Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ofu-Tropical Paradise

Ok, sure I live on a tropical island, but I would NOT go so far as to say it’s paradise. Luckily, paradise does exist a mere 20-minute, $146, plane ride to the east. To celebrate a three-day weekend, Markus and I ventured off the island. This was my first time off-island (now I really understand this term, best used in the following context, “Get me the heck off (this) island!”(Can you tell a little island fever is setting in after being here for four (yes, that’s right) months?) We headed to Ofu, one of the islands in the Manu'a group of American Samoa. Also listed in some travel guides as having one of the top ten beaches in the world. Oh, yeah!

Einstein, upon hearing our plane had propellers, opted to stay grounded and invited his friend Mark over to hang out and go to the beach. I suspect he needed “me” time. He seemed to have missed us some though when we got back.

We set off on Saturday morning instead of Friday after work, as the flights are less than flexible. We meet up with some friends at the airport and were in the air by 10 am. We had been forewarned about some crazy in-flight phenomena when the air was turned on. If I hadn’t been warned I would definitely have been in a panic kicking myself for not packing my pocket fire extinguisher “just in case.” Here’s a video so you can experience it firsthand.

The flight was fun because you could actually see our island from above. The flights in and out of Pago to Hawaii are at night so you don’t get to see where you’ve just moved to, when you come in.

We all broke out into applause when the plane managed to land on the tiny swath of dirt hacked out of the jungle that passes as a landing strip. O.K., actually, it’s a regular landing strip, just incredibly tiny and because you are in a tiny plane (which by the way is their “big” plane-the small one apparently has benches instead of seats) you can see the landing strip over the pilots shoulder.

We were greeted by the airport staff-who are also the Vaoto Lodge staff. At the lodge, we were shown our bungalow. Basic accommodations, but clean and the beds are comfortable. Oh, and your view is the ocean. We threw on our bathing suits and jumped into the ocean in front of the lodge. Later, we headed to the National Park Service of American Samoa beaches down the road to do the same thing.

The water was crystalline. You couldn’t believe you were in water. The picture of my feet is underwater! You could see fish swimming around you while bobbing in the water. I bought an Aquapac, which you are supposed to be able to take water shots with, but I wasn’t too skilled with it yet, but there are few fun pictures, just no underwater coral and fish.

The coral is so incredibly healthy. There are nice stands of coral around Tutuila but there is a lot of bleaching and coral death from a starfish invasion years ago. Oh and pollution and global warming probably hasn’t helped much. There is also very little perfect white beach sand in Tutuila, that’s because it’s all in Ofu. It is soft as powder and there are miles of it.

The view is fabulous with the unique mountains there. The place is barely inhabited and as it is untamed you can see why the place has a reputation for ghosts (aitu). Another visitor heard her voice being called from the forest. She said the island’s ghosts were said to only come out after noon, not in traditional night hauntings. I wondered if there was any coincidence in that heat stroke sets in around that time as well. Probably not.

There are few cars on island. Really, you can walk anywhere you want to go. I went running both days on the road, only being passed a couple of times. The lodge dogs accompanied me on my second day, viciously chasing the one or two trucks that dared to pass us.

We did hire the lodge truck for our adventure to “The Bridge”. In between Olosega and Ofu there is, yes you guessed it, a bridge. And this bridge is known for its jumping. Now, I am not a heights sort of person, so I swore I wasn’t going to jump off any darn bridge. One rum and coke, a little sun, and a whole lot of group encouragement and the next thing I know I am on a bridge, holding Markus’s hand and looking over the edge of a barrier meant to keep people on the other side of it. Here’s a video of the grand event. And great news, I’m not paralyzed from the waist down! Yippee. (the picture of the water we jumped into I stole (uh, hem borrowed) from Aaron.

I saw my first reef sharks after our adventure at the bridge. They were in very shallow water in front of the lodge. They were about four feet long and had black fins, none too surprisingly my field guide identifies it as Black Tip Reef Shark. It was exciting. I ran to get Markus, who immediately broke into a sprint, flinging backpack to the ground, and donning fins and mask in a running Superman-type change, flinging himself into the water, to see the sharks. Who immediately disappeared. Too bad. I was hoping to see some Ace Ventura action, “That’s NOT snowball!” I didn't get any pictures either.

