We boarded a bus bound for the other side of the island, away from this small town capital, the closest to so-called civilization (no disrespect intended) for us over the next two years. My lingering cold left me groggy, as did drinking beer last night in the initial festive air that also lingered. We took a dirt road through dense flora that hid a nearby village. Arriving at the Hideaway Hotel, we saw a compound by an isolated beach. We paired off with our assigned roommates and unpacked in small thatched-roof structures, a single room to each. A more basic living was already apparent.
On November 24th, language and culture lessons began at 8:00 am. Tea was served at 10:00 a.m., with the usual snack of large crackers and butter. More lessons, lunch at noon, then more lessons. Cindy, Mary‑Margaret, Pat and I were in the same group for language. Pat, in her 60s, was having some difficulty. Older people often have difficulty learning a second language, she’d said. I felt for her, not having a background or gift for foreign languages myself. Years before, I’d asked my brother Tommy what culture was. Knowing five languages, he looked at me almost pitifully. Now, I had really begun to know, and this was no textbook example. I was fulfilled: on an adventure, learning, and soon to serve.
On Wednesday afternoon, we had a full group session where we addressed areas of common concern. Afterward, we walked way down the beach—a mile or more—to where the river entered the ocean. The crashing surf sounded the coral reef, about a mile out. Scents of salt, sea, moisture, flowers and other plants, some unfamiliar, made for a permeating experience. From mountains and tall palms to sea shells and sand grains, in reds, blues, and greens, and hues in between, it was beautiful.
In the fale, the structure with posts supporting a thatched roof, we had evening lotu, singing Christian prayers that were part and parcel with these people. It was now part of our daily routine, too. In this melodic Polynesian language, the singing was an objectively beautiful sound, regardless of not understanding lyrics. All twenty-nine PCVs (of thirty, one was already lost due to health problems) and two of our trainers sat on the floor, singing and praying. The fale was fitting for this activity, without walls between nature and us, as if lacking a barrier between Man and Maker.
After dinner, John S. and I went to our little fale to put in an extra hour studying language. We went to Cindy’s and Mary‑Margaret’s fale and drank a beer, listening to their American music tapes for an hour until heading for the beach. There, we listened to James Taylor songs while sitting in a small, beached tourist boat, talking, viewing the stars, and listening to the surf brake. Ah, yes—breaks are important, especially with music from home. By mid‑night, having caught up in my journal and anticipating an early rise, it was time to read some of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Galapagos” before I slept.
Thanksgiving Day began with more language lessons. For Sikoti (Scott), Palauni (Brian), Atamu (Adam), and me, it was with trainer Siauane, who was difficult to understand. We were, however, becoming used to the Samoan names assigned to us. For some, our name was Samoan‑ized because there was no direct translation, hence still familiar, e.g., for me, “Kevini,” which lacked imagination but I didn’t much mind.
I developed a fever of 102.5 F and manava tata, which sounds much better than the English word--diarrhea. I received aspirin and advice from Meko, the contract Peace Corps medical officer whose nativity is Papua New Guinea. After dinner, I slept until hearing John and Cindy approach my fale to check on me. Unbeknownst to them, I woke. As they entered, I feigned a toss’n turn sleep, mumbling, eyes closed, in apparent delirium. They came bedside slowly and observed. John then gently put his hand on my arm. “Kevin . . . Kevin,” he whispered. My faint mumbling grew louder and clearer, becoming “Aunty Em, Aunty Em, Aunty Em ...”. Then I sat up and shouted, “Toto! Toto!”, and we all burst out laughing. They called me a few choice words, but I enjoyed earning them. I felt up for a walk, which took us to some PCVs playing guitars and hanging out in a common area.
On November 28th, feeling somewhat better, I joined the others for more language study in small groups. Later, we regrouped for fiafia practice, which was fun. A fiafia is a meeting of two sides at opposite ends of a fale in an entertainment format of singing, clapping, orating, chanting, teasing, and dancing, village vs. the guests of the village. There was much repartee and jest, and of course the usual words of respect exchanged. Afterward, we volunteers played the Samoan national card game that we’d learned, suipi, properly slamming down each card played.
The next day, we were assigned tasks to perform back in Apia, the only large town and the nation’s commercial center of about 35,000 people. In groups of three or four, we got on the standard wood-framed buses with wooden bench seats, for the first time un-chaperoned. Above the bus driver’s head, a picture of Jesus Christ was prominently pasted. A medley of decorations adorned the dashboard and all around. Polynesian music pounded out through large, mounted speakers as we crossed the mid-island mountains.
