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!


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