Sunday, May 31, 2009

A closer look at Tutuila

Yesterday afternoon, McGarvey once again became our tour guide as we went for a ride to the eastern side of the island (we live on the central/west side).  It was beautiful out, so I took the opportunity to take some pictures out the car window as we drove.

We wound along the main road into the center of town (Pago Pago) and then turned left onto one of the mountain pass roads that climbs into the island's core and then down to the northern coast.  The road quickly turned into switchbacks as we climbed, and the rainforest around us became denser and lusher.  At the top of the pass, a sign marked the trail head of a hiking path that led up to the top of Mt Alava (a hike that I hope to go back and do soon).  The top of the mountain pass also provided this beautiful view of the village of Fagasa on the northern coast.

After a quick drive down to Fagasa, we climbed back up and down to Pago Pago and the main road.  We turned eastward and continued toward the far end of the island.  We soon passed by the core of Tutuila's economy, the tuna canneries, and got a short taste of the overwhelming stench.  The road then wound us out of Pago Pago harbor and into the island's Eastern district.

As we left Pago Pago, the villages we passed through became more and more traditional and rural.  We waved at the villagers as we passed by and always received a warm smile and waves in return.  The coastline also became a bit more rugged and untouched, though we saw many locals taking a swim on their small, sandy beaches.  We continued our joy ride to the tip of the island before turning around.

On  our way back, we stopped for a beer and a swim at Tisa's Barefoot Bar.  The wooden, surf-shack-style bar was empty, but after a few minutes Tisa came out and warmly greeted us and joined us for conversation and a Vailima (Samoan beer).  Tisa is a very local and very outgoing and friendly character.  She bears the traditional Samoan tatoos on her upper legs and has a lifetime of experience in American Samoa to share.  She ran for governor once as a liberal, third-party candidate (mainly just to prove a point), but for now she is satisified keeping her bar sustainable and chatting with  locals and Palagi (white-skinned foreigners like myself).  Tisa and her partner, Candyman, host a Polynesian feast every Wednesday night that we hope attend in the near future.

As we conversed, a bout of rain passed by, but it cleared up, giving us the chance to take an ocean swim.  The water was incredibly warm, and we all bobbed up and down in the waves for a while before rinsing of in Tisa's freshwater shower and ordering ourselves another Vailima.  This time, we were joined by Candyman, who told us all about the food plantation he runs up on the mountainside.  He grows dozens of varieties of tarot, banana, breadfruit, and coconut, all of which he and Tisa use to prepare their Wedensday feasts.

We also heard from both Tisa and Candyman about the imminent closing of one of the two tuna canneries and the effects they thought this might have on the island.  The canneries employ many people here on temporary work permits and lots of people from western Samoa.  Many think that thousands may leave the island due to the closing, but both Tisa and Candyman noted that there were both positive and negative consequences.  As the canneries leave (the other is expected to close soon as well), Tutuila will be forced to find new means of economic income - possibly tourism, and maybe even a call center (the fiberoptic lines have already been laid to reach here!).  Both of these could make the island clean up its littering problems, but the future is definitely uncertain.  It will be interesting to get more peoples' take on the rough economic situation caused by the cannery closing throughout the summer.

As the late afternoon approached, we said our goodbyes and headed back towards our village of Ile'Ile.  As the sun was setting, we stopped for this fantastic view of Rainmaker Mountain (see right).  We again cooked ourselves some dinner and I turned in for sleep very early after a long but very fun day.

Today, Sunday, will likely be a quiet one, as most people spend the day at church and many stores are closed.  It's also turning out to be a very hot one (I began sweating before 9am!!).  Professor McGarvey, Susanna, and I will likely do some preparation work for our research project.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Day One

Today was jam-packed with meetings and errands, all the while trying to learn about my new summer home.

At 10am, Professor McGarvey, Susanna and I had a meeting with a few indivduals who may be able to help us recruit children to participate in our research.  The meeting was very successful, and we are all much more "cautiously optimistic" (as ProfessorMcGarvey put it) about our project.  However, with 3 of our fellow students yet to arrive and lots of time to go, I know that we will need to just see what happens.

