Saturday, December 29, 2012


One part of Peace Corps service that is not frequently addressed is the readjustment period upon returning to the United States. This is understandable because it happens at the very end and has no bearing on your service in country – it comes after everything else is all done. Readjustment is no small task, though. The PCV must re-enter life in the States after two years abroad, but that gap encompasses not only two years of life lived, but also two years of life missed. I’m not really sure where or how I’m supposed to re-enter my life in the States, so I’m just kinda going with whatever happens. So far, I seem to be doing fine, although it could be a while yet before I’m fully readjusted. I’ve dropped most of my Samoan language habits, but I still have plenty of awkward pauses, statements, and personal space issues. Just ask anyone who has interacted with me in the past three weeks.

I miss Samoa, absolutely. I miss my kids, my families, how everything in my village worked – or didn’t. I had to leave behind everything that has been my life for two years, and I know I’ll never return to it in the same way. Really, though, you can never go back to how things were; everything is constantly changing. But for everything I love about Samoa, there was also something to love in the States. I loved that I never had to wear anything warmer than a t-shirt in Samoa, but what I missed most about the States was the change of seasons. Arriving on the plane, I kept thinking to myself “I’m so lucky to be coming back to Colorado because it is so beautiful here!” and even in the middle of winter, with the trees bare and the landscape gray and brown, it is still absolutely gorgeous. I loved that life in Samoa never felt quite so rushed and urgent as it feels in the States, but I am unspeakably happy to have reliable, high-speed wi-fi.

The United States has a lot of other conveniences that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed in my few weeks back. I did about 8 loads of laundry in my first day home. I’m fascinated by the Keurig (sp?), which lets me brew a single cup of tea in something ridiculous like 60 seconds. And I’m completely baffled that a tiny GPS in a car can recalculate a 1,500 mile road trip in 10 seconds. Don’t even get me started on the quality of the toilet paper here (which is probably not a conversation you really want to have). In general, I’m finding life in the States to be bigger, easier, and more convenient. I’m amazed at the horizon. Looking out over the ocean, the horizon is literally endless because you can see until you can’t see anymore. An infinite horizon is self-limiting, though – without any borders, it doesn’t give a sense of distance. Looking at the mountains in the distance makes the world seem so much bigger and farther away. I know the mountains, however far away they seem, are still closer than the “edge” of the ocean, but it gives me something to measure by, and jeeze is it a lot farther away than the edge of the ocean!

One thing that really bothered me in Samoa was all the comments I received about my life in the States. “Oh, there’s so much stuff in America. Everyone has everything they want.” I never really knew how to respond to these statements, which came at least 2 or 3 times a week. I could never quite figure out what judgment was being passed on me, because I knew judgment was being passed, but was I supposed to apologize? Promise I could make it happen in Samoa? I could never quite tell what desire was at the root of those statements. I’ve been incredibly lucky in life – all my basic needs have always been met, and I’ve always had some leftover for all the extras. I have a lot of privilege. The biggest challenge I find myself facing in the States is how to live a life of privilege that doesn’t ignore the rest of the world. But privilege also comes with a lot of resources, and a little resourcefulness goes a long way to addressing the problems that don’t constantly stare us in the face – the inequality that consumes every part of the world, regardless of your country, in various forms and incarnations. This is the life I have now, and I have to figure out how to live it so that I am happy with it. That’s exactly what I had to figure out in Samoa, but my circumstances have just changed a little bit.

Please forgive me, I don’t mean this as a judgment on every person within the borders of the US. This is just what it means for me to return to the States. I also apologize for the heavy tone this post has taken on, so to lighten it up a bit, here are some of the things I don’t miss about Samoa

Waking up to cockroaches crawling all over my room
Finding dead lizards in my bed
Sweating to death while sitting still
Taro (but I do miss breadfruit!)
Getting unexpected visitors at inconvenient times (like when I am in the shower)
Lavaspot (the wireless provider in Samoa)
Digicel (my cell provider in Samoa)
Lap-sitting on the bus (sitting on other people)
Getting caught in a downpour without an umbrella
Running errands in Apia and lugging around shopping bags
Coconut wireless
Inconvenient flight times
Testing season at school
When the power went out and my milk would spoil in about 20 minutes

OK, this list is getting really hard to keep up now because every time I think of something that was occasionally annoying, I then thing of at least twice as many occasions on which I loved it. So we’ll have to leave it at that. More luck – nostalgia that lets me look back and remember all the good things.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What was it like?

As part of our close of service process for Peace Corps, we do a COS interview with a staff member that basically asks us to sum up our entire PC experience in a few questions, although you have as much time as you want to answer. I ran into a few Americans on my travels, and they asked me a lot of the same questions. I have a feeling I’m going to be getting a lot more once I get back to the States, so this is an attempt to broadly answer those questions now, and you can ask me more later.

What was it like?
Wow, how do you expect me to answer that question? I hate to say it, but the slogan is right – it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love. It was fantastic, awful, challenging, inspiring, hilarious, and generally overwhelming. Nothing is ever easy, even after two years in the same place with a fairly thorough understanding of the language and cultural expectations, but it is the experience of a lifetime. I’ve done more and learned more in the past 2 years than I ever thought would happen in my entire life. It is so hard, but if you have the patience and determination to stick with it, it is incredibly rewarding.

What was the hardest part?
Can you narrow it down a little bit? It was really hard to live without water for 8 months, but I figured out how to do it so that my life felt normal again after the first two months or so. It was incredibly frustrating that I wasn’t fluent in the language, so I knew people were talking about me – right in front of me – but I didn’t know what they were saying. Stepping in front of a classroom without knowing the language was almost impossible. Overall, though, I think the hardest part for me was living in the fishbowl and dealing with all the cultural differences at the same time. I had zero privacy and everything in my life was available for scrutiny and discussion, which sucks and generally only made me feel incredibly isolated. Finding some kind of balance between acknowledging my cultural background and integrating into a new community was a continuous struggle. I couldn’t make everyone happy all the time, and I often felt uselessly angry when people didn’t acknowledge my efforts but instead criticized me or laughed at my mistakes. That’s an individual process though – you have to figure out what you can put up with, what you can compromise on, and what you absolutely can’t give up. You might find that it’s different than you expected. I never thought I would be such a flexible eater, but when my water went away, it was more important to me that I didn’t have to do dishes than that I could stay within my desired diet plan.

What was it like living there?
Overwhelming at first, but I really loved it. The people were amazing. I lived with the pastor, but the pastor’s family lived in a separate fale in back, while I lived in the church hall. Everything happened at the church hall and people were there all the time (that’s an exaggeration, but not much, especially compared to the standard of privacy in the US). It was really hard to find balance at first, but I had great relationships in my village that really helped me through. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

How is Samoa different from the US?
Samoa seems to be community-centered, whereas the US has a more individual focus. In Samoa, the entire family takes care of each other and provides for each other. This is great because then everybody is always taken care of to some degree, but coming from the US, it is hard to adjust to the idea that “what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is everybody else’s.” It felt a lot more laid-back than the States – there was more flexibility in the routines and daily schedules, and if weather got in the way, then that was no problem (it could either be too hot or too rainy, and I used both excuses many times). Overall, Samoa has a “go with the flow” kind of atmosphere, but it also seems really easy for people to settle with what they have. They can get taro and coconuts from the plantation, and money is always coming in from somewhere, so there isn’t such a pressing need to change anything. From a development perspective, it’s hard to find any reason why people should change their lifestyle if they think they are getting along just fine as they are.

What was the best part?
The people. The relationships I had in my village were by far the most important part of my life in Peace Corps, and they helped me through just about every situation I encountered. My adopted families took such good care of me, and I went to them with every single question, confusion, and problem I had. I’m going to make a huge assumption here and say I had the best village relationships of any PCV in my group. I’m pretty sure it’s true.

