The Mark of the Jandal

Monday, December 26, 2005

Three weeks in the village: Part 2 food day/Thanksgiving

On Thursday the 24th of November we had food day. Because of where I live, I showed up a little late to the training village. I was accompanied by my host sister To'afa. Between us we brought several coconuts, some taro, breadfruit, and some freshwater shrimp. I say between the two of us, but she actually carried most of it. On the food day we're supposed to gain an appreciation of what goes into preparing a Samoan meal. I think the host family had already made the umu and I started by pealing bananas. They prefer to eat bananas here green and far from ripe. Before they ripen to sugary goodness, bananas largely starch. I was next handed a dirt covered taro root and part of a tin can cut off about an inch from the base of the can. The taro is placed on a stick extending about a foot and a half from the ground, and the portion of the can is used to scrape the dirt and outer skin of the taro off. I squatted by the stick scraping the taro and my sister kept telling me to stop exposing myself.

Next we pealed the freshwater shrimp (also called crayfish, crawfish, or simply crawdads in the states). I did a lot of this during my tenure at Captin D's in my highschool days. In the states we only ate the tails. We would use a machine which split the shrimp down the back removing the vein which carried feces to the rear of the shrimp for disposal. Here I'll peal the shrimp tail and eat it, and my mother will eat whatever is left (eyes, legs, etc.) when I'm done with my plate. To clean the shrimp, the carapace is removed and the thump is pressed against the meaty exposed area where the tail begins. Eventually a brown sack will squirt out by the shrimps eyes. This sack, which I believe this is it's stomach, is discarded.

I was pealing shrimp next to the pig pen when I heard some noise coming from that area behind me. It looked like it was time to prepare the pig. The pictures here are from the village cooking day and my last Sunday in the village. My brother in law Lee is doing most of the work for the latter time. The pig must first be killed. I'm told that this is traditionally done here by holding the pig down while a pole is placed over it's throat. Two people then stand on either side of the pole while the pig chokes to death. My family prefers to drown the pig in the creek which runs beside our house. Since pigs wallow around in their own feces the pig needs to be cleaned. This is done by searing the dead animal on the umu. This smells like bacon and burning hair... tasty yet nauseating all at the same time. The layers of seared flesh are then scraped off. Lee uses his hands while knives were used during the food day. Lee also likes to pull off the toenails, but I don't recall if this was done during the food day. With the outside scrubbed down it's time to eviscerate the beast. The throat of the pig is sliced and a circle is made around it's anus. A large cut is made in the belly and the major organs are then removed through that hole. Lee likes to wash it out with water. Notice the water going into the belly and out of the new and improved anus Lee made --- yes he's doing this in the family shower. The cleaned pig is then stuffed with mango leaves and hot rocks from the umu. The smoking pig is placed on the umu with the other food. The food is then covered with hot rocks followed by banana leaves and left to cook. This is the really cool part, the entire pig cooks in about 45 minutes. On the food day we cooked a pig, two umu'ed turkeys and lots of other happiness in that time.

Even though I had been around food most of the day, I hadn't eaten much. Groups will have different meetings throughout the year to check on their progress. One is the midservice conference held after a volunteers first year in service. Group 73 was having theirs on Thanksgiving and we were bringing food out to them in vavao. This is a beautiful beach that will soon be home to a resort. We went there and most people in our chowed down. When the people from group 73 showed up they also started eating. I was pretty excited to see them but that was mainly because I had seen Teuila our medical officer on Wednesday about viscosity problems. She had sent some Cipero with the trianers, and I was looking forward to digesting some food. The drugs came, and I took one almost immediately. I still couldn't eat because looking at food at this point made me feel nauseous. So I spent the day laying in the shade reading while everyone else swam in the ocean. The following day everything was flowing fine.

