I would struggle to identify the first time I went to Samoa. As a flight attendant, a profession perceived to be the epitome of glamour, travel to Apia was distinctly not so. Unsociable is the best way to describe the hours the flights were scheduled. One of the least popular duties was an Apia-All-Nighter, reporting at six in the evening, flying Auckland to Apia and back, arriving home at dawn. Often the flights weren’t direct, but combined bus-style, with a stop in another island on the way to or from. The flights were expensive for the Samoans, historically little competition on the island routes kept fares high, but the seats were always well filled, with passengers a whirl of flowered shirts, girls and boys in outfits made of matching materials, wearing leis created from paper-wrapped sweets. Overhead lockers were crammed with striped nylon bags and chilly-bins carrying delicacies in either direction, to or from New Zealand, and room had to be made so precious hats for church didn’t get squashed.
It was some years before I had a trip where we stayed the night. It felt so exotic, walking down the aircraft stairs, feeling a wave of warm, humid air as I crossed the tarmac, and entering the terminal to the serenade of singing and ukulele playing. On one early morning arrival from Los Angeles, a teenage girl stopped on the platform at the top of the stairs, and curled her lip at me.
“Where is the fresh air?” she bellowed.
“Excuse me?” I replied, batteries flat.
“Where is the fresh air? They told me there was fresh air!”
I suggested she need to be further from the aircraft. Her mother was now beside me too.
“She is born in California,” her mother replied, shaking her head. “It’s her first time here.”
Our crews stayed at Aggie Greys, where the legend loomed large, and we were treated like royalty. If our stay fell on a Fiafia night, we were always invited and given a free dinner. I never tired of the show, we could predict the captain would be called up to dance for the audience participation part, before we filed out for the drama of chiselled young men twirling sticks of fire, from the roof of the buildings above the swimming pool.
It’s a substantial drive from the airport to Aggie’s in town. Arrival from LA was often at sunrise, and it never failed to lift my spirits; the road hugging the coast, marked with white stones between the tarseal and grass, palm trees and hibiscus, the blue of the sea, the rose-hue of the sky.
Once, as we dozed in the van, beyond even our usual ribald, hypoxic chatter, we became aware that our suitcases were no longer in the trailer towed behind, but escaping, one-by-one, and bouncing all over the road.
“Driver, stop!” we called frantically. It took some time to go back and pick them up, and even then, we were missing one.
Young Aggie, as we called her, to differentiate from her original hotel-running, legendary grandmother, took the matter personally. She went on local radio. “There is an Air New Zealand suitcase out there,” she commanded. “It must come back today, and I will give a one hundred tala reward.” Nicky had her suitcase by lunch time.
My routine on these trips was often the same. Sleep to take the edge off, then, if the tides were right, walk with my flippers, snorkel and mask to the Palolo Deep Water Marine Reserve, a few minutes away. I’d pay my admission fee at the hut just off the road, and head into the water. I’d learnt the hard way you needed the tide to be in, attempting the first time at low tide, painfully dragging myself the couple of hundred metres before the drop off through spiky coral.
After, I would stop at ‘Paddles’ for lunch, a restaurant run by an Italian-Samoan family, where they served amazing coffee, pasta and gelato, and I could read old design magazines from New Zealand.
My love for Samoa deepened in 2009 on a trip when I found myself with five like-minded hosties, and a full day off. We hired a car, and set off around the island of Upolu. One of our group had just had a week long holiday at Lalomanu, out on the south-east coast, staying at the family run Taufua Fales. She regaled us with stories of idyllic lazy days, technicolour snorkelling, and a drinks tab that was higher than the cost of the accommodation for the whole week. We included this on our one-day itinerary, and I was smitten.
Later in that year, of course, Samoa was hit by a devastating tsunami. Lalomanu was particularly affected as the tall bluff behind the beach meant that the water had nowhere to go. The famous Taufua Fales were reduced to match sticks. Fourteen members of the extended Taufua family were among the dead, as were two New Zealand travellers.
I was determined to return with my family, and immerse us all in real fa’a Samoa.