TALKING ABOUT AMERICA

Among the things I enjoy most about blogging is sharing vignettes of real American life and my vast, wildly diverse, beautiful, inventive, enterprising, big-hearted, complex, consequential, unruly homeland. An inherently pluralistic work-in-progress, it can’t be summarized or stereotyped, mightily as some folks try. So, I’ve written about genuine American topics as diverse as Iowa, Manhattan, Pago Pago, epic trails, muscle cars, jazz, hula, Eleanor Roosevelt, hip hop, Neil Armstrong, Native American dance, road trips, drug diversion courts, rodeos …

… religious freedom, the Peace Corps, Special Olympics, multilateralism, civil society, Declaration of Independence, Presidential elections, internet, baseball, football, NASA, national parks, Pearl Harbor, defense of the Pacific, Stonewall, Marine Corps history, Mars exploration, Olympic rugby, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King Jr., Harvard, dozens of other great American universities and travel destinations, and much more. Amidst that blizzard of authenticity, one of the most fun pieces to write was the two-parter about my hometown of Los Angeles.

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¡VIVA EL PUEBLO DE NUESTRA SEÑORA LA REINA
DE LOS ÁNGELES DEL RÍO DE PORCIÚNCULA

December 31, 2010

For more than a decade my work has involved frequent travel, and I have periodically lived overseas for extended periods of time. However long or short my absence or exciting my trip, I am always thrilled to arrive back home in Los Angeles.

Downtown LA. Click through for image source.

A fine December day in L.A.

My current visit has been no exception. Despite the lengthy series of flights and the usual indignities and inconveniences of air travel, I stepped off my flight at 6:35 a.m. with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. I breathed in and exhaled deeply, and slipped easily back into L.A. life … morning rush hour … several meetings in different parts of the city … a Baja burrito for lunch … a movie on Hollywood Boulevard …

… fussing over our olive and lemon trees … scanning the unfenced wild back slope of our property for signs of our resident family of deer … dinner at Fabiolus, our friend Fabio’s Italian bistro on Sunset Boulevard … a foray to stock up on supplies from one of the four large 24-hour supermarkets within walking distance of our house … treating myself to frozen yogurt with lots of blueberries at Pinkberry … unpacking.

Hollywood. Click through for image source.

My old neighborhood. We now live up the hill, to the left of the H.

The next day I visited the U.S. Commercial Service’s West Los Angeles Export Center and held discussions with the fine folks who work there. I had a vegan lunch in West Hollywood with an elder of the Samoan community. A couple more appointments followed, and I ended the workday meeting with a young Angeleno artist, Nathan Huff, whom we will be bringing to New Zealand shortly for a curation exchange project that I’m working on.

Then Dr McWaine and I drove the 90 minutes up to Ventura to see our great friends Vana and Kevin and their canine companions Sebastian and Wilson. We all ended up at Joe, Mary, Amanda, and Gianna’s house in Camarillo for a fine dinner of homemade pizza from Joe’s outdoor brick pizza oven.

Observatory. Click through for image source.

The Griffith Observatory and the L.A. basin, viewed from Mt. Hollywood.

I spent the next day with the Samoan diaspora in Southern California. I drove the hour down to California State University, Long Beach for a 2-hour roundtable discussion with a dozen dynamic Samoan students representing various local groups, including the University’s Pacific Islanders Association.

We had a lively conversation about civic engagement, volunteerism, exchange programs, and multiculturalism. We brainstormed about how the students could develop projects that would increase educational opportunities and enhance quality of life back in Samoa. We also talked at length about how the students could become community ambassadors and plug into the work that our Embassy in Apia is doing.

The blue pyramid of Cal State Long Beach towers above the campus. Click through for image source.

The blue pyramid of Cal State Long Beach towers above the campus.

The student discussion spilled into lunch. After lunch I met with several members of the Samoan business community to discuss trade opportunities, small business development issues, and related topics. After that I drove from Long Beach to Wilmington for a discussion with Samoan ministers and other elders, and then a larger community town hall meeting.

The instructive and productive (for me) day ended wonderfully with a traditional sua and feast at the First Christian Church of Wilmington. I am very grateful to Val LiHang-Jacobo, Pastor Earle Anesi, and Papali’i David Cohen for all their work in putting together such a broad and dynamic schedule for me.

My first apartment in L.A. Click through for image source.

My first apartment in L.A. was the lower unit (next to the tarot card reader) near the end of this blue and white building on Ocean Front Walk, which runs along the beach in Venice. I loved this location, but motivation became a problem.

The next couple of days were filled with meetings largely focused on educational institutions in the L.A. area. For example, I spent a productive afternoon at the University of Southern California where I met with various professors, the Dean of the Law School, and the Director of the Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School. I came away from the meetings with a barge-load of interesting ideas and new contacts that should enhance our work at the Embassy. Plus, the bouncing around the metro area reminded me of the many reasons I love living in Los Angeles.

I first set eyes on Los Angeles in 1984 when I spent one of my law school summers as an intern at a law firm there. Frankly, I had no intention of moving to Los Angeles after graduation, and I just thought it would be fun to visit the city during the Olympic Games. To my surprise, I fell in love at first exposure to L.A. … an immense, dynamic, willful, wildly diverse, explosively creative, improbably beautiful, protean polyglot reveling unselfconsciously in its own natural eccentricity and instinctive iconoclasm. A perfect fit.

The first reported gay rights parade was organized in Los Angeles in 1970.  Here, a typically colorful and political parade in West Hollywood, the municipality on Earth to have a openly gay-majority city council. Click through for image source.

A typically colorful pride parade in West Hollywood, the first municipality anywhere to have an openly-gay-majority city council. The first reported gay equal-rights parade was held in 1970, here in Los Angeles.

The City of Los Angeles – with the full birthname El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula (The Village of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the River of Porziuncola) – is 498 square miles (1,291 square kilometers) in size and contains approximately 4.2 million people. For those interested in economics, it’s a dynamo. In 2008 Forbes named L.A. the world’s 8th most economically powerful city.

The Greater Los Angeles metro area covers five counties – Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside, and San Bernardino – and contains more than 23 million people. With an annual economy of about $850 billion, this megacity is an economic powerhouse that ranks as the third largest metropolitan economy in the world, behind the Greater Tokyo and New York metro areas. If it were to secede from the United States, the L.A. metro area would be the 12th largest national economy on Earth, ahead of countries such as the Netherlands and Indonesia.

Just a regular Southern California freeway. Click through for image source.

One of our Southern California freeways.

From afar the most visible component of the economy is Hollywood … widely loved, widely loathed, universally coveted, obsessively followed Hollywood … the epicenter of Earth’s motion picture industry.

Creativity and innovation in L.A., however, have not been limited to the entertainment sectors.

Hollywood sign. Click through for image source.

The iconic (and trademarked) Hollywood sign.

L.A. has historically been a center of aerospace research and development, and it has vibrant biotech, pharma, renewable energy, hardware, software, CGI, and other technology-based industries. Techie friends of mine tell me that L.A. has a claim to being the birthplace of the internet because the first Arpanet transmission was sent from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1969.

Driving innovation are numerous corporate R&D centers and an extensive higher education network. There are more than 4 dozen universities and colleges in the metro area, including the world-class behemoths University of Southern California (where I taught law school and where Dr McWaine went to medical school), UCLA (where Dr McWaine taught clinical psychiatry), Cal Tech, and University of California, Irvine.

