Friday, July 31, 2009

Idle Hands

As happy as I am with the break from school and the chance to sleep in—I woke up at 8 o’clock this morning, not sure why—I find it much easier to save money when I’m occupied. Joining the Peace Corps, I expected a lot of downtime, but it’s downtime I’ve learned to anticipate and structure. But with this whole swine flu school cancellation, I’m awash in unexpected downtime, and it’s difficult to approach the situation rationally.

My first impulse is to go out and spend money. I have the day free, why not go out to lunch? Hell, dinner too? Find other volunteers who are passing through town and see if anyone wants to get a couple drinks? Casey’s brother is in town. Why not go with them to the river fales in Falese’ela? It’s not that I don’t have money saved; it’s just that I have better things for which to save. And it doesn’t take too much splurging to go over budget.

If I wasn’t in Apia, I think the situation might be easier, or maybe just less expensive. During Training, Dylan and Laura were quite upfront about the fact that volunteers who live in Apia have a lot more opportunity to spend money and consequently often end up spending a lot more money.

It’s not that I get peer-pressured into going out to dinner. In fact, it’s a bit of the opposite. When I see Supy at the Peace Corps office, he often wants to buy some Top Ramen and eat that for dinner, which just seems appalling and pitiful to me. We haven’t hung out in a month, and we’ve probably been eating Top Ramen for most of that month. Why not go out and share a quality meal? Why not go somewhere where we can talk while someone else prepares the food?

It’s also not like I don’t have productive things to work on; I do. And I have. Despite schools being closed, my grades for last week’s CAT were still due to the Ministry of Education today. And there’s a fair amount of lesson planning to be done for when school starts up again. And now seems like a perfect time to learn a little bit more of Microsoft Access.

But who wants to spend unexpected vacation doing that?

Vacation is one of those tricky things where the things that sound lousy while it’s happening are the things you later wish you’d done. Or not? If I become a hermit and shut the world out and spend the week out of the public eye on the cheap, I will probably wish I’d been around people when I had the option.

I guess when it comes to idle hands doing the devil’s work, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. It’s a catch-22. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. Everything in moderation. Blah blah blah.

I hope you’ve got big plans for the weekend. Pictures below.

It was rainy today.

Lucky Foodtown still under construction.

A small fender-bender in the bank parking lot.

Saw this sign on the way to the Ministry of Education this morning.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Odds and Ends Thursday 21

After 5th period on Tuesday, it was decided that we would be finished with school for the week. Some schools like Phil’s and Blakey’s required teachers to show up at the regular time, only to sit around and do very little for hours on end. I was luckier: my pule referred to the rest of this week as a “holiday”. I was invited to teach my year 12 and 13 classes if I felt it necessary, but I didn’t, so I haven’t. Here are some other odds and ends from the week:
  • Supy eats his corn on the cob in incredibly neat rows pulling out entire kernels. He said he does this, “so the corn doesn’t get stuck in your teeth.” Supy and Sara ate some of their corn on the cob while interspersing bites of other food while Cale and I ate our corns on the cob first and then moved on to the rest of the meal. We tried to extrapolate on these habits to find some deeper meaning. We did not succeed.
  • In Sunday’s post I left out the fact that the road switch is still being challenged in court and there is still a legal decision pending. It seems like most Samoan natives I’ve talked to are hoping the law will not change, but most have resigned themselves to the fact that it will. I asked someone to give me their estimate of the likelihood of the road switch going through. He guessed there was an 80% chance the switch will happen.
  • Making travel plans with other volunteers, particularly jetsetters like Blakey and Supy, can be a bit like herding cats.
  • Christian and AJ spent today biking around Upolu. They asked me at 9 o’clock last night if I was interested in heading out with them at 4 this morning. I had no pressing appointments today, and I guess I could have done it, but 7 hours isn’t enough mental prep time. So I declined the offer.
  • I finished David Grann’s “The Lost City of Z” last weekend. The biggest lesson that I got out of it is that bugs may be annoying in Samoa, but this is a dreamland compared to the Amazon.
  • On Tuesday morning Vaifale asked me to type up a letter he was sending home to parents. I always get a little nervous typing up documents that are written in Samoan because I have little means of proofreading. But on Tuesday after I typed it, I projected it on to the students’ monitors in my year 13 class, and they shouted out corrections. It was thorough. And humbling.
  • How about those San Francisco Giants? Can they keep it going? Can they hold out for a wild card spot? Do it, Timmy. Do it.
  • Next weekend is Father’s Day in Samoa, which is celebrated on Sunday, but observed on Monday. I admit that I am totally pumped to have 2 long weekends in a row.
  • I think I’ve reached capacity on weekly podcasts. I’ve got the NPR Shuffle, This American Life, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me, Fresh Air, Acoustic Long Island, and The Moth. There’s no way I can keep up with this load. That said, it’s quite amazing that I can get fresh content weekly. Peace-Corps-wise, it feels like cheating.
  • Does anyone actually use Microsoft Access? It seems like database managers use SQL or something else highbrow. Why isn’t there a simple, user friendly database program? It’s not like there aren’t many ways that small-scale databases would be handy. Off the top of my head, uses include:
    • School grades;
    • Charity auctions;
    • Project planning; and/or
    • Record-keeping for Mario Soccer tournaments.
  • Really, I’m just feeling guilty about having nothing to show for the database that I agreed I would create last Friday. It’s not for a lack of effort though.
That’s all I got. I hope you’re well. Pictures below.

