Monthly Archives: September 2010

Best Weekend Ever: Friday

This past weekend was so much fun that it’s taken me until Thursday to write about it.

On Friday our neighbor Alden invited us and a few other folks over to sample some homemade beer he’d brewed.  The beer was pretty good, but the most memorable thing about the evening was Alden’s skill as a host and chef.  He spent most of the evening in the kitchen cooking, and everything he made was incredibly tasty.

The highlight was simply called Filipino cured pork.  It didn’t start out looking very appetizing- just a frozen block of little pieces of raw, marinated pork meat and fat in a big ziplock bag.  He put it in a frying pan with some water and half an hour later our minds were blown.  Imagine thick chunks of barbecued bacon, crispy on the edges, tender in the middle, a little bit sweet, slightly tangy.  Sounds good, right?  It was better than that.  The Nobel Prize Committee needs to create a new category for the Filipino grandma who makes this stuff for Alden.  I’m a little tempted to start a new blog that’s just about how delicious Filipino cured pork is, but a thousand poets writing for a thousand years could not begin to describe the ecstasy.

And there were bats.  (No, we didn’t eat them, although that’s popular with some Samoans.)  Alden has a big cage outside his house with huge fruit bats living in it.  He’s a marine biologist specializing in sea turtles, but I got the impression that somehow rehabilitating injured bats is part of his job too.  Or it might just be a hobby.  One of the bats has been raised by humans since it was a newborn and is as cuddly as a housecat.  A housecat with two-foot-long leathery wings.


Best Weekend Ever: Saturday

On Saturday we went to the Coconut Point Pirate Raft Regatta.  Teams build rafts out of trash or whatever they can find and then race them around the end of Coconut Point.  There’s a $20 limit on materials.  Most teams spent it on duct tape.  Rafts made out of things that were designed to carry people on water aren’t technically allowed, but if you show up with three surfboards tied together no one is going to tell you to go home.  Also, pirate costumes.

First, teams assembled their rafts in Julia’s front yard.

Kevin and Charlie’s entry was based on four 55-gallon drums.  Their understanding of buoyancy was obvious.  Their sail-rigging ability was not.

The real problem with Adam’s team’s raft was that they had scientists, but no engineers.  Yes, the math says a sealed-shut garbage can will displace enough water to float three men, but would you trust this mess to get you anywhere?  It actually earned the dubious distinction of being the first-ever Pirate Regatta entry to fall completely apart while it was being carried to the water, before it even got wet.

Alden earned style points with his old-fashioned desert island design.

Jeremy and Brian’s craft was simple but seaworthy: garbage bags full of empty plastic bottles, a pallet, and an old fishing net to hold it together.  This raft won the ’09 Regatta and spent the year in the lagoon behind Julia’s house.  It even survived the tsunami!  All they had to do this year was drag it to the front yard and add some decoration.

A good-looking raft built by some solar panel engineers who wisely relied on wind power this day.  Accusations that they’d gone over budget were fiercely denied.  I suspect that when they said “found,” they meant “stole from work.”

This raft was dubbed the Swiss Navy.  One of its crew was from Switzerland and another was his uncle, a Peruvian who had gone to cooking school there.  Before the start of the race a lot of us thought they had a chance to win, but there’s a reason the Swiss never rivaled Britain and Spain on the high seas.  The knots they used were undone by the first few waves.  Eventually the crew had to use all their energy holding the raft together rather than paddling.

And they’re off!  …sort of.

Mary and I didn’t build a raft so I borrowed a kayak and followed the racers.  I knew some of the rafts were sure to disintegrate, and I was willing to lend a hand, but mostly I just wanted to see the destruction up close.

The first leg of the race was along the seaward side of Coconut Point, around the end and into Pala Lagoon.  First stop- Coconut Island, an island the size of a large dining room table, about 3/4 of a mile from the start.  Here we rested and made repairs.  There were serious talks about hydrodynamics, ocean currents, and the effect of salt water on duct tape.  Then Ashley and Lisa showed up in a kayak full of Jell-o shots.

Samoa Steve, Dr. Mike, and the back of my bandanna’d head on Coconut Island.

Since Steve is half Samoan it was appropriate that he plant the flag on the one tree on Coconut Island.  Also, he was the only one able to shimmy up it.

Eventually we started the second leg of the race, to Julia’s back yard on the other side of the point.  The impending darkness made everyone paddle a little harder.

Brian and Jeremy at the finish line, celebrating their second straight victory with Brian’s wife and daughter.

I towed the Swiss Navy part of the way back because instead of tying their raft back together on Coconut Island they drank their weight in Jell-O shots.  Left on their own they’d still be floating in the lagoon.  After I got them into the lee of the point, I ditched them and rescued this cooler.