We arrived and wandered to find and purchase the items on the list with the money the training staff had provided. Samoans here spoke much more rapidly than in language class—no surprise, right? I recognized one word in twenty. And we were supposed to achieve something through this language? Well, we were determined to do so.
For some items, we went to the produce market where farmers and families brought their wares and lounged on pandandus mats until someone looked interested. It has been called the New Market ever since relocated by the government years ago. Below a huge corrugated aluminum roof, there were no walls and no stalls, except those created with boxes and blankets. A few vendors stood and smiled, gently suggesting a purchase. A few recognized words were all it took for us to make our first exchange, politely smiling, and we walked away, pleased with ourselves. At a few encounters, we did not at all understand what they were saying, so we said goodbye, too embarrassed or frustrated to keep trying. Other times, not only was the item not on our list, but we did not recognize the item as coming from anything—like the ground, the sea, or the air. A few vendors did speak English to us.
The fish market nearby was beside the water. We headed for it to find a jellyfish. My flip-flop got caught on the uneven ground and a strap broke, so I took them off. At tables, people cut and cleaned a plethora of various fish and sea creatures, but no jellyfish. Our queries proved fruitless. One thing I did discover, though, was that the floor had a disgusting way of making bare feet slippery.
Our final task was to find out what was playing at the 8:00 p.m. movie. We wandered among blocks of stores, but could not find the movie theater—the only real one on the island. We then tried to ask people what was playing there. We got friendly smiles and curious stares followed by shrugs. One person doggedly tried to direct us there, but he seemed to not understand that we only needed to know what movie was playing that night; either that or we could not understand that he did in fact understand us, but he didn’t know what was playing and was suggesting that we go find out for ourselves—a mystery, playing before our very eyes. We sensed our linguistic handicap. It was interesting, frustrating and funny, and I was glad to be with others on this first true test of cross‑cultural communication in Samoan.
We went back to the dirt-lot bus depot with our bags and looked for the bus, careful to find the exact spelling because many syllables were phonetically and visually similar. One vowel off and we could end up being overnight guests in a remote village, incommunicado. When we found it, we finally relaxed for the trip home (did I say home?). All groups came back, and we took turns discussing our experience in terms of language, culture, and impressions, what worked and what did not.
That evening, Mary‑Margaret pierced ears for John S., Jim, and me. She held a cold Sam Miguel beer bottle next to the ear for a minute as thermal anesthesia, cleaned it with alcohol, and then pierced it with a sewing needle. So those sewing kits they’d handed out had come in handy. Our early evening swim in the salty ocean was good for our ears.
On November 30th, we left the Hideaway Hotel for Tausaga village. We arrived and went directly to church. The entire congregation harmonized in their sonorous language. We were handed sheets with the lyrics and translations, and tried to join in. Even if we had beautiful voices, we probably sounded drunk to them, ill-timed and mispronounced. Fortunately, they drowned us out, mostly.
Afterward, it was to’ona’i time. We sat in the fale by the lake, cross‑legged and waiting to be served by the young people of the village. Pigs, chickens, roosters and kids ran loose. We realized that they were starting with a kava ceremony, which was disappointing because we were hungry. Also, for me and a few others, the cross‑legged sitting position on the floor, for extended periods of time, was painful. We couldn’t extend our legs frontwards because that would be insulting to whomever the legs pointed toward. Who started these meanings and traditions anyway? Surely, there was nothing inherently insulting about extending your feet out while sitting.
They called out the names of the most respected guests, one at a time, to receive a half‑coconut shell cup of kava, and then it was out turn. If we were Samoan, they would either know each of our names or find out for the calling. However, we were many PCV palagi, making it impracticable for that, so for some, they made up names. They called out “Adam” for me. I laughed a little, and said, “Ava lea le Atua,” while pouring out a symbolic portion onto the floor for God, as we were trained to do. I drained the cup and said, “Ia, manuia,” (to your health), then the group responded with, “Soifua,” (live), or vice versa. Next, they called out PCV Mark as “Eve”, and everyone laughed louder. Then Jim was “Aspirin.” Meanwhile, the kava was slightly numbing of body and appetite.
