Thursday, April 19, 2012

Close of Service

A spiffy little package showed up in my mailbox the other day – very little package. We all got 1GB flashdrives with a fancy PC logo on them that is our “digital close of service kit.” I have only briefly glanced through it, so I can tell you that it includes all kinds of propaganda for RPCV organizations, RPCV resources offered by PC, the PC fellows program (which helps pay for grad school), toolkits for arranging presentations when you get back to the States (I’m imagining my list will include Amnesty at FCHS, possibly some recruiting gig at CU, and various schools where friends teach) health insurance, and all kinds of follow up tools for what to do as an RPCV. Then there are two huge files, which are the RPCV manual (before leaving, I got a PCV manual telling me about what I might be able to expect PC to be like, although there’s really no way to prepare somebody for PC because the experience is so individual) and a career toolkit. Again, I only briefly glanced through these – in the case of the career toolkit, I didn’t make it past the index because the PDF is over 100 pages long and I didn’t feel like spending my Sunday afternoon – my last refuge of downtime – thinking about trying to get a job.

A couple things crossed my mind. First, I would like to give another huge shout-out to INVST for being such an amazing program. From glancing through the index, I saw all kinds of assessments for finding what your interests are, information on how to do informational interviews, various formats for writing resumes, and all other kinds of necessary networking skills. INVST covered this in our last year of the program, and though it’s one of those things that you never stop learning because it is continuously changing, it helps to have a foundation. I feel somewhat prepared for re-entering the “real world.”

Second, I’m also already kind of prepared for life after PC. I knew within my first months of being here exactly what I wanted to do when I left PC – I am going to get an MSW. Although the details have changed a little bit – my preference has moved more from a focus on non-profit management to international development – that plan is still cemented. In fact, it is so cemented that I’ve already applied for grad school. I spent months (it takes that long when you only get an hour or two of internet a week) updating resumes, re-writing personal statements a million times, and hitting up old contacts for letters of recommendation. Then after all the hard work was done and I had started to play the waiting game, the schools I had applied to informed me that they don’t accept deferrals (because of PC, I won’t be able to enter grad school until Fall 2013, and I had submitted my applications in Fall 2011). I figure it’s just really expensive practice. I still intend to apply to the same schools, maybe adding one or two to the list, and now I’ll just have to make minor adjustments to resumes and personal statements.

And finally, I’m still 8 months away from COS, do I really have to be thinking about it now? My first year of PC service was such a battle to “live in the now” instead of dreaming about what it would be like to get back to King Soopers and Big City Burrito and all my other comforts and routines. Now I’m comfortable with my life here and am no longer actively seeking distractions to remind me of home, then PC gives me the most blatant distraction of all telling me to prepare for life back in the States. In a way it’s a relief to know that I’ve been here long enough that I can start preparing for the end, but really? Isn’t it a little early for that? You sent me all the information for Samoa only one month before I left, but you’re giving me 8 months notice for life in the States? I realize that it probably isn’t such an unreasonable time to start planning my return to the States, but I don’t want to think about it. It really takes a long time to get things done when you only have an hour of internet a week, and I don’t need to add more things to my schedule. To make room for going back to the States, I’m going to have to drop some other things out of my schedule, but I guess that’s the first step. Eventually, I’ll have to drop everything about Samoa.

Friday, April 13, 2012


I think this is a Samoan culture activity put in the school curriculum, because I remember cooking happening at school around this time last year. This year, I was warned ahead of time. One of my students told me the night before that cooking would be happening at school the next day, so I should bring my camera. Of course I forgot my camera, but I live close enough to the school that I was able to walk back to my fale after other teachers had arrived and pick up my camera before the big event started. Then everybody who saw me walking back to school asked if I was running late because I had slept in, but I assume everybody knows by now that I am always the first person to school.

Let me again reiterate that cooking in Samoa, which often feels like the hottest place on the planet, is the hottest possible thing to do in Samoa. It always starts with the fire. The fire has to be built up and is continuously added to until the very last thing comes out of the “oven.” You start with a base layer of lava rocks. Then pile on top of that all the coconut husks, palm fronds, and spare pieces of tree you can find. Let it burn until you can see a purple flame at the base of the fire, then add on more stuff and let it get hotter.

