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Weekend in Samoa

Southern Cross and Plam Tree, Savai'i, Samoa

Up until this weekend, my Samoa experience has been limited to the greater Apia area. Apia is the biggest town in Samoa with shops, restaurants and most of the trappings of civilization. I’ve kept to Apia either because of the impetigo, working on Tokelau accommodations or sloth. This week I met several people at my hostel who were planning on going to the other major island in Samoa, Savai’i (rhymes with Hawaii). I decided to tag along.

It was me, a 19 year old Dutch guy finishing up a 7 month trip to Australia and New Zealand (Mark), and early 20’s German visiting the Pacific (Tom), and a 40-something older professor of genetics from North Carolina (Malcolm). Three of us (all but the Malcolm who met us the next day) set out on Friday to the harbor where the Upolo – Savai’i ferry ran.

Robert Lewis Stevenson

Robert Lewis Stevenson Grave Vailima, Samoa

The cab driver we met the day before when we went to the Robert Lewis Stevenson house outside of Apia. There are tons of cabs in Samoa as there is very little barrier to entry (unlike New York, where you have to pay over $100,000 to get a taxi medallion). Most of the cab drivers are happy to get a few fares a day and we found they are willing to wait for you to eat or do whatever to get the fare.

At the RLS house, Mark and I climbed the hill/mountain where he is buried. When I came down, i took the wrong path at the bottom of the hill and ended up at the Samoa Botanical Gardens. I walked up the road to the gate of the RLS house and saw it was locked. I figured they left and just took another taxi home. They actually ended up looking for me for over two hours and the cab driver even climbed up the hill looking for me. I felt bad so I paid for the cab ride from Apia to the ferry on Friday. (50 Tala or about $20)

The house itself isn’t all that impressive. Most of the furniture is of the period and not original. He only lived in Samoa for four years before he died. His grave site is quite a walk up the hill and someone in their wisdom decided to plant a row of trees in just such a way as to block the view you have of the island from up on the hill.

Sadly, this is probably the most significant “historic” thing there is to see on Samoa.

Savai’i

Most of the population of Samoa is located along the road from Apia to the airport/ferry. The whole road is an endless stream of villages. It’s hard to tell where one begins and one ends. It’s nothing but large village fales (pronounced fa-lay. See photo), churches, and small markets which cater to the villages.

Large Fale in Manase Village Savai'i, Samoa

The ferry ride was about two hours to Savai’i and it was extremely choppy. The ferry we got on seemed a bit bigger than the amphibious vehicles that landed on D-Day, which is to say not very big. I got a bit queasy, so just stared at the horizon for most of the trip and took a few photos.

When we landed in Savai’i, the difference between Upolo was noticeable. There is no real “town” per se on Savai’i. There is a few small markets and a bank near the ferry terminal and that’s about it. Every taxi on the island descends on the ferry when it docks. Being a bunch of white guys, we were picked out by most of the cab drivers and accosted. We said “no” to everyone and just walked to the ATM to get money because nothing on the island took credit cards. One cab driver sort of just followed us at slow speed as we went to get cash. Given the number of cab drivers vs the number of people who need cabs, I think they are desperate for any business. One tourist fare is probably what they will get on a good day.

We eventually let the guy drive us to our resort if he agreed to take us to a restaurant and wait for us. He agreed. He took us to a nightclub which was on the water (probably the only one on the island) and we got some really bad fried chicken.

The drive to the resort took about an hour and we paid 50 tala (Samoan dollars. US$1 = S$2.50) for the three of us. It was in the village of Manase, which as we were told, was voted the most beautiful village in Samoa many years in a row.

What few resorts exist on Savai’i (and most of Upolo for that matter) are small family/village places which rent small beach fales. You get a mattress, a hut on the water, and you share a bathroom/shower. It is 50 tala a day (US$20) which includes breakfast and dinner.

Beach Fale, Savai'i Samoa

There were other tourists on the island including the typical mix (at least as i’ve seen so far in Samoa) of Germans, Australians, and Kiwis.

All of us took a nap until dinner then we went to a local Samoan show at a neighboring village. They did traditional Samoan dancing and singing. The crowd there was mostly two New Zealand high schools who were on a class trip. I can’t remember the names of the schools, but they sounded like something from Harry Potter, so I just called them Griffendor and Slitherin all weekend.

