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Saturday, April 16, 2011


Samoa: One of the Pacific islands in the time zone "island time".
The motto: "Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?"

This small group of Pacific Islands called Samoa were injected into our itinerary late in our trip, by way of volunteering for Project CURE. This Denver-based humanitarian organization collects medical supplies and equipment in the U.S. and disseminates them to developing countries based on need. That was our job. To assess the needs of the country's hospital system. We had five days to do it. Our host would be Ali, a second-career medical student in the newly accredited program at Oceania University of Medicine. He picked us up by storm at the airport at 2 am, and didn't stop talking until he dropped us off a week later. Ali, born and raised in Iran, and later a resident of Los Angeles where he became a chiropractor and successful business man, was a true force of nature. His rich patch worked history is the perfect companion to his frenzied pace and head full of intentions for changing the world. His sassy Latino wife, Ketty, who had risen out of poverty in South America as a girl and immigrated to L.A., works in the lab at Oceania, while teaching her funky Zumba workouts in the evenings. They decided to leave their privileged life in California and head to Samoa with little more than the clothes on their back and a commitment to their faith. I couldn't have made up a story or a couple as colorful and energetic as them. But that is a different tale.

Samoa was surprisingly not the tourist trap that typifies so many Pacific islands. The Samoan culture and village life is still intact, with a preservation of what they call fa'a Samoa, or the Samoan Way. The verdant islands are flanked by rocky volcanic beaches and reefs, not the kind one would seek out for swimming, surfing or cocktails under an umbrella, but beautiful in their own rugged way. The islands are littered along their edges with tsunami-induced ghost towns. The Samoans are very large people. Large in personality, and large in size. And very tough. Brett was warned not to join a group of guys for a pick-up game of rugby unless he wanted his ass kicked. Even the fafafine, the cross-dressing third gender of Samoa, were not the kind of people you wanted on your bad side. The fafafine are actually quite accepted in the culture of the Samoans, and often take on caregiver roles and provide the family glue. We spent an evening at the fafafine show, where large men lip sync in evening gowns, changing elaborate costumes with each set, to music ranging from lounge, to Bett Midler to Shania Twain. They had the performers down to the quiver of the lips, the toss of the hair, the bump of a hip. Lovely!

Unfortunately, the largeness of the population contributes to a huge problem with diabetes and heart disease. Since Samoa's Christianization by missionaries, the totem of their culture is their faith. On Sundays, the townsfolk can be seen walking along the roadside, donned in white, to and from the glorious churches scattered throughout the islands. Lucky for us, on the Sunday we spent in Samoa, Ali was looking for an excuse to visit the newer Baha'i temple. We were happy to oblige. If I were to make up a religion, I would create Baha'i verbatim. With one gross exception: just like a belief in the afterlife must precede Buddhism, a belief in God must precede Baha'i. Nevertheless, if we talk about women's' equality, the provision of aid to the needy, an acceptance of all the great religious texts, a desire for unity of all humanity and a belief in self-actualization, it is all there. The people we met at the temple embodied these concepts. And the great irony is that this religion was created by a man, or "messenger of God" in the Middle East during an era and culture in conflict with all the precepts of the religion.

So, our work. Brett and I buried our heads in interviews with everyone Ali could grab an appointment with...the nurses (who "really" run the show, as they say), the physicians, the managerial staff, the Chairman of the Board for the National Health Service, the local Rotary Club, and other titles and figure heads. We got the wish lists of each department, often receiving the feedback "the last time someone asked us what we needed, we never heard from them again". Oh, we are different. But I got the vibe that they weren't so sure. I tried to tread lightly by mentioning that this was just an assessment, and that all the pieces had to be in place before any supplies could actually be shipped. At times I felt I was contributing to false hope, coupled with a growing sense of ownership and extreme interest in making this shipment of a 40-foot container of gifts a success. By the end of the assessments, the appointments, the luncheons and the dinner meetings, our brains were swimming with questions about the facts, the rumors, the needs, the wants, and the overall status of the health care system in Samoa. All of this, compounded by the fact that Samoa is receiving a large amount of aid from China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand; and other projects, details unknown to us, were coming down the pike.
A few things we know for sure. They need doctors. They need specialists. They need help educating the people of Samoa against relying solely on traditional medicine. Many a patient had come in for treatment holding a leaf over a wound that when examined turned out to be a severe infection, cancer, or broken bone not properly set. They want a lot of expensive equipment. More data-finding for us. Having equipment does nothing if you have no one who knows how to use it and to maintain it. And, as with a mammogram machine, if you can diagnose breast cancer but don't have the resources to treat it, the technology could prove harmful. There also was an insinuation of corruption within the health care system under the ugly face of self-interest. Still, there were many people we felt were genuine and well-meaning. But we began to feel like we were in a game of Clue. We never knew quite what to believe, whom to trust. In the end, you put all the clues together as best you can, you designate accountability through certain trusted actors, and you provide the help that is most needed.

 After becoming intimately familiar with both major hospitals and their contents from IV catheters to echocardiogram machines, Brett and I decided to spend a few days resting and exploring the less-inhabited island of Savai'i. We drove the perimeter of the island exploring volcanic blowholes, tsunami-decimated churches, and rural fales, or thatched huts. We spent hours swimming in the calm surf, exploring reefs and sea life through our goggles. And we watched the sun set in the last place on earth, the western-most point of the world at Fafa O Sauai'i, holding each other and sitting atop a black outcropping of rock while shiny lizards slipped in and out of the sharp rocks around us.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Australia Down Under - Brett

We had been looking forward to this day for months. As we got out of the camper and approached the grocery store, our mouths watered and our excitement became palpable. To cook for oneself. To choose exactly what went into every meal. To eat on our own schedule. To know what each dish is. We were stoked.

