Samoa: Upulo

SV Jenny
Alan Franklin/Lynne Gane
Wed 26 Aug 2015 06:23
Dear Family and Friends,
I have neglected my writing for nearly 2 weeks and as I write I am newly arisen from the grateful sleep of  the truly exhausted, back in the UK. But more of this another time.
Before more time erases the colour and detail I want to capture the magic of Samoa and the Samoan people. Unwittingly we have followed in the wake of Robert Louis Stevenson on the schooner Casco, ’The Silver Ship’ as she was known to the Polynesians, across the Pacific Ocean to his final resting place here on Samoa. His writings bring to mind, in vivid detail, our own voyages of discovery and like him and countless others we have been enchanted and seduced by the beauty of the Polynesian triangle islands and their people.
Having managed to clear into the country with visits to the boat by the health authorities, customs and quarantine officers (immigration was a taxi ride to town), we berthed in what remains of Apia marina. Much of it was destroyed by a cyclone in 2012. There we met fellow Pacific travellers, (Winterlude, Interlude, Imoogi, Whale and the Bird) whom we had heard on the SSB radio during the passage from Galapagos to the Marquesas. A convivial happy hour with them followed at the inevitable yachties bar and as always fellow travellers are keen to share invaluable local information. So that was how we came to go, on the spur of the moment to an unprepossessing water front cafe with a crudely formed stage.
Samoan fire dancing, wow, electrifying.  Traditions are being kept alive by a Samoan who teaches street kids this piece of Samoan culture through the work of his charity. Young boys join or are recruited from as early as 3-4 years of age. We saw 2 such performers practising their routines, with batten but not fire, and whilst they did make mistakes, their enthusiasm was both amazing and charming. The performance began with a blast of drumming from a hollowed tree trunk and two large biscuit tins, followed by a mesmerizing display of fire batten twirling and juggling by very accomplished young men. Grass shirts, garlands of palm leaves about their bare oiled chests, amulets and garters of palm too, these are the warrior dancers. Sitting at the front, sudden waves of heat bathed us in a fiery glow as the battens were lit, lines of fire drawn in the sand, fiery trails lingered on the eye, movements as fast and furious as the as the crescendo of sounds. The applause had scarcely died away before the beautiful lady dancers took to the stage, in full length skirts (quite unlike the Tahitian grass skirts), with graceful gestures of arms and faces and flowing movements of their feet, a twisting on their heels, without lifting a step at times, made them seem to float on beautiful Samoan music. Their dance was more graceful, less raunchy than that of the Polynesian Heivas, just lovely.
A Samoan buffet accompanied the dancing, served on a ‘dish’ of plaited palm leaves with a large breadfruit leaf liner. Arranged in helpings around the leaf were the now familiar poisson cru,  noodles with chicken and soy, a chicken and potato curry, taro leaves (very similar to spinach in taste), cooked in coconut milk which is delicious, salt pork and a slice of something starchy and tasteless which turned out to be their dietary staple, taro root. That was to be the beginning of our culinary experiences with more instruction, in barbecuing Samoan style at the wonderful cultural centre, in Apia.
The centre is a series of traditional Fale, oblong and open palm roofed structures supported on smoothed and carved tree trunks, with rounded short sides. Modern concrete bases have replaced the raised stone and dirt floors. This centre and cultural programme are supported by funds from the governments of Samoa, Australia and new Zealand. Free of charge, their guests are invited to learn about and experience Samoan culture, everyone who went said they could easily have gone again, it was so good. It all kicked off with instruction in making plaited palm garlands for the head and palm plates as we had seen the night before. The latter is made from 2 half palm fronds split up the central spine, tightly plated together from the base of the leaves. As the bowl shape is formed and large enough, the tips of the leaves are tied off in 2 bunches to hold it all together. No washing up, I like it! Baskets are also made from the half fronds with the spines forming rigid basket sides and these are often seen, carried one at each end of a stout pole balanced on the shoulders.
Next up was the preparation of the Umu or traditional family meal, if you like, the equivalent of the ‘Sunday Roast’. As our host and presenter Chris said, this is the work of men, yep men in charge of the barbecue again, as the work is hot and strenuous. A hearth is formed with medium sized rounded river lava stones, sometimes this is in a pit where the food will be more steamed than roasted and will be left to cook for longer, or on the flat earth. On top of the stones, a fire is made using logs. Once the logs are nearly burnt through, they are raked off and the stones pushed into the centre with long poles as the heat is intense. The stones are then covered with fresh banana palms, the prepared food is put on the top and the whole covered with more banana palms and then further dried leaves and weighted down to stop the breeze blowing the layers away. Cooking time is approximately one hour, depending on the temperatures and a matter of experience and fine judgement. We watched fascinated as the taro and coconut dish was prepared. Here a cone of fresh taro leaves, (variously described as elephants ears), is formed to receive the coconut milk. By clever and practiced hands this was sealed with more leaf and the whole wrapped in other leaf, possibly breadfruit, forming a roundish ball, tied with palm leaf ‘string’. These were cooked in a palm basket. I believe the outer leaves are discarded or perhaps used as a serving container for the inner pulp of taro and coconut. Taro roots were cleaned and roasted whole, no amount of tender administrations seems to make these taste any better! And lastly fresh fish are prepared and roasted whole in their own palm baskets.
