Cheshire Cat in Samoa

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


formerly known as Western Samoa not to be mistaken for American Samoa which is just a day sail away. Located east of the International dateline, Samoa is 8400 km away from Los Angeles - south of the Equator of course.

We left Bora-Bora on 6th August intending to go to Suwarrow, but the weather conspired against us so we carried on past to Samoa, arriving on 15th.

It isn’t all roses out here you know.......

A note to myself says “See log book” as I find I am afflicted with CRS these days. (CRS Cruisers Retention Syndrome), and I am thus reminded that we had a pretty wretched passage covering the 1,233 miles between Bora-Bora and Western Samoa.

We had intended to go to Suwarrow, but the wind didn’t favour us, and we had rain showers intermingled with periods of light wind resulting in the sails slapping and banging and preventing either one of us from sleeping or even resting properly. This frustrating weather was interspersed with wind squalls of up to 32 knots and accompanying heavy rain.

When we finally arrived outside Apia harbour we made our final turn for the last leg which would take us between the protecting reefs lying just off the island on either side of the harbour entrance. Mike started the engine up, slipped it into gear - and nothing happened. We had no propulsion from the engine. It was with no little apprehension that we realized that the bolt on the propeller shaft had sheared (yet again). Once again, no propeller, no go, no where. (This so called “repair” made in Panama)

This was a crucial moment! Luckily we still had the mainsail up to help push us past the reefs and we were just able to drift in on a dying wind under sail alone. Not a comfortable experience. Our anchor dropped at the outer limits of the anchorage when we could go no further. We lay in the moderate swell which didn’t bother us for a couple of days until we had recuperated from the exigencies of the 9 day passage. Mike replaced the bolt and we re anchored in better and more comfortable shelter.

Apia was a refreshing experience after Bora-Bora. Restaurants were affordable, buses and taxis were plentiful and inexpensive, there were a number of moderate supermarkets within walking distance, and joy oh joy - the people were exceptionally friendly and helpful. They also spoke English. Mike was thrilled to find a local restaurant that had excellent fish and chips on the menu for 16 Talla. That worked out to about 4.00 US. (Little did we know that the staple diet on this island seemed to be fish and chips, or occasionally fried chicken and chips!) Beer came in a pint sized bottle at about 5 Talla so we were happy campers.

War canoe races

Samoa is comprised of two larger islands, Opolu and Savaii and eight smaller islands, some of which are uninhabited. These are amongst the last of the Polynesian islands. Each village has a chief (matai) and there are over 18000 matai from 362 villages. (This must make decision making in parliament exceedingly tedious and mind-numbingly long-winded)

Everyone turned out to help haul the boat out of the water - no motor to help with this one!

Our entertainment every evening was provided by several longboats (or war canoes) practicing their rowing skills in the harbour. These wooden boats held up to 46 beefy Samoan gents on the long oars, plus a navigator on the tiller end and a enthusiastic drummer at the front end, with maybe a drummer’s helper holding the instrument down.

race was due to be held and before we departed there was usually any one of half a dozen different boats practicing their strokes around the harbour with the drum beating and the helmsman screaming at the oarsmen, often jumping up and down with passion. They could certainly travel much faster than we manage under power and their endurance was pretty good as well.

Getting all those big Samoans out of the narrow boat took some practise

The race course started five miles outside the harbour and therefore outside the reef in the ocean. I read that these boats were originally used to travel between the islands and then they had unwieldy paddles instead of the long efficient oars of today.

Everyone joined the shows, competitions and parades on the festival day

Our morning coffee each morning was accompanied by the sound of a rousing marching band. This was the total local police force out for morning exercise – they marched along the harbour perimeter wall to the nearby parliament buildings and promptly turned around and marched back again, holding up all the traffic and the school buses each way. If you had police business it

The women not in business were inclined to be a great deal more colourful and individual with their fabric patterns. The men also wore lava-lava, usually a little shorter, maybe calf length, often in dark blue or black and accompanied by a short sleeved shirt with a tie. It wasn’t at all unusual to see brilliant colours worn with a t-shirt by either sex. Even the police wore lava lava, these tailored with pockets and a belt.

Cricket is popular - there are cricket pitches in every village

We visited Robert Louis Stevenson’s house – a very grand affair surrounded by splendid gardens and situated on a hill overlooking the sea. He was locally known as Tusitalla - the Teller of Tales. He died here and is much revered by islanders and he was evidently very well-liked. (Even he wore a ‘lava-lava’ – a kilt!).The building materials, wood and furnishing for his house were all imported from America(including fragrantly scented cedar wood for closets) so he must have been a fairly wealthy man. I certainly didn’t know he wrote 13 books in his four years of residence in Samoa one of which was Dr Jekyll and Dr Hyde, Treasure Island and Kidnapped were about my limit.

Robert Louis Stevenson lived here in a lovely house and a large estate

The bus station was quite nearby and we soon discovered that although we could go almost anywhere on the island for about 3.50 Talla, we might have a bit of trouble getting back. There seemed not to be a proper bus schedule and one had to check with the driver about return trips. Sleeping on the roadside didn’t hold a lot of appeal for us. Instead, Mary and Chris on Aventura joined us for a taxi tour of the island. I had hoped to see flying foxes, but missed out on that entirely and as I have no idea what a skink is either, didn’t manage to spot any of those either.

