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.