Saturday, August 8, 2009

Home at last!

After a whopping 29 hours of travel, I have arrived home safe and sound. Incredibly, all four of my flights were perfectly on time, making the long journey at least a little bit bearable. However, I am temporarily sick of airplane food and Sudokus.

Now all I have to do is figure out how to adjust my body to the 7-hour time difference...

Friday, August 7, 2009

The end has arrived

The last 36 hours seems like a blur. I am writing from the airport in Los Angeles, where I am patiently awaiting the third leg of my travels home. So far, both of my flights have gone over without a hitch, so I'm cautiously optimistic that the next few will as well.

It feels very surreal to have left the island, especially because 4 hosuemates are still there. I felt like the last few days were very rushed, especially since we spent Wednesday hiking Matafau, but I think everything that needed to got done. I wish I had more time for good-byes, but I'm not really a fan of good-byes anyway, so I'll just keep in touch with people via Facebook.

Even upon landing in Honolulu, I noticed how big the island was. Don't even get me started on how big LA looked from the plane. I guess that's just a consequence of living on a 20-mile-long island for over 2 months. I guess since I'm back in the northern hemisphere, today is my first day of summer. Weird.

I'll post again once I complete my journey home, and I'll try to come up with some closing thoughts on the summer. For now, I'll sip my beer from the airport bar and eventually grab some grub for dinner before my next flight.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Top of the Island

Wow! It’s my last day. I fly out later tonight and spend the next 26 hours traveling home to Vermont. Add the seven hour time difference, and I don’t get back until Saturday morning. I’m spending much of today packing (which is boring), so this post will be about yesterday’s hike up Matafau.

Looming 2,142 feet above sea level, Matafau is Tutuila’s tallest peak (in American Samoa, it is only surpassed by Lata Mountain on the island of Tau). The trail to the top of Matafau is rigorous and steep, and even Professor McGarvey has never made it to the top in his 30 years researching here. But we were up for the challenge, and yesterday morning, Katy, Dana, Gabe, and I drove up to Fagasa pass to tackle the climb.

The trail begins with a 20 foot ladder (behind us in the picture to the right), followed by a muddy incline up into the forest. Already muddy after the first 50 feet of the trail, we continued into the woods, where we ascended the steep muddy and rocky trail. At many points, we had to grab onto roots to hoist ourselves up and avoid slipping downhill, but this part of the trail (which lasted for about 1.5 hours) was the easiest. Eventually, the forest environment turned into a thick jungle, and at some points we were walking on suspended mats of roots and grass rather than actual ground.

Eventually, we reached the final portion of the hike, where the trees all but disappeared and we were left surrounded by tall grass and shrubbery. At this point, we began to see some breathtaking views of the Tafuna plain and the airport on our right and Pago Pago harbor on our left. At times we could see the summit still towering in front of us. We hiked along the continually narrowing ridge, following it up and down as it approached the mountain. Eventually, the ridge was only 5 feet wide, dropping off hundreds of feet on both sides. The final ascent was the steepest yet, and due to the mud, we found ourselves grabbing at any plants we could to help pull ourselves up. We persisted upwards, and, after 3 hours of hiking, we reached the peak.

Unfortunately, just as we arrived at the summit, clouds rolled in and turned our view into an endless sea of white. We ate our PB&J and crackers and etched our names into the metal structure marking the peak as we waited patiently for the clouds to retreat, but even an hour and twenty minutes later, we were stuck in the clouds. We decided that we had waited long enough, and it was time to head down.

The steep, muddy trail made it difficult to maintain footing, so we spent the better part of the next two and a half hours sliding down the mountain on our butts. Hiking downhill is always tough, but it’s even tougher when you need to maintain enough control to keep from sliding or stepping off a ridge hundreds of feet tall. We also had to be sure to pay attention to the pink ribbons marking the trail, since it was easy to take a wrong turn once we reached the woods. We made it back to the car with smiles on our faces and dirt everywhere else, and, after a few pictures, headed back toward home.

We stopped twice along the way, once to take a dip in the ocean at the beach near Fatu ma Fut (see photo to the right)i. I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned it in my past posts, but Fatu ma Futi is a stunning rock formation jutting out of the ocean just off the main road. It is fabled for its Romeo and Juliet style story, where two lovers, Fatu and (ma) Futi, jumped to their death from the top. Even after swimming around for a few minutes, I was still coated in a thick layer of dirt. After a quick stop at Carl’s Junior for a take-out dinner (we were all starving), we made it home and finally got to shower. Now, all that remains are numerous scratches on my hands and arms from the hours of climbing.

It feels great to have conquered Matafau, a mountain that very few people, Samoans or Palagis, ever even attempt. It was also an epic way to spend my last full day on the island.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


It's been a jam-packed last few days. However, since I'm so tired I'm going to post now about yesterday (Tuesday) and tomorrow I'll write about our hike up Matafau.

On Tuesday morning, we woke up bright and early to head over to Nu'uuli and finish meeting with our fourth and final cohort of kids. We are now 100% done collecting data for the summer! The only work we have left now is delivering a presentation to some of the research staff at the community college tomorrow (Thursday) morning.

With work out of the way, I scooted out for the afternoon on Tuesday to finally ride along on an EMS shift. I was assigned to work with a paramedic named Joe and his crew. We were one of two ambulance crews on for the 3-11pm shift. Given all that time, I had a chance to talk quite a bit with Joe and some of the other EMTs. I ran into two examples of how small this island is: 1) Joe lives right accross the golf course from us; and 2) One of the female EMTs is the mother of three of the children who participated in our study.

Joe told me a lot about the American Samoan EMS department, correcting some of the information I posted earlier. The service is about as old as me (21), and Joe has been working there since the beginning. The service does all of its own training at the basic and intermediate levels; paramedics need to be trained in the States. Currently, the department employs about 30 EMTs, all full time (40-hours per week) and paid. Though EMS used to be a branch of LBJ Hospital (the office is on the hospital premises), it was recently transferred to be under the Department of Public Safety (police). This has really shifted up the budget, and now more than ever they are strapped for cash. They can bill individuals for ambulance calls, but realistically the only way to collect money is from patients who have Medicare (this is actually a common problem for EMS departments around the country).

The service has three ambulances in service, two of which are vans and one of which is a traditional box. The trucks are scantily equipt (even the stretchers are held in by wooden blocks in the vans), and the AC in the box ambulance is not functioning. If the ambulances were to be inspected, they would fail by any US standards. This is remedied, however, by the fact that each EMT carries a bag with his or her own equipment, including blood-pressure cuffs, bandages, IV supplies, and drugs. As Joe put it, the EMTs here are "incredibly creative," being forced to deal with very limited resources. I don't want it to sound like their gig is run out of a shack - it isn't. Every EMT seemed extremely well-trained and capable of delivering high-quality pre-hospital care.

While on shift, we were only dispatched to one call, a male having breathing trouble. He actually lived out on the very western tip of the island, but his family drove him in the back of a pick-up truck, so we met him halfway with the ambulance (otherwise, it would have been nearly an hour drive each way). Actually, he'd been having breathing trouble since 11am, but since he lives up on a mountain, he didn't have access to a phone until his son came by; only then did he call 9-11. Joe put him on some nebulized Albuterol, which seemed to dramatically help his breathing, and he was doing much better by the time we delivered him to the LBJ emergency room.

This turned out to be our only call for the night. We took the ambulance out for a "Golden Arches" run for dinner, but I spent the rest of the time talking, reading, or watching TV (rousing episodes of America's Got Talent). Overall, it was a great experience - I learned a lot, and everyone was very friendly. My only regret is that I didn't contact the EMS office earlier in the summer so I could have rode along more shifts.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Living the high life

Since we had no real plans on Friday, our friend Ben (another undrgad studying fish here on the island) and I decided to spend the afternoon golfing. After all, I've lived accress the street from the golf course the entire summer - why not take advantage? Plus, the entire process only cost us each $11, including clubs, 9 holes of playing, and (the fun part) a golf cart.

As some of you may know, I have never played golf before. I've spent bits of time at the golfing range, but that's the extent of my experience. Ben was in the same position, so we were able to have a good time despite our pathetic strokes and miserable aim. Donned in collared shirts, we tried not to make too big of fools of ourselves in front of the Samoans who actually knew what they were doing. Luckily for us, there was no one immediately behind us for most of the time, so the pressure wasn't too high on us to keep up the pace.

