and somehow, when I got frustrated and took over Sua’s conducting, which wasn’t quite making sense to us, I ended up conducting the choir the entire time. With the help of Lasela and Corina, who both have quite a bit of choir and musical performance experience, we added dynamics and worked on harmony parts and warm ups with our group and really turned ourselves into a decent choir! But that will be Sunday’s journal entry.

Happy Thanksgiving from Samoa!!

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Site Visit!

Those of us leaving for sites in Savaii had the pleasure of a 4:45 am departure and stumbled groggily into the large white van parked outside the trainer’s house. Maka was the last to board and so had a full van of Peace Corps exclaiming in unison about his beardless face and missing curly locks. Explaining that he had cut them at the suggestion of HP and other trainers, that the beard and longer hair would seem less professional and that, if he  I asked him whether or not he felt any strength leave him when he cut his hair, the Sampson effect you know. The van ride to Apia was dark skies, loud Samoan music and blasting air conditioning. When we arrived at the market, it was quarter to 6 and there were already quite a few vendors with bananas, coconuts, papayas and all manner of goods laid out on tables and ready to sell. Alli and I went on the search for snacks for the ferry ride as well as our oto (a small gift to give our host families). I bought some Arrowroot crackers (basically just flat oval animal crackers) and peanut M&Ms for the journey and a Styrofoam cup of cocoa Samoa for the oto. I was boarding the bus and it began to pull out before I noticed that Alli had still not come back, we told the bus driver to stop for a moment and I jumped out and spotted Alli, jogging wide-eyed and alarmed at what had almost just happened. The bus ride to the wharf is long and breezy. The wooden and metal buses have windows that are pushed down most all of the time so that the elbows, arms and sometimes backsides, if it’s packed enough, of the passengers stick out of them. With the windows up, I imagine it would be unbearably hot. When we reached the wharf, we bought our 12 tala tickets and boarded. I bought a meat bun at a stand near the waiting area and spilt drips of lamb juice onto my beige puletasi lava. Fortunately, it's a wrap around and it’s reversible so I switched it around so that the spots weren’t as visible, though still a little. Sitting on wide green benches outdoors under a roof, we took out ipods and snacks and lounged around, taking in the site: the turquoise ocean, the green seashore and the waves that billowed around the ferry as it plugged away towards Samoa’s smaller island. When we arrived,  we followed the instructions of the trainers and walked straight to the bus terminals to find our perspective routes. The bus that Lili and I were told to take was not there, and we looked sideways at each other, worried, as the others boarded their buses. Using what little Samoan we had, we asked “O fea le pasi o alu ii vaipu’a?” and we were nodded to and pointed onto Maka and Tana’s bus. It made since, since their villages were further up the same road as ours. Savaii was noticeably more peaceful, the water more still, more vegetation between villages and less of a population. How can you really describe the feeling you get from a place? It felt more private, more serene and more Samoan. The rickety wooden bus bounced down the paved main road, racing from one destination to another. Stopping briefly for the bus attendant, a young guy that sits near the driver, to run into a store, pick up a cd, a letter or a package and again to drop it off somewhere up the road. The bus seemed to run as many personal errands for villagers as it acted as transportation. A woman handed her baby to the bus attendant, grabbed her woven green leaf bag carrying a whole cooked pig, boarded, settled in and took the baby back. Babies, like anything other piece of baggage taken on the bus, are handed around to strangers to make space or help the boarding passenger get settled.

