Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Earthquake, Day 2

7:00 p.m.
As I was uploading this morning's post, I received a text from Joey 81, who often works with Samoan Red Cross. They were looking for volunteers to go work in affected villages on the south side of the island. With school canceled, I had nothing better to do. I asked Joey if I should bring anything. He said I should wear shoes. Good call, Joey.

At the Red Cross building a thousand different people were doing a thousand different things. Some filled water containers with a hose, some were painting makeshift banners to affix to the hoods of volunteers' cars, some were trying to figure out what to do about donated clothes and groceries. I found my friend Ruane, who drove a Toyota pickup truck. We loaded it with nineteen 20-gallon water containers, went to her house to fill them (since there was only one hose at the Red Cross), and then headed out to Lalomanu.

There have been reports coming in from lots of sources about the damage to villages along the south coast. Saleilua took quite a hit. Salesatele was reeling. Many resorts including Sinalei, Coconuts, Vavau, Iliili, and Sea Breeze had taken hits hard enough to put them temporarily out of business. Beach fales in Tafitoala and Saleapaga and Lalomanu were leveled. We'd heard about all this.

But nothing is more sobering than driving through a familiar village and finding it unrecognizable. The Faofao Beach Fales are gone. There's nothing there. The building is leveled, the fales themselves have been swept away. I only knew we were there because of the newly installed speed bump. In fact, Ruane, who's never stopped at Faofao, was the one who said, "I those were beach fales there." I had no idea.

Arriving at the hospital in Lalomanu, which had been setup as the Red Cross headquarters, we quickly learned the first two steps of disaster relief:
  1. Distribute water to the survivors; and
  2. Locate those who didn't survive.
The camp had enough water, so we drove a little farther up the eastern coast to Saleaaumua. A Senior Red Cross Volunteer, Opi, hopped in the backseat. His method of distribution seemed fairly simple: When people ask for water, give it to them. With the Red Cross logo on the front of the car, people would walk up or stop us on the road and ask for a container. And then we'd stop, hop out, and give them water. Done and done.

We turned and went back to the hospital when we were out of water. There, we were assigned to go down to Lalomanu tai to help with "clean-up" efforts. We later found out this was a euphemism for picking through rubble searching for the deceased.

Searching for the dead is difficult in many different ways. Most rubble is heavy and haphazard and jagged. Sifting through, lifting and dropping, and finding footholds is strenuous, and Samoan humidity doesn't help. The scene is surreal. Dead fish, left behind by the ocean, litter the affected area. And then there’s the emotional leap (repression?) required to look for dead bodies.

More than anything though, I felt like an intruder. Before the earthquake, I'd driven by the area we searched many times, but never did I stop to search the family’s possessions or prod through their kitchen. And yet there I was today, finding family photos and Quiksilver baseball caps and notebooks and aquatic charts and condoms and novels and gin. 2 days ago, it would have been completely unacceptable for me to trudge into these peoples’ lives; it’s as though with the loss brought on by the tsunami comes the loss of one’s dignity. I felt like I was snooping.

While we were there, 4 bodies were found in the ocean, and 1 very small body was found in the rubble. The mood was somber, but it was also numb and surreal.

Briony and I had a conversation last night about the disparity between our situation in which we felt a little rumble yesterday morning, losing nothing, and the horrible situation of the people who live 20 miles away, who lost everything. It’s a difficult situation to reconcile.

In any case, my school is closed for the rest of the week. I’ve heard about a possible meeting at the Peace Corps tomorrow morning to discuss relief-related efforts. And I’ll probably head out to the south coast again.

Pictures below. Previous posts before that. Happy birthday, Chris!

Cement house torn down.

Submerged, capsized car.

Saleapaga Elementary School was pretty devastated. There's a gate with no fence.

Chunks of the street missing.

Fale with only 2 poles remaining. Roof and remaining poles gone.

Mormon Church (famous in Samoa for being built to American construction codes) crushed.

Beached boat.

This house in Vailoa has words spray-painted on the walls that read, "We're Still Thugging" and "RIP All Y'all. Life Goes On."

There were a bunch of photos on the dashboard of this car.

Volunteers combing the beach with sticks, poking the sand, looking for bodies.

