Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I’m lucky to be alive

I’m sure most of you have heard about the earthquake and tsunami that hit Samoa by now and am wondering how I’m doing. Well, here’s the story:

I was sleeping when the 8.0 earthquake hit. My house started shaking and things were falling off shelves. Books fell down, the phone mounted on my wall fell down, cans of food fell…I’m smart enough to know when things start falling it is probably wise to get out. So grabbed my phone and left my room. The shaking lasted a long time too, at least a minute. I texted a good friend here with the message of “shit that was big” when it was over. She agreed. About that time I got a call from the Peace Corps medical officer that I should probably move inland because the possibility of a tsunami. So I grabbed an ie and left.

I was walking on the road which parallels the beach when I noticed something wasn’t right. I could see structures like rocks and coral which I have never seen above water, not even at the lowest of low tides. This didn’t bode well. Then I noticed the really odd wave action, something just wasn’t right. I had just turned the corner of the road and was now headed inland, versus parallel to the beach as I had been just one minute before, when the waves hit the beach and surged up the road. At this point I started running, as did my village. As I was running I could hear the water surging up the river, tearing trees down.

I got up to the main road where most everyone was. The matai were directing everyone to head to Siuniu, the village inland. I could see the look of panic and worry as parents asked where their kids were, for they were headed to the primary school which is near me. The matai were organized and knew where to direct the parents to in order to find their kids. I went up to Siuniu and waited with my village. At this point we were getting reports of a school in Poutasi (a few villages to the west) collapsing and killing three kids. Everyone was on phones, calling relatives and friends in neighboring villages, trying to find out what was going on. Reports came that 50 people in Poutasi were dead, buried in the sand. A boy in neighboring Salani died. And 15 in Aleipata were dead. As far as I know at this point, no one in my village died. We are lucky.

Then I got a report that my house and another were destroyed. I wanted to go and see if this was true, but I knew to stay. I waited a few hours then went to see what the damage was. Sure enough, my house was flattened. The tsunami ripped the house from its foundation and deposited it 10 feet in front of the house, collapsed beyond repair. I could see all of my stuff waterlogged and muddy. I’m not sure what can be salvaged. I’m going back tomorrow to find out what I can still use, but I know most things will be trashed.

While that is unfortunate, at least it was just my house and not my home. The other family I feel bad for because it was their home. I had stuff there which will be expensive to replace, but it wasn’t everything in the world I owned, just everything I Samoa I owned. Most of my stuff is still back in the US. I feel bad for the other family who truly lost everything. I feel really bad about the three computers I had in my house for the school. I don’t think those will be salvaged, but another Peace Corps Volunteer already told me she would donate two to my school, so I’m happy about that. I also am upset that I don’t know where my dog is. I saw her after the earthquake, and then don’t know where she went. I hope she is ok. Animals are smarter than humans in many ways, so she probably left before I did, but I’m still worried. I hope I find her.

The Peace Corps Office came out and drove me to Apia. I could see the damage in the villages as I passed. Poutasi looks pretty bad; boats are inland, houses devastated, and the school collapsed. Their village is pretty flat on the seaward side, so the wave did quite a bit of damage. The district hospital there looked like it was spared, might have water damage though. As we were driving over Cross Island Road, many cars were headed south to help clean up and try to find their family.

Once in Apia, small aftershocks could still be felt throughout the day. Around 5:30 pm the tsunami sirens went off. Everyone headed up the mountains carrying what they could. It turned out to be a false alarm, but better safe than sorry. Most businesses were closed as people went to help.

Report is over 80 here are dead. If you want to help:

I want to say thank you to all my fellow PCVs. I don’t think my phone was quite for five minutes yesterday morning. Everyone wanted to see if I was ok; thanks, makes me feel loved. When I got to Apia, a bunch of people offered up their house and everyone wanted to know what they could do to help. I appreciate the support guys. You guys are awesome! Also to everyone who posted on facebook and sent me e-mails, thanks for your support as well. And finally to Teuila; I was awake after the earthquake but not enough awake to be thinking about a tsunami. If she hadn’t called right after the quake stopped, I probably would have been at my house. If I had left my house just a minute later…well, yeah.

