Friday, August 26, 2011

Special Guests

When I was in elementary school, we had occasional visitors that would disturb the entire school for part of the day. I remember one thrilling day when we all got Happy Meals for lunch – I’m pretty sure Ronald McDonald was there at some point. That was back when I still ate McDonalds. I also remember someone bringing in birds of prey, which then pooped on the gym floor. And we all got those hearing and sight tests at least a few times. Not once did the dentist ever come to my school, but they came to my school in Samoa.

I had heard about the dentists coming to schools long before they showed up at my school. Other PCVs told me that they show up and check all the kids’ teeth on day one, send them home with permission slips, then pull all their teeth on day two, and that’s pretty much how it worked.

The dentists had some pretty nifty equipment. They had two exam chairs that folded up nicely, and they even had the nice stand lamps that always manage to blind you, although on a few occasions I saw the cell phone flashlight being used instead of the lamp. Every kid came to school when the dentists came, even my students who had been absent for weeks previous. The first day was just a routine cleaning and check-up, no big deal.

The second day, all the students came with their parents and younger siblings, and they set up quite the assembly line. Parents signed permission slips for students to get teeth pulled, then the younger siblings got in line, then the parents got in line. First, they would get a shot of novocain to the cheek, which made me squirm just looking at it. Whenever I get one of those at the dentist, it always comes after they put numbing gel on my cheek so it doesn’t pinch as much (that’s a lie the dentist tells you – the shot always hurts). Then the kids would stumble outside, gagging, and grab a cup of water to rinse their mouth. Next came the waiting period to let the novocain take effect. Most kids got less than 5 minutes between the shot and when they got teeth pulled, which was the last step of the process. The dentist would push their head back against the wall, dig around with those horrible, shiny instruments, and after some squirming, cringing, and, rarely, crying, from the kids, the tooth popped out and they were handed packets of gauze in return. Most kids only had one or two teeth pulled, but some had more pulled. The day after, I had dinner with the family across the street, and the two girls had both gotten teeth pulled the day before. They used their hands to show me how big their cheeks had been after the novocain shots. I contemplated telling them about “chipmunk cheeks,” but decided that even if I could figure out how to explain it, it would get lost in translation anyway.

Dentistry could possibly be the next great spectator sport. They had the whole assembly line set up against the windows of a classroom, so everyone waiting outside had a great view of all the goings on. I sat on a chair and watched for a good hour or so, then decided that I would never go to the dentist again if I had to watch someone else go through it first. I’m amazed there was as little crying as there was. When I actually heard the squelching pop of a tooth being pulled out of its socket, I gave up. I can safely add “dentist” to the list of occupations I never plan to hold.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Traveler vs. Tourist

I took a great class in college (I took a lot of great classes) called journey motifs in women’s literature, and one focus of the class was the differences between traveling as a tourist and traveling as a traveler. The obvious conclusion of the class is that it is better to travel as a traveler. The tourist tends to travel to consume the experience of travel – look at new scenery, gawk at differences, and if they are daring, try some new experiences and food. The tourist does not necessarily have to leave their bubble of familiarity; they can look at something different while staying comfortably within themselves and what they know. They are traveling as themselves, and they can choose how much they want to participate in a different way of life or how much they just want to consume it. The traveler is also presented with this choice, and they also have the option of staying safely contained within a bubble of familiarity, but the traveler chooses more often than the tourist to step outside the realm of the known. The traveler seeks something deeper from their journeys – they seek knowledge, growth, understanding, and realization of difference rather than confirmation of self. The tourist journeys at the surface, finding only reconfirmation of the self, while the traveler journeys at deeper levels, seeking an expansion of the self.

