"The Pacific Islands...a stir-about of epochs and ages."
-- Robert Louis Stevenson
After flying in a two-engine job from Pago Pago (that cheap t-shirt of a town) to Apia, capitol of Western Samoa, a local merchant showed me a series of postcards. Actually reproductions of sent postcards, circa 1907, their photographs originally taken by a guy named Floyd Fitzpatrick. I bought several having canceled 5 pfennig stamps, but the postcards got tucked away-their journey short, from store to storage. Some twenty years later, I find myself looking again at that collection of postcards, matted poorly in a brown frame, and now hanging on my rented wall. In the top left corner a Samoan woman leans slightly toward the floor.
From 1990 I mainly remember this: the card shop was a few klicks from Stevenson's last home in Vailima, where he died of a brain tumor at the age of 44 while mixing together a bottle of salad dressing. I wanted to visit his burial site, which turned into a ride ass-backwards when the taxi's drive-train had a fit, forcing us to travel the steep hill in reverse. To the driver I could have been almost anyone: a contract worker at the Fisheries Department, a yachty waiting out the hurricane season, or some intern at the LBJ Tropical Center. But no. I was an other English teacher the next island over.
In the middle distance between tourist and traveler, I resembled those late Victorians who had jotted down passing details on a postcard (strangely reproduced for others to over-read decades later, to send off for a second time), and Stevenson himself, far from his birthplace, wayward, unfinished pages to the end. But at the time I mainly thought of journeys as the destination. And even now it feels as if my former teacher Edgar Bowers chided me directly when he wrote: ". what you are is merely what you do." Although they make a real conversation piece, my postcard collection without more serious reflection strikes me as showy. Especially pushing 60 and living now in Beijing. As curios, has their time passed, like a bottle of on-shore breeze? But the cultural anthropologist in me wonders what they tell us about ourselves, as ex pats go. To write another word is to say or try to that they count, in a sense beyond the privacy of my place on the 18th floor of a high rise. Yes, I'd have to say the postcards are telling, of me in part, and of us boomers overseas. Consider how commonplace we've become, in our restlessness, in our fleeting attention and hurried listening. Early on I knew I'd be unhappy in a 9 to 5, buying things on lay-away, and watching prime time, so I like many grew well-traveled and well- read, blessed with much better health than Stevenson ever had. I've managed to do so by teaching ESL (which explains my current whereabouts) instead of becoming a householder who for a week or two each year wallets his way to the tropics as a sightseer. By signing contracts to teach for years at a time, we must "adjust for latitude" as Stevenson once put it, accepting a place for what it is (and not to somehow make it better). I suffer as anyone does, but do so within a foreign play of appearances. True, the primacy of the physical world is finally receding, regardless of all the costumes and customs that have cheered me, and have seemed so worthy of attention. Some critics claim that Stevenson often settled for the same, too entertained by places, and his ability to render settings. Maybe they're right, like Horace was, about the equal need for readers to be instructed.
Assumedly, others roughly a century ago would scribble on Fitzpatrick's post cards in local bars or verandas, far from the tradition of European travelers retreating to a hotel's Writing Room. My reproductions of those cards reveal little about their writers, less about the place and its out-of-the-way truths. As content goes, a postcard's too confined. A full page is needed to demonstrate whether the sender has a "brain worth exploring" as Norman Douglas required of travel writing. So we write simply. More than anything, we exclaim. Ideally, postcard photographs can offer something to those back home, having an intimacy that no email offers. But we have largely given up. I've hardly seen a post office in Beijing. When was the last time I gave a tentative kiss to a stamp? Years.
Before leaving for the South Seas, I read that a century earlier, in the 1890s, the Samoan Islands swarmed with missionaries, common merchants, and military personnel from Germany, England, and the United States. Carving up the South Pacific under the guidelines of The Berlin Treaty, these three nations plied the southern latitudes disputing who would own what. Tensions were high as neap tides. Stevenson himself intervened often in matters, defending the sovereignty of indigenous Samoans (much to the disappointment of English diplomats). The German presence, which would evaporate at the end of World War I, accounts for the postcards printed with "Grusse aus Samoa." Tourists writing home to Bremerhaven and Stuttgart. But one particularly ironic greetings can be found above a photograph taken right after the 1897 hurricane that destroyed nearly all the European ships then anchored near Apia: in the foreground is a ship's deck in the sand, hull with seaweed in the air.
