MJ Live

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Adios Adventure (Written 12/17/07 – 12/19/07)

Note: This is a Super-sized blog post. It basically covers my last 24 hours in Samoa and my first 24 hours back in the United States. Reader discretion is advised.

Well folks, here we are – the last day of my Peace Corps Service. After two years of doing my best to serve the needs of the country of Samoa, it's time for me to leave. When I planned out today, I thought it would be a fairly easy day – not to long and I would be home by 5 at the latest….boy was I wrong.

The day began with a fairly pleasant surprise – I received a text from Eugene telling me that he and his family had arrived safely in Tanzania. They were suppose to land in Tanzania on the 17th, but we both thought that would be the 16th in Samoa – nope, it was the same day. So I congratulated him on completing the trip safely (they were all tired and he said the kids passed out immediately once they were home). So as their journey across the world ended, mine was just about to begin.

I began the day fairly early, awoken by Eugene's text message – so I went around to make sure everything was packed away and doing some final run through of the place to see if there were any more items that needed to go to the Peace Corps office. When the oldest group of volunteers leave, they tend to leave a few items at the Peace Corps office (i.e. books, clothes, toiletries, bike parts, etc) to help out the current and future volunteers of the post. I have been slowly taking things to the office over the past 2 weeks, but today was the day in which I took a lot of the big items down to the office (i.e. my mosquito net, medical kit, books and water filter). Last week, I arranged for a Peace Corps vehicle to come up to the school and help me move this stuff at 10am – which is the reason I woke up at 7am: Have to be prepared. So I did some final sweeping, cleaning and washing of clothes for the trip home. I was pretty much done at exactly 10am but when I went outside to see if a Peace Corps vehicle was there, it wasn't. So I called the office to reconfirm that I was scheduled for a pickup and got the confirmation – but the vehicle did not arrive until 10:30am which already put me behind my scheduled events for the day.

So I got a ride down to the office and dumped a lot of my stuff in it's proper place before running the final Peace Corps Gauntlet of paperwork. The first person I had to see was Teuila to give one last blood sample and go over the last few bits of my medical details. At this time I told Teuila I was not saying goodbye to her yet because I wanted her to be one of the last people I say goodbye to at the office. After taking care of my medical, Kim (our Country Director) came to me with some revisions that needed to be done to my Description of Service (DOS). None of the changes were major – which is very much a good thing since I was only hours away from being gone and didn't want to go through a major rewrite. So I quickly made the necessary changes to my DOS and gave it back to Kim for final approval. Once I handed in my DOS – Kim, Sara and I had our COS lunch at Roko's. Before heading to Roko's, though, we had to take care of one more major detail – closing out our bank accounts. When I closed out this account that I have been using for the past 2 years, it felt like one more nail in the coffin of my Peace Corps experience. Now, in regards to the COS lunch, I have been talking about this lunch for well over a year after I had heard that we get this free lunch from Kim when we successfully complete our service. I told her then that when we had our lunch, I would be getting a steak (my second steak in a week!). So the time had come to finally cash in on that promise – I got the Rib Eye steak at Roko's and it was absolutely delicious. Possibly one of the juiciest steaks I've ever had. During our lunch, we talked about our experience in Peace Corps over the past 2 years and it was a very relaxing, laid back conversation. We have all been through a lot during the past 2 years so it was good to get a bit of it off our chests at the end. We had a long lunch – probably about 2 hours long, but it was good and a lot of good conversation came out of it. We are the last two people (and last group) that Kim will have her COS lunch with before she steps down as Country Director of Samoa in two months. So it was a good time for her – to end have her final COS lunch with members from the greatest Peace Corps group ever. Also, Kim gave Teuila, Sara and I gifts for successfully completing our ENLI course – she was out of the country when we graduated and it was a nice gift (a personal calendar, to keep my new life in the state organized).

