Sunday, November 23, 2008

When Your Heart is Broken

Somerset Maugham best describes unrequited love in “Of Human Bondage” as the “ceaseless aching of the soul”.

Here are two men at 5:30 am, hearts breaking and filled with tears, on the grave in front of my house, softly singing songs of lament over love gone wrong while drowning their sorrows in comradeship and beer. They are probably going to be fined for a most human condition and elixir.



Laga’au is a nurse practitioner who lives in our village and performs out-patient care in the district for the hospital. She is a person I need to know to continue my diabetes project, but have never met.

I go to the house pointed out to me by others, ask for her by name, bring a gift of mango jam, and state I need her help in getting diabetes testing supplies. Her English and my Samoan are about the same level, basic. She agrees to a second meeting, to which I bring some salsa. We discuss how a letter from the hospital doctor to the National Hospital in Apia would really help. She agrees to meet me at the hospital to get the letter.

After biking to the local hospital for our meeting with the doctor, I meet the Head Nurse and ask if Laga’au is there. We go to a room with two other nurses. I tell them I am waiting for Laga’au. They all look puzzled, and then burst out laughing. I am sitting next to the real Laga’au who has no clue as to why I am there.

Who the other woman is, or what is her name, I haven’t a hint. I do know she likes jam and salsa. I also now know people can be very helpful when given these treats. I am meeting again with the Head Nurse and Laga’au with instructions to bring them jam.

Ten Gallons of Jam


The mangos keep falling like heavy raindrops, the kids keep selling me more mangos, I keep making this delicious sweet goo. The word is out, “Siamu”, jam. Samoans love it, but no one makes it. Why?

Making jam requires not only fruit and sugar, but also a low, simmering fire. This is the reason why jams come from cold places where a slow burning stove kept you warm while the jam simmered. Samoans cook over an open fire fueled mainly with coconut husks and soft, fast burning woods. This method is fine for the foods they boil in a pot, but would quickly burn anything with sugar. As for those Samoans who have gas stoves, they simply don’t know how to make fruit jam.

By selling the jam for what Samoans consider a high price, I hope to interest someone with a gas stove to take up the cause, but propane is expensive and learning how to simmer a new method of cooking. Nothing is ever as simple as it may first appear.

It is now on to salsa, of which Samoans can’t enough. I am giving out samples to fuel the fire. The ingredients are plentiful, grow in the garden and require no cooking. Already I have gone to two people’s homes to teach them. I find that Samoans don’t know how or have the knives to chop food into small pieces, or how to taste before you add the next ingredient. Selling salsa in the market may be an excellent way to earn some money or be the hit at the Fa’alavelave/party.

Learning the Hard Way


Just a few houses away and next to the road is a wonderful garden, which is completely fenced, and currently overgrown with weeds. Since my own “demonstration” garden is shaded, currently fully planted, and unseen by anyone other than my host family, I got permission from the owner and permission tentatively granted by the mayor, my host father/son to plant there. I was in heaven, finally the perfect demonstration garden. I started to dig as people passed, anxious to see new crops and learn gardening methods. A big mistake.

The next day the mayor said that since I lived with him and was considered his guest, it was improper to work on someone else’s land. This was an about-face. I said that I did not understand this Samoan custom, but would abide by his wishes. Was it permissible to work with other farmers, give them advice and seeds, as long as I did not dig. He agreed. Of course the real reason for the injunction was he has acted as if I am “his’ Peace Corps. When others in his clique asked if he was having problems with “his” Peace Corps, jealousy or vanity took charge.

In a subsequent meeting, I restated that I am an employee of the Peace Corps, invited by the Samoan government, and his entire village to assist in their development. I intended to act accordingly. The entire village paid for the house in which I stay but have never been fully informed as to why I am there. Their fear of the mayor has kept them quiet and away.

I said to the mayor I view my Peace Corps role to that of a match, bringing new ideas, some of which catch on and grow, others not; sometimes one gets burned. He laughed, maybe not thinking of the possible benefits and dangers of boys playing with fire.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Dealing with Please (Fa’amolemole)


The Samoan word for “Please” is beginning to get to me. Whenever a member of my host family comes up to me, the first word most often spoken is Fa’amolemole. They want something. This word can come at anytime day or night, no matter what I am doing. If Fa’amolemole is followed by Malie lau Loto (something like, “ I hate to ask you, but…), the request is usually for money.

