Monday, June 6, 2011

Blog #17 – May 17,2011

Welcome to the next segment of our blog, which is being started as we get down to about 6-1/2 months left in our mission. It’s hard to believe we’ve been here for over 17 months now. Elder and Sister Kelly, who we were with in the MTC last year, will be leaving to go home in less than a month, since they opted for an 18 month mission. We hate to see them leave because they are extra special friends, and we’re not sure when we’ll ever see them again, since they live way over in Eastern Canada. Sounds like a good reason to take a trip that direction, I guess.

So much of what we are doing these days is a repetition of what we’ve been doing for the last 17 months except that we’ve worked in about sixteen different wards in two different stakes. We’ll be finishing up with the second stake this next week and we’re just waiting to meet with President Haleck next week to find out where he wants us to move on to. We talked to him a little last month, knowing we’d be finishing up in that stake and we discussed some different options. Any direction we go means we’ll have to make a big decision about housing, because the other stakes are so much further from where we live now. Our place is about dead center in the big area of where we’ve worked so far and we’re travelled both directions many times, probably over a half hour drive to the two furthest wards in each stake. We’ve talked about moving completely to a new place in a completely different area, which we’re not too excited about because we’ve done so much to this place to feel settled and make it livable. It’s very comfortable and convenient, has handy laundry facilities, and is in a secure setting on the grounds of this small hotel. We’ve been quite happy here and will miss the owners and workers at the hotel, who we’ve grown attached to. We also see so much of the people in the other wards we’ve worked in just along the road as we travel back and forth. Until our piano classes are finished in those wards, we at least get to see some of them every week. We’ve made some great friends in those wards and feel that maybe we’ve helped make a little difference in some of their lives. The nature of this mission is that we just sort of get started making visits in each ward with local leaders, encourage inactive members to remember the blessings that can come from being close to the Lord and His Church, see some of them come back and then we move on and leave the fellowshipping up to the local members, which is as it should be, of course, but we really miss those new friends we’ve made. If we do move out of the area, we won’t even get to see them along the road and wave and greet them all along the way like we do now.

Either direction we could go on to the next stakes will be over an hour drive each way almost every day. That may not sound like so much to people who are used to commuting from Wallsburg to SLC everyday, winter or summer, but if your gas prices are going up by leaps and bounds like they are here, it takes a pretty good bite out of the budget. One option we’ve discussed is to maybe keep this place and then find somewhere to stay for 2 to 3 days a week close to the area we’d be working in and then come back to this area for the other days, where we are still teaching piano classes and have to keep track of the missionary mail and meds and be close to the internet cafĂ©, which is our only connection to the outside world. WE do know that there is one little missionary house in one stake that is empty right now and we might be able to use it sometimes. There are also people in the different wards who have possible places to stay overnight. Either of those options wouldn’t add much, if any, to our housing budget. Well, there’s not much we can do but speculate about it right now, but will hopefully know our plans by next week sometime.

(Here it is a new week and we were able to meet with President Haleck yesterday. We’ll be moving on down south from where we are to the Sagone Stake, which is over an hour’s drive from Lalomalava. For now, we’ve decided to keep our current little house, and commute down that way and probably spend two nights and three consecutive days working in that area, and then come back home to do laundry, our piano classes, etc. We haven’t found for sure where we’ll be staying for those two nights in that stake, but that will be up to us to start asking around to see what’s available. It may cost a little more in terms of our housing budget, but we’ll be spending a lot less on gas, and time on the road, if we don’t go back and forth every day. Our life and schedule will definitely change once we start on that routine and it will just be another new adventure to try to make it all work.)

As I was going over the last several photos we’ve taken, I’ve noticed several that just kind of jump around from place to place, but are things we’d like to share and have in our permanent record.

These first two pictures are of an amazing bush that is in full bloom everywhere right now. John just calls it the Christmas tree plant, because he doesn’t really know the name and each bloom looks like a little coral-colored Christmas tree almost a foot high. The flowers here in Samoa never cease to amaze us. We think we’ve seen them all and then something else shows up in a new season or a new area.

Something we see a lot of are the new elders coming off the ferry on transfer day, which happens about every 6 weeks. They are usually in for a new experience here in Savaii, just because it’s more isolated and they’ll have fewer conveniences than they’ve had on the other two more densely populated islands. They will find that this is the Real Samoa though, more quiet, fewer cars and stores and less noise and some very special people, many of who remain close to the old strict cultural practices within their families and villages. Coming straight to Savaii as new green missionaries, can be quite a challenge for some of them, if they weren’t born and raised somewhere else in Samoa, because there aren’t as many English speakers, not as much Palagi food and housing, etc. Some jump right in with both feet, and others struggle a little at first as I did. If they are fortunate enough to get a Samoan companion, they will pick up the language much quicker, even though it can be frustrating at first.

