Samoa will always be in our minds. Our experience wasn’t just skin deep. But a transfusion of love, saving us from ourselves.
Often our minds return to the islands on their own accord. They glimpse the ocean in dreams, they swim with memories in blue.
We say ‘Talofa’ again to all the people we met.
We’ve taken a little piece of Samoa with us. It grows older and more subtle every day. When it’s old enough, we’ll return to set it free.
This will be the penultimate post on ‘One Hundred Days In Samoa’.
The very last post will come sometime next year, once Ted and Teresa have finished writing their e-book. They promise it will be all about their time in Samoa. And if we’re lucky, about ours too. They want everyone to read it, including you! They’ll come and stay at your house, if you don’t.
Our one hundred days in Samoa comes to an end. Of sorts. We might be back home, living old lives, being old selves, yet underneath changes are at work. Subtle shifts in the way we think and act. We no longer live in Samoa, yet Samoa lives on in us.
We’re glad to be home. The temperatures are cooler, the skies grey, but this is what we’re more used to, the climate that made us. Thirty degrees every day might warm fingers and toes and arms and legs, but the sweat glands are slaving overtime and the brain doesn’t function the same as at home. Likewise the abundance of coconuts, bananas and tuna fish seemed like a tropical feast at the beginning, yet after a while we longed for the foods we missed from home: fresh salad ingredients, cheese, chocolate and wine.
Our perceptions of people shifted too. Everyone smiling at first. We’d truly arrived in paradise. Then as the weeks thinned like our diminishing supply of marmite on buttered toast, so did a little of the sweetness around us. Some people looked at us blankly, and we began – as happens in any place that becomes a norm – to distinguish good from bad, helpful from indifferent, genuine from fake.
We met wonderful people like Josie, who invited us into her home and gave us such an insight into Samoan life. And stalwarts like Lofa, the night caretaker, who always gave us a friendly smile and in his own way told us much about his country and people.
The more we interacted, the more we learnt, yet we never quite crossed the gap between our two cultures. Our laughter could never be as free, our embrace of tradition as unquestioning. We wanted things to go faster, and it took a shift to adjust to the slow. Once we did adjust, though, we liked it. Now we’re back, the challenge is to shift fast again. Or perhaps not.
Samoa is a country founded on God. Tradition and the church are twin pillars on which much of Samoan society is based. People stick to the old ways. Often we encountered a reluctance to think differently, to change. Chiefs who were content to lie in their fales all day and live off their land; villages constructing more churches than they have people. Yet these things are balanced by good, enlightened individuals such as David at Matareva who has introduced some very positive changes into his village and community.
Perhaps this is where some of our connections came adrift. Our frustrations at learning to do things different ways. Of having to explain ourselves several times rather than expect the first person we spoke with to communicate to everyone else. Or of expecting to be invited back to Samoan homes, when Samoans usually live and dine as families and socialise at church.
This is the point of living in another country. To understand the differences, and work around them. Each culture learning about the other, appreciating the good, explaining the bad, and encouraging positive change – on both sides.
We might be home, but we are not the same people. Some aspects of our time in Samoa continue in the background. Memories of special people, of beautiful beaches and forests, of being true to ourselves and our lives. A growing appreciation that all change has to be balanced. That doing things a new way isn’t necessarily any better than the old. That doing nothing at all can sometimes be worthwhile in itself. That our way of life isn’t the only one. That we should be grateful for what we have.
Travel is a blessing and a curse, an addiction and a remedy. Blue isn’t the only colour, nor is the ocean limitless. Somewhere everyone has to meet in the middle.
A big change in the weather this morning. The temperature has dropped overnight, it’s almost chilly. The sky’s not quite its usual hazy blue, but paler, half-smothered in clouds. And the noise outside is gone too. No ear-stabbing traffic, no blasting stereos, no packs of roaming barking dogs. It’s so quiet, we might be at home.
