Wednesday, October 2, 2013

One Year Reflection

October 5th is coming up which marks the One-Year Anniversary since I left my home in North Carolina.  I was considering what kind of blog entry I wanted to do to celebrate this and decided on a list of all the new things that I’ve done since coming to Samoa.  Keep in mind, these are all things that I’ve NEVER done before coming here (no order).

·         Haven’t seen my family in person for more than 5 months
·         Opened a coconut with a knife
·         Learned Samoan
·         Adopted a cat (my mom’s allergic so it was never possible at home!)
·         Ate meat (I was vegetarian since birth and started eating meat upon acceptance to Peace Corps Samoa)
·         Watched puppies, kittens, and a baby be born
·         Made a kid cry from happiness
·         Jumped off of a waterfall
·         Went to a US Navy black tie event
·         Lived without A/C and hot water
·         Ate stingray
·         Ate bat
·         Skinny dipped
·         Made 12 amazing friends
·         Been serenaded by 250 kids on my birthday
·         Killed a centipede (tally’s up to 8 now)
·         Didn’t shampoo my hair for a month
·         Didn’t shave my legs for a month
·         Swam with a sea turtle
·         Learned a Samoan dance
·         Opened a bottle using the table (not my teeth like the Samoans do!)
·         Washed my clothes using a bucket and dried them outside on a line
·         Slept under a mosquito net
·         Slept in a house with no walls

Looking back, I’d say I’ve accomplished a lot in this past year!  And that’s all besides my actual job which is teaching 115 amazing students.  To seem them progress so far is incredibly rewarding.  In the coming days, a new Peace Corps group is arriving in Samoa to begin their two year journey.  I look forward to sharing the next year’s journey with them.

Cheers!  (Manuia!)  Here’s to another successful year!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Q+A Time!

I sent out a post on my facebook page asking people to send me any questions they had about my service, life here, future plans, whatever.  Here are the ones that I received!  I'll update if I get more and feel free to ask your own in the comments section below.

Was it hard to get used to the heat? 
Have you ever seen that movie Volunteers with Tom Hanks where he steps off of the plane in Thailand and is almost blasted over by the heat and humidity?  It was just like that when my group stepped off the temperature controlled airplane and into the Samoan air for the first time.  It was like slamming into a wall of humidity.  To be fair, we did arrive in the rainy season which ups the humidity.  I can testify though that after almost 11 months in country, I can pretty much ignore the heat.  At night, dare I say it, I actually get cold!  It was a long and slow process getting used to the constant heat however.  From teaching in it, to biking in it, to wearing long hot dresses in it, it's always there.  But your body does acclimatize.  And the easiest way to cool off?  Take a long shower under your freezing pipe until your body temp is lowered, then lay spread eagle on your bed with your fan blowing on you and wearing nothing.  It's amazing how fast you'll cool off :)
What it is like being so far from home?
 It's rough.  There's no getting away from it.  However, I want to mention that I don't feel as homesick as I did during my 6 month stint in Japan.  I think it's a combination of the longer timeframe, the acceptance of the whole community, and my fellow volunteers going through the exact same thing.  There are ups and downs in everyone's service, Peace Corps has actually scientifically documented it.  I'm coming up on a timeframe called the mid-service crisis and in Samoa, this usually means getting a Samoan tattoo (undecided if I will haha).  I have made the decision though to take a month off and visit America over Christmas.  I'm beyond psyched to see my family but I know it'll also help me with the distance over my final year of service. 
How is the idea of family there different than in the US? 
So so many things.  First off, you're usually related to half the village with your cousins living around you.  It's a wonderful experience after growing up myself living several states away.  Another difference is the family roles.  There are very specific gender and age defined roles within a family, though you see them being changed more in modern years.  Like for instance mat weaving is an adult-elderly woman's role.  Or building the umu (oven) is for men.  My sisters do ALL of the cooking for the family and this usually involves several hours a day.  My little brothers will help with the cooking more as they grow older but because of their age, currently help run errands, water the cows, and weed.  Another difference is the togetherness of the family.  Things are done as a family unit with decisions being made by the head of house.  The family all lives and sleeps together in the main area so you certainly see a lot of each other.  This was a huge change for me after growing up in my own room as a kid then my own apartment in college.  Everything that you own is also considered family property, not individual property.  This sometimes gets difficult when something is "borrowed" and not returned.  There's no malicious intent, simply a misunderstanding.
And as you've probably read in previous posts, I LOVE MY SAMOAN FAMILY!  ('OU TE ALOFA LO'U 'AIGA SAMOA!!!)

