Archive for February, 2016

February 26, 2016

Post 85—Tofa mai feleni

There is a very nice custom here in Samoa; it is perfectly proper for a host to tell a guest to go home. The translation is something like, “The mat is cooked,” meaning you have been sitting around so long that the seat is warm and it is time to leave. It works great on departing drunks.



Of course it was raining.

Chrissie sat in the airport terminal watching the foggy drizzle. It had been raining when they got to Samoa and it was raining as they left. Just as well, she thought. A gorgeous tropical morning in paradise would have made it so much worse.

She pulled her dress away from her sticky back and readjusted the shell ula around her neck. She’d been given so many of these lately that her suitcase was probably over the weight limit. She thought they were beautiful but you could only wear them for so long before the back of your neck started to feel like sandpaper. She contemplated giving hers to her mother but Jean was looking a little wilted. The combination of non-stop tears and the humidity level had drained her of fluids. Her mother had always been the one most affected by the dampness, to the point where sometimes you had to avoid her; Chrissie was pretty sure she would never have this problem. (Author’s note: She was wrong.)

The next few days were going to be very long. Samoa to Hawaii to California to Detroit was about 7000 miles. By her calculations, she had flown close to 30,000 miles in the past four years. It was too bad Pan Am didn’t give you some kind of present for the amount of miles you flew on their planes. She should suggest that to someone.

She patted her pocket to make sure all of her good luck tokens were in place. She wasn’t really nervous about the flight but it was always a good idea to have a little help. Something kept digging into her leg and she realized it was the broken shell. It didn’t look like much but this was the first shell she had buried in the sand to allow the ants to eat the animal inside, a thrilling demonstration of how the food chain worked. It was her favorite memory of her friend Liz, who had left a few months ago.

The second object was about the size of a marble and, if she were being honest with herself, looked like a small piece of poop. It was a see-mui seed (see-moy), a delicacy she and her sisters were wild about. It was not really a seed but a dried plum that tasted as if it had been brined, injected with saline and then rolled and coated in salt. The brown, wrinkled pod was so salty that you could not put the whole thing in your mouth; you had to tear bits of it off with your teeth and suck on those until your pH Balance was roughly the same as the ocean. She figured the one in her pocket would get her all the way to Michigan, and she had a small stash of them in her suitcase as well. She hoped there wouldn’t be a problem with the Department of Agriculture about that.

She was a little embarrassed about the last thing but had not been able to stop herself when she found it under Karen’s bed during packing. It had obviously been dropped and forgotten by her little sister because it had no ink moustache or pink hair chopped off in an attempt at styling. It was a troll doll, one of the original ones that had made the maiden flight to the island clutched in her sweaty hand, four long years ago. She had handed the whole clan of them over to Karen when she felt it was time to give up childish things, but right now she wasn’t feeling very grown-up. She would be a teenager in six weeks and it felt as if she were leaving her childhood on this rock.

She wondered what her family might have been like had they not left Detroit, because it was clear that some type of sea change had occurred on this island. The remarkable freedom that she and her sisters had enjoyed here as children would never have happened back home. It had led to an ability to problem-solve that was highly developed—what to do if your top came off in a water ballet, say, or if your paopao sank. Life-skills that would certainly do them well wherever they ended up. But it had been more dramatic than just that.

They had starred as the main characters in their own adventure story, one filled with a monster tree and an imaginary tidal wave, roaches the size of cats, a terrifying hurricane, and parties that rivaled those of Jay Gatsby. The fact that she actually knew who Jay Gatsby was was a testament to all the hours she had spent devouring books, because television here was mostly her father teaching people how to go to the bathroom and Bonanza reruns. She wasn’t completely clear on what Larry had been doing at the TV studio, but she knew it was important and that he was very proud of it. Her parent’s story had contained separate, exciting chapters that were lived simultaneously with their children’s, and that had made her realize what unique individuals they were. That would change, she assumed – she was almost thirteen – but for now it was pretty cool.

The magical setting of the story had been this glorious island, and the biggest surprise was that such a small geographic area could hold people with such huge hearts. It had been scary to be dropped into a culture so foreign from what they had known, but they had been welcomed and embraced by the Samoan people with such warmth that she would always think of them as aiga. She knew that she would remember this place with longing every time she was forced to put on a pair of shoes.

