Seaside bliss – Samoa.

As soon as our travelling debacle had been solved, we felt a huge weight come off our shoulders, and it is only after that point that we really felt that we had truly landed in Samoa. As soon as we walked out of the Polynesian Blue office, which was right in the centre of Apia, we breathed in the fresh air, and walked along the waterfront. The walk takes you up and around the Mulinu’u Peninsula, which stretches out into the South Pacific Ocean to the north west of central Apia. It was a great way to “start”our trip, as we were able to observe much. As in any country, its waterfront usually boasts a lot of activities and is a great place to people watch. Although it felt quite warm, and we wearing sunblock, it was very windy, which made it feel not so hot. Having said that, we would later learn, that we had slowly fried!

The Samoans really are a friendly bunch of people, and are always quick to greet you with talofa, which is the island’s version of hello. The official language is Samoan, but many also speak English. Whilst we always make an effort to learn at least a small array of words in the language of the country we are going to, we had no trouble at all using English in Samoa. Like any place in the world, responding in someone’s native language shows respect and that you are showing interest in their culture. The advantage of this is that people will then often go out of their way to help you, as you have also gone “out of your way”. Also immediately obvious was how laid-back and relaxed they are as a people. Despite the fact that it was only a few days before Christmas in this an almost 100% Christian country, nobody seemed too frantic or stressed out. We (or certainly I!) could take a few leaves out of their book! We walked past lots of monuments and memorials, as well as lots of people laying down in the shade, on the grass, under the copious amounts of coconut trees (we should have taken our cue from them!). The flea market was very interesting, more so for the people that worked there than for what was actually sold. The usual suspects abounded – thongs, rip-offs of crocs (which have almost joined Heineken beer and Pringles in the “products taking over the world” stakes), lava-lavas (traditional skirt-like article of clothing worn by people in many Polynesian countries), and jewellery made with coconut shell. The exception was the various beautifully carved hardwood bowls and plates available. We eyed off a few, and decided that we would buy one before leaving the country.
Food? On vegetarians and vegans, the Lonely Planet guide simply states, “It’s tough”. Having read this before I left, my expectations weren’t all that high, and we did bring a range of snacks (such as nuts and muesli bars) along with us. I am a fairly “liberal” vegetarian, and whilst I don’t do the meat thing, I do consider myself a “meat flicker”. I believe that people who really travel off the beaten track and love to backpack have to be a tad more flexible. Hard -core anything can lead to problems! Having said that, they just LOVE mutton in Samoa, and many places reeked of mutton fat, which to be blunt, I found rather repulsive. Not because it was meat (I am not “one of those” types of vegetarians), but because it smelt old and of urine. Even Alex agreed, and (drum roll) even HE knocked it back on more than one occasion. For those of you who don’t know Alex that well, he rarely, if ever knocks back any food! They are also very much into taro, which is a root vegetable and an excellent source of carbohydrate. It’s not bad really, but they seem to simply serve it up plain, and with other foods such as rice and fuata (breadfruit). So, it’s a bit like carbs, carbs and more carbs! The liquid version would be a bottle each of Coca-Cola, Fanta and Pepsi. A bit of overkill really! But I did find something that I really loved, and was able to readily get at the market -palusami, which is basically young taro leaves and coconut cream – yum! There was also a fresh fruit and veggie market, Maketi Fou, near our hotel, and here we had no trouble finding things such as mangoes, papayas, delectable bananas and other fresh produce. Like any country, its markets are its backbone, and no matter how big or small, you are sure to walk away with some understanding of the way in which people live. As I have mentioned many times before, I love markets, as for me they are the soul of its country!