What did you learn/how have you changed?
That can get really personal. I’ve learned how to manage a classroom. I’ve learned how to not manage a classroom. I’ve learned that I will never be an English teacher again (hear me out. I discovered this when I started teaching piano. During my piano lessons, I would correct all the little mistakes my students made because I wanted them to get all parts of it correct. I didn’t do that in my English lessons because it was more important to me that my students were trying than that they were getting it right. I was too worried that correcting mistakes would make them insecure and shy. That’s not what a good teacher does. So if I teach again, I’ll stick to piano or astronomy). I think I’ve learned to be patient and flexible. Peace Corps showed me that I never know the answer – even if I think I know what’s happening, and when all is said and done, it actually happened, you never know the answer. Always pay attention, have a million backup plans, and observe what is happening and how. I don’t know how long that lesson will stick around – it’s hard enough to learn, and killer to put into practice. My views on personal relationships have changed – what friendship means, how to ask for help, reciprocity, forgiveness, unconditional love, being a role model, etc. That would take a book to explain, though. I’ve begun to see the importance of finding my own identity and letting that guide me through life. As a PC V in a rural setting, I was out of place all the time, which gave me both freedom and restriction. If I wanted to fit in, I had to be triply concerned with my behavior, appearance, and anything else people could use to make judgments on me. However, I was constantly told that the rules didn’t apply to me because I was a palagi, so if I did or didn’t want to do something, I just had to move past the mental barrier that was blocking my actions. That would also take a book to explain. I like to think I’ve gained a more global perspective, enough life experience for five lifetimes, and a greater understanding of where I come from and my own cultural background. If none of that counts, then at least I’m moderately fluent in Samoan, can get through an entire cup of coffee, am capable of napping on the bus, and my skills at French braiding have upgraded from great to grand master.

In Limbo

I’m having mixed feelings about travelling after Peace Corps – half the time I think “I just want to be home already!” and the other half the time I think “Thank goodness I’m not back in the States yet!” Overall, though, I think my week in New Zealand is more or less beneficial because it is serving as a buffer. I’m getting a good dose of reverse culture shock here, and my audiences are only temporary so my cultural faux pas and social maladjustments don’t really have any serious impact. But if I don’t get them all out here, surely I’ll be forgiven back home, right?

So far, the experiences here resemble my past travels in Peace Corps. Above all else, I can’t believe how big everything is! I can wander around in grocery stores for hours! All the buses have cushy seats, and not every seat is full with people sitting on laps! The cities have more than 2 streets! I remember this shocking me on previous travels, but the surprise never seems to wear off. I also find myself continually surprised to encounter personal cars, stoplights, hot water, microwaves, people who speak English as their first language…the list could go on and on forever. It mostly includes conveniences – the hot water, microwaves, places to get food outside of standard business hours, wi-fi! Sometimes it’s wonderful to be in a first world country. However, I am slightly annoyed that my bus driver doesn’t pick me up from my door and drop me off exactly where I want to go. I’ll miss that.

It’s been really weird to travel though, because every time you meet somebody, you’re obviously a tourist (I can’t help it, I like to use the map to know where I am, and even then I get lost sometimes. Seriously, I walked around downtown Rotorua for at least an hour because I couldn’t match up the intersections in real life with the picture on the map), so the standard questions always come up: “Where are you from? How long will you be in New Zealand?” I always try to give a brief answer to these questions, but really there’s no way to explain it without some background. “I’m just in New Zealand for a week because I’ve been living in Samoa for the past two years, but I’m on my way back to the States and wanted to squeeze in just a little extra travel on the way.” If people are particularly interested, they get to find out that I was teaching English in Samoa, I’m going home for the first time in two years, and New Zealand is awfully cold in summer. That’s usually where the story ends, although I’ve had some longer conversations.

It’s a nice place to leave Peace Corps behind. There’s a strong bicultural identity to New Zealand, so I can still see Polynesia, but Maori tradition is drastically different than Samoan tradition, so it’s familiar, but not very. I’m just starting to move away from Samoan culture, but I haven’t left it behind entirely. At the same time, I’m getting a taste of what the States will be like without having to jump in all at once. Sometimes I still give my name as Tali, although it’s really the Ziemba they’re looking for in their list of reservations. I haven’t caught myself trying to speak Samoan all the time, but I still use some expressions in regular conversation, and I still rely strongly on the nonverbal communication I picked up. I always wonder about that – what do these people make of the fact that I’m wiggling my eyebrows all over the place while they’re talking to me? I can’t help it; I do it unconsciously.

A few of my PCV friends keep asking me how my time is in New Zealand, and I keep telling them that I’m getting a lot of rest, relaxation, and food, and honestly, that perfectly sums up what I’m doing. I’m taking a break. I’ve left home, but I’m going home, and this just gives me a chance to breathe and let things pass.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Cool Story, Hansel

I love to relate stories from my village to the staff at the Peace Corps office – I feel they have a unique appreciation for our stories (I’m not actually sure how often they appreciate my stories, but they are in a unique position to listen to them). Most of the staff in the PC office are locally hired, so they have a thorough understanding of the culture, and most have been working in the office long enough to also have a unique appreciation (there’s that phrase again) of the Pisikoa perspective of what happens in the village. I was talking to someone in the office the other day, sharing my hilarious stories from the village, and she asked me “Do you think people back in the States will find these stories funny?” My response: “I’m not sure, but they’d better at least pretend to because they’re the only stories I have.” Here are a few examples, so you can prepare your (fake) appreciative response for when you see me in person.

• Choir practice was particularly full one week because we were preparing a special song for a district church session. Our choir is about ¾ men, so as more and more showed up after practice had begun, they had to move around to make space for everyone on the pew. At one point, this one man stood up to move a row or two to the front (because everybody always wants to sit in back) and someone called out “nice hair!” I took a closer look, and it looked like a plain old chop job. He had little puffs of hair sticking up randomly, while other sections were cut so close that it looked like he could have been going bald. We all had a good laugh. Then as I was walking around the village after choir practice, I saw a bunch of men with the same haircut – shaved close on the sides with a little more on top. Like a buzz cut. The next morning, when the pastor called out a group of men for being particularly drunk a few nights ago, it dawned on me that this man in choir had the same haircut, but it looked especially ridiculous because he had a bald spot on top. I was even more surprised when he didn’t patch up the chop job and left his hair the same as all the other men for a good week or two more.

• The corn flavored lollipop. What a disaster. I had finished dinner with one of my families and was hanging out with the kids in front of their shop, waiting to be walked home. The kids love to give me things from the store, especially when the parents aren’t looking. Fortunately it’s mostly little items – bubblegum and candy and whatnot. This time, the only candy they had was a corn flavored lollipop. I was suspicious of the look of it, and though I tried to tell them I was full, they insisted I eat it. How can you say no? So the boy behind the counter gave one to me and his little sister (we were out front). A few licks in (ugh, but I can get through this I’m sure), the little girl bumped my arm and I dropped my lollipop (yes! Now I don’t have to finish it!). We looked at the lollipop, then at each other, then back at the lollipop, and then she slowly held hers out for me and picked up mine off the ground. Then we all looked at each other (including the boy behind the counter), then the girl and I looked at each other and our lollipops, then she put her new/old one in her mouth and I put hers in my mouth. After all this happened (it felt like minutes, but I’m sure it wasn’t more than 10 seconds), the boy said “no, no, no! Let me get you a new one!” So my original lollipop was discarded, I returned my replacement to the little girl, and commenced eating a brand new corn flavored lollipop, suffering through every lick.

