Pasifika Vailima

Her smile. Those eyes. Round, black, soothed by thick salt air and mossy, spicy, rotted-earth tang of tropical rain forest.

“Tofa soifua.

Goodbye. A chance encounter with a South Pacific beauty. Ensconced in ivory, off solo to evening church, flower adorning her left ear, she broke from the beach with a final back glance, casting another sultry, soft smile as I waded into the turquoise lagoon for a swim.

Tofa soifua, yes. Forgotten?….no.

Dusk now. Coconut palm fronds sweep over the pearly beach as I pick barefoot over coral and lava, drawing deeper into the 87-degree saltwater, clear as air. First immersion and I’m away from the North Pacific and all of its frigid reverences, springtide gales, redwoods, white sharks and hypothermia. One-third of Earth is Pacific, larger than all lands combined, and here was its lower half–a warm wet, unlike the March gray I’d abandoned in California days prior.

As was the rough midnight drop through the clouds into Faleolo Airport, Apia. Last off the jet, through the emptied Air New Zealand rows and farewelling stewardesses, I pressed straight into Upolu’s sublime stickiness–another warm wet, this one nosed with sweat, bloom and soil. A grand entrance to the unspoiled heart and swell of Polynesia.

“Long time ago, there’s a man name Lu. He’s the first one to have a chicken in Samoa, so he’s very strict to anyone who touch his chicken. He have a chicken zoo. One day, the young men who served godfather Taloalang…they come in nighttime and try to attack Lu’s chicken zoo. So Lu’s very angry because he have a rule: not allow anyone to touch his chickens. The young men come to get his chickens for them. But Lu was very angry to find them trying to kill chickens. So a girl of the godfather named Taloalang lay down on the way where Lu tried to find the men to kill them. There’s a Samoan proverb, very popular: The lady lying in the way. So stop Lu from killing the men. That’s the end of Lu’s angry.

“So that’s the meaning of the name Samoa. Sa means ‘forbidden.’ Moa means ‘chicken.’ Samoa means “forbidden chicken. —Saia Tui

Each day brings another boat trip. Aside from a pair of epic sessions at Boulders, it is Nu’usafee Island or Siumu or Coconuts or Spot X for this California posse, guests of classy Sa’Moana Resort in Salamumu, south shore Upolu. Ideal striking distance to several hazardous reef waves, one of them fronting the guest quarters, or fales. A carload reconnaissance mission circling Upolu reveals north shore potential in the language of heavy-duty coral barrels with no one to surf them.

The boat is freedom. Ticket to ride. Alternative to long, sketchy paddles from shore. The 7’6 pintail is either gore or glory. Our boat stays at port; we settle back into the van and resume driving.

Imagine traveling the world and owning the ability to surf anything encountered. This person could conceivably live on Upolu for one year and surf its dozens of unsurfed breaks and never share a lineup. A helmet and reef booties are required for the waves we viewed, absolutely reeling over distant reefs under scorching midday sun. Upolu–some of the world’s heaviest lineups unridden–scar reefs, dreamscape waves from shore, terror in close range. User-friendly for the trigger finger. Or Tom Carroll.

Then there’s Leper Colony Left at Upolu’s southeast fringe, flanked by an island and a headland. Gorgeous symmetry. Sharky. Lethal. Risk your life if you dare. Or get back into the van and drive away.

“But we are so fond of life that we have no leisure to entertain the terror of death. It is a honeymoon with us all through, and none of the longest. Small blame to us if we give our whole hearts to this glowing bride of ours, to the appetites, to honour, to the hungry curiosity of the mind, to the pleasure of the eyes in nature, and the pride of our own nimble bodies. —Robert Louis Stevenson

Samoa. Archipelago of black lava crowns strung along an east-west axis roughly 14egrees south of the Equator. Eons ago, these islands sprouted from the seabed, hissing and gurgling hot as crustal plates jockeyed below. An old yarn claims this is where the world began when the creator, Tagaloalagi, first bellowed forth earth, sea and sky from rock. Then he made the first human being.

Language links and artifacts suggest the first distinctly Polynesian culture may have evolved here some 3,000 years yore. Spanning the ensuing centuries, Polynesian men piloting double-hulled sailboats packed with pigs, dogs and fruit scattered their culture across much of the Pacific, colonizing lands as distant as Hawaii, New Zealand and Rapa Nui.

