Published: February 13th 2010February 13th 2010
Coming to Samoa is special. Flying from Auckland you literally go back in time 24 hours as you cross the international date line. The reality is far stranger as you enter a lush tropical paradise where people still hold the family and religious values of the 1800's! Yes they have the kind of beaches that bored office workers around the world can only dream of, but that's not actually the main attraction. It's the ability to experience a place where people exist in small manageable communities that are ruled by the laws of the village chiefs and church ministers, who use the 'fear of God' combined with strict traditional values to keep their flocks in order. Upolu
Dave's cousin Peter and his wife, Moana, have been living in the Samoan capital Apia for the last 7 years. It was fantastic to be able to catch up with them. They run a bakery (Keli's House of Goodies) which sells the best cakes, pies and sandwiches in the Pacific! It was like a home away from home.
Samoa is located about 3,000 kms north east of New Zealand with most people living on the two main islands of Upolu
and Savai'i. We spent the first week acclimatising to the sloth like pace of life in Apia before taking the ferry across to the more remote and even slower paced Savai'i for our second week of unhurried tourism.
Whilst in Upolu, we spent a day taking a local bus to the Piula Caves east of Apia. Here, underneath a monastery you can snorkel in crystal clear fresh water pools with some huge fish. As you swim deeper towards the back of the cave you can hold your breath and dive through an underground passage connecting a neighbouring pool. Not good for unconfident claustrophobic types! We also took a trip to a place known locally as the Sliding Rocks which is a series of waterfalls which you can slide down on your bum (some with a 15 ft drop!). This all takes place in a cool steep valley with lots of tropical flowers and shrubs.
During our first week Peter took us on a tour of Upolu island. Like all of Samoa, it is incredibly lush with a mountainous interior. The fact that it was the rainy season meant that the waterfalls, pools and flowers were at their most
spectacular. Crossing the road to the south coast of the island we entered the area stricken by the September 2009 Tsunami. Most of the villages in Samoa are right on or next to the beach so it's no exaggeration to say that entire communities were quite literally washed away. It was quite shocking to see the damage that a tsunami brings - both to the people and to the environment. Four months on and there are still some major challenges faced by Samoa:
- Aid: the money is not reaching the families in need quickly enough (most are still living in tents and under tarpaulins)
- Closure: many of the bodies have not been recovered, meaning that the families can not conduct official burials
- Education: many Samoans believe that the catastrophe happened because the people did not pray enough!
Normally when a person dies in Samoa there is a wake period with an open coffin in the family home. After which, the dead are buried in the front gardens of their home. Tombs dominate the front lawns of most homes, and young children sit on top of them as if they're part of the garden furniture. The
Samoan thinking is that the dead remain an integral part of family life. So, not being able to find all of the dead makes it very difficult for the family to come to terms with the after effects of the tsunami. Savai'i
The ferry journey over to Savai'i was easy enough and as usual the bus journey to the ferry port provided little glimpses of Samoan social etiquette. For example, a mother was sleeping while her young son tried to get comfortable on the wooden seat next to her, he was trying to sleep through the beeping horns and saturating humidity. Then an unknown man got on the bus, picked up the boy and cuddled him on his lap - thus giving the man a proper seat and allowing the mother and son a decent snooze. Brilliant. There clearly isn't a “stranger danger” campaign running in Samoa!
Women and children sit at the front of the bus, and single men move towards the back as the bus gets more and more busy. Without question young men stand to give up their seats, and then move themselves towards the crowded back of the bus. Once all of the seats
are filled up, passengers offer their lap to people of the same sex that wish to sit down. As foreigners, we were expected to sit at the front and were given a seat at all times no matter how crowded the bus became. Needless to say, we think Samoan buses rock!
When we got to Manase on the north coast of Savai'i we stayed in a Fale, which is a completely open wooden framed hut with a thatched roof and shared exterior bathrooms. The only protection on the sides comes from reed mats which are held together by string. All meals are provided which is a must as there just isn't anywhere else to go. The sea was turquoise blue, the sand was soft, and we were staying no more than 2ft from the beach looking straight out to sea. One of the great things about Manase is that the village chief doesn't allow dogs in the village. This may sound harsh, but strays are a real problem in Samoa. We had a very relaxing stay in Manase, snorkelling most days - which was a challenge in itself due to the dangerously strong current. We needed to walk all
the way to the far end of the beach, where we got in the sea and snorkelled by floating along as if on a conveyor belt, watching the fish along the way. The current dropped us off just outside our fale again - ½ a mile along the beach! Very lazy and great fun.
After a few days we moved on to Satuiatua on the other side of the Island. After about 5 hours on public buses we arrived at the only beach resort in the village. It was the same fale style accommodation as in Manase, except the people were more friendly and the food was much better! We spent a few days relaxing and reading on the beach, before being invited to join the family for a Sunday morning church service. The whole village attended church, without exception. We walked into the church to the sounds of beautifully harmonized voices. Everyone had their best clothes on, and everybody wore white (men, women and children). The service was conducted in Samoan, with most locals kneeling on the floor during prayer, and standing to sing the hymns. It was a hot day, and the villagers fanned their faces and
feet, to try and keep cool. A woman stood close to the door with a stick, preventing young teenage boys from trying to leave the service early!
