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Friday, June 19, 2015

A Bookworm, a Sea Fairy & Humpty-Dumpty Learn to Scuba Dive

Photos by Laumei Diving

When Jim received a call from his Swedish radiologist buddy inviting him to join a group of men learning to scuba dive, he jumped at the opportunity. With the plentiful reefs and live coral surrounding the island of Tutuila, American Samoa is ideal. Jim studied a PADI book to prepare. He and my father share a similar, annoying knack – they can process their reading material into a live experience. Mind and body become one with the universe. Jim earned his Open Water certification with the ease of an experienced diver.
The Bookworm.

He enjoyed himself so much he suggested that Carolyne and I might like to take a Mom/Daughter class. Having endured piercing sharp pain while simply snorkeling was a concern, crackling like broken glass across my forehead and face. But, I signed up anyway thinking Carolyne would also love taking lessons together and it sounded easy enough. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Instead of giggling with delight over our girly adventure, on our first excursion Carolyne crossed her arms, avoided eye contact and acted utterly bored. She didn't exchange but two words with Renaud, our Master Diver, and I wasn't even sure she was paying attention to his instructions. It was hardly a bonding experience.

And it was on our 3rd dive I suffered severe pain in my ear. My mask felt like it was going to jet propel off my face and I was having trouble breathing. Attempts to equalize were futile. Nervous anxiety escalated until I was convinced it was a holy premonition telling me to GET OUT OF THE WATER! I sat the lesson out. Carolyne, a born sea creature, was flipping tail and soaring through the refracted aqua light with such beauteous grace that Renaud boasted she was a “natural”. She discovered she loved diving so much that she pursued her courses unabashed and quickly earned her Open Water certification.
The Sea Fairy.

I was sadly never able to complete the first level. I pictured Jim and Carolyne going on fantastic underwater adventures while I stayed on dry land or putzed around the surface in my snorkel gear. With a heavy heart, I thanked Renaud for his time and went home to have a good cry. Jim tried to comfort me. “Describe your problem”, he gently coaxed. Through my blubbering I managed to squeak, “I... have... mental...”
And... that about sums it up.

Then a week later, Renaud invited me to go diving with him one-on-one, predicting I would do fine if it were just the two of us. We had already paid him, so I agreed to give it another try.
Plus he's 26.
And French.
And very handsome.  
Laumei Diving has a Facebook Page you can "like"
Trouble was immediate.
Although Renaud's instructions were excellent, upon descending I had the inability to control my BCD (buoyancy control device). (B)limping slowly to the top, gluteus maximus in the lead and arms and legs flailing, I desperately tried to deflate air out of my vest, which wasn't cooperating because my fingers aren't anymore coordinated than the rest of me. More lead weights were added to my pockets, but after several more helium-butt-woman retrievals Renaud opted to DRAG me alongside for the rest of the dive. It was humiliating... bobbing up and down uncontrollably like a silly cartoon...

But practice makes perfect. I eventually passed every required physical exercise, even filling my mask 100% with water and then purging – totally executed while underwater. My initial attempts at this were pretty rotten because of a so-called little freak-out-factor, and so I was instructed to repeat this hateful drill several times over the course. I blame it on stage fright because once a curious school of yellow fish arrived and hovered in front of me. There is nothing quite so intimidating as performing water tricks in front of an aquatic audience. After 10 sloppy efforts, I finally purged the water from my mask completely. The unimpressed fish left before intermission and I could swear one of them even booed.

It took me twice as long to get halfway there, but Renaud (patient saint that he is) encouraged me along until I finally obtained my Open Water certification with no further mishaps... including death-defying underwater feats, like removing my weight belt and BCD and then dressing into them again and removing my mask, swimming 10 meters, replacing the mask and purging.

I emailed my sister, bragging of my triumphant diving achievement and detailing the mind-boggling hurdles I overcame. Her response?
“That poor 26 year old saint and his na├»ve self thinks you had anxiety....Pfft. I know better. This is you...
Oh no, French boy - we are too deep - I cannot breathe - I need mouth to mouth!
Oh no, French boy....there is something wriggling in my wet suit - can you get it out?
Oh SHARK!...Hold me, French boy!

If only I had been so clever.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

What's New in Pago Pago - Part II

My teaching experience in American Samoa was an exceptional one.

My classroom was once a motel room. It was very small and had no air conditioning. Three walls had openings covered with chicken wire, inviting welcome island breeze to deposit unwelcome island dirt upon every flat surface. I didn't have the luxury of a janitor, so my daily routine consisted of wiping the grime from desks, and sweeping or mopping the filthy floor - unless I could commandeer a student's recess period with “detention”, then the drudgery of those chores was skillfully delegated to a repeat homework skipper or disruptive classroom chatterbox.

