Passage to Samoa

It took a couple of days to get out of sight of land because there is still a good amount of Fiji east of Savusavu, making us feel like progress was slow. Nonetheless the journey began smoothly, with moderate seas and light winds, giving us an excuse to motor straight along our course and avoid the distance-adding upwind tacking. The moon was one week past full when we left so there were lots of star-gazing opportunities. Mostly, both of us have concluded that the passages are not our favourite part of this cruising life, but lying in the cockpit, looking for shooting stars, while listening to music as the boat moves smoothly through the water is an undeniable pleasure. It's too bad that combination of conditions doesn't happen as often as we would like.

By the third day both of us were tired and listless as we tried to adjust to the disrupted sleep and the constant heat of the day. That evening, just as BJ was making supper, the lightning began. Our attempts to avoid the dark clouds worked for a while, but we were basically surrounded; all night we were treated to a dynamic light show, complete with a loud sound system. Shifty, gusty winds and heavy rain provided the interactive portion of the show. The wild swings and increases in winds are what make me nervous, especially when little Freya starts moving faster than 8 kts, while Bjarne hates lightning; between us we cover the bases for worrying, or being optimistic as the case requires. Sleep wasn't easy to come by with all of the commotion. We were much relieved to see the dawn – even though the stormy clouds were still around they aren't quite as scary in daylight. Gradually, we moved into clearer weather, although the winds went up, down and sideways, causing us to motor, sail, and motor-sail in various directions. The lightning could be seen in the distance now and again, making us a bit nervous, but didn't come close again until about three days later. Fortunately, this bout didn't last for as long.

The days were often very hot with lots of sunshine, and many of the nights were clear and starry, with peripheral rain clouds that provided a few rainbows at dawn or dusk. The winds were often against us, but at least they were light. It did mean more motoring and more miles because we couldn't point directly at Samoa, but at least our fears of pounding into large waves didn't come true. We were pleased when the wind angle became more favourable about 150 miles out, allowing us to make good time for the last part of the trip. Bjarne spotted land just before sunrise on the morning of October 30th. Yippee! Of course, Samoa's volcanic peaks are so high we still had more than 24 hours of travelling to go. The last night of passage found us motoring over calm seas, past Savai'i island to arrive at 'Upolu Island (Apia Harbour) on the morning of October 31.

Samoa (formerly Western Samoa)

It was sweltering hot at 1030 when we pulled up alongside the huge wharf, which is intended for large ships. The plastic coated fenders that were built into the wall were about 4 feet wide and 7 feet tall, with the tops reaching well above Freya's deck. It was a bit of a scramble up the chain braces to reach the wharf, made more awkward by the long skirt that tangled up in my feet. Bloody impractical article of clothing is all I have to say about that! The sun pounded the large patch of concrete but we didn't have too far to walk for the first three officials. They would apparently disagree with that comment since the Quarantine and the Customs officer hopped into the slick government van, complete with official driver, in order to drive 200 m back to Freya. I think the air-conditioning was the appeal, although the ride was too short for it to kick in. They seemed rather surprised by the awkward climb down to our boat; maybe they'll lobby for a few ladders.

Our next task was to find the bank (needed to pay harbour fees, and of course support the local economy) and the Immigration office. When asking for directions we were told by a couple of people that it was too far to walk, but it didn't look that far. We were beginning to suspect that this culture is not very walking-oriented. In fact, a couple of other times when we were getting directions people expressed surprise that we would walk rather than take a cab. It took 25 minutes to get to Immigration, and I have to admit that 25 minutes in the tropical midday sun, when you're sleep deprived to boot, is a long walk. We got our tasks done, bought a snack and a much needed drink to slake our thirst, and made our way back, taking note of the places we wanted to check out later. Back at Freya, overtaken by the heat and fatigue, we sat in front of our little 12-volt fan, drank water, and lolled about. We had intended to return to land after we anchored, in order to check email, but the energy required was too much.

