Saturday, October 31, 2009

My apologies for forgetting to tell you that we have begun the village stay portio of our pre-service training and as a result have no access to internet (and many other things as well!) Being that today is Halloween and we have been working non stop since we arrived in Samoa about a month ago, our group begged for a day off, and thankfully received it!
But let me fill you in on what has been happening! We arrived in the village of MAnunu around 4:30pm on a Saturday afternoon, to one of the most welcoming ceremonies I have ever experienced. We were shuffled off the bus and immediately guided into an Ava ceremony in the open fale (house) next to the church. One half of the Ava circle was already filled with the Matai (titled men) of the village and we filled in the other half after walking around and shaking the hand of each Matai. The ceremony was similar to the one we experienced upon our arrival to Samoa, only this time we were in a beautiful village an hour away from anything, surrounded by fantastic mountians. While I'm at in, let me describe Manunu - it is the picture perfect image of a storybook village. To reach the village our bus climbed a steep hill leaving the coast, drove past taro, banana, an dcow plantations on a windey road, and eventually reached the turnoff to Manunu, marked by a beautifully carved wooden sign. As we drove down the road we passed a few more cows, take a turn, drive down a short but steep hill to cross a cement bridge that has a gental flow of water cascading over it. We then sharply hike up another short but steep hill, and, BOOM! we are in Manunu paradise!
The dirt road into the village is lined with colorful, cheery flowers, colored fales define the circular village and as our bus pulls in the children of the houses come to life, coming to greet the newly arrived Palagi (term for foreigners, literally meaning "burst from god" or more simply, "white.") Did I mention Samoa is incredibly religious?

But where was I - the Ava ceremony was just as long and complex as I remembered it being. Once the ceremony was done, the women's committee came into the fale, handing us each a coconut with a straw and draped us in freshly strung lai's of flowers. I almost cried from the beauty of it all. The women sat down in the circle and then our names were called out as were the names of our host mothers, and like children, we were embraced by our new host mothers and rushed out to claim our bags and find our houses.

I couldn't have asked for a better host family. My samoan family consists of Site, my Tina (mother), Asa, my Tama (father), five brothers, and a sister. My sister and one of my brothers lives in Apia so for the most part its just me, my parents and three brothers. I have a generous room with a perfect "princess" bed (aka a beautiful mosquito net surrounds my sleeping quarters). Other than that, the room is pretty plain, but it serves my needs. My Tama was a cook at Samoa College back in the day, so I eat like a queen here! Chop suey is big, so is fried chicken, fresh shrimp and fish from the river, and did I mention the Ramen noodles?! But seriously, it's awesome.

Speaking of the river - there is the most magical swimming hole located just 15 minutes by foot from our village. The entire first week we heard about it but didn't have the time to actually go and check it out. However, when we finally did, the beauty was paralyzing. A perfect lagoon has been naturally carved out by the thunderous pounding of a 50 foot waterfall (afu) which drops down from the river above, creating a landscape that only a truly talented artist could dream up. We walked down the staircase carved out of stone and leapt in (fully clothed, the Samoan way).

Our trip to the afu was too short due to Manunu's 6pm curfew, requiring all village members to be in their fales for prayer. This is every day, not just Sundays. Sundays are another story. It is pretty much a requirement to go to church and do nothing else the rest of the day except faifailemu (literally meaning, take it easy). It is actually illegal to run on a Sunday, so instead, we go for long walks. I have been going to two church services every Sunday - a typical service in the morning filled with the most amazing music you can imagine, and a youth lead service in the afternoon where the youth group performs songs, dances, and a skit that they create just hours before performing. The first week we were in the village the pastor invited us to join in on the fun, so for the second service, a small group of us got up on stage and sang a song that we had prepared for the Fiafia held by the Peace Corps. It was pretty crazy for me to be in a church, let alone to actually perform on stage in one! but it was fun, and honestly, what else am I doing?!

