Samoa, south sea island.
I recollect, after being on Christmas Island for about 5 months, I was allowed a break away. It was free & we had a few options. Fiji & Samoa were definite choices. Honolulu was on the list too. Ray spent his week there, after I left the island.
I must have been a real romantic. I can remember I rejected Honolulu as being too touristy & American. Why you were allowed a different number of days at one place than another, I haven’t a clue. More to do with scheduling of flights than logic I suspect. Fiji was good & for seven days but I chose three or four days in Samoa. (19) I have no idea what I visualised, but I wanted the chance to visit a real South Sea island. The movie South Pacific had been released in 1958. It was too early for us to see it so that wouldn’t have been in my thoughts. I just had a feeling that this place may have grass huts, hula skirts & like a place I dreamed the South Seas would be. I wasn’t far out! I purchased via mail order from Hong Kong, my copy of a twin lensed Rollei camera, the Walzflex! I was going to savour this trip. For the first time, I decided to write a diary or journal about the trip. Of course like everything else, it disappeared with time.
I had no idea how legendary, Aggie Greys hotel was. I had no knowledge that Robert Louis Stevenson had lived his days out in Samoa. Why didn’t I go to the camp library & look stuff up? I was interested, I looked forward to it & I guess I was my usual self, daydreaming my way through life, lots of good intentions but short on the action.
Samoa has two islands, Upolu & Savaii. The main town was Apia on Upolu. It took us 11 hours flying time in a Dakota to get there. (20) This aircraft was the stuff of legends for a boy who was raised through the war. The Dak had the significance of a real warplane like a Lancaster, Spitfire or a Catalina. Two radial engines and known for being a tough workhorse, it was an adventure in itself, just trusting this WW2 aircraft to fly without fault & find this other speck in the middle of the worlds biggest ocean. I don’t remember seeing too much on the way, a few atolls & ships maybe. Food was coffee & sandwiches. The heating was either on or off, it didn’t seem to be controllable. I know eleven hours sounds a long time in a noisy military aircraft but I loved it. This was doing it the proper way! There were rumours we might fake a fault on the Dak, so that we would get a longer break. Of course, knowing my luck, that never would never come to pass!
There must have been low cloud, as the islands were hard to see as we flew in. It was a primitive airstrip some way up from Apia. Many of the fellas who met us were wearing the Samoan skirt or a type of sarong. As we drove in, we could see the long walkways that lead from grass covered huts on small stilts, to the toilets out at sea. This is what I wanted to see. The real South Sea Islands!
Aggie’s was more like a big house on the main road. It had a couple of bungalows in the back garden. During World War II, US soldiers visited Apia from all over the Pacific for their rest and recuperation breaks. Aggie Grey was a local entrepreneur; she built up a business selling hamburgers and coffee, to US servicemen. Her business soon developed into a hotel of international repute, which remains the best hotel on the islands today. Aggie herself is supposed to have been the model for Mitchener's (21) character of Bloody Mary, made famous in South Pacific. It must be stressed that at the time, I knew nothing of this. Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando & William Holden had stayed here but now it was Tich Lowe, his mates & the aircrew.
As I had been only in the company of two (very nice) WVS women for the last few months, to be dropped in the centre of female loveliness was beyond my wildest dreams! They looked like brown skinned goddesses; they smelt like women do, they were beautiful, kind & appreciative. Buses, full of girls in white dresses were everywhere. Going, I assumed, to weddings, but it could have been anything.The whole town was full of churches. Mormons, Catholics, Methodist & a church signed in German. (Lutheran?). So this is what God originally planned? He must have liked the place. Either that or his followers thought, “If I’m going to spread the word of God … this is the place to do it!” Guess what I found out! It was not just Whalley and Moss Side that Methodism had reached. In 1830, the first missionary arrived from England, was a Peter Turner, who established a Wesleyan Methodist Mission in Apia and converted the chief of all Samoa, Malietoa Vainu'upo.
