September 25, 2012
Savai’i Island, Samoa
The Samoans say, “We eat until we get tired, then we sleep until we can eat again.” We think we are part Samoan, because we slotted into that routine without even blinking!
We’re not normally the types to lie by the hotel pool, but our Samoan days involved eating, sleeping, swimming, reading and then repeating the above.
For the first nine nights we stayed at Tanu Beach, about half way up the east coast of Savai’i, the larger but less-populated of Samoa’s two main islands. Since few people stay as long as us, we scored the honeymoon suite: a four-metre by three-metre fale – as basic as you can imagine, with thatched roof, woven palm leaf ‘louvres’ for walls and a mattress on the bare wooden floor, under a mosquito net. That’s it. No furniture. No loo or shower – that was a shared affair, though we never had to wait or even have company in the loo block.
But the ocean was exactly seven steps from the front of our fale (Damian measured it, of course), and it was the most perfect temperature and colour, lapping a white sand beach and framed by coconut palms. The only danger was falling coconuts.
For the most part, the weather was divine: hot, hot sun (achingly good after the chill of NZ) tempered by a light trade wind. We lay on our mattress or sat on the front step and stared out at every shade of opal stretching to an indigo horizon.
We woke to a breathless, ominous calm one morning and sat on the step, watching a storm brew over the course of a couple of hours. The lagoon changed from translucent turquoise, through deeper blues to a dark, bruised violet. The clouds piled up on the horizon and sheets of grey, drenching rain crossed the ocean and hammered the roof of the fale. We let the palm louvre walls down until there was just a ragged rectangle of storm left on view, and then had to retreat altogether.
Amazingly, our little palm-frond palace was totally watertight.
Ten minutes later, it was all over and the sun was out again.
Tanu Beach is a family-owned and operated affair, with about 30 family members actively involved, ranging from matriarchs to toddlers. The Chief and head of the family looks to be about 80. He and Mrs Chief make a daily tour through the property in their shiny four-wheel drive, peep-peeping the horn and giving a jolly royal wave to the punters.
Each evening, the dinner bell (a crow bar struck against an old gas tank strung from a breadfruit tree) is rung at 7.00pm. Dinner – which invariably included at least four varieties of starch – was served by the Chief’s daughter, Frida and granddaughters, dressed in satin and garlanded with palm fronds and fresh frangipani.
Sunday night was show night, with the whole family involved. Our teenage waitresses, Judyana and Lagni, performed shy, sinuous dances, accompanied by a couple of hilarious four-year-olds who kept jumping in front of the girls, striking muscle-man poses and fierce faces and stealing the limelight.
The young men of the family – bare-chested and grass-skirted – performed the Samoan version of a Haka and a truly impressive fire dance.
It was fantastic – even though it was ostensibly put on for the tourists, it didn’t have that awful ‘tourist cultural show’ feel – the Samoans are very proud and protective of their culture and talk a lot about their efforts to preserve it. The Chief and Mrs Chief were sitting to one side, looking very proud of their extended brood, and enjoying the show as much as the dancers and the audience.
Afterwards, the music was turned up, the lights were turned down and everyone – dancers and punters – got down and boogied.
We hired a car one day and circumnavigated the island. There’s just one road that follows the perimeter, diverting inland around the occasional lava field, passing deserted beaches and through neat, brightly painted villages where Samoans lay around, sleeping between eating, on the floors of open-sided fale fono, or meeting houses.
The road is flat, sealed and with little car traffic, but plenty of pigs with strings of tiny piglets, chickens with strings of tiny chicklets and the occasional skinny dog that would try to chase the car.
Each village was trying to outdo its neighbour in a Tidy Towns competition. There was no litter and the buildings were freshly painted in ice cream colours: raspberry, blueberry, mango and bubble gum. Houses are set in gardens full of crimson and gold cordyline; frangipanis ranging from fat and creamy to tiny and blood-red; hibiscus and heavily-laden breadfruit trees.
Family, culture and religion are the cornerstones of Samoan life and every village has the biggest and most ostentatious church the residents could build. Every flavour of missionary has been through here – Catholics, Methodists, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, the London Missionary Society – the list seems endless. And every one of them was seemingly a frustrated architect – and ambitious to boot.
The last three nights were back on the main island of Upolu, in a slightly more up-market hotel (we had our own bathroom for the first time in four months!) that was run by Luna, a local woman who was just the perfect hostess.
The hotel was just down the road from the large plantation-style house of Robert Louis Stevenson, who is regarded as something of a demi-god in Samoa.
We took the house tour with Margaret, perhaps the most delightful tour guide I’ve ever met, who clearly had a deep affection and respect for the great man. She pointed out his personal effects: “Imagine! If you had to carry these heavy travel trunks, you would use up all your kilos!”
She sang the requiem carved as his epitaph, a capella, in a pure, sweet voice: “…Home is the sailor, home from the sea, and the hunter home from the hill.”
“Please excuse me, but when I sing it in Samoan, I always cry,” she said.
Then she sang it in Samoan and cried, and so did we.
RLS died at 44, having written 13 books and numerous other works in the 14 years he’d been in Samoa. He was buried at the top of the mountain immediately behind the house. People came from all over Samoa and his casket was passed up the mountain from hand to hand.
We thought we’d just hike a little way up, since it was by then midday and hellishly hot, but of course, once started, we (Damian) had to go all the way. I had Margaret’s words bubbling around in my boiling brain, “Imagine! They carved out the path all the way to the top in just 24 hours! And so many people lining the path!”
Samoa used to be the last place in the world, but last year, the Samoans decided to jump the international dateline and now it’s the first place in the world. I just liked the idea of sitting on the steps of our fale, looking out into yesterday.
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