We did make it back on shore in the early evening when the temperature was more tolerable. Although it was Hallowe'en we didn't want to scare anyone, so availed ourselves of the shower provided by the harbour authority. The facilities were a bit frightening themselves. I stepped gingerly into a relatively clean patch, turned on the water, which flowed out of a pipe with no shower head, pulled the tattered remains of a shower curtain across the stall, and allowed the refreshingly cool water to pour forth in a stream from the pipe on the wall. The shower-head was long gone. Did I mention the numerous large cockroaches? Somehow creepy bugs are worse when you're naked. After a couple of nights of this, we decided to shower in the cockpit, since fresh water was readily available. Anyway, our new and improved clean selves wandered downtown, a much more comfortable walk in the evening. As we neared the McDonald's (not our dinner destination), we began to see a few people in costumes. McD's was crammed with noisy little witches and goblins. There were a few ghostly pictures up in store windows, but otherwise, Hallowe'en seems to be a non-event here, and we didn't see any little chocolate bars or other candy on sale the next day :-( Imagine our envy when Britta sent us a picture, a few days later, of all the loot her kids had collected. Dinner found us sitting under a ceiling of woven coconut fronds, surrounded by pandanas mat-covered walls; wood chips covered the floor and plants were scattered throughout the Rainforest Cafe. The environment was very cozy in an outdoorsy sort of way. A table of magazines encouraged one to linger, as did another room in which one could peruse old Samoan photos, artwork, and postcards depicting scenes from the late 1800s and early 20th century. All this and food, too! We enjoyed our chicken in coconut cream followed by our traditional first-day-on-land dessert of ice cream.

Samoa's 13 islands are relatively few when compared with that of Tonga (171) or Fiji (300+), but we still weren't able to see everything :-). We were anchored on the north side of 'Upolu Island at Apia (pop 40 000). The town has some colonial buildings from the 1800s, mixed with more modern ones. The large horseshoe-shaped harbour is lined by a breakwater with a nice greenway alongside, where flame-trees (brilliant orange flowers), banyans and coconut palms provide shade and decoration. The breakwater is a popular spot at the end of the day: there are folks jogging and walking, and groups hanging out drinking beer, enjoying the cooler evening temperatures. In the section that widens out to a park, we watched a group practising Samoan dancing under one of the fales (open structure with a roof). One evening we came across some feral kittens living amongst the stones along the seawall. They were so tiny, maybe half a foot long, and had really huge ears. We couldn't get them to approach us – too bad we didn't have any of that black marlin that we'd had for supper (courtesy of Sunday Morning). The cute factor was very high, but we eventually continued our walk without any new crew members.

Paralleling the harbour is the main street, which has numerous restaurants and bars along it, interspersed with shops and stores. Every weekday morning a marching band and a corps of uniformed police march along this street to go and raise the flag. We could hear the band clearly from the boat and watch them through binoculars, but never did make it ashore for the 0745 parade. It seems there is often something interesting happening. One morning a long outrigger canoe with 44 paddlers went by. A person stood at the stern in a bright red outfit and another sat at the bow, drumming, while a chase boat filmed their progress. Smaller canoes were commonly seen in the evenings, full of groups of men or women getting a good workout. Near the dinghy dock, boys were often cavorting in the water after school. There seems to be quite a hopping night life, if the volume of music is any indication. Our anchorage was anything but quiet once each club began blaring its music out toward the water. It wouldn't be so bad if it was just one establishment, in fact we would have enjoyed much of the music (except the rap), but of course we were exposed to a cacophony of at least five songs at a time. Apia is a lively town.

Woo hoo! There's a cinema in Apia. Even better, it's air-conditioned! An afternoon matinée (Must Love Dogs) was the perfect way to deal with the heat of the day, especially after we'd been carting more and more things all over town as we divested ourselves of money. One item was an axe handle; we couldn't find a dowel the right size but needed some wood to fix a busted aluminum oar shaft. Another item was our lap top, since the Internet cafe was on our hit list for the day. Just for the record, the Internet place was also air-conditioned. Boy, summer in the tropics is hot.

We were a five minute walk from Palolo (same as the Balolo worms in Fiji) Deep Marine Reserve which is reputed to have excellent snorkeling. The beach is covered with large bits of coral, rather than sand, but it is well maintained with a washroom, change room, and a fresh water shower (always gets a high rating from us!). Small fales provide relief from the sun. The Reserve consists of a deep blue hole surrounded by reef. We swam around the perimeter, spotting a snowflake moray, a small black-tip reef shark (only about 2.5 feet, perhaps a baby, but still not very cute), lots of trigger fish, and a crown-of-thorns munching away on the coral. The snorkeling was not as good as advertised though, and I wonder about the effect of the proximity to the harbour. One guidebook from the '80s commented that there used to be an awesome dive site outside the harbour until the locals started using dynamite in their fishing. Egads! Presumably that practice is no longer going on. There does seem to be a fair amount of awareness now about conservation, relative to some places, and there are a number of protected areas. According to the Lonely Planet, one rainforest reserve became established on Savai'i just in the nick of time. It is a tale to warm the heart of any tree hugger. Although the area was considered sacred by the villagers, in 1989 they reluctantly signed a contract with a Japanese logging firm order to get money for a school. Upon learning of this from the weeping villagers, a visiting ethnobotanist personally guaranteed the money for the school. The chief then ran 9 km through the forest to stop the bulldozers. This reserve has a platform/tree house in a very large 225 year old banyan tree, where you can spend the night. We both thought this would be a very cool place to sleep (hmm, I wonder about mosquitoes) but decided we didn't have time to go to Savai'i.

