Category Archives: Samoa

Savai’i

Although we were due to celebrate Bronwyn’s birthday at a restaurant in Apia, Samoa, I needed to pop out to the tourist office to collect our tickets for our flight to Savai’i the following day. The guy in the shop handed me our tickets, but kept a grasp on them while he leaned forward and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Can you take something to Savai’i for me?” I looked at him with what I hoped was a deadpan look, but which was likely horrified dismay, and said, “What is it?” He burst out into laughter. “Something very important!” and handed me the pay cheque for the bus operator.

Waking after a great night at Sails restaurant, we were up before dawn and into the waitress’ boyfriend’s taxi to the airport, where we were hoping to catch a flight to Samoa’s second island, Savai’i. Everybody said that we should allow an hour for the thirty-minute drive, but we didn’t run into any problems. Even before first light, though, the roads were lined with Samoans dozing in their little roadside fale, waiting for a bus to come along; this seemed to be a national pastime.

At the tiny airport, we watched as some international travellers checked in, each clambering solemnly onto the luggage conveyor so that their total weight – customer plus baggage – could be noted down. Going through our own check-in, we seemed to be the only domestic customers, but we weren’t too surprised as it is only a short hop between islands on a light plane. However, we still had to go through an X-ray, which revealed the penknife that lives permanently in my day-pack. The customs officers portentously decided that it was far too dangerous to allow it on the plane, so I excused myself for a moment and wandered back across the tin shed to the check-in, where I asked if they could hand my knife to the pilot. They looked a bit bewildered, but agreed to do it. I shrugged and headed back to the departure gate; either I’d see it again, or I wouldn’t.

Our transport to Savai'i

Our transport to Savai’i

Out on the tarmac stood a little eight-seater twin-prop. We squeezed in with a handful of missionaries, and then the Kiwi pilot clambered in alongside us. With a wide grin, he introduced himself and proclaimed, “Safety Announcement! The Emergency Exit is the same door that you came in. Please fasten your seatbelt. Thank you” and then we were rolling.

Arrival in Savai'i

Arrival in Savai’i

After landing a quarter of an hour later, the pilot handed me my penknife, securely wrapped in rolls of paper and tape. “I have no idea why they did that”, he said.

Our bus driver was waiting for us. I gave him his pay cheque, which he in turn gave to a lady in the petrol station, who would give him cash on the way back. There was nobody else on the bus, and Savai’i has only one road, so we had a rather exclusive guided tour around the lush, green, and noticeably cooler southern part of the country.

The island has suffered two major volcanic eruptions, one in 1796 and the next in 1905. This latter eruption lasted for six years, so it is not surprising that much of the geology consists of lava. The black stuff remains surprisingly wet even in direct tropical sunlight, so it is also not surprising that it is popular for crops, and is often seen stacked up in cones around the base of young trees.

Bronwyn on a lava flow

Bronwyn on a lava flow

The bus ambled around the island. We fed pieces of papaya (and some of my finger) to green turtles in a freshwater lagoon. We climbed down a lava tube, and up into a suspended treetop walk.

Feeding green turtles with mango

Feeding green turtles with mango

Each of these attractions is the collectively owned property of one village, and use of them attracts a very small fee per person, which is used for the upkeep of the schools and so on. This fee is not a tourist tax, it is a long tradition and payable by any outsider whether Samoan or not if they want to use that particular facility. The story of the treetop walk is particularly interesting. It was built by a Canadian who married a village girl, and wanted to find a way to make money for the village without cutting down the surrounding rainforest. The walk was a hugely successful venture, and the Canadian is now Matea (chief) of the village.

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We had now almost circumnavigated the island; the last stop was the waterspout at Alofaaga. Another five tale to get in, then a further couple of tale to buy a bag of old coconut husks. A little puzzled, we followed our guide across a cracked and fissured lava flow, with waves hammering in from the sea and exploding high into the air. The ground felt hollow, and thrummed as we walked over it, wheezing and bubbling as each set of waves forced compressed air into the porous rock.

Raging foam under a lava arch at Alofaaga

Raging foam under a lava arch at Alofaaga

Waves crashing against the lava at Alofaaga

Waves crashing against the lava at Alofaaga

Over to one side, closer to the water, were a number of vertical sink-holes. Here we discovered the purpose of the old coconuts; they are tossed into the hole, and when the next big wave comes along, it blows them out from below at the top of a huge waterspout. Our coconuts were projected fifty metres or more, a stunningly impressive sight, although our guide told us that the waves weren’t especially powerful that day.

