It’s Never Too Early to Start Thinking About University…

As I near the end of my time here in American Samoa, I have begun to reflect on everything I have managed to accomplish over the last 10 months.

Although there are certainly days when I feel tired, frustrated, homesick and altogether unmotivated, I know in my heart that I have made a difference. I have definitely made mistakes, but I’d like to think that over the course of the year I have continuously improved as a teacher, and grown as a person.

Of course, there are so many people I am indebted to for their help and support in the months leading up to my departure and while I have been here.

One group in particular that I’d like to once again thank is the Commerce and Administration Students’ Association (CASA-JMSB). I am forever grateful to them for generously sponsoring me.

Beyond that, however, I also sincerely appreciate all the well-wishes and messages of support that I have received from so many different friends within the organization. I can’t tell you how many times that a letter, email, or Facebook message gave me the strength to get through the tough days, and although I may not have responded right away (some things never change…) believe me when I say that I have read each and every one of them multiple times, and still do when I need some extra motivation.

As a form of thanks, I took it upon myself to do a little college recruiting here on my island, in an effort to bolster the international student population and expand JMSB’s future global network. I spent many months carefully evaluating all the top students in the Manu’a region of American Samoa, and I believe I have selected a top-notch group of students that will one day proudly study at the John Molson School of Business.

Thanks for the t-shirts CASA-JMSB!!!


These shirts are "seki a" (awesome)

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Robbery on the High Sea

Over the past few days, I have been robbed twice. Although I am still reeling from the crimes perpetrated against me, I thought it would be best to use this blog post as a coping mechanism.

Leading up to my departure, I had not read any alarming statistics that would make me view American Samoa as a haven for criminals. It is only now, in my tenth month here, that I have finally been exposed to the seedy underbelly of American Samoa, and I am shocked, hurt, and emotionally bruised. You hear stories about foreigners being robbed, and you think to yourself “Well, that’ll never be me”, but when it finally happens to you, you feel completely helpless.

Although I was able to identify the thief with this photograph, according to the local police, there is nothing that can be done because "it's an ocean..."

So who is responsible for robbing me not once, but TWICE in the last three days? It is none other than the ominous Pacific Ocean!

Yes, I was robbed by the Pacific Ocean. You may find that humorous, but larceny is not a joke, it is a crime that transcends borders and affects millions of people around the world. Even more awful, many of these victims are robbed on multiple occasions over a very short period of time (including yours truly), in what criminals jokingly refer to as a “double tap”.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself “But Mitch, how could the Pacific Ocean rob you? The ocean is not at a level of self-awareness to be able to knowingly relieve you of your possessions.” I sincerely disagree with this notion, and am in fact convinced that the Pacific Ocean is quite aware of itself, and is constantly looking for easy targets to rob.

So, exactly how did I come to be the victim of a “double tap” at the hands (figuratively speaking) of the largest body of water on the planet?

It all started on Friday afternoon. The sun was shining quite brightly, which is a rarity of late, as it is currently monsoon season here. Having had almost nothing but rain for two weeks prior, I was excited to be able to spend the afternoon exploring the ocean that resides but a few metres from my front door. This expedition was going to have a purpose, however, as I was finally going to use the disposable underwater camera that my parents had lovingly sent me months earlier (procrastination is in my blood, and I knew that if I didn’t use the camera then, I might not have another chance). So it was, that in the late hours of Friday afternoon, I was casually swimming about and taking photos of the many fascinating things that live in the ocean. Unbeknownst to me, however, the very ocean in which I was swimming was equally impressed with my camera, and was in fact methodically plotting how best to take it from me.

After about an hour of underwater photography, I started to head back to shore. When swimming in Faleasao, it is very easy to go out, but it is rather difficult to come in. About half-way along the beach, there is a channel with a strong current that will pull swimmers out a great distance with minimal effort. When returning to shore, however, it is nearly impossible to swim against the current in the channel, so swimmers have to “loop around” to get back to where they started. This can be tricky, as there is a high concentration of coral everywhere except the channel, and if you’re not careful a strong wave could easily throw you into some (which, if you’ve seen Cast Away, you know can be extremely painful). As I started to make my way in, I was confident that I would have no such problems, as the ocean was (relatively) calm. It is only as I write this, however, that I realize that this was the ocean’s plan all along: to bait me into a weak position. I had made it about half-way back to shore when the ocean started to get much rougher. Conveniently (for the ocean anyway), at this exact moment I was wading above a large part of coral reef, which makes the water much shallower, which in turn causes waves to break. I’m sure you know where I’m going with this, but I still think it’s best to describe it in detail. Those of you who have swam in the ocean will know what I mean when I say that, as a wave approaches, there is small period of time where the wave pulls the water back, and everything gets shallower right before the wave crashes. As I was making my way along this large part of coral, a particularly large wave approached. I was unfortunately in “no man’s land”, too far from the wave to swim back towards it, too close to swim away from it: I was exactly where the wave was going to crash.

Stolen Item #1 - disposable underwater camera with approximately 17 classy and artistic photographs already taken.

