Samoa - Can people get any more friendly?

Category: Ships Log
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September 1st - September 6th

It was with great relief that we finally dropped our anchor in the Apia harbor.


After our exhausting five day passage from Suwarrow, land never looked so good. Soon after dropping anchor, our friends on Cool Running called us. We hadn't expected to see them again, and were pleasantly surprised they had decided to stop in Apia as well. Georg shuttled all the customs, immigration, health, and biosecurity officials to our boat, so within a couple hours of arriving, we were all cleared in. The officials informed us we were here at a very good time; Samoa was in the middle of their largest festival of the year, the Teuila Festival. In addition, Apia was hosting the UN Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) conference and delegates from around the world were staying in Apia. We were excited to see all the festivities, but also exhausted. After finishing the check-in formalities and cleaning our boat a bit, we crashed into bed at 5pm and didn't wake until 8am the next morning.

The next day, feeling much more awake and refreshed, we headed to town. We soon discovered that two large Polynesian sailing catamarans, built as replicas of the original boats which colonized Polynesia, also arrived in Apia the same day as us. The catamarans started in Hawaii and are traveling through the South Pacific, re-creating some of the voyages of the early Polynesians. We had heard about them in most every French Polynesian port we'd been in, but always that we had missed them by a couple days. It was neat to finally see the replicas and amazing to think the early Polynesians traveled such long distances as the Marquesas to New Zealand in similar vessels navigating only by the stars and sun.


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The Polynesian catamarans in the Apia harbor.


After gawking at the catamarans for awhile, we continued to a cultural village in the middle of town. Because of the festival, the village had educational shows every day to teach visitors about Samoan culture. The village consisted of several fales (traditional Samoan houses with of a raised platform and a roof supported by posts) and each fale had a different exhibit. We watched Samoan women make tapa cloth by first stripping bark from a branch and then going through the labor-intensive process of soaking, stretching and pounding it until it becomes a soft paper. Then we watched how they used the juice of certain tree roots to paint the cloth. We could also watch how the Samoans weave palm fronds to make everything from mats, to bags, to fans. At another fale, we learned about the traditional fruits grown in Samoa and got to try our first soursap. It is a large green fruit in the shape of a squashed football with spikes protruding from it. But don't let the ugly appearance deter you, inside is a soft white pulpy fruit that has the most delicious sweet yet tart flavor, not unlike lychee.


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Stripping the bark which will eventually be made into tapa cloth.


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One of the girls modeling a finished, painted tapa cloth.


Our favorite exhibit though, was the tattooing fale. The culture of Samoan tattooing is fascinating! The Samoans claim tattoos actually originated in Samoa because the word tattoo is Samoan (tatau in Samoan). In Samoa, tattooing is not as easy as getting a pretty picture inked on your arm, it consists of 12 very painful three to four hour sessions where large portions of the legs, back and stomach are covered with traditional markings. It is a sacred undertaking that is not to be taken lightly, though men who survive the entire tattooing process are held in very high esteem and regarded as ambassadors of their country. The downside is that once you begin the process, you cannot quit after having one or two sessions, you must complete all twelve or you will bring shame on your family and community and basically be considered an outcast. Our guide told us suicide is not uncommon among men who have started the tattooing process because it is so painful; they decide death is preferable to completing the twelve sessions. But our guide said if you survive the twelve sessions, you are a new man because after enduring the great amount of pain, you can put up with almost anything because nothing else is so painful. Someone told us there are only two families in Samoa who can administer the traditional tattoos, and to be eligible for the tattoos, the candidates must be knowledgeable in all aspects of Samoan culture and history and be selected by the village chiefs. So if you ever see a Samoan with the traditional tattoos marking his waist to knees, you know he went through a lot to get there!


This pic is courtesy of wikipedia. For some silly reason, we did not get a good picture of a Samoan with the traditional tattoos.


Later in the evening we visited the Teuila festival (which is free) where we got to see Samoan villages compete in different activities such as traditional dancing and fire-knife dancing. It was great. The groups were all very talented and the fire knife dancing competition was particularly spectacular (yes, these are dancers swinging around large machetes on fire – I think it's a steep learning curve!). The other great thing about the festival was the food. A long aisle of food stands lined the outer part of the festival grounds and here you could get bbq chicken or pork, Chinese food, or traditional Samoan food such as roasted yams in coconut milk for about $5 per large plate. And then you could take your food and go watch the talented performers. It was pretty awesome.


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Group zumba happened every afternoon at the festival.


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There were also longboat canoe races for the festival and our sailboat happened to be anchored right by the finish line so we had a great view.  This boat was the winner of the race.


