Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Little Pieces of Peace of Mind

One of the great things about the weather in Samoa is that is always feels like the end of summer. Maybe school has started already, or maybe it’s just about to, but it’s still warm enough to play outside until the sun is just beginning to set and everyone has to go home for dinner. The weather should start turning chilly soon…but it won’t because it’s Samoa. But it has that great feeling that you get at the end of summer that I’m having a hard time capturing in words – it’s calm, relaxed, and everything is just about perfect. There are a few instances that stand out in my mind that seem like perfect little pieces of peace of mind that comes with this type of weather.

While visiting Manono, it was freakin’ hot because the sun was out all day. Late afternoon rolls around, and most people in our group took a walking tour of the island (you can walk around the whole island in about an hour and a half). I didn’t feel like getting that sweaty, so I opted for a porch party instead. Probably not the type of porch party you would think of, though. The fales we were staying in were just barely big enough for three single beds (which is really all you need), and they had great little porches with plastic chairs on them. I was sharing a porch with two other girls, and it was more of a reading party than a porch party. The sun was still really hot, but I was in the shade and could feel it just barely beginning to cool down. The light was coming through the porch at that perfect angle that shows the day is getting on, but not in any particular hurry. The crickets were chirping, the mosquitoes were buzzing (of course), and occasionally the birds would add their own little tune. I was sitting at the perfect angle so I could see the end of the dock in the sea. The tiny little boat we came on was barely bobbing in the soft waves, and there was a traditional Samoan canoe next to it doing the same thing. It would be a picture worthy of a postcard if I could have gotten the angle right – seeing the boats in the water framed by the edge of the porch. Everything about the moment was perfect.

Beach fales at Manono

Guess which boat took 26 of us and all our backpacks to Manoano?

Another one of my favorite hang out spots is this cute little road-side fale in my village. They are little more than raised platforms with a roof – actually, that’s exactly what they are – but they’re perfect for sitting in. We have a few such fales, but the one I prefer is set just on the downward slope of a hill at one end of my village. As you sit in the fale looking out at the ocean (why would you look at the road when you can look at the ocean?), the trees and bushes are just starting to clear out on the left, and the fales on the right are far enough away that you have a basically unobstructed ocean view. Since my village is set on cliffs, this means you look straight out onto the ocean until the world ends, but it really doesn’t end because there is nothing to stop the water – it’s endless water. When the sky is spotted with cotton-candy clouds, it makes the perfect match to the blue water so you have an infinite sky, with clouds placed accidentally on purpose, that meets the endless ocean. Sometimes when the clouds aren’t just right, the sky looks like harsh wallpaper put up against the ocean. It doesn’t mean to clash, but because of that, it makes it so much more obvious that it shouldn’t be there, especially not looking like that. This usually only happens when the sky is a solid sheet of gray. This fale is my favorite thinking spot, and it does wonders to clear the mind.

Another benefit of living in Samoa is the night sky. It’s not as unobstructed as I thought it would be – there are a surprising number of streetlamps – but it’s still better than any view you could find in the middle of a town in the States. Hundreds of stars, although I can’t recognize many constellations yet. I can find Orion, but I’m pretty sure he’s upside down (from the northern hemisphere, I’m pretty sure Orion’s head is above his feet when you’re facing north, not vice versa). Again, the beauty of the sky is only increased by the ocean, especially when the moon is out. The moonlight bounces off the water, creating bright spots on the waves in the otherwise pitch-black water. Compared to the water, the sky is positively bright, and you still get that sense of infinity when you try to take in both the sky and the ocean. I recently stayed at Lusia’s for the first time, the favorite PC hang out spot in Savai’i, and my favorite part about the night was sitting on the end of the dock, feet dangling over perfect blue-green water that darkened slowly as the sun went down, watching the stars come to life. It is unbelievably peaceful, giving you that sense of calm, accepting, insignificance within the world.

Samoa has some of the most spectacular natural beauty I have ever seen. Everywhere I look, I feel like it fits perfectly on a postcard. My words and pictures don’t do it justice; I wish you could all see it for yourself. I consider myself lucky that I have lived here for almost 8 months and I am still, almost continuously, struck by the magnificence of everything around me. Sometimes it wears off, but it has always come back and it makes me so happy to be so appreciative of the scenery around me.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Life Without Water

This is the way the water works at my fale. Either I have water in my fale, or there is water out back at the public tap and bathroom. It’s mutually exclusive, so if the tap is dripping even slightly, I have no shower, no sink, and no toilet.