Yet another coconut preparation demonstration followed, I would feel quite competent in that department now!
The Ava ceremony is a welcoming ceremony to the household, family and village. In a special carved wooden ava bowl, ‘prepared’ kava root, ((the chewed root and saliva which helps it ferment) is steeped in water and then strained through a fibrous strainer by the high lady of the family, dressed in a magnificent headdress. Through a code of gestures of welcome, the honoured guests are given the liquid in a half coconut shell, as we were. It tastes of slightly bitter water, tinted brown and bitty. I believe once fermented it can be hallucinogenic, but I am not rushing to follow that one up. However if you did not receive the Ava welcome in times past, it may well mean you were on the menu, on balance perhaps a bowlful of bitters wasn’t so bad.
Troops of male and female dancers performed dances of welcome, musically similar to Polynesia, in gestures quite their own Samoan style. More warrior defenders than aggressors, with no in your face bulging eyes and stuck out tongues. The ladies pictures of floating grace. The clapping dance performed by men and women is a symphony of sound and synchronization, a real privilege to have seen.
The preparation of tapa, the bark cloth, is part of a pan Polynesian culture. Its preparation goes thus. A single shoot of the Paper Mulberry, ( or lesser quality Breadfruit tree), is grown, picking off the leaves and any sides shoots as it grows to around 8’ before harvesting. Whilst newly cut the bark is slit and peeled off, the outer brown layer peeled away from the inner bark. This is soaked and scraped with a serrated edged shell to reduce its thickness, producing a fine pale silky length of bark cloth. Laid on a wooden platform, the cloth is patched where holes from shoots occur using scraps of prepared wet cloth and the whole topped with more cloth, a kind of sandwich, which is smoothed together and laid to dry, weighted down for a number of hours. Once dry the tapa cloth is placed over a wooden printing block, carved with traditional tapa images such as the intricate patterns and the sacred turtle motifs. The designs are imprinted on the cloth using grated brown rock powder and black ‘ink; made from burning the seeds of the Candle nut tree. An elderly woman completed this demonstration as many of the younger generations no longer routinely prepare this cloth, the cultural centre is working to ensure these skills will be passed on. These days it is much more common for ladies wanting to earn extra cash to roller print ready made cotton cloth, using modern dyes and the old printing blocks.
The sacred art of tatau or tattooing is one of reverence and respect. You must approach a tattoo master who has learnt his art over several years of apprenticeship, from in front of him, never from behind, you must remove your shoes, hats and sunglasses and you do not disturb him or photograph him. Samoan tattoos are quite different to the masterpieces of body art in the Marquesas, still my favourite. It is a matter of family pride that if you choose to have the traditional set of tattoos you have the complete set of 12 sessions each 3-4 hours long. To duct out at less is shameful. The traditional tattoos cover the lower abdomen and upper legs with a series of repeating marks, lines and areas of dense colour. Your family accompany you to help you through the ordeal which is painful. Once again ‘candle nut ink’ and sterile coconut water is used with a modern needle in a wooden shaft. Everyone is silent as the tap tapping traces colour into the flesh. Further tattoos can be added to the arms and in the past to the faces to create an intimidating warrior face, these are a personal choice and not the badge of family honour. Ladies can also choose to have the traditional more spaced marks, crosses and lines, covering their upper legs.
Traditional wood carving using rudimentary tools, originally stone heads tied to wooden shafts with palm rope, produce fine quality bowls, something akin to nibbles platters and ceremonial symbols. Traced with surface detail they are made in fine hardwoods such as mahogany and rose wood.
The most interesting of the days learning was about the society and the role of the fale. Each family has an appointed Maitai , a head chief, a talking chief or a talking head chief in descending order of rank, who is chosen to represent them by the extended family themselves, depending on the persons past actions and qualities. So any of them may be chosen, man or woman. The fale is constructed with a centre pole around the short side of the fale to the left of its entrance, here the head chief sits, with lesser chiefs sitting to his right at specific poles of the fale, then below them and in rank, other members of the family. The family lands which include growing plantations and land for the houses and all family matters are discussed here in the fale council. No one individually owns the family lands, they have a right to live and farm there. When a wider meeting of the district is convened the family Maitai attends and they intern are represented by more senior Maitai for regional and national issues. To become an MP you must first be a Maitai. The call of family business, weddings and funerals will bring back relatives living in New Zealand, Australian and beyond, to attend a fale, it is simply that important to their culture.
More on a visit to R L Stevenson’s Vailima coming up next time.
All our best, Lynne and Alan