Apia, the squalid harbor town of Western Samoa (but it
was also squalid a hundred years ago in the heyday of its most famous resident,
Robert Louis Stevenson), seemed to me mournfully rundown, with broken roads and
faded and peeling paint on its ill-assorted wooden buildings, and Samoans rather
gloatingly rude and light-fingered, quoting the bible as they picked your
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There were hardly any beaches here, too. But no matter how misbegotten
and wayward an island in Oceania happened to be, it always had stars in its sky.
On the nights without rain I sprayed myself with insect
repellent, and went out to the shore to look at the stars.
Even in Africa I had never seen such a profusion of
stars as I saw on these clear nights on Pacific isles - not only big beaming
planets and small single pinpricks (plenty of fat blinking stars and masses of
little peepers), but also glittering clouds of them - the whole dome of the sky
crowded with thick shapes formed from stars, overlaid with more shapes, a
brilliant density, like a storm of light over a black depthless sea, made
brighter still by twisting auroras composed of tiny star grains - points of
light so fine and numerous they seemed like luminous vapor, the entire sky hung
with veils of light like dazzling smoke. Even on a moonless night you could read
or write by these stars, and they made night in Oceania as vast and dramatic as
day. that was how people had migrated here to Samoa, from Vava'u in Tonga,
culturally its nearest neighbor: the old Polynesian voyagers had made complex
charts of these stars - star maps - and travelled great distances with them in
their canoes, star-gazing and navigating. this was accomplished 1,000 years
before the Europeans - Portuguese in this case - ventured out and discovered the
Azores 900 miles into the Atlantic. The Polynesians would have guffawed at such
timidity, though these days they are a seasick-prone people.
With daybreak the starry enchantment vanished from
Apia, and once more it looked rusted and neglected. And it was much starker on
Sundays, a day observed as fanatically in Samoa as in Tonga, for on Sundays the
town was deserted. Elsewhere on Upolu, Samoans with big brown chins and fleshy
noses, carrying Bibles, and dressed all in white - white dresses, white shirts -
headed for church. In Samoa, as in other Polynesian places, I found myself
muttering against missionaries and generally rooting for heathens. Pacific
Christians were neither pacific nor Christian, nor were they particularly
virtuous as a result of all their Bible-thumping. Religion only made them more
sententious and hypocritical, and it seemed the aim of most Samoan preachers to
devise new ways for emptying people's pockets. I had arrived on a Sunday - day
of obstacles. It was impossible to rent a car or do much else on a Samoan Sunday
- the Sabbath had to be kept holy. somehow, taxis circumvented this restriction,
even if buses could not. I took a taxi and I looked around the island for a
place to launch my boat. I was eager to paddle to a smaller island or even a
village. I could not blame Apia for being awful. Apia was miserably typical.
Except for bright little Port Vila in Vanuatu, no city or town in the whole of
Oceania was pleasant. Islanders were not urbanized at all - they became antsy
and deracinated in anything larger than a village and, without the means to be
self-sufficient, they generally made a mess of their towns. They were habituated
to their own fruit trees and to crapping on the beach and flinging their garbage
into the shallow lagoon. Disorderly towns were not so surprising. apart from
Melanesia, where immigrant islanders were considered a nuisance and a social
problem, no island in Oceania was industrialized and, except for tourist hotels,
few buildings on Pacific islands were higher than three storeys.
Pacific islanders of the traditional sort, as Samoans
were, seemed to function best in families, and in order to thrive they needed a
hut or a bungalow with a little vegetable patch by the sea. Samoan towns were
worse than most, and included Carson, a suburb of Los Angeles, where there
were more Samoans than in the whole of the Samoan islands and obnoxious poses
(there were also branches in New Zealand) of the violent street gang, SOS - the
Sons of Samoa. In America, the Samoans' large physical size served them well in
football (nearly every professional football team in the NFL had its Samoan
tackles), and some had succeeded as sumo wrestlers or musicians - the Boo-Ya
Tribe, a quintet of shaven-headed fatties, had made a fortune in Los Angeles
imitating black rappers. Samoans were whispered about in the Pacific for being
big and bull-like and, though placid by nature, were said to be capable of
Samoan stories are retailed throughout the Pacific -
the Samoan who casually snapped someone's arm in two, the Samoan who ripped off
a man's ear, the Samoans who sat in front of a house and then mooned the
occupants when they were told to push off, the Samoan who bit off an assailant's
fingers, the Samoan who went haywire in the disco, crushing a hairdresser's
skull ("Because she touched my plastic toy," the Samoan explained in his defense, in court). In the "Samoans Too Big to Fit" category, there are endless
tales of airlines having to unbolt seats or remove armrests in order to
accommodate Samoans, too big for telephone booths, too big to fit through
doorways, too big for bar stools, for bicycles, for toilet seats. A truthful
friend of mine travelling on Hawaiian Airways out of Pago Pago witnessed the
mounting terror of flight attendants when a Samoan man, urgently wishing to
relieve himself, could not fit through the lavatory door. The employees'
desperate remedy was to hold up blankets to create a wall of privacy for the
Samoan, who stood just outside the lavatory and pissed in a great slashing arc
through the door and into the hopper.
The sympathetic Robert Louis Stevenson liked the
Samoans for being unpretentious family people, and he managed them by cozying ui
to the chiefs and patronizing his hired help. the islanders liked being taken
seriously by this raffish and yet respectable palagi, who said "Some of
the whites are degraded beyond description," but it is clear that Stevenson kept
his distance. "he says that the Tahitians are by far finer men than the
Samoans," the bumptious New Englander Henry Adams wrote, after he had visited
Stevenson in Apia in 1891; "and that he does not regard the Samoans as an
especially fine race, or the islands here as specially beautiful," yet Stevenson
had done more than put Samoa on them. He was the magician that some writers are
- people who, by using a specific location as a setting, lend it enchantment. A
place that is finely described in a novel by such a person is given a power of
bewitchment that it never really loses, no matter how much its reality changes.
Not only Samoa, but other islands and, in a sense, the whole of the South
Pacific, is a clear example of this sort of transformation because it has been
used so effectively as a setting b y writers as various as Melville, Stevenson,
Somerset Maugham, Rupert Brooke, Mark Twin, Jack London, Pierre Loti, Michener,
and even Gauguin in his only book, Noa-Noa. Fiction has the capacity to
make even an ordinary place seem special. the simple mention of the name of a
place can make that place become singular, never mind what it looks like.
