Archive for March, 2012

Samoa, Matafa’a, Sunday, March 25, 2012, village life

Jon Ross on Mar 27th 2012




The incredible experiences are piling up so fast I can’t write about one without the next one happening and clouding the details of the one before.  (I am even breaking the rules by working on my computer on the day of rest.)

Today, after church, I was invited to the chiefs’ lunch, or to’onai, with the leaders of the village—only seven people—five men and two women… and me.

gift from one of the matai

Sitting on “fine mats,” in the main fale overlooking the bay, each leaning against one of the support columns around the perimeter, we are served food on “plates” of fresh breadfruit leaves on top of woven placemats, by young men and women.

to'onai prep area and servers

For me, the palagi (“foreigner”) with strange eating habits, I am limited to taro, breadfruit, palusami (coconut-creamed taro leaves), and cocoa.  The others are served a variety of fish and chicken dishes, as well.  Everything has been collected or caught within the day and prepared in the umu, hot stone “oven.”  The concept of “farm-to-table” would be laughable to the villagers, as what other kind of food is there?  They ask me, “Why you no eat?  Is ‘natural’ Samoan food!”  Since I can actually see the chickens walking around the fale, and the bay where the fish is caught, and the jungle where the rest of the lunch was procured, my answer falls on deaf ears—truly.  Luckily, they probably think it’s a religious thing.

yam, breadfruit, palusami

You eat with your hands and there is no conversation during the meal.  More food keeps arriving and cups are filled until you push your placemat away.  As each person finishes, his set up is removed and a bowl of fresh water brought to wash up.  In another area, off to the side, it’s time for the attendants to eat—fresh food, but also any leftovers of the group.   Their leftovers will go to the chickens, cats, dogs, and back to the ground.

With everyone sated, the talking begins.  (Did I mention I thought working in Samoa was going to be a bit easier than Sri Lanka because English is widely spoken?  Wrong.  English is not well-known in the villages, and not in one as remote as Matafa’a.)  The speeches are incomprehensible to me, but I can see an order in the speaking from highest matai (chief) to lowest, and around again.  I can understand the word “Jon” on occasion, as they are either thanking me or describing the progress of the canoe project, as Rev. Fepai later explains.

The talking lasts for a couple of hours and has the arc of a tropical downpour: fast and furious, then gradually subsiding.  Outside, a true downpour begins (normally, once a day) and sends sheets of water cascading from the roiling grey clouds above the village.  (Rain is so common in Samoa, that no one changes their behavior, in the least, when it happens: people don’t run or cover of put up umbrellas, they just go about whatever they were doing and get wet.)

boys coming home from school soaked

After the speeches wind down, I am told that I do not have to stay.  My hosts are being considerate, but I also think there are more private things to discuss.  Although, I might be wrong, because there is no real concept of “privacy” in Samoan village life—there are no private sleeping rooms, locked doors, or secrets… maybe.   I retire to my room—on Sunday, there is a rule against working, swimming, even playing cards—it’s a day of rest and religious reflection… and eating.  I lie down on my cot under the mosquito net and fall fast asleep in a food coma induced by “natural Samoan taro, palusami, breadfruit, bananas, and cocoa.”

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Samoa, Matafaa, March 2012, village life

Jon Ross on Mar 26th 2012




Matafaa, Samoa

If you’ve ever spent any time in a rural area like this, or on a farm, you know that the romantic notion of a single rooster crowing once at the sign of first light is a fallacy.

Actually, dozens of pesky noisemakers create a cacophonous riot pretty much all morning long—starting way before dawn!

Here, there seems to be a poultry malfunction even in this symphonic standard.

Somehow, at about 4 a.m., one of these Matafaa cocks gets the idea that it’s time to wake up and starts to crow; the others, not to be beaten to the alarm, join in.  This racket goes on for about a half an hour until they all realize that they are about three hours too early, and they stop.  At 7 a.m., they start again—and if one of them happens to be right under your window, you definitely will not be sleeping in.  This crowing persists until the sun is up and everyone in the village is, too.

since we're up... let's run an errand for dad across the bay to Faleseela

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Samoa, Matafaa, March 23, 2012, canoes

Jon Ross on Mar 26th 2012




Matafaa, Samoa, 3-24-12

what you can't see in this picture is that it is pounding rain!

Finding a big tree to turn into a canoe is like stalking big game in Africa:  You never know where you’ll encounter your prey.   Here we are with one we bagged high up on the hillside in the jungle.