Lili jumped off the bus after paying her 5 tala and we waved goodbye. I was the next stop. A few villages down the road. Suddenly all the surrounding trees and houses were important to memorize. I searched for something out the window to shout out “entering Vaipu’a”. Would we reach a point where things became cleaner or more littered? Would my village have nice fales and manicured lawns or would there be mostly vegetation and fales further off the road and secluded. Passing through other villages on the way, you could see some villages were cleaner than others, some villages had rivers running through them, some were right on sandy beaches, some had a more “welcoming” feeling to them, others you passed by and thought “I hope my village doesn’t look like that”. Fortunately, when the bus attendant gave me the eyebrows to pull the chord and stop the bus. I stepped out onto the paved road, blaring with hot eleven o’clock sun and glanced around, feeling awkward as the bus pulled away, leaving me standing in the road. All the lawns of the fales were littered with school children in blue jumpers staring at me standing there: a palagi with a huge backpack in a puletasi. Behind me, I saw a fale full of women in colorful puletasis sitting cross-legged obviously having a women’s committee meeting. They were smiling and peering curiously around the poles of the fale, stretching and craning to inspect. I said awkwardly “Malo soifua. O fea Vaipu’a Primary?”They pointed in unison past me and up the road. I turned to look and was startled to see that the school children in jumpers that had seconds ago littered the lawns of several fales were now consolidating on the school road and were chatting and laughing towards me. I waved thanks to the committee, hiked my backpack up on my shoulders and headed for the throng of kids. They made a path through their mob for me and folded in on themselves right behind me. I looked like I was leading a huge gang in a rally, all of them looking towards me waiting for me to shout an order or say something inspiring. I asked a few girls to my right what their names were “O ai igoa?” After they answered, an awkward silence passed. Then I asked the boys to my left the same question,  they punched each other, faltered, laughed and finally answered and by the time the second awkward silence was coming on, I realized we were walking along the fence of the school field. The field sprawled in a large rectangle, the grass light green and short, with wooden rugby goals on each end. The bare blue school building sat squat and long, spanning the length of the field. An open fale that served as another classroom, from the looks of it, sat behind the far rugby goal, not attached to the main blue building.

The throng spilled in through the gate opening and joined other students who were playing volleyball, with two of them holding a pole over their heads to serve as a “net”sat along the edges of the building or on top of desks inside the classrooms. Classes were obviously not in session. The few girls who were on my right, now walked ahead of me and I followed, hoping they were taking me to where I needed to be. They stopped at a doorway and I popped my head inside. A large table covered in newsprint paper and coffee cups full of cocoa Samoa and empty plates of lunch sat surrounded by teachers. An older man at the head of the table sat quietly, another man leaning on his elbows sat next to him and 6 ladies gathered around the opposite end in raucous gossip. Upon seeing my white face in the door, their conversation fell silent and they looked expectantly. Walking slowly inside, I smiled widely and announced politely “Good afternoon. I’m Elisa, the Peace Corps Volunteer you were expecting today. It’s very nice to meet you” and I shook everyone’s hand in turn. Not knowing where to go from there, I sat next to the women’s side and started to answer questions posed to me: where I was from, how long I would be staying, how long I had been in Samoa, etc. A few jokes were made referring to the man near the principal, whose name I learned was Sea, about him not having a wife but still having 5 children. In his defense, he poked fun at one of the women for eating too much. They all laughed light heartedly, and I was torn. Was I really in a position to take part in the roasting of the staff within 10 minutes of meeting them? Could I laugh with them without offending someone offhand or should I not laugh and have them think I’m no fun. So I settled for smiling. It was incredible how fast the conversation turned into jokes. Suddenly Sea was asking me about my marital status, whether or not I was interested in having a boyfriend in Vaipu’a and if so, if he could be on my list of suitors. In response to this, I just looked to the women in mock alarm, praying that they would step in for me. Finally it ended with “I’m not interested in dating…not quite yet. Let me actually move in first” which seemed to put a temporary end to the subject. I learned their names and what years they all taught, what their favorite subjects were and what they did in their spare time. I was encouraged that a few of them mentioned gardening as a hobby and visions of community gardens started popping into clearer focus. One teacher said she loved to sew and made puletasi’s in the village, she joked that my puletasi’s inner fabric kept poking out of my sleeves and tucked it back in with her thumb and forefinger, smiled and patted my shoulder. The principal, who was until very near the end of our meeting very quiet, cleared his throat and said in a deep slow voice “The family you will live with, the house is there” and he pointed across the field to a small beige one-story house on the other side of the school fence. He asked “Do you want to go there now and have a rest?” and I sipped the rest of my cocoa Samoa and answered, “Yes, please” The vice principal, a plump middle aged woman with crinkly eyes and a broad smile offered to take me to the cliffs the next day after school. “Vaipu’a, an ocean Cliffside village, walking distance to nice beach” is what attracted me to this village and what made me list it at the top of my three site choices and I was anxious to see if my vision of the ocean Cliffside would be accurate.

