Upolu – May/June 2008
It’s a bone bruising ride, the seats on board the “Queen Poto”, our bus from the village of Le’auva’a to downtown Apia, are wooden: flat and hard. The roads are in bad repair. Torrential downpours, heavy traffic – including heavily laden trucks – makes for many potholes. And here’s me, a bony arsed palagi (palangi – white man). The Samoans on this crowded bus, with the driver’s favourite Polynesian Rap music pumping out loud, are more generously endowed. They are also accommodating and polite, and that’s how we find them throughout our stay with few exceptions.
Smiling and friendly, the women carry themselves with grace and elegance in their colourful lava lavas. The men, for the most part, put my slender (but sinewy you understand…) physique to utter shame. Hard muscled and stocky, especially the rural village males who are a large portion of the populace, they evince the physicality of “the simple life” in this land of plenty.
The climate is enervating, especially for us who have come from a cool autumn in Perth. The humidity is like that one encounters in Malaysia: sticky. Apia, the capital of Independent (used to be Western) Samoa, has the familiar feel of spacious tropical towns: dusty, fusty, musty and slightly drab, all due I think to this cloying humidity.
The traffic appears chaotic, the feeling enhanced by the fact that they drive on the other side of the road to us – as they do in American Samoa not far east of here. During our stay, the news arrived that the Government is importing some 200,000 new Japanese cars for Upolu and Savai’i (the other, and larger, island of Independent Samoa). This in itself will create more traffic snarls in and around Apia, but we then learnt that they are going to be right-hand drive cars, and that these folk are going to be asked to switch to driving on the left, soon. It reminded me of just how bizarre and utterly frustrating Island politics can be. Apart from the many pedestrian casualties this changeover will be accountable for, all existing left hand drive vehicles will become redundant, worthless, even as they are allowed to continue on the roads. Existing commercial passenger vehicles will of course soon have all their entry/exit doors on the wrong side, making for perilous – and I would expect, illegal – on and off loading. So, by my evaluation, they will be forced to buy the new vehicles immediately and to give their (some not so) old taxis and buses to the wrecker. In this not buoyant economy, this is going to wreak financial havoc. Curiously, like neighbouring American Samoa, they still use the Imperial weights and measuring system. Sort of quaint, and baffling I suppose.
We are staying in Le’auva’a, the village of Rachel’s birth father Etuale (Edward), about half an hour’s drive due east from Apia along the north coast. The family of Rachel’s mother Aimee, are from the village of Saleimoa about 2 kilometres west of Le’auva’a. Though we are meeting with family members from both parents’ sides, the principle reason for the trip is to reacquaint Rachel with her birth father and to “discover her roots”. To this end it is proving to be most successful. Aimee, along with husband Kevin (Rachel’s stepfather of many years), have accompanied us and have made things a lot easier. Both have been here before and Aimee’s local and familial knowledge and ability to translate for us has been invaluable (no, not all Samoans speak English). They also have their own family agenda which is not our business.
As we set about visiting other extended family members in nearby villages, I am astounded by the sheer abundance of food available. Surely nowhere else on earth, apart from a few, other isolated Pacific Islands, affords such a generous windfall of natures fruits and vegetables to be shared amongst so few. Other tropical countries may provide equal abundance, but their multitudinous population and callous politics makes for comparative slim pickings. To name but a few of the fruits and veggies on offer, each requiring varying amounts of energy expenditure to gather: – Breadfruit, Cassava, Taro*, Yam, Arrowroot, Mango, Guava, Coconut*, Vi, Apiu, Eggplant, Pineapple*, Banana*, Sugar cane, Lemons, Mandarins, Oranges, Limes, Pawpaw, Passion fruit, Star fruit, Custard apples, Cocoa and “Western” greens. (* = of varying shapes, varieties and sizes) The surrounding lagoons and ocean teems with fish, shellfish and other ugly crawly sea creatures, little of which is inedible to the Polynesians. A certain variety of seaweed, bright green and with fronds laden with rice-bubble sized fruit is harvested from the lagoons and eaten raw as a salad vegetable. It is very tasty, even peppery, and certainly very good for you.
Being late May/June the rainy season is officially over, but we still get periodic heavy showers. Fresh water supply is never a problem here in these lush, mountainous isles. There are hundreds of springs all over the islands, and where they bubble up at the coast the ingenious villagers have built rock pools for swimming, bathing or washing (village law sometimes restricts the latter two). They are often double, and have outflows to the sea, backing up full of crystal clear water at high tide. There is no shortage of volcanic rock here. These islands are relatively quite new. There was a volcanic eruption in the neighbouring island of Savai’i not so long ago. The rocks are used to “pave” gardens, build walls, pen pigs, construct tombs and the bases of houses.
