The ARGONAUT August 21,2014 Samoa


August 13 to August 21, 2014

Arrival: We arrived in Apia, Samoa at 21:00 on August 13, 2014, after a lovely six day passage from Bora Bora. Although it was dark when we arrived and we were unfamiliar with the harbor, entry was easy and straightforward. The harbor is broad once inside the reef. It is completely open to the north, so it doesn’t provide protection from the ocean’s swell when the wind clocks around. We dropped the hook in 30 feet of water amongst a few sailboats at anchor. After a cocktail and a bit of relaxation, we buttoned her up and went below for a good night’s sleep. The next morning we contacted harbor control to begin the check-in procedure. Within an hour or so both immigration and health service came aboard. In early afternoon we went ashore to check in with customs and quarantine services, both of whom we had to bring back to the boat for an inspection. Altogether there are four offices to check-in with, four sets of papers asking the same information to fill out, but no fees, which is very unusual. Everyone was friendly and easy going. 

The Islands: There are two large islands, Upolu and Savai’i, and several very small outer islands, only one or two of which are inhabited. Samoa has a population of about 185,000; 150,000 live on Upolu and 35,000 live on Savai’i. Apia is the capital where the majority of the population resides. There are two authorities in Samoa, the civil government and the tribal or village chiefs. The civil government is elected and has legislative, executive and judicial branches. The civil government is the final authority in all matters.

The islands are mountainous and of volcanic origin. The center of both islands is steep and rugged, strewn with lava rocks and overgrown with rain forests. It is very hot and humid most of the time here, making it a wonderful environment for vegetation of all kinds. The islands are ravaged by cyclones each year, consequently the high rainforest canopy that you might expect is instead a patchwork of banyans and other tall hardwood trees that are able to withstand the wind, along with vines and broad leaf plants making up the lower layers of the forests. Coconut Palms are truly the tree of life here in Samoa, and groves of them can be seen everywhere. There are two seasons in Samoa, the wet season (October to March) and the dry season. During the wet season it rains in torrents each day, filling the ravines with raging rivers. Waterfalls cascade off the rugged plateaus from high up in the mountains, falling 900 feet straight down in several places. The two waterfalls that we saw were spectacularly high, with the water creating a “bridal veil“ down the face of the black lava rock cliffs and falling into a beautiful cascade of small pools carved out of the lava over the millenniums and framed by coconut palms and giant ferns. In addition to powerful cyclones, Samoa is also subject to periodic tsunamis that ravage the east and south coasts.

Upolu is the larger of the two islands. Apia, the Capitol of Samoa, is located here and is the commercial and government center. The city has several large open air farmers’ markets, many restaurants, a movie theater, and shops of all types. It is clean, although it has no significant architectural buildings other than the recently restored 19th century Roman Catholic Italianate style Cathedral, and a modern government building. Samoans are very proud of their little country and pride themselves on their friendliness. Other than Apia, the Robert Lewis Stevenson plantation attracts a lot of interest. It is a surprising large sprawling home with many verandas and surrounded by a fancy fence and imposing gate. Mr. Stevenson, who among other things authored Treasure Island, lived in the home for several years before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 44. He and his wife Fanny (a physician from California) are buried on the property and our guide gladly took about five minutes to sing a cappella the funeral song composed by Mr. Stevenson himself for his own funeral. To me, that certainly demonstrated Mr. Stevenson’s command of the moment! Both our guide’s voice and the words of the song were quite lovely. After leaving the home, we stopped by a Bahia Temple or House of Worship. There are only a handful of these temples in the world and, since one of our friends is a Bahia member, we thought we would stop by and check it out. The temple is of a modern architectural style and built of concrete in the shape of an inverted flower –maybe a tulip – with the stem end at the top and the petals as sides covering the worship area, which is a six sided room similar in its simplicity to a Quaker Meeting Hall. The building is very plain with a lone small podium at floor level available for people to share their ideas, which, as I understand it, is the nature of the service. Outside, the building is landscaped in beautiful gardens, which, when mature, are likely to be spectacular. 

