Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Breaking Up with Evan

On September 29, 2009, Samoa was devastated by a tsunami that killed many. On December 13, 2012, Samoa was rocked by Hurricane Evan which has killed three and left eight more missing. I moved to Samoa in October of 2010, a year after the tsunami. I left Samoa on November 17, 2012, almost a month to the day before my very own beachfront fale was damaged by Evan. I escaped both Samoan tragedies unscathed. However, it seems I may have left my heart in that eternal Samoan summer.

            Since I’ve returned to Minnesota I’ve done a little research about the tsunami that hit the south side of Upolu. Little did I know the damage it caused. I didn’t know how many people (including tourists vacationing in paradise) were killed. I didn’t know that one of my closest friends, Tele, saved a woman’s life or that he almost died himself. I didn’t know that one of my favorite places in the world, Taufua Beach Fales, was literally washed away. Then just a few weeks after I said tofa soifua to Samoa, nature decided to hit Samoa again. This post is about what it’s like to not be where you want to be, to not be with people you care about, to check Facebook too many times a day for updates, pictures, anything letting you know that your November goodbye wasn’t officially the last goodbye you would ever have with that place and those people.

            Un-eloquently, it’s hard to be here and not there. Readjustment is hard. Being in cold, boring Minnesota is hard. Give me hot, boring, everyday Samoa. That boredom now doesn’t seem so boring. There was something about the adventure that was the Peace Corps that I miss every day. I see group 84’s (the newest group of Peace Corps volunteers) pictures online and I’m jealous. I’m jealous that they are just starting this adventure and that my life is utterly unexciting now with no solid plans for the future and the feeling that I’m not living a life anymore, the feeling that I’m just biding my time. The feeling that I’m not doing anything with my life anymore. It’s tough and I’m sure it’s what a lot of Returned Peace Corps volunteers feel. Perhaps my feelings are all the more poignant because I evolved from being a person who hated Samoa to someone who just wants to get back there. I think my fellow volunteers and some close friends back home who kept in touch over the last two years would be surprised about my feelings. Even as of last September I was still pondering whether or not going to Samoa might have been the worst decision I ever made. It wasn’t. I can say that now with 95% certainty. With all the drama, pain, and tears I experienced, I wouldn’t trade it for a happier, vanilla experience. Pieces of my heart still seem to be scattered throughout Samoa. Thankfully, those places and those people all seem to have fared well throughout Cyclone Evan. Everyone is alive, even though it seems that every fale has been damaged (including my own).

            Moving on and readjustment will happen once I’m finally distracted again by my own life. After washing my clothes in my Samoan host family’s washing machine, I would hang up my laundry on my clothesline mere feet from the South Pacific. Leaving Samoa is sort of like breaking up with someone. Cheesy, right? But true. These next few lines from a break-up poem fit so poignantly.

                        I give up my clothes which are walls that blow in the wind

                        And I give up the ghost that lives in them.

-          Mark Strand, “Giving Myself Up

Evan, you did not make the ‘moving-on’ process any easier.



            Most of the following pictures come from Seti Afoa’s Facebook page, a man who has done an incredible job keeping Samoans abroad updated through photos. And yes, ou a’u teine Samoa taimi nei. (I am a Samoan girl now.) You can’t live in a place for two years and experience some of the most extreme emotions without becoming attached to a place. A few photos I took myself. Other photos come from everyone’s friend, Google.

This is a link to a video taken by Kyle Kincaid, an RPCV currently living in Samoa. His village was Sauano, just up the mountian past Falefa. The video starts about 1/4 of the way into Falefa and goes over the bridge at Falefa Falls.
View of Apia from Central Bank--Before

After--The pulu trees in front of Central Bank

Central Bank

The bridge near the Peace Corps office and Aggie Grey's Hotel
Log Jam from the River
This river is the reason for the deaths
Burst it's Banks

The same river as seen from Pasefika Inn--Before

The Pool behind Pasefika Inn--Before


After the Flood Drained
Pasefika Inn and the Peace Corps Office next to KK Mart--Before

Cleaning Up--After

Cleaning Out the Peace Corps Office

The following pictures effectively create a map to my village of Falefa
This picture comes from Lauli'i

Cone marking a downed power line

Ingenious use of hubcaps (Hubcaps?)

