Adrenalin charged, I emptied the volunteer invitation package and read the country/individual specific information. I was to teach refrigeration--appropriate. The school was in Western Samoa.
Wait, that’s not in Africa, is it? I checked a globe—no, that’s Western Somalia.
Ah, here we go, an enclosed U.S. Department of State publication. The nine islands of Western Samoa [now Samoa—“Western” was dropped in 1997 as a vestige of colonialism] are in the Pacific Ocean, about 1,600 miles northeast of New Zealand and 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii. It is thirteen degrees below the equator. Australia is not much further away than New Zealand. And the islands are mountainous, too--great!
There is a “patchwork of pigmentation” among pacific islands inhabitants: brown skinned Polynesians, darker Micronesians, and still darker Melanesians. Micronesians tend toward smaller stature, and their features, similar to Polynesians, resemble Asians; Melanesian’s features are more African, and, similar to Polynesians, their stature tends toward large.
Nearly all of these micro‑states have been colonized at one point by large nations, but many had become independent. On January 1, 1962, the Polynesians of Western Samoa led the procession to sovereignty by becoming an independent nation. The country isn’t much older than me.
Eighty miles away are the eastern islands, now the United States Territory of American Samoa. The Tripartite Convention of 1899 partitioned the Samoan archipelago into a German colony (the western islands) and a U.S. territory (the eastern ones). That was the culmination of years of civil war among Samoan factions and the international of rivalry the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom that had them at the brink of war.
Before European intervention, however, all islands in the Samoan archipelago were of the same society. Many contacts continue between members of extended families, and a considerable number of Western Samoans were employed at the tuna-canning factory in American Samoa.
My invitation to the Peace Corps was open for five days. One paragraph in the materials recurred to me:
“Two years from now you could be stepping off a plane returning to the United States a proud and unique individual. You will have served the world community, learned a language, lived, laughed and worked in an exotic land. You will have touched the hands of friendly people striving for a better life. Or, in two years, you could be saying, I wonder what the Peace Corps would have been like? The Choice is yours.”
That clinched it for me. I waited a couple of days, then called to accept.
Anticipating adventure, I periodically reviewed the country specific material and looked for the fifty or so listed books on Pacific Islands and Western Samoa. I located a few locally, but this place was so remote, I couldn’t find more than ten of the books, even after resorting to the Boston Public Library. They ranged from Rosaline Redwood’s real adventures On Copra Ships and Coral Isles to the real horror of the Works of Ta’Unga: Records of a Polynesian Traveler in the South Seas, 1833‑1896, a Rarotongan’s graphic front line experience with cannibalism while crossing the South Pacific to proselytize Christianity; and ranged from Joseph Conrad’s fiction Lord Jim to Margaret Meade’s anthropological Coming of Age in Samoa.
Reading a great deal in preparation for my November 12th departure lessened my apprehension. The South Seas has long been heavily romanticized. In fiction, I read how James Michener and Somerset Maugham had described it. In art, I saw how Gauguin had captured it on canvas. Per history readings, Captain Cook sailed the South Seas until captured and killed in the Sandwich Islands (the Hawaiian Islands, once named after the fourth Earl of Sandwich); and Her Majesty’s cutter Bounty was mutinied from Captain Bligh, who was set adrift on a 23-foot launch overloaded with eighteen men, but he used his formidable navigation skills (developed under the instruction of Captain Cook previously) to get them 3,618 miles across oft-stormy seas to safety.
But this was not the Pacific into which I had been invited. Since World War II, so many of these islands had become independent nations with real national issues to deal with. Meanwhile, I had real local issues to deal with while driving the taxi—yard sales. The Peace Corps informational materials gave me a good start on a shopping list, and I stopped at aboutlmost a dozen yard sales in and around Braintree, several times with passengers joining me.
For me, the geographic boundaries of my experience had been Pennsylvania to Cape Cod, and Maine to Florida. I had never even flown in a big ol’ jet airliner, a fact I shared with a Braintree Forum newspaper reporter who interviewed me for an article about becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer. The accompanying photographer had taken what became a quarter page photo of me holding a globe on my living room couch—corny, but I got a kick out of it.
My enthusiasm continued as I considered what else to bring, imagining touching down on a steamy island with only the essentials. The list of items for men to bring gave me insight into what life might be like there, and in that climate, e.g., “crotch rot” was real, not merely something teenage boys joked about. We were not expected to pack all we might need in a two-year stint; we could ship packages to ourselves duty free for the first six months.
- Radios: AM frequencies were used there, but a small short‑wave would be handy for picking up world news from BBC, Radio Australia, and Voice of America—battery operated in case electricity was unavailable.
- Clothing: this list revealed the climatic differences.
