No one in the Pacific has a good word for American
Samoa. This alone predisposed me to liking these islands and finding them
habitable and bounteous, the sort of carefree archipelago I might want to fling
myself into and be happy as an Oceanic clam.
The place was generally hated, but what was the
problem? Six little islands and one biggish one, Tutuila, a total population of
37,000 people - American Samoa had only half the population of the town where I
was born, Medford, Massachusetts, which I had always thought of as unbearably
small. And every year the United States government handed over roughly
seventy-five million dollars to American Samoans. You couldn't get much more
carefree and bounteous than that, though politically Samoa is perhaps a kleptocracy.
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On the face of it, there was no reason why these islands should not
be paradise - indeed, they are, in their own pot-bellied way; the islanders are
very happy. Life in American Samoa is one long yankee boondoggle, and the people
are so hoggishly contented that they cannot stand the idea of ever forming an
independent political entity with their brothers and sisters in Western Samoa,
just across the water, because that reunion might diminish the money supply.
the average per capita income in Western Samoa was $5890 a year; in American
Samoa it was almost ten times that. But it was all funny money in any case -
intravenous, drip-feed cash, as they said in Australia - most if it foreign aid.
New Zealand had gone on financing its former territory of Western Samoa, and
America still stumped up money for its indigent islands which, politically, had
the same status as Puerto Rico.
So much for all the guff about the sacred concept of
familyhood in the two Samoas. "Corrupted" is the perfect word, though an
American Samoan can revert from being a fat guy in a Bart Simpson T-shirt, with
a can of Coke Classic in his hand, watching the super Bowl; and, at a moment's
notice, turn into a big dark fire-breathing islander, confounding you with
obscure incantations and unfathomable customs. When Samoans have their backs to
the wall they put on a lava-lava and pretend to be islanders. The rest of the
time - it seemed to me - they were fat jolly people, with free money, having a
The last sight I had had of real life in Western Samoa
was that of some women at dawn on the coast of southern Savaii, washing their
clothes and themselves at the edge of the Falealila River - the soap suds vivid
as surf against the b lack rocks. virtually the first thing I saw in American
Samoa were four enormously fat women sitting in Danny's Laundromat in Pago Pago,
watching their clothes being tossed in washers and yakking about the high coast
of living. They were an extraordinary size, guzzling cokes and glowing with
perspiration, and sitting with their chubby knees apart, Samoan style.
Houses in Western Samoa are true fales, shaped
as though modelled on the humpy helmet of Hernando DeSoto, and enhanced with mats
and blinds and thatch; in American Samoa the so-called fales are little
boxy bungalows, prefabs made in California - flat roof, single walls - plopped
on a slab. Poverty in Western Samoa has forced people to build in a traditional
way, because it is cheaper. And the fales there are better suited to the
climate than the cinderblock bungalows of Tutuila, which are unendurable without
a rusty, howling air-conditioner propped in a window. Even the churches are less
impressive in American Samoa, because of their dreary modernity.
But in both Samoas dead ancestors are buried in the
front garden, or next to the house, in a colorful sarcophagus. Samoans had all
sorts of explanations for this burying of the dead beside the hibiscus hedge on
the lawn - grief, affection, tradition, ancestor worship, the vulgar love of a
good in-ground necropolis, a wish to be near Auntie Ida, and so forth. But the
true answer seemed obvious to me. On an island where land tenure was always
subject to lengthy deliberation, wasn't it a way of taking possession of the
land? You could evict anyone from a house, but how did you go about ridding the
place of a dozen dead relatives, sealed in coffins deep in the ground?
Kind of a crazy place, Verne in Tonga had told
me. But I'm kind of crazy, so I liked it there.
The ferry from Apia to Pago Pago had been full ("We
sell three hundred and twenty-one tickets, because we have three hundred and
twenty-one life jackets," the man in the office explained) so I took the short
"You are overweight," the 350-pound Samoan at the
check-in desk said.
