Flying Turtles in Samoa
Date: 5th June 2005
Subject: Flying turtles
Place: Virgin Cove, Upolu, Independent Samoa
“You know what Mum? We aren’t a Family on a Bike any more, we’re a Family In A Turtle,” Matthew said happily, as he thrust his head out of the window of the big Green Turtle minibus.
He gazed out at the villages, crying with delight when passing wild pigs chose to cross the road in front of us, and waved to the local children who waved back enthusiastically. It was our last Sunday in Samoa, and from all corners people were walking to Church in their white outfits, with their starched lace collars, and flowing skirts. On the washing lines, brightly coloured lavalava’s added splashes of colour to the rich green palette of plantations that stretched in every direction.
The sun was hot, and Matthew was enjoying the sensation of cool air blowing through his hair. This was his last ride on a turtle, as we moved to Virgin Cove for our final couple of days of island life.
Mixed feelings about this paradise
As we look back at our month in Samoa, Stuart and I are trying to make sense of our feelings for the country. In some ways we will really miss it. It’s been a constant delight to meet the cheerful, brightly dressed Samoan population who always have time for a smile and a chat. We have enjoyed sleeping in falé where throughout the night we were lulled to sleep by the waves and the fresh sea breeze.
Our eco tour was a lot of fun, primarily due to the knowledgeable and eccentric Steve, who entertained us with his stories and introduced us to the real Samoa. The sun is almost always hot, the sea is always warm and dotted with darting tropical fish, and the coconut trees provide a snoozy shady sanctuary from the midday heat. If we were here on our own, we would surely have wanted to stay forever. But being accompanied by two small children with their many needs and moods has taken its’ toll.
Paradise has been challenging
Matthew and Cameron like their routine, and it’s been hard to maintain one here. Mealtimes have been a movable feast, making bedtimes haphazard, and the children tired and cranky. They’ve both been regularly overheated and when they get too hot they refuse to walk and want to be carried. Their distrust of coconut, papaya, breadfruit, tarot and all the staples of Samoan cooking has made eating a strain for us all. And since we stepped off the plane we have been plagued by illness. From tummy bugs to impetigo, there hasn’t been a day where I haven’t been worried about one of them. I’ve visited more doctors in a month than I do in a year at home; and Stuart is tired of attacking the kids with antibacterial soap.
But the kids have had the time of their life
Ironically, the kids are having the time of their life and tell us Samoa is the best place they have ever visited. They love being on the beach, playing in the sand, snorkelling with the fishes, swimming in the surf. The fact that they don’t eat anything most of the time makes the things they do like even more exciting. Visiting the country’s only McDonalds in Apia became a semi religious experience for them. And on the rare times there is pasta or chips on the menu, they believe they’ve died and gone to heaven. They love changing resort every day or two, climbing into their mosquito nets and snuggling up in their pyjamas with just a thin sheet to cover their bodies. But most of all they love the Green Turtle. The friendly white bus with its’ contented, cheery guides. It has become an emblem for them of all things Samoan.
The mysterious green turtles
Indeed the turtle is one of Samoa’s mysterious and precious visitors. In the past it was considered the most special gift you could give a Samoan chief, and was hunted for meat and its’ valuable tortoise-shell. Now it’s an endangered species and only two out of seven species remain. One of these is the green turtle.
Matthew is particularly fond of them after having fed some at a sanctuary on his third day in Samoa. He sat perched on a rock, tense with excitement, waving coconut and tarot leaves in the direction of the river. Then after a few minutes, the water lapped against the grass, and four huge shells floated to the surface. Slowly, silently, the turtles came to join him. Trusting the intentions of the small boy, they stared up out of the water, opened their jaws and peacefully tugged on the leaves. They disappeared as silently as they had arrived, leaving two small children lost for words.
Are turtles magic?
Eventually Cameron spoke, gripping my hand tightly from the safety of the river bank. “Are turtles magic Mummy?” he asked in awe, too fearful to go closer and feed them. “No, they’re just turtles Cam, just like our bus,” said Matthew running to climb back on to his favourite vehicle.