This family is wading around a submerged van.

8:15 a.m.
Sirens went off just before 5:30 p.m. yesterday as I was walking home from Mulivae. It was a repeat of yesterday morning watching cars rush up the mountain while (albeit less dense) crowds started up the sidewalks. Shortly after the evacuation began, the Peace Corps sent out a message saying it had been canceled. But standing on the Cross Island Road watching car after car move uphill and family after family carrying suitcases, I figured it might be foolish to stay at my house.

I headed up to Blakey and Briony’s house and slept on their living room floor.

Schools in Apia are canceled today, although staff is supposed to show up anyway. When I showed up late this morning, the only two staff members present were Renita and me.

There are some efforts by Peace Corps Volunteers to setup some sort of information post where we can update each other and fill in gaps in information. We’re also looking into relief efforts and ways people overseas can help, as I hear about them, I will let you know. In the mean time, the NZ Red Cross is taking donations specifically for the Samoan Red Cross.

Tourists and Apia natives climb the hill.

This family packed bags for the night.

Fire Department moving to higher ground.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


4:15 p.m.
I just talked to Asolima and she said Fausaga is okay. They have a marshy inlet that separates the village from the ocean, so it was able to blunt the effects of the rising tide. Nonetheless, many of the families have retreated inland to the more elevated maumaga. As I was on the phone with Asolima, she said the radio was broadcasting new tsunami warnings and they would probably head up the mountain once more. She added they'd probably sleep there.

Much of Fausaga's neighboring village, Tafitoala, sits along the ocean and was badly hit. Much of the Tafitoala Beach Fales have been wiped out as well as a bunch of the other houses along the beach. Neighboring beach resorts, including Sinalei and Coconuts, were also badly hit.

Koa is fine. He lives on the north side of the island and everything in his village is mostly back to normal. Supy evacuated with Dan and Paul and spent the morning drinking niu. He said the water level rose, but his village came through unharmed. Phil lives right on the water, but said the water didn't come onto land. Paul and Dan's village suffered minor damage, and a woman reportedly died from a heart attack.

I've heard Erin's village may have seen a 20-foot wave. That estimate is based on boats lying 200 meters inland. The secondary school in her village collapsed.

I'll post more when I hear more.

1:30 p.m.
The tsunami warning was cleared around 11:45 a.m. By then I'd walked up to Blakey's. After the all clear, we caught a ride back down the hill along with Briony and Jenny. Apia is all shut down. Schools are closed. Restaurants are closed.

News is sketchy. It sounds like the south, and particularly the southeast, parts of Upolu were most affected. It's difficult to know whether the damage was caused by the quake itself or the subsequent rising water levels. I've also heard the number of fatalities is 14, although it was unclear if that was for Samoa or American Samoa.

Erica 80, who lives down there, thinks she lost her house. Blakey talked to Erin 81, who hadn't been back to her house since the quake, but thought were house would probably be okay. That said, she said one of her year 5s died.

I have not heard any news about Matt 79, but he lives on the southwestern side of the island, which seems unaffected. From what I've heard, all Savai'i volunteers are fine.

News from Fausaga has been slow to come in. I received a text message from my Host Sister Asolima this morning asking if I was okay, but she didn't respond when I texted back. More on the host village (and neighboring Tafitoala, Jordan) when I hear back.

Most shocking to me is how strong the earthquake was for me and that I was on the far side of the island from the epicenter.

Pictures of this morning's evacuation below. Earlier posts below that.

The sidewalks of the Cross Island Road were filled with people hiking uphill. The road itself became a one-way two-lane road uphill.

Cars driving under banners reminding drivers of the 3-week old Road Switch.

Me standing with year 13s.

Flatbed trucks were used to cart loads of people uphill.

8:41 a.m.
Most of Apia evacuated to higher ground. Uphill roads became one-way highways for cars and buses, but most of us just walked. Tsunami sirens blared across Apia. Church bells rang. My school rang its bell. The Peace Corps sent out mass text messages, which they followed up with phone calls to make sure everyone was heading inland.

I walked with a couple girls from my 11.3 class and held an impromptu geology lesson.

There was much confusion as to where we were supposed t go and where we could stop. Students asked me where we were going, and I could only tell them we were going “Up.” A couple teachers also asked me. “I was following you,” I said.

