she steps into the garden
on slender feet
under a hat of brimming whiteness
a startling face of teak
and round her skirts
a hundred blue butterflies rise
snippets of sky
We were in Samoa 12 years ago. We stayed for six weeks. We stayed on Upolu where we swam in the deepest bluest pool with secret chambers inside the rocks, ate palusami and papaya, saw a church with an enormous round window without glass that framed the sky, and swam with schools of iridescent fish - one of which, a trigger fish, bit our son. One night an enormous beetle flew inside the shirt of our friend Leo as we sat outside in the moist night air drinking whisky. In the evenings, we drove past the matai in their shirts and dark lava lavas flanking the road.
Every day I would try out the Samoan my friend Lualemana Tino Pereira had taught me long before that: Oamaioi? Manuia fa'afetai. I read Albert Wendt and Sia Figiel and that got me inside the fales, inside the minds of the locals, just a little bit. When we took the ferry to the 'Big Island' of Savai'i, a young woman on the upper deck told me she wasn't allowed to read Figiel because the author told stories she shouldn't about what went on inside the fales. The young woman saw the way our boys didn't always listen to what we said. She asked what my husband would do to them when we got home.
On Savai'i, we saw the blue butterflies at a place run by a family of Samoan Italians. Our younger son climbed trees with the grandson of the woman in the white hat; he picked up enormous beetles and held them in his hand. On Savai'i, we swam in a pool with giant turtles and saw one wrap its flippers - surely, lovingly - around the man who cared for it. We climbed a secret 'pyramid' that could have been built as a tower to watch for Tongan invaders. We jumped off rocks into waterfall pools and slept in a fale on the beach and watched our chubby baby daughter carried around on the hips of young Samoan women as if she weighed nothing at all.
Back on Upolu, we stayed a few nights at a smart resort to end our visit. It was called Coconuts. It rained nearly every day but it was always hot - a hot wet heat that didn't allow things to dry properly. It was like we were always swimming. When the rain cleared, the sand was white and the water blue, a kind of perfection. One morning we woke to the news that Princess Diana had died.
Every night at Coconuts, an older Samoan man sat outside our fale to guard the baby while we went to eat. I would sit with him sometimes after we got back and we'd talk in halting English/Samoan. He told me where all his family had scattered to: New Zealand, Australia. Like many Samoans, he told me these things with pride. The children were making money and sending it back. They were doing well, achieving things. We managed to exchange a lot of information despite the language differences - so many Samoan words are similar to Maori, with an 'l' where the 'r' is. So many words for family don't need translation. Each night he would ask me, Oamaioi? And I would reply, Manuia fa'afetai, oamaioi? Manuia, he would say. Just fine.