I sometimes felt as though I was part of that process
of improvement or transformation, too - in spite of my natural skepticism -
because I felt such relief, such happiness, paddling my boat through a lagoon
under sunny skies. And I suspected that when I came to write about having come
to the Pacific in such distress, needing the consolation of blue lagoons, my
subsequent relief would perhaps transform a buggy drowsing island into a happy
isle. But Robert Louis Stevenson had the whole world to choose from. He had
traipsed through Europe and Britain, he had bummed across America, he had said
throughout the Pacific, from California to Australia and back. The King of
Hawaii, Kalakaua, personally urged him to settle on Oahu. Instead, Stevenson
chartered a schooner and sailed to scores of islands, seeking the perfect place,
which he had depicted long before, as a young man, in a verse he had written in
I should like to rise and go
Where the golden apples grow;
Where below another sky
Parrot islands anchored lie.
No golden apples in Samoa, and no parrots. There were
quarrelling islanders and drunken palangis. The Stevenson family arrived
in the rainy season, when Apia is at its most dismal - hot, clammy, humid,
muddy, with gray skies. Yet Stevenson homed in on it, knowing that he had few
years left to live (in the event, only four). So what was the attraction of
In a word, the postal service. Other islands were
prettier - the high islands in the Marquesas overwhelmed Stevenson with their
rugged beauty, and the atoll of Fakarava in the Tuomotus was bliss - the
Stevenson family rented a cottage on the lagoon. But on these islands it could
be many months between mail-boats. In Samoa the mail came regularly, at least
once a month, via New Zealand, or else from ships in the Sydney to San Francisco
run. Stevenson was a zestful letter-writer and, as a novelist who depended on
serializing his books in magazines, he needed a reliable postal service in order
to make a living. That settled it, because the mail was his lifeline.
Afterwards, when he became acquainted with the island, he found ways of fitting
in and even becoming predominant. The Samoan social structure of clan chiefs and
drones and hangers-one and peasants and pot-wallopers was familiar enough to an
upper-middle-class Scotsman. Partly through insinuation and partly through
recruitment, Stevenson became important in Samoan society. This allowed him to
live like a Scottish laird among obsequious chieftains - and that suited him
best of all. he was not a snob, though he had the Scottish love of stern
affectation and obscure formality, and especially the Highland proclivity for
fancy-dress at ceremonials: all the household staff at the house Vailima wore a
Royal Stuart tartan lavalava - the nearest thing in Oceania to a kilt.
An early image of Robert Louis Stevenson's
house in Samoa
The power and the dignity of lairdship Stevenson found
very handy. He made the most of his four years in Samoa - the late 1880s and
early 1890s were years of disruption on the islands. (Britain and Germany vying
with America for control of the archipelago), and Stevenson - who was partisan,
on the Samoan side - recorded it all in his A Footnote to History. The Samoans
were masters of manipulation - they had made a fine art of obligating outsiders
as part of the family and then taking them for all they were worth, while at the
same time making these suckers feel important. blending Samoan traits with those
of the Scottish Highlands, Stevenson returned the favor and bamboozled them into
believing they were part of his big tangled family - his elderly widowed mother
had joined them, his wife's two children by her first marriage, his
stepdaughter's drunken husband - it was all fa'a Samoa. he was Laird of
the Manor as well as their historian and tusitala, "write of stories."
Stevenson in Samoa is a tremendous success story, a masterful example of forward
planning - and everyone profited by his perfect choice of island: his family,
his readers, the Samoans, and Stevenson himself. As Byron had done in Greece, he
had found a great place to die.
I stopped by Vailima, Stevenson's house, but was sent
on my way by an officious sentry who told me it was occupied by a paramount
chief and not open to the public.
"You can visit his grave," the man said.
"Gravestones depress me," I said. They were for
pilgrims and hagiographers. I wanted an inkling of his spirit. It was the house
he had built, and where he had lived, that I wanted to see - there were always
vibrations of past tenants in houses. Why should I want to climb all morning up
Mount Vaea to see the little plot which contained his moldering bones? After a
tour of the north coast, the taxi-driver dropped me back on Beach Road, the
empty main street of Apia, and demanded extra money.
"Because I waited for you."
He meant he had waited while I had walked fifty feet to
a possible launching place on the coast.
I said, "Don't be silly," and gave him only the taxi
"You not paying me," he said, muttering darkly. "I
going to the police station."
"What are you going to do at the police station?"
"Tell them. I waited."
"How long did you wait?"
"A long time," he said, and looked away. finally he
said, "Fifteen minutes."
"What is your name?" I asked.
"Is fifteen minutes a long time in Apia, Simi? I would
have thought it was a very short time."
Simi said nothing.
"How much more money do you want?"
I handed it over.
The next day, I drove to the ferry landing on the
northwest corner of the island, Mulifanua Wharf, but there was no ferry to
Savaii that morning and no one knew when it might leave. I went farther west and
at a little bay was set upon by five fierce guard dogs - German shepherds, the
sort that, spitted and grilled, would be considered the high point of a Tongan
feast. A German in an expedition hat appeared and called them off. His name was
Stefan. the company he worked for had been granted a lease on this neck of land
by the owner, the head of state for life, Malietoa Tanumafili II, who lived in
Stevenson's grand house, Vailima. Stefan was supervising the building of ten
traditional huts, called fales.
"I saw this beach from the road yesterday," I said,
"when everyone was at church. They pray a lot here, eh?"
"If you steal a lot, you pray a lot," Stefan said.
He confirmed my impression that there were very few
beaches on Upolu. There were more on Savaii, he said. I told him that it was my
intention to paddle there, across the Apolima Strait.
"That's very dangerous," he said.
It seemed to me that people on Pacific islands were
inclined to say a thing was dangerous when they knew very little about it, but I
intended to ask a local fisherman just the same. Stefan showed me around the
thatched-roof huts at the edge of the lagoon. He said the huts were not finished
but that I could stay, for a fee. The sky was gray and the lagoon was dark and
muddy, but it was a pleasant enough place to stay - quiet, remote from Apia -
and a good spot to launch from.
I moved in and assembled my boat, and that became m
base for a time. My first paddling objective was an island, Manono, how it was
not a fixed island at all, but rather a piece of land, a sort of floating
fortress owned by Chief Lautala of Fiji. The chief had sailed it to Samoa in the
year dot in order to fight and conquer the Samoans. It was a bloody battle, and
though he lot it he inflicted so many fatalities on the Samoan side that the
numerous dead gave an identity to the floating piece of land - Manono means
"numerous." I drank beer that night in my hut and listened on my short-wave
radio to what turned out to be the collapse of Iraqi resistance in Kuwait - an
all-out rout of a raggle-taggle, underfed and demoralized army of cowards and
persecutors. And after that, when the clouds passed in the sky, I looked at the
stars - ignorant star-gazing providing for me one of the most vivid experiences
I had, travelling through Oceania. And I was reminded that such stars were the
best part of being in a wilderness or an ocean - and could take the curse off
even so sorry a place as Apia.
