I've arrived from French Polynesia via Auckland. Samoa is ahead of BST, by exactly twelve hours. It's Sunday and the Sabbath is taken very seriously here. The whole country shuts down. I 'm told that everyone attends church in the morning. The women are definitely wearing Sunday best - pretty matching print tops and long skirts. For the most part the men sport sarongs, though they are called lava lava. There is a long row of churches crammed around the harbour in the capital, Apia. I wander along at eight in the morning; it's already baking hot - I'm creeping closer to the Equator. The singing emanating from the various churches (all the doors are open) is incredibly uplifting, reminiscent of Caribbean gospel music. It's also a bit like a choir competition, as each church vies with its neighbours to make itself heard.
Samoa is not hugely geared up for tourism; other than the churches it is all very sedate today. But it definitely has edge. Judging by all the litter on the ground, cans, bottles, take away containers, Saturday was more riotous. And I am hassled all too frequently by taxi drivers, touts and down and outs. Clearly not everyone is in church and a woman on her own seems an easy target.
In the hotel the waiters are queuing up to 'chat later on'. I shall make sure that my door is properly bolted.
Some excellent snorkelling in a marine reserve just next to the harbour. A deep drop off, but a long way out from the beach - I thought I wasn’t going to make it, or find it. Fortunately, an American lady appeared and came with me (no-one else in the water) or I would have been too freaked.
Then across the island to the south east corner. This is Upolu. Samoa has two main islands, the other is Savai'i. The chain of islands, including American Samoa, used to be known as The Navigator Islands because of the people' s good seafaring skills. These were head-hunting kingdoms until the whalers. then the missionaries and finally the colonists arrived. I first came across Samoa, reading Margaret Mead's iconic anthropological study - Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). So, it's been on my radar for some time, but not since 1928, I hasten to add.
A three way tussle between the Germans, the USA and Germany, was resolved by the Germans taking Samoa ((known as Western Samoa) and the Americans receiving what is now called American Samoa, to the east. The British were paid off by the Germans with other Pacific territory. During World War I a New Zealand force captured the islands for the British. They became independent, in 1962, and changed their name to Samoa in 1997.
The road hugs the coast of Upolu for much of the way and there are views across lagoons and velvety hills. It is different again, but truly beautiful. The only animals on the islands are rats, snakes and a few birds. Many of the buildings are also reminiscent of the colonial Caribbean, with wooden shutters and verandas. However, there is also a very evident local influence - lofty roofs with hemispherical sides.
The villages are fascinating and very welcoming. I’m told that cooperation is emphasised in all areas of life and there are airy, open sided communal areas, with thatched roofs. Here, I catch glimpses of people performing dance and other ceremonies. These 'fale' buildings are also used as dwellings by some; they have woven pandanus shutters attached. The verges are lined with flowers and bright croton bushes, all ready for the best kept village competition.
I also catch sight of rugby posts. Rugby is the national obsession. There was a triathlon here recently and a different village adopted each nationality competing. So the Aussie village has GO-AUS painted on the road and the stone markers lining the road have all been painted green and gold. And so on. It's all really colourful and pretty and, interestingly, there is little rubbish visible in the countryside. There are bins here, but they are open sided painted wooden crates perched on poles, so that the dogs can't get at them. The procession of buses are constructed of painted wood too, decorated with pictures and slogans, often religious. It's quite bustly at times, very different to Sunday, though we are forbidden to walk through the villages at dusk on any day. It is prayer time and a curfew is imposed.
I'm very lucky with my hotel again, a modern boutique type oasis with the best restaurant on Samoa. I have a small villa with a big hammock overlooking a gorgeous little bay full of black volcanic motu with waving palms. One of them flies a Samoan flag from a little dome and is tabu; the prime minister's family are buried here.
One of those odd days where heavy showers alternate with sunshine, so I get my exercise running from the sunbed by the pool to my room and back. It's about seven yards. (Teeny Tiny, the blogging bear had a bit of an adventure and got drenched as he was left out in the rain.) I do manage some snorkelling in the bay. There isn't a great deal to see, the coral was devastated by a tsunami in 2009 and hasn't really recovered. But there is some excitement as there is a very strong current that keeps threatening to deposit me on the forbidden islet.
