Friday, April 30, 2010

The Other Cat Problem

This time next week I’ll be in Hawaii. The two huge issues that need to be resolved between now and then are the computer CAT (i.e. the Common Assessment Test as discussed Wednesday) and the feline cat who lives in my house. On Wednesday I discussed the former issue, so today I figured we could talk about the latter. I have yet to line up a cat sitter, and time is running out.

Scout isn’t particularly high maintenance, but I’d prefer she be:
  • Fed 3 times a day; and
  • Kept inside.
Only two things. I’m fine with her staying at someone else’s house, or with someone else staying at my house. Nonetheless, my circle of contacts whom I’d trust with my cat and/or my house is limited, and I’m running out of candidates.

The Peace Corps provides a slew of possible sitters, but dates are a big problem. I planned my vacation dates poorly. I work at a Congregationalist school, and our break begins a week before the government schools’ break; this is the week I’ll be gone. Most (or all?) of group 82 works at government schools, as do a handful of 81s. So they’re all out. As far as finding a PCV from within the Congregationalist system, Phil has family coming and Koa is also heading off the island.

I’m fine going outside of the Peace Corps. I have before. My friend Ruane and her family watched the cat for 2 weeks after Christmas while I was in Sydney. My neighbor Maengi occasionally feeds the cat when I’ve left town for the weekend. Both of these arrangements worked out very well, but I fear I’d be asking too much from either. I’d rather spread out the cat responsibilities.

Let’s take a time out for a second. Part of me feels like this blog post is pointlessly dragging you through the minutiae of my life. But I also think this problem is uniquely difficult within the Peace Corps lifestyle. I’m well adapted to my job and my community. I have friends, and I’m on good terms with all of my neighbors. But even with being here a year and a half, I still feel like a bit of a stranger; or at least I feel like I’d have a lot more people in The States who I know well enough that I’d feel comfortable asking to watch my cat for a week.

This is another facet of the difference in the way pets are treated in Samoa versus America. The idea of keeping a cat inside, picking up after her, and feeding her 3 meals of dedicated cat food per day is quite foreign to many of my Samoan friends, and imposing the cat on someone might be awkward for that person, or the cat, or both.

So I’m working my way through the Peace Corps. If I can’t find anyone, I’ll talk to the vet and see if they have any suggestions.

Or maybe I should just put it out on the blog. Anybody want to watch my cat for a week?

I hope you’re well. Picture below.

The small island of Apolima with "little" ferry in foreground.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Odds and Ends Thursday 51

We’re in the middle of mid-year exams, which is awesome because work-wise, it’s half days all week. Also, I don’t have to teach. But the other side of that coin is I come home every day with a huge pile of tests to grade. The load isn’t nearly as bad as it was last November, but the final tally will probably be somewhere around 200. Surprisingly, I find grading to be the most loathsome part of teaching. Lesson-planning is a drag, and disciplining students is really annoying, but neither compares to the drudgery of grading papers. What a snooze. Here are some other odds and ends from the week:
  • I just finished grading the exams for my year 10 English class. On part of the test students were given a choice of essay topics to write about. Essays on one popular topic, “My grandfather’s birthday,” had a similar progression. They would start with, “I really love my grandfather,” and then they’d go on about his birthday. And then things would take a turn. “And then he died.” Whoa. One kid even wrote, “And then the next day, he died.” Usually there’s at least as much ink about the death as there is about the birthday.
  • NBC’s “Community” is really funny. I’ve watch 11 episodes in the last 24 hours. I hate grading papers.
  • Cheers to SamoaTel for fixing my phone line in an extremely timely fashion. I filed a complaint yesterday, thinking it would take weeks before anyone showed up to correct the problem. The guy showed up today. It turns out the problem was with the switchbox far from my house. I can use the Internet from home once more. Hooray!
  • I was sitting out in front of Lynn’s faleoloa tonight eating a chicken curry pie (Never had one before. They are delicious.) waiting for the rain to stop. A wall of torrential rain moved down the street. It was like you could draw a line between where there was downpour and where there was sprinkling. Rain here is amazing.
  • A year 13 from last year came into my house without knocking on Tuesday to ask me to help her sister with calculus homework. Thank goodness I was clothed.
  • While proctoring tests the last three days, I’ve had to confiscate one student’s test each time because s/he was talking. Each time I’ve then waited for everyone else to finish and leave the room, and then handed the test back to the student to finish. It’s been a pretty effective tool.
  • I watched “The English Patient” tonight. That movie’s great. It seems to get better with age.
  • I did the New York Times crossword puzzle for April 29. I haven’t done one in a long time, but I did pretty well. Joey 81 through in a little help. The clue was “______ metabolism” and he figured out the answer was “basal”. Thanks Joey.
  • I lost the key to my computer lab. I’ve been using my pule’s key, which means I have to ask him every time I want to go inside my classroom. I think I might start using my own padlock. I have an extra from when I moved in. What did I do with my key?
That’s all I got for today. It’s late and I’m exhausted. I hope you’re well. No pictures today.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wrestling with the CAT

Jordan texted me with the news yesterday. “Did you just get a call saying they changed the cat date?” I texted back asking for the new date, but in my heart, I knew the answer. May 7. I’m not usually one to channel Murphy’s Law, but I guess scheduling my trip to Hawai’i the week after the first CAT was scheduled was an invitation for conflict. Oh well.