I gave a written eyewitness account to Sydney Morning Herald and a phone interview to NY Daily News. Here’s the link for the NY article:

And the Sydney article:

So that is all I know for now. I’m off to buy some new clothes because I have the clothes on my back and one spare. I’ll keep you posted on what goes on.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Brake Check

I was on my way to Apia via the bus last week and was traveling down Cross Island Road, or Tiavi as the Samoans call it, when the bus had a showdown with a cow. Cross Island Road is quite steep as it is goes right up a mountain. It would be a fun road to ride a bike down, a little unsafe with the twists and turns and blind corners (not to mention the crazy drivers), but fun nonetheless. We were coming down the mountain towards Apia when a cow ran out into the road. This cow was good sized too, definitely enjoyed the grasses which grow on the mountain slope and would have caused some issues with the bus. The driver slammed on the brakes as the cow barreled into the road. I look up, see the large cow, and think “Oh boy, this is going to be messy.” Luckily, the bus stopped in time and the cow crossed the road with no issues. The Samoans gave a “Malo fa’auli” or “good driving” to the driver. It would have made some nice steaks had we hit the poor bovine, but the Samoan cut of beef isn’t great anyway (hacking with a machete usually ruins the cuts of beef).

I am happy to report I finally got computers for the village. I’ve been working on this for nearly a year now and am happy my patience has paid off. A company in NZ donated a few hundred computers to Samoa. Most of them went to the Ministry of Education to be put in schools of their choice, but 30 went to Peace Corps Volunteers since two of my fellow PCVs were key in getting the computers here. So I applied to have a few of the 30 and was successful in getting three of them. I’m excited to set them up and start teaching people (I’m looking forward to exploring the Linux operating system as well; I’m usually a Windows gal). I know a few of the women in the village are eager to learn so they can get jobs in Apia and the kids want to learn as well. Teaching computers should keep me a little busier as well so I’m excited.

Funny child story: I was working around my house a few weeks ago trying to nail down some loose boards when two of the pre-school kids came over to swing on the swings (my house used to be the pre-school and the swings are still there). I was squatting down trying to straighten out a bent nail when one of the girls came up and started petting my head. It is odd to have a four year old petting your head, but they also like to rub my arms (Samoans don’t have a lot of arm hair and it is funny to them to see it). The girl continues to rub my head and then says “Manaia lou ulu” or “you have nice hair.” Ok, quite the compliment. I’m just amused the girl was petting my head, makes me laugh.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Lesson Learned

I learned an important lesson last night…a mosquito net not only protects one from vile, bloodsucking mosquitoes, but also from all the other things which lurk in one’s room and only come out when the lights go out. Last night was a pretty nice night, temperature was nice and not too many bugs were out. Since it wasn’t buggy, I decided I didn’t want to feel suffocated by my mosquito net as I slept and lit a mosquito coil to keep the few mosquitoes away. I was sleeping pretty well, occasionally awoken by the rat(s), which where eating my soap or the plastic off of something (I’ve found out that even though there is lots of food hanging from a number of trees outside, rats prefer to eat sponges, soap, & plastic in my room, go figure). All of the sudden I feel this thing land on my face. I shook it off and without thinking went right back to sleep. I’ve learned it is best not to think about what it was or sleep won’t come the rest of the night. I’m pretty sure it was a cockroach, but don’t want to think that hard about it. Other friends have had centipedes fall on their faces as they have slept (strangely enough once even while under the mosquito net). So lesson is: as suffocating as it may be, as mosquito net is good for more than protection against mosquitoes.

Back to the rat…a few months ago I had a really weird experience involving my sponges. I’m a really, really light sleeper, just about everything will wake me up. As I was sleeping, the rustling of a plastic grocery bag woke me up. I got my flashlight and looked around my room to see what was making the odd sound. I had sponges in a plastic grocery bag and they were all the way across my room, halfway under my door like they were going out for a stroll at 2 in the morning. I thought that was a little odd. I got out of bed and put them back in my little kitchen area. I went back to sleep. I woke up the next morning and put my feet down. As I get up out of the mosquito net, I looked down. What was at my feet?….the sponges. This was before I knew I had rats so I was very weirded out. I thought I must have a ghost who had a traumatic experience with sponges so it was trying to get rid of them so as not to relive the awful memory. Ok, not really…this was the first clue that I might have some resident rats. Since then, I’ve caught one in a trap, but they still run around in my roof and have a lot of guts to come down in my room. I also now have my sponges in a bag hanging from a nail.

