Spellbound in Samoa
First impressions can be powerful, inspirational and pure magic. None more so for me than the first dreamy images seen through the open windows of our taxi van, as we headed to Aggie Grey’s hotel in downtown Apia. In the wee small hours of a steamy still night, we sped past pacific blue fales, and down deserted shadowy streets shrouded in darkness. On beyond hedgerows of hibiscus flowers – flashes of colour under solitary street lights. Past luminescent churches looming out of the blackness, and beneath groves of leaning coconut palms reaching out for the restless reef. With mixed feelings of excitement and a little intrepidation, we had raced on towards our unknown destination.
The exotic beauty of this legendary land and surrounding seascapes, coupled with the charismatic charm of the Pacific Island people, have captured travelers hearts and imaginations since ancient times. When I visited Samoa for the first time ten years ago, I went simply for a good time with friends to relax lagoon side. Little did I know then that this place would caste a spell on me that would draw me back time and again, and ignite an interest in painting.
We stayed on the stunning island of Savaii – the larger and more traditional of the two main islands. Down at the bustling market alive with a heady mix of aromas, laughter and colour, we feasted on freshly baked pork buns, bananas in coconut cream and chop suey. All washed down with a welcome bottle of Vailima beer.
Our beach fales nestled on the whitest of white sand, beneath towering hibiscus trees with blooms the colour of the fiery orange sunsets. Fluttering like a swarm of butterflies to the ground, they magically transformed to become ruby red. When I stepped out of my hut on the first morning in the soft half light of dawn, the balmy air was fragrant with the intoxicating scent of frangipani. A carpet of scarlet hibiscus lay scattered at my feet.
From that moment on I became entranced by the larger than life plants that seemed to grow bolder and brighter in the overnight rains. I was by no means the first to have become captivated by the bounty of botanical beauties that are an integral part of everyday life in Samoa. Back in 1916 traveler and literary great W Somerset Maugham commented in his notebook of Savaii
‘ After the rain when the sun is shining and you walk through the bush, it is like a hot-house, seething,humid,sultry,breathless and you have a feeling that everything about you, trees,shrubs,climbing plants is growing with an impetuous violence’.
Beneath broad leaved breadfruit trees we sipped Pina coladas served by a massive mini skirted Fa’afafine (man with the manner of a woman) wearing a tight purple tank top and a yellow hibiscus in her hair. With gleaming toffee coloured thighs the size of whopping tree trunks, ‘Juanita’ flirted and fussed over us, as the setting sun slipped seductively into the depths of the Pacific Ocean. We were later to learn of her pig hunting prowess on the bush clad volcanic slopes behind the village, and her raunchy moves as a dancer at the Tropicana night club in downtown Apia. “She is world famous in Samoa” a grinning local told us.
My fascination for all things tropical subsequently morphed into something of an obsession which inspired me to paint canvas’s depicting the islands larger than life tropical beauties. I became literally spellbound with the delicate smoldering scarlet hibiscus flower and could think of little else. Every waking moment was consumed by thoughts of their alluring shape and sensuous form. Printed on lava-lava, on traditional tapa cloth, and growing rampantly in a kaleidoscope of colour around the island. I shopped till I dropped at the Salelologa markets, purchasing one lava- lava for each day of the week, along with woven grass bags, shirts for my boys back home, and tablecloths. Each one skillfully crafted by local villagers and featuring the hallowed hibiscus in various designs. So frenzied and out of control had my shopping expedition been, I felt like a woman possessed. Sadly my three sons did not share my passion for vivid floral. The stunning shirts I purchased for them in the heat of the moment were not received with the enthusiasm they deserved. They remain tucked away in the back of their wardrobes for any ‘island’ nights.
It was a habit of mine to walk every morning and I continued this in the small village we were staying in. Many villagers wore a hibiscus flower tucked behind their ear. I was to learn later that this signaled the availability of the wearer to any would be suitor. Innocently I had picked a newly unfurled red bloom from a bush by the bus stop and placed it my blond hair. A passing tropical shower had sprinkled diamond like raindrops over the petals and they sparkled irresistibly in the sun.
Every day I would discover something knew about traditional village life. The men setting off in their outrigger canoes to fish the deep beyond the reef, and throwing nets in the mysterious moon-lit lagoon. Chattering children and laughing women at the freshwater pools, scrubbing piles of washing on black volcanic rocks. Machete wielding villagers working in the taro and banana plantations. Clucking chickens, barking dogs and pigs destined for the umu wallowing at the water’s edge - blissfully unaware of their inevitable fate. There are definitely no mod cons in this part of the world. Most locals on Savaii continue to live a communal, subsistence way of life, steeped in the traditions of their ancestors.
It was on one of my solitary sojourns that a woman had waved out to me to join her for breakfast, as was the local custom. She plied me with dark sweet freshly ground cocoa ladled from a large pot over an open fire, and delicious Samoan porridge.
“You know many of us are watching you walk about our village and we see that you like to wear the Aute in your hair like us. But you must not wear the red one because it is the favorite flower of three spirit women that roam our islands. They will get very angry and jealous because they think you are trying to be more beautiful than they are. The ghosts will put a curse on you and you can get a terrible sickness. This has happened to many many people” she whispered.
The sinister overtone of the legendary hibiscus story stayed on my mind, feeding my overactive imagination. In my naivety I had not fully realized the spiritual and cultural significance of my actions and the story shared with me. Within days of my return home I came down with a dose of the flu. Coincidence? – maybe – or the island spirits warning me should I return and meddle in things I knew little about. But the three spirit women and I do have one thing in common. Our shared passion for the red Aute. Simply on that level alone, I think we are in fact kindred spirits.