Tuesday, December 30, 2008

BITUSA- Family and Friends


My Family

Front: Kim Wolfe, daughter; Steve Christensen, son-in-law. Middle: me; Matt Wolfe, son-in-law; Sam Christensen, grandson; Teri Christensen, daughter. Back: Mary, wife; Nicholas Shuraleff, III, son

While my intestines gurgle in the middle of the night reacquainting themselves with holiday foods, my mind tries to comprehend what is happening. Family and friends are eager to hear about far away people and places, to see how I may have changed, and place me momentarily in the limelight of a curiosity who has stepped outside the box. For these moments I am prepared with stories and tales. It is when the realization hits me that I miss them and they miss me that this Peace Corps adventure becomes more serious than I ever dreamed.

"Missing" means the loss of something important. "To be missed" means that you are of some importance to another. I can handle missing others. I am in control of this painful emotion, but I am at a loss of how to handle the compliment of being missed.

As my thoughts begin to return to Samoa, my brain is scrambled with conflicting signals. The puzzle pieces of wanting the challenge of an adventure, of missing others, and of being missed lay on the table. None seem to fit together. There is a part of me that wants to be missed, to be remembered, yet to be missed requires leaving those for whom you care. I can't help but be thankful for family and friends who miss me. Hopefully they are aware that I miss them too.

Monday, December 29, 2008

BITUSA- On the Cusp of Manhood


There is a time when boys pass into manhood and there are people to help them on their journey. The portal may seem mundane, but the moment is monumental.

Here I am with my visiting grandson, Sam, 15, from State College, Pennsylvania at his request at my favorite White Castle Hamburger restaurant in Minneapolis. The test of fried onions, steam grilled square beef patties with five holes in each patty in an unadorned eatery on a cold winter's day is over. It makes a person proud to know he was asked to be part of that experience.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

BITUSA- Recession Blues


There is a pale hanging over the various Christmas gatherings I am attending. It is like people are falling into a dark hole of their own excesses fearing the pain that may await them. Even younger children reflect the anxiety of their parents as their Christmas gifts this holiday are not as lavish as last year. No one has lost their jobs or homes, but belts are tighter.

My own net worth is half of what it was when I joined the Peace Corps, yet I feel apart from the apprehensions gripping others. Maybe it is my isolation from the constant bombardment of news and water cooler chatter, maybe it is the serenity of living with less, or maybe it is a complete ignorance of my own situation.

As my thoughts begin to anticipate a return to Samoa and the remaining months there, I wonder if today's unanticipated events will define my younger Peace Corps associates as immigrating from from Russia affected my grandparents, the Great Depression shaped my parents, and the Vietnam War molded mine.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Progress Report- Peace Corps Style


The Peace Corps has a quarterly report all volunteers are required to complete. It represents the lunacy of those people not on the front line to understand, justify, and manage. It is an attempt to quantify the unquantifiable. It is the Peace Corps version of body counts, school test scores, investor confidence levels, etc. The numbers are as meaningful as measuring how much you love someone.

Heretofore my Group 78 has been spared submitting this report due to changes in staff personnel, but now that we have a new director, she is asking for this report. What numbers should I write in the blanks? What grandiose claims do I make so that Congress and the American public continue to fund Peace Corps? Where is the space to write about how getting your hands dirty, living with others and sharing lifestyles does more to promote national security and ideals than bullets? Where do I write about the people I have met whose lives have been affected by those before me? Who would take the time to read it anyway? This is no way to measure what is really important. You know that biting into a homemade Christmas cookie tastes good. You just know it.

Progress Report- Month XVI

The past month is one of transition as I prepared to end some projects, return to the U.S. for the holidays, and set in motion projects for my final eight months of service.

Being able to get 200 diabetes test strips a month from the Health Department is a major hurdle overcome for my diabetes reduction program. They are the recurring expense in any effort to have a long lasting program. I am able to get some blood pressure monitors and scales in the U.S., so I should be able to start testing soon after my return to Samoa.