Some of our activities were hampered by the timing of Arbor day, which is a public holiday. There are no official events, although many people plant a tree on this day. For us it meant nothing was open on that Friday, including the museum we wanted to visit. Saturday is only a half day for shops, and of course nothing happens on Sunday. Thus, just when we were settled, and were ready to see all the sights and get some shopping and provisioning done, nothing was open. We couldn't even get our laundry done. It was a bit frustrating and meant that a lot of things were crammed into the next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. We never did make it to the museum which was open only for a few hours on weekday afternoons. Nor did we see the flea market which is reputed to have lots of interesting handicrafts. Oh well, that probably saved us some money :-) We did find and wander through a large produce market, which has some booths with handicrafts.

Vailima, Home of Robert Louis Stevenson

On the Monday following the long weekend we embarked on a tour of some of the island's highlights. The first stop was the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He wrote quite a lot more than that, but these popular books, along with some family money, helped to establish him as a wealthy man. Some of his later stories are about the South Pacific and present some criticism of the colonial powers. The price of the books in the museum was outrageous but we intend to check out more of his writings when we get home. RLS was well-loved by the Samoan people, who called him Tusitala (teller of tales), because he treated them well and was very helpful in providing advice to imprisoned chiefs (jailed by the Germans) and encouraging Samoa's independence. The Chiefs were so grateful for his support they built a road to the top of Mount Vaea, which overlooks the estate, Vailima, so that Robert could be buried there. When Robert died in 1894 at the age of 44, his coffin was passed person to person up the mountain along a trail of 200 Samoans, each one wanting to pay respects to this man. The pathway is called The Road of Hearts.

After RLS's death, his wife Fanny moved to the USA and sold Vailima to a German businessman. The property then became used by whatever government was in power, first by the Germans as the official residence for the governor. New Zealand took over governing, and the estate, in 1914. While they were perhaps a less despotic government, they didn't do a whole lot better than the Germans: mismanagement on their part ended up with 8,000 people dying in an influenza epidemic. When Samoa became the first South Pacific Island to re-establish independence in the twentieth century, that government also set up shop on this lovely property. The Samoan government is still in power but the estate (with size diminished from about 400 to 5 acres) is now privately owned by an American philanthropist who keeps it open as a museum.

The rooms have been furnished by replicas of the furniture, with a few authentic pieces. First editions of RLS's books, along with some other old volumes from his personal collection, made me itch to pick them up and leaf through them. A few souvenirs from his travels to other South Pacific islands provided decoration. In a couple of the rooms some fake fireplaces had been built in, just to give the place a look of home, along with a completely unnecessary bed warmer. I suppose it would have been a good conversation piece with the locals. It would seem Robert had a good sense of humour, as evidenced by a “legal” document written up transferring his birthday to a young woman who had the misfortune of being born on Christmas day. The still-working roller organ provided this family with some entertainment; apparently RLS's favourite song was “Home, Sweet Home”.

Before leaving home, we had read many books by others who had cruised in the South Pacific, some of whom had visited RLS's grave. We had also listened to Tom Lewis, an old naval sailor, singing the poem that is on Robert's tomb. Thus, I have had it in mind for some years that I would like to see this place, but we didn't have time that day. The next day was taken up with preparation for passage-making, so our last chance to see the famed site was on Wednesday morning, the day we planned to leave. As luck (or lack thereof) would have it, it was pouring rain, but we were determined. One of the staff members at the museum asked incredulously, “you're going up there, today?” The trail wasn't as slippery as I feared, but I did get rather overheated in my raincoat. Bjarne, who didn't try to fight the weather, stayed nice and cool in his (wet) shorts and t-shirt. It was actually a fun hike up the steep but well-maintained path. The famous tomb consisted of two white rectangular blocks, one on top of the other, with the famous Requiem, and a shorter poem for Fanny, also written by Robert. He loved this spot on Mt. Vaea, and the view is reputed to be a fabulous “sweeping panorama of Apia. The blue roof of Vailima directly below is clearly visible. To the east lies a verdant valley, with the misty mountains of Upolu beyond and, in the distance, the white line of surf breaking endlessly on the reef.” (South Pacific Handbook) Peering through the downpour, what we could see of the mist-enshrouded landscape seemed nice.