After a day of gentlemanly fun, we headed to Larson Beach on Saturday to take in some sun. Though we were among the first ones there, the beach began filling up with people (Samoans and Palagis) soon after we arrived. We snorkled around a bit, but I spent most of the time laying on the beach reading. One Samoan family brought their crazy dogs with them, and one of the dogs (unprovoked) charged and bit the leg of one of the palagi lawyers as he was walking along the beach. This cut the lawyers' beach stay short, as they had to take Sean to the hospital. What was really suprising was how the dogs' owners didn't even come over to appologize after the incident. There's very little feeling of ownership around dogs on this island, and this was a very clear example of that. Don't worry, Sean will be fine - he got a bandage and some antibiotics from LBJ hospital, but he was walking around last night.

After a rough few days of golf and beach-going (read sarcastically), today is a lazy Sunday, so I'm saving up energy to do a lot in my final few days on the island.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Winding down

One week from today, I will be boarding the plane to go home. Crazy. Since Kirstin just left tonight (the first of us to depart), the end now seems closer for all of us.

On Tuesday, we began working with our fourth and final cohort of kids, all of whom attend Rive's church in Nu'uuli. They were a rambunctious group, most likely because they were a bit younger than our other groups (at our request, in order to balance out the overall distribution of ages). But we had a good time with them and successfully completed everything we needed to. For lunch, Rive even served us corned beef with spaghetti (both from cans), an island favorite that we had yet to try. On a side note, cornned beef in Samoan is "pisupo." The reason for this (supposedly) is because the first canned food to come to the island was pea soup. Cornned beef, being the second canned item to reach the island, also took on the samoan-ized name, pisupo.

After spending a good chunk of the day entering data and transfering urine (our new favorite activity) on Wednesday, we invited Sharon, Richard, Marie, and Rive out to dinner as a token of our appreciation. The four of them have been invaluable in our project's success this summer, having invited us into their villages and churches, recruited kids for us, and taught us endless amounts about Samoan culture. Furhtermore, they have been great friends to us here on the island. After dinner, we enjoyed some more Karayoke at Richard's dad's bar, jamming out to more of our favorite 90's pop tunes.

This afternoon (Thursday), we took advantage of the bits of sunshine and returned to Fagatele Bay. You may remember (if you are crazy enough to have read this entire blog) one of my early posts after our first visit, Fagatele Bay being one of the first places we explored on the island. Today's trip down memory lane was great, and we even got to explore around some natural streams since the weather was better and we had more time before sundown. I also had my camera with me this time, so there are a few pictures from the beach at Fagatele Bay now in my gallery.

As I delve into my last week on this tiny rock in the middle of the South Pacific, I'm hoping that the weather turns for the better so I get a chance to go back to some more of the awesome spots we have found (and maybe, if I'm lucky, find some new ones).

All six "Brownies" before Kirstin boards the plane home

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Fun Races

The bad weather finally drifted out to sea on Saturday, giving us blue skies for the first time in a while. In the morning, we finally made it over to the stadium to watch some of the local teams playing rugby. We just stayed long enough to watch a few good rucks and mauls before heading home to prepare for the day's main event - paddling fun races.

The strong wind had made paddling this week very rough, but Saturday afternoon the water in the harbor was still as glass. So many people showed up that we took turns racing the 500m course. In the first race, my boat (green) and the blue boat had a photo finish, but with no one there to capture the photo, we were unsure who really won. Somehow, it was decided that the blue boat won, but we just blamed it on the fact that the green boat is far heavier (and generally slower). We switched it up and I competed in a few more sprints (I can't even remember which we won and lost). For the final race of the day, all three boats competed to go accross the harbor and back. My boat (the red, this time) crushed the competition, easily making it back to the finish line before either green or blue, who were neck and neck until the end.

Our shoulders tired out, we all celebrated with a feast of a barbeque. After filling up on burgers and dogs, we headed home to all get ready for our Saturday evening activity - a joint birthday party at Oscar's house.

Today (Sunday), after a late start, we fulfilled our craving for pizza by eating lunch at Pizza Hut. We then drove back out to Tisa's, where we were more successful than last time (when they were closed). Some of us enjoyed Candyman's famous pina coladas, and we all spread out on Tisa's beach for the rest of the afternoon.

In case you are wondering, we are still doing research (in between tanning at the beach and paddling). We are planning to start with our last cohort of kids on Tuesday, finishing up next week just two days before I fly back home! It's hard to believe that the summer has breezed by so fast, but that's the way summers go.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Eclipse Letdown

The past few days have brought with them a few frustrations. First, our trip to Ofu has fallen through, due to the fact that it is not actually possible to camp there. The trip would just be to expensive to be worth it, so we canceled our flights. Too bad, but it looks like the weather might not have been so great anyway. Ofu is one of the much smaller Manua Islands, which are still part of American Samoa. The beach there is supposed to be gorgeous, secluded, and great for snorkling.

The other letdown had to do with yesterday's solar eclipse. I had not heard anything about the eclipse until emails started flying back and forth on the Palagi lstserve yesterday morning, but it turns out that the eclipse passed just a few hundred kilometers from here, meaning we got apretty substantial partial eclipse around 5:10pm yesterday (calculating the time zone conversions was no easy task). The bad news: around midday, an unending sheet of clouds rolled in, blocking our view of this astronomical phenomenon. We were actually out paddling when the eclipse was passing by, but I did try to look and could see no trace of the sun or moon. Cliff, one of the other Palagis, went to one of the villages on the western side of the island and got a decent view (picture to the right), even through the clouds.

In other news, for the first time yesterday, I took the bus into town. American Samoa is famous for its busses, all of which are owned an operated by local families. The buses are all homemade and built from the bodies of pickup trucks. They are constructed mostly of wood, with a few metal pipes to hold the whole thing together. Both outside and inside, every bus is decorated uniquely, and from their extravegant external paintjobs, the buses have names such as "Titanic," "Hakuna Matata," and "Casper the Ghost." Inside, all of the buses have elaborate sound systems and blast island or hip-hop music as they roll around the island. Buses are unscheduled, but very frequent (due to the sheer number of them), and are relatively inexpensive ($1 for a trip into town).

I took the bus to visit the American Samoa EMS office to see if there was any chance I could ride along on the ambulance here before I head back to Vermont. The chief gave me a brief tour of the office and filled me in on the service here. After offices on the eastern and western parts of the island were shut down due to budget constratints, the entire ambulance fleet operates out of the single office near the hospital. Thus, response times can be greater than an hour for some areas. Also, many of the ambulances are out of service because no mechanic on the island is able to repair them. The service operates almost entirely on volunteers, and the chief seemed very optimistic that he'd be able to find a spot for me in the schedule in the next week or two. The chief noted how the EMS experience here in Samoa would be unique, particularly pointing out the high number of chronic medical cases (especially diabetes). I'm very hopeful that this opportunity will work out.

The weather is being uncooperative (rainy and windy), so its not likely to be that exciting of a day here. I recently read somewhere that there is a trace of rain on this island 300 days of the year! Pago Pago is apparently the rainiest city in the South Pacific (go figure), so I guess we've been lucky to have plenty of dry, sunny days while we are here.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Camping, Karayoke, Waterfall, BBQ

As the title of the post suggests, we've kept busy since my last post. On Wednesday evening, we drove out to Vatia (on the northern coast of the island) for the Palagi camping trip. Just over 20 people showed up, and we ate deliciously grilled hot dogs and burgers and sang to Charlie's guitar playing. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperative, so we were rained on most of the night. We did get a break in the rain enough to have a campfire on the beach, but sleeping was rough as the wind graciously carried the rain into our fale through the one gap in the tarp walls.

Due to our lack of sleep the night before, Thursday was a very lazy day. We even skipped out on paddling, partly because of exhaustion and partly because of the still awful weather. Friday, we had a bit more gusto, so we drove out to Tisa's (about an hour away) to hang out on the beach and get some pina coladas. Unfortunately, we arrived only to find Tisa's bar closed, so we turned straight around to head back home. We did stop at the open market (picture to the right) on the way back to pick up some fresh tomatoes and bananas to make the trip not a complete failure.

Saturday morning, we woke up early and drove back to Richard's dad's bar, where we finished up our research with the third group of kids. This group was particularly friendly with us, and Gabe and I even played some parking lot football with some of the boys. After we finished up, we broke out the karayoke microphones as we waited for Richard to drop off some of the kids back in town. The Korean karayoke machine played some fantastic (read: pathetic) videos in the background as we jammed out to our favorite tunes for over an hour.

