Samoa – Savai’i

Savai’i 12/11/10

Back in the trusty Cami we made the one hour ferry crossing to Savai’i, the other primary Samoan island. Savai’i is the poorer, more rural sister to Upolu. Despite the reduced economic activity on Savai’i, the properties and villages are just as manicured as those on Upolu. One of the most interesting things about Samoa is the fact that there is basically no public land or private land. Instead, nearly all land is owned by each respective village. In the more populated areas the coastal road passes through successive villages marked by a little road sign. A few villages had a rather poor and dilapidated feel to them but most were spotlessly clean with their broad, manicured lawns and shiny new communal buildings. Each village has a volleyball court, reportedly supplied by the Mormons, and some stood out with common paint schemes in their shade fales along the road. Occasionally we would see huge bunches of bananas hanging from the shade fales which were available for anyone from the village to eat.

Essentially each village is an extended family group and forms a semi-autonomous communal government.  The Matai (mah-tie chief) has the final say when making decisions and is the only one allowed to represent the village in central governmental affairs. There isn’t much of a central court system so disputes between villages are settled between Matais. Throughout the villages there are road signs that read “Say NO to rape and indecent acts” which we found oddly alarming considering the size and strength of the Samoans and the fact that we were sleeping in open-air fale that were completely unlock-able. We asked locals about the signs and learned that there is little risk to travelers, but that rape and domestic violence were a common problem within these extended family groups and that up to 60% of children are illegitimate. It’s another of the many confusing aspects to Samoan culture as they have these dark secrets and yet are profoundly religious people, who give relentlessly to the church, passionately observe the Sabbath, and primarily identify themselves through their church (it was common to be asked “what’s the name of your church” when meeting someone). With virtually no police presence beyond a few cops socializing on a street corner in Apia, we asked what people do when a woman is abused. The answer had some violent undertones: “It’s handled by the village.”

The most striking aspect of traveling through Samoa is the churches. Nearly every Samoan belongs to a church and attends weekly services devoutly. Within each village it was common to see one each of the four major Samoan varieties – Catholic, Assembly of God, Mormon, and Jehovah’s Witness. Interestingly, it seems to be common for various members of a family to attend different churches but there wasn’t any indication from people we met that this caused conflict. One possible reason is that “family” is a loose term and regularly includes people who are not blood-related. Since even illegitimate children are part of the family/village unit, our impression was that the Samoans have an unrivaled devotion to the family and thus are extremely tolerant within that umbrella. This sets them apart as extremely giving and loyal people to anyone fortunate enough to become family.

We did feel however that there is a dark side to the dominance of the church in Samoa. There is incredible pressure within the family to attend church whether a person wants to or not and there is incredible pressure from the church on everyone to give money. The result is that the physical church buildings are incomprehensibly massive compared to what the small scale economy should be able to produce. If it was just a few here and there it wouldn’t be so noticeable but there are imposing European looking cathedrals everywhere. We didn’t even see enough people to fill them all, and yet the churches have so much money that the ministers are commonly the wealthiest in the village. For a minister to be wealthy in a culture of communal ownership is a perplexing and troublesome facet of Samoan culture.

Christian missionaries started arriving on Pacific islands in the early 1800s. Before that time, the Samoan people were elegant warriors with a colorful culture and ancient traditions. They built incredibly seaworthy canoes and had an understanding of astronomical navigation hundreds of years before the Europeans. In fact, the oldest known structure in Polynesia is located in Samoa. It’s a massive stone pyramid, yet today nobody knows anything about it. It’s just an obscure mound in the jungle without even a sign to lead people there. It’s depressing to think that nearly all of the history and culture of a great seafaring warrior people was obliterated in one century by the relentless Bible thumping of missionaries who taught them that cannibalism is savage, their dancing evil, and that they should be ashamed of their bodies. To this day, Samoans won’t enter the water unless fully clothed and many can’t even swim. We were astounded to discover that Samoans today basically are afraid of the ocean and rarely venture in deeper than they can stand, yet just a half dozen generations ago they lived off the ocean and sailed canoes across thousands of miles of ocean.