It was nothing personal - it was my boat and my gear,
but the chunky airline employee said that it was too much trouble to collect the
additional charge, and so he waved me through. Pretty was not the word for
Tutuila - it looked fabulous, with green steep-sided mountains that had black
peaks - dark splintery antique volcanoes - precipitous valleys plunging down to
sea-cliffs and rocky headlands. It was a high vertical island, with a wide
lagoon and many fine bays and the deeply indented harbour of Pago Pago - a
lovely place, more vertiginous and dramatic, steamer, much lusher than in sister
islands to the west. Now pretty at all, but hot, langorous, ravishing,
dangerously attractive, like the person you pass on the sidewalk - what is it
about these lucky people? - who makes you feel flustered and breathless and
forgetful. You could fall in love at first night with Tutuila.
But on second glance, a moment later, looking closer,
you recover and decide not to throw your life away. Pago Harbor is muddy - it
doesn't get properly flushed by the tides - and it reeks of the tuna canneries
on the eastern side, Starkist and Van Camp. The rubbish on the beaches, flung
everywhere and seldom collected, it worse than anywhere else in the Pacific and
would make any sort of beach activity in Samoa depressing - but the lagoon is
too shallow for swimming, the coral is broken and dead, there is a sensational
litter of old soft-drink cans underwater; so there is not much beach activity.
When an American Samoan is finished with a can or a box or a bag, he or she
flings it aside. In the past such items were palm fronds and coconut husks and
banana peels: biodegradable. These days the trash is beginning to accumulate.
The island is noisy, vandalized, and all somehow familiar - it is not the seedy
poverty and squalor of Apia, where there is no money and nothing seems to work;
it is the fat wasteful American-style conspicuousness epitomized by much too bi,
much too expensive, rusted cars. Greedy, wasteful, profligate and proprietorial,
American Samoans are living on large handouts, forever pushing supermarket
shopping carts full of junk food, packages and cans, the Cheez Ball diet of
fat-bellied Polynesia - seedy prosperity.
The two Samoas are close together, but while Western
Samoa looks to New Zealand and Australia, American Samoa looks to Hawaii and
mainland America. New Zealanders have taught Western Samoans the elements of
thrift - the roadsides and lagoons are dreary but noticeably tidier in those
islands. what America has accomplished in its Samoan islands - and this is
instantly visible - is the removal of the cultural props, by creating a cash
economy. the worst effect of this has been a kind of competitive selfishness
which has fragmented the family. Most people I met in American Samoa spoke with
regret about the loosening of these family ties, which has meant a decline in
traditional formality and courtesy and a widespread casualness that borders on
insult and disrespect. I tended to evaluate Pacific islanders by the way they
related to the ocean around them. Did they swim? Did they fish with nets or
spears? Did they build boats, and paddle and sail? Could they go from one island
to another on their own in one of those boats? Once, these people had been among
the greatest sailors in the world. but what now? I wondered whether they were
afraid of the sea - whether they knew anything about it, whether they cared. did
they know which way the wind was blowing, could they forecast weather from the
patterns of the clouds and the colour of the sky? did they ever venture beyond
the breakers on the reef?
On some islands, it was possible to say that the
islanders were still people of the sea. Western Samoans did some fishing and
boating in a limited sense, and in a Christianized pit-headed way, they were
traditional. In American Samoa some subtle and obscure customs were still
practised in their dull bungalows, but the people seemed indifferent tot he
ocean. No one went sailing. No one paddled. They jumped into the water and
splashed - but they hardly swam. Now and then you saw a fat kid on a jet ski.
The rest of them hid from the sun. They stayed away from the lagoon. their fish
came out of cans. It had been years since anyone had made an outrigger. It was
as though the entire population (and this seemed pretty odd in the Pacific) was
possessed by the most virulent form of hydrophobia.
The tradition is that the first Samoans - the first
real Polynesians - arrived from Tonga and Fiji in about 600 B.C., at the eastern
tip of Tutuila, near the village of Tula. Never mind that it was now an
unprepossessing village, of flimsy bungalows and littered roads and stray dogs;
it was the ancient landing place of the canoes. I decided to paddle around there
and set my sights on the only island I could possibly paddle to, "Aunu'u off the
"You'll never make it," a Samoan told me.
