Date: 10th June 2005
Subject: From one jungle to another
Place: Disneyland, Annaheim, California, USA
From one jungle to another
“Watch out, there’s a crocodile, behind us,” screamed Matthew.
Cameron almost jumped out of his seat. “Where Matt, where?” he shouted, a look of sheer terror on his face. A moment later he was pacified. Even a two year old could spot the difference between a plastic decoy and the real thing. Mind you, there wasn’t much in this Indiana Jones rainforest that was real. As we drifted down the man-made current, plastic tropical flowers competed for our attention with unconvincing model elephants. I glanced up at the Lara Croft look alike who was driving our boat, commentating slickly through a lip mike. Her teeth gleamed in the sunlight. They were definitely fake and I had my suspicions about her breasts.
The last supper in Samoa
The last thirty six hours had been surreal. We ended our month in Samoa in a bizarre mirror image of how we had begun. We had no cash, and were totally out of sync with Samoan custom. It was our final transfer around the island and by the time the Green Turtle bus picked us up it was packed with people on a day tour of Upolo. By this time, there wasn’t much of Upolo we hadn’t seen, stayed in or visited. Ten minutes into the trip the driver announced that we would all have lunch in a local village. He then drove up a familiar road.
“He’s got to be kidding,” I whispered to Stuart. “It’s the village where you got food poisoning during the eco tour.” Stuart went slightly green, memories of dodgy coconut cream obviously flooding back. “Let’s stay in the bus,” he suggested.
“You can’t stay in the bus. It is very impolite. Come in, come in,” said Skip our driver.
“But we already came here on our eco tour, with Steve and his kids.” I told him desperately.
“Oh. Right. I’ll have a word.” He went off to speak to the village chief. A moment later he was back again.
“The chief says you must come in. You will offend the family if you stay in the bus. It’s not a possibility.”
We reluctantly trouped in and the chief began his demonstration of basket weaving. We watched appreciatively. Then the bus driver retold the legend behind the coconut. We listened patiently. A man came to show us again how to make a fire with two sticks. We clapped politely. Then coconut cream was made and passed around. We pretended to sip, concerned more about a repeat bout of food poisoning than the feelings of the village chief, who had now finished making his basket. He grinned widely as he passed it around for inspection. His teeth were definitely real; and he hadn’t many left. When lunch began to arrive in bowls made out of leaves, Stuart nudged me. “Remind Skip that we won’t be eating.”
Skip looked at me in disbelief when I told him. “You can’t do that. It is very impolite to Samoan people to refuse their hospitality,” he said in a rather loud voice, “you must have lunch.”
I leaned over towards him, and confessed one of our problems with the meal. “We have no money. We ran out of cash two days ago.”
“We will sort it. Eat,” he said sternly.
The bowls appeared in front of us and the boys started picking through them. “Don’t like tarot,” said Cameron, lifting three massive slabs of the starchy food and dumping them in Stuart’s bowl.
“Don’t like papaya, or chicken, or tarot leaves,” said Matthew, pushing his plate aside. Stuart and I munched through the unpalatable pieces of tarot, picking our way around the parcels of palusami.
“Come on now everyone, we must make up some time. We have to drop people off at the ferry,” said Skip as we drank our Samoan cocoa out of coconut halves. “Can everyone hand their fifty tala to the chief?”
Fifty tala a head? Stuart and I looked at each other in alarm. It was twice the price of any meal we had been served throughout the month.
“You two, get in the bus, quickly,” Skip instructed us, shuffling our family out to the van while the others queued to pay their fee. Obviously non payment was less offensive to the family than refusing to eat their tarot leaves.
“Please save me from another round of tarot, at any point in my life.” said Stuart climbing into the bus.
Welcome to LA
Twenty four hours later, and we stood in front of two enormous tables, piled high with food. Muffins, cinnamon rolls, eggs, bagels, cream cheese, jam, toast, yoghurts, juices, coffee, cereals, cakes, and fresh fruit of every kind except papaya. It was breakfast time and breakfast was free. “God Bless America,” said Stuart as he forced another bagel onto his plate, “and I never thought I’d hear myself say that.” We had to pinch ourselves to make sure this wasn’t a dream. Surely there were no two places on earth more different than Samoa and Los Angeles? And just to make this contrast even more stark, we were off to Disneyland for Cameron’s birthday.
The American Dream
Getting into Disneyland took almost as much of our time as L.A. immigration officials had demanded the day before. Nine lanes of traffic wound around the Disney dream factory, high walls and hedges keeping out anyone who wasn’t willing to fork out the hundred dollars per person, or stand in the winding queue that bought you a day or two in the ‘happiest place on earth.’ After a full bag search, followed by a queue through the toll gates and a further queue to the monorail, it was time to live the American dream. We wandered around shops stuffed with toys and gifts, past obese people stuffing themselves with buckets of popcorn, through the crowds surrounding Tigger and Mickey, being escorted around the site by minders in case anyone jumped the queue for a photograph. Fixed smiles adorned the faces of the staff and cartoon characters, and only the punters in the queues were glum. The grown ups looked bored, families bickered, and children complained about the sun, the walking, the lack of stimulation in the endless queues. Where was Mickey when you needed him? As we stood for an hour in a queue for the kind of ride the kids had been on a millions times in Morecambe, I longed for a genuine Samoan smile and thought how different life was there. The old men playing draughts all day in the sun with their coloured lava lavas and laid back grins, the curvy women with flowers in their hair beating the washing to a pulp with a stick in the river, and the curious children who never wore shoes.
“I’m cold again,” said Matthew, pulling on his jumper. It was a warm summer L.A. day, but he was accustomed to tropical temperatures.
By three o clock there was a six hour wait for anyone lucky enough to hold fast track tickets for a ride and we had only managed to get on three attractions; our Indiana Jones Jungle Cruise, accompanied by a manufactured swing bridge experience; a trip around a model world in a boat, to the incessant tune of ‘it’s a small world,’ and an interactive intergalactic Buzz Lightyear experience. Accustomed to fun parks like Alton Towers and Blackpool Pleasure Beach, much of the low-tech nature of Disneyland had taken me by surprise. Many of the rides were quite ordinary, and some seemed very out of date. But the park had been built up over fifty years, and quite a few of the attractions were products of the different decades within this half a century, preserved in their original form for modern children to enjoy. After half an hour queuing for a luke warm coffee we sat on a plastic bench to rest.
“Welcome back to the real world.” I flipped the lid off the cup.
“Is this the real world?” Stuart asked. “It must be very confusing for the children then. I can’t find much here that relates to reality.”
“Buzz Lightyear and the Evil Emperor Zurg are real though Dad,” said Matthew.
“Don’t like Zurg,” Cameron wailed, trying to climb onto my knee. He might have been a day off being three, but he was still young enough to be scared by real life.
“Anyone hungry?” asked Stuart, pulling out of his rucksack a pile of jam sandwiches and four packs of Samoan Twisties I had bought at the airport. We opened a pack, each took one and spat them back out in unison. Time and distance had not improved the taste of Polynesian food.
“We need some proper junk food,” said Stuart, reaching into his pocket for some all American dollars. The Samoans could keep their tarot and their breadfruit; nothing in the real world could compare to the temporary but satisfying pleasures of a plastic vat of popcorn and a polystyrene bucket of coke.