The bridge in Luatuanu'u

Filling the Hole

This house was just built within the last few months
It is directly across from the ocean

Near Solosolo-another Peace Corps village
The banana palms look chopped in half

In my home of Falefa
This tree fell right on a faleoloa (shop) right next to one of my
student's houses

The tree has been removed and it looks like only minor damage to the roof

The vaita'ele (pool) and falefono (meeting house)
across the street from where I usually waited for the bus
after a day at school to go to town

My usual walk home after school
Mose's Shop--where I did all my village shopping

Right in front of my family's church
Atalani and Salote (two girls who lived at my host family's house)
safe and sound, walking to the faleoloa
My house is just past the car on the road
My Fale--Before


The big white thing toward the right of the picture--
I think that is part of my kitchen that ripped from the house--
waiting for more pictures of my fale

Go Da Manu House--Before

Falefa Falls--Perhaps During or Slightly Before

This woman said hi to me every morning on my way to school

In the middle is my student Gabriel

Home of the Lady Ashleigh Bus--
One of my favorite buses to take to town thanks to the nice bus driver

Where Falefa turns into Falevao

View of Falefa from the mountain
The biggest building is the Catholic Church
Toward the right of the picture is the EFKS church (my family's church),
the church hall, host-family's house, and my fale

Headed East
The palms are decimated

Lemafa Pass
Land Slide

Near Lalomanu
The tree saved the faleoloa from the electicity pole

Tis the Season
to sell taro after a cyclone while wearing a Santa hat

Playing voli (volleyball) in the road

Togitogiga Falls

The Church in Mulivai--another Peace Corps Village

Tafitoala--my training village

Ever-Smiling Samoan Children


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Raised By Wolves - Published

Unfortunately, I must remove my original blog post entitled "Raised by Wolves."

Fortunately, I'm removing it because a more polished version has been published with the online travel magazine Hackwriters.

Check it out!

(Copy and pasted below is the comment the original blog post recieved.)

(That was a really intriguing read Samantha. As a Samoan born and raised in NZ, I can confirm that we live much the same way as the Samoans described in your post: extended family, internal adoption, multiple offspring, financial support for parents etc. Although it's easier in NZ to have your own money and live separately, we are often obliged to still support our parents. I can also confirm your perceptions are correct – those are probably exactly the thoughts Samoans have when asking you those questions. But perceptions are made to be broken. As a Samoan in NZ I can see the positives and negatives of having only one child. The more they see you and your sharing heart, the more likely they will change their perception of Western children from a one-child family. Keep up the great work. Soifua!)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Bridges are Burning

Two years in and I now know how to tie my lavalava: just tuck the damn thing into your shorts.

With only thirty-nine days left in Samoa, I think it’s time for a little waxing and waning. Not like I haven’t been doing that during this entire adventure, but now it’s time to put the last year (or two) in a nutshell.

First things first, it’s still really hard being here. Samoa did not stop testing and challenging me this second year. Second things second, I’m going to miss this place a lot when I go home.

Where to start? Regrets? Not becoming fluent in Samoan; not being able to have a conversation about meaningful things in Samoan. I’ve got enough to get by, but one of the reasons I set out on this excursion was to become fluent in a third language. I regret not participating more in my village. I regret that I’m too serious and that that characteristic held me back from being an active participant in the village lifestyle. I regret that I put so much weight on the happiness derived from the wrong places. I regret that I let myself need one particular person so much; that I couldn’t completely do this on my own….maybe that last bit isn’t anything to regret—everybody wants someone rooting in their corner. I regret that I’m not sure of myself anymore…I think two years in a foreign culture might do that to anyone.

…as I try to nutshell the past year, nothing jumps forward and I find myself staring out my window at the ocean and the only thoughts that come are of what I will miss. I will miss that ocean, that ocean that is only feet from my house. I will miss the smell my clothes have after they’ve dried on the line just feet from a small cliff next to the ocean. I bet those ocean breeze candles won’t even come close. I’ll miss the stars on the south side. I’ll miss the silver blue of the ocean at Lusia’s. Walking on the beach at Lalomanu. I’ll miss dancing at Club X. I’ll miss sitting outside of Italiano’s sharing a pizza on random school days, looking at the harbor across the way. I’ll miss CCK finds. Hanging out at the pool at Hotel Elisa. The view of the ocean as I take a bus to Apia. Killing time at Aggie Grey’s. Certain people at certain places. Sun tans. Pseudo-celebrity status. Samoan smiles. My year seven girls. It was all for you. Talking in Samoan. Talking to people who know what I’m talking about—no offense anyone back home, but talking to you about this place, these last two years of my life, won’t be the same as talking to anyone who has been a part of it, anyone who knows these places, who can picture what this is. Maybe I’ll even miss the drama that seemed to surround me this last year.