The families I am living with are a hard working lot. They are simply poor, living in a poor place. Earning money amidst poverty is extremely difficult as my own efforts and labors are discovering. Available limited resources are shared. When you need something, you go to the person who has it.

This is not the world in which I grew up, but it is the world where I now live. I am the one with it and I just have to deal with it. One can’t cherry pick cultural attributes. You either take it as is, or leave. So when I hear, “Ita?” at end of the request, I reply that I am not angry, but it must show.

Vying for Mangos


The mangos from the giant tree outside my house hit the ground with a distinctive thud. The race begins between the children, the pigs, and me. The pigs usually win. These eating machines work 24/

Meals on a Wheel

Villagers often earn money going house to house early in the morning selling Samoan hot breakfasts. This family is selling “Koko Esi” made from papaya, coconut cream, sugar, and cocoa. I am always a willing customer. The problem is you never know what day your meal is wheeled to your house or what it may be.

Donna “Tona” Barr Departs

Another member of our Group 78 is leaving. After 1½ years in her beautiful seaside village of Potasi on Upolu, Donna Barr is returning to care for her mother in Colorado who is undergoing hip surgery. Donna is from Hawaii.

Donna is the most dedicated of our group in learning the Samoan language. Her interests in Samoa’s culture, flora, and fauna run deep. She is instrumental in assisting her villagers in getting a sea wall and set up a computer center where she spent most of her time teaching villagers. She also began to be involved with an influential Samoan women’s group and hopes some Peace Corps Volunteer picks up their program. Sorry to see one of the seniors depart.

A Chance Meeting


A package came from Australia addressed to “Mr. Niko, c/o Peace Corps”. Inside were packages of Silverbeet (Swiss Chard) seeds deftly hidden among the lollies (candy). A brief note was included apologizing for the delay in sending the seeds and a P.S. citing we had met on the ferry.

Who Nena Reid from Doncaster, Victoria, Australia is, I can’t recall. The serendipity of life and knowing that out there Nena Reid’s exist makes it all so worthwhile.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Are You a Christian?


Columbia, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, United States

A group of teens doing Bible studies in New Zealand were quests at the Pentecostal Worship Center while I was attending the service. They performed a skit about how Jesus helps to repel Satan and told about how important Jesus/God is in their lives. I invited them over for some free mango jam.

At my house, they told about what they were doing. I told them about the Peace Corps and my activities. I asked if they had any questions. The American boy quickly asked the usual American question about what I did before Peace Corps. Then the Swedish girl asked, “Are you a Christian?” How do you respond to a starry-eyed youth who talks to God that you do not share her views, and that people should be judged by their actions, not their suppositions?

They wanted to stay and talk some more, but then there were lots of Samoan ears just outside my porch. I gave them the jam, took their picture, and said how I admired young people venturing out to see the world. They then departed into the night.

Joy of Cooking


Samoan foods can be described as “au natural”. In other words what is picked or caught is used as is. Almost all cooking is done in a pot or Samoan oven (umu). The overwhelming flavor is blah with sugar, fat, and salt added. These are meat and potatoes people. I should say mutton flaps, pork, chicken and fish served with taro.

What I am discovering is that Samoans like many other people are in a cooking rut. They simply have not been exposed to different ways of cooking and using foods or flavors, which grow naturally. For example, they don’t know how to cook corn, make a fruit jam, use sweet basil, or make a salsa, all of which they love and will pay to get. I can see another Peace Corps project immerging, cooking classes. Who would have thunk it? Sometimes the obvious is hard to see.

Afraid to Die


Last night a man came to my house asking a favor. Would I go to his father’s house to see if I could do something to relieve his pain? The man said his father had swollen legs and body, couldn’t walk. He had returned from a three-day stay in the hospital. Upon further inquiry, it was revealed that the father had long been suffering from gout and in the hospital had been given a catheter with some mention of the word cancer. The man was unfamiliar with any of the medical terms and knew nothing about the disease affecting his father. Since he felt I had a better understanding of medicine, he gave me permission to go to the hospital to find out more.

The head nurse knew the patient well for he had been there often for gout, but he now was diagnosed with a malignant prostate cancer blocking his ability to urinate. I asked how she would treat this person and she said she would give him all the pain medicine he wanted. Then she added, “He is afraid to die”.

Her words haunted me on my bike ride home. How could she be so callous? I realized the resources in the country are few, but still? Her words marked the differences in our worlds. Her belief in life everlasting exceeded the need to prolong life at any cost. Death was not something to fear, but almost that for which your mortal life has prepared.

