thomas m wilson

Heaven and Hell in a Humid Nation

June 2nd, 2007

A few weeks ago before leaving Western Australia to start my journey eastwards I watched a film from the eighties called The Bounty, a reenactment of Captain William Bligh’s journey through the Pacific in the late eighteenth century. In one of the early scenes from the film, the well trimmed English vessel leaves the mouth of the Thames with its full compliment of square-rigged canvas sails billowing in a fresh breeze. The open, white sails signified ‘the journey out’ for me at this point in my life. After all I too was headed for the South Pacific. The crew of the ship mutiny upon arriving in the Cook Islands and being faced with the beauty of the place, the fecundity of the natural world and the swaying, gorgeous and semi-naked Polynesian women all around them.

Well, now I’m in the South Pacific, guess what? It isn’t all quite like that.

Now my opinion is that living in Samoa is a combination of the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ll start with the negatives: nobody is ever on time, shops provide, as the Lonely Planet accurately describes it, ‘a nutrition nightmare’, broadband internet isn’t available, potentially dengue fever carrying mosquitoes buzz around you (invading your space and making you feel ill at ease), the language has the abrasive abruptness of many Asian languages to my ears, the national sense of humour sometimes seems to me to have the simplicity I recall from some of the Japanese people I’ve known, and a coterie of frequently aggressive stray dogs wander the streets making every journey on foot potentially dangerous, especially after dark, nobody is on time, I don’t feel like getting any exercise because I’ll get a bit over-heated, and the culture is more religious than the bible belt of the USA. Now for the good stuff: the colours on this island are vivid, be they the greens of the plants, the blue of the sky and the white of the cumulus clouds, or they the red, yellow, or pink lava lavas of the women, and the aloha shirts of the men; nature is fecund; the air is gentle; the basalt rock creates really varied land; even in Apia the suburbs are a collection of brightly coloured houses, each situated on generously sized bits of land covered in the lush green leaves of mango, breadfruit, coconut, papaya trees, with hedges for fences; the water is always warm and full of coral and colourful fish; the people, with their broad faces, and big frames, are often very beautiful… In summary, this place is paradise, but it can also be considered purgatory from certain angles. I don’t want to mutiny and leave the boat.


Where do people live in Samoa? Not on the colonial verandahs of Robert Louis Stevenson, that’s for sure.


This is more like it. Fales traditionally had thatch, and many still do, although corrugated iron is more common. Cutting fresh coconut up and sitting, eating it, in a fale by the ocean seems to much of a tourism brochure cliche, but many rural people here would see such a lovely vantage point as normality.

I’m in the village (Apia has linked ‘villages’, not suburbs) of Vavasi Utu, staying with a couple of Australian Youth Ambassadors (people in their twenties or thirties I think, who come to the South Pacific or south-east Asia to work in voluntary positions for a small wage paid by the Australian government). Their house is provided for them, and nearly all the houses around here are surrounded by a good variety of tropical fruit trees.


Driving around the island you keep seeing people, and not just the old folks and solitary sheet farmers travelling past at 110kms/hour in white utes, familiar from the Australian bush. No, young people, middle-aged people, people in the prime of their life. It is strange for a person from a country where ninety per cent of the population is urban to come to one where seventy per cent of the population is rural, but perhaps many third world countries around the equator are like this.

Paradise? Put down that tourist brochure and swat that mossie!