This story would make a great musical, she thought as the engines began to rev. Too bad that Michener book had already taken the title “South Pacific”.

The plane gathered speed as it thundered down the runway, rising at the very last second to avoid plunging into the ocean. She had never gotten used to that moment when the runway disappeared and suddenly there was nothing but water. She craned her neck to see out the window as the plane banked over the harbor and then headed east toward Hawaii, the troll doll clutched in her hand. The island grew smaller and smaller until, in no time at all, it was gone. It was like it had never existed.

The mat was cooked.

February 18, 2016

Post 84—”K-V-Z (zee ya real soon!)”*


The control room at the TV studio.

Larry looked around his office at the KVZK television studio for the last time. His desk was clean, waiting for the next supervisor to stack his own pile of projects and To Do lists. The honorary Sanitation and Hygiene toilet seat had been removed from the wall and was now on a boat somewhere on its way back to the mainland along with their other household goods. It was difficult to imagine how it was going to fit into the decor of his next office, but he was determined that it would.

Where that office would be was still unclear. He was leaving the island without having lined up a new position, although he felt confident that something would come along. One thing was certain; he was not going back to the Detroit Board of Education. It was time for a new adventure.

As he walked through the hallways, he thought about those first few weeks on the island when the ETV program was slowly taking shape. At times it had felt like they were making up the curriculum as they went along, probably because they were. There had been so many problems they hadn’t anticipated, from humidity-induced equipment failures to unanticipated departures by freaked-out teachers. The hurricane hadn’t helped much, either. At one point they had been producing 188 programs per week, an insane schedule that had taken its toll on the administrators and teachers alike. And yet the program had flourished, frequently held together by nothing more than the dedication of a staff who fervently believed that what they were doing was making a difference.

It was difficult to measure the success of the program because there had been no real way to collect data, and even if there had been, there was simply no time. Because the Samoans had little proficiency in English to begin with, standard tests that were given to stateside students were useless. But Larry had visited the villages where the consolidated schools were thriving and engaged in long, enthusiastic conversations with students in all grades. Their ability to chatter about all kinds of subjects had convinced him that they were doing something right.

But there were rumblings of trouble in the program. The new ETV system that started in 1964 had been the baby of then Governor H. Rex Lee. The new governor, Owen Aspinall, had been appointed in 1967, and the past year had shown that he wasn’t nearly as enamored of the project as Lee had been. Larry hated to think that everything they had worked so hard for could be derailed by politics. It was infuriating for everyone involved to think the ETV program might not be able to continue, but mostly it seemed unfair to the Samoan students who had embraced the system and learned so well.

Whatever happened, Larry’s active participation in the great educational television experiment was over. The odds that he would have the opportunity to be involved in something so special again were slim. He didn’t even have a job right now. But this island and these people were always going to be a part of him; he knew that for sure. He was taking his lavalava with him.

Larry and I got a big laugh out of the comment about the pile of money we had saved. It’s more than we could have managed at home but it isn’t a very impressive pile. But even if we had lost money, I wouldn’t have had the last four years be any different; it was all worth it . . . The kids are independent as heck and I’m afraid you all might disapprove a bit, but they sure are prepared for the world. . . I’m still sad about leaving but looking forward to a change. It’s time and probably if we stayed, things would start going sour.


* The title comes from a song parody performed in The Samoan Fales, sung to the tune of “The Mickey Mouse Club” –  “K-V-Z (zee ya real soon!), Z-K-Y (Why? Because we like you!)”

February 12, 2016

Post 83 — The End Begins


The night sky over Ofu island. Photo from the US National Park Service.

The static was driving Jean crazy. Larry had been fiddling with the radio for twenty minutes and had yet to find a station that came in clearly. Although early June was supposed to be the beginning of the dry season, it had been raining for days and her mood in general was damp. There was sewing to finish and packing to be started and she didn’t want to do either of those things because both activities pointed in the same direction: they were leaving the island.

