Sunday, April 22, 2007

American Samoa Flag Day-April 17, 2007

Tuesday, April 17 was Flag Day here in American Samoa. It is a commemoration of American Samoa becoming a U.S. Territory on that day in 1900. Everyone here describes it as “like the fourth of July” but like the “anti-Independence” version. And, sadly, there are no fireworks, which I had secret hopes for-envisioning fireworks blazing over the South Pacific.

For Flag Day, the country usually gets two days off-the day of and the day after. Why pray tell, wouldn’t you get the Monday before the holiday, making it a four day weekend? Well . . . nobody knows, or at least nobody that I know. Maybe because you need the day after to recover from celebrating too much? Or as one person surmised, Monday (a payday) was already an unofficial day off for “Check Cashing” day by most employees. The lines at the bank can take all day to queue here in AS. Thank the lord for automatic deposit.

The weekend before Flag Day there was a Samoan Performing Arts Festival on the downtown Pago stage. It was in the evening, which sounded like just the ticket.

Especially, compared to the all day, bake in the sun, end up in the hospital passed out, dance/singing performances in the Football Stadium the day of Flag Day. There are some nice photos of the dancing at the stadium from the Samoa News: Samoana H.S., Leone, PolyTech H.S., Fagaitua H.S., and Manua’a H.S.

The groups are from villages, churches and schools. The dancers are men and women, the performers both dancing and singing. They are accompanied by their own village musicians playing everything from CD players, to wooden standing drums, to guitars, to Vailima bottles, to conch shells.
The performance is almost always a story, unfortunately all of which was lost on us, as it is in Samoan. The dance is large on hand gestures, sitting dances and group interplays. The men will sing, then the women, then everyone all together. Samoans have some of the most beautiful singing voices I’ve ever heard and they are (almost) always on key.

Flag day itself is slated mostly for activities at the Stadium, with the morning heavy on speeches from every single important person in the country, the Fono (think of this as the Senate or Parliament) and the Governor. Again, we decided to skip this, especially as it would all be in Samoan.

Wednesday was boat race day. The boats are called Fautasi. There are 45 crew members and a captain. They are about 92 feet long. It seemed these boats are only pulled out on Flag Day. These boats were traditionally used for long treks over the ocean. The teams don’t practice all year round. When I got here in February the teams were just forming and starting to practice. As the day got closer we were able to watch the local teams practice in the harbor in the evening from our house. The hills would echo around our hillside with their “HO, HO!” The last week or so the local team was even getting up to practice in the early morning in addition to their evening practice.

There are two courses for the boats that are dependent on the weather. If the water is choppy, the course is 3 miles; if it is calm, it’s 7 miles. The thing is, they have to row out and then they race back in. The morning of the race it was flat as glass-perfect for the long race. The Coast Guard was in town and provided escort for the boats. You can see their ship in the background in a few of the photos.

The race was scheduled to begin at 8am. I always get up early these days, literally at the cocks crow (thank you multiple neighborhood roosters). I saw them going out at 6:30 am! Apparently, they were so excited to be done, they started early.

The race was both televised and on the radio. We couldn’t get the radio tuned and don’t have a t.v., but we knew the race had started when the groups at the boathouses and our neighbors out in the yards all cheered. There was various cheering in response to the action on the water, as we sat waiting with binoculars for the boats to come in.

The thing with such a long course is you don’t get to see it start to finish! We finally saw the boats coming in and there was one sure winner that was far ahead of the others. Two other boats came in soon afterwards. And then one after another, the boats made it back to shore. We walked down to the waterfront to get a closer look and then one sad boat made it back in half an hour after the first boat.

They looked like young kids and I felt sorry for the underdogs. I was told afterwards it was The McDonald’s boat—hmmm, less MickeyDs and a little more McRowing! I was also informed that many of the boats were heavy on teens because last years winning team was a high school. According to some, this strategy backfired for the teams. What was the winning prize? $10,000 to the winning team! It will go to the village but I was told it will also pay for a good party or two as well.

Our friend Mark was on his way to the race and pulled over when he saw the winning team coming in and got some great shots that he’s letting me use for the blog. Thanks Mark!