When Richard returned, we all drove over to a waterfall site tucked away behind LBJ Hospital. The waterfall (actually just one of a series of waterfalls) delivered freshwater from the mountains into a man-made pool below. We spent a few hours swimming and jumping off the rocks about 12 feet above. We were joined by some locals who were much more fearless than us in terms of jumping.

Refreshed from our swim, we left Richard, Sharon, and Marie to go straight back to Vatia for a BBQ. It turns out that the campsite we slept at Wednesday night was actually owned by the family of one of Katy's co-workers at the hospital. Thus, we were invited back for or a Samoan-style gathering.

The site was much more beautiful during the day and with clear skies. We got to enjoy Samoan-style BBQ (including turkey tails, a true Samoan delicacy that is so bad for you, Western Samoa has banned importation) as some dogs sat patiently waiting for the remains of our meal. There were even a few puppies hanging around that gathered many awwws from the girls. One of Sina's (Katy's co-worker) brothers had just gone fishing, and he told us that black-tailed sharks could be found just off their beach. Gabe, Dana, and I joined some Samoans in a volleyball game, and we all accompanied Sina on a trip into the village of Vatia.

After sunset, we all remembered how tired we were (we had left the house at 7am). We said some (seemingly neverending) goodbyes, and then headed back over the mountains toward home. On the way, we stopped at an icecream shop we had just found out about, probably one of the only on the island that serves homemade non-softserve icecream. I crashed early last night, and now we're about to go spend the afternoon at the park.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Massacre Bay

Sunday was a lazy day. We've been watching Arrested Development, starting with season one, so we made some headway on that. We were otherwise pretty much unproductive.

To make up for it, on Monday afternoon, we embarked on one of the island's more difficult hikes. The trail spans from the top of the mountains (a village called A'olaufou) down to Massacre Bay on the northern coast. The bay is named after the brutal interaction between French explorers and Samoans that occurred on December 11, 1787. After the skirmish, the French retreated and remained petrified of the "barbaric" native Samoans for an entire century. A monument commemorates the 12 Frenchmen who died in the battle, but there is no memory of the 39 Samoans who perished. Someone told us that Napoleon Bonaparte had tried to get on the expedition to Samoa -- imagine how history could have changed.

But enough history lesson. The point is, wielding our newly purchased machetes, we parked at the Church in A'olaufou, and began descending the mountains. The machetes proved not that useful, as the trail was already pretty clear (despite some warnings we had received). After an hour and a half of steep downhill trekking, we passed through an abandoned village and out onto the beach at Massacre Bay. I feel like I’ve spewed out the “and then we exited the woods onto a beautiful secluded beach” line so many times this summer, but it applies here yet again. The only notable difference on this beach was the size of the hermit crabs – they were humongous!

After resting up and munching on some granola bars, we began searching for the famed French monument. We first looked around the recently abandoned house, the last remains of the village of A’asu, which has now relocated to the top of the mountain (which is accessible by road as opposed to hiking trail). We then tried wading up the freshwater river that flows into Massacre Bay. Here, my camera almost became the next massacred victim, as it plopped into the water. Though I was not able to take pictures for the rest of the hike, after a night drying out, the camera is incredibly almost 100 percent functional (I can’t seem to take videos anymore, though the photo function works perfectly).

We finally did find the French monument, tucked in the woods just behind the beach. Nothing impressive (it’s made of cement), but it was a good way to finalize our time at the bay before heading back up the mountain. As we raced against the sun (it was already late in the afternoon), we discovered that the trail seemed much steeper on the way up than it had on the way down. We stopped often and exhausted all of our water, but we did make it back to the car well before sunset.

On the way home, for the first time we experienced evening prayers (6pm every day). Young men, all dressed in matching lava lavas, lined the road to patrol and ensure that everyone from the village was inside praying. Three bells (actually old SCUBA tanks hanging on ropes) mark when people are supposed to go inside, the start of prayers, and the end of prayers. Since we pulled of the road to see if a Mexican restaurant was open (unfortunately, it wasn’t), one of the villagers asked us to turn off the car and wait 10 minutes for prayers to be over. Though a bit frustrating, on the bright side we did get to experience a new part of Samoan (or Christian, as the case may be) culture. Anyway, once we did get moving again, because the Mexican place was closed, we settled for Pizza Hut.

Yesterday (Tuesday) was not very eventful. We did some data entry work during the day, and at 4pm we headed down to the Yacht club for paddling (which we are now doing every Tuesday and Thursday). Today, we are following a similar schedule, but instead of paddling we are heading up toward the National Park to camp out with a big crew of Palagis at some beach fales.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Rock Concert, Rock Caves

Friday was an exciting day for Tutuila, as Blue Sky (the AT&T equivalent) celebrated it's 10th anniversary! Yes, I'm being sarcastic. This is a pretty pathetic reason to celebrate. But, that being said, there were boat races in the morning and a concert in the evening. We planned on going down to the harbor to watch the boat races, but Gabe went before us and warned that the single road was so backed up with traffic that we couldn't possibly make it in time to actually see a race. So the rest of us hung back at the house and did some research work instead.

We did, however, all get tickets to see the evening rock concert, probably one of the first they've ever had on the island. It's pretty expensive to fly here, so I can't imagine many bands pass through as part of their summer concert series. Nonetheless, Blue Sky landed Lost Coast Sound (a California-based jam band) and Amely (an emo rock band). By any standards (including mine) this was not anything special, but we had a good time anyway.

As a side note, the other big news story on Friday was that a dead whale had washed up near the island. I got the inside scoop from our marine biologist friend, Ben, who was aboard the boat attempting (unsuccessfully) to drag the whale carcass back out to sea. As Ben described it, "Samoan engineering fails again." We were still able to see a piece of the whale when we drove by Saturday morning, but the tide seemed to have carried it out later that day. A little gross, but it provided some more excitement here.

Saturday morning, we began working with our third cohort of kids in Richard's village, near the tuna canneries. We ended up doing the work in the Karayoke bar Richard's dad owns accross from the canneries.

In the afternoon, the girls skipped off to a baby shower, so Gabe and I accompanied Richard, Sharon, and Marie to go swimming. We first went to sliding rock, but we walked a litle further along the rocks than we had been before, to a natural tidal pool. The pool was 7 feet deep and clear blue, great for a cool-down swim. However, the rock formation around the pool is such that every so often, a big wave floods the pool from the top and water rushes through it back to the ocean. The first time this happened, Gabe, Richard, and I would almost certainly have been swept out to sea had it not been for a Samoan couple that grabbed us and held us back. This left us a bit more prepared for the second big surge, but we decided that the tide was still too high for safe swimming. I escaped with only a few more coral cuts to add to my collection.

We then headed down the road to a series of caves/blowholes. The water was much calmer here, and there were already plenty of local villagers playing around and jumping off the rocks. The caves are a series 4 or 5 holes in the rock that have water below that connects out to the ocean. At high tide, the water rushes in underneath and shoots up out of the blowholes, but at low tide, there's plenty of air to swim around. It being low tide, we followed Richard as he dropped down into the deepest hole. We swam around for a while, eventually swiming out into the open ocean to a sandy spot. We all took our turn jumping in off the rocks to a deep hole in the coral.

Last night we went to the movies to see Ice Age 3. If you haven't yet seen it, don't. Stick to the oringinal Ice Age, which is wayyyy better.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Samoa Vacation, Part 2 (Upolu)

This post is part 2 of our trip to Western Samoa. I'd suggest you read part 1 (below) first if you haven't already.

We made it back to Apia around 6:30 and checked into Valentines Motel, a quaint, family-owned, and extremely cheap place just a 15 minute walk from the center of the city. After settling in, we headed downtown for pizza and a night out on the town. Not that there's much of a town. That is, there is a 1-block stretch of 3 or 4 bars and nightclubs. Way more than AmSam, but still nothing special. I suppose what can you expect for a small city in the South Pacific? Regardless, we had a great time and got to celebrate Independence Day with some American Peace Corps volunteers we met.

Sunday morning, we lugged ourselves out of bed and headed over to the Palolo Deep Marine reserve, a spectacular snorkling spot. However, because it was low tide, getting out to the giant drop in the coral was a tedious and very painful task. We also probably killed plenty of coral, leaving us wondering about the Samoans' "reservation" efforts. However, our friend Ben, a fish expert, just told us that coral grows so fast here that it doesn't really matter if you touch it. Once we did make it out to the deep area, we saw hundreds, if not thousands, of fish of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Sorry, but I don't have an underwater camera, so you'll have to use your imagination. Truly amazing, though.