She wandered into the bedroom to get away from the radio and started looking through the closet. Decisions were going to have to be made about what stayed behind. She had fourteen long dresses in various shades of pink, yellow and lime green and was having trouble visualing them at a PTA meeting in Harper Woods.

“Jean! Jean!” she heard Larry shouting. Running back toward the front of the house, she met her white-faced husband in the phonograph room. “They shot Bobby Kennedy.”

June 7, 1968
The whole island is in an uproar over the new Kennedy assassination. The Samoans couldn’t understand it and how can you explain something that terrible? How cheap people hold a human life these days. It’s pretty frightening.

The political assassinations were somber bookends to their time on the island. They had left the summer after JFK was murdered and now were about to return to the states as another Kennedy brother was gunned down. Jean and Larry were aware of the turmoil and protests that had been ongoing during the end of the 1960s, but the impact had been somewhat lessened because most of their news came from months-old issues of Time magazine. The decision to come to Samoa in the first place had been difficult; the decision to return to the chaos had been even harder.

Samoa was not a utopian society; there were many problems similar to those the mainland faced. In the past year, the principal at a village school who was a good friend of theirs had been shot in an armed robbery. Fortunately he had recovered, but the news had sent a wave of unease sweeping across the island. You could feel the real world creeping in. It was just easier to ignore it with a gin and tonic in one hand and a tropical breeze in your hair.

But not all the bookends were bad—some simply completed a full circle. That very night, the family were guests of honor at a tofa fiafia held in the village of Vaitogi, the same place they had gone their very first day on the island. Unlike the last time, the evening was clear and the air was fresh and scented with the sweet aroma of fragipagi blossoms and red ginger. The family of Siamau were the hosts – he and Larry had worked together the entire time the Broquets had been on the island and considered each other good friends. In fact, Siamau’s youngest child was named Larry and he was running around in a pair of Chrissie’s old shorts. The Broquets handed down the girl’s old clothes and Siamau shared as much fresh pineapple and bananas as they could eat – both families felt they got the better part of the deal.

The fiafia followed the usual script— large amounts of food cooked in umus, singing, dancing— but every moment felt as comfortable and welcoming as the old family parties in the grandparent’s basement. All that was missing was the potato salad. The girls jumped up to join in the dancing, proving those sivasiva lessons they had taken in their first year had been worth it. Gifts of tapas and mats were heaped upon the family, ordinary everyday things on the island that would come to mean so much once removed from this setting. The evening was already long and emotional when Siamau and a group of Samoans stood up and began to sing:

Tofa mai feleni, o le a ou te’a (Goodbye my friend, we are departing)
Ae folau i le vasa le ali’i pule meleke (As you travel overseas)
Ne’i galo mai Samoa, si o ta ele ele (Don’t forget our homeland Samoa)
Ae manatua mai pea, le aupasese (Always remember us)

Jean’s eyes filled up, and she heard a small sob. Her stoic, unsentimental husband had tears streaming down his face. She took his hand and looked up at the night sky. There was a wash of brilliance that looked like someone had flung a handful of glitter into the air and a full moon so bright you could read by it – just another ordinary Tuesday night here in Polynesia. She remembered that first fiafia and how strange the Southern hemisphere sky had seemed. Larry had reassured her that the giant moon hanging over the island was the same one they could see from home. She knew that was true; the difference now was that home was where they were, not where they were going.

February 2, 2016

Post 82 — The Pow-pow-powerful Winds of Change

pao pao

The actual pao pao being expertly steered by Mark Hastings, who was a much better sailor than Carolyn was. (Photo by George Hastings, actual pao pao owner)

Carolyn sat in the canoe and surveyed the awesomeness that was all around her. Pago Pago Bay was a mirror that gorgeous afternoon, and the reflection of the mountains that enfolded the harbor made it feel like she was skiing across the tops of the peaks. As a teenager, most of her waking thoughts were of herself, but at this moment even she could appreciate the beauty of the scenery.

The boat ride was an impromptu thrill, prompted by a party at her house and a neighbor’s conveniently located canoe. Her parents and their guests had started singing show tunes, and there was no way anyone was looking for her until they had finished with the entire Richard Rodgers songbook. She was safe until they hit “Younger Than Springtime”.

