Fa Soifua, Samoa! Hello, world…

Afega blowholes, south cost of Savai’i.

I’ve been putting off writing this post, though I’ve thought of it often, at least in part because I keep waiting for the magical moment where I ‘process’ everything. As if, at the end of my time here, the camera of my brain will suddenly zoom out to the big picture and I’ll be able to confidently and intelligently (humorously even, maybe!) articulate a worthy summation of four months spent in Samoa. With less than 24 hours left in the country, I may be forced to conclude that this is just not going to happen. Processing this experience, it seems, will happen long after I’ve left these steamy shores (literally–the rainy-sunny combo is back) and probably continue well into my return to the States. Still, I can’t leave without writing something for both you, my loyal readers (hi dad!), and me to reflect on the unpredictable journey of the last few months.

So, here it is. Samoa in bite-sized chunks.

  1. Things I will miss.
  2. Things I will not miss.
  3. 4-month abstinence.
  4. Low point.
  5. High point.
  6. Conclusion?

Continue reading


Post-Vacation Blues

Nothing says 'vacation time' like drinks with little umbrellas in them!

Well, it turns out the downside of working in a prime tropical vacation destination is that you are, in fact, working and not vacation-ing. That changed for me, all too briefly, a couple weeks ago, when my boyfriend braved not only one, but one-and-a-half trans-Pacific flights (thanks to the inefficient flight route to Apia from LA via Auckland) on top of the cross-country travels that took him from Princeton, NJ alllllll the way here to Apia, Samoa. All the while lugging a suitcase containing a minimum of clothes, and a maximum of ‘family love’ in the form of Chinese soap operas (thanks mom!), forwarded mail, a BUG ZAPPER (thanks dad!), Chinese movies (thanks mom and dad?), and of course, edible treats. Needless to say, he gets brownie points.

Since arriving in Samoa, I haven’t had a chance to do much more than a little basic site-seeing around Apia. Sure, I’ve been all over the country with loan officers, but sweating profusely while financial transactions are completed in rapid-fire Samoan is not quite the same as kicking back on the beach with a snorkel in easy reach. Nik got one restful night in Apia (or not, turns out the roosters, dogs, and 5am church bells are still INSANELY LOUD, but I now sleep like the dead) before we headed off for adventureland. By the way, for those of you who are wondering, adventureland does not include being adequately supplied or planning ahead.

SPBD kindly lent me a car for the weekend so we took off on Friday, which happened to be Good Friday, when Apia actually became a ghost town. The south side of ‘Upolu is known to be the prettier side, so up and over Cross Island Road we went. Naturally, my excitement for Nik seeing the beautiful mountain greenery and epic ocean views triggered a massive rainstorm that seemed determined not to budge off the mountain. Once we finally inched down the other side (where of course the sun was shining), we kicked off vacation-time with lunch and pina coladas at one of Samoa’s fanciest resorts. Again, I emphasize that tourism in Samoa, while certainly an important and growing industry, is definitely not as developed as once might expect to find at a ‘tourist destination’–it’s no Hawaii, for example. We stayed at two places over the long weekend: Namu’a Island and Virgin Cove Resort. Continue reading

Costco, Tiny Villages, and Making it Rain: American Samoa, Part 2

This is a continuation of my previous post, “Welcome to Ford Country (aka American Samoa)”. You can see Part 1 here.

Flags at the '09 tsunami memorial.

3. The American. 

Just as Samoa has a definite flavor of New Zealand and Australian influence, the US is reflected–probably even stronger–in Pago. You can see it everywhere–the giant, shiny, new, gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs that everyone drives; two McDonald’s, a Pizza Hut, a KFC, and a Carl’s Jr/Green Burrito; the hordes of kids playing rugby replaced by the hordes of kids playing football; fales traded out in favor of Western-style houses. And it’s true that on many fronts, the standard of living appears to be higher in American Samoa.

Am I at the mall back home??

Case in point: the 8-year-old in the family I stayed with walked around with an iPad (granted his dad works in the IT business). Food costs are much lower. The cost of everything seems to be lower, actually, despite the fact that the two islands face almost identical geographic isolation, and Pago represents an even smaller market. Pago is lucky too, because unlike their neighbors they have an industry: tuna canning. The two tuna canneries–Starkist and Samoa Packing, a Chicken of the Sea subsidiary–once employed up to a third of Pago’s work force. Since minimum wage laws were enforced by the US a few years ago, Samoa Packing has closed doors, and Starkist operates at a reduced level, but that is still more than Samoa has by way of industry. Continue reading

Welcome to Ford Country (aka American Samoa): Part 1

The first thing I see upon walking into Pago Pago International Airport.

