On Teaching

At around 1pm today, the last two teachers got on the bus to Apia.  My principal had left about an hour earlier in a cab and the 4th teacher never showed up today.  And my fourth week of school came to an end.  My school, like my village is very small.  We have one teacher for each two grades, and each combined class is around 20 students.  My project focuses on years 4, 5 and 6, which means that I have 27 students total.  I know all of their names now, and I’m beginning to learn nicknames.  The first week, I gave an individual assessment to each student.  The assessment had 5 sections: identifying all uppercase letters, identifying all lower case letters, producing all letter sounds, writing 3 simple sentences when dictated, answering 5 basic questions in English and reading a list of common sight words, with a score out of 50.  My highest score was a 42 from a year 4 student (her year 6 sister scored a 40.  Their father is a palagi and they are both essentially fluent english speakers.)  My lowest score was a year 6 who scored a 6.  Out of 50. You get one point just for knowing your own name.  I divided the 27 students into 3 groups based on their assessment scores.  Each group has students from all 3 grades and I pull each group out of their regular classes every day (Monday-Thursday; Friday is a planning/make-up day) for a 35-40 minute literacy lesson.  My daily schedule is flexible to accommodate the year 5-6 teacher who looses a third of his class each time I pull out a group.  I do my best to be as adaptable as possible since this strange dynamic will continue for the next 2 years, and I’d prefer for him not to see me as a combatant.  However, it’s hard not to feel like a nuisance every day, when he sighs heavily and frowns and says, “Well….I need to teach my lesson…can you wait?”  And so I will until I see him wander out for a cigarette.  It also doesn’t help that every time I walk past his classroom, every student turns, stares and at least a few of them will say hi or shout out their group color. (I labeled my groups with colors to try to avoid the leveled labeling that happens in Samoan classrooms: “at risk”; “advanced”; etc.  Everyone can easily figure out which are the high and low groups, but at least it’s not coming from me.)  I catch the eye of my tiniest student (a year 6 named Jonathan) who pumps his fist in the air and shouts “Green groups!  Green groups!”  We haven’t talked about singulars and plurals yet.  There are 8 students (all dudes) in green group(s) and I think only 2 of them scored above a 20.  In addition to Jonathan (who tried to erase my blackboard for me the other day and couldn’t reach the top of my handwriting even at a running jump,) I have the largest 10 year old I’ve ever seen.  He’s nearly the same height as me, and reminds me of my friends’ husky puppy.  He has huge eyes that never leave my face and always seems to have his mouth open.  He stares and listens, eyebrows working trying to make sense of my odd combination of English and poor Samoan.  He always stands or sits in the front row not realizing he’s blocking the view of at least 4 other students behind him.  He looks like he’d be a shouter, but whenever he answers a question he speaks very softly.  Green group also has John, who has more confidence and charisma than most of the other kids combined.  Samoan students are punished or reprimanded for answering questions incorrectly, so most of them will shut down if they don’t know an answer, or will sit staring/thinking until you move on and ask someone else or ask a different question.  On his assessment, John answered every single question immediately.  He named every letter, produced every sound, “read” every word on the sight word list.  When I dictated sentences to him, he filled the line with text.  He scored a 7 out of 50.  Less than 10 of his letter names were correct with zero correct sounds.  In his long elaborate lines of text, I could only detect 3 or 4 letters that weren’t gibberish.  Giving assessments was terrible.  It felt like administering torture.  In the space of every interminable pause as they would sweat and tremble and dredge the depths of their memory for information that simply wasn’t there, I just wanted to hug each one and shout, “Don’t worry! We’ll get there!  I’m going to teach you that.  It’s totally ok that you don’t know right now, because we’re going to learn it together.  Take a deep breath.  It’s going to be OK.”  And it will be.  And it is.  And we are.  All of my groups are 3 letters away from knowing the names and sounds of all the letters in the alphabet.  Thanks to the very generous gift of a teammate’s mom, who copied, laminated and mailed boxes of zoo phonics materials to several of us.  Each letter gets an animal, a sound and an action.  My green group still has a hard time with not making the K sound for G and producing any sound for J (the action for that one is too much fun so it’s all they remember) and X, Y, and Z, but if you show any of them an A, a T or an S, with huge smiles they’ll flap their arms in all kinds of weird ways and make perfect letter sounds.  

 

I’ve been frustrated by many aspects of Samoan culture lately, but one thing that I find truly beautiful is the way children are taught to love to serve.  That love is then often taken advantage of by adults who recruit children to do anything they just don’t want to do themselves.  However, if treated with respect and affection, these really are the sweetest kids I’ve ever met.  Getting to do chores for you is a delight to them.  I sweat a lot here.  You know that game you play in the car when you’re a kid and it’s raining.  You watch drops running into each other and combining and dropping faster and you make bets on which ones will “win?”  I frequently play that game on my own face.  (Where’s that sweat drop going, where’s it going?  Will it make it all the way to my chin?  Take a turn and run down the neck?  Meet up with that guy coming around the earlobe?  OOp there it goes!  Is my eyebrow going to be thick enough to catch that next one? Nope!)  So the other day I was sitting in my classroom after my groups were finished.  The 5-6th teacher was absent, so most of my kids were in my room “reading” books or just hanging out.  One girl asked me if I was hot.  What gave it away, I wonder?  Without thinking, I said yes, and immediately I was mobbed by students using the books they had in their hands to fan me.  Embarrassed, I gave an awkward “heh…” and picked up my sweat bandana and sheepishly wiped the larger drips off my face.  The girl who’d originally asked the question took the, damp, rank, cloth out of my hands and very gently, almost reverently wiped my face, neck and back.  She then tucked the gross, wet fly-aways behind my ears and told me I looked pretty. (Everyone else is still fanning all this time.)  Overwhelmed by this display, I laughed awkwardly again and said, “You’re treating me like a princess!” to which they responded by all calling me “Princess Rina” for the rest of the day.

 

The education system here is frustratingly broken (as it is most places,) and I was feeling glum about it the other day when I had an epiphany.  I was watching my school sing their morning prayers and the national anthem (the little year ones in the front row, eyes squeezed shut, mouths wide open, belting at the top of their lungs,) and I was thinking about their lives.  From what I understand about the Tribal Lands Act, properties just stay with families for generations.  Most family properties include at least small taro plantations and gardens.  Most families own some pigs and chickens and everyone’s close enough to the ocean to never go hungry.   “Living” expenses (in terms of survival) are essentially nil.  Not to mention that if you do have a need, your family or village will very likely take care of you.  It’s very easy to grow up, get married, raise a family and live a very contented life without ever needing any type of formal education.  Which provides little motivation to improve the system.  But what about the kids who want more than that? I wondered.  What about the ones who want to do something more than just grow taro and have babies?  Who want to travel or work or just like to learn?  An I realize that really the only thing you need to know in order to be able to teach yourself absolutely anything is how to read.  If you know how to read, you have the ability to grasp your education with your own hands.  

 

I’m not going to change the world by being here. I won’t fix the education system in Samoa in 2 years. I doubt anyone will.  There are some exciting changes taking place, but they will be gradual and slow.  In my two years I will be able to do essentially one thing:  I will teach a few kids how to read, and read better.  And that’s enough. 

Pictures!

This is my compound in the training village. That’s the bathroom and the open fale where we eat.  The house is just to the left out of the shot.

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Heh, nerds!  Those of us where even slightly musically inclined (and a few who were not) were coerced into joining the choir in the training village.  The pastor made us sing solos on TV and wear these cool hats!

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The waterfall in the training village.

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My permanant house looking like it’s the gold at the end of the rainbow, and my kitchen (not pictured: one hundred billion ants and lizards chasing cockroaches. We root for the lizards.)

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This is the size of most creatures that live in my house.  For scale, that’s chain-link behind the screen.

