Return to Paradise - Conclusion
This is the last of ten installments in a series of posts commemorating a very memorable journey. I posted the first nine here a year ago. Then I got sidetracked (life, right?) and never got back to post the final chapter. Now, a year later, I'm finally sharing it with you.
A little background: Thirty-six years ago, I paid a visit to American Samoa. At that time, it had been twenty years since I left there after spending one of the most unforgettable years of my life on the main island of Tutuila -- a year chronicled in my memoir Mango Rash: Coming of Age in the Land of Frangipani and Fanta (Behler Publications, 2019).
In this series of posts, I'm sharing excerpts from my 1986 travel journal, along with photos from the trip.
In the last installment posted here, I spent the final day of my visit to Samoa with friends Pili and Gretchen, attending their church service, enjoying good Samoan food, visiting a few familiar places with Pili and napping until time for my middle-of-the-night flight to Honolulu.
Good to know:
April 28, 1986
Now I'm on a Hawaiian Air jet on my way to Honolulu. I'm just trying to remember vignettes from the past weeks -- trying to get as much as I can recorded before I forget things.
Samoan tattoos: Pili's daughters are showing me magazine pictures of a Samoan man being tattooed from waist to knee. Pili talks about the blood poisoning the men sometimes get. He says it's a great dishonor to start the process and not finish it. Men who only have partial tattoos go to great lengths to hide them, he said.
Tui Letuli was telling me his father wants him to stay in Samoa and become a chief. Tui says, "I got my tattoos and everything, but I don't want to stay."
Tau Tanuvasa: Pili and I ran into him at the airport when I was leaving. He works in an insurance office now, in Pago Plaza, the blue tile mini-mall monstrosity in Pago Pago. I went to his office Friday, but he had gone home. He looks just the same as the kid who used to tool around in his "X-15" flatbed truck.
Language: People seem to speak much better English in Samoa now. A lot of the people my age have spent time in the States or in the military, and they have excellent vocabularies. The young kids seem to speak pretty well, too. I don't know how it is for people who haven't been off the island, though.
As for Samoan language, Pili says very few palagis bother to learn it. Until recently the schools didn't teach Samoan language and culture either, he says.
* * *
Next to me now is a man -- maybe in his 70s, wearing a gray business lavalava and jacket, with a mat wrapped around his waist, sandals on his feet.
* * *
Jeanette's father's house: A typical Samoan house for these times. It's up on a hillside in Utulei, in a cluster of other houses. You drive up a steep driveway, park at another house (Patrick Nomura's family) and walk the rest of the way up to his house.
The bottom floor is one big room with a kitchen off to one side. The floors are covered with mats; shoes are in a heap at the door. Louvered glass windows all around the room are hung with lace curtains that are knotted.
Hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room are two shell chandeliers. Between them are a few coconut shell decorations. On the walls are some pictures of family members; one large portrait of a woman is hung with a candy lei.
* * *
Jeanette, Fatima, and I are at lunch one day. Jeanette starts to tell a funny story in English, then looks at me and says, "I have to tell this in Samoan."
* * *
In Honolulu, between flights, I called Eric Bunyan. He's a recreation director for the park service -- has been doing that for 15 years; has 5 kids. As Pili had told me, Eric is still an easygoing, casual guy -- sounds happy and positive about everything. He said Chris Layne had just been down for a visit -- he lives in Seattle now, as does Marc Wiederholt.
I told Eric about Pili's and my plan for the reunion, and he said he's thought about that, too. He says he'll start cleaning his yard right away.
He said he and Chris Layne had been talking about me when Chris was there -- that there were rumors I had died because people stopped hearing from me after a few years.
It surprised me on this whole trip when people told me my name had come up in conversations. And that those years and that group of people were as special to everyone else as they were to me.
Strangest scene was a Samoan man wearing a lavalava in his yard in some little village, cutting grass with a weed eater. I don't remember seeing any machetes.
* * *
Rainmaker Hotel had a strange feeling to it -- not quite decrepit, just indifferent. The air of grandeur was still there -- the high ceilings, shell chandliers. At first glance it's impressive. Then you start to notice things: dirty windows, water-stained carpets, worn-out, unmatched furniture, mismatched china, dirty tablecloths.
My first day there it was very hot, so I got some ice and went to get some pop from the pop machine. First of all, the machine didn't say how much money to put in. So I put in 3 quarters, hit the button and waited. I tried another button and another. Nothing happened. Then I tried the coin return, but it was rusted into a rigid position and wouldn't budge.
So I went back to my room to wash some clothes. I washed them and hung them on the towel rack. When I got them all up, the towel rack started falling apart. I'd get one bar up and another one would fall down, flinging my underwear across the floor.
At night I would come out of my air-conditioned hotel room and walk through the open-air corridor to the lobby. I would always have to stop at the landing and look out at the bay in the moonlight. It was just about when I got to that spot that the tropical night air would hit me -- air that feels like it has mass, it's so dense with moisture and fragrance. I would hear the water slapping against the rocks and think about hundreds of other nights when I sat by the bay, feeling the same air, hearing the same sounds.
There were nights sitting on Centipede Row, behind Val's house or behind the Wiederholts', sometimes just sitting and talking with girlfriends, sometimes waiting for a party to start, sometimes walking home from the movies, holding hands with a boy. Always there was a sense of excitement, expectation. When I stood on the hotel balcony, I felt sad sometimes, realizing that even if I found all my old friends, and we got together in the old places, we would never be able to recapture that special time when anything could happen.
Now we're grown up -- we know what we've become, who we've married, what our children look like. There are still unexpected things ahead for all of us, of course, but they're all separate now. We're all going our own ways. Even the ones who are still on the island go their separate ways. Jeanette and Abe and Tima and Padilla see one another because they all play tennis. But Pili and Fipa only see others when their cars pass on the road.
I guess that's the way it always is when you try to return to a place where you were young. The sights and sounds and smells may all be the same, but some of the mystery and magic will be gone forever.
That's not to say I was disappointed. I would've been disappointed if I hadn't found anyone or if the ones I'd found had been indifferent. But some old friendships were strengthened and new friendships were made. I saw the place in new ways, too, as a place I want to know more about.
Watching the Flag Day ceremonies made me think more about that, especially when I saw the singing and dancing group from Manu'a. I really wanted to understand the songs and know more about the traditions that have been evolving since these people found their ways through the Pacific to their tiny islands.
You're invited to enjoy a few more scenes from American Samoa in 1986
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.