- Walking shorts (short shorts were unacceptable); light weight and washable; drab was de rigueur there. Road grime was apt to stain, splashing on you from your flip‑flops or from your bike, especially during rainy season. Also, the merciless sun there faded colors quickly. Dressy and casual shorts were the ultimate male palagi (white person) wear.
- Short sleeve shirts: cotton is cool and better avoids fungi and bacteria; one white shirt with a collar to wear to church in the village.
- T‑shirts: include bright gaudy ones even if you don’t wear them, as they make good gifts.
- Hangers: hard to find and expensive; plastic‑coated best, as metal ones will put rust on your clothes.
- Clothes-pins and a lightweight clothesline. For those who were to live with a Samoan family, you could choose to do your own laundry or let you family do it for you.
- For underwear, cotton boxers were recommended for added air circulation.
- Athletic clothing: tennis, squash, softball, basketball, volleyball, rugby, soccer, Samoan cricket, marathons, 10Ks and jogging.
- Boots for technical jobs or hiking. Biking and hiking were popular with Volunteers. Athletic socks were not available. Leather shoes would be destroyed in six months by mold and mildew unless kept in a light closet or worn all the time. Even on formal occasions, flip-flops and sandals were worn almost exclusively. When visiting local homes, we would be expected to remove our shoes before entering.
- After we had acclimated to the weather there, a few degrees drop in temperature would be noticeable, and we would have some cool evenings, so bring one flannel shirt, light sweater, or sweatshirt.
- Shaving equipment: in a few villages, men were not allowed to wear beards or mustaches, and women were not allowed to wear shorts (or mustaches, I supposed). For men, if we really wanted facial hair, we might have to circumvent the restriction by paying the requisite fine to the matai (chief).
- Deodorant was expensive, so we were to consider enough for two years.
- Medical: PCVs were provided with a medical kit at the start of their service that basic first aid items as well as drugs/items routinely used by PCVs. The PC medical office in the Peace Corps office also stocked most drugs PCVs would need, as well as emergency equipment. Birth control pills, diaphragms and jelly, and condoms were stocked and available.
- Two pair of quality sunglasses that limit ultraviolet light. Polarized ones would reduce the potentially eye damaging glare off the ocean.
- Two backpacks: a medium one for overnights and a smaller one for shopping. Due to limited transportation after 6:00pm, we might stay overnight in the capital, Apia, more than anticipated.
- Hats or plastic visor: as protection from tropical sun; also would make great gifts for our Samoan family.
- Tupperware; indispensable for preserving our camera or other important items; Silica Gel or Drierite (the type that can be baked in the oven and re‑used) to protect these items against the humidity. (Drierite is blue when dry, but pink when it has absorbed moisture.) Ziploc bags have a thousand uses.
- Film and mailers: 15‑25 rolls and store in a refrigerator; Kodak pre‑paid mailers could be sent to Australia, New Zealand or the U.S. for processing but were expensive.
- Flashlight: a necessity; waterproof best, especially for nighttime snorkeling.
- Swiss army knife: a thousand uses. Don’t leave home without it.
- A sewing kit.
- Goggles or face mask and snorkel (get prescription masks in the U.S. at dive shops). If we wore contacts, we might want goggles for bicycling due to the dust.
- Towels and wash cloths: extremely expensive there. Women, bring one large towel enough to cover their entire torso (cultural taboo). Light weight, because terrycloth never dries.
- Wristwatch: bring two cheap water‑resistant ones; even if we didn’t get it wet, it would rust.
There was also a list of items that present or past volunteers wished they had brought but hadn't, e..g, family and home area photos to show our Samoan family and for our own comfort. Also, an inflatable globe or world map to explain where we come from.
Peace Corps Volunteers were forbidden to take pets, weapons, explosives, radio transmitters, automobiles, motorcycles or motor scooters to our overseas assignments.
I was going to the Pacific Ocean, the largest and deepest of the world's four oceans, and it contains more than half of the world’s free water. With 64 million square miles, it is substantially larger than the entire land surface of the globe. The Pacific’s separation from the Indian Ocean is not even officially designated.
I was going to live on an island, one of more than 30,000 in the Pacific Ocean. Their total land area, however, amounts to only 1/4 of 1% of the ocean's surface area. Sounded a bit lonely to me. In many areas, particularly the South Pacific, the islands are mere accretions of shell material, called coral atolls. The largest islands, in the western region, form volcanic island arcs that rise from the broad continental shelf: Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, New Guinea, and New Zealand. But I was going to that part of Oceania where the islands are the tops of mountains built up from the ocean basin by extruding molten rock.
On October 29th, 1986, I did some final packing, wondering what tale the "90 perforated sheets" of my blank notebook would tell. Tusitala—“teller of tales”—is the name Samoan Islanders gave their most famous resident, nineteenth century writer Robert Louis Stevenson. His writing inspired me to purchase the notebook as a journal. I tossed some extra pens into my backpack. Time to go.