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.