Three weeks in the village: Part 1

The week before we returned to the village I had come back to Apia from a visit with a current volunteer in Savai'i. To get from his place to our hotel we first had to take a two hour bus ride, followed by a couple hours on the ferry, and finally another one hour on the bus. His host sister was riding into Apia also, and when we got on the bus she gave me a cup of noodles. I got up around 5 and skipped breakfast, so I was hungery. I knew it would be a while until I could eat, and I didn't want to be rude to a family member of another volunteer --- I ate the noodles. I would spend the next week pissing from my ass.=20

That night everything flowed from my body like water from a hose. We returned to the village the following Saturday for our final three week stay. The following Sunday I went to church and had To'ana'i. On Sundays there is a large meal after church called To'ana'i. Just before sunrise, around five, people will start building an umu. Volcanic rocks are placed on top of and under burning coconut husks until the rocks become red hot. At this point food is placed on a bed of rocks and then covered by the remaining rocks. This pile of food and heated stones are then covered with large banana leaves. The food is simultaneously cooked and smoked. They use this to cook everything: taro, breadfruit, palusami, pork, fish, etc. During church someone will stay home and keep an eye on the umu. After eating the To'ana'i meal, people will pass out for a couple hours like on Thanksgiving.

For this week we were to have an emergency action plan drill on Tuesday followed by a fishing expedition for the fornicating pololo worm. We were also to have food day on Thursday where we cook for the village. During the day on Tuesday we had language classes as usual. That night we went home and had dinner. In Samoa there are four major types of emergency which can effect us: tsunamis, flash floods, earth quakes, and cyclones (hurricanes). If you can see a tsunami, your chances are pretty bad. Flash floods and earthquakes are also events which have little worning. So for simulation purposes, the Peace Corps will normally have a mock storm. Sometime in the evening, the Peace Corps van pulled out and Candice stepped out. It turns out she was the person in charge of our training village. She was supposed to contact everyone and make sure they were aware of a fictious tropical depression. I went to the fale where my family was sitting, and I tried to explain in my broken Samoan that we were playing a game. I told them that some Peace Corps in Africa have to worry about things like military coups. I then had to explain what a coup was. I told them to pretend that the prices of vailima (the local beer) were raised. As a result the untitled men had stormed the parliament and were beheading government officials in protest --- hords of people with machetes are the closest thing Samoa has to a military. Everyone thought this was funny.=20

So when Candice returned, everyone looked at me and erupted into laughter. I was informed that the theoretical tropical depression was picking up speed and moving closer to Savai'i. When this happens I'm supposed to remain at my site and wait for further instructions. She later returned to another round of laughter and I was told that the mythical storm was now a cyclone and that we were moving to our regional consolodation point. My family waved good bye to me, and I drove away leaving them to fend for themselves while the make-believe downpour approached. This drill was pretty good. They managed to contact everyone on both islands within five hours. If things get pretty bad they will either evacuate us from Samoa or consolodate everyone in one of the inland hotels.

After the emergency action plan drill we left to go pololo hunting. This is accomplished by wading out into the ocean between the reef and the beach with a net, flashlight, bucket, and a desire to capture as many copulating worms as possible. My hostmother made me the net and seemed genuinly excited that I was going. While I think the worms taste pretty foul, I wanted to get as many for the family as possible since they seem to like them. Most of the evening consisted of sitting around on the beach and chatting. The colonic flows were still raging strong inside of me. I had eaten dinner, and I was starting to feel a surge coming. I found a bathroom just in time, and I made the mistake of looking in the toilet before I used it. The pile of writhing maggots made the feeling inside my stomach that much worse. At this point it was either in the toilet or my pants, so I christened this toilet the third worst toilet I had ever used. This should provide you with an idea of how bad some of the toilets I've used in the past really were. I would have to defecate twice more that evening. However I would elect to skip the toilet and walk thrity feet or so up the road --- I was getting quite good at this.

Feeling empty I went back to the beach and waited for the hunt to begin. Around three a couple Samoans started heading for the reef. Shortly after that, several people started to follow. I teamed up with brian to follow the hurd. Each of us held a net, and I took a bucket while he took Josh's flashlight. The water was shallow and cool. I was quickly learning how sharp coral could be. We made it about half way to the reef when several people decided it was far enough. We were all scooping through the water trying to catch what we could. Eventually I found a worm-like thing in the water. I asked one of our trainers and these were the worms we were looking for. Brian and I both had a new found enthusiasm. We scooped like we had broken into an ice cream shop and had only a few minutes to eat before we were giong to be caught. Around sunrise we retreated to the sand and our vehicles. When I got home I gave my bucket to my mom. She looked inside and laughed; I stayed up all night, defecated in the third worst toilet of my life, fought a loosing battle with the coral, and I managed to bring home six worms --- it takes a thousand or so to make up enough for someone to eat. I took a shower, told my host grandmother good night in Samoan --- she cackled --- a I took a nap before school started.