It was windy when I slipped into my boat the next
morning, preparing for Manono. Stefan repeat4ed that my real problem was the
current in the middle of the channel - because of an incoming tide I might be
swept onto the reef to the southeast. At such times in Oceania, I always
reflected on my paddling between Falmouth and Martha's Vineyard in the summer -
a greater distance, stronger wind, less predictable current, and much more
irascible and inhospitable natives. With that thought in mind I set off and
paddled hard for an hour or so until I was within half a mile of Manono - I had
passed through a strong but not obnoxious current. Beyond it I could see the
tilted volcano cone which was Apolima Island. In the distance, about nine miles
away, was the island of Savaii - another good paddling trip and a place I wished
to see. All that was visible on Manono from my kayak were a profusion of
outhouses on stone jetties - some of them hanging over the sea, others poised
above the shoreline. They were called by various names - fale ki'o, "shit
house," or fale sami, "sea house," fale laititi, "little house,"
or the more euphemistic fale uila, "lightning house."
Closer to the island, the Samoan houses that were
visible were traditionally made and as symmetrical as on Upolu, with open sides,
but the whole thing had the general shape and contours of a Spanish
conquistador's helmet. A breeze wafted through the hut in the day, and at night
the rolled-up woven blinds were let down, and served as walls. the huts of
Western Samoa were attractive and comfortable structures, and were stronger than
any huts I saw elsewhere in the Pacific. It has been said - by Margaret Mead,
among others - that the Samoan extended family, the aiga, is a closely
knit and effectively interdependent household; and I wondered to what extent
this well-made hut played a part. Certainly it was able to house many people -
and with these open sides it was always possible to see children playing inside,
or women weaving, or people talking or napping - an atmosphere of activity or
repose, seemingly at times almost idyllic. I heard roosters crowing and children
screeching, but - unusually for a Pacific island - no barking dogs. About eight
or ten children met me on the rocky shore as I paddled to the edge and got out,
below the village of Faleu. there were chanting "Palangi! Palangi!" and
they quarrelled among each other as they vied to help me put my boat on the
village canoe rack.
Foreigners walking, cycling or riding motorbikes
through (Samoan) villages will frequently be considered moving targets by
villagechildren, and stones will fly, a current guidebook to Samoa
advised. They will often surround you mockingly and demand money or sweetsand will make great sport of trying to upset you. This gratuitous
hostility I found to be generally the case, from that day onwards, and
throughout my time in whatever island in Samoa. Samoans could be merciless to
outsiders. It was bad for a man and worse for women. A stranger was persecuted
precisely because he or she was a stranger - alone, unprotected, unfamiliar with
the language, uncomprehending, easy to confuse, not part of any family,
unconnected, weak, an alien, the perfect victim. You were mocked if you became
angry with your persecutors (who always outnumbered you), and if you attempted
to be conciliatory they took this as a sign of weakness and were worse. the
conflict - a wicked game - was unwinable. these children pestered me from the
moment I stepped ashore on Manono, but I thought it was probably better not to
warn them about stealing or damaging my boat, because I didn't want to give them
any ideas - knowing that I was concerned, I guessed it might be the very thing
they would do.
I walked east, counter-clockwise, around the island,
ignoring the screeching kids and making a point of talking to older people. the
teenage boys I passed were fairly monotonous in their mockery, but I walked on,
leaving these Christians behind. In spite of their ill-nature, the island seemed
traditional - and very likely there was something in their ill-nature that was
traditional, too. All explorers in the Pacific, from Abel Tasman in 1642 onward,
had to confront thievery, silliness, aggression, greed, and rapacity. Perhaps
Samoan mockery was nothing new, but it was rather boring to have to endure this
and then have to listen to either a travel writer or someone at the Samoan
Visitors' Bureau extolling the virtues of Samoan hospitality. Of all the places
I had travelled in my life, Samoa was one in which one needed letters of
introduction or the names of natives. Otherwise, you were condemned to being
alienated. But alienation was my natural condition. As for their hostility, I
kept strolling and watched my back.
"We are traditional here on Manono," a man told me,
when I asked him to characterize the island. "We relate the stories of our
This sounded fine, but when I asked him to tell me a
few, he went blank - I suspected he meant family histories rather than island
legends or myths. Another said, "Manono is a good place, because we have no air
pollution,." We were looking in the direction of Upolu. I said, "Is there air
pollution on Upolu?"
"No," he said.
The fact was that the nearest air pollution was perhaps
five thousand miles away in Los Angeles.
"And we have no buses."
"Is that good or bad?"
"Good. Buses have fumes. They cause dust."
It would have been something of a miracle to find a bus
on an island with no roads. the path around the island was at its widest not
more than twelve inches. A man I met on this circumambulation said he was a
minister of the church. But his necktie - ties were required among the clergy -
was lettered Malua Theological College. he admitted that he was still a divinity
student and that he had come to Manono to practice his preaching. While the
younger people were almost uniformly mocking (Palangi! Palangi!) the
older ones were correct - neither friendly nor distant.
There are complex rules governing greetings in Samoa,
as well as extensive aspects of etiquette, including many prohibitions. A
stranger, unfamiliar with the Samoan way, is therefore a sitting duck. the
Samoans had not seen many tourists, and their attitude seemed to be that if you
were part of the family you were left alone, and if you were a stranger you were
fair game. I was followed by more kids, and always I heard the word palangi
in their muttering. I usually turned to face them.
"yes, I am a palangi. Do you have a problem?"
In a shouting, jeering way one would say, "Where are
you coming from?"
"I think Japan," one would say.
This they regarded as very funny.
"Do I look Japanese?"
A woman sidled up to me at the edge of a village and
said, "What you religion? You a Cafflick?"
'I said, "Yes, in a way."
"Come with me," she said, and brought me to her house
and showed me little shrines and holy pictures tucked into the caves of her
fale. She was like an early Christian in the furtive way she revealed these
items to me.
"I am the only Cafflick in Salua," she said. "Please
stay with me."
This seemed rather awkward, but she said that her
husband was on his way back home and that he would be pleased. Her name was
Rosa, she was twenty-five, and had five children. Her husband returned soon
after, and though I half expected him to be angry over finding me alone with his
wife - it is very bad form in most societies - he did not take it amiss. He
repeated the invitation to stay.
I said I had other plans, and when he told me he had
just been fishing, I asked him whether he ever went to Apolima, the island
beyond the reef, two or three miles from Manono.
"We don't fish at Apolima. It is too deep."
