Paul Alan Cox arrived alone on the remote Samoan island of Savaii when he was all of 19 years old. A devout Mormon sent by the church on a mission, he settled in Fatuvalu, a traditional village on the northern coast with fewer than 200 people. One day, a high chief named Aumalosi came to visit from nearby Letui village. The chief, who didn’t speak English, sat down in Paul’s hut and began uttering what seemed like strange noises, breaking down the Samoan language syllable by syllable and gesturing for Paul to repeat them. The chief came back day after day, month after month, walking the four miles each way, and the syllables turned into long passages. Paul learned that Aumalosi was reciting local proverbs and excerpts of speeches from high chiefs.

One afternoon when Aumalosi arrived at Paul’s hut, the young American was prone on his mat, very sick. By then, Paul could speak enough Samoan to apologize for being unable to do the lesson.

“I did not come for the lesson,” Aumalosi replied. He emptied the contents of a woven coconut-leaf basket onto the mat: condensed milk, tinned peaches, gingersnap cookies, and other imported delicacies. “Perhaps you are sick because you are not used to our food,” he said. Aumalosi had gone to the local district store and spent all his money on food the American could eat.

“I have spent much of the last 40 years trying to pay back the contents of that coconut basket,” Paul, now 63, says. Read more...