“What are we doing here,” I vaguely recall asking my dad who was preoccupied with some commotion that was going on down the street. We had been up early. Sleepy eyed and groggy I woke up to the sweet smell of panikeke and the sound of crackling oil, my mother whispering good morning as I sauntered hither and thither to find my flip flops and a clean tee shirt.
Several members of my mom’s extended family had arrived the night before. I had no clue why other than they enjoyed sleeping over in our house on the school campus in Pesega when they didn’t want to make the long trip back to my mother’s village of Sa’aga, Siumu on the bus.
I recall piling into the back of that sleek red Toyota pickup truck with the rest of the family while dad and mom slid into their reserved seats behind the steering wheel and in the passengers’ seat respectively. With a toot of the horn (dad always did that in Samoa to shoo away pigs, chickens and stray humans) we backed out of our driveway and made our way to Apia, the capital city of the newly independent nation of Samoa.
Like most kids of that time (and for as long as I can remember now), we stood up just behind the cab of the truck because we loved that flying sensation when the wind blows through your hair, your face is stretched and your mouth is agape, ready and inviting to mosquitoes, flies and other winged creatures. Standing also made more room for the uncles and aunties who had come from the country.
We zipped around the clock tower roundabout at the center of town, past Molisi, then Makesi and the government buildings all built in colonial times when Samoa was ruled by outside powers then slowed down just enough for dad to nudge the front of the truck into a clearing along the side of the road where other cars had parked.
“What are we doing here?” I asked my dad again who had apparently lost interest in whatever had previously rapt his attention just a few minutes earlier.
“We’re here to watch the boat races. Now stop asking questions I’m trying to listen.” It was at that moment that I realized that everyone was speaking in hushed tones and the only voice that could be heard above my own was the voice of a local radio celebrity on nationally owned and operated Radio 2AP.
The radio announcers voice was crisp and animated and though I could hardly understand a word he was saying because he was speaking rapidly in Samoan, I knew that it was something important and he held the concentration of everyone within his voice, perhaps even the entire nation.
“Here they come!” I heard someone yell and like tidal wave then entire population around us surged toward the shore, nearly crushing me and my siblings on the ground.
“Here who comes dad?”
“The boats! Look, over there,” I looked up to follow my dad’s finger pointing to a spot off to my left. I squinted, trying to make out the prow of the ships cutting across the bay, disappointed at first when I could not see them when suddenly I heard them; the low rhythmic beat of drums and voices that carried across the water as one by one long boats fuelled by the powerful, muscular arms of its native oarsmen powered towards the finish line at the opposite end of the waterfront. The roar of the crowd drowned out the staccato beat of the various teams as they rushed across Apia harbor and a sudden surge of electricity surged through the air as the paddles glistened in the early morning sunlight and the throngs cheered them on.
I can’t remember who won that day. It may have been the Aeto of Pago Pago from neighboring American Samoa or the Tolotolo o tama Uli from Salelologa, Savaii. What I do remember is the elation of the people and the explanation later that day by my father who told me as much as he could about the burgeoning days of the Independence movement by the people of Samoa that led to that celebration that day on the shores of Apia.
I was not born in Samoa but I spent my formative years there where I embraced everything about my Samoan heritage and culture. Those were happy times that I cherish with fondness. I miss chatting with friends at Mulinu’u or across the harbor at Vaiala. I still crave the taste of Supreme Ice Cream on Sunday afternoons when the heat is unbearable and the rich flavors of palusami and taro straight of the ‘umu.
I long for the days of playing basketball on concrete courts at dusk and hearing a dozen voices sing in five-part harmony from the bowels of darkened roadside fale o’o. I miss the lazy afternoons walking below the swaying palm trees in my lavalava and se’evae tosotoso, spare change jingling in my hand, my mouth watering for the taste of Orange flavored Fanta or a tall bottle of Coke.
Most of all, I miss home and home is my Samoa.