We got home quite tired on our first night, as we had walked a lot in the heat, and had (surprise, surprise) actually gotten quite burnt. Despite the fact that we were tired we made our way to a fiafia, at a venue not too far from where we were staying. A fiafia is a Samoan feast that includes dancing, singing and the famous fire-dancing. We had read and heard about it and so wanted to check out on one or two. The other bonus is that it is usually preceded or followed by a buffet. Alex’s dream come true! The venue where we saw our first fiafia was called Laumei Faiaga (in English, and very aptly named, Turtle Take It Easy). In this instance, the buffet came first, and is really the place where I first tried and fell in love with palusami. We were then treated to both traditional Samoan dancing and also to the “Fire Knife Warriors”, which was truly amazing. We went to bed that night with a really nice taste in our mouths, so to speak, and we intrinsically knew that we were we were just going to love our time in Samoa.

Breakfast the next morning at Valentine’s was great; between 8am and 9am as things are done early here, to beat the heat. We were served by the lovely Agnes…..bread, jam, eggs and coffee. No rush! Nobody seems to rush in Samoa! So, we took our time, as we looked over the gorgeous open garden in front of us. What a life! I took a deep breath in, and a magnificently slow one out. I live for this! I have come to relish my holidays with a deep-seated passion. I now know and accept that travel is what REALLY makes me feel most alive and happy (apart from my beautiful partner and soul mate, Alex!) Over breakfast we chatted to Debbie and her gorgeous daughter Shivani (as time would tell, her beauty was far more than skin deep), who were also guests at the hotel. We had met them briefly the morning before, but due to the ticket fiasco, I had not been all that focused. They were spending several weeks in both Tonga and Samoa, and so were giving us tips on where to go and what to see. Traveller to traveller information, effectively referrals, are always the best way to go. They were going back to Lalomanu Beach, on the south-east end of the island, and told us to meet them there, even giving us the name of a place to stay. Sounded good. They were off on that day, and we said we would make our way over tomorrow, as we still wanted to explore a bit of Apia.

Just to quickly clarify, the Samoan islands are divided into two political entities: Samoa and American Samoa. Samoa was formerly known as Independent Samoa (or Western Samoa), but in July 1997 the island nation officially adopted the name Samoa. Samoa’s two main islands (of which we visited both are Upolu (Apia being the capital) and Savai’i.

We spent quite a tranquil day, taking in the sights of Apia and its surrounds. Due to its past, it is indeed scattered and interspersed with dilapidated buildings, architecture and a multitude of churches, but that really is part of the charm. As for the fume-belching cars (some of which seem as old as the buildings they weave through!), they definitely did not provide us with the fresh air we thought we’d come for. We took our first island bus, an experience unto itself, just 30 minutes out to the Piula Cave Pool. Sitting on the sea, it is totally freshwater, and was a great way to wile away a couple of hours. On the bus back to Apia, with people stacked up like dominoes (the Samoans have quite a different take on personal space), we got off near the edge of town near the wharf, so that we could check out the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve. Whilst we did strap on our snorkelling gear, as suggested, we were not all that impressed with the coral. As we walked back to Valentine’s we popped into the infamous Aggie Grey’s, which to be quite honest, I thought was both overpriced and overrated. Having said that, and on a good note, it’s really the only place that provides a home away from home. No thanks!

The next morning, we were off to Lalomanu Beach, where we spent a sublime 4 days, including Christmas. I should mention Verona and Justin’s 5 children, Mesepa (Sepa), Justin, Ray, Valentine (Tine) and Verona. What wonderful kids! Friendly, chatty, playful and fun-loving! I often looked at them and thought how much our own kids could learn from them! There was a zest for life that I so often see lacking in western cultures. I will always remember their hugs, and their manners.

