Friday, May 30, 2008



In a few more days Mary departs for her return trip to Minneapolis. Somehow I am filled with a sense of joy rather than the expected sadness. This joy comes from the knowledge that we have just spent one glorious year together. I mean really together in this crucible of Samoa without the demands and distractions that characterized our life before the Peace Corps. We have come to enjoy each other more.

Now we enter the second phase of our Peace Corps adventure, being apart. This is not by desire nor design but life’s serendipity. We are not a matched set. We each have our own talents and skills, which we now have the opportunity to explore and develop. How lucky we are!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Mary, My Wife, Is Leaving

Mary, My Pi Supo

Some choices are easy to make, but the consequences are harder by which to live. So it is with our decision that Mary should leave the Peace Corps and return home to Minneapolis this June 4th after a year in Samoa.

Mary has just spent six nights in the hospital with a serious staphylococcus infection, receiving intravenously massive doses of antibiotics. This follows an earlier staphylococcus infection of the blood and required a four-night hospital stay with similar treatments. The causes of these infections seem to be a simple cut or scratch where the ever-present microbe can enter the body. A staphylococcus infection is serious with possible arthritis, heart damage, or death. Two doctors advise her to leave and the Peace Corps staff is very sympathetic to the risks she faces if she continues to stay. Living with this constant fear of infection just doesn’t make sense to stay.

The tragedy is that we both seem to be hitting our stride with our Peace Corps projects. Mary especially is excited about the English reading program she just started at the primary school and the progress of sewing classes. We are both committed to the Peace Corps. We have agreed that I should try to complete what we have started and continue to pursue those projects we hope to get started.

After 30 years of being together, neither of us looks forward to being apart. Mary returns home to the familiarity and welcome of our children, her family, and friends. I seek not your sympathy for staying for I look forward to more meals of canned mackerel and the knowledge we are doing the right thing.

Progress Report, Month Nine


I would characterize my past one as being on overdrive, the garden consuming most of my time. For Mary, the chance to use her skills at the local primary school establishing an English reading program has really put a spark in her.

The Garden Project
Getting new varieties of seeds has kept me up nights wondering what to do next. The Ministry of Agriculture came over with one of their experts who really helped me with suggestions about what I have been doing wrong and some new gardening techniques of combining vegetables with different growing spans within the same bed. I continue to add more beds as I add the new veggies. Selling my produce to the local stores is working out well, as a market helping them make money while maintaining a higher price level for other growers. I have absolutely no idea what I am doing. As long as no one else knows this, I shall continue to be the veggie expect on Savaii.

Telecenter/Computer Training
No news on the telecenter.

Sewing Machines
Sewing classes continue to attract new members each week. It looks like they stay all day rather than just the morning. Need to report to the New Zealand High Commission that their grant is really doing some good.

Village Youth
The village youth have reverted back to drinking beer and smoking pot, or so it seems. Unlike other villages with active church youth groups, there are no organized groups with which to start something. I was given a huge restaurant size container of Italian Seasoning. Maybe they want to buy and smoke it? I guess doing that combined with the youth thinking my okra is marihuana keeps them ready for some future idea.

Small Business
Been unable to meet with a school art teacher about teaching others about silk screening. Tourists are arriving. Family teenage boys are more interested in rugby than making money. The Women’s Committee is very interested.

Teaching School
Just two weeks after Mary started her English reading program, it was halted because of term end exams and then a three-week recess. She is ready to go when school reopens.

Who knows what month ten brings. It is one year since we have been in Samoa.

Monday, May 26, 2008

To the Back (I tua/kua)


Samoans refer to direction as either to or from the sea, to or from Apia, or to or from the back of the family compound (reference point is usually the village road). Most activity happens in the back. The back is where people feed animals, throw trash, live, cook, sleep, and do other people things. The front is reserved for guests and is kept looking very nice. The flow of life in Samoa is inevitably to the back.

The sense of personal property or returning “borrowed” items is a rare event. When you lend something it goes one way, to the back where it either never returns, or returns in a different condition, usually broken. Your possession has become “Samoanized”.

This “to the back” way of life is hard for Westerners. We are raised on property rights, returning things in better condition, and returning when finished. I try to accept Samoanization as the way things are. But when the Greek Seasoning my daughter mailed so expensively goes to the back never to return, I swallow hard and try to rationalize that I have added some flavor to Samoan cooking, albeit briefly.

Can Pigs Fly? (Pig War Addendum)


Can pigs fly? I am beginning to believe they can. They certainly can see well at night, run fast over any terrain, cut quickly, and jump over many fences. Now I think they can pass through the eye of a needle. In my battle to protect my innocent vegetables from pigs entering and escaping through my “fenced” garden, I am learning a lot about pigs.

There have been many attempts to outwit pigs throughout history. The clearest is the Bible, which prohibits the eating of pork (Abraham was a farmer). Unfortunately this prohibition in the Christian nation of Samoa is observed only by the Seven Day Adventists.