This is Elder Tuala, who is all dolled up because he is going home. He’s been the zone leader in a very difficult area and has done a fine job. He’s Samoan, but grew up in New Zealand, has excellent English and a lovely New Zealand accent, similar to British and Australian, but a little different still.

This is Elder Barnes, from Alpine, Utah, along with Elder Tuala. Elder Barnes will be replacing Elder Tuala as Zone leader and seems to be capable and enthusiastic enough to deal with that difficult area. We’ll really miss Elder Tuala. He’s such a pleasant and spiritual young man and has the most beautiful and infectious smile. I doubt we’ll ever see him again, which makes us sad, just like the other elders we’ve said goodbye to that have gone back to Australia and New Zealand.

Shifting gears again, this is just another beautiful example of the picturesque clouds we see here. If we were to see something like this in a painting, we’d probably not believe they were even close to being real. But here in Samoa, they are unusual but very real, and I never get tired of taking pictures of them, as you may have noticed by the many examples that have been included in our blog over the months.

Another shift takes us back several months to John’s beautiful and thriving tomato tree on the front wall of our little house here in Lalomalava. We’ve had months of wonderful tomatoes off that tree, although they’ll never compare to those we can grow at home.

Here’s a more current picture of that same tree with the last three tomatoes struggling to survive the end of the season. All three of our big tomato plants look about the same and we’ll soon have to start buying tomatoes, if we can even find them.

John spent the better part of a morning taking this old plant down, along with all the cords and nails that were helping it to grow up the wall. It looks so bare now, just like the ground where he had all his pumpkin plants, which have stopped producing. The vines were still growing wild and had lots of blossoms, but just didn’t produce fruit anymore. We thought we’d get it all cleaned up like it was when we came last year, so that the grass would grow back and the hotel groundskeeper wouldn’t have to do anything but cut it when he does the rest of the acres of grass he cuts with a weed eater. John still has a few cabbages that he’s nursing along, but I think he’s had enough of this particular garden and is already starting to make plans for his new garden back in Wallsburg next Spring.

This beautifully decorated and maintained fale belongs to a family in Moesavili Ward, who have three girls taking our piano class. We pick up and drop off their pianos every week, moving them back and forth between piano classes, and then we pick the girls up for class on Fridays. I don’t know why I didn’t get a picture of the outside of this fale and the accompanying one the family lives in, but I was so intrigued with the ceiling that’s completely covered with fabric all pieced together almost like a big quilt. We see that a lot, but this is one of the nicer one’s we’ve seen.

So’onalofa, pictured here inside the fale, is the oldest of the girls in that family and is a beautiful statuesque young woman taller than I am. She goes to Vaiola College and has great English and is coming along quite nicely on the piano. I wish I had a picture of the youngest girl in the family, Mesepi. She is about 11 years old and absolutely gorgeous, and will probably be the best piano player of the bunch. She’s young and has learned fast and is willing to practice a lot. Actually, I just remembered that I had taken a couple of pictures of her several months ago at a stake primary program. I had recognized her as one of the 16 kids in my new piano class last year and had to snap a couple of shots of her. I don’t remember if I’ve included this in the blog before, but I’m happy to find it now that I know her so much better.

Here she is front and center in her ward primary group.

This is a closeup of Mesepi in the same group. She is actually just as sweet and serene as she looks and I don’t think she has a clue that she’s one of the prettiest girls around. I wish I could see her all grown up and find out how far she went with her piano playing. Wow, it’ll be hard to leave these kids behind that we’ve gotten so attached to in our classes. The closer we get to the end of our mission makes me realize more and more that I really want to come back in a few years and see all these wonderful people again, if it’s at all possible.

