I am determined to post an update for y’all before I hit the two month mark of my time here and before my computer dies forever. Heat and humidity really do terrible things to electronics.
For those who don’t know, I am in American Samoa (also spelled Amerika Samoa) for 6 months teaching high school science. American Samoa is a tiny little island in the South Pacific, about two thirds between Hawaii and New Zealand. I am here with the organization WorldTeach which I found through this Nicholas Kristoff article.
For many years, I had dreamed of doing the Peace Corps. After a 15-month application process, the Peace Corps invited me to serve in Mongolia as a health volunteer. On the same day, I was accepted into a master’s-entry nursing program at UVA. For many reasons, I decided to become a nurse and then serve abroad later, hoping to have more more practical skills to contribute, possibly as a nurse educator.
While waiting for school to begin, I worked as a nursing assistant in the Bay Area. My experience as a nursing assistant was transformative. As I wrote about here, nursing assistants do a lot of the grunt work of our healthcare system. Nursing assistants act as both guardian angels and janitors to the frail, incredibly vulnerable human beings entrusted into their care. As a nursing assistant, I saw the broken health care system and my position in it from a new perspective.
Long story short, my experiences as a nursing assistant inspired me to pursue medicine (someday I will write about this, I promise!). The nursing pre-requisites showed me that I could handle the science pre-requisites and not just that I could “handle” them, but that I found science and the human body as riveting as the social aspects of care.
I completed a post-bacc year and took the MCAT and planned to take it again. I did better than I expected to which is how I found myself with months of free time to fill. WorldTeach had been on my radar as an alternative to the Peace Corps. Some spots opened up mid-way through the year, they accepted my application, and a few weeks later I was on my way here.
It all happened really quickly.
I don’t regret coming, but the experience has been hard. Our field director had a difficult time finding housing for us and during the first few weeks of teaching, we were still sharing a small room and living out of our suitcases. Teaching high school is hard (that’s an understatement, really) and I am often overwhelmed by just how unprepared I am to prepare science lessons for kids at such different levels (some of whom speak barely any english!). Coming in in the middle of the year has presented its own unique challenges. The resources here are very limited and the orientation provided did not make me feel prepared to teach high school kids.
Some of you have asked me what you can send to help. Thank you so much for your thoughts. I haven’t responded yet because I am still thinking. Anything you send will (most likely) take a month to get here. Passenger planes stop here twice a week, but packages only come over on a military cargo plane every few weeks. And I am at a loss because we need everything: toilet paper and soap for the bathrooms at school; clean water for the children to drink on the days it feels like 115 degrees; pens and pencils and paper and chalk and a huge first aid kit; textbooks and technology and toner for the printers and copy machines.
I completely underestimated how isolating and limiting it can be to live on a tropical island. The hospital here was out of basic supplies the first month we were here. Like, they were in so much debt that their suppliers wouldn’t let the supplies leave the shipyard. So the hospital was ripping up bedsheets for bandages!
While there is a lot of products on the island, the products are not predictable. So, sometimes there will be a certain something and then it will be gone for months. Like spray sunblock for example. Spray sunblock is the only thing that will stay on our skin in the humidity, and now there is just no more left!
I don’t want to spend this first post sharing all of my hardships, but there are many.
For me, the biggest challenge over the past week has been trying to feel safe again after being charged at by a pack of dogs.
Dogs are a huge problem on the island. Over half of reported injuries on the island are from dog bites. They roam the island freely and are very territorial. After the dogs attacked me, I did some more research on dog bites here and found this adequate description here.
There are few places on this earth which suffer more than American Samoa from an oversupply of man’s so-called friend, the dog. Untold thousands of dogs roam the territory. Some are strays, some have a vague claim to ownership by a human being, a tiny fraction are actually licensed and registered. Almost without exception they are mongrels–scrawny, emaciated, mangy, in-bred, flea-bitten, diseased. Sophisticated world travelers usually refer to the dogs of Mexico and China as the worst looking dogs in the world. Compared to the dogs of American Samoa, the dogs of Mexico and China could qualify as best of their class at Madison Square Garden.
The territory has no leash law. It has a singularly ineffective and widely ignored license law (sections 25.1607 & 27.0243 ASCA) and a peculiar stray dog control law (section 25.0301, et seq. American Samoa Administrative Code) of which more later. As a result, large numbers of dogs, usually in groups or packs, roam the territory at will, fighting, frolicking, fornicating, barking, snarling, and during a full moon, howling either in unison or singly. All of this, standing by itself, is a nuisance. However, a more ominous result of this bulging canine population is an awesome number of attacks by dogs on human beings, usually small children… In other words, the dog situation in American Samoa is a disgrace.
In summary, the dog situation here is bad. Really, really bad. As one medical study determined in 2012, “unprovoked attacks by aggressive, free-roaming dogs degrade quality of life by placing an untenable burden on the health care system and imposing physical and psychological barriers toward a more healthful lifestyle that includes walking, jogging, and bicycling.”
At first I just felt sorry for them. Heartbroken actually. Many have open sores and limp around scrounging for food. My attack happened walking up the hill to my house. I had walked up or down the hill to our home quite a few times and had begun to feel safe. I still carried a stick though. When the dogs attacked, they surrounded me and two took turns charging me. I continually hit their faces and went for their eyes with my stick. I cried out for help, shouting “your dogs are attacking me, I need help” again and again, and nobody came.
