Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In Relation

Research has suggested several methods of preventing Alzheimer’s – my personal favorite being any kind of puzzle or brainteaser – but recently came up with an even simpler solution. Just have a conversation with someone else. Surprised? Well, kinda. I wasn’t expecting something so easy, but it makes perfect sense. Negotiating a conversation requires a whole slew of processing activities that exercise just about everything that can be exercised in your gray matter. Have enough conversations and eventually a relationship will form, making the entire thing even more complicated.

Relationships range over an endless spectrum of closeness, intimacy, security, honesty, shared experience, shared interest (and so on and so forth, forever and ever, amen) and are built and sustained for any number of reasons. In the broadest sense, I would categorize relationships in two ways – those of choice, and those of non-choice (or maybe baggage would be a good way to put it – those people in your life that you don’t get to have a say about – they’re there whether you want them or not). Even this division of relationships is inadequate because there is too much cross-over. Both categories can include friends, family, significant others, acquaintances, co-workers, bosses, nosy kids, well-intentioned matriarchs, or the check-out clerk at the store you always go to and somehow always end up in their line. Moreover, every relationship changes its status continually, and an acquaintance of convenience can turn into your best friend at the slightest prompting, or your hairdresser can help you solve all your life problems. Nothing is static and everything must be continually renegotiated.

I have plenty of relationships of non-choice in Peace Corps. I didn’t choose my country of service, my job, the other PCVs in my group, my village, my host family, or pretty much anything else concerning the basics of my life here. In general, relationships of non-choice require diplomacy, some degree of going along to get along, and as much patience and level-headedness as you can muster. Once the beginning phase of a non-choice relationship has passed (usually marked by the recession or complete disappearance of awkwardness that comes with forced interactions), it tends to settle into a formal level of familiarity. These people most likely will never be my best friend, but they will be in my life for better or worse, so let’s aim for better. Brief conversations, basic interactions, and small requests tend to be the extent of my non-choice relationships. Nothing more than what is absolutely required. I don’t put much into the relationship and I don’t get much out of it, but it’s there in case I need to draw on it for something else.

Negotiating choice relationships is much more difficult because they are significantly more dynamic and therefore require a higher level of effort and energy. Choice relationships require an input of compromise, sincerity, sensitivity, and respect, and provide an output of friendship, laughter, connection, and heartbreak. Some choice relationships happen easily and naturally without any added impetus. Some start off one-sided and must be doggedly pursued with monumental effort to produce the desired relationship. Because they are relationships of choice, they are much more valuable and therefore more susceptible to misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and disappointment. The people we care about most are also the ones most likely to cause pain because we put our heart and soul into the relationship. It requires great sacrifice at a great cost, but these relationships are also unavoidably necessary because the benefits, satisfaction, and happiness gained from a good relationship cannot be substituted with anything else.

In my experience, I have found that the necessity of interpersonal relationship transcends cultural differences, but the specific form of the relationship varies greatly. In Samoa, the most important relationship is the family. That is why every PCV in Samoa is “assigned” a “host family,” although what happens beyond the official statement is entirely up to personal choice. On top of my host family, I have adopted three chosen families to add to my village connections, and those families are the source of most of my friends. Friendship isn’t quite the same as it is in the States, and I often find myself frustrated with my inability to overcome the cultural differences, or at least absorb them in with the relationship. Friendships are more sporadic; the relationship I have with my best friends in my village doesn’t even compare to the relationship I have with my best friend in Peace Corps, even though I have access to the girls in my village on a daily basis. Everyone here has relationships with everyone else, but they mostly seem to be the kind of relationship where each side puts in as much as they need to in order to get out what they want so that (supposedly) everyone benefits. It’s a very economical way of going about relationships, I’ll give it that, but I find it equally frustrating as it is satisfying.

Relationships are fundamental for life in so many ways. The connections you have with others lead to quantifiable benefits like jobs, networks, and favors, but the immaterial benefits are the most important aspect. The sense of belonging, contribution, personal worth, and happiness that come from connecting with other people is invaluable. Unfortunately, we cannot just start talking to other people and hope to gain all these benefits. Relationships involve more than one person, and not everyone puts in the same effort, or gets back the same returns. It’s a constant give and take, and some people take more than they give. In reality, we don’t have – or at least shouldn’t have – the luxury of being selective about who we talk to, who we help, and how. Your responsibility as a human being is to live in relation with other human beings, and when people get picky, it falls apart. Everyone deserves your respect, patience, love, and support – that is the easiest and hardest way to make the world a better place.

Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them,
“Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud;
Someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us
To connect.
Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,
With that sweet moon
What every other eye in this world
Is dying to

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Such a Fa'alavelave

I’m sure this is old news to anybody who reads my blog, or has heard anything about my Peace Corps experience, or talks to anyone who has heard anything about my Peace Corps experience – I live in the church hall. My fale hosts Sunday school, youth group, dance practice, meetings, weddings, funerals, the occasional bingo, pastor’s school, community works…you name it, it happens here. My fale also hosts receptions for visiting pastors. Fortunately for me, this is just a half day event and I’m not hosting long-term guests in my fale. It happened a lot when I first got here, then we went a few months without any visiting pastors, and lately it’s been happening again. Maybe once every 4-6 weeks. It’s a small fa’alavelave in the grand scheme of fa’alavelaves (quick definition, fa'alavelave literally translates as "disturb" and generally refers to big events like weddings and funerals), but it’s got all the makings of a traditional ceremony.

The morning isn’t so exciting. The pastor comes over around the time Sunday school normally starts. Sunday school relocates to the church building, and my fale is swept clean, mats arranged, rearranged, and rearranged again until the floor is acceptably covered. All the dishes are taken out of the chests they normally stay locked in, rinsed, and readied for tea. When the pastor arrives, breakfast is served. It usually includes egg salad sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, crackers with butter, something traditional like papaya soup or koko rice, and sometimes it includes cake or pie. And of course tea. Breakfast isn’t the big deal, it’s just the introduction.

After church, everyone reconvenes at my fale for a huge, traditional to’ana’i. This is when the real fa’alavelave happens. The guests (the people with the places of honor who are served food) include the matais, matais wives, Sunday school/youth group leaders, and other people who have some kind of important role in the church. The people who do the serving are members of the youth group and Sunday school, who are usually about my age and younger. The aualuma – the women of the church –arrange the food on plates and clean everything up at the end. I, of course, am a guest of honor, although I am always reluctant to accept that status. I always make a small attempt at helping with the chores (like laying out mats at 6:30 in the morning, rinsing dishes, or arranging food), but everyone else seems to know so much better what needs to be done and how it will look best. So I putz around and try to stay out of the way until somebody tells me where to sit.

The ceremony begins with a speech from the talking chief. The talking chief introduces everyone, thanks the guest for visiting, and calls out the gifts as they are presented. The standard gifts in a fa’alavelave include a sua (a combination of a drinking coconut, money, and cloth), a small gift of food (usually a huge can of corned beef and a package of crackers), fine mats, boxes of tinned fish, and a pre-determined amount of money called the pasese to cover the cost of travel (although it always covers much more than the cost of travel).

Then comes the meal. The guests of honor (whoever is visiting, the high chiefs of the village and their wives, me) sit in the main room of the fale, and the other important members of the church (Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders, etc) sit out on the porch. The members of the youth group and Sunday school serve the food. Bowls of water and towels are brought out first so everyone can rinse their hands before eating. Then tray after tray after tray of food is brought out. Seriously, one guest of high honor (person sitting inside) gets enough food to feed at least a family of four. Even when I ai malosi (eat strong), you can’t even tell I’ve taken anything off my plate. The meal usually includes a mix of traditional Samoan food (taro, palusami, fish, etc) and palagi food (potato salad, egg salad, fried chicken with ketchup). The main guest is served first (in this case, the visiting pastor), then it usually goes to matais and their wives in descending order of importance. I’ve been around long enough now to have finally earned the status of being served last at these particular fa’alavelaves at my fale, but I am frequently served first or second at other fa’alavelaves. After the meal come more speeches. The main guest says a big thank you and apologizes for anything they might have done wrong, then a few of the matais say a thank you and a blessing in response. And someone always asks the guest if they know a good boy for the Pisikoa. My Samoan is good enough now that I can follow the gist of a fa’alavelave like this, and although I don’t catch everything, I’m usually aware of it when they talk about me and know how to respond appropriately (whether I should introduce myself or call someone else cheeky).

When we were PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) we heard a lot about traditional Samoan culture in our training and language classes, but I never really noticed the traditional culture in everyday life. Ya, everyone makes an umu on Sundays for the traditional meal, but what about the songs and dances, the ava ceremony, and all the responsibilities of those with different matai titles? Everyone talks about it a lot, but it doesn’t happen a lot. I think part of this is because Samoa is fairly well developed. I wouldn’t call it a third-world country, and the culture has become diluted through globalization. Western influence is obvious everywhere you look (I say this now, what would I have said when I first got here?) But I think the best thing to compare the traditional cultural ceremonies to would be a holiday or a special get-together back in the States. You don’t make a big deal out of every single occasion, but the semi-big and big events warrant more planning, preparation, and fuss. So even though I don’t see traditional Samoan culture everywhere I look every single day, I get a lot more of it than I realized.