Eventually I setup camp with a bunch of year 13s where we had plain sight of the ocean. We hung out in the shade, and my cell phone got passed around.

After about an hour some people started heading back downhill, but most of us stayed in place. I wanted to get clear word from the Peace Corps before I left. And then I did.

It’s unclear what this means for the rest of the school day. Since there’s no articulated evacuation point, students and staff were strewn across multiple villages and it seems impossible for us all to come back and spend the rest of the day as normally scheduled.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

6:58 a.m.
USGS is calling it an 8.0.

6:57 a.m.
About 8 minutes ago, we just had a big earthquake. Big. No information yet on the exact magnitude, but it was quite long and certainly big enough to knock over stuff around my house. I'm guessing it was at least a 6.0 on account of the stuff flying about. About 40 seconds in, I grabbed my laptop because I was afraid the cinderblock shelf was going to fall on top of it. The quake went on and on and on to the point it felt like it was continuously shaking into the aftershock phase. And we've had a couple aftershocks already.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Coconut Lady

The first time I visited my house, I was told that the stable next door was owned by the church and leased to a family who sells coconuts out of the empty lot in front. Every day of the week except Sunday, the Coconut Lady, as I affectionately call her, sits in the shade waiting for customers, who drive through the school compound past a small gate in the very back. Living next to a coconut wholesaler is a unique experience.

When I lived in Pasadena, I lived on the fourth floor of my apartment building, which was across the street from a Houston’s Steakhouse. This was a cruel setup. The smell of smoked ribs so mouthwatering, my wallet so unable to accommodate. In San Francisco we lived across the street from a burrito shop that made the SF Chronicle’s list of “Best meals in town for under $10.” I think all of us gained 15 pounds in the first 2 months.

As far as I can tell, the coconuts are not sold for human consumption. Most humans are not interested in coconuts by the 100-count. Also, many of the coconuts are sprouting small seedlings. Phil pointed this out. I’ve come to believe the coconuts are mostly sold as pig feed.

Apparently the people that used to sell the coconuts lived in my house. This explains the barrage of confused customers who knock on my door, on occasion, looking for the Coconut Lady. I apologize in broken Samoan and suggest that if they wait a couple minutes, the Coconut Lady will most likely return promptly.

The real joy of living next door is the sounds. A couple times a week, the delivery truck shows up with new coconuts—my neighbor Maengi tells me the coconuts are collected from the Malua coconut plantation. The oversized truck is filled to capacity with coconuts which are unloaded by hand.

This afternoon Cale asked, “Is that a bowling alley next door?”

It’s true. The coconuts are unloaded from the back of the truck to the front, and as the ones nearer to the cab are unloaded, the truck bed becomes a bowling lane for bowling ball after bowling ball. The coconut falling into the pile supplies the complementary sound of clattering pins.

The process of unloading the truck takes roughly 45 minutes, and I’ve grown so used to it, I barely hear it anymore. In fact, this afternoon I hadn’t noticed it until Cale pointed it out. Occasionally the truck comes just after dawn and I awake to the rumbling tropical bowling alley. It’s less than ideal, but there are worse noises to wake up to. I’ve been known to spring from bed to hurl rocks at impolite rooster, but I’ve never felt such animosity toward the Coconut Lady.

It helps that she’s friendly and always gives me a smile and seems genuinely pleased with the weak Samoan conversation I’m able to offer. And besides, moving to Samoa and living next door to the Coconut Lady seems far too poetic to warrant complaint.

I hope you’re being a good neighbor. Pictures below.

This small, hand-painted sign is the Coconut Lady's only advertisement that I'm aware of.


Koa laughing. Sara with her head in her hands.

Koa looking forlorn. Yet he was Saturday night's big winner.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Slideshow View

In sixth grade, I made a series of cartoons in Microsoft PowerPoint featuring a flamingo on an island similar to the one in the blog header. By changing the settings so the slideshow automatically advances, it’s possible to animate objects like a sort of digital flip book. True, the rest of the world uses PowerPoint for board meetings and sales pitches, but I’ve always seen it as a graphic design tool.

