Saturday, December 24, 2011

Wow, Sydney is a Big City!

I’m writing this on Christmas Eve, when I’ve been in Sydney for approximately 8 hours. It won’t get posted until later, so read this with the mindset of Christmas Eve – in the heart of summer because you’re in the southern hemisphere.

One of the common side-effects of being a PCV is experiencing reverse culture shock when you re-enter some first world nation. The first thing I noticed that seemed out of place was the vending machine in the airport. What? Snack size portions from a machine? Then, I saw a woman walking across the airport eating a peach, and I thought “How wrong!” In Samoa, ¬ua sa le ai ma savali – you can’t eat and walk; it’s rude. I still break this rule within the privacy of my room because I like to multi-task as much as possible (I don’t get many opportunities to do that in Samoa), but I never realized how accustomed I had become to that rule until I saw someone breaking it. Then I remembered – I’m not in Samoa. The other thing that helped me remember I wasn’t in Samoa was the sight of multiple copies of the same, brand new book for sale in a store. Multiple copies of multiple books, actually. You can find used books at the secondhand stores (I actually just bought some really good ones for my students the other day), but I can’t find a store dedicated solely to books. However, nothing in Samoa has only a single purpose, so I’ll never find a bookstore in Samoa just like I’ll never find a toy store in Samoa – they’re always combined with something else.

I caught a shuttle bus to my hostel, so driving through the city was another shocking experience. Sometimes I would think “Sydney looks just like any other big city I’ve ever been in,” but then I would see a sign saying something about Sydney or Australia, and I would think “I’m in Australia!” I was fully expecting to be shocked by how fast the car was driving (I’ve had that experience riding with palagi drivers in Samoa – they usually drive faster than Samoan drivers, and it always feels way too fast because I’m used to the speed of the bus), but it didn’t seem at all out of place or reckless. However, I was shocked by the stores along the road. That entire building is dedicated to office supplies? There is a store where they sell only tile? How many different things can you find in the Homemaker’s Center, which is made up of at least 6 different stores?

My hostel wasn’t super shocking, but the first thing I did when I got to my room was take a shower. After spending summers at camp where I sometimes only got one shower a week, I was amazed to find that I felt a shower was so necessary after 36 hours (or whatever it had been since my last one. I don’t do time math). Samoa has changed me, for sure. I felt mildly scandalized by girls in dresses that only came to mid-thigh instead of to the knee. I think I was rightly scandalized when I saw a girl whose shorts could have easily been mistaken for underwear though. The only reason I know they were shorts were because they had pockets – although that might not be a qualifying factor anymore. I’ve never been able to keep up with pop culture. Which also came up on the bus, funny story. I was talking to some people from Canada and New Zealand and I told them I was in Peace Corps, and they asked me what I knew about the outside world. I said I knew Leonardo DiCaprio is still making movies, but other than that, I couldn’t tell you anything about what movies are out and who’s all over the news and who’s been left behind.

I went walking around with the sole purpose of finding a little shop to get some groceries, but I ended up walking around for 3 or 4 hours. There was always another interesting store next to the one I had just gone into, and there were so many things to look at! Forgetting that it’s Christmas tomorrow, I was always confused when people asked if I was looking for Christmas presents. I did finish 75% of my souvenir shopping today – I didn’t realize that every single store in Australia would have a souvenir section.

Australia has confirmed what I’ve already learned in Samoa – air conditioning is my new worst enemy. Even though I still spend the better part of my days sweating to death while I’m sitting still, I’m fairly accustomed to the heat of Samoa. The weather is pretty similar right now in Australia, so anything colder than that demands layers, blankets, and a heater. Not air conditioning.

Another reverse culture shock moment – there’s a TV here (yes, there’s TV in Samoa, but I don’t have one, despite everybody telling me I need one, so I never watch it) and as it came back from a commercial and it said something like “And now back to (insert movie here) on TV 7,” and I couldn’t make sense of that one because Samoa only has 3 stations – TV1, TV2, and TV3 – there’s no TV7.

Needless to say, I’m super excited to spend the next two weeks here discovering all other kinds of nifty things about a first world country – I’ve already done so much with half a day! Before I left, my country director asked me what three things I’m most looking forward to, and I said “Seeing a show at the Sydney Opera House, spending an entire day in a huge grocery store, and another day in a huge bookstore.” The libraries were on my list, but after checking their hours today, they won’t be open while I’m around because of Christmas, so a bookstore will have to substitute. Can’t wait!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Island Tour

To celebrate the end of the first school year, I rented a car with two other PCVs and a woman on staff and we toured Upolu for the weekend. Rather, we toured the south side of Upolu. Nancy, the PCV who planned the trip, lives in Savai’i, so she wanted to see more of Upolu since she is hardly ever over here. We started out on Saturday afternoon and drove back through all our training villages on the southwest side of Upolu. Quick stops to visit some familiar sights from the villages, then we went and stayed at Chelsea’s fale for the night. Delicious dinner of some lentil and vegetable soup, grilled cheese, and red wine.