Her neighbor was fine with her borrowing the canoe, or so she assumed. He had loaned it to the family before so she didn’t see why it would be a problem if she took it out now. The boat was a traditional Samoan outrigger, carved from the trunk of a breadfruit tree. The weight of the passengers was balanced by the extended arm that stretched out over the water. The body was narrow and just barely accommodated two people but the sleekness of the craft made it extremely aerodynamic. The Samoan word for the boat was paopao (pronounced pow pow) and Carolyn delighted in the way the boat shot forward through the water. She liked it when things sounded like their names.

Her friend Marilyn had joined her for the adventure and it took a few minutes to get their paddling in sync. Carolyn considered herself the captain since she was in the front (which was either the bow or the stern – she could never remember which was which), and she set the course straight out into the bay, as the ancient Polynesians must have done as they headed into the sunset without a clue as to where they were going. They skimmed past the docks and waved at the people walking along the decks of the ocean liner that was anchored there. High above their heads, the cable car began its slow ascent across the bay toward the peak of Mt. Alava, swaying gently as the wind picked up. The breeze also brought a pungent reminder that the tuna canneries on the other side of the island were operating at peak capacity.

Carolyn was lost in her thoughts as they glided across the aquamarine water. She realized that this could be the last time she would see the harbor from this perspective. School was almost over and they would be leaving the island for good in July. She blamed her older sister for this decision; her parents were worried that Kathy’s island education wouldn’t be academic enough to get her into college. If the girls had known that was going to be a problem, Carolyn thought, Kathy should have just flunked out and they could have stayed longer.

As the wind picked up, the water got choppier and the progress slowed. They were no longer gliding but paddling harder and harder to stay within swimming distance of the shore. Rounding the point of the island where the Intercontinental Hotel jutted out into the bay, the girls could see some boys splashing around on the beach who seemed a lot farther away than they should be. The little swells of sea water suddenly became swollen and the waves started breaking over the bow and/or stern. Both girls were soaked and Carolyn tasted salt on her lips.

She glanced back at Marilyn and realized that her usually unflappable friend suddenly looked flappable. The plan had been to paddle around the harbor close to the shore, not fight the wind as it carried them out to sea. Carolyn hadn’t given much thought to how deep the water might be but had assumed that the reef was right below them so if they capsized, they could still stand up. Now she realized that the color of the water was changing to a darker indigo color, and that meant the end of the reef was approaching. A rogue wave suddenly crashed over the boat and both girls were tipped sideways into the ocean.

The first thought in Carolyn’s head was to save the outrigger canoe. It had filled with water and was listing to one side. Drowning was preferable to sinking the boat and having to tell the story of this seemingly harmless adventure to her parents, who had certainly finished with Rodgers and Hammerstein by now. Maybe they had moved on to Lerner and Loewe.

She felt something sharp under her foot and realized with relief that that they were still on the reef. Balancing on her toes, she could just keep her head above water and hang onto the listing paopao. The poisonous coral was the least of her problems right now. Marilyn was hanging on to the other side but the two girls could not tip the outrigger over to bail out the water.

The ocean had always seemed like a benevolent friend, warm and welcoming in the shallows and filled with colorful sea life and shells. Carolyn had never been afraid of it before, but now she started remembering the two surfers who had drowned just a few weeks ago, and the couple who had disappeared one sunny afternoon after heading out in a canoe for some sightseeing. Hanging onto the paopao was exhausting and she didn’t know how much longer her arms would hold out.

She heard shouting behind her and turned to look back at the shore. The boys who had been splashing at the beach were now swimming toward them and yelling to hold on. They were able to dump enough water out of the canoe that it floated on the surface again and could be pushed toward the beach. The two girls swam slowly to the shore and staggered up on the rocky sand. The boys were teasing them about their boating skills but the girls were shaking too much to go along with the joking.

Later, after a dramatic period of resting on the beach, the girls gratefully accepted the boys’ offer to return the paopao. They walked back to Carolyn’s house and found the party was still going on. No one had noticed they were gone. Carolyn really wanted to share the fact that she had just narrowly cheated death, but it seemed like a better idea to keep her mouth shut. Besides, they were only halfway through the score of Funny Girl.