Samoa Steve taking second place overall and first place in the solo category.  The only other solo contestant was Alden, who, in true pirate fashion, was slowed down by the large bottle of rum on his raft.  He didn’t seem too upset, though.

Everyone somehow made it back safely so there was cause to celebrate.

Captain Charlie is trying his hardest, but two-time champion Jeremy doesn’t seem very impressed.

Did someone give rum to the dog?

Best Weekend Ever: Sunday

EDIT:  Somehow, when I originally wrote this, I thought we had been in Fagasa.  We were actually at Amalau, another, smaller village on the north side of the island.  It may not matter for those of you who will never visit American Samoa, but I apologize for the mistake.  The text has been corrected.

After the events of Friday and Saturday we truly needed a day of rest.  Our choices for the afternoon were watching movies on the couch or going to Amalau, a remote beach on the north side of the island. What would you do?

The chief of the the tiny village of Amalau was very generous about letting us use the beach and the village’s fale (traditional Samoan houses).

Very few people on Tutuila actually live in fale anymore, but many families keep one in their yard.  Fale are still used as dwellings on the smaller islands and in the Nation of Samoa (also known as Western Samoa- it has the same culture and language but has been an independent country since 1962).  There are two basic types of fale on Tutuila.  The kind you see here would probably be used for family gatherings, picnics, a guest room, or just a nice place to take a nap on a hot afternoon.  Bigger and fancier fale are used for large gatherings and ceremonies.

Charlie, Alexander and Genoveva went scuba diving.  That’s something I’d love to try, but Amalau isn’t a good place to learn.  The current was so strong that I had to give up on snorkeling after only a few minutes.

Alexander telling Numa, First Mate in the Swiss Navy, about his dive.

Since I couldn’t snorkel, I just enjoyed the view.

Kids are funny

Today in 3rd/4th grade P.E. I split the kids up into teams for soccer and told them to choose team names while I set up the cones and nets.  One team very nearly chose The Evil Alligators but at the last minute changed their minds and decided to be The Easter Bunny.  Their opponents were The Justin Bieber Fan Club.

Alexander’s photos

Alexander gave me a cool gift this week:  two discs containing hundreds of photos he’s taken here in in American Samoa.  He takes more pictures than I do and he’s a great photographer.

A good view of our neighborhood, taken from Alexander’s front door:

The dog in the foreground (Suka) and the one in the back (Mele) are the friendliest dogs on our street, and the “alpha dogs” of our neighborhood pack.  There are a few mean dogs on our street but Suka and Mele chase them away if they catch them in our yard or if they bark at us when we’re walking.

Some pictures from ‘Aunu’u:

Taro plantation on ‘Aunu’u:

‘Aunu’u power plant:

This boat seems to be floating on air:

Here’s an amazingly detailed view of Pago Pago Harbor using the panoramic feature on Alexander’s camera.  Click on it for the full-size version.  It may take a while to load, depending on your connection speed.

A church in (I think) Utulei:

A typical Samoan bus:

These buses are everywhere and are a great way to get around.  They don’t have a schedule or much of a fixed route; they have the name of their home village in the front window and go back and forth between that village and Pago Pago.  You pay the fare when you get off based on how far you’ve gone.  Short rides are $1 and you can get from one end of the island to the other for less than $4.  All the buses have booming stereo systems- you hear them before you see them.

The Samoan word for these buses is aiga, which is also the word for family.  I don’t know if the call them that because they’re family-owned or because people sit on each other’s laps when the bus gets crowded.

Faga’alu Park about to get rained on:

Rainmaker Mountain is the one you can’t see behind the rain in this photo.  Something about its shape and location causes any passing cloud to pour down onto the island.

These pictures were taken within two blocks of our house:

The Story of a Truck

One day in 1995, a new pickup rolled off the line at the Toyota factory.  It was identical to thousands of others, shining peacefully in the Japanese sun, but in its heart beat the spirit of true adventure.  Neither the mean streets of Tokyo nor the dusty backroads of Texas would satisfy its longing to be pushed to its very limits.

Being driven onto the cargo ship, its engine revved with anticipation.  The South Pacific!  In American Samoa it would find the true test of truckular fortitude: gaping potholes, salty air, water up to its oil pan, scarce parts, inept mechanics, and a series of palagi owners whose short-term contracts meant that next year it was someone else’s problem, so no, that $800 repair isn’t necessary, just patch it up so it’ll run for another few months.

These hardships took their toll.  Under the hood, where steel bolts once held things tight, there was now an alarming amount of rope.  Rust crept through the floor until the seat was no longer attached to anything, and would slide forward if the brakes (still working, miraculously) were pressed too forcefully.   The engineers at Toyota never anticipated the beating its sheet metal would endure, but they had made a four-cylinder engine that could not be destroyed by conventional weapons.  Our hero rolled on, somewhat more bumpily and squeakily.