Supy, Jenny, and Spencer checking out Koa's camera.


Riding in the van with the matais from Supy's village.

Coconut truck.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fixing Computers in Faleula

I’ve been having some trouble with my external hard drive, and when I ran into Cale and Sara last night, I agreed to come and help them with the ARK computer shipment in exchange for Cale’s expertise on my external hard drive. Since the Congregationalists finally decided to cancel school for the rest of the week, it’s not like I had anything better to do with my day, and Cale and Sara are good times, so I headed over this morning.

My morning was rather lazy, and the day seemed a little daunting when I woke up, but it turned out Supy was planning on picking up his allotment of the computers, and he called and asked if I wanted a ride. His pule and a bunch of the matais from his school committee were in town with a van, so the ride would be more comfortable and faster than a bus.

Supy was supposed to pick up 30 computers, but as soon as the guys from the school committee saw the 30 system units and 30 monitors, they realized their van was far too small. So they left to find a more sizeable form of transportation, and they never came back. Supy stuck around to hang out and get a crash course in using a Linux server.

I “helped” Cale. I put that in quotation marks because I was not a helpful helper. While I am good at using computers, I am a novice at anything involving setting up a new system or working with hardware. This meant poor Cale had to walk me through every step of process and explain things so basically that it’s unclear if my presence was useful at all.

“You can configure this one,” he told me, putting a machine next to the monitor. “The CD is here, but it doesn’t have a CD-ROM drive. Here, use this one.” He handed me a CD-ROM drive.

It’s not that I’ve never worked with computer hardware before, it’s just that I’ve almost never worked with computer hardware before. I find it baffling, and I prefer to stay blissfully unaware of what goes on inside the tower.

In Jonathan Lethem’s “Fortress of Solitude” the main character talks about the trick to doing a new drug is to pretend it’s not your first time. I employed the technique today to mixed results. I figure getting the shell off was the first step, but once I was finished with that, I had little idea of how to proceed. It felt like I was lost in an unfamiliar place. Like I could hear crickets chirping.

Cale was pretty good about allowing me to maintain some semblance of dignity. When I went to plug the drive in, the plug was upside down, but hell if I could tell. “I think that’s upside down,” Cale said gently. Oh right. Sure. I knew that. I totally know what I’m doing.

I got moved to configuring the server via a Linux terminal. I don’t really know anything about Linux, so Cale mostly stood behind me dictating commands. “Type ‘sudo.’” Cale said.

I typed “pseudo”.

“No. Spell it the dumb way,” Cale said gently.