Or maybe I won’t miss the drama: falling in love, having my heart shattered, yelling at a New Zealand tourist, trying to break up a physical fight between a man and his wife outside of the club, meeting a boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, running into an ex-boyfriend’s current girlfriend, being harassed on the bus by drunk creepy men, dating a fire dancer and a bouncer and everything those relationships entailed, being told that my host-father was ashamed of me, other volunteers flirting with my boyfriends, being told by a random Samoan man that Samoa doesn’t need America’s help, basically any interaction with my principal, being continually let-down.

Another volunteer once said to me, “Sam, you may think Samoa had a negative impact on you, and even if it did, you still had a positive impact on Samoa.” Because of me, twelve year five students who were illiterate last January can now read basic English. They were left behind and I am the only reason they can now read. That’s not me being arrogant; that’s just the truth. Yes, it’s taken almost a year for them to learn phonics that they should have mastered in year two, but now they have it. Hopefully they can take those tools and continue to teach themselves how to read after I leave. My year seven girls have asked me multiple times if Falefa will get a new pisikoa after I leave. No, Falefa will not have a pisikoa any time soon. The girls pout and say, “But who will teach us English? You are the only person who really taught us.”

“When you go back to America, will you ever come back to Samoa?” This is the one question everyone asks: students, teachers, villagers, taxi drivers, friends. It seems to be the curse of a place filled with ephemeral people; people who come and go; people that Samoans are afraid to love or depend on because it’s all transient. I would like to come back, but my response is always, “Leiloa.” I don’t know. And that answer satisfies no one. And truth be told, I’m afraid to go back to what I’m supposed to know. I’m afraid to go home. There’s so much uncertainty there. Who will I be? Who I was? Who I am now? An amalgamation of both? It could be easier just to stay. But I know my life isn’t in Samoa. Now I’m not sure my life is back where home was either though.

Group 84 arrived in Samoa yesterday. I will meet them on Friday when we throw a welcome fiafia for them. It’s time to pass on the proverbial torch, or siva afi (fire dancing) stick, and while they are saying hello and getting acquainted with all things Samoa, it is time to say goodbye.

Because I’m not sure how to do that yet, I’ll end with some words already spoken that fit the tail-end of this adventure.

“And the traveler who looks back
Runs the grave risk
That his shadow will not follow him.”
            -From the poem “Letters from the Poet Who Sleeps in a Chair” by Nicanor Parra

“…People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
            -Maya Angelou

“The day is changed…when you take a swim. And that day is bound to be marked out from all the rest.”
            -Ian McEwan Saturday

“What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell.”
            -Yann Martel Life of Pi

“You can’t just sashay into the jungle aiming to change it all over…without expecting the jungle to change you right back.”
            -Barbara Kingsolver The Poisonwood Bible

Fa’amalolosi. Strength.
Tofa soifua. The most respectful goodbye in Samoan.
Misi ia oe Samoa. Fei loa’i.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Girl, a Ghost, and a Girdle

What people consider normal or aberrant is defined by their culture; any anthropology 101 class teaches you that. And this typically leads to debates about universalism versus cultural relativism. And this historically leads to disagreements, war, and mass slaughter. However, this next story of defining “crazy” won’t go that far.
I asked a Samoan friend of mine the other day to tell me some Samoan ghost stories. Having lived through the tsunami that devastated his village in September 2009 and working at a resort in which seven guests were killed, he has now had plenty of spine-tingling moments. Nevertheless, the ghost story I want to share is one from when he was a child. Tele told me of a strange girl with whom he went to primary school. She didn’t have many friends and just didn’t fit in. There was one place where she always hung out after school: on a particular rock. Of course, this wasn’t just any rock (or this wouldn’t be a ghost story), it was someone’s gravestone. Well, after frequenting this location for some time, weird things started happening to her. All the villagers blamed it on her sitting on the grave. (Side note: sitting on people’s graves is not usually a strange thing in Samoa. People are often buried right on their family’s front porch and it becomes a seat or a bench.) Finally, one night all the students went on a field trip of sorts and the boys’ sleeping quarters were separated from the girls’. When the girl woke up in the morning, her bra and panties were on backwards. Everyone swore they didn’t do it to her. There were also things written on her body; Tele didn’t tell me what. So at this point in the story I say, “That’s weird. Maybe she did it herself.” “No, Sam. We aren’t crazy like that. It was the ghost.”
And that’s it. That’s all he had to say. What would be crazy was if the girl switched her underwear around and then lied about it. Clearly the logical explanation was that a ghost or spirit did it to her. Traditionally in Western culture, the most logical answer is the simplest answer; therefore of course I jumped to the conclusion that she did it herself. There is no proof of ghosts, and empirically it would follow that the girl had played the trick herself. But to Tele, a spirit was the most logical explanation.
So what’s really crazy? Turning your underwear backwards in the night and making people believe it was a ghost, or that a spirit did, in fact, put your panties in a twist?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Samoa Turns 50!

