In 2009, I was in the middle of high school when a much-anticipated cultural experience trip to Samoa was organized. The trip was planned to a T with 3 teachers, a tour guide, a bus driver and 27 eager girls who for most, was the first lengthy time away from our families.
In the lead up to the trip, things were unsteady. It was the peak of the Swine Flu epidemic and whilst it had not yet touched our school grounds, everyone seemed to have a friend of a friend that had caught it.
Teachers had considered canceling the trip for fears we’d all end up sick once mixed with the crowd of strangers on our flight, but with all the warning signs – the trip went ahead.
The first few days were great. We visited a fish market, a cave pool, trekked up a mountain to John Louis Stevenson’s grave. We experienced traditional food, met with many Samoan families and learned a lot about life in Samoa.
On our third day in, things took a turn.
When a few girls were unwell, a teacher accompanied them to the local doctors whilst the rest of us visited the post office to write letters home.
Abruptly, we were all ordered to get back on the bus return to our hotel immediately.
There were all sorts of rumors flying around.
Was one of the girls in the hospital?
Had someone’s family member passed away?
Had our hotel been robbed?
No one really had any idea, until we returned to the hotel.
The Ministry of Health met us; covered in facemasks.
We were ordered to return to our rooms and not to leave until we were told. Hours passed, without lunch and without further instructions, my roommates and I were confused and concerned. We speculated what was happening.
Were we all in line for immunizations?
Were we going to be sent back to Australia?
Would we have to stay in here for the rest of the trip?
No one knew.
Cabin fever struck, girls from the room next door snuck into our hotel room when the MoH weren’t watching and together we panicked.
We cried, we prayed and we hung onto each other as we all hoped we’d get some news soon. Concern grew as we waited well into dinnertime until our hotel room was telephoned to meet in the dining room.
There, my roommates and I were swabbed and prescribed Tami flu. It was then that we were instructed that one of the girls had developed Swine flu-like symptoms. She was put into an isolated hotel room with food delivered to her door and no contact with anyone else.
As the days went on, more girls became sick and more girls had to be isolated. We were unable to leave our hotel. If the Samoan people were exposed to the flu, it would spread dangerously and rapidly as a result of their living conditions and their access to medical facilities.
Our hosts did their best to feed us and share cultural activities with us. We had an in-house church ceremony, basket making classes and Samoan song classes to lift out spirits. Things were hard as they were isolated too.
Another teacher from our school had to fly over to be our outside source. He delivered movies and board games to keep us entertained and became our food delivery service since we were unable to leave. He wasn’t allowed to have any contact with us, leaving our deliveries at the gate and us thanking him from our balconies.
On one of the many days in quarantine, a few of us went outside with a basketball we had requested from our ‘outside teacher’ and enjoyed some fresh air. It wasn’t long before the media were peaking through the gates of our hotel, photographing us. The next day we were on the front page of the Samoan newspaper.
Our parents were told not to be alarmed but it was days before we were all able to speak to them.
For the next 10 days, we were quarantined within the walls of our hotel.
Once taking all doses of our Tami flu tablets, we were able to return home with one last night in Samoa. We had dinner and a show at a local restaurant.
It’s safe to say that this was a trip we will never forget. We created memories we never thought we would and whilst the trip didn’t really go according to plan, we all left with a love for the people of Samoa even if we didn’t get a chance to meet too many.
Photo credit via Lindsay Thompson