For those of you who may not have heard, I have no water. I have been in this situation for 11 weeks now. The first 4 weeks were fine because only my shower was out, but I still had a toilet and a sink that were working. Actually it was the first 3 weeks. Then I went and found the plumber to see if he could do anything to fix my shower, and he did. He gave the pipes a good shake and it worked like magic…for 6 days. Since then, the water has been off completely – well, mostly. This is what I’ve learned about how to live without water.

  • Everything gets super dirty, even more so than usual
  • The meals I “cook” for myself have deteriorated to things I can eat straight out of the packaging, or only require one utensil. This means that I eat either PBJ on bread or crackers, or tuna and cheese on bread or crackers. For breakfast, I eat a Weetbix (the healthiest cereal you can find – it is like a flaky granola bar and you add milk, but I prefer to take a bite then take a sip of milk so it’s not as soggy) with milk right out of the carton. I’m a little ashamed of my eating habits because I feel like such a hick sitting on my porch and drinking milk straight from the carton.
  • I flush my toilet once a day by bucket
  • Occasional bucket showers (a bucket shower works this way – you have a large bucket of water and a smaller bowl which you use to pour water on yourself. An average bucket shower takes maybe 1/3 to ½ of a bucket), but I prefer to walk a little more than half a mile over the valley and down the road to shower at one of the few fales that still has water (the number of fales with water keeps dwindling…not a good sign).
  • Laundry is not exactly a big deal, but it’s more of a chore than it’s ever been before. I walk about a mile to the waterfall just outside my village to do laundry (and to think, I thought 5 flights of stairs used to be a pain in the butt in my old apartment building!). It gets heavy to carry wet laundry back so far, so I’ve taken to carrying my laundry in bags instead of a laundry basket. I can’t justify doing laundry at one of the fales with water. So many people need to shower and fill buckets that it just seems an awful waste to take up such a precious resource by washing clothes.
  • I have yet to really carry water across the village by myself. Sometimes I borrow a bucket from my host family (they have a car and can drive to fill up their buckets and don’t have to carry them back). Once a couple of my students carried my bucket for me, and once I asked someone to help me. I tried putting my bucket on the end of a stick and carrying it that way, but I need more practice with that because it’s really hard to balance and people were laughing. If I’m lucky, it will rain just enough to fill up a bucket. If I’m really lucky, the water comes back on for a few hours and I can flush my toilet, then fill up my bucket.

This experience has taught me that I can adapt to anything. I don’t quite have a schedule down for getting water, but I’m getting there. The most frustrating aspect of it is the unpredictability of the water. I have asked around, and this is the first time my village has gone without water for so long. Maybe it will go out for a day or two, but the pipes in the past were more reliable. Supposedly, they (“they”) put in new pipes at the beginning of the year that are bigger, so there is not enough water pressure to get water to all the fales. Sometimes I am convinced that someone is controlling the water because when the water does come on for precious little time seems to be arbitrary. You would think it would follow a heavy rainstorm, but sometimes it comes on after three days of no rain. It’s cruel that way. I get used to living one way, then I get just enough luxury (the precious few moments of running water) to warrant a temper tantrum the next time the water doesn’t come on. I can get used to it, but those moments of luxury sure ruin a life of simplicity and long walks.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Public Discourse

One of my favorite “extra curricular” activities in PC is the book club our Administrative Officer hosts once a month (sometimes we stay with other PCVs, but usually it is at her house). It’s an overnight deal, so we all pick a book, read, and discuss over dinner, then enjoy breakfast together the next day. The last book we read was “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” and accurately subtitled “a memoir in books.” It is the story of a female professor leading a secret book club that reads Western literature during the Islamic revolution in Iran. The theme of the book was public discourse – telling stories. I don’t have a copy of it with me, so I can’t accurately quote the book, but there are several instances when she says that only by sharing our personal stories and experiences with others do they really seem to come true.

I’ve been pondering this idea a lot and how it relates to PC service, and I’ve decided public discourse plays a role in two different manners. First, public discourse plays a very important role within the PCV community. Second, there is the public discourse from the individual PCV to broader audiences, which can include the host village, other PCVs, and the international community (although this is generally the home-based US audience).