Eventually I got through it, and Cale pointed to the next machine. “Now do everything we just did on this one,” said Cale.

I sat down and looked at the maniacal blinking cursor in its deafening silence. It was like I could hear crickets chirping.

I hope you’re finding new challenges. Pictures below.

This was the sky when we walked out of the computer lab at the end of the day. "That's good clouding," said Cale.

Supy and Sara looking at the Ubuntu operating system.


Cale and Sara claimed they had no food. And then they made a fantastic lunch. Skilleted onions, bacon, potatoes, and basil, and corn on the cob. It was the kind of trick my dad is really good at pulling.

Supy eats his corn on the cob very particularly. Also like my dad. And my sister.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


The Wikipedia “Microsoft Access” article has a disclaimer at the top that reads, “The neutrality of this article is disputed.” And then at the end of the first section, which claims Microsoft Access “is the natural progression for managing data when the need for a relational database arises or after reaching the limits of Microsoft Excel,” there is a footnote calling that statement dubious. Dubious, indeed. I’ve was recently asked by a Peace Corps staff member, and I have decided that I hate Microsoft Access.

The database I would like to build would have a simple user interface that would allow a user to load a form with any information previously entered, allow the user to add new information or to edit the old stuff, and then save that information to the database; maybe some checkable boxes, maybe some drop-down menus—nothing too fancy.

Given the relative user-friendliness of Microsoft Office, and since Access is apparently the “natural progression for managing data” from Excel, one would think it would be easy enough to make the jump. It is not.

In terms of curriculum here at school, we break down some of the most basic differences between Excel and Access: in Excel, they’re called “rows” and “columns”, in Access they’re called “records” and “fields”; “in Access, text is “text” and a number is a “number”, in Excel text is a “label” and a number is a “value”. But once you get past basic semantics, the differences between the two become far vaster.

Excel and Access have very little in common, in fact. Data is entered differently, it is stored differently, and it is accessed differently. I understand that it’s a different program, and that encountering new software always involves a learning curve, but it’s ridiculous that Access has been a part of the Microsoft Office Suite for 16 years and it’s so unlike the other programs.

For example, if you open Word or Excel or PowerPoint or Publisher or even FrontPage (back in the day), each has a “Drawing” toolbar that allows you to create shapes and lines and text boxes. And the objects all act the same (e.g. when you hold down the shift key and move a corner handle, the object’s dimensions stay the same. When you hold down the control key and move the object, it automatically creates a copy of the object to the place you move it.). Access doesn’t conform to these rules. Even in the “Form Design View” which is not unsimilar to the Drawing toolbar interface, things don’t act the same.

I haven’t brought up differences in data management because I am completely baffled as to how Access manages data. I haven’t been able to figure out how to get the check box options to show up correctly on the form, let alone for the form to feed the checked data back to a new database.

I guess my biggest complaint is that Microsoft Access is incredibly un-user friendly, and by no means the natural next step after Microsoft Excel. It makes me feel stupid. And no one likes that.

School’s been canceled for the rest of the week. Maybe I can use this time to figure it out.

Apologies for whining and nerding out. Pictures below.

The ideal form I am looking to create.

Reading time with Akanese.

Looking out the window on the bus.

At the intersection before this, the dog leapt out of the back of the truck. He then ran behind the truck barking at the top of his lungs. The driver pulled over and opened the tailgate. The dog jumped back in. The driver got back in his truck. Done and done.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Day Everyone Showed Up

The closest my high school experience came to this Swine Flu thing was senior year when some kid wrote a bomb threat on the wall of one of the stalls next to the photo lab. It wasn’t too long after Columbine, and on that particular day, attendance at our school was less than half (This was particularly sad because they showed Dustin’s EMP project on the school’s morning news show that day, and lots of people weren’t there to see it.). In any case, that was what I was expecting this morning.

I admit, I’ve been looking forward to taking this week off. Last week was the first week in a long time that we had 5 straight days of school, and with 5 weeks left until the next term break, I’m ready to cut out early. So when my pule announced government schools were closed this week, I was sure we’d be closed too. After all, parliament recommended all schools close. And how could the Congregationalist schools heartlessly force students to show up today?

