Ani Avdoian may be a second-grade teacher at 60th Street School, but in private life she's an environmental adventurer hellbent on helping native Hawaiians preserve some of the pristine beauty that has existed for centuries on the isle of Kauai.
Last August, Avdoian, 40, spent two weeks -- at her own expense -- working as a volunteer on a 985-acre nature preserve called the Limahuli National Botanical Gardens on Kauai to keep invasive plants such as banana poka and various species of ginger, guava and other plants from choking out the indigenous vegetation that has made these islands among the most picturesque in the Pacific Ocean.
How did you become interested in Hawaii?
I was there once before, about three years ago. I loved it, and I loved the people.
How did you end up going as a volunteer?
I was looking through a union publication we get, and there was this tiny blurb. It said if you like volunteering and are interested in traveling, there were a number of places you could go. It gave you choices. When I saw Hawaii was one of them, I checked the Global Volunteers Web site and saw the Hawaiian trip involved preserving the rain forest. So I applied.
Why work in a rain forest?
I've always been interested in that. When I began to teach second grade [in the 1990s], I turned half my classroom into a rain forest for my students. I'm very interested in growing plants, the ecology and helping the earth. I think we take a lot from the earth, and we need to give back to it. We abuse it and need to do something to help restore it. It's been providing us with food and shelter and the other things we need for a long time, and I believe many people just think it will always be there for us. But it won't unless we start taking care of it.
What did you do there?
A lot of hard work. Some days we climbed 1,500 feet up into the mountains, where we weeded out the guava, coffee trees and other invasive plants that aren't native to Hawaii. We weeded around the existing native plants there to give them breathing space. We also planted seedlings so more native trees like the h'a'li'e will grow there. We carried the seedlings on trays up the mountain with our backpacks and walking sticks -- it was an experience keeping your balance -- to plant the trees in those higher areas of the rain forest. We spent four days from early morning to late afternoon working at that.
What other jobs did you do during your two weeks?
We spent about four days working in the muck of the wetland terraces to eradicate invasive plants, by pulling them out with our bare hands. I wasn't easy. It was exhausting. Some plants were very tough and viny, and taller than me. We had to clear out the weeds because they were choking out the native taro plants that were growing there. Taro is the root that Hawaiians turn into poi, a common native food. Poi is something like mashed potatoes. They mash it up, but it's more of a grayish purple substance and more sticky. We also harvested and planted taro.
Did anything about the work gross you out?
Well, we worked in knee-deep mud where they grow the taro. When you first went in, you were almost sorry you volunteered to do it. Also, every time we went into the wetlands there were snails, tadpoles, toads and a dark-colored shrimp living [in the muck]. They told us to pull the snails out because they laid their eggs on the taro, which hurt the plants. I didn't refuse to do it, but when they were visibly around, I just moved to another area. I didn't want to touch them. They were too squishy for me.
Why did you persist even though you didn't care for the marsh and snails?
You did it for the people who are trying to preserve the area. There was an elderly couple we called Auntie and Uncle. They were in charge, and this garden was everything to them. They are trying to bring this area back to the way it was 700 or a 1,000 years ago. It's their life's work.
What did your second-graders think about their teacher wandering around in muck full of snails?
I told them about it the very first week of school. The boys loved it. Right away they were saying things like, 'Awwww, that's so cool.'
Was it all work and no play?
On weekends and some evenings we were free to do other things. We went snorkeling. We went on a catamaran. We went to the beach. We had a great beach near us. I liked the snorkeling best. I've never done that before, and I was surprised you didn't have to go out very deep in the water to see all these amazing fish. You could just look down and see a multitude of very colorful fish -- all the pastels and the bright orange colors. It was just like the movie 'Finding Nemo,' seeing all those schools of different fish. I even saw a sea turtle.
What kind of Hawaiian food were you served?
Auntie fed us some days -- on other days we went out or cooked for ourselves -- and made us all different kinds of Hawaiian food: all kinds of salmon, many different kinds of shrimp, fish, salads, poi and pork. I ate poi by mixing it with other foods, like raw fish and salmon. They also took what they call 'Ti' leaves and cooked pork they called LauLau in it. They cut up the pork and wrapped it and the pork fat in the Ti leaves, tied it together with taro leaves and then steamed them. That was one thing we had with poi and salmon. They had mangoes and papaya fruits. They had names for all different types of mangoes and told you which ones were best. I didn't even know that. We are lucky if we get any here at all. I don't know what any of ours are called. They're just mangoes as far as I knew.
How much did the trip cost you?
About $3,000. That included the plane fare and room and board. I lived with four other volunteers in a beautiful house on the park grounds.
Aside from helping preserve and restore the native landscape, what else did you feel you got out of your trip?
Getting to know some of the Hawaiian people was an absolute plus. We got to be friends, and it felt like we were part of the family. I think we did a lot of bonding. I mean, I got to meet the people there. It wasn't just a tourist run from island to island and store to store to shop and shop. We got to meet these people. They made us meals. We chatted with them. Uncle used to be a bartender, and he made us the best Mai Ti. It was that type of thing, where you feel you really know what it's like there.
Do you plan to go back and work there again?
I'll go back. I wanted to do it this year, but my father's very ill, so I had to change plans.
Did your students learn anything from your trip?
I'd like to teach them more about Hawaii, about the environment and other things. Unfortunately, this curriculum is so packed, there's little time to do too much. I do weave it in when I can. I wrote a narrative essay about it so they could use it as a model to do their own narrative writing based on their own experiences. I think just knowing about this gives students hope that they can do things like this in their lives. Most importantly, I hope it helps them learn that you have to accept people who are different, and the best way to do that is to meet and get to know them. So if you go to school and meet someone from a different culture, don't make fun of them if they look different, wear different clothes or are a little darker or a little lighter. Don't just judge them. Sit down and ask them to tell you about themselves. I try to do that with my students. I hope I convey that to them.