Samoa: Family Ties

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Not long ago, I received a phone call from my mother. She sounded despondent. Here we go, I thought, she's been with her girlfriends and they've had the "grandkid-off."

Sure enough: "I just returned from book club," she said, "and everyone was showing photos of outings with their grandchildren."

I'd heard it before. I live in California with my American husband and two daughters, and my parents live in New Zealand. Big distance, and although we see them twice a year, it is never enough.

But this time my mother added a line that stopped me cold. "What with your father being so ill, the doctors say we should not delay."

My father, who had been to date aging well, was quite suddenly dying. At 82, this should not have come as any great surprise, but it did. No one knew if he had days, months or a year, only that -- as my father himself put it with his perennial wry humor -- he was about to "fall off the perch."

We planned a Hawaiian vacation -- immediately. Brochures promised umbrella drinks, acre-size swimming pools and 500 channels of TV. We would not have to plan anything. Fawning staff would do the thinking for us.

Then I panicked. My father, a man who until quite recently was the living, breathing paradigm of a great outdoorsman, surely would not appreciate being held captive in a multi-tiered fun palace for his last hoorah. My two daughters, on the other hand, were deliriously excited by the prospect of fighting other families for a poolside lounger and befriending children who spoke the same language. They have, as they belligerently informed me, been dragged to some very strange places in their short lives, locales that do not elicit shrieks of envy from their schoolmates. Morocco and India, while being in my mind essential to a good education, are voids in the consciousness of most 7- and 8-year-olds. Hawaii, however, was a surefire crowd pleaser.

One evening as I was putting these precocious wanderers to bed, I pulled out Treasure Island, the antiquated but still captivating novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. RLS was a childhood favorite of mine. Outlandishly bohemian for Victoria's priggish British Isles, he traveled widely, living out his final years on Upolu in the Samoa Islands, a cartographical speck in the South Pacific, west of Tahiti and north of New Zealand. As a girl, I had visualized RLS's Samoa as a gentle outpost, a place of naive, unspoiled tropical beauty where foreigners were seduced into removing their starched collars and donning native attire. In my childlike imagination, it was an exotic land where indigenous people lay in the spiked shadows of palm trees and made necklaces from frangipani. It was a place I wanted to go.

I called my father and listened as his battered voice grew bright at the idea of Samoa. He too had always wanted to see the place. Much to the disgust of my children, I canceled the Hawaiian extravaganza (blaming it, of course, on my father's dying wish) and made bookings for us all to convene in Samoa. This would be a last trip, perhaps to prove that until one does fall off the perch, there should be no end to adventure.

At bedtime I began reading guidebook factoids to my reluctant girls: With about the same landmass as Rhode Island, Samoa has nearly 180,000 well-fed, peace-loving, mostly agricultural people. And though they adopted Christianity, the Samoans have fiercely guarded their culture. ("Yeah, yeah," the kids said, bored stiff, "but do the hotels have water slides?") Their language is Samoan, the dress code is still the traditional wraparound lava-lava ("What? The men wear skirts?") and although cinder-block houses are beginning to crop up, most people still live in fales, the traditional open-sided, see-through huts. ("You mean there are, like, no walls?") Samoa should not be confused with American Samoa, which despite being part of the same geographical chain of islands, is more westernized and has been a territory of the United States since 1900. ("I bet American Samoa has water slides.")

Samoa has two large islands: Upolu, the most populated, with 432 square miles; and Savaii, a sparsely populated 660 square miles. Upolu holds the capital, Apia, and the airport. It was here that we landed in the dead of an October night under a ripe, low tropical moon.

As soon as I stepped onto the tarmac, I knew I had made the right decision in bringing my family here. The tiny airport, the musky air -- all signaled promise. A barefooted man in a lava-lava stepped forward and took my father's hand in his, saying, "Old man, come this way. I take care of you."

My father laughed delightedly and said, "Well, they know how to call a spade a spade." Indeed, all Samoans addressed him as "old man," which we eventually understood to be a sign of respect.

Had I been traveling with just my husband and daughters, we might have made an effort to stay in one of the simple beachfront fales. However, given the circumstances, we chose two of the nicest hotels on Upolu (there are only four high-end resorts in the whole country), both located midway on the south coast. We descended first on Sinalei Reef Resort, a serene, polished-wood-and-rock retreat populated by couples. Then, for a more barefoot-casual experience, we moved to Coconuts Beach Club just down the beach.

Coconuts' manager, American Ned Brown, was unfashionably thin by Samoan standards. He struck me as a modern-day RLS. Having lived in Samoa for 10 years, he has the history and geography down pat, but most importantly, he has befriended the local matais (chiefs), aware that without the backing of these social behemoths, you're dead in the water. Perhaps most laudably, Ned understands fa'a Samoa, the complicated and hierarchical web of Samoan culture -- still steeped in ancestral tradition, fiercely patriarchal, dedicatedly Christian and ruled by rigid codes of conduct.

