Emily in Samoa: An Average Day

May 18, 2016

I guess I should begin by saying that no day is really average here, but since we’ve stopped our classes and begun our month-long independent research projects, we’ve all begun to sink into our own daily schedules. We’ve also stopped island-hopping, which means we are spending a lot of quality time in Apia and its environs. Here is my daily schedule:

7:00- wake up. Drink tea, write journal entries. I check my email before the real action of the day begins, since with the time difference the day (well, yesterday) has already begun at home. Before this, however, I need to squish the ants that take up residence in my laptop overnight. Keyboards are prime real estate for colonially-inclined insects, and I have tried to discourage them from settling permanently in my electronics. However, the war can never be fully won.

8:30- head to town. Apia is about 10 minutes away from campus, and we get there by taking pink and yellow city buses. Luckily for us, they are not too crowded in the morning, though when schools get out they are packed, a phenomenon that Samoans deal with by sitting on other passengers’ laps, often stacking three people high. Many of the drivers like to blast reggae music, blending Samoan classics with revamped American pop.

In town, I go first to the headquarters of Women in Business (WIB), a local organization funded by the UNDP. My research project is focused on local farm to table initiatives, and WIB is running a project that is designed to better connect farmers and restaurants. I show up at around 9:00 to see what they have planned for the day, then tag along on any excursions they have. One day we set out on a tour of farms on the north coast, sourcing for weekly supplies of produce. WIB records what farmers have available, then sends a list of available foods to participants. Each sends an order list in return, and on Fridays WIB puts the orders in palm frond baskets. The idea is that farmers will not have to drive all the way to Apia, then sit all day in an open air market, only to return home without selling their produce. Farm to table will guarantee them a buyer, and cut down on shopping trips for restaurants and local consumers.

12:30- Since our research projects depend on surveys and interviews, I concentrate on interviews in the morning, and give out surveys in the afternoon. Interviews cannot be scheduled in Samoa, as executives and officials will often be two hours late, or postpone “for tomorrow” (which really means an ambiguous time in the future), or spontaneously leave for New Zealand for a month without giving notice. That said, it’s much easier to show up at the government buildings and see who’s around.

Surveys are the same as interviews: show up, don’t make appointments, and be friendly…but also be pushy. I have surveyed 50 restaurants (in a country of 180,000 people, this is fairly sizable), and the amount of time taken to fill them out ranges from two minutes to two weeks, during which I come back “tomorrow” five times, and listen to owners tell me to return some other time to get them. I now sympathize much more with people who hand out surveys…

Though it comes as a surprise to restaurateurs, my surveys are not intended to irk or inconvenience. I hope to gauge restaurants’ satisfaction with local markets and resources, as well as to assess potential problems with both local and imported foods. Once I explain this to restaurants, they are much friendlier. Some owners sit down with me to chat, making me a cappuccino and talking to me for hours about their hopes for their restaurant, challenges to business, where Samoa is headed, and the hot new topic of Why Trump Is Terrifying (their perspective). We often get on the topic of their favorite recipes, and they insist not only that they have the best recipe for fried chicken/pork dumpling/etc. in Samoa, but also that I must try said recipe. Similarly, farmers always make sure that I take samples of their best fruits home with me. This is my favorite part of my research.

Buses stop running at around 5:00, so after walking around town hunting down surveys, I head back to campus. Our group has a water boiler, a rice maker, a toaster, and a one-legged skillet, and we cook and talk as we trickle in from our daily adventures. Research can be exhausting, but it is also rewarding to make your own schedule, and reap the benefits of the efforts you put into a project. With only three weeks left of the program, it is essential that we all continue to put our all into our experience, in order to get the most out of our time here.

Emily in Samoa: Sega na Leqa

April 19, 2016

Sega na leqa (pronounced SENG-a na LENG-a, and don’t enunciate the g’s) is a Fijian phrase similar in meaning to hakuna matata: in other words, no worries, no problem. This is a key phrase to know in Fiji, which has taken on new meaning for me during our week-long visit to the country. Before we arrived, I’d thought it a given that we’d be chanting the “no worries” mantra–Fiji is internationally typecast as a carefree, worry-free, never-ending beach, probably with a waterfall in the background and a pink hibiscus blossom somewhere in sight. Of course we’d be saying no worries in a place like that, where there is seemingly nothing to worry about.


Spontaneous horseback riding on the beach plays up the worry-free Fiji stereotype.

Spontaneous horseback riding on the beach plays up the worry-free Fiji stereotype.


This assumption was first disproved a month before our scheduled flight, when cyclone Winston tore through the islands. A category 5.1 storm, about the magnitude of hurricane Katrina, Winston demolished crops, flattened homes, flipped cargo ships, and turned life on its head. Towns were razed to the ground, with villagers hiding in caves for weeks to protect themselves from winds and high water levels. Two of the hardest-hit towns were Levuka and Rakiraki… the main towns on our itinerary.