After our lunch, we headed back to the office for our exit interviews with Kim. During this interview we formally gave our thoughts on our Peace Corps Site (i.e. Chanel College), the future of our site, any program issues that could be improved within Peace Corps and any thoughts we had about the administration staff. Overall, I've had a pretty good experience with all of the above – so my suggestions were very minimal. At the end, though, Kim congratulated me on completing my two years and being an excellent Volunteer. While I am rough around the edges, I'm glad that my good character shined through and I'm leaving a good legacy at Chanel and within the Peace Corps community. After I was done with my exit interview, it was time to say goodbye to Teuila. Like I've said before, Teuila has been like our Peace Corps Mom – always looking after us, and always lending a kind ear to our needs. She's got a great sense of humor (which is how she can deal with me) and I love her very much. During our COS lunch, she went home and brought Rachael and Elisha to the office (Tiffany was at church) so I got to say goodbye to them one more time. I got to hang out with Rachael and Elisha a little bit more because I had to wait for Sara to come out of her Exit Interview with Kim. While I was waiting, Fila showed up to say her goodbye to me as well. It took Sara about 30 minutes to finish her interview and then I had to say my final goodbye to the girls and Teuila. I know the girls are going to miss me because they're not going to have someone to jump all over and act as sort of a big brother to them. Teuila did cry, but I didn't – mainly because it still had not hit me that I was leaving.

After leaving the Peace Corps, I had arranged to meet Zonder and Lorna at ClickNet to say my final goodbye to them. Fila drove Sara and I over to ClickNet and on the way we ran into Kirstin, who was about to start jogging. She was one of the few people I put on my list that I had to see on this last day in Samoa and I was really happy that I got the opportunity to see here one more time. She got a new look – with shorter hair – so it's just a time of transition for all of us. There were plenty of hugs given and laughing shared during our few minutes together. While we were talking to Kirstin, Zonder and Lorna showed up – so the gang was back together for one last go round. After saying goodbye to Kirstin, Fila drove me over to ClickNet so I could have one last look at the place and give the guys in charge (Tavita and Titi) one last hug and word of encouragement before heading off. Who knew a small shop could have such an impact on my life in such a small amount of time – but I'm really hoping that when I return that  ClickNet will still be open. That would be nice. After we were done at the shop – this was at 7pm, only 2 hours before I was suppose to leave – I had one more ClickNet goodbye to give: Lina, the manager of ClickNet. Fila drove me over to her house so that I could give her a hug and give her a proper goodbye. After that goodbye, it was time to return home and make sure everything was in order….because there was no turning back now.

When we arrived at my house, it was time to say even MORE goodbyes…this time to Fila and Sara (Lorna and Zonder would see me off at the airport). I thanked Fila for always keeping me on my toes and taking all the tough times I gave her with a smile and grace. Then came one of the hardest goodbyes of the day – saying goodbye to Sara, the last member of Group 75 in Samoa. It was a tearful goodbye because we have spent almost the entire two years connected to each other – through Peace Chapel, the Catholic School system and ENLI. It will definitely be strange not seeing Sara on a weekly basis…and I just thanked her for being a great part of my experience in Samoa. I would not have found Peace Chapel or ENLI without her help, so I've got a lot to be thankful for when it comes to her. After the tears were settled, the four of them drove off and I felt just a bit closer to tying up all my loose ends.

When I got home, I made sure the place was nice and clean and did yet another run through of my belongings. At 8pm, Pati and Tiffany showed up to say their goodbyes. Now, earlier in the day Pati had called and said he would wait for me at the airport (he got off at 8pm and would wait until 10pm), apparently he changed his mind and decided to knock off work early  in order to see me off at my house. I am super glad I got to say goodbye to Pati – he has been a great influence on my life, just being an awesome man of God, family man and still the best taxi driver I ever had in Samoa. And while Tiffany has always given me a hard time, I know it's all out of love and I will miss her very much. We talked for about an hour, just reminiscing about the last 2 years and thinking about my future return to Samoa. As we talked, Pati looked up at the sky and saw that it was a half-moon and said "The moon is half-full, which means you have to return to complete it" which I thought was a nice statement – can't leave something incomplete here….I am a completionist after all. So we talked for about an hour when Uaea showed up (on time) to give me my ride to the airport. Again, there were tears shed and yet another piece of the leaving Samoa puzzle is complete. Uaea helped me move my bags into his car and I got one last look at my house – can't believe I won't be walking into this place tomorrow. After locking the doors, I had to put the keys to the house and the lab in the place that Dave and I agreed on. Before locking the lab for the last time – I took one last look at the first computer lab…the one that started it all and said my goodbye to the labs. I then went up to the father's house and said my goodbye to Pio and wished him luck in the next year…I also told him to take care of my computers. He also cooked one last meal for me – Steak (apparently it's the meal of departure around these parts). With that goodbye, I packed into Uaea's car and began my last drive away from Chanel College as a Volunteer. We stopped a few times and I tried to picture the college in my head because it was so dark – one of the bad things about leaving at night, you don't really get one last look at your place.