Apart from his physique, the other very un-Samoan thing about Ned is that he is a hiker. The average Samoan cannot imagine walking for pleasure. Walking is for someone too poor to own a car or a horse. Or -- if one must -- it is for sauntering to one's breadfruit crop. Ned, who is originally from Colorado, does what any self-respecting Rockies man would do and heads into the hinterland, where there are no roads and no human habitation. This makes him a wildly eccentric palangi (white person) by Samoan standards. Because there are few real trails, Ned blazes his own, and when the jungle calls for a machete, he takes to walking up the rivers.

Thinking this sort of adventure sounded jolly, my husband, Greg, and I asked to accompany Ned. "Fantastic!" he said, somewhat over eagerly. "Happy to have company. I can't seem to get the staff to go with me more than once." (Note to self: In future it would be prudent to interpret this kind of comment as a warning.)

Knowing they could not make it up the river, we left the girls behind with my parents. Departing, I found them all learning to weave baskets with a local fisherman, the girls teasing my father for his clumsiness. It was a poignant sight to see my father so completely content and present. And by now, the girls had been seduced by Samoa. Water slides and other children were forgotten. The neon fish, the sense of the exotic and the unadulterated attention of besotted grandparents had trumped any resentment about Hawaii.

Ned, Greg and I drove north across the island and through Apia toward our river. Immaculately white-shirted schoolchildren loped beside the car, waving and calling, "Halloooo! Halloooo!" Women in dazzling floral dresses carried flowers into pastel-colored churches, and farmers riding bareback on wiry horses trotted along the roadside. An hour later we reached Laulii, a village on the northern side of the island where Ned has found a waterfall.

Our goal was to reach the unnamed waterfall about "two hours" up the river. Even on the best map the island had to offer, none of Ned's waterfalls was featured. Neither was the river we were to walk up, and there was no such thing as a trail. Ignoring Ned's suggestion to don running shoes, I wore Teva sandals, smug in being such a well-prepared outdoorswoman. Greg and Ned would have to wear wet socks all day.

The setting was all Henri Rousseau gorgeousness. Smooth, acid-green leaves dripped with the morning's rain. Scarlet ginger flowers and wild papayas hung from trees like festive ornaments. Vines crept, coiled and strangled, and the air smelled of rot and fevered regrowth. I stopped in a sun-mottled clearing and gave silent tribute to the many hikes on which my father had taken me as a child, willingly or otherwise. He would have loved to be heading up that river.

In the river, it quickly became obvious that my Tevas were useless. I lurched and slipped on the slime-slick rocks while Ned and Greg leapt ahead of me in their running shoes. Giving up, I resorted to an apelike crouch, scrambling upward on all fours. And then -- oh, the humiliation -- rapids swept me off my feet, and I hurtled headfirst over a waterfall, bashing both knees as I was dragged into a roiling pool. Three hours into the hike, we had not yet reached Ned's big waterfall and were forced to turn back. It's slow going when accompanied by a wounded gorilla in strappy shoes. Despite my "tumble," as Ned graciously referred to it, the hike was an excellent adventure, and once the swelling subsided, I was fixated on how I would return to Samoa to explore all those uncharted rivers -- in proper shoes.

While hiking, Ned told us we must not miss Savaii, the other, larger island. If Upolu is the bridge between the 21st century and RLS's Samoa, Savaii is one step further back in time. "They practice more of the old ways over there," he said. "If you want to see life as it was 100 years ago, you need to go and visit the villages. You won't necessarily approve; it's very strict, and men are politically dominant, but it's fa'a Samoa, alright."

"Over there" is all of an hour-long ride away from upolu on a ferry my family boarded for a day trip. The watery divide meant going back in time. On Savaii people dress more traditionally; there are fewer cars, more horses and hamlets of thatched fales.

Ned had given us his list of eccentric palangi must-do's, and suspecting the rigors entailed for the first on the list, Greg and I left my parents and the children at a nearby restaurant and followed a crooked, hand-painted sign nailed to a fence post: To Afu Aau Waterfall. We walked up a muddy, overgrown trail and quickly found ourselves staring down on an insanely beautiful waterfall surging into an emerald pool. Scrambling down a precipitous trail, we ripped off our clothes and plunged into the cool water, hoping we would not be caught swimming in flagrante. The odds were good that we were safe: It did, after all, require walking to get there. We floated under the hammering falls, marveling that there are still places like this left in the world -- places that elsewhere would be fenced off with a parking lot lined with plush-seated tour buses. And yet here we were, our pale bodies glowing through the clear water, blessedly alone, alone, alone in our far-flung Shangri-La.

Scribbled next to the Alofaaga Blowholes on Ned's map was "a little cheesy, but must see." After collecting the family, we made our way toward the blowholes at the end of a jarring, lava-rock road. A bare-chested old man with a basket of coconuts rushed up, shouting, "Come! Coconut blowhoffffs! Tee hee! Coconut go whooooosh! Heeheeheehee!" And then, guiding my father by the arm, he said, "Old man, I show you my blowhofffs!"

