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Samoa: A real Treasure Island

Samoa: A real Treasure Island

story by: Paul Rush

Paul Rush samples the simple pleasures of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Samoa

I clap twice in time-honoured fashion, take the half coconut cup in both hands, screw up my face at the sight of the muddy sludge it contains and drink it all at once. The potent liquid slides down my throat, anaesthetising every living cell in its path. I gulp it down with enthusiasm but cannot suppress a grimace when the deed is done. The locals equally can’t disguise their delight upon seeing my expression as my face slowly emerges from behind the kava bowl.

Kava drinking is an ancient custom of welcome on the island of Upolu in Samoa. It is a particularly appropriate introduction to Vailima, the grand formal mansion home of Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, where
I have come on a shore excursion from the cruise liner Pacific Sun.

I take my seat in the Vailima outdoor theatre before my trembling knees give out and test my lips for feeling — there is none. The ritual beverage of the Pacific, made from ground-up pepper tree root, has done its work on me and I sashay through the rest of the tour with a pleasantly soporific lethargy and mellowness of spirit. This state of mind is perfect for appreciating the subtleties of traditional Samoandances.

A colourful group of island maidens gracefully recount ancient tales with flowing, eloquent movements of their hands, while heavily tattooed warriors sing passionately and beat large wooden drums.

Robert Louis Stevenson was known here as Tusitala — teller of tales — or simply RLS. He lived on this hill above Apia in 1889 while recovering from tuberculosis. The serialised writer of such famous titles as Treasure Island,
Kidnapped and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, he sent his writing to England each month on the packet boat.

For five years, he dedicated himself to his novels and helping the locals as a political activist for worthy causes. The people revered him and when he succumbed to an aneurism in 1894, they gave him a royal burial and carried his coffin to the top of Mt Vaea along the “Road of the loving heart”, made by local villagers so they could visit him.

Within the spacious rooms of Vailimawe see all the trappings of the writer’s life in Samoa, including the unused fireplace built to give the family a feeling of their Scottish home. A young Samoan woman shows us the wealth of memorabilia in the living room and then sings Stevenson’s poem Requiem in a melodious, quavering voice:

“Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie. 
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And lay me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me,
Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”

RLS once said, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” Our guide, a tourism student at the Apia Technical School, entertains us with stories of hope and devotion. We are travelling onapsychedelic rainbow-coloured bus that sparkles in the sunshine.

She says, “We don’t invest our money in the bank. We invest in the church, because we believe we earn a lot of blessing from that. I have many relatives in New Zealand who send us money, enough to build my parents’ house. Our elders are our idols. We talk about them every day. My mum and dad tell me stories about my grandparents and I can see their graves in my front yard.”

Her extended family all live together in one open-sided fale and share  food and clothing. Her brothers regard her as the apple of their eye. When she gets married, she will go to her husband’s family. At 21, she has “some sort of a boyfriend”. She invited him home recently but her father shouted when he saw the boy, who ran for his life. When she expressed her  concern, her parents said, “This is not palangi land like New Zealand, where girls can do what they like—this is Samoa land.’’ Traditions are deeply entrenched in Samoa. The tried and true way of romance is for a boyfriend to save hard and buy many useful things to bring to the girl’s family to win their approval.

Samoa is truly a Treasure Island of postcard beauty lying halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii — with no sign of Long John Silver and his swashbuckling pirates. The real treasure is the natural, easy-going people and their village-based  community and family culture.

As I leave Apia on the Pacific Sun the island disappears into the vast  Pacific in the ship’s wake. I whisper a sad ‘‘tofa soifua’’ — goodbye and good luck — to Samoa and her wonderful people.

● The writer travelled to Samoa with assistance from P&O Cruises.


1 Samoa Visitors Information Fale in Apia should be one of your first ports of call. It’s open for maps, brochures and information Monday- Friday, Saturday mornings.
2 Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, in the Treasure Island author’s beautifully restored residence, Villa Vailima, is a must-see. Take the 30-45 minute walk to his tomb atop Mt Vaea.
3 High among Apia’s waterfront drinking and eating options, Paddles features northern Italian cuisine alongside local favourites.
4 At Papasee’a Sliding Rocks you’ll enjoy skimming down a waterfall into a refreshing rock pool. It’s a steep 200-step climb (pictured) down so save energy for the climb up!
5 Hiring a car is a great way to explore the islands at your own pace. Keep an eye out for stray children, pigs, dogs and chickens and ask locals where petrol stations are.
6 Shop in local markets for siapo (decorated bark cloth), pandanus mats, coconut-shell jewellery, kirikiti (cricket) gear, lava-lava and T-shirts.

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