Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Volunteer Visit

Part of our Life and Work training involves going on a visit to a working Peace Corps Volunteer so we can get a better feel for the living and working environment. I was assigned to visit Sara, and Kate was assigned to visit Cale. Cale and Sara are married volunteers that work just outside of Apia. Their house is along the road between the airport and Apia.

Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly?) there have been few surprises. If nothing else, I've felt quite a bit of relief.

Dan is visiting Aaron, who lives near Sara and Cale, so Kate, Dan, and I piled into a taxi early Tuesday morning and rode out to Faleula. Upon finding Cale and Sara's house, Sara and I quickly set out for the school day at Wesley College. Dan and Kate joined Aaron and Cale at neighboring Laumua o Punaoa Vocational School.

College is secondary school in Samoa, and Sara teaches the equivalent of high school seniors. I was introduced to the principal (or pule) after the morning staff meeting. Sara made a joke about how I had come to observe her to see how great she was, which he interpreted to mean that I was her supervisor, and I'd come to audit her teaching. So at the subsequent daily morning assembly in front of the entire student body, he says, "We have a special guest today. Matt is a Peace Corps Coordinator." He then had the students applaud my presence, and the teachers asked me to move to the front row. It was a little awkward.

Sara had prep until after lunch, so she showed me around Wesley. The school has 2 computer labs. One has about 25 running Windows XP that are used to allow the freshman and sophomores to run an ESL program. The computers that the Juniors and Seniors use are not as good. They can't handle running Microsoft Office and XP at the same time, so they run Open Office on linux operating systems. Many of the computers are in pretty terrible condition, and they've done a lot of dissection and transplanting to get enough machines in working order.

Over the two days that I spent here, I observed Sara and a Samoan teacher, Amere, teach classes. The Peace Corps organizes the volunteer visits so trainees can see a classroom firsthand, but the problem is that here in Samoa, this time of year is devoted to studying and reviewing for finals almost exclusively. So the classrooms I observed were doing pretty menial review. Going over sample tests and reviewing concepts that the class had learned over the last nine months.

I had the chance to get in front of Sara's class this morning. I called role (which is tough here with names in another language, although there was Jacincta, Victoria, and Lui), collected homework, and administered a short quiz. It wasn't much, but now I can go back saying I helped teach a class.

The evenings here have been the best part. The impression that I get from a lot of volunteers is there's a lot of downtime in the Peace Corps lifestyle. Sara, Cale, Kate, and I sat around this afternoon listening to Louis Armstrong, reading, and playing games on our cell phones. I can see how the inactivity might get old, but after the hectic stress of the last week and a half, I was totally comfortable doing nothing at all.

Dan and Aaron came over last night for burritos. We played darts after. I represented very well at Cricket, although Aaron beat me at the end by scoring 8 bullseyes. It was a little depressing.

Mostly it's been a relief to be here and to feel a little normalcy. Not only do Sara and Cale having a semi-regular house, but they also have a lot of time for fun, interesting pursuits. Cale is making a paper mache pinata for the upcoming Peace Corps Halloween party. Sara reads a lot and been able to focus on photography. I guess what I'm trying to say is that they have some control over their lives and how they spend their time on a day to day basis, and that is exactly what we lack in training. So it's been very nice to see the light at the end of that tunnel.

In any case, I hope things are well back home. My phone hasn't been able to send text messages, and I plan on getting that looked at tomorrow. Pictures below (Also, I added more pics to the Village post below... so check those out)!

We were asked to take photos of our schools to share with the other trainees on Friday. When I went to take a picture, these 4 girls instantly struck poses. It was goofy.

Here is the assembly just before I was announced as the Peace Corps higher-up. The blue chair is where I moved to after said announcement.

We also went to visit a different Aaron who is working at the Art School where it is rumoured that Kate will be working. The photo at the top of this post was taken with one of the sculptures from the wood carving class. The photo above is of a mosaic. (Left to right: Aaron, Cale, Kate, Sara)

A closer picture of the mosaic.

Cale making Ava on Wednesday night.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Village

It's difficult to capture the past week in the village in one blog entry because feelings and perceptions at the beginning of last week were so much different from now, but we'll start at the beginning, do a day-in-the-life sort of thing, and then cap off with stories from this past weekend.

When we rolled into town, we immediately went to an Ava ceremony in our honor at the main public fale in Fausaga. Following the formalities, we were given Fa'auai, a breaded mixture of taro and coconut wrapped in a banana leaf and a coconut to drink from. Several local dance groups performed welcome dances. From there, our head language trainer announced which volunteers would go with which family. As soon as our names were called, each of us was whisked away by our respective host family.

Mine was the second name called. A smiling older lady and a darling five-year-old grabbed my hands, presenting me with a lei and kisses. And I was indeed whisked. I barely had time to collect my sandals before we headed off to their fale.

