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The New Normal Part 1

Reciprocity: the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit, especially privileges granted by one country or organization to another.

It has been quite the adjustment living on a tropical island.  After eight months, I am beginning to feel settled and integrated into my community. My favorite part about Fa’a Samoa (The Samoan Way) is reciprocity. The people are incredibly generous with their food, money, time and friendliness.

So many aspects of my daily life have changed and I will highlight a few here:

Food

I live in a fale (fall- ay) in front of my host parents and I cook all of my meals using my “makeshift” kitchen of a water kettle, rice cooker, hot plate and blender. Though I live on the big island, this is not the main island, so food supply is inconsistent and making a grocery list feels pointless. It is fun to see what random items make it on to the island. My most recent exciting find was pesto and almond milk! Staple foods for me now a days are canned lentils, chick peas, beets, eggs and fresh tomatoes, apples, oranges, bananas, ginger, eggplant, potatoes, and carrots. I find it incredibly interesting that the chicken most people eat here is Tyson chicken, that kind of freaks me out.

On Sundays I eat To’onai from my family. This is usually chicken soup and taro or pumpkin soup (my favorite). My family loves when I bring food to share with them. A few things I enjoy cooking are potatoes and eggs, chickpea and eggplant tacos, and soup, and I make a smoothie atleast once a day.

OH MY I want P Terrys and Chick Fil a. Eating out is not really an option. There are a few hotels around the island that serve decent food and some nice bar drinks, but those are a ways a way from me and my volunteer budget doesn’t support that. There is a fish and chips place that I thought was good, but when my two best friends were here, one of them got intense food poisoning from it.  womp womp.

Transportation

The only picture I have of a bus.

Walking throughout my village is a rewarding experience. I have  noticed that any time I try to walk anywhere, I am offered a ride by someone. Sometimes I graciously accept while other times I tell them that I am training. The village people are always interested in where I am going, whether it be to church or to the shop.

At least once a week, my teacher friend, SiliVali offers to bring me to Salelologa to go grocery shopping. I am so grateful for her and her company because it is just not fun taking the bus to grocery shop. SiliVali says she enjoys taking care of me. I call her “Big Momma” and she always gets a huge kick out of that.

Taking the bus is an experience. Despite feeling like they are about to fall apart, the buses are always blaring the tunes and usually get me to where I need to be. It is no surprise if a 40 passenger bus has 80 people on it, with the island rendition of Purple Rain blaring. Do you see why I am completely grateful to Silivali and the hospitality of Samoan people?

Since Peace Corps Volunteers cannot drive, and my school is located a couple of miles away, I was issued a bike! Having a bike gives me a lot of freedom and it’s a great exercise. Recently, the tire popped, and I have not been proactive at all in getting it fixed. The past few weeks I have been walking to school and I enjoy chatting (in my extremely limited Samoan) with people throughout the village. The other day one of my students, Opeta, and his dad showed up and fixed my tire. I was so grateful and enjoyed throwing the frisbee with Opeta while his dad worked on my bike.

Free Time

It’s pretty common of Peace Corps Volunteers to have a lot of free time. At first I thought I was going insane but quickly learned to embrace all of this time.  I have read 26 books (See what I have read here! ) and binged many TV series. I have written over 25 letters to friends and family and my newest hobbies are adult coloring books and at home Yoga. Today I sent eight more letters and the mail lady said that out of the entire island, including Samoans, I send the most mail- I’ll take that as a compliment.

It has really been an experience of growth and embracing it all is hard. Going with it is challenging at times but in the end, rewarding.

Cheers to blogging more!

-Susie

my two best friends, Layne and Maggie visited in April.

Group 89 at a training.

In May, we received books from Darien Book Aid and the Apia Rotary Club.

Weekend beach trip with my friends Lena and Whitney.

Sunset at Falealupo.

A room full of coconuts for a Rugby tournament at my school.

Faith and Lita learning K.

Fishing at sunset.My sweet nephews in their Samoan shirts. My host sister made them.

