5-12 December 2014. We are sheltering under a banana palm in the desperate hope that its broad leaves will protect us from the rain.
The rain had started softly a while back, so we’d taken shelter under some trees. It seemed to ease so we continued walking until it got heavier. Stopping under some trees again we thought maybe we could wait it out, and then it came. Sheets of rain, torrents of rain, rain so heavy and thick and unrelenting you think you might drown in it. We make a dash for the banana palm. Its protection is tenuous at best. I suggest to Don that we run back to the house we just passed in the hope they’ll give us shelter. Our cameras are tucked away in their cases. I have my broad-brimmed sun hat pulled down tight on my head and clutching my camera bag close to my chest I bend my head forward in the hopes the brim will give some extra protection. We sprint back to the house and walk quickly, completely sodden, through the garden to the front of the open-sided building. In the few seconds it has taken to get to there we are wet through, trailing streams of water, backpacks saturated. At least our cameras are dry.
We are immediately welcomed inside. We stop to take our shoes off but are told it’s not necessary. We are ushered into two Adirondack-style chairs and within seconds a child runs to us with a towel. It’s not the cleanest towel I’ve ever seen, but compared to some we’d seen in India it is very far from the dirtiest. We are grateful to have it to wipe of the worst of the water. About ten minutes later another child appears with a pristine white towel that he shyly hands to us. Sweet hospitality.
We find ourselves in a fale (pronounced fah-lay), a typical Samoan home that is open on all sides except for supporting pillars. There are two women in the room. The older one, the grandmother, sits cross-legged on a bench across the room from us. On the floor in front of us her adult daughter is crafting the colourful wool edging onto a sleeping mat. She works with the ease and speed of someone who has done this all her life, knowing exactly which piece of leaf to choose next, which way to bend it, which way to attach the wool to create a smooth finished trim. They both speak English. Almost all Samoans learn English from a very young age along with their own language.
The fale we are in is the home of the grandmother, and seems to be something of a family living room as well.
Behind it is another fale for the daughter and her husband, and adjacent is a third for the children.
I ask about the sleeping mat, if it is for sale, but no it’s for family use. It is made from laofala leaves, a name I’ve not heard before. Later I learn it is pandanus. The leaves are soaked and then dried in the sun before being woven into mats, hats, baskets and other items.
I ask the woman about their life. She says it is a very peaceful life. She has seven children. Earlier when we’d walked past we’d noticed some of them were weeding a patch of land in front of the fale. It is for planting peanuts we are told, that will be sold or traded around the island. We are shown a huge bag of seed peanuts. The family also grows pumpkins and other vegetables for their own use and for trading on the island. No doubt their diet also includes a variety of fish and seafood.
As you can see, the girls continue with their work. The boys, younger, and mischievous, are more interested in mugging for the camera.
They are all oblivious to the mud, and to the rain, which continues to pour down. Later when any of them come to the house I notice there is a small plastic tub of water by the entrance which they use to wash the mud off before coming inside.
We are on the small island of Manono, a twenty-minute boat ride from the west side of Upolu, the main island of Samoa.
Manono has four villages ringed around the coast and is the third most populated of the Samoan Islands. It is advertised as having no dogs and no cars. Apparently the wild dogs of Upolu have a reputation for their ferocity although we are hardly aware of dogs on Upolu, let alone any that are ferocious. You can walk around Manono in two and one half hours. The path looks like this:
and the jungle pictured above, and at times goes by the beach and the ocean. Our trek was halted by the rain which we blessed, giving us, as it did, a chance to visit with one of the families of Manono. We are also slowed by talking with people, and by taking in our surroundings, and by photographing all the enthusiastic children who push to be in front of the camera. It takes us four joyous hours.
The two boys on the ground were so excited about pushing in and mugging for the camera that they fell over in a heap.
The boy in black shorts suddenly shimmied up the coconut palm. Before I could even get a shot of him others had rushed to join in the fun.
Meanwhile the older kids are more interested in playing volleyball.
Playing by the beach.
The men of the village work together to build a new house.
The large fale on the left is probably a meetinghouse for the matai or village chiefs.
‘Too cool for school’
Samoa is a traditional Polynesian society, and fa’a Samoa, or “the Samoan way” continues to be the central component of village life. Apart from the 35,000 people who live in the capital Apia, the people of Samoa live in villages by the sea circled around the islands of Upolu, Savaii and Manono. There are over 360 villages. Each village is made up of extended family units called aiga. The head of each aiga is a matai, or chief. There are 18,000 matai who make the laws for the villages, with a lot of influential input from the women’s committees. Only the matai can be elected to the Fono a Faipule or Legislative Assembly. The matais are treated with great respect and deference. We were told that there is a second more formal way of speaking in the Samoan language that is always used when speaking to the matais. The two buildings most central to village life are the church, and the meetinghouse for the chiefs. Samoa is not a wealthy nation, yet it seems to be a well-organized, thoughtful, and peaceful society. Family is paramount. Everyone is taken care of.
Driving around the island of Upolu we are struck by the beauty and neatness of the villages. Everyone makes gorgeous garden hedges. I also noticed that every village, every home, has electricity.
We walk along the cliff trail in a national park on the south coast through a pandanus forest,
and are treated to some spectacular scenery.
We hike in to a waterfall, one of many on the island,
and are stopped again and again by the profusion of exquisite flowers in this endless lush environment.
Almost everywhere we go we are met with warmth and smiling faces.
We go swimming here!
It’s a lava tube that connects with the ocean. Lava tubes are formed when the less viscous surface lava from a volcano hardens and forms a crust making a roof over the slower-flowing thicker lava. Eventually the lava flows away leaving a hollow tube. This one on Upolu is called the To Sua Ocean Trench and is about thirty metres (100 feet) below ground level. At high tide it’s deep enough to dive from the platform, but we are there at low tide so we can touch the bottom in some places.
Okay. Truth. We are actually spooked a bit about the climb down the extremely steep stairs and even steeper ladder, but then we remember
the tree in Western Australia, as tall as a sixteen-story building, and know we are not going to miss this opportunity. In the end the climbing is easy, and the swimming sublime.
In the third and final post about Samoa: a riotous noisy Christian church service held at the local gym, and a performance of traditional Polynesian dances including the spectacular fire dance.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.