Samoa – Upolu

Upolu 12/7/10

The air new Zealand overnight flight direct from LAX to Samoa was blissfully uneventful. We left on time, arrived early, and had a host of entertainment options from our private screens. Unfortunately the high tech seat had an aggressive lumbar profile that didn’t fit either of us so the seats really weren’t very comfy but strategically stuffing the dainty little airline pillow in just the right spot helped.

The tiny international airport outside of the Samoan capital of Apia on the island of Upolu was little more than a black stripe between striking blue-green water and deep green foliage. As we walked across the tarmac and into the palm-thatched entrance of the single terminal, we were greeted by the harmonies of a group of men in flower shirts and traditional sarongs called lava-lava playing wonderful Polynesian music on little guitars.

After grabbing our packs and changing into shorts we secured a Toyota Cami compact SUV rental car, which looks a bit like a bubble-shaped insect, and were soon headed east along the coastal road in search of Samoan paradise.

Our leisurely drive halfway around the island took about two hours as we hugged the coastline on the narrow main road that rings the island. Even though the speed limit allows for blistering speeds up to 40mph, Samoans rarely drive that fast. Often taxi mini vans full of passengers creep along at 20 mph as if nobody has anywhere to be. This was our first exposure to the nowhere-to-go, nothing-to-do pace of island life and we tried to adapt our psyche to match.

Creeping slowly from village to village we were amazed to see the number of people basically doing nothing. Some sat on thatch-shaded platforms blankly staring at the occasional passing car. Others sat in the grass plucking weed sprouts one by one to keep lawns manicured. Occasionally we passed little produce stands selling fruits, taro, or strings of little fish. We couldn’t believe how immaculately the properties were maintained and many had broad lawns interspersed with colorful flowering jungle plants and fruit trees. The Samoans have some of the cleanest, most appealing tropical yards that we have every seen and we marveled at the picturesque bread-fruit trees that seemed to be everywhere.

By 11am we had reached the opposite end of the island and found a place to stay. The Tao Fua beach fales are a collection of raised wooden platforms with no walls and palm thatched roofs. These structures, called “Fale” (pronounced fah-lay) are smaller versions of traditional Samoan homes and are completely open to the world outside. The Samoans place mattresses on the floor and sleep under mosquito nets to keep the bugs away. Woven palm mats or tarps surrounding the perimeter of the fale can be lowered to keep wind-driven rain out.

The tranquil and idyllic beach at Tao Fua is a long stretch of gleaming sand with turquoise water gently lapping at the shore.  Laying in the fale just steps from the water’s edge, it’s easy to fall into a deep sleep with the gentle swoosh of small waves over the sand in the foreground and the peacefully violent growl of the massive breakers on the outer reef.

Most of Samoa is surrounded by a barrier reef between about 100 and 1000 yards offshore. By absorbing the massive swell energy generated by storms, the barrier reefs create calm, shallow sandy lagoons that are perfect for swimming and fishing. While lounging in our hammocks under the shade thatch of our fale we spent hours reading and watching bright blue waves curl their way across the reef in the distance.

We learned however that even the formidable barrier reef is unable to protect the coast from the destructive force of a tsunami. Lounging on the serene beach, it was difficult to imagine any danger, yet in late 2009 an 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck deep in the ocean off the south coast of Samoa. Minutes later around 7am three enormous surges of vicious wave energy plowed right through the barrier reef, sucking the calm water out of the lagoon briefly before surging onto the shore as a wall of water up to 20 feet tall. Everything in the wave’s path was completely obliterated as the small fales were flicked off the sand like mere specks and even concrete structures were reduced to rubble.

During the minutes after the earthquake struck, everyone tried to get to higher ground but this part of the coast has a large, steep mountain that made escape difficult.  One of the owners of our Fales, Facena, was trying to move her feeble father out of the house with the help of one of her sisters when the first wave ripped through their property. Five hours later, Facena was found semi-conscious clinging to some debris floating beyond the barrier reef a mile out to sea and 15 members of her family had died.