One day someone removed the seat belts.  Why?  Had it become obvious that they were mere placebos, that they gave a dangerously false sense of security?  Better not to feel swaddled safely in place when careering down a steep, twisty mountain road.  Better to understand that this truck had had enough!  Only a fool would tie himself to a machine that has endured such abuse at the hands of its drivers!

In February of 2010, insult was added to injury.  Some fun-loving palagis, bored or drunk or both, covered the drab (yet stately) green paint with red, yellow, and gold.  The truck was now a mobile corned beef can, to be used as a float in a Mardi Gras parade!

(Interesting linguistic note:  The Samoan word for corned beef in a can is pisupo.  When Americans first brought canned food to the islands, pea soup was the most plentiful and popular item.  Soon all food in a metal can was called pisupo.  Later the term became specific to corned beef, which Samoans love dearly.  How and why did this happen?  Who knows?  Why is it that in Britain, cars drive on tarmac and airplanes land on asphalt, while in America it’s the other way around, even though the paving material is exactly the same in both places?)

The once-proud truck could no longer putter along unnoticed.  The eye of the bystander was now drawn to the garish adornment, but lingered on the vehicle’s decrepitude.  Embarrassed, it became like a petulant child with a bad haircut:  “I don’t want to be seen like this,” it seemed to cry. “You can’t make me go anywhere!”  It soon preferred hanging around the mechanic’s shop with the other “bad” vehicles.

This is the condition in which Pisupo Truck was handed down to me.  Much time, money, and emotional energy has been spent exorcising the gremlins haunting its electrical wiring (some misguided soul installed and later removed a huge stereo system, leaving bare wires everywhere).   I would like to think I’ve won its affections; I’ve driven it three days in a row now without incident.  Will I proudly drive it for the next year, more curator than owner, until the next dupe with a one-year employment contract comes along?  Or perhaps lovingly restore it to its former glory?

Did you see the “For Sale” sign in the back window?

PUPPY! and school, and snorkeling

So we have a puppy now.  Temporarily, I hope.  We know some people who are involved with the American Samoa Humane Society, and they asked us if we’d be interested in puppy foster care.  After seeing that face, how could we say no?

She’s very good at doing puppy stuff- chewing on everything, pooping everywhere, and whining in the middle of the night.  But I really miss my dog back home so it’s nice to have the little gal around.  Soon she’ll go to her permanent home and be someone’s pet (and hopefully be spayed) instead of becoming the vicious, disease-ridden feral dog she was destined to be until someone pulled her out of a drainage culvert and brought her to our house.  It’s tempting to just get a dog of our own since it’s hard not to feel sorry for them, but I think we’ll end up fostering a series of puppies.  We can do more good that way as well as avoid the serious hassle of bringing a dog back home when we leave.

I’ve survived my first week of teaching PE.  It’s been fun, stressful, rewarding, aggravating, fascinating.  I’d forgotten how much kids like to argue with each other.  They’ve all started calling me “Coach” for some reason, which is pretty cool.

Part of the challenge the first few days was getting the kids to understand that although PE is in the same place as recess, and I supervise recess, PE is not recess.  It was a little easier after I described a fun game called “Push-ups and Wind Sprints.”  Once the kids and I get to know each other I hope I can keep the drill sergeant act to a minimum.  The school’s expectation for PE is just that the kids have fun and get exercise without getting hurt.  Easy, right?

Sorry I haven’t added any pretty pictures for a while.  I’ve been going interesting places and seeing things I’d love to have pictures of, but our camera would get soaked, smashed, or both.  Last weekend I went to Nu’uuli Falls again.  It was just as great as the first time but the camera would never have made it back.

On Labor Day we went to Airport Beach.  The beach itself isn’t very impressive-  about 50 square feet of sand 50 feet from an airport runway.  No shade, no bar- just sun, sand, water, and airplane noise.

Why go there?  The reef.  I’d never snorkeled before coming to American Samoa, so I don’t have much to compare it to, but it’s indescribably beautiful.  It’s like swimming in a Jacques Cousteau film.  The coral blooms red and purple and the the millions of fish look like  a paint store exploded.  I felt like I was on another planet.

Since I don’t have an underwater camera, you should visit these links:

No, seriously, go look at those pictures.

I haven’t seen any whales or turtles yet, but the other stuff…  I saw those pictures before we came here, and it seemed wonderfully exotic (which it still does, because it is) and now I can walk twenty minutes from my house and stick my head underwater and see exactly what you see in those pictures.  We’re literally surrounded by one of the healthiest and most diverse coral reef systems on the planet.  It still doesn’t seem real.