I should clarify. This year the Samoan Ministry of Education has decided to combine what have in previous years been the first two common assessment tests (CATs): file management and word processing. On one hand this makes sense since both of these skills are pretty basic, and it’s difficult to flesh out an entire test based on one or the other. On the other hand, they are two very different skills, and preparing for the test has been awkward.

In any case, the CAT was originally scheduled for May 7, but at the teachers meeting it surfaced this date was inconvenient for the Congregational schools (and I think the Methodists, as well?) on account of our breaks being earlier than the government schools’. We collectively decided to move the CAT to April 30, and the Ministry agreed. Perfect.

But now it’s back to May 7. I will be in Hawai’i. And though students are technically required to show up to school, with exams and English Day over, many of them won’t be showing up either. This is problematic.

Until this morning, Jordan was the only one who was officially informed of the date change, and Koa and I crossed our fingers it was just rumor. But during Interval, a teacher approached me and said, “I forgot to tell you. The Ministry called yesterday because your test is re-scheduled.”

So after school today I marched over to the Ministry’s headquarters (conveniently located right across the street) to give them a piece of my mind. I practiced my speech. I wanted to start with an emphatic “I’m VERY upset” said with a respectful Samoan lilt.

When I walked in the room, there were two boys being castigated for who-knows-why by the testing director, but their lecture stopped so I could come in and chat. Now that I had an audience, I lost my nerve and settled on, “The new dates for the computer CAT are very inconvenient.”

Friends back home know that I can get overly testy when I have a bone to pick; this often works to my own detriment. But today I stayed cool, calm, collected. I reasoned and invoked my students and observed how the date change put them at a disadvantage.

It was surprisingly effective. I was told I might be able to administer a different CAT prior to the test. Yeah, that works.

When I got back to my school, my pule was just getting off the phone with the Ministry, and he and I discussed the matter. We’ll administer the alternate CAT if they let us. If they don’t, I think PCV Jordan will come to my school and administer the CAT on Friday, May 7.

I think I’d be more aggravated, but you know, I’m going to Hawai’i. I’ll cut my losses.

I hope you’re well. Pictures below.

I took a team portrait for the school magazine.

These girls asked me to take their picture after I took the team pic. The one on the right is one of the goofier (and higher achievers) in my year 9 science class.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


It was Jennifer’s birthday party, and I was camped out in her family room, by myself, watching the USC game on TV. Jennifer was one of my best friends growing up, and I was notorious for being an underwhelming guest at her birthday parties. But that year, she seemed to not mind. “We always knew you’d eventually come around to football,” she told me. All it took was attending the right school during the right decade. It’s easier to get into a sport when the team you’re rooting for dominates everyone else.

I heard and NPR commentary along this same line, examining whether UConn’s dynasty in women’s basketball has been good for women’s basketball. In the end, he gives an emphatic “Yes.” Watching the sixth grade rugby championship at Apia Park today, I understood.

Only a month or two ago, Apong and I were rugby novices. Even as spectators, we felt like we’d attended a foreign film screening with no subtitles. Today, we were experts, evaluating passes, debating strategy, criticizing, heckling. And I think the only reason we were able to acquire such expertise was because our team kept winning. It’s surprising how rapt one’s attention can be, even if it’s under 15 Minor B’s rugby.

And the final today couldn’t have been more exciting.

We didn’t actually know today was the championship game until we arrived. As it turned out, the team we played (and lost to) last week had fielded ineligible players and was thus disqualified from further play. So it came down to my school versus Koa’s.

We struck first about 10 minutes into the first half. It’s always gives a mental leg-up to take first blood, and the boys went wild with nervous excitement. We missed the first kick though. 5 – 0.

The other guys came back. It was just after a scrum and they had a few passes go back and forth and then laid it inside the goal just before we tackled. They made their kick for the extra 2 points. 5 – 7.

We somehow got a penalty kick just before the first half ended. It was well-placed, and the kid nailed it. 8 – 7.


Maybe 30 seconds into the second half, we got another penalty kick, this one at an even sweeter spot. The kicker lifted it straight through the posts. 11 – 7.

As with any sport, the pendulum swings both ways, and it seemed like just moments after our sweet penalty kick, the other team got one of their own. Right through. 11 – 10.

I should say, there’s no shade on the sideline, and it’s still so damn hot, we’re all drenched in sweat even though we’re not moving around. The game drags on.

My kids score. The side goes wild. We’re well into the second half, and this is starting to feel good though. We hold our breath when the kids kicks. The ball sails left. 16 – 10.

I think about starting a “De-fence” chant as we head into the final stretch. We just gotta hold them. The other team ends up controlling the ball quite a bit, but we finally manage to control a scrum right in front of our goal. The kid drops the ball into the scrum, walks behind and picks it up, and passes it to the kid behind him.

