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Chris Sayer’s Travel Diary

Monday, 27 Aug 2012

Location: Samoa

MapOn our last day we manage to finally fulfil one of our goals for this journey – a goal set about two years prior. The story can be traced back to about 7 o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, September 29th, 2009. A huge earthquake occurred out to sea, some distance from Samoa’s south coast, but the tremors were felt across the island. Those living on the south coast then witnessed a horrifying omen – the water receded back into the ocean, exposing an expanse of sand, rocks, coral and reef. These people then had about 20 minutes to run for their lives before a huge tidal wave swamped their village. As the tsunami surged inland, it destroyed everything in its path. The lightly-built houses were completely washed away, leaving just the concrete slab they sat on. More sturdy buildings like a church may have been left standing, but the damage made it a wreck. People scrambled to their cars, but these were picked up and carried away as the wave caught up with them. Many people died that morning, and the days and weeks that followed were a major disruption to the lives of those lucky enough to survive.
One of the worst hit villages along the south coast was Poutasi. It was situated just off the beach, and caught the full force of the massive wave. Poutasi was the birthplace of a workmate that I have known for many years, called Winston. Following the disaster, Winston placed a collection jar on the front counter at work, promising to send any donations direct to his village to help in the relief effort. The Company said they would match whatever he raised. Winston expected to raise maybe a few hundred dollars, but it soon blew out to many thousands, thanks to the generosity of his workmates. A few weeks later he sent through a sizable amount of money to his relative Joe, the Head Chief or “matai” of Poutasi.
Some time later, I had the notion that Anne and I could combine the tropical holiday that we’d always wanted, with a visit to Poutasi to see how the relief effort had fared. There was also some comfort in the knowledge that our tourist dollars would be, in some small way, also contributing to the post-tsunami economy of Samoa. Fortunately, there is a resort close by Poutasi called Sinalei, which is owned by Winston’s relative Joe and managed by Joe’s sister Sose. We learned that a major part of Sinalei was also destroyed by the tsunami, and it had only re-opened in April 2011. So we used Sinalei as our base, and arranged with Sose for us to meet Joe and visit Poutasi during our stay.
It was a Sunday morning when Joe had us picked up and driven to his home. Driving through several villages on the way, we could easily hear the joyous singing emanating from each church as we drove past. People were dressed in their finest clothes, the ladies wearing elaborate wide-brimmed hats, the gentlemen their finest white shirts. Arriving in Poutasi, it’s evident that the village now resides on either side of the road, a kilometre from the sea to the south. As we pulled into the driveway of Joe's house, however, we find ourselves right on the beach. We are welcomed into their home by Joe and his wife Tammi, and invited to sit down in their lounge room. Double doors open out onto a patio and your gaze is dominated by the view – an expansive bright blue ocean.

Joe proceeded to tell us the story of how he felt the earth shake that fateful morning, saw the tide go out minutes later, and quickly started to transfer his wife’s 95-year-old mother to their car. Unfortunately the wave caught up with their car as they raced up the road, and both his wife and mother-in-law tragically perished. This brought home to us just how devastating the disaster was, with a human toll that far outweighed whatever destruction had occurred. If the earthquake had happened in the middle of the night, however, the death toll would have been much greater, as it would have been too dark to see the tell-tale sign of an imminent tsunami. In defiance of whatever Mother Nature could throw at him, Joe had decided to rebuild his house in exactly the same location, along with a handful of his neighbours. The majority of the villagers relocated further up the hill.

Joe then showed us around his village. The school has been rebuilt, with most of the furnishings in each classroom being donated. At the lower end of the building, the concrete slab left vacant by a destroyed section of the school had been used to erect a new building, to be used as an Arts Centre. It had been constructed by a group of Australian builders from Sydney, who had frequently come to Samoa for a surfing holiday. Calling themselves GroundSwell, Joe spoke in glowing terms of the tenacity and generosity of these guys, coming back each year to fulfil a pledge to help out after the tsunami. (See their website at Joe's idea of the Arts Centre is to get local villagers to use their skills to create arts and crafts for sale to the public, hence bringing some income into the community while engaging locals in the sustainability of their village.
The latest project had been officially opened by the New Zealand Prime Minister only three weeks ago. Joe brought out a bunch of keys from his pocket and unlocked the doors to a large Community Hall, where the village can now hold public meetings or events for education or entertainment. The wave thankfully stopped just short of the hospital, and the two churches in the village were also mostly spared. Glancing around this idyllic scene, with a clear blue sky overhead, and an equally clear blue ocean before us, glorious singing coming from the church just across the way, it was difficult to imagine a 14 metre wall of water surging out of the ocean causing such grief and devastation.

We left Poutasi , and Samoa, in awe of the resilience of its people, the vision of its leaders, and the beauty of its landscape. The money that Winston had raised nearly three years ago had helped rebuild his home village, and we felt privileged to have seen first-hand where that money had gone. Donations came from all over the world to help Samoa recover, but this particular village has a link to little ol’ Tassie that comprises all the elements of friendship and support.