Chapter Two (Posts 9–14)

 9–The Family Goes West

The seven thousand mile journey had been an exciting one. The trip had taken a week with a few days each in California and Hawaii. Larry had cousins in Los Angeles so there was more family to visit there, and a long-promised trip to Disneyland finally came true.

For children who had been thrilled with free cereal at the Kellogg’s factory, Disneyland was an experience they could barely imagine. The day was hot and sticky as they wandered through the theme park, gawking at costumed characters and hearing songs from all their favorite films. With “It’s a Small World” on a loop in their heads, the whole family boarded the boats for the Jungle Cruise.

Drifting along the placid river, the girls were laughing as they tried to spot the elusive animals hiding in the greenery. Suddenly the calm was shattered by a large splash as a gigantic hippo reared up and roared. The passengers squealed in delight as the guide stood up in the boat and fired six blanks, but the giggles were quickly overpowered by a hysterical wail that pierced the jungle. Karen panicked, believing semi-aquatic, animatronic mammals were going to devour her whole. The guide tried to reassure her but could not be heard over the noise. Guests at the park wondered if cannibalism had been introduced at Walt’s popular attraction because of the non-stop, bloodcurdling screaming coming from one of the boats. Many were relieved and then impressed by the lung capacity of the curly-haired moppet who shrieked non-stop until she was finally removed by her embarrassed parents, one of them muttering something about holding her head under the water to help calm her down.

The whole family agreed that a land-based attraction might be a good idea. The sun was intense at the Swiss Family Robinson Tree house as they got in a line that stretched toward Tomorrowland. The older girls were big fans of the Disney movie it was based on and insisted on waiting. After standing in line for 45 minutes, Larry wandered off to fetch ice cream to help cool things down. Jean was still comforting Karen, who appeared to be emotionally scarred by her encounter with the robot hippo. By the time he returned, the rest of the family were just a few Tommy Kirk fans away from the entrance. Larry handed out the dripping, no-longer frozen bars and as the girls took their first bites of the seldom-allowed treats, a castaway cast member about to admit them said “Hi folks! There is no food allowed in the tree house! You can either discard your snacks or step out of line to the back!”

There was a pause as each girl struggled with her expectation of what exactly constituted a vacation, and then said in unison “We’ll keep the ice cream!”

“Are you kidding me?!” Jean sputtered. ”We’ve been standing in line longer than the Robinson family was actually stranded!” Larry took note of his humidity-challenged wife and solved the dilemma by calmly grabbing each bar from the girl’s sticky fingers and tossing them in the garbage. “They’re finished. C’mon kids, let’s go climb a tree.”


The climate and the scenery in Hawaii are all that was said about it. Waikiki Beach is just a little skinny bit of beach bordered by extremely expensive hotels and occupied by various shades of people, depending on when they arrived and how long they laid on the beach and how big of a bathing suit they were wearing. The girls were happy because our hotel had a pool at it and what’s an ocean in comparison?

Jean

10–The Family Goes Even Wester

We rented a car and drove around Hawaii. Up mountain roads with palm trees and the water was any shade of blue from sky to royal to bright navy. It is horribly commercial and any relation to Michener-like descriptions are few and far between. Everybody was either old and wealthy-looking or young, tan and looking for action. The thing that struck us was that it was so quiet at the beach. Very few children. Later on when we were riding around we hit some stretches of beautiful big beach where the poor people go. They were a little noisier. There are many O­­­rientals. Some look like they haven’t got a dime and others looked like James Shigeta and Nancy Kwan on location. As a whole, the mixtures come up with very attractive people. That little bit of information may not be new but it’s kind of interesting coming from one who is there instead of the National Geographic.

Jean

Hawaii had been exotic and dreamy, but the family was getting anxious to see what the real destination would be like. The longest part of the trip turned out to be the last twenty-four hours. The baggage handlers in Honolulu were negotiating a new contract and the flight to Samoa had been delayed three times. The previous night had been mostly sleepless as the family tried to find places to stretch out at the airport, where the few available couches were covered in complaining tourists wearing shirts that they would be embarrassed to be seen in as soon as they got back to Ohio. The Broquet children were crabby and their parents exhausted as they all pined for the end of the journey, which had been accompanied by six awkward and bent umbrellas (200 inches of rain per year!). The plane finally left, nine hours later.