But wait! There’s not one, not two, but three massive suitcases at the foot of the bed. And the bed is different too: firmer, wider, nestling under a heavy layer of blanket and quilt. That bike box, the one that started this all off, leans imposingly against the wardrobe – our old wardrobe, not the tubular frame one in Apia. And there’s a strange sound under the bed, a kind of meowing, familiar somehow.
Heck, no wonder it’s cold! We’re home. We flew back to Wellington yesterday, sneaking in late at night and going straight to bed. No-one knows we’re home yet: friends, family, neighbours. If we keep Mum for a few days, they’ll think we’re still in Samoa. And perhaps in our hearts we still are.
But it feels good to be home, back with all our home comforts, back in a climate we’re more used to. So much that we’ve learnt during our time away, how another culture lives, smiles and thrives. How going more slowly is sometimes better than going fast, and how doing nothing at all is not always necessarily bad. And more to learn still, as the seeds of our experience germinate and grow within us.
It’s not all over yet though. There’s all the unpacking, the adjusting, the meeting friends and boring them Samoa-less. There’s a heap of Samoan books – RLS, an account of the tsunami – waiting to be read too. There may even be a couple more blogs, already written but never published.
Plus we can’t forget all our good friends still over there in Apia, all the people living and working in our appartment block, plus all the ex-pats and local Samoan people we met. And black dog too. Hopefully one day we’ll return to see some of them.
Ted and Teresa remain there too, at least until December. And if Ted’s new business takes off, I’m sure we’re going to hear more from them.
Kate’s parents flew home on Saturday. On Sunday, we set off for magnificent Manono, a small island in the Apolima Strait.
To get there, we drove west to Manono Wharf. We’d arranged for a boat to take us across at midday.
A young man with a moustache and cap greeted us. “I’m Ace,” he said. And he was. He helped us carry our bags onto a small corrugated boat. Then as we gazed through little blue windows in the front of the cabin, he cautiously motored out into the lagoon. Behind us, a massive black rain cloud gathered over the mountains of Upolu. But ahead the water stretched flat and blue, a clear calm path to Manono island, all the way to the jetty at Sunset Fales.
“We’re here! Welcome to Sunset Fales!” Ace helped us off.
Then Margaret, our hostess, ran up, sat us down and explained the set-up.
“All meals included, breakfast at eight-thirty, lunch at twelve, and dinner at six-thirty.” She stared at us with a serious expression, then smiled. “No roads here, just a path all the way around. No dogs either, no barking at night, no need to carry a stick when going for a walk. And we have kayaks to hire too, twenty Tala per day, and a further fifty if you want to land on the islet out there.”
We turned to gaze at the little islet out near the reef. Green, forested and mysterious, with a tiny sliver of a beach. Beyond the silhouette of Apolima, closer than we’d ever seen before, steep rugged sides climbing to a volcanic rim.
Margaret took us up to our accommodation, a rustic closed fale a little way up the hill. A balcony with two chairs to sit on while we sipped at the coconuts she brought us. Then two comfortable beds inside with mosquito nets to lie on and relax. Outside that big rain cloud finally caught up. Rain gushed from a black sky, smattering the roof and the broad banana tree leaves, making a heck of a racket.
When the rain stopped, I took out a kayak and paddled over towards the little islet. I was tempted to land, but the water turned choppy, so I just looked, admiring its serenity, its unique position on the reef, and the forbidding island of Apolima out beyond in the big ocean. This felt like such a special place to be, drifting peacefully, almost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with only the coral reef protecting me from the full mid-ocean swell.
Later at six-thirty, the sound of a conch shell summoned us to dinner. Margaret did us proud: fish, fried egg plants, rice, and stir-fried vegetables. She told us all about life on Manono; how her father set up the fales in 2006, then had to rebuild them after the tsunami hit in 2009; how dogs are sometimes brought to the island to round up pigs from the plantations, but then sent promptly back to Upolu afterwards. Most interesting of all was the banana tree counting exercise scheduled for the next day. Margaret’s father, who is the mayor, would lead local chiefs through the village plantations counting banana trees, making sure each household had at least fifty, enough to support themselves. They would also check on taro fields, and inspect kitchens for cleaniness too, with fines for anyone not reaching the standard.