Through the modern colonial era, the western islands succumbed to Germany, then New Zealand (introducing the now-immensely popular Samoan rugby), both nations disregarding local kings and customs in classic colonialistic form. Come 1962, following a granted proposal to the United Nations, the islands of Savai’i and Upolu became the independent nation of Western Samoa, known simply as Samoa since 1995.

All was not smooth, however. Dependence on foreign aid and vicious labor disputes meant the dream was tainted, and life steeply deteriorated after the nation was thrashed by successive cyclones, and its main export crop, taro, was decimated by a fungal curse. Samoa ebbed into an economic impasse from which it has never fully recovered, though tourism is easing the blow.

Coral reef: rain forests of the sea, breadbaskets sustaining a massive ecosystem, among Earth’s oldest and most biologically diverse, emerging some 200 million years ago. One hundred thousand species of coral have been cataloged out of a possible two million. A crucial nexus in the maritime food chain, these microcosms of color and life are a highly sensitive barometer of the tropical environment’s well-being.

The serrated kaleidoscope shallows off Nu’usafee Island felt healthy to me. Lower back reef bounce in two feet of water so clear, depth discernment is challenging. A harsh wound appears. Our regularfooted skipper Brent, Australian expat, eyes the roping head-high lefts and shrugs. “Mate, I couldn’t ride backside barrels worth a shit when I first moved here, he says. “Figured I’d have to learn painfully, eventually.

Yes. Weaving deeply through bending blue vortexes, crouched with one hand on the nose, one grabbing rail, he emerges more often than not. It is an excellent demonstration.

That afternoon, a perfect double rainbow arcs atop Nu’usafee, Upolu’s tried-and-true offshore savior during the southeast trades. No cameras; consistently beautiful yet unmakeable backside tubes and a dangerously shallow inside section. Blistering shortboard speed lines, warm trade wind whistling through the hair and ears. Bloodshot, salt-stung faces glare into the westward-setting sun, highlighting the rainbow like a postcard or fantasized oil painting. It is almost too cliché, this Robinson Crusoe factor. So we surf over sharp coral and the boat waits at anchor, framing the island scene, a fine ocular repast. Polynesian zen.

“We are in the midst of the rainy season, and dwell among alarms of hurricanes, in a very unsafe little two-storied wooden box 650 feet above and about three miles from the sea-beach. Behind us, till the other slope of the island, desert forest, peaks, and loud torrents; in front green slopes to the sea, some fifty miles of which we dominate. We see the ships as they go out and in to the dangerous roadstead of Apia; and if they lie far out, we can even see their topmasts while they are at anchor. Of sounds of men, beyond those of our own labourers, there reach us, at very long intervals, salutes from the warships in harbour, the bell of the cathedral church, and the low of the conch-shell calling the labour boys on the German plantations. Yesterday, which was Sunday—the Quantieme is most likely erroneous; you can now correct it—we had a visitor—Baker of Tonga. Heard you ever of him? He is a great man here: he is accused of theft, rape, judicial murder, private poisoning, abortion, misappropriation of public moneys—oddly enough, not forgery, nor arson: you would be amused if you knew how thick the accusations fly in this South Sea world. I make no doubt my own character is something illustrious; or if not yet, there is a good time coming. (Letter from R.L.S. to Henry James. Apia, Samoa, Dec. 29, 1890.)

A shimmering, sweaty blue Sunday morn. Sa’Moana Resort guests marshal inside the resort’s van en route to church service at the end of the three-minute coral commute to Salamumu’s dapper new house of worship, an example of good Samoan architecture fitted with elegant wood ceilings and pews, fanned by the ubiquitous overhead spiral blur. And packed to the walls with those of Salamumu, all in white, many stone-faced, gripping The Word, ripe for prayer. Same deal, different week.

I enter then sit. Conceal the Canon with the removed wide-brimmed hat. Three-hundred pounds of elder Samoan occupies the aisle seat to my left. Nobody to the right.

The pastor begins his sermon. I unveil the camera. Three-hundred pounds of elder Samoan notices, eyes my intent, raises a brow, then leans over and whispers.