Village life

We just spent nine days in the village.My host family is pretty cool, thought none of them speak English well enough to have any kind of conversation. I do have a cousin from American Samoa who is visiting the grandmother, and he speaks English well. Coming here, I was under the impression that a country which was 98 percent Christian would have "traditional" families. By most Christian standards my family would be considered to be pretty dysfunctional. Needless to say, it reminds me a lot of my family back home. My host mom, Sina, is 46 and married to Simati who is 29. She had a husband before that, but he left for California with one of her sons and appears to be incommunicado. I have two brothers, Fa'amafu (15) and Ieki (9), and one sister To'afa (19). To'afa is married to Lee (who was named after Bruce Lee) and they have a daughter Farina (1). When I got there I asked about my host father. They told me he was on Savi'i (the other large island). For a while I thought he was gone like the first husband, but it turns out he was only gone for an animal show.

The village, Falevao, is inland a bit at the base of Mount Fua (or Fao, something beginning F and ending in two vowels). Like many words in Samoa, Falevao has two meanings. It is the name of this village and it's also the word for outhouse. Regardless of it's namesake, the village and surrounding terrain are quite beautiful. They told us to leave expensive stuff in storage for the first week so we could determine if we feel comfortable taking it. I'll send some pictures after the next week there.

There is a main road which circumscribes each island. Villages are set up next to each other sort of like small towns of 150 to 500 people. There are about 225 people in Falevao, and the place were we have class is about a third of the way into the village if you were to take the road from Apia. My house is the farthest out, or about two thirds of the length of the village from the place were we have our language classes. I normally walk to school in the mornings, and it takes me about 25 minutes wearing flipflops.

It's a big deal to have the Peace Corps there and pretty much everyone knows my name, what I'm doing, etc. Everyone says hello to me as I walk past there houses and they all know my Samoan name (Sione). The traditional houses or fale's (pronounced fall and the letter a) are open structures. Think of a roof held up by posts four feet apart on a concrete slab. Because their seasons are the rainy and dry and the temperature is constant year round they don't really have a need for walls. In fact, houses with walls and rooms are called falepalangi --- palangi being the word for white folks. So, for example, when I walk to school, I probably pass 15 houses. Since they are open, everyone sees me and says "Malo Sione"... this is _the_ place for narcissistic (sp?) people. Every time I pass some one they try to talk to me. Sometimes a train of children will follow me asking me questions and giggling.

The first day there was the most trying. We arrived around three in the afternoon, and things began with an 'ava ceremony. This involves the people in the Peace Corps sitting on one side of a fale and the village chiefs sitting on the other side. Each side has a talking chief --- ours is Onafia --- who basically negotiates for each group. It's a bizarre formality which ends up with every one drinking a coconut shell full of 'ava (called kava in the states). We ended up forking over 30 cases of mackerel (canned fish) and they fed us. The food was... ok. They eat something called taro here which a flavorless root with a potato like texture. It's best broken apart and used to dip into food which gives it flavor. Also on the menu was breadfruit --- another flavorless food which grows on trees and is also used for dipping. There was also pork, nasty chicken, some shrimp, large pieces of pig fat. It was a traditional, yet foul meal.

After that, we met members of our host families. We were then taken to the fale's were we would be staying. We were to meet at the school fale around five to talk about our living situation. I spent the hour or so trying to get everyones name. My cousin from American Samoa wasn't there yet, so this was pretty trying. There was a lot of me trying to read stuff from the dictionary and make sentences a five-year-old Samoan child would have been ashamed of. After the meeting at school, it was about six thirty. I came home where my mother and sister were saying something about a ta'ele. Eventually I noticed that they were pointing at the shower. (aside: the shower at my house is a piece of PVC pipe attached to a stick coming out of the ground on a sloped piece of concrete with a tarp obstructing the view from the road.) So I thought that I must stink really bad. We were shown how to use the outside showers, but I didn't think I'd be pushed into using it like this. I went to my room and took off everything by my lavalava and came back to the shower. My sister gave me a towel, a bar of soap, and a washcloth. Heather will be happy to know I'm using my wash cloth while bathing in river water. Next To'afa stood there and watched me while I took a shower. She would say things that I didn't understand. She started pointing to my feet saying ta'ele. She would say it louder thinking that I would understand if I could only hear here. Eventually I realized that I hadn't done a good job of washing my feet. I washed everything and got back to the fale. I was trying to talk to my host mom when she said something to indicate that it was time for prayer. It turns out they were hurrying me up so we could pray and eat dinner. At night they have a curfew around 5.30 and another at 6.30 for Sa, the evening prayer. The cool thing is that they sing really nice songs in Samoan. I'm going to try to record some of them. Also, when we're done, we can hear families singing in the fale's around us. It's really nice.