And so, with breakfast downed, goodbyes and Christmas greetings uttered, backpacks packed, we were off to the local bus station, and on our way to Lalomanu Beach. What time did the bus leave? Yeh…………..whatever! They seemed non-plussed, so why should we? It was about a two-hour ride, along Upolu’s gorgeous south-eastern coast. The bus was full of people, boxes and an array of other things, and remember it was the day before Christmas. That dominoes kind of feel reined supreme! After a couple of hours we were there, and begun our search for Taufua Beach fales. I should explain that a fale is basically an open- style thatched hut, and is a traditional example of Samoan architecture. Due to the heat it is very popular, and used by locals and foreigners alike. As soon, as I hopped off the bus, I did the usual; Alex looked after the bags, and I searched for the accommodation. In no time at all, I had found Taufua. Wow!!!! Blue skies and seas, and thatched huts literally on the sand metres from the sea. Now THIS is what I call utopia! Tina, from New Zealand, helped us out and told us that indeed Shivani and Debbie were staying there. In no time at all, I had collected Alex, been given a hut to stay in and caught up with the girls. I felt relaxed and at peace.

That night we were treated to a fiafia organised by Taufua fales. It was not a formal affair, but rather one where all the locals joined in. It was magnificent. Taufua Fales had a central dining area, where all the guests come together. Both breakfast and dinner (buffet style) are included in the price, and the food here was without a doubt the best we had in Samoa. Taufua Fales is owned and run by the amazing Tai, an intelligent yet humble woman who went out of her way to make her guests feel at ease. More on her later! Christmas Day was a casual affair, and despite the fact that Samoa is almost exclusively Christian, they don’t seem to get caught up in all of that commercial hype which I have so grown to detest. For the Samoans it’s clearly about spending time with family and friends and not about Christmas trees, ostentatious gifts and plasma TVs. Alex and I spent our time here reading, relaxing, swimming, sun-baking (well me, anyway), going for runs on the beach (me again!), snorkelling and eating! What more is there to do? Oh yes, and plenty of talking!

As we still wanted to visit the island of Savai’i, we had to make tracks. Tai offered to give us a lift back into Apia on the morning of the 27th December, as she had to go in for supplies, but we would have to get up early as she would be leaving at 5am. Whilst it sounded a bit hairy, we accepted! It was well worth it, as we had a really good chat to Tai, and saw things and met people we probably would not have otherwise. I want to share a story that Tai shared with us on the way to Apia: She told us that her 16 year old son had just spent a few days, including Christmas, in prison. I asked her why! She quite simply and clearly stated that she had often told him that if she caught him smoking marijuana, she would call the police. (Whilst hard drugs are not readily available in Samoa, due to the climate, marijuana is). Apparently, a few days prior, she caught him and a couple of friends in a room smoking, so she promptly called the local police, who gave the boys a talking to. Whilst the police were happy with the outcome, Tai clearly was not! She MADE them take the boys to a prison in Apia, where they spent the next few days. She believes in nipping things in the bud! Her comment to me was, “Marijuana today, what tomorrow?”. Her son apparently had thought prison horrendous and apologised profusely to his mother. Maybe he would think about his actions more than twice next time, his mother said. How many western mothers would have done this? Tai, I was impressed by your actions.

Once in Apia, we went to the fish market, which was buzzing with locals. There, Tai sat with one of the local vendors, chatting to her and others and ordered a guy called “Nico” to buy some coffee and “Samoan donuts” (deep fried pastry balls). What a great way to observe Samoan daily life. Nico was an interesting character. We had a good chat and he told me that he was currently serving 5 years in prison (he was half way through), for growing a few marijuana plants. The law is tough here, yet prisoners are allowed out on weekend, including murderers. Nobody really watches them- 5 days on the inside and 2 days out! Nico was not doing community service, he simply wanted to help out in the market. A completely different system to our own!

Later Tai dropped us off at the bus station, and we took the half hour bus ride to the north-western tip of the island, where we were to catch the one and a half hour ferry trip to Savai’i. It was only 9am, as we had gotten up and left Lalomanu so early. In no time at all, we were at the wharf, where we would catch the 10.00am ferry across.

Samoa was proving to be a fascinating place!

Next: The island of Savai’i.

Dedication: I would like to dedicate this to a few people.