As we continued our drive around the island we saw more village life; dogs, pigs, chickens, small children running about, and their parents lying on mats on the fale floor in the heat of mid-day. When we reached the south shore of the island, we visited To Sua, a private park that features beautiful geologic and coastal lava formations as well as a garden. The coast here stretches as far as the eye can see in both directions, and is a rugged lava stone matrix of arches and points against which the southern ocean pounds and upwells with spectacular effect. Away from the cliff and on firm ground can be found deep lava tubes that the sea replenishes with water from below, some of which are about an acre in size and perhaps two hundred feet below ground level. The sides of the tubes were covered in beautiful ferns, and the water below was crystal clear. A stairway descends down the side of the lava tube to the pool so that the ambitious can swim in the pool for the price of climbing back up all those stairs.

Savai’i is the second largest island of Samoa, and much more rural and traditional than Upolu. We spent two days there including the one hour ferry across Apolima Strait from Upolu. There are five tourist attractions on Savai’i; the lava field, the blow holes, the sea arches, swimming with turtles, and the traditional craft of tapas cloth making. The arches and blow holes occur on the southern shore of the island, and like To Sua on Upolu, are dramatic formations of lava where the island meets the sea. I have posted pictures on the website showing most of these attraction. The blow holes are the most spectacular that I have ever seen. Given the right surf conditions, water spouts hundreds of feet in the air like a geyser. Our guide, whose name was Turkey, put a coconut into the tube just before a wave came in and it shot several hundred feet into the air when the hole blew. It was so interesting that we watched the surf and the blow hole for quite a long time.

As we drove around the island we stopped at the home of a village chief and his family. The chief was reclined on the floor of his fale when we arrived. He was a handsome, self-assured fellow. Turkey asked if we could photograph his traditional Samoan tattoos. He happily complied, stood up, adjusted his lava-lava* and proudly posed in the style of Arnold Schwarzenegger, resplendent with a girth appropriate for a chief of middle age. A few minutes later we entered another fale where his wife was making tapa, a traditional cloth made from tree bark. She took a four foot sapling stem of a particular tree and stripped the bark off, separated the moist inner bark from the weathered outer layer, and then pounded it into a four foot by two foot piece of course fabric. As it had several knot holes and other imperfections, other pieces of the same fabric where then glued over it with a glue made from the tapioca root and pounded with a mallet until it was nearly uniform. After the patchwork was complete, it appeared nearly perfect and very pleasing in both texture and appearance. After a few hours drying, it becomes a thick, soft, flexible cloth that was traditionally used to make clothing.

* (A lava-lava is a single piece of cloth and when used by men is wrapped around the waist and extends to the knee and then pulled up in front and tied in a knot to form a cover. It is the traditional dress for men in much of Polynesia. Men also have “western” lava-lavas made of heavier fabric like a suit would be made of and it has pockets. Women use the same piece of cloth, but hang it above the breasts and tie it on the side as a dress. No one wears underwear, in case you were wondering.)

A Very Little History: People first came to Samoa about 1,000 years ago from Taiwan. They are the same tribe that populated Fiji, Tonga, Polynesia, Hawaii and the other South Pacific Islands. Europeans first “discovered” Samoa in the 18th century. Later, Britain, France, Germany and The United States tussled over control of the islands during the 19th century in order to use them as a coaling station for their commercial and naval fleets. The U.S. formed alliances with local chieftains to secure its position and wound up with what is now called American Samoa. The Germans won Western Samoa, but lost it to the British during the First World War. The British turned over administration to New Zealand after WWII, and Western Samoa become independent in 1962. The citizens of American Samoa have voted to remain a protectorate of the United States.