This was a true landlubber's point of view; the island
was only a few miles. Even with a rip-roaring current I could have made it, I
Later, I was looking around Alofau, having just come on
the coast road. In an equivalent place in Western Samoa the people wo9uld have
been watchful and circumspect. Here they were talkative and pushy.
Kenny, a big brown man, said to me, "You are new here."
It was not a question, so I asked whether he meant here
in Alofau, or on the island.
"On the island," he said. "In Samoa."
"How do you know that?"
"By your face."
"I look new to the island, you mean?"
"We know all the faces. I haven't seen you before,"
Kenny said. "I think you have arrived very recently."
"That's true. but I'm surprised you know that."
He said, "We can know everything, because we know
everyone on the island."
Elsewhere in Oceania, and in Western Samoa in
particular, such a conversation would have been essentially friendly, but in
American Samoa it seemed intrusive and aroused my suspicions - the man seemed
determined to nose around and probe, to find something out. And even the most
innocent-seeming remark put me on my guard.
I made my way around the island. I looked at Tula, I
scoped out the island of Aunu'u. at night I returned to my hotel in Pago. I came
to think of it as a soggy good-hearted town. Like most other visitors I
reflected on Maugham's "Rain." Maugham was another writer who had sanctified a
place by using it as a setting - he had done the islands a great favor - made
them seem exotic and interesting. Camping was out of the question here - all the
land was owned, accounted for and heavily protected against any intrusion. A
camper seemed like a squatter - indeed, that was how the Samoans themselves
sometimes staked their claims - he or she might never go away. And it must said
that not one square foot of land in American Samoa could be owned by a
non-Samoan. the Samoans were noted for not being particularly fastidious about
other people's rights, but they were fanatics about their own - being selfish
and infantile seemed appropriate to their clumsy obesity, like children who are
always insisting It's mine!
I was assembling my boat on a beach one day - a
futile-seeming operation: the lagoon was inches deep and littered with rusty
cans, there was no break in the reef, the surf was high and impenetrable. But I
soldiered on, just to see what I might find. And, having left one small item in
my rented car (the stoppers for my inflatable sponsons), I found I could not
finish setting up the boat until I got them. I had been talking to two fellows -
any activity at all seemed to interest people here. No one ever offered to help
me, nor did anyone refuse when I asked them to lend a hand.
I had parked my car discreetly, so that it couldn't be
broken into (the island was rife with break-in stories), and I was in two minds
about whether to get the items out of the car. I decided to be oblique.
"I have to buy something at the store," I said.
I went down the street, into the store, bought a drink,
went out the back way, tiptoed behind the building and slipped past some thick
trees, ducked down, and opened the car door, retrieved the stoppers, crept back
to the rear of the building and left through the front door, still sipping the
can of Fanta.
"Is that your car?" one of the men said when I got back
to the beach.
How had he seen me? And of course the question worried
me, because he knew I was just about to set off into the lagoon, where I could
be seen. It would have been so easy for them to break into my car.
"Where are you going in that boat?" the other man
"How long will you be out there?"
What was this? Again , their nosiness seemed to give
them away. In Western Samoa they would simply have watched me. Here artless and
intrusive at the same time, they seemed to reveal their intentions in all their
But in the event, the lagoon was too shallow for
paddling, and that was the day I planned my trip out of historic Tula, to make
for the offshore island of Aunu'u.
I was continually worried about Samoans stealing my
gear. Everyone - even Samoans themselves - spoke of the predilection for theft
here in the islands; and everyone had a theory as to why it happened - ranging
from It's-an-old-Samoan-custom to They're-natural-kleptomaniacs.
It was always assumed that if you left something sitting idly by it would be
instantly pinched, and no one was very subtle about it. If someone stole a shirt
from you, he would probably be seen wearing it the next day; if someone stole a
hammer or a knife, the thief would be observed using the item very soon after.