They poled their canoes through the shallow reef and
never ventured into water deeper than the length of their poles.
Continuing my walk, I was accosted half a dozen times
and asked, "You have a wife?" and "What is her name?" and "Where is she?" -
questions that always presented difficulties to me.
But I could see that the island had a pleasant side. It
was backward-looking, with its coconut palms and its mango trees, its
well-tended gardens and its tidy huts set on well-made house platforms, all of
black boulders, the sort of stonework that is found in the most traditional
parts of Polynesia. The wood-carvings in Polynesia did not interest me. The
music I found ineffectual - though the drumming could be attractive, when it was
strong and syncopated. The cannibalism was just a story of goblins, meant to
give you the willies - very few people could vouch for it, and little of it had
been documented. But two aspects of Polynesian culture always impressed me - the
old navigational skills of the sailors (and canoe-building in general_); and the
magnificent stonework - altars, dancing platforms, house foundations, plinths
for statues, and the statues themselves (though there were no statues in Samoa;
there had ever have been). In Samoa, both of these skills had vanished - there
were no more navigators nor any stonemasons. These boulders had survived from an
After two hours of circling the island, I swat on a
stone near the shore and began scribbling notes, when I was approached by a
woman - I took her to be in her twenties. She was friendly. We talked in general
about Manono. then she said her fale was nearby and did I wish to see it?
I equivocated until she said, "I want you to see something very important."
"Show me the way," I said.
Her name was Teresa, and although she was twenty-seven,
she was not married. The kids fooling around the hut were her brothers and
sisters and more distant affines. Was I hungry? Was I thirsty? Was I tired?
Teresa galvanized the household and I was given a cup of tea and, when I said I
had liked the palusami I had had in Tonga, I was served what I was told
was the real Samoan thing - taro leaves mix3ed with coconut cream, then wrapped
and steamed in banana and breadfruit leaves. With this was a disk of hard gray
"In Tonga they put corned beef inside," I said. "But I
"Sometimes we make with pisupo," Teresa said,
using he Samoan word for corned beef, an adaptation of "pea soup," which
was also shipped to the islands in cans. While I was eating, Teresa changed her
clothes, from a dress to a T-shirt and shorts. The light was failing, too - it
was certainly too late to paddle back to Upolu - and rain was softly falling,
whispering against the triangular leaves of the taro plants and making them nod.
So far there had been no further mention of the thing
she wished me to see. but after a while Teresa removed it from the pocket of her
shorts. It was an American Express traveler's check for a hundred dollars -
quite a lot of money in Manono Tai.
"Where did you get this, Teresa?"
"A man gave it to me. But the bank refuses to cash it."
Of course: the check lacked the necessary second
signature. As for the first, even holding the check near the bright pressure
lamp I could not read the name.
"Who was the man?"
"He was staying here. For a week."
"Yes. From Germany."
We talked about the check. I explained the niceties of
traverler's checks - the need for another signature - and that she would have to
send the check back to the man so that it could be cashed.
"He said he wanted to marry me," Teresa said, in a tone
"Maybe that's why he gave you the money."
"No. he was here more than a week. He did not give us
anything," Teresa said.
"What about this check? You said he gave it to you."
"Yes. But I did not want to marry him," she grumbled.
That was another trait of the Samoans - evasion that
expressed itself as tetchiness.
"He was too old. Born in 1946, something like that."
It was now very dark beyond the reach of the lamp, but
in that darkness children were seated with older people, all of them watching me
with bright eyes.
"How old is too old?"
Teresa gnawed her lower lip, and then said, "He was too
old for games."
"What kind of games?" I asked. Though I knew.
The lantern hissed, leaking light everywhere.
"Night games," she said softly, her voice just a
whisper more than the sound of the lantern.
After that, again and again, I remember the way she
lowered her head, but still watched me closely, and spoke those words deep in
her throat. I asked her again about the man. His name was Kurt, she said. He was
a teacher, and he did his teaching in various countries (Cheechah, she
said, and cheeching. I was trying to get used to the Samoan accent.) He
love her, she said, but she disliked him.
I said, "He might be too old for some night games but
not for others."
This observation interested her greatly.
"Which ones do you mean?"
But at this point her father interrupted me and asked
where my boat was.
I told him it was in Faleu.
"The children will destroy it," he said, without much
"Why would they do that?"
"Because you don't have a family."
I heard that explanation many times in Samoa: having a
local family gave you status and protection. Samoans quite freely co-opted
strangers and made them part of the family - and you didn't need to be dusky,
with webbed feet and a big belly - palangis qualified, as long as they
were endlessly generous, but if you were alone on the islands and did not know
anyone you would be victimized.
"And because they are stupid in that village," the
father went on. It was a Samoan trait for them to speak off of each other, so I
was not convinced that my boat was in danger. But it was too dark to go looking
for it, in any case. That would have to wait for the morning.
"Everything is no espensive here," Teresa said,
appropos of nothing - or perhaps apropos of the check.
She was looking at the lantern.
"The fuel. so espensive."
I said, "There is a Chinese proverb that says, 'It's no
use going to bed to save candles. The result will be more children . Get it?"
Then, seeing the others drifting away, she asked me
again about the other games that the man might or might not play.
In the end, the sleeping arrangement was modest, though
all night the fale purred with the snores of her large family. I slept
beside the small boy Sefulu, whose name meant Ten.
In the dark I worked it out. The man, Kurt, had stayed
for a week or ten days. he pestered Teresa to marry him, though he had come
empty-handed and had not given them any money for his stay. At some stage,
Teresa had boosted the traveler's check - extracting it from his rucksack - but
it had been in vain: the bank would not cash it without the other signature. She
now realized that she needed a signature. Was she asking me to do that?
Yet I was more concerned about my boat than her
possible thievery, and so at darn I hurried back to Faleu to look at it.
Children were playing near it, as though waiting to pound, but the boat was
over breakfast - more taro, mashed this time - Teresa
took out the check and frowned at it.
I said, "Do you want me to sign it?"
"If you don't mind."
There was no date, and the man's own signature was no
more than a squiggle.
What to do? They had been kind to me, even if they had
had an ulterior motive. And though the money had been thieved, it had in a sense
been owned by a tight-fisted palangi who had lived with them. Indeed, I
had accepted their hospitality too. So perhaps I owed? Forgery seemed a small
matter, and yet it interested me. Without the signature, the check was
worthless. And there was always the chance that the forgery would be detected,
in which case Teresa would be in trouble - and was that my affair?
I could be a totally disinterested forger, a sort of
philanthropic felon. I sat there on the steps of the fale practising the
squiggly signature in my notebook, and then I placed the check on my lap and,
watched by her family and the neighbor kids - I executed the signature on the
traveler's check - very well, I felt.
