Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Diagnosing the Problem

Yesterday I walked home from school feeling exhausted. I felt the sense of accomplishment that usually accompanies pure exhaustion when suddenly it hit me: what had I actually accomplished? I had walked to school late, leaving my house when the morning assembly usually begins. Upon arriving at school I had not attended the assembly. Instead, I had opened up the staff room, turned on the copier, and put on my glasses, prepping myself for the day of photocopying at hand. It is exam week and so naturally on the first day of the exams, all of the teachers run to me to ask me to copy their exams that they had created over the weekend. I have been encouraging them to learn to use the copier themselves and type their own exams since it will be upon them when I am gone next year, but I make exceptions for exams week, knowing that they are all very busy preparing tests for five subjects, where as I am done after making my two for English and Reading. In anticipation for this, I had prepared my English Exam last week, knowing I would be swamped with requests to type, copy, and staple this week.

I began my copies and all was well. Then, tragedy struck: a teacher brought me her exam to type, and the computer would not turn on! Walking home later in my exhaustion, I thought back on the day of mindless copying and computer failure. To the best of my abilities, I had tried to figure out what was wrong, but in the end, I had made only the most basic of diagnoses: that something was most definitely wrong! I caught myself feeling accomplished and laughed out loud at the absurdity of it all. Today, the computer people will be called and we will try to work this out over the phone. Tomorrow, hopefully we can all get back to our normal routine of typing and printing, just in time for the final exams.

Making Paper

I remember making recycled paper when I was a kid. I did not remember how much preparation is involved and how messy it can be! I guess those are the things you learn as you move from the role of the child to the role of the adult. In anticipation for “Earth Week 2011” (to be held next week, just a few months past the official date), I have been creating Earth friendly lessons. Lessons to be taught include the importance of recycling, the harms of pollution, and how we can all pitch in to help keep Samoa, and the world, beautiful.

Although I am still a new teacher, I learned a very important lesson from my “No Bake Cookie” lesson a few months back: that is, do not attempt a project in the classroom you have not already rehearsed at home! So yesterday was the trial run for paper making.

Pisi, my next-door neighbor and one of the top students in the school, came over to assist. Every day for the past week she had been coming over to ask if we would be making paper today, but due to rain, lack of running water, and lack of supplies, the much-anticipated trial did not take place until yesterday.

Last week at school I had doen a major clean up, and instead of throwing out my paper, I ripped it into small shreds and through it all into a bag. Yesterday, I took out the blender that has been acquiring dust below my sink and we began the process. I had Pisi pick some flowers to incorporate into our paper, and then we each took turns dipping the wood-framed molds into the pulpy mixture. The color was a light blue, and we carefully inlaid pink flowers to give our stationary a nice look. As mentioned before, the paper was surprisingly messy to make, but the overall steps were easy.

One on one the process was smooth, but in a class of 30 students it might get a bit out of control. Luckily I will have Arianna’s helping hands, as well as the teachers of the school, so divided into small groups, I think the project will be a great success! More on Earth Week to come next week.

Cup of Noodles

When I was twelve I went to sleep-away camp for the first time and was introduced to another first: the wonder that is the “Cup of Noodles.” I had never had these three minute noodles before and I soon learned that they were the best late night snack and quick meal replacement. All you need is hot water (sink water worked in our case back then) and three minutes. Fork and seasoning come included! My bunkmates were obsessed with the noodles and I remember one girl having her mom ship up a Costo sized crate of them, ideally to last her all summer. Thinking back on those camp days, I wonder how any of us could ever have opted for the Cup of Noodle meal when the camp had employed some of the best chefs in the state of Maine (ok, that may be an exaggeration, but our camp food was real good, borderline great for cafeteria style cooking…I mean, there was a vat of marshmallow fluff present at every meal!)

Comparing those Maine Teen Camp days to life in Samoa, I envy those kids whom this very day are eating French-toast by the plate full and Spaghetti Bolognese fit for a king, while I attend a staff meeting and am served a Cup of Noodles. My dinner for the past three nights has been some form of quick noodle. I was recently introduced to a form of the noodle that cooks in three minutes and then you drain it and mix in the seasonings. It feels real classy. I bet the sodium levels are off the roof, so it’s a good thing I can’t read Chinese! I wonder if the kids at camp are still requesting boxes of the noodles from their loving parents, or if that fad has passed and they have finally learned that in the end, nothing beats a real, homecooked meal.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Serenaded at Sunset

I boarded the bus back to my village around 5pm and took my normal seat towards the front of the bus. The front is usually reserved for older men and women, handicapped people, pregnant women, and foreigners. I always feel a little guilty sitting up there and am quick to move if someone gets on and needs my seat, but I always start off trying for one, since I am typically one of the first passengers to exit the bus and it is a hassle to try to pass 40 other people through the isles! The ferry was docking and I knew we still had 5 or 10 minutes before the mad dash began for the boat passengers to exit the ferry and grab a seat on their respective buses. For some reason the bus drivers are not very patient. When the bus seems full (enough), they take off with heavy feet in the direction of their final destinations. Any delays exiting the ferry and one is likely to miss their bus.

