Saturday, February 28, 2009

It’s All in a Day’s Work

The other day I spent three hours monitoring the MPA (marine protected area). I was working for the most part, but as you all know with me snorkeling is more play than anything else. Most of my work right now is trying to keep the crown of thorns out of the MPA. The crown of the thorns starfish eats coral and is personally accountable for much of the destruction of reefs worldwide. Having one or two around the reef isn’t going to do much damage, but large scale infestations can be problematic. Needless to say, taking out 10 of them in one day did not make me happy, and I only snorkeled in about half the MPA so I know there are more in there. But that just means I have to keep going back….darn! The other major marine project I have going is trying to catalogue the species I see so that when I leave the village has a record of what is in there. This is the really pleasurable part of my job. I swim around, taking pictures and noting what I see. I love getting paid to snorkel in a reef in the tropics. Every time I go monitor the area I see at least 5-10 new species; it’s amazing! Cute little anemonefish stare at me curiously from the comfort of their protective anemone. Schools of fish surrounded me in awe of such a strange fish. I’ve seen moray eels, Christmas tree worms, trumpetfish, butterflyfish, triggerfish, Moorish idols (think of Gil from Finding Nemo), and so many other species many of which I haven’t yet identified. It’s really fun to hang above a reef and just wait for the timid fish to come out from their hiding places. Or snorkel above a piece of reef where you don’t see fish immediately, but then once you start moving over it you notice all the fish with camouflage, really good hiding places you didn’t notice at first, or fish which come around a corner and nearly swim into your face. I think I might have given a few fish heart attacks. I can’t wait to get to the real work of constructing fish houses and re-stocking the MPA with clams, but for now I’m just fine with swimming around monitoring. Not bad for a day’s work if you ask me.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Has my life really turned into a sitcom?

I was in the office the other day, telling some other volunteers about my misadventures in Samoa; mainly how I never know what is going on, neither in my village nor the Peace Corps world, how no matter what I do I can’t seem to get away from cheeky men, and how I was the personal target for a 3 year old wielding a styrofoam cup (see above posts for full story). We had some good laughs about me being smacked with a fan by an old lady when I was late to the primary school’s prize giving because no one told me what time the event was occurring and how I was powerless to stop the 3 year old from throwing the cup at me even though I could see she was going to do it. One of the volunteers said my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Samoa was like a sitcom. I am not sure whether to take that as a compliment or not. On the one hand, never knowing what is going on (even though I am getting used to that now) is frustrating and dealing with the cheeky men is really maddening. On the other hand, I am provided with many stories, most of them really funny. This same volunteer said he thought it was funny how cheeky and sole (Samoan for boy/man, kinda like the Scottish lad) had worked their way into my vernacular. I laughed at the truth of that; I do say sole and cheeky a lot now. I don’t know, maybe it is true; my life has turned into a sitcom. I’m ok with that; at least I get a good laugh when I think about the ridiculousness of my life.

Sometimes kids come over to my house while their moms are playing BINGO Wednesday afternoons. They play on the swings and get to be kids without the fear of someone smacking them for just being a kid. They also come over because they like me to get guava off the tree for them. They ask me all kinds of questions: where are your parents, what are their names, do you have sisters or brothers, who sleeps with you, who cooks for you, what is this, what is that? It’s really funny, but tiring sometimes answering all those questions. The other day a kid asked me if my parents were palagi or Samoan. I had to laugh at that…I may be getting a good tan, but I would still be the whitest Samoan ever.

Friday, February 13, 2009

If you leave Samoa without being able to wield a machete, you did something wrong

Everyone in Samoa has a machete. They are the most useful tools ever. When Samoans go to the plantation, you better believe the handy-dandy machete goes with them. I don’t have any reason to go to the plantation so I didn’t really think I had a need for a machete, but I recently invested in a little machete after I realized how much easier a machete would make life. Need to open a coconut, get the machete. Need to chop the trees and bushes back, get the machete. Need to weed my compound, get the machete. It is so much fun to hack into a bush or tree with a machete. It is such a stress reliever. Pruning shears are nice and all, but it is so much fun to swing the machete and in one sweep, down goes the limb. Being a crazed, machete wielding palagi is so much fun.

