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! 

Sunday, December 15, 2013


Here are just a few photos from our day on Sunday. After church services in Apia we visited the beach at Matatufu for lunch and time in the water.  I will write more when our service is better.

On the road to Matatufu

Our fales at the beach

Impossibly beautiful!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Day 1!

Sunday, 645 am

After landing tired yet thrilled on Friday evening, we arrived at our hotel and enjoyed time with our host siblings. Our first full day in Samoa was Saturday, when we dove head-first into our exchange! A two hour language lesson, a scavenger hunt through the capital city of Apia, and a bus ride to the very beautiful Piula Cave pools for swimming & exploring gave us an awesome glimpse of the country...and only left us wanting to see more! Aside from a few sunburns & some still-jet lagged bodies, everyone is happy, healthy, and thoroughly appreciating this incredible experience.

Today (Sunday) we will attend a church service in the capital city, then a traditional umu or Samoan Sunday lunch, in a village.

Here are a few photos from our airport arrival & our group activities. 

Our Samoan hosts dancing for us at the airport upon arrival. 

44 teenagaers + 2 ice breaker games = at least a million laughs & smiles!

Tara & Warren modeling our lava lava's, gifts from our AYLP hosts 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Welcome to Samoa!!

We've arrived on Samoa!! As I type it is 730 am on Saturday (around noon on Friday in WY) and we're ready to start our 1st full day in Samoa! We arrived to an incredible welcome from our host families @ the airport & got settled in to our hotel. After a long day of travels on Wednesday (and a fun trip to the market during our layover in Fiji!) we were tired & ready for showers! We were so glad to just relax last night in the beautiful city of Apia. Our morning is starting out rainy, and we are going to have breakfast & begin our first language lesson soon.

Our internet service will be scarce & somewhat costly, but I hope to post w/some photos later today.

Everyone is doing great & is in awe of the beautiful place & people we've already experienced.

Tafoa for now!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Last Day at Home in 2013!

It's always a fun but unusual sensation to say "See you next year!" as we approach January 1st and the annual rolling over of our calendars. It's happening a bit earlier for me this year, as I'm wishing my holiday greetings to friends & coworkers and preparing for tomorrow's departure. When I arrive back home in Cody it will be 2014!

I know the 3 weeks are going to pass in the blink of an eye, but it still feels strange when I think about "missing" the holidays this year.  My holiday season will be nontraditional in almost every way, but it will be memorable and fulfilling in dozens of different ways ... ways I'm sure I can't even comprehend yet. I am crazy-excited to experience the new and unique traditions and festivities alongside new friends in Samoa, and I'm equally excited to return home and hear about the long-standing traditions and festivities my friends & family enjoyed. Maybe I'll even find a few Samoan ways of celebrating the holidays to take back home and incorporate into my own celebrations.

So what does someone do on their last day in Northern Wyoming before leaving for a 3-week South Pacific adventure? Play in the snow, of course! My #1 goal of the day is to spend 100% of it with my husband; the #2 goal is to get outside and enjoy the cold and winter weather as much as we possibly can. So we're off to share some time in the mountains - and make the final preparations for the beginning of this adventure tomorrow!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

About Samoa


I have a confession to make:  When the application to be part of the AYLP - Samoa trip came into my email account several months ago and I decided to apply, I had no idea where Samoa was.

I knew it was an island.
A warm island.
A warm, beautiful island.
But that was it.

So naturally, I got on Google (what else?!) to search for the location - which, it turns out, is about half way between Hawaii and New Zealand. With that primary curiosity satisfied, I started researching some of the rich historical & cultural information.

Here are just a few things I've learned ... if anyone else has info to add please do so!

Geography & Population:

Map from Wikipedia
  • Samoa gained its independence from New Zealand in 1962, a little over 50 years ago, which made it the first independent island-nation in the South Pacific
  • Many people may confuse or incorrectly lump together Samoa with American Samoa. While they are neighboring island groups in the South Pacific, American Samoa is an unincorporated territory of the United States
  • The Samoan islands are 1,133 square miles (for comparison purposes, Wyoming is just under 98,000 square miles, and Park County is about 7,000 square miles)
  • Samoa's current population is approximately 190,000 people
  • At least 2/3 or more of the population reside on the main island of Upolu. We will be staying for most of our trip with host families on the island of Upolu, and we will also visit several days to the island of Savai'i which is more rural
Weather & Climate:
As I type this blog on Saturday morning, it is 22 degrees below zero at my house in Cody - that's actual temp, not considering wind chill. In Apia, Samoa (the capital city, on the island of Upolu) right now it is 84 degrees with an expected high of 92 today.

I don't want to incite anger or violence for those of my friends & family in the Western US and Midwest who are in the midst of this deep-freeze alongside me, but that climate difference is going to be CRA-ZY! A 100-degree-plus temperature difference in a matter of a day or so could be a difficult adjustment. I'm sure I'm not getting any sympathy or pity, but I do think it's interesting to note!

Since we are there during Samoa's summer, we're in store for very warm weather - in the 90's as the high temps, and mid- to low-80's as the low temps ... and probably no wind chill. ;)

Just 4 more days until we depart - I will likely post once or twice before we leave with a few more updates, but until then ... Tofa soifua!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The American Youth Leadership Program

I've had many people ask me to share some information on the program or organization that is making this Samoan exchange possible so here is a quick overview:

The program is called the American Youth Leadership Program, or AYLP.  AYLP is funded by the US State Department through their Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs. The intent of AYLP is to offer US teens (between ages 15 and 17) the opportunity to travel abroad, gain firsthand experience in a foreign culture, and examine issues that have significance on a global scale. This is accomplished through a 3 to 4 week exchange that includes family homestays, community service, leadership training, and other educational and cultural opportunities in country.

