Saturday, August 27, 2011

Chasing Waterfalls

It is so easy to become complacent here, to get desensitized to your surrounding and forget how lucky we are to be here. I wake up every morning and look across the street at palm trees, bright red hibiscus, and turquois clear clear water. Somewhere along the way you forget how beautiful it is. The best way to combat this I have found is to play tourist sometimes and go see something extraordinary. I have tried to do something like this every couple months, New Years in Falealupo, scuba diving, and the trip to Namua Island. Last weekend I have another adventure. A group of nine of us went to the south western coast of Upolu Island to hike the most famous river in Samoa, Sina’s river. There is a legend about Sina one of the great witch queens who sent her children to a village to ask for food and when they refused she sent a bolder down from sky to block the flow of their river and sent it winding on a different path to a village where the people gave generously of their food. You can actually see the old path of the river down the other side of the mountain. So we hiked up the river, taking turns wading through the shallow water, climbing along its banks, and scaling its slippery embankments. Every mile or so we encountered gorgeous waterfalls that seemed to increase in size as we went along. The first fall was only about fifteen or twenty feet but we were all still a little anxious to climb the steep sides and take the plunge into the water. It was cold and clear, even in the dry season. The guide kept mentioning the famous fifty foot waterfall at the end of the hike and we all looked at each other wearily. We plodded along, craping knees and elbows and grinning all the way. After seeing how into it our group was are guide say “I think one of you girls has a good chance of being the first Peace Corp girl to do the big one.” Rivka replied “that sounds like a challenge” and from there our fate was set. When we finally turned a bend in the river and spotted the monster I think we all had second thoughts. Finally we agreed to climb to the top and check it out. After about fifteen minutes of climbing and hiking we got to the top. It was quite a view let me tell you. The guide gave us a few tips and edged of the ledge finding a perch then taking the plummet. I didn’t waste time second guess, I took the lead lowering myself on the perch first. I looked back and said, “ok this is doable” turned looked down again then said “oh F#*k” then with a squeal just did it. It went so fast but at the same time I can perfectly remember being suspended in the air and watching the water rush up to me. Hitting it stole my breath water smacking every limb. The group at the top watched eagerly to see if I would surface whole. When I did grinning like an idiot and waving two thumbs up they all knew there was no turning back, the precedence and been set. Eventually and after quite a few false starts for some people we all took the plunge. A sheer fifty foot drop, it was incredible! The tour guide dubbed us the “badass seven!” I stood in the pool at the bottom watching each person leap and realized that I was fulfilling my fantasies, I was literally living the dream.