Leaving the school and saying “Fa” to many children still lingering outside the doors and hanging on the railings, I started to get nervous afresh for meeting the “nice young family” I would be living with for 2 years. The vice-principal, Tuaia, escorted me there and her warm presence gave me some comfort. So much balanced on the village, the school, the family,and the house. It would be completely out of my control if the situation took a turn for the worst. If the family turned out to be strange and my living situation uncomfortable or if the teachers were unsupportive of my mission at the school, there would be nothing that I could do without completely turning the Peace Corps office upside down and making lots of waves, changing sites and all that, something only to be considered as a very last resort. We walked up to the left front door (it’s a strange design, with two front doors and two separate stoops, both leading into the same small living room) and Tuaia looked inside and called out something friendly and familiar in Samoan before taking her flip-flops off and ushering me inside. I stepped out of my shoes as well and took a seat on a large wooden bench, something you would see on someone’s patio, draped with a colorful floral fabric that could have been made into a Hawaiian shirt. A tall powerfully built 30 something year old man tromped in from the back door, wearing a tan polo shirt and a lava wrapped around his waist. He shook my hand and introduced himself as “Telefoni”, adding with a laugh “If you forget my name, just think of a telephone”. He talked comfortably with Tuaia as he made to sit on another of the benches, splaying his arms out and resting them along it’s top. Tuaia explained that he and she had graduated from the same high school. He asked questions about me in Samoan, I could catch the answers and from them knew what questions he asked. The first answer was, “Tesema”. So he had asked when is she coming to stay. The second answer was “Manaia, ah.” That could have been a response to any number of questions or statements. “The weather is nice today, isn’t it” “She’s wearing a nice puletasi, isn’t she?” “It’s going to be cool to have a Peace Corps, huh?” I was imagining the possibilities when he suddenly shifted to English and addressed me directly. “Do you want to see your room and have a rest?” I said that I would like to see the room and at that he stood up, walked a couple feet to the nearest door (with a couple dents in it, probably from children trying to kick it open when it’s fully closed), produced a set of keys from his shirt pocked and opened the lock. He stepped inside and I followed, I looked immediately to my right and saw that the room extended much longer than I had imagined. It was an incredibly spacious….space. With so little furniture, it really emphasized how vacuous the room was. A small bed with an orange and red Indian print sheet and four huge pillows was pushed up against the far wall to the right, there were large windows on three of the four walls, all covered with matching floral drapes that were sheer and fluttered in the breeze. A small chair and a table sat near the bed. On the table, a small mirror was propped up against the wall and a jar with water and a white flower stood next to a woven hand fan. Some of the walls looked like they were in the process of being painted, one wall had scriptures and proverbs written on it in black permanent marker. The floors were covered with a beautiful blue woven fala all across the length of the room. Best of all, a fan was tucked into a corner blowing another breeze across the floor. A cool, spacious, bare-bones room with lots of potential…it was a great relief. Lunch followed: papaya, rice, sausage and onions and then a 4-hour nap.

Tuaia had offered to come with me on my proposed walk to meet the pulenu’u (mayor) and the faifeaus (pastors) of the village before the “Sa”(a curfew at dusk that lasts half an hour where families pray).  We walked back down to the main paved road and this time, I could clearly take in my surroundings without the sun blaring down on me, children and committee members staring at me and without a sense of direction or purpose. The village was beautiful. The sun was just starting to drop into the ocean, which I could see peeking through the foliage. The rushing of the waves beating onto the rocks below becomes clearer in the afternoon without the noise of radios and talking in all the houses. A snort from a nearby pig nuzzling the dirt, laughter from a kitchen fale down the road and the sound of the waves below us and just beyond: “The sounds of my village” I thought.