There is so much more to report on and I apologize for this run on entry. I originally had planned that this blog would have some sort of organized structure to it, but apparently that will have to wait till I get settled into my new village - which I will know in about 2 or 3 weeks! A few last notes before I sign out:

1. I am slowly but surely getting over my fear of anything creepy-crawelly. The ants are everywhere and there is nothing you can do about them. It turns out they particularly like underwear and socks, so your only defense is to wash your clothes as soon as you take them off, otherwise, the ants have a field day. It's pretty gross.

2. Cockroaches - another fact of life. I have come to regard them as my night guardians because as soon as the lights go off, the roaches crawl out of the nooks and crannies and mats of the house and don't disappear till morning. I'll let you know how that philosophy pans out for me - so far, so good though!

3. My favorite creepy-crawelers are the gecko's that dot the ceiling at night. You wouldn't believe the size of some of these things, they look like they should be in tanks at a pet store, yet there they are, hovering above my head as I sleep soundly in my mosquito net haven.

4. As for the giant centipedes - the poisonous, creepy, giant skeletal centipedes - I have only seen a few legs of one of the massive creatures but it was enough for me to know that I do not want to encounter a full one!!

5. Off the subject of bugs - if you ever want to leave a new instrument, join the Peace Corps. I have been playing guitar like it's m,y second job here and have already learned to solo on a few of my favorite Phish tunes, including First tube and Divided Sky. I was playing and listening to only Phish for the first few weeks here but then I had a nightmare that Phish broke up and I took it to mean I should probably branch out musically. so I've been making sure to tap into the old classics, and soak in the cheesy christmas music that is already playing here in Samoa.

6. Running and yoga = amazing. I still can't get over the sheer beauty of the morning dew as it rises above Manunu. The soundtrack of cocky roosters isn't really pleasant, but it does remind you that another day has arrived!

7. School. It's Saturday. I don't want to discuss school. I'll mention that we have been doing tons of language, TESOL, medical, and safety courses. Language is my favorite. On monday we will start teaching at a model school, and then next week we will co-teach with Samoan teachers at local schools. It's all pretty exciting but nerve racking. I've learned to say "Sit down" in Samoan. Now I need to learn how to say, "Be Quite" and "Listen Closely!"

8. I experienced my first earthquake. It was pretty cool, especially since I was far away from the ocean and therefore didn't have to worry about anything.

9. Cold showers - it's still hard to get use to, but hey, at least it's a shower!

Well, that brings me to the end of this short novel. I hope it holds you over till the next time I get to write, which should be in about 3 weeks. Thanks to everyone who has sent me email/snail mail - I love hearing from you and miss you all a ton! Tonight we are throwing a Halloween bash for the village kids - it won't be the same kind of Halloween I've grown use to, but it will be fun none the less.

A shout out to Alvin, Melissa, Jill, and my mom who are all celebrating birthdays around this time. To anyone else I may have forgotten, sorry - I still love you!

Lots of Love,


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Monday, Monday, So Good to Me....

Monday Monday, it was all, I hoped it would be....! Thanks Mama's and Papa's for providing a theme for Monday's adventure. After a relaxing weekend we were back in action with the training Monday morning. However, it was not to be an ordinary training day. We traded our hot conference room for a day of safety and security lessons at the beautiful Aggie Grey Resort just outside of Apia. Our lesson included about 25 minutes of safety briefing, then we loaded up a catamaran and were off for some hands on learning (aka snorkeling on the reef!) The reef was somewhat of a disappointment as much of it has died away, but there were some small school's of brilliant blue fish that made it worth our while, and the view from the boat was better than any underwater paradise could have been. Aqua blue water gently lapped the palm lined sandy coast and the mountains of Upolu rose like giants in the background. The water was crystal clear and felt like luke warm bath water. The only downside of the safety and security course was the paranoia that comes with knowledge: knowing that a stone-fish could be buried under any sandy beach waiting to prick our feet or a man of war may be floating by aimlessly seeking it's next prey. It was reassuring to hear that sharks are a rarity on the reef though!