"It's perfect," I said.
"It is close." She squinted critically at it.
Everyone crowded close to have a look.
"Put the date," Teresa said.
I wrote the date, as Kurt might have.
"Will it get stale?"
"Did you say 'stale'?
She said yes, she had, and so I explained the nature of
traveler's checks, how they never went stale, how she could wait a while before
cashing it - thinking that I could be safe and out of the way on another island
The fishermen said a strong current ran through the "Apolima
Strait, which separated Upolu and Savaii, the two largest islands of Western
Samoa. I I had not been alone I would have risked the trip - I was almost
halfway across when I had been at the far side of Manono: I didn't see a
problem. The fishermen did not cross the strait in their canoes, and yet they
warned me. Did they know something? I heeded the warning, and with regret took
the rusty ferry across to Savaii, with my packed-up boat among my other bags.
"The worse Samoans and the worst palangis come to Apia," a schoolteacher
named Palola told me. "All the failures. but they never get together."
His description made the place sound more interesting
than it was. In Third World dereliction made it look simply unsightly,
neglected, abused, and even the sea was hidden from it. From the harbor's edge,
where water lapped feebly at the shore, the reef was a great distance and the
lagoon was gray and turbid, the water the ghostly gray color of dead coral.
"It is worse in Pago," Palola said. he was polite and
well-spoken, on the ferry to visit his folks in Papalaulelei. No sooner had I
made my mind up that these people were brutes than I met a person who was decent
and restrained, dignified and helpful, among the most hospitable I had ever met
in my life.
"The main difference is in the attitude of people," he
said, trying to answer my question comparing Western Samoa, an independent
republic, with American Samoa - a territory belonging to the United States.
"Take the attitude towards money. If we get money we spent it on our family, on
our house, or food and necessities. In American Samoa they use it to buy a car,
or for entertainment. They spend it on themselves. They care less about the
"Why is the family so important?" I asked, pressing
"Because it helps you - it looks after you. It is your
life," Palola said.
"Is the house part of your life?"
"Yes. If you go to Pago and see a fine house you will
probably discover that the people in that house came from Western Samoa. We are
still following our old ways."
"But why is Apia in such bad repair? And the rest of
the island isn't much better."
"It is getting worse. We had a hurricane last February
Everyone spoke of this three-day gale which wrecked
houses and uprooted palms and destroyed roads with high tides and floods. but
that was over a year ago and the wreckage remained.
"- we have not rebuilt it," Palola was saying. "We have
no money. And the government is also to blame."
The family looked after itself but was indifferent to
the plight of other families, and it was no concern of a family if there were
tree trunks and splintered houses up the road. The breakdown of the family in
American Samoa (the main island of Tutuila was only forty miles east of here)
was said to be the cause of the strife there. Depending on who I was talking to,
Samoans either said they were one people, or else as different as they could
possibly be. "We have a different language!" one man insisted. "Sapelu
means bush knife in Western Samoa and shovel in American Samoa. Ogaumu
mans an oven here but it means a pot over there. We have different words for
east and west!" Great stress was laid on the fact that money mattered more in
American Samoa than here, its poor cousin. I had a standard island question,
which I tried to remember to ask everywhere I went. Why are islands different
from the mainland?
Palola said, "Because you are free on an island, and
you can control your own affairs."
He went on to say that he had visited his brother in
Auckland and that he had been too frightened to drive his brother's car.
"Everything was so fast there," he said, meaning the traffic, the marching
people on the sidewalk, the way they spoke and did business. He had feared it
unendurable. No one was seasick on the ferry ... I had assumed that, being
Polynesians, they would be puking their guts out, even on this half-hour run. On
the other hand, they were none too healthy, and they made their way onto the
jetty with a side-to-side duckwalk that was characteristic of these obese
people. They valued fatness, and to make themselves physically emphatic they ate
massive amounts of bananas, taro, breadfruit and such snacks as were on the menu
of the eateries in Apia. Toasted spaghetti sandwich, was one I noted.
(The New Zealanders have a lot to answer for.) They ate the cuts of mutton that
were whitest with fat. Meat that the Kiwis and Aussies refused to eat,
unsaleable parts of dead animals - chicken backs, parson's noses, trotters,
withers and whatever - were frozen and exported here. A scrap of meat on a chunk
of fat attached to a big bone they found toothsome. The imported canned corned
beef they called pisupo was up to ninety percent fat. It was not the
solid meat thing that we diced with a knife in the United States and made into
hash, this Pacific corned beef was often like pudding it was so loaded with fat,
and it could easily be eaten with a spoon. Not only was beef tallow added to it,
but some brands contained hippo fat.
Heart disease was endemic and people died young, but
still there were only two doctors on the island of Savaii (population 46,000) -
one was Italian, the other Burmese. I met the Italian doctor, Peter Caffarelli,
in a roundabout way. He lived just outside the village of Tuasivi where my
younger brother Joseph had been a Peace Corps volunteer. Tuasivi was a member of
fales on both sides of the coast road, near a headland occupied by a
college, where my brother had taught English. The settlement - a large village -
had none of the raddled rundown look of the comparable places on Upolu that I
had seen. The fales were well made and there was a busy air to the place,
people gardening, feeding their chickens, and a profusion of lava-lavas flapping
on clotheslines. the wreckage of last year's hurricane lay farther down the
coast - tipped-over trees, broken culverts, washed-away roads. Tavita Tuilagi,
one of Joe's former colleagues, was building a new fale, not only in a
traditional style but by a traditional method: some of the men working on the
house were paid. They were relatives, part of the extended family, and friends.
In theory this was all a labor of love, in practice it could be expensive, since
Tavita - Samoan for David - was obliged to supply all the men at all times
during the construction with food and drink - and the better the food the harder
the men would work. Indeed, if the food and drink ran out, the men might decide
to work elsewhere.
"This man Tavita has just been given a title," said the
Samoan who had shown me the way to Tuasivi. "He is now Oloipola."
It is not much," Tavita said, sounding suitably modest,
and hardly looking titled and chiefly in his LA Lakers T-shirt.
But saying it was nothing was not modesty. It was the
truth. This title, which meant "matai chief" - head of the family - had once
b3en a powerful position. but lately such titles had been handed out willy-willy
by chiefs as a way of getting themselves re-elected to positions of power.
"Sio was a good boy," Tavita said, giving Joe his
Samoan name. "He was a good teacher too. I want him to come back."
"Why don't you write him a note and say so?" I asked.
And I found a blank page in my notebook and gave him a pen. "You could invite
him back, and I will make sure he gets it."