The first person we visited was the faefeau of the CCCS Church. Christian Congregational Church Service I think is what it stands for. His wife sat weaving a fala and watching a fuzzy black and white news program as we entered their fale beside the church. The pastor joined us shortly and children brought cocoa Samoa, plates of chocolate birthday cake and buttered bread. He sat cross-legged across from us, leaning on one of the chairs. We had an intense first conversation. After the basics were covered: where I’m from, where I’m training, how I like Samoa, etc, he launched into first a religious debate followed by his expectations of me as a volunteer. He asked my religion and I automatically answered that “I’m Jewish” after a moment I added “But my dad’s Greek Orthodox and I went to a Baptist Christian School, so it’s confusing”. At that he nodded and continued “There are several churches in Samoa, a few of which are not considered Christian. And he listed what those churches were.” Not wanting to participate in the debate, lest I offend someone or dig a hole for myself too early in the game, I nod and shovel more buttered bread in my mouth. He tells me how he has heard of Peace Corps getting many things for other villages, like gardens, sewing machines, computers and lawnmowers. Saying that they are able to do these things because they know where to look for grants. Here, I think it is important to make clear that I am an English teacher working under MESC primarily, with development projects as a secondary assignment and so I say this. But quickly follow that saying “But I’m very excited to learn the needs of the community and do my best to assist in meeting them”. At this, I say a short thank you and that I am looking forward to seeing his family again at church and in the village in December.

The second person we visited was right across the street in an orange painted fale, sitting on the stoop, enjoying a cigarette…the Methodist faefeau. I shook his hand and said that it was very nice to meet him and that I was looking forward to working in the village. He didn’t reply much, but continued to smoke and chat with Tuaia in low tones. So I sat on the stoop in the area between them. Tuaia introduced me to her husband, who was washing a truck in front of where we were sitting. Some jokes passed between the three of them in Samoan, none of which I participated in. Noticing that the sky was becoming darker by degrees, I suggested we move onto the pulenu’u in order to make it in time for the Sa. She agreed and we took our leave.

The pulenu’u and his family were quiet but all smiles and receptive when Tuaia and I showed up at their door. The pulenu’u seemed to be very friendly and laid back, laughing heartily and long. I can’t impress enough in my journal keeping, how much laughter is present here. Everything is funny, without exception. Nothing is sacred that cannot be laughed at. The tsunami disaster, people dying, funerals and deformed or developmentally challenged people can all be joked about. Of course, coming from a culture different in this way, the comfort level I am at when this “inappropriate” humor presents itself is still quite low, but other volunteers have told us that we would get used to it and start finding humor in things that we wouldn’t have in the States. The impression I have is that the cardinal rule is just, “When in doubt, laugh” as opposed to “When in doubt, don’t say anything”. I’m still navigating (a word Peace Corps loves to use) this aspect of the culture. Stay tuned for more on this subject.

We left the pulenu’u’s house when the last conk shell was blowing, telling families that the Sa was in effect and that all members should be in their houses, praying. Tuaia took me up to the three young men who stood sentinel at the road crossing, blowing the conk shell and standing watch for violators of the Sa (they give out fines for being out past the Sa) and chatted cordially with them, introduced me and explained that she was taking me around to meet the heads of the village. They shook my hand and spoke in fast choppy Samoan that I didn’t quite grasp. Tuaia repeated slowly and in T Language (the more formal of the two Samoan speaking styles, and what I’m used to from training classes) so that I could puzzle out their question. A great idea on her part to use modeling to show the guys that they will need to speak that way with me for a while in the beginning while I get my bearings. The rest of the questions were posed to me simply and I was able to answer them. My name, age, where I was from, who I was staying with, etc. One of the guys, who I was told was the son of the pulenu’u, was covered in traditional Samoan tattoos, the kind that begin at the waist and end at the knee for men. Signifying a title within the village. I haven’t seen those tattoos in Manunu, my brothers have flowers, dragons and Samoan style half sleeves, but I haven’t seen any traditional tattoos like that yet.