The Baha'i temple was more interesting than I expected. It is one of only 7 in the world, and was built in 1984. The 9-sided temple was quite striking; each side represents one of the 9 major religions of the world. The basic principles emphasize the unity of humanity. Judging by their pamphlets, they are actively working against things that divide humanity such as racism and sexism, certainly goals I can approve of. Religion, too, is acknowledged as something that has created terrible rifts between people, hence they claim to be inclusive of all religions, seeing them as facets of a greater truth; at least that's my limited understanding of this unique faith. The temple and the beautiful grounds are managed by a young American couple, who answered a job ad in a Baha'i newsletter. No doubt a life-altering decision for them. Kind of makes you wonder what other jobs there might be out there that you never imagined.

There are some very nice waterfalls on 'Upolu. The most spectacular, however, was viewed from quite a distance, as there's no access through the thick vegetation surrounding it. One of the waterfalls had a small educational area nearby. The villagers had planted and labelled various local shrubs and trees. It was clearly a new endeavour as the plants were still small, but I think it will be quite nice once it is more established. Neither of us had seen cinnamon nor kava growing, and we were surprised to learn that some lime trees have wicked 3 cm spikes on them. Lunch was at a long white-sand beach, where the snorkeling is reputed to be excellent. Sadly, we didn't have gear with us, but we did enjoy a swim in the clear water, and a fresh water rinse afterwards. The beach was lined with small fales which could be rented, either for the day, or to sleep in. These Samoans seem to be pretty sensible about keeping out of the sun. Large bottles of cold Coke, available at the beachside cafe, went down very nicely.

The highway was in surprisingly good shape, giving us a smooth ride at what felt like rather high speeds (don't forget, we're used to travelling no more than 6 miles an hour). However, there was one section of road that was in notably worse repair. This village, it seems, had made the mistake of voting in an opposition member for the government. The buildings we observed as we drove by various villages were often open. In many cases, the no-wall structures were simply meeting houses and there was a closed-in house nearby or attached. In other cases people lived in the open houses and we could see their beds. There sure are different standards regarding privacy. Our last stop of the tour was a cave pool on the property of an old Methodist church. This fresh water pool was extremely clear and refreshingly cool. We swam into the long narrow cave, which had a ceiling about six feet above the water, remarkably free of stalactites. Apparently, there is a swim-though at the back that takes you into another cave. Intriguing, but not something I was about to try without flashlights or any other information about just how far underwater one would have to go. The route home along the coastline provided lovely views of beaches, turquoise water, and waves breaking over reefs. The island is quite beautiful, although, from what we have read, the neighbouring island of Savai'i is even more scenic, with spectacular blow-holes and a great hike up an old volcano.

As usual, we were in no danger of starving. We ate out a few times, with better success at some places than others. The Italian restaurant turned out a pretty good pizza; along with our usual toppings we tried the local custom of egg on pizza. The egg was cooked like an omelette and pieces were on top of the cheese. It's important to broaden our culinary horizons. We learned of another important spot from friends on Sooner: Scoops Ice Cream Parlour. That seemed worth looking for. We found it up a side street, a mere 15 minute walk away from where our dinghy was parked, and wished we'd found it earlier. We also stocked up on various items like sugar, flour, canned tomatoes, canned pineapple (hmm, all things that go into a pizza...) in anticipation of being at more remote islands.

We were concerned about our water capacity because both our jerry cans were leaking. After hunting around town we finally found two gasoline jerry jugs (10 litres and 20 litres) which we figured we could make do with. Happily, Bjarne then figured out a way to repair the originals by using the butane soldering iron to melt the plastic from a margarine container into the holes. The two plastics merged nicely. This left us with two extra jerry cans and a quandary as to the best thing to fill them with. Twenty extra litres of diesel turned out to be very useful on the next light-wind passage. The other can was put to good use holding our duty-free rum, which we have dubbed “Harley's Hootch”, in honour of our friend who first introduced us to this most-excellent storage method.

Fiafia and Siva Afi

We had the good fortune to see two fiafia (celebration) shows while in Samoa.

