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“Fia Fia”

September 3, 2009 by · 1 comment

Nancy Ross-Flanigan

Sunset in Samoa

Photo: YXO

The road we took to get to A’oloau was the same road we took to get to Tafuna or Leone or any of the other villages on the island’s west end. If we headed east from Utulei instead of west, that very same road would take us through Fagatogo and Pago Pago, past Breakers Point and all the way out to Tula.

Just one main road, stretching twenty miles or so from one end of the island to the other. If my travels back in Oklahoma had been limited to a single, twenty-mile length of asphalt, I’d have felt trapped. But here those twenty miles, skirting the bases of mountains, snaking in and out of coves and passing through villages, seemed almost infinite.

In our weeks on the island, I’d come to look forward to certain parts of the road. Every time we rounded one particular bend, the sight of the ocean straight ahead dazzled me: the waves broke at an angle, and the backlit, aqua water glowed like stained glass. With a froth of whitecaps, the water reminded me of a marble I’d found when I was a kid, clear turquoise with swirling veins of white. Or sometimes, when we came around that bend the sight made me think of green jelly candy, just after you’ve taken a bite and left shiny, smooth toothmarks.

My second-favorite place was farther west, where the flower-pot rocks jutted out of the ocean. Tall as three-story buildings, the massive black lava outcrops were topped with coconut palms and looked like oversized planters spilling with greenery. The Samoans called the two rocks Futi and Fatu. I tried looking the words up in my Teach Yourself Samoan book but didn’t find them, so I figured they were just made-up names, like Frick and Frack or Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Driving with Dr. Donaldson to A’oloau on the morning of the fia fia feast, we passed the flower-pot rocks and the turnoff to the airport and continued on to Pava’ia’i, a picture book-pretty village of traditional fales around a common green. Croton plants with leaves in shades of yellow, green and orange, and hibiscus trees in full bloom were planted along the roadside and throughout the village. Dr. Donaldson told us that Pava’ia’i won the island’s beautification award year after year.

“Is that so?” My father swiveled in his seat to take in the scenery and then pointed to a shrub with red flowers as big as saucers. “Would you look at the size of those hibiscus blossoms.” Flowers were a big deal to my father; my fondest childhood memories of him had nurseries, greenhouses and gardens as backdrops. He’d even won Stillwater’s Golden Spade award once for having the most beautiful yard in town. For a month, there was a sign in our front yard, attached to a gold spray-painted garden trowel. I was embarrassed for my friends to see it, but I never said so. I told my father I was proud of him.

At Pava’ia’i, we turned off the main highway onto a dirt road that crept up a mountain to a broad plateau where the village of A’oloau sat. When we arrived, Samoan men with heavily tattooed thighs showing beneath their red lava-lavas were tending underground ovens where whole pigs and leaf-wrapped packets of palusami were roasting. Long mats woven from pandanus leaves had been laid end to end, spread with banana leaves and decorated with fruit cut into flower shapes, like a banquet table set flat on the ground.

I saw Val talking to Barry and went over to say hello.

“I hope they get that food done soon – I’m starved,” I said.

“Too bad.” Val stood with one hand on her hip in a stance that broadcast disaffection. “The grown-ups eat first; then the kids get anything that’s left over. That’s fa’a Samoa – you know, the Samoan way. We can’t even sit with our parents.”

“Wish I’d known. I would’ve brought a candy bar.”

“Maybe Toni can sneak us something – here she comes,” Val said. I hadn’t met Toni yet, but I’d heard about her. She was our age and a palagi but because her dad was principal of the school at A’oloau, their whole family lived in the village instead of in government housing at Tafuna or Utulei with most of the other Americans.

As she came toward us, I felt the same mix of envy and awe I’d felt when I found the graffiti that Barb left in her old bedroom. Toni was wearing a puletasi – a hip-length tunic over a wrap-around skirt that grazed her ankles. Her hair – the tawny color of dried pandanus leaves and perfectly straight — hung to the middle of her back, and she had a red hibiscus blossom tucked behind one ear. She was smiling, and she looked like she smiled a lot, maybe because her overbite made it hard not to, but maybe also because she had a lot to smile about.

