Samoa

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

There is a giant beast of a man standing in line at the Auckland airport. His round cannonball head sits atop a great muscular network of sinewy terracotta skin. Tracing the large cusp of his belly, one descends into a labyrinth of intricate tribal tattoos that run up and down the length of his legs and waist, a graceful confirmation of his immunity to pain. His hands appear to be made specially for compressing cars. But now that we have a machine for this, they just dangle like dead weight from his sides, far too big to be stuffed into pockets.

Now boarding flight 247 to Samoa…the loudspeaker announces and the man smiles, recognizing the sound of home.

Once I get past the sheer enormity of his being, I realize that almost everyone else in line takes up the same amount of individual space. Both men and women defy the limitations of horizontal expression. And while it feels unfair to say that our first impression of Samoa was the size of its people, it was hard to miss. The line for the Samoa flight looked nothing like the rest of the Auckland airport queues. People were noticeably larger, bulkier, built in a different way, and sometimes just plain fat. We weren’t only flying to another country; we were entering an entirely different gene pool.

At the same time, I worried that we were conditioned by the very reason that we had decided to travel to Samoa: to find out more about their alarming diabetes and obesity problem. I did not want to be viewing people through some kind of Botero-esque lens, but the weight of the Pacific Islands’ international reputation hung heavily in the air: The Fattest Place in the World.

But that is not the story of Samoa. Or at least it’s the one I want to start with.Let me tell you about the best of Samoa first.


THE BEST OF SAMOA

Samoa is a group of islands located in the Polynesian region of the Pacific Ocean. It has a population of approximately 195,000 people, who mostly live on the main island of Upolu. For those less familiar with Pacific Island politics and geography, Samoa is a separate nation from its geographical neighbor, American Samoa (the latter is an unincorporated U.S. territory), but they do share some common cultural history.

Samoa was known as Western Samoa until 1997, when they decided to officially change their name to just “Samoa”. This was met with indignation by American Samoa as they felt their own identity was diminished and as a result, most American Samoans will still refer to Samoa as Western Samoa. This can sometimes cause confusion about just how many Samoas there are.

Regardless, Samoa is a beautiful place. It is home to warm and devoutly Christian people and dramatic landscapes that have been carved by restless volcanoes and the pressures of the Pacific. For visitors, its isolation is a wonderful respite from the demands of the outside world and its traditional communities provide an inspiring alternative to our individually centered societies.

The first local we met was our taxi driver who took us to our hotel from the airport in the middle of a hot and sticky Samoan night. Like most Samoan men, he was huge.

Talofa-lava!” he boomed hello and I was certain that somewhere on the island, coconuts were falling from the trees. Despite his stature, he wasn’t all that intimidating because, also like most Samoan men, he was wearing a brightly colored traditional skirt, or lavalava, and a big, beaming smile.

But our warm welcome had started even before that. At the arrivals gate in the airport, we were greeted by three musicians playing traditional music and handing out flowers to arriving passengers. Our customs official was profuse in his insistence that we have “the most amazing experience of our lives in Samoa and that we come back whenever we want, we are always welcome”.

And our taxi driver only continued with this same enthusiasm. He turned the music up loud and explained the songs on the radio. He gave us a crash course in the Samoan language and repeatedly reminded us that he was so glad we chose his country to come and relax. We would not be disappointed. At first, we were confused by these eager professions of friendship from complete strangers, but as this scene repeated itself over and over again during our time on the islands, we came to understand that the Samoans were being sincere.

When we asked a woman for directions on our first day, she stopped what she was doing and accompanied us to the store. If we were ever in a need of a translator, there was always an English speaker nearby, willing to help.

People on the buses were always friendly and more than once my seat passenger struck up a conversation. It was an interaction that always ended with them saying, “I hope you have a wonderful time in our country and that you come back soon. You’re always welcome.” And these pleasant exchanges could happen with anyone, not just those who worked in tourism.

I spent five minutes sitting in a chair outside a public bathroom waiting for Damián when a mall security guard stopped to ask if I was OK.

