I lived in American Samoa about 15 years ago. That experience has a special place in my heart and in my memories. I lived in the small village of Leone with my 3 other co-workers on the IT financials project. Oregon State just signed a recruit from the village of Leone; a defensive tackle who is originally from Samoa, the country formerly known as Western Samoa. Listen to Mark Banker on this clip as he says “Samoa” (about 1:20) – he has the pronunciation right, with a slight emphasis on the first syllable - an unusual accomplishment for a “palagi” (I think you can figure out what that word means – it is not necessarily pejorative, but it is used that way sometimes). Remember, the “g” is pronounced “ng”, so “palagi” is pronounced more like “pah – long’ – ee” and “Pago Pago” is pronounced like “Pahngo Pahngo” (Like the “pong” in “ping-pong”). Like spanish, the vowels have only one sound: A = ah, E = eh, I = ee, O = oh, U is tough for me to write phonetically the “oooo” part of “ooooweee baby”? Does that make any sense? Like “you” without the “y”? Also, the ‘ symbol is used to indicate a glottal stop between two vowels. The word for “thank you” is fa’afetai (fah-ah-feh-tye). If you remember these simple rules, you can pronounce the most difficult of Samoan names, even “Tuimaleali’ifano”. With that bit of instruction, I will leave the rest of the Samoan words for you to pronounce without continually stopping to offer phonetic help.
From time to time I would fly to Samoa for the weekend. I would stay at a delightful place called Faofao Fales on the Beach. I am going to tell you what it was like when I was there. Some things have changed quite a bit since I was last there. For one thing, a
typhoon and tsunami came ashore right at the spot where I used to stay. Great improvements were made to the place, but much of it’s charm is gone for me. I am happy for my friend, Tapu, that his business is prospering, even after the disaster. But I loved the place just like it was, and selfishly mourn just a little bit for what is gone.
used to be. But I am certain Tapu and Rosa have the same lovely souls they had 15 years ago. When I see pictures of Tapu, tears of regret well in my eyes for the years that I have let pass without seeing my good friend. Maybe my story will help you understand why Tapu occupies such a large space in my memories and in my heart.
Sometimes I flew into Faleolo International, the main Apia airport, but a 45 minute drive into Apia, the
capital city of Samoa, located a tiny bit west of center on the north coast of Upolu.
Usually I took a small prop plane into Fagali’i, a small regional airport on Upolu and much closer to Apia.
Regardless of the airport I used, I would take a taxi or shuttle into Apia and rent a car.
From Apia, I would drive to the
south eastern shore to my favorite Faofao Fales. My co-workers would usually stay at Coconuts or Sinalei.
I eschewed the tourist luxury for a more local experience. I learned of Faofao Fales from one of my coworkers who was dating Tapu’s cousin, Maleko. (They are now married, and I see them every couple of years or so). I left Apia, drove along the northern coast for awhile, then turned south towards Le Mafa Pass that would take me to the southern
shore. Driving across the central part of the island, away from the shoreline, I got the distinct impression that I was inside some sort of Jurassic Park. Odd palms that looked prehistoric, and the huge elephant ear leaves of the ta’amu or giant taro plant. I could imagine dinosaurs munching the tops of the strange palms and browsing on giant taro leaves. I have since learned that this valley I had privately named Jurassic Valley, is actually Falefa Valley. I finally reached my destination (I almost missed it, because the sign was so small) and pulled into the white sand parking area. Tapu’s sister, Koroseta, greeted me while several small, naked children danced around my car, and two or three teenage girls peeked shyly from behind tree trunks. I paid for my room and board – $13 US (but I had to pay in Tala) for my fale on the beach, and 3 meals a day! – and Koroseta asked about my plans. I told her I was going to drive around the island to see the sights, and she said, “Oh, my brother will go with you, OK?” Well, no! It wasn’t OK. I am usually a solitary tourist, and I enjoy doing my exploring alone. But I said nothing. I went to my fale, situated on a long, long stretch of white sand beach – my estimation at the time was 2 miles long – and spent some time just relaxing in my own private paradise. Soon, Koroseta disturbed my peace with the news that her brother was ready to go! I am so very grateful that Koroseta insisted, because I spent a memorable rest of the day with Tapu, one of the friendliest, finest men I have ever had the pleasure to meet, and by the end of that day I was family.
Tapu and I went to Togitogiga Falls and swam in two or three pools, at
different levels, jumping from pool to pool, separated by the individual falls. After swimming, we continued to drive west along the south coast, stopping at Coconuts and Sinalei. Somewhere along that road, Tapu told me he had never seen this part of the island before. I was astonished! Tapu was a worthy exploration companion – he wasn’t a guide, he was an adventurer, an explorer, just like me.
