Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Daily Grind

Training reminds me so much of the dorms. For the past two and a half weeks, we have all lived on the same floor of a hotel, so we always see each other. We have class every day in the same conference room, and we always go into town in groups of people, watch movies together on laptops, and in general hang out dorm style.

There’s not too much I can say about training. It’s all pretty basic and what I expected it to be – medical matters, safety, language, and boatloads of information about teaching that is completely over my head. The days kind of blend into each other because it’s all pretty much the same.

However, we did have our welcome fiafia last week, which was quite exciting. All the current volunteers came into Apia and performed dances for us. Then we had a performance from some fire dancers, and ended with a delicious potluck and an outing into town. It’s really great to meet all the current volunteers, and so far they all seem pretty excited to meet us, although I’m sure they get asked the same questions a million times – what are the host families like? What’s your school like? What’s the food like? How do you dress to go running and what do you say to the guys who talk to you?

Another notable day this week – I went on a hike to climb the “mountain” on Upolu. I’m pretty sure it’s the highest point on the island, and I think it’s a dormant volcano (although I’ve heard mixed stories about whether the volcano is dormant or still active but never really erupts…) It took about 45 minutes to get up and maybe a half hour to go back down. On the top, you could look out one direction into beautiful green hills and look out the other direction at the ocean. That was a fun excursion.

Today we got our host village assignments – they split us up into four training villages, which I think is a new thing for PC Samoa. I will be in Lotofaga (loh-toh-FAHN-ga – the “g” is pronounced “ng”) and I get a bike because apparently my host family is a bit farther away from the training fale than most other people. I find this hilarious because I much prefer walking to riding a bike and I haven’t really ridden a bike since elementary school, except for a few occasions in college. I also have to wear a helmet whenever I ride my bike, and it’s pretty much impossible to wear a puletasi or knee-length skirt while riding a bike, so they suggest wearing shorts under a lavalava and changing when I get there. I see a lot of sweaty days and helmet hair in my future. Host families will certainly be an adventure, but according to Kierkegaard "To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose onself," so I'll just keep that in mind.

I will not be taking my computer with me to my training village, so I doubt I will have internet access for the next 7 weeks. In one week it is Halloween, in three weeks we get our site assignments, and in four weeks (maybe five, I can’t do time math) we celebrate Thanksgiving with the Charge d’Affaires, but all those stories will have to wait until we come back to the hotel for swearing-in in mid-December. I will talk to you all then!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

When the Rain Falls

I think I have yet to truly experience Samoan rain, but I can tell you right now that it is nothing like Colorado rain. The rain always sneaks up on me. The clouds hardly ever look dark enough to hold water. At most they come in shades of off-white, I don’t think I’ve even seen fully gray clouds yet. They just hang over the sky, cooling everything off. So it rarely looks as if rain is coming, but it also never really sounds as if rain is coming. Sometimes it sounds like a noisy truck is driving down the street, but never gets where it’s going because the murmur hangs around. Mostly, though, it sounds like wind in the trees. After a super windy summer at camp, the rain always sounds like wind. Only after the sound doesn’t go away for a while do I look up, stare really hard, and figure out that it’s raining. It goes through phases, too. At the beginning, it’s nothing more than the whisper of wind. Then it gradually increases until it’s a steady, driving rain. Every once in a while, it reaches such an intensity that I can’t hear the person 10 feet away from me talking. When it starts to rain that hard, it feels as if the whole world is shaking and the sky is threatening to break through the roof. The rain in Samoa also feels different from the rain in Colorado. It’s soft. When it’s hardly spitting and you can still see the sun through the clouds, it’s not much more than a mist that you don’t notice until your clothes are slightly damp. Even when it really starts to rain, it still feels softer than the pelting rains we got at camp. The rain goes through a cycle. It hardly ever rains for more than a half hour straight, and usually if it rains once during the day, then it will rain again. Samoan rain seems to intrude less on my day than Colorado rain. I think I’ve already accepted that rain will be a regular part of life here, hardly more noticeable than doing the dishes or any other daily tasks. And to think, it’s not even the rainy season yet.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Beach Corps