Now, common sense would dictate that, in such a scenario, you would want to dive down and get underneath the wave. I would have done that, except that I was swimming along a large part of coral reef, which meant that I was only swimming in about two and a half feet of water. As the wave began to pull the water back, I was essentially rendered a beached whale on the coral, so when the wave crashed down on me it had an effect similar to what I would imagine would be a “mini-tsunami”. I was completely thrown about, turned around, disoriented, and had the wind knocked out of me. I was being pushed backwards toward the shore, but I was going head-first, could not see anything, and was scared that I was going to crash into something. Luckily, after about 5 seconds (because all of this happened over an extremely short period of time), I was able to regain my bearings. I had not been injured, but I had lost my disposable underwater camera, and along with it all of my artistic photographs.

I was bummed, in the way that someone gets upset when they did something that they knew was risky and then something bad happened, like when you don’t save your work and then your computer crashes. I probably should have been more careful heading back to shore, but like many victims, I need to remind myself that I didn’t rob me, the ocean robbed me. When I got back to the house, I told myself that I would not let what happened control my life; although I had been victimized, I was not going to play the victim role. So on the very next day, which was once again beautifully sunny, I decided to go swimming again; I wasn’t afraid, there was no way that the ocean would pull a fast one on me again.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Stolen Item #2 - snorkel gear, complete with goggles and breathing apparatus

The exact same thing happened.

I can’t stress it enough, everything happened exactly the same way a second time: I was making my way back to shore, was swimming along the same part of coral, the waves started picking up, beached whale, tsunami, disorientation, etc. As I regained my bearings for the second time in two days, I took comfort in knowing that I had brought nothing with me this time: the ocean may have screwed around with me, but I didn’t let it rob me again. That’s when I noticed that I was no longer wearing my snorkel gear; it had been taken clean off my face.

Pacific Ocean – 2
Mitch – 0.5

(the .5 is because I have occasionally peed in it, so that has to count for something…)

Posted in Life in American Samoa | 2 Comments

Updated Photos Page

In an effort to better share photos, the Pictures page now has a link to my newly created Flickr account!

Exciting stuff 😉

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Trying to Plan Evenings around the Sa Bell

As I may have previously mentioned in one of my earlier posts, American Samoa is, in comparison to Canada anyway, devoutly religious. One interesting custom that I experience on a daily basis is the observance of sa, which is essentially a daily period of prayer (the literal translation means sacred, or to be set apart). Every day, sometime between 6:15 and 6:45 pm, everyone is expected to stop whatever it is they are doing and pray. While observing sa isn’t as important on the main island of Tutuila, in Manu’a, where life is more conservative and traditional, it is a serious taboo to be seen doing anything during sa.

The sa bell, recycling in its finest form

The way that sa begins and ends is rather peculiar, and is based around a series of bells that are rung throughout each village. Firstly, the bells are in fact large, empty oxygen tanks that are beaten mercilessly. There are at least two or three bells spread out through each village, and bell ringing seems to follow a chain pattern; the first bell at one end of the village rings, and once it is done ringing the next closest bell rings, and so on until the bell at the opposite end of the village rings. What makes sa so interesting, for me anyway, is the way the bells are rung, as they follow a specific itinerary:

1. The first time the bell is rung, it is to indicate that sa is about to begin. If people are outside, they are supposed to quickly make their way back home: everyone is supposed to be inside their homes once sa begins. If you are walking somewhere and you get “caught” in sa, you are supposed to stop walking and sit down on the ground until sa is over. You are not supposed to drive through a village during sa, so when cars approach a village during sa they are supposed to pull over and turn off the car and wait until sa is over.

2. The second time the bell is rung, it is to commence sa. The second bell usually comes about 5 minutes after the first bell, by which time everyone in the village should either be in their homes or sitting on the ground: everything is supposed to come to a standstill. In this time, villagers are supposed to pray.

3. The third time the bell is rung, it is to end sa. The third bell can come anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes after the second bell, depending on how long it takes the person ringing the bell to pray. Once the third bell is rung, villagers are able to go on about their day.

What makes it sometimes entertaining for me is that, at times, I forget which sa bell is being rung (the first, second or third). Sometimes in movies, during a shootout, a character will count the amount of shots from someone else’s gun, to try and time when the other person will be out of bullets so they can safely move from wherever they are; a similar thing happens sometimes during sa, trying to count the number of bells that have been rung to make sure it’s ok to go back outside. On more than one occasion, I have either gone outside before sa is finished (in which case I have proceeded to calmly make my way inside without drawing attention to myself…), or I have sat around the house for an extra 20 minutes, not realizing that sa is already over.

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Bingo – The Ultimate Source of Samoan Entertainment

Although living on a small, sparsely populated island certainly has its perks, a major drawback is the lack of formalized entertainment. Now don’t get me wrong, the hiking and snorkelling here is absolutely fantastic, but on the days when you’re not feeling particularly athletic or energized, there are not of opportunities for what I’d call “lazy activities”. Ta’u doesn’t have a movie theatre, a shopping mall, or any other place where you can enjoy the dual benefits of occupying your time while also enjoying the cool touch of air conditioning (is it still too early in the year for you to be thinking about that? It’s a daily consideration out here…) So, on a lazy Saturday afternoon, when you might consider going to see a film, or going to window shop, many Samoans turn to bingo. Bingo, as it turns out, is immensely popular with Samoans, especially out here in Manu’a, when there is often very little else to do.