After the S&S class we loaded up our brightly painted school bus and travelled across the island to the other side of paradise: pristine beaches, tranquil waters, and beach fale's (sheltered, raised platforms) awaited us. We ate a lunch of oranges, peanut butter, crackers, and something like American cheese that was surprisingly good (or maybe I was just really hungry!) We swam in the luke warm water and played frisbee on the beach.

Then it was off to the tsunami struck area. I had intended to write a good deal about the experience of driving through such a devastated area: what we saw, what it once was, and what it will take to restore things to how they once were, but I find myself at a loss for words (not such a good thing for an aspiring blogger!) Twenty FULL villages were washed away to the point that you could not tell that any life had been there before. What was once an area of pristine beaches is now covered in mud, debris, and wreckage. All but one of Samoa's resorts were destroyed which is taking a huge toll on the economy, and virtually every Samoan seems to have lost either a friend or family member. Being on the other side of the island we are really sheltered to the after affects of the tsunami, but driving through the disaster area really brought to light the fact that it will be years till Samoa fully recovers. Hundreds of people are homeless and their land, inhabitable. It is frustrating to be cooped up in Apia studying language all day when 2 hours away a major recovery effort is under way. All of us feel like we should be out there aiding in the relief, but there isn't much we can do about it at this point.

On Saturday our group will move to our host village about an hours drive outside of the city where we will live for the next few weeks (no one is sure if it will be two, three, or four weeks!) There we will live with host families, have intensive language studies, and practice teaching ESL in a model school. I am eagerly looking forward to the new challenges that lay ahead!

Being that it is 8:30 I am getting sleepy and am going to head offline for the evening. I am still on this incredible morning schedule and the days are draining between the heat and the lessons, so if I am awake past 9:30pm it is a miracle! Then again, no one else is awake, so there really is no point in being a night owl. Manuai la'po (good night!) and be in touch!


Sunday, October 11, 2009

The First Days are the Hardest Days

The first day in a new place is always difficult as you slowly begin to navigate your area, the food, and the people around you. Add an evacuation due to a tsunami threat and you get one hell of a memorable afternoon!

Our official Peace Corps training began hours after our arrival in Samoa. A typical day here is as follows:

5:45 = alarm

6:00 - 6:45 = morning run and yoga by the sea

7-8:00 = shower and breakfast

8:00 = check in

8:30 - noon = two morning sessions

noon - 1:30 = lunch

1:30 - 4:30 = two afternoon sessions

4:30 onward = dinner, free time, etc.


We began the day with our first Ava (or Kava) ceremony. We found traditional skirts, or lavalava's in our rooms and were asked to wear them to the Ava ceremony. All the women of our group received beautiful red lavalava's, and the men, traditional black ones (although men do wear colorful lavalava's as well here!) Our conference room was transformed into something which resembled a traditional fale, or house. Woven mats covered the floor and we sat on the mats in a squarish-circle: new Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) making up one half and Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and staff the other. A few words were spoken in Samoan on behalf of the island welcoming us, and then our Peace Corps staff responded on behalf of our PCT group. Most of it passed me by but I did catch a few references to both Obama and Uncle Sam, and even though we didn't understand the Samoan being spoken, it was clear that there was a lot of joy and pride, as well as humor, in the welcoming ceremony. The Ava was placed in a traditional carved wooden Ava bowl and wrung out by a female member of the PCV group, then 4 bamboo branches were ceremoniously positioned throughout the room: 3 pointing to the highest ranking members of the group and one pointing to the Ava bowl. After the words were exchanged, Ava was served to the group, beginning with the highest ranking members and eventually continuing to each one of us. One by one our names were called as the Ava was brought to us. As we accepted the coconut cup filled with the muddy looking drink we tipped out a little Ava onto the mat and said, "Luo Ava lea le a'tua....soifua!" and the group responded, "Manuia!" Pretty much meaning, "Ava is our God, we drink to you," and the group cheerfully replying, "Success!"

