There are churches everywhere in Upolu, Samoa.
Some extravagant, some quaint. Some newly painted, some peeling back through centuries. It’s Sunday on this architect’s mood board of an island. It’s God’s day of rest. Driving through the village streets and women dressed in white are getting ready for church. Men are stoking morning bonfires in their front yards in preparation for the afterwards feast. Smoke and sun rise and light filters through the palms. We’re not even supposed to be surfing today.
Samoa’s far from the outcry of Kuta nightclubs and that’s why we picked it from a handful of South-East Asian and South Pacific paradises. We only knew that waves broke over shallow, outer reefs and that Samoans were generally nice people. That was enough. We found out about God, too.
A car comes over a rise heading toward us. Its wheels are on either side of the white dividing line. Everyone tightens their grip and pushes their feet into the floor. We veer our 4WD onto the verge as the other car swerves at the last second.
Less than ten years ago, the Samoan Prime Minister pushed the idea of switching from driving on the right side of the road to the left. The public weren’t interested but the PM got his way by appealing to the Samoan faith. He had a ‘vision’ from God. Everyone drives on the left now. Combine this confusion with Australian and New Zealand imported cars, which have replaced the expensive left-hand drive cars from America, and driving in Samoa becomes a game of chicken.
Our boat leaves no wake in the azure lagoon. It’s still early. Although keen to surf, we don’t want to plane across Samoa’s day of worship. Slow turtles still quicken when the bow approaches them. The water’s clear and making depth immeasurable. The mountains fall in.
Waves come to meet the rivermouth but avoid it, breaking left and right like separate goofy and regular dreams. My log floats me while I wait. Horses hang around the shore while two local boys enter their holy water with boards. One boy has three fins. The other boy has one fin, precisely wedged into the foam. It’s half a longboard and the fin is just above the clean snap. They paddle out with smiles and sit where the left walls. A swell comes and I move slowly into it, waiting for the section to rise. It doesn’t. The two boys on one and a half boards crumble the noseride section as they laugh themselves into whitewater. Every time. It doesn’t matter. It’s theirs.
Back on land we pass family gravesites standing out in front yards among the red and yellow plants just standing against dry stack lava rock walls. We pass dogs and puppies, cats and kittens, hens and chicks, pigs and piglets – it’s a fertile land where vines wrangle everything. Machete wielding farmers wave and smile and welcome us.
We make it back to our subsistence village where dreadlocked dogs rule. It’s the afternoon and everyone puts rocks in their pockets and hopes not to use them. We’re walking down the beach to watch some brave friends surf thunder hitting reef. The reward doesn’t outweigh the risk for a few others and me so we’re drinking in the sand. There’s a place that holds this swell but the beach is closed because Survivor is filming there.
As far as capital cities go, Apia’s a small one. And though grand churches line the harbour banks, some people use faith and a benevolent reputation for swindling.
Everyone splits in the city. Friends shop for golf shirts while I head to a camera store in search of film. The first clerk laughs at me. Then in the middle of a fruit market coloured with purple taro, I find a camera stall. I pick up the only three dusty canisters and buy them. Upon closer inspection, one roll is already used.
The meeting point after our business in the city is McDonald’s, a place that never lets you feel like you’re off the beaten path. I walk in early and go straight to the bathroom. A man leaves as I enter. When I go to wash my hands he’s there smiling.
“I remember you from the flight,” he says. “Where you from?”
“Australia,” I reply.
“I’m a minister from Campbelltown. I saw you on the flight from Sydney.”
“Oh, yeah,” I say with alarm bells ringing because I flew from Brisbane.
The man tells me that everyone in his family is suffering undiagnosed and unnamed illnesses which require several unnamed operations. He asks for money. I politely decline and lie hoping that he’s doing the same. It’s hard not to believe in a country where everyone waves to you.
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