That is apparently the nickname for the Peace Corps in island locations, and I can see why. We went to the beach on Saturday, our first day off, and it was beautiful. Right by our hotel, there is no beach. We have a seawall, so we can see the water, but we can’t really get to it. It’s still very pretty – except for the occasional ginormous cruise ship that comes into dock on Samoa and looks completely out of place – but there’s no beach. One of the volunteers from group 81 (I’m group 83) took us to Tafatafa beach somewhere on the south side of the island. I would love to know where it is in relation to Apia, but I couldn’t tell you where we went. We took taxis across the island – up a winding hilly road and back down a winding hilly road until we saw more water. It’s the only road that cuts across the island, otherwise you have to go around. I think the beach was near where the tsunami hit last year – there were a fair amount of buildings still under construction.

Tafatafa beach is a pretty touristy beach, so we got to wear our “Western swimwear” while we were there. We stayed on the other end of the beach away from all the tourists, and I cannot emphasize how BEAUTIFUL everything is in Samoa. (I don’t know if I said this before, but Samoa is pronounced SAH-moa, emphasis on the first part). Everybody kept saying how the beach looked like a screensaver. The water was nice, but it still got a little chilly for me after a bit. To save my skin, I spent most of the time in a fale (fah-lay, a generic word for a house, but this was more of a covered platform on which to sit/nap/eat/whatever) reading “Lord of the Flies” (everyone finds that ironic) and playing various card games. I learned how to play Euchre. I also learned that a Samoan deck of cards known as a “Sweetpea deck” (probably spelled differently than it sounds) contains the numbers 11, 12, and 13 in addition to the standard 13 cards you find in a US deck. The sun is super hot and strong right near the equator. The day after the beach, I also spent some time in the hotel pool, and between the approximately 1 ½ hours I spent in the sun, the amount of freckles I have has about quadrupled. I even have some freckles on my stomach. It’s ridiculous.

We had water safety training yesterday, which was another instance of the Beach Corps. We spent about 45 minutes in a little shelter talking about the dangers of the water – rip tides, barracudas, coral cuts, etc. (sharks are surprisingly low on the list) – and then we went out on their little boat which did not at all look like it could hold all 20 of us. We went out to the middle of nowhere and went snorkeling. It was the first time I went snorkeling, and I’m sure it showed. When I first got off the boat, I felt certain that my mask was going to leak and there was no way I could breathe through that little tube, so I flailed around for a while before I got the hang of it. It was amazing! We saw an octopus, bright purple starfish, and a bunch of other fish that normally only exist in the zoo. I will definitely have to do that again. I put sunscreen on probably 8 times and managed not to get any major burns. I have to say, I am thoroughly enjoying all the water. I really hope I end up near a beach. They still haven’t told us where our specific sites are, I think we learn that in about 3 weeks.

What is Culture?

This was the overarching question of our “Intro to cross-cultural experience” session today. The quotes they gave us were:

“Culture is a shared set of assumptions, values, and beliefs of a group of people by which they organize their common life” –Gary Wederspahn

“Culture is an integrated system of learned behavior patterns that are characteristics of the members of any given society. Culture refers to the total way of life for a particular group of people. It includes [what] a group of people thinks, says, does and makes; its customs, language, material artifacts, and shared systems of attitudes and feelings” –Robert Kohls

I thought this was a particularly interesting question and I found myself thinking back to when INVST had its discussion of culture in Mexico. We decided that it was important to be informed of our own culture because our own culture is akin to “the water we swim in” – we don’t know it’s there because it’s always been there. It is important to take a step back and examine your own culture because then you understand how it informs your choices, behavior, attitude, and overall perspective.

Personally, I feel that culture could be defined as an identity based loosely on behaviors, beliefs, and traditions that unites a group of people. There is a lot of wiggle room in that, but as always, I have a hard time pinning things down to something specific.

And as always, I found myself at a loss as to specify what American culture is. On one hand, I have my own values, beliefs, and traditions (both personal and family), and on the other hand I have the stereotype of a materialistic, pop-culture-centered superficial person from which I always distinguish myself (and which actually only describes a very small amount of people I know). I have all these ideas of what it means to be an American, “but I’m not like that.” However, I also make a distinction between “American,” which tends to incorporate all the aspects of our society that I dislike, and “US,” which is the more positive side of things. So if anyone wants to try to answer the question of “What is American culture?” then be my guest.

