Monday, March 28, 2011

Just Another Day at School

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.

Friday, March 25, 2011


One of the girls in group 82 always says “you got me again!” whenever things go according to fa’a Samoa instead of plan. For example, waiting an extra half hour for a ride to pick you up. Or walking into three government buildings before you find the office you were looking for because the people you asked didn’t actually work in the building. Things like that.

Well, I am going to have to retract my previous blog because Samoa got me again. EFKS pastors have 5 year terms, and at the end of the 5 years, they go “on sabbatical,” which, from what I hear, is an annual meeting of sorts for all the EFKS pastors in Samoa. (The meeting is every year, but it’s the 5th year that counts.) When a pastor’s term is up, his village votes on whether or not they want the pastor to return to the village while they are on sabbatical. This meeting occurs sometime in May. So check my blog again in 6 months to see what my living situation is like - it may or may not be the same.

I learned this 2 days after posting my last blog, so this blog ideally would have been posted then as well, but lack of internet prevented me from broadcasting the irony sooner.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Living situation

Now that I’ve been living at my official site for about 2-3 months, I feel like I’m finally getting settled in enough to broadcast to the world my living situation.

I live on the family compound of one of the pastors in my village. There are three churches, and he is the pastor of the EFKS church (I think this is the Christian Congregational Church). There are several benefits to this living situation, and just a few downsides. I’ll start with the benefits

  • My fale is ginormous, my room is ginormous, and my bathroom is ginormous. I probably have more space in my room and bathroom combined than some PCVs have in their entire fale.
  • My fale is set on a downhill slope, and my room is in the back corner. While this does not give me complete privacy (you can still see into my room from several angles), my windows are about 8-10 feet off the ground, so at least I don’t have children knocking on my windows.
  • I have no major security concerns. I feel no hesitation or worry when I lock the door to my room and leave for five days. I’m not worried about people breaking into my room and stealing my stuff. I’m also not worried about people taking my clothes off the line. However, I did lose a pair of socks that way. Fortunately it was just socks and not my running shorts. One of the girls in my group lost hers that way, and it sucks to try to replace them in Samoa
  • The kitchen I have access to has an oven
  • I am right on the main road, and while this is annoying sometimes at night, I don’t have to go far for the bus
  • I have a fantastic porch. I love to sit out there and read, or watch the volleyball games in my front yard, or just drink tea. I could rule the world from my porch.
  • I live in the congregational fale, so I immediately stepped into a community and continue to have access to that community on a regular basis

And the downside…I live in the multi-purpose, general use, congregational fale. Most churches in Samoa have a hall or a fale of some sort where they hold events, big meetings, or whatever else they can think of, and that is where I live. My room is my own, and my bathroom is my own, and I can lock both of them, but everything else about my fale is fair game. There are some annoyances that come with that, such as

  • I have to keep my food and dishes in my room if I don’t want everybody to have access to them, so that means I have to be extra-vigilant about storage so I don’t attract mice and bugs. I also have to make multiple trips between my room and the kitchen any time I want to cook anything
  • My fale hosts meetings on an almost daily basis, and I feel I have to lock myself in my room if I choose not to be a part of the meetings (most of which that is the case). I know I can leave my room, or leave my fale altogether to go for a run if I feel like it, but I almost feel like I’m walking out of prison saying “I get to go other places while you’re stuck here.” I’m getting over this gradually, but it will still take some more time. I’m also still unsure about the frequency of meetings. They are still fairly unpredictable, and we are only 1 month into the school year – I have the whole rest of the school year to see what other surprises may come about.
  • My host parents do more than I realized to keep little kids away from my room. I had this revelation when they left me alone one night. I was sitting on the porch reading before they started their afternoon school and there were a couple kids hanging around waiting for school to start, too. Then my parents drove by, said they were leaving, told the kids to go home, then they drove off. The kids didn’t leave. So I went and hid in my room hoping they would leave without me around as entertainment. I was wrong. They started saying my name outside my door, then knocking on the door, then shouting my name, then pounding on the door so hard I was sure it would break down. After a half hour of this, I gave up and went for a walk, and fortunately none of them followed me on my walk
  • Along with that, I generally have an audience for anything I do. I brought home some fruits and veggies from shopping one day, and I was cutting them up in the public kitchen in my fale. There were a few kids hanging around the porch, and they all came to watch me. I at least managed to get them not to all stand in the kitchen while I was in there, so they sat out on the porch and stared at me through the windows. As with everything else I do, I’m sure it will get old with time, but until it does, I need a lot more patience for cooking.