• My bed had a bad smell to it, which was frustrating because I couldn’t fathom the cause of the smell and it meant I would probably have to wash my sheets again when I was sure I had washed them for the last time in Peace Corps. I texted my friend complaining about the smell, and she said it was probably a dead lizard, which I immediately dismissed because it was in one very specific spot in my bed. Not to mention, it was my bed, which is impenetrable because I sleep under a mosquito net. I had noticed it for two nights running, so I resigned myself to laundry the next day because I was too tired to deal with it tonight. Instead, I positioned myself so that I covered the smelly spot, then I couldn’t smell it at all. I was half asleep for an hour or so because it was a particularly noisy night, then I got up to go to the bathroom. As I moved to get out of bed, my hand hit the smelly spot and just underneath the sheet, I felt the distinct outline of a lizard. My body instantly became wide awake, but my brain lagged behind and I thought “What do I do? Do I leave it there and get it in the morning?” Idiot! You take care of that dead lizard now! I’m pretty much a pro with dead bugs at this point, but lizards are another story entirely, so I panicked throughout the whole situation. I got my pieces of cardboard that I use to scoop up dead bugs, pulled the sheet off my bed and scooted the lizard off my bed. Crisis averted. Except I still had a dead lizard on the floor, and I would have to deal with it in the morning. Not to mention, I would probably forget it was there and step on it in the morning. So I returned again to the dead lizard and picked it up with my dead-bug removers. I was wearing my headlamp at this point, and it made a horrible glare of his scales, so I couldn’t really look at what I was doing. I threw him outside, rearranged my bed, and spent the next hour trying not to think about it so I wouldn’t throw up. I still can’t figure it out. I tuck two sheets under my mattress, and I can’t fathom how this lizard crawled between the sheets to die right next to my shoulder under my top sheet. I also have no idea how long it had been there, but I really don’t want to know the answer to that one. The next morning, I texted my friend to tell her she had been right, that it had been a dead lizard. Her response: “those things can get anywhere.” I will never doubt it again.

• One Friday after school, I came home to my neighbor kids on my porch. The Year 8 boy said he was going to Apia with the grandfather and a Year 9 girl who was somehow related to them so they could watch the premiere of the latest Samoan movie. They would be returning the next day. When the bus came by, I stayed with his younger sister and watched the party leave. I felt a little left out, so I assumed the younger sisters would too (the sisters are in Year 6 and Year 2, I was standing with the Year 2 girl). So I turned to her and asked her if she wanted to get ice cream, figuring that this would be a nice little treat because she was left out of the bigger plans. She said no. I nagged her about it for a little while because by then I was really set on the idea of ice cream, and finally she gave in. So I got my money, then we went over to their house to pick up her sister. They were quite engrossed in the movie they were watching, so I chatted with the mom for a while, then the mom basically had to kick them out of the house to go get ice cream with me. We ate our ice cream quickly, left the shop immediately, and they went straight back to watching their movie.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

How do you measure

You can measure the passage of time in pretty much anyway you can imagine, the least imaginative of all being the counting of actual seconds/minutes/days/weeks, etc (that being said, I’ve been in Samoa for 111 weeks now, only 2 weeks left). And as much as I’m a stickler for being early to everything, I’ve come to consider time a fairly abstract concept because of how we measure it. Even the measuring doesn’t matter so much, because we usually notice time most in its absence – once it’s gone or there doesn’t seem to be enough of it. “If I had one more day, I could have done…” “there just isn’t time to…” When I first came to Samoa, time had a huge presence in my life. Everything mattered because I had made a lengthy commitment and this was only the beginning. I lived my life in differences by comparing my newly acquired life to what I was absent from. I could measure my schedule in terms of favorite TV shows, weekly routines, and holidays because I had so much time here to think about what I had left. I had no idea what I was coming to, but I could sure tell you what I had left behind.

However, time is also a very strong neutralizer, and eventually new turns to normal, the past recedes, and everything seems ordinary. That took about a year for me, mostly because I was so resistant to accepting certain parts of my life here (you really mean I have to live with all this noise?!). Now, one of the hardest things for me is to think about what two years back in the States might look like. I told my parents the other day that I feel like I’ll be coming home in the middle of “Back to the Future,” and in some ways, I really will be (I’m pretty sure my watch is smarter than my phone here). Two years in, it doesn’t feel like I’ve spent two years away from the US. My life has been my life the entire time I’ve been here – where has all the time gone?

Just for grins, I’m going to measure time in headlines – one a month for every month I’ve been in Samoa. This is what has happened the past two years, do you remember?

October 2010 – 33 miners rescued in Chili after spending 69 days trapped in a mine

November 2010 – scientists at CERN trap antimatter for 1/6 of a second

December 2010 – Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

January 2011 – Arab Spring starts with death of a street vendor in Tunisia

February 2011 – Major earthquakes continue to shake Christchurch

March 2011 – Japanese earthquake and tsunami

April 2011 – Royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton

May 2011 – Osama Bin Laden found and killed in Pakistan

June 2011 – Volcanic eruption in Chile disturbs air traffic across the South Pacific

July 2011 – Two terrorist attacks in Norway at a government center and a youth camp

August 2011 – US credit rating downgrade to AA+

September 2011 – Occupy protests start

October 2011 – Steve Jobs dies

November 2011 – Penn state football scandal

December 2011 – Samoa moves west of the IDL, skipping December 30th

January 2012 – Italian cruise ship capsizes

February 2012 – Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II

March 2012 – Putin wins presidential election in Russia

April 2012 – 8.6 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia, with an 8.2 aftershock

May 2012 – Tornado season wreaks havoc across the US

June 2012 – Massive wildfires throughout southwest US

July 2012 – Summer Olympics begin in London

August 2012 – Curiosity rover lands on Mars

September 2012 – US embassy attack in Libya

October 2012 – “Perfect Storm” hits the northeast coast of the US

November 2012 - Obama re-elected President of the US

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Favorite Pictures

Preparing to finish Peace Corps requires a lot of preparation and planning, at least if you’re me. I want to give pictures to some of the families in my village, so the other day I went through EVERY SINGLE PICTURE I have ever taken in Peace Corps. I have them all saved on my computer according to the month they were taken. Some months didn’t have enough pictures, so they were combined, so I don’t have exactly 25 folders of Peace Corps pictures, but pretty darn close. As I was looking through them, I remembered all kinds of things that seemed to momentous at the time, but have actually almost entirely faded away now that I’m looking back. Staying with my neighbors in town the night before their brother’s wedding. Making koko Samoa every afternoon when the falekomiti was being built. Running away from little fishies when my sister came to visit. So much has happened, it’s unbelievable. I never thought I would forget a single second of my time here, but I’ve forgotten quite a bit.

Anyway, I found a lot of pictures that I loved that I had also forgotten about. I tried to pick one from each month (again, not quite 25) that was my “favorite” of the month. Mostly, it’s the moment caught in the picture that I love, whether it’s the silly pose or the scenic view. From an outside perspective, it’s hard to tie most of these pictures to a specific event, but I remember exactly what was happening in each one of them.

If the uploading worked correctly, they should be in chronological order.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Letter to Myself

At the end of our training, we wrote letters to ourselves that would (hopefully) be returned to us to read at the end of our service. We got our letters back at our Close of Service conference, and while it was fun to read, I also felt it was a little pointless. A letter from the future me telling me what to expect would have been more helpful. That one would have reflections and advice instead of just musings about what might happen and plans that didn’t actually come to fruition (not that that’s a bad thing). Looking at my letter to my future self, though, my past self could have probably used a few lessons from my current self. So here’s what I (now) have to say to me (then) about what happens over the next/past two years.

Dear Natalie,

Yes, that’s right, you are still Natalie. You will fully embrace your identity as Tali when you get to your village, but you’re not quite there yet.