The older lady turned out to be Mele, the widow of a high chief from the village of Apolima. She has 8 children, the youngest was born in 1986, the oldest in 1963. Her youngest daughter, Asolima, lives with her now. Asolima has two children: Akenese, who is 5, and Leme, who is 6 months old. Also living in the household is Mele's nephew, Oni, who seems to be in his early 30's. In any case, the household I'm staying with seems relatively small compared to some of the other trainees' situations. We go to Phil's family's fale pretty regularly, and it seems like there are roughly 20 people living there from 4 different generations of family.

When we arrived at Mele's fale, lunch was already prepared. Now I'd say food was one of my biggest anxieties going into the host family situation, and I'm happy to report that the food here has been great on the whole. It was slightly awkward when I flat out rejected canned tuna, but that was several days in, and they weren't too offended (Although they were baffled. When I told them I didn't like it, they looked at me like I was crazy and said, "But it's FISH!"). My only complaint about the food is that there's so much of it. I think all of us feel a little awkward because we're being given copious amounts of food in a village that doesn't really have too much money. It's tough balancing the role of the gracious guest with making sure that everyone else is getting their share.

Anyway, after lunch I had some time to get to know Akenese. I think I've completely underemphasized how much she was at my side during our stay in the village. She left my fale at 9 o'clock Saturday night and woke me up at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday. This is bittersweet for me, I think. Anyone who spent a lot of time with me at UCLS will tell you that tiny tots were always my favorite classes to teach. Little kids are hilarious and fun, and I get along with them very well. That said, anyone who's spent 2 straight days with a 5-year-old knows that they are exhausting. Any, may I say, particularly difficult to occupy or discipline when there is a wide language barrier. Akenese knows how to say very few words in English. They are:
  • Fish;
  • Shoes; and
  • The numbers 1 through 10, although she's unclear on the order and the concept of numbers in general.
In fact, she's unclear on the order and concept of numbers in Samoan as well. This has been good for both of us because we've been working on simple number exercises for her, and it's given me a chance to practice my Samoan.

In general, hanging out with Nese has been good for my Samoan. She never stops talking. She's also very funny. She taught me a handshake and a we drew pictures of animals on my first day. Funny inevitably leads to mischief though. During my lunchtime on Tuesday, she stole my shoes. Once again, the language barrier proves to be quite the obstacle when trying to get a 5-year-old to tell you where your shoes are (because even if she did, how would I understand?) and threatening her with time outs, etc. Also, when you're 5, stealing someone's shoes is downright GOLDEN humor-wise, and being at the mercy of that sense of humor is not fun. All in all though it's been lots of fun having her around. She holds my hand and walks with me wherever I go. To my fellow trainees, she's known as my bodyguard.

After lunch my first day, I asked to use the bathroom and was instructed to fill the back of the toilet with a bucketful of water before flushing. Such is life in Fausaga where running tap water is quite the luxury. The shower is the same outhouse as the toilet (different door) and consists of a barrel of water, a bucket, and a drain. I was given a scoury loofa-type cloth the first time I used it, and I found the bucket shower experience surprisingly clean, and just about as effective as a normal shower.

Samoans take religion pretty seriously, and the whole "day of rest" concept is no exception. My first Sunday was particularly slow with me entertaining Nese while the rest of the family napped. For a while there, I was beginning to think that this family had agreed to host me simply so they could get a free babysitter. Along with the napping is quite a bit of church. One session in the morning at 9:00, and the other in the afternoon at 3:30. Everyone wears white. Everyone, that is, except the Peace Corps trainees who were not informed of the color coordination. Very funny to see a sea of Samoans in their whitest whites with Americans sprinkled in dressed in vibrant colors, sticking out like sore thumbs.

During the week, our days would start early. Sleep in the village wasn't very restful considering the constant crowing of roosters, the occasional spontaneous dog fights that would inevitably end in a half hour of howling, and the snarling of pigs. The day starts early too. My family woke up at 6:00 every morning. Kids and adults would be up, shouting at each other while I desperately clung to whatever sleep I could eke out.

Once I was up, breakfast would be served. Breakfast often consisted of warm coconut pudding, cereal, buttered bread, and cup of noodles. It was delicious, but extremely heavy. Following breakfast was a quick bucket shower (nothing like drenching yourself in cold water on a warm Samoan morning. Volunteers were almost always escorted to class in the village by members of their host family, and my situation was no different. Nese and I walked together every day.