The Pan Am jet slowed and came to a complete stop. There was no explosion. No ball of flame with burning troll eyeballs bouncing in the aisles and mangled sisters floating in the sea. Apparently the landing was just another day at work for the pilot who managed to find an island that was 7 miles across at its’ widest point, sitting just off the equator in the middle of the world’s largest ocean. The thrill of the South Seas adventure paled somewhat by the insignificance of the total land mass.

The stewardess nodded and waved goodbye as the family began to disembark, grimacing slightly as Karen went by. She had been a lot friendlier before the vomiting incident. The older girls followed behind their parents, lugging their bags.

Larry paused at the top of the stairs that led down from the jet to the runway and surveyed his future. Although it was hard to see very far because of the fine mist that could have been rain or fog or both, there was still an overwhelming presence of nature. The mountain they had just flown over loomed behind the plane, and a thick gray mass of clouds moved down its’ side as the heavier rain advanced. The sound of crashing waves indicated that the ocean was very close. So was the air, which wrapped around his face like a soaked, salty towel.  Jean joined him on the platform, sucked in a deep, wet breath and said, “I hope to God they sell deodorant here.”

It was hard to see what anything looked like because the fog seemed to have swallowed up the island. “Are we sure this is Samoa?” Kathy asked. “Maybe we went too far and ended up in New Zealand.”

The children started down the stairs behind their parents, their mouths open like panting dogs. The humidity was astonishing. Karen reached out and swiped a hand through the air, as if she could grab a fistful of the stuff. Mixed within the swirling dampness was a cocktail of heady scents that paid tribute to the fact that they were no longer in the midwest. The briny taste of sea and a loamy whiff of composting vegetation from the jungle floated on the thick air, combined with just a hint of raw sewage and a top note that might have been a tuna cannery. Every sense jangled and prickled as they tried to absorb what life would be like living in a place where nature clearly would not be ignored.

We arrived at a landing strip that borders the ocean and when you first approach it looks like you are going straight into the water. And guess what, it was raining. The humidity is like wow, but there is generally a breeze. I thought I’d freeze last night. It is the oddest feeling, one minute you are dying of the humid closeness then a breeze, 40 miles per hour comes up and you feel fine. (Larry is in the only completely air-conditioned building on the island)  

11–Welcome to Samoa!

The airport at Tafuna. Photo by John Flanigan.

They walked across the tarmac, the older girls holding hands while Larry carried Karen, her thumb stuck deep in her mouth for comfort. The terminal was a surprisingly modern looking building with large windows that overlooked the runway, nothing like the primitive airstrip that they had been expecting. There was a large crowd of people waiting just outside the customs area, all of them laughing and waving and holding flowered leis, obviously there to meet one of the passengers. Carolyn and Kathy exchanged a look as they remembered their going away party and the paper leis Aunt Betty had made for them to wear. “Two years is a really long time,” Kathy whispered. Jean was thinking the same thing but gave her an encouraging smile, although it was just a little wobbly. Karen was too miserable to even whine.

We got off the plane feeling like hot, sticky loser orphans and dragged those damn umbrellas across to the clearance desk. I was going to bring some flower seeds in my luggage but it’s a good thing I didn’t. However if anyone should want to stick a few zinnias or marigolds into a letter, what the agricultural dept. doesn’t know won’t hurt them.

Jean

The boisterous crowd surged forward but instead of passing by, stopped and surrounded the family. They threw the leis around the children’s necks and shouted, “Talofa! –Welcome to Samoa!” Introductions flew as people tossed out their names and hugged each little girl, everyone talking at the same time as they reassured the family that the worst was over. “We always send a welcoming committee out to meet the new teachers,” one of the friendly strangers said, “because we all remember what it was like to get off that plane and wonder what the hell we had gotten ourselves into.”