The disappointment about being stopped by the mayor to have a demonstration garden where people can actually see it and have access has taken the enthusiasm out of maintaining my own garden. I am turning my big garden over to the mayor's family and harvesting the remaining peanuts and sunflowers.

My goal is to work more closely on an individual basis with those people who already have gardens in my village and to work with the Women's Committee of the neighboring village of Vaisaulu on their village wide efforts at encouraging family garden plots. They have taken the effort to get free government money to buy supplies, unlike my own village who for some unprintable reason refuses to do so.

It is hard to withdraw from my own garden, which has provided me with so much pleasure and exercise. The garden in many ways is a microcosm reflecting what you like to do, what you think you are doing, and what actually happens. But, one never knows what has been set in motion.

New School
Official awarding by the Japanese and the start of construction by villagers is scheduled for January. I have gotten approval to apply for a grant to build a basketball court, although my suggestion to plant free fruit trees for future children's lunches has met with a cool response.

Cooking Lessons
People are slowly incorporating okra into their cooking. Like other parts of the world, there is more than taste needed for a food to be part of the diet. Besides availability, one needs to learn preparation, have proper utensils, and be willing to risk failure.

I plan to visit with the high school home econ teacher to see if she would be interested in learning how to make salsa, etc.

Small Business
The DVD business of the small store across the road continues to grow and the single mother owner is putting in a bank account. It is fun to help her as I collect used DVDs to take back for her her rent.

Sewing Machines
Just before returning, I asked the President of the Women's Committee what should I tell Mary about the sewing machines. She stumbled in her response knowing full well that their lack of use would disappoint Mary, who has become a legend in the village. I shall see if this little bullet prompts some action.

It is fun to be working with several of the newer volunteers on starting gardening and health projects in the villages. It is unfortunate that mentoring is not part of Samoa's Peace Corps training curriculum. Peace Corps seems to treat each incoming group as a separate entity, without making continued mentoring after training a part of a volunteer's duty.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

BITUSA- Python Necklace


Some people hang precious stones, some teeth, others flowers around their necks. With my daughter, Kim, it is her pet python. Enough said.

BITUSA- Washboards


Watching Samoan women wash clothes by beating them with a stick or rocks gave me the idea of how a washboard would make life a little easier and clothes a little cleaner. Alas I found the Columbus Washboard Company on the web and called. To my amazement and the woman owner who answered the phone on this Christmas Eve Day, we had something in common. She and her husband spend five years in Tonga in the 1970's as New Zealand citizens helping to build the airport in Tonga and knew Samoa well. In fact Peace Corps Volunteers whom she met were instrumental in getting her into the United States where she bought the equipment of a defunct company to revive washboard manufacturing in the U.S. She shipped me a couple of washboards, which I plan to take back to Samoa, see if women use them, and approach the New Zealand Consulate about funding another one of my crazy projects.

One never knows where the Peace Corps, Samoa, or the Internet can take you.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

BITUSA- Rear Window


View from my condo window.

Current Minneapolis Temp: -12F
Current Minneapolis Wind Chill: -35F
Current Samoa Temp: 82F
Current Samoa Heat Factor: 95F

BITUSA- Night at Rudolphs

Give a person in Minnesota a lavalava on a stormy snowy winter's night and you never know what can happen. Here are three and crazy friends, Mike Semsch, Loren Carlson, and Rick Echternatch at Rudolph's restaturant, a respectable place.
P.S. A server from American Samoa came to their rescue to explain to patrons and police alike their garb.

Friday, December 19, 2008

BITUSA- Bagels

Why has it taken me so long to realize the thing I miss most in the USA that I can't get in Samoa, is bagels? To get up early in the morning, go to the bakery, make your selection, smear your favorite topping, then stuff yourself, that for me is Americana at its best.