This has taken on a different meaning for me now that I’m a PCV. I’ve lived in Samoa for 10 months now, and in many ways I feel like I belong. I’m getting comfortable in my village, familiar with the “routine,” and whenever I see palagis driving by in rented cars with the air conditioning blasting (because all the windows are up) while I’m walking down the road in my lavalava and towel to go take a shower, I think “that’s right, I belong here and you don’t.” I ride the bus, I go to church, and I know enough language to carry on easy conversations with strangers and figure out that nobody knows the information I’m looking for. I live here; I can’t be a tourist. Yet in so many ways, I still feel like a tourist, and my fellow PCVs don’t hesitate to tell me when I’m acting like one. “Tali, what’s up with the touristy pictures? You act like you’ve never been here before.” I think the mark of a tourist is that they see things with fresh eyes. Everything is new, everything is different, and everything is worth noticing because of that. I live here and I am familiar with the country and culture, but I still find myself gawking, staring, and transfixed many times each day. Maybe this is just me trying to legitimize my behavior, but I think tourists bring a unique perspective to a place because they see everything as new. Instead of hurrying past things without seeing them, head down because you’ve passed the same things a million times every day, tourists look around and take note. Tourists tend to make a spectacle of themselves because of that, but it is because everything they see is a spectacle to them. The world is a spectacular place and it doesn’t fail to deliver when you look at it that way.

However, I also find myself on the other side of the coin and I see the tourist as awkward and out of place. The resort in my village reopened about a month ago, and I have seen a spattering of tourists because of it. They take walks through the village followed by a group of kids, and they show up in church, making 20 tala donations instead of the 20 sene donation most kids put in. It feels weird; my daily life is something up for inspection and observation. This shouldn’t be new to me because my daily life is always up for inspection and observation to the kids in my village – I never fail to be a source of entertainment, even when it’s just sitting on my porch eating crackers or reading a book. But somehow it feels different that outside people, temporary people, are looking at the place I live with their consuming eyes. On one hand, I am proud of the place I live and want others to know about it and see how beautiful it is. On the other hand, I tend to have the urge to defensively ask tourists what they think they’re doing. Everything is a spectacle and it feels weird. I will constantly be a spectacle for the kids in my village, and I am doubly a spectacle to the other palagis who show up because I am both familiar and out of place, but I am also guilty of looking at the things around me as spectacles. Maybe it’s not right to see everything as a spectacle; maybe it’s better to see everything with loving eyes instead of new eyes. See everything as beautiful, unique, and wonderful because of that instead of gawking at differences. Maybe then I won’t feel so strangely self-righteous about living and belonging here when comparing myself to other palagis, and maybe then I won’t feel so scrutinized at all times from all directions.

I still think the tourist has a unique and necessary place. I think everyone must be a tourist at some point before they become a traveler. When encountering something new, it is a natural reaction to focus on differences. We have to see things with new eyes before we can make them familiar. Familiar, not similar, or identical, or homogeneous replicas. I think it is also natural for us to try to make things familiar – we tend to gravitate to what we know, and the more we consider other people and things to be familiar and likable, well, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Here's to the Heroes

As most schools are just beginning the school year in the States, I would like to dedicate this blog to all teachers and offer my encouragement and appreciation for your hard work. Whether you are still in school to be a teacher, still trying to find a job, or safely tenured at a job you love, you are all amazing.

I believe in the power of education. I don’t think anything is more crucial to development than a quality education. Education is the key unlocking all future opportunities and leading to larger changes. Start with improving the learning of each child, and this will eventually help lead to the solution, or at least improvement, of bigger issues. Ideally, any education system would address the needs of all students at all levels, helping them nurture the skills they have and cultivate those they don’t. Obviously that’s not possible, so we have to make the best of what we have and do everything we can to develop in children an undying thirst for knowledge. Education leads to personal growth, interpersonal relationships, and a dramatic increase in opportunities.

The job of a teacher is an incredibly complicated balancing act. Teachers must direct students enough to let them continue the work on their own. They must provide guidance and support, but know when to pull back to let students develop their own skills, talents, and knowledge. Sometimes, teachers are the only ones who believe in the abilities of the student, so it is of utmost importance that teachers always believe their students can do anything. In the classroom, they must be friendly but firm, have infinite patience, and unyielding determination. Teachers are educators, role models and friends. They want to instill in their students qualities like genuine curiosity about the world, self-reliance, self-confidence, communication skills, or just any hint of interest in the material covered in class. I can hardly keep one of these thoughts in my mind while I am trying to figure out how to teach students to recognize nouns.

My time in Samoa has reinforced my belief in the importance of education, but it has also shown me how incredibly difficult it is to be a teacher, especially an effective, caring teacher who is passionate about their work. Those of you who freely choose this demanding profession day after day, year after year – you are the heroes who will help lead us into a better world.

