Friday, August 16, 2013

A Traditional Farewell and A Traditional Welcome

16 August 2013

Somehow Richard and I managed to have our traditional exit from Australia.  We’re trying to stick to our plan of travel without a plan.  And while Samoa has an entry requirement that travelers should have an itinerary or ticket onward, well, we have the information for the ferry to Pago Pago, American Samoa – and we felt that was proof enough of our intent to not overstay our visa.

That wasn’t good enough for the airline agents in Cairns.  We spent a good hour going back and forth on this issue, and they wouldn’t give us our tickets until things were resolved.  I tried printing more information from the ferry’s website; it wouldn’t work.  I tried booking a flight and printing an itinerary without paying for it; that wouldn’t work.  I finally, in desperation, emailed the ferry company, hoping for a response.  None came.

So we finally got the ticket agents to let us go to Sydney, and we’d finish dealing with things there.  Okay, finally on the plane.  Land in Sydney.  I check my email, still no response.  So, well, what could I do – we had tickets to Samoa, we plan to take a ferry, so I, um, well, I created a response to my request, we found a travel agent who would print it, and voila, we now had documents verifying our plan to leave Samoa.  Ticket agent was happy, we were happy, and we were on the plane.

One four hour flight later, we landed in Samoa. The airport has a wonderful glass mosaic mural created by a school (and their art teacher) – and men, including the Customs officials, wearing the traditional lava lava, a sarong – and the same Customs officials who, at 5:15 AM, didn’t bother to ask for our itinerary of onward travel, or anything – just gave us a boring stamp in the passport, and we were in.

SAMOA!  We’re in Samoa – also known as Western Samoa – the island that was the first Pacific island to achieve independence.  The island that “moved” the international date line so that they are the first nation to greet each day.  The island where the prince offered himself to be eaten by his father, the king, in order to stop the rampant cannibalism.  Really, in two days we’ve heard that story a few times – and whether it is legend or historical fact, it sums up the generosity of the people we’ve met here.

We found the driver of the shuttle bus, and it turns out our B&B owner sent him to the airport to meet us.  We chatted, and on our way in to town he gave us some of the history of the island.  He’s the High Chief of his town, involved in the Ministry of Tourism, and he told us that the cultural center (by the info center in town) had a cultural heritage show in the morning.  So, after arriving at our B&B, and having a bite of breakfast (fresh papaya! With lovely toast and tea or coffee, and some still-warm doughnuts) we wandered in to town.  Apia is the largest town, and the capital, but still is a fairly small town.

On our way into town, we encountered several people, almost all of whom stopped to say hello, ask us how we like Samoa, how long we’re here, where are we from, all that.  And do we need directions, where are we going.  Very friendly and helpful people, very willing to chat.  And apparently, everyone knows everyone, and thus everyone knows when a new tourist has arrived on island.  (On the radio the announcer said Samoans are sticky-nosed people, which I found to be funny – but, having lived in small communities where everyone knows everyone else’s business, I could totally understand the sticky-nosed descriptions.)

We also saw the police marching band, playing, incongruously, “Seventy-Six Trombones” – they were playing very well, and looked very smart in their official police uniform, even with the lava lava.  (Yes, those are almost all men police.  I know, it takes a bit of getting used to the lava lava.)

I thought the cultural show was fascinating.  There was traditional drumming, singing, cooking demonstrations, including the traditional way to open a coconut, and how the tapa cloth is made from the paper mulberry tree.  The traditional culture divided the work between men and women, and men were in charge of not only making the fire but also the cooking.  The women made the tapa cloth, as well as most of the weaving.  The most amazing part was the young man who made fire by rubbing a stick on a log, then using the hot ashes to ignite a coconut husk – and then lit a torch and started dancing with this flaming torch!  Wow!

We were encouraged to ask questions of the performers, who were very proud of their heritage but also very open about the culture – and the tattooing was an area where we tourists had many questions.  Several of the men had the traditional tattoos from just above their waist down to their knees – it takes about twelve tattoo sessions, at five to six hours each, to complete the tattoos.  It is a major embarrassment or shame to the entire family if a man begins the tattoo process and does not complete it – so sometimes the process includes a day or two between tattoo sessions.  The entire thing can take a month.  And we get the word tattoo from the Samoan word tatau, which refers to the part of the body that they tattoo.  Also, the design is the same throughout Samoa – in other nations, the tattoos are more personalized and symbolize a tribe, or family, or personal history.  In Samoa, the tattoos speak of the cultural heritage, such as the canoes, the spears, the relationships within the family – so that anyone who has a Samoan tattoo has pretty much the same design as the next person.

We also went to the market and had some kind of traditional lunch or snack food – sort of a large fried bun with stewed meat inside – something like the Chinese barbeque pork buns, but fried – and the one I ate had chicken.  Tasty, and definitely different.

We went into town again today, and walked around – more people saying hello, asking where we’re from, how long are we here, we need to go see this place and that place, and how do we like Samoa. 
And thus far, we like Samoa very much.  In many ways, it feels like a not-too-developed Caribbean island – there is the definite tropical feel with the sun, the heat, the lush green plants and bright tropical flowers.  There aren’t many sidewalks, but people are walking and greeting each other.  There was a short rain shower this afternoon and again this evening.  And a little earth tremor, just a little tremblor to say “hi, you’re in the Pacific ring of fire, don’t forget me.” 

At the same time, things are very different – men are in lava lavas, there are hardly any Samoan men in slacks.  Women are in bright dresses or sarongs, and rarely in slacks or jeans.  Even school children wear uniform lava lavas.  And most women, whatever the age, seem to have a bright tropical flower tucked into their shining black hair.

We’ll do some more exploring.  This is a large island, Upolo, and the neighboring island of Savai’i is next on our list.  We intend to swim with turtles, snorkel, explore beaches and waterfalls.  And relax.  Practice our little bit of Samoan language, learn a little bit more.  Talk and chat and laugh with more people, because it seems as if Samoans love to laugh – at themselves, at each other, at tourists, at the humourous and quirkiness and funny things of life.  We hope to get a feel for this lovely and proud country.  As we greet each new day amongst the first people to greet every day in the world.

We’re in SAMOA!!!!

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