I'm temporarily reviving my blog to commemorate a very memorable journey.
Thirty-five years ago this month, 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).
I recently unearthed my travel journal from that 1986 trip. Over the coming weeks, I'll share excerpts from the journal, along with photos from the trip.
A few things to explain before we set off for the islands:
April 18, 1986 - Arrival
Started out in Aukland, where I spent the night. A very strange night, too. I had thought I'd check in, send my last story, then have a beer in my room, watch TV and go to sleep. But the phone receivers were too big to fit in the cuffs, so I tried to work something else out, but no phones in the place would work. So I had to wait till I knew someone would be at work in Detroit--after midnight Aukland time. I kept dozing off and waking up because I couldn't find my alarm clock and didn't want to rummage through my luggage. When my editor got in, she had Lois [the department assistant] call me back to take dictation at about 3:30 a.m. my time. All night I was taking little naps, dreaming, waking up and talking on the phone, going back to sleep. After awhile I didn't know what was real.
I felt awful this morning--in no mood to start off on an adventure. But I tried to rise to the occasion.
At the Aukland airport,I got my first reminder of fa'a Samoa. I checked in early and got down to the gate about an hour before the 10:00 flight. At 9:30, when the flight was scheduled to start boarding, there was no one in the lounge--just a few other palagis and one Samoan woman with two babies. We boarded about 9:45--still only a few more people had drifted in. But once we were on the plane, at about 10:00, suddenly hordes of Polynesians swarmed on.
The next reminder was on Samoan personalities. I had forgotten that while Samoans may be friendly and warm, they're not outgoing (toward palagis, at least). They don't initiate conversations, and they may not answer you if you do.
We arrived in Western Samoa, and the next reminder was the unbearable heat and humidity. It's like being locked in a bathroom where someone just took a very long, very hot shower. I remembered it, but there's no way the memory can approximate that suffocating feeling.
We got in the terminal. I struggled through customs with my bags (of course, no luggage carts--the terminal is just a big barn with open rafters and ceiling fans). Then the customs inspector said, "This fellow will take your bags for you," and I thought "great." But the fellow just carried my bags out the door and dumped them on the curb in the midst of a mob as unyielding as only a Samoan mob can be.
In the heat and humidity, I tried to load up the luggage cart I had finally found, feeling kind of idiotic but realizing there was no other way to get the 30 feet to the baggage check for the next flight. Remembering my first day in Samoa in 1965, I had tried to prepare myself for that scene. But still, it came as a shock--the hordes, the heat, the feeling of isolation when no one talks to you and they all talk to one another in a language you don't understand well.
I had bought film in Tonga so I could take pictures on the way to Pago. But I absent-mindedly checked the bag with my camera in it. As it turned out, it was getting dark when we approached American Samoa. And it was hard for me to recognize things from the air.
At the airport, I was disoriented because I didn't see the old fale. Finally I saw where it had been, but only the base is there.
The airport seemed deserted, compared to what it used to be like--maybe it's still that way when big flights come in.
Someone was supposed to meet me, but when I was still standing there 45 minutes after the plane came in, I took a taxi to the Apiolefaga Inn.
You come in to a big room with a second-floor balcony all around it. There are tables all around, each with a vase of tropical flowers. Linoleum floors, sparkly plaster ceilings and a collection of chandeliers that looks like someone had a friend in the lighting department of Kmart. They all have prisms and more prisms--mostly dingy and covered with cobwebs.
I pay for my room--$36 for a $35.70 room. The woman says, "I owe you 30 cents--I'll give it to you later." She takes out a book to write me a receipt and stuffs my money into the book along with several hundred-dollar bills stuck in the pages. I look in the guest register--see names from Denver, London, lots from California. Wonder what brought these people here and what they thought about the place.
TO BE CONTINUED . . .
Note: I'll be taking a medical time-out next week, but I hope to pick up on these posts the following week. Check back on April 21.
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.