House construction wise, most have made the leap from available tree timber posts with woven palm leaves for roofs and wall shelter, to all-western building materials. Consequently, in the hurricane season, airborne sheets of roofing iron now compete with flying coconuts for lethality. Deceased family are buried in the “garden” close to the house, often on the “front porch”. A lot of money goes into these structures, and the display, some like grand Italianate mausoleums, is a point of pride for the family.
Gossip, frequently malicious and often substantiated, is the lifeblood of the village. Small village life is similar the world over. There is a transparency to daily life. Ones behaviour is being constantly scrutinised and evaluated. We westerners would mostly find this intolerable. They do however have traditions in place that avoid ongoing family feuds or vendettas that could destroy the harmony of life on islands of this size. And in a recent case where someone’s behaviour exceeded the bounds of tolerance, a man recently found guilty of incest was banished forever from his village. His house was razed to the ground, and he was ordered to pay 50 pigs as restitution. I doubt if he’ll have any other choice but to leave these islands forever – if he can. Here’s a thought – perhaps some of the great Polynesian explorers and voyagers of old were merely out there searching for other islands because they’d been banished. Hmmm.
Manners. On board the buses, on which we do a lot of travelling to and fro, it is good to see the young giving up their seats to their elders: a politeness that seems to have disappeared where we come from. Also, when the bus gets crowded people simply double up, sitting on someone’s lap, seemingly total strangers. I watched an attractive teenage girl sit up on the lap of a teenage boy alongside her to make room. I watched the boy’s expression with keen interest, wondering what was going thorough his mind. He expressed pure innocence. I vaguely remember a time when I might have had that innocence. Vaguely.
Animals and pests. Pigs (what we call the “Captain Cook” or bush-pig), chickens (great eggs) and dogs roam free, seemingly willy-nilly. In constant graze mode, they are often seen on the road verges but we’ve seen no evidence of road kill – unlike Australia with its kangaroo corpse littered country roads. There are no fences as we know them in the hamlets and people seem to know whose stock is whose. I guess the animals know their territorial boundaries. The no-fence rule applies to all village housing too, a phenomenon which takes some adjusting to (it’s also a key factor in the cultural difference – an openness we don’t/can’t/won’t practise). The courtyard, or open living area, may be low-fenced off to give a safe haven from neighbouring packs of dogs that can be vicious and vociferous to visitors. Villagers treat others’ dogs with a healthy respect – but will kill them if they become too dangerous. Loud dog pack fights are common throughout the night. Combine that with the roosters’ crowing at 11pm, 1am, 3am, 5am etc. and you’ll appreciate that it takes some adjusting to get a good night’s rest. Ah, I forgot to mention the ever-present mosquitoes, which respect no such time conventions.
Lethargy. As we don’t have to tend to any of the chores associated with the gathering and maintenance of crops or preparation of foodstuffs, and are generously supplied with delicious, prepared local delicacies by family of both Rachel’s birth parents, it is easy to become lethargic. I’ve noted that no Samoan hurries. Although the villagers tend to do a lot of hard physical labour – mostly associated with food – it is common to see them taking siestas on their raised platform, palm-leaf roofed fales. In between tasks perhaps? For some, who get frequent remittances from their offspring in NZ, there is no need to work quite so hard and many are corpulent. But given the high starch Polynesian diet and their tendency to be big boned anyway, I guess it’s not so unusual. After only one week, often frustrated at the slow pace and my inability to “get things done”, I begin to slow down. A good portion of the day can go by during which . . . nothing happens. The geckos on the walls chirrup to each other, dogs bark, a coconut falls to the ground with a thud, and any urgency I have about going somewhere or getting something done just melts in the tropical torpidity. This is serious “mañana” territory. The “no hurry” national characteristic appears all the more curious when you find them behind the wheel of a vehicle. A speed limit of 35 or 40mph (it’s complicated) throughout the land doesn’t prevent drivers from a mysterious and compelling urge to speed up and overtake on blind bends. Inevitably, half way through the manoeuvre, an approaching vehicle will appear and, nine times out of ten, the driver will decide in favour of urging even more speed out of the already labouring engine – this from a people who don’t hurry you understand. As passengers it can be a bit unnerving.
Sunday. Most go to church. A day of enforced rest. Too many western religions have a grip on these Polynesian peoples. For some reason, in spite of their existing, strong culture, the many missionaries found easy converts throughout Polynesia. And while it is hard not to enjoy the choral singing which wafts from the many churches, or to admire the young ladies dressed in vestal white, I have an inkling they never needed the church as much as the church needed them: regularly taking from the people both money and other gifts to the enrichment of the church and its pastors. It’s a subject I feel quite strongly about, but I would get little support from any Polynesian still living in the islands.
We hope to return to Samoa some day, and will stay in the village again by choice, as opposed to living in a hotel or some commercial accommodation.
Fin & goodbye.
Tofa soi fua.
Copyright © J Cedric Watkins 2009