Sunday, September 28, 2008

About Mary


My wife, Mary, hasn’t fallen off the face of the map. She is just on the other side of the globe. What I picture her life to be is from piecing together in my imagination the fragments of phone calls, text messages, email, and our history.

In many ways she is continuing what she was doing before Peace Corps. She is beginning another project of reading to immigrant children, restarting classes at Metropolitan State University to complete her degree, and resume her role as friend and confidant for our children and her many friends and relatives. She repeatedly says she misses me, but has never suggested I leave the Peace Corps. She remains kind, unselfish, a long way from here, and my companion.



I remember as a college freshman writing to my parents and asking them if they still had sex. I seems their marriage had reached a dead end and I wondered why they still lived together. There certainly was no indication of a broken marriage other than not detecting heavy breathing, moans, or squeaky bedsprings. Now, I am they. There are still a few pennies left in the sex jar which Mary and I filled our first year of marriage. It is now being refilled with companionship.

To me companionship transcends marriage bonds, togetherness, and love. It is so difficult to describe and rare to experience that even poets shy away from the subject. Companionship is not legal, biological, taught in school, or with a drinking buddy. It is the knowledge there is another part of you, a part you are unable to will into being, yet there. Companionship just happens as if it chose you. As the last pennies disappear, I have come to realize that what now fills our jar is what our relationship is all about.

A Visit from Jenny

Jennifer Koch is a new volunteer with Group 80. She is posted at the far end of Savaii, a three-hour ride on a wooden seated bus. Her host family consists of three women and twenty some men. During a trip to town, she made a side trip to visit me. We talked about ways to apply for sewing machines and starting a garden in her village.

The volunteers not in your initial training group are often difficult to know, especially on a remote place like Savaii. I do know Jenny is from Portland, Oregon, yet she knows about and likes okra (an odd connection I need to explore further). As she ran to catch a bus, I remember that I had not given her a promised head of cabbage. Maybe she doesn’t even like cabbage?

Diabetes Clinic, Chapter II


After the clinic in my village of Iva where 33% tested for diabetes levels of blood sugar combined with the seeming indifference by my village leaders to proceed any farther, I was mad. Before dawn the next morning, I biked to the next village of Viasaulu where “Samoan” jazzercise classes were being held. I met the woman conducting the program who hosted a recently departed Peace Corps, told her about Iva’s testing program, and might her village be interested. She said she had to talk to the village council and for me to wait. She walked down the road and talked to an old man. She then said, “What day are they coming?” That is how things go in Samoa.
Upon telling the mayor of my village what I was doing in the next village and maybe it could be a joint project for both villages, he promptly agreed. Now I have to make it happen.

Progress Report, Month 13


The testing of about 200 villagers for blood sugar and pressure is my major project this past month. Although the results are staggering and hoping this would prod the village leaders to undertake additional steps about diabetes, the opposite seems to be happening with little desire to proceed with additional testing or education. How to move this project a little farther, remains a real challenge. I have trouble simply accepting “God’s Will”.

The garden continues to occupy most of my time. It keeps me occupied and well fed. My sunflowers have immerged as the latest village curiosity. I am salting them and selling them as a “Lite” snack food. I continue to share seeds and cuttings with other farmers, and those Peace Corps who are starting gardens. My host family is now adding green bell peppers to their cooking for the first time. This is a real taste treat. A variety of sweet corn sent to me by Rick Echternacht is doing very well. I hope to be eating some next month.

What I am learning about gardening, besides it being a lot of work and filled with disappointments, is that most seed varieties, which grow well in temperate climates, just don’t make it in the tropics.

Small Business Development
Working with a young single mother who runs the family store is a real joy. She is good at keeping records and wants to learn. After realizing she was not earning any money for her efforts, deposits new bank account seem to prompted even more ambitious plans, including making and selling pizza to go along with her DVD rentals. This is a developing story. Other stores are not interested in my consulting services at this time.