This was our first sega na leqa moment, where we kept our schedule and hoped for the best, knowing the trip would be hard, but that we might be of use to villagers by bringing supplies they lacked. No problem…?

Aboard our flight, the second disaster struck. We had just gotten our in-flight drinks when the plane dropped 200 feet, shooting us out of our seats and sending our food and drinks flying. Visibly shaken, we braced ourselves as the plane dipped again and again, hoping we would not be starring in a sequel to Cast Away. Hearts in our throats, we had a nerve-wracking second half of our flight, and were relieved to finally land in Suva. Our clothes were sticky with soda and juice, but we were for the most part alive. No problem. Sega na leqa…


One of Suva's main streets

One of Suva’s main streets


After two days meandering around Suva, we were scheduled to take our trip to Levuka and Rakiraki. We were ready to brave conditions there, but never followed through with the plan. The weather station grimly announced that travelers were out of luck, as choppy waters and floods in the port town of Nadi made ferry trips impossible. Another cyclone was on its way, and towns sank underwater as winds and tides picked up. Some footage of the flood can be found here: https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/world/360-video-ground-in-cyclone-zena-hit-nadi


Sega na leqa. We decided to scrap all of our plans and drive around Viti Levu, the big island of Fiji. We made our way first to Sigatoka, a coastal town known for its market. But, thanks to the new cyclone brewing, we couldn’t make it all the way to our homestays. We turned on the radio to hear a worried voice: “a level 2 cyclone is headed toward Fiji, and will center on Sigatoka. Expect flooding, high winds from 120-160 km per hour, and flying debris. It is advised that everyone take shelter within the next hour. High flood advisory for Sigatoka, please evacuate.” Hurriedly we cancelled our homestay plans and checked into a hotel on a hill, skidding out of town as the river rose.

Huddled in the darkness of our hotel rooms, without power, water, or backup funds (the SIT program changed our director’s credit card without notice, and it will take a month for the mail ship bearing the new card to reach Samoa), we waited. We told ghost stories, lit candles, listened to doors slam in the wind.

But sega na leqa. The forecast had been wrong, and the cyclone died out before the worst would have hit us. And so we drove to our village homestays, where at last, things started looking up. Our host families took us to coastal sand dunes, which towered 100 ft in the air and required us to scramble up almost vertical slopes to reach the crest of dunes. Still without power or water, we sat and socialized at night, cooking roti over open fires.


Atop the sand dunes

Atop the sand dunes


At last, the flooding subsided in Nadi, and we headed to the town. Our guide, Prem, loves spontaneity, and sega na leqa is his personal motto. When plans fell through he took us to his house for lunch, then promised to show us a special surprise later that day. We all piled into his van, and drove through town, looking at flood lines on buildings and riverbanks.

We wound through hills, and the planned, paved road turned to gravel, then to dirt, growing dustier and windier. At last, we parked on the side of the road. “Get out,” Prem ordered. “Here is your surprise.” We waded through knee-length grass, and found ourselves at the top of a mountain…transported to the cover of a National Geographic magazine. The land dropped away beneath us, giving way to rolling hills and a far-away sea, where we could see the silhouettes of neighboring islands.

Sometimes there are problems, and there are obstacles that block us from following our plans to the letter. But as we stood atop the mountain, gazing out at the lands that we been hurrying through the first part of the week, I realized that the whole time, we were exactly where we needed to be.


Our surprise

Our surprise


Sega na leqa, and here’s to all the best-laid plans that go awry.

Emily in Samoa: A Trip…Home?

April 12, 2016
A traditional canoe by Tutuila’s main road. April 17th is Flag Day for American Samoa, and each village will have a canoe in an island-wide boat race in the main harbor

A traditional canoe by Tutuila’s main road. April 17th is Flag Day for American Samoa. Each village will have a canoe in an island-wide boat race in the main harbor.


We just got back from a four-day trip to the island of Tutuila in American Samoa, where we stayed with host students and their families. The students were members of the community college’s Phi Theta Kappa honors society, and were eager to get to know us, welcoming us as friends and new members of their families.

I was excited from the moment we touched down. Like many of the students in my group, I knew the least about American Samoa going into my study abroad, and was curious about what it would be like—more so than Fiji or Savai’i. We started by driving past chains like McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr…places I would not usually frequent in the US, but which sparkled with new fascination as we drove past. A lot of the world’s American stereotypes felt true here: things seemed glittery, plastic, diverse, plentiful. Or perhaps I was just in culture shock.

