Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Red Sequined Flip Flops

Bed Bugs, Giant Centipedes, and Rats. Oh My!
If Dorothy had figured out within the first ten minutes of the film that the Wizard of Oz was never going to be what she expected, would she still have done the whole thing?
I once knew a place that was black, white, gray, and sometimes a tone of sepia would pop in there. Growing up, as we all know, steals that easy dichotomy of right and wrong, black and white. We’re thrown into a land of color, Technicolor, and as we try to figure out what we should be doing with our lives, how to make this all matter, we find ourselves following yellow brick roads. Well, throw me into a blue and white checkered smock because now that I’m in Samoa, my hair is often in braids like dear Dorothy (one braid and to the side, but trust me, the metaphor will work despite the lack of hair fidelity).
The witch’s hat has been replaced with a pair of sunglasses and a fake flower. She doesn’t have green skin, but the Wicked Witch of the West does strike fear into little short people. When my nemesis appears, children stop whatever they’re doing, laughter ceases, smiles fade, eyes lower, and voices quiet. Fear. The little munchkins are truly afraid of her. For the sake of ambiguity, I will not state who the Wicked Witch is, but if you have spoken with me in the last few months, trust your instinct. She is who you think she is. And if a house fell on her, a house we will call MESC, I wouldn’t be heartbroken. I would probably do a celebratory click of the heels with Toto. Toto, of course, would be my little brother from Tafitoala, Tala. I don’t think he’d be afraid to bite the heel of Mrs. Gulch, which he would immediately follow with a dance of his own.
I’m afraid I wasn’t able to imagine quite perfect metaphors for Dorothy’s three amigos. Rather, the three things they search for, I fear I have lost and am now trying to regain. Ironically, these three things, heart, intelligence, and courage, were the very things that made me travel to the fabled land of Oz. Facing a completely new culture, one has to compromise oneself. Don’t be frightened by that statement; it’s a fact of Oz, a fact that anyone hoping to be caught in that tornado and thrown into a foreign land needs to know before looking into that crystal ball. Vast generalizations are often made by us volunteers from observations we have made. These stereotypes may be wrong, possibly, but this is quite a small place and we have seen most of it and in so doing, we have unfortunately lost some of the tolerance, some of that hope that compelled us to come here in the first place. I, for one, have also realized that maybe, just maybe, grad school would have been the right decision immediately after college. I’m dying to learn more, but my legs are wobbly and the straw is falling out. Courage? Well, it got me here. I’m counting on it to help me stay.
I don’t know where those flying monkeys got their wings, or their little vests and fez hats, but if I did, I would surely purchase them in bulk and outfit the cheeky men of Samoa to match their Oz counterparts. Ever-annoying, and really just clueless, a lot of Samoan men, not all, but a lot have no idea what it means to be respectful to women. There is no place one can go without an annoying flying monkey saying, “Hey baby,” or grazing your leg as you walk down the sidewalk. Just as you are about to pick an apple from a tree, the tree turns on you, and a freakin’ flying monkey comes out of a nowhere to ruin any good mood that existed. Can’t the monkeys just take off the wings, lose the vest, forget pretensions and be respectful? Why they always gotta be harassing Dorothy? She’s just doing her best, trying to get home in one piece, and maybe along the way, saving those little munchkins from a tyrannical ruler.
Now, Glinda the Good Witch. I bet if one were to look up literary or film analyses of the Wiz, Glinda probably turns out to represent some sort of hallucinogen. Well, not much has changed. Glinda, with her feel-good vibe, is most likely Samoa’s own Vailima beer. Need I elaborate more?
Sadly, my Oz doesn’t have nearly as much singing or dancing. Unless we are all at VBar. And thanks to one volunteer, we can all do the hip-out-swivel-drink-in-the-air-eyes-to-the-sky choreographed number. Oddly enough, though, we do often find ourselves rocking out to the occasional Backstreet Boys jam. (Sorry NSYNC; I know, one of you brought sexy back and all, but “Bye, Bye, Bye” just hasn’t stood the test of time like “I Want it That Way.”)
How does the story end? Well, we all know it. After Dorothy’s long trek, she finally meets the Wizard of Oz. She pulls back that curtain and realizes he was never what he was meant to be. Well, I’ve pulled back that curtain too and behind it is disillusionment and disappointment. That man behind the curtain is the whole Peace Corps experience, the whole bravado. The mythology.
Although the Wizard of Oz so succinctly tells us the moral of the endeavor, even though it may be true, I will not be so cliché, but I will end with a little T.S. Eliot.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Fa'alavelave of the Red Puletasi

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, fa'alavelave is defined as "a huge pain in the ass." In short, anything that is immensely incomvenient or causes some sort of disturbance is a fa'alavelave. Funerals, weddings, going to Apia, strappy sandals in a country in which one must take off shoes before entering a home, trying to get something sewn on extremely short notice.