Bronwyn and the waterspout

Bronwyn and the waterspout

Coconut cannons

Coconut cannons

Our driver had tried to fit a lot into our day, and it was a bit of a desperate run for the ferry back to the north island. The flat roll-on roll-off barge was just about to depart when we arrived, so we quickly bought tickets and sidled aboard between rows of enormous 4×4 trucks carrying produce, to a seating area on the deck at the back. Here we found that the seats were all packed with locals indulging in their favourite pastime of sleeping.

The end of a long day

The end of a long day

We stood by the rail, and ate another of the rather bitter, nameless fruit that we had picked up at a market that morning, tossing the husks to the numerous zebra-striped fish in the sea below. It had been a long day, and soothed by the big smooth swells and the warmth of the funnel next to me, I too fell asleep.

Kayaking in Samoa

We’d been waiting in Apia, Samoa, for a guy who we’d arranged to take us kayaking. After some considerable waiting (most of it our fault and anyway very enjoyable), he materialised in the form of a Swede, Matz, who loaded us into his elderly jeep and took us to a beach on the eastern end of the island.

The eastern side of Samoa

The eastern side of Samoa

Here, amongst hundreds of smiling holidaymakers, we launched the sea kayaks and paddled out into the lagoon.

Almost ready to leave

Matz and Bronwyn, almost ready to leave

We soon left the crowd behind. To our left, traditional fale appeared along the shore, against a backdrop of palm trees climbing the flanks of the mountain at the centre of the island. To our right, the sea smashed violently into the invisible reef, breaking into furious surf which petered out suddenly without disturbing the glassy smoothness of the lagoon.

The surf roared harmlessly only metres away on the other side of the reef

The surf roared harmlessly only metres away on the other side of the reef

The kayaks seemed to float above the ethereal water

The kayaks seemed to float above the ethereal water

One hour turned to two as we paddled into a mild headwind, and the small island that was our destination grew imperceptibly closer. We were beginning to feel tired when a green turtle popped its head out of the water. Suddenly we realised that they were everywhere, several feet across, heads nervously popping up, spotting us, and then diving quickly away.

Hello, Green Turtle

Hello, Green Turtle

We beached the kayaks on the small island of Nu’utele which boasted a handful of waterside fale, owned and maintained by a village on the mainland. Each fale was an open-sided wooden platform with woven palm-leaf blinds around the sides. The idea is that you roll the blinds up or down to create a through-draught depending on the prevailing winds. However, the villagers were expecting bad weather, so they had tied a tarpaulin to the windward side for additional protection. As it happened, this turned out to be a bad idea as the night was hot and still; in the early hours of the following morning I heard Matz untying his tarpaulin to get some air, but I couldn’t summon the energy to do ours.

Fale on Nu'utele

Fale on Nu’utele

The traditional Sunday meal is a roast made over a fire in a cooking hole, and dinner comprised the remnants of the villagers’ own repast along with servings of parrot fish. We’d never seen parrot fish on the menu before; they are skinny blue things only about ten inches long and don’t exactly have a lot of meat on them, so we were curious to see how they were going to be prepared. We were a little surprised to discover that each fish had been braised whole, and then simply chopped in half, giving you the choice of either head end or tail end.

Shortly before sunset, the quiet, self-effacing villagers climbed into their boat and putt-putted to the mainland. A few minutes later, we heard a long honking noise from the far shore, the way I would imagine a conch-trumpet to sound, and a little later the Sunday evening service started. The congregation must have been on the beach opposite us, because the amplified voice of the priest echoed across the water, interspersed with Hallelujah!s and applause and singing. We couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he was obviously a skilled orator, switching from what seemed to be fire and brimstone haranguing to poetry and song and back again with consummate ease.  Meanwhile, on Nu’utele, the bugs had started biting, so we retired with a paraffin lamp to our mosquito-netted fale, and listened to the wash of the waves on the beach only a few metres away, the thunderous boom of surf on the reef farther out, and the hypnotic sounds of the amplified priest across the water.

