The Samoan Way

Alvah and Diana visit Robert Louis Stevenson's grave in Samoa. From The Roger Henry Files for our September 16, 2010, CW Reckonings.

Samoan 368

Diana entertains a stowaway en route to Samoa.Alvah Simon

As Diana and I sailed our cutter, Roger Henry, into the harbor of Apia, the capital of Samoa, port authority sent out a little boat to guide us into the marina in their inner basin. As we followed them in between two long finger piers, the crew of our guide boat seemed indecisive as to which slip we should turn into. At the last second, they pointed to a slip requiring a panic turn to starboard. Just as I was wondering if I'd make the turn or leave a lasting impression on the dock, my attention was drawn to a pretty girl in a swimming suit on the dock. She was waving wildly and shouting, "It's Alvah! It's Alvah! Hello!"

This happens to me all the time. But then I wake up. Although thoroughly distracted, I managed to make a soft landing on the jetty. Our welcome committee turned out to be Amanda Swan-Neil and John Neil, owners and operators of the sail-training vessel Mahina Tiare. We had not seen John and Amanda since New Zealand several years before.

Long distance sailing is a solitary endeavor and it is always a pleasant surprise to run into old friends and swap sea stories in far-flung ports of the world. And sea stories John and Amanda have, for they have logged more sea miles than the average admiral, having conducted sail training trips ranging from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific.

As a sort of "graduation dinner" John and Amanda were taking their six sail trainees to dinner that night at the famous Aggie Grey's Hotel. Way back in Victoria, I'd promised Diana a night out at Aggie's, so we happily tagged along. I love the boating life because it is ever changing. You can go from a canned Spam meal on a bucking boat one night to an opulent Polynesian Smorgasbord in an elegant garden setting the next. While Diana enjoyed the traditional palusami (fish and coconut cream baked in young taro leaves) in a refined fashion, I unashamedly slurped down the optically unappealing but delicious raw sea urchins. They taste of the sea-salty, wild and unfathomable.

Apia is a typical Pacific capital, a languid little town, a bit run down but with a Summerset Maughan hibiscus and frangipani type of charm. It is just large enough to find all the services and supplies required, yet small enough to explore from one end to the other in a morning. The large and colorful open market bustles with farm merchants selling exotic tropical fruits, vegetables, taro, and mountains of coconuts. Fish mongers offer trays of freshwater eels, lobsters, crabs, and colorful reef fish.

A mere 100 miles to the east lies American Samoa, a full fledged territory of the United States, with all the attending advantages and disadvantages of dependency on a wealthy colonial power. The economy is underwritten by American aid and absolutely everything is available and at a substantially cheaper rate. But the Samoan traditions have been deeply eroded by modern consumerism and foreign political structures.

The Samoans are somewhat aghast by the relatively hurried pace of their neighboring cousins, by the breakdown of the authority of the matai system (powerful village chiefs), the increasing rates of crime and violence, and the fast-food litter floating around the capital of Pago Pago. With this example so close at hand, they are especially determined to maintain Fa'a Samoa, the traditional Samoan way of life.

Samoans are open and friendly towards palangis (white visitors), which is a good thing because the average Samoan, be they man or woman, is a large and powerful human being. But however friendly the Samoans may be, a foreign visitor must be aware of some strict codes of conduct. The Samoans, now exclusively Christian, are a sternly devout people and frown on anything even approaching frolic on a Sunday. Many the tourists has found themselves in serious trouble to the point of physical intimidation and even stoning for swimming on a Sunday, driving a rental car too fast through a village, or for operating their outboard engines, which disturbs the tranquility of the Sabbath.

And it must be noted that there's a modest dress code here. It is ironic that the same Europeans who taught the Samoans that it was lewd and lascivious to go about bare breasted are now the ones causing a stir by dropping their bikini tops at the first sign of a white beach.

I do not find Sundays in Polynesia at all restrictive. Quite the contrary, it is my favorite day of the week. I put on my best clothes, if I can find any, and slip into the back of the nearest church I can find. The Polynesians worship through song and sing with a gusto that nearly lifts the steeple. The job is not left to a rehearsed choir, for every person in the congregation seems to posses a sweet musicality. Their intricate harmonies are simply transporting and I find myself floating back to the boat after these services.

But by Monday it was back to the many details of preparing the boat for our sail to Savaii Island and on further to the French territory of Wallis. Diana chased down fresh bread, eggs and vegetables while I sought out diesel, propane, and engine oil. I wore out some sandal leather locating the many bureaucratic offices I was required to visit.

We try to read ahead of our travels to form a cultural and historic perspective of the lands we are about to visit. We establish a few areas of specific interest, such as significant archeological sites, the location of some historic battle, or a geographic treat in the form of a spectacular waterfall or unique cave system. In Western Samoa our target was literary. We taxied to the Vailima Estate just outside of Apia, which was the homestead of the famed author Robert Louis Stevenson.

Stevenson, who the Samoans called Tusitala, Teller Of Tales, was and still is loved by the Samoan people, who have gone to great efforts to preserve his palatial house and surrounding gardens. For as interesting as our tour of the home and grounds were, our goal was his gravesite on top of a mountain behind the home. Diana and I hiked up the steep muddy trail for nearly an hour, through hot and humid tropical growth. Our efforts were rewarded when we suddenly broke out of the verdant bush into a bright clearing with a stunning view of Apia Bay and the endless expanse of the mighty blue Pacific beyond. Stevenson, who died at 44 years old, chose his final resting place wisely, for there are certain locations that seem so serene as to be sublime.

Embedded into his raised grave is a bronze plaque with his name, dates of birth and death, and his short poem Requiem. As I read his epitaph out loud to Diana, I am embarrassed to admit that I felt a bit overwhelmed emotionally, for here lay an accomplished sailor, a courageous adventurer, a writer of renown, and, most importantly, a true lover of life. I thought to myself that I should do so well as to conclude my life, whatever its span, with such satisfied sentiments:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie,
Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.  

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor home from the sea,

And the hunter home from the hill