Aggie Grey's Hotel is a long-time landmark in Apia. Soldiers used to hang out here during WWI when they were on leave. Thus, the show is well established and professionally done. The seating, however, wasn't great for visibility. As folks came in and got settled, background music was provided by a band of men playing guitar and singing. Then men in red skirts (lavalava) and grassy “leg warmers” ran in making lots of noise. Later we learned that these leg decorations were frayed banana leaves, with the centre vein providing the anchor that is wrapped around the leg. They blew conchs to announce the show and then danced in a very energetic manner. Women then came out carrying candles in coconut bowls and singing. They wore long red dresses with leis; the whole procession was quite lovely as they walked up the aisle with the candles lighting their faces. They continued to sing once they reached the stage, all the while gracefully waving the candles around. The men then took the bowls and started hitting them together. The candles were blown out by now but some wax bits went flying. The men and women alternated being in the front of the stage. The women's dancing was more lively than that in Tonga - there was more movement of the whole body. They had a neat little ending on many songs where they turned sideways with a lift of the knee and made a kind of cheer or exclamation as they slapped at their thigh. These performances were very enjoyable; we only wished that they had provided some brief explanation about some of the dances.

The fire-knife dancing (Siva Afi) took place by the pool, leaving me to wonder if that was an aesthetic decision to get the reflections of the fire in the pool, or a lack of confidence :-) Loud and lively drumming began and about 10 men and a couple of boys scattered around the poolside and onto the balcony. The fire-knife sticks are lit at both ends and spun and tossed like a baton; one end has a hooked knife. These used to be weapons, of course, and dancing with them would have been very good training. One or two men performed at a time, some using two sticks at once with impressive skill. The boys too were quite remarkable. For the finale all of the performers were lit up in a spectacular display of spinning and flying flames.

A buffet dinner followed, consisting of traditional Samoan foods, with Western and Asian influences apparent. The drinks were a bit pricey: a piña colada was about $12 Canadian. We stuck with Coke. Dinner was pretty good but the dessert buffet really took the cake :-) – ice cream, trifle, fresh fruit salad, pineapple, jelly roll, muffins, cheesecake, lemon pie and pineapple pie. Sure did wish I had more room in my tummy. Good thing we had a little walk to get back to Freya.

A few days later we showed up at a small club near the harbour to check out their fire-knife dancing workshop, which is offered free to anyone interested. It was mainly focused on kids though, and it seems one needs to bring their own stick. The workshop wasn't overly structured but there were some young adults giving tips to some of the learners. We didn't participate, but watched and got to recognize a few patterns of movement. The beginners, some quite young, had padding on the ends of their sticks – no knives and no fires. You know, I had a baton when I was a kid; I bet I would have used it more had I been allowed to set it on fire. Later that night, the more advanced kids and the teachers put on a great show, which consisted of both the fire-knife dancing and other dancing. This weekly event is a fund-raiser for the next Siva Afi competition. While waiting for the show to start, we were entertained by a guitarist singing Samoan songs. Judging from the music, the Samoans are very patriotic, and we couldn't really disagree with songs that were about the beauty of Samoa. Just before this fiafia was to start, a huge downpour soaked the grounds and sent the waiting performers scurrying for shelter. I felt sorry for them when the show started because some of the dances are done sitting down. The show went on, however, and the lovely white dresses of the women and bright red skirts of the men were soon sporting large wet patches on the aft sections. (We weren't that impressed with the downpour either, since we'd left our almost-dry laundry out.) The drumming was really good, which is perhaps surprising when you consider that two of the three drums were old biscuit tins. We enjoyed the dancing but must admit that the fire-knife dancing was the highlight. Even the kids were really good, and the former Siva Afi champion spun those flames around with amazing speed and skill. What a great show!

The day we expected to be our final day in Samoa was jam-packed with activity, not to mention rain. We began the day by topping off every water container we could, before going ashore for our trip to Vailima. Since we wanted a cab due to the inclement weather, it was rather ironic that there were none waiting in the usual spot when every other time we have walked by we have been asked if we want a cab. We spent a couple of hours on our soggy hike up Mount Vaea and then left Vailima for downtown, via one of the colourful local buses. The entire superstructure of the bus was wooden, including the uncomfortable, but durable, seats. There aren't specific bus stops: you just ring the bell when you want off, paying as you leave. Downtown we went to Immigration, did some more shopping, and forgot to go to the post office. We returned to Freya to unload our groceries, then scooted back to land to use the Internet one more time, mail some letters, shop a bit more, pick up our duty-free alcohol, and top off our water supply. Whew. It was late afternoon when our shore-based tasks were done and we still had to stow everything. We were pretty tuckered so decided to get everything ready that night but leave the next morning. One can only fit so much into a day. One fun task was decanting our duty-free into plastic containers so we didn't have to carry heavy bottles around. We must have been tired because we remained sober through this process. After a good sleep we said goodbye to Samoa at 0600h on Thursday, November 10.

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