16 bingo sheets at once!

Now, I didn’t frequent the Montreal bingo scene all that often, but when I did I was amazed at how focused and coordinated some the players were; I never understood how people old enough to be my great-grandparents had the focus and coordination to play four or five sheets per game, while I struggled with only one. Although there are certainly many cultural differences between Samoans and Canadians, bingo is not one of them. The demographics are about the same; most bingo players out here are women, and the average age is pretty high. The competitive nature is also the same; competitors (because that’s what I suppose they are) sit with huge boards in the laps, and play as many as sixteen bingo sheets per game, I find it truly astounding. Bingo is serious business out here, and hosting a round of bingo games is a big deal. Players even go so far as to compare different “bingo hosts” on a variety of things, including the quality of their prizes.

Now, as I said before, I’m no expert at bingo, seeing as most of my bingo experience happened before I started middle school, but having watched many bingo games out here, I have begun to appreciate the coordination involved to run a smooth game. It all starts with the number-caller (my designated title for the position): the quarterback of the bingo world. A quality number-caller has to be loud (without being obnoxious), has to be clear, and has to have rhythmic ability. Calling the numbers too slowly or too quietly will bore and/or aggravate the players, calling the numbers too quickly or not clearly enough will confuse and/or overwhelm them. The number-caller is the top spot, the pressure cooker, and having a good one is critical to hosting a successful bingo game.

Beyond the number-caller, a good bingo game needs at least a couple of runners (again, my designated title). Runners are the ones who come to certify your win as you spastically shout “BINGO!”, but they are also the ones who run around as games are in progress to sell your the sheets that you will use for the following game. Runners need to be quick and organized, but more than anything else, they need to be strong and not easily intimidated, in the event that someone calls a “false-bingo”. Being a runner is serious, and from what I gather people out here are paid to be runners for bingo games.

Location isn’t a huge deal for bingo games in Ta’u. While Bingo Halls are all the rave in North America, most people out here just host bingo games in the equivalent of their front yard, and players usually sit on the ground, usually somewhere that is shady but still close enough to hear the numbers being called.

One afternoon, sometime back in either September or October, I decided that I would spend my Saturday afternoon playing bingo with the locals. I had seen them out playing virtually every Saturday since I had first arrived, and I was eager to join in. With a pocket full of dollar bills, I seated myself down on the ground, eagerly waiting to kick serious ass (because, of course, bingo is all about skill). A runner soon came by and gave me a couple of sheets. While I was initially hesitant to play multiple bingo sheets at once, I figured I might as well go big; they had only cost a dollar anyway.

In order to properly lay out my bingo sheets for optimal viewing, I had thought ahead and brought with me a large piece of cardboard; it was what I considered to be a stroke of genius, I wasn’t just another silly palagi (Samoan word for white person) amateur. It didn’t take very long for me to realize how much of an amateur I was, however, and just as the game was about to begin, a gust of wind passed through and blew my bingo sheets away. As I quickly learned, a true Samoan bingo professional brings with him/her, in addition to a piece of cardboard, either a glue stick or a roll of tape to affix the bingo sheets solidly to the cardboard, thereby negating the possible threat of unexpected gusts of wind. Thankfully, another player (no doubt calling me a palagi amateur in her head) managed to grab my sheets as they blew past her, and she loaned me her glue stick to prevent it from happening again.

Samoans in their bingo "battle-stations"

As I sat back down in my battle-station (because, of course, playing bingo is like going to war), I assumed the ready position, with my cardboard in my lap (with my bingo sheets securely glued), my bingo stamp in my right hand, and my left arm positioned in such a manner to wave uncontrollably in the event that I got a bingo (which, I thought at the time, was not a question of “if” but rather “when”). I was ready, the other players were ready: it was bingo time.

Now, as I have already mentioned, while I am certainly no expert, I have had some experience playing bingo, and I was usually pretty “good” at it. One thing that I always took for granted, however, was that whenever I used to play bingo, the number-caller would always call out the numbers in English. The moment my first game of Samoan bingo began, I knew I was in trouble. Although I had watched numerous games in passing, I hadn’t really ever paid enough attention to realize that the games were always in Samoan. This was further compounded by the fact that the number-caller seemed to be calling a new number every five seconds (which I felt was a tad too quick, and subsequently confused and overwhelmed me, as per my earlier analysis). I quickly realized that if I was going to fulfill my prophecy of victory, I was going to need some help, because although I had learned the numbers 1-10 in my WorldTeach orientation, I was pretty much at a loss after that. I asked a lady sitting near me if she wouldn’t mind translating the numbers for me, offering half of my prize when I won (again, “when” not “if”). She agreed, although it did not seem as though she was particularly eager to do it (probably partially due to her competitive nature, partially because it must be seriously aggravating to translate every number called in a game of bingo to someone else while you’re also trying to play).

