The Mark of the Jandal

Monday, December 26, 2005

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.

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