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School Days

“I never met a kid I couldn’t teach. Every kid was good at something and the trick was to find out what it was, then use it to to teach him everything else. It was good work, the kind of work that let you sleep soundly at night and, when you awoke, look forward to the day” Half Broke Horses // Jeannette Walls

January and February have passed so quickly. School has begun and the kids are so eager to get to know me and spend time with me. During these past few months I’ve turned a storage room into a library/classroom where I pull small groups of students to work on their English. We started with A and we will work our way through the alphabet. As I write this, a little girl just walked by my house saying “A ah Apple.” Oh joy.

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While the library looks sparse, the kids and the teachers are really impressed with how it turned out and I am learning that less is more. I enjoyed creating this space and I am excited for the memories I will share with teachers and students over the next two years.

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My favorite part of the day is biking to and from school. As I stroll by kids and parents shout “Fa Susie” or “Morning!” I smile the entire way and I enjoy sneaking up on the kids and yelling “FA!” It is fun to leave when all the kids leave around 2 pm. The kids try to race me on foot and of course I always win. On Monday, when I was done working, a student, Opeta was waiting for me. He ran, while I biked, the entire way home.

Last week, a few boys were having a jolly good time chasing me when I noticed the vegetable stand had eggplants. (I can get a huge amount for 5 tala, about $2). In my broken Samoan i got the boys to carry the eggplants to my house. So I went on and they arrived with my vegetables about 10 minutes later. Once they arrived, I gave them water and some American candy and they were super cute about it.

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Tropical Cyclone Gita interrupted the flow of school in week three- the entire country cancelled school for a week to clean up. My village was pretty much untouched except for a few down trees. During Gita, volunteers that live near me consolidated to my house and we had a 5 night party of playing Settlers of Catan, Monopoly Deal, and homemade Farkle.

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It has been a great start to year 1 of service, I am looking forward to March and all the good times to come!

-Susie

December Highlights

“To me, one of the best faces America has ever projected is the face of a Peace Corps volunteer. That face symbolizes this country: young, curious, brimming with idealism, and hope- a real honest compassion-” Teresa Heinz

As I notice how sweaty I am sitting here writing this, and forcefully swat at a bug on my computer (bug guts are now on my screen), I realize the newness has worn off. While I have settled in and adjusted to the Samoan way of life, I feel excited and interested in each day and I am learning to just go with it.

At the beginning of the month training ended, I swore in as an official volunteer, moved to site, and got Dengue Fever. It was a pretty rough 8 day sickness where I ached, had no energy, and got a gnarly rash on my arms and legs. There was no medicine to take, I just had to get through it and I did. I am so happy to see the light after that- at times I thought it would never end and I felt like a baby.

My Christmas was definitely one to remember. I woke up to many wishes from home because my super thoughtful mom had friends and family record Christmas wishes for me (Click password: susiesamoa). It caught me off guard and I cried at every single one- even my sisters.  After getting myself under control, I went to a church service with my host mom.  Later in the day my host sister and I went to a church BBQ with no BBQ…I joined a Samoan meeting where the elders were discussing (in Samoan) top performing students and after, they served me ice cream and crackers, all the elders shook my hand, and then a little dance party started. After, I joined a teacher, SiliVali, and her family at her house for ping pong, french fries and drinks. She regitted me a bottle of Chardonnay that they insisted I drink then. SiliVali brought out a big plate of french fries and her husband insisted many times that we cheers to the White House. Later, a guy kept doing some dance moves in front of the house and I was forced to dance from the porch to “defend the house.” The Samoan cackle could be heard miles away- they loved it.  We finished the party listening to 3 teenage boys serenade us with a Yamaha electric piano. They continuously sang Young Dumb and Broke, Despacito, and Three Little Birds.

Christmas lunch

The dancing man I had to defend off

Teacher friend, SiliVali

See what I mean when I say: “Just got with it?”

For New Years Eve a few friends from around the Island joined me at my house and we read tarot cards, played Settlers of Catan, had some bubbly, and excitedly brought in 2018.  I started 2018 with seeing the Taga Blow Holes. They blew my mind!

I am feeling really positive for 2018 and I am excited to continue sharing this

interesting journey with you!                