And so it was, that after missing quite a few numbers (no doubt killing any chance I had of winning that particular game), I had settled into a routine: the number-caller would call out a number, the lady sitting beside me would quickly translate the number to me while at the same time stamping her board, and I would do my best to try and stamp my board before she translated the next number to me. There was no time to ask for repetition, so you can imagine how focused I had to be in order to make sure I heard and understood every number being called. I was so focused, in fact, that I was not prepared when a runner came by and asked me if I wanted to buy sheets for the next game. I had just assumed that once someone called a bingo, there would be a short break to buy new sheets for the next game. That was not the case, apparently, and so as I was struggling to make sure I was following the translation of each number called, I used the fraction of a second between numbers to talk to the runner.

“Yes……can I……..have………two sheets……..fa’amolemole” (Samoan for please)

Bingo "number-caller" and a tired "runner"...classic

Of course, I also hadn’t given any thought to how I was going to pay for the sheets. My “wad” of dollar bills was neatly tucked in my pocket, and I couldn’t get it out without potentially losing my concentration and missing another number. It didn’t seem like the runner was going to give me the sheets on credit, so as she stood in front of me, no doubt waiting for me to pay-up, I finally gave-in and dug around for a couple of dollars, at the same time missing what seemed like three or four more numbers called. Had I paid more attention before I began playing, I would have noticed that all the players around me had conveniently tucked dollar bills between their toes, so that when a runner came by they would simply pluck the money out of their toes and give them the sheets (although I think it’s a little unhygienic, it’s actually pretty ingenious when you think about it).

One of the many competitors who would wipe the floor with me at Samoan bingo

I played for a few more rounds, but ended up walking home empty-handed. Although I had been a bingo champion in elementary school classrooms in the mid to late 90s, I was simply not conditioned enough for Samoan bingo. I never came close to winning, but if I had magically gotten a bingo, I would most likely have still been disappointed. I don’t know if this is a rule for Canadian bingo, but in Samoan bingo, you can only win if you get a bingo on the last number called, if you get a bingo, but they call another number before you can shout it out, apparently it doesn’t count. This can be especially problematic when you need translation, and are a few steps behind everyone else.

I haven’t played another game of Samoan bingo since that afternoon, the stress is too much for me, but whenever I see a game I always stop by and practice my Samoan numbers.

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Christmas in Fiji

Where do you go for a vacation when you already live in paradise?

As Christmas quickly approached, I was faced to the unappealing task of choosing where to spend my two-week holiday. While there were plenty of other equally worthy choices; Australia, New Zealand, Vanuatu, Tonga and Western Samoa, I ultimately settled on Fiji as my destination for some fun under the sun. While my initial plan was to find a resort and just relax on the beach, I realized that I can basically do that any weekend I want. I decided, therefore, to take a tour around the main Fijian island of Viti Levu, before heading out to an outer-island resort for a few days (I mean, I can still live the resort life a little bit, right?).

To get to Fiji from American Samoa, I had to fly through Apia (in Western Samoa). There are two airlines that fly to Apia: Inter Island Air and Polynesian Air. Given all of my past dealings with Inter Island Air, can you guess who I chose to fly with? Unfortunately, Polynesian Air flies into a small regional airport, about an hour’s drive from the international airport. So, once I landed in Apia, I had to quickly flag a cab and drive to the other airport (cost me about $40, but it was worth it to fly with an airline that has planes that work….). From the international airport in Apia I flew to Nadi, arriving there at about 2 am on Friday the 23rd. I was absolutely exhausted, and I was in desperate need of private comfort, so I ended up upgrading my hostel reservation to a private room, which allowed me to have my own bathroom (with HOT WATER…what a luxury!) and a giant bed.

My tour didn’t leave until Saturday morning, so I had all Friday to explore Nadi. I can say with absolute certainty that Nadi is an epic shithole, there isn’t much going on and it’s completely filthy. Being white, I couldn’t walk ten steps without being harassed by somebody wanting to sell me something. I’ve never been good at saying no to people, but I can honestly say that I didn’t buy a single useless souvenir while in Fiji. After about the 4th pushy vendor, I came to the conclusion that all of these people must take some kind of “tourist trapping” course, as they all pretty much said the same things to me.
Here is the basic conversation:

Vendor Bula my friend! Merry Christmas to you!
Me Hi, Merry Christmas….
Vendor My friend, where are you from?
Me Canada
Vendor Oh…Canada! Go Maple Leafs! I have a friend that lives in Vancouver!
Me That’s great……
Vendor My friend, can I give you some advice
Me Sure….
Vendor Do not buy anything from the Indians, they are big-business, and they are hurting this country
Me Uh, okay, I’ll keep that in mind….
Vendor My friend, can I show you some of my culture (and they would beckon me inside)
Me Uh, no thanks, another time….

I swear every vendor said the same thing about Canada, and they all shared the same hatred for Indians. Fiji has a huge Indian population, some people call it “Little India” and I can certainly understand why. The British brought them in by the boatload to work the land back in the day, and the cultural differences between the Indo-Fijians and the “Native” Fijians have fueled a pretty intense hatred for each other. Native Fijians are a lot like Samoans; they are super laid-back, and they work on “Fiji-time”, which means that it will happen when it happens. Indians, on the contrary, are all about deadlines and efficiency. Essentially, the Native Fijians think the Indo Fijians are “big-business” and are stealing jobs and money away from the country, and the Indo Fijians think the Natives are lazy and leech off the system. Just a bit of history for you I suppose, but everywhere I went in Fiji there seemed to be mutual resentment between the two groups.