The show was pretty entertaining for 10 Tala (US$4). Unlike the Cook Islands, only the men did fast dancing whereas the women did a slower hula type dance. They had some little boys come out to do a haka (war dance) and at the end of it they threw off their lavalavas (skirts) and were butt naked.

I should use this occasion of Samoan nakedness to address Margaret Mead, who was an anthropologist in the 1920’s who came to live in Samoa. In her book, she outlined how the Samoans were very sexually liberated and very promiscuous. It was used as justification for all sorts of things since its publication. Let me say for the record that Margaret Mead is full of shit. The Samoans are the most religious people I’ve ever seen and there is NOTHING I have seen in my almost two weeks in Samoa that would even hint at that.

The show closed with fire dancing. Several young men came out and basically did baton twirling with the baton on fire, except it was way cooler than watching a baton twirler. After the show, it just sort of turned into a dance party with the Kiwis. What I found odd was that the DJ for the dance was also a radio station broadcasting on 98.3 FM. I guess the broadcast rules are a bit more lax in Samoa.

Saturday morning, Tom decided to leave us and go off with a German/French couple from Australia and Malcolm showed up with his rental car. As soon as he showed up, we took off to explore Savai’i.

There isn’t a whole lot to see in Samoa and on Savai’i in particular. The first destination we reached was Cape Mulinuu, the western most point in Samoa and supposedly, the western most point of land in the world. I’m not quite sure how they define “western most point” on a sphere. Looking at a map, Cape Mulinuu isn’t far from the International Date line, but the line is shifted east of the 180 degree longitude line in this part of the Pacific. It is shifted much farther west to hook around the Aleutian islands in Alaska. Of the possible ways to define “western most point” I’m not sure how any of them would fit Samoa. It isn’t the closest bit of land near 180 degrees because it crosses the land at several points including Fiji. It isn’t the western most point on this side of the date line, and it isn’t the last spot on Earth where the sun sets on a given day.

Cape Mulinuu Sign

The Samoan Economy

We set off in the car again and drove past village after village, all of which pretty much looked the same. Church, bunch of large village fales, and some small fales or open brick houses. About this time it dawned on me….with the exception of tiny village markets which I don’t even know if they used money, there was no evidence of commerce anywhere on the island outside of the area around the ferry. Nothing. No businesses of any sort. No restaurants. No cultivated fields. No signs offering random services. No artwork or crafts for sale. Nothing. If you stopped by the side of the road there was usually someone sleeping in a small fale on the side of the road who would hit you up for 10 Tala to look at something, but that was about it.

You drive through most rural areas anywhere and you’ll see people at least trying to do whatever they can to make a buck. They may have signs selling food, handicrafts, offering services,etc. In Samoa, there is nothing. I couldn’t even see any farming.

I think to understand why you have have to understand how the Samoan system works. Pretty much everyone in Samoa lives in a village with their extended family. You live right on top of your aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, grandparents, etc. Moreover, pretty much everything is owned by the village. If you go earn money (like the cab drivers you see near the ferry) you give pretty much all of your money to the village. You wind up with a family orientated version of the Soviet Union…and I’m not saying that to be facetious or as a joke. Many of the young men in Samoa get very frustrated about the lack of opportunities. It isn’t that they don’t want to contribute to their families and villages, but no matter what they do, there isn’t much left for themselves. It provides an enormous disincentive to work. What might have provided security prior to the arrival of Europeans has caused so many Samoans to leave the country that there are now significantly more Samoans oversees than there are in Samoa.

The largest part of the Samoan GDP is remittances sent back home by Samoans living abroad. You see an unusual number of Western Union stations around Apia (although only one that I could see in Savai’i…near the ferrry).

Something else I realized once I noticed the lack of commerce on Savai’i was the lack of housing in Apia. There are only a small handful of apartments in Apia and no houses. Everyone lives out of town in villages with their families. Even the businesses in Apia seemed funny once I bothered to look. The biggest supermarket was owned by Chinese. The hostel I’m staying at is owned by an American. The biggest hotel in town is western owned. There is a National Bank of Samoa, but its small compared to the Westbank and ANZ, which are NZ/Australian owned. I don’t know who owns SamoaTel, but I’m guessing its probably a partnership between the Samoan government and a foreign telco.

In the few places I saw construction, it was almost always a small government project with a big sign near it detailing the project and who funded it. All funding was done via either the World Bank or the EU.

