Samoan Tattoo

I got a tattoo! I got a traditional tauvae, or a band around my ankle, with the addition of the pua flower on the outside of my ankle. The pua flower is my favorite flower in Samoa and I wanted it to be a part of my tattoo. There is only one man we are allowed to go to (according to our Peace Corps doctor), but he is the best of the best.

The art of tattooing passes within families. It is almost impossible to become a tattoo artist if you are not in the bloodline of a tattoo family. The family that did my tattoo is one of the families that has been tattooing since almost the beginning of the tattoo tradition in Samoa. They are world-known artists in a family that has been famous for generations. Because they frequently travel to different countries to tattoo, they picked up safety and hygiene from countries like the United States and New Zealand. (So don’t worry! J)

The traditional way of tattooing is done with needles attached to the end of sticks, dipped in ink and tapped with another stick into the body. There are different widths of needles, depending on the design and the tattoo. When the missionaries first landed here in Samoa, they tried to put an end to the traditional way of tattooing. At the time, it was a boar’s tusk attached to sticks, instead of needles. The missionaries were appalled, saying it is unchristian, barbaric, and needed to be stopped. The Samoans argued so passionately that this was something indispensable to their culture that the tradition remains today.

Obviously, I wanted my tattoo to be done the traditional way. They had to do the pua flower by the gun because the traditional way only works for geometric shapes, but the rest of the band was done traditionally by one of the best in the business. The gun hurt a lot more than the traditional way (at least until he did the band on my Achilles tendon. That was the worst!)

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The pua flower took about 20 minutes. I then went back to the main fale, where the man had just begun his lunch. I laughed because only in Samoa do you have to wait to get a tattoo because the artist is eating! The rest of the band took about 45 minutes, so a little over an hour to get the whole thing completed!

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It’s almost a Peace Corps tradition to get a tattoo while in Samoa. Because of the importance of tattoos in the culture, it feels like a perfect remembrance of the Peace Corps service. After he finished, he explained the meaning of the symbols inside of my tattoo: the design on the outside means strength. The design in the middle stands for unity, and the two on either side stand for a spiritual path. If there is anything better for a Peace Corps tattoo, I don’t know what it is.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy the way, I LOVE IT! J

 

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A Fun and Gratifying Experience

A story came up on my facebook recently, a girl congratulating her sister for completing her Peace Corps service. Someone commented and said “what a fun and gratifying experience,” and it took a whole lot of will power NOT to contradict a total stranger on the internet.

 

There are a lot of words I would use to describe the Peace Corps experience, but “fun” is not at the top of the list. And a lot of the time, either is “gratifying.” I know you all see pictures of me in Samoa, and think that it is all just drinking coconuts and sitting on the beach. And I’m not going to lie, that is part of it. But what you might not understand is how much of a release that is. Village and school life is hard to say the least.

 

I think a lot of people think about the Peace Corps and picture Bono surrounded by a bunch of laughing African children and assume that is what life is like for 2 years. I’m sorry to be the one to burst your bubble, but…it’s not. The majority of my time is spent in the nitty gritty daily life. And in the future, when someone asks me “how was the Peace Corps?” I can guarantee that “fun” will not be the word I use.

 

Challenging. Messy. Frustrating. Never-ending. But also eye-opening. Heart-breaking. Life-changing. Joyful. Powerful. How is it possible to sum up 2 years of your life in just a few words? The word changes based on the moment in which you ask me.

 

The Peace Corps motto rings true: this truly is the hardest job I will ever love. Because at the end of the day, despite everything I go through, I love it. I know I don’t have a lot of experience in the job world yet, but I have a very hard time believing that anything I do in the rest of my life will be as formative as these 2 years in the Peace Corps. My service has pushed me to my limits, tested me in more ways than I thought would be possible. It has also expanded and changed my perspective of the world. It has opened my eyes to the benefits and difficulties that exist in all cultures and countries, including the United States. When I am back in America, I have no doubt that I will look back on this experience with rose-colored glasses. But even then, when everything I remember is great and wonderful, the word I use to describe it will not be “fun.”

 

“Fun” is for week long vacations. “Fun” is for a weekend away with friends and family. “Fun” is even for those few hours spent talking to friends on a random day. But the Peace Corps is so much more than that. The Peace Corps is about presenting America in a positive way, all the while respecting the local culture and customs. It is about integrating into the daily life while keeping your American identity. You will ask yourself many complex life questions: “who am I?” and “what am I doing here?” And many days, there will be no answers. But there are also those shining moments when everything becomes clear, and you suddenly know with confidence. The Peace Corps is full 2 years of transition that you willingly enter into: a time of uncertainty, unfamiliarity, and questioning. Everyone faces these questions throughout their lives, but the Peace Corps makes you face them when you are down and vulnerable, with nothing familiar to turn to. If you can get through that, everything else is a piece of cake.

 

I think the most important question, therefore, to ask is not “how was the Peace Corps?” but “would you choose to do it again?” That, at least, is a one-word answer.

 

Yes.