Some better news is my village has three computers waiting in Apia for us to pick up! I’m very excited for this; I’ve been working nearly a year to get computers. Thursday we’ll pick them up and as soon as I get everything set up and loaded on the computers I’ll start teaching lessons. Some of the women keep asking me when we will get computers because they want to learn so they can get a job in Apia, so I’m happy to now be able to say Thursday. This is a major step in getting the library/computer center set up. Back in March, I requested books from an organization in the US and told a bunch of other volunteers about the organization. Other volunteers got their books in a month, but after six months I still had no books. I put in another request and I’m hoping in a couple of weeks they show up. It is a little ironic I found the organization, requested books first, told other volunteers about it, and am the only one still without books. Oh well, that’s they way it goes. If I’ve learned nothing else while here at least I will truly know that patience is a virtue.

Friday, September 18, 2009

History Made

Well, Samoa had the historic road switch last week and as far as I can tell it went off without any real problems. There was some minor protesting (a village in Savaii put rocks in the road so cars couldn’t pass), but that was all resolved quickly. I got a ride into town on Friday and driving on the left didn’t seem odd, but traffic on my side of the island is quite light. When I got to town though and saw all the stop lights, intersections, and roundabouts I thought it was weird. I have to pay extra attention when walking around now so that I don’t walk out into traffic. Oh and the big shipping container is off the reef in Apia now (see previous post for story). It was sitting at the wharf last time I was in town, didn’t look so good though, still keeling to one side. The little fishing boat is still stuck on the reef; it might be permanent.

I had the most uncomfortable bus ride back to the village last week as well. Apparently, there is only one bus for the whole district that has the door switched to the proper side so passengers don’t exit out into traffic. This makes for extremely full buses. I was waiting with some others in my village for the bus at the bus stop by the fish market when the bus arrived. There was a mad dash for the bus as it pulled in. It was kinda funny to see a swarm of people walking very quickly, nearly running to get to the bus. We all piled on and so began the process of sitting on laps. I ended up on a guy’s lap, which is not really a good thing considering how cheeky Samoan men are and I try to avoid this as much as possible, but what was I supposed to do when the bus had at least 50-60 people on it (keep in mind the proper amount is 33)? I couldn’t even see the door, driver, or out the front window and I was only a few rows back. Since the bus had so many people on it, driving up the mountain nearly killed it. The bus somehow made it up the mountain, not quickly as it took me almost two and a half hours to get home, but indeed it survived.

Church is an interesting event here in Samoa. I live near the church so every Sunday I wake up to the sound of the church bell ringing, announcing there is one hour until church begins. Wake-up really isn’t a good term because usually I nearly jump out of bed I am so startled and it isn’t really a church bell it is an empty gas tank. It goes on for five minutes and during that time I’m holding my fingers to my ears so that I don’t go deaf. At the end of the service the church offerings are announced. Anyone who donates to the church has their name read aloud and how much they donate. This past Sunday was really cute. I was sitting in the pew listening to the endless names and amounts when I heard “Aliitasi Onofitu, 20 sene.” The whole church burst into laughter; not because it was only 20 cents, but because the donor was a four year old. I guess she decided the church needed a little something extra this week.

I went out to monitor the MPA a few days ago. The village is raising clams and they are getting quite large, some at least a foot long. I saw some really cool fish out there as well. First, a Snowflake Moray Eel, pretty cool to see just sitting there letting me take as many pictures as I wanted. I saw another eel briefly which I swear had a head bigger than my hand, but it shot into a crevice before I could get a good look at it. I also saw a Scorpionfish. This is why walking on the ocean floor really isn’t a good idea, highly venomous (lots of pain if you step on it). I also saw a juvenile Oriental Sweetlips. The juvenile of this species swims really peculiarly, undulating rapidly more like an eel. I was perplexed when I first saw the fish as to what it was, I was hoping for a baby shark, but no luck. I even saw cuttlefish in the MPA a few weeks ago. This is why I became a marine biologist; I get to snorkel around all day in the South Pacific and technically be working…awesome!

