The street-beat slackens as we drive out of Apia. Car boom-boxes fade, and dogs bark in their place. The gaps between houses widen and change from wasteland to bush. Everything is greener. This is the real Samoa. Or what we want to think of as Samoa. The country that sustains the city and not the other way around. Villages and beaches, forests and hills. Everything we came here to see.
We’re driving to the eastern tip of Upolu, where we will stay overnight in a fale on Lalomanu Beach. At a steady fifty-five kph (the national speed limit), it’ll take an island hour or so to get there, plenty of time to dispel the bustle of Apia from our bones and let the slower richer country vibe soak in.
Waves race across the lagoon on our left, while forest rises on our right. The road meanders like a lazy river, smooth and bald in places, potholed in others, tracing its way east along the north coast. We pass through villages – Lauli’i, Luatuanuu, Solosolo – each with its sprawl of fales, a bathing pool, a primary school, and usually two or three churches. There is a rhythm to what we see, as if each village replicates and blends into all the others: the same shaded fale selling soft drinks and Milo, the same wheel-less rusting car in somebody’s garden, the same elevated rubbish platforms, the same towers of coconuts for sale, and the same old chickens crossing the road.
Yet there are differences. Not all the fales are empty, some contain the movement of mothers, children, and old folk – a family or aiga. Pigs of various sizes and ages trot onto the road and off again. Ziggurats of white or black tiles – family tombs on family ground – rise behind punga stumps sprouting seedlings. Buses flash different combinations of colour, likewise, palettes of washed clothes dry in the sun, and churches flaunt their hems of blue, green or gold.
At Falefa, the road leaves the coast and turns inland to Le Mara Pass. Red, yellow and green leaved plants clothe the roadside while ahead a dragon’s back of hills define the island’s central ridgeline. No more villages, no churches, no pigs either. We’re in the middle of Upolu’s green hinterland – forty odd kilometres and a million miles from the clamour of town.
The road keeps ascending. We stop and look back over an expanse of green forest and farmland, and toward the coast we’ve left behind. Then onward. An empty road leads east, past a dam and lake that aren’t on the map, over a gravelly dog’s leg ford that requires us to slow right down, then downhill until we emerge at another village, another white and blue church, another chicken crossing the road, and another, yet different, turquoise view of the Pacific.