This difference in approach is a help and a hindrance. During the CNET sales pitch-off, my presentation was awesome. There were little animated transitions, objects moved about the screen as text popped in and out, the CNET “redball” logo spun around the screen. It was a hit. But how often are spinning logos necessary? Never. The risk of distraction outweighs the cool factor.

Worse though, is my fascination with PowerPoint and continuing to use it as my go-to for all things graphic design has stunted my growth in learning programs better suited for graphic design. Liam would animate with Photoshop and Flash occasionally. He made equally sophomoric cartoons, but he could easily post them on the web. I still manipulate images with PowerPoint and Microsoft Paint (Yeah. Paint.). I enjoy the scrappiness of the tools, but it’s less than ideal.

I’ve volunteered to put together the slideshow to introduce the new volunteers to those who are currently here. At the welcome celebration for group 82, we’ll show pictures of groups 79, 80, and 81, calling out each member and showing funny/embarrassing/endearing photos of that person. In the past this has been a rather straightforward slideshow; that is, the person’s name and picture on a slide then another person’s name and their picture on the next slide. The cooler, flossier slideshow is the one shown at the All Volunteer Conference at the end of November (Jenny 80 is doing this year’s.).

I see so much possibility here. Rarely do I get the chance to innovate and surprise. I can pimp this slideshow. More than that, I will enjoy pimping the slideshow. I can bury my head in PowerPoint for hours and have a grand old time. Part of the reason I can’t get past PowerPoint is because I enjoy it so much.

But I also feel like it’s an opportunity to grow. Over the last 10 months I’ve found a lot of satisfaction in trying new things and reaching outside my comfort zone. Maybe I should seek out better ways to do this. Maybe I should reach for real software that has tools designed to do the things I want to do rather than trying to re-purpose awkward software intended for corporate minions. Maybe it’s time to hurl the hammer through the PowerPoint slideshow. Perhaps it’s time to think different. Perhaps it’s time to get a Mac.

I’ll just have to wait until downtown Apia gets an Apple Store.

I hope you’re well. Pictures below.

Still life. Baby clutching cell phone next to coconuts.

Akanese and Keleme on their side of the makeshift seesaw (i.e. fallen palm tree) at the maumaga.

The view from the top of the Cross Island Road. You can see the ocean in the distance.

With the Road Switch, it seems like the most difficult part is being a pedestrian. These words have been sprayed in crosswalks all over town. Clearly I'm not the only one who's having a tough time.

Cale made spaghetti carbonara last night. It was amazing.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Bus Shortage isn't Fixed

3:05 p.m.
It’s Friday afternoon, and I’ve decided to head out to the village. I’ve been able to make it back to the training village at least once every month since we moved out, and this weekend was my last chance to keep that record alive for September. I’m exhausted and village sleep doesn’t tend to be restful sleep, so to keep my spirits up, I planned to eat at the fish market. Leai se mea. The fish market served the last fish’n’chips to the person in line in front of me. Boo.

Luckily, there’s a bus for Fausaga waiting when I arrive at the bus stop, and it’s mostly full of people, which is a good sign it will leave soon. Even with the crowd, I’ve managed to get a seat. Awesome.

4:05 p.m.
We haven’t left. A large sweaty man came and sat next to me soon after I took the seat. One of Phil’s host brothers is sitting in the seat behind me. We’ve made small conversation, but after an hour, there’s not much left to say. I consider taking out my book, but more than anything else I want to nap.

I have a window seat, and a boy has come by to offer me an off-brand peanut treat, which seems hardly worth the tala he’s asking.

There’s also a very drunk man who has a large bandaged wrapped around his leg who has taken to entertaining the crowd by playing a game of rugby in the bus parking lot with 21 invisible players.

5:05 p.m.
The driver has started the bus, but we’re still at the bus stop. A small child has been assigned to sit on my lap. He’s hesitant when he comes to sit, and I had to lift him to better situate my right leg. This creeps him out even more. Whatever, kiddo, I was using circulation, and you were heightening my chances of DVT.

The center aisle is more crowded with standing passengers than I’ve ever seen a bus here (which is far more crowded than I’ve ever seen Muni. And there’s still a fair sized crowd waiting to get on. I can’t figure out what’s taking so long. It’s as though passengers are slowly contorting themselves in order to make space for the person in line behind them. I’m glad to have a seat.