But my neighbor Maengi, who has a TV, told me last night that school was indeed on for today. I couldn’t find it in myself to do much preparing last night. No one else has to go to school. The Catholics are off, government schools are off, even the Methodists extended the break to last the whole week. Why would my students show up?

Since I live on campus, and since I am notorious for waiting until the very last minute to get out of bed, I can usually hear the murmur of students on campus the moment I wake up. This morning I sat up and rubbed my eyes and tried to listen. Were they here? Couldn’t be. Today would be a ghost town. Right?

I buckled my ’ie and grabbed my phone and keys (I forgot my USB drive this morning. Always a lousy omen when that happens.). I brushed my teeth and walked outside.

They were all there. Milling about on the stairs, the balcony, the lawn. Dammit.

We had our regular Monday morning assembly and walking in, the boys’ side of the hall looked smaller, but the girls had shown up in droves. And as the assembly went on, more kept showing up.

As it turned out, in many classes today, I had students than usual. Here I was, ready to forfeit my curriculum for the week, ready to reward those who actually showed up with extra computer time, ready to lay back and have a little teacher malōlō. Not today. With fearless immune systems, my kids laughed in the face of Swine Flu.

When I showed up to the 11.1 class after Interval, Joanna was sitting in the front row, looking up at me diligently—wearing a surgical mask. I tried to look away, but I couldn’t help it. I started laughing. And she started laughing. And the class started laughing.

Glad we’re all on the same page about the ma’i pua’a scare.

I hope you’re taking your own hypoallergenic precautions. Pictures below.

The girls had a strong showing this morning.

Boys numbers were ehhh...

K.K Mart near the Peace Corps office.

I didn't realize the English translation of the sign that topped yesterday's post was just on the other side of the sign.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Great Road Switch

I heard about the road switch within an hour of arriving in Samoa. On an impromptu walking tour of Apia led by Laura and Todd, Todd mentioned as we crossed a street that Samoa planned to switch from driving on the right side to driving on the left. As the switch date, September 7, has drawn closer, it has become quite the topic of conversation, and the most heated political issue on the islands. And now that the date is 6 weeks from tomorrow, the countdown has begun.

The government’s reasons for the switch are somewhat unclear. Since Samoa falls under New Zealand’s sphere of influence and quite a bit of tourists are Kiwi or Australian by nationality, the road switch might be to encourage more tourism. There’s also an argument about the road switch justifying the retrofitting of Samoa’s roads, some of which sorely need to be repaved.

Part of the issue is the side of the road you drive on dictates which side of the car is better for the driver. If the driver sits on the side of the car opposite to the side of the street the car is on, it is easier to see oncoming traffic. This helps with passing. And since many of the roads in Samoa are one lane in each direction (or one lane for both directions), passing into oncoming traffic is extremely common here. So another reason may be making the roads safer for right-hand drive cars.

All of the buses in Samoa are left-hand drive, so a common sub-topic of conversation is theorizing about how buses will be changed. A frequent rumor says that the government will subsidize bus drivers to re-model a bus to put the driver on the right and cut a hole on the left for the door. More likely is that the driver will stay on the left and a door will be cut so passengers will board and disembark behind the driver.

As it stands today, there are many right-hand drive cars in country and many left-hand drive cars. When my parents and I were getting into a taxi at the wharf, the driver was loading the bags in the trunk, and when I went to get in the front seat, it turned out I opened the driver-side door. “Are you driving?” The driver asked. Ha. No.

TV stations have started showing commercials that demonstrate how to approach and maneuver tricking driving situations from the opposite side of the road—like roundabouts, which constitute a handful of Apia’s main intersections. At poker night, Joey 81 was talking about certain intersections which are far more right-side drive specific. Certain intersections have wedge islands specifically for making right turns. How’s that going to work?