“Oh, I’m alright,” I assured. “I’m just waiting for someone.”

“OK. I just wanted to make sure,” he replied. “Do you need directions? Any suggestions? Are you enjoying your time in Samoa?” I felt certain that even if I had asked him for a hug, he would have gladly given me one.

Another moment that felt like a visit from Jesus Christ is when Damián went to look for a rental car and left me at the bus station. We had agreed that he would come back within an hour with the rental car, but due to complications, one hour turned into three. We did not have working cell phones, so I was stranded at the bus station under the sweltering sun with nothing to do but wait and hope that I hadn’t fallen victim to some master plan where my husband had decided to abandon me on a remote tropical island.

However, I was so well entertained by the locals that the waiting melted away. Two guys and a girl around my age started talking to me and stayed until Damián returned. Periodically, they would ask if I was hungry or thirsty or if I needed anything. They reassured me that my husband was on his way and if not, they would help me figure out what to do. But mostly, we just had a really nice conversation about different cultures and ways of living. Each time a new person joined our group, I was introduced, and they immediately felt like an old friend. Their nonchalant kindness was so pronounced that I found myself wanting to knock them on their heads a bit, just to see if the trait would crack.

But there was no gimmick. They were real. And I had this guilty feeling that they had missed their bus more than once just to keep on eye on me. Maybe I was just the most interesting thing happening on the island at that moment, (especially if Damián’s master plan turned out to be true). Maybe these were just Christian values manifesting themselves in their purest form and I wasn’t used to seeing this side of religion. Or maybe their bus really did pass once every three hours, it was a pretty laid-back island. I’ll never know, but when Damián finally did return (without a rental car, long story), I thanked them and whispered under my breath: Please never, ever change. Samoan kindness had totally revitalized my soul in the short course of a sweltering afternoon. Hallelujah.


SAVAI’I: THE LAND BEFORE TOURISM

We spent four nights on the main island of Upolu and four nights on the island of Savai’i. Both islands are worth visiting because the differences are startling. If Upolu represents modern Samoa, then Savai’i is the Old World, and the Old World is fascinating.

Savai’i is the largest island in Samoa and the fifth largest in Polynesia but don’t let those titles fool you. There is just one solitary tarred road that forms a circle around its exterior, which you can travel in about three hours at a Sunday speed. Villages exist only along the coast as the center of the island remains occupied by dense forest and a shield volcano.

There is very limited tourism on Savai’i and what does exist is firmly controlled by local communities. Since all the land is community owned, foreign investors are unable to buy and develop coastal properties with such ease. Thus, there is no danger of a tourist economy overrunning the local population like we see in most parts of the world.  There are a handful of modest resorts, a few restaurants, and some diving activities, but there is no internet (*gasp*) unless you hook up to a pricey hotspot, you can still drive long distances without seeing a single soul, and most visitors stay in basic, open-air huts on the beaches.

We arrived by ferry to the port of Salelolaga and our first introduction to this land before tourism was when we naively asked a taxi driver to take us to a car rental agency, assuming there might be at least one.

He took us to a small house about five minutes down the road. Outside, there was a handwritten sign that read: CARS. There were a few used cars parked out front and a number of tires scattered around the yard for good measure. A man got up from the front porch, dressed the part in overalls and a white t-shirt, and introduced himself as “Ma’a”, the car rental guy.

In any other country, this particular situation would have set off every alarm in a traveler’s mind, but in Savai’i, things are simple and straightforward. Ma’a gave us the keys, we promised to come back in four days, and I guess he believed us.

“Is there a spare tire?” I asked during our inspection, trying not to get too laissez-faire about the whole exchange.

Ma’a scooped up one of the tires in the yard and chucked it in the backseat of the two-door car. “Yep,” he replied, with a broad smile.

OK. Good enough for me.

As we drove along the coast, we passed church after church after church, each one more magnificent than last, and I started to feel something I hadn’t felt strongly in a very long time: the real presence of God. Samoan churches – of every Christian denomination – are the proud centerpieces to their towns, every passing vehicle or walking civilian waves a cheerful hello, and many people still live in traditional houses, or fales, that do not have any exterior walls.

