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.