"And if you say, 'That's mine!' they'll laugh at you." So I was told.
I was careful, but any traveller is vulnerable. In
Tonga my hotel room had been plundered while I was out. Yet nothing was stolen
from me in Samoa.
I paddled from Tula to the little hamlet of Au'asi,
where there was a breakwater, just to verify that there were motor-boats that
plied back and forth from Aunu'u Island at a dollar a trip. I thought I would
ask one of these motor-boaters about the sea conditions between here and the
A boatman was hunkered down on the jetty, so I asked
him, "Is there much of a current out there?"
It seemed calm enough, but there were waves breaking on
all the reefs and shoals, and there was about a three-foot swell - not bad
looking, but the sea is a riddle.
"The sea is move," he said placidly.
I muttered it to myself.
"The sea is smooth?"
"Yeh. Is move."
It was too late that day to paddle out, so I returned
the following day and set up my boat. Seven boys - big bulky teenagers, just out
of school - sat under the palms at Au'asi, watching me struggle with my boat
parts. The scene could have been idyllic - healthy youths under the shade of the
coconut palms, by the beach, on a sunny day in Samoa. but the tussocky grass was
littered with paper, the fence was broken, the beach was scattered with broken
glass and in the shallow water there were bottles and cans and soggy sunken
blobs of paper. dogs barked nearby, overloaded buses wheezed past (because the
shoreline in Samoa is a road), and music-played - reggae or rap - from each bus.
The boys wore T-shirts with various motifs - one showed
a black Bart Simpson making an obscene gesture and was captioned Fucking Bart,
another showed an angry duck - I Got An Attitude!, it said. One said
Hawaii, another - the most preposterous - Samoa: People ofthe Sea;
and still other were simply numbered and coloured athletic shirts.
"What's that - a tent?" one said, "Is a pig boat. Is a
I said, "It's a boat."
I was trying to assemble it quickly and get out of
"What kind of boat? You can give us a ride?"
"It's for one person," I said.
"He don't want to give you a ride, you stupid shit."
they hovered around me.
"Did you just come from school?" I asked.
"We just come from fucking these guy's girlfriend."
"Shut up, you stupid."
I found their insolence remarkable, because on arriving
at Pago Pago Airport I had been given a pamphlet with no less than a dozen
admonitions on how to behave in American Samoa. One concerned general behavior:
It is hoped that you will take extra care to ensure that none of your actions
is misinterpreted as dissatisfaction with your host; and the reason was
given: The Samoan people are, by nature and culture, extremely anxious to
please their guests.
"Where you come from, mister? asked People of the Sea.
"I'm from the States. What about you?"
Would they say "American Samoa"? "Samoa"? "Tutuila"? or
"I'm from Compton," one said, naming a black area in
Los Angeles - the same frequently occurred in the violent songs of a rap group
that called itself NWA or Niggers With Attitude. Needless to say,
this group was immensely popular in American Samoa.
I said, "Are you really from Compton?"
"He lying," another said.
"I'm from Waipahu."
"Isn't that in Hawaii?" I asked.
"He never been to Hawaii!"
"Me, I'm from California, man."
"Dis a lie!"
And so they went on, giggling and yakking, and none of
them told me where they were really from, the offshore island of Aunu'u.
"I think you're waiting for the boat to Aunu'u," I
said. "What do you do out there?"
"We kill people!" the one in the Fucking Bart
"Ya, we do dat!"
Tedious little bastards, I thought, but I said,
"You are being very rude to me. Do you think it's funny?"
They were silent a moment, and then one jabbed his
finger sideways. "He tink so."