Paradise and a mosquito net

Paradise and a mosquito net

In the morning we were awoken by the sound of the returned villagers sweeping the beach of fallen banana leaves and accumulated debris. Their life is in no way primitive; it is simply traditional, an important distinction. For instance, although our fale was constructed mainly from coconut-trunk spars and woven palm leaves, the cross-spars in the roof were made from pieces of shipping pallet, and the banana leaves were sewn together with string and what appeared to be magnetic cassette tape. As well as the tarpaulin used in bad weather, each fale also boasted a small corrugated iron cap. This motif was repeated wherever we went; the traditional methods were preferred, but if some modern invention could do the traditional job better, then it was used instead.

We paddled out along the reef break to the next island, crossing a rather turbid channel with quite a noticeable rip, and ran the kayaks up onto a coral beach. Steps led up to an automatic lighthouse, from which we watched boobies and frigate birds gracefully riding the breeze. After a brisk swim in the surf, eerie with the never-ending pounding of the reef break just a few hundred metres away, we returned to the fale for lunch.

Good to be behind the paddle again

Good to be behind the paddle again

On the journey home, Matz and I decided to go out through the break into the open sea. This was an awesome experience, for the channel was only about ten metres wide, and on either side the rolling surf built up to an enormous height before crashing thunderously on the reef below. It was a strange feeling indeed to watch the tubes form and the waves rear high above on either side, while we bobbed reasonably placidly on a piece of lightly choppy ocean between them.

We were just about to turn around and go back in, when a large leathery green turtle surfaced right in front of me. Looking out to sea, it had no idea that I was right behind it, and I held my breath as it paddled slowly along with its enormously elongated front flippers. Unlike its smaller brethren, when it finally did see me, it didn’t swim like hell, it just floated gracefully down to a metre or so under my boat, a stunning view through the crystal clear water.

Back on shore, we had an interesting ride home in which we ran first out of diesel and then out of coolant, necessitating some roadside bartering to keep us on the road. Matz finally dropped us at the Millennium, where a porter whisked away our ragbag sacks and bundles and installed them in our room, where we leapt into the shower.

It was Bronwyn’s birthday, and a taxi was waiting to take us to Apia’s top restaurant, Sails, nestled amongst the churches on the waterfront. On the way out of the hotel, Bronwyn got waylaid by a receptionist who wanted copies of our passports or something, but I carried on outside to make sure that the taxi was still waiting. Sure enough, there he was, so I got into the back and explained that we needed to wait for my wife. He smiled and nodded his head vigorously; “Wife,” he said, and started the engine and drove off. Suddenly realising that he hadn’t understood a word that I’d said, I opened the door and bailed out.

The car stopped, and there was a pause. The driver slowly unfolded himself from the driver’s seat and stared across the car roof at me, until a delighted smile broke out across his face and he erupted into peals of laughter. “Your wife! Your wife!”

Once we were both safely installed, he drove us the kilometre or so back into town and decanted us outside the restaurant. Sails bills itself as The Last Restaurant in the World to Close, Every Night, a commentary on Samoa’s proximity to the dateline that had already caused us so much confusion (A couple of days later, we found ourselves in the bar of the International Dateline Hotel in Tonga, which bills itself as The First Bar that opens in the World).

Our table at Sails turned out to be the best in the house, out on the veranda overlooking the harbour sunset. The margaritas were excellent, and the food was astonishing; to taste their Commodore Sashimi alone, it is worth travelling halfway around the world.

Sunset from Sails, Apia

Sunset from Sails, Apia

Samoa

As we crowded up the air bridge into Apia airport terminal, Bronwyn ended up slightly ahead of me, side by side with a young local man. He was close to seven feet high, and easily twice as broad as Bronwyn; she looked like a child next to him. Out in the airport proper, we realised that this was standard physique for a Samoan. It appeared through our foreign eyes as if we had inadvertently stumbled on a rugby players convention, if you can imagine rugby players walking around wearing skirts stuffed with large bunches of grass to keep out the cool 30-degree Celsius evening breeze.

Friendly taxi-drivers directed us to their competitor, the airport shuttle. Although we were the only two paying tourists, the bus soon filled up and we found ourselves in the midst of a crowd of chattering locals who were taking advantage of the free lift. They were all happy to talk about themselves, and seemed to consider themselves less the citizens of a particular country and more inhabitants of the Pacific islands as a whole. For instance, one young guy, who described himself as Fijian Indian, had been raised in Tonga, and was now living in Samoa because his sister was at university here. We gathered that, if his sister got her degree, then both of them would be trying to move to New Zealand.

