Travelogue 8: American Samoa and independent Samoa (27 September 2009)
On leaving Niue, we had a good breeze of about 15 knots and an open anchorage so we sailed off the mooring, and soon were up to 11 knots boatspeed with just our genoa. After getting out of the lee of the island, though, the winds increased to the mid-20s and the swell and waves were abeam, coming from the East as we headed due North, which made for a rolly ride. We figured the seas to be about 8-10 feet.
We slowed down by switching to our staysail to make the ride more comfortable and also to make our next port, Pago Pago, in the daylight. Pago Pago is really a misnomer as it is only one of the villages that make up the sprawling central commercial district on the island of Tutuila in American Samoa, with the main part in the village of Fagotogo. However, Pago Pago is the village at the head of the harbor, which is considered by seamen as the finest natural harbor in the South Pacific, and after which the harbor is named. Several people warned us from going there, saying that it is an industrial harbor, noisy, dirty and stinky. Personally after all the tourism-based islands we had been to, I was eager for a little of the real world where people don’t just hustle tourists, but actually produce something.
Pago Pago (pronounced with an “N”, like “Pahn-go Pahn-go”) harbor is the home of several large tuna canneries with combined sales of over $300 million per year. Brands include Starkist – there is a statue of Charlie the Tuna – and Chicken-of-the-Sea. Large tuna boats are constantly moving in and out of the harbor, and because of the protection afforded by its benevolent natural location -- with a long dog-leg to protect against swells and mountains towering all around to stifle the winds -- the harbor is also a key transportation hub for container vessels, all of which – tens of tuna boats and regular container ship traffic – make for a busy place. Because of the traffic, you must contact the harbormaster on entering the harbor, then any time you want to move from your assigned mooring or anchorage, you have to first contact the harbormaster or you can be fined.
It’s a bit confusing when one speaks of Samoa because there are two of them. American Samoa (the US Postal Service refers to it as AS) has been attached to the US since the late 1870s, while the independent country of Samoa just to the west (and formerly called West Samoa) was originally British, then German, then under New Zealand administration from World War I until full independence in the 1960s. Samoa, by the way, is pronounced “SAM-wa” by the Samoans, and not “Sam-OH-a” as most Westerners say.
There is a unique Samoan language and culture that both American Samoa and Samoa share, but in American Samoa the American influence is so strong in culture and economy the differences between the two remind one of the old East and West Germany -- not that one is a dictatorship and the other democratic, since they are both equally democratic, but because the material side of life in the two parts are so different. Samoa is more populous than American Samoa (180,000 vs. 60,000) but is not near as rich in vehicles, fast food outlets, shopping opportunities, and trash. The people in both parts of Greater Samoa are friendly, warm, and generous in the typical Polynesian way. They also share other typical Polynesian cultural traits such as general tidiness and pride in their homes, an affinity for landscaping, the habit of removing footwear (generally flip-flops) before entering a house, burying the dead in their front yards, tolerating many cross-dressing males, having large extended families or clans, attending church and singing church hymns, and pretty much closing down all retail and service establishments on Sunday.
They also exhibit a trait that is typical of all the Pacific islands I know about and makes them such a great place to visit: unlike in the Caribbean and Africa and certain other spots, the people seem to truly like white Americans and Europeans.
The Samoans are the most traditional of the Polynesians we have seen. For one thing, most men in American Samoa and virtually all men in independent Samoa wear lava-lavas, which is like a sarong – a strip of cloth wrapped around the waist and extending to mid calf. All school kids wear them as part of their uniforms, and you see scores of teenage boys playing Samoan cricket in them. Another unique item in both Samoas is the “fale”, which is their traditional building from ancient times and still in use. A fale basically is a covered area over a large foundation – originally stone but now concrete -- with a high-pitched roof supported by regularly spaced columns. Some of the roofs are still thatched with palm fronds and other vegetation, but the most popular nowadays seems to be corrugated metal. The roofs are often complex and oval, and with new shiny tin look a bit like a Spanish conquistador’s helmet. Originally roofs were designed to resemble a canoe inverted, and today’s oval shape roughly follows that tradition.
The most unique characteristic of a fale – and one that Westerners cannot easily appreciate – is that it has no walls or furniture. The inhabitants sit on the floor, sleep on mats woven from the leaves of the pandanus tree, use a block of wood for a pillow, cook in a hole in the ground in a separate covered structure (but with no foundation), and have a bathroom in yet another building (thankfully with walls). That is the most basic fale, and from there they range up to beautifully ornate concrete columns and fascia, with walled rooms attached. Some people have a small what we might consider a normal house with walls and windows, then out front a traditional fale. (And to the side a couple of graves.) The few we saw up close had electricity but no appliances, although one night driving we saw television sets shining in several, so perhaps they put away their appliances during the day, although I do not know where as there appears to be no storage. There was a screened cabinet in one where they kept food, but no chairs, no benches, tables or other cabinets.