After the first night of having to bath under the instruction of a 'healthy' Samoan woman, things were much easier to deal with. I'm eating three meals a day here, but I'm not eating too much. They have those little clamshell sandwich makers here that you can use for making grill cheese sandwiches. One morning I'll have egg sandwiches for breakfast, the next canned fish. If I don't watch them make the food, it's sort of a surprise. Dinner the first night was a little strange also. There are three structures that my host family lives in which lay on an upward slope from the road. The first is a two room building. One room is my room which has a bed and a table with a chair. The second is a room that has a freezer and one has to enter it by going to through my room. The second structure is the main fale. The front half is open and the back has three or four rooms. Back and to the right of the main fale is the cooking fale which is an open structure where they cook and do dishes. The first night they had me sit at a table in the main fale. Most people don't sit at tables here, they sit on the floor on these hand made mats which are really nice. So I sat at the table while they brought three or four plates of food: one of taro, one with breadfruit, one with sausages that resemble large hot dogs, and I don't recall the other. I sat there and took food off the plates and ate until I was more or less satisfied. The entire time I ate, everyone stared at me --- I felt like a freak at the zoo. After that, everyone went to the kitchen fale and ate their dinner. When the rest of the family finished dinner, they came back to the table where I had eaten and where I was currently working on homework. They sat around the table in the fale and stared at me for the better part of an hour and a half. At this point, I decided it was time for me to goto bed.

The next day the guy from American Samoa, Lele, showed up. I got him to get the family to let me eat in the kitchen fale. While there are many flies in this one, I don't feel like such a freak. They still feed me first and wait until I'm done to eat. It's part of fa'aSamoa, or the Samoan way, in which guests are treated really well. It feels like everything stops for me. When I'm finished eating I say: Ma'oga fa'afetai gasese (I'm full thankyou, good cooking). At this point Sina tells Ieki to get me a bowl of water and a towel on a plate. However, she does it with a great sense of urgency. To avoid eating first by myself I've started eating slower. Eventually everyone gets hungry and starts digging in. The more they get used to me I will become less of an oddity and more of a fixture.

Much of the food here is really fatty: turkey tails (the part America's don't eat), mutton chops (fat encrusted portions of ribs from old sheep), I even had fried fat one day --- no shit. I don't eat much of the fatty stuff, heck I don't think I could. In the mornings I eat papaya and boiled eggs, for lunch and dinner I try to eat what ever fish they have and the taro/breadfruit. They keep trying to feed me these bananas called faipalangi (long skinny flavorless bananas on which they put a little coconut cream)... not to be confused with the shorter, fatter, sweeter bananas called faiSamoa. They have something called palusami which is coconut cream that was pored into a taro leafs and cooked in something called an umu. The umu is made by heating up volcanic rocks until they are red hot. The rocks are then covered with large banana leafs. Taro, bread fruit, and the palusami are placed on top of the banana leaves and covered with more banana leaves. This is sort of like a smoker for cooking barbecue. Since the palusami is made from coconut oil, it's really fatty, but it tastes good if you eat it like a dip with taro or bread fruit.

One night Sina handed me a plate with some stringy bluish green stuff on it and said 'mania' which means 'good'. I asked her what it was and she said it was fish. I took a small amount and put it on my plate. After I finished my dinner, I tried it. It was pretty salty an foul. Eventually I found it it was called 'palolo' which is the name given to a worm which lives on the reefs in the Pacific Islands. They are harvested twice a year, once in October and again in November during full moons --- mating times for the worm. A person stands on the reef with a conch shell during the full moon. When the worms come out, he blows the shell and Samoans rush out to the reef to harvest the mating worms. The window of opportunity is about two hours and fine mesh nets are used to scoop up the worms from the surface of the water. If you get a couple fistfulls (the volume of your closed fist) you've made quite a catch. So, I was eating worms, sperm and sea water --- it's considered a delicacy here. I must admit that I've had better tasting sperm.