We then dried off and headed accross the island, stopping along the way to visit Samoa's Bahai temple (link is to Wikipedia, which can probably explain the religion way better than me) and Papapapaitai Falls, a 100-meter waterfall. We reached Upolu's southern coast faster than we expected (Upolu is much smaller than Savai'i).

Our next stop was at the Aganoa Black Sand beach. The road to reach the beach finally put our 4-wheel drive to the test, but the bumpy ride was certainly worth it. At the end of the road, we were greeted by a perfect, Corona-commercial-ready beach speckled with a mixture of black and white sand. We immediately rna for the clear, blue water, which was 4-feet deep, sandy, and might as well have been a swimming pool. We spent the better part of the afternoon swimming, playing with the black sand, and burrying Susanna in sand with the help of a local Samoan family.

As the sun sank lower, we piled back in the car to head east to Lalomano beach. We arrived at our fales just in time for dinner. The fales, which covered the beach, housed dozens of people, making the place more like a resort than our previous accomodations. Dinner was served mess-hall style, with plate after plate of various food placed along the long, shared tables. We ended up talking with a family from Zimbabwe that now lived in New Zealand after losing their commercial farm. We even joined them in a rousing post-dinner game of Texas Hold'em.

Monday was a beach day. Lalomano beach is gorgeous and a great place to lay out in the sun (or in the limitted shade) and read. We also swam, but the incredibly strong sideways effectively turned the water into a swimming treadmill. After a lazy morning and a beach-side lunch, we began our trip back up to Apia for our final night in Samoa.

This drive, along Upolu's northeast coast, was one of the most beautiful stretches yet, with green, volcanic mountains surrounding a plain covered in palm trees and the ocean in th background.

Another side note about our drives around both Savai'i and Upolu: there are churches galore. Just like AmSam, we passed dozens of beautiful churches on each leg of our trip. I uploaded pictures of a few examples, but it's incredible that there are enough people on the islands to fill all the churches. In particular, Mormonism is extremely common. This is probably both because the family values match Samoan culture and because Mormon missionaries are very good at their job.

Back in Apia, we again stayed in Valentines Motel. We dropped off our bags and rushed back out to go to Apia's main outdoor market. This was our chance to shop for traditional-style gifts, including wooden clubs and axes, jewelry, and decorated siapo (bark cloth). Bargaining was fair-game, making everything very cheap. If you are interested, the currency in Samoa is the "tala" (the samoan pronounciation of "dollar"; "seine" was the word for cent).

For dinner, we attempted to go to the restaurant at Aggie Grey's hotel (the most famous in Apia). However, the we found the Monday-night Asian menu a bit too pricy, so we just ordered drinks and desserts and later went to get pizza at the same place as Saturday night (a nice reverse dinner).

On our final morning, we did some more shopping, this time at the flea market. Our extra duffels now stuffed to the brim with trinkets and crafts, we headed back to the airport, dropped off our rental car, and took the tiny plane back to Tutuila.

As evidenced by the lenght of these last two posts, we jammed a lot into our six-day trip. Today, we were back to work, and we are now officially halfway done with our research (after finishing with our second cohort of children). Amazingly, I have less than a month left in (American) Samoa. For now, though, it's back to business as usual after a great vacation.

Samoa Vacation, Part 1 (Savai'i)

As promised, this post will re-cap the first half of our fabulous six-day vacation to Western Samoa (note: Western Samoa, an independent nation about 50 miles away from AmSam, dropped "Western," a few years ago. This makes it very confusing, but for this post and the next, Samoa will refer to Western Samoa, not AmSam).

After a busy Wednesday of work (we started our second cohort of kids), packing, and paddling, we woke up early on Thursday to catch the first flight to Apia (Samoa's capital city). W climbed aboard the 19-seat Twin Otter prop-plane at 9am. After an awesome flight with incredible views of both Tutuila (our island) during takeoff and Upolu (Samoa's smaller, but more-populated island) as we landed, we
touched down on Fagali'i airport's single runway just a few minutes away from Apia. After a quick pass through customs (we each only brought a backpack with us), the rental car people met us to give us our Hundai Tuscon. The first snag of the trip - it was stick shift. Luckily, Susanna knows how to drive manual, so she instantly became our chauffeur for the trip. This was half good and half bad for her - bad because she never got a break from driving, but good because she avoided the crunch of four people in the back seat.

A quick side-note about driving in Samoa: while they currently drive on the right-side of the road like the US, they are switching in September to the left. This makes everything very confusing, because half the cars are European-style and half are American. They are getting a 3-day holiday in September to ease everyone into the change. However, judging by our stay there, people are such crazy drivers already that I would expect multiple accidents in those first days.

Sorry for the tangent, but now back to our trip. After getting our rental car sorted out, we drove straight for the dock where we caught the ferry to go to Savai'i, Samoa's largert and less-populated island. The ferry ride took just over an hour, but since we had not eaten since early, we were all starving by the time we arrived. We found a restaurant a few minutes from the dock and ate lunch as we overlooked the gorgeous beach and ocean. We then continued north up Savai'i's eastern coast until we reached the village of Lano. There, we found some beach fales (open huts) where we could stay for the night. Two things were outstanding about the fales: 1) they only cost about $20USD per person per night including both dinner and breakfast!!; and 2) the fales were literally located on a beautiful sandy beach. We were sold, and so we hunkered down for the afternoon. Mother nature apparently agreed with our decision, telling us so by providing us with a brilliant rainbow over the Pacific Ocean.

After a wonderful swim without rocks and coral destroying our feet, we sat down for dinner. We were only sharing the fales with two other couples, a younger German duo who were living in New Zealand and vacationing in Samoa, and an Oregon couple on their honeymoon and visiting the husband, Sio's, Samoan family. We had great conversation as we ate chicken curry and sipped on some bottles of Vailima beer.

Friday morning, we awoke early to watch a beautiuful sunrise from bed! A morning swim and a breakfast (eggs and Samoan coconut buns, yum) later, we packed up and prepared to continue driving around Savai'i. Sio and Katee, the Oregon newlyweds, generously offered to come along in their own rental car, allowing us to spread out a bit. Our first stop after leaving was at the lava fields of northeast Savai'i, where we got a guided tour of a church destroyed by lava between 1905 and 1911. We also saw the "Virgin Grave," which was miraculously left uncovered despite over a meter of lava rock all around it.

We continued along and drove clear across Savai'i's northern side to the western tip of the island. We stopped at a canopy walk and treehouse. The treehouse, suspended hundreds of feet up at the top of a giant Banyan tree, had a really cool view above the rainforest treeline. Our original plan was to sleep in the treehouse (which you're allowed to do), but due to pending on-and-off rainshowers, we decided to bag that idea and continue driving.

To interrupt our roadtrip, we stopped at some cool church ruins and walked around on the rocky shore. We also visited the much anticipated (drumroll, please) western-most point in the world!! That's right, Savai'i is the last landmass before the International Date Line, so the western tip gets this prestigious title. Standing from this point (marked clearly with a painted white X on the ground), we could look out to the ocean and see the future! I'll let you work that one out yourself.

As we drove around the island, we came to realize how rural Savai'i still was. We passed many pigs, cows, and horses, most of which were freely roaming around. One time, we were halted by a bull in the middle of the road (he eventually moved after rearing around in fear). We also saw many school children, many of whom yelled and waved to us. We even got flicked off by a few of them, though it was likely for their own entertainment. We also passed many games of volleyball, apparently a huge sport in Samoa (in addition to rugby, of course). At least from our driving observations, everyone did seem a bit more active here than back in AmSam. But I have no numbers to back this up. Our study is the precursor to finding that out.

Eventaually, we began looking for a place to spend the night (since our treehouse plan was a bust). We stopped at one place that was already booked full, but eventually (after quite a bit of driving), we made it to a beautiful beach resort and surfing spot tucked away from the main road. Not only was their space for us, but the owner even gave us a discount for being medical students (which is true for two of us and not really that farfetched for the rest). Again, both dinner and breakfast was included, and again, the beach scenery was stunningly beautiful. We seemed to be continually reminded that we were in paradise.

We spent all of Saturday morning chilling on the beach and snorkling around (we borrowed a mask/snorkle from our Kiwi neighbors), we headed off to catch the 2pm ferry back to Upolu. We arrived at the dock at 1:30pm only to learn that the ferry was sold out. The man at the ticket booth told us that all the ferries for the weekend were sold out, so we began to get worried that we would be stuck on Savai'i (granted, there are worse places to be abandoned). However, after two hours of waiting, we eventually did get aboard the 4pm ferry.