Village Life: Eighty percent of the land of Samoa is owned by individuals and the remainder is owned by the government, some of which is available for purchase. Private land is held within villages and is owned by the many extended families living there. The population of a village can be as small as a few hundred people or as large as a couple of thousand. Villages are governed by one or more” high chiefs” and a council of “talking chiefs”. A high chief is elected from a family having royal blood, i.e., related in some way to one of the four ancestral royal families. The high chief is normally a male, but females may also qualify, particularly if there are no qualifying males. High Chiefs are elected for life and are given a house adjoining the village fale, which is an open air, oblong, thatched or (more recently) steel roofed structure where gatherings are held. “Talking Chiefs” are elected by the other families to represent and speak for them at council meetings held in the fale. Chiefs are elected based on their service to the family, village, and church. This can take the form of helping the old and infirmed, giving food to village members, or helping others defray the expense of funerals and weddings among other things. The village is the center of life in Samoa. If a person commits a capital offense that person may be expelled from the village and their house burned and property confiscated. If this happens, the individual is effectively a stateless person with no means of support. The chiefs handle matters such as property disputes, family domestic squabbles, teenage rowdiness, and other civil issues. In the case of rowdiness or wife abuse for example, the chiefs may impose a fine of as much as a thousand dollars or more, which the offender’s family will have to pay if the individual cannot come up with the money. Younger men wishing to become chiefs help the council maintain order and carry out their mandates. Women have their own role, which is to keep the village clean and to decorate it with floral gardens, and to conduct money raising events, the proceeds of which go to fund village projects. Women’s groups have their own leadership hierarchy.

Each family owns part of the village land and on their parcel are usually several homes and at least one fale. Often the homes are fales with little or no furniture and people sleeping on mats or low plank beds with a futon type mattress. They are built up on pilings about three feet above ground level, the sides are open and have thatched palm blinds that can be lowered when it rains, and mosquito nets to assure a peaceful night’s sleep. The roof is often thatched, but it can also be covered in steel sheeting. Some fales are painted and fancy, some are made of concrete, and some are old and dilapidated wooden structures. There are typically no rooms in a fale, it’s just one large space. The temperature is so hot and it is so humid that open sided fales are very practical during the day to keep the rain out and provide some shade. Behind or attached to the fale is often a modern looking four sided home constructed of brick. There are usually several homes and fales on a site that may belong to different generations of a family. Newlyweds are usually given a plot to build a fale for their home, or they take over an older abode and the elders move to newer lodging. Somewhere in the front of the yard for all to see are the tombs of deceased ancestors. These can be quite large if the deceased was a high chief or a person who rose to prominence. 

Driving around Samoa we saw a large percentage of fale made in the traditional way with people lying about on the floor on old tapa mats. No one looked like they were doing much, but they waved and were ready at the drop of a hat to have their picture taken. Many of the people in Samoa are quite heavy and likely to be tattooed with ancestral and culturally meaningful designs. The yards were full of breadfruit, papaya, taro, banana and other edible plants. Perhaps the Garden of Eden was here. Dogs, chickens, and pigs roam about. Behind the fale would likely be a small, square roofed structure with no sides; this is the kitchen. Food is cooked over an open fire using banana leaves to steam vegetables. Coconut husks are used for fuel, and coconut cream is used in many dishes. It is obtained by first removing the husk and exposing the nut, then a well place strike of a stone along the lateral line of the shell will open it easily. The chef then scrapes the coconut fruit into a bowl in shreds. After he has collected enough shreds, he places the shreds on a fabric (like cheesecloth) made of the coconut husk and wrings the shreds inside the fabric until a milky liquid falls into a waiting bowl. The resulting liquid has the consistency of cream and is delicious. The left over coconut shreds are fed to the hungry, but wary chickens. This makes catching them possible. As they brazenly come forth for the coconut, a quick grab results in one of the three main elements of the Sunday Feast. The other two are fish and suckling pig.

Samoans are very religious people and each village has one or more churches within its boundaries. Many of these churches are quit elaborate and grand, given the appearance of the surrounding village. Each afternoon at around 6 PM a horn sounds or bells ring, calling family members home for evening prayers. There is a curfew then, and under-chiefs patrol the village looking for truants. Church attendance is mandatory on Sunday and subject to a fine of if a person fails to attend. Each Sunday there is a morning service followed by the family feast, which is cooked by the men. Men do most of the cooking in Samoa. When people go to church they wear their Sunday best. For women that is pretty standard finery including a big, fancy hat. For men it involves the Lava-Lava, which is the traditional long, wrap skirt. Normally during the week they wear a working form of the lava-lava with or without a shirt. Shirts are usually cotton with a tropical print. On Sunday, despite the hot, humid weather, they wear an undershirt and English style white shirt and tie. You can see them walking along the side of the road to and from the churches. Once morning church services are over, they head back to the family compound for a feast with their extended family. After the feast comes a nap. When driving about the countryside, one can see resting on the floor of their fales heaving mounds of golden brown people snoozing blissfully in the mid-day heat. When nap time is over, it is back to church for two or more hours of evening services. 