The bus detoured off the tarmac and up a muddy track. Apparently all the local guys were going to the same place, and suddenly there it was, a beautiful white mansion in the rain forest. We said our goodbyes, and the bus plunged back into the darkness. We’d been up since 5 am, and it was now 2 am the following morning. The bus rattled through the night, tooting merrily to every other vehicle, almost all of which were taxis, and occasionally at packs of wild dogs hanging around in the road. It was wet and hard to see outside; we had vague impressions of palm trees, but suddenly we came across three beautiful brightly lit churches, one after the other; then it was dark again. Eventually the trees parted, and we were decanted into downtown Apia. We had a vague impression of the sea, and of a small wood-framed building which was our hotel. A smiling woman, who had clearly been waiting up for us, assured us that she had not, and showed us to our sparsely appointed but pleasant room. The night was hot and humid, but bearable under the ceiling fan, and we clambered into the somewhat rickety bed and fell instantly into a deep and undisturbed sleep.

The Seaside Inn, Apia

The Seaside Inn, Apia

On the following morning we had arranged to be picked up to go on a kayaking trip. The guy was supposed to pick us up at 08:30, but he didn’t show and we dozed until breakfast, which turned out to consist of white sliced toast and a chunk of pleasant, almost savoury, mango. The coffee was thin and weak, but we had been forewarned and had come prepared with our own ground beans. As we finished our breakfast, an American at the next table begged us for the used coffee grounds from the bottom of our plunger. He said that he’d been in Apia for a while and was dying for a cup with some flavour in it.

Still frazzled from our long trip, we gave the kayak guy until 10:30 and then wandered out into town. Apia is, of course, the capital city of Samoa. On the ground, it is a large-ish village hugging a natural harbour, comprising a couple of shops, the Australian/Canadian combined High Commission, a bank, some insurance companies, and an inordinate number of churches.

Apia city centre

Apia city centre

A handful of visiting yachts swung serenely in the bay, along with two small container ships of the Samoa Shipping Company, and what was apparently a small tramp steamer. In the shallows close by, a fisherman was casting his net.

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Fishing in Apia harbour

Fishing in Apia harbour

We dropped in to the Green Turtle, a backpackers tour operation, and found that the reason that the kayak guy hadn’t shown, was that we had crossed the International Date Line and it wasn’t even Sunday yet; we were reliving Saturday morning. This meant something of a rethink of our plans, which was quite hard as we were very tired and suffering from the heat, so instead we ambled up and down the only two streets in the city until 13:00 when the shops started closing, at which point we checked back in to this morning’s hotel.

After some discussion with the receptionist, we ordered a taxi to take us across the island to a famous freshwater swimming hole which, we were told, was situated at the Centre for Theological Studies. Samoa has a long history of missionaries from just about every Christian group imaginable, even some of the odder American sects, and many of them have stuck. Each church maintains a very strict hold over its congregation in terms of tithes, and enormous beautifully appointed churches tower everywhere over the often far less salubrious dwellings of the locals. Schooling is highly regarded on Samoa, and the Centre was typically well-kempt and spacious. The taxi driver was content to go to sleep until we’d finished, so we left him to it and went to see what we could find.

All the students were deeply involved in the national pastime of Krikiti. This seems to be played wherever a group of young men get together and is vaguely like cricket but played with a rubber ball, a huge three-cornered bat, and a lot of laughter.

Krikiti

Krikiti

One of the players spotted us and ambled over. We handed him a few dollars which entitled us to descend some steps by a derelict church to a stony beach, where a limpid freshwater stream emerged slowly from a rock cave before trickling between some rocks down into the sea. About half a dozen Samoans lounged about on the edge of the pool. We were extremely hot and sticky, and so quickly got changed and entered the beautiful cool crystal water. Small fish nibbled at our toenails as we swam into the cave, revelling in the unexpected cold, jet lag and apathy falling away in swathes.

Looking out of our cave

Looking out of our cave

Cool and happy people

Cool and happy people

After some splashing about, chasing after jewelled crabs, and diving for pieces of loose coral, we emerged once more into the sunshine, two very different and much happier people. As we clambered back up the steps, I noticed a rubber ball lying in the grass. Off to one side, Krikiti players were combing the bushes, so I picked it up and lobbed it back. Smiling their thanks, they restarted their game.