It seemed to be one of the oldest Samoan customs to
victimize the person without a family, the individual, the outsider, the
stranger, because it was a society where, if you had no family, you had no
status. Perhaps this was the reason they had achieved so little, either here or
on the mainland. They did not want to stand out. They were the most pathetic
conformists, and so the greatest bullies, in the Pacific. Who was I but a
middle-aged oddball on the beach, trying to assemble a foreign-looking object
that they did not recognize as a boat. They mocked me because I was an outsider,
and they mocked me because they outnumbered me. None of them would have had the
guts to face me alone, unless he had been suffering the Samoan affection of
extreme bad temper, a sort of hideous Black Dog mood called musu. A
Samoan with musu was a man to avoid.
When my collapsible boat was once again set up, one of
the youths stood and said in a demanding way, "You give me a ride."
"I don't think so," I said.
"Where are you going?" another asked.
"I think I'll paddle out there."
"You go to the island?"
"Maybe. Do you live there?"
"I live in Hawaii. Hee hee!"
I said, "You're all very funny guys," and turned my
back on them. Some older people, eight or nine of them, were sitting nearby,
also waiting for the boat to Aunu'u - fat women, fat men. They heard this
bantering, but took no interest in it; they looked hot, and bored, and
irritable. They carried parcels of food, and when they walked to the water's
edge to look for the boat they crunched old crumpled soft-drink cans.
I vowed that I would not leave the beach until the boys
did, because I suspected that such cranky kids might find my car and break into
it. The launch came and went. The boys stayed. I wondered what to do. And,
waiting, I slapped on some suntan lotion, because of the dazzling sun.
"What dat stuff?"
"So I won't get sunburned," I said. I knew if I ignored
their silly questions it would be worse: they would consider it a victory to
"Looks like sperm," one said.
"He putting sperm on."
I said, "Is that funny?"
"You got sperm on you face."
I said calmly, as though seeking information, "Why are
you saying that to me?"
He laughed at me, but I pursued it, and finally said,
"What's your name?"
More insolence - another name from the rappers'
This was ridiculous, but it was wrong to think that it
could have happened anywhere else in Oceania. I had travelled enough in the
region to realize that this was a uniquely American Samoan experience. They were
victimizers, they were oafish, and lazy, and defiant and disrespectful. would
they be different when they grew up? It was impossible to say. Perhaps, like so
many others, they were just waiting for a chance to go to Honolulu or Los
Angeles like a hundred thousand other Samoans whose culture had become
Eventually they boarded their motor-boat, and were
swept away, jeering, and the oafs I had met in Western Samoa now seemed to me
the very picture of innocence.
Paddling out to the island of Aunu'u I thought again of
the pamphlet that had been given to me, with the rules that all visitors were
urged to observe.
- When in a Samoan house, do not talk while
- Do not stretch your legs out when seated.
- Do not drive through a village when chiefs are
- Do not eat while walking through a village (it
seemed to me that Samoans ate no other way, and usually were munching a very
large jelly donut).
- Samoans are deeply religious - pray and sing with
- Do not wear flowers in church.
- When drinking kava, hold the cup in front of you
and say "manuia" (("when drinking Coke" would have been more opposite, since
that seemed firmly part of the culture).
- Bikinis and shorts are not considered appropriate
attire in Samoan villages or town areas.
- Ask permission before snapping photos or picking
- Be extra quiet on Sundays.
And there were more. How odd that this joyously piggy
society should be so obsessed with travellers' etiquette, or apparently so
No, I told myself, this is a comedy.
I continued paddling out to this small low crater in
the sea. I was always concerned, in one of these stretches of open water or
channels, whether a current would pick me up and sweep me sideways, into the
blue moana. I had left the safety of a shallow lagoon, cut through a
break in the reef, and now I was between a large peaky island and a small green
It was a lovely day. My consolation on such a day was
that if something went drastically wrong I would still have plenty of time to
get straightened out, either by paddling hard for shore or sending up flares.
But so far it seemed easy paddling to Aunu'u, and as I glided down the back of
the swell towards the island, I congratulated myself on having found in this
somewhat degenerate and tentative territory a good place to go.