The situation got even better when I met my host. We had similar personalities, and as she told me about what she had planned for our stay, I couldn’t help smiling. She wanted to take us to ice cream spots, the best ocean views, and her aunt’s function center (set on top of a hill that overlooked the island). “My dad’s an artist,” she said, “but he also loves to cook…really intricate things. He’s starting to put tattoo patterns on his cakes, and he’s going to make lasagna on Thursday for you.” Oh gosh. The L word. We went back to her house, and I was enveloped in air conditioning, basking in the feeling of cool air on my skin as I delved into Arizona iced tea and potato chips. None of us had felt like life in Samoa was particularly hard, but I was not expecting this reaction to all the food choices on my arrival in American Samoa—an island only half an hour’s plane ride away, yet a world apart.

I could go on for pages with the food, but suffice it to say that I ate my fill and more. And between eating, hikes, lectures, and late-night talks with my host family, the stay was over before we knew it.


 One of my host family's paintings, a mural at a local retreat. More artwork can be found at https://www.facebook.com/MarkAshleyFaulknerart/

One of my host family’s paintings, a mural at a local retreat. More artwork can be found at https://www.facebook.com/MarkAshleyFaulknerart/


My family was the biggest highlight of my trip, as every night they sat up for hours talking about life in American Samoa, their past, and what they hoped to do in the future. Our group advisor wants us to analyze whether culture is “blended well” there, and we’ve all found that is impossible to do so. My family called themselves weird, since they were a small nuclear family with healthy portions of Portuguese, Hawaiian, Australian, Solomon, and Samoan in their family tree. They didn’t go to church or bingo, though most of the island did. My host father created artwork based on Samoan traditional tattooing, but wasn’t widely known, since those in the community “didn’t understand his art,” and felt they could make it themselves. My host brother, who was sixteen, was a product of all this “blending,” but was closest to the Tongan population on the island, since his best friend was Tongan and they would often go to church and other events together.


flower leis find a new twist in American Samoa, where grocery stores sell leis with candy, chips, and 5-hour energy bottles

flower leis find a new twist in American Samoa, where grocery stores sell leis with candy, chips, and 5-hour energy bottles


leis close-up


So what exactly is cultural blending, and how does one do it well? And why should we assume that American Samoans do it less well than Americans or Samoans? To me, culture just is. A group might lose traditions, but it cannot lose culture…it can only adapt it, as we have been seeing in American Samoa.

One aspect of Samoan tradition and culture that is still very much alive is the legend of the turtle and shark in the village of Vaitogi. According to one version of the story, a man and woman fell in love, and ran away from their island so that the man would not have to fight a war. They were taken in by the villagers in Vaitogi, but their leaders, angry at the man’s desertion, eventually found them out, chasing them to the cliffs. The pair refused to surrender, and jumped into the ocean, where they turned into a turtle and shark. Another version claims that the pair are a mother and daughter fleeing famine. You can watch the first version in more detail here:



The pair can still be seen today, but only if the villagers come to sing their special song. Our hosts had called the village before our visit, and a woman came out to meet us when we arrived. After five minutes of singing, they both appeared, the turtle surfacing on the right, and the shark swimming in the crest of a large wave that came crashing down on the cliff. It’s easy to be cynical of legends, but much harder when they come true right in front of you.


Searching for the turtle and shark at the cliffs of Vaitogi

Searching for the turtle and shark at the cliffs of Vaitogi


Other aspects of American Samoan culture are not as Samoan…perhaps more like what many like to call a “melting pot.” There is little food waste, as is common in independent Samoa, but when this is combined with easy access to American fast food chains and junk food, health risk and obesity rates go through the roof. Add to this the inability to access fruits and vegetables, due to the lack of home gardening and mainland ships that never seem to arrive, and you end up with a difficult situation. Similar instances of blending can be seen elsewhere in the culture: strong Samoan family values are played on by recruiters to coax students with few options (the US government has prevented universities from being established on the island) to join the army. Tuna canneries employ large numbers, and enable proprietors to label their products as “made in the USA” without paying their workers national minimum wage…since American Samoa is not officially part of the nation. And the list goes on…

It may come as a surprise to some readers that American Samoa exists and is part of the US. We certainly aren’t told much about it where I’m from. Well, it’s an “unorganized, unincorporated territory,” the last US holding in which people are not citizens, and thus cannot vote or have a voting representative in Congress. They also do not pay taxes, and maintain their land without risk of eminent domain, even receiving payments from the government to rent their land as a national park. There are pros and there are cons, as there would be any place in which different cultures are coming together and attempting to successfully coexist.

I hope that one day in the future I will be able to host members of my American Samoan family at my house in Massachusetts, so that we can continue are conversations, and that I can begin to see my world through their eyes, as they tried to see their world through mine.


Sunset from my host family’s hilltop retreat

Sunset from my host family’s hilltop retreat

Emily in Samoa: Return to Return to Paradise

March 24, 2016

This weekend, my friend got married.

We got a call from a Peace Corps volunteer, formerly in SIT, telling us that the Return to Paradise resort was looking for “travel-savvy, foreign-looking people” to feature in its new website and advertising campaign. They offered a free night, all expenses paid, at the resort as a perk. We were curious about what we might be getting ourselves into, and a group of us agreed to go.