These next two years will be everything and nothing that you expect. You will have those quintessential Peace Corps moments – random power outages, no running water, way too many kids jabbering away at you in a language you can actually understand (for the most part). You will also have plenty of moments that step right out of life in the States – hot water and air conditioning, fancy cell phones, and what will seem like too much English for your time here to qualify as “the Peace Corps experience.” Don’t worry. Just as much as you dislike the familiarity (Peace Corps is supposed to be like nothing I’ve ever known before) you will love it when you are looking for something comforting to remind you of home, or at least give you a break from Samoa.

I do have a few words of advice (and maybe some warnings) for you.

You will be sick. It will be miserable because you are in a foreign country and so far away from familiar facilities or anyone who would baby you and bring you orange juice to take your pills. Remember that time you were so sick on Thanksgiving at Grandma’s? Expect that at least 3 or 4 more times, not to mention everything else that happens. Colds, strep throat, it’s all here waiting for you.

Don’t worry about water. Yes, it will seem like your life is ending every time it goes away, but that doesn’t define your life for the entire time you are here. By the end of your two years here, you will hardly remember what it is like to survive on less than a bucket of water a day and you will miss doing laundry at the waterfall (you can’t be bothered to do it under regular circumstances because why go to all the trouble of hauling everything a mile and a half down the road, washing it, then carrying it back, when you could just let it soak in your shower?).

Go to all the trouble to build all those relationships in your village. The sooner you learn to ask for help and to ask for the things you want, the easier it will be to get the things you need. These relationships are essential to every aspect of your well-being – emotional, physical, and spiritual. You will not survive without your neighbors and the family across the street, and everyone else is just icing on the cake. Love them, appreciate them, and show them at every opportunity how much they mean to you.

Stop comparing yourself to other PCVs. Do whatever it takes so that you don’t measure yourself by their lives. Skip out on training sessions, pass up Peace Corps outings, whatever it takes. You will survive without living your life in their presence or shadow. As you told Mafi the other day, your life isn’t actually lacking, it just seems like it is when you compare it to everyone else (I don’t want to hear your bellyaching, this is true! Even when you don’t have running water, you still have water. It just takes a lot more effort to get it, and you use a lot less of it). At the same time, they are still your peers and your Peace Corps family. They deserve a lot more respect and patience than you sometimes show them.

Otherwise, don’t worry too much. I can’t tell you how much energy you waste worrying about what will happen, what hasn’t happened, or what might happen. It’s worthless. Whatever happens, happens, and you have survived it so far. You will grow so much, do amazing things in your village and at school, and manage to keep learning Samoan throughout your entire time here. Eventually, your life stops shocking you and turns into a daily routine again. This is both good and bad. It is good because it means you are less stressed about every little thing that happens. This is actually really good. It’s bad because you aren’t constantly amazed at how beautiful everything is about Samoa and begin to lose the details of what makes it so wonderful. Occasionally you still lose yourself in the sunset, the sound of the ocean, the technicolor life you find yourself in, but not continuously. If you can, try not to lose sight of that. Both while you are in Samoa and wherever you find yourself in the future. Life, the world, is amazing. Take the time to notice everything about it.

If nothing else, take heart from the fact that you are writing this now at the end of your Peace Corps service. Everything that happens (or from your perspective, might happen) has been surviveable. Ya, there are things you could probably do better if you had a chance to do them over, but don’t dwell on it. Focus on yourself now, and look to the possibilities of the future without forgetting the lessons of the past. Yes, sometimes it seems absolutely impossible to go on, but there will also be about as many times when everything feels so heartbreakingly real, beautiful, and alive. Whenever you doubt yourself, know that you will do amazing things while you are here.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

How Not to Count Your Chickens

Before they hatch. That’s how not to count your chickens. Don’t post it on Facebook. Don’t make any radical life changes. Nothing happens until it happens, and that’s especially true in Samoa. Long story short, my extension fell through and I won’t be in Samoa for a third year.

Don’t worry, this isn’t actually as disappointing as it sounds. Yes, it would have been an amazing opportunity, but I haven’t pinned all my hopes and dreams on this one chance since before I was born (which is what I did with Peace Corps. If I hadn’t been accepted to Peace Corps in the first place, I’m pretty sure I would have had to take an indefinite time out and go soul-searching until further notice). I was actually planning for something like that to happen until at least 5 or 10 years into my future, and I’m OK with reverting to the original plan. I’ve spent 9 out of the past 10 months planning to return to the States in December and stay there, and it’s been surprisingly easy to pick up where I left off. It simplifies a lot of things, including leaving my village. Instead of “it’s kinda good-bye but not really because I’m coming back but it won’t be the same,” it’s just plain old “good-bye.” I’m offloading 95% of my accumulated stuff and don’t have to worry about moving or storage. I can cut my hair without considering how easy it will be to put in a bun or braid. And I can start grad school in the fall (assuming I get accepted. Again, nothing happens til it happens). Not to mention I still get to go to New Zealand on the way home.

So. I’ll be arriving in LAX at 10:30am on December 15th, who’s coming to meet me?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

White Sunday

White Sunday is the biggest holiday in Samoa, and it took me a while to realize that. The first year I was here, we arrived in country the week before White Sunday. One of the staff members invited us to his church, and it was great, but everything was fresh and new at that point so I couldn’t really tell it apart from a palm tree or a spider the size of my hand. My second year, White Sunday came at a particularly rough time and I could just barely handle all the dance practice at my fale, and so couldn’t exactly enjoy the performance. This year, though, it was amazing.

White Sunday is also called Children’s Church, which I think is also about equalizing the family – we have Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but what about the kids? Let’s give them a day too! But I think it’s more about the family. Morning church is dedicated to the Sunday School performance (it’s what that never-ending song and dance practice all leads up to), and I have thoroughly enjoyed both performances at my church (first year doesn’t count, it wasn’t my village and my church). After listening to the progressive improvement from my room, I finally get to watch the final, polished product with actions. The song that stood out most to me this year went something like this:

“I am sing (sing!) sing (sing!) down to the Satan.
Glory to God, Glory Jesus!
I am sing (sing!) sing (sing!) victory to Jesus
Glory to God, amen!

I told a lot of people about this song beforehand because none of the grammar makes sense, but if you don’t think to hard, you can kinda get an idea of what they’re going for. After listening to it for weeks, I was sure it would just barely be presentable, but it was actually really good in performance.

Afternoon church is dedicated to the families. The families spend a week (or two or three) putting together their own songs, dances, and dramas to perform during the service. I think my village divided into 7 or 8 families for these, so there were quite a few performances. Some were better than others (through unfortunate timing this year, I missed most of my family dance practice. We also had about 6 little tiny pre-school kids this year that were with some other family last year, so in addition to lots of sketchy dancing on my part, the moves were relatively simple) but it’s the spirit and effort that counts overall.

White Sunday is also the big gift holiday. People don’t really give presents at Christmas here, but everybody gets new clothes for White Sunday – both church and regular clothes. Monday was the public holiday following White Sunday (seriously, why don’t we get double holidays in the States?) and all the Sunday School was over at my fale again for their cake, ice cream, and volleyball games. I was watching the volleyball for a while, and it took me longer than usual to recognize the people playing because they were all wearing different outfits! That’s not what you normally wear, who are you? (I was recounting this story to someone in the office, and I told her that it’s happened to me before – I was talking to someone I had just met, then I went and changed my shirt, and when I came back she didn’t recognize me). It’s a great holiday.

There were two thoughts that kept crossing my mind as I was watching all the White Sunday performances. First was “when will this be over?” I spent about 6 ½ hours at church on Sunday, and (don’t tell!) I left early. People were slowly making their exodus from the church and there was just one old lady left in my pew. We kept looking at each other and asking each other if we wanted to go, and finally we made our move and left together. The other thing that crossed my mind was how much I love my village, my students, and my families. I’m so proud of my kids and everything they can accomplish when they put their mind to it. I had a lot of those teary-eyed moments, then I would glance at the program and realize how many performances were left, and I was back to thinking “Are we done yet?” Sounds about right.