The Celebration Begins

It all happened really fast, the next day family started arriving and before the end of day four we had twelve new people staying at the house full time, another five staying every couple nights, and about twelve that came every day to work of the house and help with preparation. It was a full house to say the absolute least. At one point I counted twenty sleeping bodies in my three bedroom, one shower, house. Everything is done very differently here. Huge amounts of money are spent on ceremony and food. The family all pool their money and invest in freezers full of meet and food preparing to feed the masses. Not only are they responsible for feeding all the family that are staying in the house, all the villagers that come to help during the day, but also all the families that come to pay respect during the days before the service. I would say that for about five or six days my family was feeding over two hundred people three meals a day. On the day of the funeral I would say we did dinner and lunch for closer to five hundred. This is just the beginning of the investment. Every family that comes brings cash and fine matts to offer the family to show there respect for Milli, but for every matt and cash offer the family has to give back an even amount of canned beef and fish. The amounts were extraordinary. Millis extended family gave two thousand tala and twenty hand woven matts that are priceless heirlooms. They were given in return fifty boxes of canned fish, twenty boxes of frozen chicken and three thousand tala for traveling from the other island. This was about twelve different exchanges just like this. Every corner of the house that wasn’t being slept in was filled with canned goods and two rented freezes sat in our driveway for the frozen boxes. Families can go into incredible debt for funerals to uphold this ceremony. The day before the funeral were spent working on the house, cooking food, and hosting families who were coming to present their gifts. The morning of the funeral the family rented buses to Apia and went to the funeral home to do what I would call a wake. It was an open casket and family and friends not only took pictures with Milli but many kissed her cheek of caressed her face. She was wearing a beautiful wedding dress and all her best jewelry. After the pastor said a couple of words the casket was put into a car and we started the journey back to the village. There she was laid in an open fale and more families came to present their offerings and finally to say good bye before they covered the casket. It is also traditional to drape fine lace over the casket and bring large fake flower arrangements. After the final goodbyes we went to the church were the pastor gave a beautiful sermon about going home to god. Then the floor was opened up for anybody to speak. Many of her peers spoke as well as one of her grandchildren, sisters, and sons. Last me and Seleta my 25 year old sister got up and sang a song. Im not much of singer and this is not something that I would usually do but went I was asked it seemed like a fitting gesture. Then the whole precession went back to the house where a above ground grave had been prepared on our front porch next to her husband. A final prayer and song were given then and as she was lowered everyone threw flowers into the grave. They then put the cement blocks over the top of the grave and began cementing it shut. From that point on, things slowly but steadily started getting back to normal. In the next couple week’s overseas family trickled back to New Zealand and Australia and the family from around Samoa started heading back to their homes. It’s now been two weeks and the last family left two day. I am back at work, my room is no longer being used as storage, and I don’t have to use ear plugs at night because of the cacophony of snoring. It was a wild and crazy ride but I am so thankful for it. Being part of everything and getting to know all my extended host family was wonderful. I learnt so much not only about my family but Samoa culture in general. Some of the time I was thankful for the way we treat death in America, the traditions blowing my mind seeming crazy. Some of the time it was beautiful and I wished we treated death similarly. It was just so incredible and I know it will be something from my time here in Samoa that I will never forget.


It has taken me a while to sit down and write this blog. Somehow I just know no matter how I right it I won’t do it justice. It’s tempting no to write it at all and just pretend that it didn’t happen but my host mother’s death and the celebration of her have been huge turning point in my time here. About a month ago my host mother started complaining of stomach pains. I say complaining lightly I really only started noticing her appetite was slowly diminishing and it seemed like her diet was getting more and more restricted. She had been diagnosed with a severe case of diabetes and hypertension about seven years but had gotten it under control by losing weight and a careful diet. This in itself is a testament to the kind of women she is, in a country were a huge percent of the population suffer from these diseases but never make any lifestyle changes to combat it. She started getting tests done and going into the hospital every couple days. After about two weeks she stopped going to the hospital and was spending more of the day in bed. When I asked what was wrong the family told me she had a stomach ace but finally my sister told me she had a cancerous tumor on her liver. She slowly go worse and the day after her 65th birthday she was complain of severe pain so the family took to the hospital where she passed away in her sleep. She passed quickly and was suffering for only a short time.

Miriama and her husband had eight biological children and five adopted children. Six if you count me as they did in obituary. All but three of her children have moved out and started their own families. These are the three sisters that I live with, Ao her eldest daughter and her two youngest adopted girls, Silia 22 and Seletas 25. Not only did she love and care for all of her children but and adopted but she had a very loving and strong relationship with her husband. They were known as an upright and godly family in the community and he held a very prestigious Matai tittle. Fomai, her husband had a debilitating stroke and Milli took care of him for five years until he passed away. This is all quite telling of her personality but the thing that Milli did that embroidered her name on my her was open her home to a stranger and not only feed, clothe and shelter that person but give them a home and a family. She made my comfort and happiness her first priority. She was constantly fussing over my food making sure I had food I liked. She would make cupcakes especially for me and she even personal sowed all my clothes when I lost some weight. The real gift she gave me though was a home to feel safe and comfortable in when I was so far from everything I knew. She was incredible women.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Community Justice