Samoan people are known as ‘the happy people’ to the rest of Polynesia. At this hotel, the staff are very chatty and attentive. Nothing is too much trouble. They all come from the local village and like to salute me with a high five, or chat about rugby. All the men play in the local team; they all look like contenders for prop forward to me, as even the younger, less stocky men, carry pot bellies. Obesity is thought to represent health, wealth and happiness. They sell 'Gilbert' balls at the supermarket and even use them for water polo.
There are three human genders recognised here. Fa’afafine, is a third gender - people who are born male but live as women. They often have flowers behind their ears. The staff are also persistent in their interrogation. They find the concept of a woman travelling on her own totally alien. I've decided it's just easier to say yes to most of their questions. I'm married, I have six children. My husband is at home looking after them. They think that is very laudable of him. However, I refuse to tell them how old I am.
Other entertainment is provided by a film crew from Australia taking shots for a travel programme. The hotel has been decked out beautifully, of course, though the actual paying guests appear to be a bit of a nuisance and we are forbidden the pool for an hour or so. The clientele here fall mainly into the Kiwi grizzled retirement category, though they are all extremely friendly. It seems that they are not too aged for some shenanigans. Two couples have spent most of the day engaged in their own filming, videoing each other clambering inelegantly in and out of the hammocks suspended outside our rooms. This involved much giggling. Another couple had to be rescued from their room where they were standing screaming on the bed while a giant crab scuttled about underneath. More reason to keep my door shut.
A saunter along the coast to another beach. I say saunter, it is more like a scramble at times. The views are worth it, past more charcoal dots in the ocean, (yes turquoise sea again) swathes of palms, beautiful curving white beach. A few tiny iridescent blue butterflies, the odd large pink patterned top shell, skinks skittering (I know I've used the verb before but how else can you describe skinks?) And no human encounters of any kind. At the end an exquisite miniature lagoon complete with volcanic arches and blowholes, demanding that I splash about in it.
Today, quite a lot of swimming in caves, otherwise known as more madness. First, a visit to a 30 metre deep sinkhole in two lava fumaroles. I think the worst is over when I descend the precarious wooden ladder, but the currents down there are worryingly strong. Still, it's pretty and there are blowholes alongside. Then a freshwater pool that disappears into some dark tunnels that seem to go on for some time. We are using flash on underwater camera to light our way as we swim, somewhat erratically, but I take fright at the thought of what might be lurking ahead, or in the depths. Finally, an 80 metre drop waterfall that sits majestically in a canyon that unexpectedly splits the earth. There is a pool at the bottom, but it's a long way down, so abstention from swimming here seems a good idea.
It is fiafia night (festival) and we are served the typical Polynesian banquet of raw tuna in coconut, (its delicious), taro leaves, suckling pig and banana pudding, all laid out on palm plates and banana leaves. There is the usual cultural demonstration followed by dancing and singing. Despite the fact that this is my fourth coconut husking demonstration the whole thing is this time presented with such genuine enthusiasm and commitment that it is totally engaging. The singing is especially haunting and lingers in the head a long time after. Last day today. This has been yet another very special place. I really have been extraordinarily lucky so far. The hotel is exceptional, not jet set but really comfortable, the people so warm and so caring of each other - it is truly enchanting.
I knew things had been going too smoothly. Up at three in the morning to drive to the airport. 'Lie down and sleep', says the driver kindly, turning up his radio. He is listening to traditional Samoan music, as do most of the locals, though you do get odd snippets of Bob Marley or ABBA thrown in. As I can't sleep for the noise I sit up, but it's pitch black and the road is far from straight and in poor condition. The driver is braking every other minute, hunched over his wheel, trying to avoid sand, pot holes, dogs, piglets and anything else that happens to wander along.
It is not long before I am feeling violently nauseous. In desperation, I wind down the window, but blasts of hot air immediately fill my eyes with grit. One eye is streaming, so I endeavour to remove a contact lens and put it in my mouth to clean it. Unfortunately, there isn't enough light for me to replace it. So now I definitely can't vomit. When we arrive the driver asks me if I had a nice journey. It's a shame that the lilting Samoan music is now inextricably linked in my brain with the need to be sick.
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