Friday, January 3, 2014

Tofa, Samoa

As I type, I am aboard Fiji Airways 855 from Nadi, Fiji to Los Angeles CA. This trip has been a long time coming, with endless goodbyes and flight delays and general travel frustrations, and it's funny how LA feels like it's practically "home" after spending nearly 4 days stuck in Samoa and Fiji.

We are 3 1/2 hours in to an almost-11-hour trip. According to the latest view from the "flight tracker" screen on my seat-back television, we are passing directly above the equator. Not only have we crossed from Southern Hemisphere to Northern Hemisphere , but we've also crossed back in time, from tomorrow to today. We left Nadi on Friday morning, yet after 11 hours of travel we'll land at LAX on Thursday night. With our return home a few days past our planned schedule, and internet service being difficult to access over the past several days, I'll try to recap a few things that brought our time in Samoa to a close.

Jaycey, LaQuisha, Mary, Quinton, Stacey, & Tara en route to the Fiji airport during one of our many failed attempts to get home!

Our entire group of American & Samoan students, leaders, and University interns had a wonderful few days on the big island of Savai'i. While it feels like we barely scratched the surface of seeing the island, it was a fast but amazing trip! Blowholes along the coast, a tree-top canopy walk, and swimming in an incredible waterfall pool were all part of our island-tour on Monday. Monday night, back in Manase village at our fales, we had a traditional Samoan fia fia - music and dancing, including fire dancers. An incredible site!

Early Tuesday we gathered our things and headed back to the ferry where we returned from Upolu island. Upon arrival, our American students were lucky to enjoy an afternoon lunch and relaxation at a beautiful resort - a pool, volleyball, and a nap in a lawn chair were just what we needed in preparation for a few difficult days.

Hattie & some gifts from her host family ...Mmm, Masi Popo & Taro Chips!

Tuesday night we enjoyed some final time in our host family homes. While everyone was growing excited to return to family and friends in the US, we had to figure out a way to say goodbye to our new family & friends in Samoa. Most of our participants were gifted traditional Samoan clothes to wear on our departure. After checking  into our flight, about 2 hours of photos and hugs and tears and laughs and songs were shared. It felt as if all of Samoa was there to say goodbye! I think I can speak for us all when I say we felt deeply loved & completely drained from that goodbye.

Saying "Tofa!" to two of the dearest friends I made in Samoa, London & Junior

Just when we were ready to go through security at about 11:30 pm to catch the 12:45 am flight, we were surprised to hear the news that our flight was cancelled. Tired, confused, sad, and a little frustrated, we put on smiles to yell "Happy New Year!" around the airport as we learned that mechanical issues prevented the plane from getting into Faleolo Airport, so we would not be leaving Tuesday night. Buses & taxis to hotels were slowly arranged, and we settled in at about 3 am for a short night. I can't tell you what a difficult night that was for our entire group. As one of our students so wisely observed, there was overwhelming build up of emotions and anticipation, only to have the most anti-climactic conclusion to the night that we could have had: we spent an entire day saying goodbye to a country only to not leave.

Warren with our host parents, Musi & Sofuta

Returning to the airport on Wednesday morning, we learned our flight had not been rebooked as we had originally been told and the "Plan B" work began. After a morning of calls and conversations with the airlines we created a plan for nearly all of our students to return on a flight on early Wednesday afternoon, routing through Auckland New Zealand and then on to Los Angeles, arriving at nearly the same time as our original flight & preserving our US flight connections. Our original itinerary had a day-long layover in Fiji which provided just the cushion needed for this re-arranged schedule. Another round of tearful goodbyes occurred when our American participants parted ways at the airport, most students boarding the flight, with just a few remaining behind since the flight could only hold 20 of us.