“You tek a piktcha?

A peculiar moment. I nod vaguely with a forced grin. Blasphemy?

Suddenly his face morphs into a huge, white smile and he stands, motioning for me to take his place with a better view. We switch seats and I shake his vast hand.

“Thank you, sir.

“God bless, he grinned with sincerity.

Missionaries waltzed onto Upolu more than a century ago, and as the church evolved into a preeminent role of village life, Samoa became the Bible Belt of the South Seas, embracing the transposed Christian religion with gusto. Sunday service is a pinnacle event each week.

This belies the region’s reputation for being quite flexible of inhibitions and attire, an image brewed from lusty sailor tales later bolstered by Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa, a popular read of adolescent sexuality. Many a foreigner is nonplussed to discover it is deemed offensive for females to bear shorts or scant tops in a village. Definitely no bikinis. And one mustn’t swim or surf or indulge in any other form of recreation near villages on Sundays, set aside for family visits, feasting and worship.

The hour comes and Salamumu’s congregation lethargically files out. I catch Sa’Moana barkeep Saia for a question about the Christian influence.

“The missionaries arrived here in our land and we then knew the real god, he says. “Samoans had a god they prayed for, a traditional god. But the god is unknown. Who’s that god? At the time the missionaries arrived here, they explain well, and we know that it’s the real god they pray for.

Staunch traditionalism saturates Samoa, adhering to a knotty set of social hierarchies, courtesies and customs dictating social, religious and political livelihoods. There is no crime; homes have no walls. Etiquette rules abound, with a sharp grasp of propriety and respect.

Here is the South Pacific’s epicenter of tribal tattooing, an intrinsic step of initiation into Samoan culture. The markings are made come puberty; at age 12 or 13, Samoan males visit the tufuga, or tattooist, and get inked from waist to knee. Tattoos represent the strength of a man’s heart and his spirituality. If you can bear the pain of a month’s worth of tattooing, you can bear anything.

Culture is hinged on a fa’amatai–a governmental system boasting a chief, or matai, who reigns an entire aiga, or extended family. Necessities are rationed on a needs basis, while honor and social standing are shared by all in the aiga. Their matai represents the family on the village council, doles out justice and ensures customs are abided. He is also a living encyclopedia of all that is Samoan, responsible for narrating ancient folklore, family genealogies and tales of the old gods.

Each village has a certified orator, his woreat man here: he is accused of theft, rape, judicial murder, private poisoning, abortion, misappropriation of public moneys—oddly enough, not forgery, nor arson: you would be amused if you knew how thick the accusations fly in this South Sea world. I make no doubt my own character is something illustrious; or if not yet, there is a good time coming. (Letter from R.L.S. to Henry James. Apia, Samoa, Dec. 29, 1890.)

A shimmering, sweaty blue Sunday morn. Sa’Moana Resort guests marshal inside the resort’s van en route to church service at the end of the three-minute coral commute to Salamumu’s dapper new house of worship, an example of good Samoan architecture fitted with elegant wood ceilings and pews, fanned by the ubiquitous overhead spiral blur. And packed to the walls with those of Salamumu, all in white, many stone-faced, gripping The Word, ripe for prayer. Same deal, different week.

I enter then sit. Conceal the Canon with the removed wide-brimmed hat. Three-hundred pounds of elder Samoan occupies the aisle seat to my left. Nobody to the right.

The pastor begins his sermon. I unveil the camera. Three-hundred pounds of elder Samoan notices, eyes my intent, raises a brow, then leans over and whispers.

“You tek a piktcha?

A peculiar moment. I nod vaguely with a forced grin. Blasphemy?

Suddenly his face morphs into a huge, white smile and he stands, motioning for me to take his place with a better view. We switch seats and I shake his vast hand.

“Thank you, sir.

“God bless, he grinned with sincerity.

Missionaries waltzed onto Upolu more than a century ago, and as the church evolved into a preeminent role of village life, Samoa became the Bible Belt of the South Seas, embracing the transposed Christian religion with gusto. Sunday service is a pinnacle event each week.