He had heard about Return to Paradise beach – a beautiful, small stretch of brilliant white sand, set off by small ridges of black lava rock – where the 50s movie of that name, starring Gary Cooper, was filmed. Well, at least part of the movie was filmed there. We turned off the main road and followed a sand track to a dinky village. Sitting on a folding chair beside the road was a Matai of the village,
collecting the fee for visiting such a fine and famous beach.
From there, we went to Villa Vailima – the last home of Robert Lewis Stevenson who went to Samoa to fight his tuberculosis. He was successful in his battle against his lung disease, after a fashion – he died of a stroke at age 44.
From Vailima, we went on to Apia, to have a cold Vailima before heading back to the fales. Dinner
was in progress in the main fale by the time we arrived home. The small handful of guests were sitting on the floor of the big fale, but Tapu said, “Come, we’ll go to my fale to eat.” I followed him into a little flat-roofed, wall-less shack. We sat on the floor as he stoked the little wood stove and put in some chicken to eat. Directly behind me, brushing my back, was a gauzy curtain, which stirred as Tapu called out. From around the edge of the curtain peeked the sweet innocent
face of a brown cherub – Rosa, Tapu’s wife, already in bed (I think she was already asleep). She joined our conversation from the bed, really just a pallet on the floor. She was bubbly and sweet – her attitude every time I ever saw her.
The next day was Sunday – we were across the International Date Line from American Samoa. Tapu insisted I go to church with the family…he never said a word to the other guests once they turned down his initial invitation, but me he would NOT let off the hook. I had no church clothes – no problem, he got me a suitable shirt. I was tired – didn’t matter, it was time for church. SOOOoooo, we walked up the road to a beautiful, quaint church at the other end of their village. Beside the church was a good sized community fale, in which we all gathered, at least
all of the males in the village gathered, on another occasion to watch the Samoan national rugby team play the All Blacks. One of the men in the village had pulled some strings and applied some bush technology to get the broadcast.
Back to church. I didn’t understand a word of the sermon, the prayers, the hymns – well, I understood fa’afatai (thank you) and alofa (love), but that was about it. What I did understand was their obvious respect for the service, their beaming smiles, their exuberant voices raised in song – beautiful songs, beautiful singing, beautiful harmony, beautiful voices. Tapu was one of the few villagers that spoke some english, but every one of them made a point to come up to me and welcome me warmly – I understood that part too.
That afternoon, Tapu showed me around his property – he pointed to the top of a tall cliff to where his coconut palm plantation was located. He also raised taro, one of the few farmers able to successfully fight taro blight, because he used modern practices in his farming. He showed me the drying shed where hot coals dried the copra, and the grating stake where his younger brother was scraping the dried copra out of the shell.
Any tractors? No. A pickup? No. Draft animal? No. How do you get to your coconut plantation? Tapu pointed to a narrow switchback trail up the vertical wall of the cliff. How do you get things up and down? A pole with a basket on each end. But what if you have a BIG, heavy load to carry? Tapu looked at me bemused…put two baskets on each end.
What a wonderful, simple, pleasant weekend. The next time I visited I drove Tapu, his father and his brother a few miles east to a hospital where Rosa and their two children were staying. Only the little boy was sick, but Rosa had to be there with him, and she had to take care of the little girl, so…
The hospital was a rectangular structure. A central hallway from end to end, with small square, bare rooms on either side. We got to their room, the single bed, with a chipped, iron bedstead was used as a big shelf. The sick boy was happily laying on woven palm mats on the floor. An IV tube trailed from his arm, up to the bag hanging from a wooden stand that looked more like a hat rack than medical equipment. Shutters on the window openings, no screen and no glass. We brought food from home, and all sat down on the floor and shared one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve ever had.
Another time, we all went to the same village, the hospital village, to watch a rugby match. Yes, I was family. And what a family! Every time I arrived, the kids came running to the car to dance around it, with nary a stitch more clothing than the very first time. The teenage girls still peeked shyly around the tree trunks, but their smiles were a little broader now that I was family. And after the first time, Grandpa and Grandma always greeted me and bade me farewell, every time. They never spoke a word of english, but made it clear that I was welcome in their home, because, yes, I was family.
My monday (sunday back home) routine was well established: leave an hour or so early, turn in my car, repair to Aggie Greys to splash cold water on my face, enjoy a cool drink, and lounge by the pool until such time as my ride was ready to take me to the airport.
Go back to the Vailima commercial – I’m sure the guys are sitting poolside at Aggie’s.