This is one of the perks of living in the church hall. The thing I wanted most out of being a Peace Corps Volunteer (other than changing the world, of course) was the cultural experience. Living in an unimaginable country, learning an obscure language, and leading a different life. It was hard to see when I first got here (well, it was easy to see, but I wasn’t exactly living it yet – still stuck in the tourist phase), but that’s what I have now. When I first got here, I hated being on display for everyone and having things going on around me all the time. It never seemed to settle down, and I needed it to settle down before I could even begin to feel marginally comfortable with it. Two years in, that has finally happened. It’s familiar (at least with the fa’alavelave of a visiting pastor at my fale. I was across the village for a family dinner the other night and there was a family fa’alavelave happening, and I felt all kinds of out of place). Although I’m still really awkward with my guest of honor status, I’m trying to accept that I will always have it here, and I think it makes it easier for all involved (myself included) if I embody my status rather than pretending it doesn’t exist and cringing under all the special treatment. I hated that I was so rural, and so geographically separated from the Peace Corps office and all the other PCVs, but now I love it because it has given me such a great opportunity to get involved with my village. My lack of options, which I hated at the start, eventually forced me into the exact situation I was hoping for. I don’t know if any other PCV in Samoa can say that they regularly attend traditional fa’alavelaves and get the same exposure to the culture that I do. Good grief, it was a long struggle to get here, but I’m so lucky that things worked out this way.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Live to Run to Live

I have a love/hate relationship with running. 80% of the time, I love running. Running is my preferred method of meditation because I go running and don’t think about anything. I focus on my breathing, occasionally get a good look at the scenery around me (although some dogs still take me by surprise), and don’t really think about anything. It’s beautiful. The other 20% of the time, I hate it because I have side cramps, knee pain, can’t breathe, look like an idiot, or all of the above. The problem with running is the idea of running. It doesn’t sound at all pleasant. What, you just run for 30 minutes down the road? No music (because not all the cars are loud enough for you to hear them coming up behind you)? And you end up drowning in a pool of your own sweat, completely out of breath, and a good 10 degrees hotter than the human body can survive? And that’s only in normal circumstances. Don’t even get me started on the heat and humidity in Samoa. If the sun is even remotely in the sky when you run in Samoa, you can feel the heat of the road burning through your shoes within five minutes of starting to run. Running for exercise? No thanks, I can sit and sweat to death here. Running for fun? Ridiculous.

This is just a quick list of all the difficulties, problems, and hindrances to running in Samoa
• Dogs
• Children who laugh at you
• Children who throw rocks at you
• Children who chase you
• Heat
• Humidity
• Limited availability of athletic gear in Samoa
• Inhibitive cost of any athletic gear available in Samoa
• The destructive power of Samoa (I’m on my third pair of running shoes in a year and a half. I can make each pair last at least 2 years in the States)
• People who laugh at you because nobody in their right mind runs in Samoa
• Roads riddled with potholes
• The possibility of drowning in your sweat
• Heat and humidity
• Dogs

Despite all that, I still manage to run on a semi-regular basis. Forget any real training plan – weather and life in Samoa don’t allow for planned schedules like that. It’s unbeatable for clearing my mind, and it’s the easiest way to exercise. Not to mention, it’s part of my Pisikoa identity now. Everyone in my district knows that I’m the palagi who runs on the road. I go both directions out from my fale. For short but high-intensity runs, I turn to the left. It’s all rolling hills, with a couple that feel more like mountains than of hills. For long runs, I turn to the right. Past the first mile, it’s basically flat, and it’s all along the coast so the scenery is gorgeous. And no matter which direction I go, I get people waving to me and calling out my name.

I prefer to run alone because I see it as meditation, so I always try to gently but firmly discourage kids who chase me or run alongside me. If I can’t discourage them, they eventually drop out because I usually have more endurance than them. However, more and more kids have been asking to run with me. The other day, one of my Year 5 students brought it up in class, and all of a sudden the entire class was begging to run with me. What could I say to that? So I told them we would go running together after school on Friday (schedule a specific time to run with kids so I can still keep my other runs to myself for the purpose of peace of mind).

Year 5 quickly spilled over into Year 6 and 7, then Year 4 and 8 heard about it, and by Friday, almost every single kid in school was planning to run with me. What could I do with 170 students on the road? Nothing, so we limited it to Years 4-8 because those are the grades I work with and they are familiar with me. I sent up a frantic prayer asking that no kid get hit by a car, and we set off. We left from the school, went to the edge of the village, and came back to the school. We encountered plenty of cars, but all the kids have enough experience with the road to know to get out of the way when cars come along, so fortunately there were no casualties. We ran a little, walked a little, ran a little more, and then took a break at our halfway point. Then we repeated the whole thing until we got back to school. A couple kids looked like they were going to pass out or maybe die by the end, but they all just walked it off and everyone told me it was great and that they’re going to do it again next week. Who knows? Some of them were still really excited about it when it was all over with.