Toni, who came from Iowa, seemed completely at ease in her puletasi, in her mountain village where people lived in wide-open houses and cooked in the ground and spoke a language that made no sense to me. At least her family had a Western-style house – the kind that had walls and sat high on concrete pillars. Even so, she couldn’t have much privacy living in a place like A’oloau, could she?
Does she shower outside like the Samoans do? Do they all watch when she shaves her legs?

I shuddered, the way I had that first day at the airport when I saw all the Samoans crowded together in one big fale. Toni could keep her village life. Sharing an apartment courtyard back in Utulei was as communal as I cared to get.

Shouts came from somewhere in the crowd, in a tone that sounded angry and defiant.

Ku-sa-fa! Ku-sa-fa!” Barry, Toni and I turned to see where the noise was coming from; Val didn’t even glance in that direction.

“It’s just Rex,” she said. “He does this whenever we go to a fia fia. He thinks he’s a Talking Chief.” Val’s five-year-old brother, bare-chested and wearing a pint-sized lava-lava, was standing at the head of the long, table-like mats, where Samoan dignitaries would sit during the feast. He shook his fist and scowled and shouted long strings of words in what sounded like perfect Samoan.

“How’d he learn the language so fast?” I asked Val.

“That’s not Samoan. He just makes up words that sound Polynesian. His favorite one is ku-sa-fa.”


I looked around to see if anyone else was paying attention to Rex and was relieved that no one seemed to be. On the way to A’oloau, Dr. Donaldson had impressed upon us the importance of adhering to Samoan protocol, and I worried that Rex’s antics might offend our hosts. The name fia fia sounds carefree, but traditional Samoan feasts – and the kava ceremonies that precede them — are highly structured events with formalities that must be followed to the letter.

Only the village chief – the matai – and certain other officials are permitted to participate in the kava ceremony, and they follow a complicated series of sacred steps and speak in a language style that no one else understands. Most of the oration is done by the High Talking Chief, the matai’s designated mouthpiece. It was this respected elder that Rex was impersonating.

As the adults began gathering around the mats, Toni ushered us to one side of the clearing and told us we could watch from there; then she went off to help the other village women and girls prepare and serve the feast. I marveled at her ease in playing hostess in this alien environment, at how she understood all the rules and seamlessly shifted from American teenager to village maiden, laughing and joking with the Samoan girls.

I watched my mother, in her striped pink shirtwaist, lower herself to the ground as gracefully as if she dined this way every day. She crossed her legs in front of her – sitting any other way at a fia fia would be an insult to the hosts – and tucked her skirt over her knees. She, too, seemed guided by some instinct that I lacked.

A group of Samoan men wearing lava-lavas and solemn expressions made their way to a small fale near the feast area and sat in a semi-circle. All were shirtless, and some had ceremonial fly whisks, which looked like horsetails attached to wooden handles, draped over their shoulders. After the men were seated, a young woman appeared from the crowd wearing the strangest outfit I’d seen yet. Instead of a puletasi, she wore a finely-woven pandanus mat wrapped around her body.

It looked softer and more pliable than the typical floor mats, but she still looked like she was rolled up in a rug. Then there was her headdress — a mop of bleached, human hair from which sprouted half a dozen or so slender, red sticks, each about two feet long and decorated with tufts of white feathers and round mirrors as big as the one in my Cover Girl compact. With the sticks standing straight up like antennae, she reminded me of an oversized insect.

“That’s the taupou,” Barry said.

“Village virgin,” Val translated. “She’s the only one allowed to make kava for the ceremony. It’s some kind of purity thing.”

I wondered how the villagers knew she was a virgin. I didn’t even know for sure about my best friends back home. They all said they were, but of course that’s what they would say. The subject hadn’t come up yet with any of the girls I’d met here in Samoa, but I was pretty sure Val was — she was only fourteen, after all. Toni, too, most likely. She didn’t seem the type to do anything bad. I wondered about Barb, the girl I knew only from her bedroom graffiti but pictured as Toni’s double, perennially cheerful and poised, throwing parties in apartment I-7 that the other kids raved about for months.

She’d had a Samoan boyfriend, an older guy who lived far out on the west end of the island and played in a band. Maybe she’d gotten in trouble with him. Maybe that was why she’d gone back to the States instead of staying in Samoa with her parents. I hadn’t gone far enough with Danny to get in that kind of trouble, but I wondered if our probing and stroking were enough to disqualify a taupou.

