Gangly girls, hair tightly braided in plaits, swinging the skirts of their checkered button down dresses, giggle and clutch worn school books tightly to their chests. The boys, shuffling along in dusty lava lavas, carry crumbled Cheetos’s bags in one hand, IPOD’s in the other, and bounce their chins to unheard beats of bass and drums. Nearby, a cluster of weathered men and a chipped concrete table coalesce in a dynamic social scene. Bent heads focus on the checker board before them while forgotten cigarettes glow faintly from soiled fingertips. Discarded newspapers, previously perused and critiqued, flutter underfoot. Observing the men is compelling. Periodically a grumble or shout rises from the group, followed by buoyant laughs, slaps on the back, and another round of cigarettes. They are serious afternoon gamblers, yet maintain their comrade and brotherly goodwill. On the opposite side of the street, fleshy women, sporting brilliantly colored gowns, plod along the sidewalk, leisurely gossiping with a neighbor and sharing a piece of pulpy fruit. Juice runs down their chins, dripping unnoticed onto the flowered frocks. Their sticky handed young ones frolic ahead, yelling and occasionally throwing rocks at a stray dog. Welcome to the serene lifestyle of Samoa!
While visiting these islands of pure paradise, the single radio station played a song entitled, “Oh, My Beautiful Samoa” over and over again until we were all humming the chorus in the showers. The theme lays way to the truth; no false advertising here. Rolling hills, glowing in lush vegetation, weep with native flowers and ripe fruits. The fragrant aromas are tantalizing; the sights equally mesmerizing. The people of Samoa are as enjoyable and welcoming as the scenery. Always ready for a conversation, a free car ride in the right direction, or a boisterous brag about their humble country, Samoans are adorably engaging, young and old alike. With gentle personalities and a keen interest for foreign banter or quick English lesson, these islanders are one of the friendliest natives we have come across thus far.
Discovering American Samoa
We began our jaunt through the Samoa’s group in American Samoa, directly into the striking harbor of Pago Pago. American Samoa is Western Samoa’s unclaimed sister across the bay, the neglected black cloud to the shining white sky. Apples to oranges, night to day, Prada to Kmart. In other words, they are as different from one another as the modern Michael Jackson is to his early 90’s persona.
Pago Pago greeted us with Bud Lite and $1 strawberry sundaes. Searching further, we found a taco stand, Country Time Lemonade, and both crunchy and smooth peanut butter…American products galore in an otherwise un-American decor. Indeed, American Samoa is an unincorporated territory of the United States and has been occupied since the early 1900’s when The Treaty of Berlin bid Germany and the US to divide the Samoan archipelago. Although persons born in Samoa are not considered as American citizens (they are thus termed American nationals), they are allowed to elect one non-voting delegate to the US House of Representatives. If Democrat Eni Fa’aua’a Hunkin Faleomavaega, Jr. can’t vote, I’m not quite sure about his role in government, but that’s American politics for you folks.
Aside from the smelly tuna fish odor drifting across the bay from two processing/canning factories, Pago Pago does not offer much for the waylaid traveler. The streets are filled with rubbish. Discarded Styrofoam containers and plastic bags, empty soda cans and beer bottles, and heaps of household trash lie along the roads and canals crisscrossing the island. On a positive note, the locals are extremely friendly and entertaining, often crossing the street to say hello and introduce themselves and family members. Prices are also dirt cheap so eating out and buying souvenirs is an occasion to be celebrated. In fact, our main reason for visiting American Samoa was to replenish our dwindling supply of goods for the next few months of sailing. We spent more than one afternoon riding the hilarious “bongo” buses back and forth to warehouse stores (much like Sam’s Club) to lug over-sized cans of soup, army size boxes of granola bars, and case after case of oatmeal and pancake mix back to QQ. She was soon stocked to the brim with odds and ends and lots of goodies.