Since we don’t drive, Peace Corps are mostly affected only as passengers—with the major exceptions of a.) being pedestrians and crossing streets and b.) riding bicycles. Visiting Auckland, Luisa and I had a helluva time figuring out where the cars were coming from. But I guess that’s the kind of thing you get used to after a while. Riding a bike is going to be more of a challenge, and I think I’ll stay off for the first couple weeks. Maybe the Peace Corps will have a training session.

Other than that, some changes just might be good. Joey80 jumped out of the van the other night to go to run inside to grab the carry-out pizza he’d ordered over the phone. “Can’t wait for the road switch,” he said when he got back into the car. “Then I won’t have to cross the street to get the pizza.”

Good attitude, Joey.

I hope you had a great weekend. Pictures below.

Road crew painting dividing lines down the center of the street in Fausaga.
(Photo credit: Phil's sister Fipe)

Another of the road crew.
(Photo credit: Fipe)

Buses will have to remove the seat where the kid in the red t-shirt is sitting and cut a hole for a door on the left side of the bus.

Picture of Apia today.

Artist's rendition of Apia after road switch.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Prodigal Host Son

Last night was the first I’ve been back to the village since money issues went down six weeks ago and I was asked to pay for Akanese’s school fees. Those six weeks mark the longest I’ve gone in Samoa without visiting the training village, and I got the impression that my absence was felt, and it also seemed like they picked up on the fact that I was annoyed about the whole money issue. And while that made for a contentious homecoming, I still felt like I was welcomed with open arms.

Since Paul and I waited for 2 hours for a bus last Friday, I waited until I boarded a bus before I called my host sister Asolima to tell her I was coming. The first thing she said was, “Long time no talk!” True that. I managed to make the second-to-last bus of the day, which is far better than catching the last. In addition to leaving later, the last bus tends to be the most crowded. Also it fills up with inebriated college students going home for the weekend, which makes for an unpleasant ride. Catching the second-to-last meant I got to sleep and read. Awesome.

As it turned out, Asolima was gone for most of the time I was there. One of Oge’s family members (I think a cousin or a nephew) who lived in American Samoa died, and a bunch of family arrived last night for the burial. After dinner, Asolima set out with Keleme to pick up family from the wharf and take them to Apia. The rest of us headed to Bingo.

I sat with Tafale during Bingo, which brought a different dynamic to the experience. Usually I sit with Asolima, who has great English and explains things thoroughly, but is quite unforgiving when I miss numbers that have been called. Tafale was much more gentle when I missed N34, but she was also a little more vague with explaining the object of the round (e.g. 2 lines and a 4-block, 3 small kites, blackout, picture frame, etc.). It was a more independent Bingo experience, I guess, which was cool.

We ended the night by watching “Resident Evil: Nemesis,” which was playing on one of the local stations, and eating Top Ramen. It felt like college.

When I woke up this morning, everybody else was asleep. I don’t think this has ever happened in the host village. So I went back to sleep. And when I woke up a second time, everyone was up and looking at me like I’m a lazy jerk for sleeping in until 8 a.m. on a Saturday. Now that’s more like it.

I had barely woken up when Asolima came in and paid me back the $20 for Akanese’s school fees. I was blown away. I had never expected to see that money ever again, so this was very exciting. 10 minutes later over a breakfast of crackers and curry, Asolima explained that because of the death of Oge’s nephew, she needed to buy a case of tin fish to give to the family, and it would be great if she could have the $20 back. Easy come, easy go. Done and done.

Mele left early to go into town and hawk Koko Samoa at the open market. I stayed home with Fipe, Akanese, and Asolima. We watched “Mamma Mia!”, which my parents brought during their visit. Then we all took naps.

Fipe, Akanese, and I waited for the bus together. Fipe was impressed with my pen twirling. While she was practicing, a road crew came through to paint white lines down the center of the road. I made Fipe get closer to snap photos. And while she was doing that, my bus arrived. I sat down on the bus and heard a shriek from the back. I looked, and a man had loaded a pig in a burlap sack in the cargo area of the bus. The pig was not happy about this.

