Monday, December 21, 2009

Farewell Manunu

The day had finally arrived when training was finally over and we were going to officially swear in as Peace Corps Volunteer. As usual, the night before we left, the village threw a fiafia (party,) and as one might expect, all the Americans provided the entertainment with Samoan song and dance. I mean, why wouldn't we? If I were to choose a group best suited to sing and dance without retraint or self-consciousness, I would definetely choose the Americans.

On the morning of our departure the village performed a formal farewell address, which included the presentation and gift of a wildebeest-sized pig, baskets of taro, fish, corned beef, etc. In return we gave them money and the pleasure of living without 20 culturally insensitive Americans and the inconvenience of having to serve them a *special diet 3 times a day.

In all seriousness, Manunu was the first village and the first family that birthed us into the Samoan culture and for that I am grateful. These past two months was truly a time of experiential learning. I will miss many things about Manunu but on the same token, many more adventures and other challenges lie ahead. So, farewell, Manunu. Thankyou for your patience and your love. It is now time for me to move forward and finally begin the work I set out to do in the first place.

*Special diet = vegetables. Vegetables are pretty much nonexistent in the Samoan diet.

'Culture Day' turns into 'Sports Day'

As a self-proclaimed artist, sports are not exactly an acitivity I relate to very well. Thus, with great pride I'd like to share my experience playing soft ball. Having never earnestly swung a bat, I hesitantly walked up to home plate to bat at a game with about 5 Americans and 20 Samoans, all whom have never played soft ball but are surprisingly good at it. I did consider not batting but that would have made me look weak, and even worse, un-American.

After two poor pitches, I hit the third ball far enough to run to second base. Conveniently, the ball headed towards second base just as I was closing in. As it was raining and I was not wearing shoes, I was unable to stop the momentum causing me to bruise my butt as I fell and slid several yards to safely reach second base. Ladies and Gentlemen, you have just read of Corina's first-ever slide-to-a-base. I felt like Jackie Robinson, but not really. Having always had an unhealthy fear of sliding, this unintentional experience made me feel a little more American and little closer to home.

Culture Day

This year, in lieu of Thanksgiving we had 'Culture Day.' The objective of 'culture day' was to live out a typical day as a Samoan. Essentially, it was a day of hard labor. Throughout 'culture day' we gathered food at the plantation, prepared the food, cooked it, served it to the Matais (chiefs,) watched them eat, and then ate the leftovers ourselves. Indeed, by the end of the day we were thankful for America and all it has to offer including its highest standard of convenience and shameless and unfettered indulgences. Thanksful we were.

My favorite part of the day was working at the plantation. Working at the plantatin is not just a chore or merely a way of life - it is a conglomeration of sustenance and tradition. Each family has one or more plantations in which they plant and gather coconuts, taro, breadfruit, and other such crops that make up the staple Samoan diet. The Samoan way of life has remained intact for thousands of years and Samoans still remain completely self-sufficient. Essentially, the plantation provides a family's entire sustenance.

For some, 'culture day' meant enduring the native way-of-life under the hot tropic sun. For me, it was a chance to carry a machete. n addition to carrying a machete, I chopped a fallen tree to retrieve fire wood, and cracked open coconut shells to retrieve the coconut shavings all with my trusted machete. While I did help to scrap taro and coconuts, weave baskets, carry fire wood, fan food as the matais ate, and slice and prepare chickens that looked all too much like chickens, anything that didn't involve me and my machete simply is not worth mentioning.

*I will add pictures once I get back to capital

Friday, December 18, 2009


Halloween was originally a planned celebration in Apia, the capital, with current Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) that might have included boos and blasphemy. Unfortunately, due to logistical difficulties of being in a rural village far from the capital, we were volunteered to not only stay in the village for Halloween but to also throw a party for the village children.

While initially disappointed at the chore, the Halloween party turned out to be quite entertaining. The party was designed to meet the expected scores of children by designating game stations including: limbo, musical chairs, mask painting, sack races, and the notorious three-legged race.

At one point, the entire village lost power and the room, which was filled to the brim with children, suddenly fell under complete darkness. The first thought that came to mind was that if a fire ever broke out, we would all be goners. Fortunately, no fire ever broke out. The brief electrical suspense instigated an impromptu storytime. Scores of children gathered at the center of the hall to listen and watch Dan (a former Peace Corps trainnee now Peace Corps Volunteer) as he improvised a story that lacked all the elements that comprise a story whether it be a motivating force or even a story for that matter. Surprisingly enough, the story was quite entertaining if not for the kids, at least for the trainees. He somehow incorporated all the PC trainees into the story and made it completely ubsurd and incomprehensible.