Maybe it is time to introduce Samoans to this treat. I wonder what mango, papaya, pineapple, or guava bagels taste like?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Back in the USA (BITUSA)- Day 1


It was good to feel the slap of cold air on the Jetway at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport dressed in my finest Samoan shirt and seeing my wife, all lovely, scanning the travelers at baggage claim, and not seeing me as I approached her.

It was good to be driven in her new red all-wheel drive, turbo Audi through the streets covered with newly fallen snow to our condo which we had occupied for only two months before leaving for Samoa last year, and to see how she had made the condo a place for both of us with my clothes hanging neatly in the closet.

It was good to visit my dentist for my annual Peace Corps dental exam and to learn how he had survived his bout with urinary bladder cancer and the wonders of modern surgery whereby a piece of intestine was used to reconstruct his bladder, alleviating the need for an external bladder sac.

It was good to return to my favorite Wal-Mart where English is the second language for an eye exam, have them replace clouded lens at no charge, to meet a recent Russian immigrant employee with a law school education who in five days would become a U.S. citizen as she wondered what new name she would chose to put on her citizenship documents (Natalie was my suggestion). Yet I noticed a seemly less crowded store and parking lot than I recalled.

It was good to meet my son, daughter and her husband; to learn about my son's rising accounting career and his serious girl friend, Heidi; to have my daughter and son-in-law talk about their new house; and to share our memories of their Samoan visit last August.

It was hard to see the tears well up in my wife's eyes as she read letters from our Samoan host mother and her collegiate daughter, pleading for her return to Samoa before my permanent departure next August, how much they missed and loved her, and how my wife realized that she was probably the only person who had ever recognized our host mother as an individual person.

As I drove in the traffic through what seemed like endless red lights, watched people rushing about with cell phones held to their ears, heard the airplanes overhead in the condo on their their airport approach, felt the dryness of a heated room, the looseness of my old clothes, and enjoyed high speed Internet, I wondered what the next couple of weeks would bring.

Tongans on the Plane


Disembarking from the Tonga-Samoa flight at the Los Angles airport, group of Tongan Peace Corps Volunteers recognized my Peace Corps luggage tag and introduced themselves. While standing in the immigration entry line, they spoke about their teaching experiences and how several were extending their Tongan stay another year. Had any of them made Mango jam or walked amidst pig feces? The line moved too quickly to ask questions.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Day with Dylan Ryder


Dylan Ryder, Rhode Island, successfully finishes his Peace Corps tour as a computer teacher at Tuasivi College (High School) on Savaii. For me, Dylan exemplifies the best of the Peace Corps. He leaves behind a successful curriculum to be followed by the incoming Peace Corps Volunteer and a trail of tears from his many sad and loving students. He plans to spend some time with his parents, visit some of his fellow volunteers across the U.S. before hopefully getting a Fulbright to teach a year in Turkey. Samoa still beckons him to return as a school administrator.

Wanting to see the island’s sights he never before had the time or means to explore, Max Lapushin, Jacob Burney, and me join him in his quest to drive on all of Savaii’s roads. Below are some photos to mark that day.

At a Black Sand Beach

At Tia Seu, Ancient Mounds
Dylan with Ancient Sacrificial Stone
Max is first to go. Jacob doing the honors.

What one has to do in the Peace Corps.

Sunrise? Sunset?


“Sunrise, sunset, quickly go the years” as the song in “Fiddler on the Roof” laments, but when does a day begin to start the counter? For Jews in the play/movie, a day began as stated in the Bible, at sunset. This is a practice still followed by Jehovah Witnesses and by ancient Athenians and Phoenicians who used other source material. For Babylonians a day begins at sunrise. This leaves ancient Egyptians and Romans who considered a new day to begin at midnight, but had no clocks to determine when this occurred.