It was a nice couple of days getting to see the Samoan culture. For fireworks though, I guess I’ll just have to come home.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Markus' Big Day

Markus turned another year older last weekend. He had a weeklong birthday. Here is the Emperor and his new clothes, throne, septer, and mead and underwater breathing devices. What more can a Royal ask for? His first present?

A broom! I had been holding out on getting a normal broom despite his pleas as I’d purchased my authentic Samoan broom (pictured here-isn't it pretty?) and by gosh we were gona use it. Apparently, this authentic Samoan experience was lost on Markus in particular as he was trying to sweep up salt and shards of glass off the kitchen floor when, once again, I’d not screwed the top back on the salt shaker because the salt gets all clumpy here and in the humidity expands into “super salt” no matter how many crackers, rice, etc. is added.

Ok. So I didn't just get him a broom . . . Markus also got a nice leather office chair as he spends most of his days at home in front of the computer “working”, i.e. planning his next dive, playing with the Geeko GPS from Andrew, taking Einstein to the beach . . . I figured his body heat would keep the mold on the leather at a tolerable level.

I had a formal male lava-lava made for Markus, which he was ecstatic about. This from the guy that was telling me he’d wear a man-skirt over his dead body only a month ago. He especially enjoyed having something tailor-made especially for him. There’s nothing like having all the attention of someone about to make clothes that will only ever fit you perfectly. Most people here have their clothes tailor-made.

In a present in which I will benefit greatly, Mr. Beer made his debut at our house. I’d tried my best to encourage Markus to bring his beer making supplies to Samoa. For some reason he wasn’t obliging. I couldn’t understand this because he was considerably less optimistic than myself about the beer situation here, even when I read about Samoan’s own beer, Valima. “Listen! The guidebook says it’s good.” To which he had responded with a disbelieving wag of the head.

And, unfortunately, he was right. His reasons for not bringing brewing supplies has to do with little issues of supply of hops and brewing temperatures and blah, blah, blah, excuses, excuses.

After a month of limping along with an occasional $3 canned Guinness, Markus was as happy to welcome Mr.Beer into the house as I. This beer kit has my hopes very high, despite the plastic bottles, the prepackaged mix and the plethora of Mr. Beer stickers supplied in the kit.

Markus promptly applied the Mr.Beer stickers to his NEW TANKS. Markus was nearly rapturous when he found an industrial diver (welding, etc.) that was selling his recently certified used-tanks. This meant he didn’t have to pay $600 in shipping for $100 tanks from the mainland and he could start diving right away without having to be a tank burden to his diving buddies (yes, he’s here one month and he has dive buddies). The tanks need to be uniformly marked for reconcilability when they are taken in for refills so Markus used Mr. Beer stickers to demark his tanks. I think he’s hoping that they will come back filled with beer.
I also arranged with his buddies a dive on his birthday.

Afterwards we went to Larson’s beach with what ended up being like 30 palagis (not there for his birthday but in some out of hand word-of-mouth meet up had all decided to go to the same place). You can see more pics at the Coletti's blog from which I borrowed this picture-thanks guys. I nearly killed myself snorkeling outside of the reef with three other snorkelers. The people back at the beach were fearing we would never return. We had to go through this insane alley in the reef and the wave break was, shall we say, impressive that day. We all had a good swim once outside, the others saw jellyfish and a school of squid. I unfortunately, saw my imminent demise and was happy when we headed back. And then, once I saw the sets coming in one after the other which I would have to time to SWIM, SWIM, SWIM between into the narrow channel which you couldn’t see until you were in it, and which was bordered by coral reef with maybe two inches of water on top (when there was a wave). I decided maybe becoming a mermaid could be a logical change of profession.

I did eventually make it back, blood trickling down my coral chewed legs. Those back at the beach seemed genuinely glad to see we were alive, I think they were not looking forward to going out there and hauling our lifeless bodies back to shore.

Afterwards, we had a fine dining experience at Checkers, well more accurately, in the Forester after ordering from the take out window. Ok, you might poo-poo the culinary attributes of a place that’s entire fast food them is based around NASCAR. But I’ll have you know that burger’s with fresh lettuce, tomatoes (for Markus) and red onions are a rare treat on this produce deprived lava rock.

