Wednesday, March 07, 2018

A Tale of Two Samoas II

It doesn't take long for the island itself soon to lull us into the right frame of mind. One day we arranged a driver, Sulu,  to take us around a few of the sites.  Naturally the hotel neglected to tell him what that actually entailed, and he wound up working later than expected.  He ultimately missed joining his family for the ferry ride over to the neighboring island of Savaii for the holidays.  I think I was more bothered by this than he, and he actually asked me at one point if I were okay.  

My highest priority on Samoa was visiting Vailima, the final home of Robert Louis Stevenson.  An early start ensured that the day's heat wouldn't yet be up for the hour-long hike to Stevenson's grave on the adjacent Mount Vaea.  Nevertheless it was a sticky affair, through dense jungle that held humidity like a sauna.  But the beauty of this nature reserve is an easy distraction, the broad leaves challenging my concept of the color green.  The foreign accents of birdsong soothe us as we go, though I occasionally stop to look around when I hear a bird call that sounded like the panting of a big dog.   But most of all we focus on our feet, moving over ground sodden by the storm that raged through the night.

Finally we reach the top.  Stevenson's grave is a simple block of stone set beneath a large tree.  With the overlap of mountains on one side and the sea on the other, it is easy to see why he loved this view and made the trip often, a surprise really considering the poor health that plagued the man all his life.  

He must have found great comfort in the home he built down in the valley below, with its broad verandas, spacious rooms, and even a couple of fireplaces.  The house looked like something more often seen in the hills of his native Scotland, and it is easy to imagine the peace he found here, as exemplified by the stories that this Pacific idyll inspired. 

We inch back up the shaded drive and through the mountains that form the island's spine.  Not much is happening so close to the New Year, so we simply ride around the island taking in some of our driver Sulu's recommendations.  Water is a constant theme.  We view the towering Papapapaitai Falls from afar, then a short walk brings us closer to the broader span of Togitogiga, the white dazzling upon volcanic black as the waters rush over.  A few foreigners rest on the stones below, their drivers waiting in the shade of vehicles back in the car park.  I enter the water myself at To Sua Ocean Trench, down a long ladder to this giant swimming hole formed from a collapsed cavern. I later rejoin LYL above, who gazes out over the sea, already betaken with island time.

Aside from lunch by the sea at the small village of Lalomanu, there is nothing really to do but to parallel the sea along the coastline.  One could get sleepy counting all the fale.  Concrete and cinder blocks and rusted out cars were a common thread.  Families, lots of families.  (It is refreshing to see children being taken care of by their fathers, a far cry from what I usually see in Japan.)  An old railroad-type bridge across one inlet, with steel-girder railings and long wooden planks laid for the cars to get over.  Dogs and pigs with teats distended.  Cows in clusters, camouflaged by trees; horses standing in the open, alone, silhouetted against the crashing blue beyond.  A fisherman snorkeling beneath the shade of an umbrella. A few kids with almost blond hair, which I later learn has been lightened with lime juice.  Strange myna birds picking at the carcasses of roadkill.  Those bizarre kiwi-type birds that race across the road looking like dinosaurs.  Lumbering past it all are the buses with their old truck chassis upon which a school bus frame has been mounted.  Each has been creatively decorated by their owners, and brings to mind the lorries of India, or the jeepneys of the Philippines.  Each village has its own church, and I imagine that you are born into the denomination of your neighbors.  A few churches are mere ruins, and I wonder if that brings with it spiritual crisis.   

The fales of multiple colors, many with creatively-painted pillars.  The poorer villages built directly atop the volcanic rocks, no flourishes here, less concrete, more wood.  The shoreline villages that shore up their roofs with the rubber molds of beach sandals.  The tidy homes and yards, unlike other places in the world, where people living in similar economic simplicity often live amidst their own rubbish. Perhaps the difference here is that a lot of the rubbish is organic, and the goats, dogs and pigs will take care of that.  I do know that the refuse does get picked up frequently, the bags piled atop little towers and out of the reach of animals.  A lot of the economic assistance (and the churches for that matter) come from afar.  Japanese development has left its mark with a lot of schools, but the billboards telling us so are old and faded.  The newer-looking signs give thanks for the money coming in from the Central Kingdom.  

