Monday, May 31, 2010

Hair envy on the islands

The last week of the last millennium saw the rest of the world gathering tremendous caches of canned food products and heading to ground in reinforced concrete bunkers in order to shield themselves from the effects of the treacherous Y2K.

By contrast, the Samoans, who are somewhat accustomed to having a holocaust-surviving collection of canned meat and fish under the kitchen sink at the best of times, and for whom the electricity was hardly ever operating anyway (thanks to fifteen years of ineffectual foreign technical assistance and ongoing, bureaucratic bungling within the Samoa Electric Power Corporation), were disregarding the global call for disaster preparedness, and were preparing instead for the biggest, f’-off fiafia (party) the country had ever seen.

Each day, as the electronic, Millennium countdown clock ticked off its last 604,800 seconds, the Samoa Observer was awash with double page spreads announcing a growing line-up of exciting events and performances, the hurried opening of new bars taking advantage of the anticipated relaxing of the usual midnight curfew on the sale and consumption of alcohol, and international donor assistance to ensure that the last millennium celebration on the planet went off with one of the biggest bangs of them all (quite literally, as it transpired, thanks to China’s kind donation of a NASA-sized payload of expired, unsafe fireworks, which left at least one Samoan citizen looking remarkably like The Thing – but that’s another story for another time).

And amidst all this exciting, noisy anticipation, an additional entertainment option slipped quietly into Apia Harbour one evening, completely under the radar of the Millennium Celebration Organising Committee, in the form of “Bruno’s Magic Circus of Samoa” boat.

Like the grand old travelling road shows of the American Midwest in the forties, Bruno’s steam vessel was painted in garish primary colours, complete with a striped, barber-shop smoke stack and a flapping pennant promising the “Greatest Show of the Millennium”.

No one really took much notice of the circus boat until, four days later when we’d all recovered from our almighty, nation-wide hangover, the local daily decided that as the world had not ended, they probably ought to resume production, and went looking for a story that wouldn’t require them to travel further than across the street. And the story they ran with was none other than the international scandal that was “Bruno’s Magic Circus of Samoa”.

Every day for well over a month, the Observer ran an ever-revealing expose of this nod to old-world family entertainment. First it was that Bruno kept animals in tiny cages in the dark hold of his floating menagerie. Later, it was revealed by an international animal rights watchdog (of which no one had previously heard) that Bruno and his floating extravaganza had been refused permission to dock in Fiji on account of alleged inhumane treatment of his performers.

Over the coming weeks, the opinion pieces and letters columns of the Observer moved from one spectrum to the other in support of, and against the travelling, magical circus, with as many prominent local celebrities and politicians throwing their popular weight behind the “great and magical Bruno” as those who renounced him as a shyster and exploiter of innocents.

And through this barrage of newsreel and opinion, whether for or against, there was one act within Bruno’s Magic Circus of Samoa which managed to captivate and thrill the entire population. It was not Bruno’s somewhat malnourished, leaping lions that stole the show, nor was it the Vitamin D-deficient Russian bear with the balancing beach ball on his schnoz. It wasn’t the clown with the narcotic-shrunken pupils and the visible twitch which so melted the hardened hearts of the naysayers, nor the hind-legged walking of the mange-ridden pig which had the supporters up on their feet at intermission. No, the act which really got Samoa talking was Bruno’s incredible enigma, known colloquially as the Hairy Man.

Was this creature man or beast? Was he some prehistoric throwback, or the result of a pharmaceutical company’s genetic experimentation gone wrong? Whatever the answer, it got all the tongues in the country wagging, and everyone, whether doctor or patient, banker or client, lawyer or accused, land owner or tenant flocked to the Magic Circus to view the follicular spectacle.

And like the freak shows of old, Bruno knew how to give a crowd what they wanted. The Hairy Man was available for viewing after every show, where screaming children would writhe in their parents arms in fear of the hairy arms reaching for them through steel bars as the camera snapped away into the night.

And then, perhaps after two or three months, after the crowds had finally lost interest in the Hairy Man, and just before all of the animals expired from the heat and cramped conditions, down came the big top one evening, and just as it had arrived, Bruno’s Magic Circus of Samoa boat chugged silently out of the harbour in the dead of night, never to be heard from again.

Or so I assumed in a world where cruelty to animals is less tolerated than it once was, where unusual looking people are free to participate in society along with everyone else, and where laser surgery exist for even the most hirsute. So imagine my surprise on Day 1 of my return to Samoa, when driving through town, my saucer-like eyes were drawn to a massive sign advertising … wait for it … “Bruno’s Magic Circus of Samoa Training Academy”!

Training Academy!!? What could anyone possibly learn there? Bruno’s circus never had acrobats and trapeze artists; it never had Houdini-types escaping from straight-jackets in glass water tanks; and there were no contortionists or fire eaters. Bruno’s Magic Circus of Samoa only ever showcased a small number of performing animals (which he’d presumably bought for a song after they were forced out of circuses in other countries with laws prohibiting such cruelty) and of course, the Hairy Man.

So what’s really going on up there on the hill, behind those substantial Academy gates? Is it simply an online booking service for acquiring circus animal cast-offs? Or is a somewhat greying and thinning Hairy Man running a whole bunch of new recruits through boot-camp style drills for effective comb-overs? Or perhaps more plausibly, is it simply an international training camp for like-minded entrepreneurs to master the art of media manipulation? - Lord knows that in this pursuit, Bruno has proven himself a true talent of magical proportions.

Samoa continues its fine tradition of superior tertiary education … and sign-writing! Pic: Hagas