Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dinner Time

Computer school/homework center closes at 6pm every day. While this fact is true, it is also a total lie. Around 4:30 or 5 I typically tap out and leave the kids to play their computer games on their own. I eagerly count the minutes of my last hour and then right at 6pm I close up shop. Nights that I cook for myself I will start preparing my meal around 5:30 while the kids are still here, but nights that I eat with my neighbors I have a solid half hour to reflect on the day before jumping back into the social grind. That being said, I look forward to my meals with my neighbors. You never know exactly what you will get, but the menu doesn’t change much and it is always good.
On a typical night I stroll over around 6:30pm. The conch shell has not blown yet so kids are still playing in the streets, women are sitting in front of their houses weeding, and the older kids are running errands for their parents, picking up chicken or pisupo from the store before Sa, or curfew, hits at 7.
I cross the street, high step it over the fence built to keep pigs out of the driveway, kick off my shoes, and walk in the front door as I announce my presence with a loud, “Malo Mina! O a mai oe?” She responds, “I’m fine Sara, did you go to school today?” Of course I did, I tell her so. If Vaifale is around I ask him the same question. “Still living” is his favorite response. Vaifale is in America these days so it’s just Mina and myself for dinner. She ushers me outside, “Are you hungry? It is too hot!” I agree and tell her yes, the food smells fantastic. We sit in the outdoor kitchen. Their house is a series of four buildings. The big open fale in front serves as a store-room and place to hang laundry when it rains. To the backside of this first building is a second, western style fale with three rooms: a main living room and two bedrooms off to the sides. Leaving the house from the back you pass the bathroom and shower area and then come to the kitchen; a room with no walls, dividing into two parts: a front part with a big wooden table and a sink, and the back part with a cooking pit and all the charred pots used to make food. There is also a pile of coconut husks to be used for fuel, and chickens wander in and out of the kitchen, happy to not be dinner on this night. All around the kitchen is the family garden, planted in no particular order aside from where the seeds fell. I sit at the wooden table and look around. A Banana tree hovers over a giant taro plant, which grows next to a few pineapples and near a new breadfruit tree. Papaya trees and coconut trees are so abundant that I hardly notice them anymore. Scattered about are cabbages and green beans, laupele and ginger. Mina uses ginger in everything she makes and I love it! I once asked Vaifale how his garden grows so well and he said, “Simple! The soil is so good here, you just stick something in the ground and it grows!” Somehow I think his fence to keep pigs out has more to do with it than anything else because plenty try to grow gardens here and fail because of the pig infestation.
Returning to the food: I take my seat and am asked to say the prayer. I do a mix of Samoan and English: “Fa’afetai Iesu mo mea ai, faafetai mo aiga ma uo. Bring health and happiness to all, and bless our loved ones, wherever they may be. Amene.” A plate of boiled bananas in pe’ape’a sauce (white coconut cream) is placed in front of me. Some nights it also contains breadfruit and taro. I am served fried chicken, or chicken soup, or sometimes pig. I eat alone as Mina watches, or with Vaifale when he is around. Sometimes when Vaifale isn’t around she will join me in my meal. We eat through prayer time and once the conch shell blows signaling the end of prayer I thank Mina for the delicious food and return to my fale to watch movies, read, and sleep.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What's My Age Again?

Carefully I cut out the number “3” and adhere it delicately over the “2” of 1992. I take the improved document and place it on my three-in-one printer-fax-copier. Off white paper is inserted and a copy is made. It’s fool proof, perfection. All week 18-year-old boys have been coming to me with their birth certificates, and all week I have been teaching them the art of doctoring a document. Is this legal? Probably not, but there are no police to check. Is this a valuable life lesson? One could argue yes since apparently so many boys need the help. All I know is I have helped at least 5 boys successfully join the team of their dreams. Let’s hope this doesn’t backfire on anyone!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Let's Go Fly a Kite!

