By Gabriel Lamanuzzi, WorldTeach American Samoa 2015-2016
I am writing this in the fale (traditional Samoan home with no walls or levitating roofs, only supporting pillars) in front of my house. An ocean breeze plays footsies with a rainbow of towels, sheets, and clothes, rippling them on the drying lines beside me. The edge of the ocean is a mediocre football punt away from my bedroom window – thunderous, unrelenting. Like a liquefied Zeus. The water, nearly pristine in its shining turquoise glory, is visible through coconut trees arranged in straight lines that would make elementary school teachers drool. They were planted as windbreakers for hurricanes (the trees, not the teachers). The warm sand invites wiggling toes as the clusters of smaller rocks, dragged against one another, dully applaud the receding waves. I can go snorkeling in my front yard at my whim, with coral-soaked water expanding to either side of a cleft kept clear by a perpetual rip current (the speed boost to open ocean). My neighbors are parrotfish, flounders, minuscule-iridescent-cool-fin-dudes (their scientific name), eels, sharks, turtles, octopi, and dozens of other species. Alas, I still haven’t found Nemo. I could maunder along endlessly about the magic of underwater life, but will stop myself at the most notable experience: swimming with whales. Striking out in to open ocean until the floor was 50, 60, 70 feet below us… eventually lost to sight. Surfacing for bearings only to have the whales join us above water, clearing their blowholes less than 50 feet away. Basically Harry Potter in Narnia, it was so magical.
As for my backyard… the grand, hulking shoulders of volcanic mountains are swathed in a great big coat of trees knitted from every spare green thread in the shop. The cliff face cleans its pores in the daily contributions to the annual 25 feet of rainfall. Soaring white terns wheel in and out of the dense forest, and occasionally a segaula (a vibrant tropical parrot that lives only on this island) flits about the many banana trees. From dusk until dawn these birds are swapped out for rather hefty bats, silently screeching “FOOOOOOOD?” at the myriad of insects in the darkness.
Stepping in to a pocket of the gargantuan and majestic coat-forest, I slowly track neglected threads of trails. The ground is littered with seeds in various stages of sprouting, critters, and decomposing matter. As the path grows steeper, hermit crabs tuck themselves in at my advancing steps and roll away to safety. Overhanging greenery intercepts the path, and as I push away yet another leafy obstacle it strikes me that this is prime territory for a velociraptor ambush. Butterflies, flowers, and tiny dragon-flies bejewel the scenery. The ground crunches softly underfoot, as though I’m walking on slightly mooshy Pringles. I clamber over rocks smoothed by, well, if you moss ask… something I’ve taken a lichen to. The shifting patterns of dappled and striped sun call my attention like a tiger of light and shadows. I can breathe more deeply here than anywhere I’ve ever been.
I live on the remnant of a hotspot volcano, collapsed and eroded in the vast Pacific Ocean. A once mighty beast now long deceased, a map’s speck that has housed kings and subjects. This island goes by the name Ta’ū, and at 17.11 square miles it is a smidge smaller than the island of North America from whence I hail. The summit, Mt. Lata, is the Burj Khalifa of our tiny world out here at 3,054 feet. There are 4 of us WorldTeach volunteers on Ta’ū, 3 on the other remote island, and 18 on the main island of American Samoa (Tutuila).
I live in the village of Faleasao (population ~100), located on the northwestern side of the island. I rent the property of my principal and her husband (the village’s reverend) with one fellow WorldTeach volunteer. Our landlords’ house is 10 feet away, making our living room prime territory for mooching the internet. The other two WorldTeach volunteers are in a house allllllllllll the way on the other side of the village… so a two minute walk away.
My next door neighbor is Faleasao’s church, marking the halfway point of the village. Every village has at least one church, if not three or more – the most carefully constructed and cared for structures on island. Here folks gather throughout the week for choir practice, youth groups, and service – the beckoning call of church bells closely followed by the glorious ringing of Samoan a cappella. On school mornings I hop in the back of any truck munching along the bumpy, sandy-gravelly path running through the village. This path continues on to my ocean diving board – the wharf. The island’s supply ship (the MV Sili) arrives erratically here to unload all of its goodies. There aren’t enough letters in the word “unreliable” to adequately portray the infamous MV Sili. For months at a time we were left with dwindling supplies of food, drinks, and (most terrifying of all) toilet paper.
The wharf is also where the crunchy path gives way to the road! Yes, THE road – the single paved road on the island. Power lines stretch along the roadside, but the only lights are in the villages. A short stroll out of the village before dawn brings the city lights of the night sky in to view – twinkle twinkle little army of infinite stars. As soon as the truck hits pavement we begin accelerating, ducking under the high-five attempts of tree branches encroaching over the road as the wind whips about us. Often a good ol’ rain drench comes along for an extra morning wash and wake-up call. The road weaves up, down, and around the cliffs and forest to reach the village Ta’ū (the island’s namesake, population ~300 people) where we wave and exchange greetings with everyone we pass.