Just another day in the nu’u.

I hope you’re enjoying your Saturday. Pictures below.

Cartwheels in the living room.

I remember Marlis, Emily, Annie, and Tanya making chains like this. True, Akanese isn't actually doing Keleme's hair, but you can see it starting to evolve.

Not sure what these are. They've been described to me as Samoan sunflower seeds. You pop them open with your teeth and spit out the rind. They're not nearly as easy to shuck as sunflower seeds.

Throwing paper airplanes in the living room this morning.

Fipe practicing pencil twirling with a stick.

That sack has a live pig in it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Swine Flu!

During interval today, my pule let the staff know that next week’s Science Fair is canceled on account of Swine Flu. Also, all government schools will be closed next week because of Swine Flu. Also we would know by the end of the day today whether Congregationalist schools would follow suit (although I never got a straight answer to this. Will we have school next week, or won't we?). This disease that seemed so far exotic and geographically far off is now in our front yard. And I’m still having trouble taking it seriously.

I don’t recall the first time I heard about Swine Flu. It was probably a phone conversation with Luisa. I do remember that NPR got all up in arms about it around Easter, was proclaiming it a non-issue by May, and back up in arms by June. I was checked getting off the plane coming back from New Zealand, but the medical personnel only asked that I check a box saying whether or not I was healthy. Other than that, the whole thing has sounded like a joke.

Except from the news, I’ve only heard of one case of Swine Flu: a girl in Luisa’s cousin’s class in California. First, that’s 3 degrees of separation, which means it’s only slightly more threatening to me than Kevin Bacon coming down with a cold. Second, when Luisa told me this, she accompanied it with a laugh—to which I responded with a laugh.

Pestilence is a funny word evocative of extreme biblical punishment. SARS was a joke. I remember during the SARS scare Roxanna would call out “SARS!” and point with an air of “J’accuse!” whenever someone would cough. It was entertaining. Also entertaining was Peter Saarsgard advertising his SARS masks on Saturday Night Live: the Peter Saarsgard SARS Guard. Hilarious.

The Peace Corps has kept a straight face throughout. We’ve received regular emails from the Medical Officer keeping us abreast of the state of Swine Flu in Samoa. Evidently hospitals have seen a significant increase in the amount of flu cases. Peace Corps Washington has made annual flu shots mandatory, although Samoa will not get a new batch until August. In the mean time, we’re supposed to wash our hands frequently and stay away from crowded places.

Since I have no TV, most of my news comes from rumour. Apong was first to mention to me that a school a little up the mountain from us, Vaimauga, was closing down because supposedly all of the students who stayed in the hostel tested positive for Swine Flu. Given this, and the fact that our school is so close to theirs, and given a high school student’s personal hygiene can be questionable at times, Apong concluded quite matter-of-factly that he was absolutely sure Swine Flu was at our school already. We must have had this conversation three weeks ago.

And I guess that’s the irony of me taking potshots at the disease from so far away. I feel so secure and isolated, and yet my computer lab, where over the past two weeks 600+ students have sat around using the keyboards and mice—the same keyboards and mice that I touch 4 or 5 times a day. I feel like I’m mocking the other pools of germs while I swim around in my own swamp of bacteria.. the moral being “people who live in glass Petri dishes shouldn’t throw stones.”

Whatever. The Petri dish might just be closed next week.

I hope you’re coughing into your elbow. Pictures below.

See? This kids got quarters in his ears... errr... a 20-sene coin.