“Kick it! Kick it!” We all shout. He runs with it. He passes it to the kid next to him. He runs with it. Straight out of bounds. My kids all know time is running out, so they let out a small cheer, thinking the clock will run itself out while the ball is out of bounds.

The ref is having none of that strategy, and 5 seconds after the throw-in, Koa’s team runs it into the goal, and places the ball on the ground. 16 – 15.

The field is so silent during the extra kick, you can hear roosters off in the distance. Even the breeze seems to stop to see what happens. The kick is worth two points, and thus will determine the winner of the game.

My boys take off from the sideline to block the kick. The kicker is unphased and takes slow, steady strides to kick the ball. He makes contact, the kick is not blocked. It sails into the air.

I’m not breathing.

The first thing I hear, even before the ball has passed through the uprights, is the roar of the other side. Even from my vantage point, it seems there is no question: the ball passes through, the kick is good, the linesmen behind the goal raise their flags. 16 – 17. We lose.

It was heartbreaking and wonderful and heartbreaking. And wonderful. It was such a good game, and it all came down to that stupid play off the scrum. Oh well. Our sideline was somber and gloomy through the post-game prayers and coach’s speeches.

But on the walk back to the car, the mood already began to lighten. The kids were already throwing the ball back and forth again. As any gambling addict will tell you, the best part of losing is the thrill of playing again.

I hope you’re well. Pictures below.

Victory on the left, defeat on the right.

Huge geckos on the walls of Zodiac's bathroom. Sorry there's nothing to put them in perspective.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Guest Contributor: Luisa

To say nothing of the fact that I was able to travel to Auckland and Sydney last year, I was also fortunate enough to meet up with Matt. On both occasions he would sometimes suggest that I write a blog entry from time to time. I declined, but now that I’m actually in Samoa, it seems I can no longer postpone my contribution to Matt’s Samoa Blog. Plus, I’ve already broken protocol by not posting on the appropriate Guest Post night. Apologies. Apologies, everyone.

As you have read from recent entries, the end of the school term is busy with rugby games, activities, and testing, which means I’m left to entertain myself for the first part of the day. Typically, I’ll spend some time sneaking into local hotel to lounge at the pool, going to the fish market for oka, and taking full advantage of the DVDs here at the house with the cat. It’s been fun to meet some of the other volunteers whom I’ve only known from blog photos up to this point, too. In spite of the busy school schedule, we’ve still been able to squeeze in a comprehensive sightseeing schedule.

I put in special requests for the Baha’i temple and the Papase’ea Sliding Rocks (of Death?), but the real highlight was the weekend trip to Savai’i a few days after I arrived. Phil was a most gracious host, and his backyard rivals the properties of some of the resorts we walked through this past weekend. Staying at the Tanu Beach Fales in Manase was a real treat, too. I could get used to rolling out of bed and straight into the ocean.

Another unexpected adventure for me was renting the car and driving all around Upolu. The rental company was unable to fulfill my request for a left-hand drive car, but the agent assured me that my “free upgrade” to a right-hand drive car of the same model would be easier to drive on the roads here. I was skeptical, but I climbed into what I would normally consider the passenger seat, and we were off. The rental guy was actually right about driving the roads here, and the only problems I encountered were some nasty potholes on the less-maintained roads outside of Apia.

After hearing about and seeing pictures of life here in Samoa for such a long time, it’s almost surreal to be experiencing it myself. There are many things that remind of the times I travel to the Philippines with my parents, but I was particularly struck by a seeming lack of socioeconomic disparity. Samoa is unquestionably a developing country, but you never get a sense that the people here are devastatingly poor, perhaps because there are very few ultra-rich to juxtapose them with. Apia is clean and functions well, and I never once saw a homeless person or was harassed for money, even when I walked around alone. I couldn’t say the same thing for other developing countries I’ve visited. Hell, I couldn’t even say the same thing about living in San Francisco.

All in all, I’ve enjoyed my time here, but I’ll admit I’m ready to escape to the more temperate weather in California.

Pictures below.

A view of Sinalei Beach Resort as seen from Coconuts Beach Resort. We walked through and looked around on the drive down to Faofao.

The ceiling of the Baha'i temple.

Phil's backyard.

One of the pink flowers in Phil's backyard. They bloom for a day and then die.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Things Broken, Things Fixed

My phone line is crackly enough my modem can’t establish a connection with the server. I’m not sure where the problem is. My neighbors haven’t said anything about having problems, and nothing seems wrong with the jack. This means I’ll need to post from the Peace Corps office or a LavaSpot location until I can get the line fixed. I’m worried this may mean posting less frequently. We’ll see.

In other news, Luisa and I rented a car yesterday and picked up Koa and Summer and headed down to the south coast to spend the night at the Faofao Beach Fales.

As you may recall, Group 81 had our Early Service Training at Faofao, my sister and I stayed there last September, and shortly thereafter Faofao was ravaged by the tsunami. Lalomanu and the Aliepata district got quite a bit of press, and thankfully Faofao and its village, Saleapaga, had a low casualty rate. Nonetheless, the village was leveled and in the aftermath, it was difficult to tell where anything used to be.