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The public buses here are made of wood and are hilarious.  This is just one example.  “Best A Jesus” is nothing out of the ordinary, I promise.

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The wonder-twins (who are actually cousins) and the much-sought-after, rarely-captured shot of Tia dancing.

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The fat one.

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Wandering along the beach and beach road.

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The very first sunrise of 2014!

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Cuddling and listening to music.

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Six Weeks

So I got my permanent site assignment and about a week later I went for a 3 day visit.  Another member of my team who was placed nearby went with me and we stayed with a member of Group 84.  I went to my school for a day, met my principal and co-teachers, saw my library, saw my house being built, met my host mother, visited the resort in my village, had many thoughts and feelings then came back to the training village.  About a week before we were scheduled to move to our sites, one of our project coordinators told me she needed to talk to me after sessions.  “Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble and it’s a good thing!” she reassured me.  The session finished and lunch began and I sat down with her and another staff member.  “We’re changing your site,” she said, matter-of-factly.  Apparently there had been a lack of coordination between my host family and the school committee and they were unable to finish building my house, despite having 3 months to complete it.  My new village was on the south coast of the same Island (Upolu) but on the west side instead of the east, about a 15 minute drive from my friend who had gone on my original site visit with me.  My new school was very small – only about 75 students and 4 staff members.  My host family would be just an older couple, and I would be living in a room in their house.  I sat and listened with my heart pounding, trying to ask intelligent questions to gather all important information, and feeling so many contradicting things that they all cancelled each other out and I remained quite calm.  It sounded like their reasons for moving me were good ones.  I chose to be hopeful.  I was very happy to be so close to my friend.

Our last week of training finished in a whirlwind.  We packed our things and all the new things our families had showered on us, most of us 2 or 3 items of luggage heavier than when we’d arrived. The village bundled us off with tremendous angst and fanfare.  My host mother cried every day for a week leading up to our departure.  (She cried more before I left for my 3 day site visit than my own mother did when I left for 2 years.)  With half the village chasing the bus as it drove away, I took a deep breath and thought things and felt things.  We arrived in Apia for another whirlwind of final training sessions, Thanksgiving and our Swearing-In ceremony.  We did our best to shop for homes we’d never seen.  In stolen moments of free time, we clung to each other.  “When we get to Apia, can we just cuddle and listen to music?” one of my friends had asked.  This was our last chance to be together, to dress and act like westerners, to feel comfortable and familiar and normal before we would suddenly be starting over again.  From scratch.  Alone.  So we cuddled and listened to music.  We drank a little and we talked a lot and we slept hardly at all.  Some of us went out quite a bit, thrilled to be out from under the restrictions of the village, but a few of us just wanted to stay in, eat ice cream, drink whiskey or wine, and watch movies (but we always just ended up forgetting to start the movie.)  Those who went out would wander by the staying-in room on their way back and would stay for a drink and relay their going-out adventures. 

I heard a rumor on Wednesday of that week and found out for sure on Thanksgiving that my housing situation had changed again.  I was still going to the same new village, but instead of living with the host family, I would have my own house on the school compound.  My new host family lived next door.  Apparently the village had strong thoughts and feelings about my coming and felt that I should belong to the whole village and not just one family.  Living at the school, more people could look after me and get to know me.  They were in the process of fixing up said house for me – adding an indoor bathroom and shower and all the Peace Corps required safety features (screen wire on the bedroom windows, deadbolts on the doors, etc) and it wasn’t quite finished yet.  I may have to stay with my host family for a few days until it was ready.  Deep breath.  Stalemate of feelings.  Be calm, be flexible, be excited: own house!  Be realistic: own house…eventually.  And then I carried on with Thanksgiving.  We were sworn in the next day, and the day after that we dispersed with hurried hugs and poorly concealed tears. 

The safety and security officer drove me to my village instead of having my host family come pick me up because she wanted to inspect the work on the house.  It was not finished, of course.  They had only been given about a week’s notice of my arrival, which actually made their progress quite impressive.  They had accomplished more in their 4 or 5 days than the other village had managed in 3 months.  They were very motivated.  It was a good sign.  But it would be a few days before I could move in.  They drove me and my piles of things next-door to settle me temporarily in the most finished bedroom in my family’s house.  My host father is the village carpenter and had abandoned work on his own home to work on mine.  “My” room (and I’m still not sure who I usurped in order to stay there) was in the very front of the house with one window looking out on the main road and the other onto the porch with a clear view through the always-open front door into the living room.  The bedroom door had no latch, but the S&S officer instructed them to install a lock the same day since I would be keeping all my things in the room.  The windows had curtains of sheer lace.  The bathroom was outside behind the house, with a door that did not latch, and the shower was a solitary pvc pipe sticking out of the ground. (That afternoon they built a little tarp shelter around it for me.)  My new family was not just an older couple.  In the weeks that followed, I counted and discovered that in fact 19 people live there.  The first night it may well have been a thousand.  After dinner, I locked myself in the room, hung lavalavas over the windows and tried to hold down the panic.  I’ve had moments of doubt every so often since the beginning, but that moment rolled me and wouldn’t let me up for air.  I was absolutely convinced I was not cut out for this.

They finished my house and I moved in about 4 days later.  It was a beautifully hilarious and very Samoan experience.  I’d had my things packed since right after school, but we didn’t actually leave to bring anything over until around 10pm.  With the help of my many siblings and a wheelbarrow, we brought everything in one trip.  Unfortunately, no one remembered the key to the gate.  There’s a barbed wire fence around the school compound. We realized our oversight as soon as we arrived, but like idiots who step onto an elevator and don’t push any buttons, we stood in the dark for about 15 minutes before anyone thought to go back and get the key.  Once inside the house, my sisters and brother fussed around washing the teachers’ leftover dirty dishes, putting up curtains, and apologizing for things I didn’t mind in the least and asking over an over again if everything was alright and if I was happy and absolutely sure I would be OK sleeping here alone because someone (or a number of someones) would happily stay with me if I didn’t feel safe.  I smiled and laughed and promised over and over that everything was perfect and wonderful and that I felt no trepidation whatsoever sleeping in the house alone.  Which I did, blissfully.

The next morning, I had school children sitting on my doorstep at 7:15.  Kids show up early for school, here.  At the end of the day, once everyone had left, I changed out of my puletasi and began unpacking.  I like unpacking under normal circumstances, but this was like being released into the ocean after living 3 months in a wine glass.  It started to rain a little.  I hit “shuffle” on my iPhone and set it in a bowl on my counter.  Regina Spektor started singing.  There were a few guys outside putting the finishing touches on my septic tank, but I didn’t care.  I wandered around my house putting things away and singing, grinning like an idiot and remembering why I thought this sounded like a good idea 2 years ago.

I was in the village for about two weeks before school let out for the year.  In those first few weeks (and even still, but to a slightly lesser extent,) I was treated much like a very expensive, fragile piece of antique furniture.  Everyone has very strong opinions about what should happen to it, where it should be, what events it should be present for, who should have custody over what aspects of it’s care and maintenance, etc.  But once all of these things have been decided by the Makers of Decisions, and the thing is present at whatever it is supposed to be attending, it is admired for 30 seconds, then mostly ignored.  And then someone says, “Oh wait, no look!  It can do this cool thing!” and everybody says, “OooOOoohh!” and then they go back to ignoring it.  I didn’t mind.  Social interactions have always been tiring for me, so being ignored was kind of a relief.  Nearly everyone in my village speaks English, so they would address me in English, I would try to respond in my very little Samoan, they would be mildly impressed, would ask me the standard questions: “Is this your first time in Samoa?  How do you like it?  Do you like Samoan food?  How long will you stay here?  Are your parents still alive?  Are you married?  How old are you?  And still not married, really?  Do you have a boyfriend?  Do you want a Samoan boyfriend? (To which I reply with my practiced: “No thank you, too much hassle! Samoan boys are very cheeky!”  To which they laugh uproariously and agree with me, “Yes yes, smart girl. Too much hassle.”  If you’re a palagi boy, apparently they’re much less likely to take no for an answer.)  And then the conversation would be mostly over and they’d go back to talking to each other and I would go back to trying to listen for one of the 8 words I understand and pretending I knew what they were talking about.

