I tuned into the evening news tonight, only to learn that earlier today there was an 8.0 to 8.3 earthquake in Samoa lasting several minutes, followed by a tsunami. Apparently, there have been deaths, but, as I write, the numbers are unknown. One account I read said there was a water surge of over two feet in Apia, the capital of the independent (i.e., non American) side. None of this is entirely surprising, since Samoa is on the Ring of Fire, more specifically near the Tongan Trench. But still.
Regular readers of my blog probably know that I served in the Peace Corps in Apia for 26 months beginning in 1983. I was the only non-Samoan employee of the Development Bank of Samoa, an Asian Development Bank-funded development finance institution with about 100 employees. I worked as a Marketing Consultant in the Research and Development Division, and I shared an office with three men.
I have remained in touch with my co-workers all these years, and one of the men who shared the office with me is now the General Manager. A second is #2 at the bank and the third has left. So the first thing I did when I learned of the tragedy is fire off an e-mail message to those two and one of the secretaries who is still around. I don't expect to hear from any of them soon, since the power is probably out and there are surely bigger fish to fry. Some accounts are reporting that Apia has been emptied. Fortunately, the Samoan islands are volcanic, so there is higher ground to shelter the evacuees. The National Hospital is located on the Moto'otua hill, a few doors down from my former home, so that has probably been spared and is able to handle casualties, thank God.
There is so much I could write about my time in Samoa. . .the people I met, the culture, the physical beauty of the South Seas, the remoteness, my work, the best fresh pineapple in the world. In my heart, I am part Polynesian, and I've never given up wearing sarongs around the house, kicking off my shoes the moment I enter my home, bringing gifts every time I'm invited to dinner, and never, ever exposing the soles of my feet to anyone, which is the pinnacle of rudeness in Samoa.
For a country of less than 200,000 people, Samoa has inspired more than its share of writers and artists. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island and spent his final days there. He was beloved by the Samoans, who called him the Tusitala (teller of tales). When he died, they carried his body to the top of Mount Vaea, just outside Apia, where he is buried in an above-ground tomb. I've made the trek a number of times, and there is a path through lush vegetation leading past the head of state's home, then a beautiful and very private waterfall and pool (which is where so many of us doffed our clothes to cool off and skinny dip!). More uphill hiking for about 30 minutes, then suddenly you are at the top of Mount Vaea, up there with Bob and your thoughts and 360 degree views and a nice picnic, if you've remembered to pack it. While I was living in Samoa, photographers from National Geographic came to photograph the islands, and a Peace Corps volunteer friend of mine named Brad appeared in the October 1985 issue while enjoying the views from Bob's tomb.
Margaret Mead conducted her early anthropological research there, then published Coming of Age in Samoa. Later, New Zealander Derek Freeman published Margaret Mead and Samoa, contending that the inexperienced, gullible 19-year-old Margaret had been duped by the Samoans into thinking they were promiscuous and sexually free. My friends and I, knowing the culture quite well, tend to side with Derek about this. Once the Christian missionaries came through, Samoa became a very conservative culture. And it would be like the Samoans to make a game out of teasing unmercifully the palagi (person of European descent) woman.
James Michener famously wrote about the island in Tales of the South Pacific and its sequel, Return to Paradise. The latter became a Gary Cooper film that was shot in Samoa and, even now, there is a beach on that side of Upolu island that is referred to as Return to Paradise Beach. It is beautiful. The former was adapted for the screen and the stage and became the popular Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "South Pacific." The character Bloody Mary is based on Aggie Grey, who was still alive but quite elderly when I lived in Apia. She had the best hotel in the islands, located just a five-minute walk down Beach Road from my bank. I once danced with her--siva Samoan style--and her son Alan belonged to some of the same organizations I belonged to and gave me carte blanche swimming rights at the hotel's pool. Aggie herself inspired the book Aggie Grey of Samoa by Nelson Eustis.
There are lesser-known local writers. American Fay Calkins Alailima married a Samoan chief and made the country her home. She published My Samoan Chief, which was read by many of us expats, and her stunningly gorgeous daughter was a friend of mine who was studying at the University of Hawaii to become a physician. No Kava for Johnny by John O'Grady was assigned reading for Peace Corps volunteers during our two months of intensive cross cultural and language training. Most of us remember it mainly for teaching us not to take shelter under palm trees during windstorms, lest we get knocked silly on the head by falling coconuts. Lesson learned. . .and remembered more than 25 years later.
I will have Samoa on the brain until I know that everyone and everything there that matters to me is all right. For now, the only words about Samoa that I want to read are ones telling me as much. Meantime, I am on tenterhooks. I hope my people are OK, and I hope my bank withstood the disaster so it can work toward rebuilding what's been lost.
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