(fi) When I came to Samoa for the first time, I did not know a lot of things:
For example I did not know, that Corned Beef is the main food item, that a bunch of Samoan Girls would like to marry me, that all shops are closed most of the time and – that’s the point of this story: That it is completely impossible to buy a Swiss Army Knife in all of Samoa.

What happened before

Well, not long before this, I owned a nice, handy Swiss Knife. It was quite thick, with countless useful tools underneath its red cover. Like little scissors, a file, a can-opener and even a saw. Having no money as a young guy, I bought it second hand from a friend, for just 10 Euro (something about 25 Samoan Tala), while the new ones sell for up to ten times that price. The thing served me well for many years, and in Bali, where I used to live the majority of the year, I cut hundreds of bamboo-piles with the saw, building furniture. Yes, it was a good knife, and I truly loved it …

And then I came to New Zealand and made the mistake to keep the knife in my hand luggage, when I intended to board the plane to Apia. But the guys over there are well trained and have sharp eyes, and they seem to find everything, which was not supposed to go in the passenger cabin: »YOU HAVE A KNIFE IN THAT BAG THERE!« a serious looking female officer said to me in a sharp voice. I guess she was expecting me to deny it, but I just said: »Yes, and what is the problem?«
»It will go into the bin!« she said. And I replied: »No way!«

Well, we had a short discussion, after which they gave me a receipt, to let the knife be picked up by someone of the airline later and take it on the plane as a security item. In fact, I met a nice girl from the ground stuff, who picked up the knife for me and gave it to her colleagues. »It will come out later in Apia at the baggage-claim in an envelope«, she said.

And there I stood and waited. My bag came, everybody else’s bags came, but an envelope with a knife did not appear. I asked someone, waited again, then left the airport as the last passenger and jumped on a bus, which was just about to leave and arrived in Apia at about 3 o’clock in the morning: A man without a knife and even without a caps-lifter.

The Search

Since its invention a hundredandtwenty years ago, the Swiss Army Knife has been the omnipresent and ultimate tool for everybody, who is leaving his well-equipped household for a many-thousand-miles journey around the world. It’s a kitchen-drawer and toolbox in a just 9 centimeter long and – depending on the variety of tools – about 2 centimeter thick body. Especially in remote areas, where things are rare and the environment is rough, this brilliant knife is a MUST in every travel bag. So is it in the pacific.

And Eugene Burdick, a great writer of South See-Stories told in his short story ›The Black and the White‹ (from 1961) about this incident with a Swiss Army Knife:
»I return to my hut to find Kaoko rifling my sea chest. He had ignored the bundle of franc notes, but held in his hand an American box camera and a large Swiss pocketknife with a variety of screwdrivers, blades, and other gadgets sunk in his thick handle. ›I was borrowing these‹, Kaoko said without the slightest embarrassment.
›Would you have brought them back?‹ I said in anger. ›No, probably not‹, Kaoko replied. ›I intended to borrow them permanently‹.«

That episode made me feel like someone must have borrowed my knife at the airport as well – permanently. On the other hand it showed me, that the locals very much appreciate the quality of that universal tool. So it must be possible to get an adequate replacement for the lost thing on the Islands of Samoa – or so I thought.

I was tired after the early morning arrival and when I got to my guesthouse, I went to my room and had a nap. I woke up at about 11 a.m., it was a Saturday. So freshly arrived, avoiding any stress, I did not hurry to get up, get dressed and head for the city straight away. I had some food, took a shower and then went to a small company next door to hire a bicycle. Prepared, I leisurely drove in the direction of the beach promenade and the harbor. There must be shops; there must be plenty of stuff to buy. Yes, there must be everything: This is a harbor-town, the ships are coming in with all their goods, gadgets and, of course: Swissknifes!

Well, I found a quite impressive supermarket (so it looked from outside) with a Chinese name near the Town Clock. The right place, I thought. Just when I tried to enter the shop, I found out, that it had closed a few minutes ago. It was about 12.30 at that point. Coming straight from Asia, where most shops are open at least 18 hours every day, seven days a week, I felt a little surprised, in fact. I rubbed my stunned eyes, climbed on the bike and continued to drive along the promenade.