Santa Monica Pier. Click through for image source.

The Santa Monica Pier, a great place to spend a warm evening after a day on the beach.

What most attracted me to L.A., though, was not its economic engine but its natural beauty. The city runs from the wide sandy beaches of the Pacific to snow-capped mountains just east of the downtown business core to the edge of the glorious Mohave Desert … from 9 feet (3 meters) below sea level in Wilmington to 11,500 feet (3,505 meters) at the top of Mount San Gorgonio.

We in L.A. are blessed with a Mediterranean climate … annual average daytime temperatures of just above 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius), more than 3,300 hours of sunshine per year, and only between 7 and 15 inches (180 – 384 mm) of rain per year. The mountains within the city limits receive snowfall every winter.

California poppies in bloom. Click through for image source.

California poppies in bloom.

So … what do Angelenos do besides stoke their economy and enjoy the sunshine?

I’ll let you know in my next post. I have to sign off now and get dressed for New Year’s Eve dinner. I don’t want to end 2010 on the wrong foot.

Click through for image source.

Again, Dr McWaine and I wish you and yours the very Happiest of New Years.

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As I was about to say in my last post – before New Year’s Eve intervened – Dr McWaine and I live in the Hollywood district, which is near the geographic center of Los Angeles. We are just up one of the hills behind the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I love the neighborhood because it’s a microcosm of the diversity of L.A. and a wonderful mix of urban and wild environments.

Chinese Theater. Click through for image source.
Cary Grant footprints. Click through for image source.

The historic Grauman

The Hollywood Hills are part of a mountain range that bisects the city. Among the unexpected joys of L.A. are the number of animal species that live within or commute to the city along wildlife corridors formed by the hills in which we live, parks such as Runyon Canyon (just across from our house), and greenbelts along the river and freeways.

Dr McWaine and I literally have deer, coyotes, owls, hawks, possums, and raccoons in our backyard. Mountain lions are occasionally sighted in other parts of our canyon. When we’re in the mood for some local exercise, we can hike up to the top of the hills for glorious views of the Hollywood sign, snow capped mountains, the Pacific, and the broad expanse of the city.

The Los Angeles basin, viewed from a hilltop near our house. Click through for image source.

The Los Angeles basin, viewed from a hilltop near our house.

When the urban urge strikes, it’s a 15-minute walk down the hill into central Hollywood to see a movie, get some food, do some shopping, or go to the gym. It’s also about a 15-minute walk over the hill to the Hollywood Bowl and only about a five-minute drive to Universal Studios, the Universal CityWalk entertainment district, and the Universal Amphitheater. If you catch the subway under the Kodak Theater or at Universal Studios, you can get to many other places in the metro area quickly and easily. (I regularly used the subway, for example, to commute to my office downtown.)

I am a particular partisan of the Hollywood Bowl, our 17,500-seat outdoor amphitheater. Over the years I’ve spent a good bit of time at the Bowl … dining with friends in the boxes, at the Playboy Jazz Festival … at the Easter sunrise service … for Fourth of July fireworks … and to enjoy acts from around the world (my favorite thus far being Portuguese fado star Mariza). In operation since about 1920, the Bowl has presented a who’s who of artists including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, The Beatles, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Luciano Pavarotti, Itzhak Perlman, Vladimir Horowitz, and even Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The Hollywood Bowl. Click through for image source.

The Hollywood Bowl, summer home of the L.A. Philharmonic.

There is always a lot to do in L.A. One has to work hard to be bored. Los Angeles is an entertainment dream, which one would expect of a city where one in every six residents works in a creative industry. To gild the lily a bit, the University of Southern California’s Stevens Institute for Innovation asserts, “There are more artists, writers, filmmakers, actors, dancers, and musicians living and working in L.A. than any other city at any time in the history of civilization.”

I believe it. There are more than 1,000 musical, theater, dance, and other performance troupes in town, as well as 54 annual film festivals. My own particular cultural passion is cinema, and I can easily reach just over 200 movie screens on foot from our house, including the posh ArcLight and the historic Grauman’s, El Capitain, Egyptian, and Cinerama Dome.

Disney concert hall. Click through for image source.

Designed by Frank Gehry, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is the winter home of the L.A. Philharmonic.

I haven’t counted them myself, but my sources tell me that we are blessed with more than 840 museums and art galleries … more museums per capita than any other city in the world. The cultural anchors are behemoths such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (just down the hill from our house), the Norton Simon Museum, the Huntington Library, and the Getty Trust‘s museums.

With an endowment of approximately US$ 5 billion, the Getty is the wealthiest art institution on Earth. When I moved to L.A., the Getty collection was housed in a Roman-style villa on 64 acres on a cliff above Malibu. The Getty Villa continues to house Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities. In 1997, the rest of the extensive collections, the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty’s extensive educational programs relocated to the new Getty Center on 110 acres atop a mountain in the Brentwood district of L.A., across from Bel Air.

Getty Center Museum. Click through for image source.

The Getty Center, on a hilltop in Brentwood.

I know from personal experience that there is a museum to suit every interest. In our immediate neighborhood, for example, there is the huge Petersen Automotive Museum, for which Dr McWaine has a special passion. I am particularly drawn to the Page Museum at the La Brea tar pits because it is a “working” museum with active digs in the surrounding pits.

Among the other specialty museums that I like are the Travel Town train museum in Griffith Park (with dozens of actual engines and carriages) and the California Science Center. There are also Hollywood Boulevard treasures within walking distance of our house such as two wax museums, Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not museum, Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie museum, and the Max Factor make-up and costume museum.

Perhaps the most famous street in greater Los Angeles. Click through for image source.

Main Street USA at the original Disneyland in Anaheim, one of the most famous avenues in the Los Angeles area.

L.A.’s outdoor entertainment offerings are equally extensive and diverse. There’s DisneylandUniversal StudiosMagic MountainKnotts Berry FarmHollywood BowlQueen MaryWatts Towers … Santa Monica Pier amusement park … shopping along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills … the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica … the Venice oceanfront promenade, including the famous Muscle Beach outdoor gym … excursions to Catalina Island … and many dozens of miles of beaches.

One can also enjoy the outdoors by picking up one of the ubiquitous star maps and heading off on a celebrity safari. A less intrusive diversion is simply cruising the Hollywood Hills, Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Malibu, and other neighborhoods looking at the houses, which are a wonderful mix of architectural styles … of good taste and bad … of things glorious and horrifying, cozy and palatial.

Just another Los Angeles cottage (built by TV mogul Aaron Spelling), recently on the market for US$150 million. Click through for image source.

Just another Los Angeles crib (built by TV mogul Aaron Spelling), recently on the market for US$150 million.

Greater L.A. also has several zoos, aquariums, and arboretums. One of my favorite pastimes when home is tramping through the large Los Angeles Zoo in the hills of Griffith Park just past Universal Studios. I have visited the Zoo on average once a month since moving permanently to L.A. in 1986, and I first saw many of the animals when they were newborns. I am particularly fond of the snow leopards and the tigers, which I have watched grow through several generations. I am grateful to the L.A. Zoo and the San Diego Zoological Society to our south for the important work they do through their endangered species preservation programs.

Some of the roses on our back deck, with a view across the canyon to Runyon park on the far slope.

Some of the roses on our back deck, with a view across the canyon to Runyon park on the far slope.