By the time I had gotten home, dinner was ready and the mother of the family was home “Talavaa”and had lamb soup bubbling in a pot on a fire in the kitchen fale outside. She was shorter, round after having five children and quick to laugh and dance. We played a guitar that Telefoni had out by the kitchen and Mae, the 12 year old daughter and I danced a siva Samoa together in the yard. We sang “Savalivali means go for a walk” together with the kids. The youngest, Salinga who is 4 or 5, kept substituting “coconuts” for all the English parts of the of the song, making us all crack up. “Savalivali means coconuts” “Tautalatala means coconuts” After being poured, at my direction, a very small cup of cocoa Samoa I was asked why I was only drinking such a small amount. Realizing that this is another thing I would have to start off from the beginning enforcing, I said that too much sugar makes me sick and gives me a headache. They said “Ohhh” and nodded with concern. Soon a small batch of cocoa Samoa was made for me sans 5 heaping spoonfuls of sugar and as I sipped it, Talavaa looked at me with a grimace, as if she was imagining the taste of unsweetened cocoa Samoa, and waited for my response. It was delicious though! It was like the darkest bitter chocolate coffee bean. Just perfect. They laughed and clapped their hands in disbelief. That someone could drink the stuff without sugar, they were very entertained. We played guitar for a bit more after dinner, but I was quite tired and went to bed early. Mae wanted to sleep in the room with me, after having spent the day with me on my errands to the village leaders house and I said that it was fine. She slept on the floor next to the bed and I fell asleep right away listening to Naomi Novak’s Throne of Jade audio book.

The next day, I woke up and had a light breakfast of Samoan pancakes, basically donut holes, and tea before putting on my orange puletasi and walking across the road to the school. The teachers and I met in the lounge again. It was 7:30 still and the children were in the middle of the morning trash pick up within the school grounds. The teachers sat around drinking milk tea and chatting about what my schedule would be like. I suggested observing all the different classes throughout the day. They seemed to think I would be teaching during my visit, but I insisted that I hadn’t prepared any lessons and that I was told to check out the resources of my school, meet the teachers and the students. I sat in on the 7th grade class with Sea first, who told me about his grading methods (based on attendance, behavior, neatness and appearance and test scores given every Friday), how the tests are written by hand by teachers, how different levels of learners are separated into groups in the classroom and given separate assignments based on ability, how he disciplines students by making them pull weeds for an hour and many other helpful bits of information. I observed four other teachers in the same fashion, praising their teaching styles, their classrooms and asking lots of questions when I had them. I inspected the library and the resource room. The library has one wall with books from MESC and three walls of stacks of boxes of resources. One project I will start right away will be to build shelves all around the “Library Room” and organize the resources so that they are easily accessible for the teachers and that the room is welcoming and has room for more books that I will also eventually get for the school. The library project is very doable and something got very excited about right off the bat. One of the teachers commented on the lack of books for different levels and subjects, as well as the resources given to them at the beginning of the year running out before the end of the year and needing to be supplemented by the teachers out of pocket. I was shown the Principal’s Office which had a small poster of the world on one wall, a window on another and a small desk with a new printer and a computer from 1998 sitting in disarray. The teacher asked if I could fix the computer, so I turned it on and the screen showed me a message with codes about “no free memory” and “write/read failure”. But the computer turns on anyway…so maybe it can be fixed? I’m no expert on fixing computers but, they were impressed that I was able to navigate the messaging on the computer anyway. I explained briefly that the printer may or may not be able to connect with the computer since the computer was so old. I asked if the printer had come with an installation CD and they shrugged their shoulders. This room could potentially be a great computer room for a few computers, or maybe just word processors which are cheaper, easier to work with, less likely to break down, less complex and serve all the purposes the teachers need (writing lesson plans and tests, printing, learning to type, making documents and spreadsheets, etc). And other volunteers have painted world map murals on walls in their schools using some template and paint supplied by Peace Corps. That could replace the small map on that bare wall. The possibilities…