We had language training every day last week, except Wednesday when we had some training on teaching and creating lesson plans. Intensive language training is not a clever name. It is INTENSE. We would usually get new lessons in the morning and then review throughout the afternoon. Trainees often took advantage of tea breaks to use the facilities with running water in the trainers' fale.

we would all be picked up and escorted home when we breaked for lunch. Lunch tended to be just as heavy as breakfast. Sometimes stew or fish or pork fat or battered chicken and always taro. There is also a Samoan dish called Sapasui which is much like Chop Suey that made frequent appearances at lunch and dinner.

More language in the afternoon. There was always a point every day sometime around 2:45 when I could feel my brain would saturate and completely stop working. I have definitely felt that way before, but never with the precision that I feel it here. It's like a switch gets flipped, and my brain is done.

After school, many of the young adults from the village would gather and play sports. Volleyball is most popular, but there are occasional games of soccer and rugby. The soccer and rugby teams tend to wear uniforms, or at least more equipment than you'd expect from a pickup game, so they tend to be more exclusive.

Six o'clock was mandatory evening prayer throughout the village. Bells would ring and horns would be blown signaling that it was time to go and pray. Prayer at our house was routine. We always started with a song, which I'd have to learn as I was singing it. I should note here that Samoans are very into harmony, so much so that groups like the Eagles and the BeeGees are still very big here. This love of harmony is most audible in church music. It was funny going to choir practice because essentially the entire congregation shows up. Men and women don't sit together at church because the congregation sits according to vocal range. The men sit in the back and sing the bass and tenor parts. Singing at home is no exception. Asolima would sing the higher register, and Mele would sing a lower range. I'd follow Mele. Following the song, we would read from the bible. I was quickly employed to read long passages in Samoan. It took me a couple days to realize that "Salamo" was "Psalms" and not "Solomon". After that, there would be a lengthy prayer said, usually by Mele, while I sat and fanned myself in a vain attempt to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

Dinner followed prayer. Dinner was usually the same as lunch, except in larger portions. We did have fish and chips one night that were very good. I asked Asolima if she made them herself, and she bragged to me that she learned how to make it by working at McDonald's for 2 years.

After dinner, we'd sit around on the porch of my fale, chillin'. Nese had a toy guitar much like the red one I had when I was little, except this one was more easily tunable. So I tuned it to guitar chords as best I could, but without much luck. And then Mele asked for it. It turns out that the toy guitar was actually a working Ukelele, albeit a cheap one. Being the idiot that I tend to be at times, I had tuned it out of the Ukelele tuning. So she tuned it back, and it turns out that she is an excellent Ukelele player. I was able to find corresponding chords on the family guitar (which only had 5 strings. No low E.), and we jammed!

We started with a song that had a fun chord progression, D D7 G G A A D D. And then Mele stays on D for a long time, and breaks out in song, "Come on, baby, let's do the twist." So we played some Chubby Checkers. It was awesome.

This weekend was much more eventful than our first trip to the village.

On Saturday we set out for the plantation. This was a family affair with much preparation Saturday morning. Nese cleaned out the van, Asolima packed a picnic, and I tried to stay out of the way. The plantation is not the rows of palm and banana trees that one would expect. Rather, it's more like a jungle of plants that happen to yield fruit. I didn't do much work while I was there beyond gathering coconuts.

One thing about being at the village is that it can sometimes feel like you're playing a game in which you're learning the rules as you go. You're told to hop in a car or to follow someone, and you have no idea where you're going or what you will be doing. I'm not sure exactly why this keeps happening. My theories of this cause are:
  • Language barrier;
  • Culture... that is, I think it's just the way things work in Fausaga;
  • Entertainment... I think the villagers find humor in our ignorance of a situation; and
  • It's completely unintentional. I think sometimes people just forget that us newbies don't know how things work.
In any case, my first major encounter this weekend was at the plantation. I was told to follow two boys from Phil's family who were going to take me to hang out with Phil. We found Phil just as he was getting out of the river. But rather than stay with Phil, it turned out we were going swimming in the river. I was told to strip down to my boxers and swim. "Okay."

Second, I was walking back from bringing a trainee my phone charger, and I was told to get in the family van. They told me something in Samoan, and then added, "Get your towel," I was told. We went to Phil's. When Phil asked where we were going, Asolima goes, "We're going swimming. We're going to the pool." I was not informed of this. So I swam in my boxers twice on Saturday.

Third, after church Sunday I was told we were going to the beach. So Phil and I followed four Samoan men through about a hundred yards of waste muddy water to get to ocean on the on the other side. On our way back, it started to rain. And you wash the mud off by getting in a small cement pool in the middle of the village. Phil and I were laughing because it felt like the Shawshanke Redemption where Andy Dufresne goes through hundreds of yards of sewage and comes out clean on the other side. And rain to boot!

In any case, there's much more to write about, but I can't really capture the past week in one blog.

Tomorrow, we all head out to visit different current volunteers in their schools. We head back to the village for a much longer stay on Saturday afternoon. I think we're all a little dazed by that idea.

