Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Wonderful World of Western Samoa

Words can hardly describe what a lovely place Western Samoa is.  We had planned to stay on the island of Upolu in the town of Apia for just 3 days, but after discovering how exceptional it was we ended up staying for two wonderful weeks.

One of the many beautiful beaches
Where do I start when describing this amazing place?  At the beginning of course!  We arrived early in the morning after an overnight passage from America Samoa and were quickly greeted by the Apia Port Authority, who escorted us into the marina (where you are required to stay when visiting).  Once docked we were promptly checked in by some friendly folks from Immigration and Customs – how great is it that they all come to you?  Considering that in some countries this can be an all day affair as you wonder around from one office to the next, this was quite a treat!

After being officially cleared in, we happily caught up with friends on Mazu and Moondance and got the lay of the land, which included happy hour at the conveniently located bar at the top of the boat ramp – a great place to get to know all of your new neighbors on the dock.  We were soon introduced to a couple on a Swedish boat, Anniara – Göran and Gudrun.  They were thinking about renting a car to tour the island for two days and wondered would we like to join them and split the cost.  Even though we didn’t know them, we jumped at the opportunity as the price was good and they seemed like people we’d like to know better.  We’re happy to report they’ve since become good friends – though we’ve had some pretty competitive game nights!

Robert Louis Stevenson Museum (and home)
We had a great time touring the island and seeing all the sites over the next few days.  Our first stop was a tour of the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum – the home where the famous author (Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to name a few) lived the last five years of his life.  He obviously made an excellent impression on the locals during his short time here as they speak very fondly of him and his contributions to their beautiful island and culture.

Robert Louis Stevenson and family

Gudrun and I marvel at the roots of the Ma Tree
After the museum we took in a few waterfalls and did the hike out to see the “Ma Tree” – a huge tree in the middle of the forest.  The short hike took us through some of the Upolu island rainforest, which was beautiful, but the tree itself is very impressive.  The huge roots that tower out of the ground are really a site to see.

Check out that ladder!
After more waterfalls (my personal fave was Togitogiga), lots of pigs (and cute little piglets) and the lovely Tafatafa Beach, we made a stop at the not-to-be-missed To Sua Ocean Trench, a local wonder of landscape where a huge hole in the ground has exposed a giant salt water pool.  After having a quick lunch at the park’s small restaurant we donned our swimwear and wandered over to the edge to look at the pool.  To reach it you have to climb down a nearly vertical ladder onto a slippery platform.  While a little intimidating, the refreshing swim in the clear water was well worth the climb.  At low tide you can apparently swim under water thru a passage to the outside, but we decided to pass since we had no idea on the state of the tide.

Samoan's - always ready to smile.
We finished our first day with a run over the majestic Le Mafa Pass (great views of the whole island) and then driving the northeast coastline – incredible views abounding.  But what really stood out the most was how CLEAN everything is here.  Every single house was well tended with immaculate yards full of flowers and greenery.  Every little village was completely spotless – not an ounce of trash to be seen and roadways neatly painted in different colors to delineate one village from the next.  After the trash of America Samoa it was stunning to see how perfectly kept everything in Western Samoa was.

Shirley, Taf and Nana - young at 89!
Our second day out was filled with more beautiful water falls, an interesting lunch at a small grocery store and some gorgeous white sandy beaches.  But the best part was the end.  While searching for the beach that the movie “Return To Paradise” was filmed at we had the excellent luck to meet a wonderful woman named Shirley Esera.  She was teaching some of the village children who we had stopped to say hello to and soon we were invited in to visit with her, her nana (grandmother) and her husband, Taf – who quickly provided coconuts to sip all around.  Turns out in Samoa, men do most of the cooking and cleaning – I knew there was a reason I loved this place!!!

After chatting for a while, Shirley asked if we would like to join them for their Sunday dinner the next day.  Her father and mother would be home from the city and she would love for us to meet them.  Of course we jumped at the opportunity as getting a chance to meet families and learn more about their culture is what doing a trip like this is all about!