Country & Kids

One country, several islands
One might think all the islands in Samoa would have the same feel. One would also think each section of a single island would have the same feeling. Such is not true. First, the north side of Upolu is much busier and hectic than the south side, especially the stretch between the airport and Apia. Palagi influence is everywhere in Samoa but much more so on the north side. More people on the north side have jobs in Apia and this is reflected in the look of the village. Life in general on an island in the South Pacific is very laid back and chill. The further the village is from Apia, the less the palagi influence and more laid back. Savaii is even more laid back than the south side of Upolu. Once you get out of Salelologa where the wharf is, you are immediately struck by the rural ruggedness of the island. Mountains shoot up and cliffs drop to the ocean. Huge waves break on the black lava rock. Life on Savaii has an even more faifai lemu attitude (basically, take it easy, don’t worry, chill out). Apolima and Manono have their own individual pride being such small, out of the way islands. It is somewhat hard to describe, it is more something you have to experience, but each island and every village feels different.

Samoan kids
I can’t begin to describe how cute Samoan kids are. First of all, the little boys, no matter how small, walk around like they own the world. It is so cute to watch them. They start mini games of cricket when their dads are playing the full sized version. The little girls are so adorable, especially when performing siva Samoa (Samoan dancing) at a level of gracefulness I will never achieve. These kids are unbelievably tough. When these kids get hit by something, like a ball, or fall down, they just get right back up, no sniffle at all. At the same time if they don’t get their way, they will throw a tantrum unlike any I have ever seen. They climb ridiculously tall coconut trees like monkeys. They run around on rocks barefoot. They are incredibly strong. Samoan kids are the new breed of superhuman with the cutest smiles.

Look Ma…babies!

I was sweeping out my room the other day and decided I should probably move the bed and get whatever was living under there out. I expected lots of dirt and bugs since this is Samoa and my house isn’t exactly built to any code and there are gaps to the outside everywhere. I was surprised to find little eggs under my bed however. After some inspection, I decided they weren’t spider eggs…too hard, they weren’t bird eggs…too small, they had to be reptile eggs. So in my scientific opinion, a gecko laid eggs under my bed. I shouldn’t really be surprised, because again this is Samoa and things like that aren’t really unusual, but I never really thought I’d be able to say a gecko laid eggs under my bed.
I was walking back to my house after playing volleyball one day when I felt something under my feet. I looked down but didn’t see anything. So I continued on. Again, I felt something but didn’t see anything. I was saying bye to some of the young boys when they said “Moa” or chicken. I looked down again and sure enough a little chick was at my feet. I took one step and the chick followed. Took another, and so did the chick. The chick wouldn’t move from between my feet. I didn’t realize I looked much like a mama chicken, but the little chick thought otherwise.

Life Tua (out back, on the southside)

I was a teine Samoa (Samoan girl) the other day. All the pastors from the Christian Congregational Church of Samoa in the district came to our village for some sort of meeting. This meant the village went all out in preparation. I got to witness this first hand since they used my house (both fales) to prepare food (it’s next to the church and big fales where they were doing the meeting so I said yes when asked, I didn’t know though that meant people coming over to my house at 5:45 am when I was still sleeping). Basically, all of the village women, matai (chiefs), and village men were at my house that day, it was very crowded and busy. There was a church service at 7 am, breakfast, a meeting, and then lunch (I was helping the village prepare and serve food the whole day). Lunch was insane because all the pastors also got goody bags to take home. I’m not sure what all the goody bags contained, but I do know they had at least 1 lb of canned corned beef, taro, palusami, and a whole pig (I think there were 12 pastors so that is a lot of pigs). This is on top of the platter of food they got for lunch which also involved a whole chicken. Pastors are well taken care of here, and that is an understatement (it is somewhat frustrating to see the wealth they have in comparison to the poverty of the families providing for them, but just another cultural lesson to get used to). Everyone else had enough food for at least 2 people, so it isn’t like they starved either. I didn’t do nearly as much as the other women did, mostly because they don’t usually let me do anything, but I got right in and helped prepare plates and serve food. They were happy to have the help and thought it was cute I was helping and being a teine Samoa (I got some respect for that, always good). The women were really generous to me for letting them use my house; they gave me some of the things left from the cooking: a loaf of bread, 1 lb sugar, and almost 2 dozen eggs (I made French toast for breakfast the next day). This is in addition to getting breakfast and lunch (and dinner since I had some left over). It was interesting to see the preparation of everything. The fales were decorated with flowers, mats, and even tables and chairs. I know that sounds funny to make a big deal over tables and chairs, but eating at a table is rare and having the pastors sit at a table is a sign of respect (being seated above someone is a sign of high authority/respect, or in my case more of “we can see your legs are hurting you so come sit on this chair” although I’d never sit on a chair at a matai meeting, that would be really bad form).

