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Festivals, Fire Dancing, Falls, Fales and Full Body Tatoos in Samoa

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A curious Boobie on the sail from Suwarrow to Samoa

Sailing from a paradise island into a town is normally an anti-climax. As we approached Apia, the sound of palms swaying in the breeze were replaced by the deafening clanging of piles being driven down into the dock and the turquoise water we had become accustomed to, replaced by a muddy brown sludge. It was fair to say that on first impressions, Samoa did not blow us away. As there was a charge to anchor in the bay which was similar to the Marina cost, we chose to enter a Marina for the first time in the South Pacific. After a wad of paperwork involving four separate officials in four separate offices, over 24 hours later, we were checked into Samoa and free to explore.

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The smallest boat in the marina

We had managed to arrive part way through the annual Samoan Festival, a free celebration of traditional singing, dancing and fire dancing, interspersed with more modern local bands and comedians. Sat amongst over a thousand locals, we were feeling pretty lucky as we gaped in awe at the male Samoan slap-dancing and fire knife dancing. Towards the end of the evening, the presenter made a big show of thanking all the foreign visitors (we counted about 20 foreign visitors in the audience) and asked us to come towards the stage to collect a thank you gift from Samoa. Feeling very obviously foreign and not wanting to appear rude, we reluctantly sidled to the side of the stage, hoping to be able to say thanks for the T-Shirt and slope back to our seats. No such luck, to our horror we were the only visitors to appear and were dragged onto centre stage. About 5 others eventually joined us, where we were individually thrust the microphone to introduce ourselves and state our home country. Before we could all beat a hasty retreat, the presenter announced “Well guys, you have seen how we dance in Samoa….show us how you dance in your country”. Instantly the music started, the TV cameras pointed our way and over a thousand faces looked at us expectantly. A messy rendition of the few jive moves we know saved us from standing like rabbits in headlights. As we Brits are not known for our dancing style, we probably gave a fair representation! We have never worked so hard for a free t-shirt!

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dancing

From our time at the festival and speaking with a few locals (English is the 2nd language in Samoa) it soon became clear that the traditional Samoan way is of huge importance across the country. Samoa was the first Polynesian country to gain independence and great pride is taken to maintain traditional social structures and traditions such as dancing, singing, weaving, wood carving, tattooing etc.

Beneath the outwardly friendly and light-hearted approach is a strict and complex etiquette that rules life across the country. Aiga or extended family groups are at the heart of the Samoan way. Everyone we were introduced to was introduced as an ‘uncle’, ‘aunt’, ‘cousin’ etc. Life is not about individual advancement but growth of the Agia or extended family. Although this was very heart warming and the love of their country was infectious, it did leave us wondering how long these traditions would continue as more young people left Samoa for a more Western lifestyle, caught between the desire for individual advancement and their family responsibilities. The approach has also stunted the country’s economy as individuals who work extra hard are not personally rewarded.

Whatever the future of Samoa, we felt privileged to visit a country where everyone works to help each other and holds the view that “it doesn’t cost anything to treat each other well”. Villages say crime rare and first managed by the village, before it escalates to the police, should it be unresolved. The Police have enough free time to march their band through the streets of Apia at a very leisurely pace every single morning, in order to raise the Samoan flag outside the government offices, so village crime control seems successful!

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Tattoos are an important part of the culture in each of the Pacific Islands, but no more so than Samoa, in fact the word Tattoo originates here. Never before have we sat and personally witnessed grown men wince and squirm in agony as a team of men work to hammer ink into their sensitive inner thighs/buttocks, using traditional tools and no pain relief. The traditional full body tattoos take several sessions and are only undertaken when an individual reaches a stage where they are mature and strong enough not only to complete the tattoo, but take on the social responsibility that they reflect. Those inked with the traditional tattoo have committed to provide for and protect their family and wider community and have additional duties expected of them as a result. They are permanently marked to provide and protect for the rest of their lives.

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Photos are not allowed during the tatooing process but you can see the density of the tatoo from waist to knee.

We soon began to realise other reasons why the pace of live on Samoa is so slow and relaxed. Teamed with the baking heat, there was very little sleep to be had between late night festivals/socialising/been kept awake by Marina bars and the 5am daily church bells (yes, 5am, daily).

Travelling around the island of Upolu, it seems there are nearly as many churches as houses. We heard Samoa has more churches per capita than anywhere in the world. EVERYTHING stops on a Sunday as everyone heads to church in their Sunday best. Wanting to experience local life and the Samoan singing we had heard so much about, we donned our very creased, slightly musty best clothes and joined them (at the back, near the exit).

Friends, Paul and Anne, whom we had met in Bora Bora had arranged a tour of the island with a local taxi driver and kindly invited us along. Ousa, our driver, took us to many beautiful sites we would have struggled to find ourselves, whilst answering our barrage of questions about life on Samoa. We drove through villages, rainforests, plantations and stopped to cool off, sip coconuts and swim in blue holes and waterfalls.

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Ocean trench swimming hole
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The trench through the coral reef that reaches the swimming hole via an underwater hole in the rock

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The tour of the island wetted our appetite to see more, so when the captain of a traditional Polynesian sailing canoe mentioned that her ‘uncle’ lived in a village at the other side of the island, where you could stay in a traditional Samoan fale (house) and hike up the river, climbing and jumping off waterfalls we didn’t take much persuading. The cheapest way of getting there involved taking a bus from town; an aventure in itself as the Samoan buses have no set time table, a wooden coach, and pack people in so tightly you might get someone on your knee. The hour long journey took 3 hours as we waited for the bus to fill up before setting off and stopped for a snack stop on route. It felt strange to be leaving Florence behind in the Marina as we set out for our first night on land in 15 months.

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Set right next to the river (which is also your washroom), the fales are oval wooden structures with wooden posts, thatch roofs and no walls, allowing natural airflow in the tropical heat. Woven coconut leaf blinds can be pulled down for some privacy/protection and a mosquito net over the bed prevents you supplying dinner to the hungry jungle. The fale we stayed in was run by a village chief, Olsen and his NZ wife Jane, who run a small eco resort and work to plant trees which protect the landscape around the river.

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Although very basic by most people’s standards, we felt incredibly refreshed after a great nights sleep on a big, square bed that does not move and a feast of homegrown fruit and vegetables. Olsen and Jane’s ‘nephews’ Ando and Aliki arrived early to take us up the river with Emma, a French volunteer working on their eco projects. 10 mins into the walk, we had our packs on top of our heads and were wading through waist deep water up to the first large waterfall. Having grown up with the river and falls as their childhood playground Ando and Aliki were seemingly fearless but also took great care to make sure we were safe. They would lead us up a cliff, demonstrate where there was enough water for us to jump back down, before climbing even higher themselves for don’t try this at home, death defying stunts. There were 14 waterfalls in total with pools to swim in/jump into, the highest available jump being 17 meters (both Amy and Emma decided that one made a better spectator sport).

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Matt and Ando at the top of one of the waterfall jumps

Samoa, exceeded all of our expectations and quickly became one of our favourite stops. The beautiful scenery was made even more special by the wonderful people we met, who took the time to show us their heritage and share their love for their country. It would have been easy to spend over a month in the country and still not feel we had seen everything we wanted to. Unfortunately as usual, the season was pressing on and we needed to be heading south towards Tonga and New Zealand. With the forecast later in the week turning to headwinds, we made the decision to sail the close reach to the Northern Islands of Tonga whilst we still could.

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