Excerpts from my Journal

I have an adorable journal that a student gave me as a going away present in Texas. In the corners of the first 50 or so pages, she wrote things like “#BTFE best teacher friend ever” or “Hope you have good students!” My favorite is “#Yourabeast.” This little journal has been a great place to jot down interesting things that happen that I want to remember forever. Here is what November looks like…

11/4

If I forgot the words to “From This Moment On” by Shania Twain, I got them again. The song has been on repeat for a few days and I must say, I kind of like it. Now time for 4 pieces of toast and coffee and then off to Apia for cash and a smoothie. AND Sharon just restarted it and said “MY FAVORITE SONG!”  Solid.

Update: I introduced Sharon to more Shania Twain. She was dumbfounded at how amazing Shania is.

11/7

Today we went fishing and my dad (BOSS) wasn’t able to make it because his high chief meeting was running long. Why? They were deciding the punishment for a girl who cheated on her husband and got pregnant. It was a big decision- $2,500 or 50 pigs. In the end she and the man she cheated with have to buy 50 cases of herring canned fish. The 50 cases will be distributed to the village people. So I for see canned fish in my future.

11/13

Yesterday, The church my family attends (Assembly of God) welcomed all of the Peace Corps Trainees to our church. My uncle preached, I danced, and the youth did fun skits. It was really fun and the dance my sisters and I did was so special. After church we went to the pastor’s house behind the church for lunch. It was a feast and all of my Peace Corps friends were so impressed and loved Upu’s famous “Crumb Chicken!” We even had ice cream and Upu made sure I got seconds.  What I hope to always remember about this day is what Pastor Emanule said about the Peace Corps Volunteers that impacted his life. He talked bout how they affected every aspect of his life and even his children. After he made us feel like a million bucks for serving in his country, they gave everyone a present- I got a nice woven hat made from the trees. We took a lot of pictures and then we went on a fun and memorable bus ride to bring everyone home.  It was great. I slept from 3- 7:30pm and ended my day  visiting Taumiaia (shopkeeper) with Upu, Sharon, Aiga, and Deborah for another round of ice cream.

11/17

I’m beginning to feel like my klutz self is showing. One morning this week I locked my keys in my room. My dad practically dismantled the window and Rachel went head first into my room. Then today, while taking a bucket shower, I set my glasses on top of a concrete cinder block that was hollow with a hole in the top. DOWN my glasses went. Before I consulted the family, I pretty much was at peace with not having them.  I told my dad, he got my brother and they went fishing in the cinder block. About 30 minutes later, my brother came out smiling with my glasses on. I hate feeling like a burden or that I’ve been annoying, but they don’t seem to mind. They laugh while solving my absent minded problems.

11/19

“Are you okay? Are you happy?” These are a few simple questions I am asked multiple times a day. Yes! I am okay. Yes! I am happy. These questions never get old- the simplicity of both questions, yet complexity of being okay and happy. So far, the answer has always been yes, except for the occasional joke where I say NO! and whoever asked me responds no different than when I say yes. Also, it is Sunday and I had ice cream twice again today…..yum.

11/20

An impromptu circle of volleyball was a highlight today. I was determined to finish my book, but heard some volleyball outside. It was fun and the bruises on my forearms are totally worth it. At one point the circle had 13 people playing including the neighbors and my mom and dad. I loved watching my dad play. He is so funny. Also the music in the background- Samoan versions of the latest hip hop, everyone did a little jig every now and then. I totally heard some knock off Beyonce: Sorry.

It has been a great month. I have one week left with my current training family. Then I am off to Apia to swear in as an official volunteer and then to my official site. So much is happening so quickly and I am so happy to share it with you.

October Highlights

“The place you stick out the most is the place where you should stay. Because that’s where you can contribute something new”- Riz Ahmed

What a month. October has been incredibly busy, but exciting none the less. I love not knowing what the day will bring. I am in constant awe; the hospitality and kindness of the people, the intense beautiful colors, the smiles, the breeze – everything. I am sure I will soon get used to it, but I am hoping I stay in constant awe for as long as possible, it’s a great state of mind.

