In a land of coconut palms and blazing sunsets, Nikola Sarbinowski discovers the traditions – ancient and far more recent – of Samoa’s two largest islands, Upolu and Savai’i.
Molten light bleeds across the ocean’s surface beneath a swollen sun. The world’s first sunset burns with the same fiery hues as the lava that only a century ago poured across this land and congealed in pools. Come nightfall, I float in a lagoon only metres from my bed and search the sky for shooting stars.
I’ve been lured here by the promise of unearthing a Polynesian paradise and of fa’a Samoa, the laid-back way of island life that survives, somehow, despite the threats of magma from within, cyclones from above and tsunamis from below. Setting sail from Upolu, Samoa’s main island, I wind up on the less explored (but no less gleaming) jewel, the island of Savai’i. Despite being just 20 kilometres north-west of Upolu, only a fraction of tourists who visit the nation make the journey across the Apolima Strait. Fewer still stay overnight.
A quarter of the nation’s population is shacked up on the condensed ash and cinders this active volcano has disgorged over the past five million years, but beyond the port there is no main town. Manicured villages dot the coastline between a hot mess of lava fields, cliffs and verdant jungle. “Three years ago, there would be one car on the road – that would be peak hour,” says Chichi, our guide. Now, we’re stuck in a traffic jam with two cars in front and a Land Rover behind on the one paved road around the island.
Departing bitumen, we pause to gather a man before lurching down a trail toward the sea. Our hitchhiker disembarks, basket in arm, and strides to where the waves slam against rock. He slips a coconut from his bag and with an expert arm tosses it into a crevice. Nothing happens. Then, with a roar, the blowhole spits it out as if it’s a cherry pip, soaking us with salty spittle.
Back on the road we pass a group of girls wading in the shallows, their rainbow umbrellas transforming the lagoon into a shocking blue cocktail. An equivalent coast in Europe would be littered with basting bodies and water bottles sucked dry, but here beaches are either bare or home to a handful of fales, houses without walls but topped by tin or grass roofs and blessed with unbeatable views.
The island’s residents seem to share one vibrant palette of paint that slathers schools and meeting spaces with bougainvillea pinks, pineapple yellows and every colour in between. These open structures reflect the personality of the locals. “Your walls are to keep people out,” says a woman I meet, named Samoa. “Back in Australia you have to ask people for permission to go into their place. Here you don’t have to.” Arrive at a family’s fale and request refuge and you’ll be welcomed into their home. But don’t let the lack of walls fool you – propping up each roof is an ironclad social structure honouring the village chief, tradition and the Church.
Chichi cuts the engine beside the shell of a chapel, sucked clean by surging seas. Waves from a cyclone in 1990 swallowed the village, but not the villagers, who swam to a local school. Across the road two muscled men smear a fresh lick of paint on a concrete shrine for Mary. Travelling sinners needn’t fear – redemption is just around the corner. The nearest church is never more than a few hundred metres away. Missionaries imported their religion to these islands in the 1830s and although 99 per cent of citizens declare themselves Christian, traditional customs remain embedded in the culture.
Further around the island I gaze over Cape Mulinu’u, the western-most point of Samoa. The ocean here once swallowed the sun along with the souls of Samoan ancestors as they passed into Pulotu (the spirit world). But these lava fields are no longer the last place on earth to see the sun set, since the nation danced the siva across the International Date Line at the end of 2011 in the hopes of bolstering trade with their Kiwi bros. Look at a map and the line zigzags around this patch of the Pacific.
Late at night rain pounds the roof of my fale and sneaks inside. There are no walls, after all. I wake damp and rocking a halo of frizz around my head. Rising before the sun, I hike to a nearby village, passing children in pinafores wandering to school. Life is busiest in the morning before the air becomes syrupy, carrying the aroma of bananas and breadfruit. At all other hours it runs on island time, which is to say there’s very little running and lots of men snoozing in wooden fales while women sell fruit and snapper dangling from sticks. Honouring the easygoing lifestyle, I spend my days on Savai’i exploring waterfalls, indulging in nature’s tireless masseuse in the form of cascades, and swimming with turtles with a passion for papaya.
Despite the languid pace I relish my return each night to the private lagoon at Stevensons at Manase, my home base on the island. The water and air feel so similar in temperature that it’s hard to tell where one becomes the other, until I drift over cool fresh water bubbling into the ocean. Some villages construct walls around these springs to create bathing pools, but fortunately they’re not obliged to share their clean water with this sunscreen-slicked traveller. Although my beach hut looks like a traditional fale from the front, latched to the back is a bathroom complete with a toilet, shower and fridge.
Swilling a cocktail at Stevensons’ bar I notice a carving of an eel suckling a woman’s toe. Given the religious conservatism that obliges women to dress modestly and frowns upon tourists swimming on Sunday, her breasts seem exceptionally nude.
