Wednesday, November 28, 2007

My Sixty Sixth Birthday


What, Me Worry?

Some birthdays are just more important than others. No one can question the significance of one’s first birthday, which undeniably is the most grand. Other birthdays also have a place of honor in the pantheon of anniversaries. The sixteenth puts you into a car, solo, the eighteenth in a casino, the twenty first into a bar, and the sixty fifth on social security.

The mystical birthdays are created by the numbers of your age. The highest order of mystical years is 1, 11, 88, and 111. You can manipulate these numbers any way you want and your age remains the same. The next order is 66 and 99. You can move these numbers about and you still have an age, albeit not necessarily the age with which you started, i.e. 66 can become 99, 69, or 96. The rest of your birthdays really don’t count for much, except maybe 100 because of the third digit.

So today I enter the mystical second order of my 66th year. I am happy to have reached it; I plan to enjoy every moment of it; I know it was a long time since the last mystical year of 11; and I look forward to 88. I also realize the date, November 28th, lasts longer in Samoa than in any other time zone. Time to party!

Culture Day, Iva Primary School


During the last week of the Samoan school year, all kinds of activities take place. Most parents of primary school children can relate to a program put on by the school, featuring the students. In Iva it is Culture Day.

The students are divided into four groups of mixed ages. They perform traditional Samoan songs and dances. Each group has their own costume. It is a contest with judges as the groups compete against one another in different categories.

One can’t help but be impressed with how Samoan customs are maintained and propagated, nor of the talents these young people possess.

Yes, there are lots of digital cameras and camcorders as parents record their own child’s performance. Will these moments end up in the stored photographs, 8mm movie, VCR bins of the future?

Iva, Month Three, Progress Report


This month has been a healthy one for us, just some minor skin and tooth problems. The baby who has been suffering from scabies and resultant infection has responded to medicines, but seems to be slipping back as to medicines used. It is hard to know when to voice an opinion on children’s health issues and when not.

A lot of the past month has been devoted to getting stuff for our kitchen. We have a propane cook top and refrigerator that we bought in Apia. The Peace Corps staff has been great in trucking it out to our island. Finding cooking utensils and food we commonly use is difficult, especially on Savaii. The search for a colander continues.

There was a required meeting for all Peace Corps volunteers. It was an opportunity for various staff members to make their annual reports, a love fest where staff tells the volunteers how great we are and visa versa. Gifts are exchanged to cement the relationship. New comers are welcomed into the fold.

Here are portions from staff reports:
Country Director- She reported the Samoa met the new accounting guidelines required by the federal government. The staff has been working on this the past year. We are all under a very tight budget of 1.9 million dollars U.S. for the 60 Samoan volunteers. As a result, we have to buy our own toilet paper and trash bags for our Savaii office.

Health Officer- She jubilantly reported that Samoan volunteers had zero pregnancies and STD cases for the past year, the lowest in the Oceanic Region. Kiribati headed the list in both categories. Just why Samoa is so low wasn’t explained. Neither was the reason why we have 10 cases of dengue fever reported so far this year against 4 for the entire year before.

Safety & Security- He reported so many facts and averages, I don’t know whether to feel safe or scared. We need to always need to keep our vigilance and report every crime observed. I don’t know whether he mentioned a terrorist threat or not.

There were other reports, games for five year olds which we played, and bland pizza for lunch. Of course the best presentations were done by the volunteers themselves. Dylan Ryder’s excellent closing video marked the end of the day.

Mary and I, as well as most of the Savaii group, skipped the Thanksgiving meal to be held the next day (Nov 17th) at the US Embassy. The food was paid for a prepared entirely by Peace Corps volunteers, out of our monthly allotment, to feed Peace Corps staff, guests, and US officials. As you can see, everyone is suffering from tight budgets.

And now, for what we actually came here to do:

Village Computer/Telecenter
Our request has yet to be reviewed by the Ministry of Communications. This is a major request and probably will take a while to work itself through channels. In the meantime, village residents think this is a done deal and so we try to lower expectations.

Sewing Machines
New Zealand Aid to whom we submitted the proposal said we should know withn the next two weeks. Our fingers are crossed.

Village Youth/Talent Contest
What started out as an idea to get unemployed village youth (can be up to 50 years old) to participate in an organized event has mushroomed into a village wide talent contest to be held on December 8th. This event has consumed most of our time.