And then school was out and I had a few calm weeks of freedom to explore my village, to finish setting up and settling into my home, to figure out how the buses work, where to buy groceries, and to spend long uninterrupted seasons of time each day completely, blissfully, miraculously alone.  I could, for the first time in 3 months, use the toilet as many times as I wanted without any one accompanying me, observing me or timing me.  After which, I could wash my hands, with soap, in a sink.  It was (and continues to be) the epitome of luxury.  For most Samoans, being alone is one of the worst tortures they can imagine – I am asked almost daily, with openly expressed pity, how terrible it must be to live alone.  I will never be able to explain how magical it is and how vastly beyond anything I ever dared hope.  Solitude is a gift, and I constantly resist the temptation to hide within it forever.

Christmas descended like an unwelcome houseguest.  Samoans love Christmas, but in a very “Of Mice and Men” kind of way.  It is as if they collected all of their favorite songs and traditions from pop culture and Christianity and Christmas and threw them all together in a stew pot along with anything else that struck their fancy, and let it all ripen for a while.  They then drilled a hole in the bottom of the pot, and whatever oozed out, they said, “Yeah! Boom! Christmas!”  Take, for example, what auditorily assaults you at ear-bleeding levels on every public bus: they will digitally combine upwards of two songs – really just any kinda songs – layer in a reggae-adjacent type beat that sounds like it came free with an early 90’s model keyboard (because it probably came free with an early 90’s model keyboard) and, if they’re feeling creative, write their own Samoan lyrics.  The result is the bastard child of early 90’s church music, reggae, gangster rap and Christmas.  A few of my favorite medleys have been “The Little Drummer Boy” combined with Eminem’s “Real Slim Shady.”  I also heard “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” mashed up with “Move Your Body like a Cyclone.”  Stuck in my head for a whole afternoon once was their re-written, reggae “Hey Jude” about Christmas.  It was an unpleasant afternoon.

I decided to mentally skip Christmas this year.  It’s been arriving too quickly for me to feel fully anticipatory anyway, so it didn’t seem to be any great loss to just pass a year without one.  I knew that trying to watch Christmas movies and play my favorite songs alone in the humidity during summer vacation would just feel sadder and stranger than embracing the new, odd, assuredly memorable, cultural experience I would have for exactly what it was.  So I just pretended that this would be something else entirely, and didn’t try to fit any of my round Christmas pegs into this Samoan square hole.  And as it turned out, I didn’t really have to pretend that hard.

There are two churches in my village, but they are both the same denomination and therefore “are not in competition with each other” except, of course, when it comes to me.  When I first moved to the village, they wanted me to attend one church Sunday morning, have lunch and spend the afternoon with one family, then drive me down to the other church for the afternoon service and dinner with a different family.  Then switch the following week.  Thankfully, the Peace Corps stepped in and insisted I be allowed to make my own decisions on where I would attend church, that once a Sunday was plenty and that I would probably be taking my Sunday afternoon naps in my own house.  They’d grudgingly acquiesced, so for Christmas, I wanted to do my best to split my time and attend events at both churches.  The festivities began around 7pm on Christmas Eve.  My host brother had arranged for someone to drive me down to the church by the beach for their “Youth Event” which began at 7.  My ride arrived at 6, and I thanked them profusely and politely told them I would be ready at 7.  They came back at 6:40.  (Of course, an event that starts at 7 does not actually really start until 7:15 at the earliest, but probably 7:30 or maybe 8.  So, good thing I was early!)  The event was a strange sort of performance/competition/fund raiser (as are all Samoan events, I am learning) with apparently very specific rules for audience participation that seem completely arbitrary.  Since this is what everyone has done their entire lives, no one feels the need to explain any of it ever, so I get to watch and learn and try to act like I know what’s going on.  From what I could gather, there were two choirs competing.  Each one would perform 2-3 items: songs, skits, beat poetry, interpretive dance, etc. Then it was the other choir’s turn.  There were bowls set out in the aisles for donations, which audience members could walk up and drop in at any time.  Some songs received many donations while others none at all, and the distinction seemed to me to be unintelligible.  Was it a judgement of the performance?  Was it for the encouragement for specific people in different positions of prominence in the number?  Any criteria I imagined would be disproven by the next surge of contributors.  So just I tried to randomly space my donations to match the whims of the crowd and I’m not entirely sure I didn’t succeed.  Several hours in, the choirs joined together to re-enact the Christmas story in great detail, complete with shepherd staffs wrapped in metallic gift ribbon and sequined shepherd headdresses.  I recognized Mary and Joseph as the couple who’d very kindly looked after my safe return home when the bus I’d been riding had broken down a week earlier.  (I’m getting very spoiled – when the engine began choking and stuttering, I only very calmly thought, “Well, I’m sure someone will get me home.” and I was right, thanks to Mary and Joseph.)  When the program concluded around 11pm and all the prizes were given (apparently the choirs were competing in a number of categories, and each seemed to win a fairly even number of prizes which consisted mostly of small kitchen appliances and machetes,) there was great confusion and high tempers over what was to happen with me next.  Earlier in the week, I had planned to meet my brother after the youth event to wait for members of the other church to arrive and begin their midnight caroling tradition.  They march from one church through the entire village and end up at their church on the main road.  The family who’d given me a ride to the youth event were very determined to drive me home, and my brother tried to convince them that we had always planned to stay.  (Looking back, the confusion stemmed from the family asking me at 10pm if I wanted to go home and I, believing that I had 2 hours to kill before the next event commenced, had foolishly said yes.)  It was Battle Royale of stink-eyes and muttering, like a chain of custody dispute for a key piece of evidence in a murder investigation.  No one ever considered asking the evidence what it wanted to do.  In the end, I was bundled into the car and driven half way home, at which point I was instructed to get out and get into a different car going the opposite direction and driven back to exactly where I’d just left.  I felt a little bit like a Looney Toon, and a little bit bad for not feeling worse that people seemed to be experiencing some genuine angst over the situation.  

Back at the beach, I gathered on the road with members of the other church, all dressed in white with shirts and towels wrapped around our heads so we resembled ghostly shepherds in the dark.  We began to wander and sing.  In the absence of blaring horrendous keyboard accompaniment, Samoan voices are quite lovely – they’ve all been singing since infancy and split themselves into harmonies automatically.  Slight dissonances give color and texture to the tone.  The round voweled syllables roll over and over each other like tides.  It began to rain a little.  And suddenly in the heat of the air and the closeness of so many bodies, the coolness of the rain, the words I didn’t understand, the few muffled stars and the voices gleaming in the velvety darkness, walking like shepherds, I felt transported to something magical and mysterious – some deeper truer Christmas than I’d known before.

The magic wore off after about 45 minutes.  The rain continued and gradually intensified and still we plodded on. And on. And on.  (Do you know what 100 wet plastic flip-flops sound like?  I do.)  And on.  Around 2:30am we dripped blinking into the blazing florescent lights of the church, and suddenly I was vividly aware that my white outfit was now basically clear.  The pastor got up to the pulpit looking fresh (he had not been walking with us) and preached for probably about 20 minutes, but what felt like 4-5 hours.  And then it was over and my brother asked me if I was tired.  I have to be careful how I answer any questions about my preferences.  When asked any questions that begin, “Do/would you like (to)…?” or “Do you want (to)…?” and I answer definitively “Yes,” everyone present will tear their lives apart to try to get that thing for me immediately, and then will apologize profusely and with great sorrow if they fail.  I’m learning to be very non-committal and to express opinions very cautiously, especially since most of the time, I care very little.  But when my brother asked if I was tired, I answered immediately and definitively.  “Yes, I am very tired.  I can walk home if I have to, but if anyone is driving that way, I would like a ride.”  So I was loaded into the back of a truck and driven home.  I was in bed by 3.