Free Falling

I have a lot of favorite things about Samoa, but I’m pretty sure my favorite of my favorite things is the river hike. It’s a combination of a bunch of my favorite things (beautiful scenery! Rivers (which I have decided are my favorite body of water)! Delicious food!) with some other things that can be fun sometimes (lots of sun/rain! Jumping off really high things! Freezing cold water!). It has to be good, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it three times, right?

The river hike is located on the southwest side of Upolu, which is another beautiful area of Samoa, but I don’t get over there very often. The hike lasts about 4 hours (give or take, usually give), so it’s best to start around 8 or 9 in the morning in order to get back for lunch at a reasonable time. Before the hike, we always get in a little small talk for some basic life updates. I’m super impressed with the river hike people because they always remember not only my name, but things I have told them about school and my village. It took me long enough to remember that their names are Jane and Olsen, and even now I always get it mixed up and call him Owen instead.

After some quick updates, we get going. There are three main stops along the hike – right at the beginning, about ¾ of the way through, and at the end of the river. At the beginning of the hike, you just go alongside the river and don’t get much deeper in than your feet at the few points you cross. It’s just enough chill to impede circulation to your toes. Then you reach the first jumping area. This first one has quite a few locations you can jump from. It’s a three-tiered waterfall, and you can jump from the second waterfall into a little pool of water above the bottom waterfall. The first time I went on the hike, we didn’t jump from the waterfall. The second time I went, the river was at floodwater levels, and there was no possible way we could have jumped in the middle of the waterfall. The third time, though, I made it. This was my first time from jumping right next to a waterfall, and there’s no better way to describe it than loud and wet. It’s a lot scarier jumping right next to a waterfall than just in view of one. The other jumps at this particular stop are a bit higher. Maybe 20 feet, and I want to say 35-40 feet, but since my estimation skills are pretty awful when it comes to height (I’m probably overestimating because it makes it so much more exciting), I hope it’ll suffice to say they are medium-high and high. The first time, I made it off the mid-height jump and that was exhilaration enough for me. The second and third times I made it off both. In case you haven’t had the opportunity to throw yourself into a free-fall in the vicinity of a waterfall, aiming for a pool of water at the bottom of a river, let me try to describe it for you.

Climbing up isn’t so bad because you’re focusing on the ground right in front of you and can’t see how high you’re getting, and all the adrenaline is causing excitement at this point. Then you come to the top of the jump and have an opportunity to look around and the adrenaline turns to fear. I give myself no more than 3 seconds to look around, and then I have to jump because otherwise I’ll think too much and chicken out. I don’t really jump as much as I just step over the edge. Falling down to the water (because I’m not graceful enough yet to describe it as anything more poetic) is the hardest part. For the first second or two (minutes! Hours!) the free fall is exhilarating. The deafening roar of the waterfall doesn’t matter, the scenery disappears, and it’s just the sensation of falling. The next second or two, you realize that you’re still falling and begin to panic about the continued falling. Exhilaration turns to terror. Right about now is when I start to flail my arms and legs, wildly attempting to stop myself from falling before I hit the ground because surely the impact won’t have good results after this long (hours! Days!) in free fall. In the last second, I prepare myself for impact. I can’t think at this point, so there’s no way I can focus enough to get myself into the “tuck” position in which you are supposed to hit the water. Instead of the prepared, poetic conclusion that should follow a graceful leap into a river, I just tense every muscle in my body and hope not to hit any rocks. Eventually my head breaks the surface again and I spend the next few breaths coughing, choking, and spitting out all the water that has forced itself the wrong way down my throat and nose. Assess for damage and soreness, then repeat as desired.

You get a lot of practice jumping off high things at the first stop, then when all options have been exhausted, we continue up the river. There is quite a bit of walking at this point, both through water and over the ground. It’s pretty manageable when the water is at a regular level, but when it is at floodwater levels, it’s a whole different story. Should you make a single misstep and lose your footing (which happens frequently enough in good times) you might just tumble backwards down the river and over some little waterfall. OK, so I didn’t fall backwards over a waterfall, I had a pretty good hold on a rock before someone grabbed my hand, and I was at least 4 or 5 feet from the edge, but it makes for a pretty exciting near-death story.

At the second stop, there’s only one jumping opportunity, but there is also some scenic climbing to reach the “hole in the wall.” The “hole in the wall” is somewhat accurately named, although its’ more like a dent in the wall. Supposedly, the record number of people a group has squeezed into the whole is 12, but they were a middle-school group, so I’m not sure that counts. The other record is 14, but they admitted that not everyone was inside – some just had a foot or an arm inside and were hanging out. Cheaters.

Then the last stop is “the waterfall.” The talk about the waterfall is that it’s 3 times higher than the tree (the high jump at the first stop). The first time I did the hike, it never even crossed my mind to jump off the last waterfall. The second time, I felt like maybe sometime in the future I could accomplish it because I had conquered the high jump at the first stop, but there was no way it would happen this time due to floodwater levels. The third time, I was pretty confident about it, but had started to wuss out by the time we reached the last waterfall. A few of us walked around up top (climbing up the waterfall itself is reserved for the demo/stuntman). This was the first time I had been to the top and it was not quite what I expected. There is a small dam right up at the top, so right before the waterfall, the river is really small and calm. Then all the water comes down over the edge and you can’t hear anything because of the deafening roar. Rather ironic. At first, it seems impossible – it’s much too high! But then I looked out over the edge and saw that the people at the bottom were only marginally smaller than they were when I looked out from the tree. Ha! 3 times higher! Those liars! It’s a good lie, too, because even though you can look at the waterfall and see that it’s obviously not 3 times higher than the tree, you mentally build it up so that it’s still almost impossibly high. The hardest part here was that I was second in line to jump, so I had to wait for the first girl to work up the courage to go over the edge. It ALMOST put me off jumping, but not quite, and I still made it over the edge. Repeat the whole exhilaration-panic-terror-graceless spluttering routine and you’re done. Unfortunately, I have no documentation because my camera is not waterproof, so you’ll just have to take my word on this one. But really, considering everything else I’ve done in Samoa, jumping off a 50+ foot waterfall isn’t so unbelievable, is it?

Then we have a leisurely downhill walk (the talk here is that the house is 5 minutes away. Yes, we have just spent the last 3 hours walking up a river, so no, 20 minutes is not at all far to go to get back, but if you say 5 minutes, it’d better be 5 minutes because I’m starving!) and reach the house just in time for lunch. The food here is hands-down the best food I have had in Samoa. The first time we went, we had a delicious pumpkin soup, which has been our request ever since because it is SOOOO good. It also comes with all kinds of fresh, local fruit, warm tea or coffee (which can be thoroughly enjoyed because you are soaked through and chilled to the bone), and the best muffins and cake, with a perfect drizzle of slightly tangy lemon icing, you have ever had for dessert. Pat yourself on the back and walk away because you have just conquered everything the river can throw at you, and now you’re so sore it hurts to move.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Up in the sky!

Jeeze, what I wouldn’t do to get a good observatory constructed here in Samoa. I’m known for a lot of strange tendencies in my village, but I think one of the weirdest is when I lay out on my fence/wall (there’s a low rock wall surrounding my yard) and look up at the stars. Who does that? Only the crazy palagi. The night sky here is both breathtaking and baffling. When it’s not cloudy and I’m not directly in the glare of streetlights, everything is crystal clear. But everything is also upside down and unfamiliar. The only constellations I can find on a regular basis are Orion and the Southern Cross, which is disappointing considering I used to be able to point out at least 20 when I worked at the planetarium. I’ve asked many times why the constellations are upside down from how they look in the northern hemisphere, but I never really understand, much less remember, the explanation. I’ve had to settle for more of an admiring role rather than an enthusiast role when it comes to astronomy in the southern hemisphere, but it’s still beautiful.

