The Mark of the Jandal

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Postcards

So the other day I got a postcard from some place in Florida. It was signed 'Aurght', and I cannot for the life of me figure out who sent it. The handwriting was similar to Heather's, but it wasn't hers. I was wondering who sent it. If you could email me that would be nice john dot m dot harrold _at_ gmail dot com. Another odd thing is that it was postmarked on the 30th of March in St. Petersburg Florida and that's the day it came in --- unbelievably fast for the mail here.

Three Day Weekend

The elections were last Friday. The official Peace Corps instructions were to not goto polling places --- we maintain our objectivity by not getting involved in local politics. Originally were were planning on going to take pictures on election day, ride our bikes to the wharf, take the ferry over to Savai'i, and ride to another volunteers place. We were going to stay there Friday night and ride back on Saturday. Such are the best laid plans of mice and men in a developing country. We couldn't really determine when the ferry was leaving --- election day is a public holiday. A few volunteers showed up at our place. After hanging out until four, we determined that the Savai'i trip would have to wait. I had a long bike ride in my head, and that is something that is difficult for me to shake. I started looking at the map of Upolu (the second largest island that I live on).

Geography

Upolu is a long skinny island about four times as long as it is wide. There is road that more or less encircles the island running along the coast. There are three cross-island roads; as the name suggests, they cross the island across the thinner dimension. There is one which bisects the island close to my house. The other two cross island roads are about two thirds of the way from the road by my house to the outer points of the island.

More Plans

I looked at the map on the wall and plotted my course. I'd start by going up and down the cross island road closest to my house. After I reached the road encircling the island I'd go west up the coast. Even though there is a break in the encircling road on the map, another volunteer assured me that there is a road that can be taken there. He also mentioned that there is a bit of a hill. I should probably have asked about how to find this adjoining road. So the plan was to go around the western tip of the island and circle back to Apia.

I left around 7.30 Saturday morning with 116 oz of water, a candy bar, a package of cookies, my camera, a change of clothes and some money. I made it to the cross island road fairly quickly and started riding up it. I must be getting old because it took me for ever to get to the top of the hill. I think it took me three hours (with a 0.5 hour break at the Baha'i temple) to ride the 2.5 miles --- that's right, I was averaging one mile per hour. It was amazing at the peak of the road. This is a picture of a farm at the top with a storm sweeping in from the north: While it took me way to long to get up the hill, it only too me about 20 minutes to make it down the other side. I took a right at the tee and rode for a while. It's very surreal riding around here. Villages a laid out all along the road and everyone greets you as you pass. It was getting close to noon, and it's just not smart to ride around at noon. I decided to find a place to rest for a couple hours while the heat of the day passed. I rode up on a village playing kiki, the Samoanized version of cricket. I believe the village was called Sataoa. I took a seat in front of a closed falealoa to watch the game. I should probably mention that I ate all of my food at the Baha'i temple. At this point, I'd gone through about 70 oz of water --- I still had 30 oz in my bladder and 16 in reserve. I sat for a while watching the game and chatting with the kids that invariably gather around strangers. I entertained them with my broken Samoan, and watched the kiki game. After a while, a teenage girl told me her mom across the street wanted to talk to me. I walked over there where they had chairs set up for me. She asked if I wanted to play, and I told her that I was resting. She asked where I was going, I told her that I was going to Vaivase (the area where my house is located). She asked me where I was coming from and I told her Vaivase. I explained to her that I lived in Vaivase and I was out for a ride. I don't know, but I think she thought I was insane.

She asked me if her son could borrow my bike to pick up some rice and turkey tails. This made me a little alert, not that she wanted me to let her son borrow my bike, but that I may be invited to eat. I would normally be excited to get food, but that comes with a time commitment I couldn't make. I let her son borrow the bike. She explained that they had games every Saturday: kiki, netball, rugby, etc. There were two teams in the village: The New Testament and The Old Testament. I asked her if the Old Testament team was particularly vengeful which she found pretty funny. When her son returned, I told her that I needed to get going. This was around two in the afternoon.