While I’m sure I’m not the only Kiva fellow who has to make a “visa run” (leaving the country to avoid having to apply for an extended-stay visa), I’m pretty sure I’m the only one whose visa run included a giant chunk of Americana. American Samoa is just a 30-minute flight away and pretty much the only destination that’s not prohibitively expensive to get to, if you want to leave the country. I had never been to a US territory before, and definitely had (and continue to have) mixed feelings about the whole concept. Regardless, my Lonely Planet guide referred to it as “the prettier sister” (ouch) of the Samoas, and my island fever got me pretty excited to travel anywhere…even to another island that’s even smaller than ‘Upolu!

Pago Pago (pronounced Pango Pango, but the ‘g’ isn’t so hard) is the name of both a village that is the capital and the harbor that defined this island as a US Navy base since it became a territory in 1900. Usually it’s shortened to “Pago” and is used to refer to the village, harbor, island of Tutuila, and the entirety of American Samoa. No one would refer to someone as an American Samoan–they say ‘someone from Pago’. Pago is even smaller than Samoa, clocking in at a whopping 55,519 during the 2010 census. The whole of the country amounts to around 75 square miles, which is roughly the same size as Washington DC. Tutuila is the main island, with 4 smaller islands scattered nearby. The license plates only have four digits. Basically, it’s small.

I was only in the country for 31 hours, but it was an incredible trip. To help me sort out my myriad of thoughts and hopefully keep this readable, I’m going to divide this post into several sections, and two parts. We’ll cover sections 1& 2 here.

  1. The travel.
  2. The beauty.
  3. The American.
  4. The Samoan. Continue reading

The Things I Carry

I guess a more apt title would be “the things you wish you were carrying, or wish you weren’t” but I thought I’d go for the reference to Tim O’Brien book. Not that this post will have anything to do with fighting in Vietnam! Actually, since I know many people are curious to continue gaining insight into what life is like here, I thought I would write some reflections on my first little-over-a-month in Samoa. And what better way to reflect on what I’ve learned about life on this tropical island than to reflect on what I wish I had packed, and what I wish I had left behind.

THINGS I WISH I’D PACKED (in varying levels of practicality) 

Such a swath of death I would cut, with this in my hands...

Mosquito zapper: When we were kids, my brother and I acquired a couple of mosquito swatters from China. What made these particular bug swatters so amazing was the fact that they were powered by double-A batteries. Each one was shaped like a small tennis racket, strung with wire that was electrically charged. Anytime you made contact with a flying pest, there would be a satisfying sizzle-pop, and then no more pest! I wish I had one these now, for emotional reasons more than practical. There are far too many mosquitoes for me to even dream of putting a dent in their numbers, but still I’d love to score some small victories, just to maintain my pride as I provide them with a free meal. As it is, my bare-handed mosquito clapping skills are on track to achieve Mr. Miyagi-like heights.

GRE Vocab Flashcards/that novel I always meant to write/sweater I always meant to knit: Strictly speaking, I realize that a sweater is the very last thing I need, and balls of yarn would hardly have been a wise use of my limited luggage space. Also, I’ve never meant to write a novel, so that one is a challenge as well. What I mean by these things, is that in considering that I was moving to a tropical island, I never really stopped to think about what people meant when they refer to the ‘island pace of life.’ Yes, yes, I realized people would be less strict in adhering to scheduled appointments and generally relaxed about life…but I didn’t realize HOW MUCH down time I would have! Especially on weekends. Sundays are strictly observed as the Sabbath, so people spend all day going to church, making Sunday lunch, eating Sunday lunch, napping, and then eating Sunday lunch leftovers. Swimming is generally not allowed in most places until close to sunset. While I have no problems filling my time with naps and food, the heat of the day, lack of cooling-down options, and the fact that almost all businesses are closed rule out most of my other weekend activity choices. Probably this situation would be cured, at least somewhat, if I was able to make more friends, but it’s been surprisingly tough to meet people! Thus, my dreams of returning to the States with a voluminous, some might even say capacious, vocabulary after months of diligent (ya, right) study. Alas.

Flu/cold medication: I confidently packed my first-aid kit before I left, armed to the gills against any GI-tract issues I could possibly encounter. Questionable food? Foreign diet? Scary water? Bring it on. Of course, since I’ve arrived, I have yet to deal with any GI issues (knock on wood), and instead spent last week battling a cold, and this week, the flu. Is there anything more unpleasant than laying feverish in tropical heat and humidity, soaked in sweat, and thinking, this is when it would be nice to have access to hot water? Well, maybe GI issues. At least copious dosing of ibuprofen has helped, in lieu of anything stronger, and I will cease to underestimate the ability to the tropics to make you ill in any way.