The drive out to the airport took about 45 minutes and Uaea and I just talked about a variety of subjects along the way – primarily dealing with our spiritual walks and how mine has developed while being in Samoa. Uaea and I aren't like the closest of friends, but it was glad to have a familiar face see me off at the airport – it kind of sucks to leave without someone seeing you off. As one last treat to myself as a Volunteer, I decided to upgrade from the Economy class to the Business Class (the first time in my life that I have flown Business/First Class) so the check in process was pretty fast for me. Other then allowing me more comfort room, it also gave me a larger baggage allowance which was needed in order to get all of my bags back (you also get to take on two carry-on bags instead of one). This was by far the quickest check-in I have ever done – apparently this flight was not full so there were not a lot of people leaving with me. I did know six people on this particular flight though: Beth (who is leaving Peace Corps for good, like myself), Mark (who is just on vacation), Donna (who is also on vacation), Father Mika (a priest from my school who is going to the States for the first time) and Jared/Nicole (friends of Lorna/Zonder that came in for the wedding, they are flying to Nicole's home state of Kentucky).

When I got the departure tax and converting of my tala to USD, it was time to wait for my departure. I was definitely glad to have Uaea there – someone to talk to and keep my mind off the finality of the whole situation. While waiting for my flight, I also ran into the Principal of St. Mary's who didn't realize I wasa leaving tonight – so that was yet another goodbye. While I was talking to the Principal, Lorna and Zonder showed up (they came to see me off as well as Jared and Nicole). So we all sat down (Jared, Nicole, Lorna, Zonder, Uaea, myself) and had one last good time before the dreaded moment came – the time to walk through the security gates and officially say goodbye to Samoa. Before this moment came, I sent out a bunch of text messages saying goodbye to folks (in Samoa) and telling folks I'm coming home (in the States). The text message responses were just flowing in – it was amazing. I expected maybe a few people to respond back, but almost everyone I send a message also sent a response. Everyone keeps telling me how I've impacted a lot of lives here, but so many people here have impacted my life in such a deep and meaningful way that it's hard to put into words. When it was time to go to through the security gate, I gave my phone to Uaea to give to a friend and that's when it hit me…I'm leaving Samoa. Tomorrow, I will literally be someplace else.

I looked at the arrival area – the same arrival area I came through 2 years ago as a trainee – and the tears just began to flow. To sort of come full circle gave the whole thing a bit of symmetry and an appropriate ending of sorts. I was just balling at this point – and I was really glad Lorna and Zonder were there because they are one of the few people I have known my entire two years (I only met Uaea this year), so I got to hug out my two years one more time. When I was hugging Lorna she gave me some sage advice and said 'This was not a dream. You came and served this country for 2 years, don't forget that". That really hit home for me because my biggest fear about leaving was the fact that over time this could begin to feel like a dream – like I was never really here and these people didn't really exist – but with her words, I know that won't happen. I'm glad that I left Samoa in a better state then when I arrived – I hope my time here has been beneficial to Samoa in the present and for the future (through the kids). It was at this time that I really did not want to leave…I knew I had to, but it was taking a sheer force of will to keep me from just saying 'I'm staying'. But when the time came, I did go through the security doors and I did say goodbye to Samoa. Thankfully, I did not have to wait long in the lounge area – when I got there they were loading the plane already, so it was one swift move from the security checkpoint to the airplane.

