Saturday, January 22, 2011


Ask any PCV and they’ll tell you that nothing really prepares you for the Peace Corps experience. In my three (almost four) months of Peace Corps experience, I would agree that this is true. However, I have learned some lessons from various life experiences that are applicable to my time in Samoa. Mostly, they came from a leadership program I did during college called INVST, and my time as a camp counselor. This is what I’ve learned:

Lessons I’ve learned from INVST

INVST is a two-year community leadership program which combines classroom learning with community work and summer service learning experiences. The mission statement goes something like this: “We believe in the possibility of a just and sustainable world. We develop community leaders who engage in compassionate action as a lifetime commitment” (close enough?)

Host family experience
            INVST was my first host family experience, and I appreciate having that experience before coming to Samoa because then I had at least some idea of what to expect from my Samoan host family – mostly that conversation would be awkward.

Host families will take care of you in any way they can or want to
            Sometimes this includes corn-rows, bright red jackets with ridiculous shoulder pads, and an impromptu quinceanera (sp?). Having seen Joy go through this in Mexico made it easier for me to go along with it when my host family in the training village insisted on dressing me 24/7.

Heat + humidity + sweat + sunscreen = gross and sticky
            I lovingly called this “the El Paso stick” when we were there. It’s not quite as bad in Samoa since it averages about 80 degrees a day instead of the 100 we had in late July in Texas.

TIM – This Is Mexico
            Similar to Fa’a Samoa, TIM is the Mexican way of life. It generally includes a slower pace of life, unexpected plans, delayed plans, or cancelled plans, and acceptance of a lack of strict schedules and commitments.

Go to the bathroom when you have a chance
            As we were leaving a birthday party one afternoon in Mexico, I thought “I kind of have to go to the bathroom, but I can wait til we get home because it’s only about a 20 minute drive.” This was followed by a two hour detour to a lake, so we found someone who was kind enough to let me use the bathroom in their house.

How to flush a toilet by bucket
            Not that this is a particularly difficult skill to learn, but it is generally a new skill to people from the US

Your relationships with others are of utmost importance
            This goes not only for the people you are working with (co-workers, community partners, host family), but also your friends. Good relationships can get you a job connection, a donation, a shoulder to cry on, or lots of crazy stories. It is necessary to put effort into maintaining those relationships and helping them grow.

How to live without regular contact with people back home

How to wash clothes by hand
            I have also learned three new methods for washing clothes by hand in Samoa, but I think the method I learned in Mexico was the most effective. Mostly because it included a washboard to help remove dirt, but I haven’t seen one of those in Samoa yet

How to be self-reflective and self-aware
            Very helpful for figuring out where you are (not in the physical sense), how you got there, and what you can do to make it how you want it to be.

How to pack people into a vehicle
            In Mexico, we fit 26 people into a 15 passenger van, which I still consider impressive, but it’s not quite the same as fitting 80 people onto a 35 passenger bus.

There is no such thing as too many books
            100 pages, a whole book, or three books never last as long as you think they will and you inevitably run out of reading material. This has been remedied with a Kindle in Samoa. Problem solved.

Lessons I’ve learned from camp

Being a camp counselor is kind of a mix of being a the most enthusiastic mentor/teacher possible in a very unique setting, so the problems that arise are not always what you would expect, but a lot of the lessons I learned at camp apply to my time in Samoa.

How to expertly brush my teeth from a water bottle

Cheez-its, hair ties, and protein bars are worth their weight in gold
            In Samoa, I would like to add peanut butter, cheese, and toilet paper to that list. All three are accessible here, but they are still luxury items.

I tend to get addicted to the music I hear most
            At camp, this meant Lady Gaga and Ke$ha joined my regular playlists. In Samoa, it means Justin Bieber is acceptable. I give you permission to judge me, but only a little.

How to drive on non-main roads
            Whether it is a dirt road, a field, or not even a path at all, I felt pretty confident about driving my Bug around at camp. Based on my camp driving, I would say I could take on about 80% of the roads in Samoa in my little Bug. Maybe less, I haven’t seen all the roads here yet.

Gossip spreads like wildfire in small groups
            And really, when you run in such a small circle for so long, it’s almost impossible not to hear about what everyone else is doing. Fortunately, I somehow have a knack for remaining almost completely ignorant of gossip, so I doubt I know any juicy stuff about anybody.

How to handle the rain
            At camp, we do everything in the rain. Except maybe have campfires, or if it is a truly torrential downpour, evening program might happen inside. But other than that, life always happened whether or not it was raining, which was a good lesson to learn because it rains a lot in Samoa. Life doesn’t always go on here, sometimes it pauses and waits for the rain to pass, but the rain is inevitable. I’m a little sad that my trick for staying dry at camp won’t work here though. At camp, I always wore my rain jacket with shorts and Chacos, so only the bottom part of my shorts got wet and my feet dried off soon enough. I don’t have that option here, so my rain jacket is not nearly as effective. Instead, I’ve adopted the use of an umbrella. I must admit, I have a newfound appreciation for umbrellas.