“Coconuts were invented in Samoa, like everything else in the world,” declares Chichi by way of explanation, before sharing the pre-missionary tale of a beautiful girl named Sina and the eel that loved and stalked her. Once slaughtered by the village chief the eel transformed into a coconut tree. His eyes and mouth form the three marks seen on a de-husked nut, but only the gob is soft enough to open. “I don’t like kissing the eel,” says Chichi, “so I just put a straw in it.” I’m not sure if it’s the eel’s love or the dash of vodka in the mix, but my fresh coconut is among the best I’ve ever consumed.
Back on the road we pass a group of girls wading in the shallows, their rainbow umbrellas transforming the lagoon into a shocking blue cocktail.
In Apia, the capital of Samoa, life strolls at a slightly faster pace. When we arrive the annual Teuila Festival – the largest event on the calendar – is in full swing. During the day women sway on a stage erected in the middle of town and, at night, men slick with oil dance to pulsing drums.
Across from the stage two pigs lie on their backs with bellies full of mango leaves. A man hammers hot rocks into the neck of the nearest in a billow of porky smoke. Sweat drips from the tips of his ula (pandanas-leaf necklace) as he shovels a mound of stones into the belly of the swine. Climb to high ground on a Sunday and you’ll gaze upon a cloud of smoke blanketing Upolu. Beneath the haze men are at work gutting pigs, skinning taro and folding origami bundles of palusami (coconut cream cooked in young taro leaves) to pile onto the umu (hot rock oven), which bakes while they sing at church.
Arranging banana leaves over a pile of lobsters, a cook tells me that skill on the umu not only feeds a family, but is also key to acquiring one. If a woman doesn’t fancy the taste of your pork, she’ll trek to the next town in a search of the perfect crackling. It’s a dating technique I’d happily introduce back home.
Pulsing music lures me to a fale where locals go to get inked. A young woman flicks through shots on her camera as a tattoo artist chisels a malu (traditional women’s tattoo) across her thigh with a tool crafted from the tooth of a hog. “Our faces are too beautiful to tattoo so we tattoo our butts instead,” says Chichi as he describes the painful process endured for the men’s pe’a, which leaves little of the haunch and lower torso un-inked. The lava-lava (cloth skirts) worn by many men reveal a generous portion but the most intricate part, as Chichi refers to it, is left to the imagination.
Outside the festival there’s little to do in the city besides visiting fish stalls and the market, where sellers peddle Polynesian trinkets and a food court trades almost exclusively in delicious fried chicken. The remainder of Upolu harbours a wild playground for surfing, snorkelling and whale watching. Electric-blue fish the size of my index finger glide with me through the turquoise To Sua Ocean Trench. A team from Sa’Moana Resort shares a secret rock pool glimmering in a Jurassic landscape. Once in the pool the tide sucks me into a cave, claiming a few layers of my skin and ego, before spewing me out through a lava tube. Those with more grace emerge unscathed.
Nearing the end of my stay an apocalyptic scene greets me beyond my bungalow at Sa’Moana Resort. Rain tramples the normally tranquil beach and the wind screams like a child throwing a fit. After seemingly endless days of blue sky I finally meet the other side of Samoa. The deluge has banished the smoke from the Sunday umu and, sometime during the night, families have wrapped their fales into tarpaulin parcels. Just nine months ago Cyclone Evan, the worst tropical storm in more than 20 years, tossed cars in to trees and thrashed the island and its residents. The beach itself became a weapon. “It looked like we’d massacred something,” says Daniel, who owns the resort.
For the first time I notice concrete skeletons among the creepers as we explore the coast. These houses sit abandoned following the 2009 tsunami. A boy I meet says he survived by climbing the near-vertical mountain that looms behind us, clinging on tight while a wall of sea smashed into the hill below. Since then villagers have made escape trails into the hills and are re-learning survival techniques that died with their great-grandparents. The streets are deserted, but as we stop for petrol, a hymn glides through my window. On a television screen churchgoers line pews in their Sunday finest, voices raised to their Lord.
As we depart for the airport, water sloshes into the van. The road has become a river of unknown depth and I can’t help but feel Samoa is trying to hold me (a willing) hostage. The storm dissipates as we round the coast and we arrive just in time for check-in. Come take-off, the sky is sapphire blue and I learn that, despite being only 25 kilometres away, not a drop of rain has fallen on this side of the island.
The ferry from Upolu to Savai’i departs from Mulifanua Wharf, a 40-minute drive from Apia. The boat transports cars from about US$32 per vehicle, but you need to book ahead. One-way passenger tickets cost US$5 or US$18 for a business-class seat with aircon, tea and coffee, and cucumber sandwiches. samoashipping.com
Samoa Air also flies between several airports on both Upolu and Savai’i. samoaair.ws
Orator Hotel is situated just outside Apia and has double rooms among tropical gardens from US$140, including breakfast. oratorhotel.com
Sa’Moana Resort offers surfing, adventure and culture tours around Upolu. Rooms start at US$160. samoanaresort.com
Stevensons at Manase has range of villas and modern fales with private bathrooms from about US$100. stevensonsatmanase.com
For a cheaper and more traditional experience try the family-run Tanu Beach Fales with huts from US$30. samoa-experience.com