Lightweight and patriotic. I really should have invested.

Patriotic clothing: Okay, this is obviously a whim on my part, since I can’t imagine actually wearing an American flag shirt, and it most likely would not help my issue anyway. But a girl can dream. While I often have issues traveling abroad–in many countries, people have difficulties understanding the concept of Asian American–my patience is truly being tested here. Unwanted attention from men is always annoying for female travelers, but it seems like every man or boy on ‘Upolu feels determined to get my attention by shouting “Nihao” or “Konnichiwa” at me, often both if the first doesn’t appear to interest me. Since Samoan has one word, ‘saina’ (literally, China), to refer to all Asian people, I also get that shouted at me a lot, in conjunction with rapid-fire questioning, “Where you from? China? Japan? Korea?” Usually, I explain that my parents are from China and I grew up in the United States. Some days, I just don’t have the patience for it. It’s funny though, I probably never feel so assertive about my identity as an American as when people try to strip me of it. Plus, none of the other English-speaking people seem to realize that I, too, speak English.

I dream of this.

An entire suitcase of granola bars: Although this goes against one of the items on the list below, I really, really wish I had access to more granola or Clif-type bars. The closest I’ve found at the fancy ex-pat grocery store are “Weight Watchers” imitation dessert bars that come in flavors like “Apple Crumble” or “Apricot Dream” and cost $7 for a box of 4, with minimal calories. What I need are those nice, calorie-ful and also potentially fiber-rich bars. Besides the change in diet, I’ve really been struggling with the change in calorie-intake patterns. When I spend days in the field, I’ve realized it’s common for loan officers to skip lunch (unless conveniently provided treats by clients). Since work starts at 8:30, that means I eat breakfast around 7:30am, and then nothing until 6pm, earliest. That is a HUGE no-no in Adria’s book, and even if I gorge myself with a giant breakfast, which I don’t like to do, I’m usually starving anyway and my metabolic rate is all messed up.

THINGS I WISH I HADN’T PACKED (more practical)

Pants: One pair of yoga pants for traveling, okay. One pair of khakis for air-conditioned office time, okay. But the three other pairs of pants living untouched in my closet are definitely, definitely uncalled for. I can say with almost perfect confidence that I will never once wear that pair of skinny jeans that didn’t even make it from my suitcase to the closet. Sure, I wore them in NZ on my way here, but WHAT was I thinking? I don’t even like to wear pants when I’m back home in the States, why would I suddenly develop some deep-set, pants-wearing desire here in the tropics? Silly, Adria, silly.

Shoes: This one I can forgive myself for a little more because I figured, shoes in the office, reasonable; shoes on uneven roads unsuitable for flip-flops, reasonable. As it turns out, no, not reasonable. People wear flip flops EVERYWHERE. Everywhere. Oh sure, some people might rock nicer sandals, but it’s totally fine to show up to work in full uniform (which is fairly formal), wearing the equivalent of shower flip flops. The few times I’ve worn shoes, especially out to the villages when visiting clients, I could not be screaming “FOREIGNER” louder than if I had worn pants. Which I did, once (wear pants, not scream ‘foreigner’). And it sucked.

9 kgs of stuff: I realize this is a bit broad, but as it turns out, flights into Samoa (and probably the other islander nations) have a 23kg limit per passenger, unlike most airlines/flights where that limit applies per bag. Now, I am not generally a heavy packer, but I did have one big bag that hit the 23 kg limit, and a smaller duffel that carried the overflow. If I’m not a heavy packer, where did all that stuff come from? In my careful research of Samoa, I found out that due to high import costs, most consumer goods (including things like toiletries and sun screen) are very expensive. I decided that I would pack a little heavier than normal in my attempt to bring enough of such goods to avoid, mostly, these high costs. Instead, I incurred a whopping overweight baggage fee. I continually scheme about getting rid of the extra weight before I head back–anyone looking for souvenirs should expect them to be very small and light!

And there you have it, everything I’ve learned in the last month. Okay, not exactly true–sorry for those of you who were hoping for something a little more intellectual, but I’m currently battling the flu and dragged myself into the office to write this post instead of doing actual work! Oops. Stay tuned for next time, when I’m slightly more in charge of my mental faculties.