By 9 PM the party came to a close as it was bedtime for the village. Here in Samoa the day ends and begins quite early. I often wake up around 5:30 AM to run before the sun rises and scorches my pathetic pale skin. Conversely, I'm often in bed around 9 or 9:30 PM as there is very little to do. The wealthier families, or rather the families that put television watching high on their priority list are more likely to stay up later at night. The thought of what this list might look like simply titillates my under-amused cultured-shocked soul. This imaginery priority list might look something like:

1. 5 kg Taro
2. 7 kg of Banana
3. 4Chickens
4. 1 TV
5. 30 Coconuts
6. 1 bar of soap

I digress. Essentially, as most families do not have television sets and can barely afford the high cost of Pacific island electricity, bed time is quite early.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Welcoming FiaFia: Ostensibly, Guests Provide the Entertainment Here

Shortly after our arrival into our training village, Manunu's Women's committee put together a church-sponsored (party) to welcome our 2-month long presence in their village. It turns out that as guests we were 'strongly encouraged,' but really expected to perform, individually, in front of the entire village. As if it wasn't stressful enough in our first week of living with our host families in a culture diametrically different from our own, we were supposed to perform a dance...a Samoan dance. While news and gossip runs more rampant than the plague could even fathom here in Samoa, it's a wonder that we were never clearly informed on our duties as guests for the fiafia - most trainees had nothing prepared. Luckily for me, due to artistic curiosity, several nights before the fiafia, I had sought out a good native dancer to teach me Samoan dance. What I had practiced and what had actually took place during the fiafia night were two different matters.

Slathering on bright red lipstick to match my new red puletasi (traditional female Samoan attire worn on special occassions) I walked into the fiafia only to discover that they called up each person onto the stage to answer rudimentary questions - in Samoan - to then be followed by a solo Samoan dance performance. Mind you, we have lived in Samoa for a total of 2 weeks, one of which we spent in the city cooped up in a hotel. Samoan dance was not exactly at the forefront of everyone's mind and most certainly speaking Samoan was not exactly something we were adequately prepared to do.

My name was finally called and my host grandmother led me up to the podium. I whispered into the mic as the emcee asked me a number of questions about myself. As I did not have adequate skills to answer some of his questions, I'm pretty sure I responded with a "yes" to a question inquiring about what my family fed me that night. To be fair I was not yet equipped to answer that question; We haven't yet learned the past tense!

After a minute of complete and utter blur, I finally ended up on the dance floor to perform my own dazed rendition of Samoan dance. If you asked me what happened on the dance floor, I couldn't exactly recount the minutes as I believe my mind, which was maimed in the process, took part in a popular process called selective memory. Even to this day, I have no recollection of those fated minutes.

Here are some of the pictures captured that night. In one of the pictures you'll find my host sister and grandmother cheering on as I stumbled through my performance.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Special Interruption: My YouTube Debute

Dinners in Samoa: Unusual and Uncomfortable Nights

Samoans pride themsleves in how they treat their guests whether it be an offering of gifts or showing off their newest linens and utensils. For my first meal with my host family, I was seated in the front portion of the house away from where the rest of the family typically eats - in the back. I proceeded to eat my dinner while my host mother silently fanned my food and watched. As I felt quite uncomfortable eating in this fashion, I shoved my dinner down my throat as quickly as anatomically possible to cease this incredibly awkward moment. Furthermore, knowing that the rest of the family would not eat until I had finished, I almost induced acid reflex from all the stress of eating.

It wasn't until a week later, after having gotten to know my host family better was I insistent on eating with the rest of the family. In retrospect, this was perhaps one of the better decisions I had made thus far in training. I wasn't until then was I able to feel adequately integrated into the family.

A Comment on Samoan Culture
Samoans have a deeply ingrained hierarchy which rules each individual in each household and each village at large. On the familial level, the young adults tend to high-intensity household chores which include cooking and gathering talo (taro), popo (coconut) etc. Women typically weave, cook and attend to other household chores. On the other hand, Village elders, that hold matai (chief) titles, typically males, tend to familial disputes and village matters. As they lead rather sedentary lifestyles relative to their younger counterparts, these elders tend to be more of the buxom kind, satisfactorily agreeing with my own stereotypes of Polynesians, which, thankfully, is the one familiar aspect of Samoan culture I can cling to in my overstimulated and overworked brain.

