Tuesday, August 27, 2013
The Face of a Stranger
In the beginning, I felt a little uncomfortable. I wanted to help her and trust her to use the money well, but at the same time, I was a volunteer on a limited budget. Rather than giving her money, I chose to befriend her with a smile, always saying hi as I walked past her, or asking how she was. I didn’t want to ignore her, but make her know she was thought of.
In the beginning, she was timid and somewhat unfazed by my acts of friendship. She would sometimes look at me with disappointment when I didn’t give her money, but instead just said hi. But over time, she returned my greeting with a smile and came to accept that I wouldn’t give her money, but would give her friendship.
I left Samoa at the end of my Peace Corps service without saying goodbye to her, and without even knowing her name. When I returned home to the States, I remembered her and felt a sense of regret for not at least asking her name.
Then in April 2012, I was able to return to Samoa for my time with the Catholic Church’s Youth Bands. I was walking down the warm and dusty streets of Apia my first week back and there she was, the same women who I had come to smile at in front of the convenient store. Except this time, she had moved and was sitting in front of a hardware store across town and near the church’s recreation hall. I walked towards her, although on the other side of the street, she saw me and got a huge smile on her face and said, “Hey, you!” I smiled back and waved. I was very touched that she had remembered me, even though I had been away for four months.
Because of the route I took to get to my band rehearsals in town, I happened to pass by her every day. Each day we would wave. I had been there for about a month when I started reading a book, which was Mother Teresa’s biography. In that book I saw how Mother Teresa came to serve and love the poor and reached out to them without hesitation. She wasn’t afraid to be seen with them or to minister to them. I began to feel a call to reach out to this woman whose face I had come to know so well, yet, who in reality, I hardly knew at all.
One day, shortly after having read the book, I bought a small stuffed apple pie pastry and took it over to her where she sat. When I gave it to her she thanked me. I knelt down beside her as people hurried past us. With the busyness of the Apia streets as our background noise, I asked her what her name was and she said, “Alitasi.” I told her my name and where I was working. It was a very simple conversation, but the meaning was much deeper for both of us.
From then on, when I passed her, it was more than just a wave; now I knew her name and would greet her as such. I think she forgot my name, since she never called me by mine, but I knew she never forgot my face. I continued to stop from time to time with food — either bread, rice, or one time, even a McDonald’s hamburger. I didn’t give her food every day, so she came to appreciate my ability to surprise her on occasion.
As my assignment with the band began to come to an end in December, my trips past her normal spot became less. It was approaching my last couple of weeks in the country and I wanted to say a proper goodbye. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of weeks and was beginning to wonder where she was. One afternoon, I bought her some food and took it over but she wasn’t there, so I just sat there where she normally would be, and began to pray. I prayed that I might see the world through her eyes for but a moment. I sat there and watched as busy people passed in front of me. Some looked down at me with a curious look on their face; perhaps they knew she normally sat there and wondered what I was doing in her spot. I remember as I sat there some kids had just gotten out of school and stopped to ask what I was doing. I wondered to myself if they would have stopped to visit with Alitasi?
As many of you know, the day before I was to leave Samoa, a devastating cyclone hit the islands and caused the airport to cancel all the flights. I had been in the capital and was trying to get out to my former Peace Corps village to pick up Saulo, Milo and Neueli who were supposed to be traveling back to the States with me for the Samoan Youth Empowerment Program. I was worried sick, not knowing if they and their families were safe after the cyclone and all I wanted was a friend, someone familiar, someone to talk to. I felt so alone, so frustrated, so angry at the situation. And then God gave me what I needed: a good friend.
Walking back from the grocery store through muddy water that came up to my knees, I saw Alitasi walking towards me and the smile on both of our faces could have parted the clouds. In all the commotion of the cyclone, I hadn’t even thought to say goodbye to her, but yet, God was giving me that chance this time, and besides that, He knew I needed a friend more than ever. We walked towards each other and she asked me in Samoan, “What are you doing?” and in a tone as if to indicate I was crazy for walking the streets after the storm. I told her my flight had been canceled and I would be leaving for the United States in a few days. I asked her if she was ok and she said she was fine. When she knew I was leaving, she told me she wanted to get me a present as a goodbye gift. She said she was going to find me an ie lava lava (sarong). I knew this would probably be the last time we would see each other, and although I knew she probably couldn’t get me that gift she wanted to, it meant the world to me that she had wanted to, just because we had become friends.
As the rain began to drizzle on us, we embraced with a big hug and then she gave me a kiss on the cheek. I remember people walking past us and seeing our goodbye there along the edge of the road. She told me to take care of myself and I told her I loved her. She said “Alofa atu oe,” (I love you).
As I walked away, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and gratitude for her friendship, for her comfort during that time of distress, and for our getting to know one another. That was the last time I saw her, but I think of her often. I try to remind myself never to forget her and the things she taught me about myself and others. She was a true friend when I needed one, and hopefully I was able to be the same for her.