Funny story while in the MPA: I was swimming around seeing what I could, when I felt something take a little nibble. It wasn't a real bite or anything, just a little peck of a nibble on the back of my knee, but enough to creep my out a bit. I turned around to see what it was, but couldn't see anything. So I turned around and started swimming again. I felt the same little nibble. Now I was curious to find out what little thing was trying to eat me. I looked around for a while, seeing nothing but regular reef fish who I knew didn't want to have me for lunch. I kept searching, when I spotted these little fish poking their heads out of holes in the coral. They were aggressive for their size, only 5 in or so. I could identify them as blennies, but didn't know the species. They were funny to watch because they had more guts than some of the bigger fish. They would poke their heads out of the holes and when you weren't paying full attention to them would swim out of the hole and attack. I got back to my house and looked them up. They are Piano Fangblennies and feed on the skin and scales of fish, or in this case human skin.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Earth Shaking & Boats Aground

I woke up early Sunday morning not to the church bell announcing church will be starting in one hour, but rather to my house shaking at 4 AM. I’ve gotten used to the 2-3 second tremors as part of life in Samoa and on the Ring of Fire and I woke up to the shaking thinking it would stop after the usual 2-3 seconds. However, this time not only did it not stop, but it intensified as the shaking was due to a 6.6 magnitude earthquake with an epicenter 110 miles West of Apia. While the earthquake Sunday morning was by no means a big quake (no damage here), it was the strongest I have ever felt. It is unsettling to wake up to your stuff dancing on your bookshelves. I heard the rumbling of the Earth and the clatter of my books on the shelves. I have about 30 feet before a small cliff and the ocean. When the rumbling didn’t quit but became stronger I was a little anxious I might have to bolt out the door, but alas the 10 seconds of fun ended & I went back to sleep.

Diving was fun a couple of weekends ago. We dove the Rock & Apolima Gardens. The Rock is supposedly the best dive in Samoa. We had a pretty good dive as the weather was perfect for diving. We saw a 3 foot White-tip Reef Shark, who wanted nothing to do with us and bolted the second we desended, a massive Humphead Wrasse, which can get up to 7.5 feet and this one was probably that big, & a school of 13 barracuda, all 3-4 feet long, which circled us for a while deciding who they wanted to have for brunch. I guess they didn’t fancy any of us because they soon swam off to see of there was anything better to eat elsewhere. Apolima Gardens was a good dive as well. We saw two turtles, which came within 3-4 feet of me (up close encounter!) and another Humphead Wrasse, this one was only 5-6 feet though, small fish. The coolest part of the trip was the odd noise we heard on the second dive. It was low, almost like a foghorn. I thought something was wrong with someone’s gear. It wasn’t until we ascended did the dive master say the noise was whales. Awesome! Humpbacks are the most common whales seen here in Samoa, so most likely those were the originators of the sound. It didn’t sound like the typical high-pitched sound of Humpbacks, but perhaps the call was not of the mating purpose (as the high-pitched sounds are) and the low-pitched sound was another sound in the whale’s soundtrack. Not a bad day diving at all, but then again any day diving is always a good one in my book.

If you have been keeping up with my blog I just posted about the road switch and added a link to a Wall Street Journal article. Recently, PASS had a motion to the high court trying to stop the road switch. They lost, so Monday will be a very interesting day here in Samoa. I had planned to be in Apia to watch the fun, otherwise known as complete chaos, but since the PM declared Monday and Tuesday holidays (meaning no buses) that means I would have to come in Saturday and stay in until Wednesday and that is just too much time to be in Apia doing nothing. I will just have to listen to the radio for anything interesting happening. I’ll let you know if anything interesting goes on. I’m still curious to see what happens with the buses after the road switch holidays because they are planning on protesting. They have a just cause since cutting a new door will take $50,000 Tala and takes two weeks or so for each bus. Savai’i will have a really hard time getting their buses cut because only one place can do it on Savai’i and cutting new doors for all the buses there will take 2 years. Meanwhile, they aren’t supposed to drive with the doors on the opposite side as they are now. I’m really unsure what is going to happen. It is going to be an interesting week next week; that is guaranteed.

There is an odd sight in the wharf in Apia this week. A large shipping container is stranded on the reef, keeling to one side and seems like it might become permanent. It was headed to Tonga and is carrying cement so it isn’t like it is a light load. The tugboats trying to pull the ship free couldn’t budge the ship, so for now it is an interesting sight in the capital. The funny thing is a small fishing boat is now also stranded. From what I heard on the radio news was the fishing boat didn’t know the shipping boat was stranded so it headed in the same direction, only to find ground. I’m not sure how the boats are to be freed.