While the fire is going, some of the students are preparing the coconut cream. Coconut cream is one of my new favorite things, but I could probably never make it if left entirely to my own devices. I can do each individual step, but the amount of effort that goes into producing a full batch of coconut cream and cooking the food to go with it is…incredible. The students each brought coconuts to school, and they had already been husked so part of the process had been completed. Husking a coconut takes a lot of skill and quite a bit of effort. I tried it once with some of my Year 5 students. I was over at their house for a reading lesson, then they had to husk coconuts to take to the Samoan School (aka porch school at my fale). It was taking a long time, so I decided to see what they were up to. I asked them to teach me how to do it (which in itself was very complicated. They couldn’t exactly model the process because they are 10-year old girls who are at least half my size and don’t yet have the strength and skill to adeptly polish off a husk, and I’m not familiar with the language involved with husking a coconut). After several failed attempts, their auntie came out to demonstrate in one fell swoop, then I accomplished the same fantastic feat (it may not have been quite as graceful), and we went to my fale with our coconuts.

Anyway, step 1, husk the coconut. Then you crack the coconut in half, usually accomplished by whacking it with a machete. I am actually quite adept at this skill, but I was just a spectator in the cooking day – it was for the students to learn. Then you scrape the coconut. The exact verbage here is undecided – I go back and forth between scraping the coconut and shaving the coconut. You have this fancy stool that has a kind of grater (not like a cheese grater, but imagine the end of a grapefruit spoon – it’s got teeth like that) sticking off the end. So you take half a coconut and scrape it against the grater until all the flesh has come off the shell into the bowl you have carefully placed beneath the grater. (Coconut is a fruit, so you are scraping off the part you can eat – popo – which is also one of my new favorites.) After all the coconuts have been scraped, then you squeeze all the shavings to get the milk out of them. You use this thing that looks all stringy and scratchy. You roll up a bunch of shavings in there like a burrito, then squeeze it like you’re wringing out your laundry, and all the milk drops into the bowl, and you throw away the used shavings. Frequently pigs and chickens get the discarded shavings for their meal.

Meanwhile, while the fire is being continually built up, you put the breadfruit on top of the lava rocks and leave it in there to cook. This means the outside gets completely blackened while the inside gets ridiculously hot, and deliciously soft. After the outside has been sufficiently crisped, the breadfruit is removed from the fire, and the black shell removed from the breadfruit. This is often done with the use of sticks, but every once in a while, you run into that person who just scrapes it off with their bare hands. Crazy! I can hardly even look at these things because they’re so hot! However, hands are more effective than sticks because the goal here is to remove all traces of black. Any shell or ash left on the breadfruit leaves a funky taste, and fingers are a bit more adept at this task.

While the breadfruit is being crisped and de-crisped, the coconut cream is being turned into sugar. You put all the milk in a bowl, and then you add some lava rocks straight from the fire. As the mixture starts to bubble and boil, add approximately five pounds of sugar. I’m not actually sure of the correct amount, but you add sugar until it is deemed sweet enough, which is usually a sickening amount of sugar. It’s best not to pay attention if you’re concerned about cavities or diabetes or anything like that. The lava rocks are also a very effective method of heating. When you pour sugar onto the lava rocks, it melts immediately, producing liquid sugar that runs more like water than honey. This whole concoction is thoroughly mixed.

Once the breadfruits have been de-crisped, you then mash them in a bowl. You mash them using an uncooked breadfruit that has been speared on some sort of stick. This is my favorite part because not only do you make the food out of breadfruit, but you also use the breadfruit in the method of making taufolo. You don’t use potatoes to make mashed potatoes, but you use breadfruit to make a similar substance. As the breadfruit turns to mush, pour in the coconut cream/sugar. The whole thing gets a sticky sweet covering, which you kind of pull apart into bite-size pieces, then serve with a CHOO-HOO! My only problem with taufolo is that it reminds me so much of mashed potatoes – which I love and of which I have long been deprived. I always want to take over the production process at the point the sugar is added to the coconut cream. I would add some salt and butter, mix it all together, and eat mashed breadfruit because breadfruit tastes like potatoes. Maybe someday.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

"There's a cow parade!"

I am addicted to a couple TV shows. Actually, I am addicted to quite a few TV shows, but the one TV show I intend to participate in is The Amazing Race. No, it’s not necessarily the best way to travel because you are rushing from place to place trying to accomplish random tasks and often losing passports or money, but I am dying to be on this show. It will happen, I guarantee it (but that’s only an 80% guarantee because I’m in Samoa right now).