I hope things are well at home. Pictures below!
Ava ceremony with banana leafs and coconuts.

PCT Dan walking down the main (and only) road in Fausaga. (IMDB Goof: Photographer's shadow is visible in the frame.)

Asolima, Nese, and Leme.

Families in the village dress most PCTs every day. Phil's family has provided him with the most flamboyant wardrobe. This is my favorite of his shirts. He wore it for our "formal" day on Friday when we had to give presentation.

Blakey in one of the language training fales.

Me and the boys in the river. I swear I am not this white. I think I am in the sun and they are not, so the camera thinks I'm Powder.

An evening game of soccer in the village.

Me at the plantation.

Morning jam session with Mele on Uke and her aunt(?) on guitar (Incidentally, this is one of my favorite pictures from the week, and I'm not sure why I didn't post it earlier... or higher in this post.).

This is me with Oni. He kinda reminds me of Avȏ. Just a little. Maybe it's hard to see here.

At one point Nese tried to grab the banana I was about to eat, which made me think of the banana grabber subplot on "Arrested Development." So I had her pose, reenacting the attempted banana grab. It is difficult to make a 5 year old pose.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Hot Nights and Homesickness

Thursday night was "Gender Night" during which the girls went to a volunteer's house here in Apia to talk about women's issues in the Peace Corps and the guys headed to a sports bar for dinner and drinks. It turns out that the sports bar was having a charity trivia contest that night. It was slightly different from all the trivia contests I've been to in San Francisco in that we had to pay to enter. It cost $40ST for a team of four, and proceeds went to helping a Samoan boy get a cochlear implant. I am always down for trivia, but I wasn't sure if anyone else in my party cared enough. Luckily, they had quite a bit of alcohol lined up as prizes and the odds seemed in our favor that we would at least win something. So we joined.

Questions were geared toward Austrailian/New Zealand trivia topics (e.g. which rugby player was recently traded from the Allblacks, etc.), so we were definitely at a disadvantage. We got some lucky guesses in though, and we ended up taking second place. My team was impressed that I could define triskaidekaphobia without skipping a beat. Pictured here is our team with our prizes, one bottle of Ginger liquer each... PCV Dylan is in the foreground (yes, he looks and acts like the lovechild of Conan O'Brien and Kyle Maclachlan), me, Phil, and Gore.

Last night was our fiafia, a party to welcome our group to Samoa. Volunteers dress up in Samoan garb and perform dances. It was a fun night.

Now let's change gears....

On Homesickness

I left home in an effort to see the world and to prove myself to me and maybe others. I came to a strange island inhabited by a mysterious people and was employed to work on outdated computers. And there was homesickness.

I'm not talking about me, of course. I'm talking abut Desmond from "Lost." There was an episode of "Lost" this past season titled "The Constant" in which Desmond goes a bit crazy, and I'd say it's just about the best representation of homesickness that I can think of. Incidentally, it's also my favorite episode of "Lost". I can't link to it right now because I'm on dialup and I don't have time, but I'm sure it's available on ABC's website, and it works well as a stand alone episode. No need to have any background in "Lost" lore. But anyway, I've been thinking about that episode a lot lately and trying to find my own constants here in Samoa.

We head to the village this afternoon, and I expect things to get a little more intense. Bucket showers with well water, home-cooked food, no air conditioning. Things may not be that bad, or they could be horrible. Whatever happens, I'm excited to talk on my cell phone, to read, and to keep some constants around for the hard parts.

We'll be in the village all week, returning next Saturday, so I won't be able to post anymore blogs until then. Hope you all are well. Have a great week. Pictures below.

Desmond from "Lost".

Poke cup from the local fish market. It would be better with wonton chips, but on the whole, a fantastic lunch for $5ST.

This is PCV Todd standing up in the blue shirt. He looks like Kevin's long lost brother.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Water Safety

We went snorkeling Tuesday under the guise of having a "water safety training." It was a little silly. We all sat down in a boathouse, and a Swiss man named Urs talked to us about making sure we wore enough sunscreen and other useful tips for staying alive while you snorkel. Urs moved to Samoa from Switzerland 12 years ago. Sick of the rat race, he read a book about Samoa, and moved his whole family. We met his wife and daughter and some kid named James, who we were told several times was not part of the family, but clearly seemed to live with the family. Upon returning to the boathouse after our snorkeling excursion, several other bronzed, blonde, misanthropic-looking teenager/twentysomethings helped pull our boat up to the dock. The whole situation was bizarre, but overall snorkeling was a blast. The breathing apparatus took some getting used to, but I got the hang of it after a while.