Mesepa, Justin, Valentine, Ray and Verona: Thank you for your laughter, your smiles and your cheeky grins. Thanks for reminding us about what is important in life. Maybe you are too young to understand, but it is our meeting people like you that changes our lives forever. We hope to come back and see you again!

Tai: What a woman! What a person! I know plenty of people that could learn a whole lot off you!

Nico: Thanks for sharing, and for being so open with us!

“Action may not always bring happiness; but there is no happiness without action.” – Benjamin Disraeli.

(Photos: 1.- Apian waterfront. 2.- Local bus, Apia. 3.- Fuata (breadfruit), local Apian market. 4.-Fire-dancing at a fiafia, Laumei Faiaga, Apia. 5.-L to R: Debbie and Shivani. 6.- Even the dogs have it right in Samoa…….Work Hard, Party Harder (as seen above the door of a bar in Apia). 7.-L to R: Ray and Tine (Valentine) at Valentine’s Hotel, Apia. 8.-Lalomanu Beach, as seen from our balcony (That’s right…our balcony! We were literally staying right on the beach!) 9.-Tai strumming her guitar, Christmas Eve. 10.- Beautiful Lalomanu Beach, at dusk. 11.- At the fish market., Apia. 12.-Turquoise waters and blue skies…a taste of Savai’i. 13.- Ombi and Nico at the Fish Market, Apia).

These are times of fast foods,but slow digestion!

I usually end each of my entries with a quote, but this time, it is the way I will begin:

“We have bigger houses but smaller families;
We have more degrees but less sense;
more knowledge but less judgements;
more experts but more problems;
more medicines, but less healthiness.

We’ve been all the way to the moon and back,

but we have trouble crossing the street
to meet the new neighbour.
We build more computers to hold more information,
to produce more copies than ever,
but we have less communication.

We have become long on quantity
but short on quality.
These are times of fast foods,but slow digestion;
tall man, but short character;
steep profits, but shallow relationships.
It is time when there is much in the window
but nothing in the room.” – The Dalai Lama

I found this a few days ago, as I was searching for a quote for our last blog, the first of our Samoa blogs. I read it the first time, and felt a knot in my throat; I read it a second time and felt a throb in my solar plexus; I read it a third time, and the tears ran down my face. I read it a fourth time and just felt very, very sad.

There is so very much about what the Dalai Lama states, that is tragically so very true. We seem to have come so far, yet we seem to have learned so little. In a time when we have so much more physically, we seem to have so much less spiritually and emotionally. The question is: Where do we go to from here? How do we move forward in a positive way? How do we make helping people a meaningful priority rather than conveniently ignoring them when they are in need? When do we stop throwing cigarette butts on the ground because someone is watching us instead of because of the fact that they take 200 years to decompose and damage our earth? When do we stop buying material goods when what we have is adequate? When do we refrain from buying a car that is the next model up, as the one we currently have suffices? When do we say NO, enough is enough?

I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist, and regard myself as a realist, but I cannot help but wonder what the future holds and will bring for our future generations -our children’s children. In the future, where having “everything” will come easy, or easier than now, when we have 3 houses, 2 holiday houses, 5 computers, 5 cars, all the computer games we can get our hands on, the latest 4 mobile phones, i-phones and whatever else comes out next…..what do we then aspire towards? What next?

It is indeed a time when there is “much in the window but nothing in the room.”

Ombi

A total and complete balls up!

Christmas at home? C’mon, give me a break! I’m already conforming to the world of work and employment, ain’t that traditional enough? With the opportunity of almost two weeks off over Christmas and the New Year, I knew that it was only a matter of “opportunity”. The question was, what opportunity? The one that went….”where will we go this time?” To be honest, I began thinking about this “opportunity” not long after I began my new job in June 2008, and as soon as I knew that we would have time off over Christmas and the New Year.