To my great dismay and frustration, last Friday I discovered that I was supposed to have a brand new red puletasi for this Monday for training that was taking place at our school. As another pisikoa said the other day, "Knowing what's going on in your life is a luxury in Samoa." And let the fa'alavelave begin.

Saturday after an early rehearsal with the National Samoan Orchestra, I ran to a store in Apia to buy the puletasi fabric, ventured back to my village, and quickly walked to a neighbor's house. Sina would accompany me to the suisui (seamstress) in my village in order to quickly get around any language or cultural barriers that would slow the puletasi process. (For those unfortunately unfamiliar with Samoan fashion, a puletasi is what teachers wear to school; it's basically a wrap-around skirt with a top. A puletasi immediately identifies anyone as a teacher. I now have ten, which I think is equivalent to having seventy pairs of shoes.) After arriving at the suisui's house and unceremoniously waking up one of the family members, Sina and I quickly realized after said family member monotonously tries to wake the suisui from her slumber in the Samoan way we have all still raise an eyebrow at, that we were out of luck. This lady ain't waking up to sew no puletasi today.

Next option, a fa'afafine suisui in Lalomauga, the next village over. (Fa'afafine is the third gender in Samoa, also known as fifty-fifties. In a short generalization that does not do the subject justice, a fa'afafine is a man who was raised as a girl so that she can perform both male and female duties. Sometimes fa'afafines are homosexual, sometimes not. They usually always dress as a woman.) We get Sina's brother, Peni (pronounced Benny) to give us a ride there (which is a fa'alavelave in and of itself in a country where cars are not the norm). We arrive at the suisui's house, but she is not there. So we leave the fabric with the intention of coming back the next day before church to get my measurements taken. She'll then sew the puletasi and we will retrieve it Sunday night, just in time for school Monday.

However. (Of course there's a 'however.' This wouldn't be a fa'alavelave without a 'however.') My pulea'oga (principal) came over Saturday night to inform me that I must take my fabric to a suisui in Solosolo, a village halfway between here and Apia, because she will put a pattern on the fabric and sew the puletasi so all the teachers are completely uniform. Is it possible, my ever-so-understanding pule wants to know, if I can get my fabric back from the suisui in Lalomauga? Why, of course. It's not like I've been going out of my way for this puletasi anyway.

Sunday morning comes and I head to Sina's house. She thinks I've arrived to go get my measurements taken, but no. I have to inform her that we somehow have to culturally and politely get my fabric back. Turns out, this isn't so hard. My pule has informed me that she will come to my house sometime Sunday night to take me to Solosolo. What time, you ask. Well, who knows? That's really not important. Needless to say, my pule doesn't come. Luckily, the puletasi will be for Tuesday and not the very next day. One day of wiggle room.

After a day of boring training that doesn't really apply to pisikoa, I head to Solosolo with the teacher who lives there. The suisui isn't home. Is she at bingo? Nope. She's in Apia. We'll just have to wait until she gets back. So, while my teacher, Lola, stays at bingo, I head to the nearby faleoloa (shop) where the pisikoa from Solosolo, Katie, hangs out. and we kafao. This word, kafao, learn it. Next time you are in Samoa, just say, "Kafao," and you won't have to do anything.

After drinking two free Cokes from the store and chatting with the store owner and her daughter Jebra (that's kind of a sweet name) about some slang we recently learned in our own training (things like: "Aua le pesto," or "Sa pese agapo?", or what's good to know but never to say to someone: "Fai ska mea?") the little pepe (baby) Angelo toddles outside. This kid is adorable and makes me hardcore miss Tala from Tafitoala. Lo, as he's called (Samoan names get shortened to the last part), can hold up one finger when you ask how old he is, moos like a cow when you say, in Samoan, "cry cow", and when you say the Samoan word for 'tease,' he sticks out his tongue. What more can you ask for in a one year old?