And where would I have been without my boat? At the
mercy of mocking and xenophobic islanders, or worse - people who hated boats. An
astonishingly large number of people in American Samoa seemed to hate the water,
or at the very least were indifferent to it - didn't go near it. How odd for
them to be islanders, and to live on a small island at that. I set my compass
for a low white building and when I drew nearer to the island I saw a pair of
breakwaters below it. A launch was just leaving this enclosure - so this was the
place to go. I was there in twenty more minutes, and paddling into this tight
harbor I saw eight or ten boys swimming and diving - jumping from the little
stone jetty. Three of them immediately jumped into the water and swam towards me
and tried to tip my boat over.
The Samoan people are, by nature and culture,
extremely anxious to please their guests, the pamphlet had said. This might
well have been true of some villages, of the attitude of elders or chiefs. If
so, I was not privileged to encounter it in American Samoa. It was all foolery
and antagonism for no good reason.
"Go away," I said. "Let go of my boat."
Brown hands were fumbling and snatching at my lines.
"Bugger off!" I said, very loudly.
It worked. They splashed back to the jetty. But I still
had a problem. The wharf was too high for me to land. I could tie up, but I
would have to climb a ladder and leave my boat to the frenetic attention of
these jumping screaming kids and some other lurking adults.
Some coconuts were being unloaded from another boat. I
asked a man what they were used for here.
"To make palusami," he said.
Sticking to that traditional dish of steamed taro
leaves and coconut cream seemed old-fashioned and civilized, and it reassured
me. It made me curious and encouraged me to look for a landing place on the
I had a good nautical chart of the whole coast of
American Samoa, and it showed me the particular jigs and jags of this little
island. I paddled out beyond the bre4akers and then went counter-clockwise, past
a shipwreck and another beach and reef. but the beaches were too steep for a
landing - they all seemed to be ledges of pale crushed coral bashed by waves. I
needed a more sloping beach. Farther on, and at the eastern shore of the island,
was an inlet. Ma'ama'a Cover, where I thought I might land, until at the last
moment I saw surf rolling and smashing on rocks. And so I paddled on. There was
a lake of quicksand near the northwest coast, or so I had been told. I continued
paddling toward this part of the island, still looking for a landing place. I
was now approaching another reef, and more breakers,
but I could see how I might squeeze myself in between
them, and did so, leaping out at the beach and hurrying out of the path of the
waves just before they broke over my boat. How odd, among all those awful
teenagers, and the junk food, and the suspicion, to have been subjected to these
tricky sea conditions. But that was the paradox of Samoa. American bad food and
popular culture, on a lovely volcanic island that was set in turbulent and reefy
This small island of Aunu'u was a beautiful place, with
a good view of Tutuila and its easternmost point, Cape Mata'ula. I also
suspected that it might be one of the best places in American Samoa, since there
were no cars here, no amusement arcades, no fast food, no laundromat or
takeaways. There was one village and in it, one shop. Like other tiny offshore
islands I had seen, this too was a quiet preserve, still living partly in the
past. Given the state of American Samoa, this was amazing. I pulled up my kayak
and hid it, and then walked to the Pala Lake to look at the quicksand. I found
it easily - it was sludgy red sand, covering the whole of the lake's surface,
and it shimmered in the sun. but how was I to know that it really was quicksand?
I had read that men hunting ducks swam in the quicksand by lying horizontal,
keeping themselves p3rfectly flat. I was alone and decided not to test it by
trying this. but these stories about quicksand were the first ones that had ever
stirred my imagination when I was ten or so and considering travel to distant
places: the idea of being sucked down and smothered by depthless sand the
consistency of cold Quaker Oats.
The idea was that a stranger was supposed to ask
permission before making camp here - the old fear of people squatting on your
land and never leaving. But I decided not to announce myself. I wanted to be on
my own, and I knew that if I asked I would either be foreced to stay in one of
their fales with an inquisitive and imprisoning family, or else I would
be made conspicuous in my camp site and perhaps robbed. I walked around looking
for a place to pitch my tent, and nearer dusk found a sheltered spot in a grove
of trees and set up camp quickly. I did not bother to make tea. I did not light
my stove. I ate sardines and bread and listened to the BBC, and did not switch
on my flashlight. When it was dark I crawled in and spent a fitful night,
wondering whether I would be discovered, or my kayak stolen. And, meanwhile,
what about my car on Tutuila? That was the terrible aspect of American Samoa - I
could never tell for sure whether I was in America or Samoa. At dawn I crept out
and checked the boat. It was still well hidden, but a woman walking along the
beach saw me. She said hello and I greeted her.
