The Real Samoa

Looking in the mirror.

They’re whispering in the next fale. In French too.

Not ‘Je t’aime’ or ‘Je suis Jacques.’ More like ‘Passez-moi le bombe patelle’ and ‘Pas la meme comme le Rainbow Warrior.’

A man and a woman step out, snorkels and masks in their hands. No fins, nor any of those circular magnetic discs to clamp onto hulls.

This is not Auckland Harbour in the nineteen eighties. No yachts or boats or warships out there in Lano Bay, nor anywhere else. Not even in the great Pacific beyond. Nothing to blow up, unless they intend to attack the reef itself, an act of eco-terrorism designed to draw attention to the world’s rising sea levels.

There is the Dive Savai’i boat down the coast. Perhaps that’s their target. Or the Lady Samoa herself, the ferry back to Upolu. But they’ve already told us they’re going diving tomorrow – on the Dive Savai’i boat. And they’ll need the ferry too, if they ever want to return home.

“Later, I will show my camera.” Jules’ laugh is cruel. He’s already boasted of his brand new Canon E-500, the lens longer than a fishing rod. “From here, I can take pictures of the equator, of the international date line, of the exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.”

“Bullshit!” Kate doesn’t hold back. “You can’t see the equator from here.”

“It is not so far.” The woman, Nadia, laughs too. “Only one and an half thousand kilometres. I can see it with my phone”

“It uses a special lens.” Jules puffs up his chest. Then winks. “I am in surveillance. I know these things.”

It seems an odd confession to make from a rickety Samoan beach house on the shores of a dead coral bay. We’re about as far from the world of gadgets and espionage as anyone can be. We’re not even in modern Samoa anymore, but the Real Samoa instead. That’s what they call the second island of Savai’i: the Real Samoa. No big towns like Apia here. No big towns at all. Less than one quarter of the population live here. It’s like stepping back twenty years, taking life so slowly your heart beats only three times per minute. For some people, it might qualify as no longer being alive.

“Do you have any photos you can show us?” I ask. “I’ve never seen the equator before.”

“Sacre bleu!” He shakes his snorkel, then his mask. “Of course not! If you see them, we will have to shoot you.”

“For your own safety.” Nadia laughs too. “They are top secret. Even we cannot study them.”

“Right.” I sit back in my chair and stare into the distance. None of their conversation makes any sense, but then who tells the truth when on holiday? The temptation to romance the stone is always there, and how are we to know any different? He’s probably an office clerk in La Defence, and she’s an assistant at the Louvre. Here in paradise though – stars in their eyes – they can become anyone they want.

Boy oh boy, how did we get here, taken in by these practical jokers in the middle of nowhere?

We’re staying in fale number two. The French spies are on our right, in fale number three. And on our left, in fale number one, resides another equally inventive guest.

She arrived late last night, on her own, hardly any bags, yet staying indefinitely. She tells us her name is Stella, yet when she’s on her mobile phone, prodding and squeezing, she announces herself as Rifle Range. That’s the thing about these fales, these palm leaf walls are palm leaf thin. You can hear everything. And unlike the French, Rifle Range doesn’t whisper. She shouts bullet by bullet.

With with a crash, she cocks shut her phone and shoots out of her fale to talk to us instead. “I’m really enjoying SAMOA!” She collapses in her chair, a bottle of rum pressed to her lips, then a cigarette. “I’ve researched this island extensively, if there’s anything – ANYTHING – you want to know, then just ask me.”

“Where you can buy Scorched Almonds?” Kate craves all things sweet.

“I bring my own energy supplements.” Rifle Range exhales smoke. “Have to. Last time I did an ironman triathlon here on the island. No shops, although GREAT waterfalls. I can show you, if you’ve brought your trainers.”

“Running’s against my religion.” Kate flinches.

“I might hire a boat too, take it over the reef for a bit of deep sea fishing, if you wanted to come?”

“I think I’ll just stick here. We’re here to relax.”

“Oh God, me TOO!” Rifle Range tips back the bottle and empties it. “You must think I’m a fitness freak or something.”

“No.” Kate shakes her head.

“I have to take things easy, that’s why I’m here, in SAVAI’I.” Rifle Range exhales more smoke, then taps ash onto the sand. “The taxi-driver just dropped me here. Said it was a nice place. You know this is the Real Samoa, don’t you?”

“So they keep telling us.” Kate crosses her arms. “There’s probably a real Savai’i too, maybe that peninsula where they’re so lazy they charge for photos.”

“Can’t say I’ve heard of it.” Rifle Range releases her bottle, lets it crash to the sand as well. “But HELL, I don’t know everything. I’m just a clerk, here to relax. Get away from winter, from Hamilton, from EVERYTHING really.”

“You’ve come to the right place.” Kate smiles knowingly.

I smile too, amused. We may not be in Hamilton, or Wellington, or even Paris, but we are not without politics. For starters, there are the French couple, sniggering into their snorkels, taking photos of passing satellites, up to no good. Us too, overloaded with computers and reporting back on everyone we meet via social media. And then Rifle Range herself, a cavalcade of a woman who needs to jam on the brakes and slow down.

We’re all looking for the Real Samoa but only some of us are going to find it.

Next time it won’t be French spies, or a retired Zola Budd, but somebody else, equally implausible.

We are the Real Samoa, and the Real Samoa is us. Never the place, but the people we meet.

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