Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dispatch 45 Samoa

August 4 - 19, 2009
Next stop, Samoa. We had intended to stop at American Samoa, a 450 mile voyage from Suwarrow. On our way there, we heard from friends by e-mail that the place was so unpleasant they had literally only stayed 15 hours, long enough to buy supplies, pick up schoolbooks for their kids and get some rest. American Samoa is the only American port south of the equator and has “enjoyed” a longstanding reputation as a dirty, unpleasant port. One friend said they couldn’t distinguish the anchor buoys from the trash in the water. Another saw floating dead rats and cats washed down the river into the harbor by some of the nearly daily torrential downpours (one of the wettest ports in the world). The bottom of the harbor is littered with plastic bags and boat wrecks thus creating a poor holding ground for anchoring and the possibility of fouling one’s anchor on wreckage such that it cannot be retrieved. Add to that the $150 fees for checking in and out (to our own country?) and we were beginning to wonder about our plan to stop there. Unlike some of our friends, we had no supplies waiting for us there and, although the lure of the giant bags of M & M’s at the Costco like store was intense, we realized we could probably survive without “American style food” for a while longer. When, just in the nick of time, we heard from friends in Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) that we could likely buy any food we needed there, we diverted, spent another night at sea and went directly to Samoa.

The Samoans are Polynesian and theoretically this was one of the first island groups populated by Polynesians in about 1000 BC. From here, the Polynesians spread to French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Easter Island, New Zealand. Yet, each of the Polynesian groups seem distinct to us in looks and traditions. The similarities include the crafts—carvings, tapa cloth painting (as we saw in the Marquesas), basket making—and the heavenly singing that is universal in the Polynesian churches—multi-part harmony done effortlessly and without accompaniment except drumming usually, and sometimes ukulele.

As our Samoan tour guide assured us, “Samoans LOVE to eat”, thus their ahem often bulky body habitus (and frequent occurrence of diabetes). But they are delightfully friendly people. The islands are verdant, hot and humid with steep hillsides and volcanic rock formations. The weather is HOT—feels hotter than previous places. When I mentioned this to the marina representative, and then puzzled about the heat because it is, after all, winter here, she replied, “Yes, but it’s only winter at night”—when it cools off enough to be tolerable. We tied up calmly at a very modern marina, built 2 years ago because the harbor wasn’t big enough for the visiting yachts at anchor and the huge freighter supply ships that arrive. It looks good, but there are still a few glitches like the coral heads that inhabit a few of the slips and trip boats up in the main fairway! Samoa has some lovely very upscale resorts, yet, it is very affordable, a nice change from French Polynesia. The primary language is Samoan (a Polynesian language) with the second language of English which is taught in schools. English is not universal, however, and many of our taxi drivers and people we met on the street had pretty limited comprehension of English.

Sample conversation with teenage girl:
Her: Hello
Us: Hello, how old are you?
Her: Fine, thank you, how are you?

The geography is stunning. The islands are volcanic. The interior mountains are comprised of rain forest with many waterfalls. The coast has some beautiful beaches rimmed by coral. We enjoyed a drive around the country with a verbose and enthusiastic guide. He explained the practice of burying “Mom and Dad” in front of the house to keep them nearby. He has enthusiastically encouraged his fellow islanders to clean up the rubbish and plant attractive gardens to better attract tourists. We saw a deep volcanic trench with a pool in the bottom that communicated by underwater cavern to the ocean. We were supposed to have seen a 100 meter long waterfall but it was enshrouded in fog, part of our very rainy day of touring. But we did appreciate the beauty of the island. Robert Louis Stevenson spent his last four years in Samoa and his house is now a gorgeous museum. We hiked up to his grave on one of the mountainsides and slipped down the trail as the rain became ridiculously heavy on our way back. There is a marine reserve just outside the main harbor and we snorkeled there one day. There was a surprisingly rich undersea world especially over the reef drop off considering it was right next to a city harbor.

Samoans live in “villages” that are made up of extended families. There is a chief or matai of each village and disputes are settled by the chiefs sitting down together to talk. Apia, the major town on Samoa’s island of Upolu, is made up of several “villages” lumped together. It has most goods and services available although some searching is required for obscure items. Transportation on the islands is done often by bus—very colorful painted all wooden buses. Alas, these are soon to be obsolete because, just after our visit, the country is changing from driving on the right side of the road to driving on the wrong side, I mean, left side of the road. This is because so many of the imported cars are British style and have right seat drive. The buses will need to be replaced. We had mixed feelings about missing this momentous event—surely we will miss witnessing mayhem on the road! We also enjoyed watching the police marching band which marches from the police headquarters to the government building Monday through Saturday just before 9 AM to raise the flag. The men in Samoa wear skirts (lava lavas) as do the women, a practical way to dress given the climate. We also now know the best time of day to rob the bank in Apia, Samoa.

While in Apia, I took the opportunity to call the head of the local hospital and go up and take a tour. He was pretty distracted by the swine flu outbreak on the island but took some time to talk to me and Gina (an RN from New Zealand who we’ve befriended) about their medical issues in Samoa. Diabetes and its complications are a big part of their medical care (what he called “lifestyle diseases”) unsurprisingly. But he assured us they had good programs to deal with their issues. What was more fun was talking to the actual doctor on the wards during our tour while they regaled us with the “reality” of medical care there: the lab test results come back so late they are of no use in caring for the patients. Sometimes the machinery doesn’t work and they don’t have the supplies they need. It certainly looked like challenging work conditions in our brief visit. Although I offered my volunteer time, they never contacted me, and, in retrospect, I suppose I’m glad not to be exposed to swine flu.

With another boat, we explored the other major island in Samoa: Savai’i. We anchored off a shoreline that, within a half mile walk comprised 5 villages. A “village” is simply a family group. One could see the change by the color of the raised garbage containers outside the homes. This island had beautifully maintained yards and was very rustic. The people raise horses, dogs and pigs, all of which run mostly free (except the horses). The people were shy but open to our overtures albeit with limited English. We always learn the local words for “hello” (Talofa on Samoa) which vary from Polynesian island to island and try to learn “thank you” and “goodbye”. This island is mainly formed by one large volcano and evidence of its many lava flows from the early 1900’s still abound. Apparently the lava flowed so slowly everyone was able to avoid it and there were no fatalities. But some of the churches had lava flow right through them dramatically. Some of the villages are built right on the lava.

We stopped at a variety of tourist attractions where we were charged a small amount to see the sights. There is a rainforest canopy walkway. One end is anchored to a couple hundred year old banyan tree and the walk up the stairs around the tree was magnificent. Alas, the canopy walkway was “closed” because it wasn’t safe which we learned after Richard ducked the board that blocked the entrance and made it all the way across without incident. Oops. We saw a lava tunnel and little swiftlets—birds that nest inside. We stopped at the “Virgin Grave” where the lava swirled around and missed this patch of land, “because the virgin was so pure.” The tour guide told us she had a husband and children but could not explain why she is referred to as a virgin (?!) Mysteries abound on Samoa. The scenery was dramatic. Perhaps our most memorably experience was when we stopped at the “women’s collective” building in a village where we had heard there was some of the best traditional weaving. Around 20 women were gathered weaving their own pieces, talking and singing in harmony as we approached. They allowed us to take pictures and answered a few questions, but, just to observe their craft and hear their singing was moving.

After a lunch of fish and chips, we returned the rental car and readied the boat to leave that very evening for Tonga. Never let a fair wind go unappreciated!