We then went to a pot-luck lunch (we stopped to pick up some fresh fruit on the way) at the Tafuna Health Center, a clinic focused on primary care and prevention that Professor McGarvey has been deeply involved in since its inception.  After lunch, we had to take care of some errands, including making copies of our house key, opening bank accounts for our research funds, and attempting to get our cell phones working (we were unsuccessful on this last one and will have to try again next week).

All day, as we drove around, Professor McGarvey played tour guide and informed us about various parts of the island.  Tutuila has a single main road that passes from east to west along the island's southern coast.  The road connects the villages, all of which are set along the island's coast (due to the steep mountains in the center).  The speed limit is 25mph for the entire island, causing cars to slowly ease along as they pass between villages or from one side of the island to the other.  This slow driving speed fits in with the generally slow-paced speed of island life.

The immense beauty of the jagged mountain peaks covered by lush rainforest proves an interesting contrast to the much-less asthetically pleasing nature of most of the villages.  While today was rather busy, preventing me from taking pictures, I will be sure to take some and post them in the future.  On that note, you can find a link to my Picasa web album for the trip on the right under "Related Links."

We concluded our errand run with a trip to the grocery store, stocking up on most of the essentials and picking up some fresh vegetables for dinner.  The store is relatively well stocked, but fresh food is definitely harder to come by out here in the middle of the Pacific (meat is always frozen and canned food is very common).  We cooked our first meal and enjoyed a few glasses of Vailima, Samoa's very own beer.  Now, having successfully managed to stay up despite my body's confusion over time zones,  I think it is time to hit the hay.

Houston, the Eagle has landed

After two days of travel and over 16 hours of flight time, I am now safe and sound in American Samoa.  It feels a bit surreal, but I am extremely glad to be done traveling for the time being.

Yesterday’s flights went much smoother than the first day’s (see below).  After a 5:15am hotel wakeup call, I arrived back at LAX to catch my flight to Honolulu, Hawaii.  The Hawaiian Airlines flight was on time and surprisingly pleasant.   Five hours later, I was in Honolulu with over five hours to spare before my next flight.

I meandered around the Honolulu airport in search of something to pass the time, finally asking the advice of a lady at an information booth.  She suggested I take the bus over to the Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, a mere 3 miles away.  With my luggage conveniently checked through to Samoa, I left the airport and discovered that Honolulu has a surprisingly efficient bus system.  Within a half hour, I made it to the Pearl Harbor memorial area.  While I was unable to stay around for the next available tour of the Arizona, I did do a self-guided audio tour of the USS Bowfin.   After passing through the submarine (and gazing for a while at the massive torpedoes), I reemerged to find that it had begun to rain.  I took this as a sign that it was time to return to the airport, so I cut my adventure short and headed back to the bus stop.

Back inside the terminal, I met up with Susanna, one of the other students who will be working on the project with me.  We chatted over late lunch and a beer before heading to the gate to board the Pago Pago flight.  At the gate we met Pratima, an MPH student who will be living with us in Samoa and running Professor McGarvey’s major diabetes project.   Again, the flight took off without a hitch.  I spent the ride conversing with my neighbor , a nurse-in-training from Seattle, who was returning to Samoa to visit her family and attend her younger brother’s college graduation.

Five hours later, I caught my first glimpse of American Samoa out the airplane window – a beautiful array of lights and a few mountain tops peaking out through low-hanging clouds.  Unfortunately, I could not truly take in the entirety of the island in the darkness of 10pm, but I was satisfied with the short look I was able to get.

Exiting the airplane out into the night air, I was hit by a wave of heat and humidity.  The air had a thickness to it, and the evening breeze felt nice after so long cramped in a confined space.  I was not expecting the initial health form/inspection that followed, apparently the American Samoan government’s response to the swine flu scare.  I passed quickly through immigration, retrieved my bags in a matter of minutes, and glided through customs.  Exiting the airport, Susanna and I were met with dozens and dozens of Samoans, mostly children, eagerly awaiting the arrival of a friend or relative.  Professor McGarvey quickly spotted us and we pushed through the crowd to get to him.