At 8am the following morning, my phone rang 12 times in a row after which, I heard my name shouted from outside the fence 20 feet away from my window. It was my sister and her husband who needed me to unlock the gate so they could give me tea and toast.  When I moved into my own house, I had promised to eat dinner with them every night but I assured them I could handle breakfast and lunch on my own, and other than making sure I am continuously stocked with copious amounts of fruit, they have respected that arrangement.  Apparently Christmas is different.  “Rina, are you tired?” she asked, taking in my one barely squinted open eye and hair swimming around my face like a sea anemone.  “Yes,” I answered, allowing far too much irritation to bleed into my tone, “I was still sleeping.”  An hour or so later when I was more awake, I texted my brother to thank her for me, since I was sure I had forgotten in my semi-conscious state.  He responded that she’d thought it was funny.  At 10am my brother arrived to take me to the “Tausala,” another singing/dancing event that everyone seemed very excited for me to attend.  Having heard really nothing about this event other than the name (which I did not bother to look up, but apparently has something to do with breadfruit, or possibly fishing…?) and that it was happening at the main road church, I was ready in my wildly uncomfortable white church puletasi.  My brother showed up in jeans.  “Why are you wearing that?” He asked.  I once again substantially failed at hiding my frustration when I responded, “Because you never told me anything!”  but I was relieved to change into something more airy, and he didn’t seem put off in the slightest.

None of the rest of my family came with us.  “Where is everyone else?” I asked.  “They’ll come later.”  He answered.  “Then why don’t we wait and go with them?” I asked.  “Because it starts at 10!” he said.  So we arrived at 10:30 and sat around for 45 minutes before anything happened.  Chairs and tables were set up in a circle around the edges of a large open fale next to the church.  I was given a seat.  Then I was asked if I wanted a better seat so I could see better.  I said I could see fine and I was happy to stay where I was.  So I was moved to a different seat so I could see better.  Some snacks were served.  Plates piled with pastries and snacks were served to the pastors, pastors’ wives, the matais and other important guests.  Then the rest of us were served 2 bags of chip-type snacks and a cup or bowl of this lovely cold breakfast soup made from scraped pineapple, bananas, coconut water and peanuts. Then the dance numbers began.  Several groups (the women’s committee was one, and I’m not sure about the others,) in matching puletasis had planned many dances, songs and skits. Between performances, the band would just play music and anyone could get up and dance.  Alcohol is fa’asa (forbidden) in my village, so everyone just got sauced at home before they arrived which made for very entertaining dancing.  I was invited/coerced to dance a few times.  The donation bowls were, of course, ever present, and several different people throughout the day handed me money to put in.  (Apparently the final totals matter much less than the percentage of participation.)  Around 2:30 or so when things were winding down, the band played a slower very couple-y type song and the pastors got up and asked their wives to dance.  A few other couples joined them, and I actively avoided eye-contact with the world.  My sister sitting next to me said, “Someone is going to ask you to dance.”  I knew.  A strapping gentleman who looked too close to my age for him to be entirely kidding only waited half way through the song before making his way over to where I was sitting.  As soon as we stood up, the floor cleared like I’d set off a flash bomb.  We danced like junior high and I twirled in my long flowey flowery skirt, and everyone talked about it for days afterward.  “Mania le siva, Rina!” (Good dancing) they would say and I would say, “Leai! Ou te siva leanga tele!” (No! I dance very badly!) and they would laugh because I wasn’t wrong. I never learned my dancing partner’s name and he did not ask for my phone number or to be his girlfriend afterward, so he’s OK in my book.  I was home that afternoon by about 3:30, I gave my family some jerky as a Christmas present (which my parents thought was too sweet and did not like it until they tried cooking it.  After which, they decided they liked it so much that they didn’t let anyone else in the house have any of it) and then I went home and went to sleep for several hours and Christmas was over.

A week later, I escaped to a resort with 3 other volunteers – two boys and a girl, my same “staying in” friends from before.  We had grand plans to swim to some caves and go on adventures and leave the hotel, but we did not.  We took naps in the afternoon, then we stayed up till midnight, watching “A Mighty Wind” on my laptop.  20 minutes till midnight, we stopped the movie to decide what music we should play leading up to 12:00 and what should be the very first song we should hear in 2014.  We found a Philippine soap opera on TV that had a count-down in the corner so we’d know when it got to midnight.  We settled on an 8 minute classical piece and started it 8 minutes before midnight, and decided on “Another One Bites the Dust” for our first song of 2014.  About 2 minutes before midnight, the timer in the corner of the screen disappeared, and I began staring unwaveringly at my iPhone clock to start a 1 minute timer the second 58 switched to 59.  Then at 45 seconds to midnight (not one minute. 45 seconds.) the soap opera disappeared giving us an old-timey movie countdown, complete with beeps. 

And then it was 2014.  The TV showed pretend fireworks.  We popped champagne and hugged and kissed each other and I thought things and felt things and wondered that this would likely be the strangest year of my life and was I even remotely ready for it.  No, and yes, then no again. Also yes.)  We stayed up talking and listening to many more songs.  A Samoan gentleman knocked on our door after a little while and told us that he was staying in the room next to ours and his wife was pregnant and asleep and could he please hang out with us and share his champagne?  We said yes, and he stayed for a long time and made fun of our classical music and told us about being in the (I believe) Italian navy and marrying a Romanian woman.  When he finally left, we set alarms for just a few hours later.  We dragged ourselves out of bed and walked a few minutes down the road to a sea wall to watch the sun make it’s first unimpressive appearance in 2014. The very first in the world.  The clouds were beautiful and the breeze was cool.  Also, we saw a turtle. 

And so it goes.

I eat dinner with my host family every night and I’m getting very spoiled.  When I first arrived, they asked what kind of food I liked and I told them that I like everything and I liked Samoan food and liked trying new things and I was happy to eat whatever they were eating.  And they asked, “But no, but what do you really like?”  So I told them that I really did like everything, “I just have a very small stomach and I can’t eat very much, even if I like it.”  And they asked, “But no really, but what do you really like?”  “Well, I really do like taro, but it fills me up very quickly, and I do eat meat, but only a little.”  “What do you eat a LOT of?”  So I gave in and told them that I usually like to eat just a little bit of meat and a lot of vegetables.  And now I am horribly spoiled.  They don’t seem to care *what* I eat just as long as it is in large quantity.  The sister who cooks for the family used to work at the resort before she had kids so she understands how palagis enjoy things.  Every night I am served a small amount of meat (usually chicken, taken off the bones for the palagi, or very occasionally beef,) and mountains of two or three of the following: cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, green beans, lau pele (which is a little like spinach,) and once watercress, always with grilled onions. Everything stir fried lightly in oil and salt, never cooked past the point of a little crunchiness.  On Sundays for to’ona’i (the large after-church lunch) there will also be a few specialty things like fried fish nuggets (also taken off the bones for me,) lu’ao (my favorite, taro leaves with coconut cream) lobster and/or crab, oka (chunks of raw fish, onions and cucumbers served cold in coconut cream.  I had it once with some type of muscles or oysters that they’d treated with lemon juice which gave them a very interesting almost crunchy texture,) and yesterday I tried octopus in black coconut cream.  I asked about the color and they told me that it doesn’t taste as good if they remove the ink sack before cooking. If you can get over how it looks, it’s really quite delicious.  Since I don’t let them bring me meals for breakfast or lunch, they ensure that my fridge is well stocked with coconuts (to drink) papaya and bananas, and maybe some pineapple or watermelon.  I’ve spoken with several other volunteers and for most of them fruit is rare and vegetables are almost non-existent.  They closest they come to a green thing is cabbage, cooked to death in a soup.  I feel incredibly blessed.  At the table with me always is my host grandmother who has only one eye and at 86 is the oldest woman in the village.  About half the time my host parents will eat with us as well, and my brother (who lived in New Zealand for 10 years and speaks English fluently) will sit with us so he can talk to me and translate, but he doesn’t eat.  My two two-year-old nieces, Litia and Mila (the daughters of each of my sisters) provide the entertainment.  They know my name now and will start shouting it as soon as they see me walking from my house.  If it is still light out, one or both of them will run out to meet me and hold my hands to walk me in.  All of Samoa is clothing-optional for any children ten-years-old and under (and gender neutral – I’ve seen boys in skirts, with pigtails or painted fingers and little girls shirtless in bro-shorts with short haircuts, probably because of lice), so usually the girls will have on either a shirt or dress or bottoms but hardly ever any more than one of those things at a time.  While I sit and eat we play any of a number of different games.  There is “Sneak Closer and Closer to Rina Until She Makes Eye-Contact, Then Scream And Run Away.”  There is also, “Say ‘Rina’ Until She Looks at You, Then Laugh, And Repeat.”  There is, “Speak Pretend English” in which they imitate my intonation and we have pretend conversations, not to be confused with “Speak Real English” (usually at the encouragement of one of the older family members,) where they will show me how they can count to 3 or sometime 5. Once Litia and I had a conversations of “No’s”