6:05 p.m.
We pull away from the faleoloa. The kid who was sitting on my lap found a ride at the gas station where we stopped. He’s been replaced by an older kid who sits on the window sill rather than my lap proper. At one point during the ride, he asks how good my Samoan is and then tells me he’s one of Koa’s students. I text Koa.

I’ve figured out I can quantify the number of people on our tiny bus by counting the people getting off. With the density of bodies on board, it’s impossible to do a head count, but I’m sitting on the side of the bus with the re-located left-side door. Keeping tally passes the time.

7:05 p.m.
I get off the bus at Fausaga at almost exactly 4 hours after I originally embarked. Using my counting system, I estimate there was somewhere around 86 people on my bus when we left Apia. I remember the capacity of the long yellow school buses in elementary school was 87. This bus is probably half the size of one of those long school buses, and most of the people here are larger than your average elementary school student.

In any case, I’m here. And Samoa’s bus problem hasn’t been fixed yet.

I hope you’re well. Pictures below.

This kid sat on the lady sitting next to me on the bus.

The bus was crowded enough this man had to hang off the side. Yes, this is par for the course on cable cars. It's not so much the norm in Samoa.

Baby's getting bigger.

Me and Akanese.

Friday, September 25, 2009

People Are Looking For You

For one summer during college, I was a manager at the Union City Leisure Services Aquatics department, and I loved that job because I was perpetually busy. As soon as one task was finished, a pool attendant was waiting to ask a question or get approval for a task or needed help dealing with an angry parent. It was the closest I ever came to The West Wing where things were so busy we had to have conversations while we walked. Life in the Peace Corps is a lot slower, but on occasion I run into the perfect storm. There was an hour and a half during Interval and 4th period when things got a little crazy.

I have a relatively urgent email I need to send, so as my year 12 class ends, I shoo them out of the room and make a B-line for my house. I walk along the upper level to avoid running into staff, but before I get too far, I run into Filifili, who was pointing at a car driving up. “Lesamoa is here. For you.”

Lesa’s Telephone Services is the company that supplied my school’s computers and since the computers are still under warranty, we go to them whenever one breaks down. We recently had a problem with a failed hard drive, and they’re bringing back the repaired machine. I turn around and head back to the computer lab.

I swear the car drives into a worm hole. It vanishes. After 2 minutes standing idly at my classroom door, I give up. I walk to my house.

With dial-up, there’s no quick way to send an email. There’s a login process and passwords. My email contains pictures, so it takes even longer. Someone knocks on my door.

The boy is young, and he has to psych himself up to speak English to me. I wait. “Mamea wants you. You must go to see Mamea.” Mamea is my pule. I am being called to the principal’s office.

I look across the room at the status of my upload. 23%. Time passes. 24%. I rolled my eyes. 25%. “Tell him I’ll come in 5 minutes.” The boy nods and I close the door.

72%. Another knock on the door. It’s the same boy. Could he really have gone all the way to the principal and come all the way back? “Mamea wants you. You must come now.”

I drag my feet.

Lesamoa found Mamea and he opened the computer lab. There’s a VGA cable missing. I think Lesamoa has it. The girl thinks that might be true. I tell Mamea we have another broken computer for Lesamoa to take. He laughs.

I show the tech, Eleanor, how the Dell Optiplex unit makes an awful beep when it’s turned on. She says it’s a RAM issue, and all you have to do is pop it out and stick it back in. She does so while Mamea and I watch. The computer is fixed. We are impressed.

There’s still a sliver of break left, and I head down to the teacher’s lounge to see if I can still get tea and a muffin. To’o stops me. He wants me to take a bunch of songs off his mp3 player and burn them onto a CD. He’s written out a playlist by hand.

He hands me the list, his flash drive, and 2 CD-Rs and I head toward my 11.2 class. I’ve given up on the muffin. A student, Joanna stops me. She needs to print an essay in the school secretary’s office. I turn around and go with her.