They fed us tuna sandwiches on the boat, which I actually took a bite of, reaffirming my dislike of tuna sandwiches. The food situation here is a little strange. We've been living out of a hotel since we arrived a week ago, so mostly we've been eating in restaurants... of which there are not very many. We've gone out for pizza 3 times in the past week. I've also had cup'o'noodles (pictured above) for 3 different meals over the past week. Yes. Subsisting on pizza and Ramen feels as much like college as it sounds.

One place volunteers strongly recommend is a place called Pinati's, which is a short walk from our hotel. As far as dining class goes, I'd say the experience at Pinati's is about 5 or 6 steps down from Chano's in LA or a ghetto taqueria in the Mission in SF. Food is cooked in what essentially is a large garage or a small airplane hangar and served to customers through windows in a concrete brick wall that have pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus hanging over them. That said, the food is really tasty, and the place gets really crowded at lunch time. People queue up in what look like Russian bread lines. The place is pretty grotey, but the food is fantastic, and the dining experience is certainly unique.

Wednesday night was a little different, thankfully. A couple of the volunteers invited all interested trainees to go to the Peace Corps office here in Apia to make veggie fajitas. None of us has been inside the Peace Corps office yet, so not only did this provide a healthy option for dinner, but it also meant we could checkout the offices we've been hearing so much about. I finally got to see the Samoan Peace Corps library, which consists of a bunch of wall-mounted bookshelves hastily lined with battered paperbacks. I've been dying to re-read "Life of Pi" and I think I left it at home, but I was able to find it on one of the shelves here. So I'm excited.

Veggie fajitas were interesting. A lot of fruit is grown here on the island, so lots of tropical fruit is relatively cheap here. Vegetables, on the other hand, are hard a lot more expensive. Orange bellpeppers were $18ST per pound (approximately $6USD/pound). Zucchinis were the same. We ended up getting the cheapest veggies we could find, which turned out to be tomatoes, eggplant, and bok choi. They were different fajitas to say the least.

One last thing before I go... the rain has intensified over the last 2 days. Around 2 a.m. Wednesday, my roommates and I were awoken by a violent downpour. Similar, weaker torrential showers passed through on Wednesday. It's very strange how quickly it starts and stops. The sun will be shining, you'll feel a few tingly drops, the clouds will come, it will rain with insane intensity, the rain will lighten and then stop, the clouds will clear, and the sun will be shining again, all within the course of about 20 minutes.

In any case, we are starting to gear up for our big move to the village on Saturday, which I am nervous about. Before then, I would like to figure out the laundry situation and I'd like to get a haircut. We'll see how that goes.

I hope things are well. More pictures below.
Urs leading a talk on water safety.

My roommate Dan approaching Pinati's. Pinati means "peanut" in Samoan. You can see the long lines formed at right.

Waiting in line at Pinati's. Notice the appetizing concrete wall and the large, gawdy painting.

Dinner preparations at the Peace Corps office. From left to right, PCV Aaron (finished at the end of November), PCV Trent (just arrived in June), PCV Jim (same as Trent), PCT Jordan (my group), not sure who the guy is in the far back, PCT Erin (my group), PCV Laura (leaving with Aaron), PCT Blakey.

Torrential rain Wednesday afternoon.

In class on Tuesday hearing about Dengue fever.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Day at the Beach

There are many benefits to all Peace Corps countries, I'm sure, but certainly one of the biggest benefits of serving in the South Pacific is going to the beach. As tiny as Samoa is, the island isn't teeming with picturesque beaches. This is especially true of Apia (where we've been since we arrived last Wednesday), which can be a littly grimey at times. So on account of yesterday being a national holiday (the observance of White Sunday), we ventured across the island to a resort beach on the south shore.

While the beach was technically located at a resort, there was no resort building or tourist incentive for coming besides the beach. In fact, the resort is so rural that our bus had to idle while a herd of cattle was ushered out of the roadway (picture below).

The beach today was protected by a coral reef. This means a couple of things:
  1. The water was safer because sharks and other large fish won't swim beyond the coral reef.
  2. Snorkeling was excellent. Lots of coral. Lots of pretty fish.
  3. The ocean floor and the beach itself were covered in sharp, abrasive shards of coral. Ouch.
My feet are having a very rough time here. In fact, I've decide that my feet are having the most difficult transition of all. The transition from shoes to flip-flops is alluring and breezy, but for feet that were used to the constant protection of shoes, this transition means building up a lot of callousness. Added to that is the mosquitos. Since feet move the least when you're sitting, they are the safest part of the body when it comes to sucking blood. This not only means that my feet are itchy from mosquito bites; it also means they are sticky from being lathered up in insect repellent every night. So the coral on the beach only added insult to injury. Or more like injury to insult, I suppose.

