APIA, Samoa — The tsunami warning came a little after 3 a.m., in a phone call from my hotel’s front desk.
I was staying on the waterfront in Apia, the capital of Samoa, but I was supposed to go to American Samoa — a different island and a separate country — on the first flight out that morning.
The earthquake in Chile instantly changed those plans, triggering a tsunami forecast across the entire Pacific. All flights out of Apia were canceled, and all residents of low-lying areas were now rushing for higher ground.
Memories of Samoa’s own tragic earthquake and tsunami last fall were too fresh and painful for anyone to risk staying put.
On Sept. 29, an undersea fault had broken nearby, and killer waves hit both Samoas and nearby Tonga almost immediately; nearly 200 people died because they had no time to get away.
Now, barely five months later, warning sirens were going off all over Apia, and the road below my window — normally empty in the middle of the night — was busy with rushing cars, taxis and pickups, ferrying people to safety.
The sense of urgency was contagious. In the lobby, a nervous young desk clerk was trying to reassure equally nervous guests. “The important thing is not to panic,” he was saying. “All we can do is have faith.”
A night of waiting
I spent the rest of that night and much of the morning holed up with fellow guests in a house in the hills above town, waiting. The tsunami had been predicted to reach Samoa about 9 a.m., and as the hour approached, many of us went out on the verandah to watch for changes in the distant blue sea.
In the end, nothing happened, and the tsunami warning for our part of the Pacific was canceled at about 10:30 a.m.
The trouble with a disaster that doesn’t happen is that wise precautions start to look like pointless overkill. People who had been frightened start feeling a little silly, the way we do at the doctor’s when scary symptoms turn out to be “nothing.”
Relief quickly gives way to frustration. And now it did for me.
I had allotted only two days to visit American Samoa — the last Saturday and Sunday of a five-week trip — but I figured that would be enough, since its main island is only about 15 miles long and less than five miles wide.
But flights to American Samoa didn’t resume until Saturday afternoon, and most of my first day was gone before I finally got to my hotel in Pago-Pago, the straggly capital that sounds more exotic than it is.
By then, my rental car had been canceled, and car rental agencies — like most businesses in town — had closed. Unless I wanted to go broke on taxis, I was stranded. I was also tired, hungry and starting to get angry — at the tsunami in particular and the world in general.
The nearest open restaurant was a McDonald’s — this is, after all, AMERICAN Samoa — so I ordered a burger and fries and settled down in its air-conditioned familiarity to brood.
It was stupid to come, I was thinking. I should just give up and take the next flight back…
Shocked and grateful
Then the restaurant’s giant flat-screen TV caught my eyes. It was tuned to CNN’s coverage of the earthquake damage in Chile, which I hadn’t yet seen.
I watched and was shocked — not only by the extent of the disaster, but by one of those sudden shifts of perspective that travel so often provides:
Six thousand miles away, hundreds of people were dead, buildings had collapsed, roads and bridges had been destroyed — and I was sitting safely in a McDonald’s, whining because I didn’t have a rental car!
It made me see what I’d been blind to: Simply where I was and how good things really were.
I went out then, into the hazy light of a tropical afternoon, and walked along the harbor until my legs were exhausted, taking pictures and talking to everyone I met until the light ran out. I went to bed feeling grateful.
The rental car materialized early next morning, and I happily drove all day, from one end of the island to the other, around myriad palm-fringed bays that looked like travel posters, up and down steep green mountains, through pristine villages.
In other words, my visit to American Samoa turned into what I’d hoped for all along. But that hasn’t erased the shame I felt when I realized how selfish my thinking was. I had wanted to atone for that. Now, by writing this, perhaps I have.