After spending a couple of hours getting harassed by shopkeepers (all of whom apparently have friends in Vancouver) I decided to take a cab over to Port Denerau, which is a man-made island just outside of Nadi. Port Denerau has all of the ritzy resorts (Westin, Radisson, Hilton, etc.), and is thus where all of the rich white people go when they come to Nadi. Port Denerau has a shopping center, so I went there for a bit, mostly just to get a decent meal. I ended up eating at a steakhouse (apparently the best in Fiji), and while I’m sure the steak wasn’t anything amazing, it certainly seemed like it to me. After dinner I walked around the rich, white part of Fiji before heading back to my hostel (I took the bus back, with all the resort employees going home for the day).

My tour picked me up on Saturday morning. It turns out that not that many people tour around during Christmas (figures…I would guess most people want to spend Christmas at home before going on vacation), and as a result my tour was essentially private, it was just me and a girl from Ireland. We had an Indo Fijian driver named Kaka (I know, haha) and a Native Fijian tour guide name Kili (who used to work as contracted security in Iraq). So, while touring around the main island of Viti Levu, I felt like a super-rich tourist, with my private driver and private tour guide who doubled as my bodyguard.

On Christmas, I went on a three-hour hike through the Fijian jungle. The scenery was lovely, but because Fiji is so wet this time of year the trail was essentially a giant mud trail. Luckily, the trail goes by a waterfall, so we stopped and chilled there for about an hour. It was a really nice way to spend Christmas, just kind of isolated in the middle of the Fiji wilderness. On Boxing Day we went through the capital city of Suva, which is nearly as much of a shithole as Nadi. We walked by the President’s mansion and the parliament buildings, and I got a picture standing beside the President’s guard (the kind that aren’t supposed to laugh or move).

There were two main highlights on my tour of Viti Levu: the village visit and the Indian food. We visited an “authentic” Fijian village one afternoon (I say authentic hesitantly because I’m sure they play up their customs when there are tourists around). As we entered the village, some of the elders invited us to take part in a traditional kava ceremony. Kava is a huge deal in the South Pacific (including AmSam), and is always had during important meetings, celebrations and ceremonies. Kava is a root that is crushed into a powder, and is then mixed in water. Kava looks like dirty water and pretty much tastes like dirty water, but it makes your tongue numb, and when you have it in large enough quantities it will basically make you drunk (they call it kava-dope). I didn’t drink enough to get kava-dope, but when I was done I felt a numbing sensation on my tongue.

I also hung-out with some of the local village boys and we went bilibili rafting (made from bamboo trees tied together). It was nice just to horse around with some of the local kids, they seem to get really excited to see foreigners, and they wanted to know all about Canada. After the rafting, I took part in some “traditional” Fijian dancing, which is basically just dancing that you make up as you go. As we were dancing, an older woman started walking around and dousing all of us with baby powder. Apparently, this is what people do when they are celebrating, but I’m pretty sure that they really just like to mess with tourists so they just grab whatever they have and throw it on them and claim it is the custom. Whether or not the village was really authentic, it was certainly nice to experience Fijian culture. The kava ceremony piqued my interest in the traditional brew, and the experience opened the floodgates for what would become my kava-binging tour of Mantaray Island (more on that later).

As for my other highlight, on my last day of the tour I had the best Indian food I’ve ever had (are you surprised that I would glorify this?). Our driver took us to his aunt’s house, which was a bed and breakfast five miles off the main road in the middle of absolutely nowhere. We sat in her kitchen and she just kept coming out with more food. The more I ate, the happier she seemed to be, and she just kept bringing more, I must have sat there for a solid hour before I had to stop. It might have been the 5-month absence of anything even remotely similar to Indian, but everything tasted so fantastic, and when I mashed everything together on my plate it tasted even better!

The tour took us in a full loop around Viti Levu, so we ended back in Nadi, where I stayed the night at the same hostel before heading out to Mantary Island. Mantaray Island is in the Yasawa Island chain on the west side of Fiji, and it is absolutely gorgeous out there. The only way to get to the islands is by float plane (if you’re mad rich) or by boat. The boat was only supposed to take 3 hours to get to my island, but the combination of rough weather and general Fiji-time meant that it took closer to 5 hours to get there. For the next three days, I just lied in the sun, snorkeled and kayaked. I got a decent tan, but even with generously applying sunscreen every couple of hours (I went through an entire bottle while I was there) I still managed to get a sun-burn, so for the last day I stayed covered up and just read in a hammock.

While the days were fun, the nights were where the real excitement happened. Having already whetted my appetite for kava during my village visit, I was keen to see if I could procure more of the traditional beverage. After asking around, I was told that I should speak to Joe, a maintenance worker at the resort, if I wanted to get the “good stuff”. Now, while I may or may not have dabbled with the occasional doobie in my time (guess you’ll never know…sorry Mom), I have a general policy to “pass on grass”, as it were; so when faced with the task of approaching a stranger and requesting the “good stuff”, I was unsure of how to proceed. Whatever the most sensible way is, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the way I did it.