In any case, Supy took the picture of Blakey and me above. This was taken in front of the Fale we staked out at the beach just as we were about to share our lunchtime snack. A fale is a traditional Samoan hut. You can see PCT Dan and Training Director H.P. in the fale playing chess as well as some other Peace Corps Samoa trainees and staff.

All in all, the beach was beautiful, and the day was a success. I covered myself in sunscreen and re-applied after a while, and I escaped with a little color and a little burn on my nose. Others in our group were not so vigilant.

Yesterday afternoon we watched some Samoan TV in our hotel room for the first time. We watched a strange Japanese Anime movie, title unknown, and then later this evening, a Filipino soap opera, which we think was titled "Margie." I felt cool because people were speculating that the language was Samoan, and then Indonesian. And then I recognized "Salamat" and "Cuya," and I knew what was going on! Thank you, Union City. We also played more Euchre last night. It's kind of become the game of choice around here.

Today was back to training with language in the morning and water safety in the afternoon. More on that later.

Thanks for all the comments. They are fun to read. More pictures below.
View from inside the bus as cows are ushered out of the way.

The beach.

The beach again.

Playing cards in the evening. From left to right: Gore, Blakey, Phil, Joey, Paul, Me, and Dan.

Even in Samoa, Obamania is alive and well.

Monday, October 13, 2008

First Weekend

People in my group started to get excited about this weekend since we'd finally be able to break the chains of structured training days. The thing is, when you're in a foreign country that has shut down for the weekend and has extremely hot weather, there's not a whole lot to do during free time. In lots of ways, structured time is a whole lot better because at least you're occupied. At the same time, having some free time did afford me some time to call home.

On Saturday morning, I went with some friends to the internet cafe where I called and talked to my mom and Amanda for about a half hour. Upon returning to the hotel, one of my roommates, Dan, had setup in the courtyard below playing Bob Marley and working on his Will Shortz book of Sudoku. This turned into group Sudoku. Group sudoku eventually evolved into dominoes. Dominoes eventually evolved into Euchre. This was exciting for me. I could pretty much play card games for hours and hours each day for the rest of my life and not get bored. Also, as almost none of you are aware, I occasionally play Euchre on Yahoo! Games. It's actually the only game I play regularly on Yahoo! Games, so it was a nice coincidence that fellow Peace Corps Trainee Joey is kind of a Euchre fanatic. He's a bit cutthroat though, which gets a little intense.

In any case, yesterday was White Sunday here in Samoa, which is a national holiday. By Saturday afternoon, downtown Apia was a ghosttown. We went for a run along the harbour (Ha. Harbour.) on Saturday afternoon, and streets that are normally wall to wall with people and cars were completely empty. It's kind of the equivalent of Market and Powell in San Francisco being completley deserted in broad daylight.

Sunday morning, 12 of the 13 of us headed to church services (pictured above) at the Peace Chapel at Vaimea. I am interested to see what Catholic Mass is like here in Samoa, but we were invited to services at the Peace Chapel by our Peace Corps Medical Officer Teuila. The Peace Corps encourages volunteers to attend church services and even participate in active roles in order to better assimilate into the community.

Since this was White Sunday, the bulk of the service was put on by the children of the community. They told a Marching-On-style story about a toymaker who has a falling out with his toys and then sends his only son to save them. The cheesiness of the story was drowned out by the children's performances, which were cute and funny (both and intentionally and unintentionally). My favorite part was the music.

See, the bulk of the story was the Toymaker introducing each of type of toy (e.g. dolls, teddy bears, toy soldiers) and each group had their own dance. So after the dolls came the clowns. The clowns came out, cart-wheeling and hula-hooping and being goofy, to Barbra Streisand's recording of "Send in the Clowns." When the superhero action figures were introduced, a kid dressed as Superman came running across the stage to Five for Fighting's "Superman." Now don't get me wrong... I love that song. But to see it used in a somewhat inappropriate context in the middle of church in the middle of Samoa was just bizarre. All in all, everyone agreed that church was a great time.

Sunday afternoon was filled with Dan, Supy, Phil and I playing dominoes, euchre, and spades. The four of us have hit it off well. At one point yesterday, Dan asked what was up with all the flies in the courtyard, and I had to hold back a Your Mom joke. When I confessed this, we discussed that we knew each other nearly enough to make Your Mom jokes, but definitely well enough for "That's what she said." This revelation came out in the middle of Dominoes, and we all agreed. Then I said, "Okay. Who's turn was it?" And Dan quickly yelled, "That's what she said!" And it was hilarious.

Dinner was at Hotel Millenia (I had a Hawaiian burger, and they played Cyndi Lauper). And then we played Skip-Bo (which I found to be a terrible, terrible game), BS, and Pasoi Dos (someone please help me spell that).