I’m happy to report the recovery effort is going strong. As evidenced by our stay last night, the beach fales are back up and running. They’ve built 6 fales, 4 of which were occupied last night. I was told the fales would not have electricity, but I was told wrong. We had a light. It was awesome.

The dining facility seems in good shape. The food was great, and the booths and tables seems straight out of a 1950s American diner.

The family matriarch, whose name escapes me, remembered me and seemed quite happy to be playing host again.

On the way back to Apia this morning, we drove through other areas detrimentally affected by the tsunami. Some places seemed more along in the recovery process than others.

The one universal improvement was the greenery and foliage. Part of the horror of the tsunami was the saltwater killed off a lot of the trees and plants, and so in addition to the destruction and human toll, the whole area was brown and dead plants were everywhere.

The tropical climate is conducive to plant growth, and in the last 7 months, the green has rebuilt itself and flourishes once more.

As I said before, the destruction is still there, and there’s much work to be done. But it’s clear efforts have been strong thus far.

I hope you’re well. Pictures below.

Koa and Summer in a new Faofao fale.

Coral is back up too.


Dining hall at Faofao.

Turtle Pond near Koa's house.

Luisa driving right-hand drive.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

My phone line is down, and I cannot connect to the internet. I'll post again tomorrow afternoon.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Odds and Ends Thursday 50

With Luisa in town and an important Peace Corps event earlier today and school exams coming up next week and my professional typist skills in demand, I missed posting yesterday. Forgive me. This happens from time to time. Suffice it to say things are busy and I’m tired. My Vice Pule stopped me this morning to ask me to type out the timetable for next week’s mid-term exams. Next week: no classes, 1 exam to monitor per day. I’m ready for that. Here are some other odds and ends from the week:
  • Did you know cats lose baby teeth the same way humans do? I noticed one of Scout’s fangs was completely horizontal last week, and it freaked me out. But a quick Internet search revealed everything’s completely normal. Also, Scout’s about to enter into a “teenager” phase where she tests boundaries and rebels against rules. How fun.
  • I’m pretty proud that Odds and Ends Thursday is turning 50. Given that the first one appeared in February last year, you’d have thought we’d have reached 50 by January, but you know, things come up, things get in the way. I’m hoping we can do something more exciting for my 500th post, which is rapidly approaching. The tally in the sidebar is still off. I hope that will be fixed by post 500, but I’m not holding my breath.
  • Coming back from Savai’i, I had an epiphany: Express bus. I noticed that our bus and another coming from the wharf on Sunday essentially played leap frog all the way into Apia, each dropping a slew of passengers off along the way. Why not have one or two buses that go directly to town, and another that makes stops along the way? What’s the Samoan word for “non-stop”?
  • I’m reading James Joyces’ “Ulysses”. Sometimes it’s entertaining. Most of the time I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.
  • Yesterday the economics teacher asked me to type his midterm exam. I agreed, not knowing it was going to be 24 pages. It had to be finished first thing this morning, so I was up at the crack of dawn finishing it. But mostly I feel sorry for the economics students who have to take it.
  • I would choose Vailima over the following beers: Coors, Corona, Miller.
  • I would choose the following beers over Vailima: Guinness, Pacifico, Sam Adams.
  • It’s finally gotten a little cooler, although there are still moments when the heat becomes oppressive. I’m still quite sweaty when I get home from school each day.
  • The culture show at Tanu Beach Fales is pretty good. The couple who sat next to me, Claire and Neville, were singled out for because they’d stayed there for 5 days and the night we were there was their last night. When they were singled out, the announcer called them “Claire and Natalie.”
  • I found out that my year 13 Marie from last year, who is now at the National University of Samoa, has Australian volunteer Patrick for one of her classes. It’s a small island.
  • While hiking Mount Vaea, the Indian missionaries asked if I’d gained any weight since I moved to Samoa. I told them I hadn’t, and I pointed out that in the Peace Corps at least, girls tend to gain weight and boys tend to lose weight. Maengi then shouted, “Oooh! I want to be a boy in the Peace Corps!”
That’s all I got for this week. I hope you’re well. Pictures below.

Silhouettes of guys at Le Waterfront on Savai'i.

Phil and his backyard.

Scout killed a lizard last night.

Out for Briony's birthday tonight.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Growing Pains

I hate getting yelled at. In third grade, I was talking to the kid sitting next to me during sustained silent reading, and Mrs. Tynes made me “turn my card.” More than 20 years later, I can still feel the sting. And so it’s no surprise that when the contractor barked at me while I was shopping at Lynn’s faleoloa this evening, I took it personally. But given the development climate in Samoa, I don’t feel like I was in the wrong tonight, so the feeling is less guilt and more miff.