Kava is perfectly legal; it’s not even “weed in Jamaica legal”, where everyone thinks it’s legal and then finds out that it’s only really legal for locals, and when tourists are caught with it they can get arrested and thrown into a dirty Jamaican prison, where the Bob Marley song I Shot the Sheriff is actually true, and the song No Woman, No Cry takes on an entirely different meaning. No, kava is completely 100% legal; everyone drinks it from when they’re young until the day they die. Despite this, however, I somehow got it into my head that I had to be really careful and secretive when I approached Joe to ask him for some kava. So, I decided that it would be best to wait until I could get Joe 1-on-1, that’s when I would make my move.

It just so happened that as I was walking to the bathroom later that day, I saw Joe cutting the lawn with a weed-whacker. “It’s now or never”, I thought to myself, as if my quest for kava was of some significant importance. As I approached, Joe turned off the weed-whacker and greeted me with boisterous “Bula!” (Fijian for hello). His greeting was unexpected, and when compounded with my nervousness, made me freeze-up. I didn’t know what to say (perhaps an equally boisterous “Bula!” in return would have sufficed), so I said the only thing I could think of, “Why do you use a weed-whacker to cut the lawn, wouldn’t a lawn mower make more sense?”

Now, there is a back-story to my particular question that might make it seem less random (although it was still a pretty bad choice to make a first impression). In Manu’a, nobody uses a lawn mower to cut their lawns; everyone uses a weed-whacker, which absolutely mystifies me because these Samoans have enormous lawns, and a job that would take them an afternoon to complete ends up taking them a week. Wes and I have asked our students multiple times why people don’t use lawn mowers, and nobody seems to know, so we just shrug to each other and say “meh, T.I.S.”

While my question about Joe’s choice of lawn-maintenance equipment could have been potentially disastrous, I was relieved to find out that the man had a sense of humour. He laughed a little bit, shrugged his shoulders and said “I don’t know”. He then asked me where I was from and we talked a little bit about Canada and American Samoa, and when I finally felt as though I had earned his trust (I’m no narc), I asked him about the “good stuff”. “No problem”, Joe said, “meet me outside the dining hall after dinner, I’ll take you to the employee village, we’ll have some real kava”. While I was confused about what Joe meant by “real kava”, I was nonetheless excited to drink some. I was feeling more and more like an authentic South Pacific Islander.

I met Joe after dinner and he took me down to the employee village. I had never really thought about it before, but if you have a resort on an island, you obviously have to have a place where the employees live. At my resort that place was on the other side of the island, far away from where the tourists typically venture. The employee village was basically just a couple of dorms on the beach, and as I entered with Joe I could see a group of about 8 resort employees sitting on bed mattresses around a fire. Joe quickly introduced me to everyone, and then invited me to have a seat on one of the mattresses while he prepared the kava.

Now, I’ve watched enough 60 Minutes to know that tourists disappear all over the world, mostly because they meet someone and follow them somewhere and never return. This was not lost on me while I was sitting around the fire, the only tourist in a group of locals. As I began to ponder this further, I envisioned Joe slipping a “roofie” into my kava and proceeding to rob me and sell me into slavery. All of my anxiety quickly dissipated, however, as Joe started passing the kava around; I was too keen to try the “good stuff” to worry about my face being plastered on the 1% cartons of Québon.

The method of drinking kava pays homage to the traditional culture of the South Pacific, and while I’m sure some people might just drink it like any other beverage, it seemed to me that most people respected the cultural preservation of the activity. Kava is mixed in a giant bowl, and is served in half of a coconut shell. When the kava is ready, the person mixing the kava dips the shell into the bowl, and holds it high in front of him, waiting for someone to indicate they want to drink the shell. To drink the shell, a person claps once, says “Bula!”, and proceeds to receive the shell from the person mixing the kava. Once you finish the shell (which you’re supposed to do in a single go, sipping is for the weak), you are supposed to hand it back to the person mixing the kava, and clap three times. I thought the whole thing was a little strange at first, but when I saw the locals doing it I knew that it had to be legit, so I joined right in with them.

It didn’t take me very long to understand why this “real kava” was the “good stuff”. Like everything else, kava is something that has been exploited for tourism purposes. Kava powder is sold in plenty of stores, and kava ceremonies are conducted all over the place (most hotels and hostels do them every night). But because tourists have not grown-up drinking kava, the stuff sold in stores and used at hotels and hostels is extremely diluted. Locals buy their kava in root form, and grind it up themselves, which makes it more authentic, or as Joe liked to put it, “the real stuff”. So while my first experience with kava (during my village visit) left my tongue a little numb after a few shells, the kava I was now having made my entire mouth numb after a single shell.

So it went for quite some time, the 9 Fijian locals and a tourist, sitting by the fire passing around the kava shell. Every time it was my turn, Joe would ask if I wanted high-tide (a full shell) or low-tide (half a shell), and while I started strong with a few high-tides, I quickly retreated to low-tides for the rest of the night. Kava varies from country to country, and while each country will boast that their kava is the best, there are clear differences in their potency. Vanuatu, for example, supposedly has the strongest kava, where 1 or 2 high-tides will put a tourist on a trip for a couple of days. In Fiji, the kava is much more mellow, and it wasn’t until somewhere between my 10th and 15th low-tide (after what I would consider an impressive 5 or so high-tides, I might add) that I began to get my kava-dope.