Let me repeat that. Many people on Savai’i still live in houses that do not have any exterior walls. They are open-air homes, supported by columns, which means you can drive down the road and observe people just hanging out in their living rooms, with nothing to hide. Of course, there are many complex layers to this reality, but at first glance, it is a shocking departure from the Western world. It demonstrates a level of trust that seems almost magical. Even as someone lucky enough to have grown up in an area where locking your door was never truly necessary, I had trouble processing this one. How is this possible? I wanted to ask nearly everyone that we met.

There are many answers but the most common response is that it has a lot to do with Fa’a Samoa – the unique traditional culture and way of life in Samoan society. Villages are organized along the strong ties of kinship, history, land, and the system of maitai chiefs, while love, service to family and community, respect, and discipline are some of the values central to Samoan culture.

93% of people live on customary land that is collectively owned by families. People maintain close extended family relationships, revere their elders, and men and women enjoy a certain level of equality. All of these ideas work to create an environment where theft is minimal and the village elders can solve most problems before resorting to the police.

Every village is dotted with fales, open-air structures that can serve as homes or community halls. Their skeletal oval frames are designed to mirror the openness of the culture and life of Samoa. You can pass by any fale and see women working together, children laughing and playing between columns, men seated in a circle in conversation, and plenty more stretched out across the floor, taking a nap in the afternoon heat. The design also serves a practical purpose by letting the ocean breeze act as a natural air conditioner. When a little privacy or sanctuary from the mosquitoes is needed, most homes have a set of flax or wooden blinds that can be pulled down between the columns.

But the Samoans’ greatest affront to Western conventions are their cemeteries, or lack thereof. This is because Samoans lay their family members to rest in their front lawns. A walk through any village will allow you to observe elaborately decorated tombstones for deceased loved ones. These beautiful shrines are erected just a few steps from the front door, so that the dead can still be acknowledged and remembered in one’s daily routine.

“You mean the government just lets you bury your dead in your front lawn?” I asked a local man, thinking about what a scandal that would cause in the neatly manicured neighborhoods of the United States.

“The government?” he laughed. “This land belongs to my community. It’s belonged to my family for hundreds of years. We can do whatever we want.”

“Well, what if you move?” I reasoned.

He laughed even harder now. “Move? This is my home. Why would I ever move?”

In that moment, the distance between that man and myself felt wider than a thousand seas.

Move? All I ever do is move. I have built my whole life around moving with the excuse of creating my own identity, and here is a man who has perhaps never left an island of 654 square miles and he is in firm possession of exactly who he is and exactly where he belongs. What if I’m going about it all wrong?

Briefly, I imagine myself going home and announcing to my parents that I want to rebury Grandma, Grandpa, and all the others in our backyard, to hell with health and safety regulations. My parents usually expect that I will force a new cultural practice on them every time I visit: vegetarianism, the need for universal health care, Irish drinking games, whatever it may be, but this one, this one would really cross the line.

Mom, a local government employee, would go nuts; burying corpses is clearly a severe township zoning violation. She would never allow it, but a part of me thinks that Dad would probably help – under the cover of darkness – and Grandma and Grandpa would definitely approve. (Stay tuned for how this plays out).

I hate that the dead just disappear, that we put them in boxes in the ground. The Samoan way of front yard tombstones asks you to face death and loss with every day pleasantries. It seems stronger, more realistic, and less cowardly. It is certainly a lot healthier than Western society’s habit of whispering in dark corners and keeping death out of view.

Kindness, community, and front yard burials – these were the things that captivated me the most about Samoa – and I haven’t even mentioned the scenery yet.


SCENERY

Savai’i Alofa’aga Blow Holes, Afu Aau Waterfall, Saleaula Lava Fields

Because Savai’i is so small, you can see all of these places in one day by car. Get a map when you first arrive in Upolu and take it with you on the ferry to Savai’i. Places are signposted in the villages, but the signs are not always in plain view. If you get lost, you can ask any villager and they will happily point you in the right direction. It is customary to pay approximately 5 tala per person to the community at each of these sites. There is usually a person sitting in a nearby fale, ready to collect your contribution.