We got a ride to our house in Ile’Ile (a five minute ride from the airport) from the outgoing field director whom Pratima is here to replace.  She pointed out some of the stores and attractions as we drove along, but I will need to orient myself tomorrow during daylight hours.

Our house, located in the village of Ile'Ile is a three-bedroom, one-story flat with an abundance of windows and a comfortable living room, dining room, and kitchen.  In a few weeks, there will be seven of us living here, so we will no doubt be cozy (especially due to the limiting single bathroom).  You can see the picture here that I took from the outside last night.

In addition to the muggy heat, the most defining feature of the island seemed to be its abundance of sounds.  From the clicking and whining of geckos that, as professor McGarvey puts it, “are everywhere and are very friendly because they eat bugs,” to the growling and barking of the stray and very territorial dogs that cover the island (Adam Lewin would certainly not do well here).  While we sat around our living room and drilled Professor McGarvey with questions about the island and its people, a pack of dogs noisily fought on the road just outside. 

I awoke this morning just before 6:00am from a combination of jet lag, barking dogs, and an incessant rooster nearby who cock-a-doodle-doo-ed his little heart out approximately every 10 seconds.  I am sure my early wake-up will make for a very long day, but professor McGarvey is excited to show us around the island and I am excited to start adjusting.

I have a lot more I could say, but I’ll pause for now to grab some coffee and a shower.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

After a few bumps, halfway there

"Where are you going?"
"Philadelphia then LA."
"Hmm... hold on, the Philadelphia flight has been delayed and we'll need to rebook your connection."

Never a good start, especially to a 2-day, 7,000-mile trip.  When I booked my plane tickets, I deliberately left some wiggle room in case things went wrong.  Wow, am I glad I did that.  Before even passing through security, the agent had booked me on a later flight from Philly to LA.  A one hour delay didn't really concern me.

It was when the delay expanded to 3 hours I began to worry.  Air traffic control in Philadelphia just kept pushing my flight out of Burlington back little by little.  All I can say is, thank goodness the Burlington airport has WiFi.  As the minutes and hours peeled away, it semed that our flight would take off around 2:30pm (as opposed to the original 11:30am).  With my new connecting flight to LA scheduled to leave at 4:05, I knew it would be tight.

After finally boarding the plane and getting out to the runway, the captain came on the air with "some unfortunate news."  Air traffic control had pushed our departure time back yet another 20 minutes.  At this point, the prospect of making my LA connection looked bleak at best.  As promised, we took off 20 minutes later, but we ended up in a holding pattern over Philly for another 30 minutes.  At 4:10, I ran off the plane to check on the LA flight, only to be met by a gate agent who handed me a ticket for my new flight at 6:00.  All that wiggle room I had left was now gone.  It was this flight or bust.

I grabbed myself a Philly steak (what else could I eat?) and camped at the gate, praying that my bags would be correctly re-routed to arrive in LA with me.  At this point, things got significantly better.  Upon boarding, I was pleasantly suprised to find that I was in an exit row with 4 feet of legroom.  The flight took off on time (or close to it), and I even got to chat with a few computer chip salesmen returning home from a business trip in Stockholm and our flight attendant, Joe, who's been working for US Air (formerly Allegheny Airlines) for 30 years.  All in all, it was a comfortable flight.

I'm now safe and sound in a hotel nearby the LA airport, where I will be returning tomorrow bright and early to fly first to Hawaii and then to Samoa.  Travel day one - success.

Friday, May 22, 2009

"So what exactly will you be doing there?"

With only 5 days until my departure for Samoa, I thought it might be a good time to answer that question. I found the opportunity through one of my professors at Brown, who has been doing obesity and diabetes public health research in American Samoa for 30 years. A new research grant of his recently got turned down due to lack of proof that the research methods were feasible. Along with 4 other Brown undergrads, I'll be working to conduct a pilot study to ensure the feasibility of the two main methods in question.

The project studies energy expenditure and physical activity in American Samoan children, with the eventual goal of understanding if differences in children's activity levels have an impact on obesity trends in adulthood. This summer, we will conduct an abbreviated version of the study on a small sample of 30-40 children to ensure that we can effectively measure their energy expenditure and activity levels. We aren't concerned so much with random sampling or the actual analysis of the data so much as how well the data collection goes. For each participant, we will measure some basic anthropometric traits (height, weight, blood pressure, etc), carry out a doubly labeled water test, administer an activity monitor, and collect information on dietary intake. The activity monitor and doubly labeled water methods will be the two under the closest scrutiny.