A handful of other passengers had already boarded the bus and were going through the pre-departure routine of buying keke pua’a, “chips tala,” popcorn, and donuts from the child vendors meandering through the packed bus lot. I bought myself a bag of popcorn and sat back to enjoy one of my favorite pastimes: people watching.

In the front set of our bus, a man sat with a megaphone, a ukulele, and dark glasses on. I quickly realized he was blind, and then it struck me: he was the same singer that plays at the wharf on Upolu! Many times I had listened to his music while waiting for the ferry to depart, and as it turned out, today I was in luck, for he soon picked up his megaphone and announced that he would be playing music during the bus trip!

The bus loaded and we were off. As promised, the man soon picked up his ukulele and began to play. I could hardly contain my smile as we made our way up the coast listening to his mellow vocals and soft ukulele. I tipped down my sunglasses, leaned back and closed my eyes, almost on the verge of tears from the beauty of it all: Of the music, of my surroundings, of life in Samoa, and of the fact that four more months still awaited me, ready to surprise me at any moment, just like today had. And then the moment was shattered. Some young Samoan, in their need to play DJ, took out their cell phone, turned the speakers on, and started blaring that same, maddening synthesized music that you hear everywhere. To my disbelief, NO ONE SAID ANYTHING! I turned and gave my meanest stare but that wasn’t enough. This rude, ignorant teen (wow, I feel old!) kept his music on, challenging that of the singer. I leaned my head closer to the music coming from the front of the bus, straining my ears to catch the music, but the moment had passed, and I could not get back to the serenity from which I had came. I felt tension and anger building within me at the situation, and on the verge of yelling, I did the next best thing: took out my headphones and tuned out the battling musicians with some Phish. My BOSE headphones did the trick, and soon I was floating in a haze of memories from concerts past and daydreaming of future shows yet to come.

At one point, I curiously removed an earbud to check on the progression of the musicians’ battle. To my pleasure, my guy had won, and the bus was once again driving to his tranquil tunes. I smiled, but not quite ready to leave my newfound peace, I replaced the earbud in my ear and turned to face the rushing trees as the bus danced on through the jungle at sunset, towards home.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Fake Flowers, Farewell to the Chief

Funeral flowers

Growing up I had a friend whose mother owned a flower arranging business. I distinctly remember her preaching the superiority of fake flowers to the real thing, trying earnestly to convince me that while real flowers will die, the fake ones will last a lifetime. And with a little perfume, the fake ones can smell just as good or even better than those living beauties! As it turns out, Samoans are on her side.

Dressed in my best Sunday Whites and arms loaded with a large ring of fake purple and white flowers (ideal for the death of a man I have been told), I walked down the dirt road towards the church. The service was set to begin at 11am so Mina and I took a slow pace under her umbrella, leaving my house at 10:30. Of course we shouldn’t have bothered, as were we by far the first guests to arrive; the next coming almost an hour and a half later, just before the service began at noon.

When the train of cars finally pulled up to the front of the church, we joined the passengers and gathered at the churches entrance. Then, almost in wedding formation, the casket was carried down the center aisle to the front of the church, followed next by the congregation, then family, and last, those of us bearing flowers to drape around the table and casket. I was the last one in, not completely sure of my role in the progression. When I finally reached the front, I placed my flowers next to another beautiful ring make of blue and yellow. Avagas’ sister grabbed my arm and insisted I sit next to her in the front row. And like that, I knew I was family.

It was an emotional service and I understood more than I expected to. The choir had practiced some new songs for the event and they sang with strength I had never heard from them before. It was gorgeous. After a bible reading and some words from the pastor, Avagas’ sister took to the podium and weepingly read her speech. A matai followed, and then I was next. I had prepared a paper with what I intended to say and I had resolved that I would hold it together, but alas, emotion is a powerful thing, and my voice cracked as I began my first words. This being my first eulogy, I had not anticipated the rush of emotion that hit me. I spoke in English, starting with an apology in Samoan to those who would not understand my words. As my part finished I took my seat, trembling, and Avagas’ sister put her arm around me: “You miss your father, don’t you?” I smiled and replied, “ioe” (yes).