Here’s another we took down in the mangrove swamp.

the muck around the tree is so thick, it sucked the booties off my feet

Luckily, unlike South Asia where there are lovely creepy crawlies like poisonous giant centipedes, monitor lizards, and blood sucking leeches, here, there is nothing dangerous… in the swamp and jungle, at least—out in the ocean there are deadly cone shells and stonefish.  Ah, the yin and yang of nature.

The guys have been furiously working making canoes.  I help mostly by staying out of their way.  I have a hard enough time not losing my balance on the steep muddy hillside of the jungle, let alone trying to handle sharp tools at the same time.

pile o' rough canoes

We’ve turned the village into one big canoe-making machine.  It’s like Detroit in the South Seas.  There are canoes everywhere you look.  You can’t take a picture without a canoe in the foreground or background.

Normally, the village might make a canoe a year; we are making 14 in a few weeks.  The process is pretty straightforward: find a suitably big tree, chop it down, do the basic carving in situ (they’re too heavy to move without carving it out first)

each canoe log weighs around 800 lbs.

rough carving

digging out the dugout

bring it to the central location (sometimes that means dragging it out of the jungle, or in the case of the ones from the mangrove swamp, floating them out)

wrapping up the worksite - heading down the mountain

and then do the finish work in a central location.

Pati, master carver

We’re on schedule and on budget—even after paying a bit of a premium to the owner of one tree when it took out his entire banana garden when it came down.  This is a village-wide community project and everyone is pitching in—Rev. Fepai sees to that.

And wherever we’re working, the closest family provides lunch for the crew—but no one should have to sacrifice his bananas to the cause!

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Samoa, March 18, 2012, village life

Jon Ross on Mar 19th 2012




Matafaa, Samoa, 3-17-12

It’s hard to put into words, so much was going on when I arrived at Tuilagi’s house for umu—the traditional meal cooked in a pile of hot stones.

I say this without condescension: it was as if a diorama at the Museum of Natural History came to life—so many traditional activities and tools were in play.  Also, the kitchen—a corrugated metal addition to the main fale—was where, as in all cultures, everyone was congregating—adults, kids, cats, and chickens.  As the humans prepared the food, not an item was wasted, or didn’t get used to feed the next in line in the food chain: chickens got the coconut scrapings, cats got the fish guts, the fire was fueled by the coconuts husks.  At one point, they needed a basket; within minutes, Tuilagi had woven one from a palm frond.

Green bananas and breadfruit were being peeled, coconuts shaved for making the cream for the palusami, and fish gutted.  The coconut shavings were wrung by had over a bowl using a mesh fiber from some local plant. The resulting deliciousness is poured into a “cup” of layered young taro leaves, sealed into a ball with a breadfruit leaf, and finally wrapped in a banana leaf.

These flavor grenades are placed in the umu, along with the taro, breadfruit, and bananas, and left to cook for a half hour.

covering umu (oven)

The palusami that emerges is like heavenly coconut-creamed spinach, but the outer layers of taro leaves have steam-baked into an incredible crispy filo-like wrapping.  It might be called an umu, but I can tell you it’s “yum-u.”  Of course, I was served first, but I insisted that Tuilagi eat at the same time; after we were done, the women fed babies and themselves, then the kids eat, oldest first.

after cooking

It’s a tough life in the structure of village life, so getting older and acquiring status moves you along in the food chain, literally.

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Samoa, Matafaa Village, March 2012

Jon Ross on Mar 19th 2012


Matafaa, Samoa

The other night I was sleeping—early, admittedly, about 9 p.m.—when the door opens and in comes the high chief, the man who brought me the can of corned beef on my first night.  In tow, he had one of his attendants who carried his bag.  I roused to greet him, a bit groggily but with all due respect.

Matafaa from across bay at Faleseela

It turns out that he had heard I was a vegetarian and came to deliver a more appropriate gift: a can of Spaghetti-O’s.  Actually, as much as I love the local taro and palusami, that can, perched on the corner of my writing table, has been looking pretty tempting. I wonder if I should use a machete to open it.

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Samoa, March 16, 2012

Jon Ross on Mar 19th 2012


Salea’a’umua, Samoa, 3-16-12

Meeting up with Nanai from the Community Centered Sustainable Development Project (CCSDP) to visit the village that is the candidate for the fishing kits, we drive along the southern coastal road where towns like Siumu, Aufaga, and Saleapaga whiz by, alternating with jungle and sea views.