I guess I was unlike most kids. To me, flying a kite required running and waiting for wind, two things I did not particularly like to do. I would fly kites with my family every now and then but I never really understood the appeal. I would watch movies where people were flying kites with stupid smiles on their faces, see people at the beach dancing their kites high above the sand, and of course I read Kite Runner which moved me to tears. But even with all this exposure, I still could never get that warm, happy feeling from watching a kite fly in the sky. So when my parents sent me a kite in a care package, my gut instinct was to think, “oh man, I am going to have to fly this thing with my village, what a drag.” I kept the kite hidden in the corner of my room hoping that no nosey kid would notice it during a homework session and make me take it out. Little did I know what was to come.
It was a Thursday afternoon and the homework/computer center was especially slow. As three kids rotated turns on the one computer I was busily writing out the story I will be teaching next week. I like to get my materials made ahead of time so I do not have to think about them for the weekend. Huge gusts of wind kept bursting through the open door and blowing away my flimsy newsprint. I was halfway through the story when I reached my limit and put down the pen. I looked outside, then turned to the girls at the computer and asked, “who wants to fly a kite?” Eagerly, they all jumped up. I ran into my room, pulled out the kite and quickly unraveled some string.
We went out behind my house and I took the reel while one of the older girls took the kite. We waited for another gust of wind, and then I started running. Nothing happened. We tried again. Again, failure. My childhood disappointment was quickly creeping up on me and I started to think that I had made a mistake in bringing out the kite. I passed the reel over to another girl. At this point a small crowd had gathered. We took the kite out to the road and the girls tried it out. Again, nothing, but the anticipation was growing and growing. More kids came running out of the fale’s and with every attempt to get the kite up in the air, shrieks of laughter could be heard. And then, magic: the kite took flight and the cheers could be heard throughout the village. A small army of little kids laughed and yelled as they ran to chase the kite, throwing rocks high into the air and jumping as if to touch it! Every face was plastered with large, pure smiles, including mine. I heard Mary Poppin’s voice creep into my head and started to sign. The kids around me asked me to sing the song again and again until they learned it too. At this moment I realized what it was to fly a kite, and I felt my heart smile. Not until Samoa did I know what this phrase meant, but three times in the past week I have felt it. The first was receiving a phone call from my nephew Jonah in which he promised to send me a pirate ship filled with wash clothes, and encouraged me to keep an eye out for that tricky leprechaun who bears gold. Second was swimming in the ocean last weekend with all my friends and feeling like Samoa was finally home. And third was watching the kids laugh and play as they ran circles for hours chasing that kite. I will never forget the moment.

