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.


Unknown said...

Hi Matth...your post made me laugh...a lot! And, I confess, it made me cry, too. It's very touching to hear your accounts of life there. I can't wait for the next post. I love you.

Chris said...

Phil's family has a flair for the dramatic. And awesomeness.

Anonymous said...

I left a comment yesterday! Where did it go?? I am so happy you posted again! I've been waiting! I love all the pictures & stories. I'm glad they're taking good care of you. What does your familly dress you in?? Can't wait to hear more! Miss you!

Unknown said... reading your posts....quite the adventure. I took Michael to Seattle over the weekend to look at colleges and read Life of Pi on the plane in your honor. I'm with Amanda...I want to see how your family dresses you.

Anonymous said...

Aww that last picture is adorable! I love to see pictures of you!!

Jane said...

Matt, I am Paul's mom, Jane, or would that be I am Paulo's Tina? Anyway, I wanted to tell you how much me and many of our friends & family are enjoying your blog. It has been fun to follow the events of your group & better understand what the PCT experience there. We are always excited to see the pictures too. So thank you and enjoy yourself on this mega opportunity & adventure. Thanks again.