Finally, there was a small assembly at the end of the day in the open fale where Year 4 is. This classroom is well decorated and very neat, the classroom of Kirisimasi. She had the children ask me questions and allowed me to ask them questions. She had them sing a few songs for me and I taught them the months of the year song to supplement their days of the week song. I’m really feeling like a guitar would be a great resource in the village. For the students, for entertaining the committee and just for winning hearts in general because everyone loves a guitar right? The assembly was crazy. All the students filed in and sat in two big sections with me at the front sitting at a desk. The vice principal made a few announcements and led some songs, then the students sang the first verse of the “Afae e te alofa, sei malie mae a oe” song that the small group of us sang at our first fiafia. I had apparently been singing it in the staff room at some point and the teachers took it upon themselves to have the students sing it, then I was told to sing it myself in front of the school. Tuaia supported me in lyrics, but I belted it out and I could see smiles and looks of surprise pass between some of them and that was really special. One of the Year 8 boys stood up and said a small speech to me on the spot “Thank you for coming to our school and thank you for singing with us. Please come back to the school in December. We like you. Have a safe travel to Apia” and everyone clapped. If you think it’s over, think again. I gave a small speech saying the same kinds of things, that I was very happy to be here in such a wonderful school with such supportive staff and such bright students and in such a beautiful village and that I was looking forward to coming back in December. Of course, all of this was translated by Tuaia back to the students. Finally all the kids sang a siva Samoa song and I was to dance a siva Samoa with the teachers. Sea got out and did the “Chuuu!” and the slapping man part of the dance as I improvised and threw together moves from what I learned back in Manunu. It was fairly painless. A very nice end to the school day.

That afternoon, Tuaia, my two oldest siblings, a few of their friends and I scaled down the Cliffside to the beach below. What I had imagined was a black rocky cliff face without a way down, but with a sprawling beautiful view instead. What I experienced was world’s better. We made our way slowly down the steep path, littered with garbage spilled over from the person’s yard closest to the cliff path (another trash clean up VBD project idea forming as I make the descent). When we reach the bottom, we walk through a few feet of foliage and stumble out onto a wide sandy beach, completely deserted. Turquoise waters gently pushing up onto the beach, larger impressive waves just a bit further out, not out of reach and palm trees bending out from the cliff bottom towards the water. Black rocks jutting out of the cliff side. What was most beautiful though, was the fact that it was only us there. A secret stretch of beach, protected by the cliffs and available only by the little path we took. It was paradise.

The kids had brought goggles and let me borrow them to see all the fish swimming in and out of the holes in the coral all along the sea bottom. I was so close to the fish, my stomach brushing against the tops of the coral and rocks, the fish darting here and there in small and larger schools. We splashed around, chased each other, ran up onto the beach and rolled in the sand to become sand monsters and washed off again in the ocean. As we steadily crept further down the stretch of beach and beyond some of the black rocks, we came across a palm tree that had bent at a low point and was stretched, suspended 10 feet above the sand and was so long that it’s leaves dangled above the water itself. Needless to say, we climbed the tree, the experienced climbers walking along the thin suspended trunk and me and the younger kids scooting on our butts slowly along towards the top. We twisted off several large warm coconuts and cracked them open on the beach. Drinking the warm carbonated juice inside and scooping out the soft inside using a stick for a spoon. With the clear blue water spread out before us and the coconut tree leaves shading our snack, it was the perfect afternoon and one I will replicate many times during my service.

The second and last night I at my host family’s house, I feel like we really bonded. After a needed shower and another short walk with Tuaia which took us up the road to the next village to see the sunset, making us late for Sa again. (Telefoni commented on it saying “You broke the village ruuuulle…” with a playful sort of reprimand but he didn’t seem too concerned.) We ate dinner and sat in the living room, exhausted from all the swimming and sun, and Telefoni played songs that Talavaa and the kids knew, some that I knew including Hotel California, and we all danced and performed something and laughed. Mae and I slept in my long spacious room again and I enjoyed a full night’s sleep, content and full of hopes and ideas for the next two years.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Life in Manunu

Here's a song a few of us trainees wrote to the tune of John Denver's "Country Road" it pretty much sums up life in the training village.

Almost Heaven, Western Samoa
Came in through Apia, now "nofo i Manunu"*
Life is slow here, slower than the breeze
*Fales open everywhere, ain't no need for keys

*that means "living in Manunu"
*fales are open houses that people just walk into and out of, there are no "house keys" here

Manunu Road, take me home
to the *fale, where I belong
Western Samoa, *Pisi Koa
Take me home, Manunu Road

*fale means home
*that's how the locals pronounce "Peace Corps"

All the children, gather round me*
*Faamolemole, please throw me the frisbee
Hot and humid, *timu from the skies
Heaps of *Coco Samoa, *fan away the flies

*you can't walk anywhere without a huge mob of children following you
*"Faamolemole" means please, we play frisbee a lot in the open fale
*"timu" means rain
*Coco Samoa is a home made hot cocoa made from coco beans they get from trees in their yard! You cook them on a fire and then grind them, add lots of sugar, its delicious
*There are so many flied everywhere, when you eat, there is usually a younger sibling fanning away flies from your meal

I hear the roosters *fa in the morning when they call me
The *radio reminds me of my home far away
And walking down the road the *conk shell sounds and I know,
It's time to pray
*Halu Maile!!