Monday, March 8, 2010

My Mystical Mornings

My morning routine has mild degrees of variation to it. Some aspects that influence these variations on a daily basis include questions I pose to myself such as: Do I wake up extra early to exercise or do I sleep in till 6:15 and rush to get ready? Do I take a warm bucket shower (which means taking an extra 15 minutes to get the water boiled) or do I settle for the startling yet rejuvenating cold shower (which is only truly satisfying after I have actually decided to exercise?) Hot cereal or cold? Coffee or tea? “The Definition of Chill” play-list to ease into the day or the “Dance too much booty in your pants” play-list to just jump right in? These decisions are made at random stages throughout the night and early morning hours, but the one aspect of my routine that is never debated is the half-mile walk to school.
This 10-minute walk is something special. In a way, it defines village life for me thus far. Sometimes the mindless questions and sheer repetitiveness of the whole walk bug me, but for the most part I find it comforting, uplifting, and a true sign of being embraced by the village. I know that to avoid scrutiny from the other teachers I must leave my house no later than 7:12 to arrive at school on time. Even when I leave “on-time” I still manage to be late because the teachers set their clocks ahead 10 minutes as to not fall behind. I refuse and so I stroll in according to international time 5 minutes early every morning and according to Samoan teacher time 5 minutes late. I am not hassled too much about it as 7:30-8am is “morning devotional” period and I am not expected to lead these services.
So I enjoy my brisk walk, savoring the short period of time when the air is still cool and the sun not high enough to cause any serious sunburn yet. My multi-colored huge umbrella comes with me rain or shine to guarantee shade on my walk home which is another story altogether!
I step out of my house and am greeted by the rancid, moldy smell of pig manure, which has been freshly laid by the pigs early morning patrol past my house. If it rains the mess will be washed away in minutes but in the case of a dry spell the piles linger on along with their displeasing odor. I hope for rain for this reason along as I walk to school. Turning right I begin my walk and am greeted by the friendly call “malo Lasela!” from the men and women waiting at the thatch roofed bus stop on the corner. I call back “malo lava, manuia le aso ma manuia le malaga,” meaning “hello, have a nice day and a nice trip!” or ask the popular question, “O fea e ke alu oe?” meaning, “Where are you going?” It’s a ridiculous question because I know they are all going to town, but it’s still asked. As I continue up the road the women walking back from dropping their children at school greet me. Like I said, I am late so everyone else is either at school or on their way back from dropping children off. Without fail, every woman will ask, “alu aoga?” meaning, are you going to school. I say “ioe” (yes) and continue on my way. They call to me, “manuia le aso uso,” meaning have a nice day, sister. I respond likewise. Some will comment on my pulatasi and make fun of me for being skinny. I tell them not to worry, as I will be fat soon from all the pig I have been eating. We all laugh and go our separate ways.
Coming up the hill I pass high school students waiting for the bus. Then the house on the right where a 3 year old calls out “bye bye” to me and then her mother rushes out to give me banana’s for my morning tea. They are always ripe and delicious and way more than I can possibly eat! I give them out to the other teachers once I arrive at school, saving one or two for myself.
About 5 minutes from the school the 7:20-7:30 buses pass in order. First come the two green buses, followed by the pink “Queen Maggie” and lastly the white “Janes Beach Fale” bus. They flash their lights at me as they go by and I wave to the drivers. I do not know all their names yet, but I do know the faces and they know mine. This has proven to be quite useful when an out of service bus passes with only a handful of regulars riding and I get to hop on because the drivers recognize me.
As I reach the gate to the school I wave to the woman who runs the store across the street and greet the customers who are “kafao,” or hanging out, on the stoop. They all ask if I am going to school. I respond yes and keep moving. I take a breath and enter the school grounds as the sounds of Morning Prayer ring out. I chart my course: do I go directly across the field to my room and skip prayer or cut right towards the hall and sneak in quietly to the back of the large room where prayer is going on? More often than not I slip into prayer and am greeted by warm smiles from the other teachers and students. I am never the last teacher in as the 8th grade teacher is always late and that is reassuring to my own tardiness. I smile back, take a seat, and breathe a sign of relief. I have made it so far already. Let the day begin!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Reflections on School

Being a teacher is more work than I ever realized, but it is fun because of the kids. Every time I teach a lesson that they do not totally grasp I go back to my plans and try to figure out what went wrong. If I am successful I can usually find a way to represent the information in a way that the students will get it. And when they do, it’s like magic. It feels so good to see that moment of recognition when the idea just makes sense to them, and I always feel so proud knowing that I have successfully taught another concept.
That being said, school is not all about that spark of understanding. We as teachers learn a lot from our students as well as from each other. As a new teacher, my first month has been a valuable lesson in many areas, including classroom management, classroom presence, and lesson planning. It has also been a continued challenge to try to understand Samoan culture, or “The Samoan Factor” as we Peace Corps like to call things that just don’t make sense. For example, Samoa has initiated a compulsory education program requiring students between the ages of 6 and 14 to be at school. This is a great program, but it creates a huge challenge for the teachers who receive students as old as 14 who have never been to school before. The students are at a disadvantage because they are put directly into their age group level, not their school level, and the teachers are forced to teach to all levels of students. So while 98% of my 8th grade class is writing essays, the other 2% are tracing the alphabet and learning to write letters. It’s frustrating, but as a teacher I have to remember that it is not the students fault, and it is better that they come to school now then never. Even if all they learn by the end of the year is how to read numbers and write their names, at least they will have gained something.
More to the point of the Samoan Factor is the sheer amount of time that is required for even the most minimal task. The first week of school in America is a time to review from the past year and assess the students’ levels. Here, day one was spent as a cleanup day, where the few students who were unlucky enough to show up were forced to sweep the rooms, rearrange furniture, cut the grass, and wash the walls and windows. Day two, school was cancelled and all teachers in my district reported to a district meeting, something that in America would have been help prior to the first day of school. The third day was scheduling day, so we each made timetables of when we would teach. These tables proved pointless because they were really for me to map when I would lead my English classes, but all of the teachers scheduled English at the same time, so in the end I just follow the schedule I made and they accommodate. The fourth day some more students showed up and books were distributed. Then Friday students were asked to do more cleaning. So it wasn’t really till week two that classes began, and for me that simply meant the start of my observation period.
Week two flew by and by week three I began teaching 6th and 7th grade on my own (a multi-grade classroom), and assisting with years 5 and 8. Week four was much of the same, and then Monday morning of week five we had a surprise: a new teacher had come to teach year 6! Morning tea is held around 10:30 every morning and it’s meant to be just a half hour, but with our new teacher we had to say our welcomes and then the best part, the teachers fought over whom he would live with. It turns out he is an Apia boy and therefore has no family in our village. So, Samoan Factor, he showed up to his new job with no idea where he would be living for the next year. The fact that the teachers took 2 hours to fight over who would get him shows how this is not a “problem” but rather just how things are done. Everyone wanted to host the new guy! I love that about this country. There will never be a starving or homeless Samoan because the culture just will not allow it. It’s a beautiful thing.
So here we are in the middle of week 5. Next week we give the first round of assessments and I am looking forward to seeing where my students stand. I have been giving homework and the marks have been steadily increasing since the first assignment, so hopefully that will continue through the assessment week. Then I plan to start my co-teaching work with the other teachers, and hopefully will begin working with year 5 on a school garden. I am so excited for the garden, but I do not want to start before raining season is over, or the new plants will drown before they get a chance to take root. It’s an exciting time and I can’t wait to see how the rest of the year goes. Well it is time for me to go open the door for my homework center. Till next time, enjoy the reading!