The doubly labeled water (DLW) method involves giving the children a sample of water with two heavy isotopes (O18 and H2) and taking six urine samples over the course of 7 days. We will submit the samples to a mass spectrometry lab, which will give us the total energy expenditure for each participant. Using height and weight, we will estimate resting energy expenditure (the amount of energy your body uses just to stay alive) and subtract it from the total energy expenditure to get energy expenditure due to physical activity. This method is fairly commonly used now, but we must verify that it will work specifically among American Samoan children. Click Here for a more detailed description of DLW.

During the same 7 days we carry out the DLW method on each child, we will give him or her an electronic activity monitor to be worn night and day around the waist. The device works similar to a standad pedometer, but it records much more detailed records of the child's activity and allows us to view trends in physical activity. Combining this data with the DLW data should give us a good overall indication of each child's activity level and energy expenditure. The image to the right shows one of the activity monitors we will be using.

The project will certainly keep me busy for the summer. Even with five of us working, we will be following nearly 40 children for 7 days each - no easy task. However, working directly with the children should be both fun and educational, a great combination for a summer research project. Even though everything sounds very systematic, the realities of recruiting kids and getting them to go along with our crazy research endeavors will likely prove much more chaotic. I guess I'll know soon enough.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

About American Samoa

To start this off, I figured I should fill everyone in on the basics about where I'll be spending the next 2.5 months. I suppose you could go to Wikipedia and see all this and more, but I'll try to give a brief overview.

Located halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, American Samoa consists of the main Tutuila island and the 3 Manu'a islands (Ofu, Olsega, and Ta'u). It is an American territory, unlike the independent country of Western Samoa (50 miles to the norhwest). I will be living in a rented house near Pago Pago (pronounced "Pango Pango"), the capital city on Tutuila.

All of the islands are volcanic, and thus have some stunning mountain peaks and geology (example here). With a population of just over 65,000, the vast majority live on Tutuila while the Manu'a islands remain scarcely populated. Samoans have their own language (aptly named "Samoan") and are supposed to be extremely welcoming and friendly. When talking to people about my summer plans, the topic of how people arrived in such a remote location came up a few times. In response, I'll quote my guidebook (Lonely Planet):
"Samoans accept the scientific theory that most Polynesians migrated to the Pacific islands from Southeast Asia. They believe this applies to Maoris, Hawai'ians, Tongangs, Rarotongans, Easter Islanders and Tahitians...but not to themselves. Their land is the 'cradle of Polynesia'. Samoa, they say, was created by the god Tagaloa, and their story is remarkably similar to the account given by the Book of Genesis."
The Manu'a Islands are at the center of this creation story, possibly accounting for their currently pristine nature. I am looking forward to taking the quick plane ride over to Osu and Olosega for a weekend of hiking and exploring. I also hope to make a separate weekend trip to Western Samoa, which is supposed to be less Americanized and more rich in culture.

Tutuila, where I'll be spending most of the time, hosts a Tuna factory that can, on bad days, cause quite a stench in the Pago Pago harbor. There are also many restaurants, beautiful beaches, and even a few night clubs. Many villages are scattered across the island, connected by one main road that stretches along the island's southern coast and many smaller one-lane roads. There should be plenty of great hiking and snorkling to keep me occupied when I'm not busy on the research project. A 5km hiking trail stretches along the spine of the central Mount Alava, providing a gorgeous view of the island and surrounding ocean from the top.

I'm very excited to arrive in Samoa (I leave Burlington, VT next Wednesday and arrive in Samoa Thursday night, after traveling more than 7,000 miles. I urge everyone to post questions and comments on this blog. I'll do my best to get quick responses, though I'm not sure how steady or fast my Internet connection will be. I will also post pictures and provide links accordingly.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


This summer, I will be traveling to American Samoa to conduct research.  This blog will document my travels and allow me to stay in touch with everyone at once.