I was sitting in my fale one day, typing up a report when I saw several of the village women carrying heavy loads of rocks and broken coral to be put in the area in front of the church (it isn’t paved, just a bunch of rocks). All of the sudden the women started singing. It was beautiful to witness the hard manual labor juxtaposed with sweet sound of the song.

TV, weather, and hospitality

TV…what is that?
Seeing how I have no tv, it was great during the election and inauguration to be able to go to town to watch these momentous occasions. Yeah for CNN international. It is also really cool to be able to say I was at the US Embassy in Samoa for the 2008 election. It was a sweet party, lots of great food. It was nice to be around Americans during this time too and watch history in the making. For the inauguration I was at the Charge de Affairs house (she has real floors, walls, and windows…and even air conditioning! I felt like I was back in the US). Only a few of us Peace Corps Volunteers went, but I wasn’t going to miss something like that. Usually I don’t watch the inaugurations because it isn’t that interesting to me, but this time was different. I had to watch history in the making, and I’m totally in love with the First Family. All the Samoans know who Barak Obama is and ask about him quite often. This is funny to me, for some reason I did not think I would be asked about politics here.

The Sun and the rain
You will get sick if you are in the sun or in the rain. Or at least that is the Samoan philosophy. If someone is sick, especially a palagi, it is because they spent too long in the sun. If I am outside during the middle of the day, even just to go to the shop, I will have at least 5 people say “O le la” (the sun). So I know when I get dengue it will be because of the sun, regardless of the fact it is actually caused by a mosquito. When warned against instant sickness from the sun, I simply say I am malosi (strong) and go about my work. I have sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses, I figure I’ll be ok, just a little sweaty. The same is true for rain. If I am weeding with the women and it starts to rain, even just a little drizzle, they say “ua timu” (it’s raining) and tell me to go inside. I don’t stop until they do though, confident my body can handle a little drizzle. This is all really funny to me because when it comes to playing cricket or volleyball, no rain or shine can stop them. Apparently one only gets sick from working in the sun and rain, not playing in it.

Southerners have nothing on Samoan hospitality
Having grown up in the Mid-west and lived in the South, I think the whole Southern hospitality thing is a total fallacy. Samoan hospitality is above and beyond anything one might expect. If I go visit a family, just to talk, I almost always either get food there or am given something to take home. Usually it is niu (coconut) to put in my fridge and enjoy cool later on. People give me tomatoes, watermelon, avocadoes, papaya, etc. At toonai (large meal after church) with the women of the village, I very often come back with a basket full of food. It’s great, but sometimes people give me stuff and I have no idea how I am going to eat it all. When I first got to the village, people would give me loaves of bread, which is something hard to come by on this side of the island without going to Apia. At one point I had 3 loaves of bread to eat. I am a carb-o-holic so I love bread, but even I had no idea what to do with all that bread. So I did the fa’aSamoa and shared it. I was given a loaf of bread and almost 2 dozen eggs one time after the village used my house to cook for a large church event. This was on top of the rest of the food throughout the day. Samoans are extremely generous, especially if you are palagi

What tree should we eat from today?