The Lemalu clan
And so we happily returned the next day and met the whole family – including Shirley’s sister, a good friend, her parents, Nana and the grandkids.  What an interesting family and we greatly appreciate the opportunity to learn so much about Samoan customs, families, village life and what comprises the Fa’a Samoa (the Samoan Way).

The 3 pillars of Fa’a Samoa are the Matai (village chiefs), Aiga (extended family) and the church.  Each village has Matai – which are the heads of the “extended family” and they have important duties within their family and the village.  According to the Samoa website, there are 362 villages throughout the Western Samoa islands and over 18,000 Matai!  Aiga is huge here - with a definite structure of respect, with elders garnering the most respect.  It's not unusual for many family members to live under one roof, or for siblings to take care of each others kids.  Everything revolves around family, church and village life.

Where all the big decisions are made!
As you may have guessed, there are different levels of Matai and it turns out Shirley and her family are highly titled Matai.  Shirley’s father explained why each house will have an open air structure and how the piles that support the roof can indicate the number of “talking chiefs” in that village.  When the village has an issue, all of the talking chiefs (Matai) will gather and discuss the issue completely.  Once the head Matai has heard all of the arguments, they will make a decision and that decision in FINAL!  No more discussion, no more arguments – their decision is the law.  I found it an interesting way of problem solving – everyone gets to say their piece, but the eldest (and presumably wisest) Matai of the village has the final say.  We can’t thank Shirley and her family enough for sharing their home and their food and their knowledge with us – it was a truly amazing experience!

Another reason we decided to stay a little longer in Apia is that the annual Teuila Festival was set to begin just days after our arrival.  This festival is a huge attraction for the island, with lots of competitions, singing and fire dancing to behold – definitely worth staying for.  One of my favorite things about Samoa is how interested the people are in greeting and learning about where you are from, but also how willing they are to share their cultural heritage.  There was even a “Cultural Village” where you could learn about the history and customs of their society – including food, carvings, tapa making, tattooing and more.  It was fascinating and all free!

Pe'a tattooing - not for the faint of heart!

Check out those tattooing instruments - yikes!
It turns out that the ancient art of needle tattooing, called Pe’a in Samoa, is still alive and well.  This traditional male tattoo, considered a right of passage for receiving a Matai title, is not something that is taken lightly as it is costly and extremely painful – but those who complete the process garner great respect.  Unfortunately, those who don’t often commit suicide as it is considered highly shameful for you and your village if you don’t complete the full tattoo.  Pe’a, which consists of complete coverage from the waist to the knees is undertaken using handmade tools and is administered by Tufuga Ta Tatau – tattoo masters who are highly revered by their fellow Samoans.  We were able to witness this process taking place and I can tell you it looks incredibly painful.  Often family members and friends will be in attendance to provide support and encouragement.  Titled women also undergo this process (though their designs are not quite as widespread) and Shirley proudly showed us hers and thoroughly earned our respect!

Finished Tapa Paintings

We were also highly fascinated to learn the complete process involved in making tapa cloths – something we had actually purchased in the Marquesas – basically paintings done on “cloth” made from specific trees.  After watching this process from start to finish, we had a much greater respect for the work involved and felt amazed to have bought ours for what seems like a song considering what is involved!

Cutting the bark off the tree
Flattening and pounding to stretch out the bark and than laying flat to dry. 
After this the "cloth" is doubled up and filled in as needed to form a surface for painting the design.
While all of these experiences were amazing, I would be remiss to not mention the shear entertainment value of the annual fire dancing contest – one of the most important parts of the Teuila Festival.  We not only watched the final competition, but also enjoyed the elimination rounds prior to the final night – for both children and the adults.  Yes – young boys also perform these dances and it is very serious business.  What a great experience to get to see all of this up close and personal – I think Brett took almost 1000 photographs!