While the missionary policies of the 19th century stripped the culture of its life and replaced it with Biblical piety, canned foods from aid agencies and remittances from family have turned some of these people into overweight diabetics who prefer the taste of spam over fresh fish and fruit. We didn’t see more than a handful of fishing boats after traveling through dozens of coastal villages which we found to be utterly unbelievable considering that nearly every ocean front village on the planet has a fleet of fishermen who catch the food daily and the people literally survive off of what they take from the sea. One of our hosts put it bluntly: “There are fish everywhere in the protected lagoons behind the barrier reefs. They don’t even have to head into open water but they are too lazy to go get them.” This is not to say that everyone is lazy, but as a broad cultural generalization we found the statement to be sadly accurate. Naturally many Samoans eat and enjoy fresh fish and there are fishermen, but more commonly, the Samoans have become accustomed to the ease of processed food. Actually, we saw many similarities between the lack of Samoan economy and the attempted communism of Eastern Europe. Ultimately when there is no opportunity or reward for hard work and when people don’t have to work for food and shelter, it’s human nature to regress into an idle lifestyle.

Our drive around Savai’i landed us in a small village called Manase which is unique in that the Matai had the wisdom to ban dogs from the village. It seems that there are packs of stray dogs everywhere in Samoa and only the pigs and chickens that roam the villages might outnumber them. A village free of mangy and sometimes aggressive dogs makes for a much more pleasant experience.

We speant two nights at Regina Beach Fales in Manase, once again sleeping on a thatch-covered platform on stilts at the water’s edge. It was raining off and on so we mostly hung out and enjoyed the three meals a day included in our stay. For the first time since arriving in Samoa, we were actually served traditional Samoan dishes by a skilled cook. With the extremely limited economy in Samoa, there are virtually no restaurants outside of the capital and even small convenience stores selling basics like water and chips are not common. This means our dining options were truly at the mercy of the culinary skills, or lack thereof, of the cooks at the fales where we stayed. Before finding the Regina Fales we were a bit disappointed with the lackluster food that had been served at other fales. It’s not that Samoan food is especially amazing from a critical culinary perspective. We just don’t like to fly half way around the world to eat pasta or pan-fried Spam. During our stay in Manase we were served interesting dishes such as baked breadfruit, fried taro, taro leaves cooked and soaked in coconut cream, fresh octopus in coconut cream, grilled reef fish, and coco rice which is a favorite breakfast dish consisting of rice soaked in coconut cream with flavor from cinnamon tree or lemon leaves and ground powder from roasted cacao seeds.

A Swiss couple nearby that had expatriated to Samoa some years ago ran the only dedicated traveler services facility we saw on either island. They had internet access, real coffee (as opposed to the ubiquitous Nescafe), and a bar on the beach serving proper mixed drinks made from imported liquors. It was pouring rain while we were having a couple of beers at their bar and the Swiss owner was telling us a little about his business. He leases the land from the village and we asked if the fact that they are earning money and theoretically taking business opportunity from the village was a problem. He laughed, “They don’t care. Nobody wants to work.” At one time he had the idea to export taro since there is demand in Asia for the popular tuber. He couldn’t get any of the villages to agree to reliably harvest and sell the surplus from their small plots to him and he couldn’t get enough workers together to try to lease some land and plant and harvest from there. So, it was impossible to set up a taro export business even though he felt there was great opportunity to make money. Trying to understand this incredible lack of work ethic was confounding and a common topic of conversation among travelers we met. The best we can figure is that there are three main causes. First, all possessions technically belong to the family so there is really no incentive for an individual to earn when there is no opportunity for personal advancement. Second, the steady supply of foreign aid and remittances from overseas family has reduced the need to work. Lastly the churches have Bible-thumped the people into believing that their old way of life was shameful and mired in sin while require tithing of so much money that it’s impossible to save.