Teaching Computers at Local Schools
Not much has happened at the Mataaevavae High School because of year end tests and the death of the principal’s father. However, we will probably start working with the high school after the end of the school year on November 30th.

In the meantime, a used computer has been delivered to Iva’s primary school. The teachers are really excited to learn how to use it. We start classes on December 2nd.

We have gone from waiting for something to happen to a period of really being busy with these schools and the talent contest.

Friday, November 23, 2007

A Samoan Thanksgiving


The only people with a Thanksgiving Day vacation are the Peace Corps office staff. For the rest of us, it is another day, but with a big difference.

Back home relatives are gathering to enjoy one another and stuff themselves with morsels I can only imagine. Maybe they may even talk about Mary and me; say how strange it is that we are not at the table, as they chomp down on a turkey drumstick. They can only imagine what it is like to be living in such a different place, whereas we know what they are experiencing.

Please, no sympathy tears. Just be thankful for the overabundance of what even the poorest of us have.

A Day with Amos


Amos Cruz is a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching computers at Amoa Secondary School in Saipipi, Savaii. He extended his stay for a third year. He is the computer guru of Savaii who has taken his Peace Corps job beyond his own school and classroom. Besides his establishing the premier computer facility on Savaii, he has purchased with his own money twenty used computers from New Zeeland and is distributing them to public schools on Savaii, including the primary school in Iva. For most of the schools, this is their first computer.

I don’t know much about Amos personally, except he seems to be the quiet athletic type who is very dedicated to his work. I can sense the near panic state as he distributes the computers with only a few weeks left before he returns to the U.S. When he boards the plane for the midnight return trip home, I imagine if he wonders what the future fate of his classroom and computers is. Will his efforts produce the results he has worked so hard to germinate? But, this is the question that haunts many in the Peace Corps. Hopefully, he finds comfort that his example has inspired me. He has set an excellent example those about what being in the Peace Corps represents.

Amos in His Classroom

Amos's Keyboard Chart (I plan to copy it)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Mary's Kitchen


Mary's New Kitchen

Tonight Mary cooked her first meal in her new Samoan kitchen. It has taken three months in Iva to collect the necessary food items, stove, refrigerator, pot, wok, and for me to get over my adversity to being too palangi. We had goulash.

A crowd gathered around her, watching every movement as she explained ground beef, tomato sauce, and elbow macaroni. Odors never before experiences rose from Mary’s kitchen. They all wanted to taste this strange food. They liked it! Can stir fry be next?

The Blues


We all know that life has its ups and downs. We somehow accept the ups as natural and the downs as treatable. A huge segment of western society is based on eliminating, alleviating, and curing the blues. Yet deigning the blues is deigning what makes us human. The blues suck and now I have them.

I ask myself why am I in this state. My projects are going great, I love Samoa and its people, my co-volunteers are wonderful, my wife is supportive, and I don’t even have any issues with the Peace Corps Administrators. There is no apparent reason for my mental condition.

Past bouts with the blues have lead me to seek its causes in others and outside of myself. This process gives me temporary relief and a superior feeling of blaming others. It is a quick fix but doesn’t guarantee the recurrence of the blues.

This morning I looked in the mirror. There starring at me was the source of my blues. Me. How could I be so stupid not to realize my blues are simply the readjustment of my expectations with the reality of my situation?

To eliminate the blues I would have to forgo expectations or even worse reality! I somehow have to come to grips with the fact that my wishes may not come true. I have to learn from my Samoan villagers to accept the downs of life on fate as I would accept life’s gifts. I need to smell the flowers around my house, make a lei of them, and give it to someone else. I need to step back, create new expectations and be ready to accept my fallibility whenever my expectations clash with oncoming reality.

Let the blues come. I don’t like you, but I know that the crest follows the trough. I want to enjoy the thrill of rough seas.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Our First Village Presentation


Last month we threw out the idea of a village talent contest for village youth (mainly idle young adults) as a way to get them organized and for them to feel part of the village. Our village Peace Corps Committee thought it was a great idea. We thought they said, “Go to it”.