I’m not totally sure that Samoa could radically improve its economic lot in life without dramatically changing its culture. There are forces at play here that are beyond any sort of government program, or lack of program. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of government involvement in the economy, at least none that is obviously visible. In at least the things I’ve had contact with, there seems to be a very free market. The land transportation system seems very unregulated and there are ample taxis and buses. I haven’t seen any licenses hanging on the walls of any places in Apia. I don’t get the impression there are a lot of building codes.

I’m sure I’ll be writing a lot more on this subject as I travel, but I think Samoa provides a textbook example of how culture can influence an economy, probably overwhelming everything else.

Religion

No matter where you drive in Samoa, you will quickly notice the number of churches. Churches are EVERYWHERE. Every village has a church. You can’t drive a half a mile before you encounter another church. For a small country, you’d think there was a particular denomination which dominated, but that’s not the case. There is every brand of christian faith you can think of. What was really surprising was the number of Mormon churches. On Savai’i alone (population of about 40,000) I saw about a dozen Mormon chapels. The mothership church is in Apia, but all the satellite churches in Savai’i were far and away the nicest building on the island. (I don’t know that much about Mormon church so excuse my description of the mothership and satellite churches) Each had a basketball court and a school in addition to the church itself. I’ve read that the Pacific has the highest percentage of mormons of any area on Earth, and I can believe it.

Driving across Upolu, you can see swarms of children in school uniforms going to and from school. It seems that every school in the country is run by a church or is done by the extended family, and that was confirmed to me from a cab driver.

On the map of Samoa, there appears to be a university, but I haven’t been past it and I don’t know if it is government run or not.

On Sundays, what little business there is shuts down and everyone can be seen going to and from church in their white dresses and lavalavas. We did see one group doing yard work on sunday in front of their church, but it was a Seventh Day Adventist church and I think they do the sabbath on Saturday.

Blowholes

Blowhole with Coconut Savai'i, Samoa

The last place we visited on the Savai’i road trip were the blowholes at Alofaaga. The blowholes were pretty cool. Basically, its a spot of rocky coast with very rough surf. At a few spots, there are vertical holes where the water shoots straight up about 100 feet when the waves hit it.

The whole area was pretty amazing. When timed just right, it was like a fireworks show. As we were watching the blowhole, an old man who lived in a hut nearby came up to us and offered to put coconuts into the blowhole. We gave him 5 Tala and he went off with a pile of coconuts. He clearly does this a lot and knew just how to time throwing the coconut into the blowhole. Some of the coconuts must have shot up 150 feet into the air. It was amazing. It was like a natural cannon. I got some video of it but I’m not sure if you can really see the coconut against the background.

It was by far the coolest thing I’ve seen on Samoa. Please note the size of the man in the photo for scale and if you look closely, you can see the coconut as a dot in the middle of the water spout.

Conclusion

Samoa is unique among the islands I’ve seen in the Pacific. Having been to Savai’i, I’d have to amend my previous comment on American Samoa that it is more Samoan than American. I still think it’s true, but not to the degree that I did before.

There are a lot of subjects that I’ll be writing about in greater detail later on in my trip as I’ve visited more places. I’m quite sure that Samoa will end up being an important data point in comparing how other countries and cultures function.

Samoa is a beautiful place and the people will give the shirt of their backs to you (or as Malcolm found out, they will even offer you their daughters in marriage). It is however very very different from life in the west and, I suspect, even what I’ll find in Asia.

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Comments

  1. Stephen Hope says:

    This extended family thing is common all across the Pacific. A close relative/fellow villager is your “one-talk” – literally someone who speaks the same as you (in PNG where there are 700+ languages this makes more sense.) It is very hard to run a business in the western sense when your one-talks are around – because of the shared property thing, your stock will walk out the door, your capital get used for things other than developing the business, your relatives will expect to share your job if they need some cash for a while, etc.

    How much it affects the society as a whole depends on how many outsiders there are. Samoa is too small, so no outsiders really exist. Fiji has a large indian and smaller chinese population, so they own a lot of business (which causes friction).

    In PNG and the Solomon Islands, and to a lesser extent Vanuatu and New Caledonia, some-one who wants to run a business can go to a different area, where their own one-talks are not around, so while the system still holds, it doesn’t have the same effect.

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About Gary Arndt

My name is Gary Arndt. In March 2007 I set out to travel around the world...
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