Nothing philosophical today, no waxing nor waning. This post is dedicated to independence and the activities that a Peace Corps volunteer may (or may not) participate in while in Samoa on its 50th anniversary of gaining its independence from New Zealand. Happy 50th Samoa!
I started festivities off with the faotasi race, a giant canoe-like race between villages. A few of us gathered on the sea wall in front of Aggie Grey’s hotel in Apia to cheer on our very own Danny as he raced with his village, Satitoa. Rumor has it Danny was the very first palagi to ever take part in the race. The boats are huge, there’s really no other word for it. These are big boats, seating around 45 buff Samoan men who have been training for about two months. There’s not a whole lot to see during the race; you really just see them take off and come in for the finish. Satitoa came in sixth out of seven boats, taking them out of the running for the finals that will take place on Monday. We were all super impressed with Danny anyway. After a diet of bread and water, Satitoa celebrated with Samoa’s own Chili-Chocs.
Not independence-related, but still part of the day, Book Club was next at Tifaimoana, an Indian restaurant in town. Highlight of this was when a boxer from Australia offered us four free tickets to that night’s boxing match! Needless to say, next on the agenda then became watching some guys punch each other in the face. Besides hoping for a knock-out, why does anyone go to a match? Well, we were not disappointed. Only thirty seconds into the first round, we had a man down for the count. Pun/cliché intended. Then it was off to bed as Friday promised to be a too-early morning.