For dessert, Markus was treated to a chocolate cake I’d made from coco-Samoa. In my pre-travel reading I’d learned that Samoa is known for it’s great cocoa. After I read this I immediately booked my flight. Unfortunately, processing of the cocoa bean seems to be a challenge in Samoa. The product is a semi ground up lump of cocoa beans poured into a Saran Wrap lined Styrofoam cup. If you use this for cooking or drinking you should like your cocoa crunchy, like eating coffee beans. Mmmm. I determined that this cocoa would be amazing if I could get it into powder form. And I was correct.

At the sacrifice of my coffee grinder that had it’s blade come off during the last grind (which healed nicely after some Gorilla Glue-all hail Gorilla Glue!), I was able to grind to powder this cocoa and made what was perhaps the best chocolate cake I’ve had, if I do say so myself. There wasn’t enough powder cocoa left for the frosting so I attempted with the semiground stuff. Mmmm crunchy frosting. We went without frosting. Markus blew out his tiki-torch candles, which had no representational value in the number of years he’s been around.

It was a good day.

I’m glad he was born.

Monday, April 2, 2007


Markus told me before we got to AS that he’d shaved his head in the past and would probably do so when we go here. This had me a little worried to say the least. Markus has good hair genes and a very full head of hair. What would he look like without it? My first reaction? “Uh, I don’t think so!”

But something strange happened as time went by. I conscientiously packed the shaver when we left.

Then I gradually I found myself thinking that if he insisted I would cope with the results just ONCE.

Then, about a week after Markus got here, these words were uttered by myself (with more than a little enthusiasm), “Hey! Do you want to shave your head? I’ll do it for you!”

After a week of sweltering heat, Markus was more than game for some internal air conditioning and with eyebrows raised at my fickle change of heart, powered up the clippers. He had so much hair and no oil for the blades so we were forced to use WD40. That stuff is good for EVERYTHING!

Markus reminisces frequently and fondly about a fresh coconut and rum drink he’d been treated to in Costa Rica (ya put da rum in da coconut . . . ) so he decided to try his hand at the Samoan version. Of course, coconuts are everywhere so he found one lying handly around. I had suggested Markus bring his machete from Costa Rica and with giant blade in hand, he started to open up the coconut.

Or tried. And tried. And with much persistence finally got inside.

Unfortunately, despite da rum it was not the fantasy drink he had desired.

Only afterwards did we decide to get online (the authentic island way of learning tropical living) to figure out how to open a coconut (pretty much how he’d done it) and why it didn’t taste the same. Apparently, it’s the green coconuts that have sweet water. And those are the ones still in the trees. Way up in the trees. Still attached. And up in the air. Darn.

Since leaving Sadie’s and my daily dose of fresh tuna and swordfish, I’d been on the look out for fresh fish to buy. I, of course, had no idea how I’d cook it; but I’ve got a Master’s Degree so I thought I’d be able to figure it out.

The market by our house finally had Fresh Fish (with tiny superscript “real” on the sign, begging the question of what “unreal” fresh fish would be). I courageously approached the pile of completely intact fish in the back of the store. I asked a Samoan couple what type of fish they were. They smiled, laughed and shrugged. They didn’t really know what they were either, but they pointed out which would be good pickins.

I decided to consult the internet first in my attempt at island living, I learned that this whole preparing fresh fish was quite the process. The first step was to determine if the fish needed scaling—this intricate process consisted of attempting to scale the fish-if scales came off then it needed to be scaled. Brilliant! Alas, my fish needed to be scaled. As I dulled my knife descaling my fish (I later learned the only way to do this horrendous job is with a spoon) and as the kitchen became shinny with scattered scales, I daydreamed of the days when I would go fishing with my stepfather, proudly reel in a wiggly one and then after some mysterious intermediary steps which I avoided like the plague, the fish would end up on my dinner plate.

