Note: This is a long post – so you may want to set aside some time read it. Viewer Discretion is advised.
It has been an interesting weekend to say the least, and not necessarily for the good. It all began on Thursday when I came down with some weird flu/cold that produced intermittent coughing and a headache. I thought it was only a temporary thing – but it wasn't. I think it was a combination of a lack of sleep and the stress from the Year 13 CAT that kind of made my body susceptible to getting sick, but that's neither here nor there. On Friday morning, I hopped into a taxi and made my way to the Peace Corps office to join my group in the last conference of our service – our Close of Service (COS) Conference. I got to the office around 8am and was surprised to see that even though all of our group was there (all 9 of us left), we weren't ready to go. The instructions we got said that we should be at the office by 8am in order to make it to the resort by 8:30am. So after running around, trying to figure out what was going on we were finally on our way at 9am. So where did we have our conference at? At the $300USD a night Sinalei beach resort (this would be my first time staying there even though I have been to the resort before). We got to the resort at around 9:45am and thought we would be able to check in as soon as we arrived – but apparently this resort doesn't abide by the 10am check-in rule that most hotels use. So we had to leave our bags at the front desk while we waited for our rooms to be ready. Just as a side note, this was the first conference we have been to where things didn't go as planned…it's also the first conference that Ryan was able to participate in (after missing our Early Service and Mid-Service conferences). Coincidence? I think not!
Anyway, we went to the conference room area of the resort and was promptly engulfed by air-conditioning. Now under normal circumstances, I would have appreciated the air conditioned room we were in – but when you have the flu, AC sucks! I was literally freezing for the majority of the day (and going in and out of the AC room didn't exactly help improve my health). So the conference started off with Esera (our "Peace Corps boss") introducing us to the purpose of the conference and letting us know what the program was going to be like over the weekend. After that introduction, Teuila (our medical officer) gave us a rundown of all the medical items we have to take care of in order to be medically cleared to leave the country. So before I go to much further, you may be asking 'What's the point of the COS conference?' Well the main point of the COS conference is to get us ready for the transition back into the US culture. I know you're probably saying 'Oh it shouldn't be that hard to readjust to the states. It's your home, after all.' But you have to realize that after being out of the states for 2 years, it's going to require the same kind of transition it took to adjust to living in Samoa. Probably not as long as it took to adjust to Samoa (it took me about 6 months to adjust to living in Samoa, in the states it may take only 2 to 3 months). The COS conference is also meant to let us know what paperwork needs to be done in order to successfully complete our contract with Peace Corps and the benefits that are available to RPCVs (Return Peace Corps Volunteers) once we come back to the states. So with that understanding in hand, let's continue.
The next thing we covered was Security issues – not only with security towards the end of our service in Samoa but also when we move back to the states. In Samoa, for the most part, you can be a little bit more trusting then you could back in the states – so just being aware that the culture we are going back to is nothing like the culture we have been living in for the past 2 years. After security, came the part of how to say goodbye to our friends and adopted families here in Samoa – and that's definitely going to be the hardest part of the transition. We've spent 2 years making strong bonds with folks here and over the course of a week or so, we have to say goodbye to them with the knowledge that we may never see them again. Kind of a tough pill to swallow – so we just got tips on how to say goodbye in Samoa and gift ideas and stuff like that. Must of us work at schools, so we know our schools are going to give us big going away parties and we just needed to know how to reciprocate the gift giving (a speech was the most accepted answer, since we can't possibly get enough gifts for an entire school). The next part dealt with mentally going back through the whole Peace Corps experience, starting from Staging all the way up to our COS conference – and coming up with ways that the overall volunteer experience (both training and placement) could be improved for future groups. I thought we came up with some pretty good ideas on how things could be improved without delving into being overly negative/jaded about the program – which tends to happen with the 'older' volunteer groups. And finally we closed the day off talking about our 'Description of Service' which is a document which chronicles our entire experience in Samoa – what we have done, accomplished, how much language we have learned, etc. It's an important document because it's the only record that Peace Corps keeps about a volunteers experience at their post (i.e. Samoa is my 'post'). Think of it as an official reference from Peace Corps. So once we got done with going over what our DOS should look like (we write the DOS, not Peace Corps) it was finally time to take a break and enjoy the resort a bit.