The next day, after another lavish meal of fried eggs, pawpaw and pancakes, we walked all around the island, counting churches and pink boats and frangipani trees. We weren’t empowered to fine people, but we could take photos, especially of the frangipani, Kate’s favourite. The path led through people’s backyards, through village greens, plantations and a small forest. At one point we managed to get ourselves locked inside a church – shock horror, palagi imprisoned for five days until the next service – but fortunately located a second door by which to escape. Further on a girl with an immensely long wooden pole showed us how to dislodge oranges from the top branches of a tree.
At dinner that night, again summoned by the conch shell, Margaret told us that the banana counting had gone well. “They all came back here afterwards, where they talk about the counting and we give them lunch. I think that’s the bit they enjoy most, all gossiping and eating together.”
Later she told us more about her husband, Paul, who is training to become a tattooist, an honoured and lucrative profession for a Samoan. “Paul’s Dad is a tattooist, and his uncle too, he works in the Cultural Centre in Apia.”
We returned to our fale and heard the family singing a hymn before eating much later at eight o’clock. It’s another hot night with little breeze. But worth it, to be able to come to such a peaceful unique place as Manono. No roads, no cars, no dogs, entirely unlike anywhere else we’ve ever been.
We may be going home in a day or two, but we’ve saved the best until last. Manono, family time.
They prowl in packs, grinning, wide eyed, hungry. They clink and chomp at their own special table at Paddles, the jet-set restaurant in town. At weekends, they blitz the fales, sniffing, quaffing and smacking lips, thirsty for fire new.
A group of them conspire at a nearby table. Their leader, a dark haired lady with an eager grin, recognises us from someplace else, another fale, another weekend, long ago.
“How’s the teaching going?” She fixates Kate with a Pinot Noir stare. “It’s maths, isn’t it?”
“Fantastic.” Kate smiles. “But I’ve finished now. School broke up on Friday.
“And the writing?” The lady’s gaze swivels to me, tannin lips, eyes dark berries. “Have you written anything?”
For an instant, I think about lying. ‘No, I forgot to bring a pen. Or any paper. I’ve not written a single word.’ But I exaggerate instead. Lay it on thick with a marker pen. “I’ve done a travel blog. Several thousand words now. Enough for a book.”
Of course, it’s nowhere near enough for a book. A thin novella at best, mostly photos. But that’s not what she wants to hear. No mileage in mediocrity, not when you’re an ex-pat. You either touch the sun, or else drown in your sorrows.
She smiles and swills her mouth with wine. Cleansing her palate like a sorbet between the fish and meat courses of a degustation menu. “It’s all about discipline, isn’t it? I always try to complete a new piece every week.”
“Music?” I imagine her sitting on a stool with a guitar, crooning. But I’m wrong.
“Yes, symphonies.” Her eyes don’t flinch. “Full orchestra, including French horn and kettle drums. The NZSO are interested.”
She sips from her glass again. I don’t know whether to believe her or not. No smirk on her face, no twitching facial muscles, no sign she is taking the Micky. Except last time we met, she told us she was here on a government posting, advising fisheries, or trade, or something like that. She’d been on her own then, on business, rather than whizz-kidding with fellow ex-pats.
“Well sit down, won’t you?” One of the others, another dark-haired wine drinker, gestures us towards two spare seats. “What else do you write?”
“Oh, this and that. Anything really, whatever people want to read.”
“Are you a full-stop man, or do you use semi-colons?”
“Oh, both, whatever fits.”
“And your paragraphs? Are they long, or short?”
“Oh, I keep them short.”
But this is starting to feel like an interview, untold secrets spilled, an unsought opportunity to apply to the Samoan ex-pat club. I like red wine. I like fales. But I’m not sure I belong. And besides we’re only here another few days. Soon I’ll be a different type of ex-pat in another country.
“We have to go.” Kate extrapolates, seeing where this is going. “We’re meeting friends at their resort early tomorrow.”
“How marvellous.” The first lady thrusts her chin forward. “And which resort’s that?”