We make a few stops so that Nanai can deliver a nautical compass to one village the CCSDP had bought a fishing boat for, and a cook stove and wok for another that is starting a food-service business to provide local schools with hot lunches.  The CCSDP is a regional organization that provides livelihood products and solutions to islanders in this area of the Pacific. Their direct programs reminded me of the way MicroAid works.  When I mentioned this to Nanai, he said wryly, “Yes, but with bigger budgets.”  (The CCSDP was vetted and is funded in part by the U.N Development Programme, which is how we got connected to them.) Every bit helps, and Nanai is happy to guide MicroAid to the beneficiary village of Salea’a’umua on the southeastern coast—the region most devastated by the tsunami in 2009.

representative of the women's council Salea'a'umua

A meeting with representatives from the Women’s Council of the village—they will administer the kits—is pleasant, but reserved, at first.  Nanai explains that when they were told I represented a charity they thought “I was going to give them a car, or something.”  After he translates my description of MicroAid as “our ‘family’ raising money to help their ‘family,’ ” everyone becomes warm and, well, familial.  Young coconuts are hacked open and we discuss the real needs of the village.  I must say, that I am getting used to having an interpreter in places like this, and one as smart as Nanai, can certainly make things easier—nuance being all-important.  Nanai, of course, runs a big organization, and is generously helping us, but he understands and trusts the MicroAid mission.  We’re lucky to have connected with him.

around the corner at Lalomanu

As for the village, we will put together four fishing kits (buying the supplies in Apia) and deliver them to Salea’a’umua so that the 600 villagers will have more opportunities to get out in the water and catch their dinner, or even sell a few extra fish for some much-needed cash.

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Samoa, March 15, 2012

Jon Ross on Mar 19th 2012




Matafaa, Samoa, 3-15-12

The morning light creeps down the steep verdant hills behind the village as the sun rises in the east. Already, I can hear the sound of the chainsaw high up in the jungle—among the tangle of palms, vines, prehistoric giant foliage, and swarms of mosquitoes—cutting down another tree for the canoes.

matafaa jungle on lefaga bay

Out on Lefaga Bay, older boys are shuttling kids to school across the water in the few canoes they already have.

matafaa taxi

Earlier, Tuilagi, my handler and all-around great guy, brings me breakfast of young coconuts, bananas, and cocoa—Matafaa room service—all from the surrounding jungle.

tuilagi and son

“Here, life is easy,” he says in not so perfect English, “because food is free.”  He was surprised when I asked how I could open the coconuts: “You don’t have a machete?”


no machete

traditional hand tools, traditional bad backs

Last night, after a long day of carving canoes (the guys, not me; although they did let me hack away at the rough parts early in the process), the high chief, or “matai”, came to my room to say hello—a high honor.  Higher yet, he brought the most special gift: a can of corned beef.  Not to be taken lightly, this gesture means a lot when that purchased item represents a month of work.  The MicroAid project will bring much needed cash to the community, as we are paying the local men to do the carving, in addition to the canoes themselves.

using a braided vine soaked in charr-water to snap a line

high chief repairing tools

In the evening glow last night, I meandered along the road (the last 200 yards of it, anyway) to the end of the village along the curving headlands bordered by a shallow turquiescent lagoon.  A few women were wading in from the far edge abutting the deeper, darker water.  They were collecting something into jars.

low tide Lefaga Bay

As they came ashore, they greeted me with the familiar “talofa,” and I asked them what they were doing.  Communicating the best they could—“cabbage,” “not land fruit,” and “sea water”—one of the women finally opened her jar and proffered a taste.  The tiny translucent green, grape-like cluster that I popped into my mouth had the distinct texture and flavor of caviar.  The woman assured me that it was a vegetable, but indeed, that the fish loved it, too.

Tomorrow, I will tour a number of other villages that are candidates for fishing kits.  Before I left Apia—the sultry, gritty hub of the Pacific—I met with the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) representative, who put me in touch with the local CCSDP (Community Centered Sustainable Development Project) head, who was coordinating the tsunami early recovery livelihood projects.  Finally, the right guy!  He told me what goes into the kits (printed out an actual budget), where to get the stuff, which villages still need them, and how they are monitored.  A perfect MicroAid situation; we even benefit from their early mistakes, as the fishing nets they provided were no the right ones according to the villages.

Nanai (CCSDP)

Coming in after the other organizations have been there gives MicroAid the benefit of their experience—we will provide the right nets at the right price.