“Usually the flights from Hawaii land at 4 am and one or two people show up,” he added. “But because of your delay, everybody got to sleep in, so you got the whole group! Who wants champagne?”

*****************

The drive from the airport to their new home was a short one. The island of Tutuila is the largest in the chain of six that make up American Samoa, but it is only eighteen miles long. There was one paved two-lane road that ran the length of the island, hugging the coastline with the crashing surf just beyond the serpentine street. “I’ll bet passing is fun,” said Larry, the former driver’s ed teacher.

Karen started bouncing up and down and pointing, excited because she had just spotted a grass hut. One of the greeters explained that the traditional Samoan houses were called fales. “The word looks like fail,” he explained, “but it’s actually pronounced folly.”

The fales were round with a stone floor and a series of wooden poles that circled the perimeter. The poles supported the thatched roof  which was a good fifteen feet high in the center, hardly fitting the description of a hut. The openness of the home allowed the tropical breezes to cool the family inside, and a series of blinds made out of woven mats could be pulled up and down to keep out rain and provide some privacy. The fales were well constructed and perfectly suited to the tropical environment, the only incongruity being the television antennae sticking up out of the thatch.

“Are we going to live in a house like that?” exclaimed Kathy. The driver shook his head and said,  “No, the government teachers live in housing that is a little more like what you’d find back home. We’re almost there.” She slumped back in her seat, disappointed, although Jean seemed to visibly relax when she realized they wouldn’t be living in a house without indoor plumbing.

12–A Village Called Tafuna
Their new village was called Tafuna, and it combined the best of Samoan living with the worst of a suburban subdivision. The houses were all identical, shoebox shaped, like larger versions of Monopoly hotels. Instead of lining up along a nice geometric grid, they were scattered in every direction, as if an angry Polynesian player had flipped the board and all the neat little houses had ended up facing different ways. There were no streets or sidewalks or signs to distinguish where your house was; just some spotty grass and sand, white coral sand that had tiny shells hidden in it that came to the surface as rain poured off the eaves of the house. All the doors were painted aqua, gold or red.

“How are we supposed to remember which one we live in?” asked Carolyn.

“Well, find a blue door, go in and if you find other people with that haircut, then there you are,” said Larry.

Once they got inside, though, the sameness didn’t matter. The house was huge, with a large combination living room/dining room and three bedrooms. Jean admired the simulated bamboo furniture and became positively speechless at the sight of the brand new electric stove. “The refrigerator has a full size freezer. Larry! A full size freezer!” Her eyes got misty as she considered exactly how her life would change with this dream kitchen.

None of our things have arrived and won’t for about 6 weeks, so everyone had brought over food, dishes and equipment enough to get us through. We had champagne and cake. Rumor has it that Mr. Bronson doesn’t hire anyone unless he looks like a party boy. They were all so nice … about 50 assorted people making us feel very much at home.

Jean

The two walls on either end of the house were made of cement block painted a nondescript tan color. They reached up fifteen feet at the peak where the roof started. A hallway ran the length of the house with access to all the sleeping quarters and bathroom, which was the only room that was entirely enclosed. Screens made up the rest of the walls, giving it a summery cottage-like feel. The westernized version of the Samoan shades were made out of canvas instead of woven pandanus leaves, but the end result was the same: let the breeze in and keep the bugs and rain out. Each shade was 3 feet wide, with a complicated pulley system that allowed the shades to open at both the bottom and top.

Kathy and Carolyn raced down the hallway and grabbed the middle bedroom, claiming it as their own, while Chrissie sighed and followed Karen into the last one. Her little sister pulled the pulley cord on the shades up and down, up and down, and then started bouncing back and forth on the beds with her shoes still tightly tied.

“You’d better stop that,” Chrissie hissed at her. “You’re not supposed to have your shoes on the bed. Mom! Karen is jumping on the bed!” Chrissie waited patiently for a parent to come in and yell at Karen, according to the protocol that had been set in motion years ago in their home in Harper Woods. “Mom!

No one came. Her mother was still in the kitchen trying to figure out how the stove worked and Larry was drinking beer with the welcoming committee, who had turned out to be all of their new neighbors.