Suitably refreshed, cool, and with our jet lag at bay, we were able to pay attention for the first time to the countryside around us. On the taxi ride back to Apia, we passed through a number of villages, the houses ranging in style from simple fale (raised wooden platforms with a thatched roof and no walls) to fully-fledged stone houses. Dominant features were the open-plan meeting places, the ornately decorated family graves in each front garden, numerous wild dogs, and the roadside platforms designed to protect the garbage from them until the refuse truck came by. Any structure that boasted walls was lovingly decorated with paint and fabric in bold colours. The graves were painted brilliant white, and decorated with black volcanic stones.

For lunch we’d already had “Samoan Pizza”, which was topped with ham and egg and was evidently a local joke; now we could see the point, because everywhere were pigs and chickens.

Samoan pig

Samoan pig

These roadside fale are used for dozing while waiting for the bus

These roadside fale are used for dozing while waiting for the bus

Family graves are usually found in the front garden

Family graves are usually found in the front garden

Typical family home near to Apia

Typical family home near to Apia

In one village, hundreds of Samoans lounged in and around one of the large meeting fale; apparently, a conference was in progress. In another, what seemed to be the entire population was playing ping-pong. Whenever we saw anyone, their faces were uniformly serious until we smiled or waved, and then huge smiles would break out everywhere in rashes of grins and waves. Everybody seemed so happy and friendly, and indeed, they seemed to have bountiful land and food and everything that they could need. We understood that each village was autonomous, and controlled a particular crop or natural feature, for which a small charge was made to any visitors who wanted to use it. The richest villages tended to control things like water, and indeed we had already encountered a small inkling of this when we handed over our few dollars to swim in the cave.

Back in Apia, the middle of the harbour frontage is dominated by a large colonial-style hotel, the famous a Aggie Grays, relic of the colonial era and occasional home to rich and famous of that age. We had actually tried to book in, but it always seemed to be full, so we decided to go and see what all the fuss was about.

Aggie Grays

Aggie Grays

It is indeed a charming place, permanently stuck between the world wars, decorated with fading pictures of the natives taken by some long-ago German photographer. When we arrived, the bar was pretty much empty, so we tried the local Valima beer (a nice brew, clean and somehow Canadian) before embarking on a trawl through the cocktail menu. While I started on the Brandy Aggie, essentially a Brandy Alexander made with coconut milk, Bronwyn went straight for the Aggie Special, a mystery drink that came in an enormous glass the size of a goldfish bowl. This turned out to be a pleasant but potent fruit punch, and the white-gloved bar staff broke out into enormous smiles when Bronwyn polished it off and picked up the cocktail menu for another round.

Somewhat later, we lurched back to our hotel where we dined on marlin steaks and white wine, before brushing our teeth alongside the enormous spider under the sink, and falling into a welcome sleep.

Sitting on the patio next morning, a Sunday, drinking our own coffee and munching fresh mango, we watched as white-clad locals streamed toward the many churches that line the street. Samoan church music played on the hotel stereo. As we waited for the kayak guy to show (again), I nibbled at a beautifully crafted “Chinese biscuit” that I’d bought the day before, which looked temptingly like a light pastry flower, but turned out to taste largely of onions.

At ten o’clock, we gave up on the guy again, checked out, and wandered back to the Green Turtle, because we knew that they had his phone number. It turned out that he’d completely forgotten about us, and promised to come and meet us in a couple of hours. Meanwhile, a little strapped for cash after our night of colonial cocktails, we ambled the few hundred metres into town.

Church in downtown Apia

Church in downtown Apia

Church hastily snapped from a taxi

Church hastily snapped from a taxi

All the churches were packed. Not only were the large cathedrals full, but the little buildings between them, which I had vaguely supposed to be community centres or offices, were apparently all churches too. In addition, a huge beach fale on the seafront boomed a heavily amplified bass line, and as we got closer, we realised that this, too, was full of people singing. Almost the whole town population was in church. The only people to be seen, scattered lightly under trees and reading on park benches, were Apia’s presumably transient Caucasian population.

The heat beat down. I had chosen to wear a lavalava, the ubiquitous sarong, which proved to be very cool and practical, and a rasher shirt as a defence against sunburn. It was an odd look, but the weather was devilishly hot. Eventually we swallowed our pride and returned to the swishing fans of Aggie Grays, where we ate quiche, and sandwiches with the crusts cut off, with cups of coffee and tea, to the sound of gentle jazz music.

Island time was kicking in. The kayak guy arrived.