After leaving Wellington, we cruised along the entire east coast of the north island before waving goodbye to New Zealand and starting our journey back east.
4 days in the eerily tranquil Pacific on the way to Samoa is just what I needed to catch up on my writing. It’s a challenge concentrating on gigantic wave days, as my brain and stomach slosh freely in their respective cavities. I am very grateful for the hiatus Mother Nature bestowed on us. She’s probably resting up for the next showstopper. I hope so.
The Samoan group of islands are 2,300 miles SSW of Honolulu, 2,700 miles NE of Sydney and 1,800 NE of Auckland. They are only 14 degrees south of the Equator, so you know what that means by now, right? Super hot and sticky. Yuck.
On the 24th we arrived in Apia, the capital of Samoa, on the main island of Upolu which is 44 miles long and 10 miles wide. This group of 6 islands used to be called “Western Samoa”, but they dropped “Western” from the name in 1997. Samoa was granted independence from New Zealand in 1962. The population is 194,000. Most of the inhabitants live on Upolu.
Of course, the Polynesians were here for thousands of years before colonization by the Europeans started in the 1825. Soon after, Samoa because a haven for runaway sailors and escaped convicts. It was a very unhealthy place full of nakedness, free love, and rampant disease, just like Tahiti. And, just like Tahiti, the missionaries soon arrived to “straighten them out”. Now, most Samoans follow Christian traditions. There are a myriad of churches here, but the Immaculate Conception of Mary Cathedral pictured below stands out in the downtown area. Check out the gorgeous wood ceiling.
It was 96 degrees by 10 am, and I thought I might burst into flames as we left the church (because of the heat, not sins) and crossed the street to reach the Samoan Cultural Center. We collapsed on plastic chairs under the thatched roof of a cabana, grateful for the shade. A speaker was on stage describing the process for making tapa; a papery cloth derived from mulberry tree bark.
The bark is stripped from the branch, then pounded with a wooden mallet to flatten. Next, it is scraped vigorously with a clam shell to thin and stretch the material. After it dries, individual pieces are glued together using tapioca root and water. Only two colors were used for paint. The red-brown hue came from local mud and the black is ash from the mulberry branches that was burnt after the bark was striped.
The traditional garment made from tapa is called a called a Lava Lava, and it’s worn around the waist. It was used during special occasions, like weddings and funerals, when a grass or leaf skirt was not considered formal enough. It cannot get wet or be folded without ripping after it dries, so they are not worn to run to the supermarket. I assume that sitting down was not possible either. Here is an example of the finished product.
Next, we learned about the traditional male tattoo design, called the pe’a. Did you know that “tattoo” originates from the Samoan word tatau? The same design tools used 2,000 years ago, are still used today. The skill is often passed down from father to son. Combs of various sizes, made from sharpened boar’s teeth, are fastened together with a piece of turtle shell and attached to a wooden handle. A 2 foot long mallet, made from the central rib of a coconut palm leaf is used to hammer in the designs. The black dye is made from the soot collected from burnt tree nuts.
The inked area is massive, from the knee to above the navel. When a Lava Lava is worn, the tattoo shows above it. There are large sections of solid ink, including around the groin. And, the process really really hurts. A lot. Check out the picture below.
In the old days, every young man was tattooed as a rite of passage, and the risk of death by infection was huge. Now, only about 5% of men do it, and it is considered an act of bravery. This is where it pays to be skinny. Thin guys are under the needles for about a month, at 4 hours a day. Fat men, two months or more. The belly button is the last part to be done, and it is shear torture. If a man starts the process, but gives up, he is labeled a coward. The unfinished tattoo is a “mark of shame”. But it doesn’t end there. His entire family is shunned as well. Now, if a man in the USA chooses a tattoo of a 6 masted schooner, and it hurts to much when the hull is being chiseled, he can always turn it into a dingy without being snubbed. That’s not an option in Samoa.
We also learned that at the end of December 2011, Samoa jumped forward by one day, omitting December 30th from their calendar. The nation moved to the west of the International Date Line, so that business dealings with Australia and New Zealand could be conducted more easily. Before this change, Samoa was 21 hours behind Sydney. After the change, they were 3 hours ahead. The previous time zone was implement in 1892, because business with Californians was paramount then. Not anymore.
From the Cultural Center, we went to check out the fishmongers. Most had packed it in for the day. The remaining diehards lethargically fanned the decomposing fish with palm fronds to keep the flies off. Some looked ripe for salmonella with cloudy eyes and a funky smell. It didn’t bother the shoppers though, who were unperturbed by the lack of refrigeration.
Behind the fish market, we strolled among the commercial docks looking for fisherman to chat up. We didn’t see any, but ran into these characters who insisted on posing with a Yellow Fin Tuna head. Too funny!
It’s really tough to cut through the backbone, so it’s good to have a hacksaw on hand…
The eye candy continued at the bus station. Every public bus is painted in vibrant designs and colors. And, there are competitions to see who can play music the loudest when leaving the station. The driver owns the bus, and each outlying village has at least one, depending on size. They shuttle workers and shoppers in and out of Apia throughout the day. The buses are usually packed beyond capacity, and, here’s a cultural shocker for those of us who value personal space… if you have a seat, don’t be surprised if someone sits on your lap! How would that go over in the USA?
After we left the buses, we saw men milling around inside a low metal roofed building with chicken wire for windows, so we strolled over to investigate. It was a pool hall. A man at the padlocked entrance waved us over, and invited us in. So of course, we went. The padlock seemed a bit unnecessary during the day, but it was an “exclusive” private club, so there you go. There were about 20 tables, all in various stages of decay. Most of the wooden legs were warped and splintered. The bumpers were covered in duct tape. But none of that mattered to the guys. They were serious players, and this was their oasis. Check out the fancy corner ball pocket in the photo below.
By now, we were zapped by the heat, and after a quick stop at the outdoor market for a fresh coconut water, we headed back to the ship. We lasted for 6 whole hours! I was amazed! We had a wonderful sampling of local life, culture, and traditions.
Back on board, I snapped a photo of this motley crew hanging out on the back of a beat up fishing boat. Check out the sparkling white teeth on the guy, far right. I’d like to know what toothpaste he’s using.
Next stop, Honolulu.