by Peter Nelson
Great luck right away. Landed on Upolu, the main island, hitched into Apia, and after one look around at yet another dingy and noisy city, immediately started hitching right back out of town again. And the first guy to pick us up says, “Well, you must come and stay with me, don’t you think?” Delighted to accept. After a fairly long and bumpy ride east, we arrived at Luatuanúu, (not as hard to pronounce as it looks, just say it in groups of 3 letters) which means the Two Villages. And there are two, quite close together, but separated by a river.
We promptly go native, discarding our uncomfortable Western clothes. Savea, our gracious host, who is also the village chief, gives us each a lava-lava to put on (a long, sarong-like garment), and some woven-leaf mats are spread out on the ground. We sit down cross-legged (it’s considered bad manners to sit with one’s legs outstretched, but sitting cross-legged for long periods can become a bit painful for long, ungainly Westerners) and are introduced to the South Pacific welcome-ritual of kava drinking.
Kava is made from the dried roots of the yagona tree. The roots are ground into powder and then mixed with hot water, producing this murky-looking, suspiciously grey liquid. The Samoans sit around drinking it for an hour or two, usually before supper. The only effect I ever noticed was that kava makes your tongue as numb as a side of frozen beef! But the ritual itself is pretty cool, involving chants and hand-clappings which apparently show the status of the drinkers. As guests, we outrank everyone except the chief himself.
Eventually supper’s ready, and we’re shown to our falê, a thatched hut on short stilts above the ground, with woven grass walls which reach only half-way to the roof. Loads of fresh air, needless to say. The floor is covered with mats intricately woven from banana leaves. For each meal, fresh leaves are plucked to be used as individual green placemats. The food is magnificent — taro (a yam-like, white starchy vegetable) with thick coconut sauce, fried fish, roasted whole pigeon (including the head and feet), boiled breadfruit, beetroot, and fresh tea. No utensils, all eating is done with the fingers. Afterwards, you get a bowl of water and a cloth to wash up. After the meal, which can last a couple of hours, everyone’s given a pillow, and we all stretch out on the floor. The chief lights up his pipe, and now the women take the food away and eat their own supper. Not only are the women not allowed to eat with us, they must not even enter the falê while we are eating.
In the meantime, our beds have been prepared. Everyone in the village except the chief and us, sleeps on the floor. We, the privileged, get these huge overstuffed feather pillow-beds. Never seen one before. You sink down in the middle, and both sides rise up around you in feathery waves, threatening to engulf you. But they’re very comfortable, once you learn how to swim!
Next morning, the village children take us down to the river for a bath. Listen, the water’s just sooooo cool and silvery — flashing, transparent, rolling over the smooth black rocks like flexible slivers of ice. Just deep enough that you can jump in, roll over onto your back, spread out your arms and legs, and with only your nose and your toes protruding above the surface, glide effortlessly all the way down to the sea. Fan-bloody-tastic! Coconut palms slide by on either bank, inquisitive tiny blue fish poke you here and there, a small brown bird wings by high overhead, all sounds are muffled because your ears are beneath the surface. Slip gently from light into shadow into light again under shadows under reeds behind trees through days, it seems.
‘Dat ole Man River, he doan say nuthin’ …’
The village kids really take a shine to us. First of all of course, because we look so weird — white skin, blue eyes and all. And they’re utterly flabbergasted by my beard, something they’ve never seen before. But mostly, I think, they’re smitten with us because of the way we treat them. Samoan adults don’t play with their children. Since we do play with them, they’re our friends for life, shrieking with delight when we toss them up in the air or swing them around or carry them piggy-back. So they follow us everywhere and pester us continually for more rides, etc. Really beautiful children, just beautiful. After a couple of days, we’re part of the family.
Evenings after supper, Savea takes us and the kids for rides around the island in his small pick-up. We all stretch out in the back and watch the brilliant stars streak by overhead. What a romantic island, what a sweet, sweet life. In the back of the pick-up, we all tumble together as Savea tools around the rough and curvy roads.
It’s getting late, and the younger kids start to fade. I’m totally amazed when a child falls asleep in my lap. What an incredibly humbling feeling. Very few experiences in this life compare with winning the trust of these small warm beings.