The platter's in the post

By Jim Eagles

By JIM EAGLES

It is mission impossible Samoa-style.

We are slowly sauntering along the waterfront at Apia, the appropriate way to get around on a hot, steamy Samoan day when, as usual, not much is happening.

Then we are approached by Steve with an offer we cannot refuse.

Steve has a client who has given him a mission to track down a rare fine woven mat and the hunt for this will lead to one of the most remote villages on Upolo.

It so happens we are on a mission to find a large carved wooden platter and that remote village is one of the few places in Samoa which makes them.

Would we, he wonders, like to join forces and see what happens?

Steve - Dr Steve Brown - is an Australian who arrived in Samoa a few decades ago to work on an environmental project and just never left. In the meantime he's launched an eco-tourism venture in partnership with a local woman, started a family, got to know just about everyone in the country and put a huge effort into setting up economic incentives to preserve Samoa's culture and environment.

Probably he gave up hair cuts at the same time because he has hair down to his shoulders, a long, straggly beard and a moustache which extends almost to his chin and must make it difficult to eat soup.

The moment we accept his offer the mood changes from slow saunter to swift action. Jurgen, the client, a tall, stiff, silver-haired German, is eager to get moving and Steve is eager to keep him happy.

Have we got our lavalavas - Samoan wrap-around skirts - because we'll need them when we go into villages. No? Well, no time to go back, we'll just pop into a local store and buy some.

Jurgen looks just a little amusing with his grey trousers extending below his brightly coloured lavalava.

I've no doubt I look very cool in mine because I've already learned how to tie the material to create a sort of pouch.

I store my glasses case in it and hope someone will notice. No one does.

As we get moving in Steve's four-wheel-drive, Jurgen explains carefully, "I am an amateur ethnologist. I go to developing countries and when I go home I give talks. I like to have examples of local culture to show. So that is why I want to take home a small, fine mat."

Fine mats, it seems, were once a notable feature of Samoan craft, being made from fibres of the pandanus leaf just a few microns wide, making them as smooth and soft as silk. Because they took months or even years of work, and were often done by high-ranking women, such mats were exchanged on important occasions such as weddings or funerals and never actually used.

These days there are plenty of excellent coarse woven mats available at places like the Apia Market - they make great coasters, place mats or even floor coverings - but fine-mat-making has almost died out.

Fortunately Steve knows there is a project sponsored by the New Zealand Government to develop women's co-operatives and revive the art of fine weaving.

The woman in charge of the project is making a tour of co-operatives along the northeastern end of Upolo and we are heading there to try and track her down.

We stop along the way at one of the many beautiful seaside villages because Jurgen has expressed an interest in seeing a coconut oil extraction plant.

Unfortunately it is not working because, the local Matai - chief - tells us sadly, the contract awarded to the people who developed the industry expired, tenders were called and it went to the son of one of the Cabinet ministers.

This well-connected would-be entrepreneur evidently lacked the capital or expertise to run the business which collapsed and as a result the village lost an import source of income.

The reaction suggests this sort of thing is not exactly unusual.

But there is better news on the fine-mat front because our quarry has passed through not long before, driving a red van, ... and, hey, there it is by the roadside.

This is, it turns out, one of the women's weaving co-operatives and we are invited to come inside.

Hastily donning our lavalavas we wander up the track to the fale - a large thatched shelter - as the weavers burst into song. My wife is called in to dance and gets some applause for her graceful actions.

Then I am called up and my rather less graceful style is a source of much humour. The woman dancing with me seems to be miming doing the washing. I counter by miming opening a bottle of the local Vailima beer and swigging a mouthful. This is even funnier.

Jurgen is not asked to dance and is soon busy inspecting the woven mats. They look great to me but none are really fine enough.

Steve suggests that if Jurgen was to give the co-operative organiser some money in advance it would make it easier for her to acquire what he wants. Jurgen - who is proved by subsequent events to be rather shrewder than we are - says he would rather have the mat in his hands first.

So we follow the red van on a tour of weaving co-operatives along the track around the shores of Fagaloa Bay, passing through a series of villages each more charming than the one before, and getting progressively rougher.

Our guide during the journey is effectively Steve's daughter, Yosafina, who is at that wonderful "why?" stage.

"Look, there's a flying fox."

"Why, Steve?"

"Well, there are two species of flying fox, one hunts at night and the other during the day."

"Why, Steve?"

"That's because ... " And so on.

At several places they are playing kirikiti - the colourful Samoan version of cricket - and as the ground takes in the whole village including the road we stop to watch until they take a break.

"Why, Steve?"

It seems the national kirikiti tournament, a source of much village pride, is about to take place and so teams are getting in as much practice as they can.

Eventually we reach the end of the track, the village of Uafato, where the matai, Lo'i, is an old friend of Steve's.

There are no mats being woven here because the village specialises in woodcarving so we stroll around watching the craftsmen use their hand-made tools - old steel car springs are the material of choice - to make superb kava bowls, ferocious war clubs and beautiful platters.

After that we rest in a fale built by the shore to accommodate tourists wishing to stay overnight.

The tide is out, leaving lots of small pools with fish in them, and we watch as a small boy goes from pool to pool, throwing stones at the larger fish in order to stun and capture them.

"Would your friends like some kava?" Lo'i wonders, and soon we are sitting in a circle, supping kava drawn from a magnificent bowl he made himself. It is surprisingly refreshing, tasting better than my memories of kava from other islands, and has quite a relaxing effect.

We are soon surrounded by locals offering their carvings for sale but it seems the diplomatic thing would be to buy from Lo'i.

After the others have left we order our wooden platter for 100 tala - about $50 - and get approving smiles when we hand over the money in advance.

Lo'i comes over to discuss our requirements and we ask if he would carve his name on the base. "For why?" It is because we got a photo of him serving us kava and it will be nice to show people and say this is the man who carved our platter. He nods approvingly. "It is a good plan."

Next Lo'i invites us to join his family for dinner. It is a banquet. Sweet little fish cooked whole - I can't see any stone marks - chicken, taro cooked in coconut milk, breadfruit, delicious little parcels of coconut cream wrapped in taro leaves, and slices of papaya. Yum.

The meal over, we head back to Apia, stopping occasionally to look at interesting plants, birds or historical sites - "Why, Steve?" - with all except Jurgen having every reason to feel satisfied.

"That was very good," says Steve as we leave the vehicle. "Everyone played their parts very well." I think by that he means he managed to get a bit more tourist money directly into the hands of villagers.

I don't know whether Jurgen eventually found his mat, but with Steve on the case I'd imagine he did.

Nor do I know whether the coconut oil plant is working again, but I suspect not.

I do know we haven't got our carved wooden platter yet, but it keeps being promised and the messages saying it is on its way help to revive the sunny magic of Samoa on these cold gray days. And, even if the platter doesn't arrive, a day like that for $25 a head is pretty good value.

I'd say it was mission accomplished.

* Jim Eagles paid his own way to Samoa.

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