Well, hurrah, just a few hundred meters making east, there was another shop which was open! At the checkout counter stood a beautiful young girl with fantastic big brown eyes, wearing a yellow shirt and jeans. I looked into her deep eyes and asked her: »Do you have a knife?« Slowly, she tilted her head and looked at me, from feet to head. She seemed to be a bit confused or maybe offended by my question. Then a smile appeared on her face, she looked at me with the sweetest smile, ‚that I had gotten throughout my whole Samoan experience and said: »You mean: Do we sell knifes?« Obviously, there must have been something wrong with my funny german-english question, which made her think, she must run to the kitchen to bring a knife for me to borrow. »Yes, do you sell knifes?« I said. »No«, she smiled, »sorry, we don’t have any.« »A can opener?« »No«, she said regretfully, but she gave me a glance and a smile as if she would like to take me by the hand, bring me to her house and open my cans for me.

I looked around: It was a food shop with a lot of cans and other stuff. Spaghetti in a can, canned Tuna and other fish, and the unbelievable monster-boxes with corned beef. Some fruits, bread, cold drinks. Well, I had travelled a lot in my life, and everywhere in the world food shops/grocery stores with a variety of goods like that would also sell some matches, a can opener, and, probably, some sort of knife. Not in Samoa though. Only cans, cans, cans, but nothing to open them with.
So I got on the bike again.

To make it short: A few other attempts later I found out that the shops, that potentially sold knifes or something like a pocket knife already had closed at noon. The only open shops (some of them until 3 p.m.!) were food shops with absolutely no understanding as to why they should be selling knifes or can-openers, or even more complicated: A knife, which you can use as a can-opener.
Slowly I began to understand: It was afternoon now, on a Saturday, and I would have to quit my idea of finding an elegant, handy, super-useful Swiss Army Knife in the hustling and bustling South-Sea Metropolis of Apia. Not today and not (no way!) tomorrow, on a Sunday.

The next morning I got on a bus to Savai’i – a man without a knife and even without a caps-lifter.

The Travelling

Samoan ›Fale‹ hut

Savai’i was beautiful, but even more remote than I expected. I stayed in Beach Fales, enjoyed the quiet and traveled around the island. Since there were not many busses – you are lucky, if there is a bus once a day – I walked a lot, and also got some lifts and pickups from friendly Samoans. The accommodation in the fales usually included breakfast and dinner, so actually there was no need for me to open a can or cut a fruit or whatever by myself for the first days. And I learned that a life without a Swiss Knife is possible. When I passed a shop, and a big sign said: »If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.« I made the test and asked for a knife. »Sorry, my friend, we don’t sell knifes«, the voluminous man at the counter told me. Well, I thought, then obviously I don’t need one!

So I spent my days in Savai’i letting the well prepared and more than sufficient food go straight into my open mouth. Just a few days later, strolling along the beach, I found a nice piece of wood, and at once I imagined carving something out of it, sitting in the shade, having a drink, whistling, and letting the days pass by. And suddenly, I missed my knife again, realizing, that I don’t need it to save me from starving, but only for fun and past time.

No, you won’t starve, when you travel in Samoa. Once I travelled on a bus in the Western part of Savai’i and the nice lady behind me asked me, where I was going. I said, straight on, along the coast around the island. »Take a break«, she said, »this bus stops here, and the next one is only going to get here in about two hours.« At the next stop she stood up and took me by the hand. »Come on«, she said, »you can wait in my house.«

Her name was Pekina. She told me to sit down in the fale in front of her ›Pelagi-House‹ and have some rest. I really was tired and laid down on the mats, using my bag as a pillow. She left and everything was quiet. I closed my eyes and relaxed. When I opened my eyes, there was a big meal besides me, consisting of multiple plates, and Pekina had been sitting there, guarding everything, and waiting, until I woke up to have a meal. There was a plate with Spaghetti, another one with Corned beef, plenty of bread, a plate with fruits like papaya and coconut. Also, a fantastic ›paste‹ made out of coconut – sadly, I forgot the name. And the beautiful fresh and home-made lemonade, made from the fruits in Pekina’s garden.

