I remember my first time being away from America without Thanksgiving. In 2000, my sister Jen and I went on an amazing journey to Dublin to celebrate the holiday. We ran around the streets touring everywhere wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving and people giggled with us because they understood what the holiday was for us. We were able to go out to dinner for our Thanksgiving meal at Captain America’s Restaurant where we had a true American meal of burgers and fries. Dublin was a great place to celebrate the holiday.
This year was different, but in a good way. I learned it is very difficult to explain what this holiday is to people who have very limited English, especially while my Samoan also is very limited. I explained how it is a holiday where we have a to’ona’i (feast). They explained how they celebrated that every week after church. It was very hard to explain how our holiday was different than their Sunday meals.
Peace Corps decided to have our Cultural Day on Thanksgiving. That meant that class would start an hour early so we couldn’t do our awesome ritual of going running. Around 6:30 my brother started bringing our necessary supplies to our teachers’ fale. We were to bring taro (it’s called talo in Samoan, and it is similar to a potato…only in my opinion more delicious!), popo (mature coconuts), leaves, and I think meat of some sort. Around 6:45 I joined Ezra, my brother at the fale.
In normal Samoan society the men go out to the plantation to gather the necessary food items while the women stay back to cook. However, in some families where there are more of one sex or another, gender roles may have to switch. Our Peace Corps family is a prime example of this. We have 15 females in our group, and only 5 males (one of which severely sprained a muscle in his leg and would be unable to go to the plantation). So many of us females were to head out to the plantation. I was one of the ones chosen. (We had to bring one of our Samoan siblings to come help out for this day, and most of us brought our brothers, since there were more male Samoans, many of the males had to stay back, and Ezra was one of them. Because of this I called him my sister or tuafafine (sister of a male), and he called me his tuagane (brother of a female.)
We started off on our hike. It had rained all morning and the ground was very muddy. We walked for about 20 minutes on this path wondering where Samu (Lasela’s brother) was having us walk to. We were going to his plantation and many of the Peace Corps brought their family’s machetes. It was pretty funny because only females were carrying knives. We finally turned into the bushes and continued on our path. We were walking single file with some people carrying machetes, it reminded me what a death march might look like. We finally arrived at Samu’s plantation.
We divided into a few groups; one to weave baskets to bring things back, another to collect popo from the ground, and another to collect fire wood. I was in the group to get fire wood. We went to a tree that was laying down (I don’t think it was dead though). And people began using their knives to cut down huge parts of the trees (they pretty much looked like they could be a full tree themselves).
After working for about half an hour at the plantation we went back. I had fire wood that was about three times my size to carry back. Maka was walking in front of me and I accidently placed the log into his bum a few times. We walked to the bridge (about our half way point) to wait for some of the others to catch up. After about a 5 minute rest we continued walking to our village. Those who stayed behind began applauding our efforts when we arrived at the fale as they had completed the cooking.
We headed into the village meeting area where we ate koko esi (coco and papaya soup-it’s delicious!). We then quickly switched roles and started an ava ceremony. An ava ceremony is usually used to welcome someone into the village, however they wanted us to practice doing it so we knew the different roles. Martini was our ali’i (highest chief), Kale was the person who delivered the ava to the different people, Maka was the person who called out the names of everyone receiving the ava, Kaelini, Korina and myself were the ones making the Ava. Manu the highest chief in Manunu did the ritual talk of welcoming to the village while the other matais began talking as well. It is an amazing thing to see all the people talking out of turn at such an official meeting like this. Martini was then offered to talk, and when he was it would have to be in Samoan, Manu decided that it would be best if he did the talk for him.
While the talk was going on we had to make the Ava. It is pretty interesting how things have to be done in such a specific order. Korina had to wipe the bowl in circles going in a specific directions each time. I had to pour the water into the bowl, while Kaelili supervised.
