The first hint of dawn is in the sky and somewhere ahead is a flashing strobe light. We ghost along on the last of a fading trade wind and find a little twin hulled fishing boat near a flashing fishing buoy. Ahead is the high mass of western Samoa and the chart tells us that we are still sixteen miles from the port of Apia. With the dawn comes a wind shift to dead ahead so we start the engine and splash along parallel to the shore. We can see villages along a shoreline road, each with it`s large church. Every landfall is thrilling with a combination of interest in a new land and relief that we have found land at all after a stressful passage.
By afternoon we are through the easy entrance to Apia harbour and tied alongside an inter-island trading boat called the Tokelau while we are visited by a variety of officials all dressed in traditional skirts called lava lavas. Anne thoughtfully averts her eyes as they climb over our rail. Next day we are at anchor in the bay among a fleet of yachts who, like us, have chosen the route close to the equator rather than going south to Tonga. Most of our friends have chosen Tonga (and later, New Zealand) and we will not see then again but that is the nature of the game. Friendships are made rapidly and then we part again to meet new friends in new harbours. We can be sure that we will have a lot in common with any yachts we meet.
One thing we seem to have that is different from our neighbours is the literary interest that has lead us here -Robert Louis Stevenson. We have found ourselves in harbours he has visited (he wrote that Anaho Bay was the best in the south seas) and Josua Slocum visited his widow here in 1897 on his circumnavigation, but mostly it is a poem in a grade 12 English textbook that has captured our imagination and brought us to this harbour at the foot of that mountain (Mt. Vaea), to feel and see for ourselves the place where "the Writer of Tales" is buried. But first we row ashore in Edith, leave our laundry at a laundromat and walk along the sea wall toward the market.
We are no longer in the French islands and Heather and I have a strange sense of deja-vous: The sea wall, the old shuttered wooden houses, the busy markets, all remind us of our youthful CUSO days in Georgetown, Guyana. We can`t help but smile at everyone and everything we see. That is, until we return to pick up our laundry to find that the manager has tacked on an enormous extra charge for watching our clothes spin around. We are back in the world of sharp practice toward sailormen - an ancient tradition in ports around the world but one we have been lucky not to find until now. The warning is almost worth the price and we will re-sharpen our shore-side survival skills that we learned so well and so reluctantly all those years ago.
David and Lisa arrive from American Samoa and anchor nearby. They are as impressed by this Samoa as they were depressed by the American version. One morning bright and early we all share a taxi to the foot of the mountain and hike up the steep red earth trail between flowering bushes and tall, buttressed tropical trees. Even in the early morning it is hot and humid in the shade but up ahead we see light at the top of the hill. We break out onto a grassy knoll in brilliant light. In one direction is the harbour with Shiriri a tiny dot below and the far curve of the ocean all flecked with white topped waves. Behind us is the white concrete grave of Stevenson and his wife. We read the famous lines on the side and ponder mortality. We all lead lives now that make us close companions with death so what is a remote and repellant idea to those who live more sheltered lives has a different, more familiar feel for us.
I feel the wind ruffling my hair, as it murmurs among the leaves and brushes the ocean surface. Is it the sun only, or do I feel the warmth of his glance? Is it the wind only, or is this his touch and his voice? The time that separates his life and ours seems not to exist in this vibrant moment on the mountain top.
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
R. L. Stevenson.