While my sister was visiting, we rented a car. This was the highlight of the trip for several reasons. First, it offers so much flexibility. We made our own schedule, stopped whenever we wanted to take pictures, and went through villages my bus never goes to in order to see waterfalls and other beautiful scenery. We couldn’t get the radio to work, and I don’t think it had a CD player, so we both brought our iPods, I brought my speakers, and we listened to all our favorite music. Don’t even get me started on the luxury of cushy seats and obscene amounts of personal space afforded by a car instead of the bus.

The funniest part about it was driving on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road. Fortunately our car was automatic, so even though we both know how to drive stick, we didn’t have to attempt driving with the wrong hand, too. After being conditioned to the spacing of driving on the right side of the road, it is incredibly difficult to reorient yourself to the middle of the left lane on the road. The grass and the centerline aren’t where they are supposed to be, and it is almost impossible to remain in the middle of the lane. This is also made more difficult by the presence of general traffic on the road: pigs, dogs, cows, children, bikes, cars, buses and trucks. It is impossible to hit traffic in Samoa (except the one time my last bus on a Friday got caught in a funeral procession and it took us about 45 minutes instead of the normal 20 to get out of the suburbs), but when trying to do something so counter-intuitive, the presence of one on-coming vehicle is enough to constitute traffic.

Dana was a bit faster at picking up driving on the left side of the road. I attribute this to her having constantly driven since she was 16. I have not driven for the past year and a half, so being behind a steering wheel felt like I was starting all over again. The majority of our time driving was spent accompanied by shouts of “dog!” or “pig!” or “you’re driving off the side of the road!” and (when I was driving) “you’re so Samoan!” My sense of space has shifted drastically in my time here, and I never notice until I come in contact with other cultures. In Samoa, drivers tend to drive right down the middle of the road until another vehicle comes along. Then you scoot to your side, pass nicely, and move back to the middle. I was trying really hard to stick to my lane until we decided that I spent enough time with one set of wheels in the grass that it would be better to just drive in the middle. I also tended to pass really close to pedestrians, dogs, cows, or whatever happened to be on the side of the road, which is also very fa’a Samoa (as a pedestrian with plenty of experience being passed by cars in Samoa, I know what it’s like for a car to pass close enough to you for you to touch it without trying). I may have taken us a little too close to the cow parade – you all know what a goose parade is, right? Well, a cow parade is what happens in Samoa. The cows weren’t scared of the car, and I thought I had room and time to pass, but we waited until the road was completely clear before continuing. It took a while, cows don’t herd very easily in Samoa. I also know how to use my horn to indicate everything including telling the driver in front of me that I intend to pass, telling the driver that I am currently passing, telling the driver that I have finished passing, telling the person behind me that they can pass me, and acknowledging pedestrians in the village.

We really hit our stride when I was assigned to be navigator. I know this country pretty well, and even if you get lost, all roads eventually end up back in Apia. I was put in charge of the map for finding our way to sliding rock. Sliding Rock (a section of river with waterfalls that pass for “waterslides” if you are brave enough) is behind Apia. Once I get past the first two intersections in Apia, I have no idea where I am. I never get past the grocery stores. So we had to attempt to navigate on the second main road in Apia, figure out which intersection we needed to turn at, and which direction to turn at later intersections that would take us to where we wanted to go. We had a map with us, and I was in charge of the map. I am an excellent map reader because I got us right to Sliding Rock, and I got us right back out (maybe not exactly the same way, but the easier way) and on the second main road to the main cross island road (did you understand that? Because I did. That’s what happens when you live in Samoa – you can give directions in vagaries – I’m not sure if that’s the word I want, but I hope it gets my point across.)

We saw the entire experience as training for Amazing Race, and I’m pretty sure that made up about 75% of our conversation in the car. I am going to be the navigator (so I should have been sitting in back with a camera man) and Dana will drive, and eventually we will get back to Apia. Fortunately, this trip was not fraught with anxiety about getting somewhere on time (we also talked about that). And the few times we took taxis in town, we talked about how if we ended up in Samoa on the Amazing Race, we would definitely come in first on that episode because I know everybody, can speak the language, know how the buses work, and can give directions to taxi drivers so we’ll never get stuck if we have a taxi driver who doesn’t know where to go. We talked a lot about what would happen if we ended up in Samoa on the Amazing Race. And we also talked a lot about what quotes they would pull from us to name the episodes.

The sisters: She’s an RPCV (I will be by the time I get on Amazing Race), she’s a teacher and camp director, and they both know how to drive stick shift. Nothing will stop them except little fishies that bite their toes.

And maybe the eating challenges.