I should explain circumstances. Lynn’s, one of the upscale faleoloas up the hill, is putting in tile. I never noticed the floors until this evening. They’re mostly cement with a few sheets of loose linoleum running up and down shopping aisles. With the recent advance in Apia’s grocery stores—Farmer Joe’s been raising the bar for the past year and a half and Lucky Foodtown has since completely remodeled—it was only a matter of time before Lynn’s would have to get a facelift to keep up with the Joneses.

In any case, my assumption is the contractors will be working all night tonight putting in tile. We walked in about an hour before closing to pick up eggs and rice. I wanted to check the price of cat food, so I had to walk into an area cordoned off with an improvised shelf of fruit. The crew was only sweeping and moving shelves around, and I didn’t give a second thought to crossing their perimeter. I decided against buying cat food, but then evaded boundaries again to search for rice. The Aussie (or Kiwi?) foreman barked at me, “Can’t you see we’re trying to work here?” I apologized and that was that.

But I’m not sorry. Samoa is a developing nation in the most literal sense, and if I had to respect work areas every time I came across a construction site or various “men at work,” I would never get anywhere.

In fact, in my experience I’ve found that it’s completely acceptable to step over construction equipment or to traverse gaping trenches with little more than a “Tulou.” Pardon me. Most of the time, guys don’t even look up. Over Easter weekend in Savai’i, I accidentally hopped off a bus directly into a patch of drying cement. The workers shrugged and waved (the cement was mostly dry anyway).

Since the road switch, the government has been constantly repaving roads in Apia. There’s also been underground internet cables installed and the new pressure sewage system. Stores and businesses have undergone much remodeling. The bottom line is the Apia I leave in December will be nearly unrecognizable from the Apia I found when I arrived.

Also, maybe I’m making American assumptions here, but Lynn’s is open until 10 p.m and as the customer, I have the right to check the price of cat food. Especially if the crew is still sweeping.

So I don’t feel bad for crossing the line. Apia’s bursting at the seams. Lines are crossed every day.

I hope you’re well. Picture below.

My sixth graders played at Apia Park today. They lost. First loss of the season :(

Monday, April 19, 2010

Too Many Cooks

My friend Juliana is an English PhD candidate at the University of California Berkeley. My old roommate Liam used to read a book a day on his commute from Western San Francisco to the East Bay. PCV Erin has read somewhere around 100 books since we arrived in country, and Luisa garnered an “Eagle Eye” status at her public relations job. So I’m certainly not as qualified as some of my peers to be the authority on English—frequent blog readers should know how atrocious my spelling can sometimes be. That said, of all the students and staff who show up at my school every day, I am the sole native English speaker. You would think this might give my team an unfair advantage for the upcoming “English Day”. But given my relegated status, you’d be wrong.

Today was our first English Day practice, and though Luisa’s here and I had prep for my last period and I easily could have skipped out to go to lunch, I stayed. My team, Team Savai’i, met under the mango tree. Suasami and I were the first teachers out there. She handed me a piece of butcher paper with a poem written on it in Magic Marker. “You and I are teaching the poems.” I wanted to teach the song. Or at least have input in what song we’d be singing. “Bernie’s going to do the dance, and Apong’s teaching them the song.”

Since I’m an English teacher, I was on the English Day committee, and this year, events are as follows:
  • Speech. One student will read a speech from Samoan history.
  • Poem. Each team must recite a poem (or poems) by a Samoan poet.
  • Song. Each team must sing a song (or songs) in English.
  • Interpretive Dance. Each team must perform a dance in which they interpret the lyrics literally.
A note on this last one: my sister and I used to entertain each other by doing this. To get an idea of how ridiculous this looks, turn on “Hotel California” and stand in front of the mirror, dance-pantomiming the words. Between the “cool wind in my hair” and the “warm smell of colitas rising up through the air,” you will feel foolish. Guaranteed.

In any case, the rest of the teachers showed up, and Bernie took charge of my poem assignment. Before there was any discussion of what song we’d be singing, Apong was teaching lyrics to a song I’d never heard. It made me cringe a little because a few of these lyrics used glaringly incorrect English. One line went, “It fills our mouth with laughters.” My soul cringed a little.

But then I really felt expendable when I was handed a set of car keys and told to retrieve the guitar from the backseat of a teacher’s car. Ouch. That’s like having an EMT at the scene of an emergency, and asking him to go buy coffee while the other bystanders perform CPR.

Now I’m starting to sound cocky, which I don’t mean to do. I don’t want to be the smug know-it-all American, stepping on other teachers’ toes. But at the same time, I feel like an underused asset.

Whatever. I don’t think any of the judges will be native English speakers, and the whole point is to have fun. So I’m going to lay back, help out where I can, and not worry about it. If you need me, I’ll be in the shade.

I hope you’re well. Happy birthday, Amanda! Pictures below.

Fire dancers at Tanu Beach Fales on Saturday night.



I'm still getting used to using the camera underwater. I accidentally took this one of my feet.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

All the Way Home

I took a flight from San Francisco to Geneva once. That was a long way. I flew from Los Angeles to Rio de Janeiro. I think that might be a longer distance; I’ll have to Google that. My point is in the grand scheme of things, today’s entire trip was a relatively short distance. But with the exception of my New Years Eve trip to Falealupo, today’s trip back to Apia from Manase was my longest one-day journey in country, point-to-point.

