In the adventure novel Treasure Island, the principal narrator and protagonist, Jim Hawkins, says his heart sank into his boots when, after months at sea, he espied the Caribbean isle, “with its grey, melancholy woods and wild stone spires.”
The book’s Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson, had a quite different reaction on his first sight of the South Pacific islands of Samoa in the 19th century. He was so delighted, that he bought an estate on the Samoan island of Upolu and took up residence there.
The hospitable Samoans immediately accepted the ailing Scot, who suffered from weak lungs, as one of their own.
They called him Tusitala, or the “teller of tales.”
Stevenson spent the last four years of his life in his mansion in the village of Vailima, overlooking the Samoan capital Apia. The villa has been lovingly converted into a museum.
It seems almost as though Stevenson still lives in the house. Family photographs hang on a wall. One shows the author, with carefully parted hair and a thick moustache, in a white suit. In another, he is on his favourite horse, Jack.
First editions of his books Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are on display. In the nursery, puzzle pieces and dominoes lie on the floor as if his stepchildren, Isobel and Lloyd, had only stepped out for a moment.
Stevenson died in idyllic Samoa, where he had found peace of mind, in 1894 at the age of 44. “Here he lies where he longed to be;/ Home is the sailor, home from sea,/ And the hunter home from the hill,” reads his epitaph in part, which he composed himself.
His tomb lies on Mount Vaea, a half-hour climb from the villa.
Samoa consists of two large islands and eight small ones, some of which are uninhabited. Savai’i is the largest, but most of the country’s 177,000 inhabitants live on Upolu, the second-largest. Apia has a population of about 35,000.
The tropical lushness of the island group, situated halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, can hardly be overstated. Savai’i and Upolu are of volcanic origin, and green valleys stretch from the islands’ peaks to their sandy white beaches and blue lagoons.
The cliche of a paradise on Earth — beaches, palm trees and coconuts — is a reality.
“You call it Paradise, we call it home,” is a Samoan tourist industry slogan.
“The land is so fertile that wooden lampposts sometimes start to sprout and become trees again,” said Marjorie Moore, an editor at the Samoa Observer newspaper. The two main islands are almost always a deep green, with palms, rainforests and flowers in all colours. Fruits and vegetables grow almost on their own.
“Samoa is like a land of milk and honey,” remarked Tasalaotele Sapolu, a Samoan who has worked abroad as an airplane pilot and is now setting up a wellness centre in her homeland using natural Samoan products, such as a honey-and-coconut-flakes body scrubs and avocado-oil massages. To make the liquid refreshment, she picks papayas in the garden.
“We’re blessed with everything necessary for a healthy life,” Sapolu said.
Visitors are amazed at the tropical variety at Apia’s central market Maketi Fou, which includes bananas of many kinds, coconuts, taro — a tasty root vegetable — as well as pineapples and papayas, depending on the season. Fruits and vegetables come in all shapes and colours.
A delicious snack called “palusami” can be found on every street corner: taro leaves, spinach and coconut milk wrapped in a banana leaf and baked. And then there is “oka:” raw fish marinated in lemon juice with coconut, onions, cucumbers and tomatoes.
Banquet meals in Samoa are baked in a traditional “umu” earth oven on rocks heated by fire. The food is placed on banana leaves and then covered with more leaves to seal the heat. Cooking takes hours.
A Samoan refreshment is “niu,” cooled coconut from which the juice is drunk. There is only one spot on the shell where a hole for a straw can easily be made — and a legend behind it.
Sina, the legend goes, was a beautiful girl with a little pet eel. The eel grew and fell in love with her.
Sina became frightened and ran away, and her housemates killed the eel. But before he died, the eel implored Sina to bury his head in the ground. She did, and a coconut palm sprang up on the spot.
The palm’s fruit has three small indentations, which resemble an eel’s eyes and mouth. Only the “mouth” indentation can be easily pushed in. Every time Sina drank out of one of the coconuts, it was as if she were kissing the eel.
On Sunday mornings in Apia, smartly dressed families, the women typically in broad hats, can be seen strolling to church. There is one church after another on Beach Road, all of which fill to bursting. And out of each pours forth the Samoans’ melodic singing.
Samoans live life fervently and love celebrations, a legacy of German colonists.
Another popular drink is kava, a brown brew made from pulverized roots of the Piper methysticum plant. Mildly intoxicating, it is served at important ceremonies. Samoan men also drink it in the morning at the market.
Samoa has been inhabited for some 3,000 years. Europeans arrived in the 18th century. French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville named the islands the Navigator Islands in 1768. The first missionaries came in 1828.
Several countries, interested mainly in coconut plantations, established trading posts. In 1899, the United States annexed eastern Samoa, and Germany the western islands. After the First World War, New Zealand was granted a mandate over Western Samoa, which won independence in 1962. It later changed its named to Samoa, despite protests from the territory of American Samoa.
On Apia’s esplanade stands a small fale, a pavilion-like, open structure with a roof that adjoins almost every house and is a meeting place for friends and family. There Sonny Natanielu lay on a bast mat and tried to relax as master tattooist Petelo Suluape tapped a sharp, inky tattooing comb into his thigh with a stick.
Tattooing is an age-old art in Samoa, where the men all used to wear the “pe’a,” the traditional knee-to-navel tattoo. The practice is making a comeback today.
“It’s my identity,” Natanielu said.