The taupou took her place in the fale, in front of the semi-circle of men. Before her was a shallow, six-legged wooden bowl, about the size of a birdbath. After a couple of speeches that might as well have been in Rex’s made-up language, the taupou washed her hands and sat with her spine as straight as the posts that supported the fale’s roof. She rested the palms of her hands on the rim of the bowl and waited for the signal to begin mixing grated kava root with water to make a bitter, intoxicating beverage.

When the High Talking Chief gave the go-ahead, a choreographed ritual began, for which the taupou and her male assistants had trained for years. Using a wad of shredded coconut fiber that looked something like a dish scrubber, the taupou swished the kava root around in the water, then held the dripping mass up high for all the chiefs to see.

She wrung the liquid into the bowl, wiped the rim, and then, staring straight ahead, flung the fibrous sponge over her shoulder to an assistant kneeling behind her. The assistant caught it, swung it left and right, and handed it over the taupou’s right shoulder into her waiting hand. The taupou and her helper repeated the sequence three times before getting a signal from another assistant that the kava was ready.

Then the ceremony turned tedious as one assistant, following chanted instructions from another, distributed kava to the chiefs and high-ranking guests. The assistant dipped the cup into the kava bowl and served the highest chief by holding the vessel in both hands and raising it to forehead level before handing it over. He repeated the process, backing away from the chief, refilling the same cup and serving the next-highest chief.

“Are you bored? I am,” Val said after half a dozen cups had been served. “Let’s go find Mike. He said he’d take us up the mountain.”

Mike was Toni’s brother – a year younger, with skin as pale and sheer as a gecko’s. Val, Barry and I found him sitting by one of the pillars that lofted his family’s house high off the ground.

“Enough fia fia?” he asked.

We all nodded without speaking, dull from hunger and tedium.

“Come on. There’s a trail that goes almost to the top of the mountain. We can see the ocean from there.”

Mike led us to the edge of the village where a narrow but well-worn path sliced through dense tangles of vines, clumps of banana trees and masses of plants I had never seen before. The four of us tramped single file up the path — Mike in the lead, Val and me in the middle and Barry, like a protective older brother, bringing up the rear.

The higher we climbed, the fainter the aromas from the underground ovens became and the less I thought about how hungry I was. Watching pigeons with iridescent green wings flutter through the forest, hearing their strange calls — a cross between a moo and a purr – and breathing in the moist air with its ever-present blend of floral fragrances, I found myself caring less and less about anything at all except what we might encounter around the next bend.

The only real hike I’d been on before was at Girl Scout day camp, a few miles west of Stillwater, where my Brownie troop marched through a stand of oaks to a clearing. The buckskin-colored grass was waist high and smelled like dry leaves. We stomped out a place to sit, ate our sandwiches, then headed back to the lodge to make baskets out of Popsicle sticks. The whole hike was probably less than a mile, but I believed it to be an authentic adventure – the kind I’d been rehearsing my entire, young life, like a taupou practicing for the kava ceremony.

From the time I was old enough to explore our neighborhood on my own, I had wandered the nearby woods, climbing up and down the banks of its muddy creek and imagining myself to be trekking in exotic places. Never mind that the creek was no wider than my twin bed, with banks barely higher than my head. When I scrambled up its sides I was scaling the Matterhorn like the boy in Third Man on a Mountain. When I tottered across the narrow drainage pipe that spanned the creek, placing one foot in front of the other and holding my arms out for balance, I was a tightrope walker traversing the Colorado River.

In all my imaginings, though, I never pictured myself on a mountain slope in Samoa. If I thought about the South Seas at all back then, I probably pictured expanses of sand with clumps of palm trees – cartoon desert islands. Even when Danny and I daydreamed and drew pictures of our island hideaway, Samoa looked like a palm-studded pancake.

I never dreamed of the mountains, and if I had, I never would have dreamed such mountains as these. Upholstered in tufted green, like mounds of cut velvet cushions, they rose nearly vertically from the sea and wore shawls of mist.

As we neared the summit, Mike led us to a clearing where we could look out in all directions. Straight ahead, the ocean glinted as if sequins were floating on its surface, and in every other direction were those mountains. Those mountains.

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