Thus when Christmas or New Year’s starts depends on whether you are a light to darkness, darkness to light, or darkness-to-darkness person. For that matter the birth of Jesus occurred probably in the month of March, which just so happens to be when the New Year began until a few hundred years ago. What all this means is beyond me except to show you this photograph of either a sunrise or sunset.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Returning Home


In one week I deplane in Minneapolis for a three-week holiday visit. This trip is not without a certain amount of trepidation and angst. Indeed trying to put into words my anxieties without offending my loved ones and friends makes this the hardest blog entry to date. This is the part of the Peace Corps experience mentioned only lightly in the beginning, being the most difficult in the end, returning home.

Just why returning is so difficult, even for a seemingly short time, perplexes me. I see this phenomenon in the faces of my associates who are joining me for a holiday sojourn and even more pronounced on those who are ending their tour of duty. If nothing else, these fears reflect the depth of change in a person about redefining the meaning of home and your place in the cosmos.

With Peace Corps and other such events where a person chooses to step into the void, one is conscience of what is left behind. You want something different. When you find it, your homeport becomes just another place, but it is still the only place where those whom you love and care about reside.

The New Pastor


Last December the pastor for the largest and wealthiest church, EFKS/Congregational, in the village died after 34 years of service. The new pastor, his wife, and five young children moved in five weeks ago to the pastor’s two story, air-conditioned, fully equipped house. For the past 15 years he worked at the EFKS’s main office in Apia, his last position that of Controller. I introduced myself and was invited to his house where he, his wife, and I talked for two hours.

As he spoke of his goals to help the village children increase their reading and school skills and his approach to his new position, I couldn’t help but quietly chortle as I compared his past life and personality with what he is about to face to new Peace Corps Volunteers. When would the reality of where he is now living hit him? How long would he continue his exercise program of running up and down his stairs before the village provided meals took its toll on his and his family’s healthy lifestyle? When would his direct and inclusive speech rile village elders? When would the churches Women’s Committee openly frown upon his wife’s simple dresses? When would he turn on the air-conditioning and get a vacuum cleaner for his carpeted floors? When would his 8th level daughter stop crying about education and corporal punishment at her new school? When would he end up being placed on that pedestal he so much wants to avoid? We ended our conversation with his support for diabetes testing and a village weight control program as we lunched on parishioner provided canned spaghetti sandwiches..

Pastor's Church, Built 1912

Pastor's House with Bingo Hall on Front Lawn

Prize Giving


“Prize Giving” marks the end of the school year. This event is part graduation ceremony, recognition of top students from all levels, business meeting, church service, fundraiser, party for parents, and church service. The speeches of praise from school officers and a major address by some old fart are things the audience and students endure to get to the program part that really counts; praise, candy, and prizes.

The last weeks of school are spent on rehearsals, cleaning up the school grounds, and a series of tests, which determines the student’s class rank and whether the student moves to the next academic level. For students at the thirteenth and last level, there is an additional series of tests to determine who goes on to college, which college, and scholarships, much like SAT exams.

The prize for the top student at last level is a trophy. Prizes for top students at the other levels are Holy Bibles and notebooks. Lower primary levels may also get a small toy or backpack in addition to their Bible. When the student’s name is read, the parents, relatives, and friends rush to the front with Saran wrapped candy necklaces for the student and school officials. Some parents make quite a spectacle of the occasion. Some officials so loaded down with candy hunch under the weight. Students never speak; sometimes blush as their parents go crazy.

What some Americans find unusual, others disgusting, while others admirable is the pervasiveness of the church throughout the ceremony and indeed the curriculum. Samoa is a theocratic country. The lines between church and state are indistinguishable. From speeches, awards, and music religion is the dominant theme.

Every society uses the education of its youth to instill what it thinks is important. The subject material is always an ever-changing mosaic of competing interests. As one watches these bright, idealistic young people accept their prizes; one wonders how their education serves them in the future. Questions arise about our own society’s vocationally oriented system. The questions remain for the youth to answer. In the meantime there is candy to consume, or if I were back in the U.S., a dinner at Perkins.