So, how and why did we pick Samoa? Well, we had already decided that we would be going to Ecuador and the USA for 4-5 weeks in mid-2009, so we wanted something that was clearly not too expensive, wasn’t touristy, and we’d never been to before! Before too long, we came up with the Pacific Islands, and through a process of elimination we ended up with Samoa. But it was cyclone season in December! Yeh, so it was, but the beaches looked gorgeous, the fares were decent for that time of the year, and the small country, which is effectively a few small islands, appeared void of those things called resorts! Cocktails, beer, western food, bikinis, white t-shirts with gold writing? I say leave that to your own country! (If you live in a western one!) In the grand scheme of things, it was all looking good! So, being the risk-taker that I am, I figured we’d give it a go!

Now, for two well-travelled persons, having globe-trotted the world, we totally screwed up not only our flight over, but back as well. They say that there is as first time for everything. On this trip, there was a first, followed very closely by a second! We did it in style and it was a monumental fu……….oops, proverbial! My years of studying Drama at university proved efficacious, and in theory, we probably should have missed our trip altogether.

Please allow me to set the scene: It’s 3.15pm on Sunday afternoon, 21st December. There I am, in my shorts and singlet top, having recently come back from the gym. Our backpacks are on the floor, as are most of the clothes and goods we are taking overseas, and we are getting our last bits and bobs ready. I always leave a copy of our passports, tickets, insurance and other relevant details with my dad (affectionately known as Doobie….another story, for another day). As I am checking something on the computer, Doobie casually strides in (with a copy of our itinerary in his hand) and says, “Ombi, I think there’s been some kind of a mistake, but this says that you were supposed to have left a couple of hours ago!” My heart sank to my ankles in a nano-second, as the only thing I could compute was, “F@#& we missed our flight!” As he handed over the bit of paper, and I indeed physically saw our error, I felt nauseous, whilst at the same time trying to work out how we were going to get out of this one! After repeating that same four letter word copious times, I went into fight or flight mode! I wanted that flight badly! I did not care about the money, but I wanted to be overseas! Think Ombi, think, think!!!! Everything else was a blur, as my mind scrambled for a solution!

By this stage, Dad had discreetly walked out, as he figured it was pretty much all over red rover! Not I, said the hen! Conversing only with myself, and with a determined focus, I ran to dad and told him that I was just about to call Polynesian Blue (Virgin Blue) and extend the truth; tell them that he had not been well, and that he, and not our flight was a priority. I did not ask anyone’s opinion or advice, and swiftly made THAT phone call. Sounding distressed, and armed with the gift of the gab, seemed to do the job, and $200.00 later, we would be catching a flight the next morning at 9.15am, on Monday the 22nd. It was an el-cheapo flight so in theory, no changes could be made. The cancellation and transfer fees were waived, and all we had to pay was the difference between the tickets we had already bought, and the cheapest ones available on our new flight. Quite frankly, I thought that $200.00 smackeroos was a bargain! Alex shook his head at my acting efforts, but was amazed that I had pulled it off! We were going to Samoa, like hell or high water!

Relieved, we continued to pack, and get ourselves organised….as I had these visions of arriving at the airport the next day all ready to rock and roll, and being told, “You missed the boat (well, plane!) love!” I shuddered! How did we manage to stuff up the date? Who knows? Confusion around the date and time I guess, as Samoa is almost 24 hours behind Australia! Glad with all of that hoo-ha behind us, we finished packing, had a decent night’s sleep, got Doobie to drop us off at the airport, and caught our flight out to Samoa the next morning. The routing was Melbourne to Auckland and then Auckland to Apia (Samoa). The flight was fine, and we arrived at 7.35pm………on the night before the day we left! Got that? Left at 9.25am on the morning of the 22nd of December, and arrived at 7.35pm, on the evening of Sunday the 21st of December. Confused? I certainly was!