On Sunday we attended church with the family that runs the fales. The villagers looked splendid with the women in full length floral print dresses while the men wore traditional lava-lavas and floral print shirts. Everyone wears flip flops all the time, even at church so it’s an entire nation of people with enormous flat feet as big as paddles from never being forced into the confines of shoes. The songs were a mix of English and Samoan and the choir harmonized beautifully with the men and woman singing together. Despite the near complete destruction of the ancient culture and tradition caused by missionaries, the unfettered dedication to the church has produced a new set of customs and traditions in Samoa that have many wonderful facets including their intense commitment to family and their beautiful singing of church hymns. As remarkably easy going people, they require very few material possessions and are satisfied to just roll with the status quo.

While exploring the north coast of Savai’i we visited a lava flow that plowed right through a village years ago. The wooden houses were instantly consumed but a few of the churches built of concrete made from ground coral still stand partially entombed in the lava that burst right through their doors before hardening to black rock. The ridged and cracked lava was like a blanket tossed over the landscape, undulating over the terrain. Now, gorgeous flowering plumerias, banana and mango trees, and cinnamon trees have taken root in the occasional crack in the lava giving the whole area an eerie juxtaposition of life and death. After their destruction by the lava, the villages along this coast were forced to rebuild in the same spot, ten feet higher in elevation on the lava, since that is their land. They now live in a sort of tropical moonscape of houses built on blazing hot, smooth sheets of lava devoid of soil or even grass interspersed with random deep green jungle plants whose roots have managed to penetrate a crack to reach soil below the flow.

Further up the coast we followed a narrow dirt track through jungle, gathering mangos off the ground along the way. It was difficult to comprehend a poor, third world economy where the people want for so little that fruit is allowed to just rot away on the black jungle floor. The track terminated at a desolate beach of white sand with coconut palms growing all over. Completely isolated, this dramatic beach was squeezed between vine clad cliffs and the seething ocean which was violently hammered by ocean swells without a protective barrier reef. We picked a couple of coconuts, husked them to access the refreshing and nutrient-rich water inside, and played castaway imagining what it must have been like for ancient shipwreck survivors to wash onto a shore like this.

Our last night on Savai’i, we ended up at Aganoa Beach Resort on the south side of the island. Set in a gorgeous little bay with a beach and jungle-covered headland, it was the nicest place we saw on the island and pretty close to the South Pacific paradise pictured on postcards. The snorkeling right off the beach was amazing with a healthy reef teeming with colorful little fish and large, bright blue starfish. We snorkeled out about 75 yards where the reef breaks into a system of canyon-like fissures before abruptly dropping off to about 40ft deep where we saw a sea turtle lazily swimming along.

The reef in front of the fales is one of Samoa’s best known surf spots and the site of local surfing competitions. Very few Samoans surf and we actually didn’t see a single surfer in the water while there but there is a small market for destination surf travel. Markus rented a board from the Aussie owner and tried his luck with the reef break. The waves were moderate at about 5-6ft but reef surfing is unlike anything we have at home. The waves roll in over deep ocean and abruptly hit the coral reef shelf causing them to suck out the water in front of them, leaving the water at the base of the wave very shallow. Even at high tide, the water was only two feet deep at the bottom of the 6ft wave face and, being crystal clear, seemed to magnify the sharp coral at the most critical moment. It’s a real head trip and Markus quickly made a skin donation to the little reef fish as he lightly bumped his knee on the reef after falling off the board.

Sunset from the restaurant built on stilts at the water’s edge was a dazzling palette of deep color and made the perfect spot to sip a cold beer. Late at night the sky cleared, completely revealing a mind-numbing splash of stars highlighted by the magnificent constellation of the Southern Cross.

More snorkeling in the morning started the day perfectly before we headed back across the ferry to Apia. We enjoyed the drive as we passed the myriad busses taking people home to their villages after a day at work in the city. The busses are all brightly colored and feature individual names in either English or Samoan such as “Don’t be nasty,” “Paradise in Heaven,” “Prison Break,” “Pretty Little Ting,” and our favorite – a pink and white bus called “Jungle Boys.” The busses belch smoke and rattled their way along the road, blaring music as the thick Samoans sit five across the back, sandwiched like the canned sardines they love to eat.

Our early morning flight took us to Tonga where we look forward to exploring another country and culture.