We were aware that there is a very traditional lifestyle here – nothing much happens on Sunday except churchgoing and family feasting; nudity and even ‘skimpy’ clothing is not allowed and even wearing shorts felt uncomfortable in town. We are always easily recognized as tourists and foreigners in any culture, and wearing shorts and skimpy t-shirts in the warm climate often makes us even more conspicuous. It is polite to take ones shoes off in a ‘Fale’ (house) and here we learned that it is rude to point your feet at others when sitting down, something one has to be careful of as one mostly sits on the floor.

These are popular hotel rooms in a prime Samoan location - on a beautiful tropical beach

By contrast the stately hotel owned by Aggie Grey was very luxurious in a wonderfully old fashioned way that I remember very well from my childhood. Big squishy couches and chairs, comfortable places to read a book, chat or have a cup of tea, probably accompanied by dainty little sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Small bars in various corners, old photos hanging on the walls, winding paths in the verdant gardens, well appointed bathrooms.

Aggie apparently started business with a hot dog stand during the war - the hotel is a far cry from those days.

We visited the hotel to watch th evening dance show and a fire dance. It was quite different from the French Polynesian shows we had seen. No nearly naked dancing girls, sporting grass skirts and a couple of strategically placed coconuts. The women here were fully clothed from head to toe although the men were as almost as interesting as they were in previous places.

All the performers in the show were enthusiastic hotel employees and we had a very pleasant time even though it seems that the missionaries have a great deal to answer for in the way of theater costuming.

We traveled all around the island of Opula on the one and only paved road, passing through scores of villages. Traditional houses consist of a palm thatched structure without walls but with a substantial floor (usually of concrete,) raised off ground level. Blinds or curtains of woven mats can be let down to provide privacy and shelter (it does rain here, although the temperatures are mild). These houses are called Fale and as far as we can gather may be used as living accommodation – just roll out your woven mat and go to sleep on the floor), visitors accommodation – keep a few mats about in case your relatives come to town - or ‘Fale Fono’ – the meeting houses used for all types of meetings and community activities, even church services.

Traditional local meeting house

Cooking is done in a separate building away from the house – an excellent idea when one considers the climate and the considerable temperatures. Old houses were made of palm leaves and stems so would be extremely flammable. Ovens are underground. A pit is a constructed, lined with stones and a fire set amongst the stones. When the stones are hot the food is placed in the oven, covered and left to cook. Most dishes are wrapped in palm leaves and baked. Fish, pig and chicken seem to be largely popular, accompanied by taro or breadfruit.

We visited an underwater cave, a turtle sanctuary and a couple of rather nice western style resorts. The island is very green – covered with natural forest – banana and coconut plantations, exotic flowers and fruit abounding. Everywhere seemed generally very well cared for and we didn’t see garbage lining the roads even though the people live very simply and are undoubtedly incredibly poor. There are no social services, so the extended families take care of their own people, but we think that everyone contributes largely to the churches and that may also provide some help to those who are unable to manage for themselves. There are hundreds of churches – several to each village, and also at least three colleges for various religious orders. We saw Congregational, Methodist, Seven Day adventist, Bahia, Latter Day Saints, Jehovah's witness, Anglican and Catholic churches.

We saw churches everywhere - all denominations seemed to be competing for congregations

We stopped at a roadside stall where we were able to buy green coconuts for 1 Talla each and drank the delicious clear milk as soon as the tops were lopped off with a ferocious looking knife. There were lots of little fala on the beaches and these turned out to be resort accommodation or holiday houses for the wealthier families and tourists. Each structure consisted of a small hut – about 6 - 8 feet long and about 5 ft wide. Wooden floors were raised about two feet off the ground and they were roofed with the usual palm thatch. Walls were non-existent but the woven blinds or plastic curtains could be attached. A really upmarket fala might sport a balcony and ‘foreigners’ were sometimes provided with a chair! Spending a night or two in these holiday camps could be an interesting experience – I would be driven wild by the mosquitoes which seem to home in on me everywhere and were pretty ferocious in Samoa.

In the town there was a fresh fruit and veg. market and a tourist flea market, both of which were very interesting. Local produce included easily recognizable cucumbers, tomatoes, limes, oranges, pineapple, taro, coconuts and breadfruit. Vendors sold their goods from woven palm leaf baskets and we saw people carrying these baskets on poles across their shoulders. No donkey or horse transport it seemed. There were several stalls with beautiful floral arrangements made with local flowers. We noticed a few men gathered around a booth drinking some murky looking Kava and there were small groups playing some sort of game – probably a betting game of some sort. In the tourist market we found some really nice carvings, wooden kava bowls, lots of woven bags, trays and mats and numerous lava-lava of every colour and pattern. The rumour is that we cannot take these items into New Zealand, so our buying was restricted

A small sport fishing club at the dock where we left our dinghies welcomed the cruisers and we enjoyed several ‘Happy Hour’ beers with the locals and with other cruisers. We were even able to organize a very pleasant potluck barbeque one evening. The best deal in town was the duty free liquor – and before we left we took advantage of the cheap prices which were reputed to be cheaper than American Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand.

Coconut crabs are a popular delicacy, although they are very difficult to find - especially as they are nocturnal

Next stop – the Kingdom of Tonga