I’ve found a way to work it into my life here, though. Term 3 is not quite so serious in school, so in my last term as a teacher in Samoa, I thought “enough with trying to make the past tense engaging, let’s talk about something really interesting!” and started teaching astronomy. That feels a little more familiar. Astronomy hits the primary science curriculum in Year 7, but I’m not really sure how much they cover or what the students already know, so I started from scratch, with a basic overview of the solar system.

“How many planets are there?”
“Are they all the same?”

I talked about Earth first. What is the difference between a day and a year. How long is a day and a year. The Earth is tilted. I tried to explain the seasons, but that didn’t really work. “Why do some places have winter but other places have summer?” “Because there’s lots of sun here and lots of shade there!” “Sure, we’ll go with that.” I don’t think I can simplify it enough to clarify that it’s the amount of direct sunlight that causes the change in seasons and not just light and shade that makes it different. So I tried it with Year 8 and left it out with all my other classes. The most important thing to cover with Earth though is what makes it special. “What does Earth have? [I show them a picture of Earth.] What is that blue stuff?” “The sky?” “Not quite, it’s on Earth.” “Water!” “Right! And what’s the green thing?” “Plants!” “So what does Earth have? Living things, right? Does any other planet have living things?” “Yes!” “Really?” “No!”

Then we talked about the moon. Is the moon a planet? No. Is the moon a star? No. What is it? The moon! How long is a day and a year for the moon, what the moon orbits around. I drew pictures of the phases, but forget about explaining the tides. Does the moon have living things? Yes! Really? No! I learned this great thing at the planetarium that we called “body astronomy,” so I tried to show them how the moon orbits the Earth at the same time the Earth orbits the sun. “You stand there and be the sun. Then you walk in a circle around the sun because you’re the Earth. And I’ll walk in a circle around you while you’re walking in a circle around the sun because I’m the moon.” I don’t think that one quite came across.

A brief introduction to the planets. After thinking about it, I would demote Pluto from planet status, but it could still be an honorary planet in my book. These are the inner planets, why are they the inner planets? Because they’re in close to the sun? Do they have fast orbits or slow orbits? Fast! Do they have fast days or slow days? Slow! These are the outer planets because they’re out far away from the sun. They’re big and have lots of rings and moons. Do they have fast or slow orbits? Slow! Do they have fast or slow days? Fast! And this is Pluto, it’s really small and really far away. And of course, more body astronomy with almost every single student in the class walking around the sun, then spinning around to show the difference between a fast and a slow day.

And finally, a brief introduction to stars. How do stars make light? Do we turn them on and off like the light? No…Then how do they make light?....What do you know that is hot and makes light? Fire! Right, stars are big balls of fire! They’re really big, really hot, and really far away. What is the closest star to Earth?...What is the sun? The sun is the closest star to earth! Right!

I’m not sure if it’s coming through in my lessons, but I still find astronomy mind-boggling. Space is so big, and everything is so far away, but really it’s full of nothing, and Earth is only a tiny piece of everything in the universe. I’m trying to figure out the simplest way to explain everything, to get across the most vital information to get through without blowing their minds so much that they can’t remember anything. Hopefully they’ll remember something, even if it’s just that Earth is special because it has living things.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Success Stories

The easiest measure of success is something that earns its own bullet point on your resume. I’ve never been too successful if you look strictly at my project description, although I do have my moments that kinda count (library stuff, sewing school, and that’s about it). What we most remember, though, are those tiny successes that only register at the personal level. These are the success stories that make the entire experience worthwhile – those moments that will shine in your memory once everything else has faded and most of the bad parts have been lost in the mist of time. Time passes fast; I can’t even remember everything about when I first got to Samoa! But these are some of my shiny moments that show me what kind of impact I’ve had and how much I have changed and learned throughout my Peace Corps experience. Some stories are more serious than others, but I’m proud of them all, and of course I saved the best for last.

I like to think of myself as fashion-forward, although sometimes I’m so far forward that my genius isn’t appreciated til years later (it only a few years ago they began making sweatshirts and jackets with thumb holes, while I had been making my own since I was 8. I’m still waiting for two watches to catch on). My fashion trends in Samoa tend to spread like wildfire, though. I had been having a hard time getting two French braids to match perfectly (center part, balanced, even braids), so I decided to go with an off-center part so the imbalance could be implied instead of accidental. It took about a week for every single girl at my school to show up with braids just like mine. Not only that, but my students also elaborate on my hairstyles. I love looking out at morning assembly and feeling like I’m in the middle of Whoville or some other Dr. Seuss creation because the hairstyles are so original and so different from anything you would normally find. Ok, so this has no relation whatsoever to any project I’m supposed to be doing, but I think it’s a fun story. My impact is obviously measurable.

One of my lower students always comes into the library by himself. I have a few students that I bring in to read individually because they are too intimidated to read in front of a group, but they will read for me. I had actually pretty much passed this student over because he was always disruptive, never did his school work, and all the other teachers had passed him over too (the students that they always send to do errands in the middle of class are the ones that will most likely end up on the plantation for life. Unfortunate, but true). One day, I was trying to make it up to him for being short with him earlier in the day (disruptive students are never on my good list), so I brought him into the library alone because he had skipped the time for his group. He couldn’t even get through the easiest Samoan book in the library, so I had him spell out each word he didn’t know and say it slowly until he knew what the word was. It took a long time, but he made it through the book, and our reading sessions have gone that way ever since. He’s been picking harder books and asking me about words he doesn’t know instead of just mumbling over them. Pretty much any time I can get students to be comfortable with mistakes is a success –it means they’re willing to try, make mistakes, and learn from their mistakes rather than cover up the fact that they don’t know.

I’m not big on going out, especially out to bars or dance clubs, but nightlife is pretty limited in Samoa. Any Peace Corps gathering generally ends with a trip to the bar, and I usually make it about half the time, and out of those times that I do make it to the bar, about half of those require a really convincing plea for me to join and I drag my feet the entire way. But going out with people in my village is another story entirely. There are quite a few beach fales down the road from me, and they turn one of them into a dance club on Saturday nights. Lots of people from my village like to go dancing there, and every once in a while, I willingly join the group that goes dancing (it’s probably about as frequently as I willingly go to bars, it just feels like it happens more often because going dancing with people from my village isn’t as guaranteed an activity as going to the bar with PCVs). The few times this has happened, I have had a blast. The crowd is always a mix of tourists and locals, and I spend most of my time on the dance floor with whatever boy has managed to get to me first for that song (everybody always wants to dance with the palagi). Then the club shuts down at midnight and we all head home for a few hours of sleep before church the next morning. The only hard part is figuring out how to officially report this to Peace Corps as an indicator of the level of integration I have achieved in my village – it may be too subjective to qualify as a subjective indicator.

I love bingo, but I’m a fan, not a fanatic. I don’t make it there on a regular basis. The first few times I went were mostly a huge learning curve – learning the timing of how they call the numbers, trying to listen for what the patterns are supposed to be, and hopefully not mis-marking my bingo games (I have a bad habit of confusing nine and five – iva and lima – they sound exactly alike if you’re dividing your attention between listening to numbers and marking them off). Eventually, I caught up with the numbers and the patterns, but that still only meant I was just barely making it through marking my games correctly. About two months into my bingo career, I had my first moment of glory. Not only had I kept up with the numbers and made no mistakes marking my card, but I knew the pattern and I saw it myself when I got a bingo! In the past, whenever I had gotten a bingo, my support crew had called it for me because I never saw it. But calling it on my own was the most exciting moment in my bingo career. Huge success, all my own.