In American Samoa the fale is rarely used any more as a fulltime residence, but instead larger fales are constructed by clans for ceremonial use such as weddings and funerals and reunions. In each village there are several churches usually and around each one there are several of these large fales. Everyone there seems to have adopted the Western-style home, but that is certainly not the case in independent Samoa. Even there, however, the trend is away from the traditional fale and towards a boxed-in house and in the main town of Apia there are virtually no fulltime traditional fale residences.
Another way that independent Samoa differs from American Samoa is in subsistence farming. Whereas subsistence farming is on the decline in American Samoa as the diet is more dependent on store-bought foods, it is still very strong in Samoa with hardly any other work available in some areas. And whereas in American Samoa the farmers most often use vehicles to transport their crops, in Samoa most everything is carried by people using a pole across a shoulder with a homemade basket on either end full of leaves or roots, often carried by a shirtless man in a lava-lava.
The fales, the lava-lavas, the dark complexions and black hair, humans as the main beast of burden – all display a culture traditionally much more Asian than Western.
Christianity has westernized the locals a great deal, however, and the churches remain the single most important influence on society. Everyone attends church several times a week, including two services on Sunday and choir practice on a couple of other days. Churches are also important in education, and organize many activities for children. Among the denominations the Congregationalist – successor to the London Missionary Society – is the largest, followed by the Catholic, Mormon, Adventist, and several evangelical churches.
One peculiar custom in both Samoas is the enforcement of a short curfew for prayers each evening from about 6:00 to 6:30. Not enforced in the commercial areas or along the main roads, in villages men with wooden staves stand around streets and paths during this time period and no one is allowed to walk around or move anywhere and must remain wherever they find themselves when the curfew bell – often an empty propane cylinder with the bottom cut out – sounds. Finally the end-of-curfew bell sounds and normal movement resumes. The practice reminds one of the religious police in Iran.
Yet another custom unique to Samoa among the Polynesian islands is the drinking of ‘ava, which is Samoan for kava. It is made from water mixed with the crushed root of the pepper tree, and is drunk (men only) from a communal vessel or bucket using a communal coconut shell. In the big farmers’ markets in Apia and Salelologa there are circles of men on benches around a bucket with one serving into a coconut shell and passing to each man around the circle. You are not obliged to pay, but we did, five tala (the Samoan currency, a pidgin take-off of “dollar”) each. You don’t sip, you down it all in one extended gulp, and after several cups your lips tingle a bit as does your mouth to the top of your throat. ‘Ava or kava is a mild sedative reportedly, and does not have what most Westerners would consider a pleasant taste but is not offensive, just rooty, earthy. Sitting there among the men, watching each gulping a cup full in his turn, they started asking us, “what country are you from? Where are you staying? Is this your first time to Samoa?”
While everyday conversation is in the Samoan language, people all seem to know at least the rudiments of English, although it is very difficult to understand and to be understood when using English with many people, especially in independent Samoa. One day there nine of us cruisers hired a tour guide/driver for a tour of the island of Savai’I -- less developed than the more populous but smaller island of ‘Upolu where the man town, Apia, is located – and I think I understood about every third word he spoke.
Both American Samoa and independent Samoa are lovely lush islands, with rainforest, waterfalls and freshwater pools, caves, palm trees, a few sandy beaches, and huge encompassing coral reefs. On one occasion John, Glen and I went to a rock slide that was a stream pouring down a hill that had over the ages created slick surfaces that one could slide down and land in various pools. Unfortunately I got off track on one and hit rock and busted my tailbone which, although still swollen and tender to the touch, doesn’t hamper movement in any way. Another day we swam in a pool fed by about a 50-foot-high waterfall in a beautiful ferny setting.
In American Samoa we stayed only in Pago Pago harbor and I was able to talk the harbormaster – a Dallas Cowboys fan – into allowing us to tie up at a rarely used fishing wharf, which gave us fantastic access to the main commercial area. I could park our rent car within a few feet of the boat, too. We enjoyed shopping there as they had big-box stores that sold groceries in large quantities at cheap prices, and there were several gorgeous drives to make during the day.
Just on the backside of the wharf where we tied off was an area where deadenders – that is, people who reach Pago Pago and either they or their boats never leave -- appeared to congregate their boats. One was sunken with the mast above water. A couple looked abandoned. And one, although inhabited by a retired American man, was covered in moss and sea grass, the waterline of the boat below water level.
We left Dale in American Samoa to fly home to assist his father with Dale’s stepmother who is suffering from a serious illness. It was sad to see him wave goodbye as John and I sailed off into the sunset one evening for an overnight trip to Apia, which we wanted to reach by the next morning, a Friday, so as to be able to check in with authorities before the weekend and its overtime rates.