Some of my 6A rowdies

6A party!

7B's card
The termites reeked havoc on the tables, chairs and desks... thus, every morning my first priority upon arriving was to remove the little piles of rolly-poly termite droppings laying in lumps all over the floor. As soon as I turned on the lights, a gecko or two would skitter across the walls and disappear behind an arithmetic poster or hide in a dark corner behind the broom and mop handles.

Little angels

7A beauties
I taught 6 classes: (3) Math, (2) History and (1) Spelling to a group of 6th, 7th and 8th graders. The pay was marginal – a person paying rent, utilities, food and the rest of life's necessities wouldn't be able to squeak by on that salary unless, perhaps, they were renting a room instead of a house and sustained on Ramen Noodles alone. And it was just a few months ago that I discovered I would not be paid through the summer (as teachers are in the USA)... therefore, my salary was quite less than I understood it would be. And if I took off time to visit a doctor because the clinic appointments were scheduled during school hours, my pay was docked for the time I missed - regardless of how many hours of unpaid overtime I had accumulated.

All the sodas and happy faces will be explained the further you read...

Yes, there was a learning curve.

The students and staff members are the only reason that every morning I kept returning to my dustpan full of termite poo. I can't say enough how much I enjoyed being amongst them.

Balloons and leis

Fragrant and beautiful
On my last day, my 6A class threw me a surprise pizza and ice cream party. This particular 6th grade group consisted of 18 rowdy boys and 4 unfortunate girls. Throughout the year, my main challenge with my 6A group was to lasso their straying focus and squelch their constant bickering. They had this thing they would do to each other that would send one or two of the students into fits of bawling, squalling and shrieking! They would “call my dad's name”.

Darling 6A and 6B girls!

Seriously - this is just the beginning of the offerings

Dear friend and colleague, Tricia
When the first complaint of “call my dad's name” came to my attention, I looked at the sad-faced victim incredulously and shrugged, which sent the child back to his desk in slow motion with tears streaming down his cheeks and ended with a lowered and heaving head on the desk for the remainder of the class period. I was stunned. Not knowing if I had stumbled into some ancient cultural superstitious island warrior voodooish hex thing (but realizing the intense seriousness of the effect it had on my sensitive students), I turned to them for guidance. "Okay, I give. What is the meaning of “call your dad's name?””, I asked the panorama of wounded faces. My 6A students perked right up and were only too delighted to explain to me the seriousness of it.

Candy leis are very popular
You see, when one child utters the first name of another child's father, it is considered a slight or injustice to the entire family - utterly dishonorable. It is the Samoan version of “Yo Mama”.

I paused, nodding my head up and down to demonstrate how well I understood this heinous grievance, and let that sink in for a couple of minutes while I conjured up a worthy response. Coming up with absolutely nothing other than a poor attempt at connecting dots, I pointed out that my own father's name is Perttu, simplified to Pert, and that if they needed to make fun of a father's name they could feel free to use my father's name. (I really didn't think he would mind and after all these years, with a name like that in Dallas, he's probably used to it anyway.) I triumphantly let that settle over my bewildered 6A Class. It worked for exactly one day.

For weeks I handed out disciplinary verdicts and punishments to deal with “call my dad's name”, and for more weeks my relentless group continued to call dad's names until I could no longer take anymore fits of pure outrage, undulating wails and shuddering sobs! I lit into them good. I made up a school rule and told them that all the teachers had banded together to form a new official school policy. As of that second, I told them, it was strictly forbidden to call anyone's dad's name and that if they continued such nonsense ever on the campus at any time that they would be sent to the Director's Office for immediate suspension – or even worse – they would “suffer me!”, a successful Stryder line I learned from the Lord of the Rings trilogy when he was speaking to a group of rambunctious ghosts. That scolding earned me the cheerful nickname “Mrs. Military Meri”, which when uttered, summoned up preteen fits of non-stop contagious giggling.

And so it was this particular group that proffered a “Going Away” party, the first surprise party of my life. Sodas, cookies, chips and all the junk food side dishes that accompany a proper pizza and ice cream party were provided at the celebration. And to get me out of the classroom so they could sneakily prepare, they feigned an outdoor fight between two of my more believable darlings. Such cunning little angels they are! And students from my other classes brought me lovely gift after lovely gift. Their generosity was overwhelming. The hugs and kisses I received were mutually returned.

My sweet, sweet kids... such delightful treasures.

I will really, really, really miss them.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

What's New in Pago Pago - Part One

Flower Pot Rock - Fatu & Futi. The beaches on Tutuila are amazing!