Monday is scheduled for the beach. I am very nervous about getting sunburned. Between the mosquitoes and the heat, I don't think that I could handle sunburn at this point. And that just about caps off the weekend. More pictures below.
Peace Corps Samoa, Group 81, having dinner in the Courtyard at Apia Central Hotel. I apologize for the blurriness of the picture. Exciting, though, is that this is the first picture I have that has all 13 PCTs from my group pictured. Starting from the right foreground and going around the table clockwise is Dan (roommate #1), Me (with the nerdy John O'Lague smile), Christina (face obstructed), Jordan, Joey, Kate (the vegan), A.J., Blakey, Erin, Gore, Phil, Supy (roommate #2), and Paul.

Afternoon dominoes.

A poor quality picture of The Sound of Music, which was on TV this afternoon. As far as we can tell, Samoan TV shows a ton of American movies.

I spotted these golf clubs in the hallway outside the hotel office. Not sure who they belong to, but clearly Trojans are everywhere.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Last Day of Intros

Yesterday was (hopefully) our last day of introductions. I really thought the day before would fulfill all introductory necessity, but today we endured more. Intro to Language, Intro to Life and Work, and Intro to Cross-Cultural relations. I also got my Typhoid vaccination. The shot was short and painless, but has ached a little ever since... much like a Tetanus shot.

After everyone else got shots, we sat through a short-but-thorough lecture on Diarrhea. While there were no pictures, this talk was as verbally disgusting as one can expect, but was given with the nonchalance of a seasoned nurse. Teuila (We were told to pronounce her name like Two-wheeler, except more New Zealand-y... i.e. Two-wheelah), the Peace Corps Medical Officer, through out phrases like "greasy feculance" with reckless abandon. Teuila's voice has a natural, soothing cadence that is prone to making my mind wander, but it was quite a rude awakening to have that tranquility busted by "puss in the stool." Such is life here.

A bunch of us walked over to the fish market for lunch. The fish market is where local fisherman go to sell their catch. Being that it is very hot here and none of the fish are refrigerated or stored on ice, the fish at the market are very fresh because they don't stay fresh for very long in such conditions. The picture above is people sitting on the benches in front of us enjoying their lunch at the fish market.

Then there was the phone debacle...

I have come to terms with the fact that I am unable to use my iPhone here in Samoa. I'm pretty sure it should function on the Digicel network here, but AT&T employs many incompetent idiots who were too moronic to help me in the weeks leading up to my departure. So yesterday I caved and decided to purchase a pre-paid Digicel phone with refillable minutes. I had already purchased a new SIM card for my iPhone, which turned out not to work. And serendipitously, one of the other Trainees, Blakie, had purchased a phone only to find out that a SIM card worked in the phone she'd brought afterall. So we traded. I was able to text Luisa and Amanda, and I was happy. Blakie, on the other hand, was less happy. The SIM card that I had purchased did not work in her phone for unknown reasons. So long story short, I'll probably have to give Blakie her phone back, eat the cost of the SIM card I purchased, and get a completely new phone. Oh well. I can't believe that very many of you care about the details of this story, but there's a monotony to life here and this was the most exciting part of my day.

We now have a bit of a break. Today is "self-directed," which means we do what we want. Sunday is White Sunday here in Samoa, so between the holiday and the national holiday, nothing gets done on Sunday. The holiday is observed on Monday though, which means nothing is open and we don't have training. Monday has been scheduled as a day of Cultural Exploration, which means we're be taken to the beach. Tuesday we have water safety training, which means we have no more in-classroom training til next Wednesday. Cool.


Obama appears to be kicking ass. Can someone please verify this for me? I'm not quite certain, but the McCain campaign appears to have completely imploded. I hear that the committee in Alaska ruled that Sarah Palin abused her power as governor and that McCain political rallies are getting raucous, so much so that he's had to tone down his own language. Can someone please elaborate on the general political atmosphere in the States?

Pictures from yesterday:
This is my fish and chips from the Fish Market. They were excellent and cost the equivalent of $3Us.

We had pizza for dinner, and right in the middle of texting Luisa, lo and behold, 2 Mormon missionaries entered the pizza place. I was able to discreetly get a picture of the two by having Phil and Laura pose for the picture above.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Day 2

October marks the start of Samoa's rainy season, which lasts through March. Yesterday was the first day we saw rain. When we came out of our Intro to Medical Services session, it was sprinkling. It's difficult to see in the picture at left, but it's our first rain. Also in the picture is PCT Phil, who was also my roommate during training in Los Angeles. Weird because he looks very similar to my junior-year roommate Ben from USC.

In any case, yesterday was another day of introduction, which is getting slightly old now. We were introduced to Peace Corps policies in Samoa, introduced to training, introduced to medical services, and introduced to security and safety.