I was on the street up against a drop off and the house was only about 10 feet from me and after what felt like forever, but was probably only a minute or two, someone from inside went “sh!” The dogs backed away enough to let me pass.
Although I had been very focused during the attack, wielding my stick like a sword, as soon as I got past the danger, I practically collapsed. It was raining and I sobbed the whole rest of the way home and then for a few hours. Although someone had been inside, for the longest time they did nothing and afterward, nobody came out to check on me. Apparently that’s pretty common.
When I finally called the police a few days later (I wasn’t sure who the dogs belonged to and wanted our landlord to talk to the neighbors first), they told me that there is nothing they can do unless the dogs actually bit me and I had a record from the hospital. “It sounds like they just tried to bite you,” the police officer said.
As someone interested in psychiatry, I have been reading about the effects of terror and trauma. One of the most brilliant books that I have returned to again and again this year is The Body Keeps Score by Bessel van der Kolk. Excess stress leads to very real health effects and I will not put myself through the anxiety and stress I now feel going up and down my hill everyday.
Thank you all so much for your suggestions on Facebook and Instagram. I will always have rocks and pepper spray until I found a loud horn.
As one friend wrote, one vicious dog is one too many.
There are so many! There’s the suffocating heat, the mosquitos with tropical diseases, and so many ants. As I mentioned, the lack of supplies at school is difficult. I also teach a lot of what one might consider “at-risk youth” which brings its own set of behavioral challenges. Quite a few of my students (I have lost count) have been in and out of juvie just in the past few weeks. I like my students. I like them a lot. I just feel so under equipped to teach them. They complain a lot about being too hot, hungry, thirsty, and sick (I did send one girl home who I determined either had zika or chikagunya). Our high school has about 1000 kids and does not have a school nurse.
Corporal punishment is also used widely. Some teachers walk around with long sticks that they use to hit the kids. I have heard terrible stories from my fellow volunteers who are working with younger students. The kids are hit all the time. I asked if they saw it happen like once a day and they said, “no, like thirty times a day.” One of the girls I used to live with watched as a teacher hit a child so hard they fell out of their chair, where the teacher continued to kick the little one. My own students come in with bruises and bumps and cuts and I don’t know what to do.
But I didn’t want to make this whole post about the challenges. So, moving on.
All of this information comes from the Natural History Guide to American Samoa put together by P. Craig.
The Samoan Archipelago is made up of 13 islands (9 inhabited) and two atolls. The International Date Line cuts through with Western Samoa on one side and American Samoa on the other. That means that if you were to look from one to the other, you would be looking a full day into the past or a full day into the future (depending on which island you are standing on). It still blows my mind when I think about it for too long.
The land area of Western Samoa is about 15x the land area of American Samoa. American Samoa’s land area is a total of 76 sq. miles and includes five volcanic islands and two distant atolls. When including marine waters, the Territory is nearly the size of Oregon. In 2009, the population was 69,000 and is growing.
It is hot (and we have had record-breaking heat over the past month), and rains often (125 inches to 200+ inches a year depending on where you are). According to the guidebook they gave us at the National Park, the native species’ are closely related to those in Indonesia but because of the remoteness, the diversity of species on land is low.
However, we have 961 coral reef fishes, over 250 corals, and several whales and dolphins. I see new fish every time I go swimming. One time when I was swimming alone, I swam with a sea turtle and it was magical. The guidebook simply states that “insects and other invertebrate species here are not well known” but I can tell you there are a LOT of bugs I have never seen before.
There is so much more to tell you about Tutuila!
I can’t do it all in one blog post though so I’ll mention things as they come up. 🙂
Below are the other WorldTeachers who came with me. We met in LA and flew together to Hawaii and then on to Pago Pago. Our experience has been pretty different than the other volunteers, many of whom are teaching elementary age kids. These folks are my main support system here and I am so appreciative to know them!
We used to live within walking distance of this freshwater swimming hole.
Because Sunday is a religious day, none of the buses run and swimming in the villages is discouraged. As volunteers working all day during the week, that really limits us to one day of fun a week. And on Saturdays the buses stop at 5pm. Sigh. I just want to be honest about all of this for any future WorldTeachers considering coming here.
Yes, that’s a McDonalds you see! There are two on the island. It’s not quite the same as McDonalds on the main land, but it’s there if anyone suddenly gets an intense craving, I guess.
Did I mention it’s hot? The actual temperature is misleading — look at the “feels like” for a better idea of what it actually feels like here. My body has adjusted though! The other day I felt a chill on the bus and when I got home I checked the temperature — it was in the low 80’s and I was cold!
Two weeks ago we tried to find somewhere on the island referred to as Airport Beach. We ended up walking in the hot sun for a long time until we found our way to Maliu Mai which had this beautiful swimming hole where we spent a good deal of the afternoon floating.
One thing I will probably not go into great detail about right now is just how much attention we get as palagis (pronounced palangees). We are always getting propositioned for dates and marriage and such. It’s uncomfortable and exhausting. This day was no different except that the man (retired schoolteacher) who “always knew he would marry a doctor” would not let go of my hand for the longest time. Bleh.
So much more to say but I’ll end there! I also have photos to share from our adventure yesterday so I’ll get those out today as well.
Thank you to everyone who has messaged or e-mailed me. I really need all the emotional support I can get over the next few months. If you would like to call me, it is possible! E-mail me about that possibility and I’ll send you information about a calling card. And I also get snail mail! Letters come in about 10 days and packages take between three weeks and a month.
Love, love, love,