Finding contentment in Samoa after a global journey

By Mathias Huckert 13 May 2016, 12:00AM

The day was the 25th of November in 2011. It was when Dr. Rachael Dempsey’s life changed forever. 

On that day, she fell in love with Samoa. At that time of her life, she had been in Samoa for seven weeks. 

During the first weeks, she had not been going out to town, until a friend convinced her to finally leave her house. On her way to that friend’s car, she realised something. 

“If I step into that car, my world is going to change forever,” she recalled.

 So Rachael opened the door and stepped in, into her new life in Samoa. A life and time that she describes as “one of the greatest adventures” she has ever witnessed, and if there is only one reliable source for such a statement, Rachael Dempsey might be the one.

Born in Spain, with an English mother and an American father, Rachael spent her early years in both countries but she grew up in the state of Wisconsin in the US. 

“I was always a water-person,” she said. “My family owned all different kinds of boats throughout the years. We were always the first people on the water and the last people out of the water.”

This preference for water might have been a first omen for her future time in Samoa, were she came in contact with the sport of game fishing, being the second crucial happening that would seal her love for Samoa one day.

During her studies, Dr. Dempsey could finally no longer resist the wanderlust that would haunt her until her settlement in Samoa. So she went to South America, a trip that was originally planned to last for four weeks, but Rachael ended up staying there for two years, travelling through Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia and Panama. 

“During that time, it was the early 80’s and it was a rather unsecure situation to travel there, especially through Chile, where Pinochet was still in power. They had just had a market crash there and civil unrest. It was a very scary place.” 

A place so scary that Rachael wanted to escape, but her method in doing so was an even grittier one. “I decided to hitchhike back, the whole way through all the countries I had crossed.” 

It was during that hitchhike that Rachael felt more alive than she had ever felt before, with the presence of death being all around her constantly. 

“When I was trying to head out of Peru, the bus suddenly stopped and we were forced to walk, because the driver refused to drive on. Looking back, this was a funny situation, since as a young Western person I was adamant that the bus should bring me to my destination, because I had paid the ticket. 

“But then I looked around and realized that this wasn’t possible because all of the roads were flooded.” 

What Rachael, who would later become a climate change expert, did not know at that time, was that the flooding was caused by what is known nowadays as the El Niño effect.

Rachael continued her journey on foot, following the infamous Pan-American Highway and crossing treacherously muddy rivers of northern Peru, a distance stretching about 500 kilometres. 

Attached to the outside of her backpack (weighing in at about 13kg), she carried machetes, given to her as presents when she was able to help out people on the way or for good luck. 

“I was terrified, because I thought people would be scared of me, walking around with all these machetes sticking out of my bag, but it turned out that in South America, machetes are the most normal thing on earth.

“I had to sleep in villages where cholera went through witnessing the most moving demonstrations of humanity. 

“I saw a United Nations helicopter that delivered condensed milk for the people and I will never forget when I watched from behind me, as if in slow motion, how a man’s arm reached through and just ripped through these cardboard crate of milk, so desperately longing for something to eat for his family.”

But Rachael came back from her trip, that became only one of the many stations in her life. 

Having raised two sons mostly on her own, she lived and worked in Germany for twelve years, did research in Europe but also in the Republic of South Africa, Uganda and Tanzania (where she also wrote her dissertation). 

She received a PhD in Science and Education at a German University, and yes, she had to write it in German. After Germany, she moved back to the United States, where she faced the problems of the time. 

“I decided to return to the US, which turned out to be bad timing, because it was the time of 9/11 and I am an environmental scientist. At that time, nobody cared about the environment,” she said .

After almost four years, three years at Penn State University as a Senior Scientist and overseeing a consortium on climate change in America, Rachael decided to set foot on yet another continent of the world for the next six years: Australia. 

There, she worked with the government in the department of Environment, Climate Change, and the Murray Darling Basin Authority, where she helped to write the water sharing agreements between the different Australian states, a job that would have meant fulfilment for many people, but not so for Rachael.

“One day I had just had enough! I cycled home as fast I could and stumbled on a job ad, filled it out, and this happened to be the position that I got as Climate Change Advisor, here in Samoa.” 

But there was one other problem.

“I know a lot about the world. But honestly, I didn’t know anything about Samoa at all,” she confessed.

Still, she folded up the tents, took her two sons and moved to a country she could barely make out on a map. 

“I sat down with my two boys and we were surveying this map of the Pacific Ocean’s seabed, and found Samoa, a spot so tiny it could have also been a discoloration on the very edge of the map.”

As it turned out for Rachael and her children, this tiny spot became their home, but not until that crucial evening when Rachael went out with her friend. 

“I think this was the moment when I let my guard down. I surrendered, in a positive way, and through this surrender, surprisingly enough, I fell in love with the country.

“There are many places on our planet where people are just a very small link in a very long chain of cogs and wheels. But here, it doesn’t have to be that way. 

“There is a lot of opportunity for individuals to be a part of the solution here in Samoa, whereas in other societies, this can be very difficult. 

“These other societies might have more structures and rules and amenities that you can easily get comfortable with, and yes, you miss that. 

“But I’ve been here for four and a half years and when I went to the US for a visit last year, there simply was no “Malo, Rachael, how are your boys? Children playing on the street and no giggling!”.

This love for Samoa marks the end (or is it only another beginning?) of a long journey that Dr Rachael Dempsey has gone through in her life. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt any closer to a place than I do to Samoa. Perhaps this could also have happened to me in another place, but it simply didn’t. It has happened here in Samoa.”

By Mathias Huckert 13 May 2016, 12:00AM

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