Antarctica is Almost Close Enough to Touch…

Facing Antarctica??

…At least that’s how it feels to me. Dunedin, New Zealand–where I’m visiting my dear friend Kana from high school–is definitely the furthest south I’ve ever been. This has led to slight concerns regarding falling off the edge of the earth, as well as many confused attempts to epically gaze towards Antarctica while at the beach (difficulties stem from my horrendous sense of direction). I only spent a short time here, but we’ve definitely made the most of it and I think I’ve experienced a solid sampling of Kiwi culture. I hope to share with you some of my new fun facts!

Incredible Linguistic Tidbits:

  • Tramping–This means hiking, but sounds ever so much more awesome. Brings to my mind an image of Bigfoot wearing snowshoes tearing through the forest, which I like to compare to my own hiking style.
  • Stubbies–Kana has enlightened my life by introducing this new slang for rugby shorts. For the uninitiated, rugby shorts tend to be SHORT and well-fitting, particularly when worn by beefy rugby ‘blokes’. Given my strong familiarity with rugby shorts and the ridicule they generally receive in the states, I love seeing them worn everywhere and referred to as ‘stubbies.’

Beach cartwheels in my "sneans"

  • Sneans–Upon donning what I deem acceptable travel attire–sneakers and jeans–I was mocked for wearing ‘sneans.’ Apparently this is considered stereotypical American wear, although I’m not sure if the implied scorn is fair considering the evident popularity of jorts…

New Zealand has perfectly met three of my four expectations for it. It is definitely as rugby crazy as people say, full of sheep (nine for each person!) and heart-achingly beautiful. However, it is not home to hobbits, elves, or dwarves, AND most disappointingly, Dunedin does not appear to have any relation to the Dunedain. Sigh. To stem my disappointment, I plunged headlong into a two-day fact-finding mission.

What facts did I find?? (*NERD ALERT*)

Goodbye California, Talofa Samoa!

Well, not quite. I’ll be stopping over in New Zealand to visit my old friend from high school before I finally arrive in Apia, Samoa to begin my Kiva Fellowship. The top three reactions to my placement in the small island nation are:

  1. Where IS that??
  2. I hear the people are huge…
  3. Oh, like the cookie!

To clarify, Samoa is in the South Pacific, about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand.

Where is Samoa

I swear there's an island nation under that pin.

The people do, in fact, tend to be very large–which is helpful when playing rugby or football, as many, many Samoans do, quite successfully.

And lastly, I would argue that the cookie is like Samoa, not the other way around. Please note that they are also known as Caramel DeLites, which seems to me a more descriptive name that causes less confusion over the national identity of a people. Just a thought for the Girl Scouts to consider.

Now, many of you may be wondering: what is a Kiva Fellow and what do they do? Being fresh out of Kiva Fellows training, I should be able to explain this well. Let’s see…

  • Kiva is an organization that uses online crowd-funding to provide capital to microfinance institutions (MFIs) around the world. Basically, anyone can log onto Kiva’s website and view the information and plans of individuals who are taking out small loans. You can then choose to contribute $25 or more to help fund a loan–and when the loan gets paid back, you get paid back. Your money can then be re-invested or withdrawn. This an overly simplified description of a complex model, so you should find out more about how Kiva works.
  • Kiva Fellows come from a wide variety of backgrounds (finance, politics, education, human rights–to name a few) but share a common desire to spend 4 months or more living in a foreign country, where they may or may not speak the local language. Since Kiva can’t keep a large number of staff in the field, they utilize these foolhardy courageous and generous volunteers by placing them with a partner MFI to serve as Kiva’s presence.
  • Don’t let the word ‘volunteer’ fool you! Aside from the week of intensive training at Kiva HQ that turns us all into Kiva devotees and microfinance wizards, this group is a shockingly talented, well-traveled, full-of-work-experience bunch of people. I actually have no idea how I fit into this profile, but I’m extremely happy to be associated with them all. Fellows lend their diverse skill sets to their host MFIs to institute sustainable change in their operations–hopefully making life easier and more productive–and strengthen their partnerships with Kiva.

Each Kiva Fellow enters the field armed with a lengthy work plan, detailing the projects they will accomplish during their fellowship. Thank goodness for training because the deliverables that sounded like words in a foreign language now merely sound like a very busy and challenging 4 months! After months of lounging around NYC on my couch, I’m so excited and nervous to dive into some hard work on a tropical island. But first, New Zealand!

(Oh…what’s that you say? Curious about the name of this blog? Guess you’ll have to keep reading to find out!)