This belies the region’s reputation for being quite flexible of inhibitions and attire, an image brewed from lusty sailor tales later bolstered by Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa, a popular read of adolescent sexuality. Many a foreigner is nonplussed to discover it is deemed offensive for females to bear shorts or scant tops in a village. Definitely no bikinis. And one mustn’t swim or surf or indulge in any other form of recreation near villages on Sundays, set aside for family visits, feasting and worship.

The hour comes and Salamumu’s congregation lethargically files out. I catch Sa’Moana barkeep Saia for a question about the Christian influence.

“The missionaries arrived here in our land and we then knew the real god, he says. “Samoans had a god they prayed for, a traditional god. But the god is unknown. Who’s that god? At the time the missionaries arrived here, they explain well, and we know that it’s the real god they pray for.

Staunch traditionalism saturates Samoa, adhering to a knotty set of social hierarchies, courtesies and customs dictating social, religious and political livelihoods. There is no crime; homes have no walls. Etiquette rules abound, with a sharp grasp of propriety and respect.

Here is the South Pacific’s epicenter of tribal tattooing, an intrinsic step of initiation into Samoan culture. The markings are made come puberty; at age 12 or 13, Samoan males visit the tufuga, or tattooist, and get inked from waist to knee. Tattoos represent the strength of a man’s heart and his spirituality. If you can bear the pain of a month’s worth of tattooing, you can bear anything.

Culture is hinged on a fa’amatai–a governmental system boasting a chief, or matai, who reigns an entire aiga, or extended family. Necessities are rationed on a needs basis, while honor and social standing are shared by all in the aiga. Their matai represents the family on the village council, doles out justice and ensures customs are abided. He is also a living encyclopedia of all that is Samoan, responsible for narrating ancient folklore, family genealogies and tales of the old gods.

Each village has a certified orator, his words braiding long, elaborate sinews of family ancestry and spiritual prowess, speaking also of everyday affairs on behalf of the village’s high chief. Donning traditional tattoos and a floral sarong-ish lavalava, Saia is our orator tonight at Sa’Moana’s weekly ‘ava ceremony, or fiafia, in the dining fale. Saia is a descendent of highly ranked men in Salamumu. Full name’s Saia Tauiliili Tui, the latter two translating into “high chief and “king, respectively.

While the women of Salamumu prepare a feast inside, Saia wrings root liquid into a wood bowl. Hoisting the bowl in gratitude then draining it with one gulp, I’m served the result in a sweeping flourish accompanied by a warrior’s whoop. Deep words flow from Saia proceeded by taro leaf platters of fish, breadfruit, taro root, lobster and baked coconut cream.

Legend claims the premier ‘ava ceremony occurred twixt the world’s first man and Tagaloalagi, his creator, who concocted a drink from roots of the kava, a strain of pepper plant. Offering this bitter, milky brown beverage has exemplified Polynesian welcome and communion ever since.

“There is a two different people here in Samoa. Lots of Samoan, they know how fishing. They’re the people who not afraid about the ocean. But the people who not know how to fish, they afraid about the ocean. But Samoan island is still same as the Hawaiian people–they like ocean.

Magenta floods the early sky as I converse with Vai, Sa’Moana employee and one of Samoa’s native surfing handful. We are aboard the resort’s 34-foot aluminum twin-hulled vessel engulfed by the absolute essence of morning: sunrise at sea.

South shore’s Aganoa Point. Built of jagged black lava, it is robed in rain forest, further softened by summit mists and verdant skylines spilling to the ocean. Accruing daylight reveals empty triple-overhead lefts detonating against deep-set lava reef. Stand-up barrels for anyone with experience and a pintail. With a leap of courage over the gunwale, we are surfing.

Nine hours later, I swill a lager and muse about the virtual nonexistence of native Samoan surfers. Saia describes it this way:

“Many surfers from overseas ask me about any Samoan surfing before. They try to find the history–is there anyone here in Samoa who took place in surfing? Well, there’s a legend story about the one Samoan surfing. It is a true story. We use it here now for our speeches.

“So, in American Samoa, there’s a village named Afono. One day, the people wake up in the morning and look out to the ocean. There’s a man who’s surfing the waves, from the reef, going back beyond the reef, go back…like that. And the people stand on the beach and wave their hands. They try to chase him. ‘Who’s that man? Get off! Get off!’ Like that. So the man run away from that island of American Samoa from the village of Afono and stay here in a village on Upolu. The village is very straight from American Samoa to here.