This is a picture of a dear friend we’ve made, Sa’eu, and her handsome 16-year-old son, Nelson. She is the sister-in-law of our tutor at the MTC, Papaloa Ete, and he asked us to look her up when we got to the Saipipi area where they lived, and where he was born. We’ve had some good visits with her and have been instrumental in helping her to make connections with her two older daughters, who live with Papaloa and his family in Utah. We contacted Papaloa and asked if it would be possible to get pictures of the grown-up girls sent to us by email, which he did. We were then able to have copies made and put into a little booklet for Sa’eu to keep. She had not seen them for several years and was delighted to see them all grown up. We were also able to take pictures of Sa’eu and Nelson and their Saipipi family and sent them along by email to the sisters in Utah. I won’t go into her sad story now except to say that they were all separated by a divorce, and Sa’eu was left alone in Samoa with Nelson. Then her story gets even more tragic.

We received an email from Jennifer, Papaloa’s wife in Utah, telling us that Nelson had been killed in an accident, where he had fallen out of a coconut tree, which he had climbed up to collect coconuts for his family. We were just heartsick when we heard about it, and made an immediate trip up to Saipipi to see Sa’eu. Unfortunately, she was not there when we arrived, but we spoke with her brother, the Bishop, who told us more about it. We didn’t want to spend too much time hanging around on that sad day, but asked some people as we were leaving about when the funeral would be. They told us it would be the next morning at 8:00 a.m. This was the Friday before General Conference in April, so we got up early the next morning to go to the Stake Center to watch the first session at 6:00 a.m. and then slipped away toward the end so that we could make it up to the chapel in Saipipi, where we assumed the funeral would be held. As we were driving past the hospital on our way to Saipipi, we were surprised to see Sa’eu walking up the hill by herself, quite a long way from where the church was. We pulled over to greet her and give her a big hug and asked if she needed a ride somewhere. She quickly asked us to wait for her and she continued up the hill to the grocery store. We were so perplexed, wondering what she was doing down here, when the funeral was supposed to be starting right away up in Saipipi. When she came back out of the store, she got into our back seat, and as we started toward Saipipi, she asked us to stop and let her out at a small non-denominational church by the hospital. She asked us where we were going and we told her we were on our way to Nelson’s funeral. She said “Okay” and then walked toward the building. Still puzzled, we pulled over and parked and went toward that building, but didn’t see where she had gone. We noticed a funeral service going on in the church, but didn’t recognize any of the people in there. Another friend of ours from another ward saw us and asked which funeral we were there for. We told her Nelson’s and she informed us it would be next after this one was completed. I won’t go into nearly as much detail as I did for the family, other than to tell you what an incredible experience it was for us to participate in that funeral that day. The Samoans pay great homage to their dead relatives and the funeral is very much a part of that. We’d been to part of one other funeral earlier, of the uncle of a friend, but weren’t able to participate the whole time because of other obligations.

As the other funeral before Nelson’s finished up, we noticed that everyone came out and loaded onto a bus that was waiting in front of the church and then lined up with other cars behind the pickup truck that was carrying the casket and the pallbearers from that first funeral. As they all pulled away, another van pulled up to the church and parked there and another busload of people, who had been waiting out on the road, pulled in and they all went into the church building. We recognized several people in that group and knew now that the first part of Nelson’s funeral would be held here. We were going by the seat of our pants at this point and just followed everybody else into the little church. Nelson’s pallbearers were members of the boy scouts from his ward, all dressed in their uniforms. After the group was seated inside, the casket was carried in by the pallbearers and placed on a table up front, where the scouts stood guard around it for the whole service. There was a lot of singing by the congregation from out of the hymn book and a talk given by the Bishop, his uncle. I had asked someone if it was appropriate to take pictures, because I wanted to be able to send some to his family back in Utah, who could not be there. It was told it was okay, and I tried to be unobtrusive. Since we were the only palagis there at the funeral I was afraid people would think we were just tourists being irreverent by taking advantage of a family’s grief just to get some pictures. I argued with myself about it, but decided that it was more important for his sisters back in Utah, as well as his father who lives in Salt Lake, I believe, to be able to participate in some way in Nelson’s final services. I took many pictures that day, but will only post a few in order to show you how the Samoans pay tribute to their loved ones who’ve died. It was all quite heart-wrenching, but beautiful to see all the preparation that had taken place to honor Nelson. I hope his family will forgive me if I share some of this with my family back home, because it meant so much for us to be a part of it.

These two pictures were some of the ones I was able to take discreetly inside the little church, where the casket sat up front surrounded by the scout honor guard, and the Bishop giving his talk.

