Island Idyll (Pt 2)
After a long, humid wait, a tray-backed truck appeared with squawking chickens in a wire cage on the back. The tiny driver jumped out greeting us with “Welcome to the Safua Guest Hotel”. He was almost toothless and wore a stained t-shirt over enormous shorts on thin legs. He said he’d take us to meet our tour guide. Relieved we hadn’t been abandoned, but uncertain about what might be ahead, we climbed into the driver’s cabin with him and drove off.
Always a little death and funeral phobic, I was startled to see on the drive that death was everywhere here. Undertakers displayed open coffins standing upright by their roadside shops, and we could see there were graves with tall headstones beside many of the fales. The driver explained the more beloved a deceased relative was, the closer their grave was placed to the family home. When we reached the village and “our” fale, we saw the owners must have loved their relatives very much, for there were at least six graves with high headstones set closely by the open fale where we were to sleep. This meant every evening, as we looked out into the dark from our bed, the stars and moon would light up the headstones only a few feet away. Looking up to avoid looking out didn’t help. Enormous geckos scurried along the ceiling or else sat motionless with their limbs wrapped around the high poles, their eyes aglow.
The Safua Guest Hotel was, in fact, a few fales no longer used by locals within a small village. Harry adapted easily and happily, but I couldn’t eat or sleep. With a gnawing stomach, heat rash and fear of free-roaming chickens, each day felt like a year. It was humid, there was no running water and bathing was difficult. No electricity meant no refrigeration. Food was fatty, salted beef or dried fish and yam. Wrapped in leaves, and placed on mats on the floor, sometimes the chickens would wander in and have a peck. If the chickens laid eggs, we weren’t fed them. Harry tried hard to coax me out of my stitched-up prissiness but nothing he tried worked. The relentless rain meant we could make only one trip out of the village with our Savai’i tour guide, a majestic local woman who told us she was the only female Matai on the islands. She was clearly a pillar within her community who made sure we knew the villagers would make good use of the money she regularly asked of us during our stay. The day we travelled across Savai’i with her, we saw moody, black sand beaches and exquisite waterfalls. I tried hard not to think about the graves and their tall headstones, the chickens, the geckos, my itchy skin, my growling stomach and the long nights waiting for us back at the village. I loathed my distaste and discomfort for authentic island life and for being miserable in the face of the villagers’ cheery, good grace and accepting welcome. I felt we were interlopers, but if they were irritated by us, or muttered disquiet among themselves about our presence, they hid it well.
The last two nights were in Apia at Aggie Grey’s Hotel. Aggie’s opened in the 1930’s with a shady reputation being popular with American sailors. It was worlds apart from the Hideaway and Savai’i. The sun blazed for the two days we were there and the spirit of Tusitala, Robert Louis Stevenson, was everywhere. The first thing I did in our room was order a toasted sandwich. I was starving and figured it would be quick and easy. An hour after phoning room service, the sandwich still hadn’t arrived. I phoned again to ask how long it would be, and after confirming what I’d asked for, was told gently “not long now”. Three hours and many more impatient queries from me later, I opened the door to find a man balancing two huge platters of toasted sandwiches. Each time I’d phoned, another serve had been added to the order.
Our last morning on the island was a Sunday. As we walked towards town, we heard church choirs and the harmonies sent tingles down our spines. At the hotel restaurant on our last evening, Charmaine Solomon was seated with her husband near us. Harry had no idea who she was and told me I’d be imposing to approach her. But she was gracious and said she was delighted to be known. We talked and talked, about food and cookbooks mostly, but also about the difference between tourists and travellers. I’m still unsure all these years later whether the travel agent knew exactly where and what he was sending us to, but my dream of an island idyll was never the same again.
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.