Getting drunk off of kava is a much softer, smoother inebriation than alcohol. I felt as though my body was becoming lighter, and I was having serious flashes of euphoria from the smallest things. The book Getting Stoned with Savages, an account of one man’s journey through Vanuatu and Fiji, dedicates an entire chapter to kava-dope, and he does a much better job of describing it than I can; I’ll just say that it’s a pretty good time. What isn’t as much of a good time, however, is the morning after drinking kava. While I wouldn’t say I had to suffer the classic symptoms of a hangover (headache, sensitivity to light, etc.), I was groggy and sluggish all day long, kind of like operating on not enough sleep.

Regardless, that night with Joe and the other employees I had been apparently granted “local” status at the resort, and was free to join them anytime for some more kava. And join them again I did, the following night, and the night after that. My days became sluggish kayak trips and walks on the beach, and my nights became euphoric story-telling sessions on mattresses in front of the fire.

On my last day (December 31st) I caught the boat back to Viti Levu (just 4 hours this time, an improvement), and from the marina I took a bus straight to the airport, where I met up with Jill and Katherine, my WorldTeacher friends who let me crash at their place whenever I’m in town. We ended up celebrating New Year’s at the airport bar, just the three of us at the bar in a near-empty departures area. Our flight back to Apia left at 2 am on New Year’s Day, and upon arrival I hopped into a taxi and took the hour drive from the international airport to the regional airport (which is really just a glorified grass field).

Fiji has had 4 coups in its history, the most recent occurring in 2006. The military is currently ruling the country, and as a result the country has been suspended from the Commonwealth. You wouldn’t know it from touring around the country, however, as Fiji is absolutely gorgeous, and shows no obvious signs of military rule or continuous civil war. While it is true that the big cities are rather off-putting, there are thankfully only a couple of them and the wonderful countryside that surrounds them more than makes up for it. I had an absolutely wonderful time in Fiji, and it was an excellent way to spend my Christmas vacation.

When my feet hit the tarmac of Pago Pago International Airport, I felt like I was home again. That feeling quickly subsided, however, when an American Samoan customs officer asked me for my Immigration Identification Card, reminding me that I was, in fact, a Canadian castaway. “No problem whatsoever”, I said to the customs officer, proudly brandishing my beautiful ID card; the very same card that I had spent a tumultuous 48 hours obtaining on that very island only two months prior. As I left the airport, I stopped by the office of Inter Island Air, curious to see if my flight back to Manu’a was on schedule. “I’m sorry”, said the woman behind the counter, “the plane is broken right now, so your flight has been canceled”.

I was home.

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Final Exams and my complete detestation for Inter Island Air

The final calendar flip for 2011 was a joyous one, as the move from November to December marked the beginning of Exam Season. While I was never particularly enthusiastic about taking exams as a student, I have become quite fond of writing them as a teacher. Exam season, for me, was an opportunity to try and boost my students’ confidence before final semester grades were released, an opportunity to give them some concrete motivation and momentum heading into 2nd semester. “If you haven’t paid attention all semester”, I said to each of my classes, “make sure that you pay attention over the next five days, as we go over everything you will need to know for your exam.”

Given that I had no formal training before I came here, my experiences as a teacher have been all about trial and error, and learning as I go. After the mid-term exams, I got the impression that I was expecting too much from my students, holding them to the same standards I was held to in high school. As AmSam is an American Territory, students here are taught American Education Standards, and it is sometimes easy to forget that the education system here is still improving, and many of my students were not able to properly add, subtract, multiply or divide when they arrived at high school, and most didn’t know what a negative number was. So while I am supposed to be teaching my students the intricacies of Algebra, Geometry and Calculus, as long as they finish the school year with stronger fundamental math skills than when they began, I believe that I will have done my job. Based on my lessons learned from mid-terms, my strategy for my final exams was to do a comprehensive review, making sure I covered absolutely everything my students would be responsible for (no independent study for my students this time, if it was going to be on my exam, we talked about it at length and did tons of problems). I went step-by-step with my students over every concept we had covered, and I gave them review problems that would be nearly (if not completely) identical to the questions they would see on their exam. Once the exams were written, I stood in front of each class, exam in hand and went page by page telling them that they would have exactly 3 questions on Chapter 3, or that they would have two questions on the substitution method.

My strategy worked to varying degrees across my classes. My biggest disappointment, however, was in my Algebra II class. By far my weakest class academically, I tried so hard to make my final easy enough for them to do well, but comprehensive enough to make them work hard. So, I decided to make the Algebra II final exam consist completely of the questions we had done just the week before for review. Of course, I didn’t tell the students that the problems were going to be the same, but I figured if they were able to do them the week before, they would be able to do them again on the exam. The result was disappointing: a class average of 61%, by far the lowest score of all my classes.

Regardless, I am proud to say that once I calculated the final grades for 1st semester, not a single student in any of my classes failed. I should note, however, that the grading scale at Manu’a High School is extremely generous, with the cut-off grade to pass a class at 38. Even still, I was happy to see serious improvements in the grades of most of my students from mid-terms to finals, particularly with my freshman Algebra I class, who used to be a chore to teach but have quickly become one of my favourite classes. As I begin 2nd semester, I am excited to see my kids again, and I hope that I can provide them an improved education as a wiser, more experienced teacher.

