Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Life Lessons from the Third World

1. Do not leave home without an umbrella. You never know when it will rain, and even if it doesn’t, you will need the umbrella for protection from the sun, and from wild dogs that might chose to chase you.

2. Always shake out your bath towel before using it. Creepy critters have a tendency to make your comfortable towel their comfortable home. The less you expect to see them, the more they will creep you out. So be prepared for everything, especially while in the shower!
3. Never eat an egg without doing the float test. It really is not worth it.

4. Learn how to say hello and goodbye, please and thank you, in the country where you live. Smile and use these phrases often. People might not understand what you are saying or why you are smiling, but they will appreciate your good nature and will make you feel at home.

5. Be patient! Even if you cannot find a quiet place or time, ever, create a mantra to chant and use it when you feel like your head is going to explode!

6. Bring a Michael Jackson DVD with you where ever you may travel. People love it. Anything 80’s works too: ABBA, Queen, Whitney Houston, etc.

7. Don’t be afraid to dance. Most likely, people will just think you are weird and try to teach you to dance properly, but just keep on moving. They will love it and you.

8. Invest in something called a “sleeping bag liner” which you can get from Eastern Mountain Sports, or any outdoors store. It is seriously the best thing I have ever owned/traveled with. Not only is it light and perfect for hot nights, but it is similar to a sleeping bag, meaning creepy insects aren’t going to find their way through the crevices of your bed sheets to surprise you at night.

9. Speaking of sleeping, do not use a mosquito net, unless you are living in a room infested with mosquitoes. They provide a service of keeping insects out, until their role reverses and they actually start keeping insects in! In my mosquito net days I had quite a few nights where one pesky mosquito would find itself trapped in my net and I could not locate it. Waking up to bites all night because the mosquito has YOU trapped is no fun. Similarly, I have heard horror tales from other PCV’s that have woken to find giant centipedes in their beds with them and in their fright, tore down their mosquito net, trapping themselves with the nasty centipede under layers of twisted fabric.

10. Floss. It is fun and hygienic and a great time killer. You can do it while watching movies, listening to music, or just contemplating the meaning of life. Flosssum – when one has an awesome time flossing, the term given to the situation is “a flossum good time!”

11. Eating with your hands is great. It saves on dishes and coordination. I have enjoyed it since I was a kid and I am happy to find myself once again in a country that does it. A little advice though: chose one hand to eat with and keep it clean at all times. Your right hand is probably best because in some cultures it is considered very dirty to eat with your left. Keep your left hand free to do things like pet stray dogs, scratch an itch, or kill a mosquito. Make sure you don’t confuse your clean hand with your dirty hand and you will be okay. Confuse them, and you will have some nasty stomach bugs.

12. Don’t go anywhere without a book. As my sister Melissa told me before I headed off to Nepal, a good book and a glass of red wine is all the company you need when traveling on your own. While I wouldn’t suggest bringing wine with you everywhere you go, the book alone works and is great when you have a meeting scheduled for 2pm that no ones shows up for till 3:30pm.

13. It’s good to bring tissues in your purse. Toilet paper is not a guaranteed luxury.

14. A few ants on a dish will not kill a meal. As my dad use to say, “extra protein!” Try to avoid eating bugs, but if you find one in your mouth, sometimes it’s just better to close your eyes, take a big gulp, and then forget that it ever happened. Otherwise, you will be freaking out for a few minutes when you really should just be moving on with your day.

15. Don’t be afraid to try new foods. The key word is “try.” You can’t live an adventure unless you are open to new things, and that extends to food. But just like with any other situation, if you didn’t like it the first time, you don’t have to try it again! However, chances are the new foods that you despised at first will grow on you. I never thought I would look forward to eating boiled green bananas – a food that tastes like pure starch mixed with cardboard – but the texture and lack of flavor has grown on me. I usually eat just one or two, but tonight I actually ate three for dinner! I can proudly claim to have tried some strange foods in my life because of my lack of fear for the unknown, and my stomach of steal: Japan offered raw horse, whale blubber (don’t hate me for trying it!), and every kind of fish under the sun. In Nepal, my largest digestive feat was mutton intestines (it helps when you don’t know what your eating at the time – I actually had seconds of those!). And here in Samoa, I tried sea cucumber, something I will never try again.