Volleyball is the sport here, and many families play on the grass beside their fale. In one village, one boy has created a Sisyphusian sport of his own, pushing a tire up the slope toward the road, then letting it roll back down again  Another boy runs with what looks like a shield and a sword, an organic sword of a child's imagination picked up in the forest. But most people just laze about their fale. One guy has a T-shirt that says "Hustle," and I think, "Yeah, right." We drive past a funeral, the body soon to be added to the number of  above-ground concrete graves that have been laid before the family homes. Some of these graves have laundry lines strung between them. (We wonder what happens to these graves if a family chooses to move.) 

The absurd, out-of-scale sizes of the people here, after decades amongst the diminutives of Japan. It still feels quite odd to be one of the smaller beings on the landscape, dwarfed as I am by giants.  But even they are dwarfed by their environment.  The incredible color scheme, the richness of blue scoured of moisture by the morning storm.  The multiple hues that the sea takes: the green along the shore, fading to blue where it deepens, and the abundant turquoise beyond the reef.  The greens of the jungle, bearing all that fruit, all that wealth.  And looking into that lushness there's a comfort somehow, as if somewhere in the deep primordial DNA is a recognition of that place from where we all began. 

Our final stop is Return to Paradise Beach, named after the 1953 film based on another of Michener's books.   I'd been told by islanders how beautiful the place is, and upon reaching it am horrified to see why.  On what I'd expected as a stretch of pristine beach I find a new resort hotel, with groomed lawns and an admittedly fine ocean frontage.  I wonder at land rights, and understand the Samoans to be very protective, and one is cautioned to ask permission before going for a swim.   A villager returned from New Zealand apparently sold the land here, and I appreciate the irony of this "outsider' inspiring development. That said, it is an attractive place yet simple place, and at least the resort is owned and run by local Samoans.

We roll slowly on, toward the hotel.  Nowhere is island time better exemplified in Samoa than in the driving, where most people crawl along at only a handful of kph.  There are few stop signs at the crossroads, but then again the traffic is light, and the people aren't moving all that quickly anyway.   I can't recall if I've even seen any stop lights, outside of a few in Apia.  One car in front of moves so slowly that I can almost read the label on the back of the driver's shirt.  I am tempted to say to our own driver, "Warp speed Mr. Sulu," but I know he'll just quietly smile and keep pottering on.   

The last day of the year is Sunday, and all through these devout islands all is closed.  We have a taxi drop us at the burial mounds of former island chiefs, including the ones used as pawns by the Germans and the British, to which Stevenson dedicated a large portion of words.  All is quiet today.  We walk back down the peninsula and through the sleepy town, peeking at the colorful lava lava sarongs hanging in the windows of closed shops.  A few locals do business at the market, but most stalls are similarly shut.  Apia, and its environs remind me a lot of Oahu's North Shore, but with smaller waves. 

We wind up at Palolo Deep Marine Reserve, with its small fale and rope swings shaded by the massive canopy spreading above.  I rent a snorkel and fins and swim halfway to the reef, to the place where a buoy marks a steep drop-off.  It is a tough swim against the current, which pushes me back toward shore at least, and thankfully not out to sea.  My reward is a rainbow of fish below.  Keeping in a single place is tough going against the current, and I tire easily.  Far more preferable to rejoin LYL in the fale, and enjoy a book and some strong tea. 

The Eve finally rolls around.  Our hotel is hosting the biggest bash in town, and by the time we go to the lobby at 10pm things are bustling.  It is difficult to get close to the bar, and even harder to get your drink order heard over the music.  A DJ is working hard, under the flashing lights and optical effects of another era.  It is a younger crowd, each in small familiar clusters.  I had hoped to chat with some locals and expats, to get a better sense of the island, as I recognize that my own impressions are shallow ones.  But no one seems willing to socialize outside their own, and the music is too loud to talk over.   

So LYL and I go sit out by the dry swimming pool, in a patch of dark that lets us see the stars.  We try to find ones specific to the Southern Hemisphere, but soon settle on merely counting them, until it is time instead to count down the minutes of the old year. 

On the turntable: God Speed You Black Emperor, "Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada"

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