I am cold-blooded
            I knew how to dress in layers throughout the day so that I always had on two or three layers on top I could remove throughout the day then put back on as it cooled off at night. I really don’t need layers in Samoa (at least not yet), but I have already put on my sweatshirt a few times because it got so chilly at night. If I already needed a sweatshirt during my first few months in Samoa, this confirms my theory that I am cold-blooded.

Wash your hands
            It really does help

Drink Water
I never really drank water on a regular basis until my first summer at camp. Now I drink it like a fish. Water also remains the cure for everything.

How to ignore minor illnesses and injuries
            This proved helpful when I was stung by a wasp the other day. Once I stopped thinking, “I’ve been stung by a wasp,” it didn’t bother me so much.

How to handle some bugs
            Emphasis on SOME. At camp, this mostly meant moths. Anything bigger was either ignored or shooed away by someone who could handle it, generally a boy. In Samoa, most insects can generally be ignored, but cockroaches will NEVER be on that list. Don’t even get me started on centipedes, this is a brand new fear in my life.

How to make the most out of half a day in town

How to live with one hour of internet a week and no cell phone (so a cell phone here is a luxury)

Insect repellant is a hoax, it never works

Bring clothes you don’t care about because they will be destroyed

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to feel pretty when everybody already sees you all the time without putting any effort into the way you look
            At camp, there’s no time. In Samoa, who cares?

Sometimes the best way to enjoy time off is by watching a movie on your computer

Chacos are the ultimate footwear
            They are suitable in any climate and on any terrain. They are also the only sandals with which it is acceptable to wear socks, but only on certain occasions.

Of course, there's always more, so maybe there will be a sequel to this post someday

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Happy Dog Syndrome

I’ve heard this phrase a couple times, and it refers to the fact that about 80% of the time (rough estimate) you don’t really know what’s happening (probably due to the language barrier), so it’s best just to smile and go with it. I think my time in Samoa can best be summarized by the phrase “I have no idea what’s going on.” For example:

            When my host dad asked me what I was doing with my host sister, all I could say was “I’m not sure. She said something about a show.” It turned out to be a siva Samoa (Samoan dance) at the beach fales down the road and was really fun.

            Trying to get any information from the Peace Corps, such as when we will have trainings so we can plan to have visitors or take trips. Peace Corps says “We don’t plan our schedule until MESC puts out the school schedule.” I still don’t know any definite dates of in-service trainings.

            Anything relating to food. Outside our time at the hotel, the only certainty about food is that it will exist at some point and you will be expected to eat it. I’m never entirely sure when food is coming, what type of food it will be, and how much of it there will be. So my response any time anybody asks me if I’m hungry is “E la iti’iti” (a little bit). It doesn’t matter if I’ve just eaten or feel starved to death, I’m always a little hungry. My host mom has started laughing at me every time I say that.

            The Christmas play at my church. I got both a solo in one of the songs and a brief speaking part in the play, but didn’t know much beyond that. I didn’t have a matching outfit, could barely follow along with the dances, and didn’t know any of the words to most of the songs, but since I was the palangi, everyone loved me anyway. Before the performance, one of my host sisters asked me how long it would be because she wanted to go out dancing afterwards. I told her, “Well, rehearsal goes like this: we sing some songs, we start the play, we sing some more songs, then we repeat some songs. I just hope someone tells me when I’m supposed to speak.”

            New Year’s Eve covered an entire weekend here. The day after New Year’s is also a holiday, but it’s celebrated on the next business day, so the holiday weekend went from Friday to Monday. I went to Savai’i to celebrate New Year’s with the other Peace Corps, and I left without knowing when or how I would get back, and whether or not I would be staying with some unknown person in between (no one could really confirm what public transportation was running or when, so I decided not to risk being stranded and having to pay a small fortune for a taxi). It turned out fine, but it was a huge step for me to leave for a trip without having the entire trip fully planned.

For those of you who know anything about me, I don’t usually do well with this type of structure – meaning almost no structure. I always like to know absolutely everything about every last thing that is happening, and all the details about what will happen in the future. I will say this about myself though; I’m pretty impressed with how I’m handling Fa’a Samoa. My flexibility comes and goes, and sometimes I get really frustrated that things generally don’t happen the way people say that will, but at least I’m starting to recognize the pattern. And really, what can you do about it? I’m finding that it’s much easier to just go with it than to be frustrated with it, but I still have a long way to go before I would even consider myself slightly flexible.