Mentoring New Volunteers
The Peace Corps would probably not count this as a project, but I do. The passing along of my many failures and few successes to others is as important to me as anything else I may do.

Classes continue, but at a reduced pace. I need to bring up the subject of a fashion show again. The women’s committee wants more cloth and accessories so the very poorest can learn to sew, but as yet has not given me a list of what they need.

Ministry of Communications is awaiting the results of their proposal requests. My village of Iva is still in the hunt.

Talent Show
The village says it wants one, but this their project now. I shall remind them that the holidays will be here soon. I should realize two months is a long way off for many Samoans.

Money Lending
The sale of my vegetables means I have money and when you have money in Samoa this means you are a source of funds. So I loan. Some gets repaid in the morning, only to be loaned again to the same person that evening. I am slowly becoming accustomed to this way of life, which I promptly plan to discontinue upon returning to the US.

Saw my apiarist in his truck with tires almost flat due to his load of honey. I said I was sorry about the reticence of my host family to build a shelter, but that there were a few pieces of lumber where the shelter is to be built. “Don’t worry”, he said. It was obvious to me that the efforts of my bees contributed to his heavy load.

Intelligent Design


While thinning seedlings, I wondered why I pulled some to whither in the sun and left others to possibly flourish. I consider myself to have some intelligence and my design in thinning was to leave only the largest, healthiest plants to be spaced evenly apart. As I proceeded, I noticed that I was pulling large plants that were next to each other and leaving smaller plants not spaced so closely. I would even accidentally pull a large plant when I meant to pull the adjacent small one. When I stood up and looked down, I could see that indeed there were fewer plants, but as to their size and spacing, there didn’t seem to be any design at all.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Chickens 1, Nick 0


One battle lost does not decide a war, but the psychological effects on the loser are immense. The loser can lose faith in their cause, but must somehow find the power to regroup for another attempt at the foray.

“Fuck the cabbage in my garden. Let the little feathered bastards eat the remains of what they have not already pillaged. It is time to plant crops they don’t like”, so my thinking goes. At least I am not bitter about losing this agronomical battle.



After a while certain things get to you. You can’t take it anymore. You must take action. Then a force ceases your body and you do something irrational, like redecorating.

Maybe it is the children’s handprints permanently imbedded on the not yet dried walls when we initially arrived, or the lave dust giving all surfaces a black, dirty patina, or it could be the wish to fulfill Mary’s and my desire to make this house our house. Whatever, I am redecorating.

The curse of redecorating is uncovering additional problems or subjecting you to the bewilderment of people who can afford only one eternal coat. Finally when your body aches, your paint cans empty, and brushes cleaned, you see the spot you missed and the person you miss.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008



There is nothing more beautiful than my crop of sunflowers. Some are over 12 feet high.

Samoans like the looks of them and when they try to smell them, yellow pollen sticks to their noses. When given the seeds to eat, they chew the whole seed and spit it out. I think I may have to do a little education before sunflowers become a viable crop.

Mass of the Holy Grass


The village Catholics are busy decorating the church and preparing a huge feast. Something important is happening. They want me to attend. They say it is the Mass of the Holy Grass, which happens every second Sunday in September. Surely I remember it from last year.

Some things don’t make sense. There is a large red, I assume bleeding, cross in front of the church. I ask again about the Mass of the Holy Grass, laughter erupts as I am corrected.

My quest at understanding has only the certainty of misunderstanding and understanding those that understand are fallible. It is time for mass to begin and to cross the road where the Cross beckons.

After the mass, I sit at the feast on the right hand side of the Dutch parish priest, a place of high honor, eating every kind of meat, fowl, and fish Samoa has to offer on a platter with a garnish of cabbage (my contribution). A high school girl who wants to be a lawyer to correct the injustices of the world fans me. She cannot understand why Samoan people spend so much money when a person dies instead of for the living, but she supports all of Samoan culture. At the end of the feast I am presented an envelope of money from people who were borrowing from me last week for food, only to have the money borrowed again at the end of the feast. I understand that I don’t understand, if you understand what I mean.

