samoa 1996 64 07

Samoa and Robert Louis Stevenson 1996

In school I used to enjoy sharing poems with my pupils and writing their own poems formed a large part of our language work. Early in 1995 I watched a film about the life of Robert Louis Stevenson and how he came to live in Samoa, which is where he died.

His book of poems, ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ was one that I enjoyed sharing as the poems were enjoyable for the children, but also reflected much of my own childhood imagination in the things he described of his imaginative play. He was afflicted with bad health throughout his life and as a boy at home, he had to make up fun adventures to pass the time. No computer games or social media in those days, so in some ways he may have been lucky.

My primary school teacher used to read his poems to us and I remember ‘(Leerie) the Lamplighter’ and ‘From a Railway Carriage’ being particular favourites. ‘The Land of Counterpane’ describes some of his imaginary play that was very similar to mine when confined to bed. The pillows and covers became the land, and the flat space between ,the sea, and soldiers and ships would do battle.

The film of his life filled in some gaps about his character and the people he encountered along the way, and I felt so inspired that I decided to go to Samoa (then called Western Samoa) and see the island and people that adored Tusitala, the teller of stories. I have since tried to recall the actual name of the film and my research has only come up with an Australian mini series from 1986 called ‘Rebel of the South Seas’, which fits the time period. Unfortunately I have been unable to find a copy to watch again.

The journey to Samoa was quite different to that of Stevenson, as I took the plane and was almost non stop to New Zealand, the first stop over on my journey. We did have a three hour break at Narita airport in Tokyo Japan, which was very welcome, but not nearly long enough. On a future trip I would definitely include overnight stops.

I had booked a small hotel in Auckland New Zealand where I stayed to explore for about a week, before my onward journey to Apia, Samoa. I had to fly to Fiji first and stay over one night at another hotel I had previously booked, as there were no direct flights from Auckland. I then arrived in Apia late at night, but with no hotel booked this time, not sure why. I stayed at a hostel for one night and found, with the help of a nice taxi driver, a hotel for the next few weeks. The main hotel on the island, Aggie Greys’ was suggested, but that is very expensive and wasn’t the type of place I’d feel comfortable in anyway.

In Apia I did lots of exploring around the place on foot, before hiring a jeep to take me around the beautiful island. Apart from retracing RLS steps I also wanted to enjoy the locality and its people. I visited beaches, which are controlled by locals and who charge to access the sands. The charge is in local Samoan currency, which is very cheap. I also made some local friends. The people are the friendliest and most honest you could come across. I will admit I was a bit concerned at first, as I encountered them asking for a lift (four of them), and as I am quite trusting of people and being in a strange country with inhabitants you are unsure of in their intentions, can make you nervous. However they were very nice, helpful guys, who even came to see me off when I left and some gave me gifts too, which was very thoughtful. I did try to keep in touch with them, but letter writing, (no email in those days at least in Samoa, which wasn’t as far on as some countries at that time) dropped off very quickly. Some Samoans live a communal way of life, participating in activities collectively. Examples of this are the traditional Samoan fale (houses) which are open with no walls, using blinds made of coconut palm fronds during the night or bad weather. It was quite strange at night when they had lights on and no walls, you could see everyone in their small houses. It was very a very simple way of life as it was so hot, although it may no longer be the same today.

During my trip I visited a school and although I have the photos of the visit I can’t actually remember much about it. I have a vague recollection that the school didn’t have technology in the classrooms to contact my school by email, but I’m not sure why we didn’t use snail mail.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s house, Vailima, is still there and preserved as a museum, exactly as it was when he lived there. He even had a fireplace installed to make it feel more like home in Scotland, even though it would never be needed in such a hot country. I don’t think it was a working fireplace anyway. In the film when he died, it was extremely emotional with his family naturally upset, but the Samoans were also devastated that the much respected Tusitala had left the world so early. He want to be buried at the top of Mount Vaea, which overlooked the villa. In earlier years Stevenson had supported Samoans against German occupiers and when he died they cut a road up through the undergrowth to the top of Mount Vaea called ‘Road of the Loving Hearts’ leading to his burial site.

The dream of visiting his house was fulfilled and later I walked up the ‘Road of the Loving Hearts’ to his grave. There were a few locals lying around it, but they very politely got up and let me take photos without them sleeping. The whole experience was very moving, to think that RLS from Edinburgh, the writer of great stories like ‘Kidnapped’, ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’, celebrated by locals, lived and died here at a very young age, and I was moving around in his footsteps.

Samoa has been the best place I have ever visited. I so enjoyed meeting the people and the way of life, that I wanted to return as soon as I could afford it. The climate is also very agreeable, not too hot or cold, and ailments that might usually afflict me in a cold Scottish winter would not be an issue, as they weren’t for Stevenson. Unfortunately I haven’t gone back as hoped, and in the current situation (Covid) it is unlikely that I ever will, but I we’ll see what the future holds.

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