The Samoan national pastime, besides rugby and cricket, is eating. Samoans love food. Most of it is very heavy and starchy. Breadfruit (ulu) is like a mixture of potato and bread, depends on how you cook it. Taro is a starchy root crop. There are 10 different kids of taro, each one with a different taste. The biggest tragedy is the bananas. Instead of eating the ripe bananas (fa’ipule), Samoans take the green un-ripe bananas and either boil them or roast them over the fire. Ripe bananas are so much better. Those are the 3 main Samoan foods. Mutton (mamoe) oh so fatty, no matter how it is prepared. Chicken (moa)…just like in the US….can do anything with it. Pumpkin (maukeni) soup is really good. The best is cocoa Samoa and cocoa rice….chocolate, go figure. Not a whole lot of variety…subsistence farming, eat what you have. So many bones…gross...they even eat the marrow from the bones….I still don’t like the sound of crunching on the bones. Coffee or tea might as well be sugar water. They have spaghetti in a can (the sauce is really sweet too) and serve it straight from the can….no warming it or anything….that isn’t so great, but edible. The toasted spaghetti sandwiches are good though. I’ve eaten octopus (fe’e), sea cucumber (loli), sea urchin (tui), pigeon (lupe). I’ve also eaten some unknown species of crayfish and crab. Sardines from a can are popular as well as canned ham (Chinese version of SPAM). Corned beef (pisupo) is a popular dish…really salty and fatty. The greatest thing is all the food hanging from trees, just waiting to be eaten. Vi apples are good, just don’t eat the skin. Mangos, star fruit, bananas, avocadoes (can we say guacamole), pineapple, and coconuts. I’ve gotten pretty good at opening coconuts, but have yet to actually husk one.

Coconut wireless & Cocoa Samoa

Samoans always know what is occurring in the village…meetings, extra church services, village events, etc. If someone does something in another village, even before the person is back home, the news of what they did will have already reached the village. We call this the coconut wireless. It works great for Samoans, everyone always seems to know what is going on and shows up, making the community run smoothly. Being an outsider, I never can get my coconut wireless to operate properly. My village shows up for an event, notices the palagi isn’t there, and if I do show up eventually, asks why I was late. It is very hard to explain how no one told me about the event and the only reason why I was there was because someone noticed in passing I was still at my house and not at the event. I never know what is going on, but I’m used to that by now.

Cocoa Samoa is best described as the best hot chocolate ever. The process of making cocoa Samoa takes a long time, but since there is no where to go and nothing to do this isn’t really a problem. First you have to get the cocoa from the tree. Then you bite out the bean from the fruit and roast it. Next, you shell the cocoa beans and roast them for a little bit longer. Then you use a rock to grind the cocoa beans to make cocoa powder. Then you put the powder in hot water and mix. The whole process of getting the beans from the inside of the fruit, roasting the beans, grinding the beans, and finally to drinking it takes about an hour or hour and a half. That’s a really long time for hot chocolate, but it is worth it.

Really, did that just happen?

I was watching Anchorman to pass some time one afternoon and had a really odd experience. In one scene, Will Farrell’s character blows a conch shell to summon his news crew (I know that doesn’t make sense if you haven’t seen the movie, but just go with it). Not more than 10 seconds after him blowing the shell in the movie, a conch shell was blown in my village to call the men of the village back to work on the new fence for the school. I smiled and thought it was funny. It is one of those moments…in the movie it is funny, no one blows conch shells in real life, but oh wait….I’m in a 3rd world country where that actually occurs. The Peace Corps experience is all about the little moments like this. The ones where you go really, did that just happen? Only in Samoa and only in the Peace Corps (there have been several of those so far).

I was sitting with a few of the women to do our fa’amalositino (aerobics) and walk around the malae (playing field) when one of their little girls came up. She had just finished a little ice cake (frozen kool aid in a styrofoam cup) and had the cup in her hand. I really like this little girl, she’s in one of the families I like to hang out with. I could tell what she was going to do, but did nothing to stop it. She raised her arm up, and then all of the sudden threw the cup. It smacked right in the middle of my forehead. We all started laughing. I was powerless to get the thought in my head into the action of stopping her. It was funny. The kids made up for it by walking with me, hand in hand, during the walk around the malae.

Sweet smells of Mortein

Mortein is the wonderful poison I use to try to keep the bugs away. It is really nasty stuff and I wonder how many years I’m taking off my life by just using it, but it does have a nice orange smell. The beauty of the poison is this…with a few seconds of spray, you can stop a cockroach dead in its tracks. It is also good for stunning centipedes, yes that’s right only stun. These aren’t inch long gross little insects; no, they are 6-8 inches long (other species in the tropics can be a foot long), carnivorous, poisonous creatures which look like they are armored for battle. One bite could leave you with swelling, dizziness, and an irregular pulse. Centipedes are extremely fast, one in my room did three laps around the place before I could catch up to it. So in order to get rid of these creatures before they attack, you spray the heck out of it with Morein so it will stop moving and then take a hammer to it. These are the measures you have to take otherwise they will comeback with vengeance.