(And because I’m neurotic and don’t want anyone who isn’t a teacher to feel left out or hurt because you’re not a teacher, I also truly believe everyone makes a difference when they do what they are passionate about. You are all great! Don’t worry, I’m not just saying that because I have no intention to continue teaching once my time with PC is done. I really do believe it.)

Special thanks to some of my favorite, amazing teachers. I encourage you all to say thank you to someone who has taught you something.
Mrs. Frasier
Mrs. Barnes
Ms. Smith
Mr. Jansen
Mr. Walz
Ms. Glaser
Mr. DeVries
My 10th grade Geography and English teachers (sorry I can’t remember your names!)
Mr. J (It’s gonna be a great day!)
Mr. Smith (Thanks for giving me a try in jazz band, but I now realize I’ll never really be a jazz player)
Ms. Dietrich
Erika Ellingson
Diane DeBella
Robin (even though I got a B in your class)
Claudia Van Gerven
Elisa Facio
Joanne Belknap
Glenda Walden
Deepti Misri (even though you made me cry more than once)
Alison Hatch
Celeste Montoya
Everyone else on the WGST staff and faculty at CU
David Meens
Sabrina Sideris (to these last two, I can’t say thank you enough for your patience, guidance and understanding. INVST made me a much better person and I wouldn’t be who I am today without it.)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Samoan Food (again)

Some more observations on food you get in Samoa

Ice cream comes in two main varieties in Samoa – premium flavors and neon colors. Premium flavors are generally only found in shops in Apia, the best flavor of which is boysenberry. It also includes standards like Rocky Road, Cookies ‘n Cream, and some flavors that are not so easy to pin down, like Hokey Pokey (it is vaguely caramel-y and coffee-y). The neon colors are the one you find in shops in the villages. You occasionally have the plain old white and brown – vanilla and chocolate – but usually it comes in a color. Pink – I am not kidding when I say this is the brightest pink ice cream I have seen in my life – is supposed to be strawberry. Green is lime, orange is orange, or maybe mango, and yellow is banana. Once I found a golden yellow that turned out to be pineapple. When eating this ice cream, I always feel like a 5-year-old kid. Ice cream melts as soon as it leaves the freezer in Samoa, so it drips everywhere – down your chin and all over the cone and your hand. It can be a huge mess if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Wedding cake – I have had wedding cake on three occasions so far, and as far as I can tell, wedding cake comes in one variety. The closest thing I can think to compare it to is carrot cake, but it is much sweeter and there are no carrots. The icing is also the most sickly sweet icing I have ever had, and I can’t eat more than a bite or two with icing.

Noodles – Ramen noodles, bowl of noodles, or whatever form it comes in, are generally eaten for breakfast. Or you can crush them up and eat them dry for a snack. I hear that the latter of these is catching on in the States, or at least among school-age children.

MSG can be bought in packets at pretty much any shop.

Twisties (or any other version – there are several) are all a variation on Cheetos. However, twisties come in three main flavors. Cheese, extra cheese, and chicken. Since cheese and chicken both start with “ch,” I generally assume whatever bag I have in my hand is cheese flavored because that is what you would find in the States. Not a safe assumption. I am always a bit disappointed to discover chicken flavored twisties.

The variation of the fruit smoothie. I love these. My latest favorite is salati vi, which is shredded vi (the Samoan apple, similar in texture but a bit drier) mixed with coconut cream and peanuts. Delicious. I also love the pineapple drink, which is smushed pineapple, coconut cream (sometimes milk instead) and sugar.

Coconut cream comes in about as many varieties as bananas (believe me, there are a lot).

Cooking with lava rocks – I have seen them added to a few liquid concoctions right before sugar is added. First, drop the lava rocks, fresh from the fire, into the liquid. Let it bubble around until it is steaming and glurping like a witch’s cauldron. Then, add the sugar – it will melt instantly.

I have found some truly delicious foods in Samoa – my favorites being palusami and breadfruit. One of the sad things about it though is that I have no idea how to bring it back to the States. First of all, I don’t think taro and breadfruit even exist in the States, or if they do, I’ve never found them. Even if I could find them, I wouldn’t know what to do with them because I’ve only seen them cooked on the umu – the traditional oven made of lava rocks, coconut husks, and palm fronds. I’m not sure that would fly in the States either; too many fire bans.