First shimmers of light in the fale
"Hey you. Want your breakfast?"
A small sun browned face framed by long dark curls grinned
through the large hole in my net, a convenient doorway for
all the local mosquitos. Naked, under a thin cotton sheet,
I pulled it tighter. "It's fish and chippies and pancakey
for breakfast," the boy said. From the curls I recognised
him to be the youngest son of Steve, our guide and one of
the managing partners of Ecotour Samoa. The young boy's
sleeping body had been handed to me only hours before on
the boat in the dark of night, when he had drowsily called
me Mama, and buried his curls into my neck. Next to me,
under their own net, Matthew and Cameron stirred, and Cameron
cried softly for milk. "We haven't any, sweetheart, but
we might be able to get you some," I told him, hoping blindly
our dairy crisis might be resolved at breakfast. In truth
I had no idea what to expect from the first meal of our
seven day Eco-tour. I seemed to remember that compost toilets,
making your own fishing rod and foraging in the bush for
food were involved somewhere along the way, but I hoped
that might be deferred until later. Fish and chippies would
have been nice, but I suspected they were an unlikely Samoan
"Pancakey for breakfast
I had woken several
hours before, with the dawn breaking over the bay, the crashing
surf cutting into my fitful sleep. One wall slat of the
beach falé played in rhythm, slapping against a wooden strut;
and every few minutes an unseen bird trapped in the low
roof added its' melody. Paradise was a noisy place. I scratched
madly at itching legs, dislodging grains of sand that had
stuck to the sweat on my body. The baby was kicking from
within my stomach, but in the wider vicinity no human stirred.
I considered going for a walk, but the lapping waves took
me deeper into sleep.
Breakfast was laid out for us in
a large communal falé, and thankfully we didn't have to
spear, catch or cook it ourselves. A collection of colourful
plates lay along a bench; the sun kept at bay by a large
straw roof on poles decorated with woven palm leaves. The
bench was covered by a huge Father Christmas tablecloth.
The boys sat down and pointed out all the things they wouldn't
be trying. Some foods I recognised, others I could only
guess at. Starfruit? Papaya? I tried what looked like a
hard boiled egg, while the kids tucked into a meal of dry
bread, rejecting the homemade pancakes, the fruit, even
"Don't like marmalade," said Matthew screwing up his face.
He had practically lived on marmalade in New Zealand.
"When did you stop liking marmalade Matthew?" I asked him,
embarrassed at their unwillingness to try any new food.
"Now," he replied, pushing away the fresh coconut filled
with milk and a cup of lemon grass tea that the staff had
carted from the cramped wooden falé that was their kitchen.
Matthew slowly and deliberately picked his crusts off the
bread and nibbled at the insides, suspicious of everything
he touched. Next to him, Steve's other children, Nuanua
and Sosafina, tucked into a huge breakfast of fresh fruit,
pancakes, eggs, fresh coconut, and marmalade sandwiches.
"Ready for some kayaking this morning?" asked Steve.
"Don't like kayaking," said Matthew, nervously eyeing up
the dog who waited hopefully for the rejected crusts.
"Ah, but this is special. We're going looking for Father
Christmas," Steve announced, his own long beard almost reaching
"Father Christmas doesn't live in Samoa," Matthew said scornfully.
"What?" said Steve, aghast at the insult, "who told you
that? I'll have you know that Father Christmas lives in
the Pacific all year round, eating fresh coconut and sleeping
in a hammock. He only goes to England one day a year. Why
would he want to spend any more time in that miserable place?
Right now he's out there in the bay catching a fresh lobster
for his lunch." Matthew screwed his eyes up into the sunshine
and scanned the bay for a sledge.
Cameron stared at Steve, wondering if it was a wind up.
"This Father Christmas?" he asked wide eyed, pointing to
the table cloth to ascertain we were all talking about the
"Is there any other?" asked Steve equally wide eyed.
"I like kayaking," said Matthew, throwing his crusts to
the dog and marching off to find his swimming costume.
We paddled out across the ocean
in red and yellow kayaks towards the swell of a reef. Six
year old Sosafina stood on the back, as if to steer, with
nine year old Nuanua at the front, a long limbed sun kissed
mascot, straight dark hair trailing down her back. Our boys
huddled in the middle, uncomfortable in their life jackets
and arm bands, plastered in sun screen. We saw blue fish
and blue starfish but there was no sign of the big man in
red. Cameron was reassured; it had all been a wind up.
Lunch was a large bowl
of brown liquid. It came with a ladle. Curry soup, I decided
and cheered at the prospect. I filled my bowl and picked
up my spoon. It was the weirdest soup I had ever tasted.
A thin watery liquid, given more substance by rice. It wasn't
repulsive, but an unfamiliar mix of bitter and sweet.
"Samoan cocoa, much better than the palagi version," Steve
"What's a palogi?" asked Matthew.
"A foreigner, just like you and me."
"I'm not a foreigner, I'm English."
"I'm Clifford," said Cameron in his doggie voice.
"Do you like the cocoa?" asked Steve again.
"No," said Matthew without even trying it.
"Mmmmm" I answered politely.
Toasted egg and onion sandwiches followed and I wolfed them
down, but the kids looked on dismayed, especially when the
food was followed by more fresh coconuts, straws buried
deep into their shells.
