By Jono David
I think Robert Louis Stevenson was rolling in his grave.
I had just been whisked through Vailima, the Scottish author’s beautifully restored retreat on Samoa, by a guide named Michael, and was then ceremoniously duped by another uniform-red-lavalava-wearing escort into paying him a tip. I had, it seemed, quite literally been led up the garden path.
Sweat-soaked, I sat on a 475-meter high perch above the house, looking upon a sweeping view of the chartreuse valley and the distant capital Apia, telling old Robert about what has become of his home.
For many, a climb up Mount Vaea to Stevenson’s resting place is a pilgrimage, and a visit to the house meaning “five waters” is nourishment for the literary caller. Indeed, the stately home-turned-museum of the man who penned such classics as Treasure Island is divine; a return to a simpler era and life pace.
Despite its commercialism, these shaded grounds and well-groomed gardens are a delightful point to commence a visit to this South Pacific archipelago.
Like Tusitala, the Teller of Tales, as the Samoans called Stevenson, I had come to Samoa to chase Eden. Whilst I did manage to find fragments of an earthly paradise, I also discovered there was much more to this idyllic island nation than lush jungles, blue waters, and warm people. I discovered that perhaps, in today’s world, Eden takes more effort.
The reality for most of the islanders is an encumbrance, and everyone carries the load of strict social hierarchy and codes of behavior, known as fa’a Samoa, the Samoan way. God reigns supreme here, followed by royalty and nobles, politicians, religious leaders, and lastly, a patriarchal led family rank for the commoners.
Rules of social protocol stem from respect for this hierarchical order, influencing language, gift giving, honor, stature, and duty. In extreme circumstances, where pressure from shame or loss of face presses too hard upon an individual, suicide is the result. Nowhere is the fa’a Samoa more prevalent than deep in the lush of a village.
Most of Samoa’s 370 or so villages are set adjacent to some turquoise piece of shoreline. Place names such as Lolomanu and Aganoa ring as romantic as their respective white and black sand beaches. Each village is further colored by its residents, of course, but the ubiquitous washing line waves a banner of myriad hues.
Scads of churches are generously painted, neatly trimmed in whites and blues. Woven pandanus mats and ngatu, elaborately decorated tapa, can be seen spread across lawns to dry amid meticulously groomed gardens of Flame Tree reds and hibiscus yellows.
In stark contrast to the sleepy, yet rigid order of rural life, Apia is still bright lights, big city for villagers. This harbor town of worn colonial buildings is home for nearly a quarter of the nation’s 160,000 souls. It’s outfitted with the expected fish and goods markets and an unanticipated McDonald’s; a sluggish Post Office/telephone exchange and Internet cafes; weary motels and a modern, yet oversized government building which looks like a hotel; young lovers forbidden to hold hands and fa’afa fine, unabashed transvestites.
I first met Princess Tiger in the chill of McDonald’s (I needed a milkshake). He/she approached me in her sky blue one-piece and pumps, chatted me up, and invited me to the Cindy Show, Apia’s Thursday night drag revue.
The cabaret is a weekly rave, and Cindy, Samoa’s most famous fa’afafine (literally meaning “in the way of a woman”) is guaranteed to bring down the house with her lip-synched versions of songs plied with woman-power doggerel.
Cindy made an unannounced appearance the following week at the Miss Drag Millennium contest, only to interject her political stance against a new law forbidding men to wear women’s clothing. But fa’afafines are far too integrated into and accepted by society for Cindy or Princess Tiger to shop for new wardrobes.
Samoa’s nine islands are situated a degree or two to the east of the international dateline a bit below the Equator. The unique location makes it the last country in the world to greet each new day, not to mention that Samoa was the last nation to embrace the new millennium.
From the air, the island world is a clump of emerald nuggets placed upon a turquoise table. From ground level, it is a land of smiling villagers exhibiting their pearly whites and friendly dispositions. The verdant beauty of the land and warmth of its inhabitants are lures for today’s visitors and may have been the bait for its past occupiers, too.
Samoa, like every corner of Polynesia except Tonga, has an unenviable past of European colonialism and plunder. At the turn of last century, the United States and Britain controlled Samoa but capitulated the islands to the Germans, who had pledged to rule according to Samoan custom.
But the Germans, led by Kaiser Wilhelm Solf, reneged and began to bring in labor from other German claims, such as New Guinea and the Solomons. Even Chinese were shipped in.
The German leader deposed the Samoan king and disarmed the people. Later, with the advent of World War II, New Zealand was persuaded to seize Samoa from the Germans. The Kiwis did so successfully, and would effectively occupy the islands until January 1, 1962, when Western Samoans voted overwhelmingly for independence.
But perhaps more startling than the influences of colonialism was the seemingly effortless infiltration of missionaries. The palangi (meaning foreigners, or literally, “sky bursters” ) first brought their gospel and promise here in 1830. Today, Samoa sits firmly in the so-called “Bible belt of the South Pacific.”
I considered the rueful effects of Samoa’s occupiers as I sat in my fale, a traditional coconut-frond thatched roof structure without walls, on the idyllic stretch of Return to Paradise Beach, made famous in Gary Cooper’s 1951 film, Return to Paradise, based on the James Michener novel.
I understood that the Samoans are a spiritually and literally well-fed people cleaving their own destiny founded on venerable, unaffected traditions resistant to fatal effects of imperialism. Yes, paradise is in the coconuts and the sapphire waters. It even comes in a bottle of cold Vailima beer.
But it is also in the fa’a Samoa, and the fa’afafines, and the rousing church services that echo across the island on Sunday mornings, and even — gasp! — in the McDonald’s Restaurant. I think Stevenson understood this Samoan effort to embrace, but not be broken by change, and was not turning in his grave.
Perhaps I had finally caught up with Eden, after all.