Mastering the spontaneous smile over cocktails

Mastering the spontaneous smile over cocktails


We were told to expect bikini photos on the beach. However, when we arrived, the photographer told us that the clouds made that plan impossible, and that we would instead have a wedding. We started by shooting photos of the bar, sipping specialty cocktails and showing the camera how much we were enjoying ourselves. Next, we moved to romantic dinner photos, and the chosen couple sat out in a private fale on the rocks as a drone flew around them taking candids. The rest of us were supposed to be continuing our background bar banter, but were peeking out at the couple and the photographer.


Spying on the newlyweds

Spying on the newlyweds


Things really heated up the next day, when we shot the wedding. Our poor friend who was picked for the bride spent the whole morning posing for photos: sitting, standing, looking at a wedding dress, getting makeup done, having a head massage (only enough for photos), and…getting married. Barefoot on the beach, we surrounded her and the Peace Corps volunteer, looking down at a heart made from hibiscus flowers.

At the last minute, the photographer realized he’d forgotten to find a pastor, and snagged a nearby gardener. “Here,” he said. “Open the bible and pretend you’re reading.” Various romantic photos were taken, but my favorite is the one of the kiss, chiefly because of our gardener/pastor, who has his eyebrows raised and mouth open.


Capturing the wedding vows

Capturing the wedding vows




After the wedding, the photographer ordered us to go out to the rocks, and we danced as the drone flew above us. I think these are some of our best photos, though also our strangest.

This was one of the most unexpected, bizarre experiences I’ve had in Samoa, but it isn’t the first time that SIT students have done something like this. Samoa’s foreign tourism is not big yet, numbering only around 20,000 non-Samoan tourists per year. And young, foreign-looking people are few and far-between; besides Peace Corps, SIT, and actual honeymooners, options are minimal.

But the biggest question arising out of this whole ordeal, for me, is “is this culturally OK?” Overall, I have my doubts, but I’ve decided to try to argue for a yes for this specific case. The Return to Paradise is owned partly by locals (not part of Hilton, Marriot, and friends), and has a policy of hiring two members from each household in surrounding villages. These higher hotel wages are a huge stimulant for the local economy, since minimum wage in other job venues is a dismal $2.33 per hour, under $1 US. And because of low wages and little surplus other than that sent in remittances, it makes sense that the hotel would be catering to wealthier New Zealanders and Australians, a population that is largely white and “foreign-looking” to the Samoans.


The coastline by the Return to Paradise

The coastline by the Return to Paradise


The next factor that leads me to a “yes” is the movie Return to Paradise, which was filmed on the site and which gave rise to the hotel. This film starred Gary Cooper, and was shot in the 1950s. Return to Paradise marked the first instance in which local indigenous people played leading roles, and parts were not filled by white people in blackface. The female lead was played by a bank teller from Apia, and if you watch the film with people in nearby villages, most will point out a number of aunts and uncles. So, the film is looked upon positively by locals, as it promoted their culture more positively than other films would have, and encouraged local involvement.

Finally, there is Us. Were we right to do this? The hotel probably spent over $600 Samoan on each of us, so the owners really wanted our pictures. And afterward, they plan to put my friends’ wedding photos on billboards and foreign advertisements. So there was definitely a lot of people-using-people going on here. But, if we had not come, they probably would have found someone else, someone who would not reflect back on the experience, taking the perks and moving on with life. I think that is the most dangerous scenario, and so I am glad that a group of students studying cultural issues in the Pacific agreed to the shoot.

The conversation about this should continue, since I’m still not sure what to think. I certainly enjoyed my first beach wedding, and will never look at the people in hotel photos the same way again. And I hope that this weekend of cheesy photos and questionable ethics will do something positive for locals in the end.


Our bride mentally prepares for her ceremony

Our bride mentally prepares for her ceremony


Emily in Samoa: a Fiafia, a Fale, a Fresh Dose of Zika

March 15, 2016
Our host mothers await our turn at the fiafia

Our host mothers await our turn at the fiafia


Do you ever have a feeling that your whole life has been leading up to a single event? That everything you have learned, practiced, and hoped for may culminate in a single night? Maybe it’s a graduation ceremony, a wedding, a race…or maybe you are dressed in feathers and leis, with makeup smeared on your cheeks, surrounded by village women in a Samoan fale.

If you’re not visualizing this moment yet, picture this: myself, dressed as aforementioned, seated in the middle of an open building. A group of women sit on the other side, singing traditional songs to the accompaniment of a guitar. Their music stops, and they look expectantly at me and the other students. It’s our turn. Now picture a melodica, bright pink with zigzag designs on the edges. I play a jazz riff, and my friends begin harmonizing to Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.”