Dr McWaine likes the Zoo but prefers to hike in the steep hills of Runyon Canyon, which is a large wild park full of native flora and fauna (including coyotes, deer, and the occasional mountain lion) just across from our house.

I sometimes go with him, and I very much enjoy the panoramic views of the city and coast from the top of the main trail.

This trip, though, I opted just to sit lazily on our back deck, watch the hikers on Runyon’s crest, and enjoy the red-tail hawks soaring above the canyon.

In addition to hiking, outdoor enthusiasts can readily indulge in the usual surfing, sailing, kayaking, rafting, skiing, snowboarding, dune riding, camping, flying, and other outdoor options, all of which are close at hand.

Personally, I am particularly fond of beach volleyball and of rollerblading the extensive bike paths that run along the oceanfront and the Los Angeles River. When I lived in Venice I rollerbladed all the time. (The beach lifestyle was so seductive that my motivation to go to work plummeted, which is why I moved to Hollywood after about 6 months.) I missed the opportunity this trip because I left my blades back in Wellington.

Venice beach / ocean front. Click through for image source.

The Venice Beach portion of the coastal bike path, in front of my old place.

For those who prefer watching others sweat, there are by my count more than a dozen professional sports teams in L.A., including the glitzy Los Angeles Lakers, whose jerseys I see frequently in New Zealand as well as in Southern California. There are hundreds of collegiate teams including the gridiron powerhouse USC Trojans. Our most notable sports venues include the Rose Bowl, L.A. Memorial Coliseum, Staples Center, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita Race Track.

The Coliseum is particularly venerable, having twice hosted the Summer Olympic Games, in 1932 and 1984. In addition to being what first attracted me to Los Angeles, the 1984 Games are notable for turning a large profit and being the most financially successful in history. According to Wikipedia, the only other Olympic Games to turn a profit were … L.A. in 1932.

Day of the Dead display in East L.A. Click through for image source.

A display in East L.A. in celebration of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), which has roots in indigenous Mexican cultures.

I am also very drawn to L.A.’s human diversity. The city is home to people from more than 150 countries speaking 226 different languages. Census statistics indicate that only about 42% of the population speaks English as a first language. A comparable number of residents speak Spanish as their first language, and there are large numbers of native Korean, Tagalog, Armenian, Chinese, and Persian speakers.

Ethnically, the metro area is about 40% Hispanic, 39% non-Hispanic Caucasian, 11% Asian, 8% African American, and 2% Pacific Islander and Native American. (Such statistics are sometimes difficult to parse because of definitional challenges when people are asked to self-identify, and because of the high incidence of what is still sometimes quaintly referred to as “inter-marriage.”)

A wall mural in Echo Park, not far from my neighborhood. Click through for image source.

A wall mural in the Echo Park neighborhood. The L.A. area is famous for its vibrant historical and political wall paintings.

My favorite statistic is that 31% of the current population of Los Angeles was born outside the United States. Another 21% of the current population – including me – was born in a State other than California. Dr McWaine likes to remind me that he is a native Californian. I’m an immigrant. And proud of it.

All religions known to modern humans are practiced in L.A. We are the largest Roman Catholic Archdiocese in the United States. Among us one can find critical masses of all denominations of Christianity and of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Baha’i, Zoroastrianism, Sufism, Shintoism, and many other faiths. Wikipedia reports that the city of Los Angeles is “home to the greatest variety of Buddhists in the world.”

Cathedral. Click through for image source.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, designed by José Rafael Moneo Vallés.

On a brief historical note, the coastal areas of Los Angeles were first settled thousands of years ago by the Tongva and Chumash Native American tribes. The first Europeans arrived in 1542 when an expedition led by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo claimed the area for the Spanish Empire but did not stay.

The revered Father Junipero Serra subsequently established several Christian missions in the area, and the town was officially founded in 1781 by a group of 44 settlers. Los Angeles’ culture of diversity was seeded at its founding – most of the original settlers were mestizo, of mixed European, Amerindian, and African ancestry.

A typical day in Malibu. Click through for image source.

A typical day in Malibu.

Los Angeles became a part of Mexico in 1821 when the colonies of New Spain won independence from the Spanish Empire. Los Angeles and the rest of California became part of the United States in 1848 at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War.

Los Angeles formally incorporated in April 1850, and California was elected to statehood just a few months later. Gold was discovered. Then oil. By 1923 Los Angeles was producing more than 25% of the world’s petroleum. One can still see oil wells in various parts of the city, including on the sidelines of Beverly Hills High School’s football field.

A few of the famous enclaves in the greater L.A. area.

A few of the famous enclaves in the greater L.A. area.

OK, lest you think I’m romanticizing, I’ll mention earthquakes, smog, wildfires, and mudslides … nature’s little reminders to Angelenos that nothing’s 100% pure or perfect.

Earthquakes are just part of the deal, as they are in my new home in New Zealand. Los Angeles sits on the other end of the Pacific ring of fire, above the leading edge where the Pacific and North American Plates move past each other. My friends at Cal Tech tell me that we have approximately 10,000 earthquakes each year. Some of those are big.

I was thrown from bed by the Whittier Narrows quake, my first big one, in 1987. Dr McWaine and I helped friends remove personal belongings from their collapsed home after the 1994 Northridge quake. The 800-pound gorilla remains the San Andreas Fault which runs through the desert just east of the city and is capable of producing the real “Big One” fictionalized in numerous disaster films. Fortunately, Southern California has the most sophisticated and strictly enforced seismic codes on the planet.

Rotunda. Click through for image source.

The rotunda of the massive L.A. Central Library.

Given its topography and geography, Los Angeles is susceptible to a phenomenon known as atmospheric inversion which holds smoke and exhaust above the city. In addition, because there is so little rain, the air is not frequently cleaned by precipitation as it is in many other large cities.

The problem is not exclusively a modern one. Thousands of years ago the Chumash named the area the “valley of smoke” because the smoke from their campfires accumulated and lingered so long in the air. Fortunately, the State of California has been a trailblazer in limiting emissions, managing particulates, and establishing and preserving green belts. The result is clear blue skies much of the year.

A glorious day in the high desert outside of L.A., with our unique Joshua trees in the foreground and Mt. San Jacinto (on the edge of Palm Springs) in the background. Click through for image source.

A glorious day in the high desert outside of L.A., with our unique Joshua trees in the foreground and Mt. San Jacinto (on the edge of Palm Springs) in the background.

Wildfires and mudslides are natural consequences of a dry climate and urban expansion into the foothills of mountain, forest, and wilderness areas. When a spark from lightning, a cigarette, a campfire, a fool, or an arsonist ignites dry brush, fire spreads quickly if not immediately extinguished.

Out-of-control wildfires burning down the hills towards NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena in 2009. Click through for image source.

Out-of-control wildfires burning down the hills towards NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena in 2009.

In years when our rain comes all at once, burned or simply dry hillsides can become super-saturated, destabilize, and slide. We regularly have small slides in our neighborhood when rain is heavy. Fortunately, Southern California has strict fire and building codes, well-seasoned fire fighters, well-informed homeowners, and two centuries of practical experience swinging at Mother Nature’s seasonal curve balls.

Hollywood Boulevard closed for the Academy Awards ceremony. Click through for image source.

Hollywood Boulevard, closed for the Academy Awards ceremony at the Kodak Theater.

