I stomached the last mouthful of the local Samoan delicacy with a sigh of relief. Finally it was over.
“More for you,” I heard as another bowlful was pushed in front of me. I looked down at the watery gruel with utter dismay as all eyes around the table watched me eagerly.
“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly. I mean it was lovely and all but I’m really full,” I stammered.
Blank faces stared back, not understanding my polite refusal.
I understood though, I had just made a social faux pas. I suddenly realised with embarrassment that devouring everything was plain bad manners. Not wanting to offend even more, I slowly put another insipid spoonful into my mouth and feigned delight, “Mmmm!” I murmured, “Delicious!”
The Pacific island of Samoa has one of the most overweight populations in the world. Their diets revolve around carbohydrates (taro, breadfruit), meat, fried food and an alarming amount of imported canned food. Second only to Tonga, this small nation has an obesity rate of 84 percent.
I therefore should have been grateful when I was invited to a local family’s house, that the traditional Sunday lunch of to’ona’i, a massively calorie-packed meal, wasn’t on the menu. I had rushed to the only shop in the vicinity, a compact wooden kiosk near the beach, to ask what I should take as a thank you gift. There wasn’t much choice.
“Corned beef,” I was told.
“Corned beef?” I asked quizzically. My God, I thought, I’m on a tropical Pacific island and I’m being told to take corned beef as a present. The fact it existed here at all flabbergasted me. And worse still, I was about to buy it. In bulk.
The invite had been extended to me on a local bus where a strong culture of ‘get to know your neighbour’ is definitely encouraged. There had been a kerfuffle that I wasn’t privy to, and then the conductor asked me to stand up. Confused, I clambered to my feet and an extremely large Samoan woman took my place.
With a jovial smile and a gesture of his arm, the conductor simply said, “Sit there.” I followed his gaze and presumed he was joking. He wasn’t. My new seat was to be the woman’s knee. I scanned the crowded bus and saw other female passengers doing the same, the lighter ones perched on the larger women’s laps. The woman in my seat saw my anxiety and smiled at me.
“You’re thin, no problem,” she said.
“I’m actually quite heavy,” I responded, thinking of all the to’ona’i lunches I’d eaten there over the past three weeks.
“It’s OK!” she laughed, and with a mouthful of apologies, I sat very rigidly on the edge of her well-padded legs.
We talked about Samoan culture, New Zealand, England, how her legs had gone dead from my weight, and her family’s cucumber plantation.
“It’s a family business,” she proudly smiled. “You can come and see it,” Fualosa offered.
“That’s really kind, but I’m meeting friends at Lalomanu,” I said, referring to the southern beach resort.
“You can come and meet my family,” she insisted. “You can stay at my house!”
I didn’t want to intrude or become the tourist trophy, so I politely declined the offer.
“She’s phoned again,” the receptionist at the resort told me. Fualosa didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out where I was staying, there was only one place in the area. After two days and six phone calls, I finally gave in. Clutching my suncream in one hand and a bag of canned corned beef in the other, I ventured to her village.
Fualosa appeared in the dusty driveway along with a chorus of yelps and squeals from an army of excited children. I went inside the house to meet her elderly mother, a beautiful old lady whose eyes welcomed me instantly. She saw my gift and it seemed I wasn’t the only one surprised by the corned beef. I was hoping it would be stored in the back of her cupboard, but no such luck. She had a long conversation, presumably about what to do with it, and I later discovered she had sent for fresh bread two hours away, to accompany my canned delight.
After a tour of the area, I was ushered back inside for lunch. The adults, eight in total, sat around a large wooden table, while the children waited patiently around the side. I looked down to see a bowl placed in front of me. I had to give the elderly mother kudos for her resourcefulness.
“Corned beef and cucumber soup,” I said, trying to take the bewilderment out of my voice. All eyes were on me.
“Aren’t you joining me?” I asked, looking around at the empty table.
“No, guests eat first, then the adults and then the children.”
I now wished I’d listened during my drama classes as I tried my best to look impressed by the dish, hoping the others would start tucking in. They didn’t. I gobbled my last mouthful to show my satisfaction, but all this does in Samoa is show your hunger. Then came the second bowl. “Mmmm!” I quivered, as I put the spoon into my mouth.
Fualosa leaned in towards me, “We’re going to bingo later.”
“Great!” I said, not remembering if I had ever been to bingo before and wondering what ‘legs 11’ was in Samoan.
“Can I borrow some money?” she asked.
The penny dropped as to why I had been asked for lunch.
“Um, yeah. How much?”
I sat with the children in the main building while Fualosa and her husband got ready in their fale.
“We’re going now,” she announced as she came into the house. I stood up to go with her.
“You can stay here, we’ll see you tomorrow.”
I was even more astounded now than at my discovery of corned beef. I sat back down, speechless, while the kids tried to teach me the basics of a game in Samoan.
“She leave you?” her sister said when she came in to see me.
“Where is she?”
Her sister looked furious. “She ask for money?”
I nodded uncomfortably.
“She is not Samoan. This is not Samoan.” The sister now looked and sounded mortified.
“Come with me!”
She took me to her fale, a thatched wooden hut, where we sat on the floor and she skilfully made me a hand woven palm-leaf bag. “Next time, you stay with me, not her!”
A couple of hours later we wound back at the main building and I was shown to my bed, which already had someone in it. “You don’t mind sharing?”
“Um, no,” I replied. I was now becoming quite adept at keeping the surprise from my voice.
I crept under the mosquito net and lay like a corpse all night, so as not to wake the female relative next to me. At two in the morning, I heard Fualosa drunkenly sway past the house. At six in the morning, I heard the mother banging pots together outside Fualosa’s fale.
“Morning,” Fualosa ventured to me with a sore head as we made our way to the table for breakfast. The mother threw a terrifying glare at her. Then she smiled apologetically at me and put the wonderfully fresh Samoan breakfast of papaya and coconut in front of me.
“Eat!” the mother smiled, attempting to speak English with me. I beamed back at her.
Fualosa went to help herself to a slice of fruit but the mother scowled and shooed her away to the kitchen. Sheepishly Fualosa reappeared with a bowl of cold corned beef and cucumber soup.
She slowly put an insipid spoonful into her mouth and feigned delight, “Mmmm!” she said. A wry smile crept across my face. Acting was becoming second nature to both of us.