Can pigs fly? Well, people can believe in the strangest things.

A Pig Escaped Through This Hole in the Fence

A Fence to Keep Out Pigs?

Pig War


It’s me verses Them, pigs I mean. Only a few families in our village have pigs. Mine is one. These animals roam the village constantly looking for food. They are fed only enough coconut to bring them back for a meager but reliable handout. Other than that they are on their own. The damage is considerable in their search for grubs by rooting up grass and rocks, a cause of village strife. They have now discovered in my garden its remaining trash heaps, rocks, and soft cultivated earth, turning order into chaotic wallows. It is enough to make a quasi-pacifistic man want to see blood.

On silent cat’s feet I creep in the middle of the moonlit night. With pitchfork and machete in hand I stalk the gorging beasts. I want to feel the warm blood on my hands as I stick the suckers. I come to within pitchfork tossing range. A sow senses me and off she tears magically escaping through what was thought to be a pig fence. A frightened piglet wildly runs in the grass careening off a patch of corrugated metal fencing. I heave my weapon at it, missing it my only several feet. It finds another hole in the barrier fence squealing for its mother. I sit fruitlessly awaiting another intruder as mosquitoes dine on me. The others have been alerted and head back into the bushes to regroup for another night.

What may seem comical is serious business. It is against village law to let pigs roam and legal to kill any pig in your garden. Few people in the village have free roaming pigs, my host father, the village mayor, and his nearby family members being some. In fact many villagers are irate about his disregard of the law. It boils down to money and power. He has no money to feed his pigs or family; and he is the Mayor. Enter me whom he has chosen to give a garden plot. I am sure he never foresaw the consequences of his generosity as I hunt down his pigs. Unfortunately, Peace Corps Volunteers are not allowed to shoot guns.

The adage, “good fences, good neighbors make”, applies to Samoa too. Every day another piece of old rusted corrugated metal roofing is found and incorporated into the patchwork fence. Soon his pigs may be safe from my pitchfork and I can get some sleep. However I am aware that pigs are very intelligent animals and are probably plotting a counterattack. I am also slowly learning what Samoans already know. It is better to do without veggies than attempt to grow them.

An Night Intruder

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Raw Veggies


The grimace on Samoan faces as I pop a succulent, fresh, raw, tomato in my mouth is worth a trip to this island paradise. Cabbage, carrots, beans, spinach, etc. eaten raw just turns their stomachs. Some daring children have taken up my challenge and have lived to brag about their exploits.

Work for Pay


Frustrations mount as I try different approaches to have my fellow villagers learn about working for pay. Some say Samoans are lazy. From Western eyes, I can understand that perception. I don’t see that way.

Samoans spend lots of time and effort doing the things they deem worthwhile, like weaving mats, picking weeds from the flower garden, hospitality, socializing with family, or anything that with church. Working a plantation to meet the families basic food needs is hard work. Many in the village still do to provide basic food needs and a little cash by walking up the mountain to tend to their cattle and taro fields. Enough money is earned or begged for to meet a specific immediate need. What is missing is working for money as a way of life.

As Samoa sinks deeper into my body, I realize there is currently no need for Samoans to work just for money. Working for pay, or a 40 hour-a-week salaried job in an office or service occupation, mostly doing nothing, doesn’t make sense. Yet as appalling as it may be that is the future for most.

Seeds. Seeds. Wonderful Seeds.


My plea for seeds has been answered. Suddenly I now have a cornucopia of seeds from numerous sources. Thank you all.

Now besides seeds for the cash vegetables of Bok Choy, head cabbage, cucumbers, peanuts, Samoan Pumpkin, and long beans, which I know Samoans will eat and buy, I have seeds and/or now growing the following: (Those in Italics are either currently or have been under cultivation, not all successfully. Non-hybrid varieties may produce viable seeds for other farmers):

Leafy Green Vegetables
Bok Choy Hybrid, La’au Pele, head cabbage, head lettuce, Italian Endive and two types of Italian Cicoria (type of head cabbage), Silver Beet, Rocket, Broccoli, Celery
Long Beans, Broad Beans, Pigeon Beans, Winged Beans, Short Beans, Butter Beans, Snow Peas, Peanuts
Samoan Sweet , Honey Sweet, Golden Bantam, Sun and Snow, Hybrid Sweet
Basal, Coriander
Bunching, Spring, Leeks
Sweet Bell and Chili Peppers; Roma, Cherry, Beefsteak, and Moneymaker Tomatoes
Root Vegetables
Baby Carrots, Oriental White Radish
Hybrid Cantaloupe and the following varieties of watermelons: Charleston Grey, County Sweet, Crimson Sweet
Samoan Pumpkin (unknown variety)
Moneymaker, Samoan (unknown variety)

Crystal, “Lisi”, Departs


Crystal, "Lisi", Ochoa, known to some as the Princess, returned to Houston, Texas last Monday. Crystal was mainly involved with running the telecenter in her village of Fuailolo on the island of Upolu. The telecenter sat greatly underutilized and run by the Women’s Committee until Crystal’s arrival. She also started computer training classes for all ages and genders in the village. The reason for her deciding to resign was the futile clash as to how the telecenter was being operated between Crystal and the President of the Women’s Committee on whose compound Crystal lived. Her departure reduced our Group 78 from 16 to 11.