And this other time in the library (most everything I do at school somehow includes the library), I had a group of Year 6 students. One of the lower students was reading one of the popular Samoan books (there are only a few stories written in Samoan, and even fewer that are well-liked enough for students to read them. Those few are memorized by almost every single student by Year 2). He was reading “O A’u o le Sifi o le Mauga” (I am the master of the mountain), which is a progression of animals claiming mastery on the mountain until it comes full circle with the bug hiding in the cow’s ear and the cow giving up mastery to what he thinks is a ghost. I could tell this student hadn’t read the book before because he was actually taking his time to read every single word, instead of reciting it as fast as possible from memory as most other kids do. The best part about it was when he got to the end and was so surprised to discover the bug inside the cow’s ear that he pointed it out to every other student in his reading group. I was so touched and proud about his excitement…it was just unbelievable. That is exactly what teaching is about, and I was a key factor in bringing it about. That’s amazing.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


This is a call to all of you who claim US citizenship. We all have responsibilities to each other (I’ve said this before). You have no choice about that as a human being living in society. Your responsibility as a US citizen is to vote for your government. That’s how the system (supposedly) works. Even if the system doesn’t work, there’s no hope it can possibly work correctly if you don’t do your part. Instead of a tyrannical dictator controlling everything according to his or her whim, or a messy mass of people fighting over the tiniest detail, we send representatives to the federal government to do the (really) dirty work for us. The key word here is representative – the people in government represent the wider population (or they’re supposed to) so we don’t end up with the tyrant or the messy mass. Your government does not represent you if you do not vote (and if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain about the results because you didn’t participate). Voting is the simplest, easiest, and most basic way to participate in politics (and the rest of it gets so nasty Id’ rather not get any further into politics beyond voting). We tend to take voting for granted because it is a right that is given freely in the US. Recent generations have not had to fight or struggle to gain access to the polls so they can voice their opinions and concerns. We’re incredibly lucky that we have been handed the opportunity to tell our government what we do and don’t like, and who we would like to see making the big decisions. The problem is that we’ve become complacent and take this right for granted, so much so that we see it as optional, instead of taking full advantage of the opportunity to influence the direction of our communities, states, and country. You have power; you just have to use it. Go vote, if for no other reason than I told you that you have to.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Advice to 84

Some people who were smarter than I was started reading blogs of current PCVs before they left, so they had a better idea of what to expect. If any of you reading this are coming to Samoa for PC service in October, this is my advice to you:

Wear sunscreen. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own, meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.
But really – wear sunscreen. You have the rest of your life to get skin cancer; you don’t need to do it in two years in Samoa. And, despite all your best efforts, you will end up with a farmer’s tan.

Bring a headlamp. A flashlight is also useful, but it’s nice to have your hands free and have a light when you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. It is also infinitely useful for various other occasions.

Buy one of those sturdy plastic buckets as soon as possible. They are great for doing your laundry in (everyone will be asking to use your bucket while you are in the hotel for training), storage, and anything else you can think of to do with them.

Girls: I highly recommend getting two basic puletasi bottoms in addition to whatever other puletasis you might get – black and dark blue – they go with almost any top. It will save you some laundry time

Never go into the PC office without a flash drive

Athletic wear is very difficult and/or expensive to replace in Samoa (and also disappears most frequently from your clothesline), so I highly recommend bringing a two-year supply. This includes knee-length running shorts, socks, sports bras, and running shirts (cotton gets really hot really fast so stick to athletic wear that is designed for copious amounts of sweat). Shoes…that’s up to you. They are replaceable in Samoa, but selection is very limited.

At least 90% of what you bring with you to Samoa will not make it back to the States at the end of your service – or you won’t want to take it back, can’t be bothered, whatever. So if you can’t bear to part with it, don’t bring it.

The office is here as a required governmental presence; it is not here to help you. The sooner you learn and accept that, the sooner you can stand on your own two feet and get things done for yourself.

Remember how much legroom you had on the plane over – that is the most legroom you will have for 2 years.

Wait before making any drastic changes to your hairstyle. I’m a fan of being able to pull my hair back, and while it’s nice to have super short hair that never gets glued to your neck by sweat, I personally think it’s much nicer to be able to put it up.

Along with that, I highly recommend learning how to French braid. Very useful.

Get a hobby. I thought I had plenty of hobbies before I came to Samoa because I was always busy. Turns out, I was always busy because I had a busy schedule, and other than reading, I didn’t know how to fill my free time here. I’ve picked up needlepoint and cross-stitch, others have picked up painting, and we even have a knitter – boys generally pick up rugby or some other sport. Find something.

I have the PC cat, let me know if you’d like her as your pet for your time in Samoa.

Find something that makes you happy in your village. You spend the vast majority of your time there, and PCV life is hard enough even when you love everything. Get a pet, find people your own age (they do exist), weave with the women’s committee, find a spot for peace of mind, anything. This is not optional – you need it.

Bring a sweatshirt. You may only use it twice in your time here, but on those two occasions, you will be glad you have it.

Evaluate your intentions in joining Peace Corps. Seriously, this is a hard job and a harder life. If you don’t absolutely want to do Peace Corps because you believe in what you are doing, consider if you really want to do it. It sucks to get here and realize that for some reason it won’t work – just ask the people who struggled with the decision of leaving early.

If you don’t run, start now. The perimeter relay usually happens in September, and you’ll definitely want to do it.

Drink water. Lots of it. All the time.

Things to invest in: waterproof camera, two-year supply of athletic clothing, full-size microfiber towel, getting clothes made by a good seamstress (it’s SOOOO worth it to have good clothes)

Go on the river hike while you are here, as many times as you can. Best thing I’ve done in Samoa, hands down. Their names are Jane and Owen, phone number 7748759 (I’ll give them free advertising because they don’t do their own, only word of mouth. That’s how you know it’s good).

Seriously, skimp on the clothing when you pack. You don’t need that much of it here – there’s a wonderful thing called “The Free Box” in the resource room where you can find 80% of your wardrobe. Save your precious packing space for stickers or good tape or your favorite brand of toothpaste.

Same with books. Maybe bring a few you can swap with other people during training, but once you have access to the library in the office, you don’t need anything else. Although I love my Kindle because I have a Time magazine subscription on it. Which I also recommend.

Get well acquainted with KK and CCK. If you can’t find what you’re looking for (or some version of it) at either of these two stores, it probably doesn’t exist in Samoa.

Digicel vs. Bluesky. Well, Digicel used to be the “bigger, better network,” but their products and services then went to crap and now Bluesky seems to be more reliable. You’ll probably be best off getting a double-sim card phone so you can use whichever one is more convenient.

Above all, be flexible, patient, and willing to learn. You will make a million mistakes, get all your Samoan words mixed up, and be the source of endless entertainment for everyone else. But stick with it; the more effort you put in, the more you get out of it, and I sincerely think Peace Corps is a worthwhile experience despite all the bureaucratic red tape.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

104K x 2

One of my favorite non-PC activities in Samoa is the perimeter relay. It’s 104k (that’s 64 miles) of scary dogs, heat, rain, catcalls, hills, and exhaustion. “What could be better?” you ask. Well, I actually have a great answer for that.

Through random and unexpected complications, I became team captain this year, which would have been hard enough in regular circumstances considering I am a teacher in a school and live about an hour and a half away from Apia and have about zero opportunity for calling team meetings, attending relay meetings, and arranging all the details. Silly me thought that would be the hardest part. No, the hardest part is everything that pops up when you least expect it (duh!). The hardest part about the relay this year was just getting a team to the starting line.

In our first incarnation, we had a team of 5 and were looking for a 6th person. We found her at the Independence race, an Australian Aid Volunteer, and had our team settled.

Second, about a month out from the relay, one of our members drops out due to a scheduling conflict. Ok, it’s hard to find someone willing to start training a month out, but we got another PCV to replace him.

