I really like to have schedules, order, and certainty in my life, but none of that really exists – or at least not to the degree I’d like it to – in Peace Corps Samoa. I’ve been teaching year 7 for about 5 or 6 weeks now, and I haven’t had a single week that hasn’t been interrupted by something or other – going to the doctor, going to the doctor again, district-wide teacher meetings (or doing taxes in lieu of meetings, then giving up and asking your parents to finish them). It makes it very hard for me to try to establish a regular schedule with my students. Right now the thing I’m trying to establish is that spelling pre-tests are on Monday with the final test on Friday. Last week, I was certain I would make it through a whole week when I was preparing for my lesson on Friday, but of course that didn’t happen.
On Thursday afternoon, my principal told me that the year 8 students were going to make an umu on Friday. An umu is the traditional Samoan “oven” – how they cook traditional Samoan food. Well, I got to school on Friday and found out that it meant both year 7 and year 8 were making an umu. I did manage to sneak in a final spelling test before they started, but scrapped the rest of my lesson. I probably had too many things in there anyway.
Usually, the umu only happens on Sunday morning, starting at about 5 in the morning. It is to make the special Sunday brunch, called to’ana’i. I generally only watch while other people make the umu (it is usually the men who do the work), and I kind of prefer that role from my few experiences with helping with the umu. The umu is made out of really hot rocks. So you pile lava rocks together at the bottom, then put coconut husks and sticks on top and start a fire to make it super hot. Then once the flames are purple (yes, I’ve seen purple flames), you know it’s hot enough to cook your food. It also feels hot enough to melt your skin off from a foot away.
We didn’t make a full umu at school – pig, taro, ulu, the whole nine yards. They only made piasuo, but they still needed to make the fire to make the piasuo. I’m not really sure what piasuo is, but the finished product was something like a creamy jelly. The main ingredients are sugar, coconut cream, water, and cornstarch. It took almost an hour to make. Basically, someone is stirring the entire time while the other ingredients are added in slowly. The sugar and coconut cream are added last, and while they add sugar and coconut cream, they also add lava rocks from the bottom of the umu to help cook the piasuo. It’s really strange to see a bowl of white stuff boiling from the inside. So they add about four or five rocks, stir a little bit, push some of the rocks out and put more in that are still hot. Meanwhile, the whole mixture is boiling and smoking like a witches’ cauldron, and it slowly turns from white to brown. I’m guessing this is because the sugar they added was brown sugar. Some of it was just straight sugar, but some of it had been liquefied on top of the fire. Unfortunately, I can’t give you an accurate description of taste (there really wasn’t much of a taste) or texture (gooey?), but not too bad. I vividly remember thinking “it doesn’t seem too sanitary to put rocks into something we’re going to eat…” but it didn’t seem to impact the overall concoction.
I had other, more pressing concerns on my mind, like saftey. For example, the fact that there were about 40 kids from ages 10-13 working on this umu. This oven made of rocks with purple flames. Then to carry the rocks from the umu to the bowl of piasuo, it was kids using sticks to hold the rocks. They use a certain type of wood, then slit the stick in half from one end to about halfway up, so they work kind of like tongs. Overall, yes, they were effective, but it still made my heart jump to see kids carrying these rocks. At camp, I would not let kids near the fire. It made my heart jump even more to see kids carrying a frying pan half-full of liquid sugar. It takes a significant amount of heat to melt sugar, and melted sugar is also very hot. The frying pan only had a metal handle, no grip, so the kids held it with a bunch of leaves. I kept picturing horrible scenes of third degree burns, but thank goodness it never came to that.
Not my average day at school, but not exactly un-average either.