On a drizzly late morning, the second group of volunteers, those to live on the east side of the island and the volunteers from Manu'a who would be staying with us, loaded our suitcases, boxes, bags, foam mattresses, and ourselves onto a school bus to be taken to our houses for the next year. The first drop-off, in Utulei, went smoothly. The second drop-off, for the teachers at Faga'itua High School, happened in a torrential downpour. The bus was unloaded in rain that felt like we were standing under a waterfall. Though soaked, the two volunteers were so excited to meet their host family and see their house.
Vatia was the last drop-off, and the ride over the mountain in a rainstorm was definitely an experience (now, it's completely normal, but I on that day, I felt that the bus was going to start sliding backward with the flow of water pouring down the road). Luckily, Vatia is in a climate-zone of its own, and the rain had lessened by the time we arrived at our family's house. We had seen the place on our island tour upon arrival to American Samoa, and we were excited for the beach-front location.
Now, about three days prior to moving in, my field director informed me that we wouldn't be able to move into our house right away because the family had off-island relatives who had extended their stay. We'd, instead, be staying in the family's house for a week. As eager as I was to get settled, the opportunity to get to know our host family, see the workings of a Samoan family, and perhaps be totally immersed in the culture for a week was even more exciting. So, when we unloaded our belongings into a temporary bedroom in the family's home and met our host mom and host siblings for the first time, both my housemate and I were feeling incredibly lucky. Little did we know that the family wasn't actually going to be in the house with us. They'd be staying in the traditional guest house next door (a structure much like a pagoda, with no proper windows/doors/rooms) while we stayed in their house. Awkward. The first night we were there, our host sisters (both in high school) asked us for money. Uncomfortable. From the first hour we were there, the host mom showed her true colors, yelling (growling, really) at her children to do any and every menial task. She wouldn't get up to retrieve something that was out of her reach, choosing, instead, to bark at her children to do this for her. Incredibly awkward and uncomfortable. Within the first few nights, the host sisters showed their true colors even more by berating their middle-school aged brother, who has some sort of mental handicap. They called him names I do not wish to repeat. What I was witnessing first hand was violence and abuse perpetuating violence and abuse. It was the most uncomfortable I have ever been.
When we were informed that we'd be staying in the family's house, our understanding was that they'd be cooking us meals, since we wouldn't have a kitchen of our own or a place to keep food. This, again, was eagerly anticipated, as I hoped to learn how to make some traditional Samoan dishes. Instead, the adopted daughter (I call her the Cinderella-daughter) was (still is) forced to make food for the whole family, of which we were given leftovers to eat for dinner, alone, in the kitchen... for 3 days... Then, the food stopped. The electric burner (the only way to cook) disappeared from the kitchen and into the guest house. Any food that we put in the refrigerator promptly disappeared. We were hungry - all the time...
Shortly after we arrived, we were informed that our week-long stay in the family's home was to be extended because the off-island family hadn't actually purchased tickets to leave, and the flights were full. So, we were stuck in the uncomfortable situation for longer. We kept assuring ourselves that once we moved into our house, it would be better... We'd be able to make it our own place. We'd have a kitchen. We'd have a little bit of privacy and comfort. So, it was a blow to have that postponed... We tried to keep smiling, though... I'll admit it was more than just difficult, though.
We were finally able to move into our house on the same day that we finally got access to our classrooms and had to report to school. You've already read about the state of the classrooms (did I mention rat, toad, and gecko poo all over everything), so imagine trying to deal with that and move into what you're about to read at the same time.