As I said, all that is just part of the deal. And the deal’s a good one.

I guess what resonates most deeply with me is the sense of freedom and opportunity that Southern California exudes. No matter who you are or where you come from, you can do well here. You can fit in. Or not. You can be noticed. Or not. Your choice. The place is too large, diverse, dynamic, and, yes, chaotic to have a single hierarchy or orthodoxy. There is no Los Angeles Inc. suggesting what to think, what to say, or what to do. There is no script.

Piano guy. Click through for image source.

Just another Angeleno enjoying a sunny day on the beach, his way.

That dynamic is reflected in our politics. Greater L.A. contains some of the most conservative and some of the most progressive voters in the United States. We are a bit of a political idea-lab … whether it’s environmental activism, civil rights, tax revolts, libertarian initiatives of various sorts, or religious engagement in politics. California has a referendum and initiative system that makes it very – some say catastrophically – easy to put issues, budget items, potential laws, and even Constitutional amendments to a popular vote.

We Angelenos are always looking for ways to pull power and decision-making down to the grassroots level, where most of us believe it belongs. In 1999, for example, we voted to create Neighborhood Councils. My friend Joel Wachs first proposed the concept several years earlier as a way to increase public participation, better respond to neighborhood needs, and create a vibrant civic laboratory for new ideas.

A large protest march past the iconic L.A. City Hall, memorialized in numerous movies and TV shows including Dragnet. Click through for image source.

A large protest march surrounds the iconic L.A. City Hall, memorialized in numerous movies and TV shows including Dragnet.

The neighborhood councils are run by governing boards elected by folks who live, work, or own property in the particular community, and not just by full-time residents. From what I hear, there are now more than 90 neighborhood councils within the city. Each is allocated approximately $50,000 each year for local projects … a modest but powerful investment in empowering our communities.

Well, again, this post has gotten much longer than I intended. Sorry about that.

Click through for image source.

In closing, I will just say that I still remember my first day in Los Angeles. I rented a convertible and spent several hours very late that night cruising the city’s web of freeways at an elevated speed with the top down, the radio cranked up, and no idea where I was going. Feeling unleashed. Feeling alive.

More than 26 years later, I still get that same rush whenever I step onto terra angeleno. It must be love. I always breathe most deeply when I am home in Los Angeles … even when the wildfires are burning, the air is smoggy, or we happen to be getting all 10 or so inches of annual rainfall at one time.

Come visit. Feel the rush.

I have always enjoyed exploring new places and cultures. It’s not about sightseeing but about embracing the wild diversity of the fascinating planet on which we live. In the course of my duties as Ambassador, I have been blessed to visit virtually all precincts of New Zealand from Cape Reinga to Bluff, travel to Samoa more than a dozen times, spend an intense week on Rarotonga, and even venture to Pago Pago, Vanuatu, and Manila. Many of my posts talk about my experiences on the road, and picking a favorite was impossible. So, I wrote the titles of the six top contenders on slips of paper, and drew one from my Māori Television baseball cap.

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MY FIRST VISIT TO SAMOA
March 18, 2010

I am just back from my first trip to Samoa to present my letter of credence from President Obama to the Head of State of the Independent State of Samoa, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi. I had been very much looking forward to the trip, not only because Samoa is such a beautiful place but because the visit offered a chance to relive the invigorating process of entering a country for the first time as a foreign Ambassador, as I had done earlier in New Zealand.

Fire-knife dance, in full swing. Please click through for image source.

Fire-knife dance in Samoa.

Those two “arrivals” were unlike anything else I have experienced. There is potent cocktail of high energy, anticipation, curiosity, apprehension, expectation, scrutiny, and ceremony that creates intense focus rather than intoxication.

As a former disputes lawyer, I very much appreciate that heightened degree of awareness and connectivity. (Being so constantly photographed and documented will take some getting used to, though.)

There is also a sense of great possibility when stepping into a new position in a new place. Life is too short to drive in ruts in the road – physically, personally, or intellectually — and sometimes the greatest needs and the most exciting opportunities are off road, in the weeds. To the occasional dismay of my new colleagues, I like exploring what’s out in the weeds as well as what has always been sitting in the middle of the highway.

My welcome at the Tuaefu House for the presentation of my credentials was particularly meaningful. I appreciated the cultural gravitas of the ava ceremony and was happy to be able to participate in Samoan instead of English. I felt the same tingle as earlier in Wellington when I addressed the Head of State with remarks on the status of the bilateral relationship and presented to him the letter in which President Obama asked that I be received as his personal emissary and U.S. Ambassador.

Tea with the Head of State, his Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi.

Tea with the Head of State, his Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi.

Upon accepting my credentials, His Highness and Masiofo Filifilia invited me to tea, which turned into 90 minutes of the most vigorous intellectual discussion that I have had in many years – ranging widely over topics such as strategies for reducing teen suicide, approaches to reconciling science and religion, the challenge of preserving culture without allowing it to calcify, Asia Pacific regional architecture, and the joys of organic gardening. I very much look forward to continuing those conversations with Their Highnesses.

My first-day schedule also included an enlightening conversation with Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi. In part because my top priority as Ambassador is youth outreach and education, I was then delighted to visit (along with our Deputy Chief of Mission) the wonderful Samoa Primary School, recently established and financed by its founders through personal credit card debt. Located outside of Apia, the school contains a computer lab that we had contributed so that the students could learn computer skills at an early age.

An open challenge is that Samoa Primary is a bit too far outside the city limits to have internet service, which seriously reduces the educational potential of the computer lab. We are working on a few ideas to address the problem, but if someone else has suggestions – or funds – for getting the school connected to the net, please let me know.

The new computer lab at Samoa Primary.

The new computer lab at Samoa Primary.

I also had the great pleasure of speaking at the opening of an Embassy-funded American Corner containing 1,000 new books and a computer lab at the Nelson Memorial Library in Apia, and of touring the National University of Samoa (NUS). A roundtable discussion about culture, politics, and aspirations that I had with a group of students at NUS was as useful in teaching me about Samoa as anything else I experienced during my trip.

I also made it a point, as I do whenever I travel, of visiting other venues and groups that don’t usually see foreign Ambassadors. For example, a colleague and I spent an interesting hour at the Samoa AIDS Foundation, which faces great challenges in the important work that it does. I unfortunately missed the Samoa Fa’afafine Association this trip but will be sure to meet with its board when I’m next in town.

My Embassy colleagues and I also joined the crew of the visiting U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Walnut in digging foundations for new fales at a Habitat for Humanity project in the tsunami-damaged village of Poutasi, Falealili on the south coast of Upolu. Kudos and thanks to Commander Jeffrey K. Randall for contributing to the effort (and for hosting a welcome reception for me that evening onboard).

Working up a sweat with the fleet.

Working up a sweat with the fleet.

Three days later the Chilean earthquake struck, and warning sirens went off across Samoa at 4:00 a.m. I joined the orderly evacuation of the city as Apia’s residents moved through the darkness to higher ground. I hope that the ill-informed ex post complaints from some commentators about the evacuation being “unnecessary and “wasteful” do not dissuade people from continuing to act prudently in the future.