Because this is going on forever, the trip is continued in the next post.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Back from Vacation

Today, we arrived safely back in AmSam after a 6-day vacation to (Western) Samoa. I owe a lot of writing, but since it's late and I'm tired, I will write everything up tomorrow or the next day (expect two very long posts).

In the meantime, I've begun posting pictures from the trip. However, in order to alleviate the need to load all pictures just to see new ones, I have started a second photo album (Summer in Samoa 2). The pictures from May and June will remain visible here. Both photo links will always be on the right-hand side of the blog.

Until tomorrow, good night (or morning, depending on time zone craziness).

Monday, June 29, 2009

Twenty-five percent

We have now officially completed one quarter of our summer research. This morning, we held our second session with our first group of ten children. We collected our final bits of data and took back the activity monitors they had been wearing all week. While we won't have any informaiton on the urine analysis for quite some time, we were able to immediately upload the data from the activity monitors. Incredibly, eight of the ten kids wore the activity belts the majority of the time - a good indication that our study may very well positively prove feasibility. But we'll have to wait a while to know for sure.

In truth, our success is only possible because of the generous help we are receiving from our Samoan research partners. They have not only helped us translate and ask both parents and children questions, but they have welcomed us into their churches and homes to carry out our project. This morning, for the second time Sharon's mother made us a true Samoan breakfast - this time coconut rice. We were all so greatful for Sharon's hospitality, and I know that having their help and support made our work with the children easier. On Wednesday morning, we start with our second of four cohorts of kids (each lasts 1 week) in Marie's village of Alofau.

This weekend was a rather lazy one. On Saturday, we returned to Larson's beach, where, for the first time, we were not the only ones there. However, becasue the beach requires a 20-minute hike to get there, only Palagis (white folks) go, and so we knew everyone there. I remembered to bring my goggles this time, so I actually got a chance to explore the coral around the beach alcove. Not the most beautiful "snorkling" (sans snorkel), but still a lot of cool fish and tons of sea cucumbers. After our beach excursion, we spent the night out at a Mexican-themed Palagi party just down the road, which proved to be a lot of fun.

On Sunday, we spent the afternoon at Oscar's house for a swim in his pool and a barbeque. The food was beyond delicious, so none of us went home hungry. It was late by the time we got home, so after laundrey and a movie (Enchanted), we hit the hay.

Today, after our research work, we headed into town to try out paddling at the Pago Pago Yacht Club. Paddling is a common South Pacific sport, and there are many competitive races on surrounding islands (Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, etc). We were introduced to this activity by Amity, a Brown graduate in charge of an alcohol study here on the island, but it turns out many of the Palagis we have met paddle just about every afternoon. The boats sit six people each, and resemble a crew boat with an added pontoon suspended from the left side for stability. We each borrowed a wooden paddle (just a wide canoe paddle) for the afternoon. Paddling is very straightforward, and so after a 2-minute training we took our positions in the boats and headed out onto Pago harbor. In addition to being a great upper body workout, we got a great look at Pago harbor not from the coastline. This was our first time really getting out on the water (except for our ferry to and from Aunu'u), so it felt really nice to be back in a boat. After we pulled the boat back out of the water, we got to sit outside and enjoy a cold beer from the Yacht club bar.

We all definitely plan to return for some more paddling, maybe even tomorrow. I also found out that there's often sailing on Sunday afternoons. While I'm sure it won't compare to navigating the Sunfish at our lakehouse with my first mate/dog, I am very excited to try out some ocean sailing.

Meanwhile, we are all pumped for our trip to Western Samoa, where we plan to explore and relax on the beautiful beaches. Yes, this really is the life.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Odds and Ends

Since we began our research on Monday, we have been spending part of the time doing work and the other part doing some smaller excrusions. The weather has been pretty rainy, so we've ended up stuck inside more than we would like.

On Tuesday, Rive invited us to go on a short hike at Blunt's point, just outside of Pago Pago harbor. It was only about a 10 minute walk uphill before we reached two giant cannons, positioned such that they used to guard the harbor from attack (they were never used). Oddly, there were dozens of frogs hopping around the cannons, one of which was flooded with rain water. Despite the cloudy skies, we got a cool view of both the harbor and the ocean before heading back down to the car.

We spent Tuesday afternoon doing some data entry and follow-up work on our research from Monday. We did some more work and had a few meetings on Wednesday morning.

Also on Tuesday evening, we invited Andrew, a Kiwi with family roots in Samoa, over for dinner. We met Andrew at last week's Palagi party, and it turns out he's housesitting for his cousin just down the road from us. After we fed him some traditional American food on Tuesday (that's right, homemade buffalo chicken wings), he invited us over to his cousin's house for dinner on Wednesday. The house was beautiful, and it was great getting to schmooze with Andrew again.

Wednesday afternoon, we took advantage of a brief break in the rain and visited Nu'uli falls. We muddied our feet as we hiked the short trail to reach the waterfall, crossing back and forth accross a stream to get there. Because of the rain, the waterfall was in full force, but we didn't bring our bathing suits to swim in the pool below it. We plan to go back on a sunnier day for a quick swim.

Thursday, we met up with a few people from the Historic Preservation Office who gave us a tour of a star mound. The mound (a relatively unimpressive pile of rocks surrounded by rainforest) is one of hundreds on the island that was used for pigeon catching. The event was conducted by chiefs from the villages. They all sat atop the mound and used decoy birds an nets to catch as many pigeons as possible. The event was disliked by the missionaries and so has faded out. I'm not really sure what the allure was or how feasible it owuld be to actually catch pigions, but it was sort of interesting to learn some more island history.

After our tour and a quick lunch, we went to see the new Star Trek movie, which just opened up in the duplex theater here (along with Transformers 2, which was sold out). After a good day at the movies, last night we picked up Dana, a MD-PhD student from UCSF who is here looking for possible ideas for her discertation. She will be our sixth roomate here in our cozy little home. We have also been planning our trip to Western Samoa for next weekend, and we plan on buying plane tickets today. It will be great to get off the island, but we still have plenty of work to do first.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Earning our Keep (finally)

While I know I've been mentioning our research a bit in all of my posts, really we were all just on a paid vacation (thank you, Brown University). Until today, that is. After weeks of waiting, we finally got a chance to meet with some kids and collect data.

After an early morning (though, I slept through my alarms and Kirstin woke Gabe and I up at 6:45am instead of 6:15am), we packed up the car with supplies and headed over to Taputimu (just west of us). We were spending the morning working at Sharon's house. Sharon is one of the four Samoan researchers we found to work with, and her father is the priest at the church in the center of Taputimu. Thus, she has a big house centrally located (right next to the church). Since most of the kids in the village are attending "Samoan School" (we're not really sure what that is) at the Church for first few weeks of the summer, it was easy for us to spend the day measuring some of them.

Before today, Sharon got consent forms signed for 10 kids, all between ages 8 and 12. With only a few minor flaws (e.g. the electric blood-pressure cuff running out of batteries toward the end), we were able to successfully collect all of the data we needed. We got 4 urine samples from each child and gave them an activity monitor to wear for the next 7 days. We will return next Monday to collect the activity monitors and collect 2 more urine samples each.

After our initial interaction with the kids, we took a break to eat some Samoan breakfast (graciously prepared by Sharon's mother) - cocoa rice. It's Samoan Cocoa and coconut milk mixed in with rice. Interesting mix, but delicious.

As things wound down around noon, we got to tour around Sharon's place a bit. Her family (which is innumerably large) owns a pigery in the back, full of about 10 massive pigs and 2 litters of piglets. Her brothers wer cracking and peeling some coconuts to feed the pigs (fattens them up, they say). Their incredible skill at at husking and peeling the coconuts made it look easy, but Sharon reminded us that it was not at all. We also toured through the plantation behind her house and got some fresh guavas and bananas to take home. We also, for the first time, tried breadfruit, which is starchy but not as much so as taro.

When we finished with the last child around 1:30, Sharon, Marie, and Richard (two of the other reserachers) led us by car over to some swimmable caves. None of us had bathing suits, but it looks like fun and we plan on going back some day at low tide to swim under the rocks and out into the ocean.

We arrived home to find that we had no water, so we're waiting for our landlord figure out what's wrong with that. However, we all feel very accomplished to have made it through the first day of actual work.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


First of all - yes, I know I made a typoe at the end of my last blog that suggested I wanted to become a regular church-goer. I have corrected the post, and if you don't know what I'm referring to, don't worry about it.