Yes, my life was truly building up to this moment—all my piano lessons, theater camps, high school lectures… They all culminated in this melodica- and lei-filled evening. But allow me to explain how we ended up here.


The family gets me ready for the fiafia.

The family gets me ready for the fiafia.


The fiafia marks the end of our village stay, and is a noncompetitive dance-off between the students and their host mothers. The entire village comes to watch, cheering constantly regardless of performers’ talent. Between numbers, the mothers put on palagi songs, and drag us onstage individually to dance. Samoan-style dances, to melodies like “Watch Me Whip,” and “Summer Lovin’” from Grease.

The fiafia is not only a good zenith for my life in general, it is also a great end to this week’s adventures. When we were not playing with siblings, relaxing with parents, or going on excursions to gorgeous waterfalls, we immersed ourselves in various aspects of Samoan tradition. We attended a fa’alavelave, and were able to see a plethora of fine mats and cans of corned beef be exchanged in the gift ceremony.

One of the most memorable experiences we’ve had was building an umu, or traditional Samoan fire. With the umu, we participated in activities like making palu sami, a Samoan dish that is made of coconut cream wrapped in breadfruit leaves, wrapped in taro leaves, wrapped in banana leaves, and cooked over a fire. Our meal also featured dishes like beaten octopus, fresh shark, and a sweet pounded breadfruit dessert.

Breadfruit cooks on the umu. Right insert "octopus" caption: beating the octopus

Breadfruit cooks on the umu.


Beating the Octopus

Beating the octopus


The dish least for the faint of heart was the main attraction: the pig. I now know just how to kill and eviscerate one, though I don’t think I’ll be doing so in the near future.

I suppose the pictures say it all, but this week was an adventure, and we’ve had some experiences that I’d never thought I’d be a part of…the pig especially. And just when I thought there couldn’t be more surprises, I got the biggest one of them all: the Zika virus.

Don’t worry. When you aren’t pregnant, all that results from the virus is exhaustion, followed by a rash that made me look like an ambulatory Chicken Pock. Many people (including one of our directors) have gotten the virus, though I was the first in the village and in the entire SIT program to do so. It caused a bit of a stir, but once we all realized that nothing major was going to happen, we moved on. It’s quite amazing that the media in far-off countries has not been able to do so, but I’m sure it looks much more exciting from thousands of miles away.

So there you have it. I can disembowel a pig, I can play the melodica to meet anyone’s Samoan dance-off needs, and I have hopefully developed some immunity to the newest mosquito-borne sensation. It’s been quite a week!

One of our side trips to the volcanic crater, To Sua

One of our side trips to the volcanic crater, To Sua

Emily in Samoa: A Trip to Savaiʻi

March 14, 2016

Our courses alternate between intense weeks of papers, exams, and debates, to weeks of experiential learning, where we all get on a plane or a ferry and go somewhere. Last week was one of the latter, and our director sent us off on the ferry to spend two nights at beach fales on the island of Savaiʻi, the larger island of Samoa.

After two days of relaxation, she met up with us, as did her friend Warren, an 86-year-old Australian who has been inhabiting the island for over thirty years, looking at lava flows, making odd deals with local businesses, and exuding an affable nature to those around him. In other words, Warren is what many of our local sources have been: a character.


Looking out over the lava fields

Looking out over the lava fields


After breakfast on Monday, we crammed into his van, and went to look at lava fields on the northern part of the island. Only a quarter of Samoa’s population lives on Savaiʻi due to difficult farming conditions. Samoa is located on a hotspot which has been moving over the years, so the soil on Upolu is older, and has had more time to gather the appropriate nutrients for farming. Nothing is built on the most recent lava fields, from the early 20th century, though many locals will chip off pieces to use for houses and graves. The fields are huge, and spread to nearby villages as well.

On Tuesday, Warren brought a bus. “Alright people! Get in,” he quipped. “We’re going to see some blowholes.” We spent the day driving all the way around the island, stopping to crawl through lava tubes and points of interest along the coast. One point was the westernmost point of Samoa, formerly the westernmost point in the world (until Samoa changed the dateline). There, waves crash against the rocks, shooting spray high into the air. The rocks break apart in the middle, and this marks the path that the souls of deceased Samoans would travel, before Christianity made it necessary for them to reroute. After walking the path, the souls jumped into whirlpools, returning to the ocean. The quiet, cloudy point was ideal for spending hours watching the sea..


The path of souls

The path of souls


At last, the blowholes. They were a bit further down the coast, and channeled the water from waves through small holes, until it sprayed 60 feet in the air. One of our guides brought along coconuts, and would look at us, grin, then gently toss the coconut into the blowhole. At the next wave, the coconut shot out, higher even than the water, and get tossed out to sea. Even though the wind was at our backs, we covered our heads instinctively.


Peering into the blowhole

Peering into the blowhole

We spent our last few days at fales on stilts, built around a lagoon near the island’s main port. These served as our base for our next set of excursions, which included a volcano hike, waterfall swimming, and making tapa, bark cloth from the paper mulberry tree.

