Sunday, July 3, 2011

Man vs. Wild: Samoa

Heading up the mountain!
Many of you have seen the popular cable T.V. series on the Discovery Channel, Man vs. Wild, with Bear Grylls. A helicopter drops him out in an unforgiving landscape and he has to survive with limited resources as he battles nature’s relentless power. He gives pointers on what to do if you ever were to end up in a similar situation, minus the camera crew and producers of course!

Recently I had my own Man vs. Wild experience, as I hiked up the 754 m (.46 miles) mountain next to my house on two different occasions. Within my first month of living here in my village, I made the goal to someday reach the summit of that mountain. I was able to accomplish that goal on June 11th, and then again on June 25th.

On the first expedition, I had the company of two other Peace Corps volunteers, Corina and Chelsea, as well as Denise, one of the staff from the Peace Corps office. The four of us were led by my neighbor, along with a few other men from the village. In the lead-up to that trip, people from the village continued to reassure me that there was in deed a trail to the top. We soon found out that the trail was actually decent for half the distance to the summit. The second half ended up being the most challenging, since the men leading us had to cut through growth, which was thicker than I had ever seen before.

Corina, Chelsea, and Denise weren’t able to make it all the way to the top because Corina and Chelsea had to get back into the capital to catch buses to their villages that day. But I continued on with two of the men who were leading us.

As we walked along, I was in awe of the men, as they made the entire trip without shoes on their feet! Samoans start walking outside without shoes on their feet from the time they start to walk as toddlers, so their feet have calluses as strong as the Nike tennis shoes I wore. In my mind, I kept saying “ouch,” every time I looked down at their feet, but it never seemed to slow them down. The oldest man on the trip with me was 59 years old, and he was more agile and limber than I was on the slopes of that mountain. At one point, I looked behind me to see where he was, thinking he had fallen behind. I was in for a wake-up call when I found him waiting for me some distance ahead.

That first trip took seven hours to reach the summit. It was a crystal clear day. By the time we did make it to the top, I began to realize that I hadn’t packed enough food or water because I started to get dizzy and very weak. I’m pretty sure I was experiencing some level of dehydration, which made the trip back down very challenging. Going to the top of a mountain is exhilarating, but then you remember that you have to get back down!

Living in Samoa I’ve been able to experience the convenience of being able to eat off the natural foods of the land. Coconuts are a great source of hydration and give the body lots of good vitamins. But since they don’t grow at the elevations we were at, I kept picturing how amazing it would be when we finally got low enough on the mountain, where one of the men could shimmy up a tree and knock one down for a much needed drink!

After what felt like ages, we finally did reach the coconut trees! This was the first time when I saw the strain of the trip on one of the men’s feet, as he had to make a type of shoe out of leaves to give some traction to his feet, in order to climb the tree!

Not only do coconut trees provide great drinks, they also bare great food. Around the base of coconut trees, you can always find the shoots of new trees that have started to grow. If you break open those coconuts and get to the germination of the new tree, it is very tasty to eat. This food called o’o, has filled my stomach on many different occasions, most of all on that day!

When we finally made it back down, a bunch of my students were following me down the street asking about my trip. We had put up a red flag at the top of the mountain, and many of them had seen it that afternoon. My friends Milo, Saulo and Neueli were all fascinated by my pictures from the top of the mountain and wanted to make the journey themselves, and that’s how the second trip came about on June 25th.

The second time up was much easier, as the trail had already been cut. I was better prepared with plenty of water and food. Saulo took along a hammer and nails, so that the men who were leading us could reinforce the flags at the top of the mountain, which had fallen down since our first trip. It was so much fun to see the kids’ reaction once we reached the top. We were able to see all the way down to our village, and across the island to many other surrounding villages.

Going up only took two hours on my second trip. However, it had rained the night before and thus the second journey proved to be much more slippery than the first. This all turned the fight against gravity on my decent, into comic relief for those who were with me. Only five minutes after we started our descent, and in one of the steepest parts of the trail, I slid and tumbled backwards into a bunch of limbs, ferns and other vegetation, which resulted in me needing the assistance of two of the men, plus Milo, to get me out back onto the trail. Luckily, other than a few cuts I was fine.

When we all got back, the boys told me they wanted to go back up again sometime, but I told them I thought I had had enough! Both trips allowed me to form new relationships with people in the village, which is always a rewarding experience. I was also reminded again, that nature really is wild, and that it takes a lot of energy from those who scale its summits. But when you do, the view is always waiting for you!

This is what we were trying to summit!

The view on the way up.

Milo, Saulo and Neueli with their new hairdo!

Looking down from the mountain on my village.

Conquering the summit!

Me on the summit, with my village and house below!

Milo taking in the view from the top.

Aaron with our victory flag.

Neueli grabbed some sugar cane to take back to his family.

Starting to get a bit tired on the trek back down the mountain.

One of the men on the trip, who named his son after me, carved this into the tree as a gift to both his son and me.

Milo, Saulo and Neueli stop for a picture by the waterfall on the way back down the mountain.

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