Excuse me, may I sit on your lap?

Samoa has lots of interesting places to explore…reefs, beaches, waterfalls, caves, mountains, jungle trails, lava tubes, blow holes, etc. But for the real adventure seeker, take a trip on a bus and your adventure needs will be quite fulfilled. First, the buses are old rickety wooden buses the DOT would not allow on any road in the US. But in Samoa, those buses are good because if they tip over, the wood will split and allow people to crawl out (regardless of the fact the wood will split and the weight of the bus will crush people). When looking at the driver’s seat, which is actually a seat from a car, one will see a colorful array of cords and wires delicately hanging down from the engine block, which is all that keeps the bus running. To most Americans, a full bus is one where all the seats are taken. Not so in Samoa. A bus is not considered full until all seats are taken, people are sitting on each other’s laps, people are standing in the isle, and one can not see deeper than the first row of seats. Then and only then is the bus full an will leave, but not before picking up more people along the way, which leaves people hanging out the doorway (good thing there is no door to close because the bus is so full there is no way it would shut). Needless to say, sitting on some stranger’s lap has become a non-issue and is no longer considered weird to me. I have seen children passed out the window, why make them walk up the crowded isle when passing them out is much easier. Most people would not take an animal on a public bus for fear of allergies or people being bit; however in Samoa, not a problem. If the bus won’t start, the young men get out and give the old bus a push until the engine turns over. There is an order to sitting position on the bus as well. The young men (sole) will sit in the very back or stand in the isle if no room. The older people sit in the front. So many times a young person will get up and move to the back or move to someone’s lap when an older person gets on the bus. It is interesting the watch the delicate movement of people trying to make room on the bus. Taking a bus in Samoa never fails to have some sort of happening which would be considered an oddity in America, but as my time in Samoa goes on I rather enjoy the phenomenon known as riding the bus.

Off to a new home

After swearing in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer in August, I moved out to my new village of Salesatele. I’m still on the island of Upolu in the district of Falealili, about an hour and a half or so from Apia. I live by myself (although getting my PC committee to not sleep outside my house at night was a challenge) in a fale (house) overlooking the ocean, rough life I know. I have an outhouse…all my years in Alabama I never once had one, but alas I do now. I have corrugated metal for a roof and walls, otherwise known as a sweat box. When it rains, the metal roof does nothing for being able to hear anything. At least the holes in the ceiling and walls are in places where leaks don’t occur. I have a papaya tree right out back which is amazing! I also have guava and noni trees. The church (EFKS in Samoan or Christian Congregationalist Church of Samoa, CCCS) is right across the road. I never have an excuse to be late for church, but I hate the ringing of the empty air tank (who needs a church bell, even though there is one) for 5 minutes to announce church starts in an hour. I waste a whole 5 minutes with my fingers in my ears, trying to make sure I will still have hearing at the end of my PC service. I have a new respect for laundry machines. Washing laundry by hand is a real pain in the butt! First, you have to soak them, then rinse then, and then hang them up on the line and with the humidity, hope they dry with in a couple of days. It isn’t like they are really clean once I do my laundry anyway since the water is usually not the cleanest, but I pretend like they are clean anyway. It truly is a chore.
I mainly work with the marine protected area (MPA), but like most other village-based volunteers, I’m a jack of all trades. I just finished writing a grant for sewing machines and am in the process of getting computers and a library and starting a homework center. I’ll be doing a rubbish clean up and health clinics at some point. Maybe teaching swimming lessons as well. I like hanging out with people in the village, playing volleyball, taking walks, or just talking. I pull weeds with the mothers of the village on Saturday mornings and participate in the aerobics program they just started. I joined the church choir, really I got dragged there and somehow was then a member. I don’t sing well (my family can attest this), so I mainly just pretend or sing really softly. It is a good way to meet people and be active though; I like hanging out with the choir people. The kids have contests to see who can say fa (bye) to me last and the loudest, so I often say fa to the same group of kids about 10 times before they are satisfied. I got to make the ava for the matai (chief) meeting, which was a high honor. It was fun, but as usual I had no idea how to make it. I think the matai got a kick out of the attempt though. I like my village and I think they like me, which makes living in a village so much easier.