Finally, after going through the whole group, and following more oration exchanges, the food came. First served was PCV Scott because he was our acting chief, necessarily selected because us palagi’s have no chiefly titles bestowed upon us. I sat beside Scott. We quietly complained to each other about needing to stretch our legs out. I never would have guessed how painful it would be to just sit cross-legged for a period of time. Standing would be impolite, and politeness was one of the paramount values of this culture. One luxurious loop hole we discovered was that if there was one of those woven grass mats on the floor in front of us, if we had to, we could pull it over and stretch our legs out underneath it without offending anyone.
Women brought food out on large banana leaves and placed it before each of us on the mats we sat on. They sat before us while we ate, using woven hand fans to keep the flies from landing on the food. The dessert, provided by the Peace Corps and formally presented earlier, was half-melted ice cream. Later on we kicked the soccer ball around coconut trees on the lawn.
It was dark when I went down to the beach alone and walked. It was beautiful, but a bit eerie. I watched out for the wild dogs that I’d been warned about, especially because (hey, it could happen) they could run me into the ocean to be eaten by sharks. I saw too many shadows, on land and in the ocean, so I looked up at the multitude of stars, sat on the sand, and thought positive about things like my family, old and new friends, and, oh yeah, God.
After language lessons on December first, we had an afternoon community meeting, including a demonstration on how to take a shower at an outside pipe, village style, by trainer Apulu, a very funny orator chief. I also got a chance to play pool--a national rarity--with Tile, a young male Samoan trainer.
Back at the beach, I updated my journal and watched the sun set. John S. sat nearby on a rock, writing, too. He was shirtless and wore a wrap-around lava lava, and with his whiffle haircut and eyeglasses, it called to mind Gandhi and his mission of peace and freedom. I was dressed similarly, and felt akin to a monk, writing silently in a natural setting, especially when the bell rang, calling us in for lotu, the evening reading and singing of prayers.
December 2nd I recorded as “just another day in paradise”. This morning, I was tired despite having slept well.
Damn the cheap pen—it was difficult to writing with them. Often, it was the little difficulties that grated upon us.
We learned possessive pronouns this morning—not difficult, but necessary to memorize and keep straight. I also learned dirty words and phrases, and not just for fun. It was important to know if one was being verbally abused or not, especially as a teacher where classroom decorum and respect had to be maintained—a lesson a good friend of mine would learn the hard way.
Tea was at 10:00 a.m. As usual, the entire PCV training group went out under the fale with the scented breeze blowing and the waves moving mere yards away. More language training followed. Lunch featured hamburgers that tasted like odd meatloaf because their meat was home grown and not ground fine. Dessert was faux Jell-O that smelled of dirty socks, as if made with stagnant water.
Fiafia practice was moved to the afternoon so that we could have the evening free for studying or relaxation. Emmor of Washington and I were “volunteered” to imitate or demonstrate the part of the fiafia where men sort of jump around and yelp to the sides and rear of the featured woman dancer, to support her, which looked pretty cool. After seeing how it was supposed to be, they had a good laugh seeing us try, too vigorously. My lava lava, normally tied or tucked into itself around the waist like a towel, came undone and fell part way off. I held firm the right side with my left hand, while in a panic chasing the loose left side with my right hand, spinning and revealing a cheek. They applauded. I maintained that I had underwear on, but some dispute this (and yes, for you cheeky bastards, thong underwear would explain the discrepancy but no it wasn’t so). An elderly Samoan woman trainer, Koke, the epitome of correct culture, cut off the merriment and admonished Emmor and me for acting like monkeys. Although we had enjoyed hamming it up a bit, we were making sincere attempts. Nevertheless, she was right, and we were all subdued, for the very real subtleties of the dance and movement and the seriousness of purpose had momentarily escaped us.
As of December 4th, training had continued, but today we received Newsweek Magazines, a courtesy monthly subscription every PCV devoured. I got a chance to read it by the water, in the room, and all over, cover to cover, right down to the copyright language, the Newsweek staff listing, and the advertisement details; it was due to our isolation, which worsened with the weeks trudging along. At least, I got to snorkel by the reef earlier.
In my progress review later that day, Jackie, the head trainer who was a PCV in Western Samoa many years before, told me I was doing well in language study and would be moved to a quicker group, which was encouraging. In an announcement some PCVs were warned about PDAs, public displays of affection. A cautionary note was also sounded about drinking beer. I guess we had to pay attention even when relaxing. At the end of the day we had fiafia practice again.
