Samoa! What an awesome place! Captain Andriy had me up at 10am to head over to Valima, the home of the great Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, the chap wot wrote Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Taking Filipe the ship’s steward with us, we met with Richard the local port agent and hit the road into the interior.
Back in the 1890s, Robert Louis Stevenson’s health was waning and he believed that a more tropical clime would be conducive to his general well-being, or at least more conducive than the frigid night air of the Scottish highlands or the smog-laden streets of London at the height of the industrial revolution.
When Stevenson visited Samoa in the 1880s, it was love at first sight. He built a home for himself and his family in the middle of a beautiful forest clearing in the village of Valima. Stevenson lived with his wife and step-daughter in Valima for the last four years of his life, bringing with him his not inconsiderable talent for telling stories. The local people soon fell in love with Stevenson, one of the few white men to turn up in these parts who was genuinely interested in the ancient culture of Samoa and who wasn’t there to plunder the natural resources, enslave the population or convert the islanders to one of the many competing flavours of Christianity. His native name was Tusitala, “the teller of tales”. By the time of his death in 1894, Stevenson was so adored by the people of ‘Upolu that they spent the proceeding three days cutting a path from Valima to the top of nearby mount Vaea: a not inconsiderable task, considering the mountain was over 500 metres above sea level and covered in dense jungle foliage.
The people of ‘Upolu lined the path. Pretty much every single islander turned out for the funeral. The Samoans passed Stevenson’s coffin from person to person all the way from Stevenson’s house to the top of the mount, which should give you an idea of how many people were in attendance. And there, looking out over his treasured island, Robert Louis Stevenson remains until this very day.
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 sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
This self-penned eulogy was translated into Samoan and is still used to this very day as a song of mourning for the loss of loved ones. This beautiful story was only matched by the beauty of the house itself: Valima, a place so magical that the Samoans named their national beer after it. We were given a tour of the place by a softly-spoken local girl who guided us through the many airy, sunlit rooms from a time when humans still had the capability to render beauty in three dimensions. Valima is a place where life slows down to the speed of the specks of dust floating in a sunbeam, and here we are, nestled in tranquil gardens a million miles from anywhere, a perfect retreat for any aspiring weaver of tales both tall and short.
After Valima, Richard took myself, Captain Andriy and Filipe up to the Papapapaitai Falls (which I had fun singing in the style of Pearl & Dean’s Asteroid), a magnificent cataract slap bang in the middle of the island. Then we pressed on to the south coast, through villages and towns. Traditional Samoan houses have no walls, just a roof held up by thin wooden pillars and heavy fabric ‘curtains’ which can be unfurled should the occupants require a little bit of privacy, perhaps to make more Samoans.
The Samoan outlook is so diametrically opposed to the typically American paranoid view of the world (‘everybody is trying to kill me and steal my stuff!’) that I’m rather looking forward to seeing American Samoa – will there be alarm systems on people’s curtains? Will guard dogs understand human territory that is not demarcated by a ruddy great big concrete security wall? Will these simple huts be fitted with a panic room? We’ll have to wait and see.
After lunch in a splendid coastal resort, decked out in traditional Samoan architectural styling, we drove along the mighty wind-swept coast of this rather remarkable dot in the Pacific Ocean. Waves travel uninterrupted for thousands of miles east from Australia, west from South America, south from Russia just to dash themselves on these shores. The people of Samoa, like all Pacific natives, are the descendants of the Lapita, brave souls who ventured out 2,000 years ago from what is now Taiwan with nothing but an outrigger canoe, balls of steel and an incredible knowledge of the sea. There are still people alive today who can tell you which way to find land just by observing the shape of the waves. And find land they did, populating not only Samoa, but Palau, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, Nauru, The Marshall Islands, Hawaii, The Gilbert Group, the Line Islands, the Phoenix Islands, Tuvalu, Wallis and Fortuna, The Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, American Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Nuie, Tokelau, The Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Pitcairn, Henderson and – yes – even as far east as Easter Island, ten times closer to Chile than what it is to Taiwan. These guys explored millions of square miles of the biggest and most dangerous ocean on Earth 1,500 years before the Pinta, Nina and Santa Maria even dreamt of crossed the Atlantic.
Needless to say, these guys had some mad skills.
As evening draw near, Richard dropped us off at the port and after a hearty farewell, Filipe and I hit the town. As the ship was scheduled to leave at 4am, Captain Andriy could not join us as he had ship’s business to conduct. I had sent out a few CouchSurfing ‘let’s meet up for a beer’ requests, and one requestee, a Brit named Jenny had responded. She met us in Paddles bar and was one of those fascinating people raised in foreign lands, in her case East Africa, blessed with a view of the world that too few of us share – the not-so-secret knowledge that we’re all in this together and that the oh-dearism, it’s a long-way-from-here-ism and they’re-their-own-worst-enemy-ism is the thinking of dinosaurs and scoundrels. Her dad works for the United Nations which segued into a delightfully heated debate about the net worth of the UN (my estimation: zero). Jenny was due to join her mates for din-dins, and as Filipe and I had already grabbed some tucker on board the Lily, we said our goodbyes and headed up the road to Club X, which was surprisingly (and somewhat disappointingly) not a strip joint.
There Filipe and I met with Bill, the ship’s fourth engineer, and the three of us flung ourselves (with heroic disregard for our own safety or indeed sanity) headlong into the Beer Vortex. Huzzah! A great end to a great day.
Looking for somewhere to get away from it all and write the next great American novel? One word for you, Benjamin: Samoa.