Leilani Momoisea on going back home to the islands

Back to the islands

Travelling to Samoa, the rush and muddle evaporates.

The first time I watched Tha Feelstyle’s Su’Amalie/Ain’t Mad at You video, the nostalgia was so strong, I almost cried. The children singing bare-feet on stone and dirt roads, amongst the green of the trees and bush, the tin roofs and hanging coconut branches, a stray dog meandering in the background…  These images of Samoa so closely resembling my own childhood in the Cook Islands, not exact but pretty close, unlocked a dormant homesickness.

While Auckland has felt like home for many years, there is always a gentle bubbling beneath the surface, a desire to go back to an old familiar feeling, an old home. When left too long, my bones ache for the warmth of the islands, my skin demands it.

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This Auckland winter felt as grey as ever and, with all plans pushed out until after the election, as long as ever. Like that annoyed finger tap you make when something is taking too long, but there’s nothing you can do about it.

Finally, the day before White Sunday, I stepped off a plane to feel the thick, sticky Samoan humidity. It smothers you on the tarmac, that deep sauna heat of my father’s homeland, and all that was frantic, all that was busy and rushed and muddled, evaporates into the ether. The air at once slows and refreshes you. The ferry over to Savai’i is packed, and I sit on the floor to watch the waves wash softly below. The scent of two-minute noodles wafts across the deck. Sleep comes easy.

The first day, we drive through Tafua village, through back roads, the roads Dad had to walk to get to school, almost 10km each way. We imagine what that must have been like. His family once lived right on the beach, until cyclones forced them way inland. My great-grandfather’s grave is all that remains, along with some newly built fales.

Everyone waves as we drive through, and we wave back. The music that blasts out, through the radio, through shop speakers, from homes, is a mixture of UB40 and reggae remixes and mash-ups of every top 40 song. While swimming, I hear a cover of Stan Walker’s “Aotearoa”, the te reo anthem blending into the Samoan anthem carrying across the water.

The first night, we have drinks outside with my cousins. We’re warned it’ll be a night we’ll never forget. The soundtrack is a mix of reggae, pop and classic Samoan tunes. It goes from relaxed shyness to frantic trance-type dance moves and rowdy siva, my sister and me laughing more than speaking. A few drinks in, the cousins become brave enough to try out their English on us.

We tap out at 2am, but wake to find the same guys busy preparing the umu for White Sunday to’ona’i. The small things are even better than I remember — the sweet, refreshing taste of niu straight from a coconut, palusami fresh out of the umu, even just the warmth of white bread fresh from the bakery. My nephews and nieces are here too, creating the same kinds of memories, banking up some sweet future nostalgia.

This is published in the November- December 2017 issue of Metro.