How big are most Samoan families.
Nuclear families are generally the mom, dad, and 3-4 children.  However with families can also swell to huge numbers.  My training village family had 14 kids.  Birth control (an issue I will not touch on here) is not readily available.  Extended family will often live on the same compound or within shouting distance.  My neighbor lives on the same compound as her sister so both of their families are virtually together.  
Read your post about Iron Giant. Do you have access to streaming like Netflix or Amazion? The movie would be great for them to see!
Unfortunately most internet connections in the capitol are barely enough for streaming movies, let alone out in the village.  There's currently a project to get Broadband Internet into all rural Primary Schools for two years free (another issue I won't go in to here, can you say building dependence?) so perhaps I'll be able to stream movies at some point.  I actually did just ask my mom about the movie and she's sending me the DVD in her next package.  I have a DVD player for American DVDs so I'll be able to play it on a TV for them.  I'm excited to do a compare/contrast project with the kids!

How hard is it for an individualist type person to adapt to a collectivist society? 
Peace Corps training REALLY helped with this.  I think if I'd just been thrown in, I would have been blindsided and not only would have been unhappy, but probably would have offended a lot of people that I work with.  In Samoa, doing things for the good of the group or the family is very important.  For instance, I was told to coach the netball team for my school and I said no.  In my mind, I was already at that time coaching the science fair team as well as having a fulltime teaching schedule so why would I do that?  Well this was an instance where I really should have said yes because it was for the good of the team in their eyes.

In America, we pride ourselves on being individuals.  When we apply for university, we are told to include things to make us stick out.  Coming to Samoa, it is difficult to try and change myself to being the same as everyone else.  Uniforms, hair in an exact way, following traditions, etc.  Things don't get shook up very often.  Casual Fridays is definitely not a common practice :)

You get used to it though.  There are times when I feel like a shadow of who I am, but there are also times when I can assert my individualism to the great amusement of my students.  Like wearing wacky earrings to school, or having discussions with my students outside of just teaching them.  You don't lose who you are, you just adjust and tone it down a little. 

Is church really a big deal there?
YES!  I can't emphasize how much.  I personally am an atheist so this was really hard for me to get used to.  The Samoan lives revolved around church and religion.  Morning begins at school with prayer and Bible study, prayers are said before each meal, many families have an evening prayer which is signaled with a conch shell blow across the village.  This is an interesting one and varies between villages.  Some are so strict that you men will patrol the streets during prayer time and ask drivers to pull over and wait for prayers to cease.  And of course there are the church services on Sundays.  I go to a Congregational church here which means I'm there basically from 9-11.  Mormon, 8-12.  Seventh Day Advantist, 9-12.  My friend goes to a Catholic church with her family that starts at 5am!  It varies between churches.  Most have afternoon services as well and some families go to both services.  Pastor's here are at the same rank as village elders and receive huge donations from families for food and housing.  So yes, Church is a HUGE deal here.  How do I deal?  I look at it as a cultural experience.  And I make it extremely clear that afternoons are for lesson planning and I can't make it to afternoon service. 