On Sunday, we went to explore part of the national forest by Chelsea. There are supposedly some good little waterfalls just past the entrance, but when we got there at 10:30 in the morning, the river was stagnant and places were bone dry. So we piled back into the car to head to my side of Upolu, the southeast side. We stopped at the sea trench two villages away from me and spent a couple hours there. Back in March or so, I walked to the sea trench, but everything was under construction, so I was a little underwhelmed with what I saw. Now that most of the construction is finished, it’s much better. Either way, the trench is absolutely beautiful. There is intentional landscaping, beautiful scenery, small blowholes, and you can actually go down to the trench or the beach (both of which were unreachable in March). Chelsea and I went swimming in the trench for a bit, swam to the “trench cave,” and came back up. Then it started to rain, so we spent the next hour or so sitting in one of the fales eating a PB&J picnic and watching the waves crash against the rocks and cliffs.

We made a brief detour at my village so I could repack my bag and introduce everyone to my families in my village. The original plan was to spend Sunday night at my fale, but that didn’t work out. I was super excited to have another PCV stay at my fale so somebody might actually understand what my living situation is like, but I’m not too optimistic about that actually happening. I waited until the day before I left for our island tour to ask my neighbors if I could borrow a mattress so all 4 of us would have a place to sleep in my room, trying not to get my hopes up that someone would actually spend the night at my fale, but it didn’t happen anyway. I was super happy to introduce them (Nancy, Chelsea and Denise) to my village though. And it wouldn’t have been great to stay at my fale. I hadn’t had a chance to buy groceries in a while, so I only have the making for PB&J or tuna sandwiches, and Cheerios for breakfast in the morning. And I only have 3 spoons. And while I do have water, the Sunday school and youth group have started practicing twice a day for Christmas, so we would have had a lot to deal with.

We ended up staying at the beach fales on the very southeast tip of Upolu, which are absolutely beautiful. I think the owners are building a resort up on the mountain, but they are still under construction, so for the time being, the Mountain Villas cost the same as the beach fales. The Mountain Villas have a magnificent view! It was very quiet up there, and there were 3 other PCVs staying up there and us, so it was beautiful. The food was delicious, and even though it rained the rest of the day and we couldn’t really enjoy the ocean, the scenery really made up for it.

On Monday we headed back into town. We drove through all the beautiful places of my bus ride (which I really contend is the most beautiful bus ride of any PCV in Samoa now that the 82s are gone. There was one 82 who lived over a different mountain that honestly had a more beautiful ride than I do, but he’s gone now, so I’m the clear winner). We stopped to take pictures at the scenic/science site, and again at the construction graveyard, and then made our way along the coast back into town. We finally convinced Nancy that Upolu is beautiful in its own way – yes, she has a gorgeous beach, but I have wonderful scenery and fake mountains. It was an excellent weekend and a great way to celebrate the end of the school year.

Best Week Ever

The last week of term 3 is set aside for teachers to plan for the new school year, and my principal told me that there really wasn’t anything for me to do that week, so I just didn’t go to school. Instead, I had probably the best week yet of my time in Samoa.

Monday – started off slow. It was really rainy in the morning, so I mostly sat around on my porch reading. I had just finished my sandwich for lunch when one of the owners from Sea Breeze, the resort in my village, drove by and asked if I wanted to join them for their staff Christmas party. Of course! So I spent the next 4 hour sitting in a beach fale, drinking white wine, eating BBQ chicken, and talking to cheeky boys from my village who were ridiculously drunk. The world sole roughly translates to “dude,” and is used in about the same way. It also refers to the demographic of males from about the age of 18-25, and the soles of the village are the cheeky boys. Until coming to the Christmas party, I hadn’t realized that I really don’t know any of the soles in my village. I don’t know where they hang out (although most of them spend the day working on the plantation), much less their names, but I talked to some cheeky soles at the Christmas party and saw how sheltered I’ve been living in the congregational fale. After I got back from the Christmas party, I went over to my neighbor’s fale and asked her to help me fill out a grant application. The Women’s Committee wants to plan a sewing week, but in order to have a sewing week, we need sewing machines, which is my specific project for the women’s committee. I had dinner with my neighbors, then played cards with the kids after dinner, and that was Monday.

Tuesday – I went on a mission with two of my Year 7 students to try to get back the 19 library books that hadn’t been returned. We started out at the far end of my village, then walked all the way to the end of the next village, then ended up at my principal’s fale two villages away (her daughter in my Year 7 class had a library book out that apparently she has lost). We spent about an hour there watching music videos and eating lunch before we came back to my village. However, only one of my students came back with me; the other opted to stay in Lotofaga. So I caught a ride with one of my students, we returned 6 out of 19 missing books to the library (I did get an anthology back, which was the priority for me, so the rest are unfortunate losses, but at least I have all my anthologies), and then I went and bought us ice cream. After a little malolo (rest – usually means reading for me), I left my room to discover some people from the village playing pool in my fale. So I went to join them. They were playing for money, and I miraculously (and accidentally) won the first three games I played. After I lost the fourth, I broke even (the bet was doubled from 50 sene to 1 tala for my last game), and called it good. I spent the rest of the afternoon maloloing, then went to koleni (exercise) in the evening. The women’s committee decided to join a multi-district exercise competition, so we put together a jazzercise routine and practiced with all the women from the women’s committee and most of their kids. Super fun. I was early though – it was announced at the women’s committee meeting that koleni would start at 5, but fa’a Samoa, that means 6. So I showed up at the fale at 5 and nobody else was there, so the family took me inside and turned on a corny Indian movie with English subtitles. It was actually pretty good, but still super cheesy.