Things you take for granted
1) Power
If it exists….it goes out a lot. In Amaile, I watched my host family make a Molotov cocktail to use as light…when a Molotov cocktail is made I only think of blowing something up, not using it to see. I was a little worried first time I saw them making the light.
2) Indoor bathroom
I have my very own out house, which is ok except a real pain in the middle of the night or when it is raining.
3) Bug proof houses
I have ants everywhere, naturally in food, but books, clothes, everything….gets old after a while, especially when they bite me. I sleep under a mosquito net every night in order to not be a feast.
4) Water
In the States, one doesn’t turn the faucet and wonder if water is going to come out today or what is in the water because usually it comes out a nice clear color, nothing to worry about. Here, if one has water it comes out muddy or with green specks in it. We aren’t used to the mud and bacteria in the tap water. Even the “treated water” from the plants in Apia have failed water quality tests done by WHO….so I have a water filter. In Apia if you go to a restaurant you will pay $3 or more for a bottle of water. I am fortunate to usually have water to be able to fill my water filter; however, this is not always the case, especially in Savaii. Hot showers don’t exist anymore.
5) Routine bus schedule
Here, they have a general time. You could spend hours waiting for the bus to come, only to realize it isn’t coming. Or you could be sitting on the bus waiting for it to take you home and only once your butt is numb from the uncomfortable bus seats and when full will the bus go.
6) Internet
I used to waste several hours of the day mindlessly exploring all the random websites one can find on the net. Now it is no problem because I don’t have internet. I check e-mail when I go into the office once every couple of weeks. It isn’t really a big deal except when you want to know one little thing you know you could Google easily if you only had internet. Then it drives you crazy.
7) AC
Being on a tropical island, I think that is enough said.
8) Noise laws
One would think in the middle of a 3rd world country, loud blaring radios would not be an issue. However, Samoans love to turn up the radio. Frequently, all I hear is the thud of the bass, but sometimes I am able to sing along with a radio which is at least 150 yards from my house. It just ruins the whole peaceful village image, especially at 5:30 or 6 in the morning.

Siva Afi & Birthday

A Siva Afi (fire dancing) competition was held a few days into training, naturally it seemed like it could be a fun thing to attend. I was in awe at the guys and girl (awesome!) and their ability to throw and twirl these sticks as the ends were ablaze. Lighting the sticks was amazing to watch as well. The fire dancer would come out with one end alight, then grab the fire with a hand or their mouth and light the other end…badass! Some competitors threw two fire sticks, others connected two or three together to form one giant fire stick, and others did amazing tricks with just one fire stick. It was quite a nice Pacific Island cultural experience.

I spent my 22nd birthday on the volunteer visit, basically a trainee pairs up with a current volunteer to see what volunteer life is like. The first night I was on Manono, a little island between Uplou and Savaii. This island is so gorgeous. Four villages make up the island and it only takes 3 hours to walk at a casual pace around the island. The views of the other islands are breathtaking, makes you want to get a hammock and a coconut and just sway in the sea breeze while you drift off to sleep. On our walk around the island we saw thousands of bats (flying foxes) flying overhead, heading to the inner part of the island. I even saw one land on a palm frond and use its claws to pull itself up. It was a nice place to be on my birthday. I even got a cake (thanks guys).