Except I couldn't enjoy the amenities of the resort because I was so dead tired and sick. The flu apparently decided it needed to get worst, so I not only had a runny nose all the time, I also had a headache and my body was aching all over. As soon as we were done with our afternoon sessions, I went straight to my room and took a nap. I was literally out like a light for 2 hours and had John not come and woke me up, I would have slept through dinner.
Speaking of dinner, the food at Sinalei was 'interesting' to say the least. For the most part it was more show than substance – I was told that this was based on how the French do their meals: big plates and small portions. If I were feeling better, I probably would not have felt as full as I did – but because I was sick, my stomach shrank and thus I got full a lot quicker. The portions they gave us to eat were very tasty and – just to show how connected we are in this country – Candice used her connections from St. Mary's to get us some free sushi. Who says being a volunteer doesn't have it's perks? After dinner, I promptly went back to my room and slept for a good 8 hours. The 8 hours of sleep seemed to make me feel a bit better, but I still had a lot of residual illness the next day.
So on day 2 (Saturday), I woke up at about 7:30am and took a nice hot shower. And I'm talking about a really nice, like in the states, hot shower – it felt so good. The only 'strange' thing about it was the fact that the shower (and bathroom area) were 'outside' meaning that there were walls on all four sides but no ceiling. It was definitely an interesting motif and would have made for an intriguing shower experience had it been raining while I was showering (taking a hot shower in the cold rain). After dragging myself away from the warm shower, I went to breakfast and tried to eat as much as possible but my stomach was still small from me being sick. Now this conference, so far, had been unlike any of our other conferences in that it was literally made up of a lot of meetings – we were expecting to have a lot of free time to enjoy the resort, but that wasn't to be – it kind of felt like 'Man, we've been waiting 2 years for this conference and NOW you keep us in meetings all day!' but it was all good because we know that it's all done to make sure we don't have a mental breakdown when we leave Peace Corps. Anyway, the first session of the day dealt with our aspirations and anxieties of going back to the states – it's the same activity we did in staging in LA in 2005, but instead it was focused on our aspirations and anxieties of going to Samoa (Sharks were a big concern back then – which didn't affect us at all; and apparently Julya was afraid she would be the only 75er on Savaii – which did happen). So I think the most common anxiety we all had was the lack of money when we come back to the states and getting caught up in the materialism/capitalism that's so prevalent in the states. Here we have learned to live without – and while we are definitely looking forward to having choices again – there's such a thing as too much choice (some might call it over indulgence). As for my own aspirations, I can't wait to finally be able to see US sports again at a regular time instead of having to figure out a weird international schedule and hoping against hope that the screen isn't to blurry for me to see the action.
After the aspiration/anxieties session came the coolest part of the conference: 2 years ago, Kevin (our Technical trainer) had all of us write letters to ourselves after only being in the country 2 days. I didn't remember writing the letters at all (and a lot of our group didn't remember writing them as well) so it was quite a surprise to see what our mindset was like back in October 2005. We were definitely all nervous about the language and overwhelmed by the weather. The most interesting parts of my letter were these two sections:
"I'm looking forward to seeing which Marques will read this letter – one that quit or one that persevered?"
"I hope that this experience has changed you like no other and I pray you're a better Christian because of this."