"That is a good idea," Tavita said, and began
"I doubt whether I'll get a chance to read it." I said,
when he had finished. I put the notebook into my pocket and walked up the road.
The note said: Dear Joe Theroux, I'm so happy to
meet your father (crossed out) brother. remembering you for the past years since
you were here. I am building a new fale. If you could give me a donation through
finance I would like to accept it. May God blesss you. thank you. Tavita Tuilagi.
On my way back through the village I gave Tavita thirty
Samoan tala, which he accepted without ceremony.
The Italian doctor, Caffarelli, lived up the road, near
the beach in a straggling village beyhond 'Tuasivi. He was skinny, burned dark
by the sun, wearing a lava-lava patterned in red flowers. I took him to be in
his late sixties. His wife was Samoan. Children seemed to be scattered
everywhere around his house, and we were outside, strolling around his tussocky
grass, among lanky pawpaw trees. The house was badly mildewed stucco in the
European style and (so he said) it stood on one of the few plots of freehold
land in the whole of Samoa. It had apparently been doled out by a chief on the
understanding that as long as the doctor lived on that land he would look after
the chief's health.
When I asked the doctor direct questions about himself
he became unhelpful and vague - vague even about the number of his children.
"Ten," he said in a tone of uncertainty, and then, "Eleven." Answering my
qu3stions about Samoan life he spoke with greater confidence.
"The family is very important here, yes," the doctor
said. "But when we say 'family' we are talking about a very large number of
people. times have changed and that has made it all more complicated. there are
obligations, but that is not so bad when you are in a non-money economy. When
someone offers to work, or gives you fruit, you offer food at a later time."
"I noticed. There are always gifts in circulation
here," I said.
"But when money comes into the picture" - the doctor
made the Italian hand-weighing gesture which signifies tribulation - "it can be
expensive. Money for this, money for that. And the rule is that you don't
"Does that mean you give it every time it's asked for?"
"You look after children," the doctor said. "But how
far does your obligation extend if the father of those children is out chasing a
bar-girl in Apia? Do you go on pretending that he's just doing his duty and turn
a blind eye?"
"Does this happen often?"
"All the time," the doctor said. "And there's a moral
dimension. Why should I give money to someone if all he plans to do with it is
waste it on prostitutes? The rule is that you give, if someone asks. But it
raised moral questions sometimes."
I asked about stealing, since it was mentioned by many
other travellers I had met, and all the guidebooks contain warnings. I had not
lost anything, but the fact was that so much had been pinched from me in Tonga I
had little else of value that could be stolen.
"When this was truly a non-money economy, when cash
didn't come into it at all, everything was shared," the doctor said. "So my bush
knife was also yours. A person would come and take it. There was no concept of
private property. There was perhaps a little pleasure in a person's taking
something. Nothing was privately owned, there was no idea of personal property."
He went on to say that money had complicat3ed this
traditional arrangement - everyone in Samoa blamed money for their problems: the
lack of it, the greed for it, the power that wealthy people had.
"People steal all the time now," the doctor said. "Yes,
it is the old habit, but it is stealing. Yet no stigma is attached to it. they
even admire trickery."
"What if you steal from them?"
"In theory, that is what you are supposed to do. But
they are not always so tolerant, eh? They are communal-minded when it suits
them, but there are plenty of instances when a person gets something and never
I told him that it wasn't the stealing, but the
inconsistency and the hypocrisy that caused the problems.
"Yes, I will give you an example," he said. "A man I
know had a very big mango tree. He noticed that everyone was stealing his
mangoes as soon as they were ripe. by the way, he was an Australian, but he had
lived here for some years. He didn't say anything to the people, but he thought,
'Ah, so that is what they do.' Thus he began packing bananas from the trees of
these people And they didn't like it!"
"What did they do about it?"
"There was a hell of a fuss."
He shrugged and made the Italian fishmouth that
signified a paradox was in the air.
"They wanted to kill him."
We talked about the birth-rate. It was very high - but
although sixty percent of the births were illegitimate, the children were well
looked after and always part of a larger family. Still, the government
authorized the use of birth-control remedies - Depoprovera.
"Isn't that a dangerous drug?"
"yes, it is bad, but who is sentimental here? You might
be sterilized for life, you might die - but isn't that the motive of the people
who give out contraceptives? They want to bring down the birth-rate, at any
cost. They are not sentimental." After a moment he said, "I don't have anything
to do with contraceptives."
He walked me to the road, his lava-lava flapping, his
numerous children frolicking around us.
"You must like it here to have lived here so long."
Twenty-five years he had spent in Samoa.
"A doctor here is a despised person," he said, smiling.
"The great thing is to be a minister in the church. People give you food and
money. You have status. You can be rich. But they regard me as ridiculous,
because I am a doctor. When my surgery building blew down and as demolished in
the hurricane everyone stood near it and laughed. 'Look at what happened! The
doctor's house is down!' The Samoans thought it was very funny."
There are not many wild creatures in Samoa, and most
are near the road, so just walking home I saw nearly every one of them - the
black rats, the endangered bats, the pigs, the rails, sw3iftlets, reef herons
and crazed limping dogs.
I was staying in a fale myself, at Lalomaleva.
It often rained in the dark early morning, three or four o'clock, the downpour
drumming on the thatch and tin roof - a lovely sound, half roar, half whisper,
and it made a tremendous slapping of the big broad leaves just outside the
blinds. Then dawn broke, the gray sky lightened, and the rain still fell,
finally, when the sun's rim appeared against the palm trees at six or so, the
rain pattered to a stop.
I lived among a farrago of aging expatriates and more
youthful Samoans. In the near distance there was always the full-throated sound
of mocking laughter - always children. This sudden explosive laughter I found
unaccountably jarring and demoralizing, but it only seemed to bother me - no one
else. The expatriates more or less assumed that they would be buried here
eventually, though the Samoans all expressed great homesickness for places like
Auckland and San Francisco.
Loimata was typical.
"Mata means 'eye' in Malay," I said.
"And also in Samoan," she said. "Loimata means tears."
She had relatives in Hawaii, Los Angeles, San
Francisco, New Ze4aland and Australia. Visiting some of them she had lingered to
work, and for a while lived in the Samoan enclave outside Honolulu, called
Wahaiwa. She had been t5ravelling with her mother, who missed Samoa, and so
mother and dutiful daughter had returned to Savaii.
I miss the work," she said.
Her friend twitted her and said, "You don't miss the
work. You miss the money."
"Yes, I miss the money."
Warren Jopling, a New Zealander in his mid-sixties, had
simply come to Samoa and become so entangled in his newly acquired Samoan family
that he had stayed. He said he liked Samoa. And of course the family had adopted
him - but two or three Samoans were attached to twenty more, and in the end they
took possession of him and moved wholesale into his house to Apia, occupying it
so fully that he moved out and came here to Savaii.