As you can likely tell from the length of this post, we just can’t say enough about Western Samoa and how impressed we were with the people, the landscape, and the importance of family, morals and traditions in this amazing society.  I would highly recommend a visit to these wonderful islands if you ever get the chance.

Thanks for all the smiles Samoa!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A little slice of America in a land far, far away…

The beautiful coastline of America Samoa

When you’ve been far away from home for many months, the thought of spending a little time in a country that starts with the word “America” can be pretty tempting.  Especially the thought of being able to re-provision with some real live American products!  So after 2 wonderful weeks in Suwarrow, Bella Vita set sail for America Samoa.

When you say you are going to America Samoa everyone wants to tell you how terrible it is.  The harbor is supposed to be completely foul after the tsunami that came through a few years ago and there are lots of stories about anchors getting fouled on washing machines or refrigerators or boats dragging all over the harbor during high winds.  People also like to tell you (even though they haven’t been there) how terrible it smells because of the tuna processing plants.  Basically most folks say the place is a waste of time – dirty, smelly and dangerous to anchor in. 

Heartbreaking how much trash can
fill the harbor after rainstorms...
While I will completely agree that the smell can be eye wateringly offensive – it thankfully only happens for a short period a couple of times a day.  I can live with that.  And for the 10 days we were anchored in the harbor, we held just fine.  When we pulled anchor all that came up was a black plastic bag, so while some boats may have had a bad experience, we did not.  The only thing that made us extremely sad was the amount of trash that filled the harbor after strong rain storms (which happened very often).  Unfortunately the people here are still learning that plastics do not decompose and can’t just be tossed out the window of your car…

Thanks for all the help Caroline!
Surprisingly, what people don’t talk about is how beautiful the island is once you get away from the dark and dingy harbor.  We were very blessed to have been introduced to a local named Caroline who drove us around a bit and helped us to see more of the island.  We greatly appreciated her willingness to give us a ride on a provisioning run to the Cost-U-Less – a great warehouse like place with lots of American type products – including Hersey’s Kisses, a favorite passage treat for us!  We hope Caroline wasn’t too shocked by all the stuff we bought!

Keeping the dead close...
One interesting aspect of life in America Samoa is that the dead play and integral part of the daily existence for the living.  Most family members are buried in the front yard of the family home.  As you ride the buses around you pass countless graves right in front of the house – and often you will see family members lying on top of them to stay cool during the heat of the day.  Gives new meaning to keeping the dead close, huh? 

Now that's what I call friendly officials!
Another thing worth mentioning was how friendly everyone was.  Walking down the street a quick smile would bring a friendly smile and warm greeting in return.  And the US Customs guys?  Compared to dealing with customs in the USA, they were a big treat.  Yep, this image says it all.  Don’t be fooled – it wasn’t Brett bringing them donuts....no….they offered their donuts to US!!!  Can you even imagine that happening in the states?  Our guys could take a lesson or two from these wonderfully warm, but still clearly competent officials.  They processed us in and out of their country with a smile and a warm greeting proving once again that you don’t have to be a jerk to get the job done.  Very nice!

Need a ride?  The bus system in AmSam rocks!

Video AND feathers - sweet!
Definitely our favorite part of AmSam was the bus system.  There are buses that go EVERYWHERE and they are CHEAP!  Not only that, they are each decorated by their owner with a lot of flair (which usually meant feathers!).  We used the bus system extensively and got a real kick out of seeing the different decorations employed to tempt riders to come on board.  Some even had videos!  Cost to go to most places was just $1, and usually included some good music to boot.  With buses coming by about every 10 minutes it was a great way to get around. 

All in all, while it rained a LOT and and was VERY hot and humid, we are glad we made a stop in this small American outpost.  The people have a lot to offer and the island is very beautiful once you get out of Pago Pago and do a little exploring.  And to top it off we’re officially re-stocked with enough Hershey Kisses to make it to New Zealand!

Another awesome bus ride - thanks AmSam!