When I woke from a nap my seatmate said we were flying below the equator. I went to the tiny bathroom to test a theory. I flushed the toilet and ran water in the sink: it was true; draining water below the equator swirls in the opposite direction--counter-clockwise.
We landed in American Samoa first. The scents were extraordinarily rich from the sun-baked volcanic soil, the simmering tropical rain forests, and the rising strands of smoke from earthen‑ovens. We smoked on the plane during the three-hour layover (yes, smoking was allowed on planes back then—can you believe it?), but then with one last cigarette on the tarmac, a few of us resolved to quit smoking and re-boarded.
Quitting is easy; not starting again is the hard part, as I would discover more than once. We lifted off. It was strange looking down from tens of thousands of feet at little specks of land in that vast ocean and say, there’s the fiftieth state, or there’s American Samoa. Ah, and now, there’s Western Samoa, all 1,133 square miles of her islands, which is smaller than Rhode Island.
At Faleolo International Airport in Western Samoa, I stepped out of the airplane and paused to scan the area: the tiny wooden airport building, the walkways--some dirt, few concrete--and the strange attire of a brown crowd people. Coconut trees, unfamiliar plants, adorned flowers everywhere. The scents, so exotic, hit me again like entering another dimension with a new sense . . . as did the fact that I was entering the third world on an atypical assignment.
Nearly none of our luggage showed up. A few current Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) greeted us at there with flower leis. Nothing unusual about the missing luggage, they assured us. We would have to get used to such inconveniences—it was in the job description. Besides, we were trained to adapt, so we put the pudding to the test to find that it wasn't hasty, but mango and slow. The luggage was expected to be on the “very next flight” they assured us—which would arrive one week later.
It was dark when we piled onto a modified school bus of blue and white painted wood. There was no glass for the bus windows because of the heat. More scents inundated us as we bounced down the partially paved road along the oceanfront, which gave me an inkling as to a dog’s excitement when it’s keen sense of smell picks up foreign scents.
There were no streetlights. Divided by patches of blackness, the villages we began to pass through were clusters of lighted fales, the open-air style houses with thatched roofs supported by log posts. The few interior lights revealed families going about their daily life, as if on a set or in a display window—with less furniture, more life.
We arrived at the Tusitala Hotel at the edge of the capital, a hotel luxurious by Samoan standards, and now, by adoption, mine. Thatched and corrugated aluminum roofs; occasional hot water; beautiful flora; friendly staff; clean, air-conditioned rooms with small refrigerators, and plenty of lights and outlets. Not that I expected to get dropped by parachute into the jungle, but an initial stay at a decorous hotel, with a bar, pool, and other amenities? It just under-whelmed me, but I was a little too jet-lagged to care.
We ate in the hotel restaurant, joking that our toughest challenge so far was deciding between steak and lobster. And that was before the dessert, a succulent brandied banana. In the lounge we met some in-country PCV staff and had a Samoan beer from the only brewery, Vailima. A 25-ounce bottle of beer at the stores was $2.50 tala ($1.25 U.S.), but draft was usually sold at the few clubs and restaurants. Finally, returning to my room, I closed the door, closed my eyes, and began to dream of living my dreams.
On November 19th, we woke to a grand view of mountains through our large sliding-glass doors. We breakfasted and then left to mark our first day in Samoa with a kava ceremony, a customary welcome to seal all formal occasions. Kava is the sun-dried root of the kava plant, which is powdered, mixed with cold water, and then strained. It is not an intoxicating drink and is not fermented. Nevertheless, it may have a peculiar effect on the head, eyes, and legs, and has diuretic properties.
Single file, we entered a large, oval, thatch-roofed meetinghouse. In half the perimeter, Samoans sat cross-legged on woven pandanas-leaf mats, many leaning against posts that support the roof. After we sat, our hosts with chiefly titles uttered a few words of welcome. A Samoan orator replied for our visiting group, as did a couple of knowledgeable PC staff members.