As every review of a stay at Vaoto Lodge reports: the food rocks. Large helpings of comfort food. We brought a bunch of produce with us and they did us up good. Ooooooh, and the chocolate cake, I wish I’d eaten more.

The rest of the time was spent resting, reading, playing games (luckily we went with folks who can appreciate a lively game of Apples to Apples). The others, being young and able to stay up past 9pm enjoyed stargazing (when the skies are clear the stars are amazing) and skinny dipping. The boys were also able to rustle up a bonfire on the beach which, despite my cola, I was only able to enjoy for 10 minutes before I fell into a comatose state.

It was a great place to be. Multiple times I caught myself thinking, “I wish this was how life was on Tutuila.” I probably would go crazy with boredom but the idea of being on a virtually carless, garbageless, and cannery-less island is very appealing. Anyone who makes it to American Samoa to visit us, will get a free visit to Ofu from me, because after flying all the way here you can’t miss Ofu.

Here are a couple Ofu blogs from friends that went with: Weaver and Aaron.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


This is a test post from flickr, a fancy photo sharing thing.

National Park of American Samoa -Mt. Alava Trail

After a rough week that included some difficult deliveries, (another) bout of food poisoning, and unrelentingly heavy rain; Markus and I took advantage of a clear day and hiked the National Park of American Samoa Mt. Alava trail.
We’d tried this hike shortly after we got here and of course didn’t bring enough water. We turned back after getting (we now know) ¾ of the way to the end of the trail.

American Samoa is described in travel guides as a “serpentine” island. I had no idea what this meant until I got here. Now I think of the island as a giant sleeping dragon in the ocean, its jagged back creating a mountain range down the center of the curving island. The park follows this ridge through the rainforest and shows glimpses through dense foliage of the east side of the island—a side rarely seen as the only main road follows the opposite side of the island.

The trail is unrelenting, following the ridgeline in it’s ups and downs, as if you were walking up and down the spines of the dragon I described earlier. It was a really gorgeous day—cooler than usual having been raining so much, but the skies were clear blue and there was low humidity.

We made it to the end of the trail which is the abandoned remains of a cable car that was originally installed for maintenance of the radio towers on the mountain.

The cable car was decommissioned in the 90s (I think) when two jets peforming flying demonstrations during a celebration ran into them, sadely killing the pilots.

There is also a nice fale to rest in and (had we been better outfitted) eat lunch.

The view from up here is fabulous—you can see
Pago Pago

IBM Beach

Rainmaker Mountain

The Harbor

Our house

The mountainside is just beautiful. Tree ferns, flowers, banyon trees. There are few critters up there but you do see doves, lizards and some pheasant type of bird that Einstein likes to chase.

The trail is very muddy and slippery as it always rains here, especially in the mountaintops. Markus almost wore his Tevas but luckily with a weary “yes, dear” “changed” his mind.

Overall the hike took us 3 ½ hours with a ½ hour rest brake at the fale.

There’s a continuation of the trail from the fale down the other side of the mountain to Vatia. Apparently, some people walk one way to Vatia and then are met by friends or take a bus back. I think this will be our next approach to the trail.

There are more photos on my Flickr account if you'd like to check them out.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Fire Knife Dancing

If any of you have seen a Polynesian dance review I’m sure you have seen a display of Fire Knife Dancing. Young men dance to a trible drum beat banged out on biscuit tins while twirling, throwing and balancing flaming knife blades.

This is a dance that was begun in American Samoa. Surprisingly it wasn’t an age old Samoan tradition but is a recent invention by the now deceased Freddie Letuli. In the 1940s, while performing Polynesian dance at a Shriner’s convention in San Francisco he came up with the idea, you can check out this direct quote of his experience.

He designed the dance to incorporate certain types of moves, regulating competition to require safety features, knife and fuel specifications, and costume requirements. The competitions are held in Hawaii, American and Independent Samoa.