So obviously, the persevering Marques is the one that read that letter – but it's funny how there was a twinge of doubt back in 2005. As many people in my group will tell you, I was the biggest cheerleader for all the members of our group making it to the COS conference, so there was no way I was going to quit (and if you know me, you know I'm not a quitter by any definition). This experience has definitely changed me – made me a better man and worker – but has also reaffirmed my Christian foundations. Not only through the church I go to (Peace Chapel) but the spiritual families I have adopted here (the Pati's and the Phillip's). So it was just surprising to see that things that I prayed and hoped for 2 years ago have come to fruition even though I didn't really keep them on the forefront of my mind. After the letter reading session, we had a few RPCVs come in and let us know about their experience in readjusting back to the American way of life. Each of them basically said take your time and don't just rush into doing something – don't just follow the quick buck. But they also emphasized something that I've known for a long time (and is one of the main reasons I keep this blog updated) once we get home, there will be very few people who are interested in hearing our stories. It's sad but true – everyone in the states has been living their own lives for the past 2 years and while they missed us, they know us for who we were 2 years ago. Fortunately, if you've been keeping up – even marginally – with me for the past 2 years, you can see how I've changed from January 2006 (when I first moved to Chanel College and was on my own after training) to August 2007 (where I'm officially part of the 'senior' Peace Corps group in Samoa). So while I realized a while ago that I have a limited window in which to convey my Peace Corps experience, it's good to have that reaffirmation that I wasn't just being pragmatic. It was after this session that we were finally free to enjoy all the amenities of Sinalei and you know what I did? I went right back to bed and slept for another 5 hours! You wanna know how sick I was? I was sleeping in a room that most would consider hot and I was just cool for about the first hour or so. It wasn't until about 2-3 hours after going to sleep that my body started to return to its normal temperature and I could finally say the room was getting warm. At about 5pm, I was finally feeling much better then I had at any point during the weekend and was able to mingle with my friends. On our first night, we only had dinner with our group but on the second night (Saturday) we had dinner with Kim and Beth (who was part of the RPCV session earlier in the day, she had previously served in PC Iran and this was her second time being a Peace Corps Volunteer). So it was fun talking to Kim and getting to know her a bit better – she revealed to us that we were her last COS group since she will be leaving her job as Country Director in February. So she saved the best for last! And I always have a fun time talking with and messing with Beth, who is a 3rd year volunteer here in Samoa, so the conversation was light hearted and fun.
Once we were done with dinner, we gathered one more time in the conference room and had our last reflection on Peace Corps Samoa Group 75. What life after Samoa holds for us an individuals and as a group. Will we ever meet again as a group once we go our separate ways? How will we keep in touch? What does life hold for us 2 or 5 or 10 years down the line? It was during this reflection session that we realized how close a group we actually are – everyone gets along with everyone, there's no animosity between any of us. It's also when we realized that a lot of group have roomed with each other through out the course of the 2 years: Candice lived with Charles and then with Sara, Bryan and John have been together since the beginning (literally), Dianne once roomed with Holly, Ryan has lived with Charles and Holly, Julya lived next to Bob, and Mari and Andrew lived with each other until they left. The only people in our group who didn't live with another person from our group was Josh and I. So the fact that a majority of us lived close to each other and we hang out with each other pretty regularly probably helped keep the bonds between us strong over the last 2 years. So we'll definitely keep in touch once it's all said and done. We still hold the label as 'Best Group Ever' despite our decimation of numbers.
So on Sunday, I finally felt so much better but of course it was time to go. So at no point did I get into the water at Sinalei – but that's okay. I think I was very much faled our by my trip with Mom in May that really it was more about relaxing and just hanging with my group (as much as I could, considering the illness) that was most important. The only strange thing about Sinalei was the fact that it didn't have the atmosphere that most of the beach fales I go to have – it felt a lot more isolated (but not as isolated or as crappy as Virgin Cove) and subdued. I guess the fact that they don't allow children 12 and under at the resort allows them to maintain a quiet environment. The one thing that kept coming to mind as I stayed at this resort was the fact that a lot of people probably come here (to Sinalei) and that's all they see/experience of Samoa…and I think 'that's a shame'. While it's a nice place, after living here for 2 years and knowing how much this island has to offer (and how different it is from the 'sanitized' version offered by Sinalei) I never really felt comfortable there. I guess I'm truly a native now.
And that's that – with the COS conference behind us we are heading for the endgame. Over the next few months (probably starting in Novemeber) the various pieces of Group 75 will slowly start leaving the island and we shall go from being volunteers to only a memory. It's definitely an exciting and yet nerve wrecking time because there's still so much we have to do – in terms of projects and PC documentation – that has to be done over the next few months. But there was a ton of paperwork to get into Peace Corps, so it's only appropriate that there be a ton of paperwork to get out. Somethings never change! L8r.