I took my camera running with me, but unfortunately the battery died shortly after we hit our halfway mark, so I missed the best pictures – the ones of all the kids lying sprawled out on the road and the lawn during our walking/break periods. Next time. Also, for your viewing pleasure, my three pairs of running shoes, and what my laundry water looks like after I wash my running clothes. That particular picture actually shows the second round of soaking, not the first. It was a particularly sweaty and busy week, so I only washed my clothes once at the end of the week instead of rinsing them after each run.

Things To Be Happy About

My most recent conversation with the PC Medical Officer went something like this:

“Teuila, I am mad at the world and I’ve been mad at the world for what feels like forever. I don’t want to talk to any other PCVs, I don’t want to talk to anyone in my village, and I don’t have patience for anything anymore. What can I do?”
“Well, that’s actually to be expected at about this time in your service. When you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, a lot of PCVs don’t have as much patience for things that they tolerated earlier. And you’re not the only person who has called me feeling this way.”

I’m pretty sure over the past few weeks every single PCV has heard me say “I’m mad at the world and I don’t want to talk to anybody.” Glad to know it’s to be expected. So what to do about it? Mostly, I “forget my phone” (meaning I turn it off whenever I don’t want to talk to people). I’m occasionally tempted to take a walk and not come back for a few days, but I usually end up locking myself in my room when that happens. Probably safer that way. Otherwise, I try to distract myself with something unrelated and happy.

One of my favorite books is “14,000 Things to be Happy About,” and it is literally just a list of various things that make the author happy. So I started my own list when I came to Samoa (what actually inspired me to do that was breadfruit. Breadfruit makes the list in the book, and I had no idea what it was until I got to Samoa and discovered it is one of my favorite foods). I figure this is a good distraction right about now. It’s nowhere near 14,000 things to be happy about, but I think it’s a good list anyway.

• Going to the beach and only staying for a half hour because you can come back any time you want
• Breadfruit
• The smell of the ula (flower) necklaces
• Anything covered in coconut cream
• Successful hitchhiking
• Masi popo
• How much more delicious fresh tropical fruit is when it is locally grown, in season, and eaten in a tropical climate
• Watching the pig parade
• Having the beach to yourself
• When you notice progress in your students
• Catching a magical bus-taxi (a taxi that has the same fare as the bus)
• Drinking straight from the coconut
• That integrated feeling
• Having a support crew for your first time at Bingo
• The infinite sky
• Watching 4- and 5-year-olds try valiantly to keep up with the group dance routine
• Being struck by the breathtaking natural beauty everywhere
• Those rare (but becoming more frequent) occasions when you can laugh because nothing makes sense and nothing turned out the way you expected
• Finally getting to the rewarding part of having patience
• Watching live sports every night in your front yard, from the comfort of your porch
• The simple luxury of flushing a toilet
• The meditative feeling of washing laundry at the waterfall
• Getting down to business and finally being productive
• Feeling comfortable and familiar in your village
• When it rains enough to fill your bucket
• Understanding 90% of a conversation with the neighbor kids
• Accomplishing something small but difficult
• Meeting new people
• A good night’s sleep
• Little kids who aren’t afraid of you
• Receiving dancing and coconut husking lessons from Year 3 girls
• A rejuvenating afternoon nap
• How every single part of the coconut is put to a different use
• Falling asleep to the sound of real ocean waves
• Breathtaking sunrises every single day
• Air drying in the sun and a nice breeze as you walk home after a shower
• Talking to palagis who are riding a Samoan bus for the first time and being appointed the source of knowledge on all things Samoa
• Riding in the back of a pick-up truck along the coast
• Pockets of rain from a blue sky
• Being walked home an dropped off by all the old women on the women’s committee
• Sing-alongs in the car cobbled together by English and Samoan songs and limited language
• Living life close to nature
• Seeing your students excited about something educational
• When you can leave a bad mood behind
• Being occasionally excited for bad weather and the opportunity to wear warm clothes, use a blanket, and drink hot tea
• The smell of laundry detergent and soap, indicating that water has been running recently
• Watching a group of kids, all under 3 feet tall, lob fistfuls of dry grass at each other
• Sitting on the porch at sunset with a mug of tea, watching the sun paint the sky against a silhouette of palm trees
• Taking a shower under a waterfall with the beach 50 feet away
• Mango season
• The well-earned reward of getting into bed after hand washing your sheets at the waterfall and hanging them out to dry all day
• Looking forward to going back to your village
• Proud teacher moments
• Uncontrollable laughter