We did receive our Samoan names this morning. My Samoan name is Mati. Originally my Samoan name had been Sefo because they had my name listed as Joseph, but they changed it to Mati. By sheer coincidence, Mati is also the month of March in Samoan. They were delighted to find out that my birthday is in March. So I guess it all works out.

After training, we took a walk down to the harbor to see what we could see. We took some pictures and found a mysterious fruit and ran into some American vetrinarian who some people from our group recognized from our plane and who is working with the Samoan equivalent of the ASPCA. I also bought some candy from a kid who was selling from a box. I got to use my Samoan when I thanked him. I said, "Fa'afetai," which must have been said correctly enough because he responded with a rote, mechanic mumble, which I assume was the Samoan equivalent of "You're welcome."

I also said Malo to another kid we passed on our walk. He responded with a "Talofa lava," which is the respectful response; the "usted" response, if you will. It was cute.

We went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner, during which we heard:
  • "Between the Moon and New York City" by Christopher Cross (I admit, I'm not sure if that's the actual title.);
  • "How Deep is your Love" by the Bee Gees;
  • "(Another BeeGees song that I swear wasn't 'Stayin' Alive,' but I can't remember what it actually was for the life of me)" by the Bee Gees; and
  • "The Hardest Thing" by 98 Degrees (From the "And Rising" album, I believe.).
I know you're all jealous, but I'm sure you can create your own playlist on iTunes or Imeem.

Also, the Chinese food is surprisingly good here. I'm not sure why that's surprising given Samoa's geographic proximity to China, but for some reason my expectations were pretty low.

In any case, plans for today include typhoid vaccinations (JEALOUS.) and some supposedly really fun language activity.

On that note, I have two housekeeping issues for this blog:
  1. You may have noticed that I know very little about what has actually happened today. This is because I am writing this blog entry on Thursday night so I can minimize my time at the internet cafe tomorrow composing a post. So yesterday's post had a 21-hour delay between the time it was written and the time it was posted. I'm hoping to cut down on it tomorrow. It's an imperfect system, but I'm working on it.
  2. You also may have noticed that today's pictures are much smaller than in days past. This is also an attempt to cut down on time at the internet cafe. Given that many computers here are on 57.6k dial-ups, it's a bitch to upload big pictures. I trust the smaller images will suffice.
More pictures from today:
This is the first rainbow we have seen in Samoa. The camera didn't pick it up very well, but you should be able to see it in the clouds in the middle of the picture, just above the pointy church.

A sign in front of the Samoan Tourism Center showing distances to Los Angeles and Hawai'i among others.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


We arrived Wednesday morning at 5:30 local time. Most of us got little sleep on the flight as a result of a.) being on an airplane, b.) being on an airplane with a lot of kids, and c.) some of us were lucky enough to get the seat in the dead center of the plane.

We were greeted by Peace Corps volunteers Laura and Todd, who gave each of us a lei. We then headed into the capital for a looong day. Our lavalavas, traditional Samoan clothing worn by men similar to a sarong, were waiting for us when we got into our hotel rooms. In addition to high fashion, there were lots of intro activities today... Important language phrases, communications and money, opening bank accounts, etc. After a while, it inevitably became information overload. And afterall, we'd all just spent 10 hours on a red eye. So who knows what they were saying. My brain was full.

We also had our 'ava ceremony this morning. As part of the ceremony, each of us individually had to pour out a drop of the 'ava that was handed to us and say, "Lau 'ava lea le atua... Soifua!" Then we were supposed to drink the entire cup of 'ava in one shot. It is also important to note that it is customary for all attendees of the ceremony to sit Indian-style for the duration of the ceremony. This may seem like a simple task, but try sitting Indian-style for 10 minutes and see if your legs don't go numb. So in addition to being exhausted by the airplane and intimidated by being required to memorize lines, we all sat in silence wondering if we were doing permanent damage to our toes. Everything went off without a hitch though, and we all passed some sort of strange initiation.

Our hotel room has air conditioning, which is nice and unexpected. Also, I'm happy to report that my iPhone is pulling in service from one of the local carriers. I should be able to get a SIM card from Digicel sometime soon, and then I will be able to send and receive text messages and phone calls. Also exciting is that there is currently a rates war between Digicel and GoMobile, and both companies have greatly increased their converage areas so now 90% of Samoa gets good service, which means I should even get coverage in rural villages.

Finally, I was told by one of the current PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers, as opposed to Peace Corps Trainee, which is what I am currently) that my job assignment will almost certainly house me not with a host family and my classroom will almost certainly have air conditioning. Good news all around, I think.

Here are some pictures:

Arriving at the Airport in Samoa under the cover of darkness. No, that's not an Islands Burgers location. That's the Samoan airport.

Attending the 'avaceremony.

As promised, a back-to-back comparison of my old passport photo (at left) and my new State Department passport (at right). Quite an improvement.