Peace Corps Poker Night. Right to left: Jordan, Joey 81, Joey 80.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Odds and Ends Thursday 20

From what I could tell going into this week, there was a rare full week of school planned, which was both good news and bad. Good because I am a little worried about getting everything in before the end of August when we are technically supposed to be done introducing new material; bad because I have one prep period per week, so it’s nice to have random days off. But all in all, this week’s been pretty easy. Who knew lesson planning could make life so much easier? Here are some other odds and ends from the week:
  • On Tuesday I went to take a picture of the cell phone IF example, and Manila purposely timed walking across the room so as to get his face in the shot (seen here). Though Manila is in 11.4 and speaks frustratingly little English, I’m convinced the kid is brilliant. He’s hilarious. At first he really got under my skin, but I’ve come around.
  • I purchased Heart’s “These Dreams” on iTunes for $1.29. $1.29! It’s a song that’s 20+ years old. What is this world coming to?
  • I had a dream about Minesweeper on Monday morning where I refused to wake up until I finished the game I was playing. I took it as a sign, and I’ve quit Minesweeper for the time being.
  • A lot of people at my school, students and staff, wear watches. I would think this is unusual, but I’ve never discussed it with other Peace Corps. In any case, I’ve started wearing my watch so I can fit in with the cool kids. We’ll see if it works.
  • I want to get a bunch of my ’ies hemmed. A couple shirts too. From what I can tell I have the following options:

    • Take them to a tailor, which sounds expensive;
    • Buy a sewing machine, which sounds extravagant;
    • Do it myself by hand, which sounds difficult and, um, shoddy; or
    • Take it to my host family and ask them to do it, which sounds like a logistical headache.

  • CitiMart was out of the economically priced Skippy’s, so I opted to buy a jar of the generic Pam’s brand peanut butter. Pam’s is based out of Wellington. The label boasts “No salt added”… I loved Auckland, but Kiwis have no business making peanut butter.
  • Also, Skippy’s has more salt per serving than Pam’s by a factor of 36, which is a little insane. But from now on, I’ll stick with the salty stuff.
  • Many of my kids from year 9 through year 13 like to sit and type with the keyboard on their lap. I don’t know why. Maybe because there’s a long cord and they want to take advantage of it. Why only use 4 feet of cord when you can use 6?
  • The circus has been in town this month, but I’ve been pretty ambivalent about it. I’m told it’s something akin to an American circus from the 1940s, which sounds entertaining, but eh… Maybe I’ll just spend the weekend reading “Water for Elephants” instead? Right, Mom?
  • Sorry I didn’t clarify in Monday’s post… it’s a six-person relay that goes 64 miles. So each person runs approximately 3 miles approximately 3 times (one person runs 4, I think). It’s not that intense of a run, but I’ve never run 10 miles in one day in Samoa. It’s hot here.
That’s all I got. I hope you’re well. More running sunset pictures below.



Wednesday, July 22, 2009


In nearly every Peace Corps interaction I’ve had in the last 2 weeks, someone has chimed in to make sure everyone in earshot has submitted their Volunteer Living Allowance Survey. This survey is how the Peace Corps gauges the proper amount volunteers should receive monthly. The monthly allowance has been a controversial topic among volunteers, particularly at VAC meetings, and people are getting snappy about each other to make sure the form gets turned in. At the core of the issue is the Country Director is allowed to raise the monthly living allowance more than 10% only if at least 75% of the in-country volunteers submit their Volunteer Allowance Survey.

I have been pretty open about the fact that I don’t spend the full allowance every month, and that I brought the volunteer average down when I submitted my form. I live in Apia, I rarely need to pay for transportation, and I’m relatively small compared to some of the other volunteers here (I’m not insinuating people are fat; I’m just saying Paul, Phil, AJ, Dan, and Jordan are each over 6’ tall, and need more food than I do.).

One of the bigger discrepancies in how much money a volunteer uses each month comes out of one’s job. Many of the village-based development volunteers (i.e. groups 78 and 80) live with host families, so they give their family somewhere around $200 WST per month and that takes care of meals and laundry. Almost all teachers (i.e. groups 79 and 81) live alone and have to budget groceries, laundry detergent, toilet paper, etc.

Beyond the Peace Corps though, Samoa has undergone quite a bit of inflation in the past year. Through the Peace Corps rumor mill echo chamber, I heard average annual inflation in Samoa is usually between 1 and 3%, but this past year it was estimated to be somewhere around 13%. The price of the ferry has gone from $8 to $12. Admission to Magik Cinema, the only movie theatre in the country, has gone from $6 to $8. I’ve also heard the price of popcorn has gone up, but who has money to pay for popcorn?