The midday sun was
suffocatingly hot. We swam in the sea, tried and failed
to find any shade and took up Steve on his invitation for
a walk to meet the village chief. A thin dirt path led us
via a wealth of fruit trees to a collection of traditional
falé. School was out and the kids ran around in packs, kicking
a football and hanging out for the afternoon.
"I'm hungry," Matthew whined.
"I'm thirsty, want milk," Cameron whinged.
" I don't suppose there's any chance of a shop here,"
I whispered to Stuart who was trying to lift a struggling
Cameron onto his shoulders.
"It's irrelevant really, as we haven't got any money," he
replied glumly, Cameron's feet kicking his face. We had
tried to get some Samoan currency at the airports in Apia
and in Auckland, but had been unsuccessful. At the chief's
house; a more elaborate looking falé, we were introduced
to a wide range of family members without being quite sure
which one was the chief. We were suitably humble to each
just in case. Then we processed through the village, the
children moaning "I'm hungry," at regular intervals.
"Mum, it's too hot, I hungry. I want milk. Please."
Outside a huge falé in the middle
of the village we almost tripped over each other in the
rush to remove our shoes. This was the hallowed Women's
Committee falé , the social centre of the village, where
the female community comes together to work and chat. It
was empty except for two mats on the floor, a telephone,
and two middle aged women. They sat at opposite ends of
the falé , each surrounded by a pile of long dry leaves,
which lay like spaghetti on the floor beside them.
"They're weaving thin mats. For weddings and funerals, come
and see," Steve invited us. "Hello ladies, how is your compost
toilet going?" One of the women raised an eyebrow, then
went back to weaving. Obviously they weren't as excited
by their toilet as Steve was. The reason soon became clear;
Steve had helped build the compost toilet for them along
with the son of the village chief. "It's a system of rotating
buckets. You just move the bucket once a month, then bingo,
six months later, you have the perfect fertilizer for the
plantations. Good for the environment, good for the crops,
good for the ladies. But there was a lot of opposition when
we first proposed it. They're coming around to the idea
now and I think it's going well." Steve grinned through
his pointed beard, and tucked his lavalava under his crossed
knees; the chief guru of the natural toilet. The
women carried on weaving their complicated tangle of materials.
"Come and sit down here," Steve said, pointing to the mat
beside him. He leaned over towards me. "Never stand over
anyone in a falé , it's rude to be taller than them," he
whispered, "and when you are sitting, cross your legs, it's
rude to point your feet at them. And never, never carry
a child above your head if you're passing a chief's falé
." Stuart winced at the memory of trying to haul Cameron
onto his shoulders.
"Do you have many weddings here?"
I asked one of the mat weaving women, a portly lady dressed
in a brightly coloured lavalava, sweat pouring down her
brow. I watched with interest as she wiped the sweat onto
the lavalava and wove another strand in one expert swipe.
She glanced at me, raised an eyebrow slightly and carried
on weaving. "DO YOU HAVE WEDDINGS? A LOT?" I rephrased the
question. Her hands knitted furiously with the tangle of
reeds, knotting, untying, reknotting. She resembled a big
mother hen making a nest for her chicks. At my second question
the eyebrow went up again without taking her eyes off the
nest. "WEDDINGS." I shouted at her. "MUCH MARRIED HERE?"
Steve rushed in to help me out. "She already said yes."
I looked at him, bewildered and then back at her. She had
turned her attention back to the mat. "It's all in the eyebrow,"
"I'm hungry Mum," whined Matthew.
Steve handed me a five tala note. "Give it to her but say
it's a gift. It's rude to offer money."
On the way back to the village we
passed a darkened building with a Samoan beer sign outside.
"The village shop," Steve informed us.
"I'm hungry," said Matthew and Cameron simultaneously.
"Would you like to borrow a couple of hundred tala?" Steve
asked. We grabbed his money and entered the shop. It was
lined with tins of corned beef and unfamiliar bags of grain
and pulses. Brightly coloured pieces of material hung from
the ceiling. "Why don't you buy yourselves a lavalava, it's
better to wear one when meeting a chief." I glanced down
at Steve's knees under his own lavalava, grinned at Stuart
and bought him a skirt. Then I handed over a few tala for
some small bags of crisps, the only thing in the shop that
didn't seem to need cooking. The kids grabbed them, and
opened them immediately. They smelt of cheesey Wotsits.
"Hey kids, I think Christmas has just come after all," Stuart
laughed, eyeing the brightly patterned piece of blue and
green cloth that he now owned. We handed out crisps to some
local children, and strolled back, the relentless heat easing
a little. Matt and Cam bolted down the crisps. "Do you think
we'll ever be brave enough to ever go out on our own here?"
Stuart whispered. I raised one eyebrow. "DO YOU THINK…"
he said more loudly, then stopped. "Right, yes, I heard
you," he said.
Matthew handed me an empty packet of twisties. "I'm hungry"
"Look, here's someone cooking their dinner." Steve diverted
their attention. In a another, rather less impressive falé
were three young boys. One was making fire with two sticks;
another was peeling bananas; and the third sat surrounded
by a pile of stones and a cooking pot. "They're making something
delicious. It's young green bananas, cooked in the ground.
It tastes like potato, and tastes really great mixed with
coconut milk," Steve said. Cameron held on tightly to his
empty twisties packet and Matthew suddenly went quiet.
"Shall we go back to our falé , boys?" I suggested, "Daddy
wants to try on his new skirt, and I'm more than ready for