I hope this list gives you a few good things to ponder over for the next few days. My week in school is quickly wrapping up being that it is already Wednesday and I have big plans of putting on a mini play with my students this coming Friday. I am excited to see how that goes. Till next time, fa soifua!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Soupy Sunday

Friday I was given a bag of beef. Dana and I had just returned home from the dive when one of my co-teachers called me, asking if she could stop by. I was exhausted but invited her over for a bit, and when she arrived she presented me with a grocery bag filled with meat. She recently graduated from the Samoan Teachers College and to celebrate, her parents had bought a box of frozen corned beef to be given to all the teachers at our school. I did not know it was corned beef at the time. They also gave us money. This has been one area of Samoan culture that has been hard for me to navigate. I feel like I am handed seemingly large presents and I do not know the proper way to reciprocate, if at all. The first time I was handed a slab of meat I was overwhelmed with culture shock, but I am gradually coming to accept this form of gift as normal.

I went to the dive shop and as luck would have it, a young couple from the Czech Republic is currently taking their dive masters course. I presented my scenario to them and revealed my secret: as much as I love food and cooking, I have never actually handled a large portion of meat. I was at a loss for what to do with it all before it went bad! I had turned to the right people. In five minutes, they had described to me how to make a Bulgarian Goulash, which they guaranteed I would love. The description went something like this: “Take a lot of onions. Put them in a pan until they are beautiful and yellow. Add tons of paprika. Then put in the beef. Cook for a long time. Add water with flour. Make sure its not, how you say, chunky. Add more paprika. You will love it.” I followed their “recipe” to a T and two hours later had made my first ever Bulgarian Goulash. I was very proud. I went to try it and only then did I discover I had been working with corned beef, not regular meat. As a result, the recipe was about 50 times saltier than I would have liked, but I knew my neighbor, who loves salt, would enjoy the soup. I loaded my salty creation into a bowl and brought it over at dinnertime. Wouldn’t you know, she had made beef stew for dinner, too! I gave her a hefty portion of mine and took a nice portion of hers for me. We ate each other’s soups and were both pleased. I was happy to have unsalted beef, and she was happy to eat up the salt. Lesson learned, check my meat before making goulash in the future. And make sure Mina has some food prepared for when my creations go wrong.

Unda da sea!

“If your looking for me, you better check under the sea, cause that is where you’ll find me, underneath the seeeealab, underneath the water, seeeeealab, in the bottom of the sea.” Three months and four dive attempts later, I can finally say that I am a PADI certified open water diver! My cursed luck finally came to a close this weekend when Dana, Ali, Supy, and I loaded up the dive boat for the first time since January and took off for our final two days of diving. Of course, nothing could go perfectly smooth for our group and as our boat revved its engines; a storm blew in sprinkling us with water. “So you get a little wet before getting wet” said our amazing French dive instructor, Fabian. No problem.

The main purpose of these four dives, aside from having fun, was to review skills we had learned in our shallow water dive back in January. We played with our buoyancy, practiced breathing through alternative air sources, took off our masks underwater and put them back on, learned how to relieve a cramp underwater, and practiced emergency ascents. I felt like a spaceman floating through air. It was a very cool sensation. The coral where we dove was not as beautiful as the stuff I remember seeing in Barbados, but there was a nice array of fish. We saw a few angelfish, a lionfish, some trumpet fish, tons of tiny iridescent blue fish, and the highlight of the dive, a big barracuda. I am happy to say that I can now officially dive anywhere in the world. How exciting!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

I'm only happy when it rains...