The highly revered Siva dance drew me closer, as it does any Samoan within earshot of the performance, to join in with clapping, hooting and, in the modern-day practice, gleefully sticking paper money on the dancer's oiled-skin. I have a postcard showing six young women in a line, dancing along with the topless taupau, the lead dancer and village "princess" wearing a two-foot high bonnet, all sequins and feathers. The six wear skirts of tapa cloth, made from tree fiber, skirts rare today except on churchgoers or those in mourning. Tapa is now more commonly hung on walls as decoration, and cotton reproductions of traditional designs are worn as lava lavas, the still popular wrap-around "dress." On the postcard, behind the necklaced women, hair black as coral, a Samoan house or fale sits heavy with thatch. Villagers watch enthralled, taken by the Siva, hearing no click of a heavy Kodak, nor did they pay attention to the likes of me.
One of those six women dancing reappears on another postcard, this time sitting in front of a kava bowl. Kava, grey-white, derived from a plant's root-as THE ceremonial drink of the South Pacific. That woman, teenager really, wears no top and neither do the others-except one. In postcard after postcard there is the dissonance between the bare-breasted women and the fully clothed. Surely the result of right-minded missionaries who flocked to Polynesia. Yet in another photograph two teenage natives, both naked to the waist, are "Telling Tales." This, unlike any other postcard I have, is a studio shot: a late Romantic lake, sentimental and phony, forms the backdrop. Vividly, Samoans themselves have given way to off-island preferences for coming of age, as if the tropics offer excitements we have not yet allowed ourselves. What guilty pleasures: two women suggestively close, one's mouth inches from the other's nipple while they each fondle their own seashell necklaces. Along the right margin of the postcard some turn-of-the-century hand has written, "It is showering here today but that makes it a little cooler. We can't get them enough clothing." Underneath is a signature, unreadable. And Samoan women still can't get enough clothing, buying non-stop, especially in Pago Pago, and usually the neck-to-floor length muumuu is their dress of choice. Everyone becomes so accustomed to fully dressed women that when I visited Honolulu after a year in American Samoa my first response to Waikiki was embarrassment. So little restraint.
"Greetings" in English occupies the lower corner of a postcard showing the Pago Pago harbor. In the mid-ground a wharf rests in exactly the place it remains today although now several times the size. Closer in, the Governor's house appears new, or newly painted, originally for the US Military Governor, later for the Samoan elected governor. The house hovers over the entrance to the bay, a grand porch wrapping around the entire first floor, the second story with generous windows, having a large attic above. There was no surrounding vegetation at the time, a century ago, no doubt cleared away by enlisted men for the construction to ever take place. The bush returned, inching closer each year, and now the house is like a secret, unseeable from below on the road-once a narrow footpath. The house remains closed to the public; if the interior has changed much in the last eighty years, no one could really say.
A Matai, or High Chief, sitting on a cement slab and holding a flywhisk has been misnamed "King of Samoa". Combed, dignified hair is all in place while the title of King is entirely out-of-place. The postcard reminds me that "Matai's" was a favorite pizza place back then, until Hurricane Ofa destroyed it in 1990. Apparently the FEMA money was pocketed.
