New Journey in Life: American Samoa

Where I am and why I'm here

If you don't know where I'm living, go to Google maps and type "American Samoa." Now zoom out. Zoom out again. Zoom out about four more times. Eventually the little island you saw initially will be too small to see on the map, but you'll find that the pinpoint indicates a location somewhere between Hawaii and Australia. This tropical paradise is my home for the next six months.

The pinpoint above indicates the location of Ta'u, American Samoa. It's as "in the middle of the ocean" as it gets.

It's Sunday, It's Friday, and there's no day like Sunday today to blog in the good ol' island of American Samoa. I figure it's high time to catch up my curious friends back home before I fall into the slow rhythm of island life and decide that blogging requires more effort and internet signal than I possess. But before I go into the down low of my first few days here, let me take a quick digression for you palagis (Samoan for white people) who are reading this blog and have no idea where I am and what I'm doing.

In December, I graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor's in Biology. If all goes as planned, I will be heading off to Moscow for graduate school in September. This leaves me a nine month interim between degrees to pursue other interests. After spending many hours online researching opportunities for recent graduates, I came across an organization called WorldTeach, which works in developing countries around the world. Here in American Samoa, this non-profit works with the Department of Education to send out volunteer teachers to local elementary schools and high schools to teach English and other subjects. Long story short, I applied and was accepted to the program. Life happened, things fell into place, and now it's January and I'm sweating and listening to the frogs and crickets chirp as I write this.

First days and logistics
After a frantic night of packing, I left the frozen tundra that is Minnesota on January 6th. Having spent a fun night in Vegas with an old friend, I flew to Hawaii and finally landed in Pago Pago, the capital, on Wednesday night. These past few days have been a slow blur of new experiences. Our first day here, Liz, the local field director in charge of the orientation for new teachers, took me and Peter, another new volunteer, around the island. We visited the downtown area, saw the beaches, and set up phones and bank accounts, which will be used for depositing our stipend.

We also went to a fabric store where I picked out several different fabrics that will be made into 4 different dresses, called puletasis, by a local sewing shop. I will be expected to wear a puletasi to school as it's formal attire that female teachers are expected to dress in. It's made of a top piece that goes down to the thigh and then a bottom piece that goes all the way down to your ankles. No tank tops and shorts to school for me. I'll keep you updated on how hot I'll be in a full-length puletasi. On a tropical island. In a classroom with no air conditioning.

Let's small talk about the weather
Speaking of hot. American Samoa is really close to the equator so it's summer year-round. I've arrived at the beginning of rainy season, which I think lasts until March. I can confidently say that it's rained every single day since I got here. The rain usually lasts no longer than an hour. Once it's over, the sun comes back out and it's hot, sunny, and humid once again. In fact, it's often hot, sunny, and humid even when it's pouring. Few places have air conditioning over here; the house I'm staying at before I ship out is no different. In the evenings we open up all the windows in the house and keep the ceiling fans on. Throw in a cold shower before bedtime, and usually sleeping at night is just fine-- humid, but still breezy. Yet, even on days where I don't have to be up early, I'm up by 8am (those who know me well know I have no problem sleeping till 1pm back in the states) because when the sun comes out, the house warms up really quick and it gets too hot to sleep.

It's hot, but it's still as close to paradise as it gets
Despite all my complaints about how hot it is, American Samoa is still breathtaking. The grandeur of the island is hard to describe; I suggest you google a few images for a glimpse. Blue skies, palm trees, coconuts and bananas, frogs croaking at night, the sound of waves crashing against rocks-- I could go on and on. (A moment of silence for all my Minnesotans suffering through the winter.)

A few days ago, some of the volunteers and I went exploring to the east side of the island. A couple busses and one boat later, we arrived at Aunu'u. This is a small island off the main island. We hiked along one of the trails before turning around and cooling off with a swim in ocean. I can't believe I swam in water that was so warm I didn't have to get used to the temperature, while everyone else in the Midwest was wearing coats and gloves and hats and attempting to defrost their windows before their fingers developed frostbite.

Just today, we took a short hike through the jungle and came to a very tall waterfall that dropped open into a a decent-sized swimming hole and continued to flow into a stream. A bunch of the local boys were skipping school and taking turns jumping off the cliffs on  the side of the waterfall. Eventually I will create a video from my gopro footage, but in the meantime you can take my word for it-- the boys are crazy for jumping from such a height into such a small reservoir. The swim was refreshing, though. I think this was the first time I've actually felt cold in American Samoa; since the water is constantly flowing out of the swimming hole, and the jungle canopy prevents a lot of the sun's rays from shining through, it was pretty chilly.

Where I'm staying and where I'm going
For those of you who aren't aware, I arrived in Pago Pago a few weeks before the second semester begins in order to complete teacher training and start adjusting to island life. My actual teaching assignment will be over in Manu'a High School on the island of Ta'u. Ta'u is an even smaller island about 60 miles away from the main island. It's very isolated, but more on that later. For now I'm eating all the burgers and fast food I can get on the mainland, because once I get to Ta'u I'll have to cook all my own meals and even bake my own bread. I'll be traveling over there on Monday and will have a week to visit the classes I'll be taking over to better understand what exactly my students have learned and what I will need to teach.

From Biology, to English, to Math
Here's a little fact that most of you don't know yet. Instead of teaching English, I will actually be teaching math-- geometry, pre-calc, and calculus. This is what the school principal said they need, so I agreed. (Any ideas on how to make math fun are highly needed. I've stocked up on candy, too.) In fact, one of the reasons I'm here is that at least half of the teachers here don't hold bachelor's degrees and were unable to pass one of the most basic teacher certification exams. Without going into too much detail, the education system in American Samoa is highly lacking on many levels. The administration is implementing various programs, including their contract with WorldTeach to send college graduates like me out into the field, but a lot of change needs to occur before the system can be improved.

Anyway, enough writing for now. I'll try to keep my future blog posts shorter but more frequent. Excuse me while I consider busting out my shampoo and conditioner and taking a shower in the unrelenting downpour of rain. Fa!


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