Overall, I’m pretty satisfied with my living situation. It has its ups and downs, just like everyone else, but they may not be the exact same ups and downs as everyone else. This adds a whole new meaning to the idea of “living in community,” and any time I feel too frustrated, I just think to myself “this will make a great story some day in the future.” And I covet my indoor plumbing, complete with sink and counter. That would be one of the hardest parts for me to give up.

I also live with a host family. My host parents are older and have 4 kids in their 30s, some of whom have their own kids

Host dad – Malo (which means hello, so every time I say hi to him, I also say his name) pastor at the church across the street. Smokes like a chimney

Host mom – Lisa, ex-nurse, bingo fanatic

Older host sisters – Sia aka Palesia, lives at home during school breaks and weekends, watches the kids during the week when they go to school in Apia.
Seleisa – works at the airport, may get a tattoo with me (you’re supposed to get them in pairs in Samoa)

Younger host siblings – Girls: Saolioni (14 maybe?), Losa/Rosa (10? Just had a birthday), Lisa (4, in her first year at school)
Boys: Lafi (8?) and Zelman (6?)

All the younger host siblings attend school in Apia during the week and come back to the house on the weekends. They usually stay with my host sister Seleisa, who lives just outside of Apia, or with other family in Faleapuna, which is about halfway between my village and Apia. My host parents drive to Apia every day to visit the kids, or sometimes, they visit Aufaga so they can teach their Samoan school (basically a second school day in the afternoon with bible study added in). Sometimes they spend weeknights in Aufaga, sometimes not. Sometimes the kids come with them, sometimes they don’t. Either way, that’s a ton of driving and the roads are terrible right now because of the weather.

Basically, even though I’ve lived here for almost 3 months, I still have no idea what exactly I’m going to get on a daily basis. Most of the time there is school in the afternoon, sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes the whole family comes back every night, but usually it’s just my host parents. Such is life in Peace Corps – you never know what’s next.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Bus

I can’t emphasize enough what an interesting experience the bus is in Samoa. Having gone to school in Boulder, I consider myself pretty well-versed in buses, but the buses in Samoa take it to a whole new level.

Buses rarely ever pass people without picking them up. Unless people are hanging out the door because it is so completely packed, the bus will usually stop. The way to fit this many people on the bus is to put all bags under seats, people sit on laps so instead of two to a seat you fit four to a seat (sometimes more if it’s children sharing the seat) and when all seats are full, people are finally allowed to stand in the aisle.

Furthermore, any item can be put on a bus. The amount of shopping on a bus after a Saturday in Apia is almost equal to the amount of people squeezed on the bus. A few days after moving to my site, I went in with my family to do some shopping in Apia. I bought some shelves that we couldn’t take home in the car because they took up too much room for everyone to fit in the car, so we put them on the bus. This is the magic part of items on the bus – everyone always knows what bags belong to who, so they always get passed up the aisle and out the door at the right stop. The next level of magic is the delivery aspect of the bus. I didn’t get on the bus with my shelves, we just put them there. The bus knew exactly where to stop and someone – I’m not sure who – was at my fale to pick them up when the bus dropped them off. They just appeared at my fale – it was amazing!

The bus is also the source of much music entertainment in Samoa. People are willing to spend a lot of money on good sound systems in Samoa, so the music is almost deafening, but you get used to it. I remember when I first got here, I wanted to wear earplugs on the bus. Now, I’ve sat up front on somebody’s lap so that my head was level with the speaker, and other than a little ringing in my ears afterwards, no problem. Despite all this – sitting on laps or being sat on, pounding music, and various other things poking into your personal space so that it no longer exists – most people manage to sleep on the bus. I like to read, although this isn’t always possible. I took the last bus home on a Friday the other day and there wasn’t enough room to hold my book out in front of me, so I just looked out what little part of the windows I could see. I would argue I have one of the prettiest bus rides in the world. Better than Boulder at least.