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