Later we were told any such event would need the approval of the village council of matais. We waited for their monthly meeting. We were coached by others in the village on how to advise the mayor as the best way to present our case. We had both the highest chief of the village and the mayor’s support, but in politics you never are quite sure how things turn out. The decision of the council was to expand the event to include everyone in the village from 10 year olds on up, including themselves.

During the evening, the President of the Women’s Committee and our primary translator said she would not be able to attend our presentation of the event to the village the next afternoon at 4 o’clock the next afternoon. “What meeting?” We said. “Who called the presentation at that time?” “Didn’t you hear the horn blow to announce it?” Surprise! Surprise! Dido for our backup translator who informed us she would be gone too. “Don’t worry”, they said.

The next day we prepared flip charts for our presentation. We rehearsed what few Samoan phrases we knew, dress appropriately, and nervously awaited 4 o’clock. “Don’t worry”, the mayor said, “Samoans won’t come to a 4 o’clock meeting until 4:30”. We sat in the giant village committee house waiting. No one showed at 4:30. Village life continued as usual.

The mayor started getting nervous. He sent out a boy to blow the Conch shell horn to remind the village of the meeting. He went across the road to stop youths from playing volleyball. Still no one came.

The President of the Women’s Committee appeared and so did our backup translator. Still no one.

Then as is by magic people started to arrive. I don’t know from where. Before long there were about 40 people mostly late teens and early twenties, sitting quietly on the floor facing our flipcharts. Show Time!

The mayor said he would introduce us to the group. After a 10 minute introduction in Samoan, I thought he said most of what I was going to say. No problem.

I surprised the group by getting them involved with a couple of clap games I learned in training. Being on a roll, I got everyone doing an ice breaker game where people cross their hands in a circle, then try to unscramble themselves. It was a hit. I was hot.
I started my presentation looking out at an expressionless group. Nothing. No response.
Finally in desperation, I asked if anyone wanted to have a talent show. They all burst out with an emphatic “Yes”, followed by the same silence.

Mary also addressed the group about why we were happy to be in Samoa and especially the people of Iva. Went over well.

All the details, like place, who is going to perform, money, etc have yet to be worked out.
But stay tuned. The talent show is scheduled for December 1. Delete that. Make it December 8. Stay tuned, stay flexible, and don’t worry.

So far the only act is me doing a fire dance.

Why People Eat Ants


I have read about people eating ants, but until now I didn’t have the faintest idea why. Now I know.

Ants in the tropics are everywhere. They seem to even get into the tightest containers. After a while you begin to assume that ants are a natural part of your food. So why not eat them too? Let them suffer the agony of death by stomach acid.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Mango Season


My two favorite fruits are peaches and mangos. Peaches get a slight nod because they are sexier, but taste wise it is a toss up. It is now mango season in Samoa. I want it to go on forever.

Competition for mangos is keen. Flying foxes devour them at night. Children climb up into the mango trees or knock them down with stones. The gigantic mango tree on our neighbor’s property and next to our house is protected by two fierce dogs. Undeterred by fear of heights or sharpness of fang, I am grateful to those children who bravely bring me these succulent treasures.

Assembly of God Church (AOG)


The AOG Pentecostal church in Iva is the most western and approachable of the village churches. The AOG church was founded in Tennessee and hosts a steady progression of people from the US. Also its evangelical format makes it the most involved church within the village. The Iva AOG church has out reach programs to everyone and has a resident bible school of troubled youth. The pastor is a vigorous man who speaks excellent English. He happened to be in the doctor’s office when Mary was sick and blessed her.

The church service itself mirrors AOG churches in the US. It has upbeat music with choir, band, drums, etc. Words to the hymns are projected on a screen. There is a period when people speak in tongues. Church goers knell at the alter and the power of the Holy Spirit is passed through the pastor.

He message seems to address the immediate problems people face. The belief the Holy Spirit and the power of prayer can alleviate suffering now rather than just in the afterlife is particularly appealing to youth send to the less established member of the village. I don’t know what percentage of Samoans attend the AOG church. It is one of the more recent churches in Samoa.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Food Adaptability


Nothing binds us more closely to our native culture than food. Nothing is more difficult to adapt to than the foods of another culture. Nothing prepares you for the gastronomical chasm you face when you live in a different world.

