I have always enjoyed exploring new places and cultures. It’s not about sightseeing but about embracing the wild diversity of the fascinating planet on which we live. In the course of my duties as Ambassador, I have been blessed to visit virtually all precincts of New Zealand from Cape Reinga to Bluff, travel to Samoa more than a dozen times, spend an intense week on Rarotonga, and even venture to Pago Pago, Vanuatu, and Manila. Many of my posts talk about my experiences on the road, and picking a favorite was impossible. So, I wrote the titles of the six top contenders on slips of paper, and drew one from my Māori Television baseball cap.

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MY FIRST VISIT TO SAMOA
March 18, 2010

I am just back from my first trip to Samoa to present my letter of credence from President Obama to the Head of State of the Independent State of Samoa, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi. I had been very much looking forward to the trip, not only because Samoa is such a beautiful place but because the visit offered a chance to relive the invigorating process of entering a country for the first time as a foreign Ambassador, as I had done earlier in New Zealand.

Fire-knife dance, in full swing. Please click through for image source.

Fire-knife dance in Samoa.

Those two “arrivals” were unlike anything else I have experienced. There is potent cocktail of high energy, anticipation, curiosity, apprehension, expectation, scrutiny, and ceremony that creates intense focus rather than intoxication.

As a former disputes lawyer, I very much appreciate that heightened degree of awareness and connectivity. (Being so constantly photographed and documented will take some getting used to, though.)

There is also a sense of great possibility when stepping into a new position in a new place. Life is too short to drive in ruts in the road – physically, personally, or intellectually — and sometimes the greatest needs and the most exciting opportunities are off road, in the weeds. To the occasional dismay of my new colleagues, I like exploring what’s out in the weeds as well as what has always been sitting in the middle of the highway.

My welcome at the Tuaefu House for the presentation of my credentials was particularly meaningful. I appreciated the cultural gravitas of the ava ceremony and was happy to be able to participate in Samoan instead of English. I felt the same tingle as earlier in Wellington when I addressed the Head of State with remarks on the status of the bilateral relationship and presented to him the letter in which President Obama asked that I be received as his personal emissary and U.S. Ambassador.

Tea with the Head of State, his Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi.

Tea with the Head of State, his Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi.

Upon accepting my credentials, His Highness and Masiofo Filifilia invited me to tea, which turned into 90 minutes of the most vigorous intellectual discussion that I have had in many years – ranging widely over topics such as strategies for reducing teen suicide, approaches to reconciling science and religion, the challenge of preserving culture without allowing it to calcify, Asia Pacific regional architecture, and the joys of organic gardening. I very much look forward to continuing those conversations with Their Highnesses.

My first-day schedule also included an enlightening conversation with Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi. In part because my top priority as Ambassador is youth outreach and education, I was then delighted to visit (along with our Deputy Chief of Mission) the wonderful Samoa Primary School, recently established and financed by its founders through personal credit card debt. Located outside of Apia, the school contains a computer lab that we had contributed so that the students could learn computer skills at an early age.

An open challenge is that Samoa Primary is a bit too far outside the city limits to have internet service, which seriously reduces the educational potential of the computer lab. We are working on a few ideas to address the problem, but if someone else has suggestions – or funds – for getting the school connected to the net, please let me know.

The new computer lab at Samoa Primary.

The new computer lab at Samoa Primary.

I also had the great pleasure of speaking at the opening of an Embassy-funded American Corner containing 1,000 new books and a computer lab at the Nelson Memorial Library in Apia, and of touring the National University of Samoa (NUS). A roundtable discussion about culture, politics, and aspirations that I had with a group of students at NUS was as useful in teaching me about Samoa as anything else I experienced during my trip.

I also made it a point, as I do whenever I travel, of visiting other venues and groups that don’t usually see foreign Ambassadors. For example, a colleague and I spent an interesting hour at the Samoa AIDS Foundation, which faces great challenges in the important work that it does. I unfortunately missed the Samoa Fa’afafine Association this trip but will be sure to meet with its board when I’m next in town.

My Embassy colleagues and I also joined the crew of the visiting U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Walnut in digging foundations for new fales at a Habitat for Humanity project in the tsunami-damaged village of Poutasi, Falealili on the south coast of Upolu. Kudos and thanks to Commander Jeffrey K. Randall for contributing to the effort (and for hosting a welcome reception for me that evening onboard).