“No, no no.” she said.

“NOO no no.” I said.

“NO no no no no.” she said.

“Nono nono no.” I said.

“NO NO NO no no.” she said.

And so it went for a while.  We laughed uproariously.  We also sometime have evil laugh conversations/competitions the same way.  Mila is “the naughty one” in that she is louder and less shy and warmed up to me first.  She has pierced ears, but lost one of her hoop earrings ages ago, so runs around like a pants-less baby pirate. Tia is hardly “the good one,” she’s just sneakier. She plays more hiding games, poking her head out where only I can see her and making fantastic faces at me.  She has terrific eyebrows.  Also, she dances.  Her grandparents will tell her to go put clothes on, and she’ll obediently run out of sight into the hallway.  Then a few seconds later, she’ll sneak back out just far enough that I (and no one else) can see her and do a cheeky little naked dance until she’s notices and instructed to go get dressed again.  She’ll disappear again for a minute.  Run back out and dance some more.  She gains confidence and spunk the less clothing she’s wearing.  If you ask her to dance she almost never will.  Mila will, but she’s not quite as good at it.  Once you stop asking and look away, Tia will dance until you look at her, and then she’ll stop. Don’t even try pulling out a camera.  Tia’s one-year-old brother affectionately referred to as “the fat one” has hair like an old man and is the only Samoan baby to have never been terrified of me.  Most babies will cry just looking at me, and the rest will stare with tremendous consternation as if to say, “…..but WHY is she so *white*??” But the fat one smiled at me the day we met.  I feed the three of them like puppies, giving them carrot sticks or cucumbers off my plate which they eat like candy (even after being dropped on the floor several times.)  I doubt they eat many vegetables any other time, so I consider it a win.  My host parents speak no English so I do my best with the few Samoan words I have to make them laugh at least once a meal.  Usually by telling them they’re making me fat (which they have expressed is their goal) or just saying the word “fat” as a groan at the end of the meal.  Or by playing with words to string together strange phrases to talk about the babies.  They got a big kick out of “ofu mo le aso fanau,” (directly: “outfit for the day of your birth”) which I said one of the first times a little brown naked body streaked through the dining room. 

Today I go back to the training village for 2 weeks for Phase II (or Phase 11 as it was mistakenly written on one of our schedules.) We will have more technical teaching sessions, more language, and another week of practice teaching.  I’m excited to be all together as a team again, but I am mostly dreading the rest of the experience.  I will miss my beautiful little house filled with order and solitude.  I will miss my family: my parents who spend so much time being anxious over my wellbeing, my chatty sister who texts me constantly, usually wanting to bring me some type of food, my quiet sister who cooks, and smiles and washes my sheets (“because her hands are much stronger” they told me,) my brother who acts as administrator and liaison for all practical needs – arranging rides for me, helping me catch the buses, carrying all heavy things, taking out my trash, and of course, constantly translating, my little sisters who never speak, just bring me things and stare and smile very shyly with big eyes, and the babies who shriek when I arrive and cry when I leave.  I will miss the village, the friends that I have made, the sandy road with the pigs and dogs, and the wild sea at the end of it.  Light brown coral with veins and waves of black lava running through and over and around.  The arms and legs of rock luxuriate into the tides like a half-full bathtub.  My shore is rugged and jagged and treacherous and beautiful.  Tiny charcoal black crabs and larger peach-colored ones with 3 red spots on their backs (which are delicious) hide in the pits and hollows.  In the pools and around the live reef, tiny fish the color of blue bottle glass hang motionless in unison like bells on a wind chime. When the tide comes in, the water blurs and distorts as the cold mixes with the sun warmed pools.  The palm trees lean out over the water to watch.

On the bus on the way to visit my first permanent site assignment, I did battle with my great enemy, Jealousy.  Other volunteers were placed closer to town, closer to each other, in better houses, in easier villages with better schools.  One actually lives at one of the nicest resorts in the country.  So I was sorting out my head and I was struck by the conversation with the fox in “The Little Prince” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

“What does that mean– ‘tame’?”

“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”

“To establish ties?”

“Just that,” said the fox, “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys.  And I have no need of you.  And you, on your part, have no need of me.  To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes.  But if you tame me, then we shall need each other.  To me, you will be unique in all the world.  To you, I shall be unique in all the world….”

“I am beginning to understand,” said the little prince.  “There is a flower…I think that she has tamed me…”

I sat aching on the wooden bench (the back rest hits you at exactly your most prominent spine, and is set at an angle to induce migraines) gazing out the window at the sweep of green on green with blue above and beyond and I decided that it didn’t matter what my village was like or my family or my school or my students or my house.  Annoyance and frustration, success and failure, beauty and heartache and more beauty live in every village.  But my island, my village will be the most beautiful – the most important – to me, because it is mine.  After two years – after just 6 weeks – it will have tamed me.  I will have tamed this place and we will be unique to each other in all the world.

On Finding Out

We received our permanent sight assignments today.

I will be in a very small village (about 400 people) on the south side of the island (Upolu) just over the mountain from my current training village. Four of my teammates are also on this island along with 3 others from Team 84.  The other 10 members of team 85 and I believe 9 or 10 members of Team 84 are on the other island (Savai’i.)  The school where I will be teaching is one of the smallest with only about 100 students and 5 teachers.  Apparently my pule (principal) is a very sweet woman who is very open to letting me do pretty much whatever I’d like.  My school’s library was built by another Peace Corps Volunteer several years ago so I hear it is very good–I will be teaching my classes in the library and since my school does not currently have one, I will likely be acting as librarian.  It also sounds like the school already has some progressive habits in regards to the library – holding activities in the space and letting students leave with books in their hands – surprisingly rare here.  Many school libraries are essentially storage rooms filled with anything the teachers don’t want in their classrooms but can’t throw away, along with unopened boxes of donated books. 

I heard my host family is on the larger side, but it doesn’t sound like there are any young children (I think, 4 teenagers, parents, a grandmother and possibly some aunts/uncles/cousins.)  I will be living on their property in my own little house that they are currently building for me.  The project coordinator said she hopes it will be finished in time for me to move in.  They were asked to build a bathroom with a toilet and shower inside the house for me which would be way above and beyond what I’ve been expecting.  While I do not have an ocean view like some of my teammates, I am apparently walking distance from a beautiful beach. My village is fairly remote – about an hour and a half bus ride from Apia (the capital city), and I do not know how often the busses run.  The closest person from my team (I’m guessing about 45 minutes to an hour away) only receives busses in his village on Mondays, Wednesday, Fridays and Saturdays.  A girl from Team 84 is one or two villages over from me, about a 15 minute walk apparently.  I’m sure she will fill me in on all the logistics.  I will go and stay with her for a 2 nights this week and get to visit my school. 

