|The Samoan Tsunami Victims Memorial outside Apia.|
Returning to Lalomanu in October 2010 was difficult. That’s an understatement, of course. Whichever words I might choose to describe the many different emotions in the many different places in Samoa a year after the tsunami and losing Clea will be meaningful to me, but I doubt they could be meaningful enough so that you, the reader, could actually understand them.
There were of course many instants full of pain, there were sorrowful moments; there were bizarre circumstances and truly uncomfortable situations. Yet there were also encounters that gave me hope that humankind is not as foolishly hopeless as I often rate it.
One of those moments took place when we stepped back into the Taufua resort on Lalomanu beach, rebuilt twelve months after the catastrophe of the early morning of 29 September 2009. I felt very uncertain about going back to that place; I had strange, mixed emotions, the fear of reliving the horror together with the need to revisit the place where so many people perished.
It was mid-morning and we had parked the rental car. We walked across the road; I could see a few tourists on the beach, near the new fales. Everything seemed almost normal, as it was on 28 September 2009. Inside the restaurant, a few more tourists were seated and gazed at the idyllic blue of the beautiful Southern Pacific.
I had taken a few steps inside the restaurant, uncertain about where to go, what to do. My mind was racing with contradictory messages: ‘Get the hell out of here!’, or ‘What will these people say when they see us? Will they recognise us?’. I hesitated.
Then my eyes met another pair of eyes and there was an invisible spark of recognition. I saw how one of the waiters at the resort dropped whatever it was he was doing and came straight towards us, his arms wide open and a sorrowful smile in his face. Otele had recognised us straightaway. He hugged me, I hugged him. I was crying, and I couldn’t give a damn what the few tourists at Taufua may have thought.
Otele Samuelu will probably never get to know this, but if he does, I hope he will appreciate my humble words of gratitude and recognition. That brief moment must have been one of the most heartening, enriching moments I have had in my lifetime. The fact that he recognised us and instantly dropped everything and came to embrace us speaks volumes about the kind of person he is.
What you, my patient reader, may not know is that Otele Samuelu is a true hero. But not the sport-type the media go on about. No. Otele Samuelu is a very humble sort of guy. Otele risked his life to try and save as many people as possible just before the tsunami struck and then jumped into the water to rescue the injured and the dead.
That day in October 2010 Otele told us he had been desperately knocking on the door of our fale, in the belief that we might still have been inside, asleep. Otele saved a New Zealand girl who was badly injured and who would have certainly died had he not acted so decisively. There were many other heroes in Samoa that day, but what I feel for Otele is special.
In his basic English, Otele explained how he still remembered our girl, our Clea, from the night before. He remembered Clea because she refused to shake his hand and frowned at him – how unusual of Clea!. He also remembered Alfie. He remembered it all. That night of 28 September he was serving dinner to the groups of papala’agi who, like us, were enjoying a wonderful, beautiful spot on the island of Upolu. There were many bottles of cold Vailima, some wine, cold soft drinks, cold water and delicious dishes on the tables. It was very noisy, but the atmosphere was one of friendliness, of camaraderie, of companionship. Hosts and guests were enjoying life, food, the ocean breeze, that magnificent view of an ocean that the next morning was to surge out into the land, a black ruthless monster of water that nothing but the hillside could stop.
I will always think of Otele as my friend. Even if I never see him again, I will always carry with me the memory of his hug that day in October 2010. I will always acknowledge that initially I was only able to respond to his hug with my tears, and I am not embarrassed to acknowledge that, not one bit.