But in a sense Cameron was right. There are many elements of magic that surround these magnificent creatures. They lay up to a hundred and twenty eggs on the beach in clockwork sixty day intervals. Those that survive make for the sea, and wander the oceans for thirty five years or more. No-one knows how they manage to then navigate back, but they lay their own eggs on the same beach as they were born, and the mystical cycle begins again.
Cameron has a plastic green turtle toy that has now taken the place of Lamby. He puts it on his head and gets down on all fours, pretending to be a turtle. He no longer believes he’s a dog, and won’t answer to the name of Clifford any more. We are dreading the day he loses his new toy.
Samoa is the land of disappearing toys. Every time we enter a new resort or village, the local children look longingly at the boys’ backpacks, with their colourful and intricate toys from England and New Zealand. Then one by one, the toys disappear. Squeaky headless duck became the latest casualty as I watched it disappear around the corner with an unidentified toddler. You have to accept a little of this since most things are communally owned here and you don’t mind since they don’t have much anyway. A few toys make it back to us a few days later, having been well squeaked and played with. But others choose to remain here; we encourage the boys to think of them as a small gift.
In one resort Matthew’s meccano appeared in a different falé every morning, each time shaped into a new and more inventive creation, as the off duty kitchen staff and village chiefs passed it around amongst themselves and competed to outdo each other.
Not so turtle magic
In our last few days here we decided to do our own eco tour, swimming in freshwater pools, and visiting a local turtle sanctuary. It was then we realised how little we really know about this country and its’ customs.
“Two tala each,” demanded the guardian of the sanctuary, a pinched looking woman in a red dress. “The children need to pay too. Wait here and he will get the turtles.”
A teenage boy appeared and stripped down to a pair of shorts then dived into a murky pool. A minute later he reappeared, dragging a flailing animal over the rocks. Thrashing and squawking, the turtle was thrown on its’ back on a concrete path in the baking sun. It struggled unsuccessfully to right itself and then gave up flailing. Then the boy jumped back in the water, and pulled out a second turtle . This one put up a bigger fight, biting the boy before being dropped harshly onto the path.
Three small schoolchildren dressed in purple and white uniforms gathered to watch the scene. They laughed happily, then started to kick the turtles, which increased the animals’ distress and agitation. We stood there and watched helplessly, feeling this was all wrong, but unsure of how to stop it, or whether it was a normal way for villagers to treat their pets. I turned to look at our taxi driver for guidance. He was watching the scene and shrugged at me, obviously unmoved.
“I’d like you to put the turtles back in the water now.” I said to the boy.
He picked the first one up and swung it around his head, throwing it back into the pond. Then he did the same with the second. We left in shock, ashamed to have funded this display.
“Why did the man kick that turtle? “asked Cameron, trying to get a handle on the situation.
“I really have no idea Cam,” I told him helplessly.
Despite a month touring the country, we were no more than hopeless Westerners, relying on a guide to navigate us through the intricacies of Samoan life.
And so to the airport
“Will the green turtle be taking us to the airport?” asked Matthew.
Cameron looked up hopefully to see if he’d get one last go on the bus.
“I think so,” I replied, packing our stuff into a bulging rucksack.
I carefully laid out the hand painted tapa cloth of two green turtles, one for each of the boys’,bedrooms, the only visible souvenir of our time here now that the impetigo had all cleared up.
“I go on a green turtle to Merica Mummy? Now I’m all better?”
Cameron’s sweet, unblistered face appeared only inches from my nose. On his own nose, there were little white patches where the skin had grown back, but his freckles hadn’t.
“No stupid. We’re getting a plane to Lost Angeles,” piped up Matthew.
“Turtles can’t fly stupid.”
“This one can,” said Cameron, placing his plastic green turtle on his head. “Whheeeeeee,” he ran around the room enjoying one last piece of Samoan magic.