Finally, I very much enjoyed visiting the big island of Savai’i. It was a pleasure meeting the U.S. Peace Corps volunteers based there. They are exactly what I had expected from a group of young Americans overseas – smart, articulate, committed, personable, irreverent, good humored, and focused on doing good things in a culturally sensitive way. We had a series of great conversations, and I look forward to seeing them again. If you see one of these folks on the street, give him or her a hug for me (and buy him or her a drink).

Yes, that's the real sunset and my new shirt, not special effects.

Yes, that’s the real sunset and my new shirt, not special effects.

I also had the pleasure and privilege of attending Sunday church services with one of the Peace Corps volunteers at the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa in the village of Sapapalii, at the spot where Christian missionaries first stepped onto Samoan soil. The choirs were wonderful, and the congregation was warm and inviting. Rev. Esera Esera graciously hosted me for lunch to introduce me to the village elders, which involved an extraordinary amount of food and great ceremony. I very much look forward to returning to Sapapalii whenever I am on Savai’i.

In closing, kudos to the Governments of New Zealand and Australia for deciding to underwrite public, parochial, and special needs school attendance fees in Samoa, thus essentially creating universal free primary and secondary education – one of the most powerful drivers in any society for improving living standards, creating personal opportunity, advancing human rights, elevating the status of women, and deepening economic development and equity. Building air-conditioned buildings for adults is often nice, but putting students at desks is always the real point.

Thanks, Samoa, for a great first visit. I look forward to returning soon and frequently. Fa’afetai tele lava.

HOSTING VISITORS

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One of my goals has been to increase the flow of official visitors in order to reinvigorate and expand working relationships. The surge has included an unusually large number of Cabinet visits:  then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (twice), Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Attorney General Eric Holder. There has also been increased traffic in the other direction, including a successful trip to Washington by Prime Minister Key in July 2011. All of those were important milestones. In terms of blogging the visits, my favorite is Secretary Clinton’s stop in Rarotonga for the Pacific Islands Forum because of the explosion of color and affection it conveys and the peek into her substantive discussions and whole-of-society engagement.

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AT THE PACIFIC ISLANDS FORUM WITH SECRETARY CLINTON
September 4, 2012

As you know from my tweets and instagrams, I had the great pleasure of spending last week on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands for the annual Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). For me, the highlight of the trip came Thursday evening when Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, his Cabinet, dozens of performers, Dr. McWaine, and I greeted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the airport. It is always an honor for an Embassy to welcome a Secretary of State, but we were particularly delighted to receive a second visit in less than two years.

Secretary Clinton receives a traditional warm welcome on arrival in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.

An enthusiastic welcome for Secretary Clinton on the tarmac in the Cooks.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is welcomed to Rarotonga, the Cook Islands, August 30, 2012. [State Department photo by Ola Thorsen/ Public Domain],

Being greeted with singing, dancing, vibrant colors, and great enthusiasm.

The Secretary and I weren’t the only Americans in town for the Forum. I welcomed the largest and highest-level U.S. delegation ever to attend the gathering in its 41-year history. I made the same statement at last year’s PIF in Auckland, but this year our presence was even more extensive. With the Secretary and me were the U.S. Ambassador to Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, Tuvalu, and the Pacific Islands Forum (Frankie Reed); U.S. Ambassador to Australia (Jeff Bleich); U.S. Ambassador to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu (Teddy Taylor) …

… Governor of American Samoa Togiola Tulafono; Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Dr. Esther Brimmer; Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs Tony Babauta; U.S. Pacific Commander Admiral Samuel Locklear; Coast Guard Commander Rear Admiral Charles Ray; and other officials from the White House, USAID, Peace Corps, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and several other agencies.

Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook Islands group.

Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook Islands.

Established in 1971, the Pacific Islands Forum is an annual regional event which brings together the leaders of 16 independent and self-governing states in the Pacific — Australia, The Cook Islands, The Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji (currently suspended), Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. With a permanent Secretariat in Suva, Fiji, the PIF is intended to stimulate regional economic growth and cooperation, and to improve security and governance across the region.

Each year after several days of meetings among the leaders of the PIF member nations, delegations from certain other nations join the leaders in a day of discussion known as the Post-Forum Dialogue. The Dialogue partners are development aid donor nations from within the Pacific region (such as the United States and Japan) and elsewhere (such as several European countries). Multilateral institutions (such as the World Bank) and NGOs (such as the East-West Center) also participate in the Dialogue.

Pacific Islands Forum.

PIF leaders meet during a session of the Forum.

The Secretary and indeed the entire American delegation came to work. As we did last year, my team and I scheduled our various principals for more than 120 separate meetings and public appearances with officials from other nations, NGOs, multilateral institutions, and businesses present. It was a punishing but highly productive schedule for the 48 hours or so that most of our visitors were in town.

Because of the late hour of her arrival, the Secretary went straight to her lodging after the tumultuous welcome at the airport. She started early the next day with a private breakfast meeting with the leaders of the Forum nations at one of my favorite island haunts, Trader Jacks on the wharf. The free-wheeling discussion was warm, candid, and substantive, touching on a wide range of issues and common objectives including ongoing negotiations to renew the Pacific tuna treaty.

The Secretary greets some locally-based American nuns during a visit to Rarotonga (Photo: stuff.co.nz - click through for image source)

On her way into Trader Jacks, the Secretary stops to greet several American nuns based on Rarotonga.

After more than an hour of discussion, the Secretary and island leaders drove to the National Auditorium for the formal start of the Post-Forum Dialogue. Each Dialogue partner made an official statement to the assemblage, and then Prime Minister Puna opened the floor for general discussion. In her remarks, the Secretary talked about America’s long history as a Pacific nation, noting that 70 years ago the U.S. had “made extraordinary sacrifices on many of the islands represented” and had since then “underwritten the security that has made it possible for the people of this region to trade and travel freely.”

During the morning recess, the Secretary greeted members of the public and viewed various exhibits of island products and projects displayed in the Auditorium courtyard. She and Prime Minister Peter O’Neill of Papua New Guinea then held a lengthy bilateral meeting that covered a variety of issues of importance to the two nations. Our Ambassador to PNG Teddy Taylor participated with the Secretary in the bilat while I met with several Cook Islands entrepreneurs about business and environmental projects being launched.

Secretary Clinton and Delegates to the Pacific Islands Forum pose for a family photo at the Cook Islands National Auditorium, August 31, 2012. [State Department photo by Ola Thorsen/ Public Domain]

Secretary Clinton poses for a family photo with Forum leaders and Post-Forum Dialogue heads of delegation. She is flanked by Prime Ministers Key (left) and Puna (right) of New Zealand and the Cook Islands, respectively.

When the bilat with Prime Minister O’Neill concluded, the Secretary and other members of our delegation drove the short distance up the hill to the residence of New Zealand’s High Commissioner to the Cook Islands, John Carter. There we had lunch with Prime Minister Key, Foreign Minister Murray McCully, and other Kiwi officials. The discussion was wide ranging and cordial, as one would expect among good friends with aligned values.

After lunch the Secretary and Prime Minister walked across the front lawn to meet the assembled American and Kiwi press. They made short statements and then entertained questions. In her statement the Secretary noted the close working relationship between the two countries. She also referenced new programs that the U.S. was launching at the Forum to support our Pacific island friends in several key areas including promoting sustainable economic development, protecting biodiversity, advancing regional security, and supporting the advancement of women in the Pacific.

Secretary Clinton and Prime Minister John Key of New Zealand participate in a joint press availability at the Pacific Islands Forum in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, August 31, 2012.

