I was talking to an American yesterday in Apia. She’s here working on her doctoral dissertation. We agreed that it is the small things that are both challenging and wonderful.
For example, it’s been cloudy and relatively cool here this morning. Probably mid-80’s. Now the sun is out and my house is talking. That’s how I think of it when it makes noises as the sun heats the tin room. I’ll miss that sound although I won’t miss the heat that comes with it.
I saw my host sister petting one of the dogs today. That’s the first time I’ve seen a Samoan pet a dog. The visiting American was saying she found out recently that her cat (back home) has kidney disease. It’s upsetting to her but she can’t share that with any Samoan friends. Our animals are pets and members of the family. Here, they are annoyances or serve a purpose. The thought of sending a sympathy card for the loss of a dog or cat would seem ludicrous to Samoans.
The constancy of the sound of the waves is a great comfort to me. It reminds me that there is something much bigger and more important than my puny complaints. It reminds me that life will go on long after I will. It reminds me that there is beauty and mystery under a seemingly smooth surface.
I was gone Friday and Saturday. Today at church I saw many of my school kids. You’d think I’d been gone for months. Those delighted and genuine smiles are wonderful. Yesterday I took a cab to the wharf with some other volunteers. We stopped at McDonald’s drive-thru on our way out of town. There was a car parked nearby with two little boys and their parents in it. Those little boys couldn’t get enough of staring and waving at the carload of palagis. If one palagi is interesting, seeing a whole car full is a real treat. I waved back the whole time.
Not knowing basics of social cues is frustrating and makes me feel uncomfortable and like an idiot. Many of the people I know live in open fales. No walls. Others live in palagi houses but the door is rarely closed. The same is true of my house. When someone approaches my house, the dogs usually announce their presence and I go to the doorway to greet them and invite them in. That happens when I visit a Samoan home, too. Sometimes.
Other times, the person sitting in an open fale clearly sees me but says nothing. We were told to just walk up, take off our shoes, step onto the cement floor and sit. But stepping into someone’s house when they haven’t invited me in, or even greeted me, feels wrong. It’s happened several times when a group of people is inside talking. They see me coming. Conversation stops. They watch me walk up. I say hello. I may or may not get a greeting in return. Usually there is some kind of greeting, even if just a nod. Then I stand just outside looking, I’m sure, awkward and very palagi.
Sometimes I’ve realized they’re waiting to invite me in until whoever they’ve sent running to get a chair for me shows up. Sometimes I think they feel just as awkward as I do. Hard to say but it still happens and it’s still uncomfortable. In the States, I know to just walk up to the door and ring the bell. Someone will answer, or not. They’ll invite me in, or not. But I’ll know what’s going on.
Yesterday at the wharf I was a bit early and the security guys invited me to put my luggage outside to make it easier to grab as I got on the boat. Nice of them. But when I went to get on my backpack was missing. I asked the guard and he shrugged. My sister was with me and she told him I was not just some palagi tourist but a Peace Corps and part of her family and he’d better find my bag. He told us to check in the luggage area on the boat.
We did and my backpack was there. My sister stepped in again and explained that someone had taken my backpack and brought it onto the boat and they better keep an eye on it so the same person didn’t try to take it off the boat.
One employee explained he had brought it on. Why? I’ll never know. He didn’t bring the suitcase it was sitting on. They’ve never carried my luggage on before unless I was with it. I retrieved both bags as I was getting off the boat and everything was intact.
My sister and I were lugging my stuff as we headed toward the bus. A man came running up and told me to come with him. I hesitated and he grabbed my arm and started pulling me with him. I still hesitated. He started explaining he was the supokoka (what I call a bus boy) for my bus. I knew that but I wanted him to take the suitcase that my sister was hauling for me.
He hefted the bag and led the way. He loaded my stuff on the bus and when we got to my house told the bus driver to stop then unloaded my stuff for me. That’s a 45 minute bus ride, personal service and luggage handling and music, all for $1 USD.