Karen had fallen asleep on her last bounce, her body wedged between the bed and the window. The screen made a shallow waffle impression on her downy baby cheek. No one was paying any attention to the children at all.

Somewhere deep inside Chrissie, there was a tiny seismic shift as she pondered what life would be like in this remarkable place.

The house proved to be quite a pleasant surprise. We didn’t honestly expect that we’d be living in a grass hut, but we hardly expected a three-bedroom home with electric stove, refrigerator, and indoor plumbing. The housing development at Tafuna, consists of 60 or more modern dwellings, all constructed in the traditional Samoan style with open sides. The most attractive part of our new home as far as we were concerned was the bedroom area, having spent the previous night in the airport terminal.

Larry

13–A Village Called Vaitogi

Although the family hadn’t slept in the last twenty-four hours and the whole experience was taking on a vaguely hallucinogenic quality, the neighbors told them that there was a fiafia being held in their honor at the village of a Samoan teacher. Fiafia is a term used throughout Polynesia and is loosely translated as “the happy time.”

Jean could think of few things that would make her less happy than having to drag her four jet lagged daughters out into the pouring rain again, but clearly a lot of effort had gone into the party and it seemed rude to refuse. Twelve years of schooling by nuns had taught her manners, as well as the ability to spell. So they piled back into the assorted cars and jeeps that had brought them to their new home and set out for the village of Vaitogi.

The village where the fiafia was being hosted was quite a bit different from the village of Tafuna where they had reluctantly left behind six comfortable beds. Vaitogi was more what the family had imagined Samoa would look like. Clustered together under huge palm trees were several smaller fales where individual families lived, with a larger communal one in the middle. The village was on the southern coast of the island, but instead of a tranquil, sandy beach leading down to the sea, the edge fell away abruptly and jagged lava formed a cliff. The ocean roiled, with huge, mean waves crashing against the rocks, sending salty spray straight up into the air. To a family whose main idea of a body of water was Lake St. Clair, it was terrifying.

We had to take our shoes off and the whole floor was plaited pandanus mats. They even had a roasted young pig, baked on hot rocks! They had baked taro, which looks and tastes like Play Doh, Samoan cabbage stuffed with scraped coconut something that tasted like one of the Greek or Syrian spinach dishes – I liked it. Someone’s father made it. They also had potato salad, baked beans and fried chicken for the palagis (non-Samoans). Coconut milk to drink and coffee. Afterwards, about five or six young men played ukuleles and sang. Everybody sings. A few of the teacher’s danced the siva, which is the Samoan version of the hula only it’s not as wild, looks like an easy-going twist.

Jean

It seemed as if all 200 inches of rain that was allotted per year was falling that afternoon. The downpour was relentless as the family was taken to the large fale that was set with low tables groaning with food, most of which was unidentifiable. The Samoan teacher who was hosting the fiafia was named Siamau. He greeted the family warmly and introduced them to his wife and his father, who was the chief of the village.

The Broquet girls were wide-eyed with amazement as well as dripping wet as they tried to take in the scene around them. There were kids running everywhere, as well as chickens and dogs. The shivering children were offered dry dresses to change into and only Kathy declined. Karen hid behind her mother until three little Samoan boys managed to coax her out, at which point she started chasing them as if she were in her grandparent’s basement with all her cousins around her. Poking and teasing seemed to be the same in any language and pretty soon Chrissie joined in, not really understanding why they were running around the fale but knowing it felt great after days of being in airports and on planes.

Ducking around one of the support poles, Karen suddenly found herself face to nipple with an enormous brown breast. A topless Samoan lady was nonchalantly feeding her baby and she grinned and waved at the astonished little white girl. Karen backed away, unsure if she should wave back or just stare. Although there were five females in the family, Jean was very modest and this was Karen’s first glimpse of what awaited her in puberty. She decided denial would be the best course of action and took off running again, trying to find the boys who were now tormenting her sister. She finally plopped down between Kathy and Carolyn, who didn’t even notice her. They simply watched the activity whirling around them, too stunned by the change in their lives to even move.