I had wanted to see an ancient stone mound, called
Pulemelei - a great stepped pyramidal structure, the largest mound of its kind
in the whole of Polynesia. I asked a number of Samoans about it. Most knew
nothing of its existence. The two that had heard of it had never seen it. I
asked Warren whether he knew about it - and of course he, a palangi
living on the fringes, had visited it many times and knew this obscure ruin in
the jungle intimately.
No one has any idea what this enormous ruin was used
for - whether it was a tomb, a fortress, or a so-called bird-snarling mound. It
is all the more intriguing for that - for its size and its mystery. It lies in
the depths of the Samoan jungle behind the village of Vailoa and it is so seldom
visited that there are no paths around it. Even Warren Jopling, who knew it
well, became a trifle confused on our approach through the bush.
Built against the brow of a hill it was covered in
jungle greenery - vines and bushes - and yet its architectonic shape in two
great steps was vivid: with the contours of a titanic wedding cake it had the
look of a ceremonial mound, but it offered a wonderful prospect of the sea. In
its day, before any of the palms had been plant4d, it must have had the grandeur
of the great Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza, the so-called Castillo, a structure
it somewhat resembled in size and complexity. Some archeologists have
conjectured that there was a large dwelling on the top of it, which would truly
have given it the look of a castle. It was forty feet high, about a hundred and
eighty feet wide and over two hundred feet long, with battlements and parapets
and flights of stone stairs.
"You know the oddest thing about this place?" Warren
said. "This is an island that is rich in legends. They have stories about the
blow-holes and the waterfalls and the caves. They have stories about things that
don't even exist. Giants, dwarfs, ghosts, spirits. How this volcano appeared,
where that island came from. But there are no stories about this, not even
fanciful ones. Don't you think that's strange?"
He showed me a number of other rock mounds - graves,
house platforms, altars, all covered with jungle, buried in ferns and vines, all
unknown, none of them excavated.
"A great civilization lived here," he said. "It must
have been here, because there was a great deal of available water - two rivers,
the only real year-rounds rivers on Savaii."
The volcanic native of the soil helped all water to
percolate through very quickly, Warren said - he had spent a career as a
geologist. Rain fell and then it disappeared, he said. There were few pools, but
no lakes. Yet just here th4re were springs and rivers.
One of these rivers, the Faleala, ran over a high ledge
farther into the jungle and turned into Olemoe Falls. Warren had brought along
two Samoan boys in case we should have an emergency - a blow-out, a wreck,
whatever. They would come in handy. They were frisky and willing - one named
Afasene ("Half a Cent"), the other Siaki (Jack). We sat by the pool and they
wove crowns of fern for me and put them on my head, making me feel like the
Unbearable Bassington in the Saki novel.
And then they splashed and dived.
"Look at me, Paul!"
"I will get a stone from the bottom!"
"I will jump!"
"Don't look at him - look at me!"
Into the falls, down the sluice, diving backwards,
fooling and living it. They were fourteen and sixteen, but seemed much younger.
So this was what it was all about. You came here and
frisked with brown boys, and slept with their sisters, and gave money to their
parents, and lived and died. You slept and ate and laughed.
Savaii was a maddening place from the paddling point of
view - either surf crashing on rocks and nowhere to launch from, or else a
lagoon so shallow that my paddle blade struck bottom with each stroke. the
Samoans were not boat people themselves - only the oldest ones could remember
ever crossing from island to island paddling in a canoe or sailing an outrigger.
This skill of using small craft, by which I tended to judge Pacific islands, had
just about vanished in Samoa.
The Taga blow-holes were not far from the mysterious
stone mound of Pulemelei. The blowholes, locally know as pupu, were volcanic
fissures in the cliffs of black lava that made this part of the coast of Savaii
so dangerous. he swell crashing into the cliffs travelled through the sea-caves
and the hollows and shot into the vertical holes, producing a geyser or
waterspout that made a plume of water eighty feet in the air.
We stood by one of the dozen or so blow-holes and
chucked coconuts into the hole just as the swell hi8t the cliff, and within a
few seconds the coconut was shot into the air like a cannonball. The kids did
the same with palm fronds and watched them flung upward, twisting and turning in
The whole place was deserted. It was one of the great
natural phenomena of the Pacific. We stood under sunny skies and big pully
clouds, by the lovely sea, the boys fooling, the coconuts shooting skyward, and
I thought, My God, this is stupid.
But it was a feeble protest. by then a lazy sort of
boredom had taken possession of my soul, the Oceanic malaise. I never saw anyone
reading anything more d4emanding than a comic book. I never heard any youth
express an interest in science or art. No one eve4n talked politics. It was all
idleness, and whenever I asked someone a question, no matter how simple, no
matter how well the person spoke English, there was always a long pause before I
got a reply, and I found these Pacific pauses maddening.
And there was giggling but no humour - no wit. It was
just foolery. The palangis were no better. Warren got up a picnic with an
American named John, who had started his own farm in the Mid-West, and with
Friedrich, who told me, "I am studying the smell of roast beef." He meant just
that: he roasted a chunk of beef every day in his laboratory in Munich and then
distilled its essence and tried breaking the flavor down into its chemical
components. "This has many applications," he explained. In our party there were
also the usual contingent of Samoan youths, clambering and laughing.
We were sitting under the palms at Asuisui, and when
Warren passed out the sandwiches, I said, "I can't eat Spam. Hey, that reminds
me. Ever read Descartes - Rene Descartes?"
Silence from John, silence from Friedrich, silence from
Warren, giggles from the Samoans.
"As in 'Don't put Descartes before the horse?"
In the ensuring silence, Warren cleared his throat.
"I've read him," he said, "but it was years ago, and I don't have a retentive
"I was just going to make a joke."
They stared at me.
"Descartes - didn't he say, 'I'm pink, therefore I'm
A look of aopprehension settled over them, and only
Manu broke the silence.
"What you tink?"
"What do I think about what?"
So we discussed the wind and clouds.
Later in his car Manu said, "I got a wife."
We were driving towards Lalomalava. His car was a
jalopy which contained an expensive cassette-player, and reggae music was
blasting from his stereo speakers, mounted with some stuffed toys on the back
"I got a kid in here," he said, and banged the glove
compartment. He was having trouble opening it, until he thumped it very hard.
"Kid - in here - somewhere."
finally he took out a crinkl3d photograph of a fat
brown baby wrapped in a clean blue blanket. The picture had not been snapped in
"My son, Manu said proudly.
"What's his name?"
"Where was this picture taken?"
