His shout was deafening, his face
angry, red and defiant, "Don't want to. Don't want to. Leave
me alone. Leave me alone." The last few disembarking passengers
came down the aircraft steps, crossed the runway and joined
the queue for the customs hall. The queue slowly shuffled
forwards; everyone was watching, some discreetly, others
staring openly. I sweated profusely. It was almost midnight
and nearly thirty degrees. We'd been travelling since early
morning and I was tired and ready for bed; Matthew had obviously
had enough too. The ground-staff moved to contain the situation,
forming a loose cordon some five metres around him.
I put down the hand-baggage, left
Kirstie holding a grumpy Cameron and entered the cordon
to retrieve Matthew. His steely hazelnut eyes glared at
me as I moved to try and pick him up. "No Dad. No Dad. GO
AWAY," he screamed furiously as he kicked, punched and pushed
me away. I was out of options and patience. I'd tried reasoning,
comforting and distracting but this mood was set solid.
He'd been rudely awakened in the middle of the night, dragged
off the plane and thrust into the tropical heat and humidity
with just an hours sleep. I knew there was nothing I could
say or do that would make things alright for him. He wanted
to sleep but there was nowhere for him to do it, at least
not until we reached our transfer bus the other side of
customs. The ground-staff edged closer; this was no place
for a tantrum like this. Red with embarrassment, sweating
from the heat, I grabbed his arms and legs, held him tight
and lifted him forcibly over to the customs hall. "Put me
down. I don't want you. Go away, PUT ME DOWN," he shouted
above the airport noise. I felt like a child abductor and
was sure we were about to be refused entry to Samoa.
By the time we arrived the queue
at the customs desk had long since disappeared and a lone
official waited patiently for us at the far end of the hall.
Beyond her a traditional Samoan quartet sang dreamy South
Pacific songs for those already granted entry, now waiting
for their baggage. At the other end of the hall our South
Pacific nightmare continued with Matthew crying where I
dumped him, hand baggage everywhere and Cameron clinging
stickily to his Mum. Here we were arriving in a country
where respect for elders is highly valued and Matthew was
showing no respect for us, the band, customs staff or anyone
else for that matter. As I stood there trying to figure
out what to do I felt like a totally embarrassed, incompetent
and impotent parent.
"Talofa, welcome to Samoa," said
the immigration clerk when we finally shuffled Matthew up
to her desk. She quickly checked our documents and waved
us through to baggage claim where his sobbing could compete
with the band. Our baggage was circling the conveyor and
a man was scouting the area for us. He looked in my direction.
"Are you Wickes?" he asked. I nodded. "Good. OK. Follow
me. Your guide and van are waiting for you." He grabbed
our trolley and led us towards the arrivals hall. Outside,
a Crocodile Dundee figure came over to greet us, long hair
neatly tied under his hat, his grey beard reaching almost
as far as the traditional floral lavalava wrapped around
his waist. "Hi, I'm Steve from Ecotour Samoa," he said in
a distinctly Australian accent, "Shall we get going? We've
got a boat to catch."
The tourist van bumped its' way
out of the airport and onto the dark Samoan roads. Matthew
sat up front with Kirstie and Cameron, his sobbing now throttled
back by a lolly forced into his mouth in the arrivals hall.
In the back with me were two pretty Samoan children sleeping
peacefully on the seats. "This is Stevie and Sosafina" explained
Ava, Steve's wife, as we headed into the night on our mystery
tour. "They're going to come with you to play with your
boys," she explained, "Our eldest, Nuanua, will join you
in a couple of days, when you get back from Manono Island.
I hope you like Samoa." I sat quietly, drained and disorientated,
and wondered how her beautiful children would get on with
a moody Matthew and his brother.
We boarded a ferry and headed out into the darkness
Half an hour later
and the bus stopped in the darkness. "This is where we get
the ferry," announced Steve. A small group of men whispered
in Samoan, then took our bags and the sleeping children
from the van. It was hard to make out in the dark what kind
of a ferry this was; in the flashes of torchlight I could
see no cabin or seats, just a six foot by six foot platform
onto which baggage and children were stowed. "Now you,"
whispered Steve as he flashed his torch at the floating
platform. I got on first and sat amongst the bags and bodies
under a small canopy, then took the boys and sat them beside
me. My foot dangled down into a watery hole and I held the
children tight, unsure where the platform ended and the
water began. With Kirstie and Steve aboard, the ferryman
grabbed a giant pole from beside me and began to punt the
vessel out to sea. The water rippled against the side as
we gained momentum, splashes of salt water hitting the deck
each time he retrieved his pole. "So, where are we going?"