Have you eaten any strange food in Samoa? 
Well, I guess.  I've eaten octopus here and raw fish which some people think is odd but I've eaten both before in Japan.  The fe'e (octopus) is quite good, I highly recommend it!  Oh and I had stingray once, it was like a really tender white fish.

What types of different fruits or vegetables do they have there? 
So the most common fruits here are papaya, mango, pineapple, guava, and a little Samoan apple.  The native vegetables are taro root and breadfruit (I honestly don't know if it's a fruit or vegetable even though it has fruit in its name).  In grocery stores you can get a hold of bok choy, string beans, tomatoes, potatoes, and other random vegetables.  No lettuce or spinach though.  And no berries like strawberries, blueberries, etc.  Weirdly though, fruits are not commonly served in Samoan families.  I had papaya for awhile but not for probably 6 months.  Whenever I go to town, I'll try to buy some fruit but the imported stuff is so expensive, it gets difficult.

What type of side projects have you guys started or plan on starting? 
We are working as a group for Camp GLOW (Girls Lead Our World).  It's a Peace Corps wide initiative that varies in each country depending on what volunteers wish to do.  Ours is currently planned for December.  We'll be taking 3 Year 8 girls each to a 3 day long conference all about female leadership.  I personally plan to be working on a project with the local SPCA for a rural spay/neuter clinic in my village.  There's a huge wild dog problem so it'd be a great help.

How far are you from the nearest volunteer? 
About 30 minutes by bus if everything goes the way I plan it to.  I say that because sometimes the bus doesn't come!  Usually it's easiest just to meet my fellow volunteers in Apia.  This way we're all guaranteed a ride home and won't get stuck anywhere.

What type of things do you do on the weekend? 
Most weekends I just laze around.  One of my large undertakings on Saturdays are laundry!  Bucket washing takes a long time and I usually don't want to do it during the week.  So by the weekend I have quite a mountain to get through.  Believe me, when I get back to America I'll never complain about doing laundry through a washing machine again.  Another thing I'll do is watch rugby.  Saturday afternoons the Primary school boys will have rugby camps where they'll learn how to play it as well as have games against other villages.  It's fun to watch!  Sundays are a strict no work day.  It's for church and resting.  Playing games is forbidden and in some villages, even swimming is forbidden.  Maybe every 3 weeks or so, I'll head into Apia for the weekend.  It's expensive though so I try not to do it very often.

Is it easy to get everything you need on the Peace Corps allowance?
Yes!  Peace Corps Samoa has a nice allowance.  You can easily get food, internet, phone time, whatever.  And if you save up enough during the year, most volunteers can go to New Zealand for Christmas using Peace Corps allowance money. Now that's not to say that you'll be rolling in wealth.  There will be some months where your bank account will hit zero and you'll have to really limit what you do.  If you tend to go out a lot, then your bank account will usually be very low.  However, if you budget well, then you should have no difficulty getting things that you want.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Family Time

Coming from a close-knit family in America was always something that I loved.  We would always spend our holidays together even to the point of preferring to spending Christmas at home with our immediate family rather than driving up to visit Aunts and Uncles.  Just over two years ago my mom and dad moved apart.  I’m proud though of the close relationships that I maintain with my parents.  When something goes wrong, my mom and dad are the first people that I call and I don’t mind (as long as it’s not long-term), living at home.  In the past, I’ve lived with host families in Japan and have enjoyed the similarly close relationship that you get from living with a family versus on your own in an apartment.  Housing in the Peace Corps is incredibly varied depending on what country you’re in.  You can go anywhere from a room with a host family (which is what I have), to an apartment, to a shared room with another Volunteer.  Check out an amazing video on Youtube called Peace Corps Cribs to see some examples.