Prime Minister Key and Secretary Clinton meet the press after lunch.

The next engagement on the agenda was a strategic trilateral discussion among the United States, Australia, and New Zealand led by the Secretary, Australian Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Richard Marles, and Kiwi Foreign Minister Murray McCully. The discussion focused on promoting development and security cooperation in the Pacific, including with respect to issues of sustainability, good governance, and support for civil society and democratic institutions.

The American delegation then drove from the High Commissioner’s residence to Tamarind House to host an event commemorating America’s historic and ongoing peace and security partnerships in the Pacific, an issue of particular importance to the Obama Administration. The Secretary was joined on the beachfront dais by Admiral Samuel Locklear, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (a.k.a. Pacom) and Rear Admiral Charles Ray, District Commander of the 14th Coast Guard District based in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Secretary Clinton walks with Rear Admiral Charles W. Ray, U.S. Coast Guard, and Admiral Samuel J. “Sam” Locklear III, Commander U.S. Pacific Command, at an event commemorating U.S. peace and security partnerships in the Pacific at Tamarind House. [State Department photo by Ola Thorsen/ Public Domain]

Sec. Clinton arrives at Tamarind House with Admirals Locklear (right) and Ray (left).

The three principals took turns discussing America’s century-long engagement in the Pacific, particularly the vast contributions made by the United States to the regional peace and security that have allowed other nations to develop, grow, and prosper.

That’s a point too often overlooked. In an era of short attention spans, short memories, and binary thinking, it’s important to remind ourselves of the laws of cause and effect as well as of the broader, more complex context in which current events manifest.

The Secretary began her remarks by framing America’s engagement in the Pacific region as “a model of partnerships that reflect our shared values, delivers practical benefits, and helps create stronger economies and societies. Our goal is to help the island nations of the Pacific realize their own aspirations, reach your own goals.”

She noted that “[w]e already work closely with our partners on a range of transnational and maritime security issues, including crime, trafficking in persons, nuclear nonproliferation, disaster response and preparedness,” and she announced that the U.S. is “doubling down” in two particular security areas — maritime awareness and unexploded World War II ordnance.

Maritime awareness is essential to protecting fisheries and other ocean resources. Under our Shiprider programs, U.S. Coast Guard ships and aircraft host Pacific island law enforcement officers, enabling them to patrol from our ships. As an example of what such partnerships can produce, just since 2009 we have facilitated the collection by Kiribati of more than US$ 4 million in fines for illegal fishing in its waters. The Secretary announced significant expansion of our Shiprider partnerships including utilizing U.S. Navy ships along with our Coast Guard.

The Secretary then discussed the human and environmental dangers posed by unexploded bombs and shells from World War II. She acknowledged that no one really knows the full extent of the problem, but that it had to be addressed aggressively. She announced that the U.S. Government would add an additional US$ 3.5 million to the millions already committed in recent years to help identify, remove, and destroy unexploded ordnance in the islands.

Frankie Reed, U.S. Ambassador to Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, Tuvalu, and the Pacific Islands Forum, welcomes Secretary Clinton Rarotonga Dialogue on Gender Equality. [State Department photo by Ola Thorsen/ Public Domain]

Amb. Frankie Reed introduces the Secretary at our Dialogue on Gender Equality.

We also convened at Tamarind House a group of women leaders from the member nations of the PIF including my good friend Adi Fafuna’i, about whom I wrote just a few weeks ago. Dubbed the Rarotonga Dialogue on Gender Equality and led by another good friend of mine, Ambassador Frankie Reed, the gathering discussed at length the status of women in island societies as well as ways to empower women and girls socially, politically, and economically.

The Secretary joined the discussion after the peace and security event concluded. She noted the challenges faced by women in the Pacific — for example, four of only seven all-male legislatures left on Earth are in the region — and then reviewed the work of the Pacific Women’s Empowerment Initiative which she launched in 2010 in collaboration with Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and the World Bank.

Building on the Empowerment Initiative, the Secretary announced the formation of a partnership of governments and organizations to support leadership training for women – especially those in Pacific university institutions and organizations - to be called the Rarotonga Partnership for the Advancement of Pacific Island Women. The East-West Center in Hawaii will coordinate regional education institutions and private partners to greatly expand leadership training, academic scholarships, and other educational opportunities for women in the network, thus creating new opportunities for Pacific women to assume prominent roles in public service and private enterprise.

The Secretary poses with attendees at the Rarotonga Dialogue on Gender Equality.

Posing with delegates who participated in our Dialogue on Gender Equality.

No matter how busy the schedule when she travels, Secretary Clinton always insists on meeting with the State Department personnel involved in the event or trip to thank them for their service. Thus, I assembled the officers and staff in country from Embassy Wellington, Consulate General Auckland, Embassy Apia, and several other American Missions as well. The Secretary spoke about the importance of the work of the Department, posed for photos, and then walked across the beach to our next event.

Hosted by Cook Islands Prime Minister Puna, the final official engagement of the day focused on sustainable development and ocean conservation. The Prime Minister discussed the Cooks’ thriving black pearl industry and laid out his vision for a Pacific Oceanscape of marine reserves, responsible stewardship of marine resources, and economic development compatible with environmental protection.

Secretary Clinton speaks at the Sustainable Development and Conservation Event. [State Department photo by Ola Thorsen/ Public Domain]

Secretary Clinton speaks at the Sustainable Development and Conservation Event.

In her responsive remarks, the Secretary thanked the Prime Minister for his warm hospitality, commended him on his excellent leadership of the Forum, and acknowledged his inspirational commitment to conservation.

She announced two new programs through USAID — one to work with coastal communities to increase their indigenous capacity to adapt to climate change, and the other to help develop the region’s renewable energy resources by providing training and education for technicians and engineers to install, maintain, and repair solar energy equipment.

With respect to other conservation issues, the Secretary talked about American efforts to persuade the international community to declare Antarctica’s Ross Sea, one of the last great marine wildernesses left on Earth, as a marine protected area. It’s a difficult struggle, but the right thing to do.

She also talked about new cooperative programs with Kiribati to protect marine ecosystems, and explained how the State Department’s Pacific islands diaspora project was working to offer entrepreneurs access to capital and technical assistance to advance sustainable, environmentally sensitive economic development in their countries of origin or heritage in the region.

After the formal remarks concluded, the Prime Minister and Secretary mingled with the hundred or so Cook Island business and civic leaders present, and continued their discussion of the Cooks’ pearl and tourism industries. It was a glorious beach setting under clear blue skies, and no one seemed anxious to leave despite the setting of the sun.

In all, over the course of the day Secretary Clinton launched a large number of new initiatives of mutual benefit to the island nations and the United States on issues of regional security, sustainable development, marine protection, climate change, gender equality, education, and economic partnership. Oriented toward capacity building, people-to-people engagement, and entrepreneurial self-reliance, the initiatives provide a recipe for empowerment, not dependency.

The Secretary visits Avarua’s Saturday morning market during her free time in Rarotonga - Click through for image source - Hindustan Times

The Secretary takes a stroll in town after PIF meetings ended.

