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The Shark and the Turtle

January 30, 2013

American Samoa – Monday, January 21

Today is Martin Luther King Day, and since American Samoa is a US territory, it’s a federal holiday for them as well, and the kids have the day off school. I do have to wonder how many of them actually know who MLK is?!?! So it meant a number of places were going to be closed again today.

Last night when I was in the small lobby of the motel trying to get on the computer, the lady at the front desk asked what I was doing in Samoa. I told her briefly and she was intrigued, and had a really nice suggestion for a donation. She told me about The Hope House, which is the only place on numerous islands for old people to go if they have no family left to help care for them. Here in American Samoa, families do not put their elders into nursing homes – they look after them as long as they need to, so there are no nursing homes here. But, there are people who find themselves getting older with no family left, and the Hope House gives them a place to go. I definitely wanted to make a donation there. The lady at the front desk drew me a map and gave me good directions – she was quite certain they would be open on MLK day since the residents were there. This place is located at the flat end of the west side of American Samoa, where there’s enough flat space for the airport, and a couple small neighborhoods and some little strip malls, and schools and churches and all. It’s kind of a congested area because the flat land is scarce on the island.

To get to that end of the island, I had to drive the curvy road between the steep mountains and the sea. There’s a sidewalk that runs for miles and miles along the road, and it’s a beautiful place to walk. Sometimes when you look ahead to the next base of a mountain, it looks like the mountain just drops right into the sea, and that there couldn’t possibly be room for a road. There were small villages here and there along the way, and there were lots of kids out doing yardwork. They may have had the day off school, but they were outside working. There was lots of trimming and raking and sweeping going on – I imagine the rain forest would quickly claim back untended land, so there seems to be a lot of work in keeping a neat yard. I even passed a few places where adults were doing trimming (with machete like knives) and burning along the steep hillsides. And, in a few of these villages, I would see little houses perched up high on the side of a mountain – I don’t know how people get up there! And there were clothes hanging out to dry everywhere. There was still talk of a big storm that could hit later this evening, but if it did, it was going to hit the other end of the island, and there was some talk of the storm beginning to veer away. It was quite windy out, and the waves were still spectacular. I would drive a bit, then pull off at a small park area, and walk a couple miles, then move on and do the same. So I did quite a bit of walking before I got to the town of Tafuna.

My directions to the Hope House used landmarks, not street names, but I only got turned around once, and while driving around, I saw a Red Cross office, and a Veteran’s Affairs office, which I just tucked into the back of my mind for future donations. And that reminds me – when I was driving through the pretty villages on the east side of the island yesterday, someone had put up a nice sign asking for peace for their American Samoan soldiers. I think on the mainland, we tend to forget that there are soldiers from these far-flung island territories also serving America. Anyway, I eventually found the complex that has the Hope House and a Montessori school for young kids, and there was an enormous cathedral there, and on the other side were some of the buildings for the social services programs. But it was all strangely quiet. I went into the cathedral which was beautiful but silent. There were lots of buildings and I wasn’t 100% sure where to go. I tried a couple of offices, but they had signs on them saying it was lunch break and they’d be back by 1. It had finished drizzling so I just walked through an adjoining area of little townhouses. At 1:00 I went back and still didn’t see anyone. I asked a lady out working in a garden if I was at least in the right place, and she pointed to a different building. I finally saw some people, and there were volunteers helping the older people with lunches. I could see into a few of the rooms, and they looked like small dorm rooms. I at least had the name if a person to ask for, and the volunteers just said none of the staff was around since it was a holiday, so I’d have to come back tomorrow. But at least I’ll know where to go, except I won’t have a car anymore, so I’ll be back on the buses!

As I headed back into the village of Tafuna, I passed the Tradewinds Hotel, which is the biggest of the 3 hotels on the island, and it’s right by the airport. And there’s even a golf club there. I went by the little Red Cross area, and decided to stop to see if anyone was around. I was taking a couple pictures first, and then someone came out of the office. So I met Val, and he ended up telling me a little bit about how things work in the event of a disaster. At the moment, they were doing some preliminary work, like stockpiling water and some clothes, just in case this storm did hit hard. If that were to happen, the Red Cross people have to take cover like everyone else. Then, when it’s safe to be outside again, they can assess the situation and call for assistance if necessary. When help is on the way, they let the incoming people do their work, while providing the logistics as far as getting around the island and all. It was interesting to hear about it. That morning they had already helped a man who’d had a tree limb fall on his roof because of the wind. Val was interested in what I was doing, and said he would like to mention my story to a newspaper friend of his, which I said would be fine. I made my donation and went on my way – happy to be able to help a tiny bit, especially since there was questionable weather around!