Crystal was uncertain as to her future plans. She was a hotel executive before joining the Peace Corps. Before leaving Crystal left me an unopened restaurant size container of Italian Seasoning (currently being distributed to Peace Corps Staff and villagers), a large can of refried beans, and material to be used by our village’s sewing group. Thanks, Crystal! But for Crystal and other princesses of the world, they always land on their feet with a smile.

Crystal "Lisi" Ochoa

The Princess in Action

Thursday, May 15, 2008

When Others Leave Early


Being in the Peace Corps is hard. The hardest part is dealing with the unfamiliar. Strangeness surrounds you and weighs upon you constantly. There is the occasional relief of Good and Plenty candies from home, raisins, or being with other Peace Corps. Then you plunge back to the unfamiliar, the non-understandable world in which you are placed.

Peace Corps Volunteers return home early for a number of reasons, all legitimate. Yet whatever the reason for leaving early there is the negative impact on those remaining. Those returning are going back to a world you know and left.

A Samoan Mother’s Day


There are some days that strike deep into your soul as the epitome of the finer things of being human. Today is one of those days. It is a day when we felt the warmth of an entire extended Samoan family and their joy. It is just not their relationship to each other, but to us as well.

Maybe it is the surprise little gifts bestowed on Mary. Maybe it is watching the mothers joyfully rehearse and later perform in a racy sort of way at church. It could be the food, some of which I grew and prepared. It could be watching generations singing and dancing together. Maybe it is the laughter and new clothes, or the children. It could be the myriad parts of Samoan culture that mysteriously overwhelm you and make it difficult to convey what a wonderful day this Mother’s Day is.

One of the several rehersals.
Our host father at the keyboard.

Mary's hand made Mother's Day dress.
The signing and dancing mothers from our extended Samoan family.

This is one rocking, crotch crabbing group of mothers.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Battle of Puebla Remembered


Sometimes you need to find a reason to get together. What better reason than the Mexican Holiday celebrating the Battle of Puebla on May 5th? So what if the day is May 3rd and Samoans cannot understand why Americans would be celebrating a Mexican holiday. With tamales made with real Mexican corn and bean dip, the only thing missing was Mexican beer. With a little imagination and some Samoan beer, anything is possible. Ole!

What Pigs Won’t Eat


Pigs are one of nature’s most omnivorous creatures. There doesn’t seem like there is anything they won’t eat. Yet, even pigs have their limits.

I have discovered they won’t eat green leafy vegetables, the kind nutritionists insist we eat every day. What a downer it is to see pigs turn up their snouts when offered my cabbage, yet devour rotten breadfruit, which looks like vomit. Something is amiss.

Life’s Ups


It’s with a great deal of reluctance to write about life’s ups. I am not a superstitious person, but a great many things can’t be explained by the rational mind. I understand life’s downs follow life’s ups. Hopefully, saying that won’t accelerate the cycle.

Mary and I have hit our Peace Corps stride. She has found a niche by starting an English Reading Program at the local primary school. Clearing out land and working my garden project has put me in touch with more village people. We both feel a sense of being engaged with out other projects moving along and a slow, but meaningful pace.

Our everyday living conditions now are routine while a short while ago they were strange and slightly bearable. Even canned mackerel four or five times a week seem normal. Mary has dropped forty pounds. I have also lost weight. Our village life is accomplishing what Weight Watchers and Life Tyme Fitness could not.

Today is May Day. This is a time for May Baskets, May Poles, and May Day Parades. May Day may not mark the astronomical beginning of spring, but it certainly represents a psychological renewal of life. May this May Day be enjoyed by those on life’s ups and be a reciprocation for those experiencing life’s downs.

Samoan Unrest


Even peaceful Samoa has its problems. A party with 80% of the votes controls the democratically elected parliament. It recently passed a law to change driving from the right hand side of the road to the left. Most of the vehicles are US style left hand drive, with a mix of right hand drive vehicles. The switch benefits the importation of vehicles from New Zealand and Australia where most Samoans have relatives anxious to ship their used vehicles to Samoa.

Before the final vote there were several large demonstrations in Apia against the switch. Bumper stickers opposing the switch appeared on taxis and other cars. People cited a loss of the democratic process of their democratically elected officials. Samoa only recently enacted a democratically elected style government.

Another problem in paradise was the recent street fight in Apia between to high schools after a rugby game, one Catholic, and the other public. Molotov cocktails were thrown, one girl being badly burned. The only movie theater was severely damaged in the ruckus. Details are hard to know, except there is a lot of praying for guidance.