7 of us remained in Samoa - the entire 6 of the Wyoming crew of Warren, Quinton, Mary, LaQuisha, Jaycey, and I along with the fortunate addition of our adult leader Stacey from Portland. We were told our cancelled flight would be rescheduled, so we returned to the airport in Samoa only to learn we could get to Fiji but the next leg from Fiji to LA was cancelled until as late as Saturday. We made it to Fiji on Wednesday hoping the prospects for getting back to the States would be better from Fiji than from Samoa. After arriving in Fiji we spent another day on a travel-roller coaster with the airlines. Routes through Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong & Beijing were all pursued, and after having guarantees that we were on a few different flights we were disappointed that a number of doors closed.

Cheers to flight delays!?! Don't worry moms and dads, the kids are drinking mock-tails. 

So now, being aboard a flight back to LA and exciting but it's also given me time to reflect on the experience. We said so many good-byes and gave so many hugs on Wednesday, but since then I went right into planning mode for our own trip home from Samoa so I haven't had much time for thinking & processing. I'm doing that now, and look forward to posting more now that our final leg of this nearly month-long journey is coming to an end.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Talofa from Savai'i, Samoa's Big Island

Hello from Savai'i!  Our group said "See Ya Soon" to our host families on Saturday and took the ferry to the largest Samoan island of Savai'i for 4 days & 3 nights. What a beautiful place! We think the hour long ferry ride across the channel may have delivered us into paradise. 

Leaving the wharf on the ferry for ride to Savai'i

Warren, Jake, and Stacey, 3 of our 5 leaders, in one of our group's fales in the village of Manase

We have precious few days remaining in Samoa and we are grateful to spend them with our Samoan host siblings in such an awesome place along the northern coast of the island. After arriving on Saturday evening we relaxed and enjoyed our beach accommodations. We woke up Sunday with cool rainy weather, a perfect day for no agenda or program - simply a day to rest. Late in the afternoon our group visited a sea turtle sanctuary and a lava field. 

The ocean view from our beach fale 

Sunday night we were treated to one of the most beautiful evening skies we could imagine - a colorful sunset in the west and a full rainbow in the east. Amazing!!

Today - Monday - we are enjoying a full-day island tour with stops at several historical & scenic locations on this island that holds great significance for not only Samoa but for all of Polynesia. We will also be treated to the Fiafia tonight - a dinner with a huge traditional Samoan performance - including fire dancers.  I'll post more pics when we return for our final night in Manase Monday night, return by ferry to Upolu island on Tursday, make a final visit to the villages, then to the airport tomorrow night!!

Skyler, Lopa, Tara, Warren, Stacey & Morgan enjoying the beach at sunset.

Thanks to Andrea Letava Taumuafa Schuster for co-authoring this post!! 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Happy Boxing Day!

Merry Christmas! Today is December 26 in Samoa but December 25 in the US. Instead of opening gifts & drinking hot chocolate by the fireplace, we enjoyed a beach day at the awesome Matareva Beach on the southern coast of Upolu island. 

Not a bad place to spend a holiday! 

We were observing Boxing Day with our Samoan friends, as demonstrated by the fine boxing moves seen here by Skyler, Stacey, Patience, & Jonah. 

Our village stays are drawing to a close - tomorrow (Friday 12/27) will be our final day with our host families. We leave Saturday for 3 nights in Savai'i, then head back to our villages on Tuesday for a final good-bye, then catch a midnight flight to Fiji. 

We'll be back in the States on January 1...less than a week away! I remember when the count-down to our departure passed the 1 week mark - it was exciting but somewhat nerve-wracking with so much preparation to complete and so many unknowns about our trip. Now, as we are at the 1 week mark to return home I again feel excited, but acutely aware that this trip doesn't feel "finished" yet. Even with 3 weeks in Samoa this country still has more to show me and teach me. I can't wait to return and introduce Jarren to all of my Samoan friends!! 

Christmas Day in Satapuala Village: A Day of Contrasts

Christmas morning on the road to Satapuala

Shortly after arriving in Samoa, someone commented that this nation is one of contrasts: the rich & the poor, the traditional & the modern, the unity & the division, the peace & the turmoil.