Afterwards we were invited round to the chief of the village's house for lunch. We were treated to traditional Samoan delicacies, including Cray fish, octopus, grilled fish, meat balls and sausage. Plus a tasty bowl of corn beef and cabbage soup, and a bowl of raw fish in coconut milk. We also had bread fruit, taro root and taro leaf with coconut - all cooked in an 'Umu' (food cooked in banana leaves, using hot rocks, and left to steam on the ground for an hour). A young village girl sat opposite and fanned us the whole time - keeping us cool, and preventing flies from landing on our food!
The villages are spotlessly clean, and all houses/fales have beautifully manicured lawns with lush bushes and brightly coloured flowers, even though many families live in third world poverty. Snapshot of Samoan history
The first known inhabitants of Samoa were the Lapita Polynesians who arrived around 1000 BC. In 950 AD, Samoan warriors defeated Tongan invaders leaving the Samoans alone
until the first contact with Europeans occurred in 1787 when La Pérouse (a French explorer) arrived, but left soon afterwards. In the early 1900's, Samoa was under German occupation. At the start of the First World War, New Zealand became Samoa's Administrator. This relationship remained until Samoa's independence in the 1960's. Religion
In 1830 John Williams from the London Missionary Society (LMS) arrived at a time of civil war. He found 'hunter gatherer' Samoans, living relatively freely, and wearing very few clothes. The Samoans believed in a collection of gods, legends and spirits - with some of the principals being close to Christianity. The Samoans saw the fine clothes and wondrous possessions of the Palagi (white man), which resulted in the common view that the 'white man's' God was more powerful and generous than that of the Samoan gods. Converting the local Samoans over to Christianity was like pushing on an open door. Soon afterwards the Catholics, Methodists and Mormons arrived, and today there are more churches of more denominations than you can imagine.
The churches hold great power over the Samoan people. Some villages are more religious than others and its quite common for the minister
to read out exactly how much each family has donated each week. This puts huge pressure on people to donate more money than they can afford, or risk being 'named and shamed'. One evening we were driving through a village at 7pm and every road and pathway leading in or out was blocked by village guards, preventing movement during evening prayer time. The schedule of services is also pretty grueling. For example, in a village that we stayed at, the main Sunday service is at 8:30am, with another service at 3pm that afternoon. Daily prayers are at 7pm each evening, and there are subsequent church services at 5.30am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Not everyone goes to every service, but everyone is woken up by the ringing of the church bells!
Samoan village life is conducted very publicly as most houses don't have walls! Privacy is an alien concept and families are very big by western standards (5-10 children per couple is the norm!). Families all live together in the same village, and build fales (open wooden houses) next to each other. Each family member plays a part in raising the children, earning money and maintaining the village. Government Aid
Samoa is a beneficiary of aid from many countries, including; New Zealand, Australia, China and Japan. The Samoan government seems to be a 'growth industry' with layers upon layers of bureaucracy in place which appears to soak up huge percentages of international aid intended for more constructive purposes. Even though the Samoan Government still receives a lot of money in cash, nowadays the donating countries or organisations prefer to come to Samoa and directly oversee the work themselves. For example a team of Australian contractors are directly managing a road building project and it seems to be progressing very quickly.
The Chinese government is giving more and more money in similar direct aid efforts to Samoa. They have recently built a plush new Samoan Government administration building, and plan on building a palatial new court house, as well as a hospital, school and aquarium in the capital of Apia. Although aid is given for humanitarian purposes, it could also be that all of this help may indeed 'grease the wheels of commerce' for China. The popular opinion is that China's efforts in Samoa will ensure that Samoa votes with China rather than against at the United Nations. Tourism
With government donations, and money being sent back from family members working overseas, there seems to be little incentive for Samoans to work hard to make money of their own. Tourism could be a huge sector of the economy, but Samoa sees very few visitors compared to Fiji or the Cook Islands. Samoa is a great destination to visit, but quality needs to be improved, and prices lowered in order to attract more people to the islands.
Samoans love their food, yet there are very few eateries available outside of Apia. There are also very few resorts - and those that exist are often owned by the village chief. This lack of competition is exploited, causing high prices, and low quality. The board of tourism need to improve their service, and by doing so they could attract surfers and backpackers from the entire Pacific rim.
- - - - - -
Value for money aside, we feel extremely privileged to have visited such a beautiful part of the world. Samoans are very friendly and helpful people, with a fascinating and well preserved culture.
At the moment going to Samoa is like going into
a 19th century time warp, albeit with mobile phones! Samoa has all the raw ingredients for the perfect South Pacific getaway, it just needs a system that supports entrepreneurial spirit and hard work while protecting the culture and traditions that make the country so special.
From now on, when we spin our globe around and arrive at the Pacific Ocean, we'll be proud to have seen Samoa. We have happy memories of a nation that's people live together as if in one giant family - where knowing everyone and supporting one another comes as second nature.