Monday, March 19, 2012

The Day of Goodbyes

As my final days in Samoa approached, I had made a plan of how I wanted those final moments to come to an end. I knew I would only get one chance to get it right, and I wanted to have a good sense of closure as I exited my village, and then the country.

My last full day in the village was spent going house to house from one end of the village to the other. It gave me the chance to say final goodbyes, take pictures, and remember those who had welcomed me into their homes for two amazing years! My friends Saulo and Neueli joined me on the adventure, lugging around a big bag full of stuff from my house I was trying to get rid of in those final hours. I had decided that since my village had given me so much, it was a good way to give back to those families who had helped me out the most.

The two boys were so patient throughout the whole day, and never once complained about having to stop and wait for me at everybody’s houses. As we would approach someone’s house, they would ask me what I was going to give that family from my bag, and at a few houses, they told me to change the gift and give something else. I guess they had a better sense than me about what families could use, or would want. Along the way I was giving away my radio, nonstick frying pan, laundry bucket, old cans of paint, and much more!

Visiting with different families, I was able to see the true warmth and hospitality of the Samoan culture one last time. Once they saw me coming, families would rush around to place a clean woven mat down for me to sit on. I was given fish and baked bananas at my first house, and later in the day some wet sticky buns! Saulo and Neueli even got to eat at that house, and so that put them in a good mood.

Walking to each house, I was expressing my thanks to the families, and telling them how much I would miss them and the village. I was greeted by high chiefs of the village, mothers, grandparents and children. They all took time to sit with me and visit as I said my goodbyes to them. At some houses, I would exchange phone numbers with those who had them. It was a way of making us not feel quite as far away as we really would be.

By the time late afternoon rolled around, Saulo, Neueli and I were all exhausted! We headed back up to my house and I did some final cleaning and packing. I had promised them we would go for one final swim together in the ocean, so as evening approached, I set the work aside at my house and walked back down to the village for my swim. Before too long, there were over 15 kids out in the ocean swimming, and I realized they knew just as well as I did, that this would be one of our final memories of each other. As I swam there in the ocean, I remember thinking about how much life was going to change in the next 24 hours. I was looking out over that water, and realizing I would be jetting away from this small slice of paradise I had called home for 26 months.

That evening, I walked over to my neighbor’s house for our final dinner together. It was Milo’s family who welcomed me on my very first day in the village, and continued to treat me like one of their own family members for the entire two years. That night they were having my fa’amavae (going away party) and had gone all out to prepare a huge feast, and invite their extended family to celebrate my last night with them. I knew it was going to be an emotional night, as we said our thanks to one another, and prepared to say goodbye the following morning.

As I gathered there with Milo and his family, I was reflective of our time together. We had seen each other nearly every day for two years, and grown to love each other as the months went by. His family led the evening prayer, all of us sitting together there in a circle as they sang these songs I had come to recognize. Before too long, my meal was being brought out by Milo’s sister Iva, and placed before me: fried chicken, pig, soup, breadfruit and cooked bananas! As is the usual custom, I ate first, along with the head matai of the family. After we were finished, we drank our tea together while the rest of the family ate out back of the house where the food had been prepared.

Once the business of dinner had subsided, the head matai (chief) of Milo’s family—his uncle, gave a formal thank you to me for my service and for my friendship. As I was listening to him, I realized I had forgotten to prepare any remarks for my thank you to them, something that completely slipped my mind in the hectic final days. However, looking back, I’m glad I didn’t prepare anything ahead of time, because it gave me a chance to speak directly from my heart, as I was living in the moment.

I delivered my entire thank you in Samoan, lasting about 10 minutes in length. I spoke slowly as I tried to keep my emotions under control. I recalled so many of our great memories together, and what each of them meant to me. As I spoke, I looked over at Milo and he was sitting in the corner with his head turned away from everyone else. I knew he was listening, but just needed his own space. I spoke to the family about how Milo had reached out to me in the beginning, about how he had been like a brother, a true friend. Whatever I needed, whenever I needed it, Milo was there and more than willing to help me. As I continued to speak, I had to stop several times as my emotions took over, and looking around me, it was comforting to see my neighbors felt the same way. Somehow, by the grace of God, I made it through, and when I said Soifua (good health) to end my remarks, the head matai of the family started a slow and deliberate clap which the rest of the family joined in on.