 

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Talent Quest

In the last week of Term 1, my school held a program called the Talent Quest. We had the students separated into their houses (Red, Yellow, Blue and Green) and had each age group perform certain “talents.” Years 1-3 had to sing a song with English words. Years 4-6 had to pick a country and perform a dance depicting that country.

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But the main event of the day came from Years 7-8. We had picked a theme, “Keep Samoa Clean,” and students in Years 7-8 had to create clothing from different kinds of trash (Styrofoam cups/plates, plastic spoons and forks, old CD’s and DVD’s, bottle tops, pop cans, and empty chip bags). Each house had a different trash item to collect and make clothing out of it. Two students (one girl and one boy) from each house then had to give a speech on what we can do as a community to keep Samoa clean, such as properly dispose of trash or reuse trash to make something completely new.

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This was an awesome day! I was one of the judges of the Talent Quest, with one of my other teachers. We created a rubric for each of the categories, and added up the total points to determine a winner. I love watching my students perform something that they have worked so hard for – I got teary eyed because I am so proud of all of their effort! Parents and community members came, and it was so great to see them supporting the students! It is also a great way to raise awareness for different issues, such as the environment.

I am so lucky to be involved in a school and with a staff of women who create opportunities to include all community members in learning!

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Fa’amati

The fa’amati is an annual event in the church in which the deacon of each district travels to all of the churches to inspect the maintenance of the church, the pastor’s house, and to see the donations the congregation has made that year. These donations change per church, but include things such as woven fine mats, dishes for the church to use in events, towels, sheets, basins for washing hands, serving utensils, etc. Whatever the church needs that year is what the congregation will provide.

I wrote about being a part of the fa’amati last year, when I was the sua and carried a niu to the deacon’s wife as an important woman of the village. This year, my pastor told me that I would go with his wife, who travels with the deacon to all of the churches in our district. If I had known what I was getting myself into, I would have said no.

At 6:00am Tuesday morning, I was dressed in a puletasi and at my pastor’s house waiting for the car to come pick us up. We drove about 20 minutes to the start of our district, where we would begin the inspections. We sat at this village waiting for the deacon for 2 hours. Apparently they had some car trouble on the way, so they were late.

When they arrived, we inspected the church, and the pastor’s house. We then made our way over to the church hall, where the women had gathered to show us this year’s donation to the church. But first, the village matais gave speeches and held an ava ceremony for the deacon and his wife. After the ava ceremony was over, and I had been proposed to by multiple men, the women started the presentation of the donations. When this was finished, we then ate breakfast. Everyone had told me going into this day that I would have a lot of food. Knowing this, I paced myself and only ate a few things. This turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes I made all day.

Once everyone was fed, we had the final speeches and the exchanging of money and other gifts. We then packed up our things to go and went to the next church. By the time we left this first church, it was 10:00am. It was then that I realized this was going to be a long day. We had 8 more churches to go.

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The same thing happened at all of the other churches: the inspection of church and house, the presentation of gifts, food, and exchange of money. I was proposed to at all of the churches, all of which came from men at least twice my age. People were not lying – there was a lot of food. But the problem is we had so many places to go that there wasn’t enough time to actually eat. I returned home exhausted after 8:00pm with mats, necklaces, money, and trays and trays of food.

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While this was a different and interesting cultural experience, it was also one of the worst days I’ve had in Samoa. For starters, I was tired and hungry. And you know how grumpy I get when I am hungry. But it can also be very frustrating to see how much money people give to high members of the church, and how much money these high members expect each church to give. I know of many stories of people who cannot afford food or soap, but they give money to the church. While this is a great sentiment, and these people literally give everything they have to the church, it makes me sad that this is the reality. Most of the churches I’ve gone to stand up and say who has given what amount of money at the end of every service. Everyone knows if someone doesn’t have money in a given week. They spend money at church to save face rather than choosing to eat. And I was frustrated that I was there because it meant that the church felt obligated to give me money as well. I walked away with $50-$200 per church. I do not need this money, and the fact that I was there made me mad at my pastor for forcing these other churches to accommodate me, mad at myself for being an unexpected burden on an already lean time, and recognizing this anger at each of the 9 churches added to an already tiring day.

As I am on the home-stretch of my service (8 months to go!) I find myself struggling much more with some cultural aspects in Samoa. In my first year, everything I did was a new, cultural experience and I was just along for the ride. But now that I’ve been here for so long, and I’ve experienced all of these events once already, it is easier for me to judge and become frustrated with the way things are. And it is sometimes hard to let go of the thought that I am here to change things. I am not here to change the culture. Not only is that impossible to do within a 2 year period, but I also have no right to do that. Who am I to say that they are doing something wrong, just because it is something different than I’m used to?

As frustrated as I get here, there are also an equal number of things that bring me such joy. I was talking with another PCV the other day about how weird it is to think that we will be back in America at this time next year. We both agreed that there are moments when we think to ourselves “Get me on the next plane out of this country,” and in the next moment can think “I am never leaving Samoa.” I don’t think I have ever wanted opposite things equally as much before. To say the Peace Corps is a roller-coaster of emotions is an understatement.

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