The Hostess with the Mostest

I am one of the luckiest PCVs in Samoa because not only did my sister spend 36 hours traveling (including a ridiculously long layover in New Zealand) to come visit me, but she did it twice. There were a few differences between the two visits.
When she came to visit me in July last year, I was still getting used to everything about my school, my village, my living situation, and fa’a Samoa in general. Now that I’ve been here longer, I have a better sense of all these things and so I was better able to predict how things would go the second time, and I got less frustrated because I knew that things wouldn’t work the way I wanted them to. For example, we went to get foot massages the last day she was here. I had gone to the place once before when our administrative officer left, and it was possibly the best massage experience I have ever had, so it made the priority list of activities for Dana’s visit. Since I know a bit more about how things work in Samoa, I knew that I wouldn’t have to call for an appointment until the day before, possibly even the day of if I really wanted to push it, and that it would feel vague and uncertain but would most likely work out. The phone call went something like this.

“Hi, I would like to make an appointment for two foot massages tomorrow.” “What time would you like to come in?” “How late are you open?” “On what day?” “Tomorrow.” “We have availability all day.” “What about maybe 2 or 2:30?” “No problem. What is your name?” “Tali.” “Carrie?” “Tali.” “Terri?” “Tali.” “Ok, I have you down for a massage tomorrow.” “There will be two of us.” “Ok, we’ll see you then.”

What time exactly was the appointment? Would we both get massages? And what name was the reservation under? I could have called the next morning to confirm, but I didn’t. We showed up around 2:15, sat around for a bit while they were getting ready in the back room, then both got foot massages. And it is still probably the best massage experience I have ever had. I’ll have to go back again.

The other thing I noticed about this visit is how I was acting towards my sister. When she first came, I was as uncertain about everything as she was. I was still new, and now I was hosting a visitor, and I had no idea how to host her in a country I hardly understood. Now that I feel more comfortable and I know what’s going on, I noticed I was treating her the exact same way everybody else treated me when I first came to Samoa. I wanted to introduce her to absolutely everyone. I wanted to give her exactly what she wanted to eat (although I’m not entirely sure what that is in Samoa given my limited resources) and way too much of it. I was constantly asking her what she wanted to do, if she was hungry, if she was bored, and I was worried about sending her off on her own. She was considering taking the bus into town and walking around for a day while I was at school (it didn’t happen because it was raining pretty much all day every day for almost the entire duration of her trip), and I went over exactly what she would need to know if she did end up doing that.

“You can walk around Apia without really getting lost, but if you don’t know how to get somewhere, just ask someone to point you towards McDonald’s. My buses leave at 10:30, 12:30, 2, and 5, but you’ll want to take the 2 bus home because it is the cushy bus, although I haven’t ridden that one much lately so I’m not as familiar with the driver, but he should know where you’re going and that you’re staying with me. The fare is 5 tala, you pay at the end of the ride. Don’t make eye contact with soles. Everybody speaks at least some English so you should always be able to find someone to tell you what you want to know. Don’t flash your money around. The buses generally leave at the times they are supposed to, but if you want to make sure you get on the bus and get a good seat, you’ll want to show up at least a half hour early. You can take my phone with you.”

And so on and so forth. I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how my mom felt when she let me go to the mall with just my friends for the first time. She dropped us off and picked us up two hours later, and I’m sure she worried about everything the whole time. I wanted to be sure Dana wouldn’t get hurt, that she could find everything she needed, that she would get fed, not get lost, and be able to contact someone in case of an emergency. It seems so silly to me because both she and I have travelled in foreign countries alone before, and I know from my own experience in Samoa that she would have been able to get to and from town without any complications, and she is older than me, but I still worried about her as if she were my own child.

I also noticed that I have become super Samoan in my actions and behaviors. I had to tell my sister to walk slower for the first time in my life. I stop to talk to people all the time. I can only be 80% certain about things – nothing is 100% guaranteed in Samoa. I prefer brightly colored, mismatched outfits (although that has been true for most of my life). I go everywhere in flip flops. I can get rid of dead bugs without flinching and usually without triggering my gag reflex (cockroaches can still do that sometimes).I have strange notions of personal space. I speak so quietly you can’t hear me if you’re sitting next to me, but I sing loudly enough for people three fales away to know I am doing evening prayer. And in terms of being a PCV, I’m sloppy, dirty, fairly competent in an obscure language, and have groups of kids around me all the time. I am a pisikoa and now I know how to host visitors in my country. I will most likely smother you with worry and force feed you peanut butter and jelly (because that’s the simplest familiar food I can provide), but you are welcome any time. If you can handle the horrendous flight path.