This money is not necessarily being collected to provide any infrastructure for the site you are visiting, it simply goes to the community who owns the land. You will find at small, cinder block bathroom with a flush toilet at Alofa’aga Blowholes. Afu Aau Waterfall has no infrastructure whatsoever, but this only adds to its appeal. You can still go swimming all by yourself in this beautiful watering hole!

Saleaula Lava Fields was probably our strangest experience with Samoan tourism. For 5 tala each, a large woman with three gold-capped teeth walked us out to the lava fields and said, “Here it is. If you want information about it, you can read the boards in the building at the entrance.” She then awkwardly waited around and watched us take photos, managing to photo bomb almost every single one. Finally, she led us to what was believed to be the grave site of a former chief’s daughter. Her grave had been miraculously spared from being covered by the lava flow so it was considered to be sacred. “Here it is,” she announced again. “If you want to know more, you can read the boards in the building before you leave.” An absolutely riveting tour guide.

Apart from these places, time in Savai’i is best relaxing, reading, and listening to the sea. You can book a traditional beach fale so that you have access to your own beach, as otherwise you will have to pay some tala to the community. None of the beaches are particularly spectacular but they are remote and quiet. We were fine with ours in Manase at the Vacation Beach Fales but just to go for a swim. Given the amount of erosion, there is not enough sand to lay out on the beach. The nearby town of Fagamolo has a somewhat nicer beach and also offers snorkeling excursions, but if you are looking for your postcard beach, Savai’i will probably disappoint.

UpoluTo Soa Ocean Trench, Lalomanu Beach, Samoa Cultural Village

Upolu is the more modern of the islands and more developed for tourists. Lalomanu Beach is the number one attraction on Upolu, a beautiful, laid-back white sand beach on the southeast corner of the island. You can stay at one of the many beach fales there as well or spend the day on the beach for 5 tala per person. Due to its popularity, it’s not the most secluded spot but it’s worth spending a few hours there. There are also restaurants on the beach and public bathrooms for use.

The To Soa Ocean Trench is one of the most amazing land-water formations I have ever seen and the scenic highlight of my time in Samoa. Two giant holes have been joined by an ancient lava tube and given its proximity to the ocean, one of the holes has filled with ocean water, thus creating a 30 meter deep swimming hole. You can access the swimming hole by a long wooden ladder (or the brave ones just jump). You will feel a constant tug in changing directions from the ocean currents below and while you can hear the ocean water rushing in and out of the inner cave walls, you can’t actually see it. Everything in the ocean trench remains still and peaceful. Floating on your back and looking up to walls of lush green plants and a brilliant blue sky, you will feel like you have found the pinnacle of tropical paradise. It looked exactly like the place in films that everyone goes to in their mind right before they die, only you get to keep breathing. (Spoiler alert: Tropical paradise/near-death experiences are a little more expensive, bring 20 tala per person instead of 5).

The Samoa Cultural Village offered detailed demonstrations on traditional Samoan handicrafts, cooking techniques, tattoo artistry, traditional healing, and dance. We normally view these places as tourist traps and try to stay away, but we had heard really good things about this experience from others and we were not disappointed. The guides showed a deep passion for their heritage and cultural values and their sharing of knowledge felt natural, not overly theatrical. Perhaps they achieved this authenticity because we were never asked to pay.

The guides spent about two and a half hours with us, culminating in a lunch time feast of traditional food and dancing, and at the end, we were simply told: “If you enjoyed your time with us today, we ask that you donate to our cause whatever you see fit. We really appreciate your support of Samoan culture.” From the beginning, they had treated us like friends instead of tourists and that simple change to the interaction made a difference. We were more than happy to pay for the experience because our time on the island had taught us that the Samoans were sincere.

*We will dedicate a separate post specifically to living with diabetes in Samoa – coming soon!

-Ashley

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