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April 12, 2016

Six Months already

Written by Zack Agerton

I have spent six months in the country of Samoa. Life moves at a much slower pace, which gives you adequate time to reflect constantly.

Sitting here now I am realizing how much I have changed. After a period of time in a third world country you begin to see your old indulges slip away. Pieces of your past self strip away. You grow accustomed to a simpler life and increasingly enjoy the little things much more. What does this look like?

Food: Last week I was sitting with the Peace Corps Country Director over lunch in the office. School had ended rather early, so I thought I would make a trip into town for a satisfying lunch. As we were talking she offered me some of her walnuts. This might not sound significant, but any type of nut is quite expensive on the island. I was not about to turn her down as I had not been able to enjoy the delicacy in a very long time. Most food items we take for granted in the States are either outrageously expensive or are nowhere to be found. Coke is very popular, while juice is hard to come by unless orange. Cheese is extremely expensive, but I often spend the cash because who doesn’t like cheese? Vegetables? Well, veggies are also difficult to find at times. I can usually get tomatoes every other week, but for those who live on Savai’i, they can forget it. The only food you can find consistently are coconuts and bananas. I have grown accustomed to eating Samoan food and even enjoying it. (Depending on the dish) Every night I eat with my family. Dinner typically involves chicken and taro, but on special occasion I am served canned herring. I know the herring sounds disgusting, but I very much enjoy it compared to the chicken. My body has integrated so well that over Easter when my friends and I cooked a traditional meal my stomach became upset after eating “normal” food.

Eating: You are probably wondering why there is a separate column for eating. This is because table etiquette doesn’t exist in Samoa. Families often while sitting on the floor use only their hands. It is often funny observing children attempting to eat with utensils as it is very difficult and food happens to go everywhere. This makes the dogs happy as it means a free meal for them. I have discovered that my manners have begun to suffer as well. I am often slurping and eating with my hands. The only manner I have seemed to keep is chewing with my mouth closed. This habit I most certainly won’t be able to break. I sometimes wonder how my mother would react because she used to scold me for such behavior. It will be funny when my parents come to visit and get to sit at a traditional meal. I will enjoy the show.

Mannerisms: Samoans have small facial mannerisms that have begun to wear off on me. The most common is the use of eyebrows. A simple way to answer yes is to lift both eyebrows. It took me several months to fully become used to this, as I wasn’t sure if they understand me or not. Samoans also use the kissy noise to get each other’s attention. If you are walking down the road and think some guy is making moves on you it's most likely he is only trying to get your attention. Now, I am doing the exact same thing and I fear when I come home my friends are going to think I am crazy when do this to them.

Sun: The sun is the determinate of time on the island, not the clock. Samoans are typically up before the sun to begin the day. Work outdoors is accomplished either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. When the sun is the highest in the sky everyone simply stays inside. I like to call 1-3pm designated naptime. It gets so hot that you just don’t want to be outside. On most days I stay indoors until the afternoon, not because I want to but because it’s what everyone else does.

Bugs/Hygiene: When I accepted my invitation Aunt Carol stated that my standards for food and hygiene would need to plummet. My youth included many hiking trips, so I thought my standards were low to begin with, but now it seems to have sunk to another level. Bugs are everywhere. They are an expected part of life, as there is no getting away. Whether there are the ants in your sugar, the flies hovering over your food, or the mosquitos terrorizing your ankles they are everywhere. In the states I was used to showering once or twice a day, depending if I worked out or not. Here my house has a water tank, which is my main source of water. If I shower everyday my tank will quickly deplete. Since I depend on this water for cooking, drinking, and cleaning, showering doesn’t take precedent. Now you are going to think this is mighty gross, but in a typical week I only shower twice. That is a mighty step down from say twice a day. Lastly, let’s talk about laundry. This task is not as easy as throwing your clothes into a machine as we have become accustomed. I have to hand wash my clothes in a bucket. Unfortunately, I am not very good at this so my clothes smell 1 of two ways: stinky or very stinky. Every once in a while I get lucky and my host mom does my toga mea (laundry) for me. I don’t know how she does it, but it smells like the downy bear when she is done.

Travel: Transportation is easily the hardest part of living in Samoa. Taxis are abundant and are easy to come by, but are ridiculously expensive. The easiest way to travel on a budget is by bus. They are cheap and for the most part are reliable (This depends on your village). The problem with them is they tend to be over crowded, which makes travel miserable. It is common to find yourself with a passenger in your lap for the duration of the ride. It is only uncomfortable when your legs begin to go numb. Furthermore, they don’t run on public holidays or Sundays. So, say you have a four day weekend because of Mother’s day and you want to go visit a friend. You are going to need to find a ride home on Monday because there are zero buses running. It also makes travel difficult on standard weekends, because they don’t run on Sundays.The buses aren’t always bad as you get to meet new people on them often. When waiting hours for a bus to depart you tend to talk to those around you. I recently met a man from New Zealand who runs a small hostel in my village. He came to Samoa on vacation the week after the tsunami of 2009 and decided to never leave. Making new friends on the bus is nice.

Time: When I was in college I was a part of an organization that was notorious for being late for everything. To combat this we would often say events began 45 minutes before their actual start time, so people would show up on time. Life in Samoa is a reminder of this type of time. You can never be expected to be in a hurry, as you will likely never arrive on time anywhere. Life takes a much slower pace here and things tend to happen whenever they want. The common saying is life in Samoa runs on “island time.” This is very true. I have many times been told to show up at events only to discover I was 1 or even 2 hours early. No one is in a hurry ever to work, to go places, or even eat, which is the staple of culture here. If there is one thing I have learned since being here it is not being punctual is okay.

Six months has taught me how to live and thrive in Samoa. I have a new sense of self and toleration for time. I rarely eat with utensils, but at least I still chew with my mouth closed. I often nonverbally answer yes or no to questions and you can often catch me napping at 3:00pm on any given day. I am never in a hurry and don’t mind walking from place to place. I may only shower twice a week, but when that shower comes it is like heaven. Life has changed so much for over the course of the past six months it is hard to wonder what going back will be like.

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