Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Bus Ride to Apia

I get up at 5:15 when the alarm goes off. I’m not usually ready to awaken yet. It’s still dark. There’s no water from the tap yet at this time of the day, so I use water from my storage bottles to wash my face and brush my teeth. Sometimes I heat a little bit of water in my electric teapot and splash warm water on my face – a treat! (For those of you who don’t know – we have no hot water from the tap.) I make sure I have everything for the day in town – take the sheets off the bed if I’m taking laundry, umbrella, money, paperwork, books to return to the PC office, something to read on the bus, flash drive, sometimes my camera, etc. A little before 6:00 I start watching out my window for Afakasi to start the bus.

Afakasi lives in the family compound next to us and drives a fire-engine-red red bus to Apia Monday through Saturday. There are no Sunday buses. Even though going on Afakasi’s bus is the long way (instead of taking the cross-island bus which I could catch on the main road and which would take me to Apia in a little over an hour, instead of two hours), I much prefer it for several reasons. First of all, it’s so convenient. I can walk out my front door and get on the bus with no waiting and get a good seat. The seats are comfortable, “normal” bus seats compared to the wooden benches on the other buses. I don’t have to carry my bags to, or especially from, the main road (about a half mile walk). And lastly, many of the passengers on the bus are people from Poutasi or neighboring villages who I know.

When he starts the bus I walk over, and because I’m the first on the bus, I always get the seat I want, which is the left front seat by the window. It’s cooler and more comfortable by the window; there’s more leg room in the front and therefore room for my bags in front of my feet; and, because I’m usually one of the first off of the bus, it’s much easier to get off. I usually have a number of people sit beside me during the ride to Apia. Someone will sit there – say a middle-aged man for example. When an older man gets on the bus, he’ll give up the seat to him and move back. If an elderly woman then gets on the bus, he’ll give up the seat to her and move back. If there are no seats left at that point, someone younger will give up their seat to the elderly man and so on. By the time we’ve picked up all of the passengers there are people standing in the aisles, sometimes all the way to the front door, and sitting on each another’s laps.

I’ve been riding the bus from Poutasi to Apia and back for six months now at least once a week, and I still enjoy the ride. Sometimes I nap or read, but more often than not I just look out the window, relax, daydream, and enjoy the scenery which is stunningly beautiful. I also enjoy watching the people as we drive through villages along the way.

In the early morning it’s cool – yesterday I actually used an ‘ie (a piece of cloth which wraps around as a long skirt) from my laundry tote as a shawl as it was really chilly (at least to me in this tropical climate – it was probably only about 70!). We drive into the sunrise with shades of pink and orange and blue blending together on the horizon.

There are usually about a dozen or so people from Poutasi who get on the bus and then we stop at every village along the way, and in between, until we get to Salani. To catch a ride on a Samoan bus you don’t need to wait at a bus stop. You just wait on the road in front of your house and the bus will stop for you. Sometimes Kasi stops for someone to get on, and then stops again 100 feet down the road.

At Salani we cease traveling along the southeastern coast and turn to climb the road to Le Mafa Pass (which is redundant, since mafa means pass, but that’s what it’s called on the maps and signs). There are magnificent views all along the way, especially on this stretch of road. Although the pass is only about 1,000 feet in elevation, and the tallest surrounding mountains are only a little over 3,000 feet, the view from the pass is amazing. There is a steep descent to the river valley below and you can see all the way to the ocean, about seven miles away. The valley and the surrounding hillsides are lush with tropical vegetation – tree ferns twenty feet tall, coconut palms, towering banyan trees snaking roots to the ground, teak trees with leaves the size of placemats, and an under story of vines and ferns. In the sunshine everything is vibrantly green with a brilliant blue sky and white puffy clouds. Sometimes early in the morning the clouds are below us and wind their way through the valley below as if looking for a way out.

When the bus climbs up the mountain it creaks and groans and Kasi downshifts and urges it along. Let’s say the average Samoan weighs 200 lbs. With about 70 people (on a bus with 29 seats) this is seven tons of people! Yes, there are a few children on the bus as well, but there are also many Samoans who weigh well over 200 lbs, and there are bags and baskets of produce to be sold at the market in Apia.