This story was repeated along the south coast where the people are moving on and rebuilding their little resorts and homes. Reportedly as much as $75 million in aid money was sent to Samoa, but it seems that few Samoans actually saw that money as bureaucrats siphoned it away as commonly happens around the world. Seeing the way these people handle the tragedy so elegantly highlights one of the most beautiful aspects of the Samoan people – their positive and easy going demeanor. In a way, we found it odd that they were so soft spoken about the Tsunami and just about everything else. It’s almost like they are so complacently settled that nothing, not even death, really phases them. Interestingly, most villages do not have a cemetery. Instead, the dead are buried in prominent locations in front of the homes, often with elaborate tombs or stone caskets to serve as permanent reminders of the dead. Despite the many superstitions in Samoan culture, children play on the graves and people sit on them as if they were lawn furniture.

The night we arrived at the Tao Fua Beach Fales, the owners were performing a Fie Fie (fee-ah fee-ah) for their guests. This traditional dance performance is one of the few ways that the Samoans still retain some if their cultural legacy from before western missionaries wiped most of their traditional ways out starting in the early 1800s.

The Fie Fie was very entertaining as the men danced to the beat of drums and spun firesticks while the women danced elegantly, telling ancient stories with the graceful movement of their hands and hips. Contrary to the obese Samoan stereotype, these young people were extremely fit to the point of looking like the chiseled men of Greek statues and mythology. They danced to the drum beat in grass skirts, bronzed muscles glistening with sweat, looking every bit the part of a Tiki god. It was one of many dichotomies in Samoa as the people tend to be either super fit or tragically overweight.

Back in our little rental car the next day, we drove along the striking coast through a mix of higher elevation villages that survived the tsunami and those that are still rebuilding. We stopped to look around at a property over an ancient lava flow that has a massive sinkhole filled with ocean water by an underground cave. The dramatic and violent confluence of the angry sea, untamed by a barrier reef, and the black coastal lava cliffs is incredible. We stood high above the surge watching the churning water blast through blowholes against a backdrop of verdant jungle. The contrast between the austere, surf-battered black cliffs, brilliant blue water, and deep green flower-filled jungle is mesmerizing. There is just so much color and intensity that it’s hard to take it all in.

Just in from the cliff edge, we climbed a ladder 65 feet down into the sink hole we came to see. Floating in the 84degree ocean water that fills the sinkhole was incredible as we gazed through the jungle-choked opening to the blue sky above while bright blue little aquarium fish flitted about.

Back on the road, we turned down a little dirt track to explore and found ourselves at a small beach fale establishment on Vivau Beach.  With rain coming and going, we lounged in our hammocks and read, occasionally going for a swim between passing squalls. These were the most basic fales we has seen and were little more than platforms made of crudely hewn planks on timber posts.

By late morning the flowing day we were on the road to continue our circumnavigation of the island. Another little dirt track lead us off the main road a few miles through jungle and terminated at an incredibly idyllic black sand beach surrounded by old lava flows and ringed by palms. It was the classic south pacific paradise. We strung up the hammocks between palms, grabbed our snorkel gear and headed straight for the water. After visiting the little tropical fish that darted from coral to coral we read in our hammocks under the gentle rustling of palm fronds in the breeze. Markus walked into the jungle and picked a couple of papayas so we could eat while hanging out and we lived true paradise. As expected, we didn’t see a single person since most Samoans live in their communal villages. However, the land was owned by the village so we were required to pay a fee of $5 to access the land. The constant charge of $5 to $10 to go anywhere off the main road was to become a bit burdensome since we are accustomed to the vast amounts of public lands, including beaches, back home that are open to everyone at no charge.

