Fighting back from disaster on Samoa
BANNERS strung across the front of Apia businesses and signs in shopfront windows had a simple message: "God bless Manu Samoa".
Spirits were running high that the remote Pacific nation's revered team would do its country proud at the Rugby World Cup that was about to get under way in New Zealand.
On the eve of the team's departure, even Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, in his Teuila Festival opening speech, couldn't resist mentioning that his people's prayers were with the Manu (warrior) Samoa Team and their pride would soar when the team's war dance was performed during the tournament.
Samoans everywhere are still talking about the massive upset when Samoa beat the almighty Australian Wallabies in the Test at Sydney's ANZ Stadium on July 17 this year.
The victorious 32-23 scoreline screams from T-shirts in any market or souvenir store in Samoa.
So who knows how far Manu Samoa will go in the 2011 World Cup.
As no doubt any Samoan will tell you, God moves in mysterious ways.
For evidence of that, you need look no further than two years ago on September 29, 2009, when the unthinkable happened.
A rare double earthquake occurred in the Pacific "Ring of Fire", where continental plates meet in the Earth's crust.
Scientists believe the simultaneous earthquakes - measuring 8.0 and 7.9 - occurred under the ocean floor about 70km apart, with one "hiding" the other.
The subsequent tsunami smashed into Samoa, neighbouring American Samoa and Tonga.
While 32 people were confirmed dead in American Samoa and nine on Tonga's northern island of Niuatoputapu, Samoa fared the worst.
Nearly 150 died on the main island of Upolu, and the entire capital, Apia, had to be evacuated, with thousands moved to higher ground.
The tsunami ravaged 25% of Upolu's south and south-eastern coast - a prime tourism area boasting quirky beach fale accommodation.
But just as it had done in the early 1990s, when two consecutive cyclones (Cyclone Ofa in 1990 and Cyclone Valerie in 1991) and an outbreak of taro leaf blight hit Samoa's food staple and largest export, the Manu spirit prevailed.
The booming tourism industry started rebuilding a week after the devastating 2009 tsunami with the help of subsidies and concessional loan assistance from the Samoan, New Zealand and Australian governments.
Numbers of tourists continued to increase, with more than 128,000 that year, contributing nearly $120.8 million to the Samoan economy. This month, an Australian travel media party toured the fervently Christian archipelago for the 20th anniversary of the annual Teuila Festival, which is named after the national torch-like ginger flower and highlights the country's cultural and natural heritage.
Samoa was definitely in celebratory mode and it was clear that, like its rugby warriors, the proud Polynesians once again had picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and were ready to take on the world once more.
Some tell-tale signs of the tsunami remain - broken foundations where family fales once stood and have never been rebuilt; muddy water marks high up on buildings and structures; trees and shrubs growing over flattened and discarded debris.
But while the tragedy may have seen Samoans tighten their embrace around each another, the tears have been shed and the prayers have been said in the nation's 365 churches.
The mourning is over and life has returned to a new kind of normal. In two short years, a newer, stronger Samoa has emerged - one that is keen to welcome tourists once again.
As our big-hearted Samoa Tourism Authority tour guide Anthony McCarthy told us: "We have a saying in Samoa - 'Everything will work out'."
And so it seems. Village crops, including banana, taro and coconut palms, have been replanted and the always hard-working families have reinstated their colourful tropical gardens. Rainforest areas have regrown to be lush and green.
Affected businesses and resorts have been redesigned and taken on new, fresher looks.
Serenity has returned to one of the hardest-hit villages, Lalomanu.
The party atmosphere among backpackers and European millionaires alike at the laid-back, absolute lagoon-front Taufua Beach Fales belies the fact the tsunami destroyed the original accommodation business, claiming the lives of 14 members of the extended family that runs the complex.
Looking through the louvres of my fale, over the high tide lapping the steps to the beach with the view of monolithic Nuu Tele Island, I could not think of a more tranquil spot for a stressed-out Aussie to spend a relaxing holiday.
And tourism will surely be Samoa's saviour in years to come.
In its favour are the natural beauty of the islands, the unique Samoan culture, coupled with the genuine friendliness and hospitality of the people and their eagerness to please. As Mr Malielegaoi, who is also Tourism Minister, said in his Teuila Festival opening speech, "Tourism is a multi-faceted activity that touches everything under the sun."
And by staying true to itself, Samoa is bringing its own little ray of sunshine to Pacific tourism.
Hopefully, it will reap lucrative rewards as a result. God willing.