A Loaf of Bread


A loaf of bread tells you a lot about a place and your relationship to it.

Bread cost $.65 USD when I came over one year ago. Today it is $.84, a 33% increase. Cheap you might say until you relate it to the percentage of a person’s income. You soon realize why a loaf of bread is considered a special food rather than a staple.

Samoans do almost all of their shopping at small family owned stores. Only a few have bread, which they must pickup at a distant bakery early each morning. So only a few stores actually sell bread.

Except for the city folk in Apia, there is only one kind of bread, white, not sliced. For the nutritionally sensitive, the bread has no preservatives.

Why write about bread? Because writing about it gives me almost as much pleasure as toasting it, then covering it with real butter and raw, crunchy sugar.

Yes, a loaf of bread tells you a lot about where you are and who you are.

My Bread Store

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Life without Mary


It is 2 ½ months since Mary returned to Minneapolis. In many ways much in my life is the same, but with a hole.

My mother would say I lean heavily to the independent side with personal interactions not being my central focus. This trait serves me well most of the time in the Peace Corps. I find things to do to occupy my time. Then I become aware of the hole in the fabric of my life. Mary is not here.

Savaii Rendezvous


Tim Martin (Group 76) ended two successful years of Peace Corps service last week. Being officially out of the Peace Corps he could and did rent a van picking up all the volunteers on Savaii for one of a series of departing fetes before returning to his St. Paul, MN home next Monday. Details of the event cannot be posted on this blog due to the Peace Corps Savaiian code, which states, “Anything that happens on Savaii, stays on Savaii.”

This is a rare opportunity for the new Peace Corps members to become acquainted and learn from the more experienced volunteers. Again due to security issues subject matter is classified.

Thanks Tim and good luck for whatever the future brings.

All Savaii Peace Corps Volunteers, plus One
Seated: Jim (80), Sam (80), Ben (80), Jacob (78), Briony (80), Jenney (80)
Rear: Spencer (80), Trent (80), Max (79), Dylan (77), Rosie (79), Tim (76), Ben (78),
and Erin (77) Upolu
Missing, Me.

First Stop was for Me. Tim and Dylan Already Gassed Up.

Savaii Peace Corps Ladies
Briony, Rosie, Jenny, and Sam

Jacob Burney (78) Contemplating Something

Ben Harding (78) at His Village Site Where He Grows Watermelons and Builds Water Tanks

Being at “At”


Most of my life seems to be going, waiting, or wanting to go someplace or goal. There never seems to be any “ats”. I now find myself at an “At”.

“At” is rare. It is when the “tos” and “fros” of life are at the periphery. The “tos” and “fros” are out there, but not pressing, somehow vague and vaporous, almost dream-like. “At” is not a state I anticipated. It just happened. How long it lasts, I have no idea, but “At” is nice.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

If Jesus was Samoan


In my struggle to relate my Peace Corps projects to Samoans, I have tried to tie what I am doing to Samoan culture and beliefs. Since Samoa is an extremely Christian country, one might even say a theocracy, and almost every aspect of Samoan life in some way connects to the church and Christianity, it is natural to connect the results of the diabetes clinic to religion.

The data from the clinic show the average adult male in the village to be in excess of 200 pounds; the average female slightly under 200 pounds. Samoans are obese, which contributes to 33% of the village, including children, having diabetes level blood sugar. Therefore to connect hugeness to Jesus became my goal.

I have never seen a crucifix or picture of Jesus with a pot belly or lobes of fat hanging from his body. In deed, the pictures show Jesus to be quite trim. When pointing this out to a Samoan, he laughed and said that if Jesus was a Samoan, the Romans would have never been able to get him on the cross. We would never have been saved! One can even imagine a Samoan Mary unable to get on a donkey and whose only method of conception would be emaculate.