“At that time there was a very big fight in the villages here on Upolu. That man came and lived here in this village where that fight happens. All the villages, they prepared for a fight. So this man included in this group. They don’t know who he is, where he from. When the fight ended, he’s a different man. This a man who won the fight. But this a man from Afono, from the village of American Samoa, so they chase him out.

“Afono villagers, they know the stories about the fights here. They know that’s the man they chased out from their village, so there’s a Samoan proverb which means Afono missed their blessing. They’re lucky from this man. That man surfing, the one who surfing is a very hero man. And I know that this history of surfing is a very long time ago took place. Because there’s a man in American Samoa who surf. He’s a hero man, know everythings. Good in a tide, in a ocean. When he go out there, he know how to surf. When he go on land, he know how to fight. He’s a hero.

“That is the story and history I know from long time ago. Lotts of Samoans, they know it. We have a special proverb like if you missed something, or you just throw something away, the people say, ‘Ah, you missed your blessing’ or ‘You missed your lucky.’ They missed chance to learn surfing.

Polynesian tranquillity comes with a sinking sun into palm silhouettes. Four more breaststrokes and I can’t touch lagoon bottom. Stop and tread water, blink the eyes clear and see the girl vanish into riotous vegetation, from the beach back onto the coral road. It was a pleasant stroll for us. A detour.

Many attend church at this hour. Others commune in social centers, rugby fields, dinner mats in spartan homes. Down at the resort, now a faint glow to the east, Saia serves cocktails. “I surf the waves with my eyes, he’d stated earlier, pointing to his face then to the ocean. One day, he claims, it will be with a surfboard. Still treading, I think of this and peer seaward. Dim horizon fuzz grows pale with broken swell hitting the barrier reef. No surfing out there.

The girl is gone and so is the sun. Twilight resplendence suffocates all else. Here, just offshore Salamumu, I drift on my back, ears filled with muffled wave energy. Close the eyes then open them to the evening star. I try to envision these people at war once with Tonga, or with the rough sea and reefs in fishing canoes, with the Christian white man invasion, with natural disasters, with the tattoo needle. All overcome. For now, it is Samoan idyll.

Fa’afetai tele. braiding long, elaborate sinews of family ancestry and spiritual prowess, speaking also of everyday affairs on behalf of the village’s high chief. Donning traditional tattoos and a floral sarong-ish lavalava, Saia is our orator tonight at Sa’Moana’s weekly ‘ava ceremony, or fiafia, in the dining fale. Saia is a descendent of highly ranked men in Salamumu. Full name’s Saia Tauiliili Tui, the latter two translating into “high chief and “king, respectively.

While the women of Salamumu prepare a feast inside, Saia wrings root liquid into a wood bowl. Hoisting the bowl in gratitude then draining it with one gulp, I’m served the result in a sweeping flourish accompanied by a warrior’s whoop. Deep words flow from Saia proceeded by taro leaf platters of fish, breadfruit, taro root, lobster and baked coconut cream.

Legend claims the premier ‘ava ceremony occurred twixt the world’s first man and Tagaloalagi, his creator, who concocted a drink from roots of the kava, a strain of pepper plant. Offering this bitter, milky brown beverage has exemplified Polynesian welcome and communion ever since.

“There is a two different people here in Samoa. Lots of Samoan, they know how fishing. They’re the people who not afraid about the ocean. But the people who not know how to fish, they afraid about the ocean. But Samoan island is still same as the Hawaiian people–they like ocean.

Magenta floods the early sky as I converse with Vai, Sa’Moana employee and one of Samoa’s native surfing handful. We are aboard the resort’s 34-foot aluminum twin-hulled vessel engulfed by the absolute essence of morning: sunrise at sea.

South shore’s Aganoa Point. Built of jagged black lava, it is robed in rain forest, further softened by summit mists and verdant skylines spilling to the ocean. Accruing daylight reveals empty triple-overhead lefts detonating against deep-set lava reef. Stand-up barrels for anyone with experience and a pintail. With a leap of courage over the gunwale, we are surfing.

