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.