I headed up the road and it turned inland. Some storms passed and were quite refreshing. I began riding uphill for a while, and at some point, I started to get hungry. I was down to the reserve water, so I need to pick up some fluids pretty soon. It's ironic, because as I was going down the cross island road there were people selling niu everywhere. Niu is the name given to immature coconuts which have between 500 and 750 ml of potable fluid inside. They are about one tala each and are cheaper than water. Now that I needed fluid, there was none to be had. Eventually, I came up on a falealoa, and pulled over --- I could smell baking bread. I got a large coke, two liters of water, and a German bun. The latter is doughnut dough wrapped around a semisweet coconut/coconut cream mixture. I know that coke dehydrates you, but I really wanted the sugar. I was starting to get really tired. I sat in front of the store, ate, drank and read part of the "Life of Pi".

Changing Plans

After a little while, I took off up the hill. I approached a road that appeared to be the continuation of the encircling road --- this is where it would have been prudent to get better directions from the other volunteer. The road I was considering went down a hill for a while, and I really didn't want to go down and have to come back up. So I decided to take the cross island road closest to the western coast. The new plan was to ride up the road to the top of the mountain. On the top of the mountain there is a road that goes along the ridge back towards Apia. So I was going up the mountain and turning right on the ridge road back home.

This is the point where I started to get tired. I'd go about a mile and pull over. I'd drink some water, wring out my shirt and go another mile. I was really wanting the rain to come back. As I made it to the top of the mountain my legs were starting to cramp. The ridge, it turns out, is pretty hilly in it's own right. After an hour or so of riding, I would normally ride standing up for 10 minutes or so. This would allow feeling to return to certain parts of my body and give my arse a rest. It now became difficult to ride standing up because my legs were beginning to cramp. At this point I stopped the bike and sat there for a couple minutes. I decided that I needed to focus on something... pizza. Yes, I'd have pizza for dinner.

The ridge was steadily increasing in elevation, but it did so as rolling hills. So I would go as fast as I could down a hill to milk as much momentum as I could from that hill to get as far as possible up the next hill. Then I'd drop down into a really low gear and use whatever energy I had to get to the top. Then I'd repeat the process all over again.

Aside

While I had plenty of water, I think I had sweated out all of the salt. I took a couple potassium supplements before I left in the morning, but I didn't have anything salty to eat. Normally I get this stuff by drinking niu. Instead I was just drinking water. Next time I'm going to take the hydration salts from our medical kits.

A Wall Lacking Substance

To me riding like this is more a mental challenge than a physical one. Riding somewhere is normally hardest for me when I'm not familiar with the terrain. Since I'd never been on this ridge before, I didn't know when it would end. From the map, I thought I'd been on one end of this road once before, however nothing looked like it was leading to familiar terrain. For me the largest challenge is in my head. Once I find something familiar, I know how far I have to go. I tooled along for what seemed like forever (in reality it was probably only an hour). So, as soon as I saw some familiar roads, it was like a cloud had been lifted from my head --- it didn't hurt that it was more or less downhill from then on. I only had to deal with my sore ass and the lack of feeling in other extremities.

The good news is that it next time it wont seem very long at all. Living in a small country is really amazing though. I like the idea that I can ride a bike pretty much anywhere in a days time. We have a break week after next, and Bryan and I are planning on circling the island. I think it will be easier because we're going to do it in three and a half days and we wont be hitting that many hills at once. His host father is having a 90th birthday party, and we're going to spend a couple days in Falevao. It should be interesting.

Pepperoni, onion, mushroom and olive.

Beyond the Bubble

One of the strangest/more challenging thing for me here is being in groups where most people are not engineers. It is strange for me to think that I have spent the last 12 years more or less surrounded by engineers --- analytical types who have been conditioned to solve problems. The last five years of that was spent in graduate school. This is an environment where one chooses their words carefully because vague statements and hyperbole leave a person open to a verbal assault. Being the argumentative type, I enjoyed this environment. It left me with an appreciation for understanding a problem from various angles and choosing words that were the most explicit or exact.