And $276 later we were two of the happiest people in Australia. Refrigerator full of salad fixings, fresh vegetables, orange juice, and meat with no gristle or bones in sight. It was heaven.

After eight months in the developing world (and granted some of the best food we had ever eaten), we were very ready to be in control of our own destiny. Our own kitchen, the same sheets every night, and our own transportation – not to mention our own language and a culture that we (mostly) understood.

We flew into Brisbane the day the river crested in the worst flood they've had in 40 years. The view from the plane as we flew over the city on a gloriously sunny afternoon with clear, blue skies was surreal. Thousands of homes lost and most of downtown submerged. But Aussies are a hardy bunch and the following day the clean-up had begun. We went to volunteer, shoveling mud and scrubbing walls, but they had more people than they could use and we were soon told to go home and come back in a month when all the enthusiasm had subsided.

So instead we set about preparing our “home” for the arrival of our California friends, Soltz and CarolAnn. And in this case “home” was a seven-meter long, two-and-a-half meter wide, six-berth, turbo-deisel “CheapaCampa” motorhome with the steering wheel inexplicably located on the passenger side. The six-month pregnant Soltzes were going to join us for two weeks of beaches, mountains, and cities from Brisbane to Sydney.

And it was glorious! Enjoying gifts of Stone Imperial Stout and a 1000 IBU IPA, barbequing and playing football on the beach, riding beach cruisers and sea kayaking, and spending long evenings deep in conversation, we wended our way down the eastern seaboard from the Gold Coast and Byron Bay, through the farmland of northern New South Wales, to Nelson Bay, the Blue Mountains, and finally Manly Beach and Sydney. We hiked in misty mountains and strolled along secluded beaches at sunset. We fed insistent kangaroos and spotted lazy koala bears. We learned the secrets of marsupials and marveled at the songs of tropical birds. We celebrated “Australia Day” and toured the iconic Sydney Opera House. We floated in sensory deprivation tanks and went scuba diving with 8-foot sharks. We even bought didgeridoos and had late night jam sessions in the back of the RV after Jenny and CarolAnn led us on the giggling tour of historic Miller Street in Sydney. But the common thread that tied all of these experiences together – that made this part of our trip so amazingly special – was the companionship of little Annabelle growing each day in CarolAnn's belly. It was magical. Watching these two friends embark on this fantastic journey was one of the most rewarding experiences of the trip for me. Jenny and I listened and asked questions and sat in awe as these two soon-to-be parents shared their fears and their dreams, described their hopes and their plans, and demonstrated a thoughtfulness about bringing this new life into the world that gives me a new respect for two of my closest friends. Little Annabelle will be joining us at the end of May and I know for a fact that she could not have chosen two more loving and wonderful parents.

But time, and this journey, continue on. We hugged tearful goodbyes to the Soltzes in Sydney and Jenny and I were once again on our own. We were lucky enough to have scored tickets to Madame Butterfly and put on our best clothes (hmm, flip-flops or running shoes?) for a night at the Sydney Opera House before heading down the coast for some surfing and more camping on the beach. We eventually cut inland and crossed the Great Snowy Range, climbing Mt. Koziasco (the highest point in Australia) on our way to the Yarra Valley, one of Australia's premier wine regions. Two days of wine tasting (thanks to our Scottish driver, Alistar, and his 1990 Ford LTD limousine) in Healsville and Rutherglenn kept us quite happy on our journey towards Melbourne (pronounced “melbin” for all those dumb Yankees like us). We even managed to fit in the Beechworth Honey Experience – tasting about 20 very unique honey flavors and learning how honeybees actually do what they do (another mystery solved!).

The view from Louise and Clive's house

And finally it was on to another plane for the ends of the earth and the island of Tasmania, 200 kilometers off the southern coast of Australia. Tasmania is a wild and rugged place and truly feels like the end of nowhere. Our amazing Vail, Colorado friends Louise and Clive (a Tazzy native) picked us up at the airport and proceeded to pamper us for a solid week. To date we had slept in 128 different places and I am quite certain not a single one of them had a bed this comfortable. Louise and Clive split their time between Vail and Tasmania and have just finished building their dream home on the wild, rugged coast on this lost island. Waking every morning to the gray, menacing ocean crashing on the rocks below the house made one want to snuggle deeper under the covers. But the sun did shine and we managed to get in some sailing, sea kayaking, running, and skinny dipping (Brrrr!!!). Most of the week was spent preparing for our upcoming volunteer work in Samoa, but every evening was passed in wonderful conversation over sensational food, often prepared in Clive's outdoor man-kitchen (of which I am jealous). For the first time in nine months we had a real home. Thank you Louise and Clive. You will never know how much that meant to us.

We had just spent a whole month back in the “developed” world and it was wonderful and strange. Gone were the $5 beach cottages, replaced by $60 tourist park campsites. Palate searing Jeow Mak Keua was replaced by barbequed burgers and fries. “Namaste” was replaced with “G'Day Mate!” And our position in society as revered “Americans” was replaced by our position in society as “stupid Americans”. As much as we needed the familiarity of the West and a respite from the difficulties of travel in a foreign land, we were sad to have left exotic Asia and be back in the world of SUVs and processed food. But before heading to New Zealand we had one more foray left into the unknown. So we boarded a plane headed for Samoa and were once again thrust into an unfamiliar culture full of new smells, new friends, new foods, a new language, and the stark realization that five more months of 3rd world travel in South America just wasn't going to happen.