Alas, Jesus and Mary are not Samoan and their feasting continues unabated. Once again I am outsmarted by the inscrutable Samoan mind, but undaunted. Somewhere in their laughter is doubt. I only need that one mustard seed of doubt to press onward.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Moral Dilemma


To me moral choices are more than questions between right and wrong, but choices between the forces of the mind and heart. They are those choices one must make when reason points you in one direction and emotions in another. Such is a situation I now find myself.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer my job is to assist the village in various ways and to live with the locals. I receive a small salary to cover my own living expenses, which can be viewed as considerable by villagers. It is customary to donate either goods or money to one’s host family as a sign of appreciation for their assistance. Most volunteers live with relatively wealthy families and their contribution is more a gift than a necessity. The family I am with is broke, nada.

My moral dilemma is not about providing or the amount of assistance, for I have been doing this from the beginning, but about the choices the family makes with the money they continually “borrow”. These are not lazy people looking for handouts. They are very hard working with ambitions and dreams to which we can all relate. I ask myself, “Who am I to judge whether the money I give them goes to the church or school tuitions rather than buy necessities? Are not church and school necessities to them?”

As I sit contemplating whether I should ride my bike to the bank, I know that regardless of the choice either my mind or heart will be slighted. Of course, what may happen is I try to appease both mind and heart by giving less than my heart feels, but more than my mind reasons.

Morning Delight


Made an omelet this morning with green peppers and spring onions from my garden. God was it good!

D-Day: Iva’s Diabetes Clinic


Today representatives from the Diabetes Association of Samoa in Apia, nurses from the hospital on Savaii, a physician from Long Beach, CA with his 8-year-old son, a representative from the Los Angles based Samoan National Nurses Association, and four Peace Corps volunteers teamed with village officials to test almost 200 villagers for diabetes and high blood pressure. It started four hours late due to ferry problems for the Apia people. The clinic had the feel of clinic and three ring circus with testing, education, consoling, and jazzercise all happening at the same time in the same place. It was all worth it as many villagers learned about diabetes for the first time and those with “sick blood” referred to the hospital for medical attention.

Diabetes is rampant in Samoa. The results from the clinic show 33% of the people with high blood sugar levels (above 140 mg), even in 22% of children under thirteen. The high percentage of people affected warrants the expansion of the testing to everyone in the village, then do the next to impossible, try to change peoples habits to lessen this lifestyle disease. I have no idea where this project may lead.
Registration Line

Nurses Testing Station

American Physician, Assistant, and Interpreter Interview Serious Diabetics

Samoan Lunch, Lite

Women's Committee Saying Hello to Mary

Evaluating Village Based Program


Over the past months, I have sadly reported on volunteers from our Peace Corps Group 78 who returning home. Out of the original group of sixteen, two returned for medical reasons, and six have left for reasons best explained by them. Of the remaining eight, three are not based in village and hold jobs in Apia with either an NGO or a governmental agency. This leaves five out of the thirteen village based volunteers, an attrition rate of 62% after the first year. Previous Samoan village based volunteer groups have also faced high “Early Termination” rates. This has attracted the attention of both the Peace Corps in Washington, DC and is the focus of our new Peace Corps Country Director.

The Village Based program is now a rarity within the Peace Corps worldwide. Almost all volunteers are paired with an NGO or governmental agency in the country they are posted. They are plugged into an existing organizational structure, sadly many times becoming a free temp worker for the organization to which they are assigned. This is not to diminish the hardships and challenges faced by these volunteers, but it is not original model of the Peace Corps where volunteers were left to their own ingenuity, to work with locals to determine their needs and assist them. Maybe I think old school and feel Peace Corps means muddling through the vicissitudes and vagaries that the Village Based program represents. It is “Survivor” for real. The results are also real and rewarding.

As Peace Corps Samoa and Washington evaluate, not only the Village Based Program, but also whether the Peace Corps should continue its 40 continuous years in Samoa, I wish them well as they too muddle their way towards an evaluation. This appraisal is against a backdrop of cut backs in Peace Corps worldwide, despite early promises to expand Peace Corps. Vacuums have a way of being filled and in this part of the world the Japanese and Chinese wait in the wings.