*"fa" means four.
*Most fales have American hip-hop music blasting from them at all hours of the day.
*The conk shell sounds three times every day to let you know it's nearing 6 o'clock and curfew (The "SA") is coming and everyone needs to get home to pray
*Means "GET BACK DOGS!" which we say all the time to the wild dogs that are everywhere

Friday, October 9, 2009

An Adventurous First Day!

Stepping out of the plane door into a humid not-yet-sun-risen air, I managed to balance my heavy bag straps on each shoulder to dismount the stairs. Having never exited a plane door into open air, I thought “This is kind of what it’s like to be the President” amused.

Eyes everywhere, but feet moving automatically with the rest of the crowd I waddled with my baggage towards the airport entrance. Upon entering, the sound of guitars and low harmonious voices singing came to me even before I spotted the five men with guitars in long green matching lava lava skirts and what resembled Hawaiian shirts. They were so large and good-natured looking with broad shoulders, protruding bellies and thick cheeks and chins.

Once past security, we were ushered out a small door into an open area littered with small groups of people. Immediately visible though, was a large white banner held up by a two young women, and two American, I assumed, men standing nearby with beautiful leis stacked and hanging from their necks. Some leis had green spiky leaves with bright yellow and red pedals. Some were one color of soft pink pedals, and others had flowers that seemed to spiral around themselves, resembling a coiled spring. I was presented a pink lei by one of the guys who introduced himself as “Penny”. I hid my mild surprise at his name, but he smiled brightly and I shuffled out of the way of the other volunteers behind me. Groups of us took a few pictures together, with our leis, the sign and the staff before loading our larger luggage on the back of a flatbed truck and boarding a red bus.

Large palm trees, enormous fanned ferns with brilliant yellow flowers, tin roof houses, young girls and boys in school uniforms (green knee length lavas and mid-sleeve button up shirts or polos) waiting for buses, girls with plaited hair, several large white churches, chickens and tan and white stray dogs that littered the yards passed by dreamily through the smudgy bus windows. Traditional fales, enormous gazebo-like structures with wooden floors, several posts supporting the thatched roof, but completely without walls made several appearances. Some of these fales had colorful tapestries of red, black and gold or green and purple covering the areas between the poles. There were hand painted signs for FRESH BBQ on the side of the road. A raised grave, like a small stack of wide cement squares white or grey surrounded by flowers or well kept grass and soil, could be found in front of many homes.

Dragging the bags into the hotel, every once in a while someone would announce “We’re actually HERE!” or “Hey guys, we’re in SAMOA!” to which all would cheer or begin to chat excitedly. Being assigned three to a room, Becki, Amanda and I deposited our things in 38 and met in the large open room, much like a cafeteria with tables and windows all around, overlooking the rainforest and misty mountains to the west. Breakfast was toast, guava, plantains and tea at small tables of four.

