Trip Start Feb 02, 2006
Trip End Aug 09, 2006

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Flag of Samoa Western  ,
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

We left Tonga on a Tuesday and eighty minutes later arrived in Samoa on Monday. That on arrival the people of Samoa gave us back a day we'd already lived was a wonderful gesture, and it became clear we were going to get along with them swimmingly.

The 17 islands which constitute Western Samoa lie a few miles to the east of the international dateline, and little more than the throw of a stone from the equator. The country is wedged right up in the corner of the world's south western quadrant, and is it's most westerly nation. We had two weeks in Samoa, and they were to be a beach holiday. After almost 3 months of winter, this would be our final opportunity to stretch out on golden sands and acquire a distinctive middle-eastern appearance to impress the folks back home.

Right from the outset it was apparent Samoa was more advanced than her Polynesian neighbour we had just left. For a start we were met at the airport by the scores of jostling taxi drivers and hotel managers with which we'd become familiar in Asia. But on the drive into the capital of Apia on the main island of 'Upolu, the roads were well-laid, dissected down the middle by a clear white line, and kept from the night's darkness by street lights which actually worked. Trimmed hedges bordered either side and stood as a boundary to neat gardens which ran up the hill to delicately lit fales and commanding churches. The difference from dusty, disheveled Tonga was both stark and surprising.

In the morning we stepped out into Apia and walked the short loop of the marina into the city centre. The change in climate was unavoidable. As we made our way through the crowded streets to the flea market and then on to the fruit market, the air was much thicker and the sun much stronger than we'd grown used to, and with little wind to defuse the heat it wasn't long before we were sporting attractive patches of sweat on our backs. But at least we blended in.

By Polynesian standards, Apia is a city. Behind Suva in Fiji, Apia has the largest population in the South Pacific and there was a crowded, impersonal bustle about the place. However, unless you sell fabric or enjoy the simple pleasure of an afternoon spent kicking dogs around, there isn't much to keep you occupied here and after an hour we took a taxi up to the Papasee'a Sliding Rocks; a collection of rock pools and mossy granite slabs which have formed out of the island's volcanic past. With the help of a local kasaba farmer who provided daunting demonstrations we filled four hours jumping from ledges and skidding down rocks on our hides, with nothing more than flimsy swimming togs to protect our dignity.

After a day in Apia however, it was time to get out and hit those delicious beaches we had heard so much about. Our destination was the village of Manase on Samoa's largest island, Savai'i. We arrived at the bus station in Apia forty minutes after the last bus to Malifanua ferry terminal was scheduled to depart and were delighted, if not totally surprised, to see it still sat in the car park whilst the driver was in the fruit market eating lamb and banana in gravy. He motioned for us to get on as best we could and a stranger tied our bags to a ledge suspended from the back of the bus.
"Are you sure that's safe?" we asked, concerned we'd never see these precious items again
"Safe?" came the reply, but before we could answer he waddled off.
The buses in Samoa are unique; brightly painted with music blasting, the chasis are made entirely of wood and the windows of perspex. Passengers and their luggage of rice-sacks, bricks, coolboxes and sugar-bags are crammed on so no-one is turned away and children are passed from lap to lap to squeeze in more paying customers. It is chaos, and when eventually the cart is bulging enormous Samoans from every crevice and you have lost all sensation from the buttocks down, a bell rings out signaling that shortly a huge rhino of a woman will be clambering over everyone to make her stop.

From the bus we moved into a steel container on the ferry with several Samoan families and an Argentinian named Santiago, and made the choppy crossing to the Savai'i port of Salelologa, from where we were ushered onto another bus and in the warm, driving rain whisked up the eastern coast of the island to Manase. It was a journey that had taken most of our day and courage to complete, but we'd made it alive and now we could relax.

Manase is home to most of the accommodation on Savai'i, but the village maintains a quiet, sedate atmosphere and not once during our time there did we feel we were intruding. For six nights we stayed at Tanu's Beach Fales, a friendly operation run by Frieda and her extended family, and it is fair to say that we were about as active as Steven Hawkins' voicebox. We woke with the sun for breakfast, lay on the beach through the day, ate tea at seven, shared drinks until midnight with our fellow guests, and returned to bed. The weather was excellent and though some mornings were overcast and stuffy, a wind quickly moved the cloud along and we were left with a glorious afternoon. Somedays we would go for a walk through the village, others we didn't; it never became more complicated than that. On one day we explored the island with a Canadian couple we'd met, taking in waterfalls, rainforest and some incredible blowholes, but a day of such activity was a shock to the system and we quickly returned to the beach towels.

The week passed quickly, and by the time it was up we felt ready to move on to a new part of Samoa, and so we made our way, with as much exhaustion as we arrived, to the secluded island of Manono. Home to just over 1000 people, the villagers here live a traditional Polynesian lifestyle and have opted to shun most of the Western conveniences the rest of Samoa has soaked up. It was a wonderful experience to spend a few quiet days here wandering through the half-dozen villages, watching them play rugby, attend church and go about their simple business. Once again, we never felt like invaders to their land and they welcomed us with gifts of breadfruit and coconut as we passed through, and we shared with them the only aspect of our lives they were interested in - our digital camera.

But a few days is enough on Manono and as the weather began to turn and our time in Samoa began to elapse we bade our hosts a fond good-bye and began the journey back to 'Upolu, then across it's mountainous interior to the beach resort of Aleipata, Lalomanu in the far east of Samoa, where another fale and our final bathing opportunity, were waiting. Yet here the weather here was to be against us and we spent our last five days waiting for a sun which never arrived, and we occupied our time with books we'd already read.

It is clear that following the focused drive to attract tourists to Samoa has made the capital better stocked with the whims of the tourist trade, and already installed are several internet cafes, souvenirs shops and much to our dismay, a MacDonalds. We were even accosted by a fat, greasy man who tried to sell us two sarongs for 20 Tala, claiming the proceeds went to a charity, though when pressed on this issue he became vague and wandered off. Here's the thing; in Asia it is expected, but in Samoa we were shocked and disappointed. Yet Samoa remains largely untouched by the tourist dollar and is still a place you can visit to see true Polynesian culture. It is a wonderful country with beautiful beaches and hospitable people, but things are changing fast and if you want to see it like it as we have, unfortunately, you'll have to be quick.
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