Late in the afternoon it was time to find a place to stay so we continued on. If we ever returned to Samoa, we will bring camping gear which would enable us to stay at such beaches after first asking permission and paying the fee to whichever village owns the land. Having driven around the island of Upolu we decided to take the ferry to Samoa’s other main island Savai’i. Vehicle spots on the ferry were booked already so we headed into the capital city Apia to look around and pass the night before taking the ferry the next day.

Apia is the center of economic activity in Samoa but is a sleepy, ramshackle little town by international standards. There isn’t much to do in Apia so we explored the central market, tasting some exotic fruits and gawking at the size of their avocados. By lunch we were famished and headed to the end of the market where the food vendors are. Heidi saw a guy eating an enormous fried fish head and decided that’s what she had to eat. When she ordered it from the stall the young vendor was totally shocked. “Samoan people are going to stare because they’ve never seen a white girl eating a fish head before,” he remarked. Meanwhile Markus wandered around looking for something interesting to try and settled on a pork bun which is a steamed bun similar to a dim sum bun stuffed with savory pork or chicken in grilled onion gravy. Like everything in Samoa, pork bun comes in a fried variety as well. One popular dish consists of a bowl filled with boiled banana and piled high with pieces of fried chicken, fried fish, a fried egg, and a limp hot dog they call sausage. Instant heart attack!  For desert we enjoyed banana pancakes which are basically deep fried banana bread batter balls. At 4 cents apiece they made the perfect treat.

At one end of the market, a group of men were sitting around a white bucket in what’s known as an Ava Circle. The Ava drink (called Kava in other countries) is a staple of life for Pacific Islander men so it’s common to see men drinking it from a communal bowl or bucket. The non-alcoholic, but mildly narcotic, drink is made by grinding the dried roots of a specific pepper plant into a powder which is mixed with water to make a drink. It’s basically the color of muddy dish water and is always consumed from a communal coconut shell which they fill by dipping in the central bowl or bucket. Of course we wanted to try it so we had a couple of shells. The taste is basically like slightly spicy dirt and the narcotic kicked in immediately making our lips tingle as it numbed our mouths slightly like novocain. Reportedly, each successive imbibed shell of Ava spreads the numbing effects further throughout the drinker’s body until everything is thoroughly sedated. To reach that state, the men must drink gallons of Ava over the course of hours and the result is a bunch of calm, droopy-eyed men lounging around in the heat.

Considering it was the only market in the country, Apia’s market was quite small and sedate. Half of the area was occupied by vendors selling tourist trinkets such as replicas of ancient tribal war clubs and jewelry made of colorful shells. One thing noticeably absent from the market is meat which gives the market a tame, sanitary edge. We learned that there is basically no farm animal industry in Samoa even though the useable land and the consumer demand are present. Samoans eat large amounts of canned “meats” such as spam and corned beef as well as chicken. In fact, they love chicken and are willing to eat the parts that are less popular in the States. Eating imported frozen chicken from US poultry farms is cheaper and easier than killing the scrawny island chickens that roam the villages in nervous broods. For every chicken breast on a salad or sandwich back home, there is a back, thigh, and leg that makes its way to Pacific islands such as Samoa. The confusing thing is that there is virtually no economy in Samoa so the money has to come from somewhere. Everybody has free communal land in their village. Houses are built by the extended families in the village so even the cost of a house is nearly free. The soil is fertile and fruit practically falls from heaven. The ocean is teaming with fish. Yet, the Samoans eat packaged junk food, canned meats, and drink soda and they buy the stuff using remittance money sent home from family members living abroad mostly in Australia, New Zealand, and the US. They way one slightly jaded Samoan put it, “every kid they send to work abroad allows two people back home not to work.” We finally understood how a country with communal ownership can survive with virtually no industry or economy. It takes a near constant supply of capital infusion sourced from developed countries. For us, the fact that the Samoans prefer spam to fresh fish for daily consumption and that they import chicken parts from the states rather than eating their own, free-range chickens was absolutely bizarre.