"How did you come here?" she asked.
"Bt boat," I said, trying to be ambiguous, and to
change the subject I asked here the meaning of the island's name.
"I dunno," she said, and laughed, and walked on.
That morning, after I had packed and hidden my gear -
so that it would not be seen and stolen - I walked along a circular track to a
marsh and back to the cove where I had seen the thrashing surf. It looked much
worse from here on shore than it had from the backs of the waves.
I killed the day swimming and then walked to the
village, hoping not to meet the boys who had been so irritating the day before.
The older people were polite, although the kids were still a nuisance, preening
themselves and trying to be defiant. It was wonderful to be in a place with no
cars, and yet most of these older people and all the schoolkids made a daily
trip to Tutuila. And that afternoon, when I paddled back across the channel to
Tutuila, I was both uplifted by the mountains and the glorious vistas along the
south coast, and also depressed by the seedy modernity of this seemingly spoiled
society. The next day in Leone, the second town of Tutuila - a shopping mall, a
school, supermarkets - I met a woman who was visiting her family. She said she
lived in Las Vegas. She was half-Samoan and looked very weary but not old. "I
love Las Vegas," she said. An islander in the desert. It seemed incredible to
me, and I remarked on that. "I miss Las Vegas," she said. And that same day,
getting a haircut, I asked the barber where he was from.
"Western Samoa," he said. "But my wife is from here."
His two children had American passports. He said that
they would almost certainly end up in the United States, while he would probably
go back to his home village on Savaii. So American Samoa was like a convenient
ship which people boarded to get them where they wanted to go.
"I don't want them to stay here," he said. He was very
polite - and h did not put into words the other thought that must have been in
his mind: that there was nothing for them in Western Samoa.
The traveller's great fear in Samoa is of musu -
the ferocious mood that turns a Samoan man into a brute. You can see it in their
eyes, people say, and if a Samoan behaves like a bear with a sore head he is in
the grip of musu. My apprehension had made me overly cautious in Samoa,
but just before I was about to leave I sat down and examined my Samoan
experience, and I realized that most Samoans, on whatever island, had been kind
to me - generous, good-humoured and helpful. I felt bad ab out carping, and was
it wrong to make so much of their physical size? It was a race of giants, with
big flapping feet, and when they walked their thighs rubbed and made a chafing
sound that was audible ten feet away - I could only conclude that when Samoans
were good they were very very good, and when they were bad they were horrid. but
most of the time they were indifferent.
It was when I was in Samoa that American troops flushed
the remaining Iraqis from the suburbs and rode in triumph through Kuwait City.
This was a news item in the Samoan newspapers,. but it was not a topic of
conversation, there was no air of celebration, and not even much interest in it.
there was no flat-waving but was that so surprising?
American Samoa wasn't a political entity. It was a
social phenomenon - a rescued orphan, a fat feckless child that we had adopted.
The arrangement perfectly suited fa'a Samoa, the Samoan way and its
family ideal in which everyone was looked after. If you didn't have one you
found one. I met many foreigners who had attached themselves to Samoan families,
and were perfectly happy to support everyone. The Samoans remained hospitable as
long as someone else paid their bills. They sat by the littered lagoon, cooling
their bellies, and eating. Samoa had become part of the American family and was
content. Samoans were generally unenthusiastic, but similarly they were
uncomplaining, and this little-brown-brother relationship would continue as long
as America fed them and paid for their pleasures.
An extract of
the text from THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA by Paul Theroux, published in London
by Hamish Hamilton, 1992.