The house, the one that was to be our haven of serenity, our cottage on the beach, our time to breathe OUT after such a long time struggling with the issues of our host family and trying to commute over the mountain on a very sketchy bus schedule for continued orientation everyday... the house was disgusting. Despite claims that it was clean, it had to be one of the most disgusting places I'd seen in a long time (Ortencia, not quite as disgusting as the one house we stayed at in northern Togo). The kitchen was NOT clean and had NO running water (not just no running water - no potable water, period). There was NOWHERE to cook - no stove, no oven, no electric or gas burner... nothing (which therefore means that we couldn't even boil the water we were able to get out of the bathroom, when it worked). The cabinets were stuffed with moldy, dirty stuff... anything they wanted to store. The bathroom was beyond words. They had not cleaned out the trash can, which held all of the toilet paper - Due to poor plumbing, you couldn't flush paper (which is fine - many places in Korea are like this). But, come on - clean out the dirty paper before letting other people move in. The bathroom door was shredding. Giant cockroaches (as long as my middle finger) came out at night and were promptly carried off by a stream of ants when finally killed. The one closet (for 2 people) was filled with the family's clothes and other items they wanted to store. The living room was full of old photographs, fake flowers, and porcelain cat statues. Above the doorway to one of the bedrooms hung a picture of "Grandpa" in his coffin. NOT what we needed.
My housemate and I went through our housing contract carefully, noting everything that was not up to contract (practically everything) and contacted our field director immediately. After discussing the situation with the host mom, it was eventually determined that they were not going to make the necessary repairs on the house, and we would have to look for a new place to live. Why this was not inspected before we moved in is beyond my comprehension. Dealing with our horrible housing situation and all of the challenges that faced us with the school was sometimes more than I could handle. It eventually got to the point that I had to tell my field director that if the situation was not resolved, I might have to leave. To be unable to live comfortably and to be faced with a hostile work environment were not things that I could handle. In neither situation was I able to accomplish anything as a volunteer, so my time was being wasted.
It took a MONTH to get the housing problem resolved. We were in constant communication with our field director, who was in touch with the host family and the coordinating officials in the DOE. Eventually, the Village People came to our rescue (as was described by someone in the DOE... insert laugh), and we were moved to a new situation. The Vatia Diet, though, worked wonders.... No cooked food, only peanut butter on rice cakes. No water. ... lose 20 lbs. in 2 weeks!
Thankfully, the situation we moved to is so much better. The house is literally right behind the old one (I see Cinderella-daughter doing chores outside everyday, and I hear the mom barking at her children all afternoon), but it's a completely different world.
I live in a house with a host family. I have my own room that locks and is very spacious... a king size bed with plenty of room for another one if I wanted. The other volunteer also lives in the house in her own room. The family consists of our host mom (about 56 years old), who is a teacher currently working at the Juvenile Detention Center, her married son and his family. Mata, the host mom, is wonderful. She's very calm (the opposite of the other woman), and she seems to have a good perspective on life. Craig (the son, aged 29-ish) and Cathy (his wife) are great fun. I enjoy being able to talk with them and play pool in the evenings. Their children, Craig, Jr. (CJ - 3rd grade) and Matalin (2nd grade) are sweet and energetic. They've warmed up to us pretty well, now, so life is always interesting. We have dinner with Mata nearly every night, which, for me, is a great way to decompress from the day. Craig is the driver of one of the buses, so we have a hook-up for getting to town (though we still pay). Both Craig/Cathy and Mata have cars (well, a monster truck and an SUV), so if I ever got stranded somewhere, I have someone to rescue me.
I am grateful everyday to be living with a caring family and to have potable water and a place to cook!
I'll leave you with photos from the original house. I'm sure I've left things out of the saga - how the family took the toilet paper out of the bathroom; how they constantly came up to the windows and talked to us through windows in the dark, rather than using the door; how the host mom never talked to us, but rather sent her kids to tell us everything; how she told villagers that she hated us... But, I'm sure you have a feel for how awful the situation was.
|Where can I hire this decorator? Fake flowers and porcelain cats. When we asked for them to be removed, the question we got was "Why?"|
|The "cleaned" kitchen sink... that didn't work|
|Under the kitchen cabinets... Can we say "health risk" anyone?|
|Grandpa, in his coffin, above the bedroom door|
|The one closet - AFTER it had bee cleaned out... what?|
|The extremely safe breaker box in one bedroom. "Oh, you don't have to worry about that."|
|Under the flooring|
|Freddy Kruger must have visited this bathroom door.|
|Ugh - disgusting shower curtain|
|The lovely toilet paper we were left|