Amaile

Amaile would be our home for 8 weeks of the 11 weeks spent in training. We had another ava ceremony to welcome us into the village and then we headed to our new homes to meet our new Samoan families. My family in America is a normal sized 4 person family. That being said, whenever I tell Samoans I only have 4 people in my family they get a look of pity, especially when they find out I have no brothers. Families in Samoa are three to four times the size of my normal sized family. Remembering all the people’s names in my Samoan family was a challenge. My host parents were Sola and Sea. I had one host sister, Maseiga, and 4 host brothers, Peni, Alae, Mafutaga, and Siu. Peni’s kids were Tofai, Lesi, Tala, and Eneliko. It is easy to see how Samoans would find living alone really boring and lonely; they are used to a whole village at home.
Amaile is in the Aleipata district of Upolu. That district is said to be the most beautiful in Samoa. I can see why…white sandy beaches, good reefs for snorkeling, and a view of endless ocean made only more breathtaking by the small, uninhabited islands in the foreground. Amaile has a vaitaele (pool) which is the most gorgeous I have seen yet. The water seeps down from rocks and into a rocked off area making the pool. There is a rock wall on one side of the pool, making it perfect for jumping into the vaitaele. During high tide, little fish come in to bathe with you. Having a pool like Amaile’s was awesome during training.
There is one church in Amaile, a Catholic one. This means there is mass at 6 am everyday and two services on Sunday. That is a lot of church. Unlike other Pacific Islanders who chose to welcome Christian missionaries with a large feast, making the missionaries the main course, Samoans readily accepted the missionaries work. In every Samoan village you will find at least one church. Even in small villages of only a few hundred people, there could be three or four churches, sometimes all seven denominations present in Samoa. Sundays are a day for church and rest; you aren’t even allowed to swim in the ocean.
Peace Corps training is from 8 am to 5 pm weekdays and involves training in language, culture, technical/work, health, and safety and security. By the end of the day, one is quite tired from school. Weekends are ideal for exploring the island. Some days it would be exploring the beach, reefs, and rocky tide pools while other days were jungle adventures. My Peace Corps group like to take a little hike to what we called “our secret beach.” We started out on the beach then took a path into the jungle. There wasn’t much to see for the most part, just jungle, until we got to a staircase carved from rock (which made us think we were all Indiana Jones off to explore some lost world treasure). The path opened up and suddenly instead of the dark of the jungle there was a clearing and light. There was a mountain off to the side and the trees shot up from the ground giving a Jurassic Park feel to the adventure. Soon we were at the secret beach, which is in a small cove. We snorkeled and explored the small tide pools when the tide was out. It was just fun being able to go on an adventure in order to get to the beach.
Amaile has some nice hikes as Jenny and I found out one day. My family asked if I wanted to go for a walk to see the waterfalls, naturally I said yes. So I got Jenny and we were off on our “walk.” At first it wasn’t so bad, we just followed the path back to the plantation, which was well carved by the villagers. We crossed streams jumped over some fallen trees, but nothing intense. We got to the first waterfall with no real issues, it was a long walk but it was fun. I was thankful I had doused myself in bug spray; the mosquitoes were circling in search of fresh whiteman flesh to gnaw on. As I looked at the waterfall, I wondered where we were going to go. We had been following the stream for the hike, so unless we were going back that way I saw no path. The Samoans then started up the rocky hill around the waterfall, and so I followed. It was a steep path with no room for error in step. Clinging to the hillside, I looked down at nothing but rocks below to break your fall. And just to add some fun, we were hiking in flip flops, not really any traction whatsoever. I’m not scared of heights, but I didn’t want to break my leg this early into Peace Corps service and be sent back home. Once up on the waterfall, we were back to following to the stream. We saw the second waterfall, which was a double falls, one waterfall then another right behind it. It was really gorgeous to look at in the depths of the Samoan jungle. I again wondered where we were going to go next, when the Samoans pointed to a sheer hillside and said we were going to see the plantation up top. I thought to myself “you have to be kidding, up that.” Jenny and I looked at each other and laughed, we had no idea how we were going to get up the hillside. The slope on this hillside was basically vertical, much steeper than the first hillside. Being so steep, the only way to get up top was with no flip flops. So there I was hiking in the Samoan jungle with no shoes on. Just to add fun, it had recently rained, leaving the hill nice and slippery. It did make me feel better that the Samoans were having difficulty as well getting up the slope. We were digging our feet and hands into the mud and grabbing any root we could possibly get our hands on. I’m the adventurous type, willing to go anywhere and do anything, and this was the most intense hike ever. We got to the top, with no injuries except for a few bites from some really pissed ants which bit my foot in retaliation, leaving my foot with a stinging sensation. The view from the top of the hill was gorgeous. Through the trees we could see the ocean and then looked to the side of the valley we had just hiked through. We drank some niu (coconut) and then decided to take the road back. This sounds nice and easy, but we still had to get down a steep hill, cross the stream, climb up another steep hill, and then walk home. Needless to say, I slept like a baby that night.
No other adventures in Amalie quite lived up to that one. We had a little 4th of July celebration though. The village allowed us to play softball and volleyball that day, as well as enjoy cake and ice cream. The kids loved that day, games and food. We also had a craft day, another day the kids loved. I made balloon animals while others did masks, face painting, and coloring. Another fun day with the kids. We teamed up with the Ministry of Agriculture to help the women make a garden. We cleared some land of rocks, planted eggplant, cabbage, and other veggies. It was a good looking garden, but I have heard it wasn’t taken care of so it is no more. I taught my family how to play UNO, which went over really well. They would draw multiple cards just to get a draw two card to play on their relative. It was funny to watch. I enjoyed living with the family; they took good care of me.