Gorgeous harbor sunset
With the slow strike over on the west coast, supplies have re-appeared on the island. It was sluggish at first... the few items that did make it to Tutuila were greedily grabbed up (by hoarders like me) and socked away. Then, there were no eggs.... again. But little by little, more containers arrived on the ships – and then even more. Fresh produce is again abundant, as is everything else.
Cassidy and Carolyne - inseparable - again!

Shannon's great photo of two of her children enjoying an island ride
in the back of our pickup truck

Waterfall hike in Nu'uuli
This was perfect timing for several cruising friends, one family who sailed from their 7 months in Tonga and another family who sailed from Fiji. There is no better place in the South Pacific Islands to get provisions than American Samoa! Their eyes bugged out of their heads when they saw all the available groceries.
They have chia seeds?
Gluten free pasta?
And the 6 kids aboard reacted the same way Carolyne did once the anchor was dropped...
Joe demonstrating the art of using the coconut shredder. This technique
renders the most awesome coconut cream in the world!

Taco Thursday at Evalani's for $1 chicken, pork or beef tacos - LOADED!
Unfortunately for sv Lil' Explorers, their stay was way too short. But we managed to squeeze in some tour time. It was great fun to share some of our favorite nature hikes with our friends. Sludging through the mud to the waterfall for a cool swim was memorable. Fortunately for us, sv Lady Carolina will be here a little longer and also our new friends who spent 5 months on the small atoll of Penryhn, sv Elysium.
Our cruising friend, Dick, giving us ride back home from the dock

Cruising friends, Dane and Jessie

Helping our New Hampshire friends on sv Ironbarque with a science project in the tropics...
Earthwise produce bags

These papers work pretty well, but this is what Clare on Ironbarque had to say:
"Among our various tomatoes the best one by far is the one sitting on a paper towel that had been dipped in vinegar and dried.  So I would recommend dousing fruits and veggies with a diluted mix of white vinegar, or at the very least, dousing the vessel in which they are stored." 
Jim recently took diving lessons with an awesome Frenchman, Renault. The cost here is $350 for the complete open water certification and $175 if you only want the Padi scuba diver card. Tutuila is a great island for learning to dive – lots of shallows for the introductory lessons and then later on and a little further back the coral reef drops off and Jim said he was suddenly swimming with the turtles! Carolyne and I signed up together and now after taking our first Mom/Daughter Dive we're enthusiastic about our second lesson!
Renault and his precious wife, Anita, whom he met in Madagascar.

Meanwhile, we're wrapping things up here in Pago Pago. Jim is already hopping on the boat projects that we have ignored over the last 8 months. I won't bore you with the list – it is depressing. But here are a few photos of what lies ahead:
Mold on cockpit canvas due to water leaks - relentless!
Dinghy chaps surgery... patching, patching and more patching!
Seems like this project is not really a priority, but chaps can extend the life
of your inflatable by YEARS!
Projects put on hold while we wait out the weather produced
by Rainmaker Mountain (and so aptly named!)
In addition to boat projects, we have a list of equipment repairs...
but, we're no longer taking risks fixing or upgrading anything else here in American Samoa.
You would think that with the huge fishing fleet here that oodles of qualified mechanics and technicians and “fix-it/make-it-better” gurus would be in abundance. That has NOT been our experience. And yes – we asked around and got recommendations before we hired. Our 5HP outboard is STILL sitting in a garage, completely torn to pieces, and the only problem it had was that it wouldn't spark. The repairman says he can't fix it and we're terrified what he's going to charge us to put it all back together in un-working condition. And the alternator we had re-built for $160? There is absolutely no improvement – the amps are exactly the same. It is very difficult to locate “competent” service people. Luckily, you can ship easily to the US and other countries. So, that is our remedy for repairs.
Rah-Rah-Rah!! Our new love!
Jim performed numerous carburetor surgeries (one after the other) to our California purchased Yamaha generator. <Do NOT buy California carburetor equipment if you value your sanity!> Jim finally threw in the towel and bought the only brand new generator we could find on the island. It had less than appealing reviews on Amazon, but with all the cloudy, rainy days we felt we had no choice. We took the risk. And we're happy we did. $500 later, we are smiling again.

The internet on island seems to have gotten worse (although I understand that it is far better here than in Tonga!) - it has taken me several hours to post this!

so more later...

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Not Starving in American Samoa... yet!

I just made some of the BEST sauerkraut ever!! I prepared it so it fermented naturally and has all the good lactobacillus bacteria for good "gut" health. It's stupid easy to make and it tastes fantastic!! More cruisers should really consider fermented foods as “healthy” eating options when fresh veg is limited.