He wore only a short, faded floral lava-lava, and his russet upper torso was sinewy and strong. He had none of the customary heft Samoan men typically have. He grinned at us with a deforested mouth, the only remaining teeth being some lonely molars floating in the back. With deft skill he walked barefoot on the volcanic rock to holes left in a lava flow where seawater shot up in columns. "Back old man," he ordered my father. "Sea wash you away. No good way to die."

"On the contrary," retorted my father. "Imagine the story my grandchildren could tell!" The man giggled, slapped my father on the back and tossed a coconut into an incoming swell that exploded through the hole, hurling the coconut some hundred feet in the air. Each burst would elicit more fits of tittering from our Coconut Man, in which, of course, we had no choice but to join.

My mother and I had a strong desire to buy siapo, Samoa's traditional mulberry-bark tapa cloth that is pain-stakingly beaten and then painted with complex patterns. Knowing their distaste for shopping, and after leaving the Coconut Man to his nutty devices, we deposited Greg and my father at a beach bar for a beer while we females sought the nearest tapa shop. Throughout the South Pacific, tapa was (and still is) used as celebratory dress. We were told we were in luck: Taulapapa Fetaiai Leaupepe lives three villages up, second road on left, and she is a well-known tapa artist. Taulapapa is a large, slow-moving woman who, at a guess, is somewhere between the ages of 70 and 150. She sat cross-legged on the floor of her fale surrounded by her multi-generational family, all of whom appeared to be learning the trade.

Taulapapa's dutiful daughter showed us how to strip the mulberry tree, the wizened husband pummeled it into a fibrous mass, and an elfin child beat it into layers to produce a cloth, using a root vegetable as glue. Taulapapa herself rubbed the wet cloth over a pattern block for an imprint, and then a dour daughter-in-law was put to work painting the designs. In the same fale, small boys painted other, dry tapa. My girls stared, humbled and incredulous that children so young could be put to work and be so skilled at it.

Because most youngsters in pacific island towns these days favor listening to island rap music over hammering cloth from bark, real tapa making is a vanishing art. Many Pacific nations make tapa, and an unabashed rivalry exists among them.

"I am best," said Taulapapa, showing me a yellowed picture of her younger self in an American paper. "Those Fijians, they use machine patterns and fake colors. Very lazy," she sniffed. "Me, I use great-grandmother's 200-year-old pattern block. They come and ask me to put it in the museum in Apia. I say, 'No way, crazy man.' I cannot make the tapa when the tradition is behind glass!" She showed me the carved slab of wood. It was smooth and beautiful and looked like it had seen about 1,000 years of use.

We purchased our tapa, bade farewell to the fearsome matriarch and consulted Ned's map once more. On the northern end of Savaii he had circled Manase, noting, "nice beach." Indeed, Manase is the pièce de résistance of beaches. Lined with the only semiluxury hotel on the island, as well as cheap, Zen-like fales, it is a place where I could happily imagine hanging for, oh, say a good six months. By the time we reached Manase I was moving at the same speed as the locals: that is to say, very slowly with little thought of anything beyond the moment.

Down on the marble-smooth white sand, glistening couples entwined at the high-water mark. At an open-air restaurant, young Germans with salt-stiff hair and Brits with lank dreadlocks wrote earnestly in journals, determined to record their days of paradise glimpsed. Australian surfer dudes with shaven heads stopped in for a pre-tube beer, staring at the pretty Samoan waitresses with red flowers in their hair. Samoan ukulele music played while palm trees danced along overhead in the sluggish, humid breeze.

My father, who moves slowly these days anyway, looked perfectly at home, and it occurred to me that if he were to fall off his perch right then and there, it would be a perfect way to go. He was, after all, already in paradise.

My 7-year-old daughter, Sofia, has a strong bond with my father. She has a fearless spirit, and he can never resist audacity. Perhaps it was the faintly mildewed smell of the air, the abrupt bursts of tepid rain or the languorous afternoons, but Samoa prompted my father to talk about his wartime memories. A New Zealander, he enlisted at 18 and fought the Japanese at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands west of Samoa. He never talked about the fighting, only about living in a tent for 18 months and meeting the "Yanks," who -- most fantastically -- had ice cream and cold beer as army rations.

That afternoon in Manase, I listened as he and Sofia talked, she asking questions far beyond her years. When I was young, I would roll my eyes and cut short his tired tales of war. But there they sat, my opalescent, smooth-faced, babyish daughter and her craggy, stooped, worn-out grandfather. There was an accord between them, and I felt a rush of shame to realize that he had waited all these years for someone to listen to his stories. Perhaps this was the greatest gift Samoa had afforded us: time to listen.

On our last day, I saw both my daughters sitting on the beach with my father. The spiked shadows of palm trees played on their faces as they made necklaces from fallen flowers. Just as I had imagined it so long ago.