For the first time in my life, I was sitting in the first two rows of the airplane – in Business Class! This was quite an experience for me because I had always thought about doing it once my service was up, but couldn't really believe that it was actually happening. I was surprised by the amenities that you get in Business Class – I got a little packet that had toothpaste, socks, earplugs and a night mask. Before taking off, the attendant came around with hot towels so that we could clean ourselves up a bit before take off. Now all of those things would mean nothing if the leg room was poor – fortunately, it was not. For the first time on an airplane I had more then enough leg room between myself and the seat in front of me – I could stretch out without placing my feet in the aisle. As I was getting use to first class, I took a look around the plane and it hit me that the last time I was on this particular flight, I was with 12 other people that I had never met before. When I was last on this plane, I was so looking forward to this trip home – but now that it's here, I am very much in the mixed emotions department. I took one last look at the airport and said my final goodbye to Samoa…my little island home away from home.

The plane ride from Samoa to LA is about 9.5 hours, so it's a fairly long flight time. In Business Class, I was served a variety of food – while I wasn't really hungry, I was doing to take advantage of this service while I could…I never know when I'll get here again. The seats recline almost all the way back and it almost felt like a bed (you could even adjust the headrest to make your head more secure). This was the first time I had ever been on a plane and didn't feel bad about reclining almost all the way back (there was more then enough room for the person behind me to get up if they had to). I had a personal video screen in front of me and could choose from 5 movies at night and 5 movies in the morning (at night, I watched Transformers again – that movie is just soooo good!) After the dinner meal (with dessert) it was time to go to bed and I have to say without a shadow of a doubt this was the best sleep I have ever had on a flight. I wasn't uncomfortable in the least bit and was able to sleep the entire flight time…I didn't wake up until it was actually time to eat breakfast. Usually when I wake up on a plane, my body aches a bit – but not this time, I woke up – went to the bathroom to brush my teeth and wash my face and I was good and refreshed.

So breakfast was served on the plane and I once again took full advantage it. After that, we were about an hour or so away from Los Angeles – and I got my first look at Continental American soil in two years. The first thing that hit me was how crowded everything looked compared to the spread out nature of Samoa. Just looking down I could feel that there were a lot of people down there even though I couldn't see them…something I didn't really notice before. When we got within range of the LA airport, we had to go into a holding pattern for 20 minutes so the airways could be cleared for our landing. When we were cleared, we began our descent and about 40 minutes after first seeing LA from the ocean I was back in the United States – Home sweet "doesn't yet feel like" Home.

Because I was in Business Class, I was one of the first people off the plane but decided to wait in the departing area for Mika to come out (since this was his first time in the states, I didn't want to leave him alone in such a big place). When he got out of the plane, I walked with him for a bit and he said he was a bit nervous when the plane first took off but other then that he was fine. So we got our passports checked and this reminded me of when I first arrived in Samoa – there were lines for citizens and a line for foreigners…this was only the second time I've been in a passport line for citizens (the first being on my trip to American Samoa).  Once cleared through the passport check, we claimed our baggage. It was at this point, that I looked back at the passport check area and realized that almost every Peace Corps Samoa volunteer has come through this particular process…kind of made you feel like you were part of some unseen legacy. With the baggage in hand (and cleared of customs), I made sure Mika was safely with his family before heading to the Southwest terminal to check my bags. When I arrived at the terminal, I realized there's a reason that Southwest is one of the cheapest domestic airlines and it's not because of their great customer service. I literally saw someone leave their post (even though there was a person standing in front of them waiting to be served) just because their shift was up – I also saw the same type of deal in Samoa, so something's transcend borders. It took me almost 45 minutes to go through the check in process for Southwest but I was glad I got it out of the way.