Well, bingo finishes and the suisui still hasn't shown. So Katie and I head to her 'house' on the school compound which is really a small classroom that has been renovated into a suitable living situation. She gives me the grand tour and shows me the whole in the fence from where, the previous night, someone got into the compound and...wait for it...stole four pairs of underwear which were hung out to dry, which, inevitably and undeniably becomes a huge joke in her village. And let's face it, it is pretty funny. Creepy, but here we like to say that it's funny and a good Peace Corps story to tell later. After sufficient kafao at her house, we head back to the faleoloa so we dont' get stuck at her place during sa, or curfew. And we just sit next to the faleoloa while the matai (high chiefs) patrol the roads to make sure no one is walking. this is the allotted daily time for prayer. Do it. If you don't do it, make everyone think you do it. Turn down the volume on your TVs, pray if you really want, sing if your ambitious (or just really want the village to know your undying devotion), maybe a little 'Fa'fetai i le Atua'.

(At some point earlier, I really can't remember when, the suisui did show. We bring her my fabric, she takes my measurements, and then we wait, like everything in Samoa, we wait.) Back to curfew. It's uma (done). So we go to Lola's house and Katie and I depart ways so she can get back to her house before her water is turned off. Lola's family has just finished singing their evening prayer and I awkwardly sit next to the man of the house who is seventy-six. We talk about how old my parents are, if they're still alive (oddly enough, this is not a strange question here, the assumption being that if a palagi leaves their family it must be because they have no family), the shock that I'm an only child (something that always baffles Samoans) and that I'm a long way from home. I talk to Lola's daughter who is a year 6 at my school and watch while a few babies wander around. At one point, Lola's thirty year old son comes out of nowhere and chats with me. He gets a phone call and leaves and the man of the house asks, "Do you know him?" Nope, not at all.

Eventually Lola and I head back to the suisui's house. Her husband has just arrived and he will do the print. Her name is Vailolo and his name is Toa. They are two of the nicest people I've met recently. While he rolls the print on the fabric and she dries the print with a blow-dryer, some neighborhood tamaiti (children) call out "PALAGI! PALAGI!" (White person! Non-Samoan! Foreigner! Take your pick.) I wave. They continue shouting as their giggles permeate the night. Eventually I yell back, "O fea le palagi? O fea? Oe?" (Where's the palagi? Where? You?") This gets huge laughs from the kids and from Lola and Vailolo. It might've scored me some brownie points with Lola too, and I will take anything to impress the teachers at my school. The kids keep coming around, sticking their faces around the corner, so I make faces at them, and they laugh, and run. every once in a while, a call of PALAGI will be heard again. I catch one of the kids before he runs away and reply, "SAMOAN!" Again, this cracks everyone up and I am immensely pleased with the reaction. This is the kind of politically incorrect joke that wins hearts here. But Vailolo and Toa are super cool and know that it isn't the coolest thing for their kids to be shouting out my skin color, so eventually they yell, "Soia. Sasa." (Stop, or I'll hit you.) the sewing machine continues, Vailolo's foot pushes the pedal, a pig is found under a bench in the kitchen, a cat with half a tail walks around. And rain pounds on the metal roofs. Rain here is like rain I've experienced nowhere else, perhaps because the sound of the drops echoes off the roofs and bounces between houses.

I'm using Samoan when I can and Vailolo and Toa dont' care if I can't say everything in Samoan. The sewing is nearing its conclusion and as I try on the top piece and tie the bottom around my waist, Vailolo tells me that next time I need a puletasi made, she will do it for free. This is one of the nicest things someone has offered to do for me in a while, and I feel honored. Toa tells me I'm the first palagi he has hosted and as he and his nephew drive me back to Falefa around 10:30 with a finally-finished red puletasi, he invites me to toana'i (Sunday post-church lunch) any time I can come. As some of you readers may know, I've had a really, really difficult time lately, but Toa says possibly the one thing I've needed to hear for a while now: "You're volunteering here to help the children of Samoa. You're in a completely different country. A free puletasi is the least we can do for you. Thank you."

I sit in the back seat, a slight smile on my face, maybe a tear or two appearing in the corner of my eye, as I look at the stars in the sky and the ocean waves crashing against the rocks next to the road, and the wind blows back my hair.

And that red puletasi? It might be my favorite one.