As the discussion went on, I found myself strongly disagreeing with what some of the other people were saying. I would counter their points in my head, and then thought, “Well, they can believe whatever they want to believe, but I’m going to believe what I believe because that’s what feels right to me.” And then I thought about that. Hello ego, you need to leave. Rather than truly considering their perspective, I just disregarded it, which also disregards the entire purpose of a cross-cultural experience. I am going to need to genuinely attempt to understand and participate in Samoan culture instead of superficially brushing it off as “different” and “their way of doing things.” One of my main goals in doing the Peace Corps is to learn enough about another culture to be able to integrate into that lifestyle. I always have that goal in the front of my mind, but it’s sneaky how that disregard shows up in other ways. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that.

On a different note about culture, they have begun to introduce to Samoan culture by giving us all lavalavas (a wrap-around skirt that works a lot like a towel. It’s just a large piece of cloth, but I really like it) and Samoan names. My Samoan name is Tali. They also say that Samoans generally shower at least once a day because of the humidity. That will be a big change from camp, where two showers a week is normal. But I don’t have to wash my hair everyday, and as long as I keep them short, hopefully I will get used to it.
My lavalava

In The Classroom

A brief note about the flight. A 10-hour overnight flight with two sleeping pills on a luxury liner. Not that there was more room on the flight, but each seat had its own personal screen from which we could choose to watch one of 33 movies, one of 77 TV shows, countless music videos, or we could play games or listen to plain old music. I watched “The Blind Side” and, of course, “Big Bang Theory.” And we got two meals. However, even two sleeping pills cannot put me to sleep on a plane (I think I managed 4 hours off and on), so I have resigned myself to be forever doomed on long flights with drastic time changes. We landed just as the sun was rising. I was hoping for some sort of delay in the flight because I wanted to see an overhead view of a tiny island with a beautiful coastline, but no. We landed almost in the dark. I could hardly differentiate island from ocean.

Our hotel, which happens to be in the same building as the Peace Corps office, was about an hour drive away from the airport, all along the coast. We had about an hour to unpack then jumped right into things. They welcomed us with an Ava ceremony. They kept it short, but it was still an hour of Samoan that I couldn’t understand and a funny tasting drink. Occasionally there was laughter, and once someone said something about Barack Obama, so I really wonder what was said. This was in the same room where we have class. We have a fairly nice view out of the classroom. Actually, I haven’t found a bad view on the island yet. We had one brief language class – we start intense language in about a week – and my particularly section meets outside next to the pool, surrounded by palm trees. Again, not a bad view.

I’m trying very hard to get used to not questioning what type of meat is in every dish, and trying everything regardless. I had one bite of pig that still looked like pig when it was served, and I managed almost an entire serving of fish before it started to taste fishy. I think I’m doing pretty well with that. The fruit is delicious and fresh. The hotel serves a continental breakfast every day of papaya, bananas (which are a lot smaller and sweeter than the ones in the US), coconut and plain toast. The one thing that is very hard to get used to is the timing of the meals – as always. Breakfast is at about 7:30, lunch is at noon, and dinner is usually between 7-8. That’s a killer – I always feel like I’m going to pass out by about 4:30, right when our daily training sessions end.

Everything is still in the intro phase. Intro to Peace Corps, intro to training, intro to volunteer expectations, intro to medical issues, only to be closely followed by intro to diarrhea. A full hour and a half on diarrhea – I think I know more than I ever thought I could possibly know about diarrhea. But it was first because they guarantee it will be the first medical issue to hit us – oh boy!

