The travel agent in early 1983 had nicotine-stained fingers, an oily comb-over and a frayed, yellow shirt-collar. His eyes said he was over his job and well over his clients.
Harry and I saw him for help planning our first holiday together. I was dreaming of warm turquoise lagoons, palm trees, platters of seafood and exotic fruits. We asked for somewhere warm, secluded, and authentic with no trumped-up culture for tourists. I think he rolled his eyes at our youthful earnestness, but I might have imagined it.
He told us Samoa would be authentic and it would be, with a smirk, just outside our budget. (The cost was nearly double.) He booked us five nights at an “older style” hotel on the far side of Upolu, four nights on Savai’i, with the last two nights at Aggie Grey’s Hotel in Apia. It sounded perfect.
It was pitch black when we landed in Apia. And there was no lighting on the long, bumpy road to the Hideaway Hotel. Through the car window, I caught fleeting domestic scenes of people in their fales, lit by lamps. I glimpsed a large woman lolling on her side on a floor mat, propped on her elbow, as a young girl brushed her long black hair. “Gauguin,” I sighed. “This is going to be wonderful.”
The Hideaway was small and very secluded. A teenage boy, in a bellhop jacket over a lava-lava, shyly took our bags. Once inside, he walked behind the reception desk. He took off his jacket to reveal a beige shirt and a nametag, “Jacob”. As receptionist, he gave us keys and said he was relieved we weren’t Germans. We wanted to know more, but he said there was no time. Back into his bellhop jacket, he led us to our room, saying we’d have to hurry to make dinner. He told us the Hideaway had no room service, no swimming pool, no laundry, no car hire or any other amenities, but there was a tennis court. With no eateries, shops or anything else in this part of Upolu, he said it was important not to miss a meal in the dining room.
The dining room was small with cracked linoleum, no windows and a wilted, potted palm for decor. The only two other diners, an elderly couple, looked miserable. The menu listed the evening meals for the week: nightly soup, main course and dessert. Dessert each night was ice cream (vanilla or chocolate). The first night’s soup was beef broth, second tomato, third vegetable, and fourth minestrone. I understood. Add tomato paste to beef broth to make tomato soup, throw in some frozen vegetables the next night for vegetable soup, add a few tinned beans and pasta to all of that on the fourth night, and voila, minestrone. The main courses were corned beef, chicken or fish cakes. On rotation. The footnote said, “No change allowed.”
Jacob re-appeared. As waiter, he’d switched to a hibiscus print shirt over his lava-lava. Clearing dessert (vanilla, as they’d run out of chocolate), he looked up at the ceiling and told us there would now be entertainment.
Yes. Jacob emerged shortly after, shirtless but still in his lava-lava with the sides, back and front tucked up, baring his thighs. He’d added a grass neckpiece and anklet. The kerosene smell was intense and a few drummers and singers appeared from the kitchen in support. In each hand Jacob twirled a long stick alight with fire. An enthusiastic novice in the art of traditional fire-dance, or perhaps just role-stretched, not long into the performance, Jacob miscalculated his twirl and his lava-lava caught fire. A singer patted him down deftly and told us the show was over, giving Jacob a look first of disdain, then despair. There was no more entertainment that week. Thankfully, Jacob was unharmed.
Popular with Germans visiting the Pacific after World War II, the Hideaway hadn’t been refurbished since the late 1940s. (Jacob told us the Germans stopped coming because they just didn’t understand island time.) We tried the tennis court the next morning, but the net was down, full of holes and the ground was riddled with hazardous potholes. That first day we swam and sat in the sun by the lagoon. It was the only day there wasn’t a downpour. The rest of the time we spent in our room, hungry, as breakfast and lunch made dinner a feast.
Five nights later, sad to leave Jacob but relieved to leave the Hideaway, we flew in a tiny plane to Savai’i, landing bumpily in a clearing cut into trees. There was no-one on the little tarmac when we stepped out. As the pilot prepared to take off, leaving us alone and questioning, he told us airily there’d be someone to meet us soon.
Zita lives with Harry in Sydney, Australia. Their relationship survived their first holiday together. Forty years later, they still argue about where to go and what to do when they get time off to travel.