14–The Southern Hemisphere

Music is the backbone of the fiafia. Samoans grow up with music in their respective villages. Ukuleles and guitars are popular all over the island and even the little children manage to get something that sounds like music out of them. Once the music starts, the dancing is not far behind.

Larry

Although the weather raged outside, inside the fale it was dry and warm. A haze of pork-infused smoke wafted through the air, along with the occasional whiff of wet dog. The girls gawked at the Samoan men wearing lavalavas, a large rectangle of brightly printed cloth that wrapped around the body and knotted at the waist. The garment was well suited for the climate; it provided a breeze as well as easy access for the outhouses that stretched out over the reef. The women’s version of traditional garb was called a puletasi, which was a short-sleeved dress worn over a lavalava, usually all in the same print that had the unfortunate effect of making the wearer look a little like a large sofa. Long tables ran around the room, covered in banana leaves and set with plates that had been woven from the fronds of the versatile palm tree.

Jean ran her hand over the mat she was sitting on and said to the woman sitting next to her whose name she had forgotten, “Are these all hand-made? I think we have them on the floors of the house.”

“Aren’t they beautiful? They’re so strong, they stand up to rain and sand and everything. And the Samoans make them so fast,” said Sally, who turned out to be a next-door neighbor. “They sell them, along with other hand-crafted things, on Boat Day.”

“What’s Boat Day? asked Jean, but was interrupted as a tall, beautiful Samoan lady with copper-colored skin moved to the center of fale. Her name was Fausaga, and with her long dark hair and a hibiscus behind one ear, she looked as if she had stepped out of a Gauguin painting, although she did have on a top. She began to perform a simple Samoan dance called the siva siva. Her arm movements were graceful and her hips swayed with the music as she moved around the room. Behind the seated guests, Karen tried to imitate the movement by swinging her tiny, four-year old butt as her three older sisters laughed at her. The song melody was simple and the words an incomprehensible jumble of vowels, but the message of welcome was clear.

I‘m sure it was a put up job because within minutes after I was informed that it was an affront to refuse an invitation to dance the siva, Fausaga, the Samoan dancer, stopped in front of me, bowed, and dragged me to the center of the mat where I proceeded to make an idiot of myself. As I tried to copy the movements of her hands and feet, I consoled myself with the idea that the next time it would be someone else up there, and I would be one of the hysterical spectators.

Despite our exhaustion, the fia fia proved to be a fascinating introduction to Samoa. There we sat; six bleary eyed palagis who had eaten scrambled eggs and chicken livers prepared in an electronic oven 35,000 feet above the Earth aboard a trans-Pacific jet liner that very morning; now we sat cross-legged on a hand-woven mat in a Samoan fale with a thatched roof eating foods which had been prepared in an umu (rock oven) in a manner which dates back over a thousand years. If we hadn’t been so exhausted, I’m sure we would have appreciated the contrast even more.

Larry

The eating and music and dancing finally ended, and after profusely thanking Siamau and his family, a very tired Jean and Larry walked toward the cars, their arms laden with coconuts and bananas. Samoan tradition dictated that visitors be sent home with as much food as they could carry, and their hosts had done the village proud. The children had passed out over an hour ago and had been piled unceremoniously in the backs of various cars, stacked like Lincoln Logs. The rain had finally stopped and a cool breeze blew, freshening the air and washing away the clouds.

Overhead, the sky was clear and dark, an inky blackness seldom seen in the Midwest. With little electricity to spill out into space, the heavens above were an overwhelming mass of glittering pinpoints of light that seemed to go on forever. Nothing like a billion stars overhead to make you feel small and about as far from home as you can possibly be.

“Where’s the Big Dipper?” whispered Jean, searching for something familiar.

“We’re in the Southern hemisphere now, honey, so I don’t think you’re going to find it up there,” said Larry, giving her a hug and accidentally poking her with a pineapple. “But that’s the same moon we could see in Michigan, and two years from now when we’re home, we’ll look up at it and remember this amazing night.”

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