The title of another card : "View of the Station." Station is short for Naval Station; the United States took an early interest in Pago Pago as a coaling station because of its deep-water harbor. This particular view focuses on a grassy area or malai in Fagotogo village. The malai measures about a football field long and almost as wide. A two lane road runs left along the harbor, and on the inland side looms a square building that would eventually house the American Samoan Police Department and its jail. In the exact middle of the malai a single coconut tree casts a deep, round shadow. Within that rare spot a family sprawls out. Their ancestors could easily sit today in that same forgiving shade, but it wouldn't be as quiet now because of those passing Toyota trucks and the growing number of government employees in flip-flops strolling into and out of nearby shops. Yet the trade winds would feel the same, soothing the cousins and grandfathers and stepsisters resting on the grass as it soothed me one afternoon. A closer look at this postcard with its edge revealing the best harbor in the South Seas, makes me melancholy-since it has now been ruined by the waste-products and chemicals from tuna processing plants Star-Kist and Chicken of the Sea, and shows us how far the shoreline was extended by decades of landfill. The harbor is maybe half its former self.
One post card is a portrait of sixteen members in the "Naval Station Band" posing with their instruments, without a smile or a frown. They probably played well; music comes readily to some, Samoans among them, and for a long time now the American Samoa Community College band and choir have traveled widely, representing Polynesia's rich gift of music. Some church choirs prove so popular that KZVK, the local TV station, airs them throughout the afternoons. Those local Naval Band members, all male, almost all with mustaches, wear strange headpieces resembling a group of Indonesian drummers. Why that is, I have no idea. Also, each musician sports a white shirt. Uniforms even today are required for the sake of group identity; all clubs, teams, organizations, departments, companies have their shared appearances. Imagine the sewing machines, the foot pedals slapping, the seamstresses busy in every village working with bolts of material. I kept my team basketball jersey for a long time after leaving Polynesia: our sponsor-Ramona Lee's, the one Chinese restaurant with a dance floor.
One last postcard gives a panoramic view of the coast near Vaitogi village where a nosy IRS agent was last seen, only his running shoes found near the shore, left unconvincingly by someone on the lava rock, near blowholes that waves rocket through, thirty or forty feet high. But the village is best known for its story of The Turtle and The Shark. It goes like this: a high chief's daughter fell in love with a young man of no rank, a commoner. She was told absolutely that a powerful chief on the island had a son who she would marry. Nevertheless, she and the villager loved each other deeply. Given the impossible situation, the local boy threw himself from the cliffs of Vaitogi and she, out of grief, did the same. He turned into a shark and she a turtle. To this day, if someone in Vaitogi is willing (and you look nothing like an IRS agent), a certain song on those cliffs will bring a shark and turtle floating to the surface below.
In "The Vanity of Human Wishes," Samuel Johnson writes, "Let Observation, with extensive view,// Survey mankind, from China to Peru." And roughly half way from China to Peru lies Polynesia, its core the Samoan Islands where visitors arrive to see how our differences as a species but also fearing that people everywhere are the same, and this place is nothing they haven't seen. Either way, the past resembles a postcard that you often fail to sign. The pleasures of getting-away as well as getting-to are great lures, allowing for more than we can possibly declare.
It has been years since I received a postcard, and soon I am leaving the PRC without sending one myself. Emails, yes. And everyone skypes. Now so "many signs-words-vie for attention" as Sven Birkerts observes, that "the mainspring of attention itself is spent." When we are younger, greedy for more and more experiences, there is nothing like the vividness of travel. But at what point did I become "delayed"? My accumulation of events lie mainly in a heap, no captions, and little follow-up or commentary -barely closer to what the time might have meant, or still means. My images of American or Western Samoa remain largely under-exposed. Or have I made this whole time up? Of course not. But making something of place is how, after all, we get our bearings. Postcards alone are two dimensional. Who cares if I go on, unless I'm one more comb-over taking up a booth in a coffee shop, confessing something over his cold coffee.
That set of black and white postcards has aged, have taken on the browns of kava bowls, of coconut husks, of Samoan skin, plantation soil, tapa cloth. While living there from 1988-90, I took my own photographs of Samoa, but they are nothing more than snaps, unremarkable in any public sense. It would be laughable to consider them in the same light as Floyd Fitzpatrick's, his the long result of traipsing around islands with awkward names, setting up his four pounds of tripod. He knew enough, at the time, to process what he saw, unwilling to settle for new decals on a steamer trunk.