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One of the Samoan villages performing their dance.


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One of the fire knife dancers. The ends of the knife are covered in a flammable cloth, but a portion of the blade is still exposed.


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One of the food stalls was roasting an entire pig!


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Oh, and had to include this one. This was one of the toilets at the festival. Have you ever seen such a nice restroom at a festival?


During our stay, we also rented a car with Cool Running so we could explore the rest of the island. Unlike the last time we did this in Raiatea, this time we had a lovely sunny day for our explorations. We started early in the morning at Robert Louis Stevenson's house and had a great hike up to his grave on Mt. Vaea. The route was very steep and it felt good to use our hiking muscles again. From there we drove through the mountains and stopped at a couple gorgeous waterfalls in the jungle. The first we could only view from a distance, but the second one we could not only hike to, but also swim in the large plunge pool created by the falls. The climate is very hot and humid, so getting to take a refreshing swim in the waterfall felt like heaven. Not to mention the pool was surrounded by gorgeous jungle foliage including fern trees and teuila blossoms so it really felt like we were in paradise. After our freshwater dip, we headed to the south coast and to a large natural ocean trench you could swim in. The seawater slips in through an underwater tunnel in the volcanic rock and fills this large open basin. It was neat to see and fun to jump off the large wooden platform into the crystal clear aquamarine pool. From there we completed our circuit around the eastern portion of the island passing through the numerous villages all decorated for the Teuila festival, and viewing the lovely coastline. Another stop we made closer to Apia was at the Papase'ea sliding rocks. The "slides" consist of a series of cascades along a river. Where the water slides down the rock, the rock is covered in a thin layer of super slippery green algae, so once you start on a slide, there is no going back! Unfortunately, the water level was really low when we were there and only Georg was brave enough to try one of the slides out. The rest of us were too fearful of getting a concussion!


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Robert Louis Stevenson's house in Samoa. Not too shabby!


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A buff-banded rail wandering the grounds of Stevenson's house.


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Robert Louis Stevenson's grave atop Mt. Vaea.


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A bahai temple on our way to the mountains. They had some beautifully landscaped grounds.


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Papapapai-Tai waterfall - it is over 100 m high! Unfortunately there is no trail to it so you can only admire it from the viewpoint.


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The trail to Togitogiga waterfall in Le Pupu Pue National Park is lined with teuila flowers (called red ginger in other places) and is the national flower of Samoa (and what the festival was named for).


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The upper pool of Togitogiga Falls (try saying that five times fast!).


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The lower pool where we all enjoyed a refreshing swim amidst the beautiful jungle foliage. It was definitely paradise!


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Chris practicing his cliff jumping technique.


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The Sua ocean trench viewed from above.


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Chris descending into the trench.


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Swimming in the ocean trench.


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All the villages we drove through were decorated with flags along the road for the festival.


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A typical Samoan fale. Note the tomb on the lefthand side. Death is not treated as an end here; family members are buried in the front yard so the rest of the family can still see and speak to them.


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Part of the coastline where there are nice beaches.


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The Papase'ea sliding rocks. Unfortunately, there was not a lot of water in the river when we were there.


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Georg was the only one of us willing to brave the slide. He even performed the very tricky sideways slip down the slide. :)


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Chris testing out the slightly smaller slide a bit lower down.


We stayed five days in Samoa and thoroughly enjoyed our time there. One thing that struck us immediately was how incredibly friendly and hospitable the locals are. It seems each and every person has a mission to reach out to visitors. Many times you will just be walking down the street and a perfect stranger will come up to you, say hello, introduce themselves, and ask you if you are enjoying your stay. And any transaction at a store or food counter will always involve a conversation with the attendant helping you; often they will offer suggestions for places you should go see, or ask about where you came from and how you like their country. If you are looking for something, or curious about anything, you can stop anyone at all and they will happily help you if they can. One of several examples of this was when we were driving around Apia trying to find the sliding rocks. We could not find the correct road (our map was not that great) and finally in desperation, at the next red light we asked the driver in the car next to us if he could tell us how to get there. He immediately said "No problem! Just follow me." At first we thought this guy must be having some fun with us, but he pulled ahead and led us directly to the rocks (about a 10 minute drive from where we started). We thought the French Polynesians were very friendly people, but the Samoans bring it to a whole new level (although the fact that they speak English and not French probably helps quite a bit). These are strange lands out here in the South Pacific where everyone is always smiling and happy to see you!


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The produce market in Apia. Need some coconuts?


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The fish market in Apia.


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Testing out the fish and chips at the fish market.


The next leg of our journey will be a seven day passage to Fiji, where we will meet my parents and stay for about three weeks before continuing further.






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