Right now I am still getting used to the novelty of being on an island. Prices are so much higher than I expected, but I keep forgetting that everything is imported. A bag of Doritos – I’m guessing about ¾ the size of one in the US – costs $15 tala (they use the dollar sign here). A jar of peanut butter runs about $12-15, and small bags of things easy to snack on cost anywhere between $2-5. Shampoo costs about $6-9 (a full size Pantene costs $20!), depending on the quality, and I bought a 250ml bottle of Nivea lotion for $12 (I only use lotion once a day thanks to the humidity). So if you would be at all interested in sending me anything from the US, toiletries are greatly appreciated – especially body wash. They only have bar soap here. Snackable foods are also greatly appreciated. I’m sure my budget will be livable when I get all settled in, but since we had to spend half of our first week’s “allowance” on a cell phone as soon as we got it, everyone (myself included) has had to exchange money in order to have enough to buy meals for the first week.

But other than that, the humidity hasn’t been as stifling as I expected. It’s always breezy and I generally end up with a slightly sticky feeling instead of a full body sweat at the end of the day. That will most likely change when we leave the hotel and don’t have air conditioning in our bedrooms and 8 fans in our classroom. As for now, everything is beautiful. Almost everyone in my group of 20, save maybe 3 or 4, was told they would end up somewhere other than the South Pacific. Some people wanted to go to Eastern Europe, almost half were told they would go to Latin America, and others had their hearts set on Africa, so the South Pacific was not the first choice for most people here, but now that we are here, everyone agrees it’s pretty great. I think the reason the South Pacific is the most requested location for the Peace Corps, yet all of us ended up here at the last minute, is because people who want to go to the South Pacific probably have other motives and aren’t quite cut out for the Peace Corps. That’s my theory. Either that, or they save all the tropical paradise locations for the last groups to so that if something goes wrong with their first assignment, the last-minute back-up assignment isn’t too bad.

While I’m thinking about it, to everyone who wants letters – I promise you will get letters, but they will just be coming slowly. It costs $2.70 to send a letter, so I’ll have to save up and buy some envelopes and stamps, and then figure out when to get to the post office between 8:30-12 and 1-3:30 M-F, since I have training all those times. But that is the only time the post office is open, and also the only way to send letters. And it also takes about 2-3 weeks for mail between the US and Samoa.

Sunrise from the plane
View from the classroom
This print is all over fabric here - was this the print they had on Survivor Samoa?
The classroom

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Between Goodbye and Gone

 This whole process of staging is very interesting to me. While it makes sense to me that there is a day of orientation before leaving for 27 months in a brand new country and culture, it feels like a strange limbo. I’ve said my goodbyes, but I’m not yet gone. This also contributed to some difficulties in packing.

I tried to pack strategically, planning out my outfits for the next two days and making sure they would be readily accessible if they ended up in my checked bags (which they did) and also trying to leave my toothbrush and other such items were also accessible. In theory, this was a simple idea. In reality, it was not. The packing process took almost three hours, thanks to my packing help (my family). Without them, it would have taken probably twice that. I was almost done with packing about half way in, when I looked around and decided that everything left would not fit in my carry-on bag, and that I simply had too much stuff. I didn’t think I had that much stuff, nor did I want to try to carry all that stuff on my own. So everything came back out of whatever bag it had been in, and it was pared down. Some clothes were left behind, some items were put aside to be brought or shipped later, and everything else fit inside two checked bags, a carry-on, and a personal item. Four bags is still a lot, but it didn’t feel as excessive to me so I went with it. One difficulty of having help packing is that I don’t remember where everything is, and I forgot how many things I actually use over the course of one day. I had to go back to my bag multiple times to look for face wash, pajamas, a hairbrush, toothpaste…you name it.

The airport was of course a teary goodbye, but the flight went by fast enough. The weather in LA was not at all what I expected – instead of sun and heat, I got clouds and a slow drizzle. It is pretty chilly. After getting settled in my room (I have a sleep number bed, super fun to play with!), I went to check-in with the Peace Corps. Found out I get $120 for my time in LA – 4 meals and apparently anything else I want that fits within that budget, which won’t be hard, I’m pretty sure. A couple of us went to dinner at Subway (no, I really have no desire whatsoever to go to In’N’Out burger). So many new names are very difficult to remember and I’ve already introduced myself to the same person twice (unfortunately, they remembered me from the first time).

So I’ll hang out here in a hotel for a few more hours before I’m fully gone. It's the paradox of leaving - I’m sad to leave, but I’m so excited to go!