I feel exhausted.  
We knew this announcement was coming, and I bound myself up in knots feeling nothing about it.  Like balancing on a wire.  Recently, one of my teammates commented that we’ve almost completely lost the ability to distinguish between excitement and anxiety.  Everything is just, “THIS IS WHAT’S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW!” and we reserve judgement about whether it’s a happy feeling or a less-happy feeling until after it’s over (which it never is. We live here now.)  One by one we sat down with the project leaders and received our 10 minutes of information about the next 2 years of our lives, then ran back to the group to relay everything we’d heard 6 times and write our names on a map someone had the forethought to bring.  When it was all over, and we all knew and felt what we would feel in that first hour, I yawned and said, “I feel like I spent all of my energy today being anxious.”  My friend, (who sits next to me and watched bemused as I chewed my thumbnail and twisted my fingers all day) looked at me sidelong and said, “That’s because you did.”

Of course I had imagined both a best-case scenario and a terrible worst case-scenario and logically I know that neither was likely or even possible.  A few of my teammates had a fairly good idea of where they would be placed (and most of them were close or correct), but I was without an inkling.  I offered no preferences and I don’t have any specific secondary projects they brought me here to do, so I was a puzzle piece that fit anywhere.  “Very flexible, I like that.” The project director said when she gave me the opportunity to offer any opinions. “I’m choosing to be flexible.” I answered, and it’s a choice I continue to almost successfully make moment to moment.  

It was Schrödinger’s Cat and I didn’t want to open the box.  I liked yesterday better than today because I could be hopeful and today I have to be realistic.  Realistically optimistic?  Almost?  I’m reserving judgement.  I will make the best of it – I will figure out how to navigate my family.  I will create a space that is my own.  I will adapt to my work environment.  Etc.  Whenever I told anyone I was joining the Peace Corps, they would usually ask about the isolation.  “They send you out all by yourself?  Won’t you be lonely?” and I always said no.  I like being alone.  It’s easier for me than being with people.  Honestly, the isolation was part of the appeal.  But they never tell you that before they send you out by yourself, they lock you in a room with 14 other people for 8 weeks and torture you together until you can’t imagine being away from each other. THEN you’re on your own.  Released into the wild.  Training is boot camp.  Everyone has said that this is the hardest part – if we survive, all the rest will seem easy.  That is good news, but I almost don’t want it to end.  I’m afraid that the people I’ve made into my family will drift away like icebergs and we will go back to who we were before this strange thing began.

Of course that is impossible.  We will never be the same.  That is why we wandered here.  It will test us in all the ways we need to be tested and stretch us in all the ways we are least flexible, and strengthen us both in ways we were already strong and in ways we never knew we were weak.  I did yoga today for the first time in my life.  Running will be a challenge because I’m a girl (maybe I’ll make one of my host sisters run with me. Ooh! On the beach!) so I asked a friend to teach me something I could do inside my house.  My muscles are neither strong nor flexible.  Like my heart.  They groan and complain with each new position, whine like babies.  They resist tension, want to be at rest, always begging to be released.  But you deny their requests.  You listen to them closely and carefully.  Adjust, and create more, better tension.  You breathe.  And hold.  Tremble, adjust, and hold.  And breathe.  Deepen.  And exhale.

On Waterfalls, Pronouns and Someone Else’s Skirt

It’s probably about 5:30am and I’m lying awake looking up at my mosquito net.  I have to go to the bathroom.  In my head I’m debating how badly.  I will get up in an hour and I wonder if I can hold it that long?  Possibly, but if I try, I definitely won’t fall back to sleep.  I know that my host mother is sleeping right outside my door, and if I do get up, so will she.  (She was up late worrying over my coughing–I caught a cold in the middle of a sauna. How strange is that?)  She will turn the light on (despite the two kids asleep next to her) and will go outside with me, calling to anyone asleep in the fale to turn on the bathroom light (some nights they will leave it on for me, but not always) which means that now the whole family is awake and involved in my trip to the faleuila.  Is it worth it?  I wait as long as I can, but it’s been 2 weeks of unfamiliar food and water, so we’re in a pretty non-optional situation.  I asked my language teacher how to say “Please don’t get up” and “Please don’t turn on the light.” so I guess I’ll get to practice.

Incredibly, once I get back into bed I do manage to fall back to sleep and my alarm wakes me up around 6:30.  I brush my teeth, wash my face and underwear in the shower (a trick I learned from a current PCV in Samoa–keeps one’s laundry situation from ever being super urgent) and walk back to my room wrapped in a lava lava (sarong.)  While I get ready in my room, my family makes and lays out my breakfast.  Usually they will spread it out like a picnic on the bamboo mats and let me eat sitting cross-legged on the floor like a Samoan, but sometimes they’ll set up a table and chair for me.  The first few nights, they let me eat with my hands, but now they always give me silverware.

Meals are my greatest struggle–and not because I don’t like the food!  (There is this one thing they make: coconut cream wrapped in taro leaves and…baked, maybe? roasted?–it tastes a little like creamed spinach but with about 400% more flavor.  The taro leaves are strong and savory, a little bit tangy and the coconut cream is sweet–it is so lovely!)  But there is just. always. so. much!  I have a quasi-dysfunctional relationship with food at home, and here it is almost debilitating.  If I’m feeling really any emotion, but especially any anxiety, my appetite disappears. If I try to eat when I’m not hungry, I feel sick–my throat sort of closes up and I can’t physically force anything down.  Every meal is 3-5 plates full of different things: a starch (usually boiled bananas or taro) a meat dish or two (so far I’ve had mutton with pumpkin, various iterations of chicken [which I always feel a little strange eating while live chickens wander freely past], corn beef, whole fried fish–bones, eyes, fins and all, canned tuna, hot dogs, and a few others I didn’t recognize) and rice or noodles and vegetables and/or fruit.  At breakfast it’s several fried eggs, crackers or toast with butter, jam, peanut butter, corn beef or tuna, sometimes french toast, spaghetti sandwiches, tuna sandwiches or instant noodles, and always tea and fruit.  They give me a plate of cucumber slices with just about every meal because it is the only thing I will finish.  I will try a little of everything (and enjoy nearly all of it), but I have rarely ever been able to finish anything other than the vegetables and fruit.  I’ve gotten great at chewing slowly, stirring a lot, moving things around and always eating cucumber slices.  My host mother is not fooled, however and worries.  Other mothers are so proud of how much their “Pisikoa” can put away.  I’ve never felt that she’s disappointed in me, but always that she is worried to distraction. I tried to explain to Jia that in America I will usually eat only once a day.  They used to try to feed me about 5 or 6 times a day–now they’re down to about 3 or 4.

After breakfast, one of my sisters will walk me to “school” (the hall where we have our training sessions, less than 5 minutes walk.)  A few of the boys are allowed to walk themselves to and from training, but the rest of us are escorted every day.  We wander in slowly, enjoying each-other’s outfits.  Our families take great pride in dressing us.  Thankfully, my family has been fairly conservative on this front–providing me with a few lava lavas and one pretty spectacular outfit (a hot pink shirt that reads “Give off Vibrations in Good Grooyx,” a pair of silky black bloomers with white polkadots and a yellow and orange lava lava.  A few days later she gave me the exact same shirt in blue.  So now I have 2.)  I’m excited about the puletasi they are having made for me in a bright red-orange and black floral pattern.  My family also doesn’t try to actually physically dress me (unlike some of the others), for which I am grateful. Some girls show up in bright new (or borrowed) puletasi every day.  Several of the boys will have new flower necklaces and crowns. One guy has a new lava lava waiting for him every time he takes a shower.  His host mother also likes giving him skin-tight tank tops.  Another kid (over 6’2″ and *maybe* a buck-fifty soaking wet with his shoes on) has a loud new XXL shirt and lava lava every day with several necklaces and a flowery headdress.  He says he’s bringing everything back home to keep for his retirement.