The Flaming Sword of Samoa-American Samoa World Fireknife Competition was last weekend. Most impressive is there very scarey graphic of a Fire Knife Dancer that is something similiar to an Ork from Lord of the Rings-yikes. There is both a Junior and Senior division-it was pretty cool to see Junior High kids doing this. Though we had to wait a long time on concrete bleachers for the dancing to start, I was pretty impressed. Initially, I was a little nonplused to see that we were sitting directly behind a chain-link fence obscuring the view, until Jay pointed out that sharp knives with fire were going to be hurtled through the air. Suddenly I was not too concerned, and in fact, grateful for the fence.

Here are a few videos of the competition. There are more on my new utube website if you’d like to check them out. If you’d like to learn this at home feel free to invest in knives that you can buy online for a couple hundred bucks-just don’t burn down your home. There are good guidelines for learning Fire Knife Dancing by this American Samoan Fire Knife organization (for example learning your moves with a broomstick before using flaming, sharp things-brilliant!). Once all of you have it down we will start our own stateside Palagi Fire Knife Dancing Troup and tour the world.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Kiki vs. Cockroach

When we moved here I was worried about the creepy crawlies and scurrying critters that the island is known for. You know, cockroaches, giant spiders (like these I discovered in my hotel room at Sadies-supposedly harmless-hmmm), and mice and rats.

Tales of giant radioactively mutated roaches, mice jumping out of pantries, aiming directly for one’s jugular (or pooping in sinks) had me a little nervous, making me wonder if I could handle the nasties that come with tropical living. Geckos do not make this category and would be actively encouraged to make themselves at home despite their gecko poo.

I decided that what I needed was a hunter, something that would keep the critters at a tolerable level. Probably of the feline persuasion. Those of you that knew me before American Samoa know that I have a cat, Jasper. Unfortunately, I felt that Jasper was too delicate for Island living and left him in the good hands of the DelCarlo/McNames Clan. This was a good match as apparently, he is the only living domesticated animal that James McNames isn’t horribly allergic to. Now, Pearl and Reed have a pet, the only pet they could ever have and Jasper continues to be the King of the Realm. I couldn’t have counted on his killer instinct anyway. Ok, maybe this photo isn't a fair depiction of Japser as I had drugged him to prevent him from driving me to Catacide with his Siamese meow on a 5 hour car trip from Ashland to Portland, but I think you can still tell he's a delicate kitty.

Of course there is Einstein, but I think Einstein’s sensibilities are above roach wrangling and rat patrol. Though, we have found he is very fond of Toad hunting in the grass out front. It's hilarious watching him spring backwards every time it jumps in the air.

When Markus got here he promised me that I could get a kitten, but that I would have to wait for his birthday. I thought this was an interesting concept. He still has not explained why this was the day he chose. Now those of you that know Einstein, know he has OCD when it comes to cats. He will stare at a cat non-stop for hours if allowed and if they run he’s literally on their tail. Markus made me no promises that Einstein wouldn’t eat the kitten (and in fact since we’ve had her has actively encouraged such behavior, though Einstein, ultimately being a good boy has declined).

So a couple of days after Markus’ birthday a kitten came to stay. She is very tiny and in fact fits in Markus’ shirt pocket.

Markus doesn’t let on, but he is growing very fond of the kitten, even having such things to say when I get home from work as, “Oh they (the cat and dog) were so cute lying together, but I didn’t want to disturb them and take a picture.” Ahhhh . . . .

As I had brought the kitten on as a working pet, I wanted a name that would describe her anticipated profession. We finally settled on Titina. This is Samoan for “Killer/ Strangler”. T’s are sometimes pronounced with a k sound, as in this case. Titina’s name is pronounced Kikina, kiki for short.

She’s yet to make her first kill, though I have high hopes as she often goes after rocks with a ferociousness to be reckoned with. She’s ravenous, demanding to be fed every two hours, I figure if we can eventually build up a resistance to her persistent kitten meowing and keep her from the Deli Cat, she’ll have to earn her keep. Interestingly, even before Titina I never came across one roach, mouse, rat or other critter at the house, but don’t tell Markus. ****UPDATE****Since I've written Titina seems to have fulfilled her destiny and has taken down her first giant cockroach. Now all I have to do is teach her how to dispose of it afterwards . . .