Stepping out of the plane door into a humid not-yet-sun-risen air, I managed to balance my heavy bag straps on each shoulder to dismount the stairs. Having never exited a plane door into open air, I thought “This is kind of what it’s like to be the President” amused.
Eyes everywhere, but feet moving automatically with the rest of the crowd I waddled with my baggage towards the airport entrance. Upon entering, the sound of guitars and low harmonious voices singing came to me even before I spotted the five men with guitars in long green matching lava lava skirts and what resembled Hawaiian shirts. They were so large and good-natured looking with broad shoulders, protruding bellies and thick cheeks and chins.
Once past security, we were ushered out a small door into an open area littered with small groups of people. Immediately visible though, was a large white banner held up by a two young women, and two American, I assumed, men standing nearby with beautiful leis stacked and hanging from their necks. Some leis had green spiky leaves with bright yellow and red pedals. Some were one color of soft pink pedals, and others had flowers that seemed to spiral around themselves, resembling a coiled spring. I was presented a pink lei by one of the guys who introduced himself as “Penny”. I hid my mild surprise at his name, but he smiled brightly and I shuffled out of the way of the other volunteers behind me. Groups of us took a few pictures together, with our leis, the sign and the staff before loading our larger luggage on the back of a flatbed truck and boarding a red bus.
Large palm trees, enormous fanned ferns with brilliant yellow flowers, tin roof houses, young girls and boys in school uniforms (green knee length lavas and mid-sleeve button up shirts or polos) waiting for buses, girls with plaited hair, several large white churches, chickens and tan and white stray dogs that littered the yards passed by dreamily through the smudgy bus windows. Traditional fales, enormous gazebo-like structures with wooden floors, several posts supporting the thatched roof, but completely without walls made several appearances. Some of these fales had colorful tapestries of red, black and gold or green and purple covering the areas between the poles. There were hand painted signs for FRESH BBQ on the side of the road. A raised grave, like a small stack of wide cement squares white or grey surrounded by flowers or well kept grass and soil, could be found in front of many homes.
Dragging the bags into the hotel, every once in a while someone would announce “We’re actually HERE!” or “Hey guys, we’re in SAMOA!” to which all would cheer or begin to chat excitedly. Being assigned three to a room, Becki, Amanda and I deposited our things in 38 and met in the large open room, much like a cafeteria with tables and windows all around, overlooking the rainforest and misty mountains to the west. Breakfast was toast, guava, plantains and tea at small tables of four.
The Ava Ceremony: The tables were removed and along the walls, woven mats were placed. A plain beige weave with colorful groupings of thread around the edges. All of us had taken the red lavas with gold and burgundy flowers on the bottom from the woven welcome bags that had been in our rooms and had wrapped them clumsily around ourselves and were sitting expectantly on the mats in a semi-circle taking up a whole half of the room. PC staff and Samoan orators occupied the other half of the circle. At each point (North, South, East and West) of the room, a respected person sat. The assistant country director at the South, the Orators at the West, the Ava at the East and another PC leader at the North. Penny (we found out later his given name was Benj) was enjoying the honor of delivering the cups of Ava as well as laying four long sticks, one to each direction, like a compass. Before placing it at each direction, he angled the long stick towards the person and upwards yelping a high pitched “CHU!” Many of the new volunteers stifled surprised giggles at this. The first 20 minutes we listened, without any comprehension whatsoever, to the orators as they gave bold and booming speeches, many removing their shirts prior to speech. Rosie, one of the PCVs, was in charge of preparing the Ava. In front of her was a wooden bowl standing on quite a few small legs, on the left of the bowl was a bundle of what looked like dried grass (the Ava root) which she dipped into bowl of water, soaked and wrung out several times. Wiping the Ava root around the brim of the bowl towards the left, then back towards the right a few times before tossing it without looking over her right shoulder, where Benj caught it and whipped it towards the ground. Rosie, having left her right hand above her shoulder with an open palm, was given back the Ava root and the process was repeated. We were all passed the cup one at a time by Benj and Spencer, who jogged back and forth between the Ava bowl and the drinker, with an orator near Rosie calling out our names. We took the cup from Benj, let a drop of the dirty looking water on the mat in front of us while saying “Lau Ava lea le Atua…Soifua!” to which all responded “Manuia!”while we drank.
Shortly after the Ava ceremony, we were dismissed for a break back to our hotel rooms, most of us rooming in the same hallway in the small hotel. My roommates and I had just settled on our beds to rest when a violent rapping came to the door. We shot up and checked, but no one was there. We only saw Rosie running down the hall pounding on all the doors. When everyone was alarmed and peering out of their door at the ruckus, she announced loudly “Everyone needs to meet downstairs, immediately. There has been a large earthquake in Vanuatu and the Samoan Islands have a tsunami warning. Leave your things, just come quickly!” She was checking somewhat frantically with random people “Has anyone left? Are you sure? Are all your roommates with you?” We ran pell-mell down the stairs, most of us having grabbed our backpacks (passport, wallet, camera, laptop), by the time Becki and I had ran down (having not been able to lock our door due to panicy fingers) people on the streets were running away from the waterfront and most of the volunteers were clamboring into the back of a truck, while we were ushered urgently into an SUV. “Just sit on top of eachother!! We’ve got to move, NOW!” Three girls sat in the back seat of the SUV with two others on top, four people squeezed into the luggage area in back. We pulled onto the road and started to make our way away from the water. The radio on, an announcer said in English “I REPEAT, THERE HAS BEEN A TSUNAMI WARNING DUE TO THE EARTHQUAKE IN VANUATU, PLEASE HEAD TO HIGHER GROUND IN AN ORDERLY FASHION IMMEDIATELY. IF YOU ARE STRONG, HELP OTHERS WITH CHILDREN AND ELDERLY” We met with considerable traffic, everyone going up the same road towards the mountains. We listening closely to the Samoan radio waiting for English announcements and exchanging nervous glances all the while. Four staff members who were in a car together pulled over on the side of the road, one jumping out furiously and screaming to two other girls who were walking on the sidewalk about 40 feet away “RUN!! THIS ISN’T A JOKE!!!” I kept looking over my shoulder towards the beach, expecting at any time for the water to creep back into the sea and gather into a huge Armageddon-size wave. Some were evacuating with serious panic, others just walked quickly, some smiled and sat on the grass watching the commotion. Drivers with trucks took aboard strangers, everyone seemed to be opening their doors. Whether it was to loved ones, friends, coworkers or strangers, I didn’t know, but it was happening on all sides. Everybody seemed to be turning left at one point in the road, but our SUV continued to go straight and suddenly the traffic died away as we snaked up a quiet road. When we reached our country directors house, we were asked politely inside where a group of young children sat on bean bags watching cartoon network, completely content and unaware of the commotion downtown. We sat around and played Faze 10 and relaxed, knowing we were safe. An hour later we made our way back, the warning being called off.
We had our first language session, just going over simple phrases. I think the pronunciation and intonation of the language is not going to be difficult for me to master and I’m excited to put my best efforts forward.
Later, we went to a Seafood Restaurant down the street, where I had a milkshake and a ham, cheese and tomato grilled sandwich, which was easily the most delicious I’ve ever had! Lelei tele!! (Delicious!!)