Wednesdays have become my favorite day of the week. For one, its “hump day” but not in the sense you might be thinking. It’s that hurdle that gets you past the beginning of the week and sends you off towards the weekend: the hump in the middle of the week. With my teaching schedule so light on Fridays, I view Wednesdays as my workplace Thursday. The downfall of Wednesday in school is that our District Inspector has declared Wednesdays “anaponi,” meaning a fasting day. Instead of breaking at 10:30 for morning tea we teach right until noon, when the school gathers for a special prayer and then breaks the fast. I typically just east a big breakfast before coming to school and then pretend that I did not (aka I complain with the rest of the teachers all morning about being hungry) but today I forgot to eat. It was painful.

Speaking of food though, Wednesdays outside of class treats me well. I have fallen into the routine of making tortillas Wednesday nights. Normally I start around 5 and have a pile of 16 fresh tortillas made by 6:30, just in time for dinner. I keep them in the fridge and they serve as my bread for the week. During Passover I modified my routine and by leaving out the baking soda and oil, I made matzo! It was delicious. Tonight however my tortilla plans were foiled when I went to the fale’aloa and was told that they were out of flour. What a bummer. I opted for left over spaghetti with butter and cheese and then realized I have no microwave. That’s when I created my incredible “bootleg-double-boiler-microwave.” I took two handfuls of pasta from the fridge (yes, handfuls is a proper measurement because I literally used my hands), and put them in a loose bowl I made out of tin foil. I boiled a pot of hot water and then floated the boat of tin foil and pasta on top of the water, covering the pot with a lid to get the full steam effect. And what would you know - it worked! My pasta came out steaming hot and tasting like I had boiled up a new batch. Great success! I am excited to see what else I can use my “bootleg-double-boiler-microwave” for. Popcorn? Chocolate? Cake? I hope so!

In other news, if April showers bring May flowers, then Samoa is going to be overflowing with beauty pretty soon! It has been raining non-stop for the past 4 days now. I guess my prophecy is proving true being that I planned another dive attempt for this weekend. Lets hope that the rain lets up, and if not, at least maybe the water will still be clear enough to dive in. I can’t wait to get down there and see the underwater world!

This unexpected burst of rain has had some unforeseen consequences. For one, I put my laundry off too long and now I have no clean pulatasi’s to wear to school. As a result, today, for the first time in my teaching career, I did not wear a ‘tasi. And believe it or not, life went on as normal. My credibility as a teacher was not doubted, and I made it through the day. Another fashion first was wearing a long sleeve shirt because “I was cold” in Samoa! I never thought I would say that, and I am writing it here so that a month from now I can savor the memory (and believe it actually happened!) Actually, the one great thing about all this rain has been the dramatic drop in temperature. Last night I had to sleep with a sheet and I did not turn my fan on at all. This is big news to anyone who has been to Samoa.

So that’s the story for today. I started on a list of random facts and knowledge I have acquired while here. Maybe I will put that up tomorrow. No promises though. Goodnight all!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Passover 2010: an epic novel


The exodus from my village began Sunday morning after an over the top to’ona’i and Ava ceremony celebrating Palm Sunday. At a to’ona’i meal, people are served their own woven tray with food piled atop a banana leaf. On a typical Sunday there will be a plate of pig, plate of raw corned beef, a piece of taro and a piece of breadfruit. However, to celebrate Palm Sunday, our plates were loaded high and dishes were placed all around us because the food could not fit on the woven tray! I was presented with three full fish, a bowl of chicken soup, oka (raw fish marinated in coconut cream with tomatoes and cucumbers), pisupo (raw corned beef), tamu (giant taro), breadfruit, and of course the staple, pig. I feasted for a good half hour but was unable to make even a dent in the large proportion they had provided me. Saying my thanks I excused myself from the circle, as I had Passover plans in mind and needed to catch the bus to town between 11 and 12. I was sent home with a basket of food: 2 cans of corned beef, 2 tropical blue fish, and the leg of a pig, all piled into a woven basket. I shoved the pig into my fridge, put the corned beef aside to give as gifts when visiting peoples’ homes in the future, and sent the fish across the street to Mina, who always makes dinner for me. I figured there was no way I could fit all this food into my fridge and I certainly wasn’t planning to bring it to Passover with me!


