Six days is all I had to immerse myself as completely as possible in Samoan lifestyle and culture, so this last week, that’s exactly what I did. Being a whole week without any snippet of the outside world was indeed delightful in it’s own right, but accompanying that was an eye opening look into a different way of life, island life.
I’ve always held a healthy respect for the ocean, and have enjoyed my opportunites to learn more about it. I studied Marine Science at University, became a PADI rescue diver, and have spent a couple of weeks on a fishing trawler in the Torres Strait. I haven’t done much kayaking in open water, yet that was the first experience that awaited me in Samoa. We hopped in the water and for the first day, kayaked to Manono through the security of the reef. The weather was perfect, we had a tail wind, and saw a record breaking 7 sting rays leap from the water in pursuit of their prey. I was nervous at first, hoping that the big blue would be kind, and as if it could feel my nervousness, the water calmed, the wind dropped, and we paddled effortlessly to Manono.
The chief of the village greeted us on arrival, and we sat to talk about the devastation that Manono had experienced in the 2012 cyclone Evan and the long standing damage from the 2009 tsunami. This was a common theme in many discussions I had with other chiefs and villagers. The damage was extensive, and despite warnings being sounded for the tsunami, through radio broadcasts and television, many did not receive this warning, resulting in much greater losses than necessary. I took time to walk around the island and take stock of the still standing damaged buildings, the church on the point of Manono is particularly haunting.
Eating like Samoans, on fresh fish, chicken, bananas, papaya, coconut, watercress, taro, pumpkin, rice (and lots of it!), we slept well to the sound of seasonal rains on the fale. The next day saw us kayak back to Upolu and then grab some bikes to ride over the mountain to Falease’ela-Tai. This time, we crossed the open ocean and were greeted with resting turtles. The ride over the mountain was tough, but beautiful. Children would run alongside yelling “bye!”. I asked about this as it seemed strange to me they would say bye and not hi. Apparently it’s because there isn’t enough time to get to know us and they wouldn’t see us again, so bye is the appropriate greeting. It rained, it was hot and humid, and no doubt locals thought we were insane, but it was worthwhile. Descending into the valley the other side of the mountain and finally washing off in the cool water of the Lina le Vai O Sina River made the sweat and aching back disappear. Sleeping by the river, showering under the stars, this place was my pick of the trip.
Waking to one of the many rooster calls of the trip, we had breakfast and headed out to explore the waterfalls of the river. Our guides, Ollie, Fly, and 8 year old Coco, made the trek incredibly entertaining. Ollie is the chief of the village (has been high chief for over 20 years), and after learning of his heritage and how he returned to Samoa after being raised in New Zealand to make positive changes to his homeland, I only had more questions. We walked through plantations of Ifilele (Samoan native hardwood trees) that he had procured funding for to increase the sustainability of the area. As chief, he had to gain support from the villagers, and works side by side with the other land holders to plant the trees and maintain their growth. Ollie dreams big, and has great dreams for the future of his community. He told me about the taro blight that destroyed the economic stability of taro farming in Samoa, and that they are still trying to recover from that, with only around 1% of their exports being made up of taro. We stopped at various points, either to dive off the waterfalls, hold our heads beneath the cascades of water in pockets of air, or to tell us the important stories of the mountain, of the river. We learnt the story of Queen Sina of Two Hearts, and how she altered the course of the river to reward the people of his village for their generosity. The more I learnt, both of the culture and history of the place, and of his plans and hopes for the future, the more I wanted to be involved. It was impossible not to feel connected to the river, humbled by the strength of the water, and impossible not to fall in love with the people. I spent the evening playing tag with Coco, splashing with local kids in the river, and watching Fly catch the duck that a Korean reality show had released into the wild after a shot at the waterfalls.
Each place we stayed, we were hosted by the chief and their family. We swam with the giant clams, talked to the artist Prince who had done some beautiful paintings, and discussed much of the local laws, customs, and future of Samoa with Helen and Maria of Le Valasi. Another night, another beautiful fale with sounds of the ocean to lull me to sleep, and I felt I was starting to get my finger on the pulse of Samoa. I learnt about rife corruption in certain communities, the difficulties of big city politics, the support of women, gays, and misguided youth, the environmental future of Samoa, how climate change is expected to impact them and what they are doing to mitigate it, and the importance of family, faith, and connection. I asked what I could and couldn’t do as a visitor, and even exchanged knowledge with some of the locals on the coconuts we shared (from what I learnt in Sri Lanka!) and insects we spotted.
Barely a couple of days left, we went into Apia to check out the flea markets, eat some more local food, and drive around the entire island. Our arms were sore from the amount of waving, and cheeks tired from smiling so hard. Truly this was the workout that paid off the amount of food consumed. To Sua ocean trench was on the list of must do’s, and although we didn’t get there are high tide (recommended for good leaping into the water from great heights!), at low tide, you can swim under the rocks to air pockets and out to the open ocean. I’ll admit right now I was happy to watch others do that, than do it myself.
Cats, pigs, dogs, orchids, all are in abundance on Upolu. Sadly, so is rubbish. I noticed this in Sri Lanka and was not surprised to see it here too, yet it still saddened me. People that clearly show such spiritual connection with the land around them and yet littering is common place. I wondered how to change this, what could be done. There are many ideas, but of course the best way to achieve something like that would be to come from within the community, the local people, than to have a palangi arrive and dictate how things are done.
Lastly, briefly, I want to mention the love I have for women and gender roles in Samoan culture. Your gender is based on who you feel you are, so, for example, if you feel you are a woman, though you are a man, then you are free to be a woman and fulfil that gender role, as a Fafafini (a separate gender in Samoan culture). You are who you feel you are, simple. Women in Samoa are not subservient, not insignificant. Samoan women are strong, they are warriors, they are powerful. This has not been lost over the generations, with cultural stories of the island queens still told, women’s committee meeting halls in every village for women to get together and discuss important issues relating to the communities. There is much to learn of how Samoan’s value each other, and of course it isn’t perfect, but what I have learnt is beautiful.
All in all, Samoa was a beautiful whirlwind visit. Despite the length, this post is a snapshot of what I have learnt and experienced in the last six days. I intend to return, for longer next time. Until then, I hope to put into practice the mindfulness I have learnt in my visit, the contentedness with life and happiness I have experienced, being given time to re-evaluate the things important to me and make decisions to make my future increasingly beautiful.