So there are good and bad food days. As they figure out what I like, I suspect the good will easily outweigh the bad. For dinner just before I left I had a great piece of fried fish. They make a dish called oka which is raw fish, normally tuna, soaked in coconut cream with onions and cucumbers. I tried it with a little apprehension, but it is damn tasty. I'm was a little weary of eating raw fish here. However, it's so fresh and it's really good. Probably worth the getting the diarrhea every once in a while. The fruit here is great: coconuts and papayas are always in season and mangos and pineapples are in season six months out of the year. I've never tasted mangos and pineapples as good as I've had here. Baby coconuts are called niu, and are the kind you drink. The picture is of a man with the traditional knee/abdomen tattoos who climbed up a tree, pulled down a few coconuts and husked them for us. A couple of the girls here thought he was a sexy beast. These pictures were taken earlier in training when we were at the beach. In the village, I tried husk one that Lele pulled down for me, but I broke it in the process. He told me he'd teach me how to climb the trees and fetch the coconuts.


Yesterday morning I had the firmest stool since coming to Samoa. I would say that I was probably constipated or at least very close to it. I didn't go the day before and it hurt coming out. I was celebrating my body's adaption to the local cuisine.

Last night was one of the weekly bingo nights. I left with Lee and To'afa around 8PM and arrived about 35 minutes later, after stopping at Lee's sister's house. At around 9.30 my stomach started churning. Being familiar with this feeling, I took an Immodium at around 9.45. I new bingo would probably run until 10.45 or 11. Lee and To'afa were having a good time, so I decided to tough it out.

Bingo ended around 10.50, and I needed to urinate as well. To'afa said it would be a couple minutes more. It turns out that the women's committee meeting follows the bingo game. The last time I only came with Lee, so I didn't stay for it that time. I told Lee that I needed to void my bladder, and he gestured to the yard beside a step like pyramid grave. After confirming that I understood him correctly, I went to the side of the grave facing away from the other people and emptied my bladder. It was temporary relief.

At 11.30 the pressure building up in my bowels was becoming too much. I told Lee that I really needed to go. He and To'afa came with me. The pressure in my stomach was very painful. It came in waves every 45 seconds and I had about 25 minutes before we would reach the fale. After about 5 minutes, I noticed that To'afa wasn't with us. I turned back and Lee said that she also had to urinate. I noticed her squatting beside the road about 20 feet back. At this point I realized that it was socially acceptable to goto the bathroom on the side of the road. To'afa caught up to us about half a minutes later. I waved her and Lee on and told them I would catch up with them.

I found a somewhat dry area on the side of the road --- not necessarily an easy feat given the rain we have been having lately. Satisfied with my spot, I dropped my shorts to my ankles. I then pulled them forward and projected my ass out. I gave a good squeeze, and I could feel piece clear my anus. This small plug was a remnant from the morning. It was followed by a much more fluid matter which flowed quite freely. The relief I felt is difficult to describe, but I think most people have felt it. Since I had no toilet paper and no time to find a substitute, I positioned my ass to minimize spatter and skin exposure. When finished --- perhaps 20 seconds for the act and 5 to relax and enjoy myself --- I pulled up my shorts and caught up to Lee and To'afa.

When I got home, I visited the bathroom and finished the business I started at the side of the road. I don't think I've been happier or will be to see the bathroom at my fale. I went to the shower, cleaned myself off, and went to bed.