The ceremony, then beyond my linguistic and cultural knowledge, was mystifying. By way of a young, unmarried man, the Samoan hosts made a ceremonial presentation of some club‑like kava roots to our orator, to be divided among our group. Because our orator took hold of a large number of roots—50 to 60—he politely included certain of the hosts in this distribution: the ranking chief of their village, the Faipule (a leader), and their pastor. A chorus of thanks and appreciation went to the orator for the respect shown to all. Some remaining roots were handed back to be pounded outside in a hollowed out stone, but that was just show; as usual, the host politely announced that kava had already been prepared.
The taupou (village virgin) sat at the kava bowl wearing a large feather headdress and a fine pandanus leaf mat wrapped around her coconut-oiled body. She was pure enough to mix the kava with the water in the traditional method using coconut hemp in a carved wooden bowl. After brief consultations to determine the order of service, they called out each kava-drinking name for the important people of our group, which was different from one’s Christian and chiefly title name, if any. For each, the taupou scooped kava into a coconut shell cup and handed it to an adolescent boy, who then served it with one hand behind his back.
In real village-to-village meetings all names, positions, and histories would be ascertained in advance, but the caller made up names for us unknown volunteers. Most were funny, such as Rambo, Crook, and Fisherman on the Mountain. Everyone would laugh at once except us smiling PCVs, our heads bent for trainers’ whispered interpretations before issuing the slightly smaller laugh of missed timing.
They called my name and I took the kava from the shirtless, barefoot boy. It looked like brown, dirty water, and I drank it. After a short time, it gave a slightly numbing, energizing feeling to the mouth and body, as if a gentle caffeine-Novocain concoction.
By November 20th the sporadic hot water in the hotel had given me a chance to get used to cold showers that were to be the norm for over two years. My body and mind were invigorated and ready for the introduction to Samoan language class led by Fagalele (Fung‑a‑lay‑lay), a Samoan man in his late 20s, little older than me. My two co‑trainees were Shelby and Scott (S‑k‑o‑t). The session was very interesting and Fagalele’s English was good. All Samoans speak a Polynesian dialect and many speak English as well, especially in the small national capital, Apia. Their literacy rate is ninety percent. It was quite a challenge for us to say even rudimentary phrases in this non‑western language, especially with new letter sounds, e.g., Pago Pago, where each “g” is pronounced “ng” as in song, thus, “Pango Pango.” I did not have the advantage of already knowing a foreign language.
We broke for tea, hot and sweet and accompanied by biscuits (cookies—I’d learn a number of British and Australian terms and phrases, too). Tea was big over here due to New Zealand influence. We then had an introduction to Samoan culture, values, and social behavior. Sue, Mark, Bob, and I were with two Samoan trainers. Mostly we asked questions and discussed the answers. The phrase faifai le mu (“fie fie lay moo”) means do it easy. A co-trainee joked that, in French, it meant doing the cow.
Entering the hotel restaurant that evening I spotted fifteen different foods spread on buffet tables. Before I could get some on my plate, a waiter approached me. He requested that I leave. I was inappropriately dressed in the casual style lava lava, a rectangular piece of bright patterned cloth that you wrap around your waist like a sarong. The acceptable lava lava was the formal type--solid in color with pockets. Western attire was fine there too, and so I changed and returned, hungry for more.
Post dinner, Mark, Mary, and I left for a local store to buy beer for our in-room mini-refrigerator. We ran into Andrew and Pete, “Group 39" volunteers. Each annual or semi‑annual PCV group is numbered consecutively and we were group 42—“The Summers of 42,” I called it. Andrew was the current refrigeration instructor whom I was to replace. He seemed quiet and confident and I hoped I could fill his sandals. We were to spend a weekend together at his place toward the end of training to pass the torch. Perhaps I would need an off‑road motorbike like he did, and could likewise secure permission to get one from the Peace Corps Country Director. As a matter of policy, permission to get a motorbike was strictly required, and if caught riding without a helmet, you would immediately be kicked out of the Peace Corps—too many volunteer casualties. I looked forward to our work-site visits; mine would be at the Western Samoa Technical Institute, tomorrow.