Cheese Never Fails

Will I ever get dive certified? My quest to be a Scuba Diver started years ago while studying abroad in Barbados. I completed the first few dives and was on my second to last dive of the program when things went wrong. The pain I felt that afternoon as I ascended (I was done with the dive!) was something I hope to never experience again. They call it a reverse squeeze and it happens very rarely, but when it does, the pain is excruciating. Needless to say I was deterred from completing the course after the experience. In hindsight, it was ridiculous not to, but four years later I find myself attempting the certification once again and facing all kinds of problems. Thankfully they are not ear related, but it just feels like the underwater environment does not want me certified to explore it!
The last weekend of January, six of us gathered on a Thursday morning to begin our course. Since this was the last weekend before school began we wanted to do a crash course and get certified before our lives became extra busy. Dana, Chris, and AJ live too far from the dive shop so they camped out on my floor for a few nights. We should have known that our group was doomed from the start. The weekend before, the river behind my house had run – something that happens but once a year – so in other words, the weather was bad. There was a cyclone warning, and the sea was rough. We began our paper work but due to poor visibility under water couldn’t do anything else. Friday we did our “closed water” portion of the dive, learning and reviewing all of the necessary skills. Unfortunately the diving ended there, as the next morning the water was still too mucky to see. So we all agreed to come back another weekend to continue the course.
A full month later the crew once again gathered on my floor in preparation for the next mornings’ dive. We made a fantastic taco dinner and then bloated and eager to dive passed out around 9pm, anticipating a 6am wake up for the dive. At 2am we received the first of many calls: There has been a huge earthquake in Chili, tsunami warning is in full effect for the Pacific Islands, get to higher ground before 7am! So much for dive attempt number two! We tried to sleep but were awoken all through the night with text updates, phone calls from the country directors, and from concerned family back home. My brother advised me to go somewhere high and bring my camera! Luckily I live far enough inland that evacuation was not a concern of mine, so I continued my night of pieced together sleeping. I did have some incredible dreams about shark infested tsunami waves and other such horrors that are only cool when they aren’t reality.
In the morning we made omelets and plotted our next move: do we wait it out and try to dive in the afternoon? Will the buses be running since the ferry is not? Should we watch The Wire? We opted out of diving since the water would be too murky, even after the all clear was given around 11am, and watched an episode of The Wire (an amazing show for anyone who has not yet seen it!) Dana was able to catch a bus back to her village, and Chris, AJ, and myself caught a bus in the other direction to meet the new US Ambassador and a host of other Peace Corps for dinner! So the lesson learned is that although diving may not ever happen, good friends and a good dinner will always ease the pain. I am writing this on a Tuesday afternoon and just this morning I scheduled a dive (attempt) for Saturday. The plan is to make grilled cheese sandwiches Friday night, guaranteeing that if all else fails, at least we will have cheese. And cheese never fails.

...note: it's sunday, the dive was cancelled due to "High Winds." I am cursed!