I then went back to the Air New Zealand terminal to have one last talk with Beth and Maka, both of whom I have known my entire two years in Peace Corps. For Maka, this is his first time back in the states in 2.5 years – so we both had a few culture shock moments at the airport. The one thing we could all agree on is the fact that we did not like LAX. We talked for a bit and laughed for a bit, but as with all things Peace Corps related lately, there came a time when I had to say goodbye to them. Even though I've been pretty rough to Beth over the two years, she took it in stride and returned everything back equally and I'm glad I got to know her (she's a 2 time volunteer). While Maka and I got off to a rough patch when I first arrived (he's not a sports guy like me), our relationship got better over time and I am sad to see him go (but he is going back to Samoa). Once we did our last goodbyes, I went back over to my terminal in order to go through the security process.

And all I have to say about the security process is that it's a joke. They herd you along like cattle and make you take everything under the sun off – for your safety. It was in this line I saw something I've heard about during my two years away…how some organizations are using the fear of things to take away more freedoms and make the process of doing things even longer. We are taking off our shoes now because one guy got through? Why am I taking off my jacket – there could be something in it? There could also be something on my shirt, why not take that off as well? Or in my pants? The liquid thing is just ridiculous because I could easily have something liquid in my pocket that mixes with the water you can buy on the other side of the security check point (where the stores have signs that say 'You can take these bottled water on the plane'). While I was going through this 'process' all I saw was the simple fact that the TSA wants to give us the illusion of security but it's just that…an illusion and a major inconvenience.

Anyway, once I was past that magic show it was time to wait for the final flight home. I just hung around the hub for a bit, trying to find Jared/Nicole (who were headed to Louisville) – they were leaving an hour before my flight left so I wanted to say goodbye and see how long they were staying in the states. Apparently, they are staying for 6 weeks and this is Jared's first Christmas in the states. He's hoping for a White Christmas, which could happen but probably won't (as most southern know it tends to snow in January/February and not December). After saying goodbye to them, I made a few phone calls to let folks know I made it safely to the states and was on my way home. Once those calls were done, I had something to eat because the lack of food and jet lag were finally catching up with me and making me dizzy. One McDonald's sandwich later I was feeling a lot better and ready for the final leg.

The plane ride home was delayed like 30 minutes AND there was a layover in Phoenix (about 90% of the plane got off in Phoenix) so folks could get off and come on. During the layover, I moved to one of the first seats on the plane – so I got good leg room on my southwest flight as well. Two and a half hours later, I saw Nashville for the first time since 2005. The plane was 45 minutes late arriving but at least it arrived safely. When we landed the airport was empty – so it didn't feel like a grand return to the States. But when I got to the arrival area – where people wait to meet the folks coming off the plane – that felt like a grand return. I can spot Jonas from a mile away and I saw him standing next to my mom and a huge smile came across my face.

Now it felt like I was home and the adventure is over.

These were the same two people I left when I began this adventure 2 years ago, so it was fitting that they showed up for my arrival – even though it was so late. I knew mom would be there, but I was overjoyed that Jonas was there. So we picked up the bags and I headed to the home I haven't been in since 2005.

And there you have it…my last day in Samoa and my first day back in the states. As I write this, I'm still finding myself readjusting to my life back in America. There's a part of me that still can't believe I'm home – there's still a part of me back in Samoa, just clinging to the way things were. This will be my second to last post on this blog – my last post will come in a few days time and talk about how I have readjusted to the states. I would just like to thank everyone who has ever read this blog over the 2 years. As I have always stated, the original intent of this blog was as way to keep my mom updated on the happenings of my life in Samoa and to share with her all that I have accomplished there. Over time, though, it developed into a way for folks from the states and around the world to view what life is like on a tiny island in the south pacific. A lot of long hours went into typing up the blog posts that you have read over the last 27 months, but it was worth it – not only as a record for myself, not only as a letter to my family and friends, but because it allowed me to share the third goal of Peace Corps with you this entire time: to share the culture that we learned about with the folks back home.

It's Wednesday (12/19/07) when I'm writing this and Sara is about to leave Samoa, officially ending Group 75s time in Samoa. It has been a fun, life changing experience for me that I know I will be sharing for years to come. Thank you for reading and being a part of this once in a lifetime experience (even if I join Peace Corps again at a later age, it won't be the same as this time).

To be concluded……

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