Talking about cooking, obtaining, and eating palangi (white people) food is the major obsession for many in the Peace Corps. Who has an oven or stove, who lives near a store that sells cheese, who comes into Apia or lives in Apia near a supermarket, who eats with the host family, and prepares their own meals all define the levels at which we are integrating into our new way of life.

Mary and I are currently at a food divide. Mary just can’t eat Samoan food (She is not alone in this aspect) while it doesn’t bother me. Our host family who normally brings us food for every meal is confused about what they are to do about our meals. We sometimes fix instant soup or peanut butter sandwiches when no food seems coming, only to be brought food later, or we sit waiting a meal and none appears.

To survive and preserve our own relationship, we have purchased a propane gas stove and soon to buy a refrigerator and cooking utensils. The next challenge is to find food on this island we can eat to cook.

I can tell those who frequent ethnic restaurants and think they can eat anything, don’t be too boastful. We were there once too.

Pulling Teeth


There is a group of three dentists from Portland, Oregon who have set up a free dental clinic at the local Assembly of God church. This group has been putting in long hours this past week giving much needed dental care to over 300 villagers. They have my admiration and are planning to return in about nine months with their families and equipment. Until then they have to work with only manual dental tools. The three procedures they perform are: 1) showing people how to brush and floss, 2) clean and scrape plaque, and 3) pull teeth.

As I watched them pull teeth from pretty young girls, I could feel both their admiration about their Samoan patients who never complained, never showed pain, and accepted their fate. You can see their desire to teach dental hygiene and the destructive effects of sugared drinks. Their gallant efforts to bring relief to some is against the immense backdrop of poverty which limits getting a toothbrush or floss and seeking care until the only remedy left is pulling teeth.
Scenes from a Samoan Dental Clinic

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Visiting Julya, Jan & Ray, and Catlin

Today I joined Julya Steyh, her visiting father, Ed, along with Jan Ott for a bike ride around their villages. It is fun to see where other volunteers live.

Julya is finishing her stay as a computer teacher this December. Her father is visiting for the second time from Seattle. His first visit was with his wife.

Jan and Ray Ott have been here for over a year and are on similar village development program as Mary and I. Jan is active teaching farmers how to castrate cattle and poultry training while Ray is helping teach wood working at the local school. He concentrates on those boys who will not go on to the university. Both have been Peace Corps Volunteers before in Morocco from 1981-83.

I also stopped at Catlin’s village. She is paret of my Group 78. She is working to build a pre-school and getting pig fencing for the village. She also is filling in for a non-existant fifth grade teacher every day. Her new dog is "PoPo".

It has been my longest bike ride to date. I can attest to the power of the tropical sun. Thank goodness, November 1 is a national holiday, Arbor Day. Little traffic as people planted trees or just rested.



The Samoan government conducted its first nationwide tsunami drill. The drill had been repeatedly announced for several days on newspaper, radio, and television. The Peace Corps also was expected to participate.

At about noon, we received a text message from the tsunami alert center. About ten minutes later, we received another text of a warning at which time people are to evacuate to a higher consolidation point. About eight minutes later, an ambulance with siren blaring announced the warning as it sped down the road. I started to walk up the road to the high school (our consolidation point) shouting “Tsunami” to the villagers. It was a lonely walk as the villagers greeted me from their houses. About another fifteen minutes the church bell sounded another warning alert. Still I walked alone.

At the high school, I sat under a tree while students continued their classes. One of the host family boys who was riding his bike home asked me why I was sitting alone under a tree. I told him about the tsunami drill. A short while later his father, the mayor and my host father, arrived with his wife. Another neighbor joined making it a foursome. About an hour after the warning, the all clear was texted. We returned home.

To put the whole exercise into perspective, one has to realize the good intentions of the international world community to fund such a warning system, flawed though it may be, and that a significant tsunami has never hit Samoa and if it did, the short time people would have between warning and wave, the acceptance by the villagers of “God’s Will” and protection, and the fact you don’t conduct a drill in the heat of the day.

I think my status as respected Peace Corps Volunteer dropped to that of “Village Idiot”. At least we four returned to the village. I felt a little better because one person is an idiot, two are stupid, but with four, maybe there is a germ of doubt.

Now if there was an actual tsunami warning, I would probably do what the rest of the village would do. I would run down to the sea with my camera to see what a tsunami looks like.