The contrasts of Samoa were evident today on Christmas Day, beginning immediately as the clock struck 12 midnight on Christmas Eve and the holiday officially arrived. Almost simultaneously in the first minutes of Christmas Day, the streets filled with equal numbers of reverent chorus members singing carols with solemn tones, and intoxicated revelers going to and from parties, out to find the next bottle of Vailima (Samoa's favorite brew). 

A neighbor boy, tree-climber extraordinaire, decked out in his Santa hat. 

The contrasts continued as the day went on. Christmas morning found me at the Methodist Church across the street from the home where I stay in Satapuala. Walking slowly to the service, I was greeted by worshippers in traditional brilliant white pulitasis, freshly pressed for this special day, walking alongside kids wearing Angry Birds or Nike t-shirts and lava lavas, a modern-turned-Samoan twist. 

Samoan children wearing their Sunday's best en route to Christmas service in Satapuala

Inside the Satapuala Methodist Church, singing & waiting for the service to start

The contrast of the familiar and the new came in the afternoon, as I sat under a coconut tree in the yard of new Samoan friends, laughing & talking as we ate chicken and sausage in a very American-style backyard barbecue. What could have easily been a scene from a million Fourth of July picnics was playing out on the opposite side of the world, on the opposite side of the calendar year, when, in Wyoming, the temps would rival the ice in our Coke glass! 

Another great contrast - a man in traditional Samoan dress getting take-out for the traditional Christmas to'onei.

Although it didn't have a Christmas "feel", it was an awesome holiday nonetheless - I wouldn't change this Samoan Christmas for the world! - but it feels a world away from my usual faces & places, family members & traditions. I suppose that brings up another contrast - the difference between a simple date on a calendar, and what a holiday actually means to me. 

Merry Christmas, and Manuia Karisimasi, from Samoa! 

My Samoan friend and host sister Muatasi & I on a Christmas Eve outing

Monday, December 23, 2013

The week of Christmas in Samoa

Today is Monday Dec 23 in Samoa (Sunday 12/22 in WY) and it is definitely NOT beginning to look a lot like Christmas! 90+ degrees, 95+ percent humidity, and rare breezes have been our norm since arriving the middle of this month. As I write this post I'm lying under my mosquito net trying to rest but the heat doesn't let up, even at night.   

If I were home right now I'd be busy traveling or packing or cooking or shopping to prepare for the festivities of Christmas. Instead, we're trying to manage the heat, humidity, bug bites, and sunburn! A very different experience indeed. It's not entirely uncommon to see a Christmas tree or other holiday decoration here in Samoa, but the observation of Christmas is very different here. Our Christmas Eve & Christmas Day will likely include church, singing, food, and rest. Some families give gifts, but it is rare. Since extended families all live together in the same villages or even in the same homes, travel is certainly not an issue. The busy, sometimes frantic, pace of holidays in the US is most certainly a world away.

I presumed I'd feel some pangs of homesickness when we were approaching Christmas Day, being so far from Jarren & the rest of my family and knowing the celebrations are going on without me. However, because of our drastic differences in culture & climate, the realization that Christmas is here feels so unlikely. If it weren't for the occasional glance at my calendar reminding me of the date & time, I'd be certain it was August, not December. 

A couple of photos of our last few days: Monday involved a trip to the Samoan national art museum and the a visit to cool off at beautiful Papaaee'a, or "sliding rock" - a natural water fall you can slide on into several nice pools. It was a great day to cool off & enjoy such a great spot! 

"Sliding Rock" on a gorgeous day

The Satapuala group learning a traditionalism rhythm & dance from their Samoan hosts. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A week in the Samoan villages

As I type this it is Sunday afternoon in Samoa and Saturday night in the US. I attended a beautiful Sunday service this morning with our host sisters at a Catholic basilica in the nearby village of Fasitootai. Many of our students also attended services with their host families at the village churches. Check out how awesome they look!! 