In Apia we were more or less forced to tie up in the state-owned marina, just a year old, even though we preferred to stay at anchor so we could get a better breeze in the hot, sultry climate. It turned out, though, we thoroughly enjoyed our stay there because we met and interacted with a number of other cruising boats and made lasting friends. Across the street were a couple of good restaurant/bars and one night some of the cruisers played a flute and a sax with a local guitar player, and John even got up and danced (I used my sore tailbone as an excuse not to). One other night we hosted a gathering on our aft deck and played music from my IPod.
Samoans introduce themselves and shake hands (men only) and always ask where we are from, where we are staying, if it is our first time to Samoa, etc. They are truly warm, generous people. At a canopy walk through giant banyan trees on our tour with the other cruisers the attendant, named Sano, and I were conversing and I told him I hope to return to Samoa someday and he then invited me to notify him beforehand and he will pick me and my children up at the airport and we can all stay at his fale.
John and I attended a Pentecostal church service in Apia on Sunday morning with a couple of other cruisers – an American and a Welshman – in order to listen to the choir, reportedly the best in Samoa. We were very disappointed, however, because the choir director played synthesized music at a blaringly loud level that drowned out the choir voices. The congregants were very polite and welcoming, however, and a dear old lady in white (everyone wears white to church in Samoa) and hat (as in the rest of Polynesia, women wear hats to church) sitting in the pew behind us kept fanning us with her woven pandanus leaf fan in an attempt to keep us cool. She chatted with us both before and after the service – “Where are you from? Where are you staying? Is this your first time to Samoa?” What a wonderful, sweet person, but typical for Samoa.
Also on Sunday John and I picked up our new crewman, Glen McConchie, a 45-year-old New Zealander whom I located on www.FindaCrew.com to replace Dale. Glen is a big man, about 6’4”, broad-shouldered, with a great personality and attitude, good values, and plenty of ability as a seaman. He is quite the outdoorsman, hunting and fishing and coastal boating, but has no long-distance cruising experience and is eager to get some. On the first day of sailing together, Glen brought in a nice wahoo that he filleted in about thirty seconds and then grilled, providing us with perhaps the best fish meal we have had the entire trip. Then the next day he hooked a whopping 8-foot-long striped marlin (not absolutely certain about the species) that we released after taking several photos. Glen meets people easily, is great in the galley, seems to be a good sailor and mechanic, and is a delight to have aboard. John and I feel very fortunate that this internet transaction has turned out to be an excellent one for us.
A major change was underway in independent Samoa while we were there: on September 7th, they changed from driving on the right side of the road to the left side. We asked everyone why and never got an adequate response, only some musings that in future they should be able to buy cars more cheaply. The authorities seem to be handling the changeover very well, with signs and police everywhere. One night in preparation for guests I drove to a store not ten blocks or so away and was stopped at police roadblocks three times, where they checked my driver’s license and seatbelt.
We three sailed from Apia on ‘Upolu island about 35 nm to an anchorage in Matautu Bay on the northeast corner of the island of Savai’i. The next morning we went briefly went ashore then decided, since we were the only boat in the bay, to go to the next anchorage in Asau Bay, about 20 nm to the west, to see if any of our cruising friends were there. The winds were flukey and although we got up to 11 knots of boatspeed in easterly winds of 20+ knots for a short period while going straight downwind wing and wing with the two headsails, the wind soon died to single digits, then built up again to the high teens, and finally died altogether. At Asau the entrance is not marked on charts, although Samoan authorities have recently added range markers that we did not know were there, and we entered the wrong channel with a least depth of four feet. Since we draw only 3’8”, we made it through anyway, much to the amazement of several keelboats watching us enter.
The water temperatures offshore showed a high of 87.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and in Asau Bay they climbed to a high of 91.2! I think that is the highest I have ever experienced, although I am not for certain. It is amazing that the ocean can be so warm.
At Asau we ran into several of our friends on other boats, had a couple of parties where several played music (guitar, mandolin, clarinet, and battery-operated keyboard), including one night on the beach with a campfire, went snorkeling and spearfishing (but found the lagoon fished out), and overall had an excellent time.
I think that I have liked independent Samoa the best of any place I have been so far, and that is largely because it is less touristy, more unique, with generous, gentle and friendly people amid beautiful landscapes.
We left on Sunday at noon, and the next day being John’s birthday, four other cruisers surprised us that morning and, with clarinet and guitar accompaniment, we sang the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four” to him, as well as the traditional happy birthday song. (I won’t tell you how old he is, but there is a hint in the song title.)
I am a very lucky fellow to have the means and the time to be cruising in the beautiful South Pacific especially on such an outstanding boat, and even luckier to have a wife who allows me to take advantage of my situation. I am also quite lucky to have such excellent crewmen to help me achieve my dreams.
Next stop is Savusavu in Fiji, about 500 nm away. Our log showed 6913 nm on leaving Asau Bay.