There are a few homes along the mountain road, but no villages. After we make the descent from the pass we begin to drive through villages again, all the way to Apia. We pass Falefa falls and drive beside the roaring Falefa river. Now we’re on the north side of the island with waves crashing close to shore with the white foam of the breakers sometimes spraying onto the rocks along the side of the road.

Naturally it’s usually about this time that I’ve been lulled into getting sleepy when we’re only about a half hour from Apia. Sometimes I give in and nap a little. Then it’s time to tell Kasi, “Taofi i le Ofisa Pisikoa fa’amolemole,” and he stops on the street in front of the Peace Corps office. I’m in Apia for the day and it’s about 8:00 am.

After a day of shopping, email, other Apia errands, and lunch in a restaurant – a real extravagance – I head home. Although the bus doesn’t leave to head back to Poutasi until 4:30, I try to get there between 3:30 and 4:00 to get a good seat. The last time I didn’t get there early enough and I sat about four seats back in the bus wedged between a very fat man sitting by the window on my right with a snotty kid on his lap, and another very fat man standing in the aisle next to me who was smoking (yes, people smoke on Samoan buses). You might wonder why no one gave up his/her seat to me. Well, actually they did. The bus was totally full already and someone gave up that seat to me. But the good news was, that meant I’m just one of the villagers and no one felt they had to give me the best seat on the bus!

But assuming I get there early, I usually read while I’m waiting for the bus to leave. It’s very hot sitting there in the bus waiting. By the time the bus leaves I’m usually hot and sweaty all over down to the roots of my hair. Got to keep that seat though!

Yesterday Mataomanu sat by me with her four-year old grandson Sam on her lap. She lives in Poutasi, is the president of the Women’s Committee in the village, and a 3rd grade teacher at the primary school. She’s a very pretty, plump older woman and I like her very much. She wears wire-rimmed glasses and has a merry look about her. If she was fair of skin and wearing red velvet instead of tropical prints, she would look like Mrs. Santa Claus. Her husband is Meleisea, one of the high chiefs of the village, and he reminds me of my dad. I’ve been trying to figure out why – he doesn’t look anything like him, except that he’s balding – but now that I think about it, I think I do know why. He always has a smile for everyone. But I digress . . .

So we begin the journey home. A couple of miles out of town we stop at Pacific Express, a small general store, where most people get off the bus for drinks, snacks, and a few last minute groceries. Then it finally begins to cool off when we get going again with the wind blowing in the open window. The CD on the bus is playing loud Samoan music, and this same CD will play over and over again all the way home. The air is wet and the colors are intense from the rain shower just past. The sea and the coconut palms rush by on my left; the forest is a vivid green blur on my right, with houses, churches, and small stores interspersed as we pass through small villages. We drive by men trimming the bushes with machetes. Teenagers are playing volleyball in the mud. Waves are crashing on the reef off-shore. We pass a procession of about 20 people walking down the road, led by a priest carrying upright in front of him a three-foot high cross – everyone is dressed in white. Two young boys run alongside, racing the bus as it goes by. Multicolored laundry is lying on the rocks in front of the houses to dry. Bananas, cocoa, taro, mango, breadfruit and papayas grow everywhere. Young men going to Apia crowd into the back of an old blue pickup truck; others hang out in front of the tiny village stores. Young girls walk down the road holding hands. Old women pull weeds from between the small rocks in front of their houses. There are ever-present flowers of pink, red, yellow, orange, and white. Dogs, chickens, and sometimes pigs, scurry to get out of the way of the bus. Women are washing cooking pots at the water tap in the front yard. A boy on a bike wobbles carrying coconut frond baskets filled with garden produce on each side of the handle bars. Children are helping to clean up the yard picking up the large leaves and placing them in similar baskets. I smell the smoke from the cooking fires. There are people everywhere. Families are gathering at the end of the day.