Pictured above is a picture of a typical quantity of talo in a given meal feeding a family of 10.

Pictured above is the juxtaposition between what the family eats for lunch - pork and sauce - and what I eat - tuna sandwiches and ramen.

A Moment of Visual Stimulation

Below are several pictures of my home during training.

My Bed: My fabulous sleeping nook is located in the family's living room where about three other people sleep at night, including my sisters. Privacy is not a luxury that Samoans commonly enjoy. Houses are not compartmentalized - everything is shared and everything is known. If you like to esat rice, someone across the village will know. If you tripped and fell on a rock, people will know. If you defecated, they'll know.

The view from my bedroom window.

My grandmother's faleo'o (Small Samoan-styled house.)

My family's Samoan-styled kitchen.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Fam'

I was accosted off from the Ava ceremony*by my new, and very large, host mother. As my Samoan skills were elementary at best and were as useful as shock collars are to feral dogs, my host mother and I walked silently, and needless to say, awkwardly to our home across the malae (field) to a brightly painted green home. Thus began my excruciating birth in Samoan culture.

*A traditional Samoan ceremony conducted for special guests wherein there is usually an exchange of gifts and ava is ceremonially served.

Emerging from the Foray: A Look Back at Training

After 2 months of interminable training, all 20 of us have emerged from the foray that is training. With only a day left before we swear-in and become official Peace Corps Volunteers, I have been trying to wrap my head around what exactly has happened these past 8 weeks. Initially, I thought it would be best to describe everything as it had occurred in real time, accounting for all anecdotes in chronological order. However, to better encapsulate the experience it would be best to summarize a few memorable moments to illustrate it all in the most convenient and efficient manner.

The Training Village: Manunu
Manunu is perhaps the one ideal village in all of Samoa to hold training. Situated in the mountains (safely tucked away from Tsunami paranoia) between a Mormon village, which is home to the most spectacular waterfall I have ever seen, and another village which does not affect life in Manunu and really is not worth mentioning.

Manunu is designed so that the entire village, including its church (Congregational Christian Church of Samoa) encircles an enormous grass field where people, chickens, and dogs congregate throughout the day. With about a total of 30 households in all of Manunu, the village is small relative to other Samoan villages. While only about 350 people inhabit the village, you would be pleasantly surprised to discover that Manunu is anything but tranquil and untroubled. For example, within the first 2 weeks, the Matai council (a leadership committee present in all villages) nearly banished a young man from the village for disorderly, and most shockingly... drunken behavior. Furthermore, a week later at a family-sponsored fia fia (party) wherein young adults from surrounding villages were invited to attend, I was groped on the dance floor which initiated another Matai meeting the following morning. As the transgressor was not a resident of Manunu, the council decided to take the issue to the village council to find the culprit and have him banished from his respective village. In fact, upon closer inspection village life is anything but simple and placid. Indeed, we all conveniently learned through social faux paux and other rather entertaining blunders, as I have just detailed, that this was going to be no vacation.

Disclaimer: Admittedly, as an ethnocentric dunderhead, much of the accounts are, needles to say, partial based on the meager years of experience and mostly based on my unsophisticated intellectual palate.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Training Village: Manunu

(Reported on 10/17/09)
Manunu is a village located in the northeastern mountains of Upolu. Sandwiched between the tallest mountains on the island and a Mormon village containing a picturesque waterfall, Manunu is perhaps one of the most beautiful villages in Samoa.

The village's setup is unique in that all the fales (Samoan-styled houses) in the village as well as the village church encircles an enormous field. During the day, you will find the chickens and dogs roaming about, while during the late afternoon drones of children and young adults hang out and play rugby.

It is here, in Manunu, where I was birthed into Samoan culture. So far, it's been awkward, confusing, frustrating, but more importantly, it's been entirely too entertaining.

I will follow this up in two weeks with some fun and lengthly stories and pictures.

Peace Corps Training

Somewhere in my frantic and befuddled mind I had no idea, coming into the Peace Corps, that there would be a 2-month training period wherein if I failed to meet Peace Corps' expectations I would be sent home. Little did I know that I would receive numerous examinations assessing my competency and potential for success.

While the examinations are by no means difficult, the inconvenience of being constantly monitored compounded by helplessly integrating into an entirely different culture made things rather entertaining. That is why I, along with 19 other Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) were quite literally dropped off in a village, far up in the mountains of Upolu, to integrate into Samoan culture and train for our 2-year assignment.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Leaving for Manunu!