This morning, we woke up pretty early and got out of the house by 9:30 to head east and catch the ferry to Aunu'u (the small island off the coast of Tutuila). We arrived at the dock, and after a short wait, the ferry arrived. The small aluminum pontoon boat, powered by a 40 horespower engine, had two benches that comfortably fit the five of us. We hummed out to sea, bouncing up and down on the three- or four-foot waves and gripping the seat as they tossed the boat fro side to side. It was only about 15 minutes before we docked at Aunu'u and disembarked, paying the driver the $2-per-person fee.

There are no cars on the small island, but a few hundred people live there. According to our guidebook, there is a single path that snakes around the island in a figure-eight shape. As we began walking along the path toward the northern side of the island, we were welcomed by a Samoan woman sitting outside her home and her two puppies. She asked if it was our first time to the island, and warned us to be careful as we hiked around. We thanked her and were on our way.

As we walked out of the village and along the coastline, the sun beat down on us. There was very little shade along the first part of the path, but we soon made it to a small opening to the right that led to Pala lake, well known for the fact that it consists entirely of quicksand!! The lake is covered in red muddy splotches that look deceivingly stable (a quick toss of the rock onto one demonstrated otherwise). While I was satisfied staying on solid ground and taking pictures, Susanna and Gabe decided they would see if the stuff from the movies was really true. To make a long story short - yes, quicksand does exist. Once stuck, Gabe pointed out that as he tried to get out, he only sank deeper and deeper. Luckily for all parties involved, they both made it out unscathed (but very muddy). The smell of the swampy lake actually reminded me a lot of the Dead Sea, sort of a salty, sulfury, disgusting odor.

After their quicksand escapades, Gabe and Susanna walked straight over to the ocean to rinse off. We continued walking, and the path turned up toward the center of the island. When we arrived at the center of the figure-eight, we stopped to rest and eat some lunch (PB&J sandwiches and some cookies Katy picked up at the store near the dock) under a gigantic tree that would have been great for climbing had it not been home to a swarm of hornets.

We continued around the second part of the figure-eight until we arrived at Ma'ama'a Cove on the island's eastern side. The cove had towering cliffs on both sides with slanted strata that made it look as though part of the island had simply tipped over into the ocean. Crabs scurried accross the rocks as we set down our bags and began to walk around. The geology was absolutely beautiful (I took lots of pictures), and there was a colorful pool of water with some sizeable tropical fish and bright green algae. After copious exploring and picture-taking, we got back on the trail to finish our expedition around the island.

Just as we walked back into Aunu'u village, the sky (which had been sunny all day) became covered in clouds and began to rain. After a few hours of hiking in the heat, none of us minded, and after making it back to the dock, Katy, Gabe, and I decided that we would go for a swim on the beach despite the rain. The beach was beautifully sandy, and the bright blue water was nearly 4 feet deep with smooth stone covering the bottom. This was a wonderful change from many of the rockier beaches we have been to, and the three of us bobbed around in the waves as the rain picked up even more.

We exited the water only when we saw the ferry making its entrance into the Aunu'u harbor. While I was already wet and didn't mind getting rained on some more, Susanna and Kirstin made every attempt to stay dry and failed miserably. The rain poured down on us as the boat jumped over the waves to take us back to Tutuila.

Overall, a 100 percent fantastic day. Tomorrow we are getting down and dirty to do some actual reasearch work, since that is, after all, why Brown is paying us to be here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Beach Flinging and Gospel Singing

On Sunday night, we finally got approval from the Brown IRB on some revisions we made to the project. Now we are only waiting on our Samoan translations to be approved before we can actually start collecting data. In the meantime, we decided we'd hit the beach.

On Monday, we decided we'd try out a new part of the island known as Airport beach, named because it sits along the outer side of the airport runway. All we were told about getting there was to park in Industrial Park and walk along the fence. So we did. The "trail" (really just a slim opening between the fence on one side and bushes on the other) was covered n trash, but we wanted to find the beach so we kept on going. And going. And going. Eventually, we were on the far side of the airport pushing our way through the bushes or climbing on the large rocks leading into the ocean. We looked at each other in despiration, but we agreed that at this point we might as well complete our journey and go all the way around.

We eventually did make it to a beach, but access would have been much easier if we had started in a different place. We relaxed in some shallow pools formed by the rocks for a while and attempted to swim (it was a bit too rocky). At this point it was late in the afternoon, so we continued along past some very cool rock formations and blowholes before making it back to the road. Our journely brought us not too far from our house, so Kirstin and I headed home while Gabe and Susanna hopped on a bus that took them to retreive our car. The whole shebang took 4 hours and took much more energy than we had anticipated spending on a day at the beach. But so it goes. I made us chicken parmesan for dinner, and we watched a movie (Doubt) before going to sleep exhausted.

Yesterday, feeling a bit less adventurous, we decided we’d drive out to the western side of the island and find a beach there. We were aiming to go to “Palagi Beach” on the very western tip, but we could not find anyone in the village to tell us how to get there. We kept driving around to the northwest just to see the sights, but were eventually forced to turn around due to a construction crew. We eventually settled on a beach in Agugulu (we asked a villager for permission), and spent a few hours reading on the beach and wading in the water (despite the strong current).

Today, after practicing taking anthropometric measurements on each other and running through our research protocol (see, we do SOME work here), we returned to Larson’s Beach, which still gets all our votes for most beautiful beach on the island. Because it was high tide, the water was high enough off the rocks that we were even able to swim around. The beach is particularly great because it is extremely secluded and we do not need to worry about intruding upon a village (as is the case with most beaches here).

This evening, we were invited by Rive (pronounced Ri-vay), one of the four Samoan researchers we are working with, to his Church in Nu’uli. A bit of background: The Christian missionaries did quite a number here as with most of the South Pacific (One website says the island is 98 percent Christian). Every village has at least one church, often many more. Different types include Congregationalist, Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, Mormon, Catholic, and just about anything else you can think of. Many of the Churches we pass on the road have architecture that clearly dates them back to the colonial era.

We met Rive outside his Church just before six for mid-week services. Engraved above the door was the name of the Church, “First Samoan Full Gospel Pentecostal Church.” As strange as this sounds coming from a nice Jewish boy, I was actually glad to see this because it meant a much more musical service. Before we even entered, we could hear the music blasting, and inside the church I could barely hear anything over singing accompanied by keyboard, bass, and even a full drum set. We were the only palagis (white people) present, but everyone seemed too caught up in the service to even notice us. There were plenty of claps and raised arms and shouts of “Amen!” as the gospel music played. Despite a few repeating English phrases, the entire service was in Samoan (which actually made it more enjoyable), but the music was beautiful and it was interesting to hear the sermon belted out in some unknown language.

When the service was over and people began filing out, a good number approached us to introduce themselves and welcome us (a great demonstration of Samoan hospitality). Rive gave us a little tour, introducing us to his family and the Church’s Pastor. As we were about to leave, Rive’s mother asked us if we had eaten yet. We had not, and so we accompanied Rive, his parents, and his little sister to the Chinese restaurant next door. I’m beginning to that “Samoan food” simply translates to “Massive amounts of food,” as plate after plate arrived at our table.

We were all stuffed after the meal, and we profusely thanked Rive and his family for inviting us along to Church and to dinner. Katy later commented on how weird it is for us northeasterners to understand genuine hospitality and kindness, but that’s really what Samoan culture is all about. Churches one of the main centers of culture and community here, and it’s great that we are already being invited to join in. While I’m not sure I want to become a regular church-goer, I am certainly interested to see some of the other types of services and take up Rive’s offer to return with him for a Sunday service.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Scientists and Lawyers

The past few days have been absolutely jam-packed, so sorry for the delay in posts, but this one will be long to make up for it. Friday, we planned to go to Aunu'u, the small island of the southeast coast of Tutuila. We arrived at the ferry dock around noon after completing some errands and driving nearly the length of the island. Much to our dismay, however, the boat driver informed us that the seas were too rough and so they were stopping the ferry early.

With that plan shattered, we decided to try to visit the weather station Candyman had told us about on the island's eastern tip. We missed the access road on our first drive by and ended up driving all the way around to the end of the main road in the village of Onenoa. We backtracked to Tula, where we asked a few locals how to get to the station. We were told that the station is on private property, but one of them generously offered to lead us there. We parked the car and followed Nathan, our new Samoan guide, up a steep paved road.

The weather station is located at the top of Mata Fula, overlooking the village below. Nathan led us past the station, and we proceeded to descend 178 wooden steps to reach Tutuila's eastern-most point. At the bottom, we could look out upon both the island's southern and northern coasts. The strong breeze coming in off the ocean felt fantastic as we stopped to snap some photos.