Then out of nowhere a monstrous voice came out of nowhere. Maka began doing the ceremony talk. He then called out names for people to receive the ava. The ava is served in a shell of a popo. It is delivered in a specific order where the most important get the ava first. When the person shouting out the names is unsure of the name of someone, or just wants to be funny he will call out random names. (During our Ava ceremony for Manunu I think there were about 4 of us named Julie.) Maka had some of the locals helping him out as he called them Jesus and other funny names.
When you receive the cup of ava, you say a little speech to thank for it and then wish for health. You then throw the popo shell to the person who gave it to you. When this was done to Kale he dropped it once.
After the ceremony we began heading back to our trainers’ fale to prepare our to’ona’i. I started with preparing the umo (Samoan oven). To prepare the oven we have to moved rocks around. I got bored at this station and didn’t want to get too hot around the fire so at the first chance I had to leave I left!
I then went with a group to prepare the moa (chicken) and other birds that families brought. I first had to pluck a dead chicken. Then I was given the huge kitchen knife to cut the chicken into pieces. When I began cutting the chicken blood began splattering all over me. All the chicken was put into a pot. Knowing my eating habits I knew I would not be eating the poultry because they put more of the birds into the pot to be cooked than I liked to eat. They then went to make it into supo moa (chicken soup).
I then headed over to the area where people were de shelling the coconuts. There is a sharp stick in the ground and you have to try to break into the coconut and get the little piece out. My first one took 20 minutes and that was with help from many people. I decided to keep practicing and did 3 more. I think my last one took less than 5 minutes, still a long time but it was a lot faster than my first one.
I was then given a machete to open the coconut. I tried a few times and failed. I was so terrified to cut my hand to pieces. I think someone saw my fear because a Samoan showed up to help me crack it open.
I next went over to the area to shave the coconut so they came make coconut cream. All Samoans have this little bench with a sharp hook that you use to scrape the popo. Someone then used the stringy thing to get the juice from the shaved coconut.
We then went to make palusami (coconut cream wrapped in banana leaves). We had to pull apart leaves and then put them into our cupped hands. Then poured the cream into our hands and wrapped it in the leaves. They were then put into the umo.
They then brought out the pig. They gutted him in a put places and put steaming hot stones inside the pig. The pig was then put leaves inside the pig. I decided to join in. It was kinda crazy how intense the heat from the steam was.
While the food was cooking they brought out leaves for us to weaves baskets. After weaving our baskets we weaved plates.
We then picked roles for our big meal. Some people were picked as the matais, others were chosen to prepare the plates, others were chosen to serve the food and have the bowl to wash hands. I was chosen to fan the matai’s food as they ate.
Lia was the highest matai and with that title bestowed on herself she was to give the prayer for the meal. She thanked everyone for all the delicious food, thanked Peace Corps for the beautiful girls they brought and other pretty funny things. I then was fanning Uefa and Maka’s food to make sure there were no flies. They were the slowest eaters in the world. I swear they were still eating for about twenty minutes after everyone else finished.
We then headed over to the trainers fale for the rest of us commoners to eat. We went around the group to say what we were thankful for as we ate our meal. After our meal we got a thank you from the village of delicious ice cream. We served the ice cream to all of the people in our village who have helped us over the day. After the ice cream it began to pour again.
It rained and rained and rained. We were supposed to have a sports day after our meal, and we did not want it to ruin our fun. We headed out on the malae (field) to play softball. It was so much fun sliding all over the place. My team was so much worse than the other team. We got three outs so quickly while their team was at bat forever!
After our game we had choir practice for the big church festival we were to sing at a few days later.
It was a great was to celebrate Thanksgiving because we were all coming together to create delicious food and having a lot of fun throughout the entire process.
We got to celebrate a second Thanksgiving which was more of an American style on that Saturday at Robin’s house. Robin is the Charges d’affaires for the Ambassadors office. We had a great time eating and socializing with everyone. I will never forget this year’s Thanksgiving as it was truly unique.