Each AYLP program is different, as they have different global destinations and different focus areas. Each program is also organized by a different entity around the United States (a school district, a nonprofit organization, etc.) so no two programs are identical.

The program I am fortunate to be involved with is being organized by the University of Wyoming. UW received funding to complete an AYLP trip to Mongolia each year for the past 2 years, and this year they are focusing on Samoa. All of the participants are from one of the 13 Western states and had to go through an application and interview process to be selected. Each participant (myself included) has a requirement to complete follow-on activities after our return to relate the learning we experienced in Samoa back to our schools and communities in the United States.

In addition to our 22 teen participants, there are 5 adults going to Samoa next week. Warren, Jake, Stacy, Alexis and I provide oversight, support, and assure the teen participants have a positive learning experience. And, while in Samoa are also immersed in our own exchange. We get to participate in host family homestays, experience leadership and cultural training, and complete community service activities alongside the youth participants. We are ALL in this program to experience and learn from the unique Samoan culture, and return to the United States with skills and experiences to share.

The AYLP program website offers more information, including stories of previous AYLP participants. You can check it out at:  http://exchanges.state.gov/us/program/american-youth-leadership-program

Monday, December 2, 2013

Airports and packing and towels ...oh my!

We can now officially say that we leave next week, which suddenly makes our trip VERY real! We just had our final conference call this evening with our participants, going over travel schedules, packing, and other details. Discussing these logistics seemed to make everything come to life in a different way.  Instead of talking about clothes & gear we might want to take, we are making final decisions on what we will be bringing along. These things we've been pondering for months are now choices we will make in the next 10 days...and everyone is very ready!

Some of us have been doing a "dry run" of packing to figure out what we are taking along, what we will leave home, and just how much stuff can fit into a suitcase that will be under the 50 pound checked baggage weight limit!  We have a diversity of experiences and places in store on this exchange so we have to be prepared for many circumstances.

Here's a quick pic of what my packing "staging area" looks like in the guest room of our house:

From running shoes to sunscreen, host family gifts to sundresses, we need to be ready for it all! For example, we will be with host families most of our stay so very casual clothing (shorts & skirts, t-shirts, sandals & flip flops, etc.) are going to be appropriate. However, in the Samoan capital city of Apia we need to be dressed professionally for visits at the embassy and with other officials. Also, we have learned that during our home stays we will be expected to wear all white on Sundays for church services. So it becomes a bit complicated to make sure we aren't overloaded, but are truly prepared, for all of the experiences we have ahead.

One quick, interesting note:
You'll notice in the picture I'm packing a towel or two. We've learned that in Samoa we shouldn't come to expect towels to be provided for us, even in hotels. It's a personal item that people bring with them, and so we too will bring our own towels on our travels. It's the small and seemingly insignificant cultural differences like this that make me so excited and so fascinated by the millions of "a-ha!" moments that are in store for us on this trip.

Fingers crossed this will all fit in my backpack ... and I'll have the strength to lift said backpack ... as we prepare to leave in just a little over 10 days!

Friday, November 22, 2013

There are some people you need to meet...

Let me introduce you to 22 of the smartest, funniest, most creative, interesting & caring group of people you'll ever met. These are the 22 participants I have the honor of joining on a 3-week exchange trip to Samoa ... I couldn't be luckier!

One of the most challenging things I've had to do in a while was to take part in the selection process of the AYLP - Samoa 2013 participants. We had around 80 applications for these 22 spots. We reviewed all 80 applications thoroughly, narrowed them down to about 40, and then we interviewed via Skype with those 40 candidates. The hours we spent on Skype with those 40 applicants was exhausting and some of the most fun I've ever had ... we heard amazing stories, saw incredible passion, witnessed nervous excitement, and laughed at the sheer energy they brought to the process. It was hard work, yet I truly had a blast. 

While the decision to select these 22 participants out of almost 80 applications was unbelievably tough, it's become clear that the selections we made were right on. This group came together from their hometowns all across the Western United States in August for an orientation to our Samoa experience. It immediately became clear that the hard work had paid off. These 22 participants are THEE right people for AYLP Samoa. 

The 5 adults (myself and 4 others) who are on the trip have the best job in the world: we get to share in the learning experience alongside these 22 amazing participants. These scholars, athletes, artists, comedians, musicians, book-worms, students, sons, daughters, and friends are going to make amazing travel partners for our 3 weeks in Samoa. 

Can't wait to see you guys soon - Manuia!

Monday, November 18, 2013

3 Week Countdown!

The countdown has begun ... T-minus 3 weeks until I depart for a 3 week cultural exchange trip to Samoa. This trip has been months in the making, filling out my application paperwork back in March and learning of my spot in the program in April. I'm in the midst of some final preparations, and I realized I needed a way to journal my trip for myself and for my friends & family. (Plus, my friend Amy insisted I blog ... so here you go!!) :) My hope is to share some of my experiences of the trip through this blog. The entire focus of this trip is to learn and reflect on this cultural experience and how it impacts our world view and the role we play in our communities. I hope you will ask questions and comments so you can join me on this learning process.

Over the past 9 months I've studied the culture, learned some Samoan words, researched the nation's history, spent time looking at maps, and single-handedly consumed 2 boxes of Girl Scout "Samoas" cookies - all in the name of research. And now ... the 'research' phase is almost over and the trip is almost here. Only 3 weeks left!

I'll post a bit more background information about the program (American Youth Leadership Program, or AYLP), the participants I'll be sharing this experience with, and some of the places we plan to visit. Until then, thanks for checking out my Samoa Adventure 2013 blog!