I asked Steve. "Manono Island," he replied, "it's beautiful,
you'll see, you'll love it there." I was none the wiser.
The splashing stopped, the ferry man started an outboard
motor and we headed more quickly into the black of the South
Pacific Ocean. The boys started to whimper quietly in my
arms, perhaps reflecting my own inward confusion and uncertainty
about this journey. "Will it take long?" I asked, trying
to get a hold on the situation. "Oh no, not too long," said
Steve, "just relax, enjoy the ride, the sea, the stars,
and in the morning you'll wake in paradise." I tried hard
to believe that such a transformation was possible.
In the morning our floating refugee platform was revealed
as a pretty painted catamaran
About twenty minutes later the motor
stopped and our vessel ran aground. "Welcome to Manono,"
said Steve, "time to get your feet wet." He jumped off the
boat and scuttled ashore while the ferryman and his mate
unloaded bags and sleeping children. I took off my shoes
and socks, rolled up my trousers and stepped over the side.
The warm water and deep soft sand caught me by surprise.
I lifted the boys ashore, one at a time. "It's hot Daddy,"
Cameron giggled as I dipped his toes gently into the water.
A lightbulb glowed dimly in a thatched wooden shelter beyond
the beach. "Come up to the falé and meet your host," said
Steve leading us past snoring locals up a sharp coral path
towards the light. Outside the falé, he introduced us to
the silhouette of a tall Samoan woman with an unfortunately
limp handshake. "Stuart, Kirstie, I'd like you to meet Tauvela."
She smiled, signalled for us to take a seat in the falé
and then summoned a man wielding a machete. Movie scenes
of cannibals on remote South Pacific islands flashed through
my head. The warrior stood menacingly beside us while they
exchanged words in Samoan, then with a sudden burst of energy
he hacked two young coconuts off a tree and drilled two
holes in them with a corkscrew. Tauvela popped two straws
in and handed them to the boys. The kids looked at the coconuts
with bemusement. Tauvela pointed to the coconuts and then
to the boys. "There you are boys," said Steve, "lovely coconut
milk." I sipped a little to show them the way; it was cool,
sweet and refreshing in the heat of the night. Then the
boys tried. "Yuk, don't like it," said Matthew quickly.
"Yuk, yuk," copied Cameron spitting his out. We put the
coconuts to one side. "How about a beer then?" asked Steve,
sensing I needed to relax. He reached into his coolbox and
pulled out two ice cold beers. "Cheers," he said as he pushed
one my way. I grabbed it by its' condensation soaked neck
and started to down it greedily. "Daddy, I need a wee wee,"
whined Cameron. I didn't know what to say to him. Should
he wee in the bush or did they have toilets here? Could
I send him alone off to a western style loo or would I need
to hold him over some fly infested pit? Steve intervened,
"The toilet's over there," he said pointing to a little
shed in the gloom. "You take me Daddy, I scared." "There's
nothing to be scared of Cammy," I said as convincingly as
I could. The snoring intensified for a moment. "But Daddy,"
he whined on, "I scared of the pigs."
When the beer was finished, Tauvela
showed us to our accommodation, a traditional open walled
Samoan falé on stilts, with a little wooden balcony that
jutted out over the ocean and steps that led down to the
sea. Bed was a thin mattress on the wooden floor with a
floral sheet and an old mosquito net with extra holes. I
was too tired to care or to drop the coconut mat blinds
for privacy. I stripped the boys and lay them down then
did the same myself. "It's too hot Dad," whimpered Matthew
over and over as he tried to get to sleep. I lay awake for
a while, my senses working overtime. A breeze blew through
the falé, gently playing on my sticky, stressed and tired
body. The mosquito nets shimmered in the moonlight. Waves
lapped gently below as the tide reached further in. As my
body relaxed, my mind raced. I had no money, no idea where
we were, couldn't speak the language, drink the water, knew
nothing of the food or customs, and was hungry, thirsty,
tired and anxious, despite the beer. "Welcome to paradise,"
I thought to myself as I wondered how we would cope with
the next 30 days.
The morning after and we really were in a tropical paradise