Friday: Independence Day!!!
5am. Wake up call. Night’s sleep? Not good. Breakfast: two hard boiled eggs. 6am: Peace Corps volunteers report for the official Independence Day “parade.” This is no American style parade. There are no floats. There’s no candy. No clowns or tractors. But there are definitely Too. Many. People. The idea is that all the secondary school students and various organizations around Samoa march, and by march I mean walk, in front of a grandstand of dignitaries. It’s basically hours and hours of standing in the Samoan sun for roughly fifteen minutes of walking. We get there around six after about a half an hour walk to even get to the location and the place is packed. The groups participating are smashed in like sardines and we have to find the American delegation made up of Peace Corps volunteers, a few dignitaries, and a dance crew called Step Africa. To put it bluntly, I was angry and whiny by 6 and trying to find our group was pissing me off. We finally spot the American flag up toward the front of the mosh of people and proceed to walk in front of everyone (keep in mind, nothing has started yet) and literally thirty or so feet from our flag, a female police officer stops us and tells us we can’t walk there and we need to go through all the people to get to our group. Angry, whiny Sam doesn’t like this and kind of argues with the police officer. I make no headway, and thus turned around we get only to embark on an ever-aggravating push through the thousands of people standing on the field. Some people say “turisi” and “palagi” as we walk by (tourist, white person) and this pisses me off too. I stop and say, “Leai, pisikoa. Le palagi.” (No. Peace Corps. Not palagi.) One secondary school boy even tried to hold my hand at one point (very Samoan of him) and he got a stern head shake and “Aua” (Don’t) from me. Finally, we make it to our group. As the speeches start, I all of a sudden get incredibly dizzy. Luckily, the Peace Corps nurse is next to me. “Put your head down. Down.” I almost pass out. I lose hearing for a few seconds. Color drains from my face. A cold sweat drenches my clothes. A fan is borrowed from a nearby Samoan and all I can take in is that someone is fanning me. The dizziness calms down and Teuila, our nurse, sends me closer to the front of the mess of people so I can get more air. I sit on the ground and Filia, a Peace Corps staff member, gives me something to eat along with a piece of candy to get my blood sugar back up. Eventually, my body figures itself out and I stand back up. However, standing for more than five minutes starts making my stomach spasm and contract in not altogether fun ways. Next thing I know, the tribe speaks and I’m voted off the island and will be back in Minnesota in a few days. (That’s a euphemism for Teuila lets me leave and go back to the Peace Corps office.) However, I was lucky; many other people did pass out and an ambulance was even called for some. So after three hours at the parade, I’m sent packing, which was a blessing because the Peace Corps group didn’t finish with the parade for about another three hours.
(Just a side note because it might provide some humor for you, even though it’s embarrassing for me: after walking the twenty minutes back to where I can finally find a taxi, I proceed to get in a car which, no Samantha, is not a taxi, which in my semi-sick phase I don’t realize. But the guy was nice enough to take me to the office anyway. Woops. You should laugh now so I don’t feel like I embarrassed myself for nothing.)
After recouping at the office, Tele from Taufua meets up with me and we head to Italiano’s for lunch and then over to the government building to watch some of the day’s events and to traverse through the booths. This literally was like being at a fair back home! There were even snow cones. Step Africa was supposed to give a performance, but ended up only performing two dances due to the parade going late. However, I had already seen them perform a few days earlier and they were awesome! So enthusiastic and charismatic. Around 5pm Tele and I head over to good old Hotel Elisa to meet up with the other volunteers to get ready for the night’s UB40 concert. We head down to the hotel’s bar for a while and some little Samoan boy goes crazy taking pictures of all of us. So somewhere in Samoa is a little dude with tons of pictures of some random palagis. Yeah, explain those to Mom. We taught Tele some classic “American” dance moves, such as the sprinkler, the shopping cart, and the cabbage patch. He then taught the boys classic Samoan moves like a little bit of the slap dance. Then off we went to UB40. It was Samoa’s first big concert and it took place in Apia Park. It reminded me of being at a high school football game since it was on a track and tons of people were just milling about. Unfortunately, shortly into the concert, angry, whiny, been-awake-since-5am Sam makes an appearance again causing us not to stay until the end of the concert. Damn you angry, whiny, tired Sam. Damn you.
Fireworks close out the night for the rest of Samoa.
I convince Tele to stay in town for another night, thus allowing me an excuse not to go back to the village also. We went out for dinner at the ever-popular Yacht Club where we ran into a little New Zealand kid that Tele knows. This kid was super funny, even giving Tele a wedgie at one point, thus winning himself a high-five from me. He does, however, need to work on his whispering skills; I’m not sure he wanted me to overhear him “whisper” to Tele, “Is this your girlfriend? She’s pretty.” Thanks kid.
After dinner, we head over to meet up with some of Tele’s friends from New Zealand. After deciding a plan of action for the night and telling the guys why I joined the Peace Corps (oh yeah, change the world, make a difference, give something back, all that cliché but true jazz) Tele whispers to me that one of the guys is the son of a Maori king. Yep, that’s right, I shared a two-strawed jug of some mystery beverage with royalty Saturday night.  
So we head down to the government building once again and find spots to sit on the grass near the stage. Immediately after I sit down some little kid throws a plastic bottle at me. I turn around and say “Aua” and he looks at me like, “Whoa. That palagi can speak Samoan,” and the smile falls right from his face. One of the groups does traditional Samoan dancing and it was the best I’ve ever seen; it was fast and with new moves. Then out came the fire dancers. At one point they had one stick in each hand. Super impressive. Tele can also fire dance and he was even impressed with these guys. Sadly, I didn’t bring my camera out that night.
Then we headed to Y Not for some drinks and then to Club X for dancing. At Club X we ran into Danny. Now, Danny and I are both from Minnesota and there just happened to be some Samoan guy with a MN Vikings hat on. Go figure. The night eventually comes to a close and as we’re heading out of Club X a random girl stops me. “How long have you been in Samoa?” “Over a year and a half. I live here.” “Oh, I thought you were American or something.” “I am American. I’m a Peace Corps volunteer.” Do I really ooze American that much? Another random girl came up to me after that and asked where I got the tattoo on my neck. Well, that would be America too. And the night came to a close at McDonalds. Definitely American. Ahem, happy birthday Samoa!
Festivities are still going for the next two days and school starts again on Wednesday. Back to the everyday of it all.
(I thought about writing some of the Samoan national anthem here, but I probably can’t spell all the words correctly and would only further embarrass myself, so I’ll just say this: Manuia lou Aso Fanau Samoa!!!)

Step Africa performing at NUS

Jeter, Mika, and Katie watching the Faotasi Race

One of the Faotasi boats

Danny celebrating with a chili-choc

Down for the Count

Me, Katie, Teuila (our PC nurse,) and Dale (our country director)
shortly before I almost passed out at the parade

In front of the government building
...with a snowcone

Tele and I before UB40

UB40 Concert at Apia Park

The concert looked like a high school football game

Tele, Jenny, Jeter, Danny, Me at UB40