Apia

Apia is the capital of Samoa and is the only thing resembling a city in all of Samoa. Apia in actuality is nothing more than many villages all put together in a semi-urban setting. Apia is the home to government ministries, embassies, internet cafes, shops, movie rental stores, clubs/bars, and most importantly McDonald’s. I know McDonald’s is an international phenomenon, but I was a little shocked to see it here. The coke floats and new breakfast menu is great though. Speaking of food, Apia is home to some really nice palagi (white people) foods like pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, and ice cream. Those make for a nice break to breadfruit and canned corned beef. There is an alley which we have dubbed “Palagi Alley.” The alley itself looks expensive and not typical of Samoa, almost like a little trip to a real city. The U.S. embassy resides here as well as several of the more expensive shops and restaurants in Samoa. These restaurants serve mochas, lattes, scones, smoothies, muffins, bagels, and other palagi dishes. An abundance of white people are found in this alley on any given day, enjoying the expensive cuisine. You can find lots of fun stuff from all over the world in Apia. They import from America, New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, and even United Arab Emirates. Having such a wide diversity of imported goods makes some stores look like they sell stuff which just fallen off the back of a truck. It’s quite amusing to wander the isles of these stores looking for random treasures. At 9 am, you will witness the police band playing and marching towards the government building in order to raise the flag. They march in the street, blocking the whole flow of traffic. I’d like to see this occur every morning in New York, just to see the mayhem it will cause. Even though Apia is the only major city, almost everything closes by 5 pm on weekdays, 12 or 1 on Saturdays, and virtually nothing is open on Sundays. It you want to feel like the last person on Earth, walk around Apia on a Sunday or a holiday, you will be lucky to see another person.

The first glimpse of life in the South Pacific

I arrived in Samoa June 4, 2008 thrilled for my 2 years of saving the world as a Peace Corps Volunteer. We landed at around 5 am so my first glimpses of Samoa were nothing more than what the van’s headlights could reach, basically road (a good sign of actual civilization though). We got to our new home, Apia Central Hotel, checked in, and then a few of us went for a walk around town before our first day of in-country training. As we walked in the early morning light, we started to get a feel for our new home. We walked past the fish market, full of smiling Samoans eager to sell their catches. We saw the loudly painted buses, which in a few months would be our only mode of motorized transportation. We walked on the sea wall watching the fishermen toil on their boats. I was in awe at the beauty of the sun over the mountains and wondered what adventures my new home had in store for my over the next 27 months of living and working in Samoa.
We next had an ava ceremony. Ava, made from the kava root, is the traditional drink in Samoa and the ceremony is for welcoming new people. Ava is an interesting drink. It looks a lot like muddy water and pretty much tastes like dirt. The fun part of the drink is the effect it has on you. With just one half coconut shell full of the mixture, if properly prepared, your tongue will feel quite numb. Much fun can be had with many coconut shells worth of ava. We got dressed in our lava lavas and recited the words said during the ceremony, desperately hoping to not butcher the language on day one of being in Samoa. We piled in the van and drove up to the University of the South Pacific for the ceremony. I sat down on the mats, wondering how long my legs would last sitting crossed legged. I listened intently as the ceremony began, wondering what was going on as I watched the ava being mixed and saw kava roots being passed back and forth. The chiefs took their ava and said the ceremonial phrase and now it was my group’s turn to do the same. I could feel the nerves right in the gut. I listened to others and watched them drink the rooty mixture from the lacquered coconut shell. It was my turn then…I took the shell, poured out a drop as the ceremony required, and said the Samoan ava ceremony phrase. At least I hope I said the Samoan ava ceremony phrase, even right after the ceremony I wasn’t sure what exactly I said, it all just came out in one long stream of words I didn’t know…it was much like word vomit, it just kinda came out, hopefully correctly. But since this was a Peace Corps ava ceremony, it was all good. We were now officially Peace Corps Samoa trainees.