On Wednesday, January 16, my parents arrived in Samoa. It had been fifteen months since the last time that I saw them but once they got off the plane and we hopped into a taxi, it was as though no time had passed at all.
The first day was spent settling down. We checked into Aggie Grey’s, rented a car, visited the Peace Corps office, and most important of all, I got to open the presents my parents brought. Oh the food, and the new clothes, and the numerous other little things that make life so much more pleasant. My favorite of which was, of course, my new laptop. Thank you so much Varun and thank you Chris for all the cool stuff you loaded onto it and thanks to all you guys that helped to get it to me.
We also had to organize the mountain of mealofa (gifts) that my parents brought for my two host families (the one I have now and the one I stayed with during training). In Samoa, when you come to visit or come back from a trip it’s considered very rude to not bring mealofa. My parents brought heaps of things: bubblegum, handmade soaps, tootsie rolls, hand towels, children’s books, instant lemonade, and tons of other stuff I can’t even remember. There was even a three disk set of Clint Eastwood movies for my host father who has been asking me to find him cowboy movies for the past four months.
The room we stayed in at Aggie’s was awesome. It was a bungalow, with this beautiful traditionally carved ceiling. I, however, only had eyes for the enclosed shower with hot water. The wonderful thing about traveling with my mother is that she always brings all of her hygiene products with her: shampoos, conditioners, lotions, body wash… I came out of that shower cleaner than I had been in over a year. To further the point, we volunteers tend to get used to our clothes that we’ve ripped and ruined with bleach and the fact that we never really look our best here. So when I had donned some of my new clothes and we headed over the Peace Corps Office, my friends were in awe of my sparkling skin and clean attire.
That night was the Aggie Grey’s fiafia. A fiafia is basically a Samoan celebration. It’s used to welcome new comers or to celebrate big occasions. Most of the big hotels in Samoa have a fiafia once a week to show their guests what it’s like. The hotel staff all dress traditionally and sing and dance. And then the whole thing is followed by a Samoan buffet (well, there is Samoan food there but mostly the buffet consists of tourist food like salads, ham, cheese platters, and so on).
It was during this first day that mom and dad experienced what I mean when I say it’s hot here. One of the most common questions I get is ‘What is the weather like?’ to which I always reply, ‘Well, it’s hot.’ Hot doesn’t quite cover it though. We live by the equator and right now it’s the wet season. Most days the heat is intense, sticky, and oppressive. Luckily both the room and the car had air conditioning so there was some haven for them.
The following day we took the car around the east half of the island so that I could show them all the places I usually go. Laura tagged along for most of the trip but that was mainly to score a free ride (it’s kind of an unwritten law that if you have yourself a vehicle, you check to see who needs a ride). We stopped first at Ming & Hana’s to grab a few things to bring for lunch at my house.
Ming & Hana’s came to Samoa in June of 2007. Every single volunteer remembers the first time they ever shopped there. The place is a mecca, an oasis, there are even those that call it heaven. It sells more American food than all the other stores in the country combined. You can find taco shells, green olives, Cadbury chocolate, soy beans, whole grain pasta, an entire half isle of cereal, even (though insanely overpriced) Starbucks coffee beans. We were blindsided by the place when it first opened and even now end up spending far more then we should on the extravagances we find there. It’s quite lovely to come to such a place with your parents especially when they are making up for all the time they haven’t been able to feed you. We filled a cart and then headed to the Cross-Island Road that would take us up and over the mountains to the opposite side of the island.
While we were at my house, Mom was giving out candy to the little kids who come and play at the back my host family’s store. Some of the guys who hang out in front of the store saw the kids with candy and assumed that I was back there with some. One of them ran to the back holding out his hand, “Meka, Meka!” When he rounded the corner he encountered a strange red-headed palagi (outsider). He gasped and backtracked faster than I have ever seen a Samoan man run.
He wasn’t the first person scared by the strange new white people wandering around. Whenever Mom would start talking to Baby Dan, he would stop whatever he was doing and walk away in the opposite direction. He was perfectly terrified of Dad who did nothing to help the situation and continued to jump at Dan until the poor kid was reduced to tears.
After we made a huge lunch of tuna sandwiches (of course we had been to Ming & Hana’s so they were not just plain tuna sandwiches: tuna full of spices, onions, and mixed with grey poupon, topped with artichoke hearts, pickles, and cheese on herb pita bread) we saw my school, and then headed down the south side of the island stopping at the water fall in Togitogiga National Park, the beach in Tafatafa (where we dropped off Laura), and then made our way towards my training village in Maasina.
