Samoan tsunami: tragedies such as this dwarf us all

Fagaloa Bay is towards the eastern end of Upolu in what back then was known as Western Samoa. It is a few bays to the northern side of Lalomanu, a village which, latterly, had become something of a tourist resort but which now - courtesy of last week's tsunami - barely exists.

To get to Fagaloa you took the car to road's-end, carefully minding the stray dogs, the pigs and chickens, lest you struck one of them dead and were delayed in compensation discussions with the village matai (chief).

Then you took to the rowing boat - from memory, akin to whaling dinghies with room for four or so oarsmen, a few passengers and some luggage. That part of the journey occupied an hour or two, out past the headland along and, finally, into the tight, steep-sided parabolic curve of a bay, the final stretch of it through a narrow passage in the reef.

It was navigable only with great skill and timing, and on a decent swell, which arrived at intervals and according to a pattern understood only by the boatmen. When it came, it required a furious explosion of oar-power to crest the boat and its cargo over and through the gap.

(Watch the surfers floating nonchalantly off the point down at St Clair and see how they occasionally erupt into windmills of flailing limbs in an attempt to harness the momentum of an unfurling right-hand break, and you will get something of the picture.)

I was probably about 10 years old. Fagaloa was the village of our Samoan brother, Suafa a student of 18 or so, who boarded with us at Avele Agricultural College.

Avele stood a few kilometres up the hill from Apia, roughly adjacent to Vailima, the homestead of old Tusitala himself Robert Louis Stevenson - in the shadow of Mt Vaea, where he is buried and to whose tomb we would regularly scramble, racing our parents and their visitors to reach it, and read aloud in triumph on arrival the celebrated epitaph embossed upon it:

Home is the hunter
Home from the hill
And the sailor
Home from the sea.

And if I was 10, then it must have been 1964, or perhaps it was 1965 and I was 11.

In any case I was a stranger to that far away bay and still enough of a pale-skinned rarity for the village children to pursue out along the rickety gangplank to "the little house over the sea", shouting "palagi, palagi" as if I were an alien of some as yet unencountered kind - yet in the instinctive, unfailing curiosity of the innocent, watching as I went about my business, for the gravity-propelled bodily evidence that would seal our shared humanity, and attract the attention of scavenging tiddlers in the sea below.

Home from the sea. It was utterly strange and yet quite wonderful and wild and with the protection and guidance of my older "brother", home of a kind.

I recall, even now more than four decades on, the sweet taste of the palusami coconut paste which moistened the stodgy staple of umu-roasted taro and green bananas; the sooty smell of the kerosene lamps; the rich aroma of the rough-ground cocoa seeds, made into a hot bedtime drink with condensed milk; the soothing dream-like percussion of the waves on the reef; the flutter and rustle of flying foxes alighting in the banyan trees.

One night on that particular visit we woke to a commotion. Loud voices ricocheted in the taut pre-dawn darkness. Palagi voices, reassuringly familiar voices.

My father and his next-door neighbours had been alerted to what in those days they called a tidal wave warning. There were no telephones; no other means of communication at this end of the island. So they had come to rescue us and to evacuate the village.

But first they had to pay their respects to the village matai; and so they sat there in the chief's fale with their own rough-ground cocoa, drained by anxiety and the long trek by torch-light through the night on the rough-hewn track around the headland, the only other way into the village.

And they were still sitting there, transfixed by exhaustion and the requirements of customary protocols, as the sun rose and the tsunami, probably all of 20 centimetres high, lapped unnoticed on the quiet morning shore.

There but for the grace of God . . .

Last week I was working on Wednesday night, the day the earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck in Samoa; and then again for the "wash-up" on Thursday.

On such occasions you do your best; you wade through the acres of copy, make arbitrary editing choices, choose pictures of the devastation, shutting out the looming realisation of what it all means.

You pin horror and grief to the pages of the newspaper so that the next morning it will be said, "we did our job", and our readers will be informed to the best of our limited abilities.

Tragedies such as this dwarf us all.

At midnight or so, with the paper "put to bed", you go home and pour yourself a stiff whisky. You shiver and say a quiet prayer for the bereaved. You remember.

- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor of the Otago Daily Times.


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