Working up a sweat with the fleet.

Working up a sweat with the fleet.

Three days later the Chilean earthquake struck, and warning sirens went off across Samoa at 4:00 a.m. I joined the orderly evacuation of the city as Apia’s residents moved through the darkness to higher ground. I hope that the ill-informed ex post complaints from some commentators about the evacuation being “unnecessary and “wasteful” do not dissuade people from continuing to act prudently in the future.

Finally, I very much enjoyed visiting the big island of Savai’i. It was a pleasure meeting the U.S. Peace Corps volunteers based there. They are exactly what I had expected from a group of young Americans overseas – smart, articulate, committed, personable, irreverent, good humored, and focused on doing good things in a culturally sensitive way. We had a series of great conversations, and I look forward to seeing them again. If you see one of these folks on the street, give him or her a hug for me (and buy him or her a drink).

Yes, that's the real sunset and my new shirt, not special effects.

Yes, that’s the real sunset and my new shirt, not special effects.

I also had the pleasure and privilege of attending Sunday church services with one of the Peace Corps volunteers at the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa in the village of Sapapalii, at the spot where Christian missionaries first stepped onto Samoan soil. The choirs were wonderful, and the congregation was warm and inviting. Rev. Esera Esera graciously hosted me for lunch to introduce me to the village elders, which involved an extraordinary amount of food and great ceremony. I very much look forward to returning to Sapapalii whenever I am on Savai’i.

In closing, kudos to the Governments of New Zealand and Australia for deciding to underwrite public, parochial, and special needs school attendance fees in Samoa, thus essentially creating universal free primary and secondary education – one of the most powerful drivers in any society for improving living standards, creating personal opportunity, advancing human rights, elevating the status of women, and deepening economic development and equity. Building air-conditioned buildings for adults is often nice, but putting students at desks is always the real point.

Thanks, Samoa, for a great first visit. I look forward to returning soon and frequently. Fa’afetai tele lava.

During my trip to Samoa last week, I had the great pleasure of hosting a celebration to mark the 25th anniversary of the establishment of our Embassy in Apia, which opened its doors on November 15, 1988. I am a strong believer in commemorating shared history and important milestones, so I scheduled my final visit as Ambassador to coincide with the anniversary.

Guests begin to arrive at the anniversary reception.

Guests begin to arrive at the anniversary reception.

Of course, the relationship between our two societies stretches back much farther than a quarter century. American merchants and sailors began visiting Samoa more than two centuries ago, and the United States Government appointed its first commercial agent here in 1844. We established a diplomatic presence on May 17, 1856 when Jonathan Jenkins arrived in Apia as the first American Consul.

The United States immediately recognized the independence of Western Samoa (now known as the Independent State of Samoa) on January 1, 1962 after the United Nations voted to end the trusteeship administered by New Zealand. The Peace Corps came to Samoa in 1967, and approximately 2,000 volunteers have served here since then. Formal bilateral diplomatic relations were established between the United States and Samoa in 1971 when Ambassador Kenneth Franzheim arrived from Washington to present his credentials.

Briefly addressing the guests.

Briefly addressing the guests.

To celebrate the happy anniversary of the Embassy’s opening, we held a reception at our official Residence in Vailima with live music, food, drinks, and short speeches by the Prime Minister and me. Among the more than 200 guests in attendance were the Head of State Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, Minister of Justice Naomi Fiame Mataafa, Minister of Health Tuitama Leao Dr. Talalelei Tuitama, Zita Martell, Joe Annandale, NFL star Richard Brown, Sonya Hunter, and BlueSky’s Adolfo Montenegro, among others.

Conversation was spirited and continued for several hours, undampened by the driving rain that burst from the heavens as guests began to arrive. I enjoyed catching up with good friends and speaking about the many new projects launched over the past four years to build on the long, strong, warm relations between our two countries. I appreciated the generous remarks of the Prime Minister and was briefly flummoxed by a series of loud claps of thunder from the storm when I mentioned in my own remarks that this would be my last visit to Samoa as Ambassador.

Enjoying the party.

Enjoying the party.