After scaling, deheading (The head I dutifully put in a ziplock for the nurses at work as I’d sternly been instructed. “It’s the best part!” they’d exclaimed with lip-smacking enthusiasm.) defining, degutting, deboning, I finally had it fried up in an hour or so. A mere fraction of mass that had originally been a fish. I bleakly looked at the other, much bigger, fish that I had optimistically purchased, thought about getting it ready for a future dinner, saw scales shining in my hair and promptly threw the thing in the freezer. So much for fresh fish.

Another new experience has been kayaking. We’ve mostly got all the equipment figured out: seats, oars, oar leash, lifejacket, knee straps. We sorta have a way of getting it up into the kayak carriers. We are having a good time in the water. Well, until I get sea sick after over enthusiastically heading to the biggest waves thinking this time I’m going to try the surfing capabilities of my vessel. And then seeing the waves up close, sheepishly tell Markus, “Next time!” Around the time I realize I’m not going to surf and we are far from where we put in, my seasickness hits. Markus paddles within eyeshot as I paddle paddle, rest, try not to puke, try to fix my gaze, paddle, paddle, rest. Accept and then decline the offer for a tow. Of yeah! Good times. At these times I’m most aware of my mountain girlness.

We are also still working on our child dodging. That is-dodging all the eager children who gather round when we are coming out of the water and who want to “help” us with our “nice boats.” Our second trip out I brought my digital camera. I knew the ports in the boat were solidly waterproof and that I could keep it out of the water for shots. What I didn’t anticipate was Markus’ desire to save his boat from being dragged by seven year olds trying to help and earn a buck. Despite our pleas that we didn’t need help, “No thank you. We got it. No, that’s all right. It’s ok! NO! Put the boat DOWN!” the kids were insistent. I felt terrible but at the same time I felt like yelling, “Markus quick! Get the boats and runnnnnnn!” Unfortunately, Markus felt the same way and in his haste put my camera in the wet-box with all our wet gear.

This goofy picture of me wasn't really worth destroying my camera.

Our conversation that night went something like, “Should my camera be making that sizzling noise? Is the battery dead? Oh, my god the case is wet.” And the next day I took the whole thing apart in an attempt to clean it. It was caked with salt. An hour of painstaking cleaning with brushes and magnifier was fruitless. My beloved camera, salvaged for its display, battery and SD card (luckily I was able to save my pics) made it into the trash bin. Valiantly, Markus offered to replace my camera. Yeah! New camera for me!

The April Fools-No Joke

Earthquake in Solomon Islands Generates Tsunami Watch for the Territory
"The National Weather Service in American Samoa issued a tsunami watch for the territory around 11 a.m. Sunday morning, following an earthquake that occurred in the Solomon Islands. At 3 p.m. local time yesterday the watch for American Samoa was canceled, according to a bulletin issued by the National Weather Service Office in Pago Pago.”-Samoa News the day after the warning (4/2/07). BBC news on the tsunami in the Salomons.

This would have been invaluable to know before Markus and I went kayaking in the Pacific between 11:30-1:30 yesterday completely oblivious to the dangers. I went for a run earlier and came back to report “great waves out there” to Markus and that we should take advantage of their presence to try “surfing” our kayaks. Which of course when I was actually out there I chickened out on because, "they seem so much bigger out here than what they look like on shore" and "don't the waves seem big today?"

After more than a month of continuous 93 KHJ “Samoa’s #1 Hit Radio Station” (of two), yesterday, of all days, we listened to CDs in the car. Therefore, no emergency broadcast system (oh THAT’S what that thing is for!) for us. It was only after I went to work and the nurses said, “Hey! What do you think about the tsunami warning?” that I found out. Apparently, warnings for major life threatening events are left to the Coconut Telegraph! With my mouth agape and my eyes popping out of my head I asked why there hadn’t been a siren or something. “There should have been. They were doing drills for months now.” Great. And where were the cops patrolling the beach telling innocent people putting in their kayaks to run, dear lord, run for the highest ground?

So in order to do my part in the apparently hugley lacking emergency preparedness of American Samoa, I’ve designed a warning sign for the likes of people such as Markus and myself. Mmmm. . . good thing that hand cranked radio/flashlight is on it’s way from Sierra Trading Post due in any day . . . Oh, and Markus would like to ad that he “still contends” being in the middle of the ocean was the best place to be. Ok, dear.