One other thing that sets today’s trip apart from that NYE trip: a bunch of us went in on a taxi for the longest leg of that trip. Our trek today comprised wholly of public transportation. That’s a little more of a headache.

The day started at Tanu Beach Fales where we had complimentary breakfast and I took a brief swim since the tide was in. Luisa and I had our bags packed and our fale cleaned by 9:45 since we’d been told the bus would come through the village to pick us up at 10. I was told over the phone when I made the reservation, we were told yesterday when we checked in, we were told this morning when we checked out. 10 a.m., 10 a.m., 10 a.m.

The bus came at 11:30.

It was cool though. The family that owns Tanu is very nice, and when the bus finally did show up, there were plenty of open seats. We sat in the bench at the back and we were off.

Though Los Angeles is a bigger city with a wilder reputation, I find drivers in the San Francisco Bay Area drive a lot faster on average. This same juxtaposition seems to be true of Upolu and Savai’i: despite being the quieter, more laid back island, drivers on Savai’i haul ass. It took us an hour to get to Salelologa. On an Upoluan (Upolutian?) bus, the same distance would have taken twice as long. No exaggeration.

We got food at a hotel in Salelologa, and then walked to the wharf where most passengers had already boarded the ferry. With the new boat in and out of commission, the boat schedule has been all over the place. Today, the (old) little boat was not running so there was an extra large crowd on the (old) big boat. The air conditioners were off, and by the time we got on, there were very few seats left. Luisa squeezed in to a bench. I sat on the floor.

At first this arrangement wasn’t ideal, but I got sleepy and laid down in the aisle and took a nap. And it was awesome.

Getting off the boat is a crucial point in any journey given the scarcity of bus seats back to Apia. I have no idea why they send 3 tiny buses for a boat carrying >400 people. I try not to use the blog to complain, but the whole pasiovaa arrangement is absurd. Cramming that many people on to that few buses makes no sense in terms of safety, comfort, business, or efficiency. I don’t expect things to be overly accommodating or hoity-toity, but surely someone could scrounge up one more bus? Particularly on Sundays when only one boat is running and there’s bound to be hoards of people? It’s about the same as when there would be one Muni bus waiting after a San Francisco Giants game.

As you can probably surmise, the bus back to Apia was not fun. By the time we got on, there was standing room only, and we were near the front. Looking out the window, there were still at least 20 people waiting to get on. Luisa ended up riding on a random lady’s lap. I had to contort my legs and arms to fit into a tiny space in the aisle.

In the end, we made it back to Apia about 6 hours after we left Manase. On the whole, this was good time. Especially considering we got to eat lunch. But I’m still ready to take a break from buses for a while.

I hope you’re well. Pictures below.

Phil and Luisa on the rocks out in back of his house.

I finally got to use the underwater camera bag this weekend.

Coral at Manase.

You can always tell a Milford Man.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Due to circumst- ances not worth discussing here, the satellite Peace Corps office in Salelologa, Savai’i is expected to close sometime this Summer. But for now, it’s open in all of its convenient glory. Centrally located, it provides a small haven of air conditioning and dial-up Internet, and so after lunch Friday, Luisa and I headed over to kill a little bit of time while we waited for the school day to end so we could head to Phil’s house.

Opening the door to the satellite office involves a code and specific procedures, and for whatever reason, the mnemonic I use to remember this process ensures I remember incorrectly. I always think I remember the code, and I never do. Luckily, Dan 81 was already at the office, and he was able to open the door for us.

Dan was headed to Apia for the weekend to re-up on groceries and supplies. He noted how rare of a trip this was, and emphasized his embrace of the rugged Savai’ian lifestyle. “Up until yesterday, I hadn’t worn sandals in a week and a half,” he reported. “I’ve been wearing running shoes to work out, but other than that, I’ve been going around barefoot.”

He told a story about asking his boys which color Jandals he should buy. “They didn’t like blue, black, or green,” he said. “One kid said red was seki a, but then I asked another kid about yellow and he called it ‘gangsta.’ And then I knew I’d get yellow.”

After more conversation, Dan left to swim at Lusia’s. About 2 minutes after he walked out the door, Paul 81 walked in. He was headed out on the same boat.

“How’s school?” he asked. “How many students do you have this year?”

I told him my load this year is much lighter than the insanity of last year. Paul, who was also overloaded last year, looked a little sullen. “My schedule is as busy as it was last year.”

We talked shop for a while, comparing notes on disciplinary measures and classroom management, grading papers and issuing partial credit, correcting student’s English and maneuvering relationships with staff. We agreed that treating students as subordinates and sending them on feaus, errands and favors, has been useful in establishing our roles as authority figures deserving of respect.

Somewhere in there, Elisa came in and used the Internet. She was happy because the main office had sent word her guitar arrived in the mail.

Briony showed up. After a week on Savai’i working with the Ministry of Fisheries, she was headed back on the same boat as the others.