Racing outside to the sound of the bus passing was the first of many trials along the way. I ran to the store and asked Manuia, the clerk, if he knew of any more buses passing by. He said, “oh yes, soon.” I should have known he was giving me the “Samoan Yes,” which doesn’t mean yes at all but is meant to please an inquiring soul. From 11:30 till 12 I waited at the store, hoping a bus would come. Around 12:30 I determined I would hitch a ride since clearly no more buses were coming. From 12:30 till 2:30 I waited for any passing car to take me. Five cars passed in that entire stretch of time, 3 of which were from my village and were not going to town. The other 2 were just rude and passed right by without stopping. So around 2:30 I gave in and called a cab. I didn’t want to pay the 40 tala it would cost but I knew I had to get out of the village, and my friends were coming in on the ferry. I had no choice; I had to get to town. By 3:00 I was on my way to Lucia’s Resort in a brand new taxi, and by 3:45 I was sitting by the water sipping a beer with other Peace Corps. My 3-hour wait could have been forty years. Symbolically, perhaps, it was.


First, a shout out to those who experienced Passover 2010: Fa’asamoa style. To my Peace Corps sister Lili, thank you so much for hosting this spectacular event. Next year, may we do it again in the land of Lili! And to my other Peace Corps sister Elisa, your energy, especially in the Passover rap, will never be forgotten, I am so glad you made it! To our new friends Haile and Ethan, USP students from the states reminding us of our college years, you guys were so much fun and are definitely “uo” status. Where would our matzo or kugel have been without you guys? Lastly, to random Nate, our Christian rep, your Jewish accent and delicious applesauce are always welcome! On to the story:

The plan was to gather at Lili’s house and create our Passover feast before sunset. The menu was set and all we had to do was pick up some last minute supplies before hoping a bus to Lili’s village: Cinnamon, wine, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Simple enough you would think, yet things are never simple when you live on a small island. It was Monday so at least the stores were open. We found the potatoes, onions, cucumbers, and tomatoes at the market, then around 2pm Haile, Nate, and myself left the Peace Corps office at the bottom of the road and proceeded to walk a mile to Frankies Supermarket at the top of the road. We knew they sold box-o wine and had a feeling they would have cinnamon for us. We were so mistaken. We arrived at Frankies totally dehydrated from the mid afternoon sun, and questioning why we ever thought it would be a good idea to walk. My apologies there to Nate and Haile: I keep telling myself it’s a good idea to walk instead of taking cabs but I think I have finally learnt my lesson.

We beeline it to the wine cabinet and are pleased to find one box of wine left. What’s better is it is expired so chances are high that we will get it for cheaper than the listed price! We scout the store for cinnamon but are out of luck, the only spices to be found are salt and pepper. We decide the kugel and applesauce will have to do without and each grabbing a juice box to quench our thirst as we proceed to the check out line. Pleased with out find we announce our expired wine to the cashier and request a discount. The plan fails. They will not sell us expired wine. Totally at a loss for words we buy our juice boxes and leave the store without wine or cinnamon. We hop in a taxi and take it back to the store right next to the Peace Corps office that sells wines for cheap. We buy two reds and two whites (practically the entire stock) and then head to Le Waterfront for the most delicious hamburgers you can find in Savai’i. We enjoy our meals before heading back to the office to gather our supplies and wait for a bus. For the second time in two days the buses do not come. We wait all afternoon until finally we decide it would be best to take a cab. With five of us, it would only be 12 tala a person. So away we go in our taxi van, exhausted, hungry, and wondering what obstacles are still to come. The van had no windshield wipers, which was a bit scary when we hit a patch of rain, but other than that we reach Lili’s village with no trouble and the great cook off began.