The Ava Ceremony: The tables were removed and along the walls, woven mats were placed. A plain beige weave with colorful groupings of thread around the edges. All of us had taken the red lavas with gold and burgundy flowers on the bottom from the woven welcome bags that had been in our rooms and had wrapped them clumsily around ourselves and were sitting expectantly on the mats in a semi-circle taking up a whole half of the room. PC staff and Samoan orators occupied the other half of the circle. At each point (North, South, East and West) of the room, a respected person sat. The assistant country director at the South, the Orators at the West, the Ava at the East and another PC leader at the North. Penny (we found out later his given name was Benj) was enjoying the honor of delivering the cups of Ava as well as laying four long sticks, one to each direction, like a compass. Before placing it at each direction, he angled the long stick towards the person and upwards yelping a high pitched “CHU!” Many of the new volunteers stifled surprised giggles at this. The first 20 minutes we listened, without any comprehension whatsoever, to the orators as they gave bold and booming speeches, many removing their shirts prior to speech. Rosie, one of the PCVs, was in charge of preparing the Ava. In front of her was a wooden bowl standing on quite a few small legs, on the left of the bowl was a bundle of what looked like dried grass (the Ava root) which she dipped into bowl of water, soaked and wrung out several times. Wiping the Ava root around the brim of the bowl towards the left, then back towards the right a few times before tossing it without looking over her right shoulder, where Benj caught it and whipped it towards the ground. Rosie, having left her right hand above her shoulder with an open palm, was given back the Ava root and the process was repeated. We were all passed the cup one at a time by Benj and Spencer, who jogged back and forth between the Ava bowl and the drinker, with an orator near Rosie calling out our names. We took the cup from Benj, let a drop of the dirty looking water on the mat in front of us while saying “Lau Ava lea le Atua…Soifua!” to which all responded “Manuia!”while we drank.

Shortly after the Ava ceremony, we were dismissed for a break back to our hotel rooms, most of us rooming in the same hallway in the small hotel. My roommates and I had just settled on our beds to rest when a violent rapping came to the door. We shot up and checked, but no one was there. We only saw Rosie running down the hall pounding on all the doors. When everyone was alarmed and peering out of their door at the ruckus, she announced loudly “Everyone needs to meet downstairs, immediately. There has been a large earthquake in Vanuatu and the Samoan Islands have a tsunami warning. Leave your things, just come quickly!” She was checking somewhat frantically with random people “Has anyone left? Are you sure? Are all your roommates with you?” We ran pell-mell down the stairs, most of us having grabbed our backpacks (passport, wallet, camera, laptop), by the time Becki and I had ran down (having not been able to lock our door due to panicy fingers) people on the streets were running away from the waterfront and most of the volunteers were clamboring into the back of a truck, while we were ushered urgently into an SUV. “Just sit on top of eachother!! We’ve got to move, NOW!” Three girls sat in the back seat of the SUV with two others on top, four people squeezed into the luggage area in back. We pulled onto the road and started to make our way away from the water. The radio on, an announcer said in English “I REPEAT, THERE HAS BEEN A TSUNAMI WARNING DUE TO THE EARTHQUAKE IN VANUATU, PLEASE HEAD TO HIGHER GROUND IN AN ORDERLY FASHION IMMEDIATELY. IF YOU ARE STRONG, HELP OTHERS WITH CHILDREN AND ELDERLY” We met with considerable traffic, everyone going up the same road towards the mountains. We listening closely to the Samoan radio waiting for English announcements and exchanging nervous glances all the while. Four staff members who were in a car together pulled over on the side of the road, one jumping out furiously and screaming to two other girls who were walking on the sidewalk about 40 feet away “RUN!! THIS ISN’T A JOKE!!!” I kept looking over my shoulder towards the beach, expecting at any time for the water to creep back into the sea and gather into a huge Armageddon-size wave. Some were evacuating with serious panic, others just walked quickly, some smiled and sat on the grass watching the commotion. Drivers with trucks took aboard strangers, everyone seemed to be opening their doors. Whether it was to loved ones, friends, coworkers or strangers, I didn’t know, but it was happening on all sides. Everybody seemed to be turning left at one point in the road, but our SUV continued to go straight and suddenly the traffic died away as we snaked up a quiet road. When we reached our country directors house, we were asked politely inside where a group of young children sat on bean bags watching cartoon network, completely content and unaware of the commotion downtown. We sat around and played Faze 10 and relaxed, knowing we were safe. An hour later we made our way back, the warning being called off.

We had our first language session, just going over simple phrases. I think the pronunciation and intonation of the language is not going to be difficult for me to master and I’m excited to put my best efforts forward.

Later, we went to a Seafood Restaurant down the street, where I had a milkshake and a ham, cheese and tomato grilled sandwich, which was easily the most delicious I’ve ever had! Lelei tele!! (Delicious!!)

Family Photo!

Vaipu'a Women's Committee

Reaching the Last Waterfall on the River Fale Trip

River Fale Trip


Mother's Day Skit