The village churches in Samoa are very big and impressive. All but two villages in the whole country have two or more churches inside their borders. There are the usually choices: Roman Catholic, Methodist, Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventists, Presbyterian and Mormon. Mormon is the fastest growing and they have new facilities everywhere. I asked several people why that is; they have basketball courts, I was told. Perhaps this is as deep as it gets. Several of our drivers were Mormons and I asked them about their experiences; two of three had been foreign missionaries, and the offer of free travel abroad is probably very attractive to these young people. I asked both what was the distinguishing belief that differentiated them from, say, Catholics or Protestants. They didn’t have any idea. Churchgoers are expected to tithe to the church. Once a month there is a special collection to support the minister or priest of the church, and if enough of a contribution isn’t forthcoming from the flock, names of the laggards may be posted. The Protestant ministers that we saw lived in relatively lavish homes, with windows and air conditioning. They drive fancy cars and are among the highest paid people in Samoan society…they take the prime cuts!

Families in Samoa are large, often 10 or more children. Land is inherited by males, and females normally join their husband’s family and move to their husband’s village after marriage. A high percentage of Samoan children leave the island as adults, residing in America, New Zealand and Australia during their working years, and return to Samoa and the family compound after they retire. Children residing abroad are tapped constantly to help support their family at home, to provide the money to build a new home if needed, or to pay for the travel cost of visiting Samoan family members. The ones remaining at home take care of mom, dad, and other family elders. Weddings and funerals are lavish and expensive affairs. These events can involve several days of feasting and a thousand or more invited and uninvited guests. People come from all over to eat during the events, and they will often take food away with them when they go home. Each nuclear family within the larger family will be tapped for several pigs, chickens and pounds of fruits and vegetables. They will almost certainly be called on for a thousand or more dollars each, which is when the phones abroad will ring. These events can cost ten or twelve thousand dollars on average! One of our Samoan acquaintances told us that if their brother or sister’s overseas phone has been disconnected or isn’t answered, it is because they don’t want to hear from the folks back home and they are probably tapped out! I don’t think I would be far off the facts if I said that Samoa’s largest export was its surplus population, and that its greatest import was cash from abroad.

On to Tonga: We checked out of Samoa on Tuesday and headed west around Upolu and south through the Apolima Strait toward Vava’U, Kingdom of Tonga. It was a beautiful day to start our two day, 350 mile passage and the weather was forecasted to be very pleasant. We put out our lines and what do you know, we got a very big strike on the way through the strait. Tyler didn’t want to take it, so I did. It seemed huge: I battled it for at least thirty minutes. It was a strange fight though, because it didn’t run, it just wouldn’t come in. I pulled and pulled, but I couldn’t make any headway for about a half an hour. Then it began to weaken as I took advantage of every opportunity to reel it in. I had to be careful as I could easily break the line and lose my $20 lure! Gradually it gave way and I could see that I was bringing something in…a tuna…I pulled it up, and there it was a 15-20lb Big Eye. Very small for that species of fish and not capable of the sort of fight I experienced. I always wanted a Big Eye, but then I saw the problem…a third of it was gone. A shark had grabbed its tail just as it struck my line and he was fighting me for the tuna…but I won most of it!

As for the trip down south…I am going to sell this damn thing! Seriously, no sooner had we gotten off shore than we hit very large, steep waves (9-15 ft. @ 7-8 sec) that stayed with us for the two day passage. It was a rough trip, and the only one this year that made me sea sick! 

We are now quietly anchored in Neiafu, Vava’U, The Kingdom of Tonga. The weather is colder than usual at 760 and it is windy this week. Paul Allen’s yacht, Meduse, is anchored next to us off to our starboard. Rumor has it Bill and Melinda Gates will be here tomorrow. 

Thanks for checking in on us.

As has been said: “Keep your boat on the water and the water out of your boat!” Certainly words to live by.


Randy and Rebeccacca

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