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Encountering Robert Louis Stevenson on Samoa

<i> Hilgers is a free-lance writer living in Honolulu. </i>

Every visitor to this island has at least one encounter with Robert Louis Stevenson.

Perhaps it is through his words, quoted in a travel book: “Time flies in the enjoyment of every pleasure which an islander conceives.” Perhaps it is through a would-be guide on the steps of the Aggie Grey Hotel who offers to take you to Vailima, the home that Stevenson loved.

Or it may be through the name of capital city Apia’s newest hotel, Tusitala. Tusitala, “teller of tales,” was the title by which Stevenson became known in his adopted land.

In any case, the author or “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” remains someone special in Samoa.

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Certain facts of Stevenson’s life are less frequently recalled, however.

It was his health, not a love of Polynesia, that drove Stevenson, who suffered all his life from tuberculosis, to the South Seas.

Fast-Talking American

Samoa became his final home not by choice but because of a fast-talking American trader who stood to gain from the sale of “314 1/2 acres of beautiful land in the bush.”

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In 1889, after he’d first arrived, Stevenson wrote to a friend: “Samoa, Apia at least, is far less beautiful than the Marquesas or Tahiti.”

Stevenson spent his final years living on Upolu; his estate, Vailima, is now the official residence of the nation’s head of state.

The grave of the author lies at the summit of Mt. Vaea, a spectacular peak that overlooks plunging green valleys, sparkling lagoons and the Tusitala Hotel.

Like his famous character, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson may have lived a bit of a double life. But he was not the only outsider from whom Samoa called forth mixed reactions.

Nineteenth-Century Christian missionaries found the people welcoming but warlike, and sought to change the latter. In the process, they wrested for the Christian minister or priest some of the powers once held only by traditional family chiefs.

First Independent Trust

But Western colonial overlords found the Western Samoans anything but welcoming as subjects.

Both the Germans and the New Zealanders had to contend with Mau a Pule, a resistance movement that heralded fa’a Samoa, native Samoan ways. Not by accident, Western Samoa was the first Pacific trust to win independent nation status.

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What Stevenson knew well by the time of his death in 1894 was the source of Samoans’ apparent vacillation. It is not a dislike of outsiders. Rather, Samoans simply love political intrigues, whether they involve contending brothers, chiefs or foreign nations.

Stevenson also knew firsthand of the familylike bonds with which Samoan people often embrace outsiders, from another village or another country.

What Stevenson didn’t know was the awesome beauty of the island of Upolu, for the fragile man didn’t venture much beyond Vailima, Apia and the villages between.

What Stevenson couldn’t have known is how little life in Western Samoa would change. Today you’ll see some television antennas in the capital city, pointed toward transmitters 80 miles away in American Samoa.

But much of Upolu, the country’s most populated island, is unpaved and without electricity. In many areas you can still see life as Stevenson wrote of it nearly 100 years ago.

The most common tour on Upolu goes to the south side of the island from Apia, past Vailima and then over what Stevenson described as “the backbone of the island, with “wild pigs and cattle, and wild doves and flying foxes, and many particolored birds, and many black, and many white: a very eerie, dim, strange place and hard to travel.”

The journey is less “strange” than exotic. With a paved road it is no longer hard. The standard tour continues on to Lafaga Beach, where Gary Cooper swam in “Return to Paradise.” It’s a beautiful beach, and many visitors go no farther.

Alternate Journey

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An alternate journey, if you have a full day and if the weather has been relatively dry, is a drive to southeastern Upolu and Cape Tapaga.

The quickest road to old Samoa leaves Apia just beyond Aggie Grey’s, where the main road turns right. There, a couple of roadside stands can furnish the juices and tonics that tourists may not be able to find farther along.

The paved oceanside road moves between the glowing greens of tropical foliage and the quiet thunder of distant breakers on the fringes of the turquoise lagoon. Here and there the forest has been tamed, and neatly clipped lawns mark the typical small village.

Here a house is an open fale (fah-lay), a circle or oval of poles that support a raised roof and a thatched or tin peaked roof.

Many villages include a small store, which may sell flashlight batteries and tinned biscuits. Some stores abut ramshackle pool halls where young males gather to escape the sun.

But the dominant structure in every village is a church, or several churches. The different sizes and decorations signal another level of political intrigue.

It’s nice to break this drive with a swim at the beach behind Piula College, just beyond the village of Lufilufi, about 14 miles east of Apia.

Watch for the shell of a large Gothic church along the ocean. When you park your car on the grass a Methodist seminarian collects a small service fee.

Pool in the Lava Rocks

Swimming in the shadow of a Samoan church sounds romantic enough, but there’s more. Here you can choose between the ocean and a tingly-cold, freshwater pool that has been carved out of lava and rocks at the ocean’s edge. After your swim, enjoy your papaya juice in the shade of the nearby fale.

The road beyond Lufilufi moves inland, and soon becomes gravel and then hardened earth. Rain forest plants canopy the road near Lemafa Pass, a saddle with stunning views of misty volcanic peaks. The mountain air is heavy with the fragrance of white and yellow ginger.

Beyond the lookout at Lemafa Pass, cars are very few, and road signs nonexistent. Several waterfalls are a short hike off the road. You find them by looking for telltale mists.

About five miles beyond the pass the dirt road forks. The left branch continues south and after three miles arrives at the oceanside village of Lotofaga.

Continue east over the sand and dirt road. In this almost untouched paradise boys carry bananas from their village plantations, fishermen cart home their catches from the reef, tethered horses munch abundant grass and women do laundry in streams.

Smoke rises slowly from some of the cooking fales; now and then men prepare a pig for roasting in an earthen oven, an umu. And you will be followed everywhere by groups of bright-eyed children, all laughing, waving and singing, “ ‘Bye, ‘bye palagi (foreigner)!”

It can be a little disconcerting to pass through village after village and be greeted by welcoming smiles and “ ‘bye ‘bye.” But here words, like time, take on different meanings.

To these children, “ ‘bye-'bye” is an attempt to talk to you in your own language, a display of the warmth with which Samoans treat guests.

Meandering Road

The road to Cape Tapaga allows nothing faster than meandering. At times it may permit even less: If there has been heavy rain in the mountains, what was a little stream can cut the road in two.

If you have to turn around, remember that in Samoa, nature still makes the rules. If you can continue to the cape, you’ll know better what “Polynesian” means.

The northeast corner of Upolu has no road. So you can either return to Apia as you came, or drive north from Lotofaga about three miles to the fork and turn left.

The latter course, over mostly packed dirt road, will carry you through lush plantation groves to paved Tiavi Road, which leads back past Vailima to Apia.

In Apia, both the Tusitala, with 96 modern rooms, and the Aggie Grey’s 120 rooms offer fine accommodations, with Aggie’s rooms having irons and built-in ironing boards, in proper colonial fashion.

But if you prefer a real getaway, consider the Hideaway Hotel, with 30 rooms on the south shore, just a little west of Tiavi Road. There two can sleep in an enclosed fale on the beach for 67 tala (about $34 U.S.). Smaller hotels are the Vaiala Beach Cottages, Harbour Lights and the Seaside Inn. Some feature kitchens.

Samoa sings a siren song, more perhaps today than in Stevenson’s day. But I hope not too many palagi will hear the call. They may spoil things.

For more information on travel to Western Samoa, contact the Western Samoa Trade & Tourism Office, 465 Kapahula Ave., Suite 2-H, Honolulu, Hawaii 96815, (808) 734-2711.


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