Things like that happened many times to me, and showed me, that the Samoans are people with a big heart and a great hospitality, which you probably can’t find anywhere else in the world. Just what’s remarkable: It’s always the people who are not involved in the tourist business, away from the crowds. On the other hand: As soon as people start making money out of the fact, that there are visitors, run beach-fales or do other tourist-targeted activities, they can get quite rude and rough. And many times if you want something – even if it’s clear that you will pay for it – you simply would hear a »No!«

So, I met many friendly and a few not so friendly people on my tour around the island, and finally came back to Salelologa, surviving the trip even without survival knife. But you know, I’m a quite stubborn person, so I decided to buy a Swiss Knife the next day in Apia, even if it was not so essential around here, and even if you cannot open coconuts with it. So I arrived in Apia for my next stopover the next morning, and I had an entire day to shop.

Back in Apia

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Villa, placed on a hill in the middle of Upolu-Island

It was Friday morning and I had plenty of time to shop around. I rented my bike again and made my way to the harbor-promenade. First, I dropped by that Chinese-named-Supermarket, Chan Mow it was, I remember now. I found an incredible variety of canned foods, as well as plenty of pots and ›tupperware‹. Some T-shirts and souvenirs as well. I wandered around and a strange feeling came over me. »Do you sell some sort of pocket knife«, I asked a girl, »like a Swiss Knife?« She shook her head. »No, very sorry, we don’t have those. What about this?« And she showed me a knife-set of eight best quality German kitchen-knifes in different sizes. »Only 35 Tala«, she said. Well, a nice offer. But honestly, eight kitchen-knifes, that was not what I wanted to carry around with me on my travels. I asked for a can-opener. »No«, she said, »we don’t sell those«.

The Samoans are amazing people. They eat masses of food like nobody else in the world does. And going by the things they eat, they love nothing more than canned food, especially the omnipresent Corned Beef in wheel-sized super-cans. But how the hell do they open those cans? Well, I know, they used to open bottles with their teeth. But do they manage to do the same with cans? Artistic!

Next stop was Molesi-Shop. And here I made the very same experience. Tons of canned food, friendly staff that looked at me like an Alien because I asked for something weird like a Swiss Pocket Knife. I left Molesi and had the feeling, I must rethink my idea of the hustling and bustling South-See-Metropolis, where everything a man ever needs in his life–- e.g. a Swiss Army Knife – would be available.

I took a break and had an incredible load of fish and chips at a snack bar. Somebody talked to me, asked where I was from, what I was doing in Apia and so on. I said, I was trying to buy a Swiss Knife. He made big eyes, looked at me from feet to head, tilted his head and said: »Try Carruthers, they have it!«

I was grateful for the hint, and made my way to that shop named »Carruthers«. They did have, in fact, a variety of useful things inside, which I didn’t see in the other places. But no pocket knife. I talked to a lady – the owner I realized later – and asked her: »I am looking for a pocketknife. Do you sell something like that?« The lady’s ancestors had come from Scotland some 80 years ago, and I’m sure, her Grand-grandfather had a pocketknife in his luggage. But she said: »No, we don’t sell those!« And I, already a bit desperate, asked »Why not?«. And then she gave me the final explanation and finally made me understand: »Because we go for the size!« she said, grabbed a 20-inch bushknife and waved it in front of me. That was the moment I stopped asking for a pocketknife. And I promise: I never will ask you again.


Finally, I continued my travels, not without buying a well-sized kitchen knife as well as a combined can-opener/caps-lifter (which I luckily found at Carruthers). I had some more beautiful days at the beach at the south coast of Upolu and explored the wild inner parts of the island. My Samoan experience will be unforgettable. I found people living peacefully and quietly in the nature, eating the fruits from their garden, sliding down rocks in the middle of wild rivers, getting enormous wheels of pizza at the pizza-takeaway, always having some maxi-sized cans of Corned Beef as a backup in the trunk.

Yes, it’s a true paradise, and if you fool really think, you cannot exist in that heaven without a Swiss Knife, you better bring your own and watch out not to lose it!

Published 2002 in the Samoan Newspaper ›Newsline‹. Text and all pictures: © Armin Fischer

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