My host sister in Maasina had already called me at least fifteen times that day (if you think I’m being sarcastic ask anyone who was around me that day). It got to the point where I would just ignore the calls because they all consisted of the same conversation: “Where are you? Are you still coming? What time are you coming? Do you need me to come pick you up? Are you all spending the night here? Why won’t you spend the night here?” As the day progressed I was becoming more and more reluctant about this part of our trip.
Well, we got there and my parents met everyone, presented their gifts, and were given vai tipolo (homemade lime-ade). Everything was going well until my host sister said “Alright, now we’ll go in for dinner.” Dinner?! It was only five, dinner wasn’t usually until seven. I had actually planned our drive knowing that fact. I began to have horrible visions of my parents being forced to eat canned corned beef (no matter how much you may like corned beef, canned corned beef is pretty heinous) and taro (which is great, if you’re used to it). I literally held my breath as we walked to the kitchen. And then, it seemed as though clouds had parted and rays from heaven were shinning down, my host family that had pushed me so hard in training to be Samoan, actually made palagi food for my parents. There was of course taro on the table but they had made three different types of chicken (fried, boiled, and curry) for them to choose from. I was speechless.
On Wednesday we headed out the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum up on the mountain which was pretty cool if you like houses. The three of us like houses and so it was nice. In the evening my parents took all the 77 girls (Laura, Molly, Sally, and I) out to dinner. We had many, many pitchers of margaritas and a lovely time. Then Mom, Dad, and I headed to the airport.
Something really must be said about Mom’s last few hours in Samoa.
First there was the taxi to the airport or as she called it, “the cab ride from hell.” Apparently she did not seem to remember that the taxi that brought us from the airport on Wednesday didn’t have seatbelts either and spent the beginning of the ride, firstly trying to find them and then sourly commenting on their absence. The Samoan Airport isn’t actually in the capital, Apia. It’s not even that close to it. It’s on the North-Western edge of the island, so it’s quite a ways to get there. However, Samoan taxi drivers are not exactly known for their slow, cautious speeds. Mom spent the ride clutching fiercely to the seat in front of her. I’m not exactly sure how this happened but when we finally got out she was so frazzled that half of her hair had come out of the clip and was sticking out off the side of her head. It was all I could do to not take a picture of her in that moment and believe me when I tell you that I still regret not doing so. Instead, like the kindly daughter I am most of the time, I asked her if perhaps she would like to accompany to the bathroom and she stood back until she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She started laughing so hard she had to hold on to the counter to keep from falling over.
Secondly there was Mom’s experience with Samoan compliance. After you’ve lived here long enough you begin to realize that people say ‘yes’ to anything you ask. They are basically lying to you just to make you happy in the moment with no thought to how disappointed or frustrated you will be in the future. I’ve learned to phrase my questions so they don’t have a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Mom, however, didn’t really believe me or didn’t remember or something and I wasn’t with her to catch it. She asked the woman at the Samoan duty free shop if alcohol bought in Samoa could be brought to our layover in New Zealand and then on to Australia. ‘Yes.’ So she bought me a beautiful bottle of vodka to take home with me when I get back from my trip. In New Zealand, when the bottle was inevitably confiscated when we were getting on our flight to Australia, she learned a valuable lesson.
Our flight from New Zealand to Australia was on a 777. I have never flown on a 777 before so I was quite overjoyed to find that even in coach class they have little monitors on the backs of all the seats and you can pick what movie you want to watch. Spider Pig, Spider Pig, does whatever a Spider Pig can.
We got in on Sunday, rented a car, checked into our hotel and went to the Aldi down the street buy some food for our room. We got blackberries. I stopped paying attention to the other food after that. Blackberries were all that mattered.
Then we headed downtown to see the Opera House at night. On the way we grabbed some coffee at a McCafe. If you have never been to a McCafe before, like in Europe or wherever, it’s McDonald’s’ version of a coffee shop and actually looks quite classy but is usually connected to an actual McDonald’s which brings the classy points down a few notches. They even have muffins and pastries and the coffee is not bad.
We got down to the Opera House which truly is beautiful. It’s one of those things that you can see in pictures thousands of times but never really see until you’re standing in front of it.
One thing that struck me about Sydney was how clean everything was. The odd thing about this is that it is damn near impossible to find a trash can (or rubbish bin). In contrast, New York City has trash cans on every corner and there’s still tons of trash that finds its way onto the sidewalks and into the streets. It seems that the Sydney Siders (as they are called) just make a concerted effort to properly dispose of their rubbish.
The hotel we were staying in had a beautiful view over the harbor and was extremely nice but freezing the whole trip. I never thought that my father would be one to turn down a thermostat that low but it must have had something to do with the fact that we were in a hotel room instead of the house. I was so cold at night that I wanted to die.