By then, it was time for the boat people to roll out and Luisa and me to catch a bus to Phil’s.

Nothing incredible happened, but it was nice to have a place to come together. It’ll be a shame to see the office go.

I hope you’re well. Pictures from the satellite office computer below.

Lili 82, Rachel 82, and Nate the Kiva volunteer.

Halle, who is an American studying abroad at the University of the South Pacific.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Day Off

“Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” So says Ferris Bueller. In my post-college career path, I’ve run the gamut of personal time policies. eCivis, as they did with so many other things, cracked the whip when employees asked for time off. CNET had a user-friendly automated system where you could request time off and get it approved without ever having a verbal conversation with your manager. At my school now, things fall somewhere in-between.

I took the day off from school today. Luisa and I are on Savai’i this weekend, and I wanted to take the fancy new boat, which leaves weekday mornings at 8. So Wednesday afternoon I walked into my pule’s office and asked if I could miss school today.

As with many other aspects of life in Samoa, this type of request evokes contradicting viewpoints of tradition and modernization. I think the old mindset used to be that having a guest in town completely justifies dropping everything to roll out the red carpet. I’ve heard other PCVs have had no problem gaining permission from their pule to miss school when they’ve had guests in town.

On the other hand, by so-called modern standards, the simple act of hosting a guest justifies very little. The longer I work at my school and talk to staff, the more I’ve come to see my pule as someone who was brought in to whip some discipline into my school. Even the difference between last year’s mindset and this year’s seems like a pretty big (albeit gradual) step toward discipline. Thus, whereas other volunteers would get no push back when asking to miss a day of school, I had to justify myself a little.

In the end, my pule treated the situation much in the way one of my parents would. When I told him I wanted to miss school on Friday, he put it back on me. “Well that’s up to you, huh? Do you think you should miss school on Friday?” Guilt. Well-played, sir.

I explained the situation further, and he nodded. “If all of your classes are on schedule, then it should be no problem. Are all of your classes on schedule?”

My year 9 science class is going to be manic next week. Mid-term exams begin the following Monday, and we’ve still got most of the “Micro-organisms” unit and the entire sweeping “Living Things” unit to get through.

Yet my conscience is clear: I don’t teach year 9 science on Fridays. And I told my pule as much.

He nodded. And then he told me it was fine if I missed Friday. But the message was clear: we mean business.


I hope you’re well. Picture below.

I found the above-the-fold picture on the computer in the Peace Corps Office in Salelologa. This is another.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cultural Exploration 42: Traffic

The San Francisco Bay Area consistently ranks within the top 3 of areas with highest rates of traffic in America. And after growing up there, I moved to Los Angeles, which—along with Houston—also always ranks in the top 3. As far as traffic goes, I’ve seen my fair share, and one would think coming to a developing country for 2 years would provide a respite from all this gridlock. For the post part, that thinking is correct, but more and more, the streets of Apia have been seeing their own bottlenecks, hold-ups, and bumper-to-bumper jams.

Of course, most of this traffic is a result of development. Whether it is because of a simple growth in population or because of a street closure for a new sewer system, necessity breeds innovation and innovation breeds headache.

Given I live 60 metres from my job, I don’t face any real commute, and it’s rare I’m on the road during rush hour. The few times I’ve been stuck in traffic before work in the morning, it’s been bizarre how quickly the urgency and stress sets in. When my parents visited last May, they came out of baggage claim relatively late, and it was a mad dash to get back to my house before school started. With the traffic-induced aggravation, I may as well have been on the 10 freeway in West L.A.

Part of all this obstructive development has been the effort to widen the road. The same situation happened in my hometown during high school: in order to widen the road and expedite traffic, construction crews would have to block large sections of the road, and counter-intuitively slow traffic to a halt.

Traffic on weekends is bi-polar. Saturday morning between 6 and noon, downtown Apia is bumper to bumper just about everywhere. It’s a mad rush to get all of your shopping done before the shops close. But by 12:30 p.m., the streets are empty.

Another strange factor of Samoan traffic is the sizable amount of backed-up cars are taxis. Most families in Samoa don’t own a car, so traffic can be quite monochromatic with long lines of white taxis. This can’t be economical for taxi drivers since cabs here are not metered and fares are only calculated by distance. The driver has quite the disincentive to wait in traffic.

And yet they do. Long long lines of cars all over Apia as the city struggles to catch up with its own development.

That’s all the Cultural Exploration until we start again in July. Thanks to everyone who submitted ideas. I’ll work on those in the upcoming months.

I hope you’re well. I’m on Savai’i right now, and I forgot my camera’s USB connector. Pictures will be posted Sunday.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cultural Exploration 41: Evening Prayer

I grew up in a progressive Catholic household where we said Grace before dinner each night, but that was extent of any sort of family prayer. Our Mormon friends had Family Night every Monday, during which they’d watch a movie together or play board games or something else along those lines, and I assume there was a fair amount of prayer there. But their habits still don’t compare to the evening prayer custom here in Samoa.