After a few minutes, Nathan led us back up the steps to the station, where we were greeted by Mark, the chief scientists (also, as he told us, known as "the global warming guy"). Mark led us to the roof of the station, where he pointed out that we could see the faint shadows of Manua islands on the eastern horizon. Though Mark apologized for not having time to give us a tour, his boss (whose name I cannot recall) offered to tell us about the station and show us what they did.

The station is one of five Federally funded sites (the others are in Alaska, northern California, Hawaii, and at the South Pole) that that have constantly collected atmospheric data since the 1970s. The station measures down to the nearest part per billionth the presence of approximately 130 particles in the atmosphere! Included in this list are both ozone and CO2. We got to go inside the observing dome, which contains a machine called the Dobson that measures ozone by aiming at the sun. He also showed us the graph of CO2 in the atmosphere over the past 30 years, and explained why there is very little seasonal difference in Samoa compared to northern Alaska (here, CO2-consuming plant life flourishes 365 days a year). We also got to here about the 2 years our guide spent at the South Pole.

After profusely thanking both Mark and our tour guide, we descended back to Fula. As we walked, we all commented on how this unexpected visit had turned out to be extremely interesting and educational. It's fascinating to visit one of the few sites doing research that is so relevant to the recent climate debate. We talked with our tour guide about how the statistics and science behind ozone depletion and CO2 buildup are very poorly disseminated, a problem that must be remedied. On the topic of reducing CO2 output, our guide noted how reducing CFC emissions to solve the ozone crisis didn't cause anyone to change their lifestyle; unfotunately, reducing CO2 emissions wil require everyone to change their lifestyle. However, he seemed confident that solving the CO2 crisis was possible.

On the way back, we pulled off the side of the road to check out an old shipwreck. We climbed down to the shore and aboard the wreck, taking some pictures and watching the waters slosh around below us. I'm not sure when the ship is from or the story behind it, but it was still very cool.

We completed the long drive home, showered, and ate dinner, before receiving a call from Oscar inviting us to a gathering of some palagis (white folks) at a house over in Industrial Park. Having not met most of the palagi community, we all agreed that this was a good chance to do so. In addition, Oscar tipped us off that the host of the party had pet bats, and this greatly intrigued us. When we knocked on the door and entered to room full of people, everyone quieted and stared at us, the new folks on the island. However, we quickly began to integrate ourselves and meeting and greeting everyone.

As it turns out, nearly the entire palagi community can be divided into two groups - scientists and lawyers. And if you're ever not sure which a person is, long hair generally indicates scientists, while short hair indicates lawyers. Oscar, a businessman, and two volunteer teachers seemed to be the only exceptions to this rule.

As soon as we met Alden, the host, we asked him if we could see his pet bats. He led us outside and into a walk-in cage, home to three fruit bats. We got the complete up close and personal experience - petting them, letting them bite our fingers, and feeding them pieces of banana. The bats were rescued after a typhoon, and so they have lost their ability to fly. However, they were very keen on following our fingers by climbing around their cage. Their faces wer actually very cute, but they smelled a bit like skunks (or, according to some, skunks smell a bit like bats). Since it was dark, we hope to visit the bats again and take some pictures.

Also noticeable about Alden's home were the walls decorated with large photographs of humpback whales breaching the surface. It turns out that Alden, a marine biologist, studies turtles and whales, and he even offered to take us out on a whale-watching boat in late July when the humpbacks return to breed!

One of my favorite moments of the night, and one that demonstrates the nerdiness of the scientists on the island, was when a gigantic beetle flew up to us in the middle of our conversation. Katy and I ducked away in fear, but Evan (one of the scientists) swatted the bug to the ground with a clean sweep of his hand, then proceeded to pick the beetle up and let it crawl along his arm. "Look, it's a rhinoceros beetle!" Evan explained. Looking closer, the beetle did actually have the very clear rhino appearance. Evan used the two-inch-long beetle to scare Susanna before releasing it into the tall grass.

Just before we left, Sean and Ned, two of the lawyers, asked us if we would be interested in joining them on a hike to the top of Mt Alava the following day. Having no plans during the day on Saturday, we agreed, and Ned said he would call us around noon. He followed through on his word, and we followed a group of 5 palagis (most of whom we had met the night before) up the mountain pass behind Pago Pago to the trail head.

The hike, the best-maintained trail in the American Samoan National Park, begins at the top of Fagasa pass and stretches 5km east along the ridge to the peak of Mt Alava. The trail was very wide and mostly open to the sun, and as we hiked we could just barely make out views mainly overlooking the northern shore.

However, nothing compared to the view when we reached the peak. Spread out in front of us, we could see all of Pago Pago harbor, both Rainmaker Mountain and Mata Fau, and nearly all of the western side of the island. The mountainous terrain was stunning, and it was awesome to look down at Pago Pago harbor and see the road and buildings we pass nearly every day. The containers stacked at the port looked like legos and the cars creeping around the bay like ants winding their way around the curves of the shoreline. I created a panoramic image of the view using a set of pictures, but it doesn't nearly do justice to the beauty and grandeur we experienced.

At the peak of Mt Alava is the rusting terminal of the old cable car that used to stretch from Fagatogo across the harbor and up to the mountaintop. The cable car was one of the longest spanning of its kind until it shut down in 1980 after a US Navy plane hit the cables and crashed into the Rainmaker Hotel below, killing 8 people. Also atop the mountain is a giant TV antenna, which two of the lawyers we were with decided to climb for a better view (I decided not to risk my life for the extra height). We rested at a shady fale (open-walled hut) for a while and ate some granola bars before heading back down the trail. The whole endeavor took just over 4 hours, and we were all exhausted when we finally arrived back at home.

To top off the day, we had a dinner meeting with 3 Samoan researhers who we will likely be working with throughout the summer. The meeting was very successful, and we will likely do most of our data collection in their villages. We may even get to start next weekend, possibly introducing the project to some parents on Sunday after church services.

It's been a crazy past few days, but I've enjoyed every second of it. When talking with the three Samoans last night at dinner, they commented on how much of the island we have already seen in just a few weeks. It's really true, but each new experience is different and great, so I hope we continue to have time to hike, explore, and meet new people.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Paka o Amerika Samoa

I woke up early today to return Oscar's car and pick up ours. Apparently, he successfully jumped the car last night right after we left for Tisa's, so a new battery did the trick.

Today, we took our revived vehicle back accross the island to National Park of American Samoa (Paka o Amerika Samoa) on the island's northern shore. To get there, we had to drive into town and then up over the mountain pass. We stopped at the top to take some great scenic shots of Pago Pago harbor with Mata Fau in the background (see photo to the right).

We descended the steep, windy road and passed through the village of Afono before entering official National Park territory. Having driven the route last week to check out the area, we knew to park at the scenic overlook, where a hiking trail led down to the shore below. We took in the beautiful view of "Cock's Comb," before heading down the trail into the forest.

The steep trail led us to the rocky water's edge, where we proceeded to carefully climb accross the rocks to a tall peak overlooking the sea. We sat in the baking sun, cooled by the ocean breeze and taking in the beauty around us. The surf is significantly smaller on the northern side of Tutuila due to the prevailing winds from the south, but the whitecaps still powerfully crept up the rocks below us.

After some photos, we climbed off our rocky perch and heaved our way back up the steep trail to our car. After a few minutes to catch our breaths, we continued driving thorugh the village of Vatia toward Cock's Comb. At the end of the reoad, we parked and embarked on a short hike (it was really more of a walk, much to our disappointment) to the stony beach below Cock's Comb. We didn't stay long, but we did observe schools of fish literally hopping over the rocks to escape from tidal pools into the outer ocean - an amazing feat of evolution.

We were all exhausted as we began the hour-long treck home. Susanna and Kirstin cooked up some delicious Indian-style eggplant and chicken for dinner, and just now we picked up Katy, a medical student, at the airport. She'll be living with us and doing doing research on gestational diabetes at LBJ Hospital for the summer (or winter). I took a lot of pictures today, both in the National Park and on pictures from the car, so check them out if you have a chance.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tisa's Polynesian Feast

Even as we finally make some headway on our research, we've been taking advantage of our slow work week. Yesterday, after our errands, we drove into town (Pago Pago) to visit the Jean P. Haydon Museum. The museum displays traditional Samoan artifacts, including pigs-tooth tatoo equipment and carved wooden fishing boats. There was also come cool information on Samoan medicine and traditional healers.