Keeping up with the blog is difficult, So many aspects of my life have changed and it is hard to write down all the differences and similarities of this unique chapter of life.  I welcome your suggestions or questions for future blog posts (susiemstillwell@gmail.com)!

here are a few highlights from my month:

  • Living with the Lemoa family has been a blast. My Host dad, Levai is the pastor at the church, a fisherman, a farmer, the cook, and a really great dad to all his children- he’s a Jack of all trades and he does it all with a smile.  Last week he asked me why I am doing The Peace Corps. He thanked me for my dedication and for helping his country. It was sweet and heartfelt. My host mom, Maselina is a quiet queen. She is always smiling, and a great mom to her children. She told me the other day, “I am your mom, I wash your clothes!” She is a hard worker and keeps the house tidy, she is also a champ at taking it easy. All of their children are active in the church, great singers and dancers, and just plain good people.
  • The family boat rides have left me in awe. The blue water, the tiny islands- straight off of Planet Earth. We saw sea turtles, dolphins, and plenty of beautiful fish. We took a coconut break and relaxed in the clear blue water. Rachel and the girls serenaded me with Moana music. It was so perfect that we went again the next week and a few Peace Corps friends tagged along. This time the waves were bigger and I lost my stomach a few times. The boys caught lots of fish, the gals enjoyed the views. While swimming, we got caught in an intense rain storm. We laughed a whole lot on this day. We dropped off each friend with a half of a fish, it was quite the experience. It was once again a perfect boat day!
  • Training has been an overload of important information. Monday through Friday I am in training with 15 other Peace Corps Trainees. We are the 89th Peace Corps Samoa group and it is evident that the leadership team  has put a lot of time and effort in to making training effective and fun. I am really enjoying my new group of friends here. This past week we completed our first practice teach in the local school where our training is held. It was nice to be in a classroom again with smiling kids. A huge difference from teaching in the states that I find difficult is simplifying everything. No longer am I asked “How can you take this lesson deeper?” it’s now “How can you make it simpler?”

This month flew by. Though training is an intense beast of a ten weeks, I look forward to the rest of it! In a few weeks I will find out where I will be serving for the next two years, and in December I will swear in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer.  There is a lot to look forward to and I am excited to share it all with you.

Thanks for reading. Enjoy the photos!

Laughter in Samusu

“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor” – Charles Dickens

What a difference a week makes! Today marks one week with my Samoan family.

I was welcomed in to my training village, Samusu, with around 8 pisikoa (direct translation= busy chicken, but it also translates as Peace Corps Volunteer) with an Ava Ceremony. The mayor of the village read a beautiful speech in English where she thanked the Government of Samoa and The Peace Corps for selecting their village as the 10 week training village. It was heartfelt and I fought back a tear or two- they are truly grateful.

After the Ava Ceremony we were served a traditional Samoan meal.

I could write a book on my first week in Sumusu- these people are kind, interesting, and unique. They are happy and laugh at the smallest things. The laughter is contagious and I’ve noticed my face hurting from laughing and smiling so much.

I have no idea what all this laughter was about.

As I write, my family has FINALLY settled in bed and they have stopped laughing. What are they laughing at you might wonder? They are teaching me a Samoan dance and got a real kick out of my dance skills.

Rachel relaxing in front of the fan after an intense dance party.

White Sunday is a day to celebrate children. The kids sing beautiful songs, perform silly skits, and do traditional Samoan dances. Oh my, the skits are funny, but the reaction of the Samoans is completely lose yourself, knee slappin’ laughter!

Here that laughter?
One reason I was drawn to this project in Samoa is because I have heard that Pacific Islanders are the happiest people in the world. I am excited and grateful for the next two years of smiles and laughs with the Samoan people.

Rehearsing for White Sunday.

Host sister Deborah, me and host sister Rachel ready for white Sunday.

A few of my new family members in front of our house.

My Samoan Dad ( Boss) and host sister, Sharon ready to eat our White Sunday feast.

Fellow Peace Corps Trainee, Cynthia came over for dinner.

Going for a walk.

I busted out my deck of cards and they haven’t stopped playing. I taught them ‘Go Fish’ today.

Faifailemu (taking it easy) with the parents.

Late night truck ride to Amailie.

Host sister and friend, Upu, working hard sewing a dress.