It was a busy week, but we have experienced a lot that we’ll take back with us. Most prominent is the incredible damage done by climate change, and the lifestyle changes it entails. Our fales on the beach were new, built after those that were formerly on a stretch of coast went underwater. Though they were protected by a ring of sandbags and sharp cliff in the sand, the waves still hit us when we were lying in our hammocks.

I know many people who don’t feel the need to worry about climate change, or even believe it exists—and I think this is largely due to it not affecting them yet. In the US, especially in non-coastal areas, climate change and environmental destruction are easy to ignore and wave off as something Out There, but not Here. Well, it’s here, in Samoa and the other Pacific islands. A warming in global temperatures, even by a few degrees, means that low-elevation countries near the equator can no longer grow certain crops. And though Samoa is endowed with high mountains, atoll countries like Tuvalu and Kiribati (KEER-uh-bahs) don’t have long before they will need to evacuate.

For those of us living far away from this, the situation is shocking…something that you would want to push out of your mind and not think of again. And people in countries like the US can do this successfully. But if this was your life, this slow submersion, what would you do?

Kiribati has bought a number of islands in Fiji, and people plan to relocate there, dragging and dropping an entire nation. Tuvalu has not yet devised a solution. Some people look for work abroad, others have resolved to remain on their land and die there. Those that do not come up with any plan will become what the UN is calling “environmental refugees,” and will be beholden to the whim of powerful, oft-indifferent countries (as we have seen happen with war refugees).


Home sweet beach fale

Home sweet beach fale


I don’t want to portray islanders as weak, because they aren’t. They are inventive, strong, and capable of dealing with what the world throws at them. But no one can fight a rising ocean, and if we do not begin to recognize the problem as it manifests here in the Pacific, we will be in big trouble when it threatens out homes, as well, in higher temperatures and drastic changes in weather.

And so we sat, dangling our legs out of our fales, watching the waves crash.

Emily in Samoa: Worlds Without Walls

March 1, 2016

Picture your world, the one where you live out each day, where you go to work or school or coffee, where you interact with family and friends—and those people who, unfortunately, fall into an often unpleasant third category—and where, at the end of the day, you return home to peace and quiet. Now, eliminate every wall from this world. Start by taking down the physical walls, then go to the interpersonal ones, and demolish those, too.

If you do this right, you have a pretty good image of what a Samoan village homestay is like. While many people have switched to palagi (foreigner) homes, the fale (open house) mentality has stuck, and everyone’s life is out in the open to the rest of the village. We have lived in this wall-less world for ten days, and it is a definite cultural adjustment. We visitors have had to get used to a new style of living, in which the hardest part has definitely been derived from the lack of walls. And what are the implications?

Seaside fales provide the best views out and in

Seaside fales provide the best views out and in

Physically, no privacy. And I mean None. Windows are open, doors are few, and getting dressed in the morning is an adventure that often results in accidental flashing. Showers have no curtains, and are done in lavalavas (sarongs usually worn as skirts, but converted to tube dresses for the purpose). A shower is the biggest adventure in this wall-less world, and, as I found, a number of obstacles ensue once one is showering. What would you do if your host father decided to strike up conversation? Or if your shower happened to be next to a popular pig hangout? Or if your six siblings decided it would be good fun to turn on music and watch you?

My universal solution has been to dance. I am not an adept dancer by any means, but anyone who decides to be a part of the audience when this palagi showers is in for a good show…


My curious siblings surround my bed whenever I arrive at the house. This time, I gave them all pigtails.

My curious siblings surround my bed whenever I arrive at the house. This time, I gave them all pigtails.


With no privacy comes no alone time. You can approach this however you like: many students chose to be frustrated by it. “Why does my homestay family want to spend time with me?” they would mope. We discovered as we progressed that when we found times of alone-ness, “alone time” took on a new image. Instead of soaking in the peace, you sit puzzled, wondering where everyone is. And, in contrast to the US, this place with no alone time also has no room for loneliness.

A lack of being alone manifests itself in a variety of ways. Socially, everyone is always watching, gossiping, and peeping in on neighbors. If voices are raised in a house, everyone on the street will crowd the windows to see what is going on. If a group of palagi girls goes to the beach, at least ten village boys will be there within the hour.

This isn’t as oppressive as it seems, since the flipside of communal life offers benefits for all members. The most surprising example I found was when I was playing with my siblings. In the US, I rarely have found children who, come snack time, don’t snatch and devour their food. Here, however, a few children got snacks, and within seconds I and the others had piles of food in our hands. Three- and five-year-olds had evenly divided up their food for the rest of us, with no qualms whatsoever.

There are no walls around personal property, nor are there walls around individuals as they age or weaken. Samoa does not have Social Security, and care is taken on by the family and the village. Money is pooled for weddings, funerals, and hospital visits, so that everyone is taken care of by those around them.