Lopa, Signe, Morgan, Dominique, & Markayla in their Samoan Sunday best!

After an enormous Sunday lunch (to'onei) we've been given strict orders to rest - the national Sunday pastime in Samoa! But instead of resting, we've had repeated visits from our AYLP students and their host siblings. A great substitute for rest is hearing their questions & excited observations about their village stays so far. 

We have had nearly a week of staying with our host families in the villages of Satapuala, Satui, Vailuatai, and Faleatiu. Our 22 students and 5 adult leaders are spread among their host families in these 4 villages, which are dotted along the northern coast of the Samoan island of Upolu. Our AYLP students have taken up quite a presence in the villages, being easily recognized as the palangis (non-Samoans) and we 5 adults as the palangi teachers. 

Upon our arrival in the villages on Tuesday, the chiefs (or Matai) from each family held an Ava (aah-vah) ceremony to welcome us into their village. In addition to a great deal of ceremony & tradition, the Ava also included the distribution of provisions or supplies (mostly food) that the AYLP program uses as host family stipends. 

The beginning of the Ava ceremony

The villages are quite close to each other and our group of both American and Samoan kids are enjoying time with each other, as well as with their host families. No one has been allowed to feel hungry - the true Fa'a Samoa, or 'the Samoan way' is expressed through gracious & sometimes overwhelming hospitality, which almost always involves food! We have a variety of host family homes - from open fales to encloses Western-style homes.
This has been my temporary host family room in an open fale - the host family's home is in the background

Our participants are doing great. I am so very proud of their attitudes & perspectives. They are taking full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime experience for all it offers. From weaving coconut leaf baskets building an umu (traditional outdoor oven), from eating fresh oyster to counting out their talla to make a purchase, from wearing the lava lava and learning a Samoan dance,  they've been diving into Samoan village life head first. At our orientation we often discussed how to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations, and those lessons are coming to life here. Language barriers and homesickness and sunburns are a reality, but these kids are problem-solving & making their experience the best it can be. 

Hattie, Warren, Logan & Akielly, 4 of our 7 Satapuala kids, waiting at the main road for the bus

Internet service in the villages has been scarce to nonexistent, but I'm writing this and plan to post on our day in Apia tomorrow (Monday). We may have one more chance for internet before we leave on Saturday for Savai'i, fingers crossed! Of not, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and send all my love from Samoa!!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sunday (in more detail!)

We enjoyed an amazing day on Sunday. Attended a church service in Apia where we were welcomed with smiles, songs, and warm greetings. Following the service we boarded buses and traveled to the opposite side of Upolu island to have a traditional Samoan lunch. We were served plausami (taro leaves stuffed w/coconut cream), roasted pig & grilled fish, oka (raw fish in cream sauce with onions & chiles), octopus and other dishes. We were grateful (and just plain FULL!) for the experience. 

After lunch we enjoyed the beach. Oh my ...the beach! Many of our AYLP students informed us that they wouldn't be boarding the bus to return to Apia but instead would stay in the sand. :) I posted a few photos in my short post this morning so you can see why they wanted to stay! Luckily, after the afternoon of sun & sand we got everyone back to Apia for an important dinner. 

Meals in Samoan villages are full of tradition & cultural significance. To help us learn and prepare, our Samoan participants prepared & served a common Sunday night meal in Samoan villages. Seated on the floor wearing our lava lavas, we ate bread, soup made of coconut cream, rice & grated cocoa, bread in coconut cream, and tea made of lemon tree leaves. We also experienced the proper seating protocols, with chiefs & honored guests along the sides of the open room, and heard the traditional opening gratitude & prayer spoken in Samoan. Following the meal we each spoke our words of gratitude (for example, 'Fa'a fetai le fa'aaloalu' or 'thank you for the kindness & hospitality) before being dismissed. What an awesome & beautiful learning opportunity...and just a glimpse of what we'll experience in the villages!