In addition to the specific projects discussed above, I thought I’d share a small sample of the other U.S. initiatives and commitments discussed during the PIF. They aren’t things that you’d notice while walking down the street, and they certainly aren’t sexy or salacious enought to be reported in the papers, but they are transformative in their cumulative impact in the region. And they represent just part of the direct American commitment to the islands which totals approximately US$ 350 million per year. Again, just a quick sampling from meetings in which I participated:

Environmental Stewardship: The United States is committed to working with the Pacific islands to protect the unique marine resources of the Pacific and will explore with Kiribati areas of cooperation on the protection, preservation, and conservation management of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area and the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (which together account for 244,514 square miles of protected marine areas).

Climate Change: Recognizing that climate change is one of the most pressing concerns for the peoples of the Pacific, the United States is working to build capacity in the region to help communities adapt to the effects of climate change. In addition to the US$ 25 million Coastal Community Adaption Program already described, the United States is also establishing Vocational Training and Education for Clean Energy (VOCTEC), a US$ 1 million program aimed at generating and sustaining renewable energy investments.

Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, Esther Brimmer, at the Post Forum Dialogue.

Assistant Secretary of State for Int’l Organizations, Esther Brimmer, at the Post-Forum Dialogue.

Pacific Partnership: Next year, the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Partnership exercise will return to the Pacific, including Samoa. Pacific Partnership deployments collectively have provided medical, dental, and educational services to 250,000 people and completed more than 150 engineering projects in 15 countries.

Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice to Combat Environmental Crimes: The State Department will continue to help link the countries in the region to increase capacity building for anti-corruption, law enforcement, and rule of law communities. The State Department and the Department of Justice are supporting a new prosecutor-led Natural Resource Crimes Task Force in Indonesia that could serve as a model for Pacific nations on improving prosecution of natural resource crimes.

Developing Economic Linkages: In recognition of the cultural and economic ties between the United States and Pacific islands, the Department of State is partnering with the PIF Secretariat’s Pacific Islands Trade & Invest to launch the Pacific Islands IdEA Marketplace (PIIM).

PIIM is being implemented within the context of the International diaspora Engagement Alliance (IdEA), an innovative program that has successfully linked diasporas to local populations in Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. PIIM collaborators will develop a competition that seeks out innovative ideas to promote economic development and reduce the vulnerability of populations to natural disaster. Winners will be provided with technical assistance for developing their business plans and access to project financing and entrepreneurial networks.

Economic Growth and Prosperity: Ex-Im Bank is active in the region and seeks to provide financing for the procurement of U.S. equipment and services in most PIF countries. Over the past three years Ex-Im has supported financing in the amount of approximately US$ 7 billion dollars for projects in the Pacific including new liquid natural gas project developments in Australia and Papua New Guinea.

More Economic Growth and Prosperity: Since 1980, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) has invested more than US$ 341 million dollars in the Pacific region, supporting investment and development in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Micronesia. OPIC currently has more than US$ 45 million in investments and insurance in the Pacific Islands region, and is actively looking to support viable projects in the region.

The Cook Islands offers up beautiful beaches and a rich marine environment. [State Department photo - Public Domain]

The Cook Islands offers beautiful beaches and a rich marine environment.

USAID: The recently opened USAID office in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea is already managing a diverse portfolio of development projects in the South Pacific region.

Constitutional Development and Democracy: For example, this year USAID has provided nearly US$ 2 million to support democratic institutions in Fiji as well as free and fair elections in Papua New Guinea.

Regional Project Support: The Regional Environmental Office of U.S. Embassy Suva provides between US$ 75,000 and US$ 125,000 per year in numerous small grants for local projects throughout the region tackling both environmental and health issues.

PIF Youth Conference: This will be a conference sponsored by Embassy Wellington for youth leaders from each of the 16 member countries of the PIF to discuss key political, economic, environmental, and social issues in the region and to create a Pacific youth leaders network that will continue to communicate following the conference.

Interior of the Cook Islands from the Cross Island Track.

Near the center of Rarotonga island, on the Cross Island Track.

American Youth Leadership Program with Samoa: 20 American participants will travel to Samoa for a four-week exchange in December 2013 to study food security and nutrition alongside twenty Samoan teens.

Adopt the Airport Project: This project plans to transform unused land beside the Majuro Airport in the Marshall Islands into the atoll’s largest eco-friendly outdoor exercise facility.

Pacific Islands Sports Visitor Program: Focused on hearing-impaired track and field athletes, this program planned for early 2013 will reinforce awareness, locally and regionally, about disability inclusion especially for youth.

American Samoa: Governor Togiola Tulafono of American Samoa also had a busy week of meetings, including finalizing and signing an MoU with the Cook Islands to work cooperatively on a South Pacific Albacore management regime, the monitoring of Cook Island flagged vessels using the port of Pago Pago, the exchange of fisheries related information and research, and personnel exchange visits.

Governor of American Samoa, Togiola Tulafono, signing an MoU with the Cook Islands’ Minister of Marine Resources, Teina Bishop at the National Auditorium.

Governor Togiola Tulafono (seated, right) signs an MoU with Cook Islands Minister of Marine Resources Bishop.

Strengthening Democracy to Mitigate the Effects of Climate Change on Public Health: This project aims to expand on a newly published book, Public Health Impacts of Climate Change in Palau, by Southern Illinois University and funded by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) through a television and print campaign to raise awareness and foster discussion about the impacts of climate change on public health.

Economic Innovation Fund / Transition from Substance Living to Market Economy: This program will work in conjunction with the Federated States of Micronesia’s current program designed to improve income for rural communities and increase household nutrition standards.

Leadership Development: The East-West Center will partner with other regional donors on a US$ 3 million program to provide leadership development and skills training for 125 young Pacific islanders.

The Secretary greets people during a visit to the Avarua markets in Rarotonga (Photo: AFP - click through for image source.)

The Secretary greets people at the market in Avarua.

Yes, that’s a blizzard of work and a lot of official meetings. But there was also time for direct engagement with the people of the Cook Islands. Secretary Clinton enjoyed a couple hours talking with shoppers in local markets, walking along the beach, and dining in local eateries. “Auntie Hillary” was the talk of the town, and signs welcoming her or offering special deals (e.g., “Free Ice Cream for Anyone Named Hillary Clinton”) were evident across the island.

Unfortunately, the Secretary’s visit was brief and soon over. The PIF was just the first stop on a long trip that would take her onward to Australia, Indonesia, Brunei, Timor Leste, China, Russia, and other locations on a tight schedule. So, shortly after being welcomed, she was back at the airport being farewelled by Prime Minister Puna, other Cook Island officials, Dr. McWaine, and me.

L to R: Cook Islands PM Henry Puna, Amb Huebner, Secretary Clinton, Mrs Akaiti Puna.

Bidding the Secretary farewell with Prime Minister Puna and Mrs. Akaiti Puna.

I’ll leave you with the closing words from one of the Secretary’s public statements in the Cooks which nicely summarize the tone and orientation of American engagement in the Pacific:

“The United States is proud to support our many partnerships and our longstanding friendships in the region. Seventy years ago our countries stood together to fight for security and peace in the Pacific. At the end of that terrible world war, who could have predicted where we would be in 70 years?

“The United States did not leave the Pacific after that, instead we focused on making sure that the region continued to be safe and secure so that you could develop, you could pursue commerce, you could raise your children in peace, you could become more prosperous. We’re going to work together to ensure that all the people of the Pacific islands, in the 21st Century, have the chance to fulfill their own God-given potential. That is the hope that the United States brings to our partnerships and our friendships.