The most annoying one for me is the price of landline phone calls increased from $0.01 per minute to $0.02 per minute. Yes. It’s just one more penny per minute. But that’s a 100% increase, and when you aggregate that over a month, it means going from, say, a $30 bill to a $60 bill. That's lousy.

On Sunday I posted a picture of the guys from group 67, and they were saying during their service the monthly allowance was only $75 less than the current rate. That was 8 years ago. So maybe it’s time for a little bump.

The Peace Corps walks a fine line though. The goal is to pay volunteers a stipend that will allow them to maintain the same standard of living as the people in the community where they live. Paying volunteers too much money undercuts efforts to connect with host country nationals, and it would be weird if teachers at my school found out I was making more money than they are… which I’m not.

I’m pretty sure that my monthly wage is just about the same as the teachers at my school. Although I think they got a raise after the fonotele in May. So maybe it is time for the Peace Corps to step it up.

I hope you’re weathering the economy. We’re coming out of the Great Recession now, right? Pictures below.

People lined up for the ferry. The ferry's price has jumped twice over the past year.

One other reason I spend less is I get a muffin and tea every day. And occasionally more. I apologize profusely, but I don't know the dish seen here. It's kind of kokoesi, but different.

These girls from the 10.1 class hang out outside my room often.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Application Application

My high school calculus teacher frequently used names of students in our class on tests. It was an easy way of personalizing the test, except the scenarios were always a little bizarre. “Matt has built a hot air balloon with x amount of fabric. Given that the hot air balloon is a sphere, what is its optimal volume?” I’m not saying I wouldn’t enjoy the fantastical whimsy of the construction and aviation of hot air balloons. I’m just saying there may have been more applicable scenarios, which may have better illustrated the application of calculus in the world.

Being a teacher, I now realize finding practical applications can be difficult—particularly when there are cultural barriers. Even teaching in Oakland it was difficult to find practical applications of sixth grade math, in part because despite all the training and workshop sessions, West Oakland still felt like another world. And it’s just about as difficult here in Samoa.

It’s almost always difficult to work backwards from an abstract concept to a practical application. I can figure out the Excel functions I need based on what the situation requires, but turning that around and finding a situation in which my students would need to use the IF function gets a little weird.

On one hand, I don’t want to be the condescending palagi who makes references to coconut plantations and eating papaya. On the other hand, I don’t want to be the assuming palagi who makes references to snooty aspects of American culture that will be lost on my kids. I could bring up my apartment’s Nintendo 64 Mario Soccer tournament, but why?

Sports does make for an easy go-to; particularly athletics. With all the events at a track and field meet, the organization by heat, the rank by time, it’s easy to find lots of different applications for Excel and Access. It’s easy to justify the use of databases and the basic statistical functions like MIN, MAX, MEDIAN, AVERAGE, COUNT, and COUNTA.

And figuring out who won the game is an easy basic use for an IF function. Make those scores rugby scores, and the kids are right there with me. Seki ā.

Also I figure any work I’ve done since I got here is inherently practical for them. Since Blakey and I have been working on automating the way our school does grades, I’ve found it to be a good source of material. SUM and PRODUCT. Pass/Fail is an easy IF function to setup.

But today in my 11.4 class, I got to the end of the lesson and asked if there were questions. A girl raised her hand and asked if we could do another example. Oof.

I vaguely remembered that you can tell a person’s cell phone carrier in Samoa by looking at the digits of their phone number. So I asked the kids to clarify. 72X-XXXX is a Digicel number, 75X-XXXX is a GoMobile number. On the spot IF application! I’m awesome! Also, the class brimmed with hormones as when we wrote out pretend phone numbers for pretend people on the board. They were dying to do real phone numbers for real people… Hmmm… Nah.

I hope you’re well. Pictures below.

Class with grades and rugby scores on the board.

Rainy afternoon today.

These ladies were standing outside the bank discussing exchange rates.