One of the most interesting, admirable and crazy things about Samoa, is the village justice. There are police here but almost everything is handled at the village level by the council of Matai, which are chiefs. Also nothing is handled concerning individuals. If you rob a store your whole family is punished not you individually. Punishments usually consist of a fine anyway from a hundred tala to the entire family’s possessions. In very severe cases there is village banishment as well. Recently I had one of my year seven boys come into libarary when I was alone and say some very inappropriate things to me then even go so far as to try to touch me. I was caught completely off guard, a student would never do this to a Samoan teacher and in a culture were elder’s authority is so absolute this students actions are unthinkable. I told my teachers and they immediately dismissed the other student and called the village elders. Within fifteen minutes the elders were at the school as well as the student’s mother. There was a lot of apologizing and speeches. The matai apologized to me on behalf of the child as well as the village. Then the mother got on her knees and gave a very teary apology. Keep in mind I am pretty much steadily leaking through this myself. There was a lot of talk about the severity of what had happened and the disrespect that had been shown to me. They feared that I would report the incident and the school would have to be closed. I assured them that I would not and that I accept their apology as well as that of the mother. I told them that it is one incident by one very young misguided boy and it didn’t change my love for the village and the children. This was all repeated several time with a lot of prayer in between. Then when everyone’s tears were dried, including my principal because she felt she was at fault for not protecting me better, we were served ice-cream.  I thought this is where it would end but boy was I mistaken. They then went and had a whole big matai meeting to decide a punishment for the family. I then was called to the pastor’s house so they could apologize and we could pray about it. The next day all the children looked at me with such pity in their eyes and asked over and over if I was ok. It has also now been the topic of three assemblies, one to discuss respect, one to tell the children to stop talking about it, and the third to discuss the new rules surround me, such as no one is allowed in the library. Also I have had seven texts and one stranger on a bus expressing concern and apology. At the end of the day all is well. I am trying to reassure everyone with words and smiles that I really am fine and the family has received their punishment. Hopefully the drama will die down soon and another event will occupy this small village

Mid-year Exams

Yay exams are over!! Well at least the mid-year ones are. I made the exams a little harder to try and compromise between what I think is reasonable and the Samoan norm. In Samoa exams are basically written to be failed. These exams are so far above the actual level of the children it is laughable. This is then compromised for by making anything over a 25% passing. My scores from my first exam that averaged around 60% were incredibly high by this standard. Even with the harder exam I was pretty happy with me scores, I had a similar average but I had way less 100% and 0%. In a system where levels are based solely on age not on ability, the disparity between students in the same class is the equivalent of a second grader and a fifth grader. My goal here has become no to get a certain number of kids in to the best college’s but just to try and pull the gap between the top of the class and the bottom just a little bit closer. I realize it’s going to be much harder and probably won’t get me as much recognition but I can make myself just forget the lower kids. A lot of them will be farmers and will never need what I am offering but I want at least some of what I teach to be accessible to them. Even if it’s just throwing in a couple four letter words on the spelling test so they have a chance of getting some right, education shouldn’t seem impossible for anyone.

Saying Goodbye to Sarah

Last week a wonder friend and an incredible woman decided to chase her happiness. Sarah and I had been friends from day one. She was my roommate in training, lived with me in the training village and was my go to gal for heart to hearts about life. Sarah is one of the women you meet and exude intelligence and depth. Just being around her you knew she was the kind of gal that just knew how the world worked. From living with her I also came to know she struggled with her introversion…. but not for long. I honestly don’t think I have seen a person blossom and change so greatly in so short a time as I saw in Sarah. She was soon a fixture for all of our nights out and famous across Samoa for her retro go-go style dancing. A girl who gets nervous in front of new people and she was able to get up every day and teach a classroom full of  hostile  teenagers with who she didn’t even share a language. Her victories both personal and professional were incredible. Here I am going to switch gears and say that one criticism about the Peace Corp process of assigning people is that they really just match up resume, departure window, and need. This is an efficient and streamline way to go about getting people out there, but unfortunately it doesn’t always work. Teaching ESL on a primary level is no cake walk and definitely not for everybody. In our group alone there are several volunteers who would never have chosen this job for themselves. Some people struggle because they miss home, or they have trouble adapting to the culture. These are thing you can work on and can change, but what if you just don’t like teaching? This is the situations that Sarah the fabulous found herself in. So Sarah is off home to start a fantastic job she is not only perfect for but that she knows she has a passion for. Thank you for all the wisdom, laughs, and love you shared. Good luck babe I know you’re going to love it!!!