When the man sees us brake, he sprints 40 meters to our truck. He wears a wide-brimmed straw hat, an unbuttoned blue shirt, and a green lavalava. He’s probably in his late 40’s, but his exhaustion and haggard appearance make him seem older.
Hitchhiking in Samoa isn’t uncommon, and in the aftermath of Tuesday’s earthquake and tsunami, it’s grown much more frequent. There are lots of villagers who need a ride to the faleoloa in the next village over or men working in affected areas who need surgical masks to protect themselves from the dust and pungent stench of decaying fish and plants and pigs. Ruane stopped to give the man a short ride, but when she got out of the car, it quickly became apparent this man wanted a ride somewhere else.
Ruane speaks very little Samoan, and the man seemed to speak little English, so I got out of the car to translate as best I could. “E te alu i fea?” I asked. Where are you going?
“Up the mountain to the rest of our family,” the man said.
In an attempt to find a safe, uncluttered living space and to avoid any run-ins with any aftershock tsunamis, many families from affected areas have relocated to their plantations or maumaga up in the highlands. Temporary shelters and makeshift tarpaulin tents have been setup in taro fields. Transportation between the family’s wrecked home and the maumaga can be difficult, particularly for families who’ve lost a car.
“We’re all going to Apia,” I said, mixing up my ta with my ma. In Samoan, there’s a difference between the collective ‘we’ when it includes the person you’re speaking to versus the collective ‘we’ that doesn’t. The man was confused.
“No we’re not,” he said. “I’m going up the mountain to the rest of my family.”
Eventually we worked out the confusion, and when the man finally understood us, his shoulders sagged, and he turned away with a despondent air.
I looked at Ruane. It was not my truck, and I’m not allowed to drive. That said, I couldn’t find it in my soul to tell a displaced homeless man we were not willing to give him a ride. Ruane shrugged, and I shrugged. And then I turned to the man and said, “Tatou o i le maumaga.” Let’s go up the mountain.
The man smiled and climbed in the flatbed and beckoned to another older man down the road. The older man trotted down the street with awkward gait. Two young boys came running as well. Once everyone had climbed in the flatbed, the men jumped out. “We need to get our food,” said the old man.
The two men grabbed weaved palm baskets full of freshly harvested yams. The boys had bags of salvaged belongings. Then they loaded on a large wooden box. It seemed like a hope chest of perishable goods.
Since Ruane and I had no idea how to find the village maumaga, I asked the man with the wide straw brim to ride in the cab. The older man thought I was talking to him, and pointed to the scabs on his back as reason why he shouldn’t ride in the cab. Eventually, the man in the wide brimmed hat sat in the back of the cab and we were off.
I asked the man with the wide brim how his day was. “E a mai le aso?”
The traditional response to this questions is “Manuia.” Occasionally you get a “Feololo”, okay. This guy gave me a straight-up “Leaga”. Sucks. “I’m homeless!” He said in Samoan.
The road to Lepa’s maumaga was surprisingly well-paved. I noted this, saying that it was much better paved than the road in Fausaga. The man agreed.
Climbing further up the mountain, the man with the wide brim pointed: “That’s my wife!”
He climbed out of the backseat, and three Samoan women climbed in. They’d just showered and their hair was still wet. They smiled sheepishly. They pointed to a tarpaulin tent 200 meters up the hill.
As they climbed out of the truck near their tent, Ruane handed me a melted candy bar, telling me to give it to the little girl. It was soft and melted, but I held it out the window and the girl accepted with a smile.
I was glad we pulled over, if only to deliver one family up the mountain.
Pictures below. I hope you’re well.
The Samoa Red Cross headquartes in Apia.
Trees with roots exposed in Lalomanu.
Dust is a big issue in villages on the southeast side of Upolu. The smell of decay is also becoming an issue.
Power lines in Lalomanu with, among other things draped from them, a fala hanging.