Nine hours later, I swill a lager and muse about the virtual nonexistence of native Samoan surfers. Saia describes it this way:

“Many surfers from overseas ask me about any Samoan surfing before. They try to find the history–is there anyone here in Samoa who took place in surfing? Well, there’s a legend story about the one Samoan surfing. It is a true story. We use it here now for our speeches.

“So, in American Samoa, there’s a village named Afono. One day, the people wake up in the morning and look out to the ocean. There’s a man who’s surfing the waves, from the reef, going back beyond the reef, go back…like that. And the people stand on the beach and wave their hands. They try to chase him. ‘Who’s that man? Get off! Get off!’ Like that. So the man run away from that island of American Samoa from the village of Afono and stay here in a village on Upolu. The village is very straight from American Samoa to here.

“At that time there was a very big fight in the villages here on Upolu. That man came and lived here in this village where that fight happens. All the villages, they prepared for a fight. So this man included in this group. They don’t know who he is, where he from. When the fight ended, he’s a different man. This a man who won the fight. But this a man from Afono, from the village of American Samoa, so they chase him out.

“Afono villagers, they know the stories about the fights here. They know that’s the man they chased out from their village, so there’s a Samoan proverb which means Afono missed their blessing. They’re lucky from this man. That man surfing, the one who surfing is a very hero man. And I know that this history of surfing is a very long time ago took place. Because there’s a man in American Samoa who surf. He’s a hero man, know everythings. Good in a tide, in a ocean. When he go out there, he know how to surf. When he go on land, he know how to fight. He’s a hero.

“That is the story and history I know from long time ago. Lots of Samoans, they know it. We have a special proverb like if you missed something, or you just throw something away, the people say, ‘Ah, you missed your blessing’ or ‘You missed your lucky.’ They missed chance to learn surfing.

Polynesian tranquillity comes with a sinking sun into palm silhouettes. Four more breaststrokes and I can’t touch lagoon bottom. Stop and tread water, blink the eyes clear and see the girl vanish into riotous vegetation, from the beach back onto the coral road. It was a pleasant stroll for us. A detour.

Many attend church at this hour. Others commune in social centers, rugby fields, dinner mats in spartan homes. Down at the resort, now a faint glow to the east, Saia serves cocktails. “I surf the waves with my eyes, he’d stated earlier, pointing to his face then to the ocean. One day, he claims, it will be with a surfboard. Still treading, I think of this and peer seaward. Dim horizon fuzz grows pale with broken swell hitting the barrier reef. No surfing out there.

The girl is gone and so is the sun. Twilight resplendence suffocates all else. Here, just offshore Salamumu, I drift on my back, ears filled with muffled wave energy. Close the eyes then open them to the evening star. I try to envision these people at war once with Tonga, or with the rough sea and reefs in fishing canoes, with the Christian white man invasion, with natural disasters, with the tattoo needle. All overcome. For now, it is Samoan idyll.

Fa’afetai tele. ago. Lots of Samoans, they know it. We have a special proverb like if you missed something, or you just throw something away, the people say, ‘Ah, you missed your blessing’ or ‘You missed your lucky.’ They missed chance to learn surfing.

Polynesian tranquillity comes with a sinking sun into palm silhouettes. Four more breaststrokes and I can’t touch lagoon bottom. Stop and tread water, blink the eyes clear and see the girl vanish into riotous vegetation, from the beach back onto the coral road. It was a pleasant stroll for us. A detour.

Many attend church at this hour. Others commune in social centers, rugby fields, dinner mats in spartan homes. Down at the resort, now a faint glow to the east, Saia serves cocktails. “I surf the waves with my eyes, he’d stated earlier, pointing to his face then to the ocean. One day, he claims, it will be with a surfboard. Still treading, I think of this and peer seaward. Dim horizon fuzz grows pale with broken swell hitting the barrier reef. No surfing out there.

The girl is gone and so is the sun. Twilight resplendence suffocates all else. Here, just offshore Salamumu, I drift on my back, ears filled with muffled wave energy. Close the eyes then open them to the evening star. I try to envision these people at war once with Tonga, or with the rough sea and reefs in fishing canoes, with the Christian white man invasion, with natural disasters, with the tattoo needle. All overcome. For now, it is Samoan idyll.

Fa’afetai tele.