There are no “international food isles” in supermarkets here in Samoa so we knew we were up for a challenge when we decided to make a traditional feast for Passover. Food to be prepared included matzo, matzo kugel, charoses, potato pancakes, applesauce for the pancakes, oka, hard-boiled eggs, bitter herbs, and a lamb shank. I found a horseradish condiment spread at a store in Apia so we were covered there. For bitter herbs, cabbage made due, and the matzo was surprisingly easy to make. We made as much as possible, taking advantage of the fact that Lili had an oven to cook it in. I can’t make matzo at my house. For the kugel we used our homemade matzo and added eggs and apples. Mixing coarsely chopped apples, pineapples, walnuts, honey, and a drop of red wine, we made the charoses.

The cooking began almost immediately upon arrival at Lili’s house. We all fell naturally into place around the dining room table peeling apples, chopping nuts, rolling out the matzo dough and grating potatoes and onions – by far the worst task of the evening. With snacks of pineapple, we plowed through the cooking tasks like pro chefs, proving that you can cook anything if you put your mind to it! We were only interrupted by one semi serious disaster when Ethan decided he should pop the blood blister that had been growing all day on his foot. Haile acted as doctor while Elisa filmed the event and I stayed out of the way, not eager to see this particular event. Let wine represent blood for me on Passover! Round after round of matzo went into the oven, with Lili’s Samoan brother monitoring the progress for us. The applesauce was the first thing ready and was delicious. Towards dinnertime we turned on the small frying pan and the larger George Forman type grill and began making our potato pancakes. We grilled up a piece of lamb bought from the store down the road from Lili’s house and pretty soon it was time to set the table.

Haile and I created the Seder plate and wrapped three pieces of matzo in tinfoil. A large round metal tray served as the Seder plate and we loaded it up with pretty glass bowls filled with cabbage, horseradish, charoses, an egg, and in the center a tall wine glass for Elijah. We then made individual plates for each member of our group, poured the wine, and started bringing the food to the table. Lili took out the Haggadah left to her from Max, a former PCV, and with Lili representing the “father role” we sat down to retell the story.


In true Passover style we passed the Haggadah around the table, taking turns reading the story. The Haggadah proved to be a bit ridiculous at parts and so we decided that judgment as to what to read and what to leave out should be determined by the reader of the moment. In this particular Haggadah, the aspect of “leaning to the left” while drinking wine was stressed, which was new to all of us, and by the fourth glass of wine we could hardly hold ourselves together from the laughter that each “lean” created.

I am proud to say that we preformed a solid retelling of the story, mixing the serious side of the story with the light hearted nature of Samoan life. From dipped herbs and eggs to a hidden afikomen (which I found!), every last bit was a success. We sang a broken version of Dienu and amazed ourselves that after so many years of singing the same song, we all still only know the chorus! We even had our fair share of plagues! Ethan’s blood blister clearly marked both blood and boils. Lili’s family has a running concern for Lili getting lice, so there is the lice aspect. The giant cockroaches found here can symbolize the locusts, fleas are found on almost all cats and dogs, unpredictable blackouts represent the darkness, serious rain the hail, and the lack of buses became symbolic of the long trip out of Egypt.

Halfway through the Seder we paused for the meal. I give so much credit to all who helped cook because it was so delicious! The prize for finding the afikomen was two pieces of candy from a care package Lili received from her friend. I carefully chose sour patch kids and a rice crispy treat. Lili, I love your friends!

We finished up the Seder with lots of laughs and ended up performing an impromptu rap of the song “It Happened At Midnight” with Haile as the lead and Elisa as percussion. It was ridiculously funny. I haven’t laughed as hard as I did that night in years and I know I will never forget this Passover. We realized that we were probably performing the last Seder of the first night being that chances were slim that anyone else in Samoa was hosting a Passover Seder and that was a cool realization. In short, it was unlike anything that has ever come before and I doubt anything like it will ever happen again, although a great standard has been set and next year, may we do it again in the land of Lili!