Meanwhile, we did spend a few balmy afternoons at the Yacht Club, sipping tasty beverages and watching thirty plus teams of rowers glide through the water. One rowdy afternoon led to a rather eventful evening at the karaoke bar…..an episode not often witnessed in the Cultra chronicles. I have pictures to prove it! We also were excited to meet Wyland, an internationally renowned wildlife artist whose life-size murals decorate buildings across the globe. He was in Pago Pago continuing his monumental Whaling Wall mural project — an epic series of more than ninety-one life size marine murals that spans twelve countries on four continents. Wyland was on his way to China to paint a three mile long mural for the Olympic games following the completion of Pago Pago’s new addition. On our last day in A.Samoa, we attended the ribbon cutting ceremony and had some celebration cake with Wyland and his team. I must say that he painted a pretty fantastic mural in just five days!
Sailing Onward to Western Samoa
Our shortest sail of the trip followed as we sailed overnight to Apia, the popular harbor side city of Western Samoa’s second largest island, Upolu. Here, South Pacific life came alive as described so vividly in Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novels and articles. The markets and rural villages were especially captivating. We took a four-hour bus ride across the island, a genuinely local bus as it stopped for stray school children, grimy field workers going home for a mid-day meal and a HUGE load of lumber that slid right into the center isle. Out of the hustle of Apia, we observed a much slower paced lifestyle. Many people were sitting in the shade, sleeping in the shade or chatting with a friend in the shade. To put it simply, not much work was being accomplished!
Traditional Samoan houses were scattered throughout the bush, centered around a fale fono, or chief’s meeting house. Although westernized building materials are used these days, the typical house looks quite similar to how they were constructed half a century ago. The floor is raised above ground on a platform and the sides of the house are left entirely open under a domed roof. Woven mats hang from the roof and can be unrolled to shield the exposed side of the house from rain or sun. Most houses lack furniture as the floor and more mats are used for sitting and sleeping. Toilets are outdoors and down the footpath. The schoolhouse may be in the same village or a two hour walk down the road. Front yard gardens supply taro root and potatoes while fruits grow on nearby trees. The splendor of simplicity.
Overnight in Savai’i
After giving QQ a good cleaning and scrub of the hulls, we cheered on Samoa’s rugby team vs. Fiji’s finest. Only a small crowd gathered at the stadium but what lacked in numbers was made up with enthusiasm. Islanders love their sport. We also all took a break for two days and rode the ferry across the Apolima Strait to Savai’i, a magic step back in time. One road circles the island, surrounding Mount Silisili, an active volcano that last erupted in 1911. The lava flows covered quite a large portion of the island and the uneven black ashes offer a quiet afternoon stroll for the curious trekker.
We spent the night at Regina’s beach fale’s, a new experience for my thirteen year old sister. Our “room” was typical for Samoan houses, as explained above, except on a much smaller scale. Our mattress covered most of the floor, a mosquito net hung from the rafters and a fresh stalk of bananas swung from the tree outside our door. After a kava session with the local teenage boys and other backpackers, we fell asleep to the sounds of crashing waves just ten feet away. Perfection.
The Samoa’s group was an ideal stop along our sail eastward. We all needed a refreshing visit on a friendly island to pump up our spirits for the remaining weeks at sea. Although American Samoa was disappointing in the aspect of poor sanitation, environment pollution and recycling programs, there are some ideas for improvement and the wonderful spirit of the locals seemed to cast any shadows of doubt away. Perhaps on the next visit, the country will have an entirely new face lift and both the environment and wildlife will be on a new road of recovery. Western Samoa, on the other hand, is definitely a shining star in the South Pacific and a must see for any tourist, backpacker, honeymooner, or interested arm chair reader. Life plods along on these islands. Off the beaten path, family and friends remain a top priority, and long hours are spent talking with one another, something that we often neglect in our busy lives. Mealtime is an occasion to be celebrated and a cardboard box and marker is all that is needed to let little imaginations run wild. With all the technology, gadgets and gadgets in our everyday lives, we westernized countries tend to believe that we’re the lucky ones. After visiting these islands and seeing the brilliant smiles of children or the loving embraces between long married couples whose lives are so remarkably basic, I wonder if they are actually the ones who have it all figured out.