"You want to go to Auckland?"
"No," Manu said, and tossed the picture back into the
love compartment and hammered it shut with his fist.
What exactly was the story here?
I travelled to the northwest of Savaii, to Asau Bay, to
paddle, and there I met Fat Frank, who had rec4ntly arrived from California and
was scouting the island. He was an alcoholic, and had taken up residence at a
motel at Vaisala. Apart from Fat Frank there was only one other guest at the
place, a Finn from a freighter in Apia, who complained bitterly about Frank. His
habit was to rise at eleven, drink a bottle of Vailima Beer for breakfast,
follow it with a half-bottle of tequila and then paw Samoan waitresses until he
passed out. He was a chain-smoker and his huge pendulous belly hung over his
belt. He sat hunched over, breathing hard. I met6 him in the late afternoon,
after his second snooze, when he was wheezing and on whisky.
He grumbled about his feet swelling up. He hated the
heat. He said he didn't sleep well. He was one of those fat people who when they
are horizontal begin to breathe irregularly and more in a choking, strangling
manner all night, Aaarrrghh!
"I'll be here six weeks or so," he said.
"That seems such a long time for such a small island."
"Thing is, I'm thinking of relocating."
"Moving here to Samoa?"
"Yeah. Changing my whole life-style. Why wait until you
retire? Why not do it now?"
He was only in his thirties, but had a certain swollen
look that made him seem much older, like a fat elde4rly baby.
"Ever been here before?"
"No, but I think I could fit in. The people here are
very friendly - very warm. Not like Pago. That's dump. I was supposed to stay
there a week and stayed one night. but these people take you into their family."
"I think they expect something in return. I mean,
wouldn't you have obligations?"
"We could work something out. I'll look around. Look
for a house. Look for a village. hen find the chief and talk it over."
He was looking for a life and he made finding it seem
simple. A Somerset Maugham character, people say, but in the flesh
Somerset Maugham characters could be such slobs and bores.
"And I might do some business."
He had a very furtive way of lighting a cigarette,
palming it, turning his lighter on it, sucking it hard, then spitting the smoke
out. He was from Mile City, somewhere north of San Francisco.
"Want to know the trouble with business here? You can't
make any money in a country where the people have no money."
Deliver4ed of this wisdom he took a long pull on his
bottle of hooch.
"But I figure a dive shop might make it. The Japs will
come here eventually."
"Why would they come here? They want golf. Beaches.
Luxury. Mickey Mouse logo shops. They like to shop. god, you can't even swim
here. I'm just managing because I have my own sea kayak."
"I can make out."
"You might be a teeny bit bored."
"Go back" - he wasn't listening to me, he had a slow
wheezing way of talking, and this sentence had begun long before - "get my toys.
Motorcycle. Hi-fi. Diving equipment. Scuba gear."
Heavy people are often divers. Was it the sense of
weightlessness that attracted them - the expreience of being light and buoyant,
as they chubbily made their way among the coral and the flitting fish?
"What do you do?" he asked me, wiping his mouth.
"I do a little writing."
"That's why you got all the questions!"
He looked around and laughed. He was laughing at the
blazing sun, the palms, the wrecked beach - the worst of the hurricane4 had come
here. His laughter showed in the rolls of flesh on his gut.
"I knew I was going to meet a writer here. As soon as I
saw this fucked-up place I said to myself, 'I'm going to meet a writer.' And a
painter. Where's the painter? there must be a painter here."
So he was thinking of leaving the vastness of northern
California, and the friendliness of this small American town, and settle here in
a jumbled family, taking up residence in a fale in a Samoan village, with
all its Christians. I said this to him in so many words.
"It's a trade-off, isn't it?"
He wanted a new life. He wanted the pleasure of
retirement now not when he was arthritic and unhealthy. That in itself was
sensible: at this rate he wouldn't last - fat and tanked up and chain-smoking.
"I got the answer. People will buy anything from
someone they like."
"Yeah. Like me. A real character," he said. He rested
the bottle on his belly. "An interesting guy."
And then I understood, and I saw him in America, on his
Davidson. He was one of those terrifyingly fat fellows in a Nazi crash helmet
that are seen roaring down the highway, sitting behind the immensity of his
belly, that shoot out in front of sober motorists who say, "Look at him, Doris.
Hogging the road!"
"Don't make him mad," Doris says. "Please don't honk
And you don't.
Fat Frank was looking for an indulgent family, and it
was possible that he would find one in Samoa, where you could devgelop a
relationship with a family that had strong ties. I was not worried about Frank
taking advantage of them; in the end, they would take him for all he was worth.
But it was a paradoxical society. Outside the family there seemed to be no
driving force, no loyalties, and the interdependency that was limited strictly
to the family made it seem less like a society than like a simple organism, a
certain type of jelly fish, perhaps the hydrozoan that sways and bloops along
the surface of the sea.
Whenever I attempted to do something in Samoa - buy a
ticket, rent a car, obtain information - the Samoan I asked looked a bit
surprised and seemed totally unprepared to help. In their own lives, Samoans
managed to scrape along with a little farming and a lot of remittances. It was
the most cohesive society that I saw in the Pacific, but the least
individualistic - perhaps the most tradional in Polynesia. but apart from the
immediate needs of the family, nothing was achieved - where were the doctors,
the dentists, pilots, engineers, architects and skilled people? Many Samoan
teachers fled to better-paying jobs elsewhere, and their positions were filled
by Peace Corps volunteers. Even the grubbiest road supervisors and
heavy-machinery operators, driving bulldozers and augering holes for power lines
- were from New Zealand and Australia.
Or was I taking the whole business too seriously?
Perhaps it was all a comedy. but if you weren't in the mood for that sort of low
hilarity it was the wrong place to visit.
"I tone like Tonga," a Samoan said to me.
"yes. And theyh tone like Samoan people."
"What a pity."
"Because a Samoan kai cut off da head of a Tonga kai."
"Is that all?"
"And cut off his leck."
"I see. he Samoan guy cut off his head and his leg."
An ancient quarrel shrouded in myth? No. It happened in
Auckland, he explained, just a few months ago.
Some of these wild cannibal-looking youths were very
sweet. The surliest-seeming ones, obstinate one minute, could be unexpectedly
helpful the next. The policemen were ineffectual but in their white helmets and
epaulets they were at least picturesque. Was it because I was in Samoan
backwaters? But in Samoa it was all backwaters. And at those moments when I was
most exasperated I would look up; and see the odde4st thing - a man holding a
pig in his la, or a man standing u to his neck in the lagoon, smoking a
cigarette - and I would laugh the witless Samoan laugh and think: Take this
seriously and you're dead.
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