After the first week, our families were told that we would be eating lunch at school and to give us food to bring with us.  We were very briefly hopeful at the prospect of an un-observed meal, a chance to relax a little and speak English to each other.  The first day, 1-3 people from each of our families showed up at lunchtime with huge meals to lay out and watch us eat.  And so it goes every day.  It is so kind hearted that we can’t bring ourselves to be annoyed.  There are maybe 3 people who actually bring their lunches in the morning.

Training is truly brutal.  Necessary.  But brutal. A few of us were laughing the other day that we’re essentially babies again – we eat, we sleep and we learn.  10 hours a day sweating and learning together.  I found a left-handed friend to sit next to so we can take turns fanning ourselves with the woven hand fan my family gave me the first day.  The language is a poetic nightmare.  It is so beautiful–rolling over and over like waves on a beach–all vowels and l’s and f’s.  But it doesn’t really translate into English, at least not structurally–the closest approximation is all we get.  This week, we started learning personal pronouns.  In English we have I, me, you, we, they, he she, and that’s really kind of it.  Samoan culture is built around family and relationships so they have I, me, we (me and you,) we (me and this person, but not you,) we (the 3 or more of us) we (the 3 or more of us, but not you) you, you two, you three (or more,) those two, those three (or more) and “that guy”–they don’t have separate masculine/feminine 3rd person singular pronouns.  Those are just the dependent pronouns, there’s a second (smaller) set of independents as well.  My brain pretty much always hurts. 

I come home from school, wave a quick “Malo” to my family and usually head straight into the shower.  Nothing feels better than a cold shower.  Nothing.  I put on clean clothes and rest for about a half hour – 45 minutes then meet up with a few other volunteers to study until Lotu (evening prayers.)  Then a little more studying, then dinner.  My family has learned my routine and are so understanding.  They notice when my eyelids start to droop and will send me to bed. So I go find Ana to brush our teeth.  For the first few days, our conversation would be like this:
<I make the brushing teeth hand motion.>
Ana: “Fufulu o nifu?”
Me: “Foo foo foo foh fee foo?
Ana: laughing, “Fufulu o nifu!”
Me: “Foo fee foo fee foo foo!”
and she would laaaaaugh! And then we’d go brush our teeth. Even though I can say it correctly now, it’s still one of my favorite phrases. 
And then sleep.  By like 8:30 or 9.  Until 5 am when I have to pee.

It rains almost every day here, but only for about 30 seconds at a time, then it stops.  There are very few truly rainy days.  Today (Sunday) was one of them.  It came down in waterfalls all morning, rarely even lessening.  My sister and I walked to church (I can’t tell if everyone else in my family stayed home because they’re just not that into church, or because of the rain) under one tiny umbrella, and I foolishly didn’t take my flip-flops off so by the time we arrived, my ie (wrap skirt) was pretty thoroughly soaked.  I figured it was just par-for-the-course and was about to walk inside to sit down when my sister held me back and said something in Samoan.  I looked at her confused and she just said, “Wait. Change your ie.”  There was another woman hanging out nearby, holding a baby.  I’d never met her, but she made eye contact and I got the impression that it was at her behest that my sister kept me out.  People were still wandering in, and all of a sudden a kid ran up with a blue bundle and handed it to the woman who handed off her baby to someone else.  My Puletasi (a hand-me-down from the current volunteers) was blue, and this wad of fabric matched oddly well.  She said something along the lines of “Here, change your ie.  That one will give you a stomach ache.” tugging on my wet skirt.  I *think* she was concerned because it was wet, but she may also have thought it was too small? or because I’d tripped on the way to church, it had a little smudge of dirt on it?  I’m pretty sure it was the wet thing.  Anyway, she asked if I had shorts on, which I did not. (I’d figured the one day I was wearing something that actually tied and therefore was not in danger of falling off at any second, I could forego the shorts.)  Almost everyone else was inside, so we stepped off to the side of the porch and she wrapped the new skirt around me while I untied the wet one and sort of awkwardly hesitated unwrapping it for modesty.  But she reassured me, “Don’t worry. I am your sister.”  And so we changed my skirt right there in broad daylight in front of church–very cleverly so she was the only one to get an eye-full and she was substantial enough to block anyone else’s view.  I spent the entire service trying to figure out the series of events had to have taken place in the less-than-10 minutes between when I arrived and when my replacement outfit arrived.  After church, I thanked the woman again and told her I would get it back to her, to which she replied, “No, don’t worry! It’s for you!”  

Before we left the States, they told us over and over again not dive in ready to fix everything.  “Be a learner, be humble, listen, observe, don’t think of yourself as the “expert” coming in to help.”  In our present state, the advice is kind of hilarious.  We are currently so utterly useless that it is laughable to think we could fix anything.  We don’t even feed or dress ourselves–we communicate like toddlers.  Vast networks of caring eyes conspire together to keep us in dry clothes.  If we ever become functional adults again, it’ll be a pretty big win.  

Yesterday we hiked to the waterfall. Our training village is farther inland than most on the island, so instead of being near the ocean, we have a river flowing through the center of town.  We followed it about 45 minutes into the jungle (along the way something large and buzzing flew up and stung me then flew away unscathed. Rude.) until it opened at the foot of a hundred foot fall pouring into a pool surrounded by rocks and cliffs. Apparently the locals believe it to be a very sacred place–many spirits and ghosts live here and the pool is so deep in one place that maybe leads into the underworld.  A few of us did try to find the bottom and none of us could.  But quite a few of our local siblings came along with us and didn’t seem too worried about it.  We jumped off rocks, (and cringed a little watching our brothers and sisters jumping of much higher scarier rocks) and swam and floated and looked at each other with wide eyes.  “Think about your life right now!” Julia shouted at me on the hike. I laughed, “That’s stupid!” I shouted back–it’s a Julia phrase.  Last Sunday I leaned over during church and whispered in her ear, 
“Wanna hear something weird?” 
“Always.” 
“We all just met each other 10 days ago.”
“Haha, that’s stupid.”

Because two weeks ago we put on our yellow rings and dove into a pool in the Wood Between the Worlds and now all other worlds feel like a dream. 

On Arrival

It is the end of the last day of my first week in Samoa.

Deep breath.

I climbed on a plane in L.A.  I heard the song “She” by Laura Mvula and I cried. I listened to it a few more times until I landed, then a few hundred more times in the 13 hours from L.A. to Auckland.

There she waits looking for a savior
Someone to save her from her dying self
Always taking ten step back and one step forward

She’s tired.
But she don’t stop.

She don’t stop. (repeated)

Every day she stood hoping for a new light
She closed her eyes then she heard a small voice say,
“You don’t stop, no.
You belong to me.”

She cried,
“Maybe it’s too late.”

She don’t
Don’t don’t stop.
She don’t
Don’t don’t stop.
She don’t stop.
Don’t stop.
She don’t stop.
(repeated)

In the past 10 minutes since I sat down to write this, my host sister Anna (age 9) has interrupted me twice.  Once for evening prayer–she sang then prayed. Then I sang.  Then I sort of managed to communicate that I needed rest, needed to study.  She left. Then she came back with a fan, and she’s still here.  Sitting next to me.  Leaning on me.  Talking to me–asking questions, I think?–in Samoan, as if I should know what she is saying.  She speaks very slowly and looks at me expectantly.  Someday soon I will learn how to tell her that no matter how many times she repeats the words, I will still not know what they mean.  Eventually I give up typing to show her some pictures of my family since I think that’s maybe what she was asking about.