Later that evening, I had a chance to give Milo’s family some gifts I had prepared for them. The first gift was an album full of pictures I had taken of them during my two years there. I had them printed off in America, and then sent to Samoa, since printing pictures is much cheaper in the States. I placed them in the album chronologically and they seemed to really appreciate it. It would give them a way to remember our time together long after I was gone. I also gave a set of carving tools to Milo’s dad, Taunaola. The tools were a gift from my Uncle Jamie who had sent them over, knowing that my neighbor could get more use out of them than he could. Other than a bunch of smaller odds and ends things, I gave Milo’s family my refrigerator that final night. Most Samoans can’t afford refrigerators, so this would be a big treat for their family.

Milo and his family had given me my gifts earlier in the week because I had to pack them away in my suitcases then. Milo’s dad made me a traditional kava bowl, along with a carved plate. They are gifts which mean a lot and will be cherished for years to come, but in the end, it’s the relationship I had with them that I will remember the most! It will be the time they invited me for dinner on that first night in the village. It will be the things they did around my house to help make it more livable: fixing a pipe, toilet or window. It will be their concern for me when I was sick or feeling sad, or their interest in the “American things” I did, such as jogging every day for exercise. It will be their loving me, even though they didn’t have to, but doing so because they wanted to.

After I left their house on my last night, I walked back down the hill towards the ocean and through my village, getting one last glimpse of night life in Samoa. Kids were out playing in the street, families gathered under their open fales relaxing in the cool breeze. It was a peacefulness I was going to miss. Milo and two of his cousins walked along with me, and by the time we decided to head back up towards our houses, it was nearly 12:30 a.m.

That night as I tried to sort through the last of my things, people kept stopping by my house to visit, as they knew it was one last opportunity to be together. Although I was tired and had things to do, I was still happy to see all of them come by to visit, some as late as 3:30 a.m.

Finally, by 4:30 a.m. my guests had left! Exhausted and mentally drained, I gathered enough strength to write in my journal before turning off the lights for the final time. I went to climb under my mosquito net, and perform the inspection of my bed for centipedes. The next day would bring many changes, changes that I wasn’t sure I was ready for. I had arrived in Samoa not sure if I wanted to stick it out for two years, and suddenly my final hours had fallen at my doorstep, and the sunrise of my last day was quickly making its way across the Pacific Ocean…

During the worst of the packing process, a few days before I left the village.

Saying goodbye to Saulo's grandma.

A nice old lady who went to my church.

Another great family!

Here I am saying goodbye to my year 8 student Luisa's family.

I was always so impressed with how active this lady was. I often would see her out in front of her house pulling weeds in the evening, or sometimes even hauling palm branches back from the plantation for weaving.

Notice the kid poking their head out from behind the door.

This family was weaving a fine mat when I arrived.

Neueli took this picture of Saulo resting as I was visiting with a family. The poor kids were tuckered out.

Another great family. I really enjoyed visiting with them.

A high chief from my village who I always thought fit the "grandpa" stereotype well.

I gave my laundry bucket to Lisa's family. They were always so good about giving me a ride when they would see me walking the long distance from the main road.

Cleaning house on my last evening in the village.

All the mats in my house had been taken outside and beaten and the inside floor swept clean!

The sun's lasts rays for the day visible on the mountain next to my house on my final evening in the village.

Saulo climbing the coconut tree in front of his house to give me one last fresh drink.

My going away meal at Milo's house was a big feast with many of my favorites!

Just before dinner with Milo's family. Here I am with his uncle and aunt.

Milo's dad, Taunaola, with his new carving tools.

One last picture with Naomi, taken sometime after midnight. Notice my refrigerator in the background, which was a gift to them from me.

A final visit with Fa'afetai's family, again, sometime after midnight!

During my late night walk through the village with Milo, Ickle and Palafu.

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