Wednesday – I went into town in the morning to turn in my grant application. I only had one quote with it because apparently only one store in Samoa sells manual sewing machines (electric sewing machines eat up cash power, so it’s better for the committee to have manual machines), but I hope everything still looks good and I really hope we get sewing machines. Came back on my first bus back, played a little more pool, did some laundry, more koleni, then dinner with the family across the street.

Thursday – I spent the morning cleaning in anticipation of guests the upcoming weekend (who never actually showed up, see the Island Tour blog post). Lots of laundry, lots of sweeping, lots of reorganizing and trying to trim down my continual accumulation of stuff. Spent an hour or so reading at my favorite roadside faleo’o, then came back to my fale just in time to be called over to lunch with my neighbors. Watched some pool in the afternoon, more koleni in the evening, then packed for my weekend adventure.

Friday – I was getting ready in the morning – braiding my hair, collecting my bags, trying to prepare Nora for staying with the neighbors for the next 3 nights – when my neighbor called to me through my window (I generally communicate with them through my window) and said the bus was coming. There is a story behind this. Two weeks ago, we had a special church service two villages over, and the choir took the bus. Well, I missed the bus because I was sitting in my room, expecting to hear the bus or someone to come get me because it was leaving from in front of my fale, but I missed the bus. Fortunately, I caught a ride. So this time my neighbor called me in an effort to make sure I would catch the bus this time. The problem was that it was 6:30, they had said the bus was coming at 7:30, and I was only half-way ready. So I rushed around collecting all my things, turning off my water, and carrying Nora over to the neighbors’ fale, where she promptly freaked out. I tailed her for a while because the bus hadn’t arrived yet, then went to sit in front of the church and wait with my neighbor for the bus. Then we went into the fale next door, had some tea, and took a car to the koleni competition instead. Turns out I didn’t even need to worry about the bus at all, but I really appreciate them making sure I was ready in time to catch the bus this time. The koleni competition was one village over from another PCV, Chelsea, so I planned to go to the koleni, then wait with her for a bus to the end of her village, then walk to Mulivai, where we were having our book club meeting that night. The koleni was really fun. There were maybe 20 villages there, so it took a while to get through all of us, but we finished after about four hours. My village took 5th, and I will forever be curious if that was partly due to the fact that they had a palagi front and center doing jazzercise with the women’s committee. I was specially placed there. We got some prize money, and split it between all of us so everyone involved got either 5 or 10 tala. I got 10 tala, which I also wonder if it was because I was the palagi front and center doing jazzercise. Anyway, I got dropped off at the main road, and I was planning to walk to Chelsea’s fale so we could catch a bus together (her fale was maybe a mile down the road), but I was picked up by another car about 2 minutes after I was dropped off at the main road. So I caught a ride all the way to Mulivai. After everyone showed up for book club (around 3 in the afternoon), we all headed to the beach for a little snorkeling. I’ve only been snorkeling once since we had our water safety training in Samoa and I forgot how fun it was. I swam around out there for almost an hour. Then I walked around the hotel that had been destroyed in the 1990-91 cyclone season, then Dave (one of the PCVs who lives in Mulivai – his wife is Karen) tried to teach us all how to husk a coconut. Man! Coconuts are heavy, and it is freaking hard work to get the husk off. However, of the three girls there (it was us and Dave), I made the most progress on my coconut. I’m proud of that. Then we walked up the river instead of retracing our path to the ocean. That was quite the adventure. For the most part, the bottom was pure sludge, and you’re better off not asking what you’re walking through. The water was much colder, but then we came to a little tunnel place with trees and vines growing right out to the water on either side, and we all felt like we were on an Amazon adventure. Finally the river came back to the village, the bottom became rocky again, and we got out and walked back to their fale. We had homemade pizza for dinner, followed by an excellent book club discussion on Ender’s Game, followed by a cheesy Christmas movie shown on a projector. Great night.

Saturday – half the people from book club left at the crack of dawn to catch a bus back to Apia, but for the first time, I wasn’t one of them. Leisurely morning with a breakfast of banana bread, fresh fruit, and herbal tea. Then we went to a black sand beach a little way down the road. Word from the wise – black sand beaches look great in pictures, but they are not the ideal location for a day at the beach on a tropical island. As soon as you take a step onto sand where the sun has been shining, all the skin on your foot feels like it has been burned off. The water was beautiful – the ocean got deep fast instead of the gradual fade you usually find in Samoa – but I was only brave enough to cross the sand once. Or twice, rather, since I had to go out to the water and come back. Then those of us going on the Island Tour got picked up and started our adventure.

Definitely the best week ever.