Being an engineer has its drawbacks also: Antisocial tendencies coupled with never being sure where to properly place apostrophes and commas. Really though, an oncologist that I worked with in grad school frequently mentioned literary figures, artists, or musicians I'd never heard of. When I'd say "whose that?" he'd commonly reply with some variant of "do you ever get your head out of a book long enough to see what's going on around you?" There is a bit of truth to this. I remember working out my schedule as an undergraduate and noticing that we had six credits --- two, three-hour classes --- of electives.

I asked one of my professors about the lack of electives and his response was simple and pragmatic: In order to fulfill the requirements of ABET (the engineering accreditation organization) and graduate students in four years we didn't have the time for many electives. Speaking as a chemical engineer with my small sample size at the University of Arkansas, many of my fellow students were from lower to middle class families. Education was not just a way to keep ourselves busy for four years. Rather, it was a means to elevate ourselves economically. People willing to put in the time and effort at school could obtain well paying jobs with decent benefits.

What relevance does all of this have on my stay here in Samoa? Being plucked from a community of scientists --- (not just engineers) people who are very logical and practical --- and placed in the Samoan/volunteer community really makes me appreciate the incremental changes in my thinking which have occurred over the last decade.

Most problems have solutions which can accommodate constraints (physical, sociological, economic, etc.). Sometimes these problems are easy to solve. For example, when buying a new car there are hard constraints: how much money one can spend initially, recurring costs, seating requirements (family of five), automatic transmission, etc. There are also soft constraints: safety ratings, how nice the car looks, etc. On the other hand, many problems do not necessarily have clear solutions (e.g., the Israel/Palestinian conflict). To many people, problems exist in the latter category where they should/could in the former. The dilemma is being able to approach a problem and systematically break it down into manageable chunks.

This is one place where education, especially graduate school, has really helped me. When I am posed with a problem, I almost always fall into a process where each step logically follows the next. Possible solutions are eliminated until I'm left with a set of possibilities which require some qualitative assessments to be made in order arrive at a final solution. There are of course drawbacks: trying to explain new concepts that I am familiar with to people who have never seen the material before can be really difficult --- you know the primary responsibility of teachers.

I'll start out working on a lecture, say teaching protein structure (chemical and 3-d) to the students. I think to myself, this should take five to ten minutes at a maximum. As I start preparing the lecture, I come to the realization that this is a pretty abstract concept for people who have never seen this before. These are the good days --- coming to this conclusion before class. A few classes have come and gone where I realized that the last twenty minutes of class were a blur and the students did not have a clue as to what I was discussing. I try to talk to the students outside of class to probe them for what they understood. They are too embarrassed to say so in front of the class, but they will give me enough information personally to let me assess what they got from the class.

After what I will call the bad classes, I'll start the next class off by asking probing questions. This will give me a better assessment of what they picked up from the last class. If it's really bad, I'll whip out a set of notes with different and hopefully better examples. I've retaught at least one entire class and I've redone the majority of three classes. The good news is that I'm getting better at this. A challenge here is that I don't really know the students background that well. It's a balance: trying to keep them from getting bored with material they are already familiar with and not moving at a speed they cannot follow. Of course, I speak too fast also.

Dealing with the volunteers poses it's own set of challenges. When I deal with the students I approach them with a couple mental guides: they are fairly young academically and they have a different background. As an example, these guides limit analogies I can use when explaining to people and I'm not as anal about phrasing they use. When I start talking to the other volunteers, I sometimes revert back into the academic mode: statements should be precise and correct (the Bobs would be proud), overreaching or illogical statements should be called out --- it's almost habitual at this point. I'm sure I come across as being very aggressive, and I've probably rubbed a few of the volunteers the wrong way. Heather could no doubt sympathize with some of them, and that's why they are probably so easy to meet her.

When I told my grandmother (on my mothers side) that I was going to grad school, she told me that I needed to grow up and get away from "that school environment". I thanked her for her opinion, and went to grad school. I doubt joining the Peace Corps is what she meant. However, her argument did and still does have merits which I'm starting to see a little more clearly.