Tonight, we went back to Tisa's, this time for her Polynesian feast. On the way, we stopped to fill up the car with gas. After paying, I turned the key only to find that the car would not start. We all looked at each other exasperated and worried that we wouldn't make it to Tisa's on time. We called Oscar, the car's owner, who came to rescue us. After unsuccesfully trying to start the car himself, Oscar called his mechanic friend and eventually just gave us his car so we could make it to Tisa's on time. Tomorrow morning, we'll have to bring the car back to trade it in for ours or a temporary rental. Thank goodness for Oscar, though.

We arrived at Tisa's just in time to watch as Candyman uncovered the umu, or stone oven. The umu consists of layers of hot stones and food and is covered by big banana leaves. Tisa explained the process and food selection as Candyman and some helpers pulled away the rocks and moved the buried food up to the serving table. The feast consisted of tarot root, spiced pumkin, papayas, coconut cream sauce, red snapper, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, and even a freshly caught octopus!

In traditional Samoan style, we ate on plates of woven leaves, and we ate with our fingers. The food was delicious, and the meal was capped off by a signing and dancing performacne by Tisa and two of her grandaughters. As we sipped our pina coladas, we watched a stunning moonrise over the ocean.

Next week, if all goes well, we should be able to start our research in full force. But while we wait, we'll continue to enjoy ourselves. Either tomorrow or Friday (weather depending), we plan to spend the day exploring the island of Aunu'u, just a ferry ride away.

Monday, June 8, 2009

BBQ and Beautiful Beaches

Yesterday, Sunday, we went to a barbeque at Oscar's house. Oscar is a Peruvian who has moved around a lot but settled in American Samoa for the past 15 years, and he is renting us our car for the summer. He has a beautiful house in Tapitimu, complete with a covered deck and an outdoor swimming pool. We lounged around, ate lots of grilled meat and salads, and went for a swim. It gave us a chance to meet a bit of the Palagi (non-Samoan) community and enjoy a beautiful, cool (high 70's) Sunday afternoon.

This morning, since we are still waiting on responses before we continue with our research work, we decided to explore a few new beaches we saw Google Earth on Larson's Bay. We parked our car at Turtle and Shark Lodge in Vaitogi, where we got to see a blowhole. Leaving our car at the lodge, we hiked along the trail leading around the bay. After about thirty minutes of walking through the woods and then through a high-grass field, the path led us deep into a banana plantation. As cool as the plantation was, the path eventually reached a dead end. We backtracked and found two different forks, but each direction ended in the midst of the banana trees. Finally, we found a promising trail that led toward the bay.

As we followed the trail deep through the trees, the sound of the ocean got louder and louder. The bright blue water finally appeared before us through a gap in the trees, and we all rushed out onto a rocky overlook. We were instantly overtaken by the beauty of the scene before us. A pristine sandy beach wound around a small inlet in the sea. Rocky cliffs rose high above the beach on either end, and dense green jungle spanned behind it. The cove in which the beach sat protected it from the rough seas, letting only small waves reach the shore. Coconuts were scattered accross the sand, which bore no indication that anyone else had been there in hours - if not days. As Kirstin aptly put it, "this is what people think of when they talk about paradise."

We spent over two hours on the secluded beach, relaxing and wading into the shallow water. We found crabs climbing on the rocks, hermit crabs crawling in the sand, bright blue fish swimming among the coral, and even a school of sea cucumbers sprawled out on the coral bed. Despite the midday sun, a cool breeze kept the temperature comfortable as we laid on the beach reading.

After leaving the picture-perfect beach, we found the continuation of the trail along Larsen's Bay. We hiked through the woods until we reached the second beach. This one was rockier and more open, giving a great view of the entire bay. We sat in the breeze atop a few giant boulders for a few minutes before starting our journey back around the bay to our car.

It was a wonderful way to spend the day, and I marvel that places of such seclusion exist. Maybe I'm just still getting used to this little island in the South Pacific, but maybe the scenery really just is that beautiful. I appologize that I accidentally forgot my camera at home today, so the pictures posted are Susanna's.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Internet, Food, and More

Its been a slow past few days in terms of our research as we wait for our consent forms to be translated into Samoan. In addition, I struggled with the American Samoan Telecommunications Authority (ASTCA) to speed along the process of getting DSL for our house (we've just been "borrowing" wireless from our neighbor). Yesteray, the crew came out to our house and got both the phone and DSL modem working. However, as soon as they left and I plugged in the wireless router, the internet stopped working. Just my luck.

In the meantime, we've done some laundry and more food shopping. Really exciting stuff. In terms of food, the island gets a suprisingly good stock of groceries. We shop both at KS Mart (a normal supermarket) and Cost U Less (a rip-off of Costco), both of which are located down the street. The only real difference between food here and in the states is the lackluster selection of fresh food. But we've managed to find more than enough veggies to get by. The selection of restaurants is really disappointing, dominated by fast food and cheap Asian cuisine. There are a few seafood places that I'm excited to try out, but otherwise I think we'll end up eating in most of the time.

Yesterday, we returned to Sliding Rock to take in the powerful surf and wade on the rocky beaches. We even started a house shell collection. Today, despite the rain, we drove out to the National Park of American Samoa on the island's northern coast to check out the beautiful scenery. While we did't really stop to look around much, there are a buch of hiking trails that we'll have to return to later in the summer. We also got a beautiful view of Tutuila's northern coast.

We ended the afternoon by stopping at Tisa's, where we tried Candyman's legendary Pina Coladas (they were every bit as good as I hoped for). The water was a little rough for swimming, but we sat and talked with Candyman for a while, and he gave us a map and some suggestions on things to do while we are here. We also signed up for Tisa's Polynesian feast this Wednesday night - supposedely some of the best local food on the island. We're all very excited for the meal.

Hopefully the coming week will be a fruitful one in terms of our research. With all four of us now settled in and Professor McGarvey gone, we are all ready for the actual data collection to begin as soon as possible.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The middle of nowhere

This afternoon, we decided to take a break from our research and go out to see some of the island.  "I want to go there," Gabe stated as he pointed out a spot he had found nearby on Google Earth (see photo to the right).  There appeared to be a road that got somewhere close to the beaches he was talking about, so we decided to go on an adventure.  We hopped in our Mitsubishi Outlander and drove in the right general direction, eventually finding the unmarked road that supposedly led to the coast.  We drove down the increasingly rugged road until we reached a locked gate.

We turned off the car and got out to look for a way to keep going.  We found a Samoan woman clearing some brush with a machete who yelled for a child to come and get us the key.  While we waited, she tried to converse with us in broken English.  She asked if we had 4-wheel drive.  We didn't, but we told her that our crossover SUV would be fine. Once the gate was open, we thanked both her and the child and were on our way.

She wasn't kidding about needing 4-wheel drive.  The dirt road was very erroded and rough, but we managed to make it to the where the road ended and the walking paths began.  We hiked through rows of coconut and banana trees to a clearing that gave us a brilliant view of Fagatele Bay, a volcanic crater.  The waves crashed against the cliffs and shot more than 20 feet up in the air.  After staring in awe for a while, we headed back down the trail to go down to the beach.

The sky opened up in rain as we walked, but by the time we got back to the car, we decided that, because we were already wet, we would just drop our gear off and go to the beach anyway.  As we hiked down the steep hillside, the rainforest closed in on us making it darker and darker.  As we neared the water, we reached a set of wooden steps that took us down to the small beach.

The beach was no more than 20 yards long and looked out onto Fagatele bay.  It was high tide, as evidenced by the powerful 4-foot waves that washed right up to the top of the sand.  We left our shoes on the stairs and waded into the ocean, the rain still pouring down on us.  The four of us were the only ones around, and we just bobbed upand down in the waves and took in the scenery around us.  In front of us, the turbulent blue ocean; behind us, a steep wall of dense green rainforest.  It was very much a  "Wow, I really am in the middle of nowhere!" moment. 

As we swam the rain let up.  Kirstin was quick to point out a flying fox directly above us.  As we gazed up at the sky, we noticed more and more of the bats emerging from the trees above us.  Within minutes, there were hundreds upon hundreds of bats circling the skies.  There is no way I can translate the experience into words, but it made me so happy and excited to be in this wonderous and secluded place for the summer.

My dad said to me earlier today, "Your pictures look so beautiful, why aren't there any resorts or tourists there?"  To be honest, plopping a resort down on the shore would take away from places like the little beach on Fagatele bay.  The remoteness and the lack of human impact on the is what made our experience so incredible.  As we hiked back up the hill and drove home, we agreed that we all hoped to find many more places like this one throughout the summer.