Monday, March 05, 2018

A Tale of Two Samoas

The initial idea was twenty years old.  Amidst all the fears of Y2K, and the inane debate about which year was the true end of the millennium, I thought it would be interesting to cross the International Date Line when the calendar clicked over from 1999 to 2000, and welcome the New Year twice.   Unfortunately, life had other plans, and I instead passed the holiday with my dying father, who left us a few days into the new year.  As he was a professor of mathematics, I like to think that he chose the timing.

As a July baby, New Year's Day marks for me the midpoint of each particular biological year  And this year, age 50, marks what we for some reason arbitrate as the chronological midpoint of life.  In keeping the theme of midpoints, what better time then to celebrate New Year's eve twice, in the temporal center of the world?

We'd spent Christmas with family in New Mexico, so three flights were required to get us to Samoa, just west of the Date Line.  The middle flight was especially bizarre in that it departed LAX at 9 pm December 27, arriving in Fiji at 6 am on December 29.  I've often lost a day on similar long flights  but then had regained it on the return journey.  Yet for me, December 28, 2017 would never happen.  When one of the flight attendants told me that she did this flight weekly, I joked that she was then nearly two months younger than others born in the same year.

We arrive at the quiet Apia airport, walking around an arrivals terminal not quite finished with its restoration.  Despite pre-arranging a hotel car to pick us up, it never materializes. A taxi driver quickly offers his services, and we begin a slow ride into town.  The 45-minute drive to Apia passes through villages that make up about a quarter of the island's population.  The foothold that Christianity has taken is quite impressive, and each village is towered over by massive structures, the varying denominations emblazoned in towering letters above the doors.  Aside from their heaving verticality, traditions on the island are expressed more on a level plane, namely in the form of squat one story houses and their adjoined fale: open decks with a handful of pillars to support a simple roof.  Here the resident dogs and villagers live life horizontally, dozing through the heat, as the sea beyond expresses the ultimate flat surface. 

We arrive at our lodgings.  Aggie Grey's is named for a local woman who opened the hotel in 1933, and in its heyday it hosted a number of celebrities and royalty.   A self-made businesswoman, Aggie supposedly inspired the character Bloody Mary in James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific.  Despite having requested an early check-in, the hotel didn't have our reservation at all.  After much back and forth, a room is arranged, so we decide to have lunch and kill time until mid-afternoon.  are tired and sticky in our winter clothes and look forward to a long shower.  (A swim is out of the question as the pool is currently under repairs, a questionable choice of timing at the height of the tourist season.)  As we eat, we laugh about how we need to shift quickly to island time.  Little do we know how patient we will need to be, for over our three-day stay we face essentially every problem one might encounter at a hotel, and everything told to us by the staff turns out untrue, each promise one never delivered.  I pride myself on being a pretty laid back traveler, but Samoa truly challenges me.  In the end, we try not to get ruffled by these "diminishing returns,"  and politely nudge the staff just enough to get our basic needs satisfied.  And after all, why get upset while on holiday?   Why get angry when you can get a massage?

So we sit and enjoy our first day, overlooking the bizarre layout of bungalows, meant to mimic a village, but one with an uncommon ordination.   We take nearly all our meals in the restaurant at the center, where two friendly guitar players hold court, playing to no one more often than not.  I, at least, can enjoy them, as I read on my balcony.

Yet we still struggle with patience.  During a massage, the clock hits 45 minutes, and the masseuses suddenly just stop and walk away.  Having to ask three or four people to do what is basically their jobs.  We quickly suss out who on the staff is actually on the ball, and seek them out religiously.  I learn over time that this apathy could be acculturated.  Historically throughout the Pacific region there was no real notion of individual ownership, everything being shared with the rest of the village.  This brought much trouble with the early European ships who visited them, none more so than James Cook who lost his life over it.  So why work hard then, when you'll ultimately have to share your gains with your neighbors?   That said, I notice a house being constructed across the canal, undertaken by a group of people working in harmony.

On the turntable:  Girija Devi,  "Golden Raga Collection"

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