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.

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