Group photo

I've attached a picture of our group taken by Kevin's wife. These are the people from left to right: Top Row:
  1. Leata (trainer)
  2. Me (sione)
  3. Kevin (trainer)
  4. Julia (tala)
  5. Sara (salai)
  6. Mari (mari)
  7. Andrew (anataro)
  8. Charles (siale)
  9. Josh (iosua)
  10. Ryan (lani)
  11. Falaseu (trainer)
  12. Brian (ropeti)
  13. Onafea (trainer) --- his right third anyway
Bottom Row:
  1. Diana (tiana)
  2. Candice (tise)
  3. Holy ('oli)
  4. Bob (robati)
  5. Marques (matusi)

Language Training

The Samoan language is challenging. It only has 14 letters and two special characters one is called a komaliliu and the other a fa'amamafa. The komaliliu is an apostrophe before a vowel as in the word fa'amamafa. The fa'amamafa is a bar that goes over a vowel. So say -a is a with a bar over it. Then a vowel can have four sounds: a, 'a, -a, and '-a. The thing that makes this challenging is that each word seems to have a different meaning depending on which vowel sound that is used. M-al-o means hello while mal-o means hard and m-alo is the word for loin cloth. I'm having a heck of a time distinguishing the vowel sounds when spoken.

They told us a story about a volunteer staying in a village who was having ear problems. The trainers told them to goto their family and ask them to massage or fof-o. He asked the family and things got really quite. They brought him a bottle of coconut oil, closed all of the windows, and went outside. He sat there in a chair for about 15 minutes wondering what was going on. See he ment fof-o, but said fufu which means to masterbate --- a very polite family if you ask me.

The language training program is very good. We spend part of our time here at the hotel and part at the village. Since we have 12 weeks to learn what we can, there are either three or four students per instructor, and the instructors are all Samoan. Our instructors name is Onafia and he is what is referred to as a talking chief --- I'll probably write something separately about the organizational structure when I better understand it. Since we jump back and forth between the village and the hotel and the funds are limited, the teaching materials need to be mobile and inexpensive. The instructors have a folder for each lesson plan with words written on cardboard that they place on a board that has paper clips at regular intervals. They also use large pieces of paper with sounds, words, etc. written on them. These are taped up as needed. The trainers also stay with us either at the hotel or at the village. I've included a picture of Onafia and Brian. It seems like a simple and pragmatic system they have developed, and it's pretty impressive.


We arrived in Apia on the 12th of October. The plane ride wasn't too bad. I slept for four hours then for two. We landed around 3am and there were a herd of people waiting here to greet us. We all got layed right there at the airport. The ride from the airport went by pretty quick partially because I was out of it and partially because the other volunteers were there to talk to us. I met one girl who was from Fayetteville. They dropped us off at the hotel in Apia where we will be spending some of our time during training. A lot of us stayed up, drank coconut juice, and watched the sunrise. Because of the jetlag, everything seemed really surreal. I took a nap around six for an hour and a half and the scheduled events started pretty late. I spaced out my sleeping such that the jetlag didn't bother me after the first day. We met the staff who are mostly Samoan, and they are really nice good natured folks. The Peace Corps has been here since 1967. They were asked to come after a cyclone/typhoon tore into the country. Since then, they have really helped build up the infrastructure. For example, to improve education volunteers will take over classes for teachers while they get higher degrees in the US or at the University here. It's all focused on sustainable development to prevent people from being dependent on foreign aid. So many of the people seem appreciative of the Peace Corps and the US.

The training period is interesting. We will spend the first ten days at a hotel in Apia, the capital. It's about the quality of an inexpensive hostel, but you know how easily I'm satisfied. After ten days, we will be going to a village to stay with a host family for a week. Evidently, there are a lot of Mormons here (I think 30% of the population), and they said one year they stuck all of the trainees in what was essentially a Mormon village. With the host family we spend our time working on our Samoan and trying to integrate ourselves into the community. This is the schedule:

Oct 12-20 Hotel
Oct 21-29 Village
Oct 30-Nov 04 Apia
Nov 05-12 Village
Nov 13-18 Apia
Nov 19-Dec 14 Village

The training finishes up on December 14th. At that point we start working at our assignments. There are fourteen of us: 5 doing information technology, two people doing social work, 4 people with vocational assignments, one person training teachers, and two people working at the university. Myself and a guy from Texas named Brian are going to work at the University of Samoa. He'll be teaching mathematics and it looks like I will be teaching chemistry. Brian managed to contact people before we got here and they told him that he and I will be living together in government housing and we will have Internet access in our apartment via a phone line. Until then I'm goto the Internet cafe and pay 15 tala/hour (2.7 tala/dollar) to connect my computer and download/send my email. Right now I'm sharing a room with Brian and another volunteer named Ryan.