Years later a man wrote “I chose to live in the Pacific islands because life there moves at the sort of pace which you feel God must have had in mind originally when He made the sun to keep us warm and provided the fruits of the earth for the taking” I knew exactly what he meant.
So here I am, in the South Sea Islands, there are beautiful mountains, streams, grass huts & women. On our first evening we were invited to the local village for music, drinks & entertainment. All the girls had on grass skirts; we were greeted with a garland of flowers. It was exactly what I had dreamed about!
Then came another lesson in life! Things change. Nothing remains in aspic. I don’t know why I was deeply shocked but I was. I had come to this paradise to see Samoa, a jewel in the South Seas but as soon as they finished the lovely traditional music. They switched on the radio! It was rock & roll they wanted! They wanted us to teach them to jive! I couldn’t help being stunned. I was naïve! I really thought it was a true paradise and I couldn’t have been less shocked, if a group of nuns has done the hokey cokey after evensong!
Why was I so shocked? The Americans had been there since the war. They had radio & the cinema. They were as knowledgeable (or as ignorant) as I was about the rest of the world. They craved the modern dreams that the cinema had sold to us. They thought they lived in a dump in the middle of nowhere and I thought it was paradise.
I was still recovering from the shock, when I was invited to meet the village chief in a Fale (or open house). One of the girls who took a shine to me walked me across. The chief was huge, lying on his grass woven mat … stone asleep! On our way back to the hotel the vaguely unpleasant side came out. Four or five big Samoans, came out of the trees. They were not exactly threatening but it did remind me that they believed in the wartime saying about the Yanks, “Over paid, over sexed & over here”. This time it was us! They settled for some cigarettes. It felt like it was payment for allowing us to smell their gorgeous women!
We were told over breakfast that the grave of Robert Louis Stevenson was up in the hills. Stupid me never knew he’d been here. Even I had read Treasure Island. Seen the film many times! A taxi took us to the foot of Vaca Mountain where his grave was located. The tomb is a breathtaking spot, over looking his farm Vailima. (Which means Five Rivers). Two young children took us up this tropical footpath. These were early tourist days, no safe path with handrails and no thought for health & safety; there was no blame culture & the world wasn’t that litigious. It was a long hard climb. When we reached the top, both children tore huge leaves & used them to fan us! The sarcophagus was large & had his lines written on the side 'Home is the sailor, home from the sea, and the hunter home from the hill'. It looked like concrete. The work it must have taken to get him & his grave materials up there must have been a real slog. He’d purchased 400 acres in 1890 living there till he died in 1894. Please don’t think I knew any of this stuff in 1959! It’s only afterwards that I have learnt all I missed when I was there. Two precious days, one chance blown!
Over the few days, I made great friends with a young guy from New Zealand, called Malcolm Ralls who was staying at Aggie’s hotel. He said he was on a holiday after overworking for his family firm and seemed to have had some sort of breakdown. A great, relaxed guy, full of humour. I stayed in touch on & off for years. But today was my big day, when I heard from his daughter that he is alive and well & living in Australia. The Gods must have been kind to both of us to let me know that news. Then he sent me a letter, including a picture of Aggie's in 1958 & the news it was only £12.10 a week to stay there!I fell head over heels with a beautiful girl, of course. I gave her a fountain pen so she could write to me. Minutes later, she came back with a big pair of swimming trucks. Some big Samoan lost his swimwear to a Brylcreem boy! As I kissed the whole staff goodbye, Malcolm complained he’d been there ages and had never had a kiss! I’m sure he got his when he finally left. It would be like losing a son for the hotel staff. It was like leaving your family. Being hospitable seemed to be the most natural thing in the world to Samoans.
On the 30th September 2009 a Tsunami hit Samoa killing over 150 people. It is amazing how affected I felt after all these years. What can you do? Send a few pounds to help? Email into the ether hoping someone sees it? God knows they'll have more to do to restore their lives then read an email from a visitor who saw them 50 years ago. At least one old Englishman is thinking of them now.