Third, two days later, another team members drops out for other scheduling conflicts. My PCV network is tapped out, so our AusAid recruits another one of her friends to run. Man, that was a close one.

The next two weeks passed rather uneventfully, but warily. One of our team members had an uncertain fate, and although it was assumed she would be able to make it to the relay, we didn’t know for sure, and wouldn’t know until two days before the race. So I was constantly looking for someone else who might want to run because experience had taught me that it’s always better to have a backup than just trying to make it with what you have. Fortunately, someone else knew someone who was interested in running, so a week out from the relay, we found our backup.

Perfect, because on Sunday before the relay I was deathly ill and spent the day incapacitated on the floor and running to the bathroom. Assuming I wouldn’t feel up to running 11 miles on Saturday, I called our last minute backup and put her on the official team roster. Team incarnation number 5.

Number 6. Wednesday before the relay, the team member with the unknown fate figured out that she wouldn’t be able to make it to the relay on Saturday, so I was back to running on Saturday. I didn’t feel back up to full strength yet, but I survived the relay last year, so surely I could do it again this year.

In a little twist of irony, the first person who dropped out of the relay called me that same day and said his scheduling conflict had been re-scheduled, and if needed, he would be able to run the relay on Saturday. I assured him that unless the world ended, we wouldn’t need him. Surely we’d gone through enough replacements and it was too close to the race for another person to drop out.

Number 7. Thursday before the relay, the world ends. Another team member called me and said that his boss had gotten stuck out of the country and he would have to work his shift on Saturday. So the team member who started this whole war of attrition was back on the team.

Friday before the relay was a flurry of activity for me. Everyone else was working, so I took the day off school to run around Apia and get everything set up. This included the final captain’s meeting (which I was horribly unprepared for. I didn’t have my complete roster, our running order, or our waiver signed because every time I thought I had it under control, it changed again), buying and preparing all the food and drinks, and picking up the rental that we would drive around the island in. This last part was particularly tricky because PCVs can be kicked out if they are driving without requesting permission to drive. I wasn’t planning to drive, but I was the only one available to pick up the rental, so I intended to take a vacation day and request permission to drive, but because my day was a flurry of activity, I didn’t have time to fill out the required form or even talk to the people in the office who approve such activities. So I walk to the car rental place, right around the corner from the Peace Corps office, and get behind the wheel of this van and have a total breakdown because I’m staring at the steering wheel and can’t figure out which lever changes the gear. I called our last last-minute replacement and told him where I was (he was a PCV last year, so he knows the rules). He told me “Natalie! Get out of the car before anybody sees you and you get kicked out! I’m on my way!” and he came over from whatever he had been doing to drive the car ten feet down the street and park it outside the Peace Corps office. Then we loaded everything up, headed to our last (only) team meeting to take care of all those pesky details like waivers and running order, had dinner, and went to bed.

I don’t have much to report about the race itself – compared to everything that happened just to get to the starting line, the rest doesn’t seem so monumental. Even with all the last minute replacements who had less than a month to train (or not) for an 11-mile race, our team was really strong. Our main competition was the Peace Corps team (with two current PCVs and one RPCV out of a team of six, we couldn’t really call ourselves the Peace Corps team). They were full of all kinds of smack talk about passing us on the first leg, but the race results showed that we were pretty evenly matched. Out of four teams in the open-mixed category (teams of males and females), the top three finished within ten minutes of each other. Over 104km, about 9 ½ hours of running, we all finished with tiny time differences (it was actually really weird this year. Last year, we went most of the race without seeing another team, and then we only saw maybe 3 or 4 in the last few km of the race. This year, we all bunched up for the entire last leg, and 5 or 6 teams would be stopped at the same place waiting to switch runners). First place went to a soccer team with a time of 9 hours and 29 minutes. The Peace Corps team came in second with a time of 9 hours and 33 minutes, and our team came in third with a time of 9 hours and 39 minutes. We got a pizza party from it. After all was said and done, I absolutely love the relay. It is the funnest race I have ever participated in and I would love to do more relays in the future, but I will never captain another relay team in my life. Or at least not in Samoa.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Girls Leading Our World

Girls Leading Our World

After months of planning, all the pieces, presenters, and presentations lined up and we successfully put on the first GLOW conference in Samoa. Since this is our first attempt, we started small – only one day, length determined by bus schedules, with a fairly simple program so that we could easily improvise if need be – but the result was an amazing conference that everyone loved and everyone wants to do again.

The day started off slowly. PCVs and their students trickled in as morning buses arrived (mine was the second to get there so my students had a long time to wait). The girls sat shyly in their school groups, watching a movie without sound because we couldn’t find the right cord to get the sound going. When all the PCVs arrived, we sent the girls out to play a few quick games while the rest of us set out the morning tea (breakfast). Then our first round of presenters showed up, and everything got moving. Tea, presentations, break, more presentations. First up was the career panel, with four different women talking about a day in the life at their particular profession, and how they got to where they are. After the career panel, there was a presentation on leadership and the importance of staying in school. The statistics about the dropout rate in Samoa are astounding – I can’t remember them exactly now, but it was shockingly high, something like almost half of students who start primary school in Samoa don’t complete their secondary school. Then we had a quick break for lunch, which included a dramatic performance from one of the performing arts professors at the National University of Samoa. The afternoon was split up into three rotating sessions. We had one group of girls outside the conference room on the balcony doing a vision and goal-setting activity, one group inside the conference room addressing girly issues and the risks of HIV, and one out on the playground area for games. Then we all reconvened, had some pizza, said our thank-yous and good-byes, then we all headed out.

The most amazing part of the conference was how it gained momentum as it got closer. First it started out as just two PCVs planning the entire day, and then two more of us joined the original two. As it got closer and we were looking for people to go with specific presentations we had planned, more people became interested in the conference. The biggest boost came when UN Women contacted us because they had heard about our program. They offered financial support which allowed us to give all the participants swag – something we had in mind but hadn’t budgeted for in our original fundraising because it wasn’t considered a necessary expense (renting a conference room gets a little higher priority in the budget than keychains). They also expressed interest in partnering with PCVs again in the future to expand the program and take it to both Upolu and Savai’i. On the day of the event, TV 3 (or was it TV 1 – one of the big stations in Samoa) showed up to take footage and do interviews. I heard from my students that they saw me on the news.

The other most amazing part of the conference was how excited everyone was about it. Peace Corps’ were obviously excited because it’s a project coming to fruition. The life of a PCV is basically finding a million ways to fail at different projects, but every once in a while you hit a gem that actually turns into a successful project. If you’re really lucky, it’s a large scale project that impacts communities around the country. I think it’s safe to say that the office loved it too because PCVs most often complain about what’s going wrong instead of celebrating what’s going right. The impact on students was unbelievable. In the days since the conference, the students I took with me have become my best friends, and they constantly talk about the presentations, the presenters, the food, the games, or the experience in general. Some of my students had never been in an elevator before GLOW. I have also heard from most of my students’ parents about how excited their kids were and how much they have heard about the program. The other most amazing part of this conference was that we were able to get rural students involved in the program. Most of the presenters commented about how when a program like this happen, it’s only the students in the Apia area who attend, but because PCVs are based in rural schools, we reached all across the island to schools and communities that have never been touched by something like this before.

Huge thanks to everyone involved: friends and family back home who offered support and donations to make this possible. All the presenters, who gave their time to talk about different aspects of dreaming and achieving success. UN Women for your financial support and offer to continue similar programming in the future. The parents of the students we took, for trusting the palagi to take your daughter to Apia and bring her back in one piece. To students, for giving us a chance. To everyone involved – it’s way too cliché, but must be said – we couldn’t have done it without your help and support.

Really, though, the most amazing part of the GLOW conference is that it happened.