You know the feeling – waking up from a deep sleep and having no idea where you are? Well, that was me for a bit yesterday morning when I awoke at 4:45 … still jet-lagged. We arrived in Samoa at 12:30 in the afternoon Friday, on a plane full of the largest number of large people I’ve ever seen, and were driven in a slow, stately fashion by taxi from the airport to our hotel in Apia, the capital and only town of Samoa. Here in Samoa Ty no longer sticks out as a big man; most men and many women here are generously-proportioned.
(My on-plane reading material had been Jack London’s South Sea Tales, with its colonialist visions of hurricanes, machetes, mutinies, shipwrecks, cannibalism, swaying palm trees, woolly-headed natives and cagey white plantation owners, all in a stew of testosterone, violence, and blood. I’m not sure when this text was published but it made interesting, if queasy, reading to while away the 5 and a half hour flight.)
We’re based at the Amanaki Hotel for the next few days, a new family-run joint with a small pool and view over the harbour. Ty had checked out the dining possibilities on-line earlier and so we made our way down the peninsula to the Sails Restaurant, lagoon-side about a mile from our hotel.
While walking, we passed by one house which had three enormous satellite dishes in its yard, no doubt monitoring the skies for intelligent life.
Like most of the buildings here, the Sails restaurant is open to the elements – hardly any walls to speak of – and serves delicious Asian fusion food, with very fresh seafood probably caught right off its own deck.
In general, the restaurant food here isn’t great, mostly deep-fried, but this place was good. A tiny cat joined us and camped beneath our table, hopeful for any scraps, which of course Ty obliged with.
Saturday morning saw us waiting poolside at 8 am for Sam, whose Round the Island Hop on ‘n’ off bus’ “famous tour” we decided to take to get a feel for Samoa’s main island Upolu.
We headed off in Sam’s older model somewhat rickety van down the highway along the one main route, stopping at a few villages along the way, towards the Piula Cave Pool on the grounds of one of the many, many churches here, this one a seaside Methodist Church.
We had a swim with the fishes in this beautiful cavern pool; many fish came right up to Ty’s camera lens to see what was going on.
From there, we drove up into the mountains and stopped at Upolu’s highest point, the LeMafa Pass, from where we could see a vast forest of palm trees, a cattle ranch, and the sharp spines of the two million year old mountain range that crosses the island.
Once down again, after having picked up and dropped off a solitary hitch-hiker, we drove along the Oceanside route to the beautiful Lalomanu Beach, a stunning strip of sand backed by rock cliffs along which are a couple of beachfront family-run fale (bungalow) operations.
Many of the fales and houses along the shores of Samoa were devastated in the tsunami of Sept 2009; this particular spot had lost 13 family members that September morning.
Apparently the waters here are completely safe because the coral reef that rings the islands prevents sharks and other predatory fish from entering and jellyfish have not yet found these waters – good news! After a swim in crystal clear water and an uninspiring fish and chips lunch we made our way up to the Sapoaga Falls viewing area, where we also found out about how to chop, grind and eat coconut.
Sam explained that, in Samoan lore, the coconut originated in the dark distant past when a village woman, tired of seeing a gigantic eel in her pool scaring the children, caught it and chopped off its head. Before it died, the eel warned her that, when she planted the head next to her house, whatever plant grew from it would have the eel’s face and, indeed, the coconut does have the appearance of a face with two eyes and a mouth – the eel’s revenge.
When Sam started chopping the coconut and grinding it, all the little chickens in the vicinity came racing over for a feed – they reminded me of my cat Aran’s speedy rush over for food when he hears the can opener whirring.
In addition to providing a stable food source, the coconuts the villagers harvest are heaped in pyramids roadside, where they are picked up by trucks delivering them to processing plants to be made into coco butter suntan oil for delivery overseas.
Along the south coast we saw many villages ruined by the tsunami: in some, the people are rebuilding on the same spot; in others, they’ve deserted their former homes and have moved to higher ground. Traces of cement foundations, palm frond roofs, smashed cars and fishing boats have been left behind.