(Just a note for this paragraph - I know I don't speak for everybody here, but having shared discourse with others, I know I'm not the only one who thinks this way.)The reason I find myself thinking so much about public discourse within the PCV group setting is because we just finished our early service conference. After not seeing the entire group together since December (5 months), it was almost weird to see everybody in the same room. There have been several gatherings between December and now, but there is always someone missing. I am usually one of the quieter people in group settings and tend to sit back and observe interactions. Within the PCV community, I think there is an underlying competition to see who has the “most Peace Corps experience,” the best teaching experience, the simplest lifestyle, etc. I don’t think it is genuine competition on the part of PCVs, but our experiences are all so different that we need to tell people what makes us special, which can result in unintentional competition. You can also tell what aspects of PC service people focus on and want to perpetuate by the stories they share. I hesitate to make that statement though, since it goes either way for me. Sometimes I share things because I want everyone to know about it, or sometimes I share things in the hope that making it public will relieve me of the thought. Most of my stories focus on my lack of water, many people talk about the adorable pain-in-the-neck things their students do, and some people can’t stop complaining about their living situation. The things you talk about are the things you want other people to know, and by sharing them, you continue their existence. This is difficult because there is also an unstated understanding that all of us (or at least 18 out of 20 of us according to our personal and professional rollercoasters) are having a difficult time right now and that focusing too much on stories of extremes (best/worst moment) makes us all feel inadequate, unqualified, and sometimes downright hopeless. Personal stories can and must be shared with each other, but only within an acceptable range of experiences. (On a side note, I’ve starting noticing the layers of communication a lot more since coming to Samoa because it is so much a part of the culture here. I think this is true of the US too, but the layers of surface conversation, sub-context, and unstated agreements and the “hidden” truth seem more regular yet more discernible in Samoa. Or maybe it’s just because I’ve been paying more attention.) Sometimes you get into the question of those who overshare personal experiences, who seek to confirm their existence by talking about every last detail of their life. The problem with oversharing is that it tends to fall on deaf ears, which creates a sort of endless cycle because sharing comes from a desire to be noticed, and sometimes the more you share, the less notice people take. All public discourse seeks an audience, so what happens to public discourse that goes unrecognized?

Discourse from the individual to a wider audience is a personal topic, so I can only speak for myself. I have noticed that since coming to Samoa, I have felt an almost urgent need to keep in touch with people. I never made much effort at communicating with others when I was in the US. I sent e-mails all the time for my job and various other activities, but my cell phone was only used as needed (generally to make and confirm plans), and I seldom wrote letters. In Samoa, I use my cell phone to have conversations with other people, which is a novel concept for me. I text the other people in my group to see what they are up to (because it’s cheaper than calling), and I make 37 minute phone calls to my sister or parents every other week to keep in touch. I don’t write letters constantly, but my overall output is significantly higher than it ever was in the States. E-mails aren’t as consistent, but I do my best to keep people updated. Facebook is still the same as ever – I hardly use it, but like to post pictures, and now I use it to keep people updated when I post a new blog. Keeping a blog is also new for me. It feels much more vital to initiate communication and keep in touch now that I don’t have easy access to people. My life and experiences are no longer easily accessible to those around me, and it feels much more difficult to convey my experiences to those who are not here. Words and pictures are good for capturing some of my experience, but sometimes they are frustratingly inadequate. I even find it difficult to convey my situation to other PC people occasionally. In both good and bad ways, some things are just absolutely beyond description.

One of the things that was emphasized in the INVST community leadership program I did in college was talking about your experiences. It’s the same as the concept of raising awareness to help solve an issue. People don’t always know what’s going on unless you tell them, so it’s important to tell others about the things you are interested in and care about. I understand that I have a fairly limited impact – I have a small but loyal blog following of some family and friends, but they are also the people I write letters to and talk to on the phone. I’m not looking to change the world through my blog – not only do I not have the resources to do so while in Samoa, but that is also not my main goal in doing PC. But I feel like I am living a fairly interesting life, and I want people to know that I am still accessible while so far away. I have said it before and I will say it again, probably until it becomes my mantra – humans are social creatures and we need other people. We need to be around other people and we need to have meaningful relationships with other people. More relationships creates more complications, but that’s just part of the human condition. Public discourse is therefore a necessary aspect of life and sharing stories does in a way help them come true.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


Easter is a pretty big deal in Samoa, so I'm just going to collectively post all my Easter pictures from school and church. Each grade had a little performance on Thursday (no school on Good Friday), then there was an easter egg hunt during Sunday school. And finally, in the afternoon we all packed onto a bus to go perform along with 11 other churches. Sorry there are no pictures/video of the performance - I know you all want to watch me trying to sing in Samoan while doing action songs.
I had nothing to do with this, I don't expect my camp play to come out quite so well, but you'll get video of that too once it's done!