Coming to Samoa, there are three options for volunteers.  One, if you work in Apia (the Capitol), you get an apartment!  This is just 3rd year volunteers that work here.  Two, a small house on your school compound.  Allyson and Josh, our married Volunteers, have this option and it certainly has its ups and downs.  Due to decreased security, this is usually not a viable option especially for women.  The third option is most common, host families!  In Samoa, families are very close knit and you often have extended family either in the same house or on the same compound.  In my training village everyone in the village was related.  70 years ago, their ancestor had started the village and given a plot to each of his sons and daughters who in turn raised their families there.  As I walk down the street in my permanent village, my host sister will often wave to people passing and note that they are her cousins.  Half my village is related some how!  And I have one of the larger villages consisting of approximately 600 people.

Family is everything here.  Things that you do affect the family honor either positively or negatively and everything is done as a family unit.  The weekly mowing has the entire 8 person household out sweeping up the grass cuttings, families sleep together in a communal open air house, and cooking each meal involves every member of the family.  On the flip side, if some offense is committed, the whole household is held responsible.  In my training village, a young man punched the pastor in the face and the next morning, him and his entire family were on their knees in front of the pastor’s house asking for forgiveness.  One of our teachers in training told the story of her uncle who had committed some crime and was subsequently banished from the village along with his family.  When he refused to move and went away to New Zealand on holiday, he returned to Samoa to find that his house had been burned down.  This is of course an extreme and unusual case, but it does illustrate the family togetherness and strength of the village.

I enjoy living with a family here in Samoa.  They are here to support me.  My father helps me with my Samoan by refusing to speak if I use English (my Samoan has improved in leaps and bounds!), my brother sits for hours in my room playing my iPod, and my sisters help me stave away homesickness.  I wouldn’t trade the situation for anything.

My cousin Jay, Me, and my brother Caleb

My sister Laititi and her baby Dadrian

My brother Caleb, host dad So'afa, and Me!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Advanced Year 6 Group

My advanced Year 6 class is my highlight of the week.  There are 7 children in it:  Petina, Sinalei, Victoria, Philip, Malele, Risati, and Jacinta.  Their English is at a level that I can have candid conversations with them about things more than “What did you eat for lunch?”.  This term, we’ve been reading “The Iron Giant”, the book that the subsequent movie was based on.  It’s only about 60 pages so an easy read over 10 weeks.  Every week the kids have been getting more and more sucked into the story till this week where we’re on the second to last chapter and when I announced that we’d be finishing up next week, they all groaned and begged to continue.  It was so genuine that I felt an instant surge of gratitude to these kids.  This was their first chapter book ever and they were eating it up.  Today we were working on questions for the chapter and one involved a Space Dragon (omitted from the movie) and somehow we got on to the topic of space and planets and galaxies.  Their minds were utterly blown.  They knew about the planets in our galaxy but wouldn’t believe me when I said most of the stars in the night sky have planets as well.  Then I went on about a news article I had read that said people were sending a space ship to Mars next year and that it’d take years to get there.  Ohhh my gosh well then the conversation really got going!  The book questions were forgotten and they went on and on about different questions about the universe including once we die and go to Heaven, if we’d be able to look down on Pluto (sure…?).  These kids are a blast to work with and I’ll miss not working with them next year as they move on to Year 7.

L to R, Back Row: Risati, Peteli, Malele, Philip
Front Row: Sinalei, Victoria, Jacinta

Friday, August 23, 2013

When Bus Rides Go Wrong

Last month, a terrible accident happened on Savaii where a bus driver attempted to cross a road that was flooded by the river.  This video is what happened.  Luckily only two people died where as it could have easily been the entire bus load.  This event is of course a rarity and investigations are on going as to if the driver was drinking at the time.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Science Fair

I was approached about a week before our district science fair about heading up the project for our school.  In Samoan schools, the school sends a team to the science fair instead of individuals competing within a school.  So the Year 8s in my school came up with a 5 person team of girls who were very involved in science and English.  The principal asked me to come up with a project idea for the girls to work on and I decided to do “Composting as an Alternative to Burning Rubbish”.  Burning rubbish is wide-spread throughout Samoa and is the most common way to get rid of trash, dead leaves, and grass cuttings.  It’s actually caused a problem with soil replenishment because all of the dead leaves and grass is burnt instead of allowed to decompose.  So I proposed to teach the girls about composting as a way to prevent health effects from burning rubbish and to replenish nutrients into the soil.  So with a week to the science fair, the girls and I set off to Apia to do research for the project and to buy resources.  The girls were thrilled to get the day off of school and to get on the computers in Apia. 