As I understand it, evening prayer should be timed so that the sun is completely gone just as the prayer comes to a close. In Samoan, this time of day is referred to as . Usually bells are rung to alert the entire village that it’s time for prayer. During , all activity stops; a temporary curfew goes into effect, fale’oloas close, children come in from play. In general, very few people are out on the street—families can be fined by the village for not abiding by .

Peace Corps aren’t necessarily held to such penalties, but it’s still a good idea to go inside and keep quiet, whether it be out of respect or simply to avoid dirty looks in your village. Of course, different villages view with varying levels of severity. Cale and Sara’s village was quite strict; my school’s compound, not so much.

But by that hour of the day, I’m either inside my house or completely off campus, so it’s rare that my presence would interrupt .

Either way, I admit I enjoy even though I don’t partake. You see, since coincides with sunset, the temperature inevitably drops by 5 or 10 degrees just as the bells ring for prayer to begin. Then, off in the distance, I can hear at least 3 different families begin to sing, often in multiple-part harmony. The effect is quite calming.

When I stay in the host village, I am given a central role in the family prayer. The sequence would go as follows: Mele would say a short prayer, we’d all sing 3 or 4 verses of a song, I would read the bible aloud in Samoan (it’s a phonetic language so it’s quite easy to read, even with a complete lack of comprehension) (also, Akanese has started taking over this job as seen above), Mele would say a really long prayer, and then we’d close with a short song.

As I said, all of this happens in Samoan, and I can follow here and there, but inevitably I zone out. But zoning out can be quite Zen-like, and even without hearing the formal structure of the prayer (or maybe because I couldn’t hear the formal structure), I can appreciate the practice. It’s not a terrible way to end the day.

Tomorrow’s Cultural Exploration: TBA

I hope you’re well. Picture below.

Note: Jane emailed to point out village bells are often made from empty propane canisters. I never really thought about this before, but she’s totally right. Next time I see some, I’ll get pictures.

Luisa is here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cultural Exploration 40: X-ray Stencils

Not too long after we moved into our respective houses, Blakey and I met up for lunch in town one Saturday. We were sitting on a bench eating meat and cheese pies from Lucky Foodtown when a boy came up and tried to sell us some x-ray film. I sat, quiet and confused, but Blakey just had to know. “Why are you selling that? Who wants to buy this?” she asked the kid. And through pantomime, he explained that x-ray film works as a good stencil. Blakey was impressed. I was still unclear on how x-ray film gets imported and where these soles are getting it from.

They’re getting it from somewhere though, because it’s all over the place. My host family used the technique to paint parts of their house in the village, the art teacher and a few art students use it to logos for uniforms for athletics and for last year’s culture day, vendors in town use it to paint well-known logos (as well as slightly less known logos) on lavalavas.

The effect is eye-catching, and for a long time I couldn’t figure out how people were replicating the logos. X-ray film is sturdy and impermeable, and though it seems a bit surreal to see my students working with such an obscure material, it makes sense logistically.

Stencil is an art form in which I have little experience, and the ways in which people are able to connect all of the parts of a picture or a set of letters is impressive. It takes creativity and style to draw attention away from the fact that everything is connected.

It took me a while to get used to seeing Nike, Adidas, and Puma logos on ’ies around town. To be honest, I genuinely thought Nike was producing them when I first arrived. The prints are pretty convincing. It’s funny because even though these ’ies are made the same as every other ’ie in town, vendors can get away with marking up the price because the brand name creates demand.

One other thing that’s cool about this homemade logo manufacturing is the logos are responsive to the shifts in Samoan culture. Sure, there’s the basic lavalava with “Samoa” and the year screened on. In November and December it becomes quite chic to sport the upcoming year on your ’ie. But the stencil process allows for more specific references to pop culture. When Group 81 first arrived and pre-paid cell phones were still pretty new, there were a lot of ’ies with “Please Call Me” inscribed on them for sale (When your cell phone is out of credit, Digicel allows you to send 5 “Please Call Me” text messages for free.). Right after the tsunami hit—and still to this day—’ies with “Samoa Tsunami 29/9/2009” are extremely popular.

Someone should get a collection together and start a museum.

Tomorrow’s Cultural Exploration: Evening Prayer

I hope you're well. Happy birthday, Katie! Pictures below.

Painting garbage cans using an x-ray stencil. This picture and the one above-the-fold are taken from Ben 80's blog, I swim with sharks on a daily basis. With a grant from AUSAid, Ben got 6 wheelie rubbish bins for his village and their ongoing beatification project. Excellent work, Ben!

This painting on the wall of my host family's house was almost certainly done using x-ray stencil since the same image has been spray painted on the back of the family van.

Year 13 students from last year Mira and Marie sporting athletics uniforms with stenciled logos.

A PCV wearing an 'ie with a Safotu stencil. Safotu is a village on Savai'i.

An array of tsunami 'ies hang in a booth at the market.

I saw this man and his "Uma le Case" 'ie at the airport in Pago. "Uma le Case" loosely translates to "Case closed." I've heard it here and there. Students love it when I use the phrase.