“We have put very real initiatives behind these hopes and these commitments, and we will be with you over the years and decades, and I would predict over centuries to come, as we see these islands continue to prosper, to go from strength to strength.”

FEELING THE RUSH

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Being Ambassador involves a great deal of excitement, sometimes too much. (Adrenaline rushes were intended as short-term self-preservation mechanisms, not long-term job descriptions.) Of the hundreds of extraordinary experiences I’ve had over the past four years, none was more awe-inspiring than my two trips to Antarctica. I wrote more than a dozen posts from the Ice edge and the South Pole in November/December 2010 and February 2012. Although others have better pictures, my favorite was the first, drafted about an hour after I stepped onto an ice runway at the end of the Earth, because I think it best captures the unfiltered exhilaration of exploration.

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BIG HIGH DOWN SOUTH
November 29, 2010

I just had one of the biggest rushes of my life. I spent the last hour of the five-hour flight from Christchurch sitting on the flight deck with the pilot and co-pilot of the C-17 Globemaster III carrying my colleague Ola and me to Antarctica for a week.

Indescribable journey.

Soaring into Antarctica.

Dr McWaine will tell you that I am not by nature an effusive person. I don’t jump up and down with any regularity. I tend to take things – even great things – in stride in a way that I fear sometimes disappoints those around me. I was raised to be cautious, controlled, matter-of-fact, and skeptical. When I was quite young, I recall an elder relative stating authoritatively that blocking every silver lining is a thick dark cloud. That impressed me.

Dr McWaine will also tell you that I instinctively make lists in my head. I don’t think about them. I don’t write them down. My brain simply compiles and sorts data, whether I want it to or not. For example, I can tell you the ten best meals I ever had, in order. Even though I have never thought about it, I know that if you asked I could tell you my 25 favorite places on earth, or my 7 preferred breeds of dog, or the 11 biggest surprises I have experienced (thus far).

My colleague Ola and I, about to board our flight south.

My colleague Ola and I in Christchurch, about to board our flight south.

So, when I tell you that the past 90 minutes or so have been one of the three biggest thrills of my already full life, I really mean it. (Since you are asking the question in your head … the other two biggest thrills were seeing the clouds suddenly clear after days of rain to reveal the sunny summit of Mt. Everest from base camp on the Tibetan side, and looking up from a pinball machine to catch a first glance of my spouse to be. The precise order is a personal secret.) But I digress.

Ola, enjoying the comforts of the C-17 Globemaster III as we head south.

Ola, enjoying the comforts of the C-17 Globemaster III as we head south.

This report is about today. About catching my first glimpse of the wondrous continent of Antarctica on the horizon through crystal-blue skies. About seeing ice floes and ice bergs beneath us as we soared low over the Ross Sea. About seeing majestic, volcanic Mt. Erebus up close to our left as we approached McMurdo Sound. About the dazzling green-blue of the vast stretch of ice where our plane would be landing. And about the absolute thrill of stepping out of the airplane onto the edge of what remains the most pristine, mysterious, and glorious piece of our over-populated, over-exploited planet.

The view from the C-17 as we entered the Ross Sea.

The view from the C-17 as we flew along the Ross Sea.

Coming here has always been one of my dreams. I quite distinctly remember discovering the continent at the Mahanoy City Public Library when I was seven years old. Its existence, of course, was suspected much farther back than that, in the time of the ancient Greeks. Aristotle himself theoretically posited the existence of terra australis incognita, an unknown southern land, to complete the symmetry of the lands known at the time. The likely existence of such a continent was more specifically assumed beginning in the 1400s, when European explorers first crossed the equator, thus proving that the “known” and “unknown” worlds were not divided by a ring of fire.

Our direct due-south route today.

Our direct, due-south route today.

The actual search for Antarctica took centuries. British explorer Captain James Cook was the first person to cross the Antarctic Circle, but he apparently never saw Antarctica itself. It is generally believed that the first person to see the continent, in January 1820, was Fabian Gottlieb von Bellinghausen, a Russian naval officer of Baltic German origin. An American sealer named John Davis, from coastal Connecticut, is generally believed to have been the first person to actually set foot on Antarctica, in January 1821.

Ola and me, feet newly on the ice.

Ola and me, feet newly planted on the ice.

What ensued were expeditions to explore the vast continent and to reach the South Pole, a quest that cost many lives and broke many hearts. In a dramatic race, Norwegian Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the Pole, in December 1911, just ahead of Englishman Robert Falcon Scott. Scott and his party sadly perished on their way back to the coast.

Dinosaur fossils have been found on Antarctica. Norwegian Captain Carl Anton Larsen was the first explorer to find fossils on the continent, in 1892. Two completely new species of dinosaur were discovered in 2003, bringing to eight the number of dinosaur species shown to have lived on the now ice-covered land.

View from McMurdo Station of the Dailey Islands, Cape Chocolate, and Blue Glacier. The end of the ice runway where we landed is visible in the foreground.

View from McMurdo Station of the Dailey Islands, Cape Chocolate, and Blue Glacier. The end of the ice runway where we landed is visible in the foreground.

A few additional facts might be in order. Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent and is larger than the United States, measuring in at more than 5.4 million square miles. The vast majority (approximately 98%) of the land is covered in ice … thick ice averaging about a mile deep. If all the ice on Antarctica melted, sea level the world over would rise more than 200 feet.

Stop and think about that. In fact, click over to Google and check how far above sea level your current house now sits. And then recalibrate sea level up 200 feet. Could you still use your screen doors in the summer? If not, give some thought to how we prevent all that ice from actually melting.

Mt. Erebus, visible from our landing strip, is an active volcano and site of the tragic crash of a New Zealand sightseeing aircraft with 257 people aboard during a sector white-out, 31 years ago yesterday. Click through for image source.

Mt. Erebus, visible from our landing strip, is an active volcano and site of the tragic crash of a New Zealand sightseeing aircraft with 257 people aboard during a sector white-out, 31 years ago yesterday.

The coldest temperature ever measured on Earth’s surface was -89 degrees Celsius, or -128 degrees Fahrenheit, recorded at Vostok Station on Antarctica. The average temperature data that I have found conflict, but all of the sources seem to agree that the average temperature even during summer is well below freezing. Such temperatures are incomprehensible to an Angeleno like me. After just a short time off the airplane, I am already very grateful for the 4 layers of extreme-cold-weather clothing that my friends at the National Science Foundation loaned to me.

In addition to being the coldest place on Earth, Antarctica is also the driest and windiest continent. Considered a desert despite all the accumulated ice, it has annual average precipitation of only about 200 mm (eight inches) along the coast and far less inland. I was most surprised to learn that Antarctica has the highest average elevation of all Earth’s continents. As of today I have stepped onto all seven continents, and I probably would have ranked Antarctica sixth rather than first in elevation.

McMurdo Station, our stop for the night.

McMurdo Station, our stop for the night.

I am very much enjoying lingering here on the ice of McMurdo Sound … breathing deeply, enjoying the bracing fresh air, soaking in the glorious view of Mt. Erebus, and beginning to formulate plausible denials for when Ola tells people that I actually jumped up and down when I stepped off the airplane. But the jeep is waiting to take us up onto Hut Point Peninsula on Ross Island, to McMurdo Station. We need some food and a little sleep because there are even more jaw-dropping adventures ahead.

Tomorrow we head to the South Pole. I’ll tell you about that tomorrow night.