The road continues steeply to our high school, and carries on all the way across the island to the third and final village, Fitiuta (population ~300), where the airport is! No, there is no coffee shop nor (omg) a mall. No movie theater, post office, or fire station. There ARE two elementary schools, one high school, a simple police station, and a medical building for basic care.
When writing about life on this island, I find myself eager to go off on a trillion tangents (clearly). To microscope into life at 50,000 times magnification and then zoom out to a view from galaxies away. But instead, I am stuck writing about what I’m stuck living in. This stuckness has been my greatest struggle out here. On this itty bitty island, there are no big city options of a change of scenery or meeting up with new folks. There are limited avenues available that reflect my familiar values or support my normal and comfortable ways of thinking and being. This struggle is also one of my favorite aspects of traveling – recreating and rediscovering myself through a transition to new environments, people, cultures, etc. There are times, however, when daily life feels like being trapped in a gif – a seemingly endless loop of people, places, conversations, tribulations, and ideas.
I often seek solace in nostalgia, or stability and excitement in future plans. I read articles and books to stay connected with the countless different worlds beyond the coastline. Over time I have grown close with some fellow teachers, as well as a number of students and members of the community. I bury myself in work – and it’s about time I discussed the whole school shindig, anyhow. That is, after all, what I came out here with WorldTeach for!
Whether you are a rookie teacher or a seasoned veteran, you are in for a doozy of a year. Most WorldTeach volunteers co-teach in elementary schools on the main island, but I ended up with my own high school classroom. I work with a marine science textbook that (in all its ethnocentric glory) discusses the Titanic and European exploration in great depth, but is silent on Polynesian navigation. When I manage to finish developing curriculum that is relevant, meaningful, and engaging for my students, I then struggle to do it for 4 other science or elective subjects. I navigate the different educational expectations of my students, other teachers, and the local community. Sometimes the bell to end class rings 30 minutes early, sometimes 30 minutes late. Sometimes my classroom is commandeered for song-and-dance practice, or class is canceled entirely. In American Samoa, one must either fully embrace the go-with-the-flow mentality, or perish! Or… at least endanger one’s full head of hair. I rely on pictures and videos and various activities because most labs require materials from off-island. Some days I end school on top of the world, proud of my work with a grin on my face. Other days I wonder bleakly how I could possibly find the energy to return the next morning. Through it all, I laugh with my students – a LOT! We all work together to bring joy to the classroom, and I am brought to tears of hilarity on a weekly basis.
In summary… imagine we exist in a version of the Monsters Inc. universe where we power the world with struggles instead of screams or laughs. In this universe, the struggles of my lowest point out here could have powered California for a year. That said, if all of my transformative moments from the year became, well, Autobots transformers… the biggest parking lot in the world couldn’t hold them all. And Megatron would be pretty nervous.
I think of this when I trek off the beaten path past the end of my village to a hidden beach of near-absolute isolation. When I reach the beach, crabs go flying for cover. Maybe it’s just falling with style, but they leap off huge rocks and mini-cliffs, legs flailing, to flee my presence. Waving hello seems to induce further panic. Ocean waves launch froth over the jutting rocks like whipped cream sprayed from its can’s dying breaths. The beach’s only two coconut trees are a distance apart that begs for hammock-lounging, and I’ve spent entire days napping, reading, swimming, and climbing without seeing a single other human being here. Bliss.
Here, my social isolation and the scholastic/professional melee fade away. I have learned that, although I may be near-sighted, distance often brings the greatest clarity. That perspective must be cultivated and cherished relentlessly. And I have re-learned again and again just how fruitful struggles can be. As with any tremendous and tumultuous life experience, I am left with more questions than answers.
It is easy to lose one’s bearings in the island’s unkempt foliage. Unkempt is not the right word, though… as if humans bring about nothing but neatness and order – rather, the surroundings are simply untouched. Unmarred. Unperturbed. On this tiny remote island, during my short walks, I have never felt so separate from human imposition before. The one time I got thoroughly lost, I had to machete my way to the distant sound of the ocean and track the coast. (So much for lacking imposition, huh?) There is something stirring in the knowledge that I am the first human to tread on a patch of earth in months, or even years. Something satisfying about the ground greeting my steps so boisterously because it hasn’t been patted down in to silence by other feet. Something humbling about having zero ideas of where I am, with nobody around to rely on. Something transforming about getting to pick a direction and move.
I guess something has to be lost before it can be found.