Once exams were done, and my grades were submitted, I immediately switched to vacation mode, ready to leave American Samoa for a couple of weeks and recharge my batteries. I will admit that the last few weeks of 1st semester were exhausting, and I was in dire need of a little R&R. I know it may be difficult for those of you living with 4 feet of snow outside your window to understand why I would think it necessary to leave my tropical island and go elsewhere for a vacation, but 4 months of seeing the same exact group of people every day wore me down: it was time for a change.

So, on the weekend following exams, I was all packed and ready to head over to Fiji (my destination of choice). The only thing standing between me and my vacation was Inter Island Air, the sole provider of air transportation between Manu’a and Tutuila. If you read my earlier post about obtaining my Immigration Identification Card (which you should have, if you were reading my posts in order), you know that I had some issues the last time I flew with Inter Island Air. Also, if you remember The Great Manu’a Transportation Embargo of 2011 (I mean, how could you not?), you’ll remember that the only plane that Inter Island Air uses for the Manu’a flight has a habit of breaking down at rather inopportune moments, do you see where I’m going with this?

My flight to Tutuila was supposed to leave on Sunday, where I would hang out for a couple of days before heading over to Fiji on the following Wednesday. Fate decided it was not going to be that simple, however, and the Friday before I was set to leave Manu’a, word came that the plane was once again broken, and all flights between Manu’a and Tutuila were indefinitely suspended. I shouldn’t have been surprised; the plane breaks all the time, and in fact as I’m writing this the plane is yet again broken, and has been for nearly a week, yet somehow I was still taken aback by the news. I swear the planes here break more often than the planes in the Canadian Air Force, a feat that I previously thought impossible.

Panic began to creep into my mind as I thought about the prospect of having to pay enormous cancellation fees for everything I booked in Fiji. I also envisioned spending the next two weeks pouting in my little house on the beach (I know it doesn’t sound that bad, but you had to be there to know how it felt). I was on the phone non-stop with the Inter Island Air office in Tutuila (the one where I had my dramatic tirade over denying the children of Manu’a their profoundly important math teacher), but all they kept telling me was they didn’t know when the plane would be fixed, or when they would be flying back to Manu’a. When I asked them if Inter Island Air would reimburse me for all the costs of my cancelled vacation to Fiji, they said they would look into it and get back to me (I never heard back from them, I’m sure my question is on a top-priority list, which means I should hear something around the time my freshman class graduates).

The rest of the Manu’a WorldTeachers were facing similar consequences if they didn’t make it off Manu’a within a couple of days, so they were also doing all they could to get some answers. On more than one occasion, we called the Inter Island Air office one right after the other, no doubt harassing the airline workers about any updates for Manu’a. Eventually, we were somehow able to get a government plane to agree to come out to Manu’a and get us (I suppose being a volunteer with the DOE does have some advantages). Regardless, I was still upset about the total lack of assistance and complete disorganization from Inter Island Air: it was farcical. Here is a conversation I had with the airline about reserving a seat on a later flight.

Me So because my flight was cancelled, does that mean that I get bumped onto the first scheduled flight once the plane’s fixed
Airline Well no, the people that have reserved tickets for that day will get on that flight
Me So what about me?
Airline Well, you’re name will be put at the very top of the waiting list (…not this again…) and if there’s space on the flight we’ll squeeze you in
Me …right…so you’ll put me on the waiting list?
Airline Well no, we only handle the waiting list for flights from Tutuila to Manu’a, you need to call the office at the airport in Fitiuta (the Manu’a airport) to have them put you on the waiting list for a flight from Manu’a to Tutuila
Me Okay, can you transfer me?
Airline Transfer? What’s that?
Me Never mind…is the office at the Fitiuta airport open now? Can I call them now?
Airline Probably not, they usually only open a couple of hours before a flight
Me So when there are no flights to Manu’a, the office in Manu’a isn’t open?
Airline That’s right
Me So the office won’t be open until the plane is fixed?
Airline Probably not
Me So you want me to wait until the plane’s fixed, and call the office in Fitiuta to be put on a waiting list for a flight that will leave only a couple of hours later?
Airline Yeah, just call a couple of hours ahead and they’ll put you on the list
Me And do you think the other 30 or so people who have had cancelled flights this weekend will be doing the same thing?
Airline I guess so…
Me Is there seriously nothing you can do for me?
Airline Well, you could go and wait at the airport until the office opens, that might help….

I don’t pretend to know how hard it must be to run an airline, but I would think that a company in the service industry would do a little better in helping out their customers. Perhaps this is a clear example of why, in so many instances, monopolies are terrible things. The complete lack of competition for Inter Island Air means that the airline can continue to fly broken planes and give its customers the one-finger salute because they know that there is no real alternative for transportation. All I can say is that, given my experiences with Inter Island Air, I will be exploring all other transportation options if I end up going anywhere for Spring Break. I have given serious thought to carving a canoe out of one of the larger trees in my village (an innate skill that all Canadians possess, of course) and paddling to Tutuila; it would be exhausting, I have no doubts about that, but I would bet serious money that I would get there faster than if I flew with Inter Island Air.

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