The entire week we worked on the project to help the girls understand the material, practice their presentation, and work on the poster.  By the day of the presentation, they were completely ready to go.  The science fair was held at the local Palalaua College and Primary Schools from four different districts competed, all on projects pertaining to Adapting to Climate Change.  There were some really great projects there and I was worried about how my kids would do but I shouldn’t have even worried, the kids beasted their presentation and blew the judges away.  They placed 2nd overall and that qualified them to go on to the National Science Fair in Apia next month.  Just seeing the smiles on the girls faces made this whole last week of stress worth it.  They were thrilled beyond belief.  On the whole way back to the village the kids stood up in the back of the pickup and sang, holding their trophy above their heads.  It was quite a sight to see them so happy.

The girls, proud as can be!

Our lovely compost bin!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Samoan TV

TV is TV is TV, right?  You’d think that until you turn into a Japanese game show and see a parliament member bouncing around in a chicken costume or a Bollywood romance where a couple sings there way into marriage.  TV differs greatly around the world and Samoa is no different.  There are only 3 channels on the regular TV.  TV1, TV2, and TV3 and one of them is a religious channel.  Here are but a few things that I’ve noticed from watching:

Old Reruns
A lot of different shows are sponsored on Samoan TV, shows like Modern Family, Law and Order, and other such ones.  However, the most popular are the old reruns.  Shows such as Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Cheers that have been off the air for 20, 30 (!) years (imagine, Woody Harrelson with hair).  Those are on every night and a lot of people tune into them.  It’s hysterical watching Will Smith dance around the screen like it was yesterday.  Cheers, I’d never actually seen before Samoa and I don’t find it very funny, but everyone else seems to really like it.  Another odd show on TV is called Father Ted.  It’s a comedy out of Ireland that follows the antics of a Catholic priest.  The humor is beyond me, I guess it’s all about what you grow up with.

Singing Shows
Samoans have an intense mania about singing shows of any kind.  Throughout the year, you see American Idol, X Factor, The Voice, The Voice UK, and Samoan Star Search.  Guaranteed, if you ask a kid about the show that week, they’ll be able to name the singers and what they sang AND give you an opinion on it.  Samoan Star Search is the Samoan version of the singing shows.  The song Halleighlua was sung so often on the show that it was apparently banned. 

Black and White Bon Jovi videos
Sometimes in place of commercials, the TV channels will play old music videos.  The most popular ones are old Black and White Bon Jovi videos.  I’ve never even heard of most of these songs and my host family is singing right along.

This one really blew my mind.  On one of the channels, you are able to pay money and have the obituary of your loved one read.  People usually submit pictures along with it.  The guy reading the obituary has a long, droning, monotone voice and will usually repeat the obituary several times creating a running, 5-10 minute long section per person.

Spelling Bee
This was on just last week.  The high schools from across Samoa were competing in a spelling bee that incorporated words from all school subjects in English as well as Samoan.  I heard words like vector, interval, and history.  I was really impressed by how well these kids were doing, but I was also equally impressed by how much my host family was into watching it.  They were cheering for our local secondary school the entire time.

Past Dances
The last thing that’s really popular on Samoan TV is in place of commercials, they’ll play recordings of previous dance performances.  They’ll play ones from the Teuila festival, from performances at Aggie Greys, or from school performances.  They’re usually the traditional dances and they’re really neat to watch.  It’s a great cultural injection and really shows Samoan pride.  Love it!