We feasted on a lunch of the sweetest oranges I have ever tasted, strange meat patties that resembled pigs-in-a-blanket (but tasted nothing like them!), salads, tuna and egg sandwiches, and of course, tea. Then it was off to our rooms for a half hour nap before beginning our first language session. Fifteen minutes into the break we were interrupted by a loud knock at the door. Jet lagged and full from lunch we were startled to learn that there had been an earthquake on Vanuatu and Samoa was on tsunami watch. We were directed to move into the conference room and wait for our next move. Upon reaching the conference room our director informed us that there was no need to panic but that we should probably get water and move to higher grounds. As we went back to our rooms for our water her blase suggestion turned urgent: "Get to the cars immediately, we need to move now!" Shoe-less I grabbed the closest pair I could find, my water, purse, and we ran to the parking lot, where the 22 of us were loaded into two PC vehicles waiting for us and rushed out into the street. By this time warning sirens were sounding, the streets were packed with cars, people, and police, and everyone was slowly heading for the mountains. It was unnerving being in the trunk area of an SUV with 4 other people, all staring out the back window and noticing that the people fleeing by foot were moving faster than us in our super high tech government car. Eventually we cleared the traffic and made our way to the PCS directors house were we stayed for an hour before being given the information that the threat had past and we could return to our hotel.

Needless to say it was one scary day, but it proved to us that the security precautions do work and are effective when executed properly. Thankfully there was no wave, but we were out of the city in virtually no time once the warning was issued and for that I am reassured that in face of a natural disaster, although you cannot predict what will happen, we have a pretty reliable plan of action. It worked a few weeks ago, and although I hope to not be tested again, we know it can work if need be.

We had a brief language study class where we learned a few key phrases, went to dinner as a group at Seafood Gourmet where I had some tasty grilled fish with mashed potatoes and my first Samoan beer (there is only one kind - it tastes a little like Heinekin but better), and then passed out from all the excitement around 8:30pm.

Stay tuned to here more about the past week and the weeks to come!


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Safe and Sound and Samoa

Talofa from Samoa! It's been a whirlwind of a week settling into Peace Corps life here in Apia, Western Samoa. Twenty two of us meet in LA on October 6th to embark on the biggest adventure of our lives. I thought I would be nervous, but there was no time for that; a calm, collected sense of readiness had engulfed me and I found myself eager to get on the plane and get to Samoa!

We registered with the Peace Corps Monday night, had a night to relax, and then Tuesday morning our adventure began. A day of conferences kept us busy, and then at 6pm we checked out of our luxury hotel and left for the airport. After having our last American beers and burgers at The Roadside Cafe in LAX we boarded the Air New Zealand flight to Samoa. I intended to watch a movie or two but fell asleep before dinner was served and slept the next 9 hours. When I awoke, we were only an hour from Samoa and the reality struck - we were about to be on an island for the next two years of our lives!

Our plane touched down just before dawn and as we passed through customs we were serenaded by few melodious guitars and gentle voices. We collected our bags with little difficulty, sent our bags through screening, and were greeted on the other side by a host of current Peace Corps Samoa staff and volunteers, loaded with big smiles and flowery lai's. Somewhere in between landing and meeting our Peace Corps escorts the sun rose and as we loaded the bus to take us to our hotel in Apia, we were struck with the beauty of our surroundings. Palm tree's lined the entrance to the airport, and after a few turns in the road, we found ourselves driving along the sea wall. Men board their fishing canoes, children waved as they waited for their school busses, and the fish circled and jumped.

We arrived at the hotel, got our room assignments (4 to a room!) and then passed out for a few hours before the first day of training began.

So much has happened in the past week and I will go into more detail because it has been every bit as adventurous as I imagined it would be! But for now, it is Saturday afternoon and it is our first day off, so time to hit the beach! Tofa for now!

My address here in Samoa:

Rachel Goldstein, PCT

Peace Corps Samoa

Private Mail Bag

Apia, Western Samoa

Points of intrigue for the next entry: The tsunami evacuation, yoga at dawn, my new name (Lasela!), delicious fish dishes, and pictures pictures pictures! So make sure to check it out!

Samoan word/phrase of the day: "Manuia le aso" mean "have a good day"