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

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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

Paradise Found: Savai’i

Too bad it rained the whole time. Last week, I finally made the trip over to Savai’i, which is the other main land mass of Samoa. It’s often referred to as ‘the big island,’ and the jaded metropolitan workers of Apia (hah) told me more than once that ‘it’s more laid back’ than ‘Upolu. Never having seen anything remotely approaching uptight-ness on ‘Upolu, I was pretty excited to experience Savai’i for myself. The first thing to note is that although Savai’i is, indeed, bigger than ‘Upolu, it has one-third the people and far fewer paved roads. I’m told that many people are originally from Savai’i but relocate to ‘Upolu for better work or school opportunities–so I guess the rural-urban shift does exist here, just on a considerably smaller scale. Savai’i is also supposed to be quite beautiful and a big tourist destination in Samoa. I was only there for a day and a half, and I can tell you that I would love to see more.

A sizable chunk of my work-plan with Kiva involves gathering video footage, and in one case, editing it. Considering it’s been oh-so-long since I took that film-making seminar in college (and debatable how much I learned from the pass/fail course), I figured I should get some practice in with my hapless blog readers before unleashing myself on the Kiva community. Thus, for this week, I present to you: video blog! I spent embarrassingly long throwing this together, and I still must apologize for the shaky footage and sudden cuts. I have nervous hands and ADD, sorry!

And just in case that amazing film wasn’t totally comprehensive somehow…some pictures to fill in the gaps.

Pointing You Elsewhere (oh, and about the pants…)

With the enlightening clarity of health (thank you, antibiotics that I DID pack), I realized that I may have left a small void in the information when it comes to the question of Samoans and pants. Perhaps some of you assume that everyone wears shorts, if not pants, or all the women dresses/skirts…but lest anyone think there are hordes of Samoans running around pants-less with nothing to inform your imaginations, let me me introduce the lavalava and the ie faitaga. A lavalava is basically a brightly printed sarong wrap that both men and women wear on their lower bodies. Women, from what I can tell, always wear shorts or tights underneath (the shorts are usually what we would consider totally appropriate to wear around without a wrap). Unclear–at least to me–what the men wear. I wish I could present you a triumphant picture of me wearing a lavalava but I honestly haven’t mastered the knotting situation, and I’m hot enough without wearing two layers of clothes–although I will vouch for the comfort of lavalavas when lounging around the house with less concern about accidentally flashing someone.

Tui rocking ie taisaga and pouring water from a vodka bottle (borrowed from a nearby village, of course) into the trust yellow truck.

The ie faitaga is more formal, and worn only by men. It’s what they would wear to work in an office, or to go to church and special events. They have pockets and ties (versus just knotting the ends together) and are usually made out of linen and are a solid color, like dress pants. These are what all of my male colleagues at SPBD wear to work, although a couple of them swap out for shorts on Friday, which is more casual because CMs don’t go out in the field. Formal dress for women is the puletasi, which is matching, or at least coordinated, top and skirt.

 

One of my borrowers, showing off her beautiful puletasi!

Anyway, I wanted to share these tidbits, but won’t be writing a full post today. Instead, I’d like to point you towards my most recent post on the Kiva Fellows blog. Don’t be shy about commenting there, it will still be me getting the comments and responding. I guess I could have just re-posted it here, but that seems like cheating!

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.

Meet the Borrowers: So who takes out these loans anyway?

Just looking out the window on the drive to visit borrowers, no biggie...

“Do you have credit?”

“What?”

“Do you have credit on your phone?”

“Oh…yeah.”

“You might want to call your parents up and tell them goodbye.” Tui, one of SPBD’s Center Managers, informed me solemnly. “That guy,” he pointed at Peni, who was currently behind the wheel, “used to be a pilot.”

As I laughed along with the three Center Managers (loan officers), I double checked my seat belt and tried not to let the sheer terror show on my face. After a long day of borrower visits, it seemed I would meet my end at the hands of a previously normal-seeming, now maniacal Samoan (who is apparently, not actually an ex-pilot) bent on ending my existence by demolishing everything in his path, whether man, animal, or machine.

On the bright side, after being soaked through in sweat, whizzing down a windy, two-lane, oceanside road did create a nice breeze.

I spent last Wednesday out in the field conducting one of my Borrower Verifications. Almost every Kiva Fellow must complete 10 BVs (some have to do more!) during their time in the field. This basically entails interviews with borrowers to confirm their identities and loan information, and find out what they’ve done with their loan. The key thing is that the 10 borrowers are a random sample chosen by Kiva and all 10 borrowers must be visited, and pass their BV, for the MFI to pass overall. This helps Kiva guard against fraud and ensure that the correct policies are being implemented by their partners. It’s also a great excuse to get out and meet some borrowers!

In order for me to carry out my BVs, I have to tag along with one of the teams of CMs. As I previously mentioned, each team usually leaves the office around 9:30 and returns around 4:30, so that means that even if I just want to meet one borrower, I’m along for the ride for their whole route. I try to work in meeting other Kiva borrowers just to chat and possibly post updates for them on their borrower profiles, but the tight schedule and varying levels of helpfulness from CMs has left me with both amazing days and super boring ones. But will I tell you about the boring ones or the amazing ones?