Of course, price is a relative thing.  Here in Samoa things are very expensive because everything has to be shipped in from New Zealand or somewhere farther.

hardware store in Apia, also has a liquor department—good combo

In fact, the chainsaw we purchased for the canoe project was about twice the price of a similar one at The Home Depot at home—but there is no Home Depot, no home.  In the meantime, we make canoes…

days with a chainsaw, months by hand

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Samoa, March 12, 2012

Jon Ross on Mar 12th 2012




Matafaa, Samoa, 3-12-12

Matafaa from across the bay

As I drive around the lush southwest corner of the island and toward the village of Matafaa, the road abruptly starts climbing the headland that isolates this small community.  The otherwise good road turns to gravel—and holes where gravel should be.  I bump along, up and over the steep mountain, and descend toward Lefaga Bay.  Following the coast out toward the point, crossing a river that in rainy weather cuts off the village entirely, I pull into Rev. Fepai’s courtyard, under a brilliant blue sky and fierce sun glittering off the water.

Rev. Fepai and his wife

His wife lets me in and goes to look for her husband.  He emerges, as he had over a year ago from a back room, looking like we’ve awoken him.

“Jon Ross, I prayed that you would return!”

I can’t believe he remembers me, let alone my name. This is the power of doing this work.  My appearance a year ago made more of an impression than I realized—and even though, at the time, I emphasized that I would “only try to help,” the impact was more substantial.

As they served lemongrass tea, fresh banana bread, and boiled tapioca root in coconut cream, we outlined the project, the budget, and timeframe: Build 13 canoes to bring them back to the 25 they had before the tsunami.  Since then, they have been able to replace 12 on their own.  But there are more kids that need to get across the bay to school, and parents that need to shuttle produce to the market.  On Wednesday, we will go into the jungle to cut down the trees for the canoes—and I will live in the village to oversee the progress.

As I say my farewells for the day, my hosts are surprised because lunch was being prepared.  The other food was only an appetizer!  But I have to go so I can get back to Apia before dark.  As I leave, the reverend and his wife emphasize their gratitude to me and to those who made donations to make this happen.

This kind of magic moment makes all the difficult traveling and hardships worthwhile.  And confirms that the MicroAid model works.

I was reading an article in “The New Yorker” about altruism and they can’t figure it out—there seems to be no benefit to the individual.  The writer obviously hasn’t been in the field with us—MicroAid—and our wonderful donors.

More from Samoa later.

Fafetai from Jon

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Samoa March 9, 2012

Jon Ross on Mar 9th 2012




Apia, Samoa, 3-9-12

Jumping across the International Date Line in the Pacific is always a bit confusing.  Are we three hours behind, but tomorrow? Or are we 21 hours ahead?  This time, since I left L.A. late at night on the 6th, when we touched down in New Zealand, it was the 8th.  It’s interesting, too, that March 7th has a personal significance for me, so to have it just disappear from the calendar—poof, like magic—is ironic.  A leisurely 6-hour layover in Auckland airport and another 4-hour flight back to Samoa made for a big, but not brutal, travel day.

Actually, there have already been moments of fun: At LAX, I opted to forgo the body scanner at security (who needs to be toasted like popcorn in a microwave?) and requested the full-body pat-down.  Well, I got the trainee and a supervisor, so everything was by the book and thorough.  They should really offer you tea and a hot-stone/shiatsu option, as this was one of the best massages I’ve had in a long time.  (To answer a question: No, it was not performed by a “hot Scandinavian American Apparel model.”)

Stepping out of the plane at Faleolo airport on Upolu island was a familiar treat.  The curtain of hot humid air, redolent of hibiscus and plumeria, hits you like a wave.

The late afternoon drive along the north coast to Apia revealed glimpses of palm fringed coves and turquoise lagoons, while golden-hour rays illuminated the dense coconut fronds, white churches, and pastel houses on the other side of the road.  I counted no less than 20 games of rugby being played by barefooted kids in the fields along the 35-kilometer route.

at every turn another South Seas fantasy

Checked into my home-away-from-home for the next six weeks, the Pasefika Inn—fashionably off the main drag and down the block from the scenic harbor.  As with all MicroAid accommodations, value trumps luxury.

but views on Pacific islands can be deceptive—from the Pasefika Inn, not as lovely as it appears :0)

At the unmanned front desk, a bored young girl was hanging out, so I asked her if anyone was around.  She disappeared and returned with someone who may or may not have been an actual employee, but he gave me a key to a room nonetheless.

I thanked the reticent girl for her help and she proffered a nonchalant smile.  When I asked her her name, she told me and asked where I was from.  She showed some genuine interest when I told her I was from California, U.S.A., as she was probably expecting “Australia” or “New Zealand.”  “Do you know Beyonce, Rihanna, or Chris Brown?” she asked excitedly.  Resisting my natural urge to sarcasm, I answered, “no,” whereupon she went back to glumly looking at a travel brochure.

same set up, different country

Talofa and fafetai.

Over the next few days, some meetings and site visits will start the disaster recovery projects.

More from Samoa later.


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