Read Jessica Ploen’s goodbye to the American Samoa, as she takes her final steps towards the finish line of her “Rock”-y, beautiful year with WorldTeach.
My time here on “The Rock” is dwindling down, and it all is starting to become very real. Many of the things I have been doing this week I may never do again. For example, I just went for my usual run up the mountain. That will be one of the last times I do that. Running is something I have become very passionate about. Back in high school I used to dread the long runs we had to do while conditioning for basketball. Now I look forward to a nice, refreshing run. It gives me time to clear my head and appreciate the natural beauty in life. It is also a challenge that always makes me feel better once I have reached my goal. That is how I view this past year. It has been a long run. It has been a challenging and tiring run. It has been a gorgeous and exhilarating run. It’s been breathtaking. But most of all, it has been a very rewarding and satisfying run.
For the longest time I kept wanting to just get to the end! I wanted to finish and make it through the year without getting too terribly homesick or going crazy. I started off slowly and cautiously, not understanding my surroundings too well or knowing anyone I came here with let alone anyone native to the island. It was all very intriguing, yet I took a rock with me at all times as a safeguard. Then it got rough. The trek up the mountain was steep and proved to be very trying at times. Sometimes I wondered if I would make it, same goes for volunteering as a teacher here in American Samoa. I was in a place that was very different from where I grew up and what I was used to. I shed a lot of sweat due to the intense heat, blood from that dog that finally got me, and tears from those lonely nights at home alone missing my family and friends. I just kept running, though. I knew I couldn’t give up. My parents taught me to always finish something I start. And, I knew there was something truly special about this place, this run.
Then, a nice cool breeze hit me and I made it to my first goal: the lookout over Faga’itua Bay. This is what Christmas break in New Zealand was for me. I had successfully made it half way and felt some true satisfaction. I met up with a friend from the states and the lifestyle in New Zealand reminded me more of home, yet I knew that I had changed. No matter how much I missed home, part of me was an island girl now. Then I got back to Tutuila and had to push myself really hard up a few more steep inclines and was missing my family and friends down on the plains more than ever. Very soon, though, I had a breakthrough! I reached the most beautiful part of my run. I paused for awhile to take it all in: huge, graceful fruit bats soared over my head, the smell of white ginger in the distance lured me closer, vibrant red hibiscus flowers caught my eye at every turn, and the endless, majestic blue ocean simply took my breath away. In other words, I started to really appreciate my surroundings and my new home. I made some really great friends in my village and at my school. I started to accept and appreciate the laid back lifestyle here.
My neighbors became my family, and I became a regular at their table for toanai after church on Sundays. I developed some truly wonderful relationships with my students thanks to being involved with Speech Festival, reading with them thought-provoking novels, making my dream come true of coaching basketball, making a fool of myself at assemblies, planning awesome field trips, understanding their roots and getting interested in their way of life, and most importantly, learning to laugh and love as much as Samoans do. I went on some adventures and experienced some things that other people will never quite understand the depth of. I embraced fa’asamoa (the Samoan way of life) as much as I could and have absolutely no regrets.
I would still get frustrated at times by those stupid mosquitoes that got me or that annoying dog that just had to come out and bark at me as I ran by, but I truly learned to love and see the good in others. I found faith. I learned that the more I saw, the less I knew, which excited me. I worked hard for my students because I really felt like I owed that to them. As much as I yearned for that special someone back home or that supreme beef chalupa from Taco Bell, I slowly started to realize that breadfruit, taro, and papaya are just as good if not better than Taco Bell… and then I got scared, because that is what happens when things start to go really, really well. I psych myself out. At the beginning of the year I was focused on just finishing and making it home in one piece, but suddenly I didn’t want to leave! I thought about staying longer. The view at the top was just too amazing. After wanting for so long to go home, I wasn’t ready to leave.
However, I realized that I couldn’t stay up there forever. I don’t belong up there. As one of my students said in a thank you note to me, “All good things must come to an end.” I had to make my way back down the mountain. After all, the run is about the experience, not the final destination. It is time to see my family and loved ones again; I do love and miss them dearly. I must continue to LIVE because as much as I love my life here, it just isn’t the same without my own aiga (family), and if there is one thing that Samoans understand, it is the concept of FAMILY. I won’t go home as the same person I was when I left, neither physically nor mentally, and I know that “home” has not remained static either.
I don’t know exactly what awaits me in the states, but I am certain that I will eventually find a new adventure! It is just part of my nature. Either that, or like J. Maarten Troost , the author of two books about his experiences on islands in the South Pacific, I am just very good at escaping, running away. My run isn’t over, though; I am simply going in a different direction. It was the best run of my life thus far and without a doubt the most rewarding, fun, and exhilarating year of my life. It has been so aulelei (beautiful). I will never forget the Samoans here who treated me so incredibly well, the other volunteers who have shared with me some of the most interesting stories to be told, the nights I stayed up grading papers in my room all alone, the many people on the east side of Tutuila who honked their horns at me and yelled out, “Hello Jessica!!!,” the time I fell down the boat ramp, and the incredible natural beauty of the this little piece of paradise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Tofa Soifua, American Samoa! Until we meet again. Fa’afetai tele lava for the experience of a lifetime.
-Jessica Ploen, WorldTeach American Samoa ’12-’13