District Secondary School, Mata ae Vavae

Head table

First in Class, my host “brother Sefo with his mother, Parents Dancing for Dollars, kind of like a Samoan bake sale; Principle’s last words to remaining students.

Iva Primary School Ceremony held in church revival meeting tent Host family girl, Faapisa, and 5th level prizewinner dancing for dollars Host family girl, Manuli, and 7th level prizewinner dancing for dollars

Friday, December 5, 2008

New Primary School


Today the Village School Committee and the school principal learned that the Japanese are awarding a new primary school. The amount is a little less than originally thought, but quite substantial. Construction begins in January.

This marks the conclusion of my major and for the village chiefs, the only reason they built my house and wanted a volunteer. Of course, there is still a fence to get for the school. All the rest of my projects and labors are really self-generated.
Left: School Principle with Japanese Consultant

Right: members of School Committee

The Resource Room


At the rear of Peace Corps Headquarters in Apia is a room for volunteers. The room is labeled “Resource Room”. The room has old copies of National Geographic, twenty copies of old LSAT primers, over a thousand old Samoan newspapers, two computers (one has been broken for five weeks), internet access and a sofa. The room needs to be renamed.

Here are volunteers fresh from a meeting watching again a DVD of some TV comedy show about New Zealanders in New York.

Peace Corps Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving was held at the sumptuous home of the U.S. Charge d’Affairs. Each volunteer cooked and brought something. The Charge provided drinks. You can see by pictures below we had a good time.
P.S. The day was also my 67th birthday, an event of inconsequential proportions when compared to turkey and mashed potatoes.

Progress Report: Month XV


New Primary School
No official word yet. I feel confident on getting the award to build a new primary school.

Both my village of Iva and the neighboring village of Vaisaulu are on board for an expanded testing program including monthly testing, weight ins, and weight control education. The first step is to get the necessary testing equipment of blood sugar test strips, a blood pressure cuff, and scale. Trying to get this equipment is hard, but I am hopeful that persistence counts for something. If all goes well, we shall start after the holidays in January.


The small neighboring village has applied for money on their own to start home garden plots. I am to be the “expert”. I am trying to see if the Women’s Committee of my village wants to undertake such a project.

I have come to the realization that Samoans don’t know how to garden. They are used to growing taro and bananas for food and money in large plantation plots. The whole notion of growing lots of vegetables in a small space is new to them. For home gardens to succeed a lot needs to be done than just supplying seeds and tools.

My own garden is taking up less of my time as I now have done the things which take up the most time. I still spend a few hours a day in it, but I have finished with the heavy stuff. Now it is mainly plant, water, harvest, and eat. Currently I am growing okra, sunflowers, peanuts, beans, tomatoes, and some cabbage.

Small Business
The single mother with whom I am consulting continues to deposit money in the bank.

My newest product is a salted raw peanut. People love them once they get over the fear that it is poison. This goes along with the salted sunflower seeds. My jam is always in demand. So salted seeds and jam seem to be the best ways to make a buck. Although it may seem incongruous to be selling these items while at the same time trying to reduce diabetes and hypertension, these are better foods than what Samoans normally eat.

Sewing Machines
The Women’s Committee is canceling the fashion show. They are busy weaving mats for Christmas. Maybe next year. Probably never.

Bees just don’t seem to be a priority. Of course, the way things happen here, they could appear next week.

No new developments.

Christian “Keli” Visits


Christian “Keli” Heath from Oregon is a member of my Group 78. He works in Apia with METI, an NGO, trying to encourage mud crab farming by Samoans. Since mud crabs thrive well in mangrove marshes, his tour of Savaii is for five days on his bicycle looking for possible mud crab farming sites and visiting Peace Corps volunteers along his route. Savaii has no suitable locations.