The Pacific swell smashed violently into the submerged reef, rearing many meters into the air before breaking into furious surf. Then, just as it seemed that the roiling turmoil would sweep us all away, the wave suddenly and miraculously collapsed and disappeared without disturbing the glassy smoothness of the protected lagoon before us. Crouching on the beach at the eastern end of the main island of Upolu in Samoa, I paused once more to marvel at the way the encircling reef protected the little island from the great ocean beyond.

[blockquote2]For me, the fale epitomizes much of Samoan culture; it is in no way primitive, but simply traditional, an important distinction.[/blockquote2]

Local Samoans out for a day on the beach watched with mild interest as the three of us finished loading beer into our kayaks, pushed ourselves out onto the crystal clear water, and began the long paddle down the coast. To our right, the sea continued to pound against the invisible reef. To our left, once we’d left the crowds behind, traditional fale appeared along the shore. Above them, a backdrop of palm trees climbed the flanks of the mountain.

The water was unnervingly transparent, and I could clearly see the sandy bottom and the scattered reef heads. Peering through the slight distortion, I almost convinced myself that I could see individual fish down there. An hour or so into the paddle, our guide, Matz, pointed to a break in the reef. Here it was possible to venture out of the calm lagoon and into the open sea, so I decided to give it a go. The gap was only about ten meters wide and a bit choppy, so I concentrated on digging in the paddle and keeping in a straight line. Suddenly I was distracted by roaring thunder, and enormous rollers surfed by on either side, exploding as they crashed into the reef. It was awe-inspiring to watch and feel the power of the ocean, magically constrained to either side of the tiny corridor where I bobbed in relative safety just a few boat-lengths away. Just when I thought that it couldn’t get any better, the scaled head of a green turtle popped up in front of me, near enough to touch, but facing out to sea so that it did not realize that I was there. The great creature, a good half-meter across, hung motionless and watched the surf, occasionally waving an elongated flipper to maintain station. As the sea sloshed us about, my kayak nudged slightly ahead. The turtle looked up in surprise, inspected me carefully with its huge black eyes, then lazily turned and dived away.

After a bit of fun playing in the surf, and an entertaining swim in the undertow around a coral atoll, we returned to the relative calm of the lagoon. We still had another hour or so to go before we reached the small island of Nu’utele which beckoned invitingly on the horizon, so we buckled down to it. An hour or so later, we gratefully ran our boats up the beach near to a handful of deserted waterside fale, owned and maintained by a village on the mainland. Each fale is an open-sided wooden platform, roofed with thatch, and hung with woven palm-leaf blinds that can be rolled up and down to control the breeze. For me, the fale epitomizes much of Samoan culture; it is in no way primitive, but simply traditional, an important distinction. For instance, although these fale were constructed mainly from coconut-trunk spars and woven palm leaves, the cross-spars in the roof were made from pieces of shipping pallet, and the banana leaves were sewn together with string and what appeared to be magnetic cassette tape. Each roof also boasted a small corrugated iron cap, and the villagers were apparently expecting bad weather, because they had tied tarpaulins to each windward side for additional protection. I noticed this motif wherever I went; the traditional methods were preferred, but if some modern invention could do the traditional job better, then it was used without another thought. Right now, though, I was glad to just sit in the shade and crack open a welcome beer.

Food in Samoa is generally simple. In the capital town of Apia, I had seen pork and egg pizza described as ‘Samoan topping’, a rather tongue-in-cheek reference to the ubiquitous pigs and chickens that run more or less wild through every village. The traditional Sunday meal is pork or chicken roasted over a fire in a cooking hole. Today was Sunday, and later that evening some shy villagers turned up and served us the leftovers from the village’s repast along with servings of parrot fish. I’d seen a few parrot fish whilst diving, skinny blue things about ten inches long with not a lot of meat on them, so I was curious to see how they were going to be prepared. When my plate arrived, I was a little surprised to discover that each fish had been roasted whole, and then simply chopped in half, giving you the choice of either head end or tail end. I chose the head; it tasted just fine, but it was tricky to find any edible meat.

All the Samoans that I had met so far had been cheerful and gregarious, but these villagers were quiet and self-effacing, fading into the shadows whenever you looked at them. Maybe they were nervous of foreigners, or maybe it was just because it was Sunday and they were eager to get to church, because shortly before sunset they all climbed into their rickety boat and put-putted to the mainland. A few minutes later, I heard the long honking call of a conch-trumpet on the far shore, and a little later the Sunday evening service started.

The congregation must have been on the beach opposite, because the amplified voice of the priest echoed across the water, interspersed with “Hallelujah!“s and applause and singing. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, or even whether he was sticking to a single language, but he was obviously a skilled orator, switching from what seemed to be fire-and-brimstone haranguing to poetry and song and back again with consummate ease.

Meanwhile, on Nu’utele, the bugs had started biting, so I retired with a paraffin lamp to the mosquito net in my fale, and lay listening to the wash of the waves on the beach only a few meters away, the thunderous boom of surf on the reef farther out, and the hypnotic sounds of the priest across the water. A perfect evening to end a perfect day.

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