All in all, the evening was a wonderful celebration of shared history and familial bonds between two close Pacific neighbors, and of the promising future that lies ahead for us.

Happy Holidays.

Thirteen new United States Peace Corps Volunteers were sworn in last week and have taken up residence in various villages across Upolu and Savaii where they will live and work for the next two years. I could not fly up to greet them because of Cyclone Evan, but my Chargé Chad Berbert tells me that the group is enthusiastic, excited to be in Samoa, happy to be finished with their intensive 10-week Pre-Service Training, and ready for the field.

Peace Corp Volunteers (from left to right) - Lou Chen, Teuila Pati (PCMO), Mildred Andrews, Bradley Boelman, Angelina Velarde, Allyson Miller, Chad Berbert (Chargé d’Affaires), Michelle Paul, Dale Withington (CD), Rebecca Haas, Kate Brolley, Allyson Fraser, Kiri Center, Madisen Rhodes, Joshua Fraser, Zach Wegner, Karen Acree (DMO).

Our new arrivals (from left): Lou Chen, Teuila Pati, Mildred Andrews, Bradley Boelman, Angelina Velarde, Allyson Miller, my Chargé Chad Berbert, Michelle Paul, PC director Dale Withington, Rebecca Haas, Kate Brolley, Allyson Fraser, Kiri Center, Madisen Rhodes, Joshua Fraser, Zach Wegner, and Karen Acree.

During their extended time in Samoa the volunteers will work on a variety of projects, with a strong focus on improving primary school students’ English literacy. Several of the volunteers are going to villages that were severely affected by the cyclone, and they will help repair and rebuild schools as well as teach students and assist their adopted communities in additional ways.

Because of recent events we did not have a public arrival ceremony. Instead, the volunteers were sworn on my behalf by Chad at our offices in Matafele and then immediately deployed. The new arrivals spent their first day with Chad and our Embassy colleagues helping the Samoa Victim Support Group (SVSG) clean out its facility at the old police building, which had been badly battered by the storm.

PC Group #84 Volunteers Michelle Paul, Angelina Velarde, and Allyson Fraser lending a hand with Cyclone Evan cleanup.

New arrivals Michelle Paul, Angelina Velarde, and Allyson Fraser get to work, Peace Corps style.

The work was quite a challenge because the mud which innundated SVSG was more than a foot high in some places. Getting SVSG’s facility back into shape was a priority because in addition to everything else it does, SVSG had tacked immediately into assisting Samoans impacted by the cyclone. We were happy to pitch in. You can learn more about SVSG in the profile I posted earlier this year.

Our new volunteers are part of an extraordinary progression. Since President John F. Kennedy founded the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961, more than 200,000 Americans have served in 139 countries, spending two years or more of their lives working on health, education, water, food security, and development projects that have opened new horizons for children, extended and improved people’s lives, and uplifted entire communities.

President Kennedy hands to Sargent Shriver (at left) the pen used to sign the act creating the Peace Corps. Click through for image source.

In the Oval Office in March 1961, President John F. Kennedy hands to Sargent Shriver the pen used to sign the act creating the Peace Corps.

For more than 45 years of its history the Peace Corps has been present in Samoa. During that time more than 2,000 Americans have served here, living and working in villages and making a strong postive difference.

Neither the Peace Corps nor the volunteers always get the recognition and support that they deserve, but President Kennedy’s goal wasn’t to attract attention, generate indebtedness, or win thanks. It was simply to help people.

For that reason I’m a vigorous partisan of the program. I think that more folks back in the United States and abroad should learn about its history and current work.

So, when you have a moment, please check out my pertinent prior posts, including a warm remembrance of founding Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver and notes about my visits with volunteers when I’ve been in Samoa.

I’ll end today with one of my favorite quotes from Sargent Shriver, spoken at the University of Notre Dame in that turbulent year 1968. The words could be the Peace Corps’ — and indeed America’s — motto:

We need to make a national examination of conscience. Why do we need a national examination of conscience? Because suddenly we Americans seem to be panicking. It’s time to stop moaning and wringing our hands. It’s true, the country is in a crisis. But we have always been in a crisis. We ought to thank God we are. Because then we always have something to test us — like a piece of steel that stays strong precisely because it is enduring great pressure.”