na foine ting

Tuesday, July 27, 2004
I've been reading RLS in Samoa, a sort of bizzare postcolonial Stevenson biography which details the last years of Stevenson's life in the Pacific.

We lived in a compound carved out of the jungle behind RLS's estate, in a small village called Avele, just north of the village of Vailima.  Vailima means "five rivers," and the best beer brewed in Samoa--arguably in the South Pacific--also bears that name.

In the eighties of both Stevenson's and my own century, there was only one road that traversed the Samoan island of Upolu.  It goes through Vailima, and likely the only difference between that road (which has never been called anything other than the vague "Cross Island Road") then and now is that it's paved.


Our own road was a dirt track off the main road, cut by the dairymen who brought their cows down to the river (whether it's river Tasi, Lua, Tolu, Fa or Lima I don't know and Stevenson didn't know and I don't think any Samoans know either).  The compound itself was a serene postage stamp of manicured lawn with three cinder block houses on it, teuila (ginger) and hibiscus bushes.  On three sides around our compound the jungle rose in a solid wall of green;  on the road side, trees yielded to a view of Mount Vaea, where Stevenson is buried.

The forest between our house and the house where Stevenson lived was primarily kapok trees.  Kapok is lightweight and porus, and makes good paopao (outriggers).     Kapok pods are round and fit in the palm of your hand, and are very good for practicing juggling.  We also found lots of uses for the cottony kapok fluff, which fell to cover the ground like snow and could be used to stuff dollhouse mattresses or to make doll's hair or the manes of sock-headed stick horses.

Stevenson's wife Fanny--Aolele to the Samoans and eventually everyone else too--planted everything from roses to Scottish pine on their property, and if you hike through the kapok forest, skirt the back of the estate and go over or under a few fences you wind up in sudden and unlikely groves, dark and solemn and threaded with mist, as though you'd stepped into the highlands and out of Polynesia altogether.  I would find myself there, still and silenced in such a grove, or emerged into a rioting plot of sunflowers taller than my head, as adapted and thriving in the island climate as I was.

It is impossible to live isolated and separate in expatriate Samoa.   We palagis came with our furniture and nice cars and notions of things like personal space, and eventually it all was lovingly eroded, transformed.  Claus Winkler's white Mercedes carried its patina of persistent red dust, we stopped expecting stores to open or events to begin when they were supposed to, and we accepted that Sunday mornings belonged to our village neighbors, who would come down the road after church bringing us fiafia:  roast pig, taro, palusami, breadfruit, fish, chop suey and sticky white cake. 

Samoan permeated our language, where English words failed local ideas and experiences.  "Talofa lava," said heartfelt in gratitude for delicious Sunday morning fiafia, or on leaving a village where I'd stayed with a friend's family for the weekend, or in greeting to people we didn't know but were about to stay for five or six hours.  "Fa'alavelave" to explain why after six hours someone needed to go home.  Or to say "thank you" and "no thank you" simultaneously, a useful thing to be able to do in Polynesian culture.  "Fa'a Samoa," said affectionately and exasperatedly, realizing that things just were they way they were.  Respectfully, to indicate that we understood why.  And when sweet comeuppance befalls one's enemies, the very rude and satisfying "wahmaahhhhhhh SNAKE!!!"

(Complete with hand gesture of striking snake and demonic expression of glee.  I am happy to teach it to anyone who thinks they will find such a gesture useful, which I can assure you it is.)

In Samoa, everyone dances.  No child, no infirm old man, no reticent papalangi is exempt:  you get up, you make your bare feet do windshield wiper on the floor, you keep your hips from doing those rude and unseemly things that hula girls do, and try to make siva hands.  You look stupid, and are mocked, lovingly and thoroughly.  Fa'a Samoa.  Samoan way.

Samoans are tough, and exuberant.  Exacting when it comes to custom and tradition, forgiving when inevitably you make mistakes.  They are proprietary of friends, even palagis, and kind.

On Sundays I would hike to the top of the mountain, after trespassing thoroughly on the Stevenson property and maybe taking a dip in the waterfall.  From the mountaintop where Stevenson's grave lies you can see the villages and countryside all around you.  On Sundays the smoke from several thousand cooking pits rises in a purplish haze.

Stevenson's biographer writes about the Samoans as savages, noble but still uneducated, unsophisticated and backwards socially and politically.  While he is sympathetic to Samoan independence and knowledgeable about Samoan political history, he fails to see Stevenson in Samoan context, and instead insists on describing Samoa and Samoans only in non-expatriate relief.

Clearly he has not lived there.

Samoa is pervasive, and sustaining.  Samoan traditions and heritage are the most unchanged of any remaining in Polynesia, and the islands themselves maintain national and cultural identity despite the Germans, the Americans, the New Zealanders and all the trade and tourists over the centuries.  They have been owned, ruled and governed but never really transformed.

And for those palagis living there, we were like a grove of Scottish pine in the midst of kapok.  Flourishing in the sun, fed by Samoan soil and the waters of those unidentified, possibly entirely fictional five rivers, we adapted, thrived.  We slowed down to the pace of Samoan life, Samoan way, Samoan time.  We had our fiafia on Sunday mornings, and learned to tuck our bare feet under us when sitting on fine mats.  We learned that church lasts as long as the pastor decides it needs to, and didn't argue with the wives of matais.  We swerved and hit trees to avoid running over pigs.  We spoke the language and wore white on Whitsunday, no matter what our religion.  We surrendered much of our own culture willingly, and when it was time and the drumming and music started, every one of us got up and danced.

(courtesy of The Travel Year , this is how it sounds)



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