It was hot and humid, and we made our way to Valentine’s Motel, near the centre of town. We had done some research, and figured that we should book the first few nights, until we’d figured out what to do, where to go and what to see. Hadn’t we organised our holiday? Of course we had! We’d booked the flights and purchased the Samoa Lonely Planet Guide! It was around 9.30pm, by the time we got ourselves to the hotel, where we were greeted by Justin, and his beautiful and hospitable wife, Verona. I was trying to explain that I had erred with the days we wished to stay as we had missed our flight. Justin was looking at me a little baffled! We eventually worked out that I had NOT mucked up the reservation exactly because I HAD made that mistake in the first place. This was proving to be a comedy of errors. I was not so much physically tired as I was mentally tired. All things cleared and sorted, we were soon in our very simple, but clean upstairs room. Almost ready to go to bed, I had this feeling that I should check our tickets again………..but wait…there’s more!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yep, it’s the famous 6 free steak knives!!!!! My eyes bulged out of my head, with the grim realisation that we had also made a mistake with our return flight!!!! Uttering that famous four letter “F” word several more times, both out aloud and under my breath, Alex wanted to know what was wrong. So, I told him: We were supposed to be flying home early afternoon on Saturday 3rd January, to be arriving later that night, or so we thought. But, with the time difference, we would actually be arriving on Sunday the 4th, at night. Is there a problem? Well, seeing that Alex had to catch an early afternoon flight on the Sunday, to go to San Francisco for a computer conference, I was figuring that we had a mini-disaster on our hands. Needless to say, our first sight-seeing trip would be to the Polynesian Blue office early the next morning. I truly could not believe this was happening. Alex was actually far more tranquil than I was, despite the fact that the urgency was to change his flight and not mine!

Goodnight! We went to bed exhausted!
Rise and shine! Off to the Polynesian Blue office we go. I mean, how else does one begin their Samoa experience? The office was full of Samoans! My heart sank! We had been lucky getting over here, but I figured changing the return flight wasn’t going to be so easy. Apart from the fact that it was possibly going to cost a small fortune to get back, I was doubting whether there would even be flights available. We had already “pushed our luck” getting over here! We discussed that we would probably have to get a new ticket for Alex, as it was imperative, and that I would stay on the extra day. Lady Luck, however, was clearly on our side. The lady in the office was most courteous and helpful, and she called Polynesian Blue in Australia, so that I could try and sort it out. After a tense 10 minutes as the Australian lady spoke to her supervisor and searched for the availability of flights, we were told that there were only 2 places left on the morning of Thursday the 1st January, arriving late at night on Friday the 2nd (remember that the flight itself is only 7 hours or so). Again, we would not have to pay cancellation or transfer fees, but the difference between our original “cheap” ticket and the cheapest one that was now available. At this point, we did not care what we would have to pay. Surprisingly, it was only $225.00 each! I thought it was going to be way more than that! Needless to say, we were relieved, and now we would be able to really begin our holiday! In actual fact, we had neither gained nor lost any of our holiday time, as our errors saw us “gain” upon arrival, and “lose” upon departure.

There really is a first time for everything, and like most things we do, we did this in style! A total balls up of humongous proportions. We figured that an extra $600.00 for two errors of this magnitude was a real bargain! As my mum would have said, “Everything apart from death can be fixed!”

Too right! Let the Samoa experience begin.

Ombi

“I’d rather regret the things I have done than the things that I haven’t.” – Lucille Ball.

(Photos:1.- Self portrait, Ombi & Alex in Apia, Samoa. 2.-Uninhabited bliss, Lalomanu Beach, ‘Upolu. 3.- Take off, Samoan-style, ‘Upolu Island, Samoa. 4.-The Samoan flag. 5.-Ombi & Verona, Valentine’s Motel, Apia, ‘Upolu. 6.-Traditional Samoan flower, with spider on leaf. 7.- The “window” of opportunity; Manase beach as seen from Tanu’s seaside fales ,where we slept,, Savai’i, Samoa.)