As we go by Falefa falls, leaving the villages, and beginning to climb up to the pass, mud hens dart across the road every now and then. Wispy clouds brush the mountaintops. Three-foot high stacks of coconuts sit by the side of the road to be picked up by the buyer. Cattle graze in the valley below between the coconut palms. We pass Mafa with its spectacular view all the way to the ocean, more waterfalls, and roadside stands selling produce. Now we’re back to the villages on the south side of the island. There is a mother sitting on her front door step nursing her baby. Fala is drying in front yards to weave into mats. Naked little boys are running across the grass. A woman stands in front of her house with her long black hair shiny-wet from the shower with an bright pink and blue ‘ie wrapped around her sarong-style. There is the still, clear water of the mangrove lagoon in Vaovai. Horses are tethered at the side of the road eating grass. We slow down for the bumpy drive into Poutasi. Children are splashing and playing in the sea. The sun is sinking into the ocean in a blaze of red and gold. It’s 6:30 pm. Home sweet home.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Marine Environmental Project in the Village

On behalf of the village I applied to the United Nations Development Project Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme (no wonder we just call it UNDP) for funding for a marine environmental project. Last week we heard that the village was awarded a grant in the amount of $20,000 US which is obviously great news! Here are a couple of excerpts from the project proposal which will gives an overview:
The village of Poutasi is located in the Falealili district on the southeast coast of Upolu. Poutasi’s marine environment is one of its most valuable resources. It is not only a beautiful natural feature of the village, but also provides recreational and bathing areas, subsistence food sources, and economic income. However, fish and other marine life, including coral, are decreasing; the banks of the river and spring are being denuded of natural flora, including mangroves, due to poor management and muddy run-off from higher ground; the present drainage pipe under the road between the spring and the ocean was poorly constructed and is contributing to the build-up of silt and debris impeding the normal migration of spawning fish; and, erosion is occurring on the beach.

The overall purpose of the project is to rehabilitate and protect and conserve Poutasi’s marine environment. A summary of tasks to accomplish this purpose include:

  • Cleanup, conservation, and improvement of village natural springs, river confluence, and beachfront, including retaining walls to protect natural springs and enhance the utilization of the spring water
  • Professional assessment of ways to improve current drainage systems
  • Coral gardening; restocking of clam population; building fish houses
  • Establishment of a Marine Protected Area
  • Planting coastal and other appropriate vegetation to reduce erosion
  • Awareness training and promotion of the importance of protecting the environment
  • Creation of potential eco-tourism opportunities for the village related to the marine environment.

Accomplishment of these tasks will improve the quality of life for the village and neighboring villages as follows:

  • Increased respect for and awareness of the importance of protecting the fragile marine environment
  • Improved management of fisheries and coastal areas
  • Increased marine biodiversity of both flora and fauna
  • Protection of vulnerable marine areas from effects of climate change and natural disasters
  • Creation of tourism/economic opportunities
  • Improved food security
  • Improved and healthier environment for bathing area.
    This is a one-year long project to start in April. The village is contributing the equivalent of $16,400 US in funding, materials, and labor as well. We will receive periodic funding as we accomplish various tasks in our work plan. The first phase includes technical assessments from government departments such as the Divisions of Fisheries, Environment and Conservation, and Forestry; cleanup of the river banks, beach and natural springs; and construction of retaining walls at the natural springs. That portion is expected to take about four or five months. The natural springs have created large pools, including a lagoon in the center of the village.

I’m excited about the project because it’s something the village needs and will hopefully continue to provide benefits long after I’m gone. It will also be fun to learn more about all of these things and to participate in planting the trees and helping with the coral gardens and other activities. I’ve been working with the government agencies I mentioned above, and with local villagers, and I’ve learned a lot already just to be able to prepare the proposal, but I know it’s just the beginning. The village has its own small island Nu’u Safee, just about a half-mile off shore. It’s uninhabited and undeveloped – a beautiful, pristine piece of paradise. There are fantastic snorkeling and diving opportunities close by. The eco-tourism part of the project envisions sharing the island and the coastal waters with tourists in a way that makes sure the natural environment is protected.

I’ve been in the village now for six months and it’s been a learning process in many ways. There are still many days when I have to find something to occupy my time, and it will always be that way – it’s just the nature of the job – but I’m glad that some of the things that the village wants are coming to fruition.

It’s fall here, which basically means only that the days are a little shorter and that the new school year just started. Also, the rainy season (November through April) is ending: it rains an average of about 8.5” per month in the wet season and about 4” per month in the dry season. It also means cyclone season is over, and we didn’t have any. Temperatures average 85º in the dry season and 75º in the wet season. I’m happy and healthy. The adventure continues . . . .