Much to my disappointment, I will NOT be blogging for the next four weeks. I will be be departing for a village in Manunu (located up in the mountains) to resume further training. Naturally, I will not have internet access and as such I will resume blogging mid-November, when I return to the city for two weeks.

Medical Separation 10/15/2009

A female PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) experienced a seizure while aboard the boat to our scuba dive. I remember the incident quite vividly so much to the extent that I wish I could expel it from my memory.

As we were making our way over to the reef, Amanda, who was just a few feet away from me on the bow, fell back onto the boat. Her sunglasses flew off and I immediately looked into her eyes - it was as if she had just seen ghost. While violently convulsing, all the surrounding people screamed out, "Help!" Her eyes glared into the bright sky and I couldn't help but stare into her eyes and think that this beautiful sky was perhaps the last image her mortal body would see. Fortunately, after some time, Amanda was able to come out of the seizure unscathed. However, the memory of her eyes seared into my brain and to this day I wish I could forget it.

Unfortunately, this past Monday she experienced another seizure. As she also experienced a condition similar to the stomach flu the first week in Samoa, this became grounds for a medical separation. Due to her untreatable ongoing medical condition and as well as the liability this imposes on the Peace Corps, Amanda will be returning to the US indefinitely to obtain a diagnosis.

Tsunami Aftermath

I've attached some photos of the Tsunami wreckage 2 weeks after the disaster. While a lot has been cleaned up, the lack of resources and labor has dramatically slowed down the recovery process. Also, if you look closely at the landscape you can see the water level at the time of the Tsunami by the brown colored soil.

Friday, October 16, 2009

"If you don't know what it is don't touch it": A Day of Marine Safety (Party II)

The Scuba Dive

It's ironic that as a Miami native, who has traveled to all sorts of tropical lands, I have never gone scuba diving. While the 23 of us boarded a resort boat, Shilo II, and made our way to the reef, I confidently considered how easy this scuba diving experience would be given my extensive experience in and around ocean waters. However, the discrepancy between what I imagined and what actually transpired proved to be quite great. Clad in a bathing suit, board shorts, scuba fins, and a face mask, I plopped into the warm Pacific, placed the tube piece into my mouth and took my first breath. If you would have seen me from the boat you would have seen a thrashing seal-like pale thing coughing up sea water while helplessly trying to stay afloat, breath, and juggle with cumbersome scuba gear. Moreover, I consumed so much salt water that the stomach pains I had at the time had been cured by the end of the day. In fact, for those of you who have never taken liberal gulps of salt water, it's akin to chugging a bottle of soy sauce. While I am compelled to continue writing about the incredible amount of salt water I consumed that day, I unfortunately lack the creative ability to think of metaphors that adequately depict this experience.

"If you don't know what it is don't touch it" : A Day of Marine Safety

Our Bus

This past Monday, our training day was devoted entirely to learn, hands-on, about marine safety. From 8 AM to 6:30 PM we visited two beach resorts and the southeastern coast of Upolu - the very place that was hit by the September 29th Tsunami. In fact, what was originally planned to be an 8.5-hour trip to select locations around Upolu ended up as a 10.5 hour road trip around the entire island.

We hired some locals to take us around in one of Samoa's popular public buses for the day. The bus amazingly appeared to come out of some 8-year old's imagination. In fact, if an 18th century whaling vessel bus ever existed - this would be it. Its interior is entirely comprised of wood and its glassless windows have a peculiar resemblance to those small round windows that appear along the side of old ships. I'm also quite certain that the same child that designed the bus's exterior also had some input on the bus's mechanical makeup: the bus produced more pollution than an EPA violating plutonium-producing energy plant. Moreover, the convenient absence of shock absorbers proved to be quite trying after hours of traveling around the pot-holed streets of Samoa.

As a way of detering speeding, the government of Samoa placed speed bumps all over the island. So what should have been a 4 hour drive actually took us 6 hours, and it certainly didn't help that our bus maxes out at a speed of 35 mph. Also, it is worth mentioning that our bus driver thought that a 9-song playlist would be adequate for our 6-hour ride. However, the bus driver liked only 4 out of the 9 songs and as a result he replayed those 4 particular songs throughout the ride. The bus driver especially enjoyed a Samoan rap song, which he played relentlessly. By the end of the 10-hour bus ride I dizzily stumbled off the bus feeling beaten after having endured the hard wooden seats; the thrashing about in our shock absorber-less bus; and the mind-numbing vibrations emanating from the massive subwoofer that lay next to my feet.