“Coconuts Beach.” Kate names the island’s number one resort, the hippest place to be seen, let alone be a guest. “They’ve been staying in one of the over water fales. They say the view’s amazing, and there’s so much space too. A bed big enough for Humpty-Dumpty and all his pieces, and a natural waterfall shower too. The only drawback is the TV. They don’t have one.”
“I must say, I’ve just met the most uncouth man imaginable.” Huhu’s cheeks draw in as though she’s sucking a toffee. “He wanted me to go into his shop, but it wasn’t a very nice shop, all those tasteless plastic things you get in Christmas crackers, so I politely told him no and walked on.”
“This isn’t the new shop down the road, is it?” I point from our communal balcony at the brand new shop below. It’s only been open a week, the culmination of months of banging and other construction noises, a second bigger dollar shop to rival Cent Save on the opposite side.
“It may have been.” Huhu peers for a moment in the same direction. “Anyway, whatever it is, he was extremely uncivil. He followed me along the pavement, muttering something about a special discount. I had to stop and explain I was only interested in local crafts, not all this cheap factory produced stuff. I think he got the message in the end. Which he should have, as I suspect he was a New Zealander.”
“Really?” An awful premonition drips down my spine. “What did he look like?
“I’m not sure I could see his face properly.” Huhu shakes her head. “His stomach was in the way.”
“He wasn’t wearing a T-shirt that said AC/DC, was he?” Already I can guess the rest. Ted’s been spending a lot of time over at the Cent Save since that incident with the Bluetooth speakers. And he’s been talking about opening his own shop opposite, a variation on a theme, something new and extraordinary for Samoa.
“Unfortunately your father was drawn in.” Huhu turns to Kate. “He muttered something about needing a new snorkel and followed this awful man inside.”
Kate stares and me, and I stare at Kate. Then making our excuses, we rush downstairs. If Chad has been suckered into Ted’s lair, he’ll need rescuing as soon as possible.
We race onto the street. Then run along the pavement to the building that until last week was a building site. But as we glance in, we see it is no longer under renovation. The rubble has been replaced with red tiled flooring, racks of neat shelving and bright overhead lights. Above the door is a flashing neon sign that says ‘Ted’s Treasures’ and inside, behind the counter, the unmistakable blob of Ted.
“Come on in!” he shouts above the blare of rock music playing on two enormous speakers. “Special discounts today. Everything reduced by fifty percent.”
We can’t help but wander in, walking up and down the aisles, looking at the merchandise and wondering what Ted thinks he’s up to. The shelves are full of every kind of crap possible: secondhand towels, third chest T-shirts, dog-eared Lonely Planets, scuffed leaky snorkelling equipment, half-full bottles of sun block and a myriad of chewed paperbacks.
“What the heck?” I gape in disbelief. “Who’s going to buy junk like this?”
“All the new tourists.” Ted’s paunch juts out confidently. “This is all stuff the old palagi left behind. They didn’t have enough baggage allowance to take it all home, so I’ve bought their excess at knockdown prices to sell to all the new palagi.”
As if in demonstration, Chad comes up to the till clutching a blue polyester snorkelling top together with a pair of yellow fins. “These are just what I was looking for,” he says to Ted.
“All New Zealand sourced of course.” Ted beams. “Best quality. None of the rubbish you get at other shops.”
“And you mentioned there’s a buy-back option too?” Chad seems ecstatic.
“Yes. Bring it back in good nick, and I guarantee to repurchase at fifty percent of purchase price. Cheaper than hiring fins all over the island, plus if you like them, you can keep them and take them home.”
“Yes, yes.” Chad is nodding his head. “Seems like a good business model. TradeMe for tourists, the ones who haven’t packed enough. And the ones who’ve packed too much too.”
We accompany Chad back to our appartment. He’s smiling at his new purchases, perhaps appreciating the one instance where plastic proves superior to native materials. And Ted at last is making himself useful, to ex-pats and tourists alike. Perhaps he and Teresa won’t be going home in December after all. Perhaps they’ll remain here indefinitely.