Jan 7, 2009

First Month in Samoa

Its been almost one month since I arrived in Samoa and what a month it has been. I left Auckland on the 8th of December on a crowded flight with expatriate Samoans returning home. The atmosphere aboard was enlivening, just about everyone was excited about arriving. Women wore flowers in their hair and men wore lava lavas which are very colorful and long (like wearing a towel). After a bumpy flight we arrived to pouring rain and sweltering heat. Walking out of the plane was like being dunked in a hot tub. Even though I was in shorts and a t-shirt, I was dripping within minutes. Falealo’lo airport was tiny. We walked down a set of old stairs from the plane and across a tarmac surrounded by green, verdant jungle. Grabbing a taxi, I headed into downtown Apia, about a fifty minute drive from the airport.

My first few days I spent in Apia, getting my bearings and trying to figure out how to avoid the torrential rainstorms that seemed to appear out of nowhere and leave just as quickly. More than once I was soaked walking the fruit splattered roads of Apia. The largest town in Samoa, Apia has a population of 40,000. After a few days in town I had had enough and so took a wild bus ride to the south coast. Its about a two hour drive across the mountains. Covered in jungle, huge banyan trees, and waterfalls, the Samoan highlands are impressive considering the tiny size of the island. Once across, the simple two-lane road winds its way along the coast and through village after village. The majority of Samoans live along the coast, making a living from family-owned plantations. Papaya, mangoes, pineapple, taro root, coconut, breadfruit, and wood are common harvests. There is also a lot of subsistence fishing. You can find people fishing the reefs daily, either walking out with nets or speardiving. Most Samoans live in simple houses which don’t have walls but columns. As you drive by you can see all the belongings of a home. My favorite time of day to drive by is around noon when everyone takes a nap in the shade to avoid the intense heat. If you were new to Samoa you might be worried because bodies just litter the sides of the roads. When not sleeping or working, most Samoans hang out on the roads, waving as people go by. The buses are also an experience in their own right. Huge and painted in tons of colors, each is unique and belongs to its driver. Every bus has a slogan on either the front or the back. My favorites still are “Why Me,” “Bring Them to me Alive,” “Who’s Next,” and “Bon Jovi Express.” You almost always share your seat with a few other people. One of my favorite things about Samoa is the fashion. Traditional fia fia dresses are incredibly beautiful and ornate with inlaid flowers and designs of all sorts.

Anyhow, my first ride to the south coast was an experience. I was headed for the beach fales located on the eastern end of the south island. Fales are traditional thatch roof dwellings with intricate palm-frond sides which you can tie up during the day or let down at night for privacy and protection from the rain. The floors sit about three feet above the sand to avoid extreme tides from the nearby sea. The best part about fales is that you can see and hear the ocean at night and during the day you jump right out into the sand. If you want to live on the beach a Samoan fale is the absolute best way to do it. I ended up meeting a young guy named Va’a, who was twenty-two and ran Fao Fao beach fales, a collection of fales on the beach with a huge open fale restaurant, shop, and performance fale for weekend fia fias (dances). Va’a and his extended family live across the road from the beach and are wonderful hosts. Fao Fao is located in the village of Saleapanga, about 5 miles from the eastern end of the island. Fao Fao fales is an awesome way to experience tropical beaches while retaining a connection with traditional Samoan life. Much of the food that is prepared comes from the local plantation, you share many of the same facilities with the local families, and after a while become friends with just about everyone from the smallest toddlers to the eldest chiefs. I’ve found my behaviors, attitude, and daily schedules mirrors Samoan life more and more. I sleep during the hottest hours, wake up early before the sun rises, and go to bed well before ten. I too spend time just watching cars go by or waves slide by and in many ways I enjoy the simple life that exists here.

To be continued . . .