To get in and out of central Sydney, we used the subway which has split level trains so they can cram more people on them. Those Australians are so smart (it almost makes up for the fact that there are too few stations and you have to walk blocks and blocks to find one). I had kind of forgotten the imaginary bubble of personal space that palagis need to feel secure. After over a year of riding on Samoan buses (where everyone is crammed in with everyone else, arms on each other, sitting on one another’s’ laps) and not being able to have that bubble, your body kind of forgets it ever existed. My arm brushed up against the arm of the lady sitting next to me on the subway and I was fascinated by her instant recoil reaction.
Anyone who’s ever seen the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet knows that Australia seems to be a haven for the dangerous and bizarre. I couldn’t leave the country without having seen some of the more popular of the Australian wildlife. On my list: the kangaroo, the duckbill platypus, and the deadly Sydney funnel web spider. I’m not picky and was okay with not seeing them in the wild (especially as two are poisonous and one could kick the shit out of me). And so on Monday morning Mom and I dragged Dad to Sydney’s Wildlife World and Aquarium.
From the outside both of them seem on the small side but there are tons of animals crammed inside. We kind of joked with each other about how they would be filled with ‘exotic’ animals like the American buffalo and black bears. Luckily, the Australians are insanely proud of their country and rather fond of their animals so we encountered only Australian fauna.
At the aquarium we definitely reached the point where we had seen enough fish but there were so many other remarkable things. There were sharks, moray eels, manta rays, and crayfish the size of my head. One of Mom’s favorites was the weedy sea dragon. My top five :
5. the saltwater crocodile
4. duck-billed platypuses
3. the preserved box jellyfish
2. the blue ring octopus
and decidedly the favorite for all three of us, 1. moon jellyfish. They were just so beautiful and they were in a dark tank lit only by a black light that made them fluorescent. It was like watching a dream.
For lunch, we went the Lindt Chocolat Café. Good god. They had actual food there as well, so we got some sandwiches and then obviously got desert. I got a hot chocolat sundae that came with three scoops of Lindt ice cream and four different types of chocolate on top. Glorious.
Afterwards we went to Wildlife World. The animals were very cool indeed. Sleeping koala bears look like curled up teddy bears stuck in trees and are quite possibly the cutest thing in existence. I eagerly waited to see the funnel web but when we finally got to his case he had burrowed so far in that I couldn’t see him. I was a tad disappointed but figured it was meant to be.
On Tuesday we wondered around downtown. Visited The Rocks and the Opera House and had lunch in this really old bar (where I was reminded why I despise the beer in Samoa).
I don’t like heights. It’s like my one thing. Give me spiders, snakes, whatever and I’ll be fascinated but I would prefer not to hang perilously from a great height or even stand safely at a great height. So we did the Bridge Climb on Wednesday. I snapped on a brave smile and actually did it. The Bridge Climb is this organization that set up a climb to the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge (which, if you are interested, is twice as tall as the Sydney Opera House). Tour guides take up groups, you all get walkie talkies and head sets and these cool climbing suits (they’re not really cool and if you were ever outside the tour you would be mortified to be caught in it).
You are completely safe the whole time, walking up stairs with railings on both sides and snapped into a harness that’s connected to a continuous rail that runs up and back. There would have to be some serious effort made on your part for you to fall off. This however does not stop any images you might have of yourself falling off. It was terrifying but exhilarating and I was so happy that I did it (especially after we were back on the ground). We celebrated our grand achievement by going out for beer and pizza (at Zia Pina Pizzeria) and ice cream (at Royal Copenhagen, where I had a scope of Royal Copenhagen: honey comb and butterscotch ice cream with such a ridiculous level of sugar that my stomach ached for hours).
On Thursday, we decided to get into our rental car and actually leave Sydney. It took a little bit to figure out exactly how to this but we all worked together as a cohesive unit and soon found ourselves on our way. We first stopped at Featherdale Wildlife Park in Doonside because we heard they had kangaroos.
It’s kind of odd to be traveling with people who aren’t in the Peace Corps. Even though my parents tried to do the things I wanted to do (and succeeded very well) there were little things I wanted to comment on, that I just couldn’t explain. Like, how ridiculous the idea of a pet store is or how wonderful it is to be able to listen to the radio (and actually hear songs I know and like at a volume that’s agreeable).
Featherdale has many of the same things that the Wildlife World but it was definitely worth it to see them both as they each have some things that the other does not. Featherdale did indeed have kangaroos, as well as a Tasmanian Devil, dingoes, and an open habitat where you can feed wallabies. I had had no idea how gigantic wombats are. I’d seen pictures of them before and assumed that they were like guinea pigs or something. They’re bigger than a dog and are more like ROUSs!