While on the secretary’s computer, To’o finds me and asks for his flash drive back because he needs to give a file to Mamea. Maengi sits down and says her Microsoft Word is acting strangely. I promise her I’ll stop by her house later to check it out. I print Joanna’s essay and hand it to her. To’o returns his flash drive, and asks if I can copy the file for him. Peniamina throws a paper-clipped pile of notebook paper in my face and asks if I’ll type her exam.

There are brief bursts of popularity around here, and I can’t help buy bask in the warmth of feeling needed.

I hope people are looking for you. Pictures below.

The local cell phone provider, Digicel, has a deal where you get free night calls (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.) if you talk for a certain amount of time during the day. This was a problem in my 10 p.m. class last night when Marie and Kate spent most of class on the phone. I could have made them hang up, but ehhh...

These guys brought the whole Forrest Gump/Bubba "I'm gonna lean up against you, you just lean right back against me" thing to a new level.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Odds and Ends Thursday 29

I was just told about 5 minutes ago camp is canceled next week. This is great news. I feel like I’ve had a rough time staying afloat the last two weeks. With having class late in the evening and waking up to teach at 8:00 a.m., there’s little time to relax and unwind AND plan the lesson for the next class. In fact, I’ve nearly given up lesson-planning because to think about computer theory for any more time during my day might make my head explode. Here are some other odds and ends from the week:
  • Apologies for getting yesterday’s post up 14 hours late. There was boxed wine at the Survivor party, and if this blog was Superman, boxed wine would be kryptonite. I’m already back on schedule today, so you can rest easy once more.
  • Sunula was not in class on Monday, but she was there today and she was her charmingly sassy self once more. I think any fallout from last Friday’s tears has been largely avoided.
  • Last week I saw a female year 13 ask a male year 13 to fix her ’ie because she had coconut cream on her fingers. He tucked an end of the fabric at the base of her back. It was the kind of intimacy rarely seen in Samoa. I tried asking the kid about it the next day. While my questions were genuinely inquisitive, it only sounded like an inquisition. “Why did you do that? Would you have done that in front of a Samoan teacher? What would happen if another teacher saw?” I couldn’t escape the accusatory tone, and the kid clammed up.
  • I got my hair cut yesterday, but the guy who’s usually working was with another customer. A tall kid in a FUBU t-shirt motioned me to come and sit in his chair. He gave me the sole treatment, leaving a patch of longer hair at the front of the top of my head and longer down the back of my head so I could achieve the look of a skunk. Fortunately, the usual guy finished with his customer and shooed away the kid cutting my hair. Very lucky.
  • Koa and Caroline informed my September 9 was International Beatles Appreciation Day (9/9/09). I missed it. Damn.
  • The fall equinox also came and went. No, the leaves don’t change here.
  • Three girls from Samoa College have caught wind of our year 13 camp, and they’ve been crashing our party. It strains the dynamic and cramps my style. Maybe I should send them back to Samoa College.
  • A patch of the antireflective coating on the right lens of my glasses has worn off, and it’s easy to see when the light catches it just right. I have another pair of glasses I’ve been keeping in a Ziploc bag, but I’d rather stick to these until it’s absolutely necessary for me to change. This climate kills things, and I want to keep the fresh pair fresh until the halfway point of my time in Samoa at earliest.
  • I think I might buy an ’ava bowl sometime soon. Phil bought one to give to his brother who just got married. Erik has talked about going to the art school in town known for making nice ones to try and work out some kind of deal. I’m kinda partial to just heading down to the flea market to see what I can find there. Although most of those bowls were probably made in China.
  • Little by little, the weather is getting warmer and with the heat comes the mosquitoes. I do a good job of keeping my house mosquito free, but I’ve been out and about quite a bit recently, and they seem to be everywhere and at all hours of the day.
  • I’ve been missing pita chips lately; the sea salt ones from Trader Joe’s. Incidentally, I wonder how long it will take me to stop calling it Farmer Joe once I move back to The States.
That’s all I got for today. I hope you’re well. Pictures below.

Camp was canceled from 4:00 to 5:00 today so the year 13s could play sports. These ones played volleyball and a bunch of the girls played rugby.

The catered buffet at last night's party.

Cake at last night's party.

Pig's head.

The episode we watched was recorded from the worldwide Air Force Network, which features a regular segment during commercial breaks entitled "Iraqi Freedom Minute."

Me, Blakey, and Erik.