Sam explained that, although Samoa had had two tsunami drills in the two years prior to the wave, the villagers didn’t really understand that the water was a deadly threat and, when the tsunami hit early on Sept 24, there was little warning. As a consequence, many lost everything. Luckily, the tsunami struck at low tide rather than high; this probably saved hundreds of people whose homes were just high enough not to be inundated.
With Sam we also saw the Samoan National Park, where trees and other vegetation are being saved from the deforestation plaguing other parts of the world, the Sataoa Mangrove Conservation Area, Lefaga Bay, where Survivor is currently being filmed, the Savaii Island Wharf, where the ferry to the other Samoan Island departs, and a turtle conservation pond. (Interestingly, one of the small islands between Upolu and Savaii allows no cars, bikes, dogs, pigs, horses, or cattle – only cats and chickens are permitted on its shores). The gigantic turtles are quite tame, swimming quickly over to Sam for their share of cut papaya treats.
The villages here are very colourful and very tidy – unlike other places in the south that I’ve been to, there’s almost no garbage and little plastic waste here.
Samoans are serious about conservation and protecting their environment for the next generation. Household garbage is placed in stands lifted about 4 feet off the ground so that dogs can’t get at it; every house has one of these curbside. The houses themselves have an open design; each has a kind of Parthenon-like structure of columns which serve for walls and a sloped or canoe-shaped roof of metal. As Sam says, here in Samoa, “No doors, no locks, no crime, no army; people do what they want, 500 police for 180,000 people – a peaceful place”.
Each building is brightly painted and some have additional floral or geometric patterning on the walls and lintels. An incredible profusion of flowers and bushes grow in the yards and the island is incredibly lush with a tremendous variety of trees and plants, including palm trees, breadfruits, bananas, papayas, hibiscus, ginger and orchids.
Although the people are very poor, and probably half the population is unemployed, they never lack for food; everything they need can be grown in their own yard and fished from the sea.
While we were eating dinner at the Sails, we saw several families fishing in the lagoon using nets, some in the traditional long ocean-going canoes.
Although not too long ago, Samoa was ruled by the Germans and the English, who “owned everything”, Sam was very happy that his country, unlike neighbouring American Samoa, now has independence. We saw no “for sale” signs anywhere; the houses are passed down from one generation to the next. There are a couple of colleges on the island; these, and the schools, seem to be almost entirely run by the churches that dominate this country. The number of churches, and the elaborateness of their buildings, is really striking; some small villages with what seems no more than a couple of houses have 3 or 4 churches within meters of one another. The most elaborate of these is the Mormon “white temple”, apparently costing 13 million to build, located on the outskirts of Apia.
When the Samoans were under the rule of the Germans, they had to bury their dead in the cemetery, as we’re accustomed to. However, after independence the islanders returned to their old ways of operating and now, in front of every home, the family dead are buried, sometimes in a very plain cement grave,
and sometimes in structures so elaborate and large that they dwarf the small house behind. (It was hard to get a good picture of these from the travelling vehicle as we sped past).
Some of the graves have fences around them, others have roofs. Some serve the family temporarily on laundry day as structures on which to dry clothes.
According to Sam, the ocean level has gone up by 4.5 meters here in the last eight years – global climate change is really affecting the South Pacific. Small nearby islands like Tuvalu and others will be gone in only a few years. Arrangements are being made now with New Zealand and Australia to take climate refugees from these islands but none of them want to go – soon, though, they won’t have a choice. Around Samoa dikes and breakwaters are being built with lava rock, some of these with the help of Canadian money. In addition to the problems associated with climate change, the Samoans are also conscious of the problem of peak oil. The islanders receive 40 percent of their energy from wind power and the rest from diesel, but they want to be diesel-free within the next few years and so are developing alternative sources of energy generation around the island, such as wind farms and small dams.
Read about the Samoan tsunami here.
See more pictures here.