The pastor, also a dear friend of Avagas’, told many stories, amusing the audience with his perception of Avaga: “A Jack-of-all-trades, and a master of none.” Amongst his stories, he told one of my favorite stories about Avaga and I, where Avaga had given me his last-name. The congregation let loose in laughter, and my tears dried up as my fond memories overtook the sadness.

Following the service we went to Avagas’ house where a cement tomb had been build and Avaga was placed into the ground. Removed from the casket, he lay wrapped in blankets, and he looked at peace. Our flowers surrounded the tomb, and songs of farewell were sung. Then we loaded into cars and travelled to the family home where gifts were presented and food was served. It was a day of great sadness, but the love this village had for Avaga shown through and it will remain with me as a beautiful memory of a great friend.

Where AM I?

Have you ever woken up to horses in your back yard? Or cows? Or pigs? If you said yes, then you probably live on a farm somewhere and that is understandable. BUT I DO NOT LIVE ON A FARM! For the past few weeks, I have been surprised to awake to all sorts of animals meandering in weeds between my house and the dried up river. The cows are the most frequent visitors, and I know they are just coming from across the river where their pasture lies. And the pigs are the Samoan equivalents of deer–they are pesky, intrusive and eat up your garden! But the horses have been a mystery. They showed up a few weeks back tied to a tree and hanging out in the dried riverbed. I figured their owner had just gone to work with the cows or something and had left them there for the day, but the next day, the horses had been moved closer to my house, and were now tied to root stubs of old trees in the weedy area. I was surprised, but didn’t think much of it. Small mysteries like this you come to tolerate pretty quickly living in Samoa. However, the third day I felt like I was in that scene from The Shining where the twin girls are in the hallway and they keep getting closer and closer….for the horses were waiting next to my water tank when I woke up! I was so startled I almost dropped my coffee (luckily, I held tight to my Speeder’s blend morning bliss). The horses hung out for a few days, and then just as they had arrived, they were gone.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Tofa Mai Feleni

You can’t say goodbye to someone once they have died. You can only reflect on the moments in life you shared together and through memories, the deceased may live on. Friday I learned that a very dear friend had passed away, and so this blog is dedicated to his memory. Avaga, Ava, my friend, mentor, father – you will be missed.

Upon arriving in my village, I was greeted by a small welcoming committee of matai (chiefs) from the village. Ava was among them. The first words I received we’re a somewhat grumbled, and disappointed “oh, we thought you would be a man. At least you are a pretty girl!” I awkwardly entered my future house filled with these men and in broken Samoan and English went through the still unfamiliar Ava ceremony. I was too nervous and too new to the language to understand what was said, but later on, Avaga explained it all to me. His words had been words of welcome, and within them, he had declared me a daughter of the village.

As time went on the village, I had many ups and downs with Ava. People joked that he was looking for a new wife and he had decided that I was to be the one. The fact that he was 60 years older than me just made them love the idea even more, and although I knew they were joking, it definitely grossed me out! After a few months, it got really old to be asked, “Where is your husband tonight?” Yet I persevered and went along with the joke. On Friday when I heard of his death, I had to crack a joke and say, “I guess we never will get married after all,” to which the teachers let out a collective, hearty laugh. But then one of the teachers said something that really moved me, and I don’t know why I didn’t see it all along. She told me that although we always joked, Ava really considered me the daughter he had never had, and he referred to me as such within the village. I was moved to tears – the first of many over the next few days.

Ava was instrumental in my understanding of village life and culture. We spent many afternoons discussing anthropology and sociology, two of his favorite topics. He is the one who gave me the history of the village in a “family tree” style that I am still trying to figure out. When I moved in, he installed my laundry lines, and when I showed up to church with no church hat, he brought me one his niece had sent from Tonga to make sure I never again showed up without a hat. I made the mistake of not wearing it one week and every woman asked me what had happened. I had figured it was just a fashion statement, but it turns out, that hat means a lot more than style. I have worn it every week since.

The last time I saw Ava was on the ferry a few weeks ago. He was returning from a failed operation in New Zealand but insisted that somehow he had been cured through Chinese medicines. He promised to stop by for coffee sometime soon, but unfortunately, that opportunity never arose. I will miss him greatly, for although our relationship was short in the scheme of life, it was intense and beautiful. The village is in morning, and the roads have been lined with palm leaves in preparation for the funeral procession Friday. Tofa mai felelni, Avaga.