In trying to explain to the father’s son and his wife about prostate cancer, the probability of a long suffering illness before death, and how they need to give thought about the care of the man in the months ahead, I questioned if I was afraid to die. I don’t know. I do know I am not ready.

Election from Afar


The United States has elected a new president on a ticket of hope and optimism against a backdrop of being assassination material. This was the opinion of several Peace Corps Volunteers who went to the home of the U.S. Charge d’Affairs stationed in Apia to eat, drink, and watch the election returns. I missed that election drama, choosing instead to make papaya jam and attempting again to find ways villagers can make a little extra money. It was drama enough for me.

Jams and Jellies

With mangos falling from the tree like rain, I decided to make mango jam. Much to my astonishment, people couldn’t get enough of it. They would even eagerly pay money for it! Some want to sell it at the local market. Most have never tasted jams made with local fruits, just coconut. Presto, a new business as I teach others how to make and preserve jams from the local fruits. Today it is papaya jam.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Hand of Fate


While on the bus from Apia to the ferry, a strong, fit man sat next to me on the aisle with his three left hand outer fingers individually bandaged. He was a Samoan fisherman hired aboard a large New Zealand fishing boat plying the South Pacific waters in search of skipjack and yellow fin tuna. He showed me his hand and told me how his fingers got caught while using a block and. tackle. He related how he saw the tip of his severed little finger dangling by nerves and ligaments. He was happy he still could move his fingers, how the boat company flew him to the hospital, and would pay for his medical expenses. Yet one could tell his concerns about the future.

As the bus continued, a mother with her young family boarded and sat across the aisle from the fisherman. The fisherman began to tell his story to the woman, but stopped as the mother began to speak. The fisherman then pointed to her 10 year old son who had stubs for his right index and middle fingers, a result of a cherry bomb.
Someone once described life as years of tedium and a few moments of terror. The terror, we all fear, had suddenly changed the courses for these two people and those close to them. How fickle fate can be as we cower in the presence of its ominous



Halloween is my favorite time of the year. Maybe it gives others and me a chance to legitimately delve into the phantasmagoric without being labeled a kook or having to see a shrink. It is a time to act out your imaginary self, at times revealing your alter ego or simply the fact you can be whimsical. Being a product of Detroit, Halloween for the rest of world seems weird without the mischief and criminal behavior occurring on “Devil’s Night”, the night before Halloween, or saying “Help the Poor” when asking for candy, rather than the tamer “Trick or Treat”. Thank goodness we Peace Corps from America and that most American institution, McDonalds, have started to infuse this island paradise with the joy of Halloween.

Below is a Brief Story of Peace Corps Halloween 2008:

Half the fun of Halloween is deciding who you are going to be and the preparations entailed. Here Hannah Goldman, Erin Jenkins, John Klieve, Roselinda Wong (seated), and a leg are in the early stages of metamorphosis.
Me in my own handmade costume as a Helianthus annuus.

Romanian Gypsy Wench Lady, Hannah Siemering.

One of the Black Pearl’s crew, John Klieve.

Celopatra, Bridgett, a visiting veterinarian from Britain

Moving to McDonalds where free ice cream, hamburgers, costumes, and a political cause supporting the McDonald’s co-owner, Joe, who is under house arrest in the U.S. charged with falsifying his passport. I happen to know the Joe’s brother and the other co-owner, Richard, but their story is not for this blog. As a side note, I won 2nd place in he costume contest. I left before I could learn about the prize.
Sarah Palin, Erin Jenkins, on the campaign trail.

Aladdin, Christian Heath, then whisking us on his magic carpet to the Apia Night Club, Zodiac, where a party for all volunteers on Samoa, mainly Peace Corps, Australians, New Zealanders, and Japanese.

Da Ref, Shane Twilla, making sure of limited foul play.

Samoan Beauty, Hannah Goldman.

Mike Tyson, Jacob Burney, Brian Urlacher, Ben Griffin, with a groupie.

Weird Bloody Thing, David Reeves, with his wife, a most fertile Angelina Jolie, Sara Reeves.

An Australian spy posing as, You Know Who.

Angel, Sally Briggs; Free Box Merchant, Dylan Ryder; Brian Urlacher, Ben Griffin; Janet Jackson as herself; and Cowpoke, Jim Metz.

Janet Jackson, always wanting to get into the act, with a flower.