Fa’alavelave is a Samoan term that refers to any major occasion in village life. We were able to attend a funeral fa’alavelave. Life is celebrated with singing, euglogies, and gift exchange. Fine mats (left) take weeks of work, and are a major gift.

Fa’alavelave is a Samoan term that refers to any major occasion in village life. We were able to attend a funeral fa’alavelave. Life is celebrated with singing, eulogies, and gift exchange. Fine mats take weeks of work, and are a major gift.



A group of matais (chiefs, shown right) receive gifts for their deceased friend as they sit next to his grave, and others wait with the body in the house, singing and eating.


Most uniquely, perhaps, is that there is also no wall around death. Those who die are buried next to their front door, so that they can continue to take part in the goings on. Unlike in the US, where elders are shooed away to nursing homes and those who die are compartmentalized in far-away cemeteries, Samoans keep their family close by long after they die. Brightly-painted graves often match the houses they guard, and memories stay alive as children play on the stones and families have sunset conversations while sitting among deceased relatives. Maybe it sounds bizarre, but I think this is a good deal for the dead—why go to a cemetery when you can continue to be part of the family?

Taking down walls has made me more open, and enabled me to grow closer with those around me. It is certainly exhausting at times, but it has made me wonder about why we build all of these walls in the first place, and why we feel the need to keep building more.

Emily in Samoa: Home from the Sea

February 18, 2016

One day, around six months ago, I was struck by a craving for Book. I was somewhere in transition—a train station, an airport, a car, a couch in a busy room—and decided that it was time to supplement life with a story. As many may in such a situation, I picked Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, having never read the book, and figuring it was time I did.

Never did I imagine that my book choice would come full circle for me here in Samoa. Stevenson spent the last five years of his life in Vailima, a town in the inner hills of the island of ʻUpolu, where he would meander through the rainforest behind his house for hours on end, climbing to the top of Mount Vaea to look down into the valleys and out to the bay in Apia. Arriving at the age of 40, Stevenson and his family were welcomed by Samoans and befriended many locals, even giving support and advice to native independence movements. He wrote a number of books in his Samoa years, inspired by his Pacific travels, and gained the Samoan name Tusi Tala, or “teller of stories.”


View from Stevenson’s veranda

View from Stevenson’s veranda


However, Stevenson had come to the island to die. He had never been in good health, and had traveled to the Pacific in hopes that the climate would have a positive effect on it. He died in 1894, and asked to be buried at the top of Mount Vaea, overlooking the ocean. His Samoan friends forged a path through the forest as they carried his casket, mounting steep slopes in often scorching heat. He was buried, at his request, looking out over the island and wearing the boots he had worn throughout his stay in Samoa. His requiem, written on his grave, says the following:

Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me die.

Glad did I live and gladly die,

   And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,

    And the hunter home from the hill.

The Samoans have set the verse to music, and now sing it (in English and Samoan) as a song of grief. Our museum guide sang the English version, telling us that she would cry if she sang it in Samoan. We climbed with the melody on our minds, and when we reached the top of the mountain, it was both tranquil and…chilling. The verse Stevenson wrote becomes more than a poem when you see the view it accompanies. The home he talks about is no longer Samoa, though the island welcomed him and he gladly became a part of its society. The home, from the top of the mountain, is the world he created for himself in his writing.


Hidden pirates

Hidden pirates


It’s possible that I idealize the place, but for me, the end of the climb was reverent. I could imagine Stevenson, a man whose health would prevent him from fighting pirates or going on the grueling adventures that fill his books, sitting atop Mount Vaea and looking out at the jagged mountains and sparkling sea. Devising, letter by letter, a world in which anything was possible; painting on the canvas that the view provided him.

I like to think, after this experience, that everyone will one day find their mountain. Wherever we are, we are looking to create a home for ourselves, be it physical, social, or literary. A place or a state of mind from which we may look out and survey what we have lived and shaped. And I am indebted to this experience for showing me that.


The group at the end of our climb

The group at the end of our climb

Emily in Samoa: a Sunday kind of Samoa

February 9, 2016

I am not a religious person, but I love church services here in Samoa. This is our second day here, and our director, a former Peace Corps worker who married a Samoan matai (chief), took us to a local Catholic church. The vast majority of Samoans are Christian, and church is a big deal here. Most people wear white on Sundays, and close their shops for family and worship that often takes most of the day. The priest is the most important male figure in town, and is the recipient of the services and contributions of the rest of the community. Because of this, the community dedicates ample time and money to the welfare of the church.