From there I backtracked a bit to a place where I’d seen a road leading to the sea where there was a legend of a turtle and a shark. I didn’t know what this legend was, but if it was on the map, I wanted to go find out. it was kind of a bumpy drive down, but I got to the ocean, and saw a memorial sort of thing, which I thought might tell me something about the legend. But it was a memorial to some people who had drowned, and there was a very nice marker about a Ring of Hope, symbolized by a lifesaving ring to throw out to someone in trouble. I didn’t know where the shark and turtle thing was, and I saw more kids out working in the yard, but one was taking a break under a tree, so I asked her if I was in the right place. The girl said I should go talk to her grandma, and she took me over to her – she was doing something with some tree branches. I told the grandma I was curious about this turtle and shark legend, and not only did she tell me the legend, but she walked me out to the cliffs overlooking the ocean, and proceeded to sing a chant in Samoan for a good 10 minutes, hoping to call in the shark – who apparently frequently shows up! But the waves were very rough, and pounding against the cliffs – we got sprayed hard by one. It certainly wasn’t calm enough to see any turtles, and the shark didn’t appear, but I had absolutely no doubt it was nearby! The lady’s name was Sena and she loves her place in Samoa by the sea – it was incredibly special to meet her. She said when the sea is calm, you can dive from the rocks (although she still swims, she doesnt dive anymore!) She pointed out the tombs of her in-laws, which are in the front yard, and they’re decorated with Christmas lights this time of year. Many Samoan homes have tombs right near the front door our out in their yards – keeping their loved ones nearby. The legend as she told it,in a nutshell, was that long ago, during a time a great famine up in the mountains, there was absolutely no food to eat, so an old blind lady asked one of her family members to lead her down by the sea where they could surely find some food. The old lady couldn’t go by herself because she was old, and needed to have someone help guide her. They made their way down a mountain, and could smell someone cooking something wrapped in leaves. The old lady was ready to eat. Then her companion saw that they had been tricked, and that the food someone had cooked was a rat, and the companion told the blind lady she couldn’t eat the rat. People are supposed to respect their elders, and the old lady was very discouraged to be deceived by this trick. The old lady felt if she was going to be deceived and tricked, then her time on this earth was over, and she asked her companion to leap off the cliff with her. So they jumped into the sea. The old lady turned into a turtle, and the younger one turned into Fonowea the shark. The chant is about calling Fonowea back and asking to see the turtle (who doesn’t seem to have the name), saying how much their family here on earth misses them, and how beautiful they are, and so on and so on. Sena told me she forgot to bring leaves to throw into the sea, which the shark and turtle can use for clothes. It was a wonderful place to stop, and if kids had been in school, I probably wouldn’t have met the grandma! I imagine there are slightly different versions if the legend – one has it that after the grandma and granddaughter flung themselves into the sea, they were indeed transformed into a shark and turtle, and swam around to many places looking to find a new home. They finally found a place they liked, and these villagers were compassionate, and through magic they were turned back into their human forms. But they couldn’t resist the call of the sea, so they thanked the people of their new village for their kindness, and transformed back into a turtle and a shark. But they told their new people that in exchange for their kindness, they could sing the chant, and the turtle and shark would always appear when they heard it. And this is the chant that’s been sung for generations.

Then it was time to head to the village of Leone on the far west side – I wanted to see the Tsunami Memorial. It was a crowded drive there, and some construction work was going on, but the memorial was very pretty. There were pictures of the victims, and instead of calling the day they were born their birth date, they called it their sunrise date. Then I wanted to follow the road to its end, through the steepest of the mountains, winding around the northwest corner of the island. I don’t think I ever got above 10mph. The road was not much of a road in places – there was grass growing out of cracks, and I thought about how isolated those few villages were. I pulled off to one village which looked nearly abandoned – lots of destruction still apparent from the 2009 tsunami. Although there were some FEMA tents still standing, and laundry hanging out, so I think someone was still holding on to the place. At long last, I made it all the way to the very last village where the road just deadended. There were a bunch of people in one of the community gathering places, and I didn’t want to interrupt anything, so I just turned around and made my way back. It was evening time now, and work for the day was over, so in nearly every village I drove through, there were big volleyball games going on, or games of cricket being played in the street, and kids swimming in shallow protected areas of the ocean, and other groups of kids just sitting together and talking. It seemed like everyone was outside even after the sun set – no TVs and computer games! Even though the clouds were out, the sunset was still pretty, backlighting tiny little islands that only had a couple trees growing on them.

It took a while to make my slow way back to the motel, and get gas for the car. The storm swung away from the island, so it was a good day all the way around.
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