On the last day at the Hideaway Hotel, before going to spend the weekend with the volunteers we were to replace, we finished training in the afternoon and then went down to the river to play stickball. In the evening, we finally had our fiafia with the Hideaway Hotel employees as our opposites, which was fun to see performed by the people we got to know and was satisfying to put into practice. A party followed at John and Mark’s fale, then the fale of a trainer, Silau, with plenty of dancing and laughing. Many strolled to the beach from there. I joined for a little while then returned to my fale to brush up on a refrigeration text that I’d brought with me. I went back out later, but I shouldn’t have, as I ended up with only three hours sleep.
As we left the hotel, the friendly staff that we had bonded with saw us off. We waved from the bus. The engine started and I started an adaptation of a classic 1960s American song – “Na, na, na, na. Na, na, na, na. Hey, ay, ay ... To fa (Samoan for ‘good bye’)”. Over and over we sang, until well out of sight. We then listened to a cassette tape of Pink Floyd going back to Apia, appropriate for the course over the mountains, dark green and shapely in the cool white mists, and rife with unique flora. The banyan trees looked surreal; instead of a single trunk, thick vines looked like roots that couldn’t wait to sink themselves into the moist soil.
The Peace Corps office was across from the market, and that was where we met about half of the current PCVs from around the islands. We were to stay the weekend with them to gain their living and work perspective. First, most of us went to play softball at TTI, the Technical Training Institute where I would be teaching. I arrived with Andrew and he took me on a tour of the school and the refrigeration shop. I was very excited and apprehensive; I couldn’t wait to start teaching, yet I could. We played the Australian volunteers and won. Next we lost to the Japanese volunteers. I was glad to meet many of them and share a beer from the keg that was delivered from the local brewery.
We left TTI for a barbeque at a volunteer’s flat nearby. I took advantage of another keg when it wasn’t looking, lol (“lol” didn’t even exist back then—neither did texting . . . lol). Well, my feet were steady but my mind was brimming with sentiment. At one point in a conversation with a current PCV and Scott, a fellow trainee from North Dakota, I ventured that nobody cared about justice as much as I because I was so passionate about it, and I said it seriously, as if a challenge. I still cringe, recalling that.
Suddenly, two young Samoan men began fighting outside in the front yard. The unlucky one got punched, hit with the back edge of a bush knife and kicked in the head. This was not a place where a police car might luckily be in the neighborhood. They have no such fleet. Nevertheless, some people broke up the contenders.
We left for Andrew’s place, a government “flat”—a slab house. There were no basements in Samoa that I had ever seen. The corrugated aluminum roof kept out the rain, the screens kept out the flies and mosquitoes, and the louvered glass windows allowed the air to circulate into the house to dry things out, if possible, and let out the heat.
On the morning of December 8th I rose with sun-blistered cheeks, something easily acquired on a softball field by a fair skinned person twelve degrees south of the equator. Andrew and I caught a bus to Apia then walked to the Apia Yacht Club, which consisted of small parcel of land with an unpainted two-room structure made of unfinished cinder block. There were few chairs, no amenities, and no staff. It looked more like a garage mid-constriction. The shed nearby contained twenty or so wind surfers, sailfish, and a couple of small Catamaran. I helped Andrew carry out the Cat that he was minding for a foreign couple who had left it behind for him to sell. We set the mast and sails. He took me out for a short ride along the coast, inside the coral reef. The distant perspective on the water, reef, and mountains deepened the colors.
That evening, Andrew and I walked to a small building near the National Hospital. We met there a few other PCVs with their trainees. We felt a bit like pets as the PCVs would meet in the street, introduce their guest, then discuss them. As we entered the “theatre,” we paid a few coins into the cardboard collection box. Inside there was a sea of brown skinned folk rendered uniform by their common attire. Many were older children. A white bed sheet hung in the front of the room. Apparently it was the “screen,” another of many things in this country to put in quotation marks. The projector was started then stopped for correction. After a few minutes, it started up. Then shut down. But nobody seemed to find quality control unduly lacking. After about ten times, the locals’ patience was thinner, but not thin. They had time—Samoan time—for Samoan things and palagi (white people) things.
During the movie, the Samoans laughed and reacted at what seemed the most inappropriate times, like when partial nudity was shown or someone was physically hurt. And when we reacted emotionally to a scene, they often remained silent. Movies were probably one of the major exposures to the West that they received, which could be very misleading and a bad influence. Do you know how many dogs I’ve heard were named “Rambo” in this country? Neither do I, I lost count.
We were to depart for a remote village the next day, to be immersed most deeply into the culture, so I went to sleep early; it was no time to play.