The newest Catholic Church in Samoa

The newest Catholic Church in Samoa


We explored Apia a bit yesterday after our flight arrived, and the newest churches are impressive. The largest Catholic church was built in 2014, after much of the city was decimated by a 2012 cyclone. This church is beautiful inside now: wood slats make up the ceiling, and form geometric patterns with each other. The floors are a light pink tile, adding to the brightness to the rich wood of the ceiling and the colorful frescoes of grape bunches (of all things). My favorite part of this particular church is a rotunda at the top, which features various Catholic saints doing whatever saints like to do, and important Samoan chiefs sitting among them and conferring. I think that this painting reflects a lot of the Samoan mentality toward religion and their existence in general—while they venerate and extoll their religion, they also know the importance of their own identity.


Saints and chiefs ponder

Saints and chiefs ponder


A story that we were told in class the other day also reflects this. Missionaries who had come to Samoa, and imparted lessons from the Bible to the chiefs and villagers. One of these “lessons” was that all people could trace  themselves back to Jesus Christ and the Holy Land. At this point, the Samoans interrupted. The teachings of the Bible were good, they said, but that part was wrong. Perhaps the rest of the world came from the Holy Land, but the Samoans came from Samoa.

Similar reactions have occurred when historians “teach” Samoans about human migration from Polynesia to the Pacific—it’s simply not true, they say. The pride that Samoans take in their identity is both overt and tenacious, and, although you might see it in any aspect of daily life, I found it striking today at church.

Only the choir sings the mass, and, as the priest sings a verse, he is answered in a beautiful four-part harmony. Voices raise in song and echo off the wooden ceiling of the church, in a melody that one would almost expect in a European cathedral, but which is much to bright for the darkness and solemnity a cathedral would bring.


Inside the new church

Inside the new church


As the offertory is played, baskets are passed amongst the congregation, as one family distributes leis made of frangipani blossoms to high-ranking elders. A statue of the Virgin Mary has her own lei, and a row of older women dressed in white receive more. Our director also receives a lei, and exchanges kisses with the woman who gives it to her. The sweet smell of flowers mingles with the darkness of the incense, carried around the church by the gentle breeze of people’s fans.

This portrayal of a Samoan church service is somewhat romanticized—it is incredibly hot and humid in the church, and feeling the sweat dripping down my back does not necessarily make me feel spiritual. However, it provides a picture of an essential part of the Samoan life, and one that I hope I will experience more of in the future.

Emily in Samoa: Exploring Oahu

February 4, 2016

Our orientation has just started, and the members of the group (only 13 students strong) are getting to know each other, as we begin to count and ask questions in Samoan. The only caveat to this is that we are not yet in Samoa–we are just outside of Honolulu, Hawaii.


Waikiki before sunrise...and people

Waikiki before sunrise…and people


I arrived a week ago, in order to better acquaint myself with the island. Oahu is much bigger than I thought, and larger than a map makes it look: it is at least 40 miles across, which by bus or car on small roads can take a long time to cross. Many tourists who have visited the island lump it with its capital city and class it as unpleasant and crowded. Having little tolerance for the hordes of tourists at Waikiki, Honolulu’s famous beach, I quickly learned to center each morning on escaping Honolulu as fast as possible.


The view from makapu'u

The view from makapu’u


Once there are not hundreds of people on every new street corner, Oahu is beautiful. The hostel for the program is in a peaceful area near the University of Hawaii campus, and looks out to Diamond Head one way and the central mountains to another. It is hard even to see these mountains from downtown Honolulu, as highrises block every view but their own.

Epiphany #1 was that there was a whole world outside of Honolulu. Epiphany #2, and tantamount to #1, was that I did not need to take a $100 tour to see what I wanted to see. There are many gullible (and wealthy) people staying at resorts in Honolulu willing to pay any price to have a pleasant vacation. As I am not one of these people, I found a more accessible way to see the island: TheBus. Oahu’s bus system is organized and extensive, and enables anyone to circumnavigate the island at $2.50 a ticket. I took full advantage of this, embarking on any adventure I pleased with a map and timetable in my pocket.


At the top of the Diamond Head Trail

At the top of the Diamond Head Trail


In the past week I have been around nearly all of the coast, stopping at places like Waimea Falls, the surfer’s town of Haleiwa, Makapu’u beach and its neighboring Sea Life Park, the infamously surfy Sandy Beach, and Diamond Head. In my travels I have gradually been meeting up with more members of our group, exploring the island in a slowly growing group.


Surf advisories at Sandy Beach

Surf advisories at Sandy Beach


What makes this program even more exciting is that the adventure does not stop here. Our hour-by-hour calendars are full of hikes, swims, and trips to parks yet unknown. Today will be our first drop-off, an excursion masterminded by our director, Jackie, in which she drives the group around and drops us each off at a different location. Sometimes we will have no say in this location; she will simply pull over and tell us to get out of the car. The goal of this scheme is to make each member more self-reliant and independent, as well as to enable us to individually be able to soak in a place more, as doing so is often best when a person is alone.

I’m excited to see what is in store for today’s drop off, and where this adventure will lead…

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