Upon entering the quite cleverly named Reptilian Pavilion I had one goal in mind: see the funnel web. I rushed past the lizards and snakes until I reached the spiders. There was the spindly legged, deadly red back spider (relative to the American black widow). There too was the furry fearsome wolf spider. And finally, pushed up against the glass, there was a fat black funnel web spider, the most venomous spider in the world. True, after the development of the funnel web antivenom no one has died from a funnel web bite but it’s the idea that it could kill me.
Starving we pulled off the highway in a town called Penrith and found a hotel restaurant where we could have lunch (and were practically force fed garlic bread). As we left Penrith, we were stopped at a light when from the front of the car I hear “Meghan!” I glanced around to see what my mom was excited about when I saw it. Right next to us was a Target delivery truck. A Target delivery truck in a residential area means that there must be a Target somewhere nearby. It was agreed upon (Dad with some reluctance) that we would return after the Blue Mountains and find this Target.
The Blue Mountains were beautiful. It was like being at the Grand Canyon if the Grand Canyon was filled with trees. We drove around most of the afternoon checking out different views and waterfalls and things.
On the way back, we began our search for the fabled Target of Penrith. There was a point when we passed the Arnott’s factory and I tried to excitedly explain that that’s where Timtam were made! Mom and Dad of course had no idea what I was talking about and so I tried to explain the delicious chocolaty goodness that is a Timtam cookie. It’s chocolate crème sandwiched between two chocolate cookies and then the entire thing is dipped in chocolate fudge. I’d never had one before I came to Samoa but they’re all over the South Pacific. It wasn’t until later on in our trip that I remembered to buy them some so they could taste them.
Back to the Target hunt: We really had no idea where we were going and by some miracle we turned a corner and saw the huge red glowing sign. Not only was it a Target, it was a Target in a shopping mall. It was already quarter to eight and pretty much all of the stores were closed. In fact, every night of the week Target closes with the rest of the mall at five. Every night, that is, except Thursdays (when it stays open until 9). I therefore decided that I was fated to shop at this store.
It had been over a year since I had the chance to buy myself a large quantity of new clothes. Almost everything I had was stained or ruined and smelled slightly off (mold festers everywhere). The tragedy of the situation was that we only had an hour to shop. So with Mom and I scouring sales racks and Dad guarding the cart we dashed through the women’s section as fast as we could. With half an hour to go, I ran to the changing room and, even with the detrimental 5 garment limit, managed to try it all on and figure out what I would be keeping with a few minutes to spare. With that time I raced through the rest of the store trying to decide what else I needed. It was like being a contestant on Super Market Sweep. I ignored the first three announcements, only heading to the checkout counter after the final ‘Get the hell out of our store’ came over the intercom.
On Friday we all went to the mall across the street from our hotel (It was cleverly hidden underground and the only reason we found it was because during the week Dad and I entered some office building lobby looking for an ATM and discovered that it wasn’t an office building lobby, it was a mall. A mall with a food court and a produce market). Dad wandered off somewhere while Mom and I roamed among the stores. Though I found some things I wanted, the shopping experience in no way compared to being in the Target even with the free radical smoothie and falafel wrap I had for lunch. That night, completely exhausted, I opted to stay in the hotel while Mom and Dad went back out into the city. It was quite lovely, I ordered Pay Per View (Michael Clayton, incredible) and feasted on the last of the food we had in the room.
Our last day in Australia, we went downtown before going to the airport. It was Australia Day and downtown was crazy. There was live music everywhere, free drinks, jets flying overhead, and everyone, everyone, was dressed up. We went to The Rocks were the celebrations were combined with the Saturday open market and got completely overwhelmed by Australia before we had to leave.
New Zealand (Part Two)
We got in very late Saturday night and my flight back to Samoa was early Monday morning so I pretty much only spent one day in New Zealand this time (Mom and Dad were staying slightly longer) and I never left Auckland. One of the things I hadn’t done last time I was there was visit a vineyard.
We got on a ferry downtown to Waiheke Island which is packed with vineyards. Instead on going on the bus wine tour and rushing all over the island we decided that we should pick one and just hang out there. We chose Stonyridge, beautiful views and slightly more pretentious than expected but the wine was pretty good and the platter of food we had with it (oysters, brie, artichoke hearts, olives, sun dried tomatoes …) was amazing.
For my last night of vacation we went to an Irish pub called Danny Doolan’s, ordered a few beers (I got to have my Radler again) and proceeded to consume more food than I thought physically possible (but it was so good). If that wasn’t enough we went down the street to a coffee shop and all got cake. The whole time I was devouring the delicious coffee cheesecake my stomach was furiously berating me.
It was time to go back. They are my parents and I love them but it was time to go back. I needed to be in my house with my routine and such. The next morning I left for the airport at six am at Dad’s insistence. I got through security and then proceeded to spend the next two and a half hours milling around the duty free shops looking for last minute mealofa for the people in my village.