After that service, the casket was carried out and placed into the back of the awaiting van, along with the pallbearers. The rest of the people left and went out to get back on the bus that had brought them there. Notice how all are wearing black and white, a big part of the custom, which I’d had no idea about and showed up in a colored blouse. John was in his usual black and white attire, so I guess I really stood out and hoped the family would forgive my ignorance of their traditions. The van pulled out to the road and was followed by the bus and all the other cars and made their way slowly caravanning up to Saipipi. I assumed, again, that we were going to the Church, but instead, we pulled into the family compound, where there were many people waiting to welcome us, including all of Nelson’s classmates who were all lined up in their school uniforms, carrying long streamers of white and colored fabrics.

As the students waited for the casket to be carried into the big family fale, followed by close family members, they were an impressive sight.

Once the family was settled inside, the music started and the students began to march carrying all the funeral flowers and their colored banners on into the fale, where they reverently walked past Nelson’s casket and draped the fabrics all around it, almost like a protective nest. It was very touching.

Then they took their places on the floor of the fale, facing the family, as they prepared to pay their tributes to Nelson with wonderful music and speeches from teachers and classmates. We were so kindly invited to join the family inside the fale around the casket and felt privileged to be there. Most of the ward members and villagers were standing outside the fale and watching the school kids perform their wonderful music.
There were a couple of small groups of friends who performed some musical numbers accompanied by a young man with a guitar. After this lengthy program, the faculty and students stood up, filed past the casket one last time and then marched outside and made their way back to the school.
As soon as the school kids were gone, the youth from Saipii Ward filed in, carrying more long banners of fabric which they also draped around the casket and then took their places with all the ward members and villagers who had followed them into the fale, and they all sat down facing the family, as the students had done before them. Now it was the village and Ward’s turn to pay tribute to Nelson.
The youth group started with a special musical number, which was followed by more music by the Ward Choir and congregation, mixed in with speeches from ward members and family, including Sa’eu herself. I was so impressed with how brave she was. The whole service was so up beat and much was said about what a good student, athlete, priesthood holder and seminary student Nelson was and of course much comfort was drawn from referrals to gospel principles and the hope for the reuniting of families after this life. Because I could not understand the speeches, John shared their content with me later as he wrote in the letter to the Family in Utah and shared what was said. A lot of the music was in English, which helped me participate a little. Once the program was over, the lid was taken off the casket one last time, and close family members came close for a kiss or a touch.
This last view of Nelson in his casket, looking so peaceful, with Sa’eu sitting next to him the whole time, will be an image I’ll never forget. My heart just ached for her and still does.
The last picture we took before we left was of the whole family and ward gathered around the casket to get one last look at Nelson’s sweet face and give comfort to Sa’eu and each other. They stayed huddled that way for quite a while. Since we had been at the funeral for four hours at that point, we had other duties we needed to get away for and it seemed like a good time to leave the family to themselves. I’m sure they had a big family and village feast, as is the custom, and there was some sort of burial service at some point. As sad as the experience was, we felt fortunate to have been included and to witness the poignant tradition of these humble, Godfearing people.

After the conference weekend was over, we were able to download all the pictures from the funeral onto our laptop and then sent copies of them all, along with a detailed description of the services by email to the families in Utah. John was able to repeat what had been said in Samoan for them to share as well. The kind and heartwarming responses we received from them all a few days later were worth all the worry I had over being an obnoxious tourist snapping pictures at an inappropriate time. Also, you know me, when I start describing something, I don’t leave anything out, as you’ve noticed in my lengthy blogs, but they were so appreciative of all the details and said it almost felt like they had been there and certainly helped them to obtain some closure from so far away. We were so happy to be able to serve them in this way at such a difficult time. We were also able to have copies of the same photos printed and put in a little booklet for Sa’eu that we gave her a few days before mother’s day. It was a joy to know how much it meant to her. We had given her a copy earlier of the same picture of her and Nelson that I showed at the beginning of this section. She asked if we could possibly get her another copy when we gave her the funeral pictures. We found it that very day and had it enlarged to 8 X 10 and printed, and placed it in a nice frame for her to have. She is still being so brave. She’s gone back to work and we see her in town a lot more that we did before. We assume that being home alone without her son to watch and fuss over is still extremely difficult for her, as it would be for any of us in the same circumstances.

Sorry for that little bit of sadness, but we so wanted to save the memories of our experience and share it with our own family. We actually have some other happy things going on here too, but we’ll catch up a little later. I’m certain this is probably a good place to quit for now. I actually feel drained and you could use some relief as well. I think I’ll take a little breather before continuing on with the next blog segment. We hope your lives are all going well and that your families are doing the same.

Here’s wishing you all our love until next time from Mom and Dad, John and Karen