2 very small cabbages cost us $7 due to rising costs.
All I did was wash and chop two ordinary cabbages and one Chinese cabbage. I crushed it all down with a wooden spoon and added about a Tablespoon (maybe 2) of salt to get the juices to leech out of the veg. Once I was happy with the amount of liquid in the container, I filled a ziplock gallon bag with water and placed it on top to keep the leaves submerged in their own liquid. Then, I stored it in the shower in a loosely fitted lidded container so the gases could escape. After 5 days the sauerkraut was ready and I stuck it in the fridge. We're not new to fermented food options; we've also made a large batch of KIMCHEE in the past before making our Pacific crossing. We're really happy I did this now, however, because our fresh food options have become severely limited. 

Why are vegetables so difficult to come by in American Samoa these days??
First of all, most of the veg is shipped here from the United States. There are a few farms here on island that grow their produce, but only a small percentage of the harvest is sold in stores. The main reason we're having problems finding fresh produce recently is due to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union representing dock workers and the West Coast Port Employers in a standoff regarding contract agreements. While produce rots away in shipping containers in the west, the store shelves are being emptied here in American Samoa... no fresh produce, eggs, milk, etc... 
But not to worry, we are not starving here... yet. There are plenty of canned foods and boxed items still available. But, it is a wake-up call to American Samoa to research other options in case there are future food incidents. If I was in charge, I'd look to New Zealand, Western Samoa and Tonga.
Cost-U-Less got in a few cases of organic flour and
I stocked up by buying 6 bags at $7 each!! And I am grateful!

These baby bananas are a favorite - super sweet and delicious when ripe.
These are grown locally and are easy to come by.
My question is just how much money do dock workers really need to make?
Are they educated for that particular job – needing to spend years in a special shipping school to know how to unload a container from a truck and then put that same container on a ship? My understanding is that the average salary of a dock worker is about $147K per year. In addition, they get generous benefits and retirement packages.
I am teaching and I guarantee you that I don't get paid one quarter of that amount, but I am required to have a college education to do my job. And I may be a little more cranky about this because it was just announced that we teachers have to work over spring break. What? We work overtime and do not get paid for that? Yeah, it sucks... but my attitude is that if I don't like it, I CAN QUIT! 

Some could argue that the cost of living on the west coast is high - but I would argue back:
The average salary for a Seattle Registered Nurse is $72,000 , which is 9.2% above the national average of $65,920, according to
The average annual salary of a teacher in Portland is $55,565.
IT Engineers in San Fran-Freaking-Expensive-Cisco have a median income of $102,966 according to, but 10%-45% fall in less than the $100K range annually.
But DOCK WORKERS need more than even that???
Exactly where are we going to draw the line to blue collar workers getting paid more than educated professionals?? Or do you want ME administering your next insulin injection or screwing with your computer software?
I'll do it for $147K a year... but you won't like the outcome.
And I don't blame you. I'm not qualified.

Most American Samoan homes have lush yards
with breadfruit, papaya, coconut or banana trees.
I say quit negotiating with the union and FIRE THEM ALL! Are you really going to argue there is no one out there who couldn't and wouldn't do that job for what they are currently being paid... or even LESS??? (Yes, I am a little tweaked that I hoarded some eggs and still ran out!) I am also a tad resentful that I am working my butt off at a mere fraction of what dock workers make. The whining in the west makes me think of that movie with Russell Crowe, Cinderella Man – or maybe I just want to put some boxing gloves on. Do what the rest of us do, you little babies. Go find another job if you're so unhappy. Go get an education for those of you who don't have one. Invent a product that we can't live without. Go find happiness somewhere on the planet – because I'd bet it all that there is someone out there who would thank God for your job!

Meanwhile, the governor and Congresswoman here in American Samoa have been actively trying to get a waiver for American Samoa so that we can get food shipped here. Congresswoman Aumua Amata said earlier, “Right now our [store] shelves are bare, our people are getting hungry, and the price of goods have skyrocketed."

It is true that flour and rice are dwindling. Bread production is difficult due to a lack of flour. Jim even thought to fill our gas and diesel cans just in case. Speaking of cans, the tuna cannery here in American Samoa has 400 containers waiting to be picked up and is waiting for important machine parts, that without, are hampering production. I went to buy a tomato the other day and it was $3 for a small Roma. I don't think it is a state of emergency where people are starving, but for our family this "interruption" has certainly shed some light on the fragility of an island with 55,000 large, hungry inhabitants.

American Samoa, due to its isolation and US dependent programmed mindset/algorithm, is most certainly at a disadvantage. And I am out of eggs, fresh milk, lettuce, cabbage and other salad fixings and garden side dishes!!! Rice is scarce. If what I do have on hand happens to have weevils, I will pick them out... angrily.
Fire them.
Fire them all!!