Until next time,

Susie

Dreamin’

Tomorrow the adventure begins, and the huge heap of things is still there, a bit more organized. My Peace Corps adventure is a long time coming. I began the application ten years ago when I failed my first semester of college and I hit submit this past March after attending a teacher conference I thought was a total bust.

So here we are…! I have had four months off of work- it has been fabulous. I have had a lot of time to relax with friends and family, sleep until I wake up, and dream weird dreams that I am going to interpret for y’all right here-

Dream 1:

Dream one was in the airport. I had just met all of my new Peace Corps friends. Everyone got through security and I was last to go. Of course, I did not make it through. I didn’t fit in the body scanner. I was so embarrassed and everyone looked at me awkwardly.

Interpretation:

Making new friends will be fun, but my old friends won’t be there laughing with me through all of my awkward moments. (hopefully I fit in the body scanner)

Dream II

Our group got to where we were going, it was more like a big city in Italy. We checked in to our hotel and I asked the lady for the WIFI password, and she told me to get on the kids network and that the password was Perez Hilton backwards…OK…

Interpretation II

I fear I will not be able to communicate with friends and family in the states. I think I will though, mostly through my phone on Facebook and WhatsApp. I have already talked to my mom about setting a weekly phone call, and my Squirrels (best gals) have downloaded WhatsApp and there is talk of moving the whole friend group chat there (yas- I cant miss the birth of baby Mikey).

Dream III

I continued to work at my most recent school, Walnut Springs. A few weeks into the school year I was switched to 4th grade. I was excited because my good friend Mrs. Clark was a 4th grade teacher, but the kids were HORRIBLE. I was out of breath constantly from yelling and no one listened to me. There was a huge slope in the classroom and I told my lovely principal, “I quit, I’m going to the Peace Corps,” and I slid down the slope like a big slide.

*I miss my last job—-A LOT! The kids are not bad at all and I would never walk out on that school.*

Interpretation III

Even though I am leaving a lot behind, this adventure is meant to be. ❤

I welcome your thoughts and further interpretation!

Now time to get my bags packed and get on outta here.

giphy

-Susie

Goal: The Newbery Award Books

Hello!

As I write my first blog post of this amazing adventure, a huge heap of things I plan to bring with me is staring me down. It is overflowing from a blue storage bin; the least bit organized. I have a pretty decent to do list but I find myself on the couch watching Bachelor in Paradise contestants on Ellen.  

Overflowing from this blue storage bin are quite a few books. While teaching third grade, I quickly found that I love reading children’s novels. I prided myself this past year that I read over 10 novels with my students, some that have become my favorite books.

This brings me to a goal that I am setting for myself, and I would love for you to participate.

I will read all of the Newbery Award books from 1922- present during my Peace Corps Service (27 months).

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The Newbery Medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year. The purpose of the Newbery Medal is “To encourage original creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children’s reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this field. (www.ala.org)”

Why is this a good idea for me?

It is important for teachers to know good books. While teaching reading, I referenced this list many times, yet I have only read a handful.

It is  a timeless list. Some of the most memorable books from my childhood are on this list ( A Wrinkle in Time, Island of The Blue Dolphins, Holes) and they continue to be popular today.

This is a great way to stay connected with my former students and nephews: Those that would like to participate can connect with me through Kaizena (code:c7t4n). I may have to ask someone to send me the next book on the list 🙂

A library of great books for Samoa.  Even though I do not know where I will be placed in Samoa, I believe there will be a special place for a collection of Newbery Medal books to live and be read.  

How will it work?

If you have taught with me, been my student, been a parent of a student, or you are friends and family, you know that most things I do are pretty informal. I tend to not play by the rules and I like to just go with however it turns out. So, we will see how it goes and I will do my best to have a bit of formality to this daunting task. 

Feel free to start with me in October as I read the 1922 Newbury Award book, The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon. I created a Kaizena space to discuss the books (code: c7t4n), but I am not sure what my internet access will be in Samoa. 

I also do not have all of these books, so your participation in sending them to me is important!

This is a beautiful list of remarkable books that I am excited to read. I hope you can join me for a few, or the whole list.

newbery medal winners 1922-present

 

Thanks for reading,

Susie

 

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