Before I can come back to typing it is time for mea’ai (dinner.)  I am served with my host mother–a whole fried fish, a chicken leg, some cucumber slices and slices of taro with ketchup on pretty much everything (Ketchup here tastes strongly of cloves.)  Fetu (my mother) and I sit on mats on the floor in the middle of the fale (traditional Samoan room–essentially a floor with a roof on pillars) and eat while the rest of the family watches us.  The rest of the family is my little sister Anna (Fetu’s granddaughter) Lucia–about 16, a few boys who’s names I still do not know, one of Fetu’s daughters (I believe she has 3, all married though I’ve never met their husbands.  They do not live in our house, but on the same compound) and Jia, the fa’afafine (Samoa’s socially acceptable “third gender” of transvestite males.)  Jia is a teacher and knows the most English so during any family time, I rely on her to translate.  So Fetu and I eat and the family watches, fanning us to keep the flies away and Jia takes pictures with her phone to post on Facebook.  “You’re getting lots of comments!” She says.  “What do they say?” I ask, trying not to talk with my mouth full. “They laugh at the way you eat. Palagi don’t sit on the floor and eat with their hands.”  I’m not sure if this means I’m doing the right thing or the wrong thing–a feeling I have pretty much constantly, whenever I’m with my family.  At least they don’t give me a hard time about how little I eat.  I doubt I’ll have much of any appetite for a few weeks yet.  The staring and photoshoots will take some getting used to. 

When I’m finished eating (ma’ona – full) the rest of the family finishes what’s on my plate and whatever else has been prepared. I sit for a few minutes awkwardly drinking from a coconut (that they have delightfully chilled) then say that I am tired, which is beyond true and they are very understanding.  I go back to my room in the fale palagi (white-people style house) my room has a door but the door has no handle or latch, so Anna comes in 2 or 3 more times to make sure my fan is working, bring me an umbrella, etc.  She also comes with me when I go to brush my teeth in the shower (the only source of running water.)  She carries my toothpaste and toothbrush for me, then uses my toothpaste to brush her teeth too.  Then she waits outside while I use the toilet (attached to the the shower, but separate from the house–I haven’t seen anyone else use this shower or toilet, so I think they are specially for me and the family must use another shower and bathroom somewhere else on the property.)  When I come out, Ana is waiting by the water bucket with the soap from the shower – she has learned that after using the fale uila (bathroom) I like to use soap when I wash my hands.  She rubs the bar of soap on my palms and the backs of my hands one at a time then waits as I rub them together and then helps me rinse in the bucket. I’m oddly touched.  She holds my hand and walks me to “school” (training sessions) every day, but this is the first time she’s washed my hands for me.  Biblical images of foot washing come to mind.  Words and phrases like “privacy,” and “personal space” do not exist in the Samoan language.  I’m learning to appreciate it. To love it.  To endure it.  It embrace it.

A week ago, I climbed off the plane and started sweating more than I’ve ever sweat.  I could see the droplets hanging on my eyelashes.  Of course it didn’t help that I’d been forced to stuff my change of clothes into someone else’s checked luggage in L.A. to get my carry-on under weight, so I was wearing a sweater over my spaghetti strap (for modesty) and a skirt I’d bought at the Auckland airport (thankfully I’d been able to find one that wasn’t wool.)  Through the beads of sweat and foggy sunglasses I could see this island that will be my home for a while.  When the plane was landing, a voice in my head whispered “You will grow to love this place so much so that it will be more difficult for you to leave than it was for you to come.”  When I saw the way the sky melts into the water, I almost wept for the beauty.

A quote from one of my training sessions, I believe spoken by an Israeli woman to a Peace Corps volunteer,
“If you are here to help me, you can go on your way.  But if you are here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let’s work together.”

She’s tired.
But she don’t stop.

Let’s work together.

On 28

On recent birthdays, it’s been hard not to feel a bit behind.  At my age, my parents had been married for 5 years.  My sister had her first kid or two.  Most of my friends are married and working on kid #1, 2 or 3.  Or at least they have a masters, M.D, or career to brag about.  (I had a career, but it just made me feel more behind.)

I have nearly all brilliant moments of clarity while driving (which is why I write about so few of them–they melt before I can catch them.) and this birthday I was listing to some dumb, emotionally-manipulative song on my shuffle, and I came up over the rise and saw the valley and the hills spread out in front of me and had my brilliant moment of clarity:  I realized how much i loved those hills.  The sky, the sweep, the green and grey and blue.  I will be homesick for this place.  I will long for it when I am away from it.  In all likelihood, I will miss my next two birthdays here, the next two springs and falls and summers and winters, possibly 3 Christmases depending on how it’s counted. I will be 30 before I come home again.  That is a very long time.

In six months, you adjust your habits.  You make a list of Things You Miss.  That list becomes the Things You Are Waiting For.  You make a list of Annoyances which becomes the list you are waiting to abandon.  You learn, you love, you tether but only as much as is required, because in half a deep breath, you’ll be home.

Two years will change you.  I imagine the list of Things You Miss will be divided into two lists: Things You Can Do Without, and Things For Which You Must Find Acceptable Substitutes.  One of the things I missed in indonesia was my beauty.  I just had to hold out a few more weeks of frizzy hair and greasy skin and I would be home with my products and flat irons and creams and soaps and makeup and esthetician.  I can wait out six months.  In two years, I will have to build a new identity.  In two years, I will find new things to love–I will have to.  When I landed in Indonesia, I told myself, “This is where I live now.  This is what my life looks like. This is what it smells like.  This is what it requires.  This is what it is lacking.  This is just the way it is.”  And i believed it as strongly as I six months required me to.  Two years will require me to believe it completely, and as close to permanently as can be humanly perceived.

I was driving to my interview, on my birthday, with the hills and the sky and the dumb song and the longing.  I didn’t feel behind.  I felt centered.  Exactly where I would have chosen to be if given the choice.  Not as though my life were beginning sometime after the next few birthdays.  Not as though, “with any luck” I’ll be somewhere completely unrecognizable this same time next year.  Because This. Was. My. Luck.  By this day next year I WILL be somewhere completely unrecognizable.  Possibly without electricity or toilets.

I’ve been afraid most of my life, and I have only just recently come to realize how many decisions I have made out of a desire to not be afraid anymore.  It has come to the point that I do not distinguish between feelings of fear and excitement anymore.  Because fear, when defeated, gives way to joy.  To my heart, they are one and the same.  When something terrifies me, I run to it. (or I try.)  This–this thing that I am doing now–terrifies me.  The last time I was this terrified was the last time I was in love, and this feels the same.  My (very very handsome) interviewer asked if I’d had any major life changes in the past year–big breakups, deaths, career changes, etc.  I laughed a little as my head played me a video montage of two years ago.  He wanted to know if I was fleeing from anything.  And I had been.  When i submitted my first application, I was fleeing for my life.  But then I fled.  And then I came home.  And now, without needing to flee, in my calmest, most serene, most terrified self, I still want to do this.

Around my birthday two years ago, I decided that I wanted to become the kind of person who Does Things, instead of the kind of person who talks about doing things.  I have come to abhore the person who talks about doing things because he is so attractive and mysterious and interesting and false and he lives inside my head.  It is so much easier to talk about doing things.  Talk is cheap.  Doing things will cost you birthdays and summers and green hills and three Christmases and friends and boyfriends, and one hundred thousand other things that I will not think of until I have already spent them.  Doing things is expensive.  But I look at the wedding photos and baby photos that make me feel behind and I know that they are expensive too, but no one regrets the cost–not really, not deeply and secretly.  And neither will I.  I feel, at last, at 28, that I am nearly caught up.