SAMOA

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me die...'
 
           
 
You know you're on a true literary pilgrimage when your taxi driver can recite Robert Louis Stevenson's Requiem in the time it takes to wind five kilometers up the hill from Apia to the old plantation home of Vailima. It was here that the Scottish writer (1850-1894) - who blended boy's-own adventure with psychological insight and a sense of history in such tales as Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the The Body Snatchers - came to die. "Our place is in a deep cleft of Vaea Mountain, some 600 feet above the sea, embowered in forest, which is our strangling enemy, and which we combat with axes and dollars," he wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin at the British Museum in 1890.
 
These days Vailima is itself a museum, and literary curiously beats a path to its door. The house Stevenson and his American wife Fanny carved into the mountainside recently made it into Patricia Schulz's bestselling 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, and each year up to 12,000 Stevensonians, tourists and scholars climb the hill to peer into the world of a man who has kidnapped the imagination of generations. Devoted pilgrims will hike a further hour to the author's final resting place on the peak of Mount Vaea. Here, under the breadfruit trees, they can wonder about his death at 44 from a brain hemorrhage, whose suddenness turned his life "into a fable as strange and romantic as one of his own." Henry James wrote to the distraught Fanny "There have been ... for men of letters few deaths more romantically right."
 
 
For many of the 115,000 Samoans who live on the main island of Upolu, Robert Louis Stevenson is still very much alive. From his office on the sixth floor of the Central Bank of Samoa building, Deputy Prime Minister Misa Telefoni points out the window to Tusitala's mountain tomb. "See, it's up under those trees - right on top. that's an indication of how much the Samoas cared for him, because they had to hack the road up there and carry his heavy coffin." Telefoni's memory of Tusitala, or "Writer of Tales," as he was known locally, is entwined with his own family history. "He had a very close relationship with an old uncle of mine."
 
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 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 15th November 2008)
      
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